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

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Street Fighter II: Champion Edition

A year after Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was released, other companies had begun developing their own fighting games to compete with Capcom. While no substantial competitor had yet been released, Capcom decided to get a step ahead and release an updated version of Street Fighter II, called Champion Editon. While not a new game in its own right, Champion Edition brought a few important changes to the game that are worth noting.

Playable bosses.The first thing you'll notice is that the four boss characters from Street Fighter II: The World Warrior are now selectable. Players can now be Balrog, Vega, Sagat, or even M. Bison, complete with the special moves of all. All four of these characters therefore also received their own endings, though they are less personalized or interesting than the original eight characters.

Because these bosses are playable, some of their abilities have been tweaked. Now Vega can perform his swan dive in the absence of a fence, which is handy considering that is only present on one stage. Balrog's punches have been toned down in damage as well, and there are several other similar changes. In fact, the overall character balance has been retooled a bit in the arcade matches as well. Originally, Balrog and Vega were very tough, while Sagat and M. Bison weren't that bad. Now M. Bison is significantly tougher, even bordering on cheap the way he clips through most attacks, but the other three bosses are all easier than the first time around to even things out.

Spinning clone kick.The second major change Champion Edition brings is that characters are now able to fight themselves using alternate color schemes. This also adds an extra match to the single-player game, but is great for multiplayer; for the first time, two people who love to be Ken, for instance, can both have their way. It's a feature that virtually every fighting game thereafter would adopt. Of course, if viewed from a story perspective it doesn't exactly make any sense whatsoever. But that's not the point, and who could complain in this case?

All told, the two major additions outlined above are great improvements to an already solid game. Yet some of the character rebalancing isn't as nice as you'd like it to be, and the game actually feels a little stiffer and slower than its first incarnation. The framerate will occasionally slow down for a brief moment, only to overspeed the next to compensate. It's not a huge issue and doesn't ruin the gameplay really, but in the end it averages the score out so that Champion Edition isn't any better or worse than The World Warrior. This one has better selection options, and the original has a better gameplay feel, so pick your poison really.

Bottom Line: 15/20

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Final Fantasy

Back when games were created to be played and finished in a single setting, this title dared to be different. Square designed one of the largest and longest games anyone had ever seen, put in a save feature, stole as much Dungeons and Dragons material and gameplay as they could without infringing any copyrights, and looked on as players would spend hours upon hours trying to complete their creation. Final Fantasy was born.

The game opens with some lovely midi arpeggios while a loose backstory is given through a wall of text. You are then taken to the party creation screen. Here you select four characters out of six possible classes (though it is possible to have multiples of the same character should you desire it), and name them. These are now the Warriors of Light, prophesied to save the world. The classes are: Fighter (high attack and defense), Black Belt (high health and accuracy), Thief (high ability to run from combat like a coward), White Mage (healing and defensive magics), Black Mage (damaging and other offensive magics), and Red Mage (limited proficiency with both schools of magic and reasonable combat ability).

A-Team.With your selection, the game begins, but don't let this title screen fool you. You don't see this until a ways in. Instead, after choosing your party, you're sent right into the world. You know that the basic background story has something to do with some orbs that you're carrying, but that's sort of all you've got to go on. So you find the nearest king and ask him what in the world you should be doing. He tells you that some rogue knight named Garland has kidnapped the princess (ugh...) and is holding her in a ruined temple. So off you go on your little errand.

It's only after defeating Garland and saving the princess that the title screen even shows up. And looking at it, I can understand why. If the A-Team had a hand in the making of this game, of course they want to jump straight into the action. It suddenly makes a lot more sense. Sadly, the same can't be said for the plot itself.

While it might have seemed like saving the princess was important from the way everyone was yelling at you to do it, your actual reward is a locked castle treasury (the key to which is who-knows-where) and a bridge to go to another town and see if they have any errands for you. Aren't you supposed to be the mighty Light Warriors? Isn't your goal supposed to be saving the entire world in some way, or at the very least felling all manner of foul and ill-tempered beasts so that your name might be passed down in legend?

