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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 #170 Castlevania: The Adventure (ReBirth)

WeeeeI often claim that I enjoy innovative failures more than trite successes. I choose to believe that I am the kind of person that sees past a product’s flaws, and finds “what they were trying to do” beneath the muck, and, hey, there’s a gem of a great game here, it just needs a little polishing. I really like to think that about myself.

I also know that I’m a pathological liar.

I know what I want. I would forsake steak once a week if it meant I’d get a hot pocket every day. I’ll watch 40 hours of some insipid sitcom because I know “prestige dramas” only produce ten episodes every six years. And, yes, I’d burn the entire videogame industry down if it meant I’d get a mostly new Mega Man title every six months or so. I know that I might regret my decision sometime in 2024 when I’m busting Man Man for the fortieth time, but, yeah, I know I’ll take “the same old with slight changes” over and over again without complaint.

Castlevania: The Adventure for the Gameboy is a Castlevania game that seems like it tried to be original. It is also completely terrible.

C:TA is the third Castlevania game ever released. Well, I guess that gets a little murky when you include arcade titles and whatnot, but the point is that C:TA was released before Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse. That’s important! This means that the game occupies that same unusual space as Super Mario Land. SML and C:TA were both released at times in their franchises’ histories when what would become “standard” hadn’t yet been completely codified. Yes, we had Castlevania (1) and Super Mario Bros. (1), but both games also had sequels that featured vegetable flinging and ferryman bribing. Where do you go from there with a portable sequel? Do you look to the first game for inspiration, bang your head on Deborah Cliff, or create something wholly original?

Die, Belmont!Castlevania: The Adventure went with the final choice. Okay, yes, C:TA is not completely unique. We’ve got a Belmont (this time Simon’s ancestor, Chris), and the poor guy has the trademark Belmont osteoporosis, so he moves about as nimbly as some redwoods. He’s also got a whip, and he’s hunting down Dracula, and there are some generally “horror-ish” things going on. But… that’s about it. Medusa Heads are missing. Eagles are more numerous than bats. Death has taken a holiday. Even Dracula’s “normal” teleportation pattern is forsaken for something that allows you to… whip his body and not head? Oh, why I never!

What’s been used to fill in the gaps of the Castlevania formula is… interesting. There are no staircases, just climbable ropes that are much more akin to the ladders of other platformers. It’s strange how this gives the game an entirely different feel, as it’s easy to discount how much Castlevania’s “obliquing” movement for vertical areas impacts its (normal) gameplay. Now we’ve just got a series of flat hallways connected by “ladders”, which is much more like a Mega Man game… albeit a fairly boring one.

You look like a jerkThen there’s the powerup system. Your typical dagger, axe, and holy water are all missing, and now Christopher has the ability to shoot fireballs from his Vampire Killer. That’s good! But you lose that essential powerup after a single hit. That’s bad! And, after another hit, your whip will decrease further into “absolutely useless mode”. Good luck finding another whip powerup before the next far-too-mobile minion. Basically, this adds “The Gradius Problem” to Castlevania: All is well as long as you can avoid getting hit, but the minute that happens, you’re pretty much doomed. Here’s a fun fact: we never needed another reason to be doomed in a Castlevania game. Can we get just one Konami game that you’re not completely screwed after one mistake? Gradius, Contra, Legend of the Mystical Ninja…

But it’s all new and interesting, right? This isn’t some Castlevania 1 portable remake, it’s a whole new animal. It has some problems… but there’s a good hunk of game here, right? A few touchups and…

No. This game is crap. It was passable as a portable Castlevania in 1989, but it’s practically unplayable today. The second level boss is a group of moles. That’s unforgivable.

