Tag Archives: metroidvania

FGC #339 Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate

Here comes a special boyCastlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is likely the most ill-advised videogame in gaming.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was not made for sequels

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (no additional verbage) was a Playstation 3/Xbox 360 game meant to revitalize the Castlevania franchise. Koji Igarashi held the reins of the Castlevania universe for years, and, in that time, he produced exactly one (1) decent console Castlevania. Granted, it was one of the best games of all time, but every time Iga hit the consoles again, we wound up with something… less than stellar. The PS2 outings were rote and boring, and the Wii saw a Castlevania fighting game that was maybe the most bonkers bit of plotting in an already supremely bonkers franchise (Super Mega Death traveled through time so Maria could be jealous of Sypha’s rack). None of these games presented any sort of justification for Castlevania to exist on the “next gen” consoles, and, since portables have long been considered the ghetto of gaming, Konami was understandably concerned about its Castlevania franchise. If one of your top franchises was simply languishing in the portable market, how could you ever marry said franchise to successful slot machines?

Lords of Shadow was basically a gritty reboot for an almost accidentally gritty series. You’ve got a Belmont hero, but now he’s working for a very real and very present Christian church. You’ve got your old standbys like the werewolf, succubus, and Grim Reaper, but now they all have tragic backstories with (fantasy) logical origins (if you ascend to Heaven as an immaculate being, obviously your body stays behind and becomes a vampire slut). The environs are more Lord of the Rings (popular at the time), combat is more God of War (also popular at the time), and everything is a lot more bloody (always popular). Lords of Shadow does a lot to simultaneously distinguish itself as a fresh, new look at Castlevania and be, incidentally, an experience that is fairly indistinguishable from the rest of the HD action game flock (of 2010 or so).

ScaryBut LoS did one remarkable thing: spoilers, but you were Dracula the whole time! Gasp! You were playing through the secret origins of this brand new Dracula, and now you’re the Lord of Darkness himself! And the final boss is Satan. Yes, that Satan! Dracula is kind of a good guy! Or something!

And the only problem is that that’s a neat trick, but you can only do it once.

The whole “you were the bad guy all along” thing is a great twist, but it doesn’t really lend itself to a franchise. It can work in many pieces of media, but for a videogame, you inhabit the protagonist, so the fresh new nasty boy either has to be the final boss of the next adventure (because killing off the previous protagonist in any lesser manner would be an insult to the first game), or said “villain” has to be supremely misunderstood. In fact, it seems like the Lords of Shadow staff realized this immediately, and tacked on a postlude that featured New Dracula awakening in modern times. Cool! He’ll be “misunderstood”, but Dracula in modern times is a fresh new direction for the Castlevania franchise! Maybe a sequel could work!

The sequel absolutely doesn’t work

Let's reflect on thisOkay, maybe the real sequel does actually work, but Castlevania: Chain of Memories absolutely does not.

So, first, in order for this whole game to work, we have to retcon in Gabrielle Belmont, star of Lords of Shadow, and his brand spanking new son who never got mentioned before this very moment. Okay, Gabrielle was a prophesized warrior that was incidentally being controlled by Patrick Stewart, so, sure, maybe the family bought into not telling Gabrielle “for his own good”, and, since the player exists behind Gabe’s eyes, we just weren’t privy to that information. Fine. But this also means the story has to start a maximum of twenty years (good hero’ing age) after Gabrielle became Dracula, and… is that going to work? Gabby kind of accidentally became Dracula, so is he going to settle into the whole “malevolent dictator” thing that quickly? And Lords of Shadow started in 1000 AD or so, so how does humanity even get to the modern era teased during the LoS finale if Dracula has been awake and active for the last millennium? So many questions!

But, okay, let’s move past that. Let’s just say that Dracula is simultaneously very quick to come into his powers, but very slow to actually do anything with his powers. And, hey, that’s basically the original canon, right? Oh, wait, no, there’s always a Belmont slapping down that Dracula before he can do anything. But we’ve got Belmonts here, though, right? Like, that’s the whole point of the “Gabrielle’s son” conceit, right? Sure, we’ve got (new, LoS) Trevor Belmont here, husband of Sypha, and he’s going to… Wait. Wasn’t the whole point of LoS that a Belmont became corrupted to become Dracula, so we’re not so different, you and I, and all that riot? So if we now have a whole crop of Belmonts… what was the point of this new franchise again? Castlevania, but with slightly larger trolls? I thought this was supposed to be new? This franchise really isn’t built for soldering on pieces of an already convoluted franchise. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is a real live person wearing a cartoon princess dress, and that’s not a good look.

