Monday, February 25, 2008

Did You Make Contact?

Contact is one of the most underrated games of this generation. For example, Nintendo Power gave it a 6.5, but can you really expect them to rank a unique title that wasn't published or developed by Nintendo? gave it a 6.7. gave it a B+ (that's their new rating system, I think they gave it around an "8" in the magazine... ) I'm not sure why most mainstream reviewers didn't appreciate this complex and enjoyable game.

The battle system is similar to World of Warcraft (which you probably don't play or you wouldn't have time to be reading this post) or Final Fantasy 12 minus the gambits and fancy colors. It has a subtle job system, with 8 or 9 jobs that do different things (magic, knife expert, strong attacker, etc).

A major problem with the game, however, is the MP system. You have 5 magic points, and they only refill after you kill monsters. Basically, you never have that much magic at your disposal. The gameplay is still solid, but this one major gripe can't be ignored.

There are plenty of secrets and sidequests, but the game won't tell you where they are. the player really has to just find them, but, nonetheless, the game combinds a unique linear quality with a haphazard openess that really works well. There are plenty of sidequests. The game boast a ridiculous amount of items, and collecting them all would be a major challenge (granted there is no reward for this task, but its nice to have the option of having all of those items). This makes the game seem very spacious and roomy while playing the game normally. This will also ensure that every game will be different.

This is further developed with a variety of stats. Every action alters your stats. Kill a shopkeeper, and you become a little more evil. Kill a monster, and you become more good. Sometimes, killing good enemies will be the easiest, and most direct, way to victory... This balance make the game very interesting to play. You can even get a girlfriend based on your alignment, items, and other stats.

The music is just as good as you might expect it to be. It's extremely catchy, and very well-composed. One song, in particular (the airbase) has one of (if not) the best song ever, in a video game.

The best part of the game is that you are not the boy on the bottom screne, but his puppetmaster. Using the Professor (usually on the top screen)'s help and the use of a device known as the Nintendo DS, you control Terry in order to recover power cells stolen from the Professor. The game brings you inside other video games, and games within those games as well. It will make you question the very nature of gaming itself with a brutal final monolouge that rivals the greatest writers in history, okay you're not buying it, and I got a little carried away, but Contact seriously has those things (sort of) and magic stickers, and a cow more powerful than the final boss (only after you beat the game), and tons of weapons and items, etc.

It's a shame Contact didn't get as much attention as it should have. Maybe gamers know, however, because on launch day I drove to 7 stores in town that had sold out in the last 30 minutes before final finding the last copy at an EBgames. I really think this will be the definitive cult classic of the DS, something of a Lufia II or Legacy of the Wizard for the DS.

So, I ask you: Did you make Contact? If so leave your Friend Code in reply section, I never got around to exploring the multiplayer aspect, and it looks interesting. You unlock a strange new island (WiFi Island) with NPCs of your friends. These automaton programs give you extra, powerful, items. It could have been better, but I was happy to see the inclusion of some multiplayer, and it even adds a decent degree of interest to the single player campaign. Hopefully, we'll be able to make Contact on the DS again, if they ever release a Contact 2.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Faxanadu is a side-scrolling action adventure game. You play as an unnamed elf on a quest to kick ass and save the World Tree (a mythic Tree from Norse mythology. In Faxanadu, however, the tree has been somewhat redesigned from its mythical counterpart, essentially acting as a giant world, home to both the elves and dwarves). After a long journey you return to your hometown at the base of the World Tree to find that shit has gone horribly wrong. Everything is dead and dying, monsters ravage town, and villagers blink faster than their mouths move (probably lead poisoning).

The King of the Elves gives you 1500 gold and tells you to fix everything. So you buy a knife and some potions, a key to get out of town, and start smacking around some monsters. As you proceed in your journey, you'll discover more powerful weapons and armor, eventually becoming a full-plate clad knight with the legendary Dragon Slayer sword (I'm assuming it's literally supposed to be the same sword as the Dragon Slayer from Legacy of the Wizard, considering both games are in the same series; while mostly irrelevant, is pretty interesting). Equipment was done very well in Faxanadu, sometimes you find an upgrade, sometimes you have to buy it. The game spaces them out evenly across the entire sprawling epic. You might get a new sword in this town, or a new magic spell outside the next dungeon. The Magic was done very well, because there were no useless spells. All spells act as a projectile, and simply get stronger (and consume more mana) as the game progresses.

