Saturday Summaries 2018-09-22: Saves Takes Edition

I've been pondering the preponderance of save states in our retro gaming venues of late, in part because of the ongoing SNES feature I've been writing, but also as a built-in feature of various retro-themed rereleases and devices, such as the Mega Man Legacy Collections (as conservatively demonstrated by Alex Navarro in GBEast's ongoing Blue Bombin' series) and miniature consoles like the original SNES Classic and, I'm guessing, the upcoming PlayStation Classic. (Oh, before I forget, since everyone's putting their list of twenty PS1 games together: Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, Vandal Hearts II, Xenogears, Mega Man Legends, Alundra, Breath of Fire III, Grandia, Star Ocean 2, Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha, Suikoden, Suikoden 2, Wild ARMs, Tales of Destiny, The Legend of Dragoon, Brave Fencer Musashi, Valkyrie Profile, Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Naturally, if we're just talking significant PlayStation games, you'd probably want a Resident Evil, a Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, a Tomb Raider, and a WipEout on there instead.)

I also appreciate that rereleases of older RPGs like FF9 are including
I also appreciate that rereleases of older RPGs like FF9 are including "fast-forward" modes for expediting grinding and filler battles. Another sensible way to make older games more approachable without futzing around with their content.

What save states effectively do is retroactively update older games for modern design sensibilities. While some older games do let you save anywhere, most limit you to specific save points or even a finite supply of items that can be used to save the game (like the ink ribbons of Resident Evil or the save crystals of Tomb Raider, at least the PS1 version). Limiting how often the player could save is an outmoded notion of enforcing game difficulty; it's ultimately self-defeating, because having the audience play through the same sections of the game over and over to reach the next checkpoint is the fastest way of burning them out and motivating them to move on. There is a means to maintain a moderate degree of game challenge while also minimizing the inconvenience fail states can cause to players, and presently games are still trying to figure out how best to strike that balance (or else promote themselves as being outside this paradigm and more like the games of old, aiming for an audience nostalgic for being dicked around on the regular by their games). A good example would be a tough boss fight that lets you start over from checkpoints, or at the very least the start of the fight: it's not going to go easy on you, but it will let you try as often as you like without the preamble.

However, since there's no limits to where and when you can save with the save states feature, it's a tool that can be potentially used for ill and - even worse - something that could potentially wreck a playthrough permanently. Using save states in the middle of a sequence or fight that - at that moment - has no chance of success, for instance. You could also use it to effectively cheat at games of chance, maintain long combos in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, or retake penalties in FIFA as many times as needed. You aren't exactly playing these old games as they're meant to be played with such a powerful ace up your sleeve, but per contra there's an argument to be made for breaking these old games wide open. Chances are, anyone revisiting these games are doing so in a historical context, because they're interested in what games used to look and play like - especially early entries in long-running series that might still be ongoing today - without necessarily playing by a set of antiquated rules that might seem stifling or mindlessly repetitive by today's standards. The idea of "content tourism", where players look towards easy modes and conflict-free modes of new games to soak in the atmosphere and story without being tested too harshly (or at all), makes save states a conducive way of exploring old games without having to fundamentally change their content.

I guess what I'm saying is that save states not only make some older games more bearable, but also more accessible to a (let's face it, mollycoddled) modern audience of gamers who are looking to grab these retro consoles to either revisit their youth or slake their curiosity of a bygone age. That many of these retro compilations - the Mega Man Legacy Collections in particular - sell themselves as museums for their subject matter legitimizes this notion of what audiences want, I feel. It's also the secret appeal of the NES Remix games. They're best known for the silly mash-ups, and I might agree with Jeff in that they don't get weird enough with those, but they also work as expedited Cliff's Notes for what it was like to play and master those games originally: the exploitation of bugs, high-scoring techniques you'd learn about in Nintendo Power or from savvier friends, the best way to effectively fight the various opponents in Punch Out!! - the Retro Game Challenge series for DS, developed by the same group as NES Remix (indies zero), leaned heavily on the nigh-universal milieu of sitting in your living room as a kid reading game magazines for advice and trying to beat your friend's scores. I think back to educational TV shows and cartoons where a bunch of kids pile into a time machine and get a guided tour of the usually violent and brutal eras of past civilizations, watching it all play out from a position of relative safety; that's pretty much what it's like to revisit older games with save states.

Of course, if you're trying to review these old games in a modern context it behooves you to use save states as infrequently as possible. I can't say that I completely avoid them - the final Wily battle of Mega Man 7 would be a pain in the neck if you had to redo the prerequisite boss rush and gather the consumables you needed after each failure - but they can be a powerful crutch if I allow them to be.

Speaking of which, we have a couple of new blogs for your approval this week:

  • The Indie Game of the Week this time was Yoku's Island Express, released as recently as last May. Yoku's balances traditional spacewhipper elements with pinball mechanics for a relatively novel take on the Indie development scene's favorite sub-genre. It's an incredibly chill game by design, not exactly casual but certainly not interested in death states or anything of the sort. Just send that little dung beetle flying around pinball tables and hunt for collectibles at your own pace; the sort of brief, easygoing Indie game experience that's just what's needed as a break from the tactically taxing likes of Pillars of Eternity II.
  • This week also included another duo of SNES games judged for their originality and longevity. The SNES Classic Mk. II: Episode XIX: Fiddle-Fodder looks at two obscurities from either side of the globe: the manga licensed platformer Hameln no Violin Hiki from Japan's Daft Co., which has a shapeshifting kirugumi gimmick that's as clever as it is adorable; and the United Kingdom-based Sensible Software's Cannon Fodder - a mouse-driven, real-time, (inadvertently) anti-war action-strategy game that's considerably more challenging (and emotionally affecting) than its simple point-and-shoot mechanics would suggest.

Addenda

TV: BoJack Horseman (Season 5)

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I always have to gird myself for each new season of BoJack Horseman, because it never pulls its gut punches. If it wasn't such an entertaining and well-written comedy show, I might have bailed on it long ago; despite what people tell you, misery does not enjoy company. Nothing procs my own anxieties, self-loathing and depression more than seeing variants of them depicted on-screen so realistically, even if there's a significant amount of distance between myself and an animated talking horse voiced by Will Arnett, and it's why I immediately tend to bounce from social anxiety "cringe comedies" like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office. Fremdschamen is, after all, a powerfully negative force to contend with if your sense of empathy is potent enough.

Yet despite this built-in resistance, I can't quit this show. It's not just that it's really funny, with excellent sitcom writing, freeze-frame sign gags, a wonderful cast of regular and guest voices, and pitch-perfect satirical breakdowns of the various travails facing showbusiness and adults in general - this series has a lot to say about famous people trying to get away with scummy practices during the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, the concessions and compromises to your vision you must make to bring it to reality, painkiller addiction, alcoholism, the identity issues of American-born minorities who find they don't fit in with either the predominantly white culture of their birth nor the culture of their ancestors, the difficulties of going home again when you've matured so much living elsewhere, and dealing with the death of an estranged relative you always wished you could repair your relationship with. It's not that the show is routinely pulling out incredible gimmick episodes that not only push the envelope for animation but for TV shows in general, including a whole episode given over to a eulogy where only one character speaks and the camera rarely ever moves, and another given to a secondary's character journey to rediscover herself after a painful divorce in the framing device of a throwaway internet listicle and yet another that constantly bounces between four Halloween parties from 1993, 2004, 2009, and 2018. It's not just that I've come to love these characters and want them to succeed, despite the fact that their lives never seem to improve and - for some - probably deserve their unhappiness.

It's more that this show's become something very important and personal to me, between the way it realistically handles the same psychological problems I struggle with to all the goofy puns and wordplay that even I'm left alternatively in awe of or shaking my head mournfully at (just in case anyone in the Giant Bomb chat wonders if I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that business). I binge every season that appears, I'm left emotionally distraught for days afterwards, and I still repeat the cycle each time. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Movie: The Predator (2018)

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Oh boy. It's safe to say I expected more from a Shane Black script, if not from a Predator movie - all of which have been sitting in this "it's OK" tier since the second one with Danny Glover. It does feel like it was edited by a weedwhacker, as RedLetterMedia put it, with various important exposition scenes either hurriedly replaced or left out entirely. The movie puts a military sniper, Quinn McKenna, in a Predator's crosshairs early on; he survives the encounter and ships off valuable alien technology he found to his autistic son - what we'd previously call an "idiot savant" - to figure out, and also prove he wasn't crazy by ensuring some proof of the encounter wasn't swept away by government high-ups. He's nonetheless found crazy - though it's clearly part of the cover-up - and sent to an institution with a busload of vets with various PTSD-related ailments. It's at this point that a captive Predator breaks loose from the secure military facility it was in, kills most of the scientists and guards, and runs into McKenna's group during its escape. What then ensues is an hour and a half of moderately confusing plotting and action scenes, some mean-spirited humor in a script not exactly sparkling with Black's usual ear for dialogue, some silly machismo which at least feels true to the original movie, and a whole lot of gory - but not too gory, since this was a "15"-rated film here - deaths-by-alien.

Honestly, there were parts of the movie I enjoyed, for as dumb as it was on the whole. I feel like if more of the original script had survived intact there'd be some cool new developments in understanding the Yautja and their relationship to Earth and humans beyond a good place for trophy hunting, a better explanation of why some Yautja want to save the planet from its imminent ecological collapse and others want to leave us to our fates to make our planet more habitable for their particular environmental needs, and perhaps a different conclusion than the one we saw that was way more by-the-numbers and felt tacked on by the studio. The RedLetterMedia guys cover a lot of this too, and it didn't really strike me that this movie could've been a whole lot better if it wasn't for "A, B and C" until they - as filmmakers themselves - laid it all out. It's a bummer when you have a bad movie, but more so when it was this close to being a good movie that was interfered with or plagued with unfortunate issues (such as the whole sorry episode with a different kind of predator that co-star Olivia Munn had to deal with). For as much as he deserves to be bashed for some of the decisions he made, as well as dragging poor old Monster Squad co-writer Fred Dekker into this from whatever he was doing, I hope Shane Black isn't too discouraged by what happened to his Predator movie and recharges his batteries with something smaller and less studio-interference-prone like The Nice Guys or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which are still two of the best action comedies from this century.

It wasn't a catastrophe, all told, but certainly not something I'd recommend people go see in theaters. It is, like so many other Predator movies, merely OK at best and a poorly edited, spiteful, confused mess that at one point featured a registered sex offender at worst.

Game: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

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I swear I'm completing this game this weekend. Every week I get pulled in a bunch of directions for the other games I'm blogging about, and am unable to carve out the longer playing sessions an RPG of this calibre deserves. It doesn't help either that the game is poorly optimized for my weaker system and suffers from outstanding bugs and glitches that often serve to slow down whatever it is I'm doing. Most of the blame, however, goes towards my habit of obsessively exploring every node on the map and running back and forth completing side-quests and bounties, not all of which are strictly necessary (and have almost certainly knocked the difficulty balance of the game's major quests off-kilter). I've probably spent a few hours total alone just figuring out how to stealthily steal from every shopkeeper without getting spotted by them or their guards in the process.

Nonetheless, I have really enjoyed Deadfire for the most part. In addition to some excellent and thorough worldbuilding and storytelling, cleverly streamlined battles and RPG mechanics, and some impressive visuals and a figurative and literal enormous ocean of possibilities to explore, the game is constantly surprising me with all these smaller common-sense tweaks and innovations to every facet of its being. Little touches like the way you only earn XP from defeating monsters if you're learning something - it takes a few fights to fill out a creature's bestiary page, and after that you stop earning anything from defeating them. XP is still plentiful because you get a lot from completing quests, but also small amounts from fighting new enemies, dismantling traps, and unlocking chests, but you'll often get the same rewards talking an enemy down from a hostile state than fighting them. I've already talked about the elaborate AI system ad nauseum, but it strikes an excellent balance between minimizing the amount of confused catawampus that the mostly real-time and fast-paced group combat devolves into and avoiding that Final Fantasy XII feeling that the game is playing itself - as long as you're regularly facing encounters around your level, your intervening is frequently required to keep people alive by telling them to heal or moving them out of harm's way, or directing your team towards the targets that matter most rather than the AI default of whichever targets are closest at hand (that's particularly true of my arquebus sniper, Maia, who is amazing at taking out enemy magic-users hovering around at the back of the melee).

Let's just say the Deadfire archipelago is facing a rather large problem.
Let's just say the Deadfire archipelago is facing a rather large problem.

In truth, I get the same buzz playing Deadfire and discovering yet another way it's ingeniously tackled a long-standing problem with CRPGs that I did when playing Xenoblade Chronicles 1 and seeing how it regularly subverted previously-entrenched JRPG tropes in a similar fashion. Both feel like major steps forward for their respective sub-genres, as well as incredibly huge and ambitious games of the like that you don't often see in the RPG market now that they've become less marketable to the mainstream. Unlike Mass Effect, which I love dearly so don't get the wrong impression, there's nothing about Deadfire's streamlining process that feels counter to its dedication to old-school CRPGs, nor has it minimized the degree of complexity that the sheer number of options - the ample number of spells, consumables, weapon types, or unique class abilities - provide, for better or worse. There's a hundred ways you could play Deadfire - even the pre-generated characters with their own dialogue, prejudices, and personal story quest chains have no fixed class, but three possible classes or class hybrids based on their stats - and the immense scope of that is impressive in this era. It's going to require one hell of a coup to knock it off my #1 position on this year's GOTY list, but I suppose there's still a lot from this year I've yet to check out.

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Indie Game of the Week 88: Yoku's Island Express

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In an unusual twist for Indie Game of the Week, I've chosen to play a game that was actually released this year. Yoku's Island Express, you might recall because it came out four months ago, is a spacewhipper with a pinball affectation. The game's map is split between more conventional tunnels and passageways that criss-cross a large interconnected world, but also has these self-contained arenas that work via pinball physics and mechanics. That is, you're rewarded points (well, fruit) for hitting bumpers and switches along the walls, sliding the ball through tunnels a certain number of times, using the flippers to light up areas on the table, and eventually passing through some sort of exit tunnel to the next area. Most of the game's big set-pieces, like boss fights or the conclusion of a quest, takes place in one or more of these arenas. That said, these pinball areas are rarely all that elaborate and you probably don't need to be Tommy (of The Who's Tommy) to complete them, though it might take a few tries to find the angle it wants. That you can still move around normally to some degree on these tables helps, especially if you need to trap the ball to figure out your next trajectory.

