Monday, August 29, 2011

A Fighting Robot And An Institution: A Look Back At Mega Man

I looked through past blog posts and realized that I never did a post on what may be the best pure series of action games to ever be released. That series not only helped define a genre, but it put a publisher on its back for years. That series is Mega Man, and while every game in the series wasn't perfect, they were better than most of the games being released in the market and the earlier games in the series still hold up today.

Mega Man (or Rockman as it's known in Japan), was first given life on the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987. The first game in the series was revolutionary in that it allowed players to select the order in which they attacked the games levels. It was also pretty interesting in that if a player was able to beat a "Robot Master", Mega Man would adopt that character's powers. For example: if you take out Bombman and beat him, then you can throw really big bombs. There was also a particular order that would make beating each "Robot Master" a lot easier than normal. The first game was known for it's difficult, yet well crafted gameplay, and it spawned a sequel.

Mega Man 2 was released the following year, and for all intents and purposes, it may be the best video game to be released in the 1980s. I know that says a lot, but it took everything from its predecessor, made the difficulty more balanced, and added an incredible soundtrack on top of that. to put it bluntly, Mega Man 2 was f&#@ing amazing. it still ranks very high on favorite games lists. After the greatness of the second game, Capcom threw more goodness into Mega Man 3. Capcom added a midboss angle to the game in the form of Protoman and expanded the final level in the game with a series of boss fights representing some of Mega Man 2's most memorable boss.

The series continued with Mega Man 4, 5, and 6. While these weren't bad games, and still better than most of the platformers hitting the NES in the early 90s, they didn't live up to the first trilogy. With a spinoff series called Mega Man X hitting the SNES, many though the original series was done, but Capcom released Mega Man 7 for the Super NES in 1995. While the seventh game in the series felt like no more than a rehash of Mega Man X, it introduced two new characters that became vital parts of the Mega Man mythos, Bass and his dog Treble(Forte and Gospel in Japan). A year later, Mega Man celebrated it's 10th Anniversary with the release of Mega Man 8. While this one felt a bit better than 7, it paled in comparison to the 8 bit efforts. Many figured the original series was done with the release of Mega Man and Bass, but assumptions are never a great thing to have when talking video games.

Ten years passed between that last game's original release and the next new game, which hit gamers with the greatest rush old brutal nostalgia some of us have ever felt. Mega Man hit major console download services in all of it's 8 bit glory in 2008 and was a huge hit. It also spawned a followup in Mega Man 10. Both games featured extra playable characters, a variety of difficulty modes and several challenge levels. The series has witnessed a strong revival among old school gamers as a result, and who knows how many more games will probably hit the series as a result.

The Mega Man series faced a few hiccups over it's long history, but no one should doubt that it may well be the best game for game series of action games ever created.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Can't My Gaming Console Just Play Games?

After a long period of trepidation, I bought a few months of Xbox Live Gold this summer, and to be honest, I'm glad it was on sale. Whenever I do turn on my Xbox 360 and glance at what my friends are doing, they are watching Netflix. It almost feels like people own current gen consoles to play Madden or Call of Duty, and watch stuff on Netflix. I have no issue with any of this in particular, but more with the fact that video game consoles are capable of doing so much now that console makers have pretty much pushed their core application to the back burner. Sadly, for the most part, gamers fell for it.

Think about it: as video games became prettier and consoles became capable of everything from washing your car to providing oral pleasure, the overall quality of the gameplay in their core products has gone down. Most people seem more likely to turn on their game consoles to watch an episode of Mad Men or South Park than to play a quick round of Pac Man DX or Ms. Splosion Man. This sadly all adds to my point that for the most part, the video game industry is in a bad place creatively.

So to be honest, I won't be renewing my subscription to Xbox Live Gold after it expires next month, and I'm not sure when I will purchase another subscription, because apparently nobody is playing video games right now. Call me a cynic, but I'm still really big on my gaming consoles having games on them, oh and this isn't merely a shot at Microsoft, because it seems to be the same thing with all of the consoles hitting the market.

