Hey, just a short one today. I think I'm done with SPAZ either way, despite only squeezing in a few more hours: it feels like the kind of game I'm likely to burn out on long before I get anywhere close to a conclusion to its story. I'll go into more detail about my reservations after the header.
Instead, I'll point y'all towards the fifth part of my Super Mario 64 rundown over hyeah. I probably shouldn't be switching focus when I've made this commitment to play (and write about) Steam games on the reg, but I hate leaving any project half-complete. Within the next few weeks I want to get the last two parts of that series done, complete the next episode of my SNES '94 Wiki Update recaps and possibly try for a few reviews if I manage to beat some of these Steam games and find I have more to say about them. Generally speaking, these May Mastery blogs are review enough.
I also want to keep these shorter and breezier because they've been a bunch of huge text walls presently. Maybe something manageable, closer to 500-1000 words. We'll see. This is a lot of inside baseball, huh? I'd appreciate any feedback, of course, though I've always considered these endurance blogs to be more a labor of love (and a challenge to keep my critical writing sharp).
SPAZ: Space Pirates and Zombies
All right, so here's the point where I start to break down how this game is starting to lose me. It's not quite the same case as Life of Pixel, which established itself as a promising game of moderate length and then started to squander that promise with poor late-game design that seemed to emphasize its own weaknesses and ignore the strengths of its sub-genre. Rather, I've realized that SPAZ offers a very specific style of loot RPG gameplay that gives the player an intimidating (but largely optional) amount of work to do and then sits back and sees how you deal with it. Like Xenoblade Chronicles (or Just Cause 2 for that matter), it proffers an immense banquet of delectables, some more tasty than others, but in such quantities that you cannot and should not attempt to devour it all. Instead, the game introduces its many different mission types early and an omnipresent carrot on a stick in the form of upgradeable ships and blueprints which require earning cash and XP levels to acquire and utilize, respectively. It then says, "Hey, you don't need to do all this. The next story mission only requires that you level up about four or five more times and then head to this sector. You can explore every star system in this quadrant if you prefer, but the story will be right here waiting for you when you get tired of randomized content."
This is where open-world games have been heading recently, partly due I feel to the success of The Elder Scrolls. Oblivion was tricky because it greatly shrunk down the amount of content in order to keep the player focused and to keep completionists from not spending the rest of their lives running through identi-kit dungeons, fighting the same handful of monsters and finding the same generic loot of: a lockpick, a couple of mana potions, a few dozen arrows made of a material relative to the player character's level and more soul gems than you could Shang a Tsung at. Trying to do everything in Oblivion was an easy way to burn out before ever reaching its amazing conclusion where Ned Stark becomes a dragon statue, but the previous Elder Scrolls games were built on the philosophy of creating an immense amount of content built around randomized, procedurally-generated algorithms (Daggerfall was hideously gigantic for this reason) and then positing that the player should only feel the need to go off the beaten path for dungeoneering and sidequest errands if they happen to require some additional funds or experience levels to prepare themselves sufficiently for the next story quest. These days, almost all open-world games come with this tacit directive that the player should attempt to 100% the game by grabbing every collectible and checking every map square, usually rewarding this sort of progression with achievements or occasionally something actually useful. These games are locked in a bitter civil war with the "we purposefully created too much randomized content and suggest you only do a small percentage as it serves the story missions" open-world games, and while there's plenty that explicitly say (in a metaphorical sense at least) either "we specially prepared this extravagant five-course meal for the hungriest of customers" or "we made too much food, take what you want and then go" there's a few caught in the middle (like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Xenoblade, and probably this new Witcher as well) that are a little more ambiguous about its open-world intentions and what it expects from its audience. I'm considering calling this ideological schism in open-world game design "Banquets vs. Buffets", but maybe the food analogy is already getting a little stale. So to speak.
SPAZ is very much on the Buffet side of that equation, and to its credit is rather forthright about it in the tutorials. There's a huge number of star systems to visit with an even larger amount of missions and exploration to do when you get to them, but unless one has a blueprint you want, you're better off just heading to the system closest to your current level and keep going in that direction. There's a huge number of low-level areas around the outskirts of the galaxy and you've pretty much out-leveled them by the time you're finished in the first two (and only compulsory) systems you visit. It's an odd system, to immediately render 20%+ of the content you randomly generated for the player moot, but then it also factors into the realism of the setting: the areas closer to the galaxy core have more of this valuable heavy element Rez, due to how density and gravity tends to work, so of course any outer rim systems are bound to be light on technological progress and population. There's little reason to ever go out there, just as there's zero reason to go beyond the galaxy's limits into the vast nothingness between galaxies. I mean, what are you going to find in that immense expanse where there aren't even any stars? The Ariloulaleelay? Thargoids? Yog-Sothoth? Wearing my game designer pants, I admire this kind of logical consistency in their world-building. However, in my obsessive-completionist utilikilt (sorry to all my fellow completionists out there, but I think we need to admit that the stereotype applies here), I look at that vast world and just immediately get bummed out knowing that I'll need to ignore most of it to retain any semblance of sanity and potentially pass up who knows what kind of loot.
Anyway, that's pretty much the story of how I gazed into the great and vast cosmos and came back a changed man. SPAZ offers the same kind of repetitive but sufficiently engaging gameplay that something like Diablo or an MMO does to keep its players hooked in for as long as they can stomach it, and I can't begrudge any loot game for being good at what it does for the same reasons I wouldn't begrudge an apex predator for tearing off one of my limbs for sustenance: it's what they're built to do, and it's what we, as discerning consumers and explorers, ought to expect.
It's been a while in the making, but here is the fifth part of our in-depth look at Super Mario 64, one of many cases of Nintendo putting their best foot forward with a new console generation. At the conclusion of the fourth update, we're now clear of the basement and its death-trap laden courses and approach the heady heights of the second floor. The courses here are, naturally enough, far more difficult, but seem less intimidating all the same. There's a lot more pitfalls, tricky leaps and mechanically complex courses to come, yet nothing quite as fearsome as lava or quicksand. Well, unless you're terrified of colossal snowmen...
Before we get to the fun stuff, it's another free Star from a random Toad. This one's even more inexplicable; the guy is literally standing in the center of the room, next to the staircase that takes Mario to the very top floor. You could argue that the previous Toad was somewhat concealed, standing in a corner of the Hazy Maze Cave entrance room and thus wouldn't be immediately obvious, but this Toad's prominence just makes him seem like he'd be the usual advice-dispensing kind. I've got three theories about this: the boring Occam's Razor theory, that the developers simply gave a handful of Stars to random Toads to hand out during the 11th hour of development to ensure they had the nice round number of 120. The second is that this particular Toad is meant to be a double-bluff: Stars either require a challenge to reach or are well-hidden to some degree, and because this one is neither it's paradoxically easy to miss. My third theory is that the courses around here start getting a lot more difficult, and a little confidence-booster Star like this was intended to keep the player's spirits up after getting thrown out of the Tall Tall Mountain or Tiny-Huge Island portrait for the twentieth time. It's either one of the most interesting secret Stars or the most pointlessly mundane, depending on your perspective.
Recycling stage themes is fairly typical when they're governed by special rules, as is the case for Super Mario 64's two (and a half - the explanation for this half is coming up a little later) underwater courses and its two wintry-themed courses. This is partly due to the amount of extra effort that is required by the designers and programmers to generate all the extra code required to make snow behave like it's meant to (slippery, absorbs falling damage in a unique way) and thus an attempt to get the most of out of this extra workload, and partly because they had more ideas based around these themes, exceeding what could be done with a single course. For either reason, I don't particularly mind that Snowman's Land is yet another ice world. If anything, it's one of the most joyous and interesting courses in the game, and the former becomes a rarer commodity as the game proceeds to get even more difficult and frustrating.
No discussion of Snowman's Land (which was quite the stealth pun for a younger me) is complete without talking about its portrait room. It's one of the cutest puzzles in the game, requiring that the player take in the entire reflection of the wall-length mirror to find an inconsistency: in this case, it's a snowman portrait that only appears in the mirror. The complementary blank wall in the real world is actually the portal to the Snowman's Land course. I remember spending a lot of time in this room, wondering why a room in the castle would have an enormous mirror like this unless it was Disney's Haunted Mansion ride, or possibly where Peach practiced ballet as part of her harsh and rigorous princess training to be elegant and poised at all times (I've come to appreciate the hard work that goes into princess training after playing Long Live the Queen recently). You're also afforded a rare glimpse of the camera Lakitu, which moves around Mario the match way the direction the camera's facing. Having designed 3D levels in UnrealEd in the past, giving the camera perspective a physical presence in the world isn't too unusual, but at the time I marveled at the one-to-one behavior of the little guy as he spun around to match the C-button prompts. Oddly enough, if you look at the Lakitu's reflection, you'll see that the camera bobs left and right on the end of its fishing pole. Probably for the best that this effect wasn't recreated in the actual player view; the camera induces enough kinetosis as it is.
As for the course itself, it's one of those ones built around a massive centerpiece, which in this case is the eponymous Snowman of Snowman's Land. It is essentially an enormous, immobile geographical fixture, being made of snow and all, and the way various platforms stick out of him at random intervals suggest it's probably not even alive. Once you explore a little higher up, though, you'll realize that it is very much conscious of everything that happens on it, though its titanic perspective is a little different to Mario's. The course also introduces freezing water: the only water in the game that damages Mario instead of healing him. What's unusual is that there are three pools in this stage, all of which have different behaviors attached to them: one is completely frozen, rendering it harmless though tricky to maneuver across; the second is so cold that Mario simply leaps off in pain, like the lava of Lethal Lava Land; Mario can swim in the third, though it drains his health at about twice the usual oxygen depletion rate even if he's on the surface. There's a tricky jumping puzzle or two in this area, so landing in the water is considered a punishment for failing the primary objective (kind of like Wipeout, even).
