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TalkBack / BloodRayne Betrayal: Fresh Bites (Switch) Review FAQ
« on: September 14, 2021, 10:35:00 AM »

Certainly not the review I thought I'd be writing.

I feel like I'd done enough of these Review FAQs that an explainer paragraph probably isn't necessary, but just in case you're unfamiliar with the format, here's an example. I generally fall back on the Review FAQ format when I'm having trouble putting together a more traditional review, as was the case here.

Hey Zach, you seem down; what’s up?

Yeah man, the last couple days have been rough. I’ve been revisiting a game I remembering enjoying—more or less—back in 2011 and finding that now, in 2021, I’m not having a good time with.

Well that’s no good, what is it?

BloodRayne: Betrayal, which has been re-released on modern systems with some new features as BloodRyane Betrayal: Fresh Bites.

Is that the game with the sexy dhampir with scythes on her arms?


So you’re telling me that a half-dressed vampire girl slicing monsters to pieces isn’t winning you over?

Surprisingly, no.

Wow, this must be serious. First, though, I don’t really remember that game. Explain…as you would a child.

Here’s the elevator pitch: Betrayal is a 2D character action game in which BloodRayne travels through fairly large levels, slicing up monsters as she encounters them (which is often) and then traversing platforming obstacle courses in between combat encounters.

Okay that all sounds perfectly fine.

It does, doesn’t it? And in fact, Rayne’s combat prowess is not one of my issues with the game. To the contrary, she shines in battle, with a surprising number of flashy attacks, a dash, and the ability to both suck the blood of her enemies (to gain health) or infect and weaponize them against other baddies. She also has a giant pistol and, later, a badass heat ray.

So the combat is good?

It is, although it gets a little bit rote at times. There’s a points-based system where you’re rewarded for decimating your foes quickly and stylishly. You can mostly ignore this, because it seems like you have to be unreasonably good at this game to hit even the most generous time bonuses. Encounters often just wind up feeling like kill rooms that go on just a little too long, with several rounds of enemies appearing in every fight.

Do they ever shake up the formula?

Sometimes you’ll have environmental hazards to deal with, like a saw blade overhead, toxic sludge around you, or cannonballs being shot your way. Usually, you can use these things to your advantage, which is cool. The combat is never boring, though, and when you really get into the groove, it’s a joy.

Okay, so combat is fine but maybe gets a little boring. How’s the platforming?

In a word, terrible.

Uh oh.

It’s like WayForward knew that the game couldn’t just be eight hours of killing monsters—which is true—so they tried to take Rayne’s combat moveset and apply it to platforming sequences that become increasingly demanding. The problem is that the controls are just a little too loose for what they want you to do.

Maybe give me an example?

There’s a sequence towards the middle of the game where Rayne has to outrun a giant buzzsaw while jumping and dashing between platforms that decrease in size as she goes, and some of them move, and there’s instant-death toxic sludge beneath her. The controls aren’t as precise as they need to be, though, so you wind up under or over-shooting the platforms, or dash at the wrong time, or accidentally fall after you’ve landed because you think she’s not fully on the platform.

Or another time where, in the final level, Rayne has to bounce across toxic sludge by air-kicking floating insects that are a set distance apart, oh but also there are laser beams that will shoot between bugs, so she has to jump, attack, bounce up, dash to avoid the laser, hit the next bug right on the money, bounce up, dash to avoid the laser, etc. All this might be perfectly serviceable except that Rayne is in shadow, as are all foreground elements, but instead of the background being white or light red—you know, colors where you could still see the foreground—it’s an image of dancing flames, which is both too dark and too motion-heavy to adequately see anything in the foreground (which, as a reminder, is black). It’s terrible level design.

Neither of those sounds fun, especially the second one. What’s going on in the final level?

Yeah so the final level is basically Rayne escaping the castle (spoilers?)—the foreground and all the characters are black, the background is also black apart from the dancing flames, and the camera is tilting left and right. And you’re expected to perform acrobatic platforming sequences and lots of combat encounters where enemies overlap, or blend in with the back/foreground. I got through it, and the second half of that level isn't nearly as egregious, but good lord that first half. 28-year-old Zach might have powered through something like that out of some sense of pride, but 38-year-old Zach accepts that bad decisions were made in that final level.

If there’s a persistent platforming theme, are there collectibles?

There are—“treasure” boxes that are rather superfluous and only exist to boost your score, and Red Skulls. Most levels have at least a couple Red Skulls, and collecting four or five lets you improve your health total or pistol ammo total. Several of the Red Skulls are in places where you only have one shot to get them per level (or you can try dying and restarting from the checkpoint). More health and ammo certainly helps, but won’t really relieve your frustration during demanding platforming sequences.

So what’s new about this Fresh Bites version apart from being on modern consoles?

They’ve brought in Laura Bailey and Troy Baker as Rayne and Kagan, respectively, the original voice actors for those characters (on the PS2 games), which is cool. They’ve also re-balanced the difficulty from the original, which was nearly masochistic at times, but I think this change mostly applies to the combat encounters and how much damage Rayne takes/does. And it's something you can turn off on the stage select screen--although I don't know why you would. But for the platforming, even if they did pull back on the throttle somehow, 38-year-old Zach is not as spry or as patient as 28-year-old Zach.

Anything else?

Beating the game unlocks an art gallery, which is...fine.

You know, we didn’t really talk about the game’s art or music.

As you know, Disembodied Voice, I’m a sucker for 2D, hand-drawn art. And Betrayal does, in fact, look pretty great. Few studios are as good at this as WayForward is. Rayne’s animation is fabulous and I absolutely adore her respawn pose and the way she kicks the door off her transport coffin if you press Y when she lands at the start of a stage. Her combat animation is over the top and great fun to watch, although I rarely had time to appreciate it during fights. Enemies are a little less animate, but still full of personality. I was a bit disappointed by the dearth of distinct enemy types. If I never see another blue-coated vampire dude again, it’ll be too soon. The bosses, though, are fantastic—especially the towering, hard-rocking demon who caps off the game (before the terrible escape level, that is).

Jake “Virt” Kaufman did the music, so it’s already excellent, but he also provides a nice gothic-sounding soundtrack that’s distinct from his familiar Shantae or Mighty Switch Force tunes.

After you get into the castle, levels all tend to look pretty similar, and the game doesn’t always do a good job of telling you where you can and can’t land or wall-jump. In terms of design, you’ll be utilizing Rayne’s high-rising backflip for a surprising number of jumps that could’ve just be solved with a slightly-higher normal jump or a short secondary jump, a la Rachet & Clank or the old God of War games.

Hey, did you play that new God of War game?

I did.

What’d you think?

Well, it’s not a God of War game so I didn’t really like it.


Anyway, Rayne herself is more covered-up than her previous incarnations which is probably easier to animate but—because you’re talking to me—a little disappointing. I always preferred her BloodRayne 2 outfit because, again, it’s me.

So you did…not like it?

I did not. I mean, look, I’m a big fan of tough-as-nails platformers. My adoration for Super Meat Boy (but not its sequel), Hollow Knight, and The End is Nigh is well-documented. But the reason those games work so well is because the precision platforming is designed hand-in-hand with the protagonist’s moveset, and you very quickly develop a sense for that moveset and exactly what he or she can or can’t do. Here, it seems like WayForward tried to apply Rayne’s existing combat repertoire to platforming challenges, which absolutely doesn’t fly. The inconsistency with which her wall-jump can be deployed is a testament to this—it seems tacked-on, incorporated to justify some of the platforming segments and superficial exploration without really taking advantage of it.

The combat is generally enjoyable, but the scoring system is never explained and appears to require superhuman skill (or far more practice than I’m willing to entertain) to get good grades in. The platforming is generally miserable. The bosses are a lot of fun, though. Betrayal looks and sounds great. More often than not, though, it feels like work. Tedious, exhausting work. And 38-year-old Zach doesn’t have the patience for that anymore.

TalkBack / BloodRayne Betrayal: Fresh Bites Interview with Adam Tierney
« on: August 23, 2021, 06:20:10 PM »

We've got questions about the upcoming remaster and WayFoward has answers.

As you good people may or may not have heard, the old PS3/Xbox 360 game BloodRayne Betrayal will soon relaunch in a "New Bites" remaster on the Switch. For those unfamiliar with the series, Terminal Reality's BloodRayne began its life in 2002 with the PS2's BloodRayne, got a sequel two years later (Bloodrayne 2) before going into a vampiric dormancy until 2011, when WayForward resurrected my favorite dhampir in a 2D action platformer. Ziggurut Interactive holds the license now, and already re-released slightly-updated versions of the first two games on Steam. In case you're wondering, the sequel is the better of the two. The BloodRayne series is also well known for a trilogy of terrible Uwe Boll films, which you should avoid at all costs, and was the first video game character to pose for Playboy which, I mean, let's just say that CG renders have improved a lot since 2002.

At any rate, I recall having a lot of fun with BloodRayne Betrayal and will be looking to revisit it in early September. WayForward's own Adam Tierney was good enough to answer my (and Neal Ronaghan's) questions about the upcoming remaster. Enjoy!

Nintendo World Report (NWR): Was BloodRayne Betrayal always going to be so combat-focused? Given Rayne's abilities, I can certainly see an alternate universe version of Betrayal with Metroidvania tendencies.

Adam Tierney (AT): I think so, as far as I can recall. It’s true that WayForward does produce quite a few Metroidvania games in addition to brawlers and action platformers like this one. But given Rayne’s arm blades and unique style of attacking from the first two games, I think it was decided pretty early to go heavy in on the combat for this game.

NWR: What’s the process like for planning, animating, and iterating on the animation of a character like Rayne? Unlike Shantae, who basically has a hair whip, Rayne has a seemingly bottomless supply of flashy melee attacks.

AT: I would characterize Shantae as more of an action platformer, where the emphasis is on moving your character around the environment, timing jumps between platforms, and looking for the right path out of each area. But BloodRayne features a deeper system for combat and mobility, at the expense of some platforming complexity, at least in the earlier stages. The process for any of our games is deciding what sort of a mix between exploration and combat feels ideal for the brand, and then we’ll start planning out unique animations and attacks to support that style of play.

NWR: I will always and forever love the fact that Sean Velasco directed innocent, feel-good platformer A Boy and His Blob and then turned around and directed gothic gore-fest BloodRayne Betrayal. Historically, how has WayForward been able to balance between happy/cuddly/cute worlds and darker more violent fare? Are some teams focused more on different styles? Is there a lot of cross-pollination?

AT: Yeah, there’s no real consistency. I think every director at WayForward has done their share of all-ages kid games and darker fare as well. At WayForward, our guiding light is to go after the kinds of brands that excite us, and craft gameplay that feels like the best fit for each brand. That said, I think if you look at the kinds of games that WayForward developed back in the early 2000s versus today, we’re now moving away from kids games for the most part, other than kids brands that we personally love (like Trollhunters, TMNT, or Adventure Time) and most of what comes out from our studio as we head into 2022 and 2023 will be mostly action game brands or original titles aimed mostly at older gamers.

NWR: WayForward has made a variety of side-scrolling games. What makes Betrayal stand out from the rest of WayForward's library?

AT: BloodRayne Betrayal is one of our most complex and nuanced games in terms of character mobility and combat flow. It takes more getting used to than many of our games to really master the combat and mobility, but the payoff is one of the most aggressive, satisfying playable characters we’ve ever built for a game. And of course, it goes almost without saying, but BloodRayne Betrayal is the bloodiest game WayForward has ever produced. We even developed a dynamic fluid blood system for the game to accommodate all the gushing red that sprays from Rayne’s enemies in the game.

NWR: One of the new features of this remaster is that you brought in veteran BloodRayne voice actors Laura Bailey and Troy Baker as Rayne and Kagan, respectively, to provide voice work. Was said voice work ever planned for the original?

AT: It was briefly discussed, but back then we were still really getting our legs under us for VO work in games. Nowadays, it’s pretty much expected for any major WayForward title. And though we had quite a bit of VO in our Batman game on Wii a few years earlier, that was all recorded via WB, so we didn’t really know how to spearhead VO ourselves as a studio yet. It was fantastic to get Laura and Troy involved with this game, though, especially because Rayne and Kagan were two of their earliest performances in video games. And the game always had plenty of dialog, it was just text-only. Hearing that dialog fully voiced now, it’s hard to even remember the game without it, it’s such a natural addition.

NWR: How did that collaboration come about for the remaster? I imagine it took a little practice to get back into character for them—BloodRayne 2 was in 2004, after all!

AT: Not for pros like them! Within about a minute each, Laura and Troy found those voices again. We’ve worked with each of them a few times over the years and they never fail to impress us. We were also lucky enough to fill out the VO cast with Patrick Seitz and Todd Haberkorn, two of our favorite and most frequent voice actors, and they did a great job as well voicing all of the game’s minor characters.

NWR: I think when most people—myself included—think back on BloodRayne Betrayal, they think of two things: the jaw-dropping 2D animation and the absolutely brutal difficulty. I’m excited to see how good the game looks on modern HD displays, but I do have to ask whether you’ve tweaked the toughness at all. I recall the original crossing the line from “this is really hard, but doable” to “this is frustrating and masochistic” in several places.

AT: Yeah, we have. We’re not afraid of putting a brutally tough video game out there, but we’ve been told by some fans over the decade since Betrayal was originally released that a few areas felt so tough, they just weren’t that fun, or had become a huge dropoff point for people unable to complete the game. So we tweaked a few of those areas, and also slightly adjusted Rayne’s health and damage values, for what felt to us like a fairer gameplay experience. That said, all of these adjustments are on a toggle in the menu. So if you want to play the game with none of those changes, just as tough as it always was, that’s still an option for gamers.

NWR: Any tips for getting a good grade in each stage?

AT: You’ve really just gotta get into that perfect flow of combat and mobility. My advice would be to watch speedruns of the game on Twitch or YouTube, see what gameplay methods those experts are using, and try to learn some of those yourself.

NWR: Aside from the voice work and HD-ified graphics, any other bells and whistles you can tempt us with in this remaster?

AT: The added VO, HD visuals, and difficulty adjustments were the major adjustments, beyond console-specific features such as HD Rumble on Switch and Activities and DualSense controller features on PS5. We really didn’t want to tinker with too much because we still feel the game is great as-is, so we tried to limit adjustments to areas of clear benefit. I can say that there is a physical edition of the game planned with some very cool bonus items, though, so keep an eye out for that.

NWR: One of the nice things about the ten-year gap between the original release and now is that Betrayal will undoubtedly find a new audience. Might this be the first in a franchise resurrection? My favorite dhampir’s only been in three games, and I was surprised Betrayal never got a successor.

AT: Cross your fingers! It is not lost on Ziggurat and WayForward that there hasn’t been a new BloodRayne game since Betrayal. If the response from gamers toward Fresh Bites is positive, we would all love to work on more, brand-new BloodRayne adventures in the future. As for bringing WayForward’s older, licensed catalog games back to life, we gave a similar treatment to Double Dragon Neon this past December. And there are a few more beloved, classic WayForward games currently being updated for modern consoles, but you’ll have to wait and see to find out more on those…

Well, color me intrigued. I'm pretty thrilled that the difficulty's been revised, but even happier that it's a toggle.I also really look forward to hearing voice acting; I had actually misremembered that the original release did not have it. Fresh Bites drops on September 9th, ya'll; I'm excited to revisit it. Thanks to Adam Tierney and WayForward for granting us this fun interview!

