Saturday, October 24, 2009

Pokémon Blue and Red

Oh Game Boy. You can make any franchise mediocre and painful. Mario, Zelda, fighting games...nothing is off limits to your green-tinted erosion. And then 1996 came along. Ask anyone to name the best game on the original Game Boy. 10% of people will say Tetris, but they had social problems growing up. The other 90% will proudly proclaim "Pokémon!" and they'll be right. Pop quiz for anyone reading this who has played Pokémon Blue or Red Versions:

Did you enjoy the game?

1) "Yes."
2) "No."
3) "Yes...I mean...no! No, Pokémon is for queers dude. Of course I wouldn't like it...hahaha...ha..."
4) "Yeah, that game is sweet. But uh, I never watched the show or played the card games or anything. I mean, Pokémon still sucks, but the games are good."

Let's be honest, almost nobody falls under number 2. So this review isn't to tell you whether or not the game is good - it definitely is - but rather the extent to which you should be embarrassed and ashamed for liking it.

Enslaving babies.The concept of the game is pretty straightforward...ish. You are a young boy, let's say of the tender age of 8, living in a world that is populated (some might say downright infested) by 151 different species of creatures called Pokémon. They lurk in caves, in any kind of body of water, and are attracted to tall grass like freaking velociraptors. This obviously has a pretty heavy effect on how human beings live within this world. And while basic occupations like doctors, shopkeepers, and police officers still exist, it seems that the vast majority of people spend their lives as trainers. Your goal, then, is to become the greatest trainer in the world. To do that you will need to subdue and enslave as many Pokémon as you possibly can, and force them to fight other Pokémon over and over whenever you let them out of solitary confinement.

You see, the word "Pokémon" is actually an abbreviation of sorts for "pocket monsters," which refers to the devices you use to hold the creatures. Conveniently termed Poké Balls, they are spheres only slightly larger than a ping pong ball that hold an extradimensional space in which whatever Pokémon you entrap can while away its existence. There are claims that each ball contains full flora and other sorts of "natural" environments that are friendly to the Pokémon, but this is clearly unsubstantiated. So you have to "catch" (the kid-friendly form of "imprison") all kinds of different Pokémon and raise their levels through combat until they are powerful enough to defeat the ones "owned" by the Pokémon League Champion.

BUYcycle.But first you're going to need to get around the world, called Kanto. Of course, they haven't invented cars in this world, so that sort of sucks. But hey, you can buy a bicycle if you want. It only costs....oh good grief, a million bucks?! A million dollars for a bicycle?! You're kidding me! That's totally ridiculous! And you know what? The game only lets you carry 999,999 bucks at once. If you max out your cash, you will still be a dollar short of purchasing a BICYCLE. I don't even want to know what it costs to get, say, a canoe.

And while we're speaking of navigating the geography of the land, it's worth pointing out that the "world" is actually pretty small when you think about it. There are seven cities, two towns, and an island with a few buildings on it, and they're all named after colors in some way. And that's all. And the word "city" is pretty generous here, since apparently all you need to qualify is a gym. Take Viridian City, for example, which is a mere 2 minute walk from the next closest locale. It's got five buildings. Total. The total human population of the world has got to be somewhere under 200 judging from the sheer lack of living space, and yet all these people keep appearing everywhere, and all of them do nothing but incarcerate Pokémon for some purpose or another. How does this world even have an economy in the first place?

Please don't squirtle.And what would any epic quest be without a rival keeping you on your toes every step of the way? The rival, here named Herpes, is a total douchebag. When Professor Oak, the world's foremost researcher of Pokémon, gives you one of your own to start off, Herpes snatches the one that is specifically designed to kill yours. Ass. He also happens to be related to Professor Oak himself, so you can't just secretly assault him and leave him to a pack of wild Growlithes. Come to think of it, nobody ever actually attacks anyone else directly in Pokémon. Why is that? I mean, I understand that Pokémon training is something of a sport in these games and that competitive battling for its own sake is what it is, but even the criminals don't do anything themselves. There are huge sections of the game in which you single-handedly defeat and cripple an entire criminal organization, Team Rocket, led by a mafioso named Giovanni. And you pull it off because all they do is tell their Pokémon to fight other people's Pokémon. Seriously. I'm not sure they even know what guns or knives are. It's pretty confusing, but man are the police happy.

Battling the monsters is pretty interesting, really. The entire combat system is set up like the most complex version of Paper, Rock, Scissors that you've ever seen. Pokémon are divided into 15 types: Normal, Fighting, Flying, Fire, Water, Grass, Electric, Ice, Rock, Ground, Poison, Bug, Psychic, Ghost, and Dragon. Every Pokémon has at least one of these types, though many have two simultaneously. These determine your Pokémon's strengths and weaknesses. For example, a Water type is going to be weak to an Electric type, but that same Electric type can't hurt a Ground type. Most of it can be explained rationally in such a way, really, which is impressive.

Hey Sailor.So as you battle the Pokémon, they'll gain experience and level up, and learn new moves to kill one another. Occasionally they will even "evolve," altering their physiological structure to become bigger and more powerful. And it all starts with Professor Oak offering you that first Pokémon. When you think about it, he's sort of like a drug dealer. "Hey man, let me hook you up with this. I just got it the other day. Yeah man, totally free, try it out. Oh by the way, here's this Pokédex to catalog all of them if you want more." He's just trying to get you addicted for the sake of his research. Sly old man. Well, he offers you a Squirtle (Water-spitting turtle), a Bulbasaur (Grass type baby dinosaur with a Poison flower growing on its back), or a Charmander (fire lizard). Now because your quest begins with fighting the Gyms in the cities, which all specialize in a certain Pokémon type, conventional wisdom states that you should pick the Bulbasaur. The first two Gyms are Rock type and Water type, and the Grass type is powerful against each. It's even resistant to the third Gym's type, Electric. I counter that winners choose Charmander, because fire lizards are sweet, and it's eventually going to evolve into a big dragon named Charizard and kill things and that's cool.

The game also expects you to assemble a team of six (the maximum you can carry) Pokémon designed to sort of cover all your bases and ensure you're not particularly susceptible to any kind of attack. This means leveling them all fairly evenly, and you'll find that the levels of your enemies' Pokémon scale appropriately. However, what I found to be effective was to kill everything with my massive Charizard and make it unstoppable. For real. Oh sure, it's weak to the first couple Gyms, but that just drives you to level it up so highly that it overcomes its weakness with sheer brute force. And from there it can pretty much single-handedly annihilate everything in the game, to the point where I got to the Pokémon League Champion (the game's final battle), and he used a Pokémon with a level around 65, give or take a couple. Charizard? 91. It wasn't even close.

Everybody CHILL.As you go you'll see and hear tales of certain legendary Pokémon that, unlike every other species, are one of a kind. There are the rulers of ice, thunderstorms, and fire, and somehow you manage to capture all of them and force them to do your bidding. Not sure how that works, but hey, you won't be complaining. There's also some mysterious Pokémon named Mew that you can only get in the game by exploiting a programming glitch. The in-game researchers believe that Mew is the common ancestor to all Pokémon and start performing experiments on it. They eventually clone it before it escapes. The clone, named Mewtwo, is genetically engineered to be stronger in every way, and so it becomes a violent killing machine, and it escapes too. And you know what you can do? That's right. After you become the Champion, you can hunt down and capture Mewtwo. What sort of child are you anyway?

And capturing these legendaries is necessary if you're looking to complete the other objective of the game - acquiring data on all 151 species (minus Mew) in the Pokédex Professor Oak gave you. You get data just by owning that Pokémon. But the devious people at Nintendo deliberately made some species unobtainable in each version of the game, forcing you to trade with others to "catch 'em all." Some Pokémon also only evolve when traded, and some (like the starting three Pokémon) you'll have to trade with multiple times to get everything. So while it might not seem like a terrible ordeal to get a full Pokédex, it's not exactly easy. And your reward? An in-game "diploma" telling you that you did, in fact, get them all. Burn.

That is, to say, you're probably gay.It's not exactly accurate to say the replay value on Pokémon is high, because the game was designed in such a way to never end. After you become Champion, you can still play indefinitely on your file, and level up your team. And you can battle your friends using a Game Boy link cable, which was great. You'd go to school and talk trash with people about how your Rhydon could totally kill their Wigglytuff, and you could do it while never losing confidence in your sexuality. I mean, so long as having people too insecure to admit they liked the game making fun of you didn't drive down your confidence, you were fine.

