Whoa-ho nelly, here's a big one. Normally these are blogs, but this year I decided to go the extra mile and make a video. That video turned out to be 23 minutes long, and took me close to a month to put together. I would definitely say it is worth watching, if only for the sake of my own sanity. PLEASE WATCH IT OR I WILL CRY AND NOBODY WANTS THAT
I've lamented the loss of the days when GiantBomb used to do "shows" with actual "production", but how much time and how much effort I had to put in to this video made it a pretty stark reminder that yo, that stuff is really hard work and takes days, weeks, or months to put together.
Was it worth it? Kinda, yeah. I'm trying to push myself to be more entertaining when I go through the effort to "produce" a video, so this was an opportunity to dip my toes in to that pool and see what happens. Hopefully it came out alright. Speaking of: If you have feedback on the video, I’d be greatly interested. Do I sound okay? Did my jokes land? Did I fall flat on my face? How can I improve? I want to make videos you want to watch, and I can’t do that unless you tell me what I’m doing wrong.
I mention "show notes" in the video, but if you want to see those, you're going to have to go over to the video page on Youtube. I've also compiled some "stat porn" for this, if you're curious about the whozit and whatsit that went in to this monster:
You may remember some months ago I highlighted the release of The Unleashed Project. If you've forgotten, The Unleashed Project is a mod that ports all of Sonic Unleashed's daytime levels (aka: part of the game that's worth playing) to the PC version of Sonic Generations. If you don't already have it, you can get it from here.
There was one glaring problem with the mod, though: as somebody who put hours and hours and hours in to Sonic Unleashed, it was extremely difficult to get good scores in the Sonic Generations port. The developers of the mod had seemingly skewed the difficulty in favor of expert-level speed runners.
When I brought it up with them, I was basically told to shut up. So I took matters in to my own hands and modded their mod, creating S-Ranks Unleashed. The mod tries to re-balance the scoring system back to something similar to the original Sonic Unleashed.
I figured that if it was too difficult for me, somebody who played a metric boatload of Sonic Unleashed, it would probably be basically impossible for anyone just coming to this game for the first time. More information about the mod, including installation information and download links, can be found at its Moddb page.
I make it no secret that I love Sonic Unleashed. I didn't think I would, but something about it's insane high speed antics really captivated the closet adrenaline junkie inside of me, and neither Sonic Colors nor Sonic Generations ever really managed to recapture the thrill of these levels. I think it's something Patrick Klepek mentioned once or twice (in relation to Mirror's Edge), about the good feeling you get for overcoming something that seems to be heavily based on practicing memorization and timing (another good example I like to point out is this guy relating getting S-Ranks in Sonic Unleashed to getting 5 stars in Rock Band).
I was hoping that The Unleashed Project would've been a way for me to show the rest of the world why I loved Sonic Unleashed without anyone having to slog through the boring parts, but the S-Rank stuff was bad enough that I never felt comfortable recommending it to anyone.
Hence, why I decided to fix it for myself. Because of the differences in scoring systems, there's no direct way to port ranks from one game to another, but I did my best to feel out what the correct level of difficulty is. Just keep in mind: You still have to try. S-Ranks are not supposed to be easy, they're just easier now than they used to be.
If you need a reminder as to why I think Sonic Unleashed is so cool, allow me to provide these two examples:
And if you want something newer, here's a video I recorded of The Unleashed Project before I developed my mod (so I get an A-Rank instead of an S):
Play this game, you guys. It's one of the reasons people are starting to say Sonic might be cool again.
If you’re deep enough in to video games to read NeoGAF even passively, you know that there has been beef brewing between Video game Press and the consumer. The reasons for this reach far and wide, but the general consensus from my perspective seems to be that a lot of people in the videogame press have been doing it for so long they’ve sort of forgotten what it’s like to be a consumer, especially a consumer on a budget. As such, certain members in the videogame press are more forgiving of pricing woes that have typically plagued this last generation of gaming hardware, and when the subject of absurd pricing is rallied against, the response from the press has generally been to label these people as spoiled children that need to just “stop whining”. A few like to hide behind the excuse of “vote with your dollars”, which has not particularly worked well when you consider the state of Season Pass DLC and the attempted vilification of the Used Games market. There’s a line in the perennial classic Tommy Boy that I feel is a pretty good counterpoint to the notion of voting with your dollars:
Tommy: I’m sorry about your car, but don’t call me worthless. I’m trying my best. I’m not my dad!
Richard Hayden: You’re right! You’re your dad! He could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves!
