Of Course I’m Playing the New Zelda

It should surprise nobody that knows me to learn that I have been playing a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. To put it simply, the game is good. Very good. I love it, like I have loved nearly every Zelda game. My opinions might change with some time between me and the game, but right now it is everything I love about video games.

I haven’t finished the game. In fact, I’ve just finished the third dungeon, which seems to be close to the midway point of the game. The most notable aspect of the game, and the part I am most able to speak on with only half of the game behind me is the controls. I’m sure you’ve heard of the game’s intensive swordplay. It is everything you were hoping it could be. Normal enemies are no longer just mooks you bash once or twice and go on about your business. The are actual obstacles, they aren’t exactly difficult but they do require some thought. Or you can usually avoid them. The choice, at least outside of the dungeons, is left to the players. Fighting them can net you items and rupies, but it could also very well get you killed. On the plus side, it is also a lot of fun to smack enemies around with your sword. It just feels so natural and cathartic.

Another plus for the game is that this version of Hyrule, though I do not believe it is yet called that, is possibly the most imaginative Nintendo has come up with. Skyloft is easily my favorite city to run around. Yes, even better than Clock Town from Majora’s Mask. The NPC’s are probably the most likable bunch I’ve seen in a game. Nintendo does more to characterize them with little sound bite when you talk to them than most games do with hours of dialogue. The only disappointment is Fi, Link’s Navi stand-in companion.  But Groose and this version of Zelda are both fantastic.  As are some lesser characters like the eager Pipit.  And the games cuddly in the daytime/ferocious at night cat stand-in Remlits are wonderful.  The whole world just feels so full of life.  It is wonderful.

Right now I can do nothing but gush over the game. It manages to shake up the series with plenty of new stuff; the stamina meter, enemy drops to gather for upgrades, new circle menu’s for items, a limited space pouch, while managing to not change the core feeling of playing a Zelda game. Even more amazingly, nearly all those changes are improvements.

Video Game Archaeology: Big Sky Trooper

It is time for more Video Game Archaeology! Video Game Archaeology is my monthly exploration of an artifact video game found during my excavations of various bargain bins and yard sales; an examination of a game cast off and long forgotten. This month’s game is Big Sky Trooper, an adventure/RPG from Lucasarts through JVC.

Honestly, I did not play this game as much as I did the previous entries; I probably did not play it enough for a fair assessment. The cause of this is twofold. First, my used cartridge is defective or just old and no longer holds a save. So any sort of sustained play is nearly impossible. Unfortunately, Big Sky Trooper is a big game, so I wasn’t able to see very much of it at all. I could have left my SNES on day and night to try to make progress, but that is not good on the machine. Or I could have downloaded a ROM and emulated the game on my computer (I strive to play these games in their natural habitat) but I didn’t. Which brings me to my second reason for not playing the game enough: I do not like Big Sky Trooper at all. Me and this game just did not click. Maybe if I had made more progress I would have come around, but the first hour or so put me off pretty thoroughly. I quit after an hour wholly bored with the experience. When I turned it on later to find no save waiting for me, I gritted my teeth and played that first hour again. I could not force myself to play it a third time. I started this feature to find obscure gems and “secret classics” (which are a thing I just made up). I know I would more than likely play many bad games looking for one that was legitimately good, but I take no pleasure in trashing a game, especially when in all reality I’ve barely played it. I did play it enough to get a general idea of what he game entails, though.

The fact that the game is from Lucasarts gave me hope that it would be good. Though they were best known for their PC games, in the early 90’s Lucasarts put out some phenomenal games. It was published by JVC, the company behind VHS tapes. They seem to have mostly published Lucasarts’ console games of the time, like Defenders of Dynatron City and the Super Star Wars games. Though it came out in the tail end of 1995, one would be forgiven for thinking this was an SNES launch title. The graphic do little to push the hardware. The game looks simple and cartoony, but not at all attractive. It’s just sort of charm-less kiddy looking fare.

