Thursday, March 27, 2008

Lookin' back - JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (Playstation)

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is an incredibly long-running manga series written and illustrated by one Hirohiko Araki. How long-running? How's twenty-one years sound?

I've only read the first three story-arcs (there are currently seven), but it concerns petty revenge between two college students in late 19th-century England for about 100 pages. After that, it suddenly switches gears and turns into crazy fight manga, with vampires and supernatural Mayan archeology just to spice things up a bit.

In the late 90s, Capcom made a pretty sharp fighting game out of the JoJo IP, using the third story-arc of the series (core themes: fighting! in Egypt!) as source material. Released to the arcades on their CPS3 hardware (the same horsepower used by perennial favorite Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike), the game is another great example of Capcom's uncanny ability to turn nearly any licensed property into a great video game.

The arcade game and its sequel was eventually ported to the Dreamcast and Playstation, the latter of which I'll be talking about today. Like Street Fighter III and its sequels, the Dreamcast was the only console at the time advanced enough to run a good port of a CPS3 game - the huge amount of 2D animation in both games requires a lot of RAM, something which the Playstation doesn't have.
The tack Capcom took towards porting the game resulted in a clever new "Super Story" mode that takes the shortcomings of the Playstation and makes them... mostly irrelevant. In the arcade game (which is still present in the port as a separate mode), there's a story, sure, but it's a mangled version of the manga's plotline condensed down into short cutscenes between stages.

"Super Story Mode," as a counterpoint, takes a ridiculously overblown approach - there are 35 stages, each corresponding to an important plot event from the manga. They don't all use the fighting game engine from the arcade game, either! There's a horizontal-scrolling shooting-game segment, a game of rigged poker, and a Dragon's Lair-esque quick-reaction story segment or two.

Of course, every segment seems to involve a fight with some asshole in the employ of Dio Brando, the story's vampiric, time-stoppin' (steamroller-droppin') villain, but what was tiresome in the manga is a little more palatable in the game's bite-sized story chunks.

The only regrettable thing about the story mode is the evaluation given at the end of each story segment: you're given a ranking from S to E based on your performance in a given segment, and the criteria feel arbitrary and unnecessary, especially considering that you can't easily replay segments afterwards. Even worse, though, is the "secret factor" available on each stage, which can only be obtained by reading the game developers' minds.
Ok, that's kind of an exaggeration, but here's an example: the game's very first segment introduces us to Jotaro Kujo, an otherwise normal hot-blooded fighting manga high-school student, who has locked himself in the local prison because he thinks he's possessed. His mother is in anguish, so she calls Jotaro's grandfather, Joseph Joestar, in from America. He was the protagonist of the previous volume of the manga, and he looks like a cowboy in his old age.

Joestar is accompanied by a close friend, Mohammed Avdol, who explains to Jotaro that the evil spirit he thinks he's possessed by is actually a manifestation of his soul, which Avdol refers to as a "stand."

Stands are actually the core mechanic of the arcade game, and the one really interesting thing that it brings to the fighting game genre besides the characters and setting. Calling out your character's stand allows you to improve your attack and defense, and you can also "program" it to act on its own for a brief period while you do your own thing, which opens up a lot of strategic possibilities. I also assume that it allows for totally game-breaking combos and the like, but I have no idea, really - I'm just assuming based on prior experience, here.

Anyway, in the game's first story segment, it's Jotaro vs. Avdol. In the manga, Jotaro doesn't actually harm Avdol - he's merely led out of the jail cell after days of self-induced captivity. In the game, you're given a typical story mode, Street Fighter II-esque battle straight out of the arcade game, and let loose to do whatever you want.
If you manage to push Avdol all the way to the right side of the stage (which is the inside of Jotaro's cell), and then defeat him without using your stand, then you get a "secret factor" afterwards. What the heck is that? Points that go towards unlocking new game features, basically.

Yeah, ok. Not a big deal. But for people who have never read the manga before (which is to say: nearly everyone in the United States at the time of the game's release nine years ago), these things are impossible to figure out without just lucking into them. Kind of weird!

