Friday, May 30, 2014

Something's Fishy: The Snow Bros. Localization

The Gay Gamer's Bryan Ochalla recently reviewed a quartet of games for the original black and white GameBoy, including the handheld port of one of my personal favorites, Snow Bros. For those of you who missed it, Snow Bros. is an arcade title released by Toaplan in the early 1990s, and likely the best Bubble Bobble game not actually named Bubble Bobble. As the name suggests, Snow Bros. gives the familiar fixed screen gameplay a chilly twist. As pudgy snowmen Nick and Tom, you'll first pack enemies (which often bear an eerie resemblance to a Muppet Al Molinaro) in massive snowballs, then send them rolling across the screen into other nasties. Nailing all the creatures with a single snowball is immensely difficult but hugely rewarding, earning you a feast in sushi.

Well, it does in Japan, anyway. The arcade version of Snow Bros. and its incredibly faithful Genesis counterpart (released only in that country and Europe) still let Nick and Tom nosh on tuna rolls and temaki. However, when Capcom released the game in the United States for the NES and GameBoy, the raw fish and seaweed were changed into something more palatable to an American audience. Observe!

On the left is the original Japanese version of Snow Bros. Jr., designed by the mysterious Naxat Soft. You'll notice a hand roll to the left of the monkey, and assorted bits of sushi just above him. On the right is the American version of the game, localized by Capcom. Near the top of the screen are two new prizes, a doughnut and a piece of hard candy. 

There's one other difference in the US version of the game that's worth mentioning. Both titles have a password that appears on the bottom right corner of the screen. However, the American version of the game gives that password its own screen, stuck between stages. The Japanese version of Snow Bros. Jr. just scrolls the old stage off the screen once you've cleared it of enemies, much like the arcade game did. I guess I understand the purpose of the password screen, but just between you, me, and the Internet, I think it's jarring and unnecessary, putting the brakes on an already sluggish port.

Here's a similar comparison on Nintendo's 8-bit console. On the left side is the Famicom version of Snow Bros., with sushi as the bonus prizes. On the right, the NES version, with a lollipop. The change isn't significant enough to make this competent conversion any less fun to play, but it does lose a little of its original, uh, flavor.

Just for the sake of self-indulgence, here's a picture from the Genesis version of Snow Bros. Although not quite up to par with the arcade game visually, its improvements over the NES and especially the Game Boy versions are not insignificant!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Your Better Half: Persona 3 Portable

I mentioned Shin Megami Tensei in a couple of other posts, but I've never really sat down and played one of the games in the series. I mean one of the real games, not spin-offs like Raidou Kuzunoha vs. Whatever Creepy Thing He's Fighting or Persona 4 Arena or that silly platformer on the Virtual Boy. Recently, I decided that it was about time that changed, and picked up a copy of Persona 3 Portable, offered for five dollars along with a handful of other Atlus games in a recent PSN sale.

That was a wise investment.

Gosh, that'd be swell! You think we could go
steady? Maybe we could hang out at the
malt shop and get an egg creme...
(Image courtesy of
To be honest, I wasn't convinced of that at first. After an introductory sequence with teenagers sticking guns to their heads (and I'll talk about this later in the post, because it warrants further discussion), I was treated to a visual novel about some high school student's dull adventures on and off campus. You sit through lectures by self-absorbed teachers, listen to idle gossip from other students ("Ooh, senpai is so dreamy!" Oh, shut up...), and hang out at the mall. It's not exactly a white-knuckle thrill ride.

However, a funny thing happens a couple of hours after the game begins. You discover that there's a mysterious time just after midnight (no, not Fourth Meal), when dangerous shadows roam the city and most of the populace sleeps peacefully in coffins. You're one of the "lucky" ones who remains awake during the Dark Hour, which means it's your job to hunt down the creatures of the night with the aid of a ghostly partner called a Persona.

