Saturday, December 31, 2016

One Four the Road

It's New Year's Eve, and there's time for just one more 2016 post! So I guess now would be a really good time to tell you all that I broke down and bought that Playstation 4. They had a deal at the GameStop... it wasn't a great deal, mind, but $250 with a copy of Uncharted 4 and a free $25 gift card was the best I could find after Christmas. I thought about getting a used machine from a pawn shop, but it wouldn't have saved me much money, and buying new gives me both a one year warranty from Sony and the peace of mind I wouldn't have gotten from buying someone else's leftovers. If I'm going to do this, I figured I might as well do it right this time.

I haven't spent enough time with my Playstation 4 Slim to give it a proper analysis, but I can offer these observations...

I prefer the new shape of the slim model. It's reminiscent of the design of the original, but rounded at the edges and doesn't demand to be noticed the way the old machine did. It reminds me of an ice cream sandwich, and you know that's not a bad thing!

The interface is an evolution of the cross bar from the Playstation 3 and PSP, with a row of categories along the top and another row of installed software just below that. Below each app is a screen with handy information like a link to the user manual and the number of trophies you've earned. It's a little cluttered, but it might be a blessing to have that data readily available later.

‣ Prices are a little out of whack in the Playstation Store. Sure, there's a sale going on right now, but that won't last forever... and there are still lots of games that are much more expensive than they really ought to be. There's a line of arcade classics by Hamster Corporation which are eight dollars each, costing significantly more than the PSOne titles for Playstation 3 while offering significantly less play value. Would I like to own Exerion and Terra Cresta? Hell yes. Am I willing to pay nearly ten dollars for each of them? Hell no!

‣ The PS Home button is generally a lot more responsive than it was on the Playstation 3. Tapping it almost instantly pulls you out of the current app or game, whereas on the PS3, it would take a few seconds. However, the fly in the ointment is that leaving an app doesn't make it clear to the PS4 that you want to quit it. You've got to press the Options button and pick "close application" for that decision to really stick.

‣ The Dual Shock 4 has been redesigned slightly, with a small shaft of light peering up from the top of the controller along with the window on the front. It also seems more responsive than the old model, although given the fact that I have a really old model of the original PS4 controller that I had to refurbish myself, maybe I'm not the best person to make that judgement.

Speaking of the Dual Shock 4, the controller has rebranded the Start and Select buttons as Options and Share. Options serves the same purpose as Start, pausing the game while giving you a small menu that lets you adjust the settings to your liking. Share has replaced the mostly obsolete Select button, and is an entirely different animal, letting your share screenshots and brief video clips on the internet. It's a 21st century option complete with 21st century limitations, as not everything you see in the game can be recorded thanks to copyright issues.

‣ There's also a touchpad on the controller, which seems kind of extraneous but admittedly has its uses. When playing the system's small handful of PS2 games, you'll be asked to push down on the left and right sides of the touchpad to press Start and Select. Also, Spelunky lets you physically turn pages in the explorer's log book by swiping a finger across the touchpad. It's not necessary, really, but it does add slightly to the feeling of immersion as you explore tombs and get killed by practically everything lurking inside them.

‣ Mid-download gameplay is a much-hyped feature on the Playstation 4 that ultimately doesn't add up to much. Yes, you can kind of play the game before it's finished installing, but you're offered something lame and insubstantial, like the tutorial mode in King of Fighters 14. Best to forget about it and distract yourself with something else for a couple of hours while the download finishes. I mean, you've got other game systems, right?

‣ The Playstation 4 seems to handle Playstation 2 games better than the previous system had. It's not just that there are trophies and sharing... the graphics are a whole lot crisper than they had been on the PS3 too. It makes a big difference in King of Fighters 2000, and I imagine polygonal games like Dark Cloud 2 look great in high definition too.

‣ Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare was my first full-fledged Playstation 4 game, procured a couple of years ago when Electronic Arts took brief leave of its senses and gave away a handful of Playstation titles. Turns out that they didn't really give me much... the game won't start if you don't have Playstation Plus, even if you just want to play the story mode. Gee, thanks.

