Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Midweek Music Box: Bit Trip Fate

Embrace the frustration.

Despite the soundtrack that I've picked for today, I am not frustrated or angry.  I'm just a little overworked and over-tired of late.  I can't seem to fall into one nice, focused groove.  Now, much of this has to do more with the need to clean our apartment constantly for showings, trying to do home showings at the drop of a hat, finding and working writing jobs, maintaining the gaming blog, recording and editing a movie podcast I do with my brother....  


So yeah...okay, maybe I've let a little frustration and annoyance creep in.  But that makes this particular soundtrack all the more perfect.

Sometimes I get flustered with the pace of my life right now.  I'm not a terribly "type A" person as they call it.  I'm not always making lists of my "to do's" and trying to live my life in a certain order and get things done "just so."  If I don't do those things "just so" I won't freak out.  "Life finds a way," as Dr. Malcom once said.  So,  I can keep up a pace with or without a predetermined structure most days.  Of course, sometimes it is a necessary evil, the list making and following a pattern that is.  It's just when it becomes an all encompassing monster that I get frustrated and even a little angry.  If a "type B" person like myself finds themselves forced into a situation where we need to make lists, then by golly don't mess with that stupid "to do" list!  After all, you were the one who made it happen you type A'er! 

Where was I?  

Oh yes.  When that happens, when "to do" lists creep in, I need just the right set of music to help me get into the groove of writing since that's part of my family's income.  So, cue some appropriately titled Bit Trip music from the guys at Gaijin.


I find the whole of the Bit Trip series music to be an utterly enjoyable affair, and Bit.Trip.Beat has an infectious and upbeat (oh so pun intended) quality that I've mentioned before.  I typically have that going if I'm trying to write about a informational article and need to keep up a cheery mood, or if I'm about to write an upbeat section from one of the books I'm working on and need to shift out of "clean the house" mode.  However, when I need to grind away at something, and knock off things from a "to do" list, I turn to the tunes of Bit.Trip.Fate to help me get through.


The key tracks I go to are "Patience," "Frustration," and "Anger"--and no, not just because they mirror my own feelings when I am working through a "to do" list.  There's a certain cadence within the music that serves as a great parallel for the pace at which I type and I think if you are looking for some thing to help you get through your own "to do's" then you can't go wrong with Bit.Trip.Fate.  

"Anger" has little blips and bloops interrupted by an occasional bass thump. These are eventually overridden with thumping bass and synth-sound mix that does an excellent job conveying both the emotion and the desire to push through it and get over it.  Frustration starts slow and quietly builds until the whole soundtrack booms, thumps, and eventually morphs into a rocking and beating tune that also does a great job putting a musical "soundtrack" to the feeling that it finds itself named after.  Of course "Patience" is a quieter tune than the other two, and it never builds to a volume level too high nor does it get populated with the same bass and "wubba wubba" sound of the other two.  It's a great little track for keeping focused during all too quiet moments where you need a little extra push to help get through a time consuming task.  At least, that's what I've found.

Overall, the tracks I've mentioned and linked to have an intrinsic rhythm to them that keeps my fingers flying while at the keyboard.  In a weird way it gets my mind "in tune" as it were, to the task of getting tasks done.  Getting through a laundry list of to do's can be frustrating just to look at, but if you have the right background music, like that found in Bit.Trip.Fate, it can go so much more smoothly.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: Shantae and the Pirate's Curse


Poor Shantae just can't seem to catch a break.  First she loses her half-genie-ness, then her arch-nemesis Risky Boots escapes, and now she has a court summons for saving a town!  Get ready for high seas adventures in WayForward's latest installment in the Shantae series:  Shantae and the Pirate's Curse.  In Shantae and the Pirate's Curse you play as the eponymous heroine Shantae who hair-whips her way through battle, but still manages to find time to do what she wants.  Things are going astray right from the start in the world and only Shantae can help defeat the bad guys and save the day.  I have to admit, I'm new to the Shantae series of games; however, I've heard great things about them and couldn't wait to give Shantae and the Pirate's Curse a whirl.  Does this dashing djinn  live up to her reputation?  Or was will you be left wishing for more?


Shantae's basic running and jumping are well executed, as is using the lamp to absorb dark magic.  Most actions are smooth and natural to do, which is what you want out of a good platformer.  However, I would say the only place that the controls lack are when it comes to the use of the sub-menu.  It might be that the use of items and inventory don't translate well to the Wii U and work better when it comes the 3DS, but as of this review I don't own a 3DS so I don't know if that is true.  Other than this, your basic running, jumping, and hair whipping work well.

Graphics and Style

Although the series made it's premiere on the Gameboy Color, tiis latest installment in the Shantae series has much less in the way of limitations and makes full use of the color palette available resulting in bright colors, shiny cartoon characters during the exposition scenes, and satisfying color schemes.  As a forewarning, certain racy "teases" happen during the game with our scantily clad super heroine.  Stuff such as the heroine getting trapped while soaking in a bubble bath or certain suggestive poses seem to crop up too often for my tastes, but that's just me.  I'm a bit of a prude and have learned to embrace that.

The style really evokes a goofy anime feel and has characteristics that remind me of "Slayers."  I find the wait animation a little too "boppy" in that the characters move a little too much in my opinion.  For me, a little bit of movement feels nice and makes the character look fidgety much in the same way I would be if some one just left me standing and waiting.  Shantae's waiting animation though makes her look like she's grooving to the background music or at a rave that I can't see.   

Music and Sound

Download this music now?  Granted!

The game has a nice collection of enemy death noises, hair whip sounds, and item use sounds as well.  I don't have too much to say on this other than they worked well for the game and weren't distracting or over the top as can sometimes happen in platformer games.

