By Mento 15 Comments
No big unifying theme for the blog this week, besides maybe "sibilance", but rather a whole smattering of odd things I got up to. It's this point in the summer when things start to get weird as the various TV shows, video game releases and even podcasts (my bad movie lampooner of choice, We Hate Movies, is taking a month-long hiatus right now, and the McElroys' hilarious more-harm-than-good advicecast is putting up the occasional clip show) take a break because it's simply too hot to think let alone to comedicate, or even conjugate a sensible verb construct for that matter. Any plans I had to get through a whole mess of these sidelined adventure games has gone out of the window, because there's no way I can concentrate on them in this ongoing heat wave. Instead, I played a weird collection of brain-free action games. So much for any aspirations I had to clear up some of my backlog before the big late August game rush shows up.
Strap yourselves in (or on? SRIV is right around the corner...), this is going to be a weird one.
Sun, Sea and Mariogaritas
So the Game Grumps started playing Super Mario Sunshine for no better reason than it being a joyous and simple game they could goof around in while they discuss lugubrious Japanese salarymen and Mr Wilson's abortive rapping career. I wasn't particularly a fan of the Grumps for the longest time - I tend to favor the equally rambunctious mayhem of Two Best Friends - but I'm finding that Danny "Sexbang" Avidan is a much more engaging co-host than the hyperactive JonTron was. Contentious point of view perhaps, and a largely digressive one since I didn't intend to start talking about daft LP duos.
What I did intend to talk about is how their enthusiasm for Sunshine's trademark tropical trickery rubbed off on me and I've spent a large part of my gaming time during the past week scouring Isle Delfino for Shine Sprites once again. Sunshine is a surprisingly solid game, given its reputation as a Mario also-ran. Also-jumped. Whatever. Maybe it's a symptom of living in an age where we now get near-annual iterations of the very by-the-mushrooms New Super Mario Bros format, but Sunshine is actually quite innovative in its playstyle and setting, if not particularly in its fundamental game design. It is essentially Super Mario 64 with a graphical update and a "Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian" style geographical transplant, right down to the fact that there are exactly one hundred and twenty glowy collectibles to find across a bunch of disparate settings that are all magically connected to a single hub world with a few secrets of its own.
Beyond this, though, there's way more modifications to the Mario 64 formula than what first meets the eye. What does first meet the eye is FLUDD, of course: Mario's mechanical water-squirting accessory is a resourceful companion that seems very much based on a certain backpack-inhabiting bird companion of the only N64 platformer franchise to rival Mario's own success. It dispenses advice, has its own stance during conversations with NPCs and most of its abilities are engineered towards enhancing the hero's mobility and firepower. The game finds lots of avenues for its water squirting mechanics, from washing stains to powering machinery to dousing flames. it's endlessly inventive in that respect, but there's also a few other neat twists on Mario 64 that I actually forgot about in the intervening years since I first played the game. That each "Shine" mission will actually move forward a region's chronology, so that the NPCs refer to what happened previously in the stage and how certain elements have changed permanently as a result. The way the game sparingly uses Yoshi in odd, fruit-powered ways. How the hub world steadily grows brighter as more Shine Sprites are recovered and new events occur once certain goals are met in such a subtle manner that you either marvel at the seamlessness of it all, or despair that such milestones aren't communicated to the player whatsoever. Equally enigmatic are the Blue Coins - a secondary set of collectibles that can often be too well hidden for their own good. Almost as if Nintendo were pining for the days of the Graveyard Duck and the Nintendo Power guides of old. There are the occasional hints from visual cues and NPC quotes, but the Blue Coin Search primarily favors experimentation.
For a kid, I have no doubt that Super Mario Sunshine is an exciting series of discoveries; for adults, it means a quick trip to GameFAQs to avoid hours of fruitless searching for some of its more obtuse secrets. I had the misfortune (I suppose) of never playing this game through the eyes of a child, as I was already heading out of my teens by the time the GameCube rolled around. I've no doubt everyone who gave it its fair but not incredible reviews at the time were in the same bewildered boat. But honestly? If I ever have kids or nieces or nephews and wanted to introduce them to Mario, Super Mario Sunshine might well be the game I opt to use as a demonstration. That mix of accessible gameplay, bright and colorful visuals and emphasis on exploration and experimentation was always meant for them, ultimately.
Never Bet on DBZ, Except When You Ought To
I'd wager - so to speak - that a great many of you are now familiar with the black hole of time and dignity that is Saltybet.com. Originally devised as a way to make EVO more interesting by introducing a fake gambling element, its current incarnation as the Dream Cast Casino is troublingly addictive. Players bet on matches between computer-controlled MUGEN characters and watch them duke it out, with prize money based on odds generated by the number of respective bets laid on each combatant. As an elevator pitch, it's fairly straightforward, even if you do have to explain a few things like what MUGEN is or that the money is fake or how this is something you could potentially spend hours interacting with.
