Monthly Archives: October 2015

FGC #056 Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts

SpooookySuper Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was an early SNES game featuring brave Sir Arthur venturing forth to rescue Princess Prin Prin from the clutches of Emperor Sardius, the nefarious king of the Demon Realm. Sardius has a Macbethian fear of the one item in the universe destined to destroy him… so he pretty much invites the damn thing to his door. But Sardius’s suicide won’t come easily! Oh no, Sir Arthur has to venture through the entire Demon Realm to reach Sardius, and, because someone left the Goddess Bracelet on her kitchen counter the first time, the quest must be completed a second time if Princess Prin Prin (P3) is to be horsed back home. Not an easy day for anybody.

So, because this game is so damn hard, let’s take a look at just one level. I mean, I could discuss boss recycling in Level 7, or Red Arremer overuse in Level 6, but I’d be addressing the like fourteen people that ever got that far in the game, so let’s examine something we can all experience.

Also, it’s the most perfect level in the franchise, and maybe all of gaming.

First, a little prelude. The opening level of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is the federally mandated opening G ‘n G level: Arthur once more through the graveyard. There’s zombies. There’s flaming skulls. There’s the occasional tower of skulls. It’s all mundane items that you’d find in your local graveyard. The level then progresses to a shore of some kind, with crashing waves and wicked clams hurling their eyeballs. From there, the indicators of the shoreline never recede, but gnarled vines and aggressive vegetation attempt to impede Arthur’s progress. The remains of pillars and other traces of a path that has fallen into ruin indicate that this area may have once been part of the cemetery, but time and tide has reclaimed the once mighty mortuary. At the finale, Arthur is beset by a gigantic cockatrice, which you’d be forgiven for mistaking for a massive, mutated vulture. All in all, the first level of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts seems to carry a theme of routine locations “infected” by the encroaching Demon Realm. You’re not in Hell yet, but Hell is finding its way to you.

How does he eat?The G ‘n G games put much more of an emphasis on action than mythology, so we don’t know very much about the Demon Realm. We know the place is filled with demons… but that was kind of obvious from the name. We also know the geography of the place is rather suspect, with gargantuan, pulsing caverns leading to frozen mountains choked with icy vines. And, of course, we know their government is a monarchy led by whoever can generate the largest projectiles. One thing we don’t know, however, is whether or not the Demon Realm ever held any sort of function in human society. They’d almost have to, right? Sure, it’s a place dominated by creatures that seem to settle disagreements with radioactive vomit, but they’re Arthur’s eastern neighbors, and you don’t get to have a society that accomplishes anything if you can’t deal with countries outside your borders. Emperor Sardius is kidnapping rival royalty now, yes, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a trade agreement in place a few years back. Humans have to fill their treasure chests with something.

Princess Prin Prin was kidnapped by a very fast (oddly, never fought) winged demon that was likely half way home before Arthur had time to check if his boxers were still fresh. So Arthur isn’t following P3’s trail, he’s just dashing headlong into enemy strongholds guessing (correctly) at who was responsible. This means that humans (or at least knights) have knowledge of the Demon Realm and its geography. Even more importantly, Arthur knows the exact route out of Prin Prin Kingdom (… sure?) and straight to Sardius’s door. And it’s all right there in Level 2.

Many have written off Level 2 as simply “the water level” or perhaps “pirate stage”, but it is much more than that. Level 2 starts at the docks, and they are docks that are literally crumbling beneath Arthur’s feet. Arthur then leaps across derelict boats, not tiny dinghies, but entire, massive ships that have fallen into disrepair. DO NOT PETGhosts haunt the area. Chests that once contained riches now house only monsters. Under the weight of their first corporeal visitor in years, each ship crashes and sinks into the icy waters.

What happened here? It appears that there once was trade with the Demon Realm, and these ships were your ticket to the land of wings and lava. At some point, trade ceased, possibly due to a race of fire breathing creatures with too many faces stomping around, and the sailors lost their trade. In time, the ships, still dutifully docked awaiting their next cargo, began to degrade, and the sailors themselves, bereft of income and riddled with scurvy, passed into the realm of spirits. In time, the entire shoreline was forgotten and deemed “cursed”, and, perhaps after a skirmish with those damned demon hordes, the surrounding area was zoned into a cemetery. Hey, a ready corpse population was already dying for that real estate.

And all that despair combines with some unpredictable monsters and fun ziplines to make an excellent first half of Level 2.

It’s the second half that realizes the entire guiding principle of the G ‘n G franchise.

As was mentioned, G ‘n G came from the era of video games that didn’t give a wet fireball about story or cohesion or if it’s really realistic that one knight could beat back an entire world of demons. No, G ‘n G, and, arguably, everything about it, from graphics to level design, is all about the game. This is a franchise that sacrifices everything at the altar of action, but not an “empowering” action like Mario or Mega Man, where you can hope to one day have a fire flower and starman to wreck your enemies, or a collection of robot master weapons that would put Doc Robot to shame. What are those things called, anyway?No, this is a game where the best you can hope for is slightly shinier armor, and you take one hit, and you’re back to your skivvies, seconds away from losing your skin with the next blow. G ‘n G is about you, alone, with one simple weapon and one lousy jump, and nothing more to help you than the pleas of your lover and her complete inability to wear jewelry consistently. It’s you against the world, literally, and it’s a world of demons.