There are a lot of details about the game I didn't hit on, of course, but there's quite a lot going on in this title. And don't worry - there are umpteen sequels to cover eventually. We'll get there. As for the original stuff, Pokémon Blue and Red are good games with a bunch of minor flaws and annoyances - the inventory system is terrible, just to name one. When in caves, you battle literally every three steps, which is excruciating, to name a second. And the message it sends to children (stick animals in little balls and make them fight) is questionable. But you're going to like playing anyway. And there's no reason to be ashamed about enjoying a good game. So, in the immortal words of that one commercial for Monday Night Football, "Play on, playa."

Bottom Line: 14/20

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

If you like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you will not like this game. If you do not like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you really will not like this game. I get the feeling Ultra, the company responsible for this mistake, never even watched the Ninja Turtles show. They included the bare minimum of reference points to the franchise to claim it was a licensed game. And what's worse, everyone bought it. Did you know Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the sixth highest-selling NES game of all time? That also earns it the dubious distinction of being the highest-selling rancid-bowl-of-garbage-soup game on the system.

New Dork City.The first thing you see when you start up the game is Leonardo standing on allegedly the streets of New York City. This is a lie. Nothing on the screen reminds one even remotely of New York City, and most of what you'll see is just random tiles of graphics tossed together, like the "trees" between buildings. The second thing you'll notice is a steamroller appearing practically on top of you the moment you round the first corner. It will instantly kill you and you will restart the level. You are incapable of damaging it. What a way to start the game. Every stage but the final one has some such overworld screen, from which you get from action area to action area, usually consisting of sewers or buildings. On one of these you get to ride around in the Party Wagon, but even that's lame as balls - it shares a health bar with your turtles, has only one weapon by default, and can't kill those freaking steamrollers with one shot (meaning they'll run over you before you can destroy them).

The plot is as weak as you might expect. When the game opens, April O'Neil is kidnapped by Bebop and Rocksteady. Splinter sends you out after her, though at no point in the game do you even realize that this is your mission until you accidentally bump into Bebop and see April all tied up on a ledge with Rocksteady. Which means that for the first while, with no clue of where to go, you're just sort of wondering what's going on. When you finally rescue April, you have to stop a terrorist plot, and then Splinter gets kidnapped. Shredder informs you of this by possessing your television set and talking to you while inexplicably sticking his hand out of the screen. When you save Splinter you have to track down the Foot Clan to their camp, find the Technodrome somewhere underground, and eventually kill Shredder. It's as simple and dull as you'd expect.

Opposites attract?Whenever you enter a building or sewer from the overworld, the game becomes a sidescrolling action title, but one of the most ridiculous ones you can think of. Ultra just programmed in as many irrelevant and stupid obstacles as they could, such as sewers full of conveyor belts, or instant-kill lava, or yes, even magnets that pull the turtles into spikes. How in the world does a magnet, which functions by attracting metal, suck in a reptile? And even if I were to accept that there could be such a magnet, I'm positive it wouldn't look like that crap.

As for the turtles themselves, problems galore. They are all unique in terms of attacking, but there isn't anything close to a balance here. Donatello is far and away the best turtle in the game. His bo does more damage than any other turtle's weapon, and has the best reach as well. Leonardo has almost the same amount of reach with his katana, but he's really weak. Raphael has a decent amount of strength, but his sais have no range whatsoever, so he virtually can't hit anything without being hit himself. Michelangelo has gimpy range (barely more than Raphael) and is the weakest turtle in terms of damage. Neither Raphael nor Michelangelo can attack downward, either. Only Leonardo or Donatello can hit an enemy below them. So you'll basically be playing the entire game as Donatello, unless you need to switch turtles for health purposes, which you can do at any time on the pause screen, instantly.

And that's the other thing. Each turtle has a health bar, but it will deplete a lot quicker than you might think. There is only a split second of invulnerability after being hit, so you'll touch an enemy and often get hit three or four times consecutively before you can move. You collect pizza to recharge your health, but because the pizza disappears, you have to choose which turtle you want to stay alive (always Donatello). If any one of your turtles dies, he is "captured" and you have to restart the area with your remaining turtles at their remaining health. So if all your guys were low on life, and one dies, you will lose all your progress on that level and have to start from the beginning with everyone dead in a single hit. Isn't that fun? If (when) all your turtles die, you get the game over screen and the choice to continue, which starts you at the beginning of the stage with all four turtles at full health. But you only get two continues for the whole game, which means you really have to be perfect as you play. Using a continue before Shredder's level virtually guarantees your failure.

Know your role.I can even complain about the map screen. In the past, I've rightfully decried the lack of a map function in games. But what is this nonsense? I can't tell what's going on in this map at all, and it's the simplest one in the game. The third stage of the game is essentially an enormous maze to go find Splinter, but you have no idea where he's being held. And when you're looking at a map that's just red with some white dots, it really doesn't help you figure out where you need to be going. It's salt in the wound then when April or Splinter starts yapping at you when you're trying to make sense of it. Usually April will tell you that "You have my support," which is about as worthless as a wheelchair to an armless man, and Splinter will say "You can do it" after telling you something that's either obvious or hard as hell. There is no in-between. And then, as you see above, sometimes April just asks to be smacked in the mouth. Don't you have some news to report or something? Like, "This just in: I'm a rotten skank?"

The only good news is that the game has some bonus weapons the turtles can collect. Killing enemies will occasionally yield one of three different weapons, all of which have limited ammo. The first is a ninja star, which does as much damage as Donatello's staff. Which means Donatello is better off just attacking, since his staff can hit multiple people at once and the ninja star can't. Why's he so good? More to the point, why are the other turtles so bad? You can also get a triple star, which throws three at once in a spread pattern, which would be useful if they didn't fire so slowly. Then there's the boomerang, which is actually nice, though it only travels a short range before returning. At least when it returns to you, you get to save the ammo on it. Here's a trick too: you can throw a boomerang with one turtle, switch to another, then let the boomerang return to you. Now that turtle has boomerangs. Nothing like cheating the system, eh? Finally, there is the ultimate weapon, the scroll. Yes, the ultimate weapon you can acquire in this game is literally a rolled up piece of paper. And what does it do when shot? Naturally it creates a shock wave that rips through enemies and does massive damage. As if paper could do anything else. Pfft. You people.

Dam it all to hell.But you know where devastatingly powerful scraps of parchment don't matter? In the melon farming son of a biscuit water stage. This may well be the worst water level I have ever seen, and it's only the second stage of the game. Where do I even start? It's supposed to be in the Hudson River, where the Foot Clan has planted eight bombs to destroy the dam. Stop right there. The Federal Dam in the Hudson isn't anywhere near Manhattan. It's actually closer to Troy, New York. So already this situation is nonsensical. Continuing though, we see that there are devices underwater which shoot electrical bolts vertically, and the turtles have to time their swimming to avoid them. Let's pause there again. If these devices are firing electric currents underwater, the whole river is boned. At the very least, the whole of the stage should be. The fact that you don't start the stage off watching yourself get electrocuted just indicts this stage further. Next up, we see that there is seaweed all over the place. This seaweed is also electrified, so that touching it injures you. And there are currents that push you into the seaweed, meaning you have a hell of a time not touching any. Which as we know from the way the game chains hits against you, means your health will deplete rapidly until death. Now let's stop there again. Seaweed can only occur in saltwater, or at least brackish water (mixed salt and fresh water). The Lower Hudson is indeed brackish, but if this actually takes place at the dam, which we said is upriver and upstate, then seaweed can't exist. Nevermind that it's electrified, which violates the other problems we've discussed.

There are rotating wheels of barbs in there. I know the Hudson is polluted, but give me a break. Nobody has polluted the river with multiple rotating lines of barbs. They just haven't. Why is that there? And what about that orange crap near the bottom left of the picture? Well, I'm not even sure what it's supposed to be, but I know that if any part of you touches it, it grabs you and pulls you under. Instant kill. Now let me get this straight. You, a turtle, which by nature is a marine-based reptile, are doomed to death because something pulled you a little deeper into the water? Ridiculous. And of course, this means you have to go back with less health to the beginning of the level with another turtle. At least the bombs you've already disarmed stay that way. And oh yeah, this entire time, you have a timer counting down to detonation. If the timer reaches zero and you haven't gotten to all the bombs, which is a virtual guarantee if you don't have the level memorized, it is an automatic game over. Not a loss of a turtle. A game over. And even if you win, you have to watch a long, unskippable, irritating cutscene. It makes me want to strangle myself with electrified seaweed.

