Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: Pokemon Dream Radar

Nintendo have revealed plans to dip their toes into the mobile market with interactive demo/advertisement apps for games on their first-party hardware. This might, to some, indicate the inevitable jump to mobile, but these people have obviously never played Pokemon Dream Radar, a $3 game Nintendo would never get away with in the mobile market. There are much better games for free, but this has the Pokemon brand, and Nintendo have only just ventured into the free-to-play market with Steel Diver: Sub Wars.

Take the Face Raiders 3DS bundled game and replace those floating heads with orbs. That's Pokemon Dream Radar. Players assume the role of a Pokemon researcher tasked with capturing monsters hidden behind pink clouds floating augmented-reality-like around the room. Most clouds break into orbs, the currency used to upgrade various aspects of the capture beam, as well as the number of clouds found during each venture, among other things. Quickly grabbing all of the orbs will start a chain, spawning another group of orbs with a subsequently shorter lifespan. Distinct flashing clouds will contain a Pokemon, represented by an even bigger orb, but judging by screenshots found online there is probably an upgrade that reveals their form, or maybe only the legendary monsters are fully represented. This orb will erratically dart around the room, requiring precision movement to stay on its tail, which is no easy task while simultaneously weakening it by mashing the A button. 

More often than not, capturing a Pokemon will cause it to drop an item and flee. These include things like berries, shards, revives, and EV-boosting nutrients. Potential Pokemon range from common creatures like Musharna and Sigiglyph to an array of legendaries  including the Thundurus/Landorus/Tornadus trio. Each legendary can be captured only once. All captured items and Pokemon can only be sent to Pokemon Black/White 2. Here it becomes apparent that Dream Radar isn't meant to be a standalone game, but a glorified DLC delivery system that arbitrarily controls how quickly the player can extract the content by limiting the rate at which clouds regenerate, though this can be bypassed by spending play coins. Black or White 2, there's absolutely no reason to drop 3 bucks on Dream Radar. That money would be better spend on any game on this list. However, given the amount of time it'll take to capture all of the legendary Pokemon, it might be wise to purchase this title long before either of the 5th generation sequels. Mechanically, it isn't a bad application by any stretch of the imagination, but there are also very few mechanics to scrutinize. For what it is, it's well-polished and the sense of progression, though completely arbitrary, might trick you, if only for a minute, into thinking you're having fun. Pokemon fans should go into knowing they'll have to grind for a while in order to get to the reward. Pokemon Dream Radar is simply a vehicle for Nintendo to sell us Pokemon without actually selling us Pokemon, and in that light is a valid application, but don't mistake it for a real game. 

Released: 2012-10-07
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo

Monday, February 17, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokemon is pure insanity

The platform has ushered in an era where it's possible to make a living playing video games all day. To most, it's a Farfetch'd dream, but a relative handful are lucky enough to live it. They entertain us with their skill, humor, and educate us on the finer points of their respective games of choice. Twitch Plays Pokemon is a social experiment that turns that dynamic on its head, giving control of the game to the viewers by using an automatic script and a modified Pokemon Red ROM to translate user chat into in-game commands. There are currently around 75k viewers and the chat is a constant flood of input. With a 20+ second delay and a lot of trolls, navigating the game world is easier said than done, especially when the floor is littered with traps. This could take a while...

Friday, February 14, 2014

Review: Shantae

Shantae is considered by many to be the swan song of the Game Boy Color. Originally released after the Game Boy Advance in 2002,  Shantae didn’t see initial financial success, but has secured a cult following in the years since, even spawning a DSiWare sequel in 2010. I had never played the game before, and because of its initial commercial failure and subsequent cult fanbase, it’s very hard to get a copy of the original game, so when I discovered that it was available on the 3DS Virtual Console, I decided to finally give it a try.

In many ways, Shantae makes me think of Castlevania. It’s a platformer that moves at a slower pace than most games today, and it certainly takes some getting used to. Protagonist Shantae runs surprisingly fast, and I found that a great deal of my frustration with the game dried up when I started walking instead of running. Shantae is a game that wants you to take your time and observe each challenge before tackling it. It’s a refreshingly methodical platformer in much the same way the classic Castlevania games are.

