Friday, March 31, 2017

Blaster Master Zero - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

So... what was Inti Creates and Sunsoft's goal when they set out to make Blaster Master Zero? I'm hesitant to call it a "re-imagining" because Zero contains enough new ideas to feel like a fully fledged sequel to the NES classic, but at the same time it rigorously sticks to old layouts, visuals, and enemies. I definitely had a fun time overall—Inti Creates has yet to disappoint me with their (non-Mighty) 2D efforts—but it left me puzzled as to its purpose. I couldn't help but feel that if it had made up its mind on whether it wants to be a sequel or a remake, my adoration for it would soar past what I can only deem as "nostalgic tepidity".

On all fronts, Blaster Master Zero absolutely nails the presentation. Old areas and enemies are lovingly updated into HD, and the new backgrounds, obstacles, and bosses fit in perfectly with the old crew. The soundtrack utilizes the classic Sunsoft sample channel from the NES, and while it doesn't hit the astral heights of the original OST, there's a handful of worthy tunes that are excellent additions and always a joy to hear. Sound effects are delightfully crunchy and the animations are both flashy and smooth, especially in regards to SOPHIA's devastating final ability. While I had a lot of fun with Blaster Master Overdrive, it doesn't quite capture the look, feel, or tunes of the franchise as perfectly as Zero does.

Even though I dislike how the game is caught somewhere between a sequel and remake, I do respect the care the Zero team put into recreating each level. A number of areas have been more or less translated directly from their original incarnations (Area 1, 8), while others got considerable gameplay tweaks and face-lifts (Area 2, 4, 6, 7) and a few underwent a complete redesign (Area 3, 5). Every stage feels like it properly honors  its original analog, while at the same time trying to do something a little different or new (like adding conveyor belts to the on-foot segments of Area 3). It's both interesting and surprising to run through each level and see what's different versus what's stayed the same (Level 2 is perhaps the only one that feels too different, due to the completely new setting).

Blaster Master Zero falls flat on its face in regards to difficulty, however. Completing the original is an absolutely brutal endeavor to undertake (even with the pause glitch!), while Zero barely puts up a fight the entire game. This is due more to overarching game design than it is the fault of any particular level; health & ammo pick-ups are plentiful and Jason's fully powered-up rifle is insanely strong (rapid fire? Check. Wide shot? Check. Pierces walls? Check.) Limited continues are discarded in favor of a generous checkpoint system, and the game embraces modern Metroidvania design, letting you collate a number of health-ups and shiny new weapons to steamroll through foes with. The lack of difficulty isn't necessarily an egregious mark of shame the game bears, but it is disappointing to play something with Blaster Master in the name when it doesn't bite back—at least chew on my arm a little bit!

The level design feels like a bit of missed opportunity, too. I liked the numerous gimmicks added to the on-foot sections, but the design often doesn't go far enough to make gameplay interesting. For instance, the rising goo section of Area 2 is a cool obstacle but at no point does it feel like it meshes with the gameplay to offer an interesting combat puzzle—most of the time you simply wait for the goo to recede and trudge forward. The same thing happens with the rushing water segments in Area 4 and the moving lifts in Area 5; the game is packed with a whole lot of waiting that gives you absolutely nothing to do but wait. The in-vehicle stages thankfully fair somewhat better in this regard, though your armaments are still strong enough to neutralize most of the enemy placement. The two levels I enjoyed the most were Area 6 and 7, the former for its awesome crystal-ejecting proximity mines that destroy fragile footing, and the latter for its tricky stealth segments, rewarding you for patient play but allowing you to sprint to the next screen should you get caught.

It's cool stuff like that that I wish I saw more of: designs and additions not beholden to the blueprints of the original stages. Blaster Master Zero could've handily stood on its own merits but since it attaches so much of itself to the NES title, I feel like comparisons are unfortunately inevitable. Had your arsenal been powered down to force you to switch weapons more, the level design made meaner to punish sloppy play, and the stages taken on drastically different themes to make the game feel inspired by the original instead of eager to please it, this could've easily stood shoulder to shoulder with the first. Perhaps the Zero shouldn't have aimed to bank so hard on nostalgia or perhaps the game simply needed to include a hard mode—either way, it certainly feels like it's lacking something.

