Wednesday, 2 December 2009

On the Menu: Pesky Plumbers a lá mode - Mario & Luigi Bowser's Inside Story

No screenshots, unfortunately. This game refuses to be emulated in No$GBA, and I don't like using stock screenshots. Sorry. D=

The Mario series of video games is one that's recognised the world over, from devoted video game fans to your gran. In the nearly 30 years he's been around, he's starred in more video gaming genres than most would care to count (or have even heard of). Some of his exploits have been incredibly successful - Everyone loves Mario Kart and the Super Mario games - others less so. The less said about Mario Teaches Typing, the better.

But one group of games from this pop culture giant has been a bit understated; the Mario Role Playing Games (RPGs). Acclaimed by fans for being a breath of fresh air from the Final Fantasies and Oblivions out there, they've always been packed with humour and series references, bundled up in bright, happy colours and an easy-to-learn control scheme.

The newest incarnation of these games is Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story for the Nintendo DS; and thankfully it stands up to the high standards the previous games have set for it. To break the plot down; Bowser's regular plans to kidnap the Princess Peach and ruin everyone's day goes awry when he's tricked into eating a dubious 'Vacuum Shroom'. Instead of just capturing the princess, he ends up inhaling her... along with the Mario Brothers. From there the game plays out as Bowser from the outside and the Mario Bros. from the inside. The lush Mushroom Kingdom that our anti-hero traverses switches almost seamlessly to his neon, cartoon-y insides as you switch back and forth to solve puzzles. This is a biology lesson like you've never seen before; when Bowser needs to do some heavy lifting, Mario sprints off to his biceps, thwacking his muscles with a hammer to make them tense up. When there's a wall too tall to jump over in Bowser's stomach, have him guzzle water from a fountain, flooding the area and letting you continue. As the game progresses, new puzzles taking advantage of Bowser's abstract anatomy are served to you, right up to the final moments of the game. A few of the tasks take a little longer than they held my interest for, and the infrequent instances where you use the stylus to play a minigame could be unresponsive, but then the next cool body part opens up to play with (Kicking around pollen in Bowser's nose to make him sneeze? Very gross, very fun), and the stagnant moments are quickly forgotten.

But it's not all just playing around in Bowser's body, there are fights with enemies to be had! In a lot of RPGs the battles are turn-based, and all it takes to smack the foe silly is a single button press. Not quite so here; while you still have to wait for your turn in battles, you're not allowed to relax - well timing your button presses during your attacks will rack up the damage, have Mario and Luigi do some cool acrobatics, and you get to feel really cool and involved. You even defend attacks that way. If you're hardcore enough, you can avoid any and all damage! Bowser's battles also work this way, but being the gigantic turtle monster that he is, his attacks are much slower and stronger. While the Mario. Bros team up to perform combination attacks, Bowser throws out brutal left hooks and scorching fire breath. He can even use the vacuum ability he's gained to swallow his enemies whole, delegating the battle to the plumbers inside him. While there's a lot to perform and experiment with, it's all very intuitive. And a good thing too, because the fights get steadily more demanding as the story goes on with steeper penalties should you fail to dodge attacks. There's even a Challenge Mode - er - Challenge Node for you to really test out your skills.

While this game can be enjoyed by anyone with a DS and a sense of humour (and that's you, right?), Nintendo fans will get a lot more out of this - it's stuffed to the nines with references and jabs at the gaming company's history. The way Bowser has almost a fatherly pride for the Goombas and Koopa Troopers he employs as his army (weak enemies that Mario stomps on a day to day basis) can't fail to crack a smile.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dire Wolf?

Games have progressed a hell of a lot over time. That's something of an obvious statement when you look at the complex and powerful capabilities of the current-gen consoles compared to the Ataris and the Commadores of old, but the way we look at game design has changed also.

Due to a combination of limited graphics, sound, and memory, the earliest games couldn't show or tell you much. If a game was to have a plot, it was all told via text - usually in the instruction manual. As such, all early games had very simple objectives, and simple reasons for doing so. Why shoot the undulating blobs of pixels in Space Inavder? Because they're invaders! From Space! It's hardly the work of Dickens.

In a bit of nerd-culture overlap, tabletop RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons being the flag-bearer of the genre, to... mixed responses) were often used as examples for how early games with a limited ability to "show, not tell" could generate a game world for the player to experience. In Japan, this is the initial concept (along with the graphics push the Nintendo Entertainment System provided) behind both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but before that there were games like Wizardry.

