Tokyo Mirage Impressions #FE

June 26, 2016

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This weekend I made a bold decision: passing up on Overwatch in order to pick up Atlus’s new Persona-esque JRPG, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. I’m not a massive Persona fan—I prefer more hardline Shin Megami Tensei entries like Nocturne and Devil Summoner 2—but I figured, given the nature of both Atlus’s games and the Wii U, that I’d better pick it up now or I might not have another chance.

I’m only five hours in, but so far there’s a lot to like and dislike. Based on the first and second dungeons, which admittedly is not a lot to go on, they feel a bit hobbled together. Granted, these are the first and second dungeons. They’re simple as a rule. But the first dungeon felt like a tile-based randomized map, and the second dungeon relies on a very simple, very sluggish puzzle format. I’m hoping they open up like some of the more memorable dungeons in Nocturne, with massive spires, moving blocks, and tricky damage tiles. But so far, these dungeons feel even more rigid and simple than Persona’s. I’ll give it time.

I am really happy with the enemy encounters. Enemies roam the dungeons; there are no random encounters. Swiping your sword will stun enemies, and they fade away if you don’t engage. Battles are very much in the standard “press turn” MegaTen style, but the Session system promises to open things up. When a character attacks an enemy’s weakness, other characters with linked “Session Skills” will jump in and attack. A large part of the strategy is synergizing your skills so that characters can interact based on a number of different enemy weaknesses.

The battles are bright, colorful, and I adore the main battle theme. Shin Megami Tensei as a series has always succeeded on its battle systems, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions differentiates itself in small but important ways. One thing I’ve noticed so far is that Tokyo Mirage Sessions really pushes players to never select the basic “attack” command. You’re always using skills in order to set up sessions, and I’m hoping they build up to truly ludicrous levels of comboing. I’m the type of person who hesitates to use magic in just about any RPG, but it’s immediately obvious that mana hoarders won’t survive long.

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There’s significantly less micromanagement compared to a game like Nocturne, where it seemed like players could stick their grubby paws anywhere and tweak anything. Instead of fusing monsters, Tokyo Mirage Sessions has players forge and equip weapons to learn different skills and spells. At this point, there’s no real sense of choice between weapons. You just get a new one, use it, and learn its skills. I don’t think that’s a positive or negative; probably Persona fans will be fine with it, and main series MegaTen fans will want a little more freedom. And once I fill up my available skill slots, I’ll probably complain that I’m forced to make too many tough choices.

There are some irksome load times, including a short load screen at the end of each battle, which is a big annoyance for me. The game is vibrant and beautiful, with great character models, but I don’t feel like it’s pushing the Wii U that hard. I’m playing on the retail disc, so this may not be a problem if you install the game to your Wii U. But it can be a bit of a downer when an emotional scene is followed by a load screen.

Speaking of emotional scenes, so far there’s been a good amount of animated cutscenes. The tone of the game is very happy and fluffy, which I appreciate. I love the atmosphere of heavier MegaTen games, but for me Persona felt like a mishmash of horror themes with a bubbly anime atmosphere. I love true horror games, so that always felt like a tease to me. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is much more comfortable with being an anime-themed JRPG, and I kind of prefer it that way.

So far I’m having a lot of fun with the game, and I’m hoping it makes the connections that I can feel it building up to. I’m a creative type of person, so I really engage with Tokyo Mirage Session’s story of a group of singers and artists trying to find their own voice in Tokyo’s crowded entertainment industry. And the characters have all the heart you’d expect from a Persona game. They’re really sweet, and very fun.

So let me end on my favorite aspect of the game so far: I love, love, love that the Wii U gamepad acts as a text messaging service. Characters will text you while you’re dungeon-crawling to provide hints, shoot the breeze, or send you chibi emoticon stickers. It’s a brilliant way to connect players with the characters, and it really feels like the next level of social simulation in Atlus RPGs. Text messages make the game world feel more alive; they help party members rise above anime archetypes and make them feel like friends. In videogames especially, that’s a really rare and remarkable feeling.

Also, did I mention that the character designs are incredible? I don’t think I did. They are.

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Trackmania Turbo runs laps around me-too modern racing games

April 2, 2016

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I remember cramming Super Mario Kart in the cartridge slot of my Super Nintendo, so many years after my brother sold his. Hearing the notes of its MIDI theme again was like sucking in air, or discovering a scratched and scraped action figure in the basement. Seeing Koopa Troopa, Toad, and Bowser drive past their pastel mountains, my pupils constricted to dots, and I remembered that this was it. No other game has ever, will ever capture that feeling of channeled chaos—because Super Mario Kart already captured it, perfectly.

Trackmania Turbo, though, comes dangerously close. Recently released to no fanfare whatsoever by developer Nadeo and publisher Ubisoft at a budget $40 price point, Trackmania Turbo is the latest in a long line of cult racers that I have never played. The title screams shovelware, the box art screams shovelware, the unfocused aesthetic screams shovelware.

But Trackmania may be the single most exciting racing game since Super Mario Kart first red-shelled the world 24 years ago. Here’s why:

The feel of the wheel

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Trackmania Turbo knows there’s more to racing than simulation. On a television screen, it’s not enough to be realistic; one must be extra-realistic, surrealistic, impressionistic. No amount of gear-shifting or cockpit detail can compensate for the raw speed and heft of a car hurtling through space. Trackmania feels fast, intense, weighty. These cars scream around turns. They are precise, but oh so arcadey. The exaggerated physics are outrageous and only add to the fun. Trackmania captures the impression of racing. Instead of fiddly gear-shifting engineers, we are invited to become howling children enjoying our very first rollercoaster ride.