Same Trick, Two Games

ALUCARDIn Lords of Shadow, Gabrielle Belmont is eventually revealed to be Dracula.

In Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate, Trevor Belmont is eventually revealed to be Alucard.

There. Just saved you all twenty hours of “mystery”.

“Linear” is not a dirty word

Presumably in order to build tension for that all-important Alucard reveal, Mirror of Fate is played in a sort of reverse chronology. First you play as Simon Belmont, who is being helped by a mysterious white-haired ally. Then you play as said ally, Alucard, who is fighting Dracula, but he doesn’t quite remember why. And then, finally, you play as Trevor from twenty years earlier, who is eventually defeated by Dracula in order to be revived as Alucard. It’s all very clever and cute and mysterious assuming you didn’t guess that exact twist from the first trailer. And even if you managed to go into the game fresh, you’d have to have the intelligence of a fleaman to miss all the anvilicious clues being dropped every ten seconds. And, oh yeah, if you played the first game, you’d be expecting that exact twist, and why the hell would you be interested in such a tiresome sequel if you didn’t play the first game?

It's not really a spriteAnd, frankly, it is heartbreaking that the plot seems to be stuck with this en media res nonsense, as there are a good number of characters and events along the way that really benefit from linear understanding. There is very little benefit to a new player being confused by Simon’s “mysterious ally”, but there is emotional heft to be gleamed from Simon being assisted by his cursed ancestor. The Daemon (ugh) Lord was mutilated by Trevor, and then revived by arcane science to return and menace Alucard… but when you first encounter the mechanized monster during Alucard’s story, he’s just another unrecognizable, barely threatening boss. And it sure would be nice if we weren’t saddled with yet another immortal protagonist that is suffering from amnesia just as long as the plot demands!

A linear Mirror of Fate wouldn’t have solved all of the story’s problems, but it would have made a number of the generational plot beats wildly more effective. But, no, I guess it wouldn’t be a Lords of Shadow game if the gameplay didn’t end in a shocking (not shocking) revelation.

It’s a metroidvania without the exploration

Enough about this silly plot! How’s the gameplay?

Not great, Goggle Bob.

ZZZZAAAPLords of Shadow was an attempt to turn Castlevania into a new God of War-like franchise. And it was mostly successful! But for the portable version, the decision was made to return to the metroidvania-like format of the last decade’s worth of portable Castlevania titles. This was a clever move, and an obvious way to bring lapsed Castlevania fans back into the fold. Don’t worry, old fans, this franchise is still for you! Look, here’s a platinum-haired dhampir exploring a big ol’ castle just for you.

Except… everyone involved kind of forgot how a metroidvania game works.

First of all, this adventure was doomed from the start, as the three different characters in three different stories (and 2.5 different time periods) kind of preclude the traditional “one big castle/planet” of most metroidvanias. But it could still work! Order of Ecclesia and Portrait of Ruin both had “level” like areas, so it’s not completely alien to the genre. Oh! And the “generations” thing could lead to a lot of different, fun puzzles! Break a gateway in the past to allow for entry in the future! Drain the moat as Trevor so Simon doesn’t have to take a dip! It could be a thing of beauty!

But, no, it was not to be. Mirror of Fate put an emphasis on two things: plot and battles. We’ve already covered the plot ad nauseam, but be aware that no “time travel” shenanigans are allowed when we’re telling a very serious story about seriously inept Belmonts (you just have to kill one vampire! One!). And that leaves us with the combat, which is…. kind of sad.

Moving right alongThere’s a reason that the greatest heroes of 2-D just jump. There’s a reason previous Belmonts were limited to a whip and a few subweapons. There’s a reason that even the mightiest of blue bombers are limited to a life of pew pewing. 2-D combat can only be so interesting. When you have a limited field of movement, you have a limited set of abilities, and whip/dodge/jump only gets you so far. In many Castlevania games, this is masked by a great wealth of monsters from across time and space. In this Castlevania game… not so much. Lords of Shadow seems to put a premium on combat with recurring enemies in tight corridors, but, give or take a few interesting boss battles, it feels fairly flat. And when you hang a game on something that feels perfunctory, the entire game feels kind of boring.

