Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Looking Back at the First Final Fantasy

WARNING: This article contains story spoilers.

The 1980s were an interesting time in computer RPGs. They were still in their infancy and developers puzzled over how to bring them to PCs and consoles, with such games having up until that point dwelled in the realm of pen and paper. The results were varied as were the means of getting there. How would the world be portrayed? From an overhead third person perspective? Or would first person be better? What kind of adventures would the player go on? How many people would even be needed to make the game?

During this period, a couple of games in particular began to gain a lot of traction in CRPG circles: Ultima and Wizardry. They took vastly different approaches to the genre, and became hugely influential in the direction that such games would go, with many of their mechanics slowly appearing in other titles.

It’s important to mention these two series, because they developed a following not just in America, but Japan as well, where developers took cues from these games when producing their own. One example of this would be Dragon Quest, which, as one can see, is very much in the spirit of Ultima. Companies like Enix and Falcom, among others, gradually developed a following for their role-playing games, and not long after the genre became quite popular in Japan.

This is where Squaresoft comes into the picture. The company had been around for a few years already, putting together various adventure, action, and shooting games. Unfortunately, their games just weren’t catching on and the studio was facing financial difficulty. If they didn’t produce a hit soon, they would have to close their doors.

So, during a meeting, Hironobu Sakaguchi brought up how he didn’t feel up to the task creating another action game. He felt that telling a story, making a game with a strong narrative focus, would be something much more inline with his abilities. Given his involvement with Squaresoft’s first two games, The Death Drap and Will: The Death Trap II, both adventure games, this line of reasoning certainly makes sense. With that he convinced the company that their next game should be an RPG, a genre that was quickly becoming popular, and where Sakaguchi could focus far more on story. So, just as the often told story goes, production on Final Fantasy began, a game that, if it were to fail, would spell the end of Squaresoft.

Taking a bird’s eye view of the game, in many ways it didn’t do anything all that original. From a gameplay perspective, it was a mish mash of ideas that had already appeared in RPGs before. The game had an overhead perspective similar to the likes of Ultima and Dragon Quest and the battle system was a simple, menu-driven, turn-based affair. Meanwhile, magic was a carbon copy of Wizardry’s tier and charge based approach to the arcane (mercifully with far easier to remember spell names than what Sir Tech threw at players).

What made people stand up and take notice when Final Fantasy came along were a couple of things. First was the sheer scope of the game. The amount of land to explore was enormous for the time with several large contents littered with dungeons and towns. Just gazing at the map that came packaged with the NES version of the game, one couldn’t help but get a little bit gitty thinking about all of the adventures they could go on in this world. And not only was the world huge, it was also teeming with monsters. Wandering deserts, forests, dungeons, and the like, as players engaged more and more enemies it became quite obvious that the bestiary of foes that the game had to work with was both vast and diverse. There was still the issue of palette swapped enemies, which was something that cropped up for years in the genre, but even then it always felt like the game had something new and exotic to toss at players whenever the screen began to flash and a battle ensued.

These big numbers didn’t stop with bad guys either. There were tons of weapons and armor to discover as well. It added an additional level of excitement while trudging around a dungeon, opening treasure chests and coming across something like a dragon sword or zeus gauntlets. Were they any good? Who knows! But they sure sounded exciting! Then there were the spells. Final Fantasy had over 60 of them. Compared to the competition, that was an outlandishly large number. In a lot of RPGs of that time, players were lucky to have 20, but here we were with a game sporting three times that. Even in comparison to a lot of RPGs coming out today, that’s a lot of spells. So, right off that bat Squaresoft was trying to hit players with sensory overload, giving them tons of places to go and things to do. The company was aiming very high in that regard, and it’s a methodology that we would see them apply again and again in the series as the years wore on.

The second thing that the game had which helped it to stand out and was a much more fleshed out story than many had seen in a game before. Most video games had little to no narrative in them during the 80s. At best, a player would be asked to save a princess, maybe kill a crazy wizard, or go look for a long-lost magical relic. Simple, to the point, and not exactly engaging.

Final Fantasy completely did away with this by creating this large world with bustling cities, all with their own problems, as well as ancient evils running amuck. There was a sense of history to the world. Players encountered people who would tell them how things were hundreds of years in the past and that it was a lot better back then. Ruins and forgotten towns were peppered throughout the land that hint at a fallen civilization. Then there were the stories that the Circle of Sages told about the coming of the four fiends and how they rained destruction on the land. It was some pretty heavy stuff to cram into an RPG for the NES. The concept of world building is commonplace these days, but it was virtually non-existent in the realm of computer RPGs during the 1980s.

The whole point of the game was for four young adventures, each holding an orb, to fulfill their destiny as the Warriors of Light by defeating the fiends, restoring the orbs, and bringing peace to the land. These four had their work cut out for them, and players knew it.

It wasn’t just the large main quest that the game had going for it, either, as every town that the player visited had its own personality.  Right from the start of the game, Final Fantasy cheekily throws one of the most cliched stories in video games at the player: rescue the princess. Marching into the closest castle available in search of quests, as was often the case in RPGs of this era, players were asked by the King of Cornelia to rescue his daughter who had been kidnapped by one of his former knights, Garland. What’s the king’s name? How about his daughter? Who cares! None of that is important, just like the quest itself. Players could pretty much run north right from the get go to rescue her if they were so inclined. It wasn’t very hard. The whole thing felt like the developers were just trying to get the quest out of the way with a wink and a nod before sending players into the great big world ahead of them.

Venturing further into the game players would come across pirates causing trouble in cities, elven villages, dwarven villages, and even an entire settlement inhabited by dragons. There were ancient, remote cities that had not seen outsiders in centuries. These all brought a lot more color to the narrative as not only were players trying to rid the world of the fiends while fulfilling their destiny to restore the four orbs, but getting to see a more human side to those living in it.

With that, it’s impressive that the game was able to accomplish this given just how brief most conversations are in Final Fantasy. This is a game that isn’t exactly known for robust exposition. Chatting with NPCs, most of them say what’s on their mind in no more than a sentence or two, either sharing a bit about themselves or the town, or giving vague advice on what to do next usually with one word conveniently all in caps to emphasize that it’s a very important item that players should try and find.

