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!)

Images obtained from: