GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 2: “PHALANX”

Last time we looked at the endearingly icy antagonist of Arkham City, “Mister Freeze,” and after several hundred words deduced that boss fights – and stay with me on this one – should generally be a bit harder than the bits of the game that aren’t boss fights.

I know, I know, it’s certainly bold new thinking, but what made Monsieur Gel work so well was the fact that he was testing every aspect of the player’s skills up until then. In a game split evenly around reaction-brawler combat and stealth, Freezey is the enemy who demands perfection in the latter of those two, as well as an organic understanding of how to use all the tools you’ve acquired.

But now we’re leaping back in time by half a decade and a whole console generation to a game beloved in indie circles, to the point where it’s recently gotten a shiny new re-release to bleed pennies out of all the people who bought it the first time, but don’t get to play it on the new, (allegedly) superior consoles. That’s progress, apparently.

 

“PHALANX/COLOSSUS 13/THE SNAKE,” SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS

Replaying Shadow of the Colossus recently, what struck me was how many of the Colossi frankly seem to be struggling to live up to the promise offered by the first few you encounter – that promise of big, epic struggles between towering monstrosities and an anime pretty-boy in a poncho, who hangs from their pubic hair and hacks diligently at their exposed ‘nads.

You can certainly tell which Colossi feel more like gimmicks than fleshed-out ideas: Buffalo Bill and his baffling pyrophobia, Crash Thompson and his penchant for headbutting pillars into perfect locations, or Tooth-Temple Terry pootling around his lake until you steer him into a wall. They’re not bad, these fights, they’re just a little… token, dropping in quality because of what they’re not, rather than what they are.

But then there’s the thirteenth Colossus, referred to as “Phalanx,” or sometimes as “the Snake.” Neither term does it proper justice. Show up at the vast stretch of bleached desert sands to the North-West of Dormin’s Temple, and there’ll be a moment of confused searching before the ground begins to rumble and nearly six hundred feet of flying tapeworm explodes out of the sand, dwarfing even the huge monsters you’ve seen so far and making you feel like something barely worthy of notice as it begins to fly in wide, looping patterns, supported on giant, organic balloons of gas.

Uh… now what?

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

A bit of everything, largely. To begin with, you can’t even get up to reach Phalanx as he circles lazily through the air, and must engage in a bit of precision shooting with your bow, trying to pierce the three air sacs that keep him at his lofty altitude. This done, he’ll descend to the point where the tips of his sixty-foot fins are dragging through the sand, and this is probably the best moment of the fight, as you charge alongside him on horseback, trying to keep pace, trying to keep an eye out for obstacles, trying not to freak out at the size of this thing, and must organically pick a moment to throw yourself at the fin and cling on for dear life before his airbags refill and he begins to raise back up into the stratosphere. Hope you don’t mind heights.

And suddenly, you’re higher than most birds can fly, gawping over the edge of oblivion as you pull yourself up onto his broad, fur-flecked back, and try to hold on as you pull yourself against the wind currents to his three weak spots and stab furiously at them in an attempt to bring this beast down. He’ll try and shake you off, even dropping back down into the sand to get rid of you if you take too long, which means you’ll have to try and pull this off again. Sounds good to me.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

What, weren’t you listening? This is a huge fight that actually feels like both of you are doing your utmost to get rid of the other, and has a sense of scale and majesty that few other games can match. It’s not just big, it’s… well, colossal.

Heck, not only that, but nothing here is scripted. Yeah, there’s an order to how you need to do things, but the way you go about it is up to you, no quick-time events or anything. Start by doing a bit of sharpshooting with only your own skills to rely on, ride on Aggro alongside this runaway train of a beast, literally stand on the horse’s back to leap at Phalanx’s fin (desperately trying not to miss), then pull yourself up to his body proper and crawl around his lengthy frame at your leisure, hunting down the magical equivalent of jugular veins and carving them up royal. It’s big, and it’s epic, and it feels like you’re the one doing it, not just the game setting you up for this moment disingenuously like it’s a fairground ride at Disneyland. And when Phalanx barrel-rolls through the air to shake you off, hanging upside down off his back hair by one hand as your feet drag through the clouds feels like an untouchable adrenaline high.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

If I had to object, I might say that the fight is perhaps a smidge too easy and could afford to be little more punishing when you do something stupid. Traditionally, once you’re on a colossus, the big threat is running out of stamina and losing your grip, but at this point in the game you’ve got a stamina bar as long as Das Boot and playing with even a modicum of care should see you getting rid of at least two of Phalanx’s weak points before he finally just throws himself back into the dirt for a guaranteed breather.

Not to mention that if you do fall off his back before then, the end result is surprisingly tame, with our prepubescent protagonist not even losing half of his health as he drops though the air and lands face down in sun-scorched rocks and sand. Hell, it’s not long before you realise that Phalanx never actually attacks you, just trying to shake you off his back after you stab him one too many times, so there’d be odd moments of disconnect where I’d look up at this thing soaring overhead after I just hacked half the blood out of it, still apparently unconcerned by the aggressive little microbe shooting arrows up at it and screaming angry, Ico-brand non-language.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

That huge-scale stuff has to be handled carefully, and never to the player’s detriment, putting the cinematic too far forward. I admit, running around all over the giant figures in the God of War series never really did much for me, because everything about it felt scripted and planned in advance. Not to mention that Kratos’ absurd power didn’t make it feel like that much of a fight to begin with, so who cares about the distinction in size?

But Team Ico designs Phalanx like some strange, alien airship, something so big that it can hurt you by accident, and placing it in an environment large enough that you keep forgetting how huge this thing is until you ride close to it. Then moving around on its back feels real, roughly speaking, with everything going towards making the battle feel plausible and terrifying in scope. The game doesn’t give you anything, you have to claim it all for yourself, and that’s far, far more satisfying.

 

NEXT TIME: “I’ve done everything this world has to offer. I’ve read every book. I’ve burned every book. I’ve won every game. I’ve lost every game. I’ve appeased everyone. I’ve killed everyone.

“Sets of numbers… Lines of dialog… I’ve seen them all.”

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GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 1: “MISTER FREEZE”

Few video game traditions go as far back as the noble boss fight. From the valiant pursuit of a single pixelated barrel-slinging, kidnapper ape in the original Donkey Kong, to the cinematic destruction of cosmic beings and the gods themselves in the Bayonetta series, half the games we remember, we remember for their climatic showdowns.

That being said, a boss fight is no guarantee of excitement, nor of satisfaction. A lot of modern games are happy to condense what should feel like an epic confrontation down to a series of quick time events, like the pirate slavery goon squad leaders in Far Cry 3, or perhaps decide to test something totally illogical, like making the Bed of Chaos in Dark Souls a platforming boss. Or what about Fable II, in which you spend the whole game trying to get to your hated nemesis, only to press one button and unceremoniously blow a hole in his head ten minutes from the end, never to be mentioned again?

So bearing that in mind, over the next week or so we’re going to be going over five great boss fights from gaming history, what made them work, what they have to teach us, and where they might just have fumbled too. And to begin with, we’ll begin with something a little…

Hold on, were there any ice puns that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t use up?

 

“MISTER FREEZE,” BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY

Nobody would initially look to the Arkham series for examples of good boss fights. Out of the whole four games and all that DLC, I think I recall only one worth mentioning, maybe two if you count the Scarecrow sections (which I do think are slightly over-praised as a whole).

That boss fight is, of course, the confrontation with frosty foe Mister Freeze, taking place midway through the second game. After an uneasy alliance between him and Batman collapses with all the predictability of the Statue of Liberty in a disaster movie, Freeze seals the doorways with ice and decides to clip this bothersome Bat’s wings. Acting fast, the caped Crusader retreats into the shadows – and the game is suddenly on.

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

This is one of those fights that actually feels like you’re doing the Batman shtick, because Freezey isn’t going to just go down with a sturdy punch to the face. The guy’s surrounded by more metal than the editor of Decibel magazine, and the only thing apparently bigger than all that power armour is the ice-powered proton pack he’s carrying around with him.