TalkBack / Axiom Verge 2 (Switch) Review
« on: August 11, 2021, 09:00:00 AM »

Once more unto the Breach, dear friends!

It’s hard to believe it’s been six long years since Tom Happ gifted the world with Axiom Verge, a game I’ve since played through several times on several different systems. Essentially summarized as Super Metroid by way of Contra with a surprisingly heavy, sci-fi story, Axiom Verge has been living, rent-free, in my brain since its release. It’s not perfect, and the best version is, surprisingly, on Wii U, but if you’ve managed to avoid playing Axiom Verge over the last half decade, you should correct that mistake. Since the sequel was announced in an Indie World Showcase from December 2019, my frothing anticipation has only increased. And now it’s here, and I’ve played it, and it’s wonderful.

You won’t be controlling Trace in Axiom Verge 2, but instead a woman named Indra who finds herself transported to a parallel version of Earth that’s seemingly been overtaken by machines. The game’s most immediate differentiator is the change in scenery: whereas Axiom Verge 1 took place largely in dark, subterranean caverns, the sequel is content to show you the surface of the planet—a planet that is not, in fact, Sudra. Another big change is that Axiom Verge 2’s focus is not on combat, but exploration. Indra will find a handful of melee weapons and a couple projectile attacks, but nothing compared to the overabundance of imaginative firepower from the previous game. Instead, you’ll quickly be able to grab ledges, climb walls, and perform an impact attack that damages enemies and destroys cracked walls.

In addition to finding a steady stream of ability-increasing items, Indra will also find “Apocalypse Flasks,” which are analogous to skill points. You can customize her abilities using these vials for increased damage, health, and hacking potential. Once Indra finds a drone, it receives its own line of upgrades. As in Axiom Verge 1, Indra will also come across health upgrades here and there.

There was plenty of drone gameplay in Axiom Verge 1, especially once Trace gained the ability to warp to the drone’s location. In this sequel, the drone is essentially Indra’s co-star, as it can—and must—travel to an alternate map that runs parallel to the main map called the Breach. Oh yes, the Breach—the abstract storm between worlds that kept the Rusalki from killing Athetos in Axiom Verge 1—is now traversable. The Breach plays like an entirely different game, as the drone has its own suite of abilities (including a grappling hook) and the level design is tighter and more compact. The Breach has a unique aesthetic that I really enjoyed, complete with catchy chiptunes (the whole game has great music).

Most of the game’s upgrades have to do with exploration, drone abilities, or Breach exploration. I also haven’t touched on another key aspect of Axiom Verge 2—hacking. The first game presented players with the Address Disrupter, which pixelated enemies in order to change their behavior. Here, Indra can “infect” any mechanical object, mobile or otherwise, and have direct control over its subroutines. As you sink skills points into your infection ability, your powers grow. Indra can cause platforms to move, doors to open, or enemies to work for her. Many larger enemies have multiple parts to infect, and at higher levels you can effectively cripple your foes. The drone can also infect, which adds another layer to combat.

Indra won’t come across any traditional boss fights, but there are plenty of larger mechanical monsters to defeat, and doing so provides Apocalypse Flasks. These fights can be tense if you’re not well prepared, but upgrading your infection abilities makes them considerably easier.

You may be wondering about the sequel’s story. There’s not much I can say without edging into spoiler territory, but it does eventually link to the plot of Axiom Verge 1—just not in the way I expected. While I really enjoyed the connection to Axiom Verge 1 and the parallel story of what’s going on in this alternate Earth that Indra’s exploring, I found Indra herself to be underdeveloped. Part of it is because there’s not as much dialogue in Axiom Verge 2, but another part is that I miss the character portraits of Axiom Verge 1, where I could really get a good idea of what Trace looked like, and his expressions during story segments. In Axiom Verge 2, characters speak using word balloons and character portraits are passé. As a result, I didn’t feel as connected to Indra as I did to Trace.

The game is gorgeous, with big outdoor environments and lively backgrounds. It’s one gigantic map now rather than being subdivided into distinct areas as in the last game. Before too long, Indra gains the ability to warp between save points, which is something I asked for specifically in my Wii U review, and I’m thrilled it’s been implemented here. Wayfinding and item cleanup is still something of a bear, however: the map doesn’t mark where items are or what has already been found. You do have a “reminder” mark for the map, and I recommend using it. Among the very first things Indra finds is a compass, but I did not find it particularly helpful. It will point you toward waypoints (which you tend to get through dialogue) but it will often point you towards things you can’t get to for a long time.

My only other real complaints about the game has to do with Breach-jumping. To get in and out of certain areas of the game, you’ll have to pay a good amount of attention to the structure of the Breach vs. whatever area Indra is in. In some cases, you’ll have to manipulate Breach portals. This led to a lot frustration later in the game once I knew where I had to go but couldn’t figure out how to get there. I’ll just say this—when in doubt, use the Breach Attractor. There are still a few Apocalypse Flasks that I’ve no idea how to obtain, but I’m sure the Internet will have a guide up in no time.

Axiom Verge 2 is a fantastic evolution of Axiom Verge 1—it feels like a different game, but with enough gameplay and story connections to remain familiar. My issues with the protagonist and wayfinding pale in comparison to the addictive exploration and beautiful vistas that Axiom Verge 2 revels in, and I can’t wait to speculate wildly about the storyline.

TalkBack / Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! (Switch) Review
« on: June 30, 2021, 08:24:00 AM »

You stare into the void, and the void stares right back.

Visual novels are usually pretty far afield from my wheelhouse. When I do encounter them, they’re typically broken up by gameplay segments featuring bouncy ninjas or meta-joke-wielding cyber goddesses. I remembered hearing, however, about Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) back when it was originally making the rounds on Steam—a visual novel with a psychological horror twist—so I raised my hand when the review code came in. I’m certainly glad I did: DDLC starts innocently enough, but quickly descends into disturbing places, and I am here for it.

The setup is simple enough: you are needled into joining an after-school poetry club by your longtime friend and next-door neighbor, Sayori. The club is presided over by a girl named Monika. In addition to Sayori and Monika, there are two other members, Yuri and Natsuki. For the most part, this is a visual novel through and through: you’ll be pressing the A button a lot to move dialogue forward while various character portraits cycle to indicate who’s talking. After each story sequence, everyone will “go home” to write poetry to share the next day, which is where the bulk of DDLC’s gameplay takes place.

You’ll be asked to choose twenty words to incorporate into your poem (you never see the finished product). Your goal is to woo one of the three club members—Sayori, Yuri, or Natsuki—and each of them likes different kinds of words (you cannot romance Monika). The narrative will move forward when you show off your poem the next day. You’ll occasionally be asked to make choices that further affect the story, like whom to spend the weekend with.

All three roads, however, eventually lead down a dark path. Without getting too far into the weeds, all three classmates start acting strangely, and you’ll start seeing some interesting glitches that bring to mind something like Eternal Darkness. Part of the game’s structure is in restarting or loading up saved games, and this is where you’ll likely be introduced to DDLC’s meta-game: a virtual desktop. Here, you can view unlocked character portraits and music tracks, as well as gaze into the “game’s” file directory—another important aspect of gameplay.

I must admit I was surprised and lowkey disturbed by how far DDLC goes in terms of character arcs. To give you some idea of where you’ll be headed, one character eventually reveals that she’s spent most of her life depressed and hits you with something of an emotional hostage situation. Another of the girls starts interpreting your interest in her (via poetry) as infatuation and responds in kind.

DDLC definitely has a “what is reality” vibe that kept me interested, even as I found myself having to restart to move the narrative forward. Despite the restarts and reloads, DDLC is quite short. Thankfully, this version of the game also includes a few side stories that get you more familiar with your fellow club members, should you want to spend more time with them before things go sideways.

Doki Doki Literature Club doesn’t disappoint as an off-kilter visual novel. If you, like me, tend to avoid this genre, you might consider DDLC as an exception to the rule if you can handle some disturbing content.


This game has charm to spare, but that only goes so far.

Just over two years ago, my colleague Jordan Rudek reviewed this quirky little platformer and enjoyed it overall, but had some criticisms that made me hold off on dropping the hammer on purchasing the game. Since that time, we’ve learned that developer Christophe Galati parted ways with original publisher Nicalis, in part because they just wouldn’t let the man patch his own game because it didn’t sell well enough. Harsh toke, Nicalis! We’ll also since learned that Nicalis isn’t the best company to associate with anyway. Anyway, Save Me Mr. Tako was de-listed from all storefronts following the split, and Mr. Galati partnered up with Limited Run Games to release this enhanced, some might say definitive, edition of the Brave Little Octopus.

This version offers some improvements to the previous build. Perhaps most importantly, Tako now has a life bar: he can take two hits while retaining his hat, will lose it on the third hit, and will perish on the fourth. Tako’s hat-loving otter friend (I assume he’s an otter) will occasionally give you hints as to where to find other hats as well. You can swap the game’s difficulty at any time in a specific house in the Octopus Village. Mr. Tako wears its Game Boy influence on its sleeve, and there are a dizzying array of Super Game Boy color schemes and screen borders to choose from. If you don’t want to constantly mess with color selection, you can simply select “Auto” to let the game choose the color for you based on Mr. Tako’s location. There’s also a music player, should you feel the urge to relive the game’s many upbeat tunes.

If you’re unfamiliar with the life and times of Mr. Tako, here’s the general story: octopuses and humans are at war. Tako’s warmongering brother, Bako, is leading the eight-limbed army and he expects his younger brother to fight alongside him. Mr. Tako, however, does not have hate in any of his three hearts and rescues a captured human girl from Bako’s men. Tako then follows the army’s relentless march, rescuing humans they’ve captured, and generally gets involved in their plans of conquest and in the lives of various humans along the way.

In practice, the game unfolds a bit like Kirby’s Adventure: each “level” takes place in a small “overworld” map, within which appear numerous doors to specific stages or towns. These stages represent Tako’s movement from one story beat to the next but can be revisited at any time to find any important items (mostly captured humans) that you missed the first time through. Stages generally maintain that Kirby feel, with simple platforming, enemies to avoid, and the occasional off-the-beaten-path secret to find. Tako collects gemstones, one hundred of which earns him a 1-up. Extra lives, which look like feathers, are also judiciously sprinkled throughout each level. You will never be short on lives, which was another quality of life improvement of this Definitive Edition, as it sounds like the original game limited you to 9 lives.

Being an octopus, Mr. Tako can fire ink blobs at enemies that will freeze them in place, allowing him to use them as platforms to reach higher ground. Our hero does have a semi-limited supply of ink in his squishy body,  but he can find ink refills with some regularity.

In addition to his ink shot, Mr. Tako will come across a variety of hats in his travels. Hats grant our hero alternate attacks (mostly), like an ink blob that’s more like a Super Mario Land Super Ball, a short-range whip (really just his arm), archery arrow, or enemy-stunning flower “creep.” Some hats have no effect on Tako’s moveset and function as quest items. Tako will eventually find a short-range sword that actually kills enemies rather than freezing them in place, which can be handy in some situations but may limit your ability to move vertically in any given stage. Thankfully, Tako can equip two hats at once and switch between them by pressing X. He can also change hats at checkpoints, should a lengthy stage have one. There are a whopping fifty hats to try and find, although many of them are superfluous.

My biggest problem with Save Me Mr. Tako is that you’re mostly doing the same thing in the 30th stage that you were doing in the 3rd stage—the only real difference is how long the stage is. There are rare instances of taking control of another character, and while these segments provide a nice change of pace, these characters, regardless of species, still have an ink meter. When you play as humans, the hitbox is still based on Mr. Tako, which leads to some hilarious cases where the human’s head disappears into the ceiling during a jump. They also don’t necessarily endear you to the characters you’re controlling. Another issue is that there’s really no way to keep track of your quests, which are numerous and easily forgotten. Certain hats (like bombs) may help to progress in certain quests, but it’s never really spelled out as neatly as I would’ve liked. For the most part, you’ll going to want to keep a notepad by your Switch for writing these things down. Quest completion tends to reward you with gemstones and extra lives with the occasional new hat thrown in for good measure.

The plot is interesting to a point, but there are so many subplots, story tangents, and side characters that it just starts to feel like padding. The story is at its best when pitting Tako and Bako against each other.

The game wears its Game Boy inspiration on its sleeve and has a flawless aesthetic. Everything about the production, from the pixel art and color selection to the catchy chiptunes, will make you think you’re playing a lost Game Boy game. Christophe Galati really knocked it out of the park. I just wish the gameplay was a little more interesting! Despite my misgivings, I really do enjoy Save Me Mr. Tako, and if you’re nostalgic for the golden age of handheld gaming, this game absolutely delivers in spades.

TalkBack / Shantae Series Interview with Matt Bozon
« on: April 27, 2021, 03:35:48 PM »

Matt answers Zach's burning questions about Shantae's humble GBC origins.

Today, the original GBC Shantae game gets a long-awaited re-release on the Switch. I just posted my review of the plucky heroine's maiden adventure, and I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to bother Matt Bozon, the Shantae series director and WayForward's creative director, with some questions about that landmark game. Thanks to Matt, of course, for entertaining my fanboy ramblings; it's always a pleasure.

Zach Miller (ZM): Could you talk about Shantae's origin story? Where do she and her charismatic castmates come from, and how was that original GBC game made? It's quite a technical feat for the GBC.

Matt Bozon (MB): Shantae’s story begins in 1994 with my wife Erin, who came up with the character and game concept following our time together as animation students at CalArts. It was all about a hair-whipping, belly-dancing genie who could ride animals and summon magic. It sounded really fun! I helped out by fleshing out the world and the cast, introducing Risky Boots, Rottytops, Sky, and Bolo. We got help from programming legend Jimmy Huey, who helped pitch the game around to various publishers. It wasn’t until a few years later, when all three of us were working together at WayForward, that Shantae was greenlit for production, this time reimagined as a Game Boy Color game. After getting our feet wet with Xtreme Sports, which was our first GBC title, we moved straight into development of Shantae. We worked on the game for about two years, with other team members joining as needed. As for the technical wizardry, Jimmy found ways to get more tiles, extra colors, and even the illusion of parallax scrolling and translucency out of the GBC through a variety of programming tricks, somewhat blurring the lines between GBC and the Game Boy Advance. Compared to similar games of the era, I think it’s still pretty impressive!

ZM: I know that Shantae's overworld and basic dungeon layout is inspired by Zelda II and Castlevania II (or at least, I have always assumed), but the animal transformations are wholly unique. The closest analogy I can think of is Super Metroid, but even that feels wrong. Where did that originate, and how did you decide on her animal forms/powers?

