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FGC #442 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

BLOOD!Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night reminded me why I actually enjoy my favorite genre.

We live in confusing times. Just a few years back, it seemed like it was easy to define the direction of gaming. AAA was king, and, if anyone was “involved” in videogames, they knew that the next big thing was inevitably a franchise with intense graphics, open-world sandbox gameplay, and RPG-like elements. Or… something. Look, what’s important is that every gaming news site out there was telling us that the hottest titles available all cost the gross national product of South America, required twelve craptillion hours to produce, and were available now for your Playstation X or FourBox or whatever.

But things are different now. It may just be my old man imagination, but it seems like the videogame industry has finally adjusted to accommodate both AAA games and less intensive, but dramatically easier to produce, “indie” games. (In many cases, these “indie” games aren’t independently produced at all, but it seems like such an unintended slight to refer to them as “budget” or otherwise lesser titles. Though one could suppose that the “budget” thing really is the biggest factor here…) Back in the Playstation 2 days, it was newsworthy that Katamari Damacy was a “budget” title at its initial $20 MSRP. Now, presumably thanks to the advent of digital storefronts and more accessible development tools, games that could likely be best described as “light” are available at $20 just as often as the latest release drops on the same storefront at $60 (or $90 for that all-important day one edition). This has had the wonderful side effect of reviving certain genres and playstyles, so “the arcade experience” has finally resurfaced along with other categories that include “pretty much Zelda” and “shoot ‘em up (without exploitation)”. And, of course, the metroidvania has returned to us. In fact, the metroidvania has returned to us in spades.

MEOWIt seems like there is a new metroidvania released every month (every seven seconds come Fall). And, like a sucker, I have a tendency to throw myself into about every third one that comes down the pike. I like metroidvanias! I have liked them since Super Metroid (“What about the original Metroid?” “We don’t talk about that”). And I suppose that, like a plumber that is permanently thirsty after an unfortunate detour through Desert Land, I am always going to be starved for more metroidvania content. I can’t even say that I will wait to finish one metroidvania before I start the next one, as it appears I am playing another metroidvania while I am writing this very article. Load times are writing times, people! I’m a very busy man, and I have to see that sweet 100% map completion achievement somehow!

But that’s the exact problem I had that I hadn’t realized until playing Bloodstained: Not all metroidvanias are about completion.

I admit that I have played a number of metroidvanias in recent years, and now I’m pretty sure that I played them all wrong. For an easy example, I can look at Metroid 2, Metroid 2, and Metroid 2, all games that were reviewed recently (“recently”) for this site. And if you look at those articles, you will note that two out of three of those games were completed and reviewed (“reviewed”) within days of their release. How did I do that? Well, obviously, I completed the titles as quickly as possible. Why did I do that? Well, that’s simple: it’s a videogame, it’s a challenge, and you’re winning if you finish the challenge the fastest. Yes, I can and absolutely will go back to “100%” the title, but I’m going to do that as quickly as possible, too. I noticed that door I couldn’t open quite yet, you better believe I’m going to come back later and nab every last expansion pack and powerup bonus. After I’m all done with that, I’m going to check a FAQ and/or forums to learn what I missed, and maybe review a few speedrun strats. Then, after I’ve seen my own fastest run through the latest SR388, then, maybe, I’ll put it all down, call the game complete, and see you next mission. …Which might happen about seven seconds later with a certain robot named Fight…

And Bloodstained taught me that no, you’re wrong Goggle Bob. Stop and smell the roses (that may or may not be expies for medusa heads).

Too hot todayLet’s address one thing before we go any further: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is by no means a perfect game. For one thing, the bosses suck in all kinds of different ways. Practically every creature has way too much HP, you see the same stupid patterns over and over again, and there is just no universe where certain samurai bosses needed “reprise” fights (particularly in light of the Boss Rush mode). I’m pretty sure I distinctly enjoyed, like, one boss battle, and everything else was either way too stupid/easy or way too frustrating thanks to stupidity/endurance. And I’m playing on Switch, so let me tell you about how, every once in a while, I am reminded of Super Castlevania and the kind of slowdown that I thought was relegated to games from thirty freaking years ago. Oh, and speaking of thirty years ago game design: there is the occasional bit in Bloodstained that might have been more at home back in Simon’s Quest, the infamous Castlevania title that told players to literally bang their heads against the wall. At one point, I (a person who famously plays a lot of videogames) was completely stuck for finding a solution to my current predicament, and it turns out the resolution involved talking to a random NPC out in the castle boonies. Why would I ever do that? Who knows, but I couldn’t see a single clue to lead me in that direction, so I was stuck randomly wandering all over the map.