And, when you get down to it, that’s the problem with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate. Everything about it winds up being tedious and predictable. And hanging a flagship franchise on a game that is that boring is… ill-advised.

FGC #339 Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate

  • System: Nintendo 3DS initially, and then an HD version was released to follow Lords of Shadow 2. This is basically the same trajectory as a certain Kingdom Hearts game, which is never a good sign.
  • Number of Players: Technically four playable characters if you include the opening tutorial, but only one player at a time.
  • Favorite Monster: The Executioner is a wonderful bit of Mirror of Fate storytelling.

    Grrrr

    He’s not just a scary giant, he’s a scary giant with brain problems. Be sad for the hulking creature chopping your protagonist in twain.

  • Absolutely Favorite Part: So this game has fall damage. That’s terrible for a metroidvania. But! The fall damage scales to the height you’ve fallen, so a falling just a little over a body’s height will cause little tiny damage. This pairs wonderfully with any given character’s blood-curdling scream o’ death, which triggers no matter how the protagonist dies. This all adds up to an unstoppable shriek of agony every time your health is low and you miss the last step on a staircase… and I can get behind that.
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: Trevor is now the first son of Dracula and the new Alucard. Simon is a deadly barbarian that is the first Belmont to defeat Dracula (with a little help). Sypha… is an obedient and immediately dead housewife. Woo.
  • Did you know? It seriously bothers me that Trevor starts with a double jump, but Alucard, who is Trevor, has to earn the skill. It kinda bothers me how much this simple bit of gameplay bothers me.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely not. Not ever. Bah! You make-a me so mad!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Tekken 3 for the Playstation! Let’s see who can become the King of the Iron Fist after most of the cast retires! Please look forward to it!

Youch

FGC #328 Metroid: Samus Returns

Samus is baaaaaackIt seems hard to believe, but, after years of Metroid 2 being the black sheep of the Metroid family (or at least its most ignored entry), we now have three different perfectly valid Metroid 2 experiences readily available. The original Metroid 2 is right there on the 3DS Gameboy Virtual Console, AM2R is an amazing fan remake available in the secret corners of the internet, and now we have the official Nintendo reimagining, complete with amiibos and an honest-to-God advertising campaign (admit it: it’s hard to remember if Federation Force actually happened). Metroid 2 is king of the Metroid Hill, and it’s great to see there’s a Metroid Hill in the Nintendo Kingdom at all.

Of course, it’s not so great that Metroid: Samus Returns is the Metroid 2 I’m least likely to ever play again.

That sounds a might pessimistic, so let’s first cover the good stuff. First and foremost, somebody at Nintendo learned from the Metroid: Other M debacle, and Samus Aran is now delightfully mute. Granted, there’s something unnerving about the fact that the only way Nintendo seems to be able to maintain their bad ass bounty hunter’s bad ass status is through keeping her from opening her mouth for an entire adventure… but still! Samus is cool, calm, and collected, and, at no point does she worry about “the baby” or space dragons that may or may not have eaten her parents. That’s what we like to see! And, while she doesn’t talk, she does take a few moments to have “cool” moments in cutscenes (like casually blasting a defeated foe post battle), so what little personality that seeps through is Adam-free and Aran-appropriate. Oh, and this game has the Screw Attack! That’s a great little item. Love that thing.

….

And now for the bad parts.

I think it all boils down to one thing: this video game is too video game-y.

OMEGA!Yes, this is an odd complaint, but it’s valid for this interpretation of SR388. Metroid 2 was a game about a made-up heroine fighting random space monsters until there were no space monsters left. It’s a videogame, and it’s not like someone put serious thought into the ecology of the planet that houses frightening space bugs living among infinitely spawning flying worms. But… that seems reductive. Despite the small screen, despite the complete lack of color, and despite the music that was clearly composed by randomly spitting on a Casio from a distance of at least eleven feet, there is a lot of care and consideration in the original Metroid 2. The “Metroid life cycle” is ridiculous (jellyfish -> bug -> bug with tusks -> fat dragon -> tyrannosaurus), but it seems… possible. Metroids are a weird and wondrous species, and, sure, some of them can breathe fire, but it does make a certain amount of sense that they wouldn’t be amoeba-looking “larvas” for their entire life cycle. Butterflies don’t look that much like caterpillars, after all. Similarly, the other creatures of SR388 seem like actual fauna that might have to live side by side with space vampires. Metroids are given a wide berth, and, aside from the occasional errant robot, if it moves on SR388, it’s staying clear of those apex predators. In fact, this is epitomized during the final area of Metroid 2. The Queen Metroid’s lair is completely devoid of non-metroid life, and this leads to entire screens of Samus exploring empty corridors.