Seance.Instead you get to jump from town to town doing things like scaring off pirates. Please. And really, even if you're not saving the world right now, what you really want is to just get into that treasury in the first castle. That's your real motive as you're playing the game at this point - you want that damn treasure, so you have to find the key. And that's when the horrible truth reaches you. The desire for this key will send you on a chain of monotonous and otherwise pointless errands. You find out that the key is held by the elven prince, so you go to talk to him. But he's been cursed and the only cure is an herb, held by a witch on the other side of the continent. So you find her, but she won't cough up the herb because she's lost her crystal and gone blind. Some guy named Astos evidently stole it, so now you're hunting him. So you find an area you haven't been to and ask some guy about Astos, and he won't help you until you find him a crown. The crown just happens to be in a cave swarming with enemies, but in you go anyway, because what else can you do? So you get it for him and he tells you he actually was Astos all along and then tries to kill you. Are you bored yet reading about this? If so, that's a good thing - it means you're still sane. And imagine having to play it! Let's sum up your order of tasks here:
  • Get a boat so you can...
  • Find a guy to tell you about a cave so you can...
  • Clear the entire cave of monsters to get a crown so you can...
  • Find Astos to give him the crown so you can...
  • Defeat Astos to get a crystal so you can...
  • Give the crystal to the witch to get the herb so you can...
  • Give the herb to the cursed prince so you can...
  • Get a key to finally get some freaking treasure.

80s goggles.That's a whole lot of work just to open a few treasure chests, but there is literally no other motivation provided for doing any of it. And the entire time you're wondering why you aren't doing something more important, or even related to the overall plot. So off you go, destroying groups of undead Thomas Dolbys, hoping that eventually you'll have a real purpose in this game. But it won't come soon, considering the treasury just gives you another item that causes you to go off on more errands. Isn't this game supposed to be about story? Isn't that supposed to be its strength? Shouldn't I have some reason for engaging in battle after battle?

The good news is that the battling itself isn't terrible. Battles consist of rounds, with each round providing an opportunity for every participant in the fight to take a turn. You are given a menu with the options to attack an enemy, cast a spell, drink a potion, use a magical item, or attempt to run away. The order of turns is apparently random each round, although it seems like some characters tend to take longer than others to act. With each attack you are shown who or what is attacking which target, how they are attacking it (if in an unusual way), and then the result of that attack (either the damage dealt, or that the attack missed, or possibly some other effect). After everyone has taken a turn, the next round begins until there is either a winner or you flee the battle. Upon a battle victory, you are rewarded experience points and gold. The former of these grants you better stats as you reach certain numbers of points (to "level up"), and the latter obviously lets you buy things.

Artie Action Land Canoe.And you'll need a lot of gold because things get expensive in a jiffy. Some characters are cheaper to maintain than others (for example, the Black Belt never uses any equipment), but by and large you will be pressed for cash quite often. Which results in a need to "grind" out extra gold by deliberately engaging in battles. This aspect of the game is honestly a bit of a nuisance, and would be incredibly detrimental if the battling weren't enjoyable in itself. Even still, it does get tedious, particularly because the battle system isn't perfect. For instance, if you told a character to attack an enemy, and that enemy dies before your attack occurs (say, from an attack from one of your other three characters), your attacker will not follow common sense and target another enemy. He will instead unleash a fury of blows upon the empty space, and you will be told it was "Ineffective." That's just silly. Battles can also last longer than it seems like they should, because magic spells work incredibly slowly. Casting a spell is often necessary, or at least highly beneficial, but they take so much real-life time that you might just skip it most of the time.

