Thursday, August 27, 2009

Past Blast Continued

More video games from the past I’ve dug up from storage:

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the Sega Saturn. 2d platformer. Everything they say about this game is true. I’m not a huge fan of the Castlevania series (blasphemy!), though I can understand the greatness. THIS is the Castlevania game to own if you had to buy just one. So… uh, that’s why I own it. Just the one. I will probably fork some dough over for Rondo of Blood at some point, so I can play through this game’s nearly-as-good prequel. Still pics might make it look like ‘just a platform game’ but that doesn’t begin to describe all the cool items, amazing music, dark atmosphere, and intimidating boss battles. It’s the usual ‘versus Dracula and his minions’ plot, but its pulled off about as well as it ever has been and maybe ever will be.

Panzer Dragoon

Panzer Dragoon for the Sega Saturn. 3d rail shooter. Graphics for this game haven’t aged all that well. You can see how ambitious the images were for their time, and the design of the world is cool, but as is usual polygons haven’t held up as well over the years as sprites seem to. Sprites can manage ‘charm’… polys usually just turn ugly. Nonetheless, if you can get past the scruffy graphics the gameplay, sounds and music are pretty badass. Nowadays Oorta is the standard bearer for Panzer Dragoon games… and rightfully so. But this is where it all started, and its still pretty cool.

Mars Matrix

Mars Matrix for the Sega Dreamcast. 2d vertical shooter. Your go-to game if you want an STG that is so difficult you will want to throw yourself off a building. Perhaps only exceeded by Gigawing 2, Dodonpachi Daioujou, and Mushihimesama Futari. Graphics are pre-rendered sprites that simulate 3d objects but are kind of crude-looking, thought they move and animate smoothly. The more you play the more ships, credits, and power you can earn, but if you are a nutter for getting the 1CC you better be prepared to put an inordinate amount of time in on this. A manic shooter with unholy amounts of enemy fire, the gameplay system centers around a shield used to deflect whatever bullets you cannot (or don’t wish to for scoring purposes) dodge. With proper memorization, there is a rhythm to using the shield, and getting the enemies to drop the most ‘gold’ to max out your firepower and bonuses. This game is very fun, but the tenacity to keep playing enough to learn this rhythm… ehn, I probably don’t have that in me. This is one I will just have to admire superplayers on and never try to get the 1CC. I find Cave shooters (generally speaking) to be more involving, so my manic shooter mastery practice will mostly go there.

Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. 2d platformer on the Genesis/Mega Drive. Wow, is this a good game. I’d kind of forgot how good the Shinobi games could get. Much of the gameplay, the controls, Joe Mushashi’s abilities, etc. have all been done a million times, but they all just come together really well here. Joe controls so well and so intuitively that you will be negotiating even the most complex screens with ease. The only tricky part, and I was brutally reminded of this at the first boss during a recent go, is that to use the double jump you have to time the second press of the jump button right at the apex… and this can be hella-tough when you are being pressured. However, if someone wants straight up ninja action without all the sneaky complexity of Tenchu or the frustrating difficulty of (old) Ninja Gaiden, this is your game.

Chu Chu Rocket for the Sega Dreamcast. 2d action puzzle game. You must lead your mice onto an escape ship while avoiding the cats. This incredibly addictive game has two major modes. One is a frantic move-or-lose action game similar in intensity and speed to the Bomberman games. The other is more akin to the Adventures of Lolo on the NES where you have a pre-set board with cats and other obstacles already placed. You must use the tools given, then activate the board to see if the mice escape safely. Graphically very simple, but distinctive. This game is a really good example of Sega’s vision for a cute and family-friendly party game, as distinct from the many examples we have from Nintendo. Sega really did have some great innovative games, even if that seems to have fallen away from the company in recent years. Segagaga, Space Channel Five, Virtual On… they weren’t just Sonic and Shinobi. Chu Chu Rocket really worked well online too, years before all the online console stuff we get from the Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade.

Alien Front Online

Alien Front Online for the Sega Dreamcast, 3d third person polygonal shooter. A vehicle based shooter really from a third person perspective behind your tank or walker. An arcade game ported to the DC, this thing was a real showpiece for the Dreamcast’s graphics and it is still pretty impressive today. The objects themselves aren’t incredibly detailed, but the action is so fast, and so BIG. Tons of vehicles driving around, shit blowing up everywhere, and all kinds of cool weapons both human and alien. They even have an honest-to-goodness usable nuke in the game, and I can’t say there are many more satisfying video game moments than when you get to pop one of these off effectively. The gameplay, as is typical with arcade games, is kinda shallow, at least for home video game expectations. But the arenas are varied and interesting, and you can choose to play either as the invading aliens or the defending humans. This game also had online play. For the most part it worked pretty well, especially considering the pioneering role the Dreamcast had in actually forging this concept for consoles. Remember, the standard at this time was dialup. DIAL-UP. And I still remember decent lag-free games. The game also came with a microphone that allowed you a short segment of voice input every time you activated it. There was one evening of play I will never forget. Everyone on my team was saying the usual stuff, ‘go here’, ‘get that guy’, ‘don’t shoot at me’, etc. But one guy used his voice interval to just babble or shout incoherent stuff into the microphone. He was so weird, and he made some really hilarious noises, but he knew it was funny, and he’d keep doing it. That made most of the voices that followed him nothing but laughter. I could barely see what I was doing half the time from laughing so much. I hope that guy is still out there having a good time.

