Friday, August 30, 2013

Nintendo reveals the 2DS

Nintendo has officially announced the newest entry into the 3DS lineup – the 2DS. Yes, you read that correctly – the 2DS. Effectively, it’s a 3DS minus the option to play any of your games in 3D. It is also built into a single slab-shaped body, and is thus unable to fold closed as every previous 3DS/DS variant was able to do. The 2DS is still backwards compatible with standard DS games and is still able to access the eShop. Based on its physical design, it doesn’t look like the 2DS will cost Nintendo a whole lot to produce, but my concerns lie more with the name of this handheld. I feel that Nintendo runs a significant risk mainstream consumers being confused about what the 2DS is/does in the same way that many people were initially confused as to whether the Wii U tablet was simply an add-on to the Wii or part of a whole new console. The name ‘2DS’ could easily lead parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles of the younger gamers who this system is apparently being marketed toward to believe the 2DS is just a new label for the standard DS in order to distinguish it from the 3DS. As for why Nintendo is actually releasing this new variant, I believe it has more to do with the upcoming Pokémon titles than anything else. They know full well how much of a cash cow the Pokémon games have proven to be for each previous handheld generation, and these games are as popular with younger gamers as they are with older gamers. The fact that Pokémon X and Y release a week prior to the 2DS seems to me just a tad too convenient to be coincidence.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

3DS Virtual Console review: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX

Set after Link has saved the kingdom of Hyrule from Ganon’s onslaught in A Link to the Past and subsequent adventures to other lands in Oracle of Ages and Seasons, Link sets course for his return to Hyrule. As he is sailing across the ocean, his ship is caught in a storm, the power of which knocks him unconscious and he drifts ashore on the island of Koholint. When he comes to, he finds a girl named Marin has come to his aid. Not long after, Link meets a talking owl and is told that he must collect eight instruments in order to wake the Wind Fish and leave the island to complete his journey home.

Of all the elements I most look forward to each time I play a new Zelda title, the boss fights rank near the top. Sadly, Link’s Awakening has a severe lack of boss fights that are even remotely challenging. In my review of Twilight Princess, I was highly critical of how easy most of the bosses in that game were to defeat, but at least some were aesthetically interesting to look at. Link’s Awakening requires a very straightforward approach with the likes of the giant Angler Fish, giant Eagle, Moldorm, and Slime Eye, as Link must strike his sword at these beasts enough times to fell them. The remaining bosses do require Link to use other weapons, but not all of these are the weapons he has recently acquired from their home dungeon. Frankly, this is probably the single most disappointing run I have had with the boss encounters in any Zelda game. Any given one of the dungeons bears a more interesting layout than the bosses that call them home, with a strong balance of puzzle and combat mechanics across the board. Any single dungeon is, at worst, decent, but only a couple of the later ones really stand out as being ‘above average’ at best.

Thankfully, the overworld design redeems a large portion of the rest of the experience. While Koholint Island is not particularly large, the development team has done a strong job in making the most of the space they have been allotted. Many regions are divided into subsections, presenting interesting and frequent environment transitions. Though there are not as many cave to explore as in the Oracle titles or any of the home console Zelda releases, they are all different and offer distinct, if not brief, challenges, many of which are specific to one weapon in Link’s arsenal or another. Because the island has so many cliffs, rock formations, and pits, you may find yourself lost at times, even with the help of the overworld map and its many marked locations of importance. Thankfully, Koholint Island boasts a few warp points that are placed within reasonably close proximity to all the dungeons, shops, and homes Link will need to visit and revisit in his quest to collect all the instruments required to wake the Wind Fish.

The early portions of Link’s Awakening display relatively short dungeons, offering Link ample opportunity to explore the island, and sometimes flat out requiring him to adventure deep into the desert, prairie, and mountain regions of Koholint. In a similar fashion to Majora’s Mask, Link’s Awakening places as much emphasis on the tasks that need to be completed in between dungeons as the act of dungeon-crawling itself. Some areas, like the castle, act as mini-dungeons that involve brief, less linear objectives. Often, these reward Link with a key that will grant him access to the upcoming dungeon, with the task of reaching said dungeon only halfway complete. Most of these ‘mini-dungeons’ and similar tasks that fall in-between the dungeons are placed between the point where Link sets out to reach his next objective and the objective in question, requiring minimal backtracking or cause for confusion. Should you find yourself at a loss as to what to do next, however, there are a few telephone booths located around Koholint that Link can use to call Ulrira, an elderly man who lives in Mabe Village. All of his advice is straight-to-the-point, leaving zero room for further confusion.

