Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Five 2016 Games I Enjoyed in 2016 - Opinion

Go play SOMA. And go play Ori and the Blind Forest while you're at it too. I got around to those games this year and really wanted to give them a shout-out, especially since they would've both been on last year's top five list had I played them in 2015. God damn those are some amazing experiences.
Downwell is a ton of fun too.

Anyway, another year gone by means it's time to write about some games I'd like to showcase. Like with last year, there's a surplus of worthy stuff to talk about, meaning that I'm sure to have missed playing a game that deserved to be on this list (Owlboy or Oxenfree perhaps?). Also a minor note, but I've changed the "Worst Game I Completed This Year" category to "Awful Game I Played This Year", mainly as a semantic point—I would rather reserve the "worst" modifier for games that truly deserve it, whereas grouping Fahrenheit and Imagine Me together under the "awful" category feels more appropriate. Keep in mind that the order down below is relatively loose and subject to change, and above all else, that numerical list-making is a largely fatuous pleasantry that shouldn't be the end-all-be-all of opinions. Now... behold!


5 - INSIDE
There is something very wrong with Inside—the developers Playdead know it, and fully expect the player to come to this conclusion. From the unnatural atmosphere that pervades the game to the downright bizarre complexes you explore, Inside does its best to keep you on your toes and desperately hoping for a way out of its concrete hellhole. While it obviously continues building off of Limbo's foundation, Inside feels less like a flash game and more like an independent art film, especially as you draw close to its turbulent finale. It's not quite a horror game, nor solely a platformer, or even a puzzler; rather, Inside is a brilliant amalgam of panicky, flailing parts.


4 - DARK SOULS 3
More Dark Souls! Despite wherever I place the SoulsBorne entries on my lists, they're always going to be the games that get the most play time out of me. Whether it be for the ambiance, the lore, the combat, or the jolly cooperation, each Dark Souls title continues to provide an experience that's like no other (and those that imitate or claim influence never truly reach its soaring heights). True, Dark Souls 3 doesn't stray far from the formula that made the very first game memorable, but it's yet another successful, gripping entry in a series that should've grown stale by now. From the swift, brutal swordplay against hollowed monstrosities, to the captivating wonder of exploring the desolate streets of chilly Irithyll for the first time, there's plenty to love about Dark Souls 3, and I suspect my adoration for it will only grow over time.


3 - THE WITNESS
Out of every game released this year, nothing feels more fulfilling and complete than The Witness. It might be easy to let this quaint title slip by when looking at 2016 in review, but Jonathan Blow's sophomore effort was an utterly captivating experience that had me and thousands of others seeing lines and circles everywhere we went. Not only is it a vivid, visual masterpiece, but the game strikes a delicate balance between ingenuity and brain-teasing, being trickier than something like Portal but not as impenetrable as, say, Stephen's Sausage Roll. The Witness is structured around attaining clarity, allowing each player to progress through its gorgeous island at their own pace, ultimately culminating in a wild and mentally exhausting gauntlet that tests if you've mastered what you've learned. The Witness—simply put—is incredible, and it's honestly the title that's most deserving of the "game of the year" accolade.


2 - HYPER LIGHT DRIFTER...


... AND DOOM
What? Am I not allowed two #2s?

Hyper Light Drifter and Doom scratch the same insatiable itch for me—they're games that are interesting in their own right, but their phenomenal gameplay is what takes them above and beyond. My experience paths for each are likewise similar: I beat them on normal and then immediately started a hard playthrough for both. I did a no upgrade run for both. I did a 100% run for both (and did not enjoy doing it for either—seriously, don't waste your time). I could write for pages about why each one deserves this spot over the other, as each game's amazing highs come with their own baffling lows. In spite of the flaws present in Hyper Light Drifter and Doom, they're mechanically the best games I played this year—hands down. If you enjoy sharp, nimble combat that prioritizes impromptu planning via adaptive threat assessment, then boy, have I got two titillating titles for you to play.


1 - THUMPER
Thumper is the definitive dark horse entry this year, blindsiding me a few days after its release and consuming a lot of my free time. Whereas my relationship with all of the previous entries on this list is more akin to a romance, I was a beleaguered slave to Thumper, enthralled by its angry rhythms and unrelenting speed. I once thought Level 5 was my limit but I continued to climb up Thumper's cruel rungs, eventually finishing the game and then replaying it in order to S rank every stage. Now the Plus campaign is the next frigid, belligerent peak I must climb to, a sped-up permadeath mode which is dead set on bursting my beetle into red sparks and iron ash should my fingers dawdle but for a moment. Compared to the other games on this list I can see that Thumper is far more of an acquired taste, but that does not dissuade me from admitting that this abstract tour through rhythm hell has pounded its way into my heart.

This video right here (played by yours truly) really says all I need to say about why I think Thumper is the most energetic, insane, and amazing game of 2016.

HONORABLE MENTIONS


GREAT GAME I PLAYED THIS YEAR - MONSTER HUNTER 4 ULTIMATE
Monster Hunter is a franchise that's very special to me. It's extremely slow, very archaic, and astoundingly obtuse; a lot of people get turned off from the franchise when first jumping in, and for good reason! But when you find yourself getting into it, man does nothing feel better than a long, tense, nail-biting hunt. This year I finally climbed through Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate's G Rank with a good friend of mine and had a blast doing so, finding the two-man (+ two-cat) operation to be the perfect level of difficulty for us. We had to use our wits and best items to topple our gargantuan adversaries (I feared that we would never get through the nightmarish Stygian Zinogre & Chaotic Gore Magala duo), and the amount of time (and focus!) I put into this title easily dwarfs all the other games I've played this year. Though I had already fallen in love with the series at Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, MH4U found me spiraling deeper down the sword-sharpening-wyvern-toppling rabbit hole, and I could not be more grateful for the time I've spent with it.


AWFUL GAME I PLAYED THIS YEAR - EXTERMINATION
You know you've done something wrong when in a year where I wrote about No Man's Sky, Mighty No. 9, and an LJN game, you still manage to come out on bottom. SWERY's Extermination is a woefully abysmal and dull game to play, that yearns to be a combination of Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil but ends up insulting both. It's generally uninteresting, botches its ideas, is narratively boring, and has a shockingly—shockingly—terrible final boss. Aside from the phenomenally cheesy voice acting, the less said about Extermination, the better.


