Friday, March 27, 2009

Nintendo gearing up for Arcade Appreciation April

Just recently Nintendo has updated the Wii with Virtual Console Arcade support. As you're all well aware the Virtual Console allows gamers to download and play classic console games on their Wii. So far game companies such as Sega, Namco, Tecmo, and Taito have pledged to support this service. One can expect that other arcade developers like Konami, Irem, Capcom, (Cave?) among others will come along with their arcade classics as well.

If you live in the US or Europe you have the following games to pick up right now:

Gaplus, Tower of Druaga, Star Force, and Mappy.

Japan gamers can get:

Emeraldia, Gaplus, Return of Ishtar, Star Force, Solvalou, and Space Harrier.

From Namco alone we can also look forward to seeing the following games hitting the service(with at least one title hitting per month):

Galaga '88
Samurai Ghost
Cosmo Gang: The Puzzle
Cosmo Gang: The Video
Cyber Sled
Sky Kid
Star Blade
Dragon Spirit
Dragon Saber
Dragon Buster
Knuckle Heads
Numan Athletics
Burning Force
Finest Hour
Hopping Mappy
Marvel Land
Rolling Thunder
Youkai Douchuuki
Wonder Momo

Yep needless to say Namco's got some hefty support for the VCA on the way. Hopefully I can get my Wii console back in time to enjoy some of these games. Anyway I might look at a Saturn game or two in my next update. Also I have a 3DO sitting here with about 18 games(including Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Slayer, which just arrived in the mail). I'd like to took a more in-depth look at that in the future, but probably in May. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: Legend of Kage 2 (Nintendo DS)

The original Legend of Kage was an early 80s arcade game by Taito. It really wasn't much to write home about. A princess is captured by ninjas and you have to go through a number of stages flicking shurikens and swinging swords to rescue her. The only thing notable about this game is emphasis on vertical scrolling. Despite looking like a standard side-scrolling action game Kage mixes things up by allowing the hero to jump extremely high. We're talking somewhere in the league of two screens in height. The stages are suited to match this by consisting of very tall trees with many branches to land on. Essentially you jump around, kill ninjas flying in from every direction, and maybe a boss or two along the way. It's short, simple, and really un-remarkable.

Over twenty years later Taito decides to develop a sequel. Legend of Kage 2 essentially takes the basic gameplay of the first game and adds many new things. First off the game allows you to play as two different characters. The guy wields a sword and flings shurikens while the gal swings a kusarigama and uses a fundo(which is basically a long chain). Along with the trademark high jumps both characters can run, air-dash, perform a large number of special abilties, and even use magic. If that wasn't enough the game has been lengthened considerably. There's about 13 stages with most of them ending in a boss fight. The stages themselves share aspects with the original game but for the most part they share more in common with traditional action games(though in the end they're still simple compared to say...Strider or Ghouls & Ghosts). You can also find a number of useful items that increase your health, magic, and allow you to learn new spells(though some can only be reached when you gain certain abilities, giving you reason to go back to previous stages and explore).

Needless to say Taito went all out with this remake. It also happens to be quite fortunate that this game is actually very good. The simplistic level designs actually work in favor of the game since most of the time the player will be focused on getting through the stage quickly while gutting as many enemies as possible(especially since killing enemies at a constant pace adds to a combo counter, which can lead to some hefty bonus points at the end of the stage). This game also shows a strong handling of mechanics. The weapons and abilities are all have their uses and the game makes up for the lack of width on the DS screens by giving audio cues to practically every enemy attack, giving the player enough warning to whatever is coming their way. The boss fights are all quite well done and make full use of both screens.

Though some could argue the game runs a bit short there's also harder difficulties and a boss rush mode, not to mention trying to S-rank every stage and fill out the art gallery(which adds pictures for everything you accomplish in the game, like getting X amount of S rankings, beating the game, etc).

The game originally retailed for 19.99 but I wouldn't be shocked if you could pick this one up for $10 today. It is quite a steal at that price as I highly recommend it. 

Also check out Hardcoregaming 101's look at Legend of Kage.

One-Offs - Dreamcast

In the interest of completion I'm going to take short looks at the few remaining exclusive games I have for the Dreamcast. After this I'm more or less finished with the system and will probably move on to discussing the Saturn, 3DO, or some other games from other systems.

Record of Lodoss War - Matrix software has accumulated quite the lineup of Diablo-esque action RPGs over the years with RoLF being I think one of their first. Essentially you kill stuff, find stuff, and level up. It's actually quite decent but if you want one of the best you should look for Shining Force Exa. Fans of the SRPG Shining Forces need not apply here. Exa is actually an extremely well-done action-rpg which takes many elements from previous titles like RoLF and improves on them. If you can get over the rather trite but well-drawn cast of characters you'll find an immensely rewarding game with a good 50 hours or so of content. Chances are you'll pay about half for Exa than you would RoLF so unless you're a huge fan of the anime I wouldn't bother(you don't even play as any of the cast from the series, all those guys do is cameo).

Blue Stinger - I mentioned this game earlier in the Illbleed review. While I think Blue Stinger is a better game in some respects(as in terms of actual gameplay and design) it's still not something I can recommend spending a relatively serious amount of time with. It's little more than a curiousity.

Seventh Cross Evolution - This game is similar to the old Enix game E.V.O. The Search for Eden. Starting from a protist you evolve through a variety of plants & animals until you eventually become a human being and solve the mysteries of the world you're in. However while EVO has charming graphics SCE suffers from dreamcast-launch graphics and art. Most of the game will be spent shooting birds and fish with lightning while trying to create the right body parts. This is done through a very unique system where you apply colors to a grid that determine your stat gains as well as what parts you'll create. If you can get into it it's certainly unique but it is a really slow starter and definitely not for everyone. It's extremely cheap though so there you go.

Shenmue - I'll go ahead and say that if for nothing else you should pick this game up for the great ports of Space Harrier and Hang-On. I'm really not quite sure what else to say about the game.

Draconus: Cult of The Wyrm - At one time this was actually a very underrated game that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. Now however it looks quite dated and plays about as well as it looks. I guess if you can get over things like that it's probably a decent little action-adventure game.

There's still quite a few days before Arcade Appreciation April beings so maybe I'll look at something else in the interim. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

Review: Sonic Adventure 2 (Dreamcast)

I'll go ahead and say it. I'm getting too old for some games. Right now I'm going to look at one of them.

Sonic Adventure 2 is as we all know the sequel to Sonic Adventure 1, Sonic's first foray into the world of 3D platforming. This sequel carries over everything I loved about SA1(the music, the chao-raising) and everything I hated about it(the controls, the mechanics). Over time there'd be future 3D Sonics like Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog, and Sonic PS360. The problem with this however is that not once has Sonic Team ever bothered with fixing the issues that have plagued the 3D series since it began with SA1.

Mechanics are the biggest issue with 3D Sonics. Admittedly it wasn't so bad with the first SA because the designers didn't take any serious risks with the level design. It was rare Sonic and company would find themselves navigating difficult platforming sections and very narrow areas where a single slip-up could mean death. Even the very concept of dying by falling in a pit is rare for a Sonic game(at the time of course, things have changed quite a bit lately). SA2 unfortunately decides to have a pit to fall in in seemingly every stage, this is a serious problem since none of SA1's problems were fixed(or any other subsequent 3D Sonic release for that matter). The homing attack still requires a bit of trial and error to get used to(like when to hit the jump button again when using a homing attack against multiple enemies) and even then it's never quite 100%, making it feel like a risky endeavor even when it's supposed to be used. The levels still feel like if I touched the wrong wall I'd fall through it and be a goner. The game feels consistently incomplete and rushed and I have simply no confidence in the design of it.

I say this because with games one has to have full confidence in both their skills and the abilities of whatever it is they're controlling. SA2 never gave me this feeling of confidence so I would find myself purposely avoiding optional scenarios(like jumping from a railing to collect some items and then jumping back on the rail) simply to survive. There were times that if I hit a spring or a ramp at just the wrong spot I'd find myself flying off a cliff and into a hole a second later. It would get so bad that'd I have to stop every once in awhile to get my bearings and approach the next obstacle carefully.

This is quite a shame because the scoring system has become a great model for all subsequent 3D Sonics. For those that can tolerate the poor mechanics and/or memorize how to handle every little jump and step it can be quite rewarding. Also clever is the handling of progress throughout the game. Even after completing story mode there's more than enough content for the completionists out there. Getting every emblem could take more than fifty hours. It's also nice how the player can jump from chao-raising to choosing a different stage or a different mission for said stage with no trouble. If I could look past the terrible mechanics and sub-par design the game actually has really good presentation.

The sub-par game design comes from a number of things in SA2. Death or even the possibility of death is simply too often an occurence. This relates to the lack of confidence in the game and makes the game a chore to play since I'm too worried about falling into something to play the game properly. Most of all however I'm getting older. I'm not sure if over time my skills have atrophied or what but this game was a lot more frustrating than it was when I was younger. Maybe I'm just less patient with bad game design and mechanics. 

In the future I'll look at...well I dunno. I'll have to think of something. I may have to come back to this because I don't think I've explained my point well enough.

Next month is Arcade Appreciation April.

I thought for my next update I was going to look at Crazy Taxi but I figure I'll look at it during Arcade Appreciation April (or AAA if you want to call it that). Through all of next month I'll be looking at various arcade games I think everyone should check out as well as my 50 picks for the best of the best.

So for now I think I'll look at Sonic Adventure 2. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Review: Death Crimson OX (Dreamcast)

Like Confidential Mission, Death Crimson OX is a gun game. You shoot the targets quickly and accurately and go for the high score. However the difference between these two games is in the mechanics. DC-OX has horrendous mechanics.

Before I go further I should establish what mechanics actually consist of. Whenever something happens in a game it should make sense. Everything should be clear and understandable regardless of whether the gamer is familiar with the game, genre, or otherwise. Say you're playing House of the Dead. Shooting a zombie in the head should obviously be more beneficial to the player than say shooting them in the chest or limb. In fact if you shoot a zombie anywhere besides the head they could gain in speed and attack fast, plus you get less points. With mechanics one should get an instant response to whatever they do in any situation.

Death Crimson OX expects a lot out of the gamer. In order to score the most points one has to play the game with the lowest possible amount of life as well as hitting many enemies without missing as often as possible(since your score multiplier is reset everytime you reload). Both of these things should make sense but over the course of the game it's just not the case. Most non-boss enemies can be shot multiple times and in fact it's required as many of them will still try to kill you even after being shot once(or even a few times). However the animation of these enemies is quite poorly handled as they will move quite spastically whenever shot(even at times disappearing almost entirely from the screen). Many enemies take a varying number of shots and there's seemingly no rhyme or reason as to how many shots it takes to get a single kill. You can also shoot a few objects in the background like windows or lights but that also is not 100% as there are windows you simply can't shoot out at all. In fact for most of the stages there's really not much in the way of destructable environments, which kind of negates the idea of having them in the first place.

Keeping yourself alive is another serious issue in terms of mechanics. Most gun games establish a short period of invincibility between hits but DC-OX apparently ignores that. I guess this was the designer's intention since they expect you to play the game without getting hit to achieve the highest scores but the implementation is still terribly handled. There are times when attacks look like they should miss(as in they fly off-screen) but they can still damage the player. There are also moments where due to the lack of animation enemy attacks can come out a lot faster than they should, leading to quite a bit of nonsensical damage. 

Hitting weakpoints is probably the worst part. In typical gun-game boss-fights the weakpoints are constantly moving and tend to show themselves just before the boss attacks. DC-OX is no stranger to this ideal but its execution like everything else is simply off. This is partly due to the poor art design as the enemies are clunky messes of scraps but also due to the really poor indicators that show where weakpoints are. It's hard to judge where to shoot something when the indicator is a vague circle of twirling lines. Certainly if you've played a game long enough you'll no exactly when and where to shoot everything but that's not quite what mechanics is about. For somebody even new to videogames in general they should be able to understand what works and what doesn't. There is simply not enough appropriate feedback in DC-OX to make it a good game.

Design decisions are another aspect of videogames that's always a cause for concern. It's simply not good game design to establish that the game must be played in a particular manner to get the most out of it, but then throw in instances where even playing the game properly can screw the player up. DC-OX's biggest design issue here is the experience bar. Instead of leveling up when the experience bar is filled the player gets extra life. To fill up the bar the player has to score quite a bit of points. Of course earlier I mentioned that in order to score the most points possible one has to play the game with very little life remaining. So now does the player have to take another hit to lose the health they gained from the exp bar? Can they risk it due to the shoddy mechanics? While it's actually a very clever idea if the player actually needs the health since the extra points help fill up the bar faster it just doesn't work quite right for those attempting to master the game. On the other hand I guess the most hardened fans of DC-OX won't find fault with this system but really how is that a good idea?

Accessibility is another extremely important aspect of videogames and if the game in question is trying out some new ideas or is doing things that could probably confuse and frustrate new players it should be well-designed and sensible so that it's easily understandable. Death Crimson OX is just a poor game all-around for expecting a lot from a player yet having neither the strong mechanics nor the good game design to back it up.

Next I'll look at Crazy Taxi. I consider this game one of the best arcade titles ever made and I imagine most everyone else feels the same way. Regardless I'm sure I'll find something about it worth mentioning in here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: Confidential Mission (Dreamcast)

Sega's Confidential Mission is basically Virtua Cop meets James Bond. The everyday criminals have been replaced by spies, the barrel-tossing strongman's been traded in for a short fat guy who uses a remote to control missile launchers hidden in museums, and the completely lacking in personality heroes have been tossed out for a well-dressed couple of super-spies(who also happen to make bad jokes). 

For those not familiar with Virtua Cop, that game used an interesting target system where enemies that were considered a threat had cursor appear over them that doubled as a countdown to when they would fire(which as typical with gun games getting shot costs a life). Confidential Mission carries this over along with other aspects like hostages(shooting them also costs a life) and combination/justice shots(where you can hit a person multiple times for more points and/or shoot their right arm thus disabling their ability to attack as well as get more points)

As far as gun games are concerned Confidential Mission is quite well done. Even though at it's most base it's simply hitting targets quickly the game also does a number of things to mix it up. In one level you'll have to take out enemies on snowmobiles. Aside from being fast moving they can also go over hilly terrain thus making it more difficult to get a shot in. The game also throws in a couple of tiny mini-games(like aligning a satellite to destroy a submarine shooting blobs of some gooey substance to block out poisonous gas). They're nothing of great importance but they certainly help in terms of points. Despite the game's relatively simple design Sega has still managed to provide a good amount of variety to the gameplay.

Like with any other arcade port Sega has added a number of new modes. A training mode is included that goes over the various aspects one can get into over the course of the game. Being able to shoot enemies hiding in a crowd of hostages, getting justice shots & combos, and so on are important skills to master for the main game. This is a good set of training missions. They're relevant to the main-game and reinforce things the player needs to understand in order to get the high scores.