Blaster Master Zero is unquestionably a game for Blaster Master fans. It respects its source of inspiration while building on its foundation, delivering a fun, varied, and solid experience. And yet it really doesn't show much ambition until the very end, content to lay back and stack the firepower in the player's favor, as if its ultimate goal was to bring in new fans. If doing so means that we'll get a sequel I'll retroactively consider this a blessing, but for a game that was supposed to be my dream-team combination (Inti Creates and Sunsoft? YES PLEASE), I can't help but expect just a teeny, tiny bit better from Blaster Master Zero. Maybe someday I'll do a "no power-up" challenge and discover some glittering gold that wasn't there before.

Images obtained from:,,,

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Contra - Thoughts

Short, sweet, pure, and simple: Contra is a game about few words—all that matters is how quickly you can react to rapidly approaching bullets. It's one of the best games to showcase the merits of the 8-bit era, being easy to pick up but tricky to complete on your first try. Despite the common conception that the Konami Code is required in order to stand a chance, Contra is a surprisingly fair outing, provided you're willing to persevere past your first GAME OVER. With a little bit of patience (plus the Spread Gun by your side), you'll soon transform into a Schwarzenegger-style one-man-army, complete with snarky quips you'll instinctively toss at your television.

Your progression path through Contra isn't as creative as its sequels, but it offers up a solid set of levels. There's a meaty amount of jungle treading, waterfall climbing, snowfield hopping, and industrial hazards to avoid as you blast your way into the (literal) heart of the enemy base. Each level is rigged with various turrets, guards, and runners to slow your sprint through the stages, pushing the player to pay attention to every corner of the screen. What makes each stage design a stroke of genius is that Contra constantly uses verticality, forcing the player along one path while tasking them with being mindful of gunners on the other. This is actually an aspect that's curiously absent from other games in the franchise, and wouldn't appear again until Contra 4 (where it came back with a vengeance).

Where the game stumbles a bit is in the forward-running sequences, though they're not particularly detrimental to the overall experience. I think the best way I can describe them is by spouting a phrase I would've used when I first played it decades ago: they're weird. The gameplay definitely works for the most part—the hitboxes are luckily not as loose as something like Iridion 3D—but it doesn't feel as tight, responsive, or snappy as the rest of the game. That, and the corridors for each facility are completely similar (barring the back wall) so there's not much flavor to these levels outside of the color scheme and boss rooms. However, even these stages adhere to Contra's philosophy of keeping the player on alert, obstacles coming in all shapes and sizes as you focus down the wall's weak points. It's for this reason that they don't feel too out of place or mismatched in this game, despite the glaring perspective change.

Besides the levels requiring both persistence and vigilance to surpass, the power-ups play a pretty significant role in Contra too. A striking design choice that's missing from a lot of modern games nowadays is an intentional imbalancing of weapons: Contra's Spread Gun is far and away the most versatile (and powerful!) ability in the game. The vertical threats in the stage design fold beneath the player when they're granted the ability to attack in an expanding cone, and bosses melt under the shotgun-like blast of the Spread bullets. Couple this with the Rapid Fire pick-up and it becomes fairly easy to make it through the entire game without a death, so long as you remember which traps come next. Compare this to something like the Flame Gun—a weapon with such a low rate of fire that it's almost better to entirely avoid it—and multiple modes of play (and difficulty!) are born from whichever armaments you hold. While it's feasible to finish the game sticking to your standard pea shooter, the sheer might and power of the Spread Gun is one of those lovely little additions that helps Contra stick out amongst its peers.

