Thursday, January 14, 2021

Hitman: Contracts - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

From the onset, the Hitman series was severely flawed. Despite showing hints of creativity at times, the first two games were rotten with awful firefights, linear paths, and security guards so vigilant that they could put the secret service to shame. Hitman and Hitman 2 wanted to be sneaky, but when by creating a world that was actively on the lookout for an assassin, it was hard to have fun. I'm not claiming that it's impossible to enjoy these games—Hitman 2 certainly has its moments—but it is impossible to play them and not feel hamstrung by either the narrow design or finicky alert mechanic.

With the release of Hitman: Contracts, IO Interactive has hit its stride, finally bringing the premise of playing as a dapper assassin to life.

The game's not perfect of course, but IOI has continued their upward trend of making better games. Just as Hitman 2 was leagues above the original, Contracts strides ahead of its older sibling... despite looking and playing exactly the same. The only noticeable aesthetic difference between the two is that Contracts is considerably darker, in both tone and style. Most of the stages take place at night and are drenched in bad weather, and rather than infiltrating mob estates and middle-eastern bunkers you're sent into a meat-fetish party and a biker bar with a naked man being tortured in its basement. Contracts is still in line with the franchise's playfully dark sense of humor, but most of the humor had been wrung out, the playfulness draped in blood.

What puts Hitman: Contracts easily above the other two games for me is that its alert system is finally manageable. No longer will guards burst into a murderous frenzy upon seeing you sprinting to your next location, providing some much-needed freedom that was denied in Hitman 2. Likewise, the threat meter will flash red only when you're dangerously close to being uncovered (likely from being dangerously close to a guard), giving a better indication for when you're about to blow your cover. It's a bit easier to tell where you can and can't go thanks to guards flashing the "stop" sign, and stealth mode is finally faster than enemy walk speeds—albeit fractionally. Add a lot of clever assassination opportunities on top of this system and at last you have a Hitman game you can ghost through!... or... at least achieve a Silent Assassin ranking on most of the missions without a guide.

There are, however, still plenty of kinks left in Hitman's stealth system. The most obnoxious is that as soon as enemies are alerted via a discovered dead body or panicked civilian, they'll be impossible to shake. Your disguises thereafter become suspicious over time, and then it only takes a momentary glance for a curious guard to deduce your identity. This stands in stark contrast to the guards' neutral behavior where they'll think nothing of you stalking them for half the level, nor will they care if you conga line their boss into the bathroom. I found that it was easy to achieve the Silent Assassin ranking on Normal because getting anything less would devolve the stage into one big firefight, and I've definitely had my fill of shooting dumbass AIs in this series.

The design of the levels can be pretty hit or miss, with the first half of the game being much stronger than the second half. This is due to two factors, the first being that the back end of Hitman: Contracts strangely consists of Hitman: Codename 47 missions remade in the Contracts engine. For the most part, it is kind of neat—the stages look and play much better, with some of the worst offenders scaled down (Lee Hong) or left out entirely (all of Colombia, thank god.) The issue with this is that the levels aren't all that fresh or exciting, as all of the old tactics (snipe the triad member, bomb the car, poison the soup) still work and are also the optimal ways to beat the levels quickly. For those that haven't played 47's origin story, this is undoubtedly the better way to go through these levels, but for me it was kind of a... been-there, done-that experience.

The other factor bringing down the latter half of the game is that your options are significantly limited, thanks in part to the constrictive design of the Codename 47 missions. "The Meat King's Party" and "Beldingford Manor" are two brilliant stages thanks to their quirky themes, nonlinear maps, and unique approaches to dispatching your targets. Contrast something like dropping a gas can down a fireplace for an explosive assassination with the majority of the Hong Kong missions, where head-shotting your target is the only "silent" way to subdue them. Lee Hong gets a special kudos for being an absolute pain in the ass to eliminate, as he's surrounded by guards all the time and will also randomly attack you with a supernatural premonition. Hitman: Contracts may not reach the sewer-stinkin' lows of its siblings, but it's still disappointing to have its first few hours be its unquestionable best.

