Saturday, March 31, 2012

Google Maps... for the NES

Go on Google Maps right now and click on the Quest button in the top right hand corner for a surprise :)

It's a preview of a new google product:

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

So the latest Zelda was released back in December to rave reviews some going so far as to give it 10/10 scores. I however beg to differ. While Skyward Sword is still a brilliant game it was also very disappointing.

The new motion controls provided by the Wii motion plus add-on are what separate this game from the rest of the series. In many ways they work wonderfully for the majority of the game. Alas there’s a few areas that are let down by the controls and these appear often enough to frustrate. I found first person aiming and the one to one sword swinging controls to work brilliantly, particularly the sword fighting that really adds a changes how combat works, which had previously remained largely unchanged since Ocarina of Time. However when you are required to stab your sword forwards the controls often register this as a swing in the heat of the moment and can lead to frustration. I also wasn’t a fan of the bomb controls. Throwing bombs is fine but rolling them proved annoying, although this is probably due to the way I have to sit while playing games in my room, pointing downwards with the wii-mote is troublesome. I was also quite disappointed with the Goddess’s Harp item when compared to the excellent musical instruments of past Zelda’s.  The area that really lets the game down however is the flying segments with your Loftwing. I found the controls annoying and imprecise, which is quite strange considering the flying controls for the beetle item were excellent and I had no problems with them.

Why won't you fly where I want you to!
The games structure and how it progresses also proved a sore point for me. The game is divided up into 3 separate areas at ground level that need to be explored and are accessible from the main Skyloft hub world. The main town of Skyloft is densely populated with some great characters and is great fun to explore but outside of this town the sky is largely empty and devoid of anything meaningful to do. It feels like padding and coupled with the bad flying controls it’s not fun at all and feels unnecessary. I would honestly have preferred to have selected my destination from a menu.

There are only three main areas in the game to visit that are not interlinked but all three are huge. However there’s no real exploration in the game like in previous Zelda games. Each area feels like a traditional Zelda dungeon except set outside. The game is blighted by constant handholding and interruptions from your companion Fi that make sure you are never wondering where to go next. Fi manages to be more annoying than even Navi with her constant interruptions to state the obvious. I found the lack of overworld exploration took something away from the Zelda formula and the constant puzzles grew tiring without something to break up it up and add variety.

Thankfully there’s an awful lot to like about this game. Other than the Loftwing sections and one misjudged stealth section late in the game there really isn’t a dull moment. The pacing is excellent and the motion controls really bring a new dimension to the puzzles, dungeons and combat. Although you will revisit each of the three ground level areas multiple times throughout the adventure, they change subtly or massive new sections open up that constantly keep the game fresh with the Lanayru Desert area being particularly inspired. I found the game quite challenging as well. It’s not exactly difficult but it was a lot more rewarding than recent Zelda games that have been a walk in the park. The boss fights are a highlight and are some of the best in the series.

You can really tell a lot of care and attention has been put into the world of Skyward Sword. The game is absolutely stunning despite the host hardware. It uses a unique filtering method to give the world and textures a very painterly style. I’d love to see more games use this aesthetic. Every area is beautifully designed and interesting. The music throughout is excellent, from the stunning orchestrated tracks to more subtle touches like how the music will change seamlessly in the bazaar depending on which shop you visit.

Although the story doesn’t live up the promise set out in the opening hour or two, I really loved the characters that inhabited Skyward Swords world. Each NPC in Skyloft is unique and has their own personality, I just wish more was made of the subquests so we could learn more about them.  I think the game could have benefitted from extensive sidequests as seen in Majora’s Mask so that the fantastic world and characters that the artists built could have been exploited more. Special mention has to go to the item check in girl and her subquest, I got a great laugh out of her. I really loved the characters that were central to the main storyline. Zelda and Groose in particular were fantastically written and it was great seeing them grow in the course of the game.

That's it Zelda, you tell off that big oaf!

 Although Skyward Sword is of exceptionally high quality it still has many flaws. It really pains me to see the press lavish so much praise on the game and totally gloss over these flaws considering it’s what they are paid to do. It pains me even more to see the 1up review, which I feel was one of the few to actually give the game a proper review, have its comments section over run by people giving out about the supposedly low mark it received. Last time I checked a B+ from 1up was an excellent review score. I myself would still highly recommend it but just don’t be surprised if by the end you feel it was a little lacking as part of the Zelda series. I feel the lack of freedom given to the player to explore is the main factor. I hope in the next iteration of the series that Nintendo give the player a bit more benefit of doubt that we don't need to be told exactly where to go all the time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Nier is game that I would never have considered playing because of the critical panning it received and the fact that it was associated with Square Enix who have really gone downhill in the last few years. I have to give a big thanks to everyone on the Hardcore Gaming 101 forums for recommending this game. I would never have taken a chance on this game otherwise.

