Monday, October 31, 2011

Project Zero/Fatal Frame: October Horrorthon!

 Bit of a horrorthon fail this year, I managed to clear only 2 games before the month’s end. At least on a more positive note I’ve finally gotten around to starting the Project Zero series despite having owned all the games for years.

Project Zero is a very Japanese take on horror; it has more in common with classic Japanese horror films like The Ring or The Grudge than with the American B-movie style of the likes of Resident Evil. Mafuyu has travelled to a mansion to look for a writer and his entourage that mysteriously vanished and ends up disappearing himself. His sister Miku in a classic horror movie cliché enters this mysterious mansion, which any sane person would stay the hell out of, to search for her missing brother and along the way uncovers the horrific past of the mansion.
Miku soon discovers that the mansion is infested with some pretty malicious ghosts that don’t take kindly to her presence. Thankfully Miku is armed with her family heirloom, a strange camera that has the power to exorcise ghosts.  To exorcise the ghosts Miku must look through the view finder which enters a first person mode and focus on her attackers. The longer she stays focused on a ghost the more damage will be dealt when she takes a picture. However the ghosts won’t make it easy on Miku and will teleport or evaporate out of sight. A special ‘zero shot’ can also be performed but doing so is risky. When the power meter turns red you have a split second to take a picture that will do huge damage to the ghost and interrupt its attack. However opportunities to perform these ‘zero shots’ only occur right before an enemy ghost is about to attack. The camera mechanics have a great risk/reward dynamic that makes for some very intense and often times genuinely scary encounters with ghosts. The first person view also limits what the player sees and can be quite claustrophobic. It’s quite a challenging game, health items are sparse and I found myself dying a few times. It was tough but always a fair challenge.

Zero shot lined up, now would be a good time to take that picture!

The camera isn’t just used for combat either and can be used to solve puzzles. Taking a picture of a locked door may reveal a visual clue to the whereabouts of the key to unlock it and many hidden ghosts can be found scattered throughout the mansion that reward you with experience points to level up your camera and give more insight into the events that happened in the mansions past. When the puzzles aren’t utilising the camera they can be a little disappointing, often times following the Resident Evil template but unfortunately many of the same puzzles are repeated. Thankfully the excellent camera combat makes up for these short comings.

For such an early game in the PS2’s life Project Zero still looks excellent. The mansion is genuinely creepy and complimented by some excellent light and shadow effects. The ghosts look equally amazing, utilising some impressive transparency effects and distorting the background. The story of the mansion that is gradually revealed over the course of the game is disturbing yet moving and quite well written. It’s a bit of a surprise considering this game came from developer Tecmo, best known for their pioneering work in breast physics in the Dead or Alive series! It’s strange and welcoming seeing such restraint from them. Only some slightly dodgy voice acting lets the side down but thankfully isn’t as hilariously bad as some other survival horror games. Project Zero is an excellent and unique videogame horror series and my only regret is that it took me close to ten years to finally play it.


I was very excited about Catherine. As someone that considers Persona 3 and 4 the two best RPGs made since... I don’t know, Mother 3?... I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next game from the same team. Sure the first post in this blog was about Catherine! I was a little sceptical when I learned the game wouldn’t be an RPG but I had faith in the Persona team. Well I had nothing to worry about.

Catherine is ultimately a tale about relationships. You play as Vincent, an everyday Japanese guy in his late twenties with a steady long term girlfriend named Katherine and suffering from a major mid-life crisis. However things get very complicated for Vincent after a drunken one night stand with another girl coincidently named Catherine. Vincent has a dilemma on his hands and has to choose between the safe option of a life with Katherine or with the exciting and younger Catherine. While this is happening men of a similar age to Vincent are turning up dead across the city having died in their sleep.  These deaths seem connected to the nightmares Vincent is having every night where he needs to climb a tower otherwise he feels he might end up on the news alongside the other mysterious deaths. Oh, he’s also joined by a group of humanoid sheep during these dreams.
So Catherine or...

