Archive for August, 2010

Diamonds In The Rough: Wario Land 3 (GBC)

Welcome to “Diamonds in the Rough,” a feature in which I take a look at a few lesser-known and under-appreciated titles of the past.  These are games that were fun and original, many of which I fettered away hours of my young life with, but for whatever reason just didn’t get the credit they deserved.Being a hero is a thankless job.  The hours are long, the trials are many, and the princess is always in another freaking castle.  Besides, folks like Mario can be so insufferably cheery sometimes.  That’s why we have Wario.  A fat, greedy, loutish brute who’s always good for a chuckle, and in case you weren’t aware, the protagonist to a refreshingly unique series of platformers on the Game Boy.

The original Wario Land started things off fairly similarly to its Mario predecessors – Wario came in two sizes depending on his health, there were a number of hat-based powerups contained in blocks, and the adventure was mostly linear with a few branching paths.  The biggest departure here was the main character, who was tough enough not to take damage by simply touching an enemy (they had to actually stick him with the pointy end), and had his own crude repertoire of skills, including the now-iconic shoulder ram.
Wario Land 2 mixed things up quite a bit more by making Wario totally invincible.  Far from making things a walk in the park, this introduced a whole new layer of gameplay by making Wario dependent on his enemies in order to solve a wide range of puzzles.  You see, while he couldn’t be killed, Wario could still be effected in various ways by the baddies of the land – being crushed by a weight might make him pancake flat, for instance.  These transformations could help or hinder the player, and the trick was often figuring out how to use them to your advantage.  For example, a zombified Wario would fall through thin floors, which might act as a setback or allow you into a new area.  However, walking into a ray of light would change you back, so if there was a specific floor you wanted to pass through, you had to plan your route carefully.

Wario Land 3 builds off this mechanic and refines it in what is in my opinion the best of the series.  The list of transformations is much longer here than it was in the previous game, and this leads to a much wider variety of puzzles.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll often allow yourself to be struck by every new enemy you encounter just to see what happens.  There’s a sort of cartoony Mr.Bill-esque sadism to the whole thing…Mario would never stand for such indignities.
Wario’s third adventure is also much more freeform than his previous two.  Each stage contains four seperate treasure chests and a corresponding four keys.  In order to pass a stage, you must find one of these keys and unite it with its like-colored chest.  The contents of these chests is variable but rarely useless.  From half an amulet to a pair of overalls, these “artifacts” will usually open up a new stage, trigger a change in a previous stage, or reward Wario with a new ability.  Opening all four chests in any given level is impossible the first time through, and so there’s a good amount of Metroid-style backtracking once you find the right item for the job.  If this wasn’t enough, there’s even a simple night and day system that triggers its own changes across levels.  Access a desert stage during the day and you might be confronted by a sea of quicksand, but come back at night and you may find that same area an empty ditch full of sleeping enemies.  Like Wario’s transformations, these changes can be good or bad, opening up new areas but closing off others, and it adds yet another element to this already expansive puzzler.
However, every game has its flaws, and the Game Boy era was one in which gamers had a lot more patience (at least, I know I did back then – no way would I suffer through the blind trial-and-error and almost unfair difficulty of Final Fantasy Legend 3 today…but I digress).  Wario Land 3’s biggest problem is that messing up will often set you back pretty far, and this leads to a lot of backtracking.  This can get tiresome very quickly in more difficult portions of the game, as it only takes one hit to trigger a transformation that will drop you off a cliff or spring you out of a boss’s lair.  There’s also a pervasive golf-themed minigame that isn’t really bad in itself but is entirely overused.  It might have been a humorous diversion if used sparingly, but there’s really no reason Wario should have to sink an enemy into a tin cup under par in order to open up so many gates within actual levels.
If you can get past these slip-ups, though, Wario Land 3 is a very fun and rewarding game that manages to get you thinking more than the average platformer.  The greatest thing it has going for it is sheer variety in powerups, collectibles, stages, gameplay, you name it.  And let’s face it, Wario is just a more fun character than his goody-two-shoes counterpart.  If you’re looking for something different from jumping on turtles to save a princess, try setting yourself on fire and running through a wall for sweet, sweet treasure.