After choosing a gender, the player is given a series of “tests” by a larger than life military commander who literally bursts out of the TV set on screen. The game seems to be striving for a Starship Troopers like tone, a satire, but the whole thing falls flat. Slugs are taking over the universe and the player, randomly drafted by the apparently incompetent military to lead the charge. The player is given control of a dog shaped ship called the Dire Wolf and controlled by a dog like AI. You are given a mission to reach a planet, seen on a map that shows several dots for planets, but you can’t just move straight to your goal. You must stop at each planet in between and eradicate the slugs. And before you can land on the planet, you mist play a crappy version of Asteroids to clear the path to the surface. The Asteroids clone is baffling. It is not a bad idea, but it is a really bad version of Asteroids. Your ship is huge on the screen and moves ponderously. I never failed to destroy the enemy ships, but that didn’t make those sections anything but annoying.

On the surface you shoot slugs with what appears to be a taser and ostensibly solve puzzles, though the only one I solved was simply standing on a switch to open a door. I assume the game becomes more complicated, but the first hour is dull and tedious. When you meet your contact, she tells you to go look for something else, again several planets away. So you must repeat the same tedium. I see from a map of the game world off Gamefaqs that the map eventually gets bigger, but that only implies increased tedium to me.

The world, the toothless attempts at satire and the graphics and the attempts at what I am guessing is humor, all fall flat. The gameplay is neither complex nor satisfying. It could easily get better after the first couple of hours. Maybe the gameplay options open up, maybe there are puzzles worthy of Zelda, maybe the writing hits is stride, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to stay to find out. The SNES has a library of great games, even some classics that I have not yet played (Super Star Wars for instance), I cannot justify spending any more time with a game that provides so little entertainment.

Thoughts on Lost in Shadow

After beating Sin & Punishment — on easy, if you must know — I started up several Wii games to see what would grab me. After trying out Epic Mickey, Muramasa and Cursed Mountain, all games I plan to return to, I finally decided to stick with Lost in Shadow.

Lost in Shadow is a 2D platformer from Hudson. It is hard not to compare it to the likes of Ico, if only due to the aural and visual similarities, but they have wholly different gameplay goals. It tries very, very hard to capture the ethereal moodiness of Ico and it succeeds fairly well. It is certainly more “gamey” than Ico is, being split into levels and tracking experience points, but what is loses in cohesion it makes up for in mechanics. Ico is a singular experience that eschews many video game conventions, like HUDs and separated levels. It is in many ways a more direct adventure game. Lost in Shadow takes the look and feel of Ico, but marries it to a more traditional video game set up. It actually plays very much like a 16-bit action/platformer. Which is absolutely a good thing.

You play as a shadow separated from its body, a la Peter Pan, and must traverse a castle to reunite with it. Being a shadow, your avatar can only travel along other shadows. So you must manipulate objects in the physical foreground to make paths in the shadowy background. It makes for some ingenious fun. The levels tend, at least in the early going, to be short, but they all have a satisfying puzzle at their heart.

One gameplay area Lost in Shadow does seem to take its cues from Ico is in the combat. Though how fun it was is debatable, when you fought in Ico it got across the feeling of being a small boy fighting with a stick. The shadow also swings his sword with little skill. It is hard to judge and ungainly, but perfectly responsive. The combat is slow and nowhere near as interesting as the puzzles are. Hopefully it stays a secondary concern ans doesn’t overwhelm the good parts of the game.

I am only about 35% through Lost in Shadow, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly so far. There is still plenty of time for it to screw up, but as long as it doesn’t go meat circus* stupid it should still be a pretty good game.

*The Meat Circus is the final stage in the seminal Psychonauts and is damn near unplayable. It is both stupidly hard and seemingly designed for a moveset the player doesn’t have. It nearly ruins one of the best games of the PS2 generation.

Video Game Archaeology: Rocket: Robot on Wheels

It is time for more Video Game Archaeology! Video Game Archaeology is my monthly exploration of an artifact video game found during my excavations of various bargain bins and yard sales; an examination of a game cast off and long forgotten. Featured this month is the Nintendo 64 game Rocket: Robot on Wheels.

