Saturday, November 2, 2013

Extra Life Charity Marathon - LIVE!

[ 8:09 AM, 11/3/13 ]
I made it! Not to the end of Spelunker HD, which has a hundred levels and this morning I made it to level 3, but to the end of this 24 (actually 25!) hour marathon! I want to thank everybody who donated -- it was a real blast and such a good cause. Now goodnight everybody! Time to sleep, I think. This was great, and I'll definitely have to do it again sometime! 

[ 7:48 AM, 11/3/13 ]
The finish line is close! I think I'll make it the last few minutes with Spelunker HD, which I just found on my PS3 games list and hadn't thought about in years. I'll just dip into the caves for a couple minutes, and use that to keep from drifting into slumber too soon!

[ 7:14 AM, 11/3/13 ]
Once I do finish Beyond: Two Souls, I'd be very curious to know if the section I just finished is one where you're supposed to mess up, or if I just did because I've been up for so long and aren't thinking as clearly as normal. For anyone who's played it, the chapter is called 'The Dinner' and I did things wrong enough that there never was any dinner. Oopsie.

[ 4:46 AM, 11/3/13 ]
Very, very tired. Time for a new game! Gonna make some progress in Beyond: Two Souls, since that shouldn't require much in the way of agility. Three hours and fifteen minutes to go! 

[ 3:56 AM, 11/3/13 ]
I'm never sure if I should be leveling up the Pokemon I have already so they evolve into new forms, or focusing instead on getting new ones. I have this problem in every Pokemon game.

[ 2:52 AM, 11/3/13 ]
Joilant Fun Park, Jungle Slider, and Volkan City complete! Unfortunately, I'm in another extremely tired wave (it should be nearly 4 by now, if it weren't for clock funny-business) and need to switch games in order to stay awake. I think it's time for some Pokemon Y. I have critters with punny names to catch!

[ 1:48 AM, 11/3/13 ]
You know what? I didn't need to worry about it: Klonoa 2 holds up amazingly well! Playing through the Sea of Tears and La-Lakoosha is still a great experience -- I would buy an HD remake of this game in a heartbeat, but it still looks phenomenal, if a little fuzzy. But the level design is unmatched, and having played through it so many times in years past I can see where the foundations were laid for later stages. For instance, the statues that you'll need to breathe at during Noxious La-Lakoosha are already present in the first version of the stage, and you'll revisit the Sea of Tears a couple times later on and see familiar geographic landmarks. It's so well put together. And the music! The way there's an "outside" track and an "inside" track for La-Lakoosha that seamlessly blends together when you enter or leave the caves is just as amazing today as it was originally. Someone needs to get this on a digital download service in proper HD, ASAP. FTW. BBQ.

[ 1:33 AM, 11/3/13 ]
The tabletop gaming break did me some good! It's second-wind time, and now I've set up the PS2 for the game I've been looking forward to all weekend: Klonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil. This was my favorite platformer of that console generation, and I really, really hope it holds up. Time to find out!

[ 1:02 AM, 11/3/13 - The Second One ]
Didn't we already have a 1:02 AM? I'm sure we did. Sarah went in search of more games to play to stave off sleepiness and she came back upstairs with this half-forgotten gem from my childhood: PAC-MAN: The Card Game. Oh boy.

PAC minus MAN equals FUN?
Each player gets three cards, and chooses to place one either on their mat or on their opponent's mat. A Pac-Man card is a PLUS, a Ghost card is a MINUS, and there's also a Pac-Man/Ghost card that works as MULTIPLY. So you're trying to make your opponent score fewer points, while maximizing your own. Pro Tip: try and make your equation 10 x 10, since the rules say first to 100 wins. I managed that twice.

Note my awesome game-winning strategy, on the bottom row.

[ 1:27 AM, 11/3/13 ]
Drowsiness is definitely setting in. In order to combat the ZZZZZ's, it's time to make good on Jeff Zia's suggestion of a board game to play. Thanks to him for the donation, but as a result it means we have to play BLARF, the world's most ill-conceived rip-off of checkers. Each player has five tokens, with the letters to spell BLARF on one side and the letter A on the other. Each token can move in a specific direction based on its letter (Backwards, Left, Any, Right, or Forward), and after you move you flip it over. The object is to knock the other player's tokens off the board, but in reality you mostly just trap your own pieces at the edges. It's pretty terrible, but we played it! For the kids.

Proof that we played BLARF!
[ 1:02 AM, 11/3/13 - The First One ]
I just realized that we gain an hour tonight, due to Daylight Savings Time. Yikes!

[ 12:55 AM, 11/3/13 ]
I don't know if Dynamite Headdy has continues, but I never figured out how to obtain any if it does -- every time I lost all my lives it meant starting over from the beginning, so I got pretty good at fighting that cat boss. I also got pretty good at the level "Mad Dog and Headdy," where you attack the tail of a giant toy dog while it retrieves a ball full of monkeys, or a caterpillar, or sometimes a bomb, and songs from the Nutcracker play. I was less good at the level after that one, with the rotating 3D platform. The furthest I got before losing for good saw Headdy grabbed by a flying robotic worm, and I attacked its core as we flew but arrows kept appearing and I couldn't really figure out what I was supposed to be doing. It seems like a pretty good game, but without an easy way to continue the constant weirdness just sapped all my lives without mercy.