This is never more evident than during Level 2-B. Arthur is completely alone, adrift on a raft barely large enough to contain him. Seconds after obtaining the raft, it’s sucked beneath the waves by a raging whirlpool, and Arthur must deftly bound across the ocean to eventually obtain a new raft that will last for a few moments more. Once Arthur is settled into this fresh, floating deathtrap, the demons begin their assault. Piranha literally fly from the seas on the offensive. Tentacled weeds fire deadly stars as fast as bullets. Mermen wait and watch from far-off waves, studying their prey before pouncing for the kill. Arthur is beset on all sides as even the weather seems to repel him with a vicious thunderstorm. When Storm Cesaris, a gigantic, barnacled creature perpetually riding its own personal tornado, attacks at the level’s close, it’s almost a relief, as maybe Mother Nature wasn’t actively trying to harm Arthur this whole time, maybe this hulking ogre was responsible all the while. Then again, small comfort, as Arthur now has to battle the fiend to the death with a mere lance, knife, or other meager pointy object.

In a way, Level 2-B features an Arthur who is no more screwed than usual. It’s always like this for the poor knight, just a lance, his wits, and the hope that his next jump will clear those spikes. But here it’s in the spotlight, with a current that shoves you eternally toward greater challenges. Been a while since I saw the showBeyond Storm Cesaris is the Demon Realm proper, with its foundries and ramparts to greet the proud knight, and monstrous caverns (in more ways than one) and sub-zero peaks beyond. Emperor Sardius waits far off in his throne room, safe and dry while Arthur clings to a few strips of wood, eager to weather the latest storm that soaks through his armor.

Who needs to worry about rescuing the princess? Arthur will be glad to just make it back to solid ground. He can warm himself by the lava. Take that hit, lose that armor, it’s alright. Stupid tin can was starting to smell anyway.

FGC #56 Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts

  • System: Super Nintendo, though there’s also a version for Gameboy Advance.
  • Number of Players: One, but you can get some mileage out of the player two controller when inputting the level select code.
  • Version Differences: The Gameboy Advance version really missed the boat by simply calling itself Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts again. Given you can progress through the Demon Realm and only play the same first, fifth, and sixth levels as the original SNES incarnation, the GBA version really is like an entirely new game. There are a few “borrowed” stages from the Sega Genesis Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, but the stage that remixes the original Ghouls ‘n Ghosts opening stage is sublime. Also, you can fight the most Firebrand-y Red Arremer.
  • Favorite Weapon: Bronze Armor + Bow 4 Life. Aiming is for other people.
  • Least Favorite Weapon: I understand it’s integral to breaking the game or speed runs or whatever, but I could just never get the hang of the torch. This is a game where the greatest threats are constantly hovering just out of reach, so why go for the ground-based weapon? This ain’t holy water.
  • So, did you beat it? Yes, but not before save states. Actually, yes, I did beat it as a child, but I had to abuse that level select code, so, to be precise, I did not beat the game with the Goddess Bracelet until I was an adult. Heck, I’m not sure I ever made it past Level 5 without some kind of cheating.
  • Did you know? The ending provides Princess Prin Prin’s measurements as part of the credits.
    We were all curious
    (Bust, Waist, Hips, in centimeters)

    The same data appears during the ending of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, but the numbers are smaller (B83 W50 H89). I’m not certain what the intended implication of that is, but it’s moderately disturbing all around.
  • Would I play again? Yes, and maybe then I’ll be able to make it to Level 3!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mortal Kombat Shaolin Monks for the PS2. Oh boy! Let’s play the fighting game that isn’t a fighting game! Please look forward to it!

End of Spooky

FGC #055 Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

Spoooooky TimesGamers have been trained to have, shall we say, a unique grasp on reality.

What many consider to be the origin point for video games was a simple tennis sim, but from there we quickly escalated into the realm of yellow-puck-thing must devour dots in an inescapable labyrinth while pursued by ghost monsters (but a big dot will turn the tables). By the time Nintendo hit the console scene, no one batted an eye at a tubby, size-changing plumber jumping to save a human princess and her kingdom of mushroom people from the spikey clutches of a giant, fire-breathing turtle and his army of chestnuts. The elf battling the giant pig, or the robot lady freezing space jellyfish seemed downright sane by comparison. More modern, more “realistic” franchises even seem to come from the same place: Halo is still the kind of futuristic sci-fi that would relegate it, in any other medium, to its eventual station as a Syfy original movie, likely airing in an undesirable timeslot after Sharknado 7: Tokyo Spin. This isn’t to say video games have to be “weird”, I’m simply noting that, were a multi-angled, multi-tentacled monster of madness to pop up and devour Harry Potter’s mind, adults and children alike would be shocked; meanwhile, should the same creature show up in a video game, we just call it an over-sized blooper, and it’s mildly inconveniencing a race of palm tree people.

