Friday, December 26, 2008

Special Round's 2008 Games I Liked a Lot (in no particular order)

It's the end of the year, my friends. That means it's also time for a big list. It's my obligation as a blogger to write lists. And I am trying to oblige.

So here's a list of the best games I played this year (trying very hard to stick to games that came out in 2008), in no particular order. I'm not too big a fan of ordered lists. I will include bullet points, though! It's the least I can do.
  • Mother 3 is a rarity. Superbly written, endlessly clever and imaginative, thematically rich in ways that make the vast majority of story-driven video games look like they're from some kind of other, more primitive dimension. It's also emotionally brutal, pulling only one punch in the course of its narrative. The 250-track score is undeniably one of the best in a game ever, and the way it's married to the thoroughly Dragon Questy battle system is perfectly restrained. Probably the only JRPG anyone needs to play, really.
  • Geometry Wars 2 fixes almost all the mistakes of its predecessor. The first game was an enormously flawed arena shooter (best way to get a big score: fly around the arena in circles for multiple days in a row) that inexplicably became the critical darling of both whoever metacritic tracks in addition to the large sub-target audience of pothead programmers with large TVs (I say this with the utmost respect!). With the sequel, we see Bizarre Creations' Stephen Cakebread learning how to make a good arcade game. A long game is minutes long, instead of hours and hours. The Deadline game mode, which lasts 3 minutes and requires a lot of interesting techniques in order to score well, features a complex rank system akin to those of arcade shooting games that adjusts its difficulty to the player's ability. And the way the upper-right corner of the screen shows your friends' scores at all times, updating as you get better? Great idea!
  • Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is video game satire done exactly right. It treads into the theater of the absurd, plays a couple games of b-ball and leaves after a few hours. Better than the games it's lampooning, Barkley is careful to not overstay its welcome and to keep a straight face, no matter how stupid it gets. That people who don't get the joke took the game at face value as a "serious rpg" is all that needs to be said. If you can't play Mother 3 for whatever reason, play this instead.
  • Braid was pretty great. Especially if you drink and you get drunk or if you smoke weed and you get high.
  • The World Ends With You was... shit, that's another JRPG. Uh oh. TWEWY is a game that reminded me of a time when Square was not quite the relatively boring developer that it is now. Lots of progressive ideas that make numbers going up considerably more fun than normal, coherent, well-produced aesthetics, a loving and gutsy localization, and an unbelievably insane battle system thing. Oh yeah! It also had some funky music. Inexplicably good game.
  • Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer is the DS port of the super charming Super Famicom roguelike that has warmed the hearts of millions. What? It's only sold a a few thousand copies in the US? Son of a bitch. Don't let cult-hit unpopularity stop you from playing this game, which plays a little like Nethack with a lot more personality and less absurd bullshit for you deal with. Even better, the game actually teaches you how to play it. I think that's a benchmark for any difficult game, these days: why make the player look outside of the game itself in order to attain basic proficiency? The obvious answer is because youtube and niconico douga make it easier than ever for players to share information, but it's the thought that counts, guys. Shiren gives a shit. Will you?
  • Honorable mention goes to the following almost great games...
  1. Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix for being a great game that is also terribly, terribly buggy, crashing the 360 outright every other time I start the game up. Backbone Entertainment, you are an awful developer. Not awful enough to ruin Super Turbo, but almost!
  2. No More Heroes, you are almost a fantastic game! So, so close. Let us focus on the good things, like the superb writing, voice acting and cutscene direction. The boss fights are also really good. Let us focus less on the bad things that are debatably "the point," like the barren cityscape and kinda monotonous combat and stuff like that. I'm sure the sequel will be awesome.
  3. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is, finally, a modern Castlevania with some thought evident in its construction. Occasionally hard as hell, lighter on the OCD, and the bosses are mostly great. The amount of graphic reuse during some of the outdoor areas is bewildering and unfortunate, but the game leaves you with a good last impression, and that's important: these games haven't been able to do that for years. There are still obvious things wrong with this game (the villagers and their retarded fetch-quests, especially), but considering the brainless nature of its predecessors, it's still deserving of some high-fives. Or are they almost high-fives? Yeah, pretty sure they're real.
That wraps it up for this year. I'm sure I forgot at least a couple great games from this year, but I gotta wrap this thing up. Thanks for reading, and have a rockin' new year, ok?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Capsule Review - Lost Odyssey

First Blue Dragon, now Lost Odyssey, the other big-name Xbox 360 project from Mistwalker, a studio that seems incapable of making a good game.

Lost Odyssey's premise seems tailored specifically to make hack japanese role-playing game designers weep. The protagonist, a man named Kaim Argonar, is immortal. The game, however, is a remarkably traditional JRPG. How did the designers reconcile this? Well, if an immortal character falls in battle, they get back up a couple turns later with a percentage of their HP. If everyone gets KO'd, then it's game over as usual.

At the beginning of the game, we see Kaim get crushed beneath a meteor. Everyone in a hundred mile radius appears to be dead, buried beneath molten magma. Kaim's A-OK. Later, in another battle, he and another immortal character get hit by a gust of wind generated by the wings of some kind of large bird. They both take mortal damage and die. "GAME OVER" appears on the screen. There is a problem here!

Pacing problems abound. Here's a summary of the Things You Do in the first disc (10 hours) of the game, in order:
  1. Nearly impossible-to-lose series of introductory battles. Both paralyizingly boring and pretty cool looking.
  2. Long stroll through capital city. Jab the A button repeatedly while walking along every single wall in order to find Important Hidden Items (actually not important at all). Compared to the city folk with nothing interesting to say and the backtracking between areas, pressing the A button repeatedly is actually the most interesting part.
  3. Finally leave the city for obligatory trek through dungeon that looks like a forest.
  4. Hardest first boss in a modern JRPG ever.
  5. Slightly shorter version of 2.
  6. Slightly shorter version of 3 and 4.
  7. Segment where you're trapped in prison and must walk around in circles until the game decides it is time for you to leave.
  8. Awful stealth section.
  9. Even longer version of 2.
  10. Ominous foreshadowing.
  11. Funeral minigame! First run around through a massive area and pick up 10 flowers by pressing the A button. Then do it again as another character, this time picking up twigs. Then a torch-waving minigame. Start crying.
  12. Obligatory trek through dungeon that looks like a forest, followed by a dungeon that looks like a dungeon.
  13. Save your game before inserting Disc 2.
On the upside, the English voice acting is pretty good!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The home version of IIDX 15 is completely absurd

beatmania IIDX is probably the hardest video game ever made. It was already the oldest and most stoically difficult music game out there, but the recently released Playstation 2 port of the 15th(!) arcade installment, the absurdly themed DJ TROOPERS, has a few new additions that push things right over the top.

