Monday, December 31, 2018

Another Year in the Bag

Well, that's it for 2018. Hard to believe the year went by so quickly, huh? I'm just disappointed that I wasn't able to make it to sixty-nine posts this year... it's become something of a peculiar tradition for this blog, and I wanted to keep it going, but alas. Maybe I'll have enough to talk about in 2019 to reach that magic number next year, eh?

Anyway. I'm not going to offer a detailed summary of what happened in 2018, since you were there too, but I did want to give you links to The Besties, my favorite articles published on the blog this year. A Twitter user asked people to list all the consoles they've ever owned along with a favorite game for each. I wanted to play along, but since 280 characters wasn't enough to do thirty-five years of gaming justice, I brought my experiences to Kiblitzing instead.

Besties, 1982-1992
Besties, 1993-1999
Besties, 2000-2004
Besties, 2005-2008

Jumping from gaming history to current events, there were a lot of titles released in 2018 threatening to empty my already thin wallet. Soul Calibur VI! Nier Automata! Fire Pro Wrestling World! Fighting EX Layer! Marvel's Spider-Man! Monster Hunter World! Monster Boy in the Cursed Kingdom! It hasn't all been a bowl of 100 point cherries... there have been no end of cheapy cheap plug and play consoles (including a rush job by Sony, of all companies), and Capcom's attempt to inject advertising into Street Fighter V was a facepalm moment worthy of four Star Trek captains. Overall though, I'd say the hobby has been pretty good to us this year. Here's hoping 2019 will treat us even better.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Look Ma, No Drive!

That's distressing. It seems Don Mattrick's mad dream for the Xbox One hasn't been completely extinguished... ExtremeTech and various other sites reported last month that Microsoft is considering a special low-cost model of the Xbox One without an optical disc drive. That would make the system entirely dependent on downloads, which comes pretty close to what Mattrick had in mind for the launch model of the Xbox One over five years ago.

In all fairness, I don't own any discs for this system, and only a small handful for its rival the Playstation 4. Both consoles install games directly to their hard drives no matter how you play them, so why go through that extra cumbersome step of loading in a disc just to prove you own the game? Nevertheless, it's nice to have that drive around to play movies, and for the sake of preservation. If game companies get rid of physical media entirely (and there's every indication the industry is moving in this direction), it's going to be a lot harder to keep a record of the history of this hobby. 

Just look at what happens to games for Android devices... they're literally here today and gone tomorrow at the whim of their publishers. I "own" the Android versions of Mass Effect and Dead Space, but it's become impossible to actually play them, since the games have been "sunsetted" by Electronic Arts and I can't download them to newer Android phones. Are they the best versions of those games? Heh, not by a long shot, but I'd still like to flip the book back a few pages and try them anyway, to see what the designers did right with the limited technology of the time and what they could have done better.

I didn't say it was great! I just said I wanted
to play it again!
It's just tragic to know that a game exists without being able to play it, you know? Even if it kind of sucks. Sometimes that's part of the fun, as was demonstrated by James Rolfe and Matt Matei when they teamed up with former child actor Macaulay Culkin to play the Super NES game The Pagemaster. It's no secret that I dislike Rolfe's alter ego The Angry Video Game Nerd, but he's more palatable when he drops the persona and just examines games honestly, instead of through a shit-stained lens. I'll also admit that there's some sadistic amusement in watching Culkin squirm as he watches a cartoon version of his younger self race through stages, only to be stopped cold by bats and acid-tossing creeps.

Fewer colors, scratchy voices, much too fast gameplay.
The only thing Genesis does, in this case, is disappoint.
Inspired by the video, I played both the Super NES and Genesis versions of The Pagemaster, and there's a few things you should know that Macaulay Culkin may not have already told you. First, if you have to play this game at all, stick with the Super NES release... it's more polished, and what advantages the Genesis hardware provides actually detract from the game, speeding up an already slippery platformer to the point where it's nearly unplayable. 

See, there's your problem right there.
Ain't that a revoltin' development!
Second, it was designed by Probe, the hapless developers of many a crappy licensed 16-bit game, so don't expect much even from the Super NES version. It's like the designers watched the Pagemaster film, hastily scribbled out a checklist, and shoehorned everything they wrote down into a bog-standard mid-90s action game.

Macaulay's reaction to the Pagemaster game.
He probably should have gotten something
stronger than a cigarette.
Here's the third thing. Mac, who apparently was too busy getting exploited by his parents to play video games in the 1990s, makes a lot of dumb mistakes while playing The Pagemaster. However, it's not entirely his fault, because the game does a piss-poor job of explaining how anything works. "If you've played one action platformer," the designers must have muttered while trapped inside their cubicles, "you've played them all," and dumped the player into a dimly lit castle with no indication of what to do or where to go. 

You can attack enemies, but you have to jump on them, and it's not easy to do because the foes appear suddenly, and because the Digicel animation which makes the game look more cartoony also makes it hard to land a clean hit. In Super Mario World, the characters are neatly confined within their sprite boxes and jumping is consistent, so when you leap for that Goomba, chances are you're going to hit your target. When the movement for both hero and villain are less predictable and limbs are flailing around all over the place, your safety is less of a sure thing and more of a coin flip.

And now, the obligatory Mode 7 bonus
stage, inserted for no other reason than
because the developers could.
Much like Super Mario World, you can cushion yourself from an otherwise fatal hit by collecting items, but again, it's not entirely clear what these do. Shiny black shoes make Mac jump higher, but they also let him leap off the sides of walls. I didn't realize that Mac didn't have this ability by default until an hour of playing, when I ran for a wall without the shoes and dropped to the ground rather than climbing upward. Other items include a bag of eyeballs (ew) and a green gas cloud. The eyeballs work as projectiles, letting you strike from a safe distance, but the gas cloud doesn't seem to do anything... it just falls out of Mac's pocket after he's hit by a rampaging book.

