Friday, December 31, 2010

Year In Review 2010: Release The Kraken!

If you remember from my deviantArt Journal, on New Year's Eve every year since I joined, I did some sort of recap of the previous year.  Blamethank VH1's I Love The series for my interest in zeitgeists.  But as evidenced by my 2009 recap, sometimes I can't get the creative juices flowing.  So this year, I thought a good place to start would be to analyze the recurring themes of the year's news and events.

Natural Disasters: All Justin Bieber jokes caught trespassing in this section will be shot on sight.  I don't like him either, but unlike you [insert expletive-filled rant I won't even bother to start to fill in] guys, I have priorities when it comes to what's newsworthy.  It's called professionalism.  GET IT.  But seriously, if you were to look only at the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the airplane-grounding volcanic eruption in Iceland, the oil well failure in the Gulf of Mexico, and the mine collapse again in Chile, you would think the news hour would be a bleak place.  But far be it from me categorize all the stories by one recurring pattern.  I'm just here to tell you about said patterns.  And you are welcome to pray for any and all victims at any time.

Heck Freezes Over: In the entertainment world, many of the impossibilities we consigned ourselves to over the past decade came true.  We got a good, or at least passable, video game movie out of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.  Yeah, I know it's been done before (my shout-outs to Mortal Kombat, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and FFVII Advent Children), but think of the horrible success rate they're coming from.  More to the point, The Beatles' catalog was released on iTunes, Shantae got a sequel, and the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise got not one, but two good games for consoles: Sonic Colors and Sonic 4: Episode I.  The only thing that could make this better would be the release of Duke Nukem Forever, and while that sadly didn't happen, we did get the announcement that work was being moved to a developer who knew what they were doing.

Question Mark: This is more of a personal thing, but there are some items whose career I am very curious to see unfold.  Apple launched the iPad mid-year, which is basically the same cool **** that the iPod Touch and iPhone are... only bigger.  Being that and not quite a regular computer (wake me when you can run OS X), I personally think it's a waste, but far be it from me to force that opinion on you.  And then there's Justin Bieber...  Will he crash and burn fast, become more mature in his songwriting, or keep on keeping on?  I'd like to know, and while I won't be getting into his music anytime soon (unless it's run at 1/8th speed), I will say this: *why* is all his worst stuff his most popular?

Remakes: In the anime market, most of the big names were remakes or extentions of pre-existing series.  I'm talking about the series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Dragon Ball Z Kai, and the Rebuild of Evangelion movies.  I'm also throwing Naruto Shippuden in there; even though it's a sequel, not a remake, of the old series, it got an English dub.  And since it moved from Cartoon Network to Disney XD (Disney!?), the former network is pretty much *done*.

Now let's run over all the stuff you shouldn't have missed.  Don't worry, it's never too late to catch up.

Best Movies: Toy Story 3, Inception, Despicable MeScott Pilgrim vs. The World, Tangled
Worst Movies: Alice In Wonderland, Shrek: The Final Chapter (just had to throw that in there ^v^), The Last Airbender, The Tourist
Best Video Games:  Angry Birds (iOS), Call of Duty: Black Ops (Multi), Sonic Colors (Wii, DS), GoldenEye (Wii)
Best Music Artists: Lady Gaga, B.o.B., Bruno Mars, Eminem

And finally, the themes which defined my personal life in 2010.

Not Quite Adulthood: I graduated college in May with flying colors, but then... nothing.  I've been trying to get a job since then, but with no luck.  Out of the dozens of applications I've sent over the past seven-plus months, you could count the number of interviews on your hands - even one finger, if you only consider in-person interviews with the employers themselves.  From what I understand, my family and I have been living reasonably well for the past few years, but now I can say the recession is finally catching up to me.  I can totally understand them having to choose carefully and look over someone like me who has little to no professional experience under his belt... so far.  I'm scheduled for one more interview around the start of the new year, though, so I'm throwing everything I've got at it.

The World: The upside of this year was well-suited to the geopolitics buff I have become.  I was able to travel the world on mutliple occasions throughout the calendar year.  After my sister stayed over in England with her school orchestra over the previous New Year, I responded by taking a class trip to Germany and a graduation vacation to Japan.  I shall have to share with you travel tips at some point.  And to top it all off, we all went to Disney World during Thanksgiving Week, giving us a chance to catch up on what we missed.  And for everything else, I hope the future will be kind enough to let me go on many more adventures - Lord knows how many itineraries I've been cooking up in my head.

Internet Reviewers: The Internet fad which defined this year for me would be Internet reviewers, like the fine folks of That Guy With The Glasses.  I started out with Atop The Fourth Wall and the Nostalgia Critic in late '09, and throughout the following year I explored the many other talking heads the site had to offer.  In fact, I got so into it that TGWTG was the inspiration for starting this website!  So I'd like to offer a dedication and thanks to you guys, and here's to a happy and productive 2011 and beyond!!

Decoding the Twilight Saga

I've discovered something about myself this past year: I'm what they call a devil's advocate.  What that means is that I like to argue for the sake of arguing; to counter public opinion.  More specifically, it's because I hate hearing the same jokes about controversial subjects, mainly because they distort the facts.  That president has an IQ in the 120s, that singer is 16 years old (at the time of this writing), and only the worst of those guys cut their wrists.  That's not to say I support or identify with those things, but somehow the opposition gets to me.  Although these were fads that came and went, one of them which is still going strong exemplifies this most of all: the Twilight Saga.  In fact, this time last year, I was involved in a small-scale flame war on the subject.  I don't want to talk about it anymore... let's just say no amount of Lumines or Half-Life 2 made me feel better at the time.  But since those on the other side were too dumb to see otherwise, allow me to state for the record:

I am not a fan of the Twilight Saga.

See?  Because of your bullheadedness, I have been forced to defile this entry with these disclaimers.  Nice job breaking it, hero.  This series has turned off some because of its popularity, but like others, I only started reading the books because they were popular (and, you know, for something to do).  I was never that interested in it, so when I did read it was casually, but by the end, I did it as a sort of rebellion.  Yeah, it's a real middle finger if you don't tell anyone about it, I said with sarcasm.  But unlike everyone else, I went into it with an open mind, which allowed me to pay attention to the themes and understand the purpose of the books.  That's why I'm here; to better explain what it is - and what it isn't.

I am not a fan.

And since you won't shut up about it, I'll get this out of the way first: I know the vampires in the Twilight Saga, sparkle, okay?  I'll discuss this later, but can we move on, please?  It's called professionalism.  GET IT.  But seriously, that's not what I think about when I think about the Twilight Saga.  You must understand that first and foremost, this is a romance novel series with supernatural elements.  It's basically just Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves.  Even the romance isn't all that convincing, given all the times in which the boyfriend just shows up in the girlfriend's bedroom window as if he was stalking her.  Heck, I could write better romances than that - in fact, I would say I already have.  But what do I know?  The only other real romance novel I've read was The Spy Who Loved Me, and we all know how that turned out.  I blew a raspberry as I said that line out loud.

I am not a fan.

