Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

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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United States until March 2001, and it only saw a release on the fiscally doomed Dreamcast which would be completely withdrawn from the hardware market that same month.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.

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Treasures

March 21, 2007

Sorry about the lack of update on Monday. I was busy getting this post done. At one point it had a lot of great pictures and shit, but after a while I realized that it’s nearly impossible to get high quality pictures of games by Treasure, and I don’t feel like stealing anyway. I will probably take a break next week… This drained me.

Although I almost never take the time to talk about video games (I’m very discreet about my nerdiness), I think this is as good a time as any to talk about some games made by my absolute favorite video game company, Treasure. Since a group of skilled developers broke off from Konami in 1993 and made their debut with Gunstar Heroes, Treasure has delivered the indie video game goods for well over a decade. At a slow pace yes, but to be sure whenever Treasure releases something, it is just that, a priceless piece of the grandiose puzzle. That isn’t to say that Treasure isn’t capable of making a bad game. They have, and I own a few. But out of the several Treasure games I own, a big number of them make my favorites list. I’d like to talk about some of those games now and at the very least try to educate those who have not had the privilege of playing any of this great companies games on how fun and artful they can truly be. (I don’t take credit for any of these pictures by the way, they are property of their creators and no one else’s.)

GUNSTAR HEROES

Thinking back, it’s actually pretty shocking that Treasure managed to pull off a game as good as Gunstar Heroes as a first release. After all, it was during the same year that the company also released McDonalds Treasure Land Adventure, typically designated as the worst game Treasure has ever made. I think part of what makes Gunstar Heroes such a cult hit today is how accessible of a game it was and still is. At this point the Super Nintendo was busy cranking out their impressive repertoire of Role Playing Games. To this day, my most poignant video game memories are that of playing my friends SNES back when I was a kid and experiencing in full games like Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, Lufia 2, and Secret of Mana. But today I look back at all the games I played as a kid with a much more impatient eye, which is strange considering my change in age. I find games that are accessible to be more enjoyable, and Gunstar Heroes delivers on a level of sheer fun factor that rivals that of, say, Mario Kart, a game that my friends and I stills swear at one another over today.

What makes Gunstar Heroes so brilliant is the juxtaposition of it’s simple traditional concept and it’s complex mode of play. As in an other Shoot’em’up game from the nineties, you are small, your enemies are many, and your goal is the right side of the screen, or at least what is as close as can be to it’s reach. The graphics are plush and memorable and the music is uptempo and fun. What first strikes the player about this game is how fast paced it is. It rivals games today for sheer adrenaline, because at any given time, as many as ten or more enemies are on the screen, running toward you at the full extent of their tiny football player legs. They are weak, and they explode into fire when you shoot them. And when you are moving forward very quickly and turning in all directions to get a shot on these walking or flying enemies, your TV screen is mostly likely wishing that it could bleed just so that the scope of this game could be felt in the real world. The game has several difficulty settings, and even seasoned platformer fans won’t find too much safety in easy mode. The later modes can get, in a word, brutal. The remedy for this is the fact that two people can play it at once, cooperatively taking down levels with precision and different guns for different situations.

Which brings me to this games most brilliant stroke of fun… Customization. Ever since Pokemon shattered your piggy bank ten years ago, customization has been a necessity with electronic games. It was at that time that people realized how much it mattered to put oneself into the game to extract it’s true enjoyability. That said, Gunstar Heroes is WAY ahead of it’s time. If the game only contained one or two guns, or even many like Contra, it wouldn’t be half as special. But the game not only provides two different styles of control that deeply effect how the game is played but also four different types of guns, a rapid fire gun, a laser gun, a flamethrower, and a homing gun. That’s four right there. But the beauty here is that you can combine them to create double weapons, combining the elements. That’s six more. Plus the fact that you can combine two weapons of the same type. Four more. That’s fourteen weapons total, all of which have their advantages, disadvantages, and mediums of fun. Beyond this depth, the game just never stops being fun. It also has a fun throwing/melee system which gives the player more options than simply shooting, and it contains about eight levels of nonstop action, fun bosses, and areas that require both skill and know-how to complete. It’s no wonder why Gunstar Heroes has been released so many times; on Game Gear, in a PS2 Treasure Compilation, on the Wii Virtual Console, and with a spectacular Gameboy Advance remake Gunstar Super Heroes… This game stands the test of time. Quite possibly Treasures greatest game.

ALIEN SOLDIER

As far as classic Treasure games go, Alien Soldier is the one with the balls. It has to have balls, and an intent to kick yours, if it starts you out on “Superhard” difficulty. This game is, unlike Gunstar Heroes, not easy to pick up and play and instead takes a certain degree of know how and practice to be successful in. As a beginner, picking up this game on “Supereasy” mode (the only other available difficulty), results in certain death on the first boss. But after you learn what’s going on, the game opens up and one can have fun pushing this game to it’s limit. It’s hard and it’s not simple, but in many ways it is just as rewarding as Gunstar Heroes.

