Pokemon Picross [3DS eShop] – Review

Pokemon Picross

I’m disappointed with Pokémon Picross. Or rather, I’m disappointed in my expectations for the game. When it was announced in a recent Nintendo Direct, it was fully detailed as a “free-to-start” title: a game I’d be able to download and play for free. Presumably, there’d be some reason to coerce me to input money, but I didn’t ruminate on that or the potential pitfalls associated with the game’s payment model further. My lust for a new Picross game caused blinders to go up, especially considering this was a new one thematically designed around Pokémon. A peanut butter and jelly combination if I’d ever heard one! Having spent some time with the game, I’ve come back down and am firmly grounded in reality.

Nintendo’s Picross games are logic-based puzzlers that task players with filling in a gridded square using numerical hints on each row and column, ultimately revealing a picture. The numbers bordering each row and column indicate how many squares are to be filled in and if they’re connected or contain an unknown space of unmarked squares between them. Using deductive reasoning, one can determine that if a row of 10 squares has a hint of 8, a certain number of squares must be filled in, regardless of where the filled in section begins and ends. Extrapolating this thinking across the entire grid and utilizing squares that have already been filled in is an addictive process with a satisfying sense of completion when complete, especially on the larger puzzles.

Pokémon Picross takes that standard concept and applies some of the mechanics from the Pokémon series. The puzzles themselves are representative of individual Pokémon that when complete, result in catching said creature. They each have an ability that aids in the completion of puzzles by filling in squares, slowing time, etc. This mechanic ties into another new addition, rewards for completing specific objectives for each puzzle. Each puzzle has a set of unique objectives, such as set Pokémon X or use ability Y. Rewards for completing these were generally Picrites, the in-game currency.

Pokemon Picross - Pikachu
A Pikachu puzzle in progress, nearly there!

Mega Puzzles make a return after their debut in the digital only Picross e titles, although they’re completely foreign to me. I skipped out on those digital titles not thinking they contained much content (I was wrong, rectifying that mistake… now) but they make total sense in a Pokémon themed game, considering Mega Evolutions are the new “thing” for that series. Basically, they screw with the hints given and instead combine two rows/columns. Even after going through the tutorial a time or two, I had to wrack my brain to comprehend them. They add a nice change of pace, but are nowhere near as progressive as Picross 3D.

Progression is also portrayed differently, although is structurally similar to previous Picross games. Players navigate the game from puzzle to puzzle as if navigating the varying routes in a Pokémon game, complete with branching paths and different creatures. The difficulty pacing is all over the place, which for a veteran like me is appreciated. While it could be a hindrance for someone unfamiliar with the series (and I could see many newcomers coming for the Pokémon side of the equation), it also further replicates the progression of a standard Pokémon game, e.g. having to return to some cave with stronger Pokémon. Reaching new areas is no small feat and the barriers are twofold: energy and Picrites.

Pokemon Picross - Pikachu Capture
And the completed puzzle results in a new Pokemon added to the collection.

I originally wanted to start this section off discussing one of these mechanics as the lesser of two evils, but they’re both pretty mischievous, but ultimately boil down to one annoyance. Like many free-to-play games, this one utilizes an energy meter. As squares of puzzles are filled in, that meter depletes until it’s empty, halting progress until it’s refilled. The easiest way is to wait for it to refill; this can take a couple of hours and for the player in need of a fix, the quickest way is to refill it (or extend it altogether) with Picrites. As mentioned, Picrites are the in-game currency and are awarded for the completion of puzzles and the completion of objectives. They are doled out in laughable quantities in relation to the amount needed to unlock additional areas and upgrades, heck even an alternate set of puzzles are gated behind a hefty sum of Picrites. The only logical solution is to pony up real money.

This is a free-to-play game (and the core game is damn fine!) but convincing myself to plug in more than a couple of bucks is a tough sell. Admittedly, I’m still one of those luddites who prefer physical media and getting something I can hold in my hands in return. And I understand that many individuals worked on this game and there are plenty of stakeholders who deserve a cut. But, the portrayal of this game as free-to-play is somewhat devious. The amount of Picrites awarded in relation to the tally needed to unlock additional stages is prohibitively high and at some point, progression is gated behind a measly few puzzles that can be farmed each day.

Labels and payment models shouldn’t conjure this much ill will, and I’m perhaps going overboard here, but I would’ve rather seen Nintendo strip away the free-to-play elements and just market a full-price digital title. Obviously they didn’t go that route and I’m sure there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they’d reach more players, and ultimately yield more revenue by adopting the model they went with. And with that “realization” this article has devolved into a codgerly rant about the evolving sales pitch of video games. The kicker is that if you pump in about thirty bucks, all of these elements I’ve whined about go away. I don’t think I’m going to though because I’ve still got a chip on my shoulder on how they marketed this game! The more I write, the more I’m coming off as an entitled asshole, even to myself. So while I’d fit in great in an internet comments section, I’m going to wrap things up here! This is a great game, just go into it with better expectations than me.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty [PlayStation 2] – Review

 

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Title Card

It’s been about a month since Jeff and I completed Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Generally, I try and write about a game within a few days of completing it but this game wound up provoking so many mixed emotions for me. It’s left me awestricken in many ways, some good and some bad. This is a game that’s often touted as the first postmodern video game, and while I’m too much of a dullard to fully comprehend this statement, the way my own opinion has been split in so many ways is indicative of its provocative nature. It’s a game I admire and disdain at the same time, and I’ll try my best to detail some of the major reasons why.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Tanker
Stealthily eliminating foes was the way to go.