Falling into flow

On the first level, your car falls into a nosedive from a helicopter. Your wheels spin at max speed as you hit the half-pipe that begins the track. You whip around barriers into your first U-turn and nudge the brake, which sends your vehicle into an intensely satisfying drift. Should you slam into a barrier (it happens), the brake acts as a totally garbage reverse button. Don’t use it. Hit the restart button instead. In an instant, you’re counting down, 3-2-1, and back in the race. There is no loading to interrupt your retry. Feel the flow.

Simple, difficult pleasures

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Being that accelerate and brake are the only two core buttons, you might think Trackmania Turbo is easy. Ain’t so. Despite its simplicity, this is an incredibly challenging, precise racer. So when you hit that barrier, you already beefed it. You might get the bronze; hypothetically speaking, you might even get silver. But you aren’t getting gold, and you won’t be satisfied with your run. Hit the restart button. It’s the right thing to do; you will feel good about it. Because you’re playing a game that’s easy to learn and hard to master, and you will enjoy the road to mastery.

Tracks and tracks and tracks

There’s a lot to master: Trackmania Turbo shipped with 200 tracks. I assume that many of these are fan favorites from early Trackmania games, because they’re very, very good. The tracks start out shorter in length. Most are one lap only; many are only 30 seconds long. They’ll keep you very busy. There are four different track types: Grand Canyon Drift, Down and Dirty Valley, Rollercoaster Lagoon, and International Stadium.

These tracks are not humdrum ovals. They are massively staged, with landscapes stretching into the distance. These are the type of track where you will ramp over a valley and through the ring of a giant pink donut, or corkscrew up roller coaster rails before flying off and latching onto their magnetized underside. Don’t think Forza. Think Hot Wheels meets F-Zero. More than anything, these tracks remind me of the stage design in Super Monkey Ball—these are tracks you’ll remember. Oh, and there’s a random track generator. And a track builder. And you can play other people’s custom tracks. That’s a lot of tracks. That’s a trackstravaganza.

Co-op romance and bromance

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And those 200 tracks? Every single one is available in the brilliant Double Driver mode. Two drivers team together to control one car, their inputs averaging out to control where the car moves. It is a mode that should not work, yet works flawlessly. Racing games are a very binary genre; strictly speaking, there is only one “right” move. So when you’re both double driving, you’re co-testing your ability to both be totally right at the same time. And once you sink into the groove, you’ll perform incredibly. My single proudest trial time was set in double driver with my girlfriend. We absolutely crushed. We are the best.

Hundred-player online insanity

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At its core, then, Trackmania Turbo is a time trial game. You race against staff ghosts, earn a good time, and then race against your own ghost. This type of gameplay can lead to some pretty lame online: download a ghost, race a ghost, snooze away. This game, though. This game.

Trackmania drops you into online matches with upwards of 100 other players, all racing at the same time. They’re real-time ghosts, displaying their usernames overhead, swerving into walls, careening over barriers, hurtling into the abyss. It’s pure madness. But since this is a time trial game, they don’t actually mess you up. You have 5 minutes to race your best lap, with as many retries as you need. Once you finish a lap, you start again and keep going. This works brilliantly because you can jump into a game at any time, and you never have to sit out. You are always racing, you are always learning, and you are always having a good time.

Couch multiplayer monster mash

Many people who play Trackmania Turbo will be disappointed by the game’s versus multiplayer. They’ll play the splitscreen, realize it’s pretty meh, and not play any of the other modes. Do not be this person. Do. Not. Because the best mode is Hot Seat, where players take turns instead of racing at the same time.

As single cars or double drivers, 1-16(!) players take turns racing to see who can score the best time. So what, right? Here’s the rub: Each player has a limited amount of gas. After each person races, the person in last place keeps running the track until they pass another racer or get eliminated. If that player ranks up they stay in the game, and the new last place player has to run.

There are so many reasons I love this mode. I love that the person who performs poorly gets to run the race repeatedly, encouraging them to gain skill as they race and re-race. I love that there’s a palpable tension as players race to stay alive, rankings shifting and rivalries changing. I love that players can take a break to regroup and appreciate the crashes while they wait for their turn to play. I love how much smack talk this mode encourages—even the announcer talks smack. Sometimes he changes accents. Sometimes he’s actually massively encouraging.

You can feel that this is where the team at Nadeo put their multiplayer resources. Hot Seat mode is glorious, practically cementing Trackmania Turbo as the must-have multiplayer party game this generation. And the best part is, you don’t need more than two controllers to realize the mode’s maximum potential. I could write an essay on why this mode is so good.

What I really mean to say

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Only time will tell if Trackmania Turbo is worthy of all the memories it’s rekindled, and solidify whether this is my favorite racing game since Super Mario Kart. There are contenders for that crown: Crash Team Racing, F-Zero GX, Burnout Revenge, Sonic All-Stars Transformed. Let that list decide whether you can be interested in Trackmania Turbo. But if you love manic single-player time trials or no-holds-barred multiplayer grudge races, Trackmania Turbo is absolutely essential. Don’t be fooled by the bland name, the shovelware cover, or the fairly average review scores. In an era of blandly realistic racing simulators, Trackmania Turbo makes everything else eat dust.

You (really) need to play Eschatos

August 26, 2015

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Maybe you’re thinking: Scrolling shooters, eh. This one doesn’t even look that great… the graphics are pretty Dreamcast, the action looks junky, whatever. And in response I could explain that I had the exact same reaction and, you know, try to explain the details about why I ended up playing Eschatos anyways.

Well, forget all that noise. All of it. Eschatos hits Steam tomorrow, and you should play it, because Eschatos is the fucking greatest.

