Monday, November 30, 2015

Announcements: December 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a few announcements to make regarding future projects for the SDP.
  • On this blog, my next big project is another installment of Indie-Cember.  As was the case in 2013, most of my reviews for the month of December 2015 will be devoted to independent video games I've discovered over the past few years.  Possible reviews for "Indie-Cember 2" include Heavy Bullets, Tower of Guns, Crypt of the NecrodancerMercenary Kings, Freedom Planet, Five Nights at Freddy's, and Undertale.
    • If there's time, I'll also do first-impression reviews on the demos for Mighty No.9 and, assuming it gets funded, Indivisible.  As of me posting this article, Indivisible needs to raise US$200,000 (to a total of $1,500,000) in just three days.  They can do it, but they need your help!  Visit their page on Indiegogo here.  Edit 3 Dec 2015: Hooray, they made it to $1.5 million!  Indivisible is a go!  Now let's go for those stretch goals, people!
  • Once that's done, it'll be time for my usual year-end round up of the year's hit music, but I thought I would do something a little different this year.  Instead of straight up top-ten and bottom-ten lists, I'm going to do something like an awards show, where I think up a bunch of semi-arbitrary categories, find some songs to fill them with, and pick the "best" one for each category.  I shall call it the first annual SDP Music Awards.  Planned categories include:
    • Worst Sample or Interpolation
    • Most Boring Song
    • Most Generic Hip-Hop/Rap Song
    • Most Generic Country Song
    • Most Generic EDM Song
    • Biggest Guilty Pleasure
    • Surprisingly Best Song
    • Worst New Artist
    • Worst Lyric
    • Overall Worst Song
    • Overall Best Song
  • I am pleased to report that I shall be going back to making videos for a third season!  Among the episodes I have lined up are Frozen, The Wind Rises, and Neon Genesis Evangelion.  As of writing this article, I have already filmed the first two episodes.  Those episodes were chosen because of the Academy Awards controversy I've been obsessing off and on with.  I know it's been almost two years since those fateful Oscars, but this is something I have to get off my chest before it's too late.
  • I do have some format changes in mind, however.  I haven't included Ichigo, my animated co-host character in any of the new episodes, and at the rate this is going, he may end up gone from my show for good.  It's pretty much a case of not having enough, or any, material for his character.  If nothing else, it should help me, and you the viewers, focus on the reviews themselves.
  • Earlier this year, I had filmed another episode to serve as a finale for season 2, based on my review of Zelda II.  This episode would also have closed out the Strawberry Dragon Gamer arc.  However, since then I've had a change of heart.  The whole point of the SD Gamer was to make fun of the real Irate Gamer, which I kind of don't feel like doing any more.  Sure, you can make the case that the Irate Gamer is a complete wasteoid of a human being who fails epically at everything he does, but the key word is "human being".  I'm worried about descending into the realm of bullying, so I'm gonna lay off the guy.  Besides, that's what the "Irate Gamer Sucks" blog is for. :-)
  • In February 2016, I'll devote a short series of videos to reviews of video games made by the studio Rare, which I'm calling "Febru-Rare-y".  Planned episodes for "Febru-Rare-y" include RC Pro-Am, Blast Corps, and Jet Force Gemini.
  • When the new James Bond film, Spectre, comes out on home video in this country, which should be around March 2016, I'll give it its own review in the style of the ones I did for the 007 Golden Jubilee a couple of years ago.  Around that time I'll also do a video on the top ten dumbest James Bond moments, which I've updated recently, in fact.
  • The 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog will be rolling up in June 2016, so as I did for the 20th anniversary before, I'll kick off another Sonic Month, filled with reviews and possibly more videos dedicated to the Blue Blur.  This time around, I'll try to focus on the Genesis games that made him famous, and see if they still hold up today... er, tomorrow.
As for Indigo Children, the novel-turned-comic book I had intended to devote this past year to, things apparently hadn't gone as smoothly as I had hoped.  I got through ten pages of one chapter before A) I grew overwhelmed at the kinds of work I had to do, and B) I also grew dissatisfied at how the story was developing.  So I decided to scrap it and start over.  Alas, I suppose my new year's resolution of finishing something to some capacity will have to be recycled for 2016.  But can I balance that out with everything I have planned for the SDP?  We'll see what happens, I guess.  Until then...