 The dream sections take the form of a sliding block puzzle where Vincent must make his way to the top of a stack of blocks before the ground, which is gradually falling away, catches but to him. This may not sound like the most appealing gameplay but it’s surprisingly addictive with lots of depth. As you progress more gameplay elements are added to keep things fresh and there’s a surprising array of techniques that are required to succeed, some of which are demonstrated by the friendly sheep during the respites between each stage. It’s amazing what the team behind the game was able to accomplish with such a simple premise. Outside the dream sequences player control is a little sparse. The only times you are free to walk around as Vincent are during the segments in the bar at the end of each day. You can talk to other patrons and reply to text messages from the two love interests and doing so can affect the course of the story; there are multiple endings and events that are determined by how you proceed during these scenes. 

'Baby with a chainsaw. It's the killer!'

There might be a lack of interactivity but thankfully the storyline, mostly told through gorgeous cutscenes, is brilliant and is well written, an unfortunate rarity for videogames. Both the English and Japanese voice cast should also be congratulated for turning in fantastic performances. Just like Persona 3 and 4, Catherine shows great maturity in dealing with its subject matter, that of relationships. Despite the mature rating on the box Catherine deals with issues such as relationships and sex in a tasteful and intelligent manner, in stark contrast to the often embarrassing and cringeworthy sex scenes of Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series or the poorly written and under developed relationship in Heavy Rain. It’s nice to play a videogame with a mature rating that for once isn’t utterly childish. The game may be full of cutscenes and dialogue but Metal Gear Solid 4 this isn’t. It’s always entertaining, well paced and never outstays its welcome unlike the dreadful MGS4. One nice addition was that between each stage you are asked a personal question. How you answer this question can affect how the story develops but you are also given a breakdown of how other people playing the game answered the same question and how the answers differ between the sexes. It’s an incidental but interesting touch.

There’s a lot more to Catherine than just the sliding block puzzle gameplay. It’s a fascinating game proving that videogames can deal with some mature issues and the lives of ordinary people and not just the fantastical (although there’s a bit of that as well). There’s plenty of other content to keep you playing long after the game is finished. Beating the game opens up some new puzzle modes and there’s also the infuriatingly addictive Rapunzel arcade game in the bar to master. A game about the mundane life of an ordinary everyday man shouldn’t have made a good videogame but Catherine manages to succeed in not just being great, but extraordinary.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Neo Geo Pocket Colour: the best handheld you’ve never played

 I’ve recently added a Neo Geo Pocket Colour (NGPC) to my collection and it has quickly become one of the best retro console purchases I’ve made. Not many people know about the NGPC because it wasn’t exactly a success and didn’t last too long at retail before SNK were sold of Azure due to financial difficulties. Azure set about recalling all unsold games and units effectively killing off the handheld console.

Metal Slug: Second Mission

The failure of the machine was down to bad marketing decisions and timing. The monochrome NGP looked archaic compared to the Gameboy Colour despite being a better machine technically. An old copy of the sadly defunct Arcade magazine sums up what went wrong with the NGPC. In a single page in the magazine some of the launch titles are reviewed; Metal Slug First Mission, Puzzle Bobble, Tennis and King of Fighters (I think, might have been Fatal Fury). All games scored 5/5 except Tennis which achieved a respectable 4/5 with the reviewer commenting on how the console had a great life ahead of it if great games like these kept getting released for it. On the same page was a review for Pokémon. The Gameboy market at the time was lagging. The NGPC had the misfortune to come out right as Poke-mania was about to take off.

SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium

 It’s a shame that the NGPC only lasted a couple of months. Despite how few titles were released on the system quite a large majority of these games are excellent.  At the time SNK was at the top of their game and one of the best game developers around. SNK’s fighters are of course the highlights of the system line up but there’s also some great RPG’s, platformers and puzzle games in the library. There was also some limited third party support from the likes of Capcom, Taito and Sega, who provided titles such as Rockman: Battle & Fighters, Densha de go 2 (which just arrived in the post as I write this!) and Sonic the Hedgehog, respectively. 

Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure

The technical specifications of the NGPC hardware are also impressive. The console is more powerful than the Gameboy colour, a true 16-bit system as opposed to the GBC’s upgraded 8-bit Gameboy chipset, meaning it can handle SNK fighting games quite well. Before the Neo Geo Pocket fighting games on handhelds had been universally awful. Battery life is excellent, clocking in at about 40 hours from just 2 AA batteries. The piece de resistance however is the joystick. It’s based on a micro switch design, it’s basically a miniature arcade stick. The result is that the NGPC has some of the best controls of any console, up there with the Japanese Saturn controller. If there’s one bad design decision, and it’s a biggie, it’s the screen. It’s one of those reflective TFT screens like in the original GBA, so if you don’t have a miniature sun shining over your shoulder to illuminate the screen it can be a bitch to see what is going on. The NGPC can be linked up to the Dreamcast to unlock secrets in certain DC games using a special link cable which could be fun to experiment with although I’ve not tried it.

Amassing a good collection of NGPC games is not too expensive either. As someone who is unemployed I’ve managed to scrap together enough for the console and practically every game I want for the system in the space of about 3 months. The console and most of the games can be bought from eBay for very reasonable prices. Be on the look-out for bundles, I managed to pick up a very reasonable bundle of 10 games, all of which I wanted, that worked out to be less than 4 euros per game including the shipping. Finding boxed games is a little more difficult and expensive but still quite affordable. I’ve found that you can snipe most auctions at the last minute because there’s really not that many people looking for NGPC games.
Proof that even the people like me on the poverty line can amass a decent collection of NGPC games!
Differences in Japanese and PAL packaging
If you are going for boxed games then you should go for PAL games. Japanese and US games came in cardboard boxes and aren’t as desirable as the PAL releases. PAL games come in miniaturised Neo Geo AES plastic clamshells and look fantastic. Be warned, there are some very expensive games out there especially if you want them boxed. The english version of Evolution and Rockman can be hard to find and very expensive so be warned if you are trying for a complete collection. Some games like Last Blade and Faselei were thought to be rare and went for crazy money but can now be found at more reasonable prices since recalled stock was put back on sale around 2003.

Gals Fighters

As for game recommendations, if you want fighting games you are spoiled for choice. SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium is considered the best but you can’t go wrong with any of the other fighters on the system. I’d also recommend Last Blade and Gals Fighters. Both Metal Slug games are pretty much essential and Sonic the Hedgehog: Pocket Adventure is a decent enough Sonic game. There’s some great puzzle games as well with the best being Puzzle Bobble Mini and Puyo Puyo, the latter of which was a nightmare to find at a decent price. You can also pick up both Puzzle Link games and Picture Puzzle, which is effectively picross, for very cheap prices. There’s plenty of RPGs on the system as well. I own Biomotor Unitron, Dark Arms, Dive Alert, Faselei! And SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash. I’ve only dabbled in these games, other than Faselei!, but I’ve heard good things about them all, especially Card Fighters Clash. I’m currently playing Faselei! and it’s a fantastic Strategy RPG. Lastly Neo Turf Masters is a great little golf game that’s simple to pick up and hard to master.

Puzzle Bobble Mini
 I can’t recommend the NGPC enough to fellow retro game enthusiasts. It’s cheap and very easy to acquire a large collection of great games. There are emulators for the machine but they all have problems running the games at the correct speed and mess up the sound. All the footage of NGPC on YouTube is from emulators so don’t be put off by how bad it looks; the emulators are not running the games properly.
Some Neo Geo Pocket literature I found in my Densha De Go 2 box.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Overblood: October Horrorthon!

This October I’ll be trying to get through as many horror games in my backlog as possible. The first game in the Horrorthon is Overblood. I found out about this game from the sadly defunct Consolevania were it became a running joke throughout the show. I thought I’d get a laugh out of how bad this game was but to tell the truth it was enjoyable in its own way.  It’s by no means a classic and there’s plenty of unintentional hilarity but it’s not the absolute train wreck I thought it would be.

The story begins with the main character waking up from a cryo chamber in an underground research lab. In an original plot twist the character has amnesia but finds out from a computer that his name is Raz Karsy. After finding an orange anorak to stop himself from freezing, only matched in the unfashionable stakes by the main characters beard, Raz teams up with a friendly robot named Pipo. Together Raz sets out to discover what is happening in this research facility and who he is.