MB: Erin loves animals and dancing, and the idea of Shantae combined both. Her earliest designs had Shantae riding the animals, or sending them off on tasks based on their abilities. Players could take control of a monkey to collect out of reach items, ride an elephant to bash down barriers, or summon a tiger that could leap over long pits. Later it changed to having Shantae belly dance to transform herself into the animal forms directly, which eliminated the need to backtrack or swap between Shantae and her animal friends. Erin also wanted a heroic lead that didn’t rely on a traditional gun or melee weapon, so she came up with the hair-whip attack, inspired by the TV show I Dream of Jeannie!

ZM: Shantae's original publisher was Capcom; I've always wondered if you have to get their sign-off to continue the series without their involvement or re-publish the original game on 3DS and Switch? Did they ever entertain a sequel?

MB: Capcom focused mainly on the game’s distribution. So there were no set expectations for the series moving forward. But Capcom did entrust us with a Dolphin development unit sometime around 2002 in hopes that we could come up with a Shantae GameCube sequel. We did some very early exploration into this idea, but ended up focusing on Shantae Advance instead. GBA was where most of the work-for-hire jobs were coming from and, as always, we had to find creative ways to keep the lights on! So, unfortunately there was no second Shantae title with Capcom, though we have enjoyed a wonderful working relationship with them ever since!

ZM: Was it challenging to port the game to 3DS or Switch? I seem to recall hearing that Risky's Revenge had to be basically rebuilt for mobile, which was then ported to modern systems. I have to assume porting a 20-year-old GBC game would be just as difficult.

MB: We were very fortunate to have Limited Run Games handle the porting, and they entrusted the task to Dimitris, aka Modern Vintage Gamer, who knocked it out of the park. There were definitely technical challenges that I’m sure he’d be able to explain – but some challenges were in knowing which of the game’s little quirks were legacy bugs or exploits versus things that needed “fixing.” The quest is vast, and while working with him, I’d sometimes remember something from the original production that never was in the final product. Between Dimitris, WayForward’s QA team, and myself, we were constantly returning to the original cartridge, counting frames, checking for oddities, looking under different reflective light sources (remember, light bulbs were usually yellow, or burning-hot halogens – not LEDs – when the original game was color balanced). The original game had a very limited release back in 2002, and really has never been exposed to a large audience – returning only once in 2013 to Virtual Console. So in many ways I feel that the game is about to be put through its paces for the very first time by a wider audience! I’m really looking forward to hearing what new fans think of the original game.

ZM: I was kind of floored when I heard that Limited Run was actually making new GBC carts of the original game. How did that amazing idea come about? I didn't even think GBC cartridge parts were being made anymore (lord knows I preordered it immediately).

MB: I don’t know how they pulled that off, but we were similarly shocked to hear that this was even a possibility. It seems like it would be prohibitively expensive, especially considering that Shantae required the biggest cartridge available. But it would still be orders of magnitude cheaper than finding one of those original cartridges, new in box or even used. So, our hats are off to LRG for pulling this off!

ZM: One thing that I've (personally) appreciated about the Shantae aesthetic is that the character designs trend towards older "good girl" art (I'm thinking of guys like Gil Elvgren or George Petty) while also being more cartoony than either. Was that intentional or am I off my rocker? The series has also seen a lot of variety in character art--do you have a favorite? Has her "look" stabilized in this Half-Genie Hero/Seven Sirens era?

MB: Wow, that’s a very interesting question. Growing up, those artists could be seen all over the place, but no, I don’t believe there was any direct influence. But we did create Shantae’s look to be highly posable while retaining a strong silhouette, much like the artists you mentioned. The art style was really sort of a hybrid approach – we developed our own unique style, but there were plenty of influences from anime and manga. Some examples include Dirty Pair, Ranma ½, Outlanders, and Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, and there were many others as well! Right now, it’s hard to say if there’s one go-to Shantae style. Erin and I both often consider Half-Genie Hero’s portrait and box artwork to be the most “evergreen” of the designs. But the interpretations by Studio TRIGGER have been flavoring a lot of our decisions recently, too. Honestly, Shantae translates to varying art styles pretty nicely, so there’s always room for a new look!

ZM: It's also just a great time to be a Shantae fan. Apart from the games, there are T-shirts, a vinyl record, an upcoming art book from Udon, pins, some CharaGumin garage kits, and I'm probably forgetting a few things. Anything coming down the pipe that we can look forward to?

MB: Of the new products on the way, the Art of Shantae book from Udon is definitely a big one, collecting 27 years of artwork into one truly massive tome! We searched every nook and cranny for Shantae artwork, early designs, and even ideas that never made it into the games. Shantae fans will not want to miss it! We’re also working on a free update to Shantae and the Seven Sirens to open up a few more play options, as well as new merchandise. Shantae fans have been great at voicing which kinds of products they’d like to see, and we try to listen to everything! We know that fans would like to see more figures, manga, or even a show, so we’ll do our best to make as many of these dream projects come true as we can!

Well there you have it folks. Personally, I'm thrilled that somebody other than myself remembers Outlanders, which, along with Caravan Kidd (both from Johji Manabe) strongly influenced my own character designs. As always, thanks to WayForward and Matt Bozon for getting this fun interview together. If you're not aware of that Shantae art book from Udon, you are now. The publication date has slipped a few times no thanks to COVID, but it's currently slated for a June release. And hey, check out Shantae, which hit the eShop today. It holds up!

TalkBack / Shantae (Switch eShop) Review
« on: April 22, 2021, 09:12:41 AM »

What a long, strange trip it's been.

Shantae, our favorite half-genie hero here at Nintendo World Report, has come a long way during her 18-year history. You can play through that entire history now from the comfort of your own Switch, as every Shantae game is on the eShop. This is something of a miracle by itself, as the series spans several disparate systems: Shantae on Game Boy Color, Risky’s Revenge on DSiWare, Pirate’s Curse on 3DS, Half-Genie Hero on Wii U (and other concurrent systems), and finally Seven Sirens on current platforms. Of those five games, it’s still the original that’s the hardest to find. It had a legendarily-low print run on the GBC, published by Capcom, who sat on it and until the Game Boy Advance had been released. Shockingly, it was not a big seller. Consequently, that cart is now one of gaming’s Holy Grails.

Miraculously, Shantae was digitized for the 3DS Virtual Console back in 2013 and I heartily recommended it back then. Limited Run Games is the publisher on this new remaster, and they’re going all-out: in addition to this digital version, they’re publishing a physical Switch cart and, by some black magic alchemy, they’re reproducing functional Game Boy Color carts. As if I needed a better excuse pre-order an Analogue Pocket.

Well, I guess I mean TRY to pre-order an Analogue Pocket. I think we all know how that turned out (spoiler alert: poorly).

With the entire series under my belt, the original Shantae game is nothing if not incredibly interesting. So many aspects of this series have continued onward, virtually unchanged, while other things have been significantly streamlined or dropped entirely. The exploration, in particular, is a little rough—traversing the long, horizontal overworld takes a long time and the large sprites take up a lot of real estate. You can’t see too far ahead or above you, which results in a lot of cheap hits or accidental deaths. Shantae loses a life when she falls into a pit or lands on spikes. This happens more than it should, so feel free to lean hard on the game’s save state feature (quick tip for the first dungeon: by holding down Y, Shantae can run across small gaps).

Transforming (and warping) is accomplished through dancing, but it’s a slower, more deliberate process that I’m glad has since been changed. Here, you press X to start dancing, then press directions and/or the A & B buttons in time with a beat to produce a result. It’s workable, but it’s kind of bothersome, especially if you don’t get the timing right. Thankfully, each animal form gets a workout. The monkey can climb up walls, the elephant can destroy environmental obstacles (and kill most enemies quickly), the spider can climb up many "background" walls, and of course the harpy can fly.

The original game also features a day/night cycle which reminds me a bit of the Light/Dark worlds in Metroid Prime 2: getting around at night is generally harder because enemies deal more damage and take more hits to kill. However, you’ll only find Fireflies (this game’s collectable de jure) at night, and collecting all fifteen Fireflies lets you access a new healing dance that’s actually not all that critical once you’re in the endgame but probably nice to have.

The game’s four dungeons, however, are a joy. They’re tightly designed and, while floor plan maps would’ve been nice, aren’t so large and sprawling that you’ll get hopelessly lost (although I did manage to get turned around too often in the ice dungeon). You’ll also find five Warp Squids per dungeon, and you can deposit four in each of the game’s five towns to learn a warp dance. This becomes critically important later in the game during item cleanup. There’s a dance parlor in Scuttle Town where Shantae can earn gems by essentially playing Dance Dance Revolution, and a dice game in Oasis Town where she can win big bucks by essentially gambling on dice rolls. Unlike the GBC Pokemon Trading Card Game, the outcome is not fixed so you can game the system by leaning on save states and win every match. The dice game is the only practical way you’re going to earn enough money to buy all the items and attacks. I was tickled to notice that your opponents in the dice game are the same characters who eventually return, for more dice-based shenanigans, in Pirate’s Curse.

Oh yes, Shantae is the only game in the series that gives Shantae new offensive melee attacks, including a jump kick, diagonal drill kick, and elbow charge. These attacks simply do more damage than her standard hair whip, and can be situationally useful, but aren’t totally necessary, especially the elbow charge, which takes forever to charge up and can be dangerous depending on where you are. The game also contains a few challenge caves which are traversed with specific items, many of which make their only appearance in this game, including the Vanish Cream, Float Muffin, Twin Mint, and Greedy Jar.

There is a little bit of jank in this port, and I can’t tell if it’s because the GBC game felt this way or it’s been introduced: The dance timing seems a little muddy, but also using items (by pressing up + Y) never feels natural, and only seems to work half the time. I would have preferred a dedicated button for item use. There are some nice new features here, though: you can select the GBC or GBA enhanced versions of Shantae: the enhancement is brighter and includes an optional Tinkerbat transformation that you can and should buy from Bandit Town, as it streamlines exploration. This essentially gives you two different save files to swap between, and both allow up to three save states apiece. There's also a lovely gallery of concept art from the game.

I did encounter a bug during my playthrough: in the ice dungeon, there are “barrel cannons” (for lack of a better term), and sometimes they just didn’t activate, which stops your progress. However, I found out that reloading from the last save point (don’t forget to save often, folks) as opposed to my last save STATE, fixed the issue.

The original Shantae is a lovely little game that too few people were able to experience, so I’m thrilled that it’s available for mass consumption on the eShop. Franchise fans should, of course, jump on this as soon as humanly possible, but folks curious about the series or who just want some GBC nostalgia will enjoy it too.

TalkBack / What the Dub?! (Switch eShop) Review
« on: April 06, 2021, 09:22:26 AM »

This game is really (missing audio).

I’m a big fan of the Jackbox games, which are often a staple of my (now rare) game nights. I’m also a connoisseur, as I suspect many of you are, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax. For those unaware, MST3K and RiffTrax are old, usually sci-fi, movies with essentially a running commentary of jokes from three comedians. What the Dub, from Wide Right Interactive, combines these two things into an excellent party game. Like the Jackbox titles, everyone will need a smartphone or tablet, and it supports up to twelve players.

Here’s the setup: everyone watches a short clip from an old movie, PSA, or educational film. Each of these clips will have some dialogue to give some context, and then there will be some obviously-missing audio. The clip ends, and each player looks down at their smartphone. You have 45 seconds to type something funny onto your phone. Once everyone has done that, the game plays each clip with the player’s entries added with text-to-speech automation. After all variations are shown, players vote on which one they liked the best (you cannot vote for your own clip). The more people vote for your entry, the more points you get. By default, there are only five rounds so games go pretty quickly.

The clips are usually excellent setups for jokes and it’s impossible not to get the whole room laughing as the clips are read out. What the Dub is short, uncomplicated, and easy to love; my friends and I really enjoy it. It’s kind of like Cards Against Humanity, but with movie clips.

There are some caveats that are smartphone specific, however, and these have also affected my experience with Jackbox games. First, if your phone goes to sleep at any point during the game, you will be kicked out of the round. You can jump back in by re-typing the room code, but it’s always jarring when it happens. If you’re going to play What the Dub (or any smartphone-assisted party game), turn off Battery Saver and do whatever you have to do to keep the screen on the whole game.

I do find that 45 seconds is not enough time to come up with, and type out, a real zinger. It wasn’t just me with this opinion--all of my friends brought up the time limit. Thankfully, What the Dub does provide a few options, including setting the number of rounds (from 3 to 10), extending the input time (to an impressive 112 seconds, although nothing in between), and even applying a curse word filter. That 112 seconds sounds like a lot, but since the game stop counting down as soon as the last person is done typing, it's not a big deal.

The only other hiccup, which probably can’t be helped, is that if your dub lasts longer than the original clip, the clip will (hilariously) simply freeze until the automated speaker stops talking. This can sometimes lead to some awkward lead-ins if there’s original dialogue after your entry, but can also be used to humorous effect. Of course, like any text-to-speech system, typos and misspellings will be read as normal, so check your work before you send off your entry (if you have time).

What the Dub is a great little party game in the tradition of the Jackbox series, and it will definitely see a lot of play at my house thanks to my own predilections.

TalkBack / NeoGeo Pocket Color Collection Vol. 1 (Switch eShop) Review
« on: March 31, 2021, 02:49:31 PM »

A fun, if somewhat redundant, collection of NeoGeo Pocket Color games.

I was pretty excited when SNK started porting NeoGeo Pocket Color games to the Switch, starting with fan favorite SNK Gals Fighter, because this was a system I completely missed. I imagine that’s the case with many of you, as the NeoGeo Pocket and Pocket Color couldn’t compete with Nintendo’s Game Boy juggernaut. The little rectangular handheld was known for its surprisingly adept handheld versions of SNK’s arcade fighting games, and in fact for a while, that’s all SNK was porting to the eShop. We’ve already reviewed many of them (see below), and I must admit I was getting tired of fighting games. They’re all good, quality handheld fighters, but do start to blend together. Surely the NeoGeo Pocket Color had more to offer?

Well, SNK just published the NeoGeo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1, a compilation of ten NGPC games—which unfortunately includes all six of the fighting games you might have already paid $8 a pop for over the last year. The remaining four titles run the gamut from just plain bad to very enjoyable. You can check out our reviews for Fatal Fury: First Contact, King of Fighters R-2, SNK Gals Fighter, The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny, and SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium for the verdicts on those—I’ll just touch on the games that are new to me and the added bonus features of this collection.

Samurai Shodown! 2 is, like the other fighters, a surprisingly competent portable version of an arcade series that, unfortunately, never really clicked with me. This game has one of the biggest casts of the NGPC fighters, and like Gals Fighter and The Last Blade, SS!2 has a strong grinding-for-collectibles aspect: you can earn what are essentially trading cards featuring character art, and these can be equipped to character to give them specific buffs or new attacks. Unlike the more freeform style of King of Fighters, SS!2 is more of an offense/defense dance, looking for opportunities to strike and deal as much damage as you can while rebuffing your opponents. It’s more methodical, but not really my thing.