The mechanics of this game are especially good. Trickier shots like nailing an enemy lying between the legs of a hostage quite possible. One could even perform a justice shot in this same situation. Mechanics are imperative in any game and it's expected that Sega would get it right(I'd expect no less from a developer behind so many quality gun games like Ghost Squad).

The best way to get the most out of any gun game is by getting a gun. In fact for Confidential Mission it's essential because many of the training missions are simply impossible with a pad. Being able to move from one side of the screen to the other to make an accurate shot is a constant in this mode and a pad just won't cut it.

Anyway it's a solid game. Not much else I can say about it.

Next I'll have to look at Death Crimson OX...which is well...yeah it's about everything that Confidential Mission isn't.

Review: D2 (Dreamcast)

This is the third game in a trilogy of sorts by Kenji Eno. As opposed to the 60 minute time-limit in D and the limited saves/insta-kills of Enemy Zero, D2 is actually a bit pedestrian by Eno's standards. D2 is essentially a cinematic RPG...or is it a Survival Horror title with RPG elements? Whatever the case you kill things, level-up, and follow a storyline. 

A simple ride in a plane becomes a catastrophic ordeal when it's hijacked by terrorists and a mysterious hooded figure making strange chants(how'd he get through security?) Somehow this plane is hit by a meteor and the remnants of the survivors are scattered throughout the Canadian wilderness. Laura and Kimberly are two of them and they must work to solve the mysteries while surviving the harsh weather and monsters that have mysteriously been seen in the area.

As Laura the player is expected to explore abandoned cabins for useful clues and items, explore the mountains of Canada, fight off a variety of formerly human creatures that exhibit plant-like characteristics, and maybe even figure out what the heck is going on(though that's not quite guaranteed either).

Exploring the various buildings is simple though a bit clunky. These areas are all done in first-person and Laura tends to focus on objects of interest(though you have to look around yourself for a large number of hidden items). Laura isn't very talkative but she can still have extended conversations with Kimberly and anyone else she happens to run into. The few puzzles in this game are relatively simple to solve if you're familiar with adventure game logic. 

The bulk of this game is spent outside where Laura can run around in third-person. Aside from finding various items hidden in the snow she can actually hunt for food using a sniper rifle. It's possible to beat the game without food as Laura can uncover quite a few healing sprays throughout the adventure(I wouldn't recommend it on a first playthrough though). Laura can also drive around on a snowmobile after a certain point though this doesn't come into play very often. Laura can also get attacked by monsters. These foes come in multiple forms and all combat is handled in first person. Using a submachine gun(with a handful of other weapons to follow) the object is to know what points to hit an enemy at to keep them away from Laura while at the same time killing them. Many encounters involve 2 or 3 monsters at once and keeping them all from ganging up on Laura is required for survival(though if you abuse hunting you should never really have to worry about dying. There are unfortunately a small number of enemy-types but the game is fairly short and a number of boss battles keeps things rather fresh.

I think it's a great idea that Warp decided on the hunting/food system for D2. Most importantly it allows any player with a bit of patience to beat this game. Players looking for a challenge can ignore hunting entirely. To add to this Laura can also levelup provided she gains enough experience. Though you can't avoid fights in this game(they're random encounters and you can't escape in mid-battle) you aren't exactly required to gain exp as the only stats that really go up are Laura's HP and a skill statistic that maybe slightly increases damage dealt. Success in the bossfights for example is mostly due to finding particular weakpoints. Without even adding in difficulty levels Warp has developed a smart way of giving D2 a scalable level of challenge for any gamer. 

Despite being rather dated due to initially being released in 1999, D2 still shows quite a bit of clever game design and it's pretty damn weird. If you're into the strange and unique(and possibly also one of those guys who relentlessly pores over the artistic elements in games) this definitely fits the bill. It's also really not bad at all for Survival Horror fans.

Oh and definitely check out this Kenji Eno interview done by 1up. It's really fantastic.

Next up I'll look at Confidential Mission. A James Bond-styled gun game by Sega.

Review: illbleed (Dreamcast)

I didn't beat Illbleed. Let's just go ahead and get this out of the way immediately. I did not beat Illbleed and on top of that I have no intention on doing so. It's not that I'm stuck or there's this section that's too difficult I just sincerely have no interest in continuing to play a game I hate, especially one that is as poorly designed as this one.

Illbleed is I assume by the same developers behind the early Dreamcast game Blue Stinger. Both of these games seem to share a number of common elements(I'm also currently playing Blue Stinger and well...I'm not entirely a fan of that game either). The story goes is that there's a haunted house where the owner has proposed a multi-million dollar prize for whoever can survive it. A plucky group of kids decides to take their chances at this place, much horror and wackiness ensues.

The game is broken up into multiple levels. Each level is patterned after a B-movie horror film and the player will have to contend with the "star" of the movie as well as the numerous traps that are scattered everywhere. Adding to this is a monitor that tracks all of the player's vital signs. Getting scared, attacked by enemies, and just generally letting bad things happen will cause their health to drop, their heart-rate to go up, and so on. Keeping these maintained through items or otherwise will result in more cash rewards from completing a level. 

The premise and concept is actually quite good. The Haunted Mansion is consistently played more for laughs than actual scares and the characters are well-developed. Each of the levels are not limited to one aspect of gameplay as you're liable to do a number of entirely different things in your search to figure out the mysteries and get the prizes.

For example. In the beginning of the first level you start by exploring an old hotel while defeating traps with a special set of goggles. Along the way you also trigger fights with various grotesque beasts and you must fight them off or hail a rope-ladder which looks as if it's hanging from a helicopter(?!). After solving a couple basic puzzles you then have to run through a maze while dodging a monster and then engage in a bossfight. The conclusion of the level involves evading an absolutely gigantic version of the monster while running across a bunch of wreckage in the middle of a lake. So over the course of a single level one can expect to see a lot of variety in the gameplay.

Unfortunately not much of this is handled well at all. The first annoying aspect is the traps. These traps are triggered when you get too close to suspicious objects(mainly because they cause your five senses to go haywire, and yes all this is monitored on the screen). The thing is though is that in order to defeat these traps you have to spot them with your goggles(which actually have to be found in the level first, poor idea) and they use up a sort of spectral energy whenever you examine something. However not everything is a trap, some objects contain items while other objects contain nothing at all. The biggest problem with this system is that while trying to defeat some traps you could potentially wander into others. Though your five senses are usually good for discovering traps there are times when multiple objects are clumped together thus leaving you to guess which one is dangerous. It's not a stretch to assume that one could end up replaying sections or even entire levels because they guessed poorly too often.

The combat is really bad all around. The mechanics aren't exactly sound as you'll find yourself getting hit by things that look like they didn't even touch you, many enemies ignoring your attacks, and so on. Another annoying aspect is that the only way to dodge most attacks is through an evade move. You're practically invincible while doing this move but it also causes your heart-rate to increase dramatically. Unfortunately for encounters with multiple enemies you're almost required to do several of these(and it's a bad idea to simply take the hit since you can't access your inventory during combat, which can be a serious issue for longer battles). Even getting encountered by an enemy causes the player's heart-rate to go up. Worst of all however is that there is zero incentive to fighting 90% of the time. Outside of boss fights it's a better option to run away for the rope ladder simply because you get no reward for winning the battle. Killing these foes doesn't get you cash or items or adds to your end of level rating. It's no wonder the combat in this game is so poor it's because the game doesn't expect you to engage in it(except for the bossfights so I'm not sure where the designers were going with this one).