The line pertains to people that can sell anyone anything even if it’s irresponsible for them to buy it. And you better believe that all of the big corporations try to employ marketers like that, making the idea of “voting with your dollars” fruitless. Because even if you’re smart enough to avoid buying so-called “coin doublers” for today’s games, there is a dedicated campaign to convince others that it is a necessary purchase. So in the end you have a bunch of people who are slowly falling out of touch on why everybody is so angry about the state of gaming because for the last 5 or 10 or even 20 years every videogame they’ve ever had was either provided to them gratis or considered a business expense. “It’s okay if I go out and on a whim spend $400 on Skylanders toys because that’s what my job is.” And on some level I don’t blame them - I’m sure they’re not consciously letting it happen, and some actively try and fight back against it. But it’s still a growing problem.
The latest and greatest example is the reveal of the XBOX ONE, which was at best met with indifference and at worst, total revulsion. Here is a videogame console trying to fix a problem that to most consumers doesn’t actually exist - we want to pay less for today’s games, not more (re: “voting with your dollars”), and so used video games have kind of risen up and given birth to a thriving second-hand market. The Xbox One wants to put an end to that, more than likely demanding that we spend full retail on everything - even games we borrow from friends. It is a plainly anti-consumer practice hiding behind notions that internet connectivity is “the future”. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. And you have people in the games press trying to spin this as a positive thing, with such lovely headlines like “You Don’t Hate the Xbox One, You’re Just Jealous”. But the one I want to touch on today is one by Ben Kuchera of the Penny-Arcade Report titled “The Xbox One will kill used games and control second-hand sales, and that’s great news (Really!)”
As if you couldn’t tell from the title, the article assumes that the used games industry is the cause of the problem and not a response to a greater issue at hand, and I really don’t think that’s the case at all.
[Xbox One’s internet licensing system] is good news for a few reasons. The first is that piracy will likely be reduced. If the system phones home every so often to check on your licenses, and there is no way to play a game without that title being authenticated and a license being active, piracy becomes harder. You’ll never be able to stop pirates, not entirely, but if you can make the act of pirating games non-trivial the incidence of piracy will drop. This is a good thing for everyone except those who want to play games for free.
This is the first thing I have to take issue with. Maybe I’m just blind to it, but piracy on the Xbox 360 never seemed like a significant problem to me. That’s not to say it does not happen, of course, but getting an Xbox 360 that can play pirated games involves a process more complex than most people want to deal with. I would assume that 15% or less of all Xbox 360 owners have the means to play pirated material. While I’m sure nobody would argue that less piracy is a bad thing, this was not a rampant epidemic that needs drastic measures in order to be stopped. Compared to other hardware manufacturers, Microsoft already had piracy under control better than the competition did. Beefing up security is a little unnecessary.
The next thing is that the used-game market all but disappears. GameStop may not be able to aggressively hawk used games for $5 less than the new price to customers under these new controls, which is great if you’re a developer or publisher. Once that secondary market is removed you can suddenly profit from every copy of your game sold, and as profit margins rise it’s possible we’ll see prices drop. Some stodgy publishers will likely stay with the $60 model, but they’re dead companies walking already. The smart companies will see this opportunity to play with pricing and see what works and what doesn’t.
This is putting a lot of faith in to companies that probably don’t deserve it. I can find no better example than to chart the course of Epic Games this generation: they set the stage with the original Gears of War, railing against Microsoft’s policies regarding free DLC. Epic had, in the past, been known for providing huge content packs for Unreal Tournament completely for free, and suddenly Microsoft was demanding that they charge money for them. They met in the middle, and the first Gears of War DLC pack went the Halo 2 route: pay for early access, or wait until it becomes free months later. By Gears of War 2, the “pay for early access” concept fell by the wayside, as the game received an additional 19 new multiplayer maps, all of which were only available to those who purchased them. When it came time for Gears of War 3, the generous Epic Games from 2007 had been completely extinguished - hundreds of dollars in worthless skins were up for purchase, with a whole special marketplace built exclusively for it. Gears of War Judgement took it a step further, with an option on the main menu constantly reminding you that for a few extra bucks, you could accelerate their awful EXP treadmill and unlock items in the game faster. This is to say nothing of Microsoft themselves, which up until two months ago dared to ask $30 for the “Games On Demand” version of Halo 3, a seven year old game. That $30 purchase did not include DLC, which drove the price of the game up past $45 - only $15 shy of what it cost when it was brand new. Finally, as of around March, the game has been reduced to $20.
While you could say that these are responses to the Used Game market, I on the other hand see it a different way: Microsoft has dipped their toe in to Steam’s pool, with a crazy christmas sale that let me buy the Games For Windows version of Age of Empires 3 for the low low price of only $0.10. I also picked up Viva Pinata for a dollar (see: this blog). Since then, further sales on Xbox Live and Games For Windows have been decidedly mediocre, and Microsoft in general seems to have learned one very important, key lesson: in a store like Wal-mart, discounts are often necessary in order to get rid of worthless, old products so that newer, better ones can occupy that limited shelf space. In a digital marketplace, there is no such thing as “limited shelf space”. Content lists on the Xbox Marketplace can go on for hundreds, if not thousands of entries. And it makes sense, too, when you consider just how bad Microsoft has been at making it easier to find content - they’re perfectly fine showing you a “shelf” that may as well stretch in to infinity. In a way, though, that’s what shopping online is becoming - Steam, which may have single-handedly saved the PC as a platform, is almost as difficult to browse as the Xbox Marketplace once you get past the featured content on the front page, and there probably isn’t going to be a good way to solve that problem without straight-up removing games from the service. After all, it’s not Steam’s fault there’s 232 games listed under the “Action” genre, and adding finer detail sub-genres isn’t going to make things any easier to the untrained eye.
