Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Strange Case of 32-bit Gaming

What's in a Bit?

Ever notice that when people talk about classic video gaming, they inevitably hearken back to the days of the NES, Super NES, or Sega Genesis? Isn't that strange, considering that there were far more games released in the PlayStation/Saturn/N64 days of gaming? Don't get me wrong: There are a lot of utterly crap games in the 8-bit/16-bit era that aren't worth your time or money to play. But I personally find it strange that we don't celebrate those 32-bit pioneers in the same way.

Or maybe I don't. I feel that there's probably a reason why we don't treat them with the same reverence that we put on the "good ol' days," and that reason is... C'mon, look at the friggin' ugly things!

Source.


So very ugly

Okay, so the 16-bit era gave us machines that were finally able to draw reasonably artistically impressive and large sprites onscreen, plus added a few sprite manipulating special effects (scaling, rotation, and other tricks not found in much of 8-bit software). It was a step up, and it looked decent. The 16-bit games built on what came before, but the next generation was the messy first step into a future filled with polygons. And when you don't have a lot of polygons to work with, things quickly get grotesque.

Now, hold your bile for a second and listen to me: Games like Panzer Dragoon, Ridge Racer, and Warhawk looked amazing for their time, but take off your nostalgia goggles and look at them now. Look at the jagged edges. Look at every single object on the screen tearing at the seams. Look at those horrible flat trees and flat semi-transparent polygons pretending to be railings up walkways. Look at Lara Croft's boobs. These things are the barest, most low-res representations of real life you can imagine. At the time, they were simply groundbreaking, but nowadays can you really stand looking at that over the smooth shaded meshes of modern games, even as early as the Dreamcast?

Let's not forget the frame rates at the time, either. Most games of this era were lucky to break 30 frames per second on the original PlayStation (I know that there are exceptions so please don't bother pointing them out; we're concentrating on the majority of these games released at this time), and while a lot of titles seemed smoother on the Saturn, frame rate issues were still a problem. Combine this with the problem of drawing distance, and you have a whole generation of stuttering games that are pointy, grainy, foggy, and just unpleasant to look at.

Out of control

But looks aren't everything, right? Please remember that in the beginning of this generation there was no such thing as analog controllers (at least in the way we know them now). Sure, there were weird steering wheel devices like Namco's NGCon, and Sony's own original dual-analog flight stick controllers, but having a comfortable accurate device with those familiar twin thumbsticks was almost three years away from when the PlayStation debuted (and a year after the release of the N64). Before that, all our first-person shooters, driving games, and 3D adventure games were controlled with what were essentially just fancy Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis controllers, which were designed for 2D games and little else.

Because the Dual Analog (and later Dual Shock) controllers weren't standard when they were released, very few developers bothered to put that much stock into developing games that made the most of them. I recall that very few PlayStation games made any use of the right thumbstick, and both Nintendo and Sega seemed to be confused as to what that second stick could be used for, so they left it out completely. And though there were games that pioneered dual-stick controls in first and third -person shooters (MDK2 and ONI for the PS2 come to mind), dual-stick controls weren't really the standard or popularized until Halo was released for the original Xbox an entire generation later.

In conclusion

I could also throw in a few words about loading times, but that was a problem as late as the Xbox 360 so it's kind of unfair to harp on it with the 32-bit generations (but man, they were terrible).

So, what we're left with is an entire generation of games that are by present day standards hideous to look at and are (for the most part) no fun to control. Outside of a few remakes these games have seen very little in terms of re-release or online presence (although a super-limited selection of titles is available on the PlayStation Network), and with certain exceptions they have become all but forgotten. And when developers make those retro games on Steam, Xbox Live, or the PlayStation Network to cash in on your nostalgia, they're more likely cutesy 8 or 16-bit sprites than lumpy, poorly rendered polygons (and sorry, Unity games on Steam Greenlight don't count).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Again with the Capcom!

Strong language follows.

Believe it or not, I am a longtime fan of Mega Man games.

...

All right, you caught me.  I am a longtime fan of Mega Man 2, which is one of my all-time favorite NES games and the last bit of reason that Capcom had before it went full-tilt insane on everything Mega Man.  I recently began to purchase some classic NES games (again), this time on the Wii's "Virtual Console," and I purchased a litany of favorites from a time when Nintendo was a pioneer in the development of games, not so much the way we play them.

I did not purchase Mega Man 2, however.  I was going to, but I wanted to make sure that I had all of the reasonable Mario games (not Mario Bros. or The Lost Levels -- just the ones that I enjoyed) and both NES Zelda games before getting that one.  As luck would have it, when I went to my local GameStop they were having a special on the very-backwards-compatible-with-the-Wii GameCube games, and sitting on the shelf just a few dollars more than the Virtual Console version of Mega Man 2 was Mega Man Anniversary Collection.  This disc has all six NES Mega Man games, the Super Nintendo one, and the pretty but nearly impossible to play and/or beat Playstation/Saturn one as well (no, not Mega Man Legends, Mega Man 8); you know, the one where the Mega Man character speaks and sounds like a seven-year-old Japanese girl.  You also get two unlockable craptastic arcade games that you'll only play as a curiosity.

