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FGC #482 Gradius V

Let's Grad!Let us consider the exact ways you may fight your way to the ending of Gradius V.

Gradius is a shoot ‘em up title that originated in the arcades, but gradually migrated to the home consoles (and the PSP, for some reason). The last release in the franchise was the poorly titled Gradius Rebirth is 2008. But prior to the franchise’s inglorious end, Gradius was one of those titles you would always expect to see at least once a console generation, often attempting to showcase the upgrades and benefits of the latest graphical hardware. Look how many dots there can be on the screen now! Ignore the slowdown! You’re going to love it! In short, Gradius was once a franchise that you could presume everyone had played.

But you’ll be forgiven for not remembering the intricacies of your typical Gradius adventure, so a little reminder will be allowed. Gradius showcases what may be one of the most complicated powerup systems to originate in the 80s. Unlike a Mario or Mega Man that might find a random “pickup” and instantly gain fire blasts or weapon energy, all of Gradius’s powerups contribute to a sort of “powerup purchase” display. At one end of the powerup scale, you have some basic items like Speed Up or Missiles. There at the end of the gauge are such musts as Shield and Options (and, to further elaborate for those unfamiliar, an “option” is a little glowy orb that effectively doubles your firepower. It is called an option because who the hell knows). This means that every single powerup presents not just an advantage over your enemies, but an opportunity for consideration and decision. Do you go for the “easy” powerups immediately, and stockpile speed and offensive options out of the gate? Or do you perhaps hamper your own abilities in pursuit of a more powerful option or shield? All of these opportunities are going to help you live longer, and it’s very important to consider exactly what is going to get you through the hectic combat surrounding Planet Gradius.

Come to think of it, though, these decisions are only important if you don’t know the game. If you know what’s coming next, you barely have to think about powerup management.

PewSee, the other important thing about Gradius powerups across the franchise is that, in the event of death, you lose everything. Occasionally the Gradius du jour grants you a minor boon like allowing you to reclaim a lost option, but, aside from that, crash the Vic Viper, and you’re back to square one. To say the least, this can be heartbreaking and demoralizing. The big, bad bosses of Gradius have been mass-murderers since day one, and they are rarely accompanied by mooks that will drop powerup capsules. The result? You might start a battle with four options worth of lasers blazing, but take a hit seven seconds into the fight, and you’ll be stuck with a piddly pea shooter. And death is the only option your opponents have! Gradius is not a franchise that has many verbs: it’s a shoot ‘em up that is either shoot or be shot. Aside from just temporarily delaying the Vic Viper, the only option a boss (or any other opponent, for that matter) has is to murder its opponent, so the only way a boss can be challenging is through wholesale wiping you and your powerups off the map. If you don’t know what’s coming, you will die quickly in any given fight.

But if you know what’s coming, you will survive. And if you survive, you keep your powerups. And thus do the powerful grow more powerful.

Growing stronger the longer you survive is a pretty common situation in games of all shapes and sizes, but it is emphasized to an insane degree in Gradius. It might sting to lose a spread gun in Contra, or drop a power leaf in Mario, but in both of those cases, you’re a mere powerup away from winning back what once was lost. In Gradius, you could spend an entire two levels amassing your arsenal, but you’ll still lose it all to an erratically positioned volcano. Got a shield that takes five hits? That’s super, but it’ll be gone in one “hit” if you’re fighting a boss with a particularly enduring laser. Sorry! But the other side of the coin is that it may take you two levels to gain all the powerups you need, but you will be appropriately powerful once you’ve amassed your army. Four options quintuple your firepower (editor’s note: take a math class), and extra speed or a spare laser will make a significant difference in how much you can cover the screen. Once you’re at maximum, bosses explode dramatically faster, and that means your survival is all but guaranteed. Ol’ Big Core has a move that assures your death every time? Don't touch anythingWell, it doesn’t much matter if it can’t survive long enough to use it. Having power in Gradius means you are going to survive significantly longer than your “lesser” peers, and that means you’ll have an easier time acquiring even more power. It means nothing to spend your spare powerup income on a nice, healthy shield insurance policy when you have literally purchased everything else you would ever need.

But what do you do when you’re powerless? Everyone has to start somewhere, and the theoretical of any videogame is that everyone equally starts from scratch. If these bosses are such murder monsters, you’re inevitably going to be stomped into the ground pretty quickly, and thus be forced to face these titans with the default, “loser” load-out with no hope of gaining any powerups to dig yourself out of that hole. What do you do when you’re so far on the bottom rung, you have nothing left to lose?

And that’s when we peek behind the curtain at the men that made the game.

DOUBLE PEWIn the arcade era, it was simple: Konami wanted your quarters. Every credit equaled twenty-five (or more!) cents, so you fought to survive because you wanted to save your own precious coinage. In the NES era, things got more dicey, as companies genuinely didn’t seem to know what the home market wanted out of arcade games. As a result (and certainly in Gradius), we saw a number of games that simulated the arcade experience by creating an arbitrary limit on lives/credits. Give or take a Game Genie, this meant the player once again had to preserve life in the name of actually seeing the finale. It didn’t matter if you had lasers for days or just a single missile to your name, you had to survive to make any progress.

