Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Revenge of Shinobi

Today I'm looking at Revenge of Shinobi : the second game in Sega's Shinobi series. This a classic action/platformer that a lot of devs could learn a lot from. Let's see if we can take a closer look and find out why.

First off, I don't feel comfortable continuing this discussion without giving a shout out to Yuzo Koshiro, the sound composer for this game as well as the Streets of Rage series. He did an incredible job on this soundtrack, featuring a lot of punk/techno riffs that are upbeat and set the mood right, and features a mastery of the Genesis soundborad synth. Something about those hard Genesis beats still gets me.

Game music isn't something that can really be incorporated into the game design itself for the most part. Its one of those things you have to entrust your composer(s) with, but luckily the more experienced and skilled game composers are able to spin compositions that mesh with the game world and help to control the feelings of the player as they progress through the game. I'm getting a bit off topic now so I'll finish for now by saying that no game developer should EVER forget the importance and power music has on virtually every aspect of your game. Get it right.

As for the rest of the game, I'd say the settings for each of the levels stands out the most to me. You have a bamboo garden bathed in the moonlight, a night club near a towering waterfall, military bases, cargo holds, chinatown and subways, and the enemy base complete with rain and wind outside. Nice sense of progression as you arrive closer to the Neo Zeed headquarters.

                 Bamboo garden background that turns to night sky with rising moon...nice touch Sega.

Game doesn't hesitate to keep the action up with lots of enemies, all of which are easily dispatched with your shuriken and close range attacks. The levels usually include new traps and props to keep the player interested. The military stage has a wire fence that can be somersaulted over for instance, giving the level a sense of depth with enemies and obstacles in front of and behind the fence.

Bosses are usually an important ingredient in video games, especially platformers, and Shinobi doesn't disappoint here. Bosses comes at the end of every stage, or after every 2 levels. They are large, and most have a weak point where they must be hit, but all of them require some sort of simple strategy to be deployed in order to defeat. For instance the first boss is a giant samurai that requires you to get close so he will swing his sword downwards, then you can step away to jump up and hit his head. The bosses do get progressively harder and they are definitely a real treat to fight, especially with the signature boss music thumping in the background.

                                                   Yes Spiderman is a boss.

The feeling of progression and difficulty curve is great. That is until you get to the ocean stage (7-1). Oh god the cheap deaths from the jumps, and getting knocked into pits. If there is one thing that can ruin enjoyment of this game...its this stage.

                                                          Trust me when I say this jump is bullshit.

Luckily you are given an array of awesome ninja powers available at limited use, one including a super jump, but still its times like these when you have to question how much a game should challenge before it just gets frustrating...a very difficult but important element to game design that developers still struggle with today. I'll probably end up writing an article on difficulty in games at somepoint. Keep in mind that I'm not just talking/complaining about the difficulty itself, but how it is presented to the player and what tools they are given for success - its definitely not a straigthforward design process by any means. But moving on...

The main reason I wanted to talk about this game is how it handles its ending. The last boss has your girlfriend captured, and how fast you defeat him causes you to get the good or bad ending, depending on whether you save your girl or not. If there's ONE thing developers can learn from this game, its the subtle ways in which it provides a powerful ending, youtube link below, with spoilers obviously.

 Once again music plays a vital role in setting the tone, but more impressive is the way each ending says all it needs to see with a very short scene absent of dialogue. Surely modern game devs could learn a lot from this ending.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Illusion of Gaia

For my first actual post I'll be taking a close look at the SNES game with a strong cult following - "Illusion of Gaia". Below is the Japanese boxart, I really hate when publishers manage to fuck up an amazing cover art when bringing a game over seas...but that's a story for another time.

Ok first off if you care about spoilers and you haven't played this game then stop reading now. Last warning, this isn't a normal game review and I'll be talking about everything as I please in order to provide a better analysis.With that out of the way let me go ahead and say that it really sucks Quintet, the games developer, is dead. The website is gone and we've heard nothing from them in years. Oh what I would give to see a new age action JRPG from them...I'll think about some more later over a beer and maybe dig up more info.

Since I'm mean spirited I think I'll start by pointing out this game's story is weird. About 2 minutes after starting the game Will, the main character, stumbles upon a warp gate and talks to a giant medusa head which spews the usual banter about going on a great journey. And as you may recall every character speaks in their own color coded text, and sometimes Will's monologue yellow text will switch to third person dialogue with no warning. You have to play the game to see how jarring this transition is. This can probably be attributed to good ole 90's translations, like randomly calling Kara "Karen".

Ok so Im done nitpicking for now. The game's graphics are colorful and sharp. Will's sprite as well as most enemy sprites are detailed enough and well drawn. However the other characters sprites (even Kara's) are more bland if not crudely drawn, but since they arent playable this isnt much issue.

