As usual, it’s been too long since my last post. Since then, I saw the rest of Nier‘s endings, rewatched the Utena movie, finished that Pile o’ Tezuka as well as three manga series that I’d been reading for awhile (My Love Story!!, Master Keaton, and Otherworld Barbara), and went on my first trip to Hawaii, among other things.
I’ve also been getting back into playing short games on the weekends. This time around, in addition to indies, I played a couple of promotional tie-in games, one of which was excellent for what basically amounted to an ad. Let’s get to discussing them all, shall we?
Digging and Derring-Do: Shovel Knight (2014, Yacht Club Games, Windows)
A disclaimer before I begin: the version of the game I have is Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, though this review is only for the main campaign. The other campaigns originally began life as free updates before the overall name change, but they’ve been put on the backburner for now.
Anyway, on with the review. When I first tried out Shovel Knight at PAX Prime one year, I was impressed by how much closer it hewed to the aesthetic of 8-bit games than other indie titles inspired by that era; the color palette and the insistence on showing single screens one at a time were its most memorable touches. After playing through the main campaign, it’s clear to me now that it’s not quite a true 8-bit throwback—I doubt it could run on a Nintendo Entertainment System without some further modifications—but it still plays as solidly as I remembered from that short session.
Some apparent inspirations for this platformer include Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Capcom’s DuckTales, but Shovel Knight has a bit of its own flavor as well. Though it’s not an easy game, it’s also not as difficult as any of those classics (especially the Capcom ones), and manages to be fair in its toughness. There are new abilities to collect throughout the game, though as best as I could tell, none are required to get through the main story. Speaking of which, one thing I really like is that it’s possible to go back to previous levels to grind for additional money to purchase those abilities and other upgrades. Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae’s soundtrack is delightful and catchy, but the story less so, consisting of a cloying plot involving an imprisoned knight (female, of course), whom the title character sets off to rescue.
The DS dungeon crawler Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is one of the better MegaTen spinoffs out there, and as it happens, a 3DS rerelease has recently come out in Japan. To promote this new version, Atlus published Synchronicity Prologue, a free metroidvania for Windows PCs set in Strange Journey‘s universe starring series mascot Jack Frost (luckily for us English-speakers, a fan translation patch for the dialogue soon followed). For a piece of promotional material, this game wound up being very, very good.
Like Strange Journey, Synchronicity Prologue takes place in Antarctica and deals with an anomaly there. As Jack Frost, the player teams up with Jack O’Lantern (aka Pyro Jack) to track down an antagonistic Black Frost. There’s a handful of familiar demons and callbacks to Strange Journey, and the story is fairly basic though a little confusing at times. The areas are huge and sprawling, filled with the usual metroidvania-style barriers to encourage later backtracking to get at various hidden upgrades, and the boss battles each have their own unique flavor. If you’re a fellow MegaTen fan, especially one who’s played Strange Journey, you’ll get a kick out of Synchronicity Prologue. However, be sure to download it soon; it’s only available until December 24th.
Hyrule Graphics: My Nintendo Picross: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2016, Jupiter, 3DS)
This is the other promotional game I played recently, though this time, it wasn’t exactly free. It cost me 1000 Platinum Points over at My Nintendo. As a Picross fan, it naturally caught my attention, so I saved those points and picked it up.
For those of you unfamiliar with Picross, it’s an excellent puzzle game series by Jupiter and Nintendo where you use number hints to fill in squares on a grid to create a picture. It has a bit of a learning curve, but each game in the series tends to come with a good tutorial and starts players off slowly with small puzzles before ramping up to the larger, more complex ones. This particular Picross release is themed around Twilight Princess, so the puzzles’ images include tools, characters, and locales from said game. It’s a relatively short entry at forty-five puzzles, but for a piece of promo material, it’s a got pretty decent amount of content.
I normally love the games in this series, and this one is very good as well, though I do have two gripes. First off, the tutorial is mandatory; you can’t even see the main puzzle menus until it’s completed. Secondly, the Mega Picross puzzles are the same images from the regular Picross mode, just presented in a different order and with more complex rules. While I’d normally be fine with this, these modes are presented in such a way as to suggest that they’re two completely separate sets of puzzles. With these issues taken into accunt, this is merely an okay Picross release.
Spelunking… for America: Shadow Complex Remastered (2015, ChAIR Entertainment, Windows)
And here’s our second metroidvania for this installment. I haven’t looked up how this version is “remastered”, but at any rate, it’s a multi-platform rerelease of the 2009 Xbox Live Arcade hit Shadow Complex, which I remember being sort of a big deal back then. It combines the 3D sci-fi/military aesthetic of your average big-budget Western title with a genre that doesn’t normally see games in this style. Once again, the story is simple, but is somewhat amusing in its extremes: a guy goes exploring a cave with a girl he just met and reluctantly gets caught up in trying to stop a conspiracy to take over the United States. In the meantime, he comes across various weapons, special equipment, and upgrades to help him explore a gigantic underground base.