Reasons why Eschatos is the greatest like wow:

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1. Eschatos is every scrolling shooter rolled into one

Eschatos exists in a universe where scrolling shooter subgenres didn’t break apart and become endlessly specialized; it can’t accurately be called a traditional shooter, manic shooter, or bullet hell. Eschatos is all of these and also sometimes it is Galaga.

2. Eschatos has the best soundtrack of any game not named Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross

Very few games are elevated by their soundtracks, but composer Yousuke Yasui has created an energetic, emotional soundtrack that stands as one of the best in the medium. It really hits you in the feels and it even makes the shooting more shootier.

3. Eschatos is fully 3D and that’s crazy

This seems like a minor point; there are a lot of scrolling shooters with 3D graphics. But Eschatos takes this a step further, with dynamic camera angles that highlight the action. They’re skillfully integrated, making Eschatos feel cinematic without interrupting gameplay. These camera angles will blow your mind and you will enjoy shooting things like never before.

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4. Eschatos never stops

Eschatos doesn’t have discrete levels. Instead it has one continuously flowing stage, a choice which lends the game a sense of narrative design that other shooters lack. Players are always playing instead of sitting through “fade to black” moments. Think of the intro to Half-Life and how much you enjoyed looking around that tram as Gordon Freeman, and then imagine that’s not boring and instead is great. Eschatos is like that. There are no breaks; you are always playing.

5. Eschatos has the single most serene moment in any videogame, ever

Eschatos’ narrative strengths and Yasui’s compositions work together to create one perfect moment halfway through the game. Haunting music begins as the player’s ship blasts off from Earth’s atmosphere and into the depths of space, the planet Eschatos looming in the distance. It’s a singularly beautiful moment that I look forward to every time I play.

6. Eschatos’ shield mechanic cuts through the bullshit

A lot of scrolling shooters have a gotcha moment that takes you off guard and generally just ruins your day. “That’s not fair!” you scream, as rain falls outside your window and world hunger continues to be real. But Eschatos actively refuses to be unfair. The player’s ship has a shield which can actively cut through the most difficult waves of bullets, giving Eschatos a sense of freedom that other shooters lack. It’s not completely do or die; you can improvise your way out of certain death. Don’t rely on the shield too much, though—it can only help out so much before it needs to recharge.

7. Eschatos is loaded with content

Eschatos doesn’t mess around, because Eschatos is the real deal. There are three game modes, all incredibly fun, with a bunch of difficulty options ranging from “actually easy” to “this was programmed as a cruel joke.” Eschatos also has a system of progressive score-based unlockables that let you tweak the game’s graphical effects to your liking. Oh, and there’s an endless mode in case you never ever want to stop playing Eschatos.

8. Eschatos actually makes you think about what you’re doing instead of holding the shot button like a big dumb baby

In most modern day shooters, you might as well hold down the shot button constantly, because it covers the whole screen and there’s no reason to do otherwise. But Eschatos’ system of weaker wide shots versus more powerful narrow shots (and let’s not forget the shield!) encourages players to switch between shot types to take out enemy waves. There’s a sense of puzzliness to it too, and it’s really satisfying to work out which shot works best in which situations.

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9. Eschatos’ scoring mechanics don’t require a technical manual to understand

If I’ve got to browse online forums to even figure out how a shooter’s scoring system works, then that shooter is doing it wrong. Eschatos’ scoring is simple and fun—you get bonus points and a point multiplier for killing all the enemy waves as fast as possible. Boom, got it. If that’s not enough for you, there’s an Advanced mode that introduces a lot of quirky mechanics and score candy.

10. Eschatos’ boss battles are short, sweet, and to the point

I hate boss battles where you spend half the time not even damaging the boss, because he has to do some stupid garbage attack before you can even try to take him out. The bosses in Eschatos are all incredibly fun without having neverending health bars or snooze-worthy gimmick attacks. And that final boss. Oh man. I think he may be the best final boss.

11. Eschatos’ graphics are actually kinda good, really you guys

I know, I know. Dreamcast visuals, etc. (Or, god forbid, N64 visuals?) But there are really a lot of great explosions and particle effects in this game, the outer space scenery is unbelievably gorgeous, and the alien designs actually look alien. Plus, the graphical style is like a 3D update to what shooting games looked like in the ‘80s. Eschatos appreciates the genre’s history without being all “hey guys am I retro yet?” about it.

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12. Eschatos comes with two other totally amazing games

Okay, so I don’t know if this holds true for the Steam release—but publisher Degica Games have hinted that they’re going to release the award-winning Judgement Silversword and Cardinal Sins at some point in the future. These Wonderswan Color(!) games are almost as good as Eschatos, and really blew away all my expectations for what a handheld shooting game could be. They don’t feel quaint or compromised at all; they’re really some of the best scrolling shooters you’ll ever play. And, finally:

13. Eschatos really makes you think about life

Like, wow.

Breaking into scrolling shooters

August 19, 2015

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you probably know that I love, love, love scrolling shooters. A while back I even wrote a massive post about scrolling shooters — I wanted to pick apart the genre in a scholarly way, highlighting notable games and asking questions that would get people thinking about them on a deeper level.

Well, I feel the need to add onto that article. Many of the games I listed in my original article are super rare and super expensive, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to appreciate them theoretically. More than any other genre, scrolling shooters live or die by the fundamental “fun-ness” of play. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite affordable and available shooters. These are shooters I would vouch for no matter what, but they’re also fun and accessible picks that won’t put a hurt on your wallet.

