Since my last post, I played through two more games to completion. The first one that I finished was Gone Home, which is one of those kinds of games where its best to go in as cold as possible, so I won’t discuss it here other than to say that despite some problems I had getting certain graphics settings (which I know my computer can handle) to run smoothly, it was worth playing. However, I have a lot of opinions about the second game, which I beat yesterday afternoon. Said game is Shantae: Risky’s Revenge – Director’s Cut.
Risky’s Revenge is a Metroidvania platformer, and also a sequel—the original Shantae was a late-in-its-lifecycle Game Boy Color title that is especially prized by collectors. I have never played the latter, and have only been aware of it by reputation and the apparently offbeat, in a good way, title character. A friend gifted me a Steam copy of Risky’s Revenge after seeing it on my wishlist, so I dove into the game expecting a polished platformer with a fun heroine.
As it turned out, Risky’s Revenge is polished in the most obvious ways, while remaining dull to a fault in a more subtle, yet pervasive, fashion. The animation shows the most spit and shine, as it’s extremely fluid and lively, though there are other high points as well, such as the fitting music and smooth controls. The colors pop brightly on the screen, helping to make most of the game’s areas reasonably easy to get around in, and the cutscene graphics are clear and sharp. If nothing else, and despite the startling male-gazey fanservice that regularly crops up, this game is a pleasure to look at and listen to.
Some other parts could’ve done with the same amount of care put into them, though. For starters, there’s Shantae herself. This half-genie, half-human guardian is the grouchiest protagonist I’ve ever encountered in a platformer, especially one so visually appealing. While her pixelated sprite defaults to a bouncy, smiling expression, her three cutscene portraits are neutral, skeptical, and outright surly, and her dialogue often reinforces these visuals. With her personality represented as such, I wondered what her friends thought of her, and didn’t think much of her disagreements with the town’s mayor. Her grouchiness wouldn’t have been a problem if there was something deeper behind it, but there didn’t appear to be anything. In short, at least in this game, she’s not a very good main character, and certainly not one that I’m itching to go adventuring with again.
Our heroine, ladies and gentlemen.
On a similar note, the game’s writing leaves much to be desired. The story begins when Shantae goes to see her uncle, who is showing off an artifact which the pirate Risky Boots comes along and steals. This artifact has a dangerous secret, which, as it turns out, Shantae would’ve been better off knowing about in the first place, but her uncle refuses to tell her what it is, even after it’s been stolen and she has decided to do something about it. The dialogue is straightforward, though the flow is somewhat off; it feels as if the script was localized from Japanese with cartridge limits taken into account, particularly given how sparingly certain types of punctuation, such as commas, are used. The pacing of the dialogue is most maddening when it comes to progressing through the game. There was one hint given to me by a certain character which led me on a wild goose chase since I hadn’t yet unlocked the ability I needed to follow said advice. Once I had figured this out, an obscure alternate usage of a certain ability—one which had not been needed before and would not be required again—stymied me for a bit longer. Communication missteps like these are a major pet peeve of mine; they often leave me feeling as sour as Shantae herself.
Sequin Land, the world in which this tale takes place, is just the right size for the game’s scope, though it can be a pain to get around in. The map is crude and difficult to parse at first, and some of the most useful bits of information—such as the locations of previously encountered, unopened treasure chests—are missing altogether. Yes, I realize this was originally a downloadable DSi game, but even by those standards, the map could’ve been much more useful than it was. Getting around this world is done by activating warp statues, which are separate from, and often in different locations than, save points. The main hub is a seaside town (which, inconveniently, does not have a warp point of its own) filled with NPCs; a few of them tell you bits of gameplay info, while the others are there for local flavor and nothing else. The platforming itself is fine, though old fashioned in certain respects; the common technique where one can “fall through” platforms can barely ever be used here. On a similar note, the utilization of items is similarly simplistic; although this is not a problem when it comes to most items, having to de-equip one of the game’s optional-but-useful weapons in the menu, equip one of two different types of potion, go back to the game to use the potion, return to the menu to de-equip it, and re-equip the weapon just to heal up and get right back into battle is more than a little clunky.
I have no problem with games that are true to their roots, and Risky’s Revenge, with its spritework and Game Boy-esque aspect ratio is certainly one such title. However, video games have come a long way over the decades, and the lessons learned by dozens of studios over those years need to be taken into account, not ignored. There are ways to do “fake retrogames” right, such as the cannily-designed likes of Cthulhu Saves the World and Mighty Gunvolt, and then there are those games which choose, however consciously, to keep the warts of the past intact. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge is one such example of the latter, an exercise in selective memory that could’ve really done with a bit more self-awareness and empathy towards the expectations of the present.
