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Month: November 2009

The Continuing Adventures of Adol Christin

My first experience with the Ys series was last year, when I downloaded and played the TurboGrafx version of Ys Book I & II via Virtual Console. I found the game to have its share of quirks, but overall, an enjoyable experience. Much the same can also be said of Ys: The Ark of Napishtim, the sixth game in the series (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll be referring to it as Ys VI from here on in). Like other games in the series, Ys VI has appeared on multiple platforms. It was originally a 2003 PC game. Two years later, it was ported to the PS2; a year after that, the PSP; and a mobile version is currently in the works. This review is of the PS2 version.

As in previous Ys games, the hero of the story is the red-haired adventurer Adol Christin. This time around he boards a pirate ship, only to fall overboard during an attack on the open sea. He winds up in the Canaan Islands, a land cut off from all others by the surrounding Great Vortex, where he meets the Rehdan priestesses Olha and Isha. The story goes from there, and although there are references to people and events from past Ys games, playing them is not a prerequisite, as the main tale in Ys VI stands well enough on its own.

The bosses are impressive, in that particular Ys fashion.
The bosses are impressive, in that particular Ys fashion.

Ys VI certainly shows its age. Textures are lush, but the tiling is obvious on an place like a field. FMVs are similarly lush, but have a similar so-obvious-that-it’s-CG sheen, and the character models in these movies range from tolerable (Adol) to hideous (Olha and Isha). Its status as a port is also clear from the slight jaggies on some of the still anime character art—especially on the brusque bishonen Geis—which would be perfect on a game developed specifically for the PS2. Animation is simple, and many of the characters don’t do much other than rotate their entire bodies, if they move at all. The soundtrack goes all over the place; most of it is all right, but there’s also a badly-executed techno track and on the opposite end, a boss battle theme that is Ys music at its finest. As for the non-musical sounds, the omnipresent voice acting isn’t very good (to put it kindly), some of the sound effects are similarly weak, and the mix is uneven at times.

However, all of this is mainly window dressing. The real meat of Ys VI lies in its dungeon crawling and hack-n-slashery. Adol, the one and only playable character in the game, has a set of quick moves and attacks, as do his foes, making grinding a fast-paced, enjoyable experience. Aside from one particularly tricky jump, all of his moves and abilities are easy enough to pull off, and (fortunately, as the default setup is a bit odd) the controls are completely customizable. Among your usual bits of equipment are three special swords that Adol obtains during the course of the game, each one with a different moveset and elemental magic ability. Each of these swords can be swapped in on the fly without having to go to a menu screen, a feature that makes otherwise plain battles more interesting. As for the enemies, a good variety of them can be fought, and the bosses in particular make for fun, and sometimes tough, battles. And though finding out where to go next in the story can be a little tricky at times, and there is a fair of backtracking, moving from place to place doesn’t take very long, and the larger dungeons can be easily escaped from by using a certain key item. All in all, the battle system and exploration aspects of Ys VI are quite enjoyable, and any potentially tedious parts are made to be as brief as possible.

Ys VI is one of those games that is not for everyone. The graphics and sound are those of a low-budget game with high-budget aspirations—a description which is certainly apt here. Also, though there are a few sidequests and hidden areas to explore, the game is fairly short, which might put off those RPG players who like lengthier experiences. However, the action is meaty, often challenging, and a lot of fun. Gamers who are willing to forgive the game’s aesthetic missteps could certainly find a lot to like here.

Site Business

Really quickly, I just wanted to make note of some recent changes made here at Brain Scrap House. First off, and you might have noticed this earlier, is that I’ve started italicizing the titles of games; it just made sense to do this.

Secondly, I’ve changed the “FWXD Archive” to “Old Stuff”. Now, in addition to the two original BSH columns from FWXD are several pre-BSH reviews, impressions, etc. from my LiveJournal account. A link to the okamiblog archive can now also be found there.

Thirdly, the Links page has been updated with several new sites to check out.

