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)

Friday, September 9, 2016

Another Metroid 2 Remake - Thoughts

Back in my Stardew Valley entry, I mentioned how we're in an era where the torches of stale Japenese IPs are being passed onto Western indie devs. Nested in this claim are also hundreds of passion projects based off of the framework of an already existing franchise. Whereas a game like Stardew Valley seeks to leave its own unique mark on the world, there are plenty of fan-made games that aim to honor their predecessors by using an existing engine or creating a new—but unmistakably similar—one. Entries like Streets of Rage Remake, Mega Man Unlimited, and a veritable ocean of Doom wads both honor and expand off of their source material, rivaling (and sometimes surpassing) their elders in quality. Joining this pantheon of fan-crafted greatness is Another Metroid 2 Remake (AM2R), a game that masterfully melds Metroid 2 and Metroid: Zero Mission together.

As a diehard Metroid fan that regards Super Metroid as his favorite game of all time, I'm reasonably skeptical of anything that has Samus' Varia-clad sprite attached to it. The series has a special look and style to it that's not easy to imitate; though dozens of Metroidvanias are released each year, only Axiom Verge has come close to capturing the energy and tonality of the original NES Metroid. Delving into a fan-made project can also be a bit of a gamble, since you're unsure of the level of quality you're likely to get... or if the project leader even likes said game for the same reasons you do. An example of something I was kinda looking forward to was Super Mario Fusion for its clever twist on classic Mario gameplay, before it eventually devolved into an orgy of nonsense. Not every project suffers its fate of course, but I'd argue it's more likely for fan games to dive off the deep end due to a lack of guidance than your run-of-the-mill retail product (er, before the advent of Steam Greenlight I suppose).

Thankfully, Another Metroid 2 Remake suffers no such fate. Samus' old-new adventure remains loyal to its predecessor's design while updating it with the modern hallmarks of a 2D Metroid. You'll find familiar items scattered around slightly-familiar locations (Speed Booster, Power Bombs, stacking beams, etc.), and besides a handful of boss battles and one new area, AM2R follows the Game Boy version's structure quite religiously. There's ruins to plunder, dens to be smoked out, and boiling lava to be drained once you've eradicated enough metroids. Despite the Metroid 2 skin, it looks and handles mostly like Zero Mission (with a handful of tweaks you can apply to make it closer to Super Metroid), which is a blessing since the diminutive Game Boy screen didn't allow Samus much flexibility in the older title. Oh, and the soundtrack takes an inspirational nod from the Metroid Prime series, which fits surprisingly well here.

I cannot stress enough how successful AM2R is in both revering and expanding off of Metroid 2's core design philosophy. If you've never played it before, Metroid 2 is kind of a weird game that doesn't quite feel like the other entries in the series: you're never required to backtrack to previous areas for power ups and a significant amount of your time is spent fighting the ~50 metroids in their various evolutionary stages. It's one part spelunker and another part boss rush; Metroid 2 is the one Metroid game that feels truly oppressive, since you're always descending ever-deeper into the vile metroid nest (plus, the soundtrack and the 2-bit color palette contributed greatly in making SR388 feel dark and lifeless).

AM2R successfully takes these aspects and presents them to the player in a prettier bundle, managing to retain what made the original game feel so unique. There's still a sense of unease to encountering a metroid den or traveling too deep into a facility with no save point in sight. Metroid fights are tense, long, and arduous like they were in the original game, though significantly less dependent on spamming missiles and more about studying/absuing AI patterns, especially in the exhausting Zeta and Omega battles. The game is still centered around the bite-sized areas branching off of the main path, though they're thankfully far more original and less repetitive this time around. And lastly, there's plenty of slow, plodding spider ball portions where you'll travel along the ceilings of vast caverns looking for goodies.

These things may not sound too appealing to you—the metroid fights can definitely feel like a chore due to their high HP pool—but I feel that above all else, AM2R respects its forebearer. The project doesn't look upon the Game Boy entry as a failure that needed refinement, but as an under-appreciated gem that would flourish with a new coat of paint and some classic power-ups added. AM2R treats Metroid 2's enemies and layout with reverence, wanting to do more with them by envisioning what a SNES/GBA port of the game might be like. What conveyed this message best wasn't in the opening moments or all the subtle variations I noticed throughout the game—it was the quiet, ambient jaunt the player takes before reaching the final save point. This monsterless vignette is an extremely odd (and slightly uncomfortable) section in the original Metroid 2 that felt a little out of place considering you're already in narrow corridors for the final fifth of the game, but rather than ax the segment, AM2R's philosophy was to showcase—not replace. I still find that portion a bit strange, but it's cool to see that it's been kept.

Like Metroid: Zero Mission long before it, AM2R practically renders its precursor obsolete. For better or worse, it manages to keep the peculiar design decisions that made Metroid 2 feel so divisive whilst wrapping them inside of a more palatable skin, and each of the new tweaks, sounds, and fights it adds feel right at home. Sadly there are still some things that disappointed me—the final fight in particular is nowhere near as insanely nerve-wracking as its original incarnation (dull might be a good word for it)—but I felt that this entry should be about praising DoctorM64 for accomplishing something I'm sure many were doubting would ever even see the light of day. Honestly, it feels damn good to play a great, new 2D Metroid game in 2016...

... though it's unfortunate that Nintendo doesn't feel the same way about the project.