Archive for May, 2009

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Bangai-O Spirits

May 28, 2009

The fact that you can walk into your local Best Buy, Gamestop, or Wal-Mart and see Bangai-O Spirits on the shelf is nothing short of a miracle. Considering the completely backwards localization tendencies of Nintendo of America as well as the quirky and virtually unmarketable nature of this video game made by Japanese company Treasure, this has “Import Only” written all over it. In fact, although this Nintendo DS release is the second installment in the Bangai-O series, it is the first to hit US shores on a Nintendo console. The original game, Bangai-O, was released on the Nintendo 64 and Sega Dreamcast in Japan in 1999, and was not localized to the United States until March 2001, and it only saw a release on the fiscally doomed Dreamcast which would be completely withdrawn from the hardware market that same month.

The original Bangai-O was quite a game, in fact one of the best games for both the Dreamcast and the Nintendo 64. Following in Treasure’s established pattern of a more or less visually lighthearted but mechanically insane approach to the shoot-em-up genre, it was a missile shooter decorated with cute graphics and, like most Treasure games, many complexities. Bangai-O has received good reception throughout the years, and it has become, also like many other Treasure games, a cult hit among hardcore players. Chances of a sequel have always been present considering the games success but the opportunity has never quite arisen for several reasons.

In the world of three dimentional games, Treasure’s decidedly two dimentional approach has a hard time finding its place on consoles and the company has instead opted for handheld development. Three releases from 2004 to 2005 were sidescrolling platformers for the Gameboy Advance, two of which were sequels (Gunstar Super Heroes and Advance Guardian Heroes) and the remaining of which was a licensed game (Astro Boy: Omega Factor). The quality of these games was mixed. One was fantastic (Gunstar), another horribly mediocre (Guardian Heroes) and the third somewhere in between (Astro Boy).

It would seem appropriate for Treasure to have released a Bangai-O sequel on the Gameboy Advance, but it is almost certain that the Gameboy Advance hardware simply was not powerful enough. This probably left Treasure with several options: the Sony PSP, possibly a WiiWare (Nintendo’s online outlet for smaller scale developers to release their games at low costs) release, or perhaps the Nintendo DS. For whatever reason they opted for the latter option, and here we have one of the more obscure titles the DS has to offer, but also underhandedly one of the better.

In Bangai-O, the player controls a mechanized giant robot “Bangai-O”, which actually is represented by a very small sprite on the screen. The object of the game is to destroy designated targets on the vertically and horizontally scrolling screen, which could either be enemy robots, objects, or structures. The game is essentially a missile shooter. Your robot, as well as enemy robots, turrets, and other enemies, have an assortment of indirect and melee weapons at their disposal, of which the player can bring two of into any given match/round. Gun weapons can be combined. For example, the “Homing” rounds can be combined with the “Napalm” rounds to make rounds that explode with powerful napalm after homing in on the enemy. The player also has a powerful EX Attack option, which essentially releases a great number of missiles into the air, and a counterattack, which can be initiated when the EX Attack is used when many enemy bullets are near.

The levels themselves can be vast and expansive with many targets and enemies or tiny and constricted. It might take as short as less than a second to finish a level, or as long as five minutes or in extreme cases even longer. At any given time, the screen may be completely filled with a flabbergasting amount of bullets and missiles, which is not a new concept to Treasure games by any means. After defeating an enemy, a fruit will appear in its place, and collecting this fruit fills the EX Meter, which allows for the EX Attack to be used. Gameplay here has not changed much since the original Bangai-O on the Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast.

Unlike the original Bangai-O, Bangai-O Spirits has no story or campaign mode, and thus the game at many times feels like an emotionless catharsis. Treasure has never been known for their storylines though, and for that reason the company’s core fanbase will not have a problem playing the game for the sake of the gameplay alone. The levels/missions are divided into three categories; Treasure’s Best, Puzzle Stages, and Other Stages. The first group comprises of a selection of stages that focus on firepower and strategy to reach the goal, the second group relies more on cunning and intuitive problem solving, and the third group is an assortment of groups that shows a compromise between the other two. All of these stages can be accessed initially and the game has no unlockables. One would think that the motivation to play the game would be nonexistant, but as always Treasure breaks down expectations and makes the game quite compelling.