One of the abilities he gets, a dashing move which enables him to crash through certain objects, is rather tricky to use, and largely because of that, I ended up passing on a handful of upgrades because I wasn’t really sure how to get to them with said move. However, the others are fairly straightforward, and include things like double-jumping and infinite underwater breathing. There’s also the matter of the map, which could use a little bit more information in regards to marking inaccessible areas for later backtracking; many areas get noted, but not all of them. The final battle is gimmicky and too easy on Normal difficulty, but otherwise, the combat is fairly satisfying. Despite these problems, this is a reasonably polished, though imperfect, action-adventure game.
Nuts for Nuts: Super Little Acorns 3D Turbo (2013, Team Pesky, 3DS)
Finally, here’s something else I picked up as a My Nintendo reward. As of this writing, it is still available for the low, low price of 60 Gold Points (and unlike the Zelda Picross game, it can also be found on the eShop). I had never heard of the game before Nintendo started this promotion, but it sounded like the sort of thing I would like, so I decided to go for it.
The basic plot is that a papa squirrel sets out to get back the acorns that were stolen from his family’s stash. He does this by collecting all the acorns strewn across seasonally-themed levels before the timer runs out, avoiding obstacles like bats, bugs, and water. He starts off with a basic run and jump, and later gains a rope to swing from specially designated points; there are also timed power-ups, for higher jumps and other effects, in various levels. Each season wraps up with a level where baby squirrels have to be collected in addition to acorns, and every one of the game’s three “years” has a boss battle at the end, which is actually more of a boss race. Additional goals are included in every level for completionists, and there are unlockable costume options and achievements as well.
Though it reminds me of games like Toki Tori, it is less puzzle-oriented, with the main problem in each level being how to find the fastest, most efficient route. It should also be noted that the platforming physics run on the slidier side, with the rope-swinging in particular taking an extra bit of getting used to. Aesthetically, it recalls a second-tier mobile game from the Angry Birds school of visual design. Not a bad little game, but not noteworthy, either.
I beat Frog Fractions 2 this afternoon (or is that Frog Fractions 3?), a game that’s much longer, more incoherent, and harder than its predecessor. It’s also the first game I’ve Kickstarted which has since come out, which is funny since it’s the only one whose release was obfuscated on purpose, rather than openly falling into some form of Development Hell. There is one part I must spoil, since it involves hardware: at some point, there’s a section which, out of the blue, requires a microphone or similar audio input. However, this section is optional, but the game doesn’t tell you that it is. I don’t use a microphone when PC gaming, and anyway, my offbeat setup makes hooking one up uniquely frustrating. Also, there were no alternative control schemes offered within the game for this part. To me, this particular section wasn’t very well thought out, but Frog Fractions 2 is, in many ways, not a friendly or approachable game. Though it is never unfair (aside from the microphone thing), it does demand a decent amount of imagination and cleverness from its players.
Finding it within Glittermitten Grove is easy enough—I just used the same basic approach as one does with Frog Fractions—but once I got there, what confronted me was a place which got more and more difficult to deal with the further I dove in. Without giving away too much, Frog Fractions 2 is full of funny and weird moments, but in other aspects, it’s a different beast.
On another end of the humor spectrum, I went through all three of the playable Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice DLC episodes. The first, a full-length case titled “Turnabout Time Traveler”, was not nearly as good as its equivalent from the previous game. Instead of an orca at a musically-inclined aquarium, the client is a bride who claims to have relived her wedding reception thanks to a time machine. Oh, and of course, there’s been a murder, and she’s the main suspect. A few of the arguments made in court are sloppy and poorly worded in a way that typically happens in the worst Ace Attorney cases. On the other hand, a major highlight of this episode is the return of Larry Butz, a regular from the first Ace Attorney trilogy who has a tendency for getting into trouble. Phoenix, Maya, and Edgeworth are all present as well; just add Gumshoe and this would’ve been a full-on nostalgic reunion. However, perhaps it is for the best that Gummy didn’t appear, as I would’ve preferred a better case to accompany all the fanservice.
The other two DLCs, brief alternate universe stories called “Phoenix Wright: Asinine Attorney” and “Apollo Justice: Asinine Attorney”, are much fluffier trifles. Phoenix’s tale centers around Pearl and her visit to Kuhra’in, and on the flip-side, Apollo’s features that kingdom’s Princess Rayfa visiting the United States. They are both very short and lighthearted, with Apollo’s episode being both slightly longer and generally better. Both also come with pixel-art 3DS themes, adding some more value to what would otherwise be a pair of overpriced tales.