– PC –

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Cho Ren Sha 68K

I’m not much for classics, but Cho Ren Sha is everything you need and nothing you don’t. Every element feels perfectly balanced, as if the creators knew exactly what they wanted before they started programming. Colorful enemies, blazing-fast gunfire, powerful tunes, and a brilliantly simple powerup system (choose: bomb, powerup, or shield!) come together to make for one of the all-time greats. If Cho Ren Sha has a fault, it’s that it only has one background… but hey, it worked for Galaga.

Price: Free

Alltynex Second

Spaceships with gimmicky weapons are a time-honored scrolling shooter tradition, and Alltynex Second brings the heat with *three* separate gimmick weapons in one ship. Normally that would be enough to tank a game under its own excess, but Alltynex Second pulls it off wonderfully. The homing shot takes out small enemies, the power beam tears through bosses, and the laser sword cancels enemy bullets as it hacks away at their mechanized faces. There’s more than a little bit of hack-and-slash DNA in this one, and cutting apart enemies piece by piece never loses its appeal.

Price: $8 on Steam

Crimzon Clover: World Ignition

“World Ignition” is more than just a flashy subtitle. When Crimzon Clover exploded onto Steam, scrolling shooter fans went totally bonkers. That’s because Crimzon Clover nails every aspect of bullet hell design—hardcore action, non-stop explosions, over-the-top visuals, and an endless supply of glittering point items. There’s a wealth of content, with four different arcade modes and two novice modes for people (like me) who just aren’t that great at bullet hell games. Crimzon Clover demonstrates yet again that a one-man indie can outperform even the biggest studios. If you want to experience for yourself the intricacy and adrenaline of bullet hell shooters without the costly import prices, Crimzon Clover is unmissable.

Price: $10 on Steam

Also try: Danmaku Unlimited 2, Hydorah, Jamestown, and Kamui

– Xbox 360 –

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Score Rush

Score Rush combines all the best elements of Geometry Wars with the kaleidoscopic gunfire of a bullet hell. Twin-stick controls, 4-player multi, and tons of psychedelic particle effects make this an incredibly fun and accessible shooter. It’s just about the only scrolling shooter that you can have an entire room of friends playing in no time. Such is Score Rush’s simplicity and curb appeal—when I think of no-brainer 360 purchases, Score Rush is at the top of the list.

Price: $1 on Xbox Live Indie; Free on PC

Raiden Fighters Aces

Raiden Fighters Aces offers a rare glimpse into what scrolling shooters looked like just before bullet hells changed the genre completely. There aren’t any intricate patterns of slow-moving bullets here—In Raiden style, the action is blisteringly fast, emphasizing twitch reflexes and wide dodges in order to avoid enemy sniper shots. All three Raiden Fighters games are included on-disc, and between them there’s a massive number of playable ships, each with their own weapons, stats, and bombs. And that soundtrack, holy crap. What it lacks in melody it makes up for in raw intensity.

Price: ~$15

Deathsmiles

I could tell you all about what a great developer Cave is and blah blah blah but instead I’ll say that this game features a giant rotting cow named Mary as an end of level boss, and I think that really says everything right there. Deathsmiles’ Halloween motif leans cutesy rather than gory, but underneath the cheese is a smart shooter that cuts through the typical bullet hell crap. Level select, per-level difficulty select, and simplified bullet patterns mean that you don’t have to be an absolute monster to beat Deathsmiles. Even so, there’s more than enough for players to bite into as they gain skills and start chasing high scores.

Price: ~$10

Also try: Akai Katana, Ikaruga, and Chronoblast

– Playstation 3 –

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Zanac X Zanac

Allow me be a crazy person for a second and tell you that one of the best scrolling shooters on PS3 is actually an enhanced port of an NES game. Zanac is a thing of subtle beauty, by which I mean it’s actually kind of hideous and could easily fool you into thinking it’s total garbage. But oh man, don’t tell that to Zanac. Because Zanac hears. What sets Zanac apart from other scrolling shooters is that it features randomized waves of enemies, sent by the AI that is Zanac. How many shots you’re firing, what powerups you pick up; everything is analyzed by Zanac and every game of Zanac is customized to kill you, specifically. The powerups in this one are just incredible—absolutely top of class. Plus there’s a really sweet challenge mode that could keep you playing, like, forever. Oh, and also a really good Playstation version included called Zanac Neo. Yeah, there’s that, too.

Price: $6 on PSN

Under Defeat HD

Under Defeat boasts the sort of elegant beauty that you’d never expect from a scrolling shooter about World War II helicopter pilots. Every scene is bursting with detail, and the stunning particle effects and dynamic smoke highlight the action across stages of forested gun-emplacements, massive naval fleets, and bombed out military bases. Even though the game takes place in a fictitious alternate timeline, a strong sense of realism makes Under Defeat extremely compelling. The “lean into your shots” control scheme is novel and fun, and the scoring system utilizes the player’s vulcan, cannon, and rocket powerups in a simple and satisfying way. To top it off, this version also includes a widescreen, twin-stick mode with a remixed soundtrack courtesy of the always-great Yousuke Yasui.

Price: $10 on PSN

Gradius V

Gradius V may be the ultimate sidescrolling shooter. I don’t mean that it’s the best, or that it’s my personal favorite. What I mean is that Gradius V seems to carry the entire legacy of the genre on its shoulders as you play—It’s monolithic, majestic, and impossibly slick, with tight level design and spectacular boss battles. It’s also ruthlessly difficult, requiring players to memorize certain routes to make it through. That’s all part of what it means to be a Gradius game. But the system of unlockable continues means everyone can eventually play Gradius V to the end, and really, I’d say this is the best game in the series since the original Gradius codified the genre in 1985. Play them both.