The game is of the kind that Treasure does best, the sidescrolling platformer shoot’em’up (wow, that’s three big words in a row that spellcheck (theres another one) picks up). At the beginning of the game, you are given a choice of six weapons to fill your four available weapon slots. You can have more than one of the same kind, or you can split it evenly between different weapons however you chose. During the game, you have three meters to worry about; your health, your ammo, and your enemies health. A is change weapon, B is fire, and C is jump. This should be simple. However, just going through the first level, beginners will find they are having a very hard time. This is where the depth comes in. Pressing down and C at the same time initiates a dash move that propels you forward over half the length of the screen, avoiding damage. Doing this at full health initiates an extremely powerful dash move that drains a bit of your health. Double tapping B in front of enemy projectiles or small enemies yields health. See the cycle here? For expert play, learning to parry projectiles and use the super dash effectively is key, as is learning how to do it extremely fast and with little provocation. Also, the player can hover in mid air or walk on ceilings. This is not a button masher. Mashing buttons will screw you over even more than you were already screwed, which was pretty big even on easy. And you have to keep a watch on your ammo. Switching guns is difficult at first too. Definitely not a game for the weak hearted.

If you can’t get used to the controls and simply can’t win, the only remedy is practice. And even if that is frustrating, the sheer amount of action that this game exudes is worth the time it takes to get good at it. Enemies and bosses come at an even quicker rate than Gunstar Heroes, and they are tough… Really tough. They require you to bust your ass and use extreme precision and care to take down. Usually the key to victory is putting that super dash to good use, and that’s really hard. The graphics are top notch for their time, and they make for a pretty badass alien busting experience. There is a password system so that you can enter the game at whatever level you left off at, but without any health or weapon power ups. To beat this game truly, that is, on hard mode without continuing, you need momentum. And not only that, you need speed, skill, and precision. It’s a hard, hard game. But once again, if you want it to be, it’s great fun. Expect a virtual console release, definitely.

MISCHIEF MAKERS

Oh god, Mischief Makers. I have a hard time even beginning to tell you about this game.

First off, I would like to acknowledge that I am leaving a pretty big time in Treasure’s history up for grabs. I never had the privilege to be able to play two of Treasures most revered games, Guardian Heroes and Radiant Silvergun, both on the Sega Saturn. This is a big regret, but as it’s pretty damn hard to get both games let alone a Sega Saturn these days, and considering the Virtual Console will never support the Saturn due to it’s almost complete inability to be emulated, this is something I will simply have to deal with. However, Treasure released three big games for N64. Two of them were Japanese only, Bangai-O and Sin and Punishment. The third was Mischief Makers. Originally slated as Yuke Yuke! Trouble Makers in it’s native tongue, this is without a doubt the most bizarre game I have ever played. Only Treasure could have pulled something like this off… Never have I seen a game so completely skewed and screwed up and yet presented in such a wonderful, artful, and fun way. Save maybe Earthbound, but I’d have a hard time calling that “screwed up.”

I don’t know what drew me to this game. I think a friend might have had it before I got it. Maybe it was the superdeformed graphics that caught my eye. Maybe it was the name. Shit, I was pretty young then and what kid doesn’t want to make mischief? In any case, returning to this game over a decade later, you can still see my first file on my cartridge. The game makes you put in your age at the beginning. I was seven, as it still says. I can only imagine I didn’t think the game strange at all. Mischief Makers is, strangely enough, a sidescrolling 2D platformer. In a market where 3D was the thing to do, this was surely a brave move. I can only think of a few other N64 games that used two dimensions with good success. Goemon’s Great Adventure is one. Kirby 64 is another. Smash was 2D, but it was a fighting game. Mischief Makers is one of a kind though. I don’t know why I still play it so often nowadays. It’s a deep game at it’s core, for sure. Once you realize that you can use dash-jumps and precisely timed boosts to get through levels at ridiculous paces, you get a little more interested in your times for each level. And interestingly enough, Treasure was aware of how far this game could be pushed to it’s limits. Getting just one S-Rank on a level requires the utmost precision, a knowledge of the games glitches and tiny tricks, and speed that would make Sonic cry, even if he had a turbo controller. This is a speed runners paradise, and yet it is really very fun for casual players like me as well. You play as Intergalactic Cybot G Marina Lightyears, created by revered Professor Theo and allegedly has no time for snacks. Marina is a cute animated character on the outside, but a tough warrior on the inside. And her weapon is so simple that even Miyamoto would gasp at the thought that his simplicity in Mario’s jumping was surpassed. Marina attacks with opposable thumbs and nothing more.