Another thing that struck me as odd about Link’s Awakening was the lack of a real memorable soundtrack. While Tal Tal Heights is a standout track, the rest of the soundtrack felt largely lacking. Admittedly, this may be due to my already being familiar with variations and reorchestrations of these tunes in other Zelda games. But compared to the strikingly original tunes that helped shape the Oracle games, the soundtrack to Link’s Awakening is vastly underwhelming. The sound effects that accompany the instruments required to wake the Wind Fish, the owl that acts as Link’s guide, and the enemy noises are all selected very well, considering the Gameboy’s limited capacity. Graphically, the game runs on the same engine that would later be used for the aforementioned Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, though this Link’s Awakening DX release lacks some of the more vibrant colors and high-detail character and environment models seen in the Oracle games.

One of the few sidequests on Koholint Island is the option to aid a mouse photographer in completing his photo album. He will offer to snap Link’s photograph at various places around the island, and these are viewable from an album in his shop. In a break from the traditional simple character models seen in the rest of the game, these photos are presented in an exaggerated, cute manga style.

On the topic of talking animal characters, that element is certainly one that marks this title as one of the more bizarre Zelda games ever released. Majora’s Mask was weird due to its dark and sinister thematic, as well as the looming threat of total destruction. The oddities in Link’s Awakening stem largely from inclusions like a whole village of talking animals, and enemies like Bloopers, Shy Guys, and Goombas from the Mario series as well as Kirby lookalikes making regular appearances in the game’s dungeons. While Ocarina of Time had cameos by the Mario cast inside the Hyrule Castle courtyard, these were included as easter egg content, and were not core to the gameplay experience. While Moblins and Octoroks are still more frequent on Koholint, these enemies from other Nintendo properties feel very much out of place, and the novelty of seeing them in a Zelda game wears off after about the second or third encounter. Occasionally, foes will drop Pieces of Power or Guardian Acorns, objects that provide Link with a temporary boost to offense and defense respectively. Unique to Link's Awakening, these offer a bit of a fresh spin on the typical item drops and approach to combat, though there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to when Link will be rewarded with these or how frequently.

Due to a severe lack of important characters beyond protagonist Link, the story of Link’s Awakening is quite single-minded in its focus, and unfortunately rather forgettable as a result. Marin plays a support role of decent importance early on, but then only make a few brief appearances after the halfway point. The Wind Fish – Link’s ultimate objective, and an effectively faceless entity until the game’s finale – plays a more consistently prominent role than any of the characters with proper forms and faces on Koholint. When Link’s Awakening finally tries to do something that will leave a lasting memory, it is rather interesting and unexpected, though unfashionably late to the party. The same goes for the endgame boss fight. It should also be noted that the in-game trading sequence, much like Marin, seemingly falls off the radar by the game’s midway marker, but is in fact crucial to the endgame events. Should you complete the final dungeon without having first completed the trading sequence (the importance of which is never stated nor even implied by the inhabitants of Koholint), you may find yourself devoting a decent chunk of time running about the island just to be able to reach the endgame.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Gameboy Advance review: Metroid Fusion

When Nintendo sought to revive their long-dormant science fiction series Metroid, they released new games on two fronts. The one I experienced first was Metroid Prime, developed by Retro Studios for the Gamecube. Prime was my first foray into the franchise, and quickly rose the ranks to become one of my all-time favorite video games. Meanwhile, I knew a number of friends who owned Metroid Fusion, a sequel to Super Metroid developed on the same engine as the SNES classic, yet the closest I ever got to it was through secondhand experience. I had a couple of friends offer to let me borrow it to experience it in proper over the years, but I was frequently wrapped up in some other game or another, and thus a proper playthrough of Metroid Fusion did not come to fruition until 2013 – one week ago today, to be precise.

Metroid Fusion is effectively a trimmed down take on everything Super Metroid did – a curious tactic, considering Super Metroid did not bear much (if anything) that felt unnecessary or that came across as ‘extra weight’ to its phenomenal experience. Metroid Fusion takes place after the events of Super Metroid, opening with the famed bounty hunter escorting a research team to SR388, former home planet of the Metroids. As Samus eradicated the Metroid populous in Metroid II, there has been a significant shift in the planet’s food chain. A parasite known as X was seemingly kept under control by the Metroids who fed upon them, but have grown out of control in the absence of their primary predators. The X Parasite ends up attaching itself to Samus’ Varia Suit and begins to alter her genetic makeup. Thinking quickly, Federation scientists cut Samus out of her Varia suit and develop a vaccine from tissue taken from the baby Metroid Samus rescued on SR388, which they inject her with. This halts the progress of the X Parasite and allows Samus to collect X Parasites she might find as a means to replenish both her health and ammunition.

As the X Parasites are found within all the creatures Samus faces onboard the BSL research station, farming to restore these is a much faster and convenient process than in previous 2D Metroid titles. Samus is able to access a surprising amount of upgrades, energy tanks, and missile tanks within the game’s first hour. While this may initially seem like overkill, the fact of the matter is that the game is designed to do its best to give you a fair chance at Metroid Fusion’s notably high challenge factor – largely brought on by the game’s demanding boss encounters. Most of the bosses are designed with new combat strategies in mind, so anyone hoping to exploit the same strategies used on Crocomire or Phantoon from Super Metroid ought to think twice before taking on the likes of Serris or Yakuza. The later boss fights are among the game’s best offerings, with a few ranking among the most memorable of any of the 2D Metroid titles.