[ 11:58 PM, 11/2/13 ]
My next game for tonight is Dynamite Headdy (thanks to Ryan Penk for the donation, and for the suggestion!), and I don't really understand it! Like most games by Treasure, there are a *lot* of things on-screen at once, and everything is moving, and the first boss is a cat in front of a traditional Japanese painting. Well, maybe that last one is just for this game. But there's a lot of weirdness here.

I don't even.
I seem to be a puppet with a detachable head, and I'm trying to save puppets from robots? I like the theater aesthetic a lot -- Headdy's life bar seems to be the spotlight in the corner, and it changes color as he takes damage, and the stages seem to be actual "stages" with props and decorations as if the whole thing is a performance. I'm hoping it gets easier to grok as it goes along.

[ 11:25 PM, 11/2/13 ]
I played Ride to Hell: Retribution until it froze on a loading screen and overheated my fiancĂ©'s laptop.  I took that as a sign that I had suffered through that game enough. I don't really know what to say about this game, except for the things on this handy list:

- It starts with a guy riding a motorcycle and suddenly cuts to that guy standing at a turret, shooting enemies. After that it cuts back to him on the motorcycle. Then it cuts to him fighting a thug in a cutscene, and then it cuts to a cutscene of him fighting a *different* thug. And then it cuts to him riding a motorcycle over a helicopter. No context or anything.

- It's the sort of game where something bad happens in a cutscene, and then the *very next cutscene* is a black and white flashback to the bad thing that happened five seconds earlier.

- Remember games like Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which rewarded you for solving puzzles with salacious descriptions and tawdriness? In Ride to Hell: Retribution, there was a thug in a motel parking lot, and after he attacked me his prostitute girlfriend invited me upstairs for an embarrassing cutscene. And it's the sort of game that has a second scene like that one… not five minutes later. Really.

- The dialogue is hilarious. It's not supposed to be. Of special note is the tragic character who won't stop talking about going to see bands. Much is made of a girl that knows about cool bands, and she talks to him about bands, and he just wants to see cool bands that are really far out. Hey, maybe we can go see bands?

- Melee combat plays like a really poor version of the Arkham games, and the motorcycle combat makes you wonder if Road Rash was maybe not as good as you remember it, which is unforgivable.

Ride to Hell: Retribution feels like it earns every point of its 16 score on Metacritic. There's fun to be had here, if you play it with a big group of people looking to laugh, but otherwise… yikes. Maybe you should go see cool bands instead.

[ 10:11 PM, 11/2/13 ]
Ooof, I'm having a very sleepy wave. I got into Block 4 (and Mode 7 rotating craziness!), but I think I need a change of pace in the interest of keeping energized. It is a time long-awaited: time for Ride to Hell: Retribution, a game that's been out for only a couple months but already has a reputation for being one of the worst games of all time. Let's put that to the test, shall we?

[ 9:27 PM, 11/2/13 ]
I ran out of lives in Block 3-3, so it's back to the start of the Block for me. I'm really enjoying some of the tricks in this one, such as the need for a stationary jump on a two-square platform to buy time to safely cross a pit; if you don't, the orbiting ball will always hit you before you can cross. Many of the platforms in the caves of this stage also break if you stand on them too long, or if they're hit by debris. And there are Mermen, and skeletal dragon heads, and those little plants that I only know are called Une because of Aria of Sorrow. I'm having a blast with it. 

[ 9:03 PM, 11/2/13 ]
You know, it's been so long since I've played a traditional side-scrolling Castlevania that I don't think I realized how much I'd missed them. I love Aria of Sorrow and other Metroidvanias possibly more than the next guy, but there's something really refreshing about moving through a straightforward level whipping candles and jumping over gaps. The stages in this are even divided into Blocks, just like the first Castlevania! I love it. The first Block was pretty interesting, too, mixing up the traditional first level with a fenced-in garden and a stables area. The skeletal horseman was a neat first boss, too. Looking forward to any other new wrinkles in the formula!

[ 8:39 PM, 11/2/13 ]
My next game is a recent acquisition, as it appeared on the Wii U virtual console this very week in celebration of Halloween. As a Genesis kid growing up, I missed out on a lot of SNES classics like this one, so once I heard it was available I had to grab it and added it to my marathon list. I've only seen the first couple levels, but tonight seems as good a time as any to see what I've been missing. My next game is… Super Castlevania IV!

[ 8:31 PM, 11/2/13 ]
About four hours of Yoshi's Island sees me through World 3-4: Prince Froggy's Fort, and I think that'll do it for my adventures with Baby Mario tonight. It's a really solid game, but How Long To Beat pegs it at about ten hours to get through all the levels, and I have other games to play. I especially enjoyed some of the bosses -- Prince Froggy himself was a sufficiently cool boss to end on: you enter a castle room and he swallows you, and you fight him from inside his stomach. Gross, and cool!

[ 6:00 PM, 11/2/13 ]
I'm up to World 2-3 now, and it's sort of amazing that the SNES could handle this game back in 1995: lots of 3D effects and humongous sprites. It's both forgiving and not-forgiving at the same time, with a generous time limit to get Baby Mario back on your back when he falls off, but with tricky jumps and lots of obstacles to navigate. The levels are also pretty lengthy, with optional areas for collectibles, all of which add to your grade at the end of every level. I seem to be averaging in the seventies or so. The names of the levels and their associated level design gimmicks are really clever (who doesn't remember 'Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy') and the egg-throwing mechanic doesn't take that long to get used to and is used in lots of interesting ways so far. It's a shame that it's freezing up my system, but as long as it doesn't do it in the middle of a level it's something I can handle. :)

[ 5:08 PM, 11/2/13 ]
It's possible that Yoshi's Island doesn't like the Gameboy Player. I'll try and tough it out, but it means that updates will be slow, since it's frozen twice while trying to write here. So a brief radio blackout while I see what's the dilly yo.