That said, even without knowledge of the source material, JoJo is a pretty wicked cool game. It just exudes love, because Capcom really didn't need to go out of their way to make the Super Story Mode, but they did anyway. Really shows you that they care, y'know?

On a similar note, Tuesday will see a feature on the just released Sega Ages 2500 Series Volume 32 - Phantasy Star Complete Collection. It's the closest thing we have to a Criterion Collection for video games, right now. I hope my video capture box holds out!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


oh my god what
Rom Check Fail is a relentlessly clever little Windows game developed by the fine Video Gentlemen (or gentleman?) of, who have proven more than capable in the past of taking an odd idea and developing a really interesting small game out of it. What's the odd idea, in this case? Farbs provides a brief synopsis:
Some games are born great.
Other games have greatness thrust upon them.
ROM CHECK FAIL takes great games and thrusts them upon each other.
When you first start a game of Rom Check Fail, everything looks like the first level of Super Mario Bros. - Mario is on the left, goombas are on the right, there's a cute general midi version of the game's theme music playing in the background, and nothing seems especially remiss about the situation. The goal is simple: hop on top of the goombas and you clear the stage. Simple enough.

After a few seconds, though, the sound effects shriek and distort, the graphics shift
menacingly, and in the next moment, the goombas are now space invaders, Mario is now the car from Spy Hunter, and the whole level looks like a Pac-Man maze. The game continues like this, changing everything up every five seconds or so. It's totally great, and the ramifications of each change are startling. That it also manages to play on my innate love of old arcade games is emotionally irresistible.

Some of the randomly generated combinations can be a little unfair, as you suddenly find yourself transformed into the space invaders ship, unable to move up and down. Even better is when the graphics start to garble and stay that way, instead of transitioning normally. Strangely, the full-bore insanity of the game's premise and presentation makes this work in its favor, somehow!

It's also pretty forgiving - you get an extra life at the end of each stage if you have less than the 3-life maximum, and it's short: finishing a game doesn't take more than about 10 minutes. I won't spoil the ending, outside of saying that it fits the theme of the rest of the game!

Farbs developed the game for a competition hosted over at The Independent Gaming Forums, which required contestants to use "The Video Game Name Generator!" to come up with absurd new game ideas and develop accordingly. "Rom Check Fail" didn't actually come up in the name generator:
(from Rom Check Fail's TIGForum thread)
Originally this game was going to use player and enemy types inspired by the [Video Game Name Generator]. The idea was that the game would spit out games with names that can be generated by VGNG. Unfortunately the artist I wanted to work with couldn't commit the time, but instead he suggested using existing games for all the components. I think it made the game a little less VGNG but a lot more awesome.
Proof that good ideas can arise from imperfect circumstances.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Welcome to Special Console - Toe Jam & Earl

I've been meaning to make an obligatory post about the Wii's Virtual Console service for some time. What in the jibba-jabba's a virtual console? Let's genuflect in Wikipedia's general direction!
Virtual Console (PC)
In some operating systems such as UnixWare, Linux and BSD, a virtual console (VC, sometimes virtual terminal, VT) is a conceptual combination of the keyboard and the display for a...
Oops! Wrong virtual console! I meant this one:
Virtual Console
Virtual Console, sometimes abbreviated as VC, is a specialized section of the Wii Shop Channel, an online service that allows players to purchase and download games and other software for the Wii gaming console. The Virtual Console lineup consists of titles originally released on now defunct past consoles. These titles are run in their original forms through software emulation. The library of past games currently consists of titles originating from the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Nintendo 64, as well as Sega's Mega Drive/Genesis, NEC's TurboGrafx-16 and TurboGrafx-CD, and SNK's Neo Geo AES.
Basically, you can pay $5-10 to download and play old games on the Wii, bringing my reasoning for quoting wikipedia into question along the way. But what games should you buy?!

