Despite a nasty cold early in the month, January was fairly productive, gaming-wise. I started and beat seven games, both short and long, and started an eighth. That unfinished game is Etrian Odyssey V, the latest in Atlus’ cartographical dungeon-crawling series, which I had put off starting for a few months in order to focus on Holiday Card work. As of this writing, I’m close to the end of the first Stratum, and the difficulty is starting to feel more punishing. This is not to say that EOV is easier than past entries; I think I just had a good handle on what to expect from this series when I first stepped into this latest Yggdrasil Labyrinth.
One thing I’m really enjoying about EOV (besides the food-gathering and cooking, fantastic features which help cut down on trips back to town) is its back-to-basics approach. The previous two games in the main series introduced overworlds to explore between Strata, and in EOIV‘s case, I suspect that it was one reason why I was ultimately so bored with that game. EOV does away with such areas. Here, you’re in the labyrinth from the get-go, just like in the very first two games. While it’s a little odd to see this regression, it’s also quite refreshing. Hopefully, the game will continue to hold my attention as I ascend to new heights.
The first game I beat way at the beginning of January also involved dungeons. Fidel Dungeon Rescue, which is about a very good dog who sets out to save his kidnapped master, has its feet in both the turn-based dungeon crawler and environmental puzzler realms. Each room is a puzzle that can be solved in more ways that one, but the most optimal solutions have the greatest rewards, the best being the XP which helps Fidel level up, increasing his overall health. The game’s most prominent feature—and, at times, greatest obstacle—is the title character’s leash. Fidel’s leash drags behind him, leaving a trail of places you’ve been before, and can be quickly retracted to rewind time and try out a different set of steps. However, the catch is that no square can be touched more than once, which can lead to the leash feeling like a barrier if its placement gets in your way. It’s a simple but well-implemented system that, along with the generous time constraints and dungeon layouts, lends the game its challenge. Fidel took me a fair number of attempts to get through, and once I did, whole new sets of challenges appeared. I completed two of these before moving on.
Around the same time I started Fidel, I took up another, though very different, puzzle game: Alphabear: Hardcover Edition. This version is a “pay once” PC port of the mobile title Alphabear. To play, one has to arrange randomly-generated letter tiles into words, which are then assigned points based on each letter’s countdown timer as well as other factors, like which bears you equipped before starting that stage. Creating words eliminates the tiles used, which causes the bears around them to grow, leading to more points. Score enough points to gain new bears, level up existing ones, and/or unlock the next stage. The entire scoring system is… rather complicated.
Despite its cute, whimsical aesthetic and inventive gameplay, Alphabear‘s challenges can spike in difficulty without warning, and some are just about impossible if you don’t have the right rare bears in your arsenal. This was my situation with Chapter 4-2, so I went back to some older stages to level up the bears I had; I also unlocked at least one new one. After I got through that stage, which took quite a long time, there were one or two other tough spots, but none nearly as bad. The difficulty balance and/or the rare/legendary bear drop rates clearly need some refinement, but apparently, the game’s progression was tweaked today, so perhaps this complaint is moot now. It’s also free to play this weekend on Steam, so you might want to give it a go.
Anyway, because of those headaches, Alphabear was actually the third game I beat this year, since 4-2 led me to setting it down for awhile. The second was Danmaku Unlimited 2, which is another mobile port, as it turns out. If the title didn’t already give it away, this game is a vertically-oriented bullet hell shooter. Thankfully, the difficulty balance is perfect. As a casual shmup fan, I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Steam. It’s a lot of fun and very well made; there’s not much else I could’ve asked for.
A few days before starting Danmaku Unlimited 2, I picked up my 3DS and, with some reservations, started Kirby Triple Deluxe, which would later become my fourth game beaten in 2018. I say “with some reservations” since I didn’t like the last Kirby I played and was sure that I had become burnt out on the series. Roughly two years later, I was relieved to discover that Kirby, especially the standard Kirby formula of enemy-chomping and ability-obtaining that returns in Triple Deluxe, is still something I can enjoy. In addition to being a straight-up solid Kirby game, this entry also features some nice callbacks to previous titles in the series. The endgame is also surprisingly lengthy and tough. Like with Danmaku Unlimited 2, there isn’t much else to say about Kirby Triple Deluxe except that it’s very, very good if you’re into this sort of thing.
