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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Soul Blazer

The followup to Quintet's 1991 hit Actraiser and the first in a loose trilogy of similarly-themed action RPGs for the SNES, Soul Blazer was a modest success that has since developed a fan following.  But does it hold up as well as its brothers, or is this just the forgotten first in line?

Soul Blazer  came out on the heels of two highly-acclaimed games - Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, and its own predecessor Actraiser, so it had quite a tough act to follow.  Particularly as it borrowed elements of both - the top-down perspective of Zelda (with a few more RPG elements worked in) and several thematic similarities to Actraiser, so it was only inevitable that there would be unfavorable comparisons between the games.

But while it may not be the most fondly remembered of Quintet's library, one can't say it doesn't try to be a good game in its own right.  SoulBlazer certainly shows a lot of elements that would become Quintet hallmarks, most prominently in its dark mood.  The player is put in the role of an angelic character, tasked with rejuvenating a destroyed world and banishing the evil that caused it.  Between this, he visits towns and speaks with people there, and can revisit a "home base" of sorts to regenerate HP and save his progress.

The action in Soul Blazer largely takes place from a top-down perspective, though rather than having a focus on puzzles, Soul Blazer is more focused on action, having the player traverse levels, avoid traps and clear out "monster lairs" one-by-one, gaining experience for kills and uncovering treasures for destorying layers, before eventually confronting a level boss.  It's actually a bit reminiscent of Gauntlet in that regard.  The developers also went out of their way to ensure that focus stayed on player skill rather than simple stat-grinding - the amount of points one can earn in any given area is usually finite, so the only way to overcome the bosses is to memorize their patterns and counter accordingly.

The game does work in a few other RPG elements too, with the most prominent example being the equipment one finds throughout the adventure; usually as a reward for clearing certain monster lairs or viewing certain milestone events in towns.  In addition to the typical boost in one's defense stat, armors often have a secondary effect - the Ice armor, for example, makes one immune to damage from fiery floors, while the Bubble armor makes the player able to enter underwater areas.  Often these are just specific to one stage, but a few others have added benefits later on - the Magic armor halves the cost of magic, while the Light armor makes the player immune to attacks from weaker enemies, for example.

Weapons follow a similar trend, with some being required to defeat a particular type of enemy and others proving useful in different ways later in the game as well.  For example, the Psycho sword can stun metal creatures, the Zantetsu sword can outright kill them, and the Critical Sword, while one of the weaker weapons, has a small chance to instantly kill any enemy it hits (sans bosses, of course). Arguably the most useful one, though, is the Recovery Sword, which is not only powerful, but causes the player to regenerate some health when an enemy is defeated with it.

Magic is an interesting element in the game too.  While the player doesn't get an MP bar per se, these attacks are instead performed by spending Gems (a name which initially led me to believe there was a shop system, but no such thing exists in-game).  They are awkward to use, though, as all of them originate not directly from the player, but from the "soul" that steadily orbits around him throughout the game, making them somewhat difficult to aim.  There is a surprising variety of effects (launching a fireball straight ahead, arrows in four directions, leaving a ring of energy that damages enemies on contact, and so forth), though I generally found it more convenient and practical to just kill enemies with my sword instead.

Soul Blazer also definitely isn't Quintet's finest game in its aesthetic design, with graphics that are decent but lack the clean, chibi-fied style of Zelda or the intricate detail of some of their later games like Terranigma; nothing about them is bad, but not a lot stands out either (the highlight easily being some of the more grotesque boss designs).  Similarly, the soundtrack isn't as memorable or epic as Quintet's other SNES games; Yukihide Takekawa went for more of an upbeat rock soundtrack that sounds distinctly more like "video game level" music than most of Quintet's library.  It still does a good job setting the mood for the environments and giving the action some punch, but it's a very different feel from the more moody scores of Actraiser, Terranigma and Illusion of Gaia.

And I think that also works to explain Soul Blazer as a whole.  It lives in the shadow of games that came before it and is even more overshadowed by Quintet's own pseudo-sequels that came later.  But those who give it a chance will find that it's a pretty interesting game in its own right; sort of an experimental outing that allowed Quintet to get their footing and make more ambitious and polished action-driven games in the future.  Definitely worth a look in its own right too, especially for some of its interesting story elements and challenging battles.