But things had changed by the time Gradius V rolled around. In 2004, it was a known quantity that, while people enjoy a challenge, the population at large had been spoiled by save files and infinite continue points. If someone had beaten Gradius in 2004, it was a lot more likely they had done it on an emulator with save states than actually piloting the Vic Viper on its original hardware. So how was Konami to create a shoot ‘em up appropriate to the age? Later in the decade, they might have implemented DLC or a subscription model to “earn“ that missile launcher for a mere $3.99. In even just a few years’ time, they might have tied it to a digital account, and you could earn more credits if you would just sign your email on the dotted line. But in 2006? All anyone seemed to treasure was a bullet point on the back of the box that said “over 40 hours of gameplay”. How do you get a gameplay count out of a title that legitimately could be finished in an hour and a half? Konami had an idea!

You are allowed to have unlimited credits in Gradius V. You just have to play the game for seventeen cumulative hours.

And once you have unlimited credits? Whoo boy, you can just ram ol’ Vic up in there, and blast away. You die? You lose your powerups? Who gives a crap! You’re back in business faster than you can say “destroy the core”. Sure, it sucks to see your shields and score go the way of the McDonalds pizza, but you’re still making progress. You’re still saving the galaxy. You’re doing it “wrong”, but there’s no way you could ever do it completely right, so at least you’re doing it. You are denied the finer things in your powerups, but you’re still doing something that gives you those sweet dopamine hits. whoopsYou might not be as successful as those people that have gaming magazines/FAQs, the capability to memorize complicated patterns, or the talent to successfully study youtube videos, but you too can do it! And all it takes is paying Konami their mandated dues by devoting seventeen hours of your life to their game. A small price to pay to beat back the forces of Venom!

So that’s the answer for how you beat the most recent, numbered Gradius title. You can either utilize the powerup system to its most significant degree, never experience the slightest accident, and then ride your wave of options straight through to the finish line; or you can “earn” infinite lives through placating the creators at Konami and Treasure by blowing seventeen hours of your precious life unlocking Free Play. How you want to win is up to you!

And if you missed how this entire article is a metaphor for the current state of American economics, please reread the blog for seventeen hours.

FGC #482 Gradius V

  • System: Playstation 2, but also available for the Playstation 3. And… uh… guess the Playstation 4 isn’t happening.
  • Number of players: Two players! Pew pew with a friend who may or may not be British.
  • Careful!Further problems: “Revival Start” is an available option in Gradius V. This allows you to turn on a more challenging mode wherein you do not instantly respawn, but are revived at a previous location in the level, and all of your opponents are healed/revived with you. While it may be “old school”, this mode is not recommended, as all of the boss creatures have health meters that are not built for this in the least. You just keep crashing Vic Vipers into that problem until it solves itself, and don’t worry about revival start.
  • Maximum Complaints: The number one issue specific to Gradius V is that it seems to revel in focusing the Vic Viper on facing forward, but then compelling the autoscroll to go downwards (okay…) or completely backwards (I hate everything about this). It leads to a number of “gotcha” moments, and, frankly, puts this player in a bit of a bad mood.
  • Favorite Level: One of the later levels involves a torrential tide of green acid. While it is an absolute bear to navigate, it is rather fun to see how the screen shifts and “pours” the deadly jelly-for-which-you-are-not-ready all over the screen.
  • Did you know? The sheer number of missile options in this game has damaged my brain. I can never decide which direction I want my missiles to go, and, as a result, I always only ever pick powerup loadout #1. At least I understand the basic missile configuration…
  • Would I play again: I need a break from Gradius. Seventeen hours is too long to play anything…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Fantasia for the Sega Genesis! Dammit, ROB! So many great Mickey Mouse games for the 16-bit generation, and you chose bloody Fantasia. Dammit! Gah, please look forward to it!

It's sticky
Beware the goo!

FGC #476 Final Fantasy 9

Fantasy Time!Final Fantasy 9 doesn’t get enough respect for being the top of its very specific, very forgotten class.

It’s easy to see why someone would have issues with Final Fantasy 9 at its initial release. For starters, it was a JRPG right there at the end of the Playstation 1 JRPG boom. This meant it had a healthy amount of competition from all angles (including an in-house rivalry with Square’s own Chrono Cross). And, honestly, a “throwback” JRPG in that environment was the worst possible idea. Yes, the Final Fantasy franchise had drifted very far from the medieval fantasy origins of Final Fantasy (give or take a floating techno city), but that didn’t mean the rest of the genre had moved on with it. Medieval fantasy JRPGs were a dime a dozen in 2000, and practically everything in Final Fantasy 9 had been done by other JRPGs of the eon. Fantasy world with a whole bunch of depressed furries? We’ve already got Breath of Fire. Your Princess suicidally depressed into a haircut thanks to being responsible for the destruction of her kingdom? Straight out of the Wild Arms playbook. Hell, even some seemingly unique flourishes are improbably specifically from other titles of the epoch: the malevolent monster fog that initially rescinds and then blankets the world in a time of crisis is the entire premise of Legend of Legaia. In short, there’s a thin line between “retro” and “derivative”, and then it’s an even shorter hop to “outright theft”. And it probably didn’t help that Final Fantasy 9’s hero is a thief…