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Metroid Prime was really good, if a little frustrating at times. The levels, very much including the in-between hallway bits, are incredibly varied, and the puzzles are genuinely interesting. Story bits are told via computer terminals and ruins, which can be scanned with a special visor; as such, there were very few cutscenes, which I liked. A lot of backtracking is required to collect all the doodads you need (and don’t), which got a little tedious at times, and at one point, I had to run to GameFAQs in order to progress (always a Bad Thing to me, though in this case, the solution was merely a little oblique instead of ludicrously buried, *cough*). Both enemies and environments require more elaborate battle tactics as the game wears on, which not only added to the difficulty but the variety. Also, the Wii controls for this first-person game are a dream come true, though I personally would’ve put the default jump control on the Nunchuck instead of the Wii Remote, similar to the Elebits scheme. I’m looking forward to playing the other two games in the Metroid Prime Trilogy set, though probably not right away, as my backlog is nearly all JRPGs again and I need, more than ever, action games to break things up.
Captain N isn't that kind of guy.
Metroid Prime was also my first Metroid game, believe it or not. However, thanks mainly to Nintendo and fandom, the game’s protagonist was already known to me, though I was not aware of much of the minutiae of her canon. Really, there aren’t too many hardcore gamers who don’t know of the bounty hunter Samus Aran, since, along with Lara Croft, she’s the most famous and iconic video game heroine out there. An important aspect of her is that she has traditionally been a silent protagonist in the games she appears in, much like Mario, Crono, and just about every main-series Dragon Quest and Pokemon hero. In fact, the only time I’ve seen her talk is in the old Nintendo Comics System books, where she is a calm/cool/collected hunter who macks on Captain N.
Recently, Metroid: Other M came out, featuring Team Ninja’s take on the character and her universe. I hadn’t really kept up with this game, but what reviews I’ve seen have been generally favorable. The one from the Onion AV Club got me wondering, though:
It might not sound like a big deal, but Other M focuses on Samus almost to the point of being a character study. In her many internal monologues throughout beautifully rendered cutscenes, the previously strong-and-silent Samus owns up to being petulant in her time with the Galactic Federation, to having misguided, unshakeable loyalties, and to dealing with daddy issues.
That didn’t sound like the Samus I (barely) knew. Turns out it was worse for a more experienced Metroid player at G4. I first heard about Abbie Heppe’s Other M critique via GJAIF, which quoted a Boing Boing article about the piece and its accompanying backlash. In summary, Heppe did not like the characterization of Samus, and took issue with the story itself; she also wasn’t satisfied with the control scheme and overall game design.
From what it sounds like, Samus was handled badly in Other M, and not just in the sense of a silent protagonist becoming chatty: Heppe logically points out as uncharacteristic Samus’ moments of fear when facing a certain enemy that’s a mainstay of the Metroid series. However, I believe this bit is just another fault of the overall approach as well. If I’m reading this right, it seems that Samus is a character whose thoughts and personality we didn’t know at all, but only interpret through what limited information we are given (sparse storylines and cutscenes, her equipment and enemies, etc.), with the rest up to us, the player. The Samus I saw in Metroid Prime was an independent and diligent explorer who seems not to care for the company of others. There’s doubtless many more interpretations of her out there (like her being a greedy and flirtatious sort, a la the Captain N story). An immature and doubtful Samus was not one I ever thought possible, especially not at the point in the canon that Other M takes place in.
Silent protagonists, especially ones that have been that way for as long as Samus has, must be handled carefully when given a voice and thoughts. I can only think of one other instance off the top of my head where a silent protagonist was given a significant personality injection, and the results were also inadequate; the Jak of Jak II was, unlike the original in Jak and Daxter, not someone I particularly liked. Mario might qualify, as he has been given voice in the past through cartoons and comics, but his in-game persona is still largely open to interpretation; at most, his speech is limited to very basic reactions (“uh-huh”, “no”, exclamations of surprise, etc.) and Italian gibberish.
Perhaps Samus should never have been given a personality in the first place, as that, traditionally, has been left up to the players to fill in for over twenty years. That lengthy time, and all the Metroid games filling it, have created many Samus Arans in the minds of uncountable numbers of gamers. Whittling down these many Samuses to one (and an apparently strange one at that) is a very dicey proposition at best. I hope the next Metroid allows us as gamers to once again see our own personal Samuses again.
I’ve been playing a lot these past few weeks. First off, there was the WiiWare version of Cave Story, which I started the day it came out, and beat the week after PAX East. Save for the uneven “new” soundtrack and sound mix, it’s much the same as the freeware version, which is to say fantastic. I did a straight playthrough of the game, pretty much identical to my first one, save that this time I went after the Spur, a crazy awesome weapon. I want to replay it again sometime soon for certain secrets that I missed, mainly the ones that will unlock “Hell”.
