Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dance Dance Retrospective: 4thMIX

With a release date of August 2000, Dance Dance Revolution 4thMIX was the first original game in the core DDR series put out during the new millenium.  It was followed by an updated re-release, 4thMIX Plus, in December of that year.  (And yes, I count the millenium as having started on 2000, not 2001.  I understand why some people count it from AD 1, that they think the year 0 doesn't count as AD, but I believe it does...  Screw it, it's not worth arguing here.)  But only four games in, was now the time for a radical makeover?  In terms of gameplay, no, it still plays identically to all the entries before it.  So let's dive into what has changed.

With a high-contrast color scheme of pinks and greens on black, the UI has received the majority of this game's changes.  Right off the bat, you get to choose your play style without having to hold the Start button after putting your money in the machine.  (The 2-player Versus and 1-player Double modes, which use both sets of panels, require you to pay a second set of credits.)  Double-tapping the Right panel switches you to Link Mode, where you can play the Nonstop courses or use edit data from your memory card.  Otherwise, you then select your character and setlist.  The 136 songs in this game (plus 14 new songs in 4thMIX Plus) are broken up into seven setlists of roughly 20-30 songs each, with a different character used for each.  I'm guessing it was designed to keep you from getting lost in the massive (for its time) array of songs, but I'm not a real big fan of this decision.  Even if you know what songs you want to play, they may not all be in the same category.  Fortunately, 4thMIX Plus and the home ports add an "All Music" option, which does what it says.

Too much music for one setlist.  (From Konamix.)
So how does one go about selecting these songs?  4thMIX finally does away with the CD wheel of the previous games, in favor of a list of titlecards, displayed 7 at a time.  The difficulty levels for all three charts (now named Basic, Trick, and Maniac) are listed at once, but you can't choose them during song selection.  Instead, you set your difficulty after picking a song.  Also note that some songs have new Maniac-level charts, many of them very difficult for the time. 4thMIX Plus brought the old charts back in as a fourth difficulty level called "Maniac-S" in Single or "Maniac-D" in Double.

Surprisingly for a PSone-era game, 4thMIX outputs a display size of 480i, double that of the previous games, and it would be the only one to do so for a while.  But let's face it, not everyone's gonna notice that.  You might notice the all-new background animations, on the other hand.  Oh, and the scoring system drives me bonkers.  Rather than being a percentage of a maximum score, it's some kind of absolute number which quickly skyrockets into eight digits on harder charts.  They don't even give us the courtesy of ending it in a zero digit like good video game scores should (?).  I think it's supposed to be based on 777 points for a Perfect mark and 555 for a Great, but when you throw a combo bonus on top of that, things get really crazy.  The letter-grading system is also consolidated a bit; it only goes from E to AA, where A is awarded only for a full combo performance and AA is for all perfect marks (AAA in the other games).

The new scoring system on a roll.  (From Konamix.)
I admit I have been overly critical up to this point, but when you have so few changes to work with, sometimes the negatives stand out the most.  Please bear in mind that all in all, 4thMIX is a fully loaded package.  With its balance of quality of charts and quantity of songs, it's one of my favorite games from this early era of the series.  It has all the songs from the core series to date (with only two exceptions, due to specific requests from the artists), plus all the Konami original songs from Solo Bass Mix and Solo 2000 (two of them only showed up on 4thMIX Plus).  Notable songs from this game include:
  • "B4U" by Naoki.  Another speed rave song in the vein of "Brilliant2U" and "Dynamite Rave", this track was deemed by Naoki Maeda himself to be his favorite song in DDR Konamix (see below) "because this song best portrays the image of DDR by capturing the perfect blend of performance and physical activity from the player"1.
  • "Love Again Tonight (ForMelissaMix)" by Naoki feat. Paula Terry.  This song marks the DDR debut of this Australian singer, who would collaborate with Naoki Maeda for a number of years afterwards.
  • "My Summer Love" by Mitsu-O! with Geila, and "Orion.78 (AMeuro-Mix)" by Re-Venge.  The first is a pop song in the vein of Ace of Bace's early/mid-90s hits, whereas the second  is a heavily Okinawan-flavored trip.  Both tracks are slow, at 100 BPM, but manage to pack lots of notes in their level-9 Maniac charts.  The home version adds an exclusive remix of the latter, "Orion.78 (Civilization Mix)" which runs at twice the speed and is even harder.
  • 4thMIX adds a host of songs transplanted from the beatmania IIDX game series, but they must be unlocked by the operator.  ".59", "era (nostalmix)", and "Holic" are some of the most well-known.
  • This game also has the first songs in the core series with tempo changes.  In addition to "Wild Rush" from Solo 2000, ".59", "era (nostalmix)", and "Saint Goes Marching (Remix)" all change their speed at least once during the song.
The home port of this game was released for the PlayStation in Japan in March 2001.  As I mentioned at the end of my last Dance Dance Retrospective entry, this game includes the 6-Panel mode from the Solo series.  Another game based off the 4thMIX engine, Dance Dance Revolution Extra Mix (June 2001, Japan) combined all the new songs from Bass Mix, Solo 2000 (excluding megamixes), and 4thMIX Plus... oh wait, I already said that.  Abroad, the platform was also borrowed for Dance Dance Revolution Konamix (April 2002, North America), Dancing Stage Party Edition (November 2002, Europe), and the PSone version of Dancing Stage Fever (2003, Europe).  Konamix and Party Edition share a songlist comprised of over 50 Konami originals and in Konamix's case, nothing else.  They even brought back some songs from the Club Version games and made a new remix of "AM-3P" from 2ndMIX.  (And by the way, Konamix was the first DDR game I ever bought, so it's really nostalgic to me.)  Party Edition replaces the one Japanese-language track in the American game ("Dive" by BeForU) with six exclusive licenced songs, by Kylie Minogue, The Cardigans, The Bloodhound Gang, and more.  As for Fever, the PSone version is basically Extra Mix with a replaced (and horribly small) songlist, but it isn't worth mentioning... especially since we have bigger fish to fry.  Coming soon... 5thMIX.

