FGC #269 Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins

I kinda care at this pointI’m a thirty something male, which means that, like many of my ilk, it is possible for me to communicate with other humans entirely through Simpsons quotes. I don’t think I ever consciously meant to learn this language, but somewhere along the line, well, me fail English? Also, thanks to usually gaming alone and having absolutely no regard for anyone that might be on the other side of a wall, I’m a generally verbal gamer. By which I mean I frequently shout at a television screen that I’m pretty sure can’t hear me (why did my Xbone just turn on?). Combine these two facts, and, yes, I do shout Simpsons quotes at an uncaring, unfeeling videogame cartridge on a pretty frequent basis. Sometimes it’s just to amuse myself (parroting Homer’s “That will require a tetanus shot” after being gunned down in any given game is always fun), but, more often than not, it’s an angry reaction to something that happened in the game. Some people swear, I quote the Simpsons.

This brings us to one of my oft-repeated quotes. Frinkiac, take it away…

Willie hears ya, Willie don't care

This one gets used for two distinct occasions. The first, which seems to be happening more and more often in modern games, is reserved for when a game “gently” tries to nudge me into actually following the plot, and not just dicking around with some stupid little doodad for the afternoon. This can apply to sandbox games (“The only way Crime Boss is going to stop his reign of terror is if somebody stands up to him!” “That’s great an’ all, but I’m really trying to jump this sweet ride over that bridge right now.”) or JRPGs that have a tendency to chastise the player for wandering off the beaten path. Even when games I enjoy commit that sin, it’s still met with a fair bit of “yelling at the game”. Hey, I gotta vent somehow. And the second most common situation for this Willie-ism is… pretty much the entirety of Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins.

Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins is a PSP game from 2006. It feels weird to say this about a game that is now over a decade old, but, when it was released, this now-retro game was meant to be a retro throwback itself. After Maximo failed to revitalize Capcom’s ancient GnG francise (and well after a certain Demon similarly failed to gain any traction), Capcom decided to get back to basics, and simply toss a nudity-prone Arthur against the hordes of the Demon Realm in a 2-D sidescrolling action game. The king is dead, long live the king.

WeeeeeeeAnd, technically, there’s a lot about UGnG that should impress me. It’s “old school” action, but now with a bit of a Metroidvania twist. Arthur acquires new skills as he goes, so stuff like the sublime double jump of Super is obtained (permanently!) like any other powerup. And the game design actually accounts for this! There are places that are inaccessible until you find the right power, and then, bam, you can return and find all new treasure and routes. Finally there’s a reason to replay a GnG level other than “because the princess said so”. And, assuming you’re playing on the “standard” difficulty level, the whole “Arthur is fragile” thing is greatly mitigated by armor HP. No more do you have to worry about nabbing that sweet golden armor and losing it a second later to a damn imp and his teeny tiny balls (erm… deadly balls? There’s… just no good way to phrase this). Arthur is large and in charge, and, complete with instant respawning and save points, this might be the most conquerable of GnG games.

Except…. All those “concessions” led to some really sloppy game design.

The GnG franchise has always been difficult. If you meet someone that claims they beat the second level of Ghosts ’n Goblins NES, then, fun fact, you are talking to a liar. But, as of the 16-bit era, GnG started to earn its “tough but fair” rating. Super and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts are both difficult to the point of madness, but they’re both manageable. I’m doing my best to not compare the franchise to Dark Souls… so let’s say it’s like the Castlevania franchise. Once contemporary concessions (or a Game Genie) allowed for infinite continues, it was clear that the GnG franchise just needed a lot of practice, and playing haphazardly like you’re some kind of mega man would only end in tears. This design philosophy was carried forward to Maximo, a game that has a “modern” save system that practically begs you to repeat a level “the right way” to better manage resources. In short, every GnG game was carefully designed to be hard, but with an emphasis on that “carefully designed” part.

Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins… not so much.