It’s a nice wish to think that game prices would come down with the elimination of the Used Games market, but this is also coming from a company that wanted you to pay $2 for a pack of JPEG thumbnails they tried to call “Gamerpics”.
These aren’t crazy ideas. You can’t sell your games on Steam, nor can you buy “used” Steam games. The same with iTunes. And e-books, with some exceptions. So selling content that can’t be resold or purchased used isn’t weird, it’s becoming the norm. What’s innovative is that Microsoft may offer a way for you to get credit back for licenses you no longer use.
Now, this is important, because on some level, he’s correct: Once you redeem a game on Steam and add it to your account, you can’t sell it. Nor can you sell iTunes music, or stuff on Kindle. But on some level that doesn’t matter, because Steam, iTunes, and Kindle all deal with things that are inexpensive. The vast majority of the 280 games I own on Steam were either purchased for under $20, or were gifted to me by others (more than likely because they were also under $20). Individual songs on iTunes retail for a dollar or less, and eBooks are similarly cheap - a Barnes & Noble eBook reader I was given just a few months ago came pre-installed with more than 200 literary classics. An Xbox 360 game, on the other hand, starts at $60 for the basic version, up to $100-$150+ for so-called the “collectors edition”, and until the birth of the Season Pass, that $150 CE could possibly involve another $20-$50 in future downloadable content. This didn’t start out as a response to the burgeoning Used Game market, it was the cause.
Right from the word “Go” on this generation, you were hearing developers talk about increased production costs and how they could recoup their unsustainable business model. The “$60 and up” price tag was their solution. In response to this, and in response to the state of the economy, many consumers began to look for cheaper means of entertainment. Gamestop was more than happy to pick up the slack. With their plans foiled, game publishers have attempted to vilify these kinds of actions instead of identifying the real problem from within themselves.
The Xbox One isn’t an exciting prospect for the future, it’s Microsoft elevating the war on used games to the next level of DEFCON - a war that isn’t being fought for the consumers, it’s being fought for gluttonous developers who want to glue motion capture dots to a dog or hire the London Symphony Orchestra to perform for their game or spend a hundred million dollars on a World of Warcraft Clone that is only notable for having a lot of voice acting attached to it. As smaller, independent games are proving, that kind of stuff doesn’t actually matter as much as you would like to think it does, just so long as the game is fun and engaging. Did Mojang spend a hundred million dollars just so Kiefer Sutherland could lend his voice to Minecraft? No, but they certainly could spend that much on their next product, given how much they’ve sold.
Chances are, they won’t.
The existence of the Used Games market isn’t my problem, it’s my solution. If the game industry wants to stop the Used Game market from existing, twisting a consumer’s arm isn’t the way to go about doing it. Publishers could be fighting the Used Game market RIGHT NOW, by lowering prices on games. They aren’t doing that, and clearly have no intention to start. Steam and iTunes thwarted piracy by making the act of buying their content as cheap and as painless as possible. Microsoft is just putting up more walls.
I can only hope that the Xbox One won’t kill used games, and it won’t control second-hand sales, because if it did, that certainly wouldn’t be great news (Really.)
To catch you up: Nintendo is now sending out copyright claimant forms for anybody posting footage of their games on Youtube. This does not mean Nintendo is issuing takedown notices, Nintendo is just acknowledging that they, in fact, own the game footage that people are uploading to the site. What this means to you is that you’ll get a notice under your copyright section where Youtube will tell you that you have “matched third party content” and ask you to acknowledge this fact. If you are making money from that video via advertising, that money will no longer go to you and will instead go to Nintendo.
A lot of people are flipping out that this is WRONG, and that Nintendo is STEALING from a lot of Youtubers who are making money from Let’s Play videos. I co-run an infrequently updated Let’s Play channel, and we had hoped to one day make enough money from it to… I dunno, have around for a rainy day or whatever. So this effects me. But here’s the thing nobody wants to hear:
Nintendo should be doing this.
If something seems like it is too good to be true, it probably is. And you know what is really, absolutely, completely too good to be true? Making money just for recording yourself playing a videogame. Let’s Play has exploded in the last three years thanks to people putting ads over their videos and making a living off of it, to the point where its reaching over-saturation. Everybody, even me, has a Let’s Play channel. Well, guess what, kids? That gravy train’s over. The bubble is bursting.