When a game has a killer score, it gets my attention from the get go.  So when Shantae and the Pirate's Curse opened with a title screen score that made me feel like I was about to dive into a high seas adventure (sorry, puns are in my nature) reminiscent of something from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie; I was immediately hooked.  Who doesn't love it when they game composer, in this case Jake Kaufman, goes all out with the hard sell?  Each "drum beat" that crescendos to every piping flute that trills in those first few moments lets you know that adventure will soon follow.  Although the rest of the soundtrack doesn't quite have the same orchestral feel that the title music does, it still helps keep the gameplay lively and fun with jaunty tunes and upbeat rhythms.  Speaking of gameplay...


As you race around the various levels and towns within the game you'll find yourself enjoying the pleasant use of parallax scroll and the colorful settings to which you travel.  The hair whipping that you use to defeat enemies seems a silly way of fighting at first.  Even in-game characters seem to realize the ludicrous nature of hair-whipping a bad guy to death.  Pretty soon though it just comes to you second nature and you can race along (or stop in a shop) and find clever ways to employ your hair to defeat enemies.

Final Thoughts

The first time I heard about the Shantae series was thanks to the team of Joe and Dave and their show Gamesack.  In their "Games that Push Hardware Limits" episode, they talk about how the game was on pare in quality with games that came out for Gameboy Advanced.  Modern technology looks and feels great, but somehow I'm still more impressed with how much the original was able to pull off.

One last thought:  I have to admit I feel awkward playing this game and a lot of it goes back to the scantily clad women thing.  I think my wife put it best when she said it feels geared towards prepubescent girls who are into the "girl power" thing, or males who enjoy lusting after pretend cartoon women.  Although I do find the hair-whipping attack clever and fun to use, I don't know how often I am likely to pick up and play this game again after reviewing it.  Not that the game has huge failings and errors; It's just that I still have that bit of anxious embarrassment that I did in high school when a risque scene would happen in a movie or TV show.  With a woman, cartoon or otherwise, spending the majority of the game looking like she's dressed for a modern interpretation of "I Dream of Genie" rather then getting ready for battle, I just get all weird and embarrassed.

Graphics/Visual Style: 7/10
Music/Sound:  10/10
Control and Gameplay:  8/10

Overall Rating: 7.5  (I knock it down because the scantly clad women really startled me when I first saw the game.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Midweek Music Box: Metroid Prime 3

When Nintendo teamed up with Retro Studios to produce the epic trilogy of Metroid Prime games (thus far a trilogy), they not only created a landscape that was both familiar and new thanks to advanced 3D rendering, they created a series of masterpieces.  I know, I know, it probably sounds like I'm gushing too much about this game and we're barely done with the first paragraph, but it's likely if you feel I'm embellishing, you haven't played the games.  

And if you haven't played them, let me say this:  These games have some of the most phenomenal game music out there.  Today I'm focusing on music from the third installment in the series, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, composed by Kenji Yamamoto, because not only does the music hit all the right notes (heavy pun drop there, sorry) but because the progression of the tone gets pretty darn near perfect in a way that other games, heck even many movies, wish they could.

Title Screen Music

When that title music starts up, and odd ethereal music starts to play, it builds in such a way that still gives me chills to this day.  Then the dramatic base hits as the title appears lending not only weight to the moment, but it makes it feel as if something epic will soon unfold on your game system.  It promises a science fiction experience that is not just another entry into a franchise, but makes us feel as if we've nearly reached the conclusion of a story that will be told for ages.  No, I don't think this is embellishment in the least, I think I'm probably selling the music far too short.

Throughout previous installments in the Metroid Prime series, you experience music that works well at striking the tone of both the area you are fighting and exploring, and the "chapter" if you will, of the story.  Metroid Prime 3 had to not only do this, but had to build up each musical chapter in such a way that you know not only are you nearing the end of the game, but the end of the over-arching Dark Samus story as well.  Just listen to theme from this battle, the music cues within, the shift in tone showing the character's corruption, the incorporation of  themes from earlier in the game, the building of the drums--this is just pure ear candy, take a listen:

Battle Theme

And this wasn't even the end credits music, which not only hearkens to the title music, but weaves in themes from the original Metroid Prime to start, then, the music shifts to a sense of somber rejoicing with high voices and low chants.  Not only does this help you get a sense of having defeated the game, but of having wiped out your enemy once and for all.  It gives you the spirit of the ending much in the way that the ending music for Star Wars: A New Hope helps to capture it's ending tone.  Just trust me and click the link:

Of course, these are just a few snapshots--"echoes" if you will--(sorry, had to be done) from what I think represents some of the finest video game music has to offer.  If there's a place to download this, you need to do so.  Metroid Prime 3 has musical elements in it that feel overlooked in more recent games and game systems.  With games getting closer and closer to just acting as playable movies, the music needs to be equally cinematic.  For me, Metroid Prime: Corruption, offers that movie soundtrack experience every time.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Satisfying or Shovelware? Vol 2: I've Got to Run, Stealth Inc 2, Kung Fu Bunny

Time to do some digging..

Nintendo's Eshop has a plethora of great games.  From old school major releases to indie funded fun; there's a lot to see and play out there.  Sometimes there are a bevy of fun games for cheap--and sometimes you run across games that make LJN look like makers of beloved classics.  These games beg one question:  Can you find a fun game for a cheap price?  Or are they all mounds of moronic mediocrity?  Yes it's time once more for Satisfying or Shovelware? Where I take a quick look at games from the Wii U Eshop and make a call on whether they are shovelware garbage or a satisfying little bit of game play.  As Mario would say, "Let's a-go!"

"Oh Noes!  Stolen rabbits!  Aliens?  Saves 'em!" 