The only thing Hitman: Contracts gets wrong with respect to the rest of the series is that it has a filler-story. The cutscenes are extremely well-done and moody, but Contracts tells of a paper-thin payoff that closes out with a cliffhanger. Plot-wise, Contracts is somewhere between a nothing-game and a teaser, but in every other respect it blows the other titles out of the water. It's logical, concise, creative, and best of all, an actual stealth game that let me complete my job with only one or two guards to add to the obituary pages. I had such a good time that I never once resorted to my starting silenced pistol, which is about the biggest stamp of approval I can hand the game. I'm curious to see how Blood Money will hold up, because thus far IO Interactive has been getting better and better.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Doom 3: BFG Edition - Thoughts

Doom 3 has always been saddled with an unsolvable riddle: would it have been more liked had it not been called Doom?

The franchise had been in hibernation for nearly a decade when Doom 3 came out, and as a fan of the series I was hyped beyond belief for the third official entry. It didn't let me down—I absolutely loved it—but even I could recognize that it was the black sheep of the series. It was a horror-shooter, with more of an emphasis on shooter than horror, taking cues from Doom 64's brooding notebook rather than the middle-school metal-mentality of the first two games. Gone were the goofy textures, non-sequitur level themes, and blazing-fast combat. Instead you had flashlight juggling, endless jump scares, and dull techbase after dull techbase. Back in 2004, I liked the tense flashlight-swapping combat and was giddy at seeing old foes return like the hell knight and archvile. But my enjoyment but came with a caveat: I had to like Doom 3, because it was Doom!

Sixteen years later, having shuffled off most of the nostalgia that comes with branding, Doom 3 feels nothing like Doom, but rather a glorified tech demo trapped in an arcade shooter's body.

Of course, this crass assumption comes with the foreknowledge that 2016's Doom would return the franchise to its roots, injecting it with some much-needed adrenaline. Because of that, it's hard to play Doom 3 and not be disappointed by it in one way or another. Doomguy is sluggish, his weapons anemic, and I can count the number of nonlinear sections throughout the campaign on one hand. That's not to say the game lacks any strengths—the lighting remains impressive and Hell is appropriately unnerving—but it's a product defined by the era it was made in. The mid-2000s were littered with mediocre first person shooters, and Doom 3 stands shamelessly atop that pile, king of the drek.

The central problem with Doom 3 is that it is an adventure of few surprises. While there are a lot of jump scares (of which an embarrassing amount "got" me), I'd hardly call it an "inspired design choice" to hide a crouching imp behind a closed door, especially when it's used several times over. But these jump scares (and monster closets) are all Doom 3 really has; remove the need for a flashlight and you're left with a repetitive shooter that's practically on rails. Most of the time you're traversing narrow hallways with enemies spawning either directly ahead or behind you, and your only recourse is to just shoot it for a few seconds until it dies. There's no cool arenas to parkour around, nor fights with an engaging ebb and flow, nor any risk-reward analysis required when selecting a weapon. Just... choose whatever gun you like, hold down the fire button, and check behind yourself for a sneak attack—because there will always be one.

In a way, it's impressive how Doom 3's blandness is spread so evenly across every one of the game's aspects. Levels are overly constrictive and blend together since they're filled with non-descript gray machinery that may or may not be shooting green beams. The plot is paper thin despite having dozens of audio logs and emails to comb through. NPCs that talk to you bark orders most of the time, making you feel less like Earth's last defense and more like an interstellar whipping boy. A bunch of enemies not only fulfill the same role (there's like six melee-only dudes) but also have roughly the same health and lumbering movement speed, making them feel interchangeable. Several of your weapons are rapid-firing rifles that do similar damage and share equivalent reload times, meaning your arsenal feels interchangeable as well. Secrets are mostly relegated to triple-digit armory lockers that never require more than a peek through your PDA or glance to a nearby console. Armor is useless since you never fall below max armor, and the BFG Edition bafflingly throws more ammo at the player than it does fireballs. All of these facets merge together to form an experience that's dark, hazy, and unmemorable. id Software doubtlessly cared more about how Doom 3 looked than how it played.

My thoughts thus far have been pretty damning, but I'll concede something important: I don't think Doom 3 is "bad." It's not great, or exciting, or worthwhile, but there is a dry charm once you get into it. Sound effects are satisfyingly chunky even when the weapons aren't, and watching corpses disintegrate is always mildly amusing. Towards the end of the game the combat picks up due to more enemies being thrown at the player, though occasionally it'll forget whom is on the roster and just throws the same two types at you over and over. The BFG feels adequately dangerous and the Soul Cube is an excellent addition to your arsenal, as it provides the player with modicum of strategy (ie choose a single foe to kill to recovery your health). I liked the grenades too, though the fact that they're tossed underhanded makes them aggravating to use against enemies at a higher elevation. Lastly the encounter design does pick up in the last fourth of the campaign, but the instances where the enemy placement feels "smart" still remain few and far between. For the most part, Doom 3 only knows one trick: to stick the player in a never-ending hallway and loudly shout "boo!" over and over until randomly deciding to give up.

