Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Gaming 5 #2 Super Metroid

Sing it with meWhy is it on this list?

As I mentioned in the Mega Man X article, the best video games are the ones that evolve with the player’s skills. You’ve mastered running and jumping? Great, now let’s turn into a ball! Got being a ball down? Welcome to the wonderful world of bombs. Etc. However, a significant difference between Super Metroid and Mega Man X is that MMX is “level based”, and X’s abilities only ever improve in the service of reaching the end of the next stage; by contrast, Samus Aran’s abilities improve not only her combat effectiveness, but her ability to reach and explore new areas. In a way, this is a minor difference between the two games, and in another way, this tiny difference created an entirely new genre from arguably the exact same components. Jump, shoot, and now explore.

So why Super Metroid and not Metroid or the various similar Castlevania games?

Super Metroid is the pinnacle of what began in Metroid and Metroid II. Super Metroid’s predecessors were both excellent games in their own rights, but things like the beam limit (oh, picked up the Wave Beam before Tourian? Too bad!) and the Spider Ball (fun for exactly three seconds before a rolling boredom settles in) scream “first try”. Also, Super Metroid’s minimap and pause maps are such a revelation, it’s nearly impossible to go back to the old “break out the graph paper” prequels. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night liked the map system so much that it stole it wholesale and never looked back. Sure, Igarashi, you had Zelda in mind, not Metroid, we all believe you.

Speaking of Castlevania, the Metroid series has always had one very important leg up on the Castlevania series: power-up acquisition. REASSIGN AConsider: in Super Metroid, there is a power-up hiding under Mother Brain’s old brain tank, a location that is visited very early in the game. In Castlevania, this power-up would have to be a weapon or armor of some strength, yes, but, due to it possibly being found in the early minutes, it would have to be fairly weak, so as not to imbalance the early enemy challenges, or completely outclass every single item you’d find afterwards… but if you find this secret later in the game, it’s basically trash. In Super Metroid? The power-up is a missile upgrade, which is useful whether it’s your first upgrade or last. Yes, there may not be a point in the game where you need 200 missiles at your disposal, but it is handy to have a full compliment if you’re diving into the fires of Norfair to confront a certain space dragon.

Additionally, Castlevania’s “leveling” system seems perfunctory on Samus’s “just a tank” gameplay. Samus can take a hit, in fact, she can take many hits and keep on trucking, never having to particularly worry about killing a thing. This is different in Castlevania, as the monsters involved are supposed to be interesting challenges, but… well… you’ll be overleveled for some reason, either due to finding decent gear or looking for decent gear, getting lost, and killing so many enemies Alucard’s level accidentally precludes the idea of a boss being a remote challenge. Obviously, this is its own kind of fun if you enjoy that kind of thing, but it’s a poor lesson for a video game novice. Grinding should not be encouraged, by accident or design.

So Super Metroid is a good choice because it’s easy?

Barring some gray doors that must be soaked in space pirate blood, Samus does not concern herself with the monsters of Zebes. As a result, “health” is less important in the “can I take a hit from that geega” sense and more a signifier of where not to go. Enter a room, and your energy tanks are draining faster than an industrial strength toilet? Way to go, you found a place you’re not supposed to be, maybe go try somewhere else. The challenge in Super Metroid is the navigation, not the minute to minute You have enough health for this?“monsters”. A Mega Man or Mario game is a race against your own hit points; a goomba or met may end a successful run right at the finish line simply due to suffering too much damage earlier in the level. A comparable situation in Super Metroid is not a zoomer, but a wall. Do you have the skills/items to overcome this obstacle? Do you know the best way to handle this situation? Ridley’s lair is not guarded by some invincible boss, it is guarded by boiling lava and an “impossible” jumping challenge. The challenge is learning what will make Samus “get there”, not memorizing an enemy’s pattern or remembering to save enough energy tanks.