Another absolutely infuriating aspect of this game is the general lack of savepoints. Now I'm the kind of guy who despises the frequent checkpoint-fests games have turned into lately but there is little excuse for the placing of these save locations. Some save locations have a hospital nearby, others are surrounded by monsters, sometimes there isn't one when it would be useful(like say before a boss fight or a particularly difficult area). The first stage had some very sensible savepoint placing yet the very next stage has one savepoint in the middle of a huge worm-filled maze. So the game essentially expects the player to complete an obtuse & frustrating jumping puzzle(where failing gets him or her into a bossfight they have to escape from, which again raises the heart-rate and probably damage), engage in a number of difficult fights with gun-wielding enemies, defeat the boss, and another encounter or two towards the end. Would it have really been so hard to put a save point in the general area where all this takes place? At least then it wouldn't be such a huge deal to replay certain sections. 

This is honestly where I quit the game at. Maybe the savepoint issue isn't a big deal by itself but when other issues with the game crop up it becomes harder to ignore. If this was intentional by the developers they should have been more clear about it. It's probably not a terribly long game(definitely less than 10 hours I imagine, maybe even less than 5) but the game requires so much of the player for things that are just not good game design.

Quite frankly if you think the concept is endearing you're most likely better off watching the full playthrough that's floating around on youtube. In fact I believe all of the cutscenes are in there as well so you can enjoy the experience without suffering from the numerous issues in place. 

Next up will be Kenji Eno's D2 which is again for the Dreamcast. It's a Cinematic RPG which I guess would make it the equivalent of Parasite Eve. Both games also happen to feature blonde female protagonists who use guns and their storylines are pretty screwy. 

Websites to check out for March '09

Once a month I'll list several websites that I think everyone should check out at least once.

Hardcore Gaming 101 - - This is a fine website with overviews and impressions of hundreds of popular and lesser known titles. 

Costume GET! - - This blog is devoted almost entirely to videogame costumes. It doesn't deal with cosplay stuff however. Very interesting read if you're into that sort of thing.

System 16 - - A great resource for arcade games. Actually for me at least it's simply a very depressing read knowing that so many of these games never saw a console port.

Shoot The Core - - Excellent site for 2D shooter fans. Also check out the PC Shooter database for over a thousand freeware PC shooters, some of them are quite excellent.

Streets of Rage Remake Project - - I'm a huge Streets of Rage fan and seeing a freeware project like this almost brings a tear to my eye. The authors behind this remake are painstakingly fixing, adding, and in general re-creating the series from scratch to deliver the ultimate Streets of Rage experience. Be sure to check out the beta version, it's really well-done.

UK Resistance - - British humor and Sega. I find it difficult to go wrong with this combination.

Namako Team - - Granted it looks like this site won't be updating anytime soon but there's still a number of things there worth checking out.

Sega-16 - - For fans of the Sega Genesis this is the site to be at.

Will post more links around the same time next month.

Review: Spawn In The Demon's Hand (Dreamcast)

Spawn ITDH is a bit of an interesting beast. The main arcade mode is a time-attack where you and a buddy have to kill a number of bosses within the time limit. The gameplay resembles a combination of basic shooter & beatemup elements  and whenever you die you simply lose about 10 seconds off the clock. Also in each stage there are other thugs you can beat up(for no real reason aside from points I guess, though there's no score tracking in the DC version) and there are places to explore to find a huge number of hidden weapons/powerups (ever played Shadow Over Mystara? More than that). The other mode is a deathmatch/team battle affair where you kill people, get points, and go for the win.

Knowing what Spawn is really isn't important(then again if you're a fan of the comic go ahead and buy this game off ebay right now). From what I've seen it's a combination of everything people regularly dismiss comics over. The main character is some near-immortal assault-rifle wielding badass from hell who strangles criminals and demons with chains, all of the women have perfect huge breasts and wear all manner of tiny outfits to accentuate them(and of course they're either ultimate bounty hunters or angels...from hell), and the rest of the crew is filled with usual assortment of freaks and weirdos. From fat clowns that turn into monsters to soul-less creatures straight out of the devil's rectum it's no surprise that Spawn has seen to the release of a large number of games(it's also no surprise that all of these games have been trash).

It's really a simple concept when you get down to it. The focus of the main game is to simply beat the boss. This is not a new concept to arcade games(Warzard, Metamoquester, Monster Maulers all pre-date Spawn I believe) but Spawn takes it several steps further. 

-Huge stages. While these other games have been standard 2D affairs that take place on a single plane Spawn kicks it up several notches by having massive areas with many secrets to uncover. The trick is of course is that due to the limited amount of time there's only so much you can explore.

-Weapons. Nearly everyone in the game has their own exclusive set of weapons they can wield. Add in the large number of weapons found lying around throughout the levels(some of which are also exclusive to particular characters) and even a few that require an FAQ to figure out how to get and well...that's a ton of weapons. There's an incentive in this since you can carry over any weapons you're holding to the next stage(course if you die you drop your weapons and they can disappear after a set amount of time or when the boss is killed).

-Special abilities. This isn't related to special moves as there really aren't very many in Spawn(a couple button combinations maybe but nothing really deep). Some of these can drain health while others do this and that and so on. I'm not sure how much of this stuff is actually necessary but there you go.

-Power-up orbs. As you explore the stages you'll find a great number of boxes you can break to find these three wonders. Power orbs raise your attack, Defense orbs let you take more damage, and speed orbs make you faster. You can collect up to five for each stat but do know that the clock is always ticking. Course there's another incentive in that you get a small bit of health for each orb you grab. In fact since you drop an orb everytime you take certain hits you're bound to fall on you're just dropped orb and regain most of whatever health you lost(provided you have some seriously high defense). With all this in mind you could go through stages nearly invincible(except for again the time limit and/or falling in lava, which causes you to lose all of your orbs permanently). The best(?) part is that AI characters can't pick up the orbs. 

-Lots of playable characters. The thing about these prior boss-attacks is that there's only a few characters to choose from. I believe the original arcade release had at least ten, the DC version comes close to quadrupling that amount. But you know what happens when you have a ton of characters running loose in any game?

Oh yes the point of this review is about balance. Balance is essential to any game. As the player improves the game must always keep up(or at least for a reasonable length of time). Balance is the life-blood of any fighting game yet in any game we see its importance being maintained. Spawn however is not balanced. In fact I will go as far as to say Spawn is broken. A broken game is in my opinion the worst kind. It is when elements make so little sense that the game itself suffers. Broken games tend to be ones that attempt new ideas which aren't properly followed through. They can also involve aspects which should be appealing to the player yet realistically they should be ignored as they're detriminal to the experience. The worst however when it comes to a broken game is that when you play under certain conditions it feels like cheating and yet you can't tell the difference.

Like Guardian Heroes, many of Spawn's characters are either pathetic(wolves, green berets, Soldier As & Bs? yuck) or game-breaking(Spawn IV with his one-hit kill swings, Gatekeeper with his dash instant-kills, etc) Guardian Heroes at least had the foresight to shove all of this into a single mode where no matter what you did it didn't amount to anything. It's there simply for a "do what you like and go crazy" mode and not for any serious exploration of game design. Spawn however does not account for this. All of the characters are playable in all modes. In fact the game doesn't even recognize you're using a busted character by refusing to keep track of your best time in boss-attack mode. So even if I were to use the most obscenely destructive characters in the game it'd be just the same as if I was using the default ones which are of mediocre strength and ability.

