Saturday Summaries 2019-02-16: Nintendo's Direct Message Edition

It's not generally in my nature to gush over extended commercials from major video game corporations - hence my usual indignation whenever E3 rolls around - but this week's (2019-02-13) Nintendo Direct was firing on all cylinders for someone who's always appreciated the more JRPG-heavy corners of Nintendo's first- and second-party output. There were a lot of surprise announcements too, so I might suggest people watch the Direct in question (or Giant Bomb East's live reactions) if they haven't yet and don't want to be spoiled through my second-hand accounts.

For each announcement of a new game, which I discuss in the order they appear in the Direct, I offer my thoughts and a "hype" score out of five. In deference to the once again maligned Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, which appears to not be one of the new templates in the Super Mario Maker sequel, these hype gauges will be counted in Moogyos. Surely everyone knows what a Moogyo is?

Super Mario Maker 2

I mean, way to start on a showstopper. Fans have been clamouring for a Super Mario Maker port for Switch for many moons, though I can't imagine deep down they were expecting what appears to be a full sequel with a full suite of new mechanics and hazards drawn from their current stock of Mario game templates - Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U - with a handful more from Super Mario 3D World and possibly others. Honestly, that teaser flew through all the new mechanics so fast I barely had time to register them all. Personally, I'm excited that SMB3's slope physics and angry sun and SMW's wire fence traversal have now been incorporated.

I think Nintendo made a smart decision by focusing on more of the mechanics and gizmos, even real into-the-weeds stuff like directing where the auto-scrolling moves, rather than adding more graphical filters offered by different Mario games, because the latter is relatively superficial: every one of Super Mario Maker's four templates all shared the physics of the last and most recent game regardless. Still, I'm still kicking up a fuss about those Mario games like SMB2 and SML2 that were jilted because what else is a Nintendo fanboy to do?

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Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

It would make sense to resurrect Marvel Ultimate Alliance and tie it into the MCU to an extent, because the latter is still running strong and has many more obscure Marvel characters with which it could potentially build movies around, especially if the rumors are true that the likes of Chris Evans's Captain America and Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man are hanging up their respective shield and repulsor cannons after this upcoming Avengers: Endgame movie. A big crossover Marvel game like MUA would be perfect for exploring that back catalogue.

Unfortunately, I never really saw eye-to-eye with the original MUA game. I always felt it was a watered down version of the more substantial loot-RPG antics of the X-Men Legends franchise, diminishing the RPG equipment and character customization for the sake of a more mindless 3D brawler catawampus. The MUA3 Switch trailer showed off very little in terms of UI and menus, or numbers flying off enemies when you hit them, which makes me think they're just going full action game again. Could be fun just running around blasting Skrulls or whatever while picking out all the obscure Marvel also-rans, but I'm a little more apprehensive about this one.

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BoxBoy! + BoxGirl!

I've really been neglecting HAL Lab's little block-stacking puzzle-platformer over the years, which perfectly utilizes their strengths of clever puzzle design and cute aesthetics more commonly found in their off-kilter Kirby titles. I believe this Switch exclusive entry is the fourth game in the series, after BoxBoy!, BoxBoxBoy!, and BoxBoxBoxBoy (actually, I think that third one's called Bye-Bye BoxBoy!, which wasn't a very prophetic title). I've only played the first, but I was hoping they'd release all of them on Switch as a compilation at some point. Maybe that's still on the cards if this sequel's a hit? The Direct trailer does say it has way more levels than the previous three, so maybe they're pulling a Rayman Legends and supplementing the new levels with a lot of carry-overs. Either way, I'm always down for more BoxBoy. When I remember it exists, that is.

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker DLC

Well, I don't really care about DLC or Amiibos, but I'm glad that Captain Toad is getting more love with its free 2-player update and paid-DLC map pack. I played that game for the first time relatively recently and fell in love with it, not anticipating that it would offer a great deal of challenge or level design variance (it offers plenty of both, especially with its roguelike final challenge). Were it not for the many great games featured in this Direct coming relatively soon in the summertime, I could understand Nintendo wanting to focus on Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as their tentpole until something more recognizable (like the next Pokemon gen) came along. Even so, they were extremely coy about new Smash additions in this teaser, giving us only a brief glimpse of Persona 5's Joker who was announced back during the 2018 Game Awards.

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Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Looks like this game's coming along nicely, even if the graphics look a bit too "Flash game" for my liking. The IGAvanias were beautiful because they took pixel graphics almost as far as they could go. Still, the gameplay's the thing, and it looks like Ritual of the Night is riffing more on Iga's final Castlevania game - Order of Ecclesia - with its moody heroine and the multiple abilities her tattoos conferred. I'm not someone who backed this game's Kickstarter so I very much doubt my finger's on the pulse of this game compared to someone who is getting regular update emails, but from what I've seen here - and the warm reception its fun little NES-inspired prequel Curse of the Moon received - I have every reason to believe it'll live up to its legacy of darkness.

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Dragon Quest Builders 2

You know, I only just acquired the first Dragon Quest Builders, so I'm reserving judgement on what I've seen of the second until after I've played it. I'm hoping it addresses the one big concern I have with what I've heard about the first, in that it wipes all your progress between "worlds", but DQB2 does show off what appears to be a map screen so maybe that's still a facet. It would upset the balance considerably if you could just carry all your fancy materials and blueprints to a brand new level and fulfil all its building requirements in minutes, so I appreciate the challenge of designing around that impermanence in a way that doesn't piss off those who want to keep iterating on a single kingdom. I'm just rambling now, since I don't want to think about DQB2 until I've had a shot at DQB1. Looks good, at least?

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Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age: Definitive Edition S

Got enough subtitles yet? I'm glad I haven't picked this up yet, because it sounds like this enhanced Switch version might be the one to go for. Or I might just ignore all the added bonus hoo-hah and opt for the PS4 version from last year, since I'm fairly sure that's going to dip to £20 long before this version will. From most accounts, Dragon Quest XI was the JRPG to get in 2018 so I'm definitely going to find my way to it one way or another. I can only hope that they might patch some of these new additions back into the PS4 version at some point.

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Intermission

This was a looooong Direct, so I'm going to cut off the early impressions here and get into the meat of this week's new blogging and other activities. I'll have more to say on the likes of Tetris 99, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Astral Chain, and the glorious resurrection of a certain Game Boy game next Saturday. For now, blogs and stuff!

West of Loathing

My self-appointed Herculean task to complete every 2017 game that piqued my interest continues with this week's Indie Game of the Week: West of Loathing, the standalone cowboy RPG from Kingdom of Loathing MMO developers Asymmetric. Kingdom of Loathing was one of the few MMOs I ever spent a considerable amount of time with, A) because it was free and B) because the writing and humor kept prompting me to keep exploring its bizarre, meat-infatuated world. The one thing that eventually drove me off was how I never seemed to be done with the game; by its nature as an MMO that is supporting its developers full-time via microtransactions and donations, the game continually adds new content and tweaks to keep players tuned in. A boon for most, though not for one with a completionist mindset like myself who needs a finishing line or will burn themselves out, like the goldfish that dies from overeating because it didn't know when to stop.

West of Loathing, by its nature as a standalone RPG, lacks that issue and is therefore the complete package as far as I'm concerned. I'm not one for westerns, but I am so there if someone's making fun of them. Whether you're bashing in hellcows (the day when The Cows Came Home is treated as suitably apocalyptic), hornswogglin' a goblin in their native goblintongue, casting bean magic, spending many minutes describing mining equipment to your female companion to earn the Minesplaining perk, or visiting the local petting cemetery to stroke a cat skeleton - the game is full of surprises, filling out an immense map with locations as you wander around it in much the same way the original two Fallouts did. The combat's decent enough to buoy the game's true core: a relentless onslaught of wild west jokes and goofs as your stickperson avatar seeks fame and fortune across the wild frontier. Worth looking into, even if the rudimentary graphics and almost total lack of color originally turned you away.

Link here: Indie Game of the Week 107: West of Loathing

Sega Mega Drive

I consider my various Wiki Projects past and present as a symbiotic relationship I have with this website and its visitors: filling out the wiki pages with as much verifiable information as I can gather serves not only those coming to the site to find out more about their favorite (if not universally popular) SNES or TurboGrafx-16 or NES or Mega Drive games, but gives me all the excuse I need to do that research for my own edification. I'm a huge retro gaming buff, though it's not because I like to be challenged with harsh and archaic game design but rather because I learn so much about today's games from studying where they came from. Poking into the obscurities of the 1980s and 1990s has also introduced me to a lot of really intelligent gameplay and UI innovations that for some reason never caught on, and maybe by disseminating what I've found I can perhaps in some small way help preserve those systems and ideas.

It's why every so often I drag out my backlog of podcasts or stick on some long-form YouTube music playlists (for some reason, I've gotten into anime-infused "future funk" of late), and open a dozen tabs leading to places like Japanese Wikipedia, GameFAQs, Sega-Retro, Game Developer Research Institute, Hardcoregaming101, Romhacking.net, The Cutting Room Floor, and a few other fan-sites dedicated to tracking old game information down through original research. With all that in place, I start the process of digging up as much information on weird-ass Genesis/MD games, like the following featured in this week's circa-1991 Mega Archive: Battle Golfer Yui, Paddle Fighter, Bahamut Senki, Fushigi no Umi no Nadia, and Wings of Wor. There are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon or evening, though very few that are quite as nerdy.

Link here: Mega Archive VII: From Joe Montana Football to Valis III

Spyro the Dragon

Like one Daniel "Dragon Egg Whites" Ryckert, I skipped the original Insomniac PS1 Spyro the Dragon games, only showing up once the proverbial party was over with the lesser PS2 titles Enter the Dragonfly and A Hero's Tail. It wasn't due to some childish apprehension about baby games, though; more that I was fully in the N64 camp during that generation and then only availed myself of the JRPGs from the library of Sony's inaugural console years later when I had a PS2 that could play them. The adventures of a cocky little dragon slipped me by, though I somehow acquired both the Croc games from the same era so who even knows what kind of messed up priorities I had back then.

Fortunately, that oversight was rectified recently with the "Reignited" remastered rerelease of the original Spyro trilogy for PS4. I don't intend to play through all three games in one month; instead, the individual entries are going to be perfect palette cleansers between longer RPGs and open-world games presently choking the backlog (phrasing). They're about the same length as a moderately-sized Indie, which is perfect for my needs, and they're all - and I didn't realize this until the recent Quick Look - unabashed open-ended collectathons: my favorite kind of 3D platformer. I'm still in the planning stages of a 3D platformer-focused "Ranking of Fighters" equivalent, but I suspect these long-overlooked (by me at least) Spyro games will be some of the first to be judged. I'll have more to say about them if and when that feature happens, but I'll leave this off by saying I'm just as surprisingly enamoured by them as Dan was.

Parks and Recreation (Season 7)

If you've been following last year's Saturday Summaries, and bless you if you have, you'll notice I'm writing way less about TV and movies this year. With movies, I've done most of the catching up I meant to with last year's fifty viewings and am going to spread the movie reviews out a bit more, depending largely on what shows up in my household's movie streaming subscription service. Conversely, all my TV watching so far this year has been spent solely on Michael Schur and Amy Poehler's small-town government bureaucracy workplace comedy after starting it up last December. That's seven seasons of TV that I've been binge-watching on and off for several months now, so while I wasn't in it for the long-haul like the fans that have stuck around between when it started in 2009 and ended in 2015 - through that rough first season, the departure of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe, and the eventual but sudden superstardom of Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza - it was still bittersweet to watch the final season and the definitive way the show ended for good.

Season 7 had the terminal patient's "gift" of knowing its own demise was coming, so it made the most of its truncated final season saying its goodbyes and sending its characters off to their various sunsets. Pulling a Six Feet Under, the final episode of the entire season had Poehler's Leslie Knope and Adam Scott's Ben Wyatt leaving for Washington DC and shaking hands and hugging those they were leaving behind: each of these embraces then segued into a future scenario with that character as they would go on to get married, have kids, or find professional fulfilment. The whole season was as sappy as hell, if still packed with great jokes and sitcom set-ups, and it was evident just how much that show meant to everyone making it in that six year period. It feels a little disingenuous for someone like me, who only really discovered the show a few months ago, to share in that cathartic sense of a long journey coming to an end. Still, it's so rare for shows to go out on such a heartfelt high note like this, and I'm glad I stuck with this show to the end.

I'm also glad that I can start getting back into single seasons of TV again. I've let a lot build up, between the new seasons of Thunderbolt Fantasy and Mob Psycho 100 and some premieres I'm interested in, so be sure to listen out for my thoughts on those. That's going to do it for this week's Saturday Summaries too: next week's going to be a similar mix of new Indies, Nintendo Direct thoughts, and old Sega tapes, so look forward to more of all that.

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Indie Game of the Week 107: West of Loathing

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The Western genre is oddly under-represented in the video game sphere, despite being such a major cultural touchstone in other media - movies and TV especially. However, there was one very important cowboy game that came out fairly recently that was packed to the gills with historical realism and an evident fond appreciation of that once-ubiquitous thematic genre, ensuring that cowboy games would continue strong for another console generation at least. That game was, of course, West of Loathing from Asymmetric Publications.

Riffing on the inherent ridiculousness of the wild west in much the same way Blazing Saddles did many years before, West of Loathing parlays the popularity of Asymmetric's more fantasy-ish focused browser-based MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing in a brand new rootin'-est, tootin'-est direction, albeit with many elements of the original game: the simple RPG combat system that demands a certain mastery over buffs and debuffs to win its internecine battles; a pervasive sense of humor that can be both broad and hopelessly esoteric; a strange obsession with meat as the world's currency, where it is a fungible and non-perishable commodity that is mined from ore veins as often as it is recovered from animal carcasses; and, most strikingly, a certain visual minimalism that renders the world in stark black and white lines and its people as stick figures wearing neutral expressions with only silly hats to distinguish them. As an unrepentant carnivore with a predilection for dumb puns and drawing stick people on occasion, I felt right at home here.

West of Loathing also builds on its predecessor's structure, as a loosely-defined open-world online RPG. West of Loathing drops the online aspect - no meeting other players on the trail, which I at least am thankful for - but you'll often be crossing the map for one objective only to bump into a random encounter that might generate an entire new side-quest or location to visit. In that sense, it's very much like the old Fallout games: often you have a clear objective in mind, but a sudden discovery while traversing the world map might waylay you towards a distraction or two, from which you could earn more XP or some better items or just be privy to a silly joke or movie reference that the designers left there for you to find. In that spirit of fun, the game is extremely lenient when it comes to dying and the like: if you lose a fight, you get "angry" - a perk that conveys some decent stat boosts - and can then retry the battle you just narrowly lost with this new boon, in a manner similar to how Bugs Bunny might be thrown from one of those melee dust clouds, fix his hat, and march back in with a determined look. Or you can take the loss and decide to come back later when you're a little better prepared. Losing too many fights will cause you to pass out from your own ire, waking up back in the hub town of Dirtwater the next day with all your 24-hour buffs removed - deservedly annoying, but certainly not deleterious to the playthrough.