The combat system from the expanded
Playstation 2 version, Persona 3: FES.
(Image from
When the clock strikes twelve, the game leaves its high school baggage behind and becomes a Rogue-like, in the grand tradition of Gateway to Apshai, Fatal Labyrinth, and countless other dungeon crawlers. You and two similarly gifted friend climb the massive tower Tartarus, slaying shadows, discovering handy items inside suitcases, and ultimately finding the stairs leading to the next floor.

Enemies roam the tower, which you can either avoid or challenge in turn-based battles. You can sometimes take out your inky adversaries with ordinary attacks, but when swords and arrows can't do the job, you'll need a helping hand from your Persona. Just stick a gun to your temple and pull the trigger (really, I will cover this later) and an avenging spirit swoops down to make short work of your enemies. If you score a critical hit, you may even be able to team up with your friends for a cartoonish three-way smackdown, complete with dust clouds and enough onomatopoeia for a season of the old Batman television show.

As you'd expect, beating enemies earns your three ghost-busting teens experience points, which strengthen their abilities. However, you may also earn a tarot card which makes your Persona stronger, or an entirely new Persona which you can fuse with other spirits for a powerful hybrid. It's an involved process, and you'll likely be throwing together Personae in the Velvet Room for hours until you've discovered all one hundred and forty of them.

I... just don't see the need for this.
(Image courtesy of
Okay, I said I was going to come back to this at least two times already, so here goes. Persona 3 Portable is packed with imagery of teenagers pressing a gun to their foreheads and pulling the trigger, complete with neon polygons spraying out of the exit wound. This is, to borrow a phrase from about a million junior activists on Tumblr, gross. The developers tried to justify this by claiming the simulated suicides force the player to recognize the gravity of calling out their Personas. However, I suspect the game's young heroes would barely flinch after not-really blowing their brains out for the hundredth time, leading me to ask (again) if the oft-repeated imagery was really necessary. After all, Jotaro Kujo and his friends summoned their Stands just fine without fellating a firearm first. 

Even with that unwelcome touch and graphics that are starting to show the PSP's age, Persona 3 Portable is a great way to while away the dark hours of your own day. At five dollars, it's hard to resist, even if you're not especially eager to relive the high school drama of your teen years.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Kinect Bites, The Dust

This one's going to be brief, since the content within is time-sensitive. First, Microsoft has backpedaled on the design of the Xbox One (again), offering the system without its annoyingly intrusive Kinect camera for $399. The company also revealed in its recent press release that multimedia apps like Netflix will no longer require a subscription to Xbox Live Gold. (Absolutely nobody else was doing this; it's puzzling that it took this long for Microsoft to hop aboard the clue train.) Finally, the Games with Gold promotion will extend to the Xbox One in the near future, and there will be three freebies offered for the Xbox 360 next month, including medieval emasculator Dark Souls and upgrade-to-the-upgrade Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. If this is Microsoft's apology for last year's disastrous Xbox One unveiling... well, they'll still have to sleep on the couch, but it's a good start.

Speaking of Games with Gold, Dust: An Elysian Tail is currently up for grabs for Gold subscribers, and if you have any love for Muramasa or its spiritual predecessor Odin Sphere, I'd suggest you snap up a copy while the snappin's good. Designed almost entirely by Korean-American artist Dean "for the last time, I'm not a Pokemon!" Dodrill, Dust is a sprawling action game in the tradition of Metroid and later Castlevania titles. I've actually owned the game for a while, but was inspired to return it after a year-long hiatus when Apricot Sushi declared May the month of Metrovanias. Smart move! Dust is absolutely gorgeous, and offers an equal blend of crisply responsive platforming and button-mashing combat, topped with a dollop of likeable (if frequently silly) characters. Yes, they're furry, but after the excellence of Tail Concerto and Solatorobo, I hope you wouldn't turn your nose up at a game just because it has a few talking dogs and rabbits in it. Dust is free for just a couple more days, so get to it, people!