I wrote the following paragraph a some time ago explaining why I like Mischief Makers so much. It is sufficient.

This game is, in my opinion, is the epitome of indie gaming. It was released with very little hype or marketing, which just seems typical for a game so good. Many times, games get so quirky and different that critics just don’t think American audiences will like it. And I’m sure if everyone played Mischief Makers, they would love it. Yes, the translation is quite literal and the shaking thing is very asian, but this is just a fantastic game, and anyone playing it can tell that immediately. Every level throws in a charming new feel, be it through the frame of a boss, new concept, new terrain, new item, etc. But it does it on a level that really works. You can throw a bunch of new concepts into a game well, but it takes something really special to prevent this kind of rapid-fire introduction from being too trying. The art and music styles in this game really make it. The instrumentation and beats on the music are just fantastic, and this is really a standout soundtrack in my mind. And the anime inspired graphics, constant barrage of hallowed faces, and dropdead gorgeous backgrounds make for an extremely atmospheric experience. This game was just begging for a sequel, but then again, some games don’t need sequels. I’m just going to sit quietly and know in my mind that Marina Lightyears truly deserved to headline Super Smash Bros. Brawl ten times more than Meta Knight did.

SIN AND PUNISHMENT

Sin and Punishment is best described as what would happen if Starfox, Time Crisis, House of the Dead, and Jet Force Gemini all got together and had a beautiful, relentless love child. I suppose now is as good a time as ever to acknowledge this great game, considering it does take place in 2007 despite being made in 2000. Why you never got to play this game is sadly unknown. It was translated into English. Hell, the voice acting was originally in English anyway, don’t ask why, so all the nitty gritty was already done with, and the only thing left to really do was release it. It never happened. I guess it could have been due to a lack of interest, considering this was right on the line between the birth of the Gamecube and the death of the Nintendo 64. In any case, you have been robbed of one of the finest games the N64 has to offer. Regardless of your language capabilities, playing this game is awesome, even if you have to import it for a ridiculous price and carefully saw off some bits of plastic so that it will fit into your inferior American console. Dammit, you deserve better. You pay your taxes, and you are a respectable citizen, so why the fuck wouldn’t Nintendo just push through all the bullshit and do whatever minuscule work it required to release this? I don’t know. Sin and Punishment is friggin awesome, just about as badass of a shooter as you will find on the console and great mesh of different elements of third person shooters. It isn’t without it’s little issues, but the fun factor is through the roof.

The game is a futuristic third person shooter that moves along on “rails,” that is, you don’t choose where you move but instead how you aim and sidestep while going along that set path. The two main characters are Saki and Arain, two brave sensible rebels, and you control them through the games several levels. You are expected to be a walking army with very few weapons, namely a police issue laser gun and a sword built into it. This may seem simple for some peoples tastes, but adding anything more would just ruin everything. It’s really all you need, and you never find yourself wishing you had other weapons in the game. Learning to use both of these weapons efficiently is key; the gun has two modes of aim, one manual and one less powerful lock-on, and they both have their time and place. The key to playing this game effectively is being able to move, aim, and shoot at the same time, and it can get pretty difficult. There are a lot of buttons used in this game, for sure. You need to sidestep, roll, jump, aim, and dodge bullets in rapid succession, so you’ve got enough on your mind to worry about without having many weapons to chose from. The sword is used for close combat only, and it is initiated by tapping Z very quickly when something is near enough. If you can manage to master it, you can end up doing a lot of damage, saving a lot of aiming, and quickly taking down stages with greater efficiency.

Sin and Punishment is, like most games by Treasure, short but sweet. It’s over just as you have gotten pumped enough to enjoy a game three times bigger. Fortunately, the game is so packed with action and fun that it doesn’t really matter. There are several difficulty levels and reason enough to play through the game several times. The sound can be a bit annoying. There is this great scene where Arain is battling her way through a monster infested subway in the dark and it is so ruined by the background music. As far as backgrounds go, the graphics are stunning and great for the N64, but the character designs are presented very poorly. It may be a mixed bag on the outside, but it’s interior is solid. If I didn’t explain thoroughly that this game is ACTION PACKED, well shit I just did it again. It really does remind me of Time Crisis and other similar arcade games where the player has to deal with enemies jumping down from places and sidestepping into different positions that you have to be aware of. Particularly memorable is a scene where Arain takes down an entire Navy in a matter of about two minutes flying around at dizzying speeds on a piece of jagged metal controlled by a psychic friend. It may seem a shame that this game ends so soon, but it’s worth playing over and over again. I just can’t stomach that we never got it officially. It’s a real shame.

UPDATE: Sin And Punishment is now availabe on the Wii Virtual Console. VICTORY.