And, come to think of it, that thief was a problem, too. Every protagonist, from Beatrix to Zidane, is deliberately evocative of other heroes in the Final Fantasy franchise. Vivi might go through an interesting journey from “9 year old” to “inspiration for an entire society”, but a quick glance reminds you he’s still just a generic Final Fantasy Black Mage. Freya is a dragoon obsessed with her potential lover, and Dagger is a princess with global responsibility issues. And Eiko? Look, I’m sorry, but Rydia called, and she wants her everything back. And it’s kind of hard to not be cynical when you’ve seen these characters before and liked their games better. With very little exaggeration, by the time some people played Final Fantasy 9, they had already played Final Fantasy 6 for approximately 500 hours. BORKYou want your protagonist to fill the shoes of Locke Cole, you damn well better be sure he’s going to bring something new to the table. Oh? At one point in one dungeon he gets sad about being a monkey? But then he instantly recovers? Wow, Final Fantasy 9, you phoned it in so hard, Steiner just learned the rotary-dial ability.

But now it’s twenty years later. Time has passed, and, for better or worse, the world is very different. Now JRPGs are only medieval when they’re also showcasing anime high school students. Now Final Fantasy is a brand that includes more spin-offs and “experiments” than it does actual numbered entries (and those numbered entries get their own, specific spin-offs, too!). The idea that any one game could capture the zeitgeist of the franchise and its most prominent age is no more possible than you could now produce a film that somehow featured every movie star back to the dawn of Hollywood. The Final Fantasy franchise is now so much more than “there used to be crystals, right?”, so Final Fantasy 9 being some kind of deliberate nostalgic journey seems… quaint.

… And it’s not like anyone is going to compare FF9 to Legend of Legaia anymore. Nobody remembers Legend of Legaia.

So now, divorced from the expectations of the bygone year of 2000, it’s easy to play Final Fantasy 9 and see that the real innovations could never be found by watching this…

Weeeeee

But by playing through this…

What's the haps?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of Final Fantasy 9’s plot and its various scenarios, let me explain what you’re seeing there. Ultimately, this is not a complicated scene: it’s Darth Vader telling Luke he’s his daddy. Zidane has just discovered his home planet, and Garland here is explaining how he created Zidane to destroy the (or at least one) world, and souls have to migrate through a magical tree, and Zidane’s brother is another destroyer-monkey that apparently exists with an expiration date, and… Actually, come to think of it? Maybe this scene is a little complicated. This happens a lot in JRPGs: the crux of the plot involves a lot of metaphysical and metaphorical ideas, and there’s really no way to get that information to the player without evoking some kind of massive info dump. In this case, Final Fantasy 9 has wholly invented its own version of the afterlife/reincarnation, and, in order to simultaneously explain the details of that system and how the villains are gumming up the works, you basically need an introductory course on Final Fantasy 9’s religion. Christians don’t know how easy they have it when they can just toss off a line like, “I’ll send you to Hell!” without having to follow it with, “Which is a location where the greatest sinners are eternally tortured by Satan, a demon that once fell from Grace when…”

BORKBut what is being explained isn’t important (sorry about the previous paragraph, I’ll try not to waste your time with asides in the future… wait! Dammit!), what’s important to the entire genre is how it’s being explained. Garland is not confined to a mere text box, nor is Garland a giant cut-out that encompasses half the screen. Garland is hovering across a magical mushroom patch (or… something) and explaining the why of Final Fantasy 9 while “escaping” Zidane. This is inevitably leading to a showdown of some sort, and requires the player to actively “play” while listening to Garland. Want to know more? Of course you do! Follow the floating evil dude. You’re actively playing a videogame, after all, and a role-playing game at that. You think Zidane wants to know more? Of course he does! You’re playing as Zidane! Your goals are one in the same. Now go on, scoot, follow that bearded knight and get the whole story. After all, if you’re Zidane, you’re part of the story.

And that’s something we never saw again.

The very next Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy 10 (yes, I know stating sequential numbers sounds obvious, but please remember that the next FF after that was Final Fantasy 10-2), relied on voice acting and dedicated cinema scenes for its plot advancement, thus making the franchise “like a movie”. And that’s great for anyone that uses their PS2 to play DVDs, but maybe not the best for the person picking up a controller to actually play a game. Regardless, we were all very excited about Final Fantasy 10, its movies, and other similar games like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Xenosaga. Game-movies are the future! It’s like the moving pictures! Videogames can finally be as respectable as Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2! Games are art! … Except we weren’t lauding the “game” part of our videogames, we were just excited about the occasional moments when a videogame could feature a mini-movie… and whether or not any sort of player participation was involved was completely moot. Grab some popcorn! It’s time to play a videogame!

PLORPBut I’m not telling you, dear audience, anything you don’t already know. We remember the bygone Playstation 2 years, and we remember the gradual drift from “movie games” back to “games you actually play”. Yes, we still deal with the latest games touting sparkling stars performing minor voice acting, or “deeply cinematic visuals”, but, by and large we’ve gotten away from action games just sitting back and letting Norman Reedus deliver a soliloquy about baby carrying… Except for in the genre that started this whole mess. JRPGs are still considered plot-delivery devices, and, whether you’re playing a game featuring a lady trying to organize her armies against a dragon goddess, or some title where everyone inexplicably wants to %&*# the dragons in a wildly different way, you still wind up with “sit here and watch” cinema scenes for everything from tea parties to castle storming. Somewhere along the line, it was determined that JRPGs are closer to visual novels than any other genre, and would you care to sit down and have some exposition today? It might be explaining a planet’s apocalyptic backstory, or it could simply be the recounting of a supporting player’s daddy issues, but it still means you’re just sitting there smacking X to advance.

