Sunday, February 22, 2015

Okami - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

Some games tend to cast a shadow so immense and fuliginous that few other developers attempt to enter its genre. The Legend of Zelda franchise is a textbook example of this phenomenon, drawing in multiple imitators during its 2D era (Neutopia, Golden Axe Warrior, Beyond Oasis) but scaring most off after the risky transition to the third dimension. Clover Studio's Okami is something I've seen bravely compared to the Hylian hero's legacy, though often as "it does what Zelda does, but better!" Because of my adoration for Viewtiful Joe I bought Okami when it was new, but (shamefully) only got around to finishing it this year. I enjoyed the whimsical wolf god's journey through the shimmering land of Nippon, but the claims of superiority to Zelda's original structure are definitely exaggerated—if anything, it and Zelda share similar pitfalls.

I'd prefer this entry not to be a direct competition between the two titles, so I'll dispense with the Zelda comparisons for now. Okami's greatest strength is the sense of culture it brings with it. This isn't just evident in foreground of mythology & music, but is crystalized in the entire aesthetic package; I would argue that if the game was made anywhere other than Japan, it would not have retained its unique, pleasant flavor. The cultural perspective Okami exhibits is part of the reason why I find inveterately foreign studios both challenging and refreshing, as the exposure to a new kind of world can be very enlightening.

Clover's Nippon is one that is awe-strikingly beautiful, rich with cherry blossoms and eccentric characters. The most vivid aspect of the game is the art style, its raw ink brush smatterings present on every object and character—even repeated asset feels special with this filter! Though there are only several adventure fields in the game, each one is just the right size and has the perfect tune to accompany it as you traverse across grassy knolls and sandy shores. And speaking of tunes, Okami's majestical soundtrack is almost indelibly tied to the visuals, the composers doing an amazing job with recurring themes and tugging at the heartstrings during the final act (it reminded me a touch of Journey's momentous finale due to the impact of the music alone).

Though the game implements traditional japanese folklore into its story, I was more intrigued by its representation in the art. I looked forward to how each enemy was rendered on the bestiary scroll, as well as in-game during a battle. Every foe felt eerie and captivating—the Red & Blue Ogre, Great Tengu, and Igloo Turtle were among my favorites. Bosses were exceptionally well done too, with the Spider Queen and Blight looking truly menacing with a pinch of melancholy, and Orochi's hideous presence bleeding into the bestiary parchment made him that much more terrifying.

Fighting all of these mythical creatures, however, was an entirely different matter.

You see, where I feel that Okami falters is in its pacing and somewhat in the combat. The battle system in the game is serviceable—fulfilling its purpose without any flourish, though oddly underwhelming for a Kamiya title. During the beginning the combat is unfortunately rote and dull, opening up only halfway through the game when you acquire multiple weapon types, a dodge, and more enemy variety to play around with. However the game can be quickly thrown out of balance the moment you pull out any glaive weapon, as the celestial broadswords can swiftly dispatch any monstrosity in your path. I had to actually restrain myself from using it during the final boss fight when I realized that a single combo could reduce his health by a third; I desired the story's climax to resemble at least somewhat of a struggle.

But while the combat is something I could learn to enjoy, the pacing was not. Orochi is built up as the main antagonist in the game but is slain a third of the way through the story—after that, you more or less wend around until you bump into Yami. Again, I enjoyed the story and found the final battle to be the most emotionally powerful encounter Clover or Platinum has ever produced (yes, even more than Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101), but with regards to building Yami up, almost no consideration was shown here. Nine-tails was the most frightening villain in the game and even she takes a backseat to Orochi after her limelight dwindles, the hydra stealing unnecessary amounts of screen time for being such a simple enemy. I get that the appeal of Yami is that he's an condensed, unknowable form of evil, but the aimlessness after Act I just made the game feel so much longer than it wound up being.