 At least, that's what I believe the plot of Bulkypix's puzzle platformer Kung Fu Rabbit is based on the cutesy story boards that proceed game play.  Story doesn't matter so much really for this game though as the objective for the levels remains the same throughout:  Try to grab all the carrots and rescue the rabbit from a purple bubble/force field.  The controls are fairly intuitive and solidly done.  The wall hang and wall jump remind me of stuff from Sunsoft's Batman game, and even if you have a little trouble getting the hang of the method of pulling of these moves, there are cute little signs around to help you out on how to do them.  And that is the prevailing theme of the game:  cuteness.  Your cute, the bad guys are cute, the power ups are cute, the death trap are cute, heck--even the parallax scroll manages to be cute.  I love the sound effects as they were both charming and funny and really helped the tone of the game.  The music was fairly light and mellow, like something out of a...well...out of a kung fu movie when there's that obligatory scene of people sitting around doing beautiful, hand-painted calligraphy.  There isn't too much by way of difficulty in this game and I bet if I sat down for a an hour or so I'd reach the end and honestly I don't know if it would hold much replay value with me.  Not that I'm trying to brag or anything like that, just the challenge isn't there.  However, as I mentioned, there's a cute factor and there's something nice about having a pleasant little game that you can pick up and play with very little investment.  I think when my little girl gets older it would be a fun way to help teach her how to play a platformer game instead of boring schoolish stuff of course.

Final Verdict:  Satisfying 

Deep, deep in a secret testing laboratory quitting time has arrived.  For one "quality controller" obsessed with being the top performer and a certain clone unit, the night has just begun.  In Stealth Inc 2:  A Game of Clones by Curve Digital you play as one of the many clones within the facility trying to survive various "tests" while progressing the game and unraveling the secret behind the facility.  The game's "narrator" appears via on screen text in the same vein as Portal and well not voiced, has much of the sarcasm and ominous dark humor.  The controls are fairly solid, don't take much getting used to, and when you die it never feels cheap.  Speaking of dying, the game has that "quick death" mechanic that I've referred to before, so even if you die while trying a puzzle, you start back up again fairly quickly.  This is case where I like that mechanic because I found the story and gameplay engaging.  Stealth's music has a dark futuristic/electronic vibe to it that unsettles me a bit, but this is a good thing as it plays well into the tone and setting of the game.  The rhythms were actually something I would like to listen to again outside of the game and I personally think would work well as background music for various chores around the home.  That's just me though.  It has a fairly high replay value in my opinion as each "test" in the game ranks you according to speed and number of deaths.  You can even see how you did compared to other players online and I like that touch.  Not that I have any scores worth posting, in fact most of the challenges I'm way behind where even the last place finisher was.  Again though, that makes the game all the more appealing to retry as I would like to rank higher.  

Final Verdict:  Extremely Satisfying

Have you ever seen those antique devices known as zoetropes?  If you haven't you should look it up.  Basically it's a wheel-shaped optical illusion device that spins around and you peak through a slit to see a series of sequential images that look like a moving picture as the device spins.  Why do I bring up this bit of antiquated technology?  Because it's what I immediately thought of when playing this game. I'll describe what I mean by that shortly...

 In I've Got to Run by 4 Corner Games you play as a poorly animated marshmallow man with floaty jumps and a back ground that never changes.  There isn't much to the controls other than jump then double jump.  There is no objective other than to keep running and getting points, so it comes from what some people call the "Endless Runner" genre of games.  I know what you're thinking, because I thought it too, "Endless runner game?  You mean like Bit.Trip.Runner?"  Yeah, like that only minus the great music and fun.  Although the game boasts three modes, I couldn't tell the difference between them aside from the static backgrounds.  Oh, and that's not a joke by the way, the image in the background never changes, never alters and never offers anything eye-catching.  There's not parallax scroll, so you basically feel like your watching that zoetrope device I mentioned before.  Even the ability to post your score feels stilted.  Unlike most other games for the Wii U instead of automatically posting your scores and seeing scores of other players, you have to take a snapshot of your score and post it to the Miiverse.  I know that in the grand scheme of things taking few extra steps shouldn't seem that cumbersome, but in a world where most games do it for you automatically it seems silly not to have the game post stuff for me.  The music isn't really worth mentioning other than to say it is as dull and repetitive as the game itself.  Now, I don't want to keep ragging on the thing, I know people at game studios work hard to develop a product, but this feels like a cross between an unfinished project and something that would work better as a mobile game.  

Final Verdict:  Shovelware

Friday, July 17, 2015

Friday Night Rentals: Adventure Island

Skateboards and Jungles?  Sure!

I loved renting games that were just basic platformers.  Sure they all seemed the same after a while, and some were better than others, but there was something satisfying about being able to pop in a game and know that all I have to do is keep going right to win.  When I rented this for the weekend, my mom and I enjoyed playing Adventure Island in turns.  One of us would beat a level then hand it off, or sometimes we'd hand off after losing a life or felt unable to do the level.  It was great fun trying to get as far as we could in the game even though we never beat the game.  I can't tell you how many times we just missed an egg that was barely off screen and inaccessible, or how we ran out of health right before the goal.  It was just a pleasant little game all around and a solid go-to for a fun Friday night rental.  However...even back then though the game seemed fun, it was not quite as fun as that other game... you know the one....

Yeah, that's him officer. He's the one who beat the competition.

Mario was always the side scrolling platformer that all the other kids on the proverbial video game block had wanted to be.  He could run and jump and grow super huge and rescue princesses--provided they weren't in another castle.  I still give Hudson Soft points for trying though, they were one of the better ones.  Hudson Soft's Adventure Island, a port of the Sega arcade game Wonder Boy, seemed like one of those blatant attempts to copy the formula that made Super Mario Bros such a huge success.  I must have rented Adventure Island half a dozen times before finally buying it used years after the Super Nintendo had come on to the market.  It was like seeing an old friend again.   Did it still hold that pleasantness?  Did I still want to find hidden eggs and ride a skateboard across an island?

Well...let's break it down, shall we?

Music and Sound 

Endless music loops of the same stuff. Hooray for Mario clones.