What games do you think were tragically underrated?  What hidden gems do you fondly recall from your own childhood?  Let me know in the comments!

(Reposted from Platform Nation)


August 29, 2010 at 6:13 pm Leave a comment

The Fight Over DLC In Fighting Games

Downloadable content in fighting games has historically been a superfluous service, generally restricted to cosmetic changes like additional character costumes or colors.  That’s why, when Arc System Works announced they were going to release meaningful DLC to increase the lifespan of their latest fighter (BlazBlue: Continuum Shift), I was pretty excited.  However, not all is gumdrops and chocolate fountains here, as the first downloadable character dropped this week and spurred a fair amount of backlash.

I understand the complaints: 8 dollars seems a bit steep for a single character when there is no single-player material to go along with it, the character in question wears clothes so comically skimpy that it smacks of a cheap “sex sells” marketing ploy, and the character becoming available so soon after the game’s release raises concerns about ArcSys withholding content to make a quick buck.  These are valid concerns, and I too was disappointed in the lack of single-player integration for the new character.  The timeframe for the character’s release is a bit questionable, but I think it makes sense – there’s a good amount of time after a game goes gold that this development could have fit in, especially with localization.  Though the purchase is for an unlock, the character was included in a patch and was not on the original disc – an important distinction.  As for the prurient marketing ploy, well… it’s hard to argue with that.

Seriously, this is fan service bordering on self-parody.

That said, I still support the direction ArcSys is going with their new DLC.  How can I say that?  Well, perhaps it’s a matter of perspective.  8 dollars seems like a lot in this instance, yes, but if you were to purchase all 3 downloadable characters, you’ll still have only spent $64 on the game – barely breaking the usual retail price of a new title.  When combined with balance patches that are still purportedly free, this constitutes the main body of changes that would go into a subsequent installment of a normal fighting franchise.  $64 is going to be lower than whatever you pay for two separate games a year apart, which is the alternative that ArcSys is breaking away from with this DLC.  Casual fans can just pay $40 for the basic game, and they won’t have to worry about having an outdated model in a year.

Hell, even if you decided not to pay for any downloadable content, you can still play against these characters online – a point I haven’t really seen mentioned.  It’s actually a pretty nice deal: if you see a character you have no interest in playing as, you don’t have to buy him, but you can still face off against people online who use him.  In this case the downloadable character just becomes free DLC.  From your standpoint, it’s as though you bought the character – you wouldn’t have played as him anyway, just against him.  The only downsides to this are that your friends can’t use the character if you play local games, and there’s no real way to get a feel for any given character to see if you’d want to play as them (outside of playing against them or watching videos online, which gives you some idea but not the full picture).

There is plenty of other DLC for the game that’s more clearly a cash grab: additional colors, different announcer voices, even pay-to-unlock-stuff-that’s-already-in-the-game options.  It obviously makes them money because they keep doing it, but hey, you don’t have to buy that silly stuff if you don’t want to.  I think it’s important to draw a line between these cosmetic downloadables and the more substantial content already mentioned.  The former are questionable, but the latter signify a welcome change in how fighting game series are run.  When the alternatives are a new game every year or maybe even (god forbid) a subscription-based program, I’ll take this DLC model every time.

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

August 10, 2010 at 7:25 pm Leave a comment

Review: BlazBlue: Continuum Shift (PS3/360)

Game Review: BlazBlue: Continuum Shift
Release: July 27, 2010
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Arc System Works
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, XBox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $39.99
ESRB Rating: T

Let’s see…blister on my thumb, bloodshot eyes…  Yep, looks like a new ArcSys fighter just came out.  The latest edition in the BlazBlue series, to be exact.  For those unfamiliar with this series, it’s the spiritual successor to the Guilty Gear franchise – a fast-paced and aggressive 2D fighter with a fairly small roster and only 4 buttons, but a whole lot of depth.  Its use of sprites may be somewhat out of fashion compared to the direction Capcom is going with their art style, but it still looks great (even better than SSF2 HD, for instance – the still images don’t really do it justice).  Characters also have incredibly unique and fun playstyles, from a grappler who uses magnetism to pull opponents towards his massive fists to a vampire who uses wind to manipulate the paths of projectiles and characters alike.