The research station is divided into six major sections, which all connect to a central hub zone. These sections are all modeled after different environments that Samus previously visited, lending to each having significantly different layouts and aesthetics. Save stations, recharge stations, and navigation rooms are all placed in strategic locations, so as to save you too much trouble with backtracking but also avoid holding your hand along the way. Samus will need to revisit each of the six areas after her initial exploration of it, but there is minimal backtracking on the whole. When Samus does eventually return to Sector 1, Sector 2, and so on, a new, generally larger section will be accessible with new upgrades and abilities, and will subsequently offer up new environmental puzzles and tougher foes. Practically all of the weapons and upgrades should be familiar to anyone who has played previous Metroid titles, even if Samus does collect them in a different order than usual.

Though it runs on the same engine, Fusion looks even better than Super Metroid due to a higher level of detail, brighter colors, and more fluid character motions – all of which is only to be expected, considering that the two titles were released nearly a decade apart. Fusion also does a great job of perpetuating the sense of horror and suspense that has frequented the series – the sense that Samus is alone in space has long been the element that added varying degrees of eerie atmosphere to her adventures. With Fusion, the fact that she is not alone, but is in fact being hunted by an X Parasite clone known as the SA-X, heightens the horror aspect. It should also be noted that Metroid Fusion is surprisingly dialogue-heavy. Samus frequently interacts with her ship’s on-board computer, and reminisces about her former CO, who she is reminded of through the computer’s mannerisms. The game is rooted in a decent chunk of context, with references to Metroid II and Super Metroid occasionally springing up. If you aren’t intimately familiar with the greater Metroid lore, it won’t hinder your enjoyment of this fast-paced action-oriented game. But if you are, Fusion draws connections to Samus’ past expeditions in interesting and unexpected ways.

The length of time it will take you to complete Metroid Fusion depends on both your familiarity with other titles in the series and your intent to collect the game’s many upgrades. If you are a veteran of Super Metroid and the two titles that preceded it, expect the game to take you anywhere between two-and-a-half to four hours. If you have little-to-no experience with the series, your play time could easily double that. This is a Metroid game designed for Metroid fans – it is thoroughly challenging, but equally enjoyable, with perfect controls and magnificent presentation from start to finish.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

XBLA review: Dead Rising 2: Case Zero

Chuck Greene and his daughter Katey are on their way to Fortune City when they make a stop in the small town of Still Creek. Host to a typical set of small storefronts, ma and pa restaurants, and a few means of local entertainment, Still Creek spans just over a block’s distance, with a small quarantine zone blocking off the highway. As Chuck steps inside the gas station store to look for supplies, someone hijacks his pickup, taking his much-needed supply of Zombex for Katey along with them. The fact of the matter is that Katey was bitten and infected, but Chuck has thus far prevented her from turning into a zombie by giving her regimens of Zombex medicine – without it, she runs the risk of turning into one of those bloodthirsty creatures, and Chuck runs the risk of losing the one person he still has to hold onto and care for.

Luckily, tracking down a new box of Zombex is the easy task. Chuck’s initial trek outside of the gas station/scrap yard safehouse has him push through a thick horde of infected into the quarantine zone just outside the other end of town. Once he’s nabbed the Zombex, his focus shifts to restoring a motorbike, the pieces for which are scattered about Still Creek’s handful of businesses. Some are already in the possession of other local survivors and can be acquired for money or taken by force, while others require Chuck to scour the interior of some of the larger buildings and access otherwise locked rooms.

There are a little more than a half-dozen survivors that Chuck can choose to aid at his leisure. Some will give him money for his troubles, while others simply reward him with a boost in experience points. As Case Zero lasts approximately an hour and a half for a single playthrough, this may seem a daunting task, but most of these rescue scenarios allow Chuck to easily string multiple survivors along at once, drastically reducing travel time back and forth.

Much like with the full Dead Rising 2 experience, Chuck can craft new, more powerful weapons out of the various tools and firearms he finds lying around Still Creek. This portion of the experience is nowhere near as in-depth as in the main game, but Chuck can still access some of the more entertaining weapons like the Electric Rake, Paddlesaw, and the tried-but-true Spiked Bat. Still, easier-to-locate weapons like the Broadsword and Moose Head can prove just as much fun to use when slicing and dicing the infected or simply mowing them over with brute force.

