Mento's May Mastery: Day 12: Botanicula

Heya, everyone, to the newest edition of Mento's May Mastery. Well, unless you're reading this in 2017 or something, in which case this is the... nineteenth newest? Check the math on that one with your future calculators, if you may. I'm also assuming video and livestreaming died and the written word has once again become the dominant form of video game coverage. In which case, I'm hoping your timeline is the one that comes true out of infinite others.

When I'm not talking gibberish about causality, I also like to play video games. First thing I wanna talk about is that the Witcher 3 looks pretty darn good right about now, so I've finally decided to put my endless shilly-shallying on the line and created a list of PS4 games I'd be very interested in owning. I figure if I get that list long enough before a certain birthday-shaped deadline, I'll take the plunge and finally join you all in the present. Even if I don't, though, I think I have enough backlog to last me another five years. Might be I just skip this generation entirely. I also wanted to point out that the Grumps have finished their LP of Super Mario 64, so I'm feeling motivated to complete another part of my deep scrutiny of that game later this week.

Talking of skipping stuff, you'll notice that I didn't revisit Miasmata today. Honestly, after another hour or so, I kind of get it. You move from one checkpoint to the next, using triangulation for cartographic confirmation and the compass for rough approximations, find plants, take plants to lab and then move onto the next map spot. The fact is, I think the designers had good intentions by creating not only a first-person survival game with fanciful features like orienteering 101 and botanical investigations but an actual storyline and progression to follow to its natural conclusion. However, they painted themselves in a corner when it came to figuring out a way to make the game stay fresh throughout its runtime. The choice was to either assume the audience has the boundless amounts of patience to quietly pick their way through an expansive world full of plants and landmarks to discover, or they could light a figurative fire under their ass by teaching them all the basics they needed to beat the game and then sic a giant panther on them to make them hurry. I wonder if there is a "no panther" mode, and whether or not that would actually improve the game. Still, I commend their efforts. It'd be neat if something like that triangulation system found its way into Fallout 4 or Mad Max or something similar - it makes sense that maps are scarce in places like those, so it wouldn't hurt to have a smart way for players to make their own. (And I don't mean drawing endless lines and squares on a touchscreen, thank you Etrian Odyssey.)

What else? Well, I also fully completed Life of Pixel today. The difficulty curve gets a little screwy towards the end of that game. Beyond the Amiga levels I was initially stuck on, the game suddenly eased off a whole lot, dropping the required collectible count to about half and making the game far more manageable. Likewise, the Apple II stages went from simple to devastatingly tough for one particular level and then back to easy again. The last two systems - the Sega Master System and Sega Genesis, oddly relegated to being "bonus worlds" despite the NES, SNES and Game Boy all being in there - had a mixture of fun surprises and arbitrary difficulty peaks and valleys as well. I forget how I signed off on that game originally (probably pretty harshly, what with my frustration) but I still admire the attention to detail in its presentation. The music seemed especially well-done, with each of its chiptune themes approximating the sound chips of each of the console "worlds" they pertained to. They weren't always super catchy, but I could tell that they were made to sound identical to those consoles, possibly with the original sound tech itself. Best of all, I got 100% and didn't get the Noob achievement (500 deaths)! Used to be I'd bother to hunt down all those loser consolation achievements to complete the set, but not any more. (Pretty sure it doesn't make me a cool guy either way.)

Botanicula

I suppose I'd better talk about today's game already. Despite this insistence that I'd try to beat every game I started this month, I took a glance at the list of potential games I had planned out and realized I'm nowhere even close to finishing them all. We're almost halfway through May and I've beaten, what, four games? I've decided to be a little more stringent as a result, and I'm only going to pursue games over multiple days if they really grab me. It also means more switching over on a daily basis, so hopefully that'll keep things interesting for you readers.

Playing Botanicula feels a bit like the Nifflas phenomenon I discussed when I covered NightSky: it feels like a May Madness feature doesn't go by where I'm not covering a game from Amanita Design. The Czech developers are otherwise known for Machinarium and the Samorost series; I covered Machinarium way back during the first May Madness, and Samorost 2 in last year's May Madness Melange. Like those two, Botanicula fits within Amanita's usual design parameters: a point and click adventure game that greatly emphasizes the pointing and clicking, rewarding experimentation and creativity. Mostly every screen in the game has at least one or more hotspots, sometimes as small as a pinprick, and will generate anything from a solution to the present problem (such as one of five keys needed to move on) or some little graphical or musical flair that otherwise adds nothing besides making the game feel a little more alive and colorful.

Amanita can do "pretty" very well. And "creepy". Usually in tandem.

There's a reason I keep coming back to these games, and it's due to how effectively Amanita Design boils down the adventure game genre to its mechanical bare essentials. It used to be that graphical adventure games were built around their story; that the various inventory puzzles and dialogue trees were solely meant to deliver lines in a script and move a swashbuckling tale ever closer to its conclusion. The Amanita games have stories, of course, but with the lack of dialogue and text it usually feels secondary to whatever puzzle is happening right at that moment. You know you need to get past an obstacle to keep on fighting these darkness bugs that are siphoning the life out of the trees and taking over, but the obstacle itself is what demands attention and each one has its own little tale to tell, if only through contextual hints. Plantlife-sucking vampire insects, those botanical Draculas (oh hey!), will have to wait until I'm done tinkering around with all the weird and cool stuff on the screen.

I've not beaten the game quite yet. I found this to be the case with Samorost 2 and Machinarium as well, in that you'll make incremental progress but might get sent down a pit or to another tree and still have no idea how far you are from the game's ending. I'm happy to stick with it though, as I'm loving the game's gentle charms and this little collection sidequest that tasks you with finding and playing with every lifeform - not unlike the photography side-quest of Beyond Good & Evil, except instead of shooting creatures with a camera you're poking at them until they do something amusing. (I'm pretty sure that's also the difference between a good National Geographic photographer and a bad one...)

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 11: Miasmata

New game today! But before I go into that, some more about a couple of previous entries:

Ultionus is starting to get a bit too tricky for me. I'm not going to throw in the space towel just yet, but I didn't want to make about ten minutes of progress over a couple of hours of failed attempts and have that be the entire day's update. Rest assured, like Life of Pixel, I'll return to it intermittently and edge ever closer to a completed state.

