Ninja TaroMarch 3rd, 2020
Ninja Taro (or it’s proper name, Sengoku Ninja-kun) is the exact type of game I hope to find when randoming in through old roms. I can’t expect to find some beautiful classic I never heard of (unless it’s on some obscure system I never knew about), but I can sometimes stumbled into flawed, quirky games with a good bit of ambition.
Ninja Taro isn’t a particularly good game. Just going by controls, it’s a bad game. But it fits a genre of game I always am interested in when I bump into them. I love finding an old ass Zelda clone. For all its popularity, bold faced Zelda clones are surprisingly rare. Zelda 1 clones are the most rare (Golden Axe Warrior being the only one that quickly comes ot mind) but most fit this weird in between zone between Zelda 1 and a LTTP.
Ninja Taro is right in this zone, though perhaps leaning more toward Zelda 1. The game is fairly linear but doesn’t restrict you. You can, and sometimes must backtrack. The game wants you to go one place, but the level design tries to keep up the illusion of a larger world. The overall structure of Ninja Taro is excellent, perfect for a Gameboy game. A more guided version of Zelda that never completely veers into restricted linearity.
Ninja Taro’s biggest issue sadly is it simply doesn’t feel good to play. 4 way awkward grid movement makes combat more about standing in the right spot and waiting for enemies to do all the work rather than active combat. Attacking on the move just isn’t a reliable thing, and you have to wait for Taro stop move to the next sub-grid piece before taking an action.
Most of the items you get are utterly useless. The game gives you ninja camo, fire, bombs and probably some other stuff, but no situation merits using anything but unlimited use swords and protectiles. Even bosses fall fast enough to rapid attacks that using any of these items is simply a waste of time
The game contains other gadgets. Ladders, bridges, sacred offerings… but having to go into the menu to equip them, use them, and then back to reequip your favorite sub weapon is needlessly tedious. Almost a punishment for misplaced ambition.
The game still gives a lot to find. You regularly find powerups for your basic weapons. We’re not talking about like a “+8 sword” like I found at least 30 of them for one of my swords and all that damage adds up. With pickups for two swords and 3 different throwing weapons, plus health, there is a lot of rewards for looking around. The weapon variety isn’t great though. You quickly find a sword that hits in all 8 spaces around you and thee is little reason not to use it. I theorize there might be more +1s for the default sword, ultimately leading to it doing more damage, but given how fast bosses die, this would be a weak sacrifice. Short ranged ninja stars seem to have more damage than throwing knives, but there range is so short they seem pointless to use over a sword. I enjoy the variety in the game, but the bloat does take a toll in terms of usability
While bosses are underwhelming, basic enemy design is neat? While your movement sucks, they seem to be designed with that in mind, being varied but predictable, allowing you to plan. Some are just dumb simple tanks, some always turn 90 degrees. some grow in ever growing circles, but regardless they’re all easy to understand.
The game is mostly linear but there seems to be things you can do in different orders and other things like optional bosses. It’s extremely fleshed out in a way you wouldn’t assume from the game in the first 10 minutes. It manages to set up simple stories and reoccurring characters that are extremely basic yet perfect for an early Gameboy game.
The game is simple looking but at moments the art drifts into the grotesque. Walls with eyes, giant fleshy demons. All great stuff mixed in with this otherwise cute game.
Sadly the game drags at the end. The difficulty ramps up exponentially. The game has no lives and forgiving continues. You keep all items and other progress when you die, but simply get sent back to the nearest town you saved at. Sadly by the last areas of the game are large and the travel time to retry grows and grows. The game also gets way into illusionary walls near the end, which adds to the crazed level of trial and error. I could forgive a lot about the game but this dragged it down a lot for me. Fortunately some online maps makes things a little bit more reasonable.
Is Ninja Taro worth playing? Probably not. But if you like weird old quirky games not a lot of people have played, it’s kinda cool? Definitely glad I finished it.
The Great SkatepocalypseMarch 3rd, 2020
So at this point my blog is used about once a year to act as a year-end roundup for all the important games I’ve played. I realize now that this is stupid. Why try and remember a game I played 12 months ago when I can write about them as it happens?
So, for whatever reason recently (actually it was because of some tweets but that doesn’t matter) I was like “Huh! I’ve never played a Tony Hawk game! I should take care of that!”
I started with no particular destination in mind but I managed to span from THPS1 to THUG2 before moving on to some other skate games… but we’ll get there in a sec.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1
What is the essence of a skateboarding game? What is realism? Can an arcade game speak essential truths about a real world activity? What, at it’s core, is a Tony Hawk game?
The answer is “Mario 64”. At it’s best, Tony Hawk Pro Skater is Mario 64 through the lens of a skateboarder and skateboarding problem solving. Skateboarding, in it’s most punk sense, is an activity where one uses a skateboard as a tool to impose your will on the world. Mario 64 is a game about inflicting your will through what might as well be parkour. The worlds in these games might be designed with you in mind, but they are not designed as tracks to be followed. They are Connect-the-Dots puzzles that give you a gentle guideline that both games encourage you to chaotically scribble over.
Even the metaphor of collecting tapes has much the same feel as collecting stars. The levels are smaller, you’re restricted to a minute time limit, but even then you explore and search for secrets. The games are not brothers, but they are close cousins.
The game looked surprisingly good, the controls, while a bit rough, well exceeded what I expected from a PS1 game and the level design was mostly extremely strong with occasional moments of extreme pain. Also the soundtrack ruled. A soundtrack of mostly stuff I didn’t know felt really appropriate for a skateboarding game. Despite it’s humble origins as the first game, it’s still one of my favorites.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
This game has some serious “go big or go home” energy. Everything is bigger,
the controls are smoother, the first level along is filled with crazy interactive elements. Customization, unlockable boards, create a character… The game was loaded. Granted, when I saw I could only choose between some basic parts to make my own teenage male dweeb I just went with Rodney Mullen. But hey, it’s a start.
The biggest stealth downgrade in the game is the money system. Not only does it somehow seem to degrade the Mario 64 “stars” feeling of the game, it makes unlocking things and buying stats all the more tedious and menu heavy.