The game has some of the best graphics on the NES. It has a nice earthy palate, which is consist throughout the entire game, and actually makes sense because you are inside of a giant tree. Character sprites are even more amazing, with good animation and proportions. There are also a lot of nice touch in Faxanadu: you sometimes walk behind columns and branches, adding perspective to the game. One level has fog that makes it hard to see (but not too hard). Your equipment changes your appearance. Spells have unique animations. Overall, the game is well polished.

The developers were very intent on producing a mood throughout the game, as evidenced in each level's design. You start in a town (the biggest in the game) and run around in an area that is half outside-half inside the World Tree. This is its base. After solving the mystery of the magic springs, you'll proceed into a locked good on the outside of the tree, which leads to the mist-covered inside. Fungus grows on the wall, and giant squids fly around. Haunting, off tune music will make you want to speed your way through this section. When your business is finished here, you will encounter the World of Branch, and finally, if persistent, you might find your way into the dwarf king's fortress.

The music is Faxanadu fails to live up to its potential. An encouraging melody plays when you die, urging you not to "have negative thoughts." The mist world is eerie, and the other areas have equally well-composed tunes. The only downside, is that the music sound very privative. Unlike other NES games that really push the hardware, Faxanadu feels somewhat weak. The melodies are all kicking, but that sound too rough, too beep-ish and boop-ish. It's hard to describe. It's almost as if the composer knew a lot about music, but not a lot about making 8-Bit digital music. In all fairness, I did listen to the music for the entire game (rather than creating my own soundtrack, as I am sure we have all done from time to time). It's quite good, but obviously flawed.

The World Tree also has dozens of houses scattered about, some are in towns, but you will meet several hermits that prefer life away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities. Abandoned castles require exploring. Monsters require slaying. You will meet plenty of colorful characters on your journey, but be prepared to search hard for some of the secrets.

The monster AI is one of the only problems in the game. All of the monsters are dumb as hell. None of them move like a real monster would, and they act completely unaware of their surrounding. Honestly, they seem like lemmings. Lure one towards a cliff, and he will gladly jump off of it. In addition, the monster palates are limited to blue, orange, or tan. There might be a few more, but I found the monster colors to be lacking (compare this to Legacy of the Wizard, or even Zelda 2, where monsters have palette-swapped versions). Combat is still fun and challenging, requiring the player to memorize enemy patterns and figure out the way to most effectively rid the world of your foes.

Faxanadu even has a level-up system revolving around monsters and "gurus." If you kill enough monsters, and then speak to a guru, he might raise your level. Level does not affect gameplay except for 2 important aspects. First, the wing boots will not last as long. This is not a big deal, because later in the game you only need to wing boots for about 5 seconds. Second, when you die, you restart with a set amount of gold based on your level (or "rank," as the game calls it). This just flat out rocks, because, sometimes, you can die to get free money. Gurus also act as save points, giving you a mantra (password) and returning you to life if you die. The password system sucks, but for some reason every North American developer thought they were awesome. A save battery would have been nice, but password systems do have some benefits (easily de-coded, weird effects, etc).

Faxanadu also has a cool key system, where you have to buy keys that match certain doors. The doors re-lock after you use a key, and the key disappears. If you die, you'll have wasted precious gold. This makes the stakes even higher inside a dungeon. You really won't want to die, and that extra level of difficulty has a way of pushing one to the top of his/her game.

There is a hell of a lot going on in Faxanadu. I spent about three days playing through this game. I had never beaten it before, and it was nice to finish a game that I had always heard a lot about, but never really got into it. Once I got to the first dungeon, I was hooked. I wanted to know more about this strange, post-apocalyptic world and its residents. I wanted to explore the World Tree, and fix the problems. Faxanadu has a way of really pulling you into the game, through its atmosphere, artistic direction (which is very consistent, although not mind-blowing), and addictive gameplay. I'd easily recommend this game to anyone.

It's an amazing feeling when you are traveling through the castle where the laws of space, time, and geometry do not apply. You might not even realize you've stumbled into the Final Boss's room until your sword is swinging, and you are downing red potions. Faxanadu proves that flawed game can still be outstanding. For all of its shortcomings, it offers an incredible amount of high-quality gameplay. No matter how long you spend playing Faxanadu, not a second of it will be wasted.