And… I enjoyed that.

I didn’t know what I was doing, and I enjoyed that.

It has been said a thousand times that the appeal of a number of videogames and their associated genres (that is to say, all the games that copied the original title until they were defined as belonging to a genre) was always their level of freedom. Grand Theft Auto 3 is a title that was probably completed by about 25% of its players, but was somehow still enjoyed for hours upon hours thanks to all the fun one could have with a cheat code and a rocket launcher. Skyrim probably has something to do with terrifying dragons, but it is also a cheese wheel discovery simulator. And The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows for a Link that can ignore the literal apocalypse and dick around discovering tree poop for entire months. Freedom is the name of the game!

Another terrible night for a commuteBut “freedom” is something that is generally lacking in 2-D adventures. Mario might have been able to find a key or two in his 2-D outings, but those levels were still “courses”, not “environments” (and you could likely claim the collectathons of the late SNES era were Mario and others growing against their 2-D confines). And while there were a few 2-D games based on exploring, that entire perspective has always been about finding the next checkpoint or powerup that helps you to find the next powerup. There’s a reason that Metroid rewards you with its heroine in her knickers for a speedy run through Zebes, and totally ignores how you used your grappling beam to teach the etecoons how to love. The point of a 2-D adventure is not to “have fun” in the environments, it is to find the optimal way to move forward, to gain more skills, and then see what’s around that next bend. The fun is in the discovery of new areas and powers, not in simply reveling in the areas you’ve already traversed.

But when I got stuck in Bloodstained, I discovered that I actually liked playing around in this haunted castle. I didn’t have any new abilities. I didn’t have some grinding goal. In fact, I didn’t have a damn clue where I was supposed to be heading, or what I was supposed to be doing. But I was at least at the point in the game where Miriam’s moveset is more robust than your typical Castlevania protagonist. It was fun to play as Miriam, and, as a result, it was fun to revisit older areas with Miriam. It was fun to see monsters that had previously been a detriment, and were now a possible source for new and exciting items. It was fun to see old areas, and enjoy the ambiance of any given room in a capacity beyond just randomly hitting walls and hoping for a meat drop. I want one, too!It was fun! It was fun exploring the world of Bloodstained not for some overarching goal, but just exploring for the sake of exploring! Like some kind of fancy-pants, city-slicker 3-D game. And even if I wasn’t making any “plot” progress, I was still collecting a host of materials, shards, and experience from my unplanned sojourn. Even when I’m not doing anything, I’m doing something! That’s the sign of a good videogame!

And, ultimately, I feel like that is the source of the good from the “vania” side of the metroidvania equation. My personal theory for years has been that Metroid games are better than Castlevania games. Why? Well, if you find a Super Missile container hiding behind a wall while exploring Zebes, you can enjoy that Super Missile upgrade whether you’re at the start of the adventure or heading toward the final confrontation. Meanwhile, while exploring Castlevania (or… Igavania? Huh?), you might find a +1 sword hidden in a concealed room. But you’ve already discovered a +4 sword. Why would you ever bother with such a piddling weapon? Congratulations, you found the secret, and it’s completely useless. Why did you even bother exploring?

But that’s only true in a bad Castlevania. In a game where your every undertaking is enjoyable, then finding even the crappiest of swords is enjoyable, because you enjoyed getting there. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is such a game. Bloodstained is fun to play, and, in that way, encourages the player to stop and take it all in. Every movement, every monster, every gigantic severed dog’s head (it’s a weird game) contributes to an overall feeling that is bizarrely welcoming. Yes, Bloodstained predominantly takes place in a deadly castle filled with murder-beasts, but it also feels like Iga is inviting you to his magical kingdom (that incidentally contains giant werewolves). It’s fun to play Bloodstained, and it’s fun to be in Bloodstained.

Ante Up!I feel like that is something I forgot along the way. Through the portable metroidvanias, through the reimaginings of other titles, and through the current bounty of excellent indie titles, I’ve been focusing on “beating” these ‘vanias. And, while that is a perfectly valid approach to any videogame, somewhere I lost the simple ability to enjoy the moment. Stop, smell the zombies. and encounter a castle on its own terms. With an interesting moveset and environments, Bloodstained encourages exploration as slow and meticulous as the effort it inevitably took to build this kingdom.

Bloodstained isn’t a perfect game. It might not even be a truly great game. But it is a game that encouraged me to look at games differently, and that’s always perfect.

