How much easier than Mega Man is Shovel Knight really?

So I've been thinking about Patrick's minor complaint that Shovel Knight is too easy, as I recently finished it, and I'm starting on some of the trickier achievements for beating the game without dying, etc.

Patrick's complaint seemed to be that he didn't like that it's relatively easy to finish a normal playthrough, and that the devs made the challenge "optional" by putting in achievements such as "beat the game without dying" or "beat the game without spending money". He has also made this complaint against the recent Mario games, in that finding the hidden star coins (or equivalent) in New Super Mario Bros. games or 3D Land/World were the only places where there was much challenge to be had. (Shovel Knight has this to a degree, in that the hidden areas in levels that contain relics or song scrolls are often more challenging than the main stage).

Is Shovel Knight really that much easier than Mega Man of old? I'd argue that they're very similar levels of difficulty, just with all the bullshit game design removed that gave the illusion of difficulty.

In many games of the NES era, if you lost enough lives to falling in a pit, you would run out of continues and have to start much farther back (possibly the beginning of the game), or at the very least fall back on a password save. This made you have to repeatedly play through sections of a stage that you have already demonstrated you can pass multiple times. This is tedious, and seems like a poor hold over from the coin-op arcade days. Games in general have veered away from this, and Shovel Knight is no exception. The checkpoint system removes any need to tediously keep replaying through 80% of a stage you've already mastered just because you happened to run out of lives on the final jump before the boss.

Shovel Knight also doesn't feature any trial and error sequences, that you'd never be able to beat on your first try without an extraordinarily lucky guess or flawless reflexes. Hell, even Capcom learned that lesson by the SNES era, as nothing in the X series or the later Mega Man games is as cheap and unfair to the player as something like Quick Man's stage. Quick Man's stage is infamous not because the enemies are huge dicks (or even that numerous), but because dodging the Force Beams has an incredibly narrow allowance for player error, and most players will likely sink 5, 10, 20 lives into that stage before they've memorized which direction to run to successfully dodge all of the beams. It's nearly inconceivable that you would pass that sequence on your first try, since you have so little time to assess each screen before you have to start avoiding the beams.

I'll admit that aside from the checkpoint system and lack of bullshit trial and error, Shovel Knight is still pretty generous in not putting enemies on incredibly inconvenient ledges, nor giving Shovel Knight himself silly amounts of hit stun and knockback, which Mega Man has in spades. And the game is pretty generous with giving you turkeys all the time.

Still, if reviewers like Patrick want to complain about a game's difficulty because it doesn't stand up to how they remember Mega Man being, they should examine their options more carefully. If you destroy every checkpoint, guess what, it plays a lot more like a Mega Man or Castlevania, and if you fall in a pit, guess what, you fucked up big. The game gives you a choice to challenge yourself like an NES game of yore, but no, it's not the "default" difficulty, because the developer realizes that not everyone is 25+ years old (anyone under that age likely started playing on the SNES/Genesis, or later consoles) and not everyone has the inclination to have to redo massive parts of levels because of one mistake. It's the right move to not force the player to beat stages without checkpoints, if they want younger players to actually like their game, and not just put it down due to old-fashioned game design that they can't relate to.

So I think Giant Bomb's general stance on just playing the game on the "default" difficulty continues to be problematic.

20 Comments

I'm worried about the prison camps in The Phantom Pain

Let me start with a question: do you think the prison camps we've seen in trailers are meant to be evocative of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp maintained by the U.S. during the "War on Terror"? I believe it is explicitly mentioned in some Phantom Pain material that one of those prison camps in the game is in Cuba, so I don't feel I'm making a huge leap of logic here. The red-band trailer for Phantom Pain also has a pretty significant focus on torture sequences, and seemingly several members of Militaires sans Frontieres get maimed pretty badly (some while in captivity?).

So do you think Kojima is actually going to try to make a point about the whole Guantanamo Bay situation and the use of torture? Or is it just one more thing to kinda keep the game full of more imagery of current world events, without having anything meaningful to say about those current world events?