So THAT'S what the green goop does!
Why did it take this long to figure that out...?
Obviously Rolfe made the video to kick sand in the face of an easy target while embarrassing a former child star in the process, but even if you give it an honest chance, The Pagemaster doesn't reward your patience. It's derivative- these well animated but otherwise forgettable platformers were churned out by the dozens in the early 1990s- and it's more concerned with being effective merchandise for a kid's movie than an entertaining video game in its own right. "It's got books, right? It's got levels based on scenes from the film too, right? It's got that Macintoshy Caulk Gun kid, right? Good, ship it." That's probably all the explanation anyone needs for The Pagemaster's existence.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Run (from) Forest, Run!

Well, it's after Christmas. Let's see how the Playstation Classic is doing so far!

image from Wikipedia
Whoopsie. This is shaping up to be the biggest flop Sony released since... the last micro console it released. Maybe that should be telling them something. Namely, they shouldn't be rushing a product to market, quality be damned, for the sake of some easy nostalgia money. Hackers are doing their very best to turn this sow's ear into a porcine purse, but Sony could have saved us all a lot of time by getting the PS Classic right in the first place.

Anyway. While not over-stuffing myself with holiday treats, I've been playing Ori and the Blind Forest, but the game's just not clicking with me. I don't like the title character, who looks like a half-baked experiment lifted from the quickly forgotten Lilo and Stitch television series. (You didn't know there was a TV series? My point exactly.) I don't like his sidekick, which doubles as an exposition dispenser and a clumsy method of attack. I sure as hell don't like the gameplay, which impedes your progress until you find the dozens of thinly veiled keys that grant you access to later areas.

I realize that I just described an entire sub-genre of games. That's the problem, though... we've been playing Metrovanias since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night pioneered that style of gameplay over twenty years ago, and it's gotten to be painfully old hat. I'm no longer excited by the prospect of gradually revealing a map while strengthening my hero... I've seen it all before, in countless games by both big name publishers and indie developers. 

That joy of discovery is gone, replaced by annoyance when there's a door that blocks my path or a ledge that's an inch too high to reach. Let me guess, I need a crystal and a double jump, right? Of course I do. Could you save me a lot of aggravation and just give them to me now? Of course you can't. I have to get lost for an hour in this Gordian knot you call a level until the power ups I need finally reveal themselves. Yaaaaay.

The only Metrovania in recent memory that rises above the monotony of the genre and makes you want to find all the items hidden in the nooks and crannies is Tom Happ's Axiom Verge. It seems at first blush to follow the Metroid template extremely closely... you've got a gun, you climb up tall shafts filled with platforms, you blast the mindless creatures crawling over (and under) said platforms for health boosts. 

The gameplay is very familiar... and yet it isn't, since Trace gets weapons and abilities at a brisk pace, and they're often quite different from what you've seen in similar games. Enemies can be glitched with a reality-warping beam, altering their behavior, and the tired double jump has been forsaken, replaced with a remote controlled droid and the ability to phase through walls. You haven't seen this stuff before, which makes Axiom Verge compelling while other games in its genre have gone ripe with stagnation.

You know, games like Ori and the Blind Forest. From the overly long, occasionally interactive prologue to the retread gameplay, Ori just leaves me with a severe case of "who gives a damn." Yes, it looks better than Axiom Verge, but all that lush woodland scenery makes the action less precise. If there's a jump you can't make in Axiom Verge, you'll know it right away from the clean pixel art. Ori's levels are still navigable... they're just not as readable, and if I can be blunt, there's little reason to explore them when you've seen it all before in a dozen other games.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Don't Buy An Xbox One, Charlie Brown

Okay, some good news first. I just received my Saturn in the mail today. It seems to work fine, which makes me pretty happy, but what makes me even happier is switching the system on and hearing those tinkling chimes for the first time in years. Then hitting the reset button and hearing them all over again. Then hitting the reset button again and... well, you get the idea. I get a nostalgic jolt every time I hear it, which is why I didn't really want to buy a Japanese Saturn instead. The boot animation is the same, but the sound that accompanies it holds no personal significance to me and, if I can be blunt, is pretty damned annoying besides.

Anyway, here's a clip of the US Saturn boot sequence so you can have a taste of that joy for yourself.

Okay, now onto the bitter ranting! A few months ago, Microsoft ran a promotion which encouraged users to visit sites like Bing over an extended period of time, in exchange for a monthly payout of points, redeemable for gift cards and subscriptions to Microsoft services. If you finished all of the tasks you were given in a three month span, you'd be rewarded with three months of access to Xbox Game Pass. 

There was just one teeny little problem... in the grand tradition of a crooked carnival game, the odds were stacked against you, making it impossible to win the prize. In the final month, you were asked to make twenty daily visits to the Xbox web site, but the counter would miss every other visit, or get stuck and refuse to count upward for days at a time. Put bluntly, you couldn't finish the promotion and get your three months of Game Pass, because Microsoft wouldn't let you.

I contacted Microsoft's customer service line twice while the promotion was still active, only to be told that they were working on it and that I needed to be patient. All patience got me was another bogus offer from Microsoft, where they promised a free ten dollar gift card but only gave you a blank screen when you clicked on the link. Hours later, I tried the link again, only to be told "Sorry, we ran out of gift cards, but stay tuned for more special offers!" Yeah, like I don't already know how that's gonna go.

(By the way, have you seen Microsoft founder Bill Gates lately? He looks like friggin' Orville Redenbacher. Like, zombie Redenbacher from those scary ads.)

