Mento

Check out Mentonomicon dot Blogspot dot com for a ginormous inventory of all my Giant Bomb blogz.

4693 535119 217 499
Forum Posts Wiki Points Following Followers

Mega May Madness: Popful Mail

For May 2022's "May Madness" feature I'm just playing a bunch of Sega Mega Drive / Genesis RPGs that caught my eye after researching for the Mega Archive blog series. You can see how well I'm doing by visiting the first entry, here.

No Caption Provided

Returning to our original theme of Sega Mega Drive RPGs that probably aren't RPGs, we're taking a lateral move to the system's CD peripheral, the Sega CD, to check out a game that's been on my mind for quite a few years: Nihon Falcom's Popful Mail. As many might know, I became a dyed-in-the-wool Falcom fanboy around the time the Ys games were coming to Steam (I'd already played Ys VI and Ys Seven on PS2 and PSP, respectively) and I'd discovered the Trails in the Sky franchise, both happening around the very early 2010s. Since falling in love with their output, I've been using my various blogging features to justify sneaking in a quick Falcom playthrough: my SNES Classic Mk. II series, for instance, gave me an opportunity to finally try out Ys black sheep Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand. I'm pulling the same trick again here to find out what the deal is with their lighthearted action-RPG Popful Mail.

Popful Mail was first released on Japanese home computers in 1991 and later made available on the Super Famicom, Sega CD, and TurboGrafx-CD. At the time, Falcom usually only developed for Japan's PC market that included the likes of the MSX, PC88/98, Sharp X1/68k and FM Towns. What would tend to happen is that their RPGs, often breezier real-time fare, would get popular enough to attract console ports which Falcom would let other, trusted developers convert. That's what happened with Faxanadu for NES, which saw Hudson basically remake Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II from scratch, and the multiple versions of Ys IV, which didn't actually have an "original" Falcom version until many, many years later with Memories of Celceta. Popful Mail and its charms - simple and accessible platforming and action-RPG gameplay with a comedic script - saw multiple adaptations, the most well-known of which to us westerners being the Sega CD version as it was also the only one to see a localization. In it, the titular heroine "Popful" Mail (so-named for her bubbly personality, though I think it's one of those Lovely Angels/Dirty Pair situations where only she thinks she's cute and vivacious and everyone else sees her as abrasive and money-grubbing) is seeking to cash in a sizeable bounty on local villains Nuts Cracker and Muttonhead. Her pursuit of these two villains eventually has her discovering a plot to resurrect an ancient Overlord, with her joining Muttonhead's former apprentice Tatto and the friendly bat-like monster Gaw in preventing this world-ending catastrophe.

Taken from the animated intro, where Mail once again runs afoul of the tricky, bomb-obsessed Nuts Cracker. Though most cutscenes use in-game graphics, there's one of these anime sequences between each of the game's five worlds as well as longer ones that introduce and end the game.
Taken from the animated intro, where Mail once again runs afoul of the tricky, bomb-obsessed Nuts Cracker. Though most cutscenes use in-game graphics, there's one of these anime sequences between each of the game's five worlds as well as longer ones that introduce and end the game.
Mail with Tatto, dreaming of the thing she loves most (bags of money, you degenerates).
Mail with Tatto, dreaming of the thing she loves most (bags of money, you degenerates).
The Game Over screen. I saw this a lot. Missing here is the 'hand me the aspirin...' plaintive voiceover.
The Game Over screen. I saw this a lot. Missing here is the 'hand me the aspirin...' plaintive voiceover.

The gameplay is not wholly dissimilar to Ys III: Wanderers of Ys, particularly with its side-scrolling view and a focus on challenging boss fights. Likewise, it's somewhat in the same vein as Westone/Sega's own Wonder Boy franchise, as the protagonist doesn't so much increase in power through normal levelling up but spends the money earned from killing enemies and opening chests to buy ever better gear. Money can also be put towards buying fruit, the game's chief method of healing and a useful commodity throughout. Many of the game mechanics are deliberately simplified for a wider audience: for instance, your character always has 100 health (and so do most enemies) - what equipment upgrades do instead is reduce the percentage of it that is lost with every hit. Initially, you just control Mail herself, but you eventually recruit both Tatto and Gaw as you keep playing: each has different strengths, and tend to work best against specific bosses and level design. For example, Mail is fast on her feet and doesn't need to wait for the mana bar to recharge to attack with her sword; all of Tatto's magic is ranged and can be effective at hitting enemies in weird spots, like above his head, though he has less defense overall; and Gaw's breath attack can be devastating up close and he also has a higher jump owing to his wings, which might mean reaching platforms and treasure chests the others can't, but moves a lot slower and has trouble evading attacks. Each has a separate health gauge too, and switching between them consecutively while fighting bosses and exploring feels like a precursor to the party system introduced in recent Ys games, starting with Ys Seven. Most stages have you moving around circuitous paths taking on platforming challenges and fighting enemies along the way, often featuring boss fights and/or settlements of friendly NPC vendors from whom you can restore your health and buy new items. The game's economy is a factor throughout, as new gear tends to get prohibitively expensive unless you're regularly defeating every enemy you come across and excess cash can be put towards vital curatives.

I later read post-playthrough that the localization, performed by the semi-notorious Working Designs, not only injected a lot of early '90s reference humor into the script - which both instantly dates the game and also makes it oddly nostalgic - but modified the enemy and player stats to produce a playthrough that was far more difficult than it was first intended to be. I can attest to that, because it feels like I died well over a hundred times. The difficulty is ameliorated somewhat by an ability to save anywhere - in practice, it just dumps you at the entrance of the last area transition - and an effectively endless capacity for healing items, should you be able to afford them. However, most enemies - not just bosses, but the jobbers patrolling around the stages - tend to take you down in three or four hits even with the best armor available at that part of the game. Bosses also tend to be damage sponges, only taking 3-5% damage from most attacks. Some are clearly meant to be chaotic "battle of attrition" style encounters, where you can't help but get hit while exploiting attacking opportunities in turn, but you simply don't have the health or resources to tank their blows. The difficulty is wildly inconsistent as a result, with bosses that were meant to be relative pushovers becoming roadblocks while the trickier, "there's a strategy to suss out" bosses being far easier once you've figured them out. One issue with surviving enemy attacks is that they're all extraordinarily quick and the game's larger sprites means having less time to react: it takes a few attempts to know what to anticipate and when to start pre-emptively jumping or defending (done by holding down to duck) incoming strikes.

Fairly sure this was a Zelda 2 boss. You don't have the downstab in this game, sadly, though I hear it was added to the Super Famicom port. 'Boney Rubbler' is a whole lot of fun to say, incidentally.
Fairly sure this was a Zelda 2 boss. You don't have the downstab in this game, sadly, though I hear it was added to the Super Famicom port. 'Boney Rubbler' is a whole lot of fun to say, incidentally.
This dozy-looking jerk, Goradus, was one of the harder battle of attrition types. Very slow, drops a lot of hard-to-avoid rocks on your head, takes a lot of punishment.
This dozy-looking jerk, Goradus, was one of the harder battle of attrition types. Very slow, drops a lot of hard-to-avoid rocks on your head, takes a lot of punishment.
Whereas this dude, Chargon, was super easy once I figured him out. By guarding at this spot I can't be hurt by any of his attacks. Just had to toss my boomerang weapon in his face whenever he throws his saber (he'll block all attacks while he has it).
Whereas this dude, Chargon, was super easy once I figured him out. By guarding at this spot I can't be hurt by any of his attacks. Just had to toss my boomerang weapon in his face whenever he throws his saber (he'll block all attacks while he has it).

As Popful Mail was one of the earliest CD games to heavily feature in-game cutscenes full of voiced dialogue, you tended to see the same unskippable pre-boss fight banter many times over: thank the emulation gods that the app I used had a fast-forward button. I did also learn later that there had been fan patches to "un-Working Designs" these mechanical changes, if not the ancient memes, so I'll keep that in mind if I play any of their other localizations (for Sega CD, they also did both of Game Arts's Lunar RPGs and the more obscure Vay). For as hoary as some of the references are (and probably were at the time too), Popful Mail does have an amusing sense of humor that injects the game with both some necessary levity and a distinct personality, so I don't want it to sound like it was a frivolous and unwelcome stylistic choice. Without Popful Mail I don't think we'd have Zwei or Gurumin - both later Falcom RPGs that exhibit a similarly silly presentation, from their graphics to their dialogue - and having alternative protagonists to switch between means seeing these talking portrait cutscenes with three different types of "straight man" acting against the colorful foes and NPCs they encounter: Mail quickly falling back on violence and threats (she reminds me a lot of Estelle Bright, honestly); Tatto being an unfailingly polite doormat; and Gaw frequently targeting the fourth-wall with his sarcasm. This is best exemplified with the NPC Slick, an elf teenager that regularly gets himself and others in trouble through his own greed and stupidity; each party member treats him a little differently, though they all invariably detest the guy towards the game's end.

For as much difficulty as I had with this game - it took almost a week to complete, despite having a lean 8-10 hour "How Long to Beat" prediction - I'm glad I took the chance to fill another gap in my Falcom history and take on a rare Sega CD example of the genre even if I'm likely inviting more commentary on how there's been precious few RPGs so far in this supposedly RPG-focused feature. It's also given me plenty of appreciation for the hard work and strict standards of professionalism involved in modern game localization, though even after saying that in the passive-aggressive way I did I'm sure without Working Designs none of these games would've ever made their way out of Japan and the landscape for console RPGs in the west might've looked very different without these early dubbed experiments. I probably could've done with fewer characters calling each other the R-word and place names like "Gyp Ship" though, but hey. The early '90s, am I right?

I'm going to wrap up with these timely references. Disney won't soon bounce back from that one!
I'm going to wrap up with these timely references. Disney won't soon bounce back from that one!
Old people are funny!
Old people are funny!
This one aged particularly well!
This one aged particularly well!

Rating: 3 Ristars out of 5.

< Back to Mega May Madness

3 Comments

Indie Game of the Week 270: Morningstar: Descent to Deadrock

No Caption Provided

Major Mento to Ground Patrol, reporting in that I'm playing another adventure game based on outer space shenanigans. Floating over here in a most peculiar way this week is Morningstar: Descent to Deadrock, a 2015 (practically vintage!) point-and-click Indie from studio Red Herring Labs and released on Steam and mobile devices (I'm playing it on the former). For the longest time, I had this and another game, J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars, confused. That mix-up was dispensed with when I covered J.U.L.I.A. early last year (IGtoW 203), though I felt it only fair to cover the other eventually. Both games depict spacecraft and space travel in a semi-realistic fashion, have mystery-laden sci-fi stories revolving around crashed ships and missing personnel, and are some deliberately traditional point-and-click adventure games that use an uncommon first-person perspective. In that last case, they're both a little similar to Legend Entertainment's Mission Critical as well (which I covered here), especially as Morningstar starts you off by fixing up the ship with MacGuyver-style jerry-rigged item solutions that I'm fairly sure would not stand up to the stringent rigours of traversing the cosmos.

In Morningstar: Descent to Deadrock, the protagonist - Powell - survives a sudden dramatic crash of his ship - the titular Morningstar - as it makes its subtitular descent to the planet Deadrock, named for probably obvious enough reasons (and the game is also quick to point fun at its nominal directness). The only other survivor is the ship's captain, Novak, who has suffered a serious injury in the crash which he uses as an excuse to get Powell to do everything. The game's relatively brief story has you fix up the ship to eliminate imminently fatal issues, like repairing the broken carbon dioxide filter and patching various hull breaches leaking precious air to the lifeless desert planet outside, and once those are settled Powell takes off to another nearby wreckage to look for spare parts. The game's sense of mystery escalates from there as you investigate the deaths of the other ship's crew, but it's not a particularly dense plot to untangle: more that it's a series of tense situations in which you're required to use your resourcefulness and all the crap you've picked up to resolve a series of problems. An in-game hint system, which is just calling Novak over the radio for advice, provides some idea of what you ought to be doing next if not specific instructions as to how to achieve it, making it a good way to keep abreast of the current scenario and what goals you need to meet to move the story along. There's a whole lot of tinkering with mechanical whoosits like plasma injectors, cables, control panels, filters, ducts, and "nanoglue," but there's also a considerable number of puzzles that can be solved by hitting something with a wrench or shooting it, so the game's approach to scientific accuracy probably errs closer to the movie Armageddon than to Apollo 13. Probably for the best, honestly, since I don't want to be calling NASA like it's the Nintendo Power hints hotline. I would hope they have better things to do.

A Morningstar ship, possibly descending, possibly to Deadrock.
A Morningstar ship, possibly descending, possibly to Deadrock.

The game's interface is roughly analogous to Legend Entertainment's old model, except items are added to a sidebar rather than beneath the viewing screen. Also, hotspots aren't immediately apparent until you move the cursor over one, after which they're always sort of visible in case you need to interact with them again. Many hotspots provide items, though there's just as many that exist only to offer flavor text, and it's worth sweeping the screen a few times so you don't miss a vital panel or a random tiny object lying on the ground. The active viewscreen is relatively compact, making it harder to miss fine details, and examining inventory items and hotspots usually includes a hint as to what you might need them for. I appreciated the little visual pop-ups that helpfully frame hotspots; they're not dissimilar to those used in Star Trek shows, particularly The Next Generation.