OwieThen we have Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth. C:TAR was the final “ReBirth” game designed by M2 after Gradius ReBirth and Contra ReBirth. While it is technically a “remake” of Castlevania: The Adventure, it’s almost entirely its own game. And by “own game”, I mean “it’s an old school Castlevania game”. You’ve got bats, mermen, and giant skulls haunting an enormous castle and trolling for Belmonts to ruin. You’ve got daggers, axes, crosses, and holy water to lob at legions of skeletons. Death even decided to come back and toss that scythe around. It’s a Castlevania game! And, what’s more, this was the first “classic” Castlevania game in years, after untold ages of metroidvanias and the occasional bit of 3-D nonsense. I think the record will show that I’ll take a metroidvania over “traditional” any day, but it’s nice to visit with an old friend on occasion.

And C:TAR even seemed to maintain the more interesting aspects of its Gameboy ancestor. You can power your whip to flame-throwing levels, but now it’s limited by a timer, and not the gentle tap of a zombie. Rolling eyeballs are all over the place, and they’re slightly less deadly when you have jumping prowess beyond that of a slug (also an enemy). And the areas you explore are… kinda the same? I mean, how many different ways can you make a dungeon, m’I right, ladies?

PointyBut for all the changes and interesting concepts in C:TAR (did I mention the jumping across extending spike traps? That was neat), it’s still just a Castlevania game. It’s a good Castlevania game, likely better than Dracula X or Castlevania (1), and it’s a fun experience, but it’s still something we’ve seen before a number of times. The stage design reclaims the obliques of “regular” Castlevania, and there’s tremendously less tension when you know that one hit isn’t that big of a deal. Everything that was truly original about Castlevania: The Adventure is gone, and Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth may as well be Castlevania: Rebirth and have no ties to its portable ancestor.

But…

I like Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth sooooo much more than the “Gameboy version”. It’s night and day, and Castlevania: The Adventure is the horrible night to have a curse. That thing is more original, but it’s also more painful. C:TAR is unmistakably the better game, and I’d find it impossible for anyone to see it differently.

So, yeah, when push comes to shove, I’ll take good ‘n predictable over innovative and crappy any day. I want to support inventiveness, but… man, there are only so many hours in the day. Slaying vampires doesn’t need originality.

FGC #170 Castlevania: The Adventure (+/- ReBirth)

  • System: Gameboy for the original, WiiWare for the wiibirth. Sure would be nice if someone ported that to a portable…
  • Number of players: One Belmont against the forces of the undead.
  • Favorite Boss (Adventure): They make you fight a series of moles! Moles! There is nothing scary about moles until you’re over forty!
  • GoopyFavorite Boss (Adventure Rebirth): Meanwhile, the boss of this Stage 2 is an ersatz Incredible Hulk, and no one can tell me otherwise. He gets my vote.
  • What’s in a name? The original American release of Castlevania Adventure misidentified Christopher Belmont as Simon Belmont. It doesn’t impact a single thing (as the game has no plot beyond “kill vampire now”), but it was officially retconned by Castlevania Adventure 2, when Chris had some family issues that never impacted single Simon.
  • Family Matters: Also, Christopher was mentioned as one of Simon’s ancestors in the Japanese instruction manual for Castlevania (1). Castlevania had a surprisingly complex mythology starting back from the NES days, which is a far cry from games like Zelda (he’s… I don’t know… some kid with a sword? Wait… she?).
  • Did you know: There was also a comic book series based on Christopher Belmont’s exploits. It was released in 2005 by IDW, and it made no impact on anyone whatsoever. Why didn’t it feature Simon, Trevor, or even Alucard? Meh, probably just too many vampire books at that company for anyone to really notice.
  • Would I play again? Castlevania: The Adventure is a definite no. Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth would be a maybe… if it wasn’t available on the same system as Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse. Guess which one I’m more likely to play?

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… B.O.B. for the Super Nintendo! Aw, ROB, I didn’t know you cared… oh… wait… it’s just the name of a game? Lame. But there is a robot involved, I suppose. Please look forward to it!

Right on up

FGC #111 Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits

As you may already be aware, every game featured in the FGC is a game I already own. With that fact in mind, it’s no surprise that, given I already purchased the featured game for some reason, I have an idea for most articles before I even pick up the controller (or DS, in this case). Heck, some of my favorite articles are based on ideas I’ve had kicking around my head for ten years (see Ocarina of Time), and the FGC is just an excuse to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?).