Price: $10 on PSN

Also try: Castle Shikigami 2, Velocity

– Wii (and Wii U) –

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Blast Works

I’m not sure I can call Blast Works a great game; hell, I’m not entirely sure I can even call it a good game. What it is, though, is a uniquely fun game, thanks to an irresistible premise: Blast Works is essentially Katamari Damacy as a scrolling shooter. Every enemy you kill can be latched onto any side of your ship; they contribute their firepower to yours and also act as a giant meat shield. By the end of the stage, you’ll feel like the end of level boss, because your fighter craft will be have a hundred other guns attached to it. All that craziness, plus the game has a robust level and ship editor. Blast Works is fun with friends as well, and… that’s why you bought your Wii, isn’t it? Ah, you were in it for Wii Fit. Nevermind then.

Price: ~$5

Sin and Punishment 2

This game is just bonkers. Sin and Punishment 2 is like a rail shooter, lightgun game, and scrolling shooter fused together and jacked up to eleven. There are a bajillion things to shoot at, and the level designs are truly inspired. There’s an overgrown ruin of destroyed Tokyo, a hoverbike chase on a not so abandoned highway, and a flight down a literal water tunnel, where giant morays and enemy ships burst through the walls of water to attack. That’s to say nothing of the bosses, which are massive, frequent, and phenomenal.

Price: ~$15

Wii Virtual Console

There aren’t many great retail shooters for Wii, but it still has one of the best collections of scrolling shooters on any system thanks to the Virtual Console. There are sooo many great and otherwise hard to find games; hell, it was the Wii Virtual Console that got me deeply into shooters in the first place. Take to the skies in your mech and blow apart neo-feudal Japan in MUSHA; headbang hard with the heavy metal soundtrack and awesomely mythological monsters of Lords of Thunder; destroy cute-em-up baddies as a Turbografx-16 videogame system itself in Star Parodier. And while you’re at it, definitely try out Gate of Thunder. It’s my favorite sidescrolling shooter of all time.

Price: $8-9

Also try: Blazing Lazers, Fantasy Zone, R-Type and R-Type III, and Soldier Blade

Those are my personal picks for fun, affordable scrolling shooters. Hopefully you discovered a new favorite or added something to your never-ending list of games to check out. Narrowing down this list was tough; scrolling shooters are a huge genre dating back to gaming’s infancy, and I had to cut a few of my absolute favorites. Maybe I missed a few of your favorites, too.

On that note, I’m gonna turn things around and ask you: What’s your favorite scrolling shooter?

I wanna be the Final Boss

August 10, 2015

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Holy crap. How can something so awesome sit right under my nose for so long? Even as a freeware scrolling shooter with just three (incredibly, unbelievably wonderful) stages, Final Boss stands toe-to-toe with the genre greats that inspired it. Gradius, R-Type, Raiden, and lesser-known classics like Eschatos—move over. Final Boss is here.

The developers would, of course, balk at being compared with those classics. There’s love for the genre in every frame of Final Boss, from battles against the Vic Viper and R-Type Arrowhead, to certain Rayforce-inspired weaponry, to an endgame surprise that exceeded my wildest expectations. Playing Final Boss makes it immediately clear how much the developers love scrolling shooters.

Final Boss also makes clear just how much has gone wrong with the genre. Look, I love scrolling shooters too. I love them to death. I’ve written about them on this blog plenty of times. But when I think about them as they are, right now, they’re a dying genre. They’re so niche, so specialized, that there’s nothing for new players to grasp onto except for the occasional Jamestown, Sine Mora, or Ikaruga. The reasons for this are plenty: Shooters have trended toward magical girls instead of mecha; toward too many bullets; toward a lack of narrative flow and meaningful progression; toward scoring systems that require technical manuals to understand.

Final Boss strips away the genre’s bitter rind to reveal the pulp inside. While playing, I was struck time and time again by just how much the developers have gotten right. Each level flows from scene to scene, pitting players against diverse challenges culminating in a breakneck boss battle. That’s nothing new. What’s new is that Final Boss offers players real choice. Beat the first level and you can choose one of two subweapons to use for the rest of the game: Rear fire or side shot, each of which drastically change the way players approach enemy swarms. And Final Boss offers another subweapon at the end of every level, each choice more impressive than the last, so that subsequent stages bring with them new opportunities, challenges, and a tacit understanding that the player is one step closer to becoming the Final Boss.

And god, these stages. There have been essays about how level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. is the perfect tutorial—Final Boss’s stages are exactly like that. Each blistering act teaches you everything you need to know, right as it happens, and they progress from beat to beat to beat without halting the action for a second. They contain as many ideas as any three levels in another shooter, the third level in particular being absolutely sublime. At one point, the player sees a glimmering tower in the distance and descends through the clouds toward it, where coils a mecha-serpent ready to strike. It’s a marvel, calling to mind the Mode 7 bosses of Konami and Treasure at their best. In any other shooter this technical showpiece would be the end of stage boss. In Final Boss, it’s just another part of the level.

This level of polish and perfection is apparent in every aspect of the game. The graphics are chunky and authentic without pandering to retro cliches. The scoring system is direct and effective, tasking players with destroying enemies in quick succession. There aren’t any slow-moving bullet hell waves to scare off new players, rather, shots are fast and furious volleys that test players’ skill and reflexes. The game is tough but fair, awarding players with extra continues as they play and replay stages. It’s damned good, and totally accessible to new players.

