Monday, February 28, 2011

Second Opinion: Sonic 4 & Ludacris

I've been dreading this day for weeks.  The Video Game Critic just posted his/her/their review of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I on his/her/their self-titled website, and it's not pretty.  Remember how I discussed the physics foibles, but ultimately said they didn't break the game?  Yeah, they (I'm just gonna use that pronoun from here on) apparently didn't get the message.  They graded the game an F, and the review itself was just freakin' scathing.  Which is why I'm kicking off a new series called "Second Opinion", where I take on other reviews not just because I disagree with them, but because I feel they didn't do a good enough job of explaining their criticisms.  For this example, there's really not much I can say that I haven't already covered in my review for the game, in which I gave it a B or B- depending on the version, but as I examine various points from their review, I might have to dip back into it.
"One of the intro screens displays the Sonic Team logo, suggesting the original development team was somehow involved.  So when did they forget how to program?  By the looks of it, Sonic 4 was developed by Sega's bored intern who had never actually played the original games but had seen a few screen shots."
Okay, right off the bat we've got a partial research failure.  Yes, Sonic 4 was co-developed by Sonic Team, but they conveniently forgot to leave out the fact that most of the gruntwork was done by Dimps, who brought in their experience from the Sonic Advance and Rush series.  And by the way, they gave good reviews, B- or higher, to all five of those games.  So why the double standard!?
"For a real Sonic fan, it takes all of about five seconds of play to realize that Sonic 4 feels all wrong. The original Sonic boasted simple controls coupled with a palpable sense of speed and momentum."
In my own review for Sonic 4, I asked you the reader whether or not the Genesis trilogy's engine was better on its own merits.  I have to get this off my chest: after having played Sonic 2, which for the record is my favorite game out of the trilogy, I have to say its engine is truly better than the one used by Dimps.  But still...
"Instead of being fast and smooth, Sonic's movements are awkward and stilted.  The physics are borderline non-existent! These controls would be terrible in any game, much less a high-profile sequel."
Umm... "awkward and stilted"?  "Non-existent"?  No.  No, no, no, no, not quite anyway.  Sonic 4 is still technically, umm, what's the word?  Oh right, PLAYABLE.  Where do you get off on exaggerating this [noun]?  I could argue that the platforming physics of Sonic Colors are even worse, but I still love that game.  Hint hint.  I have also just become aware of Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis, a port of the original game made for Game Boy Advance made by Sonic Team themselves, and guess what?  It really is broken!  As the video below illustrates, it's loaded with physics-related glitches - that's right, literal glitches - which you won't even find in Sonic 4!  So yeah, you officially have NO idea what you are talking about.

"Instead of simply pouncing on a foe, you're forced to perform a "homing attack" made unpopular by the marginal 3D Sonic titles of recent years.  Who in the [expletive] asked for that?!"
You say the homing attack was made unpopular by the 3D series?  Again, I call BS: bias sighted.  Remember, I remarked that it would've seemed like a more natural evolution if Sonic 4 was released directly after Sonic & Knuckles.  And let's face it, the homing attack is not the worst thing to come out of everything released after the Genesis Trilogy.  Let's take a moment to thank our lucky stars that...
are nowhere to be found in Sonic 4.  So yeah, this is technically what we asked for, and they technically delivered.  Video Game Critic,  allow me to redirect you to that curse I placed on you at the end of my Sonic 4 review.  Or there's always Sonic Colors; you seemed to like that.

But wait!  Because I'm such an antagonistic little nerd, I'm throwing in another second opinion absolutely free!  This time around I'm matching wits with someone I hold far less animosity towards at the moment: The Rap Critic from  In most of his episodes, he's taken classic songs like "Nuthin' But a G Thang" and "Today Was A Good Day" and given them ratings like of 2 out of 5, and you know what?  He made me agree with them!  But the inverse has happened once: taking "My Chick Bad" by Ludacris and Nicki Minaj, a song I felt was mediocre and rating it 5 out of 5 - as far as dance songs go.  Er, what?  And after spending so much time nitpicking the lyrics too!  You do not make such a negative review and give the song a perfect score just because it's got a good beat and you can dance to it!