The expansions on the other hand, are a marked improvement. Similar to Doom 2, Resurrection of Evil doesn't radically change things up, but rather provides a much-needed improvement to the enemy roster. Namely, the vulgar and bruiser, which are more aggressive versions of the imp and mancubus. They demand more dexterity from the player beyond simply strafing left and right, which already makes them harder than the final boss of the base campaign. Meanwhile the double barrel shotgun is a decent (albeit marginal) improvement over the regular shotty, and the Artifact is a nifty slow-mo ability that quickly becomes overpowered, allowing you to melt the toughest enemies into a fine crimson mist. I think the overall design in Resurrection of Evil is better than Doom 3—there's significantly less enemies biting at your ass after all—but it's not such a far cry from the base game that I'd recommend playing Resurrection over it.

Finally, Lost Mission is a strong send-off to Doom 3, as it removes both the Soul Cube and Artifact from your arsenal in order to make fights tense again. Don't get me wrong; I like the variety both abilities bring to the table, but it's nice to have hell knights feel intimidating again (even if they can be easily kited.) Lost Mission's greatest strength has to be its design, as it pivots away from corridor-based combat and leans more into arenas, making fights longer and meaner—a pale foretelling of 2016's Doom. Some of the arenas are great (like the elevator room at the end of Underground 2) but others simply showcase how feeble and slow your enemies are, especially since the nimble vulgar is bizarrely missing from the enemy line-up. Like Resurrection of Evil, it's definitely better than Doom 3's base campaign, but that fact doesn't absolve it from the sins written into its code.

Back in 2004, I doubt anyone could picture what a "modern" Doom would look like. I knew I couldn't, which is why I was more than happy that Doom 3 brought a pulse back to the franchise... even if it was more dour and serious than I would've liked. And even now I kind of appreciate its dedication to trapping you in a dark, mechanical labyrinth overrun with ambling abominations. But that's about as far as my gratitude can extend. The initial rush of nostalgia had worn off three hours into my playthrough, replaced by a sinking feeling that what I was playing wasn't really that fun. Levels were boring, the weapons weren't stimulating, and Hell must've been overrun with imps because that's all I was fighting. Doom 3 relied on using darkness so much not because it loved the gimmick, but because that's all it had going for it.

So would Doom 3 have been more liked if had it not been called Doom? Of that I'm unsure, but if you swap "more" with "less", the answer becomes clear for me.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Dragon Age: Origins - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

I've had a Western RPG gap in my gaming knowledge for far too long. There's a lot of elements about the genre that I love—D&D roots, challenging design, expansive role-playing options—but for some reason I've never been compelled to jump in. Part of it is that I've been primarily a console gamer for my youth, but what's kept me away for the past decade is that the big-name games look daunting. Baldur's Gate II is massive, Morrowind has stolen hundreds of hours from players, and series like Ultima and Wizardry extend so far back into gaming's history that I didn't know where to begin. On top of this, there are horror stories abound on gaming boards about "wrong builds," "cheap encounters," and most ominously of all, the sempiternal shadow of "game breaking bugs."

Over time I've dabbled in CRPGs as more of their systems have become mainstream. Bethesda introduced me to Fallout and Skyrim, Larian Studios blew me away with the Divinity: Original Sin series, and I backed a good portion of the CRPG renaissance titles on kickstarter. While I'm still ignorant on a lot of the fabled "classic" RPGs of yore, I think I've gotten my foot in the door with Dragon Age: Origins. Speaking plainly, Origins is a very good game. It's not a revolutionary entry like Skyrim or Mass Effect 2 are, but it doesn't need to be—Dragon Age: Origins is a confident game, one whose strengths easily outshine its weaknesses.

My playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy came under the lens of an appreciative appraisal, given that I had played the games in their entirety before. However, I'm going into Dragon Age franchise blind, only able to analyze the first game in the series—Dragon Age: Origins—as its own complete experience, uninfluenced by the direction of its younger siblings. And for the most part, it is a complete experience; besides some vague foreshadowing in the Witch Hunt DLC, you'll get a proper beginning, middle, and end to Origins that leaves you feeling satisfied and accomplished. That makes Origins an easy title to recommend to anyone, since you won't have to worry over how future titles will handle your favorite companions, nor will the dread of a divisive ending loom over your playthrough like a ten-story tombstone.

But my recommendation comes with a pretty sizeable asterisk: the combat is no joke. I played on the Xbox 360, which despite being labeled as the "easier" experience compared to the PC version of Origins, was nowhere near easy. "This is a dumb thing to claim," you might critique, "since you played on Hard. What did you expect?" Well, given that I had played through the Mass Effect series on the same difficulty (and Doom Eternal and The Last of Us on their hardest), I was taken aback to find that Dragon Age: Origins put up the biggest fight out of any game I've played this year. Scaling back to "normal" would've alleviated some of my pain, but the source of my agony was the design, not the numbers it was dishing out.

I struggled most at the start of the game for numerous reasons: relatively few crowd control abilities, melee classes lacking decent gear, a dearth of potions provided to the player, the game's healer squirreled away in a tower, and some minor nuisances like fireball being a BS insta-cast spell that applies damage over time AND knockdown. But the biggest culprit would have to be the fact that you can't manually pick and choose where all your party members go, making enemy mages with AoE spells the bane of your playthrough. You'd open a door, see a mage casting fireball, and sigh as you can only direct one unit to safety, the others gawking at the spell like a deer in headlights.

Since you can only control a single character at a time (though you can have each queue up an ability), Origins prioritizing sticking together, which leads to some incomprehensibly annoying behavior. For instance, if you tell your rogue to split off from the group and attack an enemy mage, he'll poke the caster once with a knife and then jog back to your side. Even if you spend some time tweaking the AI "Tactics" menu, you can't cover for every instance (or even every spell!) Mass Effect worked fine when you could only control Shepard because you alone were a force to be reckoned with; Origins on the other hand, is in dire need of the spatial strategy granted by controlling individual positions. Without it, be prepared for your party to walk into traps and spells like a lost puppy looking for love.

Eventually, I learned to roll with Dragon Age: Origins' merciless blows. As you come across better gear, more reagents, and the occasional pouch of gold, your faults will gradually get patched over until nary a chink remains in your armor. Once you learn where to acquire for elfroot and lyrium dust for potions you can brute force most fights, and for those you can't you'll have to rely on the holy tetralogy: sleep, fireball, cone of cold, and paralysis. There's some other good ones—I used haste and shock almost every fight—but victory in Origins hinges on who can get off their crowd control spells first, so opening with an immobilization spell will often end a fight before it begins. This can make non-boss battles feel redundant in the endgame, especially once you have two characters that can alternate fireball, but to Origins's credit, I rarely found myself bored with its combat. It's no Divinity: Original Sin, but as far as gameplay in RPGs go, it's absolutely in the upper echelon.

While the combat helped cushion the length of my +80 hour playtime, it was the story that drove me forward, pushing me to explore every corner of the world. The plot may not be as sweeping and grandiose as Mass Effect, but Dragon Age: Origins excels where the spacefaring trilogy occasionally struggled: choices. And not that it provides jaw-dropping ramifications for your actions (though the epilogue may hold a surprise or two), but that the dialogue options present folks that like to play "virtuously" with icky moral quagmires. Do you force your friend into an arranged marriage for the good of the nation? Should treason be punishable by death? For how long are brutalized minorities allowed their bloody revenge?

Although the central plot of Dragon Age: Origins is about as rote as fantasy can get (oh no, super evil faux-orcs want to conquer the world!), it's the intermediary story lines that'll stick with you. Likewise, while your allies will regale you with their own storied histories, it's the party banter they have behind your back that will make you glad you brought them along. In fact it's kind of stunning that BioWare largely dropped the inter-party bickering for the Mass Effect series, since it's a great way to make your comrades more personable beyond asking them twenty questions. I also thought their love/hate reactions to your NPC interactions lend an excellent weight to your decisions, though the bars are hilariously videogamey in that you can shower someone with gifts to make them overlook your extrajudicial killings. Still, it's a cool feature to have that applies a little bit of pressure to every choice you make.

