Friday, August 22, 2008

New Super Mario Bros.

New Super Mario Bros.
Platformer - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player / 4 player WLAN

The original Super Mario Bros. was always my favorite of the series. Yes, subsequent entries had more variety to the stages, new power ups, and different enemies, but they just didn't resonate with me very well. So when Nintendo set out to make a sequel of the original for the DS, I was ecstatic. That is... until it came out. I absolutely hated it.

Where to begin... Let's start with the stages. Imagine my disappointment when I started up the game, hit a few blocks, jumped on a few goombas, and hit the end flag in about 20 seconds. The original SMB never had such short stages, and it certainly was a lot more challenging. Thankfully, the stages grow in length as the game progresses, but the difficulty level remains pretty easy overall.

The gameplay remains relatively intact. Your main weapon is still your feet. Jumping on enemies will get rid of most of them, including bosses. But this time you have some new jumping tricks. The coolest addition is the wall jump. It allows you to use your surrounding environment to scale higher heights. There is also a Ground Pound attack, in which you jump, and then stomp straight down. This creates a more powerful attack, and can break blocks as well. The style of the game is most reminiscent of the first Super Mario Bros., but you will see heavy influences of Mario 3 and World in the maps and stage design. But the limited musical tracks, classic swimming stages, and lack of flight definitely make it a tribute to the first.

Like the original Super Mario Bros., you've got your Mushroom, your fireball plant, and the invincibility star as power-ups. But this time they've added a Mega Mushroom, Mini Mushroom, and Turtle Shell. The Mega Mushroom lasts temporarily, but increases Mario's size to almost the height of the screen. He's invulnerable in this state, and depending on how much he destroys, he'll get some 1ups out of it too. The Mini Mushroom turns Mario extremely small. In exchange for the risk of a one-hit kill, Mini Mario can enter tiny passageways, run on water, and have floatier jumps. Finally, Shell Mario can hide in his shell to avoid taking hits. In addition, he'll be able to slide around in turtle shell form to attack enemies and hit blocks. The problem with these powerups is that they have limited usage. The Mega Mushroom is not well integrated into the game, and seems to be only useful for grabbing some extra lives. There's no stages that make use of his gigantic size, making it feel like an afterthought. Mini and Shell Mario are both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes the floaty physics of Mini Mario actually make stages much harder, if not impossible, to play. And the problem with Shell Mario is that the shell slide will activate while you're running, so if you're caught unprepared, you could slide right off a ledge. The thing is, although some stage areas are designed with those power-ups in mind, the power-up is often unavailable in that stage or makes it a random drop. That means you will have to replay a previous stage to get the necessary power-up, clear it, and then head back to the stage where you needed the power-up for entry. If you die, you'll have to do it all again. There's a lot of back-and-forth. It creates a tedious loop. Perhaps to alleviate this situation, you're also able to store one power-up on the touchscreen. But often, these power-ups are put into storage by a random drop, so chances are you won't have what you want in inventory. Overall, these new power-ups proved to be more aggravating than delightful.

Another aspect that is totally inexcusable is its save system. Being a portable game, you would think that Nintendo would add some sort of save anywhere feature, such as a temporary quicksave. There is no such thing. Instead, if you want to save, you have to either clear a tower/fort stage, or unlock an optional path on the map screen. When I'm playing on-the-go, I don't have time to dedicate playing 5 stages all at once. The solution according to the manual? Close the DS lid and put it in Sleep Mode. How is that a solution? What if your battery runs out while you're living your real life? What if you happen to forget that your DS is in sleep mode, and you leave it on for 2 weeks without playing? Why all games, especially portable, don't have a temporary quicksave feature is beyond me. If the game simply erases the quicksave after you've loaded it, then the game is just as challenging, but infinitely more convenient. It's ridiculous that NSMB only offers hardsaves in a select few save-points.