The ending itself was a shocker. Players eventually have to travel back in time to stop the fiends, which is all very exciting when one remembers that they’re going to the period when this ancient civilization that’s been hinted at for much of the game still thrived (though at the same time a bit gauling that it wasn’t actually possible to explore it as players were hurried along to the last castle of the game for their final battle). Fighting through hordes of particularly nasty enemies and having to re-fight the fiends was challenge enough, but then the game dropped a bomb on players when it turned out that Garland was the last boss of the game. That the guy we beat in that trite little Save the Princess quest at the very start of the game was actually the final boss was quite the surprise for a lot of people. Nowadays, something like this would likely be viewed more as a slightly annoying deus ex machina moment, but gamers hadn’t been beaten over the head by this sort of thing yet so it was rather unexpected at the time.

The whole journey from saving the princess to saving the world was quite the challenge too. Final Fantasy wasn’t a game to hold players hands. As was mentioned earlier, many NPCs would give cryptic hints about important places to visit and key items to search for. This resulted in players needing to systematically talk to each and every person in each and every town just to make sure that they’d gathered enough information to piece together what they’d need to do in order to complete the game. It usually wasn’t much to go on, but this was vital for progressing in a timely manner. Moreover, some NPCs would change what they had to say after players completed certain tasks, so it was important to talk with them fairly regular in case they had any further nuggets of wisdom to share. It was a laborious process, and often not very much to go on, but does help to illustrate how players had to figure things out on their own while playing.

This even leant an extra sense of exploration. After crossing the bridge at the beginning of the game, and the relative safety of Cornelia, players had a basic idea that they should head East assuming they talked to a specific NPC beforehand. Nonetheless, it’s easy to get swept away by a sense of wanderlust. Do you follow that fellow’s advice and head for Pravoka, or see what’s to the North? Doing so results in the discover of Matoya’s cave, quickly rewarding the player for taking a chance and seeing what else may be waiting to be discovered in the world. Not long after that players are able to obtain a ship that allows for sea travel. A lot of other games would wait until much later before providing something that allows one to cover so much ground (or in this case water) so quickly, but here Final Fantasy wastes no time in giving the player an invitation to get out there and see what there is to see. A short time later, players meet both the dwarves and the elves, further emphasizing that there’s a lot to discover in this game, while at the same time being teased that there is even more waiting for them, like seeing ports for anchoring one’s ship on both sides of the Kingdom of the Elves despite only one being accessible at first.

Once players unlock the airship, the game busts the doors wide open when it comes to exploration. First of all, airships were something that just didn’t happen in RPGs at this time. The notion of taking to the skies to visit new lands, namely the isolated northern continents of the game, was very appealing. There wasn’t much to go on here either in terms of where to visit first. The peoples of the south hadn’t really been in contact with these towns for centuries, so didn’t have much advice on whom to visit, leaving players to fly around, trying to find a place to safely land their airship, and trek overland to this or that village they happened to spot nestled in a cops of trees, often learning the hard way that the creatures of these new lands were significantly more powerful than anything that they had fought up till now.

It wasn’t just the overworld that was big and mysterious either. Final Fantasy’s dungeons were sprawling, labyrinthine affairs with long meandering corridors, dead ends, and very dangerous enemies. Nonetheless, players explored every nook and cranny of these places in search of powerful weapons and important items, all while steeling themselves for the inevitable boss fight that would ensue in their deepest levels.

Compared to a lot of other RPGs during this time, these dungeons were massive. It took a lot of careful thought to get through them. Would it be better to grind out a few levels and then try to both find all of the chests and kill the boss in one go, or visit the place once on a treasure hunt, return to town for a rest, and then go after the boss? Which fights were worth fighting and when was it a good idea to run? Spells and items were fairly limited in number, so fighting through everything that a dungeon threw at players wasn’t always the best strategy. Sometimes it was better to run. Risk and reward would constantly be assessed in these places, especially when one considers that there were no saving points or healing points there. If the party got wiped out, players would have to load up their last save and redo a lot of content just to get back to where they died. On top of this, for much of the game, there isn’t any fast way out of these dungeons. After finding whatever item they were looking for or defeating the place’s boss, players would have to walk all the way back out of the dungeon, and then back to the town, often running low on spells and items by then. It wouldn’t be until much later that teleportation spells would become available allowing for a quick, easy means of getting out of a dungeon. As such, while the dungeons enticed players with various loot and the promise of glory, the places could also prove quite the grueling challenge.

It’s also worth noting that the game was quite a looker for the time. Development on the NES was always about making the most out of very limited hardware. There were only so many colors and so much detail that could be smattered on the screen at once. Squaresoft did a fantastic job with Final Fantasy. Enemies were varied and detailed, party members had nice little touches like swinging their weapons when it was their turn to fight, and the variety of tiles adding life to the levels was impressive. The game’s aesthetic also leaned far more towards fantasy than latter games in the series which often blended this with liberal portions of sci-fi, steampunk, and whatever else the developers felt like tossing in. This game was far more about imps, dragons, giants and the like, with only the occasional hint of science fiction thanks to robotic enemies like Warmech. These all may look incredibly simplistic in today's terms, but for the time, these visuals were amazing. The same can be said for the soundtrack, which sported countless memorable melodies, some of which have become staples of the series like its prelude and victory fanfare.

While exploring the world of Final Fantasy, it’s interesting to see how it both does and doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game. In some aspects, it’s quite evident that much of the groundwork is being laid down for what would be the foundation of the series. There’s things like the aforementioned musical themes, and familiar classes like Warrior, Red Mage, White Mage, and Black Mage, among others. And we get our first glimpse of Bahamut, as king of the dragons rather than some elaborate summon.

However, there’s a lot of stuff that is synonymous with the series that hadn’t been established yet. There were no chocobos, no moogles, and no sign of Cid, with him only being mentioned briefly in the later remakes of the game as the inventor of the airship that the warriors of light would use. A number of the touchstones that have become part and parcel with Final Fantasy had still not been dreamt up when the first game in the series came along.