Perhaps the second biggest target for jokes, after the sparkle thing, is calling protagonist Bella Swan a Mary Sue.  After analyzing her character, I have to say that's not... entirely true.  She is, or at leasts starts out as, just an ordinary girl (Don't call her ordinary!).  She's from a middle-class family, clumsy, and hates gym class.  If there are any special qualities or skills about her, she certainly downplays them, especially since everything's told from her point of view (except a good chunk of Breaking Dawn).  It's true what they say: everyone's their own worst critic.  I think the goal of her character traits was to make her relatable to the female fanbase these stories were designed for.  Unfortunately, this applies to the author, too.  I am aware that her physical appearance, in terms of phenotypes, matches that of the author, Stephenie Meyer.  (At least Bella's actress in the movies, Kristen Stewart, did a good job of deflecting that relationship for a while.)

I am not a fan.

But if anyone's a Mary Sue, regardless of gender, it's our vampire boy Edward Cullen.  His family's filthy stinkin' rich with little to no explanation as to their wealth, is skilled in everything he does, seems to have a code of ethics (he and his family only draw blood from animals, never humans), and you better believe his physical traits are described in a way which casts him as the ideal for a master race.  Key points here include his skin, which is a marble-like pale under normal circumstances, his golden/amber eyes (You wish it meant that...), the color brought on by animal blood, and his voice, which somehow has a singing, bell-like quality to it even when he's only talking.  Yeah, I never even tried to imagine that, and I will even argue that last one bothered me more than his sparkles, which would also be an extention of Meyer's obsession with portraying him as beyond perfect.  And you don't have to take my word for it.

I am not a fan.

Symbolism is rampant in the Twilight Saga, enough to keep Film Brain going for weeks.  One of the themes brought on early is the one about the lion and the lamb: the lamb being the perfectly ordinary Bella, and the lion being Edward, who constantly lives in fear of his vampire instincts forcing him to attack Bella.  He melodramaticizes this fact so much that it becomes a plot point in the second book, New Moon.  Another one is fire and ice.  Think about the real thing: the fire melts the ice, and the melted water douses the fire, so somehow there's danger involved for both parties.  Coincidentally, the vampires have cold body temperatures and the not-werewolves are hot-bodied (in more ways than one, fangirls).  Bella and Edward also like comparing themselves to the famous lovers of Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights.  Never mind the fact that they never bring up the ending of R&J - I don't think it deserves to be marked as a spoiler anymore - but I can't speak for Heights, apart from the semaphore version in Monty Python's Flying Circus.  Look that one up, I guess.  And in a metaphor already commonly seen outside of this series, they seem to use transforming Bella into a vampire as a stand-in for losing her virginity.  Bet you felt silly for thinking that after having read Breaking Dawn, where they did both.
I am not a fan.

At the time of the aforementioned flame war, the biggest thing I was upset about was that everyone would just talk about how the vampires sparkle and never mention any of their other superpowers.  For one, they're super strong, super fast, and nigh invincible, so if you tried teasing them like that they could rip your balls out.  Or your girl balls - however you choose to interpret that, that's gotta hurt.  They can't transform into bats, but they're immune to stakes, garlic, and holy water (not that they're ever tried), and I assume you could see them in a mirror.  Not even sunlight stops them - in fact, they only sparkle when their pale skin is touched by direct sunlight.  There's a reason I bold-faced that: no one seems to care about that, because everyone portrays them as sparkling constantly.  Plus, some have unique gifts, like one-way telepathy in several cases.  In retrospect, all these special abilities make the characters come off as, again, Mary Sues.  And even though I completely ignored this fact while reading the first book, I do agree that having the vampires sparkle was one of the worst non-political decisions ever made, and I would like to know what Stephenie Meyer was smokingdreaming.  But is it really enough to justify saying it's all they ever do?  Is it really enough, combined with the more... valid flaws, to justify calling it the work of the Antichrist?  No, not to that extreme.  I blame the Internet communities who never give anything a fair say these days.

So fuck you Internet, I quit.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Film Review: Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Publisher: Paramount
  • Studio: Lucasfilm
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Release: 28 May 1984
  • Genre: Action, Adventure

There are some superstitions fans use to determine which things in some series are any good.  For the Star Trek movies, it's whether or not the digits of the installment number add up to an even sum.  With the Mobile Suit Gundam video games, it's whether the letter Z is in the title.  And in the Indiana Jones film series, it's whether or not the main villains are Nazis.  The second film in the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, does not put the man up against Nazis, but rather an Indian religious cult.  But far be it from me to treat these superstitions as the reason as to whether something is bad, or a rule for something being bad in the first place.  This is the first feature film review I've reviewed on this blog; the format will be a plot recap with critical comments here and there.  Spoilers will be marked, but read with care in case I miss something.

The setting for this movie starts out in Shanghai, China in 1935.  The opening credits play over a musical number performed for the patrons of a nightclub, including Dr. Henry Jones Jr. himself.  Turns out the song, "Anything Goes", was written in the real world in 1934, and translated to the undefined Chinese dialect for the movie - way cool.  Indiana's business for being here involves making a trade with Lao Che, some crooked crime boss.  Don't worry too much about him; we won't so much as hear about him after the first few scenes.  But after completing the trade, he succeeds in poisoning the man.  The magnificent monster then makes another offer with Jones: the diamond he was just given in exchange for an antidote for the poison.  A bout of chaos ensues, drawn out because the crowd gets scared and start kicking the antidote and diamond about, but Indy steals the antidote and the show's lead singer, a girl called Willie Scott, and makes his getaway in a car driven by Short Round, an eleven-year old Chinese boy.  Did they *have* drivers' licenses in pre-communist China, or are we not supposed to care?  Oh, and the name of the place is "Club Obi Wan".  I can't decide whether I find that clever or corny.

I suppose now would be a good time to get to know our new supporting cast.  Harrison Ford returns as Jones, no problems there.  No, the problems lie with Willie (Kate Capshaw) and Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan).  Willie spends nine tenths of her time on-screen screaming in the face of danger, and the other tenth developing a wildly vacillating love-hate relationship with Indy.  Short Round, despite being more helpful, is somehow no less annoying.  And bear in mind I never had a problem with Jar Jar Binks.  Think about that.

So Jones and his two friends escape on a plane... owned by Lao Che.  Before the plane crashes, they are forced to bail out by - get this - falling out on a life raft onto the snow of the Himalayan mountains.  I have no idea if that's possible, nor do I think it would be a good idea to test it (unless you're the Mythbusters.  P.S. Please get on that, Mythbusters.).  But get this - this movie hasn't yet jumped the shark.  Think about that.

But the real plot begins when an old man leads them to a village in India and tells them about the children and sacred stone stolen from them.  They all go on an expedition to the Pankot Palace, with all the animals of the jungle creeping Willie out.  When they get to the palace, they are greeted by the kid Maharajah and his prime minister, who provide them with a feast of creepy crawlies.  Despite the warm reception, the meal grosses out Willie, Short Round, and everyone in the audience.  It's stereotypes like that which gave this film a bad rap with the nation of India, who demanded final cut privileges and forced production to move to the nearby island nation of Sri Lanka.  And this movie still hasn't jumped the shark!

Back to the plot.  Although Indy is unable to get any leads about the village's troubles from the hosts, an assassination attempt has him exploring his and Willie's bedrooms for a secret passage.  On their way, they avoid getting crushed by a spiked ceiling - accidentally triggered by Short Round - and discover the eponymous temple of doom.  They walk in on a ceremony where a devotee is locked in a cage, gets his heart pulled out of his chest by the head priest, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri), and - still alive - is lowered into a fire pit as a willing sacrifice.  This is no simple pool of lava, folks, it looks like a portal to Heck down there.  Somehow, the crudeness of the special effects only serve to make this scene scarier.  And this, my friends, is where the movie jumps the shark.  In lighter news, Mola Ram is the only one of the Thuggees who speaks Hindi.  Since production was moved to Sri Lanka, his mooks all speak the local Ceylonese.