Guardian Heroes

Guardian Heroes for the Sega Saturn. 2d beat ‘em up. You don’t have to play this game to see how incredibly over-the-top it is. Just dig up a YouTube video and gape in awe at the madness. It is this kind of game that has fomented Treasure’s reputation for good play mechanics buried under impossible visuals. At base level, this game is akin to Double Dragon, Final Fight, or even Golden Axe. You walk along sidescrolling screens (generally headed right) beating up enemies as they appear. Most beat ‘em ups let you work in a few throws or combos to break up the monotony of just hitting the punch button. This genre has all but disappeared nowadays, but in its heyday it was huge. Mostly owing to their popularity in arcades. They are a great cooperative play experience, rather like playing a fighting game where you are partners with someone as opposed to being their enemy. In Guardian Heroes, the setting is a medieval fantasy (with some technology) world. The game has command-motion inputs like many fighting games, and multiplane movement like Fatal Fury, but these things weren’t unheard of in beat ‘em ups. Not being an actual arcade game with their hustle-the-quarters-quickly time constraints, Treasure also added in extensive dialogue scenes, choosable branching story paths, and RPG-like leveling up and character management. Now the game starts to look pretty ambitious next to a typical beat ‘em up, but where Guardian Heroes really sets itself apart is in the execution. The sprites for the characters and enemies are simply-colored anime drawings. But this simplicity allows for dozens of them to be onscreen at once, and for some really huge shapes to move quickly about the screen wreaking havoc. It is common in the game for you (and your buddies) to frequently be attacked by six or ten henchmen, one ‘captain’ with special abilities, and some giant robot with a screen-filling laser ALL AT THE SAME TIME. The chaos is unbelievable. With all of this, of course some visibility, and therefore control, is going to be sacrificed. You can’t always see where your character is and what they are doing underneath all the layers of explosions, bodies, and mayhem. But that’s part of learning the game. You have to learn to deal with it. And positioning yourself so that you can do what you need to is half the game. Simply awesome.

Elemental Master for the Genesis/Mega Drive. 2d vertical STG. A really unique vertical shooter from Technosoft, the folks behind the Thunder Force games. Although your ship is actually a little sorcerer dude walking through the backgrounds, the scrolling is still forced and constant. So the game looks something like Gain Ground in still pictures but is really more akin to the plane/spaceship/flying person sort of shmup. You have a button that fires forward and back, along with a weapon change button akin to Thunder Force. Unlike most of that series’ chapters you don’t lose whatever weapon you have equipped when you get hit. In fact, you have a lifebar as opposed to three lives. This game just rocks. It is perhaps a bit too easy, but it has cool weapons, decent visuals for the 16-bit era, and an awesome soundtrack. In fact, the soundtrack is part of what elevates this game, for me, into the favorites tier. There are good tunes all the way ‘round, but when you first get to the bosses that transform from human to monstrous, the music and sound effects will raise the hair on your neck.

Cyberbots for the Sega Saturn. 2d fighting game. A flashy, if somewhat simple mech fighter from Capcom. Gameplay is a variant of Capcom’s standard six-button system, like Street Fighter or Darkstalkers. The robots are varied, and the artwork is decent… again pretty reminiscent of Capcom’s other fighting games. Although more serious than Darkstalkers, the robots can pull off the same sort of ‘impossible’ special moves, blasting or slicing with weapons their mechanical bodies couldn’t possibly contain. But it is all done very well, with lots of trash talking between the rounds. Looking at this, I’m guessing it was kind of the blueprint for higher profile mech fighters that came along like the Gundam Battle Assault series. The way damage, weapons, and movement are represented all look very similar. The hero/Ryu character in the game made his way to being an unlockable in the later polygonal fighter Techromancer (Kikaioh). A decent game, but it probably doesn’t compel anyone but Capcom fighting game completists or fans of mech-on-mech violence.