Before playing through all of that, however, I beat a couple of much longer games. First was Picross 3D Round 2, which is sort of misleading since, after the credits rolled, many more new puzzles unlocked. Round 2 is just as good as the original Picross 3D, which is to say that it’s one of the best picture puzzle video games one could ask for. The puzzles are plentiful and brilliantly conceived, and although there’s an additional level of complexity now, with specially shaped pieces, the game does a great job of easing you into things, as expected from this series.
The other game was Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below, a crossover between Dragon Quest, a JRPG series with a solid reputation, and Dynasty Warriors, which is looked upon… a bit less fondly. Although the basic flavor of the latter is definitely present—in the forms of simple combat controls and massive swarms of enemies—this is also very much a Dragon Quest game in terms of aesthetics, polish, and, on the more negative side, some old-school JRPG menu clunkiness. Still, it was great fun carving through dozens of slimes and the like alongside Alena, Yangus, and other beloved characters from mainline Dragon Quest games, and it’s not like I mind a bit of mostly simple hacky-slashy fun every now and again.
I also replayed the first Frog Fractions (it’s always a good time on Bug Mars) and continued on with Pokemon Sun, which, if anything, recalls the tedium of Pokemon Platinum. However, I hope that unlike with Platinum, I don’t end up taking nine months to beat it. Right now, I would guess that if I’m not at the halfway mark, then I’m very close to it. Also, this isn’t exactly a video game, but a few days ago, I dug out my old Tamagochi and started messing around with it, an experience I may or may not write more about later. The most amazing thing about it so far is that the batteries, which I believe are the original ones from the late 1990s, still work.
As for what I’ll start next, I’m really not sure right now. With Persona 5‘s release date coming up, I’ve been eyeing the two Persona spinoffs I have left in my backlog, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. There’s also my dwindling pile of Xbox 360 games, Tales of Vesperia arguably being the longest amongst them. However, for the time being, I might be best off plugging away at Pokemon Sun, since I’ve been neglecting it lately. We’ll see how it goes.
March has been a mixed bag of a month. Between Daylight Savings, the fluctuating weather, and other circumstances, I wasn’t sleeping well for awhile, but now I’ve more or less adjusted. My comics backlog has grown bigger thanks to a big shipment of manga from Right Stuf, a couple of used bookstore pickups, and the arrival of a certain long-awaited graphic novel. I’ve also started trying out some new recipes for a change.
As for gaming, that’s been going more or less okay since my last post here, and the games themselves have been about as much of a mixed bag. I beat Disgaea 3; the ending was all right, though since learning that the sidequests are as grindy as expected, I officially put it down not long after. Before that, I went back to and finally beat Legend of Dungeon, using a class I hadn’t given a second thought to before; it’s still not at version 1.0 yet, but I’m just glad to be done with a second roguelike/like this year. Speaking of which, I took up Spelunky again and made quite a bit of progress, though it will be a long time until I actually beat it.
In addition to continuing on with Bravely Default and picking up Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA 2 again, that about wraps it up for February. Moving on to March, the first game I beat this month was the hot new release Firewatch. It is a beautiful and (mostly) well-crafted game, though a little bit of a victim of its own hype. The story is not mind-blowing but still decent; the save system leaves much to be desired; and the characters, music, and so forth were well done; but the real star in this game is the environment. Firewatch is set on a small parcel of US National Park land, and each little area within is distinctive in many ways. Aside from the climbing rocks (which are especially gamelike in a certain part), the wilderness here feels like a real place, and is easily the best thing about Firewatch.
This was not, however, the first game I started in March. That honor goes to Pokemon Blue Version, which, along with Red and Yellow, came out on the 3DS Virtual Console on the date of the series’ 20th birthday. Pokemon’s first generation is the only one I hadn’t played in some form, and, given how pricey original cartridges of that gen and its remakes can be, was one I hadn’t planned on ever playing until the Virtual Console announcement was made. I’m currently up to three gym badges and am not far from getting the fourth. It’s been interesting to see the roots of the series: the Pokemon, items, gyms, HMs, and all the other little things one becomes accustomed to seeing in the games. Some of the things that were different were just as surprising; for instance, most of the Pokemon don’t have listed genders, nor is the indicator for whether or not you’ve already caught a certain type present. The player character’s rival is also far more obnoxious than they would be in later series entries, and there is also a greater emphasis on filling up the Pokedex. In general, it’s all still both fun and tedious in its telltale ways; twenty years on, the core of what makes Pokemon Pokemon hasn’t changed much.