One of the ways that Treasure differentiates Bangai-O Spirits from the original is with its extra features, and what features are here are a mixed bag. The standout inclusion is definitely Edit Mode, which allows for players to create their own stages and puzzles to fight through. The hell of it is that making levels is actually really easy and fun, and playing through your own levels is really rewarding. You can share these levels, potentially with friends or even over the internet, with the sound load option that involves turning stages into readable sound files, but the system is wonky and takes some calibrating to get to work. I haven’t gotten it to work yet, which is a shame because I’m thinking that if I could the level sharing could be a lot of fun. If you have friends who own the game, you can also participate in local multiplayer matches (I would think local level-sharing would have been a helpful feature too.)

It should also be noted that the levels that Treasure includes here are actually quite difficult, almost inordinately so, for how simple the gameplay seems to be. The more skill and firepower related stages require great precision, and the puzzle stages never have obvious solutions. In fact, these puzzles may be among the most difficult Treasure has ever created, which is a bit of a contradiction, because most Treasure games have gameplay made especially to have multiple options to tackle stages, including Bangai-O Spirits. However, in most instances, solutions require hard thinking, and cannot be reached with simple tweaking of weapon selection. So in the end, these levels require a great deal of strategy and know-how as well as hard headed skill.

And as always, lag is your friend. Just like when the screen lagged in Treasure’s Gameboy Advance titles, the slowdown allows for more time to think and more precise movements. At first, a player might feel guilty taking advantage of what seems to be a constraint of the technology that Treasure have at their disposal, but some of the stages are so difficult that it seems like one almost has to take advantage of it. And like Astro-Boy before it, the weapon that seems to be the players trump card, the EX Attack in this game, ends up being the driving weapon of the game, and the necessity for success. And many times, players will find themselves carefully inching into situations to draw the enemies in so that they can pick them off one by one, and pitting the limitations of enemies against them. If the game wasn’t so brutally difficult, these tactics would seem cheap, but we get the feeling that Treasure are completely aware of how difficult they made this game, and we really need to take advantage of these capabilities to succeed.

That suspicion might seem a little farfetched to someone who isn’t familiar with Treasure’s output, but for those of us who are, it should be a familiar concept that the developing team is all about creating engines that can be pushed to their absolute limit with a player’s inventiveness. The most definitive proof of this in their catalogue would have to be the infamous S Ranks in 1997’s masterpiece Mischief Makers, ungodly difficult speedrun challenges that required taking advantage of the most clever and ridiculous subtleties. The challenges aknowledged that Treasure knew their own games front to back, and way better than most developers. In most of their games, including this one, Treasure challenges the player to go the extra mile and really master a process.

Treasure generally craft their games with two paths to completion: one for the casual gamer and one for the hardcore. This leaves their games mostly playable to a wide audience, something for the people who want to stretch their minds a little but don’t want to be frustrated, and something for the “hardcore gamer” who actually likes sitting down for hours pulling their hair out about how to save milliseconds on speedruns or how to top their already ridiculous high scores. Bangai-O Spirits is admittedly mostly the latter, like Alien Soldier and Ikaruga before it. It is almost always difficult and requires hard thinking and good reflexes. Not one for the kids. We have to ask ourselves, who were Treasure expecting their audience to be here? But we know that they have a pretty good grasp on the kinds of people that keep track of such a low-key indie gaming company, so it makes the presence of Bangai-O Spirits on the shelves, shaped with great precision to cater to the kinds of people who were waiting for it and who have the open mind to take a chance with it, quite a touching fact.

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An Exploration of Indulgence – SkiFree and Lil' Wayne

May 3, 2009

It has been busy here at GWU. And when it’s busy, people get frantic, and when people get frantic, they also get stressed out. Between registering for next semester’s classes, the final studying and the term paper crunching, things can be pretty intense. I had to learn the following college equation the tough way.

sad

But in between the reading, writing and studying, students need time to appreciate the finer things in life. I didn’t need to take six credits in Quantitative and Logical Reasoning to figure out the following.

happy

I find some of the times that I am happiest, most energized and pure in Mad 301 are the times that Dave and I are blasting Lil’ Wayne and playing SkiFree. It has become something beyond roommate bonding, or a ritual of habit, or even a means of relieving stress and a way to get our minds off of things. It has become a sort of aesthetic indulgence, an exploration of our psyches will immersing ourselves in the highest of low art. It is a bit like sampling dark chocolate (no racial implications intended).