This image shows a Google Trends report for Game Grumps (borrowed from here). Grumps popularity peaked in December 2012 and has been in a downward slump in the nearly six months following. Game Grumps has been what I consider the poster child for “Monetized Let’s Play on Youtube”. They update frequently and consistently, and are generally speaking pretty entertaining… in a sense (how I feel about Game Grumps’ humor is for another post). Point is, by my estimates, at the peak of their popularity, Egoraptor and Jontron were probably pulling in thousands of not tens of thousands of dollars a month. If you figure Grumps made a penny on every view to their channel, that’s $1,783,791. That’s not realistic, of course, because you have to consider adblocking software and so on. But even if you cut that estimate by a fifth, they still made nearly $30,000 a month. So, Game Grumps is a pretty big deal in the “talking over video games” market, and all signs point to the fact that Game Grumps is on its way out. Enjoy that F-Zero AX Cabinet while it lasts, I guess.
But none of this changes the fact that Nintendo’s getting in while the gettin’ is good, and they have every legal right to be taking this money. These are THEIR games. Think of Rifftrax - Rifftrax sells funny commentary tracks for movies, but they do it entirely separate of the movies themselves. That’s because the Rifftrax guys do not have the rights to the movies they commentate over, and they probably never will, either. It’s the same here: If you talk over video of you playing Super Mario 64, you do not own that footage. You own your commentary, sure, but that’s an entirely separate thing. And guess what? You can’t sell no pre-recorded Rifftrax for something that requires variable user interaction. Get used to this, because this is the future of Let’s Play - Sega, Capcom, Konami, and Bandai have already started putting out similar claims to soundtracks used in videos. Playing Sonic Generations? You get flagged for having the Sonic Generations soundtrack in your video, thereby forwarding any advertising revenue to Sega. Castlevania games contain Castlevania music, which forwards advertising revenue to Konami. So on and so forth.
It’s important to note that these are not traditional copyright claims. No negative strikes are placed upon your channel, no videos get removed, you just simply cannot make money from these videos anymore. Which brings it down to one single question:
Are you doing Let’s Play because you enjoy it, or are you doing Let’s Play because you think it’s an income source?
There were people producing Let’s Play videos before Youtube let you make money off of it, and after this change, those same people will probably still be producing Let’s Play videos. Nothing will change except for the fact that “Let’s Play is my job” guys like Pewdiepie might go away.
And you know what? Maybe that’s okay.
Do it for the love of the game, not the love of the money.
What this basically means is that there’s no way to chat (even though you can have a USB keyboard hooked up to your Xbox, which I do), and not even any way to see chat - in particular, watching PJ practice for the Super GnG World Record was sort of weird because he answers questions from the chat while he plays so you’re kind of missing half the conversation in that regard.
There’s absolutely no way to access a channel page. It’s live feeds or nothin’, so don’t expect to go in to this to browse and watch stream archives - which is actually pretty annoying, because I personally was kind of hoping for that feature. I have this weird setup where I download Youtube videos and throw them up on my media server, where I access them via the Xbox and watch them there (in part because the Youtube Xbox 360 app is a crash-prone, laggy piece of garbage). There used to be a way to download Twitch archives for me to also put them on my media server, but due to “piracy issues” that’s no longer available, and this app does nothing to help alleviate the issue.
Video quality could be better. Presumably the reason they only surface featured and popular content is because of the quality selector - Twitch only provides stream quality selectors to channels that they deem worthy enough to need one. While the quality selector on the PC generally lets you pick from 4 or 5 different options, here you’re only provided with “High” (720p) and “Low” (240p), and as you can tell in my screenshots, even in Standard Definition, “Low” is pretty blurry. Having a middle quality (480p) would be nice.
The app also does the same thing all Xbox video apps do where on my display the text looks super aliased and gross. It doesn’t show up on the above images because those are S-video screencaps from my capture card, but when viewing it through my other monitor in HD it looks like garbage. Here’s an example image I put together when the Youtube app came out last year. I don’t know if it’s a scaling issue or what, but it doesn’t happen on the Xbox dashboard, and it doesn’t happen in any games. It’s just these video apps. And it’s worse than ever in the Twitch app.
But yeah… it’s… alright, I guess. I dunno. I’ve never been one for EVO or anything because I don’t like having to constantly pay attention to a specific web browser tab, so maybe this’ll make me watch more of that kind of stuff? We’ll see. Depends on how blurry things look at “Low” quality, because I certainly don’t have the bandwidth to stream 720p.
Above is a conversation between Adam Orth, a "creative director" at Microsoft, and Manveer Heir, one of Bioware's Senior Game Designers. Today, Kotaku reported that two sources in the game industry reaffirmed that yes, Microsoft's next console will require an always-on internet connection. If more than a few minutes pass without a connection, it will immediately block the user from doing anything else on the console except run network diagnostics. This lines up with a previous rumor that the next Xbox will also block used games - from the sounds of it, each game purchased will be dumped to a HDD and registered exclusively to that system over the internet, preventing resale without a costly/time-consuming re-licensing process (sort of like what Xbox Live Arcade games do now).