Rocket: Robot on Wheels is the story of a robot that must save his owners theme park by defeating the devious raccoon mascot (actually mascot’s sidekick) and retrieving all of the tickets he had stolen. Yes, Rocket is that specialty of the N64: the collect-a-thon platformer. Here is have to be completely honest, while I recognize that that they are wholly out of favor I never really soured on collect-a-thons. I don’t necessarily love all the games in the genre, but I still like many of them. I played Banjo-Kazooie in the last year and still loved it. And I really liked Rocket as well.

A collect-a-thon, for those to whom God was merciful and were spared the eye-searing N64/PS1 days, is a game that focuses primarily on collecting various doodads and baubles. In older games, the goal was usually to reach the end of a stage or to defeat a boss, but in a collect-a-thon the levels are generally large playgrounds and the goal is to find all the crap hidden in a level. While you can trace the roots of this nonsense back to the 16-bit era (see: all the crap to collect in DC2), collect-a-thons really got their start with Mario 64.

Mario 64 set the tone for N64 platformers. Instead of linear levels like the 2D games, Mario 64 gives the player large, relatively open levels with 5 or so stars to find in each of them. Other than coins, that is all there really is to collect. Other developers saw Mario 64 and thought, “if kids like collecting stars so much we’ll give them 500 things to collect.” Then they did so.

Pocket is a perfect example of the collect-a-thon. In each of the 8 stages, which are somewhat cleverly attractions at an actual theme park, the player must collect 15 tickets. While most of the tickets are cleverly hidden or earned from completing actual tasks, there are at least 2 in each stage that you receive as rewards for collecting other things. In each stage, there are 200 gears, which are used to upgrade some of Rocket’s skills but mostly just there, so one of the tickets can be a reward for finding all 200. Also in each stage is a machine that must be repaired. To repair it you need to find the 6 pieces of it scattered about the stage. Doing so opens up some previously unavailable sections of the stage and nets you the immediate reward of a ticket. The extra collectables are mostly unnecessary. They pad a game that is already plenty long and is otherwise really fun.

Collect-a-thons do not hinge on the collecting but on the obstacles between the player and the doodad. In this area, Rocket is quite good. While not all the challenges are particularly fun, one that is not is an annoying dolphin ride, most of them are well done. At least through the first 3 or 4 stages, which is all the further I got. Rocket’s most effective tool is his electric tether. It is used, thanks to his stylish lack of arms, to grab and throw objects. It is also used as a grappling hook, a la Bionic Commando or Metroid. Unfortunately, it is severely underutilized in that capacity.

There are some flaws. One is the camera, the bane of nearly every N64 game. The camera is quite simply terrible. It seems to purposefully plant itself at the worst possible angle and fights strenuously to keep you from positioning it somewhere useful. Half of the challenge in this game is getting the camera to a place where you can see what you are doing.

Another problem, I wouldn’t quite call it a flaw because it is clearly supposed to be integral to the game’s identity, is the curios momentum and physics in the game. The world of Rocket feels somewhat like the ice stage from every game ever. Rocket is called the “Robot on Wheels,” so having him roll around seems right even if it takes quite a bit of getting used to at the beginning. It works with the physics of his tether. When your primary weapon is tossing things, how they move is an important part of the game. In Rocket things just seem to not stop when they should. If you throw something, it will bounce around for an improbable amount of time. It is different from other games and in this case, I say that is a bad thing. The physics in Rocket make me want to play a different game.

Rocket is impressive as the maiden effort of developer Sucker Punch, the company that would go on to make the Sly Cooper series and the Infamous series. There is a lot that feels like rough draft Sly Cooper in this game. It has a similar style and a very familiar raccoon character. I would say that the first Sly Cooper game is notably less ambitious than Rocket, though it is the better game. Sucker Punch displays a tendency to cram a wide variety of gameplay styles in their games, like various vehicles and the like, but keeping most of them true to the general feel of the game.

One more interesting tidbit is the fact that right up until just before its release this game was titled Sprocket, but they had to change the name due to legal threats from Hanna Barbara, the owners of The Jetsons and apparently the word sprocket.