And what’s worse? In the absence of the seemingly unlimited budget of pre-Spirits Within Square, everything has flattened out to this…

So brave

And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a “retro-throwback”, or a JRPG so popular that it apparently earned its spot in Smash Bros history…

What a bunch of jokers

The directors of Final Fantasy 9 knew exactly what they were doing. Final Fantasy 9 is a game that never loses sight of being a videogame, and uses every “trick” that surfaced in the thirteen years that had passed since Final Fantasy. From multiple character animations, to dynamically moving villains, to even something as simple as “interrupting” text boxes, Final Fantasy 9 does everything it can to keep the player engaged in every conceivable way. After all, why would you bother with another goofy sidequest or “Active Time Event” if each wasn’t vibrant and remarkable?

Final Fantasy 9 truly was the end point of all JRPGs that came before. It’s just a shame it was also the end of the dynamic JRPG.

FGC #476 Final Fantasy 9

  • System: Playstation 1 in its first go, but it’s made it to the Playstation 3, Vita, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Switch in the intervening years. May I recommend any version that involves a fast forward button?
  • Number of players: Oddly enough, Final Fantasy 9 has the ability to assign combat controls to either controller port, so you can technically co-op play FF9. Yay! I called Vivi!
  • Remake Reproblems: I very much appreciate everything that is involved in the HD remake of Final Fantasy 9. Fast forwarding is amazing for a game that has always had absurdly slow combat. Automatically maxing your levels and abilities for when you don’t feel like grinding from square one is something I have wanted forever. And the graphical touchups add a new volume to a game that a lot of us originally played on ancient televisions that could barely handle three colors. But, man oh man, someone didn’t put nearly enough time into making sure the new HD sprites match the “HD” cinematics. Some of the most dramatic scenes in this game now appear to be animated by the folks behind Monty Python, and it’s not the best look.
  • HUNGRY!Cool Car: Your final airship is the Invincible, a destructive “monster ship” from Zidane’s home planet (and another Final Fantasy reference). It is also the ship that obliterated Princess Dagger’s home on two separate occasions. Dagger lampshades the situation if you chat with her aboard your new ride, but it’s still more than a little weird that the first princess of PTSD is totally cool with riding around on her own personal atomic bomb.
  • Favorite Dungeon: Gizamaluke’s Grotto is the best name for a dungeon ever, and I will hear no objections to this apparent fact. The fact that it contains multiple exits and a moogle wedding is just gravy.
  • What’s in a name: Pumice is the stone that eventually allows you to summon the combat airship, Ark. However, in the original Japanese, Pumice is known as the “Floating Stone”. That makes a lot more sense for this franchise.
  • What’s in a name Part 2: One of Kuja’s pet dragons, Nova Dragon, was originally named Shinryu, ala the chief reptilian super boss of the series. Given Nova Dragon provides such a lackluster fight, It’s probably for the best that this one got changed…
  • So, did you beat it: I got everything on the original hardware, including the Strategy Guide that is a reward for murdering the super boss. And I did that all without a real strategy guide, because the official strategy guide for Final Fantasy 9 is the worst thing to ever happen to the medium.
  • But you still own it, right? I got the collector’s edition!
    I hate this thing

    Visit Playonline for more information on how my life is a lie!
  • Did you know? There are nine knights of Pluto! And Pluto is the ninth planet in our solar system. Or… at least it used to be…
  • Would I play again: This… is not my favorite Final Fantasy title. I love exactly what it did, but the speed of everything kills me, and my knowledge of all those sidequests I’m ignoring if I ever want to finish the game again within my lifetime is terrible for my conscience. Final Fantasy 9, you’re an amazing game, but I just can’t deal with you right now.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Stretch Panic for the Playstation 2! …. God dammit. Please look forward to it, if you must.

WARK

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

For shovelry!Just the other day, my father walked into my kitchen, and, because I had carelessly left a fresh delivery on my kitchen counter, my dad asked what exactly he was looking at.

“What’s Shovel Knight from?”
“He’s Shovel Knight. From… Shovel Knight.”
“Oh. So is that a movie? Comic book? Comic book movie?”
“Nope, it’s a videogame.”
“Oh. Does he… uh… dig?”

Yes dad, Shovel Knight does dig. And he bounces and battles dragons and saves the love of his life and brings hope to all the people of his homey little hamlet. And he’s been around for six years, and he’s rocketed from nonexistence to possibly the most adaptable character in the last few years of gaming. And, yes, he’s a little golden amiibo that is sitting on my kitchen counter.

And considering that all happened thanks to fan support, focused marketing, and damn good gameplay, it’s hard to believe Shovel Knight’s giant blue helmet isn’t the face of gaming of the last decade.