Another downgrade for me was the soundtrack. At the time it would have been an upgrade, but playing it now it’s like… Powerman 5000?? God, remember when they were big? It’s not bad, but it lacks the griminess THPS1’s soundtrack had. Like simply “not having the Dead Kennedys” is a big downgrade already.
The biggest and most important feature is the manual. THPS1’s biggest combo limiter was the grind. If there was no way to jump to a new grind, there was no way to extend a combo. Using a manual to link tricks and act as a bridge between grinds allows the game combo system to completely wild. Now vert is the bastard child of the game — you can’t combo into or out of a vert in a reasonable way but at least you can get some special tricks in.
With this, the tension to perform gets higher but the rewards for skill gets higher too. Still, the game isn’t ‘complete yet’. While a huge upgrade from 1, the games that come after it for me makes THPS2 one of the lesser games in the early series.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
THPS3 is the big finale for classic Tony Hawk. As the final game to feature the “2 minute round” gameplay, THPS3 is easily the best of the early entries. I moved to the PS2 for this one and the game just felt rock solid compared to earlier entries. Most of the finickiness was gone. The level design for this style of play is at its peak.
Reverts become the final piece of the mechanics puzzle. Reverting into a manual out of a vert landing now makes it so every aspect of the game can be chained together, with the only limiting factor being speed. Grinds are now more magnetic and impart a lot of speed, allowing for even more ridiculous, winding paths through levels.
Despite being great, there is surprisingly little to say about the game. Most of the stuff that applies to 1 and 2 applies here. The game is just great, with all the mechanics firing on all cylinders.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4
THPS4 is an important entry in the series that suffers from the fact that it is so quickly obsoleted. It’s big gimmick? Ditching the 2 minute rounds to make exploratory levels. I like this change in concept, but THPS4 hasn’t figured quite how to pull it off. Insread of having Mario 64 style exploration, you just kinda go from quest giver to quest giver, slowly depopulating the levels until you are left with a barren free skating level.
Yeah there are new mechanics. Spine transfers, skitching, probably something else… but it doesn’t matter. The core is there without these mechanics. Also the new mission structure leads to some… funky missions. The whole free open structure was used as an excuse by the devs to make a few stupidly brutal missions. You get to meet some pro skaters too which was probably really cool at the time… but it never quite comes together? The flow just isn’t there, leaving THPS4 as a very forgettable game. It’s not bad, it’s just… not much.
Tony Hawk’s Underground
Underground is easily my favorite Tony Hawk game. You get into and out of missions quickly now, keeping a pace through the game that gets it back to that “Mario 64” energy. The move from “Pro Skating” to “Underground” doesn’t change much. Tony Hawk games always had that scummy, grimey feeling that is accurate to pro skating… but it does lead into the story.
Story?? Tony Hawk? Well, shockingly, it… works? It works SURPRISINGLY WELL? Your quest to become pro with your scummy best friend who betrays you for fame shockingly has emotional weight. Eric Sparrow is a piece of shit and it rules. Your relationship seems genuine, his dumbfuckedness seems genuine and him totally turning full douche has just strikes the right balance.
Sadly, I could write a whole blog post on how the Eric Sparrow story fails to pay off. You finally get to be in a competition with this dickhead who stole your footage and you’re ready to embarrass and crush him and he… gets second place? Eric Sparrow is a great skateboarder. All his success is earned. He’s a piece of shit but he’s a talented one. The story concludes with you chasing him down a huge line, following him move for move to get back your lost footage and you… beat him simply by keeping up with him. You don’t prove he’s a fraud. You don’t best him. You merely match him. THE GAME GOT ME TO HATE THIS SON OF A BITCH BUT COULDN’T GIVE ME THE PAYOFF. UGH.
One funny note on the game is if you play as a girl the game is kinda hilariously and awesomely gay. None of the dialog is rewritten so your character will talk about liking russian girls and will have Rodney Mullen scold her for checking out bikini babes. I can imagine the conversation in neversoft. “But if we allow custom girls we’ll need two scripts.” “Like hell we will, make her gay!”
But more importantly, the levels are fast, breezy and fun. You can get off your board now for better and worse — making it easier to get into position but also leading to ridiculous things like… stealth sections?? There are some other mechanics too but they don’t really mean much. At this point in Tony Hawk, most of the mechanics are filler and the real gift is the formula. It’s hard to articulate how fast you can blow through missions and how much just… punchier it feels than THPS4. THUG1 has its cake and eats it. It has its rough points (besides the story, the last segment in the game is kinda tedious and dumb and weird), but it mostly works, has a fun art style and is charming. It exceeded all my expectations.
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2
This game is…. a lot. And not necessarily in a good way. The style is pretty great. The energy is pretty great. Bam Margera is occasionally even funny in a “this happened so long ago it’s cringe wraps around to ironic” kind of way but… it just kinda doesn’t pull things off. At this point, the missions stop feeling like they’re about skating. You’re basically doing fetch quests with a little bit of skating in between. It’s chaos, with skateboarding as a secondary, almost forgotten feature. You get one high score challenge per level that’s your real change to skate, but most of it plays like a platformer with a skateboard.
Storywise it kinda… goes nowhere. Nothing happens. Nothing develops. You don’t know when the ending is going to come. Like sure sometimes Bob Burnquist gets nuts in the balls with a tennis ball and Eric Sparrow is finally, almost apologetically treated like an absolute loser but it… generally just feels like a bunch of stuff happens and then the game ends. That’d be fine, if the game part was good — that’s been the whole serious up until Underground 1 — but it isn’t. Some of the pro skaters get to show some personality I guess?? That’s kinda cool? I feel like this game has the perfect read on who Tony Hawk actually seems to be: An entity of chaos who is just really good at pretending to be respectable. He’s the guy who you have talk to the cops when they show up. Not that he hates them any less than you, he can just fake it better.