1Dance Dance Revolution Konamix instruction booklet. April 2002.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sticking Points: Winter Olympic Games '94

The reason LordKaT started "Until We Win", his video series of walkthroughs for the most famously hard games of old, was to exorcise the demons of his childhood.  Now that he announced he was ending UWW (with a bang, if I say so myself: Comix Zone), my timing couldn't be better for launching my own series of text walkthroughs, dubbed "Sticking Points.  The first installment of Sticking Points is indeed something which gave me no end of trouble when I played it as a lad.  I'm talking about Winter Olympic Games: Lillehammer '94 for the Game Gear.  I have more to say about this game, like how I came across it in the first place, but that might be better suited for a traditional review.  Look for it soon.

It's odd that I'll have to start off with the first menu in the game, but there's no in-game indication as to what it does.  This is the language selection screen; the eight flags here represent eight possible languages you can set the menu text to.  By default, the cursor will hover on the United Kingdom flag; this refers to English.  Just press 1 or 2 and advance to the main menu.  From here you can select one of three modes, plus options.  Full Olympics takes you through all 10 of the game's events in a row, Mini Olympics lets you run a program of only the events you want, and Training is just that: practice an event as long as you wish.  Before starting either Olympics mode, you can set your name (press 1), gender (2), and nation (Left/Right).  Press Start once you're done making these changes.

This game has ten events across six different sports, which are listed below in the order they appear in Full Olympic mode:
  1. Downhill (Alpine Skiing)
  2. Luge (Sled)
  3. Moguls (Freestyle Skiing)
  4. Super-Giant Slalom (Alpine Skiing)
  5. Ski Jump
  6. Biathalon
  7. Giant Slalom (Alpine Skiing)
  8. Short Track (Speed Skating)
  9. Bobsled (Sled)
  10. Slalom (Alpine Skiing)
Since some of the events are so similar, I'll cover them grouped by sport instead of individual events.  The tips I present will cover all the events in a sport, but I will point out differences when they pop up.  While I'm at it, this game was ported to other consoles, including the Genesis and Super NES (hence my use of the Genesis box art at the top of this entry), but the content within all the ports are identical.  Button names refer to the Game Gear and (Europe-exclusive) Master System versions; I am not sure what their counterparts are on the other consoles.

Alpine Skiing
At the beginning of each skiing event, before starting down the slope you get to choose from one of three steering control setups.  The first two turn your skier clockwise or counterclockwise when you hold Left/Right, and the third aims him in whatever direction you press the D-Pad.  I prefer the first option, but try them all out for yourself, preferably in Training, until you find one you can get used to.  Holding the 1 Button makes your skier crouch for more speed, but you may have to let go if you can't react fast enough.  The 2 Button makes your skier hop, which is useful if you need to continue from an emergency stop and nothing else.  Regarding the actual skiing, the top-down, isometric perspective doesn't give you much time to react to the next gate you must pass through.  As a general rule, follow the contours of the snow, and don't be afraid to turn to a near-horizontal angle even if it will cut your speed.  Hitting a gate counts, but if you miss one gate, you'll be disqualified once you finish the run.  Should this happen, save yourself some time by crashing into a bank of trees and ending the run prematurely.