Zero Wing

Zero Wing for the Genesis/Mega Drive. 2d horizontal STG. This game is kind of odd compared to most shooters, but pretty typical of games from the developer, Toaplan. Famous for the bad Engrish that gave us, ‘All your base are belong to us’, this game plays in a slow-paced (R-type speed as opposed to Thunder Force speed) fashion with a conventional power up system. But like most Toaplan games it is solidly designed with a gradually ramping difficulty level, widely varying levels and enemies, and an weird, rough art style that makes for some strange and memorable bosses. The music is actually really good too. I kind of got hooked on this in an arcade, in some town I was visiting. I never got to play it to completion. So when I saw there was a Genesis version I jumped on it. The port is pretty good. It isn’t as detailed as the arcade version and it doesn’t have as many layers of background scrolling, but all the enemies and timing seem right (compared to what I remember), and the soundtrack is actually better… same tunes but less tinny arrangement and ‘instruments’. This game won’t win any awards for originality (apart from the ‘Weird Boss Award’) but it is a good example of an almost relaxing STG experience. Not easy per se… but not stressful either, even in the difficult sections of the later levels.

(as usual images stolen from HG101 and a few other sources)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Crashing Through the Mirror

I 'beat' the story mode in Mirror's Edge for the Xbox 360 last night.

Man, I have really mixed feelings about the game.

It isn't a really recent game for the console, but when I first started thinking about getting a 360 for playing import STGs, this was one American game I was pretty sure I wanted.

The good: The premise is that you are a female anti-hero(ine) who basically moves through this first-person game like Jackie Chan, combining acrobatics and martial arts. It is very unique and although it looks like it might be a typical FPS, the de-emphasising of guns (for you) changes all the rules. The graphics and stage design are phenomenal. Incredibly lifelike movement and all of it aided by unsurpassed audio. The music is REALLY good, and the sounds of your movement and efforts really put you into her shoes. The enemy AI is pretty good. They don't do unbelievably stupid things if you are armed.

The bad: The plot is incredibly cliched and unambitious. Typical corrupt cops and city officials with betrayal by friends and all that. There wasn't one plot point I didn't see a mile away. It could be argued that the plot in an action game like this is secondary, but when a title shoots to be this immersive (and is successful during the actual gameplay) this is a real letdown. With all the cash that must've gone into the visuals and audio they couldn't hire a real writer. All kinds of contrived plot convolutions and none of it surprising... just sort of confusing at times.

The ugly: The cutscenes. If you read anything on the 'net about this game, this is where everyone agrees. The flat animated cutscenes are the height of gross suckage. Again, looks like the money ran out before they got to these. At least the most dramatic moments in the game are actually done in-game with the polygonal models you interact with as a player. This is incredibly important to the ending which would have been an absolute catastrophe with the shitty cutscene style.

Probably the worst thing for me though, are the controls. This needs a little more explanation though:

As cool as this game looks and moves, it may be that that the concept of an agility-based hero (like Spiderman or Strider) played through a first person perspective just cannot be realised effectively with available technologies. In a 2d game, the player's distanced perspective allows an objective view. If the programmers and designers are doing their job, there may be routes to figure out, and controls to master, but all the tools and clues will be there for you to master the game. It isn't as immersive as 3d but there isn't as much guess work. No hurrying to look behind you, no struggling to see what's ahead. It may not be as realistic, but 2d is simpler to control.

In the 3d gaming world, F(irst)P(erson)S(hooter) games typically just need move (maybe with multiple speeds), look, shoot, jump, duck/crouch, change weapon, and 'fiddle with object'. As long as the needs of the characters in the game don't jump much beyond that simple list it is pretty easy to manage getting around. The move and look controls are the rather obvious toggles that almost every controller these days sports. Shoot is usually a trigger. Jump is usually the other side's 'upper' trigger with duck/crouch the lower trigger. So this is all fairly intuitive. But when you start adding in all the physicality of a 'ninja' game it becomes problematic.

Now any set of controls no matter how complex can be memorised. If gamers can learn and fluidly play Virtual On or Senko No Ronde in superfast competitive play, then the controls of Mirror's Edge can be mastered. It is just not that intuitive. It takes A LOT longer to learn competently than an FPS because you WILL need to jump up, bounce off a wall, and grab a ledge... and that's just a lot of shit compared to blowing junk up in Wolfenstein. Couple this with the the timing necessary to pull off the complex moves, the fact that two critical buttons are analog, so your hitting them has to be firm in addition to quick, and that missing usually leads to death. There's a lot of frustration there just based on using the controls. In any 3d action game, whether first or third person, precision jumping is THE BANE. Up that factor in Mirror's Edge exponentially. You die a fucking lot!