So yeah, I'm not terribly happy with Microsoft right now. It's not just the piss-poor customer service that offers a whole lot of stalling and very little customer service. It's also the hardware they're selling, which comes up short against its main competitor, the Playstation 4. YouTube personality Jim Sterling called the Xbox One "just a little bit shite," but that's an overly generous description of a system that can't even keep up with its own interface. Really, you should not have to wait three seconds for a cursor to jump from one game to the next, yet that's the kind of performance the Xbox One offers if you've left it in "instant on" mode for a few days. Sure, you can turn it off, but then you're not going to be able to download games in the background, and you kind of want that feature when the games in question are anywhere from 40GB to 70GB in size.

I can't say I wasn't warned. People in the know told me not to buy an Xbox One, but common sense be damned, I just had to have that sequel to Killer Instinct. Nearly one year later, I feel like I'm still paying for it.

I've Fallen Off My Skateboard and I Can't Get Up

Well, the estimated time of arrival for my Sega Saturn is tomorrow. I am so ready to add that black box of late 1990s gaming goodness to my collection... I've just got to find an Action Replay Plus and hack it and I'll be set.

In the meantime, I can occupy myself with this copy of Tony Hawk's Underground 2 I picked up at a thrift store a few days ago. Playing the game has been a nostalgic experience... not for the warm fuzzy memories of a time long past, but for the reminder of just how lousy I used to be at this game when I was in my twenties. Playing Tony Hawk requires both a working knowledge of the game's trick system and the reflexes to key in your moves while you're still airborne. I didn't have that knowledge when the series first launched in 1999... nearly twenty years later, the knowledge is there, but the reflexes aren't. Oh, the curse of being a middle aged member of Generation X! What cruel fate it is to no longer have the skill for the extreme, radical® diversions that defined your demographic!

Don't ship me off to the old folks' home just yet, though... I have a suspicion that my crummy reflexes aren't the only reason for my sluggish progress. Activision and Neversoft finally picked up the clue phone and included an arcade mode in Tony Hawk's Underground 2, after several installments without one. I was never fond of the decision to turn Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 into an adventure game, complete with annoying fetch quests, so the inclusion of a play mode similar to what was offered in the first three games is deeply appreciated. 

There's just one problem, though... this arcade mode demands a lot more of the player than the previous ones did. The letters spelling out S-K-A-T-E always seem to hang just out of reach, and there are new C-O-M-B-O letters which have to be collected while you're stringing together a series of tricks. Each level is double the size of the ones in Tony Hawk 2, and the designers have a habit of tucking items in the nooks and crannies, where you're not likely to find them. You can boost your stats by grabbing icons in each stage, but like everything else in the game, they're sadistically placed, so you'll have a hell of a time reaching them in the two minutes allotted. I don't need a crystal ball to see myself hunting down cheat codes for THUG2 in the immediate future...

Thursday, December 13, 2018

And Now, a Never-Ending Word from Our Sponsor

How dare Capcom sully the good name of the Street Fighter series by pushing constant advertising in the player's face! The Capcom I loved from the 1990s would never-

Okay, there was that Treesweet orange juice sign from Marvel Super Heroes. That happened once, but the Capcom of my youth certainly didn't make a habit of-

Blast it, it's that Fujitsu billboard from Street Fighter Alpha 2! Fine, Capcom has always been a bunch of money-grubbing whores, but at least they tried to be subtle about it twenty years ago. Now, we're getting stuff like this...

"I am marketing power made fleash!"
(image from Polygon)
Thanks to a recent update, Street Fighter V has advertising all over the friggin' place. Not subtle, unintrusive product placement that helps make each stage feel a bit more lifelike, but the Capcom Pro Tour logo plastered all over the backgrounds and characters. Yes, you can turn off the ads, but they're turned on by default. Yes, you get "fight money" for every match while the ads are on, but the payout is supremely inconsequential. Twelve FP per match to get beaten over the head with advertising is less "carrot and stick" and more like a stale baby carrot tied to the end of a telephone pole.

Honestly, I didn't like Street Fighter V that much before... it represented a low point for the series, with characters dredged from the bottom of the Capcom barrel (Rainbow Mika? Really...?) and a storyline with all the consequence of an ant's bowel movement. Piling in more commercials than the last fifty two Super Bowls combined does little to sweeten my opinion of the game. Special thanks to Polygon and Destructoid for the warning... I mean, news.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Head for Saturn

Ice Cube, somewhere between his
"Straight Outta Compton" days and his
family friendly movie days. I
dunno, I was more of a Native
Tongues guy myself.
(image from SegaXtrewe)
I've been hoping to get my Sega Saturn back from Michigan... but it's become depressingly obvious after four years that it's just never going to happen, so I had to take matters into my own hands and buy a replacement. Could I have gotten by with emulation? Sure, but the Saturn's messy hardware architecture and its lack of mainstream popularity means that no emulator does it full justice. Besides, it would just be nice having it sit proudly with the rest of my game consoles, yanno? The Saturn was home gaming for me in the latter half of the 1990s, until I eventually defected to a Playstation in 1999 and then a Dreamcast one year later.

It's a late model Saturn with the bigger, more ergonomic buttons, and it should arrive in about a week with the power cable and two controllers (again, the good ones, not those eight hundred pound gorillas the Saturn launched with in the United States). I've got an S-video cable coming from another dealer, which means the only piece of the puzzle missing is an Action Replay running Pseudo Saturn. That's the software hack that opens up the machine to a world of imports and backups. There are chip hacks for the Saturn too, but I prefer the grab 'n go convenience of a cartridge that both cracks the system's security measures and offers extra RAM for those more ambitious fighting games. You know, like Final Fight Revenge!

What, that literally required the four meg RAM cartridge! Stop hitting me!