"Lookie!  We even knocked off the way the music fits in the game tonally," probably pops up in the owners manual somewhere if I had to guess. Okay, let me say I do enjoy the music from Adventure Island.  It's pleasant and upbeat during the island segments and gets dark and ominous in the caves leading up to the boss fight.  And boy howdy does it make it ever apparent that they are knocking off Super Mario Bros.  Let's face it though, Nintendo got it right and did it right with Mario--why not mimic success?  The music works well enough, and it is memorable, its just nothing that will stick with you for a long period of time unless you put it on your iPod or similar listening device.  Let me say though, for me the music gets old fast in a way the Super Mario theme never did.

In so far as sounds go, they aren't really anything you'll write home about.  I like Hudson Soft well enough and all, just there isn't much to be said here.  The sounds work for what they are.  I think that it's a shame they are merely functional rather than showing a bit of creativity.  It would have been nice if the fire bolas you toss had a different sound than the basic ax or if the enemies would have had some sounds beyond the noise they make when you hit them.  

Graphics and Style

Attack the villainous...snail?
You are a cartoon man running along a cartoon landscape chucking cartoon axes and fire bolas at giant snails, bats, birds, pigs (yes, pigs) and an Evil Witch Doctor with interchangeable heads!  Just another day at the office really...

In all seriousness though, the graphics are cutesy and pleasant, the monsters aren't really scary in any sense of the word (unless you have a crippling fear of escargot), and even the Evil Witch Doctor looks a bit silly.  There isn't much in the way of sprite animation aside from the goofy expressions Master Higgins makes when jumping or tripping over something.  It was fine back in the day, I didn't really notice that the graphics weren't on par with other games at the time.  But now that I've got a library of games to pull from that I didn't have as a kid the game really seems outclassed by other games.


Just keep running.

That's what you have to tell yourself, and that's what I did tell myself back when I was renting this game every now and then from the video store.  No stopping to stomp the Goombas--I mean snails-- in this Mario clone, just keep moving or poor Master Higgins dies!  Why did he keep dying?  Because apparently he was hypoglycemic or diabetic or something!  Whatever the case was, you have to keep feeding the poor leaf wearing-wearing sap or he'll kick the bucket.  Thankfully each game area has fruit just about everywhere, but you'll find yourself constantly trying to balance racing towards the end of the stage while grabbing said fruit with making sure you don't rush headlong into an enemy and die.  Not that the game lacks on fun, but it certainly has its fair share of frustrations.  I can't tell you how many times I would grab a skateboard power up only to lose it a second later by slamming into a gigantic snail or trip over a rock, then face-plant-dying into a snail.  You pick up an ax or fire bola thing that you can chuck at enemies as you go, but really the enemies are bland and act more like obstacles than actual things trying to kill you. Not that this poses a problem or makes the game less challenging, just that it makes them feel generic--like blobs or blocks could have taken their place and you wouldn't have noticed.

Final Thoughts

Yeah, I know it was just a Nintendo game, but there were other games out there that seemed to have a little more effort put into them and for a game that was pretty much knocking off the Super Mario Bros. formula, this one, coming back to it years later, feels like it did the bear minimum in terms of creative difference from Mario.  You can't go back from where you came, you have a repeating end boss with the same dark music over and over, and you are even saving what amounts to a princess.  So basically it feels like a rip off.  Funny thing is though...

It was still kinda fun.  The Nintendo has a library of games second to none with most being fairly awesome even though they are only 8 bit.  Some games tried harder than others to mimic the formula of other, more successful games and ended up giving us what amounts to shovelware years later.  However, even as copycat-ish as Adventure Island is, the controls are solid, the music enjoyable, and the game just a pleasant little experience all around.  Did it do anything new?  Not really.  But what it did do it did well.  There were several sequels to Adventure Island and it even hopped platforms.  Hudson Soft was snatched up by Konami several years ago, and since they are currently in the process of mismanaging their own brand, they haven't had time go and screw up the Hudson Soft label, so it's doubtful we'll see another sequel anytime soon, which is a shame.

If you don't already own this gem then think about making some space in your collection for Master Higgins.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Midweek Music Box: Lost Luster Part 1: Do Cinematic Sequences in Video Games No Longer Impress?

Get ready for some frog-saving excitement!

When my cousin John popped Blaster Master in his NES, I wasn't impressed.  The stuff about chasing your pet frog seemed slow and boring.  He seemed enthused though and I gave my cousin, who usually knew his stuff when it came to games, the benefit of the doubt even though I was more than a bit dubious.  He pressed start and then this happened, this glorious moment right here:

Get ready to rock you subterranean monsters.

This doesn't quite say it all, does it?  Check this out, the still shot is wrong, but those first 7 seconds of game footage still get me pumped years later:

Just the first 20 seconds and you feel like you are literally in the game.

Music swells as the tank revs up, getting ready to go.  Beyond the cave walls where you found this beast of a vehicle lie terrible mutated creatures bent on your destruction.  Why was Sophia the 3rd, a specialized battle tank, down that hole in the first place?  Why are there radioactive mutants underground?  Why are you risking life and limb for a stupid frog?  None of that matters, what does matter is how incredible those first few seconds of the game are.

Years have passed since the last time I saw the first few moments of Blaster Master by Sunsoft.  The scenes with the boy chasing his pet frog and stumbling down a hole, not breaking his neck, and subsequently finding the most butt-kicking vehicle this side of a Transformer were nice and all, but they didn't exactly sell the game as the adventure it was.  There were plenty of carts in the proverbial video game sea, and if you didn't have a kid hooked in the first few seconds, they would lose interest and never play the game.  When I heard that music and watched the tank take off, I was hooked by what I saw.

Cut scenes, cinematic sequences, and even still shots with dialogue have a long tradition in video games.  From as far back as Pac-Man we've enjoyed short segments that told us a little bit of the game's story, developed a character, or introduced a plot twist.  But have they gotten a little too stale?  Sure, we can render muscles and sweat, bone and sinew, blood and guts, landscapes and skyboxes with such glorious textures and vibrant colors that our eyeballs drink it in, thirsty for more--but do we still have that same level of wonderment?  Or are we merely looking around with mild sense of being impressed?