Another platformer was next up: Thomas Was Alone, which I received in a CAG Steam key trade. It’s a straightforward, puzzley game where rectangles and squares of varying abilities have to be delivered to specific points, much like Fidel, I and Me, and many other games. Controlling these objects is a little fussy, but the puzzles are generally well designed, albeit varying wildly in difficulty at times. What’s different this time around is the narration. Each of the quadrilaterals is given a name, personality, and motivation, making what would otherwise be a well-designed but bog-standard game into one bristling with life. Some are full of themselves, some start out with a bit less confidence than they find later on, and some, like Thomas, are mainly just happy to have companions. This is one of those Indie Games That Everyone’s Played that I ignored for a long time, and it seems that that was a mistake. Fortunately, it’s now a mistake that’s been rectified.
Finally, in wrapping up the month, I began my delve into Tale of Tales’ oeuvre via a Steam bundle I picked up during the last Summer Sale. Using the studio’s MobyGames page as a guideline for the release order, I started off with the oldest title in the collection. This was The Graveyard, an extremely short interactive black comedy. At least, that was how I read it, given what happens after the player guides the one controllable character, an old woman, to sit on a bench. To spoil what happens next: a jaunty song about death plays and then, at some random point, the old woman dies. The player can get up from the bench and leave the graveyard before the latter happens, but both of the times I tried to wait to do so after the song ended, she died.
After that, I moved on to The Path. Inspired by the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood”, The Path has the player controlling one of six red-themed sisters, all with different ages and personalites, on a walk to their grandmother’s house. Stay on the path, and the game will decide you are a complete failure, and you’ll have to start over again. Leaving the path—and in doing so getting lost and discovering new things, including the Wolf—is how to succeed at the game. Each girl can go on their journey in any order you wish, and they each have a different, horrible experience at Grandmother’s House after encountering their own personal Wolves. It’s an ambitious art game thick with metaphor, but is clearly ahead of its time in how it incorporates gaming conventions. Rather than ignoring things like scores and stats, which a modern game of this sort might do, The Path includes them, and even relies on them to a certain extent. I’m not sure that this was an entirely appropriate choice except as a pisstake at more mainstream games’ expense. Other than that, I found The Path to be an interesting experience.
And that’s it for January! Next up, besides more Etrian Odyssey V, are the rest of that Tale of Tales bundle and who knows what else. I’ve started February in a healthier spot than I did January—both literally and figuratively—but I also need to whittle down the number of JRPGs in my backlog. Right now, I have no idea if February will end with as many games beaten. As usual, we shall see.
I’ve been reading Osamu Tezuka manga the past few days; namely, a couple of the titles published by Digital Manga Publishing via one of their ever-present Kickstarters. Under the Air was the first; a seinen short story collection, it’s one of the better Tezuka books I’ve read in awhile. After finishing that, I started Melody of Iron, another anthology, but with a long title story (100+ pages) and few others, instead of many short tales. Though nowhere near the level that Vertical lavished on their Tezuka volumes, the localization and printing quality of these books is pretty good for DMP. However, after three backed Kickstarters, I may be done with buying new series from this company.
For several years now, DMP has had a reputation for turning to crowdfunding whenever it wants to print—or reprint—just about anything. Not only has this been the case for niche titles, which is understandable, but also reprints of their biggest hits. One prime example is the BL drama Finder, which is so popular that new volumes wouldoftenhit the New York Times’ manga bestseller lists back when they had them. Perhaps this overreliance on crowdfunding was a reason why Finder‘s Japanese publisher terminated its contract with DMP. Many of their readers haven’t been too happy with them either; their books tend to get delayed and often have unreasonably low print runs, and their lack of communication on classic manga Kickstarters leaves much to be desired (on the other hand, a BL Kickstarter of theirs that I backed—mainly for reprint add-ons—had timely updates and great communication overall, though I don’t know how they’ve been since). On top of all that, they have practically no distribution—it’s hard to get many of their books even through a manga specialist like Right Stuf—and it seems like a fair number of their former employees didn’t like the place, either. Although a handful of Tezuka fans have damn near succumbed to Stockholm syndrome when it comes to DMP, I sort of hope that Tezuka Productions’ deal with them is the next one to be terminated.