Like our recent playthrough of Metal Gear Solid, this wasn’t my first experience with this game. I originally played it a couple of years after its release and recall thinking the world of it then. As a sequel, the narrative subverts most preconceived notions of what to expect, and I think high school John really got a kick out of that. As an adult, I still find that fascinating, perhaps more so now, especially having directly completed its predecessor. One of the most notable ways Kojima did this was through a bait-and-switch of the protagonist.

While the first hour or so of the game stars Solid Snake, as one would expect, the true star of the game is Raiden. As a character, he’s anything like Solid Snake, the gruff, self-assured action-movie hero one expects in a game like this. Instead, Raiden is supposed to represent the player, a novice whose preparations for the big time constituted training in virtual reality. These preparations leave him undoubtedly skilled, but not with a mindset capable of being successful in the ways Solid Snake has been previously. His lack of confidence was grating to witness, although his character arc climaxed with my impression of him notching up a little bit.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Dragging.jpg

The story of Metal Gear Solid may have grown convoluted but it doesn’t hold a candle to anything on display here. At its most basic, this game centers on Snake and Otacon’s quest for Metal Gear nonproliferation and Raiden’s journey to discover himself. Then about a dozen layers are added on top of those and any further comprehension requires extensive notetaking and periods of downtime to digest the events of the lengthy and frequent cutscenes. The breakdown between actually playing the game and watching it was somewhat jarring, although I did enjoy watching more than playing. Maybe I feel that way because the time I had to develop my stealth and combat skills was squashed between lengthy conversations that took me out of the experience? Either way, I felt my performance was less impressive compared to the previous game.

Due to narrative reasons that are mind-blowing, the events of the game are purposefully similar to the Shadow Moses Incident and wind up serving as little more than a test to creating a solider equal to Solid Snake. Pulling the strings is a shadow organization known as the Patriots. Already in control of the United States (every election has been a sham and most major government officials are representatives of the organization) they’re seeking control of the flow of digital information now. A new Metal Gear was designed and the AI contained within, GW, is the construct to achieve their goal. There are about another dozen crucial characters and their allegiances and double crosses become confusing narrative fodder. Thankfully I did take detailed notes but even so, I remain unclear on many things and feel another playthrough is necessary to really comprehend everything. Nonetheless, the narrative was the freshest aspect of this game and it was unpredictable at every point.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Raiden
Raiden was a tough character to like.

Likewise, the depth found in the gameplay has also been drastically increased. The increased AI is no joke; no longer do guards make buffoonish decisions when catching a glimpse of Snake in a box. Rather, they call reinforcements more often than not and send in additional soldiers to “clear” an area, searching in most nooks and crannies. It felt like setting off an alert resulted in many more mission failed screens compared to the previous game. I want to say in addition to the more stringent AI, the alerts lasted longer too. Frequently, I would throw Raiden or Snake in the line of fire just to get a quick reset instead of hiding for the few minutes it would take for things to cool down. This resulted in a less enjoyable gameplay experience. It’s also one of the reasons I’d like to replay the game again, just to take my time and devote all my focus to remaining stealthy and see if my performance and enjoyment increase.

The gameplay improvements are not relegated solely to stealth actions. Gunplay received an overhaul in the form of first-person shooting. First-person shooting provided a greater level of accuracy when eliminating enemy threats, and provided some fun when taking them by surprise. Individual body parts could be targeted, including the ability to shoot the radios an enemy may call for reinforcements with. This viewpoint was only useful in specific cases though as the character would remain locked in position – the game couldn’t be entirely played like a first-person shooter. It was a smart addition nonetheless and added a further layer of complexity to approaching a situation.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Precision
With first-person shooting, the level of precision allowed increased immensely. Shooting soldiers, or glass bottles, in specific locations yielded different outcomes.

Like its predecessor, there were many great set piece scenes with most of them revolving around the varied boss fights. Again, there was a rogues’ gallery of bad guys to defeat and each encounter was a unique experience. I can’t think of any being down-to-earth showdowns; for instance, Raiden battling a roller-skating mad bomber of sorts or his showdown with a small force of towering Metal Gears. The set pieces extended beyond cinematic fights though, including one particularly frustrating platforming section. One section in particular ate our lunch, seeing us retry twenty or so times. Raiden was forced to navigate a narrow strip of piping across a body of water and the various obstacles highlighted why such a section didn’t jive with the super responsive character movements.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Boss Fight
By the end of the game, Raiden had been redeemed in my eyes, proving he could hang tough.

