Hey all! The BLLSL is over for another year, so I (or rather, my gold membership sponsor @omghisam ) wanted to summarize what we all saw and felt throughout that eventful eight hour period. While the core stream and Dave's premium stream were informative enough, it was really Rorie's Super Premium stream (for paid members with over 10k wiki points and 500 posts) that captured the heart and soul of the proceedings, with his genial commentary style and his almost miraculous ability to stay out of sight of every camera feed. Truly a Garrett level of invisibility.
Because the Super Premium stream isn't archived, and never will be, I took the liberty of taking various screengrabs, ran them through this fancy "shoddy stickmen comic" filter I downloaded for Win7 MS Paint and compiled them into a handy collage for all the fine folk who were unable to see it live. You guys deserve it. (You also have the privilege of not asking how a screengrab might record dialogue and convert it into speech bubbles. So don't?)
My sincerest apologies to Matthew Rorie. Hell, to everyone.
I'm looking forward to Big Live Live Show Live 4 already.
Ho boy, leading with a title that bad is definitely a gambit. Last week I created a list of Castlevania games that I have either played to completion or one day intend to. The idea was to follow that up with a blog about my experiences with Lords of Shadow, only... I kind of hated it? So that was an impediment. Rather than write an entire blog grousing about my myriad disappointments with that game (no kidding, I had a bullet point list prepared and everything) I'm mercifully sparing you all by changing tactics. Of course, not having a "game of the week" to center a blog around puts me in somewhat of a quandary.
I briefly entertained the notion of creating some huge multi-part Konami retrospective, but those fellahs have made an incredible number of games ever since their debut in the electronic entertainment market making Arcade shooters in the early 80s. Instead, in order to wash the taste of Lords of Shadow out of my mouth (that probably came out wrong), I'm going to cover five instances of Konami at its most Konami that aren't the usual Metal Gears or Castlevanias everyone already knows them for. That said, there's probably no surprises here for most gaming aficionados, but since I secretly suspect that almost everyone on this site was born in the 90s maybe I'll end up educating someone. So apologies for that. I know how you kids hate all the learnin'.
But man, I have to say that I still kinda like that in-depth Konami retrospective idea. If only half their back catalogue wasn't shoot-em-ups. I suck at those. Ah well, Hardcore Gaming 101 has me covered with rather comprehensive articles about Konami Shoot-Em-Ups, Beat-Em-Ups and Run-and-Guns (Konami's main export back in the 90s was evidently hyphens) that I'd recommend you all peruse at your reading pleasure. Heck, I'll extend that sentiment to the whole site.
Suikoden is a series close to my heart, even though I'm still not entirely copasetic on how to actually pronounce it. The series is adapted from Shui Hu Zhuan, a fourteenth century Chinese novel, though while that book has plenty of mystical heroes fighting evil it's really the central conceit of the 108 heroes chosen by the stars that the Suikoden games are interested in. Each game has you accruing an army of ragtag souls and populating a massive fortress with them, after evicting its less desirable former tenants. The diversity and endless customization options would already a big enough draw, but the game goes even further with its occasional tinkering with wargaming and the complex if somewhat formulaic political and strategic machinations of its chief characters. I'd be safe in saying that the only person who never has any idea what's going on is the hero himself, invariably turning him into an audience surrogate largely coasting on charisma.
Konami had tried RPGs before Suikoden, but they weren't able to really come up with anything that resonated with a wider audience. Too much of the NES and SNES eras were dominated by the likes of Enix's Dragon Quest or Square's Final Fantasy, while Konami was content to persist with their quirky shooters and addictive brawlers. Suikoden was an opportunity to use the potential of Sony's new disc-based system to create a novel take on a JRPG, filling it to the brim with all sorts of extra-curricular mayhem and carving themselves a critically-acclaimed niche in that market. If only the series had continued into this generation (I'm not sure Tierkreis necessarily counts).
With the possible exceptions of Twinbee, Vic Viper or that penguin from Parodius, Goemon is pretty much Konami's mascot, at least back in the 16-bit era. Based on legendary Japanese outlaw Goemon Ishikawa, the Goemon of Konami's long-running Mystical Ninja series is a courageous youth with a proclivity for pipe smoking, gambling, taking out yōkai and having a mane-like 'do that would elicit a "whoa, son" from any riddle master worth their salt. In riddles.
Though there are many Goemon games in their native Japan, Western territories barely received a handful. What we did get, though, wasn't insignificant. Goemon's first SNES adventure, more or less a remake of an earlier NES iteration with added features, presented the duo of Goemon and his Dom DeLouise-esque cohort Ebisumaru as off on another adventure, if perhaps making the mistake of egregiously renaming them Kid Ying and Dr Yang (I am fairly sure Ebisumaru is not a doctor, though I'm equally sure that he's attempted to convince people that he is). While the game was an inventive and reasonably fun to play mix of a side-scrolling depth-enhanced brawler like Double Dragon or Final Fight combined with a side-scrolling platformer of the like that were everywhere at the time, it's the incidental content that fans like myself fondly recall. Such as the odd competitive multiplayer mini-games in the anachronistic arcades, the inscrutable 3D maze games and the oddly addictive lottery. In a River City Ransom like twist, the game was unfairly difficult until players wised up and started spending what might have been utterly superfluous currency in any other game on defensive and healing items to carry them through the challenging "action stage" sequences.
However, if we're talking about the series' exceptionally odd sense of humor, you'd be better off looking at the first N64 entry for a clearer demonstration. The general plot is that a pair of European theatrical dandies are transforming traditional Japanese pagodas across the country into ornate chateaus, all the while hamming it up with ostentatious musical numbers. Goemon's having none of it, and after extricating his partner from what could only be interpreted as an elaborate sex crime, runs off to challenge these eccentric occidental interlopers. You'd be surprised how much concentrated crazy and dumb humor a N64 game can contain (this side of Conker's Bad Fur Day at least).
Vandal Hearts is another one of these games that Konami presumably got to developing once they had seen other developers see some measure of success from their tactical RPGs (specifically Intelligent Systems' Fire Emblem and Square's Tactics Ogre, though I won't discount even earlier examples like SSI's Gold Box). Vandal Hearts doesn't quite take the high road of idiosyncratic creativity that Suikoden and Mystical Ninja might be known for, as their most striking addition to the genre appears to be arterial blood sprays. It certainly does a fine job punctuating the death of an opponent (or ally) to see a colossal stream of blood fly out of them before they bow out. Vandal Hearts' visual influence clearly lies with the older Samurai movies, the ones which also more or less dealt exclusively in sudden carotid severances.
What I appreciate most about Vandal Hearts, in relation to its peers with their roots in fodder-heavy wargaming, is that every member of your party is a permanent story character that will never die unless the narrative explicitly calls for it. No restarting a map once you've lost a character (unless it's the protagonist or a VIP guest) and no worrying if there's a better fighter of that type just over the horizon, putting any work you've invested in this currently available also-ran utterly moot. Nope, each member gets introduced and integrated into the party just like in any JRPG and the player can put them to use in battles or let them just bite it as desired. They'll still come back to deliver their lines in the interstital cutscenes, though presumably after receiving a blood transfusion or ten.
On the other hand, Fire Emblem has a posse around these parts, so I ought to be careful what I say about it. Wouldn't want to wake up next to the severed head of a Pegasus Knight for not playing ball with those lunatics.
Experimental NES Period
Konami, like many of Japan's largest and most venerable game developers, began life in the arcades. They would also find time to develop some home computer games for Japan's cottage industry of little-known (outside Japan) systems like the MSX, MSX2, PC88, PC98 and Sharp X1. When the Famicom hit in the mid 80s with its implicit promise of combining the action of the arcades with the calculated timesinks of the home computers, Konami - like many other arcade developers - wasn't sure what to make of it. They tried a few ports of their more famous arcade games and computer games, but like many of the early adopters they would have to experiment a little in finding a niche that would fit Nintendo's game-changer.
I'm getting rather abstruse with this little history lesson, but the point is that Konami spent a good deal of the NES's early years trying out all sorts of things. It's fair to say they would find success in the first Castlevania and Metal Gear games (though the latter really earned its stripes on the MSX), but what's admirable was the very notion that they would spend so long endeavoring to find something original that might work, if only in a "this thing is going to sell like hotcakes, so we need to come up with something to cash in. How about a game starring sentient cartoon hotcakes?" cold business sense. I'm sure this is why people look forward to new console generations; while we always enjoy seeing all our old favorites with big graphical and technological upgrades, it's that opportunity for developers to try out new ideas with what's now possible that gets gamers salivating.
This experimental period resulted in just weird as shit (to use an overly technical term) games like The Goonies II, Getsu Fuuma Den, Hi no Tori, Arumana no Kiseki, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, Esper Dream, Wai Wai World and plenty of others. If you've unaware of these games, most (but not all) have been thoroughly played by Game Center CX's Shinya Arino, which is a TV show I would seriously recommend looking up if you've never heard of it. A team from the Something Awful forums is busy translating the episodes into English for the internet's pleasure as this blog goes to post. I'd also recommend the Chrontendo blog, which is as educational as all fuck (again, using some of that technical vernacular).