Jetpack blues.Enemies. There are a lot of them. No, like really. A lot of them. If at any point the spawn point of an enemy enters your screen, the enemy appears. Which sounds normal, except that I really do mean at any point. Even if you're already fighting that same enemy. You might be moving around in combat to fight it and happen to walk away from the spawn, and then happen to move back near it. Which means another one appears and attacks. And you don't even have a clue as to what will appear, because it's all random. The game has random sets of enemies for each area and will change them at will, even partway through the area. There's just nothing you can do except prepare for every possible enemy at every possible time. And the enemies themselves by and large have absolutely nothing to do with Ninja Turtles. There are mousers and foot soldiers, sure. But it really ends about there. The rest of the time you're fighting cyborgs with chainsaws, exceedingly angry guys on jetpacks with laser rifles, balloons that drop missiles on your head (?), walking incarnate fire that constantly reproduces asexually at you as a weapon...the list goes on.

And you know what's really infuriating? Jumping. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles utilizes a pressure-sensitive jump system, so that pressing the button fully makes you flip really high, and tapping it makes you do a little hop. Neither is easy to control precisely, which is a huge problem in the areas that require you to leap onto single squares of terrain. Even worse, in many of these spots, missing a jump has you land in some water. The turtles then flail helplessly and have to restart the area. What the hell! Didn't you just do an entire level revolving around swimming underwater? How did you forget how to swim in the past 15 minutes? It's mind-numbing.

Nom nom.So with a game this stupid, frustrating, and difficult you would expect the bosses to be virtually impossible, yeah? Wrong. If at any time during the game any of the bosses hits you a single time, you probably suck. If you're using Donatello, and you absolutely should be, they're all so easy it's just confusing. Bebop just runs back and forth and you can chase him around hitting him until he dies. With Rocksteady, you can jump up on some boxes, attack downward, and pummel the crap out of him while he runs at a wall like a moron. There's a robotic evil turtle that you can just launch scrolls at and kill in 10 seconds while he forgets how to hit you. There's this giant mouser which can be attacked in his mouth by just standing below him and attacking up (which also kills all the little guys he spawns, as well as avoids all his other attacks). You can just throw ninja stars and crap at the Technodrome tank until everything that can hurt you is destroyed...without ever even getting near it. And Shredder? Shredder will literally jump into your staff over and over until he dies. Which is a good thing, because he has a gun that instantly kills you, and if any turtle loses to him you restart the entire level again.

Playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is like having an extramarital affair with a brain-dead vegetable. It's pointless, not enjoyable or rewarding at all, and yet you're still morally wrong for doing it. The ending to this game is as terrible as the beginning and middle are. The only time you aren't playing as Donatello is when he's low on life or you're in that freaking dam, because then you can use Michelangelo as seaweed fodder to save your useful turtles. This game is six stages of "action" that belong more in a sewer than the turtles themselves do. It doesn't even ever play the Ninja Turtles theme. And yet it sold millions of copies. Were you one of the suckers who got duped into buying this game based solely on the license? Shame on you.

Bottom Line: 4/20

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mortal Kombat

The juggernaut of fighting games was just starting to rear its head with Capcom's recent offerings of the early 1990s when Midway Entertainment decided there was a significant flaw in the Street Fighter series of games. Not enough gore. They decided to hire in some actors to be filmed and video captured for their own game, added in more gore than the world had really seen until that point, and invented their own unique control scheme. The result was Mortal Kombat, which was eventually ported to the SNES and Sega Genesis from the arcades.

Divine election.The game featured seven selectable fighters, though they all control identically in terms of basic moves. The primary difference among them, therefore, was their respective repertoires of special attacks. Whereas Street Fighter characters had moves that revolve around shooting damaging projectiles or simply performing more powerful direct physical attacks, the moves in Mortal Kombat were based more directly on the personality of each character, which could provide pretty outrageous results.

There were the two rival ninjas, Scorpion and Sub-Zero. The former was an undead spectre from the Mortal Kombat (MK) equivalent of hell; the latter was the ice master who murdered him. The former shoots harpoons out of his hand to impale you and pull you in for a followup attack. The latter can freeze your body solid. There is Liu Kang, the Buddhist monk who has trained so hard he can shoot balls of fire and seemingly defy gravity whilst kicking you repeatedly and making whooping noises. There is Kano, the cyborg thief who throws knives, and Sonya, the military lieutenant trying to arrest him. And of course, there is Raiden, Earth's God of Thunder, who can electrically burn off all the flesh on your body by touching you. What's he even doing here?

Balls of steel.And who could forget the movie star, Johnny Cage? His signature move? He does the splits and punches you in the nuts. No lie. It seems he was modeled after Jean-Claude Van Damme, who did a similar move in one of his films, but it's this sort of stylistic difference that really elevates this game above the label of "Street Fighter wannabe."

That's not to discount the control style. Mortal Kombat only has four attack buttons to Street Fighter's six, but it utilizes them differently. Each button attacks differently at range than in proximity, and moves like roundhouse kicks are performed by combining button presses with directional inputs. But the most startling departure is the addition of a block button. Now characters don't block by holding the back direction or retreating, which makes the learning curve pretty steep for Street Fighter veterans. The good news about this system is that it allows for easier buffering of special moves without unwanted movement, and gives greater opportunity for counterattacks. The bad news is that you have to freaking press a special button to block and it's a freaking pain in the butt.

Not Donny.MK also introduces the world to the concept of the secret character in a fighting game. Somewhere hidden in the game is a third ninja, conveniently identical in appearance to the others in every way except color. Why hire another actor and record more moves when you can just run the thing through a filter and call it a day, right? His moves are even identical. For Reptile, they simply gave this new ninja the special moves of both selectable ones, patted themselves on the back, and hid him somewhere in the code. He'll even come out between two-player matches from time to time just to tantalize you with little hints of how to find him.

With all that buildup, you figure there's got to be some sort of payoff, right? Well, on a home console it doesn't mean much, but in the arcade where scores are king, defeating Reptile was basically an automatic high score. You see, a normal bonus for winning a round might be somewhere around 35,000 points total, and successfully finishing an opponent off yields 100,000 points. Reptile, if killed, gives the player 10,000,000 points. Ten million. Win.

Broken hand.The game also featured a bonus stage called Test Your Might, which was in general not new to the genre, but was easily better executed than ever before. Players must mash certain buttons to build up their power meter before attempting to chop through whatever object is placed before them. As you can see here, this got ridiculous in a hurry, eventually asking players to karate chop through about 1.5 feet of solid diamond. Give me a break, ya know?

And I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the most controversial inclusion in the game - the fatalities. In earlier fighting games, defeating an opponent would result in a knockout or some other such pansy finish. In Mortal Kombat, fighters are commanded by a mighty voice to brutally slay their opponents. Hearts were ripped out of chests all Temple of Doom style, spines were removed from their skeletons, bodies were incinerated alive...all in glorious 16 bit rendering. Of course, the good folks at Nintendo were a little put off by all that blood and guts, and so the fatalities were toned down a bit in the SNES version. You know, to be slightly...less...fatal..... Even the blood was altered to be sweat. Lame.

Clean sweep.The game itself is pretty difficult after the first few matches. The enemy skill and AI on the default difficulty setting is daunting to say the least. But eventually you're bound to find the one move that proves machines are a long way from taking dominion over mankind: the leg sweep.

It's probably one of the least fair things I've ever seen in a fighting game. You just sweep the legs and the guy falls down, and it does a reasonable amount of damage. Doesn't sound bad, right? And indeed, against a fellow human, attempting to do it twice in succession will result in you getting blocked and counter-attacked. But the game's AI evidently never figured out how to stop the onslaught. If you get into sweep range and connect on the first one, you can simply keep doing leg sweeps until you win. Really. The computer player will just keep getting up and falling back down until it is dead. It's like a completely legal invincibility cheat. And suddenly the game gets a LOT easier.

Goro's new squeeze.And you figure the game's programmers had to realize this, because when they made this monstrosity of a boss at left known as Goro, they made him immune to leg sweeps, presumably because any character you can select isn't strong enough to destabilize him. He also shoots fireballs, stomps on your face, and beats the living daylights out of you with all four of his arms. And he's not even the final boss of the game!

That distinction belongs to Shang Tsung, an ancient sorcerer who can transform at will into any other fighter in the game, including Goro, with full access to all their special moves and strengths. And when he beats you, he steals your soul. Lovely. It also makes the justification pretty clear for all the fighting - if you don't kill this dude, he's so going to eat your soul and conquer Earth. Better get on that.