The characters that players controlled also weren’t predetermined. There were no Clouds, Zidanes, Tiduses, or Squalls. No Terras, Cecils, or Balthiers. Nothing of the sort. Instead, players created their party of four adventurers from scratch, choosing which of the six jobs each of them would have, then proceeding to name them. They never spoke a word, simply doing their best to defeat the fiends and restore their orbs. As such, it was much easier for players to project a bit of themselves into these characters rather than them being far more strictly defined.

Meanwhile, combat was very rudimentary, very much a product of the RPGs that preceded Final Fantasy with its simple menu system where players selected between Fight, Magic, Items, Drinking a Potion, or running away. For all intents and purpose, it was quite functional, but a far cry from the more involved systems that the series would eventually see with its active time battles, limit breaks, and the like. There wasn’t even the ability to summon beings to fight alongside the party yet. On top of this, the game had the infuriating quirk of not defaulting to the next available enemy when one was defeated. So, if you had two characters attacking the same monster, and the first one killed it, the second would just attack an empty space instead of looking for another enemy to go after. Combat was very barebones with its saving grace being the size of the encounters players could find themselves embroiled in. Suddenly being set upon by nine cocktrices was guaranteed to be a nerve wracking affair.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy impressed with all that it presented to players, and got people thinking about how much more elaborate the role-playing genre could be. Squaresoft threw everything that they had at the game. A huge story, a vibrant world, large battles, tons of spells, legions of monsters, and some of the best graphics and music people had yet seen on the NES. The company did everything they could to make it feel like one truly was going on some sort of grand adventure when stepping forth into this game. RPG fans simply hadn’t seen something on this scale before, and after finishing the game, their expectations for the genre changed forever.

With that, not only did Final Fantasy save Squaresoft from oblivion, but it also lit a fire under every other RPG developer out there as they quickly realized that this title had changed everything, and they would really have to up their game if they wanted to compete. Since its original release, we’ve seen the game get a makeover and appear on both the GBA and PSP sporting improved visuals more akin to what one may expect to find in an SNES title (such as detailed sprite work, scaling, enhanced music, and the like). The game also received a number of quality of life improvements. For one, mana points replaced the tiered and charge-based magic system of the original. Bugged spells like Temper were fixed so that they actually worked.  Also, prices were reduced on a number of items and enemy strength scaling was massaged to reduce the need to grind in the remakes. As a result, the game was brought more in-line with more contemporary expectations of the genre.

So, as the years passed, Square continued to put out new games in the series as it became the juggernaut that it is today. The company continues to build upon the foundation set by the first Final Fantasy, but one thing remains the same today just like back in 1987, the series developers still aim high and are extremely ambitious with these games as they try their best to provide an involving story set in a vibrant world for players to explore.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Revisiting Star Wars Republic Commando

There haven’t been a huge number of first person shooters set in the Star Wars universe, but when they’ve come along, these games have turned more than a few heads. Republic Commando was one such game to do this thanks to its enjoyable, easy to use squad-based campaign. Leading a group of four clone soldiers on a trio of missions, players were often kept quite busy fending off hordes of droids, Trandoshans, and Geonosians as they did the Republic’s bidding, ultimately catapulting the game to becoming a favorite among Star Wars fans.

When it’s functioning as a full-on squad based FPS, the game is a joy to play as one fights the separatists, barks out orders, and does their bit for the Republic. However, any time that the player is removed from their squad, the game loses something. Thankfully, these moments are far and few between, but when they happen the change comes into sharp focus.

As the name of the game suggests, players take the role of a Republic commando as his team go on a variety of missions. They’re in a unit called Delta Squad, so these guys are elite soldiers, usually being the first sent into a hot spot to establish a foothold for the rest of the Republic’s forces, or being involved in some sort of smaller special forces type of operation. There isn’t much in the way of a story. The game takes place during the events of the prequel movies, so one can see the overlap with events from those. What it feels like more than anything else is an adventure that might as well be called, “A day in the life of Delta Squad”. Under different circumstances, something like this would feel sparse in narrative, but it works here. The squad has its orders and need only concern themselves with executing them. None of this is to say that the story is cold and by the book, however, as there is a lot of banter between everyone while undertaking missions. It adds a humanness to each character, preventing them from becoming cardboard cutouts, and showing that these guys have personalities of their own.

This strong focus on the mission also helps to make the level design in Republic Commando feel more appropriate in the greater context of what’s going on. By the time this game came along, the old ethos of creating sprawling labyrinths to be explored was well on its way out of favor, being replaced by far more linear levels that had players jumping from one scripted event to the next. Sometimes this stripped down approach was difficult to swallow with certain games’ stories not lending themselves well to this type of level design, but it worked here since it so well suited to the systematic nature of the insertion missions that Delta Squad focused on. Sure, there were corridors and passageways conveniently blocked off by debris, but special forces units aren’t about bumbling through a maze, hoping they miraculously stumble across their objectives. They go in with useful intel so that they can get the job done as quickly as possible, and hopefully without incident.

Working with the squad as they do this is where the game really shines. It’s very straightforward giving orders to its members, lovingly named 07, 40, and 62 by the Republic. On the first level while attacking Genosia, players are slowly introduced to the members and the basics of squad commands. Everyone has separate landing sites, so you start off on your own and the rest of the team slowly join as you progress through the level. All the while, one gradually gets more and more opportunities to plant demolition charges, splice computers, and setup sniping or grenadier positions.

After a short while, all of these commands go from being quaint to essential as the team’s weapons don’t exactly hit very hard if they’re relying on their rapid fire blasters. It’s very important to assess any situation, and get people sniping and / or tossing grenades, while possibly also pointing out priority targets if a particularly powerful foe attacks. These weapons hit a lot harder and end fights much quicker, preventing the squad from getting overwhelmed. It’s also far more enjoyable taking a lay of the land, spotting optimal spots to snipe from, and learning the most effective ways to deal with enemies. Unfortunately, sniping and grenadier spots are determined by the game itself, with them being made known when your reticule passes over one of them, meaning that players can’t position squad members however they please. It’s not so bad, though, as there are usually a decent number of places where they can set up shop.

