Asura's Wrath: The New Anime

Asura’s Wrath contains one of the most brilliant player-directed narrative sequences in videogames; a fist fight. The two brawlers dance about the screen, one trying desperately to explain his actions to the other among a flurry of attacks. To evade them, the player must nail the timing for the increasingly frequent on-screen button prompts as any mistake is punished with a fist to the face, interrupting the dialogue and completely ending the conversation.

It’s a very specific kind of narrative device: it’s author-controlled, player-oriented and since that dialogue offered important characterization, each player experiences their own variation on a defined story. It’s completely scripted yet wholly natural. Above all, it’s simple. And just one of a dozen reasons why CyberConnect2’s game is so remarkable. They have succeeded at making a narratively-based game by coming at it from a different angle; making a game isn’t their priority. Through videogames, Asura’s Wrath redefines anime.

Asura, one of the Eight Guardian General’s that protect Shinkoku, is angry. The first time we see him, he stands arms folded at the edge of one of the countless battle cruisers blanketing the sky, gazing down at the planet Gaea, his toes at the edge of an oncoming war. Then the title card pops. As if to make sure we’re ready for his adventure, we’re invited to Press Start. Hit it and Asura leaps from the ship and charges into the void below.

After a short-lived reprieve, Gaea has been overrun with Gohma, corrupted beasts that threaten to overtake the planet. The other seven Guardian Generals enter as the battle wages on, among them Asura’s solemn brother-in-law Yasha and their arrogant sensei Augus. Fueled by the prayers collected by Asura’s daughter Mithra, the cybernetic Guardian Generals tear through the Gohma and ignite the heavens under the command of Deus, the powerful Lord weary of the endless battles. As the warriors breach the battle lines, Vlitra, the manifestation of the Gohma’s hatred, nearly cracks the planet in half and reveals itself after a millennium. Then the game cuts to a mid-episode bumper.

The commercial-free commercial break makes sense given the opening credits and sets up the expectation for ‘to be continued…” and next episode preview ten minutes later. There are probably a number of reasons why CyberConnect2 chose a traditional anime series structure for their hybrid anime-game, from an attempt to honor the forebearers that inspired it to acting as a mechanism to regulate the games pacing. The name Seiji Shimoda will appear as Director in every episode but other names will be attached to individual ones. It allowed development to be divided without making the seams in the fabric jarring to the audience. Every episode has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The Eight Guardian Generals prove a challenge for Vlitra’s horde, but none of them can match Asura’s bottomless pit of rage, a deep seated fury that allows him to destroy the abomination in a single, multi-armed punch. In the renewed respite, the demi-gods return home to the promise of peace. And then Asura finds his wife murdered and he framed for assassinating the Emperor. Lord Deus’ secret coup is put into motion and the lightning god casts the disgraced father down into Naraka and kidnaps Mithra. Falling to Gaea like a meteor, Asura proclaims his vengeance. When he finally claws out of the underworld, 12,000 years have passed, the Generals have deified themselves and set out to collect the prayers of their people in preparation for the inevitable resurrection of Vlitra.

When a story is as rigorously defined as it is in Asura’s Wrath, the player becomes an actor in its play, performing the actions that reveal the unfolding spectacle. With Quick Time Events as cues, they’re given direction for actions that fit the context of their incredibly engaging scenes. Where the QTE’s are Asura’s Wrath’s primary means of storytelling, the combat between them is built on two types of player-directed action.

The first is a simple beat ‘em up with a move set consisting of little more than an attack, heavy attack and ranged firing mode. Despite its simplicity, the combat has depth; the attack button can be used to catch enemies into combo strings, charges or air juggles. The gameplay certainly doesn’t have the richness of Bayonetta or Devil May Cry but you have a rounded set of options. The second comes as a Sin & Punishment or Space Harrier-style rail shooter that has the character speeding through scripted sequences unleashing a volley at enemies while evading their attacks.

This is what you need to notice about these two types of gameplay- one builds fight scenes, the other builds chase scenes. The mechanical simplicity is meant to provide an efficient versatility over a range of gameplay scenarios. But given that each button is consistent across modes, playing the games cinematics reinforce your understanding of the fighting mechanics and vice versa. Little about Asura’s Wrath is wasteful.

Actions builds up Asura’s Burst Gauge. When it’s filled, a giant flaming R2 prompt like a brand from Satan flares on screen and activates Burst, a mode that rockets Asura into an explosive rage and initiates a timing-based QTE. In practical terms, Burst is a narrative device that effectively resolves that scenes tension and ends the story beat. They’re micro goals used to create a rhythmic pace. Bursts build scenes which move the story forward.

If you accept the acting metaphor, consider your performance in the two action modes as improv dance against the other actors on stage. As such, there is something almost beautiful about a battle completed quickly and cleanly, where you’ve jumped in and decimated your opponent with skill and nailed that satisfying pull of the burst button in one easy, error-free take that seamlessly transitions into QTE. Successes like that make up for the incredibly frustrating moments that don’t go as you’d like.

CyberConnect2 deserves to be applauded for what they were able to accomplish with their character designs. While the Gohma admittedly look like amorphous red and black globs, the main cast is intricately detailed and capable of a wide variety of facial expressions. Watch the cutscenes to find incredibly nuanced and subtle animations, from the movement of their eyes to the articulation in their fingers. They sell these generated models as living characters and direction that was crafted rather than captured. The story would absolutely be less without them.

From top to bottom, Asura’s Wrath is expertly produced. It’s choreographed with fight scenes that manage to clearly portray the action and doesn’t use the same tricks in the same ways. It has a quick, visceral visual vocabulary appropriate for its content. Even the power struggles are designed to test your endurance; they fight back and always make you feel like you’re one slipped button press away from defeat, even if you understand that they cheat to do it. If there’s a problem, it’s in one or two flashbacks too many that slow down the pacing. The sound design hits hard, the silence impacts and (especially in the case of Yasha’s Theme) the music energizes.

The contrast between Shinkoku’s opulence and the people of Gaea is noticeable from the moment Asura falls. Typical of a totalitarian regime, the Seven Deities have commoditized their people, making each life disposable in relation to some nebulously defined social whole opposed to a centralized threat and purely to the benefit of themselves. Scenes where they slaughter entire villages rather than let them succumb to impurity are predictably cynical for their self-righteousness. Individually, the deities are well-defined archetypes for the amount of screen time they’re given but all constructing a complemented unit. Easily the most interesting is the melancholic Yasha, the cool blue to Asura’s burning red, cut to his smash, wind to his rock. Does Yasha wear his mask out of vanity or out of shame?

The narrative is packed to the brim with classic anime themes and concepts right down to its cabal of gods that seems straight out of a Yoshiaki Kawajiri flick minus those blinking background shots, but it’s in how it upends those elements and videogame mechanics that it comes into its own. There’s a scene where Yasha talks to Deus in soliloquy, staring in the direction of the lord on his distant throne in the sky. Irritated at the empty gesture, Asura orders him to ‘Stop talking to yourself.’ Yasha is visibly perturbed, as if Asura had broken some sacred edict. I love it. Asura’s Wrath is a reconstruction of its genre; a martial arts version of Gurren Lagann (right down do the galactic changes in scale and shifts between planes of reality) that remodels the house DBZ built like Lagann rebuilt the mecha that Neon Genesis Evangelion tried burning to the ground. Asura’s act is put in the players hand in many of the scenes with the Seven Deities, providing them with a ‘Shut <Name> up’ prompt that only forces them to listen until they can’t take it anymore. Asura is tired of the endless self-aggrandizing.

