May 16, 2014

Shnabubula's Incredible Discography is All Available on Bandcamp

Shnabubula (Samuel Ascher-Weiss) of NYC is hands-down one of my favourite artists ever. Seriously, I think the guy is incapable of producing music I won't immediately love. I first discovered his work through the game music remix scene, as well as his chiptune work using video game "sound fonts" as instruments in the SNESology project. But, he writes and performs a lot of creative, original work too! I thought I had a handle on what was out there so far, but this month he surprised me by uploading a ton of previous work to his Bandcamp site.

Want to snag 13 albums worth of some of the greatest chiptune / piano / electronic / experimental / progressive / funk / jazz you'll ever hear, for free? Read on!

May 11, 2014

Cave Story Creator Releases New Game, Kero Blaster

Studio Pixel's adorable, retro-style 2D platformer Cave Story is one of my favourite indie games ever. So, I'm very excited by the news that Pixel's latest game, Kero Blaster, has released today!

May 8, 2014

Wildstar Open Beta Starts Today

Saddle up your rockets! Wildstar -- a part sci-fi, part wild-west, part What-if-World-of-Warcraft-was-in-space MMORPG -- has launched its open beta period. Thankfully, this isn't one of those hectic, ultra-brief beta weekends. The beta will be available to play until May 18th, and anyone can join in!

May 7, 2014

Oh Good, I Finished My Dailies!

Being the Guild Wars 2 nut that I am, I just had to share this cute little animation put out by YouTuber MattVisual. There's a bit of blood (nothing major), so if you're not in the mood for the red stuff or are at work, consider yourself warned.

Though it technically pertains to Guild Wars 2 specifically, I'm sure players of any MMORPG will identify.

April 30, 2014

The Epic Final Fantasy Medleys of Marc Papeghin

I tend to get pretty enthusiastic about new covers of classic game music, but there's no overstating the brilliant work of France's Marc Papeghin.

April 23, 2014

Castlevania's "Iron Blue Intention" Covered by David Cuartas

I can't believe I actually got a video link in my YouTube inbox today that wasn't random spam! And not only that, it's a very cool electric guitar cover of a classic track from Castlevania: Bloodlines! Oh, Internet, sometimes you do care.  :-)

April 21, 2014


We've got two bits of cool news regarding U.K.-based chiptune artist Blake "PROTODOME" Troise, today! The first: he's released a nifty little EP, CHIPFUNK. The second: his previous album, BLUESHIFT, is now available to download for free!

Let's Get Down to Business!

Living Myth - Guild Wars 2 Mulan

The "I'll Make a Man Out of You" training montage song has a strange way of popping up all over the internet. It can strike anywhere, at any time. All it takes is a random commenter to say "Let's get down to business" and the thread is instantly derailed -- for good reason, of course! While I can't say I exactly understand why this particular song from 1998's Mulan is such a hit right now, neither would I do anything to change that.

I am as amused as anyone that this song has become something of a pseudo-meme lately, and thought I'd pay tribute by putting a gaming spin on it. For whatever reason, I felt compelled to write new lyrics that parody a certain subset of the "hardcore" Guild Wars 2 community.

April 10, 2014

Guild Wars 2 is Getting a Massive Feature Update in Five Days

Guild Wars 2 has always pushed the envelope in terms of revolutionizing and rethinking the foundations of the MMORPG genre, from day one. Even so, the developers at ArenaNet have never been content to rest on their laurels. Since the game's launch about a year and a half ago, there has been a constant flow of tweaks to skill and stat mechanics, new play modes in PvE and PvP alike, episodic "living story" chapters, comprehensive reward systems for achievements in every area of the game, and myriad enhancements to convenience and "quality of life." Even by its own high standards, though, GW2's April Feature Pack is promising to really shake things up.

April 9, 2014

The New Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Game Remix Album is Radically Bodacious

The OverClocked ReMix community has done it again. Shell Shocked is a new, collaborative album based around remixes of the 16-bit era's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games Turtles in Time (SNES) and The Hyperstone Heist (Sega Genesis).

April 8, 2014

Guild Wars 2 is 50% Off, So Get It Already!

Until April 13th, ArenaNet is discounting their trailblazing MMORPG Guild Wars 2. The standard digital edition of the game is now a very reasonable $25. For a cutting-edge MMO of this quality and scope, especially one with no monthly subscription fee of any kind, that is unheard of. If there is anyone left who still hasn't picked up this game, there has never been a better time to try it out.