Chop chopIt’s a simple, stupid thing, but the addition of “health” and “instant respawns” seems to have given the designers of UGnG carte blanche to make the game… not Ghosts ‘n Goblins. GnG has always had bosses and instant kill traps, but UGnG is just lousy with ‘em. There’s a miniboss about every twelve feet, and they’re the spongiest of damage sponges. There are instant kill traps that are funny the first time, but very likely to kill you another six times before you’re through the area. Whoops, got the timing just a liiiiittle bit off? You’re dead. Over and over again. And, somehow, it doesn’t matter. You respawn immediately, five feet from your last death, and any given stage doesn’t seem to take longer than a few minutes. Death, for the first time in the franchise, is little more than inconvenience.

And Willie hear ya, Willie don’t care.

Oh, I’m not supposed to ram Arthur into that stupid boss and go for a thousand free hits while I’m temporarily post-death-invincible? Yeah, sure, don’t care. Random wave of blood just killed me out of nowhere? Don’t care. Oh no, I lost all my points thanks to a continue? Absolutely do not care. And now I’m surrounded by a pair of damn cyclops with the absolute worst weapon for the job? Meh, I’ll be right back at this spot with daggers after another two deaths, so who cares?

And “who cares” makes for a terrible play experience.

Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins, in short, encourages the player to not care, as, while it is difficult, any given death is about as impactful as a drifting fart. It’s gross and terrible for about half a second, and then it’s gone, off to menace some other molecules. Live, die, repeat. OuchThe game seems to revel in its myriad of ways for Arthur to be stripped down to his very bones, and then you’re just an unwilling participant in some manner of digital slapstick. It took until about the second stage (not even full level, second stage) until I was at my patience’s end. Somewhere about there, I just started shouting the same damn Simpsons quote at the PSP repeatedly, because, seriously, who cares? The designers of UGnG didn’t, so why should I?

Willie hears ya dying, Arthur. Willie don’t care.

FGC #269 Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins

  • System: PSP, but also available for the Vita. I’m not certain if anyone on Earth skipped the PSP but picked up the Vita. Seems like it would be a perfect overlap.
  • Number of players: Dun dudua duda duh DUH! … Sorry, had to get that out of my system. One player.
  • Favorite Weapon: The new thorn whip is pretty rad, but a short-range weapon in a GnG game is still just as useless as it’s ever been. The boomerang scythe, however, damages enemies and allows you to easily retrieve bonuses, so, ya know, clear winner.
  • Go away!Favorite Boss: The good ol’ Red Arremer aka Red Devil aka Firebrand appears as a mini boss at a couple of points. On one hand, he always deserved a promotion, but on the other hand, it’s kind of lame that he won’t be around to menace Arthur all the way through a stage anymore. He still beats the pants off every other generically “monster” boss in the game, though.
  • Did you know? Japan scored a remix of this game that apparently tweaked the difficulty and layouts to be closer to “franchise” difficulty levels. Maybe it’s an improvement, maybe it’s not; all I know is that the West is never seeing such a thing.
  • Would I play again? I… I don’t care.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Kickle Cubicle for the NES! Ice to meet you Kickle, let’s chill some badguys! Stay cool, and please look forward to it!

Is it cold in here?

FGC #268 Mario Bros. (Atari)

So many colorsSometimes even an ancient Atari game can surprise you.

Everybody knows Mario Bros. If you’re a certain age (old), you may have seen this primitive Mario experience in arcades. If you’re slightly younger (generally still old), you likely have fond memories of pseudo-Mario Bros. in the two player mode of Super Mario Bros. 3. And, if you’re one of six “lucky” people on this planet, you might even remember Mario Bros. for its spiritual sequel, Mario Clash, the Virtual Boy game that may have damaged your retinas. Mario Bros. might not be Donkey Kong or Super Mario Bros, but it’s still a beloved piece of Nintendo history, and most Nintendo fans have played the game at least once.

But… almost everyone that played Mario Bros. played it on actual Nintendo hardware, whether it be a Nintendo, Super Nintendo, or (INSERT NAME OF GAME SYSTEM THAT STARTS WITH “NINTENDO” HERE). Today’s game is Mario Bros, yes, but it’s Mario Bros. for the Atari 2600. It is, effectively, Mario Bros. before Mario. This ain’t Steamboat Willie, this is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in Poor Papa. And, sorry to say, nobody has fond memories of that damn rabbit.