And remember, death in video games is always ephemeral, the true “setback” of death is, in the end, wasted time: you must now restart the level, and expend your own time completing challenges you already once completed. Super Metroid doesn’t have to kill Samus to slow down the player; just ask anyone who spent days running around Zebes looking for the next area when all they ever had to do was super bomb that one stupid tube. Not that I’m still bitter decades later…

So you’re sticking to the bold stance that Super Metroid is a worthwhile game?

Better men than I have outlined exactly why Super Metroid is a great game. See the excellent Anatomy of Metroid book by J. Parish for See you next missiona complete breakdown of why this might be one of the most well-constructed video games ever. Hell, just play the game, and you’ll likely innately sense the perfection like so many of us did in ’94, back when gaming alternatives included luminaries like Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit. Super Metroid is not only a good game, it is an ideal game for learning about games, and how to play games. Once the local college approves my syllabus, this is the first game I’m assigning for homework in Video Games 101.

The Gaming 5 #2 Super Metroid

  • System: Super Nintendo, but also available on the Wii/WiiU virtual console service. Interestingly, this is the only Gaming Five game that does not have a portable version or remake available. This is unacceptable!
  • Number of players: One Samus Aran, alone in her powersuit, forever.
  • Favorite area: Norfair Depths, home of Ridley, is just so delightfully inhospitable. Every inch of the place is covered in lava and spikes and oppressive heat, and the Space Pirates are all hanging out, ya know, chilling, soaking up some rays. And you ever notice how the whole area has a lot of really small passageways? How did the boss even get into his lair? Ridley is too big.
  • Did you know? This game was released stateside on my birthday. This… means something.
  • Did you know (Not related to me edition)? As of writing this article, there is an adorable website Give the kid a toy to play with for a good pictureat supermetroidguide.com. It’s, like, an old Angelfire site dedicated to Super Metroid. I want to be clear here, I am not mocking this site in any way, I genuinely love that we live in a world where this is a site that was apparently made sometime recently (it mentions Other M) but looks like it was made in 1999. Some delightful nostalgia.
  • Did you know (Okay, let’s talk about the game edition)? While it was just kind of implied before, later release Metroid Zero Mission confirmed that Samus Aran spent a significant part of her childhood living on Zebes. Setting aside how a human child could survive five minutes on a planet where giant bugs can damage an entire powersuit, this means that Samus should have some emotional attachment to the place. So Samus Aran returns to her old neighborhood as an adult, finds it infested with a criminal gang, expels the mob, leaves, and returns sometime later to find she did practically no good the first time. Her second visit lasts about two hours, and, when she leaves, the entire planet, and everything on it, is blown to pieces. And Metroid Other M decided Samus would have PTSD over the baby.
  • Would I play again? I’m told that sometimes when I am involved in boring meetings or other events where I could be spending my time elsewhere, I enter a sort of “trance state” and my eyes glaze over. Some mystics have described this state as a sort of nirvana, but I know that when that happens, I am just playing Super Metroid in my head.

What’s Next? Let’s ignore the power of plasma beams, and move on to the punishing power of music. Please look forward to it!

Do I have to say it?

The Gaming 5 #1 Mega Man X

Around February of 2015, Issun of the Talking Time forums proposed a question, “What five games would you use to demonstrate to anyone, be it an alien or someone from three-thousand years in the future or a fellow gamer or your mom what defines gaming now and forever?” I made up a list of five games pretty quickly, so, for the next five posts (effectively the next two weeks), I’ll be highlighting my choices. So we’re starting with…

You.  Done.Mega Man X

Why is it on this list?

Unlike every other entertainment medium I can think of, video games are about improvement. Casting aside retrograde amnesia or a serious degloving accident (don’t google that), from moment one, you are only ever getting better at any given video game. This is a completely separate experience from consuming cinema, music, literature, etc. Yes, you can get better at writing, composing, or playing music, but, try as you might, you will never get any better at listening to Baby Got Back. The experience is wholly different with video games, where, without even realizing it, you are getting better at any game you are playing, whether through leaps and bounds or just incrementally gaining the knowledge to avoid that goomba. It’s one of the chief reasons I believe video games are not only good for children, but people from all walks of life. It’s all those benefits people are always attributing to sports, but without the tedious getting up.