By the end of his quest, you know exactly what sort of man Asura is: one that believes in justice and individual liberty, a man uncomfortable with the worship his acts receive and whose only fear is reserved for the welfare of his daughter. Yet it’s harder for him to extend his open hand to her as she cries than it is to throw it clenched at the cause. There’s psychology under the rage that not even he understands. He ends up being the most complex character in the story, just straight forward and direct. He always does what he knows is right, even if he doesn’t always know why.

Where videogames have long tried to implement cinematic techniques onto a mechanical world, every element in Asura’s Wrath’s design was made to construct mechanics onto a cinematic foundation. At face value, that seems a semantic difference but it’s really very important and, for my money, far more honest. Everything in Asura’s Wrath is story-centric- even its title. Read those two words again: they are a statement of fact, imply an analysis of the root cause and promise a journey to quench it. It’s a wrath directed at the policies, the ideologies and the people that aggressively fight others from living the life they want. His game is about pushing forward and letting nothing stand in your way.

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Zelda's Missing Link

Early on in A Link Between Worlds, the travelling merchant Ravio takes up shop in your house, lines it with the franchises complement of items and offers to rent Link each and every one. This event single-handedly eradicates the suffocatingly linear item-based progression that had reached its logical conclusion even before Twilight Princess put its staggering deficiencies on display. A Link Between Worlds is in many ways an alternate take on an old story, one that reveals its true ambitions at the beginning of the second act as Link squeezes through a tear in the fabric of Hyrule and discovers that every inch of the world and its seven palaces are accessible with the right tool in hand.

The series changed dramatically with A Link to the Past. What originated as a tough, tightly-paced open-world quest in a mysterious land where you could enter the eighth dungeon before you found the first evolved into a narratively-driven hike along a narrow trail that offered regular rest stops but few forks. Then the series transitioned to 3D and extrapolated those concepts out onto increasingly larger scales, maintaining the limited structure while increasing the world’s geography. Nintendo tried to recapture LttP's magic by recasting the same spells. Zelda became an adventure at odds with itself and desperately in need of rethinking. It’s inspired then that A Link Between Worlds chose that divergence as the point to draft ideas that remain fresh despite their age onto a fully explored landscape. It brings Zelda back to the Hero’s journey it once was.

And by placing him in LttP's familiar territory, Link’s kick into action is really a soft pat on the fanny. LBW’s got the fireball spewing Death Mountain, the sleepy Kakariko Village and the hydrated Lake Hylia. It’s got the item-based dungeons. It’s got the three act structure. It’s got the duality of universe. But rather than revisiting Hyrule’s corrupted Sacred Realm, the punticularly-named Lorule is the twisted reflection of the great kingdom right down to its dark haired Princess Hilda. This time, the powerful Yuga is the force seeking to resurrect Ganon once again and steal the Triforce. You know what comes next, seven sages and all that jazz.

You’ve seen villains like Yuga before, the snobbish, almost aristocratic type so obsessed with perfection that he captures beauty and seals it away behind glass and inside frame. The archetype is functional here, helping LBW’s new gameplay mechanic integrate into the fabric of the narrative. By flattening himself against sheer surfaces, Link has new ways of moving across known geometry. Essentially defined as on-rails sequences, the paint mechanic provides a new perspective on the series brand of traversal, one that prioritizes spatial puzzles over manual dexterity. As interesting as the painting concept is, for how well it’s applied, for how it mixes up the flow, it never quite coheres with the foundational gameplay. The two textures in the same bite just feel a little off.

But that’s not the case for the art design. The stained glass motif has been used elsewhere in the series, first appearing as the aesthetic treatment for the Hero of Time prologue in Wind Waker. As there, it has a cathedral tone that contrasts the straight forward style of the game world and is appropriate for the aura of Divinity that the series has adopted over its run. Considering how much love music gets from Zelda, it’s nice to see some of the other Arts shown reverence.

The mechanic is exaggerated by the modulating sound design, causing the music to distort and recede, making the great, complex compositions become as one-dimensional as the visuals. It’s cool. So too is how the paint mechanic is introduced, given to you after beating the game’s first dungeon and its use subtly explained as you make your escape.

That moment you see those seven ‘x’ marks penciled to the map on your 3DS touch screen and realize you’re responsible for cutting your own path is impressively profound. Even if you hadn’t played A Link to the Past, you had come to know the sunlit Hyrule pretty well by the time you slipped through the panes of reality. Now you’re in this destroyed mess armed with a few weapons and a lot of options. It’s strangely beautiful and unnerving.

Between Worlds may feature the typical set of dungeons, but all nine are compact enough to complete in a snap but complex enough to explore a full concept. Though few of the items are unique to this game and only one has a limited use, the complete set is more versatile than has been the case in some of the past Zelda’s and can cater to your preferred play style whether that’s melee or ranged attacks or enemy management. Since every item eats a chunk of the shared stamina pool, combat is about precision of action rather than freneticism. That sand battle is pretty nifty.

Though you can eventually just buy everything, renting imbues the gameplay with a great sense of risk up front. Get knocked out, and Ravio’s little blue-feathered thug will swoop down and swipe the goods from your unconscious heap of green elf boy. That’s a great idea, an almost Dark Soulsian design philosophy applied to a staid Zelda system. It turns the death counter into a practical gameplay mechanic where it had only been a badge of shame and finally gives you something to blow all those stacks of rupees on. Praise Nayru.

The unfortunate irony is that for all the advantages to the elegantly simple open world design, the times when it doesn’t offer direction blatantly stand out. Whether it’s missing an item or the game’s main side quest, it can be supremely frustrating to miss that one villager you needed to talk to or that one cave you needed to enter and not realize it until the end of the game. Trust me. Yet here’s a secret: neither of those cases matters in the long run. This is easily the breeziest entry in the franchise.

Zelda has always been at its best when it’s simple and quick. Though 2D visuals are hardly novel for the series, Between Worlds benefits from its use, the most obvious of which is that it keeps the world tight and concise. The economy of space means that you’re never more than 15 seconds from something interesting. Unlike the larger 3D titles, world traversal is rarely tedious. To make it faster, not only is there the robust fast travel system a button away but there are dozens of tears spread out so Link can easily slip through the cracks. The game gets you moving and never brakes until you find yourself at the final boss. It’s magical.

A Link Between Worlds gives us a peek at a parallel universe version of one of videogames most important series. It’s intriguing to ask what great adventures Link could have embarked on if The Legend of Zelda had made a different choice in it’s Past. Perhaps that’s a question not worth answering, but maybe this one is: what does Link do with all those items after he’s saved Hyrule? He probably sells them.

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The Saints Flow Part One: Purple Stuff

The Japanese ad for The Saint’s Flow Energy Drink shows Pierce, the hip and youthful face of the Third Street Saints brand division, being mercilessly beaten on a basketball court by armed punks. The situation looks bleak, until an anthropomorphized purple can of Saints Flow descends from heaven and gives him the strength to throw off his attackers, unleash a savage volley of fists, kicks and a clothesline before shooting a Ryu-style fireball from his hands and performing an atomic dunk with a basketball that appeared out of nowhere to a shower of neon stars. The Third Streets Saint’s lifestyle has been canned and is ready to be swallowed.

Great art is transformative. In videogames history, the titles that take advantage of the interactivity of the medium attempt to use our actions to expose a truth that lies hidden within us. While you may learn of deluded obsession in Braid, guilt in Shadow of the Colossus and Hotline Miami and of manipulated destiny in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Bioshock, their messages can be too abstract to easily be anything more than reflective. They require that players understand the lesson and then actively apply it to a future behavior.