Then there’s the subtle, almost impossible fourth-wall tricks demonstrated by a number of games. Say what you will about video games, but there is literally no other story telling medium that can touch a video game’s ability to absolutely blow a player’s mind with a “should I be doing this?” Mario finds himself running above the roof only to later discover warp pipes. Edgar Roni Figaro casts a series of spells that guarantee the final boss isn’t even going to move before its vaporization. Chell sneaks into a room “off” the course and… is that graffiti on the wall? And this is all before we even get into the concept of cheat codes (“This is Officer Brady requesting additional backup, suspect has apparently summoned a tank, over.”). The first time I ever saw a Mortal Kombat fatality (the relatively tame “Toasty” Scorpion finisher) I assumed the rad teenager at the controller had Another Blondedone some kind of hacking magic to make such an amazing event occur. I thought you were just supposed to do a cool uppercut to “Finish Him!”

I’m not listing gaming’s greatest hits here because I’m trying to entice Grant Morrison to start creating video games (that would just be a nice bonus), I’m simply noting that by the time a gamer hits those teenage years, no matter the decade, there’s already a healthy base for “anything can happen”. For good or ill, every video game puts the player at the mercy of the programmer, there is no “gamer’s bill of rights”, and if you’re playing some nonsense game that doesn’t even allow you the convenience of skipping cutscenes or saving anywhere, well, too bad, that’s the way it is.

“The way it is” is exactly what makes Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem so great. At first glance (and first level), you would be forgiven for assuming ED:SR is a simple “graduated Resident Evil” game: there’s minor “key goes in door” style puzzles, resources and health are limited, and there’s an army of zombies creeping around like they own the place. The controls are better than RE’s original “tank” movements, but not dramatically so, so don’t expect Alexandra Roivas to go flipping away from danger like Bayonetta. You’ve got a sword, sometimes you’ll have a gun, occasionally it will behoove you to use a magical spell or two, but otherwise, this is all pretty standard horror/survival genre stuff.

And then, in Chapter 2, the real fun kicks in.

Ellia, star of Chapter 2, knows bonkers when she sees it, so, unless she takes the time to “finish” each and every zombie she encounters, her sanity will erode, and she, and the player, will gradually suffer from debilitating visions of madness. It would be the easiest thing in the world to, like many video games before it, tie your character’s health or other “score” representation to various actions that must be completed, otherwise it’s game over, but, no, ED:SR decides to literally play with reality as a character’s sanity drains away. First, the camera skews and eerie voices drop into the audio track, then completely crazy things happen, like Ellia randomly losing limbs or finding herself shrinking to mouse size. And then really crazy nonsense starts happening, like the game fading out to a screen advertising a sequel that would never be, or taunts about memory card data being wiped.

Which is why it’s all such a shame that this little bugger is here…

PROBLEM!

That’s the sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo, and it tells you exactly how low your sanity has fallen. Full of sanity? Great! You’re gonna be just fine. About a quart low? Well then, brace yourself for all manner of craziness. And that’s a problem.

Kapow

Don’t get me wrong: I love gauges. Video games need health meters like books need page numbers, it’s an essential piece of the experience, and when it’s shunted into something more abstract (looking at you, Fable 3), it immediately makes the game worse. It’s basic resource management: you need to know how much health you have left, because it allows you to make important decisions. Down to 2 HP? Well, if the alternative is just a game over where you have to restart anyway, it’s time to use that special super deluxe ultra move you’ve been saving for a rainy day, because, guess what, it’s raining. Full health? Then who gives a damn, just flail around wildly, you’ve got some wiggle room. Bonus points to any game that allows you to “reserve” health, because the minute you see that health gauge dipping into the red (redder?) top it back off with a healing spell or subtank or whatever you’ve got handy. Nobody likes to be creeping around with festering wounds, after all.

So the sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo, presented to a gamer that has been playing videogames for years, completely undermines its own purpose. For one thing, there’s the natural impulse HAVE SOME DEER TEETHto always see that gauge full, because if it dips, bad things may happen to your playthrough, thus undercutting your own efforts. The sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo is introduced with precise instructions on how to refill it (and there’s a spell later that can be used pretty much continually without repercussions), and a message warning you that low sanity may also adversely affect your health. Never let the sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo tumble? Got it, game, thanks.

And then there’s the other elephant in the room: when you have every capability to control the presence of the elephant, you’re not really dealing with an elephant, you’re dealing with, I don’t know, a pug. Nobody is afraid of pugs. I spent the weekend dealing with a pug, and, should that pug have snapped into vicious mode, I could have just tossed that pug in a manner not unlike a football, and been done with the problem (NOTE: No animals were harmed during my time pug-sitting. He’s a good boy. Good boy). The sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo works in much the same way: you have almost full control over that meter, so you don’t have to deal with any insanity effects if you don’t want to. On the rare occasions when you have lost control, though, you absolutely know it, because that omnipresent gauge is chilling right there in your field of vision, and if it’s dipping low, brace yourself for horror.