[ 4:56 PM, 11/2/13 ]
This is tougher than I remember! I've lost a few Yoshis already, and I'm only starting World 1-3. It's very easy to drop off a ledge and, despite Yoshi's frantically pinwheeling legs, be unable to recover and get back to solid land. And… I see that it froze up. Let's see how often it saves. :P

[ 4:38 PM, 11/2/13 ]
The Gamecube is hooked up, the Gameboy Player is attached to the correct port, and the GBA cart for Yoshi's Island: Super Mario Advance 3 is ready to go! Thanks to Reba F. and Naomi for the donation and the suggestion! I've only played a handful of levels of this before, but I've seen enough to know that it was a cute and pretty ambitious platformer. Let's see how it goes!

[ 4:20 PM, 11/2/13 ]
Well, at 56% completion for the tutorial modes, I think I'm done with Dota 2 for now. The stage I reached was a match against bots, and hero I played was a demon called Lion, who just wasn't what I expected. I didn't really like any of his abilities and I found myself dying over and over to the bot playing Viper. The match dragged on until finally my bot allies essentially won the thing for us. Overall kind of a bummer, and a reminder that MOBAs have super-steep learning curves. Hero selection is very important for these games, so find someone you like or you won't have a good time. Gotta keep that in mind for next time, but for now I need a different kind of game to play. 

[ 3:12 PM, 11/2/13 ]
I've been in the 'try out several different heroes' section of the tutorial for awhile now, and am really enjoying how different they feel from each other. I've played as Dragon Knight, Sniper, Windrunner, and Sand King now, and they all seem to have positives and negatives, as you'd expect. Playing as Sand King in particular gave me more trouble than some of the others, but he made me laugh more than once: "I won't saaaand for this!" grumbles the giant desert scorpion. I think I'll move on to the next section of the tutorial now, even though it wants me to try eight new heroes before it marks this section complete. Maybe later.

[ 1:45 PM, 11/2/13 ]
Valve has gotten pretty good at tutorials. After completing the first two maps, I watched a short video that explained some more of the basics, and then a popup informed me that I had unlocked the full Dota 2 experience… or I could play some more tutorials. That's what I'm going to do, since the full experience fills me with trepidation. But I like that they presented it as an option!

[ 1:06 PM, 11/2/13 ]
Okay, maybe I'm starting to see why people like this sort of game. Lots of neat flavor to go alongside the feeling of playing an RPG very quickly. It looks like there might be some meat to this tutorial, too, since after the first map my tutorial progress is listed at 16%.

[ 12:34 PM, 11/2/13 ]
Up next is a little game called Dota 2, suggested by Jared Saramago. According to How Long To Beat, the time to get completely through this one is approximately 568 hours, which is a little silly. As a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game, this is one that will eat up as many hours as you're willing to give it -- one reason I've never tried it before. But today I've agreed to give it a shot, so I'll be playing through the tutorials Jared tells me were recently added. Let's see what this entry in the MOBA genre has to offer, shall we? I promise not to spend 568 hours on it!

[ 12:11 PM, 11/2/13 ]
What a cool game. I think I enjoyed it more this time than I did the first time through, actually. Time to make a sandwich or something and prepare for the next game!

[ 12:07 PM, 11/2/13 ]
Well, that was emotional. Sorry for not updating more frequently, but when Journey gets serious it gets serious! After the cave we climbed a snowy mountain and battled the elements, and I was alone again for awhile before meeting another golden buddy. Together we made the last leg of the journey to the summit, and then… the things happen that happen. It's not a good game to spoil. After the credits they show the PSN names of the companions you met along the way, and here are the folk who accompanied me for a time this morning: Sled68_, Leon-Moco, Si_Da, and Nanashineko.

[ 11:16 AM, 11/2/13 ]
A new buddy arrived! This one isn't golden like my other one, and she seems to be more my own level of experience, but I'm just glad to not be exploring this scary cave by myself. There are monsters in here, searching for us with bright blue lights. Tense!

[ 11:10 AM, 11/2/13 ]
She's gone, and this cave is getting scary! She just sat down and vanished, and now I'm all alone and there are scary sounds. This game, man!

[ 11:02 AM, 11/2/13 ]
The sun went down and now we're in a spooky cave.

[ 10:51 AM, 11/2/13 ]
Nope, all is well! She got up after a bit and led me to a flower blooming in the desert, just like the ones from another of thatgamecompany's games, Flower! And I got a trophy for it and everything! Thanks, anonymous journeying buddy! Oops, gotta go, she's on the move again!

[ 10:44 AM, 11/2/13 ]
My buddy sat down and I don't know why! Is she leaving? :(

[ 10:34 AM, 11/2/13 ]
I made a friend! She's all golden and has the world's longest scarf, and makes me feel inadequate! But she also seems to know where everything is, and has already shown me a couple hidden locations. I have to hurry to catch up now!

[ 10:10 AM, 11/2/13 ]
The HDMI inputs on my TV are switched, the PS3 is booted up, and I'm about to go on a Journey! Thanks to Kalia Pickett for the donation and the suggestion! This is a game I played through once, and thought it was brilliant, so I'm eager to dive back in and experience it one more time. My memory is a little fuzzy on the specifics, but I remember it being a great time, and the anonymous multiplayer was just incredible. Let's see who I meet on the way, if anyone!