What's less easy to explain without going there yourself are aspects like how the gambling system is set up in such a way that the chat will often try to psyche out newcomers into gambling on the wrong side of some very one-sided battles. MUGEN is hopelessly unbalanced, due to the result of thousands of imported characters from almost as many sources with wildly varying levels of competency behind their AI and stats. More often than not one of the two characters will always vastly overpower the other - though it's not until you've put some "Salty Bucks" down and the overwhelming odds for the opponent show up that you realize that you've been bamboozled by the curse of MUGEN. The community then laughs in your face for your imminent return to "the salt mines" - that accursed state of dropping back down to a small minimum stake which is very difficult to raise back up to a respectable stockpile once again. As with a lot of recent internet fads introduced to me by Jeff Gerstmann and others, the VGCW being the standout, the appeal is really in the interaction with the other empassioned audience members - psyching out the new guys, joining in the with the rare happenstance of a "real fight" between two evenly-matched randomly-chosen fighters, laughing at another beatdown by perennial overpowered oddballs Alter Amiba or Hato Sabure (an enormous bird-shaped cookie), being a dick despite yourself when an upset happens and you celebrate making a small fortune with your sagacious decision to back a tiny, glitchy, artifact-filled Goku sprite over someone reliable like Ryu or Iori.
The appeal of Salty Bet is ultimately in its execution, and thus many people have found themselves befuddled by all the vain attempts to explain its appeal until they visit the site in question and finally notice how many hours have ticked away while they wait for a Touhou character and Fat Albert to finish sizing each other up across a misappropriated Marvel vs Capcom stage.
Never bet on DBZ, always bet on sword-users and never, ever listen to the chat.
Storage Wars Without the White Trash Altercations - Still Good?
I acquired a game named Pickers from a recent Groupees bundle because it seemed to be the odd merging of a hidden objects game and A&E's Storage Wars. Perhaps not the strongest reason to buy a game, but considering how little these bundles cost I figured it was worth a shot. At the very least it could be grist for next year's Steam May Madness feature to tear apart. However, my curiosity got the better of me and I ended up trying it out several months before schedule.
Pickers is an interesting game from the stance of a virtual kleptomaniac like myself. While the game does introduce the whole well-worn "Hidden Object" formula as a series of lucrative mini-games, it's not the game's core: Rather, you find objects lying out in the open and haggle their cost with the owners before turning around and selling them for a profit at your antique store in the big city. Antiquing and those who make a career of it tend to be less focused on finding treasures and rare collectibles and more about digging up something that's trendy and selling it to oblivious hipsters and yuppies while the proverbial iron's still hot. Thus, each day begins with a "hot category" - be it sports memorabilia, archaic machines or literature - and you spend the first part of each stage of the game checking all the accessible haunts to see if they are willing to part with their junk for far less than you'll wind up getting for it. Sticking to the hot item theme awards bonus money on top of what you earn from selling them off at inflated costs, and this is the crux for succeeding at the game. Buy low, sell high, be followed by a lingering musty smell that takes a few showers to wash off.
What you really have here then is something like Carpe Fulgur's Recettear with less dungeon-crawling (though there are a few dank, dark basements) and more hidden item searching. Items can be appraised to raise the value, but paying to do so might result in spending more on the item overall than you can make by selling it off. Some items come in sets, so looking for each piece across the various markets and crafting the much more valuable complete set can pay off. You can also choose to play against AI opponents or not, and their inclusion allows the game to take on that ruthless competitive element so often at the forefront of the Storage Wars type TV shows the game evokes. It's actually a far better application of the otherwise banal "Where's Waldo?" searches that most games of this genre bother attempting. Certainly more engaging than whatever that REO Speedwagon thing was all about.
It's oddly apposite, now that I think about it, that I came across this game in the middle of nowhere, bought it without realizing its value and serendipitously discovered that I'd found something rather special. It's not going to make my top ten for this year or anything, but it was certainly less egregious than I was dreading.
Time to get all non-game related for a moment to discuss The Wolverine - the titular erstwhile X-Man's Japanese excursion based on a Claremont-crafted arc where amnesiac mutant Logan wanders around Japan for a spell. I didn't read that storyline back in the day - most of my X-Men knowledge comes from the 90s cartoon, which I think only briefly summarized the arc - and there's a few liberties taken with the kunoichi Yukio and Wolverine's relationship with Mariko and Shingen and the elderly Yashida, whom he saved during the Nagasaki bombing and the imminent demise of whom is the agent that gets the movie started. Regardless, I thought this movie was excellent.