The Arcade Brawlers
So, I've already linked you fine peeps to HG101's feature on the Konami beat-em-ups that all but conquered the arcades of the early 90s, just before Fighter games really took off in a really big way. There were more than a few and I'd wager most of us have only played a handful. I'd go so far to suggest it was probably this very handful, in fact: The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men.
The reason I chose these three was because these were the games I would invariably make a beeline towards whenever I was fortunate enough to find myself in an arcade, which wasn't often. Through the puce-green-tinted frames of modern cynicism, I now realise these games were specifically designed to suck the coinage from my trousers, a sensation I was probably too young to appreciate at the time. I mean, fiscally speaking. Dude, gross. Point is, I lived and dined on fifty pence coins back then and it was no small matter to feed them into a machine that was just going to kill me again ninety seconds later. But there's something about those three games in particular that had me sticking around until I was broke. Everyone has arcade stories, most of which are more interesting than mine, but if Konami made any kind of impression on the younger me it was through their merciless licensed beat-em-ups, as colorful and sugary as any sweet. Which had to suffice since it wasn't like I could still afford the real McCoy.
This is the point where I'd post the comic, but this PC is currently dying and refuses to do anything as RAM-intensive as search images or play a video (which makes the internet really fun right now). The comic will be up eventually.
All right, let's get this show back on the road. If you haven't read it yet, Part 1 is over here. I'd recommend doing so if you want any idea what is even going on with this "toybox" business. In short, I'm deliberately sabotaging anyone's capacity to understand what the heck I'm talking about for a quixotic crusade to get people to refer to the very specific sub-genre of non-user-generated-content sandbox games as "toyboxes" instead. Also I'm putting together a hypothetical paragon of the genre from of a composite of its extant peers. The blog's mostly the latter, if I'm being honest. But enough rambling, it's time to delve into four more aspects of what makes a toybox tick:
Whatever the game might call them, these are the meat and potatoes of any toybox game: The individual toys themselves. Generally speaking, a game will introduce a new gameplay feature in the main story and allow the player to try additional iterations of that feature through a bunch of optional side-missions scattered across the world. For instance, it's not long after the first instance of the camera hacking mini-game in Sleeping Dogs that the "Drug Bust" side-missions become available. Ditto with the street races. Of course, there are times where a goofy side-mission might be incongruous with the serious nature of the story (I seem to recall GTA: San Andreas's plot being a lot more dour than its "jetpacking fat CJ" extra-curricular activities would suggest) and would tend to exist entirely outside the main narrative, almost as a form of optional levity. Ideally, side-missions are a way to take what already exists in the game's engine (driving, shooting, melee combat, etc.) and allow players to have their fill of them beyond what meagre portions the story had to offer. If they have a bit of fun with them in the process, so much the better.
Only one game has really created such a diverse range of side-activities that they became (for better or worse, since they weren't always optional) to be more vital to the core game experience than the story missions themselves, and that's Saints Row 2. I promise this'll be my last visit to Volition's (so far) trilogy of gangsta paradises, at least for this exercise. Saints Row 2, far more so than its antecedent and descendent, created a hilarious and varied selection of activities with which to earn cash and "respect" between missions. It's a shame Saints Row: The Third felt the need to pare down the number of these, keeping ones that perhaps would be best left behind. I sorely missed the sheer manic fun of the Fuzz activities, the childish poop humor of Septic Avenger and the celebrity-approved sheer sociopathy of Crowd Control. I'm not saying Saints Row 2's approach to "you must complete X number of activities until we allow you continue the story" was really the ideal way of ingratiating these diversions to the player, but they certainly made it an easier pill to swallow by having so many of the things to lose oneself in. Clearly this hypothetical construct we're stitching together from whatever's available from the local graveyard won't use the exact same activities as SR2, but having such a wide range and presenting them as the selling point (without making them mandatory!) is really what I'm after here. A strong narrative with twists and turns is dandy and all, but let's not kid ourselves: The mark of a good toybox is one that affords plenty of opportunities to let players romp around and find their own fun.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of any toybox game is how there's usually a series of collectible knick-knacks hiding around the world for the player to find. Unlike activities, collectibles tend to be as simple to attain as walking over a package or punching a flying rat in the beak. The challenge is in locating all of them, which becomes something of an embroidery kit in a hayloft in practice. The preferable course of action when designing this feature, which is to have some way of allowing the player to actually see these things on the mini-map, doesn't massively improve the experience as it mostly reduces the process to spending an hour or so going from map icon to map icon to ensure that part of the 100% completion percentage is dealt with. There are folks who like a good scavenger hunt (myself included) and it's a feature that's fairly easy for designers to stick in the game, which would explain their ubiquity, but for most players it's an aspect that's eminently inessential.
Because almost every toybox has one, I'm going to go with Fallout 3's approach. Fallout 3's collectibles, the ludicrous Vault Boy bobbleheads, gave you plenty of reason to want to chase after these dorky little things - some very useful stat and skill bonuses - and put them in places that, while not exactly concealed, tended to challenge the players in various ways. One might require that you steal them from right under the nose of an NPC, necessitating the use of stealth, while another might be hidden deep in the territory of a family of Deathclaws. What I'm taking away from this is the idea that a series of collectibles ought to A) be earned rather than simply stumbled upon, B) confer something useful to the player in terms of stats or some other desirable benefit and C) be at least somewhat limited in number to preferably a dozen or so, if only to cut down on the amount of time it takes to hunt them all down as well as providing some intrinsic rarity and value behind each one. I'm not going to bat an eye if it's one in a set of 500, as I've probably been seeing them everywhere already.
All that said, I'd have no issue with Bethesda if they decided to put some hundred-strong collectible series in Skyrim to give people a reason to keep playing after their level is maxed out and they're wearing all the best gear. A cheap ploy, perhaps, but effective for virtual kleptos like myself.
This aspect of a toybox game can be so much fun when done right. When driving around any given toybox city, the player has a plethora of radio stations to listen to each with their own specific musical genre to suit whatever musical taste the player might have. For eclectic souls like myself, I generally left it on whichever station was default for that particular vehicle. To be perfectly honest I don't generally pay much attention to them, but with one exception: When they took the time to inject some personality and humor in the presenters behind the radio shows.
I feel Grand Theft Auto is the king of this. The various ways they'd create an utterly banal or deeply subversive radio personality and let the voice actors play it perfectly straight was a masterstroke of the satirical humor the series was once known for, before it became a little too bogged down with sober tales of morality. I must've been playing RDR for a considerable time before I realised why the between-town commutes were less fun than they had been in other Rockstar games: Horses don't have radios built into their necks. That game still had some fun with the various encounters you'd have on the road along the way, but it just couldn't match just driving down the freeway listening to some conceited worldly explorer strongly hint at their latent pedophilia. If I could get the Onion News Network to record a news station for this speculative game, I think I'd probably spend hours just driving around in circles listening to it. Well, fly in circles.
Just Plain Ol' Messing Around
Some players just want to watch the world burn. Or watch its physics to crap out and send airliners crashing out of the sky, or send pedestrians flying through the air at the merest hint of a collision. Others want to have a grand old time testing the limits of this world they're in, whether it's performing a flying kick on a speeding bus coming right at them or seeing how long they can survive on a roof with an infinitely-stocked rocket launcher and an entire battalion of pissed off military personnel on the street below.
Of course, if your game is well put-together, there'll probably be fewer instances of the physics engine misbehaving and creating the sort of watercooler conversations that games like GTA: San Andreas did, if that were the thing people discussed around watercoolers instead of Grey's Anatomy and that one reality TV show where all the people sing while cooking. But even without the random weird shit that went on in that game (which was exacerbated even further with the very creative mods that game's PC community had put together in the interim) there was still plenty of random mischief to be had with the tools that already existed. However, I'm going to throw in my lot (and about time, since it was the inspiration for this blog in the first place) with Sleeping Dogs for its benchmarking meta-game. As depicted in the Quick Look, many of the dumb things you can get up to when you aren't actively pursuing a particular goal are tracked and compared to those of your peers. Seeing that a friend has performed more flying kicks in a row than you have gives you ample reason to outdo them, even if they're totally unaware that this progress was being tracked or that you've sworn to overtake them. So many imaginary rivalries spring up as you're playing which can't help but enhance the game in some pathetically petty way. I seriously doubt @TeflonBilly 's feathers were ruffled by my mad dash to get all the gold stat awards before he could. I would go so far as to assume that he didn't even notice. But whatever, man, I fucking won. Suck it.
So there we have it. Thoroughly examining the eight pillars of the toybox has provided this theoretical game blueprint: A light-hearted goofy tale with a stable of playable characters that explore and perform missions in a sprawling science-fiction vertical city with their choice of hovering conveyances blaring satirically silly radio broadcasts, completing a bevy of fun tasks and looking for game-enhancing collectibles on the side, and all the while the player is having their absurd antics stacked up against those of their friends. I'd play that. Get to craftin', devs.
Talking of hastily cobbled together creations, it's time for...