As an added bonus, Mortal Kombat added in the ability to juggle. An opponent knocked airborne could be hit again, even multiple times, before hitting the ground. This resulted in added depth of play and potential for some pretty powerful move combinations. It's no shock that virtually every fighting game of any merit created after this would adopt some form of the system.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're disappointed about the Super Nintendo version. Even the Sega Genesis port had the Abacabb code to restore the gore. Restore the gore, that's your little cyber battle cry. Here's my quick defense - the Super Nintendo version features better control than the Genesis port, and also higher technical quality than any other console version of the game. So if you're after the game for the gore factor, check out one of the other versions. But the best fighting experience in Mortal Kombat outside of the arcade is to be found on the Super Nintendo, and it's a pretty decent one. Just don't forget how to block when you boot it up.

Bottom Line: 14/20

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dragon Ball Z: Kyôshū! Saiyajin

Before Dragon Ball Z helped lead an anime craze here in the states, it had already established itself in Japan with literature, TV shows, movies, and even several video games. "Kyôshū! Saiyajin," translates to roughly "Fierce Attack! Saiyan," but in this review I'll just arbitrarily say "Attack of the Saiyans" for easier reference. Made by Bandai, the same company that makes Power Rangers action figures, Attack of the Saiyans (which was never released in the US) was the first attempt at an RPG based on the Dragonball Z storyline.

EARth.To that end it picks up with the beginning of the series and more or less (it's less) parallels it throughout the game. While certain specifics of the show naturally weren't going to carry over to the game for the sake of making the game enjoyable to play, the hope was to retain almost every key element of the show's story. The game therefore opens with Raditz arriving from space and kidnapping Goku's son, Gohan. Then Piccolo, who had been a villain, teams up with Goku to get him back, just like in the show. Then the cutscenes are done and control passes to the player, and the gameplay is immediately different than what you might expect.

Everything in Attack of the Saiyans happens through cards. And I do mean everything. At the bottom of the screen you will see five cards. Centered on each card is a large symbol which corresponds to a given fighting style. In the bottom right and upper left corners are two dragon balls. The upper one has dots corresponding to stars on the balls, while the lower has symbols that correspond to the numbers 1-7 in Japanese. In addition, either or both of these dragon balls may instead have a letter Z on it. So when you appear on the map screen after the initial cutscene dialogues are over, you'll find Goku and Piccolo next to each other on a grid. The game will highlight one of them and you will choose a card for him. You can then move as many grid squares as there are stars on the upper left dragon ball (1-7, with a Z acting as 8). Then you move the other one similarly.

Monkdget.These same cards you use for movement also carry into battle with you. When you choose a card to use for a round of battle, the upper left dragon ball acts as your attack value, with the lower right one acting as your defense value. Every fighter in the game also has a "favored style," which lines up with one of the possible symbols on the center of the cards. If you attack with a card that has your favored symbol on it, your power is boosted for that turn. So whatever else may be said about this game, let me say now that this system is incredibly interesting. Because you can land in a random battle after any movement, do you use your good cards to move and get where you're going sooner, or do you take really small movements so that you have better cards for battle? I think outside of strategic RPGs (which this game is not), I have not seen any game that requires that level of planning just to move around. The intrigue of the card system is easily the best thing about this game.

Additionally, the leveling system is novel. In a more traditional RPG you gain experience points after each battle, and after attaining a certain amount of them, your character becomes more powerful. You maybe get some more health, maybe higher strength, maybe additional spells. In Attack of the Saiyans, each character has only three stats. They are: Hit Points, Battle Energy, and Battle Power. While hit points are nothing new, and battle energy essentially just corresponds to magic points, battle power (BP) is a twist on the system. Characters in DBZ all have power levels, and BP is an implementation of that. The game's formula in determining how much damage you deal or take involves measuring your BP stat against your enemy's, meaning BP is even more important than what card you use. Furthermore, when you win a battle, you are awarded BP, and not some otherwise-meaningless experience points. This means that instead of having to win many battles and accumulate many points to become marginally stronger, your characters are literally more powerful after every single fight. You could fight the exact same monsters three times in a row (and trust me, you will...) and each time you'd be stronger than the last. So when you gain a level in Attack of the Saiyans, only your maximum hit points and battle energy increase. Otherwise you are constantly and steadily gaining strength, which is pretty neat.

Zzzzz...Sadly, the interest of the whole thing sort of ends there. While you gain a new card every time you use one and this is supposedly at random, the game only has certain cards it will give you. That is, with eight possible numbers in each of the card corners, and six center symbols, there are 384 possible cards you should be able to see. Of these, you probably will only ever get 40 or so from the game, and it loves to give the same card multiple times in a row. It was not uncommon for me at the end of the game to use a set of five different cards in a single round of battle, and the next round have received those exact same cards back as my "random" replacements. This can really suck when you're trying to get rid of bad cards. And what's worse is that enemies seem to have no trouble getting the card combinations you can't, often landing cards with a Z attack value, Z defense value, and their favored symbol. Ouch.

The second complaint is the most major. If someone asked me to sum up this game in just one word, it'd be this: tedious. Every primary chapter of the game revolves around trying to defeat a given enemy who is, without exception, far stronger than you are. While in the show this creates excitement and you get to watch the heroes figure out ways to defeat these massive villains, in the game it means hours of grinding. When you start as Goku and Piccolo, your battle powers are in the low-mid 300s. Raditz has 1200 BP, by contrast. Enemies around you will give you 3 BP each. 5 if you fight the harder ones. Do the math, and you'll realize how much mindless battling that is just to break even. And even then he'll still have many more hit points than you, because he's a boss.

It only gets worse from there, as you'll next have to fight another 1200 BP boss raising powers from the 200s (as more playable characters are introduced into the game), then again from the 200s to 1300, then a third time from the 200s to 1500. And finally, when you've got six new fighters all around 1000 BP and you're feeling pretty good, the next boss has 3500 BP. It's a slap in the face.

Trip Kaiokens.It's then a curse as well as a blessing that the battles are done in a cinematic fashion. Every attack has a long, unskippable animation that accompanies it. You'll watch the combatants fly around punching and kicking and blocking until finally a hit is landed and you see how much damage was dealt. Then the other guy attacks and it's the same dance. The biggest culprits are the ki attacks. One of the card symbols is the ki attack one, which allows you to spend some battle energy to unleash a signature move on your opponents. All of these entail zooming in on the character in question, showing them doing whatever crap they do, then showing the energy ball or beam or whatever you shot moving toward the target, and then finally the target getting hit (or dodging, joke's on you!). Each one of these is really cool to watch. Once. Then you desperately wish you could skip over them along with every other battle animation. So not only do you have to battle countless times to make it through what is otherwise a very short game, but each battle takes forever. The enemies are also painfully limited in variety. Apart from the game's seven bosses, there are nine different enemies. Nine. Total. And three of these are just palette swaps of other ones. That's pathetic.

And trust me, the game really is brief apart from the battles. Over half the game actually revolves around the first DBZ movie, Deadzone, which is not even considered canon (although admittedly it's the closest of the films to being such). The idea is that while Goku is training on King Kai's planet, the six "Z-Fighters" (Piccolo, Gohan, Krillin, Yamcha, Tien, and the suicidal Chaozu) are trying to defeat Garlic, Jr. as he makes a bid for world domination. But the game even stretches that for all it's worth, making you split into groups of two and hunt down the henchmen before reconverging to take down Garlic, Jr. himself. It justifies this exercise by giving Garlic, Jr. and cronies some of the dragon balls the Z-Fighters will need to wish Goku back to life. Nevermind the fact that even were you to force the events of the movie into the canon timeline, they would have happened before the entire series, including all the Raditz crap. My guess is that because this movie had come out in Japan not too long before the game's release, the content was added to encourage sales. But its only accomplishment in the game is forcing the player to grind more. I'd honestly prefer they just give me a little cutscene saying "The Z-Fighters trained for a year. Here's 1000 BP added onto everyone." Sure it cuts about 10 hours out of the game...but they're some of the most monotonous and boring 10 hours you can imagine having to sit through.

All over this land.There are a number of minigames present in Attack of the Saiyans. None of them have any real depth, and most are based on dumb luck. For instance, on King Kai's planet you must use Goku to catch Bubbles the monkey and smash Gregory the cricket with a hammer. These games consist of having the animal in question generate a random card, and you have to use a card that's higher in attack value from your stash. It's like playing war with the deck stacked against you. War's painful enough to play without that caveat, thank you very much. The other minigames, accessed on the world map by landing on certain spaces, are not much better. One will show you a card and you have to choose one of your own, matching any of the three variables (attack, defense, symbol) to get minor amounts of BP. If you spend 15 minutes in this game getting 50 cards matched in a row (which is horrendously dull, but I tried it just to see), you'll gain maybe 200 BP. And even then it depends on the character. But, unlike when battling, only the character in the minigame gets this BP, so you'd have to do that with everyone to have it be meaningful. And at that point you're looking at spending even more time on it than you would if you just battled over and over. It's a lose-lose.