Like the brilliant Asura’s Wrath, Saint’s Row the Third as an aesthetic work isn’t a treatise on philosophical concepts but the explicit application of a productive world view the player can observe and put into practice.

Art is the tangible representation of a philosophy working within reality. For story, various philosophies manifest physically as characters that act in accordance to their own values. As they interact with each other in regards to the goal of the plot, each moral code goes from being a theoretical system to a perceivable and practical way of life.

The Third Street Saint’s open the game by robbing a bank wearing the mask of their famous macho badass Johnny Gat, using the giant shades-wearing bobble heads as a tool for publicity rather than anonymity. When even the arresting cops want the gangs autograph, you know the world has chugged them some Saint’s Flow.

It’s not hard to see why. Where the usual crime story MO has the protagonist rising through the ranks, SRtT places you at the lead of a brash, arrogant and fearless gang of misfits that have a penchant for executing an elbow drop from turnstile on the corrupt, the power hungry and the dickish. Instead of being about growth, the game is about setting your direction, moving forward and not letting anything get in your way.

Unfortunately, the bank is owned by the Syndicate, a new coalition of criminals seeking to step in on the Saint’s turf in Stillwater. Now finding themselves in the city of Steelport, the crew needs to build themselves back up. Within an hour, you’re standing at the door of a helicopter, about to jump into the night above the city’s skyline, a parachute strapped to your back while Kanye West’s ‘Power’ surges through the air.

The Saint’s insane, balls-to-the-wall bravado is not only expressed directly through their actions in the story’s plot but in the gameplay and systems to pursue it, from missions that have you falling through the sky unloading clips into dozens of enemies to a deployable predator drone other games would relegate to a scripted sequence and talent tree upgrades that flip the restrictive notion of balance the proverbial bird by giving players infinite ammo, no reloads and invincibility all without making them feel like dirty cheaters for it.

The games perfect tone is the result of a careful balance of contrast between the Third Street Saint’s puckish attitude and the thousands of mundane pedestrians and neighborhoods that comprise Steelport. Yes, they’re absurd and larger than life but that’s why their behavior is so believable and attractive. Regular, everyday life ends up looking comatose by comparison.

In action games, mechanics are stuffed with characterization. Saints Row may have the traditional open world trappings, but as the Saint’s boss, your actions are imbued with the gang’s self-assured cockiness. The inclusion of the ‘Awesome button’ alone adds more personality than the vast majority of games can manage in their 8-10 hour length. A sprint modifier that allows you to dive through windows to steal cars rather than pull their drivers from their seats and sidewalk surf on enemies rather than punching them, this awesome button adds speed and character to otherwise rote mechanical functions. You experience their lifestyle rather than imagine it.

Saint’s Row accepts you no matter who you are. It doesn’t care about the color of your skin or what you pierce through it- doesn’t care what’s between your legs or what you do with it. It knows that even if you like dressing up like fuzzy animals, are a disgraced pro wrestler or a kink-loving former FBI hacker, you’re a person first and deserving of respect. It loves you (but that won't stop it from teasing you).

And the true test of a game's love is in the respect it shows for your time. SRtT knows you would prefer to warp to shore than swim to it, that you want your missile spewing attack chopper delivered to you more than you want to run across town to grab it from your skyscraper's helipad and realizes that you probably play open world games to screw around so allows you to call off your heat because you’re bored of testing your giant purple didoes durability on pedestrians faces. Because it knows your life is finite, it regularly drops cash in your account, rewarding your play regardless of how you spend it.

But you’ll spend it well. There’s a mission where you and your homie start singing along to Sublime’s ‘What I Got’ while cruisin’ the streets in your purple convertible. The scene has the two of you messing up the lyrics, losing the beat and laughing together on a sunny day. There’s honesty here. Saint’s Row is about music and adventure and friendship and playing and silliness and dancing and good-natured rough-housing and self-confidence and chaos. The Saints are what the Muppets would be if they all developed debilitating crack problems.

Saint’s Row doesn’t believe that there’s more truth in opaqueness than clarity, that reflection and introspection, seriousness and solemnity are somehow more spiritually enriching than over the top, life-affirming madness. Through the philosophy of its gang and made-to-break mechanics, SRtT says that life is yours for the taking and gives you the means to make it happen. The result is absurdly empowering, wonderfully optimistic and gloriously inspiring.

That’s important because when we live in a world where bricks of frozen poop can fall out of the sky and through the engine block of an acne-scarred nerds beater Chevy as he’s picking up the school’s head cheerleader for their first date, causing him to careen off a cliff and through an orphanage’s wall, sometimes knowing that happiness is attainable if you go after it can give you the sense of purpose you need to get out of bed on tough mornings. Saint’s Row the Third is a 20oz shot of guarana, taurine and ginseng directly into the soul. It’s the kind of art that makes you a better person. (Attention: Saints Flow is not available in California)

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A Super Mario World: Exploring Dinosaur Land Through Play

Super Mario World starts at Yoshi’s House and gives the pudgy Italian plumber the freedom to explore the overworld to the left or right. To the left is Yoshi’s Island 1, a bright and colorful place with tank top-wearing koopa’s, small purple dinosaurs and giant goddamn bullet bills. Beat it and the area around will come alive underfoot. The path dead ends at the Yellow Switch Palace sitting on top of a cliff and the large button that causes matching boxes to fill in throughout the world. With this one action, large scale change has swept across Dinosaur Land. It will never be the same.

When the red curtain fell on Super Mario Bros. 3, the adventure to save Princess Peach from the spiked-shelled-turtle/dragon Bowser and his seven Koopa Kid’s (no relation) had been won with a combination of ability-granting suits and pitch perfect control. Mario bounced around with his belly out like a pregnant porpoise through bite-sized levels stuffed with fresh and interesting content spread across overworlds that felt alive with roaming Hammer bros, optional mini games and secrets to be found with the right items. SMB3 was theater with Mario (+Luigi) cast in the lead.

The Super Nintendo’s flagship launch title, Mario World is a 16 bit cartoon that perhaps scales back its predecessor’s sheer ingenuity but creates a more persistent quest with save feature, stripping out the suits but adding a new spin move and the means to pocket a second item. In between the start and finish lines are stages that took advantage of the SNES’s legendary Mode 7 capabilities to display parallax backgrounds and rotating planes that blended with the foreground sprites to create a sense of place rather than abstract obstacle courses and complemented by fun music and sound effects afforded by the awesome Nintendo S-SMP onboard audio CPU.

Even though Yoshi’s Island 2 isn’t billed as the game’s start, it’s the first appearance of a Nintendo icon- hit an early item block and a small white egg will pop and that lovable green bastard Yoshi will not only hatch but reach full maturity in a few, time compressed seconds. Jump on the prehistoric pony’s back and Mario doubles his moveset to the groovy beat of jungle bongos.

It’s hard to say whether or not Yoshi actually increases Mario’s damage output, but touches including exploding enemies and low frequency booms sure sell it. Regardless, the very concept of a mountable second character kept him from being relegated to a single use, providing Mario one more point of health but causing him to flee until he’s reclaimed or falls into a pit, dead forever or until another of his eggs are found. Now, I understand how Yoshi was in an egg to begin with- man, I sure was at some point- what I don’t understand is how he got back inside it!

Let’s talk about the cape. The start of Donut Plains 1 has you running to the right for four seconds. While not the longest time, it’s more than enough to let you drop your guard, make with the plane arms and enjoy the motion. But just as you fall into the moment, a Koopa appears from the right of the screen directly on a collision course. Because your attention is focused on him, you notice that the little fella is wearing a blinking red cape. He runs at you for a few seconds before jumping, putting his arms forward like Superman and starting to fly. Jump on him and a feather pops out. Grab it and that cape is yours. This simple moment tells you much: it quietly teaches you how to use a mechanic that actually exists in its world, not just an item placed in a box. Mario even has the perfect running animation to go with it.

