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FGC #496 Puyo Puyo Tetris

BLOCKS!My fiancée will tell you quite loudly and clearly that she does not play videogames. My fiancée is also a liar. She plays videogames. She just doesn’t play “videogames” as she thinks the world defines them. She plays Candy Crush. She plays some other game that looks exactly the same, but involves farm animals. I think there’s another one with soda. She plays these games constantly, whether we’re sitting watching a movie or traveling to the wilds of Canada. And Pokémon Go! When it’s raining, she will get in the car, and drive around the neighborhood for hours looking to find a shiny or conquer a local gym. If this were a MMORPG, she’d be sitting at a computer for hours, but since her chosen raids are partially based in the real world, she’s not really playing a videogame, you understand. I proposed to her with a friggen’ Pokéball, for crying out loud!

Sparkles

But, no, she doesn’t play videogames. Yes, I completely understand that compared to my gaming habits, she doesn’t “play videogames” (she doesn’t even have a videogame blog! Can you imagine?), but to claim that she doesn’t play videogames at all seems… disingenuous. She doesn’t play the same kind of videogames that are traditionally covered on this blog, but she absolutely plays videogames. And, what’s more, these are not simple, even-your-grandma-can-play games. She routinely plays games that involve experience points, rationed continues, and complex resource management. There’s no judgment against supposed “casuals” here, videogames are videogames, and whether or not a Pikachu or some manner of sentient fruit is involved is inconsequential.

Blocks!One videogame my fiancée plays is Tetris. According to her own words, it is her favorite videogame (which, reminder, is something she doesn’t play). She’s been playing it for years, and notes that during some of the less hectic times in her life, she played quite a lot of it. She’s good at it. I can say with firsthand knowledge that she kicks ass at Tetris, and I have the recorded play sessions from Tetris Effect to prove it.

And, given I believe this is the first I’ve ever mentioned my fiancée on this blog, I feel I should note something else: she’s a bit of a… let’s say… completionist. She pathologically cannot deal with leaving tasks unfinished, and her Type A personality compels her to complete goals to the best of her ability, earn an A on that math test, and then win the big football game because she spiked the final 3-pointer (she tells me she also understands sports better than I do). She deals poorly with losing for any reason in any way, and, officer, I assure you this black eye of mine is from walking into a doorknob, and certainly not because the dear love of my life threw a chair at me when I caught a rare Pokémon before her. As a result of this personality quirk that she honestly and wholly admits is an issue, we don’t often play competitive games together. Even if I win, I lose, so let’s play some games where we either cooperate or work in parallel. It’s better for our collective mental health.

So I really should have known better than to suggest we play Puyo Puyo Tetris for crossover week (“week”). I should have used my good eye to foresee the inevitable.

WeeeeeFor those of you unfamiliar with the title, Puyo Puyo Tetris is exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a puzzle game that combines Puyo Puyo and Tetris. For those of you unfamiliar with Puyo Puyo, it’s a color-block matching game that has visited America in various disguises over the years. For those of you unfamiliar with Tetris, welcome to Earth, and I hope you enjoy your stay on our humble planet. In both cases, we’re dealing with games where objects fall infinitely from the sky, and you must carefully manage these bits and pieces so they “clear” and your play area is not filled with so much useless junk. And this version of these respective games is predominantly based on the concept of multiplayer, so you also have to deal with offensive “junk blocks” that are generated by your opponent doing well. It’s not enough to play the game with skill, you also have to be wary of your rival playing the game with that same skill, but faster.