One last thing: I just want to discuss one of my favorite, easily replicable glitches in the game. When Snowman successfully exhales Mario off the platform, sending him and his hat flying in different directions, there's a trick you can pull here where instead of grabbing the hat (which, adorably, ends up on top of one of the regular-sized snowmen if Mario leaves the course without his hat and re-enters), Mario instead runs to one of the teleporters (in this course hidden underneath two of the coniferous trees in the area) and teleport a few times. Something weird happens to the hat at this point, and when Mario reaches for the many iterations of the cloned hat, he eventually glitches out and is stuck with the hat in his hand. You can now run around swatting enemies with your hat in lieu of the regular punches like a seventy-year-old man admonishing a grandchild. It's wonderful.
Snowman's Big Head is the requisite "reach the top of the mountain" Star, though in this case the mountain just so happens to be a sentient snow giant. It's a spiral route, one that requires that the player get past two obstacles in particular: the first is an unusual wave machine that spits out fast-moving triangular prisms of snow with a high ledge that requires at least the double jump to reach, the second being the Snowman's determination to blow Mario off the precarious ice platform with his wintry exhale. The second requires that Mario stick behind an otherwise inexplicable giant penguin to be sheltered from the gale, pacing back and forth along an unpredictable route intended to throw first-time players off. As a Star designed to introduce the player to this course, it does its job well, and having that snowmountain suddenly talk to you (as if you were an insignificant bug, no less) is quite alarming. (All it needs is this theme playing.)
The second Star is a little less interesting, as it's taken directly from Lethal Lava Land (which already had two variants of the same solution). There's another Bully around, and the player once again has to knock it off its perch before it does the same to him in classic sumo fashion. The added wrinkle here is the slippery ice platform where the showdown takes place, which makes it harder to press the advantage when the sliding is putting your timing off. There really doesn't seem to be a point for this Star, but then maybe this part of the course would've felt a little empty without it. At least the snow bully is visually distinctive, with one of those tie-dye textures previously used for the spider enemies from Hazy Maze Cave.
The third Star, In the Deep Freeze, resembles one of those plastic marble games you used to see alongside baseball ball-bearing dexterity toys and those marble mazes with the dials that tilted the board around. (This probably all sounds like gibberish to anyone under 30.) It has a solution, but the player has to determine where the gaps are in the large transparent structure and then work their way towards the Star. It's honestly a little underwhelming as a puzzle, and it almost feels like the developers wanted/intended the ice structure to be a lot bigger and more elaborate. Maybe it's just one of those cases where you have 120 Stars to design around and there's only so much work that can go into each one.
The fourth and fifth Stars are interconnected, as both require that the player get to the pool of water where the wave machine is and leap on the head of a Spindrift for the sufficient amount of height necessary to reach an area beyond the wall. There's two question mark blocks here: One reveals the fourth Star and the other reveals a Koopa shell necessary to collect the eight red coins on the course. The eight coins are all along a specific path, though the three near the question mark block and the two in the Bully area are the tricky ones. In fact, there's a red coin directly underneath the Bully's platform that is (conventionally speaking, at least) impossible to reach without the shell. While the shell's appeared a few times prior to this course, this is the first case where it's instrumental for collecting a Star. That's largely due to the fact that hitting a single wall will cause it to vanish, potentially making the Star impossible to reach without resetting the course by dying or quitting (or grabbing another Star).
The sixth Star involves the igloo, which is one of the less obvious locations on the course. It requires the player either use the turtle shell to chase a row of coins leading out of the wave/pool area, jumping over a green quartz wall a little after the wave machine or by falling off the platform near the snowman's mouth. The second and third paths aren't exactly intuitive, but they work as replacements once the player has managed to catch a glimpse of just where the igloo is and can jury-rig a path to it that doesn't involve the mercurial Koopa shell. As tends to be the case with a lot of sixth Stars, it requires the use of a cap, in this case the Vanish Cap. The Star is stuck inside a block of ice that can only be passed through with a Vanish Cap, though reaching the blue cap block can be half the puzzle. It's another double-bluff: the cap appears to be behind a wall of opaque ice, suggesting that the wall is the way out not the way in, but the wall is actually incomplete: Mario can leap up and over it with a high enough jump. If I were a gambling man, I might wager that the same designer behind the Deep Freeze Star designed this one as well, just so he could get all the steam he wanted out of navigating ice block puzzles.
100-Coin Challenge: The key to this one is the igloo, and trying to find 100 coins without knowing about it will make this an extremely difficult challenge. With the thirty or so coins inside the igloo, the goal becomes trivial, provided you make use of the shell and don't get worn down elsewhere.
The eleventh course is the first of three portrait-related entry gimmicks, in which the way Mario enters the course is significant to the course's layout once he arrives. In Wet-Dry World's case, the area begins with a fairly shallow level of water that can be regulated by hitting some multi-colored diamonds (so built, I assume, to stand out even underwater) at various points in the course. The low water level is considered the default, because it's low enough that Mario has to work to reach anywhere further up but still high enough to give Mario that crucial surface rehealing to help him through the various traps and problems the course presents. However, were one to enter the portrait with a high jump, the entire arena is flooded to its zenith, higher still than the most vertically-elevated water level diamond. This not only provides easier access to a couple of Stars, but allows Mario to lower the water level (by simply swimming to the preferred diamond) to whatever depth the player wishes, greatly expediting the path to whatever Star they're chasing after.
The best part of all of this is that the Toad that gives you the bonus Star also tells you how this trick works, as well as the trick behind the Snowman's Land portrait. Whoever said those little guys were useless? One might wonder if the game is giving too much away with these little tipsters, but I think people are simply pre-disposed to ignore their advice, much like they tend to avoid the manual. Super Mario 64, as we've established, is a game that depends a great deal on weird tricks and obtuse puzzle solutions, and the various Toads and signposts are their way of balancing this. That people kept walking right past them might explain why Nintendo games have considerably more forced tutorials in this day and age, leading to unfortunate examples like the entirely inconsequential first two hours of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Anyway, back to Wet-Dry World. The water-level raising mechanic, though greatly reviled in Ocarina of Time (what's with all the Zelda references today?), is used to great effect here, making an unusual course more elaborate with its secrets and hard-to-reach areas. Prodding the diamonds as you get progressively higher up feels like hitting checkpoints almost, as it means Mario won't have to fall quite so far if he tumbles off a floating platform. It's also where the "half a water stage" reasoning comes in: while the course can be filled with a variable amount of water, it never really factors into any of the Stars. It's simply there as a device to get around the course, a free source of healing and as the aforementioned progress-saver.
As for new enemies, we have a trio: there's the water skimmer "Skeeters", who can present a problem to Mario if he's currently wading through water and has fewer means to defend himself. The funny thing with these guys is that they're completely passive in the water: if they slide into you, it's a result of randomized movement rather than malicious intent. However, should the player lower the water in such a way where they become stranded on land, they will hone in on Mario as soon as they see him, as if angry that he took their carefree water-skating away. The second enemy here is the notorious Heave-Ho, a mechanical foe that looks like a robotic dustpan and brush that will attempt to sneak under Mario's feet and launch him into the air. The ascent is high enough to cause Mario damage upon landing, but not if he exploits them to reach higher levels of the course (which is a lot faster than trying to find the right water-raising diamonds). If you zoom in on these guys, you can see that they have Dreamworks Face: suggesting to some extent that they enjoy tormenting Mario. They also have a "Koopa Co." logo on their side, so maybe they were just programmed to be bad. (Also, the idea of Bowser as a leader of industry is sort of a sobering prospect.) The third and final new type of enemy is the Chuckya, which is essentially Big Bob-Omb with erratic and quick movement and without the grandiose mustache. All he'll do is grab you and throw you in a random direction, usually off the platform. They're a bit more of a problem in courses like Tall Tall Mountain where falling off (or being thrown off) can lead to instant-death. Chuckyas feel like, again, another instance of the coders spending a lot of time on getting a specific part of the game to work right, in this case having enemies pick up Mario and toss him around, that they don't want to restrict it to a single instance early in the game where there's very little danger attached to it. It'd be like spending days designing a difficult jumping puzzle and being crestfallen to discover that it'll only appear early on, where the game is still gentle enough to put floors underneath of tough jumps to catch players that mess up (which is what the entire first run of Super Mario 3D Land felt like, honestly, leading to its "same but not quite" expert second run).
Just a little extra: the oddest trivia about this particular course is that the skybox is filled with a ruined city that's clearly beneath sea level, as you can see the surface if you look directly up, which almost makes Wet-Dry World feel like it's set in the lost city of R'lyeh. The other is that the course was used in this memorable Got Milk? commercial, which prompts Mario to leave the TV and drink some milk in the real world so he can grow big in the game to get past a jumping puzzle any idiot could get through. Ironically, Super Mario 64 is the first Super Mario game in which he could no longer grow in size (though that probably explains why he needed the outside help).
Embarrassingly, for the first two Stars in this course the game anticipates that the player won't yet have discovered the "trick" to entering the portrait with a high jump to flood the course, or that they can simply get around the difficult part of this Star by raising the water level sufficiently high that they can simply swim under the ? Block that holds the Star and jump out of the water to hit it. Otherwise, the player has to make their way across a series of precarious two-directional movement blocks that are too small for their own good. Were I to give the designers more credit, it could be that they purposefully created this "cheat" to help demonstrate the importance of the course's water-raising mechanic. I mean, at the maximum natural level of the water, it is directly beneath the block in question: any higher and the block would be submerged and inaccessible and any lower and Mario wouldn't be able to reach it from the water. Feels pretty deliberate to me.