King of Fighters 14 was my primary motivation for picking up a Playstation 4 Slim, and it almost justifies the purchase. I'm not totally convinced it needed to be a Playstation 4 exclusive- the graphics don't seem beyond the grasp of Sony's previous console- but I'm really digging the gameplay, which encourages players to chain increasingly powerful attacks together. SNK hasn't lost its touch when designing characters, either, offering such memorable fighters as a narcoleptic kung fu master and the bug-eyed, criminally insane Xanadu. He's completely nuts, and I like him that way.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

It Came From Miiverse! Ho in Triplicate

If you'll pardon the indulgence (and you will, because you have no choice), I thought I'd post a few of my Miiverse scribbles on Kiblitzing this Christmas, along with brief descriptions of how they came to be.

Some concerned parents (aka meddlesome busybodies) complained that the Mall of America had a black Santa Claus this year. I'm not convinced they'd be happier with the real Saint Nicholas, who looks very little like the jolly fat guy in the red suit and very much like the late horror actor Christopher Lee in Catholic murals.

Some folks at the Talking Time forum took it upon themselves to compare the arcade classic Joust to Balloon Fight, while detailing all the ways that Nintendo's knock-off was superior. They're wrong, of course. Normally I don't mind Nintendo's whimsical approach to game design, but defanging a childhood favorite by replacing the vulture-riding knights with chubby balloonists did not sit well with me. 

Akuma is coming to Street Fighter V... with a flaming red mane instead of his usual bloomin' onion haircut. By the way, I've played a little bit of Street Fighter V at a GameStop and it seems... all right, I guess. Nothing that makes me want to run out and buy a Playstation 4, but admittedly, it's fun to open up stages by throwing your opponent through barriers.

I had to make this joke. Yes, I know I should be ashamed of myself. I'm not, but I should be.

By the way, I've played Rayman Legends, and it's far better than any other game I've played in the series. Maybe a little too wacky for its own good, but there's a really well-designed platformer buried under those madcap cartoon antics and a largely superfluous cast.

Microsoft offered the first episode of Batman: The Telltale Series for free on Xbox Live, and at that price, I could hardly resist. However, after playing through the first fifteen minutes, I'm not sure it's for me. It's a more grimdark take on the franchise, with people getting shot in the head and a gravelly hero who ought to keep a few Bat-Ludens in his utility belt. I know, there's no wrong way to portray Batman, but I've gotten mighty tired of this particular interpretation of the character. Also, I was kind of hoping that the industry had moved beyond Dragon's Lair, yet its soul lives on in this game's many, many barely interactive quick time events.

Speaking of games that aren't really for me, here's my impression of Undertale. It's just what RPGs always needed... guilt! Heaven forbid I defend myself against things that are attacking me.

Okay, this one isn't all that funny, but it was a fun challenge to reproduce the light and shadow in the illustration between stages in this largely forgotten NES game. I actually owned Isolated Warrior briefly in the early 2000s. Seeing the prices it's been going for lately, I wish I'd kept it.

While I'm on the subject, what the hell is VAP? They published the game in Japan, and evidently they had something to do with the animated series Death Note as well.

I dunno, I always heard this instead of "eliminate Gadget." And you know he'd be dumb enough to actually drink it.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Kicking and Screaming

Christmas is fast approaching, and I still have shopping to do. I'm not just talking about gifts for my family, either... I'm putting away a little extra cash to get something special for myself at the end of the year. The logical thing to do would be to finally step into the current generation of consoles with an Xbox One or a Playstation 4, but there's just one problem.

I... um, don't really want either of them.

Now I realize that the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 have reached the end of their respective life cycles. Third party support for the two systems has been dwindled to nothing in the past year, and the only thing that's keeping them relevant in 2016 is the huge back catalog of titles available on Xbox Live and PSN. 

On the other hand, it's been three years since their successors was released, and I still can't think of many compelling reasons to buy either of them. The Playstation 4 has Street Fighter V and King of Fighters XIV, along with a handful of games that probably run better on it than the Vita. What it doesn't have is backward compatibility with the past three generations of Playstation systems, aside from a few Playstation 2 classics... far fewer than what's currently available on the Playstation 3.

