Saturday, December 17, 2011

Level Up: It's Mr. Pants

Once again, the holiday season is upon us and it’s time to talk about a game I got as a gift. Here is one I never had any interest in beforehand. This is due partially to the interesting art style, but also because THQ is involved, which I have now come to know them as the B-movie equivalent of video games. However, they are balanced out by the developers; the (once) awesome rare. This game has some history behind it due to its timing. See, Rare was once a developer for Nintendo, making such classics as the Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie series, until they got bought out by Microsoft, ending, for many, the “good” stage in Rare’s lifeline. But they still had an assortment of half produced games for Nintendo, one of these apparently going to be called “Donkey Kong Coconut Crackers”. With Nintendo owning the rights to Donkey Kong, that wasn’t going to happen, so Rare put in their “mascot” instead. So, he d├ębuted on the Game Boy Advance in a puzzle game called It’s Mr. Pants.

Since I already mentioned the art style of the game, might as well start with that, and frankly… I think it sucks. I get that they chose to make it look that way, but it still sucks. The game seems like it was drawn by kindergarteners. Lines are shaky, colors pass outside the lines, things are left as stick figures and so on. Again, I get that it was meant to look like that, but it was just a terrible choice. Luckily, the blocks you HAVE to look at aren’t done in this style and have a smoother look, comparable to any puzzle game.

As for the music and sound effects, I find them equally poorly chosen. The sound effects for making blocks disappear are random animal cries. The music is too wacky and distracting while playing (though that might be the point, it’s easy to mute the system).There are also music tracks where Mr. Pants is annoyingly singing along. Now, to say something positive, I did find Mr. Pants’ voice funny to start with. However, I tired of it quickly, as you hear him read out menu items when you go on them. Plus, the voices can overlap, and if Mr. Pants is singing too, then it just becomes way too much…

Like Tetris has you making lines and Dr. Mario has you matching colors, It’s Mr. Pants game will have you making squares and rectangles. You’re given shapes of 1 to 4 units, and all you have to do is connect at least 6 units of the same color into a full rectangle or square, which will eliminate it from the screen. You are allowed to freely move the pieces on the space given and rotate them, and you’re allowed to place new colors on top of old colors, but you can’t place pieces on top of its own color. There are 3 modes of play. The first one is puzzle: you are given predetermined shapes to try to clear the board. The next one is called eliminate: the board will randomly be covered by shapes, and you’re given an unlimited amount of pieces to clear it within the time limit. And finally, there’s marathon: you start with a blank slate and are given an unlimited amount of random pieces to make as many points as possible in a time limit.

So what do I think of the game style? I really like it. It rewards creativity in that you have to really think outside the norm to make some of the shapes work (puzzle mode helps see this). This takes the classic puzzle game formula of fun colors and shapes, but gives it a slightly more intelligent twist to it.

I was surprised by how much I liked It’s Mr. Pants. The game style succeeds at being something new and creative. Puzzle mode is good for the goal oriented, while the marathon mode is perfect for those who just like going for high scores. However, the audio/visuals are unappealing, and I can’t help but wonder what it would look like as Donkey Kong Coconut Crackers. But really, the reason I think this game is flawed is because of how complicated it can get. It’s not too hard, but more so than the usual puzzle game. Now, consider the target audience here: the game has lots of bright colors, a loud character, silly sounds and a goofy looking mascot. It seems this was made for younger kids than who I think would actually appreciate the puzzle system and they would probably just be frustrated by it. It feels like a mix of Sudoku and Tetris to me, so if you like those two things and can find this fairly cheap, you might want to think twice before passing it up. I give It’s Mr. Pants for the Game Boy Advance 7.5 levels out of 10.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Level Up: Viewtiful Joe

If there is one thing Capcom is infamous for, it’s teasing their fans with the Capcom Vs series. For those of you who don’t know what this is: can’t you just figure out it from the name? But to those I need to explain it to, it’s basically when Capcom crosses over with another company for a fighting game, in which they select an amount of characters they own to make up half of the roster. The reason this is a big tease is because eventually Capcom forces itself to rely on using older series. An example I recently talked about is Firebrand and Arthur, who appears in the latest addition of Marvel vs. Capcom, but haven’t been seen for years. Now, today’s topic isn’t as old, but it’s teasing since they announced they have no current plans to revive this series. For this edition of *Capcom time* I’m talking about Viewtiful Joe, eventually released for the Playstation 2, it was original exclusive to the Nintendo GameCube.