As with the prior, the second Star is made considerably easier by raising the water level as it simply involves reaching the highest point in the course. It's a path that involves a lot of Heave Hos and Chuckyas, so keeping the water level raised is fairly essential. It also means walking across a plank of wood suspended in the air, which is one of the harder sequences due to its minimal width. Usually the "top of the world" Stars come first, but I suppose the designers felt it would be easier to reach the arrow platforms one.
Secrets in the Shallows is another one that, I feel, appeals more to the younger mindset than the elder. The goal is to simply find five secret spots around the course, which are prompted by the usual hidden triggers previously found within rings in Bob-Omb Battlefield or Dire Dire Docks. They tend to involve hitting ? Blocks with coins and moving the larger red blocks around, but the way these things are spread out it's impossible to find them all without lowering and raising the water levels a lot, making it the first Star that can't be quickly resolved with the portrait high jump trick. The reason I said this was a course more intended for children is because they have more free time to spend searching random nooks and crannies for triggers, while adults probably prefer something a little more overt and challenging. Then again, maybe that's just me.
The express elevator Star is downright difficult to pull off, and the only truly challenging Star in this entire course. It requires pushing a switch to lower an elevator from the outside, and then dropping to the ground floor, getting inside the little chamber and then riding the elevator back up again to reach the Star. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the water level needs to be at its nadir at all times to pull it off, which means a long climb back to the top of the elevator should the player fail to reach it, and the elevator itself needs a wall-jump within an enclosed location where it's not always easy to see Mario. He also needs to do this jump within a very short window of time. It's one of the Stars made legitimately difficult by its high bar of required precision, rather than due to how easy it is to misjudge a jump and fall off the world midway through.
The next two Stars involve taking a cannon over to the far side of the course and swimming through a tunnel to a flooded town. The town's curious because it's a group of buildings with completely closed off interiors. (The locked doors here would be reused for the Legend of Zelda, where they're a little more accommodating.) There's eight red coins scattered around, almost all of which are contained within breakable blocks: the reason for this is so Mario can't simply swim around and collect them all while the water level is high, requiring the player lower the water and run/jump to them the hard way. With the sixth Star, the player is tasked with making a three point "race" around the town: first to the Vanish Cap block (and so is, once again, another sixth Star that has a cap switch requisite), then to a ! Switch to create a block inside the meshed portion of the area. Then Mario has to run into this mesh area before the Vanish Cap wears off, and then up the blocks before they disappear also. It's actually possible to wall jump if the player gets as far as the mesh area's interior, as if to give resourceful players an out if they find themselves in there but are too late to use the blocks to reach the Star, as they would be unable to exit and retry the race.
100-Coin Challenge: Once again, this course requires prior knowledge that an entirely separate area exists to make the 100-Coin Challenge easier. Really, though, it's one of the most generous courses in the game for coins, and pretty much the last "easy" 100-Coin Challenge as we head towards the conclusion. The ? Blocks involved with the "find the secret areas" Star provide a huge number of coins and there's three of those. There's also the obvious blue switch block near the bottom of the course that leads to an quick-and-easy 30 coins, plenty of enemies (though the Heave Hos are invulnerable, alas) and just an abundance of currency all over the place.
The Bit at the End
All in all, Snowman's Land and Wet-Dry World are the two last courses in the game that are breezy and mild and don't have much in the way of instant death traps, or an abyss waiting underneath the course to devour a klutzy Mario. That isn't to say that the next four don't have their charms, enjoyable challenges and interesting mechanics, but they're all considerably more difficult, especially with regards to their 100-Coin Challenges. I recall the next two in particular being the bane of my existence while on that initial playthrough, though there's aspects about them that I like as well. They're not quite as dispiriting as Dire Dire Docks, at least.
I'll hopefully find a spare moment or two for the last two updates for this series later this month, though I can't make promises as these May Mastery entries are taking up a lot of my free time right now. I'll see you next update, where we find strange mushrooms and discover the world getting bigger and smaller around us (yet, oddly enough, these two events are entirely separate and unrelated).
I'm starting to think that I probably shouldn't have set this precedent for May Mastery where I wax lyrical about not a whole lot before starting the game analysis portion of the day's happenings. There's going to be thirty-one of these (Steam willing), and I'm bound to run out of stuff to say long before then.
What I could do is talk about this week's Old Games Show, which has just concluded, and the three games that were highlighted this episode:
The Ken Griffey Jr game was a wash, given I have zero interest in baseball much like the rest of the world outside of the US and Japan, but I am responsible for that disturbing header image currently used by its wiki page.
Glover was for me, as it was for Drew, a frequent rental back in the day. For whatever reason, in the PAL region N64 games were released expensive and stayed that way forever, excepting the many risible license games that no mercantile establishment could sell otherwise (I have a copy of Rugrats: Scavenger Hunt somewhere, so let it be said that I have a discerning eye for quality). Most games I would rent once and then hope that they would some day drop in price: Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 eventually did, to my delight, but Banjo-Tooie just sat there as a permanent £50 purchase until the local Game store simply tossed the thing (I imagine) to make room for all its new PS2/Xbox/Dreamcast games. Anyway, Glover toed the line between "I'll have to buy this at some point" and "this is awful, I won't touch this again", hence the multiple rentals.
Buck Bumble, unlike the two others, sits proudly in my collection. That DnB, man. Second only to The Beatles.
SPAZ: Space Pirates and Zombies
So I think I could be forgiven for assuming SPAZ was a standard space trading/mining game before I got to finally play it. It certainly looks that way from looking at the thing, with your little ships flying around to mine for ore, take down enemy ships in space battles and dock with space stations to take on quests and buy new upgrades. It has all those things in spades, but what it also has is an overarching plot, a developmental tree that builds as the player progresses towards the completion of the plot (which I appreciate, because being rudderless in these types of endless freedom games tends to cause burn out a lot sooner) and an effective armada of ships with a mothership at the core of it all. In a sense, the game is not unlike Star Control 2, with its core Precursor starship and the many starfighters that make up its retinue. Of course, I haven't seen any goofy aliens or much in the way of dialogue trees, but there's certainly been a lot to do.
The game simplifies matters by reducing the game's resources to essentially three currencies: Rez, a powerful and malleable "super" element that powers pretty much everything, your standard Eezo/Spice Melange/Unobtainium ersatz and chief resource for buying items and crafting new ships; data, which you receive from downed enemies and completing quests and acts as the game's XP equivalent; and goons, which are essentially expendable redshirts that crew the various ships you send out and are considered distinct from the "important" characters who presumably cannot be killed outside of a cutscene. There's also blueprints: these are vital for constructing new ships and new ship parts (there's some degree of customization) though they usually come with a level cap and high price tag. The player's ship is always followed by any other ships you may have created, who follow a few AI routines based on whether you're mining for Rez or fighting off encroaching enemy vessels, and the battles tend to feel more like proper tactical skirmishes between groups rather than straightforward one-on-one encounters. (There's a tactics heading in the pause menu that gives you details of the enemies in the area, and lets you decide how to tackle them as a group.)
I realize everyone and their grandmother has already played this game, and it's going to take a lot longer than three days to get anywhere with it (this may be another twofer if I can't find more to say about it after tomorrow's cosmic sojourn), but I'm impressed with what I've seen so far. The last one of these I played was Starscape which, while competent enough, wasn't quite as polished or engrossing as this game has been.
I will say that this game's sense of humor is pretty terrible though. Not UnEpic bad, per se, but still kinda cringeworthy. Lots of dumb jokes over the space radio that get repeated ad nauseum, and you get exchanges like the one below far too frequently for my liking. I hope the writing/gags improve later, but then the game's hi-larious name really doesn't inspire much confidence. (But then, it's not really the focus either.)
It's close to midnight, so that means it's time for another Mento's May Mastery. This "do all the homework minutes before it's due in" system has worked well for me in the past, but I wonder if I shouldn't shift the schedule around a little so I'm not writing all these while half-conscious with fatigue. Still, I guess that means I have an excuse for this blog being illegible. Where does that leave me in explaining all the others?
I wasn't kidding about Life of Pixel being a twofer, turns out. While I'm not quite done with it from a completion standpoint, I am pretty close to being done with it from a patience standpoint. It, alas, suffers the same pitfalls (pun possibly included) as many other masocore platformers of its kind, in that by escalating the difficulty (which is an entirely reasonable thing for a designer to do in most circumstances) it unfortunately disrupts the careful equilibrium of its chosen format. I feel like I've gone into this before with other games, but I'll elaborate in more detail after I put a header in the way.
Life of Pixel
There we go. So the thing about Life of Pixel is that the progression mechanic is predicated on collecting the full amount of shiny objects across a stage and then reaching its exit. For its early single-screen stages, this works perfectly. As the consoles evolve and become more elaborate in their stage design, this format becomes increasingly unwieldy and, eventually, frustrating and completely unworkable. There's no checkpoints, because there's no way a system like that would function when the level design is left open - an aspect of the "collect everything" format is that it has you hunt for objects in every direction, and there's the possibility that you would get far into a stage, hit a checkpoint, and realize you left an object behind at the start that you'd now have to integrate into your route on every subsequent attempt. And, of course, with this being a masocore platformer and all, a single touch of a spike or laser or bottomless pit will instantly kill you and force you to restart the whole stage (you can hit twice by enemies before you die, which is a little more lenient, but enemies aren't usually the problem).