There IS a whole ‘classic mode’ that seems way better than the main story mode. I didn’t play through all of it and it seems a little poorly fit, but I still had the most fun playing that way. The spraypaint tag editor is surprisingly detailed but… serves little purpose? The game does stuff to do stuff. Here, drive vehicles which are more boring than skate boarding. Throw shrimp at people I guess. I don’t know, who cares about the mechanics of the game?? It’s a letdown.
The game also goes from zero lines of tweaked dialog for female characters to 1: Your character gesturing to her breasts to appeal to Bam Margera, asking him how he could chose a kid in a wheelchair over THESE???
The only part of this that bothered me was the idea of coming on to Bam Margera like please have some self respect. At the end of the day the game lost it’s way by trying to be Jackass. Apparently American Wasteland pulls this off better, but at this point I was burnt out on Tony Hawk. End result?
THUG1 > THPS3 > THPS1 > THPS2 > THUG2 = THPS4
WAIT WHAT WE’RE STILL GOING???
Hell yeah! I remembered my friend had a copy of Skate 3 and asked if I could borrow it! I figured after all this arcadey Skating I should try something more on the simulation spectrum.
Skate 3 is weird all the way through. From the intro video to the weird meta lines, to the horrible mission structure to it’s weird blend of ‘this is a more serious and realistic skateboarding game’ and ‘throw yourself out of a bell tower to see how many bones you can break’. Skate 3 is weird.
What differentiates Skate from THPS? Skate controls much harder. Grinds have to be lines up and your inputs much match the grinds you want to do. Flip tricks? Flick around the right analog in a manner that resembles how the trick is actually performed. This, combined with lower ollies and other gameplay factors take Skate away from the endless combo gameplay of THPS. Tony Hawk can be STRESSFUL You’re constantly pushing your luck, at risk of losing it all. Skate 3 just wants you to go and do your best. What’s more… Skate 3 is funner to play around it. Screwing around and freeskating in THPS felt pointless. I could be working toward a real goal! doing anything actually impressive in THPS felt incredibly stressful. Skate 3? you can cruise around a mostly open world, fool around and save and edit clips of the cool things you did. Which is important because the actual game and its missions suck. Boringly right goals or super specific tricks or just super repetitive gameplay in modes designed for multiplayer that I feel like no one actually ever wanted to play
Instead, the funnest thing to do in the game was to cruise. The flick-it style controls leads to an intimate relationship between you and your board. I just found myself doing things for the sake of doing them, something I never did in Tony Hawk. If Tony Hawk is a game about epic lines, Skate 3 is about intimacy with ‘the trick’. Or it would be, if not for another game…
Sadly most of Skate 3 is busted. The servers are down. DLC packs you need to say… upload footage to youtube? Gone. Custom decals and stuff? Gone. bu it’s okay, I was able to use cell phone footage to cut together a video part because I’m lame as hell.
This is the character I’ve been playing in all the other Tony Hawk games. She’s supposed to be Sinlen’s maid, which is inspired obviously by that one artist everyone has to see on twitter all the time. But anyways, Skate 3’s half dead state lead me to get my chill, cruisin’ skate vibes elsewhere, especially since Skate 3 had other issues. The map just felt… almost comedically conducive to skateboarding. When everywhere is a spot, nothing feels like a spot. I found myself avoiding extremely crazy ramps and super obvious tricks because it just felt like it was handed to me on a silver platter.
Skate 3 is not the ‘simulationist side’ of the skateboard spectrum. Maybe it’s simulationist-of-center? But either way, SESSION is the game that truly is the simulationists skateboarding game.
The controls are an obvious progression from Skate, where it clearly draws its influence. Where Tony Hawk had tricks as a binary input, Skate had them as an analog input. Session? 2 analogs. One for each foot. Want to ollie in Skate? you slam the analog down and then up. Session? You hit down with your back foot and up with your front foot. Kickflip? Down with your back foot, to the side with the front foot. And the incredible thing? When you 180 and go switch… the analogs reverse.
The thing with THPS and Skate is… Switch hardly matters. Yeah technically you skate worse switch in both games, but I never noticed the difference. Sure in Skate if you’re switch, a kickflip input becomes a heelflip input, but… from a game perspective, I don’t care if I don a kickflip or a heel flip. At least not until I’m made to care. In THPS I rarely cared what tricks I was doing. Are they fast or slow?? Skate… I’d be concerned about the GENRE of a trick. Shuvits vs kick/heels vs bigger fancy flips and like sometimes I’d want a specific grind but I’d just be happy to hit the rail… Switch? Forget about it? Nollies? An afterhought (or ‘never’ in THPS).
Session though… it makes things so much more tactile that I care. It’s not even necessarily harder. Having two whole analogs make the inputs less tiny and precise! I’m way more consistent in Session than Skate… but in a way that feels authentic? Skating switch matters. Doing something “fakie” makes sense. Switch is frustrating, but in a way it’s SUPPOSED to be because actually skating switch is hard as fuck. The game doesn’t penalize you for what stance your in — your hands do.
You also turn with the shoulders which trips people up, but it kinda feels great? No accidental turning or anything. The game is fun just to cruise in without tricks, especially since you get to explore a legitimate slice of NYC. It’s a big learning curve for osme people but I took to it super fast.
There is also manual catching, where you have to input an analog to actually catch your tricks in the air at the right time. Now what tricks you do matter. The timing to catch a treflip is different from catching a 360 hardflip, even when they ‘feel roughly like the same trick’ when I’m playing Skate. Heel flips are slower than kickflips. Shovits are extremely forgiving but might make you land crooked. Now I EXTREMELY CARE about what move I’m doing. Now everything is intentional and when it isn’t, I feel extremely lucky. The game is just awesome.
The problems? Well, in some ways the two foot metaphor doesn’t work. Like riding regular, down on the right analog followed by up on the left is an ollie. But switch it… feels like that should also work to get a fakie ollie? Instead, fakie ollie is up on the right stick, down on the left. This is kinda a compromise since things would get weird otherwise. Oh yeah, this is also an early access game. In fact, there is no game to speak of. You can get footage, but the clip editor is super buggy (ALWAYS KEEP BACKUPS, ESPECIALLY WHEN ADDING FOV AND SPEED KEYFRAMES). Collisions can be dumb. Grinds can be buggy. Anyone who follows me on twitter has probably seen a ton of funny bugs. Customization is limited unless, like me, you’re willing to mod the game (which isn’t HARD but also requires UE and isn’t easy either. Intermediate modding!).
