Sunday, November 04, 2007

Virtual Console Review - October 29

Short update for the blog: I've considered making a change to the VC review format. For the current week's releases, I'll still try to publish a single post. For the older reviews - say, the games from July 16 - I think I'll just post an essay on the single games. As I've often written, I actually sit down and play through the games I write about; sometimes only enough to jog my memories and see if old opinions are still valid, and sometimes because I'm playing a game for the first time. So I'll be posting on games whenever I best can manage.

Oh, and be sure to play outdoors, kids. Try and appreciate this weather before Mother Nature starts seriously smacking us around. Here, I'm wearing shorts. In November. In Minnesota.

The Virtual Console games for October 29 all fit into the Halloween theme - Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest (NES); Samurai Ghost (TG-16); and Magician Lord (Neo-Geo). There were rumors that Lucasarts' Zombies Ate My Neighbors would be released this week, but that hasn't happened. I'd expect to see it in the near future (and it's a really fun game, btw). Overall impressions? Another mixed week. One great game out of three for me. Let's look on...

Samurai Ghost - Hudson for Turbografx-16 - 4/10

Yuck. Ugh. Do you know that feeling you have when you wake up in the morning, that stale, swampy feeling in your mouth? Eww. That's the one. You can either get it by poor eating habits, drinking yourself stupid, or playing this dumb game. Choose your poison.

There's a reason why the Turbografx failed to gain any traction in the West, despite a hardware console that was comparable to Sega's Genesis. Too many of the games stunk. A few gems, yes. An undiscovered classic here and there, of course. But most of the games in the library were stinkers.

Samurai Ghost is one example of those sort of games that tried to sit on the cutting edge of graphics, only to be upended before the ink was dry. It appeared first as an arcade title, where I'm sure a few kids and teenagers were successfully conned out of their lunch money. At least in the arcades, you could play something that offered bigger, brighter, and more varied graphics than in the home. Was there much depth to most of these coin-op games? Not much. The only real purpose is to take away your quarters at a steady clip, all while offering just enough entertainment value to justify another play.

The video games in the home, naturally, were aimed at different goals. The focus there was on long-term gameplay, a more thourough experience. More depth. The Legend of Zelda, for instance, would never work in a video arcade. That's the archetype for the home consoles.

Samurai Ghost firmly fits into the first category. It's a very basic side-scrolling platformer, where you control some sort of samurai zombie, or something. I really don't know who or what he's supposed to be. Is he dead? Living? Did he time-travel from the past? Or did he just come from the poor neighborhoods? Hard to tell. In any case, this character sure don't look good.

Like a lot of the more mediocre arcade and Turbo games from this period, the game itself is embarassingly basic. You really just walk along a straight path, left to right. There might be some jumping on floating platforms here and there, but for the most part you're taking a stroll. The complex, complicated level designs from the late-era NES hits, classics like Super Mario Bros 3, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania 3, the Mega Man games, and so on, are far superior to something like this. Those games had to rely upon more challenging ideas to keep kids from drifting away, moving up the ladder to those exciting, new 16-bit machines. The old Nintendo was showing its age, but it had experience, and this was the key.

Too many early 16-bit games felt more like technology experiments than proper games. How large should character sprites be? How should levels be designed? How are background graphics handled? Should new controller or gameplay ideas be introduced? There are no schools to learn any of this. It's all touchy-feely, learned on the spot, evolving in the brush. The end result is that you get stuck with a sloppy clunker like Samurai Ghost, while all the other kids are barreling through Ninja Gaiden 2. Don't you feel like a chump.

Now here's the real issue with this game, and it's probably going to be the one thing it's remembered for. The samurai...ghost...zombie...heck, what should we call this guy? Let's call him Doug. When Doug swings that big-ass sword he carries, his arms move in this strange, disjointed fashion. It's very creepy and strange, and not in that Halloween way. And it's not very effective.

There a normal way a game character throws a sword. Then there's this method, where the limbs are completely disjointed from each other, that make you think Doug has broken all the bones in both his arms. How else to explain this? I can't imagine any kid showing this game off to his friends without feeling embarrassed. High school's tough enough as it is. He doesn't need to be piled on.

