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Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

Retro Night: Parasite Eve

I’ve been working my way through the PS1’s massive catalog of titles for the past few days and one titles that I landed on and have gotten hooked by is Parasite Eve. This action-RPG, headed up by Takashi Tokita [known for heading Chrono Trigger, Live A Live, and The Bouncer], is based on a book of the same name by Hideaki Sena. The game, released by Square in March 1998, takes some liberties with the story, liberties which also make it a bit unique among RPGs. In Parasite Eve, rookie cop Aya Brea goes to see a play at Carnegie Hall. While there, things take a turn for the worse when opera-goers suddenly burst into flame, everyone except Aya and the lead actress in the play, a woman named Melissa. A Japanese RPG set in modern-day New York? You heard right.

The plot is a bit ridiculous, even for science-fiction. Mitochondria are trying to take over the world, apparently, because they’re tired of being slaves to humans. See, they control every aspect of life, due to their being a source of energy and evolutions and so on, but they evolve faster than people, so now they’ve evolved to the point where they’re not just going to sit back and be our slaves. Their main weapons seem to be either lighting people are fire and burning them to goo or turning them into twisted caricatures of their former selves. Most of the characters are basically cop-drama stereotypes, like the veteran cop who’s black or the overweight chief and so on. It’s better than the animu-inspired hijinks seen in later RPGs, so I suppose I won’t bag on PE’s story too much.

The gameplay is similar to Vagrant Story, which came out two years later, but is considerably more basic. Battles are random, but are a combination of real-time and turn-based. There is an active time bar, like in Final Fantasy, but the player is free to move around the battlefield while the bar fills. Often it’s possible to avoid enemies attacks altogether. Aya’s main weapons are various pistols and machine guns, although she does have a back up club in case her ammo runs out. She also has very “magic spells” that she can cast during combat to heal or call up information about monsters. Keys are also important in Parasite Eve, as the place you need to go is often behind a locked door, but it’s nowhere near as bad as in games like Resident Evil. The keys usually aren’t difficult to find. All guns and armor can be upgraded by using tools, which are found in various locations, to take the stat boosts that have been put on one piece of equipment and then transferring them to another. The piece of equipment that the stat boost is transferred from is destroyed after the transfer, so be careful. Experience is gained through battles and levelling up boosts Aya’s stats and bestows bonus points. These bonus points can be used to boost the the stats on weapons and armor or increase the speed of the auto-time battle gauge.

Parasite Eve’s overworld is the entire city of New York, although only certain locations are available to travel to through the use of your partner’s police cruiser. The hub is the precinct station, where you can take a break from fighting, get new equipment, and store items that you don’t currently need. It’s also here that mission information is handed out, which gives you an idea of where you need to go next.

The graphics are similar to the PS1-era Final Fantasies, in that it features 3D characters against prerendered backgrounds. It also features a number of CG cutscenes scattered around to spice things up. Overall, it looks decent enough, about what you’d expect from a PS1 titles from 1998. The soundtrack, by Yoko Shimamura [best known for her work on Super Mario RPG, Legend of Mana, and the Kingdom Heart series], is very good, with a number of memorable tracks. There’s no voice acting and the sound effects get the job done, but aren’t anything special.

Parasite Eve isn’t particularly difficult and it’s fairly short, you could probably beat it in a day if you really set your mind to it. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting title and a unique entry into the JRPG genre. It’s worth checking out for the $20 that a used copy will warrant on Amazon.

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May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nostalgia Challenge: Normality

The early-to-mid 90’s were heady times for the adventure genre, particularly on the PC. LucasArts and Sierra dominated the genre with many titles that have gone on to become all-time classics, but even smaller companies were getting in on the action by introducing their owns games with their owns little twists. One such title, from British developed Gremlin Interactive, puts you in the shoes of Kent Knutson, a rebellious, wise-cracking teen living in a 1984-esque alternate world. Normality was published by Interplay in June 1996 for the PC.

The plot revolves around Kent and his quest to find out what’s really going on behind the scenes and put a stop to all the oppression that’s going on lately. Much of the humor in the series comes from Kent’s lively quips [courtesy of Corey Feldman], the bizarre situations he finds himself in, and the clever solutions that he comes up with. It’s a really funny game, one that easily rivals the best of the genre during this time.

Unlike many adventures games from this time, Normality features full-3D graphics that look to be similar in quality to titles like Duke Nukem 3D. It allows the player to look around the various environments without restrictions. It’s actual has aged fairly well all things considered, although it’s still filled with pixelated textures, 2D characters, and simple environments. That shouldn’t be a hindrance, however, as the game runs just fine in DOSBox. The graphics are helped by a unique artstyle and some nice little details here and there.