… But despite it’s flaws, it really kinda rules? If you think this is a game for you, it probably is, and if you have misgivings, they’re probably warrented. Anyways have my Maid’s next video part because I’m the least cool person on earth.
Expect more about Session when it finally matures into a full game.
Games?? 2019??January 1st, 2020
2019 was a weird year for me where I felt like I played nothing while I played what seems like far more games than usual. It felt like year spent ‘catching up’, where the scope of what I played didn’t become clear until I started putting it all down on paper. Either way here is my barely proof read yearly ramblings.
A 2019 game in 2019? I have my friend, April, to thank for this who lent me her PS4 for almost a year at this point to play through several games. She bought Death Stranding not to play herself, but so I could play it in front of her and talk about it. I did that and kept on playing, well after the story had resolved itself.
I have an unabashed love for Hideo Kojima. He is a man who simultaneously gets too much and too little credit for what he does. Kojima is brilliant, but his weird, flawed brilliance is not something exclusive to him. Many in the games industry could be just as amazing and weird if fate had given them a chance. He is as much a product of luck and opportunity as he is a result of his own skill and drive. Indie games have shown us that there potentially many many more “Hideo Kojimas” out there, but we might never see one come to the same level of prominence. The current AAA system is simply just not conducive to it. We are lucky to have even one person like Hideo Kojima.
Some people mistakenly say “Kojima should just make movies”. While I can understand how people come say this, if one really thinks about it, the opposite should become true. Kojima should NEVER make movies. The weakest parts of most Kojima games are the parts that are the most rooted in cinema. He may be able to invoke powers of cinema on a superficial level, but his limitations become obvious whenever does more than that.
Kojima communicates best through game design. The gameplay of his best games not only is fun and rewarding, but feeds perfectly into the mood and the theme of what he’s doing. This is where Death Stranding is at it’s best. Kojima can write a whole cutscene where your magical president moms dies of cancer crying on you in the oval office with minimal emotional impact. But carrying the awkward, ungainly corpse of your mother to an incinerator over lonely terrain? That communicates things cinema can’t — ESPECIALLY not Kojima’s cinemas. The whole theme of interconnectedness and how it works with both the core gameplay and the asynchronous multiplayer just feels perfect. Everything operates on a thematic level and on a gameplay one.
I’m not going to write a whole review on Death Stranding in an end of year summery. I could go on about the weird hype cycle somehow managing to delivery on it’s maddening promises. I could talk about how fucky Mads Mikkelsen is. I could talk about HOW COMPLETELY AND DISTRESSINGLY BACKLOADED THE STORY IS AND OH GOD WHY ARE THESE CUTSCENES TOO LONG but I’m going to talk about mountains.
In most games, it doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment to scale a mountain. At best, it feels hard yet intended and at worst it feels like you’re making a mockery out of the game’s slope systems. Only two games I’ve played really made me feel like I had a relationship with the mountains. One would be Getting Over it with Bennett Foddy and the other would be Death Stranding. Getting Over it was a very intimate relationship with one extremely hard climbing route, but Death Stranding was a game where I could wander into a mountain range, feel like I was totally lost in a hostile environment that didn’t want me there and wasn’t designed for me despite the fact I was supposed to be there and it was designed for me. Death Stranding doesn’t pull any big tricks or mechanics to make this happen. There are many small gameplay systems that contribute to the experience, but I feel the important big choice was simply being okay with making the player miserable.
Death Stranding is a AAA game that was okay with me feeling ways that most AAA games try and polish over. For that, I loved it.
The original reason I was lent that ps4! A big discussion before Bloodborne came out was always “Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls”? Obviously Dark Souls was the more ambitious and successful of the two, but many of us had a soft spot for the tone of Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls had an oppressive feeling Dark Souls rarely did that was intoxicating. While I always had to prefer Dark Souls over Demon’s Souls due to my love of maps and world design, the miserable world of Boletaria always haunted me.
Then Bloodborne happened. While by the time of it’s release, it was no longer secretly Demon’s Souls 2, it carried that spirit, complete with an incredible level of polish. It exceeds the mood of Demon’s Souls while also representing the peak of Souls combat. Is it’s world design less ambitious than Dark Souls? Yes. Is a lot of Bloodborne kinda samey? Yes. Are the samey parts still EXTREMELY GOOD? Yes!
Bloodborne saw Souls games the way I saw souls games. Bloodthirsty greed and aggressive offense. Sure, in Dark Souls I’d always have a shield equipped — a useful tool for dealing with suddenly extremely dicey situations. But it was almost always the grass crest shield and it was mostly just fueling my offense. So when Bloodborne took away the shield and was like “This game doesn’t need that”, I believed them and was rewarded for it. Maybe following this logic, Sekiro will hit hard with me too. Maybe we’ll see this year…
As for now, Bloodborne is easily the souls game I love to actually play the most.
Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3 is a strange game for me. No part of it lights my soul ablaze. None of its world fills me with deep curiosity and wonder. I have no lingering questions. Not because those questions don’t exist, but because the game fails at making me care about their answers. It, more than any other Souls game besides maybe DS2 feels like a game that is just ‘content stitched together’.
But boy is it good content! Dark Souls 3 probably has the best average standard of quality throughout all its areas and bosses out of all the souls game. I feel like it might have this position by quite a large lead. The game is huge and every part of it is good to great (… besides Ashes of Ariandel which sucks outside of one bossfight).