So the key is to slink around, staying stealthy, and using all kinds of special tricks to slowly compromise Freeze’s suit until it’s worn down to the point where you can drive your fist through his helmet and take time showing him the true meaning of the phrase “cold snap.” But Victor isn’t exactly going to go along with that, and what makes him genuinely intimidating is the fact that every time you use one of your tactics, he does something to ensure it can’t be used happen again. Leapt up at him through a floor vent? He seals it shut when he realises what’s happening. Power up a generator to mess with his electronics? He’ll break it afterwards. Tried sneaking up behind him? He turns on a jetpack to burn you if you try it again. No gimmick will work twice, so you’d better be playing it smart, and playing it very, very careful.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

Oh, this is good for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, you’re forced to Batman as well as a Batman can. This is the make-or-break moment, where your cunning is suddenly put against an AI who learns from your actions, and it feels tense and exciting in a way that we haven’t encountered since Killer Croc in the first game, and certainly not as well.

In fact, considering you’re usually against thugs who pose about as much threat to you individually as a stale Hobnob, the single figure of Freeze suddenly throws that sense of superiority off-balance, making you feel like you’re the one being hunted. He can follow the warm footprints you leave behind, devastate your health bar in a couple of shots, and even getting close to him feels nerve-wracking, as he scans for a hint of bodily warmth or fires off drones to pinpoint your location. Not to mention the fact that his emotionless, artificial voice and glowing red goggles beneath the misted helmet make him startlingly creepy as an antagonist, even in a series that was usually pretty good at that sort of thing to begin with.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

As crazy as it sounds, I think a bigger environment with some more elements at play wouldn’t have gone amiss, nor would I have objected to seeing him come back in a different location with new tricks later on, considering he’s a great part of the game that’s finished with halfway through the second act.

Also, taking stock of Freeze’s tricks does take a while, but once you’ve worked out everything in your arsenal, he’s not as difficult as you’d think to take him out. The warm footprints can even be used to lure him around into certain traps, and he’s slow enough and loud enough that a clever player can avoid being caught without using their detective vision. Ideally, this would be the moment in which he brings in more drones or throws something new at you, but that never really happens. It’s not so much an error in the fight as the unused potential to be even better.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

A boss fight is not only some culmination of spectacle or the chance to try out a gimmick, it’s the moment where the player’s skills are truly put under the magnifying glass and milked for all they’re worth. There’s so many times where a boss doesn’t seem measurably much more difficult than their collected minions, and you wonder A) how they got to be the boss in the first place, and B) where on earth the challenge is supposed to be if not here.

But Freeze is most certainly the grand exam for the stealth element of the game, testing the player by forcing them to try out every pouch in their utility belt, not to mention stopping them from using the same tricks over and over. He pushes you in every respect, surely the true point of a boss fight?

Well, depends who you ask. I know some games that would Pokemon X. Er, I mean, that would disagree.

 

NEXT TIME: Big, bad and beaky.

TOP TEN GAMES OF 2017

So as gaming goes this was… actually a good year. Not quite bottled lightning with an ice-cream float, but certainly not a jockstrap full of angry and litigious bees either. I think anybody with semi-functional neurones will agree we got the A-grade material in the first six months and all the energy disappeared from the industry post-summer, but half a year is better than nothing, and so are the following games.

 

  1. PREY (2017)

Number ten on this list was tricky, as I found myself torn between three possible candidates, all for different reasons. Would I give a spot on the list to Prey, the Sexy Brutale, or Persona 5? Basically, do I award the bronzest of bronze medals for effort, for ingenuity, or for style? Eventually I settled on Prey by merit of having a dash of both the other qualities as well, not to mention having the balls to homage Bioshock without having to directly rip it off (and you should never rip off Bioshock’s balls, that’s just impolite). Check this one out for its rich science-fiction story, though not for the balancing issues and frequent, often irritating deaths.

  1. NIGHT IN THE WOODS

Despite a monumentally slow start and the occasional hiccup where social drama bumps up awkwardly against thriller horror, Night in the Woods manages to do the one thing that can justify a walking simulator – have an engaging story. And though the protagonist looks like a DeviantArt original character drawn by a talentless fifteen-year-old, Mae turns out NOT to be an infuriating Mary Sue, but a complex and flawed figure who’s worth investing in emotionally, with a journey that’s interesting enough to be worth sticking with even in the feet-dragging sections.

I dropped it a couple of notches for the daily commute and the Guitar Hero bits though. I’d feel like a liar if I didn’t.

  1. RESIDENT EVIL 7

After failing so hard with RE5 and RE6 that Capcom were lucky not to have burnt down their own studios in the process, the team obviously realised that they should take a step back, have a think, and go back to the basics. Big scary house, fumbling protagonist who keeps getting injured, intimidating enemies and the kind of horror that actually has an impact, i.e. getting your hand chainsawed off and having to run around with a bloody stump, trying to nudge the ammo clip into a pistol. And though it loses a bit of faith with its own premise in the last act and would’ve been well-advised to shake off the silly puzzle elements that haunt the series, Resident Evil 7 is one of the most effective big-budget horror games since Alien: Isolation. If you weren’t scared of rednecks even after the Trump election, you will be now.

  1. WEST OF LOATHING

The surprising successor to the free browser game: Kingdom of Loathing, this western comedy game brings a satisfying (if rather unbalanced) turn-based combat system to the table, along with the playing cards, whiskey and the pocketful of spare change that was presumably the budget for the art department. With solid writing that’ll make even the gloomiest cynic snort their drink from time to time – I can raise my hand and vouch for that – West of Loathing is a solid indie game that reminds us that comedy doesn’t have to be Uncharted’s snarkiness or Sunset Overdrive’s unhealthy pop-culture parody obsession.

  1. SUPERHOT VR

Take note, this is how you translate a game into virtual reality – by exploring a core mechanic that’s actually improved by being in virtual reality in the first place. With Superhot’s central idea of slowing down time when you stop moving, that takes on a whole new perspective in VR, as you contort your body into all sorts of bizarre positions to try and avoid the bullets slowly chugging towards you through the air, matrix style. And it means you can pull off all manner of epic tricks that make you feel like a bona-fide badass. Use the motion controllers to gun down a couple of bad guys, throw the empty weapon at a third enemy, snatch the sword he drops out of the air and turn to bisect a fourth enemy on your flank. It’s an experience so mind-bogglingly cathartic and satisfying I practically wanted to have a post-coitus cigarette afterwards.

  1. DARK SOULS 3: THE RINGED CITY

Nobody will be more surprised than me to see two separate DLCs on this list, but there’s really no way of getting around it – they’re both really, really good. After a rather tepid addition to the canon with the Ashes of Ariandel add-on , it seemed like the last chapters of Dark Souls were set to fade away without much excitement… And then The Ringed City changed everything. Beautiful design, thrilling gameplay, hours of material, and a bombastic, incredible conclusion that feels like the most perfect way you could end a series that is in itself about the end of all things – not with a whimper, but with the kind of bang that made my eyes actually widen with amazement when I realised the true implications of what I’d just seen. Well-bloody-played, From Software.

  1. XCOM 2: WAR OF THE CHOSEN

And unlike The Ringed City, this DLC is less of a conclusion and more of a revitalisation. XCOM 2 was a game I found myself less impressed by as time went on, but this is exactly what it needed. A whole new campaign with new characters, missions, mechanics, ideas, and more importantly, three very punchable enemies to center all of our bubbling aggression onto. Nothing will make your heart plummet like seeing one of the cackling, melodramatic Chosen snatch your best soldier and drag him screaming into a portal to be tortured, and nothing will make you want to punch the air like putting a shotgun in that Chosen’s mouth and watching yellow blood spray over the opposite wall when you pull the trigger. Especially the Warlock, that insufferable cu-

  1. CUPHEAD

Newsflash: pretty game looks really pretty. Far less obvious newsflash: pretty game is actually very well made and not just selling itself on looking pretty.

Yes, Cuphead’s 1930s cartoon style is so utterly wonderful and encapsulating that it’s really hard not to start grinning as you watch the newest examples of the artwork bounce energetically into shot, combined with a suitably lively gameplay model that, whilst blisteringly challenging in those last few missions, is never truly unfair and always worth pushing through, just to see what comes next. If you like your tough games as much as I do, this is definitely for you.