The only segment where the gameplay becomes notably weaker is during the final minutes when Chuck and Katey make their escape run on the recently-repaired motorbike. It doesn’t control terribly well, and requires you to slow down significantly if you want to make even wide turns through the streets, effectively killing the high that one would expect of an ‘escape run’ scene. However, the rest of this prologue to Dead Rising 2 operates well enough. The other characters are a mildly interesting bunch, and do not share more dialogue than necessary due to the in-game time limit tied to Chuck’s to-do list. There’s a nice sampling of the larger gameplay offered by Dead Rising 2 throughout, and a lot of what constitutes Chuck and Katey’s dynamic shines through in fairly convincing, if not brief, interactions between the two. As for the replay value, it is centered primarily on unlocking 100% of the achievements tied to Case Zero, and a second or third playthrough won't offer anything beyond stacking Chuck's experience points until they cap out at level five.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)*

*(rating applies solely to downloadable content, not its inclusion with the content on the original game disc or other downloadable content)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Thoughts on The Last of Us

This afternoon, I finished watching the Two Best Friends playthrough of The Last of Us, one of the most talked-about games of the summer, and what looks like one of the last big hurrahs for the Playstation 3. This article is relatively free-form, and will not follow the same formula typical of my full game reviews. There is, after all, a difference between playing a game and watching someone else play it. I simply want to go over my own thoughts on The Last of Us – its high points and its low points. Fair warning: this article treads deep into spoiler territory, so if you have any intention of playing the game to completion, I suggest you close out of the browser window.

Allow me to begin by saying that the game does a phenomenal job at immersing you in a world where humanity has few choices as a means for survival – stay in a quarantined zone that is kept under martial law and deal with the problems that can arise with soldiers who abuse their power or rebels who seek to violently overturn the system in place, scavenge for supplies and live off the land in either a colony far-removed from the big cities or as a nomadic group and run a significantly greater risk of being infected by the fungal Clickers, Bloaters, etc. The graphics, though clearly outshined by those on Nintendo’s new Wii U and the trailers teased for all of the PS4 and Xbox One up-and-comers, still look really good due to a notably high degree of detail that draws everything it can from the hardware. Naughty Dog does a masterful job designing environments that bear unique assets, allowing abandoned record stores, snow-covered lodges, and off-kilter skyscrapers to plant a distinct image in your mind, as these are places you will only come across once in your travels.

Guns are intelligently prevented from becoming too powerful by limiting the upgrade options to the kickback, reload speed, firing rate, and clip capacity. There is no option to boost the firepower of your gun (save for perhaps one), because it would be too easy an option. There’s also a limited number of parts Joel can discover, forcing you to be very picky with regards to which upgrades you select. The ability upgrades behave in a similar fashion, as Joel will only locate a set number of pills over the course of the game to increase the effectiveness of his health kits, allow him to pull out a shiv on a Clicker in the event that he gets caught in a bad situation, and so on. While the makeshift tin can bombs and molotov cocktails do their jobs just fine, I fail to see the point of the smoke bombs. Why bother distracting your enemy with those when you can simply toss a bottle or a brick and conserve your resources?

Sticking fourteen year-old Ellie with Joel to play with his trust issues and sadness over the death of his daughter seems, frankly, an obvious decision. But what really makes this pair so entertaining and engaging is the fact that they have such different personalities. Joel is a father who lost his whole world, his whole reason to be, when his daughter died, and has simply been surviving for the twenty-odd years since. He’s a shell of his former self, and is seemingly just going through the motions up until he is paired with Ellie. She is a child born after the fallout, with no firsthand experience of how everyday life played out before cityscapes were overgrown with vegetation and the threat of infection was real. She has an obsession with comic books, is unable to swim, and constantly wants to prove herself as highly capable to Joel in order to gain his trust and friendship. In a lot of ways, both her hobbies and her demeanor remind me of Yorick, lead protagonist from Y: The Last Man. Yorick and Ellie both try to find the positive angle of the worst situations, but very much recognize the real danger they are constantly in. They have geeky hobbies that they are highly devoted to, and they are both strangers in strange company – Yorick being the last human with a Y chromosome walking the Earth, and Ellie being something of a miracle child who was infected but never turned into one of the rabid fungal beasts.

Around the halfway point, I really began to question what the point of throwing the infected into the mix really was. I understand that it frames the story’s introduction as chaotic, terrifying, and tragic, as things quickly escalate and we see firsthand how the world went into a state of decay. It’s clear that everyone (tough and gruff Joel included) fears the infected, and the prospect of death at the hands of these mushroom zombies drives some groups or individuals to behave in drastic, sometimes crazy ways. Beyond that, however, there’s not a whole lot of justification for them being in the game. Combat sequences between infected and humans play out almost identically, save for certain weapons being more effective against one foe and vice-versa. The infected and the problem they present never evolves or plays as large a role as I expected it would, and it certainly isn't rectified by game's end. This wouldn’t be so upsetting if it seemed like Naughty Dog was really trying to push the idea of ‘man is the most terrifying of beasts’ routine more than they actually do. When it boils down to it, the only two characters who we see portrayed as animalistic or beastly are David, with his cannibalistic culture, and Joel’s last moment run-and-gun, kill-everyone-of-those-Firefly-sons-of-bitches rage. They could have made it a scenario wherein animals become infected instead of humans and it would have left the same basic impact.