What Faxanadu really needs, however, is a Virtual Console release. Considering it was developed by Hudson, I'd say we have a good change at seeing this game released for 5 bucks within the next year. But I wouldn't wait that long... play Faxanadu today if at all possible.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Blazing Lazers

About 17 years ago my friend had this weird video game system with games that looked like credit cards. One of the two games he had was a space shooter that blew my mind. It was years ahead of the time, in music, graphics, and fun factor (a term used by Nintendo Power in the ancient days). That game was Blazing Lazers (the other was, ironically, Bonk's Revenge).

Years went by, and I forgot the name of the game. Eventually, after a good bit of search forums and the internet, I found the titles. I didn't really have an opportunity to play Blazing Lazers, however, until, you guessed it, the virtual console. This was actually the first virtual console game I purchased.

Blazing Lazers is a vertical-scrolling space shooter, and it was made in 1989. It embodies everything that is great about shmups, and is essential for any fan of the genre. In addition, it offers a good entrance into the world of shmups if you've never played one before. You fly through space, collecting power-ups. You have four different weapons, and which type of power-up you collect determines your weapon (there is a shread-shot, lazer, wave beam, and circling orbs, each labeled with a roman numeral). In addition, you have secondary power-ups that grant you special abilities (Gradius-style multiple, homing missiles, shield, and "full power," each labeled with a letter). You collect an extra life if you earn 25,000 points.

Each level is broken into 2 parts, with a boss at the end of each part. One annoyance is that if you die, you must restart the half-stage over, although power=ups are so common you never suffer from "Gradius Gaiden Syndrome" (a situation that occurs in some shmups: restart right before a difficult area with no power-ups, meaning that one death usually results in a GAME OVER eventually). There are so many power-ups that you will be dodging the ones you don't want more than worrying about when the next one will appear. There are no speed power-ups, the player can press "select" at any time to adjust their speed. Finally, there are these pink orbs: collect enough of them and your weapon will upgrade, in addition to upgrading your mini-shield. This works in addition to collecting the power-ups within your current progressions (main weapon and secondary, the roman numerals and letters, respectively), and comes as a welcome addition.

Another aspect you might notice is that your ship is huge compared to modern shooters. Ikaruga and Gradius V each have extremely small hit boxes (the former having a 1-pixel hit box!), but the game is balanced around your clunky ship, so it's never really a problem. In addition, regular weapons will provide you with a side-shield (not as good as the shield power-up).

The Turbo Grafx 16 bragged about how "Turbo Charged" their console was, and part of this game is Hudson making good on their word. The game reaches the insane intensity of modern shooters. Enemies and bullets are everywhere, power-ups are everywhere, techno music pumps up the intensity (the game has some amazing tracks, don't be surprised if Blazing Lazers remixes find their way onto your playlist), vicious boss fights, and brutal difficulty (each can be overcome with a little practice). Hudson made one hell of a great game.

Blazing Lazers is just as good as contemporary shooters, and should not be passed up by any fan of the genre. Here is a protip: weapon III (the Lazer, or as the game calls it, "Shield Thunder") is by far the best weapon. The secondary power-ups are more balanced, but, generally I find the F ("full power") to be the most effective. With nine levels, double the boss fights, great music, a $6 price tag, and plenty of turbo-charged raw power... you've got to ask yourself: "why the hell am I not playing Blazing Lazers right now?"

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Dynastic Hero

The Dynastic Hero is a game that, for me at least, never appeared on the radar until (very) recently. Thanks again to the Wii’s VC for bringing this game into the spotlight once more.

It was released on the TG-16 CD, making it a 16-Bit game with the benefit of CD storage. The results are incredible. Awesome Redbook audio tracks, anime intro and ending movies, and other details I’ll get into shortly.

But damn, allow me a minute to freak out about how awesome this game is (before more objective-ish opinions). It’s just so fucking cool. It’s the type of game that you can play for 6 hours forget to eat, pass out from low blood-sugar, wake up, and keep playing without moving or thinking twice. It’s the kind of game that might make you say “Fuck! This game is cool… Fuck!” It’s the type of game you might obsesses about all day at work, because you can’t play it. It certainly inspired me to write up a 1000 word article on it for no good reason other than the game kicks ass. It kicks so much ass that the ass it kicks takes names and then kicks ass. Alright, I think it’s mostly out of my system… we can continue. I fucking love this game.