There aren't many reasons I can think of for why one might want to steer clear of Dragon Age: Origins beyond its towering difficulty. At times the game can be fairly crass—expect a lot of women to be threatened with you-know-what—but the richness of the world and its central players do plenty to blunt the edge of the stereotypical "grim fantasy" tropes. Dragon Age: Origins offers a large, realized universe that's not only bursting with content (the tiny Awakening expansion could be its own game!) but also glowing with heart and charm beneath its visually drab exterior. I have yet to dive into the real "classics" of the CRPG era, but if Dragon Age: Origins is any indication, I'm in for a hell of a ride.


Images obtained from: Biased Video Game Blog,

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Super Mario Bros. - Thoughts

Playing a lot of Super Mario Bros. 35 has given me a newfound appreciation for the original Super Mario Bros. Or rather, a light-appreciation, as I've always been fond of the plumber's momentum-focused platformer. While there's plenty of other games in Mario's rich history that I'd rank over it, the original possesses a crude strength that no other game (besides Land) has: blunt simplicity. There's no in-game story, no overworld, no minigames, no saving, no hidden collectibles; Super Mario Bros. is about running and jumping. And this paucity of systems works because running and jumping as Mario feels very good.

... But this isn't an irrefutable conclusion, unless one spends plenty of time playing and adapting to Super Mario Bros's physics. Compared to Mega Man or Contra, Mario is as stiff and unwieldy as a mustachio'd van, taking too long to accelerate and dangerously too long to stop. To complicate this, certain jumps in the game are downright malicious, requiring a full sprint to cross safely or sporting a single block to land on—and in one instance in 8-2, both at once. The potbelly plumber might not feel natural to control, but mastery lurks within your fingertips—so long as you learn where and when to pump the brakes.

I've never thought of the original Super Mario Bros. as a difficult game (especially compared to the rest of the NES library), but it can definitely be challenging at times. Later stages not only demand precision from your leaps but will also starve the player of resources, reinforcing the importance—and advantage—of a strong start. Sniffing out fire flowers and preserving your 1-ups will help get you to the end faster than having sharp reflexes will... though those don't hurt either. And even when you lose to the likes of World 7 & 8 (the game's real run-enders), you're only ~30 minutes away from reaching your last checkpoint. Throw in some super obvious-to-find warp-pipes and the game can be conquered in 10 minutes by even the most lax speedrunner.

There's a lot to love about Super Mario Bros.'s demure design, though I didn't truly appreciate it as a kid. I always thought Super Mario Bros. was disappointingly "samey", reusing stages, themes, and gimmicks more than I would've liked. And... I wasn't really wrong about that: several levels are repeated with the only identifiable difference being the enemy quantity. But the other stages have a distinct flavor that I hadn't really noticed until now, shaking up the generic "1-1" feel one might have when they think of the game.

For instance, foes in underground sections have darker colors, several stages see Mario running across treetop canopies, 2-3 and 7-3 are dominated by catapulting cheep cheeps, 3-1's black background gives the impression of starless night, 4-3 uses mushrooms instead of trees, and my favorite level 6-3 is drained of color, awash in a lifeless grayscale as if time has stopped. The only stages that radically shake up the gameplay are the underwater sections, though the gravitational pull of the pits combined with the nettlesome bloopers will make you wish every stage was a sprint-fest. Plus there's no power-up blocks deep beneath the waves, making the swimming levels particularly grueling.

Speaking of, I came to appreciate was the elegant nature of the power-up system. Health bars can be a finicky mechanic to design around; they can make enemies feel unthreatening while pits & spikes feel too cruel. But the mushroom acts as a devious bit of insurance: at the cost of expanding your hitbox, it'll protect you from a single attack. The fire flower provides an added reward for playing well, giving you the firepower to deal with some of the worst enemies in the game (like the RNG-nightmare hammer bros), but you'll still get reduced to tiny (regular?) sized Mario should you take a hit. Always being two hits from death makes accidentally speeding off the edge of a cliff a mild aggravation, unlike when you fall to your doom in Sonic with 100 rings in tow.

