Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Game Review: Super Star Wars

Super Star Wars
  • Publisher: JVC / Lucasarts
  • Developer: Sculptured Software
  • Release:
    • Super Nintendo, November 1992
    • PlayStation 4 / PS Vita, 17 November 2015
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Save: None (SNES)
America has come down once again with a case of Star Wars fever this year, owing no doubt to the upcoming release of the new movie, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  Therefore, in terms of video games, the talk of the town is on the new Star Wars Battlefront for the PlayStation 2 and XBox... sorry, I meant the other Star Wars Battlefront for the PlayStation 4 and XBox One.  DO YOU SEE HOW ANNOYING THIS GETS!?  Title aside, Star Wars Battlefront (the new one, that is) is yet another of those multiplayer-only shooters in the vein of Titanfall and Evolve, which thought they could get away without any single-player story content but still sell at full price.  On its own, it's simply bound to get old fast.  In comparison to the old Battlefront duology, each of those games being stuffed with enough features to choke a Sarlacc, it is unforgivable.  I haven't played Battlefront yet, but I'll end this rant by saying the game can go take a proton torpedo up its exhaust port, if you see what I mean.

Fortunately I have something else to fall back on, as the powers that be saw fit to release ports of Super Star Wars for the PS4 and PS Vita.  I'm a bit curious as to this decision, as the original game came out in 1992 for the Super NES, a non-Sony console.  Indeed, it used to be available on the Wii's Virtual Console shop, along with its sequels based on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but those have since been taken down due to an expired licence or something.  Well, whatever you're playing it on, you're getting more or less a straight adaptation of the original Star Wars film.  A young man, Luke Skywalker, comes across a pair of droids carrying plans for the Death Star, a planet-destroying space station built by the Galactic Empire, and he must bring them safely to the Rebel Alliance.  But you already knew that.

Much of the game is played as a jump-and-shoot platformer, similar to the Contra series.  Super Star Wars makes some welcome evolutions to Contra's formula, however.  Your blaster fires automatically when you hold down the fire button, and while doing so, you stay locked in place so you can aim in multiple directions without also moving around.  And perhaps most importantly, you can take more than one hit per life!  Yes, you have a health meter in this game, and not only are health pickups plentiful, with little ones coming out of nearly every enemy you kill, but you can extend it with "Health Sword" powerups (because the health meter is drawn like a lightsaber, I guess...).  Other pickups include blaster upgrades, invincibility shields, thermal detonator bombs, and Darth Vader heads which doubles the points you earn for a limited time.  Over the course of the game, Luke gains a lightsaber in addition to his blaster, and later on you can choose to play as Han Solo or Chewbacca instead of Luke, who lack the lightsaber (and the awesome, almost overpowered spinny-jump slice that comes with it), but start off with a blaster upgrade and/or a longer health bar.
By holding the fire button, you can aim in multiple directions.
But don't think for a second that this is an easy game.  It may look like you have a long health bar even without upgrades, and enemies don't seem to do much damage, but there are a lot of enemies.  And if you do lose all your health, all your upgrades go along with it.  I do hate when games do this, because it makes it that much harder to get back on track.  Furthermore, enemies can push you around easily, which makes what few spots of precision platforming all the more treacherous and unfair.  Not helping is the semi-isometric perspective the walls and floors are drawn in, making it a bit tough to determine where each platform begins and ends.  Also, there's a timer counting down as you play each level, but before you start panicking, you don't die when it expires (cf. Mario and Sonic), you just don't get a time bonus at the end.  Granted, points are important in this game, as you're given extra lives at certain milestones (cf. Sonic again), and trust me, you'll need them.

And then the levels themselves offer their own flavours of unnecessary challenge.  The first major wall of difficulty comes in the form of the fourth level, where you're inside the Sandcrawler searching for R2-D2.  About half-way through, just after the only checkpoint in the level, you have to get past these laser grids which block you when you get close.  You're supposed to get past these by sliding (hold Down and press the jump button), but it's more of an art than a science, and you're liable to get hurt by at least one, if not all of them.  And then there's a surprise waiting for you when you get down to the final floor: instant-kill lava, or sand, or something.  Normally you can make longer and higher jumps by holding Up and pressing the jump button, but don't do it here or you'll just hit the ceiling and lose distance instead of gaining it.  And you're expected to fight a boss over the stuff.  And if you do die here, you go all the way back to the middle of the level, just before the aforementioned laser gates.  The Sandcrawler scene is not the only tough level in the game -- the one right afterwards has some precision platforming which has claimed many of my lives -- but it does set the tone for the rest of the game.

Vehicle sections punctuate
the gameplay experience.
That's not exactly true, however, as some levels break up the side-scrolling action by way of 3D vehicle sections.  In these levels, you pilot a landspeeder or X-Wing fighter and gun down a specific number of targets before you're allowed to move on.  They use the same perspective-scrolling technology (a.k.a. Mode 7) seen in games like Pilotwings, F-Zero, and Super Mario Kart.  It shows effort, which I like, and if I'm in a good mood I would call it fun.  But the vehicle controls are a bit too floaty for me to really get into it.  It's almost as if these things ride on air or something!  (It's funny because that's exactly the case.)  And riddle me this: how come we can only change direction by spending jet fuel?  The L and R buttons go unused during these levels; if you felt you had no other options, surely they could've been used to turn or strafe, right?  Super Star Wars only offers three of these levels, but it's nice to have that variety.  I'd say you'll never get bored playing this game, but then I reflect upon how long and monotonous the other levels are and I'm forced to retract that statement.