A typical encounter against a shaving-cream-covered skeleton. I've worn it down through regular attacks, but my
A typical encounter against a shaving-cream-covered skeleton. I've worn it down through regular attacks, but my "pardner" Doc Alice could always simply saw it to pieces.

Likewise, West of Loathing's turn-based combat takes after the simplicity of Kingdom of Loathing where you have three chief stats determining damage - here it's Moxie for gunfighting, Muscle for hand-to-hand melee, and Mysticism for "bean magic" - and enemies will regularly attack you with whichever stat of theirs is highest. It becomes a game of damage mitigation and target prioritization, as you quickly eliminate the biggest threats with your big-hitters and use what resources you have left to stay in the fight long enough to take out the rest. You have a limited amount of "AP" (action points) per battle to use on skills, but it always recovers in full by the next encounter so it's worth using them up if it can whittle down a crowd of enemies faster. I picked a Snake Oiler for my class: in addition to being an expert Hornswoggler (a miscellaneous skill that opens new dialogue options), they can use their knowledge of snakes and snake oils to create effective poisons and tonics and a lot of those poison debuffs can be devastating when used early in a long fight, especially when you consider that they can be stacked. West of Loathing's combat therefore is both very straightforward - enemies only ever seem to attack you in one way, and always with the same damage numbers unless you figure out how to reduce them - and remarkably tactical at the same time.

It's worth reiterating that West of Loathing is an inveterate and relentless jokester, tossing bon mots and goofy puns your way every other second. To the game's credit, it's not only extremely funny - in my view at least, though anyone who's had to deal with my BS in the Giant Bomb chat knows to take a grain of salt there - but the types of humor it employs vary considerably, from an ongoing routine where you reach into spittoons for valuable items despite the narrator's undisguised revulsion to dialogue trees where you intelligently but also stupidly use the world's own Looney Tunes logic against it. Yet in spite of the game's very deliberate foolishness, there's a great deal of clever quality-of-life features working behind the scenes to ensure the players are having a ball exploring this ludicrous version of the wild west. These range from the above minimized battle loss conditions to the way your "pardner" helps out in combat, always has advice to offer, and will list all your main and side-quest objectives in case you forgot. There's much you'll want to keep track of elsewhere via a notepad and pen perhaps, in particular with regards to locked chests you've left behind or items you need to finish off an area or quest, but the game's pretty decent about surfacing all you need to know. If you're ever feeling under-levelled or need specific monster drops, there's a number of places where you can generate as many encounters with specific foes as you could want: for example there's an early location called the Daveyard, where various Daves are buried, that can produce an endless number of battles with one or three undead Daves if you require their skeletal remains for a side-quest or just need a few more XP to push you over the next target.

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I regret nothing.
I regret nothing.

Overall, West of Loathing has been a joy to play so far, and while it might not be much to look at it's full of character and great comedic writing. It emphasizes everything I appreciate about turn-based and open-world RPG design and it's even making the Western genre endearing to me, which might be a first. I look forward to playing more of it after this review goes up and seeing how much more hornswogglin' and dickerin' I can get away with.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Mega Archive: Part VII: From Joe Montana Football to Valis III

Welcome back to the Mega Archive, Segaheads! This month I felt like being a little more productive than, well, my usual "none at all" - hence the return of this ongoing project from last year that sees all of the games for Sega's 16-bit console get the detailed Giant Bomb Wiki pages they deserve. Each game will get their own rundown here too, if you just want the short version on their stats and/or my own opinions about how well they might have aged. If you're new to this series, check out the links below to get caught up on the previous three years of Sega Genesis/Mega Drive history.

We start Part VII in early 1991, what will easily be the Mega Drive's most significant year of existence. At this time, they are competing tooth and nail with Nintendo's new 16-bit console the Super Nintendo Entertainment System: though the Mega Drive will become eclipsed in Japan by Nintendo's powerful new rival, due to savvy marketing the Sega Genesis will continue to hold onto the lead in North America and elsewhere.

This "season" of the Mega Archive will cover the first half of 1991. It'll conveniently conclude with the release of a certain blue hedgehog game in late June, ending the more elusive era of the pre-Sonic Sega Genesis. We've got a while to go before we reach Mobius and Green Hill Zone however, so let's get started with the games released in the first quarter of 1991.

Part VII: 099-115 (January '91 - March '91)

099: Joe Montana Football

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  • Developer: Park Place Productions
  • Publisher: Sega
  • JP Release: 1991-03-01
  • NA Release: January 1991
  • EU Release: May 1991
  • Franchise: Joe Montana Football
  • Genre: Football
  • Theme: Pro Sports
  • Premise: In addition to hosting the Madden franchise, Sega was also hard at work at their own simulation of the world's most concussive sport featuring the (then) 49ers's star quarterback Joe Montana.
  • Availability: Nope, but there were a number of sequels.
  • Preservation: This is another one with a spotty history - Sega were originally working with Mediagenic (i.e. Activision) to bring this one out, but instead had to sheepishly ask Electronic Arts to finish off what would be their biggest football rival via their subsidiary developers Park Place Productions. Accounts seem to vary whether they made the holiday deadline in time; most data places suggest they did, while this Sega-16 article suggests that they did not. I'm inclined to believe the latter, given it seems far better researched. At any rate, it's another football game so I'm not going to have much else to say.

100: Dick Tracy

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  • Developer: Sega Technical Institute
  • Publisher: Sega
  • JP Release: 1991-03-01
  • NA Release: January 1991
  • EU Release: April 1991
  • Franchise: Dick Tracy
  • Genre: Side-Scrolling Shooter
  • Theme: Crime / Comic Books
  • Premise: Lantern-jawed cop Dick Tracy takes down his most famous enemies in this on-rails shooter based on the 1990 Warren Beatty movie adaptation of the classic comic strip.
  • Availability: Licensed game, so original Sega cart only.
  • Preservation: For a game based on a movie based on a comic based on a cop in a yellow trenchcoat, the Dick Tracy Mega Drive game is surprisingly competent. It combines standard side-scrolling action with this added wrinkle of background combatants that require using a separate shoot button and the D-pad as a makeshift light gun, effectively combining the two genres. I'm not sure we'll see a game do that again until Shadow Complex. One only has to see where the game came from to understand its quality: Sega Technical Institute, or STI (that abbreviation didn't age well), which got their start here but would later become far better known for their work on Comix Zone, Die Hard Arcade, and co-developing Sonic the Hedgehog 2. They were effectively Sega's elite first-party developing branch in the US, though they only made six games for the Sega Genesis and two for Saturn before being folded back into Sega of America proper. We'll see them again when we start on 1992's releases.

101: Techno Cop

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  • Developer: Punk Development
  • Publisher: RazorSoft
  • JP Release: N/A
  • NA Release: January 1991
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: N/A
  • Genre: Side-Scrolling Shooter / Vehicular Combat
  • Theme: Crime / Sci-Fi / Unnecessary Gore
  • Premise: Techno Cop is here to clean up the mean streets and the turntables alike with his combination of chill EDM beats and chilling racially-motivated beatings. Actually, he's just some sort of future cop shooting mohawk guys in the face.
  • Availability: Released on multiple home computers prior to the Mega Drive, but nothing since then.
  • Preservation: Techno Cop, or Technocop, is another Razorsoft game to which it is proving difficult to pin a release date. Most internet sites seem to suggest some vague time in late 1990, though Sega Retro found an EGM magazine review from January 1991 that suggested a same-month release (though the magazine itself has a typo in it, so who can say?). RazorSoft was one of the earliest third-party publishers working almost exclusively on the Mega Drive (Punk Entertainment was their development wing and led by Jeff Spangenberg, the eventual founder of Iguana Entertainment) and it's suggested that they wanted to test the waters a little with what Sega permitted for their home consoles with this game's violent content. This sort of "Sega Does What Nintenwon't" rivalry would come to a decapitated head with the first Mortal Kombat of course, but the system saw a number of grisly ports from the lawless lands of the Amiga market (from which Techno Cop sprang) long before then.

102: Flicky

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  • Developer: Sega
  • Publisher: Sega
  • JP Release: January 1991
  • NA Release: April 1991
  • EU Release: September 1991
  • Franchise: N/A
  • Genre: Platformer
  • Theme: Cute
  • Premise: Flicky has to escort multiple chicks to the exit while avoiding all the cat enemies in this port of the classic (i.e. old-ass) Sega arcade game.
  • Availability: The Mega Drive port of Flicky is presently available on Steam either standalone or in Volume 3 of the Sega Genesis Classics packs. It's also in the Sega Genesis Classics compilation for consoles too, as well as multiple other Sega Genesis collections.
  • Preservation: Flicky was first introduced to the world via the arcades in 1984, and takes after Namco's Mappy with its multiple floors, persistent enemies, and side-scrolling loops. The history behind its Mega Drive port is fairly audacious: Sega was looking for shorter games that could be developed quickly and easily for the Game Toshokan service - an early precedent for the Sega Channel and the digital distribution storefronts of today - and chose to adapt one of their older arcade games for the 16-bit system. Since there was no Game Toshokon service overseas, Sega just released it as a full-price cart in Europe and North America instead. The blue bird Flicky itself was something of an early mascot for Sega in their arcade heyday, and would eventually become a canonical species of the world of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1996's Sonic 3D Blast. Can't say that really raised their profile much.

103: Gain Ground

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  • Developer: Sega
  • Publisher: Sega (EU/JP), Renovation (NA)
  • JP Release: 1991-01-03
  • NA Release: 1991-01-02
  • EU Release: 1991
  • Franchise: Gain Ground
  • Genre: Top-Down Shooter
  • Theme: Sci-Fi
  • Premise: A highly advanced combat simulation program designed to keep humanity's fighting instincts keen during peacetime suddenly becomes corrupted, threatening the lives of all still trapped inside. Chosen heroes are sent in to destroy the root of the problem.
  • Availability: The Mega Drive port of Gain Ground is presently available on Steam either standalone or in Volume 1 of the Sega Genesis Classics packs. It's also in the Sega Genesis Classics compilation for consoles too, as well as multiple other Sega Genesis collections.
  • Preservation: Gain Ground, which was first released in arcades in 1988, was actually one of my favorite Master System games growing up and the Mega Drive port is even better, as you might expect. A little more involved than a regular Commando or Ikari Warriors type of top-down shooter, you had to be careful with who you sent out and when: each of the game's dozen or so warriors had different alt-fire attacks that could be beneficial in the current stage. If you lacked a guy who could hit enemies on high structures, for instance, you had no other choice but to finish the level the "lame way": dragging everyone in your crew to the marked exit while avoiding enemy fire. It's one of the few top-down shooters from that era I have any compulsion to go back to, and I'm glad it still holds up.

104: Wings of Wor / Gynoug

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  • Developer: Masaya
  • Publisher: Masaya (JP), Dreamworks (NA), Sega (EU)
  • JP Release: 1991-01-25 (as Gynoug)
  • NA Release: June 1991 (as Wings of Wor)
  • EU Release: March 1992 (as Gynoug)
  • Franchise: N/A
  • Genre: Horizontal Shoot 'em Up
  • Theme: Horror / Fantasy
  • Premise: The angel Wor descends into the nightmarish realm of the Destroyer, Iccus, to end his corrupt ambitions.
  • Availability: With the Wii Shop's Virtual Console closed down, the few Mega Drive games on there have vanished into the ether. This one is original cart only.
  • Preservation: Wings of Wor definitely has a look, huh? Some real grisly H. R. Giger business going on in this game, picking up the ball from gooey shoot 'em ups like Konami's Life Force and punting it into an abyss so deep there are no goodbyes. It has a fair power-up system too - bullet spread is upgraded in two ways, blue and red, and losing a life means only dropping a level in each - but is otherwise as hard as balls as any given Japanese shoot 'em up for the system.

105: Ultimate QIX / Volfied

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  • Developer: ITL
  • Publisher: Taito
  • JP Release: 1991-01-25 (as Volfied)
  • NA Release: 1991 (as Ultimate QIX)
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: QIX
  • Genre: Action
  • Theme: Sci-Fi
  • Premise: A lone pilot must save his home planet of Volfied from an invading race of aliens in what critics are calling the most original plot since never.
  • Availability: You can only play this particular version on the original Genesis and Japanese Mega Drive systems, but the arcade original is available on Taito's Taito Legends compilation for PS2 and OG Xbox (and PC, but not digitally).
  • Preservation: Good old Volfied. I last saw this QIX sequel in one of the TurboGrafx-16 wiki projects a while back, which meant very little additional wiki work for its page. It's QIX with a more traditional sci-fi spaceship kind of look and live-preserving power-ups but still the same line-drawing action. Despite the age of the concept, there's still a tensely fine-tuned risk vs. reward system at play regarding how much you're willing to box off at once. ITL handled the Genesis port on Taito's behalf: their second game for the system after Arrow Flash (Mega Archive #6).

106: Air Buster / Aero Blasters

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Inter State
  • Publisher: Kaneko
  • JP Release: 1991-01-31 (as Aero Blasters)
  • NA Release: February 1991 (as Air Buster)
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: N/A
  • Genre: Horizontal Shoot 'em Up
  • Theme: Sci-Fi
  • Premise: It's the far-flung year of 2021 and the Trouble Speciality Raid Unit are called into action when a strange floating object enters Earth's orbit and starts spitting out alien fighters.
  • Availability: Original cart only.
  • Preservation: Aero Blasters, not to be confused with Video System's Aero Fighters, is your standard arcade horizontal shoot 'em up. Unlike many console shoot 'em ups of this era, however, it offers a simultaneous two-player mode. It's also another game that was graced with a TurboGrafx-16 port which means I'm once again saved some work sprucing up its wiki page. This is the second time we've seen Kaneko (and their console development subsidiary Inter State) produce a Mega Drive port; the first being the unfortunate DJ Boy (Mega Archive #3).

107: Super Volleyball

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Video System
  • Publisher: Video System
  • JP Release: 1991-02-01
  • NA Release: 1991
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: Power Spikes
  • Genre: Volleyball
  • Theme: Pro Sports
  • Premise: Remember when volleyball games didn't have jiggle physics and bikini DLC? Super Volleyball remembers. Hey, I see you yawning back there.
  • Availability: Original cart only. Hamster Corporation owns the rights to the series though, so it could be showing up as part of their Arcade Archives collection on PS4 or Switch any day. Maybe don't hold your breath.
  • Preservation: Hey, speaking of Video System. This is their arcade volleyball game, the Mega Drive port of which marks the first adaptation of that particular sport for the system. It's a bit on the rough side with a horizontal perspective that can make it easier to follow the ball but not your four-person team, who spend a lot of the action in one inscrutable clump near the net. What do you know? It's another game with a TurboGrafx-16 port too. I feel like this Mega Archive entry is turning into a mini-vacation.