I'm still not sure I really buy that Kojima games are about anything other than the kinda wacky nanomachines and Patriots and giant robots and Enfants Terribles they've been about since MGS1. Additionally, the games give a good focus on the personal struggles of their respective leading characters. But as far as the greater issues? MGS1 is...maybe about nuclear disarmament, or lack thereof, after the conclusion of the Cold War? Except that's like, 1% of the whole game, and the rest is about FOXHOUND and this rogue group of super villains and a robot with a nuke railgun (which is just silly when nuclear ICBMs are more or less just as unstoppable as a railgun). And MGS2 is...kinda about the ability of technology/the internet to easily distort information? Except again that was like 1% of the game, and the rest was about vampires killing SEAL teams, and GW, and Liquid's soul being contained in his forearm until they retconned that out or whatever. And so on.

I went back and rewatched that red-band trailer for The Phantom Pain (with gross little kid intestines), and it strikes me that it's the third big budget game I can think of in recent memory that has some pretty gnarly prisoner abuse (GTA V and Splinter Cell: Blacklist being the others). I have high hopes for Kojima to actually do something meaningful with the inclusion of torture, but I'm also really afraid that it's going to fall flat because the plot will be so wrapped up in the fake Patriots/Outer Heaven fictional history of the MGS series that it won't have any real point to make about torture being used on soldiers in real armed conflicts.

Kojma and co. have an opportunity to say something about the human rights violations that prisoners of war can be subjected to, and I think he has a better likelihood of taking advantage of that opportunity, at least compared to jingoistic games like Splinter Cell or Call of Duty, or toothless satires like GTA V. But I don't have a great sense of whether Kojima is actually a guy to give a shit about Amnesty International and political activism and that's why he's putting it in there, or if he's just an otaku game designer who likes the idea of putting random current events in his game so they seem edgy but he doesn't actually have any viewpoint he wants to express with their inclusion.

43 Comments

Risk of Rain seems totally impossible, but I really want to like it

(Originally a comment on the Risk of Rain Quick Look, but it's kind of unreasonable to expect people to read a comment that long)

I bought into Risk of Rain back in the beta after the first Quick Look Patrick did because I really like the look of it, the music, the characters, and the items. But something about the balance of the game still feels way off, both in the beta and the final release. I think the time management mechanic fundamentally ruins the whole game, or needs to ramp up way, way slower.

Sure, your guy levels up and increases his HP and damage slightly, but that increase pales in comparison with how each new area has enemies with way more HP than the previous, plus the difficulty is gradually increasing (which I think affects enemy spawn rate and likelihood of the palette-swapped enemies which are tougher). Whatever slight damage increase you get is in no way keeping up with the sheer HP increase of enemies.

It feels like the enemies in this game should die in something like the time span it takes to kill an enemy in Diablo, or at most the time span it takes to kill some tougher enemies in The Binding of Isaac or something. But this only happens in the first area. Like, jeez, once you're in the second area or farther, and say about 15-20 minutes have passed, you're just kiting huge mobs of enemies constantly because your weapons do garbage damage and you're slowly whittling them to death. The movement speed increase item actually seems like one of the best items because, again, you are kiting enemies CONSTANTLY and some of them are kinda fast, and you can't tank damage for shit (this also makes melee classes completely unplayable).

I've made it to the 3rd area a few times, and it never felt like my stats were remotely up to snuff. I either rushed there, meaning I skipped buying a bunch of upgrades but the difficulty bar is lower, but even though there are less enemies in the 3rd area, they wreck me because I'm underleveled. Or I didn't rush there, in which case I have a bunch of items and leveled up, but there are way more enemies spawning and they wreck my shit because even with a few more levels it still feels like they have a completely unfair amount of HP, and they are legion.

I know this game isn't meant to be Spelunky or Volgarr the Viking in terms of "enemies die in 1-6 hits", but I really don't like how enemies just have silly amounts of HP. Even when I've found a ledge to stand on so I can just cheese enemies because they can't cross the gap or whatever, it'll sometimes take like 20-50 seconds to just clear a mob of enemies that's been chasing me, with me constantly holding down the attack button and spamming my abilities as soon as they're off cooldown. Literally constant DPS, and even then, the 20-second end of that range only happens when I luck into some powerful rare items.