The soundtrack is appropriately John Williams-y, and the opening cutscene recreates the movie's famous text-scroll admirably.  Unfortunately, all the other cutscenes are just scrolling pictures and text; given what the Super Nintendo can do with manipulating images, I felt that more could've been done in this regard.  As for in-game storytelling, the levels are all based on events from the movie, albeit expanded for action's sake.  As I said with GoldenEye 007, it's always nice to add content to a story you're adapting.  So for simply being an adaptation of the source material, Super Star Wars does its job well, and for being a jump-and-shoot platformer, it also does its job well.  I can understand if its tough, but mostly fair, difficulty gets to you and prevents you from enjoying it in full.  In the end, it's a pretty good game, but play through it again?  I'd rather kiss a wookie!

+ Subtle improvements to the jump-and-shoot formula.
+ A faithful adaptation of the source material.
+ Occasional vehicle stages.
- Generally intense difficulty.
- Overly long and repetitive levels.
- Floaty controls in the occasional vehicle stages.
The Call: 70% (C+)

You might also like: Contra 3: The Alien Wars, Mega Man XSuper Metroid

Super Star Wars was followed by two sequels: Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in 1993, and Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in 1994, both based on the films they were named after, obviously.   There aren't enough differences in those games to warrant their own reviews, but I would like to say a few words on them now while I have the opportunity.  All those sequels are equally as hard as the original Super Star Wars, but add a password system for saving progress, which is good, and ditch the timer system, which doesn't really matter.  Also, Super Empire Strikes Back introduces Force powers, but they're integrated in a pretty stupid way.  You can only get them in one level, during the Dagobah swamp scene, and you can only find them by using the "flying" Force power, which you have to pick up in the previous stage!  At least you start out with the lot in Super Return of the Jedi, but why bother when you can play as Chewie, who has a spin attack which refuels automatically and keeps you invincible while it's active?  Either way, if you got through the first Super Star Wars intact and found it fun, try these games out as well.  But not Battlefront; that game can go deep-throat a lightsaber for all I care.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Game Review: Time Crisis 3

Time Crisis 3
  • Publisher: Namco
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release:
    • Arcade, 2003
    • PlayStation 2, 21 October 2003
  • Genre: 3D Action (Rail Shooter)
  • Players: 1-2
  • Save: Memory Card (212KB)
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Time Crisis II, which codified many well-received conventions which stuck with the rest of the series -- the "Growing the Beard" entry, if you will.  So, how do you follow that up?  With Time Crisis 3, obviously.  It follows much of TCII's example, sharing the same two-player setup and its improvements to the life mechanics, but does it do anything on top of that to set itself apart?  Oh, it finds a way.

In TC3, you play as yet another pair of colour-coded VSSE agents, but the circumstances they're dropped into are a bit different from the usual fare.  The setting is Astigos Island, a place heavily inspired by Greek islands such as Mykonos and Santorini, and it is currently under invasion by the army of the neighbouring Zagorias Federation, and its general (and the game's final boss), Giorgio Zott.  In terms of writing a believable story, that's already a step up from the megalomaniacal villain of, say, TCII.  In the various cutscenes, your player-characters also interact with a resistance fighter named Alicia Winston.  Whilst she doesn't have any effect on gameplay, this is an improvement from a storytelling perspective, considering that the usual role of women in Time Crisis games is that of the damsel in distress.  As arcade-based light-gun rail-shooters go, being a genre filled with excuse plots, I was not expecting the story in TC3 to be as juicy as it was, but there you go.  Granted, the voice- and motion-acting don't take themselves seriously enough to match the story, but baby-steps, people!

Shoot soldiers in yellow outfits for
special weapon ammo.
Story aside, TC3's unique selling point is its multiple-weapon system.  How it works is while you're hiding behind cover, you can pull the trigger on your light-gun to toggle between one of four weapons: the Handgun, the Machine Gun, the Shotgun, and the Grenade Launcher.  The catch is that, with the exception of the Handgun, ammo for these weapons is finite, and must be replenished by shooting yellow-garbed enemies (the same ones who gave you bonus time or points in previous games).  This is no quick gimmick, fortunately, but rather the game is designed around this additional functionality.  On the upside, the ammo-bearing mooks are just frequent enough that you should seldom run into shortages.  On the downside, there are also a lot of armoured enemies which take four or five regular shots to dispatch, not to mention all the bosses.  Yeah, I get the sneaking suspicion that the game wants me to use all those extra weapons.  You can still use your handgun for the whole game if you're a veteran raised on the old games, but your trigger finger will hate you for it.

In addition from the extra efforts put into the story and gameplay, the content has been buffed up considerably, too.  Both the arcade and Rescue Mission stories take around 30 minutes to clear, which doesn't sound like much, but is still an improvement for this series.  It feels like a longer journey, too, because each stage within each act takes place in a different setting.  In act one, for example, you go from a beach, to a wrecked ship, to fighting the boss on a moving Jeep.  That said, TC3 seems to have copied its action setpieces from the last game.  The first act's boss takes place on a set of moving vehicles, the second act takes place on a train, and the third act includes a mini-boss battle with, of course, Wild Dog.  As with the home port of TCII, TC3 lets you unlock unlimited continues and ammo for both your main and sub-weapons through repeated playthroughs and other achievements.
The Rescue Mission mode adds weapon upgrades and sniper levels into the mix.
Previous Time Crisis home ports experimented with either a second story campaign or a set of extra challenges, but the PlayStation 2 version of TC3 has both.  In service of the former, beating the game once unlocks the Rescue Mission, a second story starring Alicia, the aforementioned resistance fighter.  Much of her story runs parallel to that of the arcade mode, so you get to experience some of the same setpieces from a different angle, but there are new experiences thrown in as well.  Every couple of stages, the format switches to a sniper-based setup, where you point your scope at distant targets and move on when they're all gone.  These bits finally make use of the GunCon 2's extra functions: whilst zoomed in, you can use the D-pad on the back of the gun to move your field of view around without going back into hiding.  The multi-weapon system from the arcade mode also shows up in Rescue Mission, but with a twist.  Each of your three sub-weapons has their own experience meter which fills up with use, and when filled, increases that weapon's damage, fire rate, and/or ammo capacity.  It's a neat addition which even further encourages the use of your alternate weapons, but I wonder why they couldn't have patched it into the arcade mode as an unlockable extra.