Metal Slug: 1st Mission is incredibly fun, arguably moreso than it has any right to be. Missions are short, and you’ll spend a good amount of time in the Metal Slug itself, along with its air-based counterpart (which I refer to as the Sky Pop, don’t @ me). The two Metal Slug games benefit greatly from the rewind feature that’s standard to all of these ports. I found the Metal Slug itself difficult to control, as it was weirdly difficult to get the canon back to a forward direction after shooting up or behind me. Due to the limited number of buttons, there’s some awkwardness in swapping from your gun to grenades with the “+” button, but otherwise there’s not much to bag on here.

Metal Slug: 2nd Mission, which might be the most unimaginative sequel title I’ve ever seen, is even better than the first. The backgrounds are more vibrant and detailed, there are more enemy types, and individual stages are longer and, often, more complex. SNK must have realized that people didn’t like switching attack types with the “+” button, because here they’ve just made the “+” button for throwing a grenade; it’s a surprisingly elegant solution. In addition to the tank and Sky Pop, you’ll also take command of a submarine (which I refer to as the Marine Pop, don’t @ me), which launches depth charges upward instead of firing torpedoes forward. The Marine Pop stages aren’t great, though, as they rely heavily on ocean currents to force you around. The Metal Slug is still awkward to control, but they’ve made its segments a little more forgiving, with more health pickups to grab. Again, that rewind feature will get a workout here.

Dark Arms is just a bad game. Nothing is really explained (even the instruction manual is frustratingly cryptic), and I had to use a FAQ to understand what I was supposed to be doing. Basically, you are trying to find, upgrade, and level up various weapons by running around killing monsters. Unfortunately, this just amounts to traversing small areas filled with enemies and using your weapons to kill them, then applying the enemy’s “soul” (or something) to the weapons to level them up and, eventually, evolve them. There’s a threadbare story, but Dark Arms is a chore to play through. While there are some interesting ideas here, it’s just not worth the frustration, and definitely the low point in this collection.

Big Tournament Golf is basically the handheld version of the excellent 1996 SNK arcade title of the same name (or this slightly different name). I’m never able to resist the siren song of video game golf, and was pleasantly surprised by this handheld adaptation, even though it’s about as bare-bones as you can get (Mario Golf for the Game Boy Color, it ain’t). I also take some issue with your overhead field of view, which can be hard to read because it’s so brutally pixelated. I did appreciate being able to choose my shot type, which helps as many of these courses have unusually sinuous layouts. Apart from the green, holes lack any sort of topography, which takes some enjoyment out of the driving game. Perhaps because of this, Big Tournament Golf relies on ambient wind and an overabundance of sand traps to slow your progression. This is another game that benefits enormously from the rewind feature: if your shot isn’t going where you want, you can generally rewind just enough to get back to aiming, before you take a swing. I’ve never hit so many birdies in my life.

The usual features from the solo releases are retained here—digitized instruction manuals, multiple NeoGeo Pocket Color skins to choose from, and the glorious rewind feature. A few new wrinkles are added as well: a few of the NGPC skins are of the original, non-colorized, Pocket, which gives some of these games an interesting look (although not available for every game). You can also see 3D models of the games’ boxes, cases, and even cartridges, which I was quite taken by. Alas, my usual complaints are unaddressed—still no system-level moves list to display during the fighting games, and, related to that, instruction manuals don’t save where you left off. If I’m playing as Mai Shiranui and can’t access a moves list, at least let me go right to her page in the instruction manual! I also maintain that the Joy-Con and Pro Controller’s stick is not a great replacement for the NGPC’s clicky stick for pulling off special moves with any consistency in the fighters.

Two-player local play is still a blast, but some multiplayer features are necessarily left out of the collection, including card-trading in Samurai Shodown and a player-vs-player mode in Dark Arms.

You’re getting a lot of good games in this collection—Dark Arms seems to be the edge case here—and if you don’t have any experience with the NeoGeo Pocket Color, this is probably the next-best way to experience its library. I’m still a little annoyed that it’s so fighter-heavy but that arguably tracks with SNK’s arcade output. Assuming we get a Volume 2, I’d love to see Rockman Battle & Fighters (an NGPC version of Mega Man: The Power Battle and Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters) and SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters’ Clash, a digital card game that predates Match of the Millenium. Since I assume somebody had to get a signature from Capcom to include Match of the Millenium in this collection, I’m hoping they’d be open to ports of those other two games in the future. Even if you’ve already bought some of the NGPC fighters by themselves for Switch, I’d recommend this package to have everything in one place, and you’ll get a couple of excellent Metal Slug games and a surprisingly fun little golf game.

Best part is that I don’t have to try and find a working NGPC in good condition anymore.

TalkBack / Cathedral (Switch eShop) Review
« on: March 03, 2021, 09:51:31 AM »

Shovel Knight x Metroid

Cathedral, a new eShop game from rookie developer Decemberborn, is in a bit of a tough spot: the eShop is already filled to the brim with Metroid-like sidescrollers with retro graphics—in fact, Neal Ronaghan already did a video about some of the better ones, and I know for a fact that more are in the pipeline. The challenge for Cathedral is to provide a unique experience that will cause it to rise above its competitors. Does it succeed? Yes and no.

Cathedral is what would happen if Shovel Knight and Super Metroid had a baby. You take control of an unnamed knight who, based on his death animation, seems to be an empty vessel akin to Alphonse Elric. The knight begins the game traversing the titular Cathedral, but quickly finds himself in a much larger world with an open floor plan. His goal is to travel to each of the realms and find four magical orbs that will open a doorway to another dimension where a great evil lurks.

Metroid-likes live and die by their level design, and I’m happy to say that Cathedral nails this aspect of the genre, with interesting platforming segments, environmental puzzles, and rewarding re-traversal. Visiting old areas with new equipment almost always pays off with a hoard of treasure, a new piece of equipment, or both. Interestingly, Cathedral has something of a Shantae-like structure: each major overworld area has its own dungeon to conquer and boss to fight off. The knight will find several types of equipment in his travels: armor buffs, new swords, equipable items (which act like Zelda dungeon items), and magical scrolls.

The scrolls are, perhaps, Cathedral’s most obvious point of divergence from its Metroid-like brethren: although you’ll find a wealth of scrolls, only three can be equipped at a time, and they can only be swapped out at Soul Shrines, which are relatively rare. Sometimes the effect is fairly benign, like upping your damage at low health, while others seem more crucial, like applying a double-jump. It’s an interesting take on what, in other games of this ilk, would probably be persistent effects, and I’m not sure I liked it. The knight also has a ghost-like friend who can be summoned with a shoulder button and briefly controlled in order to activate switches or collect gold and ammo. Often, however, the implementation felt half-hearted, as though it was intended to be a more important gameplay mechanic that was de-emphasized during the course of development.

If this rose has any particularly sharp thorns, they mostly have to do with combat and overall difficulty. Combat is unending, which is exhausting, and each enemy has to be dealt with in a specific manner. Cathedral combines the combat fatigue of Metroid: Samus Returns with the required precision of something like Hollow Knight. The knight has precious few resources: a standing attack, a downward thrust, a shield, and a crossbow-like gauntlet. Starting around the third major overworld area, though, enemies start doing significantly more damage while your armaments largely remain static. Several of the knight’s upgrades don’t have a combat component, so it rarely feels like you’re actually becoming more powerful. Extra heart containers are rarely found. You’ll die all the time, and checkpoints don’t feel consistently placed, leading to some areas being fairly forgiving, death-wise, while others more punishing.

The map is vaguely helpful in that it shows doorways, checkpoint statues, and soul shrines. You can also mark specific points of interest, which helps cut back on fruitless re-traversal. I’m unclear on why so many Metroid-likes are unwilling to implement the system in Metroid: Zero Mission, with one icon to denote the presence of an item, and another to show that you found the item and don’t need to come back. Axiom Verge has this problem, too.

Apart from the combat/exploration imbalance, I’m a little disappointed that Cathedral looks as generic as it does. Maybe I’m just getting tired of the “indie sidescroller with retro graphics” aesthetic, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate interesting character designs or backgrounds and tilesets. This is something Hollow Knight has in spades, and one of the reasons I liked that game so much. Cathedral never really sets itself apart, although it’s clearly going for a Shovel Knight vibe. In that it succeeds, but Shovel Knight already exists. The music, similarly, sounds altogether too familiar and loops a bit too quickly. Cathedral is a game without a strong sense of identity.

Cathedral is a fine Metroid-like in terms of level design, but I just can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t hit the balance between exploration and combat—the latter so often gets in the way of simply enjoying the former. If you’re a big fan of the genre and are itching for a fresh take, Cathedral is a fine choice that, for the most part, gets it right. Just expect to get tired of fighting your way through every room.

TalkBack / Azur Lane: Crosswave (Switch) Review
« on: February 23, 2021, 10:09:35 AM »

I hope you like text.

Guys, you know I like me some fanservice-heavy anime girl video games. I haven’t played a good one in awhile, though, and Senran Kagura: Peach Ball barely counts. I was hoping that this little number, Azur Lane: Crosswave would fill my quota, but alas, ‘twas not to be. I’ll just have to wait until Pyra & Mythra hit Super Smash Bros. Ultimate next month. As for Azur Lane, the concept is a bit of a mystery to me, but there’s just not much in the way of actual gameplay.

The Azur Lane franchise is kind of a strange beast: it takes real-world naval vessels from around the globe and reimagines them as…“Shipgirls.” While the original Chinese mobile game apparently used the Boatbroads to teach World War II history, Crosswave has its own story which imagines the Dinghydames inhabiting their own world, being attacked by alien Lifeboatlassies called “Sirens.” The Terran Catamarancougars (okay, I'll stop) are divided among four nations based on the United States, Britain, Japan, and Germany. They’re all named after real world naval ships which, if nothing else, has taken me down an incredibly interesting Wikipedia rabbit hole as I both learn about these vessels and struggle to understand why the associated Shipgirls look nothing like their real-world counterparts.

There’s probably more to the story, which is a shame because I cannot be bothered to sit and read through all of it. Azur Lane: Crosswave is 75% visual novel, 10% menu navigation, and 15% actual gameplay. I will occasionally groan at how chatty the Senran Kagura games get, but they’ve got nothing on the extended conversations between multiple characters in any given Crosswave sequence. The game really needed fewer characters and/or a more impactful storyline; I will admit that at a certain point, I just started fast-forwarding through the dialogue, pausing only to look at whatever new Shipgirls were introduced (there are a lot of them).

It’s a real shame that there’s so little gameplay, because the gameplay is actually pretty fun. You recruit a team of Shipgirls (the roster expands as you go) and arrange them into a “front” group, whom you control directly, and a “rear” group, who apply buffs. When a combat encounter starts, you control your three front ships as though you were playing a third-person action game, activating attacks as your weapon reload timers fill up, aiming at large background vessels (which are actual battleships), smaller attack boats, and aircraft. Different classes of Shipgirls (battle cruiser, aircraft carrier, etc.) have different weapons—some specialize in torpedoes, others on aircraft, and still others in fast, but low-damage guns. You’ll usually also encounter between one and three rival Shipgirls to take out.

However, most encounters last less than two minutes. In fact, you’ll get a better grade if you can win an encounter within 120 seconds—a goal that is never out of reach. Winning matches earns you points to spend on the recruitment of new Shipgirls and materials which you’ll use to improve your arsenal. You can also replay fights in order to grind for loot. By grinding, you can severely overpower your characters, which will make you wish there were more fights and that they lasted longer.

When you’re not listening to never-ending conversations or engaging in Shipgirl skirmishes, you’ll spend a lot of time navigating menus. You can spend zenni and blueprints on new weapons at a store or power up your existing weaponry using parts earned in fights. I found this process largely frictionless, although the game doesn’t always give you a good idea of what some of these items ARE. Weapon titles within the same class are often difficult to tell apart at a glance. I realized that if you’re going to swap your Shipgirls in and out of your front line roster, you’ll probably need multiple copies of most weapons so that you’re not constantly swapping equipment..

Crosswave, however, doesn’t exactly encourage you to utilize your full Shipgirl fleet. You can run the whole game with three Shipgirls who you like (although it helps if the three are of different classes). Shipgirls level up upon winning battles, but experience is given so readily that you can swap in a low-level Shipgirl and she’ll be on par with her higher-level peers in just a few fights. In between conversations, you can scroll around the “world map,” which changes between story chapters, to find containers full of materials, optional story sequences, and optional fights. And that’s the whole game, folks. It’d be nice if the Shipgirl fights were more visually interesting, but Crosswave looks a little too much like a mid-tier Playstation Vita game for my tastes. All of the dialogue is fully Japanese, which is something (and also diagnostic of most Vita games).

On the other hand, Crosswave already features Neptune from the Neptunia franchise--and I have to assume that the other Goddesses will move in eventually. That’s probably not enough to keep me coming back, though. If you like anime-based visual novels, you might get something out of Azur Lane: Crosswave. For me, though? I like a little more “game” in my video games.

TalkBack / Gal*Gun Returns (Switch) Review FAQ
« on: February 16, 2021, 08:51:59 AM »

Less is more.

If you good readers would like some past examples of this unique format, check out these recent reviews. Generally, when I find a traditional review is not coming together, that’s a pretty good indication that the FAQ format will be a good fit, as has happened here. For a little more homework, you should at least skim my review of Gal*Gun 2 from a few years ago. Now then…

Hey Zach, I hear you’ve been playing a new game.

Indeed I have, voice in my head. For some reason I decided to fall on the Gal*Gun Returns sword for the benefit of all our lovely readers.

Okay, that’s a little surprising.

How come?

If I recall, Gal*Gun 2 made you want claw your eyes out.

Oh man, did it ever. It crossed a very specific line—ogling and poking the bodies of young, high school-age girls eroded my soul. The shooting gallery stuff, where you shoot incoming amorous women with your “Gal Gun” was silly but mostly harmless, but holy lord, the more focused leering and vacuuming up their clothes? Kill me now.


Thankfully (?), Gal*Gun Returns is a far more vanilla, but more tolerable, game. Hilariously, Returns is a remake of the original game, developed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Gal*Gun franchise.

Is that even warranted?

That’s a very good question! The Gal*Gun saga primarily involves three games: Gal*Gun, Gal*Gun: Double Peace, and Gal*Gun 2. There’s also a VR game that I assume nobody played. My guess is that we’ll eventually get Double Peace on Switch, but yeah, this ain’t Nep-Nep.

Okay, well…how is it?

Thankfully, it’s not nearly as cringe-inducing as either Double Peace or Gal*Gun 2. You’re doing three things in Returns: shooting gallery segments, an early version of Doki-Doki Mode, and unique minigames depending on your paramour (see below). The shooting gallery is the same as it’s always been: you wander through school in first-person, shooting down love-struck girls. As you scroll the reticle up and down their slender frames, you’ll be able to see their weak points, and shooting their weak points puts ‘em down immediately. You don’t aim with the Joy-Con, you use the sticks, which works fine. Teachers (who are thankfully visually differentiated by outfit) take a lot more ammo to take down OR you can just hit Doki-Doki Mode and satisfy them that way.

Oh god here we go.