Despite not being entranced by the world, maybe that’s fine? Because there is one feeling Dark Souls 3 does convey. This world is dead. The answer to whatever questions are meaningless because this world is meaningless and may soon be dust. A minor touch that resonated with me was the hollowed enemies. In most souls game they are chaotic and violent and eager to fight. They can think of nothing else. In Dark Souls 3, many have decayed to the point where they must be roused awake by a bell to regain that spark to fight. You fight a Demon Fire Sage who has burnt out, his body reduced to brittle ash. As he fights, he falls apart. Even powerful demons have ran out of time. At the end of the Ringed City you see the fate of the world. Sand. Then you fight some corny ass last boss who looks like he fell into the wrong game, but that vision of the future is still powerful.
Dark Souls 3 never managed the sublime cohesion of the games that come before it in the series, yet still I walk away from it feeling it’s extremely good.
Don’t ask me to make more I Wanna be the Guy games. Between something like Celeste and the trolly creations of people in Mario Maker 2, I simply have nothing to offer. I first played Celeste on the Pico-8 and loved it then. A simple, challenging and cute little game. It’s incredible to see how much further it could be fleshed out.
As I write this, I’m not yet ‘done’ with Celeste. I got some B-Sides, C-Sides and the back half of Chapter 9 to go. But I have beat the ‘main’ game and for a lot of people, that alone is enough. It’s hard to even describe what’s nice about Celeste. It manages to make this type of challenging platforming game feel fresh. It manages to characterize its characters so well in so little time. It manages to build its mood and earn emotionally uplifting moments with grace. It doesn’t do a lot while doing a whole lot at the same time.
It’s so hard to write about a great game that succeeds simply by doing everything simply and extremely well. Celeste just oozes craft and I’m glad I managed to fit it into the end of 2019.
Grand Theft Auto Revisited (1 through San Andres)
So one day I’m randoming through my roms and I hit the GBA version of GTA2. It’s kinda nauseating and hard to play. I quit out and think that’ll be the end of it but then I get curious… how were the PC versions of these games?
Well, apparently you can download them for free so I played them! The original GTA 1 and 2 are such weird games. Clearly the developers were hitting on something but they didn’t quite ‘get it’ yet. They’re half way between what GTA 1 will become and some weird (and overly long) score attack game. They don’t really work. They require tons of precision in a game that seems to already require a ton of luck. But what else would you expect from a UK developed game made in this period? They didn’t know fun was legal yet.
Not the best games to play as a gamer, but interesting to check out as designers. You could see the DNA of games to come, including even Hotline Miami (where the phone gimmick is 100% based off of GTA1 and 2).
So now I was curious… how well did GTA3 hold up?
GTA3 was extremely interesting. A fantastically designed map that felt extremely complicated despite it’s super small size. Driving felt nice and good, missions were starting to click but god, sometimes it forgot that it’s okay to have fun. As a general rule in GTA3, any timer or time limit is anywhere for 10-20 seconds stricter than they have any right to be. The game demands a lot from the player in situations with massive civilian car RNG. But when it works, it’s fun! It’s also incredible how sociopathic the game is. I don’t mean in how violent you are — it’s a god damned GTA game — but in how the story is so neutral to all your betrayals. The game doesn’t even wink when a woman who’s brother you killed tortures the wrong man for it. It’s just presented completely dryly and… oddly that feels appropriate?
Also as a minor point, flying the ‘unflyable’ Dodo is shockingly close to flying a plane with poor lift. I found it pretty easy once I learned to get stabilized! Definitely a lot of fun clearing missions in ways you’re not supposed to.
And from there it was Vice City and everything started to click. The map became colorful and memorable. The radio became ridiculously good. Missions… mostly weren’t completely horrible. Hell, sometimes they were really good! Characters were now characters and Tony, while a sociopath, was a very human sociopath. Lance betraying you actually manages to hurt a little! Just a massive step up.
But also the plane sucked and flew all arcadey which made exactly one person sad and that person was me. But at least the Sparrow was awesome.
Now San Andreas I had never played and was really excited to finally play it. It both exceeded my expectations while also in a lot of ways, disappointing me. From a gameplay perspective it was largely all good. Gunfights finally felt right, variety of vehicles was super fun. The map was almost comedically huge while still diverse and interesting. The plot and characters were many MANY times better… but yet I feel like they left a lot on the table. CJ was the most relatable protagonist to date by a LOT. The Grove Street gang members felt so close and personal. The whole start of the game feels like a story out of some indie comic book that’d get adapted to an HBO show. Exaggerated and comedic, but gritty. Actions had weight. For a short bit, killing people actually felt a little heavy!
… But then the game kinda goes off the rails and you’re plowing up bodies in a farm combine, brutally murdering people to steal a rap rhymes book for someone who totally doesn’t deserve it and just… being a GTA protagonist again. The game knew they shouldn’t do Kill Frenzies anymore (which weren’t even that fun in practice anyways) and they knew they were making something more serious, but it feels like sometime early on, the serious people got voted out of power and irreverent “comedy” returned. It felt like they were on the edge of being something special in the plot department, only to end up… decent, despite all odds. It feels funny to be disappointed by the plot of a GTA game but those early grove street missions set a tone the game never found ever again. That said, running over people in a Combine is a pretty good time.
OH ALSO THE PLANES ARE AWESOME like whoever made the plane physics cared about how planes handled and made every plane behave in a way that somewhat mirrored its real world counterparts. As a plane nerd I was very impressed.
Over all take away from the series? Surprisingly still a lot of fun but Rockstar really needed someone to hit them with a ruler every time they set the timer for a mission too low. Oh and also every racing mission ever totally sucks. But hey, still a lot to love.
Devil May Cry (finally)
I had never actually ever played much of any Devil May Cry game. I’ve played and loved games influenced by them but DMC fell within the ps2 generation which is a generation I largely missed. I tried playing DMC3 at some point on PC but the first time through it bounced off me at some point. The timing wasn’t right yet. I even owned 4 through a bundle or something.
I’m not going to go over these like I did for GTA as the evolution was a lot smoother. DMC1 showed its Resident Evil roots even harder than expected, DMC3 was rough in a lot of ways that mostly had to do with the era it came out in, but was gloriously slick where it was important and DMC4 was just a killer fucking game. It’s Devil May Cry, what is there even to say? It’s as good as I hoped!