108: Powerball / Wrestleball

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Namco
  • Publisher: Namco
  • JP Release: 1991-02-08 (as Wrestleball)
  • NA Release: 1991 (as Powerball)
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: N/A
  • Genre: Future Sports
  • Theme: Sci-Fi / Pro Sports
  • Premise: Speedball has speed, but Powerball has power! And balls! Welcome to the future sport of tomorrow, today. If you thought the only way for the NFL to improve was with even more head injuries...
  • Availability: It appears in Namco Anthology Vol. 1, released only in Japan for the PlayStation, and was on the Wii Shop Virtual Console once upon a time. Unlikely to find either these days.
  • Preservation: Going with Wrestleball, huh? Good title choice by its North American localizers. Our old friends Namco are back with another weird sports game that @jeffrud's going to have to add to his NamCompendium workload along with a thousand Famistas. Powerball seems like a transparent attempt by Namco to riff on Amiga classic Speedball, which must've been a big hit for its influence to have stretched that far. Always a little odd to see these future sports games feature a "USSR" team. Hey, maybe they reformed since. Reading any news for the past few years would certainly suggest that Russia's leaning that way.

109: Battle Golfer Yui

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Megasoft (as Santos)
  • Publisher: Sega
  • JP Release: 1991-02-15
  • NA Release: N/A
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: N/A
  • Genre: Golf
  • Theme: Sci-Fi / Cyberpunk / Pro Sports
  • Premise: Yui is a young golf prodigy who finds herself embroiled in the world conquering ambitions of Professor G. and his organization Dark Hazard! Can Yui stop him and save her brainwashed friend Ran with her exceptional short game?
  • Availability: Japanese Mega Drive cart only. If you can find a way to legally emulate it, there are fan translations out there.
  • Preservation: Battle Golfer Yui is the kind of game you always want to come across in projects like these - one that stands out because of its ambition and weirdness and has yet to be replicated since. There aren't a whole lot of narrative-heavy sci-fi golf games that feature opponents based on Japanese pop culture, after all. I had the fortune of discovering Battle Golfer Yui a while back through the Japanese TV show GameCenter CX, which threw host Shinya "Kacho" Arino for a loop. My approbations also to user Chickengeorgewashington, whose exuberance in filling in the pages of their selected obscure favorites took some cleaning up (the GB Wiki didn't really have rules back then to be fair) but always produced some in-depth deep dives on games most of us never knew existed. This is also our introduction to Megasoft, who at the time were still Santos: Sega bought them a while later, and had them produce a couple of Genesis exclusive titles as Megasoft before they were completely absorbed into Sega after a year.

110: Twin Cobra / Kyuukyoku Tiger

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Toaplan / Graphic Research
  • Publisher: Treco (JP), Sega (NA)
  • JP Release: 1991-02-22 (as Kyuukyoku Tiger)
  • NA Release: June 1991 (as Twin Cobra)
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: Tiger Heli
  • Genre: Vertical Shoot 'em Up
  • Theme: Modern Military
  • Premise: The Ultimate Tiger is the only vehicle capable of taking down an entire army. So that's what it does. Shooting jets down in a helicopter: it worked for Liquid Snake, and it'll work for you too.
  • Availability: Original Genesis cart only, unless you want to try one of its other half-dozen ports. The FM Towns Marty sounds like the most arcade-perfect, and I'm sure we all have one of those sitting in our attics.
  • Preservation: Twin Cobra's another Toaplan arcade shoot 'em up that has found its way onto the Mega Drive. The second in their Tiger Heli series - vertical scrollers with helicopter protagonists - Twin Cobra had already seen NES and TurboGrafx-16 ports by this point (and thus I had already worked on its page twice before), but the 16-bit power of Sega's console made the best case for an arcade-perfect conversion. Well, until the 1993 Sharp X68000 and 1996 FM Towns Marty ports at least, though don't expect any wiki projects on those systems any time soon. Graphic Research is credited with some or all of the work with the port, depending on which corner of the internet you ask. We last saw them with the visual novel Psy-O-Blade (not real great with names, that company). Treco, meanwhile, is a US-based publisher we first encountered with Atomic Robo-Kid in the previous episode of Mega Archive. They'll get involved in a few more Genesis games yet, including a well-known SRPG coming up very soon.

111: Warrior of Rome / Caesar no Yabou

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Micronet
  • Publisher: Micronet
  • JP Release: 1991-02-24 (as Caesar no Yabou)
  • NA Release: May 1991 (as Warrior of Rome)
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: Warrior of Rome
  • Genre: Strategy (Real-Time)
  • Theme: Ancient Rome
  • Premise: This strategy game follows a few of the military campaigns of Julius Caesar as the indomitable Roman general that helped conquer much of Europe and Northern Africa.
  • Availability: Original cart only.
  • Preservation: Micronet certainly seem like a versatile developer: their previous games were Curse, a shoot 'em up, and Junction, a puzzle game. Warrior of Rome must've seemed like a novel take on a serious strategy game for Genesis owners, but its Japanese name - Caesar's Ambition - belies its inspirations to a degree. Unlike Koei's long-running Nobunaga's Ambition series however, Warrior of Rome is an RTS that has its units move around the map in real-time as the player endeavors to raise armies to stop their advance. You give your units direction and a few AI toggles like the unit strength percentage before it tries to retreat from battle. It plays a bit more like a plate-spinning Ogre Battle game as a result, and not one I was having any joy with.

112: Paddle Fighter

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Sega
  • Publisher: Sega
  • JP Release: March 1991
  • NA Release: N/A
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: N/A
  • Genre: Air Hockey
  • Theme: Pro Sports
  • Premise: Take on a series of bizarre opponents at the air hockey table with this online-only competitive game.
  • Availability: It was never released on a physical cart, so... well. There's no legal way to play it, let's say.
  • Preservation: The games available via Game Toshokan (see Flicky, above, for more info) are elusive buggers to track down. They're not quite as bad as the Satellaview games, but their release dates are nebulous at best. I'm going to try to dripfeed these across multiple Mega Archive entries, but there are a lot of them and they rarely get more sophisticated than "goofy air hockey". At least Paddle Fighter seems like a fun two-player game, if a little barebones.

113: Bahamut Senki

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Sega
  • Publisher: Sega
  • JP Release: 1991-03-08
  • NA Release: N/A
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: N/A
  • Genre: Strategy (Turn-Based)
  • Theme: Fantasy
  • Premise: You like dragons? We got dragons. Sega's here with the Bahamut SRPG everyone cried out for many years before Square and Nintendo could put theirs together. Deadbeats.
  • Availability: With the closure of the Wii Shop, it's Japanese Mega Drive cart only.
  • Preservation: Bahamut Senki is Sega's attempt to get in on that deep Koei tactical war-gaming action, splitting its focus between menu-driven empire-building instructions like diplomacy, farming or construction and battles which can play out as a real-time top-down action game. It's a bold attempt at a more console-friendly grand strategy game - though I can't read a lick of it, there seemed to be fewer options to worry about than in most of Koei's Nobunaga or Three Kingdoms games - but I don't think it was the big Mega Drive strategy franchise Sega was looking for. They would find a "shining" beacon of that particular genre eventually, though not for another year yet.

114: Fushigi no Umi no Nadia

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Namco
  • Publisher: Namco
  • JP Release: 1991-03-19
  • NA Release: N/A
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Theme: Fantasy
  • Premise: Relive the events of the Nadia anime TV show with this top-down ambulatory adventure game that follows an abridged version of the story.
  • Availability: Japanese Mega Drive cart only.
  • Preservation: Oof, yeah. This one took some work. Someone made a single amalgam page for every Fushigi no Umi no Nadia game ever released, despite the fact that they all have different developers and play differently (though the majority are adventure games, and not particularly interactive ones). The Mega Drive adaptation has you running around as deuteragonist Jean talking to various people and finding clues to advance the plot. I assume it's a lot easier to figure out what to do next if you've already seen the show.

115: Valis III

No Caption Provided
  • Developer: Telenet Japan
  • Publisher: Renovation
  • JP Release: 1991-03-22
  • NA Release: June 1991
  • EU Release: N/A
  • Franchise: Valis
  • Genre: Brawler / Action
  • Theme: Fantasy
  • Premise: Yuko, her sister Princess Valna, and their new friend Cham must take on the forces of King Ramses/Glames to save both Earth and the fantastical realm of Vecanti.
  • Availability: No rereleases, but you have the choice between the truncated Genesis version or the original TurboGrafx-CD version with all the levels, anime cutscenes, and CD music.
  • Preservation: I liked what I've played of Valis III in the past, definitely more than the previous two games. Part of the reason why is because it introduces a system "borrowed" from Castlevania III where you can switch between your three protagonists on the fly with a single button (except in boss fights, annoyingly) and each has their own strengths. You do need to rescue two of them first, though. I first played the TGCD version, as per the aforementioned prior wiki projects, and the Genesis version feels a little compromised due to the system's cart limitations compared to what was then an ungodly amount of storage available on compact disc. Something that will plague the SNES as well in due time, especially if you were to ask Squaresoft.
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Saturday Summaries 2019-02-09: Ranks For Everything Edition

Giant Bomb doesn't have too many mainstays these days besides the Friday night/afternoon cornerstone that is Unprofessional Fridays, but one of my favorite long-time series continues to be Ranking of Fighters. Though couched in ostensibly scientific and deeply nerdy positioning and repositioning of various fighter game classics (and "classics"), it's really just an excuse for Jason, Jeff and Ben to drag out the arcade sticks and marvel at/deride the various games from the long history of their favorite shared video game genre.

I've been contemplating what my own feature of this type would look like: which genre I would choose to thoroughly organize into a descending order of quality, and by which criteria. I'd say my three biggest areas of expertise are RPGs, platformers, and adventure games. Trouble is, to rank every RPG ever made would mean going back to the 1980s (and 70s, even, if we also include the PLATO systems) and spending approximately a thousand years getting to the end of all those incredibly archaic D&D adaptations. JRPGs are also no good; so many remain trapped behind a language barrier, and even just taking the localized ones into account would take far more time than I'm likely to commit to such a feature. Heck, if I just limited it to those RPGs released on Nintendo systems - the platforms I'm most comfortable with, after spending so much time with them for many Wiki Projects - I'd still be plugging my way through the SNES JRPG library come 2024. Besides, what would I have to look forward to after that? Quest 64? Talk about grim.

Likewise, adventure games would take a long time to get "good" by my estimations. Even skipping past the text adventures of the 1980s to the golden eras of Sierra and LucasFilm, I'd be looking at a lot of games that literally lost the plot somewhere in the many moon logic puzzles that beleaguered 90% of adventure games of any given era. The only reason the genre really recovered from the FMV nightmares of the late '90s and early '00s is because anyone who is making one these days are adamant about doing right by the genre and its proponents; they've become labors of love from a smattering of dedicated Indie developers rather than dozens of bigger publishers jumping onto the hottest trending genre and missing the point entirely. Fortunately, those publishers have now all moved onto battle royales and "games as a service", leaving single-player games in other genres to be made by and for those who appreciate them. Rants aside, I think building a Ranking of Adventures would be way too tricky to pin down criteria - Good writing? Good stories? How would you quantify that? - and, like the above, would require playing through too many ancient games with too many obsolete parsers that I have zero interest in trying to figure out.

Which leaves us with platformers. Again, perhaps too broad a subject to really cover in an amount of time measured smaller than decades. However, there is an out here, one that will allow me to narrow the field down to something I could potentially be keen enough to see through its highs and lows: 3D platformers. A relatively nascent genre - if you consider approximately 23 years of being as "nascent" - the 3D platformer flared up during the N64 and PlayStation 2 generations and then trickled down to a few ongoing franchises like Ratchet and Clank or the Traveller's Tales LEGO games for the next, and these days has the new promise of a wave of 3D platformers emerging from the Indie market. I feel like, out of all the 3D platformers that currently exist, I probably already own and have played at least half of them. It will mean poking into terrible also-rans like those that Ben has shone a disquieting blacklight on in his cursed "Tales from the Blockbuster" UPF segments, but I can take 'em. I don't have to complete these games to judge their rankiness, after all. Maybe that can be something I'll pick up later in the year, once I figure out just how long the list is and how challenging (and expensive) it will be to find copies of them all to try out.

For now, let's focus on what I've been doing this week:

Shantae: Half Genie Hero

The Indie Game of the Week was the latest Shantae game from WayForward, the bellydancing star of which is more or less their mascot at this point. I have a lot of affection for WayForward's entire oeuvre, both as a fan of spacewhippers (their preferred genre) and of their high-quality cartoonish presentations with soundtracks frequently sourced from freelance maestro Jake "virt" Kaufman. Shantae feels sort of like their version of that one song that a veteran musical act can always drag out at the end of their performance as a surefire way to bring the house down: it's both their most popular product but also their most comfortably familiar.

In that sense, the most recent Shantae rests on its laurels a bit too much for my liking, being too formulaic and not really raising the bar at all. I suspect part of that was its Kickstarter crowdsourced funding: when you have thousands of Shantae fans throwing money at you to make another one, you want to do right by them even if it means not pushing the magic carpet out too far. Still, there's no denying that the money was well spent on those high production values, and if you've never played a Shantae game (there's presently four) this would be a fine place to jump in. My indifference really just stems from being a long-time fan of this franchise and wanting more out of it than a prettier entry that treads water.

Link here: Indie Game of the Week 106: Shantae: Half Genie Hero.

Valkyria Chronicles 4

This week finishes up the last of the Squad E recruit rundowns, focusing on the big-hitters of anti-tank lancers, the deadly mortar-lobbing grenadiers, and the few vehicles that are part of your retinue. With this, I believe my coverage of Valkyria Chronicles 4 finally draws to a close. It's been a blast (so to speak) revisiting this franchise again and going deep into the weeds with strategies based on the strengths and weaknesses of VC4's eclectic group of psychologically-fragile animes. War might be hell, but there's always a time and place for a hot springs episode or skits built around romantic misunderstandings. What a dumb but also incredibly smart series. Here's hoping Valkyria Chronicles V (for Victory) can continue with the momentum Sega's built up here. Heck, why not let co-developer Media.Vision take another stab at Wild ARMs with the same tech?

Link here: Valk-tier-ia Chronicles: Part 3: Lancers & Grenadiers

Assassin's Creed Origins

Yep, still working my way through Assassin's Creed Origins and its arcane, antagonistic, animal-based Order of Ancients. For all my misgivings last week, which all very much still apply and continue to vex me on an hourly basis, there's still something captivating about traipsing over a beautiful rendition of ancient Egypt en route to the next question mark or side-quest icon on the map. For that matter, I will commend Origins for slightly better map design than most AC games: rather than plastering hundreds of chest icons and other minor valuables over the map with the activation of every synchronization point, it simply drops question marks over major locations in any given region which may have a few chests located somewhere inside. Finding the chests then becomes the way to mark a location as "complete", though you may also need to assassinate some high-ranking foes or complete some other objectives. It gives me way fewer waypoints to chase after and more to do when I get there, which I feel is a better system if not necessarily a brand new one.

