In Between Posts, May 30, 2011

Surprisingly enough I was able to crank out a review for Star Soldier last week. After enough attempts playing the game and making no progression I decided to focus my attention on other games. I would like to keep playing Star Soldier and maybe get a little farther or attain a higher score, but who knows?

The game I’m focusing on now is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, also for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I have completed the first palace (I believe there’s six) but the mapmaking process is time consuming. I’d guess it’ll take me a week or two to complete the game.

Lastly, a friend and I played through The Mansion of Hidden Souls for the Sega Saturn on Sunday. I know what you’re thinking, and no I haven’t played this game yet. You’re thinking of Mansion of Hidden Souls for the Sega CD. The Mansion of Hidden Souls is the sequel to the game. It was equally, if not more, weird than it’s predecessor. I should have a review of that up sometime this week. I’m not sure if I’ll post anything beyond that this week.

Star Soldier – Review

Star Soldier went on to see many sequels for many different consoles.

Instead of weaving an interesting tale of space intrigue and drama, Star Soldier for the Nintendo Entertainment System focuses on gameplay that requires memorization and quick reflexes.

Developed by Hudson Soft and published by Taxan in 1989 for the NES, Star Soldier is a vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up set in space. While the plot is never touched upon in the game, there is a single paragraph in the manual that sets the stage. Starbrain, an evil computer is roaming space with waves of enemy ships and robot creatures and are destroying anything in their path. The Galactic Empire decides to send in their best star soldier along with the best ship in their Galactic Fleet, Caesar to take care of Starbrain. And that’s the plot. It’s basically identical to any other space shoot ‘em up, but I didn’t purchase Star Soldier for the story, no, I purchased it for the gameplay.

While the ship Caesar starts with decent firepower...

Piloting Caesar I flew through space (vertically mind you) shooting down Starbrain’s waves of minions, of which there were plenty. And instead of simply palette-swapping enemies (same enemy design, different stats and color) Hudson Soft created a large array of enemies that had their own patterns that I needed to memorize to be successful.

Every enemy type moved and attacked me differently which means I had to deal with nearly every enemy type in a different way. And with the exception of a few, the enemies weren’t kind enough to attack me one at a time, they attacked me in waves. Each wave was wholly composed of one enemy type, but a lot of that enemy type. With each stage lasting at least a few minutes, I had to deal with many waves that required unique strategies. The key to success was learning how to cope with each enemy type, and if that didn’t pan out I could try and hide from them.

One of the things that I found polarizing about Star Soldierwas the stage design. While the game takes place in space, I wasn’t just flying through twinkling stars. Each stage had something more to it; some had stage-long space stations in the process of being built while other stages had me flying around floating landmasses. I had the ability to fly under most of the construction and most of the floating landmasses, but not every single one. This was confusing and added another level of memorization to the game. Why would I want to fly beneath these structures though?

It eventually becomes equipped with weapons that can shoot in five directions. Helpful for taking out enemies like this creepy Lazado.

Well, when I flew underneath them I could avoid enemies and enemy fire, but I’d lose my ability to fire too. This mechanic was helpful when I confronted a wave of dive bombing enemies that moved very fast as they would fly over the structure while I was under it. Coming out from underneath these structures was difficult to time however and I lost many lives running into stray bullets or just crashing into enemies. I ended up avoiding flying underneath structures as much as I could because it messed with the rhythm I had built up and usually led to easily avoidable deaths.

Star Soldier required a lot of memorization and for the first hour, it was more about learning how the enemies act and how I should react than actual stage progression. I didn’t get very far until I had that understanding, then I was able to get a little farther in the game each time I played. I had to build that base knowledge of how Star Soldier operated, and then learn each stage and apply the tactics I developed. Sometimes I’d have a good rhythm going and get far without losing lives, but once I began doing bad, it was hard to get back in that rhythm. I wasn’t able to complete the game though; of the sixteen stages I only made it to the seventh, but I was extremely satisfied making it that far. One thing that helped me get that far was earning extra lives.

I was awarded extra lives at fifty-thousand points, two hundred thousand points, and beyond that I’m not sure. Killing enemies aided in accumulating points, but what really helped was finding hidden enemies. On the half-built space stations and floating landmasses were hidden enemies that would appear after I shot the space they occupied a few times. Instead of giving me a standard amount of points, I got a larger reward for each one destroyed. I initially got five hundred points, but this moved up to one thousand, four thousand, ten thousand, forty-thousand, and so on for each one found. This added yet another element of memorization to the game.