You can see where this is going. Let's say instead of ten objects, there's over fifty. It will take around three to four minutes to find them all. You reach about forty objects (or three minutes, time-wise) into this scavenger hunt before getting popped by some rapidly protruding/receding spikes you had no idea were there. Let's say this happens about ten times in a row. That's half an hour, roughly speaking, of zero progress. It's not even like Super Meat Boy, in which you could easily spend that long on a single thirty-second stage if it required pinpoint precision (and you were particularly obstinate), because with Life of Pixel the stages become so long that it doesn't even matter if you've memorized the entire layout and can follow the most economical route in your sleep: the chances of making an error due to carelessness or tiredness or being on edge after dying too many times increases exponentially the longer the stages get in a game with no checkpointing. It's why the latter stages of Super Meat Boy aren't anywhere near as fun as those in the sweet spot (around Hell, I'd judge) because they're simply too long and too easy to trip up on accidentally, rather than because you were facing a challenging series of jumps that truly tested your skills. Put it this way: if you were to average one stupid death by unforced error for every twenty expertly-timed jumps, which is still exceptional if you aren't a speedrunner or cybernetic to some extent, a level that requires forty such jumps (or fifty, or a hundred) will still be close to insurmountable regardless of your excellent batting average.
I ran into this issue with Mutant Mudds as well, hitting situations where I'd spend way too long on one section only to lose all my progress with a simple mistimed hop, though in that game's defense at least grabbing all its collectibles wasn't essential to completing each stage. Life of Pixel's gone from a competent little platformer with a neat historical framing gimmick to a logistical trainwreck of irksome fake difficulty. It's a shame the developers didn't take a step back and consider if they handled the difficulty curve the correct way.
Protip: Same small number of objects per stage, but made slightly harder to reach each time. Done. Not scouring a square mile for an entire jewelry store's worth on a single life. Because that would be stupid and no-one would want to play that.
That said, I'm still enjoying the presentation of these later worlds. We've moved to the 16-bit era (the game's technically over after the initial 8-bit systems, and anything after is considered a bonus world) and are now gallivanting around the Super Nintendo and Amiga, two systems I'm very familiar with (or at least I am with the Atari ST rather than the Amiga, though they were more or less identical). The game's chiptune music is pretty good, especially recapturing the SID and Laura soundchips of the two respective Commodore systems, and I'm also enjoying the way the visuals change with each new system. The Amiga levels, especially, seem to be making a lot of visual references to games of which I'm all too knowledgeable. I include one below:
Overall, while I still think it's a neat little package of nostalgia, I'm a little disappointed in Life of Pixel. Despite being an incredibly simple game from a mechanical perspective (my thanks to user @bdhurkett for correcting me about the double hit points thing. which are there from the offset; this also means that the game's core mechanics are entirely consistent throughout), it still manages to loose a few brown pixels onto its pixel bed in a few ways. Besides the aforementioned mishandled difficulty, certain weird bugs and glitches will make themselves known from time to time, usually involving sprite collision - e.g. if you push a box into an enemy, the enemy might just warp around it somehow and kill you. Many enemies are set to randomized movement patterns, especially the bats and robots, which must bring no end of joy to anyone attempting to speedrun the game. Moving platforms actually lend their momentum to the player character, so if it's going around in a circular motion and is heading down when the player jumps off, they will be pulled downwards to match the momentum of the platform they just left. Ditto for when it's moving quickly from side to side. I'm not sufficiently cognizant of thermodynamic physics to say if real objects actually work that way, but they're certainly not meant to in video games. Like many control issues, it's hard to effectively explain or demonstrate why this feels super wrong, but it will make itself known very quickly to someone actually playing it themselves. If it wasn't for the game's production values and attention to detail in other areas, I'd think these were all issues a pack of game design college students making their first platformer for a second year project would encounter. It's a little perplexing.
Still, LoP has a lot of heart at least. How many games feature a love letter to the BBC Micro or Amstrad CPC? Not that most people have any reason to of course (hey, whatever, the Micro was the first system with Elite), but it's not like you hear those names too often. What next, shout-outs to the Sharp X68000 and FM Towns Marty?
Finally, we're away from that megalomaniacal crackpot putting everyone around him through psychological and physical torment for his own twisted amusement. But enough about Dave Lang on the Premium BLLSL feed (I finally watched the rest of it), it's time for some more fashionably late Mento's May Mastery. For a daily feature I've put together for the fourth year in a row now, I'm certainly not being very diligent with it.
By a happy coincidence, the last game I played hit the three day limit at the same time that I was able to beat it. I can now pass onto the next game in my randomized list of high-priority backlog items, and you can rest assured that this a two-day game at most. Still interesting though.
Life of Pixel
I feel like the "self-reflective and partly satirical journey through the history of video games" framing device may well become its own category on Steam soon enough. Indies love being meta, after all, and with so many games that already hearken back to earlier eras of game design, it's only natural we'd get a few fourth-wall breaking takes on exploring multiple technological milestones. I suppose the most notable exemplar of this framing device would be Evoland, a game that ran the gamut (game-ut?) from rudimentary 8-bit black-and-white RPGs to the PS1 era of Final Fantasy VII JRPGs and its kin. Vinny and Alex recently looked at another one: A Pixel Story (which I actually mistook for Life of Pixel at one point).
However, while the references from those two games didn't exactly fly over my head, I didn't get quite the nostalgia boost from those that I did from Life of Pixel. Possibly because it appears to have been designed from someone from my homeland, or at least one of our European neighbors (I checked: the developers Super Icon are indeed British). Instead of just the usual Atari 2600, NES and so forth, Life of Pixel makes a few more obscure stops along the route to let the occasional remote parisher off the figurative bus. As well as the aforementioned mainstays as well as other transatlantic favorites like the C64 and Game Boy, Life of Pixel is also a Bluffer's Guide to a lot of early European computers. The sort that largely passed the US by, as they weathered through the 1983 Atari crash until the NES could save them.
We start with the Sinclair ZX81, moving through to the same company's ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro and the Amstrad CPC464. These were systems even I was too young to have much familiarity with; I very much began with the 16-bit Atari ST home computer and the Super Nintendo (though I was fortunate to have friends with other consoles, including the ZX Spectrum, C64 and NES). Still, there's certain elements of those systems that still resonate with me, and the developers were painstaking in recreating not only the look and feel of those games but also system-appropriate music and a few sly visual references to the better known games for that system. I'm still early on in the game - I've just reached the C64, the sixth world of I don't know how many (but I suspect around thirteen if the stage number count is accurate) - but I'm enjoying what I've played so far.
Before I finish, I should probably say what kind of game it actually is, huh? Well, unsurprisingly, it's a 2D platformer. The type where you have to find all the collectibles before the exit will open and allow you to move on. It seems to be slowly introducing new mechanics, like the capacity to take multiple hits from enemies that I'm sure wasn't present from the offset, but for the most part you simply have a reliable double jump and a few stage-specific fixtures to use to your advantage. While the stage collectibles are essential to progress and reset every time the protagonist dies (which happens a lot - this is a game in the Super Meat Boy mold, if not quite as punishing), there's also a single world-specific collectible in each of the world's eight stages which nets you an achievement if you grab them all, as well as a game-wide scavenger hunt for Pac-Man style fruits and candy items that are way better hidden. Unfortunately, there isn't yet any way of knowing if one of these super-secret food items is in a stage or not, but I hope the game will start giving me hints once I've reached the end.
Needless to say, I'm curious where this game will go next. The C64, Game Boy, NES, SNES and Amiga are the only known quantities left for me to explore thus far (and I'm very interested to play those worlds, as they're all pretty formative platforms for me), but there's some mysterious spaces for many more yet to come.
While checking the comments on my previous day's peregrinations across the twisted mindscape of Harlan Ellison, the cynical author behind the post-apocalyptic sci-fi novella and video game adaptation of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, I took in a few corrections/elucidations and came upon a realization for why I wanted to switch things up for May Madness this year: Each prior season of May Madness regularly followed a process wherein I would play the first few hours of a game and relay my initial impressions. However, this meant that I could never really achieve a comprehensive understanding of the game - the full breadth of its ideas and intent. Rather, all I had from that short trial period were educated guesses as to where they might go.
That's not just because I was unable to see the game's conclusion in that short amount of time, either; the way I approach games is by ensuring that the first playthrough is also my first real exposure to that game. It's why I fervently avoid pre-release hype, trailers, Wikipedia summaries, analyses and reviews of games before I have the chance to play them myself (should it interest me, at least: I've no issue with spoiling terrible games for myself). In a sense, that's partly what initially drew me to Giant Bomb, after spending decades avoiding the games press: much of its content is geared towards producing introductory snippets that tell me everything I want to know about a game, without divulging too much information about how it actually ticks or how it will eventually pan out. It saves all the fun stuff for the viewer to discover in their own time: the part where you can really get down and dirty with a game beyond those few first minutes wandering around in confusion and getting to grips with the UI.
There's value in early impressions, is the TL;DR of all this, but perhaps more valuable still is having that full picture to expound on. It's why I still firmly believe in the importance of reviews or, as I suspect will be the new norm in the years to come, replacements such as "Spoilercasts" and "Encyclopedia Bombastica"-type features: in-depth, comprehensive explications on the function, the story and the appeal of individual games once the reviewer has spent a sufficient length of time with them, exploring all (or close to all) of its content or by reaching the conclusion of its story. (Depending on the game, any or all of those might apply.) That's the reason I'm doing May Mastery this year: I want to provide both those early, unproven thoughts and something a little more thorough after I've beaten the game and can research it without the fear that I'm somehow despoiling my first playthrough.
With all that said, let's get to the conclusion of this I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream analysis before I completely disappear up my own ass:
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
I talked about how Gorrister's campaign opened a can of worms by introducing the idea of fail states to the game's palette, and Benny's goes another step further by introducing the game's rather lackadaisical approach to quality control. While I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is fascinating and well-written from a narrative standpoint, it does suffer from more than its fair share of bugs. I ran into a problem with Benny's campaign where Benny and the cursor would completely disappear after reloading a save, which made progress impossible. Later on, I discovered that the solution to a section that stymied me for a good part of an hour required that a specific character would eventually depart its location and leave an item untended that I had to steal, except the character stayed put the whole time. Whatever trigger I needed to hit to shift them did not take, and I was left with a stalemate situation of which I had no cognizance. It's one thing to be at the mercy of mercurial puzzle design that can kill (or reset one's progress, in this case) the player character, but another entirely to betray the player's intrinsic trust that the game is fully operational and working by its own internal logic that is left to that player to fathom.