Hey all, today I'm revisiting my Fine-Tuning feature after completing the thoroughly excellent crime thriller Sleeping Dogs. Snoozy Pups has a lot going for it, but while playing I couldn't help but feel how much of its structure was purloined from other games of its type. At which point I realised how unfair it is to single out Soporific Hounds when so many of these games have been building on the GTA III model since that game first appeared and surprised the world with how much a series could improve after jumping to 3D; a process that theretofore commonly saw opposite results. It seems like the larval stage of any new game genre is being referred to as a clone of its creative progenitor, and these games have long since passed the point where they've undergone their pupal stage (why did I have to get stuck in a bug analogy?) and become their own unique butterfly. Unlike those damn Doom clones - where the hell do they get off?
So in an effort to once again push my futile campaign to officially have sandboxes renamed toyboxes (does one really sound more disagreeably childish than the other?), at least in terms of an open-world game where every element is pre-generated and fixed, and also to honor this increasingly relevant sub-genre, I've compiled a list of what I believe are eight important pillars that define the toybox and for each of them a game that is the perfect example of what I'm talking about. Hopefully what we'll end up with is a hypothetical nonpareil of the genre (from my perspective at least) and not some kind of horrible mutant flipper baby. Though there's no reason it can't be both, I suppose.
Also, as with the previous Fine-Tuning article, I won't be going outside what has already been done before. This is largely because I feel I need some sort of limiting criteria to stop myself from going crazy-go-nuts. It certainly saves you all from long-winded descriptions of some dreamlike nonsense concept that might never pan out; instead you can just check out the games in question to determine what I'm talking about.
Perhaps paramount to the toybox creation process is putting together a huge world for the players to amuse themselves with. Such worlds need to be expansive, filled to the brim with cool things to look at and activities to undertake and be fascinating enough that players will want to explore every corner of it. It seems to have become de rigueur that these worlds be based on actual cities, the idea being that this helps with the verisimilitude of the story and the protagonist's plight - this being the real world and all - as well as allowing the design team to concentrate their efforts elsewhere, as creating a massive world from scratch would put quite a dent in the development time to put it mildly. Of course, an almost to-scale virtual construction of NYC isn't exactly something that could be done in a day either, but given how many games seem to use the Big Apple as a backdrop there has to be some sort of middleware out there for it these days. "SpeedManhattan", perhaps.
This is why my pick goes to Fifth Element. Yep, I've already broken my cardinal rule of only choosing extant toybox games from which to derive my quintessential toybox experience. Of course, the Fifth Element had a rather crappy license game when it came out, but that's not what I'm going for necessarily. Instead, I wrote a while back about vertical cities. They've been put to some really cool uses by games like Jedi Knight, Project Eden and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but we've never had an instance (I believe) where the player had free reign to fly between destinations of their choosing in one of these dimensionally-enhanced metropolises. I think it'd be really cool to have a character that's at least somewhat immune to rapid descent, since such an incident would be common in this case, putzing around a vertical city trying to follow directions that include a Z axis. The designers would have a hell of a time coming up with a workable GPS but, hey, these are crazy dream scenarios we're dealing in here.
If anyone's wondering, I just picked Fifth Element to do the work of whatever marketing asshats that are responsible for putting multiplayer/on-disc DLC behind a pay wall for them by suggesting they call it the Multipass. You're welcome, guys. Try not to damage the sunroofs of your Benzes when you pump your fists in celebration.
A natural accompaniment to a large city is some way of getting around it. Walking and running are dandy and all, but it's not going to get you anywhere fast. A public transportation service of some kind that acts like a warp is definitely appreciated, but you might as well go the whole hog and have a really good driving engine in there with which to create many of the set-pieces that will be integral for the story and a large portion of the side activities. Now I can just about tolerate driving in games at the best of times (which would include driving-focused games like Burnout Paradise or Driver: San Francisco). When it's simply one of many components, it becomes something of a chore to get from A to B at best and a horrible debacle of broken pedestrians and lampposts at worst. Fortunately, my earlier decision to base the game in a vertical city mitigates most of the problems relating to collisions, if perhaps adding a whole slew of extra ones besides.
Because of this, I'm going with the hoverbikes of Jak II, though with a caveat. Those bikes had an interesting limitation in that they could only hover a few feet off the ground, adding a few more when it was necessary to leap over a barrier. So instead, I want these bikes to be as plentiful as they were in Jak's experiment in eyeshadow and death metal (and like the similar instance with the Prince, it was a phase that I was glad to see the end of) but control like the really cool S.T.A.G. Specter from Saints Row: The Third. Of course, if these bikes are commonplace methods of transportation in this hypothetical city of ours, then they can't have giant frickin' lasers on them. At least not all of them. And there's a lot of things a bike can't really do but a car can, such as holding passengers for drive-by assists or sticking some poor soul in the trunk for later mischief. So yeah, hover cars too, which I believe Jak II also had to some extent. They just won't be glued to the floor by some mysterious force (if gravity can even be called mysterious in this day and age) this time around.
I'm not going to recommend we take an existing story for this part. The whole point of the story is to be unique, or at least to the acceptable level of creativity one would expect from a video game narrative, which is to say a plot that's mostly cobbled together from movies and other video games. Maybe a comic if we're lucky. Sleeping Dogs' story was a little more in-depth than most, though it sure had a lot of dead ends and GTA-style mini-arcs where you'd go work for some mid-tier gangster for a bit until the game decides it's time for you to head up in the underworld (down in the underworld?) and your previous sponsor is summarily dispatched or relegated to the sidelines. I got no beef with a game going through its story episodically, but the way these games tend to just move on to the next bunch of missions without much fanfare can often seem a little disingenuous.
As such there's two examples I want to pull from here: Saints Row and Grim Fandango. Saints Row because I enjoy their approach to storytelling, which is to say have completely bananas shit happening constantly. If one of these games wants to present a darkly dramatic fable of betrayals, identity crises and gray moralities then that's entirely their prerogative, but it just tends to ring hollow when it relies so heavily on empathizing with a protagonist that just moments before was running over prostitutes and feeding a hoodlum through a woodchipper. I'm certainly not going to emotionally invest in some dramatic moment where a guy wonders where his moral compass is at if he just went and Carl Showalter'd someone (though through my bidding, I'll readily concede). I also think that because everything in this world I'm forming is flying around already, it's probably prudent to stay on the comical/fantastical side of things.
As for Grim Fandango, I included that because I want everyone to be "Día de los Muertos" style talking skeletons. Okay, not really (never say never though), but rather how that game expertly uses time skips between every major story arc. I suppose I could've used Assassin's Creed as an example of a game that has time skips and is actually open-world, but those tended to feel a little more arbitrary. It's a big part of why time skips in games can often be annoying; the player feels they miss a lot of the action during those hiatuses, and how it's a little weird that absolutely nothing plot-relevant happened or how the usually proactive protagonist did nothing during that time. I feel that if you provide players with a solid reason why they might suddenly lose several months, then they're more inclined to not feel alienated when it happens. With time skips that are properly broadcast, you can really start to play around with an episodic approach to story missions. Of course, I'm asking a lot of whatever imaginary scribe is putting this comedic tale of skeletons in flying cars together, but that's why they get paid the mega-pretend-bucks.
Yeah, that guy. Figured I should probably address him. Or, indeed, her. The protagonist is an element indelibly linked to the story; they are essentially what the story revolves around. But here's the thing: The protagonist doesn't necessarily have to be one person. I'm not just suggesting a Killer7 situation either. I've been a fan of games that allow for a whole cadre of playable characters that each have their own goals (both in the video game sense of "go here and do this" as well as the narrative sense of "this is what this character wants, this is their agenda") and their own distinct personalities and playstyles, which usually coincide if they've been particularly well-written.
For this reason, I've elected Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves as my pick for this category. Maligned in comparison to Sly 2: Band of Thieves for its lack of focus, which in part was due to its much expanded cast list of playable characters, I actually appreciate a lot of what Sly 3 tried to do to expand on Sly 2's superb pacing and its scenario design strategy of "introduce new level with reconnaissance, set-up various stages of a major plan for later, enact major plan". Sly 3 also kind of made things way crazier, which was impressive enough when Sly 2 had you breaking out of a gothic prison/asylum led by a tyrannical spider lady warden and foiling the anti-environmental logging plans of a recently defrosted centuries-old Canadian moose. They did this by having the game focus on recruiting an "Ocean's Eleven" team of experts, including antagonists from previous games, in order to assist Sly in breaking into his own family's vault before a vindictive former teammate of his father's (and a baboon in a lab coat, lest I gloss over that) beats him to it. I loved how each of the team member's expertise would come to the fore more than once through various side-missions as well as the story and it was one of the few ways I felt Sly 3 managed to improve over its older overachieving brother. If each of the playable characters in this game had their own means of getting around a vertical city (jetpacks, grappling hooks, a natural ability to fly) then so much the better.
Last week I regaled you all with tales of trying out a trio of games I would've otherwise avoided and how I ended up pleasantly surprised by what I discovered on the road less travelled. This week is sort of a mirror image of that, as I found myself figuratively crawling back into bed and drawing the sheets over my head. To be a little more specific, I spent time dwelling in my old gaming haunts of the traditional JRPG, the 3D platformer, the Metroidvania and the nonpareil of gaming comfort foods that is Professor Layton on another whimsical adventure of his.