But for all that is wrong with the game, I finally "get" it. If you're just trying to beat the game, New Super Mario Bros. is a pretty mediocre experience. But NSMB incorporates a collectathon element, which ends up being its saving grace. Every stage of the game has 3 Star Coins to find. Some of them are out in the open, and may take some work to get. Others are a little more hidden and require logic and deduction to find. They'll test your timing and ability to make precision jumps. They'll also test your resourcefulness in using what the stage offers you. This is where NSMB shines. The design annoyances are still present for the Star Coins, but there are also some really creative locations for them as well. In addition, several stages have more than one exit. Find them, and you'll be able to access new paths on the world map. These new elements make NSMB play more like a puzzle game, and that actually changes the game considerably.

With design mishaps like poorly integrated power-ups, needing to replay previous stages, and lack of a quicksave, New Super Mario Bros. is full of irritation. Play the game to the end and you're likely to be bored by the lack of difficulty. But the inclusion of alternate exits and out-of-the-way coins transform the game into more of a thinking man's platformer. Pursue these extras, and you'll find that the bulk of the challenge lies here. Try as I may, I could hate it no longer. NSMB is flawed, but fun.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bionic Commando

Bionic Commando
Action - Gameboy
1 player

Things you can do with a grappling arm:

- Scale new heights
- Swing over chasms
- Stun enemies
- Grab items

While everyone else is playing Bionic Commando Rearmed, I thought about revisiting the classic. Only, my NES is nearly impossible to get working nowadays, even with the "blow trick", and my Bionic Commando cart is MIA. I knew there was a Gameboy Bionic Commando, so I decided to do some research on it to find out if it was worth playing. What I discovered was that 1) There was also another Bionic Commando released for GBC called Elite Forces and 2) The original GB one is a remix of the NES Bionic Commando. Thanks to an Amazon Marketplace seller, I got the chance to experience the GB version for myself.

The game is very much an action platformer, with a twist. Unlike most platformers where you have options like wall jumping and double jumping to reach the next platform, Bionic Commando has no jumping at all. Instead, the gameplay centers around a grappling arm. Oh. You'll need to use plenty of weapons to dispatch of enemies as well, but the star of the show is the arm. You can shoot your grappling arm out horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Latch onto a platform, and you can propel yourself up to it. Latch onto a ceiling, and you can use your grappling arm as a rope to swing across. But the horizontal distance you swing depends on how much your arm is extended. And your arm extension depends on the distance between your character and the object your arm is clinging to. The control demands precision in positioning your character, as well as timing of the grappling arm. Luckily, the controls are very tight and rewarding. The design of the stages is such that you absolutely have to get comfortable utilizing the mechanics of the arm, or you cannot advance. You can choose what stages you want to play on the map. But every time you move, enemies will move as well. If you and an enemy contact, you'll enter an encounter stage where you can pick up some much needed continues.

Being a remix of the NES game, the grappling arm, weapons, armor and radio are mostly identical. The map and stages are also similar to the original as well. Visuals take a noticeable hit - everything is far less detailed. Maybe as a consolation, both the sound quality and musical composition are vastly improved. It also seems as if the action is much more fast paced in this version. But there are some noteable differences. Capcom rebalanced the grenade launcher/rocket launcher so that it's not nearly as powerful as before. In the NES version, taking down the power reactors took 3 hits of the launcher to finish a stage. Not so in the GB version. It takes about 10 hits, which forces you to engage enemies in the power room. This is another area in which the Gameboy differs. The power room encounters in the NES version were relatively uniform. But on the GB, they introduce new bosses in the power room segments. Couple that with the reduced effectiveness of the launcher, and you've got a higher difficulty end encounters. The swinging segments are generally easier on the GB version, except the difficulty ramps up considerably by the end. One major change is that the Albatross vehicle is a boss in the NES version, but is an entire stage in the GB version. It will put your grappling skills to the test. Finally, the last major change is that map encounters with the enemy are now horizontally scrolling action stages. In the NES version, they were vertical scrolling, reminiscent of Ikari Warriors. But in the GB version, its style is more consistent with the rest of the game.