Still, though, I was disappointed with Shantae. Perhaps my expectations had simply been built up too high from the game’s reputation as an under-appreciated classic that never got the success it deserved. I wanted to like Shantae, I really did, but there's just too much wrong with it for me to overlook, and I don’t think that the game holds up particularly well compared to some of its GBC peers.

I’ll start with the positive. Shantae is a gorgeous game. It looks at the graphical limitations of the GBC and laughs in their face. The game genuinely looks good, even today. I’ve always been a fan of good spritework, and Shantae undoubtedly has some of the best the GBC can offer. Shantae’s movements are fluid, and her face is expressive. Character designs are wonderful, and the environments are visually interesting. Do the graphics show their age? Sure, but all of the designs were crafted with such a keen aesthetic sense that you’d have to be awfully cynical not to appreciate how much they’ve done with so few pixels. The music is similarly impressive; it too shows its age, but is catchy and memorable. I feel like I overuse the word “charming” in my reviews, but everything about Shantae is very charming.

Unfortunately, Shantae also has to be a game, and that’s where problems arise. Shantae is a metroidvania-style platformer in which the titular Shantae, the half-genie guardian of peaceful Scuttle Town, must travel the land in search of four elemental stones to keep them out of the hands of the evil pirate Risky Boots. Along the way, she learns a variety of magic dances that transform her into different animals, enabling her to access new areas.

Really, ninety percent of my complaints could be boiled down to the terrible level design of Shantae’s overworld, but you’re going to be spending a lot of time there, so the problems stick around. Everything just feels so uninspired. Sure, it’s all visibly vibrant and well-decorated, but there’s nothing memorable about the level design itself. This is a bigger problem than it appears at first glance because of Shantae’s metroidvania nature. It’s very difficult to tell one part of a forest area from another, and with all the backtracking Shantae requires, it can be easy to forget where things are, like collectibles you bypassed earlier because you lacked the necessary transformation dance. The placement and design of enemies often feel at odds with Shantae’s abilities, and encounters that seem like they should be easy just turn out frustrating. Shantae’s primary attack, using her hair as a whip, has an extremely short range, and it can be unreasonably difficult to actually hit enemies with it.

The overworld is just unfairly difficult overall. Now, I like hard games; I play Dark Souls, X-Com, and Super Meat Boy, but Shantae just frustrates. There’s a reason instant death spikes and pits don’t often make appearances in metroidvania games, a reason Shantae seems to forget. Dying will send you back to the beginning of the area, and areas in Shantae can be huge. It is immensely frustrating to make good progress only to have it all undone by one bad jump. Add into this that many jumps become difficult to make unless you’re running, and running is a fast way to find more pits and spikes…

Part of the problem is that the screen just doesn’t show enough of the environment. Shantae herself is about a quarter the height of the screen, and as a result, it feels like everything is zoomed in too far to get a good idea of your surroundings. I usually consider relying on emulator save states to be cheating, but I found myself thankful that the 3DS Virtual Console offers a state save function and relied heavily on it to finish Shantae.

Breaking up the overworld exploration, are the four dungeons where the elemental stones are kept, and in these places, the gameplay comes alive. It feels like much more effort was put into the dungeons than the overworld. Everything feels like it was made with Shantae’s abilities in mind. The placement and design of dungeon enemies feels like they were done keeping Shantae’s extremely short attack range in mind. The dungeons, despite being more maze-like than the overworld, give a much better sense of space and location. The level design offers plentiful landmarks to orient yourself, which are sorely absent in the overworld, and the platforming is mixed with some clever puzzle challenges like managing arranging spinning discs or managing giving Shantae a particular magnetic polarity. Difficulty is still high, but it feels more fair. Boss fights punctuate every dungeon, and they’re all interesting designs.

