Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Fighter's Misery Extreme: King of Fighters Neowave

There's a phenomenon in the entertainment industry called the contractual obligation. When you're fairly popular in the biz, a big studio will bankroll the album or the film you wanted to make... then stick an extra project on the end of the contract. Maybe you didn't really want to do it, but hey, that stack of papers has got your signature right there, so you take a deep breath and finish it anyway. You may do it with all the enthusiasm of French royalty trudging toward the guillotine, but it's gonna get done, damn it, and then you'll be free! Until you sign another contract and the cycle repeats.
Sammy, hard at work on Neowave.
(image from PoopPac)

This is all a very roundabout way of telling you that King of Fighters Neowave is a reeking pile of shit. But it also illustrates why Neowave could empty a city block with its aroma. The game was designed for Sammy's Atomiswave hardware; essentially a Dreamcast stuffed into an arcade cabinet. (Yes, there was already one of those, but the more the merrier, right?) Sammy was desperate to make the Atomiswave relevant, and Playmore, the successor to SNK, was eager to re-establish itself in the video game industry after an ugly bankruptcy. A special Atomiswave version of The King of Fighters, Playmore's strongest property, seemed like the best way to get both companies noticed. It didn't have to be good; Playmore had The King of Fighters XI for that. It just had to be there.

Stop me if you've heard this before.
(image from ShackNews)
And that's one thing you've got to give King of Fighters Neowave. It sure is there. You can't deny that it exists, as much as you wish you could. It's got SNK characters, including the heroes of Fatal Fury, Ikari Warriors, and Psycho Soldier, duking it out in team battles, but the enthusiasm and the creativity of past KOF games didn't make it to the party. Remember how in King of Fighters '97, each battle was televised, complete with cameras in the background and ring girls introducing each round? Remember the gorgeous backgrounds in King of Fighters '99, given added life in the Dreamcast version with a sweeping camera pan? Weren't those great moments? Well, you won't be seeing any of them here. The characters (jagged resolution and all) are just plopped into instantly forgettable locales like a bridge, a shipyard, and a garden, drawn in amateurish 3D and adorned with drab colors.

Then there's the music... if only you could forget that. Encouraged by Street Fighter III: Third Strike, Playmore added a pinch of rap to Neowave's soundtrack. However, the difference is that Third Strike's excellent hip-hop tunes add intensity to the battles while bringing a modern sensibility to the series. Neowave's lyrics just bring intense shame to anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot. Writer Bob Mackey lamented that Blondie's lead singer Debbie Harry couldn't win a rap battle against Barney Rubble in a Fruity Pebbles commercial, but Neowave goes so much further down the rabbit hole that it requires a visual aid. Here's where you'll find the game on a sliding scale of musical freshness...

99 Problems
Black Sheep
Black with NV (No Vision)
Beastie Boys
Ch-Check It Out

Marky Mark Wahlberg
(yes, he actually called
himself that)
Good Vibrations
MC Hammer
Can't Touch This
"Weird Al" Yankovic
Can't Watch This
William Shatner
The Real Slim Shady
(Spoken Word Variant)
Roll the Bones
Kris Kross
I Missed the Bus
Vanilla Ice
(no, that's not Guile)
Ice, Ice Baby
Shaquille O'Neal
(I Know I Got) Skillz
Barney Rubble
I Love Fruity Pebbles
(in a Major Way)
Macho Man
Be A Man
Persona 3
That One Song.
YOU Know the One.

King of Fighters Neowave
Character Select Screen

After all the falls he's taken from
skyscrapers, you'd think this guy
would be a Fruit Roll-Up, not some
douche in a purple suit.
(image from cngba.com)
But wait, I haven't even gotten to the best-worst part! That'd be Geese Howard, cut and pasted from The Art of Fighting 2 because the designers couldn't even be bothered to whip up a new final boss. (Good lord, Playmore, even King of Fighters EX 2 on the Game Boy Advance had Sinobu. Sure, he was some annoying brat with Goenitz's move set, but at least he was something.) Geese is every bit the pain in the ass he was in past games, with a jumping kick that somehow connects even if you're behind him, a Reppuken the size of a small state, and a health bar-melting super move that instantly negates any attempts at defense or evasion. Geese simply kills you with sheer force of will, making even the admission of design failure SNK calls the continue service pointless.