The Steam forums don't seem to have any complaints about the difficulty, so I guess I'm just terrible at this game, or need to be advancing through levels like 5 times faster than I am, or something. I've played like 10-15 hours of the unfinished beta, and about 5 hours of the finished game. I don't feel like I'm improving at all. Sometimes I get good items, and at best that allows me to beat the teleporter rush at the end of the 2nd area, after which the 3rd area wrecks me. I know what the enemy attacks are capable of and what my own attacks do, but I don't understand how you're meant to reach the game's ending. At a certain point, mobs spawn at a rate slightly faster than you can kill them (and then this only gets worse), especially when half your time is wasted on running (and you can't deal damage while running, unless you're using Acrid who leaves poison everywhere, but sadly you have to unlock him in the final version).

I just don't get it. At least in Spelunky or Binding of Isaac, I could envision how I could take less damage and do better. Even if I take less damage in Risk of Rain, the main issue is still that mobs spawn faster than I can kill them, unless I find a cheesy spot where I can just hammer on the mobs for like 45 seconds straight without moving. In Binding of Isaac, you know when to advance because you run out of enemies and rooms on the floor, and in Spelunky you know when to advance because the ghost appears; in Risk of Rain, you could keep grinding out the first area forever so the only incentive is the nebulous time limit, and I feel like there is some optimal time the designer wants me to advance before the difficulty meter gets too out of hand (ASAP?), but I honestly can't tell if there's ever a way to feel "prepared" for the 2nd or 3rd level (or god forbid, the mythical 4th level?). It seems like you just have to get good items, because the tactics and strategy aren't all that deep and I'm pretty sure I know how to use the abilities on the Commando (and the Enforcer is unplayable garbage).

Perhaps Risk of Rain just doesn't properly scale to the number of players, because it feels completely unbalanced for single player.

The music is still totally bangin', though.

22 Comments

I want to like this game (because Ron Gilbert, I guess), but...

...it's not Puzzle Quest 1. And mind you, Puzzle Quest 1 wasn't even perfect; it was really great but still had some weird flaws, like "they had no idea how to balance the items", and "the last boss is complete bullshit and unfair unless you use the most broken items and skills possible". Puzzle Quest 2 is a burning pile of garbage covered in anthrax, where the art and writing are awful and nonexistent, respectively, and all of the items are just straight damage or damage reduction, instead of being interesting perks like the first game. And they dropped all the cool stuff like sieging castles, training mounts, crafting items, etc.

So back to Scurvy Scallywags. It's a match-3 RPG like Puzzle Quest. I like that the loose premise is that you're taking part in some sort of goofy pirate-based musical/play. It has a goofy sea shanty that you collect over the course of the game, appropriately sung by a pirate...choir?

But the gameplay. Your pirate character exists in the gem grid, and so do enemies. If you touch an enemy with lower power, it uses up some of your current power to kill that monster. If you touch an enemy of higher power, you lose a heart, and use up most of your power to bring the enemy's power below yours, meaning you can then safely finish them off (this time not losing a heart). Let me elaborate:

  • GOOD: The abilities are neat, but are on a crazy long cooldown, meaning they're unreliably slow to use against enemies (whether to attack, run away, or do some other utility).
  • VERY BAD: If you touch an enemy more powerful than you, you lose a heart, and getting back even one heart is an enormous pain in the ass that either requires 5K gold (I think, it might even scale up as you buy each one), or the completion of a collection sidequest that takes like 5-10 stages to complete (and gets longer every subsequent time you need to regain a heart through this method). If you lose all your hearts, there is a resurrection fee of a fair amount of gold (possibly scales up?). If you don't have the sum of gold, presumably your character is permadead and you start the game from stage one again. I get that it would be cheap if you could purposely sacrifice 2 of your 3 hearts each fight to weaken an enemy you haven't even bothered to try to get more powerful than, but it's just completely stupid that the sidequest to restore a single heart scales up every time you have to make use of it.
  • BAD: The dodge and crit chance, which start at 0%, and you can raise by like 1% each time you level up. As far as I can tell, they only come into play when fighting enemies more powerful than you. If dodge procs, then you just don't take damage (or deal damage), I think. If crit procs, you hit the enemy without taking a heart of damage, even though you should. The issue is, you should basically act as if dodge and crit don't exist, because even if you dump a bunch of points into them, there is still like an 80% chance that any stronger enemy costs you a heart, and as I said before, losing a heart is an enormous pain in the ass.
  • BAD: The match-3 part feels like most of the matches are irrelevant. On the board, the sword gems are the ones that actually raise your power, letting you defeat enemies. Aside from that, each match has 2-3 gem types that just give you items that are vendor trash. Then there are gold gems, which give you gold if you match them. Then there are quest items you have to try to get your guy to touch, and enemies you have to avoid until you're more powerful than them. Basically, unless you're matching swords, every match is pointless in your current survival against the enemies. If you're on a board with like 4 swords, all scattered away from each other, all you can do is just keep on making matches just to move your guy away from enemies as best you can, as the game frustratingly doesn't spawn more swords. Compare to Puzzle Quest, where you were collecting different colours of mana, which you needed in different proportions for different spells.
  • BAD: The game doesn't explain the stats very well. I've explained crit and dodge, and there is a gold stat that just increases how much gold you get for a gold match, basically. But there is a power and damage stat, both ambiguously worded. I think power increases how many points of power you gain when you match swords. Damage might affect how many points of power you must spend to reduce the enemy's power, but that's just idle conjecture on my part. And it seems to not affect all skills that deal damage?
  • BAD: Quitting a battle to go back to the map (say, if you realize you don't like the skills you've equipped) is actually a skill you must equip in a slot, instead of just being a menu option. WHY!? For example, I fought a boss whose power was to turn all sword gems into useless vendor trash stone gems (SEVERELY limiting your ability to gain enough power to not be murdered by every enemy in sight). Had I been able to quit the battle, I would've gone and equipped a skill that converts gold gems into swords gems (which wouldn't even break the battle, because remember, I cast that skill and then it's on cooldown FOREVER). Instead, the battle took ages because I was denied swords constantly and was just running around doing nothing trying to scrounge swords once every like 20 moves (regular vendor trash everywhere + bullshit boss vendor trash that used to be swords). Compare to Puzzle Quest, where you can quit out of a battle if you want, BECAUSE THAT FUCKING MAKES SENSE.
  • GOOD: Instead of gems always dropping down, the gems drop...whichever way you swiped on the touchscreen. If you swiped left-to-right to make a vertical line of 3, then the void left by those 3 gems will be filled in by the gems sitting to the left of that void. Effectively, the gems will fall left-to-right because you swiped left-to-right. It's pretty neat, and it's the only way the game's mechanic of "oh god, evade the enemies" would actually work, because otherwise your character would inevitably get stuck at the bottom row of the screen if it worked the way match-3 games usually work. I think Puzzle Quest: Galactrix might've also done stuff where the gems don't always fall straight down.

It feels like they're trying to make this a scary permadeath game, but instead of seeming tough, it's more like "We made this match-3 game where most of the matches don't help you, and we made it unnecessarily tedious to regain health ever so even though you have 3 hearts, you should just avoid ever taking damage to save yourself a headache". I like the aesthetic of it, and I'm just so desperate for more match-3 RPGs that I'm willing to stick with it, but Jesus, even roguelikes don't make health regeneration this tedious, and it frustrates me in a match-3 game when only 1 or 2 gem types are the "good" gems you want and the rest are useless.

7 Comments

Deus Ex: Human Revolution squandered its interesting premise

First, I'll be spoiling Deus Ex: HR, so stop reading if that's a problem for you. Second, if you please, watch this live action ad that was used to market Deus Ex: HR.

The Trailer

It's meant to be a propaganda piece of the anti-augmentation group in the game, Purity First, but the criticisms and issues raised are the kind of things that ideally would be primary components of the game's themes and focus. Granted, one of those issues, neuropozyne addiction, is a plot device that isn't necessarily intrinsic to the issue; human augmentations in the game have an issue where the body rejects them, and neuropozyne is not so much an "addiction" as it is an anti-rejection drug that is arbitrarily expensive. It turns out the companies don't do this on purpose to indefinitely milk people for money; they actually can't find a way to make the body accept the augmentations, and it's a really big deal when they discover that your character, Adam Jensen, has a mutation that allows him to accept the augmentations permanently. So that issue is given a lot of visual focus in the ad, showing people out on the street without the drug, but that turns out to just be a temporary setback of medical science.

That aside, the other issues all stand. What it means to give up your humanity, everyone getting into this arms race of augmentations to be better than the competition, how it changes warfare, how the augmentations make you dependent on corporations for maintenance and repair, and that they could track your personal data in a similar way to smartphones; all interesting social and ethical issues.