Anyway, back to the manga itself: as is customary for most all Tezuka printed in English these days, there is a disclaimer at the start of these anthologies that basically says that the depictions of various races in these works are products of their time, and that they should be seen as such. I would suggest to Tezuka Productions that they start mandating this sort of thing for gender depictions as well. Tezuka’s depictions of women are interesting at best but are more often problematic; Princess Knight and Message to Adolf have been some of the worst offenders for me, personally. The women in Melody of Iron (so far) and Under the Air are a bit more standard for Tezuka: not much more than love interests, wives, and/or relatives.
On a whole other end of the gender depiction spectrum, there’s the 1997 shoujo TV anime Revolutionary Girl Utena. This series, about a girl who was inspired to become a prince when she was younger, and the duels she finds herself embroiled in to win the hand of the “Rose Bride”, borrows heavily from both the magical girl genre and “girl prince” stories like The Rose of Versailles and the aforementioned Princess Knight to create something new. I talked bitprophet into watching the first dozen or so episodes with me—the Student Council Arc—and fortunately, he was intrigued enough that we ended up going through the whole show. This was my second full viewing of the series, so I was mostly interested in catching little details I had missed the first time around. Turns out that there were many: Anthy’s smiles, the consistent theme of animals in the humorous “Nanami episodes”, various spoken lines, even more props and objects. It remains a dense, character-driven series that requires a patient soul to fully deconstruct. This is a series where even its greatest weakness—its relentless reliance on reused animation, and indeed, entire scenes—ends up working in its favor. It’s glamorous while adhering to a certain routine, a routine which could be subverted at any moment. It’s the high drama and messiness of adolescence whirling around its simultaneously bland and eccentric title character in a series of duels accented by a primitive CG castle and hard rock choral music with strange lyrics. There’s nothing else quite like it, and I’m glad I watched it again. As for the other versions of the Utena story, a rewatch of the movie is being planned, and I’d already reread both manga series earlier in the year, thanks in part to a gorgeous new box set.
And now, games! After beating Persona 5, I tried Wolfenstein: The New Order, but sadly found that it is not to my tastes, being a methodical shooter more in the vein of Call of Duty than the classic high-octane Wolfie I had been accustomed to. However, I found myself absorbed into Puzzle Quest, enchanted by Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, and mildly amused by Mountain. I also played a pair of mediocre sequels in the forms of Elebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero and Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, the latter of which was not nearly as bad as I’d been led to believe. There were also a few short Steam games—Quest of Dungeons and the two LostWinds adventures—which were okay. Then, there is the beautiful mess of Nier.
Nier is about a doting dad and his sickly daughter living in the far future of what is heavily implied to be our own world. It also stars a cynical magic talking book, a foul-mouthed huntress wearing the most ridiculous outfit in video games this side of Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, and a sweet and dangerous boy. It’s considered to be one of the best works to come out of the late cavia inc., a studio that was generally known for average-to-bad games with crazy plots. All the best parts of Nier involve spoilers (or, at the very least, things worth discovering for yourself), and I’ve only played the first ending so far, so I’ll just say that cavia doesn’t disappoint and I’m sure there’s a lot more to come. In addition to its entertaining storytelling, Nier has a striking visual aesthetic that strongly recalls ICO and other Fumito Ueda games, a soundtrack that absolutely deserves its stellar reputation, and some excellent voice acting. However, it also has some janky animations, alternately fun and annoying combat, meh sidequests, forgettable farming, and bad fishing. It is not a great game, but at the same time, it is. Nier is a weird, wonderful exemplar of gaming’s B-tier and I’m looking forward to getting the rest of the endings, even the one which erases your save and prevents you from playing it again (well, at least with that one account…).