...Okay, so maybe the song isn't that bad.  It's got its bouts of laziness, what with repeating lines from the chorus into the verses.  Speaking of which, why did he have to down-pitch his voice on the choruses?  It saps away most of the gusto he brings to nearly everything he's done, this song included.  And don't get me started on those unlinked similies; I thought you were above that Luda!  Then again, this was after he co-starred with Justin Bieber, so take that as you will.  But the message of the song isn't the usual rap fare.  Instead of bragging about himself or objectifying a girl, he's smashing the two roles together: bragging about his girlfriend.  Looks like rappers are making some progress in terms of becoming respectable human beings, even if at the end of the day she's still regarded as his possession.

The thing that improved my opinion of this song more than anything else came from an unlikely source: co-star Nicki Minaj.  My first experience with her was her verse on "Bedrock", and I think we all know how that turned out!  ...It sucked; and let's just say Nicki did nothing to make it any better.  So you can imagine my surprise when her performance on "My Chick Bad" was far-removed from the trashy, stoned-out valley girl she came across as on that other song.  Nope, this time around, she's taken inspiration from the horror-movie slashers of old.  On this and some other tracks, she's been described by others as a female Busta Rhymes; I'm loath to make a comparison that lofty, but she is close in my book.  Her delivery is brimming with the energy of the insane, with verses filled to the brim with syllables, and her look in the music video is what brings it all together.  Lemme tell ya, if the mental asylum's looking for you, you're headed in the right direction.

The Rap Critic asked himself whether he liked this song just because it was by Ludacris, and I'm gonna have to answer for him: yes he does.  It's not deserving of that treasured five-out-of-five rating, which he has done only one other time to date, but with the help of Nicki Minaj, this song is a trip into madness unlike anything out there.  All things considered, I'd have to give it three horror slashers out of five (C).  That's Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Mike Myers.  No, not Michael Myers from Halloween, but frankly, what's the difference anymore?

I also have one final, personal note to make.  On Saturday I was offered a position for a healthcare software company, and I accepted.  My first day will be tomorrow, at the beginning of the month.  I don't expect this to affect my output on the SDP by much; after all, it doesn't take me too long to write an entry, even with all my procrastination.  But for something I've been waiting nine months for, I really want to share this joyous news with you.  I hope you enjoyed this debut installment of "Second Opinion" (unless you're the Video Game Critic), because I have more beefs along the way.  I've got more episodes planned involving Star Wars Episode I and a comparison of F-Zero vs. Super Mario Kart.  Also be on the lookout for another new series called "Sticking Points", in which I'll take you through the hardest games from my childhood and beyond.  Now that LordKat's ceased production of his video series "Until We Win", I suppose you could call this a spiritual successor to that.  After all, sometimes we must make the change we want to see in the world.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Song Review: Baby


  • Artist: Justin Bieber featuring Ludacris
  • Album: My Workd 2.0
  • Release: 18 January 2010
  • Genre: Pop
  • Label: Island Def Jam
  • Writers: Justin Bieber, Christopher "Ludacris" Bridges, Justin Gärtner, Christina Milian, Terius "The-Dream" Nash, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart
  • Producer: The-Dream, Tricky Stewart

Okay, I know I said it before, but I am still not proud of my first review, in which I covered Train's song "Hey, Soul Sister".  I did talk about it in my next song review, for "Like A G6", since ToddInTheShadows had covered the former previously and made some valid points of criticism which I had overlooked.  Well guess what: he did a video about "Like A G6" within weeks of me posting my review of the song.  Now don't be mad, guys, I am treating this as a coincidence.  I doubt Todd even visits this site - and if you do, thanks, I am truly graced by your presence - so it's cool; you won't see me pursuing legal action any time soon.  But there is one song out there, which had its peak of popularity when Todd started making videos, which for better or worse became the signature song of the artist in question... mostly worse.  I am of course talking about "Baby" by Justin Bieber and Ludacris.

I'm rather shocked that ToddInTheShadows hasn't so much as touched this one song.  Granted, he has taken on Justin Bieber in the past, dedicating a full video to "Eenie Meenie" and putting "One Time" in the Top 10 Worst Hit Songs of 2009 list.  But "Baby" is perhaps the most famous of all of Bieber's songs.  As I type this, it is the most-watched video of all time on YouTube, clocking in at over 467 million views.  Which is why the above video is from a different source; I can't support a record like that.  (P.S. Please go watch Bad Romance 120 million more times.)  Now, as I said about the Twilight Saga, I don't hate Justin Bieber as much as the people who bad-mouth him, but I can't say I like him by any stretch.  Of course, popularity is not a factor I should consider while going over this song critically, but this time around instead of focusing on the lyrics, I plan to spend more time than before discussing the music itself; melody, production, etc.