As perhaps expected given the epiphanies of last week these familiar genres and their overfamiliar beats have perhaps waned somewhat in my appreciations, though that is certainly no fault of the games themselves which remain paragons of their respective genres. Well, mostly. Let's hop into each of them and I'll discuss their finer points as well my appreciation for the genre from which they sprang. I'll try to keep the griping down to only the merest hint - I certainly don't want to turn this into "Disappointing Sequels II" (partly because a disappointing sequel to a blog about disappointing sequels is perhaps too meta even for me) - but I suspect that old adage of "too much of a good thing" may turn out to be correct once again. Spoilers?
Now, I had never heard of Scaler until relatively recently. I don't claim to be the authority on mascot platformers (and I definitely wouldn't take such a role lightly if I were), but it did strike me as unusual that something this moderately well-produced and for multiple platforms could sneak me by. Scaler is the tale of a guy who can click a highlighted wiki link and learn all about a video game from that page directly, in a nutshell. Actually I'm just being difficult, go check it out if you're interested. Fairly generic, right? But the game has a few things going for it: The writing's good if a little truncated, the world design is as wonderfully alien as anywhere you're likely to visit in the Ratchet and Clank galaxy and the ability to transform into different creatures, each with their own set of controls and unique powers, happily took me back to my time with a similar mid-tier PS2 platformer by the name of Dr. Muto. It also has those obnoxiously fast rail-riding sequences that seemed ubiquitous to platformers of that era. Other than that, there's not a whole lot more you can say about it. You collect eggs instead of stars/coins/jiggies?
As for 3D platformers in general, well. I started, like much of the rest of the world I suspect, with Super Mario 64. That game and the stable of intrepid animal adventurer titles from erstwhile Nintendo subsidiary Rare that followed it all but excused that foggy debacle of a Nintendo console in my view. I am just kidding about the N64, of course; Lord knows I loved Quest 64 as much as anyone.
No, what I find really appealing about the 3D platformer is how it panders to my latent kleptomania. A 3D platformer is hard-pressed to create an end-point because the goal of such games is to be open-ended. What's the point of having an extra dimension of directions to head off towards if there's always going to be a linear path to the goal? The solution, at least as Miyamoto had it, was to create a multitude of end points, invariably concluding with an instance of the collectible du jour and the subsequent lead-in to the next one. That way you could create a huge level with plenty to do and give people reason to scour every last corner of it for shiny things. This would eventually be compounded on in future imitators with sub-categories upon sub-categories of collectibles all the way up to the ridiculous color-coded quintuple cornucopias presented in Donkey Kong 64, after which most 3D platformer developers wisely decided to dial it down a bit. (Attentive readers might've surmised that DK64's collectathon insanity was actually the reason I adored it, simian hip-hop be damned.) A shame, then, that these days the only apparent outlet for 3D platformer shenanigans are LEGOs pretending they're people. Those soulless little plastic monsters don't fool me.
Breath of Death VII: The Beginning
BoD VII (there is no 1-6, cleverly mirroring the incredulity that met Final Fantasy VII's release in Europe) is a deliberate loving homage to 8-bit JRPGs, specifically the tropes that made no sense even back then and continue to make no sense to the genre-savvy skeletal knight Dem and his chirpy team of undead archetypes. You have the outgoing love interest, a ghost; the feisty and anachronistic tech-lover, a vampire; an inexplicably French-accented prince who happily leaves his kingdom behind to fight monsters in caves, a zombie; and the silent protagonist with a heart of gold and an entirely explicable attitude of being too old for this shit, a skeleton. While the game is gently mocking with some of the hoary tropes that have made 8-bit JPRGs almost unplayable without the necessary patience of having the same slime drawing near a hundred times before you're able to survive the forthcoming dungeon for more than a few steps, the game also (perhaps wilfully) tends to fall into the same traps in spite of how clever Zeboyd is about its many innovative improvements to the decades-old format.
For instance, the player is able to see how many random encounters are available in each location they visit; a gameplay mechanic that presumably exonerates itself narratively by suggesting it took that many brutal beatdowns of their allies before the rest of the unseen horde of this particular dungeon decided you weren't worth messing around with. While this initially seems like an awesome feature, promising the player that eventually onslaught of random encounters will end and they can search for treasure in peace, the fact still remains that you have to fight anywhere between 10-50 monsters per dungeon at some point, so why not grind them all out within easy reach of a MP-replenishing glowy save doodad? This may go against the spirit of the game, given how the periodic battles are supposed to liven up the exploration and vice versa, but it sure seemed like the convenient option at the time. Other interesting additions, such as filling everyone's health after every battle and having enemies get progressively stronger each round, necessitating the use of special attacks to take them down expeditiously, are interesting ways of modernizing the form without actually altering the core experience to any significant extent. But I guess being the homage that it is, it was never the point to shake things up too much. Best to keep it much as it was back then but with more jokes about Earthbound and legally-obligated sewer levels to ensure that, while they're secretly ironically above this sort of thing, Zeboyd still managed to create a goddamn bona fide 8-bit JRPG in this century.
As for JRPGs in general, well. Well, well. A while back I made a huge list of the ones I've completed over here somewhere, so it's clear I'm fond of the thrice-darned things, the occasionally incomprehensible anime-ridden timesinks they may or may not be. Followers of mine have probably grown weary and then some of my recent championing of The Last Story as it approached its US release and my grumbling of how it continues to be completely blanked out by the Bomb Crew as they instead pontificate over more important titles like the new Madden and that half-finished space 4X game, but then I'm not the type to hold a grudge against our fine hosts. Really, I don't expect many people to share a love of JRPGs, especially given how much of my own is fueled by nostalgia. However, the reason I speak highly of Xenoblade Chronicles and TLS, perhaps to the point of excess, is because I feel they are two games that demonstrably prove that JRPGs are still evolving and still have a place in this day and age. I know purists will attack me for the merest hint that other recent JRPGs can't also boast a similar advancement, but really. What has there been in recent years? A half dozen Atelier games? Tales? Some wonderful RPG ports that have been buried in the PSP wasteland? I love these series as much as you all, don't get me wrong, but it's past time for some new blood. And... yeah, OK, the Wii is probably not the place to stage this comeback, fine. Great. I concede my own argument. I'll bust out the PSP again if it'll make you happy. Just gotta set the time and date again...
Cave Story, as many have been quick to inform me in past years, was something of a revolution in the small but rabid Doujin game community. A fully-fleshed out Metroidvania with a cute pixel aesthetic and a rather intriguing gun-upgrade mechanic certainly turned some heads, both in its native land and throughout the savvier weeaboo corners of western cyber-hostelries (I'm picturing seedy bars with Futurama's green vector "internet" filter over everything). It received a fan translation patch, built up a little steam (as it were) and was eventually released in both territories in one upgraded form or another. I have the Steam version with its "plus" affix thanks to a rather well-packed Humble Indie Bundle, and I swore to myself on a Pile of Shame list - the most legally-binding method of stating one's future video game intent there is - that I would find time to visit the much-lauded Indie hit tout suite.
The fun conclusion of this little "caved-in" story of mine is that I didn't really like the game a whole lot. I generally don't appreciate getting severely depowered at my most vulnerable moment in games, whether that's in shoot-em-ups in general or in this game specifically. I also don't appreciate being told several hours after I had made a decision - that I wasn't even aware at the time was a decision I could make - that I had chosen poorly. Imagine how fulfilling it would've been if Indiana Jones got back home after The Last Crusade and then suddenly went all Ghouls N' Ghosts because it turns out you were supposed to keep drinking from the True Grail for it to work and not just leave it in a hole with that dumb dead Nazi lady. Of course, that would've prevented Crystal of the Kingdom Skull from happening, so did I just prove my point or negate it? Regardless, there's a lot I didn't like about Cave Story and not enough of what I did like to come out as an overall net gain. Clearly a personal choice, since I imagine many of those same aspects were what engendered that initial rush of instant fans. I generally prefer my sadisticgames to wear their cruelty on their sleeves while affording me the privilege to restart as often and conveniently as I want, even if the use of such kid gloves in an otherwise jagged world of abject torture does occasionally feel like the game is condescendingly handing me the world's tiniest trophy with "participant" written on it and patting my head for doing my darndest.
As for Metroidvanias in general, well. Well, the well of Metroidvanias in recent years has been overflowing thanks to the successes of major developers creating games like the last dozen portable Castlevanias and smaller studios putting out critical darlings like Cave Story and Aquaria, which has made the little sub-genre that could one of the few that the big boys and little guys can see eye-to-eye on. Obscure freeware games like An Untitled Story can walk arm-in-arm with well-produced XBLA gems like Shadow Complex and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet all the way up to the genre's two namesake franchises, games in which are still being produced by giants like Nintendo (via Retro Studios and Team Ninja at least) and Konami.