I'm trying not to overstep my bounds, and I really hate lists, so let's compromise: I'll write about a game I really like on the service every once in a while, and you'll get a much better, fuller article instead of a bunch of unenthusiastic, poorly researched ones strung together. Let's get to it!

Toe Jam & Earl - Platform: Sega Genesis
My goodness, this game is fantastic. The titular heroes are two guys from a planet that looooves funky music. They crash on Earth, which is filled with over 20 randomly generated levels of insane dentists, hula girls, obese stay-at-home mothers, and phantom ice cream trucks. Somewhere in there are the many pieces of their exploded (and extremely funky) spaceship. Do they have what it takes to survive?

That's what I'd write on the back of the box. Yes, this is a great premise, but mostly it's just an excuse to take early 80s mainframe computer classic Rogue and funkify it.

Rogue had randomly generated levels, and so does Toe Jam & Earl. What's interesting, though, is that while Rogue and its ilk typically involve duking it out with increasingly ferocious fantasy monsters, Toe Jam & Earl are both nearly pacifists! Indeed, the only way to survive a game of TJ&E is by avoiding the numerous caricatures of American society that dot the randomly generated landscape, while searching desperately for loot.

"Loot," in this case, means gift-wrapped presents. They're everywhere, and at the beginning of the game their contents are completely unknown. In one game, the polka-dot package might contain a pair of invaluable hi-top shoes, allowing a speedy getaway from danger. In another game, however, that same package might contain a "Total Bummer," which outright docks one life from whoever opens it. A lot of the strategy in a game of TJ&E comes from careful identification of the 25 items in the game world, while even more carefully avoiding the deadly ones.

There's a character who shows up every couple o' floors - the Carrot Wise Man (no, I don't know either) - who you can pay to identify any mystery items you may have. He's a lone island of sanity in a sea of madness, and the only way to take advantage of his services is to use up some "bucks," which are fairly sparse. Beyond that, though, you're on your own.

TJ&E is not an especially interesting game playing by yourself. Toe Jam & Earl both move pretty slowly (which is half the point, considering how essential avoiding enemies is to the flow of the game), and it's easy to dismiss the game as being a little unnecessarily clunky and goofy for its own good.

What makes TJ&E a great game is its cooperative mode. Playing with someone else opens up a lot of avenues for interaction that aren't present when playing alone. Pooling information on presents together, arguing about the best route to the exit in a given stage, yelling obscenities when one player gets sucked into a tornado and dropped to a lower level.

Better than that, even, is that playing with someone else allows you to give the other player a high five (in the game, natch) in order to equalize both players' lifebars. If Earl gets pretty beat up, all it takes to get him back up to speed is a high five. Best play mechanic ever? It's up there.

Also fantastic is the game's crunchy FM funk soundtrack, which the below Youtube video will demonstrate far better than my attempts to replicate a fake slap bass with combinations of random syllables.

That should just about wrap it up. It's $8 (or 800 wii points, I guess) on the Virtual Console, which is totally worth it. Listen to some George Clinton in advance.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Gettin' Smashed (again(for the last time))

Let's get this out of the way, first: Super Smash Bros. Brawl is marvelous. I always thought that Melee felt a little uncontrollably fast and broken, and Brawl thankfully steps away from that. The speed of individual characters has been slowed down across the board, but that's cool, because the rest of the game has been improved enormously.

All of the new characters are interesting and fun to play as. Ike is ridiculously powerful and has excellent range and recovery! Pokemon Trainer is three characters in one! Metaknight sounds vaguely like Darth Vader! Even Olimar, who looks useless at first glance, has enough tools to prove devastating in the right hands.

Probably the best of the new play mechanics in the game is the Smash Ball (seen at right), a seizure-inducing item which appears at least once or twice a game, assuming that items are turned on. When it shows up, the screen changes colors subtly for a few seconds, letting everyone know to stop what they're doing and go nuts.

Hitting the ball once doesn't do anything. Like a pinata, it requires a little bludgeoning before it gives up the goods. Whoever deals the finishing blow to the smash ball is bestowed with a horrible, multicolored aura, and the entire screen goes dark for extra drama, while everyone else yells angrily.

