Sunday, August 31, 2014

Level Up: The Giana Sisters

Well, it’s time to close off femme-month. I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to speak about more original video game characters (Lara Croft being the most obvious one missing from the theme), but to make up for that, here’s a video game character that comes specifically from the fact that the company couldn’t get a license for what they wanted to do. Here’s the Giana Sisters for the iPhone.
Playing this game for any amount of time it’s clear to see that it’s a Mario clone. That is almost no exaggeration, and with good reason: the creator wanted to port Super Mario Bros. to the commodore 64 but couldn’t get the rights (which is a good business move on Nintendo considering how big of a system seller it was). How much they actually tried to obtain it is up for debate, but the… “inspiration” is not hard to see. Just look up a screen shot of the original game “The Great Giana Sisters” and you’ll do a double take.  Not surprising, but there was a lawsuit and the series remained dead until this game. Which, shockingly, was first released on the Nintendo DS!
This may partially be due to the graphics. Yes, it’s easy to see how this game could be a sequel to the original Commodore 64 game, and many Mario inspired elements have stuck (brick blocks, the star blocks that look like question mark block, pipes, etc…), but if you look at this game and a Mario game that came out at the same time, there is a clear distinction now, especially in scale (as Giana seems tiny) and the look of the main character.
The original creator of the game Armin Gessert passed away soon after this game’s released, but there has since been another Giana game that came out about 3 or 4 years after this one from the company that now owns the rights. It’s a much more different game that I’ll get into some other day, and was even created due to a successful kickstarter campaign. Perhaps what was pretty much a glorified Mario bootleg is going on to be its own series now.
Despite the changes to the look, there are still many game play similarities between the Giana Sisters and the Mario Bros. It’s very much the same platforming game with a more child targeted coat of paint on it. With that in mind, I’ll go into specifics and small details, as that’s what separates this game from the other ones you might get (appropriately enough, this game sits next to Lep’s World on my iPhone).
First off, you run and you jump like in Mario, but the jump button in this game is an auto fire (handy when you’re under blocks that give you gems). You have a “punk” form in this game too, which allows you to take an extra hit and throw fire balls. They don’t bounce, and while the arc is wider than Mario’s fire, I’d prefer it to go straight forward. Also, despite having an extra form, Giana can only take one hit out of punk mode: no tiny version and mushroom rip off. One cool thing for the platforming is that after you hit some blocks, they fall to the ground and act like a step for you to get higher.
There are also a few things added to the game, though again, they are very small aspects. Like many modern platform games, there are items to find for completion and unlocking extra levels (in this game: red gems). There’s also a bubble gum item which allows Giana to float up as long as you don’t hit an obstacle. This isn’t the first game to do anything like this though (and it might be another Mario rip off, as it’s like the P. Balloon from Super Mario World). The most original thing might be the Soda Bottle. Giana will lock her position and release a stream of soda able to break blocks and push back enemies. I’m surprised this gimmick isn’t used more often or there wasn’t a level based using it excessively.
That’s really all to say about the Giana Sisters: if it weren’t for the history behind it, there really wouldn’t be any reason to talk about the game or series. Not knowing anything about its past, it would still be easy to play this game and label it a Mario Clone… but it’s a good quality clone. The graphics and music are actually really good (though the music is more mystical than appropriate), and while some games trying be Mario have weird physics, this one is smooth. As one of the more expensive games I’ve bought on the Apple Store (though apparently the price has gone down), it’s hard to recommend the game, even though there is a lot to play through. It’s of great quality, but it doesn’t do anything impressive. I give the Giana Sisters for the iPhone 8 levels out of 10, and that ends femme-month.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Level Up: Xena: Warrior Princess

