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


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'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