What do I think of this game? The narrative is bold, but tough to follow. I want to replay and reread my notes to try and piece everything together. I didn’t much care for Raiden although I felt he was redeemed by the end; for a deeper analysis that I agree with (and reasoning why this game is postmodern), read this. The gameplay split my opinion the most. I like the improvements, even though the increased AI resulted in a tougher game with more frustrations. Again, it’s another reason I’d like to replay, in order to have a more enjoyable experience. As it stands, it was enjoyable seeing what happened in the game, less so to actually play. I still think the original is unsurpassed as a pure video game or piece of entertainment. I would agree that this game is incredibly bold and deserves most every ounce of praise; it just wasn’t as fun to play.

Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut [PlayStation 3] – Review

Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut

Touting itself as one of the most critically polarizing games of recent times, the Director’s Cut release of Deadly Premonition highlights a quirky game with many inspirations. When it was originally released stateside for the Xbox 360 on February 23, 2010, the game was met with critical reception that ran the gamut of the traditional 1-to-10 rating scale. Almost every aspect of the open-world horror game caused a rift that placed players in a love it or hate it camp. Released on April 30, 2013 for the PlayStation 3, the Director’s Cut rectifies nothing and instead doubles down on the cult following it created. Having played it myself, I can safely say I’m in the love it camp but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed every bit of it.

The characters were a mixed bag, and nothing was "odd" in this town. Even a man wearing a skull mask respirator.
The characters were a mixed bag, and nothing was “odd” in this town. Even a man wearing a skull mask respirator.

Set in the fictional town of Greenvale, Washington, the game follows FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan as he investigates the grisly murder of a young woman. The case deepens as more young women are murdered by the mysterious Raincoat Killer. At the crime scenes and around town, York encounters a recurring symbol and the presence of red seeds, both of which play an important role and portend an otherworldly quality to the plot. In regards to the general plot, setting, and characters, the developers at Access Games, and likely the game’s director Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro, seemed to have drawn heavily on another instance of cult entertainment: Twin Peaks.

Besides the similarities listed above, many of the townsfolk that York deals with through his investigation are representative of characters from Twin Peaks. So much so there’s even a Log Lady equivalent! Most everyone has a ludicrous trait that keeps the experience from feeling like a representation of the real world; such as York’s tendency to monologue about famous movies and directors to Zach, another personality of his – the result of his dissociative identity disorder. Or the fact that York finds himself in otherworldly versions of the real world while profiling his suspect. On the other hand, Emily Wyatt, the deputy sheriff, came off surprisingly grounded, in part because of her girl next door portrayal. The relationship between her and York depicted a budding romance that culminated in a wrenching conclusion, one that really made me sympathetic for the two.

Driving was a tedious task initially thanks to speed limitations. Fast cars though had the tendency to wind up like this.
Driving was a tedious task initially thanks to speed limitations. Fast cars though had the tendency to wind up like this.

The significance of the ritualistic killings, symbology, and red seeds are eventually made apparent and everything relates back to a gruesome night in the town sixty-odd years prior. The pace really picks up around this point and I didn’t want to stop playing the game. I spent about fourteen hours playing in the weekend leading up to its completion; a feat that I haven’t done in a long time. It was also about this point that all semblance of reality began getting stripped away as the game’s true villains were revealed, leading me to find commonalities between the final third of the game and Inuyasha.

The final sections showed off an array of noteworthy boss fights (I had to call Jenny in to see some of them), although the rest of the combat was defiantly rote. Combat sequences took place in closed off areas, usually with the objective of finding clues to aid in York’s criminal profiling. While trying to push the narrative forward, York dealt with innumerable zombielike creatures that populated these otherworldly versions of existing locations. Combat was highly derivative of Resident Evil 4, down to York planting his feet while I aimed. A lock-on feature reduced the ire caused by the troublesome aiming but couldn’t help the combat from growing tiresome after a section or two. The few run-ins York had with the Raincoat Killer did result in tense and stylish escape sequences, with a fair amount of quick-time events for good measure.

The otherworldly aspects became more crucial to the plot as the climax drew near.
The otherworldly aspects became more crucial to the plot as the climax drew near.

When not in combat, York was free to explore the town of Greenvale and perform a wealth of favors for the townsfolk, totaling fifty sidequests in all. This fact didn’t dawn on me until about halfway through, coincidentally, about the time the plot was striking my fancy. Completing the sidequests not only broadened my understanding of the characters and their relationships, but also served as the open-world “collectible” to obsess over. It doesn’t take much to convince me to collect everything of something (thanks Pokémon!) but the fact that trophies were tied to these meant I was going to collect them all, and “platinum” the game in the process.

For the most part, the sidequests were very simple, although their variety and outcomes were immense. They ranged from block-pushing puzzles and collect-a-thons to the retrieval of specific items strewn about Greenvale. Starting them was simple, just talking to the quest giver but finding them at a given point wasn’t so simple. The town of Greenvale operated no different from ours, with individuals performing tasks and working based on the time of the day and the weather conditions. While I could solicit tasks from the owner of the Milk Barn grocery store during the day as he was working, I wouldn’t be able to at night when he was home resting. The criteria for these were openly displayed and I found the overall structure to be reminiscent of the Bomber’s Notebook from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

The zombielike creatures had terribly annoying sound effects. I found them to grow funnier with time.
The zombielike creatures had terribly annoying sound effects. I found them to grow funnier with time.