Femme-month continues, and now I get to talk about my favorite fictional character: Xena: Warrior Princess. I may have just gotten into the series a couple of years ago, but I could go on and on about why I think Xena is amazing. From how skilled she is in fighting, to her constantly search for redemption, I just can’t get enough. In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. The power, the passion, the danger… her courage will change the world… Ok, that might have been directly quoted from the show, but it doesn’t make it any less true.  Not wanting to contain her awesomeness to just TV, there was of course a video game based on the series. Let’s get right into Xena: Warrior Princess for the Sony PlayStation.
It’s worth noting that this video game was released in 1999, just a few episodes into season 5 (the second to last season).  I bring this up, because the story is played out more like an episode from the first or second season. I suppose that makes sense, as when people think of Xena in the mainstream, it’s probably those times they go to most, but I still find it kind of weird, and I’ll explain a bit more later.
The journey starts off with Xena and Gabrielle when they come across a town being attacked by pirates. Turns out this was a plot to distract Xena so a king named Valerian could kidnap Gabrielle. After the attack, Xena leaves to save her friend (… ok, soul mate) by following some clues. She then arrives at an island where she is greeted by a Cyclops. This pattern continues for a bit: Xena finds some clues to Gabrielle’s location, follows them, meets a monster and repeat. Eventually, Xena does rescue Gabrielle, only to promptly get kidnapped again just a few levels later.
Gabrielle’s role in this game is probably what bothers me the most about when this game was made. By the fifth season, Gabrielle was far beyond the helpless girl that needed constant saving as she’s portrayed in this game. I’m not even sure if she was ever this helpless, but by the 5th season she was a warrior by her own right. Playing this now a day, it might be easier to mentally place this game as a first season filler, but I can’t help but sympathize with people who might have played this when it was new.
The game play is a pretty simple, early 3D hack and slash game, which is pretty much what you’d expect from the Warrior Princess (oh my god, a 2D Xena beat ‘em up platformer would be amazing: someone make that!). You (of course) play as Xena as you smack around opposing warriors, monsters and whatever comes your way. While the Sword is Xena’s main weapon in this game, the Chakram had to be an important element (beyond just being the art for the disk itself). You can actually control it’s direction which helps you solve some puzzles, beyond simply being a good range attack. There are also items to collect, such as scrolls for completion’s sake, defense and strength upgrades and temporary power items. All pretty standard stuff really.
But of course, as I said earlier, this feels like a very early 3D action game, so sometimes hitting your mark can be a little iffy. Hit detection isn’t what it should be, and mixing that with controls that aren’t great, fighting can be frustrating if you’re outnumbered or fighting a strong boss. What this game really would have needed was a targeting system, either an active one like Z targeting in Ocarina of Time, or an automatic one like in Batman Arkham Asylum. Considering this could be categorized as an action-adventure game, the action part of it is not really up to standards.
Xena: Warrior Princess is almost what I expected, but definitely not what I had hoped. I know that it’s my favorite show and that my hopes would have been a bit too high, but still this game comes in as average at best. The game play is clunky and the story is cliché, not reflecting what Xena was actually doing at the time of its release. However, it does have its positive points; the levels are diverse and fun to travel across, and some of the puzzles are neat (though they may be simple, they still fit well in the game). Really, I think, other than the story, this game’s main problem is the limitations of when it was released, as I’m pretty sure you can find a lot of similar “clunky” combat games from that time. For how awkward it feels though, it’s still very playable. I give Xena: Warrior Princess for the PlayStation 7 levels out of 10.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Level Up: The Little Mermaid

Today I’m talking about a Disney game on NES, and it seems like Disney and Nintendo are a very appropriate match for each other. They’re both known and criticized for their “family friendly” values and for having a certain style in their medium that some have called dull, repetitious and “overrated” over time. They’ve both seem to have been around since the start of their domain and if there’s someone who could challenge Mickey as the most recognizable character, it might be Mario (both their names even start with M!). I guess for these reasons and more, it feels right to play an NES game based on a Disney movie. This week for Femme-Month, we’re hanging out with Ariel in The Little Mermaid for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Talking about a Disney game on the NES, it should be of no surprise that it’s *Capcom Time*. As previously discussed, they did amazing work with Ducktales and Darkwing Duck. However, those were both series already rooted in action and adventure. While it was obvious for Darkwing to be a Megaman style game and Ducktales would be about adventuring to get rich… how do you make a game out of the Little Mermaid? I think they started by looking at the obvious: where does Ariel live? In the water. Much like the Legendary Starfy, this game is a free roaming platformer (and there are small sections on land, but they are very few and far between).  Much like with Starfy, it makes the game easy, but it does make it much more different that the other games I previously mentioned, and it works within its own world.
What else is notable about Ariel? She’s a mermaid, so she has a tail. Maybe she could use that to attack? However, instead of making it a basic tail whip attack, she launches bubbles which capture enemies. You can then grab those captured enemies to throw at other enemies or whatever needs to be hit. Think of this kind of like using a koopa shell in Mario, or how you could grab enemies and throw them in Disney’s the Magical Quest (actually, this game did come out before that one, so maybe it provided some inspiration?). In what would be an otherwise pretty boring game gameplay wise, this element shines through to make it a bit more complex and provide more of puzzle element.
Being adapted from a Disney movie, it does make sense that this game would have great music, and I have to admit, “Under the sea” was made to be chiptuned. *play segment if it is not background music*. The rest of the music is also pretty good. Appropriately, they tried to have the same type of calypso style for the levels, and it does make it a lot of fun for Ariel to dash through the water to this music. The sound effects mostly seem pulled from the standard Capcom library, but to nitpick, the sound of the bubble popping if you get no one in it is completely wrong.
The graphics are good. Considering the fact that the game takes place under water and on the NES, they actually did a good job. One way this was achieved is that the sprites don’t have a black outline, which gives them that sort of water color effect on them. There’s also the fact that it’s simply Capcom, and they’ve pretty much mastered their sprite style by this point. The size scale (no pun intended) isn’t quite right though, as most fish are half the size of Ariel (which is a TERRFYING concept), but in NES that’s a common thing I suppose. Yeah, all around good quality around the aesthetics, which you should come to expect from the company behind it.
The Little Mermaid is pretty OK game, but there just clearly wasn’t enough put into it. I understand that it was likely made for younger kids at a time when games were already simple enough, but this game can be beaten in less than 30 minutes (and I don’t mean speed running it). Personally I beat it on the second time I played it, and the first time all I did was start it up to make sure things worked right and got a quick feel for the controls. If there was more to the game- more or bigger levels, harder difficulty, and more variety in game play- I’d be more likely to recommend the game. As it is, I certainly can’t tell you to avoid it, as there is fun to be had and the game is of great quality, but it’s very fleeting. I give Disney’s the Little Mermaid on NES 6.5 levels out of 10.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Level Up: Metroid Prime