I will first explore and evaluate SkiFree, as I believe that it is the element of the process that people will likely be least familiar with. It is a bit of a cultural obscurity, but for a crappy old computer game, it holds a small but memorable place in many Windows-users experiences. Programmed by Microsoft employee Chris Pirih in 1991, it ended up being an inclusion in subsequent Windows Entertainment Packs and was exposed to thousands of users worldwide. The game is simple. You play a little skier dude who skis down a mountain, dodges trees, goes off jumps, etc. You can choose between three games: Slalom (dodge around little posts as fast as you can), Freestyle (do little flips and stuff for points), or Tree Slalom (Slalom in the presence of trees). Or you can just ski down the mountain for fun with no regard to score or time, which is I suppose what most skiiers do, that is, Ski Free.

It is worth mentioning that the player is not the only thrill-seeker on the mountain. There are other skiers, clearly unskilled, blue in the face, and hopeless. I don’t know if this practice was widespread, but what I often did when I was a kid was purposefully knock them on their asses. There are also snowboarders, who go down the hill at an extremely fast pace and inevitably knock you on your ass if they hit you, and you can’t do the same to them.  If you stick to the middle of the track, you’ll occasionally see a couple of the dudes riding up the mountain on a chairlift. You don’t really care about these guys. They may be annoying, but there’s just doing what they are told to do.

This is about as simple and limited as it sounds. This was by no means the cutting edge in 1991, a year when Japan saw the release of the Super Famicom (in America, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System), Final Fantasy IV, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, while America got the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) home console and Street Fighter II in arcades. But even comparison to the rest of Windows’ time killers, SkiFree is simply missing something. Jezzball was logically stimulating, Chip’s Challenge was (appropriately) challenging, Minesweeper was better for killing time, Tetris was impressive in how simple it was, and Solitaire was a classic that a lot of people already knew.

SkiFree, on the other hand, is almost transparent in its limitations. Even the game’s setting, a snow covered mountain, is rendered predominantly by blank space. Success in gameplay is mostly determined by luck; placement of obstacles and jumps is about the only factor that makes scores on a game by game basis variable. And only a small ratio of players would even waste their time with a simple game like this enough to fish for high scores. So that leaves everyone else, including a very young narrator, to glide down the desolate mountain taking simple pleasure in going off of jumps and doing little flips as well as entertaining themselves with the mountain’s schlocky easter eggs: little evergreens that move, dogs that woof if you run over them, dead trees that light on fire if you hit them, etc. SkiFree’s gameplay is really anything but memorable.

But what everyone DOES remember is this:

Yeah, if you remember this game at all, this guy was inevitably a source of not only superficial annoyance, but also a deep, unexplainable frustration. Most people call him the abominable snowman, but the game never names him.

By 1,000 meters down the mountain, even the longest of the three game modes are done, and you are left to ski down the rest of the mountain without any specific goal. Any normal player would naturally want to see what happens when you get to the bottom, assuming it isn’t of indefinite length, but at 2,000 meters down the mountain YOU GET FUCKING EATEN.

The abominable snowman is really the only figure of any significance in SkiFree, little skier dude included. He is always on the 2,000 meter line waiting to engorge you, which he inevitably will. You may be able to dodge him momentarily, at which point he will chase after you in a terrifyingly erratic and fast manner and will then eat you, and he always will, because he’s just faster than you, simple as that. Most of any given player’s time playing SkiFree is spent just waiting for that last dreaded moment, where some might try elaborate tricks to evade the menace by launching themselves off of jumps or cutting a path through specific trees. It is all impossible. He WILL eat you, and then do his little dance.

All of this begs for the question to be asked, are there any cheats in this game? Is there any way to actually dodge the thing, even if it means cheating? The answer is actually yes. Pressing the F key in the middle of gameplay increases the player’s speed significantly. The cheat makes Slalom virtually impossible, Tree Slalom more challenging but also more fun, and Freestyle somewhere in the middle (I should note that I don’t really play Freestyle, which is the territory in which Dave has undeniable skill, while I tend to focus most on Tree Slalom). In any case, the increased speed makes outrunning the dreaded creature feasible, but there are other hurdles. Cutting past him and skiing straight down until he disappears off of the top of the screen, too slow to keep up with the cheating player, but then appears right in front of the player’s path, to eat them yet again. I have actually seen situations in which two of them were on the screen at once when either Dave or I get consumed. Yeah, that’s right. There’s more than one.