I find I can't play more than one Metroidvania in a row, in part because I'm a proud graduate of the Caravella Curriculum, Majoring as I did in Irrational OCD Game Completionism (with a Minor in Racism & Microphone Repair). Getting 100% in a game like that gives me some sort of temporary Ludovico-esque aversion to graph paper maps for several months at a time afterwards. That doesn't mean that I won't immediately jump into a new one once I'm able to shake myself out of quivering in the fetal position. Again, this whole paragraph probably reads more like a subconscious cry for help than an honest explanation of why I like this sort of game so much. I just wish I hadn't found the rest of Cave Story so objectionable. Maybe I'm just speciesist about rabbit people. If so, that doesn't bode well for that playthrough of Dust: An Elysian Tale I had planned.
Professor Layton and the Crumpet of Perniciousness
I don't know why I feel the need to make jabs at my own home turf like that. Whatever brief national pride that might've come over me during the Olympics soon wore off, leaving me with the same strained but begrudging admiration for this wet and windy rock that most others stuck here must also feel. Of course, to those looking in via the mediums of Harry Potter or, indeed, the good Professor, England must seem like a jolly old place full of adventures and thousands of years of crazy history buried just beneath the surface. In the Layton adventure I recently played, dubbed the Lost Future here and the Unwound Future elsewhere, we once again jump into another mystery as Layton pursues a figure that claims to be his young apprentice Luke but inexplicably from ten years into the future. What sounds like at first glance an opportunity to give Layton 'shippers a less illegal pairing to be getting on with getting them on.. with, there inevitably turns out to be more going on behind the time travel stuff than meets the eye and Layton goes about systematically solving every headscratching element of this overly complicated mystery entirely on his lonesome, leaving both Luke and the player in the dark to go play with matchsticks in the corner until he has it all sorted out in time for tea.
Whatever, the narrative elements of Layton play out exactly as they always have and always should: The player, via audience surrogate and shrill go-getter Luke, is introduced to each new plot enigma with wide-eyed naivety while Layton silently puts the pieces together, so we end up having a fun little mystery as well as the customary big "putting everything together" speech by Layton to a room full of NPCs that we had absolutely no hand in solving. It's not our job to figure out these grand conundrums; our part comes in when there's a bunch of blocks to slide around or someone needs to figure out which hypothetical urchin is lying about kicking a soccer ball through a greenhouse window.
Lost Future is perhaps the most ambitious Layton game yet, at least of all the ones I've played. There's a lot to commend it, but like the Lego games and the aforementioned Castlevania Metroidvanias, nothing ever seems to be done to improve or innovate on the core gameplay. It's perhaps not a big issue that absolutely nothing new is being done with the format - why fix something that isn't broke? - but it becomes an issue when the same annoying problems keep cropping up. I can't imagine there's a single person in the entire world who still likes sliding block puzzles, and if there is it's only a matter of time until a Jigsaw-esque serial killer justifiably decides to stick him in a morbidly germane room full of ambulatory stone cubes that attempt to crush him unless he finds a key in his scrotum or whatever gross body horror hang-ups the people behind those movies had. And yet, lo and behold, Lost Future is packed to the gills with the lamentable things. I can't imagine it's game design laziness, because the production values on everything around them suggest a keen and passionate level of craft that I've come to expect from Level-5. It's really quite inexplicable. I dearly want to one day see a Layton game that is entirely logic puzzles: The sort of instances where you figure out the clever trick hidden in the subtext or logically ascertain the answer behind a riddle, and less instances of the usual Mensa IQ test bait with folding cubes or cutting a block of wood just so to fit in a grid. And absolutely no sliding block puzzles. Expressly forbidden.
Talking of things I totally included at the time of posting this blog as far as anyone reading this now is aware, it's time for...
Hey Ataris and Amigas, this week I'm taking a close look at three games I played this week and specifically evaluating how each takes a specific concept or narrative tool which I'd normally turn my nose up at and somehow made it work for me. Were I to judge these games by their cover (in the cases where they actually have physical covers) I probably would not have played them, yet I'm very glad I took the plunge regardless. Credit it either to a fortuitous and uncharacteristic lack of pre-judgement or simply that the summer slump is making all sorts of odd prospects sound palatable, like that proverb about the thirsty man in the desert. No, not the one that won't help the turtle flip back over.
So here's how this'll go: I'll take each game, expound on it a little for those not in the loop or are unwilling to click the link to its wiki page, talk about the game's aspects which would normally have me running for the hills and then elaborate on why those aspects instead became a draw for me personally. In doing so, I'm hoping I not only shame myself out of any gaming prejudice in the future and perhaps convince a handful of you to try going outside your own gaming comfort zones too. Summer's definitely the time to draw outside the lines a little, after all.
Driver: San Francisco
What It Is:Driver: San Francisco is the latest in the Driver series: A bunch of racing games that endeavour for a more old-school car chase cinematic feel compared to its brutish or moreserious peers. I'm not particularly mindful of which racing game franchises are trying to court what audiences, since I kind of figure anyone who likes cars is going to buy any and all these games. Driver is definitely more movie buff friendly than most though, as a set of side-missions has you recreate famous chases from movies, often in or around the city Giant Bomb calls home. Bullitt is the obvious one, but I was able to spot allusions to The Cannonball Run, The Dukes of Hazzard, Back to the Future, The French Connection, The Blues Brothers, Vanishing Point (from which I believe Tanner's supercharged Dodge Challenger originates) and lots of others. The actual plot of the game, at least the parts that aren't crazy which I'll get into in just a moment, is a very homage-heavy buddy cop car chase movie in video game form as well.
Of course, if there's anything that makes D:SF stand out it's the "shift" mechanic, where protagonist Tanner is able to astrally project himself into any nearby driver (with some limitations to stop the game becoming TOO easy) and use that to massage the outcome of chases and races in his favor. One could feasibly enter a street race and play it straight, and the game is balanced well enough to allow you to do so if that's your bag (and it probably is if you bought a Driver game), but the option also exists to ghost hop into oncoming traffic and disable the opponents' cars through a series of grisly head-on collisions with whatever weighty vehicles were coming from the other direction.
Why I Balked Initially: Two reasons: One is that I'm not particularly fond of racing games, due in part to my inability to drive a car. I'm not sure if I'm just mechanically inept or I just can't mentally dissociate the fact that I'm driving a two ton metal box at speeds that would kill almost anything it hits, with only my decidedly non-lightning fast reflexes to prevent such an awkward faux pas as running over someone's testicles. Since the trains usually suffice in getting me to any major city where I might need to be, I generally say "fuck it" and put that imaginary car tax money towards eating for the month instead.
The second is that the game's plot, specifically how it justifies Tanner's ability to Geist-'em-up, is that the whole game is a coma dream of his after a near-death experience in the prologue. The "it was all a dream" twist is perhaps matched only in story ending cliché hoariness by "it was a sabre-tooth cat what killed him".
How the Game Proved Me Wrong: First off, the driving isn't too bad. At least it's manageable. I guess the hardcore, manual-gear-switching, bar-graph-making driving-enthusiast elite would call such a simplified control scheme "arcade style racing", which I'm perfectly content with. A button makes the car go fast, another button makes it go slow and another button makes it go slow very quickly which is highly conducive to making the car go fast around corners without spinning around and stopping. Though my mastery of the lingo might fool you into thinking I was a dab hand at these games, this is just about what I am able to manage. That I was able to successfully complete every side-activity (and, more to the point, actually wanted to) should speak volumes about how accommodating this game took the trouble to make itself. This is helped of course by how much fun the shifting mechanic is and how it can be used to circumnavigate many of the trickier straight racing aspects: It's not always available, and it's not always applicable (especially in the off-road races where there's no traffic), but when it is it's an incredibly fun way to cheat yourself out of some of the game's more challenging scenarios. I'm a proponent of the idea that games need challenge if only to engage the player's interest, but the various "legal" subversions like this game's shifting and the various game-breaking abilities in Saints Row: The Third are a fine way of replacing that challenge with something just as alluring.
As for the second obstacle, the game wins points by laying out all its "it's all a dream" cards on the table right away. Though you're able to spot Tanner a few times as the customary nose-tube hospital coma victim, there are various visual clues in the game that pertains to his half-alive status as well; instances such as occasionally bumping into the ambulance that took him to hospital and a neat little heart-rate monitor sweep overlay that can be seen while shifting at the maximum height level. The game also explains that Tanner is able to keep up with nemesis criminal Jericho's plans with various news reports being shown on his hospital room's television; the language of which often permeates his dreamscape as various characters will keep using the same "eyes in the sky" slogan of the news show in different ways. It's not quite as earth-shattering as "would you kindly?" when the game reveals it, but it's one of the many neat twists that help explain the connection between dream San Franscisco to actual (well, in-game actual) San Francisco. I don't want to get too spoilery, but it's only when Tanner is starting to realise that he's in a coma do things get really absurd and fun towards the end.
Overall, it's definitely worth checking out if you're generally not a fan of this sort of thing. I'm glad I did.
What It Is: Yahtzee Croshaw is a divisive figure in the not particularly glamorous world of video game criticism. His weekly flash video game review show very much accentuates the negative, which tends to put people in the mind that the show is meant purely to entertain rather than educate. While it's clearly an entertainment product, given the amount of humor injected into the proceedings, It's a little reductive to say the eviscerating analyses have little merit from a critical perspective, since it's clear the guy loves his games and could really do with paring away more of the repeating bugbears of lazy modern game design before it really becomes a medium to be reckoned with. He's on our side, you guys!
So, what is this diatribe about a guy who makes funny videos on the internet leading us to? Well, I've been on an adventure game stint of late and decided to check out Yahtzee's critically-vaunted freeware AGS quadrilogy of horror-themed games (mostly) starring the dapper thief Trilby in a series of supernatural thrillers, collectively referred to as the Chzo Mythos. Each game depicts a separate story that heavily features a Jason-esque spectral serial killer named John DeFoe and eventually expands towards uncovering the machinations of the Lovecraftian beastie indirectly pulling his strings. They each also try new ideas with the adventure game format, as well as having disparate settings and a rather gruesome emphasis on gory deaths and macabre, downer endings.
Why I Balked Initially: I'm not the biggest horror fan. At least in terms of horror movies. I do have a strange draw to horror-themed video games, but mostly because I'm curious to see how they're able to effectively employ horror elements in the gameplay. Often it's by making the protagonist relatively vulnerable, with the supernatural enemies effectively unstoppable until you're able to do more detective work behind the "why" and "how" of your enigmatic foes while surviving their frequent rude interruptions to butcher you. As such, you're expected to run and hide. While I'm generally fine with the various flaws and repetitive beats of survival horror, I wasn't sure if my tolerance could extend to adventure games, especially those without an auto-save feature. Gemini Rue can kill me as often as it wants, as long as it drops me right back to before that unfortunate death occurred.
I feel I also ought to admit that I was a little apprehensive about Yahztee's ability as a writer. The guy's witty enough when he's tearing into something, without ever getting to that sheer obnoxious shrillness that seems to accompany any sort of internet-based beatdown crituque that doesn't involve an elderly misogynist sci-fi fan, but I was definitely sceptical if that sort of ironic detachment and wilful genre savviness would suffice for horror fiction, which definitely needs something of a dramatic earnestness if the scares are going to land. Shaun of the Dead is the exception, after all, not the rule.
How the Game Proved Me Wrong: I enjoyed the Chzo Mythos a lot. So much so that I beat all four episodes of it in one day, as glued to it as I was. They are short, sure, but that makes them a little more palatable as far as I'm concerned. If it was a single game instead of four diverse episodes, I don't think I would've enjoyed it as much. I'd be a little annoyed that so much material was being held back with each chapter if it was a single game, but considering the time lapse between chapters and the fact each received various improvements to graphics and UI as Yahtzee grew in competence with the software, it's way more excusable. I was impressed with how new plot elements always felt germane to the source material, even when things started getting really effing crazy in the third episode, and how the goofy Chzo scripture factors in the two very chronologically separate tales of the first two games as kind of the Alpha and the Omega of the Chzo cult's grand scheme. It doesn't quite feel pre-meditated enough to be a clever "Fry pushes Fry into the cryostasis pod" sort of reveal, but it maintains the tone and quality of the storytelling while also raising the stakes, like a good sequel should.
As for the gore, it's kind of cool. You don't see adventure games, especially those of a 16-bit graphical quality, take such a visceral artistic route (I can think of one other that I'm in no hurry to recommend). I think its graphical primitiveness (though only technologically speaking; the art tends to range from tolerable Indie game levels to almost on par with an early LucasArts game, which suits me fine) kind of softens the vomit-inducing edges of the various impaled cadavers and hanging meaty skeletons you might come across, while not understating the luridness of the surroundings and the subsequent terror you ought to be feeling. It would be pretty hard to depreciate a big ol' machete through the guts, I think. The times where I got caught out by a sudden death after an extended period where I forgot to save were annoying, but the benefit of an adventure game is that when you know what you're doing it makes what seemed like an hour of progress fly by in a handful of minutes. All four games are available on his website, so there's no excuse if you're into either adventure games or the Tricky-approved sub-genre of survival horror.
What It Is:Everblue 2, Arika's spiritual predecessor of the Endless Ocean games, is a deep-sea diving game where you play a prodigious diver named Leo as he searches and salvages his way across the seabeds of the nearby Caribbean island of Valentir for fame and fortune. The goal of the game is to make money by any means, often by helping the local islandfolk find heirlooms or recovering other precious items from the sea floor and larger wreckages. The game has a basic cyclical progression of "make money, buy better equipment, reach deeper areas, make more money", punctuated by various story events that need to be resolved before any further meaningful progress can be made.
All of Everblue 2 is depicted in first-person and the treasure-hunting is usually dependent on the diver's sonar "element" - there's one for each material of item you can find (metal, glass, wood, ceramic, stone) and it's usually impossible to find items of that type without it. Often you need to be cognizant of what exactly you're looking for and make sure you're well prepared. You also need to monitor your air supply (otherwise it's Sweet Dreams for you), depth limit (your health will steadily drop if you're in too deep) and most importantly your health (drops whenever something is picked up, when you're carrying too much, whenever you're attacked, or running out of air). So like any game set underwater (and like the actual activity of scuba-diving, one would assume) the key to survival is being mindful of one's limits.
Why I Balked Initially: An entire game of underwater levels? So like, Ocarina of Time's Water Temple multiplied by infinity? There's also the fact that it's almost a decade old for a system of mine which is already on its last legs without exacerbating things by trying to make it run a CD-ROM (which it has not been keen on doing in the recent past). Actually, I'm starting to suspect I must've been hypnotised into trying this game.
How the Game Proved Me Wrong: I adore this game. I can't really explain it. I think it's because I'm irrationally fond of treasure hunting games, and this definitely has that in spades. In each of the voluminous shipwrecks you're able to visit in the game (which include pirate ships, planes and submarines among other standard staples like a ferry and luxury liner) is absolutely chock full of items you can appraise and sell at various levels of profit. Each trek can be perilous, especially if you're considering overloading yourself for maximum returns and watching your health meter tick down alarmingly fast, which adds a nice level of dramatic tension whenever I decide to be an idiot and lug a dozen chaise lounges out from the Poseidon's ballroom. There's also plenty of extra-curricular activities, such as putting together collections of certain types of items for people or taking photos of the various sealife for a fish-loving loon. I appreciate any game that lets me faff off and do whatever, even when there's ostensibly a ticking clock to reach the next big discovery before the evil conglomeration of men-in-black divers (yeah really) beat me to the punch.
Yet while I might giddily espouse the horrors that lurk within Yahtzee's diseased mind for six paragraphs, Everblue 2 is able to be somehow as equally terrifying in a far more benign manner. Salvaging the various sunken vessels in the game is an exercise in atmospheric pantswetting, as it were, as each waterlogged corridor and antechamber is depicted entirely in darkness save the couple of meters in front of you that your flashlight is able to illuminate. More than once I've found myself greatly unnerved by unexpectedly discovering various human-sized statues and suits of armor (which seems like a great thing to have on a ship, incidentally) lurking in the darkness. If Everblue 2 actually deigned to go for full realism and had staffed these fallen conveyances with the corpses that assuredly sank with them, I don't think I'd ever stop screaming.
Everblue 2 might only be a game that I could only recommend to like-minded kleptomaniacs, but I found there's (puts on sunglasses?) a lot more going on under the surface than meets the eye. I really ought to try those Endless Ocean games.
Since we're discussing three experiences that turned out to be much better than anyone could've anticipated, how about we do the opposite for a while with these...
When a major playable character is completely formless, it's carte blanche for all sorts of imaginative applications. It's an enticing prospect for a game designer to work with, which is why we've had several games that feature shapeshifters, formchangers and just good old fashioned gelatinous blobs. If there's a problem with this construct, it's that such a chameleon character usually doesn't afford much characterization, remaining some sort of inscrutable presence that a player might find hard to relate to - but hey, these are video games we're talking about. So many games feature utterly faceless protagonists that the player sculpts in whatever way they want regardless that it's probably a moot point. Such a nebulous character would be hard pressed to carry a movie on their own (did anyone see The Saint?), but in games they reign supreme. Here's a few archetypes:
Blobs are perhaps the most basic form of the shapeshifting character, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the games in which they feature are every bit as basic and single-celled. A Boy and His Blob, Jelly Boy and Claymates are three examples of platformer games with a strong emphasis on situational puzzle solving: The blob character needs to transform into whatever's necessary to proceed and the game occasionally affords different playing experiences, such as turning into a plane or some other shape that controls a lot differently than usual. There's often a capacity for deep creativity and brainteasing in these games that belie their humble blob protagonists' cartoonish and simple look. There's also Ditto of Pokémon, who has some unique traits that the power Pokémon gamers frequently take advantage of as well as some of the weirdest fandom material this side of a Mudkips. Did you hear that theory about them being failed Mew clones? Crazy.