The tale of Viewtiful Joe starts off in a theater, where Joe has taken his girlfriend, Sylvia, to see a movie starring his hero, Captain Blue. However, the movie doesn’t quite go as expected as the aging Captain Blue is defeated by the film’s antagonist. If that doesn’t seem strange enough, the villain actually reaches out of the movie and abducts Sylvia. Joe is forced to enter the film and go in after her. Once he’s in “movieland”, Joe gets to meet his hero Captain Blue, who gives him a watch to transform into his super hero form. With his trademark red helmet and tights and long pink scarf (cause real men look more macho in pink), and powers that come with it all, Joe sets off to save his girlfriend.

The plot is simple, but with enough of an original twists that it can’t be called uncreative. This is good, as it A) leaves rooms for developments and twists and B) doesn’t steal the focus from the game play. But what I really enjoy here is the potential for where Joe can adventure, as we’re in a fictional movie land where anything can happen really. And this game actually uses that potential well, as the settings are well varied, but never drastically changing so that it all has an organic flow.

The game play is pretty much based on retro 2D action platforming. However, it’s a little bit more than that. First off, being on the GameCube, it couldn’t be left as 2D and had to go what’s called 2.5D. Though, a subtle difference to some, this is show by moments where you walk around corners or strike objects in the background and so on. One could argue that actual game play is still 2D, but now we’re trying to split hairs, so let’s move on to what’s really unique about this game.

Viewtiful Joe has 3 “super powers” based on famous film techniques: slow-mo, mach speed and zoom. We’ve all seen slow-mo before; with movies, it makes everything seem more intense, such as punches hitting harder and bigger explosions, so everything does become more intense when using it. Mach speed is used to emphasize quicker movement, so when using this, Joe does become faster. And zoom is used to show off fancier moves, so Joe’s moves will become a little more complex and powerful. They’re already all pretty cool and using them to fight off bad guys is fun, but the level designs is where they really shine. There are actually a fair number of puzzles in this game that your skills are used to solve. Let’s say there’s something flying by propellor: if you use slow-mo, its blades are no longer turning fast enough to stay in air. These puzzles really add something much needed to some of the levels and to the game as a whole.

Viewtiful Joe is a great game all around. It has a retro feel to it, but with game play elements never seen before. The plot is well suited and does the same thing: stays classic, but makes it unique. The graphics are wonderfully cell shaded to get that movie-super hero feel and the voice acting is great. It’s a shame we haven’t gotten a new game in the series for a while, but at least that the recent Capcom vs games show they haven’t forgotten about Joe (unlike Power Stone, who barely gets a cameo in a fighting game…). But I digress. My only real complaint is that the game could take itself a little more seriously; it comes off as a joke for a good part, but it should just stay campy action. Also, I feel like there’s potential to improve the puzzles or gameplay element, but instead they tacked on a bunch of stuff people will rarely use. But don’t leave thinking these are a big complaint at all, it’s a great game and can be found very easily. I give Viewtiful Joe for the Nintendo GameCube 9 level out of 10.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Level Up: Dragon Warrior

When I did my review of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, I mentioned that it was actually the 25th anniversary of the series along with several others. Honestly, that was just a coincidence; when I picked the game to be reviewed, I had no idea. I’m admitting this because it turns out I did it again with today’s game. Though, some people might not know this because of the ambiguity of the name. We celebrate the original release of the first game of a series; so we normally go by the Japanese title if it was ever changed. So, while in 1986, Dragon Quest was released in Japan, 3 years later, North America would see the same game as Dragon Warrior. Now, I’m aware that there are differences, but not enough to call them two different games, so this is indeed a review of the first game of the Dragon Quest series, just the North American localization of it. Here’s Dragon Warrior for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Ok, so one thing you might have already noticed is that I am not using the game’s music as I usually do. The reason is because it just put me to sleep. It’s so non-thrilling that it makes me suddenly narcoleptic. Even playing midafternoon, I still felt like I needed a nap after 10 minutes. Even the battle music isn’t exciting, so I had the TV on mute most of the time. (What we’re listening to here is a song from one of the later games of the series). The sound effects would be called “stock” if this were another game. However, this game is so early in RPG history that it’s really not; most of the other games that use these sound effects would come later, and so I’m thinking this game created the stock.

As for the graphics… they really don’t look good. Sadly most everything looks way too flat, as I don’t think there’s any shading. The character sprites could have been made bigger with the space they had to work with to give them all a little more detail (instead, some stuff just looks odd). The monster graphics are big enough, but some of the designs are used too frequently with a minimum of changes. Finally, any attack you use, even spells, all basically look like random flashes on screen. I know, it’s a little unfair to hold the game up to some of these standards being such an early RPG, but I’m just letting you know what you’ll be getting into if you plan on playing this game.