But the magic is a pretty neat addition regardless. You buy the spells from shops (and these are the most expensive things in the game), and thus "teach" them to your mages. Spells are divided into schools of white and black magic, and then again into spell levels, of which there are eight. Level 8 spells are very powerful, while Level 1 spells are pretty worthless. There are four spells per level per school, though any given character can only learn three spells per level, requiring some planning and choice in the matter. While the Red Mage class can get by attacking with swords and the like, the White and Black Mages are far too weak to do anything but cast magic. By the end of the game this is great because their arsenals of spells will be exceedingly helpful, but it's a pain in the ass when you start. Especially because you are limited to a certain number of spell casts per level before you need to rest, so early on when that number is low, you will be out of magic quite often. And since their attacks are worthless, you end up just carrying dead weight on your team. No good.

Size discrepancy.Now I'm aware the tone of this review has seemed more negative than positive so far, and that's probably because the areas in which this game falls short are the ones that drag it out longer and create an impression of mindless repetition in the game. But if you are patient enough to get through the meaningless adventuring that comprises the first half of the game, you're nicely rewarded with a very fun experience. Suddenly you start to find out more and more about the mysterious orbs you're lugging around. Suddenly you start encountering the powerful evil beings that are threatening the world as you know it. Suddenly you realize that your mages have enough spells to not be annoyances, and that battles take less time to complete with a higher reward for their completion. Suddenly you start finding yourself in various vehicles, including, eventually, an airship that lets you travel the entire world very quickly. And that's a godsend. Suddenly you start seeing and appreciating the subtle humor in the game's text and dialogues, such as a mermaid in the underwater shrine asking you how you can breathe underwater (for which no explanation actually is given), and another making a pretty hilarious reference to Splash.

There are even some fun side-quests that really help you out, such as finding Bahamut, King of Dragons. He sends you to a dungeon of sorts - appropriately called the Castle of Ordeals - to prove your courage, and then rewards you by giving each of your characters new and improved classes. The Fighter becomes a Knight, the mages all become wizards of their respective colors, the Black Belt becomes a Master, and the Thief (who as you might recall was good solely at fleeing battle) now becomes a Ninja, and that's awesome. It's like an added bonus for putting up with an otherwise worthless class for so long. With these new classes come new abilities, such as the casting of higher level spells, or drastically improved stats, or the ability to use more equipment. And with your newfound power you recharge each of the orbs, one by one, to reach your final destination.

Fission fists.Now I won't spoil the plot here, because it's actually pretty neat. I think that was their plan, really. They made the story so worthless for so long that when it finally shifts back into reasonable and interesting territory, you're eating it up like it's the best thing you've ever heard. And hey, can't fault them for what works. I will say though that the "ultimate evil force" that you have to defeat at the end (regardless of how or why it got to that point) is Chaos. That's right, your goal is to fight an abstraction and lay it to waste. And by abstraction I mean big yellow demon. Because I'm sure that's what chaos would really look like, if it materialized.

And how sweet is it that you get a spell called Nuke? Oh sure, there's fire and ice and lightning, and sure you can heal people and blind enemies and all that...but we're talking about a guy splitting an atom and doing it like he's firing a Street Fighter-style hadouken. And directing it all into your face. Is it worth all the hours of play to get to the point at which you can begin detonating nuclear bombs on people's heads? Unequivocally, yes. Yes it is.

Final Fantasy was definitely groundbreaking in a number of ways. While it has some noticeable flaws (even some spells that outright weren't programmed correctly), and its first half is grueling and pointless, its second half is really engaging and entertaining. The plot goes from possibly interesting when you turn on the game, to cliché, to non-existent, to minimal, and then back all the way to well-thought out and surprisingly decent. It's a game with ups and downs, but it's always better to start with the down and improve than the reverse, and Final Fantasy does this. It's certainly worth a look, although you may have to be patient at first. Give it time - it grows on you.

Bottom Line: 14/20

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior

Four years after the release of Street Fighter, its sequel was finally about to arrive. And in general nobody cared. The first game probably had its following, but was terrible any way you slice it. I'd even go so far as to say the game not only didn't deserve a sequel, but also that the creation of a followup game would be on the fast track to being one of the worst games of the year.

