Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Game Review: GoldenEye (N64)

  • Publisher: Nintendo 
  • Developer: Rare 
  • Release: Nintendo 64, 25 August 1997 
  • Genre: 3D Action 
  • Players: 1-4 
  • Save: Battery-backed, 4 files 
Previously on the SDP, I put the Call of Duty series through Game Rehab. Said article also happened to include a section for first-person shooter games in general, seeing as how so many games of the genre have absorbed features from CoD, and Halo before it. I don't know about you, but I've always held earlier titles as shining examples of what I want the genre to be like again. And chief among those sacred cows, for me, was 1997's GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64. (Actually, I'm not sure if the extra "007" was supposed to be part of the title, or the extra capitalisation on the one letter "E", but I'll not dwell on that.) But, reality check -- Goldeneye, the game, is seventeen years old as of this article, and came out for what is now three-generation-old hardware. So do I only love Goldeneye now because it does things that new games don't do anymore? Or is it still worth its salt after all these years?

For the uninitiated, Goldeneye is an adaptation of the James Bond film of the same name, from two years beforehand. Don't you just love how we used to have to wait two years between a movie and its video game? It would have solved a lot of problems during the Atari age, let me tell ya. The game follows the movie's storyline, involving a set of spacebound EMP weapons stolen by a post-Soviet Russian crime gang. Pretty much all of the film's key scenes are re-created, from the pre-credits dam jump, to the St. Petersburg tank chase, to the climatic fight atop an antenna cradle. But the game builds upon the original story, either by extending existing scenes or adding new ones entirely. You know the level in the missile silo where the Goldeneye sattelites launched from? It doesn't appear in the movie at all. But it does help bring certain pieces of the story together, and more than anything, gives us some more game to play in.
There are some characters whom you're not allowed to kill.
For those of you who weren't into gaming during the mid-to-late 1990s, shooter-action games generally had one goal: get to the end of each level, and mow down anything that gets in your way, maybe stopping here or there to push a switch or pick up a key. But when such a character as James Bond is involved, you're gonna have to change the standard operating procedure a bit. Each and every level has certain objectives for you to complete. And even when you do have to break something, or someone, there's always a reason given. All this contributes to the game's world, and proved that serious narrative was possible even in genres of gaming commonly considered to be mindless.  Goldeneye also places an emphasis on stealth which, while not exactly a new development in this genre, is tastefully done. Getting spotted or using a non-silenced weapon may attract enemies in your vicinity, but this doesn't automatically trigger an alarm. Generally, they have to head over to an alarm button on the wall, or you have to get caught by a security camera, for that to happen.

Unfortunately, the objectives you must accomplish on these missions are not always intuitive. Take the very first level, for example. On the Secret Agent (medium) and 00 Agent (hard) difficulties, one of the objectives is to attach a covert modem somewhere. Even if you read the pre-mission briefings, it is totally unclear where you're supposed to attach the thing. And you only get one of them, so if you throw it someplace you're not supposed to, you can't get it back, and you'll have failed your mission. (To that end, I'm glad the levels in Goldeneye are a little short, averaging about 5 minutes apiece, which is the stick I will beat Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and 007 Legends with to no end.) I'll welcome a break from the standard linear string of objective markers any day, but taking things too far the other way is right out as well. Throw me a frickin' bone here, is what I'm saying. And another thing, how come we can only equip non-weapon items from the pause menu? And why can I still get hit, or killed even, during the extra second it takes to run the pause menu transition animation?
Some objectives are hard to find.
Goldeneye was not the first first-person shooter to run on a gaming console, and not even the first one on the Nintendo 64 itself. To my knowledge, all previous attempts at the genre done on this particular console (for example, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter) used the C-buttons to walk and strafe and the Control stick to aim, which was if nothing else an admirable attempt to duplicate the mouse-and-keyboard setup of PC-based shooters without an actual mouse or keyboard being available. And while Goldeneye makes this available as an optional controller setup, the default scheme flips this. The Control Stick walks and turns, and the C Buttons are used for strafing and looking up or down. "Won't this make aiming clumsy difficult", you might ask? To that I respond: No, for two reasons. The game employs a rather generous auto-aim system which can be counted upon for torso hits. And for situations requiring more precision, Goldeneye also pioneers an aiming mode, where you hold R and move the Control Stick to look about, and the C Buttons to duck or lean. In lieu of having a twin-stick-based controller, the powers that be made an equally versatile control setup. There are even options to use two controllers for simulating the aforementioned dual-stick controllers. It's not all good though; the use of "button chords" for certain actions (namely, holding A and pressing Z to cycle backwards through your weapons) may be cumbersome without practise, but for that one can blame the N64 controller more than the game itself.