In the aftermath of the ritual, Indy gets caught trying to steal back the stones.  He gets force-fed a potion which traps him in the suggestible state "Black Sleep of Kali Ma" and starts conducting another ritual, this time with Willie as the sacrifice.  Meanwhile, Short Round is sent to work with the imprisoned children in the mines, where according to Indy two more sacred stones are assumed to be, but he escapes and wakes up Indy by thrusting a torch at his chest.  And *how* did he know about that?  Was it just a lucky break, did he do it without knowing he would free Indy's mind, or did he overhear it?  No, not that I recall; it just comes out of *nowhere*, without any explanation!  And Willie's screaming throughout the whole ordeal only makes things worse.

With that shizzle out of the way, Indy steals the three sacred stones and starts freeing the child slaves.  But he is double-teamed by a tough-as-iron guard and the Maharajah, under the Black Sleep of Kali Ma and armed with a voodoo doll.  Yeah, I don't think they had those in India, but the ritual from before took inspirations from other cults around the world, so what do I know?  Indy is unable to fight because of all the intermittent pain from his voodoo stabbings, but Short Round takes another torch and wakes up the Maharajah, letting Indy finish the job and escape with his friends by mine cart.  You know, I grew up after this movie came out, so I've been exposed to a great deal of mine cart chases.  It's weird to see this sort of thing as it became a cliche and then see the one that started it all.  It's like songs written by Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles.

Back to the plot, the mine chase scene ends when the brake lever breaks and Indy stops the cart by pressing his feet on the wheels.  Yeah, it's another Mythbusters moment, but as far as I'm concerned, the movie already jumped the shark, so what do I care?  But the tunnels are flooding with water, forcing Indy and his friends to escape onto the cliffs outside.  There's a pretty funny scene which plays out like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a mook shows off with a sword and Indy shoots him in response, except he doesn't have a gun!  You don't suppose he was thinking of the gun he dropped during the car chase back in Shanghai?  Nah, that would be giving us way too much credit.

But before we can leave, we have one more future cliche where our heroes are trapped on a rope bridge.  Given a choice between giving himself or the sacred stones up, he chooses instead to hang on and cut the bridge.  Again, show me something I won't see before.  With half of the bridge hanging along the cliffside, Mola Ram climbs down and tries to steal one of the stones.  But Indy stops him by - get this - chanting a spell which makes the stone glow hot and burn Ram's hand, making him fall down to the crocodiles below!  How did he learn this spell, and how did he know what it would do?  Was it something the old man in the village said?  I don't know, but even if this were true, you can't count us to remember something that seemed so trivial at the time!  And if not, EXPLAIN!!!  Well, what's important is he returned the children and stone to the village, and got the girl.  And that's the end.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

So, does the lack of Nazis cripple this movie?  No, but it is plagued with other problems, from the meaningless first act, to the lack of explanations for certain plot points, to some downright annoying supporting characters.  Given these faults and some scenes that are just too scary to watch again, I personally hate this moveie more than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Just stick to playing this movie in the Lego Indiana Jones games.

Writing: 2 whips out of 5
Acting: 1 whip out of 5
Technical: 3 whips out of 5
The Call: 50% (D)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dance Dance Retrospective: Solo Series

There are many, many DDR games released that aren't part of what I consider to be the core series, which is mostly games done by the arcade DDR team.  Some of these other games tried to do things differently, and some of these changes lasted while others didn't.  But none of these changes were nearly as drastic as adding two more foot panels to the standard four-arrow play area - and that's exactly what the DDR Solo mini-series did.

There were four games released for the Solo series: Solo Bass Mix (August 1999), Solo 2000 (December 1999), Solo 4thMIX (August 2000), and Solo 4thMIX Plus (December 2000).  As the name suggests, only one person can play on each cabinet at a time instead of two, however it is possible for multiple machines of the same game to be linked.  Down on the floor, the play area is arranged with panels on the upper-left and upper-right spaces in addition to the existing up, right, down, and left panels.
A DDR Solo 2000 cabinet.  Note the two corner panels.
Solo Bass Mix starts off with a mode select screen; the choices are Beginner, Expert (the standard mode), and Nonstop Megamix.  In this last selection, you get to play one of several medleys of songs mixed into one giant, three-minute track.  Unlike the nonstop courses in 3rdMIX on, there are absolutely no breaks in-between individual songs; the transitions are seamless, like what DJs do in real-world dance clubs.  Given the length of the nonstop songs, you can only play one of them for a single credit.

Solo 2000 does things differently.  Instead of selecting a mode when you start, you choose from one of three pad styles: 3-panel (UL, D, UR), 4-panel, or 6-panel.  From there, you go to the music selection screen.  Since you can choose from normal songs and megamixes from the same list, Solo 2000 represents the number of songs you have left with in-game coins (usually 3).  Regular songs cost 1 coin whereas megamixes cost 2.  Unlike Solo Bass Mix, you can also switch difficulties at will on this screen, by pressing Up or Down three times (in Solo Bass Mix, as in 2ndMIX, you had to do this at the mode select screen).

Solo 4thMIX and 4thMIX Plus are nearly identical to their 2-player counterparts, except for the obvious fact that they use the solo cabinet style.  This means the (giant) songlist and UI are the same, with new 6-panel charts available for all the songs.  However, the 3-panel mode and megamixes from Solo 2000 are gone, since they're not part of the original 4thMIX.  For more information, check out my coverage on 4thMIX, coming soon.  On the other hand, Bass Mix and 2000 both have quite distinct UIs.  There are no dancing characters, and the arrows have been re-drawn for both games, having more rounded edges than their predecessors.  Solo 2000, 4thMIX, and 4thMIX Plus also colored the arrows according to timing (gold for quarter notes, blue for eigths, and purple for anything more precise).  Since it helps players in deciphering toucher charts, this feature was introduced to the core series as the "Solo" and later "Rainbow" modifier.  Another feature of Solo 2000 that was later reused was the option to change the speed of the arrows, making them fly up the screen at double or half the normal rate.

The soundtrack of Solo Bass Mix consists of 16 normal songs and 6 megamixes.  The licenses, all taken from the Dancemania Bass CD series, are heavy in the hip-hop and Miami bass genres, as are some of the Konami originals.  More eclectic in terms of genres, Solo 2000 adds 20 songs and 3 megamixes to that lineup, for a grand total of 45 songs.  Notable songs from both games include:
  • "Drop Out" by NW260, from Solo 2000.  This song set a new speed record which would not be beaten for over two years: a whopping 260 beats per minute!  However, it has led to a rift between fans who discuss whether or not songs like these would be more comfortable with or without their tempo doubled like it is here.
  • "Hysteria" by Naoki 190, from Solo Bass Mix.  A fast rap song composed by Naoki Maeda.  Charts like 6-panel Maniac on this song are unique in that they break one of the rules of standard DDR.  You know how you never see more than two arrows on the same beat at a time?  Well, at the end of this chart, there's a jump where you have to hit four panels at once.  Given the layout (L, UL, LR, R), however, it's easy to do this by having each foot cover two panels.
  • "Wild Rush" by Factor X, from Solo 2000.  This song consists of six distinct segments, each with a different genre and rising in tempo from 80 to 180 beats per minute, so it's like six songs in one!
All of the DDR Solo games are relatively rare; I've never seen one in person, and it doesn't help that there was no direct home port of Bass Mix or 2000.  The good news is that there was a PlayStation game, called Dance Dance Revolution Extra Mix (June 2001, Japan only), which combined all the new songs from Bass Mix, 2000 (excluding megamixes), and 4thMIX Plus.  Using a re-colored 4thMIX UI, players could play these 50 songs in Single, Versus, Double, or 6-Panel modes.  The 6-Panel mode was also incorporated into the home version of 4thMIX and its international counterparts.  Learn more about these amazing games on the next episode of Dance Dance Retrospective!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dance Dance Retrospective: 3rdMIX

Riker, motherhumper.  Just like that thing from Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is the point where the Dance Dance Revolution franchise started to get really good.  What I mean by this is that 3rdMIX introduced numerous concepts that many players took for granted ever since.  I'm talking about things like being able to select your own difficulty and characters, and arrows that are colored differently according to timing.

