Thursday, September 18, 2008

Castle Crashed

My friend Seth and I were playing Castle Crashers online last night and had it give out on us multiple times, so the rumors are true. Even the best games have their flaws, I guess.

Still, it's a dynamite local game that should be enjoyed with friends.

The game that ended it all: Zelda: The Ocarina of Time

Every Nintendo fan has his or her favorite Zelda game. My personal favorite is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES, with a close runner-up being Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, so that shows you how out of touch I am Nintendo fans. Link to the Past had everything that made the original Zelda so great and kicked it up a notch - not a mere sequel to the original game, but a re-envisioning of it: fixing old game-play elements, tidying up less-developed areas, and all the while including the player in a unique narrative that spanned the gamut of heroes and legends.

Players took the role of Link, a pointy-eared but otherwise ordinary boy living with his uncle. One dark and stormy night, Link dreams of a princess named Zelda calling for help. He awakens to find his uncle wielding the family sword and shield, shaken and preparing for a late night rescue. Despite his uncle's command to stay put, Link follows him to the castle of Hyrule, where there is clearly something evil at work. Link sneaks inside only to find his mortally wounded uncle, who passes him the sword, and tells him to rescue Zelda. It's a classic opening to a story worthy of an epic game, and lacks in the pretentiousness so many game stories are obsessed with nowadays. The rest of the game follows suit, and although challenging, it engages the player in a way that few games at the time could. This is what made it my all-time favorite Super Nintendo game.

How much difference a generation makes, eh?

I'll save a full gripe of the N64 for later, suffice it to say that it had already ruined my other favorite Nintendo franchise (Super Mario Brothers) with a collect-a-thon of poorly controlling but nonetheless pretty 3D garbage. What's more, most other N64 offerings were ugly, blocky, polygonal low-res textured messes with choppy frame-rates to match. Still, when I heard that Zelda was coming out for the N64, I was excited: I loved the four Nintendo-produced Zelda games out at that time, and the last two (Link to the Past and Link's Awakening) had streamlined the franchise into something water-tight and exciting. I paid the $49.99 for the game well in advance of its release date, which I then began to see getting pushed back before my eyes. When it finally did come out, the price had gone up twenty dollars, but I got a free hat with it (whoop-de-doo). It now stands with Mass Effect as the two most expensive games I have ever purchased, and I have never finished either of them. That's right, I never beat Zelda:TOOT, and I never will.

Here's why:

GRAPHICS: No real complaints here. Though everything does look low-poly, low-texture, and washed out in a cruel and pathetic attempt at realism, that's pretty much par for the course since developers back then decided to make everything 3D on woefully under-powered equipment.

SOUND: Terrible. There are only a few voices in the game, all of them are repeated endlessly, and most are just those annoying "girly giggles" that ten-year-old Japanese school girls make and that all Japanese men seem to find disturbingly alluring. They do a good job on ambiance for the most part, and overall the sound effects are good, but the Legend of Zelda theme is nowhere to be found in this game. AT ALL. I'm sorry, but I'm not tired of it yet, and it's exclusion makes the game seem less epic and more malaise. I remember when Link pulled the Master Sword(tm) from the stone in A Link to the Past, and when the Zelda theme started afterwards I felt charged and ready. Almost all of the music in this game is stolen from A Link to the Past, but they didn't include the most important song, and I can't forgive it for that.

STORY: Remember when I was discussing A Link to the Past's story earlier? Most non-orphan people can relate to losing a loved one or a father figure. Young Link being left alone in a world that is out to destroy him is a powerful statement.

Now, contrast that to Zelda: The Ocarina of Time where you are avenging a tree. Let me state that for you again, just in case you think that was a typo: Link is avenging a talking tree when he sets out on his quest. There's nothing even remotely analogous to this in real life. I've had plants that have died, sure, but I've never cried out on the dark precipice to the night and said "by the power of Thor(tm), I will avenge you my hibiscus!" Not once. The game tries to make up for this by having Link live with a bunch of "lost boys" type elves, who are all pretty annoying to begin with, like self-sufficient first-graders. The tree is supposed to be the wise father figure, but it's a tree and can't move, so one has to wonder how good its parenting skills actually are.

In his journey to stop the "evil man" that is causing all the trouble in Hyrule, Link meets a plethora of friendly characters that basically amount to the enemy races in the previous games. Rather than fight them directly, now they just give Link pointless and irritating quests to waste his time. Personally I liked the earlier versions.