Time Crisis 3 is yet another example of how to do a sequel right.  Now that Namco knew what they were doing, they were free to experiment with new mechanics.  And not only did they do so, but they managed to design the game around them, for better or worse, so they come across as less a tacked-on gimmick and more an integral part of gameplay.  Having a more intriguing story than the usual arcade shooter fare is a bonus, as well.  Is it the best light-gun shooter around?  I'd love to say so, but there's one other game which makes a strong case for that title, and you'll find out about it soon on the SDP!

+ The multi-weapon system.
+ A longer run-time compared to the rest of the series.
+ The "Rescue Mission" mode in the PS2 edition.
+ Probably the best story the series has ever had and will have.
- An over-reliance on armoured enemies.
- The action setpieces seem recycled from Time Crisis II.
- Motion and voice-acting is still a little campy.
The Call: 85% (B+)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Game Review: James Bond 007: The Duel

 James Bond 007: The Duel
  • Publisher: Domark / Tengen (NA)
  • Developer: Domark
  • Release: Sega Genesis/Game Gear, 1993
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Save: None
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed 007 Legends, which apparently performed so badly in retail that it killed off Activision's license to kill -- I mean, make James Bond video games.  So my dreams of the second coming of GoldenEye were killed off -- until I brought up the Google Play store one day, and chanced upon the latest 007-licensed "game" called James Bond: World of Espionage (not worth linking), and my dreams of the second coming of GoldenEye were killed off once again.  Glu Mobile, whomever they are, have turned this once-mighty brand into naught but a Clash of Clans clone.  Let me guess, does it trade off actual gameplay in favour of micro-transactions?  Well, pardon my French, but [verb] that [noun]!  ...Oh sorry, I did that wrong.

But as bad as times may seem now, you know what time really sucked for James Bond fans?  The early 1990s.  The film series was in the midst of a record six-year hiatus, due to a legal battle which I touched upon in my Licence to Kill review.  As for what we did get during that time period, well, it wasn't pretty.  There was that awful cartoon show James Bond Jr., and the subject of today's article: the video game James Bond 007: The Duel for Sega Genesis.  Released in 1993, The Duel is not tied into any one James Bond film or novel, despite the likeness of Timothy Dalton on the box art.  Oh, but he does also show up in the title screen below, except...
Dear goodness, Timmy, what have they done to you!?  ...Anyway, title screen abominations aside, Mr. Bond's in-game sprite lacks sufficient detail to specifically resemble Timothy Dalton or any of the other actors.  For all you know... hold on, let me think of somebody random... got it!  For all you know, you could be playing as Andrew Lloyd Webber in this game.  But on the subject of graphics, I do appreciate the animations in this game.  For example, you can make a little dance out of the animation of Bond passing his gun from one hand to the other (by tapping left or right on the D-pad).  The music's kind of cool, too, in a Jan Hammer Miami Vice kind of way.  The title screens and pre-game demo use a Genesis-friendly rendition of the James Bond theme, but thankfully it isn't recycled by the rest of the soundtrack, as is the case with GoldenEye, for example.  The sound effects do not reach the same high notes, pardon the pun.  The most annoying examples are the loud and hollow footfalls and Bond's grunting, which reminds me of the Frankenstein monster grunt Master P makes in his song "I Miss My Homies".

So graphics are one thing, but what is the gameplay like?  Well, The Duel is a side-scrolling shooter/platformer.  Mechanically, The Duel reminds me most of Rolling Thunder, an arcade side-scrolling shooter made by Namco in 1986.  You walk, jump, shoot, and duck to avoid enemy shots.  They even share a mechanic where you can hide in doorways, in the (vain) hope of letting an enemy forget about you and pass by.  But while Rolling Thunder's control was far too stiff, The Duel goes a bit too far in the opposite direction.  It's a little hard to describe, but there are lots of little things that feel off about the controls.  Bond has only one jump height, and the horizontal distance is often either too short or too long for the precision platforming you need at the moment.  As for walking speed, he's slow for about half a second when you press and hold a direction, but fairly zippy afterwards.  And here I thought the Genesis's "blast processing" was just a meaningless marketing boast, but what do I know?  Seriously, folks, if you're used to better physics engines like in Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog, you're going to have a bad time.

Gameplay revolves around rescuing hostages.
Your objective in The Duel is to explore each map searching for hostages to free, who all take the form of blonde ladies in short dresses.  And feminism marches on... without them.  Once you've found them all, you're not done yet.  You have to find a time bomb, set it, and reach the exit before time runs out.  Along the way, you are hounded by guards who will respawn if you take so much as a few steps away after killing them.  With the high speed of the gameplay, it can get annoying to be walking along and keep taking damage from enemies you don't have the time to react to.  In order to stay alive, you'll most likely take to firing blindly every few steps, which renders the flow of play as smooth as a rollercoaster on the fritz.  While you do have limited ammunition, the game is very generous with it, at least.  Enemies will always drop spare magazines until you're maxed out, and although there's no indicator of how many rounds you have left in your gun, each mag can last you quite a while.