Now, it’s an easy thing to imagine Shovel Knight sprang into existence in the Spring of 2013 when the official Shovel Knight Kickstarter kicked into high gear. Or, perhaps, you would like to attribute his creation to when Nick Wozniak and his team first pioneered the concept over a lunch “that got too serious”. But to truly understand the origins of Shovel Knight, you have to go back to the late 90’s or so. Back at the turn of the 21st Century, 2-D platforming rapidly went from “is videogames” to “oh God everything that is 2-D is trash, strike it from thine sight”. For reasons that are still mysterious to even our most learned historians (though there is a hypothesis that Gamepro may have been involved), this kind of thinking persisted through many years, causing many a beloved franchise to embrace 3-D or die. Mario 64 was a revelation, Mega Man X7… less so. But the belief that a game could not be 2-D seemed to Shinyhold fast for a decade, and the only place you could find such an experience would be in the Gameboy ghetto of game development. It’s telling that one of the most popular games of 1997 had to retreat to the portable space, while its 3-D rival of the year managed to dominate the console industry for years to come. The message to game producers was clear: you weren’t going to get anywhere with 2-D. And doubly so if you were dropping cutting edge graphics for a “retro” experience. That kind of nonsense best be relegated to some manner of easter egg. No one would every buy a retro platformer.

So it makes perfect sense that Shovel Knight’s initial fundraising goal of $75,000 was quickly surpassed, and Yacht Club collected over four times as much funding ($311,502) in less than a month’s time. Shovel Knight’s audience was starved for Shovel Knight-esque content, and, while the yolk of 3-D oppression had been shaken in the years leading to 2013, it was still a time when the prospect of something “like old Capcom games” was going to appeal to a very dedicated subset of nerds. This meant that the whole of Shovel Knight’s “bonus” content was funded before ol’ SK officially touched his first trowel, so a game crammed with amazing content was forthcoming. 14,749 people were ready for some amazing retro action that would be shared with WiiU, 3DS and PC players shortly.

And, from a gameplay perspective, Shovel Knight did not disappoint. Shovel Knight is an excellent platformer that borrows liberally from the entire NES library, but combines all those pieces to be its own exceptional Voltron. Shovel Knight’s downward stab was apparently inspired by Link, but his greatest hopping challenges seem to evoke Ducktales more than anything. And the “arc” of the quest is much more akin to Mega Man, what with clearly defined “gimmick” bosses (Propeller Knight and Gyro Man were separated at birth) and stages that rely wonderfully on their masters’ theming. And maybe that world map is supposed to suggest Super Mario Bros. 3. Or those upgrades are supposed to remind us of Samus Aran’s evolving arsenal. And there were a few items that inched closer to modern sensibilities, like the collectables that advanced replay value (often hidden in accompanying “challenge” areas), or the death system that was a lot closer to Dark Souls than Darkwing Duck. But wherever the inspirations originated, Shovel Knight combined all of its pieces to be an extraordinary experience. Join the clubAnd it didn’t hurt to see a cast of memorable characters fighting through an unforgettable tale of loss and tragedy (and eventual triumph). Wrap this all up with a host of modern “achievements”, and Shovel Knight was one of the finest games of 2014.

But it wasn’t anywhere near done.

Shovel Knight was everything anyone could want from a retro platformer, but it wasn’t the complete game that had been funded a year earlier. All of those bonus bells and whistles would gradually dribble out over the following months and years. Things like Gender/Body Swap mode was little more than a (staggering and inclusive) skin for our heroes and villains, but Plague of Shadows was practically an entirely different game labeled as merely an “expansion”. The adventure, now featuring the morally gray Plague Knight, was a whole new way to play through familiar levels, and featured an added “town area” and a few other extras (peculiarly powered by washing machines) to boot. This was released alongside a number of quick challenges for Shovel Knight, and, coupled with some new console exclusives (and, uh, additional console releases, too) like challenges from Kratos and The Battletoads, it was clear that Shovel Knight’s additional content wasn’t going to be some hastily manufactured DLC.

And let me tell you, about a year and a half later, just in time for the release of the Switch, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment proved Shovel Knight “DLC” was going to be a lot more than a meager expansion.

Spin it!Plague of Shadows was an all-new story with an all-new character (well, all-new for control purposes), but it still saw its hero (“hero”) venture through (most of) the same levels as Shovel Knight. The new play style radically altered your options for traversal, but it was still just a game starring Luigi instead of Mario (well, Super Mario Bros. 2 Luigi, at least). Specter of Torment reused those same levels, but modified them to the point they are barely recognizable. And that’s a good thing! Specter Knight possessed his own moveset, and, rather than mere rehashes, all of his stages were modified to be challenging for that specific moveset. This made Specter of Torment a complete sequel to Shovel Knight! Well… that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe it’s more akin to a romhack? Or, like the NES games Shovel Knight so adores, it’s an “old school” sequel. Almost all the same assets, but rearranged so completely as to be practically unrecognizable. A shining example of the proper way to recycle pixels.

And, oh yeah, Specter Knight is a blast to play as. He’s the Zero to Shovel Knight’s Mega Man (or… uh… Scrooge McDuck?), and really feels like he belongs in an entirely different game. Which is appropriate, as his “entirely different game” seems to only reuse the general aesthetics of its prequel/sequel. The world of Specter Knight goes to some very unexpected places (like the origins of Shovel Knight’s best gal pal), and eschews some gameplay conventions (like the world map) while picking up all new challenges (like an endless tower of pain)(and grinding! Like Sonic!). It’s still unmistakably Shovel Knight, but it’s a whole new experience through and through.