I  was so excited:  I mean, I had a lot of these games, and now to get them all in one package, with the one good one for just a few(hundred) pennies more than what the download would cost -- That was enough to sell me on the idea.  No way Capcom could screw this one up.

No way.

Nope.

Not gonna happen.

...

The following conversation is completely made up, but words to these effect must have been spoken at some point during this collection's creation:

Capcom Moron 1: "Well this just sucks!  Nintendo gets to charge almost full price for it's classic video games on the Game Boy Advance, and now we're expected to release ours at a bargain price with all of our classics on one disk?  This is an outrage!"

Capcom Moron 2: "I know what you mean, Gary,"

Capcom Moron 1: "My name is Steve..."

Capcom Moron 2: "That's not the point, Gary. The point is that a lot of these games have spot-on control, cool power-ups, and catchy soundtracks."

Capcom Moron 1: "You mean..."

Capcom Moron 2: "Yes -- normal people have beaten them!"

Capcom Moron 1: "But what about the Rock Monster at the end of the first game with it's completely unavoidable attacks?"

Capcom Moron 2: "Sometimes people can randomly get past it -- I know, it's a flaw in our code."

Capcom Moron 1: "What about the spot in the second game where the player has to die in order to defeat the end boss, and if they don't get that right then they don't have enough power in the only weapon that can kill it?"

Capcom Moron 2: "People seem to just look past it because the rest of the game is so darn good."

Capcom Moron 1: "Um... How about when we started having the weapons make no damn sense from the third game onward?"

Capcom Moron 2: "Yeah, that didn't start to kill the franchise until later..."

Capcom Moron 1: "What about when we introduced the Mega Buster, and then powered down all of the other weapons so that they were next to useless in any given situation?"

Capcom Moron 2: "We still had to make four more games after that, and that's not even counting the Mega Man X games."

Capcom Moron 1: "Well, we have to do something!  If this collection sells, people will be expecting us to keep making these games, and I have to get back to kicking newborn puppies!"

Capcom Moron 2: "We have to do something to wreck this game so completely, yet so subtly that people will buy it, then get it home and immediately regret it..."

Capcom Moron 1: "Well, we blew the entire budget on the interface, so we can't spend money messing up the graphics, or reprogramming the gameplay to make it even harder..."

Capcom Moron 2: "Wait a minute -- the INTERFACE, that's it!  We can make the game impossible, wreck the fun, and no one will be the wiser!"

Capcom Moron 1: "But how?"

Capcom Moron 2: "It's easy, Gary-"

Capcom Moron 1: "-Steve."

Capcom Moron 2: "Sorry Gary.  All we have to do is SWITCH THE "A" AND "B" BUTTONS AROUND, THEN GIVE THE PLAYER ABSOLUTELY NO MENU OPTION TO CUSTOMIZE THE CONTROLS!  The players that remember the old games will try to adapt, but fail, BECAUSE HAVING THE TIP OF YOUR THUMB ON THE "B" BUTTON TO FIRE THE GUN AND PRESSING THE FLAT OF YOUR THUMB ON THE "A" BUTTON TO JUMP IS SO ESSENTIAL TO EVERY SINGLE SIDE-SCROLLING PLATFORMER ON THE NES, GAME BOY, AND THE RESPECTIVE CONFIGURATION ON EVERY SINGLE VIDEO GAME SYSTEM EVER THAT IT HAS BECOME THE STANDARD no one will notice how we FUCKED UP THEIR GAME BEYOND ALL REASON until it is to late!"


Capcom Moron 1: "Brilliant!  Then I'm back to kicking puppies!"

Satan: "You have done well, my minions!"

...

FUCK YOU, CAPCOM!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Leveled.

For some reason or another, I decided to play the ancient and much maligned Xbox 360 game Too Human today. I griped about this game a while ago, but in my Diablo 3-deprived quest for a dungeon crawler with flashy effects it seemed to help fill the gap for a time. This is something like my 3rd play-through of the (very short) game, and aside from my constant double-takes of this games extremely poor design choices (and there are many, many questionable choices here), another thing dawned on me, something that needed addressed:

In games wherein your character gains experience to "Level Up," how is this beneficial to anybody?

Now, I know this is a staple of every RPG, action RPG, and any genre game with RPG elements, whether it be first person shooter, shoot-'em-up, or kart racer, but who does this trope really benefit?