That lack of a serious challenge is all part of the game's easy-going island charm, however. There's no fail states, no health gauges, no real enemies besides inconvenient blockages and exploding slugs (which are as much a help as they are a hindrance once you have a way to pick them up) and the occasional boss fight that you can't "lose" per se. Worst that happens is that you miss the bottom flippers on a table and be forced through the brambles underneath, which only takes a mere handful of the fruit you have on hand. Fruit, meanwhile, is used to unlock launchers around the map that primarily exist as shortcuts or to reach other collectibles, such as these well-hidden "wickerling" mandrake root-looking things, treasure chests, power-ups and upgrades, and quest items. Fruit is one of those resources that's paradoxically valuable and everywhere, and I regularly found myself maxed out even with the multiple wallet upgrades available. They're sort of like the rupees of The Legend of Zelda: there'll be times when you need a lot of them for an expensive purchase, and you might be encouraged to stop exploring and go scrounge up whatever amount you still need, but for the most part you'll usually have enough on hand for anything that might require them.

A typical
A typical "pinball table" arena. It's worth paying attention to those two scarabs on the left: these indicate bonus conditions that, when fulfilled, shower you with fruit. (You also get an achievement for activating all of them, and they're the only collectible that you can't buy a map for - though they will start appearing on the world map once you've found most of them).

Like any spacewhipper, most of the game revolves around acquiring upgrades that allow you to access more areas in the place you're in, but also the places you've already been to: a "divefish", for instance, lets you dive underwater, and you start the game on a beach where clearly visible items are under the ocean's surface and out of reach. The game gets the most use out of the first item you acquire: a party noisemaker that ends up having multiple uses, from popping bubbles and shattering nearby crystals/ice to waking NPCs up. That it makes an annoying sound is something the game leans into, including an achievement for 1000 blasts that's simply titled "That's enough". Again, that reflects on the game's easygoing sense of harmless fun that's also made apparent by a certain goofy Rayman quality to both its art direction and character designs, with strange-looking but friendly creatures of all shapes and sizes to be found across the island. Because the title character is nominally the new postmaster of the island, you also have a couple of mail-related quests like stuffing every mailbox you see with random handfuls of envelopes and delivering packages to a handful of remote locales.

I bumped into a few issues playing on the PS4. After an extended session the game stopped being seamless when loading in areas - when adjacent to a loading point, you could see that the next zone was blurry and unfocused like it hadn't been drawn-in yet - and the memory leak of that caused the game to eventually crash. However, it saves frequently and I didn't bump into any more issues while playing. My only other minor reservations are related to my neophyte pinball skills; beyond giving the game a novel twist to its exploration and traversal (though Knytt Underground is another fine game of this genre with a hefty dose of ball physics, and of course the Metroid series would often include stretches spent entirely in Samus's Morph Ball form), it's hard to say who the pinball mechanics are for in this game, as experts might find them the game's "tables" too surface-level while us novices are sending balls through the same channel over and over trying to figure out the timing. All told, however, between its chill personality and great world design there is very little to dislike about the game - it even ticks the boxes of a good spacewhipper by giving you maps to collectibles (for a price), a decent fast travel system, and ensuring that no areas become inaccessible later. One for my GOTY list this year for sure, even if it's looking pretty sparse so far.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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The SNES Classic Mk. II: Episode XIX: Fiddle-Fodder

The SNES Classic had a sterling assortment of games from Nintendo's 16-bit star console, but it's hardly all that system has to offer a modern audience. In each installment of this fortnightly feature, I judge two games for their suitability for a Classic successor based on four criteria, with the ultimate goal of assembling another collection of 25 SNES games that not only shine as brightly as those in the first SNES Classic, but have equally stood the test of time. The rules, list of games considered so far, and links to previous episodes can all be found at The SNES Classic Mk II Intro and Contents.

Episode XIX: Fiddle-Fodder

Candidate: Daft's Hameln no Violin Hiki

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I have to admit, my hopes weren't high for this one. I planned out this whole feature at the start of the year, but the only other game developed by Daft that was on the list - the unusually anime adventures of Doc and Marty in Super Back to the Future II - has also become the lowest rated. That was their first game, however, and Hameln no Violin Hiki was their third. A studio can improve a lot in that time. There's also the concern that this was a licensed game: Hameln no Violin Hiki, or The Violinist of Hamelin, is a manga and anime about the titular melodic hero and a world of musically-named characters and locations (think Eternal Sonata, which I'm sure drew some inspiration from Hameln's naming conventions and its gingham-sporting selfless heroine). However, this is a rare case of a game adaptation preceding the anime adaptation: the game was released in 1995, and the anime OVA (and subsequent TV series) followed in 1996. That isn't to say that the game wasn't drawing from plans and character designs from the anime, but it does suggest that the developers weren't pressed to rush their game out to coincide with a massive multimedia push, which tends to be a major detriment for most video games, if not creative media in general.

Thankfully, despite all these portents, Hameln is actually a pretty decent puzzle-platformer with the familiar combination of clever mechanics and an appealing aesthetic. We've seen a procession of these games in this feature of late - Jelly Boy from the last episode, DoReMi Fantasy (Ep XIV), Holy Umbrella (Ep IX) - and I'm impressed at the level of depth these platformers demonstrated towards the end of the SNES's lifespan. It's a shame so few of them reached the United States, but I suppose even attractive 2D games would've had a hard time competing with all the cuboid nightmares of the fledgling 3D arena with how much the gaming press of the day was pushing the latter. As for Daft... well, after this it was wall-to-wall licensed K-1 games for PS1 and GBA followed by, finally, a Simple Series PS2 game about a mini-skirt detective whose clothes fall off when she gets hurt. Without playing either, I suspect Hameln was their high point.

Hameln's big innovation is how it plays up the comically dysfunctional relationship between the "legendary hero" (though he's more of a selfish jackass in reality) Hamel and his benevolent Good Samaritan follower Flute. Flute entreats Hamel to save her village by defeating the local monster army leader, Tuba, but Hamel only agrees if Flute joins him. It turns out Flute has the unusual ability to dress as various creatures and objects and obtain their powers. These kigurumi (as in, costumes, often of the oversized mascot variety) are doled out gradually throughout the game - there's sixteen in total, each providing unique utilities from a duck that can cross rivers to a curling puck used to smash walls - and are usually required to traverse levels. The game doesn't forget about previous power-ups either; the level design is built in such a way that you'll regularly need older abilities to proceed, or at the very least the player has various workable options for how they want to proceed. Flute herself is surprisingly sturdy - Hamel can pick her up and throw her at enemies and walls to destroy them even when she isn't in a kigurumi, and she'll do her best to follow behind unless Hamel tells her to stay put. Even with the amount of abuse and humiliation she deals with, the player is encouraged to keep her spirits up: there's a rare collectible that, if four are found, unlocks a bonus stage and Flute's condition at the end of a level can award up to two of these. In addition, Flute will earn you money if she defeats enemies while happy, though constant damage when she's in her agitated state will lose you money instead (unless you have a specific item to prevent this). Money is important in the game - at least one kirugumi can't be obtained any other way, and the most useful kirugumi in the game can be bought early - and you need a substantial pile of it to get anything from the store that isn't a single-use item.

Hey look, Kine's back. You'd be surprised how many SNES games have sunfish in them.
Hey look, Kine's back. You'd be surprised how many SNES games have sunfish in them.

What's more, the game has a strict timer. It's often required that you move towards the exit than spend too long working on the game's environmental puzzles. Running out of time is the same as a death, and Hamel has a finite number of lives and loses any power-ups he's found if he falls. Flute can't die fortunately - there's the aforementioned incentive to keep her safe from harm, but it's not actually going to affect the outcome too much if she's in a foul mood due to your bumbling - but she can be left behind if she's stuck or you told her to wait, which can often grind progress to a halt. You learn to move fast and pick the best kirugumi on the fly, exploring dead-ends only if you have time to do so. I only ran out of time once, but there were a few close calls because I was wasting too much time trying different solutions out. It's a matter of taking the game's puzzles and obstacles cautiously to ensure Hamel and Flute's safety, but never dawdling.

Speaking of not dawdling, it's time for Hameln no Violin Hiki to pay the piper and pass through the P.O.G.S. process:

  • Preservation: I keep saying it in this feature but it bears repeating that the modern market for Indie 2D platformers are full of games like Hameln, but very few if any are doing what it did. If it was released today on the Steam marketplace for $15, people would be all over it (though perhaps taking some exception to its comical abuse of a female sidekick - Flute gets it worse than even poor old Tails). 4.
  • Originality: More so than even last week's Jelly Boy, the game's cribbing from David Crane's A Boy and His Blob with a constant companion that can change shape and help you traverse past spikes, water, lava, or whatever else might be in your path. It doesn't have the open-world aspect, but it does have a limited amount of commerce and permanent upgrades with Flute's kirugumi and a few accessories for Hamel. What's more, is that it does the escort thing - you can't move onto the next area unless Flute is with you - while sidestepping the usual frustrating accompaniments of faulty pathfinding and a far-too-vulnerable companion. 4.
  • Gameplay: Hamel controls well enough, though he's limited to jumps and a ranged attack with his oversized violin. He's better suited for dealing with foes than Flute, who only has a few kirugumi that can attack enemies and is usually best left out of their reach. Fortunately, she's invulnerable when actually in a kirugumi, and they offer a wide range of forms with many other benefits. The time limit isn't quite as severe as I'm making it out to be - there's items you can find or buy to extend it if necessary - and I appreciate a platformer that requires me to think as often as react. 4.
  • Style: It's a cute game with a visual style that can be expressive without necessarily needing giant sprites to convey those emotions. The way Flute gets huffy if you let her get damaged too much, or the incredulous look she gives you if you use her as a platform or pick her up, or the few non-animated cutaways between chapters to fill in their story all serve to accurately represent some degree of the original source's humor. Most of the music is classical stuff in the public domain; one of those easy shortcuts you're allowed to take when there's so much musical terminology in your game already. Alas, the game was not fan-translated too well, with sentences lacking cohesion or using incorrect terms (there's a character named after the German word for the bassoon and if you look that word up, you can see how a translator might unfortunately mistake it for a certain other one...), but I can't hold that against the original game. 4.

Total: 16.

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The Nominee: Sensible Software's Cannon Fodder

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I swear this is the last of the obscure UK homegrown SNES games for this feature. There is one more UK-developed game on the list, but it's a well-known title that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Cannon Fodder is (the ironically named) Sensible Software's take on a gritty real-time war sim, but - as there is to everything they made - there's a certain streak of casual fun that helped to endear them to their original audience back on the Amiga and Atari ST, where most war sims tended to be the driest exercises imaginable. Primarily a mouse-driven game (it's compatible with the SNES Mouse peripheral), the goal is to explore a map and eliminate all enemy soldiers. That often means the buildings that spawn them as well, which require explosives and are very dangerous due to the unpredictable way chain reactions can spread. Between that and the way enemy soldiers can swarm around you, death tends to be very common and it's easy to get bummed out if you lose a soldier - who each have names and a rank determined by how many successful missions they've survived.

That's part of how Cannon Fodder works as an anti-war satire. Despite its tongue-in-cheek "war has never been so much fun" theme song and casually flippant gameplay, between losing soldiers and seeing their gravestones on Boot Hill (and once you've lost enough to cover that hill, it's a powerful image), or the sad music that plays when you see the list of soldiers who died in the mission, it's all affecting in a way you might not have anticipated. There's the somewhat sadistic way shot soldiers will occasionally sit there bleeding to death while screaming loudly, requiring one more shot to put them out of their misery (including your own, sometimes...). Even as the hill continues to fill with graves, the disposable units line up around it for the chance to serve their country, sometimes stretching off into the distance if you've not burned through too many. All it needs is an elderly Matt Damon asking everyone if he's a good person.

For as heavy as its themes might be, the gameplay couldn't be lighter. You direct your units around with one button and shoot in the direction of the cursor with the other. It's very important to be aware of one's surroundings - enemies can stream in from all directions - and study the map for where you need to go and where enemies might be lying in wait. Fortunately, you have an infinite supply of bullets, so you can simply let loose as enemies approach and hit them long before they can get you. Other cases, like blowing up enemy spawners, requires a certain amount of luck, preparation, or caution. For instance, you can split your unit up into individual soldiers, and have just one of them get close to a spawner and destroy it to protect the others from any unpredictable blowback - as comical as it is to watch, the way roofs tend to blow clean off and fly across the screen is bad news for anyone it eventually lands on. It's not an easy game, and death finds you frequently in the later levels as you get jumped by one nasty surprise after another, or are faced with overwhelming odds. As much as you want to keep your little guys safe to see how far they get can get promoted, it eventually becomes a forlorn hope; only the most cautious and well-prepared individuals can survive this war.

Ah, the ever-unpredictable murder shack. Look how adorable all these bullet-ridden corpses are.
Ah, the ever-unpredictable murder shack. Look how adorable all these bullet-ridden corpses are.

This wasn't Sensible's only game that made its way to the SNES. Were I not pressed for space and time in this feature, I might check out Sensible Soccer - the only soccer game I have any real affection for - and Mega-Lo-Mania, Sensible's more approachable and silly take on something like Populous or Civilization. Wizball and Wizkid are still two of my favorite games of all time due to their strangeness and irreverence, though unfortunately neither received console versions. In lieu of all these, Cannon Fodder is a fine introduction to the (so to speak) sensibilities of the developer and, try as Danny O'Dwyer might to sell the game's appeal to the skeptical Giant Bomb crew, a fair indication of the quality of their work.