The Room went as quickly as anticipated. Each of its puzzles last around 30-60 minutes, though I'll admit I got stumped for a few minutes with one particular element of this epilogue puzzle box. I didn't look it up ahead of time, but that last puzzle felt like one the developers added especially for the Steam version, given that it didn't move the plot forward much at all (the ending "there's more yet to come" note could've easily happened at the end of the previous puzzle) and was about as complex as the second or third puzzle box, rather than the crazy orrery light show that the fourth puzzle became. Still, though, there's something wonderful about that game. The way things whirr into life whenever a puzzle is solved, and the way I never needed a hint despite coming close a couple of times suggests some well-balanced difficulty. Well, if they were balancing it for me in particular anyway. I'll have to watch out for the sequel if it ever comes to Steam.

Miasmata

Miasmata is a fascinating game, in that it tasks the player with taking in two aspects of the survival simulator - orienteering and botany - that few others bother with. The rest are all fine with rudimentary crafting and food/fatigue meters, and usually zombies. The process of triangulating one's position using landmarks is one of those things that initially sounds complicated, but you'll find yourself pulling off with relative ease as you get your head around it. Those tend to make for the best game mechanics, because that small barrier to entry is the sort of thing that still terrifies big publishers who want to assume that the vast majority of consumers will be too dumb to figure anything this complicated out. Obviously, you don't want your games to be too obtuse, but it's rare (and usually the domain of Indies) for a game to not talk down to you by allowing what would normally be an acquired survival skill in real life. It'd be like having to start your own in-game fire in a way more complicated than simply hitting a function key near a stack of properly piled-up twigs.

The orienteering involves finding a high place, picking out two familiar landmarks (insofar as that they're on your map - you don't need to have visited them previously) and having the two lines intersect to find your own position. You can then draw other lines to unfamiliar landmarks, such as those outside your map's boundaries: move a little further and repeat the triangulation process, and you can draw another line to that unfamiliar landmark and find out where it is. In practice, it's a little easier than I'm making it sound, and vital if you need to go off the beaten path for rare flowers.

Apologies for the quality of these screenshots. The game took one look at my system specifications and made one elongated "pfffffft" noise. Hey, at least it ran.

Which leads to the botany. The player character is a scientist (one assumes by his familiarity with science equipment) that has contracted a plague and is dumped on a remote island for the sake of everyone else's well-being, a bit like the lepers in Hawaii. (That's still a thing, right?) The game's chief quest-line (at least initially) involves finding the three ingredients necessary to permanently cure this plague, keeping at bay with medicine in the meantime, and synthesizing a cure. Other plants can be picked up, analyzed for their medicinal properties, and then synthesized into medicine the player takes with them. Some also provide temporary stat buffs that help you out in certain circumstances.

The game really leans on its survival aspect. The player character gets thirsty and tired, and eventually feverish, so the player needs to keep these aspects balanced. The protagonist is also as frail as a lamb for this early part of the game, weakened by his disease and prone to falling over his own feet and drowning as soon as he hits a body of water he can't stand up in. Some medicines will actually permanently increase his stats, rather than boost them briefly, but I've yet to find the ingredients for any of these. I don't doubt that they're better hidden than the regular medicine flowers.

Ah, Professor Dagless and Doctor Sanchez. You and he were... buddies, weren't you?

So far I've been milling around the island a bit. Each new piece of map points the way to a hut or tent with another map, so the progression's been fairly linear. I got turned around and ended up at the beginning at one point, leading to fifteen minutes of backtracking to where I was, so the game established the importance of the compass fairly early on: it doesn't matter if you run out of landmarks to triangulate yourself with (you'll go blind if you do it too much) as long as you know which direction the next checkpoint lies and have the compass out to guide you. At least, that's how I've been going about getting places.

One last thing: the game developers determined that simply walking around an island looking at things wasn't interesting enough (what is this, Dear Esther?) so they added a big green pointy panther to the game to stalk you. The one time I met this fellow he wasn't particularly hostile, but I wonder if he'll start to become one of those horror game unkillable pursuers as I get closer to crafting a cure. Basic video game escalation would suggest that he'd start becoming deadly after I pick up the one of the three ingredients I need - the first of which is very close. I really don't care for ticking clock systems like these, so if the game suddenly decides to switch gears from gentle exploration to running from bestial terrors in the dark with the sickly, clumsy protagonist I've been lumped with, I might just call it quits early. Wouldn't be the first time this month...

Good kitty. Gooooood kitty. (Should I be seeing the monster this early on? And this closely?)
Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge

Today's game is more of a morbid curiosity pick than something on my backlog I've been meaning to break into. I still want to do a handful of these "what the hell is this?" May Madness games this month, because I like highlighting games that I (and presumably others) have little to no prior knowledge thereof. I'll get into more detail about this particular one after the header, naturally.

The other thing I wanted to talk about before I start today's update (this is starting to become like my Livejournal, huh?) is a new in-depth and totally ridiculous (in a good way) feature from Hardcore Gaming 101 on Arcades within video games. Like Steve Ramirez and Matt Kessler's recurring fascination with every fictitious vending machine they came across in their Fear Gauntlet series (never forget!), the HG101 article hopes to include every notable instance of an Arcade machine appearing within a video game, with additional details regarding whether those machines were playable or not and whether the developers went with fictional titles or the real thing (as was the case with Shenmue and its in-game version of Super Hang-On). Might be worth keeping an eye on as it continues to be updated.

(I actually could've sworn that I heard some wiki folk talking about a "games within games" concept page. I forget if they ever followed through with it, but I can't find the page - though that might just mean I have no idea what they called it...)

Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge

Now I know what you're thinking: that I was drawn to Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge by its pneumatic, scantily-clad and hardly progressive female protagonist. Well, yes and no. The game would appear to wear its Metroid aspirations on its sleeve, but it's hardly a Metroid game in the sense that we tend to consider them. Rather, it feels more like it was based on every Metroid-aping also-ran from that period that didn't realize the secret appeal of Gunpei Yokoi's 1986 sci-fi adventure was its non-linear map and exploration, as opposed to a kick-ass space heroine blowing everything up (which, I'll admit, is still a big part of why Metroid is a lot of fun). Metroid-ish NES games like Space Hunter, Layla (which I think was the chief inspiration) and The Guardian Legend. That's not to denigrate Ultionus as another Metroid copycat, of course, because it feels like the game is in on the joke.

This... might be a little excessive. Apologies to everyone reading at work, by the way. This is probably more cartoon cleavage than the company's internet policy permits.

