Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Game Review: Shantae: Risky's Revenge

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

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

The story of Risky's Revenge takes what I like to call the Mad-Libs approach to writing a sequel: use the same general concepts as its predecessor, switching about characters and/or objects as needed.  This time around, Shantae, the half-genie guardian of Scuttle Town, visits her uncle Mimic to witness a treasure he found on his off-screen exploits.  Such MacGuffin item, in the form of a magic lamp, is promptly stolen by lady pirate Risky Boots (hence the title).  She can't use it without three magic seals, so Shantae and Mimic come up with the bright idea of finding all the seals before Risky.  Good luck with that...  I may have been a bit cynical in describing the plot, but there are some genuinely moving moments here and there, such as when the mayor of Scuttle Town sells the town deed, and at numerous points when Shantae's half-blood heritage instill in her doubts vis-a-vis her ability to properly protect her home town.  There's some choice humour to be had as well; you owe it to yourself to speak with the NPCs about Scuttle Town every now and then.
The Squid Baron, one of a small handful of bosses to be fought.
As before, Shantae can learn belly-dance moves which will transform her in to different animals: a monkey (for climbing up walls), an elephant (for breaking rocks), and new for this game, a mermaid (for swimming underwater).  However, the dance mechanics have been simplified: instead of performing button sequences, all you do is hold the button and let go when Shantae switches to the desired pose.  While I should be thankful for not having to worry about invalidating my inputs by messing up the timing, I am somewhat disappointed at losing the creativity permitted by the old system.  Oh, and there are only three dungeons to the five from the first game, and one of them doesn't even have a boss to call its own.  The overall length is similar, still about 2-5 hours depending on whether or not you know what you're doing, but it still feels like they cheaped out for the sequel.  I should forgive this fault given the game's troubled history, so I'm going to let you off with a warning, WayForward.


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

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

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

Positives:
+ A few gameplay changes (i.e. the Magic Meter) work in this game's favour.
+ Some great story moments, both comedic and dramatic.
+ The animations are still gorgeous, but no longer limited by 8-bit hardware.
+ Ditto for the soundtrack.
Negatives:
- A little short compared to the first game.
- Some features from the first game have been downsized or cut out completely.

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Editorial: Mega Man Legends 3, 3 Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legends never die,

Kevin M.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dance Dance Retrospective: DDR 2010

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

And it sucked.

...

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

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


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


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

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

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