Thursday, August 21, 2014

History of DDR: X3 vs. 2ndMIX

Previously on the SDP, there was the 2010 DanceDanceRevolution.  And it sucked.  Well, inasmuch as a DDR game can suck.  But earlier from that same year, there was a new arcade edition, DanceDanceRevolution X2.  And it was good.  I assume.  As I've previously stated, I've never found a copy of that game, despite an international release.  But it would turn out that X2 was the last arcade DDR game, to date, to have been sold outside of Asia.  But it wasn't the end of the series, for a year and a half later, Konami released DanceDanceRevolution X3 vs. 2ndMIX (JP: 16 November 2011, AS: 16 December 2011).  I also have yet to play this edition in person, even during my latest trip to Japan back in March.  But even though Konami did not sell X3 in North America or Europe, they did release a new home game suspiciously similar to it: DanceDanceRevolution II for the Wii (NA: 11 October 2011, EU: 16 November 2011).  

X3 features a blue-and-white colour scheme, and many of the features from X2.  Two new features are exclusive to eAmusement/PASELI users: they can view both machine and eAmusement high scores on the music menu, and, similar to X2's Marathon Mode option, pay per song in Quick Play Mode.  As hinted at in its full title, X3 also includes an HD remake of Dance Dance Revolution 2ndMIX.  It is entered through a button prompt on X3's title screen, just like the 2ndMIX mode from 3rdMIX.  The songs from 2ndMIX Mode were eventually added to the main game in a later update.  As to why they chose this entry to remake, I'm curious.  Perhaps the first game had too little content, and the more popular 3rdMIX had too much content.  And yes, you still have to enter a hidden panel code for the Maniac level.

2ndMIX Mode's menu screen in DDR X3.
DDR II, meanwhile, shares with X3 some songs, UI elements, and of course the core gameplay, but in other ways differs from it as well as the Wii DDR games before it.  There are no alternate modes that use the Wii Remote, Nunchuck, or Balance Board, but they did bring back the Double mode from the core series.  Also, the majority of songs come in two flavours: the traditional 1-to-2-minute edits, and the full-length versions.  And this isn't like in 5thMIX or DDR X where only a scant handful of songs were long versions; this is done for all the licenced songs, and most of the Konami originals which weren't already in another game.  The unlock system also seems to have borrowed a page from the PS2 days.  Unstead of a separate single-player campaign, you unlock new content by playing in the free-play mode and earning points.  The "Replicant-D-Action" system also makes an appearance, but it's been simplified greatly from its appearance in X2.  All you have to do is clear any three songs, and the Replicant-D-Action folder will become available.  When you play any song therein, the folder disappears until you play another three songs, and so on.

Double mode in DDR II.  A mainstay for most of the series
finally makes its Wii debut.
DDR X3 features 515 songs, plus 30 songs in 2ndMIX Mode, and DDR II features 83 songs.  In X3, you've got your usual stable of J-pop licences and Konami originals, including ones from DDR 2010, seeing as how that game was never released in Japan (lucky buggers).  However I will admit that, apart from the boss songs, the "notable songs" section will be shorter this time around than the ones for previous games.  Not including the revivals for 2ndMIX mode, there are only six new licenced songs, all of them Japanese, and they culled most of the licences left over from X and X2, just to add insult to injury (or is it the other way around?).  And I've long sinced stopped keeping up-to-date with the other Bemani games -- which, I remind you, aren't made available outside of Asia -- so there's nothing in the selection of crossover songs that catch my eye.  But maybe it's just me; if you absolutely must have material from jubeat Copious or Reflec Beat Collette, then go nuts, I guess.