Prototypical of many of the NES games to come, Super Mario Bros.'s challenge is offset by the speed at which you can blaze through it. In a way it feels like the perfect blend between a platformer and racer, giving you opportunities to find secret coins, stars, and 1-ups should you need assistance, and letting you run full-throttle to the end if you don't. I won't deny that it looks visually plain and lacks dynamic gameplay mechanics, but there's little details sprinkled around that really make the game shine when you ruminate on it in retrospect. In the wide venue of NES platformers, Super Mario Bros. is a meal of unsalted steak and potatoes. It's able to satiate your hunger without stuffing you so full you can barely walk. And sometimes that can really hit the spot.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Super Mario Bros. 35 - Thoughts

Super Mario Bros. 35 is a fantastic game that stumbles over its own short legs. Its premise is my dream battle royale: make 35 players compete in randomly selected Super Mario Bros. levels, where defeated foes from bowser's army are sent to other players' games to hassle them. This keeps the single player experience intact while offering a competitive twist that makes the game feel tense but never mean-spirited. However—like with any multiplayer game—an optimal way to play bubbles to the surface, and boy howdy is it boring.

Super Mario Bros. 35 suffers from a fatal flaw, one I assume could be easily fixed: too many damn World 1 levels. Before each session, each player picks a course from Super Mario Bros. they want added to the play pool—and most seem to either pick 1-1 or 1-2. That, or they're added to the pool as filler levels, because their prevalence is maddening. I have over 200 clears of 1-1 and nearly half that for 1-2, meanwhile everything beyond world 5 has been played once or twice at most. While the early stages provide a nice reprieve to collect fire flowers and hidden 1-ups, this comes at the cost of your adrenaline and excitement, as it's a fairly safe, uneventful and thoughtless run (unless a squad of lakitus is being sent your way.)

The abundance of early levels vastly extends Super Mario Bros. 35's optimal play time, turning what should be a rapid-fire adventure through oldschool courses into a sloggy, amateurish affair, every World 1 stage a boring pitstop you're rarely in need of. This issue isn't so terrible as to turn me off from the game, but I'm only reminded of how invigorating the game can be when a random gauntlet of tricky stages comes at me back to back (like 3-4 -> 2-2 -> 5-3). Not only does this wake me up from the rote stupor 1-1 lulls me into, but it provides a decent challenge that's likely to knock out a few players, even when it's down to the final five left.

And getting to the final five is another source of my frustration, since this is where you'll be spending most of your time. When you first reach this threshold it's a thrilling, nerve-wracking experience that'll have you crossing your fingers over even the smallest jumps, but the excitement fades when you learn what a long road you have ahead of you. After the initial 15 or so players are culled thanks to the first two stages, Super Mario Bros. 35 becomes about keeping your timer high and collecting a lot of coins. You extend your timer in a number of different ways, most noticeably by repeated kills via stomping heads and kicking shells. The coins on the other hand feed into the game's roulette power-up system, which can provide you with an instantaneous—albeit random—goodie at the cost of twenty coins.

On paper, both of these are excellent ideas. They give you a reason to explore the level as well and not skip over enemies, instead of turning success into a speedrunning competition. But conversely, it means that speed is downright useless—as long as you're receiving a steady trickle of foes from other players, you can keep your clock fed by slowly inching forward, hopping from one noggin to the next. This, combined with the ever-present 1-1 (as well as 1-2's warp pipes to skip problematic stages,) turns the game into a resource management of sorts. As boring as the World 1 stages are, you're better off spending as much time as possible in them collecting goodies to prepare for the endgame. After about seven minutes (which is quite long in game about reflexes) the timer in the corner will rapidly tick down, making whoever stays in the game the longest the winner—and this is usually the person with the most coins.

The issue of the slow, grindy gameplay preceding the frantic endgame isn't something that has an easy fix. The best I can come up with is that there should be some kind of speed incentive, like the flag at the end adding 60 seconds to your timer instead of a measly 15. Or maybe introducing a certain amount of stages to beat in order to claim the crown. As it stands I'm too easily bored by the monotony of the early game but find myself entering the endgame at a disadvantage. That's not to say that I'm unable to eke out a win by simply playing well, but when I lose to time it feels like there was very little I could've done, especially when my reserve of coins is wasted rolling POW blocks over and over again. For what it's worth, the endgame with the red clock is at least exhilarating every time you reach it, which is a lot more than I can say about starting on 1-1 for the umpteenth time.