And now, inevitably, it's time to unleash the P.O.G.S. of war:

  • Preservation: Sensible were really ahead of the game when they came up with their approachable slants on previously more complex games. Since then, the industry has continued to move in the direction of user friendliness and streamlining systems and features which added little besides more key bindings to memorize. Of course, a few games like DOTA have gone the opposite direction, but I'm not going to humor them today. There's also the sad truth that the game's subtle anti-war message hasn't aged either; still as unfortunately apt today as ever. 4.
  • Originality: A mouse-driven real-time tactical action game wasn't particularly common for the SNES for obvious reasons, so in that regard it stands in rare company. Even factoring in the wider European computer gaming market from which it hailed, though, Cannon Fodder split the difference between an action game and the more thoughtful tactical war games of the medium. It appealed to audiences young and old for this reason, and likewise punished those who dawdled thinking they had all the time in the world to think through their next action as much as it did those who rushed into every encounter with nary a forethought. There weren't a whole lot of games that could challenge its players that way. Still aren't. 5.
  • Gameplay: The relentless guilt of losing named soldiers - pour one out for Jools and Jops - and demanding precision can make Cannon Fodder draining in even short doses, and I still take issue to how random it is to lose soldiers to flying debris whenever you blow something up, but even with these lapses of "fairness" it's an exceptionally well-made game even in its compromised SNES state, which had to drop the audio quality and make concessions due to the family-friendly guidelines set by Nintendo. Without the mouse controls, which I can't imagine a SNES Classic console would include, it's going to lose a lot of the speed and precision that's required for its later levels. 3.
  • Style: SNES concessions aside, the graphics are perhaps the best in this version. It moves fast, even with lots of soldiers milling around, and there's something to Sensible's little sprites - who appear in Sensible Soccer and Mega-Lo-Mania as well - that's incongruously cute when they're creating bloody havoc. 4.

Total: 16.

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Saturday Summaries 2018-09-15: Ranking of Fighters EX Turbo Edition

I want to make one thing clear first of all: I really enjoy Giant Bomb West's Ranking of Fighters feature, even as someone who doesn't care for fighting games or watching them for extended periods. The additional layer to the format - ranking these games in a specific order based on "scientific" considerations - rises them above the standard LP format, and I appreciate how much Jeff, Jason and Ben appreciate and understand the genre.

Never forget. That's why Warren looks like this: he can't forget either.
Never forget. That's why Warren looks like this: he can't forget either.

However, and maybe this speaks more to what I find compelling about these games, what I'd like is if they incorporated sort of a side-ranking format where they take the best fighter from each game - whether they have the best visual design, they're the most fun to play as, or simply the weirdest - and have an independent but parallel "ranking of characters" which may involve an entirely different order from the game list. Power Moves is destined for the lowest echelons of the overall rankings, but I'd bet Warren would be pretty high up on a separate character chart. Ditto for Ten Count and Battle Arena Toshinden 3. Such a format is rife with complications, of course - how would you avoid picking the same "best character" from multiple games with either the same or greatly overlapping rosters, like the many The King of Fighters and Street Fighter games? - but the unsung heroes of the feature are those characters that manages to capture the hearts and minds of our scientist trio. Or, in those unfortunately common scenarios where the games are risible messes with little to commend them, picking a terrible character that best exemplifies the sort of tragedy in motion that we're looking at.

If not a separate list for these champions (or "champions" as the case may be), how about more representation in the main table? Each could become the avatar of their specific game, their portrait icons displayed proudly alongside the names of their respective games. I think it would help the scientific process to have a visual reminder of that game's best character, even if it ends up being impossible to pick a favorite or facing the possibility of a dozen Terry faces jamming up the works as the list grows ever more complete. Like I said, the appeal of the characters is largely the draw for me whenever I play a fighter game; I beat their single-player modes not because I enjoy playing as specific characters, at least usually no more or less than anyone else in the roster, but because I want to see how their stories turn out. It'll be a lot of work for poor Jan to implement this "champions" avatar aspect to the existing list, but I think it might serve to make the games on the list stand out more and be more memorable - especially for the more forgettable titles like Martial Masters and Critical Blow.

When I'm not offering dumb ideas to "improve" Giant Bomb features, I'm focusing on my own. Here's what I've been up to this week:

  • The Indie Game of the Week was Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island, a loving Indie non-specific homage to the 3D collectathon platformers of the N64/PS2 era as a whole. We're seeing more and more of these and I couldn't be happier; I find them very cathartic, in much the same way that running around chasing icons on the map of an open-world game does. It also helps when they have bright and cheerful visuals, a goofy sense of humor, a certain degree of challenge that never steps past the boundaries of Frustration City, and that all-important combination of concise controls and clearly-defined traversable territory. It's a bit buggy and a lot short, but you could do worse than this cat and bird team.
  • This week also sees the conclusion of Mento Gear Rising: Revenge Jests, the second half of my trouble-fraught Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance playthrough. I really didn't do well against that final boss and, after watching a couple of other LPs (one of which was our own Dan and Drew), I'm not quite sure why. The game is exceedingly fair on Normal difficulty, far more so than Platinum's other games (I suspect they softened the challenge for the sake of visiting MGS fans, like how Persona Arena's story mode was easy-peasy rather than the nightmare of gauges and systems that Arc Systems Works' various other anime fighters tend to be) and highly entertaining to boot. Rest assured, some bad experiences did not sour the game's high notes of lunacy or its loop of evisceration and spine-ripping as a whole.

Addenda

Movie: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

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The only thing I knew about this movie going in was that it had a sci-fi thriller twist - in fact, I regularly used to get it confused with Source Code, beyond who starred in what - which is why I've endeavored to never read more about it in the eight or so years since it came out. The reason for that being that it was adapted from a Phillip K. Dick short story, not unlike other thrillers with a sci-fi edge like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Screamers, etc. - all movies that, while they have different directors at the helm, share a certain urgency and format. Hero discovers the world isn't what he thought it was, goes on the lam, eventually uncovers the truth, maybe lives happily ever after. The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon as would-be senator David Norris and Emily Blunt as the mysterious Elise whom David encounters in a fateful meetcute, certainly has those elements - especially the running around part - but on the whole actually feels more like a romantic drama with a magical realism aspect.

To back up a moment, David and Elise exist in a version of Earth where a group of immortal paranormal operators - heavily hinted to be angels, though they claim they have lots of names - are guiding the destinies of important humans to ensure that humanity doesn't destroy itself. They have a specific plan to follow, created by "the Chairman", and carefully adjust reality and our actions to ensure that plan comes to pass. David and Elise meeting was part of the plan, but them meeting a second time was not; instead, a clerical mistake means they meet again by chance, and David learns of the adjustment bureau's existence after they're forced to intervene. From there the whole movie becomes David's romantic quest to defy fate and the plans of higher beings to be together with this charming, down-to-earth woman to whom he's drawn. Though it's not really a comedy, I'd put it in the same ballpark as Groundhog Day - it's a movie that begins with an intriguing fantasy premise, and then becomes a more traditional love story. Not a bad thing by any stretch - it's pleasantly wholesome to have a Phillip K. Dick adaptation that doesn't involve cops with puke sticks, a rotoscoped Alex Jones, or a guy getting stabbed in the dick by a Martian prostitute - and the two central performances are well acted. Both the script and the actor in question would have to work hard to create the kind of woman you'd defy the angels to be with, and Emily Blunt manages that with her refreshing frankness and easygoing chemistry with the otherwise uptight Senatorial candidate Damon plays.

I have seen the trailer since watching the movie and I can see how I got the wrong end of the (puke) stick: the trailer has more of a Dark City vibe and definitely plays up the adjustment bureau as sinister and manipulative (the movie gives them more credit, even if you're compelled - as Norris more or less is - to tell them where to stick their theoretical halos) and Norris as being in more peril than he actually is. I mean, they do threaten to wipe his brain, but after a point they just come off as extraterrestrial feds with day jobs who are bummed out by how this one horny mortal keeps making their lives more complicated. The two main angels, John Slattery and Anthony Mackie, are now of course better known for their roles in the Marvel universe - made funnier by the fact that Mackie plays a superhero whose main ability is to fly around with a pair of wings. After this, I'm running out of K. Dick movie adaptations: the only major ones left are the Ben Affleck movie Paycheck and the Nic Cage movie Next, neither of which have a particularly great reputation. Fortunately, there are plenty of other sci-fi movies out there that I've been meaning to see.

Game: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (2018)

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I talked about the general RPG trope of playing multiple factions against the middle for maximum gain and Deadfire's surprisingly deep AI-driven combat last week. This time, I figured I'd talk about the other big change to the game from Pillars of Eternity 1 and 2: how overworld exploration works and the myriad ways the game delivers its content, often in slyly cost-effective ways.

The big shift of Deadfire is that it's set in the titular Deadfire Archipelago; a large island chain to the southeast of the previous game's setting of Dyrwood. It's populated mostly by aumaua - the shark-like humanoids who were represented in the last game by your genial poet companion Kana - though there's a strong presence of the Vailian Republics, a mercantile organization from the south, and Old Vailia, the outdated empire that the Vailian Republics originally belonged to and from which the game sees most of its organized pirates. Because it's a big ocean with scattered landmasses, much of the game takes place on your ship - the Defiant. A great deal of the game's mechanics and attention are given over to the workings of this ship, which not only acts as your chief means of conveyance but also a moving home base of sorts. You have to carefully consider its arsenal of cannons, its crew, its sails and steerage, and even its anchor and lanterns. You can upgrade to bigger ships with more cannon bays but slower maneuvering - I don't think it's impossible to beat the game with the zippy starting ship, even if it gets massively outgunned by galleons and junks - but it costs an exorbitant amount of money. What's more, the game has a completely different system for ship-to-ship combat.

I want to talk about that briefly before getting into the other exploration modes. Ship combat is driven entirely by menus, and operates similarly to the node turn-based structure that Skies of Arcadia uses. Specifically, everything you do counts as an action (sometimes two or three, if you're trying to maneuver a larger ship around), and each combatant ship alternates these actions. There are also various timers at play like how long it takes to reload the cannons after a volley. This means you can sometimes predict what the enemy will do on their next turn and adjust accordingly - if they're about to fire, you can spend the preceding turn bracing for the impact to half the incoming damage, or if they look like they're about to start running away you can turn around to chase after them. Primarily, however, you want to adjust your ship so that the port or starboard side is facing the enemy, and then let loose with your cannons and then jibe (as in, turn 180 degrees) to hit them with the cannons on the other side while your first set are still reloading. However, you also have to deal with special conditions that occasionally proc when you get attacked (and, likewise, the enemy has to deal with these events too): if your ship catches fire, or cargo/crewmates fall off, or a crewmate gets hurt, or the keel of the ship starts flooding - each of these requires moving sailors from their current positions to a place where they can solve the problem quickly before it gets worse, not unlike how damage control works in FTL: Faster Than Light. This turns every ship battle into a potential chain reaction of bad news, as you're forced to slow your assault to deal with issues which in turn offers the enemy a window of opportunity to give you even more problems to deal with - however, the reverse is true also, and I've entered a battle against a much stronger opponent and got the drop on them immediately with a lucky hit that forced them to run around the deck putting out fires while I slowly whittled away at their massive amount of hull armor. It's all very exciting, and despite being partially luck-based if you keep your head and take care of disasters quickly when they arise you can still come out on top even after some bad rolls.

A long-term side-quest involves finding uncharted islands, exploring them thoroughly, and getting to name them. This one had a temple to the God of Mysteries, Wael, and really all this proves is that I'm someone who should not be allowed to name anything.
A long-term side-quest involves finding uncharted islands, exploring them thoroughly, and getting to name them. This one had a temple to the God of Mysteries, Wael, and really all this proves is that I'm someone who should not be allowed to name anything.

When you reach a map node in your ship or on foot, one of three things can occur: you'll either get a certain amount of supplies then and there (this is true for oases, which gives you a large amount of fresh water, and fruit tree groves); you'll get the option to spend time exploring for a random assortment of items; or you'll be taken to one of the game's many book frameworks. The book framework is where the game gets all text-heavy and provides some multiple choice answers that may or may not include additional options if certain requirements are met - usually character stats or skills such as diplomacy or mechanics, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, these encounters are resolved within this "choose your adventure" text format, though if it leads to a battle or a location to explore you'll be taken to the game's Infinity Engine-style traditional top-down view instead. What this means is that the game cleverly deals with situations with the amount of graphical and level design work that they warrant: if you're meeting with a character in some random clearing, there's no need to create it all with the map editor if it's not going to lead to a battle where positioning and such is important. Likewise, not every abandoned ruins has to be full of monsters - it's relatively rare for a crypt to have zombies and skeletons skulking around it given the unusual forces that would need to be at work to create them, which I guess is fair enough - so instead it plays out the usual RPG looting process with a more pragmatic method. It's another example of the game's smart and cost-effective approach to streamlining: ensuring that everything it trims is fat, leaving only the quality meat behind. I've been playing for over 50 hours now, so there's still plenty to the game even if it resolves a great deal of its encounters through this minimalized text format.

That's going to do it for this update. I still have a ways to go in Deadfire, but I was planning on playing other backlog items this month (as in, games that aren't specifically linked to blog features). I've actually been eyeing my Wii U copy of Hyrule Warriors as a potential "podcast game" - Deadfire has a lot of flowery text to read, which makes podcasts too distracting - and considering whether or not to follow Deadfire with yet another RPG from my large pile of them, or cleanse the palette with something smaller. I'll let you know next week, where we'll also take a look at another duo of SNES games and a new Indie Game of the Week. See you all then.