Which brings me to the issue of the game’s last hours. Everything’s going swell (for the player, at least) when Ellie and Joel take on David’s gang from separate fronts. It’s arguably the darkest territory the game visits, and also the most important, as Joel’s coming in to stop Ellie from further mutilating David’s face with the machete is the first time we see their care for one another physically manifest. It’s the moment where we know for certain that Joel truly care for this kid he’s been escorting for months, as he halts her actions, as he doesn’t believe the whole ordeal is something she ought to see nor be involved in. The whole scene of Joel and Ellie storming David’s camp town is a very carefully executed segment that places emphasis on stealth, though combat is an option for the more brave and well-stocked.

The hospital segment where Joel goes apeshit on the Fireflies is not unexpected – I was fully prepared for the Fireflies to have questionable intentions practically from the start of the game. But it does feel choppy and rushed - a couple short segments of Joel wrecking the Fireflies and busting Ellie out of the hospital to save her life, and then we suddenly jump forward to the finale. Sure, we get a flashback to understand how Joel got his hands on the truck and how no one followed them outside of Salt Lake City, but it’s presented in snippets that bounce back and forth in a rhythm that is incredibly fast when compared to the rest of the narrative.

And then, of course, there is the final scene where Ellie asks Joel for the truth about what happened in the hospital while she was unconscious. Joel flat out lies to her to retain her trust and not worry her, which is fine in the context of the story, because it is indicative that he has sort of adopted her – or rather, that they have adopted each other as partners. Joel was never looking for someone to replace his daughter, and Ellie never set out to become a daughter figure. I would never say the finale is bad. Thankfully, it doesn’t pull a Bioshock Infinite and deliver some stupid line of dialogue that conflicts with everything that preceded it. But The Last of Us feels underwhelming during its last few minutes. There’s this whole expectation that something is going to go wrong or that there might be some bittersweet conclusion – the scene of sunlight shining down on a hilltop covered in wildflowers as Joel and Ellie head toward what appears to be Uncle Tommy’s compound is so unexpected for a story like the Last of Us, that it doesn’t feel quite right. I think having them voluntarily part ways would have been stupid and incredibly out of character for either of them, but the ending we get is almost too perfect when compared to everything that preceded it.

I think the ending is what caught me off guard the most about The Last of Us – it’s surprisingly short compared to what I expected. Or maybe the pacing is just odd during the last few hours. I fully expected another hour or two of gameplay before the jump to the Fireflies headquarters. Joel and Ellie went through a lot of significant trials during their encounters with David’s gang, and I fail to see why Naughty Dog didn’t include a segment or two designed with the primary focus of having Ellie and Joel cement the dynamic of their now fully-developed or full-evolved relationship post-Winter. It seems like a huge missed opportunity, and I find it hard to believe that Ellie would still be holding on to the emotions she experienced when she was held captive by David’s men two or three months after the fact. Any normal person having gone through that traumatic an experience would have opened up to their friends or family and let them in emotionally at least a little bit (and Ellie only has one person to turn to). They were both there, they saw the same things (albeit from different approaches) – the whole jump to kick the ending out the door in time really dragged down the immersion for me, something that the game had otherwise done a consistently high-quality job at.

Though The Last of Us incorporates plenty of stealth and action elements with a little bit of survival-horror, the narrative is arguably the most memorable portion of its makeup. I consider The Last of Us as much of an interactive story as a video game belonging to any one of the aforementioned genres, and a hell of a lot more compelling one than, say, Heavy Rain, because The Last of Us never tries to push the ‘interactive story’ shtick. It just does its own thing and manages to pull a lot of winning punches in the process. It’s an interesting combination of gameplay elements familiar to other big-name releases, and I would consider the sum to be more original than its parts. It’s just highly unfortunate that it ended on a note of such lesser quality than I had hoped for or expected.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Metroid Fusion journal - entry one

Man, I need to stop and take a breath a moment… phew. Alright, so I just started up Metroid Fusion today, as it’s on loan from a friend of mine. Fusion is one of the few remaining Metroid games I have never played before, but I’ve heard only great things about it since its original release around the same time as Prime in the early 2000s. Prime was my first trek into the Metroid series, and quickly rose the ranks as one of my all-time favorite games. I played through the Prime sequels as they were released in subsequent years, and even took a crack at both the original Metroid and its Zero Mission remake, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed (though the latter was host to tighter controls and thus proved far more forgiving). But Super Metroid – the purported crown jewel of the series – eluded me for nearly a decade after I first played Prime. It was just by happenstance that I was browsing the Wii Virtual Console library and opted to spend some leftover points I had gotten as a Christmas stocking stuffer on the SNES classic.

