Building a Stairway…Off This Island

Coming up with things to discuss on this site, without dusting off the old chestnuts of RPGs, point-and-clicks, and late 90’s and early 2000’s FPS, is not easy. You write what you know. But as of last year, I have been really getting into resource management games (the internet seems to call these open world survival action-adventures, but that is too long), including Astroneer, Subnautica, and The Survivalists. Granted, calling them resource management games make them sound like factory simulators like Satisfactory, and the perfectly named Factorio. Whatever they are called, these games do provide distinct single and multiplayer experiences.

These types of resource management games, while similar on paper to farming sims, such as  Harvest Moons, Stardew  Valley, or Gleaner Heights, tend to share a different thematic start. Instead of inheriting a farm from a dead or dying relative, the player crash lands on a planet, a deserted island, or a deserted island planet. The Lost in Blue series (or Survival Kids for the five people on this planet who somehow own and played possibly the rarest GBC game) feel like the progenitor of this type of game. Lost In Blue follows different teenagers who find themselves trying to survive on a desolate tropical island. Food and water need to be consumed to keep the player alive, usually in the form of fresh coconuts and river water. Good news was that as  early DS games, Lost in Blue were not as long as the RPG-length sagas the average resource management game requires. Bad news was that as early DS games, Lost in Blue was controlled mostly through the stylus (a pain for those who wanted to do extra combat damage in Magical Starsign). Gameplay focused on constantly tracking vitals and building up a home base that lessens the strain of said vitals start here. But these teens cannot stay on the island forever, they will need to step out of their comfy cave and somehow leave the island. Finally leaving the base continues in later resource management games as a common end goal.

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Wouldn’t it be wild if punching alligators was just incorrectly calculated as being the most effective way to hurt them in Lost In Blue? Like how the butterfly net in some Zelda games works on bosses.

We Built This City on Card Games

Video games like to use cards for just about everything. The GameCube seemed to love them for RPGS like the Lost Kingdoms and Baten Kaitos games, where cards were used for combat. Slay the Spire uses it as part of its rogue-like game play. App games like Hearthstone, Ascension, or Magic: The Gathering Arena utilize each respective card game with a focus on online competitive play. But I want some story and characters to get invested in with my card games. Where is the Netrunner game about a cyberpunk future where everyone puts on their goggles and styles their mohawks to play Netrunner at a run-down bar or at a table in front of a ramen shop? Where is the Final Fantasy 8 spin-off where a nameless street urchin plays to become the Triple Triad champion of the world? Where have all the Trading Card Game adventure games gone?

Monster Rancher Battle Card Game GB was a Game Boy Color game about collecting cards representing the dozens of memorable Monster Rancher creatures in a world in which you fight to defeat…something. Joking aside, I never got farther than five minutes into this one as a kid. The Pokemon TCG game for the Game Boy Color was this charming world where everyone on Trading Card Game Island (that’s its real name) only cared about one thing, a kid’s card game. Like regular Pokemon, TCG Island has a resident Professor, this time it’s Dr. Mason (Oyama). People like me who cite Bulbapedia verbatim know that Dr. Mason is based on Pokemon TCG co-creator, Kouichi Ooyama, and compared to Professor Oak, Dr. Mason is flush with funding. Professor Oak has maybe two assistants, whereas Dr. Mason has fifteen, spread across two large rooms. TCG Island clearly cares more about its research of pieces of card board with images of Pokemon on them more than Kanto cares about actual Pokemon.

I think I read somewhere that the island is in the shape of Mew, but don’t quote me out of class on this.

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Surviving Horror in a Cool Pad

Horror video games use to break up their chills and thrills with safe rooms, these often pleasant breaks from monster hunting or, more realistically, surviving. Because horror games seem to be focused less on that surviving, safe rooms are not as common. Lone Survivor was a game I played when I first started to use Steam. Made exclusively by developer Jasper Byrne, Lone Survivor focused on a nameless masked man tasked with getting out of his comfy bed and leaving his monster-filled apartment complex. He’ll even die in bed if he’s not motivated enough to escape. Proximity to danger is the kind of horror Lone Survivor revels in, as monsters roam literally outside the apartment front door. Safety inside means the apartment now has to work as a base, not just a safe space. The survivor’s exit from the apartment is right in front of him when he gets up, as it’s the fire exit by his bedroom window, but he needs to progress before it can be unlocked.