Anyway... more news as it happens. And the swelling stops, you big meanie.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Gamers' Dreck

You know the Gamerz Tek Minigen HD which got so much critical acclaim on YouTube? Yeah, I'm not seeing the attraction. I purchased the system from a seller on Mercari, and its performance leaves much to be desired. Here, let me show you what I mean. This is the system trying (and failing) to run Streets of Rage 2... a partially visible rolling Sega logo appears on the screen for a few seconds, and you get a warning that the game won't run in your territory. Yes, I tried both the Overseas and Japan settings. Yes, I cleaned the cartridge with a Q-tip and rubbing alcohol. No, it didn't make a damned bit of difference.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 ran, which is an improvement, but maybe not so much when you consider how slow and glitchy it was. I mean, this is Sonic the friggin' Hedgehog! Slow should not be part of this equation! The split screen mode runs especially poorly (frankly it's amazing it even ran on an actual Genesis, which was shouldering the performance burden of two systems), but even the single player mode was unacceptably sluggish. It was bad enough to make me consider breaking out the AtGames Genesis Flashback HD instead. Okay, maybe just the Super Retrocade.

The other games in my currently slim southwestern collection run well enough, but playing underachievers like Jeopardy! or Tommy Lasorda Baseball instead of Streets of Rage 2 misses the point of owning a Genesis. I dread to think of what the Minigen HD would do to one of the more demanding titles I have back in Michigan, like Gunstar Heroes or Dynamite Headdy!

Word on the street is that Sony- yes, the entertainment and tech giant who's been in the video game industry for nearly a quarter of a decade- whiffed its own attempt at a plug and play console, filling the Playstation Classic with slow-running PAL games and including an emulator that can't even do those justice. Why Sony didn't just repackage its own capable Playstation TV hardware instead of starting from scratch with a budget Android chip is a mystery so puzzling even Robert Stack couldn't solve it, but hey, at least that's a hundred dollars I won't have to spend this holiday. If I had an ounce of damn sense, I'd stop buying these crappy plug and plays entirely and just be happy with my Raspberry Pi.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Read All About It!

Another Black Friday has come and gone, and I've survived the ensuing retail carnage... by avoiding it entirely. Hey, I might still play video games, but I'm just too old (and wise) to get trampled in a human stampede for the slim chance of scoring some discounted tech trinket.

However, some of these deals will continue throughout the weekend, and since they're on the internet, you won't risk life and limb to get them. Both Sony and Microsoft have Black Friday sales for their respective game systems, and you can get Sonic Mania on Steam for as little as seven dollars if you know where to look. (Hint: look here.) Perhaps the niftiest deal of all is for the series of books published by Hardcore Gaming 101... you can get titles like The Guide to Shoot-Em-Ups and NES Cult Classics for three dollars a pop, if you don't mind reading them from the Kindle app.

Also! If you're a fan of fighting games, give yourself a post-Thanksgiving treat and watch the Power Punchers episode of Craig of the Creek. It's got tons of references more dedicated players will recognize right away, including a shout out to MAME (called the Great Arcade Machine Emulator here. Well, it was great until they decided it had to emulate every computer known to man...) and characters loosely based on May the pirate from Guilty Gear X and Skate from Streets of Rage 2. It's chicken soup for the geek soul, even if your relationship with your own father was never as idyllic as what's depicted here.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Woeful, Warrior: The Sad Story of Joust 2

You know that scene in the movie Ghost where Patrick Swayze's treacherous friend gets sliced in half by a jagged window? He doesn't realize that he's already dead, but Swayze, who already took that trip to the other side, knows what's coming, and shakes his head mournfully as the man he once respected is surprised and dragged to hell by badly animated demons. That's how Joust 2 makes me feel. Minus the erotic pottery class with Demi Moore, of course.

I've been vocal in the past about my preference of Joust to Nintendo's clone Balloon Fight. Some will argue that Balloon Fight is the more intuitive game, since it's got balloons that just beg to be popped, rather than the impossibility of aerial battles between flightless birds. However, Joust is a faster game, and it's definitely got the edge in style. It's got sinister knights astride vultures, screaming pterodactyls, and rocky platforms magically suspended in mid-air, high above a bubbling pool of lava that a troll is using as his personal jacuzzi. Joust arrests the eyes and captivates the soul, in the same way a heavy metal album cover would while flipping through discs in a record store. By comparison, Balloon Fight is textbook Nintendo... a fluffy marshmallow of a game that sacrificed its teeth for mass appeal. I've made this visual metaphor before, but it bears repeating. 

Hefty, Hefty, Hefty! Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy!
So it pains me to say that if I were given the choice between Balloon Fight or Joust's sequel, I would have to pick Nintendo's child-safe, up with people and hooray for everything substitute. The irony is that I hate Joust 2 for exactly the same reasons that I love the first Joust. It's got the same warped blend of medieval fantasy and surrealism as the original, with slightly improved graphics and a wider variety of situations and freaky creatures to fight. Problem is, you won't find much game under all that creativity.

Why. Just... why?
(image from Internet Archive)
Let's first address Joust 2's biggest failure, the critical error that drags it to hell in spite of its good intentions. Both the original Joust and Nintendo's clone Balloon Fight used a horizontal monitor, giving the player plenty of room to dodge incoming attacks. Whether it was a hungry buzzard from the left or a well-fed balloonist from the right, you had room to anticipate the enemy and react. In a thumb of the nose at common sense, Joust 2 opts for a "tate" monitor that restricts horizontal movement while wasting pixels on the top of the screen.

I'm not against vertically oriented monitors! They have their place... but only in games suited to them. Without tate, Crazy Climber's skyscrapers wouldn't seem as perilously high, Donkey Kong wouldn't be able to keep Pauline just out of Mario's reach, and Pac-Man couldn't keep tabs on the four monsters constantly on his trail. Tate is also extremely important in shoot 'em ups like Dodonpachi, where bullets rain down from the top of the screen and you need that couple of extra seconds to dart around them. 

