Upcoming Schedule

I have some ideas for the next few posts, but I have a super busy spring coming up, so I’m not sure what kind of schedule they will be on… But they shall come!

Sorry- I know “once a month” is already slow enough as is, but I’ll do my best to continue to be regular. Just remember, if you don’t see anything for a little while, the blog is not dead. ;D

Speaking of which, I found out about a new type of crowd-funding website called Patreon. Patreon projects are on-going with no “end” (unlike Kickstarter or Indiegogo)- instead, backers pay as each new “thing” is released, whether that’s a painting, story, video, or new version of a game.

I was thinking about doing it with the old blog, if anyone would be willing to support each post. Then I could make sure to write more regularly! (Since trying to make a living keeps me pretty busy most of the time, and I can’t always prioritize writing.) But I’d love to write more- I dunno, maybe even more than once a month!? Who KNOWS!?

(Although I did recently have time to play a bit of “Nethergate: Resurrection,” the little-known “Celts vs. Romans” RPG using the engine from the Avernum series by Spiderweb Software. There is something special and unique about those games despite their obvious shortcomings.)

Posted in General, PC/Mac, RPG, Site-related, Western | Leave a comment

Shadow of the Ninja. NES, 1990

Shadow of the Ninja (“Blue Shadow” in Europe and “Yami no Shigotonin KAGE” in Japan) was developed and published by Natsume in 1990 for the NES.

Worldview: Being a ninja
Theme: Infiltration of a cyberpunk machine world

The worldview may sound generic, and many games have certainly tried to create a “ninja” experience (compact and efficient actions, fast and nimble navigation, and strategic stealth). But SotN really makes it happen with the set-up of ninjas infiltrating a dystopian, mechanized world (a post-apocalyptic dictatorial America, to be exact).

GRAPHICS: Environments range from the rooftops of crumbling cityscapes, to rainy boats at night, to sleek interiors full of gears and moving parts. The style is generally dark and grungy, giving the game an atmosphere of “near-future society where machines flourish but humans are in danger” (i.e. cyberpunk). There are a lot of cold colors, until the final stage with its intense purple and red.

first leve
Fig. 1: Sneaking aboard a boat on a rainy night in the first stage

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Fig. 2: Navigating turning gears in the second stage

Fig. 3: Climbing up and into the enemy stronghold on a bright, sunny day provides some nice contrast

Though the first level is purely linear side-scrolling, others expand in all directions, and you’ll find yourself hanging, flipping, jumping and climbing around various platforms that are sometimes moving themselves. Also, your jump and attack range are relatively small (ex. you can’t go flying across the screen with a leaping bound), which allows for more compact levels. This lets you plan your path and flip about more skillfully, while also contributing to the experience of being an efficient ninja in a vast world of machines.

Most enemies’ designs include robotic and organic elements, while the heroes are decidedly human and old-fashioned in simple “ninja” clothes (though some enemies also follow the “ancient Japanese” theme of ninjas and samurai). The bosses follow the same cyborg theme, and are varied and imaginative. Across the board, sprites and their animations are detailed and impressive, especially considering the NES’ capabilities.

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Fig. 4: Battle with a samurai atop the ruins of a city

eyeball hit hayate
Fig. 5: Got hit by the “eyeball-on-a-chain” mini-boss!

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Fig. 6: There is a theme of machines with eyes throughout the game

TEXT: The backstory, explained through pre- and post-game cinema, sets up a somewhat run-of-the-mill, post-apocalyptic scenario where an evil dictator who takes over America can only be stopped by two ninjas who infiltrate the country (assumably coming from Japan). Yet even the ninjas, the game’s hope for humanity, appear from the shadows and disappear back into the shadows at the end (hence the name of the game). Working from the shadows to rescue a world in darkness fits the cyberpunk theme and gives the game an interestingly dark set-up. To a limited degree (given that there is not much text involved), this heightens the drama of being an anonymous outsider infiltrating a sinister world of machines.

garuda intro
Fig. 7: Introductory cinema with a dark tone in visuals and text

SOUND: The sound effects are simple and effective, but the music steals the show. SotN offers one of the most riveting soundtracks for the NES. The fast tempo matches the brisk game play- it will get your heart racing, and remain stuck in your head after you’ve stopped playing. Though the tracks are best enjoyed with the game, check out my favorites here, here, and, my favorite of all (wait for when it drops the beat), here.