That live action trailer/ARG site for the game actually handles the moral and ethical quandaries of human augmentation in a much more interesting way than the game ever does. It's like an ad agency came up with this super interesting ad campaign, then the devs went "Oh wait, shit, the game is 90% done and it's too late to make the plot about exploring these issues AT ALL. Oh well." Should we call that Dead Island Syndrome?

My Summary of the Plot, Which Will Be Hard to Follow If You Haven't Played The Game

The whole game you're basically just obsessed with finding the mercs that killed (actually kidnapped) your old flame Megan, and you also spend goddamn forever tracking down this mysterious hacker from the Sarif factory early on. Then after you find him and sneak into Tai Yong Medical and accomplish nothing, you go to Montreal to find out that Picus invents/controls the news (appropriate for cyberpunk dystopia, but irrelevant to Adam's personal motivations and the augmentation themes in the game). You get to Megan who actually doesn't give a shit about being rescued, and Adam's relationship with her is this completely unresolved plot thread, despite seeming incredibly important in the first 15 minutes of the game. Then you spend the last 5% of the game worrying about this chip that is fucking up everybody with augmentations, then suddenly the game gives you the ending choices that are more about "Are the people prepared to know the truth about how much fucked up shit went down and who was responsible?" and really not at all about the ethical issues of human augmentation. Instead of addressing actual issues with augmentation I mentioned earlier, you have to blow up this absurd device that allows the Illuminati to mind control anyone with an augmentation.

Your ending choice just affects which political group is to blame for the big fuck up, and that affects public opinion on augmentation and how much it is used in the future. Sadly, like modern politics, it feels like your choice is based less on underlying ideals than it is on "Most of these leaders are dicks, I will vote for the one leader who is less of a dick."

Concessions

Admittedly, it's easy to make a cool 3-minute short film thing with sick music in the background, and it's much harder to write a lengthy narrative that adequately uses those themes, but Deus Ex: HR didn't really even try.

The main characters in the game just don't have much complexity. Everybody who is pro-augmentation is a slimy businessman or Illuminati, and everybody who is anti-augmentation is basically a "sanctity of the human body" zealot/terrorist who is as closed-minded as anti-abortion advocates. A lot of time later on is spent uncovering the ways that these men have lied to Adam/the public (causing you to question their integrity), but less time is given to their personal beliefs about augmentation. Megan is a soulless scientist who is fine with doing horrific research because it's scientifically fascinating (what a delightful trope to continue to pass onto another generation of youth), and Adam has all of the philosophical depth of a beat cop; it's very hard to find dialogue choices where he gives any opinion other than direct, practical assessments of what is happening, and his thoughts on augmentation are "I was made half robot against my will, oh well, guess I gotta live with it. Pretty sweet that I don't have neuropozyne dependency for some reason, I guess."

There are a bunch of text logs and books and emails you can read, but the emails realistically capture how mundane 99% of emails are, while the books mostly just give factual accounts of the game's fictional history and fictional medical advances in human augmentation. There are a few Purity First pamphlets, but they read like the writing of religious zealots and don't explore the issues.

The one place they almost succeed is in conversations between NPCs in the city areas, who seem to always be having fairly candid conversations about the world they live in, sometimes discussing thoughts on augmentation. Unfortunately, some of the conversations are played for laughs because the participants are uneducated or ignorant, and even when they're not, they're almost always laypeople who only have a basic opinion on the topic. The bigger issue is that these NPC conversations are at best like 30 seconds long, which doesn't let them explore the topic much, and that many players don't have the patience to sit around listening to NPCs prattle on for 30 seconds.

Wasted Opportunity

Square Enix (or Eidos or whatever) will definitely continue the Deus Ex series, but it's unfortunate that they didn't do more with this story set at the dawn of human augmentation. The vast majority of your time is spent chasing after various elusive objectives, and the conclusion of those major objectives usually just meant a simple reveal of who was responsible for an event, or where to go next to get more answers. The protagonists of past Deus Ex games have never been particularly verbose, but they would occasionally let slip some interesting opinions; Adam almost never does this in his quest for answers/Megan. I would've vastly preferred if he was more of a...Solid Snake, I guess, if that meant he would occasionally engage his allies, adversaries, and superiors in some kind of discourse related to the themes of the game.