Understand, that back in the day this was put into place so that gamers didn't just breeze through a game without putting some effort into having the best equipment and stats. When games started to become more mainstream game developers realized that some players were spending time leveling-up their characters early in the game, so that there was fewer opportunities for challenge later on in the game. This began what I feel is one of the cornerstones of the downfall of the video game industry: something which I will call "Artificial Challenge," or AC for short.

Even if you haven't played an RPG in awhile, you have experienced AC in many other types of games. Anyone who has ever played any of the Mario Kart series of games from Mario Kart 64 onward has experienced this: the game will stick players in last place with the best weapons, players in first place with the worst ones, and two computer opponents will ALWAYS be right behind you no matter how many boosts you use or how well you navigate the track. If you've never felt cheated in a Mario Kart game, then you haven't played one.

Anyway, the AC that I am referring to in RPGs is of a more subtle nature. My Balder is a level 48 warrior in Too Human, but that number is completely meaningless. Oh sure, I can use weapons and armor fit for a level 48 character, but that doesn't do me one bit of good because all of the enemies' levels increase every time my character's level increases. What it amounts to is that I am forced to upgrade weapons and armor at a huge inconvenience, not because what I had before was necessarily bad, but that it has suddenly become ineffective on enemies that are suddenly too powerful to hurt.

I am all for loot in games; there is little more that I like to do than customize my character's look with cool armor and weapons. It is simply that when I find a combination that I enjoy I don't want to have to change it simply because it stops working.

A different, but still relevant example of this process is the game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In a change from most RPGs, you can use any and all weapons and armor in the game from the get-go, the only penalty being a character's skill in the weapon set, and even that can be overcome by repeated use of the weapon and training. It's a beautiful system, but it is also outside of the scope of the leveling system which still exists in the game. Enemies in the game tend to stay at or around your level of experience, which provides the AC. If you level-up your character in order to add attributes such as strength or more magic points, the enemies will level-up with you, in addition to unlocking new enemy types, some of which seem extremely over-powered for the level they're at. As a result, during my first, honest play-through of the game I was stuck at level 8, unable to complete the main quest because the enemies suddenly became too numerous and too difficult for me to overcome. It was on my second play-through that I settled upon skills instead of leveling, and I am more than halfway through the main quest at level 2 because if I don't level-up, the enemies don't either. The AC thus having been circumvented, my enjoyment of the game has increased dramatically.

So, my plea to developers is this: If you want to add challenge to your RPGs, make enemies a set level for two reasons:

  1. It places an obstacle in my way that I have to strive to overcome, which gives me a feeling of achievement and not merely the feeling of challenge for the sake of challenge.
  2. If I spend the time leveling-up my character to the point where he/she/it is a virtual demigod, then let me enjoy it by smashing some inferior enemies - what's the point of being level 50 if I'm still being killed by the same enemies I was at level 3?

In closing, I would also like to say that I feel putting the leveling into skills and weapon focus is far more important than actually leveling up a character. Refusing to let me use a level 50 hammer when I've been using a hammer for the last 48 levels just seems stupid to me -- I mean, how vapid does my character have to be to not be able to figure out how to use a slightly different hammer?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Metal Slugfest

I purchased Metal Slug Anthology for my Nintendo Wii, which collects all of the Metal Slug games from 1 to 6 including X. It's not as if I had never played a Metal Slug game before, there were the arcades, the version that I had on my NeoGeo Pocket Color (a hand-held video game system that was made to compete with the GameBoy), and there were the downloadables on Xbox Live Arcade that I never bothered with. It seemed like a good deal for $15, and on any other video game system, it might have been.

The NeoGeo Home was an impressive system for it's time, with arcade-perfect home ports (because the home system was architecturally identical to its stand-up counterpart), with games so packed with chips that they could weigh upwards of 3 lbs!

You wouldn't think that a game this old could be undone by a modern video game system, but Nintendo has gone out of its way to make sure that it does! Well, to be fair, this collection's failings aren't all Nintendo's fault, but they're certainly not helped by it!

Okay, so my setup is pretty straightforward: I have my systems (including my Wii) connected to a 22 inch 1080p television, because I don't have much room and because the TV was cheap. The Wii offers no HDMI connectivity, so I am forced to use the best that it can: component video cables. With this little $3 eBay number in place, I can make use of the Wii's HD capabilities... That is to say, 480p instead of the standard 480i. Sigh. Well, this collection doesn't even use that! When the game starts it will go into 480i mode right away, and I can only guess that this is because the arcade games weren't released during the HD age, and whoever put this collection together couldn't be bothered to optimize them. That's fine, really, it doesn't affect my enjoyment of the game at all.