Lone Survivor’s gameplay rhythm is reflected in its protagonist’s mutterings, which often boil down to “cool I got this new important item, better go home and sleep”. It’s an active way for the game to remind you to save, but it shows how important he feels about his one pleasant space in his new hellish existence. Similar to how collecting bedding or sticks for the cave in the Lost in the Blue games feel like a massive boon to the standard of living, the man can find stove gas or a can opener that can help him both physically and emotionally comfort himself. I rather enjoyed how one third of the man’s apartment is locked off for the first thirty minutes of the game. It provides something minor to work on, separate from the nebulous act of escaping monsters. The game has a teleport mechanic where all the other apartment mirrors are connected to the one in the main hallway, as teleporting into a safe space sort of feels like returning to a more relaxing state of mind. When Lone Survivor gets really stressful and resources are low, I started missing the protection of apartment 206 just as much as the nameless man.

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The nameless man’s pixels are undetailed enough that I thought his mask was just him grinning really big. Like some big creepy smiley face. Scariest thing in the game.

Dogpiling on the Protagonist for Fame and Fortune

Perhaps the most maligned main Tales of game, which happens to be one of my favorites, is Tales of the Abyss. Abyss gets a ton of my praise for being the only Tales of game to have a full bad guy team that act as an evil parallel  to the heroes. Similar to my desire for a Mario and Luigi Super Star Saga but with Wario and Waluigi, I feel there is untapped potential in a Tale of the Abyss: Inverse where you play as the badass God-Generals like Dist the Rose, Largo the Black Lion, and that one loli girl no one likes. Speaking of characters no one likes, Tales of the Abyss protagonist Luke fon Fabre serves as the naïve and sheltered player surrogate for the big world around him. This means every time a character gets annoyed that they have to explain an otherwise simple aspect of their world or Luke says something dumb, it goes back onto you, the player. Controlling a protagonist in a video game does not always involve playing a personality-free blank slate, but playing a character with the capacity to piss off other game character doesn’t feel great either.

RPGs with parties, or really any video game with some kind of crew or squad, run the potential risk of having protagonists whose character flaws boil down to “anything I do pisses everyone off”. I call this “dogpiling”. This can be divided up into two different camps: the protagonist is a person with predefined thoughts and interests or is the previous referenced personality-free blank slate that can only exposit player input. Video game protagonists already struggle to have a range of different archetypes, so having an outlined character who does something imperfect should be valuable, as it makes them less cookie-cutter. It can often feel like a punishment.

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A great summary of the first four hours of Tales of the Abyss.

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How Arknights Got Me to Sorta Like Gacha Games (?)

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Not many logistics group hire a pocky-eating wolf girl and a pie-obsessed angel.

On and off over the years, I’ve made occasional attempts to get into a variety of gacha games, but nothing’s really stuck. Typically, I get easily frustrated with these types of games, as their difficulty plateaus and meta-imbalances, designed to leech money out of players, tends to be inscrutable for me. I also follow a lot of the criticisms marked at these games, of the smarmy “who would pay hundreds of dollars for a JPEG image of a waifu that can be taken away from you if the game shuts down?” variety. Around mid-2020, I decided to make another attempt at gacha games, starting with Tales of Crestoria and Sinoalice. I was remarkably disappointed by Sinoalice, after being personally excited for the game’s release for over a year as a massive Yoko Taro fan. The game has a great soundtrack and art direction but it’s also an absolute snooze fest to play. I’ve still been following Tales of Crestoria since launch and will openly admit I dislike playing the game. I never got the chance to play Tales of the Rays before Bamco shuttered the English release, so I’m stuck with a super boring turn-based Tales of title. I dislike the gameplay to the point of always letting the game’s barely optimal auto-battle work for me. I mostly stick with the game because of the surprisingly good story and game-original cast, particularly the murderous love interest Misella and self-aware edgelord hedonist Vicious. I also started playing Princess Connect Re: Dive (which I…like? I don’t have a strong opinion on it), and I’m eagerly awaiting the English release for Touken Ranbu.

Amidst this mess of gacha game attempts and questionable usage of free time, I also got into Arknights around the end of 2020. I didn’t really start “seriously” playing the game until January of this year, but the game managed to subsume the better part of my free time, for good reason.

Whoever designed the UI deserves a raise, honestly.

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Return to Castle Dr. Quandary

Edutainment games are a staple of childhood, now turned into interesting relics of early PC software. There exist two camps for edutainment: narrative-driven adventure games that are extensively point-n-clicks for kids, games like Spy Fox and Putt-Putt, and capital E games like Math Blasters, and that one where a rabbit teaches phonics (no, not that one, no, the other one). As an adult, revisiting series like Spy Fox and Putt-Putt (“don’t you forget Pajama Sam” you say with a clenched fist) was great because, like revisiting an episode of The Simpsons you only watched as a kid, I got more of the references. For instance, there is a movie theater that shows fish themed film parodies in Freddie Fish 2, where as an adult I recognized Flash Gordon and Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. It was an actually rewarding use of my time. But these were games I played over and over again because I personally had them, unlike the phantom nightmare The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary.