As for DDR II, I feel a little conflicted.  First, the bad news.  There are two --- count 'em, two -- Justin Bieber songs in DDR II.  And one by Miley Cyrus.  And one by Selena Gomez.  And one by Willow Smith -- you know, that "Whip My Hair" fellow.  And two songs with Bruno Mars, who isn't nearly as embarrassing, "The Lazy Song" notwithstanding.  Yeah, you can tell Konami of America courted the teen-pop crowd this time around.  But it's not like those are bad songs to dance to; not like those boring slow songs from the last game.  So now, the good news.  Since (the 2010) X2 was never given a proper home port, the Konami originals (mainly Bemani crossovers) that weren't already included for the (the 2009) X2 and Hottest Party 3 have been revived for DDR II, including such assumed classics as "smooooch", "Gold Rush", and "Mei".  Other notable songs include:
  • "Connect", as made famous by Claris.  (X3 only)  The theme song from the anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  For some reason, X3 uses a cover version of this song, as well as with...
  • "Heavy Rotation", as made famous by AKB48.  (X3 only) Why Konami would need someone to cover one of the biggest names in J-Pop, I couldn't tell ya.
  • "Say a Prayer" by Des-Row & Maxi Priest, and "Still Unbreakable" by Des-Row and Vanilla Ice.  (II only)  Unremarkable songs, but it's neat that they're collaborations between Bemani and non-Bemani artists.
Certain songs were made available later on for machines connected to the Internet, a form of DLC if you will, as tie-ins with certain events.
  • Daily Special: Added five songs from other Bemani games.  During the event, different ones were unlocked on each day of the week.
  • Append Travel: Added four songs from jubeat Copius Append, another Bemani music game.  Also let players earn Append Points to spend on items, however this feature expired in September 2012.
  • Konami Arcade Championship 2012: Added seven songs.  Five of them are remixes of Konami originals from 2ndMIX.
  • Tsugidoka!: Added four songs from other Bemani games.
  • Extra Tour: Gradually introduced the Evolved songs as selectable Extra Stages.
The new round of boss songs:
  • "Amalgamation" by Mystic Moon.  (X3 only)  A fairly high-speed (170 BPM) trance/techno song.  Originally the Extra Stage on X3; replaced by "Unbelievable (Sparky Remix)" in an update.
  • "Unbelievable (Sparky Remix)" by jun feat. Sarah Jane.  (X3 and II)  A happy-hardcore song in the vein of "Silver☆Dream" and "Kimono Princess".  Originally the Encore Extra Stage in X3; later replaced by "Nephilim Delta" and demoted to Extra Stage in an update.
  • "Nephilim Delta" by L.E.D-G.  (X3 only)  A darker-sounding gabba-techno song, its high-speed (220 BPM) eight-note runs play like an even more turned-up "Afronova" or "Arabiatta".
  • "Silver☆Dream" by jun.  (X3 only)  A revival from DDR Hottest Party 2.
Other boss songs:
  • X3 revived the "Tokyo Evolved", "Osaka Evolved", and "New York Evolved" series from DDR Hottest Party, Hottest Party 2, and New Moves/Hottest Party 4 respectively, as part of the "Extra Tour" update.
  • DDR II revived "deltaMAX" and "888" from Universe 3, and the other boss songs from X2.
  • "PARANOiA Revolution" by Climax of Maxx 360, and "Trip Machine Evolution" by DE-JAVU. (X3 only)  The latest remixes of these fan-favourite songs from the first game.  These are playable in 2ndMIX Mode, as Extra Stages, and certain nonstop courses.
  • "Love Is the Power (Re:Born)" by NM.  A remix of the end-credits songs from 2ndMIX.  It's not a particularly hard song (only level 10 on Expert), but when played as an Encore Extra Stage, you have to get all Perfect marks or better; so much as one Great kicks you out of the song.
  • "London Evolved" by TAG Underground. (X3 and II)  The new set of Evolved songs, bearing three variations, this one is more trance-like, specifically reminiscent of "Roppongi Evolved" from X2.
  • "Tohoku Evolved" by 2.1MB Underground. (X3 only)  Yet another Evolved song, specifically a remix of "London Evolved".  Technically there is only one version of "Tohoku Evolved", except that the last note is a randomised corner-jump.  This song breaks the DDR speed record, with a certain passage reaching a whopping 1020 BPM.  A tribute to the victims of the natural disasters which hit north-eastern Japan earlier in 2011, this version incorporates voice samples such as "Our thoughts and prayers are with you".
Come to think of it, "Tohoku Evolved" would have been a poignant send-off to the Dance Dance Revolution series.  Scratch that... it should have been the series' send-off.  We've got only two more entries to go on the History of Dance Dance Revolution.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Game Review: Shantae: Risky's Revenge

Shantae: Risky's Revenge
  • Publisher: WayForward
  • Developer: WayForward
  • Release:
    • Nintendo DS: 4 October 2010
    • iOS: 27 Oct 2011
    • PC: 15 July 2014
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Save: 3 files
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$10
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Shantae, a woefully under-promoted action-platformer for the Game Boy Color.  As part of my review of such, I speculated on the possible reasons its franchise didn't take off sooner.  But whichever was the case, it seemed ages before a sequel would be produced.  There were false starts here and there, such as a Game Boy Advance title which for all intents and purposes was naught more than an internal tech demo.  And developer WayForward has kept themselves busy ever since, making such cult-classics as Sigma Star Saga and Contra 4 (future review fodder...?).  But in this harsh, unforgiving industry, it's the publishers who hold all the power, and no one seemed to be chomping at the bit to give such an underperformer as Shantae a second chance.

But then as the seventh console generation bloomed into maturity, an alternate avenue appeared: self-publishing games via digital distribution became viable for home consoles and handhelds.  And it was through these channels that in 2010, our half-genie hero finally was bestowed upon her a sequel: Shantae: Risky's Revenge on the Nintendo DSi shop.  It was soon followed up by a port for iOS devices, and after further delays, a "director's cut" edition for PC, via the Steam store, no less.

The story of Risky's Revenge takes what I like to call the Mad-Libs approach to writing a sequel: use the same general concepts as its predecessor, switching about characters and/or objects as needed.  This time around, Shantae, the half-genie guardian of Scuttle Town, visits her uncle Mimic to witness a treasure he found on his off-screen exploits.  Such MacGuffin item, in the form of a magic lamp, is promptly stolen by lady pirate Risky Boots (hence the title).  She can't use it without three magic seals, so Shantae and Mimic come up with the bright idea of finding all the seals before Risky.  Good luck with that...  I may have been a bit cynical in describing the plot, but there are some genuinely moving moments here and there, such as when the mayor of Scuttle Town sells the town deed, and at numerous points when Shantae's half-blood heritage instill in her doubts vis-a-vis her ability to properly protect her home town.  There's some choice humour to be had as well; you owe it to yourself to speak with the NPCs about Scuttle Town every now and then.

