Archive for the ‘PS4’ Category

The legend of Battle Garegga

December 20, 2016

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Some games maintain an aura of silent legend without receiving significant critical praise. Battle Garegga, a 1996 scrolling shooter by Raizing/8ing, has retained that legendary reputation for twenty years.

Few outside the hardcore shoot-em-up scene have heard of it: If Gradius is the scrolling shooter bible, then Battle Garegga is its Necronomicon. Devoted fans speak with equal reverence about the game as they do about its mad author, Shinobu Yagawa. Every moment of Battle Garegga feels distinctly planned, as Yagawa’s phantom hands pull players this way and that.

Battle Garegga has style. While the visual design itself is a bit murky, the game’s aesthetic dodges tropes that modern shoot-em-ups fall prey to. Many players have lamented that traditional shoot-em-up “spaceships and warplanes” aesthetic has been replaced by cute anime girls in an appeal to anime pop culture. Not so here.

Battle Garegga veers instead toward a neo-WW2 aesthetic, a world of dehumanization, mass industry, and bleak factory landscapes punctuated by bright explosions. If that were all, Battle Garegga would fall victim to the same bland realism that plagues many modern titles. What’s interesting is that the game also has a strong fantasy component, feeling like an understated steampunk world.

This nod towards the unrealistic is no surprise, considering Raizing/8ing’s previous game, Kingdom Grand Prix, was high fantasy, a rarity for the genre. Many of the boss designs in Battle Garegga are absurdist industrial monstrosities, such as the spherical fortress MadBall, or the arms-akimbo Junkey Monkey. Battle Garegga is gritty and industrial, yes. But thoughtlessly realistic it is not.

This is underscored by the selection of playable characters. Four of them are fighter planes, but the other four (secret) characters return from Kingdom Grand Prix. They are, in order: a warrior, a sorceress, a samurai dragon, and a necromancer. I cannot stress how much their inclusion adds to the game. The latent steampunk trappings would amount to little without the ability to fly through as the samurai dragon Miyamoto or necromancer Bornham. Each character has their own playing style, able to be subtly altered for speed, size, and color by pressing a different button during character selection.

Equally important is the soundtrack. I have very little to say about it that won’t be immediately apparent upon listening. It’s energetic, upbeat, intense, varied. And its one of the few videogame sountracks that’s completely listenable outside of the game it’s featured in. Battle Garegga, in my mind, is defined by its music.

I think the jewel in Battle Garegga’s crown, though, is that it’s also a very intuitive game. Yes, Battle Garegga’s systems are complex, with seemingly limitless depths to be exploited. But on a surface level, Battle Garegga asks you to do two things: Shoot enemies and collect point medals. These are very satisfying, very primal videogame objectives.

And there’s a whole lot to shoot. One could almost call that Shinobu Yagawa’s calling card. Other programmers will usher enemies in from one side and then the other in an orderly fashion; from the very first second of gameplay, Battle Garegga gives you plenty of targets and a frenetic sense of disorganization. There are massive explosions, and too many enemies to initially keep track of. Items are constantly filling the screen; players must race to collect what they need. Even without worrying about deeper systems, Battle Garegga feels rich, considered, and sufficiently overwhelming.

Battle Garegga rewards players at every skill level. Certainly it’s a difficult game. The new PS4 port, courtesy of M2, does a lot to mitigate this difficulty through alternate modes and settings. If you’ve never played Battle Garegga, or if you’ve only dabbled in it as I have, I encourage you to try it in MAME, or create a Japanese PS4 account in order to download it. After all, this is the sort of game that could keep you going for twenty years.

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.

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.

I’m wall-nuts, baby, I’m a zombie brainslave

September 10, 2014

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If I haven’t written about Garden Warfare, it’s because I was too busy playing it to un-death. In the throes of my addiction I was topping out at ten hours a day, only stopping when some dumb stupid idiot hacked the Playstation Network, leaving me to endlessly refresh the Ask Playstation twitter for details.

I really love Garden Warfare, then, providing as it does a meaningful alternative to endless near-future military shooters by… mostly imitating Team Fortress 2 instead. Marine zombologists teleport into battle with squealing dolphin shotguns, while gape-mawed Chompers’ tunnel underground and chomp opponents from below. Maps feature fun-first design, with pirate ships, party mansions, and gem mines replacing typical war-torn wastelands. There’s something wonderful and playful here that we’ve been lacking ever since Call of Duty recodified (and ruined) competitive shooters.

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Indies have arrived

August 11, 2014

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Amidst a scarcity of big budget games, indies are stealing the spotlight

Looking through my Playstation 4’s media bar last night, I noticed something strange: a complete absence of big-budget, publisher-backed titles. There was the Destiny beta, of course, but nothing truly substantial, nothing I’ve actually bought. In fact, the beep of an empty disc tray is something of a running joke in my house — of course there’s nothing in there; we don’t even own a physical disc for the system.

For me, that’s incredibly weird. I’m not a primary consumer of AAA big-budget titles, but neither do I consider myself an indie gamer. I’m not prone to playing navelgazing, experiential indie titles; instead, I play scrolling shooters, platformers, role-playing games, kart racers, and brawlers. Seeing that my library consisted of nothing but indies came as a real shock to me.

But that’s a defining core of this generation: the walls have broken down, and all of a sudden indies sit flush alongside mainstream titles. New distribution models are allowing indie developers a voice, and they’re making that voice heard.

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PS4 review: TowerFall Ascension

March 12, 2014

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Super Smash Towers Fall

The Playstation 4 just got its first great game in TowerFall Ascension, a riotously fun 4-player archery grudge match that’s near impossible to put down. Archers hop around multitiered platforming levels, firing arrows and dodging enemy shots. Conflicts can be snappy one-shot kills or back-and-forth dances between players; they end with calculated arc shots or lucky boot stomps or even suicides, as a player’s upturned arrow drops back to earth and onto their face.

TowerFall’s closest point of reference is Super Smash Bros with a touch of Spelunky. There are aerial platforms, fast-falls, bombable dirt clods, directional air-dodges, faux-retro graphics, platforming stomp attacks, and scads of items. It does for Smash Bros what Smash Bros did for the fighting genre, stripping it down and building it up again from an entirely new perspective.

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