Sometimes, it feels pretty good to be wrong, and Street Fighter II: The World Warrior is one of those times. With this game Capcom took everything that was awful about the original and either removed or fixed it. Then they took everything that was good about the first game (which wasn't much, but it had its decent ideas, execution aside) and made it better. That Street Fighter II was a good game was surprising, but after playing it, there was no surprise at the way it spawned an entire fighting game industry.

Multiple choices.The first improvement is obvious from the beginning. While Street Fighter only let you play as Ryu (or Ken if you were in two-player battles), Street Fighter II expands the character selection to eight. And while Ryu and Ken are still essentially the same fighter with different appearances, each of the remaining six choices are completely unique from one another.

Ken and Ryu continue to rely on their special moves from the first game, but then you have Guile, who is less a martial artist and more of a street fighter in style. Which is already a step up, since now there is finally someone whose technique actually fits the game's title. There is Zangief, a Soviet wrestler covered in scars from all the bear wrestling he does in his spare time. Now that's a man (who just happens to be adapted directly from Mike Haggar of Final Fight fame). We have E. Honda, a sumo who can launch himself like a human projectile. We have Dhalsim, a Hindu ascetic whose yoga mastery allows him to stretch his limbs across half the screen. And we have Chun Li, significant more for being female than for anything else, though she can kick like lightning.

Army chill time.Finally, there's Blanka, who gets Street Fighter II's "Why Do You Exist?" award. He's supposedly human, despite the greenish appearance, and he's supposedly fighting with the Brazilian martial art capoeira, but most of the time he'll be somersaulting, biting his opponent like a vampire, or generating electricity by constipating himself. Not that I'm upset he's in the game; he's a great character and fun to play. It just doesn't make much sense when compared to everyone else. In that sense we might call Blanka the father of all the bizarre characters in fighting games...those guys who always seem just a tad out of place.

The gameplay mechanics are unchanged from Street Fighter, but are actually in working order this time around. Blocking is still accomplished by moving away from your opponent. There are still six attack buttons, but now they really make up six different kinds of attacks. There are still special moves, but now they control far more tightly so it's not a debacle trying to execute one. And the entire game is now responsive. The first game was so laggy it was nearly unplayable, but the game and control speed have now been evened out to make the whole thing run very smoothly.

Asceticism.Bonus stages make a return in Street Fighter II, occurring after every three victories through the single-player game. Now instead of kicking through boards, however, you have to beat a car to death with your bare hands, or destroy barrels that are falling on your head. These stages make less sense than their predecessors, but perhaps that's part of why they're so much more fun. And it's nice to have a diversion on occasion from the senseless violence the rest of the game espouses.

Not that the violence is bad - it's thoroughly enjoyable. But the story for the game is still pretty sparse. The overarching "plot" is virtually identical to the first game: it's a fighting tournament taking place all over the world to determine who the world's strongest/best fighter is. But that's not really compelling. We know that you won the first tournament in Street Fighter as Ryu, and he is therefore the defending champion, but it's meaningless within the game. To that end Capcom created loose backstories and motivations for each character. Guile and Chun Li are hunting down the game's final boss for criminal activity, for instance (Guile with the US military and Chun Li with Interpol). E. Honda wants to prove that sumo isn't just fat dudes in thongs belly bumping. None of these is fleshed out, but I give Capcom credit for recognizing they should explain the presence of all these diverse characters.

Background fighting.After defeating every selectable character in the single-player game, you must fight through four consecutive boss battles. The common thread is that all bosses are members of the criminal organization Shadaloo, which is also sponsoring the tournament. When the game was released in Japan, the first of these four bosses was an African American boxer named Mike Bison who was designed to be, of course, Mike Tyson. He even had the gap in his teeth, and wore some bling in his closeup photo. Because in America that would result in a suit for copyright infringement (you can copyright a human being?), they changed his name to Balrog.