I struggled to keep my interest up until Link got the Master Sword(tm), the pulling out of which sends Link forward in time and ages him into an N*Sync-style douche bag complete with fingerless elbow-length gloves and an earring. This is where the game lost me because far be it for me to question the sword making him go forward in time, am I to understand that "young adult" Link has the diminutive mind of an eight-year-old? Or, if he's spent the last ten years in limbo training to become a master fighter, then why doesn't he know how to do anything significantly different than accessorize his wardrobe?

I still struggled on hoping that there would be some payoff to the whole thing, but by the time the fairy had told me to listen for the 79,898, 636,873rd time I just stop caring.

Ah yes, let's get to that:

FAIRY: Navi is to the player as Kryptonite is to Superman and good taste is to 50 Cent - they all want it to go away, but as soon as they come into contact it can be lethal to them. I would like to know what wonderful drugs the design "teem" (not to be confused with "team," as in people working together would eventually figure out that this was a bad idea) were sniffing when they decided to put a little voice in the game that pops in every other minute to let the player know that they're supposed to be going to the castle to see the princess. The problem is, it takes about five minutes to reach the castle which means that in an even number of minutes you'll hear it twice, and at the odd worst, three before you reach the castle gate. Once you have reached the castle and are attempting to navigate the streets to find the princess, the fairy then proceeds to tell you to find the princess. There isn't even an option to turn it off! I'm sure when gamers (note: not Nintendo fan boys) began to complain about this Shigeru Miyamoto just packed his ears with some $1000 bills that were conveniently lying around.

GAMEPLAY: Some would argue that TOOT's control scheme is revolutionary, I argue that it is convoluted. It's obvious that they were trying to do too much with what control they had, so they decided to take a share of it away from the player. Typically, there is one button that takes multiple actions whenever Link is in a certain position. While this does make the game easier to play on some level, it often devolves into trying to position Link so that he can access the one spot where the button changes actions.

The game's flow also seems less open than in the older games. The original Legend of Zelda and Zelda II were all about exploration. Zelda: A Link to the Past continued that tradition to an extent, allowing players to move around the environments at their leisure to look for items that might help them navigate to more complicated dungeons. This Zelda is strictly by-the-book: An item that you find in a dungeon will HAVE to be used to get to the boss, and will HAVE to be used to make the boss vulnerable so that you can hurt it. As before, you need to collect three things to get the Master Sword(tm), and there are three different temples that you must enter to find them. You can't move on to the next dungeon until you've completed the one that you're on. The roads to get to these dungeons are just that: roads. You can't deviate too much from the prescribed course, and even if there is more virtual landscape than in previous Zelda games it seems constrained. I mean, why even put the Hookshot(tm) in the game if the stupid thing can only attach to a few sparse surfaces throughout the map? It sometimes makes going forward difficult becuase the player has been trained not to rely on it because of its almost utter uselessness - they only use it as a last resort!

Finding heart containers has become more of a chore than a feeling of discovery, involving the ironically time-consuming task of travelling in time, and having the right item at just the right time, and just pads out what is essentially a really short game.

Battles are many, but significant battles are few, predictable, and not very interesting. Bosses are cheap, moving out of camera range and striking distance just to frustrate the player, who has to wait for "just the right moment" to strike, every time, because they have no inherently vulnerable spots. I remember in the Link to the Past, finding just the right weapon to tackle a difficult boss was fun, because bosses could be hurt by multiple weapons. With the advent of the 3D Zelda games, this seems to be a thing of the past.

OVERALL: I think that the worst thing about this game is that so many people like it better than the superior old ones, and that the 3D downgrade to the graphics was so immediately popular. So well was this game received that recent releases of 3D Zelda games all follow the same framework, with almost no originality other than art style or what gimmick Link uses to solve puzzles and navigate the world. Zelda: TOOT made me far more excited about Wind Waker, but after becoming similarly disappointed by it all I can say is this: if I want to experience the feelings of awe and exploration that I got from the original games, I now play Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series. It might lack some of Zelda's polish, but it's a helluva lot more fun to play.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It Came From the Bargain Bin: Jurassic Park (SNES)

Boy, this takes me back.

When Jurassic Park came out in theaters back in 1993, moviegoers were exposed to the most astounding digital effects ever seen up until that point. Dinosaurs never looked so real (well, except for maybe when they were real... unless you're a member of the extreme religious right... in which case the debate between hundred-ton monsters who died out for no perceivable reason leaving behind giant stone bones and a supreme being that looks like an old man sitting on a cloud surrounded by light and naked winged babies urging the republican party to outlaw gay marriage is ongoing)! Even though the movie was for the most part mediocre, it was directed by Stephen Spielberg, back when that actually meant something other than, "Sigh. Are we going to see yet another bad, mediocre, or overly schmaltzy Stephen Spielberg movie?"

