Friday, August 28, 2015

Tomb Raider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nahhh, let's shoot it.

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

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

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

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

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

Rex roar.

All right, I think we're done here.

Bottom Line: 12/20

Friday, April 3, 2015

Super Mario Bros. 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: 16/20