For those with fond memories of the N64, Rocket: Robot on Wheels is definitely worth a look. While I’m not about to put it up there with the best of N64’s titles, it definitely belongs in that second rung. Would say it is just a small notch below Banjo-Kazooie, the second best platformer on the system. This is exactly the sort of hidden gem I hope to uncover in these excursions.

Once More I Walk this Dangerous Path

Arrgh! Etrian Odyssey! Again!

Don’t get me wrong, I love Etrian Odyssey. However, I would guess that even the series’ most ardent fans (a group I generally consider myself a part of) would agree that frustration is a large part of the series’ charm. Etrian Odyssey is never easy but it is rarely unfair. It gives the player a set of tools, a goal and an obstacle then leaves them alone. Continue reading

Top 20 SNES Songs

My week long celebration of the SNES’s 20th needs more than just three short posts, so I am going to supplement that with a pair of quick, but well considered, Top 20 lists.

This first one is a list of my 20 favorite pieces of music from SNES games. I have limited it to no more than 2 from any one game and no more than 3 from any one series to keep me from filling it with just Zelda and Chrono Trigger tracks. I am sure there are plenty of songs that I’m forgetting, and you can yell at me about them in the comments section, but here are the ones I didn’t forget:


20:  Stickerbrush Symphony – Donkey Kong Country 2.  I may not like the game that much, but the music is tits.

19:  Dedede’s Theme – Kirby Super Star.  I had to have Kirby on here, and Green Greens is too easy

18:  Fillmore – ActRaiser.  I haven’t played the game enough, but it sounds great.

17:  Dark World – Legend of Zelda:  A Link to the Past.  Why did I put this so low?  Because I forgot it until just before I was finished.

16: Brinstar (red soil) – Super Metriod.  Too goddamn great.  Perfectly moody.

15:  Big Blue – F-Zero.  Listen to it, I don’t need to add anything.

14: Storm Eagle – Mega Man X.  Mega Man always had great music, the SNES changed nothing about that.

13: Red Wings – Final Fantasy 2.  Take that Imperial March.

12: Leave Time for Love – Secret of Mana.  Secret of Mana is obligatory.  I like this one.

11: Memories of Green – Chrono Trigger.  You could replace this with any other song on the Chrono Trigger Soundtrack, save one.

10:  Buy Something Will Ya! – Earthbound.  Earthbound’s music is as idiosyncratic as the rest of the game.

9: Title Theme – Super Mario World.  I love it all, let’s just start with this one.

8: Lower Norfair – Super Metriod.  Even if the game wasn’t nearly perfect, this would make it worth playing.

7: Celes – Final Fantasy 3.  I recognize their cheesiness, but I love the opera scene and Celes suicide a lot.

6: Simon’s Theme – Super Castlevania 4.  There is no more perfect fit of game and music.

5:  Spark Mandrill – Mega Man X.  Best 16-bit butt rock? I think so.

4: Boy Meets Girl – Earthbound.  Simply perfect.

3: Hyrule Field – Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

2: Clash on the Big Bridge – Final Fantasy 5.

1: Frog’s Theme – Chrono Trigger.

Yeah, that’s it.  This list already turned into much more work than I expected.  Tomorrow I should have something more substantial.

A Super Friend Turns 20

August 23 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Super Nintendo. This is a source of much celebration and rejoicing for right-minded people as the SNES is probably the best video games system ever released. It is also going to be the source of a week’s worth of celebratory posts on this blog.

AS much as I love the NES, I have to say that my favorite video game console is the SNES. As its name suggests, the Super Nintendo is simply a more powerful Nintendo Entertainment System. While there were a few different kinds of games for the system — like the 3D Star Fox and arguably Mode 7 racers like F-Zero, though they had NES precedents — most of the games for the SNES were fundamentally similar to those on the NES. Developers, however, had learned much in the six or so years since the NES first appeared. With the added power, they were ready to perfect the kinds of games popularized on the NES. SNES games looked better, sounded better, and played better. They were just more polished and expansive and just plain better in nearly every way than NES games. Compare Metroid to Super Metroid or The Legend of Zelda to A Link to the Past. (You could also compare Super Mario World to any of the NES Mario games, but that point is debatable.)