Another sore spot one could also blame on the N64 hardware is the graphics. As I said before, I'm not one to depend on graphical proficiency in order to extract fun from a game. I do draw the line, however, when drops in the frame rate get in the way, which I'm sad to say happens quite a bit in Goldeneye. But let's be honest, were any video games out at the same time that much better-looking? And finally, I'd like to address the multiplayer mode. I'd like to, but I never had the friends to play it with on a regular basis, and there aren't any AI bots for us solo players to get our jollies with, so my authority's not the greatest on the matter. Judging from similar experiences in games like Perfect Dark and The World is Not Enough, however, I appreciate the degree of customisation available in setting up multiplayer matches, especially when you throw unlockable cheats into the mix.

So now comes the million-pound question: is Goldeneye still good? It's certainly playable, if that's what you mean, and potentially fun as well. Anybody who's been burnt out by the rigid linearity imposed upon us by all those Call of Duty clones should appreciate the relative freedom most missions give you in how you approach your objectives. (Although maybe too much freedom, as I explained a few paragraphs ago.) But that's just it: so many of the defences I could whip out for Goldeneye stem from the fact that it's not like today's crop of shooters. And yet not all shooters are like that; there are still shooters out there which emulate Goldeneye's business model as well like the aforementioned Perfect Dark and Timesplitters, and are technically better for having built on its formula with improved technology and experience. Not that we'd ever have been blessed with them in the first place without Goldeneye, however. So yeah, it's still good, but it's not like I wouldn't change anything about it, either. Let me put it to you this way: if I had all the knowledge and resources to make whatever video game I wanted, and no licensing or trademark restrictions to worry about, I would make an updated HD remake -- not a reboot, a remake -- of Goldeneye. Actually, that would be my second choice behind making Mega Man Legends 3, but you should have picked up on that by now.

P.S. I am aware of Goldeneye: Source, a free, fan-made Half-Life 2 mod which emulates and expands upon the original's multiplayer mode. I like it very much, in fact. But I choose not to count it unless or until they work the single-player campaign in there.

+ The story follows the movie, but takes liberties in all the right places.
+ The level lengths are just short enough to encourage repeated play-throughs.
+ Responsible and then-innovative use of stealth gameplay.
+ Control options make the best use of the N64's controller.

- Some objectives are so poorly-described that you could miss them entirely.
- The frame rate is highly prone to slowdown during intense action.

Control: 4 RCP-90s out of 5
Design: 4 RCP-90s out of 5
Graphics: 2 RCP-90s out of 5
Sound: 3 RCP-90s out of 5
Value: 5 RCP-90s out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Film Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed the 2010 movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. And it was good. Great, even. Now, in said review, I mentioned it as one of two movies that took video games culture seriously. Here is the other one I had in mind.

Wreck-It Ralph
  • Publisher: Disney 
  • Production Company: Walt Disney Animation Studios 
  • Release: 2 November 2012 
  • Director: Rich Moore 
  • Producer: Clark Spencer: 
  • Writers: Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee 
Our protagonist, the titular [1] Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), is, oddly enough, the antagonist in his home, the video game Fix-It Felix Jr., starring, of course, Fix-It Felix Junior (Jack McBrayer). But this movie is not about Felix; rather, the focus is on Ralph, who's going through a sort of mid-life crisis as our story starts. Specifically, he's grown tired of being the villain in his game. Repeatedly watching Felix win pies from the townspeople while you get thrown in the mud can do that to you. So when the other characters throw a party for their game's 30th anniversary, Ralph isn't invited but shows up anyway. Suffice to say, his appearance is not taken well by the NPC townspeople, so he goes off to drown his sorrows (specifically, at the bar from Root Beer Tapper).

From there, Ralph's quest to earn their acceptance takes him through games like the rail-shooter Hero's Duty and the candy-themed kart-racer Sugar Rush, where most of the film takes place. In terms of additional characters, Hero's Duty gives us miss Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a no-nonsense sergeant prone to unusual, euphemistic expressions, and Sugar Rush gives us Vanellope von Schweetz (Susan Sarandon), who wants to participate in her game's races but is kept from doing so because of her nasty habit of "glitching". Calhoun was a lot of fun to watch, due largely to the juxtaposition of her serious attitude against the colourful, quirky backdrop of Sugar Rush. Also, she is played by Jane Lynch, who is just awesome. Vanellope, not so much. Her rude interactions with Ralph are annoying both for him and the viewer, and while she does garner sympathy as the plot moves along, it can't undo all the damage made by her first impression.