FGC #442 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

  • System: Xbox One, Playstation 4, PC, and Switch if you’re nasty. Vita and WiiU are right out.
  • Number of players: There’s some manner of multiplayer somewhere in here, right? For all I care, it’s single player, but I’m pretty sure there was a stretch goal somewhere in there…
  • Kickstart This: Yes, I contributed money to see this game produced. Do I feel that influences my own opinion on the game? No. Considering I am really terrible about checking any developer update emails, I’m going to go ahead and say my “production credit” is just an eternal reminder that I reserved this game way early.
  • Favorite Shard: Being able to manually “aim” Miriam’s hand is the perfect middle ground between your average metroidvania and Samus Returns’ continual aiming. And the best use of aiming Miriam’s hand is to shoot a bevy of True Arrows right at your opponents. There’s nothing finer than seeing a goopy zombie puddling around with arrows in its knees.
  • Look out!Boss Battler: It seems like the bosses that were most difficult in Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon have been converted to extremely easy encounters for this adventure. In particular, Andrealphus, the bird-armor thing, goes from the biggest bad to the smallest chump. Though I suppose a lack of pits really takes something away from the poor guy…
  • Say something mean: The entire first area is terrible. Bloodstained offers easily the worst opening I have seen in a videogame in years. Miriam starts off too limited, the areas are claustrophobic, and the boss of the area is just the worst. Did someone demand a really s*** prologue area? Because we got a really s*** prologue area.
  • Did you know? While Dracula technically doesn’t appear in this game, the ultimate impetus for the final villain of the game is very similar to the motivations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So even when the count doesn’t show up, it seems he has an influence on final bosses.
  • Would I play again: I feel like I got everything I wanted out of this castle, but I’m certainly going to dive in when further character DLC drops. I will be returning to this magical land once again. Actually, come to think of it…

What’s next? We’re going to continue our Bloodstained coverage. Kinda. Next up is Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, and we’re going to play a little game of compare and contrast between the seemingly very similar protagonists. Please look forward to it!

Robin!

FGC #148 Mighty No. 9

It's finally here!This is going to be a little different.

With the exception of one game (that was technically part of a compilation that I had already played), every single game covered during the FGC I have already played. Heck, including the Xenosaga LP and Kingdom Hearts coverage, literally every game mentioned on this site I have played before. Granted, some of these games I played for very limited time periods (I can think of at least one), but, by and large, for every single FGC article, I knew what I was getting into. While I’ve replayed every FGC game for at least a half hour (you try playing more of Hybrid Heaven when you know you’re not going to finish it… or, ya know, at all) for the site, many of these articles I already knew what I was going to write about well before I picked up the controller. On some occasions, I’ve been surprised by the replay, and went in a completely different direction from my initial inclination, but, generally, it’s not that hard to have something already in mind when writing about, say, Sonic the Hedgehog.

So, as a first for the FGC, I’m going to write part of this article before playing the featured game at all, and then the rest after actually playing the dang thing. We’ll see how that goes.

Today’s game is, incidentally, Mighty No. 9. This is a fine choice for a “blind play”, as, hey, I helped make this game. I’m in the credits!

Yes, I’m one of the people that threw some money at Keiji Inafune to see “the next Mega Man” get made. It’s been nearly three years since I blew over a hundred dollars (I literally cannot even remember what about the tier interested me… maybe an art book?) on a videogame that would eventually come to be a turgid example of the Kickstarter bubble bursting. Delays, mismanagement, delays, controversy, delays, anime, delays, and even lousy distribution at the finish line marred this project, seemingly right from the moment the Kickstarter closed. Demos were damned with faint praise, attempts to “franchise” Mighty No. 9 fell flat, and “the next Mega Man” started to look like the next Mega Man X7.

And you know what? I don’t regret spending a dime.

It is a weird problem with Kickstarter that no one seems to know what it “means”. I helped make the game! No you didn’t, you just provided some capital. I’m a game producer! No you’re not, you just bought a preorder way in advance. I’m responsible for the success of this game! Yeah, sure, you and thousands of I'm pretty self-centeredother precious snowflakes. Personally, I’m not narcissistic enough to believe I had any real impact on Mighty No. 9. I contributed a paltry sum of money (compared to four million) late in a fundraising cycle, and I voted on a couple of random polls. That’s… about it. I don’t believe that I’m responsible for Mighty No. 9 anymore than I think reserving the latest Call of Duty at your local game store makes you an industry insider. I spent money on a videogame, I just spent more money than usual.

So, if I think like that, why did I bother? Simple: Keiji Inafune asked.