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Indie Game of the Week 87: Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island

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If there's yet another pretender to the Banjo & Kazooie crown out there you'd better believe I'm checking it out. It feels like a gaggle of Indie studios are trying their luck at a classic collectathon platformer, and I can only see that number increasing with the tacit encouragement that came from Nintendo's Super Mario Odyssey and its return to the format of chasing shiny gewgaws across all corners of its colorful world. Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island is an evident love letter to the subgenre as a whole, rather than homaging any one singular franchise: the talking animal heroic duo format is of course as old as the hills, but Skylar also factors in Ratchet & Clank style futuristic exploration gadgets and a hint of a whole sci-fi universe outside of the game's setting, the sidekick Plux is both a smartmouth bird (Banjo & Kazooie) and the mouthpiece for the silent heroine (Jak & Daxter) and there are adorable creatures trapped in cages to free (take your pick: Jinjos of Banjo & Kazooie, or Teenies of the Rayman series). Skylar herself is vaguely reminiscent of Krystal the fox of Star Fox Adventures, but her androgynous robot body is the opposite of sexualized, thankfully. The overall affect is similar to that of Shovel Knight - the whole game feels oddly familiar, but without drawing from one source too strongly it instead feels like a contemporary of the era it evokes rather than a throwback.

Skylar & Plux concerns a couple of adventurers on a far-off moon protected by an ancient device called the Siphon, which controls the balance of the moon's natural habitat as well as providing life to the puffball-like Lo'a that live there. Unfortunately, a megalomaniacal computer called "CRT" has decided to imprison its populace and terraform the planet into a massive factory. It's all really an excuse to chase McGuffins around on a planet that's half given over to nature and half to CRT's mechanical machinations. The player runs, jumps, collects crystals which are used as a currency to free the native Lo'a from their cages, and they in turn eventually unlock new health upgrades when enough have been found. The game has a few traversal and puzzle-solving gadgets too: namely, a jetpack that allows for floating and high-jumps; a mystical orb that can create spheres of time dilation that changes the surroundings to what they looked like millennia ago, often opening new pathways in the process, as well as used to slow down time to make enemies easier to fight; and a magnetic gizmo that can manipulate the environment, toss metallic foes around, or carry the protagonist across magnetic streams (similar to that one rune in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild). Each device gets a work out, though none quite as much as I'd like, and there's not much else to the game besides following each of its mostly linear levels to their ends and finding the captured Lo'a along the way.

It's a decent enough looking game, but there's something kind of no-frills about it.
It's a decent enough looking game, but there's something kind of no-frills about it.

The game's far from perfect, as is often the case for small Indie developers working on something as ambitious as a 3D platformer. There's some hitching, some audio bugs, some out-of-boundage, a weird happenstance where the game's name doesn't match the one on its trophy list, and a lamentable moment where the bird sings Miley Cyrus and Limp Bizkit. There's also no getting around the fact that it's considerably shorter than any other 3D platformer that springs to mind - I capped out at around 5 hours running around to 100% the game, and anyone making a straight beeline to the end will take half that long. However, I might argue that a game that doesn't overstay its welcome - that modestly achieves what it set out to do, with the few resources its developers had on hand to ensure what they ended up with was solidly paced and reasonably polished - is everything you'd hope for in an Indie game. It's probably not going to leave any lasting impressions or contend with the bigger fish currently swimming in the same "platforms n' collectibles" ocean, but Skylar & Plux commendably wears its heart and its influences on its sleeve and I can't really say its developers didn't accomplish what they intended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Mento Gear Rising: Revenge Jests (Part 2)

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I'm Raiden high on cyberpunk ninja espionage hijinks this week, as we put on our titanium high heels and pull out our vibrator sword for another surprisingly kinky episode of Mento Gear Rising. If you're just joining us, this is part two of my playthrough of PlatinumGames's 2013 hit Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, delivered to you in the format of my many prior blind-run Metal Gear Solid journals from the past few years. The reason why I frame these playthroughs this way is because I figure these games are so well known and beloved that a traditional review years post-release would be fruitless, so instead I'm giving people what they want - those hot incredulous reactions to this franchise's frequent flights of fancy (i.e. ridiculous bullshit) - and packaging them together in a conveniently bite-sized format.

Naturally, you'll need to have completed this game yourself to get the most of out these very spoilerish reactions, but I'm sure everyone who wanted to play this has done so by now (or watched Drew and Dan have at it in their Metal Gear Scanlon video feature). If you haven't yet though, consider this your warning.

Be sure to catch up with Part One here if you haven't seen it before, or need a refresher. Part One also contains links to all the other times I've taken on a Metal Gear game just in case you wanted to binge on confused schadenfreude this week.

Part R-4: Die Hard, But in a Skyscraper

  • OK, it's been a couple of weeks, might need to jog my memory a bit on how combos and parries work. In retrospect I probably should've played the whole game in one go and then spaced out these updates after the fact. I'm sure it'll all come back to me quickly and I won't complain about the difficulty all the time.
  • Why is this game so fricking hard? Why is it so much of a pain to sever these left arm collectibles? Why is it my parries never seem to stun enemies long enough to unleash Blade Mode on them? These are the kind of statement I won't be making today. All killer, no filler.
  • Just strolling in through the front door of World Marshal HQ, don't mind me. I like that they have a receptionist gynoid with no legs at the front desk. Bureaucrats be like robots, am I right?
  • There's a turret sequence while I wait for Doktor to hack the lobby elevators. I find it's easier to survive if you just hide in a corner and bisect any cyborgs that get close enough and drink their delicious spine juices for sustenance. I took a quick glance at the lobby before running for the elevator and saw a dozen RPG guys and a few ape robots show up, so I didn't think to hang around.
  • Ah, here we go, the requisite "you need to follow these normally invisible power lines to their terminal points" side bit. Every game with detective vision has to have one.
  • Setting aside the part where World Marshal destroys an entire floor of their building trying to gun down Raiden, why the heck is there a Japanese garden up here on the 30th+ floor? I mean, besides it being a Metal Gear game. Actually, this is probably one of the more realistic surprises so far, given how much this feels like an affectation of the absurdly wealthy.
  • Oh, I see. This was so they could have a Tenchu moment. Well, I can't begrudge that. You make a ninja game, you better put pagodas and shrine gates in there somewhere.
  • By the way, Raiden hasn't stopped being "Jack the Ripper" since the Monsoon fight. It means he talks to everyone with more of a manic snarl. It reminds me of Adachi's "creepy rapist guy" voice. Not quite as intimidating as the voice actor thinks it is.
  • Talking of requisite sequences, there's a big dumb elevator fight where you have to switch elevators halfway through after they badly damage the one you were on. This is kind of smart, because it side-steps the usual inquiry of "how damn tall is this building?" when everything's on a strict timer.
  • Boy, the tropes don't stop, do they? Next up is a mini-boss-rush against Mistral and (sigh) Monsoon. At least I was able to prove my EM grenade theory right this time - knocked Mr. Wetty right out. Still, having to do the worst boss fight in the game twice isn't my idea of a good time.
  • Here we go, some classic boss exposition in the big server room. Well, if by "server" you mean "the place where all the kid brains are hooked up to VR programs" - Dok explains that they renamed it that so no-one in the rank-and-file would be the wiser. Does that mean there's another server room somewhere else? Woe betide the new IT person who goes to the wrong room on their first day.
  • Anyway, Sundowner and his employer has "something planned in three hours" that'll be as big an atrocity as 9/11, which isn't really the classiest thing to invoke in a game that can already draw from several larger fictional terrorist attacks. I'm sure the day that a giant mech rumbled into the Big Apple, destroyed most of the lower westside, and also included a former president getting his spine severed on top of the Federal Building is mentioned in equally solemn terms.
  • Sundowner's boss fight was, perhaps predictably, just as much of an annoying downer as Monsoon's. Maybe it's because I'm powering through these bosses with a stock of healing items on Normal difficulty, thus never reaching that point Drew usually sees where you get stuck on a constant loop of game overs until you figure out how the boss ticks and are practiced enough with the controls to pull off what needs to be done to beat them. Sundowner's big deal is his explosive shield, which sends you flying every time you hit it; problem is, he'll drag that thing out in a middle of a combo and the momentum means I get caught by it every time. More so, you can only cut through the shield with an aimed attack in Blade Mode, and for some reason I just couldn't get it to aim vertically whenever that was required (I know what to do now, by the way, I was just having a moment of stupidity). In addition, sometimes you'd cut through the shield only for a small amount of it to still be left - it's six plates that Sundowner has on his flanks at all times that he combines together - so I still get whacked even after "successfully" batting it away. Beyond the choppers firing missiles at me in the background (thanks, guys; you did your job well), there was nothing else to this fight besides all the shield grabass. Dumb and forgettable, but at least I enjoyed slicing that big bald asshole to ribbons at the end of it.
  • On a conference call to Mikael Haggar and Lucio, we determine the likely target for this atrocity will be the President's visit to Pakistan. "The War on Terror Part 2" Haggar soberly interjects. Wouldn't that imply that the first one ended at some point? Or could end, for that matter? Seems more likely we'd get "War with Pakistan Part 1" instead.

Part R-5: Things to Slice in Denver When You're Dead (Serious About Slicing Things)

  • We start with a super dramatic helicopter escape where Raiden has to leap out and destroy two automated stealth plane drones on his tail. Would've liked to have played any of this, but then maybe letting the cinematic handle the QTEs is fine too.
  • Either way, despite putting several miles between us and Marshal HQ before the drones show up, Raiden falls out of the escape chopper and lands at the end of the third stage of the game, just outside the HQ building.
  • The idea is to play through this level in reverse, moving as quickly as possible because time is of the essence. There's a lot of fights to avoid or stealth-kill through if you're in a hurry, but I still need more building points for some final upgrades so let's check out more of Denver.
  • Frankly, this is just a very short (and kinda dull) level set in a place I've already seen with a threat of a ticking clock hanging over my head that doesn't actually seem to affect anything. I appreciate a little downtime before the inevitable final boss medley, but this might be a little too low-key.
  • On his way out of town, Raiden steals someone's motorbike and leaves a thank you note carved into the sidewalk. How considerate. Not to mention low profile. Oh jeez, is the next level going to be a Final Fantasy VII mini-game?

Part R-6: Cry Me a Jetstream

  • Thankfully, no slicing at motorcycling cyborgs in a Raiden Rash sequence. Instead, we get our traditional sunset duel with Samuel Jetstream.
  • This boss fight's more like it. A classic duel in which my items were unavailable and I had to parry almost everything to get a return hit in. This is the ideal "you'd better have learned how the game works by now, Sonny Jim" fight, the sort where my lack of healing items - there were very few after the Sundowner fight, which ate all of them thanks to his crappy TNT shield - fit the scenario of taking on an opponent on absolutely even ground. Sam has some strong attacks, growing no less powerful when you temporarily knock his sword out of his hands, and a lot of those become command grabs if you don't block or parry them in time.
  • Eventually, the jetstream becomes an arterial spray as Raiden slices through Sam's abdomen and continues on his way. What was odd was all the "was this really necessary" melancholy that followed; the sort of story moment that normally results from killing an honorable foe in an avoidable fight. Did I miss the cutscene that explains that Sam wasn't a smarmy, condescending war profiteer who liked killing and had already dismembered Raiden at least once recently? Maybe it was DLC. Personally, I'm only sad I wasn't able to lop off that stupid ponytail and feed it to him.
  • We also steal Sam's sword, because it's not like he's going to need it. It's a very state-of-the-art "VT7" vibrosword, which Sam apparently inherited from his father. Uh huh. I bet when Sam Sr. was swinging that thing in the 1980s he was damn near unstoppable.
  • "Raiden! We have less than one hour! Hurry!" "Roger that," Raiden replies, taking off into a sprint towards the launch site for his one-way trip across the world. Hey genius, you parked your bike like 10 yards away in the other direction. You even made a big show of making sure it wouldn't be damaged by fighting Sam in an adjacent field.