It is a game about leaping along rooftops, over gaps between buildings, and tightrope walking along beams and cranes. When you aren't involved in some death-defying archictectural stunt you are ducking for cover and dodging automatic weapons fire. To their credit, the designers DID simplify certain things. Grabs when you are flying through the air, whether ledge or pipe are automatic. Just get into the vicinity and you latch on. But for every simplification there is another complexity. Yeah, I can grab that plank sticking out, but if I'm off to one side by even six virtual inches she will not grab it. And you will be off by that six inches... frequently. Because the Xbox 360 analog stick is a slippery little fucker. It takes a master just to run in a goshdamn straight line with it. In real life, the heroine Faith, wouldn't fail to compensate for slight misalignments like that. But that shit isn't just the fault of the controller:

In point of fact, there is a lot of lack of real-world intuition that just makes this a really difficult world to adapt to. Almost all of it is game limitation stuff. Even with the best steering wheel and pedals money can buy, driving games cannot convey the feel of the road under your seat, or the vibration through the tires for which your brain and body are constantly adjusting. You don't slew in your seat as you make a turn. There's all this feedback that aids us in driving a car that you can't simulate without a massive, expensive simulator. It is the same in Mirror's Edge. I can't tell you how many times I ran off the edge of a platform or walkway after having jumped down on it because I lacked the actual feedback your body would give me in a similar situation. In real-life you could make that jump tighter and backpedal or shift your body back to stay on the platform. In the game, Faith just walks right the fuck off. It often seems like this game is a scenario that really requires full human peripheral vision too... but none of us have the ability to simulate THAT no matter how wide our HDTVs are. So there's all this shit that you should see, guys shooting at you, a little lip to grab onto, whatever but you don't. Or let's say its a lot of effort to see it. Its the same complication all FPS games have but it is almost crippling to the fun in Mirror's Edge. I'm not an unsubtle game player but sometimes I felt like MY version of Faith should've been riding the short bus.

The game also attempts to de-emphasize physical combat compared to an ordinary FPS too. Faith's moves are real-world martial arts based and implemented pretty well in my opinion, but many of the limitations mentioned above have an analog in the combat sequences. Being able to disarm a cop and take his gun is of paramount importance, yet it can be really difficult to judge the correct distance, let alone work out the timing. Watch in horror as Faith misses the grab for the gun and gets pistol-whipped into unconsciousness over and over and over again. The game and the manual actually tell you 'avoid combat whenever possible', and yet there are key sequences where you must get a cop's gun and literally kill your way through a situation. Because Faith is so outmatched in combat you will double your own body weight in violently-received lead before you know THIS is just such a sequence.

So maybe an acrobatic 3d action game is kind of too far ahead of its time. We don't have the controllers and screens to simulate this well enough. But here's the real reason I don't think Mirror's Edge works so well. The game is largely a puzzle game. Action oriented, but a puzzle game. Most of your time will be spent on figuring out where to go. The game helps you to some degree by indicating in red what objects can be grabbed onto or jumped from. But that's really artificial. Faith would know her own abilities and be able to determine whether she could make a jump. She can look around and see what poles, pipes and ledges can be scaled without them turning red to show her. Oddly, as the game progresses it puts you into rooms to escape and DOESN'T turn usable topography red. These can be really frustrating. I must've looked at a walkthrough five times in these situations through the course of the game. I realise the room is the puzzle and that if they indicated the exact objects in red, there'd be little challenge. But it is still predicated on the player not understanding what Faith can and can't do, which is contrived. Of course Faith would know what she can and can't do. It just seems weird to be dodging machine gun bullets, leaping over alleys, and kicking in doors only to be stuck figuring out how to scale the various objects in a room to get to the artifically reddened vent near the ceiling. In real life she WOULD have to figure it out, but she wouldn't get stuck on the fact she didn't know she could hang onto that tiny lip up on the wall. Or stymied not knowing that she could, in fact, leap that odd-looking gap. As players we don't have all the practice and experience that the character supposedly does. So how does a game give that to a player to overcome his making Faith look like a complete doofus. Well, it doesn't.

I don't know if this is really making any sense. Its a lot of blah-blah-blah, but I'm just DISAPPOINTED in the game failing the incredible potential of its premise. I want to like it. I think some parts of it are incredible and it may be the best use of movement and sound I've yet seen in a 3d game. I just think the IDEA of a ninja-like hero or heroine might be yet beyond the scope of our 'affordable' video game technology. I'm not expecting any game system to simulate EXACTLY what its like to be Jackie Chan. I'm perfectly happy with many racing games even though they don't transmit accurate reproductions of the physical forces at work in a moving car. I think if they DID compensate for all these frustrations, either the challenge would disappear, or all Faith's movements would consist of canned sequences that would devolve the game into a game you watch more than play. I've been reading some articles lately talking about the balance between realism and fun/playability. This game has a very fine line to have to tread in presenting the hair-raising thrill of jumping from building to building with your life at stake, and still give you a game you can actually play.

There were times, even after I'd fallen a hundred times in previous chapters, that my heart was in my mouth as the game leads you through another vertigo-inducing setpiece. On the flip side, I just felt so often like my controller or my lack of understanding were what drove me to look at online hints. I'd come up against a hurdle and just COULD NOT see where Faith could go because it just wasn't apparent, even through the game up to that point, just what she could do. For some people this sort of figuring out and learning-- trial and error and a lot of death-- would make for a fun game, it just wasn't really what I'd signed on for.