[ 9:48 AM, 11/2/13 ]
…but of course, he wasn't really an alien. It was just another trick by that criminal mastermind, which is exactly as it should be. The ending song for Mega Man 2 is surprisingly downbeat, accompanying Mega Man as he walks through the different seasons to an uncertain future, but then the heroic theme song comes back on and leaves everybody wanting more. So that's the credits on my first game of the marathon! How Long To Beat lists Mega Man 2 at a main story average completion time of 2 hours, 59 minutes, so I'm a little ahead of the curve… and I'll have to be, as all the games I plan to play add up to about 41 hours of game!

[ 9:43 AM, 11/2/13 ]
It's probably tough to believe now, but few things were as surprising to the twelve-year-old me as the fact that the game didn't end after you got to the skull marker in Wily's Castle and fought Dr. Wily. The subsequent cave level with the dripping blood-like slime and complete lack of music just about blew my mind with the creepiness. And to get to the end of it and discover that Dr. Wily was an alien all along!!! Oh my goodness!

[ 9:34 AM, 11/2/13 ]
Second-most stressful part of the game, and one I've written about before: the Turret Boss that needs all of your Crash Bombs. Knowing how to handle it is key, especially since the game tempts you into using Crash Bombs in the previous levels by hiding E-Tanks and other goodies behind destructible walls. Luckily, this isn't my first Rodeo Man. Time to fight the bosses again!

[ 9:23 AM, 11/2/13 ]
I've always loved the part in Wily's Castle where you drop into the gross, dirty water in the basement. It always felt like the castle had a real sense of geography to it, unlike some of the castles in the later games. And does the giant robot fish show up anywhere else in the game? I only remember it here. These days that guy would get used everywhere in order to justify the cost of drawing and animating him, but he doesn't even show up in Bubble Man's stage, where you'd expect him to be.

[ 9:14 AM, 11/2/13 ]
The Dragon in Wily 1 is one of the best bosses ever, intimidating and scary, and I love the way he chases you before the battle starts. Just look at this guy:

Put this guy on a list of Best Bosses Ever
He's not even the real threat. I lost a life while he was chasing me because I got so stressed out that I missed one of the jumps. Next time around I showed him who's boss with the Quick Boomerangs.

[ 9:07 AM, 11/2/13 ]
Heat Man and Wood Man are no more, and now I'm listening to the Worst Sound In Videogames: the sound of Dr. Wily's saucer flying off to his castle for the last set of levels. I can't remember if it took this long in the first Mega Man, but here this high-pitched screeching is painful and seems to take forever. Part of its charm, I guess. We're rewarded with the best song in the game when we arrive at Wily 1, so maybe that eases the sting a little.

[ 8:54 AM, 11/2/13 ]
So long to Air Man and Crash Man. The rust is still showing a bit, as I had a few silly mistakes on Air Man's level (why yes, I would love to forget about the egg-dropping birds and get hit by one just as I jump, that would be perfect! Ryu would be proud), but Crash Man has an easy stage as long as you remember which ladder to climb, and everybody likes a free E-Tank.

[ 8:36 AM, 11/2/13 ]
Bubble Man, Flash Man, and Quick Man have been pushed off their mortal coils. Quick Man's stage gave me some problems with the lasers (even after all these years!), but after a couple tries I made it through without using the Time Stopper.

[ 8:21 AM, 11/2/13 ]
While Mega Man gets equipped with the Metal-Blade, let me back up. I chose Normal for this playthrough, which makes my early death even more of a bummer, and I won't be doing any fancy order this time around. We're talking straight-up weakness path through the game, so next stop Bubble Man!

[ 8:17 AM, 11/2/13 ]
Yeowch! First death on Metal Man's stage, just as I was congratulating myself for not attempting the E-Tank trap. My play this morning is already a lot sloppier than usual. Is my coffee ready yet? :P 

[ 8:10 AM, 11/2/13 ]
Breakfast has been had, coffee is brewing, and it's time to begin! I'll be starting with Mega Man 2, one of my very favorite games. I'll be playing the virtual console edition of the game on the Wii U. Time to get started!

[ 7:48 AM, 11/2/13 ]
Good morning, everybody! It's finally the day of the Extra Life Charity Marathon, and I'm ready to game for 24 hours straight! I'll be live-blogging as I go, so buckle up for an account of my exploits today! For starters, I'll be making eggs, bacon, and toast for breakfast energy. Back in a few!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Extra Life Charity Marathon

Hey everybody! Pardon the interruption of my usual videogame-related ramblings for something that's actually important... but don't worry, it's game-related too. This November, I'll be participating in the Extra Life marathon to support Boston Children's Hospital, and I could use your help!

The marathon begins at 8 AM on November 2, and it'll run for 24 hours, during which time I'll play a whole bunch of videogames, live-blogging about each one and drinking lots of coffee. You can donate directly at my Extra Life page, located here (Jeff Libby's Extra Life Donation Page) -- it's for a great cause, and every little bit will help kids who need it! Let's show how much good gamers can do!

I'm going to need plenty of games to fill up twenty-four hours, and so I'm asking for suggestions! I know I'll be starting bright and early at 8 AM on November 2 with Mega Man 2 (because of course I am!), but I ask that when you send in your donation (Helpful Reminder Link) you include a recommendation of a game for me to play during the Marathon. I have a Sega Genesis and an NES hooked up, and if I can track down relatively inexpensive copies of games for them I'll do so. Try not to recommend incredibly rare games, because that would be trickier. I have access to a PS3, an Xbox 360, a Wii U, and their various digital services, so that's all fair game.