I can’t say enough good things about this game. I’ve spoken with the developers, two humble peeps from Finland who insist that Final Boss still feels to them like some “indie freeware shooter.” I’m going to respectfully disagree. To me, that’s like calling Shovel Knight “just some Megaman wannabe.” There are some rough edges, of course. The game is too short, obviously, and it has Engrish-ey scrolling shooter memes sprinkled awkwardly throughout. The devs have stated that these memes are already removed in their latest build, and were holdovers from when the project was less ambitious. Even in its unfinished state, I consider Final Boss to be in the upper echelon of shooters; there’s very little about its design that doesn’t feel considered, warranted, wonderful.

So play it. Here’s the link to the three-stage demo. Tell me what you think. Tell the developers what you think. I want to see the day when Final Boss is released; I want to see scrolling shooters change, and grow; I want them to have a future.

But, most of all, I want you to experience what it’s like to be Final Boss.

Super Game Cubes

August 6, 2015

Console

ConsoleList

Why can’t feminists just leave our games alone?

July 15, 2015

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Pardon me if this statement is trite, boring, or totes obvious to you and yours: Feminists love to play videogames too. Are we on the same page here? Hopefully yes. Because when I see articles like “Chaos Between Gamers and Feminist: Is the Gaming Industry Doomed?” I get all screwy in the face.

Why your face so screwy?

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I’ve been playing videogames for a very long time. That banner on the top of my page? I made it over the course of probably a month, pixel by pixel, after coming home from a dead-end super crap job. In-between polishing it up (Did you notice the needler shards in Master Chief’s armor? The Vic Viper and Raiden Mk II tearing up the sky? The Prince tending a garden on Majora’s-fucking-Moon?) I played a crap-ton of Spelunky. That was pretty much my life at that point: Dead-end job, pixel art, Spelunky. At that videogame-immersed point in my life, I was a nascent, budding feminist. Gasp!

Spelunky, that game in which gender representation is absolutely not equal, wherein an intrepid male explorer rescues a helpless, pitiful damsel in distress who is essentially just a sexualized prop and/or health powerup. You know what? I still love Spelunky. Unreservedly. I have Spelunky saved to my external hard drive, forever. I have X360 Spelunky, PS4 Spelunky, and Vita Spelunky. I love Spelunky. I will destroy you if you say I’m not allowed to love Spelunky.

In fact, I still love the exact same types of games that I did in the 20-some years before I even thought I might be feminist. So when I saw the above article, I had to wonder: Did the author never even consider that feminists could also be gamers?

Yeah but feminists just whine about games like constantly

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The chief argument against feminists seems to be that they are shrew-like harpies (contradiction!) that exist only to ruin everyone else’s fun. Everything great about gaming? Feminists don’t like it. Killstreaks, digitized boobies, men doing anything at all. You name it, feminists hate that thing.

My question is this: Where have you been? Go on any videogame forum and try to tell me everyone doesn’t hate everything. Nintendo: Stupid baby bullshit. Indie games: What are they even. Mass Effect 3: So bad the internet baked cupcakes. Gamers are mad all the time because they really effing love videogames.

The same holds true for feminists. We be like, argh!, why can’t this game just not have a non-dumb portrayal of women? I don’t even need to play as a cool sassy weapon-toting badass bitch; I just want this lady convo to be more interesting than watching my autistic cat licking the damned shoe rack again. But the thing is, we’re playing these dumbass, trite motherfucking games because we love them. My girlfriend can rant for literal hours about how mad Silent Hill makes her. Literal. Hours. Fun fact: Silent Hill is her favorite damned game series, and don’t you even try to say that Silent Hill 4 isn’t “true” Silent Hill fucker because that game is bomb and true psychological horror plus also Joe Romersa’s vocals on Cradle of Forest are sexy audio man-candy, pure fact, deal with it.

There are lots of problems with the videogame industry. Tons. And people love to complain about them. People talk about the games they love, the games they hate, and can we please just kill cover shooters once and for all. Sometimes, gamers just want games to be better. Feminist gamers want that too—that’s just part of being a fan.

But all the games will be pink

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Most women do not want all games to be “girl games.” They don’t want to be pandered to, and they don’t want to radically change the face of gaming. The women I know personally have a strong and inexplicable love for first person shooters and survival horror games. I don’t really get it, but there it is. It’s almost like they enjoy the same types of games that guys do.

But hey! That doesn’t mean everything’s perfect in gamer-world. There are very few positive female role models and very few leading ladies in videogames. You’ll note that I didn’t say “strong women.” That’s a phrase that gets a lot of flack, and rightly so, because it misrepresents the issue. When people hear about “strong” characters, they take it to mean “perfect” characters, flawless even. I don’t want that. Perfect characters are boring. I want female characters with substance, with motivation, characters who screw up, characters who feel like they could exist outside their one line of dialogue. And I want that from male characters, too.

This is a big sticking point for people, because What Exactly Do Feminists Want From Female Characters? Bayonetta is a textbook example. Feminists love her for owning her sexuality; feminists hate her for pandering to the male gaze. There’s no winning! The fact is that different people have different opinions. Some gamers prefer Call of Duty and some prefer Battlefield, even though they’re the same damned game.

Most feminist women don’t want a million hidden object games and visual novel samurai romances. They want the same types of games that guys want, because play is a culturally inherited cool thing. But they do want characters that they can relate to, characters who do more than look (vaguely) like them.

That’s not the only problem, or even the main problem. Women are excluded from conversations because they’re assumed by default to know nothing about videogames. Teammates treat them differently after they finally speak over voicechat. Women are harassed in online games, then attacked on blogs and forums if they speak out about that harassment. A lot of guys seem to think that feminists want preferential treatment for women, but that’s not the case. What we want is for women to be accepted—and treated like anyone else.

Feminism just sucks the fun out of everything though

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Secret confessions time: I enjoy multimedia entertainments a lot more when I view them through a feminist lens. A lot of people seem to think criticism kills fun, and that feminist criticism is the most fun-killing type of criticism around. It simply ain’t true.