The stilted pacing doesn't merely affect just the plot either. Entering combat requires loading so you're not entirely incentivized to fight foes your way from point A to B, the mermaid coin pools are too rare and the item that lets you travel between save points is locked behind item grinding, and dungeons are entirely linear affairs with no diversions or options to explore, which fails to differentiate them from the rest of the linear game (other than in setting). And lastly, there's so much dialogue that it puts Skyward Sword's incessant nagging to shame. It's demeaning to have an NPC tell me where to go for reason X, and then Issun to repeat the same thing back, and when I arrive I'm told that I'm there for reason X. This is especially irksome whenever the slow dialogue takes over, as it just extends certain scenes out well beyond their bearable limit. The dojo was just about where I had enough of the copious amounts of text, as I timed one trip to it to take nearly 20 minutes just to learn additional combos and the ability to do damage when I maneuver (things which require no tutorial whatsoever!) The little things like mashing "A" through treasures obtained or "Start" every time I fed an animal wore me down by the end, and I can only be thankful the game didn't ask me to go on another fetch quest before it was over (though it did force me to fight Orochi for a third time).

I didn't ever dread playing Okami—I found a lot of it to be fun!—but I wasn't sad when it was over. The game doesn't "overstay its welcome" as much as it "understates its objectives", lasting a good while but failing to outwardly convince the player to remain invested. It's a shame too since the wondrous world is so full of color and quirkiness, each of its enemies a sight to behold. I was glad that I stuck around to experience Clover's hodgepodge of ancient japanese myths, though I'm unsure if there will ever be a second playthrough in the future. Either way, Okami's visual charm will remain as radiant as the sun.

Images obtained from:,,,

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Gargoyle's Quest - Thoughts

Video game spin-offs often present an opportunity to create a novel idea. Mainline entries may be expected to tow the line, but when given the keys to a universe with an established setting and characters, designers can crank out some brilliant variations. With that being said, Ghosts 'n Goblins is a series I wouldn't have said deserved a spin-off—Sir Arthur's brutal action adventures have always been fun romps that deserve their merit, but creating yet another platforming game in the same (relatively uninvolved) universe seemed unnecessary.

Thank god I was wrong though—Gargoyle's Quest is one of the best platformers on the Game Boy.

The game stars Firebrand of the Red Arremer tribe (those nasty crimson buggers that hound Sir Arthur throughout all of his perilous adventures) and lets you take control of the fiend as he trudges his way through the Ghoul Realm to save it from destruction. The story is less incidental than its parent series but only goes skin deep, hitting plenty of often-plucked notes the hero's journey is known for. It can be amusing at times (like encountering a town where its inhabitants punish loafing with cannibalism), but the prose is far from the main course—that dish belongs to the flight-fancy gameplay.

Gone is the notorious swoop from Firebrand's genetic arsenal—instead the player must balance limited flight time with wall climbing. This slows the gameplay down but allows for considerably more horizontal & vertical interaction as you scale up walls and hover over tracts of spikes. Later on you get the ability to spit a gooey orb which will stick to sharp surfaces, enabling safe contact with them and leading to some pretty gnarly gameplay sections. As the game progresses, Firebrand will learn new skills and increase his endurance, but the traps and enemies become more devious to compensate (although I'd argue the tower in the first part of the game is probably the hardest challenge).

Looking over these bullet points may not make the game seem that impressive, but the level design is excellent and suits the mechanics well. Enemies are wisely implemented and your options for movement are limited, forcing you balance out of your flight meter as best as possible (which gets complicated when you're climbing up a serrated tunnel with homing creatures on your tail). Since movement is slow it feels a bit more like Castlevania than Ghosts 'n Goblins, demanding the player have a mastery over the controls and enemy placement in order to survive; rarely is the absurd precision G'nG demands present here. The use of vertical movement may not seem like much but it's a unique approach to traversing a stage that's rarely seen in platformers (or implemented well).

There's an overworld latched onto the journey that helps expand the gameplay beyond it's admittedly sparse six "main" levels, though it's not without its unflattering bumps. The enemy encounter rate can feel bloated at times, especially after you figure out how to best win the battles. The towns often feel more like side-shows than places you'll be excited to visit, and the mini-stages scattered around, while fun and clever the first time, get stale upon sequential retreads. It's nothing egregious, but overall the overworld can start to drag on when you're sent back to a town after yet another game over.