If you love MMORPGs, you will really appreciate the new twists GW2 brings to the genre. If you hate MMORPGs, you will breathe a sigh of relief that virtually all the typical grinding, griefing, and time-wasting "down time" is virtually non-existent here. And if you never played an MMO in your life, this is a great place to start, as it's super easy to get into and have fun from minute one.

March 31, 2014

Draugen Trailer Surfaces From the Depths

Norway-based Red Thread Games, founded by the creator of The Secret World and The Longest Journey, recently announced development of an intriguing new project, Draugen.

March 25, 2014

Review: Log Horizon

Living Myth - Log Horizon

Back in January, I gave my mid-season preview of this MMORPG-themed anime (check that out first, if you're unacquainted with this series). Now that all 25 episodes of the first season are out, it's time to see if the show has lived up to its potential!

March 19, 2014

Five Fantastic Tracks by Game Music Performer Lara de Wit

Living Myth - Lara de Wit

Talented pianist and violinist Lara de Wit has been treating the world to her creative performances of video game music for years. Boasting over 21 million views and 130,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, a cooperative album with violinist Taylor Davis, and live performances at E3, Lara's success is well-earned.

March 11, 2014

The Elder Scrolls Online Beta Impressions: Combat & Skills

One of the things that impresses me most about the new breed of MMORPGs is action-based, real-time combat that feels intuitive. This hasn't always been the norm, with most MMOs before Guild Wars 2 or Tera feeling less like legit video games and more like button sequence memorization exercises. As such, there was some doubt about whether combat and skills in The Elder Scrolls Online would capture the smooth spontaneity of Skyrim, or recoil back into the MMO status quo. Happily, I can report that ESO gives Skyrim fans nothing to worry about.

March 10, 2014

Happy Mario Day!

It has come to my attention that March 10th is unofficially "Mario Day."

Because MAR10. Get it?

You're welcome.

The Elder Scrolls Online Beta Impressions: Story & Quests

While not everyone will agree that story is of primary concern in an online game, a convincing setting and a sense of purpose is often necessary to draw players in. We all want to get out there and fight, gain levels, and win epic loot, but these things need context in order to feel relevant.

March 8, 2014

The Elder Scrolls Online Beta Impressions: Character Creation

The Elder Scrolls Online is an ambitious MMORPG that seeks to duplicate the epic atmosphere and depth of its offline counterparts like Oblivion and Skyrim. While it's still too early to say how closely ZeniMax and Bethesda have come to their target, my impressions from the most recent beta test period lead me to believe the game has a lot of potential.

Over the next few posts, I'll be giving a brief run-down on some of the most stand-out aspects of this hotly-anticipated game -- beginning, of course, with the process of generating a new character.

March 2, 2014

Review: Princess Jellyfish

Princess Jellyfish is a delightfully refreshing series -- one of those stories with a cast of utter goofs that you just can't take too seriously, but also wind up inexplicably rooting for.

February 24, 2014

Believing My Justice

I think Re:Birth II / Romancing SaGa Battle Arrange has found a permanent home in my portable music player. Long bus commutes are easily made shorter when Mr. Kenji Ito is on board, bringing his hard rock arrangements of battle themes from the SNES's Romancing SaGa series.

February 22, 2014

What is a Gamer?

PBS Game/Show's latest episode explores a topic that might seem trivial, but reflects a poignant undercurrent in the gaming world's online subculture.

February 20, 2014

Ninja Run Through Super Mario Bros. Results in Lowest Possible Score

YouTuber NotEntirelySure recently uploaded video of a run through Nintendo's classic Super Mario Bros., attaining the game's lowest possible score.

February 19, 2014

Judgment Day!

Final Fantasy XII Judges - Living Myth

Though I managed to resist slapping a number on my game reviews for a while, I've also been told that having a numerical score or grade of some kind can be helpful to readers.

February 16, 2014

Mass Destruction

I picked up Persona 3 Portable on sale for about $10 on PSN the other day -- and, call me obscenely late to the party for finally grabbing the third edition of a game originally released in 2006, but I have to say it is a nifty little game.

February 9, 2014

The Five Best Things About Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Part 2)

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is by no means a perfect game, or even a good one, but it does have some redeeming features that secure its place in the history of the franchise. I outlined a couple of reasons why in Part 1 of this feature, and today I'll be finishing things off with a few more. But enough talk, have at you!