This game was first released for Japan on October 30th, 1999, with a PlayStation port following on June 1st, 2000.  The interface is still similar to 1st and 2ndMIX, but with even more welcome changes.  When you first start up, you get to choose your own character out of four choices (male characters for player 1 and females for player 2).  Then you choose your mode, but the choices are different this time around.  The traditional mode is called Medium, where you can choose between the Basic and Another levels at will during music selection by pressing Up or Down twice.  The Soft mode is different from  the Easy mode in 1st and 2ndMIX, since you play on simplified charts that are easier even than the Basic difficulty.  Finally, in place of a Hard mode, there is the brand-new Nonstop mode.  Here you have to play four songs from one of several pre-set playlists in a row, without breaks in-between the songs, while groove gauge carries over from stage to stage.

Change your difficulty any time at will! (From NA PSX release)
The color patterns in-game arrows have changed this time around.  They still cycle through colors in a rainbow fashion, but now off-beat notes (8th, 12th, and 16th) appear different from the basic quarter notes, whereas in the past all the notes went through the same pattern and were harder to tell apart.  In truth, this feature, called Vivid, did debut in the 2ndMIX Club Versions, but now you can switch back to the old color scheme, called Flat, with a panel code.  Other new modifiers are variations on Hidden from 2ndMIX: Sudden hides the arrows until they reach mid-way up the screen, giving you less time to react, and Stealth makes the arrows disappear altogether, forcing you to memorize the sequence just to survive.  The maximum difficulty was bumped up from 8 feet to 9, which again was first done in the 2ndMIX Club Versions.  In another nice feature, lyrics appear on-screen during gameplay, fading in and out like in karaoke, that other great Japanese institution.  Sadly this feature was never re-used outside of European home games and the ultra-rare DDR Karaoke Mix.

There are a total of 35 new songs in this game; in fact, they're the only songs you can choose from normally, but there is a way to play the songs from 1st and 2ndMIX instead.  After inserting your coin(s), you can enter a code with the yellow menu buttons (Left, Left, Right, Right) to switch to 2ndMIX Mode.  There is also a different code (Left, Left, Left, Right, Right, Right, Left, Right) which unlocks Step Step Revolution, where you play the songs from 3rdMIX on the Maniac difficulty (now titled SSR) only.  Also note that in SSR mode, the Flat arrow colors are used by default, and you will need a code to switch to Vivid instead.

Some of the notable new songs in this game include:
  • "Captain Jack (Grandale Remix)" by Captain Jack.  Completely unrelated to the Pirates of the Carribean character, the Captain Jack was a dance-music duo headed by Franky Gee, who served for the United States Army in Germany before switching to a musical career.  Much of their music appears on the Dancemania CD series, so it's only natural that Captain Jack was one of the most prolific non-Konami bands to appear in DDR.  "Captain Jack" was their first single released in 1995; the version seen here is a speed rave remix of the song, and has some very fast and chaotic patterns on Maniac.  Franky Gee died in October 2005 of a brain hemorrhage, and not much of the band's music was used in DDR since.
  • "Dynamite Rave" by Naoki.  A Euro-rave song in the style of last game's "Brilliant 2U", "Dynamite Rave" has become one of the signature songs of DDR.  At a brisk 150 beats per minute, the many jumps on Basic and 16th note trills on Maniac provide an intense workout.
  • "Afronova" by Re-Venge.  Another song composed and performed by Naoki Maeda.  This song is very African-tribal influenced, hence the name, and at 200 beats per minute was one of DDR's fastest songs at the time.  This song is best known for its rapid-fire step patterns on Maniac, which at one point forces the player to face his or her body off to one side and twist to the other.
  • "Drop the Bomb" by Scotty D.  First appearing in the home version and 3rdMIX Plus (see below), this is a high-energy rap song with some surprisingly heavy lyrics for a dance game.  The artist is none other than Scott Dolph, who you may remember had a character named after him in Metal Gear Solid 2.
Karaoke-style lyrics are a rare feature for the series.
Since it was so fine-tuned, the 3rdMIX engine was used for many DDR games released over the next few years.  Counting international and home versions, 3rdMIX has the most releases based on it out of all the games in the series.
  • Arcade games:
    • The original 3rdMIX for Japan.
    • Two versions of 3rdMIX for South Korea.  Both games licensed then-recent K-Pop songs in order to buck the image that the franchised focused more on old material.  Only the new songs from the first version carried over to later Japanese releases.
    • An English-language version of 3rdMIX for east Asia, excluding Japan and Korea.  Despite being 100% in English, there are no new songs, and a couple of existing songs were even cut for some reason.
    • 3rdMIX Plus, and upgraded re-release for Japan in June 2000.  Added 14 new songs and the ability to select the Maniac difficulty outside of SSR.
    • Dancing Stage Euromix, for Europe in October 1999.  The songlist was a collection of licenses from 1st and 2ndMIX, licenses and originals from 3rdMIX, and some new licensed songs like "I Will Survive", "Video Killed the Radio Star", and "Word Up".  The difficulty names were changed to Standard, Difficult, and Expert for some reason.
    • Dance Dance Revolution USA, for North America in May 2000.  The songlist was similar to Euromix, but without the exclusive songs.
  • Home games, all released for PlayStation in their respective markets:
    • 3rdMIX for Japan.  In addition to 3rdMIX and SSR, the home port added the "3rdReMIX" mode where you could choose from Basic, Another, and Maniac in the same game.  Also the debut of Diet Mode, better known in the West as Workout Mode.  Here the game tracks the calories burned during gameplay, and keeps you playing until you reached a time or calorie goal if you so choose.
    • Dance Dance Revolution Best Hits, for Japan in 2000.  No new content, just songs from 1st through 3rdMIX.  One new feature (I'm not exactly sure where it first appeared) is in Soft/Beginner mode, where the in-game characters play the steps on a dance pad.
    • Dance Dance Revolution, for North America in March-May 2001.  Just like Best Hits, no new content, just a different sampling from 1st-3rdMIX.
    • Dancing Stage Euromix, for Europe in September 2001.  None of the non-exclusive licenses were brought back for the home version, but some originals from 1st and 2ndMIX were brought back to make up for it.
As successful as this interface format was, the next core series game would get rid of it in favor of a radical makeover.  But before we find out how much has or hasn't changed, there's one interesting detour we must take... the DDR Solo mini-series.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sticking Points: Track & Field II

First of all, I would like to make a correction to my review of Track & Field II. When I brought up the fact that you have to play a harder version of Championship Mode after going through it once, I said you were unable to continue if you failed an event the second time around. I only said that because I couldn't get to what would have been the first milestone. But, I recently bought myself a decent turbo controller (the SNES Super Advantage), and it worked well enough to take West Germany all the way to the end. Now that I have finally beaten the game, I would like to retract what I said before and officially state that you are indeed allowed to continue in the finals. As in the preliminaries, you are given a password after every third event. It's just that the game ends immediately after failing an event instead of waiting for the next checkpoint. I admit it's something I wish the game did before, since having you go on if you were already doomed to a game over didn't make sense to me.