The Squid Baron, one of a small handful of bosses to be fought.
As before, Shantae can learn belly-dance moves which will transform her in to different animals: a monkey (for climbing up walls), an elephant (for breaking rocks), and new for this game, a mermaid (for swimming underwater).  However, the dance mechanics have been simplified: instead of performing button sequences, all you do is hold the button and let go when Shantae switches to the desired pose.  While I should be thankful for not having to worry about invalidating my inputs by messing up the timing, I am somewhat disappointed at losing the creativity permitted by the old system.  Oh, and there are only three dungeons to the five from the first game, and one of them doesn't even have a boss to call its own.  The overall length is similar, still about 2-5 hours depending on whether or not you know what you're doing, but it still feels like they cheaped out for the sequel.  I should forgive this fault given the game's troubled history, so I'm going to let you off with a warning, WayForward.

The use of attack items is controlled by a magic meter.
Besides, not all the changes made for Risky's Revenge led to disappointment.  Attack items (Fireballs, Pike Balls, and Storm Puffs) are no longer consumables, but are instead limited by a magic meter.  I must say, this decision led me to using these items a bit more often, especially the quasi-shielding Pike Balls.  You can also buy a map early on in the game, which reveals the overworld areas for your reference.  There aren't any maps available for the dungeon levels, but still, even just an overworld map would've come in handy in the original game.  Oh, and the day-night cycle which plagued the original Shantae, and Castlevania II before that, has also been axed.  No more having to deal double damage every other couple of minutes?  Thank you very much!

One thing that WayForward didn't cheap out on, however, are the visuals.  The graphics in Risky's Revenge are roughly analogous to what the Super Nintendo could put out, and as with the first game, the animations are superb.  From the way Shantae's baggy trousers flutter in the wind while taking a long fall (with no falling damage), to the death animations of certain enemies, to the 2D jiggle physics, there are a lot of details to take in.  And composer Jake Kaufman once again hits it out of the park, combining Arabian-style melodies, modern beats, and retro-game aesthetics.  Sure, most of the songs appear to be re-tooled tracks from the original game, but it still works.

Come to think of it, one could apply that argument to the game at large.  A lot of this game's structure comes across as updated iterations of the first Shantae's components.  From the design of certain overworld and underworld setpieces, to the plot itself, as I previously described, it wouldn't have taken much more work for WayForward to have just made an updated re-release of the original game.  (Which was also my biggest problem with Sonic 4, if you recall.  Still good though.)  A little more originality would've helped the game, but make no mistake.  What we've got here is well-tuned, clever, and engaging.  Shantae: Risky's Revenge deserves to be bought, if only to shower a little extra attention on a deserving young franchise.  And judging by the upcoming one-two punch of Shantae and the Pirate's Curse and Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, combined with the recent digital re-release of her hard-to-find debut title, she may just have a new lease on life.

Control: 5 out of 5
Design: 3 out of 5
Graphics: 5 out of 5
Audio: 5 out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Editorial: Mega Man Legends 3, 3 Years Later

The following is an open letter to all readers of the Facebook page "Get Me Off The Moon: 100,000 Strong for Bringing Back Mega Man Legends 3", and will be reposted there.

Dear friends, Servbots, Beckers, and other miscellaneous netizens,

As I started writing this, it has been three years to the day since Capcom took the inexplicable step of killing development of Mega Man Legends 3.  And let me tell you, my faith in humanity has never been the same since.  As far as I’m concerned, Capcom has joined the ranks of such Western-based publishers as EA, Activision, and King, who eschew creativity and good will in favour of short-term profits.  “Revive a unique series that’s lain dormant for over a decade?” they seem to say.  “That’s not what the people want!  You want us to rehash the same niche-interest versus-fighters and a former survival-horror series!”  And I’m thinking, that’s gotta stop.

To this very day, Capcom -- and when I bring them up, I am referring to their Japanese headquarters -- has not directly given a valid reason for their actions.  (And for the record, I choose not to count that Capcom Europe tweet.)  Until such rationale comes to light, I have no choice to blame Capcom’s ill will with Keiji Inafune.  And for the record, I do harbour some ill will of my own towards Inafune-sama; after all, if he hadn’t left the company so early, he might have been the insurance policy necessary to see Legends 3 to completion.  (But that would be like blaming the Jews for World War II.  The problem wasn’t that they existed, but that someone reacted poorly to them.)

But despite not yet having reached our ultimate goal of bringing Legends 3 back to the public, a lot has happened to our fandom among these past three years.  Our cause has brought together fans from all corners of the world.  (Seriously, we’ve got people from the likes of Malta and Bahrain.)  We have produced fan games galore, and even launched a model rocket in its honour.  A comic-book serial starring Mega Man has been launched -- and a thumpin’ good one, I’d vouch.  Mega Man himself has also been honoured with a playable crossover appearance in the upcoming Super Smash Bros. 4 games (so renamed because screw this business of recycled titles).  I myself have snuck countless references to our cause on my own blog, the Strawberry Dragon Project, which you are reading right now.  It would seem that Mega Man’s 25th anniversary was celebrated by literally -- OK, not really, I’ve become conscious about the overuse of the word “literally” these days -- virtually everybody except Capcom, who holds the keys to the licence itself.