As it turns out, there are only four levels to this game, not including the final boss arena: a ship, a jungle, a volcano, and a rocket launch site.  In other words, the settings of a generic "spy" adventure.  If I were feeling generous I would say they are rather sprawling levels for a 16-bit platformer, but either way it's still bloody short by any reasonable standards.  And just as you're getting the hang of things on your journey across the island of Dr. No-one In Particular, the third level presents you with a wall of difficulty.  For starters, getting around much of the place revolves around waiting for elevator platforms, side-to-side moving platforms, and side-to-side moving platforms that you hang from, which all take so long to get from one end to the other that you may very well assume you've reached a dead end at some point.  Some of these platforms add irregularly-timed flame jets which are virtually impossible to avoid, and you have to go through at least one of these gauntlets in order to find all the hostages!  And of course, this being a volcano-themed level, most of those scrolling platforms hover over magma pools, which of course results in instant death upon contact with 00 agents.  But the third level aside, this game is still unforgiving.  You get five lives and five hit points per life, but only one continue.  And even those life points can leave you quickly due to the aforementioned steady stream of soldiers.  Enemy shots can knock you quite far back, and there's falling damage to deal with, too; even a couple of stories down results in, you guessed it, an instant death.  Also, mercy invincibility apparently was one luxury which slipped the programmer's mind.  The lack thereof ruined Milon's Secret Castle before, and it ruins The Duel in turn.

Most bosses have a spot you can stand in
where they won't hit you.
Every so often you'll come across a level boss plucked from one of James Bond's earlier adventures, like Jaws, Baron Samedi, Mayday, etc. because "Canon?  What canon?".  There are two problems with these bosses, however.  One: they are optional, as it turns out.  For example, you can easily skip Baron Samedi in the second level by going through the base instead of over it.  And two: with one exception, each and every one of these bosses can be bested without breaking a sweat, by standing in a certain spot where they won't bother to reach you.  For example, in the first level you fight Jaws, but if you stand on the left-side stairway in just the right spot, he'll just turn around as if you weren't there.  Even the final boss (it's Jaws again) can be conquered in such a manner.

I should mention that there is a Game Gear port of The Duel out there as well, so I will.  I don't feel it's worth devoting another full review to, however, so I'll describe it in brief.  It's longer than the Genesis version, both in the sense that it has more levels (that's good), but also that the action runs incredibly slowly (that's bad).  And for some reason, you can choose to have either music or sound effects play in-game but not both.  What?  I've played a bundle of Game Gear titles in my days and never once before has being able to play both music and sound effects been an issue!  So yeah, don't bother with this version unless you consider yourself a man or woman of patience.

As for the Genesis version, you might need just as much patience to make it through this one.  It's got that old-school difficulty schema where they instead of making more levels, they just made it harder to get through them.  Still, it's the kind of difficulty where you can still conquer it once you've had practice, and you know where to find the hostages, and where to encounter enemies as they respawn ad nauseum.  But still, four levels is still anemic for a 16-bit video game.  And I did praise the animations and music a few paragraphs ago, but they do just about nothing to build up the context of being James Bond.   As it stands, it's just another licenced hack-job of the side-scroller age, and one best left ignored.  

+ Fluid character animation.
+ Cool music.
- Generally unforgiving difficulty.
- Awkward motion physics.
- No story to speak of.
- Overly short length.
The Call: 35% (F)

You might like instead: Rolling Thunder 2, Contra: Hard Corps, Vectorman

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Game Review: Time Crisis II

Time Crisis II
  • Publisher: Namco
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release:
    • Arcade, 1998
    • PlayStation 2, 1 October 2001
  • Genre: 3D Action (Rail Shooter)
  • Players: 1-2
  • Save: Memory Card (74KB)
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed the first game in the Time Crisis series.  Despite its flaws such as the steep difficulty curve, I find it sad to remark that it's become increasingly hard to find in arcades these days.  The same cannot be said of its sequel, Time Crisis II, which launched in 1997 or 1998 and is still relatively common to this day.  Now, how could that be the case?  And why did Namco wait until the PlayStation 2 came out before making a home port?  On the off chance I'll be able to answer those questions, let's see what's changed.

Our excuse plot this time around concerns an industrialist named Ernesto Diaz, who has just finished launching a network of communication satellites into space, only as a cover for sending nuclear weapons up there as well.  This time around, VSSE sends two agents (named Keith Martin and Robert Baxter) to stop him in his tracks, kicking off a series tradition of colour-coded heroes in red (for Player 1) and blue (P2) outfits.  There's also an allied informant named Christy Ryan who tips off VSSE about the evil plot, but she gets captured in the opening cutscene and doesn't show up again until the final chapter.  This game doesn't nearly pass the Bechdel Test, is what I'm trying to get across.  Oh, and Wild Dog returns, this time demoted to the rank of mini-boss.
TCII finally adds a visual warning for shots
that are about to hit you. (PS2 version.)
But where TCII fails to innovate in terms of story, it does so in gameplay.  At long last, there is a visual aid to warn you when an enemy shot is about to hit you, in the form of a red ring called a "Crisis Sight", as the game puts it.  It only lasts for half a second or so, but when it is on screen it stands out, and let's face it, it's better than nothing.  Oh, and if you remember struggling to keep your time limit up in the old game, you're going to love this: instead of carrying over throughout the whole game, your time limit resets for each scene, and if it runs out, you merely lose one life instead of the whole game.  Also, your gun's magazine holds nine bullets instead of the six from before.  That's something else, I guess.  I know this doesn't have much to do with difficulty, but TCII replaces its predecessor's time-based ranking with a more traditional scoring system.  You get point bonuses by landing shots in quick succession, landing a series of shots without missing, and by landing shots on the hard-to-find gold-uniformed enemies who gave time bonuses in the last game.  Shooting an ally character, by mistake or otherwise, docks you a few points instead of a whole life as in other rail shooters, which again helps make for a less stressful experience than usual.