Maybe for next year I’ll get to talk about DMC5. If not… hey, the fact that everyone hates DMC2 seems like a great reason to play it!
Jurassic Park: Trespasser
I unironically love this game. Like it is totally busted to shit and borderline unplayable but the sheer ambition was ridiculous. It really felt like I was exploring this long forgotten island. The physics are horrible. Interacting with physical keypads and buttons in the world is horrible. Having to rotate your gun manually to see down the sights is horrible. The way background entities get rendered as billboards only to pop back into 30 when you get close is horrible. The dinosaur animation and AI? Horrible horrible horrible and I LOVE it. The sense of place is great. The environmental story telling is surprisingly strong. Sometimes the dumb physics stuff actually works and sometimes a puzzle is actually interesting! And atop all that, when the game fails brutally, it fails hilariously. This is definitely a must play game for people interested in weird quirky games and gaming history.
Basically Momodora but 3d! Extremely good! Looks slick as hell. Bombservice basically just makes these sorta ‘capsule metroidvanias’ and I love them. I told Rdein to make the second sword do something cool and then the game was cooler. Now only if he listened to me when I told him to make the nuns kiss. Please enjoy my fanfiction, coming soon to AO3
By the time I got to play the full version this year it stopped being fun. The game works great as an engine to enjoy broken nonsense the mechanics don’t make the game stand up well to intense difficulty. One of those games where you fail and are just like “what could I have even done differently?”
Still could recommend it, just know the game gets tedious after a certain point.
DS1 Again + Randomizer
Replayed Dark Souls 1! Gosh this game was jankier than I remember. Mostly the hitboxes. The hitboxes are TERRIBLE and nothing has any range. Stuff was sometimes hard for weird reasons I didn’t remember. Would get mad at Ornstein all the time because his collision box was bigger than his hurt box. That said, still the GOAT, still probably “Game of the Decade”, but I do appreciate all the nice changes made to its sequels. Also the “HD Remaster” looks like ass and I only played it because the PTD edition had horrible audio desync bugs for me.
Randomizer was fun though! The completely wacked out enemy placements turns things into a weird puzzle. Even stuff like leveling up becomes a chance for clever and fun “cheese”. Gotta try fog gate randomizer next!
I ALMOST REALLY LOVE THIS GAME. The game about driving forever and fixing your car as it breaks down and smuggling cigarettes past customs and weird Uncles. Very tactile but never quite creates the relationship with your car I hoped for. From all I read the developer was frustrated as well with their inability to really make this great concept totally come together. Still can lead to some great moments though.
Final Fantasy 4
I replayed Final Fantasy 4 for reasons that are completely beyond me. Some thoughts: Oh god I hate random battles. Oh god the japanese version makes so much more sense, not only on a re translation front but also mechanically and oh god what a good soundtrack. Still not a fan of jRPGs anymore but it was… shockingly short?
I Played Some Games in 2018January 2nd, 2019
… And as usual, most of them aren’t from 2018.
Anyways, Brave Earth still isn’t out but instead of me being depressed about that, lets talk about games I played this year in no particular order!
I played this so early in the year I almost forgot about it. I remember looking at a map of this game and going “Eh. This doesn’t seem like the type of Metroidvania I like”. When I finally played it, my friend hour or so of playing “confirmed” this to me but I kept going. “This game is too much the original Metroid it’s too easy to get lost and lose all direction”.
… But that was the idea. And as getting lost led me to new and exciting places and as the game continued to feel really nonlinear the quality of the world design became more and more apparent. Things I thought were flaws were intentional and intentional things I thought weren’t to my taste I ended up falling in love with. It’s one of the few games that people compare to Dark Souls where I’m like… yes. Yes this is exactly it. A beautiful and lonely world with great NPCs and fun gameplay that might occasionally cross the line into ‘actually unfair’ but in ways that are forgivable. Absolutely loved this game and I wish it was fresher in my memory.
I was waiting for this game for years and years and years and years. Where I expected a fun puzzly metroidvania I really instead got more of a Cave Story-esque journey with punchy gameplay. The world is connected only enough to make it feel like one big cohesive space. Earlier screenshots of the game contained a mini map in the HUD that was removed because, well… the game just isn’t actually about that. Areas are “stages” that are just in or slightly off the path you want to go. It’s a big map not because you’re supposed to explore it but because it makes the world feel realer. And within this world is an amazing story with amazing characters, looking cutesy and light while being a depressing, cynical story about peoples inabilities to change, to heartbreaking consequences. All told by someone who can execute art, writing and doing his own music perfectly.
Sometimes you want your soul touching indie games to play like a Treasure game in between cutscenes and this game fits that bill.
Wonderboy in Monster World
As a side note to Iconoclasts, I played this as Konjak listed it as one of his influences of the game. Wonderboy is a strange game. I don’t think there is a single excellent thing the Wonderboy games do. Yet somehow they are oddly compelling. They feel like an action RPG demake back when the action RPG genre was in full swing. Simple grind and update mechanics, formulaic progression through cute, tropey environments, adorable art style… and yet it works. It’s like some kind of comfort food. You can feel it’s world structure in Iconoclasts too. Wonderboy gives you little reason to backtrack but the fact you walk everywhere makes the world feel whole.
EVO: The Theory of Evolution
If I were to pick a game of this year I would want to scream to the heavens about the most, it would be this. While not the best game — it is a very very flawed, old game — it was the most shocking and enjoyable find for me. This lovingly fan-translated PC-98 game is the turn based RPG prequel to the SNES’s EVO: Search for Eden. You can scroll down one post and read my whole review of this game but most importantly I was just SHOCKED at the sheer amount of quirkiness and charm this strange, surreal game had. It has that intangible ‘special’ factor that makes it important despite it’s flaws. So yeah go read that post and then download the game god dammit.
EVO: Search for Eden
Another side note game, I replayed The Search for Eden after The Theory of Evolution. What was once an amazingly quirky game felt simple and watered down compared to its PC-98 parent. The gameplay manages to feel slower than the turn based RPG it was based on and while more visually appealing, The Theory of Evolutions quadrant evolution system was more interesting and had more diverse choices. The only bad thing about The Theory of Evolution is it made me like Search for Eden a lot less. The Theory of Evolution has all of its strengths and more tolerable flaws.
