By Mento 2 Comments
Hello Spider-friends and welcome to another Mento Miscellany. Somehow I powered my way through four different games this week, and no way in Niflheim am I going to find some interesting method to tie them all together conceptually like I usually do. So instead, you're getting one of these cop-out round-up blogs instead. Enjoy!
XCOM & X-COM (and a little bit of Space Crusade)
I have plenty of good things to say about XCOM, though I suppose I'd be largely preaching to the choir at this point. I mean, this very site did just name it their Game of the Year less than a month ago. The Walking Dead is probably more important, at least in terms of an evolutionary step forward for game narratives (though maybe perhaps a few steps behind the infinitely more sophisticated Choose Your Own Adventure book format, if you ask me) but the myriad ways that XCOM succeeds at what it sets out to do is equally promising for the future of video games.
It managed to simplify and modernize without lessening the appeal of its original (and quite dated) source material, cherrypicking its best aspects while excising much of the dead weight and overly complicated systems that made the original so intimidating (well, that and the difficulty, and the latter is such an indelible trait of the series that amending it would be an irrational decision). That accomplishment alone perhaps isn't too significant, as Skyrim managed to pull it off last year and Deus Ex: Human Revolution the year prior to that. It's become emblematic of a decent series relaunch; it's also the bar at which this manner of franchise resurrection is now set. In other words, a bar that similar relaunches like the new Tomb Raider will need to reach with a running jump, lest they fall and break both their legs and a dinosaur eats them. Figuratively speaking.
More impressive, then, is how XCOM managed to wrangle a new generation of fans without alienating (pun intended?) the fans of the original games. Or maybe that's just "game", since UFO Defense didn't quite have the follow-up it deserved back in its day (though I'm sure Terror from the Deep has its exponents around here). For me, nostalgia for sci-fi turn-based strategic shooters goes even further back, with Gremlin's Space Crusade, coming soon to a Brief Jaunt any day now. Space Crusade was an antecedent to the original X-COM and the more elaborate Warhammer 40k video games both, acting as it originally did as an introduction to Games Workshop's oft-ludicrous space opera wargaming dreadnought.
This was what most appealed to me personally about the new XCOM: Much of its new combat rules, which wisely sacrificed the GURPS-esque action point system on the altar of newcomer-friendly explicability, instead seems to borrow from Space Crusade directly. I want to believe the original X-Com took a lot of its cues from Space Crusade and its similar ilk (Lords of Chaos definitely deserves a mention, which is really X-Com but with illusionary armies of grizzly bears), but the simpler mechanics like the ability to move and shoot, or shoot without moving, or moving more instead of shooting, all without being dictated by a variable point total that arbitrarily assigns certain actions as more strenuous than others seemed like they skipped a generation. Perhaps it's a spurious connection, since Space Crusade is simply one of many turn-based strategy games of the early 90s with a wonderful simplicity that was as much due to serendipitous limitations of computers at the time than some enlightened game design decision, but it made the resulting package of XCOM: Enemy Unknown feel like a "best of" of the turn-based squad games of my youth.
Anyone who reads this blog "on the reg" - as the kids might say, if they sounded like assholes - might know, I occasionally do these Fine Tuning blogs that take the many games I've played of a certain genre and extrapolates from them a hypothetical result that is the best of all possible worlds. It would seem that XCOM beat me to the punch in this particular case.
Barkley, Shut Up and DAMN, is this game odd
I made it one of my new year's resolutions (a more in-depth follow-up later this blog) to finally play through Tales of Game's RPG Maker Indie cult classic Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden after a group of friends of mine were excitedly discussing the upcoming Kickstarter-funded sequel. I dimly recall a thread of the game they had made around the time the original was making waves shortly after its release in 2008, where each new insane revelation and weird reference was highlighted and picked apart. I deliberately stayed out of the thread, deciding I would need to play this game for myself and observe its wonderful weirdness first-hand. I guess I must've forgot, because it faded from memory and the slow burn humor of the various Quad City DJs mash-ups to hit YouTube in the years hence fell on jam-deaf ears.
But I finally loaded up and beat the game in a matter of hours earlier this week and, man, is that reputation well-deserved. I guess it's a testament to how well it's crafted that most of the jokes and references still resonate, despite being either long since played out memes or referring to a certain era of 90s basketball I had little to no knowledge or interest thereof. Much of the appeal came instead from the game's many digs at hoary JRPG tropes, as plentiful and prevalent to the game as its basketball references and real-life b-ball all-star cast. This is despite the fact that many of its jokes probably worked better back when everyone was making derivative RPG Maker mediocrities with horribly mangled sprites and jpeg photo portraits applied liberally throughout. BSUaJ:G has all that as well, of course, but you get the sense it was more of a deliberate tongue-in-cheek decision; that this new sequel deigns to replace all the graphical assets with entirely new, original art seems to attest to that.