As for the presentation, the game's graphics are overall decent and perform their job adroitly. The game's visuals tend towards the unimpressive in terms of visual splendor, but what broken spacecraft and Tatooinian desert planet vistas it depicts are done well enough with humans always shown in suits presumably for the sake of avoiding cheap-looking CG human models (an issue J.U.L.I.A. ran into often with its on-screen human protagonist). The animations for the intro and outro scenes were pretty good too considering the game was made with what I imagine isn't a huge budget. The music is both atmospheric and unobtrusive with its usage, which is ideal for a game like this where you need time to think. The voice acting, however, is what I would call this game's "dump stat"; though there's only two VAs, they're both pretty bad. The protagonist, Powell, has a certain dismissiveness to his line-readings that make every "I can't combine those two items" or "I can't do anything with this hotspot" canned response sound condescending, like he's telling an eight-year-old why throwing a flare into the ship's plasma-core engine isn't a great idea (though he does have a point there). It makes the game sometimes feel like a "take your child to a life-threatening marooning day" where he's letting his kid call the shots, but only if they get the right answers. The other character, Novak, has a thick eastern European accent that suggests his VA learned his side of the script phonetically, but then I imagine with some Indie projects you sometimes have to make do with whomever in your friend circle is the most fluent in a foreign language (Red Herring Labs is Hungarian, as far as I can tell). Oh great, now I'm the one being condescending.

Surprisingly, this is the only dude you'll see in a spacesuit that hasn't beefed it, despite all the blood. Also, being an adventure game protagonist means never having to apologise for breaking items as soon as you used them, my dude.
Surprisingly, this is the only dude you'll see in a spacesuit that hasn't beefed it, despite all the blood. Also, being an adventure game protagonist means never having to apologise for breaking items as soon as you used them, my dude.

Morningstar: Descent to Deadrock often feels like an episode of a slightly B-grade sci-fi TV show that was probably filmed up in Vancouver, for both better and worse but mostly the former. It has a pleasingly compact story that gets in and then out as soon as it's established its mystery and degree of peril - while still leaving some questions unanswered for potential sequels - with an equally palatable brevity to its world design, never giving you so many hotspots and places to explore that you become paralyzed with choice. That you're solving all your issues with engineering ingenuity and only occasionally with violence speaks to the thematic genre's strengths. It looks and sounds good, voice performances aside, and its puzzle difficulty is on the right side of solvable with its intuitive interface and non-explicit hint system. Its chief issue, of course, is that it's a very slight game in every respect. If you spot it on sale for next to nothing and are looking for an agreeable sci-fi yarn to occupy a few hours of your time, I might recommend you give it a shot (and J.U.L.I.A. or The Dig is always there if you want something a little more substantial and involved instead).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

< Back to 269: SuperEpic: The Entertainment WarThe First 100The Second 100> Forward to 271: ???
Start the Conversation

Mega May Madness: Shadowrun

For May 2022's "May Madness" feature I'm just playing a bunch of Sega Mega Drive / Genesis RPGs that caught my eye after researching for the Mega Archive blog series. You can see how well I'm doing by visiting the first entry, here.

No Caption Provided

I'm not sure I've made it clear with my history writing on this site that I have an equal affinity for both "Western-style" RPGs and "Eastern-style" RPGs: I assuredly spend more time writing about the latter, but I first cut my milk teeth on the former as a lil' stinker with his own Atari ST 520 home computer to tinker around with. However, when it comes to older consoles, the Western-style RPGs (which is a shorthand I'm using for RPGs that tend to have: a more anonymous hero, or party of heroes, that the player creates from scratch; a linear plot followed in a mostly non-linear fashion; a deeper focus on character customization; and that are usually based on table-top games) are usually shown a disservice when translating its elaborate UIs and steep learning curves to a three-button gamepad and a limited native resolution. As such, though I'm a long-time fan of RPG franchises like Might and Magic that made a cursory appearance or two on the system, I'm going to leave them well enough alone for the sake of this feature since their PC incarnations were often far better.

However, there will be one exception to this, and that is BlueSky Software's Shadowrun, released only in North America and Asia in 1994 and exclusively for the Mega Drive (at least, with this particular adaptation). Based on the cyberpunk pen-and-paper RPG campaign setting of the same name, Shadowrun sees a near-future Earth suddenly have to contend with the cyclical return of magic. Hitting in the middle of a high-tech capitalist dystopia as it does, there's some integration issues when it comes to all the elves, dwarves, mages, dragons, undead, and other fantasy staples suddenly reappearing in human society. Shadowrun is in some ways an allegory of how capitalism separates us into tiers and shits on the less wealthy, the less connected, and the less "normal"; likewise, it follows other cyberpunk in exploring the end result of such a system of civilization if left unchecked and allowed to rot. For others less concerned with symbolism, it's an excuse to have hackers (sorry, "deckers") fighting Black ICE, cyborg dudes carving up gang hoodlums with samurai swords, and orc shamans tossing fireballs all within the same campaign setting (and, sometimes, in the same party). The Shadowrunner him- or herself is a mercenary and fixer that flits around the urban underworld completing tasks of dubious legality, avoiding factions both overtly hostile - like the many street gangs and hit squads - and covertly hostile, like the many "corps" and the law enforcement officials they have under their thumbs. In this particular adaptation of Shadowrun, you are a 'runner named Joshua who sets off to Seattle in order to discover who betrayed your brother's Shadowrunner group and left them for dead.

My dude gets so upset at this newsfeed that he apparently switched it over to a Commando re-run on TCM.
My dude gets so upset at this newsfeed that he apparently switched it over to a Commando re-run on TCM.
Gunderson, one of many 'Mr. Johnsons' (the ones who set up Shadowrun missions), will give you tasks with randomized variables. I sure seem to meet a lot of Billy Gibsons, how odd.
Gunderson, one of many 'Mr. Johnsons' (the ones who set up Shadowrun missions), will give you tasks with randomized variables. I sure seem to meet a lot of Billy Gibsons, how odd.

As any true chummer knows, there are two equally important halves to any Shadowrun adaptation worth its salt: meatspace and cyberspace, otherwise known as the Matrix. In this Shadowrun's top-down version of meatspace all combat happens in real-time: enemies will start moving towards you from off-screen and you can quickly target them and either engage them with melee, use guns to pick them off from a distance, or fling pre-prepared magic at them. It's superficially similar to Infinity Engine combat though I've not figured out how to do the tactical pausing that would make it much easier to react to threats in time. I think the developers realized the inherent difficulty in this real-time approach - especially since the action is zoomed-in enough that you usually only have seconds of advantage as a ranged attacker before they're on top of you - and made death penalties as minimally punishing as possible. In GTA fashion, you simply respawn at the nearest hospital with 10% of your held cash removed for medical bills. This also creates a double-layered incentive to constantly spend on improving yourself: whether that's through buying better gear such as guns and body armor, consumables like medkits and ammo, upgrades and programs for your deck, or cybernetic enhancements to your body for as long as your "essence" holds out (a universal hard limit for cybernetic upgrades based on one's natural life force; any more and you'll die from not being sufficiently alive, as it were). Better gear means better survival odds and more opportunities for making money, and also having less cash on you to vanish into the ether the next time a ghoul or a gangster or a rent-a-cop knocks you on your ass.

Meanwhile, the online travails of the decker class of Shadowrunner are far more elaborate and interesting than I was anticipating from this era. Hacking nodes in a computer system is also treated like a real-time RPG - though this time closer to Final Fantasy's ATB gauge, as you select your next program and wait for your turn gauge to fill before you can use it - and each computer system is a maze of sub-processor units, I/O ports, CPUs, and datastores, the last of which is your primary target for all the juicy, salacious info contained within. Most nodes are protected by ICE anti-virus software, some of which are far more dangerous to deal with than others; you eventually learn from the visual forms they take which are the ones to avoid, and it's often better to go stealth with deception codes and false password generators where possible than to brute force the node with your own attack viruses. So far I've run into nothing but trouble while tracking to hack - lost one of my few combat programs to a particularly malicious form of ICE that permanently drained it right out of my deck - but I think with a few more character points put into computing and the related stats of quickness (dexterity) and intelligence jacking-in might prove to be a lucrative source of funds in the future. Looking at some of the prices of high-end decks and programs, though, I think anyone who decides to focus on that half of the Mega Drive Shadowrun experience will find quite a high ceiling to pursue.

Here I am as Virtual Pepsiman, ready to hack into this node for the priceless data within. I've spent more cash than I want to admit on a cutting-edge deck able to get me this far...
Here I am as Virtual Pepsiman, ready to hack into this node for the priceless data within. I've spent more cash than I want to admit on a cutting-edge deck able to get me this far...
...Ohhh.
...Ohhh.

Speaking of stats, the game also adapts the original table-top game's character development system where you earn "karma" for completing Shadowrun jobs. Karma points can then be spent in an interface that is only available when resting in hotels and dives where you can pour points into either stats that give you a bonus to all related skills, or the specific skills themselves. These include melee and firearm skills, magic, electronics (used mostly for lockpicking), biotech (improves healing from medkits), and negotiation (reduces prices). Deficits in your build can be made up by hiring other Shadowrunners, often found in bars across Seattle: you can pay a small fee for them to join you on your current mission only, or ten times that amount for them to join you "permanently" (which I think lasts until you get killed and respawn at the hospital). Karma can also be easy enough to grind if you want to spend time developing your character early on since there's no end of radiant quests to pick up and complete. That's what I did, because I found the combat was too much to handle without some better gear and I kept doing the basic fetch and escort quests available to you in the first area of the game until I was satisfied. I eventually ended up with a great pistol, some decent armor, a datalink implant needed for decking, and enough karma to max out my Body stat (health and damage resistance) and improve a few other necessary traits. Of course, it was more than just a little grindy, but that's often the nature of these older RPGs and I'd been prepared for it since this feature began. It also conveniently and cleverly offers players a way to set their own difficulty; how much they grind with these simple missions early on can make the later story-critical tasks easier to handle.

Notably, I can see where the Shadowrun Returns reboot took lessons from this particular adaptation, in much the same way they were inspired by the far more linear and story-driven SNES Shadowrun adaptation from Beam Software. A typical Shadowrun table-top campaign would be built around a series of imaginative scenarios devised by the game's GM, or Game Master. However, the reality of such a profession in such a world would be more one of routine "9-5" assignments and slowly building one's professional skillset and underworld reputation, working up to those rare cases that prove to have significant repercussions or story/character development. In some ways, both the Mega Drive and Shadowrun Returns games recognizes the inherent grind - for better or worse - as you develop your stats, skills, and equipment loadouts dealing with small fry in preparation for the serious assignments ahead with higher stakes. For as monotonous as I'm making it sound, it does also provide a certain degree of verisimilitude to the idea of the Shadowrunner as an ignoble profession, going from an easily-suckered greenhorn to a seasoned professional able to read the scene and make the best decisions. After a rough start with its difficult combat and investing in that side-quest loop grind before you can afford to do anything, I developed a burgeoning respect for how it brings you into its world and makes it feel real despite the limited tech on hand.

By the time you notice these dudes, they're inches away from your grill. Might've been a better idea to invest in melee instead.
By the time you notice these dudes, they're inches away from your grill. Might've been a better idea to invest in melee instead.
The game has a posture system that allows you to prioritize attack or defense, and also determines AI behavior too. That set of two-letter buttons at the bottom take you to the other menus; I guess there wasn't enough space for ideographs. Also, no, you can't not be Joshua. Who even wants to be a badass cyberswordsman called Joshua?
The game has a posture system that allows you to prioritize attack or defense, and also determines AI behavior too. That set of two-letter buttons at the bottom take you to the other menus; I guess there wasn't enough space for ideographs. Also, no, you can't not be Joshua. Who even wants to be a badass cyberswordsman called Joshua?

The grind is, sadly, extremely real indeed. Almost every story juncture I'm at now - I've got to save some park ranger dude's brother from a corporation building filled with security before he'll spill the beans on my dead brother's unusual trip outside the city, and there's a fixer who knows something about dear bro's fateful botched mission but as soon as I get anything concrete from them a corp strike team shows up - leads to my near-instant death, unless I'm prepared to spend many, many hours earning enough karma and money to get into late-game shape for these ostensibly mid-game challenges. The game isn't exactly forthcoming with information about itself either; there's a whole mess of mechanics I've barely explored such as finding contacts and what cyberware to install and which fellow Shadowrunners to recruit, and true to its roots as a PC RPG-influenced game I suspect I'll need a manual the size of a phonebook for the nuance I'll need to thoroughly explore my options. All of these options, incidentally, cost a considerable amount of money: the kind of amount where you really have to want to dedicate about an hour of completing radiant missions to obtain it, and that's hard to judge when I don't know what benefits any of these options will bring (without save-scumming I suppose, but even then there might be long-term consequences or rewards for these expenditures that won't be apparent immediately). It's the model of RPG that went out of style a long time ago; the sort that demands many dozens of hours of your time before any of it makes sense, and then a similar amount of time again to execute on a run that hasn't wasted resources on dead ends and poor decisions. There's plenty of merit to a denser approach to RPG game design like this, of course, but it requires more patience than I'm willing to muster for this month-long sojourn through the Mega Drive's RPG library. If Light Crusader and Soleil were too much on the slight side, this overly faithful Shadowrun adaptation perhaps goes too far in the other direction. I guess it's time to jack... out? (gotta be careful to get the right one here) and try something else for a spell.

< Back to Mega May Madness

2 Comments

Indie Game of the Week 269: SuperEpic: The Entertainment War

No Caption Provided

It's been... probably over a month since my last explormer? So that means we're well overdue another map-filler on IGotW, and here's SuperEpic: The Entertainment War to come along to help fill that important gap in our schedule like a figurative exit I missed three rooms ago. Oddly enough, SuperEpic's name is only the second-most obnoxious thing about it, but we'll get to that in due time. I'll also be reviewing the Switch version here for all you disclaimer fans.

