Sunday, February 28, 2010

You Caught A Garbage

My current video game love is Deadly Premonition. It cost me $20. It's an open world murder mystery game with survival horror elements. It's heavily reminiscent of Twin Peaks. Some folks claim it's a bad game. They are wrong. Some people claim the game is "so-bad-it's-good." These people are even more wrong. This is not a piece of accidental camp. It's a game that's aware of just how absurd it is. It's aware that it's a flawed game on many levels, but many of its flaws end up becoming strengths, while others are easily overlooked because they don't get in the way of what the game does well.

Deadly Premonition is a better Shenmue. A Shenmue made with zero budget rather than the largest in video game history. A Shenmue made by a Yu Suzuki who spent his formative years obsessing over David Lynch and B-movies instead of guitars and sports cars. A Shenmue where the infrequent action sequences play out like a low rent Resident Evil 4 rather than a low rent Virtua Fighter. A Shenmue where the cast is comprised solely of bizarre, creepy characters not due to ineptitude, but by design. It's a design that lifts wholesale from 20-30 year old American films, which is usually a strong negative, but here it works. Because in the end this is a video game that's cool with being a video game, rather than a video game that wishes it was anything but.

To me that distinction is what makes or breaks a game that places an emphasis on story. I suspect Deadly Premonition is at least partially influenced by Grand Theft Auto 4, which was very much a self-loathing video game. Its attempts at drama were spoiled by terrible writing and a lead character whose behavior during cutscenes clashed terribly with the actions required of the player during the scripted missions, and its obsession with "realism" crippled the game on nearly every level. You had this amazingly detailed world but there was absolutely nothing interesting to do in it.

Deadly Premonition is guilty of many of the same sins as GTA4. Awkward controls, goofy car handling, a huge game world without much to do. Yet I can forgive Deadly Premonition because its world is interesting, and it's interesting largely because it's so wrong. GTA4 is filled with uncanny valley game and world design that highlights the narrative's flaws and foils any sense of immersion, but the wrongness of Deadly Premonition's environment is a strength. It's the Pacific Northwest modeled by people who have probably never been to the Pacific Northwest but watched a whole lot of Twin Peaks. And since this is a game that so badly wants to be Twin Peaks this awkwardness meshes perfectly with the game's themes and narrative. The interiors of the homes have bizarre dimensions, with rooms that feel like they're the size of gymnasiums and staircases that lead to nowhere. Your car's speed tops out at 55MPH, leading me to suspect that the devs heard Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55" and took the song a bit too literally. Items are priced as if one yen was equivalent to a dollar rather than a penny, with a cup of coffee costing $16.50, a fishing rod running $125.95, and if you need some bait for that rod you're paying $119.34 for run of the mill earthworms -- dig the arbitrary change tacked onto the end of every price tag. Business hours are also bizarre. One morning after waking I headed to town to break my fast at the local diner. I arrived past 9AM only to find it closed. Same deal with the bar when I quit my investigation later that night -- the watering hole was shuttered before the clock had even struck 10PM. The town of Greenvale has some strict blue laws, I guess.

So when you're presented with a world so very off-model it makes total sense that half the residential mailboxes in town are filled ammunition. It's not jarring at all when you open a refrigerator to discover it's empty aside from a trading card for a Turkey Sandwich -- a sandwich which is, according to the card, a most excellent turkey sandwich, because its meat is moist, but not moist enough to make the bread soggy. Game-y bullshit is both acceptable and welcome when the lead character is a goofball FBI agent who regularly speaks out loud to his Split Personality/You. He's fond of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Fred Ward's filmography, and he wants you to know all about it. So it seemed perfectly natural that we'd conduct our first interrogation in the middle of the street. I stood in front of the suspect's car. I knew he was a suspect because he had a giant balloon that said SUSPECT above his head. Our conversation was drowned out by the honk of a car horn. The suspect's car was the only one in sight, and he had both hands on the wheel, so it must have been his horn malfunctioning. It makes sense that Agent York would just ignore it, because the character is insane, and whether this was a known bug that was intentionally left in or a happy accident isn't relevant -- either way it enhanced the scene, making an odd, entertaining conversation all the more bizarre. You'll find lots of moments like that in this game, enough that it quickly becomes apparent that they're not the result of ineptitude but a developer who sees the value of happy accidents.