Perhaps the greatest of Contra's strengths is that it's quick to beat. And by quick, I mean twenty minutes—including deaths! If the game lasted thrice as long I could see its difficulty wearing out the more death-sensitive players (this is actually my main criticism of Hard Corps: Uprising), but the brisk pace of the game aids in enduring its memory, making it an easy title to recommend. It's also one of the reasons why I feel that its difficulty is severely overstated; the time it takes to learn and memorize scores of other NES titles downright eclipses the effort it requires to conquer Contra. I'm not trying to thumb my nose at anyone that has struggled with the game, but Contra definitely could've gone to far darker places if it had any intention of being malicious or time-wasting. It also helps that the final stage feels more like a victory lap than anything, something that the future titles would violently pivot away from.

Lastly, Contra is a fantastic co-op game. Armed with a second player to cover your six, you'll be free to charge forward through the level, effectively doubling the survivability of your squad. And even when one of you falls in combat, Contra's life-stealing system is a clever way to teach trust to young players, allowing them to argue where/when it's appropriate to borrow a player's extra life. It also helps demonstrate that it can be more fun to play together and lose than let one person carry the torch for the sake of winning the game (though I admit I was guilty of convincing my sister of the latter plenty of times). Throw in the fact that there weren't a hell of a lot of simultaneous multiplayer games at the time, and Contra not only stands tall as one of the best action games for the NES, but perhaps its best co-op experience as well.

Contra's difficulty belies its approachability. Beneath the tough, macho veneer is a frantically fun frenzy of bullets, guns, explosions, and shameless Alien ripoffs; I can't fathom how anyone could play the game and outright hate it, unless dying a few times is beyond the pale. It's simple to understand and a joy to play, two qualities which have gradually been lost to gaming as the medium has aged and shed its arcade roots. Contra isn't a leisurely walk through the park but it tends to rewards patience and observation more than it punishes you for not knowing what's coming up next. There's a good reason many look back fondly on Bill & Lance's commando escapade debut—run'n'gun games don't get much more accessible than this.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Silent Hill: Downpour - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

After playing Silent Hill: Downpour, I'm kind of glad the franchise is dead. The quality of the Silent Hill series has been on a downwards trajectory since Origins (some will erroneously claim 4 but that's a different argument for another day), however Downpour is the first title to truly sully the brand. At least with Homecoming you can see that they were earnestly attempting to mimic the greatness of prior entries; Downpour takes the good will of Silent Hill fans and thoroughly crushes it. The momentary glimmers of intrigue fail to outweigh the boorish visuals, thematic bluntness, and despicable combat that await you inside Silent Hill's pitchy swan song.

I'm going to start with the subject that riles me up the most—the monsters. In Silent Hill: Downpour, there's a scant four enemy variants! Only four! Not only that, but three of them are simple humanoids that lack any deformities, gigantism, or grotesqueness that the series is infamous for. I cannot emphasize just how upsetting this is to me; in a franchise full of extremely unnervingfleshy abominations, why is it that Downpour is content to assault the player with this? The final boss of the game is somewhat disturbing but that's the lone exception; Silent Hill Downpour has paradoxically the most boring yet goofiest ensemble of enemies to ever grace a Silent Hill title. Gone are all attempts at subtlety or intricate design made to disgust the player. Scared of mines? Here are some gaunt, hairless trolls! Scared of jail? Here are shirtless prisoners with steel helmets à la Clockwork Orange! Scared of the police? Here is a cop car with barbed wire wrapped around its bumper!

The deliciously rotten mania that pervaded the series is painfully absent here, as Downpour's main character Murphy is as deep as a puddle. The game wants to evoke psychological horror but there's no contextual evidence that Murphy loathed prison or even regretted his jail time. Hell, we're not even given any evidence that his fellow inmates assaulted or scarred him; the only thing they're keen on doing is making dumb remarks before the game even begins. The story attempts to center itself around guilt and regret, two themes which seem apt given Murphy's incarceration, but these topics practically go nowhere outside of a handful of cutscenes. You'll collect scores of documents and complete half a dozen side quests, yet none of these will provide any sort of depth or character to an already paper-thin plot. Most of the notes you collect are rather boring and mundane, failing to color the town of Silent Hill in perverse, weird ways like the other games (they were actually so dull and listless that I couldn't help but think of Extermination as I read them).

