Sunday, June 29, 2008

Why do I keep playing this?

I must have put 20 hours in to Etrian Odyssey by now. Still it feels like I have gotten no where, Im only on the 4th floor of the dungeon. I must have gone through those same four floors a hundred times by now. Each time getting a little bit stronger and being able to explore a little bit further.

This game really is the ultimate grind and thats all the game is, grinding. No fancy story, interesting characters or impressive graphics. Just me watching my characters slowly grow stronger while battling the same enemies over and over again. Its kinda like watching paint dry. Still I keep playing it and I actually get excited when I after half an hour is rewarded by getting to allocate one (one!) skill point. Im almost ashamed of admitting to enjoying this game.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A slow tedious grind

I have been playing Etrian Odyssey on the train to work the past week. Its a painfully hard old school dungeon crawler. The gameplay can best be described as a slow, repetitious never ending grind where you slowly watch your characters grow. This might not sound all that fun and it shouldnt be but for some reason Im enjoying it.

Maybe it just scratches my RPG itch, that part of me that needs something to level up. Or maybe its the unfairly high difficulty that appeals to me, the game keeps you on your toes by making even the most common enemies strong enough to kill you. Or maybe its the focus on gameplay without a grand story to get in the way like in most modern day RPGs. Whatever it is its working because this is the game I keep choosing to spend my commute playing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Its like a fighter... only its a shooter

Usually in Shmups you can collect different power-ups to customize your ship. Collecting these power-ups and then staying alive to keep them is an essential part of the gameplay. Not in Shikigami tho, here your character already comes fully powered up.

This might sound like it would make the game more repetitious and lessen the replay value but the exact opposite is true. Instead of having to customize your ship by choosing which power-ups to collect mid game you do it by choosing which character to play as before you start the game, like you would in a fighter. Each character has his or her own attacks, feel and storyline making you want to try all of them and in the process replaying the game several times. Not to mention if you want to fully master all of the characters, then you will be playing this game for months. This is a clever way of adding replay value to a game that only takes 20 minutes to play through.

What the developers have completely failed at is balancing the characters. Some are way over powered while others are nearly useless. I only enjoy playing with about half of them while I cant stand the other half. Five good characters is still plenty but I would of course have preferred it if all ten were fun to play with. The game tries to balance this out somewhat by making the weaker character score higher but the higher score cant make up for them being almost unplayable.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Returning to the world of Persona

I have been playing Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 on and off for the past year. Its a wonderful game but its also a very long game and too repetitive to hold my interest for a 100 hours, which is about as long as I expect the game will last me. I have been taking long breaks in between, playing the game for a few days and putting maybe 20-30 hours in to it and then not touching it for several months.

Playing a game for such a long period of time makes it harder to follow the story which is very important in a RPG but I still enjoy the feeling of having this huge game that I can chip away at in between shorter gaming experiences.

I finished Pókemon Mystery Dungeon and kicked Bowsers ass in Mario World today. So now when I have finished up most of the games I was playing I can return to Persona and after a few hours of playtime I must say that it feels great to be back.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Amazingly lucky!

I just beat the final boss in Final Fantasy IX and I just had to pause the game to write this. I had an amazing amount of luck against him. We were almost an hour in to the fight and I know he couldnt last much longer when he attacks me with his most powerful attack and wipes out my entire part except one character, Steiner. The problem is that Steiner is stuck in berserk mode and I could do nothing other then watch him attack the boss over and over again.

The funny thing is that the boss kept hitting him with an attack that lowered his health to 1hp and then with a stong thunder attack which Steiner happened to be able to absorb and heal himself. If the boss had decided to use an attack that wasnt electricity based I would be dead, instead he kept knocking Steiners hp down to 1 and then heal him again over and over again. Meanwhile Steiner still stuck in berserk mode kept striking the boss continuously. While this was taking place I could do nothing but sit there and watch for a good minute or two hoping that Steiner would survive long enough to win the battle. Against all odds he did and I couldnt help to mumble the words "fucking epic" to myself while watching the boss slowly slump together and die.

The underlying theme of Final Fantasy IX

I picked up Final Fantasy IX again today. Its been a while since I played it but so it took me a few hours to get back in to it. As Im nearing the end of the game I think I think I understand what Sakaguchi and the other guys at Square are trying to tell player. The whole game is about finding your purpose in life.

In the early parts of the game all of the main characters find themselves without a reason to exist. The game is very much the story of these characters search for a meaning in life. Their fight to save the kingdom of Alexandria initially fills this void but as the game goes on they find a deeper meaning.