The Mega Man series embraces this idea, and always presents a little metal boy that improves with the player’s skill. As you, the player, gain the skills and knowledge to defeat robot masters, mavericks, or net navis, your digital avatar gains further skills and abilities to better defeat the next threat. There’s a glorious synchronized ballet performance in every Mega Man game, even though most people just remember those damn disappearing blocks.

So Why Not Any Other Mega Man Game?

Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 are both phenomenal games, but both have obvious choke points for new players. Even before the Boobeam Trap of Mega Man 2, there’s every chance someone’s first stage will be Quick Man, and that experience will end… quickly. Mega Man 3 isn’t as punishing, but by the time you reach Doc Robot and have to face two Mega Man 2 bosses per stage and ridiculous Rush Jet sections, well, let’s just say there’s a Plinkreason it was a long time before I ever saw the third Wily Castle. And Mega Man 9, another unparalleled game, is astonishing almost because it’s a masters course in Mega Man design, which makes for an uniquely challenging game, but a poor starting point.

The Mega Man X series has one major advantage over every original series game, and that’s that it improves not only X’s armory through weapon acquisition, but also rewards the player for exploration through movement, armor, and life upgrades scattered about its stages. Every single X game starts with an appreciably weaker than Mega Man version of X, and, should the player show any skill in discovery, will culminate with an X that could turn any given Wily-bot into robo pudding. It’s one thing to obtain a neat fire weapon, it’s another to gain a leg upgrade that allows dashing new opportunities.

So Mega Man X, not X2? X4? I know X6 is right out…

Mega Man X is the purest embodiment of the X concept. Already by X2, we’re introducing things like the X-Hunters, who take up time with weird little cinema scenes and then offer “rewards” in the form of Zero’s body parts. That’s fun and all, but to a completely new player, the Zero parts offer no obvious advantage or upgrade until the absolute last moments of the game. You find a heart container in Mega Man X, and you get a health upgrade; it’s straightforward and easy to understand. What are the odds?By Mega Man X4, the series has acquired way too much jibber jabber, and it’s downright embarrassing to select Storm Owl’s stage, and then listen to X be actually surprised to encounter, at the end of the Storm Owl Stage… Storm Owl. It’s even worse when X pleads with any given target to stop the violence and why can’t we just talk this out, as, come on, I just selected this stage for the express purpose of murdering this guy, X, get with the program. You have a gun for a hand for a reason!

And to be perfectly clear, by no means do I claim these games are bad for their plot excesses or items that don’t immediately benefit the player; I’m simply stating why these issues make these games a poor choice for a “first game”.

Any other reasons for Mega Man X?

Millions. Mega Man X was a very carefully constructed game from beginning to end. The Intro Stage takes the time to nudge the player into using each of X’s innate skills, from jumping to shooting to wall jumping (and shooting), and even ends with a “plot” that encourages the player to get better. While it’s a shame that the player only has a 12.5% chance of choosing Chill Penguin first, his stage simultaneously introduces the essential dash mechanic and the concept that you should be looking for these crazy Light capsule things. Do you want to try to tell me that, after seeing X with freshly armored legs and nothing else, you thought, “Well, guess that’s it, improved shins, that’s all I need. Way to go.”

Stylin'Stages interact in interesting ways: Storm Eagle’s airship very clearly begins to crash after his defeat, and then the remains can be found in Spark Mandrill’s Stage messing up the power grid. Interestingly, this “levels affect levels” mechanic did not make a noticeable return until Mega Man X6, when it was reintroduced compliments of a monkey’s paw. All over, Mega Man X interacts with the player in significant ways, without once taking the time to stop and shout “Hey listen” to jerk the player’s attention toward the obvious.