Despite the viewpoint, there’s no action in this game, it’s all classic point-and-click gameplay from start to finish. As with most such games, it revolves around picking up various items, combining items, figuring out when and where to use items, and talking to the various NPCs that inhabit the world to figure out what to do and where to go. Some of the solutions are a bit esoteric, though funny, and may require some serious lateral thinking. If all else fails, GameFAQs has guides available to help get you to the end.

Upsides: A unique story, lots of funny characters, classic point-and-click gameplay with a different perspective.

Downsides: While the graphics have some nice touches they’re really dated, some of the solutions are kind of confusing.

Verdict: It’s still just as funny as I remember it being, it’s also still really fun to play. Definitely one that shouldn’t be forgotten. 8/10

Where to Find: Normality has long since gone out of print, but the European release is still readily available on Amazon for about $10.

Random Note: The engine used in Normality was used once more for Gremlin’s second, and last, adventure game: Realms of the Haunting.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Nostalgia Challenge | , , , , , | Leave a comment

SNES vs. Genesis: Sparkster

Hot off the heals of their success with Rocket Knight Adventures, Konami made a sequel called Sparkster for the Genesis. They also made another game called Sparkster for the SNES. Aside from the names and having the same main character, they’re actually two completely different games, which is why I’m going to list both of them.

Both are similar in gameplay to the first game, although I feel that the some of changes made to the Genesis Sparkster push it a bit farther away from the spirit of the original title while the SNES Sparkster is a bit closer. Use of the jetpack is less strategic in the Genesis version, as it fills automatically and fairly quickly allowing the player to concentrate on other things. I’m not necessarily for or against it, either way has it perks and it downsides, so that’s kind of a wash for both versions I think.

Genesis Sparkster has some gameplay quirks that the SNES Sparkster doesn’t have, such a buttons that can be pressed using a burst from Sparkster’s rocket pack to access other areas of the level or unlock hidden items. On the other hand, the SNES Sparkster has a somewhat more complex and vertical level layout, it’s not a huge difference but Genesis version feels a bit more straightforward by contrast.

Graphically speaking, the both version feature slightly flatter looks than the original, which had a slightly tilted looked to the backgrounds with added a bit of depth. It’s not so much an issue with the SNES version because it has a level of vibrancy and background detail that it still looks very good, but the Genesis version has suffered just a bit and doesn’t hold up quite as well as its predecessor. Both a good looking titles that run very nicely, so that’s not necessarily a knock, just an observation. Akira Yamaoka, known for composing the Silent Hill games, contributed to the soundtrack on both Sparkster titles and, for the most part, did a pretty good job. I don’t think either soundtrack is quite as memorable as the Rocket Knight Adventure soundtrack, but that could just be nostalgia talking.

They’re also fairly hard, even harder than the original. Although the SNES version has five continues, compared to two in the Genesis version, it’s still pretty tough. Particularly in the second stage where there are these giant wheels that will squash you flat if you so much as touch them. It’s really unforgiving. Bosses in both version are hard as well. Overall, they’re just hard games and difficult in a way that I never thought the original was, although the original wasn’t necessarily easy or anything. The SNES version does have a password save system however.

I’d give a slight edge to the SNES version, but both a fine games and nice additions to the series.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Halo Legends

Halo is pretty popular. The games, five in all with a sixth on the way, have sold millions and millions on the Xbox360 and PC. There’s also books, comics, and a movie was even considered at one point. Whether you love it or hate it, the series is here to stay. It seemed inevitable that the series would eventually find its way to Japan and on February 16, 2010 it did, in the form of an anthology of short movies about the characters and the universe. The project was overseen by Shinji Aramki [director of Appleseed and Appleseed: Ex Machina] and financed by 343 Industries.

Origins: Part 1 and 2

This is a strange set of movies. There’s almost nothing in the way of characters, aside from Cortana [who narrates from within a trashed space ship as Master Chief slumbers in suspended animation]. It tales the story of how the ForeRunners battled the Flood and ultimately destroyed all of the thinking species in the universe as a last ditch effort to save life. It’s very surreal and detached, but the story it tells is a compelling one. The second part delved into humanity’s clash with the Covenant and their eventual cease-fire as they unite to fight the Flood. Overall, I liked the second part than the first, the animation felt much better overall as was the direction. Both parts were animated by Studio4C and directed by Hideki Futumura. 7.0/10 overall, but part 2 is 7.5/10.