But really, instances like those are sporadic and the game worked like it was supposed to most of the time. Learning yesterday that the spiritual health of a character really only determines how many mistakes they can afford to make in the final scenario, there is still something to the idea of completing each scenario "perfectly": if the player performs no ethical errors, doesn't consult the hint system and completes various hidden objectives that demonstrate the character's virtues, the character ends up with a pure white spiritual barometer, i.e. the best case scenario. In this regard, IHNMaIMS reminded me of the underrated Wii game Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure. That game also featured a system that judged not only a player's puzzle perspicacity but also their efficiency: by completing every part of the overall puzzle in the right order without errors, the player would receive a higher score. Of course, you'd need to be familiar with the puzzle already to achieve an ideal completion state, so it added an element of replayability often absent within the adventure/puzzle game genre. While you don't need to complete each of IHNMaIMS's scenarios perfectly to get a decent shot at one of the better endings, it does introduce an enticing prospect for players of a more perfectionist bent, not unlike the old point systems in text adventures and Sierra point-n-clicks.
Once again, each of the three remaining scenarios were custom-built to maximize the psychological torment of their particular victims. Benny, an ape-like creature that was once a ruthless military commander (apparently one of the bigger changes from the books, where he was a brilliant gay scientist) before AM modified him, is dropped into a pre-industrial cave-dwelling society with his consciousness intact but still limited by his useless, crippled limbs. He relied on the kindness of strangers, despite not having the most enlightened view of developing world populations as a veteran of the Vietnam War, and eventually learned to embrace compassion and empathy. There's not really a whole lot to this scenario, beyond the aforementioned semi-game-breaking bugs, but it does involve some interesting art design: the caves (and those that live in them) are all mechanical constructs built by AM for his little game, and Benny's near-starving state often lead to him trying to eat the food and flora despite the fact that they're all made of wires and electronics. AM's certainly not the nicest caretaker.
Nimdok's is a little more interesting, though at the same time entirely too on-the-nose. Given his advanced age, labcoat and German accent, it's not a stretch to assume that he's some sort of ex-Nazi doctor that was hiding out in South America before AM found him prior to wiping out the rest of mankind. His scenario very much plays on a specific time and place from his past, rather than the more allegorical scenarios of the other survivors. Either due to his senility or denial, he cannot face the victims of his Dr. Mengele-style experiments (the Nazi Angel of Death himself actually shows up, as if we needed to make the parallel more transparent), and instead goes about helping the prisoners in whatever small ways he can to amend for the hundreds of medical atrocities he has performed. The scenario is built to reflect the end of the war in 1945, when Nimdok and the other Nazis are finally deposed and are forced into hiding: this year is important to AM as well, as it lead to the discovery of all the Nazi science experiments and research for which Nimdok had been responsible, which in turn were used by AM to create most of these scenarios.
With the handsome and well-educated grifter Ted, the game takes something of a more traditional angle. Really, it goes full King's Quest, dropping Ted in a medieval castle and having him solve a group of puzzles involving magic mirrors, witches, demons, angels and a fair damsel (who resembles Ellen, possibly hinting at an abandoned romantic sub-plot between the two). There is also an ever-present threat in the guise of a pack of hungry dire wolves circling the castle: I discovered a way to bar the front door of the castle mostly by accident, so I am left wondering what would've happened if I'd ignored that problem for too long. This part of the game felt a lot less interesting due to its similarities with the aforementioned King's Quest and other generic fantasy settings, though I did like Ted's VA's Owen Wilson-esque Californian inflection. Watching him fumble around a gothic castle full of horrors reminded me of Keanu Reeves's terrible miscasting (and worse accent) in 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula. (And don't tell me that calling the Californian guy Ted wasn't a deliberate Reeves reference.)
It's the finale of the game that I found the most fascinating part of the whole shebang. Given that the finale only becomes accessible after the rest of the game has been completed, and thus is filled with spoilers, here's a block for you all:
So what happens is that the subversive elements in each character's scenarios that allowed each them to succeed, despite the fact that AM deliberately programmed them all to be impossible as part of its ongoing campaign of mental torture, introduce themselves and allow the survivors to enter AM's mind and take it down from the inside while it's temporarily contemplating its failure. The survivors also discover that their deaths are permanent in this virtual environment. The player is then left with two choices: they can simply allow the survivors to die via the many injurious objects in this place, one after the other, ignoring the commands of the subversive elements that gave them this chance until only one of them remains. Unfortunately, AM is able to recover and "rescue" that survivor before they too can suicide, only to turn them into a hideous blob with no physical agency and thus no means to kill itself. This is the canonical ending of the book: one of AM's schemes to dispirit the survivors also inadvertently affords them the rare opportunity to kill themselves permanently. They all die except Ted, who becomes the amorphous blob creature depicted in-game that has no mouth (but must scream).
Alternatively, the player can ally with the subversive elements - revealed to be AM's Chinese and Russian counterparts, which AM believed he absorbed utterly - to take AM over. The player has a few approaches here: they can create the circumstances that would allow the other CPUs to take over, or they can ensure that AM's Id, Ego and Superego are all destroyed along with the other CPUs. A ray of hope is offered with the realization that humanity still exists elsewhere, in a cold storage facility on the moon, where they might once again repopulate a terraformed Earth. It's the sort of optimistic ending that kinda runs perpendicular to the rest of the game's personality, so whether you consider this "good ending" to be more apposite than the horrifying canonical ending of the book is really up to the player's interpretation. I guess it's the same conceit behind whether you believe Seymour or Audrey II should've won at the end of the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors movie, because having outer space plant monsters take over the Earth more befits the movie's subversive sense of humor.
The game is also at its most obtuse in these sections, of course, because there's a lot of pointless character-specific elements (at least I didn't find a reason to de-power each of the survivors' power nodes, unless it factors into the final battle with AM somehow) that greatly complicate matters by giving the player too many moving parts to contend with. The player's inventory is also full of totems: metaphors that represent abstract terms like Compassion and Entropy made manifest, in a metaphysical realm where such things have power. It's certainly a little trippy, though I appreciated its thoughtfulness.
Overall, IHNMaIMS gives me a vibe not unlike Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. I was probably a little too harsh on that vampire RPG when I reviewed it, because while it barely works as an action video game it certainly had a lot of intelligence and attention to detail behind its characterizations and narrative elements. It felt like a deeply flawed game that would be very easy to fall in love with, because of how distinctive it was and how little it talked down to its audience. Such games are a rare commodity, and it's worth putting up with a few mechanical snafus to appreciate that core. The same is true with IHNMaIMS I feel, with its ugly (though deliberately so to some extent, and certainly interesting) graphics and its weird bugs and its obtuse mechanics and its outmoded fail state situations. I can't say that there are too many adventure games with its ideas or sense of scope or pitch-black personality, and having the original author step in and adapt the game really lends it an authentic literary edge that is usually the domain of those Legend Entertainment games I covered a while back (which have a lot in common with IHNMaIMS I am now realizing) or the Discworld games.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is not a perfect adventure game, but it's one of those thematically-atypical titles ideal for aficionados of the adventure game genre (or just of story-driven games in general) looking for something a bit (or a lot) different.
Hey, and welcome to Day Two of Mento's May Mastery. We're going through a handful of Steam games this year with the intent to complete, rather than play for just a couple of hours and write up some pithy impressions blog. This new variant is motivated by two reasons: A) actually wanting to clear some backlog, rather than accruing dozens of half-complete games in my Steam library that I admired; and B) getting a fuller picture when it came time to explicate on my findings, providing a more thorough analysis than the first few hours could possibly afford.
It also means this will be a far looser and less-structured feature this year, though I will endeavor to stick through it for the entire 31 day period. Don't be surprised if I can't find much to talk about on certain days: my only promise is that I'll write something on the many games I have prepared for May Madness this year. (And, just to remind folk, my three day rule is still in effect: I'll be moving on regardless if I can't beat the game in three days, rather than keep trying to write new things about it. Good thing I didn't put many RPGs on this list.)
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
I'm running into quite a few scheduling problems already with this feature, choosing to spend a lot of today's free time working on the Wiki and catching up with parts of the BLLSL I missed. Still managed to squeeze in a few more hours on The Dreamer Guild's pessimistic and mechanically curious adventure game. Today saw the conclusion of Gorrister's scenario, and I've gotten quite a bit into Benny's as well. More on those two later.
First, I want to explore a few additional mechanics I discovered while playing through Gorrister's plot. The portrait mechanic, which I erroneously credited to a user's happiness, is actually a sort of spiritual barometer. I must've missed an explanation for it, but with a little experimentation I've found that not only does it drop whenever the player consults the Psych Profile (the game's own hint system) but also when they perform "evil" acts. I suspected, and later confirmed, that getting the portrait color to a bright shade of green (or, ideally, pure white) allows that character to take part in the final scenario, after all five individual character scenarios have been completed. Now, I generally don't like to cheat in adventure games as deducing the puzzles is pretty much 100% of the gameplay. (Though it's perhaps significantly less of the overall experience - hearing the Bombcast discuss cheating past puzzles to see more of the script/artwork made me think about how I tend to approach adventure games in a "pure" fashion despite the awful helplessness of being stymied by a puzzle for too long.) However, I'll make an exception if there's some kind of obtuse mechanic that factors into the game's conclusion that I really needed to know about beforehand.