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Game Review: Super Star Wars

Super Star Wars
  • Publisher: JVC / Lucasarts
  • Developer: Sculptured Software
  • Release:
    • Super Nintendo, November 1992
    • PlayStation 4 / PS Vita, 17 November 2015
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Save: None (SNES)
America has come down once again with a case of Star Wars fever this year, owing no doubt to the upcoming release of the new movie, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  Therefore, in terms of video games, the talk of the town is on the new Star Wars Battlefront for the PlayStation 2 and XBox... sorry, I meant the other Star Wars Battlefront for the PlayStation 4 and XBox One.  DO YOU SEE HOW ANNOYING THIS GETS!?  Title aside, Star Wars Battlefront (the new one, that is) is yet another of those multiplayer-only shooters in the vein of Titanfall and Evolve, which thought they could get away without any single-player story content but still sell at full price.  On its own, it's simply bound to get old fast.  In comparison to the old Battlefront duology, each of those games being stuffed with enough features to choke a Sarlacc, it is unforgivable.  I haven't played Battlefront yet, but I'll end this rant by saying the game can go take a proton torpedo up its exhaust port, if you see what I mean.

Fortunately I have something else to fall back on, as the powers that be saw fit to release ports of Super Star Wars for the PS4 and PS Vita.  I'm a bit curious as to this decision, as the original game came out in 1992 for the Super NES, a non-Sony console.  Indeed, it used to be available on the Wii's Virtual Console shop, along with its sequels based on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but those have since been taken down due to an expired licence or something.  Well, whatever you're playing it on, you're getting more or less a straight adaptation of the original Star Wars film.  A young man, Luke Skywalker, comes across a pair of droids carrying plans for the Death Star, a planet-destroying space station built by the Galactic Empire, and he must bring them safely to the Rebel Alliance.  But you already knew that.

Much of the game is played as a jump-and-shoot platformer, similar to the Contra series.  Super Star Wars makes some welcome evolutions to Contra's formula, however.  Your blaster fires automatically when you hold down the fire button, and while doing so, you stay locked in place so you can aim in multiple directions without also moving around.  And perhaps most importantly, you can take more than one hit per life!  Yes, you have a health meter in this game, and not only are health pickups plentiful, with little ones coming out of nearly every enemy you kill, but you can extend it with "Health Sword" powerups (because the health meter is drawn like a lightsaber, I guess...).  Other pickups include blaster upgrades, invincibility shields, thermal detonator bombs, and Darth Vader heads which doubles the points you earn for a limited time.  Over the course of the game, Luke gains a lightsaber in addition to his blaster, and later on you can choose to play as Han Solo or Chewbacca instead of Luke, who lack the lightsaber (and the awesome, almost overpowered spinny-jump slice that comes with it), but start off with a blaster upgrade and/or a longer health bar.
By holding the fire button, you can aim in multiple directions.
But don't think for a second that this is an easy game.  It may look like you have a long health bar even without upgrades, and enemies don't seem to do much damage, but there are a lot of enemies.  And if you do lose all your health, all your upgrades go along with it.  I do hate when games do this, because it makes it that much harder to get back on track.  Furthermore, enemies can push you around easily, which makes what few spots of precision platforming all the more treacherous and unfair.  Not helping is the semi-isometric perspective the walls and floors are drawn in, making it a bit tough to determine where each platform begins and ends.  Oh yeah, and there's no mercy invincibility, either.  That seems to be a running theme with 2D platformer games I've chosen to review.  Also, there's a timer counting down as you play each level, but before you start panicking, you don't die when it expires (cf. Mario and Sonic), you just don't get a time bonus at the end.  Granted, points are important in this game, as you're given extra lives at certain milestones (cf. Sonic again), and trust me, you'll need them.