Perhaps chief among all our accomplishments would be the successful kick-starting (in more ways than one) of Mighty No.9, a new IP bestowed upon us by no less than the co-creator of Mega Man himself, Keiji Inafune.  I don’t know about you, but having viewed this development in the context of what Legends 3 could -- nay, should -- have been, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with getting this in its place.  It’s like getting a consolation prize on a game show.  But when considering the big picture, the story of Mighty No.9 is, in essence, about a force for creative individuality (Inafune-sama) pitting himself against a giant bureaucratic entity (Capcom) and the souless stasis it enforces.  So yeah, I ended up backing it in the end, and I regret nothing.

But if anything brought closure to this matter, or at least the next best thing, it would be the news that not one, but two of the fangames are attempting to re-create what Legends 3 could have been.  One seeks to incorporate the story and some gameplay elements of the equally-cancelled Legends 3 Prologue into classic 2D Mega Man gameplay.  And one is a straight-up, full-3D reconstruction of the game.  Who knows how far that last one will get, but just announcing it with whatever progress they've made thus far is a heartwarming achievement in and of itself.  If you have not already done so, I invite you to watch their (currently Japanese-only) trailer, the intro of which really hits me in the feels.  But now I feel I am at a point where I can let this whole ordeal free from my soul.  I'm not going to un-Like the Facebook page or anything like that, perish the thought; it's more of an emotional thing, you know?

In conclusion, to those reading this letter, I offer two pieces of advice.  First, don’t obsess over this matter.  If you let this cause cloud over your mind, you’ll never think a happy thought again, and you’ll never get to enjoy life.  Even if it’s just another cause to obsess over, like how Hayao Miyazaki’s farewell masterpiece The Wind Rises got snubbed for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, simply because the jurors respected animation so little as a serious art form that they couldn’t be arsed to do their job properly.  ...Fat lot of good that did, then.  Of course, don’t forget about our cause completely; come back to it once every couple of months or so, and make a positive contribution.

And to that effect, my second advice is: know your enemy.  We need to direct our focus onto the top-level management of Capcom in Japan.  It’s all well and good to score interviews with Inafune-sama and other such people who wanted to make Legends 3, but I think it would have been even better to land an interview with Capcom’s CEO or somesuch.  That way, we’d be asking the right questions to the right people.  As I learned from the villain in a James Bond movie (brownie points for guessing which one), “the key to a good story is not who, or what, or when, but why.”  Only by knowing the “why” of all parties involved, and acting based on them, can we make true progress in the world.

Legends never die,

Kevin M.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

History of DDR: DanceDanceRevolution (2010)

Previously on the History of Dance Dance Revolution, there were DDR X2 for the PlayStation 2, and DDR Hottest Party 3 for the Wii.  I thought little of them at the time, and still do, but their announcement earlier in 2009 came with promises of more advanced titles for the PS3 and XBox 360.  Those, of course, never came to be... at least that year.  But the following year, the seventh-generation consoles were finally* with Dance Dance Revolution games to call their own: the simply-titled DanceDanceRevolution, which released first for the PS3 and Wii, with an XBox 360 port following shortly after.

And it sucked.


I assume.  Yeah, as with the previous entries, I've yet to play this one, because it's not doing a heck of a whole lot to interest me.  First of all, let's start with the title: no number, no subtitle, just "DanceDanceRevolution".  I'd like to state for the record that I hate when people recycle a title with little to no changes when making a sequel to some form of media.  I hate this practise so much that I might even write a top-ten list on the subject.  To be fair, it is just one word in CamelCaps this time around, unlike the 1998 arcade game, its home port for Japan, and the 2001 home game which used a somewhat different engine.  And yes, I guess they did it to ring in a new console generation...  Oh wait, there was the DDR Universe series!  ...Oh wait, that was an XBox 360 exclusive.  Never mind.  Meanwhile, over in Europe, the game was blessed with the subtitle "New Moves" on the PS3 and 360, and "Hottest Party 4" on the Wii.  And I'm like, why couldn't you have done that over here!?  *sigh*  As it stands, I shall collectively refer to the new games as DDR 2010.

So enough about the title, what's the game itself like?  Well, speaking at least for the "New Moves" versions, the interface colour scheme is dominated by reds and blacks, and the music-select screen brigns back the 5thMIX-through-SuperNOVA2 "music wheel" layout.  Oh, and the rating scale is once again brought back to the old 1-to-10 standard.  But not well, mind you.  For example, the Basic chart for "Let's Get Away" is ranked a 4, but it's really more like a 2, 3 tops.  After playing second-banana to the Guitar Hero / Rock Band duumvirate for some years, DDR 2010 attempts to incorporate some features from those games.  "Groove Chains", or short sequences of notes that offer bonus points when completed without error, and "Groove Trigger", which you can activate at full health to get bonus points, both borrow elements of the Star Power/Overdrive systems from those rival games.  In theory, I do admire these embellishments as attempts to liven up gameplay which has for the most part remained stale since 2001 (when they invented Freeze Arrows).  But the execution leaves something to be desired.  To use Groove Trigger, for example, you have to press Up and Up-Right or Up-Left immediately after, or flick the right analog stick on a separate controller.  And the game still tallies the bonus points earned from these gimmicks separately from your base score (out of 1 million), so in the end it's kind of pointless.