And speaking of multiple characters, until your crew takes on Garlic, Jr. himself (which is the penultimate area of the game), you move characters individually rather than as a group. So when you move a character, a random battle might happen, and that character will be isolated against an entire group of baddies. Early on you'll be screwed when this happens, and by the time you're strong enough to single-handedly kill them all, you're realizing how long it will take (you cannot attack multiple targets at once) and start slamming your head against a wall. The only time you can fight as a group like this is to have the characters standing on adjacent grid squares. So you'll constantly inch through the game a space at a time here, another space there, all for the sake of being allowed the ability to fight as a group. Not that fighting as a group is without its flaws, since like in certain other RPGs, your characters are too stupid to attack another enemy if their commanded target is killed before their turn. And when you have five people in your group, but only three enemies to kill (all of which will be downed in one shot), you still have to tell as many people to attack as you have cards, throwing away potentially good cards in the process. What a waste.

Because you'll likely try to cut down on how many hours of pointless battling you'll engage in, items are crucial to make it past the bosses. Items also consist of cards, although in this case they are just pictures of different things, which have varying effects. Cards like Bulma or Master Roshi heal you, cards like the stunningly racist Mr. Popo restore some battle energy, and cards like the scouter will reveal enemy locations on the map. Since you have a limited inventory, you'll have to be selective about what items you're carrying, which makes it a nuisance that you can't ever drop any. You have to use them to get rid of them, but you can't use a healing card if everyone is at full health, and you don't want to use an item that changes out all your battle cards if you have five good ones...the list goes on. And the game is really inconsistent on what cards it will give you.

Eep eep.For instance, the Shenron (the dragon of Dragon Ball Z) card restores every character in your group to maximum life and energy. And it's laughably easy to get. There's a minigame where you just play the memory game with some crap and you can get a Shenron every time. For free. But items like the Tail, which is responsible for the gargantuan ape pictured here, can apparently only be acquired through getting a perfect score on this memory game and having nine open inventory slots. Stupid.

As for the end of the game, Nappa has 4000 BP (strangely semi-reasonable after having just fought the 3500 BP Garlic, Jr.), but Vegeta has 18,000. Have fun grinding that out. When fighting Nappa, Goku is supposed to show up and join in, making that fight easier and helping prepare you for Vegeta. It also lets you train Goku up some more along with everyone else for that last fight. But I guess not everything goes as planned, because when I fought Nappa Goku never came. He showed up at the start of the Vegeta fight, which is well and good except for the fact that at that point it's impossible to raise his power level any further. Luckily for me I came in with like 8 Shen Long cards and won a two hour (no joke) battle of attrition. That's what happens when you don't feel like grinding BP for an eon or two.

After that fight you are shown passwords for every character you have still alive, which can be used in the game's terrible Budokai mode. Here you can choose up to four fighters and...go into battle with them. As if you hadn't had enough battling already. And now you can't even see what cards you're picking. It's a worthless addon to the game. So you watch the credits and they end with the ginormous visage of Frieza looking at Earth all aroused-like. It's creepy as hell.

Attack of the Saiyans is definitely a notch below average as games go. I really like and appreciate the card system in its concept, but the fact that it's not nearly as random as it purports to be is a problem. And I wouldn't mind never seeing another 8-bit DBZ battle for the rest of my life. Doesn't help that they all occur at night in midair. I guess it saved coding to have them fighting in a black background with no land in sight the entire game. But whatever. This is one of those games that's worth ten minutes of your time to get a taste for the good and interesting things it does. But no more than ten minutes. For the love of all that's right in the world, not more than ten minutes.

Bottom Line: 8/20

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Doom

By the end of 1993, id's Wolfenstein 3-D was still going strong. A couple rip-offs had surfaced here and there, but nothing that would threaten the title's popularity or status atop the genre (it's the game that established it, after all). Yet the folks at id Software were busy during the year and a half that transpired after Wolfenstein's release. They were developing new technology and ideas, and once Doom was released the gaming industry would never be the same.

Reloading title.Doom introduced plenty of new textures and scenery, which stood out as extremely immersive when compared with Wolfenstein's bland and repetitive walls. The technology also allowed for variances in height within the game. Stairs and elevators could now exist and the player got a much greater sense of moving in three dimensions, which was pretty cleverly done, considering the game actually operated on two-dimensional physics. You see, levels existed on a plane as they always had (for instance, never will any room be on top of another one), but the textures and models were such that height would appear to exist in a fully three-dimensional state. So when you shoot your guns you'll feel like you're auto-aiming along the Z-axis, while in reality there is no Z-axis at all!

Of course, all this technobabble is just preliminary stuff to go over before getting to the meat of Doom. No, quite literally, the meat of it. This game consists of eliminating your enemies with as much excessive violence as you can muster, even mutilating them if you get the chance. Naturally, when you view the game now and see the blood falling from the sprites, you'll get a chuckle over how panicked people were about this game's gore. They even tried to sue id for the Columbine debacle, which was pretty absurd (and thankfully the judge declared as much).

Double Baron.So if Wolfenstein got away with its violence because your targets were all Nazis, how can Doom justify an even greater level of gore without resorting to the same ploy? Let's think about that one a moment. What could possibly be more universally evil than Hitler's Nazis? How about, say, the very legions of hell itself?! So there's no need to feel bad about shooting things mercilessly - they're all demons bent on torturing you for eternity. Man, how do they do it? At first I was hesitant to engage in all this brutality, but somehow with that one caveat I'm now not only okay with it, but I feel like it's my duty to go slay the foul beasts.

Naturally, that does require a little bit of justification from the story. After all, were you dead and sent to hell, you'd hardly have an arsenal of weapons at hand to combat them. So how did hell come to you? Doom takes place, at least initially, on a research base on Phobos (one of the moons of Mars). You are a marine working security for the Union Aerospace Corporation, which owns the base. Somehow, in some way, the forces of hell invade the base and kill everyone, leaving only you alive (why/how they didn't kill you is unexplained). Now normally you'd try to get out of there as soon as possible, because who in his right mind would try to single-handedly defeat the armies of hell? But they made one fatal mistake in their assault on the base - they killed Daisy, your pet rabbit. And you are going to make them pay. You probably think I'm kidding. You probably think this can't actually be the justification for the game's action. Just you wait.

Pinky Plasma.So, as any curious scholar might ask, "Of what exactly do the forces of hell consist?" Glad you asked! The first baddies you see are zombies. They're your fellow marines, somehow transformed and converted into employees of the enemy, and carry either pistols or shotguns. Then there are imps, which are basically wookiees with haircuts who throw balls of fire. What you see above are generically termed "demons," and just run at you to gnaw your flesh. Some of these are even partially invisible. There are flaming skulls and big red spherical uglies called cacodemons, and the minotaur-like Barons of Hell. Finally, the bosses consist of a big mechanical spider monster and the Cyberdemon - a gigantic horned beast with a semi-automatic missile launcher for a hand. His loud metal footsteps will scare the living tar out of you.

And scaring the player appears to be one of the major goals the developers had for this game. Wolfenstein would frighten you by circumstance, when you'd hear a guard from another room shout an alert, or somehow not see a dude with a gun in your face. But Doom frightens by design. A very large portion of the game is not fully lit. That isn't to say it's pitch dark or anything, but just that the lights are dimmed intentionally both to partially hamper vision and to generate a creepy atmosphere. Some lights will even flicker, which was new at the time. There are times when you will be in an empty room and a wall will open behind you, unleashing monsters on your back. It's pretty effective all things considered, although in some sense it's only a notch above the "cheap" scares of its predecessor.

Crucitunes.The environments also include extra little tidbits to create the game's atmosphere. Throughout the Phobos base you will find the corpses of your fellow marines, or occasionally just their pools of blood and guts. As the game progresses, you find that the invasion of Phobos came from Deimos, the other moon of Mars. And then you realize that a gate to hell itself was opened on or near Deimos, and so proceed to invade the home of your enemy. And here the ambient creepiness really jumps up a notch. Rivers and lakes of blood are common fare. You'll find other marines who attempted the same infiltration impaled on stakes, twitching in agony. Totems of the skulls of your comrades have been collected and placed in various spots, and there are even a few times at which you can see the souls of people drifting by in the walls.