IKARUGA

Ikaruga is not a game for impatient people. But I guess few games by Treasure are. Ikaruga is a game so simple, so conceptually basic, that one could get the hang of the controls in minutes. But somehow, someway, this game is blown up to epic proportions using only what it starts out with. I still can’t figure it out. I’ve never hated a game so much on the first play compared to how much I love it now. I guess I just wasn’t good at it, or maybe I was just frustrated by how I was losing to such a simple game. The concept is very easy. It is a shmup spaceship game akin to the kind of games you likely played in arcades when you were a kid, when they were still around. But in those other shmups, you likely had powerups and a health bar to worry about. Ikaruga is individual in that it is stripped down to as simple yet beautiful a core as you will ever see. Your ship can be changed between black and white colors at will. When your ship is white, it shoots white bullets, and black bullets when black. Infinite ammo, rapid fire. Your enemies are also of black and white colors. Your bullets will do more damage to a given enemy when the color of your bullets is opposite their color. Your enemies, ranging from tiny little ships to big gyrospopic cages of evil, also shoot bullets. If a bullet touches you of your own color, you you absorb it into an energy guage, the bars in which represent homing missiles that you can fire back at the enemies at will. If a bullet of the opposite color touches you, you die. YOU DIE. Period. You can’t sustain damage, because if you get hit, you’re gone. So keeping your ass alive is as much of a concern as shooting your enemies.

This should be as simple as I just explained it to be. It’s not. It would be far too easy. There are three modes of difficulty. On the easiest mode, everything I have explained holds true. I’d like to note that I have only beaten easy mode without continuing once, and I busted my ass for days to do it. On normal mode, when you destroy an enemy of your color, they emit bullets of their own color. This seems good, because bullets of your color are absorbable, but when you are switching colors, that’s a problem. On hard mode, all destroyed ships emit bullets, regardless of your color. This isn’t enough. The first level is simple enough, and yet still abrasively challenging. But soon enough, enemy ships are synchratically zipping across the screen at ludicrous speeds, bullets are both colors are flying all over hell and gone, you are switching back and forth between colors feverishly avoiding inevitable death in a crossfire of adrenaline, and concentrating on not getting killed by the everchanging environment. This game is aggravating as all getout, it’s hard as shit, and it’s frustrating to play when you don’t know it very well. And yet it’s simple. There is no reason why you shouldn’t be acing this game.

And yet that’s where the real charm of the game comes in. The clash of simplicity and challenge make for one of the most hypnotic and enjoyable games I’ve ever played. At it’s heart, Ikaruga is an arcade game. But you can’t find it in any arcades outside of Japan, so the only remedy is getting one of the faithful ports either on Dreamcast or Gamecube. The way the game was intended to be played is in a dark food parlor in a corner in Japan somewhere, but it’s simply uneconomical to be spending that many quarters honing your skills when you could play it at home. I remember when this game truly opened up for me. I was tired and pissed off, sitting in my room staring at my TV wondering why I sucked so bad at this game. But I just kept on playing and I didn’t think about it too much. The TVs volume was way down and some relaxing music was on the stereo. I just lost myself. The next thing I knew I was three levels in and completely unaware of the fact that I was hypnotized, dodging the patterns of bullets and ships and not even thinking about what I was doing. And then I died and I got all pissed off again. That is the beauty here. That line between pure bliss and anger is extremely thin. This is a flatout gorgeous game too, and the background moves at a breathtaking pace using really good graphics. The soundtrack is alright too, not quite as good as some other Treasure games, but it’s orchestrated enough to be exciting and well worth listening to. And to top the whole thing off is a simple yet endlessly testing combo system. If you kill three enemies of the same color in a row, you start a chain which breaks once you have not done three of the same color in a row. It’s just the thing for real fanatics to expand on. I, for one, have enough trouble staying alive on easy mode, so I think I’ll pass. It’s a tragically beautiful game, and the absolute best of it’s kind. Deffinitely worth whatever you have to do to play it, especially if you already own a Dreamcast or a Gamecube.

…I guess that’s all I have to say. If you want more information on games by Treasure, the following link should shed some light on the subject.

http://www.mrmonkeyman.com/treasure/games.html

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Got It, Bitches!

November 21, 2006

Yup, a shiny new Explosion Tower is mine. We branded it yesterday. It plays like a charm. I actually didn’t have to wait in line…Someone else was nice enough to do that for me. I can’t thank him enough.

“Explosion Fiesta” is really the most exciting aspect about the thing. It controls nice, it looks great, it’s epic. Nothing more to really say about that.

Sorry I can’t give too in-depth of a look at it right at the moment. I’ll be back with a full-scale review in a few weeks, and until then I’ll continue the music reviews.