At the gaming conventions that have been going on, publishers have trying to make people care about the software they're putting out, while the console makers are talking about all these non gaming related applications being heaved onto their systems. The video game industry and those that make money from it have essentially duped gamers into spending more money for more fragile equipment that while producing gorgeous visuals, are becoming nothing more than a new version of the Sega Channel.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Trojan: One Of Capcom's Toughest

When you ask gamers who cut their teeth on NES games in the 80s about the hardest thing they ever played, they usually say Ghosts N Goblins. Capcom's brutally hard platformer is legendary for being unforgiving, but my some of my ultimate pain moments revolve around another Capcom arcade game turned NES game, Trojan. Trojan is a pretty straightforward side scrolling action game in the same vein as Rush N Attack or Kung Fu Master. It did not have a stand alone button to jumping, but a player would press up on the controller to make the character jump. That could be quite disorienting for players who up to this point were used to having a standard jump button in pretty much all of their games. An interesting new wrinkle inserted into this game was that a few enemies could knock the player's sword and shield away, causing the character to use punches and kicks instead. This adds an extra degree of strategy and difficulty to an already unforgiving game. I mean, I understand that Capcom had this reputation for publishing some bruisers for the NES, but this one as probably only matched by the first Mega Man and Ghosts N Goblins in terms of utter brutality. Because of this, many gamers panned Trojan as a bad game, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Why is this a bad game while something like Battletoads, a game known for being ridiculously hard, is a beloved classic? It's all a matter of perception in my opinion. Battletoads had all manner of marketing goodness behind it, including a cast of colorful, cartoony characters while Trojan was dark, bleak, and foreboding with very little marketing gloss. That's how Capcom did it in the 80s though; they were no frills and their games spoke for them, and Trojan says something very powerful. It's an uncompromising, brutally hard, pretty straightforward game that would pummel any gamer who didn't have the fortitude to stand up to the challenge. Trojan is really easy to track down for a number of consoles, but you can't go into it like you do with many modern action games. Trojan may just break you if you aren't ready for it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Boy Meet Blob

Somewhere in the last decade, it became the norm for most gamers to dismiss the idea that game with "cute" or "kiddie" overtones couldn't be deep, engaging, and fun. This theory was pushed to the back by games like Super Mario Galaxy, but it was brushed off due to it being a Nintendo property, but there are others that have bridged the gap between cute and being a solid game. A Boy And His Blob is such a game, and it pays homage to the NES game of the same name.

A Boy And His Blob starts with a young boy hearing a loud crash outside his window. When he goes to investigate the origin of the sound, he finds a little alien with no discernible shape, or a blob if you will. Upon bringing the blob back to his home, the boy is told of the blob's mission, to save his find a hero to save his home planet of Blobolonia from an evil emperor. He also discovers that the blob likes jelly beans, and reacts to different flavors by turning into different objects. Feed him a tangerine jelly bean, he turns into a trampoline, punch makes a hole, and so on.

This game oozes with old school puzzle/platformer gameplay, a lot like the original NES release of the same name. in addition to the core story, there is also a series of challenge levels that reward players with concept art, trophies, and other goodies. These are all simply thinly veiled bits of bonus content, however, and they neither add nor take away from the game.

Graphically, A Boy And His Blob is beautiful, even when compared to games on more powerful consoles, with beautiful, colorful backdrops and fluid animation. While this game is played using the Wiimote/Nunchuk combo, it doesn't require the gimmicky, forced in motion controls that have plagued the Wii for much of it's history. there's a button for pretty much any task you will have, like calling the blob if you get seperated, or giving the blob a hug to calm it down when enemies fighten it. Yes, this game has a "hug" button, but given how cutesy the graphics are, that shouldn't come as a surprise.