SuperEpic is a satirical stab at unscrupulous developers, mostly of the mobile market, that prioritizes sleazy gambling and microtransaction mechanics in their game design, presenting a world where one such developer has become so megalithic that they've converted the world into a dystopian capitalist nightmare in their pursuit of tiny cash injections and rampant plagiarism. Each of the game's bosses, based in a different area of this company's HQ (the game's sole location), represents a different department of the development cycle: game design, marketing, testing, online server maintenance, analytics, legal, and general management to name a few, all a cartoonishly evil exaggeration of the type of executive you'd see presenting at E3 (so, basically, the Devolver Digital Showcase). For instance, the guy handling the parasitical microtransaction features is a literal vampire that quotes modified Castlevania lines at you. It's all a mildly amusing story framework, though the plagiarism accusations probably cut a little close to home for a game so deliberately styled on notable explormers past.

If you like furries, this game has you covered. If you like furry dystopian fiction then, well, I think it's just this and Sine Mora isn't it?
If you like furries, this game has you covered. If you like furry dystopian fiction then, well, I think it's just this and Sine Mora isn't it?

However, below this facile surface the game does have some serious chops. The pixel art is well-made and animates well, as seen with the game's few dozen repeating enemy types, and despite being an enormous corporate office each zone has its own particular atmosphere and personality. The VGM is overall decent, with a few standouts here and there. The combat engine is where the game shines, presenting a lighter version of what Dust: An Elysian Tail offered with a heavily combo-focused system that prioritizes juggles and keeping a chain going with regular hits for as long as possible, following enemies knocked into the air with further chains and using a smash move to either break their initial guard or finish off a combo in style. Enemies bounced around will briefly stun others they bump into, allowing you to then include multiple foes in the same combo for expediency's sake (and to prevent those same enemies from knocking you out of the combo). The game is a mite on the combat-heavy side, especially later on when every room seems stuffed with enemies, and has almost nothing in the way of platforming or puzzles. The closest thing to the latter would be finding keys and traversal upgrades to make further progress across its enormous map.

Speaking of which, the game's mapping system does the job well with a helpful assortment of icons to indicate where restrooms (the game's save points), elevators (warps), the three vendor types (items/weapons, weapon upgrades, and combat abilities, respectively), and other points of interest. The player can also generate their own markers wherever they happen to be standing, though annoyingly you can't seem to add or delete those that are some distance away. I've left more than a few markers in places I no longer need to return to, simply because I missed the opportunity to erase them while I was still there. As well as indicating exits between areas, rooms that still have more to check out - say, if they're larger than 1x1 - will show a series of fading lines around the parts you've already been to as indications that there is more to find in those directions, which is an elegant way of displaying segments you've yet to explore in larger chambers. I can respect a good explormer map when done well, and SuperEpic makes the grade in that department.

I'm not sure what's going on with the pause menus, but it's kinda stylish. By the by, you have three weapons: one for knocking enemies in the air (like this golf club), one for combos, and one for smashes. You can prioritize any one or all three, with enough cash anyway.
I'm not sure what's going on with the pause menus, but it's kinda stylish. By the by, you have three weapons: one for knocking enemies in the air (like this golf club), one for combos, and one for smashes. You can prioritize any one or all three, with enough cash anyway.

The game isn't strictly an RPG since there's no levelling up, but you do procure new equipment and stat upgrades by buying them at the vendor. Equipment carries its own stats, which includes damage output as well as speed and range. The protagonist's weapons tend to range from everyday items like stop signs, branches, umbrellas, or shovels, but occasionally includes swords and other props found around the development office. The protagonist also has two slots for armor - both for him and his steed, a goofy-looking llama - as well as two accessory slots, which can provide simple stat boosts as well as bonuses like more cash from enemies or a higher chance of a critical hit. In addition to cash and upgrades there's a wide miscellany of items you might find, including necessary keys, datapoints that add undiscovered restrooms to the map (and USB keys that add more data that can be mined from these datapoints, like the locations of vendors and elevators), and items used in side-quests. There's also a collectible mini-quest, of sorts, where you can permanently destroy cameras (found in many rooms) and you'll eventually discover a massive surveillance area with every camera's feed: once all cameras have been disabled, it seems like something good might happen. The game gives you plenty to be getting on with, eventually dropping its semi-linear progression and letting you run roughshod across its enormous map depending on the traversal abilities you've found. The game's difficulty is on the easier side overall - healing items are common, as are the restrooms, and if you're keeping up with new equipment purchases most enemies and bosses won't do much harm - so you can occasionally get away with sequence-breaking and looking into an area you maybe shouldn't be in yet.

So... that obnoxious trait I talked about. SuperEpic hides a lot of items behind barriers that need passcodes to disable: passcodes that can be found by scanning a nearby QR code and playing through a mini-game of sorts on your mobile device or other QR-scanning gizmo. Naturally, this is an immersion-breaking irritation and one completely inaccessible to those who lack such a device; the developers didn't see fit to include an option where these mini-games are integrated into the core game itself to avoid this additional step. Even if you do have a smartphone or tablet, it might not be handy and you might not want to be juggling multiple devices at once to play a game regardless; the forced inclusion of this feature is beyond annoying to deal with, especially in a genre like explormers where 100% completion is so often the desired goal. it's due to this reason this game will not exactly be receiving a glowing review at the end, though I'll admit it's within the "your mileage may vary" gray zone of detrimental qualities. Other issues include the preponderance of enemies towards the end - there's very few types and they all have the same stats, so the game's only solution to making late-game areas harder is to throw so many into one room that they'll keep stun-locking you around as you try to clear it or run past - and the usual localization whoopsies that are so often the case with Indies from foreign-language countries (I believe the developers, Undercoders, hail from Spain). I'm mostly mad about the QR code stuff though; the rest of these gripes are small potatoes.

OK, just need to scan this with the Switch's built-in QR Code scanner, and... wait, where is it?
OK, just need to scan this with the Switch's built-in QR Code scanner, and... wait, where is it?

For all my grousing, there's plenty to like about SuperEpic. The combo-heavy combat is fluid and is enough to support the focus of the gameplay, and as I said before its pixel art and animation is some high-grade business that finds multiple creative outlets for its animal-people; it almost feels like an episode of BoJack Horseman with the number of suit-wearing anthros. It's certainly going to give you value for money too: the map is huge, comprised of eight major areas, gets a little more open towards the end if you choose to go backtracking, and while it doesn't really do secrets there's much to discover. And hey, if you have your smartphone around you can partake in some silly knock-offs of famous mobile games like Flappy Bird and Pac-Man 256 for the passwords you need for some extra goodies. if the name is a little cringe-y for you, be forewarned that the game itself isn't any less meme-y, but it's mostly inoffensive goofs about lootboxes and whatever the hell Square Enix is planning to invest all its Tomb Raider blood money into. On the other hand, it's repetitive, a bit frustrating in the late-game once you're surrounded by enemies getting batted around like a tennis ball, and the fast-travel points are too few and far between for how much real estate the game contains. Also that QR code thing. Man, did that rub me the wrong way.

Rating: 3 out of 5. (Though it's probably closer to a 4 if you have something to deal with the QR codes.)

< Back to 268: Alt-FrequenciesThe First 100The Second 100> Forward to 270: Morningstar: Descent to Deadrock
1 Comments

Mega May Madness: Crusader of Centy / Soleil

For May 2022's "May Madness" feature I'm just playing a bunch of Sega Mega Drive / Genesis RPGs that caught my eye after researching for the Mega Archive blog series. You can see how well I'm doing by visiting the first entry, here.

No Caption Provided

Welcome to episode two of Mega May Madness, where the stated intent was to look into the best RPGs the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis had to muster in order to prove, if only to myself, that while it lacked the SNES's impressive RPG resume it still had a scene worth celebrating. I say that, except both the games I've covered so far - Light Crusader and now Crusader of Centy (US) / Soleil (EU) - are perhaps better defined as The Legend of Zelda-style action-adventure games that are big on real-time combat and environmental puzzle-solving and light on traditional RPG mechanics like levelling up and character customization. l think part of the reason why this has happened is because I've roughly ordered the games I picked out by their length; both my Light Crusader and Soleil playthroughs clocked in at a svelte 8-10 hours, since neither has much in the way of grinding. However, there might also have been an imperative at the time to minimize comparisons to The Legend of Zelda - after all, those are kinda Nintendo's whole bag, and they've proved to be nothing if not litigious about copycats over the years - and "light action-RPG" was the next most apt descriptor.

Focusing on Soleil now, the game has you assume a player-named young man (the default name is apparently "Corona," which... yikes) who has recently come of age, which in this society means giving 14-year-olds a sword and then apparently letting them wander around the countryside unsupervised. Soleil's going for a slightly subversive storytelling gimmick involving time-travel that I think they picked up from the likes of Illusion of Gaia and Chrono Trigger - the game was a 1995 release, so they had their lion's share of better video game narratives to imitate - in that it originally starts as a hero trying to make a name for themselves in a hostile world of adventure with the help of some animal companions after he learns the ability to talk to them Dr. Dolittle style, and then gradually turns into a jeremiad on these vicious fantasy worlds where monsters and humans are always forced to fight the other due to their natures. I'm not sure the message necessary shines through the iffy localization and shoddy pacing of the game, but the end-game sure was a whole heap of conceptually bizarre nonsense that was in stark contrast to the rest of the game's very standard and episodic approach. I looked to the game's developers for answers, but Nextech strikes me as a mercenary contract developer like TOSE that kinda just makes whatever the client asks for (which in this case was Sega for both Japan and Europe, though it was Atlus that published the game in the States for some reason). I'd also never heard of the game's composer Motokazu Shinoda before today and this looks to be his only notable game credit: like Illusion of Gaia's similarly one-and-done musical maestro Yasuhiro Kawasaki, Shinoda had some real talent on display here for memorable BGM themes and it's a shame he didn't go on to work on more games.

Throwing the sword is handy for hitting distant enemies and for mowing the grass alike, though I wouldn't want to try catching it as it flew back towards me.
Throwing the sword is handy for hitting distant enemies and for mowing the grass alike, though I wouldn't want to try catching it as it flew back towards me.
The world map gives you a certain degree of freedom and saves you from having to pass through troublesome areas multiple times. Still easy to get lost though.
The world map gives you a certain degree of freedom and saves you from having to pass through troublesome areas multiple times. Still easy to get lost though.
Here I am with Chilly the penguin and Cecil the flying squirrel, both of which enhance my thrown sword ability. Animals just kinda tag along behind you most of the time, though it's convenient to know who you have equipped.
Here I am with Chilly the penguin and Cecil the flying squirrel, both of which enhance my thrown sword ability. Animals just kinda tag along behind you most of the time, though it's convenient to know who you have equipped.

While it's fair to say that the story is all over the place - and I'll demonstrate how a little later with a spoiler-blocked section - both Soleil's gameplay and presentation are, conversely, top-notch. Soleil's hero uses a combination of abilities he learns from the animals he befriends - a hare teaches him the secret to jumping, which turns out to be something the hero could do all along but lacked the courage to do so - as well as abilities provided by the animal companions themselves, which are equipped two-at-a-time much like the items in a Zelda game. One animal companion, a cheetah named Flash, vastly increases walking speed when equipped which turns out to be essential for crossing large gaps with your now-accelerated jumps; another, an armadillo named Rio, will let you throw his balled-up form onto hazardous terrain as a stepping stone or onto buttons trapped behind walls. About half of the animals are doled out as the plot demands and offer traversal skills necessary for further progress, while others are one-offs that need to be hired for cash beforehand: the most valuable, Kitty, acts as a fairy and fully heals you if you run out of health. Some even provide bonus effects when equipped together: for instance, a lion named Inferno blesses your attacks with the fire element for additional damage against some enemies, while a penguin named Chilly does the same thing with ice, and when combined they produce a very powerful damage enhancement. There's a bit of experimentation involved with these synergies though the game will helpfully surface any combination effects in the animal equip screen. Even outside of this system, the protagonist eventually learns how to jump, throw his sword like a boomerang, and lift objects; all of which find many applications in the game's puzzle-heavy dungeons. Despite the breadth of options it's all very intuitive and the puzzles are never all that demanding of your reflexes or perspicacity, though if the game progression has its issues it's usually in knowing what you're supposed to be doing next; something many 16-bit games with mediocre localizations run afoul of if they're not hopelessly linear.

Soleil is also a little more difficult than you might expect from these wholesome-looking screenshots. You do have a generous health supply - measured in apples, since hearts would be too on the nose - and the aforementioned emergency cat if you run out, but health can be a fairly rare drop in most instances and you're sometimes best served going back to town to one of the few places where you can rest up if you're getting too battered (though it's worth noting that the many health upgrades, gained after boss fights and after finding the semi-precious golden apple collectibles, heal you back to full also). Dying for real, with no cat around to save you, boots you back to the title screen and to wherever you last manually saved the game. The game is at least accommodating with the manual saves - you can save anywhere, though in practice that means being dropped off at the start of the current area with whatever progress you had - though as there's no "restart the dungeon/boss fight" option or any manner of auto-save it's something you must to remember to do frequently. Fortunately, the bosses themselves are easy enough to defeat once you've figured out how to hurt them; even more so if you remember to use the companions that enhance your damage output. More likely a death will come from trying to navigate a field of spikes or getting worn down by random monsters in the field.