Club Mode in the PS3 version.
DDR 2010 game lacks a Nonstop course mode in the traditional sense, but it does (the PS3 and 360 versions do, at least) feature a Club Mode, which has you playing a random selection of 4 to 20 songs without breaks, and is the primary method of unlocking new songs.  The only problem, at least for experienced players, is that it always starts you out on Beginner-level charts.  The "Hands and Feet" mode from the later PS2 entries has been reincarnated as "Step and Move", which uses the dance pad along with the Move camera and wand (PS3 only).   This time around, there are targets on all four corners of the screen, and you use your wand to trigger them for the appropriate note markers.  From what I've seen of this mode, it has an unfortunate tendency of forcing you to twist your upper body at odd angles to hit the right markers, as if you were playing high-speed Twister with no tactile feedback.  And you know that 8-panel mode that was teased in the 2009 trailer?  Yeah, it's still in this game -- the new dance pads finally have eight panels, after all -- but like the Shock Arrows in DDR X, they're only used for a scant handful of Challenge-level charts.  Meanwhile, the Wii version has carried over the Balance Board-supported Choreography Mode from Hottest Party 3.

Choreography Mode in the Wii version.
But if you were to ask me, and by reading this blog you implicitly did so, the make-or-break feature for any music game is, duh, the music.  And it is in this arena that DDR 2010 sucks a fat one.  Of the licenced songs chosen for this game, which would I characterise the whole thing with?  "Hey, Soul Sister" by Train.  "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz.  "Battlefield" by Jordin Sparks.  And "Need You Now" by Lady Antebellum.  You see the problem, don't you?  If you're not familair with those songs, I'll give it to you straight: they're too slow and dull for a dancing game!  Oh, and you read that last one right: there's now a country-western song in a Dance Dance Revolution game.  A really good country-western song mind you, but not something I'd want to dance to.  Okay, to be fair, there have been slow songs in the older games which I didn't mind, but those were Konami originals for the most part.  And there are more... active choices in this game -- I guess I'd highlight "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, "crushcrushcrush" by Paramore, "Rio" by Duran Duran, and "Venus" by Bananarama -- but the damage was done by the lower end of the quality spectrum.

As for the Konami originals, well, I guess they're okay; they're pretty much going through the same motions by now.  For the bosses, there's another level-10 happy-hardcore song, and another "Evolved" song.  Also "MAX 300".  Oh right, I forgot to mention, there are 5 revival songs in this game, the other four being "Afronova" from 3rdMIX, "Sweet Sweet Magic" and "Tsugaru" from MAX2, and "Hana Ranman (Flowers)" from SuperNOVA.  Plus, there are even more songs available as downloadable content: 30 songs across 6 packs, all revivals spanning the classic through the SuperNOVA eras.  This arguably makes for the most interesting material in the game, but if that's so, it's pretty sad when you think about it.  For one, you have to pay extra for the best content, and two, the best content is stuff you've already seen before.  So is the 2010 DanceDanceRevolution the worst game in the series?  It'd be hard to say that for certain, what with all those pint-sized spin-off releases Japan got back in the day, but at least among the full-budget, worldwide (at least for more than one region) releases, it'd be easier to make that accusation.  And for what we were promised in 2009, it's easily the most disappointing.

Next episode is on both an arcade and a home game...  I do hope this next installment of History of Dance Dance Revolution will bring something more interesting to the table.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Shooter Month: Star Fox Assault

Star Fox Assault
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release: Nintendo GameCube, 14 February 2005
  • Genre: 3D Action
  • Players: 1-4
  • Save: Memory Card, 5 Blocks
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$15-30
Star Fox fans just can't catch a break, eh?  Considering how rarely new games come out for this series, you'd think Star Fox 64 is its only entry.  There's the first game on the Super NES, which runs about as well as a car with square wheels, so we might as well forget about that.  Five years of waiting for a follow-up to SF64 left us with Star Fox Adventures, Rare's swan song as a second-party developer for Nintendo, took so many pages from The Legend of Zelda's book that it apparently lost its identity as a Star Fox game.  No, I'm sure it's still a good game!  I haven't actually played it, but I'm just trying to foster some understanding here.  So let's just skip ahead to the next entry, 2005's Star Fox Assault.  This one promises a return to form, to the spacecraft-based combat it popularised, only to dilute the experience with generic third-person shooter stages.  So the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

In the time since the end of Adventures (I guess), the foxy female... fox Krystal has replaced Peppy Hare as one of the four pilots of the Star Fox team, but apart from that, everything is just as SF64 left it.  The first level starts in medias res, with Star Fox and allies fighting a successor to Andross's armies from the old games, only to discover a new threat in the form of the Aparoids: an insect-like alien race prone to corrupting other ships in some capacity.  Thus, Star Fox's quest to quell the Aparoid menace serves as the plot over Assault's ten levels.  That's a step down from the total of 15 in Star Fox 64, and instead of that game's branching-path system, Assault lays them out in a more traditional linear fashion.  However, you can also re-play specific levels at will, instead of having to start a new campaign, in case you're attempting a medal run on a specific level.  And besides, the stages are considerably longer than those of SF64, most featuring two or three objectives each.  I may have had the same problem with Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and 007 Legends, but with stages lasting generally no more than 10 minutes apiece once you know what you're doing, I guess I can let that slide.