At this point, the victorious player can press the B button to perform a "Final Smash," an extremely powerful, character specific special move that will almost always turn the tide of battle in their favor, or end it outright if they're already ahead. Mario blows everyone away with a giant fireball. Captain Falcon runs you over with his space car. Luigi does... something. It's awesome. Of course, if you're a hardcore smash player and hate the idea that your game could be ruined at a moment's notice by something like this, you can, as always, just turn them off. Smash is cool like that.

In conclusion, Brawl done play wicked good. I can't remember the last time a multiplayer video game resulted in more mutual enjoyment for everyone involved, although for the sake of transparency, I have to admit that the last time I played Halo with anyone, it consisted of me losing 25 to 0 for about four games in a row.

There're actually so many game modes, doodads, options, music and so on to think about in this one game that I question whether I'll even be able to internalize it all for a long time. It's actually a little scary, just thinking about all of the slightly goopy, caramalized game stuff in here!

Also scary: the idea that Kazushige Nojima, the scenario writer responsible for apocalypse-class dreck like Kingdom Hearts and its sequel (and uh, more of the same), was actually paid to pen Brawl's single-player story mode, which plays a lot like the SNES classic Kirby Superstar if they forced out most of the charm with a shovel.

Which means that it's still really enjoyable if you play with a friend. But... goodness. The last area of the story mode is a massive maze consisting of previous areas from the first half of the game connected together randomly via doors. Nearly every one of said doors has a fairly sloppily designed boss fight in it! Fantastic!

That's about as much criticism as I can level at this game, other than that the manual is written entirely in comic sans. And that it's (intentionally) so absurdly fetishistic. But that's cool. It's not like it has any pretensions of being anything but.
What wasn't cool was the big midnight release of the game at the Foothills Fashion Mall Gamestop. A friend of mine had pre-ordered the game there, and we showed up at around 9:45. He had planned on playing in the planned release tournament that Gamestop had planned, but after seeing the mass of black hoodies seen in the above photo, we decided that it would be in our better interest to not spend the next two hours in the company of people we would probably want to elbow repeatedly.

So we didn't! We left, and returned 10 minutes before midnight. The crowd had more than tripled in size by then, and now included future KCSU station manager and fellow blogger Justin Weber in its ranks. He had shown up for similar reasons, and also had a friend who wanted to play in the Gamestop tournament, which was ruined by inefficiency.
"I thought it was going to start at 10, but it didn't start until 11, so I ended up having to wait around for an hour. The Gamestop employees actually started playing an hour earlier, at around 10, and a bunch of kids waiting outside the store just pushed their faces up against the glass."
Two stores away from Gamestop is Game On, a LAN center boasting two enormous TVs and a wii, but the Gamestop tournament forced players to use their tiny wii demo kiosk, which was barely visible from the crowd. There was probably a lot of red tape and stubbornness preventing Game On from working with Gamestop on this one, but Weber and I were nonetheless disappointed by the unwatchable tournament conditions.
"I went in hoping to experience something akin to The Wizard, but that wasn't the case at all."
Also a bummer were the rules, which forced all 32 players to play 1-minutes matches 1v1 with no items. It was in the interest of time, sure, but talk about boring. Also, none of the unlockable characters were available for play. Double bummer.

Thankfully, my friend who pre-ordered the game managed to get a copy at midnight in about 5 minutes. Considering the massive line, which Weber guessed to be around 300 people long, I couldn't have been more pleased. How did we show up 5 minutes beforehand and walk out earlier than people who had been waiting there for 4 hours? I have no idea!

Weber didn't have as much luck, but was he bitter about the whole experience?
"I don't regret it, because I got Smash, but there were definitely better options available, like Wal-Mart."
Another friend did take the Wal-Mart route, and walked out with a copy in 15 minutes. Even better would be to, I dunno, wait until the next day and buy a copy then. But hey, whatever. Good game!