IIDX is a hard game. I often describe it to people who are only familiar with Guitar Hero, Rock Band and the like as "Everything Hero." On the hardest difficulty (called "Another," for nebulous reasons), you play every part of the song, or close. It's far more like real-time sequencing than DJ'ing, really. Here, as an example, is autoplay of a song from the home version of DJ Troopers with an uncharacteristically Japanese title called "Child's Sketchbook." The tune's originally from Drummania/Guitar Freaks, another Konami music game series. Folks refer to songs that jump from game to game like this as "transplant songs."

Man, isn't that ridiculous? Especially 0:48! This is, actually, kind of the norm for hard songs in this game. Not necessarily in terms of sheer numbers - there are still lots of easy, or at least, easier songs - but there are more memorably virtuosic songs out there with every new version. It's hard for them not to dominate your impression of the series as a whole.

Now for some attempts at providing context: IIDX has always been about catering towards the fairly small group of people that obsessively play the game in Japanese arcades, or wish they could. In the arcade, you buy a card that keeps track of your scores. The card also allows you to set other players as your rivals, comparing your scores with other players in minute detail - you can play "against" other players' scores as ghosts, like in a racing game, with a little +/- number keeping track of where you are scorewise with an opponents' best score on a song, and a score graph that lets you easily compare your performance with others and yourself. There's even a database included in each of the home versions with score data for every player registered in Konami's system from a certain date before the game's home release, giving everyone a shot at something resembling live competition.

Another concept that I feel is integral to understanding the people who play this game is that there's almost no memorization involved. Guitar Hero and Rock Band have convinced quite a few people I know that music games are all about memorizing the note patterns for the super hard songs and practicing them over and over again until muscle memory takes over. IIDX can be played like that, sure, but the vast majority of players opt to focus on honing their reaction time to a razor's edge.
There are a number of options, adjustable before and during every song, to let you do this. The first is "Hi-Speed," (adjustable from 0.5 up to 5) which spaces the notes out and makes them scroll faster. If you've played Rock Band with the "Breakneck Speed" option turned on, it's a little like that. The difference is that it's totally controllable. Hold down the start button in the middle of a song to bring up a list of the available hi-speeds (seen above). Press the top row of buttons on the controller to increase the hi-speed, and press the bottom row of buttons to lower it. It's pretty dang handy.
The other helpful feature is called "Sudden+," which causes a square pane to appear over the area where the notes appear (seen above). Hold down the start button and spin the turntable up and down to adjust how much of your view is obstructed. Combined with Hi-Speed, you can make the notes scroll at any speed you like, depending on personal preference, the song's BPM, etc. The result of all this is that you eventually learn to read notes that scream from the top of the screen at speeds that seem, initially, to be entirely unreadable.
There's a second phase to all of this madness, and it's called "Random." Like Hi-Speed, it's turned on before you start a song. Do so, and the default note patterns of the song (a big reference list can be found here) get randomized. Any note that normally appears in the 3rd column gets swapped over to a random other column, and so on for every other note in the song. In the above picture, the left side player has random turned off, and the right side player has random turned on.

The result is that every song can remain surprising for many, many plays. More importantly, you get to play a huge number of different patterns that don't necessarily exist in any song by default (I'm not even going to start talking about "s-random," which randomizes every single note, as opposed to just swapping the note columns around). A common topic of conversation among beatmania players is the notion of songs having "good randoms" or "bad randoms," or being more prone to either. It's a fascinating extra layer of gameyness.

Ok! Why's the home version of IIDX 15 so especially nuts? The reason is: they added a new, harder difficulty for around 20 songs, one of which was already one of the hardest songs in the game.

Let's compare. Below is a video of Mendes, which was already the "boss song" of IIDX15. On the left side of the screen is the Another difficulty setting (previously the highest, above Hyper and Normal difficulty). It has 2000 notes in the span of 2 minutes. On the right side of the screen is the new difficulty they added for the home version, which no one's really sure what to call yet ("Danger" difficulty and "black another" are frontrunners). It has 2626 notes in the span of 2 minutes, and is the closest thing yet in this game to a challenge that is genuinely physically impossible. As of this writing, there are an estimated 5 people in the world capable of clearing it. I think it's a good place to stop at, really:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Capsule Review - Blue Dragon (XBOX 360)

Playing lots of games that aren't obscure Japanese playstation games means... quick little capsule reviews! Although yeah, I've been playing some genuinely terrible obscure Japanese Playstation games, too. Don't play Touki Denshou Angel Eyes. It's not worth it.

An attempt to recapture the collaborative magic that resulted in Chrono Trigger, Blue Dragon is a charmless mishmash of Stuff We've Seen Before stapled to a plot that goes nowhere interesting. Akira Toriyama's character designs are his most boring ever. It's easy enough to assume that he was fed up with being associated with fictional works containing the word "Dragon" in their titles, and provided the willfully schlocky and unimaginative character designs in this game as a form of protest. The big bad guy, a geriatric named Nene (see below image) who flies around the world in his futuristic airship tormenting people (because he's just that kind of guy), is the most obvious offender. He has absurd horn-rimmed glasses, and floats around in a flying chair while wearing what appears to be a cozy blanket around his waist. It doesn't help that none of the protagonists appear to be over the age of 15. Or that I can't remember their names despite playing the game for many hours before calling it quits.Blue Dragon, being the brainchild of Final Fantasy Man Hironobu Sakaguchi, cribs Final Fantasy V's compelling job system and Final Fantasy X's compelling battle system, and removes everything that made either of them good. Characters switch between various incredibly boring classes (Black Mage! Barrier Mage! Generalist!), with no visual change other than an icon at the bottom of the screen. Instead of unlocking progressively weirder and tenuously useful job classes as you progress, Blue Dragon opts to let you slowly unlock classes from a small, unchanging list as your characters level up. The game's Xbox 360 achievements, of course, involve reaching level 99 with all of your characters, and then doing it for all of your characters' job classes. The easiest way to do this is to level a barrier mage until he learns a spell that lets you run into enemies in order to automatically defeat them for job points, and then run around, smashing into said enemies over and over for hours, occasionally visiting an Inn to replenish your mp. There are people out there who genuinely enjoy this.

The soundtrack, composed by Final Fantasy's Nobuo Uematsu, is nearly totally forgettable. Except for the boss music, which works a lot better when it's ironic. What the hell happened with this game?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Romhacks: Their Finest Hour?!

This week saw the release of two long-awaited romhacking projects. The first was an English translation of Persona 2: Innocent Sin, a Playstation game about a couple of high school kids who totally rock Hitler's face. I'm not sure if I'm going to get around to playing this one right away. It has a tendency to randomly crash when running on a PSP, according to the patch's readme. That's not reassuring! Still, I assume I'll check it out eventually. It seems a little too interesting for me to skip out.