First and foremost, when evaluating the lyrics to any song, we must understand what the song is about.  In "Baby"'s case, it is about the frustration of a lost love.  Having been fifteen years old when co-writing this song, the chances are low that something like this has happened to him, although I wouldn't count it out.  Granted, if it did happen to him, he would have had to be rather young, because of the maximum possible age, but because of how little he seems to understand the context of the breakup.  He only gives us one line which clues us in as to why she dumped him:
Said there's another, and look right in my eyes
whereas we get a whole lot of denial.
You know you love me
I know you care
Are we an item?
Girl quit playing
We're just friends
What are you saying?
And just shake me 'till you wake me from this bad dream
I'm going down, down, down, down
And I just can't believe my first love won't be around
Truth be told, there isn't much else wrong or stupid about the verses.  Besides, I'll bet you after enough time has passed, everyone's going to forget the verses whereas the chorus will live on in their minds - and trust me when I say it'll dig itself in there uncomfortably deep.

Baby, baby, baby (ohhh)
Like baby, baby, baby (noo)
Like baby, baby, baby (ohh)
Thought you'd always be mine (mine)
Baby, baby, baby (ohhh)
Like baby, baby, baby (noo)
Like baby, baby, baby (ohh)
Thought you'd always be mine (mine)
In case you haven't noticed, almost the whole thing is just the word "baby" repeated over and over!  No seriously, the word is uses 56 times in the whole song, 54 of them in the choruses alone, and depending on how you count it, it makes up 54 to 72% of all the words in each chorus!  If you thought it was annoying when songs repeated one line in a chorus over and over, this'll drive you mad even sooner.  Even if you are immune to its insanity-inducing effects, like somehow I am, it still comes off as completely unprofessional.  Gah, what is it with pop songwriters' refusal to use more words in a chorus than can be counted on your fingers!?


Oh, and Ludacris has a guest verse on this song too.  He used to be one of my favorite rappers despite (or maybe because of) his penchant for silly similies, but his mere presence next to Justin Bieber makes is a blow to his street cred which makes him almost impossible to be taken seriously in my eyes.  ...Sorry, I shouldn't make that kind of judgement without checking for any lyrical merit, so, shall we?  ...Well, I would if I could understand what he was saying.  See, his delivert randomly switches between languid, laidback slow lines and this double-speed rapping which is impossible to make out.  But that's why I got the lyrics online.  Until you figure out the pattern, the transition from slow to fast lines is jarring.
(Slow) When I was thirteen
I had my first love
(Fast) There was nobody that compared to my baby
Ain't nobody came between us no one could ever come above
(Slow) She had me going crazy
Oh, I was starstruck
Yeah, it's kinda like that. Oh, and can I get you some product placement while I'm at it?
(Slow) She woke me up daily
Don't need no Starbucks (whoo)
More speed-swapping hijinks ensue...
(Slow) She made my heart pound
(Fast) And skip a beat when I see her in the street and
(Slow) At school on the playground
(Fast) But I really wanna see her on the weekend
...Until we're delivered the final blow.
(Slow) She know she got me dazing
Cause she was so amazing
And now my heart is breaking
But I just keep on saying
Why do both Justin and Luda keep assuming the girl knows all these things?  Wishful thinking, I calls it.  Also, I've never seen "dazing" used as a verb before; I guess it's a replacement for being "in a daze".  Oh the things we sacrifice in the name of keeping meter and rhyme...  Alright,  truth be told, this isn't a terrible guest appearance, in terms of lyrics.  But Ludacris, for the sake of your career, please choose your collaborators more carefully.  I can understand if you see talent in this guy, but for the moment, it's not coming across to all of us.

Which brings me to my major criticism of this song, apart from... you know.  The music is some generic pop thing with traces of modern R&B here and there, and lots of syncopation, in the key of E-flat major.  So in layman's terms, it sounds happy: way too happy for a song about some girl dumping you!  ...Come to think of it, isn't there a song out there that does the same thing?  Where the lyrics discuss heartbreak but the music is upbeat and major-key?

Of course, it's F??? You", or "Forget You" if you are so inclined, by Cee-Lo Green!  But although this song may have a couple of similarities with "Baby", the differences between them are huge. Well, there is one obvious difference in tone if you're listening to the uncensored version of that song... I'll let that one slide.  But apart from that, "Forget You" is both ironic and serious at the same time, whereas "Baby" is neither of these.  Most importantly, Cee-Lo puts effort into his performance on the song, as opposed to Bieber, who delivers the verses of "Baby" with little to no energy.  He clearly sounds like he has lost interest in the project, as did producers The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, who made a background track which does nothing to fit in with the subject matter!  I may want to appreciate pop singers writing or even co-writing their own songs, but from this and other efforts, Justin Bieber proves that this is one of many talents he does not have right now, should he ever acquire them in the future.  You, sir, have made my dislike list, and believe me, it has nothing to do with your popularity.