A sequel that isn't just more of the same

One of the things I love most about the early 8-bit era was its approach to sequels. It wasn't just assumed, right off the bat, that a successful game's follow-up should play just like the first. As early as Donkey Kong Junior, we start to see a distinct lack of cynical assumptions about replicating the gameplay of the originator too rigidly. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link dumped a successful, overhead-view format for a controversial side-view approach. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game adopted a much more enjoyable side-scrolling beat-'em-up format after the first game's alienating platforming and clumsy controls. Final Fantasy II, though it saw no North American release at the time, completely abandoned the concept of player-chosen character classes in favour of a wide-open and dynamic skill system. And of course, there's the infamous case of the English Super Mario Bros 2 -- which, while it was technically an adaptation of the unrelated Doki Doki Panic, was nonetheless how Nintendo chose to frame the next iteration of its flagship brand overseas.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest takes to this attitude as well, playing not much like the first Castlevania title at all. It's still a side-scrolling adventure, but not the standard stage-by-stage progression of intricate platforming, punctuated with boss fights. In fact, there is a noticeable scarcity of platforming-heavy sections, and a precious few bosses in the entire game. While the first game is completely linear, challenging the player to complete as many levels in sequence as possible, Simon's Quest is a slow-cooked experience built on non-linear exploration. For the first time, there are clues to unravel, village folk to talk to, and shops to visit. Finding out the location of the mansion where the next piece of Dracula is kept is as much part of the experience as whipping a skeleton in the face or dodging a fish-man's fireball. You collect magical items that increase your power and unlock progress, in a way resembling The Battle of Olympus, Faxanadu, Zelda II, or any other basic action-RPG. Granted, Castlevania II is a particularly bad action-RPG dependent on broken mechanics, invisible gaps, and impossibly cruel pseudo-puzzles, but in those days the lines between good and bad game design were a little murkier. In today's age of quest logs, on-screen maps, story progress markers, and fast auto-travel, we expect to be spoon-fed every last detail regarding how to succeed in a game. If the player ever asks "What am I supposed to do?" it is considered a failure of game design. However, this wasn't always the case -- the onus used to be on the player to figure that out. Simon's Quest enforced that ideal far too zealously, guilty not of veering down the wrong road but of flooring the gas pedal after downing a six-pack.

I fully accept that Castlevania II is a fundamentally flawed experience beyond repair, but the raw ideas behind it were nothing if not daring. In this modern age, where we can have almost full knowledge of the nuts and bolts of a game before it's even released, and sequels are essentially expansion packs tacked onto their predecessors, it would be nice to have more surprises. In my mind, a good sequel is one that carries on the spirit and atmosphere of the original, but isn't content to merely copy its formula. Castlevania III returned to the straight-up, linear action game style, and it is a better game for it, but if we had three Castlevania games that all did the same old thing, each one would probably seem less special.

The dawn of the real-time day-and-night cycle

A dynamic passing of virtual hours, with environments transitioning from daylight to nighttime and back again, is still not overly common in games today. I think I see it most in RPGs, online or offline, but even then it's considered a cool novelty and not taken for granted. It can be an immersing device to make the world seem more alive -- literally, time is passing and things are happening, with or without your input. Usually, NPCs behave differently at certain times of day, shops might close for the evening, sneaking around is easier in the dark -- or, in the case of most MMORPGs, it could be just for show.

Castlevania II, as far as I'm aware, is one of the earliest examples of a real-time cycle of day and night in a video game. It wasn't a very complex system, but it was one of the game's more interesting features -- maybe even a good one! An unseen timer would tick away as you played, then suddenly a text box would pop up, alerting you that night time had arrived before fading to darkness.

At night, monsters out in the wild were stronger, and even the towns were overrun with ghouls, so townsfolk would stay indoors. The night also had its own music, spookier and more sinister than the daylight themes. One could never quite know exactly how close it was to nighttime, and being caught in the middle of nowhere when things grew dark really increased the tension and element of risk. There was nothing Simon could do but keep fighting, and hope that morning was soon coming. It was a simple gimmick, but a rare mechanic to see at the time -- especially in a side-scrolling, action-based title. There were even three different possible endings, dependent on how many in-game "days" it took you to finish!

There was, apparently, a sci-fi game on the ZX Spectrum in 1985 called Tau Ceti that implemented a day/night cycle. From what I gather, the position of the sun in the sky affected how shadows were displayed on buildings and ships, though it sounds like it had little impact on anything outside of visuals. Castlevania II still takes the prize for having a significant difference in game content between night and day.