It’s somewhat surprising to think about the quantity of influences that this game draws upon. I’ve made mention of so many at this point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t compare the open world qualities to be evocative of Grand Theft Auto, by way of Shenmue. Overwhelmingly, these influences come together with a surprising degree of competency. Despite this, it’s hard for me to walk away from my time without criticisms. I felt many of the combat sequences dragged on far too long considering how unrewarding the combat itself was. And, not to stigmatize too much but this was a budget game originally, and the quantity of “open-world jank” I encountered is a testament to that; not to mention the near-PS2 quality of the graphics. There are so many other grievances I have with the game, but I still spent forty largely enjoyable hours with it and if that’s a testament to anything, it’s to the redeeming and endearing qualities of Deadly Premonition.

Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions [PlayStation] – Review

Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions

The desire needed to complete Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions must be strong in order to persist through the game’s 300 missions. As the name suggests, these missions are set in virtual reality and act as a simulation, presumably for Raiden – the “star” of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. They put him in the shoes of Solid Snake in a variety of challenges that test his stealth skills, weapon proficiency, as well as some others that are just for fun. There is a great variety of missions and I became intimately acquainted with each weapon and the fundamentals of the stealth gameplay. However, there isn’t a great sense of diversity in the missions. Many repeat and there just aren’t enough unique or goofy missions to warrant the time required, especially as there’s little that adds to the lore. But, I did wind up with a 100% completion rate and eked plenty of enjoyment out of my time with the game.

The majority of the missions had a wireframe visual style.
The majority of the missions had a wireframe visual style.

Of the four modes the game is divided into, I had the most fun with the final one: special. To unlock it and its various subtypes, I had to work my way through the other three modes: sneaking, weapon, and advanced. Sneaking mode tasked me with just that: being stealthy. To promote this, half of the missions supplied me with no weapons while the other half limited me to Solid Snake’s trusty SOCOM firearm. This forced me away from just mowing down enemy resistance, although this isn’t a tenable strategy most of the times anyway. I was also required to complete these missions a second time in time attack versions. They were identical, only now I was racing against the clock. I got my fill, but wasn’t burned out.

The subsequent two modes played out a little differently. The first, weapon mode, equipped me with a single weapon for a series of increasingly tougher missions. Time attack versions were also present meaning I repeated each mission twice. All in all, these weren’t very challenging even at their toughest, perhaps explaining the need for the advanced mode. The setup was the same: a few missions with only a single weapon type equipped putting Solid Snake in a more precarious scenario. Again, time attack versions meant I had to repeat these stages twice. At this point, the struggle to continue playing got real.

Missions revolving around Solid Snake's arsenal were the most common.
Missions revolving around Solid Snake’s arsenal were the most common.

Stripped of a grandiose narrative, VR Missions is solely gameplay driven. In the presentation, it’s practically a puzzle game. It’s loaded to the brim with mostly succinct missions that hone in on one or two facets of the gameplay. For the most part, they’re enjoyable and enlightening – I know I can return to Metal Gear Solid with a more confident understanding of Solid Snake’s arsenal and the stealth options at his disposal, if I wanted to, which I don’t. I came to this title not knowing what to expect necessarily and it really comes off as what it’s portraying – a training tool. Just as much of training is based around repetition, so too is this game and that’s where it became a struggle to persevere. Many of the mission types were very similar, but then having to repeat the bulk of them in a time attack version? That was a real buzzkill.

When I made it through the majority of the game and unlocked the various mission subtypes within the special mode, I was a little disappointed. There were still plenty of rote simulation style missions among the scant goofy mystery and puzzle style missions. Granted, I got to solve murder mysteries, fight off UFOs and skyscraper-sized enemies, and play as Cyborg Ninja, but this off kilter style of mission was less abundant than I had hoped for. Even with these goofy scenarios, the highlight of this mode was perhaps the final mission I tackled: the VR mission. To clear it, I had to make my way through a truly challenging ten stage gauntlet within a fifteen minute time span, which was always tallying time, even factoring in restarts and deaths. It took me a few attempts before I could do it but when I conquered it, excelsior! It honestly forced me to use much of what I’d learned up to this point to succeed.

A camera mode was one of the unlockables, and very underwhelming.
A camera mode was one of the unlockables, and very underwhelming.

Afterwards I got a schematic for Metal Gear Ray, to be featured in the then-unreleased sequel. Again, I was a little disappointed after a dozen hours and a 100% rating for that to be the reward. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun, the game simply grew tiring. There were loads of exciting missions and a lot of variety in the scenarios I was put in and what the missions tasked me with. Unfortunately, many of these had to be repeated which stripped the time spent of diversity as I was repeating much of the game twice. It comes off as a hard game to recommend to anyone but the most diehard fans of the series, and even then I’d caution against playing the time attack versions until all unplayed missions have been exhausted. That should extend the enjoyment and reduce the sense of repetition that I encountered in my time with the game.