From the makers of "Who Gives a Damn,"
comes "Really, Why Are We Still Doing This?"
The Xbox One does have backward compatibility with a growing number of Xbox 360 titles, but I have to imagine they run better on the Xbox 360 I already own. Past that, what does this system have to offer me? Killer Instinct, a remake of one of the B-list fighting games of the 1990s? The critically underwhelming Sunset Overdrive? A whole bunch of first-person military shooters I wouldn't touch with a ten foot howitzer? It's hard for me to give a damn about this machine and its library, even with the long (long, loooong) awaited Cuphead coming next year.

Add to that my increasingly dusty Wii U and I just can't muster much excitement for this generation of consoles. I'd like to have the same rabid anticipation I had for the Sega Genesis in the early 1990s, or the Dreamcast at the turn of the century, or the Xbox 360 in 2006, but the enthusiasm just isn't there. Considering that we're already three years into this cycle with two stopgap consoles planned in the near future, I don't think I'll ever find it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Samba de Amiga! (part 2)

Finally, here are those reviews I promised! Just a few notes: running Amiga games is a little different on an emulator than it would be on the actual computer. You don't have to swap floppies a half-dozen times, and trainers go a long way toward making the tougher games a lot more fun to play. There's also the option to map keyboard keys to the joypad, letting you play with more console-like controls. Okay, with that out of the way, let's begin!


Puff puff... pass.
Bubble Bobble clones are a staple of the Amiga owner's diet, but they're generally ports of obscure Japanese arcade games... Rodland and Snow Bros. to name just two. Super Methane Bros. is a peculiar break from that tradition, created exclusively for the Amiga by a Western design team. And when I say "peculiar," I'm not kidding! As the gas mask clad exterminators Puff and Blow, you must blast pests with noxious purple clouds, draw them into an oversized sprayer, then slam them into nearby walls. When one of the wandering creatures is killed, it explodes into a shower of goodies. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it would be, except the game is really picky about the process. You can't launch an enemy into a crowd of his buddies, and if you don't fire him directly into a wall, he shakes off the fumes and continues chasing you. Games like this one live and die by the versatility of the lead character's weapon, and the gas gun in Super Methane Bros. just doesn't do enough to keep the player entertained for long. It's a shame too, because the designers got everything else right, from the explosively colorful graphics to the tons of items to collect. C


Another fine conversion from the
ace programmers at Ocean France.
Now see, this is how you do a Bubble Bobble-alike. Snow Bros. not only looks and sounds great, it's got a genuinely useful play mechanic. The frosty hero Nick packs his foes into massive snow boulders which can be launched across the screen, frantically bouncing off walls and flattening anything in their path. Send one snowball into another and the chaos doubles, increasing the chances that you'll clear the screen of enemies and earn a hefty point bonus in the process. It's exciting, it's cathartic, and it offers plenty of opportunities for careful strategy... qualities that are sorely lacking from Super Methane Bros. Ocean's French division also gets plenty of credit for a quality conversion that's easily on par with the Genesis game, with larger characters and a smart use of the Amiga's limited color palette. There are just two problems... one, there's no two player option, and two, this game was never actually sold in stores due to a copyright dispute with Toaplan. Sure it's available now, but it would have mattered so much more in the 1990s when the Amiga was actively supported... B+


Would you believe it if I told you
this was the 256 color version...?
You've gotta be pretty hard up for Street Fighter if you're going to play it on an Amiga in this day and age. Nevertheless, this is as good a conversion as you're going to find on the system. While Street Fighter II and Super Street Fighter II Turbo pump up the visuals while skimping on the gameplay, Super Street Fighter II concentrates on the fundamentals, resulting in a surprisingly playable port. With a two button controller, special moves come off cleanly and combos flow nearly as well as they had in the original, even Ken's brutal punch-to-flaming-shoryuken. On the down side, it's not a pretty game, with tiny sprites and static backgrounds. Even the (slightly) more colorful AGA version doesn't compare favorably to its Genesis and Super NES counterparts, but when compared to other Amiga fighting games, Super Street Fighter II is hardly a disappointment. B-