Friday, May 9, 2014

All You Do Is Talk Talk: Binary Domain

First, I wanted to thank everybody who read my previous post, and Bryan Ochalla in particular, who led most of that traffic here. This is just one gaming blog of thousands, and it's difficult to get noticed when there's that much competition. I'm grateful to all of you who took the time to listen to my thoughts on the Tomodachi Life fiasco, even though other writers went into greater detail and had first-hand experience with the Japanese version of the game.

Ash from Bare Knuckle 3, the Japanese version
of Streets of Rage 3. Such depictions of gays
are not uncommon in Japanese pop culture.
(Image courtesy of RPGCodex)
Speaking of that, it looks like Nintendo of America will offer more relationship options in the next Tomodachi Life game, if this press release is to be believed (Thanks to Atlus USA's Nich Maragos for the link, by the way). Nintendo of Japan, on the other hand, seems intractable in its decision to keep the series gay-free on its home turf. Talking Time member Estragon was kind enough to translate the company's response to the controversy, and its cavalier dismissal of the issue is infinitely worse than Nintendo of America's wimpy excuses from yesterday. Generally speaking, Japan has a rather... juvenile view of homosexuality, and many of Japan's gay citizens have grimly accepted that the country will never grow out of it. To quote Japanese Twitter user @tumblin_dice_K...

Recently I don't play games much so I didn't know, but even if I played it I don't think I would have thought, "It's stupid that there's no gay marriage! Let's protest!" I'm already just that used to my existence being ignored in this country. Sadly.

Thanks (again) to Estragon for the translation.

Well, I've got that worked out of my system. Let's turn our attention to another recent annoyance! I purchased Binary Domain in one of the all-too brief sales at the Microsoft Store, and can tell you this... if you buy only one cover shooter with a science-fiction theme this year, it should be something else. May I suggest Mass Effect 3?

Jerks R Us.
(Image courtesy of
Binary Domain is similar to the bro-riffic Gears of War, with slimmer characters (even the game's big black stereotype looks like a twig next to Marcus Fenix), a sleeker setting, and voice activated squad commands. The voice commands are optional... in fact, if you want to keep your sanity, I would suggest unplugging your microphone and throwing it in the back of the closet for the ten hours it'll take to finish the game. Your commands are either misunderstood, ignored, or angrily rejected, to the point where you'll abandon all hope of guiding your teammates to victory and just shout obscenities into the mic.

The only other feature of Binary Domain that distinguishes it from the sea of other cover shooters on the Xbox 360 is its storyline, set in a future where global warming has drowned most of the world's population and the few that remain are threatened by a robot rebellion. As Dan Marshall, it's up to you and your often annoying fellow soldiers to invade Japan and put an end to a new wave of more human than human androids known as "Hollow Children." 

"The cigar makes me look cool. The drinks I
need to stay interested in Binary Domain."
(image courtesy of
It's a familiar but effective plot... more than one reviewer has drawn comparisons to the science-fiction classic Blade Runner, but you could probably draw parallels to Hideo Kojima's Sega CD release Snatcher as well. However, a twist that happens about halfway through the game stretches its credibility to the point of snapping. One of your partners is the offspring of a human father and an android mother, which is supposed to introduce conflict to the robot-hating team of mercenaries, but just leaves you wondering about the developers' tentative grasp of biology. How, exactly, does this work? Are you familiar with the old robot saying "Does not compute?"

What's more troubling to me are the frequent scenarios you're forced to complete to progress, even though they're not always adequately explained. "Shoot this sign," your first teammate Bo barks, "and get the lead out!" There are several signs in this room... which one do I shoot? "Blast the cable to kill that giant rampaging mech!," another partner screams, conveniently forgetting that the cable's not even visible unless you climb to the roof of a building on the playfield. Yeah, thanks for not mentioning that. That focus button doesn't help me much when there's a wall blocking my view of the target. 