The town of Silent Hill itself feels completely abandoned this time around—not eerily abandoned in a way that precisely conveys the unbearable woe at living there, but just... abandoned. Long stretches of silence await you as Murphy ambles through alleyways and treads down vacant streets, momentarily interrupted by enemies that are a cinch to outrun. It may not sound entirely dissimilar from the other games, but I promise that it's a significantly different experience when you play it, one that has left the Silent Hill of yore lame and neutered, now a former shell of its once haunting self. But hey, at least there's sidequests and puzzles to solve around the town!

The handful of houses you can explore for some light puzzle solving is arguably when Downpour is at its best. This isn't because the puzzles are brilliant or novel—I think what's here is pretty good, albeit largely unremarkable—but because any time you have to grapple with the game's terrible combat is when you realize what a mess the gameplay really is. The Silent Hill series has never had good combat, but it was at least tolerable while waiting for the next nightmarish story beat. Downpour on the other hand is too eager to throw the player into gladiatorial scenarios, especially in the game's latter half. Enemies take a pretty hefty beating to put down, your weapons quick to snap against their durable hides whenever they're not constantly blocking, dodging, or scrambling across the ceiling. There's no ebb or flow to the combat; fights are nonsensical and disorganized, highly reminiscent of the worst 2D arcade brawlers.

Outside of the serviceable puzzles and atrocious combat, there's not much left that's able to hold Downpour together. Nearly every item in the world that you come across is a weapon of some kind, and since you can only hold one you rarely feel the need to explore once you settle on something better than a stick. The design of the otherworld has its moments at times, but feels less like the rusted bowels of Hell and more like an Alice in Wonderland spinoff, complete with sideways stairs and kooky clock dials to cross. There's a strange, unexplained void that shows up every now and then to prompt chase sequences, which don't feel like they follow any kind of logic since the void can maneuver through physical barriers (for instance, if you head up a U-shaped flight of stairs it's likely to start sapping your health through the floor below). These sequences feel phenomenally dumb to play, as if an executive from Konami complained that Silent Hill wasn't cinematic enough and needed more scripted sequences and QTEs (which I forgot to mention—there's QTEs!) I found myself murmuring "well at least there are otherworld sections" in defense of this game, which is about the time I realized how low the bar had fallen for the franchise.

Silent Hill: Downpour is what I would best describe as "amateur fan fiction come to life". It tries to tick all of the boxes of what one might imagine Silent Hill to be: a tortured main character, spooky monsters, foggy town, multiple endings—but it lacks the nuance and craft the prior entries had mastered. It doesn't seek to carve its own path but merely vaguely imitate its predecessors, misunderstanding how important the concepts of unease and dread are to the franchise. Downpour is not a disgrace the same way Duke Nukem Forever is, but it's a soulless step down from greatness, a Korn to Silent Hill 2's Nirvana (speaking of, Korn composed the theme song to this game—a fitting union in retrospect!) The best way to describe how abysmal the game is is to walk you through how it squandered a good scare:

Inside of the Silent Hill monastery, there's a theater stage that has a witch's house prop from a Hansel & Gretel play. Inside of the house, there's an old chest that's locked by a puzzle, wherein you're trying to rotate the cubes on a grid until they form the portrait of a young girl sitting on a beach. In the center of the frame is the girl's doll, its smiling grimace squarely positioned on its own cube. After completing the picture I found that the chest still wasn't unlocking, and that's when I realized I had to rotate the head of the girl's doll to its true face. With a trepidatious hand I selected the cube with the doll and slowly spun it... to reveal a part of the girl's body I had placed elsewhere. Turns out what I had actually mistaken was a cube on the girl's left foot for her right foot, and simply needed to rotate that to complete the picture. After grabbing what I needed and leaving, the real "surprise" I received was when the house prop collapsed behind me, revealing that the structure had been two-dimensional the entire time! I couldn't help but chuckle, musing how this revelation was the perfect analogy for this game.

Images obtained from:,,,