This, obviously, sucks. Not just for what happened to games like Sim City and Diablo III - singleplayer-focused games that could not be played at each of their respected launches because of connectivity issues - but just because internet connectivity still is not at a point where this makes sense.
Adam Orth took the defensive, using the excuse that "Sometimes, the electricity goes out, so I guess I won't buy this vacuum." I don't know about you, but my internet goes out a hell of a lot more than my electricity does. For a period of more than a year around 2008, my connection slowly worsened until the internet was literally unusable - and my ISP's solution was mainly to shrug their shoulders at me during most of the process. Switching me off of traditional wires and on to fiber optic helped the issue, but the stability of that connection has also been gradually deteriorating as well - just this morning the internet was down for nearly half an hour. And that doesn't even begin to hold a candle to the two-week period I was without internet access in 2011 because my ISP had a database glitch that found us getting our account with them unexpectedly terminated. I can only imagine what it must be like to live somewhere my connection won't suddenly be dropped in the middle of the night for no reason.
Thankfully, with some rare exceptions, when I don't have internet access, I still have entertainment. I still had electricity, I still had Direct TV service, hell, even my phone still worked, even if a sub-service of that did not. But most importantly, 75% of the games I currently own are completely functional without an internet connection.
Don't get me wrong, it makes sense that internet features would not work if there wasn't an internet. When I did not have internet access, it was perfectly understandable that I would not be able to play Counter-Strike or Halo Multiplayer. What didn't make sense is when I tried booting up Serious Sam: The First Encounter HD, a game that can be played offline in singleplayer. With no internet to connect to, Serious Sam would simply crash to the desktop. No error message about connectivity problems, it would simply crash like any other piece of Windows software crashes. I was mystified; I thought something was wrong with the game itself. Surprise: Once the internet came back, the game went back to working as if there was nothing wrong.
I don't want to live in a world where even when I'm playing by myself, I'm always connected to everybody else. A feature like Autolog in Need for Speed is a great idea, but just because it can't update a leaderboard is not an excuse to block me from playing the game at all. Contrary to popular belief, I can actually have fun with a game even when I'm not being constantly reminded that I'm +0:02 seconds behind my friends.
But then again, it was never about me having fun, now was it? This is the internet, where you're guilty until proven innocent. The internet, where you don't own anything, you simply "license" it (and even have to pay again just to renew your "license"). The internet, where "connectivity is the future" is a convenient place to stash your bad ideas.
For the two weeks my internet was down, a large portion of my gaming time was spent in, oddly enough, Unreal Tournament 2004. Despite being a game focused on online-multiplayer, the game really doesn't care whether or not you have an internet connection - if you feel like playing by yourself, there's a robust list of modes populated by some of the most intelligent deathmatch bots in any game. One of the reasons Epic poured so much effort in to giving 2007's Unreal Tournament 3 a robust singleplayer component was because they discovered that more than half of their customers have never connected to an internet game. Even though by all accounts, Unreal Tournament is a franchise built almost exclusively to be played online, there is a significant group of people who do not.
"Everything's always connected" is a poor excuse for not planning around what happens when there is no connection. I've played Diablo II without an online auction house. I've played Sim City 2000 without trading with internet-neighbors. I can, and have, lived without those features. Nowhere has anybody said "requiring a constant internet connection is a selling point to me." At that point, the intent of a constantly-connected network becomes crystal clear: Game developers think I am not to be trusted, because, even though I've done nothing wrong, I am probably a criminal, and therefore must be under constant supervision for criminal activity. For all of the hand-waving and reassuring, this is at the heart of all "always connected" schemes: controlling and monitoring the user in increasingly heavy-handed ways. If you aren't connected to the network, then you can't be monitored or advertised to or whatever - so they force a connection, even when it's not completely necessary.
It will be very interesting to see how this all ends up shaking out in the end. I would be lying if I did not say I want Microsoft to fall flat on their face over this - but everybody assumed the exact same thing when they announced they would be charging for Xbox Live Gold subscriptions, too. Microsoft has a lot of very experienced people who are great at making things that are just under the threshold of being too annoying to use - just annoying enough to complain about.
So back in February, a friend of mine contacted me about an iOS game he was creating. He wanted to pay me to make him some arcade-style minigames as side-content. In addition, I get to keep the rights to all of these games just in case I want to do something with them on my own one day. My deadline for these three games is the middle of May.
What you see above is what I've managed to come up with; the first game, Space King, took about a month and a half to put together, and the second game, Orbit Revolved, is probably around a week old at this point. These are the first 100%, totally original games I’ve ever made. All the sprites are made by me, all the sound effects are made by me… The only thing not made by me is the music, which is provided by my cousin.