I almost forgot about this because it hit so fast. As just a demo its hard to read into things too much, What is flaw, and what is intentional? The core chunk of the demo plays its story beats as an uncanny valley clone of Undertale in a way that we all know has to be intentional. It’s weirdly uncomfortable, offputting and curious. While the bits we’ve gotten to play have their great moments already (who doesn’t love Susie) the demo, by necessity is nothing but promises, building up to something that seems challenging to deliver upon. Looking back in the future I feel like this first release will either be completely vindicated or seen as warning sign for all the problems we’ll see in the finished game. Considering Toby said he built Undertale purposefully to make this game, I’m leaning toward the former.
Dark Arms: Beast Buster 1999
This year I found some good NGPC games! Dark Arms: Beast Buster 1999 is probably one of my favorite game names I’ve ever seen. The game itself is interesting. A zelda-with-guns pokemon crossover thing where you capture enemy souls, eggs and seeds and combine them to make new guns to level up and evolve. The game is sadly a little scant and repetitive and doesn’t have the longevity the designers wished it did, but it’s still an exceptionally charming game that is still fun to play.
It feels like the type of game where in a better world there would be a Dark Arms 2 which would be a classic and there would be forum posts asking “Hey is Dark Arms 1 worth playing?” “Its worth checking out but feels really dated and shallow by comparison” and then Dark Arms 3 would come out and everyone would hate it because it changed a bunch of stuff and removed a bunch of features from Dark Arms 2 and — well… yeah that sadly didn’t happen. The publisher never went inn this direction ever again and mostly made fighting games afterward. This would be a good game for some indie dev to shamelessly lift from to make something new and more refined.
The second good NGPC game I played this year is a weird Turn Based Strategy/Mech Customization game that is anime as hell. It also hits that “Final Fantasy Tactics” tone. It’s much goofier and does less of a a good job of it, but it gets some of that Gundamy ‘War is Hell’ stuff going on and executes it well in a few areas. This is another game that seems like it was a sequel away from being really great. The weapon variety does a lot but also leaves a lot on the table (there is no splash weapons). The combat, which involves selecting up to 8 moves in advance and predicting movements doesn’t have the enemy AI to make it as rewarding as it could be. But the game scales up well, limiting access to the “command chips” and amount of actions you can make until you are ready to zip around the map and blast things to hell. I still haven’t finished it but it is more a testament to the game. I’m still grinding end game content because the basic grind in this game is actually fun. Sadly it lacks the diversity to truly shine but it’s SO CLOSE.
Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program was both a joy and a frustration. I now look at the janky car wreck that is modded minecraft and go “wow, this shit is rock solid”. Like Minecraft, KSP suffers from the problem that well… there actually isn’t a whole lot -to do-. You can do cool stuff just to do them, but like with modded minecraft, having an incentive to build is fun! But oh my god the physics of this game make things so rough. Any mod that does anything interesting is a disaster. Vehicles on loading the game abhor the ground. Space stations decide ‘yes now it is time to shake apart (modded or unmodded)’ and the whole thing is just frustrating for the wrong reasons. I wanna be frustrated by my landers tipping over on the moon because I designed them bad and I suck at landing, not because the physics engine decides it wants to do whatever it wants.
I put a lot of time into KSP this year and enjoyed a lot of it, but eventually I realized I was spending more time trying to ‘fix’ quirks of the game then actually play it. Losing should be fun but it just isn’t in this. Though that said I did enjoy building and flying planes in it quite a bit!
IL2 Strumovik: Great Battles series
So after KSP I did a short stint in SimplePlanes which made me go ‘lemme get my IR headtracker gear set up again’. When Simple Planes didn’t support it I was like ‘hm, maybe I should install IL2: 1946’ and a few days later I kept just eye-ing IL2: Battle of Stalingrad, the first game in the newer IL2 Great Battles series. Now I got a new joystick and throttle and rudder pedals (after building a set out of an old joystick and wood which worked pretty well) and I’m flying around with no hud and learning real flight principles. This is hardly my first deep dive into hardcore flight sims (I did own 1946 and had a headtracker already)
While simulations aren’t very gamey, air combat has a lot of gamifying factors. The nature of ‘energy advantage’ and balancing things like radiator drag vs coolant concerns and other mechanisms are very gamey. A lot of fighting game-esque management of information happens in air combat. When I made my post about “Cleaning up your mental stack” someone came in like “Hey do you know about the OODA Loop??” which is fighter pilot terminology for what is basically the same thing. Flying a plane in combat has almost the same APM process as playing Starcraft, deciding between macro and micro decisions and always having infinite ways to optimize is you have the spare knowledge and attention. While not being inherently gamey, it appeals to the gamey side of my brain.
I won’t go into too much other detail. it’s a WW2 airplane sim focused on the eastern front and which is noted for unflinching realism and attention to detail. It doesn’t really have a lot of competitors. But whats important is that flying is hard and as such is -rewarding-.
Factorio: Jumped to this a bit once I got off the Minecraft train. Factorio gets the process side of Minecraft even better than modded minecraft by like a lot and it’s a lot of fun. My only problem with it compared to Modded Minecraft is it’s really narrow. Like Modded Minecraft gives you the space for BIG COOL PROJECTS but factorio really doesn’t. Part of the “problem” (for me, it’s not a design flaw) is that when you grow in Factorio the design is… very integrated. Everything is already connected. Modded minecraft often develops as a bunch of separate systems and ends with more and more interconnectivity and automation. Modded Minecraft your adding functionality and in factorio your adding efficiency. High end late game in some play styles seems to get more into ‘interconnected microservices’ territory but I’ve yet to pull that off.
Dicey Dungeons: What a fun little game! A spiked shield where even dice do damage and odd dice shield me? Big swords benefiting for big dice and daggers benefiting from lots of little dice? A cute little dice based roguelike that gets a lot of gamefeel out of spending dice. One of the games that softened me on my dislike of turnbased games lately.