Better than Super Mario Bros. 3

Since the SNES was the last popular primarily 2D console (I said popular Saturn fans who only theoretically exist) it was the last time 2D games were the recipients of attention and dollars from publishers. After the SNES, 2D games were primarily throwbacks or fan-games, or the SNES’s second coming as the GBA/DS. This is why the SNES is 2D perfected; there was never anyone to make these games better than they were on the SNES. And while the SNES’s library isn’t particularly large, it is very top heavy. There are a disproportionate number of great games for the system.

Other than the games, the SNES also had maybe the greatest controller ever created. Nintendo has a way with controllers. Even their ugliest monstrosity (N64) works well in practice. The SNES controller is perfect in its simplicity. Instead of 2 face buttons, the SNES has 4, cleverly spaced and half convex, half concave for easy sightless button recognition. It also introduced the now essential shoulder buttons, which now are used as triggers for shooters but then were there to keep from gimping Street Fighter 2. For 2D games, there is nothing better than the SNES pad.

God's controller

The system itself was not as sleek as the controller was. It did fix the NES’s greatest flaw, the easily broken VCR-like sliding deck, but it looked very boxy, like a toy. The look of the system did not do it any favors in its competition with the Sega Genesis. In the battle between these two 16-bit titans, Sega tried to brand itself as the cool video game console. With claims of “Blast Processing,” a noticeably sleeker console and coups like blood in Mortal Kombat this perception was widely cemented. Sega’s success seems to have worked against it in the long run, though. Nowadays the Genesis is mostly remembered for fake “Blast Processing” and Sonic the Hedgehog. It is tempting to say that Nintendo let their games do their talking, Sonic may be facing some harsh critical reevaluations but Mario World is still widely regarded as a classic. But it is easy to remember that Mario did not beat Sonic back then, Donkey Kong Country did, with its “cool” digitized graphics. And Nintendo was hardly sitting quietly, it is just that their attempts to encourage players to Play it Loud were not so successful.

What could be cooler?

In the end, the SNES was not quite the cultural touchstone that the NES was. It faced stiffer competition from the Sega Genesis and mostly just built off the success of its predecessor. But the SNES was released at the perfect time to catch my attention and there are just so many great games that I could never love another console as much. So this week is going to be dedicated to my boxy friend sitting in the cabinet under the TV, growing ever yellower in its old age. This week I think I will Play it Loud, and I hope you will too. Or you could wait until the week that is actually the anniversary, but that doesn’t work with my blogging schedule.

Comfort Games

Everyone knows about comfort foods; the foods you love for the nostalgia or convenience, for their just downright comforting nature. While there are definitely cultural indicators about exactly what food an individual considers comfort food; what your mother (or whoever did the cooking in you childhood home) cooked most often or best is likely to be one of them. My mom makes some great chili, but that is beside the point of this post. My thoughts are about comfort games.

I have found that, like food, there are games that have certain emotional effects. It is not all nostalgia, but that is a certainly a major influence. This is the case for the NES Mega Man games and River City Ransom. However, there are quite a few games that I never played as a child that I would call a comfort game. Games like Harvest Moon or the Dragon Quest series.

Comfort games don’t necessarily overlap with ones favorite games, at least not entirely. Liking the game is definitely essential. I do like all the games I’ve previously mentioned, but they are not necessarily my favorites. But I find comfort games to be relaxing, or … comforting, and that is not necessarily true for some of my favorite games. I love the Persona games and Etrian Odyssey, but I don’t consider them comfort games. They are too challenging, too hostile. They are actively trying to defeat the player, while most of the games I put in this entirely-made-up-by-me-just-now category tend to fall more in the sandbox style, giving the player a world to explore but letting them choose their own pace.

The games that I most often use as comfort games are Mega Man 2 and 3. While they definitely fall into the category of challenging, though I would say not quite hostile, I have played them so many times at this point that I know the games back to front. The stage choosing options always give the option for some kind of challenge, but these are games that I know. This is definitely a nostalgia pick, Mega Man was my childhood. When I think of how a 2D action game should play, I think of Mega Man. No game quite makes me feel at home like Mega Man 3.