Well, now that I got that out of the way, I figured it would be a good excuse to take an in-depth look at all the events found in this game. Some are good and some are bad; the rating of 60% that I gave this game reflects that.

Fencing: A simple versus-fighter game. The first player to land five hits on the other wins. You stab with A, holding Up or Down to aim high or low, and block by holding B. It's not a very polished game, as was nearly every fighting game before (the first) Street Fighter II. The easiest way to win is to always aim low, so skill isn't as important as luck.

Triple Jump: Since this is the first sport that involves button-mashing, this was a major roadblock for me, and we're only two out of twelve sports in! You mash A to build up speed, and when you get up to the foul line, press B to jump. Holding B for longer increases the angle of your jump; I recommend aiming for 45 degrees for each jump. This sport returns from the original Track & Field, and I imagine not much has changed.

Freestyle Swimming: This is another button-masher, but this time you have to deal with two buttons instead of one. A builds up speed, while B builds up oxygen. If your oxygen meter depletes, you'll stop for a moment to breathe automatically, which kills your chances of making the qualifying time.

High Dive: To start out, you select the type of dive you want to take (your choices vary between Forward, Backward, Reverse, Handstand, and Twist), but there's really no difference that I know of. Then, while you're in the air, you perform tucks and pikes by pressing B with Left or Right pressed. Ideally, you're supposed to stop just before you hit the water in order to get the best angle. The truth is, I have not found any consistent way to get high grades; I would even go so far as to call the judging completely random. At least you have four attempts to be lucky enough to get a qualifying score.

Clay Pigeon Shooting: There was a similar event in the first Track & Field, but it's much more straightforward this time around. Press B to manually launch your targets, the Control Pad to move a cursor, and A to fire. It's pretty fun, except for the fact that at 40 targets total, it drags on for a while.

Hammer Throw: Here's an interesting twist: instead of mashing a button to build up power, you "rotate" or hit directions on the Control Pad clockwise to swing the hammer around. Then, once your athlete starts flashing, hold and release A to throw it. Because of the control mechanism, I was able to score well on this even without a turbo controller, but it all goes wrong when you try to throw it. Unlike in the Triple Jump, you have to hold A for a while before the angle starts going up, and if your timing's off, it may not respond at all.

Taekwondo: Another fighting game, except this is possibly even more broken than fencing. The A button punches and B kicks, and you have to whittle down your opponent's stamina bar before he does the same to you. The problem is, every so often you or your opponent might collapse from a hit. It's not like in Punch-Out!! where you have to mash buttons to get back up; as long as your life isn't at zero, you'll always get back up. So, it's nothing more than a waste of time. Besides, the punches are useless; it's way more effective to just spam kicks. Two-player enabled.

Pole Vault: Similar to the Triple Jump. You start out by selecting your starting height, and (once again) you have to mash A to build up speed. Then you have to press and hold B when the blue tip of your pole is over a box on the ground, then release it when you're over the bar. It takes practice to get the timing right without being fouled out, but I got it down quickly. A successful jump will increase the bar height for your next at

Canoeing: This one is interesting. You have to go through a series of gates, mashing A to move forward and B to go backwards. Some of the gates make you enter from the back or in reverse; missing adds a 30-second penalty. Strangely, the qualifying targets are given in points instead of time. The physics are a little off, too; if you run into a wall while going too fast, your momentum going in makes it tough to get away.

Archery: This event plays completely differently than the arcade-oriented version in the first Track & Field. Mash A to build up strength and press B to fire the arrow. You don't need to be at full power to hit the closer targets, and in fact I would advise against it, too. The catch is that you also have to adjust your aim with the Control Pad, taking wind into account. The directional arrows in the wind meter correspond to the mimi-map at the top of the screen and not to the main view, but other than that there's not much wrong with this event.

Hurdles: Another revival from Track & Field, plus the closest thing this sequel has to a straight-up race. Mash A to run and B to jump over the hurdles. Oddly, the hurdles all have a shallow pool of water behind them, as if it were a horseback steeplechase. Still, there's to complain about with this event.

Horizontal Bar: Way to end on a low note. This, the final event in Championship Mode, combines nearly everything wrong with this game into one. It's a button masher, the non-mashing controls are poor, and like the High Dive, it's based on a grading system which seems to have no relation to what you just did. Building up power by mashing A changes the tricks you can do by pressing B, but loading your routine with high-powered maneuvers won't necessarily earn you the best grades. You can help things along by sticking the landing (press and hold Up just as you land), but really you'll be lucky to get at or above the qualifying mark.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Game Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Game Gear)

Sonic the Hedgehog 2
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Aspect
  • Platforms/Release:
    • Master System (Europe only): October 1992
    • Game Gear: November 1992
    • Wii (DLC): December 2008
  • Genre: Action
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • Game Gear: Very common (US$1-5)
    • Master System: Moderate (US$10-20)
    • Wii: N/A (US $5)

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is not only the best-selling game for the Sega Genesis, at 6 million copies, but for me it's the most iconic Genesis game of all time.  Yes, even more so than the first one, which I wasn't familiar with at first.  Despite my equating the sights and sounds of that game with the system as a whole, I was never able to get through the Chemical Plant Zone, only the second zone out of about nine.  Chalk that up to the fact that I never used to own a Genesis, and could only play it on the rare occasions when I visited someone who did.  I did have a Game Gear, however, and they did release a version for that handheld.  The experience, however, was nowhere near the same.

Right off the bat, there are two things that should tip you off that you're not playing the Genesis version.  One, the new character, the orange fox Miles "Tails" Prower, is not a playable character.  He was captured by Dr. Robotnik, as told by the opening cutscene.  Instead, you must play as Sonic and make it through seven zones to reach Robotnik and, if you have all six Chaos Emeralds, free Tails.  The second difference is that Sonic's standing spin dash ability from the Genesis version is missing.  I'll explain why later, but what that means is if you have to break down a wall, you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way: by getting a running start, rolling your thumb roll to Down, and rely purely on Sonic's momentum.  If you're used to revving up from a standstill, then this will take practice, but if you weaned yourself on the first Sonic the Hedgehog, then more power to you.

Lava in the first level.1
The seven worlds in this game are also quite unlike the itinerary the Genesis version makes you go through.  For one, you don't start out in some variant of the Green Hill Zone, the first level of the first Sonic games.  They have one of those (here called the Green Hills Zone...  Lazy.)  No, you start out in the Under Ground Zone, which has caves, mine carts, and lava.  Yes, lava in the first level.  I've got a bad feeling about this.  On the other hand, the level design is much improved from the first Game Gear Sonic, which suffered from not having much of what made the Genesis series famous.  For one, there are actually loops in this game!  You'll also take on some rides: mine carts, hang gliders, giant bubbles, and sling wheels.  I'm sorry if that has sent veterans of Shadow the Hedgehog into post-traumatic stress disorder, but they're tastefully executed here, albeit nothing memorable.