(Get it?) :-P

I'm hoping to play a lot of games during the Marathon, so games that take an hour or two to get through are probably best. But I'm open to suggestions, and a big donation could have me trying to tackle an entire jRPG in the time-frame, if that's what the people want!

I'll update this post with the box-art of the games I'll be playing. Let's fill up that donation meter -- do it for the kids!

Extra Life Charity Maration (Jeff Libby's Extra Life Donation Page)

Thanks to Ryan Penk for the donation, and for recommending Dynamite Headdy. I've never played it, but I've heard good things! I'll be playing the version in Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection for the 360.

Thanks to Reba F. for the donation, and for recommending Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. I've never gotten all the way through it, so much of this one will be new to me!

Thanks to Kalia Pickett for the donation, and the recommendation of Journey! If anyone else happens to be walking through that desert on November 2, we might end up journeying together!

Thanks to Jared Saramago for the donation, and "thanks" to him for "recommending" Ride to Hell: Retribution and its 16% Metacritic score. If the badness becomes too much to bear, his secondary recommendation is DOTA 2, which I've not yet experienced.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Last of Us

I finished The Last of Us recently, after borrowing it from Krumpynut for the PS3. (Thanks, Krumpy!) Here's the short version: I loved it, as you might expect. This is a tremendously impressive game, and even if you think you're sick of "zombie" games, you should still play it.

Wait, let me back up and dispel your worries. I won't be talking about story spoilers for The Last of Us in this post. This is one of those games that goes many interesting and unusual directions over its twenty or so hours, and you should go in unspoiled. Know that it's a very interesting story with believable characters and some impressive set-pieces. This shouldn't surprise you, given that Naughty Dog is responsible for the Uncharted series as well, and they've only gotten better with this new game.

What should surprise you is how much better the gameplay is than in that series. As impressive as the ridiculously-cinematic Uncharted 2: Among Thieves could be at times, everything fell apart towards the end when you needed to engage in extremely protracted gun battles with seemingly endless hordes of enemy soldiers, each one a bullet-sponge of epic proportions. The final few hours were a tremendous slog, and really served to undermine the mostly-good experience up to that point. How does The Last of Us avoid that mistake? A few ways:

1) Stealth is Often an Option 

This isn't a stealth game, like Thief: The Dark Project - you will be getting into gunfights with the various enemies you encounter. But in most situations, you'll be presented with an area in which those enemies are carefully patrolling or guarding specific locations, and you have enough maneuverability to
circle them and take them out silently. If you remain unseen you can then proceed to the next foe, and if you are seen you'll have fewer enemies to deal with during the ensuing gun battle. The tension of creeping up on foes is fun to start with, but the combat is solid enough that even when I was eventually seen I didn't feel the desire to reload a save and try again. Engaging in combat didn't feel like I had "failed" a stealth section. Instead, it felt like a natural extension of the story. An ordinary guy isn't going to be able to act like the world's most deadly ninja all the time, and sometimes you're going to get seen. I like the balance between the two styles much more than the seemingly endless waves of enemy soldiers you have to fight towards the end of Uncharted.

2) Very Powerful Tools, Limited Uses

One of the reasons that stealth is such an enjoyable part of the game involves the weapons and items at your disposal. You can pick up bottles and bricks from the environment and throw them to draw the attention of enemies, and a carefully-thrown brick can also stun certain foes. By drawing an enemy's attention to one location, you can quickly sneak up on them from behind and perform a one-hit kill using a shiv crafted from items in the environment. One enemy down! The problem is that you lose your shiv in the process, and you can only carry two or three of them (until you find the pieces to make more).

Or is that a problem? It really makes you treasure those shivs, because assessing a situation and determining the most dangerous threat, and then easily eliminating it, can turn a very difficult engagement into something much more manageable... but what if you encounter something even more dangerous just around the corner? This is further complicated by a class of enemies that can perform one-hit kills on you, which require you (in some situations) to use up those precious shivs.

3) Crafting for Fun and Profit (But Really for Survival)

In most games with crafting systems, you gradually discover an extensive web of crafting recipes that allow you to make dozens of different items. Not so in The Last of Us. Here there are only five or six different items to make, which makes sense: in a real survival situation you would focus on acquiring the things that work, and once you know those things work you would make them exclusively. Almost everywhere Joel explores has materials scattered around the environment, or in supply rooms or caches, and you really get into the groove of rapidly picking them all up, as quickly as you can. Since the game doesn't pause when Joel crafts, you find yourself hurriedly fashioning health kits, shivs, and melee upgrades (tying a blade to a plank of wood) in every small supply closet you find, while frightening creatures lurch around outside. It's tense, and very very thrilling.

Everyone will tell you to play The Last of Us for the story, and I'm not really any different; it's a phenomenal story, and it's the main reason to play. But I'll also tell you that the gameplay is very solid, and works to build the apocalyptic mood in a way that doesn't feel forced. Bioshock Infinite had you scrounging around in trash cans, eating thousands of burgers and bags of chips, but it never felt like there was any reason that you would be doing that other than 'it's a Bioshock game!' In The Last of Us the gameplay and the story tie together in a believable way, and that helps make it one of the best games of the year. I don't know if we'll ever get The Last of Us 2: More of Us, but I'd play it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Does the Hedgehog Sing?