I highlight Blaster Master not only because the music was something I considered for the Midweek Musicbox articles, but because it marked the first time I was totally blown away by how enthralling a cut scene from a video game could be.  Don't get me wrong, there were other things out there that were pretty cool.  I still think the cut scenes from Ninja Gaiden are impressive and they certainly deliver the cinematic experience, but Blaster Master was my first time experiencing that feeling of amazement. 

Yeah, I was a kid, and yeah, it's easy to write it off as me being easy to wow; but really, when was the last time you remember feeling a deep sense within you that you were seeing something impressive from a video game--and weren't expecting it?  I'm not trying to knock the incredible achievements made since the 8-bit era, I think that Assassins' Cry: Call of Halo Scrolls Part VII is very pretty.  But that's just it, games like that look great, but can you keep getting "blown away" by how far graphics have come?  Does newer stuff even have a chance to grip you and engage you with the way they stop to tell their story?  Or have we already gotten past the point where we are "wowed" so-to-speak?

Press "x" to show excitement and surprise.

Even when searching for articles about upcoming games with the best graphics you see the same comments over and over again.  Things like "Look, they aren't blocky hands anymore, we've come a long way from Virtua Fighter" or "Wow!  They look (almost) just like a movie," or "How come Kevin Spacey looks less wooden in the game than he does in real life" are common place.  Heck, I admit I was impressed with the images I saw for Skyrim, but I wasn't genuinely surprised by them.  Again, that's not meant as a knock, but rather that they are every bit as impressive as they were promised to be.  They met all expectations that they claimed they would have.  

And therein lies the problem.  

If a game a promises the moon and delivers said sphere, that's great, that's fantastic.  You've done a far better job than E.A. has in the past decade and you deserve a bit of a clap for that.  Perhaps it's just me though, but sometimes I feel like the days when I was promised the moon and found a solar system of wonderment awaiting instead are rapidly disappearing, if not already gone (at least temporarily).  I was expecting Blaster Master to be somewhat decent and ended up getting sucked in the moment it started.  Do other games still capture wonderment?

Do I think there's hope to recapture that same sense of wonder?  

Yes, of course this is a shameless plug for you to stop by next week and read part two where I talk about some things I think can be done to recapture wonderment.  I hope you stop back by then and I hope you enjoy the article to come.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Friday Night Rentals: Bubble Bobble

Wait!  This isn't the good start screen!  You must play from the end to get the good one.
So. Stupidly. Close.

I could practically taste video game victory when my mom and I were playing Bubble Bobble on the NES.  It was probably the third of fourth time we had rented the game.  We still had the passwords written down from the last time we had rented it, and finally we had made it to the end boss.  My mom had lost her last life, but we knew we were close to beating him and then--PRESTO!  He was beaten!

Or was he?


What fresh frippy was this taunting text?  You both have to survive to get the "True Happy Ending?"  Oh, we'll just do it again then.  THIS!  This would be the time we won!  We both made it through alive!  Surely victory was nor ours!  Then...then the unthinkable happened...

The adventure claimed it still wasn't over yet!  But as far as my mom and I were concerned, we'd beaten the game.  I hadn't beaten Ghouls and Ghosts, so this was only my second encounter  (the first being Super Mario Bros.) with the whole "beat the crazy-hard game twice in a row" thing that seemed to pop up from time to time in NES games.  Bub and Bob the dinosaurs had a lot of apologizing to do as far as I was concerned.  Sure, the dynamic dino duo were cute and all with their bubble attacks and cutesy colors, but I like leaving a game (that has an ending) feeling like I've closed the book on it.  Not getting the "true ending" fills you with a little regret from time to time.

Years have passed since that day, but Bubble Bobble still remains one of my favorite games of all time.  So when I saw the game as part of a Nintendo bundle on Craigslist, I was ready to give Bub and Bob their second chance.  So what did those dippy, delightful dinos do with their second chance?  Was it a happy reunion or a revisiting of regret?

Music and Sound

 Did I mention the cute factor?  This game just has it seeping out of its pores, and the music and sound are no exception.  We can get the music discussion out of the way quickly because, there isn't much in the way of variety--okay, it offers no variety whatsoever.  This is pretty much what you'll be hearing for the majority of the game:

It's a cheerful, peppy little tune that had a cutesy feel which matches the game well.  However, it can get wearing after a while.  Super Mario and Legend of Zelda had music that looped like this as well, but for my money, Taito just didn't do this as well.  Perhaps this is because the game was an arcade port so they didn't figure people would sit there for a couple of hours trying to beat the game in the arcades.  The only real variation comes in if you take too long to clear a stage and Baron Von Blubba, an invincible, evil looking white whale creature, appears to chase you until you die or clear the stage.  The Baron gets his own few seconds of theme song which are lower notes and nicely "da-da-da-dum!" in nature.

Not much can be said about the sound either.  The sounds made via the power-ups and the bubble barfing noise made by the critters are also appropriately cute, and they work well for the port, but there isn't anything here to blow you out of the water.  I will say the sound that's made when you pop a water or electro-bubble are well done, but again, not much variety here.

Graphics and Style

What's there to say?  Each level presents a new challenge and a new layout of the same basic blocks.  Sometimes these blocks are arranged to resemble enemies from the game, sometimes they are arranged so you have to puzzle out how to reach the enemies in order to defeat them and move on.  Bub and Bob are cute little green and blue dinosaurs respectively, and the bubbles that they shoot are rendered pretty well for an NES game.  Though I suppose a little white circle with empty space isn't too hard to draw.