Developer: Quintet
Publisher: Enix
Platform: SNES
Released: 1992
Recommended Version: N/A

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Dungeon Crawler, Save Only at Checkpoints, Short Campaign

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

River City Ransom

A game largely overlooked in its day that built up a cult following in later years, River City Ransom was a blend of a side-scrolling beat-em-up and RPG-styled shops and character customization.  But is this trendsetter still worth a look today, or are there just too many better examples of this blend of genres available now?

Technos may be a long-defunct company, but they left quite a legacy behind.  Known primarily for beat-em-ups (most prominently the Kunio and Double Dragon franchises) and a series of sports games where brutally assaulting other players is both allowed and encouraged, they built up quite a following during their prime years in the 80s and 90s.  Perhaps because of that, their franchises have lived on, with Double Dragon and Kunio seeing rereleases, remakes and sequels across numerous platforms, companies and genres to this day.

The latter franchise is probably best-known for Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, whose westernized release, River City Ransom, is a definitive cult classic in its own right.  In no small part because of its absurd sense of humor (the ending in particular being an iconic piece of NES cheese), but for its strong gameplay that combined RPG elements with those of a side-scrolling beat-em-up. 

To that end, the game is a non-linear experience, with the player allowed to freely roam the game's environments, picking up all number of weapons they find along the way - tires, pipes, chains, boxes and so forth - and defeating enemies to earn money and buying items at shops to earn new moves and upgrade character stats.  There are a lot of them, too - from cafes to donut shops to fast food joints to sushi bars, every item within offers different prices and benefits, giving the player a lot of options to experiment with (rivaled in its time perhaps only by Earthbound, released a few years later).  Some can only be eaten there at the restaurant while others can be carried with the player and used whenever they wish, which can grant them a quick energy boost in a pinch.

One can also visit bookstores, which allow the player to purchase books that, for the cost of a slot in their inventory, will permanently grant a new move in their arsenal.  Stone Hands makes one's punch into a rapid-fire triple punch, Dragon Feet does likewise for kicks, and Acro Circus turns one's jump into a damaging somersault to name just a few of these.  These do vary wildly in usefulness, with some being comically overpowered and others being virtually worthless, but nevertheless they add some more variety and strategy to the game.  Some also require quite a lengthy time investment to afford too, with prices stretching into the hundreds of dollars, so it's a bit more longevity for the game.

The game has a bit of an unusual health system to reflect its RPG element, too.  Stamina represents one's current health, which can be restored by food items, Max Power can be upgraded and grants more stamina, but alongside these exists a third stat - Willpower.  The higher this is, the better the chance one has to get back up after having their Stamina depleted, losing some of their Willpower stat in exchange for one or two bars of health back.  It can potentially save you from dying and losing half your money at times, but of course the better option is probably to carry a couple of spare food items to prevent your health from getting to that point in the first place.

Of course, no beat-em-up is complete without a co-op mode, and River City Ransom certainly doesn't disappoint there.  The second player can join in as Ryan and build up their own stats and money alongside player 1.  However, this seems to have been something of an afterthought on the developers' part, as having a second player join in causes the game to become extremely laggy and slow to a crawl, particularly in larger maps where enemies tend to spawn in greater numbers.  It may also make the game just a bit too easy, as almost every boss in the game faces you solo, which can make it easy for a two-player team to gang up on them and combo them into oblivion without them even being able to get an attack in.

Being a game with hefty RPG elements, RCR does employ a save system, though it's one of the most convoluted and bizarre I've ever seen in a video game.  Rather than utilizing a battery back-up, the game utilizes 30-digit passwords per character that run the full gamut of upper and lower case letters, numbers, punctuation and even apostrophes over letters, making them quite a chore to write down and re-enter.  Even more bafflingly, leaving the password screen and re-entering it only a moment later will generate an entirely new password, so I have no idea how the game even generates or stores data within them.

Still, it's not hard to see why River City Ransom built up the following it did.  RPG fans had much to enjoy with a game that let them build up and customize their characters however they wished, while fans of beat-em-ups saw a solidly-built, entertaining game that provided plenty of hard-hitting action.  It may not be the finest example of either genre, but it's one of the best the NES had to offer, and the fact that it's spawned a continuity in its own right (with nearly all localized Kunio games utilizing the sillier Western version of the story and characters rather than the original) speaks to its following.  Definitely worth at least a look.