Look, I love Mega Man games. This is pretty obvious if you’ve bumped around this site at all. I can’t even really tell you exactly why I love Mega Man games, I simply do, and that’s good enough for me. However, with the exception of Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 6, I know that I did not buy a single Mega Man game in my pre-PSX collection new. By the time we saw Mega Man X5, I finally had a disposable income to blow on little blue robots, but prior to that, everything else was just rented over and over again. Mega Man 3, easily one of my favorite games of all time, I eventually wound up purchasing used as part of a lot with thirty other games. I probably, technically, Crooooooow!paid about a dollar for it, and that was a dollar that everyone who made that masterpiece never saw. In a way, I tossed Inafuking some money almost entirely out of guilt.

But that’s not the whole reason. The other reason is that, honestly, I’m pretty delusional.

I have never met Keiji Inafune. I do not know anything about him beyond his videogame career, and, were I to see him on the street, I probably wouldn’t even know who I was looking at (assuming he wasn’t wearing a top hat with a strange pig creature poking out). But, that said, this man has been accountable, one way or another, for some of my absolute favorite videogames. It sounds ridiculous, but Keiji Inafune is responsible for more of my childhood than many of my childhood friends.

And, really, if a childhood friend asked me for a couple of bucks to get a new project off the ground, I’d probably say yes. I didn’t give Mighty No. 9 my life savings, I contributed what I could afford, which is basically the same sum I’d give a friend that’s down on his/her luck. Any time you give money to someone, you’re saying, “this is no longer mine, you do with it what you think is right.” Whether it’s a friend or a complete stranger, you’re not putting that money toward your own venture (“I’ll make my own videogame! With blackjack! And hookers!”), you are trusting the recipient to do what they will with your contribution, your input be damned.

So, yes, it may sound completely ridiculous, but I trust Keiji Inafune like an estranged friend. Dude was responsible for the best Mega Man games! He’s earned it!

Now let’s see how this game actually plays

Lame

Alright, yeah, that’s a game that was made by the man behind Mega Man 2.

And that might not be a compliment.

First thing’s first: I liked it. I’m a Mega Man fan, and I liked this very Mega Man-esque game. Probably the greatest compliment I can pay this game is that my thumb randomly gravitated toward the Circle/A button, the dash button for Mega Man X, but not the default dash button for Mighty No. 9. A game being confused for Mega Man X is like strangers asking me for my autograph, and then being disappointed when they find out I’m not Jon Hamm. It’s flattering.

But if I really want to compare this game to anything else in the Mega Man franchise, it’s the Mega Man Zero series. Specifically, Mega Man Zero 1, which would be the game that introduced me to the joys of “training” on save states. When the occasion rises, I can be a might… obstinate. So when a game that I know I should be able to defeat is released, I do everything in my power to conquer that challenge, even if, ya know, I’m not enjoying it. Over the years, I’ve tried to wean myself off this habit, but Mega Man Zero (1) was the first game that I distinctly recall Battletoading myself against. I will beat this game, even if it means playing the same stupid level over and over again.

Pew PewAnd, yes, I certainly experienced that while playing Mighty No. 9. Countershade, Mighty No. 8, is responsible for a level that is practically a war crime. There are no checkpoints, the level loops (literally) endlessly, and there are instant death traps that sporadically pop up. To make matters worse, the same stupid canned dialogue plays every time you restart, and Countershade himself seems to offer no indication as to whether or not you’re making any progress at all. It’s the exact kind of level that, if you created the game, you’d see nothing wrong, but if you’re coming into it blind, is going to be a gigantic stick-to-the-eye pain in the brain. According to the end of level report for that stage, I spent a whole half hour playing that one stupid level.

I also (because I guess time isn’t a factor in that ranking) scored a solid A.

So, like Mega Man Zero, Mighty No. 9 shines when you know exactly what you’re doing. Thanks to 90% completing that same stupid stage over and over again, I practically had the thing memorized by the time I succeed. All enemy locations, all “safe zones”, all death traps: all committed to memory, and all bypassed Get in the choppah!with the grace of some kind of blue figure skating angel. It likely would have been a glorious sight to behold had I not been madder than I had ever been.

But, really, I think I would have the same reaction to a “blind” play of Mega Man 2 today.

The number one, easy complaint about Mighty No. 9 is that it is choked to the brim with (strangely purple) instant death traps. There is not a level without turbines, falling towers, “damaged” ceilings, or just plain spike pits. All of these hazards spell instant death, and, assuming it’s your last life (or that damn sniper stage), an invitation to traverse the entire stage all over again. This is terrible! We want classic Mega Man stages, like Bubble Man, Air Man, or Quick Man! Oh, no, wait, those stages feature, in order, persistent spiked ceilings with a jump that will ram Mega right into ‘em, pits for days with a host of enemies designed for knockback, and unrelenting “quick” lasers of doom.