Balrog is the game's only fighter who can't kick, but he doesn't need to. He punches absurdly hard, and is pretty quick to boot. Defeating him sends you to Vega (who had been the original Balrog in Japan...this is confusing I know), a Spanish narcissist who is the only character to use a weapon. That, and he can go into the background where he is invincible (as pictured above) to swan dive on your face. Afterward, you fight Sagat, who was the boss of Street Fighter. He's now got a massive scar on his chest from Ryu's dragon punch special move at the end of the first game, and he's pretty pissed about it. Which I guess led him to join a crime ring.

Psycho Crushaa.Finally, when everyone else is defeated, you fight the end boss. In Japan this was the original Vega, but because Vega was now the claw dude, America was left with Mike Bison as the remaining unused name. But does a military dictator in full uniform really strike you as a "Mike Bison?" No? What about an "M. Bison?" Yeah, sounds better now doesn't it? What's the M stand for now? Murder?

While the single-player game is superior in every way to Street Fighter's, it's the multiplayer mode where the game really shines brightest. You're bound to find a character out of the eight who is your favorite, and with six attack buttons that themselves can do 3-4 different attacks each depending on situation, there are a lot of nuances to learn. It's one of those "easy to learn, hard to master" types of games that generates a lot of really fun and rewarding competition. And the balance between fighters is significantly better than you might think. At first you'll choose Dhalsim because he can punch you from across the screen, and you'll think you're unstoppable. But then you'll realize that he's one of the slowest people in the game and is easily counter-attacked. So you'll move on to another fighter, but will find weaknesses there too. No single character is vastly superior to any other, and that's quite a feat considering it's the first time Capcom branched out beyond one playable guy.

Every character also has an individual ending for finishing the game. They range from lame (Dhalsim showing a kid a picture of him winning), to cool (Ryu skipping the awards ceremony to find more people to beat up), to downright strange (Blanka shouting "Mommy!" and blubbering like a baby). It further enriches the depth of the experience, which is one with few flaws. The only real complaints are that a few of the special moves still don't command reliably (Guile's "flash kick" comes to mind), the bosses feel like they should be playable, and the fighting can feel a bit stiff. Not laggy or terrible, but just stiff.

All that said, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior is a good game. Comparing it to the original isn't even fair. The main reason nobody remembers Street Fighter is that it was garbage. But the secondary reason is that with this game, Capcom eliminated any reason for anyone to ever play the first title again. So with that said, I think it's now time for us to celebrate in the appropriate Russian fashion.

Soviet Hoedown.

Bottom Line: 15/20

Friday, August 7, 2009

Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong was an arcade legend. He had given Mario his first appearance in a game, as both hero and villain. He made red girders into a cultural icon. He introduced us to his son, Donkey Kong, Jr. He even helped teach us math, which in hindsight was a little on the weird side. And then he vanished until 1994, when Nintendo hired a company called Rare to bring him back.

Worst jungle ever.Rare decided to make a platforming game that was simultaneously true to old formulas while breaking new ground. They utilized fancy rendering technology to make the game look great, which is probably the main reason people remember this game as being awesome (it wasn't). They gave us a huge, detailed map screen, an extended credits sequence, and a truly outstanding musical score. But you'll notice that I didn't include gameplay in that list of notable positives in this game.

First off, gameplay generally consists of running around a sidescrolling level, jumping on the heads of any enemy you come across. Sound familiar? You can also do a frontal attack on some enemies, but many will kill you for trying, so you might as well just jump. You'll find bananas floating around as you go. Collect a hundred for an extra life. Ringing any bells yet? There are occasionally hidden bonus areas full of bananas for you to collect. Still nothing?