WHAT'S MISSING? - UNCHARTED 4
Besides the lack of a critical denouement between the major themes existing in the game, I didn't even find myself floored with the gameplay in Uncharted 4. Yes, it's one of the most beautiful games I've ever played and the production values on display here are jaw-droppingly spectacular... but at the end of the day, Uncharted 4 isn't a title that grips me. There isn't an inventive mechanic or section of the game that begs my attention; Uncharted 4 is a breathtaking blockbuster that derives more joy from showcasing its polish than offering the player something interesting that couldn't be found in previous titles. I don't feel particularly offended or perturbed if anyone shrugs Dark Souls 3 off as yet more Dark Souls, but by that same token I find it difficult to call Uncharted 4 anything more than "just another Uncharted". And since I vastly prefer Berserk to Indiana Jones, Naughty Dog had a scant chance of creating a game that could compete with my favorites this year.

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Other images obtained from: amazon.com, gaminghistory101, iansteffen.com

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons - Thoughts


I vividly remember the astronomical levels of hype I had for The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Seasons on the eve of their release. Having played and adored Link's Awakening to death, I was understandably stoked for two more games being released in its style, developed in part by Capcom no less (who, at the time, could do absolutely no wrong in my eyes). I bought Oracle of Ages while my brother purchased Oracle of Seasons, and though he didn't get much play time out of his game I obsessively played both of our copies, completing them each four times over a period of a few years. While I ardently enjoyed the Oracle twins I have some kinda spotty memories of both entries looking back on them; I remember the entirety of Link's Awakening like the back of my hand, while the Oracle games are more like a hazy dream I can only recall bits of pieces of. Yearning for more clarity, I decided to replay the games once more, wondering how well they stand compared to their wizened monochrome ancestor.


As a minor aside, I'm grouping both games into one entry because for the most part, the titles are pretty similar. Though they feature different dungeons, items, and stories, their mold most closely resembles Link's Awakening, rarely straying far from its take on the traditional Zelda formula (a huge amount of sprites and tunes are taken directly from Awakening, after all). That's not to say the two titles are indecipherable from one another, but it's probably best for me to compile my thoughts into one big text dump rather than rob the second entry of any pertinent notes I'll make here.

Both Ages and Seasons are relatively meaty adventures for a handheld device. Not only are the dungeons bigger and more complex, but the intermittent journey you go on to reach your next dungeon can be pretty lengthy as well (Tokay Island in Ages is the best example of this). Whereas Link's Awakening feels compact and humble, the multiple means of traversing the overworlds in both Oracle games provide them with a grander sense of scale and exploration, even if at times it feels like unnecessary padding (something that I've become less and less tolerant of as I've gotten older). There's a host of minigames to play, NPCs to chat with, and some utterly pointless rings to collect; there are things to fault the games for but lack of content is not one of them.

Feel free to fault the games for a lack of personality though. Besides a few items and Subrosia, the Oracle games don't really bring a whole lot of new material to the table. A big part of it is that they share a bit too much DNA with Link's Awakening—the overworld themes being exactly the same is a really unfortunate oversight. The plot of both games are your typical fare of "evil person desires chaos, chosen hero must defeat them" with little to no poignant insight into the denizens of each land. The Oracle games take on a decidedly lighter, more formal tone than Link's Awakening; you're here to save the world, not to listen to sad backstories. And to be fair—that's okay! Majora's Mask and Link's Awakening are the only Zelda games that dive into malaise affairs, but the problem is that every other Zelda title in comparison has something going for it; the Oracle games really don't amount to much more than "don't you wish that Game Boy game you liked so much was longer?"


Since my original journey through the duology began with Ages, this time I decided to swap the order around and start with the action-oriented Seasons—and by "action-oriented", I mean many of the rooms in dungeons will simply require you to vanquish your enemies in order to unlock progression. The original Legend of Zelda throwbacks are a cool touch, especially since the bosses get a considerable face-lift. The dungeons themselves are inferior to their Ages counterparts however, as many of them lack individuality that separates them from the last (barring Level 8 and its latent gimmick). The overworld is a bit more fun to traverse since you don't have to deal with the brief but extremely repetitive time travelling cutscene, and I feel the magnetic gloves rival the mermaid suit in ingenuity (both items are a great addition to Link's repertoire). Subrosia is a bit cumbersome to navigate but as I stated above, it provides some much needed individuality to Seasons.

Ages remains my favorite though, largely thanks to the more cerebral puzzles it offers. The tile treading and colored cube challenges are extremely satisfying problems to solve, and a majority of the dungeons attempt to have a central conceit for you to tackle. The game peaks at the brilliant Level 7, which is basically "the Water Temple part two"—a phrase that would strike fear into most but is a delicious task to undertake for the intrepid. I'm also a lot more fond of the final boss fight in Ages, as it feels more like a traditional Zelda battle compared to its slightly unfair brethren in Seasons. I generally find the content in the overworld to be more interesting as well, except for the never-ending Goron section at the top right of the map.

There's a bunch of linked goodies that the player can tap into if they possess both Oracle titles, but having gone through the games so much in the past I opted to skip out on most of it this time. I did transfer my save data over and give the optional dungeons a go, which I enjoyed considerably since those weren't as strongly embedded into my memory as the main campaign. The password trading and ring transfer stuff is neat but ultimately strikes me as shallow, barely adding anything to the game besides more menial tasks to undertake for completionist's sake. In a way I'm kinda glad that the third game in the Oracle series was scrapped, as these two titles offer more than enough roughage for any Zelda fan to digest.


The most damning praise I can offer the Oracle games is that they feel like expansions to Link's Awakening. They're full of competent ideas, shiny new items, and plenty of cool areas to explore, and yet they don't feel quite as "must play" as Link's Awakening does. I applaud the work Nintendo and Capcom put into the titles, but I suppose my honeymoon phase with these games has ended; it was honestly kinda difficult to write this entry because there wasn't a lot of material I felt required elucidation. They're fun Game Boy games that don't really amount to anything more than just that—fun Game Boy games.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Final Fantasy XV - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]


To better or for worse, no two Final Fantasy games are alike. Similar in ways sure, but for the most part (especially after the SNES era) each title has been wildly differen from another, only finding common ground in their nomenclature. Final Fantasy XV is perhaps one of the boldest departures from its predecessors, introducing both character action combat and a grand open world into its traditional JRPG structure. It's adventurous, has a ton of style, and is an absoluuuuuute messssssss. I can understand why plenty of people are singing its praises—there's definitely no game is quite like it!—but holy cow does it wear the proof of its troubled development like a badge of honor.