There’s a considerable difference between the cape and Super Mario 3’s Raccoon Suit. Both require a running start, but where the tail only allowed a limited time to jam on the jump button to stay air born, the capes flexible control scheme of brakes and dives give you the freedom to swoop in the air or power slam the ground and is deep enough for players to bypass entire levels. The sensation of flight is terrifically satisfying with great heft and fluid response.

The key to Mario’s success has always been in the tight control of a deep set of gameplay mechanics providing the player the means to explore levels packed with complexity and secrets. SMW expands that scope so playin the level affects the world outside it. The game even found an intuitive way of revealing it to the player.

It’s easy to find yourself running around in circles in the Forest of Illusion, unable to escape. But find the large brass key hidden within one of its levels and take it to the nearby keyhole and the sprite expands to the sound of contracting space, swallowing Mario whole. If you hadn’t discovered before now, many of the levels feature secret exits that lead to branching paths back on the overworld.

With a total 96 levels in all, the exits are all hidden in interesting ways and each requires its own test of manual dexterity, old-fashioned legwork or, in the case of flying over a good chunk of a level only to dive under a goal gate and through another just past it, aerial acrobatics. It also explains why the direct route puts you within sight of Castle 4 in the distance but doesn’t lead to it.

The adventure subtly hints at a developing world that changes and blossoms around Mario as levels are beaten and the Koopa Kids reigns end. In the little cinema after defeating Ludwig von Koopa, Mario straps TNT to his castle and rockets it into a green hill in the distance. For the rest of the game, that hill will have a small bandage where it was hit. The story and gameplay turn Dinosaur Land into a living place that recognizes the events of its simple narrative.

So Mario’s demolished six of the Koopa Kids castles, tore Wendy O’s bow and broken Roy’s shades and finds himself on big daddy’s Front Door. The low rumble of the music sets a nice tone for a sinister looking fortress with all the subtlety and half the blinking bulbs of a Vegas casino framed against a black night sky split by a flash of lightning and clap of thunder. It’s challenging, complex and long.

But it doesn’t need to be. Mario World’s many exits have taken you all over the map, to new areas you wouldn’t have seen or to completely bypass others and the benefits of the exploration all comes together in the last battle…by taking the back door. By finding the detour just a few levels earlier, Mario can be dropped at Bowser’s mid-castle checkpoint, foregoing half the stage altogether. It’s a smart way to have all the gameplay pillars ultimately come together. What’s more, if you find the right path, you can kick down King Koopa’s door after as few as eleven stages. No warp pipes or whistles required.

The secret is Star Road, a five point trek across the heavens that double as shortcuts throughout the land. Beat all its stages with their colored Yoshi’s and the SPECIAL area opens with the game’s most challenging levels. Completing them uncovers the last of Super Mario World’s secrets: the world has turned, time has passed and autumn has set on Dinosaur Land.

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Mega Man 9: Speed Metal

Mega Man 9 fixed Mega Man by distilling the Blue Bomber’s staid gameplay to its essentials: moving and shooting. By striving to limit itself to the restrictions of twenty year old hardware, Inti Creates game highlights how bogged down with its own design the series core gameplay had become over its evolution. What they made is a long lost NES game.

The story immediately sets the tone in sprites full of personality. Having again been defeated by our blue hero,Dr. Wily swears off his evil ways. But it's not long before the residents of Monsteropolis are in danger from a collection of renegade robots again. But its Wily that steps up to protect the city, claiming innocence and insisting the robots were created by the good-natured Dr. Light. To clear his name, Mega Man heads out.

It can’t be overstated: Mega Man 9’s choice to adopt an 8-bit graphical style is the linchpin for every gameplay choice.

Mega Man 8 was burdened by its animation. Its frame count was too high, making running, jumping and shooting slower and less precise than the previous releases. The rest of that game was slowed down to compensate. Reducing the graphical fidelity would make every frame matter. The Mega Man in 9 snaps into action as fast as you can hit the button. The conceptual de-evolution freed Inti Creates to further simplify the moveset, stripping out the slide move and charged Mega Buster.

By removing the charged mechanic introduced in Mega Man 4, Mega Man’s buster gun gets a single damage value and size, promoting player skill where it had propagated a rhythm of charge-move-charge to fight enemies whose health would have to be increased to balance out the difficulty.

These changes allow tightly built levels with obstacles that test your manual dexterity, some of which were lost or adjusted to match Mega Man’s diminished control. The levels are choreographed dances tuned to the precision of a Swiss clock. If you know a course well enough, you can start running and reach the end without much slowing you down. It’s brilliant and fair.

The levels are even more amazing considering so many are means to explore a single core concept. From the rotating screws of Tornado Man’s stage to the teleporters of Galaxy Man’s, these concepts are introduced well and comprehensively develop over the course. The sheer cleverness of design is coupled by the games strong desire to subvert the expectations that have fossilized in a decades-old franchise. You’ll find proof when you reach your first Robot Master- the giant ‘W’ that for eight games preceded the fight with Wily’s minion is now an ‘L’, reaffirming that Dr. Light needs your help.

Then there’s Splash Woman. By Mega Man 5’s Gyro Man, it was clear Capcom was starting to run out of themes for the series Robot Masters- see Centaur Man (6), Shade Man (7) and Tengu Man (8) for more evidence- and weren’t gonna be stopping any time soon. With the first female on its roster, Mega Man 9’s bots are a different story: the collection is appropriately traditional (Magma Man), winkingly ridiculous (Concrete Man) and requisite Man with a shield (Jewel Man). The battles are interesting, logical and tough.

And they wield awesome firepower. Whether it’s the fire-and-forget Hornet Chaser or the marginally controllable Black Hole Bomb that swallows everything in its radius including enemy shots, the weapons are flexible and fun. Yes, some of these weapons are similar to ones found in the other entries, but the arsenal as a whole offers versatile gameplay options for those who want to be creative.

The action is accentuated by the break neck speed of a diverse chip tune soundtrack. Classic pieces are accompanied by new compositions rich with texture. They’re just bangin’. Listen to the bubbly ocean beat of ‘Splash Blue (Splash Woman Stage)’ to see what that means.

By cutting off the chaff weighing Mega Man down, Capcom was able to create a pitch perfect entry to one of the most iconic franchises in videogames. As much as it lives in the past, Mega Man 9’s sheer audacity created an important legacy- it followed in the footsteps of the legendary Cave Story and helped shepherd a resurgence of retro game design that would lead to the indie game boom and darlings Super Meat Boy and Fez. That’s remarkable for a game whose greatest ambition was to be a NES cart.

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Mother 3: A Game's Story

For all their merits, traditional JRPG’s haven’t exactly positioned themselves as videogames most cohesive narrative experience. One reason is foundational to the genre: the separation of world exploration and menu-based combat breaks player immersion from the story and characters. The other reason is true for the majority of games period: they all know how to implement a story but few understand how to exist as one. While still very much a traditional JRPG, Mother 3’s story takes root at its core, finding ways to incorporate all its elements into a whole that is surprising and emotional.

That’s not to say there haven’t been breakthroughs, though. Dragon Quest V’s devastating Act 1 climax, a scene where your hero warrior father is willingly beaten to death to save you, was framed entirely within its first person combat view as if it shot through his eyes, for a minute marrying story and gameplay. A few years later, Chrono Trigger would seamless transition from environment to combat, unifying the two disparate gameplay pillars and increasing the story’s potential impact. There have been notable exceptions, they just haven’t gone far enough.

