Friday, July 31, 2015

Level Up: Battletoads

(Picture coming soon)

There’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show currently airing on Nickleodeon and it is SO good that it fully revived my fandom for the series. But while looking into its history, I feel I should also check out some TMNT Rip-offs. Things like the COWboys of Moo-messa, Biker Mice from Mars, the Street Sharks, etc… Not to say they all were malicious rip offs (Usagi Yojimbo wasn’t, and still fits the genre), but even if some are, it’s possible to make something that might be remembered by its own right. Let’s look at something clearly… “inspired” by TMNT with Battletoads for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Unlike the Ninja Turtles, which started with a comic, the Battletoads started with this video game developed by Rare. It has since become known for being one of the hardest games on the NES and a really creative Beat ‘em up, which is why I’m reviewing it for Adamant Ditto’s annual BEAT EM UP MOOONTH! (*Adamant Ditto clip*) However, to exclusively label this a Beat ‘em up is kind of dishonest. The first level is mostly a Beat ‘em up, but in the next level you’re repelling down a tunnel. While you can still punch things, the style is clearly different. The third level starts with a small beat em up section, but then you hop on speeder bikes. I could spend the whole review explaining each level and their gimmick, as there are 12 levels and each is different. I will mention my personal favorite is Karanth’s lair, a level in which giant snakes move about and you have to jump and climb on them. This level’s timing and movements plays out so beautifully that it watches like a choreography. It’s actually what I point to when someone says video games aren’t art to prove them wrong.
The changing gameplay might have contributed to the infamous difficulty. Now, some people argue about whether it’s fair or not. To put my 2 cents in, it’s the difficulty isn’t unfair because it isn’t caused by bad controls… but holy CRAP do you need to have perfect timing sometimes. It took me a MONTH of trying to beat this game DAILY before I managed to it, and the shifting challenges did contribute to it.
But at its core, the game play is still beat em up and platforming. The fighting is actually pretty fun. When you’re pounding a baddie, it can seem like everything stops in that moment. This often ends with a rewarding transformation (a signature of the Battletoads), knocking enemies off screen with a giant boot or spiked fist. But although hitting things feels solid, moving isn’t stiff. You actually gain momentum while walking and since you’re a toad, jumping feels very free. The physics are great and keep things feeling linked, so I never felt like a death was the game’s fault (despite any rage at the moment).
I’d put the graphics for the game on par with most NES Capcom games. Considering we have giant TOADS, the sprites are well designed, even if some of the frames aren’t quite perfect. The enemies tend to be monochrome and have limited frames, but for how rarely they repeat, it’s no problem. It’s also worth mentioning that this game is available on other systems, and I find the Sega Genesis versions looks “right” to me, but I tend to think that 16 to 32 bit is ideal for Beat Em Ups.
However, I really like the music. The theme song in particular perfectly captures that level of teen-surfer-cool vibe that anyone who was ripping of the TMNT was trying to recreate. The levels and in-game music are a little held back, but I suppose that’s actually good due to the high difficulty. If the music was high paced or over bearing, I could see it stressing people out and lowering their tolerance for the whole game. In that way, the music doesn’t just fit the gameplay; it compliments it.
In the world of TMNT-like products, the Battletoads stand out both as one of the more obvious cash-ins and as one of the best. I don’t know if Rare thought of the settings first then made the levels, or if they were just trying to push the envelope on game play as much as possible, but either way it really works. The difficulty and constant variation of levels may not be for everyone, but I still attest that it’s not a jagged change and the difficulty is fair. There are some nit-picks, but they are easy to overlook. The only “problem” with the game (with big air quotes on problem) is that for a beat em up, there’s not a whole lot of beating up. Shame since it does it so well, so I would have liked more of a focus on it. Regardless, anyone who enjoys a challenge should try to get their hands on this game and really work at beating it. I give Battletoads for the NES 9.5 levels out of 10.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Level Up: Duke Nukem Manhattan Project