Get bonus points for finishing off groups of enemies,
or larger targets like these.
Of the ten stages, only four take place solely in an Arwing, set in an automatically-scrolling corridor.  As before, you score points by shooting down enemies, with bonuses earned for taking down large targets, or multiple enemies with one shot, all in the hopes of earning enough for a medal.  The mechanics here are much the same as in SF64, including the charged lock-on shots.  The other levels take place in more stationary environs, as an evolution of the "All-Range Mode" levels from SF64.  It's here that Assault seems to have garnered its bad reputation.  Think about it, it's the first "true" Star Fox game in eight years, and it tries to limit the amount of time spent on the gameplay it first became famous for.  But you know what?  I actually found the on-foot segments as fun as -- or even more fun than -- the Arwing stages.  Yeah, fire in the hole, man.  Maybe it's because shooter games (not the scrolling shoot-em-up variety, mind you) have over the past few years gone so far in a direction inconsistent with my tastes that I'm just playing Assault to cleanse my figurative palate, or I just got bored with Star Fox 64 so long ago that the same has been done automatically, but long-winded excuses aside, the all-range levels felt fast-paced and -- most importantly -- fun.

Whilst traversing outside a vehicle, Fox McCloud is armed with his trusty blaster, which can do automatic fire by lightly holding the R button, or charge up a shot by holding the trigger all the way.  It's a shame certain larger enemies are shielded against everything but explosives and charged-up blaster shots (and even then, it takes multiple of those to take them down).  In these and other cases, you'll want to seek out alternate weapons, like the easy-to-use Machine Gun which is, again, useless against shielded enemies, the overpowered Rocket Launcher and Sniper Rifle, and the generally useless Grenades and Sensor Bombs.  As opposed to the Arwing corridor stages, bonus points are awarded by taking down enemies in quick succession.  In doing so, you'll continually seek out targets to keep your combo meter full, which does wonders for the pacing of these sections.

Even the Landmaster was fun to use in these levels; its cannon can overpower just about any enemy's shields, and the extra protection from its shields is just icing on the tactical cake.  Compare that with how the Landmaster (and the Blue Marine, thankfully absent from Assault) was handled in SF64: basically slower and stiffer versions of the same Arwing experience.  It is ironic, in that sense, that the Arwing sections of Assault have a slower feel to them.  Another thing that disappointed me about the Arwing stages is that whereas in the original Star Fox and SF64, pressing and holding the fire button would launch a burst of four or so shots before (in SF64) charging up a lock-on shot, in Assault, pressing the A button only fires one shot before charging.  So if you want to fire a rapid stream of lasers, either break out a turbo controller or your best rapid-tapping technique.  May your controller stay intact after the final mission.

I liked taking the Landmaster for a spin now that
I have complete control over it.
The musical score is comprised mostly of tunes from Star Fox 64, albeit re-recorded with a full orchestra.  As much as I would cry foul about the use of "recycled" material, let's face it -- for whatever reason, video game soundtracks over the last decade or so have lost the memorable appeal of the 8- and 16-bit eras.  So you might as well update something that already works, I guess.  The voice actors have also been re-cast since SF64.  Whilst I will forever associate the series' characters with their old voices, and even after the re-cast Slippy is still as un-endearing as ever, I will admit these new guys are far more capable of emoting properly.  And certain moments in the story, like when the Star Fox team must ally with their rivals Star Wolf and shoot down their Aparoid-corrupted commanding officer in the same mission, are certainly a step above the emotional bar set up by previous games, so it's nice the actors are able to handle that material.

I can understand the disappointment associated with Star Fox Assault.  Entries in this particular series are few and far between, and not one of them has seen fit to perfect the formula pioneered by the original -- scratch that, the N64 one.  But I'd be willing to vouch for Assault, even -- scratch that, especially for its all-range stages.  Because I realised something while playing them: it feels like a spiritual successor to Jet Force Gemini, only a lot more fluid.  Yeah, it would have been nice to get two separate, full-sized games, one for each style presented therein.  (Obviously, one of those two games would be retooled as a full-on sequel to Jet Force Gemini.  ...Hey, a guy can dream.)  But for what we got, I ain't complaining.

Control: 4 out of 5
Design: 4 out of 5
Graphics: 5 out of 5
Audio: 5 out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Shooter Month: Star Fox

Star Fox
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Argonaut Games
  • Release: Super NES, March 1993
  • Genre: 3D Action (Flight simulator)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost: Common, US$10-20
Thus far in Shooter Month, I've focused on the top-down, 2D variety of shoot-em-ups.  But in an effort to spice things up, I'm taking this special feature in a new direction -- and an extra dimension.  And it's not just any 3D shooter I'm showcasing this time around.  Flight simulators have employed simulated 3D graphics for a long time now, but 1993 proved to be a banner year in this field.  It was the year in which Nintendo, courtesy of third-party developer Argonaut, brought polygons to one of their home consoles in the form of Star Fox for the Super Nintendo.  We all know that the Super NES can do some amazing things with 2D graphics, thanks to techniques involving "Mode 7", but certainly the calculations needed to handle polygons in three-dimensional space would be out of its reach, right?  Well, that's why Nintendo and Argonaut  developed an additional sub-processor called the Super FX chip, which was built into every copy of the Star Fox Game Pak.  I suppose we should be thankful that they went down this route, as opposed to developing an expansion console, like the Sega CD or 32X for the Genesis.