My own misgivings about what can be simulated or not, some clever git can probably come up with a way to represent this sort of first person ninja game that is more intuitive. It'll be awesome, especially if lighting strikes twice and they manage the same sense of movement and fantastic audio.

Friday, August 7, 2009


It has been smoky in my town for close to two weeks. Forest fires burning nearby and no wind to carry the smoke in a different direction or blow it out of here. Sometimes it gets so bad your throat hurts and it your breathing is affected. There have been mornings I've found a thin layer of ash on the car.

We are getting into a part of the year now that is traditionally rainy. We have a county fair, but almost every time it comes some or most of the days are pretty miserable from rain. The good thing about rain here is that frequently douses the smoke.

Not this time. At present, we have both rain and smoke. The air is a mixture of smoke and water! Why the fuck do people live here? This is our last 'warm' weather before long months of subzero temperatures start. This place is a literal hell most months of the year. I yearn to be out of here, and for more reasons than just the climate.

This isn't the place to start up a rant about how much I hate where I live, but I'm struck by the irony of having read three books about the ultimate place of punishment, with the final volume called Escape From Hell.

Yeah. Good idea.

Sticking It To The Orn Empire

Continuing my tour through my so called retro-games, we come to the Thunder Force series.

Y’know, as an aside, I don’t really use the term ‘retro’ very often. It’s become popular to describe playing video games for outdated systems, but to me the term always stood for something MODERN that ‘looks back’ to a previous time. Akin to ‘old-fashioned’. People use this phrase frequently for cars or clothes. In my own usage, I’d only apply it to a modern version that was recalling something older, like the latest iterations of Mustangs and Camaros looking like 60’s muscle cars. They would be retro. As in retro-styling. An actual ’68 Camaro would not be retro. That’s just old.

For this post, I’m talking about Technosoft’s Thunder Force series of video games, but the only one I’d actually call a retro-game myself, is the most recent one released in 2008, because it is a modern game with elements summoned up from an ancient play system... by video game standards. Sorry about the digression, but a small niggling point. My definition is not official according to Webster, it is just a personal quirk/policy.

Anyway, Thunder Force. There is already a good, detailed history on Hardcore Gaming 101 about this franchise, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of that work, and focus on my own feelings and experiences. Screen shots are cribbed from that site… as most of my game screens are, since they seem to have the color and clarity down pat. I really need to work out a system for screen grabs and gameplay videos for myself…

Thunder Force (no numeral in its name, though it is now called TF1): I, like most Thunder Force fans have almost no familiarity with this game. It was released on Japanese personal computers, various models, in the early 80’s. From what screenshots and shit appear on the web it appears to resemble a top-down shooter like Xevious only it scrolls in all directions as opposed to that game’s strictly vertical movement. I’m enough of an old school gamer to appreciate even the very early pre-NES days, and I enjoy seeing and playing the roots of long-running franchises or seminal games in the development of the genres we know and love. I think you’d HAVE to be to want to play this game. I don’t know how it plays, actually, but it looks quite bland, almost generic. It was probably hot crap in its day, but I don’t see any STG fan, who didn’t live in that era, actually getting much of a kick out of this. I’m still poking around trying to find videos of the thing in action. Whatever it’s shortcomings from a modern view, it was obviously popular enough to be the inaugural chapter in a much-beloved shooter saga.

