Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review: Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

When 999 came out, reviews marked it as a title that garners a re-examination of the visual novel genre. This wasn't the first game that questioned the existence of the genre, though. Capcom's DS remake of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was a surprise hit in the US mostly due to the rather ridiculous dialogue (some of which became meme-worthy). After five successfully acclaimed games, its creator Shu Takumi wanted to work on a new project. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective was the result.

I'm going to start the review by stating that this is one of the only 'DS-exclusive' games ever made. Every single feature in the game shows that this game was made for the DS in mind and it exploits all of its features that wouldn't be possible on any other platform (at least until the iOS came along and it received a port). Many games like to use the DS's features for either interface reasons or because it's a popular platform for game development while Ghost Trick eschews this for features that expand on the innovation of the system.

When the game begins you find yourself in control of a spirit who nicknames himself Sissel. You're instructed by another spirit called Ray to find out the secrets of your past and so begins your adventure as a ghost. The key feature of this game is Sissel's mode of travel. At any time Sissel can go to the spirit world where he finds a large assortments to objects to possess and even manipulate to travel through the area.

This style of gameplay evolves into a series of situations where sequences of events play out and you have to learn how to react to each event (similar to the security camera scenes in the last case in Ace Attorney). It creates a familiarity with the scene that makes the mundane situation rather endearing as you learn its intricacies in a way that doesn't get boring and is actually rather fun. These mise-en-scenes manifest through simple exploration, escape scenes, and preventions of world altering events which allow each chapter to tell something of consequence.

What makes this game compelling is the balance between story and gameplay. Each aspect complements each other one while most games of this kind would use the gameplay as a means of progressing the story, the opposite isn't true for most cases. The key trick of this game (no pun intended) is the episodic nature of the game. While the story lines aren't as segregated as they are in a company like Telltale's efforts, the chapters in the game make the game almost like an interactive TV show, which is a cool idea.

While this summation may seen disjoint (even more-so than my previous works!) I doubt a regular review would do justice to Ghost Trick. Most games present themselves as a series of events put into a sequence to aspire for 'a cinematic experience'. Ghost Trick takes these events and adds a strong narrative to compel the player to continue. In short if you like the Phoenix Wright games but wanted to control one of the victims then this is the game for you!

Find Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2011-01-11
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: Batman

I want to start this by saying I love Batman. The Dark Knight is one of my heroes, and I still have my Batman movie hat with a mesh back that I got when I was a kid.  Growing up when I did was a great time to be a Batman fan... the first two great films came out and the merchandise exploded, and when I grew older there was the animated series to lose myself in.

In 1990 Congress passed the Batman Entertainment Law, making it legally required that from that point on every console produce a glut of Batman games. After growing up for years with nary a Batman game to be found (other than a Commodore/Apple game that scarcely bears mentioning) suddenly the movie came out, and every Batman game had to have the Joker, Axis Chemicals, and follow some bizarre alternate script to Batman that involves the Joker's army of killer robots. Batman for NES is a freaking classic which I still play, so it was with the hope of finding a similar joy that I picked up Batman for Game Boy. Surely this will be a monochrome port at worst, or a similarly mechanized game with different levels, at best?

Dunnnnn dun dun duhhhhhh dummmmmmm dummmmmmmmmm!

The opening scene tells us that Jack has sneaked into the Chemical Plant, without bothering to tell us who Jack is. You can almost hear the writers say "Its just like the movie, remember?" Stage one starts and I am confronted with a short, stunted form wearing a little hat with points. Is he... is he crouching? No, I quickly realized. This is Batman. A stout, wide creature with the proportions of Gimley. In a laudable move. The makers of this game apparently envisioned a world where Batman was born with some sort of deformity, leaving him a twisted, midget-like form instead of the tall and powerful shape of justice we're familiar with. The effects of this are two-fold: Batman no longer leaps and bounds about like a freudian-damaged ninja, preying upon evildoers. Instead, he is content to simply jog around and hop up little platforms. Seriously, the man can't even climb stairs step by step, instead having to leap up them, representing no doubt the trouble he has in mounting the inclines. The second part is this Batman apparently has stopped giving a darn and brought a gun.