I know, but the saving grace here is that Doki-Doki mode is not nearly as exploitive as in Gal*Gun 2. Outer layers don’t fly off and the girls are not as…vocal while you shoot them in certain areas. But you’re still scanning their bodies and shooting them in the back, groin, butt, boobs, neck, and face for maximum “ecstasy.” If you linger too long on a particular body part, she may cover up, forcing your wandering eye to drift to other potential targets. Anyway, you fill up her “love meter” and that will detonate an “Ecstasy Bomb” that will hit all the girls onscreen so it’s kind of your “super attack.”


I know.

Is that it? Is that as bad as it gets?

Yes, thank Arceus. You have individual stats (intelligence, athleticism, fashion, and horny*) that will shift around upon completing a Doki-Doki attack. The goal is to get all your stats to 100, so you’ll want to save your specials for teachers, who generally raise most, if not all, your stats, while younger targets may lower one or more.

*rubs temples*

One thing that differentiates Returns from its sequels is that you’re asked, at the outset, to choose one of four girls to pursue in your quest for true love and you’ll then often find yourself in conversations with that girl. Sometimes you’ll be asked a question, and you only get three responses which broadly fit into three categories: squeaky clean, playing it safe, and horndog. If different responses affect the story, I couldn’t tell, and I don’t really want to find out by playing this multiple times. Each girl has a particular story arc, which is nice (I guess) and character-specific minigames.

What are the minigames like?

Well, in one, you have to hold a ladder while the object of your affection selects books from a library shelf, and you have to balance keeping her up while occasionally letting go to grab books. In another one, you have to quickly select a pose that she calls out (out of three choices) and then fight drowsiness by shooting sheep before they reach the other side of the screen. A later game has you trying to free your girlfriend from a cartoonish cage (or, in another, a plant monster) before she’s abducted, which was surprisingly hard to do. I actually enjoyed the minigames but there aren’t enough of them. You’ll spend 80% of your time in shooting gallery segments.

Anything else?

Once you beat the game, you can mess with the costumes of the students, teachers, and the four main girls. There’s even a bunny suit costume, which you can bet your bottom dollar I activated immediately. Beating the game also earns you zenni which can be used in a Gallery mode on concept art. There’s a ton of concept art, but that means you’ll have to play through game many times to unlock it all, which I’m not sure I’m willing to do. One thing that makes me chuckle about these games it that I’m pretty sure they all use the same assets: the school setting is the same between games, the girls don’t really look any different, the music rarely (if ever) changes, and the animations are canned and repetitious. They’re mostly differentiated by their dialogue/dating sim components, minigames, and degree of creeptastic voyeurism.

I’m still finding it hard to get past Doki-Doki mode since almost all the characters are very young.

Maybe you shouldn’t play it. However, if you can put yourself in an academic, emotionless state of mind, there really is some fun to be had, arguably moreso than in Gal*Gun 2. But you do have to wade through some…questionable…content.

*Horny is not an actual stat, but you wouldn’t be surprised, would you?

TalkBack / Re: Red Colony (Switch eShop) Review
« on: January 31, 2021, 02:19:53 AM »
What up, FrenchDog85! You bring up some fair points--I'll respond to everything in red.

Disclaimer: I have not played this game nor necessarily plan to.  And this isn't meant to bash the author of this review (at all, truly).

That said, and I realize these are likely typos as well, but the following sentences also have glaring errors:

"Everyone is, whether they want to or not, is developing a new hobby during the COVID pandemic." One is or the other would work; not both.

"I quickly learned that guns aren’t actually necessary to battle the undead, which is probably for the best since ammo is relatively scarce despite it being illegal to have in the Red Colony." 

Despite is an odd choice... The fact that it is illegal would be the reason it is so scarce.  Using the word despite would make more sense if ammo were abundant in the colony yet you couldn't find enough.

Good point on both! I'll fix 'em!

"Shut up, B*TCH, I’m talking! I’m gonna die, Maria. DRUNK IN MY F*CKING OFFICE while I watch your big t*ts and curvy-ass BODY…F*CK MY LIFE! You’re SO GOD DAMN HOT! If James hadnt shown up, I would have given you the world!"

I'm trying to find the typo... Only typo I can see would be the missing apostrophe in "hadn't".  Or a lack of a space after the "..." before "F*CK".  Obviously it isn't fully coherent sentences, but it's a drunk person's rambling.  And I'd guess the all CAPS is for emphasis, not accidental. 

I dunno, most of the game feels like this. Lots of unnecessary cursing, typos, awkward phrasing, etc.

I guess in short, it wasn't the example I'd have used.  I trust that there are many other horrible things in the script... And I do not mean to flame the author truly.  Just juxtaposing his review with the one bit of script from the game posted.

Okay, here's the intro loading screen text:

"As I sat there angry in the park and dressed up for a night out with Jill, I felt my anger slowly faded away as the alcohol replaced it with excitement. We were about to celebrate the 100th Anniversary on the Colony. All of the sudden, everything went black...I woke up in a warehouse and the Colony was no longer the same..."

I mean...that needed another pass.

Also, I personally don't see anything glaringly wrong with the art in the one photo posted (other than obviously the proportions are intentionally not natural, like in most anime tropes).  If that's the only issue, many games have fault there!  Most are intentionally trying for non-realistic proportions...  I'm no aspiring artist though, and like what I see  ;D

You can have unnatural, cartoony proportions with better art. Senran Kagura is my usual go-to, or Dragon's Crown, but I just mean that the art either needed more time in the cooker or a different artist.

Also, what was the origin of the virus (asked above) so I don't have to play a broken game hahaha! it is. I honestly love this. It's so out of left field and swings for the fences!

About 100 years ago, the first generation of Mars colonists found a raptor, in perfect condition. How is that possible, you ask? Well it turns out that Earth and Mars used to be one planet, but 50 million years ago (which, by the way, is 15mya after the nonavian dinosaurs went extinct), Planet X (or an astroid) collided with Earth/Mars and split the planet in two! Even though the impact killed most of the dinosaurs, some dinosaurs survived on Earth and Mars. for a short time.

When Earth and Mars was still one planet, its gravity was 50% lighter, its atmosphere 40% thinner, and its land mass 30% bigger (which is not how planets work). And the reason you can't see this today is because planets tend to shape themselves into spheres over time. On Mars, though, the scar is still visible--the Valles Marineris canyon system. Sure, why not?

Anyway, the evil scientist wanted to clone a dinosaur from the perfect specimen found on Mars. Chickens and rats infused with raptor genes became very aggressive. Eventually they injected a human (like you do). The raptor gene affected his amygdala to the point where all rational thought disappears. In fact, the rest of the brain shuts down. But then people attacked by the dinosaur people also develop dinosaur symptoms. It was released into the Red Colony by a spy from the BLUE Colony. And so here we are.

TalkBack / Red Colony (Switch eShop) Review
« on: January 29, 2021, 09:19:00 PM »

A new champion has arrived.

Eagerly have I been anticipating this day, dear readers; some of you may recall DS game I reviewed in 2010 called Homie Rollerz, which I held aloft as the pinnacle of terrible game design. Since that day, I have, in the back of my mind, been waiting for its successor, a game so abysmal, so offensive, so achingly droll that it gains the sort of cult status only reserved for films like The Room and Plan Nine From Outer Space. Red Colony, my friends, is that game. It has no redeeming features, no low-budget charm, and no higher expectations of itself. It is the kind of game you’d expect to play while the Rifftrax or MST3K guys provide commentary.

In Red Colony, you take control of a scientist (?) named Maria, a woman who seems to have been drawn, according to my wife, in Microsoft Paint. Maria is animated like a marionette and is smartly dressed in short shorts, high-heel boots, and a bright red crop top. Her basketball-sized breasts bounce stiffly with every step she takes—a step cycle that is unbalanced, so she always appears to be limping. Even when she’s not carrying anything, she appears to be holding a gun.

Maria is on a quest to find her daughter and escape a zombie outbreak by limping through 2D environments. Sometimes, in order to avoid the undead, Maria can crawl on all fours under a table, looking down--instead of forward--as she does so. She’ll open a lot of cabinets and find all manner of items, many of which are not fully explained, and others which are 3D printing supplies used to craft things like…guns and ammunition, because firearms are banned in the Red Colony. Borrowing a page from Resident Evil, Maria can only save her game if she finds a USB stick (one save per stick). Every time Maria moves between rooms or up and down stairs, there’s a short cutscene of her moving into the new area. This cutscene does not take her current health status into account.

Many lockboxes and doors require codes, and the codes are almost always, conveniently, right next to the locked door. The codes are always four characters long. In one room, for example, a kid’s action figure collection, for some reason, has the numbers 1-4 written next to certain figures. On the other side of his room is a computer. Guess what his password is?

I quickly learned that guns aren’t actually necessary to battle the undead, which is probably for the best since ammo is relatively scarce. Rather, the solution to every encounter is to stab a few times, run a few feet away, and repeat until the zombie dies. If Maria is attacked by zombies, her health is shown by the condition of her clothing but here, rather than looking slashed or bloody, Maria’s fragmenting garments appear to be slowly fading away, molecule by molecule. Senran Kagura still leads the pack in the "torn clothes that still look good" category.

Though her daughter is seemingly always just out of reach, Maria will come across several friends and frenemies in her short adventure. One of her friends and colleagues, Jill, is what older generations might call a “loose woman” and is frequently inebriated. Maria's kid’s nanny, Emily, has apparently been sleeping with Maria’s husband, which leads to a lot of, shall we say, “charming” back-and-forth between the two of them. The game does contain a good amount of dialogue, such as this Pulitzer-winning passage spoken by Maria’s friend (?), Alan, who appears to be dying:

"Shut up, B*TCH, I’m talking! I’m gonna die, Maria. DRUNK IN MY F*CKING OFFICE while I watch your big t*ts and curvy-ass BODY…F*CK MY LIFE! You’re SO GOD DAMN HOT! If James hadnt shown up, I would have given you the world!"

Go home, Jane Austen, you've been outclassed. And this is nothing compared to the venom spewed between Maria and Emily. The asterisks are mine, of course, but that typo is in the game. Typos, awkward phrases, subject/verb disagreement, and inconsistent tense are all constant companions throughout Red Colony. I read some exchanges aloud until I realized that doing so caused my English degree to visibly decay. Too real, Red Colony. More than anything else, perhaps (although read on), this game needed a competent writer. We’re not that hard to find!

Speaking of writing, though, the high point of Red Colony occurs when Maria finds her way back to the lab, in which the frankly incredible backstory of the zombie virus is revealed. You don’t need any other part of Red Colony, only this explanation; I may have found a new religion based on the ideas presented here. Check the TalkBack thread if you want to full story.

We’ve discussed the awkward gameplay, paper doll graphics, and award-winning script, but I still need to talk about Red Colony’s biggest feature: the bugs, which easily outnumber the zombies. There are some real charmers, like the occasions when, upon entering a new area, Maria would demonstrate a new superpower: levitation. She would levitate for several seconds, moving left and right along the ceiling and phase through walls, as if blown by an invisible wind. Not all were so entertaining, though. During my first playthrough of the game (yes, there were multiple), I realized about halfway through that I didn’t need guns, and so I attempted to start a new game since there aren’t multiple save files, but this merely returned Maria to the game’s first room, but all of her collected items were intact. All doors and cabinets were already unlocked, but spent ammo had not been returned.

I decided to trudge on, getting through the rest of the game in one sitting—it’s absurdly short—and never saving my game. Unfortunately, I reached a what might be a bad ending (maybe there's a good ending) or simply a poorly-executed ending, and attempted, again, to start a new game. Once more, Maria was cast back to the first area, all of her equipment intact, but her clothes—and therefore health—in tatters, the result of that ending. Alas, I was unable to actually USE any healing items or save my game. It was as if Red Colony was being selective as to what it did and did not reset. Even picking up new health kits and USB keys didn’t allow their use. I allowed Maria to be attacked by a zombie just to see if Red Colony would go the Senran Kagura distance (it does not) and then found myself unable to continue.

I couldn’t go back to a save file because I hadn’t saved in the previous run, and attempting to start another new game immediately took me back to the “you died” screen, where I could only attempt to reload my save. It was like a programming version of Orobouros. I eventually had to delete the game and reinstall.

I also can't avoid talking about the graphics. The backgrounds actually look surprisingly good and varied, but the character design, I mean good lord. Just look at that screenshot (above). Everyone is, whether they want to or not, developing a new hobby during the COVID pandemic. Mine happens to be teaching myself to draw pinup art. You know, the kind of art guys like Gil Elvgren did so well. It's hard, I'm used to drawing extinct reptiles, so human anatomy is completely alien. But looking at the art in Red Colony has given me a boost of confidence. I'm doing pretty well.

Red Colony very much feels like a first draft of a game, from graphics, to script, to programming, that was somehow released on the eShop as a finished product. This would be like buying a puzzle, finishing the border, and declaring it completed. Frankly, I’m not sure how anybody could look at this game and think it was ready for prime time. If the bugs weren’t there, it might get by on its “so bad it’s good” appeal, but in its current state, it’s a disaster. Homie Rollerz, you finally have some competition.

TalkBack / Double Dragon Neon (Switch eShop) Review
« on: January 17, 2021, 02:10:00 PM »

Double the Dragon, double the fun.

The brawler genre has seen an uptick in popularity these last few years, the most notable examples (in my opinion) being the absolutely superb River City Girls from WayForward & Arc Systems Works and Streets of Rage 4 from Dotemu and Lizardcube. Both sequels updated the graphics and gameplay, while maintaining the spirit of their respective franchises. It’s a tough needle to thread, but I think both efforts were successful. Back in 2012, which seems like a different geological era now, WayForward partnered with Majesco Entertainment on a similar modernized reboot of the forgotten Double Dragon series: Double Dragon Neon. That game never came to the Wii U, but has now hit the Switch. How do Billy and Jimmy Lee stack up against their newer compatriots? Pretty well, in fact, as long as they’re both in the mix.

There’s a lot to love about Double Dragon Neon, maybe nothing moreso than the overwhelming ‘80s aesthetic, from the brother’s high-fiving buffs to the early detour into space and the game’s big bad, Skullmageddon, who bears more than a passing similarity to a certain cartoony Eternian overlord. There’s even a boss fight that reminds me of the multi-part Technodrome battle from the original NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. Unlike typical coin-op brawlers, Neon tries to keep you more engaged with dodge and duck moves (but no dips or dives) that, when timed correctly, refill your special meter and give you very temporary boosts to your attack power. When both brothers are brawling, they can initiate high-fives to cause various buffs or debuffs (don’t leave a bro hanging, dudes).

Additionally, enemies will often drop mixtapes, of which there are several varieties divided into two main types: stat effects (stronger defense, quicker stuns, e.g.) and special attacks (fireball, super powerful short-range punch, a dragon spirit, e.g.). One of each can be equipped at any time. Collecting multiple copies of a given tape strengthens it, up to ten copies. But wait, defeating bosses will net you Mythril, which can be used to pay a “Tapesmith” to further increase your tape limit. Players are encouraged to revisit previous stages to stock up on mixtapes and Mythril, and I can attest that is a great idea.