Well, I say "fewer waypoints", but the map in Origins feels about three times larger than any other Assassin's Creed game I can recall. I hear Odyssey's even bigger, so maybe I'll just skip that one; like I said last time, I haven't been feeling Assassin's Creed for a long while and even "reboots" like this don't feel sufficiently improved for my liking. But hey, I tend to finish whatever games I start unless I really despise it, and I'm certainly not there yet with Origins. In spite of everything, I'm with Bayek for the long haul now and want to see how his and his wife Aya's quest for vengeance pans out in the political intrigue surrounding Cleopatra's ascent to the throne and union with Julius Caesar. There's only a few targets left - though a huge amount of fogged map remaining - and I hit max level a while ago. Probably not going to take another week, is my guess, and I can perhaps move onto February's "Bucketlog" pick or something else a bit more compact.

Parks and Recreation (Seasons 5 and 6)

At this point in the show's run, I feel the same way about Parks and Recreation that I do about Assassin's Creed: the glory days are behind it, and after all this time I'm still getting enervated by the formulaic nature and some of the same problems that have plagued it since its inception. But also, I'm enamoured enough with the franchise as a whole and its beats and characters that I keep finding myself coming back regardless.

Watching how the final few seasons of P&R are stretching out forever gave me keen insight into why showrunner Michael Schur went with the breakneck pace and unpredictability of his newest enterprise The Good Place. It's easy to fall into a rut, and to wheel out familiar episode arcs focused around common flaws of characters that do very little growing, and The Good Place seems to subvert that familiarity with every other episode. It's become almost impossible to predict where The Good Place will be five episodes from now, or even if Eleanor will continue to be a shrewd, selfish woman or Jason a lovable Floridian idiot (though I feel that latter one is as evergreen as the Everglades). I don't dislike where Parks and Recreation is now - I still love these characters, and the joke writing continues to be top-notch - but it feels it could've bowed out a season or two ago were it not for NBC's insistence on keeping it around.

Season 7 is hinting at a major upheaval at least: it's the definitive for-sure final season, which gives its showrunners and writers carte blanche to do anything with these characters now that they don't need to worry about future continuity, and it starts with a three year time-skip that has seen everyone in the titular department move onto bigger things. I'm both looking forward to and slightly sad about the show ending, and am intrigued by a fictional version of 2017 and 2018 that isn't marred by apocalpytic consternation and our shared sheer anguish at the slow and stupidly self-defeating descent of western civilization.

Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

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Indie Game of the Week 106: Shantae: Half-Genie Hero

No Caption Provided

I'm really not sure where I stand with Shantae. On the one hand, I love the level of presentation each game has between the cute (but oddly thirsty) visual style and music, and after enough of these IGotW entries you're probably very familiar with just how enamoured I am by Indie spacewhippers in spite of their ubiquity. On the other hand, Shantae games make very little effort to innovate beyond their original formula, even less so than IGAvanias. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, which received a larger budget than usual due to a very successful Kickstarter, isn't so much a sequel than it is a soft reboot: it follows the same structure as Risky's Revenge, the second in the series, with most of the same genie transformation powers (which work like Alucard's transformations, in that they provide traversal benefits like flight), a hunt for McGuffins across a series of discrete levels (as opposed to one giant branching map), and a brief appearance of Shantae's evil half.

The loop of the game involves Shantae being given a new objective, gathering clues at the hub-like Scuttle Town, and then either finding her way to a new level or retracing her steps to a previous stage for some newly accessible key item. Every level culminates in a boss fight - all the "Barons" of previous games return, like the machine-obsessed Ammo Baron or fan-favorite Squid Baron - and a new genie transformation, which then allows the player to either move on with the story or revisit stages with this new power for helpful upgrades like health increases or collectibles. It's not a long game; six stages of variable lengths, each with two or three major areas to explore. However, the Ultimate Edition of the game extends the content to include all the DLC campaigns that were part of the Kickstarter's incentive tiers and originally given to prominent backers gratis. Many are simply the same game with a new set of moves or conditions, though there are a few short, unique campaigns set during the story that follow what the other characters were up to. Like the Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove collection, it's a decent value-add that largely relies on you wanting to complete the same game over and over with slight differences.

This is my fourth Shantae game, and yet I'd struggle to tell any of them apart were it not for the added amount of resources WayForward puts into each subsequent entry. If anything, Half-Genie Hero actually feels more antiquated than its predecessor, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, with some of the design decisions behind the game. There's very little in the way of creating a large, layered map to explore, instead opting for a structure where each stage is a linear course with a few hidden secrets here and there. There's no checkpointing except area transitions, which regularly means starting five or more minutes back whenever you fall into a pit, and losing all your health means losing all your progress since the last save. The game mitigates this with ample opportunities to restore HP - you can buy potions, collect food dropped by enemies, and even acquire an expensive healing dance that transfers magic into health - and it will offer to save the game at every area transition, but it still feels a little too much like a game made in the 1990s and not in the preferred throwback sense where a game might be graphically or structurally reminiscent of older eras but buoyed by modern design sensibilities and quality-of-life considerations to keep it palatable.

Someone in WayForward's art department loves drawing bare midriffs is all I can take away from Shantae's art direction. You do you, friend.
Someone in WayForward's art department loves drawing bare midriffs is all I can take away from Shantae's art direction. You do you, friend.

In fact, with the sterling new look it almost feels like the artists in the studio led a coup and put all the designers into a broom closet somewhere until their demands were met, producing a Shantae game that looks twice as good and plays about half as well. The world of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is replete with detailed backgrounds and foregrounds, with lots of little character animations on character sprites that look almost hand-drawn. WayForward has never skimped on their presentations, but it's evident a lot of additional time and attention has been put into the polished aesthetic of Half-Genie Hero's tropical world of magic carpets and genies. It's so extensive that it even dragged my laptop's framerate down, which - while I'll be the first to acknowledge my system isn't exactly cutting edge - isn't something I anticipated from a largely 2D, sprite-based game. Yet in spite of this new artistic confidence, the game feels like a giant step backwards for Shantae and her pals. As a long-time fan of this franchise, my hope is that the next Shantae game can raise the bar mechanically as well as aesthetically.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Valk-tier-ia Chronicles: Part 3: Lancers & Grenadiers

Atten-shun, maggots! You have just been promoted to the United Kingdom of Edinburgh's (why is Scotland calling the shots now? Probably for the best) most elite division: the 32nd Armored Ranger Corps! You will be expected to accomplish perilous missions behind enemy lines; your chief weapons, tactical superiority and stealth. To that effect, you will need to fully understand the capabilities of every soldier in your unit. That includes the areas where they excel, those where they falter, and maybe any pop culture references the localization decided to toss in. Keep in mind that the United Kingdom of Edinburgh's armies do not have any manner of psychological screening process, because this is World War 2 and we need every able-bodied anime we can recruit, regardless of psychosis or severe personality defects. Now... dismissed!

In the third and final part of this series that scrutinizes each member of Valkyria Chronicles 4's Squad E for their combat effectiveness and personality, we have the giant bombs themselves: the anti-tank lancers and the sky-darkening grenadiers. Both highly lethal in the right circumstances, they can require the right map to be properly effective. Of course, nothing seems to prevent the AI from using them against you to devastating effect. Best not to underestimate these guys whichever side they're on. In addition, Part Three also includes the three vehicles of Squad E for your approval.

Scouts & EngineersShocktroopers & SnipersLancers & Grenadiers (& Tanks)

Lancers

Specialized anti-armor units with rocket launchers.

  • Pros: Very durable, especially to explosions: mines, grenades, tank shells, mortars and other lances tend to do minimal damage. Most convenient way to remove enemy tanks, provided they can get a good angle at the weak point on their backs. After a promotion, they can use mortar lances which have the same sort of area of effect and anti-personnel damage as grenade launchers and grenadier mortars.
  • Cons: Very limited movement and ammo. No interception fire.

Further strategies: Lancers are a very conditional unit. Generally speaking, if you're not expecting to fight any tanks on a level, don't bother bringing one. There are no lancer leaders (that is, story-vital characters that add to the command point pool) in VC4, so you're never saddled with someone you won't need. All this makes lancers sound immaterial, but that's far from the truth if you do have a lot of tanks to deal with: their anti-armor stat is so high that they can do serious damage to vehicles and pillbox enclosures even without hitting a weak point, and it's almost always a one-shot kill if the weak point is accessible. It's for this reason that I recommend maybe taking very few lancers with you into a level, either one or none at all, but perhaps deploy one from a conquered enemy base in a strategic location where they might be in range of enemy tank weak points. This also applies to when you have long-distance units (like scout commanders or an APC) that are able to escort a lancer to where they can do some serious damage.

Lancers also offer a few other perks, the first being their near-invincibility to explosion damage. This makes them great at rooting out troublesome enemy grenadiers that a sniper can't reach, who would normally destroy a regular unit before they got close enough. In a pinch, you could also use a lancer to clear out a minefield "the hard way", taking very little damage from tripping mines that would send scouts and shocktroopers to an early grave. This invincibility will not extend to standard gunfire, however, so don't go running them past Gatling turrets or enemy shocktroopers.

Finally, there's the mortar lance that the Lancers acquire after a class promotion. I found limited uses for this: grenadiers already do the job of mortaring way better. The few times when a mortar lance is helpful are in the game's few interior missions where a roof prevents grenadiers from being much use. Keep in mind that a lancer can't both have a mortar lance and their standard anti-armor one, so choose wisely.

(NB: Asterisks (*) indicate a potential only acquired after completing that unit's Squad Story. For the sake of spoilers: the secret lancer and grenadier characters are recruited post-game, while the secret vehicle is mid-game (Chapter 8).)

Laurent McCloud

PotentialTriggerEffect
Awkward With GirlsNear womenEvasion Down
TrainingAfter attackingHP Recovery
True FriendNear Curtis BlackwellAnti-Armor Up
Seeking Justice*Start of turnAccuracy/Evasion Up
No Caption Provided

"Stop calling me cute!"

Laurent and Curtis Blackwell, as well as being friends, are both kind of referential parodies of typical JRPG protagonists. Where Curtis is shown as a curt and serious type who is really just a socially awkward dolt, the androgynous Laurent is way too quick to rush to judgement when it comes to what is good and what is evil. There's a certain moral absolutism in his character that pervades a lot of JRPGs where the main hero has this black-and-white moral code that is usually shown to be infallible, as unlikely as that is. I figure if you're a JRPG designer why wouldn't you slip in some low-key criticism of your peers?

Laurent's top of the list when it comes to deploying lancers, and he's not a bad choice by any stretch. Even without Curtis nearby, "Training" is enough to stay in decent shape, and "Awkward With Girls" is easy to avoid with the right deployment choices. Kind of a nuisance to switch units around to maximize his effectiveness though. One benefit is that he gets two of the better combat potentials (those unlocked through class upgrades) for lancers: "Extra Shot," which is as it sounds and mitigates the irritating ammo scarcity of lancers, and "Tank Destroyer," which has a fixed chance of destroying a tank in one hit regardless of whether or not you hit its weak spot.

Tier: B.

Keigel Hohmann

PotentialTriggerEffect
Veteran's SkillWhen attacking a weak spotAttack Up
Self-Made SoldierHalf HPAnti-Armor Up
A Father's GriefNear fallen allyAP Down
Team Dad*Near alliesDefense Way Up
No Caption Provided

"In my day, we had it tough!"

Keigel's one of your oldest units - over sixty! - which makes him the ornery old fart of Squad E along with his similarly aged buddy Ryan Ford (a shocktrooper, covered in the previous episode). He's no stranger to war, having been deployed in multiple conflicts and losing his adult son in one of those, and most of his yelling and gruffness comes from a place of wanting to keep this new generation of soldiers alive and well.

As you might expect from an old-timer, most of Keigel's potentials are designed to keep him standing. He's one of the more defensive units in your Squad, ideal for drawing enemy fire or pushing past multiple foes to get a shot at a tank's rear. "Veteran's Skill" and "Self-Made Soldier" makes him deadly in that regard, and his battle potentials "Safe, Not Sorry" and "Stand Ready" improve his defense when enemies are in range. Finally, there's "Ammo Refill," which is a hugely beneficial combat potential that fully restocks his ammo. That makes him quite independent and well-suited for charging behind enemy lines.

Tier: B.

Jimmy Frank

PotentialTriggerEffect
Redshirt's RiskNear enemiesAttack Up
Family PhotoWhen movingEvasion Up
Almost Got 'EmAfter missing weak pointEnemy always survives
Survivor's Luck*After being defeatedRevives to max HP
No Caption Provided

"I'm gonna be a dad soon, y'know?"

I love the idea behind Jimmy's character; that because he's got a new family to return home to and takes unnecessary risks, that he's more or less destined to be killed in action. He tells his friends not to worry about him, pulls out a family photo to show people every opportunity he gets, and starts with a potential that actually lowers defense when enemies are around. He has a close companion in the "cursed" Lily Ashley, who is fascinated by how doomed by situational irony a person can be.

"Almost Got 'Em" is a real stinker when it hits, but most lancers don't need to worry about non-lethal shots if you're using them right. Their role is to run to a spot where they can one-shot a tank or turret, and then one-shot that tank or turret. I might say don't bother with mortar or anti-personnel lances with Jimmy, but I'd also say not to bother with them in general either. "Family Photo" and "Redshirt's Risk" are cute but also pretty effective boosts when they proc. "Survivor's Luck", earned after his Squad Story, is downright miraculous - you really shouldn't be letting units get killed, but I bless the baby angel that was in charge of RNG that day when that potential appears. Best not to rely on it though.

Tier: B.

Gertrude Albright

PotentialTriggerEffect
Warzone EtiquetteWhen crouching or proneDefense Down
TeatimeAfter attackingHP Recovery
Strong-WilledWhen taking interception fireDamage halved
Noblesse Oblige*Near alliesDefense/Anti-Armor Up
No Caption Provided

"You really believe yourself my equal?"

Gertrude's one of those special-condition recruits that most players won't ever see, as you need to be sitting on a pile of one million ducats before she deigns to join Squad E. That's a lot of money that is best put towards life-saving upgrades to your squad's weapons and armor. Gertrude herself is a snobbish Brit who isn't really worth the trouble of scrounging together that much bank.

That said, she certainly isn't the worst lancer in your outfit. The fact she gets snippy whenever you ask her to take cover sucks a big one, as the defense downgrade more or less cancels out the boost you get from being in the defensive position to start with, but "Teatime" activates a lot and helps a long way towards keeping her in one piece. As does "Strong-Willed" for that matter. Her combat potentials also include Laurent's aforementioned "Extra Shot" and "Tank Destroyer", so she's another strong front-line choice.

Tier: C.

Jean Matrix

PotentialTriggerEffect
BrawnyWhen taking damageDefense Up
SloppyAfter attackingZero Ammo
Husband at HomeNear alliesAccuracy Down
Ripped*When attackingPenetrating shot
No Caption Provided

"All I need are my fists!"