The other big finished project is Mother 3, the sequel to the cult classic Super Nintendo RPG that Westerners know as Earthbound. I played it in Japanese with the aid of a (pretty shitty) dialogue translation after play-asia had a sale on the game near the beginning of the year, and I was blown away. It's easily one of the best games I've ever played.
Shigesato Itoi
Moreso than any other game I can think of, the Mother series has always had the guiding hand of esteemed copywriter and essayist Shigesato Itoi behind it. He's not just a semi-famous name added for the sake of grafting meaningless clout onto the game. He's actually responsible for writing all of the game's dialogue. And conceiving the story and characters. Since Japanese RPGs are typically focused on story, characters and dialogue frequently written by computer science majors, Itoi's influence is immediately obvious. His games are warm, charming. They're humanistic.

In Earthbound, a common status ailment was homesickness. As a young boy thrust into a terrifying adventure, it's to be expected. The cure for homesickness? Visiting home, or calling your mother on the phone. That kind of charming thoughtfulness is Itoi personified. Frankly, though, after playing Mother 3, I think Itoi is probably just a genius. We need more people like him working on video games.

Something else worth mentioning: Mother 3 has the most amazing soundtrack I've ever heard in a video game. It was composed entirely by Shogo Sakai, who you may know as the composer of Super Smash Bros. Melee. It is 250-something tracks long. There are something like 50-60 battle themes (which fits in nicely with the game's wonderfully transparent rhythm-focused battles). All of those tracks are astonishingly good. In fact, let's go ahead and make this claim: Mother 3 has the best video games soundtrack ever. I am writing this mostly because I genuinely feel this way, and mostly because I want you to go and check this game out, even if you had no prior interest. Yes.

Here's the English-language trailer.
Go play this game. There are detailed how-tos on the official web site.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Fantasy Zone II Remake & Mega Man 9

First: yes, the Fantasy Zone II Remake in the recently released Fantasy Zone Complete Collection is pretty dang fantastic. Kurt Kalata's got a writeup over at HG101, and there's a youtube video you can watch here - it's got a link to a demo of the Windows version, too!

Mega Man 9, too, is pretty great. It's a lot less interesting to me at face value, just because hey - it's Mega Man 9, y'know? This franchise has had its time in the sun, and while People Who Played Video Games In the Nineties really dig Mega Man, the fact of the matter is that, uh, getting the chance to play another installment with intentionally anachronistic graphic design doesn't quite instill me with giddy excitement.

That said, they did a good job with the game. The level design is excellent, and occasionally a little sadistic. Sometimes it feels like there aren't enough mid-stage checkpoints (there's only one per stage, besides the one before each boss). It's a tough game. And yet, while you may initially struggle through a stage the first couple of times, a second attempt after finishing it will often reveal that hey, this game's not that hard after all. I think that's a good thing.

Most stages are built around setpieces or build on interesting new play mechanics that haven't been seen in a Mega Man Game before. One stage introduces swinging pendulums, which react to your movement while standing on top of one. The first time you run into them, they're spaced pretty reasonably over a bottomless pit, allowing you to come to grips with their behavior. The second time is similar, but this time there are spikes positioned just so, forcing you to swing the platform precisely through the gap and in to saftey. The third time you run into one of these things, it's suspended halfway up a room lined all the way around with spikes. The only exit is through a 2-tile-wide hold in the bottom of the room. That's some gutsy shit.
There's also a downloadable Endless mode, which Capcom is charging $3 for. Kind of a shame, because it's really neat and should be included with the game by default, I think. The way it works is, you start at the beginning of a randomly chosen 10-screen long stage. There's a warp at the end. Reach it, and you'll be warped to another randomly chosen 10-screen long stage. A lot of these stages are modeled after famous stages from Mega Man history, including that damned disappearing block section in Heat Man's stage from Mega Man 2. Every 30 screens, you get to fight a boss. Die, and the game records the number of rooms travelled as your best score. It's pretty dang clever!

Conclusion: You did a pretty good job, guys. Please do not make a Mega Man 10. I don't care how well this game sells. Don't do it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fantasy Zone Complete Collection - M2's Final Battle?!

Fantasy Zone Complete Collection is the 33rd entry in the Sega Ages 2500 series, which you may know as the best old game compilation series ever. I wrote about the 32nd entry, Phantasy Star Complete Collection, back in April. While other developers tend to view compilations as shovelware at worst and a quick buck at best (the distinction is tenuous), developer M2 has always gone out of their way to present old games in the best light possible.

Fantasy Zone Complete Collection, sadly, looks like it's going to be the last Sega Ages entry ever. Unfortunate, to be sure, but worry not! M2 is clearly bringing their A-game to this loving tribute to one of Sega's most underappreciated franchises.

Along with Outrun and Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone is the Sega game that seems to best represent the often romanticized design attitudes of the nearly-dead game giant. It's Defender with gorgeous graphics and FM samba on the soundtrack, a two-way scrolling shooting game with a joyous sense of creativity and a slowly creeping tinge of the bizarre. How else do you explain the series protagonist, Opa-Opa, a pastel-colored creature with cherubic wings and tiny bootsies protruding from his underbelly (the wikipedia entry describes him as a "sentient spaceship")? The answer frequently offered up by the collective consciousness of People Who Play Video Games is "drugs, dude," but who can say for sure what the mysterious pseudonyms representing the Japanese men responsible for crafting '80s arcade games did in their spare time? I'm not going there.
So what's M2 offering up in this collection? In their Phantasy Star Complete Collection, they let you adjust the game difficulty for all of the games on the collection, offered options to increase walking speed and a turbo button for speeding through battles. Those features, in addition to the lavish display options and archival materials that have become a Sega Ages standard, made a bunch of beloved-but-crusty RPGs playable in a reasonable amount of time, and appreciable to a modern audience.

Fantasy Zone Complete Collection is a lot more ambitious. After releasing Fantasy Zone to the arcades on their workhorse System 16 board in 1986, Sega followed up with a sequel for their decidedly non-workhorse Mark III console, entitled "Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa," eventually porting it to the Mark III-based System E arcade hardware. What M2 is doing is slightly insane, and mostly incredible: they've developed a new System 16-based version of Fantasy Zone II, the version that should have existed but never was. In 2008!


It looks wonderful. The remake's official homepage as part of the Complete Collection can be found here, with screenshots and information aplenty. The other relevant piece of info about the game is that cult-favorite game composer Manabu Namiki (Trauma Center 2, various Cave shooting games) will be handling the sound design for the remake. And, y'know, it'll be $30 at Play-Asia. I'm psyched!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

An Update for a Rainy Day

Note: I started writing this at about 5 p.m. earlier today. Blogger was going through maintenance around then, and the end result was that I lost about half of this entry. As a good friend of mine pointed out, "I put all my chickens in the chicken box."