What does affect my enjoyment of this game? Control. Right away things are problematic, at best. Like most side-scrolling games on the Wii, you hold the Wii Remote sideways in order to mimic an old arcade controller. "But ARCWuLF," you'd say, "that seems completely reasonable and sensible in every way imaginable." Well, you'd be mostly right, except that a standard NeoGeo controller (the kind used in the arcade and NeoGeo home systems) has four action buttons. "But ARCWuLF," you'd say again, whining, "Even if you don't count the "+" the "-" and "home" buttons, the Wii Remote has four buttons to use." "Ah," I'd reply, "then you're already SMARTER THAN THE PEOPLE WHO MADE THIS GAME!"

If you've never played any of the Metal Slug games, they could be best described as tough-as-nails side-scrolling platform shooters. That is to say, you control a soldier from a profile view and advance to the right of the screen while shooting enemy combatants and dodging bullets. Now when I say that Metal Slug is "tough-as-nails" what I am referring to is the fact that it only takes one enemy bullet, knife, missile, background object, or a slight breeze to kill your character. What this means for the player is that tight, responsive controls and a good button layout is important, and this is what the game fails to provide.

You see, I have tried all of the button layouts, controllers, and combinations that this game supports, and here is what you have to remember:

  1. Analog control sticks are slow and imprecise when playing side-scrollers that have no need of speed control.
  2. It is really hard to use buttons and a digital pad while shaking a motion controller.
  3. In Metal Slug, you NEED to use your bombs.

In this compilation, even though you have perfectly serviceable "A" and "B" buttons on the controller, you cannot (while using the Wii Remote) assign them to use bombs. You MUST shake the controller in order to throw bombs. What does this mean? It means that you will throw bombs when you don't mean to (wasting them), throw too many bombs at a time (you have a limited supply), or get hit by incoming fire because while shaking the controller hard enough to throw bombs using the D-pad is difficult, if not impossible. Not only that, but navigating the menus with the Wii Remote is a chore because the programmed the menus to work with the Wii Remote held vertically, while the game uses it horizontally. Why they bothered at all is the bigger question, because the game makes no use of the Wii Sensor Bar, only the accelerometer.

So, profoundly frustrated by this, I turned my attention to the GameCube controllers that I have plugged into my Wii at all times (hey, the Nintendo Wavebird was the first good and is still a really good wireless controller, deal with it). This failed to solve the problem, however. You see, when using the GC controller, with it's perfectly-good-even-if-it's-a-bit-too-small-that's-what-she-said D-pad, the game forces you to use the analog stick, which is... let's just say "interesting." Not in any way good or accurate or fun, but "interesting."

Having recently acquired a "Classic Controller Pro" for my Wii, I decided to connect it and see. SURPRISE! You can't use it if there's a GC controller connected to your Wii. So, after unplugging my 4 Wavebird receivers from their awkward position on my Wii, which is inconveniently behind my television set, I find out that it doesn't support the D-pad on that either. These are not things that you can change in the settings, mind you, but we'll get to that.

So, looks like I'm stuck with the Wii Remote if I want any semblence of accuracy. Fine, because the game gives you infinite continues.

I have taken heat before for complaining about hard games, and it seems as though the Metal Slug Anthology people realized these games were too hard because they have broken it. Free Play is unlocked from the beginning, and by a play-through of any of these games you will soon see why. History lesson time, children! Gather 'round! 'Cept for you, Billy, get back in the corner and put your nose to the chalkboard!:

Once upon a time, there were places called "arcades" that existed in magical places called "malls." In these arcades there were "magic boxes" that could take you anywhere and let you do anything that you desired, all for the price of a magic token. Eventually, one magic box that let people beat up other people mano-a-mano became so popular, that it was the only magic box getting magic tokens. The people who made the magic boxes began making magic boxes of only this new popular type, and very soon began to find out that only a few people were still coming to the arcade to play these games. Desperate, the people who presided over the arcades began to increase the number of magic tokens that it took to play even the most unoriginal magic boxes, which caused even fewer people to visit the arcades. Then, one wise maker of magic boxes said, "No more! We will make a magic box like unto the magic boxes of yore, and it will cost only one magic token or two to play." The people rejoiced, never realizing that simply by the power of variety, the magic box maker had tricked them into playing a game that cost them ten times the amount of magic tokens as the others. Soon, all of the people were out of magic tokens, and the arcades closed their doors and were lost forever. THE END.

Wasn't that a great story kids? The lesson here is, of course, that this game is really, really hard. The player starts with 3 lives, and those will be gone in the first two minutes if they're lucky. There is so much going on on-screen that there are times that a player simply has no time to avoid enemy attacks. While playing, you save prisoners of war, which is how you're judged by the end of the stage, but if you die you lose all of them -- not just lose all of your lives either, JUST ONE. My play-through of the first game forced me to continue 37 times. Metal Slug X (actually the 3rd game in the series, but not to be confused with Metal Slug 3) was a little harder, coming in at 48 times.