Now for some memorable bosses. This guy, named Georama (unrelated to Dark Cloud 2 I'd imagine), will change his element after you hit him with it. His element also changes the crap he leaves all over the ground. Good time to use the flying sword.
Now for some memorable bosses. This guy, named Georama (unrelated to Dark Cloud 2 I'd imagine), will change his element after you hit him with it. His element also changes the crap he leaves all over the ground. Good time to use the flying sword.
This late-game boss, one of a group representing the five traditional senses, can't be fought directly. Instead you have to complete this Pac-Man maze of apples (which, for the first time, won't restore your health) before it goes down.
This late-game boss, one of a group representing the five traditional senses, can't be fought directly. Instead you have to complete this Pac-Man maze of apples (which, for the first time, won't restore your health) before it goes down.
This guy didn't tell me his name, but his sprite is too detailed to not be a secret boss of some kind. Whatever his significance may be, I never did figure it out and probably never will.
This guy didn't tell me his name, but his sprite is too detailed to not be a secret boss of some kind. Whatever his significance may be, I never did figure it out and probably never will.

Unusual for games of this genre, Soleil uses a world map for traversal between areas. This is often due to how field zones and dungeons alike have circuitous routes from one side to the other, and once an area has been completed you can conveniently skip over it while navigating the world map. There's an animal that will help you cross over expanses of water too, which lets you easily backtrack to the earlier parts of the game. This is essential for two reasons: the game's non-linear progression often has you revisiting early areas for story reasons, especially the titular town of Soleil where most of the game's NPCs are found, and the other reason being that many of the useful golden apple health upgrades and bags of money needed for hiring animal friends tend to be unreachable until you have the right abilities/companions acquired later. This stage-based format works best for Soleil as there's often little reason to backtrack to some areas once all its valuables have been found, though if you do need to return for whatever reason - be it to collect items or because the story wants to visit it again - the world map ensures it's always accessible, and conveniently lets you return to the zone from either its original entrance or exit. That said, a few regions undergo big changes once its boss has been defeated, and that can make a few collectibles vanish forever (and thus be missable).

All right, so let's make sense of that story:

The big theme of Soleil as far as I can tell is deconstructing the conceit that monsters and humans only exist to do the other harm, each representing darkness and light, and that no peace can be ushered between the two as long as violence is the only language both sides understand. It's a pretty common RPG theme in and of itself: There's a few Tales games that deal with "fantasy racism" like Tales of Rebirth, it's obviously a major theme in Final Fantasy VI with humanity's strained relationship with the espers, there's a notable application of "humans are the real monsters" in the second playthrough of NieR: Gestalt/Replicant once it gives a voice to its shadowy "demon" antagonists, Undertale certainly has plenty to say about choosing violence, and it's the source of a game-wide schism between the two playable parties of Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits that posits neither side of this divide is wholly good or evil. However, the way Soleil chooses to present and eventually wrap this narrative up and establish its moral is with a literal "deus ex time-travel tornado" towards its final arc.

Prior to this, it feels the game wasn't so much moving towards a concrete conclusion but putting the protagonist through the wringer over and over using his unique ability to talk to animals - and monsters - to provide a window into their suffering, often at the hands of other humans. Towards the end of your little journey around the world witnessing the crappy state of things you end up climbing up the Biblical Tower of Babel (another recurring element of Japanese RPGs) to fix a sudden worldwide language barrier, talking to actual God in actual Heaven about undoing this curse, and being told to do something about the constant warfare and bloodshed Earth-side before He's required to step in again. To do this, the hero comes across a tornado in the previously-visited town of Iris for an extended Wizard of Oz riff; only here, the tornado doesn't send you to another world but to the same place many years in the past. With each adventure in a past version of a previously visited region, usually ending in a boss fight - there's a bit of a rush of the things, probably because the developers designed so many - you expel the monster presence from that region and return to a present where they no longer exist. You can then revisit those locations and find all the monsters gone forever: it'd be a good time for collecting upgrade items if you weren't already so powerful by this stage of the game that it's no longer a requisite.

Each tornado visit goes further and further back in time until you go back to a prehistoric age before humanity and light came to this world. Here, there is only darkness and monsters, but the monsters - not yet filled with animosity over the near-genocide they suffered by the emergence of light and humans - are non-hostile. At this final juncture of the game, you're required to defeat a very Kirby boss-looking spiritual entity guarding the door between the monsters' homeworld - implied to be Hell or close to it - and this one, and by defeating it and allowing the monsters to return home peacefully you fast-forward back to a present day where monsters never existed and humanity lives in harmony with nature (barring a single adventurer type who, for the whole game, has been the butt of jokes about how rude and aggressive "heroes" tend to seem to others). The town's fountain has a statue of a goddess instead of a heroic knight (which, because of time travel fuckery, turned out to be based on yourself), your adventurer father is still alive since he never took up the sword in this timeline and got himself murked, and everything is just peachy between people and animals. Very reminiscent of Illusion of Gaia's trippy ending, which is partly why I keep bringing that game up.

In some respects Soleil shoots for the moon and misses completely, but when it's just being a video game where you run around hitting monsters and solving puzzles it's a great deal of fun. Certainly it can be a little repetitive, and more than a little obtuse with regards to where you're supposed to go next at any given moment, but it's a successful attempt at imitating the strengths of A Link to the Past with enough to distinguish itself that it doesn't just feel like an inferior copy for the sake of giving its non-Nintendo audiences a "we have Zelda at home," which is how I perceive something like Hudson's Neutopia franchise. Both it and fellow Mega Drive Zelda acolyte Story of Thor / Beyond Oasis considered ways they could improve on the formula or provide a different approach to puzzles (both games involve a lot of summoned beings, oddly) and have distinct visual styles and presentational chops to call their own. Neither is to the caliber of A Link to the Past, it might go without saying, but are very much worthy to breathe the same air at least. I've heard that finding physical copies of Crusader of Centy is nigh-impossible (I have one of Soleil, but it might be far less rare) so I hope it finds its way onto a digital marketplace sooner rather than later, because the gameplay and presentation are remarkably nuanced and high-quality and the story - as fractured and inadequately localized as it is - almost has to be seen to be believed.

Rating: 4 Ristars out of 5.

< Back to Mega May Madness

1 Comments

Indie Game of the Week 268: Alt-Frequencies

No Caption Provided

If there's three sub-genres I tend to focus on a little too frequently in this feature, it's my beloved explormers, Indie RPGs with a whole lot of curious streamlining, and adventure games that break away from the traditional point-and-click structure. Alt-Frequencies definitely belongs to the last group, developed and published by Accidental Queens who are perhaps best known for their "Lost Phone" franchise of adventure games focused entirely around smartphone interfaces. Those, too, were deviations from the normal LucasFilm/Sierra-inspired games that once defined the genre in its entirety, presenting a mostly epistolary tale where clues were gathered from context found in messages and passwords had to be gleaned by investigating the phone-owner's personal information.

Built like a puzzle game, almost, the goal of Alt-Frequencies is to use special tools to live-record messages from radio broadcasts and send it to other stations in the manner of a call-in message. By recording the right clips and broadcasting them to the right hosts, you progress the plot: one that has the United Kingdom discussing an upcoming vote to implement a "time loop" that will only affect human memory, allowing the country's ecosystem to recover while its citizens relive the same days in their heads over and over for what I think is a set number of loops per unit. However, it's revealed pretty quickly that the time loop has already been activated, and you're one of the few "remembrants" able to retain memories after each loop: it then falls on you and a few other loop-cognizant activists to get the message out about this conspiracy to anyone who might listen. Honestly, the nature of the time loop isn't very well-explained, and I'm piecing together the highly conditional way it affects the world from some perhaps untrustworthy in-game sources, such as interviews with the unscrupulous cabinet minister who secretly activated it to begin with.

The tutorial tasks you with finding the number one DJ and reporting back with a relevant clip. Doesn't take long. Later puzzles aren't quite so clear-cut with their directions, however.
The tutorial tasks you with finding the number one DJ and reporting back with a relevant clip. Doesn't take long. Later puzzles aren't quite so clear-cut with their directions, however.

The real reason the time loop exists, of course, is so the radio station broadcasts keep looping until you grab the one "live" soundbite you need to progress, sending it to another station that then adjusts their timeline for all subsequent loops, and maybe using a clip from the resulting change elsewhere again as part of a series of steps. It's a clever idea to record clips and modify the recurring trajectory of a station's output for the day - say, a sarcastic talk radio host suddenly going from mocking his callers to being all in on a plan to disruptively flood voting centers with prank call pizzas - but the heavy narrative focus on the time looping quickly makes the process nonsensical. The in-game hint system is there if you get stuck, and the controls for recording and broadcasting these radio clips couldn't be easier (it's literally just three buttons, the third used for playing back the clip you recorded as a reminder), but the fourth-dimensional thinking involved and the way it doesn't quite gel logically is a bit of a snag. It's also a very short game that doesn't take some intriguing ideas - like a particular noise or sound that can be used to decrypt a secret pirate broadcast - far enough, eventually settling into a pattern where you take anything that sounds relevant and sending it to every station until something clicks. Most of the time, the stations will reply with a canned response that suggests the message wasn't relevant enough, requiring you to keep hunting for the path the game intends you to walk.

As the game is simply a static image of a radio with voiceovers piping through it, the voice acting has to be decent by necessity as it's the only thing to focus on. You're listening to the same dozen or so people with every chapter - each on a separate day of the week, leading to the national vote on the time loop plan by Friday, though when and how a looping day suddenly becomes tomorrow is anyone's guess - and they include the aforementioned indifferent talk radio host, a pair of bubbly Radio One type DJs, a serious "investigative journalist" on the game's equivalent of BBC News, and a couple of well-meaning student radio hosts voicing concerns about their futures between cafeteria updates. There's also the pirate radio channel itself that for most of the playthrough provides the instructions you need to be following, if not precisely how you'd go about it (otherwise there'd be no puzzles to solve). All the hosts sound pretty natural in their roles, with clear and concise radio voices, and the game affords you a few methods to play tricks on them with priceless reactions if you find the right (or, perhaps, very wrong) clips to send their way. There's a sense that there might be a branching narrative also - I felt like I might've messed up by sending a clip to the wrong person and getting people killed because of it - but from what I've been able to gather post-playthrough there is only one route and the few branches don't affect it much.

This... might've been my fault. Whoops! My bad! Just cuttin' and pastin' audio over here, don't mind me.
This... might've been my fault. Whoops! My bad! Just cuttin' and pastin' audio over here, don't mind me.

The game feels like a bold experiment throughout, between its short length and sometimes confusing approach to time loops and causality. Like they had the idea for a story based around getting pertinent and damning information out during an illegal time loop but only had so many ways to take it where the plot wouldn't completely fall apart under scrutiny. I'd guess that's probably why they tried to simplify matters as much as possible, providing hints where needed, as well as a tutorial almost the length of a chapter to familiarize players with the game mechanics. I can always respect a game that chooses to take the more interesting route at the potential peril of losing most of its audience, since the inverse is so much more common with the bigger risk-averse publishing studios. On the other hand, I think the implementation of this odd idea has fundamental issues irrespective of the game's otherwise organic presentation and intuitive controls, and might just be a little too obtuse a concept. As I've said many a time before, though, I'm all for any wild swings at new methods to tell stories in games and I'm glad I gave this odd little game a shot. (NB: The game was released as part of Itch.io's enormous Bundle for Ukraine, in case you grabbed it sight unseen and are looking for more of its games to try out.)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

< Back to 267: The Turing TestThe First 100The Second 100> Forward to 269: SuperEpic: The Entertainment War
Start the Conversation

Mega May Madness: Light Crusader

It's fair to say I've had the ol' Sega Mega Drive on my mind the past few months between the temporary conclusion of the Mega Archive series and a recent playthrough of Jupiter's Picross S: Mega Drive & Master System Edition. To recap, I'm not someone who grew up with the system: I enjoyed it, usually vicariously, at a friend's house and even then it was usually a Sonic or perhaps a Golden Axe. As I was the SNES owner among my group of friends I was well taken care of when it came to RPGs - my favorite genre - but I never really had a sense of what that scene was like for the Mega Drive until I dug more into its back library in recent years.

Since my recurring May Marathoning feature tends to involve older RPGs, I'm dedicating this month to a bunch of Mega Drive classics I wanted to try out; this includes those that feel like they ought to be part of any self-professed RPG fanatic's history, and those that are obscure as all heck but piqued my interest nonetheless while perusing the system's catalogue. I'm currently aiming to get through as many in one month as I can, though realistically we're probably talking somewhere between five to eight games. I'm also avoiding the few I've already played - Shining Force 1, Shining in the Darkness, Beyond Oasis, and Fatal Labyrinth - and probably the whole Phantasy Star franchise. That's something I might want to run in its entirety someday, when I feel up to it. Expect to see some well-known games in here as well as a few esoteric beauties.

I'm not sure where Light Crusader sits on that spectrum - it's a Treasure game that's available on Steam, so I'm guessing more on the "famous" side - but that's where we're gonna be starting. Meanwhile, I'll be adding more entries to the table below as I publish 'em.

Light CrusaderCrusader of Centy / Soleil
ShadowrunPopful Mail
??????
??????