Unfortunately, the staff of Metroid: Samus Returns likely found those vacant hallways boring, because that kind of environmental storytelling is absent from this iteration of the Queen’s Lair. Now that area is choked with rampaging robots, angry bats, kamikaze bugs, and murderous hedgehogs. This is just like the area before, which is crowded with rampaging robots, angry bats, kamikaze bugs, and murderous hedgehogs. And the caverns before that also include rampaging robots, angry…. You get the idea. Yes, as you progress in the game, you gain new and exciting ways to battle these monsters, and the different areas generally have different layouts and configurations so it doesn’t all become rote after Area 3, but… It gets exhausting. Samus’s armor has been reduced to Fusion levels of softness, and, at all times, you have to be on guard, else you’ll lose an entire energy tank to an errant angry bat. So you’re always defending yourself, always in rooms filled with rapidly respawning opponents, and always… drained. There is no rest for Samus, because this is a videogame, and if you’re not doing videogame things at all times, what’s the point?

Hey little duderAnd if you think this is an exaggeration, consider that the larval metroids appear in this adventure just as they did in Metroid 2, Super Metroid, and almost every other metroid game. The difference here, though, is that when you clear a room of metroids, and return to what should now be an empty room, there are now all new monsters skulking about for your endless fighting pleasure. Yes, this game can’t even let Samus rest for three hallways.

This need for a constant stream of encroaching encounters is obviously to showcase the new combat features of this Metroid adventure, but… they’re not that great, either. Don’t get me wrong, the new multi-directional aiming is a godsend, and the whole “melee counter” system is fun and exciting when you smack that X button right in time, but it’s more… videogame problems. The average metroid boss battle (which happens somewhere around forty times over the course of the game) involves a lot of hopeful chucking of missiles at a weak point that may or may not be guarded by random electrical discharges at the moment. But you can counter at just the right time, and blast off half a metroid’s health in one quick quasi-QTE. Obviously, the fastest way to clear SR388 of its indigenous life forms is to exploit these counter moves. But it quickly becomes clear that if you miss an early pass at your counter opportunity, it’s often faster to just suicide poor Samus (only takes like three hits anyway…), restart the battle, and save yourself ten minutes of clumsy missile aiming in favor of thirty seconds of mastering the counter timing. This is generally just convenient with the alpha metroids, but it’s practically essential by the time you get to the “invincible for 90% of the match” gamma metroids. And, given the vast time difference between countering vs. not countering, victory over I call him Hoagieany given boss feels less like “mastering” the encounter, and more like “Oh, I finally hit X when I needed to.” It’s not about skill, it’s about following the pattern like an obedient puppy. And the last thing Samus Aran should be is obedient.

And for further evidence, please find me someone that enjoyed that Digby the Drillanaut boss fight. That was the most “this is a pattern, follow it” boss I’ve seen since the NES days.

Now, I want to make something clear: none of this makes Metroid: Samus Returns a bad game. I enjoyed my time with the game, and my hand may have cramped into a Kid Icarus claw from playing the game nigh-continuously since its release. I did not rest until the last Metroid was in captivity, and the game was good enough to hold my interest through repeated demoralizing game overs. But am I going to rush back and play it again? No. Going to fish out every last item because they stuck friggen plasma beam doors randomly in the first area? Nope. Hard mode? Absolutely not. Even the old standard of “it’s a Metroid game, now do it faster” doesn’t seem at all appealing. Sure, I could do this quicker, but it would be because I’d be able to best the various bosses faster… assuming my counter timing skills stay consistent. If not, I’ll be spending another hour taking down four damn omega metroids, and I really don’t want to do that ever again. Heck, I’m not even sure I want to see another one of those stupid snail monsters again. How can the most elite bounty hunter in the universe be thwarted by a mollusk!?