SPIN FOR YOUR LIFEAnd then, in 2019, they did the same thing again with King Knight and Shovel Knight: King of Cards. Give or take one extremely subjective card game (I hate all card games [even that one], but my understanding is that some weirdos can enjoy such a thing), King Knight’s adventure is another slam dunk. The general tone (and lighting) seems closer to its OG Shovel Knight origins, but Kingy’s quest to be king of at least something features dramatically shorter levels and more bite-sized challenges than any of the other campaigns. And that’s a refreshing change of pace that additionally gives some of the gimmicks of the previous tetralogy some room to breathe. Green goo and a bouncy-butted beetle finally get a showcase in their own, complete level! Considering the number one complaint anyone ever leveled against Shovel Knight was that its stages were too long (which, seriously, you gonna complain about there being too much game to play? Philistines), King Knight’s King of Cards is a sequel to Shovel Knight that listened to its greatest detractors. Yacht Club learned something!

And then, to top it all off, Shovel Knight dropped its own version of Smash Bros. You can control every knight! And make ‘em fight! And most of the significant NPCs are PCs now, too. So, finally, you can see who would hold ultimate victory in a battle between Mona, Baz, Mole Knight, and those purple goo monsters from the final tower. And, for being an 8-bit redux inspired by a game that originally appeared on 64-bit hardware, it’s pretty damn impressive. It can get a little confusing when you’re trying to find your sprite against similar colored backgrounds (or against similar-colored enemies), but the designs of the Shovel Knight cast compensate for a lot, so you can usually tell the difference between a Shovel Knight and a Black Knight. And if you can’t? Well, just go ahead and have fun with it. This is an 8-bit platformer fighting game, after all. It’s supposed to be about as chaotic as a bucket full of enemy crabs.

Get up thereSo that’s 3.5 games, right? We’ve got Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope and Plague of Shadows as two pretty similar experiences, but Specter of Torment, King of Cards, and Shovel Knight Showdown are all as different as Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3. Showdown is practically an entirely different genre. I’m going to call that a total of 3.5 games that all fall under the Shovel Knight umbrella.

And it all came from one Kickstarter.

And if you bought the initial Shovel Knight at launch, the whole package cost a measly twenty bucks. You’re actually rewarded for being an early adopter.

Shovel Knight is a game that seemed to last a decade with its various expansions, but, more than that, it is a shining example of what was possible for a few brief years in the 2010s. Kickstarter was an extremely popular platform earlier in the decade, and, while it produced many excellent games and projects, it is primarily recounted now by any number of fans who wound up burned by creators who had the collective managerial skills of a hamster (and not that hamster with the hardhat). Kickstarter and alike is now seen more as a generally reliable healthcare plan than a platform that might create the next game you’ll play for five years. But in the last decade, it was responsible for Shovel Knight. And the triumph of Shovel Knight paved the way for oodles of retro platformer titles. Was every retro game good? No, of course not. But they never would have seen the light of day without Shovel Knight blazing a trail. And, while this trend is likely coming to its close, the current digital marketplace does speak to Shovel Knight’s success.

And, as appropriate for a knight that came from the crowds, he has now returned to the crowds as the most cameoed newcomer of the decade:

Smash it Good!
Slash it Good!
Bonk it good

Not bad for a dude that didn’t exist when the decade started.

Shovel Knight is the 2010s distilled down to its purest, more hopeful form. It is an experience that could only come from one time in gaming’s history. And it’s a damn fine game to boot.

2010: The decade of Shovelry.

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

  • System: Whaddya got? Nintendo 3DS, WiiU, and PC to start, but eventually shovelry spread to the Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and the Amazon Fire TV (for some reason).
  • Look away!Number of Players: 2-Players was eventually patched in (with or without amiibo), and Shovel Knight Showdown is 4 players simultaneous. But most people think about the single player campaign, because Shovel Knight appeals to lonely, insomniac nerds.
  • Just play the gig, man: Did I mention the music was amazing? Because it is. Jake Kaufman seems to be responsible for the majority of amazing American soundtracks for the decade, and the addition of one of Mega Man’s composers is just the perfect addition. The fact that every song gets a little in-game director’s commentary is pretty boss, too.
  • Favorite System: Shovel Knight appeared across multiple platforms, but the 3DS version still might be the best. It has 3-D and the ability to quickly switch between items (or whatever they’re called in the version du jour). Battletoads are no substitute for being able to avoid a pause menu.
  • Lucasian Problems: Kudos to Shovel Knight’s team for not returning to Shovel of Hope with every update to “backdate” changes from later expansions. It would be the easiest thing in the world to sneak in “remake” NPCs that allude to what happens in other knights’ adventures (or, hell, advertise those experiences), but Shovel of Hope remains unmolested and devoid of unnecessary changes. Thank you for the restraint.
  • Favorite Character: Percy the Horse Scholar. I will not be accepting questions at this time.
  • Go Toads!Amiibo Corner: Naturally, I preordered the Order of No Quarter amiibos when they were first announced. That was in the fall of 2017. They were released in December of 2019. That might be the longest preorder for a videogame-related item I’ve ever maintained. Good thing I still care about collecting every damn amiibo in existence!
  • Say something mean: Propeller Knight’s stage is the worst in every version/adventure. This isn’t because of the frequent bottomless pits (though, admittedly, that do not help); it’s the auto scrolling areas, and spots that may as well be auto scrolling because you need to wait for a cannonball or wind gust. I hate waiting! I want to run! Don’t hold me down, Propeller Knight!
  • Did you know? Shovel Knight is almost a NES game… though it does include three additional audio channels and four extra colors not available to original Nintendo Entertainment System hardware. There are some other “tweaks” here and there, too, but what’s important is that the screen shakes during explosions unmistakably like in an old school game.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely. This is the cream of the crop for 2-D platformers, and I love me some 2-D platformers. Long may his shovel reign!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pokémon Sword for the Nintendo Switch! … Yeah… that was a totally random choice, and not the result of me putting a hundred hours into the thing over the last few months… Yeeeep! Gonna be a totally randomly chosen modern game next week! Please look forward to it!