Mega May Madness: Light Crusader (Treasure, 1995)

No Caption Provided

I think one coming-of-age (coming-of-AGES?) ritual that anyone digging into older Sega games eventually undergoes is a burgeoning respect for perennial oddballs and technical whiz kids Treasure, who between the 16-bit and 32-bit era left a trail of inimitable games from various genres, connected only by their bizarre penchants and off-beat sense of humor. On the Mega Drive alone they're responsible for the unpredictable platformer Dynamite Headdy, the raucous shooter Gunstar Heroes, the challenging boss-rusher Alien Soldier, and, uh, McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure, which I'm guessing is still way stranger than I remember. The last of their Mega Drive games was Light Crusader: on the surface, a fairly traditional dungeon-crawler action-RPG (though it's probably as much of an RPG as Zelda is, or maybe Illusion of Time) with an isometric perspective that, while uncommon, wasn't unheard of in Sega RPGs: Climax's Landstalker being another well-known adherent of that visual style. Since it was a Treasure game, I figured more had to lie beneath the surface - beyond the sprawling dungeon itself - which is why we're here.

The story of Light Crusader concerns the blond swordsman David, who is sent to the quiet town of Green Row to rest and recuperate. However, once there, he finds the overall mood of the town saturnine and fearful; people have been mysteriously disappearing for many weeks now, and the townsfolk are anxious they may be next. From talking to King Weeden and his subjects, David is inspired to search the local graveyard and discovers a secret staircase down into an enormous subterranean labyrinth. As with many RPGs of old, such as Wizardry, the whole game is spent exploring this massive multi-floored dungeon while occasionally travelling back to the surface hub town for supplies and NPC hints.

Our protagonist. I think he's supposed to be young.
Our protagonist. I think he's supposed to be young.
If this was a normal Treasure game I'd be fighting those weird paintings in the back.
If this was a normal Treasure game I'd be fighting those weird paintings in the back.
Like any noble hero, I'll happily jump all over people's furniture to steal their valuables.
Like any noble hero, I'll happily jump all over people's furniture to steal their valuables.

I... really didn't know what to expect from this game, but the start suckers you into thinking it's about as traditional an action-RPG as they come. I might even suggest that the developers were inspired by Will Harvey's The Immortal: there's a similar structure where most of the time you're running past traps, fighting green-skinned humanoids, and solving environmental puzzles. In any given room, you might have to push blocks onto switches, set off explosives in front of locked doors to open them, redirect lasers around to where they're needed, or do one of those annoying sliding block puzzles where you have to push it between several points without getting it trapped in a corner. The rest of the time you're fighting monsters with a combination of melee, jumping attacks, or magic, and you'll have a voiceover tell you to "beat them!" whenever you reach an arena zone you need to clear before you're allowed to move on. The isometric projection occasionally puts in mind the old puzzle-platformers from the C64 era that modern audiences might know fleetingly from the Rare Replay collection, like Knight Lore or Head Over Heels (or Software Creations's Equinox if you want something a little more contemporary to Light Crusader's 1995 release). As a British kid of the late '80s and early '90s I've enjoyed my fair shake of those games, so Light Crusader was more nostalgic than I anticipated.

Treasure's odd sense of humor is best made manifest here with the ways it likes to trick you, following the example of RPGs that'll drop you in a pit if you look at a button funny. You can collect a huge amount of items, mostly food that restores your health (and, somewhat ahead of its time, the game has a QoL toggle that automatically uses healing items in your inventory when your health is low), but quite a lot of the objects you find are effectively useless. Water, for instance, won't heal your health; you need exactly one to give to a thirsty NPC for a necessary hint, but there's far more than one in the game. My inventory started filling up with items I either couldn't use or, in the case of black potions, items I knew would hurt me in some way. On the flipside, you get an item about halfway through the game that lets you use the game's fast travel system - a series of teleporters found on every floor of the dungeon - from anywhere, as well as reasonably common pendants that acted as full resurrection Zelda fairies if you should ever die. I never needed to use save states, which I might do in other games of this vintage for the sake of my own sanity, which may either speak to the game's forward-thinking accessibility or perhaps its choice to err on the easier side.

What... what is this? The stump monster from Flash Gordon?
What... what is this? The stump monster from Flash Gordon?
Like many MD Treasure games, they experimented with some early 3D tech. This orange thing rotates an impressive number of degrees. The physics involved can make it awkward to, say, push a grey box along its length to the opposite side.
Like many MD Treasure games, they experimented with some early 3D tech. This orange thing rotates an impressive number of degrees. The physics involved can make it awkward to, say, push a grey box along its length to the opposite side.
I love these overly ostentatious save/teleport rooms. I wonder if this is where Symphony of the Night got the idea?
I love these overly ostentatious save/teleport rooms. I wonder if this is where Symphony of the Night got the idea?

The game's most notable sequence is when you're tasked with entering a crystal on the fifth floor of the dungeon to be whisked away to one of eight self-contained "worlds," at the end of each is a wizard you need to rescue to power up the game's McGuffin sword (and namesake) the Light Crusader. Many of these worlds break from the fantasy thematic genre: there's one where you're fighting WW2 soldiers (including a tank), one where you're dealing with ninjas, and another that's set in a Wild West town full of rootin'-tootin' cowboys. David's combat repertoire mostly involves getting in close and slashing enemies to ribbons, though later swords are able to reflect enemy projectiles; you can take out these soldiers and cowboys by bouncing their bullets right back at them, which isn't something I expected to do in a fantasy RPG. Might also go without saying too that the tank boss was by far the hardest foe I faced in that game; swords don't work so well against armored vehicles, turns out. (I'm just glad the game didn't go full Shinobi and throw a helicopter my way.)

On the whole, Light Crusader doesn't really excel in any one area: its combat can be mashy and it's too easy to get hit when you're trying to get close enough for your sword to reach, though I do like how you can attack simultaneously with an enemy and you both just ping off each other with some sword sparks and no damage done; the puzzles frequently have some imagination behind them, but there's plenty of annoyingly precise ones too (and boy howdy I don't need those Simon Says puzzles to go beyond sequences of ten steps); and the game doesn't surface enough information in-game on what new equipment provides (the game has no stats, though newer weapons are demonstrably more effective) or what the colored potions do. Likewise the magic has you mix four elements in multiple combinations for spell effects (very like Ys V: Ushinawareta Suna no Miyako Kefin, which was out later that same year), but it's hard to say if the spells that need three or four elements to cast are all that much stronger, and the massive inventory screen is often a mess of random junk and keys you no longer need along with the occasional healing item. However, it still has that Treasure brand of unpredictability as they run through the fifty or so concepts they had in mind for the dungeon-crawling genre one after the other. Sometimes I wonder if Treasure hops from one genre to the next just to get all those ideas out of their system. The voice-overs, the bosses made of multiple sprites bolted onto one another, and the silly asides are all very Treasure, assuaging any fears I might've had that they played this one too straight. Not an essential stop for any 16-bit RPG fan, but certainly one distinct enough to be worth a look.

...Huh?
...Huh?
...Wha?
...Wha?
...Hmm.
...Hmm.

Rating: 4 Ristars out of 5.

2 Comments

Indie Game of the Week 267: The Turing Test

No Caption Provided

If I were to tell you that it was a highly (*moderately) sophisticated AI who had written all these Indie game reviews over the years, with what were deliberate typos and bad jokes, would you believe it? How could you prove otherwise? Nothing about my profile here suggests I'm a real person after all; my designated country of origin is the obviously made-up sounding "United Kingdom". Like, a united kingdom of what? Elves? That sort of "what is artificial and what is real intelligence?" quandary lies at the heart of Bulkhead Interactive's The Turing Test, named for the famous if perhaps inaccurate machine intelligence test that checks if an AI can pass as a human via polite conversation.

As Dr. Ava Turing, presumably no relation given the original Turing didn't seem like the "wife and kids" type, the player is tasked with visiting a research base on the Galilean moon of Europa to locate its missing crew. The crew, it turns out, have deliberately shielded themselves from being detected by the base's nigh-omniscient supercomputer AI T.O.M. and a large part of the plot's mystery is determining whether something's wrong with them or if something's wrong with the AI. To the game's credit, it offers plenty of clues early on to suspect either possibility: the ground team working at the station are there because they found microbial beings deep under Europa's frozen surface, and there's a possibility they've somehow been infected and have turned unreasonably paranoid. Or it could just be the AI's a bad 'un and pulling an Ash from Alien by following unethical secret orders from its corporate overlords of which the human crew were incognizant.

An atypical puzzle. The power to this circuit is cut off by this camera, who seems to have an issue with my presence. Though these battery boxes are often vital for powering up nodes, here they're just needed to block this thing's sightline.
An atypical puzzle. The power to this circuit is cut off by this camera, who seems to have an issue with my presence. Though these battery boxes are often vital for powering up nodes, here they're just needed to block this thing's sightline.

The gameplay flits between a Portal and a Tacoma, with each of the game's chapters broken up into ten puzzle rooms followed by the exploration of a lived-in area of the base that the player can search and interact with for clues surrounding the crew's disappearance, including computer terminals, objects of interest, and audio logs. The puzzle rooms tend to revolve around moving power sources around a room or series of rooms to activate nodes that switch on necessary doors and other mechanical devices, using a pistol that can pull the power from some sources and redistribute it into others. If you've spent time with Final Fantasy X and its many temple puzzle rooms, it's similar to that but with a ranged Portal gun that can transfer those blue energy orbs remotely (though some power sources are locked to their battery-like containers, which adds an extra layer to the puzzle as you physically transport them to where they're needed). The Talos Principle is probably the game's closest antecedent spiritually-speaking; there's some similar laser-based puzzles, and the philosophical musings on artificial intelligence and the game's frequent questioning of your own character's sense of reality and lack of agency in this process has a familiar vibe to it. It's the sort of game narrative approach where it intends to smoosh your brain like putty on multiple levels.

I've presently completed four chapters (or forty rooms) out of a total of seven, and the game's just dropped a huge revelation on us and asked us for a certain amount of faith going forward. Felt like a good time to take a moment to write up my impressions so far, though they may yet change as I approach the back half of the game and the increased difficulty of these final areas. I've only encountered one puzzle room so far that took me longer than five minutes to solve, which probably speaks more to the game's coherent design behind its puzzle scenarios than to my own mental prowess, but I imagine the metaphorical brick walls are going to start popping up in sooner intervals. Mostly, the game's been responsive and intuitive: the two things that can often make or break a physics-y first-person puzzle game like this, though you do get the occasional annoyance with timed sections or areas where you're meant to drop a box onto a switch only for that box to roll off because the physics weren't playing nice that day. Splitting the game into so many discrete puzzle rooms has the additional benefit of not making any one of them overly long or elaborate; some only exist to briefly introduce a new mechanic that future rooms in the same chapter might build upon further, like blocking lasers to disable barriers or differently-colored orbs that only transfer power intermittently thereby creating an on/off activation loop which may or may not prove beneficial. Transferring the orbs with the energy gun only requires a line-of-sight, so the game often factors in windows and other incorporeal obstacles into its solutions, so it's necessary to look at every angle to see what can be accessed remotely.

Immediately after I saw this photo of a crewmember with his wife I wondered if the obvious stock photo forgery was meant to be a plot point. Is this dude crazy? Did the computer fabricate this photo to trick me? Or could it be something much more straightforward, like the guy assigned to creating all the in-game props was only given a week to do so.
Immediately after I saw this photo of a crewmember with his wife I wondered if the obvious stock photo forgery was meant to be a plot point. Is this dude crazy? Did the computer fabricate this photo to trick me? Or could it be something much more straightforward, like the guy assigned to creating all the in-game props was only given a week to do so.

You do run into that Portal quandary where, out of design necessity, if something distinct like a weirdly shaped wall exists in that room it's probably because you need it for the puzzle at some stage; once you've identified everything of that nature, it becomes much easier to connect all these figurative dots and glean the solution. Other than that inescapable quirk of this genre, along with a few typos here and there as well as the unusual choice to provide subtitles for the speaking characters but not for the much more garbled audio logs, the game has exhibited that winning combination of smart and thoughtful between its puzzles and narrative, with lateral thinking conundrums that make perfect logical sense in retrospect (if not always in the moment, though isn't that always the way). I'm always down for these spacebound mystery adventure/puzzle games, and I'm definitely going to see the rest of the game through if I can.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

< Back to 266: Songbird SymphonyThe First 100The Second 100> Forward to 268: Alt-Frequencies
1 Comments

Save Yo' Drama for Yokohama: What to Do in Yakuza 7 Besides the Story

No Caption Provided

Greetings fellow collected underworld figures of the Mentojo Clan to another piece on Yakuza's many extra-curricular activities. As someone who plays far too much of every Yakuza entry that passes my desk, I find myself wanting to wax lyrical about all the side content in the game: mini-games, substories, bonus objectives, and other features that - due to their non-prominence in the game's story - could well go underappreciated or ignored entirely by those that play these games but not to the same overly-thorough degree that I do. And why would they? They have busy lives to lead outside of Kamurocho, after all. That's why I'm here to tell y'all what you may have missed out on, albeit a year or two late to the party.

My usual pattern with Yakuza blogs is to focus on what new ideas each entry introduces to the standard assortment of activities, and whether or not those new additions have been welcome. Yakuza: Like a Dragon, despite the whole new turn-based RPG paradigm, does retain a lot from prior Dragon Engine games like Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2 including a few mini-games left almost entirely as-is with perhaps some new variations. I'll get into those after I'm done listing the new stuff, but suffice it to say that underneath the surface of its shiny new gameplay model much of what Yakuza: Like a Dragon offers in terms of side-content is very much of a muchness with what the franchise has delivered so far.