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon The Megas and their album 'Get Equipped,' which contains vocal arrangements of songs from Mega Man 2, and fell pretty much instantly in love with it. (Buy it here!) What I didn't expect was how much my four-year-old daughter Naomi would love it, too, considering that the extent of her Mega Man knowledge was that her daddy really liked his games and that he's blue.
Now you know as much about Mega Man as Naomi did... before the Megas!
I left the CD on while bringing Naomi to preschool one morning, and instead of asking for Winnie the Pooh or one of her other favorites, she said 'Daddy, can you turn this up?' I did, and when the song ended Naomi asked me to start it over again.

Welcome to my level, my name is Metal Man
I throw Metal Blades from my metal hands!

I think part of the appeal for Naomi is that each of the Robot Masters has a concept she can easily grasp. Metal Man is made of metal, obviously, and right there he's saying hello to Mega Man and warning him what he can do. Heat Man likes fire and things that are hot. Quick Man is the quickest of all. Bubble Man tells us:

I swim fast
I'll fight strong
You won't last
I'll live on.
This is my redemption song.

Naomi likes it because she understands that Bubble Man shoots bubbles, and swims, and lives underwater, and I like it because the entire song is about how Bubble Man feels hurt because he has the silliest power: he shoots bubbles and swims. Even when I played Mega Man 2 for the first time, at twelve years old or so, my friends and I all internalized that Bubble Man didn't seem to be in the same league as the other Robot Masters.

Out of the eight robots, of all of us
My power is so ridiculous.

And on this album, he knows it. But the very best thing the Megas have done in this song is that while Bubble Man is singing about the redemption he so desperately wants, we the Mega Man playing public know that he gets it, if not in the way he wanted. After all, the final form of Dr. Wily is weak only to the Bubble Lead. Bubble Man is unappreciated, but his weapon, at the end, is the most powerful one of all.

Naomi also likes that Mega Man is a robot (because who doesn't like robots?), but he also has a daddy. His daddy is a scientist named Dr. Light, and he has a song about how he made Mega Man to do good things in the world, and that song is now a personal favorite of mine:

Latex and steel, zeroes and ones make up my son.
This world gave me no child so I built one.

These lyrics are clever, clever, clever. The Megas have an incredible take on Crash Man too, and now for me Crash Man has always wanted to break free of his programming and see Dr. Wily defeated. And he's got a point, too, where he says:

Closer draws the final hour
To break Wily's walls you will need my power.

He's right. Without the Crash Bombs you're not getting past the Wall Boss in Wily-4, but I never considered the possibility that Crash Man could actually want to help Mega Man. It makes the lament at the end of the song, with repeated lines of 'Down falls Crash Man' completely earned. I love that these songs give more depth to the Robot Masters, and in interesting, sometimes unexpected ways. Air Man is an early beneficiary:

Do you know what it's like to be built this way?
With only the power to push others away?

Because he's got a fan in his chest, right? Get it? Get it? At one point he talks about flying high above the city of Monsteropolis, which thoroughly confused Naomi. "Is Air Man going to fight Monster Octopus?" she asked me. When I stopped cracking up, I told her that Launch Octopus wouldn't show up until Mega Man X, and she nodded sagely even though she has no idea what that is. I love that little kid. :D

So it's highly recommended. I'm not sure if the Megas are still recording music, but 'Get Equipped' is phenomenal for any fan of Mega Man 2, and possibly their daughters! After listening to this CD for many, many listens, and deciding it was time for a change of pace, I put in a CD of Sonic the Hedgehog remixes. When I told her what the music was, Naomi piped up from the backseat. 'Does the hedgehog sing?'

Well... sometimes he does. Sometimes he does. But not like Metal Man.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Discovery: King's Quest: Quest for the Crown

Summer sales abound! Between GOG and Steam, there are a lot of options for the thrifty among us aiming to fill out our PC game collections. I recently picked up a whole collection of Sierra games (all of the King's Quests, Space Quests, and Police Quests), which means I've now been able to check out where it all began: King's Quest: Quest for the Crown. Expect spoilers from here on out, but honestly, you probably should have played it by now. I feel like I should have!

Watch out for the crocodiles in the moat!
The Sierra 'Quest' games were my PC games of choice during the late eighties and early nineties, but somehow I managed to miss the one that started it all. The first one I played was King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne on my dad's Mac Plus (in monochrome!), followed by the IBM PC version of King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human at my neighbor Joel's house. They were fascinating examples of early adventure gaming, but we never got very far in either of them; in the days before Gamefaqs, if you weren't allowed to call one of the (expensive) tip lines or had access to a strategy guide, you generally played one of these games until you got stuck, and then wandered around the few screens you could before falling prey to a random death of some kind.

It seems such random deaths began with the very first game. My search for a suitable screenshot to demonstrate such a death took me two screens away from the starting location: I pushed a funny-looking rock, which moved, but unfortunately it moved *downhill* and crushed my now-lifeless body. Now I'll know not to stand in that spot when I push the rock, but is that the sort of person you want to trust with your kingdom? I'd say Graham already failed the test of kingship, two screens away from where he started.

At least that death happened right in the beginning. Such instant game overs are possible throughout, and they're not always telegraphed so obviously. In some cases you might enter a room, fail to do something you need to do, and then find yourself trapped in a subsequent location with no way to recover. Sneaking around a witch's house while invisible? I hope you remembered to ransack her cupboard for the cheese within, or you might not have a way to deal with the giant rat that waits for you later in the adventure. Or maybe you didn't pick up the mushroom on one screen before you jumped down a hole on another screen, and now you're trapped in the Land of the Leprechauns with no means of escape.