Why is this important? With unlimited continues, the game is just a time-consuming cakewalk, with literally no challenge at all. It does let you turn on "limited continues" if you're a hardcore crazy-person, but with just 3 continues you will see practically NONE of the game.

The graphics are some of the best sprites ever made, and lots of 'em, but this is also a double-edged sword, as you never know what is a hazard and what is a harmless background object. There are spots in the game where it looks like you can stand on platforms, only to fall to your death because they are just part of the background, Even though most bullets are flashing white and red dots, there are missiles and other weapons that are the same gray-brown as many of the stages, leading to further confusion; It's when you're on your game, feeling good and invincible that something random will do you in.

The Wii's loading times hurt the game's flow slightly too, as once-seamless arcade transitions are now broken with loading screens (something alleviated slightly on better video game systems), but remains a stark reminder that you are playing a less-than-perfect port.

I don't hate this game, per se, but it does leave me wanting more, and it's not quite the bargain I thought it would be. Ah, well. Maybe the new Contra Hard Corps game will calm my nerves.


...

...

...

DAMMIT!

Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike - Strike Out!!!

I was going to title this post "Fuck you, Capcom," but decided that it might be too off-putting to the people who actually use "safe search" during their Googling.

Having just purchased and played this game for the first time today (Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade is selling it today half-off the normal price of 1200 Microsoft points, so I thought I'd give it a go), I have to say that my impressions aren't overwhelmingly negative, but I will probably never play it again... so, yeah -- there goes $7.50 down the toilet.

Back in the early nineties, my friend Brian and I began a short love affair with fighting games. We weaned ourselves on Street Fighter 2 for the Super Nintendo, attempted Mortal Kombat, and loved Killer Instinct. Brian was always better at them than I was, and to this day I really have no skill whatsoever in fighting games; they're just too fast, too unpredictable, and the single-player A.I. is so cheap that any fun they might have given me was quickly washed away by controller-chucking anger. This culminated in the absolute worst thing that I have ever done: I had spent weeks practicing SF2 to give Brian a run for his money, and my sister wanted to play video games with me, so I picked SF2 just to take a break from the A.I. (keep in mind that I had never managed to play the whole way through the game, always, ALWAYS losing at M. Bison). She picked the only girl character (Chun Li) and promptly handed me my ass on a plate. I don't think that she had ever played the game before, and yet simply by mashing the controls she could best me at my best. I saw red rage, not for the first time, but for the first time ever I struck a person, and even worse, a person who didn't deserve it. That was pretty much it for SF2 on the SNES for me. I would never play it again out of shame and disgust, and rarely a day goes by that I don't think about what I did to my sister and hate myself for it. Brian eventually got Super Street Fighter 2, and we played that for awhile, but I didn't get back into fighting games in the strictest sense until I purchased a Sony Playstation years later.

I nearly ended playing fighting games altogether when I was duped into buying the horrible video game "Criticom" for the PS1, a game so broken and terrible in retrospect that the people who created it should have been banned from the industry. We messed around with 3D fighting games for awhile, but after all the arcades in the world were simultaneously invaded and destroyed by a roving army of SF2 clones, I began to feel just a little bit bitter about them. I wouldn't get back into fighting games in a big way until I purchased a Sega Dreamcast and got the original Marvel vs. Capcom, which quickly became a favorite of mine, and then when I got MvC2: New Age of Heroes, I began to forgive fighting games and even Capcom (after all, this one was a fighting game that was fun, and even I could beat it!). My interest in the Street Fighter series, however, had waned. I never played Street Fighter 3 when it finally came to what was left of arcades (movie theater lobbies, mostly).

So it's been about 14 years since I've played a Street Fighter game. Street Fighter Alpha 2 was the last one, years and years ago, so seeing the one I had missed for cheap seemed like an opportunity, but it was really just wasted money. You see, Street Fighter III is really just made for one group of people: People who are already good at Street Fighter. There is no learning curve involved; I just played MvC2 on my Xbox 360 the other night, beat it on the normal difficulty, had a great time, and thought about how fun it was. This new game is IMPOSSIBLE by comparison. I can't figure it out. I selected half of the characters, and couldn't get by the second match with any of them. I don't know whether it's the A.I., the nearly unmanageable move lists, or the characters I selected, but I couldn't get any further than second stage at best (with most characters, I couldn't even beat the first guy!).

I really don't understand what I was doing wrong, then it hit me: This game is for people who already know how to play Street Fighter III, not for people who want to learn or are familiar with other fighting games. No! This was my mistake - I should have been one of those dicks at the arcade who would come up while you were playing and mop the floor with you just to cost you your quarter. You know the type, or, at least you WOULD know if arcades were still around. Training mode, shraining mode - this is the most pointless thing in the world, because no matter your settings the game's A.I. is so nearly perfect in its timing and execution of moves that you will never get a leg up on it.