And, let’s face facts, there are a lot of reasons to assume Atari Mario Bros. would be terrible. Have you ever played Atari Pac-Man? It might be the worst port of a single videogame ever made. There is one ghost, the screen proportions are all wrong, and somehow even the “dots” aren’t properly distributed. Yes, someone somehow got a game that can be summarized as “a ball moves around a maze” completely wrong. And Pac-Man isn’t alone; at best, an Atari port would be something that reduced the cutting-edge arcade graphics of Joust or Kangaroo down to small-screen appropriate pixels, and, at worst, you’d wind up with something a few degrees better than E.T. (reminder: the game that destroyed the entire industry). And, while we’re at it, let’s note that Mario Bros. is a port of Mario Bros. not actually directed by Nintendo. I’m trying to remember how it turned out when some other Nintendo franchises were handled by studios other than Nintendo, but I’m distracted because I’m so hungry right now, I could eat an octorok.

Turtle turtle turtleSo, suffice it to say, I went into Mario Bros. Atari expecting pretty much nothing. The 2600 could barely render a protagonist that resembles a pizza pie, I couldn’t even imagine how overalls would be interpreted. And the iconic proto-koopa troopas and crabs of the arcade were known for their expressive, cartoony movements during an epoch where the best you could get out of most games was “beware the angry red square”, so their Atari interpretations were inevitably going to be a letdown. The graphics are primitive, blocks are all around, and you are likely to be eaten by a white hue. And, yes, as someone that has played NES Mario Bros and been unimpressed by the port quality there, I didn’t have much faith that Atari could succeed where Nintendidn’t.

But, surprises of surprises, Mario Bros. for Atari ain’t bad.

First of all, it’s definitely Mario Bros. All the familiar gameplay quirks are here, from flipping over turtles to the central POW Block. Even the between levels bonus stages are here for your failing pleasure (seriously, has anyone ever collected all those coins in the proper time limit?). ChillyI only have so much patience for playing early pre-Super Mario experiences, but I tromped through the first ten levels of this port, and it seemed like Mario Bros. all around. It was even as difficult as ever to flip over that final, hastened-by-the-demise-of-his-buddies crab. That’s some genuine Mario Bros. action right there.

But even more surprising than the fact that this game is actually playable is that there are a few items in this game that did not resurface in the “real” NES port. Mario Bros. NES does not feature our friend the turtle exiting his shell and kicking it while flipped over (an adorable bit of animation only seen in the arcade), but it is in the Atari version. Or, okay, the whole animation isn’t in there, but a turtle will stand up and face the player before obtaining a faster shell. It makes it… seem like something is happening. And icicles may fall from the ceiling in the arcade and Atari versions, but no such thing happens on the NES. Like Donkey Kong losing an entire stage, this was likely a concession to accommodate primitive NES programming, but it’s droll to see Atari attempt to stretch the limits of the hardware before Mario’s parent company.

Mind you, Mario Bros. Atari isn’t perfect. Apparently, no one on the Atari team could make the fireballs work “right”, so they’re just constantly respawning around the sides of the arena, and are more of an omnipresent threat than the leisurely fireballs that seem designed to merely keep a Mario from standing still too long in the arcade/NES. And, since the Atari had less onboard memory than an abacus, anytime a monster enters a pipe, it effectively respawns, so you have to double-flip those crabs during one stage tour. Oh, and the graphics, while passable, are still pretty “Atari crappy”. I have no idea why a moving “coin” is represented as a square, but here we are. Guess it was just too much trouble to shave off those four pixels and make something that kinda looks like a circle.

Lil' BuzzerBut, minor gripes aside, Mario Bros. Atari is actually Mario Bros, which is no small accomplishment. An arcade-to-Atari port not directed by Nintendo has every right to be absolutely horrible, but, nope, this is actually pretty fun. Maybe some games are good no matter the medium, maybe one team just happened to understand Mario Bros. and “get it right”, but whatever the case, Mario Bros. Atari is a pretty fun time.

Don’t judge a game by its system, I suppose.