I feel like there have been big budget games that have bothered to explore the issues inherent to their fictional universe, even if they get a little pretentious or preachy about it. Metal Gear Solid and BioShock come to mind; I haven't played them, but perhaps Binary Domain and Spec Ops: The Line also explore interesting issues. But Deus Ex: HR is not one of those games. A film like District 9 can have a fantastical premise still used effectively to make the viewer think about issues of technologies that change society and how corporations will want to use them, and can have relatable characters that still make for an engaging story. Sadly, few games achieve this feat. The ending cinematics of Deus Ex: HR pretend that the whole game was leading you towards this philosophical choice, but the reality was you were tasked with chasing after uninteresting villains, and the game gives the player barely any context about the implications of human augmentation.

3 Comments

It's not out yet, but I'm slightly concerned about Sticker Star

So Paper Mario: Sticker Star isn't out yet, but on the recent 8-4 podcast, they somehow had an advance copy that they were freely allowed to talk about, which is odd. It reminded me I've been meaning to talk about this.

To step back for a second, I thought Super Paper Mario was a huge misstep. Thousand-Year Door was great, front to back, since it added just enough to the combat system and the world that it was interesting and a joy to play, compared to the original Paper Mario which was just a little too simplistic in the combat.

You jump on him like 4 times and then you win the boss fight. THRILLING, right?

Super Paper Mario was just a chore to play. By being a platformer-RPG, it was the worst of both worlds; the platforming was too safe and easy, and the RPG mechanics barely existed. It was way too easy to accidentally overlevel (seriously, attempt the Pit of 100 Trials even once, and you'll be overleveled for the rest of the game and kill everything in one hit).

While I think the writing remained good in terms of dialogue, most of the characters sucked. The characters in the hub town were all forgettable, and looked bad; the hub town itself was incredibly plain and lacked any sense of character or history. The story just felt disconnected from everything, since the hub town existed in this weird interdimensional limbo; it wasn't as intriguing as the mystery of the Thousand-Year Door. Super Paper Mario didn't have any new party members, and the Pixls were noncharacters. Which leaves Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and Peach, who are what you expect (aka Bowser has all the best lines). The antagonists were all kind of lame, though O'Chunks had some pretty great moments; I hated Mimi and Dimentio, and I found I just didn't give a shit about Count Bleck and his stupid tragic backstory. They just felt like this shitty, cobbled together group of villains from the season of a TV show that everyone agrees is the worst season.

Spoiler: the final boss looks fucking stupid.

The crazy flip mechanic turned out to be kind of dull, as you usually just had to flip whenever you reached a dead end; rarely did they do anything interesting with it like the early exploration puzzles in Fez. The worlds weren't very thematically interesting, with only the 8-bit nerd dimension and the video game afterlife being kind of cool and memorable. And the Pit of 100 Trials wasn't even hard because Bowser was broken as fuck and made a mockery of the game's combat.

OK, the worlds weren't all boring. This prehistoric documentary crew was actually pretty funny.

So Intelligent Systems would've had to try pretty hard to outcrap Super Paper Mario. And I do think Sticker Star looks like an improvement. But the whole thing, mechanically, sounds like it is again going down the Super Paper Mario path of "Instead of building on what we've established in the first two entries in the series, let's completely rework how this game plays and what it even is". Why they keep doing this is absolutely beyond me.

I don't think they've fucked it up nearly as badly as Super Paper Mario, but some of the things mentioned in the 8-4 podcast sound troubling. Such as:

  • the part where they fucked up again, and they still haven't put party members back into the game. Seriously, what the fuck? The party members have been one of the most memorable aspects of Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, and Thousand-Year Door. Party members were a little too silent once they joined your party in the first Paper Mario (what I like to call "Shining Force syndrome"), but in Thousand-Year Door, they were more talkative, and whichever party member you had active would often get involved with conversations with NPCs and stuff in the overworld. It was awesome. Going back to basics and playing the game as just Mario (plus standard Navi character Kersti) seems like a step backward for no reason. Even the handheld Mario & Luigi series has Luigi as a second party member.
  • the part where you don't get experience, which other games have tried but if you don't do it just right, it usually results in the player going "Wait, if I already have enough money, I should just avoid fights altogether". And it sounds like the 8-4 guys were having that exact problem with Sticker Star. Unless the game has a TON of money sinks, or has some kind of system where you steal skills or items from enemies, once your remove XP from enemy battles, you're kind of removing the whole point of battles.
  • the stickers actually sound like the most positive change, though they just sound like an alternative to badges as opposed to any real improvement. Again, you don't level up, so Mario gains more HP or FP as the game progresses by collecting stickers that raise your HP and FP. Like badges, it sounds like you accumulate new sticker types as you travel to new areas in the world and find new shops and whatever, and that as the game progresses, you can equip more stickers at once. Again, pretty much all old hat if you're familiar with the badge system in the previous games, though from what I understand you consume the stickers when you use them, so it's harder to just keep spamming one particularly awesome ability. The other difference seems to be that some stickers act like HMs in Pokemon, in that they allow you to perform certain actions outside of battle. A cool addition, but it feels like a net loss when it used to be party members that gave you abilities you could use outside of battle.