And then the levels themselves offer their own flavours of unnecessary challenge.  The first major wall of difficulty comes in the form of the fourth level, where you're inside the Sandcrawler searching for R2-D2.  About half-way through, just after the only checkpoint in the level, you have to get past these laser grids which block you when you get close.  You're supposed to get past these by sliding (hold Down and press the jump button), but it's more of an art than a science, and you're liable to get hurt by at least one, if not all of them.  And then there's a surprise waiting for you when you get down to the final floor: instant-kill lava, or sand, or something.  Normally you can make longer and higher jumps by holding Up and pressing the jump button, but don't do it here or you'll just hit the ceiling and lose distance instead of gaining it.  And you're expected to fight a boss over the stuff.  And if you do die here, you go all the way back to the middle of the level, just before the aforementioned laser gates.  The Sandcrawler scene is not the only tough level in the game -- the one right afterwards has some precision platforming which has claimed many of my lives -- but it does set the tone for the rest of the game.


Vehicle sections punctuate
the gameplay experience.
That's not exactly true, however, as some levels break up the side-scrolling action by way of 3D vehicle sections.  In these levels, you pilot a landspeeder or X-Wing fighter and gun down a specific number of targets before you're allowed to move on.  They use the same perspective-scrolling technology (a.k.a. Mode 7) seen in games like Pilotwings, F-Zero, and Super Mario Kart.  It shows effort, which I like, and if I'm in a good mood I would call it fun.  But the vehicle controls are a bit too floaty for me to really get into it.  It's almost as if these things ride on air or something!  (It's funny because that's exactly the case.)  And riddle me this: how come we can only change direction by spending jet fuel?  The L and R buttons go unused during these levels; if you felt you had no other options, surely they could've been used to turn or strafe, right?  Super Star Wars only offers three of these levels, but it's nice to have that variety.  I'd say you'll never get bored playing this game, but then I reflect upon how long and monotonous the other levels are and I'm forced to retract that statement.

The soundtrack is appropriately John Williams-y, and the opening cutscene recreates the movie's famous text-scroll admirably.  Unfortunately, all the other cutscenes are just scrolling pictures and text; given what the Super Nintendo can do with manipulating images, I felt that more could've been done in this regard.  As for in-game storytelling, the levels are all based on events from the movie, albeit expanded for action's sake.  As I said with GoldenEye 007, it's always nice to add content to a story you're adapting.  So for simply being an adaptation of the source material, Super Star Wars does its job well, and for being a jump-and-shoot platformer, it also does its job well.  I can understand if its tough, but mostly fair, difficulty gets to you and prevents you from enjoying it in full.  In the end, it's a pretty good game, but play through it again?  I'd rather kiss a wookie!

Positives:
+ Subtle improvements to the jump-and-shoot formula.
+ A faithful adaptation of the source material.
+ Occasional vehicle stages.
Negatives:
- Generally intense difficulty.
- Overly long and repetitive levels.
- Floaty controls in the occasional vehicle stages.
The Call: 70% (C+)

You might also like: Contra 3: The Alien Wars, Mega Man XSuper Metroid

Super Star Wars was followed by two sequels: Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in 1993, and Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in 1994, both based on the films they were named after, obviously.   There aren't enough differences in those games to warrant their own reviews, but I would like to say a few words on them now while I have the opportunity.  All those sequels are equally as hard as the original Super Star Wars, but add a password system for saving progress, which is good, and ditch the timer system, which doesn't really matter.  Also, Super Empire Strikes Back introduces Force powers, but they're integrated in a pretty stupid way.  You can only get them in one level, during the Dagobah swamp scene, and you can only find them by using the "flying" Force power, which you have to pick up in the previous stage!  At least you start out with the lot in Super Return of the Jedi, but why bother when you can play as Chewie, who has a spin attack which refuels automatically and keeps you invincible while it's active?  Either way, if you got through the first Super Star Wars intact and found it fun, try these games out as well.  But not Battlefront; that game can go deep-throat a lightsaber for all I care.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Game Review: Time Crisis 3

Time Crisis 3
  • Publisher: Namco
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release:
    • Arcade, 2003
    • PlayStation 2, 21 October 2003
  • Genre: 3D Action (Rail Shooter)
  • Players: 1-2
  • Save: Memory Card (212KB)
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Time Crisis II, which codified many well-received conventions which stuck with the rest of the series -- the "Growing the Beard" entry, if you will.  So, how do you follow that up?  With Time Crisis 3, obviously.  It follows much of TCII's example, sharing the same two-player setup and its improvements to the life mechanics, but does it do anything on top of that to set itself apart?  Oh, it finds a way.