When I played this game as a kid, there were two spots that gave me serious trouble.  First, there was the boss of the Under Ground Zone - the first one in the game.  It's a pair of robotic crab pincers, but you can't hurt it by jumping or rolling into it.  Instead, you have to let a series of metal balls bounce into it, until Robotnik crashes his craft into it to deliver the final blow.  If any of these projectiles hits you, even if you're curled up, you die.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: like in the Game Gear's first Sonic title, there are no rings in the shorter levels where you fight bosses, so one hit of any kind will cost a life.  Given how many rings you can find in the normal stages, it's easier to stock up on lives, but that's beside the point.  Back on the point, what makes this boss hard is A) the ground is sloped down towards the boss, making it hard to move, B) the balls each follow one of three patterns that are selected randomly, and C) the Game Gear's low-resolution screen makes it hard to see the balls in time to react, especially when they bounce higher.  Even to this day, I blow much of my existing stock of lives on this guy - and let me remind you, this is the first boss.  Oh, and to rub salt in the wound, the Master System version not only has a larger screen resolution, letting you see farther, but all the balls follow the same, easy-to-jump-over pattern.  Bite me.

If you can manage to survive this boss, then you've pretty much gotten past the hardest segment in the game until the final two zones.  The second sticking point I was leading up to is in fact an optional objective: gathering the Chaos Emeralds.  Like in the first Game Gear Sonic, you have to pick up the Emeralds in the action stages themselves instead of in special stages, although they're only found in the second acts of each zone this time.  They are easy enough to find if you choose to follow directions online, except for the second one, in the Sky High Zone.  Hint: it's really high up.  Also note that without collecting all the Chaos Emeralds, not only do you get the "bad" ending, but you don't even get to play in the final zone!  Considering how much trouble I, personally, went to find them, that's a real ripoff.

Left: Master System.  Right: Game Gear.  See the difference?1
Oddly, the Game Gear version was released days before its Genesis counterpart in America and Europe (same day in Japan).  There was also a version released for the Master System in Europe (and possibly Brazil) even earlier than that, but since people elsewhere had moved on to the Genesis/Mega Drive, it was never released elsewhere.  That's a shame, because the Master System version is superior.  I had mentioned the screen resolution issue earlier, but being able to spot danger from farther away makes a world of difference.  There's even a speed power-up that was taken out in the Game Gear version (yet left in its instruction book - again, laziness abounds)!  You can always import it from Europe and play that, but it since it's synced to the PAL format's 50 fps rate, the music will play faster on NTSC-format consoles.  But on December 2008, the Master System version was released in all 3 regions through the Wii's Virtual Console, allowing Americans and Japanese to finally experience this game the way the developers intended!

The 8-bit versions of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 have the odd distinction of improving upon their predecessor, yet feeling completely dated next to not only the 16-bit but (most of) the later 8-bit Sonic games.  If you were expecting an experience like what you knew from the Genesis, you may feel disappointed.  And for those of you unable to get past the first boss, it's okay to feel cheated.  It's not your fault; it was the developers.  But if you can forgive them for this big problem and all the other little ones, it is a decent platformer you could do far worse with.  Game Gear users, however, could do far better.

Control: 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Design: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Graphics: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5 (GG) / 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5 (MS/Wii)
Sound: 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
The Call: 65% (C) (GG) / 70% (C+) (MS/Wii)

1"Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) Screenshots". MobyGames.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Music Review: Like a G6

First of all, I would like to make some amendments to my review of Train's "Hey, Soul Sister". Some time after I wrote my first review, ToddInTheShadows took a whack at it himself. Despite being a negative review, as is par for the course on his show, he's made a number of points I agree with.  Everything in the lyrics is either trying to be cute but is creepy when taken literally, or is just hackneyed.  They were apparently trying to emulate INXS1, but failed miserably.  Cribbing a line from "Need You Tonight"   And no, you can't dance to Mr. Mister.  P.S. "Droppings of Jupiter", that's a hot one.  So, I would like to revise my rating to a 1 out of 5 (F).  I'm not sure if I can call this so bad it's good, either.  Perhaps this next song will make the mark - but should it?

So this is "Like a G6" by this new band, Far★East Movement (they spell it with a star on their album covers, but I won't bother you with that).  And what is a G6?  Officially, it's up to your interpretation, so whatever you think it is, you're right.  But the official story from band member Kev Nish is the following: "A G6 is not a Gatorade flavor. It's not a car, convertible, four-door. It's not a watch, [... b]ut Drake, Drake talks about having G4 pilots on deck, so we said, 'What's flyer than a G4?' Of course, it would be a G6"2.  By which he means the upcoming Gulfstream G650 airplane.  Also yes I realized I just contradicted myself by saying there were two official stories, but it's true.

Thankfully, this song is not specifically about airplanes.  That would just be stupid (if you're not B.O.B., that is).  But what is it about?  Let's dive into the lyrics.
Poppin' bottles in the ice, like a blizzardWhen we drink we do it right gettin' slizzard
...Turns out this is a drinking song.  Even the music sounds drunk, what with all its slidy synth.  Oh, and they painted themselves into a corner by ending a line in "blizzard".  This forced them to resort to Carney Talk on the next line.  In Carney Talk, you add "iz" after the first syllable of each word, or at the beginning if it's already one syllable.  For further research, consult half of everything Snoop Dogg has ever released.  Thus, going backwards, "slizzard" turns into what sounds like "slurred".  Yes, that is an unfortunate side effect of alcohol.
Sippin' sizzurp in my ride (in my ride), like Three 6
Uhhh... you got me on "sizzurp".  When going back from Carney Talk, "sizzurp" becomes "surp", and there's no such thing I'm aware of.  Perhaps she meant "slurp"?  Well, that wouldn't make sense either, because "slurp" alone isn't a noun.  Oh, and do you think it's too early to reference the rap group Three 6 Mafia?
Now I'm feelin so fly like a G6
This is where the song gets its name.  Well, technically, this whole chorus was lifted from another song by the girl who just sang it.  And it's also a shame that Dev never changes her pitch when singing.  Did they just auto-tune her talking or something?
Gimme that Mo-Moet-etGimme that Cry-Crystal-stal
Looks like the drinking theme is here to stay.  And I'm warning you, there's a lot of stuttering in this song.  So much that it comes off as lazy, especially given how many segments of lyrics are reused.  It's way too easy to run out of words when you're drunk, as Ke$ha can attest to.
When sober girls around me, they be acting like they drunk
I never noticed the atrocious grammar of this line until I saw it written.  These sorts of things happen to me; when I listen, I don't care as much for some reason.  But girls around him acting drunk, even when they haven't had any alcohol to drink...  Is this a turn-on for this guy?  He doesn't say.  Well, you'll have plenty of time to ponder the meaning of this line, since it's repeated and stuttered for the next two lines.  I'll give you to the next verse to figure it out.
Sippin on, sippin on sizz, Ima ma-make it fizz
*sigh* We're back to that "sizzurp" thing again, and they still didn't tell me what it is.  So I looked it up.  It's another name for Purple Drank, a drink made with cough syrup.3  And it's a really strong drug, like lethal strong.  And Far East Movement's not even from the Atlanta area where it was popular.  For their sake, I pray that they're just posers.  Speaking of auto-tune, it even sounds drunk when these guys do it.  Way to make a theme, guys!  ^v^
Girl i keep it gangsta, poppin bottles at the crib This is how we live, every single night
Gangsta, huh?  Whew, I guess you really are posers.  I never though I could say that and mean it in a good way!  Although it would take a lot to live like that every night, so I guess the lie can't last.
Take that bottle to the head, and let me see you fly
Being the square that I am, I just have to take things like this literally.  In this case, that entails someone hitting themselves in the head with a breakaway bottle.  I doubt that would let him or her catch air.