Policenauts, Import Games, and a Weekend of Learning

Policenauts

I set about this past weekend with one objective in mind: play an English-patched copy of Policenauts. In the course of attempting this, my task grew into a more general objective of playing import PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games; or rather, attempting to play them. Often, I’ll set about accomplishing something with a strong desire to see the process through only to have that yearning feeling dissipate and highlight a limited attention span and a quick-to-cave attitude. “Not this weekend!” I thought to myself. Although I remained unsuccessful on one front and only partially successful on the other, I ended the weekend with my head held high, brimming with new knowledge.

This desire to play Policenauts is not new to me, but the realization that it could be an actuality was. As my friend and I have been playing through the Metal Gear Solid series, I’ve done additional reading on the other works of Hideo Kojima. Policenauts is one such title and even though it never released in English-speaking territories, it’s still moderately known and highly regarded. Through this research, I stumbled upon the news that an enterprising group of fans had produced an English translation (circa 2007) and that it had been successfully patched into the PlayStation version (circa 2009). The process of implanting the patch didn’t seem too complex so without any additional thought, I acquired a copy off eBay… and Metal Gear Solid: Integral for good measure.

These games came in the mail this past Wednesday and before getting down to the tough stuff, I set about locating my Swap Magic discs. These are boot discs for the PlayStation 2, specifically the slim version, that allow the play of import and backup discs, with a slight modification to the console’s disc cover. I purchased these a few years ago when I first attempted to play import PS2 games. I went through the entire process of getting a slim PS2, modifying the disc cover, and finding a few games to play, only to fizzle out when I had done all the “hard” work (it was actually pretty easy). After thoroughly disassembling my gaming closet Thursday, I located the Swap Magic discs and was ready to begin processing the Policenauts patch.

My modified PS2, featuring a "toilet seat" disc cover.
My modified PS2, featuring a “toilet seat” disc cover.

Cue Friday night. My weekend had officially begun and I’d sat down at my computer to examine the readme file associated with the patch. Step one was simple: acquire a copy of Policenauts. Check. Step two upped the ante. “Rip your hard copy of Policenauts to the ISO format.” Furthermore, the author recommended CloneCD to rip the discs (it’s a two-disc game) to a .ccd format and then another program: Alcohol 120% to convert the .ccd files to .iso files. I did as he said and was successful in creating the .ccd files, after perusing that program’s help documents. I then attempted using Alcohol 120%. Before installing, it warned of compatibility issues between it and my HP laptop. I disregarded this prompt hopefully naively, and was greeted with a blue screen of death on the post-install restart. Another attempt resulted in the same issue. Through system restore, I brought my laptop back safely and was forced to look elsewhere for converting these .ccd files, read: Google.

The Google searches yielded many options for programs generating .iso files from .ccd files, but I had a hell of a time finding one (a) compatible with my HP laptop, (b) that was free or had a free trial, and (c) looked trustworthy enough to download. The incompatibility between Alcohol 120% and my HP laptop is a known issue with two solid fixes, but I didn’t feel like uninstalling the conflicting program or upgrading to Windows 10 to remedy the issue. Unfortunately, many other similar programs had similar incompatibility with HP products and my urgency to play Policenauts was beginning to waver. Fortunately, my friend demonstrated enough persistence to persuade me and I eventually discovered UltraISO, a program which granted me access to what I needed with its free trial. I now had the .iso files I needed.

The third step was another doozy: “install xdelta 3.” An innocuous enough task with even a link being provided, simple enough one might say. Wrong! Maybe it would be simple for someone who knew what they were doing. I was just following steps and as soon as the path deviated from those steps, I was lost. Whether it was the second step or this one, I had to devise my own workarounds to get to the same end result as the readme documentation. What I needed here was some kind of .exe file, of which there were many variations of, and looking back on it, I just mishandled this and started banging my head against the wall when the solution wasn’t as clear-cut as the instructions lead me to believe. To cut a long story short, I found what I needed.

With that .exe file safely tucked away in the same folder as the .iso files and the English patch, I simply had to execute the patch file and, voila! It didn’t work! But, before getting up in arms, I realized that was a possibility. There was a second patch file for computers running an Athlon CPU, which apparently I’m running, and when that was executed I was greeted with sweet, sweet success! Finally! The patch files had been applied to the .iso files and I could then burn them to blank CD-Rs and test them out in my PS2 using the Swap Magic discs. There was one single issue remaining… the Swap Magic discs don’t work with PlayStation games and backups, only PlayStation 2 games and backups. D’oh!

In a continuing display of naiveté, I realized this only after attempting to boot a CD-R and then an original disc, both unsuccessfully. A little bit of reading clarified this point to me and served as a reminder to always read the instructions fully before beginning a task (there were no instructions regarding this but I should’ve thought ahead). So, how else could I play these patched CD-Rs on actual PlayStation hardware? The readme file for the patch didn’t delve too much into that topic, but I’ve since researched a variety of options but have yet to settle on one. There’s also the simple route of just playing with an emulator, but the few times I tried doing so with ePSXe haven’t been fruitful. I’m in the process of getting that to function currently and will report back with results.