So when ROB rolled in Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits I already had a plan in mind. KCS:AH is a compilation of Konami arcade games from the 80’s, so I’d pick one obscure title out of the fifteen (Circus Charlie was looking pretty tempting), write up some silly “where are they now?” screed, and knock off early, maybe try to win that game of tug o’ war I’ve been playing with a tree. But then I played the game, cycled through hits like Contra and Gradius, descended into lesser known titles like Time Pilot and Horror Maze, and… well… I think I blame the presentation for my change of heart.

See, each title scrolls through this little wheely gear thing, and there’s the year each game was published right there on the side. Scramble, a spiritual if not literal ancestor of Gradius, is the oldest game in the compilation, and it was published in 1981. Contra is the youngest game, and it hit arcades in 1987. The compilation itself, the “game” I was playing, arrived on the DS twenty years later, in 2007. That means that, in a little over 25 years, technology improved juuuuuust a tweak.

This is something that many gamers, particularly “experienced” gamers, take for granted. I know I do. I’ve said it before, but I feel Still looks wronglucky to have grown up with gaming. The Atari, with its one big stick and one shiny button, was practically my pacifier (full disclosure: that may be literal, as I may have chewed on an Atari stick or two… I’m moderately certain I was a puppy during my early years). The Nintendo Entertainment System was the first console that was “mine” (the Atari was my grandfather’s), and that went from simple, one-screen affairs like Popeye and Duck Hunt to more robust gaming experiences like Castlevania 3 and Super Mario Bros. 3. I matured with the deeper plots of Final Fantasy 6 and Breath of Fire 2 on the SNES, and even played Xenogears just in time to be an angsty teenager about it. Nobody understands how important and meaningful this story about giant robots fighting a slug is, man. College brought a glut of systems with four controller ports, so getting drunk and Smash Bros’ing around was the norm. Hell, Sega’s loss was my gain with the Dreamcast offering a very affordable, very fun library to a broke college kid. And, as I’ve grown older and friends have much less time to stay up until 3 am playing Rock Band, online play has usurped the need to assemble everyone on the couch. Yeah, it’s cool that you have to look after your daughter, but we can get in a few rounds online when you’ve got some downtime. And never mind recent (“recent”) releases like Nier, which deconstruct the tropes of the medium and may as well ship with a box quote that reads, “Been playing video games for years? This one is for you!” It seems wildly narcissistic, but there are times I feel like video games have been catering exclusively to me since I was approximately five.

As absurd as that sounds, it’s not entirely wrong. “The industry” ain’t stupid, and the people in charge know there is an entire I'm almost certain...generation of people that grew up combing through Nintendo Power and watching The Wizard, so just like you can film two hours of explosions, slap an “official Transformers product” sticker on it, and make billions of dollars, you can announce a revival of… let’s say… Clayfighter, and there’s an entire baked-in audience doing your marketing for you. From a less exploitative perspective, though, knowledge of the “gamer generation” has to have influenced hardware and software manufacturers alike. I have no hard evidence that systems around the turn of the 21st Century were aimed at the college kids who grew up on the Nintendo, but it seems like more than a coincidence that the Dreamcast, Gamecube, and Xbox were all so dorm friendly and released within a few years of each other.

But it’s that subtle kind of narcissism that makes us miss how technology has actually changed over the years. With rumors of the current console generation starting to adopt Sega CD-esque half measures, technology is once again at a point that it’s moving too fast for the average consumer. Like around a decade ago, the old standard of “it’s obsolete before you get it out of the box” seems to be making a comeback, and buying the latest, greatest gaming PC (or, apparently, game console) is a fool’s errand. Not only is something better due to come out next week, it’ll be at half price within the month. For some, though, that thinking has never abated. It's relevantTechnology advances at the speed of thought, and it’s always been that way, and it’s always going to be that way. Water is wet, technology marches on.