  1. ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD

I guess reinvention is the name of the game this year, as franchises worked to improve themselves in new and interesting ways (or worsen themselves, if they’re Shadow of War or Star Wars: Battlefield 2), and Breath of the Wild feels like a good example of that. A well-crafted and delightfully organic form of gameplay, one that’s fine with you going straight to the final boss if you think you’re tough enough, squire. This Zelda game is all about experimentation and discovery, not just discovering the world through exploration but seeing how you can play with the mechanics to have that unique edge in combat. I mean, how many games with axes and trees will actually let you combine the two and actually start playing lumberjack? Surprisingly few, I must say. And if you can drop that tree trunk on a moblin’s head, all the better.

  1. HOLLOW KNIGHT

Newsflash: pretty game looks – oh, wait.

Yes, Hollow Knight is my game of the year for 2017, and quite deservedly so. This cute little mash-up of Metroidvania, Dark Souls, and even Earthworm Jim is a beautiful, bittersweet, bewitching little romp through adversity and triumph, as our diminutive insect hero pioneers across an underground kingdom of bugs laid to waste by a mysterious sickness. Drawn in an elegant, simple style and matched by a sound design that imbues everyone with character even before they start speaking, Hollow Knight may just be one of the best indie games in the last few years.


 

Happy New Year to everybody, and thanks to everyone who enjoys my work here or on other websites. Hopefully next year will bring even better things – but who really trusts hope, anyway?

THE MINI SNES SAGA 3: SUPER MARIO KART – “A GRIM RACE/WAR”

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INTRODUCTION

I had a bad feeling about this one before I even began. See, Mario Kart as a franchise was always one of those slightly dodgy series in my mind, not innately bad but with a few gaping flaws in the formula, like a waterslide which nobody remembered to add water to. I mean, even if you like these games you must be able to see it? Like the fact that dealing with the blue shell is obviously bullshit because there’s no way to defend against it, the way that item distribution means that races become more boring the better you’re doing, and the fact that every installment usually has about two or three fun tracks and the rest are just not worth the effort.

Which isn’t to say they can’t have their charms, only that even the best Mario Kart games come with a string of asterisks so long they look like a constellation map, and some of them have more caveats than they can bear. So yeah, bad feeling overall when coming to the first of the line. I hope to proven wrong.

STORY

There is no story in Super Mario Kart – or any Mario Kart, that I know of – but screw it, I’m going to invent my own. Wealthy, vacuous, airheaded dilettante that she is, Princess Peach decides that she’s grown bored with her rule of the Mushroom Kingdom (and why wouldn’t she be bored, she never does anything but bake cakes) and in a decision born of years of consequence-free living and too much rosé wine, she decides that she’s going to gift the royal crown to whoever can win a series of bloody death races in weaponised vehicles, a la Mad Max via Wacky Races. Meanwhile, Peach herself will retreat in obscene luxury to live in a series of beachside villas and holiday mansions, spending the rest of her life being serviced by moustached gigolos and dead-eyed servants.

Side note, who the hell actually are Princess Peach’s parents? There must’ve been a King and Queen Peach at some point (not including those being Mario’s nicknames for her buttocks), and either they’re still alive and ruling, in which case I feel we should hear about them more often, or they’re dead/abdicated/kept in a living state of torturous hell in one of Bowser’s dungeons, in which case Peach should be an actual Queen, not just a Princess, right?

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Old tracks manage to be just as lethal as the new ones, if less flashy.

Oh, whatever. Her challenge is accepted by over half a dozen lunatics each with their eyes on the nation-spanning prize, and each with their own different motivations. Princess Peach is racing herself, of course, because she needs something to do between her 11.00 AM manicure and 2.00 PM appointment for vacantly staring out of the window, but a series of allies and enemies have also appeared on the starting line. Mario is in the pocket of Big Plumbing and also wants to instigate prima noctae, Luigi hopes to have his brother executed, the lowly Toad wishes to make a communist utopia and massacre the bourgeoisie, Bowser wants a totalitarian state through which he can carefully begin his extermination plan of the Toads themselves (spoiler alert: it’s a frying pan), Yoshi and Donkey Kong Jr. each want to dissolve the governmental system in preparation for a primal, survival-of-the-fittest world where the advantage goes to those with the ability to swallow objects larger than themselves or the ability to throw barrels respectively, and that one measly Koopa Trooper who showed up just wants to create a fair, just state where personal freedoms are balanced equally against sensible legislation to protect the disadvantaged, which may go some way to explaining why he never, ever wins. No, seriously – NEVER.

Now the race is on to see who can claim several thousand square miles of fungus farmland for themselves, as they battle to the death on weaving race tracks covered in more death traps than an Indiana Jones temple, slinging scavenged munitions, old fruit and whatever else they can find at each other until everyone is dead or until the final flag flutters across the burnt, bloody battlefield and somebody can stagger onto the victor’s podium.

Well, then, let the games begin. Ave Imperator Peach, qui nos ad lapsum ariera salutant!  (Which I think translates as “Hail Peach, we who are about to slip on banana skins salute you.” I’m sure the Latin Nazis will leap down my throat if there’s any of it wrong, and I’d like to retort by reminding them they bothered to learn Latin.)

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

Oh boy howdy, I’d forgotten about the visual horror of that period in time where 3D polygons weren’t around yet, but everybody was still trying to do 3D anyway, using 2D sprites arranged on various planes to awkwardly move around each other like the world’s most complicated line dancing routine.

Which is not to say early 3D polygons necessarily looked better (they were usually just as bad, giving the appearance that you were being attacked by origami horrors from the land of the geometry people, see Ocarina of Time for a prime example) but two-and-half-D, as it’s often referred to, comes with its own batch of problems, namely the perspective. Playing 2.5D games makes me feel like somebody stole my glasses and one of my eyeballs to boot, so judging relative distances with any kind of precision is an exercise in futility and optician bills. Judging when to fire your green shell is so inaccurate that you might as well just shoot it into the lava pit straight away and save yourself the bother, and none of the character models feel like they any kind of depth, looking like cutouts wobbling around the track on tiny little Roombas.

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Environments and characters don’t even look especially good for SNES era graphics, missing out on any distinctive style or flair that isn’t eye-gouging.

None of this would be as bad if the actual visual design looked any good, which it doesn’t. Nintendo, what the hell happened to the gorgeous, arresting, and above all else clean style of Super Mario World from the previous year? All the character models look too small for their own good, meaning there aren’t enough pixels for any elegant design, and the landscape is a garish, swirling, weaving vortex of primary colours, like pouring several tons of food colouring into a whirlpool and trying to sail across it without drowning or getting seasick. And though the music’s actually quite good in a chipper sort of way, it’s hard to hear when there’s a sound effect triggered every other second, not to mention the constant hairdryer whine of everybody’s go-kart beetling around the track.

GAMEPLAY

Like I said, I went into Super Mario Kart with a notable sense of unease, but after playing half a dozen matches with a close friend and coming out the other side with a smile on my face, I realised I was having fun! Yes, finally! Maybe I’ll get lucky and have it happen more than three times this year! I already saw that hedgehog get run over on my way back from the cinema, so there’s been two solidly enjoyable days in 2017 already.

Unfortunately a thought occurred and I tried playing Super Mario Kart on my own, and within ten minutes my smile had frozen and warped into a stiff-lipped expression of startled disappointment. Because hanging out with friends is fun all on its own, and Super Mario Kart… well, not so much. After all, it’s basically impossible to review any game objectively when you’ve got the bonds of companionship elevating the overall experience. Having somebody on hand to share the trauma of Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties might’ve lessened the horror considerably, but that doesn’t make it good. Likewise, I used to think that Grand Theft Auto V was fairly solid, up until the point where I played it on my own and realised it was basically a string of loosely-connected rich-kid’s toys strung weakly together by witless humour and low intentions.

But Super Mario Kart isn’t bad in the same way, it’s just kind of dull, with relatively stale track design and items that don’t really have any punch to them. I’m not really angry about this because I know I’m looking at a very old game that’s had years of upgrades and sequels since it came out, but here’s the thing: Nintendo are still charging money right now to play it, so yeah, it has to be judged on how it holds up against other, current games. After all, it’s operating in the same market as those sequels at time of writing, and anybody who’s browsed the retro games section on the Nintendo market has almost certainly felt that sharp intake of breath when they see the slightly outrageous pricing on games from over twenty years ago.