Ultionus also looks incredible. People frequently rave about high quality pixel art in Indie games, largely because there's so much of it to choose from, and Ultionus looks like one of the prettiest Genesis games that never existed. The music, too, is fantastic: another earworm-y chiptune symphony from WayForward/Yacht Club Games' own Jake "virt" Kaufman. The actual gameplay, though, is considerably more old-school, and not necessarily in a way that is complimentary with what I appreciate about the classics. The heroine, Serena, moves across a 2D stage with a limited arsenal of guns and traversal upgrades that she either buys or finds across the levels. She's limited to shooting directly horizontally, or slightly up at an angle, and can also jump. That's about the extent of the gameplay; it's very much a throwback to the sort of Metal Slug/Contra run-and-guns that were popular to a generation of gamers who preferred their games tough and relentless. That same breed of obstinate spirit that presently follows Touhou and the rest of the bullet hell shoot 'em ups and worshiped the ground Treasure stood on.

These enormous stretched-out images that Steam's screenshot tool unfortunately felt were necessary don't give the graphics enough credit. Play this one in a 2x or 3x sized window and savor the pixels.

Which is where I start to complain that the game's too hard and potentially invite abuse telling me that I should go to a daycare center and crawl inside the ball pit until my boo-boos heal. It actually hasn't gotten too bad where I'm at - around the middle of the game - with a balance of health points and extra lives that is actually quite reasonable: Each checkpoint fully restores Serena's health (she can take three hits before dying) and extra lives are plentiful and lying all over the place, though they don't respawn after deaths. Ideally, the player will get a hang of each stage's dangers and the location of these extra lives and find a way to the boss with a moderate stock of extra (wo)mans. The tricky part is fighting and taking down the wonderfully large bosses with whatever lives you have left, as death comes quickly and easily against those things and the game will force you to start the stage over from the beginning if all lives are lost. It's exceedingly fair even on Normal, though I barely scraped through an encounter with a giant crab and can't imagine I'll be having an easier time moving forward.

We eatin' crab rangoon tonight.

Still, there's plenty to recommend here for anyone who's seen a screenshot (which I imagine will be everyone skimming this blog, since I added a few) and knows precisely what to expect. However, it might still be a little lacking in variety, and boy howdy is it a shame that the protagonist moves like molasses on a January (unless there's a power-up that speeds her up?) because agility and maneuverability are often the best defense in busy shooters like these. I'll try some more tomorrow and see how I still feel about it.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Wiki Project: Super '94 Q2

The second quarter of the year, as I'm sure we're all presently aware, tends to be when game releases start to pick up again. Whether this is due to everyone emerging from the winter slump full of piss and vinegar or just dumping all their figurative jetsam overboard days before the end of the fiscal year, we're usually in for some interesting releases in either case. In Japan, it seems the Spring Rush is less pronounced: were we to chart the number of SNES games released per month on a line graph, we would see a nadir around the April-June quarter. May saw the fewest new releases of the year overall with 19. I mean, that still seems like a lot of releases for a single console in a single month in this day and age, but then these new consoles aren't really the phenomenon that the Super Nintendo was.

Despite the slim pickings for this quarter, we still have a few gems and curios to highlight in this period. There's more than enough excellent, terrible and obscure Super Nintendo (and Super Famicom) games from the middle of 1994 to peruse today.

(I'll stick my usual disclaimer here that while I checked every one of these pages for errors and missing content, I was not responsible for the vast majority of the work that went into them. Each page's list of editors who made the largest contributions should give you some idea of how much or how little I actually needed to do to ensure it was complete, or at least sufficiently filled out.)

(Oh yeah, and I should say that the first part of the Super '94 Wiki Project is over here, and the previous year's Super '93 Wiki Project can be found here.)

April

April saw thirty releases between the SNES and Super Famicom (not including games that came to one region after being released in another) including one of the most well-regarded Super Nintendo games of all time - as well as one of the worst. Considering we only saw the release of Super Metroid in the previous month, Spring really set the bar high for the rest of the year.