I realize there’s a lot of text in that video, but… well, you’re just gonna have to read it, I guess.
I've been making fan games for over ten years now, but now that I'm left to my own devices, it's surprising how difficult it is to create an original game. Not just from a content-generation perspective, but mostly from a game design one. How high can a character jump? How fast can they move? What’s the scoring system like? How fast can you shoot? You have so much freedom that it’s almost kind of crippling, in a way. It’s all up to you. There’s no template you have to follow. Introduce new gameplay systems, remove existing ones, the sky is the limit. But will it be any good?
I’m so far down the rabbit hole I don’t even know anymore, and my deadline means I can’t really think too hard about it. Gotta keep moving forward. Things will sort themselves out, somehow.
In a long list of things I wish Sega had done, more Sonic Generations DLC is pretty high up on that list. That was a game absolutely full to the brim with DLC possibilities, and outside of a decidedly throwaway pinball table, we got nothing. In a way, it doesn’t make any sense – after producing both DLC for Sonic 06 and Sonic Unleashed, bonus downloadable stages for Sonic Generations seemed like the next logical step. Alas.
Fortunately, fans have begun to pick up the slack – thanks in part to the efforts of Dario_FF and the software SonicGMI, custom Sonic Generations levels have been possible for a while now. Today, we see the release of the grand daddy of them all: The Unleashed Project. If you aren’t in the know, basically, Sonic Generations runs off the same engine from Sonic Unleashed, so a dude by the name of Dario_FF (and eventually with the a handful of others) figured out a way to port levels between the two games. That’s culminated in a project that has ported almost all of Sonic’s daytime levels from Unleashed over to Generations.
I unabashedly love Sonic Unleashed. If you ask me, a lot of people were unnecessarily harsh on Sonic Unleashed simply because it had the misfortune of following the omega-level-turd, Sonic 06. Unleashed isn’t a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination (pun not intended), and most notably more than half of the game’s content exists simply to pad out how long it takes to finish. But when it’s good, it is really, really good - better than Sonic Colors, and better than Sonic Generations. For a solid year after release, I’d put Sonic Unleashed back in at least once a month to replay levels, chasing faster times and higher scores. A good comparison I always like to go back to is that Sonic Unleashed is almost akin to something like Rock Band or maybe even Bit Trip Runner - incredibly simple, heavily scripted games that use their mechanics in increasingly complex ways that focus on tight timing and high accuracy. Sonic Unleashed comes very close to being a rhythm game without actually being about music, and that’s largely what is missing from both Colors and Generations.
The Unleashed Mod for Sonic Generations doesn’t always fair entirely well, though. It’s an impressive thing to behold, for sure, but Sonic Generations has slight tweaks to physics and controls that sometimes work against these levels. Some of that is down to it just throwing off my muscle memory, but stuff like Sonic’s stomp attack work pretty differently depending on which game you’re playing. It doesn’t help that not all of Sonic Unleashed’s level mechanics are present in Sonic Generations, and nowhere else does the mod suffer for this more than in Cool Edge, the ice level. The mod team have done their best to convert Sonic’s street board from City Escape in to Unleashed’s sled, but the control just isn’t there in the way I want it to be. It’ll take some getting used to.
Scoring is also a concern - I feel like I did about as close to “perfect” as possible in the above video, a performance that would’ve garnered me an S-Rank on the console version of Sonic Unleashed. Here, it nets me a B-rank, which gets bumped up to an A because I finished the stage without dying. While the scoring in Sonic Generations was often comically generous (you could sleepwalk through most stages and still be awarded an S-Rank at the end), the ranking in the Unleashed mod is the polar opposite - the notion that I could be faster in this stage is sort of ridiculous to me.
The mod authors also suggest you use something they call the “fxPipeline renderer”, which is basically an incomplete version of the Sonic Unleashed rendering technology. It works, to an extent, but I feel like there’s too many problems with it to be usable in the long run - unstable framerates crap it all up, it completely breaks some rendering modes, and so on. Thankfully, there doesn’t seem to be too big of a penalty for using the default Sonic Generations renderer - you lose out on a few extra lighting tricks, but by and large it still looks phenomenal - even if stages like Jungle Joyride absolutely slaughter my aging PC’s framerate.
If it sounds like I’m doing nothing but crapping on the mod, realize that I'm coming from the perspective of somebody who's probably put 50-100+ hours in to Sonic Unleashed since 2008 (yes, I really liked the daytime stages that much). Despite my complaints, there’s a lot of genuinely good fun here - I actually think Skyscraper Scamper is better in this Unleashed mod than it is in the real game, simply because it finally fulfills my wish to actually race down the same streets that the cars are on. But at the end of the day, this is still a mod trying to twist Sonic Generations to play levels it wasn’t entirely designed to - meaning Sonic Unleashed is still overall a slightly more cohesive experience, as long as you can slog through all the bland, tasteless bits to get to the flavor-packed core. For everyone else, this is no slouch, and if I could, everyone on the mod team would get a handshake and a pat on the back for the work they’ve done here. And that’s more than I can say for Sega’s official DLC support for Sonic Generations.