Finally, BSH has a new address: The old addy will still work fine for both the blog and syndication feeds for the time being; whether or not you’d like to change your bookmarks is completely up to you.

Back on the Animus

I don’t like to play open-world/sandbox games; I tried Grand Theft Auto: Vice City some years ago, got stuck, and was uninterested enough by the game as a whole that I never bothered picking it up again. However, my husband loves them, and I’ve found these games much more interesting as a spectator. I’ve never watched one all the way through, but have seen a fair amount of the GTA series, The Warriors, The Godfather: Blackhand Edition, and Assassin’s Creed.

In addition to playing open-world games, I didn’t much like Altaïr, the main character of that last game on the list. He’s the Crusades-era ancestor of one Desmond Miles, who lives in the modern age and is cooped up in some sort of lab, where he has to lie down on a device called an Animus, which plugs into his subconscious collective memory or some such. The short of it is that this machine puts him into Altaïr’s shoes, allowing for a believable “gaminess” when it comes to said ancestor’s adventures.

Assassin's Creed II: Ezio impales an enemy on a rooftop in Florence.Anyway, Altaïr struck me as something of an asshole, and not very likable at all. However, the same can’t be said for one of Desmond’s other ancestors, a debonair young man named Ezio who lives in the late 15th Century. Ezio is the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed II, which came out this Tuesday for the PS3 and 360 (a PC version is due next year). My husband had preordered it from Amazon, and it arrived yesterday; he had originally planned to start it after Thanksgiving, but the lure of more historical assassin action was too great to resist. Me, I had been planning to put some more time into Ys: The Ark of Napishtim last night, but ended up watching him galavant across Florentine rooftops until around midnight.

Assassin’s Creed II picks up pretty much right where the last one left off. After certain modern-day details present themselves, Desmond is once again jacked into an ancestor’s world, this time finding himself in Renaissance Italy. Here we first meet Ezio, a banker’s son and ladies’ man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. As the plot moves along, the game’s various moves and features are slowly dripped out to the player, and once Ezio dons the clothes of an assassin, there are even more things to learn. Thus, the first few hours of the game feel like an extended tutorial, but one that the story is elegantly wrapped around.

Many of the distractions from the first game are back, including collectable sidequests, Leaps of Faith, and so forth, but these are put to work, rather that just being things to do for Achievements or Trophies. Some serve a story purpose, while others, like the high vantage points scattered throughout the world, lead to practical benefits. There are also new things to do, ranging from additional ways to earn money, to scattered clues that tie in to the overarching plot.

Aesthetically, the game shines. The script is engaging and sometimes even funny. I won’t spoil it, but there’s one line in particular spoken by one of Ezio’s associates that has us both groaning and smiling. There are a few weird character models, but for the most part, the visuals and animation are stunning. The sound design is fantastic, but if Ezio is ever facing away from a character, even if they are still nearby, the dialogue audio softens considerably. I understand that this approach is to make things more realistic, but it seems a little overdone. And speaking of the dialogue, Tycho is absolutely right in his suggestion to have the subtitles turned on. There is a lot of Italian woven into the dialogue, and unless you know the language, you will want to take advantage of the translations that the subs provide.

So yes, the game is very good, but there are a couple of nitpicks I would be remiss not to point out. First off are some of the early Achievements, which are for doing things that are required to get further into the game anyway; they’re small ones, sure, but still silly. My husband also found the controls a little finicky at times, especially the ones mapped to the ABXY buttons, which can frequently change depending on the situation. At any rate, I know he’ll have a good time with Assassin’s Creed II, and I also know that I’ll continue to watch him play every so often to see where the story goes.

An Adventure That Spans Dimensions

If I was to pick a single video game RPG hero as my favorite, Mario would be very close to—or at—the top. Though best known for his platforming adventures, ever since Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars first arrived for the SNES, Nintendo’s most famous mascot has also flourished in a very different genre. Super Mario RPG helped pave the way for its primary successor, the N64’s Paper Mario. Along with the handheld-centric Mario & Luigi series, the Paper Mario games are fun, whimsical affairs.