Bebe's Kids: Perhaps the most notorious Super Nintendo game of all time, Bebe's Kids was a 1992 animated comedy based on recurring stand-up routines of the unfortunately short-lived Robin Harris, usually involving playing nice with the kids under a single mom's care in order to get closer to the mom despite the fact that the kids were rambunctious terrors that hardly made it worth the trouble. While not particularly successful, the movie did well enough to spawn this licensed brawler game, and oh boy. Brawlers were starting to turn a corner in the Arcade and home console market, having been supplanted by Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat and other one-on-one fighters, but even if this game came out at the genre's late-80s Double Dragon/Final Fight peak it would've still been reviled as barely playable garbage. At least it wasn't a licensed platformer?
Dark Kingdom: A SFC-only JRPG that flips the script and has the player assume the role of an evil henchman. Each chapter of the game is episodic, starting the player in the immense and foreboding citadel of his evil superiors and eviller deity and having him go off on missions to terrorize the peaceful folk and quell the sort of heroic rebellions that would normally be the focus of games like this. Like similar cases of "playing as the bad guy" games, such as Overlord, Dungeon Keeper or Wizardry IV, much of the game's combat is spent directing one's minions, recruiting new powerful monsters as the previous get killed or rendered obsolete. Dark Kingdom has nothing to do with either Dark Law or Dark Half (two other unusual SFC JRPGs of some acclaim); people just like putting Dark in the titles of games.
Final Fantasy VI: (Or Final Fantasy III US). One of the greatest JRPGs of all time, for any system. I probably won't need to go into too much detail about Terra "Terror Baltimore" Branford's and Celes Chere's journeys through a world that is first threatened by destruction at the hands of an irresponsible power-hungry empire and then subsequently destroyed despite the heroes' best efforts, as they desperately survive in the monster-infested post-apocalyptic landscape that remains. It's a truly immense effort, pushing what the SNES could do to its very limits, and sets the stage for the equally ambitious Final Fantasies to come in the following generation and after.
Heisei Inu Monogatari Bow: Pop'n Smash: While I have zero familiarity with the manga/anime this is based on - a comedic slice of life manga about a dog that is recruited by a loving family connected to the Yakuza - there was something awfully familiar about the game itself. Heisei Inu Monogatari Bow (or "Bow's Modern Dog Story") Pop'n Smash is a clone of the Sanrio World Smash Ball competitive air hockey-esque game all duders know and love after its frequent appearances on UPF and other livestreams. Heisei Inu Monogatari Bow appears to have a few additions to help set it apart, including power-ups that serve to greatly unbalance the game (one even removes all the defensive blocks in front of their opponent's goal!) and the ability to choose which "club" to use, including a mallet and a tree branch. A little shameless of toy creators Takara and whatever mystery contract developers they hired to create it, but maybe they didn't expect anyone would notice?
Knights of the Round: The memorable Arcade brawler based around Arthurian legend with a title that appears to be missing a word is one of Capcom's better SNES conversions, learning a lesson from their coldly-received Final Fight conversion by actually making this one two-player. Of course, the original allowed up to three players to play cooperatively, but let's not get too greedy.
Marchen Adventure Cotton 100%: One of those games that regularly makes "here's some Super Famicom games you should seek out" lists, Cotton 100% is a sequel to (or remake of) the TurboGrafx-CD witch "cute 'em up" Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton and plays a little like Konami's TwinBee games (only horizontally instead of vertically) in that the player can shoot at gems dropped by enemies to change their colors and give themselves power-ups. It's a bright and cartoonish game that takes full advantage of the Super Nintendo's vibrant color palette.
Rocko's Modern Life: Spunky's Dangerous Day: Perhaps the one Nickelodeon show that felt a little too subversive, cynical and mild-mannered to lend itself well to a video game adaption (I mean, unless Telltale wants to take a shot at it...). That's possibly still the case with this frantic puzzle-platformer, in which Rocko has to protect his profoundly unintelligent dog Spunky from harm by removing obstacles in his way ahead of time (a bit like Sleepwalker, or Mario & Wario). It almost feels like it was based on the show's busy intro than anything else. There's a reason for this: the show hadn't even started airing when Nickelodeon commissioned the game, and the artists and designers only had sketches and draft scripts to work with. Not the trainwreck it could've been, but definitely not a classic SNES staple either (and not a patch on the excellent show, which pulled the same "it's really for grown-ups" trick Ren & Stimpy did only with a lot more subtlety).
Shin Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun: Kunio-tachi no Banka: Kunio-kun visited the States a couple times, leaving behind cult favorites like Renegade, Super Dodge Ball and River City Ransom before disappearing back to Japan forever. Kunio-tachi no Banka is a 1994 entry in the "core" Kunio-kun series, which involved him and his buddy/rival Riki running around Japan beating up delinquent students and other street toughs to prove their superiority (and/or save their girlfriends, who can take care of themselves in this game and act as secondary playable characters). It seems a little more serious than other Kunio-kun games, with realistically-proportioned characters (instead of RCR's "chibi" Alex and Ryan) and a darker plot concerning Kunio and Riki breaking out of juvie to hunt for the doppelgangers that framed them for a hit n' run.
Super Bomberman 2: I couldn't say if 2 was the best of the five (!) Super Bomberman games Hudson produced for the Super Nintendo, but it's the one I spent the most amount of time with as a kid. The story mode, which has the now familiar routine of a group of Mega Man-style "evil masters" with thematic superpowers arrive in orbit over Planet Bomber to cause a ruckus, only for the White (and Black) Bomber to spring to their planet's rescue. The multiplayer mode is the highlight however, with a mode that allowed the previous game's winner to start every round in a subsequent game with a golden sheen and a permanent power-up (or the geta booby prize, which slowed them down). The game also had its fair share of weird gimmick boards for the multiplayer, causing no end of friendly multiplayer abuse.
Waratte Iitomo! Tamorinpic: My pick for weirdest game this month. Waratte Iitomo! ("It's OK to Laugh!") was Japan's longest-running variety show (1982-2014!) with guests and interviews and a whole lot of daft skits courtesy of the shades-wearing comedian host Tamori. This party game has the players recreate a lot of the skits from or inspired by the show, performing mini-games like clapping to cues based on Tamori's goofy poses and bowling with a pool cue and cueball. It supports up to four players, but the mini-games themselves could only support two at once so they would go in pairs. It's an interesting execution of a license that wouldn't traditionally be thought of as video game adaptable.

Honorable Mentions: I've got a few games here that didn't seem significant enough to make the top ten list, but are definitely remarkable in their own way. Ranma ½: Chougi Ranbu Hen is the latest SFC game based on the Ranma ½ franchise, and another one-on-one fighter like Ranma ½: Hard Battle. It introduces Mariko Konjo: a "valley girl" combatant whose martial art style is based on cheerleading. Shien's Revenge is an entire game seemingly built around that on-rails bonus stage from the original Shinobi, in which you have to take down hordes of incoming ninjas with a stack of shuriken in a first-person view. Shien also allows the use of a close-combat knife, which has to be clicked-and-dragged across screen to connect with enemies and defeat them. Finally, Yume Meikyuu: Kigurumi Daibouken ("Dream Labyrinth: Kigurumi's Big Adventure") appears to be an Eye of the Beholder/Wizardry style first-person dungeoncrawler in a series of dungeons made out of cake. I really couldn't make head nor tail of it, but it looked delicious.

May

May's always been one of the leanest months for Super Nintendo releases. Excepting the small scattering of releases in 1990 and 1991, before third-party developers really latched onto the system, May had the second-lowest number of releases in 1992, the least in 1993, the least in 1994 and (spoilers) the least in 1995 and 1996. (After 1996, there'll be barely any releases for any month.)

I'm not quite sure why this is, considering that May is a month with the maximum 31 days and starts with a week-long holiday in Japan perfect for playing new video games. (At least it's sort of one holiday, anyway. If you recall the Persona 4 ER (or just from playing the game) they refer to the first week of May as Golden Week: a period of around seven days when about five different consecutive national holidays happen, so people just take the whole thing off for a vacation.) I can only imagine it's the aforementioned "end of the fiscal year" thing that leaves the following month bereft of content.