Next up would be the third RPG I’m currently playing: Diablo III, via the Ultimate Evil Edition on 360. After trying out a handful of different classes, bitprophet and I settled on a wizard and a monk (respectively) and started our adventure to investigate a fallen star and the prophecy it portends. It’s the loot-heavy, lore-heavy action RPG that you’d expect, and it’s looking to be quite long, as well.
Needing a break from RPGs for a little while, I recently started delving into some shorter games in other genres. First up was Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F. This was my first time playing a Hatsune Miku Project game that’s specifically in the DIVA series, and, sadly, it was not as much fun as Project mirai DX. The difficulty is brutal, the small button icons can frequently get lost in the music video chaos on-screen, and there’s a handful of aesthetic issues that prevent me from enjoying it as much. Chief among these is the tracklist, which is on the weaker side overall, and weighs heavily on more offbeat songs toward the end. A lesser quibble I have is that the “modules” specific to each song are locked from the outset, which means Miku and company perform in their default outfits whenever a track is played for the first time. This is okay for many tracks, but does not work as well with others, especially the elaborate period piece “Senbonzakura”. After unlocking all the songs on Easy, I was ready to set Project DIVA F aside and move on to something else.
The next day, I started Kero Blaster, which is by Cave Story‘s Studio Pixel. It’s much more linear, for better or for worse, than Cave Story, and also more lighthearted, but maintains that same feel otherwise. The characters are all down to earth, moving and shooting are handled well (there’s even a bubble-based weapon that’s actually useful), and the levels are sufficiently challenging. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes old school-style “run and gun” side-scrolling games, and to fellow Cave Story fans especially. There are also two (very charming) free games, titled Pink Hour and Pink Heaven, that serve as demos of sorts for Kero Blaster, though you could also play them afterward, as I did.
Finally, there’s the two classic titles I started yesterday: Professor Layton and the Curious Village and the HD version of NiGHTS into Dreams… The former is my first Layton game, and might also be my last; it’s decent for what it is—a collection of brainteasers in a story wrapper seemingly inspired by European comics—but I’m not exactly hooked. I’m only about a couple of hours in, so maybe I’ll change my mind later on, but I kind of doubt it. Meanwhile, NiGHTS, which I ended up beating earlier today, is a slick-for-its-time 3D action experiment. Its so different from any other game that’s been made, I’m not sure if it has aged poorly or well. The camera’s a little iffy (though not as bad as in certain later Sonic Team games), the story’s more convoluted and strange than average, the routes through the levels can be tricky to navigate, and the game as a whole is short, but it’s got a certain flair which makes it impossible to dislike. Even more appealing is an unlockable bonus in the form of Christmas NiGHTS, one of the most famous and unique game demos ever made. This demo takes one of the first stages of NiGHTS and dresses it up with a Christmas theme, complete with a separate story to go along with it. Unfortunately, unlike the main game, the original Saturn version of Christmas NiGHTS is not included as a playable option.
That’s about all I’ve been up to lately, gaming-wise. With Kero Blaster and its spinoffs, I decided that it might be a good idea to dedicate my weekends to an indie/doujin game (or two) of a reasonable length, which would help me churn through more of my backlog, at the very least. At the moment, I’m considering my options for this coming weekend, and there are a lot of them. I should also get back to the RPGs in between those indies and sessions with Professor Layton. One of my major backlog goals for this year is to put a dent in the number of RPGs I have sitting around unplayed, but I was not expecting Bravely to be this long. Perhaps I’ll have it beaten by next month. Either way, I have no idea which RPG I would want to play next.
For several years, I posted “roundups” of all of the games I played in a given year. After the 2011 edition, I lapsed on this and have not written one since. Having to remember every game I played in a 20xx and write up a little something about it got to be tedious, and didn’t play well with my inherent laziness.
All that is why, when I decided to revive this feature, it was with new restrictions. This time, I will be covering only ten games: those which left the strongest impressions on me within a given year, regardless of release date. This restriction also enables me to write a bit more about each game.
So, without further ado, here’s my ten for 2015, presented in the order in which I played them. Following each title is the developer/author, the platform I played the game on, the release year on said platform, and my obligatory summary. They are not ranked, except for my personal Game of the Year and its runner-ups, which were relatively easy choices, at least for this installment.
