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!