Once the game gets going, it’s quite satisfying to bark out orders, clash with tons of droids, Trandoshans, and the like. Things can get hectic in a hurry too with a good dozen or so enemies running around, while some weapon platform unloading on the squad from a distance, and droid dispensers spitting out yet more combatants, all the while trying to provide cover for one of the commandos as they frantically splice into a computer. This is where Republic Command is at its best.

However, as I mentioned earlier, there are times when you aren’t with the squad and things are nowhere near as entertaining. Thankfully, these instances aren’t all that frequent, but when they happen it’s hard not to notice the drop in excitement. Early in the game, it’s all very forgivable as the first few areas are like mini tutorials introducing players its mechanics. Enemies die fast and you aren’t really expecting anything because, well, the game just started. Things take time to ramp up. The problem comes later in that Geonosian assault because things really do ramp up. Droids everywhere. Some rather large and scary. Everyone scrambling to rescue comrades, snipe bugs, and basically doing their best to survive.

Then the second mission starts on a Republic acclamator and the squad each infiltrate the ship from a different area, forcing the player to fly solo for a while. This is where it becomes easy to see just how important the squad mechanics are to enjoying the game, as things taper off considerably until you’re reunited with everyone else. The level of intensity takes a dive as the number of enemies thrown at the player is reduced, which makes sense given that it’s only you and contending with hordes of baddies would have been overwhelming. However, the way enemies attack just isn’t very interesting. It’s usually just small packs of Trandoshans that come running up and are fairly easy to dispatch, especially once you start utilizing the shotguns that they drop.

It’s not very difficult and it’s not much fun either. The only time things get tough is when the game goes for scripted events and just drops enemies on the player out of nowhere which you either react to or die, think “Well, I won’t do that next time…”, get past the obstacle and move on. Exacerbating the matter is that this drags on for too long. It’s a relief once you start finding your squad mates again and can get back to doing more interesting fights, especially by the end of the mission where things really start to pick up, which just shows the contrast all that much more between squad and solo play in the game. The acclamator just feels like a low point in Republic Commando.

That being said, a lot of people still hold the game in high regard. It’s not like you need to run solo very often anyway, and when it comes time to do the final mission on Kashyyyk you’re with your team the vast majority of the time except for a little bit toward the very end. Ultimately, the simple, easy to use squad tactics are very appealing, and nowhere near as in-depth as something like Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six. It gives players the simplest of tastes of running with a group and giving them orders so to complete a mission mixed into the Star Wars universe, and that is plenty good for most people.

There aren’t a huge number of Star Wars first person shooters but when they come along they tend to be well done and Republic Commando lives up to that expectation. It pushes all of the right buttons for fans of the franchise while providing a fun, basic squad-based approach to combat. Sure, going it alone is not quite as fun, but it’s something that can be overlooked for the most part.

One thing that is difficult to overlook, though, is the music for the end credits, which is generic butt rock for some reason. It makes no sense after all that Star Wars music in the game. Why is it there? Weird.

That aside, Republic Commando is one more title to slide into the “Good” shelf of licensed Star Wars games. Even now, several years after its release it’s well worth revisiting. If you’ve never played it before, May 4th is almost here, so maybe now’s the time to try it.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 1

Having been watching this game off and on since it was announced, I’ve been curious just how Hyper Light Drifter would finally turn out. It has some very eye catching visuals with very pretty pixel art that really helped the game to get its foot in the door, but it’s followed up with a Zelda-inspired experience filled with opportunities to explore and some reasonably challenging baddies to cross swords with.

There have been no lack of games to come along in recent years to go the pixelated route with obvious nods to games of the past. Some of these have been good, others not so much. HLD is definitely in the first camp. It’s visiting a lot of stuff we’ve seen before like the aforementioned Zelda series, but there’s just so much polish here. Combat is fluid and fast-paced, there’s a heavy emphasis on exploration and non-linearity, environments and characters hint at a massive backstory, and the aesthetic of the game is its own instead of just being another pixel art game that looks like something straight off the NES or SNES. This is the sort of game that serves as an excellent example of something that taps into retro games without feeling derivative; at the same time tapping into a lot of modern sensibilities.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 2
At its heart, the game has a lot in common with old classic Zelda titles with its overhead view, combat style, and so much exploration. In fact, combat feels smoother and faster than anything I’ve ever come across in a Zelda game. Given what HLD throws at players, though, it’s easy to see this being a necessity. It’s definitely a challenging game. That being said, I think most people’s opinion of this will hinge on how much they’ve played old 8 and 16-bit games of this ilk. If you have indeed played a number of those types of games, HLD will seem reasonably manageable, though still fairly challenging, but those who haven’t may run into difficulty.

Enemies all have patterns and tells to their attacks. One needs to simply pay attention for a moment and watch the baddies do their thing while making use of the dodge button so they don’t get hit. It doesn’t take long to figure out what types of attacks enemies do and what sort of animation they perform before unleashing it so that players have the good sense to get out of the way. It only gets really intense when a room locks the player in and a bunch of enemies spawn at once to swarm the hero. In this case, things do get dicey, requiring some fancy footwork to dodge everything enemies throw at the player. Even then, it’s not insurmountable. The game doesn’t just drop players into these situations. It eases them in. Players are slowly introduced to the different enemies, and only after making it a fair way into a given dungeon do they find themselves in such situations.

Bosses too are a matter of learning patterns. If anything, I found these guys easier than some of the swarming incidents. They have very discernible patterns that don’t take long to learn, and it’s simply a matter of execution after in order to take them down. Really, these were the most reminiscent element of 16-bit gaming in HLD for me.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 3
Your character also has a variety of unlockable abilities that can be purchased from trainers in the hub town of the game. While wandering around the countryside, players will gradually gather little yellow tokens and once they have enough they can be exchanged with the trainer for a new skill. These tokens are actually quite rare. They aren’t like coins that can be farmed to one’s heart’s content. They’re hidden in boxes and sometimes drop from enemies, but once they’ve been collected they never respawn. Also, once they’ve been spent there’s no turning back because the game automatically overwrites your last save after purchase, preventing save scumming whereby if players don’t like the ability they can just load up an old save and try something else. That just isn’t allowed here. As such, players need to think long and hard before buying a skill because once they have it that’s it, they’re stuck with it. If they want another they’ll have to head out into the wilderness and figure out where the rest of the hidden tokens are. So, in that regard there are some choices that have consequences in this game.