Both the first and second-player sides
branch off to different paths at times.
(PS2 version.)
The story mode is once again on the short side, clocking in at 15 to 20 minutes, and combined with the more forgiving mechanics, it makes the game feel like less of a challenge than before.  The PlayStation 2 version fails to include any additional campaigns, as with some other games in the series.  That's not to say TCII lacks any replay value, however.  To get the full experience, you'll want to play on both the P1 and P2 sides, as they will occasionally branch off into different paths and converge later on, giving the different players chances to see scenes from different angles.  As for the home version, there are numerous unlocks to be had.  For your first play-through, you'll have a limited number of continues, but this can be extended by either beating the game or using up all your continues, until you eventually unlock the Free Play option.  By beating certain score and/or time targets, you can unlock alternate fire modes similar to the special weapons in later games.  On top of that, there also shooting-gallery minigames to be unlocked, some of them based on Namco's old gun-game machines, and a series of "Crisis Mission" challenges which you'd be mad to attempt to earn all the medals on.

Speaking of the home version, it is backwards-compatible with the PlayStation's GunCon, but also came bundled with a new light-gun model designed for the PS2: the GunCon 2.  The GunCon 2 adds a few extra buttons, including one below the handle if you want to pantomime reloading the magazine, along with a D-pad up along the back.  Even though TCII doesn't use these extra buttons for any specific features, the D-pad in particular is a very ergonomic option when used as a button to hide and reload with.  As for re-creating the two-player experience of the arcades, your options are either split-screen or to link up two PS2 consoles by their iLink (a.k.a. Firewire) ports.  Don't remember iLink?  That's probably because it was abandoned by later models of the PS2, even before the redesigned version from 2004.  Besides, this option would require you to own two TV monitors, two PS2s, two copies of the game, and two GunCons.  If you're that intent on re-creating the arcade setup, you're probably better off buying an original arcade cabinet.

If I had to guess why, I'd say the lasting appeal of this game owes itself to the inclusion of a two-player option.  The Time Crisis II arcade cabinet basically consists of two side-by-side machines which can either run independently or in co-operative multiplayer.  Think about it from the arcade operator's point of view: you can get more income from a game that supports two people than with one, i.e. the first Time Crisis.  As for the home port, it's nice that Namco went above and beyond the call, and added unlockable content to pad out the game's short running time.  But TCII's lasting legacy is how it brought its series to a more accessible level of difficulty, and whether it makes the game more fun or too easy to be fun is a call best left for you, the player.

+ New mechanics and rules make the game more accessible.
+ The two-player co-op mode.
+ The new GunCon 2, designed for the PlayStation 2 version.
- The new mechanics do take away most of the challenge from the first game.
- Still on the short side.
- Imperfect multiplayer options on the home version.
The Call: 75% (B-)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Game Review: Time Crisis: Project Titan

Time Crisis: Project Titan
  • Publisher: Namco
  • Developer: Flying Tiger Development
  • Release: PlayStation, 20 June 2001
  • Genre: 3D Action (Rail Shooter)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Memory Card, 1 Block
A lot had changed in the Time Crisis franchise between the release of the first game and the Summer of 2001, the general release date of our current subject.  In the arcades, the sequel Time Crisis II made multiple long-lasting changes to the series formula, mostly for the better, and the spin-off Crisis Zone shook things up in its own direction as well.  But neither of these games were given home ports in a timely fashion.  Maybe Namco was just waiting for something better than the PlayStation to run them on, as both games were eventually ported to the PlayStation 2, another development in that aforementioned time frame.  But before those games came to be, Namco and third-party developer Flying Tiger gave PSone owners one more run with the gun, with the console-only sequel Time Crisis: Project Titan.

The story fails to live up to its potential.
Project Titan once again stars Richard Miller, the leather-jacket-clad one-man-army from the first game.  This time around, he has been framed for the assassination of the president of Caruba, a fictional Caribbean island, and has 48 hours to clear his name.  You won't be able to get a handle on the stakes outside of the opening cutscene, however.  Without wishing to spoil, the game has a nasty habit of discarding plot points at the end of each of its four acts, as if this inanimate work of software had somehow come down with a case of ADD.  With wishing to spoil, however, the real assassin (who looks nothing like Miller, by the way) pops up for the boss fight in act 2 and is abruptly killed in the following cutscene, at the end of act 3 we learn the president of not-Aruba was alive all along, and the fourth and final act deals with a titanium-enhanced army led by -- of course, -- Wild Dog, which is plonked upon us with virtually no foreshadowing.

Oh, and the first act takes place on a yacht owned by Kantaris, the villainess arms dealer from the first game's second story, but it neither resolves anything from that past plot, nor does it advance the current plot in any way.  It's just a total waste of a level which could have been better served showing Richard on the run from the not-Cuban authorities, for example.  And no, getting to see Kantaris's low-polygon body in a bikini top does not help matters.  While I'm digressing on the subject of graphics, Project Titan attempts a more detailed look than the first game, and it works for the most part.  One of its nicer touches is that enemies in each of the four acts sport their own sets of costumes, each still retaining the series' trademark colour-coding by rank.

So if the story's a giant waste of time, does the gameplay manage any of the heavy lifting?  Project Titan revives the rules set by the first game, meaning that you have to keep your time limit up lest you suffer death by the clock, and you have to guess when enemies will land direct hits lest you suffer death by loss of hitpoints.  There is a new mechanic added from the original game, where if you can land a combo of 30 hits on enemies without missing, you'll earn an extra life.  It's hard enough to get so that it doesn't break the game by offering you too many lives, but considering that none of the other Time Crisis games offer any methods of restoring player-character life, it's better than nothing.  Another change occurs in the boss fights, where you can switch to different cover positions while hiding.  Mostly, this is used to follow the boss as he, or it, moves from place to place.  Given its limited implementation, this isn't much more than a quick gimmick, although variations on this system were eventually incorporated into later games, namely Time Crisis 4 (Arcade/PlayStation 3, 2005) and 5 (Arcade, 2015).
In boss fights, you have to follow your targets
by switching cover positions.
Project Titan once again supports the GunCon light-gun controller, and once again offers the same degree of button customisation.  Regular controllers are also supported, and oddly enough, it is here that Project Titan offers its greatest improvement.  First of all, it supports the analog sticks on DualShock and other controllers.  But more importantly, there is a new lock-on mechanic where if you move your cursor close to an enemy, it will automatically snap to him.  It can even follow arms, legs, heads, and other body parts as the targeted character moves around.  This system isn't so overpowered that it makes the game feel like it's on autopilot, but it gives anyone the speed to come within shouting distance of the default record times.  Yet it was never implemented into any of the other Time Crisis home ports, and that's a real shame.