Grab 'emSo here’s the state of 2017: we have Metroid 2, which is the deeply flawed story of a bounty hunter eliminating space monsters on their home planet. We have AM2R, which is a remix of that story with modern design conventions and a loving attention to detail. And we have Metroid: Samus Returns, which is a videogame.

… I’m pretty sure I have other videogames to play.

FGC #328 Metroid: Samus Returns

NOTE: Spoilers may appear in this area…

FGC #327 Metroid 2: Return of Samus

This is some terrible musicMetroids are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or exterminate in any way.

As a proud citizen of the Galactic Federation, you’ve likely heard the smear campaign launched against the humble metroid. The rhetoric is always the same: the hated space pirates scooped up a bunch of metroids from their home on SR388, telepathically controlled the creatures with a gigantic sentient AI, and then threatened the entire galaxy with their army of “monsters”. We were all saved by the benevolent Galactic Federation and their ability to properly outsource, and the galaxy is now at peace. But the Metroid “scourge” remains! As long as SR388 is still populated by metroids, then any Tom, Dick, or Ridley could return, rustle up another army, and lay siege to our poor universe. What’s a Federation to do?

Well, if you’ve been following the latest on GFBC, you know that the Federation is currently attempting to pass legislation to exterminate all metroids. That’s right! Just because a few bad apples decided to kidnap a peaceful species and use them for evil, the Galactic Federation is going to commit genocide. We cannot let this happen! The metroid is a naturally peaceful species, and anyone that says otherwise is woefully uninformed.

We at the Metroid Preservation Association recently sent an expedition down to SR388, and here are some of the metroid fun facts they sent back.

Larval Metroid

HUGS!This is the “creature” most featured in Federation propaganda, mainly because they were the first vanguard of the Space Pirate threat. And you want to know the kick of it? This is a metroid baby. That’s right! You’re looking at the equivalent of a human toddler, or perhaps a feline kitten. Can a metroid be destructive? Of course! But no one demanded that all dogs be euthanized just because one puppy tore up the couch. Larval metroids have no concept of right or wrong, and just because they could potentially absorb the life force of a nearby organism doesn’t mean they should be eradicated.

And, speaking of which, have you ever seen a metroid feed? They don’t use mouths or teeth like many animals; no, metroids subsist entirely on hugs. Since metroids are incapable of communicating, we don’t even know if a metroid’s most threatening trait is deliberate. So many sentient creatures live their lives with a need to embrace a loving “mother”, and it is entirely possible that the shy child metroid is no different. Sure, this inevitably leads to the death of the hug recipient, but these metroids don’t know their own strength! They’re babies!

Metroid Fact: In rare situations, a larval metroid is capable of copying abilities from his or her hug buddy. Does this mean a metroid might be able “steal” the ability to talk? We’d sure like to hear about that!

Alpha Metroid

Look away!Now this is why you always observe God’s creatures in their natural habitat. Kept in captivity, a larval metroid will forever stay larval, and, at best, may use its energy to grow to absurd sizes; but leave that same metroid on SR388, and something magical happens. Through a biological process that can only be described as wondrous, a larval metroid will shed its soft shell, and grow into an alpha metroid, a creature with tiny legs, adorable tusks, and a protective shell. But don’t worry, metroid lovers, the alpha metroid still maintains a “jelly belly”, and, while those miniature appendages might not be the best for the task, they’re still hugging machines. An alpha metroid will approach its mark relentlessly, begging for hugs all the while.

Free hugs aside, think of the implication of the alpha metroid. Without observing metroids on their home world, we would have never known such a delightful being ever existed. What else are metroids capable of? We don’t know, but we do know that we’ll never find out if the Galactic Federation has their way.

Metroid Fact: If a metroid were capable of returning its absorbed energy to others, it could use said stored energy to power an entire city! Think of the glorious future where metroids and people may live happily together, freely sharing their energy and experiences. Can you envision a more idyllic paradise?

Gamma Metroid

ZapA metroid doesn’t just stop at the alpha form. It turns out that a metroid can develop even further. A gamma metroid seems to be the natural evolution of the alpha, with longer legs, bigger tusks, and even a “head horn” that looks like a charming little dunce cap. Silly gamma metroid, you’re still just a kid, you’ll learn how to get out of the corner soon enough.

