Exploring Abandoned Research Facilities for Skill Points and Relaxation

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System Shock 2 is one of my favorite games. This late 90’s PC game, is a mix of low-key cyberpunk and the alright movie Event Horizon. It further combines survival-based combat with a focus on RPG style skill trees and paths created its own distinct subgenre of video game, often labeled “System Shock 2 like”. Dracula’s castle from Castlevania: Symphonia of the Night was metroidvania’s mother (father…adopted gay mom?), and System Shock 2’s spooky mega-corporation owned space ship, the Von Braun, create an iconic setting within a subgenre it unintentionally created. What sets apart, and realistically limits the amount of games given the moniker “System Shock 2-like” compared to the relatively swamped subgenre of metroidvanias is, a necessary bigger budget. Additionally, these game require an almost constant reliance on utilizing some of the original System Shock 2 staff. As if metroidvanias like Hollow Knight, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and Quacamelee! would have to invite Castlevania’s real life Dracula, creative director Koji Igarashi, to consult on each game as a show of authenticity.

System Shock 2-likes” feel as if they have at least one big hand print of System Shock 2, like a Urah-kai’s mark of Saruman, over the design document. The legacy of System Shock 2 is so impactful, that even a later game like Void Bastards is marketed front and center with the tag line “from the development director of System Shock 2 and Bioshock”. This shared creative staff creates an odd familiarity for these games set, sometimes only partially, in isolated abandoned research facilities, including Bioshock 1 and 2, Prey (2017), and the distant cousin Soma.

Active exploration is big in “System Shock 2-likes”, where certain key areas are returned to over and over. Prey protagonist Morgan Yu’s office being refitted into a home base comes to mind, similar to the frequent backtracking in metroidvanias. That compulsive need to open every drawer, filing cabinet, or bathroom stall, common in story-focused walking simulators like Gone Home, is encouraged. It’s rather amusing that a subgenre of games so fixated on creative methods for dispatching grotesque monsters or armor-plated robots feels best when every enemy is simply ignored because you are only returning to Engineering because you just remembered there was a hidden unopened safe. Screw progressing the overarching plot to find answers as to why the research facility is abandon and why everyone is dead. You have audio logs detailing how much Margret in Hydroponics dislikes Brendon from Neuromod Division because his last White Elephant gift was something shitty, like an expensive bag of whiskey stones. Soma’s safe mode even removes all direct combat with its instant death undersea monstrosities, letting the player scatter papers and coffee cups in relative peace.

The solo journey of the “System Shock 2-like” is great for providing a creepy atmosphere, where often the only non-monster met are recently-deceased crewmate set pieces. Explore a lab in System Shock 2, find a hanged researcher. Explore a train corridor in Soma, find a technician being barely kept alive by a respirator AI. Go literally anywhere in Prey, find a staff member dried of their energy by the Typhon so they now look like a tar-covered mummy. It invokes this great feeling, like in the original Alien, that while you are scurrying to  survive, creatures bigger and scarier than you are also keeping busy.

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Why Town Simulators in Non-Town Simulator Games Are Better, Actually

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Harvest Moon, or the modern equivalents My Time At Portia and Gleaner Heights, ask a lot of my time. The average Harvest Moon like is close to forty-to-sixty hours long, and because video games have that pacing problem where things start to plateau after the first ten hours with nothing drastic or new happening till the very end, I have a particular itch I can’t scratch. There exists distinct merit in the limited village-building aspects of all these games that I value over the farming simulation and villager-gifting player-loop. The Rune Factory games and the mining parts of Stardew Valley are a middle ground, but that’s not enough. The key is for the village aspect to be almost separate to the core of the game, like how it’s probably worth it to do the real estate campaign in Yakuza 0, but it’s not necessary. Wait, Breath of Fire II has a town sim?