The brawling itself is fairly simplistic: Billy & Jimmy have punch and kick combos, including jumping attacks and crouching attacks. Stunning enemies allows an uppercut, and following that up with a ground-pound defeats most standard foes. You’ll also find weapons (which quickly break) and barrels to throw. Soda pop and batteries recharge your health and special meters, respectively. The trick here is that Double Dragon Neon almost requires you to get really good at dodging and ducking. Even low-level baddies can take off surprisingly hefty chunks of your health, so evasion is critical for success. I had a hard time getting the timing down on dodging—the window for a successful dodge is quite brief, so expect to take some hard knocks while you learn the technique.

Dodging complaints aside, Double Dragon Neon is great fun for two players (locally), especially if you and a friend really enjoyed those other two brawlers I raved about. As in River City Girls, if one bro dies, the other has a decent amount of time to revive him (using a patented ‘80s maneuver) before anyone loses a life. You can also stock up on extra lives (fairly cheaply) at shops--although you can only buy so many. I suspect, though, that two-player mode may be the only way to really enjoy Double Dragon Neon, as I found the game more frustrating than fun by my lonesome. It’s easy to get ganged up on by yourself, and boss fights especially become wars of attrition. Powering up your mixtapes definitely helps (I would argue it’s required for solo play), but that just means you spend most of your time grinding for mixtapes, Mythril, and moolah in already-completed stages and dumping a lot of money on extra lives.

The game looks fine, although you’ll see a lot of palette-swapped enemies. Personally, I prefer the pixel art of River City Girls or the amazing hard-drawn art of Streets of Rage 4, but the 3D models of Neon are clean and animate well. I’d also be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention the soundtrack by Jake Kaufman; there are some real toe-tappers in here, and a real departure from his Shantae and Mighty Switch Force tunes.

If you can get a friend on the couch with you, Double Dragon Neon is a big, dumb, fun dose of 80’s nostalgia.

TalkBack / Fatal Fury: First Contact (Switch eShop) Review Mini
« on: January 05, 2021, 02:43:19 PM »

There were other NeoGeo Pocket Color games, right?

Back in its day, the NeoGeo Pocket Color received portable versions of all of SNK’s flagship fighting franchises, including King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, and The Last Blade. It even got a cute spin-off, Gals Fighter. The first of these portable adaptations, though, was Fatal Fury: First Contact, and it’s the theme of today’s NeoGeo Pocket Color port for Switch. To be clear, it’s very cool that any of these games are getting Switch ports at all—the NGPC is not a system that was widely adopted in any territory, but especially in the West, because it was competing with the Game Boy Color. However, as we’ve already seen a handful of NGPC games on Switch, it has to be said that First Contact doesn’t live up to its predecessors.

I say “predecessors” somewhat ironically, because while First Contact predated its cousins on the NGPC, it was somehow pushed to the back of the line on Switch, and thus many of the fun extras we’ve seen in King of Fighters R-2, The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny, and SNK Gals Fighter are missing here. Granted, there are a couple of unlockable characters but nothing beyond that. It's single player fights, two-player fights, and options.

The cast has some new faces compared to Gals Fighter and KOF R-2, though, drawn in the same charming Chibi style that we’ve become accustomed to. I’m again impressed by how well these games control, although I found super moves and “Evasion Attacks” unusually hard to pull off. Evasion Attacks appear to be Fatal Fury’s attempt at a parry, though, and I appreciate the chance to change up the usual fighting gameplay. One major difference from “past” titles is that each single-player run takes much longer, as you fight every other character. I’m oddly impressed by the backgrounds in this game, although they’ve been great in all of these NGPC fighters (especially The Last Blade).

The usual overlay features are still here, as is the single-system two-player mode. There still isn’t an on-screen moves list, although even a passing familiarity with the usual SNK fighter directional combos will serve you well here. Otherwise, there’s a big beautiful scan of the game’s manual for you to consult (just write everything down somewhere). While I remain tickled that these NGPC ports even exist, though, I am beginning to long for different things, especially since these fighters all look more or less like the same game.

TalkBack / Re: Super Meat Boy Forever (Switch eShop) Review
« on: December 30, 2020, 11:25:47 PM »
I'm glad you do! I go to this format when a traditional writeup isn't coming together.

TalkBack / Super Meat Boy Forever (Switch eShop) Review
« on: December 30, 2020, 01:31:00 PM »

Wear a helmet.

I was struggling to draft this as a traditional review, which usually means the FAQ format is a better fit; it is, so here we go.

Hey, oh my gosh, is Super Meat Boy Forever finally out?

First of all, hello. Second, I can hardly believe it either, but yes, the long-awaited sequel to Super Meat Boy Forever is finally here. As you may or may not know, it was announced way back in 2014 and began its life as a mobile version of Super Meat Boy, but after Edmund McMillen left Team Meat to pursue other projects, the game was kind of in limbo until 2017, when development restarted. And now, at the bitter end of 2020, it’s ready for prime-time.

You liked the first game, right?

Man, I love the first game to death. I reviewed it when it splattered onto the Switch back in 2018 and I still revisit it from time to time to try and beat stages that I couldn’t back then. Super Meat Boy is agonizingly hard at times, but it’s always fair, and the mechanics are perfectly splendid.

...was that a Haunting of Bly Manor reference?

Yeah, sorry, my wife says it all the time now.

Is the sequel just the same game, but new levels?

In fact, it’s quite different. You can tell the game had mobile roots, because it’s an auto-runner.

Let me stop you right there.


You mean like Robot Unicorn Attack and Jetpack Joyride?

I do.

Oh god.

No no, it’s not that kind of auto-runner. This one has more things to do than just jump or move up and down to avoid obstacles. Sometimes you have to wall jump or punch things or slide. And this one has actual level design! Of a sort.

What do you mean by that?

The levels are procedurally generated.

Oh come on.

Hey, I was skeptical too, but you’d be shocked at how well the components slot together. Each stage is clearly loaded with specific “chunks” that are strewn together, so each individual chunk works exactly as intended. You’re never going to come across a random buzzsaw menagerie that’s cobbled together in such a way that it’s impossible to get through. It’s not that kind of procedural generation. This is actually really cool and super impressive. Plus, although any given Forever stage is much longer than a typical SMB 1.0 stage, there’s a checkpoint before every “chunk” of that stage, so when you inevitably die, you won’t be sent back very far. That said, there are certain chunks that last a bit too long and repeating them dozens of times can get frustrating.

How do Meat Boy’s new moves factor into this?

Super Meat Boy--and Bandage Girl, who is playable from the start--have the jump and wall-slide from the first game, but can now do an air-punch/dash, a crouch/slide, and a dive. The air punch extends the length of your jump and can also punch enemies, the crouch/slide lets you duck beneath obstacles and knock out ground-based enemies, and the dive lets you navigate tight downward paths. Often, all of these abilities will be combined to create some impressive feats of platforming prowess.


And that’s not all--most stages have at least one new mechanic to tinker with, from movable walls to items that let you air-dash backwards, or dimension-hopping warp portals. Most of the new things are one-and-done, so they don’t overstay their welcome. And then there are the boss fights.

Ooh, I remember the boss fights being hard but pretty doable in Super Meat Boy 1.0.

They’re tougher overall here. For the most part, they rely on your ability to (1) figure out how to do anything; and (2) get into a set rhythm and never screw up, which is a tall order as some of these boss fights go on quite a while. The final boss (before the credits, anyway) almost made me quit the game; it required such precision and perfect timing that I was just worn out by the end. Usually, defeating a difficult boss gives you a great sense of accomplishment, but I just felt like Team Meat was being mean-spirited here. I died 284 times on the final boss.

Uh...git gud?

No man, screw that. I subscribe to the Jonny Metts theory of game difficulty: there’s a difference between dying but learning something and dying because you didn’t press the buttons in an incredibly specific sequence with unreasonably good timing. If the player, who is usually very good at Meat Boy, is dying 284 times on your final boss, something’s wrong. Furthermore, so many of these challenge chunks throw the sort of “gotcha” crap at the very end that they become insulting. I just survived a ridiculous platform sequence with amazing timing and then I’m killed because you throw an unexpected enemy or buzzsaw at the very end? Basically, go back and read my review of Runner 3--it was written pre-patch, and that game had many of the same issues that Super Meat Boy Forever does. Despite the inventive procedural generation and good (overall) play mechanics, this game is just exhausting. It doesn’t respect your time.


It’s going to come down to how much patience you have for these sort of “masochism” platformers.

Are there a wealth of unlockable indy characters?

There’s a wealth of unlockable characters, but they’re all Meat Boy-specific, and they require you to collect pacifiers in addition to completing specific warp zones, sometimes by hitting certain goals, few of which are spelled out. Although to the surprise of nobody, the Internet already has tutorials about unlocking characters. And from what I’ve seen, none of the characters have unique abilities; there is no Forever version of Ogma, the double-jumping character in Super Meat Boy 1.0. I suspect that’s because unique abilities would screw up the tightly-designed obstacle courses that Team Meat has put together, so if you want to play as Dr. Fetus (spoiler?), go nuts, but it’s just an aesthetic choice.

You’re harshin’ my Meat Boy mellow, man.

I will say that when you do manage to find warp zones (watch for glitchy effects during a stage--it's nearby), they’re typically extremely inventive and surprising. They’re not just Meat Boy levels with retro graphics; they’re entirely different games, or plays on existing games, like a certain digitized fighting game or Mode 7 racing game. Similarly, the cutscenes in Super Meat Boy Forever are wonderful, well-animated, and often quite funny. Each level has an intro cutscene that is a parody of something--the intro cutscene is a parody of Super Mario RPG.

Is there still a Light World and a Dark World?

Yep, and the Dark World is still harder (and tends to have more pacifiers, of course).


This is definitely one of those “your mileage may vary” kind of reviews; your enjoyment of Super Meat Boy Forever will be determined entirely by your particular enjoyment of masochistic platformers. If you played Super Meat Boy 1.0 and thought “man, I wish this were way harder,” Forever may be just what you’re looking for.

TalkBack / Jurassic World Evolution: Complete Edition (Switch) Review
« on: December 01, 2020, 02:27:00 PM »

They're moving in herds. They DO move in herds.

I don’t think it will surprise too many of you to know that my favorite movie is Jurassic Park. I saw that tour de force at the tender age of 10 with my aunt and that experience has largely guided my life decisions forever after. It’s a shame that no sequels were ever produced! Of course, Jurassic Park is no stranger to the video game realm, and while most of them have disappointing, a few standouts do exist (anyone remember "Trespasser?"). This, dear readers, is perhaps the purest realization of the Jurassic Park concept: building a dinosaur theme park. As somebody who normally gets bored to tears playing city/park management sims, I found Jurassic World: Evolution charming and engaging, thanks in no small part to the subject attractions, which will drive kids out of their minds.

In Evolution, you will eventually manage several distinct parks on five islands in the Muertes Archipelago. Each park has its own challenges, and you won’t be able to access them all right away. You’ll start on Isla Matanceros, and once you prove you can manage a successful park, you’ll get to take on Isla Muerta, and so on. As you unlock new islands, you’ll also gain access to more dig sites, building types, and research projects. Because of this, the game moves fairly slowly, but in a manageable way—you’re never overwhelmed, and there’s really only so much you can do on each island until you move on.

Effective park building involves balancing three essential assets: guest services, operations, and science. When you’re first spinning up a park, you’ll want to focus on cloning some interesting dinosaurs and building up some shops nearby to start pulling income. Once that’s done, you can build expedition and fossil centers, which will allow you to travel to real world dig sites to find more Dino DNA for more viable clones. Your research division can start looking at ways to improve your existing infrastructure or new facilities, or new genetic cocktails and medications for diseases. You’ll have to make sure you have enough power, which means setting up substations and pylons.

The dinosaurs themselves take some familiarity as well—each species has its own environmental preferences, as well as social needs. Struthiomimus, for existence, loves to live in as large a flock as possible, but while Dracorex also prefers conspecifics, it will become stressed out if it’s sharing a pen with too many other animals. Duckbill dinosaurs, like Maiasaura and Edmontosaurus, prefer wetlands while Triceratops likes grasslands. Ceratosaurus, a carnivore, likes grassland too, but requires a lot of territory to survey. In one of my parks, my Ceratosaurus pair occupies a pen that’s more than half the size of my “large herbivore” pen, which itself includes three Triceratops, five Edmontosaurus, and three Huayangosaurus, and they’re all perfectly happy.

Some dinosaurs simply don’t like living together—Velociraptor and Dilophosaurus, I learned, will attack each other immediately. Stressed dinosaurs have a tendency to break through their fences and go rampaging through your park, at which point you’ll have to tranquilize and transport them back to their pens…maybe after making improvements to it. One of your more important guest facilities is the Emergency Shelter, which you should activate whenever one of your assets gets loose. Some dinosaurs get stressed sooner than others, so it’s important to check in on your clones once and awhile—you never know if somebody is about to snap.

In addition to simply setting up your parks, you’ll have to contend with missions (“contracts”) supplied by InGen’s science, security, and guest services divisions. These missions range from extremely simple (collect a small herbivore fossil from a dig site) to long-term (get the Ankylosaurus genome up to 75%) to ridiculous (let a Huayangosaurus kill a Ceratosaurus). You can accept or decline missions as they come up, but getting in good with each division is the only way to unlock certain aspects of your park, be it new dinosaurs, new buildings and upgrades, or more research projects.

One way I was able to game the system a bit was by letting my most successful park do all the research whenever new research was available since they had money to burn.

Each park has a variety of challenges. While Isla Matanceros, your starter island, has a lot of real estate to play with, Isla Muerta is a bit more boxed-in, with a steep slope descending from the monorail entrance and lot of jungle to clear. I’ve been tempted several times to simply bulldoze the entire infrastructure and build it back up in a way that makes sense. Isla Tacano asks you to basically do just that—it’s the site of a failed park that you’re tasked with restructuring after starting in debt. There’s always some crisis that needs fixing. Some of the DLC is separate from the “main” game, accessible from the main menu, including “Claire’s Sanctuary” and “Return to Jurassic Park,” which have unique dinosaurs and missions and do not overlap with the main story.

Evolution has a helpful “Manager View” where you can see various aspects of the park in terms of popularity or need. Where would your guests like to have a bathroom, or something to drink? Do you have a building that’s simply not getting any foot traffic? Need to increase the staffing at your facilities to serve more customers? It’s very helpful, although there were times I felt like the island’s layout tied my hands.

There are a couple things I genuinely do not like about this game—unless you meticulously plan your power needs, it’s very easy to start overlapping your substations by accident, and I can’t figure out for the life of me if one substation routed to two separate power stations share the load. On Isla Muerta especially, where real estate is at a premium, figuring out the maze of power lines was a huge headache, and the game simply doesn’t do a good job of telling you exactly what each power station is powering exclusive of the others.

Similarly, I wish I could see a “grid view” of the island, which probably misses the point to some degree, but it would make infrastructure planning easier. The rate at which you unlock new things, and dinosaurs in particular, is a little on the slow side, especially when you consider that it takes multiple trips into the field and multiple fossils of varying quality to successfully clone a new dinosaur. On the cloning side, it’s unfortunate that adding various genetic cocktails often results in lower embryo viability, and that most cocktails require you to meet certain percentage benchmarks for a given dinosaur.