Crayon Shin-Chan 2: Dai Maou no Gyakushu: The second Crayon Shin-Chan SFC game is a little more out-there with random superheroes and a bunch of regular characters transformed into monsters, and as a result it more closely resembles an actual video game than the weird brawler the first game was. If you've seen the FYBimation dub, you'll know that despite being a slice of life comedy about a mischievous kindergartener, it's got quite a subversive and adult sense of humor. A bit like last month's Rocko's Modern Life, even.
Drift King Shutokou Battle '94: It's a racing game based on illegal Tokyo street racing, the sort of thing that would be the focus of Initial D and that one early Fast and the Furious movie people seemed to like. The eponymous Drift King is famous pro racer Keiichi Tsuchiya, who got his start in street racing, and who also endorses the game despite the fact it's full of illegal street driving. No, I'm not sure if that's really allowed either. While it took a few years to arrive in the US and Europe, this series would become better known in the Dreamcast/PS2 era as Tokyo Xtreme Racer.
FIFA International Soccer: I generally don't care for soccer games, at least I don't any more now that they've gotten way too simmy, but FIFA International Soccer would become the first game in perhaps the biggest soccer series in the world. Pro Evo might still outshine it, depending on the year, though I'm not so sure Konami will endeavor to keep it (or, indeed, any of their video game properties) going for much longer. The original FIFA was an isometric affair and contained all the amenities that EA Sports were known for, making the game easy to pick up and play even if you had no soccer experience whatsoever.
Fighter's History: Data East's incredibly overt take on the genre Street Fighter II almost single-handedly created, forgetting to sufficiently distance its familiar cast of global combatants from the model it was clearly aping. Capcom actually took Data East to court over this game due to its myraid similarities with their own Arcade hit, and when Capcom lost because Data East had stopped just shy from actually cloning the game and putting a new title on it (the case referred to "scénes á faire", which is a fascinating concept in copyright law), it opened the doors to every minor studio who wanted in on this new Arcade phenomenon but didn't have the creativity to go beyond changing the Chinese girl's clothes from blue to red.
Fun 'N Games: While it's a fairly innocuous mini-game collection intended for younger children, it's also the only other SNES game I'm aware of besides Mario Paint that has a suite of music and drawing tools compatible with the SNES Mouse. Fun 'N Games is the lesser of the two for sure, and the additional game modes aren't anything to write home about, but I'm surprised we didn't see more software like it. Usually everyone falls over themselves to copy whatever it is Nintendo just developed. The game was also available for the Genesis and 3DO, which I'm sure saw even fewer user-creativity focused games like this.
Kunio no Oden: We have a second sighting of Kunio-kun in as many months, this time taking part in an oden puzzle game. Oden is a nourishing Japanese stew with a whole bunch of disparate ingredients that tends to get eaten on street corners when the weather's cold. The game uses each of these ingredients as separate pieces (sort of like the different-colored viruses/beans in Dr. Mario and Super Puyo Puyo) and builds a falling block puzzle game around them. It seemed fairly Columns-ish from what I played, though there was an added wrinkle where chopsticks would come down occasionally and fix ingredients into place, making them harder to clear. It also has a whole lot of super deformed Kunio-kun action going on around the borders, which made it seem a bit like Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo.
The Pirates of Dark Water: I can barely recall this show. I think it was one of the last gasps of a TV animation industry built around surreal, single-sentence concepts that sounded as cool as possible ("pirates on an alien planet!") in order to sell toys. As might be expected, it's another brawler that roughly follows the plot of the show and is based on the increasingly familiar system of having three characters of a "strong and slow", "fast and weak" and "well rounded" bent. It's no Skeleton Warriors, that's for sure.
Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon: Everyone remembers the well-intentioned yet completely terrible 1992 edutainment game Captain Novolin, a brawler designed to teach children about diabetes with a superhero so strong that he falls into a coma every time he touches a donut (a bit like the invincible Captain Planet and the way he'd fall over helpless once near any factory smoke, crude oil, improperly recycled trash or Hitler's pure hatred), but fewer recall the miniaturized adventures of Rex Ronan as he attempts to remove the cancer of a tobacco industry bigwig. Meanwhile, the same tobacco company attempts to kill Rex with microscopic robots in order to protect the big secret that cigarettes are actually kinda shitty for you. The game, published by the same health-conscious thinktank behind Captain Novolin, was unambiguously designed to teach kids about the dangers of smoking, really rubbing in how much damage nicotine and tar can do to the human body with its generic Fantastic Voyage plot. Be sure to stay tuned for the next two games in this series, starring diabetic elephants and asthmatic dinosaurs respectively.
Spectre: Due to an ongoing fascination with 3D vector graphics in the 70s and beyond, we occasionally saw stark, blocky visual design in games like the Macintosh Battlezone-clone Spectre and in movies about lawnmowing because they seemed super cool and futuristic, despite the fact that nothing looked like anything besides geometry homework. Spectre got a Super Nintendo port, presumably as its Mode 7 could recreate most of the original's state-of-the-art blobs and shapes, and in spite of its simple, repetitive gameplay Spectre was highly regarded at the time for its technological advances. At least it's better than Rise of the Robots.
World Cup USA 94: Amusingly, there were a few soccer games based on that year's World Cup that were in development long before any teams could be confirmed as qualifying. As such, this and the following month's Elite Soccer hedged their bets on a lot of safe gambles. Oops. Not only did many of the national teams that the game banked on failed to qualify, but it also meant that a lot of surprise qualifiers didn't even get represented in-game. This actually happened with another soccer game too, four years prior: World Championship Soccer (a.k.a. World Cup Italia '90) grossly underestimated the chances of various major soccer nations, resulting in a list of expected qualified teams that was hilariously off the mark. Just another instance of rushed licensed games running into endless problems.

Honorable Mentions: It's exceptionally brazen for ClayFighter: Tournament Edition to exist, to suggest that the original game was so serious a fighter that it required a heavily tweaked and balanced version for the 16-bit era's equivalent of EVO. It ended up being almost as broken, for the record, as old bugs were replaced with new ones. Date Kimiko no Virtual Tennis is a generic tennis game that is notable for being one of the few sports games to be officially endorsed by a female athlete, but then tennis is usually the exception to this rule due to photogenic players like Maria Sharapova. ESPN Baseball Tonight, meanwhile, is one of an increasing number of cases where a game was designed for a CD-based system, such as then-modern CD-ROM PCs, the Sega CD or the TurboGrafx-CD, and got ported to the industry leader (that would be the SNES, for a few more months at least) with heavy modifications due to the limitations of the SNES cart and the system's dated tech. The ESPN games relied on the CD-ROM format to play TV and sound clips, which the SNES couldn't effectively do. I mean, the game itself was terrible on any platform, but it wouldn't be much longer until the writing was on the wall for the SNES.

June

June 1994 was a good month for soccer game fans as the 1994 World Cup event went into full swing, with a number of sports game developers attempting to capitalize on the largest event in the sport. This month saw three new soccer games to join the three that appeared the previous month, leaving SNES owners spoiled for choice. Well... those that were way into soccer games at least.