I'm sitting in the library, waiting for a sizable thunderstorm to pass on by. Colorado Weather Rules dictate that this will be within the next thirty minutes or so, which means it's time for me to link you to fun stories from around the internet. Pretty much what I usually do here, these days.

-Actionbutton.net, the Palatial Estate of Tim Rogers (formerly held by largeprimenumbers and insertcredit, in that order), is currently in the throes of the "Action Button Dot Net Manifesto." It's billed as the "twenty-five best games of all time," with Tim Rogers writing twenty-five monstrously long reviews, uploaded three-at-a-time every Wednesday. The criteria for making it on the list?
The choices on this list — save for one — are not made with the intention of riling anybody up. We have chosen simply and mathematically and scientifically. The criteria for a game’s inclusion — well, the criteria are actually pretty dodgy and antisocial, though let’s just pretend that we picked games that we really love — a lot — and that possess a clean aesthetic, self-assured graphical and sonic presentation, streamlined mechanics, and common-sensical level design.
As with all things written by Tim Rogers, you should probably not take him especially seriously, because if you do then you will probably say something stupid in a Kotaku comment section or worse. My advice is to read all the articles out loud, angrily, preferably in the company of friends. Every review so far mentions Godhand in some way, with the reservation that it is not in the list. I wonder.

-Braid came out on the Xbox Live Arcade today. I've only played it for about an hour so far. While not confident enough to emphatically recommend a purchase right now, I would strongly advise checking the trial out, if you get the chance. If you figure out how to get all the puzzle pieces in the first world, I think you'll be sold. Jonathan Blow, the game's designer, put up a walkthrough for the game over here, whose contents say more than I can about the game at this point, really.

-Edge has a pretty fantastic interview with Thunder Force VI director Tez Okano about his work on Segagaga, which you can read here. The anecdotes are fucking great:
"I was involved in every aspect of the game. I designed the game but also supervised the program, the sound, the graphics – everything. I was director, producer – everything from just one being: me! I was also in charge of promoting the game. You have to understand that we – no, I – had just about ¥30,000 (£142) to promote this title! I used ¥20,000 (£94) to get a mask made that I could use to go and promote the game everywhere! This mask was made by a true professional pro-wrestler. In many ways, the game established some industry firsts in terms of budgets alone!"
Also, I have to link the final shooting game segment, which is mentioned a couple times in the interview. Hearing about it is one thing, but seeing it? Yeah, you pretty much have to.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Bionic Commando remake's Japanese trailer is staggering

Seriously. Have you seen this thing yet? Dayummmn. (also fuck you gametrailers for exploding out of my blog's margins, ok?)

I was already looking forward to the game, which promises to render Hitler's exploding head in Vibrant 3D Turbographics, but this pretty much sent the Frothometer off the charts. I'm most impressed by the way that it takes footage from a western-european-developed game and, through careful use of the Japanese-provided art assets (from Shinkiro, no less) and the creation of a faux-70s super robot theme song, manages to create the convincing impression that Capcom totally made the game on their own. Also: why does the game have a CERO B (ages 12+) rating in Japan and an M FOR MATURE rating in the US? Censorship of Hitler's exploding head? I sure hope not!

Also awesome: the game comes out on the Xbox Live Arcade in two weeks, after contentious art-game-thing Braid and before Potential Shooting Game of 2008 Galaga Legions. It's part of some promotional thing that Microsoft is doing, where they release all the really good looking games on their service one after the other, and then presumably it's right back to sudoku.

Oh, and Sub, if you're reading this... do you recognize the vocalist in the trailer? I trust your knowledge on this kind of thing.
EDIT: Ok, I found this Capcom blog entry about the comic-con Bionic Commando panel.
...one of the things he wanted to do show us was what Capcom was doing for promotion for the Japanese version of BCR, witch is a total nastalga trip feturing a new theme sung by Anime singer Ichiro Mizuki (Mazinger Z, Great Mazinger, GoLion) only done in Japan.
So yes, confirmation on that front.

Also, my good friend Lee Slone pointed out that you can download the entire soundtrack for the Bionic Commando remake on itunes. I thought you could download the song from the above video, titled "Go Go Bionic," but based on the song length and preview I get the impression that it's just a joke song or something. Bummerrr.

Besides that, there's also this recent trailer for Thunder Force VI, which I was adamantly dismissing as vaporware right up until a few weeks ago.

This should pretty much sum up my thoughts on the subject. Official site's over here. Helllll yeah.

Friday, July 25, 2008

supabonk.mid + youtube

You may know Jacob Kaufman (pseudonym "virt") as the composer for games like Shantae, Contra 4, and a whole bunch of schlocky and semi-schlocky licensed games with disproportionately excellent music. Also: a few incredible side projects. Assuming nothing has changed since his blog last updated, he is currently employed as a sound designer for game developer Volition. What you may not know is that he recently started uploading a video series to youtube and it is going to change your life forever.


Failing that, I think you may laugh. Plenty of further contact info in the video itself!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Special E3 News Digest

Alternate title: Making the Best of Irrelevance -First, as a follow-up to the Game Center CX article from a few days ago, Gamasutra recently reported that XSEED Games is localizing the Game Center CX DS game for release this Winter. It's gonna be called "Retro Game Challenge," and I'm expecting stupendous things. Frankly, so should you. Jeremy Parish does a good job of explaining what's so cool about the game over at his 1UP preview:
In effect, it chronicles the history of 8-bit gaming, perfectly capturing its fairly humble and simple beginnings with basic platformers and shooters as well as the sophisticated titles that characterized the NES' twilight years. The eight imaginary titles in Retro Game Challenge are, quite frankly, strong enough to have been legitimate releases on the NES -- which makes this an excellent classic-game compilation whose only real drawback is that the titles collected never actually existed. But even that's not so bad, since it contains a number of convincing (but fake) magazines to help contextualize its imaginary catalog of releases -- even going so far as to offer hints, cheats, and teasers for upcoming releases.
Also stupendous is XSEED's announcement that they'll be bringing the Korg DS-10 Synthesizer to the US. This actually comes out in Japan next week, and it sounds phenomenal - it's a full-featured synthesizer, an actual piece of music software developed by people with a long track-record of making funtastic music doodads like the Kaossilator.

The big difference is that the Kaossilator and other similar devices have less functionality than the DS-10 due to the lack of dual touch screens, and actually cost far more - the DS-10 is going to cost about $50 in Japan, probably $30 in the US, while the Kaossilator retails for about $200.

If you need further convincing, this clip from 1UP is slightly unintentionally hilarious in addition to being an excellent overview of the software. Beyond that, there are a bunch of demonstration videos on youtube, including one in which game music composer Nobuyoshi Sano (Ridge Racer, Drakengard) uses 4 DS' at once using the software's built-in wifi link-up feature. Hell, I might as well just embed it right here.