While Wizardry wasn't the first digitised Tabletop RPG (that would go to the 1980s game Rogue, a game represented entirely in ASCII, and shared a few similarities with the games at hand), it was definitely one of the most popular series of its time. Back then, Wizardry was famed for the way it was involved in the conception of a one-day extremely popular genre, creating many, many gameplay devices still used today. Now, Wizardry is immortalised for being SOUL CRUSHINGLY HARD.

This is just conjecture on my part, but I would wager that the difficulty of the Wizardry games (all 8 of them, with the 4th being especially ball-busting) was to extend the lifespan of the game. Not everyone can afford (or even want to) buy a game regularly, and having a game be rediculously hard is a very efficient if sadistic way of achieving that. The games boasted such wonders as missable items that're required to progress in the game; foes and traps that can kill you with little to no warning or respite (with your save game being deleted if you die); and even a hidden timer that will kill the player's party of adventuers of old age if you took too long to complete it.

Needless to say the series was a mega hit in Japan, to the point where a spin-off company started producing remakes and new games under the Wizardry name, actually outliving the American company. One of the hardest and most unfair games series in history had changed gaming forever.

But wait! The tale does not end there. Atlus (who I've mentoned before as one of the primary RPG publishers) recently released what can only be described as a love letter to the halcyon days of extremely difficult dungeon exploration. That love letter is The Dark Spire for the Nintendo DS. It's Wizardry in almost every sense of the word (Wizardry 2, if you want to get specific); right down to the way characters are created, the complex and very retro battle mechanics, and the Excuse Plot to rule them all (There's a tower with a wizard in it. He stole some royal jewelery, so go kick his ass! Who cares if he's actually doing anything with it!).
You know you're disrespected when even those suffering from Jaundice push you around...

However, they've gone to some lengths to modernise; and honestly, they'd have to. As old games were limited by their hardware; with no such limitations present, it'd be a total waste to not make use of them. The game has 2 'modes'. A 'Modern' mode with brooding, gothic graphics offset by a trippy neon colourscheme; and a 'classic' mode that drags things right back to their roots - The graphics become 8-bit and almost entirely monochrome. The impressive soundtrack also changes between full capability and 8-Bit chipsets, which continues to impress me. Every time I heard a new song, I switched the mode to classic to hear the retro version.
"But... we can't attack you hand-to-hand. We say attacks and numbers rise from your head."

Of course, the battles and the way the dungeon exploration works changed extremely little from the games it's birthed from; but that's not necessarily a good thing. While the sillier rules such as dying of old age are removed for the sanity of the masses - unfair fights and swift deaths still run rampant. Death of a party member is a very significant loss - reviving a dead character is extremely expensive; money is hard to come by, and you need every penny to be able to rest at the inn when needed. Poison traps are introduced as early as the tutorial dungeon, and will kill a character in seconds (you take damage for every 'step' you make in the dungeon) if not immediately treated.
All that treasure is worth a single Potion? FANTASY ECONOMICS~

While the first few floors do contain weak monsters to fight, the game will (at complete random) throw a significantly harder fight at you, usually as punishment for exploring (you seem to encounter stronger enemies more often when discovering new ground, rather than treading old areas). It's usually hard to run from these, and if you're caught off guard - such as when you're heading to the dungeon exit to heal up - the battles usually result in a swift game over. My favourite situation was in a fight against the 'Floating Coins' enemy. They have an attack that can hit all members of the party; but it only does 1 damage per person, often not doing damage at all. I initially laughed these off, until the game made me fight FIFTEEN of these at once. All of them using that attack, and coincidentally not failing to damage so much anymore...

Difficult battles you can eventually take in your stride, but what really bugged me about this game were the very complicated and obscure menu screens. The game will very happily give you starting items and equipment, but not tell you that it's not already equipped. You can't see the effectiveness of new items until you've bought them - and no, just because it's more expensive doesn't make it better. The most irritating thing of all is that one of the buttons will delete an item from your inventory with no insurance message - and by that same vein, will let you use an item on any character without any failsafes. This will lead to incredibly fustrating situations where you'll accidentally (and irreversibly) throw away that expensive mace you've just bought, or use your last antidote on a member that's not poisoned.

The game has a professional finish, but it belies extremely outdated gameplay. It's nice to be able to visit (or re-visit) a time where RPGs were presented in the rawest essence imaginable - and there's a rediculous amount of party customisation to be had with a brain-bendingly interwined experience/skill/magic/job system; but it always feels more than a little unfair - the game is very rarely on your side, and the effort you put into what you achieve is only passingly rewarded.