Thunder Force II: My game was the Genesis/Mega Drive version. I got the console fairly early in its career on store shelves, and TFII was one of my first games. I was impressed. Never mind that the Genesis itself was such a step up from the NES, I was already fairly into STGs when I got the thing, and I really wanted something that played closer to (or just like) the arcades. TFII was not a literal arcade game, but with the bright colors, fast scrolling (without the blinky sprite flicker), loud sounds, and seriously kickass music, I thought it I’d reached a peak. After I’d played the game a dozen times (and toweled off myself and the controller half that often), some of the little quirks became apparent. The scrolling is eight-directional, but really fast and forced. So it was really easy to run into walls, bullets or enemies… and not so easy to dodge them. Argh--when you lose all your powerups every time you die, one of the things that made Gradius so difficult and is now a standard trope named for that very game. In its favor though, apart from all the superficial eye and ear candy previously mentioned, the game had a boatload of different weapon types that you choose for any given situation. If you died you DIDN’T have to go back to a previous checkpoint (like R-Type, Gradius, and many of the other early shooters). So while still challenging, it had a lot less feelings of futility. I never felt like I just couldn’t get past any hurdle, even if that occasionally meant sacrificing a ship. Playing TFII again recently, it is really hard at times, mostly owing to the forced scrolling in the overhead stages. Your ship scrolls so fast that when it comes to parts of the game where you have to shoot a path through a layer of rocks or lattice-work you have to shoot some, flip and go back a few inches, flip again, shoot some more, then repeat because your ship flies faster than your bullets can destroy the obstacles. In essence you have to use a two steps forward, one step back approach. And if you go back too far, the obstacles scroll off screen and reform! However, with that complaint out of the way, I can still see why this game rocked so hard for me. The music is still really good, and this is coming from an early game on a 16-bit console. The side scrolling stages are still pretty dynamic. In those, the enemies come from all directions, so you have the ability to change the direction of your firepower on the fly. The speed of the scrolling and the intricacy of your piloting skill changed frequently. The enemies were of all sizes, (and could show up any time) not just popcorn, midboss and boss. These may not seem particularly revelatory now, but back then it was pretty exciting. Thunder Force was dynamic in a way few shooters were. I can remember Life Force perhaps being the only earlier shooter that came off quite as dynamic as the sidescroll stages in Thunder Force. The game didn’t do anything totally new, but it did so much of it WELL. I even like the overhead stages actually, at odds with most reviews I’ve read for the game. The game has a fair number of aspects that would drop from the series, the overhead stages (a legacy from the original Thunder Force), being the most obvious. However much I liked the whole game, the side scrolling parts WERE the best part.

Thunder Force III: Again on the Genesis. Wow. If TFII was impressive, the next one blew me away. A total re-think by Technosoft, and an attempt to distill and refine the best parts of TFII. A more solid graphic style, even more dynamic stage design (and scrolling speed changes), and some really really memorable enemies. And the weapons man, the weapons. The new backwards shot upgrade ‘Lancer’ was cool enough, but when you first got two CLAWs (TF’s options) circling your ship and then picked up the ‘Sever’ weapon, you thought there just could not be a more bitchin’ weapon combo. And it worked just how it looked too, cutting through most enemies (even bosses) like butter. In fact, if you could play well enough to hang onto Sever, it kinda made the game too easy. But for sheer orgasmic blasting if you are going to fuck up the game balance do it in favor of overpowering the weapons instead of under powering ‘em, eh? I like the way Technosoft had their priorities straight! The music was so good, it set a new standard for all Genesis games that followed… a standard only a few other games (including a subsequent TF game) would ever match. Trying this one out again, I can absolutely see why it was, and still is, held in such high esteem. Probably the only weakness is that the scenery looks a bit too tiled. It is very well drawn, and the multiplane scrolling and special effects are great… but the textures repeat too much. This was probably a space saving method typical of a cartridge-based game, but later games, including Thunder Force IV would get around this, or at least disguise it better. The game really kicks ass though, and its easier difficulty (than other Genesis versions anyway) make it a great intro to the franchise. I’d probably recommend a newbie play this chapter before any of the others assuming they had a Genesis or Mega Drive. I know this must be a game many people want to come out on the Wii Virtual Console. This is probably the first STG for which I got the 1CC (one credit clear).

Thunder Force IV: Another one on the Genesis. A lot of fans would label this chapter the pinnacle of the series. It has all the advantages of Thunder Force III, the music, dynamic stages and enemies, killer weapons… and all its weaknesses expunged. The graphics look less tiled, and the difficulty has been pumped up mostly owing to dropping the Sever weapon. There is an uber-weapon in the game, but TFIV is the game that starts the Thunder Force tradition of giving your ship add-on hardware (little animated bolt-on ship parts!), and therefore amped up weapons, for the last levels of the game. You get the awesome Thunder Sword but you don’t get to just zip through the whole game with it. This game, a latecomer in the console’s life, was about as pumped up as a Genesis cart was going to get. It suffers from slowdown in a number of places as the console’s processing power gets overtaxed, but these moments are almost welcome relief. I can’t really count it against the game. In Thunder Force’s day (and earlier) there seemed to be two types of STG. Reflex-based (UN Squadron) and memory-based (R-type). Some games had both, but Thunder Force is the first series I played where it was a pretty dead even combination of both. Some parts you will twitch-play, dodging the bullets and getting through on piloting skill. Other parts you have to learn the safe spot on the screen. No amount of dodging ability will win you through. Thunder Force IV seems to have this combination refined perfectly and is really, really fun. It didn’t knock me over upon my first booting it because I’d kind have already been conditioned in my expectations by TFIII.