Stop me if you've seen this before.
(Image courtesy of
Right now, I'm stuck at a part where you have to fuel up a vehicle. (Yes, that's a couple hours before the human/robot hybrid revelation. You could say that I ruined the surprise by reading some walkthroughs on the internet, but this game came pre-ruined.) Your commanding officer demands that you defend him from a constant onslaught of robots, but half the time, you don't even know where he is, or where he's taking that payload of fuel. The fuel gets blown up, he screams at you, rinse, lather and repeat until you take the disc out of your Xbox 360 and slam it to the floor. Those earth-friendly cases shatter real good, by the way.

So that's the Binary Domain experience in a nutshell. Loud, frustrating, obtuse, and with gameplay that hinges on a gimmick that's somehow less intuitive than pressing combinations of buttons on the controller. I might go back to this game if the disc somehow survived, but I could make better use of my time by returning to Mass Effect 3 instead. It doesn't impress me as much as the previous entry in the series, but it's a dozen times better than this.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Knife Edge

"Can you still keep your balance?," Greg Lake demands to know in a track from the first album by progressive rock supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer. "Can you live on a knife edge?" Nintendo seems entirely too eager to prove that it can in response to the growing controversy surrounding its upcoming 3DS release Tomodachi Life.

In case you missed it, Tomodachi Life is a life simulation, not far removed from Nintendo's long-running Animal Crossing series. When it was first released in Japan, gamers discovered that it was possible to not only marry partners of the opposite sex, but ones of the same sex as well. This turned out to be a programming error which turned the game code inside out and prevented players from saving their progress, but it also seemed to open the door to the possibility of gay relationships when the game was released in the United States, a country which has seen a shift in its view of homosexuality over the last twenty years.

They make a nice couple. Or would, anyway.
(Image courtesy of Cinema Blend)
Nintendo faces a difficult decision in its localization of Tomodachi Life. Either it can include gay relationships in the game and be celebrated by the LGBT community as progressive and inclusive, or settle for the more rigid religious definition of marriage and escape backlash from Fox News and AM talk show blowhards like Rush Limbaugh. Rather than making that tough call and offering a public statement about its decision, Nintendo hopes that it can escape controversy entirely by quietly releasing the game without a word to either side in the debate.

Weak move, Nintendo.

Personally, I'm with the gay community on this issue, although perhaps not as strongly as they would like. I've seen footage of Tomodachi Life, and the game is wacky by design. Compared to some of the outrageous antics that happen (like giant versions of your friends looming in the ocean, and cameo appearances by Christina Aguilera), two men living together is positively mundane. At the same time, I understand the difficult position Nintendo has been put in over this game. I find myself in the same position when I tell my gay friends that I won't boycott the company for its decision... or its apparent lack of one.

Whatever Nintendo decides, it owes its customers an explanation, rather than sticking its head in the sand and hoping nobody notices. They've noticed. You can't ignore this, because nobody else will. If you support what gay rights advocates are calling Miiquality, you'll give your customers a more inclusive and full-featured game in the process. If you don't, you'll briefly avoid the righteous indignation of right-wing loudmouths (until they find another scapegoat in your library), but it won't reflect positively on you in another twenty years, when gay marriage goes national and is embraced by a majority of Americans.

You don't get a third option, Nintendo. You can only ride the razor's edge for so long before you fall off and make a mess of yourself.

EDIT: Okay, okay, I dropped the second prog rock reference. It was a little too self-indulgent, even for a personal journal. That tip of the hat to ELP stays, though!

Also, I was made aware that Nintendo did offer a public statement earlier today about Miiquality, a mealy-mouthed excuse that satisfied absolutely nobody and even angered a few. They claimed their game was too silly and escapist for "social commentary," which holds almost as much water as a bucket made of doilies. Fable II had same-sex relationships, and that was a game where you wooed potential partners with farting and handstands!