The last Breath of Fire on the SNES, Breath of Fire II, centers on rebuilding an old dilapidated cottage into the player’s home base, called Township. After being accused of stealing from a wealthy man in the town of Hometown (a lot of BF2’s translations are goofy like this), sad dog Bow goes with protagonist Ryu into hiding. While Ryu goes off in search of the real thief to prove Bow’s innocence, Bow is joined by other characters to rebuild Township. This becomes a cool subplot for Ryu, where party members, like the tough but bored armadillo man Rand, will recommend leaving them behind to help expand Township. Ryu eventually goes to the town of Capitan, the carpenter center of their world, and can  hand pick a preferred village design. Opinions include boring 12th century high fantasy brick house, treetop cabins like Fortree City from Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, and the actually cool Mughal style.

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Is the party scared or embarrassed, cause they are all looking away from me? Exhibit 1.

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Stop Children, What’s That Sound (Novel)?

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An ode to the sound novel. The once-popular medium for Japanese adventure games has sadly fallen into obscurity after being mostly replaced by the contemporary visual novel, with its character sprites and dating sims. While sound novels never really took off among English-speakers (07th Expansion’s works aside), there are a few significant sound novels that have ties to otherwise fairly popular/well-known works.

So, first off, what the heck are sound novels? Early in the 90’s, game developer Chunsoft (well before merging with company Spike and being here fore known as Spike Chunsoft since 2012) pioneered sound novels with their title Otogiriso. Sound novels are technically a precursor to visual novels and are characterized by the usage of text fully overlaying still backgrounds with emphasis on sound design through music and effects. Sound novels also employ the typical visual novel gameplay by means of multiple choices with branching story routes and multiple endings. Many sound novels were mystery or horror-flavored, though according to this Giant Bomb list, there was also a period of anime-spinoff sound novels landing on the Nintendo DS. Nowadays, sound novels are a rarity and visual novels have largely overtaken them as a medium.

With that intro out of the way, let’s get to the focus of this article: weird sound novel spin-offs (and one that isn’t a spin-off but led to one more well known than the parent game). The games I’ll be covering include Radical Dreamers, Play Novel: Silent Hill, and 428: Shibuya Scramble.

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Quoting Hip-Hop Lyrics from Sega Games

The best hip-hop lyrics, like other forms of poetry, are easily quotable. For example, lyrics can be a quote useful for summarizing a situation, often swapping a single word given the context. KRS-One’s My Philosophy is a touchstone for much referential potential; for instance “I just produce, create, innovate on a higher level” (quoted while making hand raising gestures on “higher level”) works as a useful statement on one’s attitude towards their own creative output. Wherein “It ain’t about money cause we all make dollars” conveys a helpful attitude about how creative work’s true value is not always dependent on its direct monetary value. Sometimes, the quote can just act as a non-sequitur between friends “but as you know, Boogie Down Production is made up of people [actual lyric is “teachers”, so it is a modification]”, similar to how people will quote movie lines to each other. Sega games have a history with hip-hop music and with that history comes tons of quotable lyrics.

Burning Rangers for the Sega Saturn main theme has two different versions. The original Japanese version entitled Burning Hearts Burning ANGEL features some catchy vocals by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, the Daytona USA composer known for his distinct voice, the English theme We Are Burning Rangers hits harder. While singer Arif St. Michael substitutes Takenobu Mitsuyoshi to bring the funk, the lyrics of Robin A. Small really stand out. Small’s lyrics  “The Rangers have nothing to hide/ So as they fight they stand side-by-side/ For what’s right they tangle with pride/ Protectin’ the people from all sorts of evil” sounds  like he’s both their hired PR guy or in fact secretly a member of the titular Burning Rangers. It’s like the Bop Alloy’s song Save the Day where lead MC Substantial name drops himself and producer Marcus D flexes with lyrics like “Our name’s catching on, we’re so contagious”. Both Smalls and Substantial are hyping people up to convey how cool both groups are, like how great they are at putting out fires and rescuing civilians or simply getting attends pumped at a concert. Though Small takes the Burning Rangers far more seriously than Substantial with Bob Alloy, contrasting Small’s awesome but  overblown lyric “Giving Nightmares, like Wes Crave” to Substantial’s humble “Got a license to kill, but it’s missing the k”.