CONTROLS: Overall, the controls are incredibly responsive and tight, enabling you to move smoothly and efficiently to dispatch enemies. The short weapon range and the low jumps relatively low make for nice, compact actions. The best way to put it is that you feel like a ninja.

Fig. 8: In mid-flip between platforms

GOALS & RULES: The basic, short-range sword attack mentioned above can be gradually upgraded to increase its range and power. These power-ups are lost if you die, and must then be gathered again from scratch. It is thus simpler to rely on the chain and sickle weapon, which has much longer reach but lacks power and cannot be upgraded. In this way the weapon system allows for a simpler approach that will please beginners as well as a more complex and powerful route that requires more skill.

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Fig. 9: The sword attack reaches further after collecting upgrades

There is no timer so there is no pressure to rush, but nonetheless the game moves quickly. Also, compared to many other platformers, it is quite lenient with the life bar in that you can be hit many times, and even if you fall into a pit- the classic frustration of platforming games- you appear right back on the screen and only lose a chunk of health.

Again, this makes the game very playable from the get-go for newcomers, while still offering plenty of challenge in actually making it all the way to the end for serious player. The generous life bar and the lack of timer enable the player to experiment, determine the best approach, and strike at just the right moment.

Though there are limited numbers of shuriken (and bombs) placed around the levels that enable you to make special/ranged attacks, for the most part you must rely on melee attacks. Also, enemies are relatively scarce, but carefully arranged and usually requiring multiple hits to take down. This encourages more strategic play and efficient, well-timed hits. You feel like you are skillfully taking down enemies while navigating the terrain, rather than haphazardly slashing your way through wave after wave of small fry enemies. At the same time, the levels are brisk and fresh, continually throwing new types of enemies and obstacles at you.

Two player mode is a rarity in platforming games, and I think it’s a real delight here. The lenient time and life supply keep co-op play fun even if one player is slower or more prone to be hit.

player select
Fig. 10: The two player characters, Hayate and Kaede. You can select one, or control both with a friend

The only real downfall are technical limitations- for one, having no save feature. There is also an area in one stage where so many enemies appear on screen that there is visual glitching and lag.

Besides that it is generally smooth sailing and there’s not much to complain about, though some hardcore platforming gamers online seem to consider it too easy. I’m no hardcore platforming gamer myself, so I’ll let you decide.

GRAPHICS: Effectively create a cyberpunk world of man and machine
CONTROLS: Swift, efficient ninja action is a delight to experience
SOUND: It’s not an exaggeration to say that the exciting and engaging soundtrack is a masterpiece of the 8-bit era
TEXT: The backstory and in-game cinema set a dark tone
GOALS & RULES: Relatively small numbers of enemies, a complex weapon system, and brisk, varied level design make you feel like a skilled ninja- by yourself or with a friend

OVERALL: I know there are more ninja games out there than you can shake a stick at, all of them claiming to make you feel like a bad-ass ninja. But Shadow of the Ninja isn’t pulling your leg. With dazzling (if old-fashioned) visuals and music, why not step back to 1990 for a cyberpunk ninja treat? [Thankfully it is in the Wii Shop so you don't need a functioning Nintendo to play.]

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Into Shadow…

I feel like I keep calling games “cute” and “colorful” in most of these posts… So I’m gonna try to make sure to cover some games that aren’t cute or colorful.

Next will be Shadow of the Ninja for the NES. It’s a platformer, like Dizzy and Kirby, but not colorful OR cute… Just cyberpunk-ninja-platforming fun.

On a side note, it’s taken 20 years, but I think I have finally exhausted all SNES and PS1 RPGs. I need a new console to play some modern games and continue my research… but if you have any obscure old school recommendations, let me know. I especially like SRPGs like Front Mission, Fire Emblem, FF Tactics, etc. :D

Posted in American, Console, Game Design, Japanese, NES, Platformer | 10 Comments

The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy. NES, 1991

Fantastic Dizzy/The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy (depends on your region- I’ll call it Dizzy) was developed by Codemasters and released for the NES in 1991.

WORLDVIEW: The joy of discovering and collecting items.
THEME: Strolling through an a bright & cheerful, ever-unfolding world.

Dizzy (which is also the name of the main character) trains you to scan the screen for three types of objects: puzzle items, stars, and fruits, which are cause for excitement/curiosity, a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of relief, respectively. You must plan your journey around these objects in order to unlock new areas and advance through the game.