Developer: Technos, KID, Million
Publisher: Technos, Sharp, Naxat Soft, Arc System Works, Atlus, Infogrames, 505 Games
Platform: NES, Sharp X68000, PC Engine Super CDRom2, Game Boy Advance
Released: 1990 1993, 2004
Recommended Version: Of the 90s releases the Super CDRom2 version is definitely the most impressive, with completely redrawn graphics and a CD soundtrack, though it is only available in Japanese.  The Game Boy Advance version of the game, River City Ransom EX, is a remake with retooled gameplay, new moves and AI-controlled teammates but sadly no co-op feature of any kind (save for importing your character into another player's game to work as an AI partner).  If you don't mind that, though, it may just be the definitive edition.

Tags: Action RPG, Urban Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Grindfest, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere (Passwords), Very Short Campaign, Humorous

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Paper Mario: the Thousand-Year Door

The second game in the Paper Mario franchise and one of a handful of RPG offerings to appear on the Gamecube, where it got some relatively high acclaim from fans, especially in light of the very lacking genre offerings on the Nintendo 64.  But is this a fun adventure that is still worth undertaking today, or is it just too dated and living in the shadow of better games?

When it comes to Mario's foray into the realm of RPGs, Super Mario RPG is undeniably the most popular of them all.  Released as something of a "last hurrah" for the SNES platform, it was a powerhouse of Donkey Kong Country styled 3D-rendered graphics (aided by an isometric viewpoint), inventive mechanics that worked mini-games into every element of the gameplay, a killer soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura, and a surprisingly good storyline that felt every bit as epic as you'd expect from a collaboration between Nintendo and rising-star Squaresoft.  The sales certainly reflected that too, as it sold over two million copies worldwide and is regarded as one of the best RPGs on the system (and of all-time) by both die-hard fans and more casual ones alike.

However, with Square splitting with Nintendo shortly thereafter to develop RPGs on the Playstation, hopes for a sequel were quickly dashed (and as of 2019, one still hasn't happened despite several Square games being released on newer Nintendo platforms).  Nintendo did employ their second-parties to try and create some memorable RPGs of their own, with the first being Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64; a game which I have played but never got very far in (and struggle to remember much about).  Still, it was a modest success, kicking off a new franchise that continues to this day, with its latest entry being Paper Mario: Color Splash for the Wii U, released in 2016.

For my money, though, the best game in the Paper Mario franchise is its second entry on the Gamecube, which took the gimmicks of the original Paper Mario and took them to new heights of innovation.  This is evident right away even in the visual style; it retains the same style of having 3D backdrops with 2D characters on, but goes to even greater lengths to resemble a pop-up book, with frequent instances of secrets being revealed by "unfolding" or peeling away elements of the backdrops, or 2D elements popping out to form 3D ones the player can interact with (like stairways).  It adds a lot of fun and suspense to the game when even mundane screens that seem secretless can give way to hidden things in a creative way.

The focus on minigames returns from earlier efforts too, with combat integrating a surprising number of them.  This is evident right out of the gate, as Mario's two main attacks (jump and hammer) each have an associated minigame to allow the player to deal more damage; pressing the button right as a jump attack lands will cause Mario to land another hit, while holding the control stick left and releasing it as the lights on a small gauge fill will deal extra damage with the hammer.  One can also block attacks in similar fashion - pressing the A button just as an attack impacts will reduce damage taken or even negate it entirely.  TTYD takes things a step further, too - the player can perform a "Superguard" by pressing B instead.  This move is trickier to time, but successfully pulling it off will fully negate damage to Mario and damage the enemy instead, making it a very rewarding tactic for more advanced players.  One can also gain an advantage entering a fight by landing a hit on an enemy in the field, which will cause Mario or his partner to inflict some damage on them before the first turn begins; enemies can do this to you too, though, so caution is advised to prevent that.