One final note, I've decided to move away from giving individual songs full percentage grades in favor of a simpler 5-star rating system.  With the grading system I currently use, going from 0 to 100 percent in increments of 5, there are 21 possible ranks something can get.  It takes a lot of criteria for me to zero in one of these spots, and when the average song lasts about four minutes, there's just not enough material to do so properly.  I may be in the ballpark of what I want, like within a letter grade, but from there I have to randomly assign a specific percentage.  Well from now on I'm going to take that margin of error out of the equation.  Full-sized works, like video games, feature-length films, TV series, and whole albums will still get the full treatment, and those are the majority of what I review anyway.  But for individual songs, episodes, or smaller pieces, I will score them with up to five units and a letter grade to match.  I'll also throw in a humorous representation of the grade as a bonus.  So, with all that said, I now finally present my score for "Baby":

The Call: 1 (million) repetitions of the word "baby" out of 5 (million) (F)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Game Review: Taz-Mania

  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Recreational Brainware
  • Platform/Release: Genesis, 24 December 1992
  • Genre: Action, Platformer
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$3-10)
Back when I declared that Rollerblade Racer on the NES was the worst video game I ever played, I was referring mostly to how little thought had been put into it.  Although it's certainly a broken game, it's not quite as unplayable as other titles out there.  As such,  I don't hate Rollerblade Racer quite as much as those as other more frustrating games, even if they don't make as many pointless decisions like having ways to clear levels unscathed.  However, one game on the Sega Genesis has a rap sheet of other mistakes as long as my arm... depending on how big the font is.    Brace yourself, because I'm talking about Taz-Mania.

As the name suggests, Taz-Mania stars the Tasmanian Devil of Looney Tunes fame.  The first thing you are treated to when starting the game is a one-screen cutscene in which some old relative of Taz explains the plot.  He regales you with a legend of giant prehistoric seabirds who used to rule the island of Tasmania and laid eggs big enough to feed a family of Taz's ancestors for a year.  Apparently, they must still be around, because Taz sets off on a quest to find one of these eggs.  The environments you'll go through aren't that special; a desert, jungle, mines, and an ACME factory.  The problem lies within these biomes.

Taz hates bombs.  So will you.
Taz-Mania has some of the worst level design I have ever seen in a video game, so I'll focus on that for now.  In the first level alone, you'll be forced to cross pits of quicksand, jump over indescructible rock monsters, and ride up waterspouts or else suffer the spikes below.  Aren't first levels supposed to ease you into the game's mechanics, not throw challenging gimmicks at you right off the bat?  As if all that weren't enough, the play control seems designed to get in your way at every step you take.  Holding the B button (controls can be customized from the options screen) sends Taz into a whirlwind spin he can attack enemies with, and pressing Left or Right while doing so keeps him moving at high speed in that direction until you change direction or let go of the spin button.  Unfortunately, you can also knock helpful items, like life-giving food, fire-breath chili peppers, extra lives and continues, off the screen while spinning.  And yet there are also bombs which will take off half your lifebar if you eat them unless you spin into them or scramble with the action and/or spin buttons to let them go.  Both things can happen frequently if you spin just to move along faster, and the limited space you have to see in front of you often renders you unable to react to what you need to.  You know how a lot of the good 2D platformer games out there, the Marios and Sonics of the world, let the camera hang back so you can see more of what's in front of you?  Yeah, that would have been nice.  Occasionally, enemies stand nearby items, rendering your spin attacks worthless if you care about nabbing the goodies, and although it is possible to take them down by jumping on top of them, Mario-style, you have to be exact in order to pull this off.  The floaty, imprecise jumping mechanics don't help matters in the least.

The levels, of which there are 17 in all, show their true colors mid-way through the game, and you will curse it for them.  In the first jungle level, you must make many blind leaps over bottomless pits, where you can't see the other ledge until you are already in the air.  In order to gain more distance, you can spin while in mid-air, but doing so could send you off the other edge of the platform to your death.  In this level, there's a 1-Up next to a checkpoint; the funny thing is when you die and respawn in this game, all the items you picked up reappear, so if you keep getting the 1-Up after restarting at this checkpoint, you'll essentially have infinite lives for the following segment.  Normally I would complain about this bout of thoughtlessness, but given the frustrating nature of spinning off all those platforms, I suppose I shouldn't look the gift horse in the mouth.  Shame we won't be getting any similar TLC from here on.