You’re introduced to a perfect little nuclear family and their dog living in the Nowhere Islands rustic Tazmily Village before the title card even pops. Assuming you don’t just name them all after yours or someone else’s genitals, you’ll get the father Flint, mother Hinawa and the lovable Boney. But it’s the first two names, the brother’s Lucas and Claus, that might give you pause. Those are pretty different names for a pair of twins. Who would do that? Later, you’ll see that the boy’s personalities are just as different as their names- one is coddled and shy, the other strong and outgoing. But think on it and you’ll find that both names consist of the same five letters. By suppressing the urge to name one of the boys ‘Labia’, you helped create a metaphor. Lucas and Claus are made from the same stuff, just in a different way. It’s a neat touch and representative of the care and attention that went into the entire game.

Mother 3’s mastermind is the famous Japanese novelist/interviewer/creator of the Mother series Shigesato Itoi and if you don’t know the name you obviously haven’t witnessed the awe-inspiring devotion to his games by the galactic travelers of Starmen.net. Itoi’s expertise permeates every element of the work from the interesting villagers to the save system to the dialogue. The entire thing is wonderful. And tragic given the fact that Nintendo didn’t publish the cart outside of Japan because of the low-sales of Mother 2 when they released it a decade before as EarthBound and the advanced age of the Game Boy Advance. Thankfully, mega fan Tomato took up the charge and translated every line into an amazing patch for the GBA ROM. If Tomato’s work is half as affecting as Itoi’s original, there are officially at least two reasons to learn Japanese.

Tazmily is nestled just between the beach and the forest of Nowhere Islands, a small, intimate chunk of land that’s connected by geography rather than an overworld; a place just off the coast of A Link to the Past’s Hyrule. Set your footing- no really, you need to hold the ‘B’ button for a split second before you can dash, it’s awesome- and you can quickly run through the world. It’s a world so rich with colorful details that it might be one of the most gorgeous 2D sprite games ever released. While it’s easy to assume that it was an early example of the retro pixel boom, the sometimes blocky, sometimes sleek character designs are deeply expressive despite the minimalist aesthetic.

Itoi is a man who recognizes that story design is all about maximizing your narrative’s potential, so the adventure on Tazmily is divided into chapters. Offering an omniscient narrator, this inspired structure provides the freedom to regularly switch its main characters as it evolves, bringing with them new specialties to the gameplay and perspectives to the main plot. For the gameplay, the few key differences between each character are slight but actually quite profound, changing up both how they move in the world and their use in combat. It implicitly establishes that these characters are doing their own thing, their own way for their own reasons. Whether it’s a courageous duty to fulfill, a roguish mission to accomplish or an unwilling role to play, every chapter has its own logical purpose within the larger fiction and when they merge, it happens naturally. Even counting Dragon Quest IV, it’s a rare structure for a videogame but fits in perfectly with the more flexible form for a novel. That’s Shigesato Itoi.

And Itoi is a master who understands how to upend your expectations of how a story beat is supposed to play out in order to manipulate your emotions. At the risk of being cryptically cryptic, take a pivotal moment where our character is given horrifically bad news. By ‘conventional’ methods, the scene is written incredibly wrong. It’s so wrong that it manages to shock both you and the character, provoking an almost savage response in them that is gut-wrenching to watch yet appropriate for a situation that deserved a lot more delicacy than it was given. A scene that could have been rote ends up being quite powerful. Some half an hour later, you’re running with a companion who is desperately trying to lighten the rightfully heavy mood, but it’s a digitized ‘blip’ from your speakers and your companion taking credit for what you didn’t realize was a fart that finally breaks the tension. Mother 3 gets a grip on your heart and plucks at its strings.

Similarly smart details are given to the enemies, fleshing out a behavior and lending personality to what would otherwise be abstract actions. Deciding to place enemies on the map instead of random encounters further realize Tazmily as an island with an ecosystem and, more importantly, give players some agency over how they’re engaged. Catch an enemy from behind and the battle transitions with a green wipe and a preemptive round of attacks before they turn around, a dynamic that works both ways. Persona 3, released the same year, would also use the design, but wouldn’t inform you about your opponents until you loaded into the battle. Enemies are varied, ranging from pleasing to playful and- in the case of the Ostrelephant- downright disturbing.

Now, it isn’t exactly a secret that Mother was heavily inspired by Dragon Quest. Both view battles from the same first person POV and have you select your commands at the beginning of each turn and then watch them get executed down the line. That’s fine. It provides you with as much time as you need to make your selections while the lack of attack animations allow the combat to be snappy and the pacing quick.

Enemies have a tendency to group up, changing the dynamic, so it’s worthwhile to plan how battles are initiated. One of the best examples is the Battery Man and Minor Robot team up. If you spend your time focusing on Minor Robot, when his HP drops, Battery Man will jump inside and recharge him, removing the little guy from the fight altogether but presenting you with a revitalized foe. It’s cool and adds a nice layer of depth. While you can fight more than three enemies in a given battle, you never fight more than three at once. Any additional baddies wait in a nice little line off screen for their turn to jump in. When one dies, they all shift around and make room. It doesn’t happen too often, but it keeps combat challenging without being grueling.

In order to sell the characters place in the narrative, their abilities are learned through leveling rather than being tied to equipment or items, supporting their innate personalities instead of relegating them to a fate as interchangeable vessels. Yet it’s not just about one main character but a group of people, the full roster of which never exceed the party size you can bring into a battle. The eclectic members make up a comprehensive list of abilities that keep from being redundant. They’re all important.

So wait. I can take as long as I want to issue orders? Yeah. And the story dictates my party? Yaw. Isn’t that kind of boring? Naw! Because of the simplicity of its combat, every encounter could to be built with basic assumptions about your moveset. This isn’t a game where your enjoyment comes from strategizing the perfect party or juggling your time to execute commands. The joy of combat comes directly from the act of managing the fight in front of you. You know what you have so figure out what you need to do.

It might not sound like much initially, but the spinning slot-machine-esque HP bar, whose value tick down every time you take damage, goes a long way to making the combat engaging. Suffer a mortal blow and you have the time it takes for your health to hit zero to heal before that unit gets knocked out. In a way it approximates Final Fantasy’s revolutionary ATB gauge in reverse creating a sense of urgency that exists nowhere else in the game. The usually relaxing gameplay becomes a mad dash to recovery or victory.

Mother 3 loves music. Need proof? You can find a Boogie Woogie or Reggae Rhythm in treasure boxes. Hell, enemy types come with their own theme music and every hero’s regular attack is accompanied by a sound tuned to their own instrument. Pay attention and you can time your attacks to the beat, stacking what would have been one hit up to a possible sixteen. The sound of your instrument combined with the enemy’s beats creates a little song. If you’re not musically-oriented, putting your opponent to sleep lets you hear their heartbeat and clue in to the rhythm. It may be more Rhythm Heaven than Paper Mario but adds action to the combat, attaching gameplay to an element that already exists and not by stapling on additional systems.

The story works so well because its events alter the fabric of the world in substantive ways. Here’s a brief tale about the Yammonster. The first time it appears is during a forest fire, this unassuming little tuber that you’ll only fight if you run right into it. You come back to the area a little later and find a new enemy in its place, an evolution accompanied by new moves, higher HP and a threatening new look. The fire cooked the Yammonster into a Baked Yammonster. Tazmily is alive and reactive, full of details large and small where so many others are defined and static.