All the while, there’s quite a bit of exploration to be had. Players start in a hub town situated at the center of the world map with four exits: North, South, East, and West. From there it’s up to the individual to where they want to go. Generally each path leads to some sort of major temple where a boss is waiting to be defeated and some ancient device needs to be activated, but along the way there are no lack of detours to go on. There are a number of smaller power devices and keys that need to be found in order to get to a boss, so players need to wander around and find all of these as well, venturing down different paths. Some of these can be quite hard to find, and actually require you to run your character against the edges of an area. At some point, they may pop into a hidden passage tucked away behind a building or beneath a canopy of trees. They can be tough to see, but once found it’s quite satisfying, especially because they usually lead to useful goodies like more yellow tokens, health packs, or dungeon entrances.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 4
As one wanders this world, it’s hard not to wonder about its past. Just from looking at the surroundings, it’s obvious that players are in some sort of post apocalyptic setting. There are ruined buildings, old broken down robots, and dilapidated cannons everywhere, overgrown with foliage, being clear remnants of a fallen civilization. With all of this, though, we don’t get much explanation of how all this came to pass or why we’re doing what we’re doing in HLD. This is a very intentional approach, as the game has no dialogue in it. Any time the player talks with an NPC, they aren't greeted with a text bubble. Instead, a window opens with a series of still images depicting a short story. It’s enough to get the idea across but leaves a lot open to the imagination. While it does leave the player with some questions, at the same time it helps build a sense of wonder about HLD’s world as one tries to fill in the blanks on their own.

Also building this sense of wonder is the game’s aesthetic, as it has some of the nicest pixel art to come along in the last little while. HLD’s graphics very much have a personality of their own in terms of character and enemy designs, environments, and even the color scheme. As mentioned earlier, far too many pixel art games simply mimic things we’ve seen in 8 and 16-bit consoles, but this one does its own thing, allowing HLD to clearly stand out from other pixelated projects available.

The music also helps to enhance the experience. It has a very analogue synth feel to it reminiscent of Blade Runner. The game has the same composer as Fez, so it’s easy to see the similarities between the two. It works quite well here with the generally mellow, whirring minimalism of the synthesizers building the sense of wonder and loss permeating through HLD’s world.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 5

In the end, Hyper Light Drifter is a game people who like Zelda-esque action adventures should consider spending some time with. There have been plenty of other games to come along and provide similar experiences, but HLD is so much more polished while developing a personality of its own. The game is fairly challenging, but by no means impossible (if anything, I’d say that the Dark Souls series gives me more trouble than this did). With games like Dark Souls III, Quantum Break, and the HTC Vive coming out about now, there’s a chance HLD might fall between the cracks, but it’s a game that really deserves to be played. It just does so many things right, and looks great doing it.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Strange Product Tie-In Games

Finding new ways to get the word out about a product has always been something that marketers have toiled over. Whether it’s cleverly placing a can of pop in the background of a scene in a movie, flying blimps over stadiums, or wacky publicity stunts, increasing mindshare and getting people excited about their widgets has always been their thing. So, when video games came along, executives in board rooms the world over looked at the technology and thought to themselves, “Hey! The kids seem to like that stuff. How can we use that to our advantage?”

With that we’ve seen a steady stream of games come out over the last 30 years centered around this or that corporate mascot reminding us that their products exist and, just maybe, we should buy some. Obviously, a lot of these were pretty bad, but on the rare occasion one turned out to be somewhat entertaining. One thing is for sure, though, the majority of them raised eyebrows when they came along as people questioned who in their right mind would make a game based on that.

Today we’ll be taking a look at some of the stranger and more interesting product tie-in games to come along, the vast majority of which seem hell bent on reminding us that things like fast food exist. For the sake of brevity, we’ll be limiting this to console games and PC titles with proper releases. Browser and mobile games won’t be mentioned because we’d be here forever if we tried to wade through the legions dross to show up on those platforms.

Spot: The Video Game

In the late 80s and early 90s, 7Up actually had a mascot. The little red dot on the drink’s logo sprouted arms and legs, slapped on a pair of sunglasses, did cute things, and was suddenly a hit. The thing was plastered across billboards, in magazine ads, and getting into adventures in TV spots.

In time it made its way to video games. Most people are probably more familiar with the Genesis platformer Cool Spot (more on that in a bit), but the first appearance that the little guy was featured in was for 8-bit systems with Spot: The Video Game. It was basically reversi with the little Spot guy being moved around to choose where to play the next chip. The game could be played by up to four people with everyone passing the controller around when it was their turn.

It was a very simple game given the premise, and only took about six weeks to develop, eventually making its way to the NES, Amiga, Atari ST, Gameboy, and DOS.

Cool Spot

Here’s the Spot game that most people probably remember. It was a platformer, and a very good one at that. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when one considers that David Perry and Tommy Tallarico worked on it, two key members in the team that would go on to make the Earthworm Jim games.

It had solid controls, interesting level design, and looked amazing when it came out. As one would expect from the genre, players had Spot run and jump around levels, climbing to hard to reach areas, and shooting fizzy bubbles at enemies. In a lot of ways, it felt like a logical progression from the television commercials that aired at the time featuring the little guy.

Importantly, the game remembered to embrace the cutesy feeling that Spot gave off. He was pretty adorable in the ads, so people had a certain expectation he’d be the same in a game featuring him. This wasn’t really the case in the first game, but Cool Spot managed to pull this off much better with all of the little animation touches that the developers gave him.

Each level was a bit of a collect-a-thon as players had to explore them in search of cool points. Once they had enough, they’d be allowed to leave and progress to the next area. If someone wanted to put a little bit extra effort in, they could keep collecting these points and if they found enough, they would be able to go to a bonus stage.