So, my weekend had barely begun when I realized that playing Policenauts likely wouldn’t be a reality. With the Swap Magic discs available and the PS2 already set up though, my friend and I turned towards the stack of import PS2 games we had hauled into the living room. Without too much effort, it was soon clear why I had fizzled out on the import scene when my interest first piqued years ago.

The stack, laid out.
The stack, laid out.

The Swap Magic method of playing import/backup games is pretty simple. It can only be done with a slim PS2 that has had its disc cover replaced with one resembling a toilet seat. Once the Swap Magic disc boots, it’s replaced with the desired disc which then runs as if region locking wasn’t an issue. The disc cover can’t be opened though, or else the PS2 reverts back to the browser, hence, the toilet seat design which allows for easy access. The Swap Magic discs are sold in a pair – one to boot CD based games and another to boot DVD based games.

We had no issues using the CD based Swap Magic disc. We were able to dabble with a few of the CD based games and had an enjoyable time in particular with The Zombie vs. Ambulance, or Zombie Virus as it’s known in Europe. The PS2 did not cooperate with the DVD based Swap Magic disc however. In fact, the system didn’t read any DVDs regardless of region. It was becoming clear to me why I burned out originally: because I ran into issues with DVD based games. We flat lined at this point and moved on to more productive ventures for the night.

After a night of sleep and a morning of garage sailing with my sister, I kickstarted the search for solutions to my DVD woes on Saturday afternoon. Most reading led me to believe that the laser failing to read DVDs (but still retain its CD reading functionality) was somewhat common. Cleaning the laser ruled out the potential of dust or dirt being the issue and the next cheapest option was simply replacing the laser. Luckily, I obtained a second slim PS2 at an estate last year for a pittance; alternatively, a replacement laser was about $12 on Amazon. I made sure to test a variety of CDs and DVDs in this second PS2 before going any further and fortunately, all worked. After watching a few YouTube tutorials on replacing the laser I had confidence that I was up to the task.

Later that night, while watching Dr. Zhivago on the OETA Movie Club, I successfully switched the lasers. It took much longer than it should’ve thanks to the distraction of the movie but there were also a couple of screws that were royal pains in the butt to remove. Once the movie had finished I had the opportunity to test out the modified PS2 and… it still didn’t play the Swap Magic DVD! What’s more, the system successfully played other DVDs. Looking on the bright side, my issues were narrowed down more specifically to the DVD based Swap Magic disc itself. It didn’t look too scratched, although there were minute cosmetic issues with the disc. Getting it resurfaced would either solve the problem or eliminate one more possibility.

Sunday afternoon, once they’d opened, I made the drive to the nearest Vintage Stock with a working resurfacing machine. While waiting I stumbled across an older GameShark for the PlayStation. In the reading I’d done on playing import/backup copies of PlayStation games I saw mention of an exploit that might possibly allow me to play Policenauts. I bought it to be on the safe side but realized when I arrived home that it wasn’t compatible with my PlayStation. Policenauts was again put on the backburner, but I was one step closer! Next up on the docket was testing the newly resurfaced DVD based Swap Magic disc.

To my surprise, it worked! The PS2 successfully read the disc and launched the Swap Magic menu. I exchanged the disc for Michigan, a Grasshopper Manufacture survival horror game that I remembered seeing on X-Play years ago. The involvement of Suda51 may have also had an impact on my purchase too… Side note: this game was released in Europe, but good luck finding a copy for under $40 and let me know if you do! I was appeased after a little while and was ready to try another game when the PS2 stopped booting the Swap Magic disc. It recognized it as a PS2 disc in the browser and would act like it was booting it, only to return me to the browser menu. ARGH! Other DVDs played just fine so I’m led to believe there’s an issue with the disc itself – not the surface of it, but the information that’s written to it, so… yeah.

I can’t explain why it worked once and not again other than just getting lucky, but I’m not going to sweat it. Maybe I’ll get a plan of action assembled for this upcoming weekend, maybe I’ll have these issues resolved before then, or maybe I won’t even bother and just fizzle out entirely here. No, after all I’ve been through I know I won’t take the easy route out, I’m going to see my objectives through. I’ve been constantly disheartened through these two procedures, but I’ve consistently found ways to make something work or narrow my issues down. Whether it’s playing an English-patched copy of Policenauts or playing DVD based, import PS2 games, I can look back at this weekend disappointed that I wasn’t entirely successful, but I can also look back at it and be proud of the work I put in and the knowledge I’m left with. This weekend was a learning experience that things won’t always be as easy as they seem, but that’s no reason to give up. The path to success is lined with trial and error and through that process, much can be gained.

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin [Nintendo DS] – Review

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

When I talked about Fallout Shelter last week, I began by considering it in a vacuum. Without partners playing too, it grew to resemble a chore more than an enjoyable escape. I feel like taking the same approach with Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin but for a different reason. In a vacuum, this game is practically the pinnacle of the 2D action-adventure genre. The addictive blend of action, exploration, and role-playing elements that the series is known for, still make up the core experience of this game and pair well with new additions. Level design remains fresh throughout, in part due to the top-notch audio/visual qualities and varied surroundings. The reasons to continue playing after completion are immense as well, but, this is like the fifth Castlevania of this style I’ve played, and while they’re individually superb, they elicit less exhilaration after each completion.