I want to preface the discussion of the story by admitting that I like how it ends. Despite what you may think at the onset of the journey, FFXV strives for ambitious heights with its characters, and the final chapter alone nearly justifies the bizarre "boy band road trip" premise. The problem, however, is the manner in which is told. Characters disappear offscreen to do god knows what (or flat-out die) and rarely are there attempts to inform the player why events are unfolding the way they are. A lot of spectacle is put into the summon battles but there's no explanation given as to what you're trying to accomplish (am I here to kill them or enlist their help?) and throughout the story you'll find yourself constantly questioning character motives (are we really going to help the Empire explore this dungeon guys? Really?)

Honestly, the plot of FFXV is the game's weakest point. Multiple red flags appear early on: the lore of the land is given in the damn tutorial (it's not even accessible from the main menu!), the invasion of your capital city is summarized through movie snippets, nearly nothing is told to you about who/what/where the Empire is, and there's not even a glossary of terms à la FFXIII that you can reference for quick reminders. The game does an atrocious job of introducing you to its core enemies (the first named foe you meet—Loqi—is subsequently killed in the following boss encounter) and the foreign lands you visit in the latter half barely amount to anything more than window dressing along a narrow hallway. The scarcity of reasoning that the plot provides is something I expected from the old Famicom titles, so I can't even begin to articulate how mystifying it is to encounter such obscenely woeful storytelling in 2016. Seriously, when your plot has the same exact "who the hell is Stan" moment from True Detective season two (complete with multiple instances of characters mourning said paper-thin nobody), maybe you shouldn't have left the rough draft phase so early.


The last thing I'm going to rag on is Luna, because she's an affront to the game. Certain scenes in FFXV are among the most honest and heartfelt that the Final Fantasy series has to offer, and it's all thanks to the great chemistry between the core cast. And yet Luna—one of the most pivotal characters to Noctis' development—is a stodgy bore, an old lady in a teenager's body. As a young girl she orates to Noctis the magnitude of his office (because children love talking about stuff like this) and as an adult she barely does anything other than wistfully pine for Noctis in-between sending him dry, emotionless messages via carrier dog. It's bad enough to write a character so hopelessly dull, but even worse to have her play such an integral part of the story despite never even establishing what makes their relationship meaningful. Noctis and Luna are arguably the worst couple in the entire series; the player forms a deeper attachment to Iris during their adventure because she participates in what the game does best: battle, sightsee, and chat.


Where FFXV undoubtedly hits its mark is in the combat; fighting fiendish enemies with your allies at your back is a joy. While your brothers in arms don't have the most sophisticated AI, the battle system is fun enough that you won't really mind if they never seem to get out of the way of AoE attacks (including your own spells). It takes some time to get used to the flow of combat in the game (as you're either holding the auto-dodge button or auto-attack button most of the time), but it provides enough of a spectacle that I was never agitated by some of its jankiness (the camera gets stuck behind shrubbery quite often). Though I wish there was a smidge more monster variety in the game, what's provided here is entertaining enough to last you the 30 hours it takes to complete the main story.

Would that I could say the same about the design of the open world, but as Conan O'Brien so bluntly put it, FFXV's countryside is an "aggressive wasting of our time". I have no qualms with attempting to portray a vast open landscape properly, but with that comes the inevitable tedium of traversing it from end to end multiple times as you undertake one hunt at a time (and can only track a single quest on your minimap). You'll use your royal vehicle to ferry you from town to quest and back again, and after a while a tiny voice will balloon in your head, whispering "it's just not worth it to do all these quests". Even though I enjoyed my time with FFXV's combat, exploring the post-game content was too great of a task for me, due to how cumbersome and draining exploring the world was.

Beyond that, there's a myriad of little designs that I can't believe made it into the final game. For instance: when someone offers you a quest, why do you pick it up/drop it off in a separate but directly adjacent spot to where you talk to them? Why can't you adjust the volume of the song in your car on the fly? Why can't I cook my own meals without resting? How the hell are your friends supposed to avoid getting nuked by the higher tier spells? Why are there no save points mid-dungeon? Why is "slow walk" the standard speed in dungeons? Why are all treasures a minuscule, glittery dot on the ground? When I'm selling treasures, why can't I see how they specifically alter spells so I can keep the quintcast ones? Why don't I get gil from side quests? Why can't you undertake more than one hunt at a time?!

Mind you, I'm not actually as irate at FFXV as the above tirade may suggest. There are still a ton of things I appreciate about it: I love how each day ends by looking at the Prompto's photos, I like the monster designs, the character animations are magnificent, magical explosions have a good weight to them, and gil is actually a rare commodity for once. For as wonky and imperceptible as the combat gets at times (good luck figuring out whom the damage numbers belong to when fighting more than five foes), at the end of the day FFXV is a fun game to play when you're playing it. All of the downtime is a chore though; FFXV is only enjoyable as a whole if you have plenty of time on your hands, or plan on playing only one game this month...


... oh, and, you know, if you're immune to terrible storytelling.


The problems with Final Fantasy XV are manifold to those not drunk with hype. There's no shame in liking it but this is a game riddled with issues in a series typically known for its above-average quality (I didn't even get into the never-ending slog that is Chapter 13!) I don't regret that I played it, but I do feel a pang in my heart for the good that is present here, as it's eternally submerged in a swamp of poor decisions. It took a long time to finally get to FFXV's release, but unfortunately it's going to take even longer for the franchise to catch up to where RPGs are at today.
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Images obtained from: finalfantasy.wikia, youtube.com

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Always the Same Blue Sky... - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

The worst part about Always the Same Blue Sky... is that it offers not but a taste of brilliance. There's a lot about it to like: approachability, colorful visuals, fantastic music, expressive writing... which makes it all the more tragic that the entire story wraps up in forty minutes. It's less of a visual novel and more like a visual short story, offering you a momentary glimpse into its cozy island setting before reaching one of its two endings. While I don't inherently dislike experiences that seek to be brief yet impactful, the amount of work and polish on display here practically beg for a longer runtime, especially in regard to the game's ulterior message.


This is not to say that I was disappointed by the experience; what I ultimately feel about the game is somewhat hard to describe. I think Always the Same Blue Sky... is good!—I definitely enjoyed my time with it. But narrative-centric visual novels can be finicky creatures to develop properly, since their emotional payoff depends on your fondness for their characters. There's nothing wrong with Kira (the sole heroine of the story) either, but familiarity forms the strongest of all bonds, and being able to say "hello" and "goodbye" to her in a single sitting doesn't provide the player with the emotional resonance the story seeks. Considering that the tale ends on a bittersweet note makes this issue all the more lamentable.