To me the ultimate sign that the game's effectiveness is due to intentional design choices rather than camp ineptitude is the lack of incongruity between my Agent York's actions, the behavior of the scripted Agent York, and the goals of the side missions. This is a rarity in the genre. My Agent York is a goofy fellow who likes to take naps wherever he can. His favorite spot is the cot behind the log cabin in the graveyard. My Agent York appreciates that he can shave in any sink he finds, but prefers to deal with his five o'clock shadow in the Greenvale Police department's kitchen. My Agent York peeps into every window he finds, hoping to get a glimpse at some naughty business going on inside. He has yet to find any. Just kids doing their homework and bearded, lumpy men sitting in bed. And my Agent York is the kind of guy who gets fined for being a "stinky agent." He went a few days without changing clothes, OK? It happens. No big deal. Just had to rush back to the hotel to change before the big town meeting. Couldn't give my introductory speech to the townspeople with flies swarming around me, y'know? These are all actions that are totally in-character for a guy who talks out loud to his imaginary friend during police lunches and reads fortunes into the shapes formed by the milk in his morning coffee. Compare this to the aforementioned Shenmue, where super-serious Ryo Hazuki is so going to track down those sailors once he finishes buying capsule toys and playing Hang-On. Or GTA4, where angst-ridden Niko is fed up with killing and swears he'll quit once he can afford it, yet my HUD shows I've got millions in the bank and nothing to spend it on. Deadly Premonition may look cheap and have stupid fucking QTEs, but SWERY is ten times the writer the Housers or David Cage is solely because his characters are batshit insane on purpose.

I'll probably be posting about this game a lot. Maybe my enthusiasms are premature. Maybe it will fall apart near the end. I pray it doesn't. I love this game.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

We Are Only Natural

Is there a romhack that cuts Labyrinth Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog? If not there should be. It's a pockmark on an otherwise lovely game. It's usually where I quit whenever I replay Sonic, which is a shame cuz it's like the third stage. But today I used the level select code to bypass that underwater bullshit and had a grand time up until the final stage, when Sonic once again goes under the sea. That slowpoke aquatic adventure is followed followed by a final Flasher* Robotnik boss fight that I didn't have the patience to deal with. Not even with save states. I just quit the game and watched the ending on youtube. It was cute.

*I hereby dub any boss that makes you wait around before showing its weakpoint a Flasher. One of the most overused, unenjoyable staples of game design. Bayonetta was rife with it. GOD HAND wasn't. Another reason why GOD HAND is the best 3D action game ever made!

After (kinda) beating Sonic 1 I loaded up Sonic 2, thinking I'd just dick around in it for a minute or two. I ended up playing through the entire thing in one sitting. Which didn't take long. Like an hour. But it was a really enjoyable hour! Sonic 2 is a much better game than I remembered.

It's obviously a rushed sequel, but it's not nearly the clone of the first I remembered it being. It's got its own charm, and its own set of flaws. I'm thinking the bad rep the Genesis games have in some circles is mostly thanks to 2. It is very much "hold right to win" for the bulk of the game, but I was digging the lack of difficulty. Probably because I hadn't just paid $60 for it. And also because the breezy pace was refreshing after playing the original, with its totally bizarre level order, longer chapters (three acts per zone vs. the sequel's two) and difficulty spikes. 2's difficulty curve is much more traditional, but unfortunately it shoots way up once you hit Metropolis Zone. This is where the game fully descends into cheap bullshit death hell. I did run into the occasional what-the-- death during the first 2/3 of the game, but it wasn't much of an issue because it was so easy. I don't think I ever died in the same stage twice. And the zones all ended before I could tire of their gimmicks. But Metropolis Zone is the longest zone in the game, and it is pretty crap. As is the airship stage. But the stage inbetween the two where you ride Tails's plane is a nice change of pace. Lets you chill a bit before getting back to the dumb bullshit.

While playing I realized I've grown to like Tails. He's quite cute. Sonic's only non-shitty friend, maybe? Aside from Big the Cat.

Maybe the best thing about New Super Mario Bros. Wii was the final boss, because it's what platform game bosses should be. It wasn't about sitting around, waiting for the boss to flash his weakpoint, or throwing the boss's own weapons back at him. It was another jumping sequence. It was pretty great.

I'm going to finish Sonic 3 sometime soon. I'm not sure I played through it when it came out. I borrowed it from a friend and never returned it. I remember being offended by the inclusion of a save feature, but also irritated that it wasn't as exploration heavy as Super Mario World. KIDS. They don't make any sense!

Sonic 4 is going to suck so bad.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

!~Random Screenshots of MYSTERY~!

I can't for the life of me remember what game these screenshots come from. It's gotta be an RPG, right?

The character art is too fabulous. I am sure if it had received a commercial release I would have seen these squat li'l folks as forum avatars many times over. It has to be a translation hack!

See? The game knows it's been hacked. It's self-aware. It disapproved of my playing it. That must have been why I quit.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Strong Style

I named my character Jumbo, after my favorite pro-wrestler. Live-A-Live's Jumbo didn't live up to his real-world namesake. Jumbo Tsuruta was a big, surly man, while my Jumbo was a pipsqueak. A pretty boy. He wore a headband, a purple tanktop, and poofy yellow pants. Generic shonen fight manga lead circa...circa-I-dunno, I-didn't-grow-up-in-Japan. He started soft, and as far as I'm concerned he ended soft, because even though he defeated all his opponents he still looked like he weighed a buck-fifty soaking wet. You can't draw crowds with a physique like that.

But the freaks in that screenshot? They can draw. They've been around. They have the ultimate techniques. It's Jumbo's job to steal these techniques. When an opponent uses a special move on Jumbo there's a chance he might learn it. He's pretty much a slightly-roided-up Blue Mage from a Final Fantasy game, and this chapter is pretty much modeled after Street Fighter, but with turnbased battles and no real RPG elementz~! aside from the move stealing. Actually the choosing your opponent bit is kinda like Mega Man, since you may be able to beat the wrestlers in any order if you play smart (though I'm not entirely certain about that), but it's far easier if you have moves they're weak against.

I chose the Thai kickboxing ladyboy as my first opponent. I figured the he-she would be an easy mark.

I was wrong.

The Volk Han/Russian MMA dude crushed me as well. I was fucked and humbled. But the fat guy went down. I stole his move. I used it to break the Great Asia's fucking neck.

And from then on it was easy street. I just played sensibly and used moves that would theoretically work on my opponent in a real wrestling match. For example: the Hulk Hogan like-a-look is like five times not-so-Jumbo's size. One axe-bomber clothesline and I'm dead. So what do I do?

I use high-speed moves that injure his limbs, rendering him unable to move, and finish him off from a distance using high-flying moves. Crazy! There's a bit of logic going on there! In an RPG. And I didn't need to cast some analyze spell or check a menu screen to figure out the weak point. How about that.

I guess I'm easily impressed, huh? Overall the pro-wrestling chapter's a disappointment, though. There is nothing to it aside from these battles. There are no towns, no exploration, no adoring fans, no ring rats, no drug-dealing doctors. Skimpy, skimpy, skimpy. The story is incredibly light, with an intro showing the hero training, brief pre-match promos from your opponents, and an out-of-nowhere final boss named "Odie Oldbright". I think his design was based on the villain from "Highlander". He's killed all your prior rivals and now he's come for you. He killed me many times. I felt dumb. I felt like I missed a special move that would off him in one hit. Then I smartened up. I realized he couldn't perform his one-hit kill move if I stood in a different position. I realized that in this game debuffs not only work, but they stack, which makes it unlike just about every Final Fantasy game. My prior genre experience was working against me! I was not experimenting like I should have. Once I figured this out I was able to repeatedly do the suplex-or-whatever that cut the Odie's stats in half, until he couldn't move at all, and then I put on the Crippler Crossface and choked him to death. The End. Jumbo walks off into the sunset with a gymbag on his shoulder, in search of his next great challenge. Or some shit like that. I don't even remember what happened.

I'm sure the other chapters are better than this one. But man, the pro-wrestling one should have been the best. There is so much good stuff to work with, but it was so barebones and generic fight-manga formula that there was no satisfaction. Oh well! I still appreciate the little things it got right. That brains (or knowledge of PURORESU -- same thing!) were more important than levels and stats.

If I get to pick my final party during the finale no way is Jumbo gonna end up in it, though. He's so lame.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lonesome On The Trail

It's winter! A pretty decent one so far, mainly because my home has had heat more often than not. The past was often chilly! The present is pretty toasty. Not as hot as, say, a whorehouse on nickel night, but warm enough to keep me jolly. But despite all the warmth inside it is still frozen and dead outside. It's a lonely season, and that means it's the perfect time for the loneliest genre: the RPG!