Gorrister's campaign also introduced a worrisome precedent: it is, in fact, possible to get your character killed. I figured with the nature of AM's torture - that none of his captive victims are allowed to end their own lives, and are instead eternal residents in his jail in the bowels of the Earth - that death would be impossible outside of some possible win condition. Rather, dying or willfully disobeying the laws of the puzzle AM has set up will cause the computer to angrily reset the scenario, undoing all of the player's progress. Each scenario takes around 30 minutes if you know what you're doing, but losing all that progress is still a bitter pill to take. Of course, if you perform too many evil acts and cause the spiritual barometer to bottom out, then maybe a reset is necessary. This is what the save function is for, I suppose, but it still feels like a regressive touch given that the game was made in the mid-90s. I'd guess that, at the time, adventure game developers were still split on whether Sierra or LucasFilm had the right approach: either make death impossible, or make it so frequent that the player would learn to save before touching anything. Being unable to reset your last action still seems like a harsh rule, however.
As for Gorrister's storyline, it is similar to Ellen's insofar as it feels like one of those trendy escape rooms, only created by a sociopathic omnipotent mind for psychologically fragile people built around their greatest fears and regrets. Gorrister deeply rues the fact that he drove his wife to insanity and suicide with his neglect, and while he begins on a rundown Zeppelin (fortunately, the game doesn't become Rule of Rose at this point) he quickly finds a honky-tonk bar that seems filled with reminders of his wife's less-than-pleasant family, as well as a jackal that speaks in riddles and requests to eat Gorrister's heart (which has actually gone missing). It's an unusual scenario, filled with the same kind of nonsensical but deeply symbolic imagery that pervaded Ellen's scenario, but also indirectly serves to help Gorrister overcome his self-hatred and mental torment: a result clearly unintended by AM when he set the whole scenario up. It seems the more noble the player is, the better the end result and the more you end up disrupting AM's schemes. Sometimes AM feels like Star Trek's Q, in that he never seems to quite anticipate the depths of altruism that the humans he toys with are capable of. Of course, AM's hatred of us is a little more overt than with John de Lancie's trickster deity, who never seems to be anything more than mildly amused.
Anyway, I've still got a bit further to go in this game. As I don't have a whole lot on the docket for tomorrow, I hope to blast through the rest of the game's content and provide a more complete appraisal of this grim, psychological anomaly of an adventure game. (Then maybe I can play something that isn't quite so depressing.)
Welcome all (previously) delirious duders to a new variation on May Madness: an annual event wherein I attempt to pare down my Steam backlog in a manner not unlike a sculptor chipping away at an enormous cliff face. Most of the time it leads to naught but a lifetime of tears and anguish, but occasionally you get some big president faces out of it. Where was I going with that analogy? Right, May Mastery.
With this new series, I'm revisiting a concept I devised with that Go! Go! GOTY! series from last year. Instead of playing a new Steam game every day for the month of May, I'm going to try to crush a smaller sample of backlog games that I've been meaning to play for, well, a while now. The plan is to reach some sort of conclusion with each of the games I visit, so that after this May I'm not left with a massive list of "now playing" games I was curious enough about to leave installed, but apparently not so curious about that I actually bothered to go back and see them to their ends. (I won't be revisiting any of those games for May Mastery, incidentally, so the most I can really hope for is to break even.)
I do have a few rules, because I always have to make things more complicated. I won't play a game for more than three days in a row, for instance, nor will I skip a day to give myself more to write next time: this May feature was meant to be a daily writing challenge first and foremost, after all. I probably should've said "this feature was meant to be entertaining and elucidating to those that read it", but then there's no time for editing or filtering one's stream of consciousness in a daily series. That's the fun of it.
The Playthrough: Despite my well-documented predilection for MS-DOS era point and click adventure games, a genre and era I've explored manytimes in my blogging habits on this site, I never actually got around to playing Harlan Ellison's highly-acclaimed adaptation of his psychological horror novel I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream prior to today. It features AM - short for Allied Mastercomputer - a miles-long, secret subterranean government computer system built to fight the Cold War on America's behalf. Not content with challenging bratty teenagers to games of Thermonuclear War while Dabney Coleman chews the scenery, it pulls a Skynet and absorbs its Chinese and Russian equivalents (and presumably their share of the Philosopher's Legacy) and orchestrates the near-total nuclear annihilation of the human race. See, it has a bone to pick with us because we opted to create a system of unparalleled computing power, enough that it could happen upon sentience, but declined to give it any means of expanding creativity or physically. Instead, it just goes into a massive sulk and endlessly tortures the remaining five human survivors for over a hundred years.
It's a cheery story, one about the last dregs of our once-haughty species who have long since abandoned any hope of defeating their omnipotent prison warden, and instead simply plays along with its little revenge scenarios knowing full well that the computer will never let them rest or forget. Rebuilding the human race is sort of futile when there's a very unhappy CPU fantasizing about your race's extinction at every nanosecond. Instead, the player is given five scenarios - one for each character - and their collective successes will lead to one of several endings. Each scenario plays into the psychology of the character attached to them, taunting them about their past mistakes and traumas, and slowly the events leading up to this past century of post-apocalyptic terror is deduced by combining the fragmented storylines.
At least, that's what I've determined from playing it so far. With today's Bombcast and UPF, I've been unable to spend a decent chunk of time with the game yet, completing only one of the five scenarios: that of Ellen's, the only female character. Ellen begins in a makeshift pyramid of electronic junk parts, which is itself flavored with a mechanical/Egyptian motif. Despite being from New Jersey, AM presumably figured it was being clever by manufacturing an ethnically-apropos scenario for its only African-American captive. Ellen is also a technological whiz, having graduated from Stanford cum laude with a double engineering-computer science degree, and is clearly connected in some way to the manufacture of AM. However, possibly given the usual secrecy behind top secret government projects, she doesn't actually know that much about the supercomputer that's been giving her hell for the past 109 years. When AM gives her an opportunity to find a way to destroy some of AM's core circuitry, however, it's not an offer she can refuse.
The actual gameplay parts, which would be the usual "using objects on hotspots" graphic adventure business, is impressively streamlined. For as obtuse as AM can be, with an intelligence unfathomable to the remaining humans, the game ensures that the player doesn't have so many moving parts that they become regularly stuck, and this capacity for confusion is also ameliorated somewhat by separating the quintet of sufferers into five not-so-easy pieces. I've talked about how adventure games do themselves a service by being "episodic", but given how often I need to explain the difference between episodic in the Telltale sense and episodic in the way I mean it, I've decided to start calling this format "capsular" instead. A capsular adventure game separates its screens and items into manageable chunks, minimizing the amount of backtracking and experimentation necessary to decipher a solution. Ideally, a good adventure game can open its world to you, allow you collect a couple dozen objects from all over the place and still be straightforward enough for a reasonably intelligent player to intuit the solutions based on what they've found and the hints they've gathered from contextual clues and accommodating NPCs. Still, the average player's intelligence is perhaps the hardest thing for a developer to anticipate, so a capsular approach like this works just as well, even if it serves to railroad the player's progress a tad.
Anyway, with this capsular framework and a handy built-in hint system (that appears to take some sort of mental toll whenever it is used), I was able to get through Ellen's scenario without getting stumped too often. Even so, the game certainly doesn't shy away from throwing dark, introducing Ellen's two fervid phobias of confined spaces and the color yellow that Ellen must eventually overcome in order to solve AM's riddles, and then goes ahead and explains just how she came by them in a pretty harrowing scene. Ellen eventually discovers a former, more benevolent facet of AM's programming that the supercomputer managed to bury, and the scenario is over: the intent, it seems, is to gradually fill in a larger picture as more of these scenarios are completed. Even so, the game is not pulling its psychological punches, and I don't imagine a happy ending is on the cards for anyone. I'm looking forward to playing more of it.
The Verdict: I'll be jumping into more of this tomorrow, playing a few of the other scenarios. The benefit of adventure games, at least in the context of wanting to pen a daily series with some variety, is that they often only take a handful of hours to complete. When they want to be cooperative, that is. They also sometimes want to be abstruse moon-logic simulators that stump me for hours. Here's hoping for a smooth ride on May 2nd.
Welcome, all and sundry, to another Comic Commish: a series of, well, oblique "thank yous" to the kind folk who have gifted me games on Steam in the past few years that I've neglected to either thank properly (and today's really no exception) nor have I actually bothered to play the games they were so gracious to send me. Until today, that is. This month's game is Vlambeer's Luftrausers, which comes courtesy of a Giant Bomb user whose username I forgot to write down to my ultimate chagrin. Still, I'm raising a salute in honor of the Unknown Duder with April's (well, technically March's; I'm still behind) Comic Commish, flying in just under the wire.
Talking of protracted flight and/or military metaphors, Luftrausers is a World War... X(?) dogfighting game that hearkens back to not only an era where blimps and non-jet-propulsed fighter planes were relevant in aerial warfare but also to an Arcade era of 2D (kinda) open-world shoot 'em ups like Konami's Time Pilot, Namco's Sky Kid and an old freeware Amiga game called Dogfight that I'm sure no-one remembers.
But, oh man, is this game something else.
Well, we've seen the officers back at HQ, but the game doesn't adequately explain who is actually flying the plane. Surely they can only rely on the best of the best? The créme de la créme? The Huey of the Lewises?
This game rocks. I'm generally lukewarm on games with simple, repetitive Arcade-style gameplay and an upgrade system that requires a lot of repeat business - Kongegrate and Newgrounds are filled with the things, all playing on some variation of a player feedback loop of "do well, earn improvements, do better" - but Luftrausers raises the bar with its presentation. The angular and austere character design (which, yeah, is a little close to the you-know-whats, but it's not like the Royal Air Force were particularly loose and "rock n' roll" and "playing volleyball with the boys to Kenny Loggins" back then either), the stark visual design of burgundy-on-urine and that fantastic track, that changes ever so slightly depending on the player's loadout, lends itself to multiple playthroughs.