The game uses the same tank controls as resident evil but to call this a resident evil clone is a mistake. There’s very little combat in Overblood, perhaps only 5 actual enemies show up in the entire game.  Overblood is much closer to an adventure game where the main obstacles to overcome are the environmental puzzles. The puzzles in Overblood tend to be very easy with very little backtracking and all of them are very obvious. There are some flaws however. You have two stances in the game, standing and ducking and sometimes the game requires you to search for items while ducking. This can lead to some frustrating moments where you don’t know what to do to advance the game and consulting a FAQ can lead you to banging your head off a wall with how stupid some of the design decisions in the game are. 

What little combat there is in the game is terrible. It’s mostly hand to hand although you do get a gun later on. Enemies other than the final boss will demonstrate some remarkable AI for a game so old and repeatedly run straight into your fists. Speaking of the final boss, you are better off saving your handgun ammo for this guy. If you die on this boss you will have to sit through 5 minutes of cutscenes before you can fight him again and more long cutscenes before his second form. You can pause most of the cutscenes but you can’t skip them. There are some proto QTE events in the game but they are a pain since you don’t tell you what button to press and you’ll keep getting kicked back to the title screen if you mess up and may result in a lot of unsaved progress.

The graphics are pretty subpar and provide much of the games unintentional hilarity. The animations in particular are horrendous, in particular the ladder climbing animation. I will give it some credit since the game uses a weird custom texture filter that reduces the blockiness on textures and is the earliest PS1 game I know of that attempts this. The storyline is pretty cliché and you’ll have the whole thing figured out well before it’s revealed what exactly is going on. The voice acting is pretty crap with long awkward pauses between lines and some bad localisation, par for the course for PS1 horror games I suppose. The bad writing and acting does lead to some unintentional hilarity; the scene when Raz meets Milly for the first time had me nearly crying with laughter.

Overblood is far from a classic but I’ve played far worse games. The controls are rotten, the puzzle design can be stupidly frustrating and it’s all a bit cliché. I did enjoy my time with the game in a bad B-movie way and it provides enough unintentional hilarity to break up the boring parts. If you are someone that can appreciate a bad horror film then it might be a fun diversion especially with some like minded friends.

If you don't mind spoilers then check out one of the games 'best' scenes:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Killzone 2

The hype for this game was unreal. Supposedly Killzone 2 was the Halo killer and a new killer app for Sony’s console. I heard this all before with the first game in the series on the PS2 which turned out to be an absolute stinker. However this time the professional review scores seemed to agree with this assessment. I saw the game recently for 10 Euros and thought I’d give it a go for that price.  Well turns out it was 10 Euros too much, Killzone 2 is an overhyped triple A dud.

The plot involves hanging out with a group of generic space machines that are the most boring companions in videogame history and spout some of the worst written lines in videogame history since FFVII botched translation job. You’re sent to take on the capital city of the generic space nazi enemies on the brownest planet in the galaxy. Everything in this game is brown, you won’t believe how many shades of brown the PS3 can generate and be equally amazed when the game changes palette to equally mundane shades of grey. For all the hype about how amazing the game graphics are this is a terrible looking game. You can have the best technology but it means nothing if your art direction is as poor as in this game. Even at that I’m not impressed by the technology at all. Environments in the game are absolutely tiny compared to the vast open spaces expected of today’s games.

The game itself is equally as monotonous and bland as the visuals.  Weapons are unexciting and boring with the exception of the flamethrower which looks awful but is actually fun to use when it appears. You will fight the same enemies over and over in similar settings with little to differentiate them. The game also includes terrible vehicle and turret sections that would have felt dated 7 years ago. This game really is nothing special at all and pretty damning of the press that they could get caught up in the hype for such a lousy game and give it such high review scores showing just how shallow and without backbones they really are. I think I’ll be giving Killzone 3 a wide berth.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Majyuuou (King of Demons)

Majyuuou was one of the few ventures by anime company KSS into the world of videogames and it’s a pity because it’s a fantastic game. Released only in Japan for the SNES it has become something of a rarity and now commands silly money on eBay. It’s a bit of a shame because Majyuuou is one of the real obscure greats on the system. A fan translation of the game is available from Aeon Genesis which translates the title to King of Demons.