A hazy glimpse into Castlevania's  future

After Simon's Quest, Castlevania games return to a more linear style for a long time. RPG-inspired boosts in character power are outright avoided, and although some iterations like Castlevania III and Rondo of Blood have optional routes through stages, hidden levels, and multiple ways to progress through the game, that progress is always in one direction: forward. It isn't until the wildly successful Symphony of the Night on the Playstation that things open up again, and a new trend overtakes Castlevania's format completely.

Guiding Dracula's son Alucard, players defeat enemies for experience and level up, collect weapons and armor, and gain skills and transformations that can uncover new areas at one's own pace. The entire game takes place within Dracula's immense, demon-haunted castle, necessitating the use of a helpful map that is very reminiscent of the one in Super Metroid on the SNES. Due to comparisons between the two series, people start to use the word "Metroidvania" to describe any non-linear platformer focusing on exploration-based gameplay. After SOTN, most Castlevania titles follow this non-linear, action-RPG style of design. However, as we know, this shift isn't a sudden tangent that comes out of the blue. Symphony of the Night and its successors take the bumbling experiments that Simon's Quest brought to the series, and finally makes them work. Grinding monster battles and building your character can happen, but it isn't forced. Progress milestones are hidden, but not so obtuse that one can't find them without a walkthrough. There are more direct nods to Simon's Quest, too, such as a creepy ferryman who takes you across a stretch of water to a new area, and even a late-game quest to retrieve the same divided pieces of Dracula's body that you searched for in Castlevania II.

Towns are gone, but each game hereafter has at least some manner of healing sanctuary room or method of finding/purchasing items. We don't see the night/day cycle return again, but Order of Ecclesia on Nintendo DS does include a central hub town full of villagers, and gets the hero out of the stuffy castle and treading various forests, plains, and the like. It feels the most like a spiritual successor to the ideas that Simon's Quest was trying to communicate, and at one point the heroine Shanoa makes a pretty amusing reference:

I'm not saying Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is solely responsible for the modern style of the series, but to deny it had any influence would be short-sighted. I would be very surprised if the team who put together Symphony of the Night didn't at least say something like "Hey, why don't we think about making a more open game, like Castlevania II was?" Even though the second game might be regarded as a failure, it's reasonable to consider the developers shelving the ideas they originally were shooting for until the series was ready for them and better tech was available.

February 8, 2014

The Five Best Things About Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Part 1)

Castlevania is one of gaming's great classic series, originally debuting in 1986 and still going strong today. You don't get to hang around that long without having some ups and downs, some accolades and some embarrassments. In this case, one of those embarrassments -- and a favourite whipping boy of modern gamers -- was the second NES installment, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. You don't have to look far on the internet to find scathing, detailed indictments of everything that is wrong with this game. It's full of typos and translation errors. Townspeople habitually lie to you or provide cryptic "hints" that defy even the most generous of interpretations. Combat and enemy behaviour is full of easily exploitable holes. Progress is artificially slowed by the need to farm enough hearts to buy special items. The list goes on and on.

Even so, I admit to being a Castlevania II apologist. Oh, don't get me wrong, the game is terrible -- but I can't help but have a soft spot for it. At times, it does do something right, or at least tries to. I respect Simon's Quest for its aspirations, if not its accomplishments. After all, there are plenty of bad games out there that fly well below the retro rage radar. Surely, the game must possess some special qualities, to invite such a degree of widespread ire.

Dracula becomes more than a one-hit wonder

The original Castlevania pits whip-wielding warrior Simon Belmont against a mish-mash of horror movie monsters and mythological beings: skeletons, ghosts, werewolves, mummies, dragons, Medusa, and even Frankenstein's monster and Igor. The head honcho of all these spooky fiends, decidedly, is Count Dracula. Yes, Bram Stoker's vampire character. Relatively speaking, his presence in the first game is trivial -- no more or less important than any other video game boss. However, with Castlevania II, we learn that Dracula -- despite having been killed by Simon in the first game -- retains a portion of his power and infects the land with a lingering curse. Famously, the count has always been one to blur the lines between life and death, but even in the original source material he doesn't come back from being ultimately destroyed. Already, we see that the video game version "Dracula" is playing by a different set of rules, taking on an un-life of his own.

In order to lift the curse, Simon must track down various pieces of Dracula's remains that have been divided and hidden by the count's devoted followers so as to preserve some measure of his power. Only by reassembling Dracula's body and destroying him properly will Simon attain true peace.