I've always liked Hugh Jackman's interpretation of what I imagine must be an exceptionally difficult character to play in the same sense as how difficult it must be to express your less than glowing opinion of Dragon's Crown - that is, how tricky it is to do so without managing to aggrieve all of those who have, for whatever reason, emotionally invested too much in the fictional construct you're attempting to approach. Jackman's approach here, whether as a downtrodden soul still tortured over his decision to stab that one psychic lady in a film I choose to forget existed or as the rampant warrior clawing, skewering and muttonchopping his way through Yakuza and snake mutants, is still as thankfully decent as its ever been despite the two dire movies he was in between now and X2 (excepting that one marvelous cameo in First Class). There's some fun action set-pieces too with the highlight being a high-speed bullet train sequence, some really great set design and picturesque cinematography of Japan, some decent supporting roles by Japanese actresses who had never acted in an English language movie before but seem to have acclimatized quickly enough and Hiroyuki Sanada might well be my favorite working Japanese actor today. Him or Tadanobu Asano anyway, the latter of whom I hope has more to do in the next Thor movie than stand around and help reverse Valhalla's traditionally poor ethnic diversity standards.
I suppose what I appreciated most about The Wolverine, though, was how it crafted a standalone story that didn't depend heavily on continuity, or on setting up continuity for the movies to come. It didn't try to explain Wolverine's origin, at least beyond some flashbacks of an earlier misadventure, and it didn't really build on or change the character beyond letting him get over some baggage and restoring his status quo as a wisecracking defender of the weak rather than some mopey hobo that's sworn off violence. I've seen a lot of great movies this summer - Pacific Rim and The World's End are both highly recommended - but The Wolverine might just be my favorite as of now, if only because it demonstrates that Hollywood can put out a decent little self-contained comic book movie if it really tries.
Super House of Dead Mento
Time to sign off now with a brief rundown of Super House of Dead Ninjas. The site has already graciously provided a Quick Look, so you don't need me to tell you that it's an action platformer that requires twitch reflexes and a constantly quick pace where the goal is to descend as many perilous floors of an enormous ninja castle as possible in one go. In many respects it's a cross between one of the NES Ninja Gaidens and Spelunky - the stages are randomly generated, there's a whole lot of shit that can kill you instantly (though you do have a few extra lives to fall back on) and progress comes in fits and starts as you crash and burn repeatedly only to discover that you did enough to unlock a stronger weapon or a conducive upgrade, thus making the subsequent run that bit more successful than the previous.
That's actually become a familiar but appealing design philosophy I've noticed of late in "roguelikelikes" all over, from Dark Souls to freeware endless runners on Kongregate et al, where a game will absolutely grind you under its heel the first few times you try to play it but will incrementally dole out a few boons to make future playthroughs a bit less painful. Rather than a difficulty curve dictated by the level design or the aggressiveness of the AI (depending on the genre), the game sustains a completely fair if initially cruel difficulty plateau and rewards the player for their perseverance as frequently as for their skill. What this results in is a video game that is appealing for both the skilled and the unskilled - the former can avail themselves to the many challenges the game has in store for them on their own terms, while the latter can struggle along until they have - by their own agency - made it a little easier on themselves. It's an interesting approach to the "how do we make our games fun to the 'hardcore' crowd and the casuals alike?" quandary that many companies now face as our medium grows ever outwards and reaches ever more people.
Currently, I have the curious dilemma of either attempting to beat the Hard Mode (rather than increasing enemies and traps, Hard Mode simply removes all shortcuts and continues) or trying to unlock even more items and upgrades by attempting the various weird unlock challenges that would be far easier to accomplish on the kinder Normal Mode. It should theoretically be possible to beat Hard Mode with what I currently possess, but passing through the entire game on one continue is obviously a lot more challenging. It might be best to try and unlock a few more helpful additions by specifically aiming for some of these arcane requirements - goals like staying alive for fifteen minutes (which is easier when you deliberately wait until the last second to pick up the timer refills) or killing a number of enemies with bombs (it's doable, but I usually just rely on the faster melee and projectile weapons).
At any rate, I want to thank @sparky_buzzsaw for kindly putting it up on Steamgifts and for the Random Number God for allowing me to be the one to win it. I've no doubt it looks like the result of some malevolent collusion between the two of us from the outside, given how often we post on each other's blogs and the like, but the chips just fell as they did in this particular case. With this and Shadowrun Returns, it's been a good time for me and random freebies.