Tag Archives: game theory

FGC #331 Super Mario Galaxy 2

It's a-him!So here’s why Mario games are good.

Today’s game is Super Mario Galaxy 2, the final part of the Super Mario Galaxy duology. While some endlessly debate whether Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the better game (and I will remind you that SMG2 contains Yoshi), it is perhaps better to look at Super Mario Galaxy as one solid piece, accidentally fragmented into two sections. Let’s face it, SMG was released on the cusp of Nintendo learning how to add expansions to games (see the eventual joys of Smash Bros, Hyrule Warriors, and Mario Kart), and, should SMG have initially been released on the WiiU, we likely would have seen new planets until the release of the Switch. But, for now, the two games are separate but equal, with slight differences between the two, and an aggravating need to switch discs when you have to choose between riding a dolphin or a vulture.

But the reason the difference between the two games is insignificant is because both titles are amazing. Super Mario Galaxy is easily the apex of the Mario franchise (note for future readers: this article was published before the release of Mario Odyssey, or any other inevitable future endeavors, like Mario… Omniverse?), and the sheer volume of creativity and care on display in these games is astronomical. Yes, there are a few misses bouncing around the title (mostly experiments involving motion controls), and it would be nice to be able to play this Mario game with a “real” controller, but, by and large Mario Galaxy & Mario Galaxy 2 are perfect Mario games.

But why are they perfect? What is it about blasting around Mario’s Galaxy that makes these games so much fun? Is it the gravity? The enemies? The Bowser fights? (No, it’s never that.)

I’ve got a theory for Mario games (and nearly all action/platforming games), and it’s called “The Joy of Movement”. What makes a great Mario game? It’s whether or not you actually enjoy moving around.

WeeeeeAt first blush, this seems abundantly obvious. After all, sloppy controls are often the death knell for poorly received games. Amagon probably would be a passable adventure if it were at all possible for the hero to actually deal with the encroaching threats of Everything-Kills-You Island. And while even games with terrible controls may occasionally succeed (looking at you, Grand Theft Auto), they usually nail at least one thing completely perfectly (like using rocket launchers on pedestrians). But for successful franchises, it’s obvious that enjoying actually moving your digital avatar is the most important thing. Sonic the Hedgehog is the poster child for this phenomenon (and the recent Sonic Mania being essentially Sonic & Knuckles 4 and being wildly successful cannot be a coincidence), but Mega Man also slots in perfectly here, too. Mega Man might not have 360° aiming or the ability to bend his robo-knees, but he’s perfectly suited to his world, and there’s joy to be had in flawlessly stomping over the corpse of a robot monkey on your way to barbecuing a wooden man. The joy of movement is real, and you’ve subconsciously experienced it practically every time you’ve played a worthwhile videogame.

And Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2? Here is the apex of joy of movement.

It’s initially very simple: Mario just plain controls well. You’ve got analogue walking/running, you’ve got the triple jump, and you can even hold a button to crawl along. Start combining some of these commands, and you’ve got the inimitable long jump and backflip. Go a little further, and you’ve got Mario exploring weird little planets with their weird little gravities, but still “moving” exactly the same. And intuitively, too! Leaping from one planetoid to another always “feels right”, and switching gravities is as natural as stomping on goombas. And speaking of feelings, the aggressive spin attack or the frantic spin jump both feel wonderful when you use the technique to survive an incoming chomp or avoid a crushing black hole.

Well, I like itBut the powerups… now that’s where things get crazy. Bee Mario buzzes along and crawls exactly how anyone who has ever been outside would expect (though, granted, not every Mario fan has been outside recently). Boo Mario’s spectral floating feels fittingly weightless. Rock ‘n roll Mario moves with all the heft of a boulder, and no one bats an eye when inertia causes that Mario to go meteor. Running around at full tilt with an invincibility star is always cool, and fire flowers exploit a player’s desire to shake that wiimote and vaporize everything on six planets. Cloud Mario is likely the best thing to ever happen to the franchise, as generating your own platform with a panicked spin is something Mario has needed since he first dropped into that hole in World 1-1. Spring Mario can be a blast… you just have to think like a kangaroo. Or maybe an injured bird? Frog? I think frogs hop a lot.