But just because both games are involved, don’t think they don’t completely interact. Back in the Super Nintendo days, we had Tetris & Dr. Mario, but that title was little more than an excuse to tape two Gameboy games together and sell the package for $70. Tetris and Dr. Mario intermingled about as much as Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 in Super Mario All-Stars. Puyo Puyo Tetris is another story. You can play head-to-head Puyo Puyo or head-to-head Tetris, but you can also play Puyo Puyo while your opponent picks up a game of Tetris. And it’s not simply “parallel play”, a properly completed Tetris can send junk sailing over to your Puyopponent. And it doesn’t stop there! There are other “versus” modes available that involve both games, like a puzzle speed run mode (called Big Bang Mode because “puzzle mode” sounds like a punishment), or another option where the game rapidly alternates between Puyo Puyo and Tetris boards. There’s even a mode that combines Tetris and Puyo Puyo into one focused game that adopts blocks and puyos from both franchises.

I think it was that mode in particular that caused my fiancée to start shouting expletives I cannot repeat on this blog.

I have no ideaLook, Tetris and Puyo Puyo being played in a sort of parallel is one thing, but outright combining the gameplay of both into one complete board is borderline crazy. The benefit of both of these games is that, individually, there isn’t much that has to be learned or understood to get going. Yes, there are complicated techniques involving starting combos or focused spinning or whatever in both games, but they’re both superficially very straightforward. Match the colors, line up the blocks. Empty spaces bad, alternating colors bad. The end. The best puzzle games are instantly understandable, and both Tetris and Puyo Puyo fit that bill. This is literally the reason your grandpa wanted a Gameboy. But Tetris + Puyo Puyo is confusing. Clearing a line requires using Tetris blocks, while popping puyos require puyo bubbles, and you don’t always have access to either kind of block. What’s worse, there are some moves that don’t seem to have obvious consequences, like how squishing some puyo bubbles with tetris blocks looks like you’re clearing out the clutter, but the bubbles will respawn and fall shortly thereafter. It’s something that happens every time, but it’s not immediate or often enough for a player to quickly distinguish whether these “junk blocks” are the result of something done by the player or their opponent. It creates a sort of “stress” that is not the traditional “things are getting heated because the board is filling up” stress, but more of an “I have no idea why things are happening or how I can make it better” stress. And it occurred to me that this stress could be very traumatic for some people right around when I won a match and my dear fiancée hit me with a folding chair. She is normally so respectful of the furniture!

And this might just be the pain meds talking, but there’s a certain… beauty in this crossover chaos.

What?Tetris x Puyo Puyo loses something. It loses its simplicity, and, with that, it loses its immediate and obvious accessibility. It loses an “easiness” that has been comfortable for decades. But it gains something in exchange. It is more complicated, but that complication adds nuance and techniques that would otherwise be completely absent from the experience. It adds a whole new dimension that was never there before, and would be completely impossible to so much as touch in the normal, base games. I have played a lot of Tetris games over the years, but they’ve always been constrained by being… Tetris. Adding Puyo Puyo to Tetris creates a whole new world of possibilities, and, while it does take some time to learn, it is an actual new experience. Tetris Effect, you’re great, but this is a genuinely, wholly fresh experience, and it’s satisfying to shift over to such a change once in a lifetime.

Tetris loses a little bit of itself. Puyo Puyo loses a little bit of itself. But what is gained, the final gestalt of the merging of these two things, that is greater than the two original items. Sometimes it’s hard to learn the ins and outs of this new…. thing, but it’s worth it. Both games are better for having crossed over.

Oh, anyway, did I mention I’m engaged?

She sparkles

I did? Yeah, there might be a metaphor here.

I love you, honey, and I’m looking forward to our crossover continuing.

Now… uh… could you put down that tire iron? I promise I was only kidding about playing Mario Kart…