Tell me: Do you love every single piece of media you consume? Do you love Super Mario Kart and Borderlands and Superman 64 and Psychonauts and Bubsy 3D and Zork and Bejeweled? If you answered no, you don’t love every game in the world, then congrats! At some point in your life you’ve been a critic. You’ve decided what you do and don’t like, and you’ve maybe even thought about why.

I can have problems with a game through one critical lens but be totally fine with it through another. I would say that 99% of the games I own are really, really dumb in some way, and I can say that without even applying any feminist criticism at all. That doesn’t stop me from loving those games, playing them to death, and arguing about them when I should be sleeping.

Debating feminist issues with man and lady-friends is fun as hell. Half the time they don’t even know you’re going feminist on them, and if you’re a dude it keeps everyone on their toes. Somehow though, as soon as they realize you’re applying a feminist critique, that’ll drain all the fun out of a conversation, right? Because feminism. You don’t like Yoshi’s Island because Yoshi’s flutter jumps take a hundred years—whatever. I don’t like Call of Duty because it’s fucking dumb. Oh, and because everyone’s a dude in that game.

I’m a dude, I should know! Dudes are just terrible.

G.G Series brings bite-sized indies to 3DS and DSi

July 14, 2015

Simpler is better—give me two buttons plus one good idea and you’ve got yourself a game. That’s the idea behind Genterprise’s G.G. Series, a slew of Japanese indie games that have recently been unleashed on Nintendo’s 3DS/DSi eshop for $2 a pop. The G.G. games are simply designed, often featuring only one song and a single background shared between all stages, but they shine as handheld games thanks to snappy, focused gameplay. I downloaded and played four of them recently. Here are my thoughts:

All Breaker

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Puzzle platformers aren’t really my bag; I’d rather not spend my time sitting stumped instead of making progress. All Breaker is thankfully action-heavy, rather than truly puzzling. The purple-haired main character swings a massive hammer in order to destroy red blocks scattered throughout the level. Her hammer only stuns enemies, however, so she needs to destroy floors or hit certain “attack blocks” to kill them. The level layouts are simple but effective, and smashing blocks is plain fun. This would be a good game for speedrunning score challenges. You’re awarded points for destroying blocks and killing enemies as well as finishing quickly, and the block-based levels mean you can improvise your way through to some extent, finding the quickest path. I’m probably in the minority here, but I greatly prefer this game to Wayforward’s Mighty Switch Force.

Assault Buster

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The central mechanic here is a gem—the main character (another weapons badass, this time with a laser rifle as long as her body) boosts rapidly around the screen, firing in every direction to destroy robotic baddies. Gravity brings her down slowly, allowing her to shoot as she descends, and holding down the shot button lets her fire continuously in one direction. In many ways Assault Buster reminds me of Treasure’s classic Alien Soldier, with hints of Bangai-O or Gunstar Heroes. Each level is a few short waves of enemies, followed by a stage boss. Most bosses are made from a collection of blocks surrounding a core, with each block firing its own weapon. I much prefer these to the occasional “robot master” style bosses, which zip around the screen and generally have too much health. My one gripe with the game is that time bonuses and enemy kills don’t matter much for scoring. The +5000 score bonus for destroying the boss blocks eclipses the rest of the points you’ll earn in a level. Kind of a bummer, but you’d wanna shoot the crap out of those bosses anyhow, right? A very fun game single-screen shooter regardless, and well-suited to quick bursts of play.

Dark Spirits

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I wasn’t taken with Dark Spirits at first. The main vampire dude is a bit slow-moving for a manic shooter, and the gamplay felt a bit basic. But I grew to appreciate the elemental upgrade system as I played more. Vamps has four elemental orbs that change type when they touch different upgrades, allowing you to mix and match elemental types. If you run into the same type upgrade multiple times, that orb will level up, so you need to make sure you’re grabbing the right upgrade with the right orb. There are focused, wide, and backwards-facing shot formations, giving the game depth and making up for the character’s slow movement speed. The visual design in this one is pretty cool as well; the future-horror vibe must have been inspired by Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. And there are two different backgrounds to this game instead of one, whoa! Dark Spirits’ one problem is that it’s way too easy. The ice elemental shot especially makes the game a breeze, as it deals a ton of short-range damage and cancels enemy bullets. Fortunately the (otherwise pretty short) game loops over and over again as you beat it; I ended up reaching stage 3-2 before biting the bullet. Those who consider the genre far too difficult may see this as a breath of fresh air, but for myself the game lasts a little too long to work great as an on-the-go title.

Great Whip Adventure

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This is the simplest game of the four, but it’s also my favorite. Great Whip Adventure is the pint-sized brother to La Mulana and Spelunky. The Indy-like main character whips enemies and latches onto hanging hooks to traverse jungles and temples. The mechanics are simple yet functional, with a nice stage-to-stage challenge curve and a scoring system based on enemy kills and quick completion. This is a great example of how few objects and enemies are required to make a fun game, and could serve as a textbook case for game designers everywhere. And that music track! It’s used in another game (All Breaker, I think?), but here it magically nails La Mulana’s adventurous soundtrack. Great Whip Adventure’s stripped-down elements all work incredibly well together. At $2, it’s like stolen treasure.

And there you have it! I may do another sweep of the G.G Series in the future, as there are now a ton of them on the eshop. Or I might finally dig into the eshop on the whole, and see what I find. Until next time!

– Tom K, Catstronaut Loves Games

All hail Rocket League, true king of battle sports

July 9, 2015

RocketUnderball

Let me tell you my favorite thing about Rocket League.