Is it live, or is it Amiga-rex?
The Amiga isn't usually the place to go for faithful arcade conversions... that was more the specialty of the Sharp X68000, Japan's own multimedia computer. However, the Amiga could be coaxed into producing some really impressive ports with the right designers behind the wheel. Pang (aka Buster Bros.) is a perfect example, losing almost nothing in its migration from the corner of the bowling alley to the computer desk. The picturesque backgrounds inspired by world landmarks are here. The silly post-stage cut scenes seemingly drawn by Dragon Ball's Akira Toriyama are here. The power-ups- even the ones you hate, like the dynamite- are all here. The balloons seem to drop a little too quickly after they've been split by your wire, but beyond that, the game is an almost pixel-perfect copy of the original. Ocean's French division took its job seriously when porting arcade games to the Amiga, leaving nothing out and taking no liberties with the source material, and that attention to detail makes a big difference. A-


How do I hate this game? Lord, where do I even start? The hero, a noodle-limbed ninja ant, is arguably the worst thing to have been spawned from the mascot game craze of the early 1990s. His enemies are even worse, respawning at the worst possible moments and unleashing a steady stream of obnoxious sound samples that will test your will to live. The graphics are loud and tacky, with colors that run the gamut from "please tone it down" to "my eyes, the goggles do nothing!" The constant ads for Chupa-Chups lollipops (mental note: never buy Chupa-Chups lollipops) is that extra touch of contempt Zool needs to be the most openly spiteful platformer on the Amiga. Sure, the gameplay borders on acceptable, but there are so many Sonic clones out there already! Why the hell would anyone torture themselves with this one?! D-


We've replaced John's copy of Mega Turrican with
Turrican 3. Let's see if he notices the difference!
Turrican is one of the big names in the Amiga library, a fast-paced shooter with loads of weapons and enormous levels. And oh yes, a lot of irritating flaws that didn't sit too well with the console crowd. Because there's no post-hit invulnerability, the hero's life bar drops like a stone whenever he touches enemies. Beyond that, there's a lack of polish in the presentation, especially the character designs which are either forgettable or too stupid to blot out of your mind. Fortunately, many of the game's rough edges were sanded off in the console-exclusive sequels, especially Mega Turrican, which traded some of the series' sprawl for a more professional, arcade-quality look. Some fans balked at the changes when the game was faithfully ported to the Amiga as Turrican 3, but personally, I think the new design was a step forward for the series. Sure, the levels are more linear than they were in the first two games, but with so much added polish and fewer cheap deaths, there's a lot more give than take. B


Captain Flynn gains his sea legs.
There's plenty to like about this platformer, which drops you in the tall boots of a pirate who's washed ashore on a mysterious island. It's got a strong sense of atmosphere, with the sound of crashing waves in the distance replaced with an eerie aquatic soundtrack whenever Captain Flynn dives for sunken treasure. Add charming cartoon artwork, and Traps 'n Treasures feels like a high-class console release... something that would have been more at home on the Turbografx-16 or Genesis than the Amiga. The only problem- and it could be a deal breaker if you're easily frustrated- is that the game is punishing, even cheap at times. Flynn can't defend himself underwater, where his most dangerous enemies live, and overly generous collision detection means even close calls with schools of fish and clams could cost him some health. There are passwords for each level, but they're pretty long levels, and there's no option to continue if you die halfway through one of them. You best not make too many mistakes, matey. B

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Roots Run Deep

I'm still working on the second half of that Amiga article... just be patient! In the meantime, here's a bit of gaming history I feel like mentioning. 

Badr Alomair of Madman's Cafe was talking about the music from Fatal Fury, and I took the opportunity to remind him that one of the themes from the first game was borrowed from Street Smart, a fighting game SNK designed shortly before the Neo-Geo was released. Here, have a listen:

Fatal Fury: Sound (Sandy?) Beach theme

Street Smart: City Streets theme

The Fatal Fury track is a little fancier thanks to the power of the Neo-Geo, but it's definitely the same tune. (Pretty catchy too, now that I think about it!) Beyond this track and the option to double-team opponents in the versus mode, the ties between Fatal Fury and Street Smart are pretty tenuous. However, there's still fan speculation that the latter game is part of the long-running South Town series. SNK hasn't confirmed this (or even seems to remember that Street Smart exists...), but hey, anything's possible.