Per usual, the animation was top-notch.
Per usual, the animation was top-notch.

When it was released for the Nintendo DS in late 2006, Portrait of Ruin was joining an already extensive collection of similar Castlevania titles that had released relatively recently. Koji Igarashi and his crew at Konami differentiated this game in a few ways, most notably, by focusing on two characters instead of one. The plot centers on Jonathan Morris’ quest to quell Dracula’s uprising amidst a war-torn Europe circa 1944 with his partner Charlotte Audin. He resembles the typical Castlevania protagonist in many ways while she is a spell caster with a growing repertoire of spells, another series staple.

I could freely switch between the two at all times and this allowed me to dabble with both combat styles – weapons with him and magic with her. These two styles were vastly different in execution and perhaps because of my familiarity with previous entries, I stuck with Jonathan. When not actively controlled, the partner was still useful. They would automatically attack on-screen enemies, albeit with little intelligence. This was beneficial in dealing with enemies but it proved most worthwhile in drawing enemy aggression towards the partner, allowing me to attack from behind. Outside of combat, the duo was put to use in progressing past a few (generally half-assed) puzzles. The most memorable of these had both characters riding motorcycles and tasked me with switching between them in order to make sure neither was knocked off by various obstacles. It was a fast-paced puzzle that made me stop and think of a viable solution, unlike most others.

The game had a limited number of NPCs, but each was integral to the plot.
The game had a limited number of NPCs, but each was integral to the plot.

Additionally, the game was distinguished by the variety of locales Jonathan and Charlotte traversed. Now, the primary setting was Dracula’s Castle (naturally) but much of the duo’s time was spent exploring the paintings strewn about, a la Super Mario 64. In keeping with the series, these maintained a gothic design. They transported the pair to the streets of a bombed-out European city, a nightmarish circus, and many more unique backdrops that would’ve seemed out of place as disparate areas of the abominable abode. The series has always attempted to segregate Dracula’s Castle with diverse milieus but this is the best example I’ve seen.

Although Jonathan’s quest was to banish Dracula’s Castle, that vile vampire wasn’t an issue until late in the game. While the castle had arisen because of the agony and hatred within humanity during this period, another vampire took advantage of the castle’s powers for his own agenda and prevented Dracula from reviving. That vampire, Brauner, ultimately worked towards the same end goal of humanity’s destruction, but did so out of the hatred he felt for losing his daughters during the First World War. Brauner was able to harness the power of Dracula’s Castle through his paintings. With assistance from newfound friends and through the evolution of a subplot or two, Jonathan and Charlotte were successful in cleansing the castle of Brauner’s influence and ultimately dealing with Dracula and his ilk.

Some sections of Dracula's Castle may look familiar to veterans of the series.
Some sections of Dracula’s Castle may look familiar to veterans of the series.

There were plenty of reasons to keep going once the story was finished too. Exploration and the mapping of Dracula’s Castle has been a core component of the series since Symphony of the Night, and this game doesn’t disappoint with its 1,000% MAP COMPLETION RATE! That number is perhaps artificially high because of the multitude of paintings, but there is a lot to explore nonetheless. Moreover, there were many collections to complete such as obtaining all items or filling out the bestiary and mastering each sub-weapon, powering them up in the process. These are customary features for the series but also available were sidequests from one of the duo’s associates. I believe this was a first for the series and I had completed maybe 15% at game’s end after passively trying, so there’s much to do on that front.

Two more sets of playable characters could also be unlocked and both changed gameplay dramatically. The environment remained the same with both but the equipment and magic customization was backpedaled completely and a story was basically nonexistent. One pair of characters was a throwback to the classic days of the series with a focus on sub-weapons and the legendary whip, Vampire Killer. This duo was overpowered and playing with them felt like I was in “God mode.” The other duo utilized the touch-screen exclusively. The touch-screen was integrated into the game elsewhere but I literally never used it. The execution with these two was actually very intriguing and their individual means of attacking required different touch-based actions. A Boss Rush mode was also available after completion as well as a co-operative mode (multi-card only).

The duo had access to super-powerful co-op attacks that drained their MP.
The duo had access to super-powerful co-op attacks that drained their MP.

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin has all the staples I’ve come to expect from the series as well as a few differentiating features. The core of these, a focus on two characters, helped to freshen the formula but it was probably the variety of settings that kept me most entertained. Not to mention the accoutrement found in the various collections to complete, sidequests to beat, and unlockables to try out after the plot had wrapped up. The more modern backdrop and the twist on the classic premise were appreciated as well. I think this is probably the most complete Castlevania I’ve played of this style, but I don’t think it tops Aria of Sorrow for me. That was my first foray into the series and each one I’ve played since has been chasing that experience. They’ve all been outstanding, but like the saying goes, I’ll never forget my first, and I’ll forever be comparing successive entries to it.