(For those wondering about the video, I also used some mods featured here to make the game look and sound a little more like Sonic Unleashed)
If it wasn’t obvious by the fact this game has TWO subtitles (the full name is “CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW: MIRROR OF FATE”), Konami is being very, very careful not to attach Mercury Steam’s Castlevania games to the rest of the franchise canon, and with games like Mirror of Fate, I don’t blame them.
Castlevania is not unlike Sonic the Hedgehog in that its gameplay is very much a product of the 2D viewpoint in which it used to be typically viewed. When you shift the perspective to 3D, all of the rules change so dramatically that you have to rethink nearly every piece of how the game is constructed. The NES Castlevania’s whip motion is not something that can be directly translated to 3D.
This is why, for so many years, you had bad 3D Castlevania games. Nobody at Konami could figure out how that game was supposed to work in the third dimension. Then came along David Jaffe and his team made God of War, a game that, when you really boil it down, is “Castlevania but for Roman Mythology”. Kratos’ dual chains are really just Castlevania whips, but rather than a forward striking motion, they become sweeping area attacks that hit multiple enemies in a radius around the player - something essential for combat in the third dimension. He cracked the code.
And so Mercury Steam decided to “borrow” from God of War to make Lords of Shadow, which appropriates all of the sweeping area attacks for its whip-based gameplay. And, to a certain extent, it worked! It was a bit clunky and probably overstayed its welcome, but it was the best attempt at a 3D Castlevania Konami had ever put out. Mission kinda-sorta accomplished, I guess. The problem being is that Mercury Steam’s Castlevania has now apparently superseded the “real” Castlevania games, and instead of your typical Koji Igarashi 2D Castlevania romp, we get a pale imitation in the form of Mirror of Fate - a game that perhaps exposes Mercury Steam’s total lack of understanding of what makes a Castlevania game.
Mirror of Fate mistakenly tries to take the 3D gameplay of Lords of Shadow and flatten it down in to a 2D plane. Now you’re playing a God of War game where you cannot dodge side to side, only forward or backward. And despite the move to the 2D plane, Mercury Steam decided to retain the combat system from the 3D game - Trevor has “direct” attacks and “area” attacks, but what this generally means is that you have very little incentive to get up close and personal with enemies because area attacks literally hit just about anything on screen in a single swipe. I’m assuming direct attacks do more damage, but I never cared enough to check because area attacks did the job well enough.
Because of this, often your attacks don’t even phase enemies. this is to stop you from just tearing through everything and force the player to actually bother to dodge or block an enemy’s offense. And you’ll want to - enemies seem to deal almost a quarter of your lifebar if they manage to land a hit on normal difficulty. In 2D Castlevania games, enemies were not something you had epic, protracted battles with, but Mirror of Fate really wants you to stand around and whip giant shielded skeletons for minutes at a time - but there’s no finesse to it, no depth. Mash until it dies, maybe wait for it to lower its guard so you can attack it directly. Ho-hum.
The rest of the demo doesn’t fare much better: platforming is extremely poor, and not explained terribly well. So much of the demo holds your hand, telling you exactly where to go and what buttons to push at any given time that the couple of times where they don’t do that lead to me running around in circles for ten minutes wondering where to go and just sort of mashing random buttons until the right thing happened. Case in point: Once you get through the opening area of the castle, you get inside a cathedral to find your first sub weapon and fight some bats. Clear the bats out and now you have to scale the interior. The problem: there’s a flashing ledge that you clearly need to do something with, but my initial attempts to grab on to it yielded no results.
In Mirror of Fate, the R button is the designated “grab stuff/read stuff” button, but for whatever reason, Trevor Belmont simply refused to grab the ledge. Eventually I found that when I dashed in to it and held the L button, he grabbed - though I would later find out that the L button was completely unnecessary for ledge grabbing; for whatever reason (a bug, perhaps), Trevor just refused to grab the ledge the first five times I touched it.
So now I’ve grabbed the ledge and I’m on an alcove and… now what? There’s a flashing blue rope to my right. Seems pretty obvious to me that this is a grapple point, so much like Super Castlevania 4, I jump off and whip at the glowing point on the rope. Nothing happens. I try again, getting closer. Nothing. Maybe it’s the wrong kind of whip? Direct whips don’t work, area whips don’t work. Jump at it and dash. Nope. No good. Eventually I have to pause the game and look it up that the R button is for grapple points - even though everything else in this demo so far that uses the R button comes up with specific text saying, “PRESS THE R BUTTON RIGHT NOW TO DO A THING”. Not this time, apparently.