BatGlock in action

That's right, as a side effect of putting on weight, Bruce Wayne has abandoned his vaunted code of honor and has decided its easier to just start putting caps in people and let God sort 'em out. I guess he decided its less exhausting than running after them. Its just a strange, strange game. It's uninspired, really, and typical of the Game Boy games that got shoveled out. Walk right, hop a surprisingly short distance, press the button to fire your BatGlock. You CAN upgrade the BatGlock but the upgrades are of questionable usefulness... a personal favorite is the "wave" bullet that wobbles up and down as it travels, adding no usefulness at all but ensuring that Batman can't actually hit a target. Its not a terrible game, and I guess if you just want a run and shoot game that has nothing spectacular about it, you're not going to go exactly wrong... and I will admit its almost worth it just to play the pistol-toting Midget Batman who doesn't give a dang.
Batman never could explain why he liked watching Mohammad Ali and Dracula on TV

Other quirks of note: The fact that the hit detection on the blocks is so tiny its a pain to hit them. The enemy design in the first few levels are just empty. The fact is the game is so repetitive I couldn't keep playing for more than a short bit before being bored. This game doesn't excel anywhere, but it's also not so fantastically bad so as to elicit a blistering review. It just commits the cardinal sin of a game... being dull.  If you see it in a bargain bin for a few dollars, its worth it, but anything more than the cost of a bottle of pop? Pass.

Find Batman on ebay | Amazon

Released: 1990-06-20
Publisher: Sunsoft
Developer: Sunsoft

Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: Bangai-O Spirits

Bangai-O Spirits is the last game by Treasure in their DS era. It is also the second game in the Bangai-O series, preceded by Bangai-O on the N64/Dreamcast and succeeded by Bangai-O: Missile Fury for Xbox Live Arcade. Treasure is a company known for games that contain an unparalleled sense of energy and the original Bangai-O was no exception, marrying great level design with a focus on speed and progression through the levels not unlike Treasure's previous games such as Gunstar Heroes and Alien Soldier. But how does Bangai-O Spirits fair compared to Treasure's other games?

Treasure games aren't exactly known for having great stories (although they usually have rather memorable characters, especially in their earlier works). Treasure seemed to realise this, confining the story of the entire game in the seventeen tutorial levels, which once completed allows access to almost two-hundred levels to play with. The jist of the story is that two young pilots are taught how to pilot the mecha by its creator. The dialogue is humorous (especially the fourth wall breaks such as one person asking how long it will take to beat the game so he can trade it in) and it serves to keep the player interested in the tutorial so they can go forward into the game.

The gameplay follows the structure of the original game. You control a mecha called the Bangai-O. The goal of each stage is to destroy the targets which can range from buildings, bullet-deflecting cores, or other enemies. The main difference from the original game is the assortment of weapons. Each weapon has a unique feature. As you might expect the homing missiles home in while the bounce shots can bounce of walls but there are other weapons such as break that pierce through the enemy bullets to gain the upper hand in stand-offs against larger enemies. The other weapons are the shield which leaves you impervious to any attacks from that side but the most 'treasure-like' weapon is the bat which allows you to reflect projectiles, which strikes me (no pun intended) as a callback to the throw mechanic in Gunstar Heroes.

Anyone who's played Ikaruga or Radiant Silvergun (arguably some of Treasure's better games) will know that these games are less like traditional shooting games and more like puzzle games, and Bangai-O is Treasure applying this concept to one of their more regular series. Each stage can be treated as a puzzle with goals, like destroying all the enemies (think the last stage of Gunstar Heroes), navigating a maze to the end of the stage, or traversing a field of enemies before an explosion goes off, killing you instantly. Treasure's use of the mechanics of their past games is what really makes the game shine. It aggregates everything that makes the company's games so enjoyable and gives these components at least one stage to shine.

If you don't like how Treasure creates their stages then you are allowed to create your own with the stage editor. The touch screen makes the process intuitive and it gives a game that already has a large amount of content even more room to expand (like with Super Meat Boy). Treasure created a quirky system to transfer save data through sound bytes. When the stage is created a unique tune is made for that stage. By putting the sound output to the DS's microphone you can up/download data from/to the DS to give/receive new stages.