Part R-7: Home Stretch Armstrong

  • Oh boy. First few seconds of the final mission and we have a really badly animated guy eating a pizza and reading an ecchi manga. Did Otacon get this guy a job here after they met at his namesake event?
  • Hey, speaking of Otacon's circle of associates, it's Sunny Emmerich! Last time I saw her she was feeding burned eggs to Drebin's smoking monkey, or something. She's still a kid in MGR, but I guess being a prodigy means building your own space rocket before you go to prom.
  • Regardless, we take Sunny's super shuttlejet across the world in a blink of an eye, dropping its command module somewhere next to a Marshal-owned airbase in Pakistan. I really hope this three hour deadline doesn't become something to worry about; we must only have minutes of it left after all this horseplay.
  • The "meat" of the stage is minimal: get past the airfield gate, pass through a hangar, and walk a few yards to where Blade Wolf lies crippled after some unseen devastating attack. When they kill the pupper, even a mechanical pupper, you know it just got real.
  • After this, we get our big villain exposition: Armstrong's very much like Sundowner in that he's ecstatic about causing wars and making money off them. More about the money than the warfare perhaps with this one, but then there's gotta be a reason this guy's the final boss and not the bald guy.
  • Unfortunately, to get to him, I have to defeat his giant mechanical spider (did John Peters write this chapter?) which I think is also a Metal Gear, but it doesn't really count if it's not bipedal. Also, it isn't called some three letter name starting with R, like REX or RAY. C'mon, there's a lot of options: ROB, ROY, RON, RIN (for a bit of Japanese flavor, since I know Marshal is into that), ROD, RIO...
  • I would pay good money to see a Metal Gear RON. That's one stepdad you don't want to give your report card to.
  • Metal Gear Excelsus (did Stan Lee write this chapter?) is kind of a typically rad fight in this game; one where the opponent is colossal and you're nonetheless able to eventually get the better of them by nicking away at their giant feet and swords before suddenly getting into gear and slicing off entire limbs and swinging them against it. I wonder when Raiden decides he's spent enough time chipping at the paintwork and gets serious?
  • Mr. American Exceptionalism survived being inside a giant, exploding, shredded robot and decide to introduce us to the gun show. He Zandatsus the entire Metal Gear first, and I can only assume the magical green mass power siphon he pulled off was due to nanomachines. Either that or a wizard, I suppose.
  • But first! He's going to beat the ever-living tar out of Raiden in what I can only describe as a cartoon brawl. Only thing it was missing was the giant dustcloud with limbs sticking out of it.
  • OK, everything that happens after the annoying "you can't win, don't even try because you'll waste all your healing items" mini-fight is incredible. Armstrong's speech about using war to get elected, his brutal beatdown of Raiden (and breaking his sword - hey, just because it's high-frequency, doesn't mean they grow on trees), his plan to turn America into some twisted Darwinian survival of the fittest proving ground; it's all pure, weapons-grade Metal Gear argle-bargle.
  • Another unwinnable fight ensues, wherein I discover that dropping to 0.1% health with no health packs is all part of it. Will this also affect the final score, I wonder? I say "I wonder", but I haven't really cared about the score once beyond earning more upgrade points. This is why I don't play PlatinumGames. Although...
  • This part where I'm slamming dozens of blows into Armstrong's chest and his health ticks down by 0.1% each time is some really funny ludonarrative harmony (I invoked the opposite of the usual thing hacks say! A twisted linguist, that's me).
  • Blade Wolf shows up with Sam's sword, providing Raiden one last chance to cut the wayward Senator down before he begins his dark work. This is it! The fina-
  • Oh I died.
  • Oh I died again.
  • Oooh, I lasted twenty seconds this time instead of ten.
  • Nope, died again. But maybe if I-
  • Nope. Died. Maybe I should try guarding more?
  • Died. I was doing all right this time until he elbow-dropped me.
  • Died again. Music's pretty good here, at least?
  • Died. At least I managed to get him down to... 162% health?! aaaaaaAAAAAUG-
  • The trouble with this fight is that there's a lot of visual confusion between Armstrong's yellow, unavoidable attacks, his orange-red fireball/earthquake attacks, and all the yellow/orange/red flames in the wreckage that surrounds us. Might explain why I just died again.
  • Died again. Haven't seen the videos yet, but I wonder how long this fight took Drew? After all, he seemed to take three times as long on every Metal Gear boss than I did.
  • Dead. Can't evade most of his gigantic attacks, but if I create space I can't hit him. He'll also just charge at me instead.
  • Dead. Every one of his attacks does something like 30% health, and I can't seem to guard or Just-Defend any of them. Meanwhile, I'm chipping away at his enormous health bar like a sucker, hoping not to get caught in the massive AoEs.
  • Dead. My favorite thing he does? Create some giant fireball around himself that I can't see through, then flies out of it at incredible speed and just flattens me.
  • This time I caused some kind of cutscene where Armstrong leaps away and chucks a giant piece of debris at me. Of course, the only divisible line was some weird askew diagonal and I had less than a second to figure out how to cut it there, so it hit me and I died again.
  • Dead. Hypothetically, there is a limit to how much one person can tolerate a massive difficulty spike before they throw in the towel and consider quietly grinding somewhere until they have more stats and abilities unlocked. But hey, I've beaten all the Soulsborne games, so I'm used to this.
  • This time I managed to get into some QTE where I lost my sword, but managed to land something like 40% damage on him by getting all the prompts right. I was so excited, I forgot about the flying debris and it smacked into me doing twice the damage back. After which, I barely had anything left and died again. Hopeful though!
  • That time I immediately lost half my health bar and just restarted from the last checkpoint. I guess that counts as a death too, right?
  • I cut the debris! I tried putting the stick in what I thought was the right angle before chopping and it worked! And then it immediately wanted me to do one in the opposite direction and I hesitated and it killed me! Little by little, I'm starting to get this fight. (I know it doesn't look like it, but...)
  • Restarted again. The fight, not the game. I like that Armstrong starts every other fight with "Ready or not, Jack!" It's pretty clear it's the latter, sir.
  • Dead from the second debris piece again. It feels like it's a miracle whenever I can line it up right the one time, frankly. The analogs weren't really made to be this precise. You might as well ask me to draw a perfect circle with one.
  • Restarted. Sometimes it's just pointless if you lose too much health early. Ever see a boss attempt go so bad you are forced to immediately go to asleep?
  • That time I got the slice for the second debris perfect, but the debris itself was several feet higher than normal? So it just cut through the bottom part of it at the same angle it was asking for. In case it wasn't clear, it then hit me and killed me.
  • Restarted. Actually, I'm sorta glad the previous three chapters were so short, because it gives me plenty of room to elaborate on how often I've died to this one boss for what I hope comes off as comical effect. Pain's funny, right?
  • I got too close to his fire ground punch thing and it did something like 100% damage instead of 30-40%. Of course, if I'm not close, I can't do damage and finish the fight. So...
  • Dead. I wondered about causing that QTE scene again, since it does a lot of damage to him. Unfortunately, the attack animation is him turning yellow and charging at me, and that also leads to a different command grab combo attack where he does a flat 25% damage with no chance to QTE out of it. I've seen both types of charge bearing on me several times each now, and can't distinguish between them. Sort of a crapshoot if I'm being honest.
  • I had more time with those slices than I thought, but I still can't reliably get one of them, let alone both. It's the only major obstacle now though; I've learned to avoid all the volcano attacks, even as impatient as I am, so it's all down to getting these slices in correctly (though I'll still get pounded and be forced to restart early on occasion - there's no telling what's going to follow the debris toss).
  • Ooh, that time I knocked him out of one his ground-pound charge moves, stunning him for a precious few seconds. Of course, if I hadn't, it would've done an unbelievable amount of damage and likely caused another game over. Fortunately, it was the debris again that killed me this time, not being too late on a ground-pound interrupt. That's a relief, of sorts.
  • I figure I've been at this an hour now. At least it only takes a few minutes before I'm dead again. No wait, that's a bad thing. (I restarted after getting hit three times in twenty seconds again, for whatever it's worth.)
  • I checked with the Codecs - yeah, yeah, it was dumb of me to wait this long - to see if they had some tips for me. Mikael Haggar says "Cut 'im!". Lucio says "Cut 'im!". Save Lady says "You have to kill him!" and then offers to save. Doktor says "Use the sword!". Wolf literally can only say three words in his broken state: "Raiden, kill him!" I should've just called Gary Whitta...
  • Oh, I can call Sunny now too! She's a super-genius, she's bound to have the advice I need! "Raiden, why do these things always have to happen to you?" I shrugged so hard I almost dislocated something.
  • Dead. But I found out you can interrupt almost all his attacks if you just keep the pressure on, including the yellow charges. The exception is when he raises his arms up for a big AoE shockwave. That caught me a few times. I've yet to successfully cut the second debris piece - even when I'm dead on with the angle, it's never lined up right in terms of height. If I take the time to look up instead of slicing immediately, it hits me and I die anyway. I've taken to calling it "The Block of Inevitability".
  • I found out what happened if you have enough health to get hit by the debris and live: he throws another one immediately. There has to be some kind of cutscene that follows, and - one can only hope - a checkpoint.
  • "You know what? Fuck this war. I just want to see you dead." Ditto, Armstrong, except instead of "war" it's "game" and instead of "you" it's "myself".
  • I did it! I destroyed the second debris piece! ...it has a third one?
  • ...
  • .....
  • .......
  • Uh... I killed him? After actually landing the last slice on that debris - it was horizontal, so I dunno why it was giving me trouble - he jumped at me and got hit for a serious amount of damage. And then four health kits appeared around the arena. Suddenly the fight went from unwinnable to babytown frolics. Besides a hateful move where he starts regenerating his health unless I cut a green whatsit on his back, the rest of the fight was incredibly easy. No real escalation - he tossed more Metal Gear parts at me, but I had the health kits to absorb them now - and no extra brutality or secret moves when he dropped to a desperate amount of health. That random piece of debris was the turning point. What a fucking bizarre boss fight.
  • Anyway, I managed to jam a katana in those Senatorial innards and had at it. The Senate is now closed. And that's how a kill becomes a law, asshole.
  • All right, so it was actually only about 20 minutes according to the in-game timer. Maybe it didn't count deaths? Or maybe it didn't count all the loading times between them? Feels like I've been here for an epoch. I looked outside and civilization had ended, which usually means I've been distracted for a while. Gee, I hope the internet still works so I can upload this.
  • And then the game crashed during the ending cutscenes. I think we're done here.
  • All right, fine. I had to do the real Armstrong fight again and managed it in one go this time. Didn't even need all that health either. Really goes to show how far the intimidation factor can go. I'm just glad I wasn't streaming all of this - it'd be embarrassing if it got out how many times I actually did die...
  • It crashed at the same point during the ending again. Now we really are done here.

It's hard to say how much I would've enjoyed the ending to this game, because that last boss fight - as satisfying as it was to finally beat - almost defeated me utterly. In retrospect, I probably should've made more of an effort to beat those earlier bosses without relying on multiple health kits as a crutch. Once that safety net was gone, the boss fights in this game got considerably less cakewalky.

I'm sure the ending went something like this: Raiden was putting his feet up snarling something about pizza while a repaired Blade Wolf sat close by with the last slice in his metal gullet and everyone else on codec patrol was just there hanging out and laughing before it did the freeze-frame thing and faded to black. But wait, who's that outside the window? Is that Vamp?! How could this be?

And that's the end of Mento Gear Rising: Revenge Jests. This'll be it for this reactions series too - I'll continue to stay away from the shambling reanimated corpse that Konami has turned Metal Gear into with Kojima's absence, and playing the Game Boy Color game just seems like a really bad idea for content. I certainly won't be playing this again on the various harder difficulties and demanding S-ranks that the other trophies demand. Music was good though.

The end. No moral.

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Saturday Summaries 2018-09-08: Roundtable Edition

The site's big change this past week has been updating their review format to a more casual roundtable discussion between the various staff members who have played the game in question, which for this inaugural test run was Insomniac's Marvel's Spider-Man. It could be that we might see another for next week's Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and possibly (though my hopes aren't high) one for Valkyria Chronicles 4 towards the end of the month. Then again, the rare occasion of various staff members playing the same game might be something reserved for those games that tend to dominate the month that they're in; something no-one on staff can avoid playing, even if there are other releases to divide their attention.

Easily the game I'm most hyped for this month, though perhaps not enough to listen to a hour-long discussion on it.
Easily the game I'm most hyped for this month, though perhaps not enough to listen to a hour-long discussion on it.

There are definitely pros and cons for this new format. Starting with the pros: I've already seen this format work well elsewhere, in particular the way @thatpinguino and @zombiepie have broken down the Final Fantasy series (and, in ZombiePIe's case, breaking down just in general after too many Vienna sausages) with their podcasts. I know Giant Bomb's been considering ways of incorporating "second opinions" into reviews for those cases where more than one person has been playing, and the roundtable format is an ideal place for those. Another pro is that you get a much more comprehensive explanation of the game's features and strengths, as we all tend to fixate on different aspects in our individual reviews; personally, I'm way bigger on innovative game mechanics and tend to give art direction or the quality of, say, the voice acting a relatively short shrift so I can focus on some small (and relatively minor, perhaps) quality-of-life implementations instead. That comes from my academic background, and the power of reviews is that you're often awoken to a frame of reference that you never considered; whether that reviewer is big on aesthetics because they have a side-gig as an artist or a graphic designer, or prefers critiquing a game's narrative structure due to their English Literature degree. Both are valid venues for game criticism these days with how far the medium has come, and I find I appreciate the shifts in perspective.

The most obvious con is that a more informal discussion isn't going to be anywhere near as concise and rehearsed as a well-edited written review, and likewise getting a strong impression of a game and its qualities in a five minute read would be preferable to an hour-long podcast for those pressed for time. It's a large part of why I still stick to writing reviews and features; I appreciate that if I started some five hour stream on a game, that would be more of an investment for a prospective audience than reading a handful of paragraphs with a similar amount of information. The game critiquing industry is rushing to replace every arena of the written word with video, and in many places it's a less efficient form of conveying the same information. A Quick Look covers the broad strokes of how the game looks and plays, while a review is meant to succinctly summarize the experience, as well as certain aspects like significant gameplay changes that emerge in the mid- and end-game that would be difficult to portray in a Quick Look unless you were jumping around save files.

Conversely, I think GOTY roundtables work well because everyone's free to argue for or against the merits of a game as a whole, as the no-spoiler rule is temporarily lifted. The site's GOTY discussions could use some streamlining after last year, perhaps with fewer categories or a less wishy-washy top ten process, but it's one of the site's best recurring annual features along with its E3 coverage because you get those deep dives on games that would otherwise be too fresh to discuss in lurid, spoileriffic detail.

Giant Bomb will continue to fine-tune this new review format, I've no doubt. They've always promoted themselves as personality-driven and video-focused - it's how they raised themselves above the throng of lesser sites that decade or so ago - and this format is conducive to that approach to creating content. I'll probably stick to crafting and reading written reviews for the time being though; my time is already stretched enough between playing games and producing my own content.

Speaking of which, I can promise you that it won't take an hour to consume all the blogs I've prepared this week:

  • The Indie Game of the Week this time was Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!, a genial real-time sim game of the "plate-spinner" variety. You spend your time juggling weapon creation, buying or finding new components, making sure your employees are happy and well-rested, taking requests from wandering heroes, and feeding the smithy's mascot pupper. Despite the usual frantic rushing around that these games tend to generate, it's a reasonably serene time with not a whole lot in the way of stressful deadlines or debilitating failure states. It's more about going about tasks at your own pace and optimizing your time to the best of your ability. In other words, the amount of rushing around is contingent on how much of it the player wants to do. A little insubstantial and repetitive, but an affably silly, low-key game.
  • We're taking a temporary break from Raiden's HF Blades to revisit the 16-bit era for SNES Classic Mk. II: Episode XVIII: Jelly Boyz 2 Mega Men. This week is another platformer heavy episode, covering Capcom's Mega Man 7 (the sole "classic" Mega Man for the system) and Probe Entertainment's Jelly Boy (a colorful shapeshifting adventure released only in Europe). I thought both were pretty good, with Mega Man 7 edging out Jelly Boy in terms of originality (despite being a sixth sequel), but I found the latter to be more engaging in pure gameplay terms. If you've not heard of Jelly Boy, or missed out on the seventh Mega Man and its big changes to the series, give that episode a read.