If you thought RPGs today are too easy, then by all means dig into this demon of a game. You're a stronger man than I. Pikachu and friends feel oh-so comforting.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

5 Street: Ultimate Campness in 3 Easy Steps

Hey there! Do you want to be considered an awkward social oddity in both real life and on the Internet? Do you want to watch and learn physically impossible dance moves that will get you odd looks from the public? Do you want to want to listen to terrible pop songs - and love every second of it?

Then you should play Elite Beat Agents. But if that sounds like too much effort for you, then you can play the Dancing MMO 5 Street!

5 Street is... an experience, and you too can achieve the sheer pinnacles of flamboyant dress and bad dancing that only an imported Korean game can provide!

Step One: Take an existing idea, and bring it Online.
A whole bunch of modern-day Massively Multiplayer Online games are doing this as of late. Initially MMOs were the sole territory of RPGs (Who hasn't heard of World of Warcraft?), but since that market's getting saturated; there are a whole bunch of other game genres left untapped. 5 Street's main 'gimmick' is to be an MMO about dancing. Y'know, like the movies High School Musical and Step Up. But films are non-interactive, which isn't prime videogame material; so an actual game has to be cribbed from also.

The obvious choice here are rhythm and music games. That genre is pretty synonymous with the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series now (unfortunately), but stealing ideas from those two would be a bit too obvious; as would be taking cues from Dance Dance Revolution. So they copied the system from a dancing game called Bust a Groove, an old PlayStation 1 number with a small fanbase... and gameplay that had very little to do with rhythm at all. Unlike the aforementioned games, Bust a Groove requires no rhythm feeling or musical sense at all - just good reactions and the ability to tell left from right. What better system could be aimed at non-gamer preteens?

Everybody do the Seizure! It's all the rage...

Step 2: Camp it Up to the Max
We're dealing with an audience the developers assume have the attention span of a flea on a sugar rush, and are naturally drawn to anything brightly coloured, amazingly pretty, and can be dressed in whatever they can get their hands on. Oh yes, and they must be girls. Because everyone knows girls will accept any and every game you give them as long as it has the Cute factor in unhealthy levels. In real life, this is how kitch fashion shops start up. In videogames, this is how you make a game bewilderingly silly in design.

Even from the initial loading screen (and what a loading screen it is), you are thrown head-first into a subculture of fashion that the average guy - sexuality notwithstanding, before stereotypes start flying around - would have never come across before; or would start running from very quickly in the other direction if they had. Everything stays relatively 'normal' if a female character is chosen, but... interesting things start happening if you play as a guy.

Although a lot of the functions in the game are gender specific (a lot of graphical changes, along with 'Lovers' dance mode being reserved for male/female couples only), the majority of the dance moves in the game are gender specific, leading to dance routines that are either hillarious or horrifying, depending on your sense of humour.

"If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friiiiiends~"

This extends to the clothing avalable in the game too. I have to credit the designers here - they went to some lengths to ensure you can create a vaguely cool-looking outfit, with new clothes appearing very regularly (you have to pay real money to wear 90% of them, though). But for every sharp suit or edgy dj getup, there's a leather vest and vinyl hotpants combo to offend the eyes.

"I must admit the clothes in this are styli- OH MY GOD WHAT"

The music you dance to is quite literally under the influence of public opinion. In what's probably the most blatant disregard of copyright laws in a videogame ever; players can submit their favourite songs to the powers that be, and sooner or later they show up ingame; including swear-heavy gangsta rap and lite-metal. Before you know it you're gyrating to tunes from Lady Gaga to Sum 41 to Easy E (the latter surprised me), with a smattering of Korean Pop left over from before the localisation. The genres are varied just enough to have you find a song or 3 that you honestly enjoy, even as a guilty pleasure.

Step 3: Actually... enjoy yourself?
Despite all of this - despite the camp clothing, the stolen gameplay, and the arguably (if you're unlucky or hate Top 40 tunes) terrible music; 5 Street is inexplicably fun. Even though the dancing system has nothing to do with rhythm whatsoever, it can get genuinely challenging as you start performing better. The stunting system is extremely satisfying, as you pull of headspins, backflips, and the Worm in rapid sucession as cheering sound effects go off, sparkles go EVERYWHERE, and your score skyrockets.