I know it sounds like I'm really down on this game, but I'm a slave to franchises I like, and Sticker Star is almost definitely the game that will get me to buy a 3DS. I'll give it a chance. I just don't get why Intelligent Systems has twice now decided to just go back to square one instead of building on Thousand-Year Door, which is easily their best non-Fire Emblem game ever. Sticker Star seems like it'll be fine, especially compared to the boring garbage that was Super Paper Mario, but it doesn't exactly sound like it will elevate the Paper Mario series to new heights.

28 Comments

Tokyo Jungle = Pocket Planes, according to my friends

I showed Tokyo Jungle to my roommate, and 30 minutes into it, our mutual friend came by, and also watched as I played it. After a couple hours of enjoying watching me play it, and the initial hilarity of "holy crap, you just took down a velociraptor with a beagle" wore off, they suddenly swung hard the other way saying "OK, so that's it, you basically just have to grind through all of the animals to get all of the other animals. How is that any less grindy and time-wastey than Pocket Planes, which you occasionally lightly mock us for playing?"

It is true, I have mocked them for playing Pocket Planes in the past, because I generally don't care for it, Farmville, and any browser/mobile free to play game where you give actions and wait for rewards, and there is no real fail state. I only make exceptions for that genre if it's really at the top of its class, like Sim City.

My response to them was that Tokyo Jungle is just a more interesting game to play, because you're doing something in real time where you actually learn how to get better at the game, plus the animals have varying stats and offer a somewhat different experience. As you get better animals, you can last more and more generations. Pocket Planes, while probably the best of that genre, just comes down to how efficiently you can go through the cycle of "dispatch plane, wait, get money and upgrade", and that style of game just loses my interest within a day. Tokyo Jungle just doesn't get boring anywhere near as quickly.

Your taste in games comes down to subjective preferences and what fits your lifestyle, but I still think it is absolutely absurd that they made the comparison in the first place and somehow thought they had caught me in the act of hypocrisy, when Tokyo Jungle's progression doesn't have NEARLY the same degree of grind as Pocket Planes.

4 Comments

Why did everyone suddenly decide the 3DS is doing alright now?

I remember that during the first 6-12 months of the 3DS being out, there was a lot of doom and gloom about the system not doing well, not having any games, and people just not being sure if it was going to take off. Then at some point halfway through 2012, I noticed that most gaming journalists seem to be of the opinion that it's doing pretty alright, and that now the Vita is the thing to worry about. I'm just not sure why opinions suddenly turned around, when not a whole lot has changed.

Was it really just the 3DS price drop that did it? I know it certainly helped, but a price-dropped handheld with few great games is still a handheld with few great games. Or did the switch happen when Super Mario 3D Land came out, and it was legitimately awesome? People seem to think that Kid Icarus was certainly polished and full of content, but the controls ultimately weren't for everybody, and I don't think of it as the must have game for the system. Mario Kart 7 is functional, but meh, it's Mario Kart again. Ditto for New Super Mario Bros. 2. There is some good 3DSWare, but I don't think any of it is so great that it turned around opinion on the 3DS.

It just doesn't seem like the system has improved that much in the past year. The price was already cut this time last year. Since then, they've had basically 2 notably polished games (3D Land, Kid Icarus), and 2 Mario games that were sorta phoned in. I guess we have another Professor Layton out this year and a (hopefully return to form) Paper Mario, but these are all the series you expect to come out on a Nintendo handheld, and are largely formulaic at this point (aside from the 2 standout games mentioned). Is the Vita just doing so terribly that suddenly it's high fives all around for the 3DS' so-so library at this point?