Metal Gear Solid [PlayStation] – Review

Metal Gear Solid - Title Card

The hype and critical acclaim surrounding Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain got to me (it started last year with this). With my tendencies though, I’ve opted to ignore that title for now and jump in at the beginning: Metal Gear Solid. Technically Metal Gear would be the beginning, but whatever. My usual cohort is following suit and he’s postponing his time with MGSV until we make it through the core series. If there were any gaming series that would benefit from this way of playing, this would be the one. These games are dense with dialogue and exposition and understanding or linking them together coherently may come easier after freshly experiencing them. To assist, I’m going to be doing intense note-taking in the hopes that I’ll understand the narrative and characters even better.

He doesn't know what's coming.
He doesn’t know what’s coming.

Before ever controlling Solid Snake we went through about twenty or thirty minutes of backstory. Most of which was done through (optional) barely animated briefings and through these, the inspiration of Escape from New York was apparent. The characterizing aspects of Solid Snake and his initial mission mimicked Snake Plissken’s so closely I’m surprised there wasn’t legal action! We were also treated to a few Codec conversations and cinematic cutscenes illustrating Snake’s infiltration of Shadow Moses Island. The latter highlighted why it was, and still remains, so highly regarded. Hideo Kojima and Konami revived a classic series in the guise of a big-budget action movie and defined the modern era of storytelling in video games.

The story that unfolded over the next dozen hours centered on Snake’s stealth mission to recover two kidnapped figureheads associated with the U.S. Dept. of Defense and prevent the terrorist group responsible from using a bipedal nuclear equipped robot: Metal Gear Rex. The group responsible is actually the black ops Army unit that Snake once belonged to: FOX-HOUND. The current members have gone rogue, calling themselves the Sons of Big Boss, and are requesting the remains of Big Boss (the unit’s founder). They want access to his genes, which in the wake of the Human Genome Project the U.S. has been secretly isolating “soldier genes” and injecting them into soldiers, creating a “genome army” with skills more proficient than the average warrior. Big Boss was “The Greatest Warrior of the 20th Century” after all.

Just another classic scene.
Just another classic scene.

The story gets way more convoluted from there and at times, it felt like a break was needed to understand the events or conversations that just happened. I did strive to take comprehensive notes and playing with another person also helped to soak in the data and translate it into information. Once we’re done with the series, I’m going to try and understand everything as best I can and that’ll probably involve writing a synopsis of each game. The series, and this game in particular, doesn’t require in-depth note-taking to find enjoyment or some understanding but the lore is so rich that I feel like it’ll be rewarding and enlightening in the end.

For the most part, the events that take place seem plausible and with a little imagination, realistic. Maybe the thought that a bipedal nuclear equipped tank of sorts would be the ultimate weapon is a little farfetched, but this is a game whose inspirations also include mecha anime. The characters that make up the cast on the other hand, specifically FOX-HOUND, well, they’re less believable. They are, however, a rogues’ gallery of fascinating villains. The standout is of course Psycho Mantis, whose psychic abilities included reading the files on the memory card, predicting the player’s actions (forcing the player to plug the controller into the second controller port), and a few other “breaks” in the fourth wall.

One of the most memorable boss fights of all time.
One of the most memorable boss fights of all time.

The battle with him will remain one of the most memorable video game boss fights for a long time to come, but they all weren’t as great. The majority of them are very memorable, if only for the fact that the fights themselves were generally bookended with much conversation and featured the distinctly unique members of FOX-HOUND. Others will remain memorable to us specifically because of their difficulty. Whether it was the uphill battle we were in for because of Solid Snake’s limited health or the challenging situations we’d just gone through beforehand, I’d say a quarter of the fights took a half-dozen attempts each. One thing’s for sure, like the members of FOX-HOUND, each boss fight was unique and required different weaponry or tactics.

While the battles could be frustrating depending on the circumstances, the typical sneaking gameplay wasn’t so hard. Honestly, it didn’t make up a lot of the game in retrospect. The memories of my original playthrough ten years ago are filled with the feeling of helplessness after getting caught and just giving in to the enemy’s weapon fire in order to quickly restart. That didn’t occur to us often on this playthrough. We did get caught every now and then, but we were able to successfully evade capture or quickly eliminate a soldier or two before it escalated to total despair. I imagine we’re just playing smarter than high school me.

The showdown with Metal Gear Rex, like a few other boss fights, was no walk in the park.
The showdown with Metal Gear Rex, like a few other boss fights, was no walk in the park.

It’s been seventeen years since this game was originally released and I think playing it is still as vital to one’s gaming résumé as it was then. This is a cinematic game that was unlike any other at the time of its release and one that still stands out today. With a complex narrative, feature film presentation, and audio/visual qualities that were remarkable for their time (and still respectable today), Metal Gear Solid is a must-play game. I didn’t find playing it as enjoyable as watching it and trying to follow along with the intricacies of the plot could be difficult, but there were some brilliant sections and set pieces nonetheless. The stealth aspects remain a challenging and enduring appeal for me, but the negative experiences we had with a few of the boss fights outweighed the positives. It’s a landmark video game, all in all. On to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty!

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