Once again, August is upon us and it’s time for my theme. This year, I decided to look at something that’s been sincerely lacking in this show: women. Now, much like Ninjas from last year, I have talked about games where women are playable, but very few where they are the only choice. The only one that comes to my mind off the top of my head is Lady Sia. So this August is Femme-month, where I will be looking at 4 games starring female protagonists. And of course, much like Ninja Gaiden last year, the obvious choice needs to come first, so we are looking at Metroid Prime, originally for the Nintendo GameCube, but I’ll be playing it on the Wii as part of the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection.
Metroid was never a series that was ever high on my radar. Not because I thought it was overrated like Zelda, but just I never heard much about it for the longest time. The first generation of games I remember paying attention to was the 5th one, and there wasn’t a Metroid game released on the N64 (for the better, I suppose). Despite knowing about the Metroid-vania game play style and it being one of my favorite variations on platforming, Metroid Prime was the first Metroid game I played, and still that wasn’t until the collection came out on the Wii.
So as a first impression to the series- HOLY CRAP IS THIS GAME AWESOME. Like I just said, it was probably better that this game waited a generation. On the N64, it might have been a platformer, but by the GameCube, first person shooters were starting to get big. Metroid was re-envisioned as a first person game, and that might have added a whole new level of immersion to the discovery. The element is there in 2D, but seeing it from the point of view of the character gives you a whole new experience.
Though the main attraction to me is the exploration, I do need to talk about the fighting. The variety and scope of enemies is amazing, and they ease you into the more difficult and frustrating ones. You get a variety of weapons and upgrades, and eventually learning how to switch on the fly is an essential skill. Of course, if you’re having trouble with an enemy, you can also switch visor modes, either to help you see weak points or use the scan function to read their database entry.
I could go on, as there are a lot of little things that make the game play fun, but it would take far too long (perhaps I’ll explain a bit more on the sequels). From the great maps, to the intuitive combat, to the range of gadgets you get, the game play is simply great.
The story is as basic as it gets, not just in what it has to say, but the way it tells it. It starts with Samus on a bounty hunting mission when she is struck and loses her equipment (a convenient reason for having lost them between games). She follows her targets, the Space Pirates, to a nearby planet. After that, it’s just hunting on the planet and figuring out some mysteries that pop up. It leaves a lot to be desired in Samus’ motivations, but people who like immersive new worlds will enjoy this.
But again, it’s not just what this says, but how it tells it. There’s no voice dialog in this game except the occasion computer message. Samus’ reactions are done through body language, and though she’s kind of a blank slate silent protagonist here, it does make the game more of what you want it to be. But what really gets me are the music and sound cues, along with the short scenes from discovering a new area. It pretty much says “look at what you found, now enjoy exploring!” There’s a sense of wonder put into this new world, which sucked me right in. In a Metroidvania game, that is exactly what you’d want.
Metroid Prime is an amazing game that I would recommend to almost anyone, as there is such a variety offered. That being said, I don’t think it is a perfect game: the story is a little lacking in motivation (at least for someone new to the series) and near the end you’re required to do this big annoying “treasure hunt” that I feel ruins the flow (you should want to explore, not be forced into it). Those are the only things really worth mentioning, and they are pretty easy to look over. Awesome space shooter based around exploration, what else can I say? I give Metroid Prime 9.5 levels out of 10.