The gamma metroid even learned a new trick: it can generate and distribute electricity! This is amazing, as metroid physiology previously only allowed for the absorption of energy, and it seemed that all the excess power was spent on the metroid’s strange floating ability. But the gamma metroid has extra power, and he/she knows how to use it! Lightning bolts fly from the gamma’s fangs, igniting the dark caverns of SR388 with every burst. Could gamma metroids be deliberately illuminating these passages for the benefit of their fellow SR388 inhabitants? That seems like the most apparent answer.

Metroid Fact: Metroids do not compete. In the event that multiple metroids have targeted one person for hugs, the metroids will work together, and never damage each other in pursuit of the hugee. Metroids are so polite!

Zeta Metroid

Toasty!Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the zeta metroid will emerge from the carapace of a gamma metroid. And this change means big things for our friend the metroid! The alpha/gamma’s “limbs” become “fingers”, and zeta now has full-fledged legs and arms. And a tail! How could any creature with a tail be worthy of extinction? And those lightning powers have evolved, too, because the zeta has the ability to spew fire and acid-like substances. These abilities are clearly there for the betterment of his or her friends, as who doesn’t like to warm up with some spicy fire breath? Why, with a zeta metroid in your kitchen, you might never need an oven ever again! And don’t forget about that acid spit for opening those hard-to-open jars!

Metroid Fact: Metroids hate the cold, which is probably why their entire planet is filled with lava. As a result, it’s not the easiest place to explore, but with a few decent barrier suits, you might find it’s a pretty nice planet with all sorts of exciting indigenous wildlife.

Omega Metroid

Look at the widdle tailAnd thus must the zeta inevitably become the omega, the final form of the humble metroid (usually). The omega metroid is basically a miniature tyrannosaurus. And that’s good! Who among us hasn’t ever desired a pet dinosaur? The omega metroid, not unlike a mastiff or a great dane, would be the perfect oversized companion for any schoolchild. Aw, look at that omega, it even looks like it’s wearing an pleasant little backpack. Wouldn’t you be happy to see Lil’ Timmy walking down the street with Lil’ ‘Meggy Metroid? Just be sure to clean up the sidewalk before that acidic drool seeps into the water supply.

Metroid Fact: If a metroid does happen to absorb all the life energy of an opponent (who was clearly asking for it), it will leave behind a stone or sand sculpture of the aggressor. Wicked people are transformed into pillars of salt in the first book of the Bible… Could metroids have visited Earth in our distant past?

Queen Metroid

QUEEN OF HUGSDid you know that metroids have a matriarchal society, and they all love their mama? It’s true! Queen Metroid is apparently the mother of all metroids on SR388, and lays eggs at an astronomical rate. While there appear to only be about forty living metroids on SR388 currently, there are a number of eggs lying around the queen’s chambers, so it looks like we’ll be seeing a population boom any minute now. And that’s great, because this galaxy could use more metroids!

The metroids are a humble, huggable race. To eliminate them and their planet would be an affront to the very precepts on which our Federation was founded. After all, if metroids were so terrible, then why didn’t our expedition team ever return? They clearly chose to stay and continue their lives on SR388, living in peace and harmony with our friends, the metroids. May the whole galaxy be as welcoming and serene as SR388.

Click for full size

FGC #327 Metroid 2: Return of Samus

  • System: Nintendo Gameboy, and 3DS if you’re nasty. No, I’m not talking about the remake.
  • Number of players: There is only one metroid hunter in this galaxy.
  • Awesome new powerMaybe actually talk about the game for a second: This is such a weird game. It feels at once complete and whole, but also entirely unfinished. Samus spends what seems like forever gradually upgrading and fighting alphas and gammas, and then finally encounters her first Zeta. Then, one area full of three or so Zetas later, the mighty Omega rears its ugly head. Then you fight a couple more… and the game is basically over. You’re at the queen’s “final level”, and then all that’s left is to leave the planet in the calmest “escape sequence” ever. We were just getting going! I want more!
  • Favorite metroid form: That would be the zeta metroid. Omega is too powerful, alpha is too boring, and gamma’s stupid lightning artificially prolongs the fight with its missile blocking properties. Zeta is just right. Actually, my real favorite is the tried and true larval metroid, but they’re all over the place at this point (in, like, a whole five games).
  • So, did you beat it? Of course I did. I beat this puppy back in the day, and I did it again just now. See my AM2R review for more details on why wet paint always makes me think of SR388.
  • He’s too big: No Ridley in Metroid 2. How does something like this happen!?
  • Did you know? Shooting zeta and omega metroids in the back causes more damage… but since the Metroid series is averse to HP gauges, the average player has no hope of knowing this. Omega’s lil’ tail does twitch a little more on a back hit, I suppose.
  • Would I play again: Hopefully I won’t have to, because…