For those who don’t know, I never owned a Super Nintendo console. I also knew hardly anyone that owned one until about the time I entered middle school. Every one of the neighbor kids ran either SEGA Genesis or PC games, and all of my friends were stocking up their libraries for the recently-released N64 by the time I was first getting into the video game scene. While I have played a decent number of SNES games today, most of my lengthy expeditions have been via Virtual Console, not the physical system itself (I know - ‘shun the outcast’, and all that). My standards for games have long been compared to my own first console love, the N64, and while The Legend of Zelda is bar none my favorite gaming saga of all time, I wasn’t really won over with A Link to the Past – certainly I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t anything revolutionary in my eyes when pitted against Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, the Oracle games, Skyward Sword, or even Wind Waker. Knowing that Super Metroid was frequently cited as one of the best games on the SNES, and even as one of the greatest games of all time, I was skeptical going into it, to say the least.

Fast forward past the playthrough of Super Metroid, my written review of it, and the couple of months that have passed between then and today. As it currently stands, Prime is still my favorite Metroid game, but Super is a close second. However, Fusion is proving to be a hell of a contender, and I’m not even an hour into the game yet. It runs on the same engine as Super, though Fusion looks (understandably) better due to the graphical advancements in the decade between the release of their respective native systems. It’s essentially a sleeker, streamlined take on the Super Metroid formula – which is not to say that Super Metroid had much in the way of fat that needed to be cut. But somehow, it works without Fusion feeling like a shell of Super’s glory.

Farming has long been the means of replenishing Samus’ health and missile count, but here it operates differently. Instead of shooting small Geemers and Shriekbats in hopes that they will drop the health/ammo you’re after, every enemy you dispatch ejects a single X Parasite sample, which Samus can walk into to help replenish her stock. Orange X Parasites are for health, green are for missiles, and the odd red ones cover both fronts. While this could present the possibility for the game being too lenient, Fusion in fact retains the difficulty factor of Super Metroid (and then some), offering up boss fights that all consist of two phases – the boss itself, and then a larger Parasite carrying Samus’ next upgrade. As for the standard orange and green X Parasites, should Samus not collect them after they manifest, they have the potential to latch onto nearby enemies and boost their abilities, pitting Samus against tougher foes in a matter of seconds. With any other Metroid title, I might think the chance to obtain three energy tanks and eighty missiles this early in would be overkill. But with Fusion, it feels like just the right amount.

The space station’s layout is much more intelligent from the perspective of this being a handheld game as well. Whereas Super Metroid, Zero Mission, and the Prime games required you to travel through one area to reach another (i.e. – go though Norfair to get to Ridley), each sector in Metroid Fusion is its own distinct region, and only connects to the main hub. None of these areas are exactly huge, either. Sure, there’s plenty to explore and they are all very aesthetically pleasing. But I can already tell that backtracking for further expansions is going to be significantly less of a hassle than in some of the other Metroid titles.

It’s incredibly rare that a game will win me over with so much so early, but Metroid Fusion seems to be pulling all the right punches a just the right times. The bosses are interesting and fun, though certainly challenging. The atmosphere is a perfect blend of creepy suspense and sci-fi adventure. The soundtrack and art style hold a great balance of ‘something old, something new’. This game is off to an awesome start, and while I can’t believe I waited this long to properly experience it, I’m not going to worry about pacing myself with the experience. If I blow through this game in just a few days, at least I expect to have a hell of a time doing so.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Top 5 ‘What the hell were these characters doing?’ in Gundam

#5 - Wang Liu Mei (Gundam 00): Wang Liu Mei and her bodyguard/brother Hong Long are introduced early on in the first season of Gundam 00 with the implication that they will be important to the grander plot. They seem to be something of investors in the idea that Celestial Being can in fact succeed with their goal of eradicating war from the world. Which, admirable an ideal as it is, is in fact not the only deck Wang Liu Mei has her money bet on. As we find out in season two, she’s investing in the Innovators as well, presumably because she’s just that greedy and has a desire to come out of this conflict a winner. Except, apparently she didn’t make much of a plan for the event that she might not live to the end of the whole ordeal to actually see a return on her investments. Considering that Wang Liu Mei and her brother come from a rich and influential family line, one would assume they’d have put precautions in place in the event that things went belly-up. And when they do meet their untimely ends, it has zero impact on either Celestial Being or the Innovators.