Jean eats Imperial tanks for breakfast, and right now she's very hungry. A tough-as-nails lancer who lifts her hundred-pound weapon like it was made of matchsticks, Matrix is an intimidating presence on the battlefield but an otherwise good-natured soldier able to let off some steam when she's around allies. She particularly likes the corny jokes of fellow American (sorry, Vinlandian) Stanley Barclay. That's probably why she's going to kill him last.

As much as I like that there's a brawly distaff version of Commando wandering the battlefield, Jean unfortunately kinda sucks. There's no getting past just how deadly she can be in the right situation, but "Sloppy" is a dealbreaker if you need a reliable lancer for multiple targets. The idea that, at any point, she can suddenly go "oops, no ammo" and be useless until the next turn can really throw off your best-laid plans. That said, "Ripped" is lethal when it applies - tanks have a lot of defense, and penetrating shots remove all of it - and "Brawny" does a fine job of keeping her alive.

Tier: C.

Hanna Carroll

PotentialTriggerEffect
GutsyStart of turnDefense Up
LoudmouthWhen hidingStealth fails
Ace ChefWhen inside a campAttack Up
Passionate Support*Near close friendsDefense/Anti-Armor Up
No Caption Provided

"Time to get STEALTHY!"

Hanna is recruited in the mid-game when you have access to a ship, and she's that ship's cook. She's definitely what people used to call "brassy", making her opinions and feelings loudly known. This makes her terrible at stealth - she has no "inside voice" according to the game - but she can still throw down with the best of them in a sticky situation. Her Squad Story's also very cute, and unlocks a handy potential that's only useful when she's near Aoife or Jascha - both grenadiers.

Like most lancers, Hanna's middle-of-the-road in terms of her potentials, and a lot of them are vaguely contradictory. "Ace Chef" isn't that helpful because you need to leave the camp to get a good vantage point on a tank, and likewise her "Passionate Support" requires being near grenadiers which isn't an ideal combo for lancers: despite a similar focus on explosive weaponry, lancers are front-line units with high defense, and grenadiers are squishy nerds who need to be kept safe in a hole somewhere. I would also strongly recommend you don't bring her on missions involving stealth, i.e. nature maps with a lot of tall grass to hide in. (Having the "Ammo Refill" combat potential helps her case though.)

Tier: C.

Brittany Scarlett

PotentialTriggerEffect
ClumsyWhen attackingAccuracy Down
A Mother's StrengthWhen taking interception fireAccuracy/Evasion Up
Magic MakeupStart of turnHP Recovery
Team Mom*Near womenAccuracy/Anti-Armor Up
No Caption Provided

"C'mon ladies, we can do it!"

The middle-aged Brittany is the other half of Rita Raywater's prime-time sitcom double-act, as a divorced single mom who is done with men as a foil to Rita's man-hungry mission. Like Keigel, she also has a tendency of taking the younger recruits under her wing, in part because they remind her of her own daughter waiting at home. Moms are tough, as Final Fantasy XIII is wont to tell us.

Boy, I don't even know about Brittany. "Clumsy" can be annoying because lancers are often required to make very difficult shots on a tank's weak spot - you certainly don't want to be close enough to be in range of its gatling turret's interception fire when making your approach. "Magic Makeup" and "A Mother's Strength" are, like most lancer potentials, at least good for keeping such a high-risk/high-reward unit alive. I also appreciate the utility of "Team Mom" once you've earned it from her Squad Story, as it's not difficult to put together a team of women to take into combat. Indeed, the best scout commander (those that can escort multiple units on their turn) is female, which makes it a handy gender-focused potential to have.

Tier: B.

Sergio Mousquelaire

PotentialTriggerEffect
TrainingAfter attackingHP Recovery
Good With KidsWhen inside a campDefense Up
Terrifying TreatmentNear wounded allyAttack Down
Medical Officer*After healing allyAP Up, Second Action
No Caption Provided

"Anaesthetic? Hoho, that's a luxury."

The third of the Cygnus crew to join Squad E as secret recruits in the post-post-game, Sergio is the ship's medical officer and in charge of keeping people alive. He's also regularly referred to as one of the most inexplicably strongest people in the navy and even has one of those olde-timey weightlifter mustaches to prove it, which is why he ends up becoming a lancer.

I usually don't care for the Cygnus crewmembers as they all have fairly major flaws or, in the case of Sergio, a focus on medical expertise that rarely comes into play for a lone wolf lancer unit. "Medical Officer" would be amazing for an engineer with their high-yield first aid ability, but lancers just get the usual garden-variety first aid which barely recovers a third of a unit's HP and lancers usually stay out of everyone else's way regardless because of how specific their role is. "Good With Kids" makes him very hard to kill in addition to a camp's HP recovery bonus, but why bring a lancer if he's just going to stay in camp? It's not like they have the range of snipers or the interception fire of shocktroopers, both make for better camp defender options. Just seems like a weird, superfluous choice for a secret character.

Tier: C.

Grenadiers

Specialized units with long-range mortars which can be specced out for either anti-personnel or anti-armor.

  • Pros: Deadly in most scenarios. Can easily take out most infantry units, even those in cover. Their trajectories means they don't need line of sight and can be concealed behind walls and other barriers as they do their work. Brilliant with interception fire, when they manage to hit.
  • Cons: Limited movement, limited ammo, limited defenses. If an enemy has a roof over their heads or you're in an interior map, they're useless.

Further strategies: Grenadiers are new to Valkyria Chronicles 4. They're a very powerful unit that has the same strengths (high damage, high range) and weaknesses (low ammo, low health, low movement) as snipers but arguably have greater utility and are much harder to avoid. This unfortunately applies to enemy grenadiers as well, who will be the bane of your existence on most maps until you figure out a way to eliminate them that doesn't involve foolishly charging into their interception fire range.

Like snipers, grenadiers are all about location. However, where you'd want to put a sniper in an exposed, elevated area in view of multiple targets, the opposite is true of grenadiers: they need the most secluded, blocked-on-all-sides spots to keep them safe, with enough room above their heads to fire off their "death from above" mortars to anything in range.

When outfitting a grenadier, you want to first maximize your range and accuracy and then either their anti-armor or anti-personnel damage stats. I usually opt for the latter, because you have lancers for the former, but there are times when an anti-armor grenadier becomes really vital (a certain recurring tank boss, for instance). Normally, I'd recommend just having the one grenadier - Riley Miller, who you bring with you on every map anyway for her leadership bonus - but there are times when having a second deep in enemy territory (deploying them at a conquered enemy base, ideally) can really do some damage.

Riley Miller

PotentialTriggerEffect
InventorAfter attackingAmmo Recovery
Trial and ErrorWhen attackingAccuracy Down
Auroral Vow*Start of turnAttack/Defense/Accuracy/Evasion Up
A Child's Wish*After attackingSecond Action
No Caption Provided

"Uhh... it's a learning experience!"

Riley Miller's the deuteragonist of the game, a brilliant engineer and scientist who left her hometown (shared by Claude, Raz, and Kai) in Gallia to develop weaponry for Vinland, the game's United States equivalent, after her family's factory burned down with her family still in it. Claude instinctively kept her from running inside to save them, so when the war brings the two back together she's less than happy to see him again. Naturally that then develops into a romantic subplot that persists throughout the game.

As with most of the major story characters, not only is Vocal Fry a requisite on any map - her command point bonus is essential, whether you plan to use her or not - but most of her best potentials only show up after major story events. "Auroral Vow" is, like Claude's version, a massive boost while "A Child's Wish" can spell certain doom for multiple enemies when it procs. "Trial and Error" isn't as bad as it sounds, since mortar shots have a wide splash damage range that will still do the job even if it doesn't hit directly on the target, and "Inventor" means Riley's a little more self-sufficient than other grenadiers that rely on engineers to be useful. Overall, exactly the sort of grenadier you want to be saddled with.

Tier: A.

Ben "Stahlschrott" Smith

PotentialTriggerEffect
IronmanWhen taking damageDefense Up
No RestSubsequent actionsFull AP Recovery
Cold IntoleranceMoving on snow mapsAccuracy Down
Flicker of Emotion*Half HPAnti-Armor/Defense Up
No Caption Provided

"If it bleeds, we can kill it."

Ben's the very last normal recruit anyone is likely to find, as you need to complete one of the post-game high-difficulty skirmishes before he'll join. Very obviously modelled on the T-800, "Stahlschrott" ("scrap metal" in German) is implacable and unstoppable. His apparent lack of humanity is kind of a sore spot with the other recruits, however.

Stahlschrott's a little more durable than most grenadiers thanks to "Ironman", but you shouldn't expect him to be bulletproof despite appearances. He also has the lowest accuracy of any grenadier, which isn't ideal, but he does have the highest HP. If "No Rest" activates it makes him very effective at getting around; a good strategy is to move him into a spot where he can get multiple shots off, and then if his AP bar happens to refill you can withdraw him back to a base so he's in less danger. He's the only soldier I know about that has a snow map specific potential in "Cold Intolerance", and because you get him in the post-game maps - which can be set anywhere - it can be a crapshoot whether or not to bring him.

Tier: B.

Jascha Alatt

PotentialTriggerEffect
Trajectoral TheoryWhen attackingAccuracy Up
ProfessorWhen inside a campDefense Up
Illogical ThoughtsNear AoifeDefense Down
Mysterious Bond*Near close friendsAttack/Anti-Armor/Defense Up
No Caption Provided

"It's not logical... but still..."

Jascha's the type of person you'd expect to be a grenadier: a math and sciences professor that's comfortable with the trajectories and calculations you'd need to be effective at the job. He has a stern scholarly vibe, despite not being all that old, but his little sub-story involves a crush on fellow grenadier Aoife, which he first interprets as some kind of disease because apparently even tenured professors can be idiots sometimes.

Egghead is a great defensive grenadier thanks to "Professor," the battle potential "Support Fire," and "Mysterious Bonds" (once you've earned it), all of which can activate if Jascha's in a base with someone (ideally a shocktrooper) to protect him. If you have Jascha and Aoife in the same battle, both of whom are grenadiers and would also be there with Riley, then that means you messed up in the unit selection process and thus "Illogical Thoughts" is a non-issue. "Trajectoral Theory" procs a lot, and Jascha also has the "Arc Calculation" battle potential which boosts accuracy even further. I'd recommend the old "take a base surrounded by enemies, deploy this grenadier there to wreck shop" approach.

Tier: A.

Connor Doherty

PotentialTriggerEffect
Immersion WritingHalf HPAccuracy/Defense Up
Unpopular AuthorHalf APDefense Down
Poor LogicWhen attackingAnti-Armor Down
Chasing Inspiration*After defeating an enemySecond Action
No Caption Provided

"They just. Don't. Get. My work."

Connor signed up to get inspiration for his writing, which seems like a perfectly valid reason to want to get shot at. He's also an annoying nitwit who tends to see people as fictional archetypes, which is a level of meta I don't think I was prepared for in an anime game about tanks and blue magical ladies.

Connor looks like a palette-swapped Jascha, but is nowhere near as useful. Well, until he gets his Squad Story exclusive potential "Chasing Inspiration", at least, which lets him kill and then kill again. Until then, you have to deal with the fact that moving him closer to enemies is also likely to drop his defense ("Unpopular Author") and then fail to kill anything due to "Poor Logic". His one other good potential, "Immersion Writing", requires that he loses half his HP and grenadiers can't really afford to drop that far with how little HP they have to begin with: grenadiers are second only to snipers in lowest average HP total. If Connor's in range of any interception fire, he's not long for this world.

Tier: C.

Aoife

PotentialTriggerEffect
Darcsen BondNear DarcsenDefense Up
Love TroublesNear menAttack/Anti-Armor Down
Pure KindnessAfter rescuing a fallen allyAttack/Accuracy Up
Promised Love*Half HPAttack/Anti-Armor/Defense Up
No Caption Provided

"You really are handsome..."

Aoife (pronounced "ee-fah") is an attractive Darcsen whose natural charisma and aura of kindness tends to give the men around her the wrong impression. She has the sort of freely generous, affectionate and complimentary personality that can be easily interpreted as romantic interest, I think is the idea. In truth, she's been engaged since before the war started and has to quietly let down the line of paramours forming behind her.

Here's the weird thing about her potentials: there's only one other female Darcsen in the game, and she's a secret character you don't get until well after the game's story is over (and another grenadier). That means it's very tough to get the benefit of "Darcsen Bond" without also risking the negative "Love Troubles". Also, and I explained this above, but you do not want to be sending a unit like a grenadier to run out into danger to rescue a fallen comrade, which makes "Pure Kindness" useless. Another character that has a bunch of potentials that run counter to how you're supposed to play their class effectively.

Tier: C.

Louffe

PotentialTriggerEffect
Darcsen BondNear DarcsenDefense Up
Radar OperatorAfter spotting an enemyAccuracy Up
Social AnxietyNear allies (not close friends)Defense Down
Self-Expression*When inside a campAttack/Accuracy Up
No Caption Provided

"Asshole..."

Louffe ("loof", probably a joke on "aloof") is the last of the Cygnus crewmembers to join Squad E as secret post-game characters. She's the radio operator onboard the Cygnus, and her perception and grasp of logistics and geometry serves her as a grenadier too. The big joke about Louffe is that she never learned how to talk to people, and her main source of conversational banter was her typically gruff drill sergeant back in officer training, which means she swears like a sailor and insults everyone who tries to talk to her. I mean, if you're a fan of tsunderes...

Unlike most of the Cygnus crew, she's very capable in her role as a soldier. She has Aoife's unfortunate mix of "Darcsen Bond" and a negative that procs as often ("Social Anxiety", which hits with everyone besides her friends Curtis, Brian Haddock, and eventually Stahlschrott), but "Radar Operator" and "Self-Expression" combined makes her accuracy damn near pinpoint. She has a couple of unique battle potentials too: "Cover Stance" boosts her defense if she takes interception fire, and "Artillery Boost" is almost always a certain kill if it activates.

Tier: B.

Vehicles

Special units that wield heavy ordnance and can provide cover or transport for infantry.

  • Pros: All vehicles can be used as makeshift cover for units, making them ideal vanguards for pushes into enemy territories. Other pros are conditional on the type of vehicle. They no longer require two command points to use, unlike in VC1, which greatly increases their utility.
  • Cons: Can usually only deploy one (the Hafen) or two per battle. Very obvious weak point means you can never leave them exposed, especially if there are enemy lancers or anti-armor turrets nearby.

Further strategies: (Tanks) A tank is the most important unit on the field in terms of pure destruction and the focal point of any forward charge. Along with lancers they're the most reliable way of destroying other tanks and turrets, and their varied weapon loadouts - anti-armor tank shells, anti-personnel machine guns, area-of-effect mortar shots - makes them versatile against any type of resistance. Just need to make sure to keep that weak point safe: the best way is to prioritize killing enemy lancers first (the machine gun is better suited than the mortars or shells for that) and be pointing towards any other dangers so that the rear is facing away from them. Obvious enough, but you can run into problematic scenarios where a lucky enemy lancer or tank can kill you in one shot. Suffice it to say, if you brought an engineer with you, keep them near the tank(s) in case of repairs unless they're needed elsewhere.