The secondary characters also support this theme, you have both the Black Mages and later the Genomes who are all freed form both mental and physical slavery. Once they gain their freedom they at first dont see any reason for life outside of servitude and are consumed by their fear of death. As they mature and comes to grip with freedom as well as their inevitable death they come to find their own reasons for living. This can be simple things that bring happiness to their lives, like raising an animal or enjoying music. This is a theme I can very much relate to. Having recently left school and graduated in to adulthood I too face have to find my own purpose in life. Maybe thats why Im enjoying the story so much. Its strangely comforting to see these polygonal characters finding happiness in the simple things in life and being very satisfied with that.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A cute fluffy Castlevania made of marshmallows and flowers

An hour or so in to Dracula X I rescued Maria. A 12 year old vampire hunter who had ventured in to the Castle to rescue her sister. To my surprise I was given the option to play as her instead of the rather dull and generic Bellmont who I had believed to be the games only playable character.

Rather then the whip she uses white doves to fight off the enemies. Not only that, instead of the traditional secondary weapons like axes and knives she uses cute animals including a cat and a turtle. This goes completely against the Castlevania conventions and I love it. I never really liked Castlevanias dark gothic style so Maria fits me perfectly. Playing as a cute little girl and her animal friends really cheers up the whole game. Not only that Komami also added flowers to the menus and a new colorful game over screen to even further change the tone of the game when playing as Maria.

I think this is so awesome that I never changed back and played through the whole game with Maria. Now having finished the game is this the best old school Castlevania like so many say? I might just say yes because of the addition of Maria otherwise I think I liked Super Castlevania IV a little bit more.

Old school Castlevania goodness

Snooping around some of the shadier parts of the Internet I found a hacked version of Akumajō Dracula X Chi no Rondo for the Wii Virtual console. Some generous soul had ported it over to pal format so that we westerners also could enjoy it.

In case youre not a Castlevania nerd you might not know about this game. Dracula X is a Castlevania game that came out for the PC Engine Super CD in Japan back in 93. Its considered by many to be the best traditional Castlevania and I have wanted to try it out for quite some time. A remake recently came out for the PSP but since I dont have that system and needless to say I dont have a PC Engine with the Super CD add-on so this is perfect for me.

I very much enjoy the pre Symphony of the Night era Castlevania games so Im really happy to be able to play a perfect port of it for Wii, in 480p none the less.

Friday, June 13, 2008

My comfort blanket

2D Mario games have a very special place in my heart. Their simplistic platforming is the closest I feel we can ever get to pure gaming. Their colorful style and carefully crafted levels appeal to in a way no other game can. Maybe it is because my first game was a Mario game, the game that made me fall in love with video games and has kept me hooked ever since.

These games have in a way also become my comfort blanket. Whenever I feel sad or worried they help to calm me down. When my life is changing they help to ease the transition with their never ending simple brand of fun. I have been having some problems in the family recently so I have been playing a lot of Super Mario World. Especially the beginning part of the game is absolutely wonderful. I have actually started an additional file so that I can go through the early parts of the game again as I finish up my first file.

The same goes for the first world in Super Mario Bros 3. I used to have that game on the computer back in school so that I could play through the first few levels between classes. I would do this again and again. Not only was it fun but it also helped me clear my head and relax me. The newer hand held versions of these games are a God sent. With their added save function and portable nature I can just open up my DS and visit the Mushroom Kingdom for a few minutes whenever I feel the need.

Getting stuck on the last boss

Something that really annoys me are over powered final bosses, especially in RPGs. You have finished almost the entire game and all you have to do is go and beat up the final boss to see the ending. The story is about to be wrapped up and you know you are going to be treated to a sweet ending cinematic, not to mention that satisfying feeling that comes with beating a game. But it too often turns out that to beat the final boss you have to first spend an hour or two on mindless leveling. Then you can return, beat up the boss and finally finish the game.

Why force the player to do this? The developer knows what level the player will be at and can adjust the last boss after this, like ever other boss. Why make him completely over powered? Is it to artificially prolong the game so that they can brag about it being 50+ hours? Is it some sadistic tactic to show the player how bad ass the final boss is? Either way it annoys me to no end.

This was the reason I never finished Final Fantasy 7, I just couldnt beat Sephiroth at my level. After that long ass game I just couldnt motivate myself to leave the final dungeon and go level up my character. I regret to this day not beating that game, so much so that I have considered replaying it several times.

Why am I whining about this now, over ten years after FF7 came out? It turns out this is also the case in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. I have soldiered through that game all the way to the final boss and there is no way I can beat him, I cant even get close. I have to do some serious leveling and I dont know if the game is worth it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Putting together a jigsaw puzzle

The story in Castle of Shikigami 3 is very much like a jigsaw puzzle. For ever character you play as you will understand the story and the various characters a little bit better.

All the characters have their own unique stories that feel like nothing other then a surreal mess that doesnt make any sense at all looked at individually. As you play as the different characters you will be able to piece the story together and somewhat figure out whats going on.