In a word -- a solar system, rather -- populated by human-like animals, an army led by Andross, the emperor of the planet Venom, is extending its reach across the rest of the system -- the hard way.  The only force who can stop him is Star Fox, an elite fighter-pilot team consisting of four motley members and their space-capable ships, the Arwings.  And that's where you come in.  Before starting a new game, you get to set up your control scheme, which includes the option to switch the Up/Down controls.  I guess it was pretty neat for them to have thrown that in as an option; perhaps fewer Super NES owners were familiar with flight simulators at the time.  After that menu, you choose which of three paths to take in your game, which also serves as a difficulty setting.  Each path contains five or six levels, and lasts an hour or less.  It's a more linear version of the branching-path system later employed in Star Fox 64, but I like it here.  There's more to each of the difficulties than the quantity of enemies and how much damage they take or dish out; but rather, each difficulty is a separate experience.  And since there's no medal system, you don't have to play through 6 other levels you've already got medals on just to replay that one level you need.

But then the game proper starts, and all your expectations are shattered by the first frames of animation.  Look, Mr. Super FX chip, if the best you can render in real-time is twenty or so flat-shaded, non-patterned polygons per object, I'm okay with that.  But if it takes so much effort that you can only manage that at ten to twenty frames per second, then why even bother?  What I'm saying to the rest of you is that the choppy frame rate makes Star Fox painful to look at in motion.  And painful to play, too: for some reason, the frame rate makes the movement controls feel a little sluggish and imprecise.  Just be thankful they weren't able to fit more obstacles on-screen, or getting through unscathed would be akin to threading the eye of a needle with a car driving on ice.  That said, I am genuinely impressed by what they did manage to throw in.  For example, one of the bosses can make duplicates of itself and leave after-images of itself in its wake, and one of the later stages forces you to dodge blocks falling from the sky or even forming in mid-air.

The Arwing spacecraft utilises two weapons: a blaster and a limited supply of smart-bombs.  The blaster can be upgraded with certain items, adding a much-needed boost to the spaces covered by your shots.  Trust me, you'll appreciate the extra coverage, because aiming is a chore.  Since most levels lack a targeting reticule, the only way to aim your shots is to adjust based on the last shot you fired.  Some levels take place in outer space instead; and in these levels you can press the Select to switch the camera angle in and out of your Arwing's cockpit.  Enabling this first-person view displays an aiming cursor, which is a big help for aiming.  Except you can only do this in the space stages, not on the planets.  Riddle me this, Star Fox: why would you add a convenience which addresses what I'd dare say is a major flaw in the game experience, but only apply it to a select few portions of yourself!?  Oh yeah, and it's also possible to break one or both of your Arwing's wings, in which case your blaster goes back down to the base level, and all upgrade items get replaced with wing-repair items.  It's bad enough that these upgrades are rare enough as it is, but having to take another such step before I can even re-start the process suchs even more.

I do take other, smaller issues with Star Fox, that not even the best of graphical upgrades would address.  For example, you share the skies with your wingmen -- Peppy the rabbit, Slippy the frog, and Falco the bird.  Their radio dialogue isn't accompanied by true voice acting, but looped chattering sound effects which, combined with their relatively uncommon rate of occurrence, aren't nearly as annoying as they could be.  But all the same, what little interaction they have with the player doesn't offer them a lot of characterisation.  Occasionally they will find themselves chased by a bogey, which you must knock out at your leisure.  But my problem with that is: what's my motivation?  And then there's the scoring system: when your points are tallied at the end of each level, you can earn extra lives at certain milestones.  But instead of absolute point values for shooting different kinds of enemies, your scores are represented by a percentage of enemies shot down.  And I'm pretty sure I've gotten 100%, or an otherwise high percentage, even after having missed a fair number of targets.  Are there certain things you're not counting and not telling me, Star Fox?  Work with me, please!  (Apologies for attempting to reason with an inanimate video game.)

Out of all the relatively sparse entries in the Star Fox series, I'd estimate that the majority of the fans' attention is focused on the follow-up Star Fox 64, and with good reason.  I mean, the series' last activity to date was a remake of SF64 on the 3DS.  And I cry foul on that account: if any entry deserved a remake on some halfway decent technology, it would be the original.  Star Fox 2, its would-be sequel, may have been the most high-profile cancelled video game until Mega Man Legends 3 came along -- or rather, didn't come along.  But let's face it -- Nintendo was right to focus on the Nintendo 64.  Star Fox may have served as valuable experience for Nintendo in working with 3D graphics, but the finished product just wasn't ready for prime time.  Let me put it this way: I'd give it an A for effort, but a D for execution.