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Aw, split-screen. Remember split-screen? Remember how you could play games with people without having to go online and pay a subscription fee? Good times.

I think the word that best describes Super Mario Kart gameplay is “drunkenly.” Everything feels a bit unwieldy and tends to slide around more than you want it to, probably partly due to the aforementioned perspective problem caused by the graphics tech of the time. I never feel like I’m actually up against the other kart racers, because their AI is so simplistic it could be out-strategised by a patch of dry rot. What you’re actually battling is the controls and simple physics, and that’s not quite the same thing, nor is it necessarily as enjoyable. It feels like I’ve been sabotaged before the race began, having my tires replaced with icy cylinders with all the gripping power of an arthritic seal. As a result, all the items and little shortcuts exist for me not to battle equally with my enemies, but to hamper the other racers long enough to let me catch up, like adding a fat guy to the Olympic 100 metre dash and claiming it’s fair because he’s got a stun gun.

The long and short of it was that once I got a handle on how to compensate for all the sliding around, the game became so insultingly easy that no difficulty increase could compensate. I know that’s like saying “once I became the world’s greatest marksman, all those archery contests were a doddle,” but I’m rubbish at driving games, and the gap between being an inexperienced crap-out and becoming the apparent reincarnation of Schumacher took less than an hour, which coincidentally marked the point at which I found my patience beginning to seriously wane with Super Mario Kart. Because if all the items are boring, and the courses don’t feel meaningfully different, and the challenge was quickly evaporating, and there was nothing else to build up towards because everything’s unlocked from the start, then what was I playing for? When the answer didn’t really provide itself, I realised it was time to stop playing.

CONCLUSION

I still struggle to say Super Mario Kart is bad, because I’m not sure that it is, I just think it’s suffered quite a lot over the passage of time and been surpassed more often than is really good for it. I’d probably be recommending this back in 1992 (you know, if I’d been born), but standards of what to expect from racing games has changed in the quarter-century since then and some things just don’t apply anymore. I’ll give Super Mario Kart this, the more reasonable items and low-tier attacks make it feel like there’s more focus on racing than just pulling the right weapon from random crates, but it’s lacking a certain panache that would definitely come from the later games like Double Dash.

COMPARATIVE RATING: LIKE BUYING A BURGER AND DISCOVERING THAT IT’S GOT ALL THE WORST FILLINGS AND SAUCES, EVEN IF THE MEAT ITSELF IS BASICALLY FINE.

THE MINI SNES SAGA 2: EARTHBOUND REVIEW – “HARDLY DOWN TO EARTH”

INTRODUCTION

I know I hinted at Contra III last week, but I’m still working on Bloodborne DLC and I needed some sort of stress break. Maybe next time, though let’s be fair – maybe not. Probably not.

Instead, I finally carved another meaningful notch into the chipped, paint-flaking bedpost of my gaming knowledge. Earthbound was one of those titles I’d been hearing about for years, spoken about with the reverent tones of somebody discussing a religious event. Fair enough, but I couldn’t help but be a bit baffled by all this rumour, like hearing somebody talk about Bigfoot sightings. I know UnderTale raised the game’s profile in recent years by planting its flag firmly as one of Earthbound’s descendants, and the Mother series does stretch beyond this single game, but it was weird how all I’d heard was the rumour, you know? Almost no memorabilia, no posters, no sign of a wider continuity, none of the things you’d expect to see for a game that was so apparently legendary. Occasionally I’d get the equivalent of a silhouette amongst the trees, such as a cameo in Smash Bros. or a single, Earthbound-themed Amiibo (the second one of which shouldn’t count for much because even the Wii Fit Trainer got a bloody Amiibo), but I still felt I had no idea about what the game was.

Well, now I got my Mini SNES, I finally get to photo Bigfoot myself, so let’s see if people remember it too fondly, or whether they forgot about it too quick. Earthbound, that is, not Bigfoot.

 

STORY

“Oh, goodie, a chance to name my character and all the members of my team,” I thought as the game started. I ended up calling the hero by my own magnificent moniker, because that’s a cheap and easy way to provoke a bit of investment, but then I decided that if this was a role-playing game then I was going to roleplay, namely somebody characterised by poisonous levels of misanthropy. So when it came to labelling Lil’ Joel’s ragtag bunch o’ buddies and harrowed household pets, I named them Slave, Serf, Woman and Dog, not in reference to what I thought they might be called, but to how my absolute bastard of an avatar would be thinking of them. Though just to keep things interesting, those names weren’t assigned to the characters you think they would be.

And then just to make matters better, I got to pick out my character’s favourite food and hobby. Oh, Earthbound, you spoil me! Lil’ Joel’s psychotic tendencies meant a plate of congealed blood was his meal of choice, and what he liked to do in his spare time is best left unmentioned, though it kept the bodily fluids theme going admirably.

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I bet you didn’t think that Grimer could let itself go even more.

So the rough plot starts thusly: whatever your name, you play a small boy in a baseball cap living in small-town America (oh, sorry – I mean small-town Eagleland), who wakes up in the middle of the night when a meteorite lands on the next hill over, and right away I worked out something very peculiar about Earthbound that seems to give it an identity all of its own – it’s genuinely creepy in a way that’s hard to put your finger on, yet doesn’t feel totally intentional, and now I shall have to explain why.

It all comes down to a matter of not feeling quite real enough. The town of Onett feels a little too American, a little overly-emblematic of what it’s supposed to represent, but at the same time doesn’t quite seem to understand the particulars and keeps getting small but important details wrong. It’s almost like being in a sequel to The Stepford Wives, one in which the androids seem to have replaced all the townsfolk except for you and a couple of other people. Sure, everything will seem normal, but then your loving mother will give you a vacant smile and say “Sure thing, sweetie, why not go out sneaking past armed police barriers at two in the morning to find a burning meteorite we don’t know anything about? And better bring your sister’s baseball bat in case you have to defend yourself from the increasingly aggressive townsfolk. Boy, I do love drinking this Ovaltine.” Or look to a scene later on, when you ask the local police chief if you can get past a barricade, whereupon he takes you into a backroom and sets five burly cops on you just to see if you can handle yourself.

Thanks, Officer Crazy. You’re the only one we can depend on to Protect and Serve (me my own teeth).

And when it’s not being weird it’s being downright Lynchian, such as one early scene where your next-door neighbours coldly tell you that your parents have borrowed so much money off them that they’re going bankrupt as a result, and I felt myself squirming uncomfortably as though I’d just found out something that I wasn’t supposed to. It certainly makes the fact that dad just wired me twenty bucks feel a bit awkward, though I’d be buggered if I was going to give it back at that point.

I’ll say now that none of this is bad, far from it. Earthbound’s combination of twee, childish innocence and subtle darker themes is pulled off in a way I’ve rarely seen before, mainly by ensuring that the nasty stuff is kept infrequent and to the background, and as a result it feels like the central group of kids never really understands its significance.

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Er… Hooray?

But the point is we go to see the meteorite, whereupon a bumblebee from the future shows up and tells us that ten years from now the world will be destroyed by a monster named Giygas, and the fact that everybody is getting more and more aggressive is a hint of what’s to come. In order to stop this, you have to go and collect eight funky beats from around the world that’ll apparently mellow out the Lovecraftian horror to the point where he’s just content to groove back to the 8th Dimension without destroying anything. That’s the theory at least, except even though I haven’t beaten the game yet I still get the feeling we might have to personally rap Giygas on the knuckles before this is all over. Call me paranoid, but it’s just this hunch I have.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

I’m sorry to harp on about this, but even here it’s creepy! Whereas last week Megaman X had a whole style and aesthetic to call its own, Earthbound just feels peculiar. Environments look perfectly fine in the forty-five degree perspective, but the characters feel like they’re a few pixels too small for all the detail that the artists want to cram in, and consequently they look distorted and bizarre, such as the people who have three-quarters of their head taken up by a gurning, red-lipped mouth. Hindsight counts for a lot, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the years since Earthbound, it’s to draw character models with neutral expressions, because the audience can impose emotion over the top of that without too much mental strain. But when somebody with aggressive intentions and a fixed smile is advancing on you, it’s scarier than the rednecks in Resident Evil 7. Things improve immeasurably when you go into combat and the sprites have more space to breath, but there’s still elements that feel peculiar and a bit unnerving.