Barkley: Shut Up and Jam!: The many travails of Sir Charles would be immortalized in the meta parody RPG Barkley: Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, but a lot of that fan-game's art assets (and general attitude) were taken from this early SNES/Genesis rival to NBA Jam. The game's far less focused on NBA teams and professional basketball, instead moving the action to the inner-city courts with a bunch of colorfully-named personalities. It's apparently a far better game than most people give it credit for.
Brandish: Another of Falcom's staple series, alongside Ys and Dragon Slayer, the Brandish games are a series of top-down dungeon crawlers. The odd way that the camera moves the room around so that the protagonist is always pointing north can be a little disorienting, but it helps to think of these games as first-person dungeon crawlers like Wizardry or Dungeon Master that someone accidentally switched to third-person by pressing the wrong function key. Most Brandish games tend to feature artwork of its pneumatic heroine Dela Delon, even though she's technically a villain in the first game. Unlike the majority of Falcom games at this time (which tended to be Japanese-only PC games) it not only got a SNES conversion, but that same version got localized into English.
Championship Soccer '94: Better known to everyone outside of the US as Sensible Soccer, this marked the first appearance of the Amiga soccer nonpareil on the Super Nintendo. Time to get a little inside baseball (or inside soccer, I guess): the first Sensible Soccer, simply called Sensible Soccer or Sensible Soccer: European Champions, was only released on the Amiga, Atari ST and PC (it was fairly easy to port between the three systems) in 1992. With its surprise success, Sensible went about creating a 1993 sequel/update that added a lot of tweaks, updated the rosters and could be converted to every computer, home console and portable system going. The SNES game was named for the original though, being known as Sensible Soccer: European Champions in Europe, so it left us with quite a mess on the wiki to sort out.
The Jetsons: Invasion of the Planet Pirates: There's two surprising factoids about this Hanna Barbera licensed platformer. The first is that it's actually not bad: George Jetson has a vacuum-like device that lends itself to a lot of interesting platforming puzzle-solving, such as using the powerful suction to climb up walls and across ceilings as well as throw blocks around to make steps, and the game itself doesn't look half bad. The second is that this is one of a handful of games that would be changed into an anime license game for Japanese audiences, rather than the far more common reverse. In this case, the anime makeover involved the mascot of a Japanese Super Famicom magazine, which commissioned the game's original developers Sting (best known these days for bizarre strategy RPGs like Yggdra Union) to graphically rework a game in their back-catalog to feature their heroine Ruka-chan. I mean, could you imagine the furor if someone took an obscure Japanese game and put Giant Bomb people in it? Insanity.
Pocky & Rocky 2: Konami's continuing adventures of a shrine maiden and a tanooki fighting the forces of darkness. The sequel adds a bunch of new helper characters, if tanookis aren't your thing, and rocks the boat a few times with atypical forced scrolling stages set on top of Chinese dragons and/or dogs. Pocky (Saya-chan) can now team up with the second player for powerful combo attacks, a bit like the Simpsons Arcade game, though the player has to manually turn it off as soon as they start to flash or they'll take damage. It still looks great, plays fantastic as a top-down shoot 'em up with full freedom of movement and is full of that charming crazy Japanese personality that Konami used to do so well. Turns out "crazy Japanese personality" eventually culminates in "fuck video games, we doing spas and pachinko now".
Popful Mail: Falcom's second entry this month is Popful Mail, a side-scrolling action RPG with a few mild SpaceWhipper elements. If anything, it feels like a combination of Ys III and Legacy of the Wizard, two fairly recent (at the time) Falcom games. The eponymous Mail is a elven bounty hunter who is kind of useless at her job, and eventually teams up with an apprentice wizard and an adorable bat monster to chase down a rogue archmage and save the world. Like the aforementioned Cotton 100%, Popful Mail frequently tops the list of desired Super Famicom imports. Honestly though, it's the Sega CD version that is the more desirable option, due to its CD music, anime cutscenes and the fact that Sega (thanks to Working Designs) bothered to localize it.
Stunt Race FX: 1992's Star Fox was made possible with the Super FX chip: a device that could be placed inside the cart of compatible games that the SNES would use to achieve the necessary graphical power to render multiple polygonal models without exploding. After Nintendo brought in UK devs Argonaut to create the device and co-produced the original Star Fox with them, the Super FX chip wouldn't actually see that much use until 1994/95 with a handful of racing games, including Stunt Race FX. Each of the anthropomorphized vehicles are made of multiple polygons that would twist and stretch whenever the vehicle took damage. Though it impressed critics with its polygonal looks it didn't actually play too well, with controls that were far too squirrelly.
Super Street Fighter II: Capcom continued to dominate the fledgling fighter scene with regular improvements to their 1991 hit Street Fighter II. These improvements involved speeding up the action and making the four "Grand Master" boss characters (Balrog, Vega, Sagat and M. Bison) playable. Super Street Fighter II saw the first monumental shift to the game, adding four brand new characters and, for the Arcade version at least, a big graphical improvement thanks to Capcom's new CP System II board. Of course, this wouldn't be the definitive version of Street Fighter II: Capcom still had more tweaks to make (and then release as separate games).
Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling: Fight da Pon!: Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling (or All Japan Pro Wrestling) is one of Japan's biggest circuits, though as a wrasslin' neophyte I couldn't really tell you how popular it is or whether it more closely equates to the WWE or the WCW or whatever other circuits were big in the 1990s. What I can tell you is that this Zen-Nippon game, developed by Natsume and published by Masaya like the four others for the Super Famicom, changed what was a standard 16-bit wrestling game template into some weird cartoony parody with card-based gameplay. It also has a bizarre satirical storyline that I'm sure makes more sense to diehard AJPW aficionados.
Zig Zag Cat: Ostrich Club mo Oosawagi da: Zig Zag Cat is what appears to be the merging of a block-busting game like Breakout or Arkanoid (more the latter, since the game features the same power-ups) and a vertical scrolling shoot 'em up. The screen moves constantly upwards, and the player has to maneuver the protagonist around obstacles while also ensuring that their zig-zagging ball (actually a transformed cat, hence the title) remains on the screen. Occasionally, the scrolling will pause so that the player can take out a certain enemy tile that prevents them from moving. There are also interstitial locations to stop and recuperate between stages, as well as providing a bonus area to practice in. It's a strange game, but then developers were always trying to find ways to breathe new life into this once-popular Arcade genre.

Honorable Mentions: The not-so-honorable mentions today go to: The Ren & Stimpy Show: Fire Dogs, one of many poorly made licensed games to feature John K's incorrigible duo (and was recently featured in an AVGN Christmas short) that starts on the wrong foot with a first stage that is almost impossible to beat in time; Slayers, which is a fantasy JRPG based on an anime/manga that satirizes fantasy JRPGs, which is a decision that was either incredibly meta or incredibly lazy; and Ultima: Runes of Virtue II, a console spin-off of the core series that focuses more on combat and puzzles than the heavy RPG elements the series was known for.

That's it for this Wiki Project update, and for the first half of 1994's SNES release schedule. I should have the next update ready sometime later this Summer if all goes according to plan, and then I hope to be finished with the whole project before November 21st: the twentieth birthday of the Super Famicom. Until then... keep on appreciating the Super Nintendo? Or me, I guess. In fact, do that. Send me money too.