Mighty Gunvolt Inti Creates | 3DS | 2014
Although I am not a big fan of anything that resembles Mega Man, this game charmed the pants off of me. Few “retro” style games that truly want to be “retro” ever come close to the faithfulness to the era that Mighty Gunvolt achieves: here, it really does feel like you’re playing an NES game. The art and music are lovingly crafted, as is the localization from the original Japanese, which sprinkles bits of “Engrish” throughout. The biggest aspect which feels “modern” is the difficulty, which isn’t as punishing as its predecessors, but that’s all for the better.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch Young Horses | Windows | 2014
And on the opposite end of the spectrum is Octodad, which forces the player to unlearn everything they know about controlling video game characters. The player character is a giant octopus masquerading as a human surburban father, and controlling him—through a scheme where arms and legs are affiliated with analog sticks and shoulder buttons—is as difficult as you might expect, given the circumstances. Not drawing suspicion to yourself in your everyday life is the goal of the game, a lighthearted sitcom of a tale which comes complete with a catchy theme song (but no laugh track, thankfully). Although a certain part came off as slightly unfulfilling, there’s nothing else that would cause me not to recommend this.
Gone Home The Fullbright Company | Windows | 2013
This is one of those games I put off playing for awhile due to the neverending hype and discussion surrounding it, but I finally did so this year. What it ended up being was an exploration through a massive old house that was alternately nostalgic, goofy, and suspenseful, a miniature 1990s teenage soap opera told in first-person in-between references to Bratmobile and The X-Files. That this tightly crafted, intimate little story generated as much controversy as it did is bewildering. Gone Home is—somehow, bizarrely, sadly—groundbreaking for the video game medium in its everyday mundanity and small human dramas, but it’s also good, and hopefully this sort of thing will become more commonplace in the future.
PixelJunk Eden Q-Games | Windows | 2012
I play few platformers anymore, not so much for lack of interest (Kirby burnout notwithstanding), as that there haven’t been any really good ones in awhile. I came to PixelJunk Eden not knowing much about it, but finding within it just the refreshing sort of platformer I needed. The visual style is minimalist overall, but can get pleasantly noisy sometimes in a structured Sonic Youth sort of way, and it’s accompanied by some cool electronic music and suitable sound effects. The physics are floaty but believable; the diminutive player character moves around like it’s in water. Although the paths weren’t always clear and, thus, it became way too easy to get lost in certain late-game levels, I had a really good time with PixelJunk Eden.
You Must Build a Boat EightyEightGames | Windows | 2015
This game, the follow-up to 10000000, almost didn’t make this list. It’s on here because I returned to the game again, months after first beating it, to go after more crew members and achievements. That’s when I fell back into its rhythms. With more tile types and general complexity than 10000000, my original feeling was that You Must Build a Boat was too overwhelming, and somewhat inelegant. Somehow, this doesn’t matter any longer. Its density and mechanics have their own kind of beauty and rhythm, and it has proven itself to be just as well-balanced and addictive. That, plus the new rooms and crew members that get added over the course of the game gives it more character than 10000000 ever had. That’s not to say that YMBAB is better than 10000000, but it is most definitely a worthy successor.
Roundabout No Goblin | Windows | 2014
This game is unlike anything else out there. It’s got a groovy 1970s setting complete with funk music, rounded chunky fonts, trippy drug references, and suitably toned live-action FMVs. The story centers around Georgio Manos (pictured), a silent protagonist and up-and-coming revolving limousine driver. With the support of her comrades, she ferries people all over town and deals with various bits of drama. Oh yes, and as her title implies, her limo does indeed revolve around and around while she drives, which is where the challenge comes in. It’s all very silly, a little bit difficult, rather fun (and funny), and over all too quickly.
Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector Hit-Point | iPhone | 2014
My husband and I waffled on trying this out for ages, and a patch from earlier this year which added an English-language option basically gave us little excuse. So, one day over the US Thanksgiving weekend, we each downloaded Neko Atsume from Apple’s App Store. What a great decision that was. A few times a day, after setting out food and toys, we check to see which stupidly cute, beady-eyed cats have visited us. Another aspect which has won us over: it’s free to play, with microtransactions available, but we’ve never once felt the pressure to buy any extra gold fish (the top-level in-game currency). We just take our time and enjoy these adorable digital felines at our leisure.
Third Place Hatsune Miku: Project mirai DX SEGA | 3DS | 2015
I’m afraid I might be biased when it comes to this choice: I’m a fan of Vocaloids, and Miku in particular, plus I also have a soft spot for both Nendoroid figures and tactile rhythm games. Project mirai DX features a robust selection of songs featuring music software developer Crypton’s beloved stable of Vocaloids: classics, fan favorites, and lesser-known tracks spanning a nice range of styles and BPMs, from many of the best producers in the scene. There are even a few songs with additional vocals supplied by special guest GUMI (aka Megpoid), a Vocaloid published by Internet Co. Ltd. All of the characters are represented in their chibi Nendoroid forms, thanks to a collaboration with Good Smile Company, and have a certain lively appeal to them that the blander, regularly-proportioned Project DIVA models lack.