As for the game itself, well, I've been feeling sort of ambivalent about it so far. I like the new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga - he feels like a smart amalgamation of Kazuma Kiryu (impossibly virtuous, charismatic enough to draw compatriots, and reckless enough to push the story forward whenever it stalls) and Yakuza 5's Tatsuo Shinada (a big trusting goof that becomes a pillar of a community of burnouts, hobos, and other dregs) - as well as the six "party member" companions he recruits. I think Yokohama, the game's primary location, is another well-realized vertical slice of a major Japanese metropolis which, like Kamurocho, has its seedier corners and its much nicer tourist-friendly zones. I think the way the game tries to incorporate RPG tropes and mechanics in a semi-realistic context is both funny and clever, like how "job" classes are literally temp jobs that Kasuga and co. take on; it's kinda amusing that they're never seen doing any of these jobs, just dressed as and wielding the tools of same for the sake of combat. It's great that the game's bestiary follows suit: the regular thugs and hoodlums are all given a once-over by Kasuga's imagination to make them more like Dragon Quest monsters.

However, as a turn-based RPG, the game's often a slog and the difficulty curve is all over the place. There's a particular boss fight in Chapter 12 that's many magnitudes harder than anything you're used to: the game specifically opens up its arena mini-game at this time purely to give the players the extra experience and gear they're going to need to deal with this hump. For story reasons, it makes sense why you'd fight those opponents then, and naturally they're going to be some of the hardest foes you've yet encountered (the series has to keep up appearances for its "legendary" characters), but it's remarkable that the game has to go out of its way to prepare you for a massive difficulty hike - it's a little like how modern MMOs will just let you fast-track through the first fifty or so levels so you can get to the "good parts." Conversely, with the cakewalk regular random encounters, I usually find myself hitting the auto-battle function and letting the game play itself for a while. Maybe it's just the lack of a Komaki Tiger Drop talking, but I find this combat far less engaging than when the series was still a brawler; that format had its ups and downs and was starting to feel its age a bit but if nothing else it was way faster to get past these brawls with the absolute no-hopers that would force you into a fracas whenever you ran down a narrow street or alleyway. The job system does offer a number of different tactical options and party dynamics but since it's so tough to adopt a new profession and be so statistically behind - as characters have both regular character levels and job levels that enhance their stats upon levelling up - it's often better to just stick with whatever combination is currently working when facing the next story boss or dungeon. I think this is something they can and should figure out with the sequels, since it sounds like they intend to stick with Kasuga and this format in the near future (with their Judgment sister series acting as "Coca-Cola Classic" for those of us who miss the brawling), and I've every faith they'll figure it out. If they went full grid-based strategy RPG next time I wouldn't be surprised or opposed either, though I suppose that would make random encounters drag on even longer.

Talking of dragging on (and dragons), let's finally get into how else Yakuza: Like a Dragon is not like some other Yakuzas:

Business Management

An evolution of the real estate empire a younger Kazuma Kiryu runs in Yakuza 0 as his major side-activity in that game, the goal of Like a Dragon's business management mini-game is to become the top company by share price in Yokohama, starting as a modest senbei store (senbei are rice crackers, as far as I can tell) and eventually acquiring other businesses and staffing them with competent personnel able to wring the most sales out of them. Like the street gang sim from Yakuza 6, this is a mini-game that gets easier after you go out into the world and complete substories and talk to many people: most of the best hires you can get for your company are unlocked through means outside of the mini-game itself. It's then a matter of assigning the right people to the right roles based on three criteria - their ability to push product, their customer service, and their notability as a means to draw in interest - and using the money you earn to either promote people, train them, motivate them with perks, buy new businesses, or upgrade the businesses you have. After every four earning quarters, you have a shareholder meaning where you have to convince a panel you're doing a good job: these work closer to a regular RPG fight, as you send out employees to counter and "fight" each shareholder until they're satisfied. A good performance with the shareholders is what boosts the share price the most, which in turn unlocks new opportunities as you rise through the ranks.

What does a chimp even need with ¥180,000? Peanuts don't cost that much. It sucks that the circus has such a strong union.
What does a chimp even need with ¥180,000? Peanuts don't cost that much. It sucks that the circus has such a strong union.

It's one of those mini-games that seems overwhelming when you first take it all in, but proves to be deceptively simple once you have the hang of its loop. I realized right away that borrowing money would be a terrible idea - all have interest rates to deal with, so it never works out in the long run - and that I'd get the best returns spending almost all the money I had on upgrades and decently-trained employees. Every time I ranked up and had access to new businesses, I'd spend almost every yen I had on buying those businesses up, hiring good people to run them, and getting both the business and the employees upgraded as high as possible. And then just the first few money-earning cycles alone would bring in the same amount I'd just spent, easily validating the expense. You don't actually get to keep the money that your business earns - major bummer when you start talking billions later on - but the CEO bonuses you get after every shareholder meeting are no joke: I'm now getting millions of yen after every meeting, which is enough for most of the game's bigger expenses like upgrading the local gear-crafting center or shopping at the city's priciest illegal arms merchant (another familiar if inexplicable cameo). Unlike most of the other mini-games that operate as distractions and an occasional means to earn rare items or the in-game achievements (and sometimes actual achievements), the vast amount of money you earn from pushing your business to the top of the food chain is instrumental to the core game.

Can Quest

The first mini-game you unlock shows up after Kasuga wakes up in a trash heap with a hastily stitched bullet wound and makes good with the local homeless population, whom tend to be the unsung heroes of the franchise thanks to small but notable roles throughout each game. Here, the goal is to collect as many cans in what I can only describe as a competitive eco-friendly Pac-Man: driving through cans adds them to your total, while hitting obstacles and getting run over by other competitors or the garbage truck means losing them. You only earn peanuts from recycling these cans - for one, it's important the economy of this chapter of the game stays on the right side of the decimal point - but you can trade for some very valuable items with enough cans in the bank.

Turns out the CC in CC Lemon stands for crush and conquer.
Turns out the CC in CC Lemon stands for crush and conquer.

I found this mini-game pretty fun, though it ideally works best in spurts and only on the highest difficulty where there's some degree of challenge and enough of a reward to be worth the investment. Like a Dragon does a smart game design thing here by having the prizes be apparently worthless stuff you'll occasionally need at intervals, like a substory or fetch quest that only opens up four chapters later, so you're constantly being given reasons to stop by and cycle around collecting trash aluminum and avoiding your rivals. If nothing else interests you, you can always grab some Persona 5 music to listen to at your group's hang-out bar.

Dragon Kart

Yakuza's no stranger to driving games: Yakuza 5 had an elaborate Initial D street-racing parody and at least two Yakuza games had you competing in remote control car circuit racing (it's called Scalextric in the UK, but I've no idea how far afield that brand recognition goes). Dragon Kart combines the two, creating a Mario Kart riff (or, perhaps more accurately, a Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing riff) where between races you can buy and modify new karts for the horsepower and handling you need to beat the tougher tracks and rival racers. It's pretty much a kart racer down to its bones, including power-ups that you can preserve until they're needed and an emphasis on drifting around corners and hitting the course zippers whenever you see them.

I guess racing against a sumo wrestler and a bunny girl is fun, but I was hoping for Amigo, Ulala, and Vyse from Skies of Arcadia. You'll get your time to shine again, Sonic & Sega All-Stars.
I guess racing against a sumo wrestler and a bunny girl is fun, but I was hoping for Amigo, Ulala, and Vyse from Skies of Arcadia. You'll get your time to shine again, Sonic & Sega All-Stars.

I've been saving it for the end- or post-game since it requires cash to get anywhere, but once I'm kitted out with the best gear money can buy I'll be finding other ways to spend that lucre. What little I've seen has been enjoyable for a mini-game; kart racers have always been a crapshoot for me beyond Diddy Kong Racing and the original Super Mario Kart (i.e. the only good kart racers) because of how those games are encouraged to rubberband you to hell and back, but its uncommon focus on improving performance through developing parts and picking the right kart for the job makes Dragon Kart a slightly more interesting single-player experience. Like I said, for an optional mini-game it's probably far better than it needs to be.

Seagull Cinema

Close to the restaurant district is an old cinema that plays "classics" (that is, overdramatic parodies of popular movies) that Kasuga can watch alone or with a friend. The basic conceit is that Kasuga has so much ADHD that sitting through a two-hour movie without dozing off is near-impossible, so the mini-game has you batting away REM-inducing nightmare sheep-humans in a whack-a-mole fashion in order to stay awake throughout the whole movie. It's like something out of Catherine.

You'd be forgiven for thinking this creep was about to snap my neck. I got the same vibe.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this creep was about to snap my neck. I got the same vibe.

There's not a whole lot to the mini-game besides having fast reactions (and not hitting the chicken-humans, since they're here to help) but the goofy line reads coming from the terrible movies is enough motivation to watch all ten. I'm curious how they sound in the dubbed version, since VAs often have a ball when told to act badly on purpose. Plus, it's also a good way to build up your bond levels with your companions. The constant bleating can get old fast though...

Vocational School

Kasuga going to vocational school feels part and parcel with the early portions of the game's story, after Ichiban's served almost two decades in jail, is unceremoniously ignored by his former yakuza patriarch, and winds up in Yokohama near-dead with little direction in life. He's determined to get off the streets and that leads to part-time work and helping out an elderly madam for the spare room in her makeshift brothel. That dirt-poor optimism early on as a bunch of middle-aged men slowly get back on their feet is one of the strengths of the game's relatable ensemble of losers; not exactly a rags to riches story, but at least rags to a presentable suit without bulletholes.

I love that everyone's stoked that you passed. Some real esprit de corps from these autodidactic dorks.
I love that everyone's stoked that you passed. Some real esprit de corps from these autodidactic dorks.

The vocational school itself is simply a place where you can take trivia tests: there's twenty quizzes you can take on a variety of subjects and you're required to get at least three of the five multiple-choice prompts correct to pass. Passing the test nets you some pretty major personality stat boosts (they're similar to the personality stats in games like Persona, or really any dating sim) though the tests are expensive to sit and you don't get anything for failing. I did my very best to not look anything up on the internet like a cheater, but there's some real esoteric business in there and the more Japan-focused questions didn't help. I sometimes wonder how translators agonize about localizing those and the similar questions you were asked in Persona games; either you keep them as-is and alienate those who don't know anything that specific about Japanese history and culture, or you change them and alienate those that are absolutely that deep into their weeb studies and are playing the semi-realistic Nihon-'em-up sims that are the Yakuza games for that same reason. Sorta like how fans reacted when Sega of America took all the mahjong and koi-koi and hostesses out. What a dark, unsexy time that was.

Part-Time Hero

Part-Time Hero was when the other shoe dropped for me, because Yakuza games have always packed to the gills with bonus objectives to pursue: eating at all the restaurants, mastering all the mini-games, or grappling with the glitchy claw machines long enough that you finally collect all the Super Monkey Ball monkeys again. Yakuza: Like a Dragon didn't have anything like that when you first start out, but a few chapters in they're introduced as part of this Part-Time Hero smartphone app that allows people to call in a fighter to help them take down aggressors and conmen harrassing them in the street; it's sort of like an "Uber Beats." You're quickly dragooned into joining this service and can use it to earn rewards for certain special encounters, completing fetch quests, or taking down groups of specific enemy types. The other side to it are the challenges, which is where all the usual game-wide objectives can be found.

Finding this one guy some toilet paper became a recurring game-wide quest. Always check before you sit down, dude.
Finding this one guy some toilet paper became a recurring game-wide quest. Always check before you sit down, dude.

Yakuza 7 is like Yakuza 6 in that they've become a little more lenient on behalf of achievement hunters - rather than 100% of these challenges, you only need to complete just over half for the related trophy - but you certainly have plenty to be getting on with in that list if you've completed everything else and are jonesing for more Yakuza content. That said, you could probably just wait a year or two and another one will have come out.

The Rest

Far as I can tell, most of these mini-games (with a few exceptions) have been left as-is since their last inclusion in Yakuza 6 or Kiwami 2. They're enjoyable time-wasters with their own reward systems - mostly CDs and character development items like the magazines, though they have the occasional high-quality gear sold at a premium - but largely unchanged. Obviously, you're still going to play them to completion if you have the same brain worms I do, but it's a little disheartening to see how many mini-games crossed over as-is given how different everything else is. Still, it's better to have them than to not.

Batting Center: The Batting Center offers the same courses it usually does, with the player returning pitches with precision timing to score home-runs. Each course has ten pitches which, despite having some tricky trajectories, are the same every time: even if you get caught unaware by a few of the curveballs and sinkers, you can memorize the pattern and get a perfect result on subsequent attempts. Just a matter of patience, really. CDs available: PSO 2, NiGHTs, and Rent A Hero (not the in-game Part-Time Hero service, but the unlocalized Mega Drive game; gotta imagine one inspired the other though).

Golf: Golf returns from Yakuza Kiwami 2 (I don't recall if it's in the original; I want to say the first time I played a Yakuza golf game was in Yakuza 3) and has a similar premise as the baseball challenges, in that you have a couple of mini-game premises that would work in a driving range format. The first has you driving the ball as close to the pin as possible - it's kinda like Super Monkey Ball, but without the monkeys - and the second seen in the screenshot included requires you to hit as many of these nine panels as you can in ten shots, with later shots complicated by heavier wind and the panels suddenly moving around. I'm kinda glad I don't have to worry about my short game, since it's awful, but then I also think Yakuza could do something really fun with mini-golf. I mean, besides beating up punks with a putter by the side of a windmill.