Rhino in a factory.Of course, then you start riding around on a rhinoceros. Occasionally in the game you will find a crate with the picture of an animal on the side. These can be the rhino, a swordfish, a frog, or even an ostrich. They all have special abilities that are supposed to aid you. I say supposed to, because often you'll end up screwed due to the difference in how they play. For example, when riding the ostrich, you can't jump on enemies anymore. But that's all you do in the game so how was I supposed to know? So I jump on an enemy and my ostrich gets hurt and runs away. And now I'm flashing temporarily invincible because the game doesn't want me to get hit multiple times in a row. Which is normally respectable, but I can't interact with anything on screen (enemies, objects, etc) during this time period. In fact, I even clip through enemies. So now when I try again to jump on that same enemy because I'm no longer a worthless ostrich, I go through it. And then the invincibility wears off and the game says "Hey, you're standing in the enemy. Unacceptable." And you die. I wish I could say this kind of glitchiness is infrequent, but it's not.

Now you might be wondering why there are always two apes around. The answer is that you play through this game controlling both Donkey Kong, the big one with...the necktie...and Diddy Kong, who is supposed to be his nephew or some sort of freaky relation. You start with one Kong but can break barrels with "DK" on the side throughout the game to have the second one accompany you, which gets you an extra hit before you die. You can also switch between them by hitting the select button, but only if you're standing perfectly still on solid terrain that is is a gorilla related that closely to a chimpanzee anyway? Sorry, it's just still bothering me.

Poor Diddy.The functional difference between the two is fairly clear. Donkey is heavier than Diddy and can therefore kill more enemies by jumping on them than Diddy can. Diddy will usually just bounce off these enemies (more often than not straight into a bottomless pit). Donkey attacks with a somersault, and Diddy with a cartwheel, though this is meaningless since you never use these attacks anyway. That said, Diddy is faster than Donkey, jumps higher, and his smaller frame helps him avoid hits that much easier. As a result, throughout the game you will virtually always want to be Diddy, unless you are forced to be Donkey for certain enemies or situations. How sad is it that he's not even the best character in his own game? And when you have both, the one you aren't controlling follows you around, ignoring physics entirely. He'll float in midair, phase through objects, you know, whatever suits his fancy at the time. It's like they weren't even trying.

Level design is a huge gripe here. Rare sought to relieve the tedium of run-around-and-jump-on-stuff by creating a variety of different level types to play through. Only one of these kinds of levels, the mine cart, is any fun. You get to ride around in a mine car jumping from track to track while avoiding enemies, and it's actually a pretty good time. All the other non-basic levels suck.

Death by barrel.For example, barrel blasting. There are a significant number of stages in this game devoted to shooting yourself out of barrels and into other barrels. It sounds like it might possibly be entertaining, but don't be lured in. The occasional barrel launch is fine, but the stages devoted entirely to the cause belong in a vault, never to be played again. You shoot yourself out of automatically-rotating barrels, having to press the button at the right time to go where you want. But the timing is screwed up and it will frequently rotate the barrel an extra notch (even a notch backward) when you tell it to fire. Which of course kills you. If you manage to get it right, you'll end up in another barrel to do the same thing. Or maybe in one that fires you automatically into oblivion. That's right, there are times you can jump into a barrel and it will automatically kill you. No thanks.

There are multiple levels dedicated to not having lights. Let me emphasize: there are multiple levels that revolve entirely around you not being able to see anything you're doing. Sign me up, right? And by "sign me up" I mean suck my life away with rabid leeches. It's not fun in the least, especially when a couple of these dark stages are additionally designed around moving platforms that either fall away when you stand on them, or require tanks of gas to move, and should they run empty, you die. I can't imagine how anyone looked at and played these stages during the development process and said "Yeah, these are real winners."

Breathless.But then again, these are the same people who decided to champion the water stages and make them even more intolerable than their predecessors. Mario can shoot fire underwater. Sonic can still just spin into stuff and kill it. The Kongs? They can die. And die repeatedly. You can't touch anything down there - it all kills you. Thank goodness you don't ever have to breathe despite being a land mammal not known for swimming...I'm so willing to take any handicap I won't even question it. If you're lucky you'll find the swordfish to ride around on, so at least you can kill some of the enemies, but only from head-on, and the worst enemies remain invincible. It's an underwater gauntlet that you just want to be over.