That's everything notable in the lyrics, but the final bridge changes the beat.  It makes things interesting, but they only do it for four lines; that's not even the whole section!  Consistency please?  Oh well, I guess that's impossible to ask for from what could be the most drunk song ever.  Apart from that, the lyrics are stupid, but again, that's too much to ask for.  You'll only consider it so bad it's good if you're into this kind of electronica music; for everyone else, it may not be grating, but definitely on the boring side.

The Call: 1 out of 5 (F)

1Richards, Dave.  "Train adds ukelele to make Hey, Soul Sister a chart topper". 07 Nov 2009
2Leong, Evan. "Far East Movement Explain Chart-Topping 'Like a G6'". MTV. 30 Sep 2010
3"Sizzurp". Urban Dictionary

Sunday, October 31, 2010

NES Month: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Nintendo
  • Platforms/Release:
    • NES: December 1988
    • Wii: June 2007
  • Genre: 2D Action-adventure
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • NES: Moderate (US$5-20)
    • Wii: DLC (US $5)
Well, I only have time for one more review for NES month, and since I believe in making a lasting... last impression, it has to be something climactic. And here I was, trying to choose between Paperboy and Jack Nicklaus Golf, two games that I've known for along time but no one really cares about. So I took a different route, and tried to think of something controversial. Something that I've played, that I have a lot of opinions about... which are pretty much the only requirements for something to show here on on the SDP. Hmmm... ZELDA II!

The apparent trend in NES games in 1988 was sequels that differed radically from their predecessors. I am of course thinking about the American Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. These games have split the fanbase due to how radical of departures they were, and series fans either have to love them or hate them. (Less so for Mario 2; that one seems to have gone over pretty well.) The main, if not only, reason for all this decisiveness is because the original games were such masterpieces, even to this very day. True, I never played anything in the Legend of Zelda franchise until Ocarina of Time, but I got to the first game eventually, and I still love it despite its quirks. I don't care that it doesn't follow all the rules set by the original and by everything that came after it; I love it for what it is.

This is one of the few direct sequels in the Zelda franchise. After the events of the first game (I think it's safe to go without spoilers), Ganon is dead and Princess Zelda is safe and ruling Hyrule again. ...Until she is stricken with a sleeping spell. The only way to wake her up involves traveling to six temples to place a gemstone in each, then going to one final temple to find the wizard who can reverse the curse. All the while, the enemy forces are trying to revive Ganon by using the blood of Link. Obviously, Ganon's not the villain of this game, but he does show up on the Game Over screen, something you'll be very familiar with by the time you're done.
Not everything from the first game is gone. [1]
The action takes place in a side-scrolling perspective this time around, taking breaks in an overhead-view map to get from place to place. It's true that there are some things carried over from the first Zelda, such as items you collect to access future areas, and containers to increase your maximum health and magic. This was the first Zelda game to feature magic, which you use to cast a number of useful spells. When most of your time with this is spent in something non-gamers would confuse with Super Mario, you know this isn't an ordinary Zelda title. On the contrary, there are more similarities to role-playing games, like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, both of which were released in Japan beforehand. By defeating enemies in the side-scrolling areas, you get experience points. When you reach certain point targets, you can spend them on stat upgrades. Attack strengthens the damage you deal out, Magic reduces the magic you need to cast spells, and Life increases your defense. Upgrading your Magic or Life stats will also refill their respective meters, so use your upgrades strategically.

As in the first Zelda, there is a battery-backed save function, and it's a good thing; this game is massive, whether for its time or otherwise. There are a total of seven dungeon levels you'll have to explore, and each one is bigger even than any given dungeon from the first Zelda. In order to get through one of them, you'll have to do plenty of level grinding on your own time. Given the low experience returns from random battles, it's easier to do so in caves or temples instead. Wherever you choose to spend your time leveling up, you'll need it; this game is not only big in length, but in challenge. Your sword has a short range, even though you can, once again, fire sword beams only when your health is full. You get three lives, but when they're gone, you have to continue from the starting point, Zelda's palace, even if you were in a dungeon. There are 1-ups to be found here and there, but in one more classic screw-you, they never reappear if you save your game after picking up one of them. Save them for the final level, or just buy one for 9,000 experience points once you've upgraded one of your stats fully. Plus, there are some enemies whose attacks can't be blocked by your shield, and don't get me started with the Darknut knights you'll have to duel with. Spare yourself the trouble of trying to get past their defenses, and jump and attack to hit their heads above their shields.
Sparring with armoured enemies can be frustrating... or trivially easy. [1]
Don't be daunted by all the trivial things that make this rougher to newer gamers; it all plays and looks as good as the best of everything that's out there on the NES. The music, although not composed by Koji Kondo, evokes the same spirit of the original music while being more fully featured. What this means is the dungeon music is no longer so repetitive and minimal. The graphics are well-done, if nothing special, and it's nice to see how your favorite (or not) monsters from the top-down Legend of Zelda are re-imagined for a side-scrolling view. And that's this game in a nutshell: a new way to experience a new adventure just as epic as the last one. Just like the nearly everything else in the Legend of Zelda series, this is nothing short of engaging. There's been nothing like it in the franchise ever since, and it makes you wonder what it would be like if they had done another entry in this style. Forget the controversy it has garnered over the years -- the results would be EPIC. So for now, I encourage you to enjoy what we've got.

Control: 4 Triforce pieces out of 5
Design: 4 Triforce pieces out of 5
Graphics: 4 Triforce pieces out of 5
Audio: 5 Triforce pieces out of 5
Value: 5 Triforce pieces out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

Thank you all for joining me in this month-long journey through some of the best and worst the NES has to offer. This is by no means the last time I'll cover games for this great system, since given its library of almost 800 titles (for North America and the PAL region), there's so, so much I haven't played. All the same, since I've done only NES games this whole month, it would be nice to stretch my non-literal legs. I thought I'd be a little daring, and go from Nintendo to... Sega? Look forward to that, vague as it may be, and happy Halloween!

[1] "Zelda II: The Adventure of Link NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

NES Month: Freedom Force

Freedom Force
  • Publisher: Sunsoft
  • Developer: Sunsoft
  • Release: NES, April 1988
  • Genre: Rail-shooter
  • Players: 1-2, Alternating
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
In my quest for the perfect Zapper-compatible game, I have come up with the following conclusion: they're all really short. There are the games that repeat short levels endlessly, or those that have a finite story that is over before you get into it. Today's subject, Freedom Force by Sunsoft, oddly has some of both of these qualities. Although you only get five levels before looping back and doing them again, the prospect of earning the best ending by clearing it four times in a row should keep you coming back for more -- if you can handle it.