Even Yoshi gets into the act. Tongue twisting across platforms is an innate delight, and swallowing every troopa in a ten mile radius is literally the reason these Yoshis were born. And Yoshi gets his own powerups! Balloon fetishists delight at a round and floating Yoshi. And the dash pepper leads to new and exciting challenges of the Turbo Tunnel variety, but with the important caveat of not being terrible. And, whether you’re riding a dinosaur or literally skating around a frozen planet, it’s all completely instinctive and… fun.

WeeeeeAnd that’s the joy of movement, the joy of a good Mario adventure. Every trot, every jump, every powerup just feels good, and that’s what keeps the player running towards 242 stars. Every obstacle course is masterfully crafted with Mario’s skills in mind, and every powerup is utilized in unique and electrifying ways to surmount new challenges.

When it feels good to just move, that’s when you’re playing a wonderful videogame.

FGC #331 Super Mario Galaxy 2

  • System: Nintendo Wii. Also available on the WiiU download service… but that system plays Wii discs, anyway. So does that even count?
  • Number of players: I laud any game that involves a two player mode that is meant for casual accompaniment. Not enough people celebrate the humble person that wants to participate in a friend’s favorite past time, but has absolutely no skills suited to the task. I blindly tried to help my buddy, One Handed Joe, with his carpentry hobby a couple of years back, and it ended… poorly.
  • And where is the joy of movement in Fluzzard? The joy of Fluzzard is selecting another level that does not include Fluzzard.
  • Question for the Ages: What nimrod decided they should replace Princess Rosalina with Party Pants Starfy?

    GO ON A DIET

    Hey, Rosalina, get out of the shot! You’re ruining my bullet point.

  • Favorite Powerup: Cloud Mario has saved that plumber’s peperoni more times than I care to admit.
  • So, did you beat it? Of course. I got all the stars, and conquered the final daredevil challenge. I even tried that final stage again for this article… and I barely got past the first area. Look, I need to get back in practice, okay?
  • But you still beat the repeat of Luigi’s purple coins, right? Some things never leave you.
  • What’s in a name? The internal title for Super Mario Galaxy 2 is Super Mario Galaxy More. I agree.
  • Did you know? The Flying Star that barely appeared in Super Mario Galaxy is buried in the code of Super Mario Galaxy 2. But it’s not completely forgotten! It has an updated theme, and can be patched into being a wholly working powerup. This seems to suggest that the star was intended to be used in Super Mario Galaxy 2, but was left on the cutting room floor because it was too joyous for this fallen world.
  • Would I play again: I love this game. I love it so much. I’d like to be able to play it with a “real” controller, as the wiimote/chuck has never felt 100% natural to me, but, other than that, this is one game that I can practically guarantee I’ll play again.

What’s next? Random ROB… better shut his trap, because I feel like playing Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite. That’s just the way it is, robot. Please look forward to it!

Yay Mario!

FGC #254 Streets of Rage 2

UPPER!Streets of Rage 2 might be the best beat ‘em up of all time. It’s certainly the best BEU on the 16-bit consoles, and, considering that was the heyday of the genre, it’s hard to believe it could be topped elsewhere. But why is it the best? The BEU genre is pretty straightforward, so how is this game any better than Final Fight or Double Dragon?

The answer is simple: Streets of Rage 2 doesn’t suck.

… Hm, I should probably elaborate on that.

The beat ‘em up genre, one way or another, started in the arcades. If you want to cite Kung-Fu Master or Double Dragon, either way, they both premiered in arcade cabinets well before they hit the home consoles. From there, it was a only a matter of time before we got Final Fight, and then, inevitably, the parade of licensed beat ‘em ups that offered no real innovations to the genre, but God in Heaven is it fun to hit random dudes with Bart Simpson’s skateboard. The beat ‘em up completely conquered the arcade scene roughly until Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat decided it was fighting games’ turn, but even today, you’re likely to see Turtles in Time or X-Men at a roller rink (assuming roller rinks are still a thing at all… sorry I’m not a twelve year old girl).