Take out Big Starbrain's four power cells before finally focusing on his center.

After I understood the enemies, the stage design, and had plenty of lives I could finally defeat Starbrain and this brings me to the last thing I want to talk about: the boss fights. At the end of each stage I fought Starbrain, and at the end of each fourth stage I fought Big Starbrain. Defeating Starbrains and Big Starbrains wasn’t that difficult of a task. Their attacks were easily avoidable as were their movements. Big Starbrain was a little more difficult as I had much more to destroy, but I rarely lost a life in these battles. However, if I didn’t defeat them quickly enough, they would escape and I would have to attempt the stage over again. This didn’t concern me too much though as it only happened once.

Star Soldier was a challenging, but fun shoot ‘em up that employed some interesting mechanics. I appreciated that there was a large amount of unique enemies instead of palette-swapped versions. Dealing with each type was challenging, but rewarding once I took out an entire wave. The ability to interact with the stages was interesting, but as is the case with the story, I was ambivalent towards it. Having the same two bosses repeated throughout the game wasn’t a sticking point for me, I was glad that I knew what to expect at the end of a level and would have to restart or learn another boss’ patterns. The manual contains helpful information and tips for the game and I found a complete copy for the NES cheap, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to enjoy the game. And I did enjoy Star Soldier; after half a dozen hours of play I’d gotten enough out of it, but I would recommend it for anyone looking for a classic shoot ‘em up.

High Score: 408, 200

Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber – First Impressions

A lengthy adventure awaits for anyone who comes across a copy of this "rare" game, then again it is on the Wii's Virtual Console.

Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber is a peculiar game. Developed by Quest and published by Atlus for the Nintendo 64, it was released in North America in late 2000, and is notable for being one of the only RPG’s on the system. I initially thought it to be a tactical role-playing game similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, but it’s not. There are role-playing aspects such as customization and battle scenes, but the control I had over a small army reminded of the real-time strategy genre.

The game begins with the main character, Magnus Gallant, graduating from a military academy. In this sequence, I was asked questions and my answers decided the type of class Magnus would be. Upon graduation Magnus is sent to the southern reaches of Palatinus to put down an uprising by the lower class. Magnus wields his sword protecting the status quo of the monarchy and early on realizes the unjust nature of the class system he is fighting to protect.

Before each mission, Magnus is briefed on the strategy he should employ and what to expect.

The game offers the player choices at main intersections in the story, the first guiding Magnus along the path he is currently on, or allowing him to join the revolutionary army and fight for equality against the upper class. Each mission usually undertakes similar related concepts, in a much smaller scope, but each one evolves Magnus’ perspective on the world around him. Of the few choices I had to make, few of them had an obvious good and bad element. I had to sit and think about the route I would take and how it would affect the cause that Magnus fought for.

Before missions, Magnus would be briefed on the battlefield, the enemies, and the situation in general. Each mission took place in a fairly small geographical region, but they usually had a handful of towns. The objective was always to reach the opposite end of the map, capturing the enemy headquarters. Once I’d been given control, I would begin dispatching battalions and giving those battalions destinations. Both dispatching and issuing destinations was a redundant task. Lacking the ability to choose a group of battalions, I had to issue destinations and dispatch battalions one at a time.

If a battalion of mine ran into an enemy battalion, a battle would ensue. Once a battle between battalions started, everything happened automatically, dictated by the battle strategy I chose for that battalion. Rather than picking each action for each character, all I did was pick a battle strategy such as attack leader, and my characters would act accordingly. Not being able to choose individual targets was frustrating in some situations. Even when I told a battalion to attack the weakest enemy, sometimes they would attack a target with full hit points instead of an opponent with a low amount of hit points. The path to victories however was customization.

Once on the battlefield, Magnus issued commands to individual battalions, represented by their leaders.

Battalions are a nine by nine grid that could be composed of up to five characters. The placement of the characters was vital for battles. If a soldier was placed on the front lines he would be able to attack twice, anywhere else, he would attack only once. Similarly, if I placed an Amazon (archer) on the back row instead of the front row, she would attack twice rather than once.

Besides the placement of characters, it was important to make sure that battalions were balanced class-wise. Early on, I was losing more characters than I wanted, so I added clerics to each battalion; because of this, battalions could participate in more battles and fewer of my characters died. With customization of individual characters being a vital component of the game, I wish the process of equipping characters and buying goods was easier.

In between missions I’d do all of my customization. I’d view my entire army and select individual battalions and then, individual characters. I’d change their equipment, alter their formation, change characters between battalions, there was a lot I could do!

But I gave up on Ogre Battle 64. There were many missions that required trial and error, perhaps because I became too cocky and decided to forego strategy and tactics after a few easy wins. But I attempted the fifteenth mission half a dozen times before I realized the characters I was fighting were a decent amount of levels ahead of my characters. To continue I would have to spend an hour or two grinding my character’s levels, and after all the times I went through the set up of the mission, which takes five to ten minutes, I was done.

When a battalion of mine encountered an enemy battalion, a battle would ensue.

I fear that I was playing the game “wrong” by leveling up my battalions equally instead of focusing on a few. It’s the same way I feel whenever I play tactical role-playing games. At some point it feels like there is one correct way of completing each mission, and the trial and error it takes for me to reach that correct way is frustrating and drives me to stop playing altogether.

I would like to return to Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber and potentially complete it at some point, but not for a while, I just need some time away from it. Ogre Battle 64 had a serious story that contained mature topics and having a choice in my actions was thrilling. And the gameplay was exciting; it was something I’ve never experienced. Instead of finding a tactical role-playing game as I thought I would, I found an interesting game that combined the customization and leveling aspects of a role-playing game with the strategy and direct control over multiple units of a real-time strategy game. I spent thirty hours playing Ogre Battle 64 and there’s easily another thirty hours in it, but because it frustrated me too much, I’m moving on for now.

Animal Crossing: City Folk – Review

Although it's one of the few games to support the Wii Speak, my friend and I opted instead to talk on the phone when we played.

Having spent so much time with Animal Crossing on the GameCube during my formative years, it’s a game I’ll always have a soft spot for. But besides just blind love for the series because of this, the games appeal to the part of my psyche that enjoys a mundane routine and the drive to complete item lists.

Animal Crossing: City Folk has been a part of my daily routine since I began playing it in March. Composing this review was tough; I could have listed off flaws and make note of the minor improvements that it has made on its predecessors, but that would only be useful for those who have played the previous games. And if you’ve played the previous games and enjoyed them, chances are, you played City Folk when it came out in 2008. And pending you didn’t like the previous Animal Crossing games, guess what? Animal Crossing: City Folk is more of the same, for better or worse.

Animal Crossing: City Folkbegins opens up the same way the previous games did. You, the player is moving into a new town to set up roots and experience life. You are broke however and this requires some help from the local storekeeper, Tom Nook. He lets you have a house in town, with the expectation that you’ll pay him back. From here, the primary objective is to pay off your house, all the while increasing its size and your debt.

Fishing was one of the primary ways I made money.

From the middle of March until a week or two ago, I had played the game for at least an hour each day. I felt compelled to play, compelled to find the fossils buried around town that day, to see if any events were happening, and to just make a little more money towards my debt. Once I neared my final payments however, I really lost the motivation to get on. I’d like to check back in at the beginning of every month and holidays, but I’m not sure that’ll happen.

I could continue playing City Folk as I have these past two months, all I’d need to do is set up goals. For instance I could donate to the town fund and see what that reaps. Or I could attempt to have my town be graded as perfect. But after so much time with City Folk I’m ready for a break. And if my playtime with the previous games is any indication, I’ll be back at it just like I was from mid-March to mid-May at some point in the future.

But what is it that drew me to the game every day? At this point in the article, you, the reader would say it was paying off my debt, but that would only be true on the surface. It’s what I did to pay off my debt that kept me coming back, it was my routine.

Visiting Redd's Shop in the city was a great way to purchase paintings, pending they weren't forgeries.

My daily routine consisted of running errands. I’d go fossil hunting, search for the magical rock that spat out money, sell fruit and seashells, see what new items Tom Nook had for sale, water any withering flowers, talk with neighbors, fish and hunt for new insects. Rarer would be the days that I’d visit the city or play online with a friend. What drew me to City Folk every day was errand running; I had a second life that I had to attend to and it became a part of my actual routine, up there with eating breakfast and brushing my teeth.