Addenda

TV: Other Space (Season 1)

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I was in the mood for another sci-fi show this week, as it is - along with superheroes and anime - easily the genre of TV that I've been neglecting the longest prior to this year, at least to the degree that I have several more of them left to watch. Plus, if this AV Club article is any indication, there'll be plenty more to add to whatever's left on the pile after the year is over. Other Space is an original creation for the ill-fated Yahoo! Screen service, in which the venerable web services provider tried their hand at some paid digital media distribution in the vein of a Hulu or Netflix. Though they only produced a handful of shows before dissolving in 2016, I'll be forever grateful to them for allowing Community to have its sixth season - a frequent in-joke of the perennially meta Abed was that the show would last "six seasons and a movie", though we're still waiting to see about that last part. Other Space is, similarly, another sitcom with an ensemble cast and a premise that endears itself to frequent "bottle" episodes: ideal for an internet show with perhaps not the biggest budget to go around but a surfeit of comedic talent in front of and behind the cameras.

Right off the bat, I wanted to commend Other Space's masterstroke of bringing on board Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu, both made famous by the original seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000. They play similar enough characters here: Joel is Zalien, a veteran space engineer who's spent enough time around radioactive ship engines to be a tad non compos mentis, while Trace has a familiar role as his sarcastic and workshy robot sidekick Art (though actually housing the thought patterns of an Elon Musk-style futurist billionaire). The rest of the cast includes the meekly ineffectual but resourceful Captain Stewart Lipinski (Karan Soni, perhaps better known these days as Deadpool's frequently put-upon taxi driver companion Dopinder), his standoffish sister and second-in-command Karen, the frequently-ignored third-in-command Michael, the almost completely useless navigator Tina who Stewart only recruited because of a long-standing (and pathetic) crush, the unnerving science officer Kent, and the bubbly computer AI Natasha who was once little more than a glorified digital hostess for some sort of shady casino enterprise. The ship is meant to be exploring distant galaxies, but accidentally ends up trapped in another universe after falling through a cosmic ripple.

I'd heard ahead of time that the show is the more platonic ideal of an American Red Dwarf, certainly more so than the disastrous direct conversion attempt in the 90s, in that it mines most of the comedy from a sort of cabin fever simmering resentment between a group of incompetent survivors stranded in the depths of space with regular food, water, power, and air shortage concerns. Despite only being eight episodes long, it manages to flesh out its cast and their backstories, introduce a few clever and amusing episode ideas around classic sci-fi tropes (not too dissimilar from Red Dwarf or Futurama), find the perfect amount of screentime - not too much or too little, given they're ringers to be used sparingly - for Joel and Trace who frequently take up Greek chorus type roles, and gets close enough to emotional sincerity to care about the characters even if it then frequently undermines the more emotionally dense moments with their quiet disdain for one another. What's more, it presents a more realistic take on the utopian Star Trek future where technology has solved most of our concerns and we have, as a species, become more engaged with space travel: people tend to get bored easily, and so are often taken in by new fads, gimmicks, and gossip. The discovery that the ship was once used to stage an elaborate reality TV show - something that apparently had been outlawed in the years since for its deleterious effect on civilization - nonetheless manages to enrapture Zalien and Art for an episode as they quietly manipulate their crewmates into being more "reality TV interesting" via the show producer's shipwide controls.

If I had to commend Other Space on one aspect, and which happens to be the one virtue it shares most keenly with Red Dwarf and a number of sci-fi shows with close-knit groups like Cowboy Bebop, is how well it feels like a hang-out show. Nothing too flashy or a serial plot that moves a mile a minute; just checking with an established and likeable - or, if not likeable, entertaining to watch - cast of characters as they respond to new developments and interact with one another with a dwindling supply of patience and professionalism. I hope its creator, the frequently busy Paul Feig of Freaks and Geeks fame (and more recently a bunch of Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy comedies), figures out how to get another season developed without Yahoo's help.

Movie: The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

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I'm still catching on my Andersons. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of his most kid-friendly movies to date: a stop-motion animated feature adapted from a Roald Dahl book about a sneaky fox who can't shake his past as a professional bird thief even after becoming a father. The film is actually the first of two stop-motion animated features by Anderson: the second being Isle of Dogs, released earlier this year (and, if I'm being honest, the main inspiration for choosing to watch this).

Naturally, since it's a Wes Anderson production, there's a lot more going on than the central story of a fox that regularly outsmarts, and is outsmarted in turn, by a trio of unpleasant farmers who run enormous poultry and cider businesses. All three businesses are within view of Fox's new house: a hollowed out old oak tree into which he moves his family, a wife Felicity and a son Ash, after deciding he was done living in a hole. A lot of the film's more quiet dramatic moments come from Fox coming to terms with his nature as a wily beast who can't help but come up with elaborate heists to steal fowl, keeping such details from his family. Similarly, his oddball son is a moody underachiever at school who is struggling to find his place in the world, especially as he lacks the talents that made his father so "fantastic". His resentment of his more prodigal (but quietly unassuming) visiting cousin Kristofferson isn't helping matters. There's also the neighborhood of other animals, including a badger lawyer voiced by Bill Murray and an otter coach voiced by Owen Wilson (because you knew those two had to pop up in a Wes Anderson movie somewhere; likewise, frequent Anderson villain Willem Dafoe shows up as a heavily accented rat with a switchblade).

I'm a big fan of the off-beat nature of the movie, especially its herky-jerky animations and how it'll momentarily forget that it's an animated feature for one quiet dialogue scene and then segue into a very active sequence where the characters tumble around or start digging ferociously. It's emotionally earnest too, perhaps to a fault, as characters outline their internal troubles and self-recriminate with an errant tear in their eye. It is refreshing for a children's movie (or rather, one suitable for children; there's a complexity to the movie's plot that might make it hard for a younger kid to follow, but the film deliberately goes out of its way to not cuss, for example) for everyone to be open with their feelings and admit blame when necessary, but it doesn't really feel true to Dahl's novels at all, which were frequently cynical and repulsive and very black and white in matters of morality (which were secretly a big part of the reason why they appealed so much to their young audiences). There is also the small matter of the movie's setting: it feels equal parts British (it's visually very reminiscent of Roald Dahl's rural home county of Buckinghamshire), Australian (especially the boingy music, another Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack), and American (why would Mr. Fox have an opossum sidekick?).

All the same, I thought the film was excellent and I'm happy to have seen two of the director's most well-regarded movies for the first time this year, the other being Moonrise Kingdom back in June. I believe that just leaves Isle of Dogs for some future movie night, perhaps when enough time has passed for it to show up on streaming services. I'll probably go back to something louder and more violent next week though, such is my usual wont.

Game: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

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I once again squeezed in a relatively small amount of time with Deadfire this week, though fortunately a lot more than the previous week. Enough to feel like I can write a more substantive update on how I've been getting on. A couple of topics this time:

The first is the game's excellent application of what I call the Yojimbo effect. Inspired by the Kurosawa movie of the same name, which was in turn drawn from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest and would go on to inspire A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing, the general Yojimbo story format involves a wandering nameless mercenary who gets involved with a feud between two or more factions. The smart mercenary decides to play both (or all) sides against the middle, earning several times the paycheck while having the bitter rivals take each other out in order to avoid committing to one side or the other, or being discovered by either as a double agent. Needless to say, there's something compelling about occupying a role like that; one that not only draws on the anonymous protagonist's apparently prodigal martial talent, at least to the extent that they have all the factions eager to recruit them for the edge they need over their adversaries, but also their resourcefulness and an appreciation of the fact that both factions are likely equally bad, or at least equally to blame for their animosity.

The Yojimbo effect is a frequently ripe vein for Black Isle and Obsidian RPGs, particularly in the hardscrabble and morally grey Fallout series. I always try to push working for multiple factions as far as it can go, until co-existence either becomes impossible or the player is forced to make a choice for some end-game scenario. It's how I navigated the mean streets and multiple crime families of New Reno in Fallout 2, it's why I kept both the Umpani and T'Rang alien races of Wizardry 8 in my corner to earn twice the income to spend on equipment upgrades, and it's been true of Deadfire so far as well, which in fact has at least four factions in an antagonistic quadrangle - the traditional local kingdom of the sea aumaua (shark-like people), their technologically advanced and imperialistic cousins the coastal aumana of the Royal Deadfire Company, the equally imperialistic but in a more subtle mercantile way Vaillain Trading Company, and the free-spirited but not particularly friendly Príncipi sen Patrena ("Princes without a Homeland", or to use a more accurate shorthand: pirates and privateers). I imagine at certain late points of the story questline I'll have to commit to one side over another, or rely on one particular faction to help me in the final quest; my hope, however, is that I can continue to work for and string along all four for as long as I can. Buying, staffing, and supplying increasingly larger ships is a pricey venture, after all, and I can only make so much from looting deserted islands and shipwrecks.

The other topic for today, and one that perhaps warrants an entire update to itself, is how the game handles its Infinity Engine-inspired tactical real-time combat. I previously spoke about Deadfire's new concessions to Pillars of Eternity's engine, in particular the way more fair "injury" format that replaced the unintuitive "double health bar" of the first game, but I neglected to get deeper into the sophisticated AI system the game uses. As modern RPGs continue to build on ideas introduced in the MMO space - for as loath as I am to acknowledge them as a single-player RPG diehard, World of Warcraft and its ilk are incredibly popular and have shifted the paradigm of modern RPGs in more ways than I can count - so too do those of a more throwback nature implement those concepts, at least as far as it makes sense to do so. Deadfire's no exception in that it employs more abilities that work on cooldowns rather than drawing from a finite stat resource that requires constant refilling like mana; most classes have an innate stat that accumulates in battle, either from dishing out damage or taking it, which can then be spent on abilities that can greatly affect the battle in their favor. Because these class abilities have effectively infinite use, the default AI program will incorporate them into their algorithms along with regular attacks. What the AI won't incorporate are the stronger abilities that only have so many uses per encounter, or per rest, which it will instead leave to the player's discretion. Thus, while your party can usually automatically handle any group of monsters with no significant threats - those labelled with a skull icon to indicate how much stronger than the party they happen to be - the player's input is requested for stronger foes that might need some tactical planning or the use of consumable abilities and items. It's an eloquent system, minimizing the player's involvement in battles that won't really challenge them, saving them from expending resources they'll need to eventually replenish in the process. If something mighty comes along, however, it becomes a fight worth micromanaging.

I don't think I ever showed off my character. She's a pure Cipher with a skillset geared towards being mechanically-adept and shrewd with people. In combat, she's an able enough pair of hands that prefers to let the tanks take point so she can whack enemies with debuffs. Outside of combat, she opens all the locked doors and chests and lets the more stealth-inclined ranger Maia (front runner for favorite PC so far) handle the burglaries.
I don't think I ever showed off my character. She's a pure Cipher with a skillset geared towards being mechanically-adept and shrewd with people. In combat, she's an able enough pair of hands that prefers to let the tanks take point so she can whack enemies with debuffs. Outside of combat, she opens all the locked doors and chests and lets the more stealth-inclined ranger Maia (front runner for favorite PC so far) handle the burglaries.

I actually find the game's pace to be dizzying at times, as your party of five and any number of enemy combatants throw themselves into a melee that is challenging enough to untangle when the game is paused, let alone when everyone is jostling for position and throwing around any number of abilities. At the same time, I've come to appreciate RPGs that have a more situational awareness aspect to the strategy gameplay; where you don't need to direct every single member, but rather the group as a whole. In the past I've commended RPGs that do this, like Mistwalker's The Last Story or Square Enix's Final Fantasy XV, because it feels more like you're the commander of a group of professionals that don't need to be told how to play their individual roles but might need directions on how best to work as a team. There's a sense of verisimilitude to that, as well as a reduction of the amount of administration the player is expected to contribute, though this may well be one of those "mileage may vary" scenarios. All the same, the option to micromanage every battle in Deadfire is available - you could switch the AI to only use standard attacks and handle those cooldown-based abilities yourself, or switch the AI off entirely - but for now I'm happy to let my team decide how they want to fight and step in whenever a greater threat deems it necessary.

That will do it for today's Saturday Summaries update. As always, let me know what you think about any of the above subjects, games or otherwise, in the comments below. If all goes as planned, next week will see the conclusion of the Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance playthrough and my real-time-ish reactions to fighting that rascally senator and his ponytailed henchman, as well as an Indie Game of the Week that I recently purchased on a whim for reasons that will probably become clear enough. See you then.

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Indie Game of the Week 86: Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!

No Caption Provided

I've been curious about these Holy Potatoes! games for a while now, since new ones seem to keep popping up on Steam whenever my head is turned. The developers, Daylight Studios, are working on the fourth one now, so I figure these games must be doing something right. It turns out Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! is one of those real-time "plate-spinner" sims: the type of game that is half clicker, half real-time strategy, and usually prospers best on mobile devices, a la any number of games about serving food at restaurants or landing planes. I don't usually care for these games because they foment a lot of anxiety, which makes it all the stranger that I'm actually enjoying this one quite a bit.

The broad strokes are that the player-named character inherits a weaponsmithing company from his deceased grandfather and, thanks to the gentle cajoling of a shady "Agent 46" (the first of many references the game drops), learns how to hire employees and sell their deadly creations to wandering heroes. Specifically, you'll want to be making weapons that appeal most to the hero you have in mind: if they're a rogue type who prefers daggers with an emphasis on speed enhancements, for example, you can select one of your dagger blueprints and order your staff to the workstations that focus on the speed stat. The better-made and more germane the weapon, the more you earn, and that money goes directly towards paying your team's salaries and buying new upgrades for the smithy.

Even when it feels like you're exceeding expectations, there's often subtle hints to suggest that you could be doing better.
Even when it feels like you're exceeding expectations, there's often subtle hints to suggest that you could be doing better.