The winter RPG has become a tradition of mine, one I wasn't even aware of until I went through my previous posts. Last year I played through Final Fantasy Legend, which was fabulously retarded, and Star Ocean, which was only made tolerable thanks to all the cheating I did. In '08 my regular Saturday night thing was Blue Dragon, a good game that I would never actually recommend to anyone, so maybe it's actually a bad game. Its battles were both its greatest strength and biggest weakness, as they could be relatively challenging and enjoyable (provided you downloaded the free Hard Mode) yet they dragged on for far too long thanks to all the needless battle animation. The boss fights never dragged, though. The boss fights rocked. I think at 1:25 in you can hear the sound of Ian Gillan's throat collapsing in on itself.

And prior to '08 there was Super Robot Taisen Original Generation. There was Shin Megami Tensei 3. There was Dragon Quest 8. There was Dark Cloud 2. There was Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. There was my 21st century playthrough of Dragon Warrior. There was WoW. There were lots of good times spent under a blanket all by my lonesome, mashing the X button, grinding away. Except WoW was mainly sad times spent in front of a computer, grinding away, feeling sick and wishing I was dead. There are no fond WoW memories.

I auditioned a few games for the role of Ms. RPG 2010, and in the end Dragon Quest V won. I'll probably post about it eventually. But for now I think I'll talk about one of the ones that didn't make it. I'm gonna talk about the two hours I spent with Live-A-Live.

Live-A-Live was almost the one. It has an interesting gimmick -- seven standalone bite-size chapters that can be played in any order, each with their own unique theme. I completed two of them, Western first, Pro-Wrestling second. And the Western bit was pretty tight. About an hour long. I think there were only two or three battles. Most of my time was spent reading text and wandering around town, collecting items and setting booby-traps. But it was enjoyable in a way most modern jRPGs aren't, because it was so simple. You've seen this story before, you know exactly where it's going, but it doesn't matter because it's brisk, the dialogue's amusing (though perhaps the translators deserve the credit for that), and seeing Western tropes competently done in a video game RPG is a novelty.

You play the role of the mysterious outlaw. He plays it all stoic but inside he's a softie, right? He strolls into a troubled town, tries to drink in peace, but the local troublemakers are harassing the women and children, and he just can't help but defend their honor. So he speaks up. Tells the lily livered coward to pick on someone his own size or something to that effect. And this triggers the greatest looping jRPG "YES/NO" sequence I've seen yet. (Which isn't saying much...but still!) The bully laughs at the Outlaw. Calls him a baby. Tells the bartender to serve our hero a baby's drink, and so a glass of milk slides down the bar, stopping in front of the Outlaw. I am given a choice.


"Send back."

I drink it. The bully laughs and orders another. I drink it again. He orders another. I drink it again. He orders another. This went on for awhile. I thought maybe something would happen if I kept it up! Maybe this time it will be different. But no. If I want to progress I have to send the drink back. The bully laughs even harder. What, milk ain't good enough for ya? "Or don't ya drink any milk...that ain't from yer mama's nipples?"

OK, maybe after all this buildup it ain't that funny, but man, I laufed and laufed. Then I shot him in the gut and he died.

I smiled a lot during this hour. I smiled when I learned that the healing items are cigars and tequila. I smiled when I won a battle and the winning message was "RIGHT ON!" I smiled when I discovered my first piece of Dung, which can be used as a trap to whittle down the number of invading banditos during the chapter's climax. Another trap was a frying pan -- the item's flavor text describes it as the weapon of choice for hot-headed women. I smiled. The bulk of the game is spent searching the town for traps, which you then give to the town members, who arm them. There's a time limit. Different town members have different skills, so if you do a poor job of handing out the traps you may not have them all armed in time, making the final battle more difficult. Or so I assume. I had them all up and ready with plenty of time to spare. I can't imagine any player being bad enough to run out of time. Even though it's shallow I appreciate the attempt to do something different, something that ties into the plot and theme of the game, that in another game may feel like padding or busywork but here it worked, and had it been harder I probably wouldn't have been smiling. But I smiled when instruments dropped from the soundtrack each time I sent a band member to arm a trap, until it was just me and the fat, hopeless maracas man alone in the bar, his ceaseless "shake-shake-shake" taking the edge off the awkwardness of our lonely-time together.

Little touches go a long way! I smiled when I healed myself using tequila but got drunk and was unable to control my dude. And died. Or, as the game put it, I "MET A BAD END".

The bandit leader has a gatling gun. I think that may even have been his name. "Gatling Gun". After killing him he turns into a horse. He was the personification of all the anger of the dead white men slaughtered by the godless redskins. Don't worry, that's not the biggest spoiler. There's some neat stuff after that! Stuff that shows just how hardcore the hero is. It was a satisfying ending. Again, you don't see many of those nowadays.

I'll post about the wrestling chapter tomorrow.