Of course, this is not the last time we see ol' Drac. He withstands even this second death, and goes on to star as the villain in almost every Castlevania game henceforth. Interestingly, a continuous chronology of events start to take form, more members of the Belmont family are introduced, and we learn that their bloodline is irrevocably tied to the repeated struggle against Dracula over centuries. Once Koji Igarashi takes the reins of the series as a producer and scenario writer, a greater emphasis is made on weaving together a coherent history that links the events of each game together. We're given snippets and hints of Dracula's past, and eventually an origin story depicting his human life, born Mathias Cronqvist. The narrative lifts completely out of the subject matter of Bram Stoker's novel, sharing little with the original book save a name and some vague imagery. The Castlevania Dracula has essentially become something else entirely. Criticisms of some hokey writing aside, a two decades long build of plot continuity across various installments isn't something one witnesses very often. Just imagine, if Castlevania II never introduced the notion of resurrecting Dracula to begin with, and instead opted to feature some alternate villain! Where would the series be, without him? It's almost impossible to even imagine it.

Bloody Tears makes its first appearance

Just about every Castlevania fan knows and loves Bloody Tears, even if they hate Simon's Quest. This music is original to the second game, playing when Simon is venturing in outdoor or forest areas during the daytime. I remember working out how to hen-peck that opening riff on the piano as a kid. That beat is really energizing, too, practically pushing Simon forward at all times. This may be a pretty short, simple track, but it's definitely one of my favourite pieces in the series. And that's saying something, because I really love Castlevania music in general.

Of course, half the fun of Bloody Tears is the huge collection of remixes and reinterpretations we've seen over the years. The games themselves have revisited the theme many times: I'm rather partial to the version in the third Gameboy title, Castlevania Legends, as well as the version in that awful Wii fighting game Castlevania: Judgment.

There are also tons of great fan tributes to be found. Here are some of my favourites:

Heavy metal version from the album Perfect Selection: Dracula Battle

Rey Tang's arrangement for piano

Electronic metal version by S.S.H. (Saitama Saisyu Heiki)

An a capella arrangement by Smooth McGroove

Edit: I just found out about Lara de Wit, who does a pretty great piano version as well!

As if this weren't enough to warrant Castlevania II some recognition as an influential part of the series, I have three more points to make next time. Check out Part 2 now!

February 4, 2014

Review: Mega Man Unlimited

It's funny, how much longevity traditional 8-bit Mega Man games still have. For all the love and loyalty the original series gets from fans, the uninitiated might easily assume there simply haven't been any new installments in the franchise post-NES. Although there have been a ton of new titles since those days -- some stellar and some less so -- it's the classic, simplified approach that remains the most captivating for die-hard enthusiasts. Distilling this pure essence has become an art form in itself, producing games that synthesize the lessons learned from modern game design with "retro" limitations. Crafting a true-to-form experience versus resisting tired cliché can be a precarious balancing act, but it's a beautiful thing to play a game that really nails it. Mega Man 9 nails it. Rokko Chan nails it. And, I'm happy to say: so does the latest fan effort, Mega Man Unlimited.

Unlimited is an unofficial fan tribute, masterminded by Philippe Poulin a.k.a. MegaPhilX. Unlike Street Fighter X Mega Man, this is strictly an underground and unsanctioned fan game, created entirely without input or support from Capcom. You'd never know it, though -- MMU sits proudly alongside the best in the series. It follows the same "beat-8-robot-masters-and-steal-their-powers" format as any Mega Man adventure, but it polishes the gameplay to a mirror finish with an exquisite degree of challenge and ingenious stage designs. Rush the robo-dog joins the team, with his springboard-like Coil and high-flying Jet forms. Screws can be collected and traded in at Dr. Light's shop for energy tanks, extra lives, and upgrades. The old password system has been swapped out for a handy multi-slot save function. The slide move can be set to its own dedicated button, rather than the unwieldy "down + jump" combo. Special weapons can be cycled through on the fly, without the need to enter a separate menu screen. And best of all, no fuss over charging up a noisy, game-breaking Mega Buster!

Predictably, the story is the typical background fluff one expects from this series, rendered through brief dialogue scenes and cute stills. Robots are running amuck throughout the city, but this time the usual culprit Dr. Wily insists that he's not behind it. Wily promptly gets kidnapped by a shadowy figure, and Dr. Light sends Mega Man out to investigate. While the story remains very lightweight and is never the central draw, a handful of scenes are peppered throughout the game that develop things, and the ending actually offers a neat twist that leads into the future Mega Man X games.