If you take a diagonal path with the F cheat, for whatever reason you are still slow enough that the creature can catch up with you almost effortlessly fast. The most effective means of escape is to take a diagonal path with a very short angle to the x-axis, which seems to put the player going at their fastest speed possible. But cutting across the stage almost horizontally means that dodging obstacles becomes more of a matter of their height, and it becomes harder and harder to evade trees and rocks and thus truly escape the monster’s clutches. I have never completely outran him. I always get eaten eventually.

For this game to be engaging in any way, you pretty much have to be in an altered state of mind. That doesn’t necessarily imply being drunk or severely blunted, although if I drank alcohol or smoked weed, playing SkiFree would be somewhere below reading Dr. Seuss Books and above playing Scrabble on my prioritized list of things to do while baked. The altered state could be as subtle as intellectually silly; ergo some of the allegorical interpretations of the gameplay Dave and I have drawn (life as a whole as well as on a day-to-day basis, the Abominable Snowman being a figure that represents either death or sleep, respectively, which will ultimately consume every “player” and send them back to the beginning, only to partake once again in trivial goals and try to escape the inevitable). But most of the time, for me, that state is simple forgiveness. I find myself more tolerant in my early adulthood, and more willing to accept the simple pleasures of skiing down a mountain and trying to escape my fate, and having a good laugh about it. And really, when you are playing a game as potentially cheesy as SkiFree, a good sense of humor is drawn out of the player with ease. That is just one of the reasons that this game is one of the most playable of all time despite being so unplayable, so memorable despite being so nondescript, so enjoyable despite being so crappy. In short, SkiFree was shamelessly ghetto fly in an era where the cutting edge was what mattered to people.

Which is where Weezy comes in.

I’m not going to begin to pretend that I’m anywhere near a Lil’ Wayne connoisseur or even a long-time fan; my exposure to his music is pretty much limited to Tha Carter series. I’m also not going to go in depth about how I transformed from a critical doubter, someone who absolutely loathed Lil’ Wayne, around six months ago to where I am now, that is, what I would consider to be a casual fan. What I will say about the transformation is that it occurred mostly due to sheer fascination. I couldn’t figure him out, for the longest time. I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not in his music, if he really did believe that he was the best rapper alive, or if his trashy singles had any real worth to them. His biggest convincing factor is his exposure. Lil’ Wayne is big. Bigger than big, at this point, and probably on his way to being a household name. You can’t really ignore him, even if you hate him. My attitudes toward him mirror those that I have for SkiFree, although on a much more expansive level. Basically, the key to enjoying bot SkiFree and Lil’ Wayne is realizing that that they a.) are consciously aware of everything they do and b.) don’t take themselves too seriously, just like their fans. Maybe those are just opinions, but I stand firmly by them; I can’t think of any other reasons why I would like either thing.

In any case, Lil’ Wayne has a chemistry with SkiFree that rivals that of, say, his chemistry with Kanye West. The relationship is difficult to explain, and I feel that the best way to do it might be through example, namely with the three Lil’ Wayne albums I am most familiar with, namely those in Tha Carter series. I won’t be too critical of anything here. After all, what is the point of being critical of Lil’ Wayne, or really measuring him against anything other than himself? I will start with the Grammy Award winning Tha Carter III, simply because it is the one that has gotten the most reception lately.