It's not that the gameplay isn't tight, mind you -- this is some of the most spot-on control I have ever experienced in a fighting game -- it's just that even with that control you feel helpless because super-moves aren't in the least bit intuitive, and those of us who have played Street Fighter 2 have no way of understanding how you are supposed to do two fireball quarter circles in a row before hitting the button. I played for an hour with that goal alone and never once got it to work!

It looks good in a dated 16-bit sort of way with big sprites and lots of animation, and the sounds are there, if not memorable, but what good is it when the game is so tough (no difficulty select) that you can't see all of it.

I'm done. You suckered me again, Capcom, and I won't soon forget this.

UPDATE: There is a difficulty select, so now I can get past stage 2 all the way up to stage five before I get my keister kicked. Hoo-rah.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bionic Commando... Again...




A few weeks ago I was in The Exchange, perusing the Xbox 360 games.  I had been tempted into playing Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.  Surprisingly enough, I didn’t hate it, so I had gone to The Exchange in the hopes of finding another cheap music game.  I picked up Rock Band for $5, and was still looking around when I saw another cheap game:  Bionic Commando for $5.

Those of you might recall in one of my earlier Bionic Commando posts that I was a huge fan of the original series, and was lamenting its move to 3D.  When the game was released last year, the market seemed to agree with me and it flopped spectacularly.  I felt that I could get in the mood to play a 3rd person shooter, and decided to pick it up, if for no other reason than to say that I had every American version of the game.

GRAPHICS: They’re pretty good.  This is one of those rare Xbox 360 games that doesn’t use the Unreal Engine, instead opting for a custom engine called “Diesel.”  This gives the game a steady frame rate and detailed environments, but also allows it to make good use of depth-of-field effects (when you’re zoomed in, things in the distance become clearer while objects that are closer to the camera become more blurry).  The animation on the characters is a little stiff, but only so much that it looks like a video game.  It would be a stretch to call this game realistic-looking, but some of the environmental effects are pretty nice.  This game has some of the best looking water I’ve seen in awhile. 

SOUND:  Anyone who has played the original game will appreciate the music in the game – it’s pretty much all remixes of the classic NES score, and most of them are movie-quality instrumentals (Nintendo take note: THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT).  The bionic arm makes a satisfying noise every time you deploy it, and it never really becomes too old too fast.  Because of the nature of the game, there isn’t a lot of ambient environmental sound (see STORY) but the rubble you walk on does have different pitch so even walking doesn’t become tiresome on your ears.  The action moves that you’ll perform have gratifying crunches, cracks, whooshes, and zips, but the guns sound generic for the most part.  The voice acting isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing to write home about, either.  “Faith No More” front man Mike Patton voices Nathan Spencer (the Bionic Commando), if that matters to you.  He mostly just growls a lot and says action-hero type things.  That’s really all there is to say about it.  The sound is sparse, but when no-one is talking it’s okay.  Extra points are granted for the Wilhelm Scream in the opening cutscene.  Come on though:  have you really read this far to hear me praise the graphics?  You want to hear me complain about…

CONTROL:  This is one thing that can make or break this sort of game.  When you are navigating a 3D world, you need precision control.  You know what?  For the most part, Bionic Commando delivers. 

The control scheme as a whole is pretty simple.  You have one trigger for your Bionic Arm, another for your gun, the bumpers are for evasive moves and quick selecting firearms, the “A” button jumps and retracts the arm (when grappling), “B” punches and extends the arm (when grappling), “Y” punches objects into the air so that you can use them in devastating combo attacks, and “X” picks up weapons (if you don’t want to use the grappling arm) and “looks,” though it is used so sparingly that like me you’ll likely forget about it.  Clicking the right stick allows you to zoom in and out for precision aiming (assuming that the weapon you have equipped will let you do it).

The arm works amazingly well: a target beacon will appear on the heads-up display (HUD) so that you can fire your grappling arm and swing, rappel, and climb the environments throughout the game.  You can use the directional pad to change your view quickly 90 degrees, which doesn’t seem that impressive until you need to use it.  One of my original fears was that the game would only let you attach the arm to certain things in the environments, thereby ruining a 3D version of the original’s 2D gameplay, and… it kind of does, but because the more traversable parts of the environment are pretty large, it doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would.   It isn’t quite like swinging Spider-man style in the Treyarch-developed Activision games, but it gets the job done far better than I thought it would.

SHOCKING:  My only gripe about the control is that you can’t deploy the arm while precision aiming.  Even if deploying the arm took you out of precision mode it wouldn’t be as bad when you’re in a tight situation – you can’t turn around quickly enough while in it, and some enemies will sneak up on you and kill you before you can react.