The touchscreen-based gameplay mode is a joy to play (the button-based one isn’t too shabby either, though not as much fun), and there are several diversions—a room to decorate, character outfits, reversi and Puyo Puyo minigames, a music player, etc.—that are entertaining ways to take a break from the main rhythm section every so often. Despite the rare misstep (such as a certain pair of popular but overly repetitive songs), it’s a must-have for 3DS-owning Vocaloid fans, and probably the best rhythm game on the system overall.
Second Place Analogue: A Hate Story Love Conquers All Games | Windows | 2012
Stories with a strong sociological bent are still relatively hard to find in games. While my 2015 manga slate was filled with brilliantly humane works like Vinland Saga, My Love Story!!, and Assassination Classroom, there hasn’t been much like those on my gaming one. Analogue: A Hate Story is one of the rare exceptions. Like (the absolutely amazing, seriously it’s a masterpiece) Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Analogue is a feminist examination of a specific period in Asian history. In this case, it’s an extremely repressive Korean society recreated on a long-lost starship, whose story is told through the logs maintained by, and the commentary of, a pair of AIs named *Hyun-ae and *Mute.
What follows from there is a dense, intertwined tale of family, hierarchy, social expectation, doomed romance, dashed expectations, and horrific violence, with the occasional bits of humor, which helps lighten the mood from time to time and rounds out the characters. It’s a gripping tale, one as fine as in any good comic or prose story I read this year, and I’m looking forward to playing its sequel, Hate Plus, in the year ahead. In fact, Analogue was all set to be my personal Game of the Year, but then something else came out…
First Place: Game of the Year The Beginner’s Guide Everything Unlimited Ltd. | Windows | 2015
I really don’t know where to start with this one without giving away what happens during a certain scene, a scene that matters so much when it comes to how this story is ultimately interpreted. When that scene happened, I understood much more, but only to a point. By the time the game ends, there’s at least two apparent large plot holes and some uncomfortable unanswered questions, which aren’t helped by the fact that the entire thing has been narrated by Davey Wreden, the creator of The Beginner’s Guide, seemingly playing himself. There’s also that cryptic dedication…
I’m going to dig further into this now, and although I won’t reference anything too specifically, there might be some parts that could be considered spoilers, so turn around if you need to.
What The Beginner’s Guide is ultimately about (or at least it seems so to me) is audiences, the great bugbear of creators everywhere, and how uncontrollable they are. It left much the same impression on me as The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, which dealt with a similar theme on multiple levels. In that film, which is based on true events, an inventor does amazing, innovative work but finds that his lofty ideals don’t line up with reality. Such is the situation in The Beginner’s Guide, where Davey takes us through a tour of the works of “Coda”, a friend who has dabbled in game development before suddenly stopping. Who Coda is and what their works really mean is beside the point. It is Davey and his presentation of Coda’s games which really matters here.
The result is a fascinating, but somewhat worrying, journey through all sorts of unfinished first-person games. There are a lot of dialogues that go nowhere, enclosed spaces, and strange surprises. Davey is not wrong to have interpretations of these creations. The wrongness that is present becomes evident later on, and, in the end, I don’t blame Coda for their actions, though perhaps they were somewhat naive in how they handled their games. It’s an interesting and ultimately heart-wrenching story about creation, interpretation, modification, and everything in between. I wonder if anyone who isn’t a creative type of some sort would get it. I wonder, like many others, if this is based on something which really happened. I do not wonder if this sort of thing continues to happen in the real world, because I know it does. It sucks, but it still happens. It happens to a lot of us, and though it might take awhile, things will be okay again.
There’s a few styles and genres I tend to shy away from. Heavy metal music certainly fits that category, and so do open-world games. Given those facts, I’m not exactly sure why I picked up Brütal Legend on Steam, besides the circumstance of one of their big sales going on at the time and it being, therefore, quite cheap. Perhaps it was the fun-looking setting and aesthetic, or the famously mis-marketed RTS elements, which sounded kind of interesting to me. Whatever it was, I finally got around to actually playing it this month and found it to be a worthwhile game indeed.
The most impressive thing about Brütal Legend is how seriously and thoroughly it treats its theme. For instance, upon starting the game, the player is treated to a live-action intro movie, where actor/musician Jack Black takes them to a record store and shows them a rare album tucked away in the “Forbidden Metal” section. This LP is titled Brütal Legend and has a “Press Start” sticker on the front; doing so opens up the album’s gatefold cover, with “New Game” to the left and “Continue” on the right. This awesome opening menu continues on with the back cover, inner sleeve, and both sides of the record itself.