The game also helped pioneer powerups, which are items you can walk over that enhance your abilities in some way. Previous games had health and ammo pickups, and Wolfenstein had random bits of treasure to collect for points, but Doom's powerups are more significant. There are radiation suits that make you immune to corrosion from toxic waste or...lava... There are goggles that allow you to see in full lighting for a time, temporary invincibility orbs, and a computer which reveals that area's full map. The map itself is a great feature, which allows you to view a wireframe layout of the area at any time, helping you to not only not get lost, but also to have extra help in locating hidden doors and rooms. Man. Including a map in a game that might cause players to otherwise get lost. It sounds so obvious. How could anyone miss it? Anyway, the funniest powerup is the berserk kit, which empowers your fist to such a degree that you can split monsters into pieces with a single punch. Awesome.

Death-o-matic-9000.And on that note, it's long overdue to talk about guns. Wolfenstein's guns were simple and straight- forward, but Doom helped establish the concept of crazy weapons in games. Your fists and pistols need no mention. Similarly, the chaingun is about what you'd expect. Doom's rocket launcher though fires a lot more quickly than you'd think it might, and makes a pleasant sound effect with each shot. There's a chainsaw that rends flesh from monsters, but is usually worthless in practice. Then there's the plasmagun, which is damn strong. And of course, the BFG-9000. For those not in the loop, the BFG part stands for "Big F--king Gun," and it just annihilates everything. The final boss dies in three shots with this guy, and almost everything else is obliterated with one. Final boss. Three shots. Ammo isn't even that hard to find. Weapon balance be damned! It's a heck of a lot of fun to play around with, but it might be too strong.

I'm a worrier, always conserving ammo and the like. If you're anything like me, you'll find yourself running around 98% of the game with the shotgun. It can kill weaker enemies in one shot, and even stronger ones without too much hassle as long as you're quick on your feet. I found myself never using the stronger weapons just because I was afraid of having no ammo if and when I actually needed them. Perhaps that's my own foolishness, but perhaps the shotgun is just really that good.

By the way, for those of you still waiting for proof of the bunny slaying motive, see below. You evidently just carry the carcass (or at least the head) around with you. Nevermind the question of how bunnies survived on Mars in the first place. You want revenge. Wait, come to think of it, how are you surviving? I understand that there's a base that surely has its own life support system, but there are plenty of times you set foot out onto the surface of the moons. With no helmet, if your little face at the bottom of the screen and the picture below are to be believed. Either you hold more reserve air in your lungs than Fort Knox holds reserve gold or the Martian moons have oxygenated atmospheres. If it's the latter, we need to get on board the colonization train, pronto.

Oh wait, scratch that. I almost forgot they're the gateway to hell.

Poor Daisy.I do want to air some complaints about the game though. While the general concept and experience is decidedly positive, I found it impossible to play for longer periods of time. The main reason is this: the game is repetitive. I can only play a few levels at a time before I'm just tired and bored of the same old shotgun dance. Most maps revolve around finding keys to open doors, and killing monster after monster along the way. How many blue keycards do I really need here? Why are they in the most illogical of places? And while we're on the subject, why don't these demons just get rid of all the weapons and health and ammo and keys to impede your progress? It's like they want you to win. But that's the main reason this game's score is lower than it otherwise would be - once you've played the first few maps, you've played them all. Bosses and other monsters aside, there's nothing new to find anymore, and that's disappointing.

Overall though, Doom is a solid game. It didn't do anything really original from a gameplay perspective, other than the new guns (and even that's debatable). But it did do everything better than any similar game before it, and remains enjoyable to play. Just don't try to rush through it all at once or you'll get sick of it. Pace yourself as you go, a level here and a level there, and you'll really get the most out of your Doom experience. They even included a bonus fourth episode called "Thy Flesh Consumed" to the original trilogy for subsequent releases of the game, so there's more action to go around. If you ever were curious as to how and why first-person shooters hit the mainstream gaming populace, go play Doom and learn ya somethin' right.

Bottom Line: 13/20

Friday, September 4, 2009

Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

It was less than a year after the release of Super Mario Bros. and Japan was hungry for more. Nintendo had created a smash hit bigger than anyone might have predicted, and began crafting the sequel. They realized that most of the diehard players of the first game would have been proficient at it to the point of mastery, and so decided that its successor needed to be harder. Much, much harder.

They opted to keep virtually everything else the same. Oh, some of the backgrounds changed a little bit, and the mushrooms had eyes now, for whatever that was worth, but the core of the gameplay remained: you run around jumping on crap to beat a stage, with the ultimate goal being the rescue of Princess Peach Toadstool, who was again kidnapped by the evil King Bowser Koopa. Except, you know. Now it's hard.

Through the fire and flames.Now, the story goes that when Nintendo of America got their hands on this "Super Mario Bros. 2," they claimed it was too difficult for American audiences and hid the game away from our novice little eyes. I would like to present a slightly different point of view here. What Nintendo of America claimed firstly was that this game didn't actually bring any innovation to the Mario franchise, and innovation is what has always driven the company. It was the same old exercise again, just with different stages. And the second part of the claim, I believe, wasn't that the game was too difficult for an American audience, but rather that it was too difficult for any audience. That it was a mistake to release the game even in Japan, because it would provide nothing but a source of frustration to the hardcore gamers, and would totally alienate the casual ones. And as we view this game, one thing becomes undeniably clear: Nintendo of America was right.

Thus, the US didn't see this game until it was rereleased for the Super Nintendo as "Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels," as part of a collection of NES Mario games known as "Super Mario All-Stars." This is why the pictures you see here are of 16-bit quality rather than 8-bit; consumers in America had no other way to experience the game until very recently (and more on that later). So what was it about The Lost Levels that was so ridiculous?

Platformer?To begin with, take a look at this. Do you see a landing area? No. You do see a paratroopa, who flies up and down. You must time a jump perfectly so as to land on it and bounce to safety. And note that when you arrive at this area, you cannot even see the enemy at all. It's a blind jump, and you'll almost certainly miss and die when you take it. You have to stop all your momentum, inch the screen slowly to the right by manipulating the game's scrolling mechanism, then rebuild your momentum and jump at just the right instant to hit that koopa. This is on World 4-3, mind you. Not even halfway through the game. Similar blind jumps occur at other times, even requiring you to hit multiple successive koopas to get around. Alone it might seem an interesting challenge, but this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

In fact, the game lets you know right off the bat that you are screwed. World 1-1 instantly looks a bit trickier than you feel like a World 1-1 should, although it's not too terrible to anyone who's played the first game. Before long at all, you come across the trademark question mark boxes and hit a few, getting coins. Then you hit the last one and a mushroom comes up, so you grab it. And die. Because that mushroom just so happens to be poisonous, killing you on contact (or making you small again if you're big). Now, in the SNES version of the game, poison mushrooms have purple tops and are generally discolored in a clear manner, so once you know what they are you know to avoid them. But in the original NES (well, Famicom, but who cares) version of the game, the color difference was slight between a super mushroom and a poison mushroom. As if that weren't bad enough, later stages of the game are littered with invisible blocks containing the things. And these are strategically placed in spots that require precise jumps, such that you make your jump and are stopped halfway by an invisible mushroom of death. If the resulting fall doesn't kill you, the fungus almost certainly will.

Bonus?Let's jump ahead several tedious hours to the "end" of the game. When you finally defeat Bowser at the end of World 8-4 and save the Princess (who in the NES version is still a mutt), she again entreats you to "press start" for a more difficult quest. My inclination at this point was to tell her to shove it - the harder quest in Super Mario Bros. consisted of turning one kind of enemy into another and calling it a day, and I had no interest in wasting time on that. I pressed start anyway expecting a title screen, and it sent me to....World 9-1?! WORLD 9-1?!?! And it's a WATER LEVEL?!?!?!

"Yes!" says the game, "And I'll do you one better! This isn't just a water level...it's a water level with ground-based enemies! Haven't you always wanted to swim for dear life while Hammer Bros. and paratroopas and lakitus hunt you down like the felon you are? Haven't you always wanted to be completely defenseless while we defy all convention and physics with the sole purpose of murdering you repeatedly?"

No! I've never wanted any of that! It's so ridiculous that after the water levels of Worlds 9-1 and 9-2, in World 9-3, Bowser music starts playing. When you eventually find him he is inside a wall, completely invincible, happily chucking hammers at you. What. The. Hell. And then 9-4? Yep. Another water level. Uncalled for! Moreover, it is my understanding that in the NES version of the game, you had a single life to complete all four stages consecutively. No second chances. Furthermore! Completion of 9-4 sends you to World A-1. So they have to letter them now? I guess the hexadecimal coding would have thrown a fit with "10-1" or something. And the absurdity continues, as now squids will fly through midair and the like. And in the original version of the game, access to these "letter worlds" was granted only after beating the game eight times. Which of course, as you can tell from the existence of more levels, wasn't actually beating the game at all. You had to play the thing eight times just to finish it?! Why do that to your customers? Why?!