Shake it

FGC #456 Asura’s Wrath

WRATH!Today’s game is Asura’s Wrath. “Asura” is, in this adventure, not a collection of demigods (though demigods are certainly involved), but one individual dude. Fair enough. Capcom is allowed to do whatever they want with religious beliefs, because being responsible for Street Fighter offers you a certain level of latitude. And there are enough guys named “Angel” in fiction anyway, right? I can name like three vampires off the top of my head. But I can only name one other Asura, and it’s this queen:

I know this deity

The last time I saw an “Asura”, she was a lady. And that got me thinking: why the hell aren’t women allowed to go crazy?

Asura’s Wrath is, for all the mythical trappings and anime-tastic explosions, little more than a “dad game”. Asura is a (super powered, maybe a robot?) general, but after a long day of battling creepy shadow monsters, he always comes home to his wife and daughter. They bring him joy, though Asura has concerns about his daughter’s divine power and eventual future as a high priestess. These concerns turn out to be well-founded when Asura’s fellow generals revolt, frame Asura for murder, kill his wife (in another, separate homicide), and kidnap his daughter. This pisses Asura right off, and leads to a quest that lasts 12,500 years (or roughly eight active hours), and sees Asura destroying entire armies and endangering the world to sate his rage. But don’t worry! It’s all justified, because Asura is a man, and his precious daughter has been kidnapped, so any damage he does to himself and others is wholly warranted. He’s a father, people! You get it!

And, frankly, we see this kind of thing all the time. It was taken to puppy-dad extremes in John Wick, but the videogame universe features a number of angry dads. From Kratos (reminder: he was a dad before the first game even started) to Mayor Mike Haggar, there are many fathers in gaming that absolutely flip the table over with righteous fury the moment their child is endangered and/or murdered. And, as ever, that’s allowed, right? Even if we’re not all parents, we all understand losing someone or something you care about. That’s universal! And, since we’ve decided to make videogame graphics startlingly realistic, it only makes sense that more and more games would find “legitimate” reasons to justify visiting violence S-WORDS!upon worlds worth of people. They can’t all be zombie games. Every once in a while, you have to honorably put down an entire city’s population for a level, and what better reason than “they took my precious daughter”. I’m pretty sure Booker threatened entire realities with that excuse.

But if this trope is so justified by parenthood, why is it always dads? Why can’t moms flip their shit, too?

Obviously (and sadly), the first explanation is that videogames are assumed to be for almost exclusively men, and thus fathers are more featured than mothers. Even when rampages don’t happen, there are any number of dad games out there where daddy dearest must protect dear daughter from dangers. And, if we’re already assuming boys play videogames more than girls, then we’re also including the added benefit of your daughter character could be a sex object to your heteronormative younger set of gamers. Teenagers are certainly okay with having sex with sexy teenagers, but, flip the genders, and the boys are left to have sex with… their mom? No! Nobody wants that! (Sit down, Freud.) Sex sells, appealing to straight men sells, and appealing to even an imaginary paternal instinct sells. Think about how many reviews will identify your dad game as mature if you’re rescuing a daughter instead of a princess! This is a real world problem!

WRATH!But, if we’re just pandering to clichés, why can’t we indulge in other clichés? For better or worse (almost entirely worse), there are any number of cants regarding “crazy” women. The “crazy ex-girlfriend” or “crazy bitch” tropes are so pervasive they’ve inspired entire songs and television series (that include songs); but consider the trope of the “unstoppable” mother. “My baby is in danger, and I will do anything to protect them!” is the rallying cry of many stories about mothers lifting cars or pushing buses out of the way. And you know who else does that? The Incredible Hulk. But even when you look to the comics, you’ll find that The Hulk is The Friggen’ Hulk, while his female counterpart, She-Hulk, is a character defined by the fact that she doesn’t experience Hulk’s heightened emotions every time she steps on a Lego. We have multiple insulting clichés regarding women going crazy, but only a handful of stories where “crazy women” use that power to do something heroic. We can hear about Karen wrecking a Starbucks over a mislabeled latte, but we can’t find a videogame where that same rage is focused on non-barista based monsters?

But we all know where we do see women in videogames. Asura’s Wrath, could you show us your woman?