FGC #496 Puyo Puyo Tetris

  • System: My understanding is that this is available on Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, and Steam. However, there are also versions available in Japan (from 2014!) for Xbox One, 3DS, Wii U, Playstation Vita, and Playstation 3. This game is more traveled than I thought!
  • Number of players: Four player split screen action! Online modes available, too! It’s all very crazy and/or fun!
  • Favorite Mode: It’s the Puyo Puyo x Tetris mode. Did you get that from the article? I like new things right now. That may change in the near future.
  • But seriously folks: My dear fiancée is not physically violent. If you are in a relationship with someone that abuses you, physically or mentally, and you don’t have any options, please seek help. There are many highly trained counselors and nonprofit organizations out there that can help you, even in our current, nebulous existence. And I am not saying this because someone is holding a frying pan to my head.
  • Let's go!How about that Story Mode: Is this what it’s like for other people playing Kingdom Hearts? There are just all these weird anime characters with silly hair running around and shouting at each other for level after level, and, eventually, it is revealed this is all because “god” is angry and lonely and might need a hug. Or to play Tetris. And then the universe is saved thanks to a robot that sounds like a Pokémon.
  • Did you know? This is the first American release of a straight Puyo Puyo title since Puyo Pop Fever in 2004. Everybody counts the years between Metroid releases as some sign as to whether or not the franchise is dead, but nobody gives a damn about when Puyos haven’t been seen for a decade….
  • Would I play again: Just as soon as the swelling goes down, I think we could try playing this one again. I am going to have to find some manner of anchor to confirm the Switch isn’t tossed across the room, though.

What’s next? Enough with the mushy stuff! Our final crossover title is going to be the best crossover game released in the last decade. Please look forward to it!

WINNER

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 #446 Odin Sphere (Leifthrasir)

Good catWhy bother with yet another beat ‘em up? Why bother with Odin Sphere?

Odin Sphere is, at its core, a beat ‘em up game. Yes, it is the unusual 2-D beat ‘em up, and, yes, it has many “RPG elements” that separate it from the typical beat ‘em up title, but it is still “only” a beat ‘em up. You move from screen to screen, defeat some enemies, and then break a few crates for items before eventually reaching the boss. Basic mooks are continually recycled between areas, the areas themselves are limited, and even bosses are fought multiple times in multiple configurations. Odin Sphere is a beat ‘em up, and, even though it is gorgeous (or maybe because it is gorgeous), it is still fairly limited. It seems like there are five hours of unique gameplay in this twenty hour game.

So why bother? This isn’t an arcade beat ‘em up that includes fun times with friends, and, while some of the “JRPG elements” are interesting, you can’t hang an entire game on shoving sentient turnips into flasks. While Odin Sphere is damn pretty to look at, graphics are not everything (or at least I’ve been told that by every lying gamer I’ve ever encountered). There’s good beat ‘em up nonsense available here, but hitting any other title that is over in about a quarter of the time seems like a better choice.

Except other beat ‘em ups don’t feature Velvet.

Odin Sphere might be a simple beat ‘em up with repetitive monsters and locations, but it contains a very engrossing story. This is not to say it is a unique story! Most of the heroes and heroines of Odin Sphere are basic operatic archetypes, and God help me if I have to deal with one more character that has daddy issues and must go on an adventure to find their own place in the world. “What is this emotion called… love?” asks the entire speaking cast of Odin Sphere. And Oswald is clearly just Darth Vader minus the fatherhood angle, which leaves us with… Darth… Nothing? But! Despite all of this, the walking clichés of Odin Sphere are a collection of surprisingly memorable lads and lassies, likely because their proclivity for Shakespearean soliloquies grants us a rare look into these protagonists’ minds (also: fun Shakespearean tropes like “I can only be killed by a tree” “Well my middle name is ‘Tree’” “Oh fiddlesticks”). Aren’t we all tired of silent protagonists? Give us more adventurers with deep-rooted psychological issues.

And the leader of the pack for these nerds is obviously…

VELVET!

Velvet Valentine. I mean, look at that idle pose! She’s got more personality just standing there glaring at a rabbit than most characters earn over the course of a 40 hour adventure.

Get 'em!

But it’s not just about classy poses, she also possesses a ridiculous whip chain weapon (that incidentally absorbs the souls of the dead). And everyone knows that in videogames (unlike in our mundane, crappy world) whips are the most powerful weapons on whatever passes for Earth du jour (Erion?). Whips have range, power, and, if you’re good, the power to command fire (Belmonts have known this one simple trick for centuries). Yes, there’s that whole bondage connotation, but who cares about that when…

Spider-Man!