Super Mario Bros. 35 is an clever competitive-platformer, but it'd be massively improved if latter levels were shuffled into the mix more often, or was quicker to reach the endgame. And hey, for all I know, this is an issue that'll fix itself as newer players drop out and the hardened vets that love running 8-1 are the only ones that remain. But like with No Man's Sky, I can only form my opinion and what the game currently is, not what it'll become some time down the road (speaking of, what reason is there to pull the game on April 1st Nintendo?) I have no plans to stop playing Super Mario Bros. 35 any time soon, but I've spent enough time with it to see that—while it's loads of fun—it's not quite the ideal Mario battle royale I had hoped for.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Heavy Barrel - Thoughts

Data East's Heavy Barrel is an aged, unflattering polaroid of the NES era. Though it's stylistically closer to Ikari Warriors than Jackal, I think drawing a comparison with the latter game will better punctuate my thoughts on this janky adventure. I wouldn't deign to call a terrible game, but it's plagued with an ugly aesthetic, baffling design choices, and periodic moments of sheer boredom. Whereas Jackal is laser-focused on its strengths as a fun experience, Heavy Barrel is muddled, its strengths diluted down into a lukewarm puddle of "eh."

I praised Jackal highly for its variety of stages that took you through colorful yet down-to-earth territories swarming with entrenched foes. Heavy Barrel on the other hand cares little for realism, preferring bright, clashing colors and large mechanical bosses. The abstract nature of the game isn't a knock against it—Rygar is fun largely due to its nonsensical enemies—but I doubt anyone would label Heavy Barrel as a "looker". Stages are bland and forgettable, merging into one another due to a lack of a cohesive theme for each level. Sure, one stage might have mine cart tracks or a blue elevator ride, but... so do other levels later in the game. You'll basically be ping-ponged between outdoor areas and techbases until you inexplicably find yourself squaring off against the final boss.

The shooting in Heavy Barrel is serviceable on paper: it provides a nice blend of enemies to put down and powerups to collect. You have a rapid fire machine gun to use against a majority of the opposition, with anything more durable (tanks, turrets) requiring explosives... provided that you can land your shots. The grenades add a hint of skill to the gameplay but they're far from a good weapon; their long arc and delayed impact can only be described as "bothersome", especially considering how little damage they do.

But for the most part, Heavy Barrel provides the player with plenty of mindless fun—so long as there are things to shoot on screen. Once you get to the aforementioned blue elevator ride, the action grinds to a halt for minutes at a time, the enemies spawned being easily countered and dodged. I'm usually undisturbed over how ubiquitous elevator sequences are in games, but only insofar as they continue to provide gameplay. Heavy Barrel's snail-like descents are just a glorified shooting gallery that might amuse you the first time through, but become very obvious ammunition (and time) sinks on replays.

One bad section that repeats itself several times isn't enough to outright ruin the game, but it's a major annoyance that stands out among Heavy Barrel's other numerous flaws; other issues blotting the game only become apparent the more time you spend playing it. Chief among these is that enemy attacks give the player little time to react, rockets fired from tanks guaranteed to decimate you should you find yourself in their crosshairs. Whereas Jackal can be beaten with vigilant thumbs, Heavy Barrel opts for shameless memorization, especially when flame grenadiers start getting thrown into the mix. That can still be fun in its own little way—it's pretty invigorating to finally make it past a difficult section unscathed—but most of the time it's vexing due to the sudden, unavoidable deaths. Plus once you're trained to start blasting spawn points, the game becomes sapped of most of its replayability.

Compounding the muck of memorization is Heavy Barrel's power-up system, which serves to highlight just how good Jackal is by keeping things simple. There are two primary weapons, three separate grenade abilities, and an elite superweapon that requires five pick-ups to activate (and you know you'll have acquired it when your character shouts so loud your speakers blow out.) It's a solid amount of diversity for a top down run 'n gun game, but in almost all situations you'll want the flame shot and flame grenades, as both of these have wide attack zones that are able to pierce enemies.

It's not a huge problem to have unbalanced weapons in your video game, but what makes it worse is when it's impossible to parse which ability you're acquiring. Spending a key to open up a power-up cache yields a single square sprite that is used for every power-up in the game, meaning that if you're hunting for more parts to your superweapon, you could unintentionally swap out your stack of 99 flame grenades for the dinky whirlwind attack. And since the weapon caches are not randomized, the winning strategy is to memorize which boxes hold the flame shot and then straight-up ignore the rest of the boxes until you die. Yes, even hilariously large superweapon is not worth the risk of turning your grenades into those silly stationary whirlwinds.