GAMEPLAY: The gameplay is as straightforward as you can get without being Final Fantasy XIII (aw, snap!).  You’re given mission objectives which appear on your radar and HUD, and you navigate to them, fight some enemies, then go to the next objective.  That’s the basics of the game in a nutshell.  There are a few boss fights (very few), and a few areas where precision swinging comes into play, but the game is fairly forgiving on normal difficulty. 

A LOT of reviewers are complaining about the blue radiation zones in the destroyed city, as it gives the game an open-world look while limiting most of your movement to a specific area.  I really don’t see what all the fuss is about really; all games don’t have to be open world games, and the radiation only caused me to fail a couple of times.  If you keep yourself focused the chances of this killing you very much is slim.

In the very last levels of the game it tries something irritatingly new:  quick-time events. For those not in the know, a quick-time event is when a game eschews normal gameplay in favor of making you press specific button combinations before time runs out.  Not only is it somewhat unsatisfying to have to complete these annoying distractions, but the very last battle is practically nothing but quick-time events, making the last cutscene feel unsatisfying.   Still this is a minor gripe when compared to…

STORY (SPOILERS AHOY!):  This is the single worst thing about Bionic Commando.  It’s not too bad if you’re not familiar with the franchise, but if you are a fan then there are things that will make even less sense here than they did in the 8-bit game.  Then again, if you’re not familiar with the franchise, some of the other stuff isn’t going to make sense either…

I guess that my main problem with the story is that people with bionic implants are considered dangerous and are being hunted down by the very government that gave them the implants in the first place.  This is just incredibly stupid.  It’s like the racism that X-men (Days of Futures Past, specifically) parallels with mutants, but instead of being something that they’re born with, they’re just amputees who are trying to get their lives back but end up being used by the government.  Why don’t they just hunt down amputees before they give them bionics?  It would make just about as much sense.

So, apparently there are enough “bionic sympathetic” people out there who are so pro-bionic that they start a terrorist militia, and then proceed to drop a nuclear bomb on the country’s largest city (Ascension City, in the Bionic Commando universe) and kill millions of people.  It’s true that the BioReign Militia is being used by its leaders for nefarious purposes, BUT COME ON – HOW STUPID IS THIS AS A PLOT DEVICE?

So Joseph “Super Joe” Gibson (the main character from classic Capcom games Commando and M.E.R.C.S., and the person who you have to rescue in every other version of Bionic Commando) has Nathan Spencer (who is in military prison for treason because he’s bionic, or because he killed some bionics, or because he failed to kill some bionics – the story’s never really clear on that point) released from death row to go into Ascension City, survey the situation, find out what the terrorists are really after, and stop them.  As a carrot for completion of the mission, Joe promises to give Spencer information on the whereabouts of his missing wife.

During the mission Spencer is reunited with another bionic super solider called MAG.  MAG has bionic legs that allow her to run really fast.  No, she’s not from any of the previous games, so him meeting up with her and arguing over her motivation makes no sense.  There might be backstory here, but the game doesn’t seem too keen on expanding it.

It turns out that the terrorists are after something called “Project Vulture,” the key to which is located in Ascension City.  Spencer fights his way through legions of enemy combatants and their cybernetic enhanced armored suits to regain the key to unlocking Project Vulture.  After he gives it to Joe, Joe reveals himself to be Silver, the leader of BioRegin.  He has his minions try to kill Spencer and leaves with the device.

Joe’s motivations make no sense to me.  I could understand if he didn’t know where the device was hidden that he’d have to stage the disaster to find out where it is, but as soon as they “discover” the enemy’s target he directs Spencer there to recover the device, even though he has thousands of troops and mile-high walking mechs at his command.  BUT HE’S THE ONE WHO TELLS SPENCER WHERE IT IS.  Maybe he was just using BioReign to get Project Vulture and then not share it with them, but then why does an untrustworthy a**hole like Gottfried Groeder (one of the bosses from Bionic Commando: Rearmed) follow him?  It just seems out of character for Joe, who has been portrayed in all previous versions of the game as a hero, albeit one who is aging and near retirement.

AND ANOTHER THING: at one point, Joe tells Spencer that he was there, developing bionics at the very beginning.  Excuse me?  Joe was a soldier, not an engineer, and it is established in the previous games that he and Spencer meet for the very first time near the end of the game.  So how was Super Joe involved in bionics?  The military’s going to send a bionic engineer into enemy territory to spy on the empire (Bionic Commando Rearmed and the original Bionic Commando)?  It’s never satisfactorily explained.  He makes the argument sound like he’s been the one fighting for the rights of bionics, then proceeds to brutally kill MAG.

AND AND ANOTHER THING: I know that there are some of you out there who are all like, “dude, the website and character profiles have all of these motivations and explanations in them.”  To them I reply, “SO THE FUCK WHAT?! QUIT USING OUTSIDE SOURCES TO PLUG OBVIOUS PLOT-HOLES!”  There’s also a sniper character that’s not from the previous games that shows up for no real reason, like we’re supposed to be awed by him or something.  You don’t fight him, and he doesn’t really help you, so who cares?