Overall, the Gameboy Bionic Commando recreates the experience of the NES version. Bionic Commando on Gameboy certainly makes some changes - sometimes making the game easier, other times making it harder, and sometimes making it just plain different. Nevertheless, the two versions share the same game mechanics, familiar stages, and essence. But the problem with a remix/remake is that it will inevitably be compared to the original. You expect certain things because the original had them, and when they're not duplicated exactly or at all, it's hard not to be disappointed. And so I find myself conflicted. Bionic Commando GB is unquestionably a good game, and reminds me of exactly what I miss about old school gaming - tight controls and level design that revolves around mastery of the gameplay mechanics. But I can't shake the feeling that something was missing from it all. Maybe what I really want in a Bionic Commando game isn't the swinging, isn't the grappling, but merely a face explosion.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Meccha! Taiko no Tatsujin DS - 7tsu no Shima no Daibouken

Meccha! Taiko no Tatsujin DS - 7tsu no Shima no Daibouken
Rhythm - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup
1 player / 4 player WLAN

Not much to say really. It's Namco's rhythm game, Taiko no Tatsujin, but on the DS. This is the 2nd Taiko game for the DS, and like the first, it comes with two drumstick stylii to be used for the game. It also comes with a set of stickers. Who can resist free stuff?

The coolest thing about the game is the touchscreen interface. Of course nothing can compare to beating on the taiko prop in the arcades, but tapping the screen with your two stylii drumsticks is pretty intuitive. You can play the game with the normal Dpad/buttons too, but what's the point? The game is similar in style to most other rhythm games. "Notes" will scroll across the screen and when it hits a certain point, you tap the screen to time it exactly. On the DS version, there is a picture of a giant taiko drum on the touchscreen. If the note is red, you hit the drum with your stylus. If the note is blue, you hit a space outside of the drum. There are some special freestyle segments too, where you drum as fast as you can to rack up more points, and some other parts where you're forced to alternate your red and blue hits. All in all, it's a simple system, but it works pretty well.

The songs themselves are a mix of Jpop, classical music, folk songs, anime themes and namco video game music. The game sports a total of 50 songs, which ain't too shabby. And there are several difficulties for each song, so there's plenty of material here.

There's some interesting things about the game's structure. There are a lot of hidden events, akin to achievements. So when you hit certain milestones, you'll get emails, bonuses and congratulation screens. The in-game email system is full of personality. You'll receive messages from the game's cast of characters, each with their own unique writing style. They'll sometimes "attach" rewards, such as clothes for your drum to wear or additional instrument sounds to play with. Definitely the game's audience is more geared towards kids, but it's still very charming. The email system acts as a mark of progress, so it's kinda cool. There's also a story mode in the game that lets you unlock some new songs. It's kind of strange in that they won't let you fight bosses unless you've unlocked the proper clothing and wear them for the encounter. But the story mode has unique challenges to them including:

- Finish song at 100% rating
- Hit notes to damage bosses, as they send obstacles to block your vision of the note charts
- Play vs 3 computer opponents for highest score, as they use powerups and send little creatures to block where you can hit on the drum

Aside from the story mode, the general free play mode lets you play any song at whatever difficulty you want. Included is also a 2x/3x scroll speed option. The one thing I noticed is that compared to a Konami Bemani game, Taiko no Tatsujin is more mainstream-friendly. By that, I mean it's easy. In Bemani games, lots of times you are struggling to even pass a song and that's a big challenge in of itself. When passing that 9 foot song in DDR or 11 rated song in Beatmania IIDX, you feel a great sense of accomplishment. That type of feeling is lost in Taiko no Tatsujin (at least... until you unlock Oni mode). Instead, Taiko has a very lenient system. Even if you are messing up like crazy, chances are that you'll pass it. But there is still challenge to be found in precision. Like other rhythm games, playing for score is a big thing, so while it may be easy to pass a song, it is difficult to get 100% Good notes. So depending on what type of game player you are, the lack of difficulty in passing songs may or may not affect you. Finally there's a multiplayer versus mode, where you can even play 4 players off of one cart. The only drawback is that if you're the only one with the game, you'd be the only one with the two drumstick stylii and your friends would need to find additional props (fingers possibly?) or use the button controls.

Overall, the game works. The touchscreen interface allows for a more tactile experience than simply hitting buttons. Sure it can't match holding real drumsticks on the console and arcade versions, but it's a workable substitute. Plus I'm a sucker for unique accessories like the bundled drumstick stylii. With plenty of different modes offered and a sizeable songlist, Meccha! Taiko no Tatsujin DS is a whole lot of game.