In the end, this game gave people a bit of hope that video games based on products could actually be good. In hindsight, it’s easy to see things didn’t turn out quite so well, and Cool Spot is more of an anomaly. While it may have turned out to be one of the better platformers of the 16-bit era, other developers didn’t take the game’s example to heart unfortunately.

Spot Goes to Hollywood

A few years later, another Spot game came out. Once again, it went in a very different direction from the previous game. This go around, traditional platforming was eschewed in favor of a game with an isometric overhead view. It was still pretty much a platform game, but the change in perspective threw a lot of people off.

The basic premise was the same as Cool Spot with players hunting down cool points on each level. There weren’t as many to track down as the last game, but they were scattered all over the place, so could take a while to find.

Combat was where players tended to get frustrated while playing the game. Since it was an isometric view, aiming Spot’s projectile attacks could be difficult. This type of perspective can be quite finicky about this, and Spot Goes to Hollywood was a good example of it. Worse still, is that enemies tended to have quite a few hit points, resulting in them taking entirely too long to go down. The viewpoint also resulted in many a player watching Spot plummet to his death after miscalculating a jump while platforming.

The game eventually got ported to the PlayStation and Saturn when those systems came along, but in the end most people just scratched their heads trying to figure out why the developers opted to make the game isometric in the first place. Cool Spot was very good, and most people would have been just fine with more of the same, rather than this.

Spot: The Cool Adventure

While all of these home versions were coming along, 7-Up had their eye on the Gameboy as well. It was becoming popular, and what better way to encourage people to buy their drink while they’re out and about than to have a game based on it that they can take along with them.

This was actually the first platformer to feature Spot, having released a year prior to Cool Spot. It’s very straightforward in that regard and one has to wonder how much effort the game’s publisher really wanted to put into it.

This because the game is pretty much McDonaldLand (aka Mc Kids). The only difference is that the sprites were swapped out to reflect the fact is was a 7-Up based game rather than being a land of hamburgers.

Pepsi Invaders

In the early 80s, it seemed like just about anything would appear on the Atari 2600. In fact, just about anything did show up on that system, hence why the US video game industry eventually experienced a crash.

Helping to contribute to this was Pepsi Invaders, a game promoting Coca Cola. So bold was the company that not only did they place themselves as the hero in the game, but they put their arch rival in as the villain.

As the name suggests, it’s basically a Space Invaders clone, but instead of the usual ship fighting off swarms of evil aliens, players controlled the forces of Coca Cola as they shot down rows that read “PEPSI” with an alien at the end for level after level. While many point at ET as being the straw that broke the camel’s back when the crash came, Pepsi Invaders is a reminder that there were plenty of other terrible games that helped it along.

Pepsi Man

It would be over 15 years before we saw another Pepsi-based game, and, miraculously, it was actually not bad. Developed by KID, Pepsi Man came out for the PlayStation in 1999.

The game was a primitive endless runner where players controlled Pepsi Man as he ran down the street collecting Pepsi cans, dodging all manner of obstacles like trash, falling furniture, cacti, or whatever else seemed appropriate for a given level.

Looking back, most folks who remember the game think fondly of it for its silly, lighthearted style and simply being a product-based game that wasn’t completely terrible. Many have clamoured for a new game featuring the mascot, but given all of the legalese involved with such an endeavor it probably isn’t going to happen. One kind soul did make a mod for Metal Gear Rising that allows players to use Pepsi Man in it, though, which is nice.

Probably the biggest tragedy with the game is that it apparently didn’t sell well, which is a real shame.

Yo! Noid

Depending how old one is, and assuming they grew up in North America, some folks may remember when Dominos Pizza had an annoying red mascot called The Noid. People were reminded to avoid him because he’d steal our pizza. During the late 80s, good luck trying to turn on a TV and not see the thing cackling maniacally while making off with somebody’s pizza.

With him being everywhere, it was only a matter of time before he showed up in video games. Oddly enough, Yo! Noid isn’t the first game that he showed up in, but it’s probably the one most people are familiar with.

Developed by Capcom, the game was a reasonably decent platformer, and a major overhaul of Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru, which it was released as in Japan, with very different art, but identical gameplay. Nobody knew what the Noid was over there, so it made little sense to feature him in the game.

The game was by no means easy with a lot of quick deaths for the unprepared, and even the prepared. Really, folks got mad playing this game. If they didn’t already hate the Noid from all those commercials, surely this would push them over the edge.

Avoid the Noid

The first Noid game and was released on the Commadore 64 and for DOS in 1989 and it made a lot more sense than Yo! Noid did. Players took on the role of a pizza delivery boy who had to deliver pizzas, answer the phone, and basically do what the game told them to right on the box: Avoid the Noid.

It wasn’t a very long game, and was quite simple, but the spectacle of it all was a pretty over the top. Your character could dive out of the way of danger, and with good reason, seeing as there were rockets flying around trying to blow him up. The Noid traditionally took pizza theft quite seriously, and the developers made sure that this game reflected his zeal.

In the end, Avoid the Noid fell between the cracks as far as product-based games go, but it’s still worth remembering for being the first Noid game if nothing else.

Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool and Wild Wild Quest

Cheetos seem to be something a lot of people associate with those who play a lot of video games. I’ve never been one of them, because it just doesn’t make sense. Cheetos are one of the worst things to eat while playing video games because your fingers get all messy, and before long so does your controller. It’s disgusting and wrong. Who in their right mind does such a terrible thing? Usually people have that one friend who does that, but they quickly learn to never let them near their video games.

Nonetheless, we got two games featuring the things’ mascot during the 90s, Chester Cheetah, with Too Cool to Fool in 1992 and Wild Wild Quest in the following year. Both were extremely uninspired platformers that looked like a quick money grab by the developers to make something quick and easy.

Neither were worth wasting one’s time on and before long people knew to treat the games just like the people who ate the terrible product they were trying to promote and didn’t let them anywhere near their video games.

Kool Aid Man

A game featuring the Kool Aid Man sound like something that should work. Something aggressive with destructible environments. Just give us a game where we bust down walls and give kids sugary, vaguely fruit flavored drinks, and no sense of responsibility for such wanton destruction. It would perfectly encapsulate what Kool Aid is all about.