 Nier is one of the most interesting games to be released this generation. It might look like a generic hack and slash but that’s only half of what the game offers. It’s a surprising mish mash of genres that shouldn’t work but gels together wonderfully. One minute you are engaged in hack and slash fights when the camera changes and the game starts to resemble something closer to a twin stick shooter. There’s a schizophrenic mix of genres present from box pushing puzzle games to even a text based adventure section. What makes this all work so well is how the game transitions seamlessly between them. Nier’s hack and slash sections may not be as technical as Bayonetta but are nonetheless fun if a bit simplistic. It does however have some of the best boss battles in a long time, all of them are a joy to fight.

What really made Nier standout for me was the quality of the writing.  Nier has one of the best written storylines for a game I’ve ever played.  Make sure you also explore the new game + mode which cleverly manages to take everything you thought you knew about the story and completely turn it on its head. I’ll say no more because to do so would spoil it but it you are interested in good narrative in videogames then Nier is one of the very best. Unfortunately a lot of the material on the Nier universe was contained in a pack in book with the Japanese release that wasn’t made available in the English language release. However when you beat the game and wish to find out more there is a google documents translation project that has translated it in its entirety. It’s not essential to the understanding of the story but is recommended reading for people who have finished the game and want to learn more.

Complimenting the excellent plot is a wonderful cast of characters. The English voice acting by all concerned is top notch especially the band of misfits that eventually end up traveling with Nier. Special mention has to be given to Weiss and Kaine and their respective voice actors Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey. Weiss, the pompous and aloof talking magical book, and Kaine, the foul mouthed lingerie wearing female party member, are wonderful and their voice actors give fantastic performances. The chemistry between these two characters is the best I’ve experienced in a game since Trode and Yangus in Dragon Quest VIII and will raise just as many laughs, particularly how Weiss refers to Kaine as a ‘Hussy’. They’re not just there for laughs though. I’ve mentioned before that I love strong female characters and Kaine is one of the best. She might seem like nothing more than eye candy considering the clothes she wears, or lack thereof, but she is by far the deepest, interesting and most messed up character in the game. Sure they even explain why she dresses like a ‘Hussy’ as well. The localisation by 8-4 as a whole is stellar.

Did I mention how much ass Kaine kicks?

 For the price that Nier is now going for it would be a crying shame if you missed out on this wonderful game. It’s up there with Deadly Premonition as one of the most interesting games released this generation. Although it’s much lower budget than most of todays blockbusters the developer Cavia makes up for it with some great art design and some exceptionally well directed cutscenes. It’s unfortunate that Cavia went bust after this game and how poorly the press treated this game because I think if given a budget that this talented group of people could have made something truly exceptional, although to be honest, with Nier they already have.

One last thing I have to mention is how amazing the soundtrack is. It’s by far the best videogame soundtrack of this generation. Sit back and have a look at this trailer for Nier which contains some of that music. I hope it convinces you to take a chance on it like I did:

My new baby: Neo Geo MVS!

Around 1994 when everyone was getting excited about the PS1 and Saturn there was only one console that I wanted, a Neo Geo CD. I was a bit obsessed with fighting games in those days and was reading at the time about how SNK's fighters like King of Fighters 94 and Samurai Showdown 2 were way better than anything Capcom or any other company was putting out at the time. Of course the only way I could play them was in the arcade and my parents didn't like me hanging out in arcades back then.

Since then however I've realised that getting a Neo Geo CD would have been absolute folly due to the unbearable load times in most games, as demonstrated in the video below. The real way to play Neo Geo was on an AES home console or a MVS arcade system. Not being a multi millionaire means that the MVS was more within my price range but it still always remained out of my reach. Until now that is.

May I present to you my new baby in all its exposed circuit board glory. It's been a dream of mine to own for the last 15+ years but finally I get to own one :

Excuse the mess and the terrible picture quality. It might not be pretty but what it does makes up for it:

Anyway I hope I can get a few more MVS games together and can write about them. Been busy the last few days since I'll be in a play next week and am up to my eyes with rehearsals.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Phantasy Star

Just finished Phantasy Star 2 which I’ll write about later but first I want to talk about the original Phantasy Star.

Phantasy Star was created by the team headed by the legendary game designer Reiko Kodama and the equally worthy of praise programmer Yuji Naka. Unlike most other RPGs that have a Tolkien-esque fantasy setting, Phantasy Star is more sci-fi although it does have some fantasy elements like magic and swordplay just to mix things up and keep them interesting. While RPGs today take place in a wide variety of settings and universes at the time of release the setting of Phantasy Star which combines fantasy and sci-fi was a big change of direction and even today there’s not much else quite like it.