While I know my own bias is affecting my hypothesis here, there’s also the fact that a number of systems within the game are synonymous with what I consider to be “gaming”. Lives and health restoration items are available as enemy “drops” or just laying around. Bottomless, deadly pits and lethal spikes litter locations best not tread. Even the basics of jump, shoot, and beat the boss are all things that we, as gamers, take for granted (and must have been learned at some time, right?). If this game had at least one door that necessitated pressing up to enter, it’d have all the video game shorthand anyone would ever need.

What about Maverick Hunter X?

Despite being a “remake”, Maverick Hunter X falls far short of its predecessor. The reduced screen real estate is a pain, and even leads to some weird and atrocious scrolling errors related to enemies and powerups. Additionally, it’s acquired all the plot baggage from other later Mega Man X games, so get ready to hear Sting Chameleon’s monologue on violence before his brutal end. And, to top it all off, some of the upgrades have been “reshuffled” throughout the levels, which leads to a lot of unnecessary backtracking and general confusion. ChillyVile mode is a blast, though, and I’d recommend the game for anyone who is already familiar with Mega Man X and the series, just keep it far away from amateurs.

So Mega Man X is for amateurs, then?

It’s for everybody. I might go as far as saying that Mega Man X is the ur-video game, almost primal in how it defines itself and all other games before and since. Mega Man X is not the first video game ever made, and it’s entirely possible that someone who has been producing games for decades (say, Shigeru Miyamoto?) has never played or even heard of the game, but everything involved in Mega Man X, from intro to three forms big bad final boss finale, is “video game” as I think of the medium, and, even in games designed decades and generations later, there’s a little X in there.

Let’s call it, I dunno, the X-Factor.

The Gaming 5 #1 Mega Man X

  • System: Super Nintendo, also available on Wii/WiiU, and any system that had that X Collection. The Maverick Hunter X remake is for PSP, also available on Vita.
  • Number of Players: Just one. I suppose one significant “video game” thing this game is missing is a two player mode of some kind, but, hey, can’t win ‘em all.
  • Favorite Maverick: Chill Penguin just seems like he’s trying so hard. Good on him.
  • WeeeeFavorite Maverick Stage: Armored Armadillo’s mineshaft is a great deal of fun, particularly with the great minecart sequence in its finale. That also might be the only time a vehicle is any fun in a Mega Man X game.
  • Did You Know? Sigma went through a number of redesigns before they settled on the zombie robot we all know today. At least one/three of those designs got recycled into X2’s X-Hunters, proving that Inafune and friends never let an idea go to waste. Come to think of it, there’s an enemy called Gunvolt in there…
  • Would I play again? Because I know the game so well at this point, I’m always happy to see a version pop up on any system, as it is an ideal way for me to calibrate and test a new controller. Three face buttons and L and R are used frequently across the game, and collecting all items requires some dedicated control stick waggling. Also, ya know, I rather enjoy the game.

What’s next? Let’s claim this list is a mystery, but I’ll provide the hint that Ridley is too big for the next post. Please look forward to it!

BLAMO

Xenosaga Episode I Part 04: Everybody Hurts

PREVIOUSLY ON XENOSAGA EPISODE 1: Shion took a break from her exciting life of never finishing building a robot to tour the Woglinde, a happy little ship full of happy little people all living their happy little lives. Today, we’ll watch them all die.

So, I guess even though it’s space, and there’s no day/night cycle when you don’t even have a sun (or have too many suns), there’s, like, nap time on the ship, and all the lights are off, and the people are snug in their beds, dreaming of sugar plum fairies.

Even Vector R & D is working on sleepy time lighting.

Allen is surprised to see his fellow employees working. He’s probably one of those nerds that assumes everyone has an exciting social life while he’s back in his room playing Pac-Man 4000 and quietly weeping.

Allen is, as ever, working late because he feels he owes some kind of debt to that woman he’s trying to seduce. Is there a subcategory of “nice guy” that’s related to being an underling?

But anyway, no one cares about Allen, what’s important is that KOS-MOS’s space coffin has lit up. Good thing the lighting is so poor that we can see it easily!
Let’s kick off this massacre!