So Doug can't move a sword without looking weird. The problem, also, is that it's very slow, not very good at hitting anything. What's the point to this? What are you supposed to do against some skeleton warrior with his own sword? Take your licks, that's what. Just mash buttons and hope Doug gets his act together. Can't he just head-butt his foes instead? He's wearing that stupid pointy hat, fer crying out loud.

Magician Lord - ADK for Neo-Geo - 4/10

Ah, Magician Lord. Here's another example of the early show-me-off-to-your-friends kind of game. It was the early visual standout for the Neo-Geo, both as an arcade game and as a rediculously expensive home game. Fantastic use of colors, vibrant and bold, striking across the whole palette - this is a terrific plate of eye candy, and time hasn't taken any of that away. Yes, Magician Lord looks amazing. Too bad you'll never get to see any of it.

Everything I ever wrote about Hudson's Samurai Ghost on the Turbo can be applied here. Actually, you'll want to add in a regular series of stomach punches, as some kid bigger than you demands that you cough up your lunch money. Yeah, you might as well just count that money as a loss right now. It's gone.

Remember, again, folks, the first rule of all coin-operated games. Take your spare change every 60 seconds. That is their reason for being, and that's all. Video arcades never held any phony pretenses of artistic greatness, or communicating great thoughts, or touching the human spirit like movies or music of books. All such platitudes were complete and total bullshit. This isn't about art. It's about money. Yours.

Many of the best video arcades empowered you enough to learn, and eventually you could play Pac-Man and Asteroids and Afterburner forever on a single quarter. This made the arcade operators raving fits, of course. It's all fun on our end of the deal, but where the hell is the damn money? Every skilled gamer is stealing from the arcades that are trying to steal from the rookie gamers, you see.

So you can appreciate why a game like Magician Lord comes along. It's the perfect money maker. It looks terrific, and presents a colorful fantasy world of trees and aliens and wizards and ninjas. It suckers the kids in, even the experts who can beat anything for under a buck. Then it clonks them over the head with a mallet and runs off with the cash. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

It's one thing to say that Magician Lord is very hard. It's quite another to say it's damned impossible. It's yet another to say the gameplay is completely, utterly broken, and there's no way in hell you'll last longer than a minute before your game is over. And it's all deliberate. These software designers know better. They've made some good games over the years (ADK is best known for the World Heroes series of fighters). So why is this game so completely impossible? Why can' t you get more than ten steps without being overwhelmed at all sides? Why do the boss battles place you in suicide scenarios, where you cannot ever win without popping in more and more credits?

It's all a scam, people. A damned money-making scam. All that's needed are some political candidates and an informercial at 3:00 a.m.

Now here's where things get really interesting for Nintendo Wii owners. While the arcade game is built around unlimited continues (as long as you lay your money down), Virtual Console only offers a limited number of continues for Neo-Geo games. This really wasn't an issue for the fighters, in my opinion. It's a deal-breaker here. What this means is that you'll be shelling out far more than you'll ever get back in return. Most of this game will forever remain a mystery to you. And there's nothing you get to do about it.

I keep telling myself that Neo-Geo is a good platform. There have been many good games made for it. I'm wondering just when we'll be seeing some of 'em.

Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest - Konami for NES - 10/10
Hooray! Everybody has a number of classic games that they wait eagerly for. They buy themselves a couple Wii Classic Controllers just for the occasion. Well, folks, here's mine.

A little backstory for everyone first. As a teenager, Castlevania was my favorite videogame series. This was sometimes contested by Super Mario and Contra and Ninja Gaiden, but it always came back to this. It was also a favorite with many of my oldest friends from Duluth, Minnesota. If you were sick of the winter weather that day - and, kids, this was back in the day when we actually had winters...back when we had polar ice caps - just turn on the Nintendo, then turn it off, then turn it on and off again, then pull out the cartridge and blow on the ends, then pop it back in, turn it on....and start playing.

Um, yeah, by the way? If you ever find the person who actually designed the NES, please punch him in the stomach for me. Anyway, let's get back...