Unfortunately it doesn't stop there. In the boss-attack mode on a certain stage the boss will actually jump into the lava and kill himself if you leave him alone. I've played matches where the AI opponents will be five feet away from each other and do nothing at all. There have been Vs mode matches where my ally would constantly commit suicide off a cliff thus costing our team tons of points. Also why is it that AI characters can't pick up power-orbs or weapons? It'd certainly go a long way to make the matches more interesting(and at least show some semblance of balance). There's also a handful of characters(the larger ones I've noticed) that fall extremely quickly to machinegun fire. They certainly weren't like that when they were bosses, so why this change? Absolutely terrible.

Another major offender is the team-based aspects of this game. They never really add up. You're expected to work together to take out the bosses(especially since if you try to play solo you only fight half the number of bosses you would in co-op) yet there are factors that get in the way of this. For one characters on the same team can hurt each other. Granted it's only a fraction of the damage but if you get knocked into some lava well that's that. Sure one could mix it up by having one melee-based character and one gun-based to balance it out but gun characters in Spawn are rather weak overall(god forbid you try to solo with them, you'll never get anywhere). You could try playing support and just picking off the grunts that try to interrupt the guy working on the boss but that isn't very much fun at all.

To add to this while the bosses are pretty simple to figure out(most of their attacks can be dodged simply by running away) they hit HARD. It isn't a stretch to assume that one or two good hits will kill your character. How exactly does one go about balancing this out? You can't simply lessen the damage bosses do without lowering the damage your characters dish out. Even raising the time limit to balance this out you're left with fights that drag out way too long. The only real way you're supposed to balance this is by collecting the DEF powerups. However with the time limit in place there's really little chance of finding them all or at least enough to survive more than a couple hits. If it were up to me I'd lose the time penalty for getting killed, bump the default time to three & a half minutes, and give the player something like three lives that are replenished after each boss. Cause hey if somebody dies three times they're already going to lose the battle because that's a good 30 seconds off the clock. So why not make it quick and to the point by giving the player enough feedback to know when to play it safe or go for the kill. In fact I'll go ahead and say that bosses should have slightly less health. By the first minute of the boss fight you've already seen everything they're capable of so why drag it out any further? 

Even ignoring that what's the point of even playing this game well? No scores are saved outside of the fastest time to beat every boss in the regular modes(which you can "cheat" on anyway). Playing this game on anything resembling a serious tournament level would have to consider so many restrictions it probably wouldn't be the same game any more. At least skilled players in Marvel Vs Capcom 2 could find success working outside the usual suspects of Magneto, Storm, Sentinel, etc. 

Maybe Spawn is just supposed to be fun. Nothing serious about it just old-fashioned rumble in hell fun. I find that quite a depressing idea of fun especially coming from Capcom, a developer which has hardly ever failed when it comes to game design. Maybe I simply take gaming too seriously...oh well whatever.

Next up it's possible I'll look at Illbleed. Another game with a bunch of problems that nobody plays anymore.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Review: OutTrigger (Dreamcast)

Developed by Sega for the arcades OutTrigger is an interesting take on the FPS genre. Styled after the likes of Quake 3 and other "easy to pick up/difficult to master" shooters OutTrigger involves an anti-terrorist organization and killing many people in a row for tons of points. 

After deciding on a control scheme(of which there are several, even mouse & keyboard!) the player can choose a character and outfit them with three different kinds of weapons. Though there are a handful of exceptions the player's three weapons will always include a machinegun-type, a grenade-type, and a rocket launcher-type. 

The Dreamcast port splits the game into three modes of play. The Arcade mode has the player choose from four levels of difficulty(from prepatory to advanced) where the bulk of the missions consist of killing a certain number of enemies within the time limit. The focus of this mode serves as both practice for the VS mode(the meat of the game like most FPS) and as a challenge for scoring. Each stage usually consists of a small arena(since this game is only 4 players the levels are designed so that you're bound to run into others at all times) and there are times when you have a partner(who you can kill if you're not careful, which is bad news)

The VS mode as stated before is where the bulk of one's playtime is likely to be(provided one has friends that are interested in this game and/or can still find a way to play online). The thing about OutTrigger is that there's really only one mode of VS play(though you can play free-for-all or teams). Each match consists of a point limit or a time limit. Obviously killing foes will gain points but every time somebody dies they drop a medal(which can be worth 1 or more points depending on certain conditions). So not only must one be able to kill their enemies but they must also be in the position to collect the medal. This leads to a lot of unique situations and an overall more frantic style of gameplay(since people who never land a single kill could very well win the round if they steal enough medals).  Splitscreen and online play is supported in this game, though that's kind of irrelevant these days.

The Mission Mode is pretty standard for most Sega arcade-ports. There are 45 missions in all and they deal with all aspects of the game. Completing these(which for the most part are actually fairly easy) nets the player a number of new characters, weapons, and arenas. It's pretty standard but having the unlockables all tied to one mode is kind of nice(though these days it's arguably preferable to have a second method of unlocking tied to time spent in VS mode).

With all of that out of the way I want to go ahead and discuss the game itself. OutTrigger borrows some aspects of earlier FPS titles yet it also a does a number of things that are or were unique at the time. Like the more recent Call of Duty's, OutTrigger allows the player to choose their weapons before heading into the match and they're always available provided they don't run out of ammo(which is usually difficult since there's ammo scattered everywhere along with medkits and other items). Not only does this add variety(especially since there are a very large number of weapons, including some very unique ones like decoy items that work as mines) but it also allows the player to tailor their avatar to their strengths. Also unique at the time is that whenever you get killed a small window pops up showing who got you and what they're currently doing. This is sort of like how the Call of Duty Killcam works, which shows a short replay of who killed you and how they did it. Also interesting is the inclusion of rocket-jumping. While it's not as deep and functional as in other games that support it it's still worthwhile in certain instances. A feature that is as far as I know exclusive to OutTrigger is the ability to destroy other player's rockets. With some fine aiming or perhaps another rocket the player can even get the enemy's rockets to blow up in their face. Needless to say this a tremendous way to keep things balanced since that despite everyone having access to a rocket launcher there's always a way to defeat it.

The biggest question however is OutTrigger really worth playing today? I'll go ahead and say no because let's face it: The game is outdated. Even with everything this title brings to the table one can find similar games that are more accessible and have a greater level of support. These days you can play Quake 3 Arena for free and there's always no shortage of players. You just can't get that from OutTrigger. Sure it looks good, plays better, and has a lot of merit it's just not worth getting into when one has so many better options available.

With all of that in mind however Sega could and should bring it back. With the upcoming release of Virtual On: Oratario Tangram on XBLA Sega has shown they are not afraid to update DC ports for today's audience. Why not do the same for OutTrigger?

-Online play would of course be a necessity.

-Capture the flag mode. This really couldn't work all that well in OutTrigger's small arenas so to counter this Sega would have to develop expansions to the current maps(or some entirely new ones) as well as up the player-count from four to eight. However I think CTF is the perfect mode to accentuate the frantic arcade-style gameplay OutTrigger goes for and with the way the levels could be designed it should be quite interesting. Also this is just my opinion but I think scoring should work as even if the team B has team A's flag, team A can still score(just as team B can do the same). OutTrigger just isn't designed for defending really(or camping for that matter) since everyone is constantly moving and there's so many useful powerups strewn everywhere. One could still kill the flag-holder and return their flag to base instantly by touching it so much of the same appeal of CTF will remain.