If you can beat Geese (and you won't), your reward is... nothing! All you get after a frustratingly cryptic ending is a credit roll and a chance to land a few free hits on the scourge of South Town. It's a fitting conclusion to a game that makes no effort to distinguish itself from past King of Fighters titles, or improve on the formula in any significant way, or push what amounts to a warmed over Dreamcast to its limits. 

Certainly, Neowave exists... but WHY?!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Out with the Old, in with the Neo

Phil Spencer, lead dudebro of Microsoft's Xbox division, recently announced that the Xbox 360 will no longer be manufactured, paving the way for its eventual retirement. He claimed the system will continue to be supported by Microsoft in the immediate future, but it's hard to say how long it will be before the Xbox 360 is orphaned completely and perks like online support and Games with Gold dry up.

The latest (and last)
model of the Xbox 360.
I've had unkind words for Spencer in the past, but he's right to look back fondly on the 360. It's still my favorite last generation game system, and although I haven't played it very often lately, I can't count the number of hours I spent with it over the last decade. It was the first system to bring epic Japanese shooter Radiant Silvergun to an American audience (and I can honestly use that term... the game is an hour and a half long, which is enormous for a shmup), and many of gaming's greatest hits came to the Xbox 360 first, or remained there as exclusives. Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games ever by my estimation, and for nearly a year, you couldn't find it anywhere else. Even a decade after its launch, developers are still striking gold with the system, as the well received ports of Metal Gear Solid V and Rise of the Tomb Raider illustrate.

So Xbox 360, I salute you. You may now officially be history, but you'll always have a home in my entertainment system. (Unless you red ring on me. Then there's gonna be trouble.)

Destined to replace the Xbox 360 on store shelves are turbocharged versions of the Xbox One and Playstation 4. The Xbox 1.1 is still a rumor, but it seems likely to happen now that the high-performance Playstation 4, codenamed Neo, has been confirmed (and grumbled about) by developers. They'll be expected to make games that work with the classic PS4 while offering enhancements on the Neo, a frustrating juggling act that will bring added cost and stress to game production. (And lord knows there's plenty of the latter.)

On the plus side, this should make the Nintendo NX a more tempting proposition to publishers. Before, it was put in the awkward position of being a next generation game console released years before its competitors, but now, it'll be just one of several new systems, without the added burden of cross-platform development. It's unlikely the NX will support features like 4K resolution and virtual reality, but unless you've got tons of money in your bank account and a Jumbotron in your living room, who the hell cares?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Give 'Em A Hand: Portable Game Reviews

It's been a while since I've posted, so I guess it's time to make the dog's nuts!

Wait... that's not right, is it? Can I have another take? What do you mean "this is live?" Oh, damn it...

Capcom/Sensory Sweep

You'll be hooked on the brothers!
(image from Playstation.com)
This is undeniably the weakest of Capcom's three arcade collections for the PSP, but it might be worth a look if you're a fan of the Buster Bros. series or its star attraction, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. Buster Bros. and its sequels invites you on a bubble-hunting expedition across the globe. See the sights, including gorgeously drawn world landmarks! Studiously avoid worthless power ups like dynamite and the grappling hook! Swear profusely when you lose a life after brushing up against one of the bouncing balls! Of the three games, Super Buster Bros. is the best, with important refinements to the gameplay and a special Panic Mode which challenges you to stay alive as long as possible as balloons rain from the sky. The original Buster Bros. may appeal to fans of Akira Toriyama thanks to the cartoon artwork that closely copies his style, and Buster Buddies? Uh, let's pretend that rendered mess never happened.