In the marketing blitz that followed, Jurassic Park became a hot property with a line of action figures (courtesy of Kenner, the Star Wars toys people), children's clothing lines, and unique video games for every system out at that time - no two were alike! This is part in the individual licenses going to different developers, but it also seemed like they were drawing on the unique aspects of the various systems; the Sega Genesis had a side-scrolling action game, the Sega CD had a Myst-like point-and-click adventure, the 3DO got a series of pointless "multimedia" games, the NES got a two-player exploratory shooter, the PC got a buggy 2D/3D shooter, and the Super Nintendo got an action adventure experience.

The SNES game was developed by Ocean Software and it was an impressive package back in its day, with a large Legend of Zelda-like overworld, 3D interior environments, Dolby Surround Sound, a colorful color palette, multiple weapons with limited ammunition (akin to the survival horror genre), huge sprites, digitized sound, a great soundtrack, mouse support - the list just goes on and on!

So why is it here, on the list of games that I hate? Because for all of its exciting innovation, it has several flaws that could have (and should have) been dealt with before its release, and they just ruined the game completely. As such, I'm going to forgo the usual review structure and concentrate on what's wrong.


1.) THE TEXT POP-UPS DO NOT PAUSE THE ACTION. There's nothing more irritating than walking into an open field in the game, only to have that annoying little twerp, Tim Murphy pop in and tell me not to shoot the Gallimimus, because they could stampede, right before the aforementioned dinosaurs trample me to death because Tim's shit-eating grin is preventing me from seeing them. Better still is when I was collecting eggs from the raptor nests and Ian Malcolm pops up to tell me how many eggs I have left, basically blinding me in a dark room with giant disemboweling dinosaurs. They could have put this message at the bottom of the screen, or at the top, or made it transparent, or paused the game while it was on the screen, or NOT HAD THE FREAKIN' USELESS INFORMATION THERE TO BEGIN WITH. It seems obvious to me that Ocean looked at all of the design options and decided to go with the worst one.

2.) THE BUTTONS ARE MAPPED BADLY. The control actually isn't all that bad, even giving me the carte blanche to manually pick up weapons, deciding what I want to take with me... in the overworld. When I was in the inside stages the character automatically picked up weapons and health, which required me to backtrack every time I accidentally walked over a less-effective weapon. When I was on the overworld, I noticed that the button on the right of my controller (the "A" button) controls the weapon that is on the left of the display while the button on the left (the "X" button) controls the weapon displayed on the right, making the simplest and most often used command in the game something that hurts my brain. As with most games of this era, there is no way to change it in the options.

3.) I CAN'T STRAFE IN THE 3D ROOMS. There is no excuse for this one, as the game came out well after Wolfenstien 3D on the PC, and strafing by then was a standard, not an option. It's not like they ran out of button space: as established earlier, the "pick up" button from the overworld is not used in addition to the "jump button." The "L" and "R" buttons on the top of the controller are used to turn the player slower than with the D-pad, for precision aiming, but there is little reason that they couldn't have skipped that feature and just let the player strafe left and right with them. The mouse is used entirely by itself inside: pushing forward makes Alan Grant walk forward, pulling is backwards, left and right turn, button one is one weapon and button two is the other, so no strafing option there either. This makes the game much, much harder than it has to be.

4.) THERE IS NO AUTOMAP. If any game needs a map, it's this one. Some environments tend to look the same, and the island is actually much bigger than one would expect for an SNES game. Granted, auto-mapping wasn't really widely used when this game was made, but if Zelda: Link to the Past can have a map that shows the general area of goals then there's no reason that this couldn't have one either, as it came out much later than Link to the Past.

5.) As I have mentioned before, this game is quite large, and to collect all of the dinosaur eggs, key cards, and various other items one has to spend a considerable time backtracking or remembering where they've been. I have a friend who took notes as he played and managed to get through the game in about ten hours using his notes from start to finish (I have heard of "speed gamers" beating the game in an hour, but I can't imagine anyone playing it enough to do that). He left it on overnight so that he could continue the next day, but if the power had gone out he would have lost everything and had to start over, because THERE IS NO WAY TO SAVE THE GAME, AND NO PASSWORD TO CONTINUE. Imagine playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Now imagine playing the game, but never getting any more heart containers than the three that you start out with, out of the potential twenty that you could normally end the game with. Now imagine that the battery backup on your cartridge has died, and that in order to see the end you have to play through all three palaces of Hyrule and all seven of the Dark Palaces in one sitting. Now Imagine that when you used up all of your fairies that the game was over, and you had to start from the beginning. That's hardcore gaming right there! Jurassic Park even goes one step further by giving an inhumanely cruel "Congratulations! You escaped Jurassic Park!" text on black screen ending, giving no payoff to hours of torture! This is basically the developer saying that they hate me, this despite the fact that I bought their crappy movie tie-in game.