You didn't need that extra third of a
screen, did you?
(image from the Pac-Man Wikia)
All of these games were ported to home systems, and lost something in translation due to their use of horizontally oriented television sets. The screen would be pillarboxed to compensate, or the playfield would have to be compressed, leaving the game feeling compromised, or scrolling would have to be introduced, leaving the player with an uncomfortable and occasionally dangerous blind spot.

It's the price you pay when you take a game out of its natural aspect ratio... but it's a price Joust 2 didn't have to pay, since it was running on dedicated hardware. The developers could just as easily have went with a horizontal monitor... hell, they could have just designed Joust 2 as a conversion kit, and used the same monitor as the original. That didn't happen, though, and the lost horizontal resolution exacerbates all of the game's other problems.

No kidding it's game over! You
give me that little room to move,
and you waste it on a block font
title and a gaudy statue?
(image from Vizzed)
Put simply, Joust 2 is all style and no substance, all apple and no core, all reckless ambition with no discipline to keep it in check. There's too much stuff in the game, and not nearly enough room to hold it all. Along with the classic buzzards and pterodactyls, you're accosted by a new cast of enemies that seem designed to annoy rather than challenge and excite. The eggs from defeated buzzards that spill into open lava pits re-emerge as more aggressive mutants. The eggs that land on solid ground eventually hatch into knights, which were harmless in the first game but are armed with lances in the sequel. These threats are joined by bolts of lightning, button operated robot knights, and swarms of crystal bats... and you'll have no room to dodge any of them. 

(Since people familiar with this game will be expecting me to mention this, you can transform into a heartier pegasus, but it's too fat to fly without frantic button hammering, and about as useful in an aerial battle as Pinkie Pie. See, she's one of the My Little Pony characters who doesn't have wings or magic powers, and she's crazy and unpredictable on top of that. Look, lots of grown men have seen the new My Little Pony. My point is that the pegasus is worthless. Shut up.)

Evidently the designers thought it would be a grand idea to cut the horizontal resolution in half while doubling the number of onscreen enemies. Maybe they thought the added chaos would make Joust 2 more intense, but it just leaves the player feeling helpless, while jamming handfuls of quarters into both the machine and the nearest swear jar. If the first Joust was emblematic of pre-crash arcade games, where the objectives were simple and you could play for hours on one credit if you had the mad skillz, Joust 2 is a reflection of arcade games released after the NES, demanding a steady flow of coins for your entertainment. 

Joust 2 is no match for the visual splendor and
the magical sound shower of Sega's OutRun.
(image from HITC)
Unfortunately, Joust 2 finds itself in an awkward gap between the two generations... the impossibility of surviving on one token makes it a lousy sequel to Joust, but it just doesn't have the visual luster or the mindless fun to make players want to keep dropping in more. Its graphics just aren't on the same level as Final Fight, or Golden Axe, or the similarly surreal but much flashier Space Harrier. Hell, Joust 2 can't even compete with OutRun, which was released in the same year but is a far more effective peep show for mid 80s pixel porn.

Poor, poor Joust. I had so much respect for you, but you lost your way... only to discover that you didn't have the strength to follow in the footsteps of more advanced arcade games. Now the only way we can keep in touch is through a Ouiji board.

Monday, November 12, 2018

What in the Name of Sega Genesis is Going On?

Bad news, nobody! You thought you were finished with AtGames, but they're not finished with you! There's a new Sega Flashback on shelves, and this one's locked down so hackers can't add their own emulators. On the plus side, this time they might not need to tinker around with it. Here's what you'll find inside, courtesy of GBAtemp's WD_Gaster2. (You may remember him from an earlier post... he's the guy who cracked the Super Retro-Cade along with a handful of other programmers.)

Unlike the previous Flashback, this has a built in SD card slot, presumably for adding your own games. Also unlike the previous Flashback, this will have a competent emulator, Genesis Plus GX by Charles MacDonald and Eke-Eke. MacDonald has been making emulators for, like, ever, so it's likely that this system will be much improved over the last one. As for me, I'll probably hold off until the official Mega Drive Mini is released.

Friday, November 9, 2018


You know, Nintendo, sometimes you really piss me off. "Sometimes" being most of the time lately.

Just one year after the closure of Miiverse (a right brain social media experiment that let people post images of their progress in video games and comment with text or simple drawings), Nintendo has announced that it will bring all video streaming services on the Wii to a grinding halt. Yes, it's a legacy system, but with one hundred ten million units sold, the Wii is everywhere. It was a cheap and convenient gateway to Netflix for less tech-savvy consumers who may have found other devices too cumbersome. I say this from personal experience, because my mother is using a Wii right now to watch episodes of Jane the Virgin*. Apparently, she won't be doing much of that after January 29th.

Because Nintendo subscribes to the
adage "go big or go home" when
screwing its customers, it released
the Wii Mini in late 2012. It has no wi-fi,
no Internet, no SD card slot, no
component video, and no GameCube
support. It's mini in size, but delivers
BIG disappointment!
I marvel at how poorly the Wii has aged, and it's not just because of the budget hardware that kept it one step behind its competitors in overall performance. Due to its reliance on online features, and Nintendo's eagerness to pull the plug on those features at its earliest convenience, it's a console that just keeps getting shittier with each passing year. The Wii experience is already a hollow shell of its former self without apps like the News Channel, Weather Channel, and Everybody Votes. In two months, you won't even be able to use it to stream videos. 

I can't think of too many other consoles in my collection with an eroding feature set. The Sega Genesis has been around for thirty years, and its support for the Power Base Converter and the Sega CD has remained intact. Classic Game Boy games still fit in my Game Boy Advance, and the Kinect still connects to my Xbox 360. Yet everything that the Wii was in 2006 no longer is twelve years later. Call it the curse of the internet age, but I prefer to think of it as Nintendo being a humongous dick.