Attention to detail is apparent right off. Will's hair animates nicely as wind blows, and this is used later in the game to solve puzzles like finding cracks in walls. Townsfolk move about and even have different text boxes depending on situations and what they are doing. Overall, the game has a very simple look though, nothing here comes close to taxing the SNES.

The pacing is excellent, as the story moves at a great pace and tries to keep you involved at every step. Even parts such as the raft scene keep things interactive with you having to catch fish to regain your strength. Keeping things interactive is one of the most important things a game can do. Too bad everyone seems to want to make a movie these days instead. *coughheavyraincough*

Combat I'm not going to complain about. Its very simple but the enemies are plenty and varied enough where as the combat stays interesting throughout, and playing as Freedan is always fun. Getting a small "level up" buff after clearing out a room keeps you motivated to kill enemies too - great mechanic and not grindy.

Bosses are a real treat too. They are all very unique and definitely keep you looking forward to them, though they are sparse. Difficulty is fairly balanced too - except for the HUGE spike in challenge present with the infamous vampire bosses. But I guess its nothing you can't handle.

The little love story between Will and Kara is cute, but somewhat rushed and halfassed at points. The raft scene where they become stranded has too much development too early on in the game, and literally flat out states "Will began to develop feelings for Kara". Sorry but that kind of writing speaks for itself, maybe a little too much actually. Even as a kid I remember laughing at the bluntness of it.

Your other party members are pretty flat and one dimensional, and they tend to drop out of the party on a whim and sometimes with no hesitation. You get the feeling the game is too eager to trim the fat and get to where you only have Will and Kara at the end of the game. Speaking of the end, the actual lead up isn't bad at all, but conclusion itself is anti-climatic. The comet itself isnt explained well enough, nor the spirits including Will's parents. And while the final boss is satisfying, im not sure how or why Will/Kara combined to defeat it. The game treats it as a ho-hum event, though I guess at this point you should be used to weird shit not being explained.

Overall while the game may be heavily flawed, it still has that "magic atmosphere" that I can't quite place even after all these years. That special quality that has earned it a loyal fanbase who still play it. The devs didn't make many mistakes per se, as most flaws are related to the story, which is somewhat ironic considering a writer was hired specifically to write for the game (impressive at the time). Even then its hard to say how much of the story was lost in translation. Its no perfect game, but it manages to have a fairy tale vibe I guess, something most games can't touch.

Hmmm, not too happy with how this post turned out - my fault for going in without an outline. Guess they do teach you something in school. Probably forgot a lot of crap I wanted to say. I also ramble too much and a lot of it reads like a generic review. Oh well...if there was no room to improve then I guess I wouldn't have much reason to do this. I'm also something of an Indie developer, so it does help to get my thoughts out on these games. Until next time -

Developer's Recap ( things developers should learn from this game)

PROS (what they did right)
+ Attention to detail, there can never be enough of this in games (wind animations, lively townsfolk,
+ Unique, fun , well designed bosses (never dull, something to look forward too)
+ Level up system (unique and keeps you on the hunt for enemies, plus bosses give you all the ones you miss)

@Pacing is good but sidequests suffer as a result
@Some scenes that would be boring are made more interesting through interactivity (raft scene), however this could be utilized more

CONS(better luck next time)
- Story is confusing at times, poorly explained at other, suffers poor translation

Yes I'm aware this game has other flaws, but I -personally- think that the confusing story is the one DO NOT devs should get from this game. Anything else is relatively trivial in the long run. Err, I take that back actually

- YOU DONT FIGHT THE JACKAL WTH QUINTET WTH (game devs, dont build up a badass enemy just so he can die in a cutscene...if i wanted that i would watch a terminator movie)

PS : Did they really have to hide these jewels so well?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Getting Started (obligatory first post)

Welcome to Game Artifacts, also known as my blog. This is a place to put my thoughts on video game design. I'll be taking various video games from history and analyzing what makes them tick. It will be a lot different and more interesting (I hope) than just reviewing video games, which seems to be all the rage these days.

I've spent a ridiculous amount of time playing and replaying games over the last 20 years, so I feel confident in my ability and uhh..."certification" in running this blog. That reminds me to put this disclaimer - I ain't no english major. I'm not saying I'll be writing on 3rd grade level, but I'm more concerned with getting into the nitty gritty of what makes these games work than getting whatever fancy awards authors are drooling after these days. I will try to keep spelling errors to a minimum though.

Hope to get my first real post with content up soon...will prolly do something on "Illusion of Gaia". That one should be one tough nut to crack.