Monday, January 5, 2009

Currently On My Plate

So I've been playing STGs (2D shooting games) almost exclusively lately. I like other genres but I've been in kind of a mood (rut) the last six weeks or so. Two months from now, I could be totally immersed in fighting or driving games. I am getting something of a hankering to tackle Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2 (the US version of Kaido Battle Touge no Densetsu), but I keep putting it off because I have not quite finished (100% completion) Racing Battle: C1 Grand Prix and I don't like to have too many of the same sort of game 'open' at the same time, if that makes sense. I already have Need For Speed: Most Wanted and an iteration of Burnout still waiting for me to complete as well. So actually that makes three racing games on my plate.

I was working through GT4 at one point, but y'know? I just find the Gran Turismo games to be 'too big'. They are great for what they are... but what they are is also just endless. They are simulations-- lots of realism, no drama. They have the some of the best physics, but no wrecks, no damage, no story, and no real opponent AI. So to get through the entire Gran Turismo experience (in all the chapters) is about endless racing in very pretty cars through very pretty scenery but absolutely no emotional content apart from just digging the cars. I find that some kind of competition really makes my motivation to get through this sort of game. Even a game somewhat thin on the human drama like LeMans 24 hours is more interesting to me. THAT game wasn't quite as big (so as not to seem so endless) and had more of a focused goal, even if one of the things you had to finish was a real-time 24 hour endurance race, amongst all the other races. I liked that game so much that I've played all the way through two different consoles' versions though the difference between the two was miniscule... only a couple of new/different cars. It doesn't hurt that I'm a huge sports car racing fan though.

Ever since Need For Speed went 'import tuner' with the Underground chapters, I started playing them. I finished Underground 1 and 2 in pretty much no time flat. Then got into Most Wanted, and pretty got hung up on cop evasion issues. I'm at 69% completion but the level the cops pursue now gets so much in the way of the actual racing that it is frustrating. I like the idea of the cops involvement but they just throw so much at you so quickly... and a large part of completing the game is involved in very un-racing behavior-- wrecking stuff, hitting cop cars, ad nauseum. So much of it isn't a real racing game, kind of the point of playing a RACING game. Complicating things is the fact that doing well at it requires a lot of memorisation of the city layout, and the more time I spend away from the game the more time I'm going to have to spend re-learning what is where when I do pick it up again. A lot of the same could be said for Burnout (Revenge I think). Good game, awesome wrecks. BUT. Racing is only part of the overall play. It has a lot of non-racing you have to do. And to top it all off I was at 89% complete and my game save got corrupted. That's just discouraging. In my head I want to start over and try again, but my heart just isn't in it. I'm hoping to let enough time go by before restarting so that the game will seem somewhat fresh, but as time goes by there' always that next newer, cooler game... including new chapters of Burnout, of course. I probably won't be a completist and try to do a lot more Underground or Burnout chapters. I played through the DS version of Need For Speed Carbon and it was just okay. I think the only racing game company or series that ritually holds my interest is probably anything by Genki Racing Project. That'll be the Kaido Battle, Racing Battle, and Shutokou Battle games.

Like any car game, racing in Genki games gets repetitive. The Underground games (which are from Electronic Arts, not Genki) tried to get around this by really mixing up the race types. They have drag races, circuit races, street races, drift competitions, etc. all aimed at giving you a varied experience and keeping your interest in the long career modes. And of course they want to cover all the types of racing that can appeal to import car fans. Apart from Racing Battle: C1 Grand Prix, Genki games don't really have that many different types of racing in each game. But what they do have is drama of a sort. They have characters, even gangs of racers for you to compete against, all with their own customised cars, driving styles, and in the later games, messages. There are even 'bosses' to defeat to get to the next level. There's a whole immersion factor here that most racing game makers just don't reach. The Underground games give you a whole city to roam around in and 'find' your races. That helps it feel like you are in a lifelike environment, really strutting your car around in a city. But Shutokou Battle did that first. From a pretty early point in the series you could literally drive around the Tokyo freeway complex looking for opponents, and because the streets had real counterparts, it added a dimension of 'you are there' that other racing games just don't have (to me). Genki driving games are all still like this. I love the games so much, a few times the release of one has tipped me into buying a new console earlier than I otherwise would have. I think Import Tuner Challenge, which is Shutokou Battle for the Xbox 360 is probably the only one I don't have, and the reason for THAT is a different, longer story that involves the high price of the console AND my indecision over whether to spring for a US or Japan version machine. I'll discuss my feelings about the Xbox in a near-future rant about region lockouts or the state of video gaming in America.