(APC) The task of the APC is to carry your units, especially low-movement ones like lancers, snipers and grenadiers, deep into enemy territory. APCs, like tanks, are near bulletproof so you shouldn't worry about any infantry besides lancers. Because APCs tend to be more exposed, it's more important than ever to ensure an enemy anti-armor unit isn't around to one-shot it: either use the APC's short-range machine gun to take them out, or deploy one of its passengers to do the deed. When upgrading the APC, biggest priorities are AP (movement) and carrying capacity. If you have a space left for another unit, put an engineer in there to keep the APC in decent shape.

(I'm only including vehicles for the sake of completion. No point assigning tiers because they are singular presences on the field with distinct roles.)

The Hafen (Claude Wallace)

PotentialTriggerEffect
Wind TalkWhen aimingAccuracy Up
OverburdenedNear alliesAnti-armor Down
Auroral Vow*AnytimeAttack/Defense/Accuracy/Evasion Up
Iron WillWhen taking interception fireDamage halved
No Caption Provided

Claude's tank the Hafen (named for his hometown, and that of several other characters) is the centerpiece of Squad E and, for most maps, the only compulsory unit. It's a medium tank that eventually gets promoted to heavy with enough upgrades, not that it makes much difference besides changing its model slightly. Nothing spectacular, but a scrappy fighter that can take a beating. It has a staff of two: Claude Wallace, who we already discussed in the first episode of this series, and its driver and engineer Miles Arbeck, who can be a bit of a neurotic wuss but is otherwise the nerdy soul of Squad E.

It's a no-nonsense tank with three firing modes - shells for anti-armor, machine guns for anti-personnel, and mortar shells for groups of enemies - and a considerable amount of armor. Decent movement range too, even when it gets upgraded to a heavy tank, easily outpacing most infantry besides scouts. I generally use the Hafen on the first action of any new map to scout ahead a bit, since there's very little that can wear it down besides anti-armor turrets and those annoying times when enemy grenadiers can wipe out your AP with interception fire. Once placed up ahead, other units can follow its wake and use it as cover. Even with "Wind Talk", though, the shells can be unreliable at longer distances, and the mortar has limited range. Still, it's one of the few units that can drive right up to an enemy tank, go past it, blow the shit out of it via its weak point, and suffer no ill consequences from its interception fire. That can count for a lot.

The Cactus (Dan Bentley)

PotentialTriggerEffect
Love of TanksNear allied tanksAccuracy Up
Shut-InWhen inside a campDefense Down
Ace Tank DriverWhen movingAP Up
Protector*When carrying alliesDefense Way Up
No Caption Provided

Dan's probably the person I most relate to in this game: a seasoned sort who appreciates his solitude, but rises to the occasion when necessary. His Cactus is the franchise's first playable APC (one appeared as a boss in the first game) and is frequently the lynchpin of any strategy due to its unique capabilities. I might suggest you don't rely on its machine gun turret for much: it's slightly less effective than a shocktrooper's weapon, though up close it can still do the trick nicely.

The potentials for the Cactus are a bit strange, but generally very positive. Parking a vehicle in a camp does them no good whatsoever as far as I'm aware, as they don't restore HP the same way infantry does. It's not like they can take bases, or hide behind the sandbags that surround bases, so always leave the Cactus just outside one if you're moving in to take it down (maybe poke in a bit to destroy any barricades enemies might be taking cover behind). "Ace Tank Driver" is exactly what you want from an APC, while "Love of Tanks" is borderline useless because of the spray-and-pray nature of the APC's turret. It doesn't hurt to get "Protector" as soon as possible either, as it will ensure that the Cactus will survive even anti-armor shots.

The Glory (Ronald Albee)

PotentialTriggerEffect
Loyal to MinervaNear MinervaDefense Up
The Pride of Squad FAfter attackingHP Up
Darcsen DiscriminatorNear DarcsenDefense Down
Newfound Pride*Near alliesAttack/Anti-Armor Up
No Caption Provided

I never really used the Glory much. It's intended as an alternative to the Cactus for maps where the added firepower trumps the mobility of the APC, but those are very few and far between. Ronald's also a bit of an ass - you'll notice he's another bigot with an anti-Darcsen potential - so I'd prefer not to use him. In case you were wondering, I spoiler-blocked this one for the same reason I did Minerva: that Squad F gets wiped out and has those two join Squad E are some major mid-game spoilers.

The advantage that the Glory has over the other two vehicles is its versatility. While the Hafen is a static powerhouse and the Cactus a glorified omnibus, the Glory can be specced out for either anti-armor tank shells (the mortar shells also come with this mode), a strong gatling gun for eliminating mid-range infantry, or a flamethrower that - like the shocktrooper version - is a one-hit kill for almost any infantry unit in the game and can hit in a wide but short-ranged arc. The only problem is you have to assign this weapon before the map begins and you can't change it thereafter, so unless you're familiar with the map and what it has in store it's tricky to take advantage of this loadout-switching. "Darcsen Discriminator" sucks, of course, but easily mitigable. "Loyal to Minerva" works if you intend to keep the two close together, which isn't a bad plan because the scout can do things a tank can't (like take bases) and might also activate "Newfound Pride" once you have it. "The Pride of Squad F", also shared by Minerva and Christel, isn't a bad little perk either.

Final Tier Chart

SoldierRoleTier
Minerva VictorScoutS
Azusa TsukikageScoutA
Brian HaddockScoutA
Christel WardScoutA
Claude WallaceScoutA
Eileen BlackwellEngineerA
Jascha AlattGrenadierA
Kai SchulenSniperA
RazShocktrooperA
Riley MillerGrenadierA
Rita RaywaterEngineerA
Ryan FordShocktrooperA
ZaigaShocktrooperA
Andre DunoisEngineerB
Aulard AbingtonEngineerB
Ben "Stahlschrott" SmithGrenadierB
Brittany ScarlettLancerB
Curtis BlackwellScoutB
Ferrier BlancheurShocktrooperB
Fleuret ValoisShocktrooperB
Gertrude AlbrightLancerB
Jimmy FrankLancerB
Keigel HohmannLancerB
Laurent McCloudLancerB
Lily AshleyShocktrooperB
LouffeGrenadierB
Mabel DrakeSniperB
Millennia HudsonScoutB
Nico EmeryScoutB
Norid SaarinenSniperB
Rosetta ValerianoScoutB
Scott AldissShocktrooperB
Stanley BarclayShocktrooperB
Simon BaleShocktrooperB
Thomas "Odin" KevinScoutB
Vancey FioréShocktrooperB
AoifeGrenadierC
Connor DohertyGrenadierC
Emmy MistralShocktrooperC
GodwinScoutC
Hanna CarrollLancerC
Jean MatrixLancerC
Jester MooneyScoutC
Leonhardt StrauchSniperC
Rebecca LonghurstEngineerC
Sergio MousquelaireLancerC
Teresa LeachScoutC
Viola BryceShocktrooperC
Aladdin BallardSniperD
Neige LePretonSniperD

That's all of them! Thanks for reading, and hopefully you have some tips and ideas for your next sortie. Until the next war, everyone.

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Saturday Summaries 2019-02-02: Wii Wiil Meet Again Edition

So yeah, you've probably all heard about the shuttering of Nintendo's Wii Shop, and with it any and all purchases you may have made on the digital storefront. Of course, it doesn't seem like it would be beyond the bounds of possibility to offer all those same games through the Switch eShop instead - it's not like that place has much of a sluice gate right now for new releases regardless - but there are no doubt endless licensing and logistical issues that would prevent such an act of magnanimity. Besides, from reports it doesn't sound like we'll need to wait much longer for the Nintendo Switch Online service to start offering more than its current handful of NES games, so maybe we'll be seeing some of the games lost with the demise of the first iteration of the Virtual Console make a return sooner rather than later.

For the sake of digital archiving, at least of the legal variety, I wanted to make a quick list of all the SNES games that have recently become unavailable to purchase due to the disappearance of the Wii's Virtual Console, that system being a major target of my own archiving works on the Giant Bomb Wiki. Obviously, the "unavailable" list for the entire SNES/SFC library would be a little more comprehensive (to the tune of something like a thousand-plus games), but these are specifically the ones that were available for your legal emulating pleasure and are now... not. (Suffice it to say that any SNES games still available on the Wii U or New 3DS Virtual Console, or on the SNES Classic, are exempt from this list.)

I've separated this into North American and European regions. I'm curious to see which side of the Atlantic suffered worse (we did, of course). If there's an X in the NA/EU column, that means the game was available but is no longer. A circle (O) means it's still available in that region for Wii U. A dash (-) means it was never available on Wii Virtual Console in that region, so no big loss.)

SNES-t We Forget

GameDeveloperPublisherNAEUHow Much of a Bummer Is Its Absence?
ActRaiserQuintetSquare EnixXXA giant bummer. ActRaiser's a firm favorite and one of the earliest SNES games to show off what the system could do. Developer Quintet vanished off the face of the Earth some twenty years ago, so who knows if the licensing will ever work out for another re-release. Hopefully the mercurial Square Enix has the rights to publish it.
Aero the Acro-BatAcclaim AustinSunSoftXXDepends on how much you want a comprehensive online source for so-so mascot platformers. Aero's better than most, but it's not exactly aged well. Hell, if Bubsy can crawl back out of the abyssal gorge he was mercifully consigned to, no reason a masked bat couldn't.
Aero the Acro-Bat 2Acclaim AustinSunSoftXXYeah, ditto. I think if the first ever gets released again elsewhere, the sequel will follow.
Chrono TriggerSquare EnixSquare EnixXXOn the one hand, the now-unavailability of the original SNES version of one of the greatest JRPGs ever created is a blow to purists, but there are other ways to play this game. I can recommend the DS port, though I can't vouch for the troubled Steam version even after all its patches/updates.
The CombatribesTechnos JapanTechnos JapanX-Hard to imagine anyone will miss this also-ran brawler from Technos Japan, the creators of better brawler franchises Double Dragon and Kunio-kun. The SNES version was inferior to the original arcade version anyway, so maybe hold out for that instead. Arc System Works owns Technos these days, so maybe they can pull a Capcom and release their own arcade brawler compilation.
Darius TwinTaitoTaitoX-Taito's more piscine shoot 'em up series is a tricky one to nail down, with only a handful of entries (Darius II, G-Darius, and Darius Gaiden) showing up on Taito compilations. It could be that Darius Twin, a weird spin-off of Darius II only released on SNES, is lost for good.
DoReMi Fantasy: Milon's DokiDoki AdventureHudsonHudsonXXHudson's more conventional follow-up to Milon's Secret Castle is a bummer to lose because, as a Super Famicom exclusive, it was never released in the west in any other form. It's a decent platformer too, not one that requires much Japanese understanding. Hudson itself has since folded, and their IPs have since gone to Konami which... well, is pretty much as good as gone.
Final Fantasy IVSquare EnixSquare EnixXXHonestly, see Chrono Trigger above. The lack of a legally available SNES version stings but the remakes are perfectly serviceable. Unlike Chrono Trigger, the version on Steam right now is worth checking out. If you prefer the original 2D pixel graphics, I think there are ways to play the PS1 port.
Final Fantasy Mystic QuestSquare EnixSquare EnixXXWell, I consider its absence a bummer. Not held in the highest regard, but Mystic Quest (which is really more of a SaGa game) was the first "Final Fantasy" for European audiences and a decent enough launching point for Final Fantasy or JRPGs in general for a younger crowd. Also that soundtrack! It didn't get enough love from Theatrhythm, and it breaks my heart that it has even less chance of being discovered now.
Ghoul PatrolLucasArtsLucasArtsXXNeither Ghoul Patrol nor its predecessor Zombies Ate My Neighbors survived the Wii Shop closing, which... I dunno, it was never a staple of my childhood, but I know it was for many others. ZATM was at least released on Genesis also, which was not the case for the SNES-exclusive Ghoul Patrol. With the death of LucasArts and the subsequent death of its IP owners Disney Interactive, it's anyone's guess who might bring this undead monster back from its grave.
Gradius IIIKonamiKonamiXXOne of the earliest SFC games, and a launch game for the North American SNES, was this port of Konami's third Gradius game. Some attempts have been made to preserve the arcade originals fortunately, notably with the Gradius Collection for PSP. Probably all we can hope for out of Konami.
The Ignition FactorJalecoJalecoOXThis firefighting game is a rare exception on this list because it is still available to North American Wii U owners if they missed the chance to buy it on the Wii. Conversely, Europeans are S.O.L., especially as this game never came out on the PAL SNES. But then we got The Firemen instead, and I think that was the better deal.
Indiana Jones' Greatest AdventuresLucasArts and Factor 5LucasArtsXXI feel like I heard very little about this game back in the day, which does to the Indiana Jones trilogy what Super Star Wars did a few years earlier for Lucas's original SW trilogy. It's decent enough if a bit difficult, but between the licensing nightmares involved, its so-so reception, and the death of LucasArts, I'm not sure it'll ever come back.
Kirby's AvalancheHAL Laboratory and CompileNintendoXXAlso known as Kirby's Ghost Trap in Europe. A little quizzing that a Kirby game has been lost in the ether, since Nintendo itself presumably holds the rights. It's not like Puyo Puyo has been forgotten either with the well-received Puyo Puyo Tetris out there. I can't imagine this will stay buried for long.
Ogre Battle: The March of the Black QueenQuestSquare EnixXXQuest Corp, once the home of visionary Yasumi Matsuno, is best known for their Ogre series - the RTS Ogre Battle and the TPS Tactics Ogre - and now that Square owns the rights to those games there's no barrier to stop them releasing them again. Black Queen, which like most Ogre games is named after a Queen song, is also available on PS1 if the SNES version proves elusive.
Prince of PersiaBroderbund and ArsysKonamiXXJapanese developers Arsys rebuilt Jordan Mechner's acrobatic action game from the ground up for its SNES port, making it a curio for Prince diehards in much the same way the unique Doom 64 was for that fanbase. The Prince of Persia franchise has gone from strength to strength over the years, so I think any normal person would be happy enough just playing The Sands of Time instead.
Rival Turf!JalecoJalecoOXAnother Jaleco game like The Ignition Factor, in which the European rights lapsed but Hamster was able to bring it back for a North American audience. Not that anyone's too torn up about losing Rival Turf!, which probably doesn't even break into the top ten brawlers for the SNES.
SimCityMaxisNintendo-XSome weird history about the Virtual Console presence of the SNES-specific remake of the venerable city-planning sim. In North America, the game's been delisted and unavailable since 2013. It was, however, still available in Europe until this closure of the Wii Shop. Yet to be rereleased since, it's a shame the version of SimCity with Bowser and Dr. Wright is currently gone but there's still lots of ways to play SimCity.
Space Invaders: The Original GameTaitoTaitoXXReleased in arcades to coincide with the original 1978 game's 15th anniversary, Space Invaders DX - inexplicably called "The Original Game" for its console ports - can no longer easily be bought for SNES, but is still available in the Taito Legends 2 compilation for PS2. Let's just say it wouldn't be too difficult to play Space Invaders today - I might recommend Space Invaders Extreme on Steam.
Super Adventure IslandHudsonHudsonXXA decent enough evolution of Hudson's side-scrolling action game, which originated as a cheeky copyright-evading port of Westone's Wonder Boy. Anyone waiting for a big Adventure Island compilation might be waiting forever: Hudson's gone and Konami, the current rights holder, is too busy relaxing in a health spa jacuzzi somewhere to give a figgins about Higgins.
Super Adventure Island 2HudsonHudsonXXSee above. Super Adventure Island 2 was the better of the two Adventure Island games for SNES, taking on a new spacewhipper model with branching paths. Funnily enough, the Adventure Island series would only see one more game - the WiiWare exclusive Adventure Island: The Beginning - which is now also unavailable with the Wii Shop's closure.
Super BonkHudsonHudsonXXHudson's other, other melon-headed mascot after Higgins and Bomberman was the toothy cavebaby Bonk. His fist SNES adventure is a decent outing for the prehistoric scamp, though like most Hudson products his future is murky. The second SNES game wasn't even localized into English, so it's even more doubtful we'll see that unearthed.
Super E.D.F.: Earth Defense ForceJalecoJalecoOX

Another Jaleco game that Hamster rescued from the dumpster of history, albeit only for North America. Not to be confused with the Jason-favorite giant space bug series; this EDF is strictly a spaceship shoot 'em up.