#4 - Lupe Cineau (Victory Gundam) – Lupe Cineau has a few appearances over the course of Victory Gundam, and is shown to be a capable fighter in close quarters as well as in the cockpit of one of the Zansacre Empire’s robot-riding-inside-of-a-giant-tire Gedlav mobile suits. Around the midway point of the series, she manages to capture Uso with the help of Katejina Loos. And how does Cineau opt to interrogate the League Militaire’s ace pilot? By stripping down and taking a bath with the teenage boy. Granted, she intends to torture him by dunking him under and nearly drowning him, but why bother having both of them naked? There’s some very strange sexual tension brought on by this, while Uso is both confused and opposed to the situation. While I understand Cineau’s desire to keep Uso alive in order to try and pry information from him, this seems like the most half-baked torture method she could have devised, and considering how much her men seem to be incredibly loyal and intimidated by her, one would think she might seek out a plan that better expressed her finesse and power during the decent chunks of time where she is absent.

#3 - The other Zabi brother (Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin) – The Zabi family served as the main antagonists in the original Mobile Suit Gundam, and helped fuel Char’s convictions and ideals as son of Zeon Zum Deikun. They are gradually taken out one by one as the Federation forces gain a foothold in colony space and Char goes about exacting his revenge upon those who twisted the vision of spacenoid independence his father had in mind. Garma, Gihren, Dozle, and Kycilia all carry out important roles in the One Year War, and go out in (generally) spectacular fashion. But there is one Zabi family member who never showed up in the original series. Cicero Zabi (otherwise known as Sasro) was a sibling of the other, more well-recognized Zabi children, but died before the One Year War even began. The cause of his death? Assassination at the hands of loyalists to the ideals of Zeon Zum Deikun, many of whom believed Deikun’s death was caused by Cicero’s father. Apparently Cicero was so unmemorable (even to his own family members) that he was never mentioned again, only seeing a brief inclusion in the Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin manga.

#2 - Lord Djibril (SEED Destiny) – Opposite to Durandal, Lord Djibril is in charge of all the operations carried out by Logos. He appears to indulge in a rich and lavish lifestyle, owning a mansion and sipping red wines while watching over the mobile suit battles he helped to orchestrate from his high-tech bunker full of monitors. And… that’s basically it. Whereas Durandal is shown travelling from place to place, meeting with ZAFT’s mobile suit pilots, and helping to boost his own political image to gain support from the masses, Djibril just sits in his comfy chair for nearly the entirety of the series like Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget until he is eventually killed.

#1 - Wufei (Gundam Wing) – Only a handful of Gundam series over the years have dared try and divvy up the spotlight between multiple lead protagonists, and while some might roll their eyes at Gundam Wing’s reliance on five pretty boys to try and boost the show’s viewership, one of my biggest problems with it lies in the fact that not all of the lead pilots see equal screen time. Wufei receives the least by far, and frankly I wonder if the writers had much of a story in mind for him due to how uninvolved he is for the vast majority of the anime. Sure, Heero and Duo receive lots of screen time early on, and Quatre sees a decent degree of character exploration. But Trowa probably received the second least screen time behind Wufei, and he managed to temporarily lose his memory, join the circus, and team up with Heero to infiltrate the ranks of Oz. Wufei, on the other hand, spent his days meditating with Shenlong by a waterfall, and had one sword fight with Treize before receiving one of the antagonist’s many famous monologues, leading Wufei to yell in frustration. He does show up conveniently at the end of the series and plays a notably more important role in Endless Waltz. But really, if you’re going to write in five characters to share the lead role, you ought to have a game plan in mind for all of them and not forget one until the series is practically over.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Anime update: Stand up to the Victory!

I mentioned in my last update that I had some interest in checking out Space Runaway Ideon, as I understood it was something of a spiritual predecessor to both Zeta Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion. However, a brief look into some short snippets of the series has led me to reconsider. I don’t mind my anime being dark from time to time – after all, Evangelion is my all-time favorite – but Ideon looks downright morbid. Young children being brought along onto the battlefield only to have their heads blown off? No thank you.

So with that said, I think I’m going to go full steam ahead with completing Victory Gundam – I have approximately twenty episodes left, and though I do make a habit of taking breaks about halfway through these longer anime, I am quite hooked on it. I’m also all caught up with Unicorn Gundam, and I am happy to say that it got back on track after that brief stint of preachiness in episode four. I can’t say for certain yet, because Unicorn still has one more episode before it is completed, but if the last episode stays on the same track the rest of the series has, it could end up as one of my favorites from the Gundam franchise. Assuming I complete Victory Gundam before the end of the summer, I plan to pick up either ZZ or the original Mobile Suit Gundam thereafter as I move into the final phases of completing my viewing of every Gundam series to date.

Also, I recently powered through roughly two-thirds of the episodes that make up Shin Sekai Yori (aka From the New World), and that series has me very interested as to where the remainder of the story will go. Expect that to be reviewed in the near future, likely around the same time as Victory Gundam. I also took a crack at the first handful of episodes of Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and while I have to say it’s even more explicitly sexually charged than older Lupin works, it’s just as humorous and entertaining as the classic series. It’s a series that I don’t plan to work through as quickly as either Victory Gundam or Shin Sekai Yori, but I will certainly get to reviewing it as well once I’ve completed it.