Always the Same Blue Sky... does try its best however, and the heartfelt effort is commendable on its authenticity alone. Though there are a handful of sections where the dialogue feels a bit forced (usually before a branching path centered around philosophical argument [e.g. "I have firm beliefs and I know what I'm doing is right. It may feel difficult superficially but I have a job to do for the greater good..."), the writing overall is splendid, featuring a wondrous amount of expressive phrases. There's a nostalgic, nearly saccharine feel to the game thanks to the portrait and description of the antique town ("The school is situated on the end of a peninsula and no matter where you are, you can hear the constant lapping of the docile waves on the beach not far below") and the ways in which the player character describes Kira's ethereal beauty ("Although untanned, the colours in her hair gave the impression she had spent a lifetime bathing in the sun. Full of depth, it appeared radiant in the bright light that flooded through the window behind her."). I suspect the writer Grant Wilde is somewhat of a hopeless romantic, as he naturally excels at filling the player's heart with an anxious whimsy that longs for love's sweet release. Granted, it's a naive, star-struck type of teenage love, but that doesn't detract from how soothing the relationship with Kira can be if you're able to transport yourself to those distant summer shoes.

Lastly, I need to congratulate the musician Jon Hayward for writing some absolutely amazing music. While I'm by and large a visually-oriented person, I find that the aspect of visual novels that hooks me the most is actually their soundtrack, as even titles that I deem not particularly good (*coughKanoncough*) can at least tug at my heartstrings with a melancholy tune or two. The short journey you find yourself on in Always the Same Blue Sky... is filled with breathy flutes and gentle marimbas, as evidenced by its phenomenal "Main Theme" or the curiously winding "Alleys and Side Roads". The work Hayward puts in to fit the music so perfectly to the style and setting of the game cannot be understated; where simple themes could've sufficed, Hayward truly brought out the beauty in this fleeting relationship.


My concluding thought on Always the Same Blue Sky... is that it serves as an amazing proof of concept for Wilde. I think it's strong enough to be played and enjoyed on its own, but it undoubtedly feels like a diamond caught in mid-transformation. The twist at the end is something I wish had more care delivered to it (as it's a bit jarring as is) but I really like the tone and outcome of both endings, finding them interesting concepts that would probably flourish better had the story spent more time building up to them. Always the Same Blue Sky... is like a precious sapling that only needed space to sprout into a mighty tale, yet in spite of that detriment there's still plenty to admire about it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Odallus: The Dark Call - Thoughts


I was greatly looking forward to JoyMasher's sophomore effort, Odallus: The Dark Call. Oniken proved that the developers knew what made the classic games of the 8-bit era tick, and though I didn't hop on the Indiegogo campaign when Odallus was announced, I was eager to play it somewhere down the road. Thanks to the recent Humble Bundle I came upon that road sooner rather than later, and man, is Odallus a really great game. It can be a bit tricky at times, wedging the player between a difficulty spike or a confusing progression path, but the game adheres to a philosophy that respects the player and fully expects them to use their arsenal in order to make it to the end of this dark, monster-slaying journey... and after wiping the blood off of your sword, you're likely to think back on it all and conclude (with a grin), "yeah, this was a lot of fun!"


Before I begin, the description on Odallus' steam page lists Ghosts 'n Goblins, Demon's Crest, and Castlevania as direct inspirations, but Odallus actually plays like none of those games. Sure it shares the same kind of oppressive atmosphere (in spite of its versatile color palette), but all three of those games play considerably slower than Odallus does—hell, JoyMasher's game doesn't even have a quirky jump mechanic like those do! Odallus is less about planning your next move and more about executing swift barbarian justice on your foes... kinda like Oniken! In fact, that's probably the best analog to the game: picture Oniken, enlarge the sprites, add in some backtracking and cool powerups, and there ya go!

The backtracking aspect plays a bigger role than the above sentence might imply, but it's important to note that the majority of Odallus is played as consecutive stages from an NES game (with a few branching paths to spice things up). Rarely will you have more than one viable stage to select from, keeping things feeling less Metroidvania-y and more classic, despite the fact that you'll still have to head into earlier levels to pick up goodies or find a secret exit. Thankfully the levels are shorter than you remember upon replay and offer plenty of permanent shortcuts to unlock (like activating a skull-face teleporter), never burdening the player with prolonged periods of boredom. The overarching design is a successful mix of "old meets new", playing like an retro platformer but having enough modern design sensibilities to never become overbearing or groan-inducing.


That said, Odallus can still be a prickly at times, especially once you reach the final boss (which is an astoundingly awesome fight, by the way). It's no easy task to reach the credits but I'd hesitate to call Odallus a difficult game, or at least difficult in the same way its alleged inspirations are. The only thing that conflates its perceived challenge is that the game sticks to a limited lives system despite not really needing to, given how prevalent the shortcuts are. I was also confused for a long time whether or not the unlocking a shortcut would persist after using a continue, but fortunately they do, which I wish the game had indicated to me beforehand somehow. For the most part Odallus is very gentle and rewarding at just the right times (like stumbling upon a full health chest after a section filled with fierce enemies), which is a testament to how tightly designed the game is; as long as you proceed cautiously and keep your side-arms ready, there's no reason you can't reach the final stage in a few hours (good luck beating that level though!)

Besides the limited lives, I suppose I don't have too many qualms with Odallus overall. The controls felt a little sloppy and slidey at times—Oniken suffered the same problem if I recall correctly—but they're easy to get used to by the third level, especially once you eventually obtain the double jump and command more control over your trajectory. I'm a little sad that the sub-weapons don't have an upgrade to enhance their use in the endgame, but whapping guys with just your sword remains fun for the entire duration of the game. The story can be somewhat confusing but the Berserk-inspired theme of the game in conjunction with the revolting Gigeresque pixel art is a super awesome combination that never feels trite or dull. Almost every time I think of something that might make me feel a little lukewarm on the game, there's always some other aspect that I really dig and enjoy.


Odallus is not a gigantic leap beyond their blade-swinging debut, but that's because since their inception JoyMasher has understood what made 8-bit platforming so much fun. Whereas Oniken made me a believer in their work, it was Odallus that cemented them as masters of their craft, doing far more than simply invoking nostalgia with their punchy visuals. It's somewhat hard to recommend the game to anyone that doesn't enjoy the era of gaming that inspired it, but for those of us who yearn for an oldschool challenge aided by some clever design, nifty bosses, and catchy pulse wave tunes, Odallus is right down our alley.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Gone in November - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

Gone in November is a severely undercooked game. Developed by Florastamine, its a walking sim that centers around struggling with three separate but related problems: loss of a friend/lover, depression, and leukemia—a powerful combination on paper. The visuals and price tag make it pretty clear that Gone in November an amateur piece of art, but I went into it with an optimistic outlook, especially since I know topics like these are probably really close to the developer's heart. Reaching the end of the tale less than twenty minutes later, I walked away feeling that it was in dire need of some serious feedback during development.