The two mine stages.  Be afraid.
After two more relatively easy stages in the jungle, you've got a mine cart ride ahead of you.  You can speed up, slow down, and raise the cart to avoid obstacles, but like the rest of the game, it's way hard to react to it all.  I'll be honest, I haven't cleared this level without using the slow function on my controller.  But just because the next level is done on foot doesn't mean you'll get a break; very much the opposite, in fact, it will present you with yet another wall of difficulty.  It's also set in the mines, but with elevators you manually control, some which move on their own, and others which bounce up and down like those drums from Sonic 3.  The hardest part comes when you have to jump across a couple of quickly-moving platforms over an instant-kill floor which only barely looks like it's covered with spikes.  It's hard enough finding the first one, since it's off-screen once you first get up to the spot where you have to board it, but the very next platform presents the hardest jump in this game, as well as a whole bunch of other games.  The problem is that this second platform moves insanely fast in the opposite direction as the first, so if you wait until the first platform is at its farthest right before jumping, the second platform will fly out of your reach and cost you a life.  Can this be pulled off with practice?  Sure, but it's not worth the aggravation!!

The level after this marks the end of the hump in terms of difficulty, but it's still a doozy.  Back in the jungle area, there was a level where you traveled along a river by jumping between logs and islands.  The catch is that the logs traveled along several horizontal rows, so you'd have to hold Up or Down to move in this pseudo-3D space.  This mechanic will seem broken at first, but you'll get the hang of it after practice.  A lot of practice.  Well, the two mine levels are followed up by another one of these rivers, without the benefit of islands to give you terra firma; you'll have to memorize the patterns of logs and rocks.  Falling in the water deals damage and bounces you back up until you can make it to some sort of platform or you're drained completely.  Oh, and should you be foolhardy enough to try playing on Hard mode, one dip means an instant loss of a life.  Having to deal with all that while wrestling with a barely-functioning mechanic?  What were they thinking!?  The good news is that upon clearing this level, everything else is straightforward and, dare I say it, easy.

I do have to give a wag of the finger at one of the later levels, which is an almost exact repeat of one from two stages before, except that the goal is in a different place.  Yeah, this is the level of creativity we're dealing with here.  For one, the graphics aren't terribly exciting; the backgrounds are undetailed, using only a handful of colors.  The worst example of this is the cave levels; apart from some blue rock patterns, the background is completely black!  On the other hand, the sound direction is... interesting.  Most levels don't have any music, or at least it's very minimal and quiet.  Nearly every action in the game, be it you jumping or an enemy walking on-screen or whatever, plays some sort of sound effect.  This was done to evoke the Looney Tunes cartoons, and I can appreciate that, but in many cases it's just annoying, especially the woodpecker-like ticks of mouse enemies which take an eternal-seeming minute to get out of my head.

They really had no excuse to make Taz-Mania so terrible.  There were good games out on the market before its release in late 1992: two Sonic the Hedgehog games, four Super Mario games, heck, even the (early) Pitfall! series succeeds where Taz-Mania fails.  While all those other series I listed present a worthy challenge, Taz-Mania frustrating for all the wrong reasons, namely barely-functioning control mechanics and some of the worst level designs you or I will ever see.  Oh, wait... it's based on a cartoon property.  That's a fine enough excuse.  But it still doesn't save this game from my wrath; I hereby declare it as my new worst video game I have ever played.

Graphics: 2 cartoon bombs out of 5
Sound: 1 cartoon bomb out of 5
Control: 1 cartoon bomb out of 5
Design: 1 cartoon bomb out of 5
The Call: 15% (F)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Game Review: Quest 64

Quest 64
  • Publisher: THQ
  • Developer: Imagineer
  • Platform/Release: Nintendo 64, 1 June 1998
  • Genre: RPG
  • Save: Controller Pak, 2 pages
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$5-15)

In the late 1990s, role-playing video games gained recognition by the American mainstream thanks to two particular titles: Final Fantasy VII on PlayStation, and Pokémon Red & Blue Versions on Game Boy.  Meanwhile, the Nintendo 64 had nothing to contribute to the genre, especially since those fine quest-crafters at Squaresoft jumped ship to Sony's camp.  In between those two landmark games, the Nintendo 64 got its first shot at the genre with a game known simply as... Quest 64.  Yes, it is a stupid name, bland and nondescript whether or not you mentally remove the "64" from the title, and it shows how little its American publisher, THQ, cared about the product (sales-wise, rightfully so).  Elsewhere around the world, it got the alternate titles Holy Magic Century in Europe and Eletale Monsters in Japan (which got the game a year after the other regions, despite being developed there).  I'll let you decide who got the best deal.