Bubble Bobble...  Sure it seems simple enough to start.  "Oh, I'm a cute little dinosaur that blows bubbles, this should be easy," was likely your first thought on renting a game like this.  I know it was my first thought.  The illusion that this was easy vanished quickly though as each level ratcheted up the difficulty.  Why do you blow bubbles?  How in the word are they industrial strength enough to hold the enemies?  Do I exhale helium, is that why these things float?  Those questions don't matter really because by the time the boss rolls around, you are hopping around like mad trying to clear the bad guys with your bubble barfing dino-butt trying not to die.  It's just how I remembered it, only the game feels slightly easier as an adult.  I guess I've gotten better as I got older.  Either that or more patient with the whole dying and restarting thing.

Some levels were much harder than others
Whatever the case, I popped it in and managed to persuade my wife, who really isn't that much into video games, to do the two player mode with me.  It looked like she had a fun time blowing bubbles, popping enemies and grabbing food.  She had protested a little at first complaining that she usually dies pretty quickly when playing video games, but the controls for the game are user friendly and make using them a joy.  Funnily enough, most of the time she would outlast me too!  I guess slow and steady wins over reckless random bubble blowing.  

Final Thoughts:

If you don't already have this one in your collection because it looks too cutesy or too simple I'd recommend grabbing it.  Sure, the music can get old, but the popping enemies and trying to grab the fruit before getting dropped to the next level is addicting even after all these years.  It doesn't really suffer from being an arcade port nor does it feel like a watered down experience which, all too often, can happen with games like this. The advantage and disadvantage of this particular arcade ported game is that you can play just for score, which is good if you end up having to play Bubble Bobble alone, because you will never see the true ending if you play alone.  I have to say this was one of those games that I was not only happy to come back to and finally own as an adult, but was happy to realize that I didn't need to resign myself to playing alone and just going for score.  My wife can't really play modern games as the 3D can make her sick.  Even parallax scrolling can get to her at times.  Good ol' Nintendo games though?  Those have playability to her.  I can't really express how nice it was seeing that my wife was actually getting into the game after only a couple of minutes playtime.  We reached somewhere in the mid 20's level-wise before she was ready to call it a night and turn off the game, and we only quit because we had already continued several times on this one level.  I guess that's a testament to the game too.  

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Midweek Music Box: Return to Zork

You are likely to be eaten by a grue...
Once again I was standing in a field west of a white house with a boarded door.  The mailbox was still there, looking battered and worn as ever.  As I opened the mailbox I found an envelope and a strange glowing orb.  A face appeared in the orb and an enthusiastic voice spoke, glad to finally meet me, the sweepstakes winner.  Suddenly he yelled in terror looking wildly around at some unseen threat and then...

Than I found myself lifted into the clouds and traveling, traveling with immense speed over land and sea as a booming pipe organ belted out an ominous tune.  I was ready to begin my adventure in the Great Underground Empire.

Now grab that bonding plant and let's go!

Here is the entire soundtrack in all its glory, and trust me, it is glorious:

Entire Soundtrack.
As soon as those horns start you know it means danger is on it's way.

Good grief that intro music alone brings back memories!  From the bonding plant to golden Zorkmids to maze-like forests to misty isles and a crazy wizard turned into a duck; Infocom's Return to Zork was the first chance we had as gamers to really "see" the world of Zork and the Great Underground Empire.  Prior to Return to Zork, there wasn't much (or anything really) in terms of music and sound.  With the exception of a few pictures for Zork Zero, we had never seen what the Great Underground Empire had looked like.  Little did we know our first real glimpse would offer some of the most spectacular game music of all time to back it up.

It's kinda a shame really that I can no longer play the game.  My computer wouldn't run the disk even if I had it, but I still remember that opening tune:  The ominous pipe organ accompanied by the deadly-sounding crescendo of drums.  Several years ago I tried hunting down the soundtrack on Youtube, but at first this was all I could find:

Seriously, it's just awesome to hear this played live. 

As they say, "The dude nailed it," I was transported back to that time, back to that place, playing Return to Zork on my dad's computer.  It was a great effort, albeit a short one, on the guy's part.  I just wish there was more.  Nobody was doing covers of the theme from The Fool's Memorial.  There weren't even any brief riffs, beyond the one featured here, of selected tracks.  No one had done a tribute to the album and it looked unlikely that anyone would. 

Thankfully, just a couple years later, Youtube seemed to explode with music from video games beyond the NES which is why we have the video provided above.  Not that I have a problem with that, and I am sure your electric guitar cover of Mega Man 2: Dr. Wiley's castle is very metal thank-you-very-much.  But, whether they were direct rips from the soundtrack or interpretation--people were doing a greater variety of game covers and rips.  One of those musical rips was Return to Zork.  I just can't convey how much joy I get from hearing this soundtrack, and most especially that intro.  It takes me back to those days when I would spend hours on my folks PC and be playing games like Zork.  It was like being transported to another world, especially with Zork's intro.  To this day I have the soundtrack in regular rotation and it's helped inspire my story writing when I need to be put into an epic mood.

Back in 1993, hearing a full blown orchestra was pretty darn cool.  Yes, Myst and the gang from Cyan had done this as well and the music for it was fantastic--but there was just something about Zork that had the feel of a high adventure which as a long-time Lord of the Rings fan I love to hear.  There are themes for nearly every section of the game from the carnival sounds at the Fool's Memorial to the inclusion of a haunting flute and guitar melody called Pavane by Gabriel Faure' as you wander a mysterious forest.  The game was as frustrating as all get out and you could easily screw up the whole of your game right at the start and not know it.  But the soundtrack was just killer.  

I know, I know.  PC's could almost always blow consoles out of the water when it comes to stuff like that.  But I wasn't always up for the sometimes seemingly absurd things required of me doing a PC game.  Feelies were neat and all, but needing them as proof of ownership was a tad frustrating.   Especially when I had to dig out the Encylopedia Frobozzica to answer some silly question from Ms. Peepers. Not saying the game was frustrating at all did have some minor draw backs.  