Each area has a distinct theme and style, from the cheerful treehouse village, to the dark cavern, to the bright beach. Graphics are simple, clear, and colorful.

Fig. 1: The Yolkfolk Treehouse Village just outside Dizzy’s house

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Fig. 2: Dizzy snuck past the sleeping dragon!

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Fig. 3: Dizzy walks along the beach.

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Fig. 4: Flippers and an oxygen tank enable Dizzy to swim.

In an interesting twist, you end up scanning each colorful area for small, gray, sometimes unreadable objects. These are the puzzle items, crucial for advancing in the game. Spotting a new one is an exciting discovery, and successfully discovering how to use one a delight.

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Fig. 5: Gray items and fruits dot the village landscape.

Puzzle items pop into color when used appropriately, usually unlocking your path or opening up a new area. Their change in color, as if they are springing to life, adds to the delightful burst of dopamine that comes along with solving a puzzle.

Overall, the graphics are detailed and impressive for an NES game- Dizzy has various facial expressions as well as an idle animation.

Fig. 6: The rain makes Dizzy feel sad.

And the sky even fades from day to night as time goes by:
city night
Fig. 7: Evening falls upon the village of Keldor.

night yolkfolk
Fig. 8: Things get spooky in the dead of night below the Yolkfolk village.

As for the characters, there are only a few, so each one- and their related quest- feels important.
Fig. 9: The pirate Blackbeard will block your path (and attack you if you come too close) until he receives a certain item.

Personally, I’ll always have a softspot for the Yolkfolk Treehouse Village. The idea of egg-shaped characters who live in the trees is amusing and original, giving the game a unique charm.
dizzy house Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy (2) fig 6
Fig. 10: Dizzy at home, where the game begins

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Fig. 11: The elevator to the Yolkfolk Treehouse Village

The menu screen resembles a piece of parchment with more realistic, full color depictions of items and textual description. Though it is sharply different in style than the rest of the game, its hint of realism inspires the imagination and gives clues as to how to use items.

dizzy menu
Fig. 12: The menu screen

Besides the item descriptions in the menu, the only in-game text occurs in full screen windows when you talk to Yolkfolk or solve their puzzles. This helps make the characters feel important and their quests feel like major accomplishments in the course of the game.

The world scrolls out in both directions as you travel (you can also go up in some cases), eventually looping around to form one continuous world. When you reach a certain point your progress is usually blocked until you solve a puzzle and unlock a new path, room, or area.

Considering how open-ended it is, collecting stars gives a sense of progress- when you see a star, you know you’re going in the right direction and one step closer to the end of the game. Their countdown provides a linear yardstick to measure how you are doing.

crash with chicken
Fig. 13: A star and a roast chicken item

town star count
Fig. 14: Only 94 stars left before Dizzy can enter the evil wizard Zaks’ castle in the clouds!

Dizzy takes damage from drops of water and animals, but his damage meter can be reduced by eating fruit. This makes any fruit you spot a delightful relief that makes you feel safe.

Fig. 15: A slice of watermelon to ease your hardships in Keldor Castle

Dizzy’s controls are simple- you can walk, jump or use/pick up an item. There is no running, or even any control over the length and height of his jumps.

Thus, except for the few mini-games and difficult jumps, there is very little fast-paced button mashing. It is mainly a matter of knowing when and where to use items, and planning which three items to carry at any given time.

The songs are varied and memorable. I especially like Yolkfolk Village Indoors, Keldor Village 1 and 2, and Underwater). Overall, the music effectively sets distinct tones and strong moods for each area.

Sound effects are near non-existent, but the sound and animation when eating fruit made it feel very nourishing.

I was never able to beat the game due to the lack of a save feature. However, gradually learning the location and use of each item through many replays and then planning accordingly is fun in a way that would be lost if you only had to solve each puzzle once. At the same time, the game is too massive for anyone to beat without many consecutive hours to spare, careful planning, and mastery of every mini-game and difficult jump.

Speaking of jumps, Dizzy’s tendency to roll after jumps leads to a lot of accidental deaths and frustration. Granted, I was probably 12 the last time I played, but reviews online agree about the game’s difficulty in places.

Graphics: Bright, colorful, and clear, yet in a delicious twist your attention is focused on small black-and-white objects, which are key to unlocking your path. Very detailed graphics and animations for the era.

