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.