OVERALL: This is the classic example of how something could have been phenomenal was destroyed simply by lack of common sense. The game's art direction and scope really is impressive for the day it was made. As it stands now, it is merely a long-forgotten footnote in an otherwise impressive SNES library.

It's still better than the last two Jurassic Park movie sequels, though.

Monday, September 8, 2008

First impressions: Castle Crashers

I know that I've been neglecting my blogs lately. It's mostly due to my continuing search for employment, but it's partly due to my new-found calling in life. That calling is Castle Crashers for the Xbox 360 Live Arcade.

Castle Crashers is a four-player simultaneous side-scrolling beat-'em-up in the tradition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the arcade game) brought to us by the gods at Behemoth, who also gave us the fantastic (yet too difficult) Alien Hominid some years ago.

History time:

Little Mikey got his first glimpse of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game at the Warren Mall's arcade, Aladdin's Castle, waaaay back in 1989, we he and his friend Kelly would frequent it on those winter Friday nights after school. With the addition of two other people, we were able to play through an adventure of epic proportions. The action was frantic, the enemies were many, and the sights and sounds were spectacular for that time. It was more than that to me, though - something about being able to play a game with the help of three of my best friends just clicked, and this game had none of the frustrating backtracking of Gauntlet, Midway's pioneering and flawed aging arcade sword fest. I was ecstatic when I found out Nintendo was releasing a four player adapter (the NES Satellite) soon afterwards - could it be that I could take this experience home with me?

Alas, the answer was a resounding Episode 3-style NOOOOOOOO!

Because this wouldn't be my blog if I actually praised something, and because I have nothing bad (at all) to say about Castle Crashers, I'm going to take you on a look at the many disappointments I've had with the beat-'em-up genre on home systems throughout the years, so that maybe when I show you how deceitful and poorly executed some of this stuff is, my new favorite game will seem better by comparison (everything they get right, it gets right, everything they get wrong, it gets right). I'm only listing games that I've played, so if there is one out there that meets my high standards, let me know.

(An aside: I'm only putting Gauntlet Legends on the list because it lacks the depth of a conventional dungeon crawler, making it closer to a beat-'em-up than an action RPG, though it is not as good as any other example of either)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game (NES): I know that the NES was an aging machine even back when I first got one in 1988. I know that it was foolish of me to expect an arcade-exact translation of anything on that system. When Ultra Games released this port of my favorite arcade game I was skeptical. It looked about average for an NES game, but that doesn't mean that it looked any good at all. They really pushed the hardware to get the size of characters out of it that they did, but that means very little when you've cut two players out of the equation and had to take most of the enemies out just to fit it on a tiny NES cart. Even more annoying is that they only gave the player limited continues, making the game much harder than it had to be. At least it came with a coupon for a Pizza Hut pizza; that's something, I guess.

Battletoads (NES): This is by and large one of the most blatant TMNT ripoffs you'll ever see. The graphics are quite good in an 8-bit way, so what makes it worse is that having two players makes the game more difficult; not from the perspective that there are more enemies, but because every gameplay mechanic one could think of that makes multi-player co-op not fun is here: Two players instead of four, attacks hurt each other, when one person dies both have to restart a level, there are a limited number of continues, falling off of a cliff results in insta-death etc.

Final Fight (SNES): This game was released just after the SNES came out, and suffered the same problem all of the early SNES Capcom games did: the two-player arcade games were truncated to a single player (Magic Sword, U.N. Squadron, etc.). This version cut out one of the three selectable characters (Guy), replaced the women with androgynous men, and was essentially a major disappointment all around.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time
(SNES): When the Super Nintendo was released, it only had two controller ports and it took a third party company to make a four-player adapter for the unit. That game was (you guessed it!) Super Bomberman. TMNT4 was released well before this, and couldn't take advantage of it. This one is noteworthy because it is actually better than the arcade game - maybe it doesn't look as nice, but there are enough extras that it doesn't need to. The two-player mode is nearly perfect, with just the right level of difficulty so that eventually the player and a friend can get through it on hard mode and feel like they accomplished something. It still needs four players though.

Streets of Rage, Streets of Rage 2, Streets of Rage 3 (Sega Genesis): These are all A+ Final Fight knockoffs, and nothing more. Given the Genesis' purported "Blast Processing" I fail to see why they couldn't have included a four-player mode, other than the fact that "Blast Processing" is a total crock.