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Noah’s Rayark: An Appreciation for Rhythm Game Aesthetics

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A specific struggle I’ve had over the past few years getting immersed with rhythm games is finding others who are as invested in the games’ aesthetics as they are in gameplay and track selection. Since rhythm games are skill-focused like fighting games, I suppose the focus on scores and ability should be expected, but I feel this does a disservice to the games themselves especially when certain rhythm games go out of their way to be more distinctive. Some of the more ‘hardcore’ rhythm games, like Beatmania or DJMax have some aesthetic UI attempts (I’m not talking solely about song selection art, by the way), but they mostly seem to be window dressings to catch the eyes of would-be players. I’m also not specifically referring to the ‘weirder’ end of rhythm games like Gitaroo Man or Gal Metal, which push for more general eccentricity, but games like my ever-favored IA/VT Colorful and the Taiko no Tatsujin series which aim for a fun aesthetic design AND challenging gameplay. One company that hits a strong aesthetic design point is Rayark, a Taiwanese game development studio formed in 2011.

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Ninja waifus are cool and all, but that’s not really why you’re playing Beatmania, right?

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Super Suda 51 Brothers

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(Relatively abstract spoilers for Killer is Dead and the first two No More Heroes games. Honestly, these are hack-and-slash games, so knowing about certain story details does not detract that much from the actual game.)

Killer is Dead was everything I love and hate about what video game director and writer Suda 51 touches. I expected a hack and slash action game. I got it. I expected tons of assassins. I got it. I expected character’s winking at the camera. I got it. I expected catchy rock music. I sort of got it, as Killer is Dead’s soundtrack feels different, but none of the tracks stayed with me. I might be a Killer is Dead stan, but I won’t defend it too hard. One of the earliest missions features government assassin protagonist Mondo Zappa on a job to kill a man living in a mansion on the moon. Nonplussed like a parent reading a magazine in a dentist’s office as their kid gets a routine check-up, Mondo walks along the moon’s surface with a space helmet but no space suit. His target, owner of the moon’s sole mansion named David, ends up being the game’s full-of-himself villain, and also Mondo’s long lost older brother.

Wait a minute, Mondo’s an emotionless automaton affixed in a fancy suit and David is an egotistical smug bastard dressed like a golden bondage king. Did Suda 51 just pull a fast one and simply take Travis Touchdown and his older twin brother Henry Cooldown from No More Heroes and swap their personalities and roles?

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Dungeon Dice Monsters’ Rogues Gallery of Yu-Gi-Oh! Manga Villains

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After debuting within Weekly Shonen Jump, Kazuki Takahashi’s original Yu-Gi-Oh! manga would quickly receive Konami-developed videogames. The games in question areYu-Gi-Oh! Monster Capsule: Breed and Battle for the original PlayStation and Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters for the original Game Boy in 1998, only two years after the manga’s 1996 start. It seems fitting that a manga so focused on games would lend itself to videogames, especially during the early parts of the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga where children’s toys were often platforms for dangerous Shadow Games. The US would not see a Yu-Gi-Oh! game until the 2002 Game Boy Color release of Yu-Gi-Oh! Dark Duel Stories (the far less interesting title of the original Japanese second game in the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters series, instead of using the metal-as-hell Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters III: Tri-Holy God Advent title). While that was a continuation of Yu-Gi-Oh’s long tradition of video games based off the card game, a more interesting game arrived in 2003. Yu-Gi-Oh! Dungeon Dice Monsters, based off a mini-arc, showcased heroes, school friends, and villains from an almost-secret segment of Yu-Gi-Oh!, and those villains in particular deserve some attention.

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Based on this tile layout, this match is going to take a while.