I don't really want to talk too much about the game, other than I advise anyone who hasn't played it to do so. It's not a particularly large RPG, and the way the combat mechanics incorporate player triggers in the same manner as something like Final Fantasy 8 (or perhaps 6, since Sabin's odd combo-input system is also present) makes the combat encounters enjoyable beyond the fleeting novelty of the oddball enemies you'll face. Also, and unlike Zeboyd's similar parodic 16-bit JRPGs which kind of screwed the pooch in this regard, the game never lingers on one spoof idea or trope for too long: Dungeons are short and sweet and annoying JRPG instances like a healing boss or a maze-like lair pass by as soon as the joke's worn off. I'd like to believe this was done on purpose, because it's relatively simple to craft a dungeon everyone will hate for being too long or too complex even if you're being satirical about them. It's a quality game, it'll make you laugh a few times and it's completely free. I'm sure Patrick's breathless extolling of its incoherent virtues on the podcast (a happy coincidence that we played it at the same time) will have already persuaded anyone who might want to play it, but here's another recommendation from me anyway.
Spelunky: A Deathtrap Dungeon That's Better Than the First Spelunky. And Also Deathtrap Dungeon.
I've been wracking my coconut on how best to review a game like Spelunky. Specifically, how to talk about its abject cruelty in such a way that it comes off as the positive trait that greatly enhances the game it somehow inexplicably is. I decided the best way to do so would be to write down some of the deaths my character suffered and write about what precisely went wrong for my stalwart hero in these particular instances. I figure it should eventually be obvious to whomever's reading that dying, rather than (or, I suppose, in addition to) being the huge bummer it invariably is in these "one death and you're out" Rogue-like-likes, is an inextricable and inevitable aspect of the game.
This is the default green protagonist. I don't believe she has a name. For the purposes of this review, I'm calling her Spelunky Brewster. What Spelunky Brewster lacks in protective headgear, she makes up for in sheer moxie. Here's just a few ways Spelunky Brewster met her (temporary) end, Darwin Awards style:
- Knocked off a high ledge by a spider into another spider, losing all four hearts instantaneously. This happened five seconds after starting a level. Rule #1 of Spelunky: Beginners are welcome.
- Tried to emancipate a "kissing booth" girl - one of many shady establishments manned by a legion identical-looking irascible shopkeepers - getting both herself and the girl shotgunned to death by the
pimp slavemasterentrepreneur. Rule #2 of Spelunky: Your ethics are no good down here.
- Attempted to carry a Maneater plant to somewhere out of the way. Stunned enemies don't stay stunned forever, even while carrying them. Certainly not ones that can instantly devour you. Rule #3 of Spelunky: You're gonna carry that weight. Until it eats you.
- Disarmed an arrow trap by cleverly activating its proximity sensor with an urn. However, a second trap waited just beyond. Ingeniously, the first trap's arrow was thrown upwards to activate the second trap. The second arrow harmlessly bounced off the nearby wall, but the original fell straight down on her head and killed her. Rule #4 of Spelunky: Spelunky does not differentiate between the stupid and the resourceful. All are equally boned.
- A tiki-trap, where spikes come out of either side of a statue, was placed right next to the exit to a level. If you're fast enough, the trap is avoidable. Rule #5 of Spelunky: If.
- Won a valuable item as a prize in a roulette-based gambling den. Elated at this uncharacteristic stroke of luck, walked right into another tiki-trap. Rule #6 of Spelunky: Easy come, easy impaled.
- Gets the message "I hear the sound of rushing water!". Not knowing what this means, she gets it helpfully explained to her by a giant piranha. With its teeth. Rule #7 of Spelunky: If you get a message, there's something big and horrible you'll wander into. Or it's a dark level, in which case wandering stupidly into your own death becomes all that much easier.
- Killed by a mutant snail's toxic snot bubble. Rule #8 of Spelunky: Treasure-hunting can often be a glamorous career.
- There's a certain height limit that a character can fall before they'll hurt themselves. Despite not being able to actually see the floor beneath a ledge, she deduced the damage from the fall still wouldn't kill her. Rule #9 of Spelunky: Fall damage is negated by spikes.
- Boomerangs hit twice: Once on the way forward and on the way back. It also stuns you for a moment. This moment is generally long enough for the boomerang to make it back to its wielder so it can be thrown again. Your initial health total is an easily-divisible-by-two four hearts. Rule #10 of Spelunky: Stun-locking? We have that.
- Found the hidden "Giant Worm" level. Got Kaori'd by its regenerating cells. Its far from the only thing that will kill you in that horrible place, though. Rule #11 of Spelunky: When has being eaten by a giant worm ever ended well? Don't expect to find Gogo in this game. (Though funny I should mention secret characters trapped in worm viscera...)
- Some wonderful human being left a landmine on Kali's altar. Generally, if her altar explodes she blames the player. However, the legion of jumping spiders that erupt from sundered altars, as aggressive as they are, are powerless to kill the recently exploded to death. Rule #12 of Spelunky: Doesn't mean they won't play with the body for hours.