The problem is that a lot of the pieces are missing and 90% of the conversations in the game are just plain weird and doesnt make sense, they even contradict the story presented while playing as other characters. Add to this that some of the characters seem to be aware that they are in a video game and constantly comment on it.

I read a review that compared the story to that in European existentialist literature. Either way its weird on so many levels that its perfect for giving the game a surreal atmosphere that matches the psychedelic visuals of the game and the almost trance like state you have to be in to handle the more complex bullet patterns.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Shmups and the hit box

In Shooters your ship or character in the case of the Shikigami games has whats called a hit box. Thats the only part of your character that will actually take damage, the bullets will just pass though the rest of the body. In bullet hell games the hit box is usually very small so its only the very center of your character that has to be kept safe. Figuring out the size of the box is necessary to be able to handle the extreme amount of bullets in these type of games. Once you get a feel for it you will be able to carefully slide through the small space between bullets and get out of seemingly impossible situations.

In Castle of Shikigami 3 the hit box will actually light up when you get close to the bullets which makes it easier to dodge them. This is something I really love about this game. In most shooters the only way to figure out the size of the box is by dieing repeatedly.

The concept of a hit box at first feels weird and unnatural but it has its benefits. Thanks to it it the bullet count can be insanely high and the bullet patterns much tighter and more impressive.

Improving my bullet hell skills

I have gotten a lot better at Castle of Shikigami 3. At first it seemed impossibly hard. Now I have been able to beat it with two characters on normal using less then 5 continues (which is what you start out with). Its funny how when I finally unlocked free play after playing for some set number of hours I no longer needed it.

Its satisfying to feel that you are getting better at something and is able to pull of things that at first seemed impossible. I trained myself by replaying the harder sections in practice mode and by turning down the difficulty setting to very easy, which would still probably be the very hard mode in most games. This helped me to get a feel for my characters hit box and the movement of the bullets. Im also getting better at seeing when its getting too crazy and I have to use a bomb to clear the screen. I still have problems with this tho. It requires a split second decision and way to often I take way to big risks when I should just use a bomb.

Im gonna keep playing and try beating the game with as many characters as possible. Also I will hopefully get good enough that I can beat the game on one continue. Thats still far off but it would feel amazing to pull it off.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Gaming extacy

I was playing Shikigami 3 this morning and I was at the second to last boss. I only had one life left, no continues and no bombs, so I couldnt survive getting hit. The boss kept spewing out some of the biggest and most complicated bullet patterns I have ever seen. The whole screen was a beautiful inferno of colors.

I successfully maneuvered through these complex designs for about a minute or two. I was at the edge of my seat completely focused on the bullets around me and the small hit-box in the center of my characters. Of course I couldnt keep this up for long but that short time that I did was some of the most intense and most satisfying gaming I have ever done. I see now why people fall completely in love with these insanely hard bullet hell shooters.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A bottle of Guinness and the last hours of Snake Eater

Tonight I poured myself a Guinness and sat down to finish Metal Gear Solid 3. The beer was nice and creamy and the ending of the game was equally pleasant. Metal gear works best when there is as little gameplay as possible and the last hours of the game mostly consisted of cut scenes, so it worked very well.

It really is the story in combination with Kojimas sense of detail and quirky gameplay ideas that make the games worth playing. The basic gameplay is average at best and I recommend turning the difficulty down as low as possible so that one can focus on the truly great parts of the game. I played it on easy and looking back I regret not playing on very easy.

It feels like Metal Gear 3 is an attempt to build a great game upon an outdated foundation. With that I mean that the controls and the underlying gameplay is still that of a very early 3D game. A ton gameplay mechanics and beautiful graphics have been added on to it but it doesnt work well since the foundation is still flawed. It sounds like they have completely rebuilt the game from the ground up in the 4th Solid game. If that is true it has the potential to be a truly great game unlike the good and very good games that preceded it.

A beautiful psychedelic dream-like journey

I have never played a shooter other then the Shikigami series that had much of a story. When I played the second game I didnt understand any of it since I was playing a Japanese copy of it. In the third game its all translated but it isnt helping much. I have no idea whats going on. The translation is terrible and the story doesnt make much sense if you havent played the earlier games in English. Still something tells me that even if I had I still wouldnt know what was going on.

The whole thing has a weird surreal feel to it, even the characters themselfs doesnt really seem to be sure why they are in the game. It almost seems like they are dreaming. On top of that they often break the forth wall by commenting on the game itself. Like one of the bosses telling you the game balance is terrible when she loses or one of the playable characters saying she has no idea where she is heading but it must be in the right direction since the enemies are getting stronger.