And how about those dinosaurs? You knew this was coming, so if you don’t care about dinosaur accuracy, maybe skip the next section (click those links for relevant papers)!

The Good

1. Almost all major dinosaur groups get fantastic representation, and include both popular (Tyrannosaurus) and obscure (Proceratosaurus) members.

2. Most of the herbivorous dinosaurs look great and are surprisingly accurate to what we think (in 2020) they really looked like. I was especially impressed by the shovel-beak and soft-tissue crest on Edmontosaurus, the massive crest on Tsintaosaurus, and the mere presence of Olorotitan.

3. I was also happy to see Torosaurus and Triceratops as separate animals, and the inclusion of relative newcomer Nasutoceratops, as well as classic ceratopsids Chasmosaurus and Pentaceratops.

4. There are lots of thyreophorans, including “Crichtonsaurus” (even if it should’ve been called Crichtonpelta), and Gigantspinosaurus, with its impossibly large shoulder spines. Ankylosaurus looks a little more generic than I’d like, but the surprisingly accurate Euoplocephalus makes up for it.

4. They even included two relatively new sauropods, the Cretaceous lawnmower Nigersaurus and the impossibly large titanosaur Dreadnoughtus, both of which are good choices given how completely-known they are.

5. The large theropods generally look good, and I was psyched to see Carnotaurus (my favorite dinosaur) and its one-horned cousin, Majungasaurus, included. You could argue that tyrannosaurs are under-represented, but the non-Tyrannosaurus tyrannosaurs, Albertosaurus and Proceratosaurus, both look great even if the latter should have downy feathers.

6. I was also generally happy with how well-scaled the dinosaurs were. Tyrannosaurus is significantly larger than Ceratosaurus, for instance, and Dreadnoughtus dwarfs everybody else except maybe Brachiosaurus.

The Bad

1. For the most part, the small theropods look awkward without the feathers we know they should have. I understand this is a Jurassic Park trope, but "Troodon" just looks weird without them. Similarly, the theropods should have medially-facing palms, not bunny hands—theropods could hold a basketball, but couldn’t dribble.

2. Some of the dinosaurs suffered from looking too similar to each other, for example Baryonyx and Suchomimus, Carcharodontosaurus and Giganotosaurus, or Chungkingosaurus and Huayangosaurus. Of course, each pair is from the same family, so it’s sort of understandable.

3. I had to chuckle that, while Triceratops and Torosaurus are kept separate—instead of one being a growth stage of the other—the same was not applied to the bone-headed pachycephalosaurs. Here, we have Dracorex, Stygimoloch, and Pachycephalosaurus as distinct animals when in reality, they probably form a growth series of the latter.

4. You’re all going to groan, but the dinosaurs that appear in the Jurassic Park/World films are those who suffer the most—now that we know that Spinosaurus was a semi-aquatic, newt-tailed, corgi-legged monstrosity, it’s hard to see the Jurassic Park 3 version as anything but silly. Sinoceratops, a horned dinosaur who you may remember from Fallen Kingdom and Camp Cretaceous, has holes in the frill that are visible externally. This would not be true of the real animal. This game's version if the famous Deinonychus gives it bizarre soft-tissue crests (it looks like a bipedal basilisk lizard) in an effort to differentiate it from Velociraptor.

5. It’s also a real shame that the only animal you can fill your aviary with is the godawful Jurassic Park 3 version of Pteranodon (which was, in fact, one of most fascinating giant pterosaurs). Pterosaurs are treated poorly in the Jurassic Park/Wold films generally, but I would have appreciated more pterosaurs in this game. Some of them were really weird, like filter-feeding Pterodaustro and antler-crested Nyctosaurus!

Jurassic World Evolution looks great on my TV, and while it’s perfectly serviceable in handheld mode, there’s definitely a graphical hit—everything looks much fuzzier. Depending on what scenario you’re playing in, you’ll hear some famous legacy voices, most notably Jeff Goldblum introducing the game and chiming in every now and then to give a warning about whatever the project division heads are suggesting. I really enjoy Jurassic World Evolution, despite my historical distaste for city/park sims. I’m sure this is mostly due to the dinosaurs themselves, but it’s also not overly complicated.

TalkBack / Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Switch) Review
« on: November 09, 2020, 09:09:35 AM »

Reap what you sow.

As we come to the end of 2020 (thank god), any gamer’s thoughts turn to their Game of the Year contenders. While it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to knock Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 off the throne, Sakuna: Of Rice & Ruin, is, at least, a close second (Tony Hawk also isn't on Switch). When I first heard of this game, it looked like a lovely combination of Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Harvest Moon. As it turns out, that’s not too far from the truth, and let me tell you--it works.

Princess Sakuna is a spoiled goddess who lives in the Mihashira Capital of the Lofty Realm with her friends with her fellow immortals. She gets in trouble with her mother, Lady Kamuhitsuki, when she allows a group of mortals from the Lowly Realm into the Lofty Realm, she is banished (along with the band of humans) to Hinoe Island and is charged with making a dent in the demon population and learning humility and responsibility by caring for her human charges.

The game is structured in terms of days and seasons, and Sakuna must balance exploring Hinoe Island, collecting food and other resources from each stage, and coming home to farm rice and feed her adopted family. In stages, Sakuna runs through side-scrolling areas of various sizes, finding things like manure, wood, copper ore, etc. and killing animals, which will drop meat and various other resources. Combat has a decidedly Muramasa flavor to it, with lots of combo-heavy swordplay. Sakuna has a hookshot-like Divine Raiment that can be used to maneuver between enemies, pull them towards you, debuff your quarries, and various other uses, which open up as the game goes on.

In addition to light and heavy normal attacks, Sakuna can assign special attacks to the A button (plus a direction), which can be powered up the more they’re used. One of her best tools is an attack that lets her smash enemies into other enemies, which can be chained together, creating a lovely domino effect. Overall, combat is simplistic but satisfying--the Muramasa comparison is apt--and it gets better over time as Sakuna gains new special attacks and Raiment abilities. Further, her compatriots will eventually learn to craft new clothing and tools that will improve Sakuna’s combat prowess. Different weapons have their own buffs, and you can attach new jewels found as you explore that will further buff your equipment. Even the buffs can be upgraded by fulfilling certain conditions.

Each stage has a number of goals to achieve, some of which are weirdly ambiguous or chance-based, and doing so will increase your “exploration” rate, which is how you unlock new stages to explore. That is, you won’t necessarily move forward by getting to the end of a stage, which takes some getting used to.

When you’re not killing rabbits, boars, and flying fish, you’ll master the fine art of rice farming. I was surprised by not just how fun the rice farming is, but also by how deep it goes. Sakuna will perform all sorts of farmyard tasks, including tilling the soil at the end of winter, planting rice seeds the correct distance apart in the spring, actively growing the ears in the spring and summer, then reaping the harvest, drying the rice, and threshing the seeds before winter. In addition to this, you’ll slowly learn how to maximize your field’s yield, catch and release helpful animals (like spiders and frogs), and--if necessary--watch the health of your crop. The more farming Sakuna does the better she gets at it, and she’ll eventually find ways to make the process easier. After each season, you’ll get a summary of how you did, which suggests ways to improve next year’s crop. In addition, Sakuna’s human friend Tauemon will give advice on how to effectively grow rice, and Sakuna can offer Amber to Lady Kamuhitsuki to bring more favorable weather.

As enjoyable as the farming is, the game doesn’t adequately cover fertilizing, which is a critical component of the whole process. It provides nutrients for the soil but can also provide big bonuses to your yield and the bonuses provided by the rice crop. While base components are easy to come by in every stage (generally manure, beast hooves, and fallen leaves), Sakuna can add a huge array of components that will boost various aspects of the rice. One of the problems with fertilizing is that it only lasts a day, and since rice only grows while the sun is up, you have to prep your fertilizer the day before and let it marinate overnight, which is something I often forgot to do.

Food prep is another aspect of Sakuna: Of Rice & Ruin that I enjoyed but always felt like I was missing something. Bringing home rabbit and boar meat isn’t enough--you have to get with another of your human friends--Myrthe--to prepare the food before it spoils and combine different components into meals. You’ll do the majority of food prep after harvesting your rice. You can also choose the menu every night, which is helpful for when you have a specific goal in mind for the next day, because various dishes will provide temporary stat bonuses.

Unfortunately, Sakuna’s secondary energy meter (Fullness) drains slowly over the course of the next day, and when it runs out, any stat bonuses or abilities go with it. This essentially means you only have so much time to explore with relative safety, although as you get farther in the game and your equipment and attack abilities improve, that becomes less of a concern. When night rolls around, demons become significantly more dangerous, but certain resources and goals only appear at night.

Sakuna: Of Rice & Ruin is ultimately about balance. You have to balance your exploration and item collection with farming. You have to balance your exploration with your food choices. You have to balance your resource usage with your fertilizer needs. You have to balance goal-driven exploration with resource-gathering exploration. Sakuna herself has to balance her mother’s goal of driving the demons from Hinoe Island with her charge of providing for her human family.

I don’t have many complaints about Sakuna: Rice & Ruin, but here they are. I already said that fertilizer isn’t adequately explained, but other things get the short shrift, too. For example, I can’t understand why so many weeds pop up in my rice field when I fill it with water, even when my fertilizer is chock-full of buffs. Combat is not as deep as it needs to be early on, and boss fights can be agonizing if you’re not properly prepared with good meals and equipment (it pays to grind for the materials that your smith needs to upgrade your weapons).

The game features a good amount of cutscenes, and every character is voiced. I particularly enjoy their dinnertime conversations, which often revolve around the mythology of the Lofty and Lowly Realms. Despite that, it took me a very long time to warm to Sakuna herself, who spends a lot of her time being--and sounding like--a spoiled brat. Similarly, one of the children, Kinta, despite being your weaponsmith, is, you know, terrible throughout.

It looks damn good, though, with a cel-shaded aesthetic that bursts with color. The way the sun filters through your rice ears is always lovely. Various environments look more or less interesting--I was rarely a fan of the rock-encrusted areas, but forests and river systems are wonderful. There’s a dearth of enemy types, and bosses and minibosses tend to be--but are not always--larger version of standard foes. The music is catchy, if a bit repetitious. All of the voice actors do well in their roles, as well.

All that is small potatoes, though, compared to the fun combat and surprisingly enjoyable farming. It turns out the farming might be my favorite part of Sakuna: Of Rice & Ruin, though, despite my issues with fertilizer. I didn’t think a video game could give me such an understanding and appreciation of rice farming, but this game did. Rice farming is as much an art as a science, it’s beautiful, and it’s calming. Sakuna and I were both learning the value of hard work and an appreciation for doing it well. Now if only I could catch more frogs...

It'd be nice if SNK would release NGPC games that aren't fighting games (do those exist?). Apart from the individual bells and whistles, these three games feel very similar, and not having a moves list is...becoming increasingly frustrating. I'm glad I'm able to experience a handheld that I completely missed, but maybe there just wasn't much variety?

TalkBack / The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny (Switch eShop) Review Mini
« on: November 06, 2020, 02:28:25 PM »

The Neo Geo Pocket Color party continues.

This is the fourth Neo Geo Pocket Color (NGPC) game to arrive on Switch after Gals Fighter, Samurai Shodown(!) 2, and King of Fighters R-2. I didn’t play—or review—the Samurai Shodown entry because that series requires a degree of precision that I’m not fond of. Interestingly, this new entry, The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny, occupies something of a middle ground between the free-wheeling improv of KOF and the precision of Shodown. It’s a good time, although these Neo Geo Pocket Color fighters are starting to blend together.

The Last Blade is a weapons-based fighter with a strong emphasis on parries, although they’re not as important as the instruction manual would lead you to believe. This game isn’t as fast as something like KOF or Gals Fighter, and you have to be a bit more cognizant of your attack ranges. I’m most impressed by how different every character feels. As such, every one takes a little bit of getting used to, but that’s what the Training Mode is for. Characters can choose between two “builds:” Speed and Power, which determines the kinds of attacks and specials you can pull off. Speed is more combo-friendly, and allows you to build to larger specials while Power gives you more attack power overall but fewer options.

I found Speed builds harder to use, as the Switch’s stick and d-pad are a little looser than I’d like. As in KOF-R2, lightly tapping a button vs. holding the button down results in different attacks, but in the heat of the moment, it’s not a perfect system. I would have preferred that “light” and “heavy” attacks utilized different buttons on the Switch, so all four face buttons would be in play (a la Primal Rage), but maybe that’s more than this emulator is capable of achieving.

You’ll notice that winning matches bestows points that can be spent on “scrolls” from the main menu’s “Gallery” option. Most of the scrolls are filler material, like character profiles and endings, but occasionally you’ll unlock new characters (try buying both of each character’s ending scrolls), and there are also two weird minigames to try and a code you can enter (the Internet exists) to unlock a third build type.

With all the unlocks, The Last Blade provides a more robust experience than Gals Fighter or KOF R-2, but you have to want it: grinding through the story mode repeatedly in order to earn currency to buy scrolls. I found the game more forgiving (or at least “less cheap”) on normal difficulty than either of its predecessors. Story Mode is also quite short, perhaps because they expect you to run through it so often.

The usual bells and whistles are here, including a digitized manual, different NGPC skins, and a rewind feature. As in the previous games, there’s a distinct lack of a moves list, so you’ll have to resort to repeatedly opening the manual, writing things down, or going to GameFAQs. Being able to play with a friend on a single system is nice, though, although The Last Blade won’t give you the multiplayer mileage than Smash Bros. does. The Last Blade is fun, and another good NGPC game to add to your list.

TalkBack / Ranking Igavanias
« on: November 01, 2020, 12:03:19 PM »

Looking for a good Igavania game? Check out Zach's ranked list!

(Author's Note: I meant to post this in the days leading up to Halloween, which means I'm exactly one day late, so that's why I have a few Halloween references in this article, but I already recorded the audio so I'm reluctant to rewrite it!)

Love or hate the term, “Metroidvania” games have exploded in popularity. Once regaled to a subset of 2D platforming games, this sort of level design has infiltrated almost every major genre. Control and the Batman Arkham games are 3D Metroidvanias, Hollow Knight is a 2D Metroidvania with strong Dark Souls elements, and even the Pokémon RPGs, with their HMs conferring Metroid-like ways to access previously-blocked areas, scratch that itch. As most of you know, of course, “Metroidvania” is a (often maligned) term coined to describe the level progression of games like Metroid and the Koji Igarashi Castlevania series. These “Igavania” games, which started with Symphony of the Night, are almost all excellent Metroid-likes in their own right. What with the vampires and werewolves, October seems like a perfect month to share my own personal list of the “Igavania” games, from worst to best.