But it also knows when to pull back and let the gameplay be the story. A chapter devoted to collecting Plot Points is a stellar example. Even more than for its steady stream of new and interesting content, the section is remarkable for its sheer length. It feels long. Like, to-the-point-of-fatigue, long. Can it be that Itoi, who has more than proven himself capable of constructing a tight and concise plot up to this point, padded this one chapter out on accident? Considering the quality of the writing throughout- including a moment where you enter the ocean at the waves and keep walking- the answer to that question is ‘no’. This sequence is supposed to be exhausting. It’s a competition between light and dark using classic best-of rules, a test of endurance for both you and the hero. Its length organically fuses gameplay into a story.

Mother 3 uses every tool in its box to build its tale. But a story is so much more than the way its told, so let me summarize Mother’s in the best way I know how: it’s a funny, sad, whimsical, deep, touching, fun, cool, off kilter, playful, dark and surprising game about technology, nature, commercialism, progress, people, friendship, family, evil, heroism, the past, the future, life, death and love. It’s beautiful. It does something extraordinary: it makes you think. With an otherwise throwaway line of text, it made me ask myself whether or not the fact that the family dog wasn’t trained, couldn’t shake a person’s hand, meant he was free or meant he was wild.

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It's All Been Done Before: Bioshock's Infinity

NOTE: Franchise Spoilers

Two lighthouses stand tall. In both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, walking through their front doors is the first step in your adventure in two cities that share more in common than their architecture would lead you to believe. In Bioshock proper, the door leads to a bathysphere that takes you to the cold blackness of the underwater city of Rapture, deep below the sea. In Infinite, it contains the rocket that will launch you to the sun washed floating city of Columbia, high above the clouds. You only need to play the first five minutes of both these games to observe the duality at their heart- one is a descent into Hell, the other the ascension to Heaven.

1960. Rapture lies in ruin. When Jack’s bathysphere docks, the shattered lights, the broken walls and the streaks of blood all tell us that something very bad has happened here. Much of the game has us scavenging among the wreckage for whatever goods we can use to help us survive, rooting through ransacked shops and looting their dead patrons. Over the course of the game, we learn the history of a place that was once much grander, a city whose culture, politics and people were twisted and disfigured until the people turned on each other in a violent rebellion. As much as Rapture feels like it was once a place, it was also a character.

It’s ironic watching two titans fighting over the burned out husk of the city. The war between founder Andrew Ryan and the conman masquerading as social reformist Frank Fontaine had destroyed Rapture and left them in a tenuous cold war with a pile of rubble at stake. When Jack gets there, he is ushered along by the disembodied voice of Atlus, a man who guides you through the halls and to Andrew Ryan’s office with three simple words and a question mark. ‘Would you kindly?’

Those words would come to carry a great deal of weight. When Jack finally meets Ryan in person, the capitalist says ‘A man chooses. A slave obeys.’ When Jack bashes Ryan’s brains out with his own golf club because he’s been programmed to follow the orders accompanied by ‘Would you kindly’, you realize that just as he didn’t have any control over his task, you didn’t have true freedom over the actions that led you to that moment. You could have used different weapons to kill your enemies or discover some areas of the city and not others, but the only choice you make that affects the outcome of the main plot is the decision to play, or not to play. The nightmare at Rapture was a means to analyze the nature of freedom and agency expressed through the unique abilities of videogames. Until that moment, both Fontaine as Atlus and the designers had manipulated you from objective to objective. A man chooses. A slave obeys.

1912. Columbia is alive and friendly. When Booker’s rocket lands, we find a bright day casting light over beautiful, clean streets. He’d been sent there to retrieve a mark- a young woman named Elizabeth. The shops are full and the people are happily listening along to barber shop quartets as a parade floats by. It seems perfect. But when you go to the raffle and discover that the prize is the right to throw the first pitch at an interracial couple who had the audacity to fall in love, you get see that below the smiles and sunshine is something sinister.

Elizabeth is caged in a large tower within the city, the mythical princess to Columbia’s prophetic leader Zachary Hale Comstock. As he makes his way to her, Booker discovers the truth about Columbia- under the pleasant surface is a city built on oppression and socially sanctioned racism. An underground resistance has formed calling themselves the Vox Populi led by the freedom fighter Daisy Fitzroy who is tired of the unfair treatment and unequal justice. When he gets to the tower, Booker finds that Elizabeth possesses strange powers that let her open tears in the fabric of reality and move objects through.

Getting out of the city requires that Booker aid Fitzroy in arming her people. With Elizabeth’s powers, he jumps into new dimensions, places that are similar to his but with a few key differences, and procures a vast weapons cache that finally lets the Peoples Voice be heard. The uprising begun, the population is locked in a civil war, the two general’s armies clashing in the streets. When Columbia lies in ruin, you realize that this is how Rapture had fallen and that you’ve initiated a line of events in Infinite that you had only discovered after they’d happened in Bioshock. Soon after you beat Comstock’s head in and drowned him in his holy water, Elizabeth opens one last tear. And you find yourself in the halls of Rapture.

This is the defining moment in Bioshock. We learn that the series takes place over a million million separate realities, places that seem similar to ours but have minute differences. An ocean of lighthouses with the same constants but different variables. Of course, if Bioshock was an examination on choice, Infinite says that everyone believes that they’re making the right choices, even if it’s the difference between being the story’s hero and being its villain. Because every choice that can be made, has already been made. Every bullet you shot, every bullet you took was one possible outcome in a chain of events that led you to that moment. The only way to break the chain is to remove one of its links.

At the same time, the revelation that Bioshock and Infinite are intrinsically the same story could be a tacit admission that it’s themes have been regularly used by the medium in one form or another since Super Mario Bros. Look at the relationships between the heroes and villains of the Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid and Halo- the characters are different, but the quest has largely stayed the same. There are constants and there are variables.

That’s interesting considering its part of an industry built on franchise IP, content to crank out sequels rather than develop new ideas once they’ve found a workable blueprint to exploit. It’s even more interesting when you consider that Bioshock was a victim of this same trend when its publisher made a sequel that was considered-perhaps unfairly-an unnecessary attempt to cash in on the originals success. Maybe that’s another reason why Bioshock Infinite doesn’t have a number at the end- it’s claiming ownership over every entry that has been and will be and preemptively calling out any sequel that tries to tell its story again. Maybe Infinite is a challenge to the medium: do something new rather than recycle the same thing over and over.

Really, it’s on the cycle of human history that Bioshock’s lighthouse focuses its spotlight. The uprisings that took place on Rapture and Columbia are similar to the real life Boxer Rebellion or The Wounded Knee Massacre that you’ll find in Infinites ‘Hall of Heroes’ war memorial- it’s only the skin color under the uniform that has changed. With them, Bioshock has asked a question. If throughout human history, we keep reliving the same tales of social reform over and over, when are we going to wise up and stop? Thankfully, it’s given us a way to answer that question in the compounding resolution of its two stories: we have the power to decide our actions and change our world, we just need to know where in our story to make the right choices.

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Mega Man Legends and the Future Archaeology

For a decade across the 8 and 16-bit generations, Mega Man had been an action-packed dynamo, but after some twenty odd games, his aging framework was in need of some vital upgrades. Powered by the PlayStation hardware, Keiji Inafune and his crew of robot masters successfully forged a new Blue Bomber, translating his action concepts onto a three-dimensional world.

The new 32 bit tech gave the series a chance to break away from the techno-future aesthetic found in both the Classic and X series with their cities dependent on robots for manual labor. Mega Man Legends is an adventure in a world covered in endless water where diggers explore the ruins of a lost civilization amongst the scattered land masses for Zenny and treasure.