As far as the gameplay goes, it’s very similar to Dragon’s Curse, Super Metroid, or other Metroidvanias. You play as Dyna, The Dynastic Hero (named after the Hercules beetle’s scientific name, and dressed in armor resembling said beetle), trying to restore peace to a quiet little kingdom. Collect items, save towns, access new areas, learn spells and wield them in battle, recruit townspeople (and townsbugs) to help you on your quest, and have a great time doing it all. You’ll need to collect lots of gold to buy all the items, which requires a very small amount of grinding once or twice (which is good, as it adds a slight RPG feel). There are secrets abound, and good luck finding them all. Eventually, you will access an ancient portal, and journey to a castle in the sky where a prehistoric evil awaits your righteous wrath.

The Dynastic Hero is another clear example of a game that does everything right. Controls, music, graphics. The game is eye-and-ear candy, which is the ideal synestetic experience, and part of the reason video games are such an amazing medium. The game is simple to control, addictive, and combat is well-balanced, but challenging. Your sword has a very short reach, which requires you to actively participate in battle, rather than just mindlessly swiping your sword and running along. Finally, the game does something I love, which is kick your ass at times. I definitely met my death quota in this game, without becoming frustrated. You learn not to rush around, take your time, and fight each enemy with as much skill as you can muster.

The game wasn’t always about a little beetle-boy trying to save a princess; it was Wonder Boy in Monster World (for the Genesis/Megadrive), the 5th game in the Wonder Boy series, and probably the best. The Wonder Boy games have a convoluted history, resulting from Hudson owning the Wonder Boy code, and Sega owning the characters.

The differences include (but are not necessarily limited to):

  1. The Music. WB5 uses Genesis midi sound, whereas Dynastic Hero uses redbook audio. In addition, the songs are completely different (not just remixes), and much, much better in The Dynastic Hero. If you are an audiophile, The Dynastic Hero is obviously the way to go.
  2. The Graphics. WB5 has a parallax-scrolling background, and The Dynastic Hero does not. I suspect this was done for stylistic reasons, to make the game appear more like a painting, but there is no way to know for sure. In addition, the colors are much richer and brighter in The Dynastic Hero, thanks to the improved TG-16 palette. I wish The Dynastic hero had that parallax background, but alas.
  3. The Characters and Names. WB5 has a generic fantasy-themed world. The Dynastic Hero has a generic fantasy-themed world with insect characters. I do find the insects charming: a praying mantis throwing scythes? Wicked.
  4. The Text Boxes. The Dynastic Hero is capable of displaying 5 lines of text, while WB5 can only display 3. A minor difference, to be sure, however, I find the 5 lines of text to look much classier, and read easier.
  5. Intro, Ending, and Story. As previously mentioned, The Dynastic Hero has an anime intro with a cheesy J-pop song, the stories are different as a result, which is pretty expected.

Overall, I think The Dynastic Hero is a much better option, given that both games cost 800 Wii points in America. If you are in Japan, defiantly go with The Dynastic Hero, because it’s only 600 points in the land of the rising sun. It does take up quite a bit of space (around 200 blocks) because of the CD Audio… so it’s your call.

I had a really great time with this game, and I played it on my lunch break for about 2 weeks before finishing it one Saturday with my girlfriend. We sat on the couch and insisted we would only play for “15 more minutes…” But, one dungeon turned into 4 dungeons and before I knew it I was at the sky castle. And with the entire Kingdom depending upon me, I just couldn’t quit. So, if you like action adventure rpgs The Dynastic Hero is a great choice. Just be thankful you don’t have to shell out the 350 bucks for the hardcopy anymore… The Dynastic Hero is one of the rarest and most valuable video games of all time, and 8 dollars is a steal.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Doukutsu Monogatari: Cave Story

Cave Story is the tale of an silent, amnesiac robot fighting, discovering, and ultimately overcoming his past. I just discovered the game about a month ago, but apparently I was late to the game. Cave Story was released in 2004, with an English translation patch released in 2005.

The game plays like Metroid, with different controls. You explore non-linear areas, look for treasure, fight bad guys, discover secrets, etc. What sets Cave Story apart, however, is arguably the story (which I won't spoil, I'll just say the plot is detailed, makes perfect sense, and really does a great job of creating realistic characters).