The overworld and towns aren't as impressive as the rest of the game admittedly
 Phantasy Star takes place in the Algol star system. Algol is ruled by King Lassic who has become a tyrannical dictator. When one of the members of the rebellion, Nero, is killed by King Lassic’s enforcers his sister goes against all videogame female conventions and instead of getting herself kidnapped or something else as helpless, she picks up her sword and sets out to kick King Lassic’s ass.  One of the aspects that surprised most people, including me, was the strong female lead character, probably due to the influence of Reiko Kodama, a member of the fairer sex working in a male dominated industry. I absolutely love games that are brave enough to feature strong female roles, I just find them so much more interesting, and I’ve nothing but praise for Phantasy Star for being such an early example of a game with a strong female lead.  There’s three other characters to pick up along the way, including a talking cat but it’s Alis who is the life and soul of the game.

The games story is told through some gorgeous anime style cutscenes. Remember this game is from 1987!

Phantasy Star was released a mere two days after the original Final Fantasy in Japan and a good 2 years before it in the West. I believe it’s the much better game. The first thing that you will notice is just how gorgeous this game looks. It’s seriously the best looking 8-bit game I’ve ever seen and I’ve played many Megadrive games that look significantly worse. All the enemy sprites have animated attacks, something the FF series didn’t manage even into the SNES era, and the 3D first person dungeon effect is silky smooth thanks to the wonderful programming skills of Yuji Naka. The game came on a massive for its time 4 Mb ROM cartridge with battery backup memory. Of course there are some limitations, you can only fight multiples of the same enemy and only one is displayed on the screen and the while the music is catchy the awful master system soundchip lets it down. I hear the Japanese master system has an FM sound chip that makes the music sound much better.

 Phantasy Star is inspired by Western dungeon crawling RPGs like Wizardry rather than the Dragon Quest influence of most RPGs at the time. If you plan on playing it be prepared for a steep challenge. You’ll have to do lots of grinding to get the Meseta, the games currency, and exp to buy the best equipment and to level up.  The game is a lot less linear than similar RPGs of the era so you can wander too far and be destroyed by a random encounter that is way above your current level.  The latter half of the game is non-linear and has you exploring the surface of three different worlds in the Algol system to find dungeons that contain the game’s best equipment. There’s not an awful lot to the battle system, most of the depth is provided by the conservation of supplies as you dive into the games dungeons.

I still can't get over how good the pseudo 3D effect is in the dungeons.

Phantasy Star might be a product of its time but I still found it really enjoyable. There’s a few annoying artificial progress road blocks that required a faq, one of the most annoying being a shopkeeper that won’t sell you an item called secrets. You have to pester the shop owner 3 times before he will sell it, which is very counter intuitive. However if you like a good old school dungeon crawl then Phantasy Star is probably the best you can get on any 8-bit system. It’s such a shame that it came out on the Master System and the series never reached the heights of popularity that it deserved.

Arcade and Retro Podcast Episode 7: The Legend of Zelda Series (part 1)

Another episode of the arcade and retro podcast is now up. I had a heap of fun recording this one. It's all about the zelda series and we covered every game, even the obscure satellaview and CDi games. We had to split it into two 1 hour parts since it ran for so long so here's part 1:

The language in the above picture is Irish if anyone is curious, it says 'excuse me princess'.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

I remember playing this with my friends dad years ago when he first got a NES. My friend wouldn't play it because he said he was either too afraid of it or thought it was rubbish, I can't remember which. I remember really enjoying the game even though there came a point where the two of us got horribly stuck and could not continue, I'm guessing it was the really stupid and obtuse part where you have to kneel in front of the cliff to proceed.

Coming back to Simon's Quest after so many years was a pleasant surprise. After hearing so many negative things about it, including the AVGN's entertaining video on it, I wasn't expecting to enjoy the game as much as I did. Despite the level design feeling a bit thrown together, in comparison to Castlevania's masterful level design, it's a quite an enjoyable game. I admit that I resorted to using a FAQ to complete the game this time however finding how to progress by figuring out the nonsensical requirements would have been impossible so it's kind of necessary in the days where you can't consult magazine tips sections or ask a friend of a friend of a friend who has been rumoured to have beaten it.

Simon's Quest has some interesting ideas, such as the RPG elements and leveling system, the non-linear structure and the day/night cycle that while not entirely successful are unique for a game of its time and add depth to what is otherwise a standard platform game. There's a few disappointments, the bosses, even the final one, are a complete pushover and as mentioned the level design could have been better. However with a FAQ in hand it's a perfectly enjoyable game to play over a two day period. Even if the obtuse elements deserve all the hate and bile thrown at them, Simon's Quest is far from a bad game. In fact it's pretty good.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Arcade and Retro Podcast Episode 6 – 8 Bit Micros

Another Arcade and Retro podcast and this time I'm back on board with Gavin and Paul to talk about a part of our childhood, the 8-bit microcomputers of the 80's. We mostly focused on the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum but mentioned some Amstrad CPC stuff as well. It was a challenge to keep the C64 vs. Speccy rivalry from really flaring up but we managed to make it through with only minimal injuries to each other.