But the name's not important if the game content is the same across all regions.  (NB: The Japanese version did add some extra events and balanced the difficulty, but it's nothing worth losing sleep over.)  You play as a young lad, named Brian in the American version, whose father has gone missing whilst trying to reclaim the stolen Eletale Book.  Your journey will take you all across the kingdom of IrelandCeltland, with many sights to see along the way, but the game never makes a big deal about the overarcing plot.  The search for Brian's father is easily forgotten as you seek out the bosses who have been wreaking havoc... okay, mischief with with the four elements: Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire.  And while you're thinking about how lucky it would be if the bosses would eventually lead you to your father, you must control these elements in order to achieve your goals... sort of.

The battle system, triggered randomly within enemy-infested areas, does some unique things that are worth mentioning but don't always work out as they should.  To start off, instead of using a series of menus to issue commands, you physically move within an arena, limited in how far you can go by a blue ring.  Likewise, the monster(s) can only move within their red ring(s).  Should you for any reason want or need to escape the battle, make your way outside of the large yellow ring bordering the arena.  Pressing A or Z next to an enemy does a physical attack with your staff, but you have to make sure a staff icon appears over its head when you trigger an attack or else you've just wasted a turn.  To cast spells, you navigate through a menu by pressing a series of C buttons.  All of this is turn-based, so if you're intimidated, you can take as much time as you need to do this stuff without fear of (in-game) interruption.  Although you can't control the camera manually, holding B will swing it behind you, but for some reason in battles the camera more or less has a mind of its own, going on its merry way whenever you release B.  Good luck aiming spells then; why not add a lock-on system, triggered by pressing Z (since it does the same things as A)?

Many powerful spells are at your disposal...
Winning battles builds up your experience meter, viewable on the pause screen.  When it fills up, or when you find a spirit bubble anywhere on the ground, you add a level to one of your four elemental attributes.  With each level, spells of that particular element grow stronger, and new ones are learned at certain milestones (every 3 levels or so).  However, your attack strength is directly tied into the total number of element levels you have gained, so your physical attacks will always do more damage than magic, even if you throw enemy weaknesses into the mix.  The balance is off in other areas as well: for example, one shot of the Healing Lv.1 spell (Upgrade your Water element to level 4 as soon as possible) doesn't restore much of your HP, but you can fill it up all the way by casting the spell repeatedly after each battle.  Plus, you gain MP automatically by walking.  Yeah, I might have lost some of you by now.  But if it helps you grind for experience as long as possible, I suppose I shouldn't look the gift horse in the mouth here.

...But it's not always worth the MP.
Other statistics (HP, MP, Defense, and Agility) are powered up in their own ways, like in (the Japanese) Final Fantasy II, but for some reason, all your experience levels are measured in percentages instead of absolute points.  That's it - there are no weapons or armor to equip, or even money to spend on items - people will always give you a certain item if you don't have any of them at the moment.  Even using items is a chore: pressing R at any time brings up the Items menu, where your consumables are displayed in a row of eight icons at a time, with no way of skipping directly to one end or another.  If you have a lot of items stored up, be prepared for an... admittedly minor inconvenience as you slowly scroll through the whole list.

For a quest which uses the very word in its title, it's awfully linear.  A hallmark of the major console-style RPG franchises is that the whole world is open for exploration from the get-go, assuming you could survive the encounters in more advanced regions.  Not so here; you're constantly shephered within each region, unable to advance until you beat the boss - which by the way, you'll have to do a lot of experience grinding to have a fair shot at them.  It's linear in a literal sense, too: you think that would be funny, but once you spend an hour trying to make it through one of several caves, with naught but a compass to keep you headed on the right track, constantly running the risk of accidentally turning around and wasting time in the wrong direction, you won't be laughing.