Furthermore, once grappled, the only way to jump out is… not to press the jump button, but to press R again. Now, this isn’t a huge deal, but it’s one of those little aggravating things where you just go “Why would you do it this way?” The solution is functional but not ideal, because my first instinct to jump out of an action is ALWAYS going to be pressing the jump button. Doing it any other way makes the developer look like they are staffed by space aliens who don’t know how earthlings work. And after the sequence of events I just suffered through - mysterious, unclear game mechanic after mysterious unclear game mechanic, that does not seem too far off from the truth.
So I grapple and jump across these chandeliers and get to the other end of the cathedral where the platforms get much smaller and the distance between them gets to be much larger. I’m supposed to use the grapple here, but because of level geometry, a grapple point gets obscured and I end up trying to make a jump using a complicated ledge grab, which actually works - but after I safely make the jump, only then do I notice the glowing blue grapple point. Figuring it’s an item I can pick up, I jump off the platform, collect nothing, and fall straight back to the ground floor again - taking fall damage on top of it all.
Fall damage. In a 2D Castlevania game. I almost shut my 3DS off right there.
Fall damage is typically reserved for games which are trying to be “realistic”. Super Mario Bros. did not have fall damage, but Prince of Persia did, because Prince of Persia was about a real human person going through a dungeon to save a princess. Super Mario 64 had fall damage, but quickly thought better of it for future 3D Mario games. Castlevania, in all of its incarnations, has never been a “realistic” game. Not even Mirror of Fate, which has you fighting giant demonic bats using a whip and electrically-charged Romanian ninja stars. But here it is, and here I am missing half of my health bar because somebody can’t design levels to be clear and understandable. It wasn’t a jump that looked like I needed to be use the grapple to reach it, so why would I even try? And obviously I made it without needing to grapple, to boot! On my first try!
So after some more swinging and ledge grabbing I finally make it up to this gear which opens the path somewhere else - at this point I will admit to not really paying attention all too well to what was going on, as I had passed my frustration threshold a while ago. What I do notice, however, is that a new grapple point has appeared up by the gear. I use it and swing across to a grab-able ledge I used to get up here. Except… wait. Trevor doesn’t grab the ledge. Instead, he plummets straight to the ground - the fall damage so great, that it instantly kills him. Great. Thanks.
It restarts me back up by the gear, and only now do I notice the problem: the ledges I used to ascend up to the gear are no longer flashing. Ostensibly, Trevor has decided he doesn’t need to use those ledges anymore, so you can’t grab them to make your way back down. Just to make sure, I swing out to those ledges again, and Trevor completely ignores them, going from a full health bar down to zero thanks to fall damage. I’m flabbergasted. I have no speech.
Is this game design? What is this? It’s not fun. It’s not even logical. The grapple point even suggests that I’m SUPPOSED to swing out to those ledges, because there’s certainly nothing else to swing to. Using a safer, more clunky method, I climb down and continue in to some sort of catacombs or crypt. It’s rather unremarkable save for moments where I can’t tell the background apart from the foreground and flashing walls to clearly denote “HEY, YOU CAN WALL JUMP HERE, AND ONLY HERE”. I didn’t want freedom anyway.
Which is a re-occurring theme. Eventually I hit some kind of symbol - the game tells me to press the R button while standing over it, in which I am told: “This requires Shadow Magic. Come back once you get it.” A statue later in the demo tells me the exact same thing - but instead, it wants Light Magic. It’s the notion that it has to tell me to come back that’s the problem - Super Metroid never spelled it out in human english, “you need super missiles to open this door, come back later”. That was a mystery you had to deduce on your own. Apparently people were smarter in 1994 than they are now.
The demo is capped off with a boss encounter - and it’s one of those bosses with a health meter that is entirely too long for as simple as it is to bait in to a pattern. As long as you keep your distance, the boss will charge in to a wall and dizzy itself, giving you a significant opening for counter-attack. Repeat ad nauseum.
While you could just say, “it was a bad demo”, there are things in this demo that showcase a developer that seems fairly clueless as to how to make a game like this. The only thing that would save it in my eyes would be the promise of them either delaying the game or issuing a patch - but it would have to be a pretty significant patch, all told.
So I've been writing reviews for TSSZ News for like, what, five years now? That's kind of a long time. I've done kind of a good job re-posting my reviews from there over at Giantbomb here eventually - usually they go up on TSSZ exclusively for a couple weeks or maybe a month and then I copy them over here. I basically got my job at TSSZ by posting reviews at sites like Giantbomb, so I figure I have to stay true to my roots.
But I forget sometimes. So today I'm going back through the reviews I forgot to post here and... well, posting them. At the very least, it'll help diversify my review portfolio here, because right now it looks like the only games I ever play and review are Sonic games.
I'll probably have a review up on TSSZ for the 3DS version of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed by Monday, so make sure you check that out, too. It'll end up here on Giantbomb eventually, but I feel obligated to the place that actually like... pays me to review this stuff. So obviously, they deserve the exclusives.