It’s given an extra layer of WTF by the fact that the whole thing feels like it was made by adults channeling the ideas of children, with mixed success. The visuals certainly look like pixel-art recreations of a kid’s drawings, which would certainly explain away all the misaligned facial features and the occasional wonky perspective. And even when it looks good, it has the style of a cartoon, right down to the extraneous features added on that makes it look like something from a Saturday morning show. I’ve no idea why the crows all wear sunglasses or what makes a pogo stick a formidable weapon in the hands of a gang member, but that’s playground logic for you. The day it stands up to proper questioning is the day it stops being what makes it special.

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Ah, the creepy circus at nighttime. What could go murderous? Wrong! I meant wrong. I definitely meant to say… Well, let’s just forget about it for now.

GAMEPLAY

So I walked out of momma’s house with my bat and baseball cap equipped, and immediately saw a little sprite of a snake wriggling towards me. One human/serpent collision later, and I was presented with a battle screen and what appeared to be the usual kind of turn-based combat we’ve all come to expect from early RPGs.

What makes this combat unique is a certain amount of nuance and a pleasantly laissez-faire approach to the whole thing. Taking damage doesn’t immediately take a chunk off your health bar, instead it ticks downwards over a period of time and can be alleviated by ending the fight quickly. Or if you’re up against a weak enemy, there’s an auto-fight button that allows you to slap at the guy in front of you, and reflexively use your healing power when you get into serious trouble. And best of all, if you’re attacked by an enemy so piddlingly pathetic that there’s no challenge whatsoever, Earthbound doesn’t even bother to let the fight start. The enemy automatically dies and you get the measly experience reward and items without having to lift a finger.

This last one is a brilliant idea and one which I really wish had become standard practice in the decades since. Yes, turn-based combat can be fun when done properly (I’ve been playing a lot of Darkest Dungeon over the last few months and so should you), but being set upon by enemies who can’t provide challenge isn’t anything more than busywork. Taking them out of the equation is like having an option in Pokémon Blue that stops you getting abused by cave-dwelling Zubats or all those bloody Tentacool.

(And yes, I know there were repels on sale in every shop you found, but that’s the game just selling you a solution to a problem it created, so shush yo’ mowf.)

But here’s the thing – these are all good ideas for the turn-based combat, but the core combat itself is just sort of… basic. It’s certainly serviceable and given a bit of spice by being quite challenging, but all the stuff above is only methods of alleviating the problems that come with this kind of gameplay. What they aren’t is a unique selling point that captures the imagination or adds a new layer of tactics to the gameplay, like XCOM’s base management, Steamworld: Heist’s ricochet mechanics, or Civilisation’s oddly nuke-happy Mahatma.

And again, I know what everybody’s going to say: the game was invented in the 90’s before the time when turn-based combat had become quite so standardised, and can’t be blamed for being part of the phase that caused that standardisation later; much in the way that you can’t blame Tolkien for every other fantasy writer stealing elements from Lord of the Rings.

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Hello, Mr. Saturn. Is it off to work you go?

And I certainly don’t think less of Earthbound for that fact, but this isn’t the 90’s anymore, and I’m more interested in seeing how these games hold up, especially considering that Nintendo is still charging money for them. The best thing Earthbound has to a defining USP is the fact that you can bring multiple characters into battle, but even then this wasn’t especially new and doesn’t really shake up the gameplay in the way you’d hope.

And while I’m getting comfortable complaining, the game is rather poor at telling things to you that could be very important. Remember earlier how I mentioned that my in-game Pa had wired me twenty bucks? Well, I presumed the way to make more money was to scavenge items from defeated enemies and flog them at the drugstore, because nobody had had told me any different and this was all I had to go on. But this turned out to be a very slow and unreliable method of saving up, because not all enemies drop items and when they do they’re usually not worth squat, as you’d expect for a stale cookie that’s had two previous owners (ew).

But I persevered until I’d scraped together about forty bucks, and went to stick my handful of crumpled bills in the ATM for safe-keeping. So it was only then that I realised that Dad had given me five hundred dollars and neglected to mention it. What?! No wonder the neighbours are bankrupt if we’ve borrowed enough cash to pay Joel Jr. several grand per week! And consequently when I went to buy all the best weapons and armour with my new wealth, my stats made me feel over-levelled, because I’d spent the last two hours kicking snakes to death for handfuls of spare change, not realising that my father was also try to play the role of my sugar daddy (again, ew).

 

CONCLUSION

Looking back over the review, I wonder why I like Earthbound as much as I honestly do, because I’m not entirely sure what it’s done to deserve it. I remember playing it and enjoying it, but now I feel hard-pressed to justify that. If the gameplay was a bit unimaginative, the visuals were janky and they weren’t telling me stuff I need to know, then what on Earth was I getting out of the experience?

It might be because of the difficulty, which became startlingly well-balanced for tension once I got over the initial up-down bump in the road caused by Dad holding out on me. Or it might be because of the item and power rewards, which are varied and palpable and motivate you to keep playing.

Or it might just because of how weird it all is. Yeah, I think that might be it. Even now I’m not entirely sure how much of Earthbound’s surreal, slightly uncomfortable atmosphere is intentional, but I don’t think it really matters, because it’s there regardless and certainly makes it feel different to anything else I’ve played.

In fact, nearly everything that’s wrong with this game is somehow made to work for it, turning the errors and lapses in style into a style all of its own, like a demented, flea-bitten puppy with several chunks taken out of its ears (shout-out to the mysterious dog who wandered over to my table at that moment to inadvertently provide inspiration for that simile, who’s a good boy?). It feels like the kids who starred in the game were the ones making it, and luckily they just happened to be very talented.

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I wanna see the bloody car crash! I wanna see!

So Earthbound gets a recommendation, but I think it’s worth discussing exactly what we can learn from a game that has created this enduring legacy despite everything wrong with it. being viewed poorly by critics at the time, and being the only game in the Mother trilogy to get a Western release, so unconvinced were Nintendo by its ability to stand on its own merits. In this era where the main industry is falling to more rampant homogenisation than ever and companies are stumbling over each other to cram in more brown-haired white guys and sodding loot boxes, how much goodwill does it really buy you? I don’t mean financial success, but how many places in people’s personal Top Ten Lists? How much ‘twoo wuv,’ to quote The Princess Bride?

It’s a tricky question, because being enjoyable isn’t actually synonymous with being memorable, or even interesting. Take Overwatch, for example. Overwatch is fun to play and I wouldn’t ever claim otherwise, but everything unique about it was hammered into the ground in order to force it to be as marketable as possible, with one of the most tedious superhero plots I’ve ever heard (and I’ve read Youngblood) and the vast majority of its characters reduced to maybe two basic ideas at most, and as a result there’s nothing there that has me thinking about it when the match is over. It’s filler, it’s fast food, it’s Modern Family.

By contrast, I can think of some heavily flawed but fascinating games that I would recommend in a heartbeat, and that stay in my thoughts far longer than Blizzard’s polished perpetual profit machine. Sunless Sea, for example. Or Bioshock Infinite. Or Quadrilateral Cowboy, Elite: Dangerous, Papers Please, and, for that matter, Earthbound.

 


8.5/10 

If Calvin and Hobbes made a video game, I suspect it might be a lot like this. Immature, clumsy, patchwork and downright surreal at times, it all somehow comes together and becomes something very special for it. Play it if you get the chance, because you probably won’t find this sort of thing anywhere else.

THE MINI SNES SAGA 1: MEGAMAN X REVIEW – “X-CITING, X-TREME, X-CRUTIATING”

INTRODUCTION

So recently I was fortunate enough to acquire one of those oh-so-unreasonably-rare Mini SNES’s, mainly through a combination of insomnia, cosmic good fortune and the kind of reflexes more commonly associated with professional gunfighters, only a lot less useful/cool.