- The UFOs of the Ice Caves fire laser bolts straight downwards and will also explode when struck down, making them dangerous before and after you defeat them. Leaping safely over a UFO, she didn't notice the one above it that immediately shot down towards her. She avoided it deftly, letting the bolt kill the first UFO, which subsequently dropped its explosive wreckage on top of her. Rule #13 of Spelunky: Fuck you.
I have since beaten the game. With short-cuts, naturally. But from what I'm reading of its bonus areas, I've only seen the tip of the iceberg of what this game has to offer. Reaching the Hell levels and extricating Yang, the tutorial character, from his grisly fate requires such a huge amount of fortuitous coincidence and focused, error-free playing that I've preemptively thrown in the towel. Then again, I never thought I'd be able to carry that key from the Mines all the way to the end of the Ice Caves to unlock the last short-cut, so maybe some Arino-esque perseverance is required...
Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale with Cheese
I've been playing a little of Sony's oddly familiar brawler of late, since I have around seven rental vouchers left that expire at the end of Feburary and, heaven forfend, I might actually have to spend them on movies at this rate. It's not a game that I would call particularly polished, since most of its budget appears to have gone into its stages and not so much on the menus and other cosmetic details. Seriously, it looks like its using placeholder text for much of its GUI. But hey, why complain about menus when there's so much of the game itself to crucify?
Honestly, it's not that bad, just kind of an underwhelming whiff of a game that doesn't seem to try to improve on the very first N64 Smash Bros, let alone its incrementally busier sequels. There's a handful of starting characters (there's presumably a few more than can be unlocked), a bunch of Modern Warfare-esque superficial perks that only unlock if you play the same character over and over and are rather unimpressive regardless and a complete lack of the sort of nostalgia fest that Smash Bros is predicated on. By which I mean there's none of those cool trophies or many, many cameos, beyond what inexplicably pops up in the background on any given stage. I realize Sony doesn't have the wealth of first- and second-party exclusives that Nintendo does, at least as far as ones that provide a host of unique mascot characters, but what's proffered is a really barebones assortment. It's only exacerbated by the crazy rule-set the game follows, too. When Smash Bros imposed the rule that a character can only be killed after it leaves the stage one way or another, it took a while for players to adjust to, but at least you still got a sense that your normal attacks were doing some harm: The way opponents were increasingly unable to recover from your attacks had a nice feedback to it, as did weakening an opponent and finishing them off with something spectacular. Conversely, nothing does any harm whatsoever in PAS:BR besides those special attacks, which just disintegrates the opponents instantly. It's just not satisfying to anything like the same extent.
I could go on and on about how the game unwisely borrowed the worst aspect of Smash Bros Brawl - that would be the Smash Balls, represented in this game as the characters' level 3 attack, with which a single player gets to have all the fun for a while and the rest run around like helpless ducklings - or how half the characters are uninteresting realistic human characters that don't have much of a personality (Radec, Cole, Kratos, Raiden, Nariko, etc.) and even when they do, they don't really stand out adjacent to the cartoonish characters like Ratchet, Sly or Sack Boy. I worry though that most of the complaints I have are knee-jerk fanboy outcries against a game that so brazenly copied a beloved Nintendo franchise that I'm not allowing myself to see the merits it may well have. It could be an entirely acceptable one of these games. And, really, it's entirely acceptable that this just happens to be a genre that exists now, especially given how much Smash Bros itself borrowed from Power Stone. I definitely don't hate it (I believe the word I used was "underwhelming") and I definitely don't hate Parappa the Rapper, Sly Cooper, Jak, Ratchet and Clank, Ape Escape guy and many of its other "all-stars", so I'll stick with it a little longer. I can't imagine I'll have changed my tune by the time it's due back in a few days, though.
OK, time to wind this text dump down a bit with a resolution update. Last week I made ten resolutions that I intend to keep for 2013, ranging from chipping away at my backlog to trying classic games for a console I never played and avoiding as much gun violence as possible.
Since I've beaten three of my Pile of Shame items already, I'd say I'm doing pretty well. However, in each of the three games I've played that weren't XCOM, I've actually gunned another human being which was something I intended to avoid for the year - either by ignoring games with a lot of shooting or simply finding other paths to progress. In all three cases, I didn't even realize I had broken that rule until after the fact. Whether it's due to desensitization, or my inattentiveness, or the fact that the kills in question weren't particularly violent - shooting Kratos as Nathan Drake was fair game (dude had a sword on a chain!), Hoopz Barkley doesn't go anywhere without his trusty ZX Zaubertech hand gun, and the shopkeepers in Spelunky had it coming Kali curse them - it's still rather remarkable I managed to break it so quickly and so easily multiple times. Instead, I'm amending that particular resolution to simply be mindful of how many people I'm blowing away in these games, while still avoiding those that glorify it a bit too much. Again, not going for anything too political here, but I'm trying to see if those idiotic, out-of-touch naysayers have at least the merest hint of a point about this sort of thing.
That's your lot for this week. Check out my January Comic Commish if you haven't already, and I'll see you around the site. Probably. I mean, where else am I going to hang out?