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Do Japanese devs take inspiration from Western culture anymore?

For whatever reason, I can think of at least a few examples of Japanese video game series that started in the 1980s that were heavily influenced by American pop culture of the time. Donkey Kong had some pretty obvious similarities to King Kong. Metal Gear borrowed character designs from The Terminator, Escape from New York, and featured a story similar to Cold War action movies of the day. Yoshio Sakamoto has gone on record as saying that Alien was a huge influence on Metroid, and he famously named Ridley after director Ridley Scott.

But when I think of the games coming out of Japan recently, they seem to be getting more insular, and drawing more inspiration from the visual styles, tropes, and characterizations of Japanese manga and anime, and doing less of a reinterpretation/pastiche of Western pop culture. I think this is part of the reason that American gamers (and to an extent, the editors of Giant Bomb) have less interest in Japanese games of the last decade, as there is even less common ground to start from. I'm not saying that Japanese developers should be forced to include things that are familiar to Western gamers, but as a general observation, there seem to be less situations like the one where Sakamoto genuinely thought Alien was pretty cool and wanted to make a game with a similar atmosphere. I'm not sure why that is.

One of the only recent counterexamples that comes to mind is Suda 51, who takes it so far that he seems to almost have a fetish for American pop culture. His recent games have equal parts satirized and embraced the ridiculous violence and bloodshed that is popular in American video games, and if you go a little further back, Killer7 is surprisingly focused on political/cultural relations between the U.S. and Japan. Kingdom Hearts is another example, though it's less an interpretation of American pop culture as it is an awkward branding mashup of the naïve optimism of anime/manga protagonists with the naïve optimism of Disney protagonists. Binary Domain is probably a better example, in that it borrows a lot of ideas from famous Western sci-fi novels and film, but isn't a direct adaptation of any of them.

Are there any other examples of recent Japanese games that have drawn considerable inspiration from Western sources?

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I wish that the video game franchises I like would end, for good

I would love it if a series I like would actually end, out of the blue, because then I would get some satisfying resolution to the fiction of the world. Instead, the more popular and interesting a series is, the more likely it is that publishers will want to keep making those games and milking the series, ruining it for me because eventually at some point the series and its fiction will start to get stale, and the series will let me down.

I couldn't believe how many pictures the site has of Jerry Seinfeld

My problem is that no video game series will ever pull a Jerry Seinfeld, who chose to end Seinfeld when they were still on top of the ratings and everybody loved them. They offered him a zillion dollars, and he still walked away, preferring to "go out on top". Until certain game designers and game writers get that much creative control, video games will never have a moment like that.

Instead, every popular video game series is more like The Simpsons, where you merchandise like no tomorrow when the series first gets popular, then the series continues to shamble onward for two decades, largely on brand loyalty at a certain point after the quality has dropped considerably.

Halo 3 finished the fight, but that certainly isn't stopping them from making more games. Mass Effect 3 could've been a grand conclusion to the Mass Effect saga, for all time, but you can bet your ass they will make more games that say "Mass Effect" on the cover. It's fundamentally the same issue as the Star Wars trilogy; why just leave it, when you can bring it back from the grave and make dump trucks full of money as you make progressively worse sequels?

The best scenario I can hope for, I guess?

Imagine if one day, Nintendo said "Fuck it, this next one's the last Zelda ever, and we promise we'll actually try some bold new things with it", and they went all MGS4 on it, pulled out all of the stops, and actually concluded the Zelda mythology with one final confrontation, and a solid confirmation that those are the final Link and Zelda, and it is made clear what they do with the rest of their lives and what becomes of Ganon, Hyrule, the Triforce, and everything else. Hell, Wind Waker sort of actually did that! Except then Nintendo kept making more fucking Zelda games after that. So I guess Wind Waker is more like The Dark Knight Returns, in that it was an interesting conclusion to the mythology of the series, but apparently it was just for funsies and doesn't really count.

And despite me mentioning it positively in the previous paragraph, even Metal Gear Solid 4 couldn't accomplish absolute finality, because fucking Konami is going to keep convincing Hideo Kojima to attach his name to Metal Gear-related games until the day Kojima retires.

Sometimes I hate this fucking industry.

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