And it provided me with an interesting opportunity both to see how Nintendo’s back catalogue holds up over twenty years later, but also to see what I missed from the decade that I was born in, the dark era documented in tattered scraps of persevered history as the Nineties. Sure, I remember playing video games as early as four years old, but even by then it was 1998 and the SNES was dutifully making way for the approach of the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation (not to mention whatever the hell Sega was putting out, I think it might’ve been the Saturn).

So most of what I know about the SNES had to be retroactively hunted down in the years hence. I’d played a few of the Mini SNES library before – I not sure you can call yourself a gamer without playing Street Fighter II at least once, and I still consider Super Mario World to be one of the best platformers of all time – but I hadn’t tried all of them, and the one I went to first was something that had slipped me until now: Megaman X. As a matter of fact, I’d never even played a Megaman game before, but certain infamous box covers had led me to believe it concerned the adventures of a wonky, middle-aged man dancing in the middle of a Dubai firefight. Time to see if I was on the money.

 

STORY

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on in Megaman X, because I’m not convinced the game itself is entirely sure. To begin with there’s a rather prolonged Star Wars text crawl that dumps a ton of information on you, most of which I glazed over and forgot within minutes. I was genuinely trying to pay attention and I can usually swallow some of this stuff, but it’s a mish-mash of uninteresting science-fiction ideas on a glaringly ugly background without any humour or pictures to lighten it up.

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“Take that, Mecha-Moleman! My 80’s hair compels you to return to whence you came!”

At some point you’ve seen something like it, either in games or film. IN THE YEAR 20XX MANKIND HAS CREATED WORKING ROBOT SLAVES THAT CAN THINK AND FEEL AND FOR SOME REASON HAVE A LOT OF WEAPONRY AND NO OFF-SWITCH AND THEY MIGHT GO EVIL, AND APPARENTLY ASIMOV’S LAWS OF ROBOTICS ARE PROGRAMMED IN, BUT THEY’RE MORE LIKE PLAINTIVE SUGGESTIONS THAN ANYTHING REALLY CONCRETE, SO I GUESS THE PROGRAMMERS BUGGERED THAT UP ROYAL, AND I’VE MADE THIS NEW ROBOT CALLED “X” THAT NEEDS THIRTY YEARS OF HAVING HIS BALL-BEARINGS TWIDDLED BEFORE HE’S PROPERLY FUNCTIONAL AND NOT EVIL, SO SOMEBODY SET THE TIMER PLEASE SO WE CAN HAVE HIM BLOW STUFF UP WHEN HE’S DONE.

I found this whole concept slightly weird, and more than a little nonsensical, even getting past the robotics and sci-fi laser fighting. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to create artificial, autonomous life that is sentient and can make choices is a perfectly serviceable premise, but I’m not sure it’s much of a choice if “X” has to spend three decades having all the nastiness wired out of his robot brain. You go to all the trouble of building an AI with self-determination, and your first instinct is to try and undo that? And why are they being mass-produced when they could all potentially decide NOT to do whatever we want them to, and just become an enormous problem to be dealt with? Oh, guess what’s happened now.

Whatever, I leapt into the game proper, and then became even more confused, especially when I started going on the internet for clarification. The first thing we get is a rather nifty tutorial stage with X running along a highway blasting robots, but the Wiki page went on about the ruins of a research lab and the enemies being called “Mavericks,” a name which I don’t think I saw anywhere in the game whatsoever. I’m guessing this is all found in a wider continuity from cartoons and manga that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot barge pole on the end of another, longer barge pole. I ain’t reading “Baby’s First Philip K. Dick,” no matter how confused I get.

So I’ll stick to the stuff I did comprehend, like the first mission. X leaps into the fray and bounces through several highways laying waste to various robo-thugs, but then has the bad sense to leap into a supposed-to-lose boss fight with a guy named Sigma, who looks like Shovel Knight got dragged into the Marvel 2099 continuity. Sigma promptly pounds X into the floor and is about to permanently send him to the big blue error screen in the sky, whereupon some ostentatious git named Zero leaps in to save him with the power of his blonde ponytail and 80’s fashion sense. Sigma flees back to his fortress and Zero says, “Blimey, you arsed this up. Maybe we should meet again when you don’t suck quite so much and have another go at this, hmm?”

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X chooses his next target for destruction, much like Agent 47 would…

And that’s the storytelling engine, such as it is. X goes around defeating robot bosses and scavenging their parts to add more weapons onto himself, and one thing I actually really like is that you can tackle the bosses in whatever order you want, which feels like the “X has a choice” concept actually coming into gameplay in some fashion, so good work there. Admittedly the bosses aren’t narratively developed in the slightest beyond an animal theme and some incidental height/weight stats (including the bewildering news that the ten-foot tall metal elephant somehow only weighs seven hundred pounds), but I still want to beat them, because I want to eat their processors from their crumpled chassis, and gain their courage and strength for myself. Besides, once I’m done I’ll get to beat up Sigma properly and show up Zero to be the ponce he is, though spoiler alert: that hair-swishing bastard will still find some way to hog the spotlight, whatever it takes.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

Call me a sucker for well-crafted pixel art, but I really liked how Megaman X looks, with a few X-ceptions. It’s bright and vibrant and colourful in that way that most SNES games are, though at times becomes a bit too much and gets into that slightly garish level that feels like it’s taking the top layer of skin off your pupils (which presumably would be your eyelids).

But this feeling was generally quite rare, and in most cases each location has a good colour scheme that doesn’t feel overly obtrusive, though the artist might’ve eased up on the use of gunmetal colouring. When even the trees have cybernetic parts hanging off them, you might want to ease up a tad on the concept.

That being said, I’m not as enthused about the music, though it’s not bad by any means. As a matter of fact, I went back to listen to it afterwards, and it’s actually fairly solid, if a little unmemorable in that “can’t really hum it” sort of way. But I never really noticed it in-game, for two reasons. First of all, the crazy-stupid difficulty means I’m diverting all the brainpower I have just to keep blasting bots, so there’s nothing left for the music appreciation club, and secondly it’s that X’s charge attack generates a horrible, high-pitched whine that makes me want to turn the volume down and obscures the music anyway. Between combat sections there’s no reason not to have your blaster charged and ready to fire, but you have to deal with the noise of a mosquito in an echo chamber as a result.

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By the power of Greyskull!

Overall Megaman X does come across as rather good-looking even now, sleek and detailed in a way that some artists still struggle to match. In comparison to the games of its time, some of which could barely create an aesthetic tone to begin with, it’s nearly a Da Vinci painting, achieving things the likes of which other titles couldn’t conceive of without limitless ambition and a couple of hallucinogenics.

 

GAMEPLAY

If you’ve played Megaman before, you know the core of what to expect. It’s a 2D platformer in which you are a little bionic Boy Blue who’s had one arm turned into a giant death cannon, because Doctor Light is many things but he never approved of masturbation. You’re teleported into a mission to do what you always do in platformers: keep running to the right and don’t stop until somebody puts you back into the map screen. If something gets in your way, you blast it, and if it drops something that isn’t rapidly flashing red, you pick it up. This particular instalment ups the ante by adding optional powers and the ability to wall-jump from the start, which certainly helps with exploration, but it’s a shame that everything that made Megaman X feel unique at the time has been copied and recopied to death by thousands of other games in the decades since then, sort of like what happened with fantasy books and Lord of the Rings.

But you know what was really stupid of me? The other game I was playing this week was Bloodborne. Jesus, I do myself no favours. I’d get squashed by Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos, and think “this is getting to me, I’ll play some Megaman to cool off.” Then I’d get pummelled into the dirt by that sodding chameleon and think “God damn it, I’ll go and relax with some Bloodborne.” It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking a lot of caffeine, or I think my heart would’ve physically torn itself from my chest in abject rage and frustration.

Yes, Megaman X is hard, and whilst I’m normally OK with that, there are bits of it that come across a bit cheap. Actually, a lot cheap, and that bird boss is somehow the least of it. I think it’s the movement speed that provides the biggest problem. Fighting regular enemies is usually fine, but most of the bosses seem to have been designed for a protagonist about thirty percent faster than X, and with a bit more manoeuvrability; not to mention that they have the agonising tactic of backing you against a wall and forcing you to take damage again as you push through them to escape. And god help you if you decided to play Percy Penguin’s Icy Igloos after all the other levels, because without the dash ability you get there, you’ll really struggle against all those nimble bastards who will try and sit on you if you stop for even a second.