Fail zone.Oh, and THIS GUY. Super Mario Bros. introduced the warp zone, but now you can get sent backwards? How twisted can you get? It's bad enough to play through any given stage once, but to send me back to do it all over again because I found a freaking bonus area is downright insulting. It's a cruel irony that the only solace to be found in this situation is to remember that eventually the clock will run out and you will die, so you can at least start at your current level, if you have the presence of mind to realize this before jumping into the pipe and wiping away all that hard work.

And hard work it is! Keep in mind that Super Mario Bros. had no save system whatsoever. The Lost Levels, appearing on the SNES, bucks that tradition and allows you to save at the beginning of each world. And when you lose all five of your starting lives (as you're quite unlikely to actually acquire more), you may continue from the stage on which you died as many times as you like so long as you don't quit the game. However, the NES version featured no saving capabilities, continues were offered only at the beginning of each world (as opposed to per stage), and you only started with three lives. That's three lives to get through four nightmarish levels each time. I can't call it impossible, but it's damn near it...certainly improbable at the very least. So yes, even when Nintendo of America DID decide to give us this game, they made it easier. And it's still quite possibly the hardest game I have ever completed.

Mushroom side.All kinds of challenges are implemented in this game, most of which are not possible to figure out the first time through, forcing you to replay entire levels and worlds. The game added wind effects, such that Mario can be blown off platforms to his death. You have to walk against the wind to stay on, but as you try to simply "treadmill" the effect by walking against the current, you inevitably hit that sudden moment at which you outwalk the wind and run off the opposite edge of the platform, again to your death. And most of these levels feature giant springs, which were never a fun part of the first game. But now they launch you entirely off the screen and you must traverse whole sections of the level with no real idea where you are, and land (in the wind) on a tiny platform with another such spring, and so on until level's end. It's a total pain, not enjoyable in the least, and often your descent is littered with flying enemies as well. What a waste of gameplay.

There is at least one point at which you can literally not proceed with a level because you are guaranteed to take a hit and you are small Mario. And with no question boxes around, you have to sit there spending the first part of the stage jumping everywhere in sight until you find the invisible block with the super mushroom. Then you must retain your "bigness" until the part that is guaranteed to hurt you, and survive the remainder of the level as little Mario. I will note that this is in a castle stage, which also features a second Bowser. Yeah, that's right, you get to Bowser and get by him and there's another Bowser. Lovely.

And speaking of powerups, it wasn't until World 6-3 that I even saw a fire flower. I know because I marked the occasion specially. I was convinced for a while that they didn't even exist, because I figured they didn't need to. While poison mushrooms were plentiful (the game IS trying to kill you as often as possible, after all), super mushrooms were few and far between. Retaining one long enough to find another powerup block seemed unfathomable, so when I finally saw a fire flower I grabbed it right away, eager to have any extra edge. And of course, I fell into a bottomless pit ten seconds later on a rigged jump, designed specifically to kill you right after you get a powerup, because that crushes your dreams more than normal.

Squeegee.As an added slap in the face, The Lost Levels did away with multiplayer. Sure, the two player mode on Super Mario Bros. only consisted of taking turns, waiting for one another to die so you could have a chance to play, but it was something. Here, in perhaps the game's only act of mercy, Nintendo decided that having more than one person experience this game at a time would be heinous. So instead, they offered a choice to play through the game as Luigi instead of Mario.

And this marked the first real difference in how the two characters played, establishing a precedent that would last to this day. While Mario played as always, Luigi actually jumped higher and farther than his older brother. This is naturally humiliating, because jumping is the only thing Mario is good for. He can even jump over the flag at the end of the levels as you see pictured above, which he does from time to time in order to take a dump on this deformity of a game. So you'd think playing the game as Luigi would be easier and a no-brainer, but of course it's not. To compensate for his extra jumping abilities, Nintendo made Luigi run slower and skid more. That is, when trying to slow down or change direction on the ground, Luigi is out of control for longer. So while you'll land the hard jumps a little easier, you'll also fall off platforms almost constantly, which makes it so that Luigi is probably an even worse choice than Mario in many cases. Still though, despite controlling a little more awkwardly, the ability to outjump Mario made Luigi a popular choice, and his more appealing color combination (to many gamers' eyes) meant perhaps Mario was going to have some competition for fans...

Now Nintendo has released The Lost Levels, in its original NES version, on the Wii's Virtual Console at a cost of $6. Is this a worthy investment? The answer is a resounding no. The game is like gargling a vial of acid while trying to play "Chopsticks" one-handed on a piano covered in tar. The easier SNES version is bad enough without actually PAYING for the earlier one. Its inclusion in a bundle of GOOD games is the only reason anyone should ever own it. Nintendo of America was right to keep this game from seeing the light of day...if only Nintendo of Japan had done the same thing.

Bottom Line: 4/20

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mega Man 2

A year or so had passed since Mega Man first graced the Nintendo Entertainment System, and its sales had been less than spectacular. The game wasn't even that bad, so perhaps it was just dumb luck preventing the title from really catching on. Regardless, Capcom hesitantly decided to go ahead and make a sequel to see if it would fare any better than the first. They knew they liked what they had on their hands, but if the public wasn't buying, what can you do? So if Mega Man 2 was successful, they could justify the series. If not, I suppose it was time to throw in the towel. Mega Man 2: This time, the fate of the franchise lies in your hands.

Choose your archetype.Regarding the game's internal plot, things are more or less the same as the first time around. Whereas the background of the first game was that Dr. Wily had stolen and reprogrammed the game's six robot bosses, the intro for Mega Man 2 states that after his defeat (when you inexplicably walked away from him, letting him go where he pleased) Dr. Wily created eight robots of his own in an effort to destroy Mega Man and conquer the world. Which is no surprise, really. We're talking about, as you might recall, the quite literal Albert Einstein of the engineering world, and he just happens to be a total jerk. This is why you don't let villains go free when you beat them. At the very least you throw them in jail. Even the "I'm not gonna kill anyone but I'll use a really gruff voice to make you think I might" Batman realizes this point. Why can't a robot whose sole purpose in existence is to protect humanity from this sort of thing?

The good news, if the stage select screen is any indication, is that Dr. Wily created the eight "Robot Masters" out of whatever he happened to have lying around. I guess he couldn't be troubled to get high quality parts, or maybe couldn't afford to really go all out with it. So he decided to take a floor fan and put some eyes on it. Some lumber and stick a microchip in the top. You know, whatever works.

Bunny bats.And for the rest of his robot army, the standards were even lower. Giant bats lie in wait for you in the forests, eager to fly off screen harmlessly when you least expect it. Scary, isn't it? Many of the standard robots from the first game make a return here. Particularly worth noting is the hard hat robot, which hides under its hat until you get near, and then reveals itself to shoot you. Then it retreats again. This thing would become synonymous with Mega Man games over time, and is one of the most memorable "standard" enemies in the game regardless of the fact that it's one of the most basic things you'll see. But hey, we remember Goombas and Koopa Troopas pretty well too, so I guess there's something to be said for the little guys.

In addition to the sharper graphics, one of the first things you notice as you play Mega Man 2 is that music is really quite good. The music in the first game was fine, but I also can't sit here and say that I actually remember any of the tunes or how they went. Mega Man 2, by contrast, has a few really great numbers, particularly on the first Dr. Wily stage. Which is a bit of a surprise (although perhaps it shouldn't be), because when we look for stellar video game music, we often tend toward games like RPGs that are trying to set up an "epic" kind of atmosphere. So bravo Mega Man 2 for saying, through your music, "I am what I am, and this song is gonna kick ass anyway."

Water torture.But what doesn't kick ass is a water level. The first Mega Man didn't have one (though it did have an ice stage, which is bad enough), so you might enter this game lulled into a false sense of security. Don't be fooled! Mega Man 2 will submerge you, assault you with robotic fish and...metroids...before finally pitting you against the stage's boss, also totally underwater. The only good news is the lack of a need to breathe, which I assume is a product of your being an android. Or "super robot" as the game calls you. I trusted you, Mega Man. I trusted you to be the one game character who didn't have to go underwater to prove himself. But you just had to sink down to that level, didn't you?

That all said, the stages do have nice, distinct feels to them. Air Man's level takes place, predictably, entirely in the sky on various platforms. You'll even have to ride on robotic clouds to get through part of it (which might be a little overboard in the story department. Why is Dr. Wily manufacturing robotic clouds?) There's a good deal of challenge and outright panic from lasers in a stage or two as well. When you enter a given screen, laser beams will begin to fire. These kill you on contact, so the goal is to pass the screen before the lasers block your ability to do so. You'll probably die quite a bit, and it's very hectic, but an interesting concept.