Mega Men 2 is great, but we ignore its gigantic flaws because we’ve already reached the graceful stage of playing that game. Mighty No. 9 is brand new, and afforded no such luxury.

And, really, there’s a lot of Mega Man 2 in this game, even beyond the instant deaths… just not all the good parts of Mega Man 2. The Factory Stage requires utter mastery of Mighty’s various morphing skills… just like a certain BooBeam Trap that requires complete mastery of Crash Bombs. Waiting for a car that effectively works like a moving platform while fending off infinitely respawning air drones Spineysisn’t that far removed from waiting for a track platform at the bottom of Crash Man’s stage while Tellys attack. Disappearing and reappearing blocks over an instantly fatal lava flow? Huh, I think Mega Man 2 might be worse than Mighty No. 9 when it comes to death traps…

But, make no mistake, Mega Man 2 is the better game. Mighty No. 9 has its share of problems, and a few of them (like one late game room that makes it completely impossible to tell what’s going on) are clearly the result of a studio extending beyond its means (the previously mentioned “crowded room” was a neat idea for staging, but it’s obvious no one knew how to make it work… though it stayed in the final product anyway). Really, I can’t think of an Inafune “Mega Man” game in recent memory that wasn’t either retro (Mega Man 9) or on a portable (Mega Man ZX Advent), and, yes, the graphics for much of this game seem like they’d be a lot more at home on the 3DS than WiiU. There is nothing like Guts Tank in Mighty No. 9 that would make the player think, “Yes, this game knows how to push the hardware”. And, disappointingly for a game that was delayed so much, there is some glaringly palpable lack of polish, like at least one character that speaks in stage direction.

Am I supposed to?

But, overall, this is a Mega Man game in another, necrotic skin. I maintain that Inafune only makes good sequels, and I feel like that’s the crux of the problem with this game: Inafune should have known better than to name this thing Mighty No. 9. What’s next? Mighty No. 9-2? Mighty No. X? No, that sounds stupid. But that’s indicative of what everyone expected: after Inafune spent nearly my entire lifetime making the same types of games, you’d expect absolute perfection out of the gate. This is just the same game he made 28 years ago, with a spattering of “modern” (fifteen years ago) improvements.

Inafune promised the next Mega Man, and here it is. It’s just… maybe there’s a reason that franchise stopped.

FGC #148 Mighty No. 9

  • System: Every system. Thanks Beckers! For the purpose of my playthrough (and donor reward), I went with the PS4, mainly because it had the most hard drive space (and I think I get a free Vita version eventually?).
  • Number of Players: I am told (via repeated emails) that the online two player modes were the reason the game was delayed. Having played completely through Mighty No. 9’s one player mode, I have absolutely no desire to put a friend through that gauntlet.
  • Ice to meet youStory Time: God help me, I actually like the characters and “banter” throughout the stages. No, I don’t like that it plays every damn time, but I do enjoy the general tone and players. Yes, the plot is basically the same as every Mega Man Battle Network game ever (give or take a magical meteor man) crossed with Mega Man X, but, hey, I’m a sucker for archetypes (“Professor Round Guy, what is… love?”).
  • X marks the spot: After a Mighty Number is defeated, that boss may join you in another predetermined stage to assist in some way or another. I feel like this is a good compromise between Mega Man X’s “complete one stage and wildly alter another” system and stages not impacting each other at all. Also, it beats the damn pants off Mega Man X6.
  • What’s in a name? The secret name of William White is… Billy Blackwell! … That is way too close to the name of a certain Xenogears character for my comfort.
  • Favorite Mighty Number: Mighty No. 2, Cryosphere might have a few too many bottomless pits in her level, but she’s pretty fun to fight and she’s a queen of puns. Ice puns! As an avid fan of Batman and Robin, I approve.
  • Pew PewDid you know? Mighty No. 8, the most hated sniper, bears a striking resemblance to Jigen of Lupin III fame. The combination of good and evil in that reference is probably a metaphor for the game as a whole.
  • Would I play again: I’m going to try for A ranks. I’m not saying I’m going to attain all A ranks, but I’m going to try. Like the Zero games (or Mega Man 2), this game seems to be built to “learn”, and I want to see how that works out. We’ll see…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Heathcliff: The Fast and the Furriest for the Nintendo Wii. … What? Did they make an entire Heathcliff racing game just to satisfy that pun? Guess we’ll find out. Please look forward to it!