In TC3, you play as yet another pair of colour-coded VSSE agents, but the circumstances they're dropped into are a bit different from the usual fare.  The setting is Astigos Island, a place heavily inspired by Greek islands such as Mykonos and Santorini, and it is currently under invasion by the army of the neighbouring Zagorias Federation, and its general (and the game's final boss), Giorgio Zott.  In terms of writing a believable story, that's already a step up from the megalomaniacal villain of, say, TCII.  In the various cutscenes, your player-characters also interact with a resistance fighter named Alicia Winston.  Whilst she doesn't have any effect on gameplay, this is an improvement from a storytelling perspective, considering that the usual role of women in Time Crisis games is that of the damsel in distress.  As arcade-based light-gun rail-shooters go, being a genre filled with excuse plots, I was not expecting the story in TC3 to be as juicy as it was, but there you go.  Granted, the voice- and motion-acting don't take themselves seriously enough to match the story, but baby-steps, people!


Shoot soldiers in yellow outfits for
special weapon ammo.
Story aside, TC3's unique selling point is its multiple-weapon system.  How it works is while you're hiding behind cover, you can pull the trigger on your light-gun to toggle between one of four weapons: the Handgun, the Machine Gun, the Shotgun, and the Grenade Launcher.  The catch is that, with the exception of the Handgun, ammo for these weapons is finite, and must be replenished by shooting yellow-garbed enemies (the same ones who gave you bonus time or points in previous games).  This is no quick gimmick, fortunately, but rather the game is designed around this additional functionality.  On the upside, the ammo-bearing mooks are just frequent enough that you should seldom run into shortages.  On the downside, there are also a lot of armoured enemies which take four or five regular shots to dispatch, not to mention all the bosses.  Yeah, I get the sneaking suspicion that the game wants me to use all those extra weapons.  You can still use your handgun for the whole game if you're a veteran raised on the old games, but your trigger finger will hate you for it.

In addition from the extra efforts put into the story and gameplay, the content has been buffed up considerably, too.  Both the arcade and Rescue Mission stories take around 30 minutes to clear, which doesn't sound like much, but is still an improvement for this series.  It feels like a longer journey, too, because each stage within each act takes place in a different setting.  In act one, for example, you go from a beach, to a wrecked ship, to fighting the boss on a moving Jeep.  That said, TC3 seems to have copied its action setpieces from the last game.  The first act's boss takes place on a set of moving vehicles, the second act takes place on a train, and the third act includes a mini-boss battle with, of course, Wild Dog.  As with the home port of TCII, TC3 lets you unlock unlimited continues and ammo for both your main and sub-weapons through repeated playthroughs and other achievements.
The Rescue Mission mode adds weapon upgrades and sniper levels into the mix.
Previous Time Crisis home ports experimented with either a second story campaign or a set of extra challenges, but the PlayStation 2 version of TC3 has both.  In service of the former, beating the game once unlocks the Rescue Mission, a second story starring Alicia, the aforementioned resistance fighter.  Much of her story runs parallel to that of the arcade mode, so you get to experience some of the same setpieces from a different angle, but there are new experiences thrown in as well.  Every couple of stages, the format switches to a sniper-based setup, where you point your scope at distant targets and move on when they're all gone.  These bits finally make use of the GunCon 2's extra functions: whilst zoomed in, you can use the D-pad on the back of the gun to move your field of view around without going back into hiding.  The multi-weapon system from the arcade mode also shows up in Rescue Mission, but with a twist.  Each of your three sub-weapons has their own experience meter which fills up with use, and when filled, increases that weapon's damage, fire rate, and/or ammo capacity.  It's a neat addition which even further encourages the use of your alternate weapons, but I wonder why they couldn't have patched it into the arcade mode as an unlockable extra.