Thunder Force V: I had this for the Saturn. When I first turned this on, I thought ‘man, Thunder Force has gotten fugly!’. With this episode TF went from sprites to polygons, and the transition was NOT pretty. The popcorn enemies were dully colored, drably designed, and generally uninspiring. This was not so much true of the mid-boss and boss characters, which actually were pretty cool and memorable. And the backgrounds are okay, too, though really inconsistent in style. Some of the stages look ‘realistic’, some look too ‘rendered’ and some look like they came out of the previous episode. It’s like most the effort went into the bosses, and what was left mostly went to the backgrounds with a tiny bit left over for the fodder enemies. However the stage designs manage to be just as dynamic as the previous entries. There’s all the diving underwater, soaring above the clouds, and showdowns in space—complete with hardware docking. The Saturn version doesn’t have any real slowdown either, so safe spots and memorization become more critical than ever. As I got used to the weird graphics, the gameplay won me over. Like TFIII this chapter is more about kicking ass than about a really serious challenge. You get a new game-breakingly powerful weapon with the Free Range… and you get to use it for the whole game. But it IS hella-fun anyway. The new CD-based music sets the soundtrack bar even higher. It is in the running (to me) for best video game soundtrack ever. I’ve probably logged more hours on this episode than any of the others, partially because the Saturn was a primary video game system for me for so long. It is also very easy to get into and just have a good time. The game is a bit on the short side, and the Free Range makes it lack challenge, but maybe that was the appeal… a game with all the intensity and pacing of the best shooters, but one you didn’t have to punish yourself with all the practice and concentration needed to see most shooters through to the end. Running through this again recently, I had to choke down the graphics at first (again), but the old reflex memory left from so many hours on this, after a few nights I almost got a 1-ALL (1 ship ALL stages cleared). I lost my only ship to the last form of the last boss! This is also the only TF game where the last boss is on a timer. If you take to long to defeat him he flies away and you get the crap ending. THAT might actually be the most difficult part of the game. Cakewalk to get to the last boss, but you are going to have to work to beat him in time.

Thunder Force VI: For the Playstation 2. This game has gotten a bad rap and it doesn’t deserve it. After Technosoft slipped quietly off the radar, years went by and rumors flew about the possibility (or lack thereof) of a new Thunder Force game. To keep the story simple, a real fan at one of Sega’s development arms pursued the rights to make a new game and eventually released it in October of last year. He is hoping it will help usher in a new time of visibility and viability for STGs. I think all the whining comes from all the waiting players have done causing each individual to build up a fantasy about what the game would/should be like… with these fantasies assuming almost mythic proportions given all the false leads, rumors, and fan material about this on the ‘net. The actual new TF game is basically one guy’s idea of what it should’ve been like, a guy with Sega backing him, but not unlimited time and resources. So his vision cannot be everyone’s vision. And anyone’s vision about some TF to end all TFs was just not realistic or practical. At heart, it is what it is, a Thunder Force game. It plays recognizably. And if it has any real faults they owe more to the game trying to be all things to all people than its restrictions on budget, talent, or time. I myself am willing to overlook this in large part because the guy (and his team) obviously loved the old games. He put in a lot of reminiscent stuff updated on a PS2. It also appears he figured this would be a lot of younger players first exposure to the franchise, so he probably felt a ‘greatest hits’ approach would be best. So the plot/storyline (which I haven’t really mentioned in this post but is quite cool and involved for an STG) was steered to allow, inclusion of both the modern speed and gameplay of TFV with many of the enemies and weapons from all the previous TF entries. This approach makes sense, and is in fact what Technosoft might have done if they’d released TFVI themselves so long after the last chapter.

***Brief Plot Interlude***
I’m going to insert some story basics about Thunder Force because it helps justify my apologetics for TFVI. The first four chapters are all about the ongoing struggle between the Galaxy Federation (the good guys—you) and Orn Empire. With the remnant seemingly defeated or suppressed in TFIV, the action moves light years away to Earth for chapter five. We discover a mechanism of superior technology floating on the rim of our solar system, the wreckage of a Rynex ship from the previous TF game. Not knowing anything about the Galaxy Federation and their war, Earth scientists call the unknown creators Vastians and their craft/technology ‘Vasteel’ (Vastian Steel). Using this technology and additional insights gained from it, the Earth governments build a super-computer named The Guardian to help usher in a utopian age, but in true dystopian science fiction tradition, the machine declares war on the human race. Fighting computer-led forces with superior Vastian technology proves impossible, so a small fleet is built by the resistance using what Vastian-tech they still have access to. Finishing TFV, and destroying all Vastian-tech enemies you find that The Guardian’s war was actually its attempt to force the blinkered earthlings to destroy what they’d discovered and propagated without thinking through the consequences or earning the right to the power. The computer was charged with safeguarding the human race, but deduced the human race could not be safe or trusted with any of the Vastian tech. At the end of TFV (if you get the good ending) the human pilot is encouraged in a last message from The Guardian to destroy her own ship and therefore eliminate the last piece of alien technology. Thunder Force VI opens with a chilling event: our messing with the Galaxy Federation’s technology has been noticed, the Orn Empire has arrived in our solar system. The Earth has no military force capable of withstanding the invaders, so they must turn once again to the power of the Galaxy Federation’s (Vastian) science. ***End plot interlude***