Super Paper Mario is a bit different from Paper Mario, its GameCube sequel Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, and, well, all other Mario RPGs in one crucial way: it’s action-based instead of turn-based, and all of the battles take place directly on the field, a la Kingdom Hearts. Flower Points—which, in the past, were used for special attacks—are done away with entirely; now, most specific moves can be pulled off with the simple press of a button, making battle generally easier than before in this already easy series. Stylish moves make a return, but they aren’t as central to the experience as they were in TTYD. This game is also a lot more platforming-heavy than other Mario RPGs and rewards constant exploration. These changes add up to a very different experience when compared to previous Mario RPGs, but one which suits the source material quite well.

Mario reaches an intimidating expanse...
Mario reaches an intimidating expanse...

Speaking of exploration, the main feature in Super Paper Mario is the ability to flip the regular “flat” world ninety degrees to reveal a three-dimensional view of that same environment. Often, hidden items, paths, boxes, coins, pipes, and even enemies will appear in a flipped view, making frequent flipping a must if one wants to see as much of the game as possible; however, stay too long in the flipped view, and Mario will start losing HP. Paper Mario has always played around with the idea of two-dimensional objects in three-dimensional spaces, but it is within this third game’s flipping mechanics that the visual whimsy really hits its mark.

Naturally, this inter-dimensional travel is a core theme of the story as well. Mario and Luigi set out to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser, but this otherwise routine mission is complicated by the arrival of Count Bleck, who sets in motion a prophecy that would destroy not just Mario’s world, but all that exist. Now on his own, Mario winds up in a town called Flipside, where he meets the wise man Merlon and the butterfly-shaped Pixl Tippi. From there, he begins his quest to find the Pure Hearts needed to make sure that the dark prophecy doesn’t come to pass, and that a counteracting “light” one does instead. This story is pretty typical fare and a certain segment breaks with the overall pace in an odd way, but it also winds up being the best in the series thus far, thanks in large part to some unexpectedly dramatic turns.

...which is actually a piece of cake to cross.
...which is actually a piece of cake to cross.

As in most any RPG, Mario travels to a wide range of locales and meets some interesting characters along the way. He also picks up new Pixls, tiny creatures who each enable Mario to use a certain ability; for instance, Tippi can reveal hidden objects and tell the player about an enemy’s attributes. For more abilities (and ever-important healing purposes), several items can be obtained from stores or by defeating monsters; many of these require gimmicky motion-control actions in order to be put to effective use. Finally, there are a few party members that are picked up along the way, each of which can be swapped in to replace Mario at just about any time; none of these newcomers can flip, but they each have a certain crucial ability that Mario and the Pixls lack, and that no item can replicate. In addition to their benefits out on the field, the Pixl and party members’ abilities help in Mario’s exploration of Flipside, and over the course of the game, the number of places available in this hub world slowly grows, sometimes revealing new distractions like a card shop, a restaurant where items can be made into new ones with the help of certain recipes, a 100-floor dungeon, and an arcade where minigames can be played.

Peppered throughout all of this is the humor that has come to be expected from a Mario RPG. In addition to a funny and smartly localized script, there are a handful of cheeky visual references to the Mario platformers of old. Along with its memorable soundtrack and appealing visual aesthetic, all of this is designed to put a smile on any Mario fan’s face.

It isn’t perfect—very few games are—but I can’t recommend Super Paper Mario enough. It’s humorous yet touching, simple yet brilliant, and breezy yet addictive. In spite, yet also because, of its different approaches to gameplay, it shines as one of the best Mario RPGs ever made, and a fantastic game in its own right.

Game Ads in Archie Digests, Circa 1990

Some years back, I got on a big nostalgia trip for certain Archie Comics Digests that I used to own in my middle school days. I no longer had them in my possession, but found most of them on eBay as part of two large lots of Betty and Veronica Double Digests and Jughead Double Digests. I bought both lots, which left me with far more Archies than I ever thought I’d own. Since then, I’ve reread the old favorites, and read some of the new (to me) issues for the first time. Recently, I’ve gone back to them, which is when I noticed the video game ads.