Rules & Goals: Rules focus your attention on gathering three types of items: stars, fruits, and puzzle items. They become meaningful and delightful to discover, collect, and use.

Sound: Varied and catchy, setting distinct moods for each area.

Controls: Simple and fun, but lack of control over jumps and unpredictable rolling can lead to frustration.

Text: Virtually none except during a few character-related events where bursts of text add an extra sense of accomplishment to puzzles. Item descriptions on the menu screen provide hints and amusement.

Fantastic Dizzy/The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy shows impressive size, quality, and attention to detail for its time. Through it’s combination of platforming and puzzle-solving, it focuses the player on the delights of discovering, collecting, and successfully using items. Dizzy is an object-oriented stroll through a bright, varied, and charming world that gradually unfolds before you as you solve its puzzles.

Posted in British, Game Design, NES, Platformer, Puzzle, Western | Leave a comment

Indiecade Games on Kickstarter

Some of the cool games I found at Indiecade are/were running on Kickstarter!

Wish I’d gotten a chance to post about Catacomb Kids before it reached its deadline, but looks like they didn’t need my help: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/fourbitfriday/catacomb-kids-a-very-roguelike-platformer Looking forward to that one for sure.

But These French Fries Make Terrible Hot Dogs still has four days left! This card game was so much fun. It’s all about being creative and persuasive on the fly: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/shawnpierre/these-french-fries-are-terrible-hot-dogs-a-card-ga/posts/711147?ref=activity (They are already well past their goal… but printing card decks can be costly, and I’d love to see this in stores and homes around the world).

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Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Wii, 2010

Kirby’s Epic Yarn was developed by Good Feel and released by Nintendo for the Wii in 2010. [I mentioned the game briefly in the Characters & World-building article (how designers spent three months perfecting Kirby's appearance).]

WORLDVIEW: Continual novelty and surprise in a warm, safe world.
THEME: Yarn (Actually, various cloth-related materials, but I’ll just say yarn for simplicity’s sake)

Many people have praised the game’s unique aesthetic style and its ability to continually create new twists on the yarn theme. But what is really incredible is how yarn informs the worldview at every level and ties it all together. Yarn suits the warmth and safety of a world where it is impossible to “lose” or “die,” and way that yarn can be unraveled and reconfigured enables the game’s ongoing sense of novelty and surprise.

There are eight Lands (Hot Land, Treat Land, Water Land, and so on), and the stages within each Land have a unique theme of their own (an underground stage, a stage in the woods, and a vine-themed stage, for example, in Grass Land).

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Kirby carries a bomb in Hot Land

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Kirby and Prince Fluff (Player 2) enter a cave

The game makes much use of the fact that yarn can be taken apart and re-formed. Backgrounds can be pulled together like a curtain to reveal hidden items, and enemies can be unraveled and turned into harmless balls of yarn (and then thrown at other enemies as a weapon). A simple string of yarn can serve as a platform, box, weapon, or shock of electricity, depending on its shape and color, while Kirby himself can stretch out into one long string of yarn in order to enter narrow tunnels.

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Kirby holds an unraveled enemy

electric yarn
Light blue yarn becomes a shock of electricity in Space World

In this way the theme of yarn contributes directly to the novelty of each stage, both visually and in terms of gameplay. From the first stage to the last, the game never ceases to put a new and surprising twist on yarn according to each stage’s theme.

I particularly enjoyed the animations that play when a new stage is unlocked. Each is original, surprising and often silly. As with the rest of the game, the sheer imagination is impressive, and it is all made possible by the properties of yarn.

Beyond the names of each stage, which are playful and appropriate, there is very little text in the course of normal gameplay.

When all stages in a Land are completed, however, an animation shows the Land being connected to the next Land with yarn (thus allowing the player to advance), and there is a short cutscene with a voice-over by a narrator. The cutscenes are generally brief and tongue-in-cheek, featuring characters in tangentially related scenes.

kirby cinema
A light-hearted cutscene

Beyond the stages themselves, various bonus features are found in Quilty Square. The shop-keepers and characters that manage mini-games here are very talkative, and fit game’s cute, friendly style.

Music is low-key, letting the visuals and gameplay take front seat, but a few tunes did stand out for me and really helped bring the level to life, such as Tube Town’s song.