If you played TFV, then this new chapter is very similar to it. The polygonal graphics in both versions allow similar camera work, though the PS2 graphics are much more refined. It has more fast-scrolling sections, so even if the levels are technically the same length ‘geographically’ they sure go by faster. There are also overpowered weapons, always a TF tradition, but they operate similarly to the TFV version. Now you collect ‘energy’ from slain enemies and this energy can be used to force any weapon you have into a supercharged state (for a limited time). The game is so generous with this energy that you will pretty much have the ability to crush right through difficult enemies in no time. The challenge in this game leans more towards skill in piloting through fast or tight sections or bullet patterns. There’s been some internet-hating for the simplicity of the graphics and some slowdown. The graphics are very bright and designed well. The enemies are not bland like TFV’s, maybe owing to them being updates and reimaginings of the Orn forces from the earlier games. I thought it was pretty cool to see updated versions of enemies and bosses from the earlier games. It didn’t feel like a re-tread, especially given that the old guys were sprites and the new versions are polygons, and had some new weaponry… kinda like the Orn Empire had upgraded in the intervening time. You yourself even get a selection of ships so you can sort of see what it would be like to play the pace of TFV with the weapons of earlier games. I even spotted one of the weapons from the overhead sections of TFII! Also, in its favor, TFVI has an absolutely creepy final boss. A lot of people didn’t like it because they thought it was a design uncharacteristic of the series. Bollocks. I loved it, especially since my kids said, ‘that thing is really disturbing, Dad’. And if the game is too easy, just up the difficulty level and/or play with the Rynex ship.

Thunder Force has always occupied a special place in my video game nerd’s heart. It’s a great shooter series with (old) arcade-style gameplay, yet never was not an actual arcade franchise (apart from a variant on TFIII—very brief-lived). It was not the first STG I ever played, but it certainly cemented it as one of my favorite and probably most-often-played genre. It really set a standard for what a lot of players hope for in shooting games. Again, no single part of it is innovative or unique to the series, but it just puts everything together in a really cool package. Its almost like the ‘coolness’ is the most important part of these games, and everything else just works to support that.

A lot of games (maybe ALL games) try to do that… but Thunder Force is one of the few that actually succeeds… and it does it across all five volumes that I’ve played.
(images from HG101)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

From Hell

About a month ago I re-read (decades after the first reading) Niven & Pournelle's Inferno, inspired by the recent release of the sequel, Escape From Hell.

Then last week, I read that very sequel, which in turn inspired by current book, also a re-read: The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, which is in fact a poem.

Anyone who doesn't live a sheltered literary life has at least a passing familiarity with what Dante's Inferno is about. A tour of hell. From the viewpoint, vision, or imagination of a Catholic Italian poet of the Middle Ages. Interestingly, for all of its imagery based in torture and humiliation Dante had a pretty idealistic, some might say enlightened view of what the Catholic church and medieval Christendom should have been like. It is the first part of a trilogy, but far and away the most popular volume. Horrors of the damned aside, it is an incredibly well thought out, meticulously constructed poem (and 'world') with a lot of social and religious criticism included.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, revisited Dante's vision of hell in the mid-70's with their book, Inferno. Whipping up science fiction author/avatar Allen Carpenter, they send their protagonist along similar steps Dante took, only looking at the Catholic hell through more liberal, modern eyes. Writing this thing the authors did not treat the subject lightly or humorously, despite there being some humor in the work. Much of the text of their Inferno is made up of Carpenter trying to be rational about all the supernatural happenings around him-- and then once he comes to believe it, to justify in his own mind why such a place would exist, that is, why would God create it?

Now in 2009, Escape From Hell finishes their vision. Inferno really did end on a note that many readers probably found unsatisfactory. It didn't bother me, but I could see why fans could clamor for a sequel. I don't know if that's why they wrote Escape. But it picks up right where Inferno left off more-or-less and I enjoyed it just as much.... enh, apart from one bit right at the end which seemed really contrived and out of nowhere. I don't want to be shitty spoiler guy so I won't give details, but it involves historical bombmaker Oppenheimer.

All three books are really fast paced. Considering when Dante wrote his poem, for a modern reader to find it so is pretty amazing. But it isn't long. If you haven't read it before, opt for a semi-prose version like Ciardi's translation (recommended by Niven & Pournelle). Most volumes include diagrams of hell to explain the unusual topography, and lots of notes to explain the context and politics of Dante's day.

The two modern volumes are still quite respectful of the idea of God, Satan, hell and all that. They aren't some modern attempt to debunk the whole affair. But it is very interesting to read what hell has become since Dante's time since a number of the sins are more-or-less obsolete (violent wasting) and there are tons of new ones (so where do they belong in hell?).

Good stuff.