Super Star WarsLucasArts and Sculptured SoftwareLucasArtsXXOne of the bigger casualties of this Wii Shop shutdowns are the Super Star Wars trilogy, which are still appreciated for their visuals and audio, if not their balls-hard gameplay. It takes some liberties with the original material, let's say, but the tumult and eventual death of LucasArts in the 2010s made re-licensing these SNES games for Wii U/3DS a lesser priority.
Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes BackLucasArts and Sculptured SoftwareLucasArtsXXSee above.
Super Star Wars: Return of the JediLucasArts and Sculptured SoftwareLucasArtsXXSee above.
Super TurricanFactor 5Factor 5XXThe Turrican games never made much of a splash outside of Europe, and most series stalwarts would swear by the Amiga/Atari ST originals regardless. The SNES port of Turrican, which was more of a remake than straight port, was still decent enough and may be missed by series fans. Frankly, I'm not sure how poor old Turrican was supposed to compete with Super Metroid.
Zombies Ate My NeighborsLucasArtsLucasArtsXXThis list could've just been the first and last entries, as those are the two which I imagine will be most missed by SNES mainstays. ZATM can also be played on Genesis, though it's never been rereleased on that platform either. We can always hope that Nintendo follows my outline for the SNES Classic II and rouses ZATM from its slumber with an unholy ritual for a new generation.

If y'all ever want me to do the grunt work to find out similar absentees for the NES, Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, or N64, let me know. As someone who's embarked on some occasionally soul-crushing archiving work for these games on our own Wiki, I'm invested in their continued availability and recognition.

Onto this week's games!

Strikey Sisters

Very charmed by this relatively simple but keenly polished example of the older "bat and ball" genre, which began with Atari's Breakout but is more commonly associated with Taito's Arkanoid, which added power-ups and enemies to the brick-smashing formula. A major evolution of Strikey Sisters is the striking itself, which has your avatar swing with an arc that not only reflects the ball in the direction the arc hits it, but can also be used to eliminate enemies and their projectiles. Some enemy attacks are relentless, to the point you need to keep a careful eye on your own avatar as much as you do the wandering ball, but the overall affect is that it adds more layers of strategy and, ultimately, opportunity as you defeat enemies for their useful passive power-ups and potent single-use spells.

As with most games of a twitch arcade nature, it's easier to understand the game's hooks and appeal with gameplay footage rather than text, so be sure to check out Jason playing the game on this UPF or the trailers on Steam to see it in action. Very frantic, but also very fair, which makes it far more palatable than other "B & B" games like Wizorb or Shatter that demand you complete something like ten stages in a row on a small stock of lives or be forced to start over.

Link: Indie Game of the Week 105: Strikey Sisters

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle

No More Heroes 2 is the sequel to Suda51's more personal brawler franchise that sees super otaku and wrestling fan Travis Touchdown take up a beam saber he bought online and rise to the top of the United Assassins Association ranking list by eliminating all the professional killers above him for the sake of scoring with a hot girl, very much channelling the spirit of Beavis and Butt-Head. The spin in No More Heroes 2 is that Travis grew so disillusioned by the process, fighting both his childhood sweetheart and estranged twin brother, that he walked away from that world. Circumstances drag him back in however, and now his legend has only grown: the "Crownless King", as the new gaggle of assassins reverentially refer to him. Otherwise the sequel very much keeps in the same spirit of the original, balancing spectacular boss fights that follow "warm up" stages full of disposable goons with optional mini-games based on retro NES titles that serve to earn Travis money for upgrades or improve his stats in some way. The game certainly has its moments, especially with some of the more bizarre opponents you'll face, but there's also ample design and technical issues to dampen the fun - an errant camera, for instance, or the way certain late-game bosses constantly spam their least avoidable attacks. I was kind of meh on it overall, but then I've long grown apart from the character action genre. A more in-depth review can be read below.

Link: Bucketlog January: No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle

Assassin's Creed Origins

I gotta say, I'm feeling a little hoodwinked again. This happens every time I'm convinced to come back to the world of pure assassination (but not that one): a new Assassin's Creed entry gets some rave reviews because they made massive improvements to the engine or somehow reinvented itself, and then I play it and all the same annoyances that irked me about the previous games are still there and giving me headaches. I started feeling the burnout with the lackluster Assassin's Creed: Revelations and Assassin's Creed III, and since then AC: Black Flag, AC: Syndicate, and now AC: Origins have all exhibited the same issues I've had with the series ever since, despite attempts from various outlets to sell me on their new changes and updates.

Origins follows Bayek, a Medjay living in the Ptolemic period of Ancient Egypt, as he adopts a stealthy approach to eliminate a group of masked conspirators who were responsible for the death of his son, Khemu. The masked ones' plot revolves around some artifacts of the precursor race of ancients that once existed on Earth prior to humanity: every previous Assassin's Creed game from the second onward has involved them in some way. I've not got much further than that with the story, besides meeting Bayek's equally vicious and vengeance-filled wife Aya and being four-fifths done with the original group of masked jerks, which suggests there's far more to the game than killing them alone.

The RPG and colored loot additions do make exploring the open-world more compelling than usual, but there's still the aforementioned series-wide problems I had hoped had been sorted by now. One such instance is the way the engine can never seem to figure out what you want to do, where holding the "parkour" button is as likely to have you run through an alleyway in pursuit of someone as it is to suddenly make you start climbing the nearby wall as the target sprints ever further away. There was also this instance where I was inside an enemy fort and approaching the rear of an unsuspecting guard while tapping the "stealth takedown" button in anticipation for when I was close enough to perform it, when Bayek suddenly turned 90 degrees and jumped on a nearby horse (that same button also being the "mount steed" button), suddenly alerting all the guards in the vicinity to the audacious horse thief in their midst. If anything, the combat engine is even worse now, losing the balletic counterattack system of the previous games (which found its way into the Batman: Arkham series and elsewhere) for a more chaotic system of evasion rolls and heavy hits that just proves more annoying than anything when you have multiple foes to keep an eye on, almost all of whom will take their bows out and just shoot at you while you try to maneuver around some 8' guy with a big shield. Or those damn hippos.

I'm not enamoured with Assassin's Creed Origins, let's just say, but I'll stick with it for now. Maybe something will click and reveal to me what everyone else sees in this game, or maybe I'll just continue poking around every question mark on the map like some obsessive nutcase even if it all ultimately feels like work.

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Indie Game of the Week 105: Strikey Sisters

No Caption Provided

You might recognize Strikey Sisters from a UPF segment a few months back. It was one of Jason's choices, which meant he was left to play it on his own while everyone else discussed sodas or wrestling or whatever. It was evident enough from the footage that it was another "one of those" like Wizorb; an old-school "bat-and-ball" Breakout/Arkanoid type of game with a cute pixel art aesthetic and common genre accoutrements like wandering enemies and power-ups which changed the properties of either the ball or the bat. However, I'd argue that Strikey Sisters, though fairly repetitive, is perhaps the best game of its genus both past and present. And that's not something you could've easily picked up from poor Jason's attempts to sell it to a distracted GBW crew.

The humble bat-and-ball genre, which our wiki also calls "Block-Breaking", doesn't get a whole lot of love even from the Indie circuit. The only two notable Indie examples that come to mind are Wizorb and Shatter, and maybe Peggle if you really want to stretch the definition. That absence of competition allows Strikey Sisters to devise their own distinct spin for the genre, perfecting the ever-present risk vs. reward aspect inherent to its games that sees you paralyzed, "Buridan's ass" style, between dashing for the precariously distant ball or a power-up/collectible dropping in the opposite direction. The goal of each stage is to first clear all the blocks and then defeat the remaining enemies - enemies continue to respawn while there is still a single block remaining. Destroying a block always drops a coin - you can grab it or you can not, it's not essential to completing the stage - and defeating an enemy, which usually takes three hits, drops a power-up. Power-ups come in three stripes: player boons, which include a faster horizontal speed or a one-hit shield; ball boons, which include a fireball that drops enemy-damaging flames wherever it goes or a multiball that splits the ball into two; and destructive "spells", of which only one can be held at a time until the player activates it with a separate button, like the power-ups in the Mario Kart series.

An example of the monster variety: the eyeballs will explode into a multi-directional projectile spray, the goofy metal guys occasionally become invincible to ball bounces (but never your avatar's swipe attack), and the flying guy at the back regularly spits fireballs at you.
An example of the monster variety: the eyeballs will explode into a multi-directional projectile spray, the goofy metal guys occasionally become invincible to ball bounces (but never your avatar's swipe attack), and the flying guy at the back regularly spits fireballs at you.

Right from the start, the player is given the option of slowly but surely destroying blocks with careful ball control and collecting the gains, or gunning directly for nearby enemies for a chance at some screen-damaging spell that will destroy multiple blocks quickly. Each enemy in the game - and there's over sixty unique breeds - has their own behavior and resistances, from batting away frontal attacks to regularly sending projectiles your way, but eliminating them is often the fastest course to completing stages. The eponymous sisters can swing at the ball to reflect it, but their swing can also destroy incoming projectiles and any enemies that wander too close to the bottom of the screen: players regularly have to keep an eye on their surroundings and their vulnerable avatar, as well as where the ball is and whatever blocks still remain to be destroyed. This is doubly true for the game's many boss fights, which has you take down a powerful foe tossing all sorts of bullet patterns and other hazards your way.

However, destroying too many blocks means potentially missing all the coins they drop. There's no big reward from grabbing every coin on the level, besides an achievement for doing it at least once, but acquiring enough of them causes the actually valuable collectibles to appear in color-coded chests: red chests drop a gemstone collectible, blue chests drop keys which open up secret levels, and green ones drop "capture cards" that can be thrown at enemies to add them to the bestiary. If you're looking for 100% completion the game won't force you to find every coin, but it does require finding enough (usually around half) to make these chests appear.

With this, the game has enough hooks to keep you on the line for each of its sixty-plus stages. The genre-wide combination of carefully aiming the ball where it can be trapped by a layer of blocks as you deter nearby enemies and use their power-ups for the greater good is still present, but now must also share situational awareness real estate in your head alongside running around for falling coins and power-ups, dodging and bashing incoming enemy projectiles, eliminating enemies that wander too close to you because it's a way easier kill than trying to bounce the ball off them three times, and remembering to liberally use any spell you have before a new one comes along to replace it, all without ever letting that ball disappear off the bottom of the screen. Juggling all those elements is exhilarating throughout the story mode's moderate run-time, helped in no small part by some excellent arcade-like sound design like the satisfying whack noises from the ball or the dramatic power-up announcements from the narrator, and there's plenty of post-game levels to try out too. Add to this a very cute presentation where every cutscene has chibi-fied versions of bosses come face-to-face with the sibling heroes - the brash and crude Marie and the polite and demure Elene, the latter of whom always ends up causing fights to happen due to misunderstandings - and some charming voiceover acting which doesn't always nail the intonation they're looking for but nonetheless adds to the game's homespun appeal. That's nothing to speak of the game's very accessible and gentle difficulty curve (on normal, at least) where losing your three lives only resets the level you're on, and there's ample opportunity to recover those lives with chicken power-ups that are more likelier to appear the more dire straits you're in. In spite of all this magnanimity, I still spent close to half an hour on the final boss alone, so it's not like the game is pulling its punches either.

Some bosses are just asking for a whuppin', though others are only provoked into fighting because of some off-hand comment. Since every skit ends the same way - with the next boss fight - it can be fun to figure out how the scene will get there.
Some bosses are just asking for a whuppin', though others are only provoked into fighting because of some off-hand comment. Since every skit ends the same way - with the next boss fight - it can be fun to figure out how the scene will get there.

I walked away very impressed with Strikey Sisters, despite expecting another Wizorb which I ditched after losing a half-hour of progress for the fourth or fifth time. Though I have a few issues with the game - there's nothing to spend all those coins on and it would've been nice to have a shop selling a few passive boosts or even one-time power-ups for tougher stages, or even just a frivolity like buying furniture for the sisters' home; there's a pointless charge-up attack that that appears to do nothing except speed up the ball, which is the last thing you'd want; and there's no real getting past just how repetitive the game can be in longer sessions - I found I liked it more than any other game of its genre. The music is both pleasant and catchy at times - it reminded me of '80s/'90s shoujo anime, which is fitting for the sisterly theme - and the pixel art looks great once you go into the game's menu to turn off the inexplicably-on-as-default smoothing. Just adorable and wonderful from start to finish; from an archaic genre I thought had nothing left to offer me, no less.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

(Purchasing note: The game is presently available on Steam, but will also be out on Switch on Valentine's Day 2019. Seems well suited for that platform, especially with its simple controls and two-player mode.)

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Bucketlog January: No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle

Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.

Not much more to the feature than that, but as with the two previous long-term series - 2017's The Top Shelf and 2018's The SNES Classic Mk. II - I'm going to try focusing my reviews around their contemporary value, rather than pointlessly dither too much about how much more impactful they would've been had I played them back when they were first released. Oh, and I'm only updating it once per month; there's a few major RPGs on this bucket list that will require more than a single week, and I want to dedicate more of this year towards one-off blogs and shorter series rather than getting stuck in a routine again.

January: No More Heroes 2

January

No Caption Provided

Our first game is a fairly topical one, by design. With the recent release of reboot Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes for Switch, it prompted another reminder that - despite featuring it on "Lists of Shame" as far back as 2013 (and also represented 2010's biggest gap on this "Mind the Gaps" edition of the Saturday Summaries) - I never completed the sequel to one of Goichi "Suda51" Suda's more accessible works. No More Heroes 2 is structured more or less identically like the first No More Heroes, though some clear mechanical enhancements were integrated to alleviate some of the annoyances of the original.