Time Crisis 3 is yet another example of how to do a sequel right.  Now that Namco knew what they were doing, they were free to experiment with new mechanics.  And not only did they do so, but they managed to design the game around them, for better or worse, so they come across as less a tacked-on gimmick and more an integral part of gameplay.  Having a more intriguing story than the usual arcade shooter fare is a bonus, as well.  Is it the best light-gun shooter around?  I'd love to say so, but there's one other game which makes a strong case for that title, and you'll find out about it soon on the SDP!

Positives:
+ The multi-weapon system.
+ A longer run-time compared to the rest of the series.
+ The "Rescue Mission" mode in the PS2 edition.
+ Probably the best story the series has ever had and will have.
Negatives:
- An over-reliance on armoured enemies.
- The action setpieces seem recycled from Time Crisis II.
- Motion and voice-acting is still a little campy.
The Call: 85% (B+)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Game Review: James Bond 007: The Duel

 James Bond 007: The Duel
  • Publisher: Domark / Tengen (NA)
  • Developer: Domark
  • Release: Sega Genesis/Game Gear, 1993
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Save: None
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed 007 Legends, which apparently performed so badly in retail that it killed off Activision's license to kill -- I mean, make James Bond video games.  So my dreams of the second coming of GoldenEye were killed off -- until I brought up the Google Play store one day, and chanced upon the latest 007-licensed "game" called James Bond: World of Espionage (not worth linking), and my dreams of the second coming of GoldenEye were killed off once again.  Glu Mobile, whomever they are, have turned this once-mighty brand into naught but a Clash of Clans clone.  Let me guess, does it trade off actual gameplay in favour of micro-transactions?  Well, pardon my French, but [verb] that [noun]!  ...Oh sorry, I did that wrong.

But as bad as times may seem now, you know what time really sucked for James Bond fans?  The early 1990s.  The film series was in the midst of a record six-year hiatus, due to a legal battle which I touched upon in my Licence to Kill review.  As for what we did get during that time period, well, it wasn't pretty.  There was that awful cartoon show James Bond Jr., and the subject of today's article: the video game James Bond 007: The Duel for Sega Genesis.  Released in 1993, The Duel is not tied into any one James Bond film or novel, despite the likeness of Timothy Dalton on the box art.  Oh, but he does also show up in the title screen below, except...
Dear goodness, Timmy, what have they done to you!?  ...Anyway, title screen abominations aside, Mr. Bond's in-game sprite lacks sufficient detail to specifically resemble Timothy Dalton or any of the other actors.  For all you know... hold on, let me think of somebody random... got it!  For all you know, you could be playing as Andrew Lloyd Webber in this game.  But on the subject of graphics, I do appreciate the animations in this game.  For example, you can make a little dance out of the animation of Bond passing his gun from one hand to the other (by tapping left or right on the D-pad).  The music's kind of cool, too, in a Jan Hammer Miami Vice kind of way.  The title screens and pre-game demo use a Genesis-friendly rendition of the James Bond theme, but thankfully it isn't recycled by the rest of the soundtrack, as is the case with GoldenEye, for example.  The sound effects do not reach the same high notes, pardon the pun.  The most annoying examples are the loud and hollow footfalls and Bond's grunting, which reminds me of the Frankenstein monster grunt Master P makes in his song "I Miss My Homies".

So graphics are one thing, but what is the gameplay like?  Well, The Duel is a side-scrolling shooter/platformer.  Mechanically, The Duel reminds me most of Rolling Thunder, an arcade side-scrolling shooter made by Namco in 1986.  You walk, jump, shoot, and duck to avoid enemy shots.  They even share a mechanic where you can hide in doorways, in the (vain) hope of letting an enemy forget about you and pass by.  But while Rolling Thunder's control was far too stiff, The Duel goes a bit too far in the opposite direction.  It's a little hard to describe, but there are lots of little things that feel off about the controls.  Bond has only one jump height, and the horizontal distance is often either too short or too long for the precision platforming you need at the moment.  As for walking speed, he's slow for about half a second when you press and hold a direction, but fairly zippy afterwards.  And here I thought the Genesis's "blast processing" was just a meaningless marketing boast, but what do I know?  Seriously, folks, if you're used to better physics engines like in Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog, you're going to have a bad time.