HIYA!So, for the beat ‘em up to maintain arcade dominance for so long, the genre must have been doing something right. But what was it? The licensed beat ‘em ups have an easy answer: do you need to hear anything more than the title “Alien vs. Predator” to waste a quarter or two on finding out what that’s all about? “Be The Punisher”? Yeah, I’ll take a chance on that. But even the less “established” beat ‘em ups offered some level of “role play” that you couldn’t really experience at home. When Mario still looked like a random collection of brown pixels, here were King Arthur and his two or three knights, traipsing across the countryside, occasionally riding amazingly obedient horses. Here are all your favorite Saturday morning and mythological heroes, all at the arcade, and all ready to be controlled for the low, low cost of a single Washington (and the silver kind to boot).

That’s enough to get 25¢ out of practically anybody that can grip a joystick, but why was the beat ‘em up so successful? Simple: OCD. Or maybe just sunk cost fallacy. In general, unless it’s your absolute first time and some damn foot soldier keeps you in an arm lock for too damn long, you can make it up to the first boss on any given beat ‘em up on one credit. And then that boss is going to trounce you. And, depending on the game, that boss is going to laugh at you while the timer ticks down. Want to add another quarter? You know you will. You’re not going to let Abobo get away with that, are you? Come on, you got through the whole stage on one quarter, you can spare another to make this doof go down.

And so begins the worst problem in beat ‘em ups: quarter-killer, damage-sponge bosses. Rocksteady of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, possibly one of the most fought level one bosses in any videogame, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. He has, what, three moves? A kick, a charge, and a gun for jump kickers. That’s it. He should last for maybe eight hits, because, come on, a mouser is more complicated than this guy. But, no, he lasts forever, because if he can’t take the punishment, he’s not going to require more quarters to defeat, and if he doesn’t fleece your poor pockets, then what’s the point in being an arcade game?

YummyIn other words, beat ‘em ups were kings of the arcade because they were fun… and they made their owners a lot of dough. I don’t think those fat cat arcade barons are moving to Maui, but Final Fight probably did pay for at least a few trips to Disney World.

Streets of Rage apparently started in the arcades, but, fun fact, I have never seen a SoR cabinet in my life (I’m pretty sure this is another case of Wikipedia lying to me). Regardless, SoR started off a little… janky, and, in my humble opinion, wasn’t very good. It’s one of those Metroid 1 situations: you know there’s something cool here, but there is a lot of cruft involved, and, by the time you’re finally used to everything, it’s over. Though I suppose I’ll preserve that kind of whining for when ROB chooses that particular game…

What we’re here for today is Streets of Rage 2, and it does one thing absolutely marvelously: it actually scales boss health to something reasonable. It even scales all enemy health to a practical level.

It’s the subtlest little change, but it means so much to the game. The first boss in Streets of Rage 2 does not, at any point, retreat and force you to fight some random thugs while he eats a hamburger. The fourth boss does not have seventeen lifebars. Heck, the second boss brought a damn jetpack to the fight, but his HP is scaled to account for the fact that he can’t be hit all the time. He barely has more life than Symbol Y! It’s like Streets of Rage 2 actually respects the player’s time, and accounts for “this boss has three main patterns, he doesn’t have to be fought for the next ten minutes”. The average Streets of Rage 2 boss goes down in about as much time as a Robot Master, and that’s phenomenal! I might finish this game before I run out of imaginary, arbitrarily assigned credits because this is a console game, dammit! Somebody finally acknowledged that simple fact!

THE ENDishAnd there are a lot of little things in Streets of Rage 2 that make it appear as if the designers actually wanted to see the player succeed, and not just empty their coin purses into an imaginary arcade console. Food distribution is less random and closer to the power-up distribution of Super Mario Bros. games, for instance. Yes, there’s still a big fill up of meat before every boss, but you’re a lot more likely to see a life granting apple at more conscientious points than in any other beat ‘em up. And the average mooks, like their big boss brothers, aren’t massive damage sponges, so you’re not stuck in the same six square feet of a random city until the timer runs out. And even some of the less fair baddies, like those Road Warrior rejects or that one dude with a knife knifing around, can be defeating easily by acknowledging that jump kicks exist. There is not a single situation where there’s an infinity trap on the screen, and you’re going to die a thousand deaths to some random laser while you’re trying to position your character around that damn blast radius. Oh, and the special moves are pretty rad, too.

So, yes, you put it all together, and Streets of Rage 2 is the best beat ‘em up out there. It’s a lot of little things and one big thing working in concert, but, when it all combines, it forms a Voltron that blazing swords the competition.