But the idea of armour mods is innately a very cool one. You always get a new weapon at the end of every level, but actual modifications to your core armour and abilities are optional unlockables, hidden throughout certain levels. Some of these are boring (a contextual ability to smash the right kind of brick with your head, snore) but some are a lot more exciting, like the power to charge up your main weapon even more and fire the Curly Purple DNA Helix of Death, which’ll instantly destroy anything that doesn’t get its own theme music. One armour mod even halves all the damage you take, which seems a bit much, especially considering that it’s very, very easy to miss most of these. I hope you’re not scaling the challenge on the assumption that I have all these trinkets, Capcom, because that’s one hell of an assumption to make when you’re hiding the Master Blaster behind an entirely unintuitive path that demands a fiddly pixel-perfect trick jump using an ability the player probably doesn’t have yet, you bastards.

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Take THIS, Lonesome George!

And oddly enough and in contrast to common sense, the difficulty actually goes down as you progress. All the levels, potentially consumed in any order, therefore have to provide the same level of challenge, so whilst they do start off hard eventually you’ll get lucky and come out with a new weapon. Then it’s a matter of finding which of the bosses is vulnerable to that weapon (there’s always one) and finishing him off. Now you have two new weapons, and things are really starting to snowball now. By the time I was picking off the remnants of Sigma’s henchmen, I was just hanging on the edge of a wall and firing homing rockets at anywhere there was room for them. The last level against Sigma himself ramps up the challenge again (partly by being longer than one of those desert super-marathons, and about as physically draining), but it’s still easier than those early missions that’ll slap you around like they’re being paid to do so.

 

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, Megaman X is still good, which is something it should be proud of. It’s certainly aged better than one might’ve hoped, and I think part of the reason for that is the conspicuous absence of the very kind of story I was dreading. The game almost seems to know that its narrative is the most eye-rolling kind of hokum, and as a result I think there’s about a dozen text boxes over the course of the entire thing. Maybe that was the point of the plot dump at the beginning, getting it out of the way so we can enjoy some running-shooting-jumping action.

Because it is enjoyable, and that’s easier to explain. Despite being difficult, the fact you can pick your levels from the start means you’re never stuck in one place, because you can say “sod this” and go kill somebody else halfway across the world. And whilst the core gameplay is almost too simple, the game knows how to drag every scrap of potential out of it that it can, testing the player’s reflexes, strategy and skill all at once and not relenting until you’ve really earnt your robo-killer badge.

So Megaman X is a really solid game both then and now, a little less unique and certainly not world-changing anymore, but neither is The Three Stooges and I won’t tire of eye-poking and nose-tweaking any time soon.

And now I’m done, I’m going to cool my frayed nerves by playing something less challenging. Hmm, how about this… Contra III?

 


8/10 

Megaman X remains a favourite of the era today, and it’s not hard to see why. Now a bit less special but still designed incredibly solidly, the game justifies its teeth-grinding difficulty with a sense of freedom and advancement that’s not easily found in a 2D platformer.

INDIANA JONES AND THE EMPEROR’S TOMB REVIEW – “WORLD’S GREATEST HAT RETRIEVAL SIMULATOR”

You know, it’s games like this which remind me why I like my job, which I’m sure is an opening statement that’ll endear me to nobody. I know that getting paid to play games and write about them sounds about as gruelling as licking the back of your teeth, but anything can lose appeal given time and a sense of obligation. Getting hired to perform creative and passionate lovemaking with the finalists of a Miss America contest on a daily basis would probably be pretty sweet to begin with too, but after six months you’ll have an unavoidable sense of ennui that can only be matched in intensity by the third-degree friction burns on your genitals. Such is life.

But it’s little moments of delighted surprise like this one that help remind me that games are still supposed to be fun, which is easy to forget when you’re only thinking about publishing schedules and what jokes might put you in court for libel. And sure, there’s occasionally a cruel, vengeful glee that can come from writing poison at a game that wasted your brain cells, but that’s still dependent on you playing something crappy beforehand. Remember, you still have to get bitten by the dog before you can enjoy kicking it up the arse in return.

But this here is a really good game that I just want to rant about, partly because it has personal significance to me and partly because it’s pretty damn good. Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb was a PS2 game from 2003 that actually manages to trump the first three Uncharted games in terms of quality. It might trump Nathan Drake’s fourth adventure as well, but I haven’t played that one yet, and I ain’t going to comment on the standards of games I haven’t played, not until IGN are happy to send me a monthly paycheck.

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Indy’s adventure for a lost Chinese gemstone goes relatively unremembered when compared to The Fate of Atlantis or The Infernal Machine.

See, I played The Emperor’s Tomb back when it came out, when I was just a nine-year old kid with a big love for Harrison Ford’s adventuring archaeologist. I had all the films on VHS, I had toys based around excavating worthless plastic trinkets from blocks of clay, and I even got my own bullwhip, which I was very dismayed to learn could NOT be used to wrap around protrusions like a makeshift grappling hook. But my love for all things Indy hung around, so when I saw a few days ago that IJATET was available on Good Old Games and for less money than the average pair of underpants, I double-checked that my threadbare Y-fronts were in no danger of turning into O-fronts during the next week and promptly snapped up this classic, curious to see if it still held up after nearly a decade and a half.

To go into more detail, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is an action-adventure game by LucasArts for the PS2, one that was basically trying take back everything that Lara Croft had co-opted. A world-trekking, swashbuckling, treasure-hunting, Nazi-punching, whip-cracking adventure, in which Indiana Jones is tasked by the Chinese government to find the “Heart of the Dragon,” a mythical black pearl from the Qin dynasty that has the same kind of ancient, vaguely nebulous magic that the Ark of the Covenant would approve of. Needless to say that the Third Reich have also got an interest in having a power level of over nine thousand, so now it’s a race against time as Indy must find the key that’ll open the tomb and allow him to take the pearl himself, either before either Hitler’s goons or a villainous Chinese Triad leader can get their hands on it.

On the surface it certainly sounds like an Indiana Jones plot, and that’s probably the greatest strength of The Emperor’s Tomb – it feels like we’re playing through a hypothetical fifth movie of the franchise, a film that just never made it to the silver screen.

Oh sorry, am I supposed to say it’s the hypothetical fourth movie? I forgot, it’s impossible to refer to this series without making some silly token reference to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being crap. Yeah, welcome to Nerd Culture 101, people. Do you also want me to mention how Aquaman has useless powers, which he doesn’t, or how “Vader” is German for father, which it isn’t?

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In combat every punch feels like it has real weight behind it, and the improvised, unplanned way fights tend to go make them feel wonderfully authentic.

But that’s boring to dwell on when there’s tasty, tasty violence to be discussed. One of the reasons that I feel confident in saying that The Emperor’s Tomb is superior to anything Uncharted could throw at you is that the combat engine is far better than the cover-based tedium that Nathan Drake seems to believe passes as a genuine gunfight. Instead, there’s something wonderfully scrappy and brutal about the way the fighting works here. The world is full of objects that can be picked up and used to clobber your way out of a situation, from a sturdy table leg to a ceremonial spear, and the always-accessible whip allows you to yank the enemy’s weapon out of their own hands for you to pinch, a technique that never fails to be impishly satisfying. And if there’s nothing solid to hit the villains with, you could always just draw your revolver or settle it with your own two fists.

It really is a testament to what a bit of careful character animation can offer to an experience. Indy fights exactly like how he should – like the underdog, using every means possible to overcome whatever forces are stacked against him, and consequently the game is all too happy for you to punch enemies in the balls or kick them when they’re lying down. Another wonderful little detail is that your hat can be knocked off your head if you’re struck in the right way, and you have to manually retrieve it yourself if you don’t want to keep looking at Doctor Jones’ PS2-era Lego man hair. There’s no mechanical reason why you need to get it and you can go on without it just fine, but the trope of retrieving his Fedora after a dangerous escape or fight sequence is such a staple of the series that it’s wonderful to see it become an organic part of the world.