Honorable Mention: Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

Available on: Wii, PS4, Xbox One, PSP, TurboGrafix-16/PC Engine Mini

Now this isn’t technically an Igavania game. In fact, Igarashi didn’t work on this one at all (but his wife did). However, it is a direct prequel to Symphony of the Night, and in fact that game begins at the end of Rondo of Blood. This is also where a great many boss and enemy sprites originate that would be brought forward to future Igavania titles. In addition, it’s where the series started experimenting with level progression. Richter Belmont can find alternate paths through each level which result in different bosses and minibosses. The original game is fantastic and probably represents the best of the “traditional” 2D Castlevania games. Dracula X, an SNES version that’s available on Wii U Virtual Console, is a terrible “demake” that’s just ridiculously hard and should be avoided at all costs. The PSP remake (Dracula X Chronicles) is ostensibly a 2.5D remake of Rondo of Blood but also includes the original PC Engine version as an unlockable (Symphony, too). Sadly, since the PSP store has gone the way of the dinosaur, you’ll have to try and find a physical copy…and a working PSP.

8. Harmony of Dissonance

Available on GBA & Wii U

The funny thing is that Harmony of Dissonance was Igarashi’s attempt to recreate Symphony of the Night on the Game Boy Advance. This is understandable; Harmony was his first Castlevania game after Symphony, and he did not appreciate the dark colors of Circle of the Moon (none of us did). Thus, his first order of business was to make everything neon. The protagonist, Juste Belmont, wears a bright red coat and has a bright blue shadow following his every move. Every background and enemy is a garish tone; it’s an ugly game. Harmony does manage a gaming impression of Symphony, even including a poorly-implemented second castle (though not inverted). There are a lot of things holding Harmony back, including an unusually obtuse map, disappointing soundtrack, and some bizarre equipment decisions, like having to equip certain items to unlock doors (a carryover from Symphony). Thankfully, Igarashi must have learned from this experience, because his very next Castlevania game is much higher on my list.

7. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

Available on DS

One of the hallmarks of Igavanias is that they try to recycle sprites from past games whenever possible. Portrait of Ruin, however, actually recycles its own assets. Interestingly, Portrait is a sequel to Castlevania: Bloodlines (on the Genesis) and stars two characters—Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin—who the player controls simultaneously. Jonathan is a physical fighter who has inherited the Vampire Killer whip, while Charlotte is a magic-based mage. They explore a large, open castle that contains many paintings which are portals to smaller individual levels a la Super Mario 64. Each tileset is used twice, but palette swapped. Since you’re dealing with two characters, you wind up spending a lot more time in the equipment screen, which is a pain, and this game just generally seems to be going through the motions. It’s also unusually ugly considering it follows Dawn of Sorrow, which is beautiful. Instead, Portrait of Ruin looks more like a cancelled GBA game. Order of Eccelsia would greatly improve Portrait’s level progression.

6. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Available on Switch, Xbox One, PS4, Windows

It may not have the name Castlevania on the box, but make no mistake, Bloodstained is an Igavania game through and through. After he was let go from Konami, Igarashi launched a Kickstarter that broke records and resulted in this lovely game. With a plot and gameplay mechanics that are something of a fusion of Aria of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia, Bloodstained always feels perfectly familiar. Even the protagonist, a woman named Meriam, may as well be Shanoa. Bloodstained features a large map, though not as large as you might hope, and even more focus on crafting than was in Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia, perhaps to the game’s detriment, although I enjoyed it. The Switch version suffers from longer load times and downgraded graphics compared to its Xbox One and PS4 counterparts, but is still worth a gander. You might find some wayward Castlevania characters—with assumed names, of course—if you explore well enough.

5. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Available on GBA & Wii U

The one Igavania game that did not actually involve Igarashi, Circle of the Moon was a launch game for the Game Boy Advance—the original Game Boy Advance, without a backlight. And so, unless you were sitting directly under a light source, you weren’t going to have a good time with Circle of the Moon. Gorgeous though it was (with amazingly spritwork and enormous areas), the subdued color palette made Circle difficult to enjoy. It did have a wonderful soundtrack going for it, and an interesting, if unnecessarily complex magic system that involved praying that enemies would drop random Tarot cards and then hoping they did something when you equipped them (many did not tell you how to activate the effect). The game is much more approachable on the GBA SP, of course, and on the Wii U. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth checking out. You don’t actually need the spells to win.

4. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

Available on DS

This would turn out to be Igarashi’s final Castlevania title, and thankfully it’s extremely good. The immediate warning, though, is that it’s also extremely hard. Players control a woman named Shanoa who can perform magic attacks by absorbing “glyphs” from enemies and the environment. The trick here is that Aria’s magic system has been upgraded to include basic weapons, as well. There’s also a larger focus on the equipment crafting systems from Dawn of Sorrow. Order’s level progression is also very different—the game’s first half involves exploring distinct levels which, after Shanoa finds various movement glyphs, open up to more exploration (a bit like Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse). The game’s second half takes place in an enormous, traditional Castlevania castle. Ecclesia’s difficulty and magic system aren’t for everyone, and the final boss is a bit of a letdown, but it’s gorgeous and definitely worth a shot if you have the means, although I’ve heard it’s hard to find these days.

3. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow

Available on DS

This game, the first of the Igavania series on the DS and a direct sequel to the GBA’s Aria of Sorrow, is very nearly my favorite Igavania game. It’s more or less Aria of Sorrow with better graphics—big, beautiful sprites and great effects—and a killer soundtrack. The level progression is suspiciously similar to Aria of Sorrow but there are several new areas. In addition, an extra unlockable mode lets you take a Castlevania III approach to the game, with Julius Belmont, Yoko Belnades, and the Symphony version of Alucard as they race to defeat the new incarnation of Dracula. Dawn has a bigger emphasis on grinding, as most enemy souls can be leveled up by obtaining multiple copies, and Soma can craft new equipment by combining specific souls and specific weapons. Additionally, because it was a DS launch game, Dawn incorporates some unfortunate touch-screen nonsense: certain blocks can only be destroyed by tapping them, and every single boss must be “sealed” by drawing an increasingly-complex sigil on the screen extremely quickly. Apart from those minor headaches, Dawn of Sorrow is a top-tier Igavania.

2. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Available on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PSOne, PS4, PSP, Android, and iOS

Note that this game is, frustratingly, not available on Switch (yet, anyway). Symphony is the game that transformed the Castlevania series, and it remains an excellent game. Dracula’s castle here is as much a playground as a goal-oriented map to be explored. Alucard can find all manner of equipment, items, magic spells, areas, and Easter eggs, many of which are superfluous, to the game’s credit and detriment. Symphony’s castle is huge—a bit too large for my tastes—and the way equipment is handled is pretty terrible considering how every other Igavania game handles it (except Harmony). Getting around the imposing castle is a bit of a bear considering its size, even with warp rooms, but it’s hard to stop playing Symphony once you start. The PSP version, from the Dracula X Chronicles, is generally considered the best, and was carried forward to the Castlevania Requiem collection for Xbox One and PS4.

1. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Available on GBA & Wii U

Of all the Igavania titles, I feel this is the pinnacle. It incorporates everything that made Symphony so refreshing, but trimmed all the fat. Aria puts you in the shoes of Soma Cruz, a young man who finds himself transported to Dracula’s castle during an eclipse, who must find his way through the castle and defeat a new iteration of the Count. The game utilizes an interesting magic system in which Soma can absorb the “souls” of the castle’s monsters, each of which confers a different attack/buff/movement upgrade, three of which can be equipped at once. You do spend a good amount of time in the equipment/spell subscreens, but I never felt like it was a pain. Clearly a lot of you did, though, and Igarashi included the ability to hotswap between different builds in every subsequent game. Aria features gorgeous sprite art and a castle that’s large but not too large. The music is also some of the best in the series, although Dawn is no slouch in that regard. Some form of this Aria’s magic system would continue on through the rest of Igarashi’s Castlevania games. If you only play one Igavania game on this list, make it Aria of Sorrow.

Writing this list made me a little bit sad. Konami has largely faded from the video game sphere, although I hope to see an Igavania Collection after the success of The Castlevania Collection. It took a very long time for Bloodstained to be developed, and I believe they’re still working on DLC for it. For his part, Igarashi hopes to continue Bloodstained as a franchise, so I have some hope that Igavania games will continue. What about you, dear readers (and viewers)? What’s your favorite Castlevania game? Let us know in the comments and have (or hope you had) a spooktacular Halloween.

TalkBack / Shantae: Risky's Revenge (Switch eShop) Review
« on: October 12, 2020, 09:58:10 AM »

You can't go home again.

Soon, dear readers, you’ll be able to play the entire Shantae series on your Nintendo Switch (the original is reportedly appearing imminently). While the original game cemented the spunky little half genie in my mind, this DSiWare sequel was my first real foray into the series. It’s relieving to go back to that decade-old review and recognize that my issues with it in 2020 are essentially the same as they were in 2010. Matt West reviewed the Wii U version and liked it there. Risky’s Revenge is, overall, a good game, but playing it now, after playing its three sequels, is a bit like stepping back into Plato’s cave. The improvements WayForward has made to the Shantae series—especially in Seven Sirens—have made the back-catalogue titles less rosy than they once were.

I would like to underline what makes Risky’s Revenge lovely, though, especially with the gift of hindsight. It was, in 2010, easily the prettiest game available on the DSiWare service and probably the most robust. The character art has a charming “western anime” look to it, but all of the characters would evolve into their final forms in the next game, Pirate’s Curse. While it is a bit strange to see the movement of every pixel in 4:3 on a modern television, you can’t really fault the animation or spritework. Jake Kaufman’s score remains peppy throughout, as well.

While there are only two proper dungeons, they are both wonderfully designed. Risky’s Revenge also introduces series mainstays Hypno Baron, Ammo Baron, and one of my lowkey favorite characters, Barracuda Joe, who has a bigger role in Pirate’s Curse. The writing is always entertaining, although it’s definitely taken up a notch in subsequent titles.

As I said, my biggest complaints in 2020 are the same as they were in 2010: this version of Sequin Land is difficult to navigate for two reasons: the overall map is awkwardly structured and while this Director’s Cut vastly improves the warp system, there’s still no easy way to get to, say, Scuttle Town without going through at least one other area. Sequin Land is also littered with challenge caves—which made a comeback in Seven Sirens—and as in that game, they are not marked on the map, so you have to more or less draw something by hand, indicating where each cave is and what abilities you will need to complete it.

The game’s critical path is very straightforward, but going for 100% item completion will require detailed notes and a lot of irritating re-traversal. In general, I don’t like going back to the far end of the map (or into completed dungeons) to grab one item with the Mermaid Bubble. I’m also sad to say that this Director's Cut does not have a menu option for “win screens,” which means that once you achieve the “Shantae in a bikini” screen, well,  you’d better hit that screenshot button.

The big new feature in Director’s Cut is the addition of Magic Mode, which is unlocked after beating the game. Magic Mode puts Shantae in an Egyptian outfit (which Pirate’s Curse players might recognize) and gives her a much higher magic meter at the cost of reduced defense. It’s a fun challenge, and if you didn’t find too much reason to utilize magic spells before, you definitely will here. It’s a touch disappointing that you don’t get a unique win screen for completing Magic Mode, though.

Risky’s Revenge is very much the Australopithecus of the Shantae series—something of a transitional form between the GBC game and Pirate’s Curse. It’s fun to play if you’re a fan of the series, but I’ll say that the next three games easily eclipse it.

TalkBack / Hotshot Racing (Switch eShop) Review
« on: September 14, 2020, 11:39:00 AM »

As in life, hell is other drivers.

When I first got wind of Hotshot Racing, I incorrectly assumed that it would be similar to Horizon Chase Turbo, being a throwback racing game and all. That’s not the case, and Hotshot Racing may be better for it. This game has more in common with actual arcade racing games like Sega Rally with a low-poly look that reminded me a bit of Virtua Racing. It’s a fun time, great for multiplayer sessions, but requires a bit of a learning curve.

The game’s main stage is, of course, Grand Prix mode, in which you select a driver and a vehicle (generally organized into four categories based on handling), then go for gold by winning points over the course of four races. To win, you must maneuver around the other aggressive drivers and hit checkpoints in a certain amount of time--just like in the old arcade racers of yore. Once you start earning big bucks on the circuit (by winning), you can spend your moolah on different racing suits for the drivers and various body options for the cars. There are also three difficulty levels which modify the checkpoint time requirements and how aggressive the other drivers are.

There is a big hurdle, however: Winning races depends on your ability to learn and master the art of drifting. The closest analogue that I can think of is Mario Kart 8, but you’re not holding a “drift” button down. Rather, you tap the brake while going into a turn, which sends your car’s back end swerving. You can then widen or tighten your turn with the left stick before getting back to straight. This is tougher than it sounds, and different cars have wildly different handling. Some turn too tightly while others slide too far, but you’ll eventually find the cars that work for you. Drifting (and drafting--staying behind another car) refills your boost meter, which becomes more important as the difficulty increases. I was having a bad time with Hotshot Racing until I figured out drifting, so understand that there may be a learning period.

It would be helpful it Hotshot Racing had included a brief tutorial, but there’s not one, so my best advice is to hit a relatively easy Time Trial track (which can go on forever) to learn the ins and outs of this game’s physics without worrying about a gold trophy. Once you can get around a given track without sliding into a wall, go to another track with a different layout. Repeat until you know what you’re doing. The game offers several different viewpoints, which you toggle with the X button (at any time), and if you really want to capture that arcade experience, yes, there is a driver’s-eye-view mode.

The game also incentivizes learning how to drive each car competently. Each one has a list of achievements to work towards, like boosting so many times or drifting for so long. Hitting these goals allows you to unlock more body options for that car, be it paint jobs or various parts, like spoilers and headlights. I should note here that parts will not improve a car’s performance--they’re purely decorative. I did not find these incentives to be all that fulfilling and continued to lean on the cars I felt comfortable driving.

Despite the Grand Prix mode, the overall focus of Hotshot Racing is in multiplayer, which you can tackle in any mode, even Time Trials to some extent via ghosts (staff or downloadable). You can race with four players locally or eight players online. You can even use your Mario Kart 8 Joy-Con wheels, because Hotshot Racing supports motion controls. During my time on the review, I was never able to get in a functioning online room, either a quick match or joining a game. There is an option to play only with friends, which is appreciated. In addition to a standard race, two other multiplayer options exist: Cops & Robbers and Drive or Explode. In the former, some players are robbers trying to evade the fuzz while other players are cops. Robber cars have HP and will eventually explode after being rammed by cop cars. Drive or Explode is basically an arcade version of the movie Speed, except it’s not a city bus. If you go below a certain speed, your car starts taking damage and will eventually explode--it’s a last-man standing kind of game.

Aside from my previous comment about wishing for a training mode, I don’t have much to say in the negative about Hotshot Racing. There are only sixteen tracks, which is kind of a bummer and you’ll start cycling through them pretty quickly in multiplayer bouts. Your driver is a chatterbox during races, and they just don’t have many things to say, but the soundtrack and sound effects are great. Strangely there were a few times where I could not go back in the menus, which forced me to restart the game a handful of times. Finally, if the new body options for your cars doesn’t excite you, then playing by your lonesome might get old rather quickly (as it did for me).

Once I got the hang of drifting, I really started enjoying Hotshot Racing, but it will not sustain me as a solo player for long. Its utility (for me) will be multiplayer shenanigans, which is just fine.

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