Another game I’ve beaten recently, albeit one that I’ve been playing for much longer, was Rune Factory Frontier, the first and only non-handheld entry in the Rune Factory series, and also one devoid of any Harvest Moon branding, at least in its English-translated form (doubtless because the publisher on this one is Marvelous/XSEED instead of Natsume). Frontier is a direct continuation of the original Rune Factory, and is as deep, engrossing, and flawed as its DS predecessors.
Here's some of my Runey notes. Really.
The major flaws this time around come courtesy of the Runey system. Unlike previous games, where runes can be collected to replenish action points both on the farm and in dungeons, said runes are dungeon-only. On the main character’s homestead—and in the surrounding town—live Runeys, color-coded creatures whose presence determines how fast and well your crops grow. Redistributing Runeys from area to area for good results is a finicky bit of business. First off, although Runeys have a set food chain, and certain types like certain areas more than others, it’s difficult to figure out how it all works; from day to day, some Runeys will decline or die off for no apparent reason, while others multiply. Secondly, there are only two ways to check the Runey level for the entire town, one of which is by talking to a specific person, and the other is by looking at a certain device in a fixed location. It would’ve been much more convenient to have an item in order to look up Runey levels whenever I wanted to, but such is not the case. That being said, I wound up keeping a pen and paper close by whenever I checked on Runeys, which was roughly every few (in-game) days at times.
Runeys—and constant loading screens—notwithstanding, this is the best Rune Factory yet. It feels like it moves at a slightly slower pace even though the actual in-game clock is the same (where one minute is equal to one real-life second), probably because it can be tough to figure out how to trigger the next round of story events, but these sorts of games were never meant to be rushed through. The farming, dungeon crawling, crafting, cooking, and so on are extremely well balanced, and can be challenging without being frustrating. The localization gets the job done, though I could’ve sworn I saw a bit of kanji slip through at one point, and the voice acting is good. The graphics are some of the most lush that I’ve ever seen on the Wii. The simplicity and charm that defines the series is in ample supply. In short, if I had to recommend a Rune Factory to someone, it would be Frontier.
I’ve also been playing a little more Pokemon Platinum, which, if you recall, I started on the way to PAX East. There’s not much to say here other than it’s a Pokemon game, though I am very much enjoying the aesthetic upgrades from Ruby, which I played last year (and speaking of Ruby, I’m still debating whether or not to import my Pokemon from that game). It’s very samey, though, but I kind of expected that. The current plan is to mostly play the game whenever I need to kill time, such as while doing laundry. As such, I expect to wrap up with the main quest several months from now.
After beating Rune Factory Frontier, I took a break for a little while, then started Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Rather, I tried to start it. The difficulty caught me off-guard, as well as the system where some of your experience and whatnot can be carried over to a new game, and after a couple of tries, I quit. This after an aborted attempt to start the game some months ago. Well, the good news is that the fourth time was the charm, and I am now over ten hours in. The battle system is different, but very awesome, with its SRPG-esque character movement tactics making for some really interesting fights. Dragon Quarter has other quirks, too, though they don’t fit so much in the “awesome” column as the “it is what it is” one—from the character design to the fact that the game ends when a certain slowly and constantly upticking meter gets to 100.00%. Very strange game, but I’m having fun.
Finally: the backlog update! Since my January 3rd post, I have beaten five of the pictured games, started (but have not yet finished) two of them, bought and beat two, borrowed one (which I’m still playing), added one to the backlog (Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard), and currently have one on preorder (StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty Collector’s Edition).
Counting Metroid Prime: Trilogy as “one”, January’s photo showed 22 games, and now, on the shelf above me, there are 16 of them (not counting the preorder). I’m making progress!
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Beat Devil May Cry 4 last week. Not the best game in the series, but certainly had its high points. All the hallmarks were there: bishies, hot chicks, gothic interiors, death metal songs that play during battles, and occasional violations of the 180° rule when moving from place to place. Unlike the others, Dante is not playable for much of the game. Instead, the player takes the role of Nero, a young man with similar fashion sense and slightly less campiness than Mr. Sparda. He also has a glowing arm, which can be used to grab far-off enemies and unleash brutal attacks on them. These attacks vary depending on the enemy, reminding me of Quick Time Events, though not in the traditional sense. As such, Nero is a fun character to play. Dante controls much the same as always, and is also tougher to control compared to Nero, due to the lack of Glowing Hand.
Although Rune Factory Frontier is mad addictive, this is what I'll be playing today!