I loved Animal Crossing: City Folk. My description of the game might make it sound boring, which it sort of is, but it’s the mundane routine I had set up that kept me coming back to the game for two months straight.

In Between Posts, May 23, 2011

Unfortunately I didn’t complete three games from two decades ago as I did last week, but this week will be interesting nonetheless. Why do I say that? Well I’m onto new things as I’m finished with the two games that have been the status quo for so long.

I paid off the final portion of my debt in Animal Crossing: City Folk and will quit playing as much as I have, and perhaps won’t play the game at all soon. I have written a review of sorts for it (it basically outlines what my routine was) and I expect that to go up Tuesday morning.

I have also given up on Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber. I have reached a point in it where it is too frustrating to continue. And that’s a shame too because I enjoyed the game a fair amount, I mean I stuck around for twenty-nine hours. I’m disappointed that I won’t be finishing it, and in all honesty I’d like to reattempt it, but not for a long time.

On the brighter side, I’ll be able to play other games. I believe I’ll focus on Zelda II: The Adventure of Link next, although Grandia Xtreme is beckoning me as well. I also have a few smaller things I’ll check out, such as Star Soldier. And I still, still have to check out the extras included with Devil May Cry 4. But then again, perhaps I’ll push all these to the side and purchase L.A. Noire.

So expect a review for Animal Crossing: City Folk Tuesday morning and a review of Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber at some point this week.

Mansion of Hidden Souls – Review

Being an avid collector of Sega CD games, I had to pick this up having never seen it before.

Mansion of Hidden Souls is a peculiar game. Everything about the game was creepy. The poorly rendered graphics added an odd vibe, while the plot and setting were downright strange. I was pleasantly surprised by the game however. A friend and I played through the game together and enjoyed solving the puzzles and unraveling the game.

Developed by System Sacom and published by Vic Tokai, Mansion of Hidden Souls was released for the Sega CD in 1994. My friend and I took on the role of a young boy looking for his sister who has run away to a creepy mansion in the woods. He soon discovers that people who stumble upon this mansion are turned into butterflies, and that his sister finds this appealing. He then sets out to find her and get out of there.

The billiards room is quite detailed and contains the black painting that helped my friend and I very much.

There were plenty of obstacles standing in his way though. The game is played from the first-person perspective, meaning my friend and I took on the role of the young boy directly. We chose where to go in the mansion and explored it in its entirety. The game uses pre-rendered backgrounds so it has a distinct look to it and is quite detailed, but due to the Sega CD, the game appears very grainy. Rather than sprites which were predominately used in games of that era, pre-rendered graphics looked like “realistic” interpretations of items.

We chose which direction we wanted to go and the young boy would walk where we told him. We stumbled upon objects or areas that could be interacted with and, at the right time in the game, something important would happen. Everything in the game is there for a reason, there isn’t anything extra. By the end of the game, we had utilized everything that we could interact with, which led to a lot of backtracking.

Mansion of Hidden Souls takes place entirely in the mansion and it is a fairly large environment to explore. Each room has a theme and they are all quite varied. The majority of the rooms also contain a butterfly, who was once a human. The butterflies retain their ability to communicate with the boy and some are helpful while others are spiteful. The great thing about being on a compact disc is the ample storage space allowed for voice acting. The unfortunate thing about the voice acting is how poor it is or what I should say is the voice acting is comedic; each butterfly had a unique accent that was butchered by the voice actors.

Early on we had limited access to the mansion as we lacked keys, but in one of the rooms is a black painting that gives a glimpse of what we need to interact with next. This was very helpful. A lot of the puzzles my friend and I figured out before checking the black painting, but with so many intricate objects to interact with, and some uses being less obvious than others, it was great to have something to turn to.

Rescuing the protagonist's sister was the main objective of the game.

For the first half of the game, we explored each room, learning where objects were and received input from the butterflies. Once we retrieved the main character’s sister (early on in the stages of human to butterfly transformation) we had to escape from the mansion’s owner. At this point we received a clock and had one hour (in-game time) to complete the game. Time didn’t pass when we stood still which meant we could think about what to do, and it seemed as if we had ample time to check the black painting. This time limit added an interesting dynamic that we didn’t find annoying thanks to the ability to save in case we did make a mistake (which happened a few times) and died because of it.