Plus, Cave Story has some of the most inspired 8-Bit music I've ever heard. The music inspired a group of remixers to remix the entire soundtrack: find the remix album here. Which is pretty impressive because this game is freeware. You heard me, freeware. One guy (artist name "Pixel") programmed and designed the entire project, by himself, over 5 years. I'm completely impressed that someone would have the dedication to make something this inspired, and then just give it away to the world. Squirming in your computer chair with excitement? Fine, here's the Cave Story English Fan Page. You'll find the game and the English translation patch.

I said the story was what set Cave Story apart from other video games... but that's not quite right. It's not the story, it's the combination of story, beautiful 8-Bit Graphics (with the kick ass PC pallet), unique weapons, perfect controls, atmosphere, and music. Cave Story just does so many things right.

I'm always hesitant to call a game perfect... but it's hard to say how Cave Story could conceivably be improved (other than an expanded map, but that could be said of any adventure game, so it isn't really a valid criticism).

Quote (the little guy from the screen shots), will certainly have a permanent place in my memory. I've already started my second Cave Story game. Cave Story surpasses most commercial games. It's a testament to truly brilliant game design.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bonk's Revenge First Impressions

I purchased Bonk's Revenge for the virtual console this morning, and have been hopping and bopping for an hour. I am surprised at how many unique "actions" fill Bonk's repertoire: Your teeth can grip on soft surfaces, allowing you to climb, you can spin in the air to perform a "feather fall" Plus, there are plenty of environmental interactions. Tons of unique enemies. Butterflies and snowflakes fall from the sky.

Which leads me to another point: the Turbo Grafx... what the hell happened? Such a great system, with so much potential. It has an impressive library, and was huge in Japan... unfortunately it never really caught on in the States.

It's interesting to note that while it has more power, the game design still reflects the time period. Bonk's Revenge plays like an NES game, but you get a nicer package all around with the expanded palette and obvious lack of sprite flickering. The framerate is also impressive, as all the animations are smooth.

Bonk's Revenge is a great way to spend 600 Wii points (or a great reason to buy a Turbo Grafx 16...). I can remember playing this game at my friends house (along with Blazing Lazers) over 15 years ago. It's great to be able to re-evaluate the game and see that the game I remember is indeed awesome.

I'll post more impressions on the game as I get further into it. I just received my first game over on the Stage 3 boss... so it's back to the mammoth graveyard and snow fields for me.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lifting the Dragon's Curse

Yesterday I beat Dragon's Curse. The final scene transpired exactly how a good video game should: my jaw was clinched and my hands gripped the wiimote. The last dragon was a sword swipe away from death, but only a half-heart of life separated me from a game over screen. All or nothing, baby. I slew the dragon, and the precious Salamander Cross was finally mine. Victory was never sweeter.

Listen to me when I say Go. Play. This. Game. With a 6 buck price-tag on the virtual console, there is little excuse not to treat yourself to this gem. You deserve it.

Gameplay rundown: fight boss, get transformed into a monster. Rinse, repeat. Over the course of your journey you will be transformed into a lizard, mouse, piranha, tiger, and, finally, a hawk. Each form provides you with a special power/ability, which will allow you to access a new area of the map. It's pretty standard metroidvania stuff, but considering metroidvanias have never really been a huge market, it comes as a welcome addition to the all-too-small "niche genre."

An interesting fact about this game, is that it was originally a Wonder Boy title. The Wonder Boy series is confusing, convoluted, and amazing (I'll be sure to cover the entire series in a future post). As Wonder Boy, it was released on the Sega Master System and Game Gear, but for the Turbo Grafx 16 port they changed the characters up a bit, and left us with Dragon's Curse. No worries, however, Dragon's Curse has improved graphics, and no sprite flicker.

I've always been a fan of the side-scrolling adventure. The genre embodies all of the cool aspects of video games. You have Mario-style platforming, but without the hop-and-bop. Instead you're given a sword, spells, and plenty of abilities. Throw in a grander scale than Mario, longer levels, non-linear gameplay, better music (well, debatable)... and these aspects come together in an amazing way, that provides the "epic" quality of RPGs; giving the player a goal, and watching as the goal treks progressively closer, while cutting out the menu-based non-action in favor of real-time battles.