What’s next? Obviously, I’m going to spend this weekend playing the latest Metroid game, because of course I am. Will I also be ready to write about it? We’ll find out! Please look forward to it!

WINNER

FGC #312 Tomba!

Here comes Tomba!So what’s wrong with Tomba?

Tomba (technically Tomba!, but I don’t feel like driving the grammar part of my brain nuts[er]) is a 1998 release for the Playstation 1. Hot on the heels of Symphony of the Night, Tomba is one of those precious few 2-D action games for the system that was responsible for more polygons than you can shake a poorly rendered hand at. What’s more, Tomba is not only a metroidvania, but it is also a 2-D game on the Playstation wherein the developers actually tried. This isn’t some upgraded “last gen” experience or a faux-retro adventure that doesn’t quite understand what’s appealing about retro in the first place; no, this is much more like Skullmonkeys, a game with new advances applied to old conventions, and gorgeous PSX graphics may stand side by side with simple “press X to jump” gameplay. It’s the best of both worlds! A bold new world for the genre everyone loved on the old generations! All hail the conquering Tomba!

Except… Tomba sold about twelve copies. There was a follow-up, but it basically bankrupt the company. From a strictly sales perspective, Tomba was a colossal failure on par with the Hindenburg. I mean, I guess no one distinctly died (unless you count a pile of pink creatures), but, still, not exactly a fun time for anybody on the development side.

So… why? Tomba was lauded by critics, and this was less than a year after the release of SoTN, one of the most praised (and purchased) games in the Playstation library. Tomba didn’t have to be the next Final Fantasy 7, but it could have at least conquered an echelon that allowed its producers to subsist on sweet Tomba ports for the next decade or so. Tomba is a delightful romp featuring a shirtless dude hopping through magical islands, so it should have at least done better than Adventure Island!

So what went wrong? Well, it might have something to do with first impressions.

SnifferFirst of all, to judge a book by its cover, Tomba is a hard sell. In a time when videogames were either getting solemn (Final Fantasy 7 was clearly a serious story for our serious times) or radical (Tony Hawk is wiggedy wiggedy whack), Tomba arrived on the scene with a hero wearing ragged short shorts and sporting bright, pink hair. And what else is going on on that disc cover? We’ve got a pair of pigs, and one of them is doing the ol’ “bug eyes” look at Tomba. And there’s a clock tower in the background that resembles the iconic WB water tower. What’s the final verdict there? Tomba is evoking memories of old cartoons, and, more recently (at the time), Animaniacs. That was something you simply couldn’t do in 1998. You could be staid with realistic polygon people (or as “realistic” as possible), or you could be anime as hell (and thus foreign and interesting), but you couldn’t be cartoony. That’s for babies, Tomba! Nobody cares about your opening sequence being an elegant bit of animation, it would be right at home on Saturday morning cartoons, and that’s juvenile. We’re into adult games now. Take your cartoon pigs elsewhere.

But even once you get past the cartoons, things don’t exactly improve. Tomba is a metroidvania platformer, and that comes with its own set of problems. There’s a reason the typical metroidvania features a weaponry-based protagonist. Consider Super Metroid: over the course of that adventure, Samus acquires a breadth of weapons and items that perform many different tasks. The ice beam can freeze enemies, but it also allows for using those icy monsters as platforms. The space jump offers Samus unsurpassed mobility and the ability to reach nearly any area. Missiles open doors and blast bosses to smithereens. But when you think of the final sequence of that game, the final battle against Mother Brain and the escape immediately after, are you really using any tools that aren’t presented within the first moments of the game? It might be a little higher, but Samus jumps almost exactly the same whether she’s first landed on Crateria or she’s fleeing Tourian. The speed booster might move things along a little faster, but hold A (screw you, default control scheme) to run fast along the path is right there in the original space station escape. And, whether it’s the hyper beam or Samus’s original peashooter, aim and fire in regards to flying jellyfish is exactly the same from beginning to end. Samus’s repertoire grows as the game progresses, but she’s always drawing on an unchanged base of natural skills.