Functioning as a tutorial scene, the game’s opening site introduces amnesiac metal boy Mega Man Volnutt and his mechanical genius adopted sister Roll. There’s an interesting dynamic between the two partners: safely aboard the families airship the Flutter, Roll monitors Mega Man as he explores, offering support and teaching you the basics of the gameplay.

In many ways, Mega Man moves like any typical 3D game, but it’s with the camera implementation that the control comes into its own. By mapping Mega Man’s horizontal orientation to L1 and R1, the designers were able to approximate a version of circle strafing in a time before dual joystick controllers were the standard and months before Ocarina of Time would revolutionize combat with Z-targeting. It might have taken a little practice, but mastering these controls provides a fluidity of movement that allows the game to stay true to its action roots while avoiding the slight disorientation to the environment outside your field of view that comes from moving outwards from a focal point.

With the dungeon’s energy shard under his arm, Mega Man sets off on the Flutter. Of course, it’s not long before they find themselves stranded on the lush Kattelox Island and swept up in a race against the infamous sky-pirate Bonne family for the mythical Mother Lode, the vast score of every digger’s dreams hidden somewhere underground.

High quality production values bring the story to life. Aside from the playful voice acting afforded by the move to CD’s, the smartly designed animation system overlays sprites on the polygonal character models to give its characters a large set of complex expressions. It’s an aesthetic that takes advantage of the PlayStation’s technology while utilizing the techniques Capcom had cut its teeth on in the previous generations. The blending of old and new graphical styles paints a living cartoon, a spirited steam punk adventure that calls to mind Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Castle in the Sky’.

The comparison between Legends and Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece is just as fitting as the originals were to Osamu Tezuka’s manga milestone Astro Boy. As any fortune loving pirates, the Bonne’s are more than eager to break the law to sate their greed. With the hot-headed Tron, the cunning Tiesel, the modular Bon and their army of cute, Lego-people-esque Servbots, they carry their weight through a fun story spread from the oceans around the island to the skies above.

And Kattelox is a place full of life. What starts as a small town blossoms into a city bustling with activity. From the hustle of the business district to the refinement of the harbor to the warehouses of old town, every block has points of interest; the museum in need of new pieces for its collection, the kids who want a clubhouse to call their own and the pulpy case files at the Police Station. Through your actions, Kattelox will change in ways that few games do, but not always for the better.

Take an early mission where Mega Man has to stop the Bonne’s from destroying the government facilities at the north end of town. Framed as a live news cast that cuts between the action and destruction, you need to destroy all the attacking bots before they level every building, the progress of which is updated by the reporter’s narration. After the battle, the ruined buildings become unusable, their content unavailable until you’ve donated enough Zenny for the locals to rebuild. For several hours of playtime after, those buildings are replaced with large containers for the reconstruction, reinforcing the town’s infrastructure and your attachment to the island.

The mechanical sensibility carries over to the character growth. For weapons, it starts with modifying the Mega Buster’s base attributes. By purchasing new parts or having Roll develop from various scavenged items, your arsenal not only becomes stronger but greatly expands. A single special item can be equipped and each is incredibly different from one another, be it a rocket launcher, arm-mounted shield or vacuum. Traversal is augmented by finding the parts necessary to jump higher or quickly skate around town. The decision to make many parts simple household items that can be found in everyday locations adds character to the society and people.

But beneath the modern culture there is history. The various dig sites reveal a network of interconnected passages, forming an enormous labyrinth to be explored and plundered. But roving their halls are the mechanical ghosts of time long ago. These reaverbots help portray the industrial aesthetic. While it’s hard to qualify the need for robotic snakes and dogs, the enemies are often designed to appear like they could have functional significance, constructed from bulky technology that has a rusted, metal composition and emit the sounds of creaky pistons and hollow echoes of furnaces.

There’s a stark contrast to the opposing nature of the environments above and below ground: where the fields of Kattelox are bright green and the oceans surrounding it a deep blue, the dungeons are a rusty brown; where the surface is cheery, inviting and fresh, the depths are oppressive, hostile and stagnant. The ruins feel like old factories compared to the more efficient models found above ground.

As your rivalry with the Bonnes escalates, you become more and more aware that maybe the secrets of this lost civilization are better left undiscovered. You uncover why at the end. The final dungeon back on line, our blue hero meets a new threat: Mega Man Juno. This powerful mech reveals that Mega Man had been a trump card created to cleanse the human population and decides it’s time to finally carry out its last orders.

It’s here that the story works into the franchises larger fiction. The overreliance on its automation had put the old world through upheaval and war and forced the people to seal away their mistakes. If Mega Man Classic is a light tale about technology run amok and X looked at the nature of life and freedom, Legends is about starting new by looking back at our history and learning from it. Not only will you find the metaphor in the story, but in the application of the technology used to tell it. Since its release in 1998, Inafune has made it known that Mega Man Legends holds a special place in his heart. Looking at the game, it’s not hard to see why; with its colorful, vibrant land and heroic story, Mega Man Legends is a game about constructing a future from the blueprints of the past.

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Full Throttle into the Night- Kavinsky's Outrun

To a gravelly voiced narrator and strobing electronics, ‘Outrun’s ‘Prelude’ jumpstarts the legend of the Dead Cruiser, the Testarossa-charged phantom trapped in a time of black shades and high tops and then splits the night in the thunderous crack of lightning. It’s the perfect way for Kavisnky’s 80’s-film-inspired synth-rock ballad to put pedal to metal and throw fire from all twelve cylinders.

But it only sets the stage. With its ambient instrumentation and pulsing beats, ‘Blizzard’ is the cry of tortured souls calling you from the ether. If ‘Blizzard’ is seduction, ‘Protovision’ is salvation. A song that starts with the strong rumble of a motor tearing road towards you, it’s chrome etched in lasers shining under the passing city lights. It’s the theme of a pale rider.

It’s evocative. Through its thick and grimy sounds, only half of the fourteen tracks speak a word but all say a thousand. Listen to ‘Testarrossa Autodrive’, a machinegun spitting race that is every bit as awesome as its name confers or to the digitally-off-kilter vocals of ‘Odd Look’ to see a selection that is varied, thematically consistent but compositionally divergent. As a cohesive work, it’s an album whose every song is another scene in a well-paced movie.

Despite tones dripping with atmosphere, some of its standout songs are the ones with the most explicit messages. ‘Suburbia’ is a laid back rap set against the beeps and bloops of future computers that never came to bear, with winking lyrics including the awesome ‘cut these fools like pizza pies with extra cheese’. ‘First Blood’ stands out as well, with its Rockette-on-a-smoky-stage vibe that could be something straight out of glam rock-opera Streets of Fire.

While the majority of the tracks are exclusive to this album, several have been available since 2007 on Kavinsky’s 1986 LP. They’re great songs rich with texture that shows that his Dead Cruiser concept had been prowling the streets for quite some time. Strangely the only place where it hitches is with ‘Nightcall’, an otherwise excellent song made famous for its appearance in the opening credits of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ that feels like a congested highway compared to the open-road flow of the rest.

At its most superficial level, Outrun is the soundtrack to a movie that never existed, set in a time that has become more fiction than reality. The truth is really deeper than that. In more ways than one, Outrun- like the red-eyed teen at its center- is a specter from long ago, haunting the asphalt of today.