My entire experience with this game involved watching someone else play it badly after school, so for years, I could not remember its name. I have a similar failed memory with an arcade fighting game that I played once at a long-since closed CiCi’s Pizza. I want to say it was Fighting Vipers, but I’m not sure. Developed by now-gone developer MECC, known for classroom staple Number Munchers, The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary is a trip.

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I’m just imagining a child skipping the text and ending up playing the game on d. feecult by mistake.

Beyond Fight, Magic, Run: Spotlighting Unique RPGMaker Creators

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Sad times in a proof-of-concept.

In the past decade, there’s been an increase in RPGMaker games focused on story and character interaction, often sidelining the RPG aspects or removing them entirely. One of the best examples of this is Freebird Games’s To The Moon, a sci-fi drama about altering the memory of a dying man. To The Moon is focused on its characters, story, and futuristic setting. However, its gameplay is simplistic, involving navigating the protagonist scientist characters through memory landscapes and solving simple puzzles. The rise of itch.io also helped encourage the rise of non-standard RPGMaker games, since the site allows for easier hosting of indie titles without having to traverse the Steam approval process. Plus, fan translations of Japanese RPGMaker games are surprisingly plentiful, thanks to contributors like vgperson, who also worked on many official paid Steam releases.

Using RPGMaker for narrative-driven adventure games rather than sword-and-sorcery RPGs is nothing new. Indie Japanese horror games made using RPGMaker are practically a genre on their own, popularized by fan translators and Let’s Plays. Fun fact: while Yume Nikki is probably best known for popularizing Japanese RPGMaker horror games amongst an English-speaking audience, many aspects of its stylistic blend of surrealistic horror can be traced back to the 1998 game Palette, which later received a PS1 re-release.

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A Pata-preciation Post

When putting together a list of my favorite video games of all time, one of the titles that consistently breaks my top 5 and has yet to leave is Patapon 2. Standing alongside games like the original Bioshock, Nier Gestalt, and Earthbound is a PSP game about using war drums to command a singing army of eyeball creatures. My particular enjoyment with the Patapon games (specifically 1 & 2) is something I’ve hawked for years but have yet to actually articulate, so why not finally do so?

The original Patapon was released in 2007, during a time when PSP developers realized that yes, you can develop games specific to the console that aren’t janky action games (ports like Tomb Raider, Star Wars Battlefront or otherwise) that function better with two analogue sticks. A direct sequel was released two years later, and the final game in the trilogy came out in 2011. The games were iconic enough to warrant a bizarrely specific stage appearance in Playstation All-Stars, wherein the patapon beat the tar out of God of War’s version of Hades. 2017 brought an HD remaster of Patapon 1, with a remaster of 2 following a year after. Oh, and apparently the games were popular enough to warrant a Chinese knock-off iOS/Android game called Patapon-Siege of Wow!.

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Art from Rolito’s website.

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Loving and Hating Pikmin

Wouldn't the ship being covered in gold make it harder to fly because of how heavy gold is?

OG Pikmin is a weird game. This almost twenty-year-old game series, about tiny freight drivers turned tiny explorers like Captain Olimar, who use whistles to control colorful plant aliens, is a pretty clever premise for a real-time strategy game. On the surface, Pikmin’s focus on traversing through a monster-filled alternate version of Earth while solving puzzles with pikmin offers a distinct playing experience not easily replicated in other games. Yet, I have struggled with Pikmin, particularly OG Pikmin and Pikmin 2. Both games walk right alongside a sandtrap with “greatness” at the bottom, but just never truly fall in.  

I started with Pikmin 2 as a kid, soI’ll also use it as my starting point here . Exploration, especially at the start of each of Pikmin 2’s spring, summer, fall, and winter themed areas, feels great. OG Pikmin kept the world more like a secluded forest compared to Pikmin 2’s random person’s backyard or post-apocalyptic civilization. Similar to the Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards planet Shiver Star, a planet that looks like an Earth destroyed by a new ice age. The areas are filled with large plant pots, hollow logs, and even some tiled showers. The game’s starting area is even a snow-covered street with man-hole covers. These dioramas, often impressively vibrant with clear waters and pretty flowers, are fun  to look at despite being somewhat limited by the GameCube’s texture rendering. The environmental storytelling in Pikmin 2 hints at an unseen but bigger world outside of Olimar and partner Louie’s. 

That's why they call this town Silent Pikmin.

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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.

Prey found body

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