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?