You know what doesn’t help shocks and scares? Knowing exactly what’s coming. Jason Voorhees thrives on unexpectedly crashing through a tent or New York or space or whatever it is this week. Jason would lose a significant chunk of his appeal if he only came when invited, perhaps at prearranged times for greater convenience. Horror can’t work with an indicator, because horror is sudden, horror is unexpected, and, most of all, horror is abrupt. Horror, and the very concept of insanity, should make you question yourself, make you stand up and notice what reality is, and that’s never going to happen when you can ease into the notion. Uh-oh, missed a couple of zombies, better get ready for craaaaaazy times.

Walk away, manThe best, scariest, and most memorable moment in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem occurs in a certain bathroom. It also has nothing to do with the sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo, and that is no accident.

Gamers can deal with crazy. We’ve been dealing with insanity from the opening bell, when we were all expected to imagine those rectangles as tennis players or whatever was supposed to be happening in Pong. If you’re already playing Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, you’re expecting horror. This isn’t Yarn Roivas, it’s a game filled with zombies and monsters with either too many or not enough heads. Let the irrational happen, derive some genuine scares from unexpected twists on the genre. Don’t stick a claxon up in the corner, and don’t ever give a warning for horror, because true horror never does.

Don’t be afraid of being scary. Gamers can take it.

FGC #55 Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

  • System: Nintendo Gamecube, the scariest of all purple lunchboxes.
  • Number of Players: Just one. Come to think of it, the WiiU gamepad would be amazing for a two player game that involves attempting to frighten the other player. Somebody get that Penn & Teller game out of the garbage…
  • Geez, pretty harsh review: You wouldn’t know it from the preceding post, but this is easily one of my favorite games, and definitely in my top three for the Gamecube (which would be, in order: Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Mario Sunshine, and then Eternal Darkness… Beyond Good and Evil and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door are next). It’s likely a result of having played the game so many times that I decided to home in on its one, glaring flaw.
  • Favorite Character/Chapter: Poor, doomed Anthony, Charlemagne’s messenger who winds up with a curse meant for his liege, seems to embody everything good about ED:SR’s Lovecraftian roots. You are literally doomed before you even gain control of Anthony, but you still soldier on to save the king, and, whoops, turns out nothing you ever did mattered, and you’re stuck in a closet for a century or six, waiting to be slaughtered by the next “hero” who swings by.
  • Favorite Sanity Effect:

    I’ve seen a similar screen for other reasons many an occasion. Drives me nuts every time.
  • Did you know? The surname of the hero’s family is Roivas. That’s “savior” spelled backwards. The Alucard Foundation for the Destruction of the Darkness approves.
  • Would I play again: Yes, definitely. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem even respects me enough to unlock a level select and God Mode for future replays, so I can just pick up and go as not-Ben Franklin or not-Indiana Jones at my leisure. It’s hard to choose between a mad monk and a Canadian Firefighter with infinity grenades, but I think I’ll manage.

What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen to conclude spooky week with… Super Ghouls and Ghosts! Put on your best boxers, grab your lance, and let’s tour the Ghoul Realm. Please look forward to it!

ANOTHER PROBLEM!

FGC #054 Digimon Rumble Arena

GET READY FOR FUNUltimately, I would say the greatest barrier to people playing video games is video games.

Video games are a unique entertainment medium. A book, whether it be comedy, adventure, or drama, still reads essentially the same way, cover to cover, and, barring some unique, potentially impeding linguistic flourishes, a 300 page novel about fancy suits and futuristic violence is going to go just as quickly as a similar sized novel on magical schoolchildren. Films require very little effort, even less with modern conveniences: just cue up any motion picture from the last century on your streaming service, and, two hours later, you’ve watched the movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s Citizen Kane or Clerks 2, there’s the same, nearly nonexistent entry barrier.

Video games, by contrast, can be ludicrously different from genre to genre. Consider World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros., the perennial platformer, versus crossing the same length of field in Paper Mario, an “action” RPG. In both, the exact same thing is happening: Mario is moving left to right, and jumping on goombas all the while; however the exact same action in two different games is conveyed radically differently, with numbers and dodging and possibly healing or death, and, more importantly, the time involved is drastically different, too. It’s up to the player to decide whether they enjoy the one-and-done “stomp” of Super Mario Bros. or the more technical and complex RPG back-and-forth battle of Paper Mario. A seemingly infinite number of Mario games boil down to “beat Bowser, save Peach”, but there’s scores of ways to “play” that same story with those same characters.

This creates an interesting conundrum for licensed games, aka games that import themselves from other mediums (television, movies, books [it’s happened!]). For instance, it seems the longer a franchise has existed, the more genres it has tried across video game history. The Simpsons, an animated series that has been on the air nearly as long as I’ve been alive (and thus, how could you not know what I’m talking about?), has seen NES platformers of dubious cohesion, a 90’s style arcade beat ‘em up, an eclectic 16-bit action game or two, 3-D platformers, a GTA-alike, and even a microtransaction-based cell phone adventure. Every single one of these games has been an attempt to adapt a series with a 20 year old, rigid sitcom formula featuring a group of characters that are most well-known for the variety of ways they sit on a couch. If I hadn’t seen Bart battle space mutants or Homer turn into a doughy sphere with my own eyes, I’d claim there was no way to adapt The Simpsons into the much more active video game medium, but I’m faced with two decades of evidence to the contrary.