It's also one of those games with a long on-boarding period, though it's to its benefit. The way to craft a plate-spinner correctly is to ensure there's only so much the player has to worry about early on. Since everything's real-time (though you can pause time if you need to think), and there's a lot your smiths could be doing between weapon manufacturing, there's no small amount of stress involved if you're given too many options from the get go. However, the game also gets considerably more engaging the more options that become available. Sending smiths off to explore ruins for new components, having them train, send them to a weird dimension to research new weapon blueprints, switching their job classes which temporarily reduces their effectiveness as they start back at level 1 but often makes them more adept when working with multiple types of stat boost (there's four - strength, accuracy, speed, and magic); there's plenty to do when they aren't currently hammering away at the anvils. In addition to hunting out heroes to sell to, there are contracts, requests, "legendary" guests with their own special projects, legendary smiths that you can recruit, and so on. The actual crafting of weapons isn't all that compelling - once you have everyone in the right place and set them to the task, they slowly go at it automatically - but the frantic amount of running around and picking which of your dozen pressing concerns should be tackled next keeps this loop fresh.

To give you an example of the game's cycle in motion: You have a five spud crew, one of whom has stepped out to research a new weapon. Suddenly, you have a new request that needs completing in two days - a relatively short amount of time. You set your team to work immediately, moving two of them to the "primary" stat of the weapon that was requested and the other two to the "secondary" stat. You hit the boost button - you can do this once per weapon - to give yourself a massive boost to the primary. Your researcher shows up midway through construction, so you send them to bolster the primary in a 3:2 ratio. Once the weapon's done, you can enchant it for another big boost to its primary stat. The weapon you made meets the client's requirements, and you earn a substantial amount of fame - required for progress, as well as adding towards unlocking future legendary guests and smiths - and $tarch, the game's multi-purpose currency. After which, the status of one of your spuds dips to "stressed", so you send them on a nice vacation to recharge their batteries. Since you're a person down anyway, instead of making new weapons you send the rest of your team - bar one, since there always needs to be someone in the smithy - off to explore a recently unlocked node on the world map. Chances are they'll come back with more crafting components, more enchantment items, and more relics from which new blueprints can be researched.

For being a legendary blacksmith in the making, you don't actually do much. All the work is performed by your employees.
For being a legendary blacksmith in the making, you don't actually do much. All the work is performed by your employees.

In spite of all this talk about stress and frantic on-the-fly maneuvering, the game's debt deadlines don't loom menacingly on the horizon like they did in Recettear, and the difficulty curve is nice and gentle. As I said at the offset, I feel like this game was intended for a more casual mobile device audience, and honestly I'm not bugging: I don't do well with real-time strategy games of this sort usually, so the more accommodating pace is welcome. Throw in the game's lighthearted tone, reference humor, and endless barrage of potato puns - none of which are quite as awful as they sound, though hey it's me talking - and I can understand why it's become a popular series.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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The SNES Classic Mk. II: Episode XVIII: Jelly Boyz 2 Mega Men

The SNES Classic had a sterling assortment of games from Nintendo's 16-bit star console, but it's hardly all that system has to offer a modern audience. In each installment of this fortnightly feature, I judge two games for their suitability for a Classic successor based on four criteria, with the ultimate goal of assembling another collection of 25 SNES games that not only shine as brightly as those in the first SNES Classic, but have equally stood the test of time. The rules, list of games considered so far, and links to previous episodes can all be found at The SNES Classic Mk II Intro and Contents.

Episode XVIII: Jelly Boyz 2 Mega Men

The Candidate: Capcom's Mega Man 7

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I brought up Mega Man 7 when covering Kirby's Dream Land 3 last episode, because both games occupy this unusual role of the developer moving backwards for the sake of a relatively inchoate nostalgia. Just in general, Mega Man's outings on the SNES in general were a bit more unorthodox than the six highly conventional platformers that the NES saw. In 1993, several years into the SNES's reign, Mega Man saw its sixth NES game and fourth Game Boy spin-off, both essentially following the same course as their antecedents, and Capcom knew that they had to do something different for the Blue Bomber's 16-bit debut. That's why in the December of that same year, Capcom released Mega Man X: the all-new adventures of an advanced Mega Man model set even further into the future beyond Dr. Light's robotic utopia of 20XX (and a game that appeared on the actual SNES Classic console, making it ineligible for this feature.)

Even so, Capcom weren't done with their original Mega Man canon. 1994 saw The Wily Wars, a Mega Drive compilation of the first three NES games with a special final challenge, and the SNES was graced with the bizarre Mega Man Soccer featuring many of the original robot masters. The following year ushered in the seventh game in the "Classic" Mega Man series. In a sense, Mega Man 7 had an impossible job trying to compete with its fancy new brother MMX (and MMX2, which was released the previous holiday season) and the fond memories people had of the original NES games - especially 2 and 3. That's not to mention the state-of-the-art offerings available on the new Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn, which at this point were making every new SNES game feel slightly inadequate.

I'm a little ambivalent about Mega Man 7. Each of its clouds has a silver lining, and likewise each of its roses has its thorn. Take the big sprites for instance: the characters of Mega Man, Roll, Dr. Light, Dr. Wily, Rush, Bass, Treble and all the robot masters and regular enemies all have these larger sprites that allow for more animation nuance, including reactions and expressive faces, but the downside is that the increased sprite-to-screen-size ratio makes every level feel cramped, and every boss that much harder to defeat with less room to maneuver around in to avoid attacks. The game employs a new feature introduced in Mega Man X where you can backtrack to earlier levels with abilities you've since acquired and use them to find and collect new permanent upgrades. You can also earn a type of currency dropped by enemies (along with the usual life and weapon refill pods) to purchase energy tanks and extra lives from the goofy mechanical shopkeep Auto. But the downside to this feature is that the upgrades - especially the Super Adapt armor that allows Mega to combine with Rush for a small double jump - can make certain sections way easier. If you're not abusing energy tanks by farming cash and restocking to the maximum of four for every stage, the game has this moderate difficulty curve that suddenly ramps off into infinity for the punishing final Wily fight - the most challenging in the entire franchise. The game has conveniences, like an item that lets you leave a level if you've defeated its robot master and came back for collectibles, but it neglects to address the occasional "one and done" issue of bosses that have a specific weakness and would be too difficult to defeat without exploiting it - after one run, you've probably used most of that weapon up, rendering subsequent runs unlikely to succeed (there are consumable full weapon refills that work like energy tanks, but they're also more expensive).

Oh man, this jerk. You better believe I'm saving
Oh man, this jerk. You better believe I'm saving "The Best Of" my arsenal for him.

Mega Man 7 is often a case of "almost, but not quite"; understandable shortcomings borne from attempting to adapt a series from one console to the next, integrating the advances of its sister series X but only to an extent that makes sense for the evolution of the classic series - the last thing the intended audience wanted for this throwback (even if Mega Man 6 had only come out a mere two years earlier) was for it to become another Mega Man X, regardless of whether or not they were fans of the latter. On the other hand, that final Wily boss was inexcusable, and it shows up after the requisite boss rush of all the previous robot masters so there was no way I was willing to work my way through all of them for a third or fourth time.

Uhoh, it appears my animosity has drawn the attention of the almighty P.O.G.S., which feeds on the potent negative energy that only be generated by critically reviewing decades-old games on the internet:

  • Preservation: This one's a tough call. Theoretically, if the Mega Man games hadn't aged well, they wouldn't all have new rereleases via the Mega Man Legacy Collections. Even so, Mega Man 7 had to wait until Legacy Collection 2, which might as well have had "...And The Rest!" as its subtitle: dumped there alongside the infamous Mega "Dr. Wahwee" Man 8 and the ludicrously-tough-for-no-real-reason modern reboots Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10. I don't think MM7 is a game that's remembered particularly fondly by series fans: straddling the line between the NES classics and the newer Mega Man X series, not really belonging to either. Then there's the myriad issues outlined above. Any given Mega Man game meets a high standard for accessibility and competence, but a few of 7's unique foibles haven't aged too well. 4.
  • Originality: Well, here's the thing. Mega Man 7 does exhibit some innovation compared to 2-6, but most of it was cribbed from Mega Man X and X2, including backtracking for secrets. The Super Adapt armor and the in-game store were neat ideas, but they also played havoc with the game balance, making previously tough sequences trivial (though a similar statement could be made for the recurring Rush Coil and Rush Jet power-ups, as limited as they are). The new robot masters - Burst, Cloud, Junk, Freeze, Slash, Spring, Shade and Turbo - have cool designs, but mostly feel like leftover ideas or clones (Junk Man's fight is close to Dust or Guts, Cloud Man works like Air or Spark, etc.). Bass is just an edgier Protoman without the whistle or Speed Racer reference (Proto's here too, but he's well hidden). The only really novel robot master was the vampire-like Shade Man, whose spooky level had nods to Capcom's Ghouls N' Ghosts and the Transylvania level of DuckTales. 3.
  • Gameplay: I really don't know where to go with this score. That final boss left a foul taste in my mouth. I did enjoy the game for the most part, and the new boons helped mitigate a lot of the frustration that generally follows with the mildly misanthropic Mega Man series, and I'm a sucker for spacewhipper-style backtracking and hidden upgrades. Even so, that cramped feeling you get from the giant sprites really makes a difference in the boss fights, and the game too frequently pulls the worst ideas from its past games - the disappearing/reappearing blocks, the platforms moving along a tread that toss you off where the rail changes, that one part of Quick Man's stage where beams come in from the sides as you descend the stage as quickly as possible - that made the game feel too much like a "greatest hits" (or the opposite, I suppose). Uninspired AND cruel is not a great combo. 3.
  • Style: I'll give it to those sprites though, they look pretty amazing. The shockingly buff Dr. Wily and his goons make some amusing faces when hit, and the character designs and animations are top-notch. The music's good too - there's a brief interlude where you chase Wily into a "robot museum" filled with previous robot masters, and there's a brief medley of some of the older music - and having Dr. Wily be the villain from the offset, instead of some proxy that we're supposed to believe has nothing to do with Wily, is oddly refreshing. 4.

Total: 14.

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The Nominee: Probe Entertainment's Jelly Boy

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Jelly Boy's yet another one of those locally-grown, mostly-forgotten SNES games I tend to champion more often than it perhaps deserves, but it has a certain guiding philosophy to it that strikes me as very "Indie". Part of that is the way it cribs from multiple contemporary platformers at once: it uses an equivalent of Sonic the Hedgehog's ring system, where taking damage forces the protagonist to drop all their collectibles but remain alive; it has a branching overworld map reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3 where some levels are more optional than others; and it borrows from David Crane's A Boy and His Blob for the hero's shapeshifting (and progress-enabling) powers. However, it has an extra leg up over the standard imitator also-rans on the platform by just how comprehensively it draws from multiple influences, not unlike Yacht Club Games's Shovel Knight. A game that rises above the sum of its carefully curated parts. Less a Frankenstein's monster, more a Serpentor.

There's also just a lot about the game and its sensibilities that I find appealing. I'll run down the list real quick: there's a certain affable silliness to its sense of humor, like the way a duck button transforms Jelly Boy into an actual duck (which can quack, if you hit the attack button); the way the true ending is kept from reach unless you find a special hidden jigsaw piece on each stage, challenging the player's resourcefulness via a means similar to the hidden exits of Super Mario World; the game's bright and colorful aesthetic, with six distinct settings for its worlds; the frequent diversions linked to the morphing power-up system, like skiing down hills or floating through the air as a balloon; and the inclusion of Harry the Dog, a recurring useless puppy character that nonetheless always tries his best.

Quack.
Quack.

Truthfully, there's not much I could point towards that would justify why Jelly Boy deserves to be enshrined with the system's greatest and most memorable games. Platformers weren't exactly in short supply for the system, and many required an angle or an edge beyond a solid bedrock of competency to stand out. Super Metroid's exploration, for instance, or Mega Man's upgrades or Donkey Kong Country's then-impressive visuals and still-impressive music. Jelly Boy gets everything right, barring some slight floatiness to the jumping, but it doesn't have that spark of something special to call its own. It was even beaten to its transforming hero gimmick by Visual Concepts's Claymates and HAL's Kirby. It's probably why it faded without a trace, though it never leaving Europe didn't help its success either.

Bright, colorful, and mostly malleable also describes P.O.G.S., so let's hear what they have to say:

  • Preservation: It looks great and plays well, with a difficulty curve that hovers in the Goldilocks zone due to its generous health system and off-kilter challenges. Its sense of humor and genial fun goes a long way in establishing a personality for itself, and the aforementioned method by which it draws from multiple influences instead of just one or two gives it an appeal that is, if not innovative, at least comfortably familiar. It may be a little too no-frills for a modern 2D platformer crowd though, as it lacks modern gameplay accoutrements like RPG elements or procgen or spacewhipper exploration. 4.
  • Originality: Hard to argue for its originality when I've made clear its various influences several times, but between Jelly Boy's many shapeshifting forms and the gameplay deviations they engender, it's more than a simple "run to the end" platformer (or, as was often the case for the SNES, "scour each entire level for x number of these things"). 3.
  • Gameplay: Controls well, filled with ideas and unconventional sequences, not too long or repetitive, and a reasonable difficulty level throughout. Even if it doesn't have that X factor, it's a solidly competent platformer that I can't fault too much. 4.
  • Style: Goofy affectations like how Jelly Boy wears a cap and shades for several seconds after collecting an extra life in a sort of "deal with it" power move, or how you're always informed that your cute friend "Helpy Block" is INDESTRUCTIBLE in big letters whenever he shows up to give him an edge of badassery that a yellow smiling block perhaps wouldn't normally warrant, or the way Jelly Boy's main attack is forming a giant fist from his central mass like something out of John Carpenter's The Thing; the game has so many of these stylistic touches which don't serve any gameplay function, and therefore only seem to exist to give Jelly Boy this intrinsic Looney Tunes quality of mild irreverence and an unpredictable nature. The graphics and music are dandy too, if nothing particularly special. 4.

Total: 15.

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Saturday Summaries 2018-09-01: "Shame Old, Shame Old" Edition

I've been browsing through some of my old "Lists of Shame" - an annual reminder to stop buying new games and play the untouched ones I already have - for a sense of what I've abandoned from the previous console generation and how slow it's been to come around on some others that, despite my best intentions, remained or still remain sitting unloved on a shelf for years. Now that we've entered September, it's unlikely I'll get to all the 2017 games I had my eye on at the start of the year, and September itself looks to add several more - Valkyria Chronicles 4, The Bard's Tale IV, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, Dragon Quest XI, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Labyrinth of Refrain, Metal Max Xeno, Valthirian Arc - to an already congested wishlist.