As for the actual game, the world is one where, to put it succinctly, metal rules. The landscapes seem ripped straight from album covers, the “Fire Tributes” earned by doing various tasks take the forms of silhouetted hands holding up lighters, and most every human sports varying degrees of spikes, leather, black clothing, and/or big hair. The men are shirtless, the women are busty, and the beasts have chrome-plated fangs. It’s the kind of universe which is only possible with a heavy metal theme—other musical genres, such as country and hip-hop, have similarly strong iconography associated with them, but are too grounded in reality to make a truly fantastical world out of.
The main character, the Jack Black-voiced Eddie Riggs, winds up in this place by circumstance. While doing his job as a roadie for a shitty nu-metal band, tragedy strikes, and the next thing he knows, he’s somewhere much darker. Soon, he’s got an axe (as in, an axe), an axe (as in, a guitar), a little coupe called The Deuce, and a sidekick named Ophelia. He winds up in Bladehenge, where the siblings Lars and Lita are planning a rebellion against their oppressive rulers. Although the writing is often witty and the optional backstory bits are inspired, the main plot is one of the weakest parts of the game. It’s corny at times, in a Hollywood blockbuster sort of way, and certainly not as original or interesting as its setting. (There were also some spoilers in the Steam Trading Cards which, even with certain predictable story elements, was kind of annoying.) Considering the expense—and, therefore, risk—that went into the production of this game, this lack of originality in the plot does not come as much of a surprise, but is still disappointing considering the rest of the game’s uniqueness.
Aside from Jack Black, the cast includes a few famous metal musicians; although some are worse voice actors than others, one particularly good performance is Ozzy Osborne as the Guardian of Metal, a robed gent who trades Fire Tributes for upgrades. Ozzy’s character model, like those of at least a couple others, resembles the real thing, and all of them have a rounded, cartoony quality about them which has aged considerably well. Much the same could be said about the various fighting units (which range from headbangers with amazingly huge necks to hot rod war machines), wild animals, and environmental elements. Eschewing the hyper-realism that has long been the fashion in big-budget games has paid off in dividends; for a title which was originally released on consoles in 2009, it still looks really good.
As for how Brütal Legend plays, as I said earlier, this is both an open-world game and an RTS. As the former, it involves a good deal of driving and general action, with escort missions and car racing sidequests, and plenty of opportunities for putting both axes to work. There’s also, naturally, a few types of hidden things scattered throughout the world and the associated rewards for finding and interacting with them in the right way.
The second genre this game fits under, real-time strategy, is what sets it apart. More complex than Pikmin but (thankfully) not as much as something like StarCraft, Brütal Legend‘s system involves a handful of different unit types along with resource collecting (in the form of “fans” siphoned though the use of “merch booths”), base upgrades, and a simple set of commands. This is all on top of having the option to control Eddie “normally”, i.e. as you would when exploring the world, and once you factor in the usefulness of the special guitar solo moves during these battles, things can quickly get hectic. Compared to the rest of the game, these battles can be overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to dense management-style tactics; outside of the heavy metal theme, this is the best case for Brütal Legend being a niche title. For those of us who like—or at the very least don’t mind—this sort of gameplay, these battles are interesting, though sometimes fiddly, challenges.
A different sort of challenge lies in keeping track of Eddie’s health. Though there is a user interface for things like battle commands and guitar solos, there is no health bar for our hero. Instead, whenever he is near death, the sound of a beating heart is heard and the screen tints slightly redder. While I appreciate this less-is-more approach, there were a few times when I wish I’d had further information about the state Eddie is in.
Finally, I absolutely must mention the music. In addition to a handful of atmospheric instrumental tunes (and the nu-metal band’s song from the opening), Brütal Legend is jam-packed with metal tunes from a wide variety of subgenres. Among others, there’s legends like Black Sabbath, 80s hair bands such as Mötley Crüe, and more modern groups, including Mastodon and (of course) Tenacious D. New songs can be unlocked throughout the course of the game and played via the Deuce’s “radio”, the Mouth of Metal. Switching between songs can be done on the fly with the d-pad, a nostalgically chunky click of a tape deck separating each track.
Like heavy metal music itself, Brütal Legend is not for everyone, but it proved to be very much for me. I have a soft spot for games that are polished yet sufficiently quirky: the types of “b-game” projects that have, more and more, become the province of indie studios as the bigger ones either go out of business or focus more heavily on titles that warrant three A’s, minimum. Sure, offbeat games like Brütal Legend sometimes have questionable design decisions, but the best ones also have a way of shining through with good ideas and execution, and tons of character. That this game had as big of a budget as it did helps give it an especially rare sheen. Sometimes, I wish more people loved these sorts of games, so that more of them could be made.