Perhaps the most glaring issue is that the author of the game is (most likely) not a native english speaker, given the multitude of errors in the text and the Vietnamese on some of the billboards outside of the main house. In a game such as this that's highly dependent on its prose to convey emotion and evoke pathos, any broken sentences or irregular dialogue will fail to properly resonate with the player, only serving to distance them from the story. While there are a handful of times that what's written does work ("Time. Please don't take her away." and "I hate you for not being right here, right now."), there's a multitude of examples where I couldn't tell what was happening, who was speaking, or what the author was even trying to communicate to me ("She said they didn't allow her to go out. That if she was released, she would never come back. But that was everything." and "Isn't people were born to pay their debts?")

For the most part I could understand what the game was trying to tell me; Gone in November unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve, yet its dauntless attitude doesn't necessarily amount to anything special while you play it. You'll understand that the player character loved a girl, lost a girl, and feels isolated and cut off from everyone else... but there's really not much to it beyond that. A good chunk of the game is spent reading dialogue about how apathetic and cold the world (read: society) treats its inhabitants, but these generalizations are similar to those you're bound to make in highschool, during the time when you become disillusioned with both yourself and everyone around you ("Look at these people. They are all clueless about you and your problems. Like they care. It's not their business anyway." and "And here you are. Standing between a mess created by people's ignorance and your negativism.") Had I played this over a decade ago perhaps I would've been floored by the experience—likely finding the author to be a kindred spirit—but now it's too easy to recognize the raw, aimless angst that poisons early adulthood, each cynical remark made far from being unique, biting, or poignant.


The one aspect that Gone in November handles pretty well is its trippy visuals, but due to the simplicity of the textures there's not really anything that's worth more than a passing gander. There were a couple of instances that actually surprised me (the cactuses, the car), however the overall experience kinda just wanders around with its ideas until it reaches a screeching halt. As there aren't a lot of strong recurring motifs or optional goodies to find there's almost no reason to replay the game, especially since both of its endings only result in a mere difference of closing audio. I did remain entertained as I was playing through it, but this is far from being a sterling example of how beautiful and enthralling a walking sim can be.


I admire Gone in November's heart—any piece of art that attempts to communicate how utterly consuming depression can be is welcome in my book... it's just unfortunate that I feel it's not worth a recommendation. I mean sure, it's worth a look if you wanna see someone's personal take on the subject, flaws and all, but it essentially offers a perspective that you can stumble upon yourself in a random DeviantArt journal post. It's great that the game is both short and cheap, though I think its brevity conversely contributes to it feeling half-baked in the end. More than anything, I'm interested in seeing what Florastamine takes away from this experience, and if we see another effort from the developer—I want to encourage these kinds of products to keep being made, even if there's some ugly bumps along the way.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Thumper - Thoughts


There are a handful of games that are about journeying into the depths of Hell—Doom, Dante's Inferno, and Diablo immediately spring to mind—but no product more perfectly encapsulates the dread of such an endeavor than Thumper. I know it might come across as grandstanding (after all, how does a rhythm game with no discernible setting accomplish this?) but I implore you to listen: surviving Thumper is surviving Hell. In an Inferno-esque style, nine vicious stages await you as you descend into the maw of madness, obstacles and beats coming at you faster and faster until you're unsure if the human mind is capable of processing such an onslaught of information. Your vision will blur, your palms will sweat, and your fingers will tense up as you smash against walls and fly into spikes; you will die, and die, and die again, until your weakness has been purged... or you simply break. No game released this year has put up more of a fight than Thumper, and no game I've played this year has been more satisfying to finally conquer.


Part of Thumper's allure is in how deceptively simple it is: the only required inputs are a single button and the cardinal directions of a joystick. As your iron-clad beetle vehicle whizzes down the track, you'll press the button to hit a pad, or press the button plus direction to grind against a wall. There's also flying, multiple lanes, and stomp chaining that gets introduced later on, but Thumper eases you into these abilities one by one, teaching you a new trick for each of its first five levels. Perhaps the best way I can describe the game is that's it kinda like Stepmania meets Super Hexagon with an F-Zero exterior, requiring rhythmic precision at a blistering fast speed.

And Thumper is fast—very very fast. You'll need each of its sixty frames per second to read objects in the distance before they hie to your position, a mere two crashes needed to burst your beetle into bits. While the game showcases a lot of spiffy effects and visuals (some of the bosses in particular are real nifty), Thumper demands you parse the signal from the noise in order to survive, which can be a grueling task at first. Hairpin turns, claustrophobic tunnels, and a dizzying amount of particle effects and lights are all meant to obscure your vision, but hopefully you'll grow used to the bewildering amount of action onscreen, eyes squarely focused on the oncoming track.


And what rhythm game is complete without some excellent music? To say Thumper's soundtrack is catchy or melodic would be... well, a lie; primal drums accompanied by ambient hums are what urge you onwards, all other instrumental fat shorn away. Each oncoming obstacle adds percussion to the soundscape, with your inputs either repeating or complementing the audible attack. While it might seem like the dearth of other instruments would cause the game to get boring after a while, the clever twist that Thumper pulls is that each of its nine levels is a corresponding time signature: Level 1 is 1/4, Level 2 is 2/4, Level 3 is 3/4 and so on. Just when you feel you've mastered one stage's tricks, the next one hastily makes a fool out of you until you can grasp its completely different timing. To best survive, I recommend putting on headphones, cranking the volume, and zoning out until you become one with the beetle, naturally intuiting what every move will add to the battlefield of noise.

Rarely will you ever feel comfortable playing the game though, which is where the Hell analogy comes back in. In something like Doom the player is empowered as they march on, whereas Thumper immerses itself in cruelty and despair as you delve ever deeper. The world itself is alarmingly alien: cold colors reflect off of the iridescent metal track, strange and brutal geometric shapes forming from afar to distract or obliterate you. The gameplay matches the visual austerity as stages simply get faster and longer, always teetering the cusp of being too demanding. I thought Level 5 had shown me my limits, but I continued to bore downwards, improving my reactions and sharpening my reflexes. It's silly to say, but I'm pretty sure I experienced all five stages of grief whilst playing the game, emerging out the other end as a changed man... er, at least a man that can do perfect turns while flying.