Other beat ‘em ups are quick to rely on their arcade roots and suck for it. Streets of Rage 2 doesn’t (suck).

FGC #254 Streets of Rage 2

  • System: Sega Genesis and arcade, though it has also seen rerelease on more systems than I’m going to list. The 3DS version is, as always, pretty damn rad.
  • Number of players: Oh, yeah, another reason people play beat ‘em ups is for the “easy” two player factor. Practically anyone can join in and be “helpful”, so whether it’s your videogame adverse mate or little brother, you can get a few extra punches in with a buddy.
  • WeeeeWhat’s in a name: The arcade machines glimpsed in Level 3 are for a game called “Bare Knuckle”. Ha! What nitwit would play a game called Bare Knuckle?
  • Favorite character: Normally Blaze would be my go-to, as I (almost) always favor the “faster” character in beat ‘em ups. But, in this case, I’m going to go with Skate. He’s faster than Blaze and he’s the only character with a proper dash attack. Considering the dash is my preferred attack in any BEU, that’s kind of deal sealer. Guess I do always go with the quickest choice.
  • Did you know? Let’s not talk about Blaze’s underwear. Let’s… just not.
  • Would I play again: Yes, which is always surprising for an “ancient” Genesis game. I just have to convince my friends that this is the beat ‘em up to play, and not The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, X-Men, Battletoads, Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fight, Knights of the Round…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS! Get your leaves ready, it’s time to go fluttering with Mario! Please look forward to it!

DO NOT CLICK

FGC #253 Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Monkey NoisesVideogames can do a few things better than any other medium, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze does one of those things perfectly.

DKC:TF is a pretty straightforward platforming adventure. Donkey Kong was just donkeying around, enjoying his birthday with the members of his family that he remembered exist this week (sorry, Lanky Kong), when a group of malevolent penguins invaded his home. With the helpful flippers of some Viking walruses, Donkey and pals were escorted far from Donkey Kong Country, and banished to an even five islands away from home base. Donkey, Diddy, Dixie, and even Cranky now must fight their way back to their tropical island, and there’s only an army of owls, deadly pits, and other assorted nonsense to repel the apes. At least there are a few frozen bananas to nab along the way.

And, so I can pretend I maintain a proper gaming review blog, I’ll note the experience does play like a dream. The DKC series may handle like Super Mario Bros. on a fundamental level, but the big guy always feels completely different than his plumbing rival. Recent Donkey Kong Country games dial that “heavy inertia” feeling from the original Rare games up to eleven, and, If you’re doing your best hedgehog impression and always moving as fast as possible, it’s very easy to experience a “rollercoaster” feeling. Yes, you have full control of everyone’s favorite gorilla, but there’s that unmistakable feeling that you can’t slow down, that you’ve gotta go fast, and you’re just doing your best to steer this barreling freight train as best you can. Mind you, that metaphor becomes a bit more superliminal on the actually-a-rollercoaster minecart levels, but that feeling persists through the rest of the game. And, if you don’t like it, don’t worry, you can still take it slow, too. Well, on most stages. I wouldn’t slow down when you’re attempting to outrun a lava flow.

But that’s all auxiliary to the best event in the game (and possibly the franchise). After five “worlds” of random island hijinks, the final (well, final-not-secret) world is… Donkey Kong Country.

THIS IS EVERYTHING

You’re finally home! Hooray! … Except, yes, the Snowmads have conquered the tropical paradise, and turned it into a frozen stronghold. So DK and pals must fight from DK home up to the tippy top of Big Crazy Volcano… which is the premise of the previous game, Donkey Kong Country Returns. The final world of Donkey Kong Country Tropical freeze is Donkey Kong Country Returns.

And I love seeing this kind of thing in a videogame.

Other noisesEven if nobody noticed, this got its start back in The Legend of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. If you hang out on the south-western “Death Mountain” region of the map, you’ll note the bottom section of the peninsula is actually the entirety of the overworld from The Legend of Zelda (1). In one instant, that simple plot of 8-bit pixels completely recontextualizes Link’s entire adventure, and, wow, did you see that? This new game is, like, 800 times larger than the old one! Oh man, how is Link going to survive his biggest adventure ever!?