This in combination with the slowly moving colorful bullet patterns makes it all very trippy. Kinda like a Japanese version of a David Lynch movie. You dont fully know whats going on but thats part of whats makes it so enjoyable.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Too many games at once

Im playing too many games at once right now. I have to actually finish some of them. Im close to the end in both Metal Gear Solid 3 and Final Fantasy IX. I have some time off from work soon (after having worked 12 days in a row) then Im gonna have to beat these heavier games. I have been so busy that simpler pick up and play games have worked better for me. Star Soldier R's timed game play was a life saver. House of the Dead and Shikigami also worked well because of their origin as arcade games.

Bullet hell heaven

Im pretty much done with Star Soldier now. I might go back and try to get a million on 2 min mode but Im kinda burned out. I got the hi score in Sweden and Im satisfied with that. Still I feel like playing more shooters so I moved on to Castle of Shikigami 3.

The Shikigami series is very different from the more traditional Star Soldier series. Shikigami is the type of shooter where the whole screen is filled with bullets and you have to navigate through them, hence the term bullet hell. I love the feeling of sliding through massive amounts of colorful bullets to some nice upbeat music. Especially the first level before the game gets hard is fantastic and very relaxing.

Then the game gets hard very fast and requires your full attention. No more chilling out listening to the music. This is especially true in my case since Im not that good at these modern shooters. I have honed my skills on traditional Turbo Grafix shooters and the play style required for those games is very different from that of bullet hell games. Still I will get better at these games, I just need some training.

Friday, June 6, 2008

NO.1 IN SWEDEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!111

Hell yeah! I just beat the Swedish record in Star Soldier R a minute ago. God damn that felt great.

I was doing really good but then I messed up completely in the end and lost out on like a hundred thousand points. I was ready to restart the game but then I took a look at my score and realized it might just be enough and it was. Arrrgh that felt good.

Relaxing with Mario

Playing Star Soldier at a high level isnt the most relaxing thing. It requires too much concentration. The Mario games on the other hand are perfect for this. I replay Mario Bros. 3 and Mario World a few times a year for this reason. I have also started to go back to New Super Mario Bros. and I didnt even like that game that much. Still I have beaten it three times already.

There is just something about the familiarity of the Mario gameplay. Not to mention the beautiful levels design and the always vibrant colors. Thats why I have started replaying Mario World again, on GBA this time. Im playing it very casually, beating a stage here and there whenever I feel the need to relax.

Friendly competition

A few days ago I started talking to this guy on a small forum dedicated to the Player One podcast. We compared our scores in Star Soldier and I asked him for some tips. When I later moved up to second place in Sweden it turned out that the guy I pushed down to third was none other then my anonymous friend. I had no idea he was even Swedish.

Needless to say this started somewhat of a rivalry between us. Since then he has beaten my score and moved up to become the no. 1 player in Sweden. As a result I got pushed down to 3rd place. But Im not sad about it, having some competition makes it more fun. Im even more motivated to become no. 1 now, not only to be the best but also to beat my new rival.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

2nd best in Sweden!

Im getting better and better at Star Soldier R and my score is steadily improving. I passed the magic 2 million mark on 5 minute mode bringing me up to number two in Sweden.

I have never been best in the country at anything but I have decided that Im going to be the best at Star Soldier R. Im not that far away from first place now, its only a matter of time.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Motivating the player using leaderboards

What makes me keep coming back to Star Soldier R to improve my score is its clever use of leader boards. When you have beaten your record in either 2 minute mode or 5 minute mode you get to see where you place in comparison to the rest of the world. But this is not really interesting, knowing that Im in 5000th place doesnt really motivate me keep playing. The top spot is so far away that it feels impossible to reach. The developer has to narrow the competition somehow.

In the last game that I got obsessed about my ranking in, Planet Puzzle League. You are only ranked against people who share your birthday. This is a typical quirky Nintendo idea but it worked great because it wasnt out of my reach to be the best in the world among people who were born on the 3rd of January.

Star Soldier R does it in a less unconventional way. It ranks you against people in you country. I might be 2531th in the world on 5 minute mode but Im 14th in Sweden, and thats nothing to laugh at. Then the ultimate goal doesnt seem that far away and every step higher you climb on the ladder matters. This is what keeps me coming back to Star Soldier every time I have a few minutes to spare.

You always have 2 minutes to spare

I wrote some about Star Soldier R yesterday but what I didnt mention is that the game only has whats basically a time attack mode where you can choose to play for 2 or 5 minutes. Usually I would hate this sort of thing but since the whole game is designed around it and they didnt just slap a timer on to a preexisting game I works really well. You can see that the game is perfectly built with the time limit in mind.

It also works well for me who has been very bussy for the past few days. I havent had time for Final Fantasy or Metal Gear but I can always spare a few minutes for Star Soldier. I keep comming back to it to beat my score.

More peripherals

I got some more cool stuff in the mail today.

Dreamcast VGA cable
Orange Gamecube controller
Gamecube controller extension cord