Thumper is not an easy game—it will demand a lot from you. You'll have to endure (literally) odd time signatures, deal with sharp changes in rhythm, and retry sections a dozen times over if you want to earn anything more than a C Rank.  But Thumper is also a game about self-improvement, not submitting to the forces of evil, and the indomitable power of the human spirit. What first seems dark, belligerent, and frightening slowly grows on you until the fire and brimstone no longer burn; where once you were a prisoner, you now make the very road your slave. Beyond Thumper's pain is pleasure, and I can't recommend it enough—it's the best impulse purchase I've made in a long while.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts - Thoughts


The final console release for the mainline Ghosts 'n Goblins series stays true to its rough 'n tough roots. Being developed for the Super Nintendo instead of the arcade, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts feels more mellow and purposeful than its jittery siblings, being polished and waxed until you can see your reflection shimmering on its surface. Ah, but the red arremer hides in the detail! Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts takes inspiration more from the first game than the second, proud to amp up the difficulty and force you to make every shot count. Lost is the Contra-like speed, brevity, and tamer difficulty that the Genesis entry had vitalized the series with; Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts is the textbook definition of "one step forward, two steps back".


My disappointment of the game notwithstanding, I have to applaud Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts for switching out vertical firing with the double jump. It's usually not a good sign to lose a major mechanic from one game to the next, but the trade-off here is balanced: you lose an offensive capability for more planar maneuverability. Now enemies directly above you pose more of a threat and a greater emphasis can be placed on pure platforming, as exemplified by the midpoints of Stage 1 and 3. You have a chance to correct for foolish jump by leaping backwards, but it also means that fudging the second jump is more costly, since it'll take you longer to hit the ground. While I was a fan of the vertical firing from the previous game, I feel the double jump brings plenty of excitement to the series, further expanding your options for approaching the challenges on the road ahead.

And what a road it is! Seven grueling stages will test your mettle as you work you way to the heart of the demon castle... and then retrace your steps for the harder second playthrough. Because Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts is slower than Ghouls 'n Ghosts, finishing the adventure will require quite a bit of endurance, especially on the last stage (more on that later). I was worried that the prettier, crisper visuals would lead to it being more "normal" than its kin, but there's plenty of kookiness and bizarre settings to be found as you charge nobly onwards to rescue poor ol' useless Prin Prin. My favorite location is the frozen mountain in Stage 5, the first half of the stage dotted by these crystalized, Seussian trees that hang overhead. It may not be as offbeat as the last game, but Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts remains a gorgeous title with a heckuva lot of charm.


Where I start to wane on the title is under the inspection of its design. Stage 1, 4, and 6 are perhaps the only levels that I don't really have qualms with—every other stage in the game is hampered by some questionable piece of design that slows it down. Stage 2 has the loooong raft section that overstays its welcome, Stage 3 has these bland and listless towers, Stage 5 doesn't do enough with its cool avalanche mechanic, and Stage 7 is just a god-awful gauntlet. Compounding this are bosses that are pretty hit or miss, losing a lot of the simplicity that made them so fun to fight in the last game. The second boss can't be jumped over for some reason, the third boss is pretty unintuitive and confusing, the fourth slows the screen to a crawl, and the fifth is just plain stupid (it only has one real attack and looks absolutely dopey without its legs). These are admittedly minor nitpicks that don't significantly detract from the overall experience, except with regards to Stage 7.

Stage 7 is bad—Ghosts 'n Goblins Stage 6 bad. I have no idea who thought it was a good idea to place so many cockatrice heads in the vertical climb at the start, but it makes playing through that section a vile chore every time you die. Some parts of the stage are laudable—the dual cockatrice fight in that one chamber and the ghosts harassing you as you bolt to the boss are clever (and fair!), but needing to get through all this (and a red arremer!) to face two similar, tanky bosses at the end is extremely taxing. Perhaps you'll feel that this degree of challenge is to be expected while running through it the first time, but it's the second playthrough that pushes this endeavor beyond humane limits, requiring you to basically not get hit once the whole level (since you have to have the gold armor to stand a chance against the boss). Reducing the health of everything on this level by 50% would alleviate a lot of my complaints, but as it currently stands it's arguably worse than Ghosts 'n Goblins Stage 6, largely because it takes so much more time to beat.

Besides the unjustified whipping I got while trying to finish the game, there's a couple of odd discrepancies that hampered my enjoyment of Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts. Continues are now limited but can be restocked by collecting money (I think?) such that it's not really a problem... though their presence adds unnecessary stress. The bronze armor and shield add some more flavor to the game, but the shield requires you to stop moving to work and getting hit once outside of that immediately reduces you to your underpants. Your weapons are slower so there's barely a reason to use anything outside of the knives/lance/crossbow combinations (all of them being the fastest firing weapons), and the red arremer is absurdly obnoxious this time around, being able to instantly dodge all of your attacks unless you hit them as they're swooping down upon you or have an upwards firing weapon. It really is something you have to experience for yourself; even the original red arremer incarnation was more fair than this! Again, none of these are game-breaking problems, it's just that they contribute to how exhausting it feels to play through the game twice in a single sitting.


I wanted to be blown away while playing Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts—after all, I naturally lean more towards SNES games than Genesis, so I had high expectations diving in. What I had yet to experience was just how prickly this game was; limited continues, longer stages, and a ferocious final level barred my entry to the credits, Capcom asking if I had what it took to best their devious design team. There were certain moments throughout my journey where Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts astounded me with its creativity and visuals, but far too often I found myself groaning in frustration or questioning if certain sections could've been made better or more interesting. Perhaps during a replay I'll look upon it with a fonder gaze (I still do want to replay it after all), but that horrid requirement for a second playthrough will likely continue to keep my appreciation at bay.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Nanostray 2 - Thoughts


In regards to each of Shin'en's previous shmup titles, I've always had a fondness for their peculiar camera choices. Sure, it made dodging bullets quite awkward and it wasn't always clear if you were going to collide with something, but their cinematic bent was a style fitting for the experimental handheld series. Nanostray 2—Shin'en's final attempt at a "straight" shooter—is their most conventional and streamlined entry yet: gone are the strange perspectives and questionable collisions. Instead, we're given a game that takes notes from Life Force, providing ship-partnered "options" and alternating perspectives every other stage. Though I can't help but gravitate towards the other titles in the series (for no reason other than nostalgia alone), from a design standpoint Nanostray 2 is undoubtedly Shin'en's best shooter.