(This marks one of those all-too rare occasions where Pete gets to feel smug about a promise he actually kept. But I digress!)

Tye Marini, the man who started the push for same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life, stopped short of boycotting the game. It seems that The Gay Gamer's Bryan Ochalla will also be picking up a copy, in spite of Nintendo's decision to forsake Miiquality. I don't blame anyone for buying the game if it interests them... personally, I'm not gay, and don't really have a stake in this debate. Nevertheless, the heteros-only gameplay of Tomodachi Life reminds me of how stubbornly unwilling Nintendo has been to listen to fan input. 

It's not just about civil rights issues, either... it was like pulling teeth to get Nintendo to embrace online functionality, and we had to suffer through two years of an unlit Game Boy Advance screen before the company relented and gave us a system we could play without standing on the surface of the sun. With Nintendo suffering financially in this console cycle, maybe it's time for them to take the concerns of their user base seriously? I really don't think their current plans to segue into the health care industry is going to work out for them...

Friday, May 2, 2014

Kirb Your Enthusiasm

And now for something completely different! I'd like to talk for a minute about a game I actually liked. Nintendo released Kirby: Triple Deluxe last midnight, and I made it a point to grab a digital copy as soon as it was available. Now I've got mixed thoughts about digital distribution, but I decided to go that route anyway because 1) It's a lot faster than twiddling your thumbs waiting for a cartridge to arrive from Amazon or Best Buy, and 2) I don't really want to futz around with a stack of cartridges when I could just have all my games on one handy, high-capacity SD card. There was a slight price advantage buying the game on cart, but not enough to offset the speed and convenience of purchasing it straight from Nintendo's eShop.

(Image courtesy of
Anyway! The game itself is grand, with the quality you'd expect from the long-running Kirby series. (Well, not Kirby 64.) It feels like a heartfelt tribute to Kirby's Adventure on the NES, but with all the visual splendor the cutting edge 3DS can offer. The pastel graphics are dazzling, chock full of detail and clever 3D effects... in past games, enemies would pop into a cluster of stars when Kirby dispatched them, but here, they often spiral toward the player or off in the distance before they burst. There are also a lot of multi-tiered playfields, similar to the ones in the Virtual Boy's lone standout Wario Land. Simply hop on a giant star and it takes you to platforms in the background, often a necessity for completing stages. The music is also worth mentioning, putting fresh CD-quality spins on all your favorite tunes from Kirby's Adventure.

Commencing Operation Vacuu-suck.
Suck... suck... suck!
(image courtesy of
As for the gameplay, well, it's boilerplate Kirby, with a gimmick to keep things from getting too predictable. This time, instead of cartoon animal steeds or a small army of clones or a brain-damaged grape sidekick, there's a special fruit that kicks Kirby into "hypernova." While Kirby is flashing all the colors of an LSD trip, his suction power is dramatically increased, letting him pull massive stone blocks, devour enemies three times his size, or even peel away the screen, revealing a sunny landscape underneath. The pink puffball has never seemed more powerful than he does while on a hypernova fruit high, and it's hard to imagine how Nintendo and HAL Laboratories will be able to top it in the next Kirby game.

Above all else, Kirby: Triple Deluxe is a game that oozes optimism. It's hard not to be happy playing this, whether you've found a new keychain to add to your collection or putting the smackdown on cartoon enemies with one of Kirby's surprisingly deep copy abilities or just admiring your colorful surroundings. Triple Deluxe offers a simple, innocent euphoria you probably haven't found in too many games lately. If you're as tired as I am of the grim work of running over hookers and gunning down one-dimensional terrorists, that's reason enough to pick up a copy for yourself.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Agony and the Ecstacy: Midway Arcade Origins

It's my opinion there's no gaming experience as pure as the one you'd find in a 1980s arcade. All the baggage we've come to reluctantly accept in today's video games was blessedly light in the quarter-munchers of the past... or absent entirely. There were no interminably long, nonsensical cut scenes, no tedious resource management, and no pointless, game-bloating filler... just you, a million hungry aliens, and a weapon to keep the two apart. 