The story is simple and to the point. King Edward has lost the Three Treasures of Daventry to treachery and deceit, and now the kingdom is in poor shape. He needs a hero to find the Three Treasures and restore Daventry to its former glory. Perhaps that hero will be our character, Graham! Unless he crushes himself beneath a rock two screens from the start. I hear that can happen.

The Three Treasures are varied and interesting:
+ A chest that never empties of gold coins
+ A magic mirror that reveals the future
+ A shield that's really awesome

The instruction manual contains the story of the three separate villains who tricked King Edward into giving up the Treasures, and while the villains show up in the game, the story doesn't really give you any clues to finding them. The Treasures are just sort of there, not even in the possession of the villains that took them. It's like once the Witch got her hands on the Treasure she wanted, she stuck it in a random spot in Daventry somewhere and forgot about it. The sequels have a stronger connection between story and gameplay.

One interesting thing about King's Quest I is that many of the puzzles have multiple solutions. If there is a non-violent or generally more clever solution to a puzzle, that's the one that will give you the most points. On my first playthrough (which I just mistyped as 'okaythrough' ha! Appropriate) I did not achieve the maximum number of points, so clearly I missed out on some of the optimal solutions.

On this merely Okaythrough, I didn't get the clue I needed for this until later. Whoops!
Fortunately, in this case the gnome lets me proceed with my adventure by leaving me a gold key. The gold key opens a door to the Land of the Clouds, where one of the Three Treasures awaits. If there was any question that this was not the optimal solution, check out one screen of the multi-screen stairway that the gold key unlocks:

Graham's nemesis: stairs! Step carefully!
So the game is friendly enough to give you a second chance to proceed, but it doesn't reward you for failing the puzzle. Instead, it gives you an annoying, patience-testing route to the Land of the Clouds, which is exactly as it should be! If you successfully guess the gnome's name, you get a less irritating way up there. Very smart game design.

On the whole, if you have the patience to reload earlier saved games and good-naturedly start over when you lose or get stuck, King's Quest I is still worth playing. My final score on this Okaythrough was 117/158, so I have lots of room for improvement. If you do load it up and try to beat my thoroughly average score, be sure to watch out for boulders... and stairs... and rats... and Leprechauns... and...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Analysis: Videogames and Tradition

Where do traditions come from? You do something once, and later on when you're in the same position or circumstance, you do it that way again, possibly because that's how you did it before. A third time you have even more precedent for doing it that way, until that's just the way you always do it. After awhile it's possible you don't even think about it anymore, and the various other choices you might have had at that set of circumstances don't even seem like choices anymore. Don't believe me? Then why do you always jump into the doors leading to the Robot Masters' rooms?

Admit it! Or maybe you slide. But you certainly don't just walk through.
I'm not talking about gameplay actions that have tangible benefits or rewards. I mean, everyone tries to land near the top of the flagpole at the end of a Super Mario Bros. level, even on stages where it's impossible to reach the highest point (and therefore receive a valuable 1-Up). Points and scoring may not be as prized as they used to be, but we still value seeing the highest number we can achieve pop up by that flagpole. No, I mean the sort of actions that have no real benefit but that we do anyway, like putting Sonic in his 'I'm about to fall off the edge!' pose while riding moving blocks in any of the Sonic the Hedgehog games.
I'm not the only one who does this, am I?
Maybe this one arose from boredom, originally. While you're riding one of these blocks across the lava in the Marble Zone, there isn't really anything else you can do. You're just along for the ride, until it's time to leap off onto a platform and proceed with the level. So why wouldn't you fill the time by creeping Sonic forward until his feet are on the very edge of the block and he begins to do his 'Losing my balance!' animation? As you can see from the shot above, now I even do this when there isn't much time to ride on the block at all! Tradition.

As we all get older (it's true! We're all getting older!), we have more time in which to develop traditions like this. I played Sonic the Hedgehog on Thanksgiving, a long, long time ago, and ever since I've tried to play through the Blue Blur's first adventure on Thanksgiving, every Thanksgiving. That's a lot of Green Hill, Marble, Spring Yard, Labyrinth, Star Light, Scrap Brain, and Final Zones. But it means that I've had a lot of time to solidify the way I play through this game, and it recently occurred to me that I might have some developed some traditions that are less than cosmetic.

Take this one, for example. I have thought (basically forever!) that in Marble Zone Act 3, you simply could not reach the passage on the left side of the screen in the following screenshot.

For fifteen years, at least, I've always wondered why those blocks over there existed.
One of the first rules of game design is that you don't place anything you don't need, so I should have realized that those blocks on the left had to serve some purpose. But after playing this level in this way for so long, I internalized the knowledge that this is just the way you go, and never questioned it. Until now, that is! Taking it slowly, I began to systematically explore the beginning of Marble Zone Act 3, and I discovered something silly.

How have I not seen this passage heading left in fifteen years?
Instead of running down one of the first slopes in the stage, like ya do, if you go slowly you see a passage that cuts to the left behind a rising and falling wall-platform. If you go through this entrance, there's a short passageway that eventually leads you to break those mystery blocks that confounded me for so long. It's not a particularly difficult stretch, but neither is the way I've taken for all these years. It's just different, and seems to exist for the slow and careful Sonic, rather than the speedy and impatient Sonic that I suspect most of us play. But I love that it exists, and I think it's hilarious that I've never found it before, despite playing Sonic the Hedgehog year after year. Tradition!