The story campaign in Project Titan lasts longer than in the original, adding an extra fourth act on top of the usual three (ironically, you have fewer continues to finish the game with than before), but unlike the home version of Time Crisis, there's no additional campaign to pad out the first-play length.  With that in mind, the game ends up as a niche title for only a certain kind of Time Crisis fan, namely the kind who seeks out more of the challenge of the original.  Anyone weaned on the newer, friendlier entries will get turned off by its tougher conventions, not to mention the relative lack of value.  If you are interested in the unforgiving early years of this franchise, I'd recommend you start out with the original Time Crisis home port first.  But when you're ready to move on, you wouldn't do too wrongly to make your attack on Titan.

(Lame joke is lame.)

+ Retains the challenge of the original.
+ Lock-on system makes the game more playable for controller users.
+ A more detailed graphical style.
- Lousy story, with many dropped plot points.
- Awkward voice acting to match.
- Failed to implement modern conveniences from Time Crisis II.
- Multi-cover system works, but is limited to boss fights.
The Call: 60% (C-)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Game Review: Time Crisis

Time Crisis
  • Publisher: Namco
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release:
    • Arcade: 1995
    • PlayStation: 31 October 1997
  • Genre: 3D Action (Light-gun Shooter)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Memory Card (1 Block)
Once upon a time, arcade light-gun games followed a strict formula.  Shoot the bad guys, don't shoot the innocent bystanders, and shoot outside the screen to reload.  I've covered a few of those kinds of games already.  But in 1995, one company added a new dimension to the formula.  That company was Namco.  That game was Time Crisis.  And that new dimension was a foot pedal added to the machine, with which the player could hide from enemy fire.  Over the past twenty years since the original's release, the Time Crisis series has been a mainstay in arcades, with a fifth entry (not including spin-offs) recently having been rolled out as of this article.  The series has also carved out a niche for home console gamers, as the premier light-gun game series on the PlayStation family.  So, the question I have to end my introductory paragraph with is, does the first game still hold up?

In this game's story, you are Richard Miller, a leather-jacket-clad operative from the spy agency VSSE, and your mission is to rescue the princess of Sercia from the villainous duopoly of deposed prince Sherudo Garo and mercenary Wild Dog.  Oh, and some ninja with a claw who serves as the first act's boss.  Okay, the story's not that important; it's basically the save-the-princess template updated for the pre-21st century.  But Time Crisis has other selling points to fall back upon anyway.  The arcade machine uses a foot pedal, which you hold down to advance and release to hide behind cover.  You can't just turtle your way through the game, though, since you can't shoot enemies unless you're out of cover.  Also, the game runs on a timer, which is extended by clearing each scene of action, and if either the timer or your stock of lives run out, the game is over.  Upon starting a game, you can also choose an alternate time-attack mode, which limits you to one of the three acts but also gives you infinite lives, which is a suitable choice for beginner players.
In addition to enemy fire,
you have to duck to avoid obstacles.

Time Crisis is not a game for beginners, however, especially if you're used to later, more forgiving games in the series.  Only a few of the enemies' shots will land a direct hit if you don't duck out of the way, but if there is a tell for the hurt-shots, it's very hard to... tell.  Maybe the damaging bullets are coloured red, I don't know.  A rule of thumb is to pay attention to the enemies' uniforms.  The red-clad enemies will almost always fire a hurt-shot when they appear, and thrown weapons (grenades, knives, etc.) will always hit unless you hide or, if you're really good, shoot them out of the air.  Furthermore, on occasions you must duck to avoid larger obstacles, such as cranes, crates, and cars, which would knock you about otherwise.  Fortunately, these obstructions are accompanied by an on-screen warning.  Oh, and be on the lookout for the guys in golden uniforms.  They don't fight back, and disappear if you let them go, but they're good for a few extra seconds of time, which in this game is very valuable.

The PlayStation version instead uses a special light-gun controller, the GunCon, with two buttons which work the same way.  These controls may be customised to the extent possible; not only can you switch which button hides and which pauses the game, but you can even control whether you hide by holding or releasing the button.  You can even use a second controller, preferably a dance pad or the pedal from a steering wheel, as the pedal if you absolutely have to emulate the full arcade experience.  The GunCon itself, however, is a bit more complicated to set up.  In addition to plugging the controller plug into one of the front ports on your PlayStation, there's a second cable which you have to plug in between the video cable and the TV/VCR/etc it's plugged in to.  And then you have to calibrate the gun sights every time you boot up the game.  However, you'll have an even worse time of it if you're using a regular controller.  This game pre-dates the DualShock controller, so analog stick controls are not supported, leaving you with the relative imprecision of the PlayStation D-Pad to move your cursor about.
The Special story mode in the home version offers
branching paths based on your performance.
On the other hand, the PlayStation version offers its own benefits, apart from the obvious one of no longer needing to hunt down an arcade which still has the first game in operation.  This version includes a second story mode on top of the arcade version.  This new story takes place in a hotel run by an arms-dealing villainess named Kantaris.  (Honestly, there's so little character development to be had that, I don't know why I bother giving you everyone's names.)  What's novel about this mode is that the level progression branches off at multiple points, subtly leading you to one area or another based on your performance.  For example, if you clear out a room in the first area before the elevator doors close, you'll go down one path, or down another path if you can't make it in time.  It's a tall order to try and get all four of the possible endings, given the difficulty of acheiving these unique objectives on top of the base difficulty of the game itself.  Honestly, it's a good thing this extra mode was included, because the arcade mode only lasts about fifteen minutes (not including the time lost from re-playing sections of the game after continuing, which is pretty much inevitable), which is short even for the series' already short standard.