As for Rune Factory Frontier, I’m still plugging away at it, and passed the 100-hour mark this weekend. All that has been ever said about JRPGs and linearity doesn’t quite apply to the Rune Factory series. Yes, there is a single storyline and a set progression in terms of unlockable areas, and no, you can’t fully customize your hero character, but everything else is wide open. There’s tons of things to do—farming, fishing, crafting, cooking, and much more—and like any good Harvest Moon, there’s also a wide range of girls to hit on, and eventually, marry. It’s rich and immersive in a way that JRPGs traditionally aren’t, and despite the glaring flaws, I’m as hooked on Frontier as I was with its DS brethren. Can’t wait for Rune Factory 3‘s localization (please let this happen!).
Apart from games themselves, I’m getting a little weary of CAG’s forums again and am ready to take another hiatus from them, largely due to the fact that there’s hardly any humor in them. This seems to be a problem with many gaming forums, where games are Serious Business and there’s little to no room for levity. Perhaps this also explains why Shimrra won Best CAG Blog in this year’s Cheapy Awards, even though his regular Daily HaHa posts are mainly just images ganked from the likes of 4chan. Humor is in very short supply amongst gamers, it seems.
Anyway, looking forward to PAX East at the end of this week, and have been going over my options for what to see and do. Meanwhile, I will be playing Cave Story. On my Wii.
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.
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Storytelling can be a rather contentious subject in modern video games. Not all games have or need stories, but many of those that do seem to be carefully scrutinized by those looking to justify gaming as an art form. Part of this is due to gaming’s inferiority complex, which explains the film and literature comparisons that get thrown around every so often. However, I believe that the best game stories, the ones which gamers should be holding the most dear, take advantage of the medium in ways unique to it.
The most important thing separating game stories from other types is that they typically utilize second-person perspective. While stories in other media tend to be first-person or third-person, second-person narratives are extraordinarily rare. Games, on the other hand, use second-person all the time: you are the main protagonist, and it is through you that the story takes place. Though third-person perspectives are sometimes interlaced with second-person ones through the use of cutscenes, second-person seems to be video games’ POV of choice.
Seeing as how this is the case, and coupled with the interactive nature of the medium, the types of stories best-suited for games are ones told through the environment and incidental events, with the “you” character left fairly open to interpretation. You play an protagonist who, at the beginning of the game, finds themself in a new and unfamiliar situation. Your final goal, though not obvious at first, can be anything from escaping confinement to saving the world, but when initially presented with your surroundings, the first thing you do is either explore them on your own, or do so while following a guide of some sort. Through these explorations, the world and the characters and things within it begin to tell the second-person “you” the story, and you are drawn in, becoming not only involved in the tale, but central to it.
This approach to game storytelling is at the heart of Cave Story, which begins in a small, nondescript chamber. By opening a door and wandering through caverns, you eventually find your way to a small village, which is where the story begins in earnest. Said story is dripped out in little bits—a mention of the Doctor here, some flower petals there—and relies little on deux ex machina devices and third-person cutscenes. What results is a meaty tale with little fat or gristle to unnecessarily add to the weight.
Environmental second-person storytelling is also at the heart of Portal. Here, the voice of an artificial intelligence guides you along through a series of laboratory tests. However, the real story is told through independent exploration conducted during the process of figuring out the tests’ puzzles. This not only gives the player a break from an otherwise rigid, linear experience, but enhances it as well.
One game which has been held up on a pedestal by the Games As Art crowd is Shadow of the Colossus, and on the surface, it appears to hold to the same narrative structure as Portal. However, there is a distinct reluctance by the game to trust the player. First off, subtext is primarily handled with cutscenes rather than through the player’s own discoveries; the only pieces of the story the player has an active role in is through the killing of the titular Colossi. There’s also the fact that the god-figure will start to offer hints if the player seems to be taking a long time to figure something out (and annoyingly enough, this feature can’t be turned off). The hand-holding at the beginning of the game, in the form of brief control tutorials which come along as necessary, is truly helpful and not too invasive, but the god-figure’s hints take helpfulness to new extremes. These quirks, and the latter one in particular, break the immersion and remind the player that they are not the protagonist but rather a person playing a game, thus lessening the potential strength of the narrative.
Most story-driven games don’t (or can’t) follow the same approaches that Cave Story and Portal do, and instead make use of compromises. These could be anything from a silent protagonist, to branching paths and multiple endings, to an “open world” structure. This is not necessarily a bad thing—some of my favorite games use such compromises to great effect—but to me, an ideal game story is one that can’t be told quite the same way in another medium. A good narrative that relies heavily on cutscenes and handholding is one that might as well be translated into a television show or graphic novel. On the other hand, one that encourages and rewards exploration and experimentation is one that I would be loathe to revisit in a form other than a game.