While I’m still a bit frustrated with Toonami’s shift in the programming earlier this year to accommodate One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto, I can say that Sword Art Online has me intrigued. The first two episodes were quite solid, and it seems like an easy enough watch. I think it helps that I didn’t experience the series back when everyone else was on the hype bandwagon for it, because, while I do have decent expectations for it, I don’t expect it to be the most mind-blowing anime of its kind. I expect it to be fun and adventurous, but beyond that I’m simply hoping it’s a solid blend of science fiction and fantasy.

On the note of the ‘bandwagon effect’, I will go out of my way right now to state that I have absolutely zero intention of viewing either Attack on Titan or Free!, the two most recent flavor-of-the-season anime that everyone and their grandma seems to be gushing over. I did try a few episodes of Attack on Titan and thought the writing was subpar at best, while the characters didn’t interest me much and the art style was grotesque and unappealing. As for Free!, the whole sports anime genre doesn’t do anything for me to begin with, and the pretty boys in speedos approach seems very much like a one-trick pony. You’re welcome to indulge in those series all you want if that’s your scene, but I’m firm on my decision not to.

Anime review: IGPX (season one)

One of the most fresh and interesting spins on the mecha anime genre from the 2000s is IGPX, a series that pits teams of three racers in giant bots travelling at mach speeds down a twisting, careening course. The mechs travel with graceful motions, alternating between a flat vehicular mode and an upright stance where their metal bodies seemingly skate down the track. While the primary focus of the race is to see one team cross the finish line before their competition, there are also fight segments that add an extra level of entertainment and danger to the competition, thus requiring teams be as fast as they are furious. Most important, though, is that teams be organized and strategic – an element that proves the largest focal points for this first season, as Team Satomi’s young up-and-comers are as ambitious as they can be reckless.

The three lead characters are Takeshi, Liz, and Amy, and they could not have more different personalities – a factor that often leads to them beating heads and occasional falters in their strategies on the raceway. Takeshi is the team’s lead who is in it to win it and wants nothing more than to prove himself against the likes of longtime hotshots such as rival Team Velshtein’s poster boy pilot Cunningham. While he generally carries a positive attitude, Takeshi can be blissfully unaware of the greater challenges he and his teammates need to overcome at times, which – coupled with Liz’s brash demeanor and short temper and Amy’s soft-spoken personality – leads to their first season being filled with many important learning experiences.

IGPX is a rare breed for its genre, as there is as much (if not more) time spent exploring the characters, the tech, and the culture of the series off the track as there is in the midst of the pulse-pounding raceway action. Each character gets ample time to develop, and the tendency the genre has to pull as ‘character of the week’ routine by featuring one character prominently for an episode and then sweeping them off to the side for the better part of the remainder of the season is avoided. Team Satomi’s crew proves as prominent as the racers, receiving nearly as much screen time. Even the rival team members are explored to a decent extent, offering viewers with case studies on what makes them tick to better set the stage and amp up the tense atmosphere of the races. Team Velshtein is well-known as the favored veterans, Team Skylark consists of three lethal beauties, and Team Sledge Mamma is notorious for their rough and tough tactics.

The artistic direction in IGPX is akin to that of Blue Submarine No. 6, albeit much more colorful. While everything is digitally animated, the character models are drawn in 2D while the mechs and the raceway and rendered in 3D models. However, due to a higher level of detail in the character designs and environments, better lighting/shading effects, and a light layer of cel-shaping over all the 3D assets, IGPX manages to pull off this look significantly better than Blue Submarine No. 6 – as it should, considering the two shows aired more than half a decade apart. Interesting camera angles increase the fun factor for this ‘F-Zero with robots’ creation, further aiding in the show’s noteworthy degree of visual immersion. The soundtrack is comprised of a surprising variety of tunes, many of which are in keeping with the unique brand of techno that has long graced the promo segments and returns from commercial breaks on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. Some songs are funky in a Jet Set Radio fashion, others mellow with emphasis on piano to help cultivate a scene focused on Takeshi’s personal struggles outside of the cockpit. Of course, the most interesting listens are the fast-paced, mildly repetitive tunes that accompany the action on the track, be it Liz’s mech bashing into a rival racer’s, or Takeshi’s mech experiencing technical troubles due to suspected sabotage.

As mentioned above, IGPX’s first season is largely focused on Team Satomi learning to work together and overcome their individual weaknesses to better their strategies and relationships. This leads to a methodical somewhat predictable formula, as every time Takeshi gets himself into a pickle, it will take another episode for someone to talk some sense into him and for Takeshi to subsequently draw whatever lesson he needs to from that exchange. Nonetheless, the races are a blast to watch, and the series is a bold and successful journey into territory outside of the traditional (and stale) super-powered combat mecha formula.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)
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