Aside from Nier, I’m currently playing NotGTAV, a crudely-drawn, humorous, and extremely British variant of Snake. I’m also playing my first Nintendo Switch game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. One of my greatest regrets in not ever getting a WiiU was missing out on Mario Kart 8, so I was delighted when this Switch port, which includes all the DLC, was first announced. It’s a damn good Mario Kart game, with an unbeatable spread of both new and old levels, including a great Bowser’s Castle, a pair of killer F-Zero-themed courses, and personal favorites such as Music Park and Grumble Volcano. My only real complaint so far is that the new Rainbow Road is somewhat underwhelming. It’s also still a little weird to see non-Mario-themed elements, like the characters Link and Isabelle (and those F-Zero tracks), in a Mario Kart. Otherwise, the little tweaks they’ve made are mostly great, and I’m having a good time. I’ve recently started the 150cc Grand Prix, after clearing 50 and 100cc, and will devote my attention to those courses whenever I’m not diving further into the craziness of Nier.
Last weekend I was away, and brought DS games Etrian Odyssey and Retro Game Challenge with me, with the intent of starting them. I never did touch either of them, and while Etrian Odyssey remains unplayed, I did start the latter today.
A little introduction first: for those not in the know, Retro Game Challenge is the US title for Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge. It is based on a popular Japanese show titled Game Center CX, which features a regular segment where host Shinya Arino plays an old video game, typically a hard one. These segments are filled with nail-biting moments, strategizing, and lots of humor. A company called StyleJam showed two of these segments, translated into English under the title Retro Game Master, at last year’s New York Asian Film Festival to gauge interest in possible US DVD releases, but so far, nothing has panned out.
Brain training this ain't!
Though I’d heard of the show before, these screenings (which featured Mystery of Atlantis and Ghosts ‘n Goblins) were my first real introduction to Game Center CX. I loved them, and when news came around of a localized version of the well-received Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge, I put it on my wish list, and eventually picked it up.
The premise of Retro Game Challenge is a silly one. Arino, looking like a demented version of Dr. Kawashima, sends the player back to his ’80s childhood. To return home, the player must complete a series of, you guessed it, retro game challenges. The games are all original, but resemble those which came out for the Famicom/NES back in the day. So far, I’ve played a Galaga-style space shooter and a puzzle-action game where the main character is a robot ninja, and now I’m working through the challenges for Rally King, a top-down racing game. I like old school racers, but tend to suck at them, and this is no exception.
To help the player get through the challenges, kid!Arino will obtain the latest issues of GameFan (no, not that GameFan) which contain not only previews and reviews of new titles, but tips and tricks for ones that have already been released. Although I loathe using cheat codes and other shortcuts nowadays, it’s less painful for me in this retro construct. After all, I remember as a kid hearing about how to get to the Warp Pipes in Super Mario Bros., among other tricks. As far as I’m concerned, GameFan‘s tips are just another throwback.
Speaking of the game mags, they contain some of Retro Game Challenge’s more tongue-in-cheek bits of humor. In addition to reviews and tips, the basic content of these mags consists of hype, top sales lists, and even a letters section and editorial (penned early on by “Dan Sock”, one of many parodies of/homages to real-life game journalists). Along with the occasional bits of Engrish in the games themselves, and Kawashima!Arino and kid!Arino’s banter, the overall effect is a charming and sometimes silly setting that would put a smile on any retro gamer’s face.
So yes, I’m having fun, and it’s very good so far. Now to beat the rest of the Rally King challenges…
Special Stage: Ray Barnholt’s Game Center CX Episode Guide at Crunk Games is a great introduction to the TV series. Be forewarned that the episode synopses contain spoilers (and yes, fansubs do exist). There’s also a sequel to the DS game which includes fake 16-bit titles, but unfortunately, there’s little chance of it leaving Japan.