One that I did not play until later that fits is Harvest Moon. Specifically Harvest Moon 64, which I played long after I had a Gamecube. It is a nostalgic throwback to a way of life I have never known, but the rote completion of daily tasks I find to be perfectly relaxing. Harvest Moon gets away with subverting something nearly every other game does. Most games let you do something you couldn’t in real life, like fight aliens or play professional football, but that given the option you most likely would. Harvest Moon has player do task that they would most likely balk at in real life. Harvest Moon is just perfectly “homey.”

Last but not least is Mr. Driller. Though it plays like an old-school arcade game, Mr. Driller is not actually that old. But I find it to be very relaxing. There is a certain element of repetition in comfort games. They don’t require perfect concentration, just a vague, relaxed awareness. If I was expecting to get high scores in Mr. Driller I would need to focus, but just playing the game is good enough. I can zone out and just relax.

Those are 3 (okay, really 4) games that I would call comfort games. Does anyone else have any? Any games that are purely relaxing or remind you of home? Has anyone else thought about this in a more considered or articulate fashion? Tell me what games are comfort games for you.

Doctor, We have to Operate!

I’m seeing a trend in gaming of fewer and fewer games being released that I actually care about. The does not mean I don’t still play video games, though, because I totally do. Lately I’ve been playing Trauma Team, the latest and perhaps last entry in Atlus’s Trauma Center series. So far, I’ve cleared what feels like about half of the game. I like it. It is very “anime” in a not terribly good way, but it’s largely enjoyable

The Trauma Center games were part of that all too brief time period when the new control options provided by the DS and Wii resulted in a flood of new kinds of games and new takes on old kinds of games. The Trauma Center games were similar in some ways to the mini-game collections that have clogged up the Wii’s library, but filtered through old arcade sensibilities. You play as a doctor and each medical procedure is a simple action using the DS stylus or the Wii remote. The presentation of the small, bite-sized actions is what set Trauma Center apart, with numerous small parts connected in one large operation. It did a great job of approximating the feeling of actually operating. (I assume, since I’m no doctor.)

Despite some mechanical similarities to mini-game fests, Trauma Center played more like an old-school arcade game. The games emphasized playing for score and they were hard, brutally so in the way that quarter hungry from the 80’s were. It really gets that one more try mentality down. You always want to try the next operation or retry the last one for a better score.

Thinking about it now, it greatly resembles Guitar Hero. They both have non-traditional controls, prominent scoring and essential non-violent game play. Sadly, Guitar Hero was a phenomenon and Trauma Center barely a blip. Maybe that just proves that Rock stars are inherently cooler than Doctors are. Of course, even Guitar Hero seems to have run its course now. The all too brief days of non-violent games has already ended, if it ever existed. Now it is back to all violence all the time.

Trauma Team feels like the last gasp of the series. The previous games’ uber-difficulty has been neutered, hidden away in bonus difficulties safe from casual eyes. I can’t fault them for that, the earlier games bordered on sadistic. There are new diagnosis and forensics modes have no pressure and no score, playing like somewhat less charming Phoenix Wright cases. A worthy evolution of the hospital milieu or a betrayal of the arcade-ish roots? I side with the former but there is a certain case for the latter, slim though it is.

The story side has always been where the games shined or faltered. Trauma Team claims to turn the focus away from the sci-fi super viruses of previous games, but I’m not sure it fulfills this even in the time I’ve been playing. The cast includes a superhero doctor, ninja doctor and Vader-masked convict doctor, as well as an annoying robot buddy for the grizzled Dr. House stand-in. It doesn’t border on ridiculous, it choke slams ridiculous off a skyscraper. But I like it and I’m scared I won’t get to play any more games like this for a long time.

Video Game Archaeology 3: Tsugunai: Atonement

Tsugunai: Atonement is probably one of newest games that will be covered here on Video Game Archaeology. The goal here is to explore forgotten, old games and Tsugunai only barely qualifies as old. Ten years was my intended cut off point and Tsugunai is not quite there. However, Tsugunai meets the other criteria, that the game be forgotten or at least not well known, no question. Even though it is only from the last console generation, Tsugunai: Atonement seems to have been well and truly forgotten.
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