In conclusion, Shantae has some great elements. If the overworld was designed as well as the dungeons, I would feel much better about the game as a whole, but it’s just too big a part of the game to ignore, and the fun you’ll have in the dungeons simply isn’t worth the boring and difficult slog through the overworld. At the end of the day, Shantae is a museum piece; something to be observed and admired, but not touched.

Find Shantae on ebay | Amazon

Developer: WayForward Technologies
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: 2002-6-2 (GBC), 2013-7-18 (3DS Virtual Console)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Feb. Club Nintendo rewards include Donkey Kong Jr. and Pictobits

The latest Club Nintendo digital rewards are in. For 150 coins each, you can get either Pictobits the classic Donkey Kong Jr. on the 3DS virtual console The former has previously been offered to club members, and 3DS ambassadors will already have Donkey Kong Jr., so it might be a better investment to spend an extra 50 coins to get Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Wii U. These rewards will be up for grabs until the 9th of March.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Real Reason We Hate Flappy Bird

The internet is a wonderful invention that allows us the ability to instantly communicate with other humans across the globe. It's given rise to collaborative efforts never before possible, inspired inventions that will change the course of history, and is one of the few places regular people can make something of themselves. But it's not all Bitcoins and cat videos; the internet can also serve to concentrate the hatred of millions. 

Dong Nguyen is responsible for a little iOS game called Flappy Bird. Free to download, it's an extraordinarily simple game, and does absolutely nothing new. For one reason or another, it went viral, and is seeing millions of downloads per day, bringing in $50k a day in ad revenue and a virulent vortex of hated from the very people that can't stop playing it.

Flappy Bird a simple game of survival wherein the player is tasked with keeping a little yellow bird in the air by repeatedly tapping the screen while avoiding pipes ripped straight from Super Mario World. Sure, Flappy Bird may play slightly differently than all of these other titles but it's not a good game. It can really only be credited with a highly marketable aesthetic and solid controls. What it does brilliantly is manipulate on our simple ape brains into playing it over and over and over and over...

People will justify their shit-spewing by claiming the game is a shameless clone that ripped assets from Mario, all while forgetting the game is free. Nobody's forcing us to play, but we gamers are one of the most entitled groups to grace the web, and we've no problem gratuitously goading developers through every digital means available.  We've seen what it did to Phil Fish, and now Nguyen has announced he's going to take the game down in less than 24 hours. The snowball has run him over and is heading for a cliff.

We should be ashamed of ourselves. We can dress it up any way we'd like, but the real reason we hate Flappy Bird is the same reason we hate lottery winners. We say they don't "deserve" the success, but we'd trade places with them in an instant. We hate that we didn't think of it first.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pokemon Bank Finally Arrives

It's been an especially cold winter. Pokemon fans the world over were promised a very special piece of software to go along with their newly acquired Pokemon X and Y games, but the voracity of the fans proved too much for Nintendo's infrastructure, causing the long-awaited Pokemon Bank to be delayed. That was a little over a month ago, but it feels like millenia. But Nintendo have delivered, after all. Pokemon Bank is now released to the world for all to enjoy. Entire boxes of Pokemon can now be transferred, a definite improvement over painstakingly transferring 6 at a time, but the process seems a little inefficient. Transfer one box from B/W/B2/W2 to the Bank using the Transporter, then from the Bank to X or Y. Hopefully they'll flesh that out. At any rate, the Pokemon X and Y economy will have new life breathed into it, and now we can destroy n00bs over the internet with our perfectly sculpted killing machines. Today is a good day. 

Activating before 3/14 will get you a 30 day trial. Afterwards, it's $5 per year. Also, following the steps below, you can get a free Celebi before Sep 30. 
1. Upload a Pokemon to the bank
2. Save and quit, then go to Pokemon X or Y's menu
3. Select "Pokemon Link" to get your free Poke Miles or Battle Points (whichever you chose in Bank)
4. Open Bank and select the option to use it again to receive a Celebi from the guide
5. Claim it with Pokemon Link in your X or Y game

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review: Detective Grimoire: Secret of the Swamp

A remote swamp. A mysterious creature. A murder. Detective Grimoire begins with an interesting premise that immediately draws you in, and it manages to hold interest throughout. Despite some flaws in gameplay, Detective Grimoire has more than enough charm to stay fun throughout.