Item the Third.The weapons system is all snazzied up now as well. Now you get a screen telling you the name of each weapon when you acquire it, and showing Mega Man's suit change colors. Oooooooh. At three different points along the way, Dr. Light will interrupt you on this screen to tell you that an "item" has been completed. The only way to have any idea what these items are is to use them in the game, and figure it out from there, which is a little confusing initially. Each one is helpful though, as Item-1 creates a platform that rises when jumped upon, Item-2 creates a platform that moves forward laterally, and Item-3 creates a platform that crawls up the sides of walls. The game will force you use all of these at some point or other to progress, even if only to justify their existence in the game.

There are also now energy tanks to be found in the game, or E-tanks for short. These are found in often hard to reach places in the levels, and are collected for use at any time down the road. Opening the pause menu will show how many E-tanks you have, and using one will completely fill Mega Man's life bar. This is a great addition for difficult bosses and the like. Enemy special weapons also bear more use outside of boss battles. While the convention of having each weapon be extra effective against a specific boss remains, now some standard enemies can only be damaged by special weapons. There are more weapon-specific shortcuts through stages to be found as well. While you still don't really know what weapon will help in what way outside of trial and error, the fact that they have added worth is a bonus.

Trauma.But what would a Mega Man game be without gobs of spikes waiting to obliterate you with a single poke? Mega Man 2 turns up the spike content of the game, culminating with rooms like the one at right. Here you must wait for the little platform to go around its winding track to drop from your ladder safely. Then you must ride it around, jumping strategically at various points to avoid certain spiky death, all while avoiding the enemies that fly in at you from the sides of the screen (and they will continuously spawn if you kill them). This goes on for a few screens in a row, and it's quite traumatizing if you happen to have a paralyzing fear of stationary pointy objects. Personally, I now shudder any time I see a conical piece of metal, and I blame Mega Man for it.

With all this, you'd think the game's difficulty would be significantly higher than its predecessor, but you'll be pleasantly surprised. For one thing, in a move of typical Japanese gaming arrogance, Capcom made an easier difficulty level for the North American release of the game. Rather than call this mode "Easy," they called it "Normal" and made the original product "Difficult." Yet even on "Difficult" mode, the game isn't as hard as the first. Part of this is from the E-tank and added weapon functionality. Part of this is a tighter control that means Mega Man doesn't scoot as much when walking as he used to, which was a minor problem the first time around. But the main advantage was the password system. As the game still lacked a save function, players could now write down passwords that contained which stages they had completed (and therefore what equipment they had), as well as how many E-tanks they possessed, allowing them to pick up where they left off after any length of time. It was a great idea and helped buck the notion that "real games" had to be played start to finish all at once.

Global Guts.By the Dr. Wily stages at the end of the game, you've encountered a lot of enjoyable content. Which is why it's pretty satisfying to see the triumphant return of Gutsman from the first game, now in tank form. He also launches those hard hat bots at you, which is a great if silly way to lay on the attack. The only really confusing thing is his size. If Dr. Wily just grafted his upper half onto some tank treads, as it would appear, then how is he so big? Wasn't he just barely taller than Mega Man in the first place? Either way, he's one of a few memorable bosses at the end of the game, the others being a dragon and Dr. Wily himself.

And that fight is interesting, because after enduring the long battle with Wily's new big riding contraption, he leaps out all kung fu style, in slow motion even, with wind blowing his hair and labcoat. And then he transforms into a flying alien and starts shooting you. What in the world. It's a great twist, and even cooler when you defeat him and realize what's actually going on (I won't ruin what, but suffice it to say appearances can be deceiving). But infuriatingly, you let him go. Again. Artificial intelligence my butt.

Mega Man 2's improvements to the formula weren't drastic and didn't alter the feel of the game, but there is no doubt that they were all important and successful. The public must have noticed, because the game caught on like wildfire and suddenly Capcom felt justified in keeping the series alive. Mega Man 2 is not a perfect game, and possibly not even an excellent game, but it had to be good in order to survive, and it definitely is, and definitely is better than the first. Check it out if you haven't already.

Bottom Line: 15/20

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting

By late 1992 there was some actual competition developing in the fighting game market. While Capcom sought to stay a step ahead by releasing a new version of their popular fighter, entirely new games with their own styles, characters, and fighting systems were appearing and gaining their own followings. So it was that eight months after the release of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, Capcom decided to revamp their now-flagship franchise once again.

Arcade owners had long been hacking into the hardware of Street Fighter II, reprogramming the game to run more quickly for faster action and more combo potential. "Combos" were becoming quite the rage, you see. And it was in this sort of illegal modification world that Capcom figured they could make a buck and sate their fanbase. Thus, the primary new feature of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting was a substantially increased game speed. To play one of the older versions and jump straight into this was like a sugar rush, and honestly a bit disorienting at first.

Floater.The second major change from the previous versions was the addition of new special moves for many of the characters. For instance, as pictured, Chun Li can now shoot a fireball. Dhalsim can now teleport, borrowing a popular convention from a rival game. Ryu and Ken can now hurricane kick while in mid-air. The new moves naturally alter the way most of these characters can be played, opening up entirely new strategies, and therefore requiring entirely new strategies to defeat them as well. Which might be exciting and interesting, but the moves haven't been balanced incredibly well. Most of the new moves are a bit overpowered here in their first incarnation, though they'd eventually become great additions to the franchise. Dhalsim's teleport comes to mind, which allows him to clip through most any attack during the animation - before he actually performs the teleport itself.

The third difference in Hyper Fighting from its predecessors is really the most head-scratching. With the exception of M. Bison, every character in the game has had his or her primary costume colors altered. While some, like Ryu, don't produce a huge difference, some create bizarre appearances. Others are just plain ugly. As an example, Zangief had always worn red trunks and been covered in red bear-wrestling scars. For Hyper Fighting, his trunks were changed to blue. Which is no biggie on its own, but the way the colors were programmed into the game, it made it so that every bit of red on his body was now blue. Blue scars, heck, even a blue tongue. It's just odd. Blanka isn't even green anymore. I can't imagine why they felt it was necessary to make these changes, but the good news is that the original costumes are available as alternates, by pressing the start button to select your character instead of a different input.

Blubber crush.Of course, when you toy with the game speed and give everyone new moves, gameplay balance is bound to change quite a bit. That's not necessarily bad in every case, but it really doesn't strike me as a positive in this game. I'd like to single out E. Honda as possibly the most broken character in Hyper Fighting for that reason. He was never a fast guy, so he was always fairly strong...probably third behind Balrog and Zangief in terms of sheer strength. He also had a couple decent special moves and okay mobility. But now they give him a giant butt splash that allows him to leap diagonally from one corner of the screen to another, hitting potentially twice. Of course, it's commanded with a charge (holding a direction a certain amount of time before releasing, to give the general idea), to prevent you from abusing it. But the computer doesn't need to charge anything - it just says "This move is in my programming, I want to do it now, done." So he'll chain this crap and it's stupidly powerful. Not to mention he is now able to actually walk while doing his rapid hand slap attack. A sample (and honestly not unusual in the least) match against E. Honda might go like this:

1) Announcer says "Fight."
2) Honda attacks you and you block.
3) You press any button other than block to move or counter.
4) Honda instantly butt splashes you for a third of your life.
5) He does it again for another third, which also stuns you.
6) Now you're in a corner, so he hand-slaps you while walking forward, effectively trapping you and forcing you to take every hit.
7) You're dead after 12 ticks of the clock.

Even his throws are absurd, one of them doing at least half your life bar in damage when it fully connects. There are other instances of broken moves or unbalanced characters, but this is by far the most glaring.

Overall, Hyper Fighting was a bit of a step back for the Street Fighter II franchise. The speed, which was supposed to be its greatest feature, is actually its greatest shortcoming. The action on screen (and the match timer by association) is all much quicker, but the system can't recognize your inputs any faster to match. So you're always a step or two behind the game in trying to do anything, which can get frustrating in a hurry. You'll be driven crazy at the constant shouting of "Tiger!" from Sagat when his new AI tells him to stand on the other side of the screen doing nothing but barraging you with projectiles, faster than a human could possibly input them. And the new special moves aren't bad, but really aren't appealing enough to cause this game to be preferable to either of its previous incarnations. As a result, Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting is the worst version of the game. If you have a choice to play one of the other ones instead, do it.

Bottom Line: 11/20