Part of the reason why I didn't warm to Nanostray 2 when I was younger is that the Adventure mode (the standard shmup campaign in the game) was structured too rigidly for me to complete. Whereas the previous games had an imbalanced health system where one bullet took a small chunk off of your health bar while any ship collisions outright killed you, Nanostray 2 addresses this by making all damage immediately lethal. I do prefer playing STGs that take this "1 hit = death" approach, but Nanostray 2 awkwardly attaches limited continues it, making it so you have to restart a level should you lose all your lives on said stage. Not only that, but the game saves your lives remaining if you quit to the main menu, which means that all lives lost on a stage are permanent unless you hard reset the handheld.

While it's fair to say this keeps the game feeling like an oldschool shooter that you have to complete in a single sitting, I think the simultaneous inclusion of one hit deaths, limited continues, restart upon game over, and inability to return to an old save makes Adventure mode ultimately too demanding. Knocking out two of those facets would've provided me with an enjoyable—and still challenging!—experience, but instead I had to play it with a prudent mindset, powering off my DS should I die within the first minute of a stage. Thankfully there is an Arcade mode that lets you play the individual stages with five lives and all of the weapons available, but there's no cozy middle ground between the two modes; you're either playing each level as its own separate experience or struggling to make it through the brutal campaign thanks to its harsh, disciplinarian structure...

... which is a shame too, because the game is pretty fun!


With the shedding of unconventional camera angles comes more conventional gameplay. No longer do you have to pray to the RNG gods for your warping hitbox to avoid damage near the top of the screen—its pretty clear what the size of your ship is and when you'll get hit. Like with the first Nanostray, you have a handful of nifty special weapons available to you, though you'll only be able to equip one of them for a mission (and why would you pick anything other than the highly damaging Ionstrike?). The luminescent satellites orbiting your ship can be placed into three customizable configurations which is neat too, though like with the special weapons you're likely to find something that works for you and stick to it. There's also challenge modes and cute minigames that add some quirky variation to an otherwise standard shmup, but they feel more or less like distractions from the delicious meat of the main game.

Eight decently sized levels are at the core of Nanostray 2, and there's not a lot to comment on here other than that they're a blast to shoot through. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing while playing the game is that difficulty is all over the place: Nanostray 2 peaks in difficulty at Naizoh Habitat (level 3) while Daitoshi Station (level 5) is the easiest in the game. Besides that perplexing roadbump, you'll get plenty of variation from each of the settings and their denizens, whether it be the claustrophobic sewers of Kohai City, the Life Force-inspired organic interiors of the Naizoh Habitat, or the arctic laboratories of Himuro Base. Bosses are also a hoot to duel too, nearly all of them (besides the first) putting up a fair fight on your very first encounter. In a way, it truly feels like Shin'en took everything they learned about level design from the previous titles and applied it here. The game is crisp, clean, and offers some no-nonsense fun from its first stage to its last, no doubt helped by the standardized camera angle.


As prosaic as it sounds, Nanostray 2 in one word is "competent". The unattractive parts have been hewn off in favor for more stability, almost all of the weirdness of Iridion 3D finally stripped away. True, I think it doesn't have heart in the same way the old GBA titles did (their soundtracks probably played a major part in establishing that), but it's not hard for me to recommend Nanostray 2 to STG fans looking for some portable action. Had Adventure mode been more accommodating, I could easily list this as the best shmup designed for handhelds—as it stands now, it's simply one of the best.

(And a special thanks to Manfred Linzner for contributing so much to these games... awesome to see him promoted to director here!)
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Images obtained from: nanostray2.com

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ghouls 'n Ghosts - Thoughts


Capcom's second attempt at the Ghosts 'n Goblins franchise is—without a doubt in my mind—a superb improvement over their original formula. There's a greater variety of stages, more interesting weapons, a gentler difficulty curve, snappier controls, and better design overall. It's still loyal to the G'nG formula (ie, you're going to die and you're going to die a lot) but it no longer leans so heavily on you fighting against lightning-fast foes. Whereas I felt the first experience was surprisingly devoid of merit, the Genesis port of Ghouls 'n Ghosts is when the franchise finally comes into its own, letting you truly enjoy running around in your underwear.


Before I begin, I have to get something off my chest: I think being required to finish the game twice before reaching the credits is dumb. I didn't know before diving into the series that this was a part of every game, believing it to be a design choice that made the first game—not the franchise—infamous. Besides artificially extending the length of the game, it constrains the player into a particular playstyle (since you need to wield a certain weapon to reach the endboss) and makes the loop typically reserved for experts unfortunately mandatory. In most games, replayability is naturally enforced by tiered difficulties or optional paths; forcing the player to retrace all their steps under a specific condition is cruel and unusual. I firmly believe that axing the second replay would go a long way towards making the series more approachable, and dare I say appreciable.

The compulsory replay really gets my goat because I think Ghouls 'n Ghosts is an excellent game barring that one criminal exception. It's similar to Castlevania but sped up to play more like Contra, requiring a mastery of your arced jump but with the stipulation of a sharp reaction time to neutralize any problem you'll suddenly encounter. Sir Arthur doesn't feel responsive but you actually have a surprising amount of control over what happens onscreen, provided you respond quickly enough. Granted, you'll get cornered into plenty of instances that are impossible to escape unharmed, but with infinite lives and two checkpoints per stage on your side, no death should theoretically break your indomitable spirit. The journey ahead is not an easy one, but thankfully nothing like Stage 6 from the original awaits you on your quest.


What sticks out to me the most about Ghouls 'n Ghosts is how frankly odd the levels are. While you still have to traverse through a mountain to reach a hell castle, the locales are a bit more... exotic, shall I say? This time around you'll be traipsing through a stormy forest, climbing windmill-dotted dunes, hopping across a mountaintop of stone heads, and a delving into a gem-encrusted cave, each setting vibrant and distinct from the last. The bosses too are a delight to look at (and battle!), my favorite probably being the double-screen filling slug in Stage 4 that requires you to keep track of its numerous babies in-between attacking its throbbing lung sacs. Though certainly colorful, the game isn't exactly a looker in the same way its Super Nintendo sequel is, but thankfully the bizarre locations and enemies more than make up for it.

Mechanically, Ghouls 'n Ghosts doesn't play any different from its predecessor except in one major area (well, besides fixing the controls): you can fire up! This shows how an adjustment as small and innocuous as adding another direction of attack can vastly change the way you approach foes, Sir Arthur now able to swat them out of the sky before they descend upon his fragile person. You'll often find that if you're struggling with a section or boss battle, it's probably because you're not thinking vertically; even the new and improved red arremers will hastily fall victim to a flurry of knives in the rear. True, the game isn't all that difficult thanks to it (I managed to beat the final level of the second loop on my first try!), but being able to complete the adventure in a single sitting is personally a godsend, not a curse.