Like the beach that has eroded so slowly that we can’t even remember how far it once extended, we don’t notice just how far we’ve come. Konami was cutting edge in the arcades of the 80s and 90s, because you couldn’t be anything else and survive. If your cabinet’s attract mode only included six colors and abstract shapes that were supposed to be dragons, you were going to be out of business ten seconds after the cabinet across the aisle boasted donkeys that may have been monkeys. This compilation features six years of Konami history, and it shows the evolution from games that could practically be carved out of stone (Pooyan) , to games that we would consider complete today (albeit graphically “retro”), like Contra. In six years, “gaming” as we know it went from “graduated pinball machines” to the medium we know and love today.

And then we have the jump to the DS compilation. Given the larger timeframe involved, this one doesn’t seem quite so dramatic, but that’s probably more a fault of interest than technology. What’s important here is that, after three presidents, what was the absolute pinnacle of technology has become something that is crammed in with fourteen similar titles, stuck on a portable device, and is now playable anywhere on Earth. What once was shackled to an arcade cabinet heavy enough to perform a crushing Mortal Kombat fatality now fits on a cart the size of your thumbnail.

And it all happened as a matter of course. Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits probably wasn’t even the only portable compilation of retro games released that month, left alone that year. Now, with download services on every gaming system, a “new” retro game drops for a couple of dollars every other week. It’s the way of things, it’s just companies trying to make a buck on their rotting IPs, and, while we might not see a new Gradius any time soon, there’s a whole flock of aging nerds that will buy up that retro release every time. They’re preying on our poor nostalgic wallets!

But maybe the next time Bill Rizor asks you for another three Washingtons, consider what it took for the world to get here. What was once a luxury item that could only be “owned” by Damn clownssomeone with a successful business (the rest of us had to rent, one quarter at a time) can now be played infinitely for less than the cost of the Sunday paper. It can be downloaded in less time than it takes to read this sentence. Yes, those are just the modern conveniences of a modern age, but thirty years ago, it would have been as inconceivable as invading aliens.

The world is only getting better, and it’s getting better one Circus Charlie at a time.

FGC #111 Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits

  • System: Nintendo DS for the collection. Technically, all of these games are arcade games, so maybe that qualifies?
  • Number of players: 2, but only with local connections. Actually, any internet features would likely be defunct by now anyway, so I guess that one is a wash.
  • M2: Incidentally, this whole collection was developed by M2, absolute wizards of emulation that are also responsible for the current Sega 3-D Classics rereleases. Oh, also that Monster World collection. Them’s some good games right there, I tell you what.
  • Favorite Game (in the collection): Look, it’s Contra. It was always going to be Contra. It’s just different enough from NES Contra to be interesting, but it’s still Contra, so Contra Contra Contra.
  • “Arcade” Games: Come to think of it, the Contra Arcade Cabinet I saw most was at the local supermarket, just chilling by the exit for most of my childhood. PoohBecause she knew she’d never see me again, my mother only ever gave me a lifetime total of maybe a dollar to play that game. “You have that same game at home, you don’t need to play it here!”
  • Did you know? Tutankham and Super Basketball both had their names changed to Horror Maze and Basketball, respectively, for this release. I can see how Super Basketball probably interferes with some copyright for a random SNES game, but I have come up empty on Tutankham having a rival for the crown. Maybe they just didn’t want to piss off their mummy.
  • Would I play again: I would… but I can play what I want to play from this collection on other portable platforms now, mostly Vita. I’m all for high-fidelity ports, but I’m even more for not having to switch a cartridge out of my 3DS.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… oh ho ho. We’ve got a Mega Man game in the pipeline. I know better than to even mention which Mega Man game, because that kind of thing always leads to people making lists and debating noses and what have you, so you’ll have to come back Friday to see which Mega Man game ROB chose. Here’s a hint: it features the OG blue bomber, and there may be some blues, too. Please look forward to it!