Rather than stress too much about the FOMO - I wait months on every game purchase anyway, so it's not like I'm ever hitting the zeitgeist - I've been reviewing past lapses in these shame lists with a philosophical mindset instead. While it may not be the case that I'll get around to any of these games in a timely fashion, I might still get around to them all eventually? With that in mind, I'm going to have another one of my little data exercises to see just how often I've managed to "tortoise" (in the "hare and the tortoise", "slow and steady wins the race" sense) my previous shame targets.

(A key for the following table: a bold entry means I completed the game in the same year I made the list, i.e. a successful result. An italicized entry means I completed it after the year in question, followed by the actual completion year in parentheses. Let's see if some trends emerge, or if there's any forgotten games that I should think about getting back to.)

2014 List2015 List2016 List2017 List2018 List
AntichamberAssassin's Creed IV: Black FlagAmnesia: A Machine for PigsAbzûFinal Fantasy XV
BioShock InfiniteThe Banner SagaAmong The SleepBoundThe Last Guardian
Brothers: A Tale of Two SonsBotaniculaAssassin's Creed SyndicateCaptain Toad: Treasure TrackerThe Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Deadly PremonitionBroken AgeAxiom VergeDanganronpa 1•2 ReloadPersona 5
Dear EstherBurnout ParadiseBatman: Arkham KnightDeus Ex: Mankind DividedRise of the Tomb Raider
Edna & Harvey: Harvey's New EyesDreamfall: The Longest JourneyThe Book of Unwritten Tales: The Critter ChroniclesDishonored 2Snake Pass
Guacamelee!Far Cry 4BloodborneFirewatchSteamWorld Dig 2
GunpointI Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamCitizens of EarthHyper Light DrifterSuper Mario Odyssey
Ittle DewLightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIIIDivinity: Original SinJust Cause 3Yakuza 5
Last Window: The Secret of Cape WestMetal Gear Solid 3: Snake EaterDonkey Kong Country: Tropical FreezeOri and the Blind ForestYs VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana
Legend of GrimrockMetal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the PatriotsDreamfall ChaptersOwlboyZero Time Dilemma
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the SkyMight & Magic X LegacyEvoland 2Picross 3D: Round 2Cuphead
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between WorldsRatchet & Clank: Into the NexusFallout 4Professor Layton and the Last SpecterA Hat in Time
McPixelStick It to the Man!Final Fantasy Type-0Salt and SanctuaryHollow Knight
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White WitchThe RoominFamous: Second SonTales from the BorderlandsDivinity: Original Sin II
Persona 4 ArenaThe SwapperMetal Gear Solid V: The Phantom PainTales of ZestiriaDanganronpa V3: Killing Harmony
PrimordiaTheatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain CallMiddle-earth: Shadow of MordorTrine 2Ever Oasis
Remember MeWeapon Shop de OmasseThe Next Big ThingUncharted 4: A Thief's EndGolf Story
Rogue LegacyYakuza 3SOMAXenoblade Chronicles XHellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Sly Cooper: Thieves in TimeAmnesia: A Machine for Pigs (2016)Tales of XilliaYakuza 4Hyrule Warriors
Super Mario 3D WorldHammerwatch (2016)The Talos PrincipleYesterdayThe Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
Tales of the AbyssThe Next Big Thing (2016)Tearaway UnfoldedFinal Fantasy XV (2018)Life Is Strange: Before the Storm
Thomas Was AloneTales of Xillia (2016)TeslagradThe Last Guardian (2018)Kentucky Route Zero
Toki Tori 2Yakuza 4 (2017)TransistorYakuza 5 (2018)Mario & Luigi: Dream Team
Warlock: Master of the ArcaneAnother Code: RThe Witcher 3: Wild HuntYoshi's Woolly World (2018)Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
Wizardry 8Atelier Rorona: Alchemist of ArlandYs: The Oath in FelghanaZero Time Dilemma (2018)Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance#
Botanicula (2015)ChulipJust Cause 3 (2017)Bravely DefaultMetroid: Samus Returns
Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (2015)Drakensang: The Dark EyeOri and the Blind Forest (2017)Event[0]Mirror's Edge Catalyst
Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus (2015)Golden Sun: Dark DawnRebel Galaxy (2017)I Am SetsunaNight in the Woods
The Swapper (2015)The Legend of DragoonXenoblade Chronicles X (2017)The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SCNioh
Yakuza 3 (2015)Neverwinter Nights 2Yakuza 4 (2017)The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold SteelPhoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies
Tales of Xillia (2016)No More Heroes 2: Desperate StruggleSuper Smash Bros. for Wii U (2018)Mario & Luigi: Dream TeamSouth Park: The Fractured But Whole
Driftmoon (2017)Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling TogetherYoshi's Woolly World (2018)Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance#Steins;Gate
Another Code: R Tales of Graces FApotheonMirror's Edge CatalystTacoma
Back to the Future: The GameThreads of FateBravely DefaultNo More Heroes 2: Desperate StruggleTales of Berseria
Disney Epic Mickey 2Wild ArmsCradlePhoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual DestiniesTales of Graces F
Dragon Quest IXFantasy Life*Kentucky Route ZeroPhoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of JusticeThimbleweed Park
FlingSmashForbidden Siren 2*Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual DestiniesStarbound#Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE
Fortune SummonersJagged Alliance 2*The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold SteelSteins;GateTyranny
Gemini RueKirby's Epic Yarn*The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SCSuperhotVaporum
Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer The Magic CircleTactics Ogre: Let Us Cling TogetherWasteland 2
No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle No More Heroes 2: Desperate StruggleTales of Graces FWatch Dogs
Rage Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling TogetherTokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FEWest of Loathing
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together Tales of Graces FTyrannyWhat Remains of Edith Finch
Disciples II: Dark Prophecy* Threads of FateVandal Hearts: Flames of JudgmentWolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Eador: Masters of the Broken World* Wasteland 2Wasteland 2Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap
Fallen Enchantress* Watch DogsWatch DogsWorld of Final Fantasy
Kirby's Epic Yarn* Jagged Alliance 2*Watch Dogs 2XCOM 2
Mark of the Ninja* Kirby's Epic Yarn*World of Final FantasyXenoblade Chronicles 2
Zeno Clash II* S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky*XCOM 2Yakuza 0

Additional notes:

* = Games that I played a little bit and either quit, or was unable to play e.g. due to PC deficiencies or disk damage.

# = Playing this right now!

So, some patterns are evident here. There's a certain amount of abandoning older consoles - notably the Wii and PS3 - as I acquire their successors and focus on them instead. This isn't really tech snobbery than it is having a limited amount of space next to the TV, but I still find the occasional drive to go back to older systems. Wii games, for instance, run fine on a Wii U and just recently for PS3 I've played Metal Gear Rising (more on that in a moment) and Yakuza 5. Others, like the PS1 games or older CRPGs, are really there as fillers - though I still hope to find the time for them regardless. They wouldn't be on these lists if I didn't have some small interest in playing them.

I've also been completing fewer and fewer shame list games as we move forward, which is concerning. It could be that 2017 was a particularly busy year for new releases and 2018 isn't over yet, but it does seem to be trending downwards. I'm going to blame that on the Indie Game of the Week feature, which takes a considerable portion of my week and regularly has me looking into smaller games I've neglected to even consider for the shame list. I also started listing games that I didn't yet own but wanted to check out, so there's a number of those that I never got around to buying. It all paints a rich tapestry of apathy and indolence, which have been the guiding principles of my life of late.

I do feel bad for some of these frequently recurring items, like No More Heroes 2, Another Code: R, Tales of Graces F and Tactics Ogre. Maybe next year I'll put together a "Champions of Shame" feature and start moving through those.

Now onto something I'm less shameful about. It's this week's duo of blogs! Here you go:

  • The 85th Indie Game of the Week (and my 42nd Platinum trophy) was World to the West, a flawed but intriguing entry in the "Indies do Zelda" sub-genre also populated by the likes of Oceanhorn and Ittle Dew. Created by the Teslagrad devs, Rain Games, WttW has players control four separate characters - each with their own distinct traversal skills - as they explore the titular landmass and solve puzzles in the tried-and-tested Zelda formula. The game has this vignette format, where you spend time with single characters or teams of two as they acquire new skills and move along their subplots, before eventually letting you loose on the world with all four characters with all their requisite abilities. I found it fun, but I wish it had less repetition and way fewer bugs.
  • We're starting a new mini-series in the alternative Tuesday slot with Mento Gear Rising: Revenge Jests, an observations/reactions blog series I began with the first Metal Gear Solid and every MGS game since. Metal Gear Rising's a vaguely non-canonical spin-off, but it's probably the best regarded of the various Metal Gear off-shoots and is full of its own Kojima-inspired ridiculousness. I've also been wanting to catch up with Drew and Dan's "Metal Gear Scanlon Rising" videos, so I carved out a spot between RPGs for a quick playthrough and figured I'd journalize my real-time reactions to its story and gameplay. Part 1 covers the prologue and the first three stages, and Part 2 (due mid-September) will cover the final four.

Addenda

Movie: Cobra (1986)

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For someone who likes action movies from the 1980s to a worrying degree, it's a little bizarre that I'd never seen the misadventures of "cure for crime disease" Lieutenant Marion "Cobra" Cobretti until now. This pick was entirely motivated by this week's new We Hate Movies podcast episode on the film: it's extremely rare that they cover something I've both never seen and actually want to see, though all the same it's inspired more than a couple of movie nights in the past.

Cobra is an incredible movie, and not necessarily in the most positive sense. A lot of what it does and the decisions its director George P. Cosmatos (who'd already filmed Rambo: First Blood II and would go on to make Tombstone, two better movies) and star/screenwriter Sly Stallone make confound me, which makes them all the more jarring when juxtaposed against the more rote aspects of the movie. For instance, a final fight in a steel mill where the bad guy gets impaled on a hook that is floating around the scene for up to ten minutes beforehand is the type of foreshadowing that can be seen from space, but Cobra's temporary fascination with a baseball kid bobblehead at some roadside kitsch stall - followed by his statement of "a real hot item!" - makes no sense on any level. Neither does cutting a pizza with scissors (after which Cobra spends the rest of the film chiding his partner for eating "junk food" while he only eats fruit), having a montage that combines Cobra's police work with a photoshoot of Brigitte Nielsen's model character that is filled with creepy 50s robots, or that Cobra drives an antique Ford Mercury with nitrous boosters and a license plate that reads "AWSOM 50".

It makes some sense, but not nearly enough, that Stallone came up with the idea to adapt the novel Fair Game (which later saw another adaptation starring Cindy Crawford) after his revised script for Beverly Hills Cop was scrapped and he left that project to be replaced with Eddie Murphy. In his script, there was way less comedy and the movie was played almost completely straight as a pure action flick. I can scarcely imagine. Maybe instead of a banana up the car's tailpipe, he'd kill someone with it and drily quip "I had to Dole out some punishment" to an aghast Judge Reinhold. All of Cobra's levity (and in fact all its dialogue full-stop) is weirdly flat and awkward and Sly has zero chemistry with anyone in the movie, including the woman he was married to at the time. The action's competent enough, with some suspenseful scenes early on with Brian Thompson's imposing "Night Slasher" villain and then a classic action movie denouement that is thirty uninterrupted minutes of Cobra taking down motorcyclist cultists with an SMG and what looks to be a drawstring toiletries sack full of grenades. However, I'd probably say it's the bizarre tone of the movie, its Reaganite "the wusses in the courts are no help against the criminal scum infecting our streets" message, and how you're never quite sure if it's supposed to be satirizing something or if Stallone's moral - because all his movies had one - is to let psychos catch other psychos (or cut up pizzas) in peace.

Either way, I found it a lot of fun and I can't wait to hear the WHM episode tear into it. That podcast mines its best material out of incredulous script decisions, and Cobra's full of them.

Game: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

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Boy, I wish I had enough material for another Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire rundown. Truth is, between the surprisingly long Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and World to the West playthroughs this week, I've barely managed to get any further. Instead, I'm going to take this spot to elaborate on one of my "Laws of CRPGs", as I've just reached the relevant stage in my Deadfire playthrough and this might be helpful for anyone who doesn't partake in this genre often.

So let's say this is my 2nd Law of CRPGs, as the 1st is "whatever build you went with for your first character will inevitably be wrong". The 2nd Law is to find the biggest population center, somewhere you'll probably need to reach early on anyway for plot reasons, and spend the time completing the various non-combative side-quests there. Fetch quests, dialogue puzzles, even ransacking homes: everything you do will add to your reserve of XP, money, and equipment. The idea being that once you've left the city, you'll be better prepared for the uncivilized wilderness that awaits you. Side-quests aren't everyone's cup of tea of course, and the skill level of the player can mitigate a lot of the early challenge if you decide to jump into the action right away, but I always find it prudent to give myself any edge I can find early on.

Deadfire's largest city (as far as I know, anyway) is the capital of Neketaka, the location I stopped at last week and am still exploring one hovel at a time. I've picked up no shortage of quests - Deadfire does the same thing Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does, letting you know the "danger level" (relative to your party's average experience level) of each quest and side-quest - and I'm planning to accrue a big pile of cash and several levels before I'm ever required to take to sea again. By that point I might even have enough money for a larger boat or at least better cannons and sails for the sloop I already have, and a lot more confidence to see what the game's uncharted waters have to offer. I couldn't help but spend most of my current funds on a spyglass (because what ship captain could do without one?) so it might take a while to rebuild my cash reserves. Ah well, that's the kind of problem that stealing everything that isn't nailed down is likely to solve.

September's not going to be a particularly quiet month, but I'm hoping to spend most of it playing Deadfire and my usual mix of SNES and Indie games for their respective features. Some of my favorite TV shows are coming back too - notably BoJack Horseman, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Good Place - so hopefully I don't get too distracted from all this larceny on the high seas. See you next week, where maybe I'll have finally figured out how the Empower system works.

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