Castlevania! It's part gothic, part monster movie, part serious, part jokey, and all hardcore gamer fun. These were the tough games, the ones you blistered your fingers trying to beat. Just how are you supposed to get through all those armored knights? Slash, slash, jump, that's how. You have to be fast, too. This becomes something of a bonding experience for everyone involved. Many grownups assumed that one person is playing, and all the friends are merely watching, but that's not the case. We're all in this together. Castlevania's the prime example in my case.

Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest was my favorite NES game. It still is. Played it to death through high school, at least until we all got to that point where were were all hopelessly stuck. This is a fiendishly tough game. Like many Nintendo games of its day, it's more of an adventure quest than an arcade game. Blaster Master, Rygar, Zelda, Guardian Legend - just a few titles off the top of my head. The NES couldn't compete on the graphics front, so developers resorted to deep, lengthy adventures instead. It was the smarter choice, I think. This is why I often lament the poor choice in Virtual Console titles for the NES. Some of its best games have never been bettered, because technology enabled software makers to take a simpler route.
I've discovered over the years that Simon's Quest has a mixed reputation because of this. Many gamers prefer the straighforward action of the original Castlevania, and they felt Konami strayed from their roots. As it turns out, everyone has it completely backward. The long-running series began, not with Castlevania (or Demon Castle Dracula, as it's known in Japan), but as Vampire Killer on the MSX computer. The game was an adventure game, using single screens instead of a scrolling environment. The settings were identical to the first Castlevania, only with different arrangements and a more adventure-minded style.

There's actually a bit of dispute about this, since Vampire Killer and the Castlevania we all know both appeared within weeks of each other. You could say that this was the stripped-down version, created due to the MSX's scrolling limitations. However, Symphony of the Night challenges all that. Now, the Castlevania series follows in the mold of MSX Vampire Killer and NES Simon's Quest.

In any case, it's far easier to appreciate Simon's Quest today, after all the post-Symphony titles in the series. I can't imagine what any fan would find wanting. There's just as much to fight and just as many enemies to kill. Only now you're fighting through the forests and villages of Transylvania, and stuggling to figure out where all those other castles are hiding.

For me, this was the greatest thing about Simon's Quest - it's atmosphere. There's such a wonderful Bavarian style to these lands, to the designs of the towns, the way everything is build with those damn stone blocks. It was the most compelling and believable game world I had seen up to that point. People walking by are always eager to offer advice or hints; I was floored when I discovered that most of what these people have to say is, frankly, bullshit. Ahem.

This is a great sendup of all those adventure and role-playing games in which every civilian has some key piece of information that's useful only to you, and only at that moment. It's all so contrived. Konami clearly felt so, and they decided to mess with our heads. This is a great game for messing with heads. You can explore most of the countryside, find such things as flames for your morning star, or secret books, or crystal balls. But you'll be damned if you can ever get beyond that first castle. Dracula's first castle is a gimmie, it's right out on the main road. The others are deftly hidden away. It took me and my peer group years to finally figure it out.

Sure, you boast that you won't get stumped. Then again, you can just go online and look at the solutions at gamefaqs. Heck, most major games have cheat books that walk you by the hand all the way through. You have an easy out. Kind of defeats the whole point of playing an adventure game, I would argue. We didn't have those options in the late '80s. The solution to discovering Dracula's second castle relied upon a gameplay maneuver that wasn't even revealed in the instruction book. You were just expected to solve it yourself. You kids today are coddled.

If you can somehow withhold the temptation to reach for those easy cheats, you'll really see how challenging and mysterious Simon's Quest truly is. Like most adventure games, and most riddles, it loses a degree of mystique once the secret is revealed, so it's far more rewarding to struggle and sweat it out by yourselves. I don't even want you reading the Simon's Quest strategy guide I wrote for the first issue of V, my old zine. No! Bad toad! Bad toad!

Like all the classic Castlevanias (meaning, frankly, all the ones before Symphony), this game is deeply challenging without ever feeling unfair. You're never placed into an impossible situation, nor left underpowered against foes. It's a brilliant example of game design from the NES era, just as it's a perfect example of Konami's skill. This series may have long since lost its lustre, but back then, the NES days? Konami were the kings back then, baby. They were the kings.

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