The whole game is careful to keep the movies’ jubilant tone throughout, right to the point where you could understandably accuse it of perhaps not being as creative as it could’ve been. Every level practically has an equivalent moment in the films that you can draw a direct link to, and not just because the game is doing the classic scene transition of drawing red lines on a sepia-tone atlas. You start the story off in a trap-filled jungle temple a la Raiders, then there’s a scene with a rain-soaked Nazi castle straight from The Last Crusade, followed swiftly by some more Raiders when Herr Jackboot brings us to a bustling market city in the desert, then we go stealing from the Temple of Doom for a skirmish in a Chinese city, before we finally bounce back to Raiders one more time for an assault on the secret island base in a Nazi uniform, and we’re not even in act three of the story yet.

I’ll also say that the voice acting is a little dubious. Late actor David Esch has the unenviably tricky task of trying to recreate Harrison Ford’s dry monotone, and I’ll confess that he did a good enough job to make me wonder at first whether it really might be Han Solo in the driver’s seat. But the big problem is that he can’t keep the tone convincing whenever he has to show genuine panic or surprise. Indy’s disinterested cry of “whoa” when a giant crocodile shows up is about as convincing as two children in a tall coat, and the other voice actors can only aspire to that level. The chap playing Von Beck (the one-eyed, blonde-haired, scar-faced, monologuing leader of the Nazis, totes serious) is clearly putting more ham in his performance than the average ploughman’s lunch, a fact made all the more startling by the knowledge that the fella has been in cultural landmarks like Frozen, 24, Lost, and one of my favourite animated shows, The Critic. Though considering he played a European stereotype in that show too, maybe it’s not too hard to see the connection.

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Indy’s adventure leads him from Ceylon, to Prague, then to Istanbul, Shanghai and a dozen other locales – and yet none of it feels especially new.

But I can’t stay pissy at the voice acting for too long, because I’m still riding the high that comes with hearing a faithful adaptation of the original John Williams Raiders’ March over the top of some daring action sequence. I’d leap out of cover, gunning down goons before bringing out the bullwhip and knocking back an enemy with a vicious sting of woven leather. Then before you could say “it belongs in a museum,” I’d snare Fritz’s back-up goon with a swing of said whip and yank him in close for a solid punch to the jaw, cutting off his yells of “schnell, schell, die amerikaner,” and all the while grinning as the theme music bombastically pays tribute. It’s so enthralling that you want to punch the air and just shout out the words “hell, yeah!

But those are moments for combat, and smacking around the Hitler Youth is only half the game, and the other half is puzzles, traps and platforming. And I’ll even give credit to some of the puzzle design, it does have clever elements involved – at least when it’s not cartoonishly easy to decipher. The early stages of the game really do treat you like an idiot, going into a cutscene whenever you enter a new location and having the camera carefully pan over to the solution before you even know that a puzzle is coming up in the first place. With retrospect I’m a little disappointed not see some equivalent of the third movie’s Grail Diary popping up to play around with (another thing that Uncharted and Tomb Raider pinched from the series), but instead we do have competent, though generally unremarkable puzzles that don’t stick with you for very long, connected by climbing around and the occasional secret item hidden behind a waterfall, because there is ALWAYS a secret item hidden behind a waterfall in video games.

I actually managed to beat The Emperor’s Tomb within a couple of days, and this surprised me, eventually coming across as both longer and shorter than I thought. Like I said, the game is choc-a-block-full of colourful locations and backdrops, taking every opportunity it can to yank us to a new location halfway across the globe, but I’ll confess that you’ve had all your A-Grade material once you get past the section at Nazi headquarters. That’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s still twenty-five percent of the campaign to go. It’s not bad, by any means, it’s just… Lesser.

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Any action-adventure game eventually give you a turret section, and The Emperor’s Tomb is no exception to that rule, including at least three moments where you get rooted to the floor and shoot at enemies who are foolish enough to come within a two mile radius.

Frankly, it’s hard to say why it loses steam after that point. Perhaps it’s because Indy gets a weird spinning blade weapon that makes combat less interesting than just slugging dudes. Perhaps it’s because the environments become more enclosed and claustrophobic after that, consequently losing all the wanderlust and majesty you’d hope for in a world-trekking game. Actually, it might just be that the checkpoint system and camera controls are both clearly in league with the Krauts and out to get you, and the last act of the game won’t let you forget it.

I’m not kidding here when I say that this might be the biggest failing of the game overall, something that takes The Emperor’s Tomb down from true greatness to just being really solid. I’d punch my way through a horde of Chinese ghost zombies, swing across a ravine full of hungry crocodiles, duck and weave between the jets of fire shooting out of the walls, at which point the camera would suddenly lurch awkwardly as I tried to do a precision jump between pillars, leaving me suspended in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote. One stream of profanity and a respawn screen later, and I’d find myself back at the entrance of the dungeon with the last fifteen minutes of progress lost to time.

But I suppose it is good for building tension and the desperate urge not to get killed. Trying to out-swim giant crocodiles has honestly never been so nerve-wracking when any of them could appear at any time to go all Lake Placid on your ass, coming with the terrifying knowledge that a couple of errors on your behalf could lose you progress equal to an episode of Frasier. And speaking of which, that Kraken in Istanbul can go and shove a trident up its bum (or whatever else it’s got instead), what with the way it constantly shoots jellyfish minions at you and scores an instant kill if you get in the same postcode as one of its tendrils, but you still need to get close to plant explosives that’ll turn him into calamari, yet the explosives always have more of a range on them than you’d think and can kill you weirdly easily and RAAAAAAAAAAAARRGH DAMN IT.

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The world design generally has good character and atmosphere to it, even if the technical quality wasn’t even impressive back in the mid-2000s.

The more I think about this game, the more I wonder why I like it so much. It certainly has things that are wrong with it – I haven’t even gone into the rail-shooter sequence on the rickshaw – but I think the errors only gall me so much because they distract from the core gameplay, which certainly kicks ass and does so in a series of attractive settings, all backed up by a rocking soundtrack. I guess if I was pushed for one more comment I’d admit that the graphics weren’t especially impressive, even back for 2003, but if you’re willing to shell out on a game that’s nearly fifteen years old then you’re probably not expecting something that’ll tax your computer hardware for that perfect photorealism.

But the other thing that I like about Indiana Jones is that the titular character is still pretty unique, even to this day. Yeah, Lara Croft and Nathan Drake stole the basic idea of looting artefacts for themselves, leaning harder on tiger-fighting and nineties snark respectively, but Indy was always something a bit different than that: a lovable grouch with understandable motives. He’s a little bit cynical and a little bit sceptical, rolling his eyes at every amateur who passes his way and that inevitably gets killed by their own ignorance. Yet at the same time he’s always filled with childish glee at every new discovery and piece of history that unfurls before him, exactly the kind of contradictory character you’d expect from a man who spends half his time in a University library and the other half trying to disable ancient Aztec home security systems.

It’s obvious that I’m going to finish by recommending this game, but I’ll also make an impassioned plea to whatever Disney-brand Overlords that now keep LucasArts as one of their many hoarded trophies, displayed on some mahogany plaque just before Marvel movies and the Muppets. You guys like money, right? Of course you do, that’s why you keep making live-action adaptions of your old movies that do the fashionable post-modern thing of pissing all over the originals. Well, if you want money, make a new Indiana Jones game, a really good one. Not an adaptation of the old films, we’ve seen those before and they already exist via the Lego games. No, make a bouncy, rollicking jamboree of an adventure that could fit anywhere in the original trilogy, where Indy has to punch villains, escape traps, grab treasure and make an exciting escape at the end of it all. The name brand will get you a whole heap of sales to begin with, and the formula does work on both a narrative and gameplay level.

Think about, is all I’m saying. Iron Man has to run out of marketable new suit designs eventually, right?


8/10

A legitimate lost treasure whose strengths have held up very well over time, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is a curious time capsule that pushes past its flaws by doing exactly what you’d want it to do – feel like an Indiana Jones film. Combat is punchy (pun not intended), puzzles are decent and hearing the whip-crack echo out over the Raider’s March is still a nostalgia trip to rival any globe-trotting adventurer.