Then there's Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, a gem stacking, color matching contest with the added bonus of characters from the Street Fighter and Darkstalkers series. Big-headed versions of the fighters are set in the center of the screen, and swat at each other as jewels are destroyed and match-blocking counter gems are sent to the other player's bin. While the game is also available for more powerful home consoles, the version offered in Capcom Puzzle World is more faithful to the source material, without the ugly remastered graphics.

There's one more game, the Arkanoid-ish Block Block, but its inclusion is... well, puzzling when you consider that it was already offered in Capcom Classics Remixed. It's there if you want it, but the Buster Bros. trilogy and Puzzle Fighter are the real draws in the modest but competent package. B-

Namco/Smart Bomb Entertainment

Snoopy vs. The Red Baron is an extrapolation of the scenes from the Peanuts specials, where Charlie Brown's beagle would clash with the World War I flying ace in a series of frustratingly vague aerial battles. Rather than racing past strobing colors on his dog house as he did in the cartoons, Snoopy flies over fully realized battlefields in his often mentioned, rarely seen Sopwith Camel. The graphics are impressive considering the game's age, rivaling Pilotwings Resort on the 3DS with a generous field of vision and diverse environments to explore.

Snoop, there it is.
(image from GamesRadar)
So it's hard to complain about the graphics, but the gameplay is another story. At its best moments, Snoopy vs. The Red Baron is a liberating experience, letting you explore each stage at your leisure while hunting for bonus items and gunning down rival planes. At its worst, the game saddles you with a lot of escort and tower defense missions that severely limit your horizons. Some of these are damned near impossible to finish until you've memorized the layout of the stage and have powered up your pathetic machine guns in Pigpen's shop.

Another gripe, and this is purely aesthetic, is that it sometimes misses its mark as a tribute to the long-running comic. Characters are hideously rendered (don't expect the quality of the recent 20th Century Fox film) and sometimes badly voiced, especially Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty's long-suffering sidekick Marcie. Why is she a six year old with a lisp? Shouldn't that be Sally's voice? The triumphant war themes in each stage also clash with Vince Guaraldi's laid-back, plinky jazz tunes in the hub, but no matter. Flawed as it may be, Snoopy vs. The Red Baron is enjoyable enough that you'll be glad you were there when the Schulz hit the Richthophen. B

Idea Factory/Compile Heart

This game was created by Compile Heart, the successor to the developer of classics like The Guardian Legend and Puyo Puyo. That name must have been chosen under the mistaken belief that the new company has the soul of the old one, but considering its rather dire library, I can think of a few organs that are a better fit. How about Compile Spleen? Maybe Compile Tonsil? Wait, wait... Compile Lower Intestine! It reflects the quality of their output, at least.

Monpiece... of Crap!
(image provided by Idea Factory,
which really should be ashamed
of itself for publishing this game)
Anyway. Monster Monpiece is promoted as a card game, but most of that is just window dressing... and rather peculiar window dressing as that, with teenage girls cosplaying as mythical creatures. The actual game boils down to lobotomized chess... you drop cards on your side of the playfield, which steadily advance on your opponent's territory. Those cards can be buffed by dropping special booster cards behind them, making them unstoppable and the destruction of your rival's home base a certainty. That's pretty much all there is... you drop a fighter in the first turn, trail them with a booster in the second, and wait for victory, dropping other fighters as needed to defend your own territory. Whee.

The selling point of this game (if it can be called that) is that the cards can be undressed with vigorous rubbing of your Vita, boosting their abilities at a heavy cost to your self-respect. If that's all it takes to keep you entertained, then maybe, maybe, Monster Monpiece is worth the two dollars it cost in a recent flash sale. However, if you're familiar with Compile Gallbladder's previous work (including such "masterpieces" as Hyperdimension Neptunia and its endless sequels), you'll know to keep your distance. Forget the tempting price... your time is worth much more than this. F

Koei-Tecmo/Omega Force

Sick of Monster Hunter clones on handheld systems? Well tough, you're getting another one. If it's any consolation, this is a pretty good one; not quite as hopeless as Soul Sacrifice Delta and certainly more entertaining than Freedom Wars. In Toukiden, you're a feudal fighter known as a Slayer, and it's your job to protect your territory from the encroachment of bizarre Japanese monsters called the Oni.