Post your friend codes in the comments or something! Mine is 1762-2351-3558!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gettin' Smashed (again)

Man what the heck is even going on, here
About a month ago, I wrote an entry about Super Smash Bros. Brawl, in which I concluded that it was... probably going to be a pretty good game! Now, here we are a month later, three days before the game's release in the United States, and the unnerving quality of the game's hype machine is beginning to get to me.

Let's forget about, which I assume I mentioned last time. That thing was pretty insidious! I'm talking about stuff like Gamestop's BIGGEST TOURNAMENT EVER, which is being held at what looks to be every Gamestop store in the US of A. I have to question whether there are enough interested Smash players in the United States to make this work, but who knows!

I've since spoken to the one sorta kinda tournament-level smash player who I know in Fort Collins. I asked him if he would be interested in playing in the Fort Collins tournament while I stand in the background and take pictures of kids with mullets and Star Fox Adventures t-shirts. It would be a real journalistic endeavor. Turns out that the event has first-come-first-serve entry rules, and my friend was thoroughly psyched about the whole thing. Oh baby.

Look forward to a report of bedlam at the Fort Collins Fashion Mall, started by a bunch of guys borderline obsessed with punching Luigi in the face. I'll be there, hopefully taking photos. We'll see how it turns out. I'm gonna close out for the time being with the below youtube video, which was linked to me by another friend of mine. The first 30 seconds are pretty great!

Monday, March 3, 2008


Mighty Jill Off is an adorable little game from dessgeega which answers the question of "why do the protagonists of 8-bit video games seem so eager to go through a relentless barrage of bodily and mental harm" with a head-smackingly obvious answer: "because they're masochists, duh!"

Indeed, the game is most easily described as a BDSM-infused homage to Mighty Bomb Jack (from pre-Itagaki Tecmo) and its ilk.

BDSM? Mmm hmmm. The game's story concerns Jill, who is probably the first submissive character to demand the creation of some kind of plush toy. She's in a real boot-licker of a relationship with The Queen, who lives at the top of a spooky, trap filled tower. Of course, after getting booted down to the very bottom, Jill must leap all the way to the top in order to meet her Queen's welcome demands.

This is all conveyed to the player through a few charming stills at the beginning and end of the game, courtesy of aspiring artist James Harvey. The music, courtesy of Andrew Toups, was produced using a Moog Rogue synthesizer. It's the kind of music you can really twirl your mustache to, if you have one.

So, hey, that's all great, but what's it play like? Dessgeega herself stated over at the game's development thread (hosted at The Gamer's Quarter forum) that:
"for a while i've been complaining about the lack of adequate exploration of vertical space in platformers. so it's natural that my first platform game be pretty high-minded (despite its mind being in the gutter). "
On a basic level, Jill controls a lot like Bomb Jack - pressing the Z button results in a really ridiculously high jump, but you can tap the Z button at any time during that jump to immediately cue a descent. Once Jill starts falling, you can tap the Z button rapidly to slow her fall according to the situation.

There's a really wonderful focus of design evident throughout - the screen scrolls up the whole time, there's only one type of enemy, and two kinds of blocks: those that are dangerous and those that aren't. Dessgeega explores this limited design space thoroughly, however, and takes care not to overstay her welcome. I finished the entire game in about 12 minutes the first time through (the game displays your time for posterity after you finish), but the included readme file challenges you to finish in under 8.

Fun fact: the game was developed over a period of 7 weeks in Dessgeega's spare time - she's currently enrolled as a student at The Guildhall at SMU, a game design school more interested in teaching students how to be cogs in a huge machine than independent thinkers and artists. Of course, that just ended up fostering an even greater urge to create something unique:
(again from The Gamer's Quarter forum)
i've been working on mighty jill off for the past two months in between my classes and classwork. this is as good as any a place to point out that this game was created entirely without input or resources from my school. i just sit through lectures about 200-person game teams and it makes me want to go and make a game with three people. "
Now that's indie! I've already linked to the game's homepage twice, but three ain't gonna kill me: download the game from here, it was made in Game Maker, and have a nice day.