Unfortunately, the game came out in the early 80s for the Atari 2600 and a number of other systems during that time and technology just wasn’t ready for something like that yet. Players would have to settle for moving a juice jug around the screen and catching other jugs as they wastefully poured their libation to the evil Kool Aid Man god.

It was a very colorful game, though, so that was nice.

Global Gladiators

While McDonaldLand was alluded to earlier, the McDonald’s game that we really want to focus on today is Global Gladiators. This was a sneaky one because first and foremost the game was promoting environmentalism rather than fast food, which, of course, will set off all sorts of alarm bells for anyone who is remotely cynical at corporate attempts at altruism.

The game runs on the same engine as Cool Spot and Aladdin seeing as it was developed by David Perry and his team at Virgin Interactive. As such, it was actually pretty decent on the whole. Players controlled a couple of kids who were going around stopping all sorts of toxic shenanigans while taking orders from Ronald McDonald.

All the while, images of the McDonald’s logo were pasted across the screen, reminding folks that the company existed because non-stop TV commercials and locations just about everywhere apparently just weren’t enough to solidify the fast food chain’s place in the public’s mindshare.

Burger King Big Bumpin’ and Sneak King

Not to be outdone, Burger King also had a could of games come out in recent years. On the whole, these were a lot creepier than anything McDonald’s ever put out, but given how unsettling their mascot at the time was, someone dressed as a king with an over-sized head, this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

It all started innocently enough when Big Bumpin’ crept into the Xbox 360’s library. Players whizzed around bashing into one another in bumper cars. Sure, the king was their in all of his creepy glory, but the game was good clean fun, and refreshingly not crap, so not much to complain about there.

However, Sneak King was another beast altogether. Here players controlled the king as he snuck up on unsuspecting people to surprise them with a present: a hamburger. (Although given his attire, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking the present might be something pervy instead). It was like a high cholesterol Metal Gear Solid with tights. Folks enjoyed it, but at the same time it’s hard not to think the whole thing is a little unsettling.


Most people in the West likely have no idea what Yoshinoya is, although they apparently have a few locations in the US. It’s a chain of beef bowl fast food restaurants from Japan that are quite popular over there when someone wants to hop in for something to eat quick on the cheap.

In 2004, a game based on the chain was released for the PlayStation 2 in Japan. It was basically a restaurant manager where players oversaw a location, filling orders, serving customers, and generally making sure that everyone was happy. On the whole, the game was pretty decent as it was a reasonably well put together manager game at its core.

Unfortunately, it never left Japan, which is understandable given that it doesn’t have a huge presence outside of there. Nonetheless, it would have been nice to see it come West even if it got rebranded as something more recognizable for audiences there.

Darkened Skye

The Gamecube got a very sneaky product tie-in game about a decade ago. At first glance, Darkened Skye looks like a very straightforward action adventure game in a fantasy setting. There are monsters, forests, warriors, the usual stuff. However, upon closer inspection someone can see something is wrong. What could it be? Wait a second… Magic is powered by Skittles?

Yes, that’s right, Skittles. The little sugary fruit flavored candies that get stuck in one’s teeth and are the bane of fillings everywhere is an integral element of sorcery in the realm of Darkened Skye.

The game’s developer had made several games based on M&Ms which were largely forgettable being quickly cobbled together platformers and kart racing games. This one largely sticks out simply for being based on Skittles. People know what the things are. Some even like to eat them. It just seems so out of left field that of all the candies out there, this is what was selected for a game.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

An Early Look at StarCrawlers

About a year ago, StarCrawlers slinked its way into Steam's Early Access and since then has been getting regular updates as it makes its way to becoming shipshape for a full release. In a world where science fiction themed RPGs are vastly outnumbered by ones with a decidedly fantasy shtick, this one certainly got me to raise an eyebrow when it came along. Moreover, it's a dungeon crawler, and as such had me instinctively reaching for my wallet. Of course, with it being unfinished, this excitement could have been premature if playing it revealed a game needing much more time in the oven. After pouring a fair bit of time into the game, that's certainly the case to a degree, but thus far it seems to be more a case of sorting out some of the text in conversations than any game breaking bugs.

This is a first person dungeon crawler with procedurally generated areas, so, right off the bat, one can see that exploring, fighting baddies, and collecting loot will be a big part of StarCrawlers. While there is an actual main line of quests with a story, most of one's time can be spent wandering futuristic corporate offices, derelict space ships, monster-infested mines, and the like without paying it much mind.

Players have a space station referred to as STIX that they use as a home base between jobs. It has basic amenities to help aspiring crawlers do their job better. There's a shop for buying, selling, and upgrading gear, a medical bay for patching up badly injured party members and resetting talent trees, there's a black market for playing a lottery to get gear of varying degrees of quality, and, most importantly, a bar.

The bar is where StarCrawler's main quest line advances and where players can find the job board to accept new missions to go on. Jobs are divided by difficulty and can be told apart by their color coding. Gray jobs are of a low level and will be very easy for your team to complete, green are also easy but not complete pushovers, yellow are slightly challenging with enemies a level or two above your party, and red are hard missions with much stronger enemies. As one would expect, pay and experience gets better and better the harder a mission is. Your reputation with various corporations will also impact what jobs are available. Obviously, if you've pissed off a particular faction, they aren't going to be offering you work. Also, most of these companies are trying to screw one another over constantly, so completing missions will put you in some of these factions good graces while steadily increasing the ire of others.

It's also possible to recruit new members for your team at the bar. These are actual individuals that are being hired, though, and not a class of character that can be recruited again and again. For example, once you hire Bob the Force Psycher, he's your Force Psycher. You've made a commitment to this guy. It doesn't appear to be possible to have multiples of a particular class in a party. Given that each class has talent trees with three branches this also means that one can't have two of one class in their group with each character accentuating a different branch of the tree, which is a bit unfortunate.

The classes themselves are pretty neat. More or less they follow typical RPG party rolls with tanks, damage dealers, support, and the like. However, there doesn't appear to be a bonafied healer. Protecting characters is performed more through covering them in shields and other buffs or just getting a soldier to tank harder, rather than belting out some sort of curative ability from time to time in order to replenish an injured party member's health. There are health packs one can carry around with them and use as needed, though, should traditional healing become necessary.