Its hard to explain the Shutokou/Kaido/Racing Battle to other gamers. Genki racing games are kind of a cult thing. A lot of driving game fans play them and just don't see what makes them so great. Its like being a fan of STGs, which are generally 2D, have somewhat old-school graphics most of the time, and a play mechanic that is based on one of the oldest video games known (Space Invaders or more correctly Galaxian). How can you explain to the modern gamer the badassedness of an STG when they are ducking for cover from 1000-polygon missiles in surround sound in the latest FPS, or trying to put one over on another dozen gamers in the massive multiplayer online RPG du jour?

You either get it or you don't. Age probably makes a difference. While newer-generation gamers ARE getting turned on to some of the cult genres, most of the hardcore seem to be old enough to have some firsthand experience of the time when the genre in question ruled the arcades. Genki racing, though not specifically arcade based (Wangan Midnight aside). They don't have the spiffiest graphics (though they aren't bad either). Their driving physics tend to 'arcade-style' as opposed to GT's more simulation-style.... though not as arcade-y as Underground. But they are just more exciting I think. Sometimes you really get some rivalries going-- just as in some more human character-based games. There'll be that one diver (often a boss) who is just a pain, and its just awesome when you squeeze out a victory over them. And the rivalries and feelings can carry over into other games. I remember seeing a boss in Shutokou Battle Zero who I'd met and raced in previous chapters, and if he had given me trouble it was like, 'okay man, let's see what you've got in your new car', because frequently the characters will upgrade between games, 'I will still leave you sucking my exhaust.'. Most racing games with a career mode (and that would be almost all of 'em) have a sort of RPG-aspect to them. You go along in your career and as you conquer opponents you get cash and can buy upgrades to your car, analagous to a character in an RPG, who defeats enemies, gets gold and buys better equipment. I guess for me, Genki racers just do this better because they put faces (or rather car stickers) and names to all your rivals, even having some come looking for you when you defeat their rivals or friends.

So yeah. I really should be getting back to finishing my racing games. As I said, I've only got a few characters left to beat for 100% completion in Racing Battle, but getting those last few to appear has been difficult. Difficult enough for me to put THAT game aside for awhile too. Racing Battle is one of the few Genki racing games that has not gotten an english version and so it is much harder to figure out and fulfill the conditions required to make all the rivals available if you don't read japanese.

On the shooter front:
I made a giant jump in progress in Lords of Thunder. Probably would've beaten it by giving it another go, but I had other stuff I had to do so conquering must wait. The game, according to internet information isn't actually that hard, but it took me awhile to come to grips it, as I posted in another 'blog entry. I did fit in completing Gleylancer though. This is an odd-duck little shooter. Great option system (options being the generic term for the little side pods that are power ups in many shooting games), and your hit box is pretty forgiving-- smaller than it might appear from the size of your ship. But the art style is strangely primitive, just sort of utilitarian with some enemy designs just sort of slapped together. Some of the choices in backgrounds are weird too. The colors chosen and the scrolling speed make some of the enemies and their bullets really difficult to see. This is mostly a game-breaking problem in the first level, so once you get past that, the visibility goes way up most of the the rest of the game. But it is still a strange game. It was fun, but compared to contemporaries like Thunder Force 3 or Gates of Thunder it is no classic. Can't complain though. You can get it for pretty cheap as a download on the Wii Virtual Console and it was an rare-ish import-only title.

There's a lot of neat little import titles appearing on the Wii shop channel. I have always been an import maniac through all the consoles I've owned, but even I couldn't find or afford all the titles I'd have liked. This service gives me a second chance. I downloaded Cho Aniki awhile back and that game was a hilarous good time. I see Gradius Gofer no Yabou on there, and when I get into a Gradius mood, I'm sure I'll get that one too.

STGs are a great pick up and play game genre. They generally only take a half hour or less to complete (Treasure mega-epics aside) if you are expert enough to get all the way through. Even if you aren't a couple good runs that get you part way to the end can be really fun (or you can credit feed to the end, but that cuts their replay value way down). The graphics may be old-school (2D) but they are often spectacular, with pulse-pounding music to go along. And their difficulty (optimistically read 'challenge') is something not often found in more modern gaming genres. Shooters are kind of the archetypical 'boss fight' genre. In short, they're kind of a potent gaming 'shot'. Good stuff for adults that just can't sit down for hours at a stretch or who may be away from their consoles for long periods and don't want to have to figure out where they left off. They also lend themselves to being a good one-player experience.

Current STGs playing: Thunder Force VI, Lords of Thunder, Mushihimesama, and Border Down.

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