It's strange to think; Suda51 comes off as this rebellious odd duck of a game director that you'd imagine would not brook any kind of external direction or feedback for his bombastic flights of fancy. Rather, I think his background in the highly iterative Fire Pro Wrestling franchise probably instilled in him early on the importance of building on a brand and doing things smarter and better the next time around. I mean, you wouldn't get far in this industry without a little humility and a sense that there are always improvements to be made. I will also say that this improvement really only applies to the greater framework of No More Heroes 2: as for the colorful rival assassins and the ensuing boss fights against them that are the focal point of the series, I might argue this group of eccentric killers are a little weaker this time around.

My main issue with the bosses this time is that they feel a little more throwaway and underdeveloped. There's very little lore in the game, not that Suda's ever one to waste time with too much backstory - he infamously fast-forwarded through the tragic history of one major character in the first game - but there's very little sense of who you're fighting beyond a brief clip of Sylvia talking tangentially about them and maybe a small amount of pre-fight preamble before the main event. The overarching theme for these challengers in particular is that they look up to Travis as an undefeated master assassin and relish the opportunity of fighting him, not only because he was the UAA's (the shadowy United Assassins Association, who sets up every fight and then nonchalantly disposes of the bodies afterwards) #1 at some point in the past but because he was the only champion to walk away from that world of euphoric bloodshed and eternal ranked battles. You get the sense with some of these challengers that they've been killing for so long they've mostly forgotten the reasons why - like I said, there's no real backstory for any of them, beyond the few that have links to the assassins from the previous game (or, in the cases of New Destroyman and Letz Shake, somehow survived being bisected the first time).

But everything outside of those fights has been improved immeasurably. Along with the new streamlined city traversal, Travis makes money via side jobs that are rendered as a series of enjoyable enough NES games with some vague resemblance to that console's actual library, in much the same style as the Retro Game Challenge DS compilations. "Lay the Pipe", for instance, is a Pipe Dream-esque puzzle game with the added complication that Travis takes up screen real-estate and must be able to maneuver around the pipes he's picking up and placing. Increasing health and damage output also involves completing a couple of these NES bootlegs, and get so absurdly hard in their later stages that it's easier to beat the game without the boosts they provide than continually hitting your head against them. There's a set of mini-games where you exercise Jeane, your now-overweight cat, which is both very cute and eventually provides one of the most useful techniques in the game as a reward.

Even the combat's been improved. Travis can pick up a few extra beam swords that, unlike the incrementally better swords of the original game you had to keep buying to keep up with increased enemy health, act as alternatives with different strengths and weaknesses that might be preferable to the default depending on the type of resistance you're meeting or your own playstyle. The first alternative you buy, the Camellia III, is a sword that prioritizes speed over power, and the following Peony has a slow swing but gets more powerful the higher your ecstasy gauge is. Speaking of which, the ecstasy gauge has been retooled so you can burn it for a uptick of speed and damage or wait for a fortunate spin of the reels which, as before, appear after killing an enemy with a maximized ecstasy gauge and on a lucky spin can either slow down time, create a shockwave that kills anything nearby, or turn Travis into an invincible tiger. As with most character action games, you do better the better you do: a maximized ecstasy gauge is the surest means of quickly killing bosses and random grunts, but will drain every time you get hit and is hard to maintain if you're taking a lot of abuse. Fortunately, there's other ways to take down enemies fast: stunning them with a low-stance combo and then finishing them off with one of Travis's wrestling moves, for instance. The combat isn't always fair and the camera makes a challenging task downright Sisyphean at times, but there's enough complexity to buoy you through the fights against armies of grunts and the bosses alike.

I had no real interest in really challenging myself and repeating fights over and over, since I've never been great at character action games in the first place, so I switched the difficulty down to Sweet (i.e. Easy) and had a ball meeting all the new assassins and the distinctive manner of how each of their duels were framed. Unfortunately, most of the bosses that employed a divergent gameplay system didn't really land for me - one involved a mech battle that trapped you on a 2D plane, making it hard to avoid incoming attacks, while another involved boosting an opponent off a cliff on a slow-turning bike that was like one of those Mario Party mini-games with the atlaspheres but way worse somehow - but the regular fights were mostly fine, barring a few towards the end that either annoyingly kept their distance (like the gothic sniper Margaret Moonlight) or kept repeating nigh-unavoidable attacks (the endless teleporting of Jasper Batt Jr., the game's chief antagonist). The game still has everything you could want from a Suda product - overblown dialogue, mostly about dicks; stylish filters and presentations; a very punk rock attitude - and even I was blown away to meet filmmaker Takeshi Miike, playing a fictional version of himself who was acquaintances with Travis's dead bestie Bishop and drops by to leave the best beam swords in the game by his grave for Travis to use. I also appreciated the chance to play as fan favorites Shinobu Jacobs and Sir Henry Cooldown, even if they didn't have much over Travis besides a weak long-distance attack, and a few throwaway frills like a shoot 'em up based on Travis's favorite magical girl anime Pure White Lover Bizarre Jelly 5.

Verdict (i.e. was I happy to circle back around to this game so many years after the fact?): I didn't always see eye-to-eye with the character action gameplay, especially in the few ways it's become dated since 2010, and it misses as often as it hits when it comes to its "experiments". However, I came for the industrial-strength Suda51 weirdness and I think I can walk away happy that it delivered on that front at least. It's probably going to be either The Silver Case or Killer is Dead for my next Suda51 fix.

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Saturday Summaries 2019-01-26: Tales 101 Edition

Ben and Rorie hinted in the last episode of UPF that there might be a Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition Quick Look on the horizon. If so, it will be the first Giant Bomb video feature to acknowledge Bandai Namco's long-going Tales franchise. Given the average Giant Bomb visitor might not know too much about the series, I thought I'd throw together a little fact-list:

Giant Bomb: The Home of Anime
Giant Bomb: The Home of Anime
  • There are presently sixteen core entries in the franchise. The first was Tales of Phantasia, originally released in 1995 for the Super Famicom (SNES). The most recent was Tales of Berseria, released on PS4 and Steam in 2017.
  • Of those sixteen, three - Tales of Destiny 2 (2002, PS2), Tales of Rebirth (2004, PS2), and Tales of Innocence (2007, DS) - do not have official English localizations. There is a fan translation for Innocence, though no-one's finished one for the other two yet.
  • Of the remaining thirteen, two - Tales of Destiny (1998, PS1) and Tales of Legendia (2006, PS2) - have never been released in Europe. Yeah, I'm annoyed too.
  • If you are interested in Tales but didn't know where to start: First, there's no real continuity except for the sequels (as in Final Fantasy), so you're safe to jump in anywhere; second, Tales of Vesperia, Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Berseria are all highly-rated and presently available on Steam. Tales of Vesperia and Tales of Berseria are also available on PS4.
  • From there, Tales of Xillia and Tales of Xillia 2 for PS3 or Tales of the Abyss for 3DS or Tales of Hearts R for PSVita are decent choices on systems which are still relatively active. Tales of Graces F for PS3 and Tales of Zestiria for PS4 might be worth following up on, though keep in mind those two were received less well than the above.
  • Anything older and you're looking at original systems only: Tales of Phantasia (GBA port, the only one that was localized), Tales of Destiny (PS1), Tales of Eternia (PS1 for US, PSP for EU), and Tales of Legendia (PS2).
  • Quick note on Tales of Eternia: It was originally called Tales of Destiny 2 in the US, even though there's another game with that name. If you're looking on online stores, Tales of Eternia is the one with the green-haired girl on the box art.
  • Only two of the core entries are direct sequels (Tales of Destiny 2 and Tales of Xillia 2). The Tales of Symphonia sequel, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, isn't a core entry. I believe the reason for why this is the case is because it sucks.
  • Likewise, Tales of the Tempest (2006, DS) was later downgraded from a core entry to a spin-off because no-one seemed to like it much (it's also never been officially localized).
  • Speaking of spin-offs, the only localized one besides Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is the crossover dungeon-crawler Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology for PSP. I found it a bit too grindy for my liking, but it does feature a lot of older Tales characters if you want some idea of the franchise's history.
  • Want anime? We got anime! Tales of the Abyss had a 26-episode TV adaptation which followed the events of the game. Tales of Vesperia has a prequel movie called Tales of Vesperia: The First Strike that isn't required viewing to understand the game (unlike, say, the Final Fantasy XV movie) but adds some context behind one of its central relationships. There's also a Tales of Zestiria series but I don't think anyone cared.
  • As for the games themselves, the combat always operates on a variant of the LMBS (Linear Motion Battle System) which has a real-time focus that combines normal attacks and "artes" (special attacks and spells). Each game has its own rules for their particular twist on LMBS, so even if all the Tales games resemble each other there's usually a few game-specific mechanics of which you need to be aware. Think of it like the anime fighters from Arc System Works: there's a bit of a learning curve, but once you've mastered one it won't take nearly as long to master the next.
  • Outside of combat, the Tales series are fairly traditional RPGs. They're not necessarily huge open-world games where you can run off and explore in any direction, unlike Final Fantasy XII or Xenoblade, but there's usually plenty of side-content to find. Like Dragon Quest, they have a formula and like to stick to it, which is why I might recommend you don't try to play multiple Tales games back-to-back.

You should be good to go after all that. If the recently released Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition is your first Tales game, you could certainly do a lot worse. From there, there's a huge back catalogue to dig into if Tales turns out to be your jam. If not, there's been enough of an RPG renaissance of late to find something more to your liking. Have fun, chums.

Neon Prism

Coming down from Mass Effect Andromeda, which I played for far longer than was strictly necessary, I was in the market for something short and relatively mindless for my Indie Game of the Week. I say "mindless" in more of the zen sense where I didn't have to focus too much on text and juggling multiple objectives and could just live in the moment. Neon Prism is sort of the same contemplative vein as Flywrench and other psychedelic action games that perhaps owe a debt to Jeff Minter's command of trippy fluorescent visuals. It's simple enough in structure - get to the end of each level - and the challenge level is gentle enough with no real mid- to late-game additions to your repertoire to throw you off. It does suffer from being unpolished, though, from the way your craft sticks to the edges of walls to the unpleasant default tank controls.

The appeal of a game like this is contingent on its ability to be chill and gradually subsume you into its EDM-enriched flow (for lack of a better word) to the point where you want to keep going regardless of any actual challenge it might present, but Neon Prism's usability problems can't quite get it there. Like a relaxation spa that has loud construction work going on next door.

Link here: Indie Game of the Week 104: Neon Prism

Valkyria Chronicles 4

I don't have anything new to add about the game itself - it's been over two weeks since I last booted it up for anything besides screenshots - but I have continued my attempts to categorize and rank the various members of Squad E: the elite Ranger Corps that collectively comprises all the playable characters in Sega's newest game in the anime war strategy franchise.

This week incorporated the twelve shocktroopers and six snipers into the overall rankings. Valkyria Chronicles's recruits are always a bit unstable, and I feel these two classes in particular attract the majority of the psychotics. After all, it's a sniper's job to quickly murder half the map from a decent vantage point, and once you're giving the shocktroopers flamethrowers their work charging the front line can feel a bit grisly. I've continued to emphasis how each character might be better suited for different strategies - though each soldier "class" has a general role to play, there's some nuance depending on the map and your own playstyle - so hopefully what began as a blog series to dunk on all the weirdos you can come across might now also be of informative use to anyone interested in playing the game. I'll be skipping next Tuesday's slot to focus on a new blog feature for this year, but the week after that should see the final entry in this rank-'em-up feature.

Link here: Valk-tier-ia Chronicles: Part 2: Shocktroopers & Snipers

Mass Effect: Andromeda

I'll say this for Mass Effect Andromeda: it sure has a lot of game in it. The previous Mass Effects were these focused affairs where you'd have a few linear self-contained story missions and a decent amount of optional side-quests and planet exploration to keep you engaged. While that is still the case for Andromeda, it strongly takes after Dragon Age: Inquisition (using the same engine, Frostbite, which carries most of EA's games but only used in an RPG context for these two and the upcoming Anthem) in creating these huge maps with multiple objectives to pursue. It thus merges the expected level of content from the Mass Effect series - story missions, loyalty missions for each member of your party, and scanning planets for resources and neat little descriptions for why they would be a sucky place to live - with these enormous environments to wander across in your Mako-like Nomad vehicle. There's some precedent for that with the first Mass Effect, of course, but nothing like the expanses found on Eos (big desert), Havarl (jungle), Voeld (ice), Kadara (wastelands), and Elaaden (another big desert).

It's hard to make a case for Andromeda because there's no getting around the sheer volume of glitches, issues and bugs that still pervade the game to this day, though it's reportedly nowhere near as bad as it once was. I will say that the party starting growing on me before too long, and some effort was made to inject the usual BioWare balance of pathos and pithy back-and-forth. Though very few characters had what I would call a distinctive model - most, even major NPCs and squadmates, looked like something the character-creator randomizer spat out - and hardly anything in the way of emoting, the characters themselves were the right balance of familiar archetypes (the krogan, Drack, was a surly bastard who knew all there was to know about handing a dude his own ass) and diverse personal backstories that might suggest why they were eager to join an ambitious iniative that would have them leave behind the Milky Way and everything they once knew. It was nostalgic to hear audio clips of Liara T'Soni, or meet Zaeed's estranged son or Conrad Verner's equally starstruck sister, and though the game could've fallen into the trap of being too fan-servicey it's far more invested in carving out its own path. I can admire a franchise looking for a fresh start, even if it was also a false start in this case.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole

I received a number of new games towards the end of last year, but I've no space on my PS4 without taking off some backlog items that have been on there for almost a year now. Looking for something considerably shorter than Andromeda, I took a chance on the new South Park RPG which I probably installed sometime last winter and forgot about. I've been on the outs with the show itself for a while, but the last game - The Stick of Truth - was a very smartly designed RPG that not only did right by the show and its style and lore and sense of humor like no other South Park game prior, but carefully built its encounters - both story and random - to offer a decent challenge level that never felt like mindless grinding or some arbitrary obstacle in your path placed there to pad out the runtime. All killer, no filler, which is something I usually only see from Indie games like Zeboyd's output (Cosmic Star Heroine was criminally overlooked) and that Battle Chasers: Nightwar I played a few weeks back. It feels like RPGs are starting to split in two directions: the ever-present enormous 80+ hour open-world epics, of which I still have plenty left to play in the backlog, and these more streamlined 20-30 hour affairs which benefit from a certain amount of focus. You will need to appreciate the show and some of its more questionable punching-down humor to get the most out of The Fractured But Whole, and maybe a sense of the monolithic Marvel Cinematic Universe it riffs on, but the core combat and exploration systems are as solid as any RPG I've played in recent memory.

Right now I'm moving forward with the plot missions, learning some new traversal-enabling skill as a result, and then taking laps around South Park to see where I can use it for all the treasures and in-jokes that are now accessible. That loop has been a blast so far. I think I can say that when it comes to The Fractured But Whole, I'm definitely pro-laps.

Movie: ???

[TBD! Ran out of time, I'll have something here later today.]

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