Having started reading Viz’s English magazine of Shonen Jump by the time Yu-Gi-Oh! Dungeon Dice Monsters was released, I was already familiar and surprised with the manga’s schoolyard violence. Ha ha, no, I was actually more surprised by how horny manga Joey (Jonouchi) and Triston (Honda) were (potentially throwbacks to Tooru Fujisawa’s Great Teacher Onizuka’s prequel Shonan Junai Gumi manga and its delinquent leads Eikichi Onizuka and Ryuji Danma), and how no one would stop harassing Téa (Mazaki). This era of the manga is often known for Yami Yugi’s (Atem/ Dark Yugi) screwed up Shadow Games and penalties. From getting a high school hall monitor to stab himself in the hand or blowing up an okonomiyaki chief with an ice hockey puck containing an explosive chemical, Yu-Gi-Oh! was more Kakegurui or As The God’s Will than children’s card game.

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Silent Hill and the Stationary Terror

This article contains potential spoilers for both Silent Hill 3 and Silent Hill 4: The Room. Also, a ton of gross gnarly images. You reader have been warned.

I want to talk about this…thing.

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A child’s fairy tale simply calls it “The Glutton”, this more-object-than-monster works as a puzzle boss in Silent Hill 3. Described on the Silent Hill wiki as “ While it is a major obstacle in Heather Mason’s escape from the Otherworld Hilltop Center, it doesn’t pose a legitimate threat to her”. Heather Mason’s long journey home to her father Harry Mason is no longer restricted by rabid dogs or a giant worm, but something closer in shape and size to a large refrigerator. Glutton is terrifying. This might come off as glib and a little obvious when discussing a Silent Hill monster, a world rife with no limit of messed up antagonists made of broken limbs and melted flesh. But Glutton is uniquely scary, especially since it can never actually hurt Heather (or simply, the player).

Glutton’s home, is the Hilltop Center, the Otherworld version of Silent Hill 3’s most mundane location. This “scary” small business location (Japan’s big building answer to an office park) is too poorly lit to fully see Glutton’s collection of shapes and jerky motions. Simply put, it’s a circular cage with either skin or metal slats draped over a sharp mouth-shaped front. Inside it looks like a twisted body, with noticeable dangling feet and a torso. The worst part though are Glutton’s two screw top heads, which unnaturally twist in unsynchronized movements. The kicker is that if the puzzle is done correctly the first time or with a walkthrough, Glutton only needs to be seen once, if at all. In other words, it’s one final messed-up speed bump before reaching home.

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When Less is More: The Problem with Too Many Party Members

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Roughly a year ago, I managed to finish playing Chrono Cross, the interesting but messy sequel to Chrono Trigger. While I have plenty of issues with CC, one of the more glaring problems I noted with the game was its bloated cast. Yet, looking back on my criticisms of CC made me question why I had this specific problem, compared to other games with many characters, such as Suikoden or Fire Emblem. It turns out that this problem is more multifaceted than it initially seems.

I want to discuss Chrono Cross’s cast specifically. The various party members you can recruit in Chrono Cross fall under three specific categories: a) are heavily involved in the story (Harle, Viper, Karsh, Zoah, Marcy), b) are involved in the story only during specific points (Guile, Nikki, Korcha, Irenes, Sneff), and finally have little to no direct involvement with the story at all (Poshul, Draggy, Starky, Skelly). To give specific examples, you encounter gruff guy Karsh and his band of goons early on as an antagonistic force, but they end up teaming up with protagonist Serge later when story points shift. Meanwhile, German mermaid Irenes is only directly involved in a specific story point involving the help of a certain pirate, while the undead clown Skelly is linked to an optional sidequest. Chrono Cross has an interesting plot conceit by way of jumping between two different versions of the same world, but the bloated cast (and some of the game’s bizarrely confusing/cryptic writing) takes focus off the more relevant characters.

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You wouldn’t expect a skeleton dressed like this to have one of the most heartbreaking sidequests, hmm?