Where Guilty Gear was often seen as a fighting game made for fans of the genre, almost impenetrable to newcomers, BlazBlue seeks to be more inviting to the novice player without sacrificing the depth of high-level play.  As you might imagine, this is something of a tightrope act.  Action has been slowed down a bit from GG (though it’s still very fast in practice), and timing windows for combos are a bit more generous (though there are still plenty of really tough ones to pull off).  Continuum Shift puts the emphasis less on dumbing down the gameplay and more on creating a ramp to help newcomers up the learning curve.  New gameplay modes include a tutorial, which runs through the basics of the game fairly well, from basic mechanics like high and low attacks to more advanced techniques such as rapid cancelling.  There’s even a section that explains basic strategies for each character, and a series of challenges that teach players a number of combos for each character.  If this wasn’t enough, there’s even a beginner mode that lets anyone pick up the game and play by enabling one-button combos and special attacks.  This mode is sort of like a set of training wheels – you can’t do everything with it, and eventually you’ll want to take the setting off in order to get better, but it’s a useful learning tool to see how the game works.

While the real meat of any fighting game is its two player versus mode, there’s a wide variety of single player options here, too.  Alongside old standbys like Arcade and Score Attack are new modes like Legion, which is an interesting variation on traditional “survival” modes that forces you to use a variety of characters to take over a map in Risk-like fashion.  Story mode makes a return, and picks up right where the last game left off.  The story is actually pretty good…for a fighting game, at least.  It’s sort of a convoluted mess by any other measurement, its stereotypical anime conceits like mysterious pasts, power levels, and transformations compounded by being set in a universe whose laws are apparently predicated upon time loops and paradoxes, and quantum theory of all things.  That said, it isn’t all bad.  Exploring all of the different branching story paths can be fun, the characters are all enjoyable, and Aksys has done a great job of translating the ever-present japanese humor.  Of course, given that it’s a continuation of the tangled plot of the last game, newcomers will likely be lost at sea.

But let’s get to the good stuff – multiplayer.  The game has been rebalanced since the last installment, and each character has at least one new move to expand their repertoire (some even play radically different this time around).  There are three new characters, one of which is exclusive to the console versions but sadly has to be unlocked, which brings the total up to a more respectable 15.  With all of these changes even those who played the first BlazBlue will have plenty of new things to learn here.  Online play is some of the best to be had from a 2D fighter thanks to some excellent netcode – I’ve personally had matches with people across the country without a hitch.  Matchmaking and profiles (called D-cards) have been improved in Continuum Shift, now allowing you to join player rooms while members are mid-fight (finally!) and giving you a more detailed play history of your opponents and yourself.

All of this, coupled with a new presentation (updated backgrounds, new music, new voice clips, etc) is enough to justify a new game on its own, but what really excites me is the DLC.  While ArcSys (and most other developers in the genre) have traditionally worked on a basis of releasing one new edition of their fighting games about every year, Continuum Shift looks set to change that.  ArcSys’s plans for downloadable content are fairly extensive, from free balance patches every 6 months or so to extra downloadable characters (three are in the works) complete with their own single player modes.  It’s nice to see that ArcSys is going out of their way to support the console version of their game and not simply sticking to the arcades, and this strategy should lead to greater longevity for this installment.

Bottom line: If you’re a BlazBlue fan, this title is a no-brainer (esp since the all-important network mode of the last game is sure to become somewhat depopulated now).  If you’re thinking of trying out the series, this is a great time to do so, with a reduced price, promises of DLC support in the near future, and plenty of introductory modes to help you learn the game.  If you’re looking for a well-designed fighter, something different from the Street Fighters and the Tekkens, you can’t go wrong here.  On the other hand, if you aren’t a fan of the fighting genre, this one probably won’t make a convert out of you.

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

August 2, 2010 at 4:31 pm Leave a comment

August 2010
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