-Leaderboards. Even taking out the VS mode the arcade mode still has quite a bit of gameplay to it. Scoring is pretty simple in that if somebody kills lots of enemies in a short span of time while taking as little damage as possible they're bound to score a ton of points. Why not give an incentive to have players try arcade mode? 

Some things I wouldn't change or "improve" upon.

-Adding the ability to crouch. This simply isn't the kind of game where you need to duck. It's not like people are going to be aiming rockets at your head instead of your feet and the last thing the stages need is to be revamped entirely with sandbags or crates everywhere for players to crouch behind. OutTrigger is a game of constant movement and there is nothing to be gained from sitting around behind stuff. 

-A doublejump and/or the ability to wall-jump. In keeping with OutTrigger's identity it has little to gain from borrowing elements off of Unreal Tournament. Besides that since OutTrigger has fall-damage the player has more to lose when they double-jump off a ledge.

-Melee attacks. If the player wants to focus on close-range there are weapons available for that. The weapon limit is there for a reason as it requires players to specialize in what they're best at, not to always have something for every situation.

With that in mind it should be easy for an OutTrigger update to maintain its identity while attracting new players. I really think more people should get the chance to play this game even if I don't recommend picking it up today.

Next up I'll probably look at Capcom's arena brawler/shooter Spawn: In The Demon's Hand.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Review: Bangai-O (Dreamcast)

I decided on taking a look at Bangai-O because today we are lucky to have a sequel of sorts available in the form of Bangai-O Spirits on the DS. We look towards sequels for the standard promise of "bigger and better". This is usually but not always the case. Sometimes sequels choose to take on a new direction while other serve to merely refine certain aspects and fix problems with the original title. Something everyone should consider in regards to sequels is: Does the sequel render the original irrelevant? Are there sequels that make the prior game(s) no longer worth playing?

Note: If you've already played Bangai-O feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

Bangai-O is about what you'd expect from a Treasure game. For years Treasure has brought their own unique twists to traditional genres like the 2D shooter(Radiant Silvergun), the beatemup(Guardian Heroes), and in Bangai-O's case: the multi-directional shooter. As usual one can expect a non-sensical story(though Bangai-O voluntarily kicks it up to completely ridiculous at every chance), some gimmick or unique aspect(in this case the smart-bomb counter), and a heavily Japanese theme(which can be seen everywhere).

The story is something involving a brother & sister getting in fights with a fruit-stealing gang. This absolutely insane epic plays out over the course of 44 stages that run between 2 and 8 minutes a piece. In each stage you control a mech capable of firing homing missiles or lasers that rebound off walls. The usefulness of both weapons is determined by the design of the stage and it's usually quite obvious what you need to do to finish each stage. Also you can fire off a counter bomb and the strength of it is determined by how much and how close enemy firepower is.

Now taking what Bangai-O offers we have two weapons and 44 stages. Bangai-O Spirits on the other hand offers several times as many weapons and a potentially infinite number of stages. On top of that Spirits also has new gameplay aspects, new moves, and well you get the idea. On paper it seems Spirits has everything the original game has and then some. In fact it could be argued that the original is no longer even worth playing today. Or is it? 

It is just my opinion when I say this but I think the original Bangai-O still has merit. No matter what kind of stage somebody seeks out to design in Spirits the most important thing to keep in mind to win at Spirits is to know what combination of weapons works. The original Bangai-O on the other hand always limits the player to the same two weapons. In fact this is what makes Bangai-O continue to work despite being mostly out-classed by its sequel. By default Bangai-O's lack of choices makes the game require a greater focus on skill in order to succeed. Spirits on the other hand is more about problem solving(though with any game some semblance of skill is required)

Also Bangai-O may contain a smaller number of stages it also shows a greater capacity for scoring. There are many factors that go into scoring as many points as possible in every stage and little things like not taking any damage can lead to huge amounts of points. Spirits on the other hand puts more of a focus on beating a stage as fast as possible. There are many stages where you'll get no points for succeeding. This is really not a better or worse, it's just a different direction. 

Bangai-Original's very design rewards the risk-taker while Spirits is more rewarding for clever thinkers. The constant amount of destructable property and enemy firepower facilitates the need to seek out scenarios where the most possible chaos can occur. Spirits on the other hand is not always about getting in the middle of the action. There are times where no matter what you will be heavily out-classed if you just jump into things. 

The differences in hardware also allow the designers to work out these different directions. Spirits tends to pause quite often when huge situations occur and lends to the more problem-solving design that can be seen throughout. Also since one doesn't have to charge up the counter bomb to get the full effect in Bangai-Original all it takes is finding the right situation and going all out.

Both directions have their own rules to follow and Treasure did a great job defining both games so as neither can serve as a replacement for the other. So I don't know check 'em out sometime. 

Next up I think I'll look at OutTrigger. An arcade-style FPS by Sega.

Up next: Dreamcast reviews

I've decided that it's time for me to start getting rid of some of the games I own. To give a sense of completeness to the affair I'll post a review of each game before I put it up for sale on ebay. These won't be overly positive reviews because if they were I wouldn't be selling the respective games. I'll do my best to seek out some merit for all of these titles though.

First up I guess will be Bangai-O.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Metal Black

The Taito arcade game Metal Black came out in 1991. Originally it was to be billed as Darius 3 though in time it came to be known as Project Gun Frontier 2. Fans of the original Gun Frontier will note that it has little if anything in common with Metal Black. I'm not here to make sense of it all I just want to talk about the game itself.

The superb intro covers everything you need to know. In the year 2042 an Alien Menace attacks earth and nearly wipes humanity out using beam weaponry powered by something called "newalone". To fight back humanity develops a ship called the Black Fly that uses the same beam weapons. However the earthlings decide against using the weapon and instead seek out peace with their invaders. Eventually one man decides to fight back and makes off with the prototype Black Fly ship, hoping to put an end to the alien menace.

Even if you haven't already played this game I'm sure you can figure out that this is a 2D shooter. Your ship can be destroyed in a single hit and yet you're expected to defeat an entire alien armada by yourself. Despite the odds 2D shooters tend to be fair and well designed, they feature strong mechanics and sensible placement of obstacles so that the player never feels cheated. 

Your one and only weapon is your laser cannons. You can hold down the fire button for autofire but you have to depress the button every second or so since if you leave it held down your rate of fire drops. At the start of the game these lasers are quite weak and have very narrow range. However before long you'll come across the only powerup in the game...newalone. Looking like a tiny collection of three electrons the newalone can be found everywhere. Typically you'll always have more than you'll need since your weapon maxes out fairly quickly. This of course implies that there is another mechanic involved. By pressing an alternate button all of your beampower is released in either a single focused blast or spread out in all directions. Aside from doing immense damage this also allows one to get out of bad situations(though this doesn't make you invincible unlike most other 2D shooters with "smart-bomb" mechanics).

As typical of the genre you go through six stages that take place in a variety of locales and face off with a boss at the end. However as mentioned before game design is all about identity and Metal Black does more than enough to carve out its own niche in a very populated genre. 

Feel free to use this video to follow along (Credit to Mamescore and Louthrax):

You'll notice that as the game begins the first ships the Black Fly encounters look to be human. Obviously they're no match for the Black Fly but it is rather chilling that they've been sent out to prevent the peace agreement from ending due to a single ship. You'll also notice the newalone floating around. Clumps of this stuff float around almost entirely through each stage so liberal use of the special beam powers is encouraged. 

The remains of an old battleship prove to be nearly fatal when a giant hermit crab rises out of the sand. Situations like these tend to be popular in older shooters where if you're at the wrong place at the wrong time there's little you can do to avoid being killed. Personally I think this is poor game design if the game does not give adequate warning. On the other hand one could argue that the very sight of a large battleship taking 2/3rds of the screen should make anyone wary. 