Get Clap Hanz on the phone and do this up right, Sega. I wanna see Ristar in a sand trap. Have Ecco make a birdie on a Par 5 by backflip-smacking a ball right out of a water hazard. Have Death Adder be the one who side-swiped Tiger Woods's SUV. Cowards, the lot of you!
Get Clap Hanz on the phone and do this up right, Sega. I wanna see Ristar in a sand trap. Have Ecco make a birdie on a Par 5 by backflip-smacking a ball right out of a water hazard. Have Death Adder be the one who side-swiped Tiger Woods's SUV. Cowards, the lot of you!

Darts: Same darts as before, with its three variations - the one where you aim for a specific total, the one where you take dominion of parts of the board before you can earn points in them, and the one where you just try to score the highest. I found it pretty easy with just the standard darts you can buy from the nearby attendant, but you can making the timing mini-game easier still with the higher value darts. I always find it weird that you carry darts with you wherever you go in these later Yakuza games but are never allowed to throw them at enemies. Is the game of darts that sacrosanct?

Karaoke: Having multiple companions in this one means everyone gets their own separate special karaoke performances, not just Kiryu and/or Majima. It's still as tough as ever on its highest difficulty: like the more recent games, you can choose a softer "casual back-up" over the harder "passionate back-up" (this only applies to songs your companions sing; there's only one difficulty for Ichiban's singing). Karaoke has the same issue as ever: you're constantly distracted by all the crazy pyrotechnic effects and costuming going on in the performances but you need to focus on the timeline of buttons to hit if you want to actually do well. I've been checking them on YouTube instead.

Mahjong / Shogi: These are still the same too, but then they are board games that have existed for a thousand years. One feature introduced in... I want to say around Yakuza 6 but maybe earlier is that they actually give you the numbers for the character tiles: previously, you just had to memorize the kanji. There's a bunch of info on winning hands and the like too, but if you've followed Giant Bomb's "This is the Ron" feature you should already know them all by heart. Remember the best tactic: always go for Thirteen Orphans. Never fails. (Shogi, meanwhile, remains as enigmatic as ever. I looked up all the puzzle shogi solutions for some quick reward points, which I needed to buy the soundtracks for Valkyria Chronicles and Feel the Magic: XY/XX. No amount of complex Asian chess can get between me and my Sakimoto OSTs.)

I had some high hopes for this hand once I got a couple of green dragons. Of course, the guy on my right immediately Tsumo'd after this screenshot. Story of my friggin' life, I tell ya.
I had some high hopes for this hand once I got a couple of green dragons. Of course, the guy on my right immediately Tsumo'd after this screenshot. Story of my friggin' life, I tell ya.

Arcades: This was the most disappointing. Sega has a huge library of arcade games, including some that have never seen a home version of any kind, and yet the offering here is identical to that in Yakuza 6: OutRun, Fantasy Zone, Space Harrier, and two of the Virtua Fighters. They don't even have a weird bespoke one like Boxcelios. None of the arcade games besides Virtua Fighter offer completion bonuses either, side-lining them even further. They could've at least brought back Taiko Drum Master from Yakuza 5 and filled it with Majima boss fight themes or something. Laaaaame. (Then again, after seeing what they're doing to Sonic Origins, maybe Sega is following Nintendo's example too closely these days.)

Gambling: The gambling mini-games have been pared down to just the four: poker, blackjack, koi-koi, and oicho-kabu. I believe the last of those is what leant the yakuza their name, so it's kind of a mandatory inclusion. The poker is, of course, in the Texas hold 'em style and has been pleasantly easy: the AI isn't the most sophisticated, though I came close to getting carried away in raising the stakes a few times. Good source of cash at least if you really don't like the business management game. Also, something about how the game helps you out with the hanafuda games makes them easier to deal with somehow. There's an easy enough pattern to follow - the more elaborate-looking cards score higher, generally - but it's not always clear which moves are the legal ones. I've heard the hanafuda in that Clubhouse Games on Switch is a similarly good gateway too. (There's also the pachi-slots, but that required a separate 10GB DLC pack. I ain't freeing up that kind of space for dang ol' pachi-slots.)

Anyway, that's an exhaustive enough rundown of the new and old mini-games in Yakuza: Like a Dragon and my impressions of same. I've been considering ranking all the mini-games from across the whole franchise, though my memories of some of the older ones might be getting too hazy and I've not played the updated Yakuza Kiwamis yet (nor will I, probably, unless the Yakuza franchise ends tomorrow and I start to get desperate). It's almost always worth spending a little time with them all, whether they have rewards you can use or not, and since I've yet to reach this game's Amon fight yet to update this blog I think this should be enough of my impressions of this game. I'll see you all again 'round Kamurocho way when I finally give Lost Judgment a spin.

Part of a series on Sega's Yakuza
Yakuza 2Yakuza 4Judgment
Yakuza 2 (Mahjong)Yakuza 4
Yakuza 3Yakuza 0
3 Comments

64 in 64: Episode 12

No Caption Provided

Video games. They're pretty cool. One such device that played video games was called the Nintendo 64 and it existed at a magical time for pop culture called the late-'90s and early-'00s, where the songs topping the charts included insightful ballads about sticking with your crappy girlfriend for the sex and being a wild wild west man and movies had CGI special effects that were practically indistinguishable from real life, like whatever this is. However, for as utopian as this era sounds, not every game that graced the N64 was a winner. That's going to create a sticky issue for Nintendo specifically, as they're looking to fill their Nintendo Switch Online service with the best that system had to offer. I'm certain the only reason they're making the process of adding new content to an absurdly expensive monthly subscription as slow as humanly possible is simply because they don't remember which games are the good ones.

That's where 64 in 64 comes in: a partially-random review process in which I scrutinize as many of the 388 games released on the Nintendo 64 as possible. Granted, I was hoping for more forgotten gems than I've currently been receiving from the random selection process, but the way I see it the more dreck we get out of the way with early the more gold remains to be appreciated later. Delayed gratification and whatnot. With that optimistic sense of wonder in our hearts, let's launch into some cold, hard rules:

  1. I play two N64 games a week. One has been selected by me, the other chosen by a malevolent entity determined to punish me for all my many sins (also known as a browser tool called the "Random Chooser").
  2. I'm playing them both for sixty-four minutes each exactly, with progression check-ins after every sixteen minute interval. I thought about eight eight-minute intervals, but how many ways can you say "I just want to die"?
  3. I'll let you know if I feel the game is ready for another shot in the spotlight, or if it's like that Notre Dame Dracula they just found that I'm almost certain we shouldn't be trying to exhume.
  4. Talking of burning and cathedrals, the fourteen N64 games currently on the NSO service are like holy water: if 64 in 64 goes anywhere near them, it'll burst into flames.

We've reached the twelfth episode, but where are all the others? Click these links to solve this groovy mystery: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5, Episode 6, Episode 7, Episode 8, Episode 9, Episode 10, and Episode 11.

Programming Note: This is going to be the last episode of this "season" of 64 in 64, as we head into next month and I embark on my usual time-consuming "May Madness" blogging antics. Some folks seem to be into these weekends of blurry, self-inflicted torture, so I might bring it back around autumn or winter. Some new and exciting features planned for the summer though, so stay tuned.

Hybrid Heaven (Pre-Selected)

No Caption Provided
  • KCEO / Konami
  • 1999-08-05 (JP), 1999-08-31 (NA), 1999-09-24 (EU)
  • 231st N64 Game Released

History: Despite a string of memorable hits across the arcades and early consoles, by 1999 Konami were firmly established as "the Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid guys" and similar cinematic action-shooter games would go on to define much of their output during the N64/PS1 era and beyond. Hybrid Heaven is one such experiment: a game that combined a very MGS (or maybe that one Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode) plot where aliens take over the US government using genetically modified clones, and chose to supplement the genre-customary stealthy action gameplay with a mostly turn-based RPG combat mode inspired by pro-wrestling. To say the game was divisive was an understatement, taking into account also the degree of marketing hype built around it and the absence of a N64 MGS port to compensate. For N64 owners at the time, this was pretty much "we have Metal Gear Solid at home."

Hybrid Heaven comes to us courtesy of Konami's Osakan branch, KCEO, whom we've already met twice before with the considerably more beloved Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon and Goemon's Great Adventure (Episodes 3 and 9, respectively). Sadly, after this all we'll have left from this wing of the major third-party studio is a mahjong game, a crappy fighter (like the system doesn't have enough of those), and like a dozen sports games. Hopefully this'll be the last time we see them, but I know how my luck is with this feature's random selection process. (I'm hoping for some games from their short-lived Kobe division instead: they made the Castlevanias, Rakugakids, and the Disney DDR game.)

Just so I don't burn through all the games on the list of undisputed classics within the first dozen 64 in 64 episodes, Hybrid Heaven comes from my slightly lower caste of "dubious favorites" that I'll be pulling from regularly. I had a blast with the game back in the day, constantly unlocking new suplexes and piledrivers to use against weird tentacle monsters while ravenously consuming its ridiculous B-movie plot: something Konami used to do very well. For as much as I enjoy the N64's many vaunted masterpieces this sort of enthusiastic, imaginative trash is frequently what I live for.

16 Minutes In

Mr. Diaz and his leather jacket only have the one weapon: the Defuser. This device can disable robots, like these sentry drones, but is useless against organic creatures. That's where the game's other half comes in.
Mr. Diaz and his leather jacket only have the one weapon: the Defuser. This device can disable robots, like these sentry drones, but is useless against organic creatures. That's where the game's other half comes in.

My memories of this game came flooding back almost as soon as I was done with the intro, and what an intro it is: you have a black-haired dude named Johnny, the apparent protagonist, as he watches TV, skulks around his apartment, listens to a voicemail message from his estranged girlfriend, and answers the door to a man who conspiratorially whispers something about replacing the President of the United States when "their operatives are in place." Johnny is completely nude throughout all of this, incidentally. He then meets a "Mr. Diaz" in the subway (by this time he's clothed) and instantly gets murdered for his trouble, with the action switching to Diaz as he's taken underground to a high-tech facility for reasons yet unknown. I mean, I know them, but then the particulars of this grand sci-fi conspiracy plot have long since been etched into my gray matter. For now, I've been exploring this underground facility listening to its BGM and trying not to draw any parallels between it and MGS2's Big Shell (there must've been a lot of notes getting passed back and forth as far as I can tell).

Man, I'm actually excited to be playing this again; excitement that I know will dissipate the first time I'm required to engage with its puroresu combat. Still, I hope to progress through as much of this game as possible before the time limit is up, though as a RPG hybrid (the title's not just a non-sequitur) I can't imagine that'll be too far. I suspect I won't even make it out of the Diaz portion of the game.

32 Minutes In

An aggressive bio-genetic monster has chosen to pick a fight. Normally you'd want a shotgun or at least a combat knife for a fracas like this, but kicking him in his mutant junk works just as well.
An aggressive bio-genetic monster has chosen to pick a fight. Normally you'd want a shotgun or at least a combat knife for a fracas like this, but kicking him in his mutant junk works just as well.

More underground lab business. We automatically start tinkering with a computer spitting out a bunch of alien language until it opens all the cell doors for the biological experiments down here; my dude did that on purpose to create enough mayhem that he can do his dark deeds without anyone observing too closely, seeing as they have a bunch of weird monsters to worry about instead, but it does create the minor issue of also having to deal with these things whenever one corners us. This is where the turn-based combat comes in, though I forgot it's actually mostly real-time. How it works is that you and your opponent pace around looking for an opening while a power gauge fills. If you can wait until it's completely full, get into range, and then activate the combat menu you can get in a decent hit before the enemy can retaliate. When on the defensive, you can choose to counter, guard, or side-step an attack: I believe success is determined by the type of attack that's coming your way, making it a bit of a rock-paper-scissors type of scenario. Another factor is that the enemies are often built different, with different body parts being vulnerable to harm (or invulnerable). This factors into which arm or leg you use to attack, left or right, and where both of you are standing when the attack is activated. Strafing around to an enemy's weaker side is a strategy that might come up later, as will be things like grapples and chokes when I eventually unlock them. Right now, all I can do is punch and kick, though more moves will show up eventually (I forget how, maybe it's a levelling up thing? I'm doing that, too).

The action outside of these battles is considerably more straightforward. You can aim and shoot your Defuser at mechanical sentries, jump over obstacles (if close enough, you climb over them instead), and crawl under barriers. Exploration nets you recovery items and you can talk to NPCs for hints; they think you're Diaz, so they're not hostile. It's all been relatively accessible so far, and as the game is closer to MGS than RE there's no tank controls to worry about either.

48 Minutes In

A dead end. Most of these laser gates have a nearby panel you can shoot to turn it off, but not here. Feels like this glowy thing in the middle should do something though.
A dead end. Most of these laser gates have a nearby panel you can shoot to turn it off, but not here. Feels like this glowy thing in the middle should do something though.

Embarrassingly, I got my ass kicked by some dumpy-looking jerk wearing a fanny pack, so I'm back at the start of this second area of the lab after reloading. I should probably mention now that the entire game is set in this one location, and you just keep descending floors until you eventually find what your dude is looking for. Hybrid Heaven definitely has one of those "need to know" sort of narrative delivery formats, where much is kept from the player until the game deems it necessary to fill us in. Great at establishing a certain degree of mystique but it's a little frustrating to be kept in the dark too. Given how linear it's been up to now though, not knowing my character's motivations isn't affecting the game's progression much.

Even more deliberately obtuse than the narrative is the combat system, though I believe I figured out how to unlock new moves. By using a part of your body enough times - left arm, right arm, left leg, and right leg - you level up its offensive quotient, and that might be what unlocks new techniques. It might also be that, like Grandia, you have to progress far enough with a number of different skills to unlock the more elaborate maneuvers. That's one of the reasons it's worth varying up your approach, in addition to making it harder for the CPU to predict your next action and evade it (though who can say if you can truly fool an AI with these sorts of footsies). While MGS1 is the clear-cut comparison to make, I'm actually getting more of a Vagrant Story vibe: just exploring these levels, jumping on and off boxes, and slowly sussing out the nuances of a Byzantine combat system.