Control: 2 out of 5
Design: 3 out of 5
Graphics: 2 out of 5
Audio: 4 out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Shooter Month: Summer Carnival '92: Recca

Summer Carnival '92: Recca
  • Publisher: Naxat Soft
  • Developer: Kid
  • Release:
    • NES, 17 July 1992 (Japan only)
    • Nintendo 3DS, 5 September 2013
  • Genre: 2D Action (Shoot-em-up)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • NES: Very rare, US$300-1,000
    • 3DS: DLC, US$5
You know when a new video game console comes on the market, but its predecessor still has a good deal of life left in it?  That can lead to some awkward, even unfortunate, moments.  For example, Shantae has been cited by some as the best game ever made for the Game Boy Color -- I believe I may have implied something of that nature.  The problem was, by the time it was released, the Game Boy Advance had been on the market for a year, so for the sake of putting their resources where the hip new thing was at, Capcom made only a limited production run of the game.  Oh wait, this was the same Capcom that cancelled Mega Man Legends 3... okay, bad example.

Let's move on to the actual subject of today's review: Summer Carnival '92: Recca, a shoot-em-up released only in Japan for the Nintendo Famicom, but two years into the lifespan of the Super Famicom.  From what I've read, Recca was made for an annual shooting-game competition, something which apparently was all the rage in early-90s Japan.1  So, it's sort of like Nintendo World Championships '90 and those other multi-game challenge carts, right?  Not exactly; it has a fully-featured single-player campaign, albeit a short one, and it had its own production run, with a box and everything.  A very limited production run, mind you; a hard copy of the game will either cost you hundreds or even thousands of US dollars.  Or you could visit and see how you could get a copy made out for around $20.  Thankfully, that all changed in 2013, when Nintendo offered the game on the 3DS eShop for a mere $5.  But even at that low price, is Recca worth it?

Letting go of the trigger button
charges a bomb.
Recca offers three modes, all designed for one player: a standard campaign consisting of four stages, a Score Attack mode where you have two minutes to score as many points as possible, and a Time Attack mode where you have five minutes to score a million points.  No matter which mode you select, your ship has a main weapon which can be changed and upgraded with blue-coloured items, and will thankfully auto-fire when you hold the B button.  But let go of B, and an energy meter at the bottom of the screen will fill up.  Press B again when it is full, and you launch a bomb which lingers on the screen for a few seconds.  Furthermore, you can pick up red-coloured items to gain and power-up a secondary helper gun, which fires when you hold the A button.  Think the Option modules from Gradius or R-Type and you've got the idea.  But these extra turrets offer more than just added firepower.  Recca has a peculiar scoring system: in addition to earning points for shooting targets, your score increments automatically -- as long as you're not firing your main weapon.  So while running through the levels with B held down and guns blazing is a perfectly acceptable strategy for survival, it would not have won you the tournament this game was made for.

And your skills would need to be of tournament-ready caliber in order to thrive, nay, survive in Recca.  As I said before, there are only four stages in the main game, each of which last five to ten minutes and host at least two bosses, so it's not much for length.  (Unless you beat the game and reset, in which case you get to play a second campaign, like The Legend of Zelda's second quest.)  But what it lacks there, it more than makes up for in challenge -- specifically, in its pace.  Enemies fly onto the screen from all directions at a tremendous rate, so there will be many, many ships and bullets for you to dodge.  And you lose all your power-ups every time you get hit.  A lot of games do that, so I'm not gonna single out Recca on this offence, but still, I'm never a fan of this decision.  If our ship's gonna be a one-hit-point-wonder anyway, why not let us keep our upgrades until we continue?  Or maybe I'm just not good enough to appreciate this game, whatever.  Ironically, most bosses tend to be easier than the stages leading up to them, since you only need to drop a few bombs on them to win.  Which is why I feel no shame whatsoever in sharing with you an infinite-lives cheat.  Ready?  Here it goes: Hold Select during the opening Naxat Soft logo.  This will open a menu where you can change the score target for Time Attack mode.  Before leaving this screen, press Start whilst holding A, B, Select, and Up.  Start a game in any mode and you will have infinite lives.

Recca employs various background effects and doesn't often slow down.
Summer Carnival '92: Recca is a well-put-together shooter, don't get me wrong.  But for some reason I just couldn't connect with it.  Maybe it's the visual aesthetics; the colour pallette seems to focus on reds, blues, and violets, making for a somewhat monochromatic affair.  And even though I will give credit to the graphics engine for employing special effects to the backgrounds every once in a while, and only suffering slowdown in rare, specific instances, the combination of warping backdrops and limited colours makes the visual action hard to make out, or at the very least a little ugly.  Maybe it's the soundtrack; it seems to be going for a house/jock-jam feel, with intricate beats and lots of sound-effect samples.  It's impressive in theory; you don't see, or rather hear, many NES soundtracks emulating real-world musical genres.  But it suffers a similar problem I had with 1942 in that with the NES's sound hardware, it just isn't rendered in a pleasing manner.  I don't know, maybe if this soundtrack got a remake with some real production, I'd like it a lot more.  Or maybe I'm just the type of gamer who demands a difficulty curve on which I can ride a game to the end without relying on cheat codes.  Oh well, practise makes perfect, I guess.

Control: 4 out of 5
Design: 3 out of 5
Graphics: 4 out of 5
Audio: 3 out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

1ZZZ. "Recca".  Hardcore Gaming 101.  21 April 2007