The video doesn't quite catch it but if you leave the firebutton alone for a second you'll notice a single frog-like creature jumping out before followed by hundreds. This popular aspect of game design is in nearly any game you can imagine. A new object of interest whether it's an enemy, a powerup, or etc. is seen alone and by itself, in a way that can only be described as an introduction. Since with most games these "new" objects are eventually rolled in with objects we're familiar with. Interestingly enough however these frogs don't put up much of a fight and the player won't see them ever again after the first stage. Metal Black does this quite a bit as even for a game that's around 20 minutes long they're focused on almost constant variety to the player's encounters.

The first few enemy ships that come along arrive in standard 2D shooter formation. Course when you destroy the entire line of them you aren't rewarded with a powerup. I guess this was Taito's way of showing how unconventional this shooter is since it ignores one of the more popular aspects of the genre. These first few enemy formations don't fire at the player but this will change by the next stagee. Also note how the walker-enemy stops before firing a shot. This is a constant in Metal Black so that players are given ample warning when particular enemies are about to attack so they can prepare accordingly. 

The boss of this stage and nearly everyone afterwards can actually feed on the newalone to powerup their own attacks. Thankfully the creatures/appendages sent out to feed on newalone can't harm the player's ship. It should be noted that purple is the standard color for most enemy fire. Most shooters especially more modern ones rely on easily identifiable colors for enemy fire. In Metal Black however as already noticed with the missiles not everything that can kill you is purple. 

At the end of this stage and stage 3 the player enters a bonus round. Essentially you move a cursor around to target the nearest alien and unless an entire payload of missiles. It looks more like something Taito did to show off the impressive(for 1991) scaling effects but luckily there's only two of them and they're good for points.

Like the frog in the first part of stage 2 we notice a rather large missile cruise innocently by. However the next missile unleashes a wave of shrapnel. This method of familiarization is quick and to the point and since there are no other enemies in the vicinity it's pretty clear the designers wanted the player to focus on this missile as it will show up later. 

A couple of new enemies are introduced in the standard way. This is keeping in mind with the design since as the stage progresses these enemies will make further appearances in combination with others. It is also noteworthy that the shape of the enemies is a good visual indicator of what they're capable of. The drill-like creatures move forward, ones that look to be facing a certain direction will fire in said direction, etc. 

In another break from convention the enemies in Metal Black tend to have unconventional methods of attack. The enemies that drop those floating orbs for instance. The orbs can't be destroyed but they can be a nuisance as they take up space and can wipe out the player if they're led into them by enemy fire. The large yellow creature with the swirling tail makes another appearance later in the game.

The missiles return with a little twist. The player is led to expect the missiles will fire shortly after arriving. However this one waits until the other has arrived before firing. It's a minor thing designed mostly to trip up the player. One could wonder if this contradicts the enemies that always pause before firing. How can the player be expected to accurately predict dangers if his enemies ignore the "rules" they're supposed to follow? That is one of the challenges in game design. Every aspect must have a sensible explanation and nothing should be left to question. In this case one could simply say that the very first missile never fired at all, thus nullifying whatever rule the rest of the missiles were supposed to follow.  

At this point the player decides to use his special weapon. As noted earlier it spreads out destroying everything in the vicinity and reduces his beam gauge back to level 1. I would have figured he'd do this later but it's possible he did this to showcase his skills at dodging everything. This shows that even if the beampower is improperly handled there is still enough room to get by on pure dodging skills. While the road to mastering a game may have only one or two paths the road to survival should have a multitude of ways to get out of every situation(again as long as they're sensible). Again notice how within seconds of meeting the boss the player has already maxed out his beam power.

The orbs that the second boss releases are used to reflect and change the direction of the laser he fires. Of course as you can see in the video he triggers his beampower again practically nullifying the boss's strategy. Again this is unconventional for the genre and helps to lend the boss fight a bit of personality. Most of the time 2D shooter bosses are simply huge objects with heavy firepower and all you can do is pluck away at it until it goes down. In Metal Black you can actually defeat certain boss attack patterns by destroying particular objects. 

Stage 3 introduces the latest in line formation enemies. These guys don't even wait to comple their rounds before firing off a wave of projectiles. This indicates a clear sense of progression. As the Black Fly makes it's way through the alien armada the aliens respond with intensified attacks. Unlike most shooters it's not the same enemy just firing more bullets, it's a new enemy with a new challenge to overcome. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that these creatures are evolving in response to the player's skill and familiarity. This is not to say that shooters that feature the same enemies but with more firepower are bad because at times that's not what is required. At times these familiar ships are important because there are other aspects to them aside from being fodder. The Cave shooter Dodonpachi for example tends to feature a number of similar enemies that behave similarily to foes destroyed in the past. Dodonpachi explains this with the chaining system, where you get more points for destroying many enemies without too long of a time between them. In game design as mentioned before it's not about making a game better it's about giving it a better identity. 

Part 2:

These ground-based enemies create a little wall that's invincible to bullets. The solution is simple enough as the player can simple destroy the creatures themselves..taking the wall with them. However this isn't always applicable and the player may become anxious and end up trapped. Situations like these tend to be more popular in horizontal shooters. Horizontal shooters also tend to be more cinematic(I hate to use the word guilty but Metal Black is certainly guilty of this as there tends to be stretches of empty space as if we should be taking a break from blasting aliens to follow the story). 

A new and mysterious enemy approaches. The worm-like creature attempts to destroy the player by crushing him between the floor and ceiling. However due to the shape of the ship and player's knowledge of the game he knows exactly where to fly to avoid this fate. How would someone who never played this game before handle the situation? Well that worm creature can be destroyed before it brings the walls down(though most likely this will require using the special weapon though since the orbs block many of the player's shots). Here we see enemies that were introduced in stage 2 working in tandem with a unique creature in an attempt to defeat the player. It's simple really but in my opinion stuff like this gets ignored for the big picture.

The boss of this stage resembles a dung beetle. In fact its main source of firepower is an easily destroyable sphere. Needless to say as long as one can keep that sphere out of commission this boss will fall rather easily.

Exclusive to stage 4 are the bubbles. These won't destroy the player if they touch him. Instead they will encase the player preventing his weapon from firing until the bubble is destroyed. This can be dangerous in certain situations(it also helps to make stage 4 different from every other stage). We're also introduced to minor enemies capable of collecting newalone. Notice how the serpent creature fires a dangerous set of missiles if left un-disturbed for long enough. 

Note the bubbles working with the destructible walls to give the player a hard time. Throw some enemies and bullets flying around and it could become quite troublesome. Also important is that as the laser powers up it's sizable range allows players to attack enemies directly above and below him(provided they're close enough). This is another reason players may want to hold onto their fully-powered weapon as it can provide in certain scenarios. On the other hand since bullets of any size can get caught on walls sometimes having smaller bullets to get those harder to reach places is important. Metal Black doesn't dwell on these aspects too much(and the developers never really considered this for any sequel/future game) but it's still noteworthy.

Surprisingly the player gets killed by those flying blue ships that reflect his shots back diagonally. For the longest time I thought the reflected shots were simply window dressing or some special effect instead of a credible threat to the player. Fascinating. Another thing I think deserves mentioning is that enemies will observe the layout of the stages and navigate them to the best of their ability. This isn't like many shooters where enemies constantly fly through obstacles that would destroy the player. It doesn't make Metal Black a better game but it does show that the designers were thinking of everything when they put this title together. Another thoughtful inclusion is the second serpent going after the newalone the first serpent left when it was destroyed by the player. 