Bangai-O Spirits is a game that only Treasure could make. It has the charm of their earlier titles with the refined gameplay of the later titles on the only platform that would make the game work (the other two games had this in mind but I think the DS version does this best.) It was a fitting end to the DS where companies started to realise the potential in the device with titles like this game and The World Ends With You, showing what the DS could really do and it gives the 3DS a bright future if developers continue this trend.

Find Bangai-o Spirits on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2008-08-12
Publisher: D3 Publisher

Developer: Treasure 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Review: Maru's Mission

Maru is a gravity-defying ninja (despite what the Americanized box-art will have you believe) fighting to save his girlfriend from an evil samurai. In other words, Maru's Mission for the Game Boy is just oozing with originality, and doesn't bear even a modicum of resemblance to the convention-defying plots found in Legend of Kage or Super Mario Bros

The plot may be nothing to write home about, but keep in mind this was released in a time when video game plots were just context for killing bad guys, and weren't trying to be the next Titanic. Story aside, the first thing that really stood out was the jumping mechanics. Maru jumps as if he's on the moon, and will completely pass the screen's ceiling if you hold the button down long enough. This takes some getting used to, as the jump is also very floaty.

Maru's default attack is shurikens, which can be thrown in four directions. These will make it about halfway across the screen before disappearing. Most enemies take only a few hits to kill, and have easily avoidable, fairly weak attacks. In most cases, colliding with an enemy will also defeat it, which was misleading when I tried to jump on them Mario-style my first time playing. There is no sound effect for damage received, so I didn't immediately notice my health, represented by a counter in the bottom right-hand corner, was decreasing. Fallen enemies will release souls, and each soul sprite collected restores five hit points. Letting souls drop to zero or falling down a pit into the depths of hell three times spells game over. 

There are a variety of powerups to be found in Maru's Mission, including homing fists, a wave of energy (which for some reason ALWAYS fires to the right), bombs, and a wagon which grants invincibility. These abilities do not carry over to boss and mid-boss fights, and are not really needed in these cases anyway. Every mid-stage boss will supply you with the weapon needed to defeat the end-stage boss, and neither of these are very difficult. Their patterns, while each unique, are pretty predictable, and none of their attacks seem to exceed twelve damage, which is miniscule compared to the hundreds of souls the player is likely to have accumulated over the course of just a few levels. In fact, most bosses can be dealt with by standing relatively still and spamming shurikens.

The game features eight stages, each taking Maru to another part of the globe as each boss tells him his girlfriend is in another castle country. Whenever Maru's next destination is overseas, the game introduces a pace-breaking underwater segment in which Maru has to slaughter sharks with tridents. Each one takes four hits to kill, and when there's only one left, it starts frantically swimming around like it just realized all its friends are dead and it's next. Each time Maru is hit, he floats to the top of the water. I'm assuming this was the programmer's way of avoiding multiple collisions in a short time, but why not use invincibility frames instead? To make things even more arbitrarily difficult, tridents thrown upward travel abysmally slow and are practically useless. Maybe they were trying to be realistic, but this isn't exactly consistent with the ability to jump roughly 2000% higher than any normal person could.

There are points in the game that just feel unpolished. Enemy sprites will sometimes move through foreground objects, and it's difficult to tell if it's a glitch or intentional. In one of the later levels, there's an enemy that will grab Maru and shake him around before letting go. Some of these are in narrow spaces which make it nearly impossible to escape from if caught, and there's nothing the player can do but die, or get lucky and manage to escape after losing an absurd amount of hit points.

It has it's rough points, but it's an alright platformer overall, and can be completed in about forty-five minutes. After defeating the end boss, he says “If you are looking for a fair fight, send me the secret to your success. My address is:

c/o Jaleco USA
310 Era Dr.
Northbrook. IL.

who knows, I may send something back.”

I couldn't find any information on this, so if anyone knows something, let me know in the comments.

Find Maru's Mission on ebay

Released: 1991/03
Publisher: Jaleco
Developer: Tose