I'm probably overly-harsh on Heavy Barrel due to Jackal still being fresh on my mind. To be fair to Data East, I think the key mechanic for opening weapon caches is really clever: you're allowed to hold up to four keys in reserve, creating tension between saving keys for opening boxes after you die or blowing your key reserve in anticipation of finding more superweapon parts. I also feel that manually destroying the trapezoidal gates at the end of each level—while repetitive—provides a small, satisfying pat on the back. But Heavy Barrel is not an experience I'd recommend to anyone other than the biggest NES nerds whom have already been conditioned to view the warning of "memorization required" as a selling point. Heavy Barrel may be plenty playable, but its problem at the end of the day is that you have to twist yourself into knots to call what's playable "fun."

Friday, October 23, 2020

Jackal - Thoughts

Konami's Jackal is an unaged, heartwarming polaroid of the NES era. It is exemplary of the good games of its time, although inventive it is not—you probably won't find the game listed on too many "hidden gems" lists. But what Jackal offers is Konami's trademark forte: action. And not just action, but fairly tight, difficult, reaction-based action that has you skirting around bullets like an insta-death slalom. Don't let its age fool you—this old war jeep's got plenty of kick once you start it up.

Jackal is short, punchy, and straight to the point. The plot is paper thin: bad guys got our guys, so free them by blowing up everything. When you destroy a detention center, you can rescue POWs and drop them off at a helipad for points (used for 1-ups) and a weapon upgrade. In terms of unique mechanics, the liberation system is really the only thing Jackal has going for it. There aren't other weapons to acquire, vehicles to use, or even on-foot sections to change up the gameplay. To vanquish the enemy forces you're left with only your machine gun and a stack of explosive ordnance.

Yet it's all Jackal needs to be an exciting, action-packed experience. The simplicity also belies a number of interesting gameplay quirks. Firstly, explosive ordnance is lobbed in whatever direction you're facing, while your machine gun is stuck firing solely northward. Since explosives are both 1) unlimited and 2) upgraded when you rescue friendlies, they'll be your primary mode for dispatching foes, relegating the machine gun to situational backup. You can also squash enemy soldiers under the wheels of your four ton vehicle, but it's almost always easier (and safer) to just toss the stuff that goes BOOM.

It may seem boring that Jackal is dominated by a single weapon, but variety isn't the name of the game here—it's precision. Enemy shots are tiny but frequent, denying land you're trying to maneuver through or blocking a vulnerable angle of attack. You can mindlessly throw your grenades about in a hail of desperation, but learning to make quick, accurate shots is going to save you in the long run. Each upgrade also adds another layer to your attack, at first turning the grenades into speedy rockets, then granting a horizontal blast to the explosion, and finally a vertical blast. These come at the cost of being able to arc grenades over enemy walls (a brilliant tradeoff), but the upgrades grant you a new angle of attack, introducing trigonometric planning to your warfare (eg "Aha! If I shoot to the northwest, the blast will expand below the point of impact and destroy the turret!")

Jackal's emphasis on precise shots, bullet dodging, and a fixed order of upgrades all merge together into a challenge that's heavy on execution and light on memorization. Memorization can definitely help (like knowing where specific POW camps are located), but it isn't the silver bullet one might think it is. If you're quick to respond to enemy shots you'll likely get to the final level on your first try—and if not that, the end of the game. But if you happen to Game Over your first time (like me), Jackal takes a paltry thirty minutes to finish, meaning it's no hassle getting back to where you last died.

What helps to keep the experience invigorating for re-runs are Jackal's colorful stages. Konami has always been great at giving their levels a distinct flavor, and—despite the unimaginative setting—it's no different here. You'll tread through jungles, harbors, swamps, and mountain ranges, facing a variety of foes that are unique to each stage, like the medusa statues in level 2 and the train in level 4. Likewise the bosses you'll face in Jackal are satisfying, even though half of them are obviously glorified turrets. The ludicrous final boss deserves a special mention for being a phenomenal closer to a truly phenomenal game.

Jackal isn't perfect, but I'm not sure any of its foibles warrant a lengthy discussion. Its greatest offense is a flaw that run 'n gun fans are all too familiar with: certain sections are exceptionally brutal without weapon upgrades. But roughly 90% of Jackal is both fair and fun, testing the player's reflexes across a treasure trove of solid levels. I only played it for the very first time a few days ago, and yet I can't help but feel charmed by its simplistic, humble design. Pop this one into your NES if you haven't and thank me later.