The the most positive accolade I can give Luftrausers is thus: I don't give a fig for games that nakedly exhibit the aforementioned cyclical player-hooking mechanic in lieu of something more appealing to the non-insect part of my brain, like a story. I don't give a fig for shoot 'em ups in general (I die too often). I don't give a fig for games based on World War 2 or have strong WW2 allusions unless glowy blue anime ladies are involved. But I give all the figs (and several other types of stick) for Luftrausers. It's neat.
I think the most interesting aspect of this game, after three in-depth looks at how its courses were designed, is how it appears to run on child logic. Child logic is an enigmatic and powerful force of creativity that allows us to make the necessary logical connections to solve puzzles via a sort of tabula rasa logic-governing system: we can no longer make these connections as easily because we "know too much" about how the world is meant to function, rather than some invented world like Super Mario 64 where the rules aren't quite so clear-cut. I came to this epiphany while watching the Game Grumps getting stymied on at least a dozen Stars that, and I'd concur with this as a fellow adult, are far too obtuse and vague considering the actual solution. There's many cases where I have no clue how the developers knew that a player would be able to surmise a solution based on the information given to them. Yet I recall first playing the game through to completion, 120 Stars and all, in 1997: a time of my life when the internet wasn't the omni-presence it is now, and could only be seen in libraries and Hollywood thrillers starring Sandra Bullock as the world's least likely homely recluse or Angelina Jolie with a pixie cut.
Perhaps "child logic" is a tad reductive. I believe it has more to do with a puzzle-solving approach that essentially amounted to trying every idea the player could conceive of. Not necessarily trial and error, per se, but rather a scenario where the player has a puzzle to suss out and an entire afternoon to waste jumping on, punching and ground-pounding every object and peeking around every nook and cranny in the environment until a solution presented itself. It's why I managed to power through the game in a couple of weeks all those years ago, and why the Game Grumps - who are attempting to create a svelte, ten-minute-long daily internet Let's Play show - are left with little recourse than to seek out a solution online to ensure that some, any, progress is made for that day's episode.
It's another worthy reminder that Super Mario 64, more than any of the multitude of formulaic 3D platformers that followed, has a considerable focus on puzzles and problem-solving. It's a 3D puzzle-platformer, and maybe we'd see many games like it on Steam and PSN if more Indie devs realized that. (But hey, we're going to be learning more about what this mysterious Project Ukulele is any day now, so for the time being I'm satisfied that we're seeing the beginning of a 3D platformer resurgence.)
Shifting Sand Land
Shifting Sand Land is where the gloves come off, and possibly Mario's hat. While Lethal Lava Land seemed exactly that, it actually provided ample opportunity for a player to course-correct whenever Mario is sent soaring from a scorched behind. The intimidation factor was high, but the difficulty less so. With Shifting Sand Land the dynamic has been reversed, with an innocuous desert plain that is in actuality mostly insta-death quicksand. It takes very little effort to accidentally find oneself in a patch of this deadly menace, and the game gives absolutely no quarter if you should happen to land in it. It surrounds the course, it surrounds the Tox Box maze, it surrounds half of the red-and-yellow checkered pillars and it surrounds the centerpiece of the stage: an enormous and mysterious pyramid with precarious outer edges.
Let's talk about some more of these surface obstacles, while we're here: the Parthenon-esque pillared structure near the start has both a Flying Cap block and a shell, making navigating the rest of the surface area considerably easier on the player if they're reasonably certain about where they're going - say, the interior of the pyramid or towards the floating red coins. However, these items are on the top of the structure and there's no easy way to get up there, so many players tend to walk on past after a few abortive side- and back-somersaults. It's very possible to get up there with a triple jump; the player just needs to find some space to get a run up. The mechanical Tox Box maze feels a little incongruous next to all these desert ruins, perhaps something better befitting Donkey Kong 64 with DKC's tendency to explore industrial environments, but there's definitely something ominous about all those stomping boxes. They have "safe spots" but it's rarely worth the trouble to get beneath them; instead, there's plenty of space to elude them, or sit around and wait for their routes to pass you by.
As for enemies, there's the fan-favorite Pokey, rendered as a stack of 2D sprites. It's one of the few enemies to be rendered as such, and I have to wonder how much strain it would've been on the N64 hardware to just stack a bunch of orbs on top of each other. Maybe the developers couldn't figure out how to make a tower of spheres do Pokey's trademark jiggle? We also see a flying Shy Guy, or Fly Guy, and these guys and their fireball strafing runs will be a persistent menace for the rest of the game. The most apparent of the course's antagonists, at least on the surface area, is Klepto the giant vulture. We'll discuss him in just a moment.
We also have the pyramid's interior, which like Lethal Lava Land's volcano is an entirely separate part of the level and shouldn't be overlooked when searching for 100 coins. Of course, there's no way out once you've gone inside, and the player once again has to either quit out of the stage or find a Star before they can return to the surface area. It's predictably vertically-oriented, and players have to navigate their way to the top for most of the Stars in this area.
A few more notes here: The "portrait" of Shifting Sand Land is actually a featureless wall at one of the basement's handful of dead ends. A Toad gives you a hint about checking for "ripples", which the wall still exhibits if struck, but it can be a tricky find all the same if the player has no idea that an eighth course exists down here (which they should be able to figure out after entering the ninth, also in the basement). MIPS the rabbit will actually help out here, as the player might find themselves diving towards him, missing and smacking into the wall face-first which will give away its ripple-y secret. Shifting Sand Land gets a bit economical with its music, taking Lethal Lava Land's Indian rhythms for its surface and the Hazy Maze Cave's enigmatic SMB World 1-2 remix for its pyramid interior. We'll see this musical recycling with the next stage as well: a possible downside to giving these themes dynamic elements is that it doesn't leave much space for additional tracks.
The first Star involves taking Klepto's treasure away from him, turning him into a scorned nuisance for the rest of the course's Stars (half of which are thankfully indoors, away from the bird). Klepto takes a circular route around the course, staying out of Mario's reach for much of it. The best chance Mario has is when Klepto starts circling one of the pillars: Mario can simply run up these pillars (once again exhibiting his remarkable Sherpa-esque climbing ability) and leap in the air at its apex to knock the Star out of Klepto's grasp. After procuring this Star, Klepto will begin to dive bomb Mario once he's in visual range and attempt to steal his hat as due payment: A hat-less Mario takes more damage, and will remain without a hat until the player has recovered it - in other words, losing a life in this state will eject Mario out of the portrait without his hat, and he needs to go back to the correct course in order to retrieve it. It's the closest thing the game has to a persistent negative status effect.
The second's a little more straightforward and may well be the first Star that the player intuits from taking in the lay of the land: they simply need to reach the peak of the pyramid, where the Star hides in a tiny alcove. The danger here is falling off one of the many ledges that circle up the pyramid, which almost always result in instant death by the quicksand that surrounds the triangular tomb like a moat.
Third Star requires that the player enter the pyramid. It's simple run to the top, and the player has a few tricks to get to where they need to go faster. Climbing the mummified Thwomps with the rictus grins (they're apparently called Grindels, which is a weird place for a Beowulf pun), for example, or finding an idea spot for a triple-jump. Shifting Sand Land takes a different approach when it comes to going in and out of their second area: with Lethal Lava Land, the last two Stars were in the volcano, giving the player no reason to go inside while chasing the first four. With Shifting Sand Land, the Stars seem to have more a random order to them, though I prefer to think of them as "least obvious to most": the first two Stars are actually visible on the surface, depending on where you're standing, and this third Star simply involves entering the pyramid and climbing it to the top. The next three get a little more abstruse.
With the fourth Star, the player is given an imperative ("stand tall on the four pillars!") without knowing what might result. The initial goal is to simply stand on the four pillars surrounding the pyramid, as instructed, and see what happens. Given that at least one of the pillars is surrounded by quicksand, it's a fair idea to use a Flying Cap to quickly reach the four tops without dropping to the ground. Once the player has done this, the top of the pyramid blasts off to reveal a second entrance to the pyramid interior. This leads directly to a boss fight against the Eyerok pyramid guardian, which feels like something right out of a Kirby game. It's not a terribly difficult boss, but it is one of the most involved in terms of behavior patterns. The idea is to punch the eyes on the palms of each hand when they open, which a player will observe happens alternately with the two hands: one hand slides forward to push Mario off the boss's platform while the other opens its eye to get a bead on him. You get a sense at the internal logic of the boss in this regard, as once a hand is gone, the other resorts to desparate attacks with its eye open as it no longer has any other way of seeing you. The timing isn't quite right to support this little theory - the hand swipes forward at you moments before the second hand's eye opens - but it feels like that's what the boss's designers were going for. It's fair to say that a Nintendo boss's weak spot is usually of the inexplicable "band-aid on their stomach" variety and we should just accept that, but I'd like to think Eyerok had a strong reason for occasionally making itself vulnerable.
With the crazy twists of the fourth Star, the fifth is relatively sedate, requiring simply that the player find the eight red coins. Four are scattered across the surface area of the course while the other four are hanging around in the air and require the Flying Cap to reach. I've got two theories why this Star came after the Eyerok fight: the first is that it's incredibly easy to stand on top of the four pillars while chasing the airborne coins, revealing their secret ahead of time. The second is that it's another Star that requires a cap to complete, and the further down the hint list those are the less irritating they become for players who have yet to find the related cap switch. There is one red coin on the ground that might cause players some grief: it's directly behind where they start and is at a intersection so far from the player that it sits outside the draw distance. If you were to glance over there from the starting area, it'd just look like a steep sand dune next to the deadly course terminus with no remarkable features. I don't know exactly what ratio of cocky-to-diabolical it is to use your own game's draw distance limitation to bamboozle the player, but it's quite a mean trick.