Astronauts one, creepy bug guy zero.
(Image courtesy of
With this in mind, it should be no surprise that some of my favorite games from the past twenty years were collections of arcade greats from the decade of excess. Namco Museum! Atari Anniversary! Taito Legends! And the granddaddy of them all, Midway Arcade's Greatest Hits, created by Digital Eclipse and released just in time to satisfy gamers' first pangs of nostalgia. After the debut of the Playstation 2, Midway Arcade's Greatest Hits evolved into the more robust Midway Arcade Treasures, and now, over ten years later, we have... this.

Midway Arcade Origins' flaws can be traced back to the industry turmoil that cost Midway its life. The company went bankrupt in 2009 thanks to the mismanagement of Shari Redstone, daughter of Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone. Under the Redstones, Midway went down the same path as the other game companies that went defunct in the 21st century, spending lavishly on marketing and licenses while recouping little of that investment.

Around the same time, Digital Eclipse was facing a crisis of its own. The design team, acquired by Foundation 9 Entertainment in 2003, was in the process of being fully absorbed by the company. Many of Digital Eclipse's programmers abandoned ship during the transition, leaving to form a new studio called Code Mystics. Code Mystics had nothing to do with the production of Midway Arcade Origins, and believe me, it shows.

I'll be honest, I liked this game
better with the Budweiser
license. Even caffeine-laden
Mountain Dew seemed like
a better substitute
than this!
I can't write off Midway Arcade Origins as a total loss. It's got over thirty titles for your gaming pleasure (and occasional bemusement), and they're all reasonably well emulated, even if there's not much to enhance the experience. You get some beautifully rendered cabinets, a trivia scroll at the bottom of the screen, and that's about it. You also get some questionable choices for inclusion, including two flavors of Super Sprint, crusty late '80s relic 720°, and Joust 2, the most unpalatable sequel since Snake Plissken tangled with a cross-dressing Bruce Campbell in Escape from L.A. The decision to leave out the Mortal Kombat trilogy is understandable, since it had already been released in its own collection the year before, but who in their right minds would choose the dreadful Spy Hunter II over Roadblasters, which has never been hotter thanks to its cameo in the film Wreck-It Ralph?

Then there are the achievements. They run the gamut from insultingly easy (enter a warp zone in Total Carnage? You mean the one that appears one screen to the right of the beginning?) to murderously hard (the game's cousin, Smash TV, tasks you with killing Mutoid Man and thousands of his minions with one credit. Good luck! Are you ever going to need it...). A few of the achievements are broken, like finishing the Colorado stage in Toobin', while at least one goes so far as to break its game. Reach 10,000 points in Wizard of Wor and the game shifts into glacier speed until you return to the main menu. 

Too often, this game made me
want to do to the designers
what William Conrad here
is doing to this lousy cop.
To Warner Bros.'s credit, the bug doesn't come back the next time you play the game, and it is much closer to the arcade version than it was in past Midway collections. Still, how did Warner's playtesters miss a bug that I found an hour after I popped the disc into my Xbox 360? Did they hire any? It's a question you'll find yourself asking again and again, when you play 720° and can't control your skater worth a damn, and when you can't make your hero fire diagonally in Smash TV unless you jam the analog sticks in place until they snap. (Want to use the face buttons on your controller instead? Forget it; that ain't happening.) It's just sloppy, and below the standards established by the former Digital Eclipse team fifteen years before.

Midway Arcade Origins is the first collection in this series with native support for high-resolution televisions, and that alone might be enough to seal the deal for fans who couldn't stand the way the Treasures trilogy looked on their LCD displays. Still, Warner Bros. could have done better with Midway Arcade Origins. They probably would have if the Code Mystics team had been calling the shots.