It should be obvious for anyone who even has a basic understanding of contemporary hip hop that Tha Carter III is Lil’ Wayne’s most innovative album yet, and he plays all of his cards at once. He clearly feels that he has the right to compare himself to both the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, artists who have already pulled the kid on the cover trick, and the tracklist is an all-star get-together – Wayne associates himself with a lot of important pop rappers such as Kanye West and T-Pain while also garnering support of old school stars Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes. It is also by far the headiest release in The Carter series, his lyrics more confusing, nonsensical, hilarious and somehow meaningful than ever before (“Flyer than Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice”). Beyond that, it is also stylistically all over the place. He hits club anthems, funk, R&B, and Jazz, and more, while delivering some pretty varied song structures here and there (particularly “Dr. Carter”). In addition to this, the album hits a pretty jarring middle stretch (“Tie My Hands,” “Shoot Me Down,” “Playin With Fire”) which is so unexpected and underhandedly emotive that one has to check to make sure it’s still even Wayne, the gangster rapper that has produced all the hits he has. And he produces those here too (“A Milli,” “Got Money,” and the superhit auto-tune indulgence “Lollipop”), although they seem to be the less accomplished tracks on the album. In any case, Tha Carter III will surely be considered the quintessential Wayne album in the future, because it has just about everything. However, all of those elements come together to make something that is actually quite engaging, and thus not ideal for slaloming or going off of jumps. More often than not, I find myself pretty distracted while listening to Tha Carter III and riding down the mountain, and although it is prime listening, it is a little too heavy for as light of a gaming experience as SkiFree.

In that sense, Tha Carter II is conversely the best Wayne album for playing SkiFree, because as Dave notes, it requires very little effort on the part of the listener. Beats are sugar coated, hooks are flashy, rhythms are walking pace, songs are easy to follow, and there are no surprises. It’s an album made for a mass audience but it doesn’t betray who Lil’ Wayne is. It’s the glittery, superlatively gangster, badass Wayne album, knowingly extravagant and shameless. Although it is the odd duck out in Tha Carter series, being the only one that doesn’t lyrically claim to be flyer than anything (although it does bravely proclaim “Dear Mr. Toilet- I’m the shit”), it is also the one that feels it has the least to prove. Although he definitely does know his course in the music. “I’m so vain its a problem,” he practically sighs on “Money on My Mind.” But he clearly doesn’t care how big of a problem it is, and even if it is a big problem, it’s not big enough to stop him from fucking bitches and getting money. After all, when you name a track “Best Rapper Alive,” you’ve already got the ego necessary to do whatever the hell you want and not care about what anyone thinks. And if what Wayne wants to do is make an easy album, then so be it. Out of the three albums in the series, Tha Carter II is the one is the safest, but also the most assured. Lil’ Wayne is new money, and he’ll fucking kill you if you want to make something of it. In relation to SkiFree, this music takes about as much effort. It’s just as incredibly easy and undistracting to listen to ghetto club anthems like “Fireman,” “Hustler Musik,” “Fly In” and “Money on my Mind” as it is to go off little jumps and dodge around trees. To say it is the best of Wayne’s repertoire would be missing the point. What Wayne wants you to know is that every new album of his is his best, and if you can believe for three seconds that this one is number one, he’d be proud.

But put all the philosophy aside. Are we seriously trying to have an intelligent discussion about Lil’ Wayne? It may be wrong of me to make assumptions about Weezy’s intentions, but if I can make one convincing argument about them it is that on tha first Carter album, he just wants you to shake your booty. For this one, I put aside all my deep thoughts, logic, philosophy, bullshit assumptions. I don’t even care about who Lil’ Wayne is for the extent of this album, or how much he takes himself seriously. The only thing I care enough about with this album to comment on it to any extent is that it is funky, southern hip hop catharsis, and for that reason probably my favorite Wayne Record. The more popular ones including “That’s My DJ” I actually find to be the most overrated, but many of the tracks are downright infectious, namely “On My Own,” “Who Wanna,” and my favorite Wayne track, “Ain’t That a Bitch.” He is at his most instrumentally soulful here, often pulling pianos and funky guitars out of his sleeves. If we’re skiing at the same time as listening, it’s more distracting than II but less than III, mostly just because I get downright cocky while listening to it. It’s the album that challenges you to pull tight turns, to do just another flip. Maybe that’s because it’s so shamelessly self-assured. In any case, failing never feels so good. “Flyer than a motherfucking pelican.”

Life is long, it’s tiring, it’s difficult, and I’m sure I’ve got more than three years left of finals studying, paying the bills, gettin’ the money, hustlin, and inhaling noxious fumes while I slowly disintegrate. When all is said and done, we get fucking eaten. The bottom line is that if we’re going to go down the mountain in the first place, we might as well be cash money millionaires on the way, and this unlikely combination of low culture forces make it that much more tolerable for however minuscule an amount of time every once in a while, regardless of how irrelevant it is.

GIFs courtesy of http://ski.ihoc.net/, the Most Officialest SkiFree Home Page.