* About this show. I was talking to a trans guy about it last night, and he made the point that the premise for this series, about a woman who's artificially inseminated by accident, sounds more like a medical nightmare than the basis for a zany comedy. He's not wrong, you know.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Black and Blue Panther

First, since everyone else will be telling you the same thing, vote... preferably for someone without a vacuum for a soul. We could use far fewer sociopaths in our government right now.

Second, I recently received that PSP spin-off of Yakuza in the mail, and I've spent enough time with Kurohyo: Ryu Ga Gotoku Shinsho (we'll just shorten that to Black Panther from this point forward) to discuss it at length here on this blog. 

It's fascinating how much Black Panther strives to be like its big brothers on home consoles, while working just as hard to establish its own, darker tone. Yes, Kiryu from the main series is a made man, a yakuza member who's seen his share of fights and committed his share of dirty deeds. However, deep down he's actually a pretty nice guy. He's as likely to be caught doing favors for the residents of Kamurocho as he is busting heads, and he even retires from the mob in Yakuza 3 to raise a house full of orphans. 

On the other hand, Black Panther's lead Tatsuya is more likely to create orphans than care for them. He's a no-good punk with a gold-lined jacket and a disturbing fondness for violence. When that bloodlust gets the better of him and he kills a high-ranking member of the Chinese mafia, Tatsuya is cornered by the dead man's associates and given two options... either fight to earn his freedom in a series of underground matches, or get ratted out to the cops and spend the rest of his life in prison.

Streets so bustling with people they
might leave you agoraphobic.
For the rest of the game, Tatsuya is the mob's toy... and any attempts to escape their grasp are quickly thwarted. I worried that he was going to be stuck in that dank basement forever, but after his first victory in the blood-stained arena, the mafia loosens its grip on Tatsuya's choke chain and lets him explore the streets of Kamurocho. Pop into the Poppo for a C.C. Lemon and browse a few magazines, grab a bite at the fast food restaurant, even try your hand at the claw catcher in Club Sega... just be back later in the evening to shatter some bones in the octagon. We're watching you.

When strolling through Kamurocho, Black Panther feels a lot like Yakuza, albeit with some annoying caveats. It's pretty awesome that the streets are absolutely packed with people... you'll see a dozen or more tourists, drunk salarymen, and thugs wandering around, and if they get in your way, just keep running and you'll push your way through the crowd. On the down side, the backgrounds are all still images, and it's likely that you'll leave one static screen only to be facing an entirely different direction in the next. Even with the map on the bottom left corner, you will get disoriented, and that's not at all helpful when you're being pursued by rival gang members or cops.

The first of many, many... many fight scenes.
While stuck in the basement, waiting for your turn to flatten some noses in the ring, Black Panther alternates between hand-drawn, minimally animated cut scenes (way too lengthy, way too unskippable) and commendably deep, gorgeously illustrated fights. Tatsuya can charge up his punches and kicks, catch incoming fists for a punishing reversal, dodge attacks with a slick slow motion flourish, and in keeping with Yakuza tradition, "heat" up and end the fight with a devastating super move. Fights aren't just limited to the ring... you can also battle members of the D.I.S. and Diablo gangs in Kamurocho, but the load times are so long and the battles end so quickly that it's probably best to wait for the battles mandated by the storyline. At least in the easy mode, the punks on the street cave after just a few hits. Your opponents in the arena will offer a more satisfying scrap.

That's as much as I can tell you about Black Panther with my limited knowledge of Japanese. The game is thick with kanji, and you're going to have a hell of a time following the story or even reading item names if you're not a native speaker. It's certainly playable with a little practice, and you get the gist of each character's personality from the cut scenes (did I mention these were way too long...?), but it nevertheless leaves a lot of blanks that won't be filled in until a fan-made English translation is released. With all the kanji used in this game, you might be waiting a while for one.

What I've played of Black Panther strongly suggests that Sega shouldn't have slept on a Western localization. It's not just a solid off-shoot of the Yakuza series with the astonishing graphics you'd expect from a late PSP release... it strikes me as more appealing to Americans than the flagship series, thanks to its grittier setting, a younger protagonist, and a heavy metal soundtrack that adds impact to every crushing blow. Not that the game is hurting for impact, mind you... just check out some of the fine finishers you can perform, either on your own or with a computer controller partner. These look like they hurt... not as much as Sega's decision not to publish Black Panther and its sequel in the west, but still pretty painful.

Special thanks to Black Panther's Wikipedia entry and the Yakuza Wikia for clarifying the storyline in Black Panther and for providing a refresher on the Yakuza series respectively.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Hallow Pursuits: More PSP Reviews

Yes, it's a Halloween post that has nothing to do with Halloween. Now take these PSP reviews and this small box of raisins and scoot. And don't even think of TP-ing the house, because I know your parents' phone number.

Ultimate Block Party

The lead characters Kollon and Marinne fished
their sidekicks out of a claw machine.
I imagine they have some ugly stories
about where that claw has been...
This game was pilloried by the press for not being Lumines, but here's a crazy thought... there's room in the vast PSP library for puzzle games that aren't Lumines! Ultimate Block Party is an entirely different beast, a warmly familiar throwback to the dozens of Japanese titles released shortly after Tetris hit the NES in 1990. It most closely resembles Tetris Attack or Puzzle League, with players scrambling to match colored blocks as they're fed into the bottom of the playfield. The big difference is that you rotate the pieces into place, and can tack extra blocks onto a successful match before it disappears. The blocks come at you fast after you've gone up a dozen levels, and you'll have to be just as quick to clear them away and stay in the game.

You'll want to keep playing too, because the frantic action is accented with a cast of abstractly drawn, cleverly designed characters and a soundtrack with tunes ranging from "pretty good" to "where have you been all my life?" The track that plays in the single player challenge is the best use of steel drums since Compile released Guru Guru Logic for the Game Boy Advance back in 2001. Throw in a versus mode that lets you mess with your opponent's playfield in all kinds of nasty ways, and you've got a top-shelf puzzle game that proudly stands apart from Lumines and its sequel.