But full marks for creating a soundtrack that really takes me back to my childhood and reminds me of that first time I dug up the bonding plant and---

YOU DIDN'T DIG UP THE BONDING PLANT?!!  You just went in and pulled it up by the roots like a chump, didn't you?  

So much for going in...
Well, only one thing for it then:

Now don't go eating the plant either...not yet anyway. least you get to hear all that sweet music again, right?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rustic Robo-Adventure: Steam World Dig Review

Hi ho! Hi ho!  It's off to the depths of earth we go!


When Rusty the Robot rolled into the dusty old mining town of Tumbleton, things looked pretty bleak.  His uncle had died and left him a mine, but it looked like the town wasn't in the habit of welcoming strangers and they were ready for him to leave.  For that matter, the town looked like it was about ready to get up and give up the ghost itself.  Will Tumbleton fold in on itself or will it grow and prosper as Rusty gets rich?  It's up to you and Rusty to plumb the depths of the mine, uncover secrets and more importantly--treasure in Steam World Dig by Image and Form.  With a heaping of western and steampunk and a dash of robot, this game takes on the "Metroidvania" genre in a refreshing and engaging way.  How so?


Solid as steel but pliable and easy to work with.  How is that for a metal metaphor?  That said, the translation from PC to Wii U is fantastic on Steam World Dig.  Swapping out tools and using items flows naturally.  Using the various drills and pickaxes feels satisfying and almost "hearty" in its own way.  Yeah, it may take a few seconds more to hack your way through a bit of earth than another, but it actually feels satisfying to take time to dig down to the lower levels of the mine.

Graphics and Style

Time to get upgraded!
Some might find it a tad too cartoonish, but I like that many of the games ported from STEAM have this look.  It makes me feel as if I'm playing a picturebook or cartoon.  It does not make the game "kiddish" but instead gives it an ascetic appeal that has more charm to me than the 15th iteration of whatever cover-based shooter passes for gaming on an XBONE.  Give me pop-up book looking steambots and their odd western town any day.  Sure, there's a war going on, and Fallout looks pretty enough, but gosh darn it, I just need something charming every now and then, and the blend of goofy and the clever character design for every robot from the protagonist to the shopkeepers to the mutated humanoids leaves me eager to see and meet new creatures in this game.  What's that?  There's a perfectly rendered visual of a guy with military garb?  Sorry, that feels old hat to me.

Music and Sound:

Main Theme

Its safe to say that the blend of rustic and robotic works great for the game.  After all, with an 1800's-esque mining town, a bit of western themed music that reminds you of "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" what else could you need?  Yes, the music varies from level to level as you descend further into the mine and discover dark and wondrous technological upgrades--but they never lose the over-all tone of the game.  There are many atmospheric and haunting melodies in here, and I would certainly recommend finding a way to rip the soundtrack if you like western music with a twist or Steampunk music.

No annoying bleeps and bloops here to hear, rather the robots chatter to one another in a manner that feels both like real speech and what you would expect a steam-powered/electro-charged bot to sound like.  The chopping sounds and whirring noises that accompany the use of your digging items not only suits the game well, but further adds to the feeling that not only are you actually hacking away at something solid and real, but that you can get a bit of satisfaction from it.  


You shift rock in search of treasure and power ups in a familiar Metroidvania fashion.  I still marvel that this has become a sub-genre of gaming, but I love nearly ever entry into it.  Other aspects of thsi game reminded me of blend between two classic games:  Dig Dug and Boulderdash.  Whether you hack your way through or drill your way through the mine--there's a visceral satisfaction you get from going through the rock.  Its a good thing too because you'll be going through your fair share of rock to get to the bottom of the cave and the bottom of the mysterious happenings in the mine.  Throughout the game you'll find it necessary to go up and either recharge various items or upgrade them to progress further in the game.  If you have a long session of gaming going on, this can grow a little tedious, however if you plan on not just trying to plow through the game in one sitting, it doesn't feel that bad.  The game may lack that many boss battles, but it never felt short on fun.  

However, one of the annoying things that can happen along the way is you die.  Yeah, it happens in games.  

When you die in Steam World Dig, you drop all of your loot and respawn in the town and are charged a repair fee.  While this isn't really too far off the rails, after all most games punish a loss in some way or form, it can get a bit wearying to work your way back down to the level of the mine where your death occurred.  While there are teleporters and various other methods of quickly getting from the surface to the depths; if you aren't near one of these or are out of teleporters you might feel like quitting for the night. 

Final Thoughts:

Good grief, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I wanted to dig some more!  A game like this could have gone on much longer, but I completed it in just about 8 hours, or three late-night, insomnia sessions worth of gaming.  I never got tired of chopping and drilling through rock.  I never got weary of trying to figure out the best way to reach the most gems, or trying to figure out how to go back and nab the ones I missed.  Even after beating the game, I thought about going to my last save and seeing if I could clear the entire mine before going to the end boss.  For some this game may offer a bit of replay value in that you would want to see how much money and how quickly you could power up your droid.  For me, Steam World Dig has left me eager for more and I look forward to Steamworld Heist.

Control:  10/10
Music/Sound:  10/10
Gameplay:  10/10
Fun Factor:  It's like Dig-Dugging your way through a puzzle game meets adventure quest--with Robots!!!
Sad Factor:  I want more bots!  More digging!  More drilling!  More odd robotic talk.  It all goes by too fast.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Friday Night Rentals: Renegade

The 80's is strong with this one.

Bringing justice to the crime ridden streets comes at a price, and the price was fun; Double Dragon this was not.  That was one of the first things I realized when I first started playing Renegade for the NES.  Sure, it had the beat'em up style I had enjoyed from games like Double Dragon and even Battletoads, but this was had none of the charm, or satisfaction, that came from defeating wave after wave of enemies.  Sure, it was a port of an arcade game, but sometimes you get the feeling that there were games that should have just stayed in the arcade.  After two separate rental attempts to enjoy Renegade, i.e. I wasted several bucks on a rental, I decided it just wasn't for me.  Part of it was the difficulty, but another part of it was the critical, "This game just isn't any fun to me," factor.  So, when I saw this game for sale a few weeks ago as part of a lot of NES games I though it was about time to confront my old NES frustrations head on and see if I could take down the city's street gangs in my own form of non-Batman vigilante justice.