Featured Game: A Boy and His Blob
Having just beaten this Wii classic, I can attest to Vinny's frequent instances of heartbreak. It's a goddamn adorable game and perhaps the sort of odd high-concept game the Wii really became the home for, especially after every other current gen console decided to jump onboard the proverbial doomed motion controls cruise liner. No amount of frantic waving is moving that looming iceberg out of the way. But back to blobs and the boys that hug them, A Boy and His Blob has plenty of jelly bean-activated shapes its non-human character to assume at various points during the story to get past the series of instance puzzles that comprise each stage. As each new power is rolled out, each stage will take its time to showcase just what can be done with it. While this leads to a rather ponderous (but in a sort of relaxing way) start, that well-established knowledge allows the game to feel entirely justified in creating some rather diabolical situations with many different powers working consecutively later on. The Boy's limited platforming chops and the Blob's occasionally obstinate nature means each puzzle tends to be a slow, deliberate process but ultimately a rewarding one. It's not some lightning-paced platformer like Rayman: Origins; instead it wisely takes it time to let its charming graphics and simple story get its hooks into you.
Fighter Game Shapeshifter
There's a few instances of shapeshifter characters in Fighter games especially, their ostensible advantage being that they can assume the movelists of other characters and become unpredictable for opponents to deal with. While Shang Tsung is perhaps the most famous example of this, you'd be hard pressed to find an established fighter series that doesn't have some sort of character (usually a boss) that is able to copy the attacks of the other characters in the roster. Of course, not many of them will actually transform their physical appearance into the other characters, but a few still do.
A chameleon character is someone who can blend into the background and assume any role in order to help them achieve an objective (or optionally it's a chameleon. But I don't want to waste a paragraph talking about Chameleon Twist so let's keep moving). Agent 47 is probably the most notable character that does this, as a major focus of the Hitman games is to infiltrate the locations of your target to take them down face-to-face. It's a big part of why those games (and that character) have endeared themselves to so many sneaky players, moreso than the usual dry sniper-fests that such assassination games can risk falling into. It's great and all to be Duke Togo, but sometimes being a world-class assassin means more than sitting in a belltower for hours waiting for the poor sucker with a price on his head to wander by. I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the Spy of Team Fortress 2 fame as well: He's probably right behind you. Probably. Also I realise there's a game called Kid Chameleon. Moving on. From the kids with shades.
This is an odd Final Fantasy staple. In a fashion similar to that of the shapeshifting fighter game characters, a Mime's purpose is to simply ape whatever happens in a battle; repeating the special attacks of their allies and occasionally reflecting enemy's attacks back at them. While Gogo is the famous example, there have been Mimes in Final Fantasy V and Tactics as a possible Job option and FFV's Bartz employs Mime-like tactics in his apperances in the Dissidia games, presumably to set himself apart from all the other effete, stalwart, earnest youths that take starring roles. Like everything else here, they really have no personality or presence save what the surrounding characters project onto them. It's an interesting role to adopt and one ripe for exploitation in the hands of an experienced player.
Those examples that defy further grouping, these are just a few more games that I can recall that have a truly versatile protagonist.
Graffiti Kingdom & Drawn to Life. A couple of instances where the player is allowed to draw and mold their own playable character and then set them loose. For story purposes, their appearances are completely immaterial: It's what you choose to make of them that defines what they're capable of. If that means crudely-drawn dongs sticking out every which way, then so be it.
Omikron: The Nomad Soul & Geist. The shapes being shifted into in the case of these two games are actual other human characters; usually innocent bystanders with no dogs in whatever conflict you're fighting. The protagonists are formless in the sense of being non-corporeal entities that are able to possess others and ride them around like little people puppets. While this posits all sorts of fun questions about the morality of jumping into a dude and putting them in harm's way, it's worth considering that it's almost always a kill or be killed situation. Or a kill or be killed again situation? Ghosts, man: So complicated. Is a little transparency too much to ask of them?
E.V.O. Search for Eden & Spore. Just two examples in which you're expected to create life from nothing. In the evolve-'em-up EVO, you're given a blank slate of a dumb fish monster thing and need to keep evolving it with additional characteristics to help it survive its surroundings. Likewise with Spore, you direct your chosen creature's path through its many biological stages until you reach something approaching intelligent life. Once again, it's a case where a player might create a sentient bag of dicks for some ill-advised tomfoolery and in spite of themselves finding that they deeply care about the plight of their Bagdickians once the other mean races start teasing them in the metaphorical playground that is Spore's take on a global ecosystem.
Talking of a bunch of very basic shapes and incredibly puerile nonsense, here's some comics why not:
Time for my monthly commission comic. I whipped this up after omghisam (my magnanimous Gold Membership sponsor, lest you all forget) expressed an interest in Pokémon Conquest, specifically wondering how other wars might also be fought entirely with Pokémon. Rather than take the low road with some poorly conceived joke about a "Nukeachu", I made the below collage instead. It's historically insightful and completely stupid!
That's... probably a little egotistical a title, but catchy titles were never my thing. Horrible self-inclusive puns have always been my wheelhouse. With that in mind, let's discuss when video game protagonists become a little more overpowered than the already generously-attributed standard video game heroes that are able to survive conflicts with waves of enemies, perform gravity-defying acrobatic stunts and flick boogers at enemies in a way no mortal man could ever hope to equal. I'm talking about the Gods among Gods, here. The times when you're controlling a character that should simply be way too powerful to make their struggle to overcome their particular cause anything close to convincing.
With the exception of the God Sim genre (even in which there are usually some restrictions to your faceless deity's divine abilities), games are very careful not to let the players loose with too much power behind their punches. The obvious reason for this is balance; a game should (but not always) be challenging. The level of this challenge is, of course, down to the developers and how much they want to test their audience, but it's generally accepted that some challenge must exist for the game to retain the player's interest until the game's conclusion, if it even has one. A secondary reason is that a character that can do anything and survive anything is a hard character to relate to and is possibly therefore unsuitable as a playable main character, though this rule has been subverted successfully in the past. Below are a few examples of games where a major playable character is perhaps a little too overpowered for their own good, yet the game finds not only a way to make playing them a blast but manages in spite of their apparent invulnerability to create an engaging dramatic arc for that character. Well, I say an engaging dramatic arc, but this is video game narrative here people so let's cut these examples a little slack ...which is perhaps an excuse a burgeoning narrative medium shouldn't have to rely on, but that's a topical blog for another day. For now, let's bring on the God tiers.
Lego Batman's sequel sets itself apart from the original by drawing in more of the extended DC Universe and Batman's place within it. A typically oddball Lego story (and can I take a moment to say how I'm glad I am that the stories in LEGO games that aren't directly following the plot of a movie franchise is still able to stand on its own feet - it makes me hopeful for that Lego City Undercover extended GTA riff they're developing) features Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne (main Superman baddy and Batman's alter ego respectively) competing for a "Man of the Year" award in the clearly not impartial Gotham City, with the eventual loser Lex deciding to employ the Joker's unique talents at creating anarchy to put together a Joker gas-enhanced run for the presidency. Though Lex's immediately clear involvement would seem to be the ideal entry point to introduce the Man of Steel, the guy shows up.. really just to rub in how awesome he is and make Batman's day worse. The interplay between the cartoonishly Zapp Brannigan-esque Superman and a dour, clearly jealous Batman is played for laughs here, but is a rather cute microcosm of their actual often combative relationship within the comics: Batman fears what Superman could be capable of should he decide to turn antagonistic (perhaps a little pessimistic, though not too improbable given the various weird effects of differently-colored Kryptonite on Supes that Batman's probably aware of). The game uses this perhaps justifiable paranoia to help Lex hatch a plan to rob Batman of his ludicrous supply of Kryptonite, which brings about Superman's mid-game depowerization.
However, the occasions before then when the player can directly control Superman really lays it on thick just how overpowered he is: He's completely immune to harm, even before you start playing around with the usual LEGO Red Brick cheat insanity that the game inevitably devolves into during its extended second half in pursuit of the vaunted "100% Completion" accolade. He has x-ray vision, supplanting what was a unique Batman suit upgrade's ability (and another instance of their one-sided rivalry). He has his freezing breath and heat vision, which are tellingly used most commonly to save random citizens in the open world Gotham that exists between missions that Batman could not otherwise assist on his own. And, oh yes, he can fly. Flying allows you to pretty much bypass most of the obstacles in the game and is a godsend when you're going through the missions on Free Play mode looking for collectibles you were unable to attain during the story. The game clearly has a lot of fun really rubbing in Superman's superness, giving him a lot of killer exchanges with the Dark Knight as well as how John Williams's famous theme for the Christopher Reeve Superman movies triumphantly swells whenever Superman takes to the skies. It finds a lot of uses, comedic and otherwise, for a character that many, many game developers have struggled to make palatable in the past (one shouldn't need to bring up a specific example for a certain Nintendo console, right? We all know which one that is?). And it totally works. LEGO Batman 2 may have a few problems of its own, such as TT's continuing adherence to the increasingly hoary formula of those games and a few gnarly bugs, but its handling of a character that many have deemed to be unplayable is one of its strengths. I've heard that Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe also found a way to make Kal-El a fun character too, though I have zero experience with that game (it wasn't really until the most recent Mortal Kombat game that I felt like revisiting that particular franchise).
Asura's Wrath is one of the few happy surprises of this year: A game that relies on Koei-type brawling and QTEs and is about five hours long at a conservative estimate, and yet despite this will almost certainly make my and many other peoples' GOTY lists when December finally rolls around. Most - if not all, if I'm being brutally honest - of this acclaim is down to its absolutely demented premise of a Buddhism-inspired demigod clawing his way back to the land of the living and the pantheon that wronged him, and taking out each of his peers in a battle of almighty powers that cinematically dwarfs anything you've seen from a character action game before or since. Even Kratos, with his inconsistent level of omnipotence and ability to take down mythical beasts several hundred times larger than his beefy but relatively Lilliputian self, has nothing on what Asura is able to pull off.