DANGEROUS MASTERBATION OR HAZARDOUS SEX?: So you find out that Nathan Spencer’s bionic arm is his wife.  How is this possible, you might ask?  It’s never really explained.  It’s implied that in order to get bionic parts to sync up to their users, they need to use the consciousness of a user’s loved one.  It is further implied that this kills the “donor,” but the method, parts used, or where that part is located in the mechanical casing is never explained.  This is simply a twist of Shamalan-calibur stupidity.  Why does this even have to be in the game?  THEY SINGLE-HANDEDLY RUINED BIONIC COMMANDO WITH THIS INCLUSION. 

Plus, it opens up a whole bunch of questions:

If the public is clamoring for the destruction of bionic people, do they even know how they are made? 

How is this even being covered up?

If Nathan Spencer gets a girlfriend, is that cheating on his arm? 

If his wife’s brain is in the arm, then which one of MAG’s legs has her husband’s brain in it? 

If this is the future where they can do that type of surgery, then why can’t they just clone the bionic soldier’s brain to put in the bionic part?  Wouldn’t that be more “in sync?” 

Who the hell thought this was a good idea?  I’d expect that kind of schlock from a Japanese company like Capcom, but this was developed by GRIN, a Swedish company.

OVERALL: This game wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, but I still don't feel that it was worth the original $60 price tag.  I have to admit that a great deal of my enjoyment of it was that I put in the secret code to unlock the Bionic Commando Rearmed skin, which looks like a 3D version of the 80s sprite, complete with radioactive red hair, RayBan sunglasses, an upturned collar, and hi-top sneakers.  Because all of the cutscenes use the game engine, seeing this testament to uber-cheesy 1980s action movies spout angst-ridden drivel gave me a warm feeling inside.  If you see it in a bargain bin somewhere for $20 or so, give it a spin - it's well worth the time for the gameplay if you can ignore the idiotic script.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Good god, I hate "Project Natal."

I know that it seems bitter and vindictive to hate something that I've never tried and that I've only seen in videos, so perhaps the more appropriate title to this article is that I hate the very idea of Project Natal.

People who are excited over this often times don't put the observation into certain facts about the demonstrations and the state of certain things.  I would like to examine some of those facts for those people who still insist that this is going to be the next gaming phenomenon.

1. In any of the widely available online videos, you will see a family with what is possibly the world's largest living room huddled around their television playing with this... abomination.  Kids, do you really think that there's enough room in your college dorm or bedroom to play with this thing?

2. My controller works.  It took them almost 30 years to make wireless controllers even semi-standard (and man, what a freeing feeling that is, right?) and now you want us to give up our complex button-intensive game so that we can wave our arms like morons in front of the TV?  Why?  I've never used a camera or gesture-based  system that was accurate enough to be fun (Sony EyeToy), or that didn't involve unrealistic waggling to do simple tasks (Nintendo Wii).  I don't see this as being any different.  What happens when you sneeze in the middle of a game, or stub your toe on some carelessly conveniently placed furniture?

3. Lag.  I have yet to see a "live" demo where an impartial person (read: not Peter Molyneaux) has failed to mention that the lag on this thing is noticeable.  Because much of Project Natal's reputed use is for action games, this seems more than a little broken.  Lag has destroyed button-based games in the past, so why is it okay with gesture-based games all of a sudden?  

4. Buggy.  Also, notice that when people say that the motion recognition "works great" they're usually in a well-lit room with a light background.  How many of you have that in your home?  Ever notice how natural light washes out or causes glare on your television screen?  I'm willing to bet most of what Microsoft is doing right now is tweaking the detection to recognize different lighting conditions and skin colors.  In other words, if you have any decorations, reflective surfaces, or windows in your house this probably isn't going to work too well.

5. Not everything has to be Wii.  Look, I appreciate that the Wii made Nintendo oodles of money, brought back third party support to the company, and invited average non-gaming people into the world of video games.  Bravo.  The problem is... have you ever actually played a third-party Wii game that didn't suck?  There's only a few out of the hundreds and hundreds on the market, and most "average" consumers only use the system to play Wii Sports and never buy another game.  This is starting to be a real problem for Nintendo who has now become the industry-collapsing danger to the industry that Atari was in the early 1980s.  Microsoft and Sony, please: no good can come from emulating Nintendo's business model, because the people who are buying your games now aren't going to be swayed by the hype once they see how derivative your product is.  It's a fad and a cash-grab.  It will not last.

6. This is Microsoft.  Don't get me wrong, I like Windows, and I was a huge advocate of the original Xbox when it was released, but Project Natal has hints of the taste of Microsoft Soundsmith, and I don't think that any of us need to relive that nightmare.