The graphical style employed in Time Crisis is typical of the PlayStation era, with low-polygon models and a a hybrid of realism and anime art, allowing for expressive (if unchanging) faces without looking too outlandish.  The enemy character models come with multiple coloured uniforms which tell you, at a glance, what role they serve in their futile quest to stop you, such as the aforementioned accurate red-shirts (pretty much the opposite of you'd expect from Star Trek).  Whilst there are no bonuses for hitting the head or other weak points, the enemies' death animations do react to where you hit them, such as twirling to the ground when you shoot them in the leg, or half-flipping backwards with a headshot.  The music is forgettable and most of the line-reads in the performance are awkward at best, but the gunshot sound effects are impactful and change from room to room, simulating the changing acoustics, and the announcer who tells you "Wait", "Action!", and "Danger!" is just present enough to tell you what you need to know, but not too present as to be annoying.

The impression given by the original Time Crisis was one of trying to find its bearings.  It employs on mechanics which were changed and/or abandoned for subsequent entries, and runs the risk of either alienating or intriguing series fans weaned on later entries.  It's got that old-school NES thing going on, where it compensates for having a shorter duration by making it really tough to beat.  If that's your thing, great.  If not, at least it makes beating this game all the more rewarding.

+ The cover-pedal mechanic puts a fresh spin on the genre.
+ The game's rules offer more challenge than other entries in the series.
+ The bonus campaign in the home version.
+ Little touches like death animations and gun sound effects.
- The difficulty level is the most unforgiving in the series.
- Limited ease of control if you're not using a GunCon.
- Silly voice-acting and bland story.
The Call: 70% (C+)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Music Review: Time of Our Lives vs. GDFR

"Time of Our Lives"
  • Artist: Pitbull & Ne-Yo
  • Album: Globalization (Pitbull) / Non-Fiction (Ne-Yo)
  • Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap, Dance
  • Label: RCA (Sony)
  • Release: 17 November 2014
  • Writers: Armando C. PĂ©rez, Lukasz Gottwald, Henry Walter, Robin Weisse, Shaffer Smith, Vinay Rao, Stephan Taft, Michael "Freakin" Everett
  • Producer: Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Lifted, Michael "Freakin" Everett (melody)
  • Artist: Flo Rida feat. Sage the Gemini and Lookas
  • Album: My House
  • Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap
  • Label: Atlantic (Warner)
  • Release: 21 October 2014
  • Writers: Tramar Dillard, Dominic Woods, Lucas Rego, Mike Caren, Andrew Cedar, Charles W. Miller, Gerald Goldstein, Harold Brown, Howard E. Scott, Justin Frank, Lee Oskar, Leroy L. Jordan, Morris Dickerson, Sylvester Allen
  • Producers: DJ Frank E, Andrew Cedar, Lookas, Miles Beard

2015 has been a good year for Summer songs.  Heck, one of them even had the word "summer" in the title, just to drive the point home.  But some of those songs were holdovers from earlier in the year which happened to have a little more staying power.  For the purposes of this article, I speak of "Time of Our Lives" by Pitbull, and "G.D.F.R" by Flo Rida.  Now, previously on the SDP, I did another joint review of both a Pitbull song and a Flo Rida song.  Since that last review, Pitbull has become more tolerable and Flo Rida hadn't done much of anything.  And now that they've had concurrent hits once again, I thought I'd challenge them to a second round, and see what's changed.

I'll start with Pitbull's song, since he's the guy who draws in all the readers to this blog, apparently.  We begin with the chorus, sung by Ne-Yo.
I knew my rent was gonna be late about a week ago
I worked my ass off, but I still can't pay it though
But I got just enough, to get off in this club
Have me a good time, before my time is up
Well this was unexpected.  Our protagonist is not the usual money-spouting partying machine, but is on the verge of defaulting on his financial obligations.  And sure, if you are struggling to make ends meet financially, the last thing you want to do is waste what little scratch you've managed to save up.  But our protagonist has already come to terms with his destiny of not affording the month's rent, so he's going to make the most of his situation.  Truly, this hook brings across the point that "Give Me Everything" or "Feel This Moment" failed to.

Surprisingly, this song does not use any samples, but non-specifically evokes the house music of the late '90s / early 2000s, such as Daft Punk's Discovery album.  And while I haven't minded Pitbull's (producers') use of sampling in the past, regardless, this approach results in a slick groove.  And having such relatively deep lyrics only sweetens the deal.  Oh, buy you know how it is, the actual verses are just going to be the same partying and drinking routine.  Might as well get this over with.
This is the last twenty dollars I got
But I'mma have a good time ballin' tonight
Tell the bartender, line up some shots
Because I'm gonna get loo-oo-oose tonight
...Eh?  Pitbull actually carried the theme from the chorus into his verses?  What a shocking development!  Please, do go on!
She a freaky girl and I'm a freaky man
She on the rebound, broke up with her ex
And I'm like Rodman, ready on deck
And what's this now?  Pitbull's hitting on a girl who isn't already in a relationship?  What alternate universe have I stumbled upon where the cliches of mainstream rap do not apply?  Because I'm parking myself down there and not leaving!  Okay, so he does get to those cliches anyway, in pretty much all of the lyrics I haven't bothered to showcase for you readers.  But it works this time around, because for once we have some context in which all his party behaviour takes place.  And the clincher, the one moment which cements this song with a good impression, is the last couple of lines Pitbull adds to the end of the middle eight:
This for everybody going through tough times
Believe me, been there, done that
But everyday above ground is a great day, remember that
An inspirational statement encouraging people to stay positive?  From Mr. Worldwide himself!?  I guess anything's possible with the new and improved Pitbull.  Now with 10% less Voli!  Seriously, while the music video had a shot of that particular product placement, but the song itself is completely devoid of brand naming.  And speaking of the music video, even it takes on the whole "party in the face of adversity" theme, depicting the future Mr. Worldwide holding a house party to raise rent money.  All of this goes to show: if you can only write about one thing, then at least come up with a new context to wrap around that thing, and you too can become a master storyteller.