Super Metroid x LTTP Randomizer: What a perfect combination of madness, finding flippers in Super Metroid and the morphball on Death Mountain. A very confusing, brain bendy randomizer that fits right into my core skills.
Dahna: Megami Tanjō: This game owns hard. Like it’s not the best game in the world — it’s a little janky at times — but it’s also just awesome. Your some cool blonde warrior woman whose helped by mythical monsters to fight a sorceress. The game starts with you just riding on a giant ogre and stomping on shit before you just run around wheeling around this giant big ol’ sword like a badass, blood everywhere. It has such an awesome early 80s anime vibe. One of the things I like about it that I respect a lot in games is the game is constantly different. Things happen because the designers wanted to do them. Things are reused in ways that make sense in story. Bosses you injured earlier on reappear with those injuries still in place. It’s not just platformer beat’em up formula, which makes it feel oddly special.
Final Fantasy IV: Pushing my newfound tolerance for turn based games again, I went back to a classic. I don’t know why, I just had a growing urge to. Also it’s relatively short. It was interesting to play this and think about how much of the world interaction stuff and cutscenes and all that were cutting edge at the time. It’s the JRPG stuff we all took for granted at the time. I also played the japanese version (translated, obviously) so I got to experience slightly more complicated mechanics which made the game feel a lot less primitive than the US “Easy Type” would have led me to believe.
Robotrek: This was a mixed bag! Robotrek was a game I loved as a kid. Building robots is fun! Sadly the game is super shallow despite its attempts not to be. But… it’s also a strange, quirky game with a surreal sense of humor. It was tedious until I found the tricks to cheesing it. Parts of it that seemed good in my memory were worse and parts I didn’t care about as a kid held up better. It’s a weird, gaming game (I mean.. it’s a Quintet game so no surprise) that probably could have been great with a little bit more thought and time on the mechanics side of things.
E.V.O – The Theory of EvolutionMay 3rd, 2018
E.V.O: Search for Eden (Known in Japan as 46 Okunen Monogatari: Harukanaru Eden e) was a strange game. A lot of us have very fond memories of it, but it’s also kinda… bad. Just… shallow and really grindy. But by god was there some weird, quirky goodness to it. The game was charming in a way that made it easy (or… easier) to overcome its faults. I’d jokingly call it “One of my favorite games that isn’t actually any good”. But all the elements of Search for Eden came together to be greater than the sum of its parts. The Evolution (even though there wasn’t really any REAL decisions), the weird quirky writing, the strange alternative history aliens and bird men or whatever… the weird way it’d be sincerely sad or dark. It was one of those things where just… as an experience, it was really compelling. Even if grinding for EVO points was kinda boring…
For the last few years I’d been vaguely aware of 46 Okunen Monogatari: THE Shinka Ron, a PC98 game that was the predecessor to E.V.O: Search For Eden. But it was in Japanese and was a turned based RPG (which I have a hard time stomaching now) and was on a tricky to emulate platform. But as time went on, more and more weird screenshots would come out from it and I’d wonder “What is the deal with this game???”
Fortunately the fine folks at https://46okumen.com/ made a beautiful translation. Localized as E.V.O: The Theory of Evolution, the game is an expert translation that contains all the joy and weirdness of the SNES game. In fact, it’s… even more Search for Eden than Search for Eden. This is a strange game, taking the alternative history and weird tangents of Search for Eden to another level. it seems improbable to say, but I feel like we got the much more… normal game of the two.
The RPG nature works to this game’s favor. The writing and weird scenarios was a strength of Search for Eden. The RPG combat is… basic. Basic to both be a flaw and s strength. It’s pretty brain dead but, with text speed set to 0, grinding and fighting become… brisk. There aren’t really any boss fights either. There are no random encounters either. Enemies wander the world map and often disappear from areas after awhile. There isn’t a lot of friction to exploration and backtracking. All experience gained can be spent immediately on either Attack, Endurance, Vitality or wisdom.
The incredible part of the design is… it’s hard to do this wrong? In almost every game there seems to be ‘the suckers strategy’. “Oh never put points into wisdom!” or whatever. But everything is good, it’s just a matter of priority. Would the foes coming up be better with more strength or more health? Even wisdom which might be the least useful influences the power of your healing abilities which can be incredibly good. So while the game pushes you to be an all arounder, it allows you to influence yourself by which way you move on the evolution chart. When a stat is raised to its limit, you evolve and the limit goes up. So maybe you want to level up all your attributes, but you always max out attack, pushing you toward more damaging evolutions. Or more defensive or whatever. And they all seem viable. There are certainly better evolutions but the game is never so demanding that it matters. Instead it’s fine to mess around. Infact if you evolve off the chart (see the evolution chart picture) you can get odd “bad” endings.
The story is surreal. The translated manual includes timelines talking about Interplanetary wars with the Devil, the death of “The Fifth Planet”, Martian coups by Anti Devil Factions… all this while The Earth is still developing oxygen. Oh, also The Devil is hot and does the anime noble lady laugh. Seriously. The second sun, Nemesis, messes with evolution, Lunarians found and sink Atlantas. You can skip mammals and evolve into POWERFUL LIZARD MEN until becoming a gnome. It’s a weird, brisk experience that only gets tedious when you aren’t sure what the game wants from you… which almost always involves ‘talking to an NPC’. “But I wanna push this boulder” yeah okay you gotta talk to the NPC that will give you the idea.
It’s a wild game that goes farther and deeper than anything in Search for Eden, overlapping with sci-fi and fantasy elements as if they were just… normal. It’s funny when it needs to be funny, sad when it needs to be sad, creative in ways you won’t expect and… oddly affecting, emotionally, even when you barely have spent time with the characters in the game. Is it a shallow gameplay experience? Yes. But I hate jRPGs and I loved the hell out of this game so if you’re tempted… try it. I feel like you’ll know pretty quicky if it’s a game you’d like. For me though, this is the exactly the type of charming, obscure game I live to find, even if it’s a genre I don’t really care for. Just be sure to set Text Speed to 0.