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 09: The Room

I almost forgot to play today's game, instead focusing most of my efforts today on writing the next big Wiki Project update blog. Those things always take longer than anticipated for reasons I cannot quite fathom. (Though I suspect a 5000 word count probably has something to do with it.) Anyway, I should be rolling that bad boy out tomorrow, time permitting.

It's fortunate, then, that I picked another puzzle-based backlog item with a sparse runtime. Eventually, I'll be back to the triple-day types, though I've started to take on a few... well, I suppose stowaways. Games that I've expounded on earlier in this series that I left mostly complete, and have been using the occasional spare moment to finish off. Life of Pixel is one, having only a few of the ridiculous Amiga stages left and most of the Apple II stages as well, and yesterday's NightSky.

Happily, I managed to get to the end of NightSky within an hour or so after where I last left it. Knowing roughly which parts of the stage had the hidden star collectibles made it far easier to locate them, though a few were still tricky to actually reach. The last few sections of the "Slightly Nonsense" final chapter went by smoothly and the game presented its credits in a "victory lap" style of easy puzzles to see me out. The game has a harder difficulty, but... well, I'm not sure how much it actually changes. Seems like it only makes the existing stages slightly harder by adding a few new objects here and there. I still like that game, for as basic at its physiscs puzzles were: the game has a great sense of intuitive design, that sense of knowing approximately how events will play out if you went full speed at an angled slope. Many of the trickier jumps could be feathered through (or simply fortuitously timed) rather than being the maddeningly precise sort of ball physics game that something like Obulis is. Chances are you picked NightSky up in the same bundle I did (it was in Humble Indie Bundle #4, as well as a couple of their Android-focused bundles), so I'd recommend giving it a shot before consigning it to whatever category you use to dump the hundreds of Steam backlog games you have no intention of playing. Or maybe that's just me. When you get past 500 items in that library, you really need to bust out the category tools to find anything.

The Room

Oh hi puzzle game.

Talking of spending a long time attempting to find something, The Room is an utterly unique, incomprehensible search for meaning in a world where many things have no logical reasoning behind their existence and we're left with an enigma to prod and pull at until we throw up our arms in defeated frustration. Enough about the movie though, this iOS port from Fireproof Studios is another physics-based puzzler (I shouldn't have stuck all these together) with a wonderful art style. I say that, but the only thing that has any art attached to it is the beautiful, ornate safe at the center of the game's puzzles. The safe has been sent by an unhinged colleague/mentor to the player character, with tacit instructions to be cautious of the secrets it holds. This benefactor also sends an eyepiece that can see beyond the veil of reality, necessary for a number of concealed visual hints and perspective puzzles (where you move the camera around until the right shape comes into view).

While The Room can be intimidating with the number of dials, panels, switches, keyholes and other clockwork mechanical parts that each of the game's chapters presents, there's very little in the way of non-linearity with the puzzle design. What tends to happen is that each puzzle solved reveals a piece needed for the next puzzle, and so on until the safe finally opens up and reveals a slightly smaller box that's even more intricate and perplexing. Most of the puzzles are built around this stringent successive progression, only occasionally requiring that the player seek out objects hidden behind slide-panels and spinning dials whenever the primary A-to-B-to-C line has been interrupted because of a missing piece.

It's important to not leave your stupid secrets in your pocket. Or hollow book, in this case.

It's not quite as challenging as its byzantine presentation would have you believe, therefore, though still an immense amount of fun. The sharp little animations and musical stings that play whenever you successfully complete a puzzle, even if it's just taking a key from a drawer and using it in the right keyhole on the opposite side of the box you're working on, gives you a little endorphin boost, and there's always so many per chapter. It's a game geared around constant happy feedback for deciphering puzzles and feeling like a smartass, and the deepening mystery around the alchemy-enriched Null element that powers the eye piece and may involve a lot of Lovecraftian business towards the end of it all. I've not finished it yet - like NightSky, I had to stop shortly before the end so I could write today's entry - but I feel like I've got its number. Ha ha, what a story!

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 08: NightSky

I've been ruminating on how I can go about improving this feature, beyond possibly excising all these pre-amble intros, and I came upon a realization about the critical discussion of this medium. Video games are both a relatively new medium (in the grand scope of human achievement) yet one that is constructed piecemeal of many extant artforms that have essentially been combined together for potentially greater effect. Aspects like visual/art design, animation, music, storytelling, characterization and cinematography were all established forms of expressing oneself long before video games came along; I'd say they were all at least a century old, if not even older in some cases. Game reviews also tend to factor in a lot of elements from the product review format, focusing instead on the game's technical shortcomings and how the game either succeeds or fails to achieve the primary directive its developers set out for it.

Subsequently, when it comes time to critiquing a game, we're left with this big dilemma: either attempt to describe the gameplay in a way that isn't filled with the usual buzzwords like "concise" or "robust" or "layered", or fall back to one of the many safer paths of critique - art, sound, narrative, technical competence - each of which has a long-established set of guidelines to follow and are far more conducive to someone who came upon criticizing games as a career via a liberal arts degree, being a literal-minded programmer type focused on function over form, or making the lateral jump from some other critical field (movies being the most common). Critiquing games purely on their gameplay - i.e., the one unique aspect of video games - is still relatively difficult, in part because it's still a fairly novel paradigm with which to judge an artform (regardless of whether or not you believe games to be so, and I still think that's a spurious debate not worth having - a case of both sides refusing to agree on where to set the goalposts) and in part because often when we consider whether or not a game has good (or bad) controls it ultimately derives from intuition, and it's far harder to put a gut feeling into words.

For the time being, most video games will be judged chiefly on their presentation and mechanical competence. The more important stuff gets a little less attention. It's why I endeavor to focus on game mechanics first and foremost: the features the designers invented (or borrowed) to keep the player hooked; how they chose to distinguish their game from a crowd of imitators, if any such measures were even attempted; and the myriad problems that may have arisen from their choices, and the methods they found to resolve them.

Still, if I'm going to write up all these game appraisals at 3am, I'll probably be falling back to wearily talking how pretty the game is and how messed up certain bugs are far too frequently. So much for all my pretensions.

NightSky

Wouldn't feel right to do a May Madness series without featuring at least one of the ethereal puzzle games from the nexus of Nordic nonsense that is Nicklas "Nifflas" Nygren . It's like a tradition, or an old charter or something. To be fair, I've only covered one of his games in a prior May Madness (that would be Saira, which I looked at in 2013's May Madness More #10), but it feels like I keep bumping into them and wondering why I have so many games from this single, though prolific, Indie developer.