Gameplay revolves around rescuing hostages.
Your objective in The Duel is to explore each map searching for hostages to free, who all take the form of blonde ladies in short dresses.  And feminism marches on... without them.  Once you've found them all, you're not done yet.  You have to find a time bomb, set it, and reach the exit before time runs out.  Along the way, you are hounded by guards who will respawn if you take so much as a few steps away after killing them.  With the high speed of the gameplay, it can get annoying to be walking along and keep taking damage from enemies you don't have the time to react to.  In order to stay alive, you'll most likely take to firing blindly every few steps, which renders the flow of play as smooth as a rollercoaster on the fritz.  While you do have limited ammunition, the game is very generous with it, at least.  Enemies will always drop spare magazines until you're maxed out, and although there's no indicator of how many rounds you have left in your gun, each mag can last you quite a while.

As it turns out, there are only four levels to this game, not including the final boss arena: a ship, a jungle, a volcano, and a rocket launch site.  In other words, the settings of a generic "spy" adventure.  If I were feeling generous I would say they are rather sprawling levels for a 16-bit platformer, but either way it's still bloody short by any reasonable standards.  And just as you're getting the hang of things on your journey across the island of Dr. No-one In Particular, the third level presents you with a wall of difficulty.  For starters, getting around much of the place revolves around waiting for elevator platforms, side-to-side moving platforms, and side-to-side moving platforms that you hang from, which all take so long to get from one end to the other that you may very well assume you've reached a dead end at some point.  Some of these platforms add irregularly-timed flame jets which are virtually impossible to avoid, and you have to go through at least one of these gauntlets in order to find all the hostages!  And of course, this being a volcano-themed level, most of those scrolling platforms hover over magma pools, which of course results in instant death upon contact with 00 agents.  But the third level aside, this game is still unforgiving.  You get five lives and five hit points per life, but only one continue.  And even those life points can leave you quickly due to the aforementioned steady stream of soldiers.  Enemy shots can knock you quite far back, and there's falling damage to deal with, too; even a couple of stories down results in, you guessed it, an instant death.  Also, mercy invincibility apparently was one luxury which slipped the programmer's mind.  The lack thereof ruined Milon's Secret Castle before, and it ruins The Duel in turn.


Most bosses have a spot you can stand in
where they won't hit you.
Every so often you'll come across a level boss plucked from one of James Bond's earlier adventures, like Jaws, Baron Samedi, Mayday, etc. because "Canon?  What canon?".  There are two problems with these bosses, however.  One: they are optional, as it turns out.  For example, you can easily skip Baron Samedi in the second level by going through the base instead of over it.  And two: with one exception, each and every one of these bosses can be bested without breaking a sweat, by standing in a certain spot where they won't bother to reach you.  For example, in the first level you fight Jaws, but if you stand on the left-side stairway in just the right spot, he'll just turn around as if you weren't there.  Even the final boss (it's Jaws again) can be conquered in such a manner.

I should mention that there is a Game Gear port of The Duel out there as well, so I will.  I don't feel it's worth devoting another full review to, however, so I'll describe it in brief.  It's longer than the Genesis version, both in the sense that it has more levels (that's good), but also that the action runs incredibly slowly (that's bad).  And for some reason, you can choose to have either music or sound effects play in-game but not both.  What?  I've played a bundle of Game Gear titles in my days and never once before has being able to play both music and sound effects been an issue!  So yeah, don't bother with this version unless you consider yourself a man or woman of patience.

As for the Genesis version, you might need just as much patience to make it through this one.  It's got that old-school difficulty schema where they instead of making more levels, they just made it harder to get through them.  Still, it's the kind of difficulty where you can still conquer it once you've had practice, and you know where to find the hostages, and where to encounter enemies as they respawn ad nauseum.  But still, four levels is still anemic for a 16-bit video game.  And I did praise the animations and music a few paragraphs ago, but they do just about nothing to build up the context of being James Bond.   As it stands, it's just another licenced hack-job of the side-scroller age, and one best left ignored.  

Positives:
+ Fluid character animation.
+ Cool music.
Negatives:
- Generally unforgiving difficulty.
- Awkward motion physics.
- No story to speak of.
- Overly short length.
The Call: 35% (F)

You might like instead: Rolling Thunder 2, Contra: Hard Corps, Vectorman