Nice... doggie...?
(Image from PushSquare)
At first the odds seem stacked in your favor. The Oni are bite-sized and easily dispatched, and you've got help from two capable companions, along with the souls of legendary fighters which can be slotted into your equipment for an added boost of power. But don't get overconfident... after a few missions, you'll encounter grotesque monsters which effortlessly dart across the playfield despite their jaw-dropping size. You'll literally have to take these beasts apart piece by piece, purifying the dislodged limbs and hacking away at the exposed wounds.

Fighting the bosses can be a lot of fun, but there are a few nagging issues. First, they take a ridiculous amount of damage, to the point where it feels like you're trying to crush a brick wall with your forehead. Second, the monsters sprout purple ghost limbs to replace the ones you've destroyed, which feels like a cop-out on the part of the developers. Sure, the Oni occasionally stumble after you've dismembered them, but being reduced to a stump isn't as much a handicap in Toukiden as you'd expect.

So the boss fights are needlessly drawn out and the action gets repetitive, but there's a lot Toukiden has in its favor. Like dazzling, console-quality graphics. A wide assortment of weapons ranging from the the usual oversized katana to a pair of metal fists that send smaller enemies flying from the impact of your blows. Plenty of items and customization options to satisfy your raging OCD. And oh yes, a furry sidekick which wisely fades into the background rather than getting all up in your face like the Felynes from Monster Hunter. Toukiden is very similar to Monster Hunter, yes, but it's nevertheless one of the best games in a shrinking pool of recent Vita releases. B+

Nintendo 3DS

Resident Evil is twenty years old at this point, and it's clear the series has matured a great deal in those two decades. Where there were once stiff polygonal characters wandering through static backgrounds, there are now stunningly realistic characters in environments with real depth and volume. Where there was awkward turn-walk-turn control, there is intuitive gameplay that lets you slip through the grasp of hungry monsters. And where there was acting and dialog that left players rolling their eyes, there are performances that build tension rather than burying it under a mountain of cheese.

You see a lot of Jill's butt in this game.
It's practically its own character.
(image from Nintendo 3DS ROM)
(and no, I won't give you any)
Now those improvements have come to handhelds with Resident Evil Revelations. As series regular Jill Valentine, you must explore the abandoned cruise ship Queen Xenobia, searching for survivors while fighting through the unfortunate souls infected by a terrorist virus. The graphics are incredible considering the limitations of the 3DS, with one highlight being the dining hall in the first floor of the ship. A sickly brown mist wafts through the room, consuming the neatly arranged tables and chairs and offering cover for the zombies hoping to sink their claws into you. Everywhere you turn, you see traces of the ship's former opulence, swallowed by darkness and decay. It must have been a nice place... once.

Revelations hits choppy waters from time to time... it's tough to play on a New 3DS, with the tiny ZL and ZR buttons used to aim and fire your gun, and the touchscreen makes item management (especially using grenades) a handful. However, the game's most memorable (and horrifying) moments tend to make up for its lesser qualities. Good luck trying to sleep after you've met the communications officer you were trying to rescue. B+

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Another Mouth to Feed

Sorry for the extended absence (again). Things have been kind of complicated lately, but now that I've got the trailer all to myself, I should be able to post more often.

Does anyone really stand their
systems up on end like that?
(image from Amazon)
So anyway! In an attempt to rebuild the gaming empire I had in Michigan, I purchased a slim Playstation 2 for twenty dollars. I didn't really need one, but emulation of the system is lacking and the Playstation 3 is only backward compatible with a handful of its games. Beyond all that... I kinda missed the little guy, y'know? Sure it rode on a wave of empty hype for the first year of its existence, and it chewed up and excreted my beloved Dreamcast in a matter of months, but it's got a whole lot of games, which have aged gracefully and are still reasonably priced. I'm looking forward to digging into its library again... even though most of the games in my own collection are thousands of miles away.