A wall of orbs followed by a wave of enemy fire. The player's bullets can't reach the enemy ships to stop them from firing, and it gives the enemy the opportunity to fire directly at the player. We've seen that before in stage 2 right? Nice to see the enemy develop some sort of strategy instead of existing to be mere fodder for our amusement. Of course one could simply use the special weapon to cut through the entirety of this situation.

Funny how the gigantic 4th stage boss leaves just enough room for the player to slip by. Notice how the enemies have dropped all pretenses of imitating the creatures of earth. We went from giant crabs and frogs to demonic-looking things and now we're down to space cruisers filled with flesh. Oh and in case you're wondering those screws can kill you.

Some shooters incorporate a rule where if an enemy is past a certain part of the screen it will cease firing. I guess this was done because there were so many complaints from gamers getting shot in the back by enemies that had long since disappeared from the screen(or more realistically it was done to save on memory). Either way the player should have been paying better attention in this instance.

Part 3:

Feel free to skip ahead to the boss fight here. You've already seen the giant laser attacks the bosses have done in the past so here are the results of the player firing with their own fully-powered special. As the two lasers collide they form this ball of pure violet energy that does immense damage to the enemy(that is if the player has the upperhand, if the enemy does a reddish sphere will be created instead that will destroy the player). The developers of Metal Black went on to use this feature in a simpler manner in G. Darius and Border Down(also using the huge lasers in those games gives the player more points, thus creating a greater incentive to use them). Again like most of the other foes these little buggers can't fly through walls. Even in a genre where you die in one hit the game continues to make sure there's no cheating. 

Part 4:

Shortly after the beginning of stage 5 a seemingly unavoidable wave of creatures clings to the player's ship. Most of the time dodging them is out of the question and worse as they gather on the ship they slow it down. This is compounded by a new type of enemy that fires large lasers from directly above and below the player(as well as all the other stuff we're familiar with). 

The star-shaped enemies that appear give more than enough warning for the player to take them out. This is because they're extremely dangerous if left alone as they can fire lasers in the direction of all of their points. Sure this might not seem a big deal when they're alone but late in the game you'll rarely face anything by itself. Be sure to remember the little fork in the road here. Before long a pair of walkers show up in an attempt to sandwich the player. He manages to break away by taking out the walker behind him using the larger bullets I mentioned earlier. It's a shame he got destroyed by that star laser just as it was about to leave the screen. The little guys wandering on the ground between the two mountains seem to ignore the player until he comes into view(note how they start firing when the player is above them). 

This is a minor thing and probably won't come up in these videos but while using your special weapon you're still free to collect newalone. This keeps the gauge from draining and thus extends the duration of your attack. Course it's up to you the player to decide if this is worthwhile. 

In a rather bizarre design decision the 5th boss is perhaps one of the easiest in the game(he's certainly easier than the 4th and the entirety of the last two stages). This guy sort of resembles a chameleon but it looks more like he uses teleportation. He's a very odd addition to this game yet the designers probably felt that as the various stands the enemy has made have all been met with failure they're left to resort to imperfected technology and experimental weapons in order to somehow destroy the player. It's a bit of stretch but from what we've seen so far it's entirely possible. In keeping with past bosses you can actually destroy his teleportation function...which is really just cruel.

Part 5:

The newest and final gimmick introduced are the multiplying uhh...satellites? Whatever they are they split off and form more if you spread your fire around. Do you destroy them all to get more points or cut directly through them to maximize your safety? 

Little blobs on the ground eventually form into minor enemy ships that we've seen in previous stages. This game certainly shows that we're at the final stage of the game. Oh and yet again we see the player get killed by nearly off-screen star lasers. Sure the player goes on to beat the game without continuing but it's still interesting to see these guys pose such a threat.

Further confirmation that we're at the point of origin of these aliens. One could almost describe these versions of the first boss that keep popping up as newborns. Within seconds of birth they're gunned down from a lone ship. Taito refuses to set the aliens up as being one-dimensional creatures bent on pure destruction. In fact seeing the state of earth in stage 1 one could determine that the aliens themselves are incapable of protecting life. It's possible they destroyed their own planet just like they've ruined earth. Amazing how much depth in the story Taito was able to put into a game that's not even thirty minutes long. Each stage is filled with atmosphere and carries some truly memorable moments as well as show a consistently brilliant sense of art direction. However let's move on.

The final boss in any videogame is where we direct the culmination of everything we have learned in the game into one moment. Metal Black in it's continuing efforts to break all conventions has chosen their final boss to be the culmination of existence itself. The final boss is actually not that difficulty. Certainly it's not as easy as say a Gradius final boss(for one this guy attempts to kill you) but it feels different somehow. This boss introduces a new method of attack and I guess most of your attention is going to be spent on all of the images that appear as the battle progresses. It's certainly a different way to end the game and is consistent with the overall design of Metal Black. 

So where does that leave Metal Black? Well it's not for everyone that much is certain. Everything that gives this game identity might not be worth the time of some gamers. But at times this is what game design is all about. Sometimes the identity that is created is not something that everyone wants, just like how certain pieces of art or particular artistic movements are met with in-difference or even hatred. Metal Black isn't your standard fare shooter and trying to make it something it doesn't want to be will only ruin everything the game has strived for. I will definitely say that this is among one of the most unique games in the genre(especially one that's known for having a lot of the same stuff all the time) and is probably one of the most important games I've ever had the privilege of playing. I'll also say that Metal Black accomplishes everything it sets out to do. Just because this isn't the best game ever doesn't mean it isn't perfect. It achieves all of its goals while at the same time maintaining everything that makes it unique. At this point it's so well put together that even the removal of the tiniest thing could make it all fall apart.

But that's just IMO. Feel free to tell me what you think.

First update

Hey all this is my first foray into the wonderful world of blogging.

My primary interest is videogames so thus it's only natural that this is a videogame blog. Aside from featuring reviews of titles both old & new I also want to look at the amazing world of game design. 

Game design can mean anything to anyone. This blog will look at my interpretation of the subject. To me game design is about identity. This pursuit of identity is the most aspect of a videogame. Certainly games should be fun and challenging, maybe even make you think. However without identity there is little reason to play different games because one would simply play the best one and leave the rest. Granted I'll consistently point to games that I consider to be the best designed but that does not mean they should be a template for all future titles. Instead what one should take away from all this is the importance of creating an identity and developing it properly so the player can understand and enjoy the game.

Important aspects that are paramount to developing a good game will also be discussed in this blog. There are many tools and small instances that don't seem like much but they are worth noting and explaining as they can add quite a bit to the experience. 

Unfortunately due to my limited means I typically won't be able to refer to a well-constructed playthrough to explain every facet of a game. Thankfully most of the games discussed in this blog are affordable and readily available if one is interested in following along.

For starters I'd recommend the following:

Taito Legends 2 (Playstation 2) - $12.99 new or $6.99 used at Gamespot. Can be found elsewhere for similar prices

Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection (Playstation 3, Xbox 360) - $29.99 new though it should be easy to find for $20 or less used.

A PC purchased within the last 6 or 7 years.

Of course as this blog progresses the chance exists that I'll look at games that are on relatively unpopular systems but chances are if you're reading this blog you already own them and possibly the respective game I'm discussing so don't worry too much about it.

With all of this in mind the first game I'll be looking at is the Taito shooter Metal Black (which is available on Taito Legends 2). Check back soon for the update.