So far, there are eight different characters available. Players can recruit all of them eventually, but they must choose four to go on any given mission while the rest stay behind on the space station. Since the different recruits have three different branches to their talent trees, they can serve a variety of roles. Depending on one's disposition, some pretty adventurous builds can be had, but they also have some fairly traditional progress paths as well. For instance, once I saw that soldiers have a lot of tanky options to them, I chose to accentuate that rather than fiddle around with heavier damage options. Similarly, cyber ninjas can be very good at dishing out damage, so that's what I've been focusing on with that class.

The roles that have caught my attention the most are ones with support capabilities and the caster classes. For the former, engineers and hackers have struck me as the most interesting. Engineers use spare parts like a resource (think mana) which they use to issue orders to their pet robot. Her talent tree is divided such that different types of robots will be made depending on which branch players spend points in. This can lead to a tank-oriented robot, a damage dealing robot, or a support robot. The nice thing about this is that as a result players can add more units to their party in the form of their robot while out in the field. Hackers, on the other hand, are very much a support class. Most of their abilities in battle are either damage over time attacks, crowd control / debuff skills, or applying various buffs to the party. These characters don't hit very hard, but over the long haul can be very helpful in a fight. As their name suggests, they can also be quite useful when hacking into various terminals and trying to disengage various security systems.

Looking at the casters, these are divided into two types: Force Psychers and Void Psychers. The former has powerful attack abilities and can shield party members. However, they have a very finite amount of force points available to them so battles need to end quickly or their usefulness begins to trail off quickly once they run out of force. Void Psychers are known for being slightly insane and have an enrage mechanic to play off of. Most of the abilities they use build up a void meter that counts to 100. Once it gets over 50, this character becomes increasingly unstable and there's a risk that they'll lose control, releasing a massive explosion of void energy that inflicts damages on all enemies and all allies alike. However, they also have abilities that consume this energy, bringing the meter back down. With that, players need to manage it, letting it go up and risk losing control so to unleash these abilities. It's a particularly dangerous situation because many of their best abilities require quite a lot of void energy to hit hard or even use in some cases. At the moment, I'd argue that Void Psychers feel a little bit overpowered. Once they get going, they absolutely demolish enemies, especially once they start getting to the strongest abilities in their talent trees. Even with the risk of running wild, as long as players are mindful not to get their meter all the way up to 100, the chances of this happening generally aren't that bad.

About the only major problem that I've run into while recruiting new members is that they come in at whatever level the rest of your party is at the time of the hire. So, if you recruit one and wait till later to get more (because these guys do cost a fair bit early on), once you recruit the rest and feel like using them as a B-Team the early recruits will be falling behind in levels. Worse still, random mission assignments match the average level of your group, so if you do have one or two characters that were recruited early, but kept on hold till later, they can become a liability on these missions since they're so far below the recommended level.

That being said, if the group is of a recommended level, the game does feel a little bit easy so far. My main team consists of a soldier, hacker, force psycher and void psycher, and these guys are demolishing everything that the game throws at them. About the only trouble they've run into are some of the more advanced security units that either hit really hard or constantly summon robots into a battle. Even then, the void psycher's miasma ability is a powerful area of effect damage over time ability that usually hits every enemy on-screen. Meanwhile, all of my party members have very good weapons and armor, so they can hit like a truck even when not using abilities. In fact, my hacker has a pair of blades at the moment that inflict a DoT of their own, plus her own DoTs, plus the miasma ability, so each turn enemies often take over 100 damage without my party even doing anything once all of those are up. With that, pretty much everything melts in front of this group. I've yet to come across a truly devastating foe in the game as a result, not even some type of boss, resulting in the game feeling like a bit of a pushover at the moment, even when doing missions of the hardest difficulty.

Loot in StarCrawlers has an easy to understand color coded system which has become prevalent in RPGs. Grey is common, green is somewhat rare, and blue is the rarest. As one would expect, the rarer the gear, the more powerful it is. There are only four slots on each character, so there isn't a huge amount of stuff to go around, just weapons, shields, armor, and accessories. Also, some attribute slots don't do anything at the moment since the game is still in development and just have the acronym NYI, which I assume stands for "Not Yet Implemented". By the looks of things, though, the developers do want loot to be a draw for the game as people hop into dungeons again and again in search of better gear.

If players are going to be replaying areas constantly, the levels and enemies better look good, and they do here. There are a decent mix of environments to explore, though it is recommended to read the description of a mission before hand to get an idea of where you'll be heading. Failing to do this could result in players going to corporate offices or mines constantly, and getting bored of seeing the same environments over and over. The levels themselves have a nice atmosphere to them with dim lights, various bits of furniture, computers, and equipment appropriate to their settings. They don't have a huge level of detail, but they get the job done. Enemies also look good, but their variety is a bit lacking at the moment. I've fought legions of the same types of robots, space mites, worm-thingies and the like without much deviation from this limited range of baddies. Hopefully we'll see more added by the time the game is complete because as it stands, things could get redundant if more enemies aren't added.

Given that the places players go to are procedurally generated, there's a bunch of variety in that regard. A lot of art assets are obviously the same, but going around the levels, watching out for traps, hacking into computer systems, and just generally exploring is good fun. There's a mini-map that plots everything out as you go, and it can be expanded to show everywhere the player has been, so it's easy enough to figure things out. Basically, it gives a nice, quick means for people who like first-person dungeon crawlers to get their fix and be on their way. I haven't come across a dungeon that's taken more than 30 minutes to complete yet, so it's a very in and out experience.

This is where the appeal will come while playing StarCrawlers: hopping in for a quick mission or two and hopefully getting some snazzy loot. It's quick and to the point with straightforward dungeon crawling and combat. My only real complaint right now is the potential for neglected characters to get left behind and have difficulty catching up level-wise unless players bring them one at a time on missions until they've gained some levels, which could get tedious in a hurry. As it stands, there aren't very many first person dungeon crawlers on the market, and certainly not any with a science fiction theme. StarCrawlers could be the game to fill that void.