The items you can buy for free are limited, but some look so good you're tempted to splash some loose change - before you realise you're broke. Some of the graphics look a little cheap, and there's next to no area for you to explore (it's not really that kind of MMO), it's well built, and some of the areas are honestly pretty.

As with nearly all free-to-play MMOs there's not enough addictive content to last you more than a week without paying some cash, and if any of your manly-man friends catch wind of you playing this, you'll be resigned to a life of mockery; but it's a silly, cheap way to waste an extended weekend.

Oh, and as a side note, despite the child-friendly arrangement of it all, if you decide to get a 'Lover' in-game, you may marry and then have sex with the significant other. In glorious, poorly modeled 3D. I've not seen it first hand (I'm a clean little games reviewer), but when I saw the item shop stocked condoms, the camp playing experience suddenly became a hell of a lot more awkward...

Monday, 20 April 2009

Analyse You

The eyes, a window to the soul,
As a burglar of thoughts I break inside
To scour every crease and fold.
What's on your mind?

"I AM ME," the Mind replies
Thick red lines, deep red, graffiti
Painted haphazardly on your psyche
A brick wall, your ego blocks my path.

But cutting retorts are sharper stuff
They slice and shred the barrier
Revealing it to be merely paper
An unrelenting quest for truth.

And I discover softer stuff, mere traces
Of conversation, memories, bad jokes.
I flick the pages, scan the entries. Hmm...
There's no next chapter.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

It's My RPG, and I'll Pout if I Want To

Role Playing Games (or RPGs) are known for two main concepts: firstly, they must contain teenagers with weaponry powerful enough to level a whole city; secondly, they make you do the same tasks over and over. These repetitive tasks (appropriately called 'grinding' by many) are the bread and butter for many games of this genre - an easy way to make a short game longer and more difficult. Unlike other game genres (racing games, shooters...) RPGs don't require much in the way of caffiene-fueled twitch reflexes, and grinding is the easy way out.

Don't misunderstand me here; the RPG is by far my most favourite genre, and it's rare to find a game that's completely ruined by the grinding, but this gameplay mechanic is so old and overused (the very first RPG videogame was Dragon Quest on the NES - the first Final Fantasy game actually came afterwards), that the game designers of today are practically pleaded with by their fans to do something a little different. And fortunately, they do. Occasionally. Several recent RPGs employ mechanics to alleviate the repetition (although the teenagers with heavy weaponry still remain). The World Ends With You for the Nintendo DS has a difficulty system you can change at any time - eliminating grinding completely, if you choose.

My World, My Way - produced by RPG giants Atlus, released for the DS - handles grinding just a little bit differently. Starring a spoiled princess-turned-adventurer (guess how old she is...), she overcomes difficult enemies and repetitive tasks by... moaning about them.

Having influence over the entire kingdom (and being continually watched by a mercenary hired by the King - the game tells you very quickly that the entire adventure is a ruse to placate the princess), she can 'Pout' at any time during her adventure to turn the tables in her favour; and there's a pout for pretty much anything. Monsters aren't dropping enough money or items? Pout for it. A locked treasure chest you can't find they key for? Moan about it until it opens itself for you. Just can't be bothered to collect 10 Demonic Explosive Potatoes? Whine enough, and the game will be happy enough to complete itself for you.

If only he knew...

A self-completing RPG would be a little too easy, so those who want a challenge may want to try and ignore Pouting completely, but the game will try its damn hardest to make you change your mind. By making quests so easy to complete with Pouting on your side, My World, My Way will turn the Grind-o-Meter all the way up to 11 should you even consider trying to restrain the temper tantrums. Assigned quests rapidly go from 'collect 5 things' to 'collect 25 things', with enemies increasingly stronger than you are (expect to survive the first few battles of a new area by the skin of your teeth). Every so often you'll encounter enemies that you have no hope of beating at your current level, and you'll ponder about using the 'Make Enemies Weaker' Pout, as your inner Gamer is reduced to tears.

This guy is pretty weak, but when you encounter a swarm of stronger ones...

Eventually, it becomes commonplace to ignore the story altogether for long stretches of time to gather money and items to spend on stat-boosting food and increasingly powerful weaponry, even if you do Pout often. There's a limit to how many times you can pout in one 'day', and you must return to town and rest before you can fight effectively again. And at that point - where you realise that Pouting is essentially a grinding wolf in sheep's clothing - that My World, My Way stops becoming fun.