Final Fight CD (Sega CD): By and large the best version of Final Fight I have ever played, even better than the arcade version; it's the music... I still wish that they could have re-mixed it for more players, though.

The Peace Keepers (SNES): Here's where the real bullshit starts. The back of the box clearly states four players with the SNES Multitap, and there are four players - in Arena mode, four players can fight each other. This pisses me off because it doesn't indicate that in any way shape or form that it is just the Arena mode - I was finally hoping for a true four-player beat-'em- up at home, and instead I get a mediocre two-player one. They knew that's what I wanted, and they just spat in my face. Otherwise it's a pretty standard game with a few innovations, like multiple pathways through the game, unlockable characters that you can change the color palette of, and more references to Arnold Schwartezneggar movies than should be allowed. Aside from two missing players, bland artwork, repetitive enemies, and limited continues keep this from being a memorable experience.

Captain America and The Avengers (SNES): This is a port of one of the most hilarious badly translated arcade games to date. Too limited continues, two players, too bad.

Captain Commando (SNES): The arcade game had some originality to it: giant robots that you could ride, enemies that you could slice in half. Yeah. The censored SNES version takes all of that out, then takes away two of the four players... again.

Batman Returns (SNES): Proof that even the best production values can't make up for the fact that it's a one-player game.

Batman Forever (SNES): Proof positive that Acclaim has something terribly wrong with them.

Three Dirty Dwarves (Saturn): Wow! Segasoft actually got something right! This game has three characters, and three players can play! There is an annoying "one hit and you're down" rule, but the players are only defeated if all three dwarves go down at the same time, which isn't often if they play cooperatively. Not quite perfect, but still very good.

Guardian Heroes (Saturn): I am among the proud few gamers that own a Sega Saturn and this game. To experience the pinnacle of two-player co-op beat-'em-ups, this is the game that must be played. It has multiple paths, changeable stats, dozens of special attacks per character, scaling (depending on how far apart players are from each other), a huge variety of enemies (and once they've been beaten the players can play as them in the arena mode), a story where the players save a kingdom and go on to beat up heaven and hell, everything! Everything that is, EXCEPT FOUR PLAYERS. The back of the box (again) claims up to six can play, but this is only in its Arena mode, which is fun for awhile, but having just two other players to kick the crap out of the computer would have been more fun. Why do they have to torture me with these bullshit arena modes? WHY?!!

Gauntlet Legends (Dreamcast): All right, four players! Too bad the gameplay is about as deep as an inverted milk saucer. The game can be played with one hand. Yep, every character will attack enemies just by running into them. Prepare to spend countless hours running around empty levels trying to find that one missed switch so that the exit can be found. Sometimes, my friends and I have contests to see who can stay awake the longest while playing this game.

Dynamite Cop (Dreamcast): This game runs at sixty frames-per-second, there are four controller ports, and three characters to choose from, so why is it that this is only a two-player game? And why is it over so quickly?

Zombie Revenge (Dreamcast): Everything I hate about Dynamite Cop revisited, plus the hilariously broken and stupid script from House of the Dead with appropriately cheesy voice acting.

Jedi Power Battles (Dreamcast): As much as I can't stand the prequel episodes of Star Wars, this would be a contender for my favorite beat-'em-up of all time, but for a few fatal flaws: Bottomless pits kill instead of just taking a little health (and there are far too damn many of them), not enough continues, two players share continues, some of the environments have hidden holes that will kill the player if they're off-screen for too long. Otherwise my usual four-player complaint remains.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The New Animated Series (Xbox): The first one (again) only supports two players for no perceivable reason other then this was released on the PS2, and we couldn't make a decent product and scale it back for the PS2, no! We have to make a shitty product that will run on the PS2 and make all of those who have superior hardware suffer. The sequel fixed this problem, but I'm having trouble finding people interested enough to play it.

(Nintendo 64): What? There isn't even one beat-'em-up for this system? What the hell?

(Gamecube): Does Viewtiful Joe count? It's pretty close... but it's only one player, and only ever has been one player, so I feel that qualifies it as a platformer. So the Gamecube doesn't have any beat-'em-ups either. Stupid Nintendo! (Okay, so Zelda Four Swords should count, but I don't have four Game Boy Advances or friends willing to play it). (Note to fan boys: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is drawn out, boring, and no one should have to play it - just like all of Square's games.)

That's my list. I've waited nearly twenty of your Earth-years to play a four-player co-op beat-'em-up game with character development and multiple paths from the comfort of my living room. It's not just that Castle Crashers is an affordable, funny, game that has far exceeded my expectations, but also because all of these other games have made me that much hungrier for the experience.