FGC #268 Mario Bros. (Atari)

  • System: Come on, man, it’s right there in the title for today. I suppose I’ll note that we are talking about the 2600 here.
  • Number of players: I assume there’s a two player mode, but I literally don’t know where my second Atari control stick has landed. Just as well, I think I chewed on those things as a kid.
  • Favorite Enemy: The Fighter Fly has a very muted hop in this version, but he’s still my favorite. It’s like they’re trying to jump like our hero, Mario, but just not quiiiiiite making it.
  • ShinyDid you know: The turtles are known as Shellcreepers, and the crabs are Sidesteppers. Back in the Eighties, strange alien signals were beamed into children’s brains, so that’s how we knew the names of all the random, weird enemies in NES games. However, these names appear completely new to me, so Nintendo clearly only started subscribing to that service after the release of the NES.
  • Would I play again: This is a really impressive Atari game! Unfortunately, if it’s between playing an Atari game and cleaning my back porch, I’m unfortunately going for the broom. But if I’m stuck on a deserted island with only an Atari library to keep my company, this will be my first choice.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins for the PSP! Arthur is reborn and then quickly forgotten! Please look forward to it!

FGC #267 Home Alone (NES)

Really don't feel like watching this againIt’s time to talk about time.

On both the micro and macro level, time is the enemy of all gamers. Videogames, unlike many other entertainment mediums with strict “running time” limits, can have wildly variable playtimes. Super Mario Bros. and Persona 5 are both great games, but one can be finished in about fifteen minutes, and the other takes roughly that long to make it through the first menu. This can be simultaneously a feature (“Wow, movies end in two hours, I’m going to be playing this game forever!”) and a bug (“I just want to go to bed, why is this stupid dungeon still going?”). Time keeps on slipping, and nobody wants to “waste” their time getting up to this boss that keeps murdering your digital avatar and turn it all off (without saving!) because you have no idea how long it will be before you can beat this damn Wolfgang character. Sunk time fallacy: the game.

This approach to time also bizarrely encapsulates how gaming works in the real world: you only have so much time to play so many games. Your more dedicated (re: insane) gamers have backlogs, aka a list of games that are right there and ready to go, but maybe I’ll get to it later. I have to beat this 80 hour JRPG before I get to that 90 hour JRPG, and then, maybe, I’ll get to the portable rerelease of the 120 hour JRPG. … Are we there yet? Look, I own a lot of videogames, and, while, in my heart of hearts I know this isn’t true, there’s some part of my brain that truly believes I’m going to play through every damn videogame I’ve ever purchased, from Deadly Towers to Persona Q. And the only thing holding me back is that I have, ya know, a life, and maybe there are rare occasions when I’d rather be stomping around the neighborhood with some (real life, fleshy) friends, and not just exploring my 17,000th dungeon. In short, my only problem is time, Ughand, if I had more of it, I’d have beaten that trilogy of Mass Effects. And, yes, if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that one only has less time for hobbies as they grow older, not more, so, ya know, I’m hoping I can get to replaying Mega Man Legends before my thumbs fall off in the upcoming, inevitable Cyber Wars.

Given all this, it’s kind of surprising more games don’t have set time limits. Yes, you’ll see this in games based on sports with quarter limits (like the footsball) and other competition-based games (hi, Smash Bros!), but even something like Street Fighter and its round timers is basically a lie. This match will be over in a maximum of ninety seconds (times three or so rounds)… except in one player mode (assuming the game has a one player mode) you know damn well that beating M. Bison could take the rest of the afternoon if you’re not that familiar with your chosen fighter. And suddenly ninety seconds has become nine hours and don’t you have to wake up in the morning for your wedding or something? Ugh, stupid M. Bison.

Today’s game actually does have a set time limit. Home Alone for the NES is a game that will always take twenty real world minutes, because the point of the game is to “survive” for twenty minutes (presumably the amount of time it takes for the local constabulary to arrive). Save for the miracle of pausing, a game of Home Alone will always only take a maximum of twenty minutes.

And it will be the longest twenty minutes of your life.

