Saturday, October 24, 2009

Pokémon Blue and Red

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

Did you enjoy the game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: 14/20

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: 4/20