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Acing the Test- Resident Evil 4's Silent Tutorial

Fifteen minutes into Resident Evil 4, Shinji Mikami and his design team test your comprehension of the mechanics they’ve been invisibly teaching you since you selected ‘New Game’. Former rookie cop Leon S. Kennedy had just fought his way through the Ganado’s Village and now finds himself catching his breath on an old dingy farm. Stray slightly from the beaten path and you’ll find a radiant pearl necklace enticingly suspended above a barrel of putrid water, patiently waiting for you to find it. Retrieving this necklace is your test. You can’t just reach out and interact with it, so you draw your handgun and shoot it loose- and immediately fail as it falls directly into the barrel of sludge beneath. When you pull it from the filth, your inventory lists the item as ‘Dirty Pearl Pendant’, its picture a grimy mess. Looking back at the barrel, you notice the 2x4 propping up the lid, so you shoot that next and watch it create a cover. Since you didn't learn the lesson before, you do now: Resident Evil 4 rewards tactical gunplay.

Let’s study the notes:

Despite their radical attempts to experiment with new narrative techniques, the first mainline Resident Evil titles are largely remembered for controls and mechanics designed to facilitate a very specific gameplay. While each successive game made iterations to the core mechanics, what is true of Resident Evil’s core is true of Code Veronica’s. That changed with 4.

You can discover the games core design pillar, the one every gameplay mechanic is based on, without having your hand on the controller- the game’s camera is placed just behind and above Leon’s right shoulder. Leon’s figure defines the middle left quarter of the screen from the waist up, his head pointed directly towards a small wooden house fifty feet away and immediately establishes your current objective. Because you recognize you can’t move forward, you turn to the right where the hill tapers into a path. You now know that left and right control Leon’s horizontal orientation and up and down move him forward or back in the direction he’s facing. You test out the other buttons. You can run, pull out a knife and draw your handgun.

Pulling the right trigger, the camera zooms closer in and you see a red laser sight extending from the handguns muzzle. When you move it around and see how it tracks you realize that the sight moves relative to Leon’s perspective rather than your own but the two coalesce with a bounding box: while the camera moves one to one with vertical axis input, horizontal movement has some play and keeps the camera static when pointed in the middle half of the screen. The end result has you controlling Leon as if he was playing a light gun shooter (fine Metroid Prime 3). Then you see the laser sight come to a point on the black shape of a crow sitting on a branch. That means you can shoot it. And you do. There’s two more on the dirt. Three separately placed targets to practice on. You’ve learned to shoot.

When he gets to the small shack, Leon finds a Spanish man stoking the fireplace. When Leon tries talking to him, the man grabs an axe and swings. You regain control as he comes slowly at us, hand raised. You scramble for the trigger draw our gun again, put a round in his chest, in his arm, and see that while he is still coming towards you, the bullets are having different effects based on the location they hit. When a bullet takes out his feet he staggers into you and a ‘Kick’ prompt allows Leon to deliver a strong roundhouse that sends the man flying. With him on the ground, a headshot will end the fight. The man’s behavior is unlike any of the other monsters Leon has fought and we discover why when he investigates the body- ‘He’s not a zombie…’

You turn back to the door and find it barred from the outside. You'll have to find another exit. Since the house is so small, you run up the stairs, past a window and to a small desk with a box of ten handgun bullets. On your way back down, you pass the window again and get a prompt letting you know you can jump out. If you do so, you’ll find yourself exposed to three enemies creeping straight towards you. If you take a moment to look out the window, you’ll see one of those enemies centered perfectly within the windows frame. Breaking the glass with your knife, you can calmly aim at the man’s head. From your perch, you can shoot two of the three guys and then jump out the window and take the last. The lesson becomes more advanced: maps can be designed with verticality and wise placement comes with advantage.

The long path forward consists of a few curves that get you well acclimated to the movement. A hundred feet in you come to a wolf trapped in a bear trap and while you’re given the opportunity to free it, the larger point is to make you aware of environmental hazards. You’ll run through an obstacle course of traps and tripwire. The game wants you to get good at squeezing through tight spots.

The second map is the village, a complex space with cover, alternate paths and verticality. From the path you entered, you could rush straight into the thicket of enemies in guns blazing but by taking the route to left, you bypass them behind the safety of the houses. At the far end, you’ll find the first female villager busy bailing hay. You might drop your guard, thinking her tamer than the others. You’ll only think that until she turns her pitchfork on you. Aside from the gameplay of the geometry, the layout of the village is logical as a living space with houses, stables and a tower. It’s a living place that feels organic to the setting and not built directly for the gameplay.

Fighting the woman off gave the rest time to circle around you. As they close in, you’re forced to apply more advanced combat techniques than you were aware you possessed. It starts defensively as the location based damage system allows you to tactically trip up enemies buying yourself both room and time to reposition. Your understanding of the environment grows as well as you run into a house, barricade the door, knock down a ladder from a second story window and jump off the roof in an attempt to juggle enemies and plan your fight against the mob bearing down on you. So far, analysis has portrayed the gunplay as the sum of two distinct gameplay concepts- crowd control and complex level design both with offensive and defensive options. In this scene we discover a third that informs a fundamental design choice that we had tackled earlier.

When we shoot a flying axe out of the air, we notice that Leon’s gunplay allows trick shooting. Let’s take a second to look back at Leon’s laser sight which is a very specific aiming mechanic for a game to implement on purpose. In his excellent God Hand review, Hamish Todd observes that every enemy in that game exists on a separate plane consisting of it and you. Considering how God Hand’s movement and camera designs were taken from Resident Evil 4, maybe that conclusion applies here as well. Maybe that’s why Leon could shoot that axe out of the air- it exists on a line connected to him and his gun. Compare that to the reticle used in other third person games, where guns fire in relation to the orientation of the controller’s right thumbstick. Not only would trick shots be more difficult (since you’re essentially trying to hit a target perpendicular to its trajectory) but would make enemies less physically threatening because of the nature of three dimensional controls: you could have simply sidestepped the axe. At that point, why even have it?

It’s a waste of time to try to figure out which came first, the bounding box or the trick shot gunplay, because the two are so intrinsically symbiotic that you can’t analyze one divorced from the other. In fact, that’s the beauty of Resident Evil 4’s design- the gameplay succeeds because the gunplay, crowd control and traversal options all fit together into a unified whole, on that would have failed if any part wasn't properly constructed. Regardless of the wisdom of so strictly adhering to the staid movement controls of the franchise, the cohesive combat form as it exists in incredibly tight.

The fight tears through your ammo. As you frantically scour the area for weapons, ammo and health, you find that the series traditional concept of exploration has evolved into something new, something more active, more aggressive. Depending on how well you explored the first map and fought the eight enemies along it, you could be coming into this fight with sixty handgun bullets, two grenades and several herbs. If you rushed through the area needlessly wasting ammunition you’ll likely find yourself in a frenzied scramble for supplies. This desperation transforms the games exploration into a tense struggle to survive.

Tense is a very accurate description. In studying the individual gameplay systems, we’ve also found the games central emotional tone. Where the series had lived in B-movie horror camp, it’s now big budget action horror; the dangers are no longer around the next corner but behind your back and just out of your line of sight, stalking you with their axes raised. The way the camera is placed so closely to Leon’s back creates a palpable claustrophobia that pulls at your hindbrain. No place is safe- enemies climb through windows and destroy barricades and force you to be constantly on the move. You know that part in suspense movies where the hero’s fate depends on their ability to light a match? These fight scenes are the constant ball of tension and ecstasy of relief of those moments as you raid the village of its spoils, constantly hunted. Then you hear a chainsaw fire up, its throttle rattling. It’s a fast and frenetic fight.

Then it ends, your enemies drawn away by the ringing of the chapel’s bell. Leon stands in in the center of the now abandoned village, bewildered by the sudden turn f events. A late title card pops and we learn our final lesson: this is Resident Evil 4. It’s a game built of familiar concepts but applied into a whole that is both an evolution of the one’s that preceded and a bold new direction for its future. Your test awaits.

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