Right off the bat, it's clear that a lot of work went into making this game as complete and full of character as possible. Both the graphics and sound are in keeping with NES-era Capcom, yet original enough that it doesn't feel derivative. The soundtrack's high points may not quite reach the bar set by well-known series favourites, but I caught myself rocking out at least a couple times while playing.

Visually, MMU is excellent, boasting a wealth of detail and animation in both sprites and environment backgrounds. While there are a few intentional references to familiar enemy types, most foes are original creations that really reinforce each stage's signature theme. Jet Man's stage features aviation and airport-themed scenery, forklifts that toss heavy crates, and my personal favourite -- a hurried traveler called Mr. Shin'iri who drops his luggage in a panic, releasing a flock of tiny birds for some reason. Glue Man's stage has sticky floors which prevent walking or sliding, and round Bulletraps that will absorb your shots and fling them back at you. Rainbow Man's stage is all about light, with several rooms that force you to move and think quickly in order to avoid instant-kill beams reminiscent of Quick Man's in Mega Man 2. These beams, however, can often be redirected or refracted through prisms to clear the way. Oh, also there are gold-tossing leprechauns, because RAINBOWS, am I right!?

Each stage is jam-packed with tricks, traps and interesting gimmicks to figure out, with hardly any wasted space. You have to be clever and careful to navigate this game, which ends up making each stage feel quite long. Some stages have hidden paths to alternate routes, where you may find one of four hidden letters spelling YOKU. Securing these letters grants access to a hidden, incredibly challenging stage guarded by Yoku Man, a master of illusion who gives up an optional bonus weapon. Extra touches like this, and superb level layouts, are what elevate Unlimited to the top echelon of Mega Man titles -- and even now, Philippe Poulin is actively preparing a future update that will add another stage and boss -- as if there isn't enough content already!

The bosses themselves put up quite a fight, often using the whole screen area to perform unique, characteristic attacks. Jet Man streaks across the screen, firing missiles and dropping bombs from above. Yo-yo Man tosses spinning projectiles that roll along the boundaries of the room before returning, all while swinging to and fro from the ceiling. Comet Woman harasses the player with pesky floating orbs that revolve around Mega Man himself like satellites, timed to crash into him unless he dodges at the last moment. Even the official, main-series MM titles sometimes had trouble inventing legit ways to represent its bosses' contrived themes -- a bewildering preponderance of plant life and yarn-tossing cats for Top Man's stage in Mega Man 3 comes to mind -- so it's refreshing to never have to wonder "What is this doing here? Whose stage am I in, again?"

Sometimes the game clubs the player over the head with the themes a bit too much, but it drives home how silly it all is, and the ability to laugh at what's going on is integral to enjoying oneself between fits of cursing and controller-throwing. A word of warning: Mega Man Unlimited is soul-crushingly difficult. It demands patience, precision and perfection from the player, and the punishment for a mistake is often a swift death. There seems to be an overabundance of instant-kill spikes and pitfalls, coupled with utterly inhumane enemy placements that offer a million ways to die.

That's not to say the difficulty in MMU is ever cheap, or unfair -- simply unforgiving. It is ultimately your fault, when you die -- and like in any great game, all challenges can be overcome with practice and skill. In fact, more than most Mega Mans, Unlimited often feels oriented around environment-based puzzles that demand wits over sheer reflexes. Trinitro Man's stage is especially taxing: tons of instant-death traps, jumps that require nimble movements and delicate timing, and platforms that explode when touched or shot at. As maddening as the incessant Game Overs might become, one can't help but grow to appreciate the meticulous craftsmanship in these deadly chambers. The fact is, every dilemma has an elegant solution waiting to be discovered. Getting better and better at the game, and finding these "Eureka!" moments, is incredibly satisfying -- and it's the essence of what makes Mega Man tick.

Unfortunately, the final sequence of stages in Dr. Wily's fortress ramps up the difficulty to an overwhelming degree. While this is par for the course for a Mega Man title, MMU arguably takes it a bit too far. The average player simply isn't going to be able to complete this game, even with a full supply of energy tanks, weapon replenishment, and extra lives -- at least not on Normal difficulty. Again, it's not that anything the game throws at you can't be tackled, but the marathon of flawless performance necessary to finally succeed is unrealistic.