-Second, Nintendo officially announced Rhythm Tengoku Gold for US release on the DS later this year. It's gonna be called "Rhythm Heaven" - no surprises there, thankfully. There's been a rather unfortunate lack of coverage of the game so far, which is a shame, because it looks like it'll be a wonderful follow-up to one of the best music games ever. Video below!



If you never played the original game, the pithy phrase that people tend to throw out when describing it is "Warioware + music game." That's accurate in respect to the game's charming sense of personality, but it doesn't do the genius of the game's design justice. Each of the game's stages is a short, 2 minute long contextualized challenge using only the A button for control. The first stage, for example, has you punching soccer balls and light bulbs in time to some jammin' music. Every few stages is a remix, which mixes the previous few stages together in wonderful and inventive ways. And then there are the obligatory extra games, including an hilariously full-featured GBA drum simulator.

The DS version looks like it has similar gameplay with a stylus-driven interface, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with the rest of the hardware, y'know?

That was E3. David Cabrera archived an extensive collection of fan umbrage to the FFXIII 360 announcement, too. Go check that out, and have a good day!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Game Center CX tidbits

Have I ever mentioned how much Game Center CX rules? I don't think I have, so let me defer this explanation to David Cabrera, who said it better than I could ever hope to without resorting to borderline plagiarism:
It's a TV show where they put a man in a room with a videogame and they don't let him out until he's won. This is a more entertaining prospect than you'd think! "Retro Game Master" is either sarcastic or a misnomer, as the whole point of the show is that Arino is an likable, average guy and he's not very good at videogames. This show is about chuckling along with Arino's many failures and the cruelty of 8-bit games, rooting for him as he presses on, sticks cold compresses on his forehead, and hits the "a-ha" moments where he figures out how the game works. In the endgame you feel a real vicarious sense of accomplishment for the guy, in a situation where he may or may not win.
Right, so. Why bring up the show at a time like this? Two reasons!

First, the show was recently picked up for possible US distribution by Japanese production company Stylejam, and two episodes of the show were screened at the New York Asian Film Festival last week. The show's localized name for the US market is "Retro Game Master," and it looks like there's a decent chance that the show will get a DVD release or even cable TV exposure. Quite a few blogs covered the screenings in detail, including Matthew Hawkins' Cinema Pixeldiso column, Wired's Game Life blog, and - again - David Cabrera's Subatomic Brainfreeze (personal fan favorite). If G4 picked this show up, I'm pretty sure I would actually maybe watch the channel occasionally, or at the very least un-delete it from my TV.
Arino proves that this is not a practice limited to the US.
Besides the above news, TV-Nihon recently fansubbed most of the first season of the show. I say "most" because while the "challenge" segments are always included, in which host Shinya Arino dukes it out with various games of indeterminate age and origin, the rest of each hour-long episode is not, in most cases. Some of these segments are pretty rad, and usually involve interviews with famous game directors and visits to game centers. I'm pretty sure their omission is because of the way the show was repackaged for Japanese DVD release, but it's still kind of a bummer.

That said, the Ultra Man and Ultra Seven episodes on TV Nihon's tracker are both full-length episodes with all of the show's segments included, so I'd advise checking those out first. And as always, Crunk Games' Game Center CX episode guide is still the best repository of information related to the show available. And before I forget, the DS game is ridiculously wonderful.

Man, I need to get back into the swing of things. I finished Persona 3 last week, so maybe I'll talk about that next? Hmmmm!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

YOU WA SHOCK - The World Ends With You is good?!

At a glance, The World Ends With You looks like another one of those inane Square-Enix games with angry Tetsuya Nomura teenagers running around doing generic JRPG jibba-jabba. Actually playing it, though? That's when you realize that it's probably one of the best, most focused games they've ever made. It's also one of the best games available for the DS.

Unfortunately, a few people I know have been turned off by the game's aesthetics and storyline within the first 20 minutes, which is a bummer. Yes, the protagonist, Neku Sakuraba, is initially an angst-ridden amnesiac with character design by Tetsuya Nomura. He wakes up in Shibuya and finds that he's trapped, forced to compete in a bizarre Battle Royale for seven days, or die. The story works, surprisingly, because it's incredibly fast-paced, and Neku develops into a fairly likeable character within a couple of hours.

I'm going to resist talking about the story, though, because The World Ends With You is a landmark of RPG game design that will probably end up being ignored completely. It's absurd how many stupid, endemic RPG design problems this game fixes in one fell swoop, especially considering that the game's directors were all graphic designers from Kingdom Hearts II.

There are so many good ideas here. Combat is entirely voluntary in nearly all situations, which is an incredibly good decision considering the open-world feel of the game. The way it works is - there's an icon in the bottom right corner of the screen when you're running around Shibuya. Tap it, and you'll "scan" the area, allowing you to read the thoughts of the omnipresent passers-by, and see "noise," which are angry-looking grafitti symbols that represent groups of enemies.

The thoughts of others are represented by blue thought bubbles, which you can tap to get the equivalent of a generic villager's conversation in any other RPG. You don't get to be privy to the secret hatreds and fetishes of an entire city, unfortunately (or fortunately? man, whatever) but the developers still had some fun with the concept. The oddest thought that I've run into was one written entirely in Japanese, which serves as one of many examples of the localization team's gold-plated balls.

Similarly, tapping on any of the noise symbols floating around a general area will start battlin'. You have a roughly two second period to tap up to four noise symbols, which will create a multiple-battle chain. The more enemies you chain together, the higher the difficulty, experience and drop rate of each progressive battle will be. There's even an item you can buy in the post-game that lets you chain up to sixteen battles together, at which point the risk-reward ratio becomes positively insane.

There's more! At any time, you can go to the items/equipment/save menu and drag a little slider around to adjust your level. Even if you've accumulated 60 levels' worth of experience, you can drop yourself tp levels 1-59 just by dragging the slider around. What's the point of crippling yourself like that? Well, the lower your level, the higher the enemy drop rate becomes. The best way to get really insane loot drops is to play skillfully at a really low level, where death is but a moment away.

Orrrr you can fudge the numbers a little bit. The only thing level determines is your HP. You can improve all of your base stats permanently by ingesting any of a huge number of food items from shops scattered throughout Shibuya. And man, this part is fucking great, too! The way this works is, both Neku and his partners can eat 24 "bytes" of food per day in real time, which represent the process of digestion. Every battle you fight digests one byte of food. A soda only takes 2 bytes to run through your system, and will only slightly cure your hunger pangs (affinity with your partner, basically), while a bowl of the ultra-rare Shadow Steak Ramen will take a full 24 bytes to digest, and permanently raise your base drop rate a little bit once finished. There are also a plethora of drugs, herbal supplements, donuts, soups and salads, mexican hot dogs etc. which all have various effects on your system and a charming description to round everything out.