The game’s plot is pretty simple. Basically, you start off arriving in a castle and you’re asked to save a princess. And that’s basically it. Sure, you have to kill the evil that kidnapped the princess, but that’s to be expected. There are also other stories thrown in, but are little more than hints to puzzles.

Here’s where I have to point out something very different about this game compared to many modern RPGs; it feels more like one big area. Sure, you have different towns you can visit, but really, they’re just a reason to get better weapons and armor. There are sections where the enemies get noticeably harder, but never a clear line. As a matter of fact, if you pack enough herbs, you can probably just go right for the boss. However, you will be weak and will lose. And so we get to the main game play element: grinding. This game is nothing but a test in grinding. With little story and lack of real levels, the only thing you need to do for 99% of the game is beat down enemies until you’re strong enough. And know what this game made me realize? I really like level and gold grinding. Now, of course this isn’t the case for everyone, so if grinding in RPGs annoys you, you’ll really want to stay away from this game.

Dragon Warrior made amazing advances in the RPG genre, but I stop myself from calling it “the first modern RPG” because I’m not 100% sure on the history behind it. However, it’s easy to understand menus it made it suddenly more accessible to a lot of people. It also input the idea that “the more you play, the better you become”, which put everyone on an even field, unlike platforming games at the time where some people proved to be naturally gifted. That said, this game has clearly NOT aged well: the graphics are flat, the music is boring, the sound effects have been heard a thousand times since, the menu maps aren’t intuitive and the game play will get dull. I’m aware of what the game did and it’s place in history, and as much as I love bringing you guys that kind of info, that isn’t what I score the games on. Really, this is only recommended for the serious gaming historians or lovers of grinding missions. I give Dragon Warrior for the NES 7 levels out of 10.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Level Up: Banjo-Kazooie

I have reviewed some disturbing material in the past. I mean, October just finished 3 weeks ago, and in that I reviewed games where you kill people in cold blood, shoot down reanimated corpses and deal with the dark arts. Even in the past, I reviewed games like Mortal Kombat, which partially created the ESRB rating system, Bully, which takes light of a serious childhood problem, and Gun, which caused some stir over the depictions of the Apache. But no game have I ever played been sicker, more perverted, more twisted than today’s topic. It’s a game sometimes just shocking and I’m surprised it doesn’t come up more often as a case to ban video games all together (though, I figure it’s just to avoid bringing up this disgusting thing). What’s worse is this somehow got an E rating in 1998 when first released on the Nintendo 64 and has been rereleased on the X-Box Live Arcade to spread its depravity. Cover your ears cause I’m talking about Banjo-Kazooie.

The game wastes no time with its corruption as it instantly promotes witch craft and unhealthy body images. One of the first things we see is Gruntilda (also known as Grunty), the witch antagonist of the game, asking her cauldron if she is the most beautiful person around. Just like TV and advertising, the cauldron tells her no, ruining her previously high self-esteem and compares her to someone much younger of a different species (meaning they don’t have similar genes, so she can’t expect to live up to the expectations). Frustrated by all of this, Gruntilda resorts to body modification with the use of a machine. This particular invention relies on child abduction and exploitation. What I’m referring to is the fact that Grunty needs to kidnap the girl who was deemed prettier than her, a bear cub named Tootie, and put her in the machine to steal her “beauty”. Kazooie (one of the titular and playable characters) hears the struggle and wakes up Tootie’s brother Banjo (the other titular and playable character). This shows a complete lack of respect for the justice system, as there does seem to be some kind of society in the game. Banjo and Kazooie then sets off on the rescue mission. This is where the game begins.

As I just mentioned, the game is played as both Banjo and Kazooie. The way this works is that Banjo does most of the moving while Kazooie is in a backpack until she is needed. Here, we face issues of anti-feminism and animal abuse. First, are supposed to believe that a bird (the species at the subject of the phrase “free as a bird”) chose to confine herself into a small packback? Next, the idea that Kazooie is only allowed to come out to “assist” Banjo or when he calls on her is quite demeaning to women. I also have to point out that Kazooie’s skills far surpass Banjo’s, as she is able to shoot eggs, fly, become invincible, jump high, walk through hazardous obstacles and run much faster (though most of these skills are only learned as you play the game), but yet Banjo is the one getting top billing in the title.

To end on a common note in video games, you will be collecting stuff here. However, unlike others, this one far passes an acceptable limit, as you collect music notes, little bird creatures (again with the abuse), missing skulls, golden puzzle pieces, eggs, feathers and so much more. It crosses the border from “harmless collecting” to “outright problem” in a hoarding, kleptomaniac, addicting and obsessive manner. A line must be drawn somewhere, and I think this game far passes it.