Of special note is his most recent game, Knytt Underground, which I reviewed back in 2013. The Knytt games are SpaceWhippers that tend to de-emphasize combat and conflict, instead focusing more on mellow exploration and puzzles. The chill atmosphere is generally enhanced by Nifflas's frequent use of light jazz, ambient sounds and serene silhouette backdrops of the natural world. Knytt Underground is a culmination of a lot of smaller Knytt projects, creating an immense 2D map of places to explore. Because the game lacked combat, it instead chose to challenge the player with various physics puzzles involving balls: the player character would assume a ball form and have to navigate a room of levers, counterweights and pulleys to reach their desired destination.

As with his other games, Nifflas manages a lot with a few silhouettes and a gradient fill.

Of course, ball physics are nothing new in SpaceWhippers. The grandmommy of them all, Nintendo's 1986 solitary sci-fi sensation Metroid, provided its heroine with an early Morph Ball (or Maru-Mari) upgrade that allowed her to become a compact sphere that could squeeze through narrow spaces and had a number of environment puzzles attached to it. Nifflas probably realized he could get a lot of puzzle mileage out of a Morph Ball ersatz when it came time to develop a proper length SpaceWhipper. Of course, when you have so many ideas that you don't know what to do with, it leads to interstitial games like NightSky.

NightSky is a series of linear challenges involving a glowy marble protagonist and the 2D environment around them. The puzzles are vaguely linked by "worlds", but beyond a background theme and a few apposite mechanical elements (like slippery floors for the ice area), they're largely interchangeable. As too are the puzzles, which really don't have a lot to link them together in the order they're in besides a very gradual and fair difficulty curve. The player is given four keyboard commands beyond standard right-left movement: one speeds up the rotation of the ball, allowing it to move faster and get over higher jumps; the second slows it down, allowing for precision platforming (it tends to roll around a lot without this function key); the third activates specially marked items on the screen (up/down allows the player to select between multiple hotspots) and the fourth resets the stage if the player gets stuck. While the fourth is ever-present and the third is entirely dependent on the environment, the game will often take away one or both of the player's standard "powers", force one to stay on permanently or simply deprive the player of any control of the ball whatsoever. In those cases, the player might be manipulating items in the environment around the ball to get it to move (such as pinball flippers). Occasionally, the ball is placed in a device that allows it to fly across the screen or gently float up, but it's usually linked to some sort of control scheme the player needs to figure out. There's also cases where the player can reverse gravity, though once on the ceiling the lateral controls become reversed as well (since you're directing the rotation of the ball rather than moving it left and right directly).

Many of the game's puzzles require building momentum and sending the marble careening through each of the angular stages. You get a feel for it very quickly.

It's been an endlessly inventive game so far, given the amount of freedom with its loose structure for crafting each of its little set-pieces. Most puzzles come in groups of two or three screens, and falling off the world or forcing a reset will start the player back at the very first screen, making certain areas a little more challenging (and repetitive, especially if you have the first screen's puzzle down pat and keep messing up the second) than they perhaps need to be. It's also quite short: I reached the game's final area within a few hours, though it can often feel like a lengthier game from the sheer number of puzzles it presents. As was the case with HAL's recent 3DS game Box Boy!, it's more a case that the game doesn't want to outstay its welcome, and is happy to let you breeze through the puzzles it has at a steady clip than to artificially pad-out the game's runtime with many instances of the same puzzle only made slightly harder. For that reason, I can respect what NightSky is.

I'm presently in the last area: in order to proceed to the very end of the game, I need to find enough hidden collectibles from the previous stages. The game is at least generous enough to let me visit any individual set of puzzle rooms, as well as tell me which ones actually hold the hidden collectibles I need. As is currently the case with the nigh-complete Life of Pixel, (which I swore I was done with, except... I only have a handful of stages to go!) I might just hop back into NightSky occasionally to edge a little closer to a 100% complete state. When I'm not running around doing wiki stuff or writing about Super Mario 64, anyway...

Hey there, Blimpy boy...
Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 07: SPAZ

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.

My new flagship. It's a larger class of vessel, so I'm only allowed the one. I imagine I'll get more hangars on the mothership as we progress the story, but I bet they'll still keep a tight rein on the number of OP capital ships they'll let me play with.

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.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Scenic Routes: Super Mario 64 (Part Five)

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...

Toad #2

Sneaky! Or... maybe not so sneaky? I mean, he's right here.

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.

Snowman's Land

The Course

This thing's pretty fun! We need something like this to replace public transit.

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.

Get back here, whippersnappers! In my day, this was all two-dimensional and flat! (Just like these old man goofs.)

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.

The Stars

"A frost mosquito? A tundra beetle? An arctick?"

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.)

Another contender for "most 90s 3D texture".

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.

Actually, I suppose it looks more like the world's easiest Rubik's Cube.

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).

This is the only situation I know of where you have to use the crawl function, though I've been told crawling makes a lot of the slippery slopes easier to ascend.

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.

Wet-Dry World

The Course

Well... this makes things easier.

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.

Whee! Take this, well-considered puzzle design.

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.

I don't care if it's an unfeeling mechanical construct, this thing is pure evil.

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).

What's the deal with this enormous sunken temple? This place is seriously creepy.

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).

The Stars

This hardly seems fair. Won't hear me complain, though.

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.

"Would you guys stop for, like, five seconds?"

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.

Thanks game, this makes it super easy to see what I'm doing.

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.

"This is the shrine where we pray to Cthulhu to drown the world of men and send them all to their eternal sleep. The gift shop's around the corner." - Tourism sign just outside of this shot.

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

Why so glum, chum? Tall Tall Mountain's not so bad...

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).

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 06: SPAZ

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 imagine finding all the blueprints for these will keep me busy (though I'm a little ahead of this screenshot at least).

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.)

This game LOVES the word "turd". I'm guessing it was written by Norm McDonald as Burt Reynolds.
Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 05: Life of Pixel

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).

Of course, the problem here is that the resolution is way too high for a tiny GB screen. But then, if you had to fudge a bit of technological accuracy for the sake of playability, might as well be here.

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:

If the garish color scheme and stage name didn't give it away, the weirdly oval platforms the next screen over might. Will we Amiga owners ever be free of the stigma of James Pond 2: RoboCod?

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.

The Apple-II opens up after completing the game, starting with this less-than-subtle reference. I got to the third stage and saw that the collectible counter was at 49. "Nope," I believe I said.

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?

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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