64 Minutes In

Wouldn't be an MGS riff without a whole lot of shimmying. Fortunately, I don't have to spend thirty minutes building up my delts with pull-ups first.
Wouldn't be an MGS riff without a whole lot of shimmying. Fortunately, I don't have to spend thirty minutes building up my delts with pull-ups first.

All right, I'm revising my understanding of the combat mechanics again. My new theory is that you learn moves after having them done to you, because that's how I unlocked the hook punches. Those arrived courtesy of the aforementioned fanny pack fanatic that, fortunately, went down this time after enough convincing, and I was able to make it a little further along before my time with this game was up. I also learned that many new techniques become available if you attack an enemy prone on the ground, including the Boston Crab and leg locks. Good way to ensure an enemy won't get back up, even if you can't put a lot of power into them. As far as the current narrative is going, the various jumpsuited NPC drones working down here have now been informed of Diaz's betrayal and are looking to take me down; they're smarter if not tougher than all the monsters down here, and capable of healing themselves with items like I do, which also makes them great punching and/or kicking bags if I need to practice with a specific limb.

It might sound bizarre, but I was getting into this playthrough and wanted to keep going after the compulsory sixty-four minutes. Doing so would be a violation of whatever dumb rules I invented, but if nothing else it's an indication that this game hasn't aged as poorly I dreaded. Either that, or its problems are more related to long-term fatigue: the combat engine is sophisticated enough that the game is probably going to take a long time to roll all those new techniques out, and nothing about the running around and platforming indicates that it has as much innovation or variance in the tank to keep up. While I didn't even make it down two floors - mostly the fault of that game over, which is just a less ego-bruising way of saying El Chumpo over here screwed up - my perhaps implausible nostalgic affection for this game still persists.

How Well Has It Aged?: S'fine. It may well become too repetitive before long, but the curiosity piqued by both its mystery plot and its equally mysterious combat systems means that it gets its hooks in almost from the jump. Despite action-adventure games with antiquated control schemes often feeling like total horse pucky to play mere years afterwards, Hybrid Heaven's controls have been super intuitive and easy to work with. Its environments are simple enough to traverse, perhaps to their ultimate detriment, and the combat really feels like something you could invest a lot of time into figuring out if you were so inclined, rather than perfunctory showdowns designed to break up the platforming acrobatics with some fisticuffs.

Chance of Switch Online Inclusion: Konami. My current expectations are that either Konami's heart grows three sizes over the current year and they get all the way on board and drop all their non-sports games on NSO, or they don't bother at all unless someone else does the work for them. If they only end up porting a few, it'll be the Goemon, Bomberman, and maybe Castlevania games that'll be first in line - and that's only if Konami can't find a way to put them into compilations and sell them at a premium instead.

Blues Brothers 2000 (Random)

No Caption Provided

History: The Blues Brothers, from 1980 featuring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, is one of the best feature films to come from the Saturday Night Live stable of recurring characters. A movie full of wit, heart, good music, and a gleefully destructive car chase through a shopping mall. Eighteen years and at least three dead cast members later, someone thought it best to make a belated sequel: Blues Brothers 2000, which replaced Belushi with John Goodman, Joe Morton, and some kid. Far as I know, absolutely no-one liked that movie, which could be why it was deemed deserving of a tie-in game. Actually, it was more like Titus Interactive were hoping that the sequel would become as popular as the original and anything with its name slapped on it would sell equally well, and commissioned a game that feels like it took six months to make but ended up coming out two years after the movie did, long after everyone had blocked it out. So far, so promising, right?

Player 1's a bit of a mystery. Despite a number of notable N64 games like Robotron 64 and Milo's Astro Lanes (both of which they developed on behalf of Crave Entertainment) there's not a whole lot about them out there on the 'net that I can find. There's another Player 1 that recently released a bizarre hacking game called Cybermere on Steam last year, but I've no idea if it's the same company and given the seventeen year gap between games I suspect not. Titus is a bit more famous: they were a major French publisher in a similar vein as Infogrames. Around this time they were slowly building up an Embracer Group-style stable - by 2000 they had acquired BlueSky Software and had set their sights on CRPG powerhouse Interplay - but juggling all those studios proved too much to handle and they filed for bankruptcy in 2004. One of the last companies they bought was, probably not so coincidentally, this game's European publishers Virgin Interactive.

It might sound strange to say this about a movie with car chases, narrow stealth escapes, Illinois Nazis, pissed off country band hicks, and Princess Leia with a bazooka, but the original The Blues Brothers is far from what I would call ideal video game adaptation material. The poorly-received sequel is almost certainly less so, though without the pleasure of watching it (I put some work into researching these things, but there's a limit) I can't say for sure how ill-advised this tie-in was. Were it not for all its terrible review scores, I'd almost be hopeful of this playthrough: it's the first 3D platformer on this feature I'm not already super familiar with. Well... there's 64 minutes on the timer, I've got a full bottle of water, half a pack of Oreos, it's still light out, and I lost my sunglasses. Hit it.

16 Minutes In

Elwood was always distinguishable as 'the tall one' between the Blues Brothers, but every enemy in this game towers above him. I guess it's true what they say: prison makes you shrink.
Elwood was always distinguishable as 'the tall one' between the Blues Brothers, but every enemy in this game towers above him. I guess it's true what they say: prison makes you shrink.

Man, this game has "an attempt was made" written all over it. It is, as previously stated, a 3D platformer though one that has opted for a stage-based structure, with each stage being a short (like five minute) mini-game or platforming sequence. The example above is a boss fight that's actually a memory challenge, where ground-pounding one of these lunch trays reveals a symbol that you have to pair up with its twin. Other stages have included a One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest navigation mini-game where you direct people tied up in straitjackets to the prison nurse (they always follow the opposite of whatever directions you suggest), another where you run through electrified gates at the right point of their cycles, and a stage where you use vents to reach a sequence of buttons. Strong Donkey Kong 64 comparisons to be made, especially as the UI suggests there's going to be four playable characters (the same ones from the movie) once I've rescued them all.

The controls are a little awkward and the camera even more so, and some of these graphics are just wowsers, with the overall result feeling very much like a pale imitation trying to follow the genre leaders Nintendo and Rare, but it's also... not terrible? I was expecting a half-finished mess unceremoniously abandoned on some doorstep like the Blues Brothers themselves, but it's been fine so far. Not something I'd recommend wholeheartedly or even half-heartedly mind, but also not a catastrophe that would draw out any latent AVGN diatribes. I'm almost done (I think?) with the first "world," which is the prison Elwood got locked up in after the end of The Blues Brothers, so maybe the game runs out of ideas fast and later stages are either terrible or way too similar to this first batch.

32 Minutes In

I hope this dude was in the movie, because otherwise this character model is going to get somebody into trouble.
I hope this dude was in the movie, because otherwise this character model is going to get somebody into trouble.

The issues are making themselves more apparent the more of this I play. First is this awful rhythm mini-game that this gentleman makes us partake in every time we talk to him: either something's off about the emulation (anything rhythm-based is compromised the moment you introduce emulator lag to it) or it just sucked to begin in. The cafeteria fight also had a weird camera bug where it would get stuck behind the fourth wall so you couldn't see anything if you walked far enough forward. Combat's pretty wretched too, in part because some enemies don't stagger when you hit them so you'll always leave yourself open to counterattacks.

The soundtrack's kinda odd: the N64 didn't have redbook audio so while the game has a few of the licensed songs from the movie most of them are instrumental, like its version of Otis Redding's "Respect," but Mack Rice's "Cheaper to Keep Her" regularly employs a voice sample of a female vocalist singing the title. As the track itself has sort of a laid-back vibe the game uses it for its sneakier levels, like the nighttime prison yard area in this screenshot, but just having the BGM sing-whisper "it's cheaper to keep her" every few seconds creates a bizarre atmosphere. What does sneaking through a prison have to do with not wanting to divorce your wife for financial reasons?

48 Minutes In

Nothing but cop cars and limos, as far as the eye can see. That's Chicago for ya. Hey, remember when the Blues Brothers had a car? That would've been a fun thing to include in this video game.
Nothing but cop cars and limos, as far as the eye can see. That's Chicago for ya. Hey, remember when the Blues Brothers had a car? That would've been a fun thing to include in this video game.

After one final prison-based stage where I had to elude searchlights by jumping over them (that's not how that works) I found myself in Chicago, or at least a comically exaggerated version of Chicago that might've appeared in Garfield: Lasagna World Tour. The game's structure at this point feels a little more obfuscated: to get to the other half of this initial street area, I first have to go into an alley to find a wrench that'll open the way to the sewers, and in there turn on Chicago's water (I'm surprised no-one's noticed it's off) to activate a fire hydrant that should shoot me up to the next part of the game. However, while I found the wrench I've yet to find the manhole it opens: there's a few in the middle of this road but I don't think they're the right ones. I keep getting hit by cars trying to figure out the button to open them, for one thing. Nothing in the alley area pointed to a manhole either - though there is another locked door that won't budge - so I'm temporarily stuck for now. I'd try Bing, but using it to search for "manholes" is just asking for trouble.

I believe I was mistaken earlier about being able to switch characters like in DK64. I did rescue Cab Blues (played by Joe Morton in the movie) from prison but I haven't been able to discover any way to switch characters or figure out if there's even any point in doing so. The game also took until now to tell me that Elwood has a ranged attack - he throws his hat like Oddjob - which would've been useful against all those enemies I couldn't stun-lock in the previous world. I've only myself to blame for not reading the manual, I suppose.

64 Minutes In

Are Chicago's sewers just full of lumberjacks that get washed all the way down from Ontario? Is this something only locals know about?
Are Chicago's sewers just full of lumberjacks that get washed all the way down from Ontario? Is this something only locals know about?

After an embarrassingly long while I eventually found the right manhole (it was in the middle of the busy street after all; it just wasn't one of the two I'd already checked) and made my way down into the sewer. The sewer was just a very, very long tunnel filled with vicious turtles, alligators, unexplained tentacles poking out of pipes, big angry dudes with moustaches (see above), and massive pits that you could just about jump over if you got right to the edge before leaping. At the end, I walked out the exit only to find that I'd missed the valve that turned the water on, so I had to do the whole thing again. After approximately 7 miles, 20 minutes, and 3,460 "it's cheaper to keep her"s later I was back out and ready to explore the upper areas of Chicago with whatever remaining seconds I had left. The first window I jumped into had another rhythm dancing mini-game - none of which, by the by, give you any rewards whatsoever - that the final timer alert mercifully cut short.

Good gravy, y'all. I knew when planning this feature that I'd need to gird myself for the many Super Mario 64/Banjo-Kazooie-imitating "also-jumped"s that showed up on the N64, but this was a rough one to start with. What began as an accessible if not particularly exciting "stages connected by a hub" structure descended into this obtuse, circuitous progression so fast it made my saxophone spin and reaching Chicago and immediately seeing two differently-colored wrenches in my grayed-out list of key items was disheartening to say the least. Is there really anything golden wrenches can do that white ones cannot?

How Well Has It Aged?: I guess about as well as John Belushi did? Look, I realize these tie-in contract developers had a hard time meeting some very strict deadlines and having to sleep at night after being an accomplice in what is essentially a way to grift impressionable grammies into buying games with familiar names for their less-memorably-named grandchildren. As a piece of cultural detritus it has value, of a sort, but as a game it probably should've been left in the past, much like The Blues Brothers license circa 1998.

Chance of Switch Online Inclusion: Practically Zero. Titus Interactive and Virgin Interactive are long gone, Dan Aykroyd's too busy trying to sell crystal skulls full of vodka to aliens to care about producing any more Blues Brothers, and SNL doesn't like reminders of the time when it was still funny. I can't imagine who'd go to bat for this game. I can, however, imagine many who would take a bat to this game, myself included. (I need to lay off the coffee, damn.)

Current Ranking

  1. Super Mario 64 (Ep. 1)
  2. Diddy Kong Racing (Ep. 6)
  3. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon (Ep. 3)
  4. Goemon's Great Adventure (Ep. 9)
  5. Pokémon Snap (Ep. 11)
  6. Banjo-Tooie (Ep. 10)
  7. Mischief Makers (Ep. 5)
  8. Hybrid Heaven (Ep. 12)
  9. Blast Corps (Ep. 4)
  10. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (Ep. 2)
  11. Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber (Ep. 4)
  12. Spider-Man (Ep. 8)
  13. Bomberman 64 (Ep. 8)
  14. Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers (Ep. 7)
  15. Hot Wheels Turbo Racing (Ep. 9)
  16. San Francisco Rush 2049 (Ep. 4)
  17. Fighter Destiny 2 (Ep. 6)
  18. Tetris 64 (Ep. 1)
  19. NBA Live '99 (Ep. 3)
  20. Rampage 2: Universal Tour (Ep. 5)
  21. South Park Rally (Ep. 2)
  22. Armorines: Project S.W.A.R.M. (Ep. 7)
  23. Eikou no St. Andrews (Ep. 1)
  24. Rally Challenge 2000 (Ep. 10)
  25. Monster Truck Madness 64 (Ep. 11)
  26. F-1 World Grand Prix II (Ep. 3)
  27. F1 Racing Championship (Ep. 2)
  28. Blues Brothers 2000 (Ep. 12)
1 Comments