(And, for the record, I feel like every Zelda after Ocarina of Time has failed for using the same basic layout as OoT [and arguably A Link to the Past]. It’s not exciting to find Death Mountain in the North or Gerudo Desert in the West, I want to see what’s past those landmarks. C’est la vie.)

But this same trick has been used in a variety of games for a variety of reasons. In Metroid Prime, a frigate is explored early in the adventure, and then, after it crashes to the planet below, it becomes a sunken “ghost ship” that is an entirely new “level”, but is still recognizable from its earlier appearance. Speaking of Metroid, you see this often in “prequel” games, where an important location from the “next” game is revisited by a different group that has no idea about the significance of the latest locale. See Lufia and Lufia 2 for a fun, fatal example of this concept. And while we’re on the subject of 16-bit JRPGs, time travel is great for video games for this exact reason. The Black Omen might be unchanging, but it’s fun to see how the simple villages and dungeons of 600 AD evolve in 400 years.

Hot stuffAnd why does this work? Why is this fun? It’s all because videogames have to be very mindful of “space”. While your average modern action movie doesn’t have to worry about the surrounding area for its epic battles at all (pop quiz: how many countries have been destroyed by random Transformer fights?), videogames are all about space, because the player must inhabit those locations for proper exploration and storytelling experiences. It doesn’t matter in every game (I admit, I might not be able to draw a map of Metro City), but so many games must keep an eye on distance and location, else, well, nobody likes to get lost forever. And, if everyone is doing their job right, the player learns the ins and outs of any given area almost subconsciously, and, before you know it, you’re able to recall the layout of Midgar a lot more easily than your home town. If you’re going to swing by my place, just take the third left after Wall Market.

I’ll save any further gushing about this concept for when ROB inevitably chooses Bioshock, but the flipside to memorizing a map or area is that, when that area is changed, your brain immediately notices. Even if it’s been fifteen years since you played the previous game, since you spotted the new, “different” area, some part of your head recognizes that something is wrong, and why is this wrong, and let’s explore a little further, and find out what happened here. And, on top of that, when something that was previously “the size of an entire game” is reduced to “now it’s smaller”, you I can't see what's happening!subconsciously feel awesome, because, wow, look at how much more I’ve accomplished than last time! Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is six times larger than Donkey Kong Country Returns! DK is huuuuuuge!

Oh, and it is pretty fun to replay through reimaginings of all the Donkey Kong Country Returns levels in a frozen wasteland, too.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an entertaining game all on its own, but the way it recontextualizes Donkey Kong Country Returns is amazing.

FGC #253 Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

  • System: Nintendo WiiU. A months ago, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a 3DS port, but now I’m kind of expecting a Switch port. We’ll see if that pans out.
  • Number of players: Two! And I really want to try that sometime! Diddy and the other helpers apparently can assist with a second controller, but I’ve never thought to actually try that with any of my real-life buddies. There are so many other games we can play where we can have apes fight, ya know?
  • Favorite buddy: Cranky Kong has Scrooge’s pogo stick! That makes him tougher than the toughies. On the other hand, the pogo ability is just as finicky as it was back in the NES days, so I’d rather have Diddy in my corner. Can’t tell you how many times that jetpack saved my bacon.
  • Jerks!Favorite Boss: One baboon laughing at Kongs is bad enough, but a baboon that splits into three just to mock a monkey even more? That’s cruel.
  • Did you know? There’s a patch/update for this game, and it seems to exist entirely to fix a glitch in the third world that would prevent the next level from unlocking. “Beat stage, go to next stage” is pretty much videogame 101, so you have to wonder how that glitch got out into the wild.
  • Would I play again: If there is somehow never another Donkey Kong Country game “like this” again (you never know with Nintendo), then I’ll play this again in due time. If there is a DKCR3, then I’m all about leaving the past behind.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Streets of Rage 2! Good! I was getting tired of using the “Nintendo” tag continuously. It’s time to see some streets raging! Or maybe people raging at streets. I don’t know! Please look forward to it!