Right in the kisserNot all franchises can be The Simpsons, and most video game adaptions are based on franchises that barely survive past the release of their tie-in material. I own a copy of The Last Action Hero for Sega Genesis, a Hulk PS2 game based on a movie that the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to have disowned, and, the most ephemeral game of all, Water World for the Nintendo Virtual Boy. For franchises like that, you’re not going to get another chance to make another, different game if the first idea goes awry, so you’ve got to choose your genre carefully. What would better fit the next Schwarzenegger vehicle, a beat ‘em up or a shooter? Choose wisely, because someone is going to be mocking that choice a decade down the line on Youtube.

Make no mistake, that choice is now harder than it’s ever been. Have a franchise with a huge cast of characters, and everyone must be featured? Why not reduce all your hard hitting, action oozing stars to a tactical RPG, where you can boil everyone down to a series of numbers that only require four unique animations. Oh, but that will alienate the people who want something more visceral. How about a fighting game? People are just interested in the stars anyway, right? But now you need to actually balance the characters, assign them unique moves, and you’re still going to be stuck with a plot where best friends have to fight each other six times to compensate for the inevitably limited roster. How about we focus on that plot and go with a JRPG style game… but do you think a forty hour game would be a treat or threat to people who usually devote a half hour a week to the series? We could try an episodic Telltale-esque adventure game, as they seem to be closest to the average show’s format, but, unless it’s really unique, it’ll just wind up being “same as the source material, but every once in a while you have to find a key to advance the dialogue.” Can we just stick a bullet point for “like the show, but requires more work!” on the box? Screw it, let’s just remake Rampage, stick the main character’s head on one of the monsters, and claim it has “rogue-like elements”.

I am downright glad it’s not my job to make those decisions.

Digimon is, nowadays, remembered as the Go-Bots to Transformer’s Pokémon; however, you may be interested to know that Digimon started as a Tamagotchi rip-off. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky to have never lived through the horrible era of beeping keychains demanding to be fed, entertained, and cleaned at random intervals throughout the day. Digimon eventually digivolved into the Go, goggle warriors!hard battling heroes that we know today the very moment Pokémon made it popular, though, so it was only natural that the franchise would follow the same JRPG path.

Only one problem: Digimon the show, which was very popular internationally, has about as much in common with Pokémon as it did with F • R • I • E • N • D • S.

I will always remember my friend Geoff commenting once, during Honors Physics, apropos of nothing, “Geez, Ash gave away his mankey this morning? I don’t think he’s ever going to catch all the pokémon.” To this day, there have been 897 (Christ!) episodes of the Pokémon animated series, and Ash currently has… let’s see here… carry the snorlax… yes, it appears Ash has 38 pokémon out of a possible 721. 5.2%. If my calculations are correct, this means that Ash will “catch ‘em all” right around the same time we colonize the sun. But that’s okay, because Pokémon isn’t that kind of show, it’s a show about a kid exploring his world and making friends and chatting up a different woman every season. Did you see the skirt on Dawn? It’s no wonder Ash has fallen behind on watching tall grass, if you catch my drift, wink wink, nudge nudge. Sorry, Geoff, but Ash is never going to satisfy the theme song.

Digimon the animated series, from first season to last, has always been a completely different animal. The Digimon world is one of constant conflict, where if there is not a clash between titans before the end of an episode, there’s something wrong. In fact, Digimon arguably follows a formula closer to Sentai than Pokémon: a group of teens are off and doing whatever they do, they encounter something strange, play around with it for twenty minutes, the situation escalates until there’s some creature the size of Godzilla stomping around, random teen’s digimon grows to jaeger-size, battle, Flying bread in actionteen victory, and a lesson is learned, but the damage is irreversible. Digimon seasons have consistent arcs, and, like Dragonball Z, there is a constant escalation of power levels and super abilities and oh God how many different forms can Frieza cycle through in five minutes? Also, every Digimon series is a (mostly) self-contained arc, which is either a deliberate way to tell a story, or an excuse to reset all the power levels to zero so the next season has somewhere to go. All this adds up to a series that leans much more on combat than cooperation, and the constant battles are a high-energy, high-testosterone romp featuring actual monsters hurling planet-destroying fireballs against literal tidal waves.

So maybe JRPG, the genre that defines “hurry up and wait”, wasn’t the best choice for the series. Digimon World was released in 1999 in Japan, saw a sequel the following year, and then garnered a card game, as was the style at the time. Finally, two years after the initial RPG release, there was Digimon Rumble Arena, a fighting game based on the series which, as an added bonus, actually featured characters from the popular television series, as opposed to a bunch of generic randos. Finally, the series that was closer to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers had a game to match.
Bad news? It was held back by the very thing that defined the series.