The Duel

A short movie that plays out like a samurai tragedy. The Arbiter defies the Covenant and, because of this, another Elite is sent to kill his wife. The Arbiter embarks an odyssey to find those responsible and prove his honor in battle. After battling through hordes of underlings he find the Elite who killed his wife and the two face off in single combat. The animation style is very strange, with 3D characters and backgrounds overlaid by filter that makes it appear almost like an oil painting. The story is well-worn, despite the setting, but that doesn’t hinder it from being an interesting take on the universe. Animated by Production IG, directed by Hiroshi Yamazaki, and overseen by Mamoru Oshii. 7.5/10

The Babysitter

On the ODST’s next mission, they have a Spartan tagging along to replace their sniper. Their old sniper isn’t too happy about the swap and makes it clear that he doesn’t think the Spartan’s up to it. It’s a fairly straightforward entry into the anthology and focuses on action more than anything else. It looks pretty good and it doesn’t get bogged down in trying to do something too deep or complex for such a short run time. The animation is really good too. Overall, decent entry, nothing really all that special though. Directed by Toshiyuki Kanno and animated by Production IG. 7/10

The Package

Definitely the showpiece of the anthology. With this one, rather than doing 2D animation, they’ve gone for full 3D animation. In the entry, Master Chief and several other Spartans are sent to recover a package that has been capture by the Covenant. The problem is that the package is sitting in the middle of a fleet and they don’t have much time to complete the mission. This time around, there’s really not much story at all. It’s all action all the time, with very few lulls in the fierce combat. It looks pretty good, although some of the faces suffer from a somewhat limited budget. The action is fairly well-done for the most part, although it does go a bit overboard with a few flashes of first-person views that mimic the videogames. That was just a bit too much, I think. It was one of the most “fun” of the entries and it goes by the quickest. Directed by Shinji Aramaki and animated by Casio Entertainment. 6.5/10

Homecoming

A female Spartan leads her crew on a long journey through enemies lines to reach their extraction point, a journey which mirrors one she made previously after escaping from a research facility and trying to make her way back home. There’s a split here between the drama of the Spartan’s early life and the action in the present. It’s a pretty depressing short, but it’s reasonably well made and one of the more interesting of the seven. The only real problem I have with this one is that the action scenes feel a bit under-directed, as in they’re feel a bit flat and don’t feature the sort of tension and force that they should. It could have been better. Animation was handled by Production IG and directed by Koji Sawai. 7.0/10

Prototype

Well, here’s another depressing one. A sergeant who’s infamous for losing all of the men in his company and not showing any emotion at all about it, once again finds himself under fire from the enemy and close to losing all his subordinates. This time, he decides he’s going to do everything in his power to make sure they escape using a prototype power suit that resembles something out of the Gundam series. The action in this one is fierce and furious and among the most well done in the series. The story is mainly confined to the beginning and the ending, while the entire middle is one huge action scene. Animation was handled by Studio Bones and directed by Tomoki Kyoda. 7.5/10

Odd One Out

This entry follows the midadventures of Spartan 1337 [or “leet”, as the kids say]. Although a highly trained warrior, 1337 has a habit of letting rather unfortunate things happen to him, such as falling out of his own ship or beating almost eaten by a dinosaur. When push comes to shove, however, he shows himself to be more than just a helpless numbskull. Most of the entries take themselves very seriously, but this one is the exception. Everything is goofy and over-the-top, with the battles more closing resembling something out of Dragon Ball Z than Halo. It actually works too, as the dark, depressing mood in many of the other entries gets to be a bit oppressive after a while. Directed by Daisuke Nishio and animated by Toei Animation. 7.5/10

The series as a whole is pretty good. There aren’t any segments that are bad, but none of them are really amazing either. Overall, I’d probably give the whole package a 7.5/10 as someone who is mildly familiar with the Halo universe but not really a huge fan. Someone who is a huge fan, might add another point to that.

May 1, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Essential Tools: D-Fend Reloaded

The progress of technology is a wonderful thing. Games that never would have been possible before, and certainly not with such graphics fidelity, flourish with sharp visuals, uncompressed sound, and more. But sometimes you just want to bask in the warm glow of childhood nostalgia, so you dig out those old games that have been collecting dust and take a trip down memory lane. Unfortunately, new-fangled OS’s don’t really like to work with DOS-based games and so you’re left with a pile of plastic that doesn’t do anything. There is a solution!