Out of the four events in alpine skiing, Downhill is the longest yet easiest, with the gates farthest apart compared to the Super G, Giant Slalom, and Slalom.  Regardless of your skills in the other courses, it would be worth slowing down part of the way in the Slalom (release the crouch button, or do a sharp turn) - the track is that tough.  In addition, the Giant Slalom and Slalom courses have to be raced twice in a row; skiers are based on the sum of their two run times.  Failing either run, whether by missing a gate or crashing, ends the event prematurely.  I'm not a fan of this setup, but we'll get into it more in the review.  Note that the Luge, Moguls, Ski Jump, and Bobsled also follow this setup.

The two sledding events, Luge and Bobsled, use the same track.  The biggest difference lies in how fast they go.  To start up in both events, you have to mash buttons 1 and 2 until gravity starts pulling your craft.  Strangely, I couldn't get past this simple step in the Luge event - the second event in the Full Olympics.   Sounds like a silly thing to mess up, right?  Not if you're like me and didn't have the instructions.  See, whereas the Bobsled gets started with just one push of either button, the Luge does not.  So I would press the button once and get nowhere fast, thus rendering this event and the Full Olympics mode unplayable.  ...Yeah, I got better.  Once you get started, your only controls are Left and Right which steer your craft.  Keeping your speed up is everything in these events; in order to do that, you have to stay in the center of the track as long as possible.  In turns, this means hovering over the border of light and shadow whenever possible.

This is a freestyle skiing event where you zigzag down a series of small hills, the titular "moguls".  During the run you are expected to not only make it to the bottom as quickly as possible, but jump off the bumps and perform tricks.  You ski down automatically, but have to press Left and Right in time with each turn point to move faster.  To jump, press 1 or 2 with any direction on the D-Pad whenever you're above any of the right-hand moguls.  You have to be exact with this timing, because if you're too late or early, your skier will take a smaller jump, crash, and be disqualified.  The contestant with the best total of speed, turn, and air points wins, so for best results, take a jump at every fifth or sixth jump point.  Playing this event in Training mode adds beeps whenever you hit a jump point so you can practice your timing.

Ski Jump
This is a complicated event, and I had to do a whole mess of experimenting in Training mode to find the winning formula.  First, you have to push yourself down the ramp manually (press 1 or 2).  The torch on-screen indicates wind speed, but since there's no direction indicator, start when the flame is at its shortest.  Second, press 1 or 2 again just before you take off from the ramp; and I do mean as late as possible before going airborne.  Third, while you're airborne, your skier will lose balance and shift left or right.  Press Left/Right to correct this and stay as balanced as possible.  This will build up your style points.  Fourth, about a second before landing, press 1 or 2 one more time to land safely.  Fail to do so and you'll crash; it's not an instant disqualification like in the other events, but you'll take a severe cut to your style points.

If you don't know, the Biathalon combines cross-country skiing and target shooting events.  In this game's interpretation of the sport, there are five skiing and four shooting segments, with the types alternating between the two.  In the skiing sections, you'll see a bar on-screen with a slider moving back and forth between both ends.  To make your skier go faster, you have to manipulate the slider with Left/Right or 1/2.  If you can, get the slider to stop in the colored edges of the bar without hitting the end for best results.  In the shooting segments, you simply move the cursor with the D-Pad and press 1 to fire.  You have to hit all five targets, and you have only five shots to do so, but missing a target only adds one second onto your time.  The challenge lies in how the cursor moves slightly on its own, as if to simulate muscle fatigue.  It may seem unfair, but honestly without it, the shooting parts would be way too easy.  Note that in the final skiing segment, you have to mash 1/2 in order to move instead of using the other control scheme.

Speed Skating
The final sport, and second-to-final event, puts you on an ice rink against three other skaters with the goal of completing four and a half laps before everyone else.  Mashing 1/2 moves you forward , and since you'll spend a good 45 seconds straight doing this, find the best way to hold your Game Gear or controller and prepare for a little fatigue.  While turning corners, you'll drift to the outside, so you need to steer with Left/Right.  The trick is to avoid hitting other skaters and the inside wall, which will slow you down considerably.  It might even be worth letting yourself drift outside to avoid getting boxed in by other skaters.

And that's it for the events.  See you in four years!