I've got to be honest, I was a little slow to experience this film at first. My major misgiving was that I was afraid they'd misrepresent gaming culture, and nerds are a terrible people to misrepresent. But the powers involved with Wreck-It Ralph know their stuff. They licenced many real video-game characters to make cameos, and background sight-gags are plentiful as well, such as graffiti messages stating things like "Aeris lives" [2] and "Sheng Long was here" [3]. Furthermore, there's a scene where the villain goes into the internal code of Sugar Rush (by entering the Konami Code [4], natch), and makes a slight alteration. The way the code is depicted, with its visual depictions of entities and attributes, is indeed true to the nature of object-oriented programming, and yet visualised in a manner accessible to the layman.

Apart from that, Wreck-It Ralph plays with the concept of heroic and villainous roles in storytelling. For starters the main character of the movie is the antagonist of his own world, only to get wrapped up in an even greater plot, thus becoming the protagonist. They even use this role-reversal for comedy as well. For example, there's a scene where Felix is locked in prison and tries to break out by smashing the window bars with his magic hammer, only to fix them further instead, like what he does in his own game. Even the product placement (and there's lots of it, mind you) gets in on the puns, such as the swamp of "Nesquik-sand", or the "Devil Dogs" owned by the police department in Sugar Rush. Normally I cast a wary eye on product placement, but in this case it's used so cleverly that I'll give it a pass. Between all the genre-busting, sight gags, and references, I dare say Wreck-It Ralph even comes close to Airplane!'s level of comedy. It doesn't match up, of course, but what does these days?

Up until now I seem to have given off the impression that I like this film too much. So let's make this review more fun and run down some plot holes!!
  • If the star of Fix-It Felix, Jr. is Fix-It Felix Junior, shouldn't there be a Fix-It Felix Senior hanging about? 
  • What is Zangief doing at the Bad-Anon meeting? Isn't his role in the Street Fighter series less-than-villainous? 
  • For that matter, what about Bowser and Dr. Robotnik? Their respective franchises aren't associated with the arcade scene. I mean, sure, there was an arcade port of Super Mario Bros., and I've seen it more than once, so it's not exactly rare. But Sonic the Hedgehog? Less so. Maybe they've got a Genesis hooked up in the back room, but by this point I'm just being nitpicky, so let's move on. 
  • If "going turbo" (read: leaving your game) is treated as such a bad thing, then why is Game Central Station (read: the surge protector all the game cabinets are hooked up to) so busy with so many characters going so many places when the arcade is closed for the night? 
  • For that matter, shouldn't the arcade owner switch the power off at night? And what would happen then? Surely the characters -- even the spatially misplaced ones -- wouldn't die forever; they'd be regenerated in their own games when they boot up again?
  • Ignoring the above point, if Turbo died when he invaded Road Blasters (a real game, by the way) and both it and his game were shut off and taken out of the arcade, then how did he come back as King Candy from Sugar Rush
  • Ignoring the above point, if Vanellope finishing the qualifying race resets the world of Sugar Rush, even after King Candy gets defeated, wouldn't that regenerate him as well? 
  • And why does she still have her glitch ability even after the game was reset and her connections to the code were restored
  • And how could the citizens of Sugar Rush remember that they lost their memories? 
  • Are the Cybugs from Hero's Duty supposed to eat and delete all the data they come across, within their own game or otherwise? What kind of sick programmer would do such a thing!? 
That's quite the laundry list of questionables, eh? But before you get the wrong idea, remember I took the same attitude in my review of The Wind Rises. The only reason I nitpicked it as much as I did was because it captured my interest enough to warrant that kind of further inspection. They say you only hurt the ones you love, and that being the case I must really love both films. I may have had fun in seeking out all those plot holes, but I had just as much fun actually watching the film. It's funny, well-researched, poignant, but most of all, it's innovative, taking the concepts of hero and villain for a new spin. And shattering conventions is something Disney's been doing a lot lately, as in this, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and to a lesser extent, Frozen. They're still a hundred years too early to compete with the Japanese anime scene at its best, but one could do far worse than hang out with The Mouse these days.

+ A genre-busting plot.
+ Very pretty animation and character designs.
+ Jane motherfalcon Lynch.

- Vanellope's character and performance.
- Quite a few odd plot holes.

Acting: 4 cybugs out of 5
Writing: 4 cybugs out of 5
Animation: 5 cybugs out of 5
Visual Design: 5 cybugs out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

[1] Except in Japan, where the film is known as Sugar Rush.
[2] Refers to Aeris/Aerith from Final Fantasy VII, famous for her death scene, which one apparently does not need to spoil anymore.
[3] Refers to a victory line from Street Fighter II ("You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance"), which triggered a rumour about a character with that name hidden in the game. There is no such character; "Sheng Long" is merely the Chinese translation of Ryu's "Shoryuken" or "Dragon Punch" attack.
[4]The "Konami Code" is a cheat sequence built into several classic games made by the publisher Konami, such as Gradius and Contra on the NES.  It's the one that goes "Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Select, Start", or some variation thereof.