Said solution comes in two forms: DOSBox and D-Fend Reloaded. DOSBox is the program that allows DOS to emulated within Windows itself, while D-Fend Reloaded is a Windows-based frontend that pulls you out of the muddy ditch that is DOS commands and lets you list and play all of your DOS games from the comfort of a visually polished window. It’s a simple process of directing D-Fend Reloaded to your various game folders and then making sure that the program file that launches the game is connected to the program. It’s really as easy as that, once the set up is complete the game can be started simply by clicking on an icon. No more typing in commands in DOS!

D-Fend Reloaded also has a number of other nice features, such as the ability to take screenshots, videos, and music samples from all the games so that you can save your favorite moments or keep a collection of images on hand to easily identify a game. You can also put in technical information about each game, such as who developed it, who published it, what genre it belongs to, and when it came out. This makes it much easier to sort and file your games.

D-Fend Reloaded comes with DOSBox built in, so there’s no need to download both programs. Overall, it’s a great, easy-to-use program with a wonderful idea behind it: to take all your old games that don’t work anymore and give them new life.

http://dfendreloaded.sourceforge.net/

May 1, 2010 Posted by | Essential Tools, Games | , , | Leave a comment

SNES vs. Genesis: Go! Go! Ackman

Akira Toriyama, known for his hyper-famous Dragon Ball series or maybe even Dr. Slump if you’re feeling really obscure, but he also had another series that ran from 1993 to 1994 called Go! Go! Ackman, which starred a demon child named Ackman who harvest souls to sell to the devil. He’s the “hero” of the story. As with any such series, it was inevitably turned into a series of licensed games, of which there were four [three on the SNES, one on the Gameboy] and all of them were developed and published by gaming house Banpresto.

In the game, Ackman fights against the angel army and collects the souls of the defeated enemies, which his demon companion, Godon, keeps in a jar. The gameplay is pretty standard action/platformers stuff. You have to jump over lots of bottomless pits, fight enemies, and gather powerups and such. Ackman has a four-bar health meter and several lives per continue, which, as far as I know, are unlimited. There are several different weapons that can be picked up and used, although you’ll mostly just have Ackman punch and kick his enemies. Don’t try to jump on enemies’ heads though, because most of the time that doesn’t work and results in Ackman losing health.

Graphics and music are both pretty good, nothing really all that special but it works and doesn’t get in the way. The only problem with the music is that most levels just loop the same bit of music over and over. I mean, I like the tune, but it gets old after a while.

I will mention this: the car driving level is brutally unforgiving. You’ve got to get it fully memorized in order to complete it and that will probably take you at least two continues. There’s a boss fight right after that and if you die during the boss fight you have to do the car driving level all over again. That was the part where I gave up.

There are also two sequels for the SNES and they all play pretty much the same. Only the first one’s been translated though.

April 30, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , , , | Leave a comment

SNES vs. Genesis: Kid Chameleon

In a rather uncharacteristic move, Sega established a development team in the US known as Sega Technical Institute. On top of working on several Sonic games, the team also came up with several totally original titles of their own. One amongst that number was Kid Chameleon, a game about a virtual reality program that kidnaps anyone who can’t beat the game. Unfortunately for the kids who play it, that’s everyone who has ever played it so far. Enter Casey, a cool kid who think he’s got what it takes to the beat the final boss, Heady Metal, and free all the kids who have been kidnapped.

He’s nicknamed Kid Chameleon because of his ability to assume various personas by putting on different masks. One of those is a  samurai who wields a sword, another is an armed knight, and another is rhinoceros sort of creature. There are more besides those three and each serves a different purpose in getting Kid from end of the level to the other. This adds variety to the gameplay and ensures that few levels repeat the same structure.

Setting the masks aside, the gameplay is similar to Super Mario Bros. There are various enemies that move back and forth across the screen and most of them can be killed by jumping on their heads, although this is not the case for all of them. There are also breakable blocks that hide collectible crystals and Kid’s various masks. Some of the forms have melee or even ranged weapons, further differing it from other platformers. Each section is usually split into two levels, although it doesn’t have boss battles. Each form also has at least one diamond power, which uses the diamond collected in the various to levels to perform different effects.

Kid Chameleon is slightly easier than other Genesis platformers. You start with three lives and three continues and it’s possible to get more over the course of the game. I died a few times, but that mainly as a result of simply getting used to the game. Also, each form has its own health bar and that, when emptied, causes Kid Chameleon to revert back to his regular form, which has two hit points. Obtaining a new mask, even the same as the one Kid already has, result in his health bar being refilled. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some areas that can be really tricky, however.

On the technical front, the graphics aren’t too hot. I know I harped on Rocket Knight Adventure’s graphics a few days ago, but it looks much better than Kid Chameleon, which has a flat look to it. That doesn’t effect the gameplay of course, but I think it’s worth at least noting. In terms of music, I suppose it gets the job done, but there’s nothing there that I find to be particularly memorable.