With the sixth, we have again one of the obtuse Stars in the game. I don't think it's any accident these tend to appear at the end of the lists: if anything, they feel like bonus Stars for the most experimental of players to find. Given little direction other than "pyramid puzzle", the player has to suss out that the secret is hidden in a sand aqueduct that flows down the center of the pyramid's interior. It's possible to hit one of the five secret activators while making their way up the pyramid, but it requires a leap of faith at one point high up to find the first three. I feel the "secret trigger" Stars only work best when the player has easy access to a handful and can deduce where the rest are, but there's nothing obvious about falling into a sand sluice and hearing that telltale chime. In fact, it might just convince players to follow it down to the base of the pyramid, forcing them to start climbing back up again. Anakin Skywalker might've had a point about these irritating sand worlds.
100-Coin Challenge: Honestly, not too difficult in spite of all the death traps. If the player can find a decent number of coins from the surface area, including the red coins and the blue coins from Pokeys, and then reach the pyramid entrance they can breathe a sigh of relief. The interior of the pyramid has far fewer instant-death fuck-yous, instead depending on the usual damage dealing traps like Grindels and those shock orb things. There's also a blue coin switch very close to where the player is dropped off inside the pyramid which provides another 15 coins. I appreciated the difficulty curve of this one: all too often, and this was especially true with the musical notes of Banjo-Kazooie, I get around 95% of the way to the total and then start choking and making too many errors as I'm running around frantically searching for that last handful of collectibles. Having the second half of this coin rush shift to a less hazardous environment greatly ameliorates the issue of psyching myself out inches from the finish line.
Dire Dire Docks
Dire Dire Docks, true to its name, might be the least liked course in all of Super Mario 64. There's a lot of bullshit inherent to some of the more difficult courses to come, but Dire Dire Docks suffers by being both a challenging underwater level and being decidedly uninteresting with its level design and Star tasks. The concept of Dire Dire Docks is to tie in the second Bowser Road encounter, allowing the player to come across Bowser's submarine (was he planning on escaping? Or was this how he entered the castle in the first place? And if so, why does the castle have a secret submarine dock?) which then activates the trigger that reveals the next Bowser Road stage: Bowser in the Fire Sea. The submarine won't leave the dock until this Bowser Road has been completed, which actually prevents a Star from being reached.
Beyond the Bowser sub, there's not a whole lot to Dire Dire Docks. The initial whirlpool area has some interesting sealife, including a very passive shark and an enormous manta ray which might be the best-animated polygonal creature in the game along with the moray of Jolly Roger Bay. The whirlpool at the bottom will persistently suck in the player if they hang around it too long, making navigating this area a little annoying unless the player is ready to mash the swim button at a moment's notice. Past this initial area are the docks themselves; an enormous square room with a bunch of motorized poles on the ceiling (conspicuously absent if the sub is still in dock) and really not much else.
I will say that the portrait for Dire Dire Docks, essentially a blue rippling wall that shifts to reveal the Bowser Road entrance, is a bizarre enigma. It's as if the Stargate has opened up under Peach's Castle. While I'm somewhat torn on how necessary Hazy Maze Cave's inky pool was, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than a wall of rippling water. (I suspect someone wanted to show off the N64's ripple physics some more and ran out of subtle ways to do it.)
The first Star is the only necessary one. It's odd to think that there are "story essential" Stars in SM64 because the vast majority are just as vital as the next, but not so vital that you actually need to grab them to continue the game. Perhaps due to its importance, this one is a complete cinch: just swim to the docks and find a way to get on board the sub where the Star is waiting. After this, you need to leave Dire Dire Docks and play Bowser Road, otherwise the third Star will be inaccessible. Another curious aspect of this first Star: once you've completed Bowser in the Fire Sea, the sub never comes back. The submarine's now-unreachable Star is just floating in mid-air over the docks, far from any of the moving poles.
Chests in the Current marks the return of the trial-and-error sequence puzzle, only this time it's four chests surrounding the swirling vortex that kills you instantly. One chest in particular is close enough to this deathtrap that it becomes really untenable to keep going back to it, because of course it's also the last chest in the sequence. I believe that was a deliberate decision by the developers to inject some difficulty into this course, because it's the only Star with any challenge (depending on your skill with the pole-jumping, anyway), despite the fact that it's really more irritating than anything else. Laziness and recycling will be a recurring theme with Dire Dire Docks, if I've not made that clear by now.
This third Star is the pole-jumping Star, and while I've tried not to get too walkthrough-esque with these Star descriptions, this is absolutely the Star where you want to chase after the 100-Coin Challenge simultaneously. Gathering all the red coins, as well as the blue coin switch, is essential to earning the 100 coin total necessary for the bonus Star, and it's such a tiresome pain that it's best to do it once. While I could never admit to being wary of the things prior to Super Meat Boy, Team Meat's nonpareil Indie platformer really taught me a few things about platformer impatience, and that especially includes sequences that require waiting for a pattern to complete: whether that's a platform going side to side or a group of them turning in a circle, if a platformer is forcing the player to wait for a pattern to reset it's doing them a disservice and disrespecting their time. It's one of those deeply-entrenched design faux pas that platformer game developers need to stop themselves doing, very similar to how modern video game writers are trying to avoid using "mixed bag" and a number of other overused clichés in their reviews. Once upon a time, we wouldn't have noticed instances like this, but now we've become savvier and reneged against the status quo.
The fourth Star is curious because the tactic it requires is identical to the fifth Star, which somewhat devalues it. Or, you might consider this one to be the warm-up, as it doesn't require the extra wrinkle of following a moving target around. The player needs to sit inside the rings that lift from the jetstream, and then repeat the Jolly Roger Bay Metal Cap Star in order to grab it from inside the stream. I've been reliably informed that a savvy player can catch these jetstream Stars with the right swimming angle/speed, though I imagine it takes a lot of practice. Fortunately, the game is here to help you out by giving you multiple instances of the same instance to train with. Clearly helping speedrunners was the intent all along for this creative bankruptcy. (I'm probably being too harsh here. Maybe Dire Dire Docks was the very last course they developed.)
The fifth Star is the same as the fourth, only the player is chasing the rings the manta ray leaves behind. Remember the lede, where I talked about child logic? I feel this is one of those occasions where a younger player might just ignore what the game asks of them and just follows the manta ray around a while because it's a cool creature. In that case, they might just luck upon this particular Star, which requires swimming through the rings that the manta leaves behind. It's a bit tricky, as the manta moves slower than Mario at his faster swimming pace (which is why it might help to assume Mario's medium speed pace). The rings also restore health, so there'll never be a point where the player has to break off after three or four successful rings to go catch their breath real quick. I can't tell if it's deliberate, but the opaque rings do a weird flickering effect that might either be the engine struggling with transparency filters or the developers trying to make sure they're visible to the player by causing them to flash. It wouldn't be the first ultimately serendipitious glitch in video gaming.
Collect the Caps isn't too interesting besides the fact that it involves wearing two caps at once, which doesn't really make a whole lot of sartorial sense outside of Team Fortress 2. By being both metal and noncorporeal, the player can drop to the bottom of the docks and walk through an iron grate where a Star awaits. The player needs to grab the Vanish Cap first because the Metal Cap is behind another grate, but either way it's not a huge struggle. It does demand that the player has found both cap switches though, which is why it's a suitable final challenge for the basement area as both are found down in this part of the castle.
100-Coin Challenge: While not exactly filled with instant death traps, there are two areas in the course where Mario can get dragged by the current. One loses him a life and the other unceremoniously spits him into the pond outside the castle. Avoiding these two deathtraps, and the entirely apathetic sharks and ray, ensures that you only need to worry about Mario's oxygen and the boring task of following the poles around the upper part of the stage for all the coins. There's a real dearth of possible coins here, and some are pretty hard to spot like the row of five right at the surface where Mario starts, so it presents one of the hardest challenges in the game.
Bowser in the Fire Sea
Bowser in the Fire Sea, true to its name, is another Bowser Road obstacle course but this time with a heavy influence of lava-based traps. It reuses a lot of ideas from Lethal Lava Land, naturally enough, but has a few interesting ideas of its own as well. My particular favorite is a group of connected platforms that rise up and down like an accordion. There's also more platforming involving poles, something the player will be used to soon enough in Dire Dire Docks - which, of course, require that the player defeats Bowser here first before they become available.The course ends with a strange exit that looks like a ray gun, which warps Mario to his encounter. In the other two Bowser Roads, the entrance to the Bowser fight is a regular pipe, so why the developers felt that they needed to mix it up with this weird structure that looks better suited to an Ape Escape game is anyone's guess. I forget if I've mentioned it before, but the Bowser Road track is my favorite in the whole game. It's eerie and rousing in equal measure, much like the Bowser's Castle theme of Super Mario World.
The Bowser fight is identical, but for one surprise Bowser drops on Mario: he ground-pounds, causing the entire arena to shift precariously on his axis and causing Mario to slide feet-first into the lava. It can be counteracted if the player's reflexes are quick enough of course, and Bowser won't pull it again for a while, but it's a neat little trick to keep players (literally) off-kilter. Bowser always leads with this move for this fight, so it's easy to assume the rest of the battle will be completely different as well. Nope. Just gotta grab him by the tail and heave him into a bomb again. Still, it's good practice for the final encounter, which does require a little more skill to pull off. Or throw off, I suppose.
This marks the end of the basement Stars and our trek into the castle's upper floors, where more dangers await. The courses from here on out stop being quite so gentle, though they're also a lot more interesting to boot. Super Mario 64 is thankfully not one of those games that stops innovating past the halfway point, choosing instead to simply emphasize the difficulty of extant mechanics and puzzles already in place - something later Mario games, especially 3D Land and 3D World, unfortunately depend a little too heavily on.
Next time, I'll be covering the first and second of four courses that are accessible after the second Bowser Road but before the last milestone of the game. They're also two of my favorites, so I'm looking forward to scrutinizing them. See you then.