One of the things that console gamers think of and expect when a new RPG comes along is an epic, sweeping, memorable story... something which Quest 64 fails to deliver upon.  Whatever limited exposition is in this game is limited to the text boxes of ordinary conversations.  It's too bad The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or the PlayStation's Metal Gear Solid had yet to be released at the time; those two games showed the effect, if not importance, of real-time cutscenes.  Yes, I know the theft of the Eletale Book is wreaking havoc with the four elements; would you mind showing me some of the damage!?

And even if there were cutscenes in this game,  they wouldn't always offer a feast for the eyes.  While I must commend the art direction for all the wondrous sights you'll pass through, on a technical level, the graphics do little or nothing above the (admittedly low, in hindsight) standards set by Super Mario 64.  Many of the character models are blocky and chunky with hard-to-make-out features, and the textures can get especially blurry and poorly-detailed.  I know this is a weakness of the Nintendo 64 hardware in particular, but some games on the system handled this better than others.  Guess which camp Quest 64 falls under: the others.  Speaking of technical capabilities, the music could've easily been re-created, down to the waveform, on the Super Nintendo, or pretty much any low-budget video production from the 1980s.

Quest 64 happens to be the first true role-playing game I ever tried, and it proved to be a good choice to get my feet wet in the genre.  Not only does the concept of button presses for actions instead of menu commands tie it into the action games I was more used to, but it is incredibly dumbed-down, forgoing some of the basic concepts (money, equipment, party members) we take for granted.  In other areas, this game does have its intricacies, namely the combat and magic and experience systems.  The worst of the RPG snobs will certainly get bored with this in no time, but if you open your mind this game is worth trying out, despite the relative lack of effort put into it.

Control: 3 spells out of 5
Design: 2 spells out of 5
Graphics: 2 spells out of 5
Audio: 1 spell out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Game Review: Sonic 4 Episode I

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Sonic Team / Dimps
  • Platform/Release:
    • iOS (DLC), 7 October 2010
    • Wii (DLC), 11 October 2010
    • PlayStation 3 (DLC), 12 October 2010
    • XBox 360 (DLC), 13 October 2010
  • Genre: Platformer
  • Players: 1
  • Cost: 
    • iOS: US$7 (as of August 2011)
    • Wii, PS3, 360: US$15

I may have a lot of ideas stored up in my head about what I want to review in the near future, but it can be a tough job deciding what to bring out next.  A Twitter post from the Video Game Critic website's feed helped matters this time around.  On the whole, I love this site; in fact, I would like to place an independent plug for it right now.  (I can has affiliate?)  But one tweet from whoever is running the site put me on the warpath:
"I am reviewing Sonic 4 (Xbox 360). It's a good-looking game but the people who complained about the terrible physics were 100% correct!"1
I'm gonna have to stop you with a pre-emptive review of my own.  See, what I do on the SDP is not just re-iterate the seemingly questionable decisions made by entertainment producers, much less treat them as absolute evils like everyone else does *ahem*, but research them and explain why they did what they did.  That is what I plan to spend much of my review for as I cover Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1.  Also note that I am basing my review mostly on the iOS version, which for the most part plays identically to its console brethren, although I will note differences as I come across them.

Ever since it was announced about a year ago, every little decision has been met with scrutiny, and the reactions were mixed between those who couldn't care less, and those who did care and those took it with more than mild disapproval, who sadly seem to be the most vocal demographic on the Internet.  (Allow me to redirect you to the ending of my Twilight saga discussion.)  And we're talking about mostly cosmetic differences: Sonic's build, eye color, using the name Dr. Eggman instead of Dr. Robotnik, and the decision to use 3D character models instead of sprites.  Even though everything done since Sonic Adventure reeks of newness to me, for the most part I couldn't give a [noun].  But we'll start with the thing which I feel most strongly about people hating on: the physics.

The above video, by TsukentoX on YouTube2, is one of the more civil discussions about the physics.  Let's examine the points he made:
  1. If you jump or drop off a cliff without holding left or right, you'll lose all lateral momentum and drop straight down.  Not much of an issue if you play like me and hold the D-pad down most of the time.
  2. When going down a hill, you can come to a complete stop by letting go of the D-pad.  Not so in the Genesis or Game Gear series.
  3. Perhaps the biggest, if most well-documented foible, involves how you go up quarter- and half-pipes.  You used to be able to hold Down and roll back and forth to build up momentum, but not so here.  This time around, you have to hold Left or Right to run up the wall.
I suppose you should know the reason, or at least a possible reason, for all this.  Sonic 4 was co-developed by Sonic Team and Dimps, who did the Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush series after Sega went third-party.  And let's face it, next to their 3D console compatriates, these were some pretty darn good games!  Well, at the very least, producer Takashi Iizuka is aware of the physics matter, and explained it3.  Long story short, they based it off the Sonic Rush engine, which allows for tricks like running up walls and ceilings, thus explaining the third issue I listed.  But was the Genesis engine really ideal for everything we needed to do?  I'm (passively) ordering you to take a step back and evaluate the virtues of both engines for what they are, not by other's standards.