Ok, I’m done. Hopefully, enough of you saw through that satirist joke that I’ve always just wanted to do. Truth is Banjo-Kazooie is a very innocent game, with an adventure setting, a fairy tale type plot and enough modernization to keep it relevant (think like Shrek, but not as many pop-culture jokes). That being said, there are a lot of innuendo and mature jokes that some of the kids won’t get, which makes playing through this game as fun as an adult (sort of like catching the naughty moments in Animaniacs). The game play is 3D platforming with a strong concentration on collecting (that alone provides hours of fun) and makes use of a lot of unique skills. Every music track is also highly memorable, and there’s nothing at all wrong with the graphics. My only complaint is that some of the levels feel lacking, as if it never has a real ending; this is probably due to the non-linear game style and lack of real bosses. Also, the sequel to this greatly outshines it, showing what this game could have really accomplished. But, don’t let this deter you from playing one of the must experience games on the Nintendo 64; Rare really got things right here. I give Banjo-Kazooie for the Nintendo 64 9 levels out of 10.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Level Up: Justice League Task Force

I put off doing this review for a long time, I really did. There’s just so many ways I can say “I’m not a fan of 2D fighters”. Sure, I like them enough, at least more than other genres (like sports games), but to me, it just seems like it was the easiest thing to do for a time. If you had a license with enough characters remotely fighting related, you could make a fighting game. You just pick a move set for the characters made of random buttons, give them slightly different stats and add in the textures. Because of this, I prefer original fighting games like Mortal Kombat; at least then it seems like they’re trying, and that often leads to innovations and decent story. Otherwise, you can up with Shaq-Fu. Luckily that isn’t our topic; today’s game is Justice League: Task Force for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Surprisingly, this game has a plot. I say surprisingly because (as you may have guessed), most of the playable characters are DC heroes, so getting them to fight one and other within a story should seem kind of weird. The options that come to mind on how to get this to happen is either don’t make it happen at all (like with Power Rangers Genesis) or come up with a really stupid reason why all the good guys want to fight you. They go with the second option here, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

The game starts off with a Newspaper image saying that Darksied is attacking earth. Your chosen hero decides to contact the other members of the Justice League. However, once they find one, they get attacked by them. We quickly learn that they are in fact robot clones put in by Darksied who has kidnapped the other heroes. Immediately this brings up plot holes; why wasn’t he able to catch this one hero? Why were the others unable to fight back? Do the heroes have no other way to contact each other rather than visiting each other face to face? Really it just doesn’t make sense and gets repetitive quickly, as your hero goes through the same lines every time.

It also doesn’t make sense depending on which hero you choose; the idea that Superman was captured by Darksied and the Green Arrow saves him a little ridiculous. In your roster, you have Superman, The Flash, Aquaman, Batman, Green Arrow and Wonder Woman in heroes and Darksied, Cheetah and Despro as villains (though you can’t choose them in story mode). And yes, I suppose you can say it’s cool to see who would win between Wonder Woman and The Flash, but when it comes to the point where Superman is made not so super, it takes away from all of that.

The game play isn’t at all bad really. It’s just not innovative or anything new at all as I’ve said. They basically took the usual fighting game format (two health bars pressing random buttons against each other) and skinned it with DC Heroes. However, I did look up the move list and found that a lot of the moves are easy and follow the same pattern of doing a quarter circle followed by either a punch or a kick. Now, having a few moves and characters that follow this wouldn’t be so bad, but after a while it gets pretty predictable. It doesn’t help that the move list is actually quite short for most characters (surprising given the material to deal with here). Again it takes away from the characters, but it also takes away from fighting games, as most fans of the style would prefer to be presented the challenge of having to learn new combos. Though, I do theorize that it could be for people new to the genre, but even then, the default difficulty would be too hard for them, so I don’t think that’s the case.

Justice League: Task Force is a game developed by Sunsoft and Blizzard Entertainment and published by Acclaim, and it pretty much feels it (Blizzard and Acclaim worked on Mortal Kombat, but then you throw in Sunsoft’s ability to produce “meh” titles). This game does look really good though, with each character looking bad ass and heroic, and the backgrounds are well detailed. But if you’re a fan of the DC heroes, you will be disappointed, as they don’t feel nearly as strong as they should be in relation to each other. However, I do not think this is a bad game, as I remember having lots of fun with this as a kid, at least to a certain point. It’s just easy to tire of quickly due to its small character roster and their limited and easy to learn moves. Nothing tips this game towards “bad” or “great” really, it remains a pretty ok game; and that’s why I put off talking about it really, because there’s nothing much to it. I give Justice League: Task Force for the Super Nintendo 6 levels out of 10.