Right, so: how does combat work? It's nuts, is what it is, taking place on both screens of the DS simultaneously. Neku appears on the bottom screen, his partner (dictated by the story) appears on the top, the same enemy group appears on both screens, and you get to fight them simultaneously on both screens while they do the same to you.

You control your partner with the d-pad. Tapping left and right starts a combo attack against an enemy in the specified direction, pressing up jumps, and down either blocks or sidesteps enemy attack. Neku, in the meantime, uses a variety of stylus-based inputs to attack enemies. These come in the form of equippable "pins," of which there are several hundred, each granting a different attack (all pins can be levelled up and "mastered," as well, and some even evolve into new pins, so there's that, too). Some cause Neku to slash an enemy when you swipe an enemy with the stylus, some let you drop boulders or fire lightning bolts by tapping enemies, and there are even a few that let you blow or yell into the microphone to attack the entire area with a huge shockwave. The game's official page actually has a bunch of excellent videos showing the battle system in ation, and I emphatically advise you to check it out if this sounds interesting. Or confusing.

The whole thing verges very close to total chaos in terms of how much visual stimulus the game expects you to pay attention to (it's been pointed out by others that combat mirrors the info overload present in a dense urban center like Shibuya), but more smart design choices alleviate most of the initial frustration. You can set your partner to act automatically either after a set period of inactivity, or all the time. You can adjust the game's difficulty, too, and even retry a battle on the easiest difficulty setting after getting a game over if you'd like. It'll even return to the difficulty you were at originally once you finish the battle. How incredibly courteous!

The game is rife with little courtesies. Every time you turn the game on, your equipped pins gain experience equal to the amount of time elapsed since the last time you played. Turn the game off for a couple days, and you'll come back to find all of your pins either levelled up or mastered. The bestiary allows you to easily see the effects of reducing your level on item drop percentages, by toggling back and forth between "adjusted" and "default." There's a crazy mini-game called "Tin Pin Slammer" that lets you use all of the pins you've found to play what can only be described as a cross between pogs, Street Fighter II and Motos. You can play it with up to four players via wi-fi, even!

If you've tried The World Ends With You out and found yourself put off by the initially groan-inducing jRPG goofiness, you oughts to give it another shot. If you've never heard of this shit before, go check it out. It's the best game Square's made in nearly a decade.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

PC Engine Season - Galaga '88

Near the end of last year, a friend of mine sold me his PC Engine - that's the adorable console from the late '80s that was way ahead of its time and mangled pretty horribly when brought to the US as the Turbografx-16. In its native land, the PC Engine was an insanely small and smartly designed console, a joint effort between iconic game developer Hudson Soft and electronics manufacturer NEC.

Besides the small form factor, the PC Engine also eschewed cartridge storage in favor of a proprietary format known as Hucards (and eventually CDs), which looked like this (the case is exactly the same size as a CD jewel case, for size comparisons):
Kind of like little game trading cards, really.

Over its nearly decade-long lifespan, the console received a huge number of hardware revisions, which you can read about here. In my case, I ended up with the CD-Rom "briefcase unit," which combines the original console with the CD-rom attachment in one easily transported and slightly ridiculous Vidja Game Bungalow.
After owning the console for a few months, I decided that it was high time to start writing about the games that make the PC Engine what it is - stupendous. So let's kick things off with a look at Galaga '88, a good port of a great arcade game, and one of the signature games of the PC Engine, in my opinion.

Galaga '88 is something of a remake of the original Galaga, one of the best single-screen shooting games ever made. In thinking about what makes the original such a classic game, I concluded that it's the personable, charming touches that elevated it above being just another Space Invaders clone. The immediately recognizable sound design, iconic alien designs and wealth of secrets. Stuff like that.

So what did Galaga '88 bring to the table? Somehow, further boatloads of charm. The "challenging stages" of Galaga, with their hypnotic patterns of pacifist alien craft, are now synchronized to chunky FM big band music, and introduced with "THAT'S GALACTIC DANCIN'". I get the impression that the developers were proud of these stages, because opting to kick back at the bottom of the screen without firing - simply watching the aliens dance around - rewards you with a fairly decent Special Bonus.

The enemy patterns outside of the challenging stages are much the same as the original game, but the enemies are significantly more interesting. There are rainbow-hued invaders who explode in a display of fireworks. There are extra large creatures of various shapes and sizes who require several shots to defeat, but reward an appropriately large bonus. There are shelled space beasts who are impervious to fire except when in a certain vulnerable state.

Nearly all of these guys have little nuances to their behaviors - some will merge into even larger versions of themselves when given enough time, and will reward a huge amount of points if defeated. Scoring well is about knowing when to shoot. Managing the waves of enemies for survival in addition to eliciting their secret behaviors is essential.

Also essential is not getting hit. Like Galaga, you can get your current ship captured, then defeat the enemy that stole it away and merge back together for double the firepower. Even better, you can start the game with the combined two ships' worth of power at the expense of losing one of your extra lives. Even better than that - you can get your double-ship captured, then take it back for three ships of firepower. Same width as two ships, too!

The issue that results is that, in an average game, it's very easy to be cruisin' along with the triple-ship, comfortable. Then you'll get hit once or twice and end up losing control, plummeting into a death spiral of lost lives. Since you effectively have three lives in one with the triple-ship, you can sometimes go from doing pretty decently to Game Over in the span of a few seconds. It's brutal when it happens, but considering the sheer power of the triple ship, it's also a pretty good case of risk-reward at work. The game's fairly generous with extra lives, which evens things out a little bit, but considering how powerful the triple ship is, it's often in your best interest to keep yourself at full power whenever possible. Tough call!

Galaga '88 has a finite length of 29 stages, divided into different "dimensions." You can think of dimensions as being a representation of the overall game difficulty - you go through all 29 stages no matter what, in the same order, but you gotta do a little work in order to jump between dimensions.

So, right. You start out in dimension 1. Fair 'nuff. Defeating certain enemies or destroying the debris that often appears at the beginning of a stage will cause a blue canister to drop - grabbing it will grant a brief period of invincibility, and collecting two will prompt a shift to the next dimension at the next challenging stage, along with a steadily increasing bonus.
You can jump all the way up to dimension 5 (or 4 in the PC Engine version), with shifts occurring every 3 stages or so. Each dimension brings different enemies and a steady increase in difficulty. Dimension 5 is quite fucking hard - by about level 15 onward, the enemies tend to rush onscreen, fire a huge barrage of shots and then kamikaze you. A lot like high level Galaga, but with a much higher difficulty curve. The game forces you to bump up to dimension 2 near the beginning of the game, even if you abstain from picking up blue capsules, but it's still considerably easier than the alternatives.