Out of all the games Shigeru Miyamoto has created, Pikmin is far and away my favorite. I’ve put countless hours into Shiggy’s creations over the decades, from Donkey Kong to Wii Fit, but none has captivated me quite so much as his intimate tale of a diminutive spaceman and the even tinier creatures who aid him during a crisis. It is visually and aurally charming, not to mention a brilliantly designed example of how to do real-time strategy on a console, but it’s also much, much more.
Pikmin is something which is, even now, extremely rare amongst big-budget titles: a narrative game about a normal grown adult. The main character, Captain Olimar, is on an alien planet not because he’s been sent there to fight a war, nor is he chasing adventure or purpose. He’s there by accident. He’s a run-of-the-mill businessman, in the middle of traveling, who crash-lands in unfamiliar territory and spends the rest of the game calmly trying to repair his ride and get home to his worried wife and kid. There are no princesses or kingdoms to save; the only thing which needs rescuing is himself. Despite the fantastical universe he resides in, he’s as familiar as most any commuter you may see on the train in the morning. In this way, Pikmin is about the trials and mundanities of adulthood as much as many other games are examinations of adolescence. It’s shockingly refreshing, and Olimar has since become one of those rare game characters with whom I can truly identify.
Actually, I have to take something back—part of that “fantastical universe” of Olimar’s is almost as ordinary as he himself is, but in a different way. While the planet Olimar lands on is new and interesting to him, its identity soon becomes apparent to the player. As evidenced by the litter that Olimar encounters during his crisis, this strange new world is our own. Sure, the flowers are giant numbered pellets surrounded by petals, the creatures include two-legged speckled bugs and bird-beaked burrowing snakes, and the Pikmin themselves are plant/animal hybrids that could exist nowhere else but a Nintendo game, but there’s no mistaking it. Olimar is on Earth, and he is the size of an insect upon it.
The presence of the Pikmin and other weird living things, combined with the familiarity of Olimar’s situation and the random man-made flotsam, is perhaps meant to make us think about the nature we too often take for granted and our relationship to it. Study real-life plants and animals closely, and you’ll notice a wondrous, vibrant world, perhaps one similar to that which Olimar sees. Even at the current rate of extinction, new species are still being discovered; with that in mind, the birds and bugs of Pikmin don’t seem all that farfetched. The primary-colored Pikmin are clearly inspired by ants, insects which famously work together in groups and come in a wide variety of types. Scenes of them flocking around any given object are entertaining in the same way as watching ants carry a piece of food that’s much larger than they are.
This mix of the unusual and the ordinary naturally extends to the gameplay. As I said earlier, Pikmin is a real-time strategy game. The RTS genre is traditionally relegated to the PC, due to the need for precise controls, such as with a mouse, to organize and command units. Pikmin takes the RTS concept and simplifies things, with just three types of units (red, yellow, and blue Pikmin) and a total limit of one hundred individuals that can be controlled in the field at any time. The defense stats of these units is indicated, Super Mario Bros.-style, by physical appearance, and the best of these can be most easily cultivated by letting them “grow” in the ground for a longer period of time. In any other situation, this would not be a problem, but Olimar has only thirty days to find the same number of parts for his spaceship before his life-support system dies. Thus, time is Olimar’s largest, most ominous opponent, moreso than the massive creatures that attempt to eat the Pikmin along the way. Success in this game is determined by your command of the Pikmin, and how well they can fight off threats and navigate territory both while searching for and carrying back Olimar’s precious parts. Pikmin can be challenging at times, filled with all manner of clever obstacles and terrain, but it is also quite manageable, with a perfectly-tuned learning curve. It helps that the Wii’s “New Play Control!” port is a dream to play with its remote and nunchuck setup (unfortunately, there is no GameCube controller support in this release, so I could not compare the original control scheme to the new one).
The understated soundtrack is standard-quality Nintendo fare, but as for the graphics, they are Pikmin‘s most prominent weakness, as, despite their novel designs, they haven’t aged as gracefully as the rest of the game. Pikmin was originally released in 2001 and it shows, thanks to now-dated texturing and lighting, and simplistic character models. However, please don’t let this put you off on playing this masterpiece. It is one of the greatest and most unique video games of its kind, and also one of the best Nintendo has ever made. It is a surprisingly deceptive game, in a good way: approachable and wholesome enough for kids, but with a story and protagonist which are more relatable to adults. It speaks to its audience about nature and its relationship with humanity, without passing judgment on anyone or anything, leaving the player to reach their own conclusions about the world and its inhabitants. Most importantly, it is mature, in the truest sense of the word, than most other games which claim that adjective for themselves.
Comments Off on Captain Olimar’s Excellent Adventure