Sound effects are also light and cute. The honking horn when your character turns into a car made me giggle on more than one occasion- something about the simplicity and absurdity of it was delightful.

Controls are simple, mainly relying on Kirby’s yarn whip. The whip is used to pull buttons, unravel enemies, and latch onto things to get to hard-to-reach places. There are also three basic transformations (a car, a weight, and a parachute) to deal with special situations (traveling faster, breaking through boxes, and floating down slowly), each delightfully responsive and endearing.

KirbyCar in cave
Kirby moves more quickly in car form

These basic controls are regularly mixed up with “Metamortex” areas where Kirby is unraveled and re-made into a train, UFO, or other object. In these forms Kirby takes part in brief mini-games that are drastically different from normal gameplay.

ufo suction
Kirby turns into a UFO for a mini-game

Removing timers and “game-over” conditions so that it is impossible to fail was a very bold move (though this creates the awkward situation where it is impossible not to win a boss battle), but it works well in the Kirby’s safe and relaxing world. It gives the player a chance to enjoy the game’s novelty and surprise without worrying about suddenly losing it all by dying.

The adorable fact that almost every enemy can be incapacitated into a cute ball of yarn makes the game feel even more safe. The game goes so far as to have some enemies merely perform cute actions without harming the player at all (even if Kirby runs into them).

Accomplishing the main goal of reaching the end of a stage is thus relatively easy and very low stress. However, there is also plenty of challenge in accomplishing the secondary goal of finishing each level with as many beads as possible in order to unlock items. Careful planning and quick responses are required to reach 100% completion, and there are more than a few places where you’ll be on the edge of your seat.

Metamortex areas are very hit-or-miss. Some, like the Train, can be a chore, while Star Shooter and even Fire Engine were a blast. Metamortex areas are thankfully sporadic enough that they are nice just to mix things up.

Most of my major complaints come up in Quilty Square. One is the home decorating mini-game in Kirby’s apartment using furniture the player collects. Furniture works like a sticker- you can slap it down anywhere on the image of the room and it just floats there. It’s not even a mini-game as there is no real goal or much fun to be had. Pages upon pages of furniture and wallpaper can be unlocked and purchased through the course of the game, but it all feels a but excessive.

Dialogue with special characters in Quilty Square is also cumbersome, and too cute even for me. There are multiple speech balloons of repetitive text before and after every mini-game, and the games themselves are only moderately fun to begin with. (Although one, where you carry a character through a stage with a timer, was actually a lot of fun.)

Finally, I appreciated the light-hearted tone of cutscenes, but they felt unrelated to the rest of the game. The omniscient narrator seemed out of place and the events often had little to do with the characters and world I had been enjoying through the course of normal gameplay. Though amusing, the cutscenes did little to develop the worldview.

Visuals: A unique yarn theme allows for continual variation and playfulness throughout the game while feeling warm and safe.

Text: Minimal text serves the game well, but wordy dialogue in Quilty Square weighs the game down.

Sound: Low-key, soothing background music works with simple and cheerful sound effects to let the gameplay and visuals take center stage.

Controls: Simple and smooth controls are periodically switched up with various Metamortex mini-games.

Rules: The innovative decision to remove all “game over” conditions allows the player to relax and safely enjoy the game-world’s delights.

How many games can be described as peaceful and relaxing enough to put you to sleep, while also being challenging, engaging, and richly imaginative? None that I know of, besides Kirby’s Epic Yarn. It stands out among games of its generation, and I think it creates one of the most original and solid game-worlds of any era.

Posted in Action, Console, Game Design, Japanese, Platformer, Wii | 1 Comment

Next Up

I’m still aiming for one new post a month, and December’s is coming soon. Next up is Kirby’s Epic Yarn for Wii. I’ve been wanting to cover it for awhile because it is really incredible in that it never ceases to provide delightful surprises and novelty the whole way through. Also, just wanted to let you know the blog is still functional and alive.

Lately I’ve been playing/researching Saiyuki: Journey West, a virtually unknown grid-based strategy RPG (my favorite genre) for PS1. It’s based on the Chinese classic “Journey to the West” and is unique and interesting in a lot of ways, especially if you’ve read the books. The characters are really fun, too, and that’s always a big plus to me.

Son Goku, the lovable and hot-tempered Monkey King

Posted in General, Japanese, RPG, Site-related | 2 Comments