I'll keep you guys informed of my experience with the system... which hopefully won't involve any disk read errors. I'm not nostalgic for those at all.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Globetrotting with PSN

The great thing about this new, digitally connected world we live in is that importing video games isn't the expensive chore it was in the 1990s. Take Sony's Playstation Network service, for instance. Since the Playstation 3 is region free and has support for multiple accounts, you're not limited to the titles available in the United States, and you don't have to wait a week or more to get software from other countries. Those games come right to you thanks to the magic of the internet, without the wait or the markup. 

I wish I could tell you that box art
made more sense in context. It doesn't.
(image from Hardcore Gaming 101)
In way of example, PSOne games in the Japanese Playstation Store cost 617 yen, about the same as the six dollars you'll pay here, but the selection is vastly more diverse. You won't be finding Rakugaki Showtime, Slap Happy Rhythm Busters, or Harmful Park in the US store any time ever, that's for sure.

I couldn't miss deals like those, so after fumbling through menus loaded with impenetrable kanji, I signed up for a Japanese PSN account, and picked up about thirty dollars of credit from an online retailer. It took a little trial and error, but I eventually found the game that convinced me to get a Japanese account in the first place. I also learned a couple of things about gaming in the land of the rising sun, including...

 Games for the original Playstation are very reasonably priced, and almost always 617 yen ($5.65 at today's exchange rates). There's a little more variance in the price of Playstation 2 games; they're generally 1000 yen ($9.16) but can sometimes be 1200 yen, 1500 yen, or even the peculiar price of 1234 yen. 

Ha ha ha ha NO.
That's not too bad so far, but then you get to the PSP games, which still command a hefty price. Games marked with the Best label (the Japanese equivalent of our own Greatest Hits) usually cost 1300 yen, but other titles can set you back 5000 yen or more! That's almost $46 in US money. Evidently the PSP is still big in Japan, despite being succeeded by the Vita years ago. (In all fairness, it is a better system.)

 What's known as Playstation Classics here is called the Playstation Archives in Japan, and there's even a series of videos called Game Diggin' which promotes the best titles available. I don't know if the videos are genuinely entertaining in the way that Game Center CX is, or if they're just shameless advertising to move product, but it's nevertheless heartening to know that the retro scene in Japan is strong enough to justify shows like this.

○ Japanese PSN sales don't seem to be as generous as the ones on these shores, with a small smattering of discounted baseball titles. Then again, all we're getting in the United States this week is Tom Clancy, and that's not much of an improvement. It's unclear if Japan has monthly flash sales like we do, although if Sony celebrates Golden Week in America as it did last year, it stands to reason that Japan will too.

Ooh, shi-knee!
(Image from Counterhit.br)
○ The first game I purchased on the Japanese store was King of Fighters: Maximum Impact Regulation A. It's not a fantastic game, but I own the previous two titles, and this one has the Dan Hibiki-esque Mizoguchi, so why not? The good news is that the Max Impact series finally offers the same three on three battles that defined the 2D games. It looks pretty sharp for a PS2 release (textures are blurry but it seems like the characters themselves have been uprezzed) and it's a lot of fun when it remembers it is, in fact, a King of Fighters game. 

The bad news is that all too often, Regulation A forgets. The action has been supplemented with attack reversals, dial-a-combos, and the ability to nail foes on the ground, all of which benefits the computer more than yourself. You'll often be juggled to death by aggressive opponents, which is perfectly fine for Tekken but doesn't really belong in this series. Also, the walled stages are kind of restrictive, with barriers that hold fast even after taking damage. Beyond that, the new characters are kind of dumb. They actually make freckle-faced, infuriatingly smug newcomer Ash Crimson look appealing, if such a thing could be imagined. I still don't regret getting it, though. If anything, it offers a taste of what we might be getting with the fully 3D King of Fighters XIV.

Anyway. I've got 2000 yen left in my account... you guys have any suggestions about what else I should pick up?