Puzzle Guzzle

Omitted for the sake of your sanity:
"Stop it!" "Waah!" "Stop it!" "Waah!" "Stop..."
Ultimate Block Party proves that puzzle action on the PSP doesn't have to be limited to Lumines... but the drab Puzzle Guzzle illustrates that you at least have to put in some effort to get noticed. On one hand, the game's play mechanics are original, with the player building tangrams out of scattered triangles. On the other hand is... everything else. The presentation is aggressively bland, with a series of nondescript shapes taking the place of the brightly colored, hilariously animated stars of Ultimate Block Party. Sure, you can build your own forgettable mascot from the pieces of your vanquished opponents, but it's a feature that doesn't amount to much. 

Frankly, "doesn't amount to much" is a pretty good way to describe Puzzle Guzzle in general. Mindlessly spinning pieces provides some brief distraction, and will really annoy your roommate with the constant blipping noises streaming from your PSP, but there's not much else that can be said in the game's defense. Other puzzle games are better... yes, even ones without "Lumines" in the title.


Xi Coliseum

The Japanese are getting this in their version
of the Playstation Classic. What are we
getting? Tom freaking Clancy. Bah!
Funny thing about Sony... the company makes a lot of games for its Playstation line, but some of them never leave Japan, and others still are licensed to third parties for publication in the United States. Such was the case with Demon's Souls for the Playstation 3 and Bombastic for the Playstation 2. Evidently Sony didn't have enough faith in these two titles to bring them to America, and let Atlus and Capcom take that risk instead.

Sometimes the risk pays off... Demon's Souls was a surprise hit, spawning numerous sequels and starting its own sub-genre of viciously hard action adventure games. Sometimes it goes exactly as Sony expected, and the game doesn't click with Americans. That was the case with Bombastic, which is likely why its PSP counterpart Xi Coliseum never came to the United States.

Xi Coliseum looks a lot like Bombastic, using the same cel-shaded graphics and rounded fonts. However, the gameplay hearkens back to the humble debut of the series, Devil Dice. Rossi the elf still rolls dice around the playfield by racing along their tops, but when several like-numbered dice touch, they don't explode... they just turn red and melt away, lessening the excitement and limiting the opportunity for score-boosting chain reactions. 

Why Sony took a step back from the frenzied action of Bombastic is anyone's guess, but Xi Coliseum is still a strong entry in this series of addictive, if somewhat inscrutable, puzzle games. It's got a higher learning curve than Tetris, which is probably why it never caught on in America, but once you wrap your head around the play mechanics, you'll get why the Japanese love it.


Marvel Ultimate Alliance
Activision/Vicarious Visions

Presented by Shrinky-Dinks!
What is this, a game for Ant-Man? Marvel Ultimate Alliance gets credit for being so faithful to the home console versions, but sometimes it feels like there's just too much game here for the PSP to handle. The system's resolution and the camera, apparently set on a satellite miles above Earth, means that you'll have trouble telling the difference between Luke Cage, Wolverine, and the nameless soldiers they're supposed to fight. It's like you're playing Marvel Ultimate Amoebas through a microscope.

Yes, the camera can be adjusted, but that just leads to more proof that Marvel Ultimate Alliance fits the PSP almost as well as The Incredible Hulk fits in one of Bruce Banner's shirts. The control for everything beyond running and punching is awkward, with the player forced to press combinations of the face and shoulder buttons to use super powers and switch between teammates. It works, but it's uncomfortably constrained. If Marvel Ultimate Alliance on consoles was a first-class experience, the PSP version of this thinly disguised dungeon crawler is more like being squeezed between passengers in coach.


Def Jam: The Takeover
Electronic Arts/Aki

"C'mon baby, better make it hurt."
And boy, do they.
Technically, Def Jam: The Takeover is inferior to its console counterparts. Most of the cut scenes and voice clips have been trimmed away, and the graphics have been streamlined to the point where your fighters look like the background characters in the Xbox version, and the background characters look only vaguely human. What happened to your face? Do you even have one? You shouldn't be on the sidelines of an underground fight... you should crawl back into your cloning tank!

So it's a bit of a surprise that I actually prefer this to Def Jam: Fight for New York. It dispenses with the storyline of the original and gets right to the business of fighting, and fighting dirty. The game doesn't cut corners here... you get all the fighting styles, all the outrageous moves, and of course all the pain of the console versions. You'll find yourself wincing a little when you send your opponent's head through a jukebox, or fling them into an oncoming subway train. The action seems a touch slower than it was on the Xbox, but I consider that a plus since the fights were overwhelming at their original speed.

Def Jam: The Takeover takes out some of the content from the console versions, but it kept what was most important. Namely, Xzibit sitting on his opponent's back, then punching him in the head and ass until the broken bastard has to be carried away on a stretcher.


Monday, October 29, 2018

And That's Final

I said I was going to discuss this a few days ago, and I suppose I should make good on that promise before it slips my mind. A member of the Talking Time forum named Peklo wrote a lengthy examination of the R-Type series, which is deeper and more contemplative than you ever thought a discussion about a shoot 'em up from the 1980s could be. Peklo looks at everything from the evolving storyline to the color schemes used throughout the series, starting with the meaty organic reds of the original and ending with the subdued oranges and browns of R-Type Final, evocative of sundown or the months of autumn. The developers at Irem wanted to drive home the point that R-Type Final really was the end of the line for the series. In an industry where stale franchises get dragged from one decade to the next, it's refreshing to find a series of games that knew when to make a dignified exit.