It's a map!It’s one thing to say a game will only last twenty minutes, but it’s another thing entirely to be told that the “win condition” is surviving for twenty minutes. What could be “this should be a fun way to kill twenty minutes” quickly becomes an event wherein you are watching the clock like a hawk, because every second “wasted” is a second closer to your goal. What’s more, the basic gameplay of Home Alone encourages the player to not play the game. Kevin McCallister must thwart the (two) Wet Bandits with a variety of interesting traps (okay, they’re all just boring squares that Kevin drops on the floor, but they’re supposed to represent interesting traps), and… there’s no other goal. You’re just dealing with a pair of immortal, but stunnable, enemies, and you don’t have to do anything other than endure their onslaught. As a result, it seems like the best option is to find some corner somewhere, block the only entrances with a trap or two, and then, when the thieves finally come calling, trip ‘em and run over to the other corner. While you’re waiting for the burglars to arrive… may as well grab a soda or something, I don’t know. The entire point is that you’re trying to kill time, and any time the Wet Bandits are over at the other side of the building falling over a picture of a bucket, you’re in the clear. Another thirty seconds off the clock while Kevin just sits there! Yay!

Except… well, I have some bad news here, but watching your 8-bit hero doing nothing while you’re playing a game that encourages doing nothing… it’s just a little bit boring. In fact, when you’re a kid sitting in your basement playing a videogame wherein you watch a kid sitting in his basement organizing an inventory of boxes… Okay, that’s a lot boring.

And this is why, while a time limited game may be fun, a game that is dedicated to running out the clock is maybe the worst idea in gaming. When time is the overt enemy in a videogame, the only design options are resetting the clock as a punishment (which, obviously, guess what happens when Kevin is caught by a crook) and rewarding the player through… wasting time. This can't be safeConsidering videogames are built to be pretty much the opposite of work (… fun?), the concept of watching the second hand click by like you’re waiting for Mr. Slate’s assistant to pull the cord on that bird is the antithesis of the way any videogame should work. Videogames are supposed to be an enjoyable way to spend time, not a way to squander your life doing nothing. Every minute watching Kevin loaf around his tree house is a minute I could be loafing around my tree house!

Maybe there is a place for “limited time” games. Maybe people would enjoy such experiences, as we live in a very regimented society (“I have exactly a half hour before Post-Apocalyptic Sexy CW Teens comes on, I wonder if I’ll see a save point before then…”). Maybe such a thing would be a hit. But, in the meanwhile, we have Home Alone, a game that reminds us all that when time is the enemy in a videogame, boredom is the only abstract concept that wins.

FGC #267 Home Alone (NES)

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System for the purpose of this review. For the record, there are many other versions across many other systems (probably to be expected of the most popular movie for kids of… No, I’m not going to look up what year, it will make me feel too old), but they all have vaguely different gameplay. In some of the versions, you actually have to do stuff.
  • Oh who cares?Number of players: I’m kind of surprised they never made a Home Alone movie that, like, featured two kids? Maybe they’re left home alone, and they don’t like each other, so they have to learn to work together when the bad guys show up. A lesson is learned, and someone has to walk on broken glass. Just like Die Hard. Errrr… anyway… one player.
  • Favorite Trap: I guess the spider? All the traps seem to be exactly the same, and the only difference is how long a bandit is knocked down. As a result, the more active traps (like our friend the spider) don’t move at all, and, even more unfortunately, you can swing paint cans from the ceiling. Lame.
  • Get ‘em early: Considering the Wet Bandits start all of five feet from Kevin and move with a hedgehog-like swiftness, I wonder how many people never got longer than five seconds into this game.
  • Did you know? There are apparently two different versions of this game: one where Kevin appears on the game over screen, and one where it simply says “Oh no!” without Kevin’s screaming face. Apparently I own the “only oh no” version. Considering how easy it is to get captured, I’m kind of amazed that no one noticed this “glitch” on the kill screen. Then again, this game was probably only made by like six dudes anyway…
  • Would I play again: I just don’t have twenty minutes to waste.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mario Bros! For the Atari 2600! It’s the classic Nintendo game in classic Atari form! Please look forward to it!

I don't want to leave