Combat is made a lot more dynamic in Thousand Year Door, though, thanks to a number of new mechanics.  The first of these are the Special Moves, which have a variety of effects - healing Mario's party, damaging enemies, stopping time temporarily and so forth, for a number of Star Points (the player begins with a maximum stock of 1, but the total increases as they collect the Crystal Stars over the course of the game).  These all take the form of minigames, with Sweet Treat (the healing effect) having the player throw stars at targets; hitting mushrooms will restore HP, flowers restore FP, and Poison mushrooms will stun the player for a few seconds, robbing them of time to get the most out of the effect.  Another example is "Art Attack", which allows Mario to move a cursor around the screen and draw circles around enemies, inflicting 3 damage each time he does so (which can add up to quite a lot if one gets good at the game).  Star Points in turn are refilled via the Audience mechanic, seen below.

A significant new gameplay element surfaces too, thanks to the Audience mechanic.  All battles in the game take place upon a virtual 'stage" in front of an audience, and the player's actions during battle will affect this in various ways.  If they're doing well in a fight (countering attacks, consistently landing timed hits, et cetera) more audience members will arrive, and subsequent attacks will bolster one's Star Power gains by a significant amount; however, if they're doing poorly, audience members will start to leave and Star Power gains will be negatively affected.  On occasion, the audience will interfere in the fight too, doing things like making a character invisible (and immune to damage) for a single turn, throwing objects at Mario or his enemies to damage and/or stun them (though the player can avoid damage with a well-timed button press), toss him a powerup on occasion, or even cause other audience members to be distracted or flee the theater.  The audience varies wildly by the type of area the player is traversing, with hostile audience members becoming more prevalent in later areas of the game and as one's overall level increases.

Another mechanic can affect this too; namely the "Bingo" mechanic that appears early on in the game.  Basically, each turn the player takes causes a random icon to appear in the upper-right corner, and if they get two of the same type, a minigame is played where they try to match up the third symbol via a slot reel; if they do so, they'll gain positive effects like restoring one's HP (mushroom), FP (flower), Star Power (star) or filling every seat in the audience (Shine Sprite).  However, if three Poison Mushrooms are matched, all three stats will be cut by half and all of the audience will flee, putting the player at a significant disadvantage (and giving the player much incentive to fail that roll on purpose).  This does add a significant luck element to the combat, but can also allow one to turn things around in a pinch.

The secondary characters in the game have been somewhat revamped, too.  Unlike the original Paper Mario, each now has their own individual HP values (instead of being disabled after a single hit) and can even gain benefits from certain badges, making them into more fully-fledged party members.  Each has a field command (like being able to blow up certain obstacles to clear a path or leap gaps Mario couldn't clear on his own), and in battle they all have their own advantages and disadvantages; for example, Kooper the Koopa has an innate Defense bonus, making it tougher for weaker enemies to damage him, but this is offset by him having low HP and being able to be "flipped" by jump attacks, leaving him helpless for a turn.  Knowing the particulars of enemies in an area, and which partner to use to counter them, quickly becomes and important part of the game's strategy.

The badge system from the original Paper Mario returns too, and as in that game, it works as both a means of character customization and difficulty-tweaking.  Some badges are simply there for customization purposes and/or humor value (like ones that can be equipped to change Mario's color scheme to that of Luigi, Wario or Waluigi, or change in-battle sounds), while others grant new special moves or bolster Mario's stats, granting extra attack damage, defense or HP.  Others still play into the risk-versus-reward element of the game, such as making timed hits harder to pull off but boosting Star Power gained from them, dealing more damage when HP is low, or causing timed attacks to do more damage but nullifying damage inflicted by non-timed attacks.  This essentially allows less-experienced players to give themselves an advantage and more advanced ones to take greater risks to maximize rewards, allowing it to be a game that appeals to both crowds.

That philosophy as a whole is also what allows all of the Mario RPGs to work - they're deep enough to appeal to die-hard gamers while user-friendly enough to not alienate younger or less-experienced ones.  Thousand Year Door is certainly no exception, bringing a sense of humor and a visual style that seems to cater to a younger crowd, yet having enough to offer discerning RPG fans that it won't alienate an older audience either.  That, plus just being a fun game to play in general, make this a standout RPG for the Gamecube and still my favorite in the Paper Mario franchise.  Well worth a look if you can track down a copy.

Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Gamecube
Released: 2004
Recommended Version: N/A
Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Turn-Based, Combat Minigames, Mechanical Minigames, Optional Minigames, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music, Humorous