There is an Easy mode available which softens the damage taken from hits, although it also artificially injects safety blocks that close the gap on jumps and cover over some of the spike traps, making it feel more like cheating than a natural toning down of the real thing. Still, this game's Normal often feels like any other game's Hard -- so at the risk of sounding like a "filthy casual" I might have to recommend Easy mode for most people, especially newcomers.

Despair-inducing endgame aside, there really aren't any glaring flaws to Mega Man Unlimited. Overcoming the game's challenges is fulfilling, with the glory of victory and the agony of defeat always feeling justly earned. The special weapons are unique and useful, and finding ideal places to employ them can make a desperate situation more manageable. There's a healthy variety of enemies and set pieces, all organized smartly with nothing feeling superfluous or redundant. Unlimited is a celebration of all the greatest aspects of the Mega Man series, a testament to how far the classic formula has come over the years, and a perfect reason never to abandon 2D, retro-style gameplay mechanics. Any Mega Man fans who have yet to appreciate this gem should rectify that immediately.

February 1, 2014

Is This Zelda-Themed Top Trolling Gamers?

I just had to share this puzzling image posted to /r/gaming today:

This is just so bad, and I doubt I need to explain why. I mean, really, Game Over ? When you still have half of your life left? What is this even supposed to mean? I want to be snarky about how this top was obviously designed by and for people who have never played a video game in their lives, but honestly, I think even non-gamers would look at this and be legitimately confused by the flaw. The iconography here is just so blatantly illogical, on such a basic level!

And why would you want to wear a top that simply says "Game Over" anyhow? What is that supposed to mean? It's like they just wanted to paste in some random phrase that had something vaguely to do with video games, for the heck of it. Maybe next time they can do Mario stomping on a koopa and shouting "Level Up!" or put Halo's Master Chief under the Mass Effect logo saying "VIDEO GAMES, am I right!?"

It feels like this item of clothing was created solely to incite nerd rage. Is real-life trolling a thing now? Oh well, I did enjoy all the "Half Life 3 confirmed" comments in the reddit thread. At least we all had a good laugh about it.

January 29, 2014

This Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Trailer is Adorably Retro

Square Enix released a rather cute promotional trailer today, for the upcoming final installment in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. Critical opinions of Final Fantasy XIII aside, it's a pretty cool video of the prior events that lead up to the beginning of Lightning Returns. I'm not sure its explanatory power is sufficient to get somebody who never played these games up to speed, but at least it's a cool throw-back to the classic SNES Final Fantasy style.

Part of me wants to warm up to these games a bit, after seeing this. I didn't like the original Final Fantasy XIII's story at all, and although XIII-2's developments didn't seem much better the actual gameplay and depth was much improved. XIII-3's mechanics seem like they will be legitimately enjoyable, even if the plot still sounds like hokum. There are some genuinely good elements in there, and it seems like Square Enix learned some lessons after the initial stumble.

If there is one thing I take away most from this trailer, though, it's just how contrived and random everything seems. The abruptness with which Lightning falls through a rift in the earth, only to fall into Valhalla and become a "warrior goddess" isn't just a cartoonish abstraction -- it's essentially how the story goes! Characters and concepts just appear and are forgotten as it becomes convenient. The rules about the nature of reality completely shift from game to game, as if the writers haven't fully decided where to take things. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing the JRPG equivalent of Axe Cop.

Review: Street Fighter X Mega Man

A couple years ago, Capcom's acclaimed Mega Man and Street Fighter franchises both celebrated their 25th birthdays. Around this time, Singaporean fan Seow Zong Hui wanted to pay homage to these two classic series by means of a nostalgic mash-up -- a traditional, NES-style Mega Man game which pitted the eponymous boy in blue against a roster of Street Fighter characters in place of the usual "robot masters." Rather than remain content to quietly release the fan project as a risky, underground diversion beneath Capcom's radar, Zong Hui approached the company for their blessing. As a result, Capcom not only approved of his fan game but also cooperated through funding and promotional efforts. The completed project, Street Fighter X Mega Man, remains a highlight of the Mega Man section of the Capcom-Unity website, available to download and play for free.

As anyone familiar with the NES Mega Man titles would expect, this is a traditional 2D action platformer. You start with a selection of 8 characters to go after in the order of your choosing, each with their own themed stage and a signature ability to bestow upon defeat. After defeating all 8, Mega Man is whisked off to a final multi-tiered series of challenges culminating in a tense duel with M. Bison. For better or worse, Street Fighter X Mega Man follows the tried-and-true formula of previous Mega Man iterations, with few twists. Let there be no confusion about it: you'll get exactly what you are expecting with this one.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, SF X MM isn't on par with series high points like Mega Man 2, 3, or 9. I'm not sure it's even as good as the "just okay" titles like Mega Man 4 or 5. It's still a fun, smart game with a few of its own ideas to bring to the table -- but the novelty of the character cross-over gimmick is going to be what drives most players to completion.