You’ve got all your RC cars, and they’re zipping around, boosting and bunnyhopping all over the place, trying to gain and keep possession of an extra-bouncy soccer ball. There’s some really frenetic back-and-forth passing and shooting going on, but the opposing team is defending their goal like some sort of radio-controlled hivemind. One of your teammates nudges the ball just so, like perfectly so, sort of grinding with it toward the goal before he gets taken out as one of those orange bastards plows right into him—but it’s too late, everything’s lined up, like, triangulated for effectiveness, and you boost real fast in a sloppy zigzap past one car and hop over another, then spinkick (yes, with a car) the ball straight past the goalie for the point.

And when you do that (get this) the ball detonates, sending shockwaves out through the field so that any nearby cars rocket and tumble, end over end, away from the goal. It’s wonderful. It’s the best thing.

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Rocket League is just so good. It makes me remember the good old days, before sports games become bloated, monolithic franchises, incrementally and lazily updated from year to year. The NES and Genesis days, when players could pick up something like Arch Rivals or Mutant League Hockey and immediately have fun without worrying about all the stupid clutter. You know, the days of pick yer dudes and you’re good to go.

This is gaming at its most impactful. This is gaming at its most fun. Even when you’re just starting out and learning to jump and aim your shots, the playability is so tuned that it’s never boring or frustrating. The premise is so ludicrous that it can’t possibly work—and yet it does, perfectly. It’s completely intuitive, and every goal, every save, every hustle feels like a major feat.

And another thing: It’s absolutely embarrassing how feature-rich Rocket League is. In a generation when developers constantly nickel-and-dime players, when even a major franchise like Halo is seeing its local and online splitscreen gutted, Rocket League is player-oriented on every level: Great graphics and visual design, perfect controls, immediate load times, 4-player local and online splitscreen, optional bots (with names!), tons of cosmetic customization options including wacky boost trails and party hats, exhibition and season modes, PC and PS4 cross-platform play, dedicated servers, multiple arenas, and the promise of free download content in the future.

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So yeah, Rocket League brings me back. It brings me back to those days when people who didn’t care about sports could still love sports games. It brings me back to those days, so long ago, playing Arch Rivals with friends and laughing at how much fun we were having. Said my girlfriend while we were destroying each other in Rocket League: “I don’t know what just happened, but it was AWESOME.”

I don’t know what happened, either. To arcade games, to sports games, to racing games. How is Rocket League so damned good? When playing, I whoop and I holler. I get into it with my whole body. I enjoy every second, the feeling of play, of being totally present. There’s something here, something special that’s been missing from games for a very long time.

A treatise on the bloody hunt

April 27, 2015

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———

Shields are for dullards and old men. The Kirkhammer does good work for a man of strength, the Saw for the rest of us who are, perhaps, more precise in our swing. What old tortoise would hide behind iron shield while the blood of his wife and babe were supped upon by the beasts of the hunt? Only my father; soulful but bloodless, and rightfully dead.

———

It is wise for a man and woman to stay inside to burn incense on nights when the moon shines red, if they can stand such close company with one another while all manner of creature screech and bray and fornicate lustfully outside; indeed, they may make a ball of this and don masks, and, pretending to be beasts themselves, engage in all manner of licentious acts. But you and I do not stay inside on nights of the hunt, in fact we cannot, because we are both hunter and hunted, and such idleness does not suit us. Our place is out in the streets, in the forests and hills, where the true act of consummation occurs.

———

Yharnam is beautiful, Old Yharnam doubly so. The sun sets orange against the black spires; mosses and grasses grow out of stone bridges, verdant forests which rise from the city’s cracks. Yharnam winds in on itself; it reluctantly gives up its secrets, which are these: Bodies become bonfires, blood is the most intoxicating spirit, and the hounds eat as well as anyone.

———

The Forbidden Woods are tritely named, but what surprises I have found there! Men, pointing and jeering so that one wanders close in anger, men who’s heads, now the distance is closed, split lengthwise into a knot of vipers, undulating with parasitic glee. And the fungal myconid-men with their phallic sporecaps; I did eat their blue glowing flesh—it was not for me (being too tough and earthy), but I saw many more stars that night than exist in any sky, self-arranging into eldritch constellations of the faces I have seen in dreams.

———

Hunt boy, hunt! You should need no convincing, should it stir your soul.

Young girl, take up your knives and walk the streets at night; show me your bravura. I have met women who shame all the men of Yharnam with their finesse. Since birth you have been lectured on virtue and grace, and I see it in your well-mannered swing of Saw and Blade—beautiful efficiency, not a movement wasted.

———

Advice for aspiring hunters:

Only hunt if you feel the hunt braying inside you; wander out of your incensed home only as a caged beast, longing to be free. Otherwise, there is no shame in staying indoors on the night of the hunt; it is the only sensible thing to do.

Pick whichever tool gets you going, but do not underestimate the humble Saws. They have tricks for close and middle range, sweeping scythe-like over groups of enemies. Cleave generously but thoughtfully; they are classics for a reason.

Rely heavily on your blunderbuss, and learn to parry every twitch with a blast of silver that leaves your enemy dead or kneeling.

When you see something unknown, approach slowly and prepare to back away quickly.

Treat another hunter with more caution than you would any beast.

And, most importantly:

Run for those lanterns, boy.

———

I am not and have never been moved by matters of the Soul; save that idleness for grand Boletaria. Those who seek themselves in spiritual affairs strive toward mastery but never truly reach it. I prefer the present tense,  the Saw and skin,  the smell and sight of blood against the Yharnam moon—

The hunt itself, not the idle bragging of it.


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