Of course, enemies at higher dimensions are worth more points, the challenging stages are different, and there are 4 possible endings (all of which are pretty great!) depending on which dimension you finish the game at. The final boss gives you a huge bonus multiplied by the number of your current dimension, too. I think? Pretty sure.

Anyway, the main differences between the PCE and arcade version are about what you'd expect. The arcade game runs on a vertically-oriented monitor, the PCE version runs at 4:3. The arcade version has a lot of interstitial animations between challenging stages in which random aliens bellow at you in Galaganese, while the PCE version does not. The highest dimension in the arcade version is 5, while it's 4 in the PCE version. Most importantly, the arcade version is pretty fuckin' hard, while the PCE version is... a lot easier! Especially if you use the built-in autofire of the PC Engine controller! Dunno if that's shunned or not, but if it is, maybe they shouldn't have built it into the controller, huh?

Anyway, Galaga '88 rules, and the slightly delayed US version, Galaga '90, is available on the Wii Virtual Console. Same game, $6, go check it out if you get the chance! Oh, and for comparison's sake, here are videos of both the arcade and PCE versions of the game, from the youtube:
PC Engine and Arcade.

(before I forget, there's a port of this game on the Sharp X68000, but I haven't had a chance to actually try it out, I'm afraid. Based on my prior experiences with X68k ports, though, it's probably arcade perfect.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Pinball Week Episode 2.5 - Williams Promo Videos

This week refuses to die, huh? Seems fitting. A youtube user going by the name of CaptainPinball uploaded a huge number of promotional videos for Williams pinball games of the mid '90s. After stumbling across his account last night, I had to link you guys to some of these. Yes, they were uploaded more than a year ago. Considering that they're all firmly entrenched in the hilarious early '90s Video Toaster Editing School, that hardly seems to matter now.

First up is a promo for Twilight Zone, which was designed by Pat Lawlor immediately following his work on Addams Family, the best selling pinball machine of all time. An astonishingly bad Rod Serling impersonator narrates for its entire duration.

Next is a video hocking Demolition Man. Where do I even begin?

Finally, here's the promo video for Party Zone, in which the design team embarrasses itself for the sake of countless future generations.

The rest of the videos, which you can view over at CaptainPinball's youtube page, are also generally awesome. I especially like this one for Road Show, in which Pat Lawlor basically admits that the game is intentionally designed for people to credit feed as much as they possibly can in a desperate attempt to salvage the fortunes of the pinball industry.

Sometime later this week, I'll be writing the first of many entries about the PC Engine. It's gonna be awesome!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

BARKLEY, SHUT UP AND ROGUELIKE

Tales of Game's Studios, who you may recall as the people responsible for Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, have released their second game. It is, of course, a roguelike starring the Wu-Tang Clan.

It doesn't have randomly generated levels, but it does have the arguably cooler feature of letting you open up all the level data in notepad and edit it yourself (this, by the way, reminded me a lot of another recent game that I forgot to mention here - Tiny Hawk). It's also probably the easiest roguelike I've ever played - I won the first time I played after choosing Inspectah Deck, who takes no damage from traps, automatically identifies items, finds hidden doors and opens all locked doors without a key. I imagine that the other characters are much harder to win with. It's not quite compelling enough to play through twice, but it's worth checking out, at the very least!

You can download The Sewer Goblet - The Wu-Tang Cland and the Wu-Tang Baby, from here.

(credit goes to kthorjensen of the selectbutton forums for this entry's title)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Pinball Week Episode 2 - Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection

Williams. A legend in the American coin-op industry. In video game circles they're often heralded for revolutionary arcade games like Defender and Robotron, but it's their pinball output from around the same era that I think shines brightest.

Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection (released a few months ago for the Wii, PS2 and PSP and impossible to find in retail as far as I can tell) is a fairly faithful video recreation of 10 Williams pinball tables spanning around 20 years, focusing mainly on the 1980s. It's mostly really good. Yes, mostly. Ain't that always the case?

The selection of tables does a good job of representing Williams' popularity and design sensibilities. Nearly all of the games are important for one reason or another, be it for technical firsts, fan favoritism or simply strong art design. More importantly, nearly all the games in the collection stand well on their own.

Firepower is one of the earliest solid-state games (read: microchips controlling the rules as opposed to electromechanical components) on the collection, hailing from 1980. It's got a big ol' open playfield, sound effects straight outta Robotron (Eugene Jarvis was responsible for the sound programming), and 3-ball multiballlll. It was also the first game to introduce "lane-changing," which is the feature that lets you move the multiplier lane lights at the top of the table around by hitting the right flipper button. It's a staple of pinball design, the kind of thing so ubiquitous that you don't even realize it was a "first" at one point.

The collection's other game from 1980 is Black Knight, a legendary game with a two-level playfield and "magna-save" - after completing certain requirements, you can press a button when the ball is near the right outlane to freeze it in place with a magnet and drop it safely back towards the flippers. I think it's earned its reputation as a classic, and its presence is welcome.

There are also two Pat Lawlor games on the collection. Lawlor developed The Addams Family in 1992, which went on to become the best-selling pinball game of all time, and Twilight Zone shortly thereafter, which is a close runner-up.

Addams Family and Twilight Zone aren't on the collection due to licensing issues, but the two Lawlor games that are included are Whirlwind and Funhouse, both excellent games. Whirlwind's the one with the spinning circles in the center of the playfield that disrupt where your ball goes, and Funhouse is the one with the big talking puppet head. You may have seen both at some point - I know that Washington's in downtown Fort Collins had Funhouse at one point, anyway.

There's also Taxi, Pin*Bot, Gorgar, Sorcerer, Space Shuttle and Jive Time, the last of which is the only electromechanical game on the collection. I'm not mentioning them in detail because, uh, hey - I've barely played them in real life, and I'm never going to finish writing this thing at this rate. Oh, what the hell. Lemme give it a shot, anyway.

Pin*Bot's got outlanes from hell (the lanes on the bottom-left and right sides of nearly all pinball machines which lead straight to the drain if your ball happens to roll into one), and was ported to the NES by Rare back in the day. How bad are the outlanes? A commenter on the Internet Pinball Database had this to say:
"Pin*Bot *could* be a good game. But I find it to be an unforgiving and sadistic drain monster that is way more frustrating than any pinball machine should be. Yes, I've played my fair share of pinball and I know how to nudge. I know how to set-up a machine with the proper pitch and am meticulous in this regard. With Pin*Bot, it didn't matter. Even with the posts on the most liberal setting, the magnetic outlanes drove me so crazy that I had no choice but to either sell the machine or set it ablaze."
Pin*Bot doesn't quite deserve immolation in my opinion, but there you go.