Huge hooters

FGC #092 Rampart

For glory!Much has been made in recent years of the predatory nature of mobile games. The theory claims modern mobile gaming consists of only two types of games: those that are poorly aping their console cousins with lousy controls or graphical “upgrades”, or the more sinister “free-to-play” games that include some not-so-free transactions that pile up quickly until the player has spent this month’s rent on virtual pig feed. Modern mobile designers are clearly fleecing an unwitting public, and these games aren’t being made to entertain like in the good ol’ days, but to line the pockets of some cigar chomping business lord. Video games have sold out!

Except, ya know, it’s always been that way. From day one.

I’ve never heard anyone disparage Pong. Pong was hungry for coins, and it was willing to shake down two players at a time for an experience that could be simulated with a Dollar Store’s worth of plastic crap. The story goes that Pong’s first night out broke the machine, not because of some software failure, but because customers pumped so much cash into the device, it created a minor money bin with a teeny tiny duck swimming around in there. The wee “noise of a fowl Scotsman” is what tipped everyone off that something was wrong. The “first” video game found a “whale” customer on literally its first day out.

In a way, it never got better. Much of modern console gaming is a direct descendant of the arcade mentality, and every arcade game ever created was a few components short of just sticking a magnet in there and sucking your quarters directly out of your parachute pants. There’s a lot of hype right now for Street Fighter 5, which is the latest in the series that really got its start with Street Fighter 2. Everyone quiet down, because an old man is talking, and I remember playing Street Fighter 2 in the arcades. First of all, obviously, the “winner stays, loser pays” two player mode had to be a goldmine, as everyone in the arcade has been trying to assert their dominance since high score tables allowed ASS to show off that top score. And, of course, there’s no “practice mode” in Street Fighter 2, you have to learn the precise special move motions while being punched in the face. But, hey, same as any game, right? Not like arcade games ever give you a “safe mode” to tinker with the controls.

But the really sinister bit is the one player campaign. The first eight characters may be tough, but you’ve also gotten in some practice against the likes of Blanka and Dhalsim during two player matches. Here’s Zangief, maintain a healthy distance, and everything should be fine. So, after honing your skills against seven “familiar” characters, there’s the four “bosses”, each completely unique and impossible to fight without first conquering the rest of the world. Balrog the Boxer isn’t that bad, but he hits like a buffalo, so have your quarters MODE 7 YEAH!ready for that continue. Vega with his claw boasts a host of air attacks (and invincible cage crawl time. Should I be hitting him while he’s… oh, I’m dead), and you’re going down if you can’t immediately learn how to deal with this aerial assault. Sagat is just a damn wall: low fireballs, high fireballs, and a tiger punch for anyone that wants to try jumping. And after all that, Chief Dictator M. Bison combines the worst of Balrog and Vega to drain your moral and wallet. And, of course, the “sequential” nature of Street Fighter 2 creates a sunk cost fallacy: I spent all this cash fighting through ten other fighters, I can’t just waste it all and not throw in another ten bucks. That would be letting M. Bison win. The indignity of the thought!

Rampart might not be as well-known as Street Fighter 2, but, back in the 90’s arcade scene, its designers knew exactly what they were doing.

Rampart is, at face value, pretty straightforward. You’re a… king? General? Cannon ‘n Construction supply company? Some sort of commander of a castle, and you’ve got to defend your little fort against an Just go... whereverinvading gaggle of ships. First you choose your castle, get some “free” walls, and place a few cannons around. After that, a battle phase begins, and you’re expected to aim the cannons just right to take out the moving boats that are blasting back at your walls. This concludes with hopefully a few boats sunk, but your castle’s walls look like Swiss cheese, so it’s time to rebuild with a series of randomly selected, randomly shaped blocks that hopefully will plug up those dikes before the flood comes again next round. If you’re really on the ball, you can use extra building materials to block in new castles, and expand your territory. Then the whole thing starts again: new cannons, battling about, and rebuilding what’s left. Hopefully you take out all the ships before your walls are destroyed, or it’s game over. Assuming you win, it’s on to the next level for the exact same events, but in a slightly different venue.