In fact, "I just want it to be over" will sum up your opinion of the entire game once you get about ten or fifteen levels in. Which makes it a terribly cruel joke that there is a fake ending screen on the last boss, who then gets back up and kills you. In seeking to avoid monotony of platforming, Rare instead just burdened you with horrible level after horrible level. A stage comprised of jumping on small platforms covered in ice when the control is a bit wonky anyway? Sure! Sounds like an absolute blast.

Totally rad.And let's not forget the wonderful cast of characters. The original Donkey Kong has actually aged quite a bit, and is now sitting semi-crippled in a rocking chair, going by the name of Cranky Kong. Way to reinforce stereotypes, game. That means you are actually Donkey Kong, Jr. all grown up. Save points (which are your holy grail as you play) are run by your girlfriend, Candy Kong. And there are airports to get you from area to area, run by this dude, who is, like, more than happy to announce his name to anyone passing by. Who came up with this stuff? There's even an orangutan in some levels (including the ones with no lights!!) that incessantly hurls barrels at you, and the credits list him as Manky Kong. What? Are they related, or is every simian a Kong by default?

At least the plot is deep. You see, King K. Rool, the big crocodile man thing who acts as the game's boss, stole Donkey Kong's bananas from his banana hoard. So you have to go get them back. Man, I was upset about this game, but now that I know it's for the sake of dude's banana stash I am ready to do anything it takes to get it back.

You might be wondering why this game doesn't have a lower score with how I've been dismantling it. It's because the basic platforming stages aren't actually that bad, and there are a good number of them. But because they offer nothing new or notable, they aren't worth detailing. The music is also truly great. Maybe they should have released Donkey Kong Country just as a soundtrack. That'd be sweet.

Always remember: Just because a game is "classic" does not mean it is any good.

Bottom Line: 9/20

Monday, August 3, 2009

Final Fight

Metro City has been overrun by gangs for quite some time. The elections for mayor have just been held, and the winner was Mike Haggar, a large man with a moustache that is not to be trifled with. He announced that he would not tolerate the existence of the gangs as his predecessors had, and would seek to eliminate them from the city. Mad Gear, the dominant gang of Metro City, responded to this promise by kidnapping the mayor's daughter and demanding a guarantee that he would let them do as they pleased as payment for her safe return.


Mayor Haggar took off his shirt and headed down to the gym. There, talking and training, were two allies: Cody, the boyfriend of his daughter, and Cody's good friend Guy, who was a little too good at martial arts to be anything but a video game character. The three of them then set out on their quest...the quest to kick a whole lot of ass. This is Final Fight.

Andore the Giant.The enemies in Final Fight consist of members of the Mad Gear gang, with the common thugs being the game's bread-and-butter enemies and the higher ranking members acting as area bosses. The enemies all look distinctive, be they wearing a belt covered in knives or a neo-punk getup. But why is Andre the Giant in this game? They call him "Andore" so don't act like it's coincidence. Not that I'm complaining - Andre the Giant is welcome in any video game at any time for any reason. But it's certainly a bit random, particularly in that ruby red leopard print he's got going on there.

The three characters in Final Fight all play fairly distinctly. Mayor Haggar moves slower than Nancy Kerrigan after her "accident," but he doles out massive pain with his fists, and can also slam bodies around in a number of ways. Guy is the reverse of this; he moves quicker than Rain Man can count cards, but hits like a pansy and dies from only a few attacks. Cody is the healthy medium between the two extremes, which on a thought might make him seem like the best character. It's really all dependent on your style though - if you want to just truck everything you see, pick Haggar. If you really don't want to get hit at all, be Guy. If you want to wear normal clothes, pick Cody.

