Monday, December 26, 2011


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.





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.