Back then, as now, such ads weren’t uncommon in comic books. They could readily be found alongside ads for breakfast cereals like Cap’n Crunch and Fruity Pebbles, sales clubs where kids could earn fabulous prizes, and of course, comics subscriptions. Here are some of the ads that have jogged my memory:

The Little Mermaid handheld game, by TigerThe Little Mermaid handheld electronic game, from the back cover of Betty and Veronica Double Digest No. 31, May 1992 – I can’t recall if I was still reading Archies in 1992, but I was reading comics in general at the time, and recall seeing this ad somewhere. Tiger’s handheld games were ubiquitous back then; for those who don’t remember them, they were little LCD games along the lines of Nintendo’s Game & Watch handhelds. Kind of fun for awhile, but nothing to write home about. I had a Pinball one, while my sister’s had a crude approximation of Sonic the Hedgehog. As you can see from the ad, the basic design of the handhelds had changed since then. The gameplay was probably still meh, though.

Mappy-Land for the NES. Developed by Namco, published in the US by Taxan.Mappy-Land for the NES, back cover of Jughead’s Double Digest No. 1, October 1989 – Here we have the oldest ad in this set. I saw this ad for Mappy-Land in several comic digests back then, but usually on the interior, where it had a clean white background (just the paper color, really). Seeing it here in yellow strikes me as a bit unusual. Anyway, I’ve never played this, but always thought it was a well-designed ad, what with the mouse trap and Apple-esque type and layout. Looking back on it now, the list of other Taxan-published games piques my interest more than Mappy-Land itself; Star Soldier is fairly well-known in retro gaming circles, and Fist of the North Star is, of course, based on the manga and anime of the same name. The original arcade version of Mappy is currently available on Virtual Console, but it remains to be seen if Mappy-Land will show up there as well.

Mickey Mousecapade for the NES, developed and published by Capcom.Mickey Mousecapade for the NES, interior page from Betty and Veronica Double Digest No. 18, April 1990 – Here is another ad that popped up a lot; note that it also has a yellow background, but for once, this was purely intentional. Mickey Mousecapade was the first of several beloved Disney games published by Capcom, but it also seems to be among the least remembered. Go on any Internet messageboard to discuss Capcom’s Disney games, and I’ll bet you that nine times out of ten, DuckTales will be the first one mentioned. I played DuckTales back in the day like everyone else, and what I most remember about it was that the control scheme for Scrooge’s pogo cane maneuver was annoying. I’ve never played Mickey Mousecapade, but for some reason, I’ve always imagined that the controls were better.

Five games from HAL's US branch.Various games by HAL, interior page from Betty and Veronica Double Digest No. 31, May 1992 – Finally, no more yellow backgrounds, not to mention the first appearance of 16-bit games! Here we have five titles published by HAL America, which could be ordered directly by calling a toll-free number: Quantum Fighter, DayDreamin’ Davey, and Vegas Dream for NES, and Hole in One Golf and HyperZone for the SNES. Do you remember any of these, because I sure don’t. The funniest thing about this is that also in 1992, a certain HAL-developed game would become more famous than all five of these combined: Kirby’s Dream Land. Since then, HAL became a beloved second-party developer for Nintendo, best known for its Kirby and Super Smash Bros. franchises; knowing this, it’s kind of funny to see this old ad now.

The Ultimate Game ClubThe Ultimate Game Club, interior page from Betty and Veronica Double Digest No. 22, December 1990 – This is, to me, the most interesting ad of the bunch. According to the ad’s text, the Ultimate Game Club carried just about every console and handheld game ever made (at the time), sold Japanese consoles and games, matched advertised prices, bought and sold used games, and shipped all orders via overnight FedEx, all for an annual membership fee. I imagine that for serious gamers in 1990 (at least, those with the money to spend), services like these were a godsend. Nowadays, with the likes of Amazon, eBay, Play-Asia, and others, us gamers are spoiled rotten by the breadth of selection and special offers available to us. Anyway, I also remember this ad very well, and recall being intrigued by the high price for Romance of the Three Kingdoms. At the time, I didn’t think games could be that expensive.