So that was Pitbull, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good that was.  I guess it's time to move on to the Flo Rida song, though.  It's called "G.D.F.R.", as in "Going down for real", as in the chorus sung by Sage the Gemini:
I know what you came here to see
If you're a freak, then you're coming home with me
And I know what you came here to do
Now bust it open let me see you get low
It's going down for real [repeat x1]
Nothing special.  Oh, except for the sample they used in-between the titular lines.  That horn riff comes from the outro to "Low Rider", the 1975 funk-rock hit by the band War.  Well, actually, the sample itself is from a remix of the song done by a DJ called Lookas, which explains his featuring credit.  Flo Rida's done this sort of thing before, sampling a song which sampled another song, in hits like "Good Feeling" and "I Cry".  And believe it or not, I approve.  For one, Avicii got his mainstream breakthrough after being "featured" in "Good Feeling".  And two, they don't use the more familiar parts of the source material, so the sample doesn't distract you with memories of the song it was taken from.  So aesthetically, "G.D.F.R." has pleasantly surprised me, but will the lyrics follow suit?
Your girl just kissed a girl
I do bi (chicks)
Okay, I get the idea that girl-on-girl lovin' is hot.  There's even a Trope for that.  But how come someone said the word "chicks" in a different, toned-down voice?  It's almost like one of those unfinished-simile "hashtag rap" dealies, which I had hoped were dead by now.
Shake for a sheikh
I'm throwing these Emirates in the sky
I see we're experimenting with a Middle Eastern theme with the lyrics.  Not a bad choice; I appreciate any attempt to inject some colour into msinstream rap songs, especially local colour.  And that neck of the woods has some of the richest cities in the world, so you and your baller image would fit right in.  Everyone's a winner!

...Wait a minute, so in that last line when you said "I do bi", you wanted it to sound like "I Dubai", as in the city in the United Arab Emirates?  I do, indeed, see what you did there, and I approve.  Heck, even the "Low Rider" sample, as used in "G.D.F.R.", could pass for middle-eastern music if you stretch your imagination.  Although I'm not sure what you mean by "throwing these Emirates in the sky".  I know that Emirates is the name of an airline from the UAE, but does that mean you took over that company?  Not the last I checked.  Or do you physically launch their planes into the air?  Kinda outside the realm of possibility there, too.
Spending this Assal-ama-laykum
Peace to M.O.N.E.Y
At least we're keeping the theme going, but now it's starting to make less sense.  How are you supposed to spend Arabic greetings as currency?  And has money become such an integral part of your life that now you have to wish peace upon it like it were some religious figure?  (That last part is not outside the realm of possibility for Flo Rida.)
I love my beaches, south beaches
Surfboard and high tide
That's it, huh?  Not even halfway through the verse, and you've already given up on that theme you had going?  I would be disappointed in you, Flo, but I'd have had to have actual expectations in order to say that.  Anything else you'd like to bring up, Flo?  Let me just skim through the rest of this verse for you...  Birthday cakes...  Bugattis...  Anna Kournikovas...?  Yeah, I think we're done here.  Let's move on to the other guy.
And they already know me
Probably not; let me bring you up to speed.  Gemini, and his name is Sage.  Sage the Gemini.  He tried to have a hit a couple of years ago with something called "Gas Pedal", and it sucked.  I can best describe his style of performance as a "monotone baritone".
It's going down further than femursGirls get wetter than Katrina
I'd just like to state for the record that I'm getting over the whole casual references Hurricane Katrina / New Orleans thing.  For one, that was ten years ago, and I don't even personally know anybody who was affected by that disaster.  I know I got mad when Pitbull used it, but that was a different time, a time when "Give Me Everything" was number 1 and I failed to see any potential he could have had up to his sleeve.  Besides, it turns out there have been quite a few of these lines used by many other rappers over the years.  So as long as no one tries something like "Blowing up like Fukushima", I think I can sleep easily for once.
Double entendre, double entendre
Uh-oh, thanks for warning us about the double entendre coming up!  Also, can I address the staccato delivery he used on this line?  Because it's annoying.  It's been annoying for a few years now, and it's not likely to become un-annoying anytime soon.  So anyway, what's this double entendre you've got cooked up for us?
While you're hating I get money
Then I double up tonkers
...I don't get it; where's the double entendre?  Was it supposed to be "double up tonkers"?  I have no idea what that even means, and I certainly can't think of the second meaning required to qualify that phrase as a double entendre.  Were you, by any chance, referring to the lines beforehand?
Put your hands up
It's a stick up, no more makeup
Get that ass on the floor
Ladies put your lipstick up
...Nope, I've got nothing.  I think we're done here.  I would be lying if I said "G.D.F.R." weren't catchy, because way the "Low Rider" sample was used gives it more staying power than most other rap songs.  But strip away the beat and it's just like any other of Flo Rida's songs.

"Time of Our Lives"
+ Slick, non-sampled beat.
+ The chorus sets up a theme and the verses actually follow it.
- Still deals with partying, although we finally have proper context.
The Call: 5 out of 5 (A)
+ Creative sampling.
+ Brief attempts at a lyrical theme.
- Generic lyrics -- that is, when they aren't just awkward.
The Call: 3 out of 5 (C)