As ever, the devil (that wants all your money) is in the details. When you really get down to the mechanics of Rampart, you realize it’s pretty… insidious. And by the numbers…

  1. You will take damage. There’s no dodging. If there are five enemy ships, you will take damage. If there are ten enemy ships, you will take damage. If there is one enemy ship, you will take damage. Yes, “recovering” is a dedicated part of this game, but it pairs poorly with the fact that…
  2. The enemy can, and likely will, dodge. It is entirely possible for you to go through an attack phase and never hit an enemy. You’re a sitting duck while they’re zooming about, dodging cannon fire like they’ve hacked your medieval targeting system.
  3. The rebuilding phase is the most frantic for a reason. All building material is completely randomly generated, so, while you may have a weensy square of damage interrupting your DAMMIT!perfect wall, all you’ll receive are a series of giant blocks that absolutely will not fit. You are encouraged to quickly decide that these larger blocks should be tossed into trying to conquer another castle, and maybe the next block will be helpful. It never is. This creates pretty obvious slot machine “gameplay”, as you keep hoping the next pull is going to hit the jackpot that will save your kingdom. If it doesn’t come, you instinctively blame your own poor buildmanship, and not the fact that the game is effectively block-blocking you.
  4. The only way to lose is to not properly rebuild your walls. As my friend Matt, my Rampart partner going back twenty years, put it, “Oh did you leave that little section over in the corner unprotected? Womp womp womp.” The tiniest break in your wall is cause for game over, and, once again, this is engineered to imply you’re the one doing something wrong.

That’s how Rampart gets its hooks in you. The gameplay isn’t, I don’t know, Battletoads, with its “you are dead inside ten seconds” impossible third level; no, much of Rampart seems downright easy. You shoot your cannons, you just miss, but you’ll get ‘em next time. You fail to rebuild your wall, but it was just a missing block or two, if only you had the exact right piece, you would have been saved. Better try again, I can get it next time… yeah… this time will be different…

So it goes, on and on, until your every last quarter is gone. POWNo, you never achieved victory, but you would have, you know, if it had all gone just a little bit more your way. And you’ll remember the game fondly, because, while it seemed pretty easy (but not easy enough to actually win), it was a good, challenging game. Maybe hit that cabinet the next time you’re in the area. You’ll know better what to do then.

And you’ll still get that damn cross block that you can’t place anywhere. And another quarter goes in the slot.

Ten years later, maybe you’ve learned, maybe you haven’t. It’s okay either way, really, it’s an entertaining game, right? Hell, there should be more games like it, though the genre is kind of… weird? I mean, what would you call something like Rampart? You’ve got castles, walls, and cannons. Maybe castle… defense? Yeah, that sounds alright.

Hey, you know what? I bet someone could make a good couple of bucks monetizing these “castle defense” games. Now we just have to find a medium that works like the arcades of yesteryear. How about mobile gaming? But much has been made in recent years of the predatory nature of mobile games…

FGC #92 Rampart

  • System: Technically SNES for the review, but the arcade version took center stage, and Rampart has also appeared on every system ever made. Alright, that might not be completely accurate, as I can’t find a Virtual Boy version, but I think it’s everywhere else, in one form or another.
  • Number of players: I didn’t really get into how the multi-player mode fits into the whole “fleece you but good” model, but it’s also great for stealing your wool, Who knows?as three-player mode allows one player to constantly be the loser every cycle, and then have to insert another coin to continue to participate. Imagine a fighting game where you had to insert a coin after a lost round, just to lose again to receive the final verdict regarding your massive suckage.
  • Port o’ Call: Rampart and Gauntlet were packaged together for their Gameboy Advance release. Hey, another noble quarter killer! Goggle Bob needs change badly.
  • Matt also says: “Ships are overpowered.” His is a wisdom for the ages.
  • Grunts? Oh yeah, I didn’t even mention those little buggers. They’re like the mosquitos of the game: you think they’re no big deal and just require a swift slap, but by the time you get home, you realize your right arm is one giant welt, and your blood has been replaced with malaria. It’s unpleasant.
  • Did you know? Most Rampart games have that one angry soldier shouting about incoming barbarians or whatever is going on there, but the Japanese boxart for Gameboy Rampart seems to imply there are dragons and anime knights of all genders and ages within your battered castle. It’s about at this point that I realize I would buy Final Fantasy: Rampart in about ten seconds. Then I wonder if that was idea behind the Tactics series…
  • Would I play again: So… many… modern… options… Can’t… penetrate… genre…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Dynamite Cop for the Sega Dreamcast! Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president’s daughter? …. Leon, no, wait your turn. Please look forward to it!

Watch your step