Swing is the thingUnfortunately, when you base a metroidvania around a platforming style hero, things are a little more difficult. Tomba starts with his default run speed, his default jumping ability, and his default spikey ball whip. All of these defaults suck. All of these defaults are supposed to suck. Like any great metroidvania star, Tomba starts out kind of terrible in comparison to his eventual kickass final form. However, this means that the player’s first impression of Tomba is that he sucks as badly as his initial abilities. Tomba will eventually gain a weapon that is not only effective, but also a grappling hook. Tomba will eventually run at top speed, complete with an amazing dash. Tomba will eventually gain a jump that doesn’t steer like a freight train. Tomba will eventually become a great hero… but for that first level, you’re likely going to get smacked around by a couple of pigs that are barely even mobile. Samus or your average Belmont start their adventures “weak”, but they’re still fun to control. Tomba has to take time to get there, and makes a very poor first impression for it. (And it’s no coincidence that both Symphony of the Night and Shadow Complex start with a sequence that effectively says, “Hey, look how awesome you are going to get”.)

Which segues nicely into the other Tomba problem: RPG elements. Tomba was slightly ahead of the Final Fantasy 7 hype train (from which there was no getting off), and incorporated a number of features you’d traditionally associate with JRPGs. There are towns. There is a complete inventory system. There’s even “leveling” of a sort (or maybe it works more like money? But to open treasure chests?). There are a number of JRPG-like bits to Tomba… and it all seems completely 3-d!perfunctory. Yes, Tomba acquires upgrades, but he has no more need to “equip” new items than Samus Aran. Yes, Tomba encounters friendly towns, but he has no more need to interact with “people” for clues than Alucard. These JRPG bits make Tomba a more complicated game, but they ultimately detract from the experience. It takes a surprisingly long time to open the menu, select your item, and then use whatever doodad you need to use to clear the latest obstacle, when, come on, just give Tomba the space jump and let the little guy have fun. Again, this isn’t game breaking in any way, it’s simply an unnecessary waste of time, and nobody wants to waste time when Xenogears is also readily available.

And that’s Tomba in a nutshell. It’s a great game! There’s a great presentation here, and it feels like another game smuggled away from the alternate universe where 2-D Playstation games were granted the budgets and care of their 3-D brethren. But Tomba makes a lousy first impression, and its vaguely Looney Tunes-esque aesthetics couldn’t succeed anywhere in 1998 past Space Jam. Tomba is a great game that everyone should play, but it’s easy to see why it was a failure in its time.

Tomba, I’m sorry, but sometimes the pigs win.

FGC #312 Tomba!

  • System: Playstation 1. Again, Whoopee Camp pretty much stopped existing after Tomba 2, so we were denied what would have been an excellent 3DS port (hey, Spyro wound up on the GBA, after all).
  • Number of players: One Tomba. Ever notice that a lot of Playstation games are one player? Was there a particular reason for that? Other than the “everybody wants to be a JRPG” thing?
  • WeeeeWhat’s in a name: Tomba is known as Tombi in Europe. This is presumably because “tomba” is slang for a woman’s genitals in England. Okay, that might not be true, but that’s the reason I don’t trust fanny packs.
  • Favorite Upgrade: Tomba does not get enough respect for being one of the great umbrella-wielders of the videogame world. Kirby gets all the praise.
  • Did you know? In Japan, Tomba has a complete theme song with lyrics. For the American localization, like many games, the lyrics were dropped, but an instrumental version of the theme plays on. In Europe, Tombi’s intro is scored by… the theme to BBC kids’ show No Sweat. This is… odd.
  • Would I play again: Probably not. You should play Tomba at least once, but it’s also a relic of its time. You could do worse to spend eight hours or so on this adventure, but that’s about all it will ever need.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… C the Contra Adventure for the Playstation! Wow, now it’s time for the other side of Playstation “2-D” games. Please look forward to it!

Pigs!