Some unwise decisions keep this title from being as good as it could have been, not the least of which is the inclusion of the "Mega Buster" charge shot. It's extremely over-powered, and is the most effective way (or only effective way) to dispatch any regular enemies, and arguably most bosses as well. Sure, Ryu's fireballs can be reflected back at him using Urien's Aegis Protector -- but instead of bending over backwards to make it happen, it's probably simpler to just hop over the fireballs employ the Mega Buster. Nobody in the game isn't weak against it, and as a result there's little reason to experiment much with the earned special weapons.

Other quirks range from questionable to outright irritating. Life-restoring Energy Tanks seem more plentiful than in most Mega Mans, but won't re-spawn even after a Game Over. Stage intros suffer from a lack of character animation. Completed stages can't be re-played. Life and weapon energy capsules seem to drop too often, and weapon reserves fill completely with each death. If you enter a boss room with a fully-charged Mega Buster, but let go of the button while the boss does his intro animation, the charge is simply lost without firing anything. Scrolling between single-screen rooms is much more frequent than in most games, and the unusual ability to backtrack to a previous room results in unfortunate accidents that re-spawn defeated enemies. While the stages are generally well-designed and feature unique tricks and platforming puzzles, they can also feel oddly "un-Mega Man" at times, and lack polish. For someone who has played a lot of old-school Mega Man and knows its ins and outs, these transgressions can be irksome.

The controls are mostly spot-on during gameplay. Mega Man runs, jumps, slides and shoots as responsively as he does in the "real" games. The menus and "meta" aspects of the interface are uncomfortably fussy, however. All menu selections must be confirmed with the Start button. Even after assigning buttons on the gamepad, there is no way to quit the game without reaching for the Escape key on the keyboard. In fact, there's no way to reset the game to the title screen at all, without quitting and rebooting the program entirely.

On the positive side, the game looks and sounds great, for what it is. The visuals are 100% faithful to their NES inspirations, the level environments are distinctive and detailed, and the enemy sprites are cute and inventive despite a few too many cheap palette-swaps as stand-ins for "new" foes. The sprites used for the Street Fighter boss characters are probably as well-made as can be expected, considering they were never originally designed or proportioned for an 8-bit world. Some of them look suspiciously like Mega Man in cosplay, but perhaps it can't be helped.

The music is superb, with familiar Street Fighter character themes re-thought as 8-bit chiptunes. More than a literal transcription from one medium to another, each track takes the core melody of the original and rethinks it in a genuine style and instrumentation suitable for a Mega Man soundtrack. Dhalsim's stage music actually borrows heavily from the music of Snake Man's theme in Mega Man 3, becoming a clever and fitting tribute that marriages the sounds of both series admirably.

The standard sound effects of the Mega Man series are all here, with no real surprises. One creative touch that I really enjoyed was the digitized, squeaky half-speech the Street Fighter characters blurt out when performing some of their special moves. It's adorable!

It feels petty to criticize a free fan tribute game for lacking substance, but despite Street Fighter X Mega Man being a well-crafted effort it does feel like a spartan, bare-bones affair. For one thing, the game is quite short -- and for another, it's relatively easy. Experienced players will breeze through most stages, and likely defeat most bosses with minimal snags.

There's also no story to be had -- not just minimal story, but literally none. Granted, no one plays Mega Man or Street Fighter for the plot, but there's usually at least some facade that seeks to justify what is going on. When you start the game, you're immediately brought to the stage select. No intro, no explanation for why Mega Man would want to fight these people, no anything. Again, I feel silly for faulting what is essentially fan service, but the lack of even an attempt at a premise makes the game feel like cheap fluff that the designer didn't think was "worth it." Literally anything would have been enough.

Street Fighter X Mega Man is good, but not great. If you enjoy retro gaming or the Mega Man series at all -- but, like me, you passed this one up when it first surfaced -- it's definitely something you should try. The Street Fighter cameos alone make the experience worth it, but some well thought-out level designs and inspired aesthetics keep things engaging and addicting from start to finish. While there's nothing here that exemplifies the best of either series, I'd say it's a success as an old-school action game, definitely worth a few hours to plow through.