Asura's story seems very much your typical revenge tale; his wife murdered, his name besmirched, his trust betrayed and his life apparently taken, he is able to literally climb out of the pillar-based afterlife awaits those in that crazy universe and systematically visit his boundless vengeance on apparently everyone and everything. His single-minded obsession with revenge actually leads to a rather interesting and ironic shift in his character, as he becomes so blind with rage he transforms into the beast of pure chaos and violence that the falsified legends substantiating his frame job had purported; his role switching from that of a sympathetic underdog protagonist to a rabid unstoppable monster. It's only after some scenes where the player controls Asura's still honorable erstwhile friend and rival Yasha that things get back on track for the big finish. While Asura is indeed capable of a great many incredible feats, the game is grounded in two ways: A) that each of his opponents are equally powerful, if not more so, leading to some spectacular boss battles that just wouldn't be survivable without a God tier protagonist and B) that being a demigod means more than simply pile-driving spaceships and disintegrating a giant space Buddha by hitting this thumb really, really hard; it also means performing your duty as a higher being by protecting mortals and fighting back the endless forces of chaos within the planet, something Asura loses sight of in his quest for revenge but one that he, Yasha and the chief demigod antagonist Deus are all still dedicated to in their own separate ways. Though the main character is a God, everything else has been ramped up to meet his level - this neatly sidesteps the issue of a lack of challenge, as well as letting shit get really wild.
Though not a God in a conventional sense, Starkiller is a character that seems to have been created to answer the question of "Why are Jedi so underpowered in Star Wars games?" Any given Star Wars game that allows you to be a Jedi will still attempt to create a reasonable level of challenge for a player that seems to equal that for any other hero in any other universe. Take Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II for example: In that game you play as Dark Forces' Kyle Katarn, a Han Solo-esque rogue and Rebel sympathiser who takes on clandestine missions from Mon Mothma and other major Rebel figures. Like any FPS hero, he's adept at various weapons and is generally sneaky and resourceful enough to take down leagues of Stormtroopers and other Empire lackeys in much the same way the heroes from the movies could occasionally manage. Yet in Jedi Knight, he discovers his latent abilities as a Jedi and uses them to face down a cadre of Dark Jedi (apparently still different from a Sith because of ideological differences?) as well as the same bunch of evil bounty hunters and Stormtroopers he was taking down before. The main difference between his smuggler persona and that of his new role as a Jedi is that he has a laser sword and a few bonus powers where he can run really fast, jump real high or heal himself.
Jedis in the movies (or at least in the original trilogy) were treated as some sort of superpowered order of monks that were able to keep the entire galaxy's peace in check with their reality-bending powers. When you see the Emperor effortlessly countering Luke's vain attempts to strike him down, Vader waving off Han's blaster fire or Yoda pulling a several-ton spaceship out of a swamp, you got the impression that these powers meant serious business. Yet those same powers when seen in video games seemed severely limited, with the games often struggling to find ways to endorse the lightsabre as a superior choice to a Stormtrooper rifle or Wookiee bowcaster (not that A New Hope's Obi Wan's argument of them being more "sophisticated" was particularly convincing). The Force Unleashed games, despite having several failings in other important areas, really took the potential behind a Jedi's superpowers to its extremes, creating a character so gifted with the Force that he was performing acts of sheer incredulity. No longer was "Jedi Knight" a class that sat between "Bounty Hunter" and "Smuggler" as if the three were on equal footing, but rather the incredible galaxy-saving badasses that the movies had always inferred. Starkiller was rarely trifled by anything that wasn't also a Jedi Master, tossing around Stormtroopers and TIE Fighters alike with contemptuous ease. When it came time to face Jedis that were clearly not only more senior but also resilient enough to survive a galaxy-wide purging, Starkiller could dole out and receive the type of preternatural beatdowns that no other Star Wars protagonist could manage and no other Star Wars game had been able to conjure up. Especially not Jedi Knight, with its rather staid (but still entertaining, mostly) lightsabre duels.
The dawn of the new trilogy ruined what was previously an obsession for a great number of (perhaps capricious) fans of the franchise, but there were still efforts going on by people who clearly cared for and understood the universe - perhaps more than Lucas himself did - who were bringing fans exactly what they wanted. A game where you finally felt like a goddamn Jedi Knight was one of them.
Kratos, of course, though his brief tenure as the God of War didn't really seem to increase or decrease the amount of hurt he was able to hand out; I guess it was more of an honorary title? It's worth pointing out he was already a demi-god on a tier with Perseus and Hercules before the upgrade.
The Bhaalspawn, though the actual circumstances and limits of their divine powers is up for debate. In the first Baldur's Gate, there were very few (that I recall) special privileges given to the main character due to their heritage, other than the fact that everyone wanted to kill them and their death would mean an instant (though plot-justifiable) game over. In the sequel and its expansion, more would be done with the notion that each Bhaalspawn has some amount of their progenitor's divine power.
Odio, in a fun bonus ending to Live-A-Live. In the final episode of the game, you are allowed to take control of any of the playable characters of the previous episodes. This includes the knight Oersted, who at the conclusion of his tale becomes the God of Darkness "Odio" that has been the chief antagonist in everyone else's episode in some form or another. Choosing to play as Oersted in the final chapter allows you to replay each end-of-episode boss battle as the boss itself against the now much weaker once-protagonists, destroying them all and claiming a rare win for the bad guys.
Harman Smith of Killer7. Though apparently the "main" personality of that game's MPD-addled assassin, the true form of the Smith assassins is his handler personality Garcian. The rest of killer7 are rival assassins that Garcian has killed and somehow took on as alternate egos to an extent where he can actually transform into them - except for Harman. Harman is, in fact, some sort of God of Order that occasionally uses Garcian as a vessel (since that's apparently a popular thing to do to the guy) and is in an eternal ideological conflict with the game's antagonist and founder of the creepy Heaven Smiles, Kun Lan. Of course, this is all an interpretation and perhaps not the actual case. This is Suda 51 we're talking about here.
As always, opinions and additional examples are more than welcome. The best examples I've found are those that are purported to be Gods in their own fiction, which makes playing as them problematic to make work for all but the most gifted game designers. In any case, thanks for checking this blog out. You're all Gods as far as I'm concerned! Unless your religion finds that sort of allusion offensive, in which case sorry!
In this part we finish exploring the first base on Butre and discover the directions to the next base, I Can't Believe It's Not Butre. This episode will hopefully include a decent sample of some of the unique Captive craziness that awaits further into the game.
Part 2: More Explosions, More Problems
For now, though, I hope I've shown off enough to get people interested. It's another one of these old games that doesn't really go out of its way to explain itself with any sort of in-game information system (it's generally why we had manuals back then) but it's still playable and certainly unlike anything else of its type. That's enough esoteric CRPG business from me for this week though, so.. thanks for reading and take care. And really don't stick your fingers in the electrical socket. Unless you have to?
Have no fear, Bombadiers, as I plan on doing a proper blog this week that will somehow link Lego Batman 2 and Asura's Wrath, of all the possible combinations in this great medium of ours. In the meantime, I'm getting a little esoteric with a look at Antony Crowther's 1990 sci-fi RPG Captive. Like most of the previous games this series has covered, Captive is a real-time first-person pseudo-3D dungeon crawler. Unlike the rest, you're controlling a band of previously inactive droids in a spaceship as directed by an amnesiac with a briefcase computer that has just awoken from a court-mandated 250 year cryogenic sleep. The goal is to direct the droids to an enemy base, find the probe that will reveal the location of the next base and then destroy the generators that are providing power to the shields around the space-station where the eponymous captive patiently awaits to be rescued. There's a few unique features to Captive that this Brief Jaunt (man, does that name not initialize well) will explain in further detail, but the major point (and one that ties in with the Roguelike-like discussion i had earlier this week) is that the bases are procedurally generated every time you start a game: The level of enemies remains consistant (so weaklings in base 1, tougher enemies in base 2, etc.) as does the mission in each base (find or buy explosives, find the planet probe that points out the next base and then find the generator room and skedaddle before the whole place explodes) but the actual layouts, items and obstacles will be different.
Back when I was a wee nipper with my beloved Atari ST, Captive was one of those games along with Elite and Space Crusade (both of which I intend to feature here at some point) that I poured days into. It certainly set a precedent for my future gameplaying habits, which of course lead to the slow transformation from a bright-eyed youth with his best years ahead of him to the tired, brow-beaten adult with nothing to live for and no future oh God what have these games done to me full to the brim with happy gaming memories that I am today.
The PC version of Captive, like Dungeon Master, can be found for free on many an abandonware site (though I'm not entirely convinced of the legality, since Mindscape was still a thing until it got annexed by EA relatively recently) and runs fine in DOSBox.
Part 1: "You're a Droid and I'm Annoyed?" That's the Worst Joke Ever, Guinan.