I like the rest of the games on the collection without reservation. Taxi is a pretty ridiculously charming table that has you picking up fares like Dracula, Gorbachev, and, in a typical Williams bout of cross-promotion, Pin*Bot. Gorgar almost matches the lurid themes that competitor Bally really flaunted during the early '80s (for comparison, check out Centaur, Embryon and Voltan Escapes Cosmic Doom). Sorcerer is solid despite having an incredibly generic theme and artwork. Space Shuttle's USA rollover lanes and helpful defensive features (including a stopper for the center drain and an extremely forgiving right outlane) might just give you diabetes. Jive Time is the one electromechanical game on the collection, and has a spinner on the backglass that gives out random bonuses.

Solid games all around! There are just a couple of nagging little problems with the collection's presentation thereof that rubs me the wrong way.

First, the collection defaults to having insanely obnoxious cock rock background music overlaid on top of insanely obnoxious Fake Arcade Ambience overlaid on top of the actual sounds of whatever pinball game you're playing. This is even more retarded than it sounds, but they let you mute all of it right from the get-go, so I'll just wonder what they were thinking instead of complaining about it.

Second, the PSP version of the game lets you rotate your PSP sideways to play with a vertical screen orientation to see more of the table at a given time, but doesn't let you remap the buttons and maps nudging the table to the analog stick. The X and triangle buttons control the flippers, meaning that this mode is nearly impossible to play comfortably. Bummer.

The other odd thing about the game is the ball physics - I've gotten the ball to clip inside the flippers on a couple of occasions, leading to an instant drain. What the heck?
And yeah, the graphics aren't nearly good enough to do most of the tables justice. Funhouse and Whirlwind are both busy and nearly incomprehensible blobs of indistinct polygons (I might be a little harsh, there - the above screenshot is a pretty good example, so judge for yourself). The table textures are generally too blurry and indistinct to do their explosively colorful source material justice. Still, I would say that every table is totally playable! And uh, not in a "well I guess this is ok" kind of way.

There are some good ideas here, too! There are two sets of table goals for each game - the first batch usually just requires you to complete most of the basic scoring mechanics on the table and get a decent score. Finishing all of the default rules unlocks a set of "wizard goals," which are pretty damn tough, requiring you to really plumb the depths of each table.

The developers have also seen fit to add the usual unlockables - some of the games start out on freeplay, but others require that you pay virtual credits for each play. Finishing all the table goals unlocks freeplay for any of the locked games on the collection. It's... unoffensive, in practice.

If you like pinball at all, you'll probably dig this one. Go check it out!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pinball Week Episode 1 - Necronomicon

The Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown is this weekend, and I've been cooking up some pinball articles this week. Holding back the plunger on some pinball articles, with the threat of imminently launching them straight towards the gaudy and animated-gif-infested playfield that is the internet? I'm not liking these pinball metaphors as much as I expected to.
Anyway, I've uploaded a few videos of Digital Pinball - Necronomicon, a Japanese Sega Saturn game which mixes the aesthetics of all things related to wailing guitars with pinball. It's an awesome game! I wrote a little article about it back when I had a blog on the web site of my humble college newspaper, but everyone blogging for that place got laid off after the editor-in-chief got a little too brusque in the editorial section. That said, here's the original article that I wrote about the game, with youtube videos of the game's three tables after the jump. Enjoy!

PROGROCK PINBALL
Necronomicon is a video pinball game developed by now-defunct KaZe Co. Ltd. and released for the Japanese Sega Saturn back in 1996. Ridiculously, ridiculously obscure. Of course, it only takes one guy to get the word out, and that guy was Lawrence Wright of NFG Games and his review of Necronomicon. I disagree with some of the points made in the review now, but it made me aware of the game in the first place, and that's what counts, y'know?

Compared to the real thing, Necronomicon's simulation of pinball physics is fairly unrealistic. You can effortlessly make the same shot from the same flipper over and over and over again, and the ball often travels across the play field in what almost appear to be preset arcs. Shots that would normally be incredibly easy to make on a real table, like shooting the ball towards the near-center of the play field, are strangely difficult to do in Necronomicon. Pinball is about dealing with the little, random nuances of real-world physics and their terrifying implications for the suicidal silver ball in play. Necronomicon fails to capture this, but that's ok! It's a charmer.
Take, for example, the game's announcer. Actually, he's less of an announcer and more of an omnipresent, borderline incomprehensible poet. "Far away a temple stands," he mutters. "Far away... in the dreamlands." His emphasis, not mine! He doesn't actually comment on the state of the game, but he will often trail off on wild tangents while you're trying to manage a wild six-ball multiball. The resulting aesthetic effect is one of endearing insanity.

The game's soundtrack (with intro and ending music provided by John Petrucci of famous progressive rock group Dream Theater), is marked by its wildly over-the-top production values. It's also gloriously cheesy - starting multiball on any of the tables means bombastic, wailing guitars and screeching vocals. Williams' pinball division in the mid-90s was famous for its excellent sound design on games like Medieval Madness, and Necronomicon captures the energy and enthusiasm of those games in a way that no other video pinball game I've ever played has managed to do.

Even the table designs, which are kind of simplistic when compared to real pinball tables, have a hard-edged, creepy feel to them. There's a grainy, photo-realistic eye staring out from the center of the Arkham Asylum table. A fake instruction card present on all the tables' bottom-right corners states that the game is "For mortals only." There are lots of little details like that, adding up to a strangely personable and endearing experience.

That, really, is what's so great about Necronomicon - it simulates the mechanics of real pinball imperfectly, but it gets the intangibles just right.

Youtube videos: Arkham Asylum demonstration, Cult of the Bloody Tongue demonstration, Dreamlands multiball (above).

Friday, April 18, 2008

Grab bag update #1?

I'm updating from my parents' house this weekend, and I didn't really have anything waiting in the back wings for an update, so here are a few things that I felt were worth mentioning.

-Joakim Sandberg has released Noitu Love 2, which you can buy for $20 from his web site. I'm definitely going to have to pick it up eventually. I mean, how awesome does this game look?

Yeah, pretty sure I gotta support this monetarily. And write about it. Go play Chalk, too, if you haven't already. It's free!-Made in Wired takes the rapid fire structure of Warioware (Made in Wario is the Japanese title, in case you were wondering) and stuffs it full of arcade shooting game motifs. It's just a little bit like Rom Check Fail. It comes courtesy of dong over at Engrish Games, who translated the (originally non-English) 2006 game and re-released it today. Here's what he has to say about it:

Do you know Junpei Isshiki?
He's a professional shmup programmer and an indie game developer.

He makes really cool shmups,
but sometimes he forgots to publish his games :(
How unselfish!

How unselfish indeed! You can download Made in Wired here.

-There's no way that Mortal Kombat is still relevant. Is there? I must not hang out with the right people, I guess! Sub Zero, though, he's always cool. Also, here's BBH's awesome MKII glitches page. Aaand here's this unintentionally hilarious ending from MK4! And this thing.

That's about it for now. Next week is a theme week!