It has been out for a while, and or some reason, there aren't a very large number of copies in circulation, but if you come across a copy, it won't be very expensive. A Boy And His Blob is not only a great Wii game; it's a great game, period. If any retro remake is worth your time, it's this one.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Character Select Episode 1

A quick post to introduce you to a podcast that I was invited to be a part's called Character Select, and should be around at least once a week.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Time Lord: A Ghost from Rare's Mediocre Past

One of Science Fiction's great mainstays has always been time travel. From the classic H.G. Wells novel to Doctor Who, we have always been attracted to the notion of going through time to explore our past, repair our present, and save our future. This premise has also been explored in the realm of video games. Two games I practically grew up with, Turtles In Time and Time Lord, both focused on the idea of a time travelling hero to great effect. The only problem is only one of these games decided to age gracefully. Turtles In Time is an action game masterwork, a great beat em up in every sense of the word, however, Turtles In Time isn't the focus of this post. I will however, discuss my experience with one of the many games developed by Rare in the late 80s, Time Lord.

Time Lord is quite a peculiar game, as it attempts to combine a few different genres yet it never gets any of them quite right. Rare had this problem from time to time back in the 80s as they were getting into the mold of pumping out great games consistently. Back to my point though, Time Lords gameplay revolved around a character who had one year in game time to eliminate enemies in four time periods, return to his own time and defeat the Drakkon King. The four time periods are: Medieval England, The Old West USA, The Caribbean during the age of Pirates, and France during World War II. The levels look really good, as does the games soundtrack, but the character animations seem extra loose at times. There is also and issue with some of the boss fights taking forever. this wouldn't be a bad thing, but considering the one year of game time translates to about 24 minutes of actual time, you can get a bit frustrated trying to defeat a boss that takes 5 minutes to dispatch.

All in all, Time Lord is a pretty straight forward game that honestly could have been one of the better games of the 8Bit system generation, but a few nagging problems keeps it from being truly great. This would be a great game for Rare to resurrect on Xbox Live Arcade, but it would need a lot of polish.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Catherine: A Woman Scorned...

Have you ever played a video game that was so different in theme from what you're used to that it mildly messes with you acceptance of popular trends in gaming? That happened to me a few weeks ago when I played the demo for Catherine, a very Japanese puzzle game with a mature theme that pretty much sold me after about five minutes. After spending some quality time with the full game, I can honestly say that Catherine is probably the most original thing on the shelf at your local Gamestop. Oh yeah, Catherine is a lot of fun as well.

In Catherine, the player assumes the role of Vincent, a man at a crossroads in his life. You see, Vincent has been dating a woman named Katherine for 5 years and she's pressuring him to take that next step, he's having cold feet though. One night at his local bar, Stray Sheep, he is approached by a younger woman named Catherine (yeah, things get weird really quick), and he wakes up next to her in his bed. Somehow, Vincent doesn't remember anything, and he is plagued with thoughts of how he should get this new woman out of his life. While this is going on in Vincent's daily life, he is having nightmares that will kill him in real life if he dies during them.

These Nightmares are what make up the meat of Catherine's gameplay. Each Nightmare is separated into a series of tower puzzles that require the player to maneuver blocks to climb to higher points. there are several hazards besides gravity to contend with, like sheep that are climbing the tower seeking the same freedom you are, trap blocks and ice blocks that will send a player crashing to the ground below. at the end of every Nightmare, or series of levels, players have to evade a boss that is in pursuit of Vincent. these can range from a giant baby, to the mutated "lady parts" of some woman.

There are a total of 8 stages or "Nightmares" in the game, and combining this with the story elements between them, the game can be pretty long. The gameplay between levels takes place at The Stray Sheep, the neighborhood bar where Vincent meets Catherine for the first time. Players can talk to bar patrons, play and arcade game called "Rapunzel" that serves as a practice mode for the Nightmare stages, and gain interesting information the can give clues to the identities of the other sheep in the Nightmares. I can't go into a lot of detail on the story, but it takes an incredible turn towards the end.

Over the years, we've gotten a lot of games that tried to act as interactive movies, and sometimes these games take very peculiar turns , but Catherine is very consistent. It starts strange, and ends strange, and it all feels well written and executed. Catherine has proven how great storytelling can advance a puzzle game of all things. I was highly impressed, and highly recommend Catherine to anybody wanting something a little off the beaten path of current gen gaming.