Yeah, it still wasn't that fun.

Watch out cliff!  I'm comin' for yah!

This was the first time I remember feeling left behind in the world of fighting games.  Sure, there were cool moves you could pull off like chucking people over your shoulder, face-punching them on the ground, knee-groin'ing them to death--but I had no clue what to do to pull them off.  When you rented a game it was rare you got the manual with the game telling you how to do special moves, or even basic moves for that matter.  You would fumble your way as best you could through a game hoping that you didn't accidentally find the instant kill-your-own-guy button.  In the day of the internet I can now easily pull off those face punches, but back in the day it was chore just to get the hero not to decide to kick the empty air behind him rather than punch the guy in front of him.  Heck, it still was difficult to do that even nowadays.  I don't know what my guy has against the air, or if he's just constantly hallucinating a threat behind him, but it seems to be his favorite thing to do.  Especially when I'm nearly dead and every punch counts.

This of course doesn't even touch on the frustration that can be had by accidentally causing your character to bum-rush a random cliff--and lose.

Music and Sound

"Once you're a jet" this is not...

I swear, almost every level track feels a bit too similar to me.  Not that the 8-bit era was exactly a great bastion of musical variance, but in a day when every Mega Man boss stage had a unique sounding track this one just felt lazy to me.  Every track feels like a variance of the first one from the first level.  Yeah, say what you will about how Mario had that same familiar tune, but at least I felt like I could bop along to it.  I will say that the "shaker" sound in the background does help keep the rhythm up so you feel like you are in "action mode," but this soundtrack never really held my attention.

The sound effects were a bit tinny in my opinion and just lacked the satisfaction you'd get from other games, like Double Dragon.  I'm not sure if because Renegade was an arcade port that they were trying too hard to imitate the "arcade action and sound" but they missed the mark.  Yeah, Battletoads was a bear of game, but I love those dull thuds and satisfying "chunking" sounds any day compared to what Renegade has to offer.


You fight, and fight and fight.  80's and 90's beat'em ups were just good old fashioned button-mashing fun.  You and a friend grab a controller, and try to plow your way through the game on a limited life bar and a few lives.  There's a continue cheat you can use to get to the last level with ease, and I'd probably do it myself after having reached the last level and died.  And die you will.  It was difficult in the day, and it still is now.  Even if you just jump-kick your way through most of the game, the last level basically has you fighting two clones of the bosses from previous stages in nearly every room.  Not to mention you had to choose the right door to go through in order to advance to the end or you would risk ending back at the start.  Probably this was to help the game eat quarters as an arcade game, but on the home port it just added to the frustration level.

Final Thoughts:

I picked Renegade all of twice back in the day, and it still left an impression as a frustrating slice from the beat'em up genre.  My opinion has not changed.  Even though I can get fairly far in the game now (without initial use of level select codes), I don't get the satisfaction that I want out of thrashing enemies.  I always loved Battletoads and Double Dragon despite getting crushed by the difficulty, but this...I guess it just goes back on the shelf for now.  Maybe I'll beat it one day, but not this day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Midweek Music Box: M.U.L.E for Atari 800

This beast takes the idea of "cobbled together" to a whole new level.

Four little words ruled your game.  Gave you hope.  Gave you frustration.  Gave you a headache dragging it across screen hoping it wouldn't run away as you planted it:  The Multiple Use Labor Element or M.U.L.E. for was your key to mining, farming, and harvesting on the distant planet of Irata.

Yes, it's time to go back in time before the days of Nintendo, at time when a group of programmers decided to set out and give programmers like themselves the recognition they were due in the world of video games.  Decades have passed since, and before E.A. became the sometime villain that they are today, they were creating video game perfection.  (Yep, E.A. used to make things that weren't broken from the get go.)  

A particular part of the perfection?  The soundtrack of course!  Well, the intro music really.  I mean, the game wasn't particularly heavy on music.  In fact, I think the only music came in the form of the music that played as the eponymous M.U.L.E. plodded across the screen.  But by golly was it a memorable little melody.  Nice crescendos, a rhythm that matches the slow march of the M.U.L.E., and a tune that you can whistle with ease.  Not that "whistle-bility" is the bar by which we should judge video game music, but it certainly helps the song to stick with you days (or in this case years) later.

My family and I would play this together on the weekends. Most times I was just on someone's lap or sitting to the side as I was about 5 or 6 at the time, but those times I did play I was so confused by the mechanics of the game that I would basically just enjoy the intro music and that was it.  Funny thing though, it was worth it to me for just that little loop.  I remember there were times when we delayed starting the game just so I could hear the full loop.  Sure the planet Irata needed to be colonized and farmed and such, but I had a great tune to listen to:

No, it isn't that long of a track, and I realize that most people won't download this for writing, cleaning, or even background noise, but this song has style.  It has the feel of an Atari game, but one that's pushing the system for all it's worth to pump out the sounds you are hearing.  Regularly noted on top ten lists for it's unique gameplay, the game deserve note for its notes--so to speak--as well.  I whistle the theme or hear it on my Dad's phone--yup, that's one of his ring tones--and I'm taken back to the days of album cover-like video game disk holders and boot times.  Listen to this loop a few times and you'll probably be whistling days later and wonder why it's still there, stuck in your head.

*The days of the game on Atari may be gone, but some where, the planet Irata lives on.  If you want a charming soundtrack that plods along but has a nice melody, give a listen to the original version on Atari.

*I found a M.U.L.E. tribute and memory site set up by one of the original programmer's kids.  The long and short of it?  M.U.L.E. shirts!