This broad

Olga is the only woman in Asura’s Wrath. Excuse me, that’s a bit of an error. There are other women in Asura’s Wrath. There’s Asura’s wife, who is killed so Asura (and his brother-in-law) can experience man pain. There’s Asura’s daughter, who we’re told is super-powerful, but is only ever an object that Asura must rescue. And there’s Unnamed Villager Girl (who marginally has a name if you pay attention to developer interviews and gibberish cutscenes), who exists to remind Asura of his daughter, and then die, thus causing further man pain. Which neatly brings us back to Olga, what with Olga killing Unnamed Villager Girl an’ all…

So Olga is the only woman in the cast that is not simply there to make Asura feel bad. She is also the only lady on team bad guy. Not coincidentally, she is also supposed to embody the deadly sin of lust. Does she effectively display this during the story? No. At best, she is shown to be wholly dedicated to the (male) leader of the baddies, so maybe she’s at least sleeping with him between scenes? Obviously, “lust” is the kind of thing that is hard to work into a story. It’s not like you could just have some character hanging out in a hot spring with concubines while talking about his sexual conquests…

Seriously, guy?

Or maybe you can do exactly that.

So Olga is the supposed personification of lust, but she’s shown up by a dirty old man that embodies greed. Whatever. She can at least prove herself in combat, though, right? No, that isn’t right, as she’s apparently the one “boss” that Asura never fights. In fact, if she didn’t appear in the “secret ending” coda, you’d be forgiven for assuming the writers literally forgot she existed about 80% through the game. And her final fate after that cameo of a reappearance? She’s the only one of the Seven Deities to not be killed by Asura. She’s there to be a sacrifice on the altar of “boy, this final boss is gonna be really tough”.

But don’t worry! She is eventually reincarnated… as a secretary. One of the other generals is reincarnated as a movie star. I wonder if he ever has to make someone coffee…

WRATH!A number of videogames have problems with women. A number of videogames feature berserker male characters. Asura’s Wrath is both. Can these problems be fixed? Of course. Was there ever even an attempt to sponge some of the testosterone off Asura’s Wrath? Of course not. The women of the title are forgettable (and Asura’s own daughter could be replaced with a particularly sympathetic set of AA batteries), and not a single one gets to join in the fun. Asura shares the spotlight with another hero for a few chapters, but, guess what? He’s a dude, too. The message of Asura’s Wrath (and many other games) is clear: women aren’t allowed to be raging warriors. They can be moms. They can be daughters. They can be administrative assistants. But they can’t be The Hulk. That isn’t allowed.

That should make a lot of women mad as hell.

And I’d like to play their videogames.

FGC #456 Asura’s Wrath

  • System: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The general sentiment surrounding Asura’s Wrath was that it was kind of a sales bomb, so I wouldn’t expect a remaster anytime soon.
  • Number of players: Two heroes eventually pop out of this story, but only one player at a time.
  • STUFF GONNA EXPLODE100% Completion: For the sake of pedantry, I want to note that there are plenty of great action women in videogames. Heroines like Bayonetta, Samus Aran, and even Juliet of Lollipop Chainsaw are all great, murderous female protagonists… just they’re not really all that mad. They’re more cool or professional (or occasionally bubbly) than anything. The only berserker lady that immediately seems to fit Asura’s mold is Zero of Drakengard 3, and even that is tempered by Yoko Tarro’s traditional commentary on violence and loss. But thank you to everyone on Twitter who offered suggestions! I’ll get to Darksiders 3 and Ronin soon enough!
  • How badly does this game want to be an anime? Very. Very badly. Practically everything in Asura’s Wrath is organized like a 22 minute anime episode, complete with middle of the episode “bumpers” and a cryptic “episode preview” between chapters. It also commits the sin of repeating exactly what happened before and after the commercial break, even though there are no real commercials breaks. That’s just wasting my time, guys!
  • Favorite Eight Guardian Generals general: I don’t really like, like, any of the characters in this game… though that may be the point. I’ll take Wyzen, though, as he’s the great big guy that is destined to die/fail early in the story, but at least he has the good sense to turn into a planet-sized deity and attempt to crush the hero with a meteoric finger. He still bombs, but it seemed like a plan that could have come together nicely.
  • Favorite incidental weapon: Nunchuks connected together by lightning seems like the kind of thing that should be included in more games. Has that ever been seen in Soulcalibur? Or with the Ninja Turtles? Slam dunk, right there for the taking.
  • ANIME!Horse Armor: Technically, you could claim the “true ending” of Asura’s Wrath is only available through paid-DLC. However, the reality of it is that the DLC is much more akin to a (much smaller) sequel than a “pay-to-play” ending for the real game. Also, given the nature of the game, Youtube is right over there, so there’s really no reason to be upset about Capcom being a bunch of money-grubbing hogs (this time).
  • Mind Blowing: Oh, there’s a spider motif recurring through this game because Asura often has six arms, thus giving him an arachnid-esque 8 limbs. Just got that.
  • Did you know? You can’t actually pause the game during those fake commercial break moments. Now I’m going to rampage!
  • Would I play again: Oh yeah, I barely talked about the gameplay itself. It’s basically paced like a playable movie, with very little “filler”, and absolutely no exploration. Which basically means that, after the visceral feeling of playing the game once “for real”, it’s time to move on. Maybe I’ll rewatch it in the gallery player while I’m playing another, more active game.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Blazing Dragons starring Cheech Marin! Hey, it’s entry #420 somewhere (no it’s not). Please look forward to it!

DEM GODS