Digimon digivolve, and that’s the highpoint of Digimon. Unfortunately, right from the get-go, every medium but the television series misunderstood the appeal. In its Tamagotchi roots, it’s something akin to Pokémon evolving, basically just the lifecycle of the Digimon going forward. It’s mundane and about as exciting as grass growing. It’s even worse in the Digimon World (JRPG) series, as there, yes, it is the digimon getting stronger, DIGIVOLVE!but also one step closer to the grave, as Digimon World digimon go through life/death cycles that mean your ultra level digimon is just three days away from retirement, and, then, ugh, you have to raise it back from nothing all over again. Digivolution thus becomes one part upgrade, one part threat. But in the animated series? Digivolution is always cool, because it’s Goku going Super Saiyan, it’s Tommy summoning the Dragonzord, it’s Wolverine announcing that he’s going to take his best shot, bub. It’s something that happens every episode five minutes before the credits roll because it’s the reason you’re watching, and the promise of new and more exciting digivolutions is the reason you’ll tune in next week.

Digivolution sucks in Digimon Rumble Arena. As a sort of concession to the series, you have a digivolve “gauge” throughout every battle, akin to the “super meter” of Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo or alike, and when it fills, you can digivolve into a stronger digimon while the gauge slowly drains back down, de-digivolving your ‘mon when it’s back to empty. This should, in theory, be fun. In practice? There’s only three outcomes:

  1. Your opponent digivolved, but you haven’t. Since you’re at an extreme disadvantage, run for your life, and hope your opponent’s gauge depletes before you’re cornered.
  2. You digivolved, but your opponent hasn’t. Assuming your opponent isn’t an idiot, get ready to chase down your prey, and hope your digivolution holds its charge while you’re leaping all over the place. If you’re lucky, you’ll achieve a victory that seems about as earned as Mike Tyson punching out a squirrel.
  3. You both digivolved at about the same time! Yay! Now it’s exactly like the fight you were just having, but you’re both taller. Variety!

Mrow?Couple this with arenas that are way too large for just two combatants, and you’ve got a fighting game that has all the urgency and excitement of an ice cream social. Digimon the Animated Series is all the action that can be crammed into a half hour, while Digimon Rumble Arena makes you sigh loudly when you realize every match is best out of three rounds. “Ugh, I have to do that again?” is not the kind of reaction anyone should ever have to a fire-breathing T-Rex battling a gatling gun toting giant rabbit.

It’s unfortunate, but the series has not improved, either. I tried the most recent iteration of this franchise on the PS3, Digimon Not Smash Bros or whatever it’s called, and it had the exact same problem, possibly magnified by the fact that modern technology allows a hulking digivolved digimon to really tower over your average rookie. I don’t care how brave you are, when your opponent has four times your attack range, you’re going to run for the hills. Running isn’t fun in a fighting game, it’s just a waste of time.

This is what this whole chapter of the Digimon franchise is: a waste. Which is a shame, as the fighting genre is exactly what I would pick for Digimon. It seems like the best way to translate the constant, action-packed battles of the series, but, in practice, it leads to a game that does its absolute best to suck all the fun out of the room. Hey, you, get back here and let me use this super move I earned! Come on, be a pal and let me slaughter you!

So, children, want to get into the wide world of video games with your favorite franchise? Great! Your choices are a boring JRPG with absolutely no characters you’ll recognize aside from the franchise’s Pikachu, or a fighting game where you recognize everybody, but you’ll spend half of every match either cowering or chasing, but not actually fighting. What’s that? You’d rather just passively sit on the couch and watch the show you already unconditionally enjoy? Yeah, I can get that.

Gameplay is its own worst enemy sometimes.

FGC #54 Digimon Rumble Arena

  • System: Sony Playstation. Huh. Isn’t this the generation that should have a Saturn port for every crappy fighting game?
  • Number of Players: Two, even though the game seems to be built around four players, or at least more players than two to justify the fact that your fighters don’t “track” (face) each other at all times.
  • Favorite Digimon: Patamon, which has always struck me as looking like an orange piece of bread with bat wings. It digivolves into an old school, “wrath of God” angel. I kinda enjoy the Digimon series for how completely bonkers its evolutionary lines are. There’s a cactus that turns into a fairy, for some reason, too.
  • Let's shoot some hoopsTime-Out: Oh, and this was released during that odd time in Fighting Game History when there was a mandatory stupid bonus game every few fights or so. This time, it’s a basketball battle between two digimon, because that makes as much sense as anything. Alternative suggestion: I wouldn’t have minded digivolving to kaiju size and taking out an entire car lot. I’d like to see Mike Haggar do that. No, I mean, seriously, I would.
  • All told, you seem rather fond of Digimon: Well, yeah, it’s a series where its leaders wear the head wrappings of my people. I goggle-relate.
  • Did you know? This game features characters from the first three seasons of Digimon. Digimon Seasons 1 & 2 share characters and a setting, but Season 3 was based in a universe where Digimon was simply a media franchise, and oh wow, now digimon are popping up in the “real” world. And then it turns out that the protagonist’s parents invented digimon and an entire universe of sentient computer data. You’d think that would have come up before the events of the show, but, hey, weird series.
  • Would I play again? Nope. If there’s one thing this game does well, it’s that it makes you appreciate fighting games that are actually fun. We define darkness as the absence of light, and we define terrible fighting games as the absence of Ryu.