One video game character I wish understood more is Duke Nukem. He seems to have a legacy that follows him and honestly I just don’t get it. I might have been a little too late to the party), but even looking back I still don’t get the history of the Duke. From what I’ve gathered he had 2 platform games, then a 3D game that must have been REALLY good (or people really enjoyed his meathead persona ironically) and then Duke Nukem Forever took over a decade to come out and became a joke among the industry. But even then, I get confused since there’s a fair amount of spin-offs and mobile games, some of them coming after Forever’s announcement? Why do those games get ignored when Duke Nukem comes up (people don’t ignore Mario RPG games when talking about Mario)? To do a bit of research and experience it first hand, I have Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project for the PC today.
One of the reasons this might be ignored could be because this is a side scroller platformer rather than an FPS (which actually makes it more like most of the games in the main series). In terms of game play, its not too bad. You’ll walk around as Duke, shoot monsters with various guns and jump around future New York. You have secrets to find, items to collect and babes to rescue. It also controls really well.
But despite having really well polished game play, it feels like there’s nothing done with it. The game design is uninspired and it becomes repetitious very quickly (it’s a bad sign when a slot for key cards is on the main HUD). That’s not to say the game doesn’t have a lot of content- in fact it might have too much: levels drag on even without trying to find all the secret areas. Replaying this game for the review, the first level of the game took me over 12 minutes, and I still missed a secret area and collectable item.
Speaking of the collectable items, they aren’t useless: collecting them all in a given level gives you a permanent stat boost. However, it gets screwed over by the save system. If you’re like me, you might beat some levels without collecting everything, and decide to come back to them later on. However, you don’t get this stat boost once you return to your previous progress: you only get it if you continue on to the next level. So collect everything the first time, replay the level right away or forget about the boosts.
The graphics are kind of the same story as the game play: technically they look great. Even for the PS1 era style graphics, Duke is really well done and I like the quality of everything (even including backgrounds). But most of the imaging is brown and gray. It’s not really pleasant to look at much and I wish they had some vibrantly colored mutants or settings.
But while everything has been in the “potential not realized” category, the audio is just plain annoying. While I did expect Duke to have some good one liners, they really overdo it in this game and he seems to have to talk after each kill he makes. And it’s pretty bad for a fan of Spider-man Shattered Dimensions to say “I’m annoyed at the amount of chatter.” It would help if they were funny, but those are few and far between. Luckily the quality of the writing in cut scenes and Jon St. John’s classic Duke voice are the saving grace. The music has nothing going for it though: It’s over bearing and doesn’t match the gameplay style (it might have been better for an FPS). It matches the bleak nature of the backgrounds I suppose, but that’s not a good thing.
It might be obvious, but maybe starting with a spin off game probably wasn’t the best way to get the appeal of the Duke Nukem series (especially one that’s not in the style that’s the game that made the series known). Apparently the story isn’t even typical of Duke Nukem, since it deals with Mutants instead of Aliens. It still has a lot of one liners that could have been straight out of any Schwarzenegger movie, but I don’t get it, is that really the big appeal? I felt like I should have liked it more than I did as it gets kind of tiresome quickly (at least in this game). And really, that’s this whole game in a nutshell. Sunstorm Interactive didn’t develop something incompetent here, just unpolished and uninspired. If you took the same smooth gameplay, made the maps smaller, maybe add a little variety and over hauled the backgrounds and music, this could be a really fun game. This is a spin-off that’s entirely skippable, but if you choose to play it, it won’t be a bad experience, just a dragged out on. I give Duke Nukem Manhattan Project for the PC 7 levels out of 10.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Level Up: Spider-man Shattered Dimensions (Nintendo DS)

With the summer months now here, I’m reminded that my August theme month is fast approaching. One of the previous ones that I keep thinking about doing again is Spider-month, just because I think Spider-man lends himself to be a good video game character. While I don’t have plans to revisit that theme yet, I would like to talk about a handheld version of a game I reviewed during Spider-month. Here’s Spider-man Shattered Dimensions for the Nintendo DS.
As you would expect, the plot of the Nintendo DS version isn’t much different from the consols. For those of you who didn’t listen to that review, the coles notes version of it all is that Mysterio tries to steal the Tablet of Order and Chaos, but it breaks as Spider-man tries to stop him. This shatters the barrier between the dimensions, and the Spider-man of each universe needs to find the pieces of the tablet that fell in their dimensions before it falls into the hands of villains.
There are of course differences between the two versions. The most noticeable one is that there is now only 3 dimensions instead of 4, with the absence of the Ultimate Universe (appropriate seeing as Marvel’s Secret Wars will also do away with it). Another change is that each version of Spider-man only faces off against 2 villains instead of 3, all different than in the console versions. You also don’t chase the villains around like you did, you just kind of stumble upon them before fighting. I do miss the sense of urgency that it added, but once we get to the game play, it’ll make more sense to why that is.
The reason that you don’t chase the villains around in this version of the game is because it’s actually a 2D Metroid-vania game style. Now, I was a big fan of the original Shattered Dimension, but making it a Metroid-vania game might be the only way to make me like it even more. As a matter of fact, I might even say the reverse: the only way for me to like a Metroid-vania game more might be to add Spider-man. The way he moves is so fast and agile that making him explore everything sounds perfect. There are even some game mechanics that come in later on related to gathering up momentum.
Buuuuuut, he might be a little TOO fast. Movement in this game can happen rather quickly, and I feel like sometimes the controls don’t really keep up with Spidey as well as they should. Jumping can feel a little delayed and fighting might come down to either being cheap or doing things you didn’t quite intend to (at least at the start). There’s also the problem of suddenly zipping out of battle or unintentionally sticking to a wall. It’s easy to get used to, but you do get this impression of the game rather quickly also. As a matter of fact, once you get the hang of it, you might be able to pull off some really cool combos. It’s easy to overlook, but I feel it’s worth mentioning.
Even if it was hard to get passed, I think this game would still be worth it for the exploration. While the map for this game is relatively small, it feels like there is absolutely no wasted space in this game. Each square is tightly packed with either enemies to fight you, a puzzle to continue, secret items to find or is an important story room. It kicks the pace of the game up, so that even when you decide that you’re gonna go off and find some secrets, it doesn’t feel like you’re wasting time or going far out of your way.
The Spider-man: Shattered Dimensions game for the DS is a pleasant surprise for me as a fan of the console game. While I wasn’t expecting something as deep or engaging, I still found it just as enjoyable. That being said, it’s a handheld game and has MANY short comings that are common to find with hand held versions. I already mentioned that the map is small and the pace is quick, and while not necessarily bad, the game can be done in just about 2 hours. They try to balance it out with bonus modes and challenge arenas and stuff like that, but that feels like padding. It makes it a good game to pick and play through every now and then though. Other than that, the controls could use a little tightening, but that’s the only really bad thing. I wish the Developer Griptonite Games could have worked with Activision again to make an Edge of Time game the same way, because it might have brought this game more attention, and stood out as less of a risk. With a number of voice actors also working in this version (including Christopher Daniel Barnes, Dan Gilvezan and Josh Keaton as the Spider-mans, Jim Cummings, Steven Blum and Jennifer Hale) and graphics as well done as the mapping, this is an underrated game I highly suggest for and DS owner. I give Spider-man Shattered Dimensions for the Nintendo DS 9 levels out of 10.