Okay, promise kept. Now let's turn our attention to the Playstation Classic. The full list of games was recently posted online... let's give it a look.

image from Cheap Ass Gamer
Well, that sure is... something. It's hard to represent the eleven year lifespan of the Playstation with just twenty games, but picking these games makes me wonder if Sony was even trying. I'm totally down with Intelligent Qube and Jumping Flash, and Twisted Metal, Resident Evil, and Metal Gear Solid just about had to be there. At the same time, Grand Theft Auto feels like revisionist history on Sony's part... sure, it's a big series NOW, but it would be hard to find anyone who gave a damn about it back in its early days, when the action was seen from an overhead view and the control could be charitably described as wonky. Similarly, there's too much presence from Ubisoft, which is a major game publisher in the 21st century but didn't get much love from Americans in the 1990s. Sure Ubisoft, Rayman is famous all over the world, not just France. Whatever helps you sleep at night. (pats beret condescendingly)

The Japanese get a better selection of games in their version of the Playstation Classic, with G-Darius, Armored Core, and the inscrutable yet strangely compelling Devil Dice taking the place of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six and Destruction Derby. All the same, there are better ways to get your early Playstation fix. Might I recommend the Vita instead? Sure, I'll give you a minute to dig yours out of the drawer and wipe the dust off the front.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Hacking Up PhlEGM

Ah, Electronic Gaming Monthly. The more things change, the more you stay the same. You're aggressively pushing high profile games that probably don't need your hype, just like you did back in 1991 when Street Fighter II hit arcades and you just wouldn't shut up about it. Let me put on my rubber gloves and scoop up their latest journalistic offering, referencing Rockstar's long-awaited (although heaven only knows why) Red Dead Redemption 2...

EGM: "One of the most gorgeous, seamless, rootinest, tootinest games ever made, and if you voluntarily miss out on it, you’re either not a gamer or in a coma."

Oh no, my gamer cred has been threatened! I'd better run out and buy the bloodthirstiest, shoot 'em firstiest, doggone worstiest video game ever made, before my reputation as a forty year old man who plays Xbox in his underpants is sullied forever!

Heh. Right. Look, I've been playing games since I could grip a joystick with my chubby little baby hands, and I'll be playing them long after EGM ends publication, most likely with my gnarled, arthritic old man hands. (By the way, when is EGM ending publication? Let me know so I can mark it on my calender and buy some bubbly for the occasion.)

Just for the record, I can think of plenty of reasons I wouldn't want to buy Red Dead whatever. The fact that I just don't like Rockstar games is pretty high on that list. I'm currently knee deep in the definitive edition of Sleeping Dogs and I'm having more fun with that than I ever had with anything Rockstar has published. It's the little things, like a protagonist you don't want to punch in the face and cars with a reasonable turning radius. If that wasn't enough reason to skip RDR2, there's what we already know about the working conditions at Rockstar...
It's crunch time, peons! We need twice the bricks,
and you'll need to supply your own straw!
(image from
Anyway. I was going to discuss a deep and well-researched article I found elsewhere about R-Type, but it deserves its own blog post, rather than having the second-hand stink of EGM rubbing off on it. Stay tuned for that in a couple of days.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Diggin' A Hole

I'm not even sure if AtGames disappointing players is news at this point... more like a morbid inevitability, like death or taxes. But it's happened again, and in the worst possible way. AtGames sent out a handful of its Bandai-Namco Blast plug 'n play units to prominent YouTube game reviewers, and the device was well received thanks to its rock solid emulation of a dozen Namco arcade hits.

Problem is, while these reviewers were treated to a top-shelf product, ordinary consumers got something far less exciting when they stepped foot into their local Wal-Mart. The Blast available in stores is powered by a (shoestring) budget processor and runs the NES ports of a dozen Namco arcade hits. Here's where the salt really hits the wound... those games aren't even well emulated, hobbled with screen tearing and frame skipping. Here's YouTube tech-spert ETA Prime with the ugly details.

(Hm, tech-spert. That's kinda catchy... I need to trademark that or something.)

It's galling enough that the games are dumbed down versions of arcade favorites. Some of those NES conversions are actually pretty faithful (Galaga, Dig Dug, Mappy), while others miss the mark by a mile (Xevious, Pac-Man), but regardless of their quality, there's no excuse for the Blast to deliver anything less than the full arcade experience. It's 2018, man. We have the technology... hell, AtGames delivered that technology to reviewers. 

Ignoring that, we've had several plug 'n plays over the last twelve years that came a lot closer to arcade perfection than the Blast does. Personally, I owned Jakks-Pacific's Ms. Pac-Man joystick from 2007 and was quite happy with its performance. Another gamer, Negative1 from the AtariAge forum, sang the praises of the more recent Bandai Pac-Man Connect and Play, claiming that all the patterns and tricks from the arcade originals will work on this device as well. This is not a guy who's quick with a compliment... there's a reason they call him Negative1.

Getting back to the Blast, what's most frustrating about this product is that it not only doesn't bring the arcade experience home (in spite of AtGames' apparent attempts to convince consumers otherwise), it can't even meet the minimal expectation of running NES games at their original speed. NES games, which ran perfectly well on a Pentium computer and a freeware emulator twenty years ago!
The AtGames Blast isn't as good as NESticle,
which was designed twenty years ago by two
stoners and had a character named Shitman as
a mascot. It really makes you think, doesn't it?
(image from NeoGAF)
(also, I know it's gross. Sorry!)
AtGames is currently defending itself from criticism and the obvious accusation that it tried to hoodwink YouTube reviewers with a ringer in place of their actual product. Most people aren't buying it, not only because the company's reputation is already in the sewer thanks to ten years of inferior products, but because their press flack has addressed the controversy with all the charm and forthrightness of the Iraqi Information Minister. Perhaps instead of flimsy excuses, snitty rejoinders, and clinging to technicalities (the pictures of arcade games on the package were for reference purposes only! You don't expect fresh strawberries in your box of Special K cereal too, do you?), this would have been a more appropriate response...
(image from Mega Man Network)