I took a gamble with Mansion of Hidden Souls. I saw it for sale and having never seen a copy of it before, purchased it. I didn’t have any intention of playing it as soon as I did, but I found a peculiar, yet halfway compelling adventure that was short enough for my friend and I to complete in one sitting. We made a lot of the connections about the use of objects ourselves but the ability to seek out the black painting for what to do next was helpful. Mansion of Hidden Souls was a creepy game that I had more fun playing through than I expected I would.

Golden Axe – Review

Golden Axe was a launch title for the Sega Genesis in North America so it's not one of the better looking games on the platform.

The third beat ‘em up my friend and I played through recently was Golden Axe. Like the Streets of Rage games we played beforehand, it was developed and published by Sega, although Golden Axe was released as an arcade game before being ported to the Sega Genesis, the version we played.

Tyris Flare facing the first boss of the game. Lucky for her, she's found a cockatrice to ride.

Whereas Streets of Rage was set in an eighties or nineties version of a corrupted city, Golden Axe is set in medieval times. The three playable characters set out to rescue the king and princess who has been kidnapped by an evil ne’er-do-well named Death Adder. The plot is typical of the setting, as are the playable characters, a barbarian named Ax Battler, an Amazon named Tyris Flare, and a dwarf named Gillius Thunderhead. Unlike the plots in the Streets of Rage games where they appeared only as text at the beginning and ends, there are story bits between each level in Golden Axe, marking the progress the warriors make.

Throughout the levels my friend and I were attacked by Death Adder’s henchmen. The setting of Golden Axe allowed for the enemies to be more varied compared to Streets of Rage, although there were many who were the same model, just different statistics and a different color. Most of the bosses were repeated throughout the game and towards the end they used unfair tactics, such as the final boss’ proclivity to knocking us down and zapping us with magic, taking two of our health bars in one swoop.

And this brings me to my complaint about Golden Axe. Golden Axewas super tough, even playing on easy my friend and I had a difficult time getting to the seventh stage (eight stages total) and we eventually used a cheat code to skip levels. I normally would want to attempt completing a game without the use of cheat codes, but it seemed like we didn’t have a shot.

An example of the text displayed between levels. Although it's very simple, I appreciated the extra effort in tracking the warriors' journey.

With combos, we could get up to five hits in on an enemy, but it was difficult lining up correctly to do so. And I personally felt like I wasn’t getting enough response after hitting the attack button. I’m not sure exactly why I felt this way, perhaps it was the sound design of the hits, they sounded peculiar, not what I would expect from a metal weapon, or perhaps because I didn’t enjoy the sluggish character movement.

Rather than having a single health bar that depletes in differing amounts depending on the strength of attacks, my friend and I were instead given a health bar that consisted of what turned out to be three hits or combos. This made it feel like we had less of a shot just because we couldn’t take a lot of damage, couple that with the enemies’ ability to keep you in their combo if hit and it lead to frustration for both my friend and I.

But the most frustrating aspect for us was the difficulty of the final boss. We originally got to the seventh stage before losing our continues. We opted then to use a cheat code to select the final level and another to add nine continues. The final boss took an enormous amount of damage and he was able to evade the bulk of our attacks, and he had a little help with the aid of some invincible skeletons. Later on in the fight, he began using magic after knocking us down, taking out two of our health bars. He was difficult and we used plenty of continues but we ultimately conquered him and saved the king and princess.

Golden Axe was a mixed bag for me. A lot of the stages had a similar feel, but there were a few that had interesting settings, and they were fairly short which I liked. The soundtrack seemed meager, but the tracks present were phenomenal and I found myself humming them as we played, especially the first stage’s song. I appreciated having story bits throughout the game rather than at the beginning and ends. But I disliked the reuse of lack of standard enemy design and the similar looks of the majority of the stages. And more importantly, I disliked the way the game felt. It’s a hard concept to quantify but it is ultimately what made me like Golden Axe less than Streets of Rage and Streets of Rage 2. Golden Axe was equally filled with parts I liked and disliked and for that I recommend it only to those seeking out another beat ‘em up.