I did a little research in an effort to learn more about the Ultimate Game Club, and found this interesting tidbit on the Lost Levels forums. Apparently, the UGC had a publishing arm called Innovation Tech, but a quick Google search for that name revealed that they had only ever planned to publish two games, The Dinosaur Dooley and Buzz & Waldog, and both of them were cancelled. In my original search for UGC-related info, I also happened upon an auction for a Vidpro display card, which includes the following in its description: These Vidpro cards were only sold to a licensed Nintendo retailer of which we were one of them called “The Ultimate Game Club” but that’s another story. Lo and behold, the Ultimate Game Club lives, sort of. The seller is even located in the same town as the old UGC!

Anyway, that wraps up my little tour of old video game ads. There might’ve been one or two that I overlooked or accidentally thumbed past, but these are the major ones, if not the most memorable. If I get on another comics nostalgia trip, perhaps I’ll do this again some time. I know of at least one ad from various early-90s Disney Comics titles that I’d like to highlight…

Game Progress: It’s That Time of Year Again

For gamers—or Cheap Ass Gamers, at least—one of the highlights of the holiday season is Toys R Us’ buy two get one (of equal or lesser value) free sale on video games. This B2G1, to use CAG parlance, is usually one of the best sales of any year, especially considering all the new releases that get thrust on us around this time. Me, I’ve only taken advantage of a Toys R Us B2G1 once, many years ago; it was long before I became a CAG and possibly the first time the chain had ever done such a sale. I remember Final Fantasy X being one of the games I picked up, and I think the others were Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. I never beat the latter two, and even sold Vice City at one point, but played FFX through to the end, including that inane final battle. Since then, I tend to ignore the B2G1s since Toys R Us’ selection is fairly limited; that, or I just forget about the sale until it’s too late.

This year, it’s been a different story. Not only had Toys R Us had their annual sale, but other retailers have jumped into the fray with B2G1s of their own. Amazon was the first, with “select titles” being eligible for the offer, and Best Buy followed soon after, their deal covering all in-stock 360, Wii, and PS3 games. B2G1 sales were also spotted at some CAGs’ local Blockbuster and GameStop stores.

I missed out on the first Amazon B2G1, and wasn’t interested in the others, but a later deal caught my attention. Even though, once again, “select games” were the only ones eligible (albeit, there were a lot of them) and the entire offer only covered the three current-gen consoles, Amazon’s “spend $80, get a $40 promotional credit” deal was too good to pass up. The online retailer is already one of my favorite places to shop for games, due to a combination of wide selection, good prices, and great customer service, so it was a no-brainer, really. To cover the $80 requirement, I picked up Metroid Prime Trilogy and Super Paper Mario. Once I got the promo code, the $40 credit went towards Devil May Cry 4 and Rune Factory Frontier (it wasn’t eligible, but I also picked up Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story at the same time), which are currently en route. All in all, I spent, on average, a little less than thirty dollars on each game.

One of my main motivations in taking advantage of this offer was to add some variety to my backlog, which had turned into one that consisted entirely of RPGs. Yeah, I know that Rune Factory Frontier and the Marios I picked up could be considered RPGs, but they’re also different enough to stand out from the rest. Anyway, I started Super Paper Mario not long after it arrived; I was done with Legendia and was itching to play this new acquisition. It’s excellent, and I plan to write up my thoughts on the game sometime in the future. Meanwhile, I’ve also been shaping up my (literal) game plan for the rest of the year. Ys: Ark of Napishtim is on the agenda once I’m done with Mario, and I’m considering Radiata Stories for a possible post-Thanksgiving playthrough. Over Christmas, I plan to dig into the DS port of Chrono Trigger, and possibly Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. My husband and I might also finally play Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles sometime soon. Once the New Year rolls around, I’ll still have a big backlog, but hopefully it’ll be a few games smaller than it is now.