Sodomized.As Haggar's daughter is being held on the other side of town, the game's direction consists in moving eastward across Metro City through various districts and locales. Usually there's some sense to this, with each stage being subdivided into several smaller areas that all reasonably connect to one another and provide a believable change of scenery. And then, sometimes, you simply appear in a wrestling ring with no explanation, fighting an armored, two-sword wielding dude whose name really gives you some motivation to not let him knock you unconscious.

Completing a boss fight essentially equates to ridding that section of town of Mad Gear's presence, as their leader in that area would be gone. Presumably this would mean that any of the gang's members you didn't slaughter throughout the course of the stage would either quit or run off to the next section of the game under the leadership of its boss, ready to be punched repeatedly by your fists. But this sort of speculation is probably putting a bit too much weight into the story of the game, which exists only to give some sort of loose excuse to engage in copious amounts of fisticuffs. Amen.

Spinning clothesline.While every character can attack and jump, and even attack whilst jumping, they all have a special attack as well. The special attack costs health to use, with the amount of health lost dependent on the number of enemies hit with it. As such, it's primarily a tool for getting out of a tight spot, and not to be used liberally. Guy's special move is something a little too similar to Ryu's hurricane kick from Street Fighter, but it does a nice job of clearing space. Cody sort of does this flailing jump kick thing. And Haggar just sticks his arms out, screams, and spins around. Which is obviously the best of the three. High damage AND reach? I'll take me some of that.

The game's also got a lot of weapons. Most of these are found in containers throughout the stages. To be specific, you will most commonly encounter weapons inside oil drums, which is probably the least likely place they could have programmed for them.

-Exec: "We need something to hold the weapons."
-Dude: "Hrm. How about.....uh....oil........drums?"
-Exec: "Give that man a raise!"

Yet oil drums cover the landscape of Metro City, and if they're going to take up the space anyway, why not fill them with implements of violence? There are knives, swords, pipes...more knives. You know, come to think of it, Final Fight might contain more knives than I've ever seen in any other video game. Not only are they strewn about the ground everywhere, but enemies come in chucking them at you, and you can often pick them back off the ground to return the favor. Which is odd because as far as I can tell, only Cody can actually stab someone with a knife. The other two just throw it. Why are there this many knives when stabbing is out of the question?

Relentless Rolento.But you know who doesn't have a problem using weapons? This guy. By this point the question starts to enter your mind about just what sort of gang Mad Gear is. Their bosses have included a samurai, a couple giants, and now...a military dictator? What? And how is he not the last boss? You'd think being the dictator and all, he'd be unlikely to be anyone's subordinate, but that's clearly not the case. And maybe that's what's angering him enough to flip around lobbing infinite numbers of grenades at you. Don't be fooled by that nightstick he's got there. I've only seen him actually attempt to attack with it once. No, Rolento is set on making you explode. Dead set.

So who is the final boss then? Who's the guy who ultimately stole the mayor's daughter and who's the guy who ultimately runs all the Mad Gear gang activity in the city? I mean, if it's not Rolento, this guy must surely be totally awesome and powerful yeah?

Cody of Honor.Well, I hate to break it to you, but you're looking forward to a fight with a dude in a wheelchair. As if that's fair. You go through this whole game killing a veritable army of knife-throwers, barrel-rollers, and Andre the Giant clones, and when you're ready to put the pain on the dude in charge, he's a cripple? How dare you make me pity my last enemy! And he's a vicious little bugger too. He takes that moment of quiet hesitation and reflection on life's meaning to whip out a crossbow and start a-firing. You know why he has a crossbow? Because he can't shoot a normal bow in that wheelchair of his. See? How's that feel?

"You want to play my sympathies, I swear I will walk laps around your chair just to show off. And then I will hurl you out of a high rise window, because that's what happens to dirty old men like you, ya understand?"
~Mike Haggar, Mayor of Metro City

Antidote.Dude means business.

Bottom Line: 14/20