What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Yes, thanks to the holiday, I’m limiting ROB’s choices to anything that involves “spooky” content (and the previous two picks have, coincidentally, involved monsters) for the remainder of the week. So here’s a game meant to drive me iiiiiiiiinsane. Please look forward to it!

FGC #053 Pokémon Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald

Here’s my theory on the Pokémon world: none of it is real, and it’s all just a game.

Wait! I mean… Oh, just let me explain.

Let’s look at exhibit A. Who’s that pokémon?

It’s Ponyta, the fire horse pokémon. I am featuring ponyta first, because there is no part of this creature that could ever exist. It is a horse that is always on fire. If we ignore biology issues entirely (It has to consume how many calories to keep a fire burning eternally? None of its internal liquids are vaporized? Food isn’t turned to charcoal as it’s devoured? Does it… just eat charcoal?), we’re still left with the more immediate problem that ponyta are found in tall grass. Tall grass’ kryptonite is the very thing that fuels ponyta, yet the poké-world hasn’t been turned to ash yet. Want to claim this is all based on Johnny Storm physics, and a ponyta only burns what it desires? Let me remind you of its pokédex entry:

“A PONYTA is very weak at birth. It can barely stand up. Its legs become stronger as it stumbles and falls while trying to keep up with its parent.”

A child ponyta can’t even control its legs, what hope is there for anything downwind of its flamethrower tail?

That’s just one pokémon. Another pokémon found very early in the franchise is Beedrill, a three foot tall insect with swords for arms that are filled with poison. There is no way human beings could ever evolve to modern society with a creature like that prowling the Earth. Man would still BUZZZbe working out this whole “tools” thing when a swarm of beedrill swung on by to end all squishy, human life in the area. And this isn’t some conjecture on my part. I’m not attributing violent tendencies to what is actually a friendly, misunderstood pokécreature. To quote the pokédex:
“A BEEDRILL is extremely territorial. For safety reasons, no one should ever approach its nest. If angered, they will attack in a swarm.”

How close is too close to a flying insect the size of a small child? Nobody is getting out alive on beedrill’s world.

But wait, psychic type pokémon can quell the poison pokémon, right? Well, there’s the existential nightmare that are the non-physical pokémon. Did your foot fall asleep, or is an alakazam playing with its disable skill for giggles? There are at least four pokémon known for dream eating, half of which were introduced in the first generation. When you’re absolutely most vulnerable, a pokémon may be devouring your very thoughts, and, considering the move is used in battle, it’s not doing you any favors. Did you just wake up hung-over, or was some little yellow bastard gobbling up your soul?

Oh, and the concept of a soul in the pokémon world? Alarming. A pokémon can be forced into battling until death, return as a ghost, and then be captured and forced into slavery again as a non-corporeal being! Everyone always makes a big deal about Drifblum carrying children into darkness, but did you ever consider that an undead balloon monster might have problems of its own?

No, no you didn’t, because the full implication of a world where everything in the pokédex is true is more than disturbing, it’s horrifying. So we have to start at the point that everything in the pokédex is a lie. Well, perhaps not a lie, per say, maybe just… flavor text. But to what end?

Well that’s simple: it’s all a game. No, I’m not talking about it being a game to you, I mean it’s a game to everyone in the pokémon world.

BOUNCESince we’re already on the concept of “world”, let’s consider the actual areas you explore in a pokémon game. Kanto contains multiple towns with, what, six houses? Eight? These aren’t towns, they’re barely campgrounds. There is the occasional city (real “city”, not just four buildings using a big boy noun), filled with high-rises and alleys and whatnot, but these are traditionally solitary and centrally located, as if the city had always been there, and the rest of the attractions in the periphery were added later, perhaps as a way to draw tourism to an otherwise dull location. But you’re still dealing with “small” cities: Unova features Castelia City as an ersatz New York City, but you can bicycle from one end to the other in less time than it would take you to order a churro in actual NYC. And, as many will recall, you can cycle 75% of the entire North-to-South distance of Kanto in a few seconds, faster if you’re going downhill.

I could make the comparison that these regions aren’t the size of countries, they’re about the size of theme parks, but you’ve already realized that, haven’t you?

Yes, every Pokémon game features a kid going to a themed resort to have fun with other kids. Okay, yes, some of the other trainers aren’t kids (or teens, I’m old, they’re all kids), but everyone has an excuse for being there. The hikers enjoy the scenic trips and play with pokémon as a necessary concession to the venue. The scientists and archeologists are genuinely curious about the world around them before Pokéattraction took over, and are curious about pokémon battles from an anthropological perspective. The pokémaniacs never grew up and out of that pokémon phase (I can relate). All the “rival trainers” patrolling the region are just other kids, in their own way, enjoying another summer with other likeminded individuals.

Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed you’re all trading poké-fun bucks.

The gym leaders, and their toadies, are obviously just employees of the park. Everyone reading this knows that the worst thing a game can do to a new player is be too difficult too fast, so gym leaders and GREAT MYSTERYtheir challenges are there to guarantee that an expert or a novice have the same enjoyable experience through sticking in their designated areas. The gym badges are proof of your level, and more badges mean access to more areas, and the challenges they contain. Or did you really think a collection of psyduck were just shutting down transit due to headaches?

And Team Rocket, Team Magma, or whatever malevolent “team” we’re dealing with this week? Actors playing a part, no more threatening than the guy in the Jafar costume at Disney World. What kind of person doesn’t want to believe they saved the world by battling pokémon after pokémon when the police and armies of the world did nothing? Yeah, sure, kid, you saved us from some jerk trying to conquer all of time and space. Now go hustle off to the Poké League so you can become the one true champion while we reset the castle gizmo for the next customer.

Don’t try to tell me that Kyorge was moments away from flooding the world when a teeny tiny poliwag can create a localized rain storm without any environmental issues.

I suppose I’ve delayed it enough. It is time to pull back the curtain on how pokémon “work”. Sorry, Virginia, but there is not a Delibird, it’s all just zeros and ones and lifelike holograms that can only be programmed with four basic motions. Some of the better parks contain projectors that exist all over the place, so a pokémon can appear to attentively follow you, but the majority only offer projectors in select areas, like caves or just below the surface of a lake. In some areas, all they can afford to do is hide the devices in tall grass. Your pokéballs are there to pull data from the server and Look at 'em all“capture” that pokémon to your own private collection, but you can only carry six at a time, because, come on, with everyone else wandering around the park, there is a lot of data to be served 24/7. Everything else is stored on non-portable terminals that can be accessed at pokécenters, which I’m sure you’ll be swinging by anyway, as how else will you top off your beasts’ imaginary HP? Maybe buy a Technical Machine while you’re there, and stick that CD into whatever slot you can find on your gardevoir.

Now get out there and win, trainer, you parents paid for this little trip, and you’re going to enjoy it. After all, all the world’s a game, and all the men and women merely players.

FGC #53 Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald

  • System: Gameboy Advance, though the remake has hit the 3DS…. But that’s effectively a totally new game.
  • Number of Players: Pokémon has always been an excellent two player experience… assuming you’re not taking pictures or something. Bonus points to any game that encourages trading as much as battling.
  • Maybe actually talk about the game for a second: I will always hold a grudge against the third generation pokémon games because they locked half the cast (and my beloved Hypno) behind a series of other games, like the Gen 1 remakes and the Gamecube Orre series. Also, completely arbitrarily, I want to say this is where Pokémon started reusing animals that already had definitive poké-analogues. Why would you ever want a skitty when meowth is right there? All that said, Pokémon Ruby was basically the reason I finally got a Gameboy Advance (poor college student), and I never once regretted it. Pokémon Emerald, years later, decisively proved I would buy the same game over and over again as long as I was promised a new hat.
  • Did you catch ‘em all? You’re damn right I did.
    Ya just gotta
  • Robin? I figure it’s the female form of Robert when I feel like switching sexes for a game.
  • And it’s not just another in a long series of A Midsummer Night’s Dream references that you sprinkle into every facet of your life? It can be two things!
  • DANCE!Favorite Gen 3 Pokémon: Ludicolo, the slimy Mexican pokémon. How was that allowed?! Unfortunate cultural stereotype aside, Ludicolo seems to do everything, like constant, uninterruptable dancing, with a gigantic smile on its face. Combine that positivity with a cool sombrero, and we’ve got a winner.
  • Real Life Pokémon: I once saw an entire modern business grind to a halt because a squirrel had found its way in through the ductwork, discovered a nice, warm server, and then decided to nibble through all of the attached wires before crawling back into the walls to pungently rot. I literally cannot imagine the level of damage that could have occurred if the squirrel had the ability to consume, conduct, and control electricity.
  • Did you know? The reason this, the third generation, is the base for all future trading, and you cannot trade pokémon from Red/Blue/Yellow or Gold/Silver/Crystal, is that the original two generation games allowed you to absolutely dope your pokémon on poké-vitamins (like calcium and protein) until they possessed stats that would put a Mewtwo to shame. Sorry, guys, but your surfing pikachu had to die with your Pokémon Blue’s battery so the metagame could be better balanced. Sacrifices must be made for progress.
  • Would I play again? Nope. Love the game, but every single version of Pokémon has iterated on the previous version without losing the best of its ancestors. There is basically no reason to go back and replay Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald for anything other than curiosity, so why bother? (not rhetorical)

What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… Digimon Rumble Arena for the Playstation. Erm. I’m… I’m not completely sure I’ve ever actually played that game, and just picked it up on a lark with an Ebay lot that included Cannon Spike, Record of Lodoss War, and NES M.U.L.E., all games that I could easily write about. But, no, Digimon Rumble Arena will be here Monday. Please look forward to it?