Gameplay in Detective Grimoire consists of investigating environments and speaking to suspects as the titular detective. Occasionally, you will have to solve small puzzles to move forward, and every suspect has one unique “challenge” conversation subject, which will require you to pick the correct response from multiple options to find the truth. The gameplay feels very similar to the excellent Ace Attorney series, and veterans of those games will feel right at home in Detective Grimoire. Unfortunately, those same players will find Detective Grimoire insultingly easy in comparison.

I’m not really sure what audience Detective Grimoire is intended for. The questions that you will need to answer about the case are blindingly obvious if you’ve been paying any attention, which, along with it’s cartoony art, makes me think that the game is intended for children, but the dark subject matter (it is a murder mystery, after all) and the general style of writing feel more like they’re aimed at adult players.

Still, the game is absolutely charming, and its wonderful presentation can more than make up for how easy its puzzles are. Boggy’s Bog is well realized as a setting, and the colorful cast of characters are a joy to interact with. In classic adventure game fashion, Grimoire himself plays the straight man to many of the game’s more “out there” elements, and much of the game’s humor comes from his commentary and reactions. The wonderfully stylized art and animation combined with spot-on voice acting (even if Grimoire often doesn’t enunciate properly) make every character feel distinct and memorable. The music sets the mood and lends its own unique flair.

The story involves a murder mystery at the tourist attraction “Boggy’s Bog,” where a bigfoot-esque, maybe-real-maybe-not creature called Boggy is said to dwell. The strange thing is, the owner of the attraction was the victim, and evidence suggests that the killer was none other than Boggy! Of course, this is a murder mystery, so there’s obviously more to the case than meets the eye. The game is quite short, but manages to throw enough twists and interesting avenues of investigation to keep things interesting throughout.

The writing is another plus, here. Between Grimoire’s running internal monologue and each suspect’s unique way of speaking, all delivered with excellent voice acting, Detective Grimoire manages to be consistently entertaining. There was never a moment where a bit of bad writing pulled me out of the experience.

The game breaks down is where it tries to actually be a “game.” As mentioned previously, the mystery-solving challenges are far too easy, mostly involving simply repeating things you’ve heard earlier to a different character. Or sometimes the same character. There’s a recurring puzzle where you have to arrange elements and phrases to make a complete sentence that advances the plot, and these are only marginally more challenging than the multiple-choice challenge quizzes. It’s a shame, because both of these puzzle types could have elevated the game into something more than it is. They could have been interesting logic puzzles, but as they stand, they’re little more than passing distractions. Once again, I have to compare to the Ace Attorney series, which gives these kinds of puzzles the depth and thought they deserve, and is more engaging for it.

There are also occasional puzzles to open doors, which feel pointless and tacked-on. The controls for these puzzles also feel unresponsive and finicky. On a few occasions, I could figure out the solution quickly, but then spent far longer wrestling with the touch screen trying to get the pieces of the puzzle into place.

The story has a satisfying and complete ending, but still comes with a sequel hook, so I suppose the real question is, “Would I play a second Detective Grimoire game?” Yes. Yes I would. The adventure game genre is traditionally focused more on story than gameplay, so one can forgive a lot of flaws in the latter if the former is particularly strong. The problems in gameplay could be polished and fixed in a sequel, and the character of Grimoire is certainly more than likeable enough to carry an ongoing series. If they can keep up the kind of stylistic quality shown in Secret of the Swamp while improving the core adventure gameplay, Detective Grimoire could have a real future as a franchise. In my review of The Room, I lamented the lack of good adventure games on mobile platforms, and a strong new series would be welcome. Detective Grimoire has its problems, but it shows a lot of potential, and could very well be the start of that strong new series. I, for one, will be keeping an eye on it.

Released: 2014-1-13
Developer: SFB Games