Overall, it’s a fun game to play for a while, but I just don’t see putting it up with the best platformers on the SNES and Genesis.

April 30, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Retro Night: Vagrant Story

After a string of PS1 successes in the late 90’s with games like Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Saga Frontier 1 and 2, Einhander, Xenogears, Parasite Eve 1 and 2, Legend of Mana, Front Mission 2 and 3, Threads of Fate, and Chrono Cross, Square was at the top of their game. Just two months after the 90’s ended, they unveiled their latest RPG offering: Vagrant Story. It was a bit different from many of their other RPGs, in that it featured a semi-realtime battle system and full 3D graphics. It also took a more realistic art style for its characters and settings, rather than the anime-influenced style of previous Square RPGs. The title, headed by Yasumi Matsuno [known for his work on several Ogre Battle titles and Final Fantasy Tactics], received a perfect score from Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu and similarly high praise from American websites and magazines. However, it was somewhat overshadowed in its time by being squashed between the releases of Chrono Cross, Parasite Eve II, and Final Fantasy IX.

In terms of gameplay, Vagrant Story is a far cry from Square’s other RPGs. Rather than turn-based combat with parties of characters, the combat in Vagrant Story all takes places in near-realtime with just one player character [Ashley Riot, a member of the Valendia Knights of Peace]. To attack, the player must first enter battle mode by pressing the X button and then bring up the attack menu by pressing the O button. The attack menu displays all the opponents that Ashley can attack as well as which parts of their body that he can target. Different parts of the enemies’ bodies can result in varying amounts of damage and varying degrees of success. An opponent’s arm might be easier to hit while amounting in less damage, but an attack to the head might result in greater damage but be more difficult to land a blow. Once an attack is select, Ashley will carry it out. However, this does not mean that control is taken away from the player until the attack is finished. During the animation, the player can press either the X, O, or Square button to chain together different attacks or effects [based on which have been preselected before combat] but these must be done at exactly the right instant, otherwise the chain attack will fail. The game takes place in the dungeons and sewers of a large, Renaissance-style city and is decidedly a dungeon-crawler, as there are no towns or NPCs to interact with. Some people will looks on this as a bad thing, as most RPGs feature these two things prominently, but Vagrant Story is still able to tell a rich, dramatic story even without these things.

There’s also a bit of platforming in the game. Sometimes you’ll have to stack up and arrange boxes to access areas that are high up. It’s not really a big thing and most of these can be solved fairly quickly, but its…well…mildly interesting I suppose and something to do other than fighting all the time.

The graphics in Vagrant Story are completely in 3D and it is possible to zoom into a first-person mode and look around the room that Ashley is currently in. It definitely looks good for a PS1 game and the realistic art is a nice change from what is seen in a lot of other RPGs, but it really hasn’t aged well. The textures are heavily pixelated and there’s an abundance of texture shimmering [a common ailment of PS1 games with 3D graphics], especially in the cutscenes. There is a nice attention to detail, particularly in the environments [although they do tend to be a bit repetitive] and in the faces of the characters, which actually emote.

Item customization is a big factor in Vagrant Story, since getting new equipment is no longer as simple as finding a shop in the latest town. Weapons and armor can be broken down into their base components and then recombined to make entirely new pieces of equipment and there gems found throughout the game that can imbue equipment with various stat increases and other effects. Tweaking of equipment and making new equipment plays a major role in Vagrant Story and becomes essential as the game progresses. All the more so because there is no experience or leveling system. Sometimes after a boss fight or mid-boss fight, you’ll have a chance to get a stat bonus and fighting does unlock certain special moves, but that’s it.

Problems? Well, there are a few. For one thing, the game is very short. It can probably be beaten in about five or six hours, maybe a couple more if you try to find all the side rooms and such. For an RPG that’s practically miniscule. Another issue is that the underground dungeons get pretty repetitive after an hour or so. There’s just not a whole lot of variety to all the rooms and corridors, unfortunately. There’s also a spike in difficulty at around the two hour mark, when enemies suddenly see a huge boost to their defenses. Not their attack though, oddly enough. Theses are very real problems and they can make the game a bit frustrating to play.

Now, the question: is Vagrant Story still worth playing? Sure, just don’t pay a fortune for it, that’s all. It’s got its issues, that’s without question, but it’s still a fun little RPG from people who are masters of the genre.

April 29, 2010 Posted by | Retro Night | , , , , | Leave a comment