The graphics and sound are up to a very high quality, and although the dialogue is a little vapid in places, it tries its hardest to poke fun at the common pitfalls in RPGs (the whole reason why the princess is on her adventure is to impress a Level 99 Paladin with a god complex), with fairly amusing results. But you'll see the same enemies a little too often, and hear the battle theme a few too many times, and what should have been a fresh experience ends up sweet, but stale - like a month-old chocolate bar.

You can tell she wants to do some grinding with him. In more ways than one.

My World, My Way is an honest attempt to be a different RPG, but it seems even veterans like Atlus can't resist Superhuman teenagers and super-boring busywork.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Indie and the Temple of Homebrew

You don't need a degree in psychology to know that anyone who has been interested in games for a significant amount of time has - at some point - wished to make a game of their own. It might've been a tiny little idea gleaned from playing their favourite game, or a 100-page long document detailing every last blade of grass in My Dream Videogame Land.

To that end, most gamers have a mixed feeling of respect and resentment for the select few dreamers who put in the time and effort to make their crazy dream become a reality - the Indie and Fangame developers. These are people who have produced games for the masses with no official development team and often very little funding; working with whatever coding skill they have at their fingertips, and producing games completely for the thrill.

For this kind of selfless time-investment, Indie developers garner a fair deal of respect and praise for what they do; but at the same time, there's an undercurrent of resentment. Why? Because we're not the ones that made and produced those games...

One well known success story would be Cave Story, the 5-year long work of Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya, a platformer for the PC with gameplay roots in the side-scrolling Castlevaia and Metroid games. Living up to his pseudonym, the game is well-recognised for it's low-resolution sprites, and the catchy 'bleep-bloop' 8-bit soundtrack. It was all released for free, too. There are a bunch of other quirky little games to his production history, but this is the first that made an impact overseas.

The game became so popular it was rapidly translated from Japanese to English, the soundtrack got a remix album, and a huge fan community sprouted. For many, Pixel's work was their first step into the world of non-corporate game production. It blew the lid open on the community, Indie work from other developers became far more accessible, and the use of game-creating software (such as Game Maker and RPG Maker) shot through the roof.

Of course it was only a matter of time before a licensed developer stepped on to the scene, and the WiiWare team Nicalis approached Pixel about making Cave Story Wii with him. At the time of writing, the release date is set for early 2009.

It feels like an appropriate end for a well-designed indie game to be officially published as a retail game, but some people of the gaming community disagree. Because these games were originally produced as freeware, to some it feels... 'wrong' to have to pay for what is essentially the same game you could have played for free. Cave Story isn't the first game to have experienced this (de Blob, World of Goo, and Audiosurf all started out as independent developer games before being snapped up by a larger developer). Although that sentiment has some truth to it; if these games are as good and as popular as the fanbases suggest, then maybe the creators of those games deserve some financial thanks for the gifts they gave us. The retail versions of these games also tend to have various upgrades made to them that make paying for them that little bit more worthwhile.

One way to not go about indie game development is to do what Robert Pelloni (I suggest reading the content of that link from the bottom, upwards) has stunned denizens of the 'net with. Similar to Pixel, Bob (as he prefers to be known) spent 5 years developing a game - Bob's Game - all on his own; although he decided to spend this period holed up in a small room - that as far as photographs and videos he's taken show, has no windows - and has developed a somewhat... unhealthy obsession for his game, and the numerous cameos he's made of himself in it.

Upon completing the game, he decided not to release it as freeware (a fatal mistake as far as holding public interest in his game was concerned), and instead asked Nintendo to let him purchase a development kit, so he could publish it on the DS. Not having a business address or anything remotely resembling financial security to his name, Nintendo flatly refused Bob's request.

Either the idea of Bob's intellectual baby being denied by a big name company, or having not left a tiny windowless room for five years began to get to the poor guy, because he began to act progressively stranger, starting up a 100-day protest against Nintendo's 'misdeed' - again locked up in his room, and then cancelled after 30 days - shortly followed by (badly) faking his own death on camera, and repeatedly changing the information on his website to increasingly nonsensical ramblings. Currently, he suspects the Yakuza have broken into his home and stole some of his data...

The sad part of the whole ordeal? The game doesn't look especially impressive. A technical demo at best - it looked like a game that really would work best as freeware on the PC. Let this be a lesson to all you would-be developers reading this - when making your game, create for the love of creating; not for the love of popularity. And remember to shower and get some fresh air once in a while.