So, on to more positive matters.  Your price of admission nets you twelve acts across four zones, five separate boss stages, and seven Special Stages.  You'd think you could blow through this quickly, especially since the game saves after every level, and you select levels at will from a menu instead of having to go through the whole thing in one sitting like in the old days, but there's still lots to do.  Clearing a stage once unlocks its time trial, and finishing a level with 50 rings lets you get into the Special Stage.  These play out like they did in the first Sonic the Hedgehog, where you follow a rotating maze to the Chaos Emerald within, except this time you spin the maze itself around instead of controlling Sonic.  Oh, and not only do you have to steer clear of exit gates, you're on a time limit and must collect bonuses to extend your stay.  Despite the added challenge, the difficulty curve on the Special Stages is sensible; the first couple can be cleared in one go, whereas the last few will take potentially dozens of tries.  This time around, you can pause and restart as many times as you need, as long as you don't get kicked out immediately.  It might seem like a game breaker, but trust me, you'll appreciate it on the later Special Stages, if only to save the trouble of getting to them again and again.

While everyone else complains about the things that make Sonic 4 different from the Genesis trilogy, I'm more concerned with the things that are too similar.  Specificially, the level themes are repurposed from the first two games.  Splash Hill and Lost Labyrinth are Green Hill and Labyrinth (uhh... I can has effort?) from Sonic, while Casino Street, Mad Gear, and E.G.G Station are Casino Night, Metropolis, and Death Egg from Sonic 2.  Umm...  There's a difference between making people remember the good old days and just being lazy.  But not all of the throwbacks are bad; the music is done using Genesis-style synth instruments and brings back the tunefulness which made the original soundtracks so memorable.  In fact, the only thing they (intentionally) brought back from the newer era was the mid-air homing attack.  It is truly one of the better things they could've added, as it is useful for getting a quick running start.  Yeah, that's how I roll, bite me.  But look at it this way: what if Sonic 4 had been released immediately after Sonic & Knuckles?  Would it have seemed like a more natural progression then?  This has happened before: Sonic 2 added the standing spin dash to Sonic's movement arsenal, and people seemed to like that.

So please, instead of looking at Sonic 4 based on what they added to the mechanics of the Genesis trilogy, try comparing it to everything else that's come out since then.  There's no 3D camera to wrestle with, no treasure hunting, no fishing, no guns, no vehicles, and certainly no human/hedgehog relationships.  In fact, even though it's not a 3D-based game, I'd say they avoided all the pitfalls I discussed when I put the franchise in Game Rehab.  I do acknowledge its issues, minor as they come across to me, but if you're gonna completely trash the game because of them, the only Sonic game you deserve to play is the 2006 one.  Yeah, I just broke you.  Hopefully it will help you to realize that Sonic Team is good again, regardless of which direction they're headed in.

On one final note, I'm going to award separate ratings to the different versions of the game.  The PS3 and 360 versions come out on top by being the most fully-featured.  The Wii version lacks achievements or trophies (yeah, I'm a convert to the church of achievements).  While the iOS version is cheaper than all the rest (I got mine on sale for $3), using a virtual controller on the touch screen of your given device is not as precise as having a physical D-pad and buttons at your fingertips.  Also, the iOS port replaces two of the acts with ones that were cut during development of the console editions.  The 100,000-point challenge in Casino Street Act 2 is stupidly repetitive, but the mine-cart ride in Lost Labyrinth Act 2 is nice compared to other times I've played through this sort of thing.  At least there are no instant-kill traps you have a fraction of a second to react to.  (Taz-Mania says hi.  Steel yourself for a review of this mother soon.)

Control: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Design: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5 (PS3/X360/Wii) / 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5 (iOS)
Graphics: 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Audio: 5 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

1"Video Game Critic".  Twitter.  30 January 2011.!/videogamecritic.
2TsukentoX.  "Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I Physics".  YouTube.  13 October 2010.
3Takashi Iizuka.  "Picking Up Speed".  Nintendo Power Holiday 2010: p.19.  Print.