Majyuuou is an action platformer sort of in the vein of Castlevania. Abel, the main character, has been betrayed by his friend Bayer who has killed his wife and kidnapped his daughter to resurrect the king of the demons. The game is already darker than most SNES games and it’s only just beginning! You begin the game as a human with a handgun and a charge up hadouken type attack. However after defeating certain bosses you are given the option of picking up a coloured jewel. The colour of the jewel when you pick it  up will decide which of  three demon forms you will take. Each of the three demon forms will have different offensive abilities and control differently from each other. You can also elect to stay in your human form. Using the same demon form throughout the game will power up the demon you are using. However picking all three different demon forms during the course of the game gives you access to the ultimate form of demon for the final stage and allows you to see the best ending.

Majyuuou’s big standout feature is the dark atmosphere of the game and the quite frankly gorgeous demonic art and design throughout the game. If Shin Megami Tensei was an action game I’d imagine it would look something like this. This is quite simply one of the best looking games ever made as you can well see from the screenshots. Mode 7 and transparency effects aren’t used in an over the top manner as in the majority of SNES games but have been subtly applied to backdrops and creatures, such as the worm monster in the first stage made even more gruesome by the use of pulsating Mode 7 effects. The attention to detail in the visuals should also be commended. Kill a dragon boss in one stage and as you walk past you’ll climb over the skeleton of the slain dragon. Some of these incidental details are fairly creepy and deranged. Some of the pixie type enemies when killed can be eaten to refill health by pressing down over their corpses and in one stage you’ll come across two dog headed demons beating a crucified girl to death, very weird and disturbing.

Majyuuou is definitely a game you should check out. The visuals are gorgeous, it plays great and has some epic boss fights. The game is perfectly playable in Japanese although I’d recommend the fan translation from aeon genesis which will help you understand the story and in particular the two endings that are quite depressing and not what you would expect.  Majyuuou is a bit on the easy side and therefore quite short but the excellent playability, atmosphere and art make it a very worthwhile experience and a must play for SNES fans.

Xenoblade Chronicles is fantastic - inital impressions

I was initially apprehensive about this game. Despite the hype I really didn't like Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade was described as being quite close to FFXII. The battle system really bored me since once you set up the gambits the AI carried out everything with very little player input making the long dungeons and stretches between locations a monotonous chore. The small amount of MP (magic points) was also a problem. You either had to set up a osmose gambit to drag battles out longer or run around in circles as your MP slowly regenerated after every fight. Even the boss fights were a case of watching your MP and casting esuna on any status effects. For all the games innovation it was really boring.

Thankfully Xenoblade is a different story. The battle system requires far more strategy. The characters auto-attack but it's up to the player to input special attacks. Most special attacks inflict status effects and rely on the positioning of the character. Also the aggro system means that you can't just spam special attacks otherwise the enemy will face you and start doing damage to your character and make it impossible to position yourself to the back or sides of enemies to get the positional attack bonuses. Most attacks will also inflict status effects. The result is a battle system that requires a lot more strategy and has so far been a joy rather than the borefest of FFXII. The MP problems are also alleviated. Instead of an MP system attacks have a cool down period during which the attack can't be used. Health points are also fully restored after battle.

It's not just the battle system that makes xenoblade great. It's one of the best looking games of the year despite being on the Wii. The story is so far interesting. Characters are likeable, well written and believable; avoiding the annoying anime tropes of most RPGs. Even the optional quests, which I'm usually not a fan of, have been fun and have taken up an awful lot of my time. I'm hitting the 20 hour mark and a close look at gamefaqs shows that I'm only just starting the game. So far this has been the most enjoyable RPG I've played since Mother 3 and Persona 4 and that's saying a lot and I just can't wait to explore the world of xenoblade chronicles some more.