What sort of videogame traditions have you guys developed over time?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Discovery: Stinger, for NES

One of the big advantages of working at a games company involves the high percentage of games that end up on the Free Table in the kitchen. Instead of taking the trouble to list them on Amazon or eBay or set up a garage sale, sometimes it's just easier and faster to leave unwanted games on the Free Table. That's when classic gaming vultures like me can swoop in and look for diamonds in the rough. I don't remember for sure if that's how I acquired the copy of Stinger I found in my stack of NES games in the basement, but I think it must have been, as I'd never played it before. But now I have!

Stinger, for the NES. I always thought that was a picture of a mosquito.
I didn't know anything about Stinger, just that it was apparently a second-tier shmup by Konami. Until yesterday I hadn't taken that close a look at the cover art, and I seem to remember as a kid thinking that it depicted a mosquito or a bee, which would make sense given the name. But nope, that stinger-looking orange glow on the right side of the illustration seems to be exhaust, and to my grown-up eyes it looks more like a spaceship wearing boxing gloves. Isn't that a Twinbee thing?

Stage 1: a cute pastoral scene above a road
Well yes, it is. The plot thickens when loading up the game, because Stinger is a horizontally-scrolling shmup... with small bells that emerge from the clouds, which earn you points when you juggle them. Just like Twinbee. If this were a vertically-scrolling shmup, I'd swear that this was a Twinbee game.

Stage 2: Oh.
After taking a quick jaunt to Wikipedia, it turns out that Stinger is the American version of the second game in the Twinbee series: Moero TwinBee: Cinnamon-hakase wo Sukue!, which means 'Burn Twinbee! Rescue Dr. Cinammon!' I take it that the man being abducted from Konami HQ during the opening cutscene must be Dr. Cinammon, and that my ship (the Stinger, in the American version; a descendent of Twinbee, in the Japanese version) must fly through both horizontal and vertical stages to rescue him. In horizontal stages you can fire an upwards heart that doesn't affect enemies but that will bounce the bells, and after a number of bounces a bell will cycle through a number of different colors that correspond to different power-ups. In vertical stages you don't have the heart shot, but you do have a bomb button to attack ground targets. In both types of stages, destroying ground targets will have different beneficial effects or power-ups. Uncovering a question mark can have one of several effects, or nothing.

Stage 3: Desert, with a question mark icon. The real question is why I'm fighting flying shoes.
As befits a game in the Twinbee series, enemies and bosses are very, very peculiar. I've reached the end of Stage 3 in a handful of plays, and I've already fought various types of food, flying shoes, and coat hangers. Check out the first three bosses!

A slice of watermelon?
This octopus fires his tentacles, and then regrows them!
A... faucet? I don't really know what this is!
It's a pretty weird game, Stinger, but the variety makes it quite entertaining. If I have one complaint so far it's that the horizontal stages seem to go on a little long, and feel about twice as long as the more traditionally vertical stages. I'm assuming that the alternating will continue, so once I defeat this faucet-thing I'll know if all of the vertical levels are as short as the undersea Stage 2.

I'll leave this here, for now. Current record: 458,200 on Stage 3.


I still have not exceeded my high score, but I did discover something interesting. After beating the first stage watermelon boss, a new message appeared on-screen: 'Let's Go Bonus Game!' This began a short segment with no enemies, only clouds, and lots of potential for juggling bells. So that was interesting! It seems you get the Bonus Game after a level if you grab a certain face icon (Dr. Cinammon?). Quite a bit going on in this game!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cutscene: Time Passes

So a year and a half went by, eventfully. Now it's time to get back into the really serious business of writing about videogames! This past weekend I cleaned out my basement, attempting to make a nice den for the playing of old videogame consoles, and I remembered that this blog was just rotting away in a corner of the internet somewhere. Time to dust the old girl off and take her for a spin, car analogies stretched to their limit!

For this new edition of Level-Minded Lys, I've decided to rearrange the labels I'm using for categories, the better to keep my thoughts organized in reasonable fashion. Here are the ones I plan to be using at the outset, but expect to see more as they spring to mind:

Appreciation - One of the reasons anyone starts a blog is to share information about much-loved topics. This category will include articles where I wax on and on about why I like the games I do. Expect rambling thoughts about Mega Man, Metal Gear, Ninja Gaiden, Final Fantasy, and the like under this heading.

Discovery - Cleaning out my basement made me realize just how many old games I possess, some of which I find I've never actually played before, or haven't played in years and years. This category will contain accounts of my first experiences with these games. As new games come out find you'll find my first impressions here. I have a stack of games planned for this category already.

Analysis - One of the reasons I named this blog 'Level-Minded' was because I wanted to go into detail about specific levels in videogames. I find that game reviews discuss things from a very general perspective, but leave many of the specifics concerning level design and area themes to a minimum. That's to minimize spoilers, sure, but we're all friends here and you won't be making purchasing decisions based on these pieces, right?

Let's Suffer - I find as I make my way around the internet that many of my opinions concerning games are unpopular ones. Just consider the Let's Play my buddy Brickroad did for that NES classic 8-Eyes (I lost a bet. Let's play 8-Eyes!) I loved this game when I was a kid; Brickroad (and the internet) not so much. So I plan to write Let's Play accounts of unpopular games under the Let's Suffer category. It should be fun. My playthrough of Athena from a few years back would go under this category.

Off Topic - The good old catch-all category. Anything that doesn't fit somewhere else will go here, like my current excuses for not writing very frequently.

And that's it! Let's get this party started again! For the first time! For the last time! For great justice.