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Real Soundtracks for Fake Games

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Video game soundtracks never fail to amaze me with how varied they’ve been able to become in recent years. Touching on everything from heavy synth chords, ominous symphonic choirs, powerful classical tones, and urgent electronic suites, the diversity in sound is endless. Nonetheless, I had an overly-specific query regarding video game soundtracks: what about soundtracks for fake games? Finding Equip’s Synthetic Core 88 (which I discuss more in detail later) set me off on a bizarre quest to find concept albums themed around this idea. This was harder to find than expected, but I figured this idea was too cool to not discuss anyway, so I’ll go on what I was able to find.

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The first album I’ll showcase is bird world by Leon Chang. While I mostly associate Chang with his wonderful regular twitter posts reminding everyone to play Star Ocean: The Second Story, his music work is a different (but neat) creature of the feathered variety.
bird world is the soundtrack to a cute tiny bird-themed RPG about an avian fellow named Leon (ha) who sets out on an adventure after meeting with a mysterious, amnesiac stranger. Chang even went as far as to include a little illustrated PDF with the album download that harkens back to the good old days of video games including physical manuals with little blurbs about the settings and characters. He even includes gameplay tips and level-up skills for the characters! That’s dedication, folks!
leonThe best way to describe bird world is damn catchy. bird world feels like an unrestrained love letter to thematic video game sub-levels with a heavy smattering of indulgent sampling ranging from Ape Escape monkey sneezing to the Metal Gear alert sound. The result is a varied, upbeat mix of music that lands straight into the realm of embodying the game’s worlds themselves. Off the bat, the relaxing main menu theme and quirky welcome to bird world song quickly plop you into the grasp of the ‘game’, right after you’ve torn off the plastic wrap. From the tropical and floaty notes of lychee beach to the mellow and cozy side of winter melon valley, Chang does an exceptional job giving each track a specific flair. My personal favorite track, noodle cave, blankets you in fast-paced beats that get you pumped as the end of the ‘game’ approaches.

My only complaint with bird world is the soundtrack’s overall form, which, while fun and amazing to listen to, doesn’t quite feel like an actual soundtrack. If anything, bird world feels like a remixed version of an already existing soundtrack, though I’m not sure if Chang was trying to evoke a specific era of video games or a console. By no means is this a bad thing, and I don’t think Chang was purposely trying to evoke an older-sounding soundtrack by using something like older recording technology or chip-tune music. Just be aware that bird world is its own distinctive beast that tries more to evoke the general structure of a video game soundtrack.

The next album of interest is Synthetic Core 88 by Equip. I found this piece through Yetee thanks to Drew Wise’s eye-catching cover art for the vinyl and cassettes, which are stylized after Japanese soundtrack packaging and even include fake screencaps for the ‘game’. Like bird world, Synthetic Core 88 is conceptualized as an RPG soundtrack, this time centered around a girl named Flora getting lost in a dreary post-apocalyptic future world and fighting for survival. Synthetic Core 88 takes heavy cues from SNES-era games, with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI being obvious influences, yet Equip manages to give the soundtrack a distinctive, smooth flair.
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As Equip states on their bandcamp page, vaporwave and new age sounds are a major influential factor within their work, and it shows. While Synthetic Core 88 embodies a lot of respect towards old-school RPG’s, there’s still a sense of unique mellowness that Equip manages to incorporate in many of the tracks, such as in ‘New GAIA’ and ‘Flora Awakens’. Even the more upbeat tracks such as ‘Wholehearted Elation’ and ‘SILPH6’ evoke feelings of urgency mixed with a certain distance. There’s a strong sense of dreaminess tinged with nostalgia that permeates many of the tracks.

While I wish it was easier to find more ‘fake videogame soundtrack’ concept albums, I was pleased with both bird world and Synthetic Core 88. Both albums’ artists manage to take the concepts in different directions, resulting in some cool and catchy musical work that harken back to various flavors of video game sounds. It’s definitely a neat concept that I’d love to see grow as time goes on.