Ghouls 'n Ghosts isn't as cutthroat as Ghosts 'n Goblins but it's a far more fun experience by journey's close. Though the mandatory second playthrough still irritates me to no end—especially since if you play on "normal" since there's no noticeable difficulty increase in the loop #2—it's impossible to spite the game for it. Its improvements are in equal parts level design and player control, having more fun things to throw at the play along with updating the movement so you can now deal with oncoming threats. No longer do repeated deaths feel like the game pummeling you into oblivion until luck is on your side—there's always a way out and you're always learning. I think as time spirals on, I'll look back on Ghouls 'n Ghosts and envision of it fondly as one of the best platformers in the Genesis library.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ghosts 'n Goblins - Thoughts


I am not one to shy away from a gaming-related challenge—in most instances, I welcome it. But drawing the line between something that is "challenging" and something that is "unfair" can often be tricky, especially when looking at the entries from gaming's prepubescence. Nestled between the classic arcade era and nascent modern design (difficulty settings, saves, point-less), games of the third console generation had their fair share of problems finding a way to be challenging without being cheap (though not that many cared). What best typified a product caught between the two was the NES port of Capcom's Ghosts 'n Goblins—a game so tremendously daunting that it demands that you to beat it twice. Relentless enemies and cruel design choices await you if you dare tread upon its accursed grounds (after two hits you're dead!), but spend enough time with it and eventually you'll grow used to its sadistic nature.


While Ghosts 'n Goblins may share many similar external traits with Castlevania—reaction-framed platforming, predestined jumps, high difficulty despite infinite continues—the comparison diverges when you spend time with both. The latter is what I'd champion as a stellar example of how to make a difficult game with a precise control scheme while the former is... considerably less-than-stellar. Around Stage 2 of Sir Arthur's adventure it'll become apparent that Ghosts 'n Goblins is a very sloppy game: the frame rate is choppy, character movements are jittery, flying enemies are far too nimble, ducking tends to glue you in place, and bosses easily outpace and ram the player. Having played most of the notoriously difficult games in the NES library, I can honestly say that none of the other titles handle this poorly.

That's not to say it's impossible to get accustomed to the game's programming, but you certainly have a steep hill to climb if wish to survive until the end (er, both ends). The first red arremer you encounter is the harbinger of ill-tidings that await you, as you'll notice there's not much of a rhyme or reason to certain enemy attacks. Since the smirking devil is locked to your screen and not the location, avoiding his dives and getting hits off on him feels entirely like a gamble, each victory earned under the sweet grace of lady luck (and learning to get those two hits in before he's off the ground). Sure, the game is predictable enough that a no-death run is technically possible, but the initial foray into the world will have you scratching your head at every obstacle. Three separate sections in particular immediately spring to mind: Stage 2-2, Stage 3-2, and Stage 6; the rest of the journey is astoundingly tame in comparison.


Stage 2-2 will see you wrestling with dozens of ladders and beefy ogres that chuck blue orbs at you from above. As soon as you climb to their plane they'll charge at you and camp on top of your character, ensuring death if you allow them to reach you. Combining this with the undulating crows can create nasty situations, since if one approaches your backside while you're keeping the big monster busy, you have to quickly fire a lance at the bird and hope it hits. Tack onto this an awkward platforming section and two unicorns—the Stage 1 boss—lying in wait at the end (the first of which will jump behind you and ram you if you try to power through it), and you have a very bitter drink to swallow not five minutes into your quest.

A whole level later, Stage 3-2 assaults you with a cold nest of red arremers to stop you dead in your tracks. While it's hard enough fighting off one and surviving, having to battle 4-5 of these little devils in a row is a real test of willpower, since two hits is enough to end Sir Arthur. The fact that they lock themselves onto your screen once aggroed will make it tough to shake them (though occasionally they'll fly away), and as I said, trying to predict what angle they'll swoop in at you is infeasible for a beginner. Even when you have the correct route through the level mentally mapped, you'll die, die, and die again trying to figure out the precise timing you need to most quickly dispatch them. Topping off this soul-crushing sundae is a serpent-like dragon boss at the end that's also locked to your screen, meaning its lengthy swoops are just as deadly (oh, and it's immune to your starting weapon, meaning that if you're still carrying the lance you have to swap it out for the awful torch weapon).

Stage 6 is the final trial of the game and an arduous one, asking that you to fight a unicorn, dragon, two ogres, a red arremer, a legion of randomly spawning ghosts, and two Stage 5 bosses all while carrying a specific weapon. Think of something like Ninja Gaiden's Stage 6-2 or Batman's Stage 6 in terms of relentlessness, except instead of insane precision you just need six lucky die rolls in a row. During both playthroughs I had only a fraction of the formula required to make it through this hellhole unscathed, unable to figure out how to avoid damage for each part (towards the end I was kinda understanding how to beat the Stage 5 boss I guess). It's not only tedious and repetitive, but sometimes a skeleton will awaken too soon or a ghost will spawn on your position while you're on a ladder, meaning that if the game desires you dead it'll certainly find a way to make that happen. Your only reward is that the final boss is one of the most hilariously impotent foes outside of Gradius' big brain; there's nothing but a hollow victory awaiting you at the top of this troublesome tower.

I hope it comes across crystal clear from my descriptions, but a lot of this game is about you—the player—not being in control. For every instance where you conquer a red devil a ghost will fire a spike through your skull. Every time you narrowly avoid a stray projectile an ogre will camp a ladder. Every successful battle you have with the dragon on Stage 6 will allow the unicorn to charge right through you on your next attempt. If you touch the game after finishing loop two you'll likely notice you do in fact have a lot more power over your character than you thought, but it never feels like mastery; there's always some situation that will arise that you have no appropriate response for, other than to exhale and bite the dust. And in challenging games like these, as long as you could've deduced a solution, a death doesn't feel wasted—so expect a lot of wasted deaths.


I don't think that Ghosts 'n Goblins is by any means a bad game—I've reached its "proper ending" twice now and don't really harbor any anger or regret towards it. However, I do feel that the game could've been ported better, made more stable, or programmed to be less temperamental... axing loop two entirely from the equation (or rendering it optional) would go a long way to polishing its fondness. It's not a game I'm eager to replay but it's also not something I've sworn off and sold; Ghosts 'n Goblins occupies this weird territory where I want to like it more, but simply don't. The haphazard design, merciless encounters, and wonky controls make it so the experience can only be appreciated through nostalgia or a masochistic lens—viewed any other way, and it's impossible to understand why this game received any sequels.


(please excuse my cruddy laptop camera)