Luckily the meat of the game remains untarnished—the main levels are far and away the best thing the game has to offer, each long trek ending with a frantic boss battle. The treacherous arenas you encounter the bosses in only serve to aid their attack patterns, making every engagement kinetic and frightening. The final showdown features an impressive screen-filling devil but ironically winds up being the most boring and repetitive fight of the bunch. The other colossal beasts are enormously fun to tackle though, especially Rushifell, who launches a homing projectile at you as you work your way around a bottomless pit (with only small blocks available to replenish your wing meter). The levels themselves are quite entertaining too, remaining challenging even up to the final stage (where you'll have unlimited flight, which must have been a headache to develop a stage around). However, one last negative tally goes to the penultimate stage's drills for being absolute garbage, requiring absurd timing to pass through unscathed—probably the biggest design choice that I was scratching my head over.

Besides the few off-kilter diversions, Gargoyle's Quest is a fantastic game. It introduces a flurry of great mechanics that put it well beyond being a simple platformer, challenging the player with wall climbing, wing management, and a whole lot of projectile dodging. Besides the overworld, nearly everything about it is engaging, the difficulty ramping up quite nicely throughout the quest. Gargoyle's Quest sums up to be something more than just a pocket adventure, and joins the Game Boy's hierarchy of sublime video games.

Images obtained from:,,

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Oniken - Thoughts

While I contend that Shovel Knight is the best 8-bit style game made in the post-NES era (that doesn't begin with "Rockman"), Oniken deserves an honorable mention. Whereas the cerulean crusader took his laurels from the likes of Mega Man and Ducktails, Oniken looks towards Ninja Gaiden and Shadow of the Ninja for its oldschool training, being more concerned with execution than flexibility. This means that game offers the player only a few methods to tackle its obstacles with, forcing them to hone their reflexes and learn pattern recognition on the fly.

The story is your usual fare of a violent loner taking down a tyrannical madman fueled by gasoline and a thirst for power. It's nothing to write home about but gets the job done; notable is the violence displayed in both the cutscenes and gameplay. It can be quite jarring at times as it's not often you see a little 8-bit head getting chopped in half. This minor detail adds a lot more "grit" to the world of Oniken, and I think it nails the hyperviolent anime aesthetic it aims to emulate despite the bright colors.

The color palette itself stays close to the limited selection the NES is privy to. I would hesitate to call Oniken a looker even by NES standards—some of the levels fare nicely on the visuals, while others (the boat, the forest) can look pretty silly. There is a solid amount of variety in the game as it takes you across eight (mostly different) stages, so I don't really hold the lack of better visuals against it. Plus the grotesque mechanical design of the final two levels reminds me of Sunsoft's Batman, which is always a great thing to strive for. The music is neither here nor there unfortunately.

But enough talk of the pleasantries—the action is what Oniken was made for! To get this off my chest, my biggest complaint is that I couldn't get any controllers I had to work properly with it. I had to fiddle around with some Joy2Key configurations, so at times I felt that my jumps were a little imprecise or that I wasn't attacking as fast as I should've been able to. Besides that though, the game plays as smooth as it needs to be—the Strider-esque blade is fast and has a good reach, though I found myself most indebted to the grenades in tricky situations. The randomized drops from item containers can be frustrating at times (especially if you don't get health before a boss) but it at least keeps you from completely memorizing the stages and treating them like an exercise in muscle memory.

I'm not one to achievement hunt anymore, but I confess that it was a lot of fun obtaining the "no-death" accolades for each of the stages (my first playthrough naturally netted me around half of them). Even while replaying stages I've already beaten before I found the gameplay exhilarating, certain aspects of the level design continuing to impress me. Sure, there's a lot of moments near the end that require a bit of foreknowledge, and a few of the bosses (I'm looking at you Hackan) were more about going all out rather than dodging, but the vast majority of the game is well-crafted, smart, and cool. I think it's a game I would've loved to design back in my adolescence, especially regarding the ominous-yet-rad final boss design.

Oniken's ride is a simple & short one, but it's a helluvalotta fun. It's one of those titles that after the credits began rolling, I knew I would return to at a later time. Oniken isn't as polished as the games that inspired it, but if you want some classic NES action on the PC, there's rarely better places to look... well, besides Shovel Knight.