The game itself is a glorified shooting gallery, specifically something like Hogan's Alley on steroids. As you slowly pan through a location, you must shoot terrorists as they pop out from behind cover, while not shooting hostages and civilians as they do likewise. These aren't cardboard cutouts, either; everyone's been given quite a few frames of animation, and there's even a tame amount of blood. If you let an enemy go for too long, they'll start shooting at you and drain your health meter. Empty either your health or ammo meter, and of course, your game ends. Shooting an innocent, on the other hand, adds a point to your Error meter. If you fill up your Error meter with six strikes, you go back to the first level with your score intact.
Keep your health and ammo high, but not your error meter! [1]
The only way to get power-ups in this game is to shoot the window in the lower-right corner of the screen as something pops up inside. The Health and Ammo icons refill their respective meters, but nearly every time the Health pickup shows up, it disappears faster than you can even react to it. Now that's just criminal. It's easier to just score points to automatically refill your health, but you can only do this twice (at 20,000 and 60,000 points). If an icon of a weapon shows up, you can shoot it to switch to that weapon. There's no difference between the .38 caliber handgun and the .44 magnum other than what sound they make (but man, is it a satisfying report). The grenade launcher, on the other hand, takes out multiple people when you pull the trigger -- and unfortunately, this includes civilians, so avoid this. The final icon type makes the game harder by having more people appear at a faster rate. If you pile on the Harder items, you'll be shooting almost constantly, which was enough of a challenge for a Time Crisis veteran such as myself.

The plot, paper-thin as it is, suits this game's genre well enough. First, you rescue an airplane that has been hijacked on the ground, and then you proceed through the airport for the next three scenes. The fifth and final scene jumps straight to the mastermind's hideout. Like I said, this game ends before you start to get into it. Clear this level, and you get what can barely be called a cinematic before going back to the first airplane scene. You're supposed to get a different ending if you clear the game four times in a row. I haven't made it that far, but it's a neat thing to work for and it give this game some much-needed replay value.
The Code Breakers mini-game. [1]
After clearing each second and fourth level, you get to play a mini-game called Code Breakers. This is a Hangman-type game wherein you are given a category and must shoot letters to select them. The catch is that you can only shoot letters that are lit up; this group of four letters cycles to the next each second. Since the hit box for these letters is smaller than the people you shoot in the main game, if your light gun's accuracy is fading, it'll be hard to pick out the letter you want. You're done when you make five mistakes (not including repeated or non-lit letters), run out of time, or finish the puzzle. A time bonus is awarded if you complete the puzzle, but you don't lose anything if you can't make it. There aren't that many puzzles, either, compared to thousands in each of the Wheel of Fortune games. Execution aside, it's a nice little diversion that doesn't detract from the core of the game.

1992's Lethal Enforcers may have modernised the light gun genre, but many of its facets can be seen here, in a game four to five years older. Even more shocking is the fact that, for the most part, it all works. Concepts such as power-ups and hostages to avoid are things that have been ingrained into the minds of gamers who have ever frequented arcades in the 90s. While I can't guarantee whether or not they first appeared here in Freedom Force, this is still well ahead of its time, and offers just enough replay value to interest a purchase from light gun fans.

Control: 3 Zappers out of 5
Design: 4 Zappers out of 5
Graphics: 3 Zappers out of 5
Audio: 3 Zappers out of 5
Value: 2 Zappers out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

[1] "Freedom Force NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NES Month: Silent Service

Silent Service
  • Publisher: Ultra
  • Developer: Microprose/Rare
  • Platform/Release: NES, December 1989
  • Genre: Simulation
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
Another brand that I have to mention when discussing the history of the NES is Ultra Games, which was merely a shadow brand created by Konami. See, back in the day, Nintendo of America limited each publisher to releasing only five different games per year for the NES, in an attempt to stave off an over-saturated market of junk games that plagued the Atari age. It worked, but these and other practices left publishers with a bad taste in their mouths. Konami was hit hard by this limitation, since they were already releasing twice that limit for the Famicom in Japan. So to get around this restriction, they created the Ultra label, effectively doubling their quota. Franchises handled by the Ultra brand include Metal Gear and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles... and then there's this.

Silent Service was the one of the earlier games designed by Sid Meier of Civilization fame, and started out as a computer game for the PC in 1985. It was ported to many platforms, including the Amiga, Apple II, and Commodore 64 before, almost inevitably, in 1989 it was picked up for an NES version, ported by (here we go again) Rare. The game is set in the Pacific Front of World War II, where you control various US submarines and attack Japanese convoys and destroyers.

You get to choose from one of three modes when you start up the game. Torpedo/Gun Practice lets you fool around as you sink four unarmed ships. Combat Tactics puts you in one of six scenarios against a number of enemy ships. Once you sink them all or they sink you, the game ends and your score, measured in tons of ships sunk, is tallied. Finally, there is the War Patrols mode, which alternates between a free-roaming patrol of the western Pacific and random battles like those from Combat Tactics. Here, the only way to end the game manually (barring a watery grave) is to go back to one of the Allied ports in-between combat.
The scope view is where the action is. [1]
Most of your time will be spent in a scope view, where you'll use your weapons, the torpedoes and deck gun, to attack enemy ships. When you center your view over an enemy ship, you'll see its stats like speed and trajectory automatically. You can also look up the ship type and tonnage, but the only way to do that is to click in the target ID box over to the right. Forgive me for not understanding matters from the development side, but why you have to do this manually is just beyond me. There is also a limitation here not present in the computer versions: you're limited to four torpedoes on the field at any one time. Sure, you can only hold six torpedoes in the bow (front) and four in the aft (back) before reloading, but if you forget about this limitation, you might find yourself frustrated.

Be warned: since this is a port of a computer game, it is very complex to play. Instead of pressing buttons to do individual actions, most of what you'll be doing involves moving a cursor and "clicking" with the A button. Since the pointer only moves in eight directions, it's nowhere near as fluid or precise as using a mouse, an option that is sadly unavailable for the NES. Start does nothing, whereas Select brings you back to the pause menu, from where you can move to the other screens (maps, gauges, and damage reports). Have they even played Super Mario Bros.? Even worse, you can't access some of the advanced functions (changing deck gun deflection, releasing depth charges, etc.) without having a controller plugged into Port 2; there's no workaround without one. I hate when games do that. On the other hand, there is complexity in a good way, since you are able to dive and surface at will, opening the possibility of all manner of tactics. All the advanced AI in the world would probably go over the heads of casual players, however, who might prefer to stay surfaced in order to use the deck gun.
There's a lot to pay attention to in this game. [1]
There's nothing in the visual department that pops out memorably, but the graphics get the job done. I do admire how the ships zoom in as they get closer to you, blocky as they may be, if only because the NES wasn't known for 3D graphics. And yet it's weird how your captain is decked out in jeans and a white sweater; is he piloting an armed US Navy submarine or a yacht? There's no music to speak of, except on the title screen, so get used to the sounds of your engine, munitions explosions, and sonar pings.

I would never go so far as to say this game is totally boring, or that it is a realistic and engaging re-creation of historic battles. To say one would be unfair to the other camp. What this game does, it does reasonably well, I'll give it that. But let me just say this: know your interests before giving this title a try. If you have little to no interest in World War II, then this game will bore you before you can say Iwo Jima. History buffs will find a lot to love here, but I really can't recommend this to anyone else.

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

1"Silent Service Box Shots and Screenshots for NES". GameFAQs.