Whips allow you to become Spider-Man! Who cares about anything when you can be Spider-Man? Actually, given Velvet has experience as a dancer, she’s more Spider-Gwen… and maybe that’s even better? I mean, there are a lot of Spider-Mans running around out there, but Ghost Spider is pretty unique. And, like Velvet, she has a cool costume, too.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses for Velvet…

This sucks for everybody

Velvet comes from circumstances. Velvet and her twin brother were abused by their grandfather, a man who also killed their mother in a fit of rage. Apparently Grandpappy King Valentine would arbitrarily whip his grandchildren, and force his granddaughter to dance for him for reasons that can only be maximum skeevy.

Bro!

This created an unfortunate situation wherein Velvet’s brother grew up to be a duplicitous jerk/three-headed dog monster (although Pappy Odin kind of added to those issues, too), and Velvet herself eventually became an adult with an understandable level of PTSD. And, considering Velvet is also stuck in a magical universe where anything can happen, she lived in fear of her abusive grandfather returning from the grave. When he inevitably does that and kicks off a (surprisingly successful) plan to destroy the world, suffice it to say, Velvet is not having a fun time.

Samus!

But she’s having a fun time when she’s flipping around like Samus Aran. Hey, that bounty hunter had problems with authority and dead parents, too! Samus and Velvet should hang out and play with their grappling beams together!

Such a dreamboat

And it’s not only jumping skills that will make Velvet’s life better. She has the love of a loyal prince, Cornelius, who, despite being cursed about ten seconds after his introduction, is a true Prince Charming. He fights for his country, his people, and, most importantly, Velvet. And he didn’t even need a magical sword to defend his love against his vaguely patricidal father. That’s a man worth keeping, Velvet! I can count on one hand the number of people I know that would fight a sewer dragon for their lover.

Bunny!

Oh, and she really likes rabbits, too. Rabbits, in many cases, are better than a doting boyfriend. If only there were some way to combine the two…

Now, is anything about Velvet here all that revolutionary? Nope! I compared her to three other fictional characters in the span of a few hundred words, so it’s pretty clear Velvet isn’t the most original character (that you should not steal). But she’s… fun. All these traits seem to alchemize into a perfectly golden heroine, and wanting to see what becomes of the wannabe Romani is a fine reason to fight the same stupid five bosses all over again.

Why do we play some videogames? Maybe it’s just a matter of having the right character.

FGC #446 Odin Sphere (Leifthrasir)

  • KISS MESystem: The original Odin Sphere appeared on Playstation 2, but then we saw a rerelease on Playstation 3, Playstation 4, and Vita eight years later, presumably because of phat piles of Dragon’s Crown cash.
  • What’s the difference? The new and improved Odin Sphere Leifthrasir contains a number of quality of life improvements, new skills, and the occasional area where you can jump around like an idiot for no reason. But it barely offers any new story content or “levels”, so only seek out the remake if you have eyeballs that enjoy gorgeous graphics carried along a HDMI cable.
  • Number of players: One Valkyrie at a time, please.
  • What’s in a name? The titular Odin Sphere is likely a reference to Odin’s gigantic spikey-ball thingy. Or it could be a reference to the circular arenas featured in every battle stage. Or some kind of upgrade on Wagner’s “cycle” of music dramas. Or it just bloody sounds cool. I didn’t make this game!
  • Other naming issues: Wagner the Dragon has a name that is pronounced like “Vagner”. Oswald the Unlucky Rabbit gets the proper American/English soft pronunciation of his W. I’m not one to fiddle with accents and articulation, but try to be a little more consistent, Japanese-created magical Norse creatures.
  • Favorite Character: Go ahead and take a guess.
  • An End: I very much appreciate that the final boss gauntlet initially appears as a “choose your favorite fighter” situation, but is actually deeply tied to the lore of the piece, and asks the player if they’ve been paying attention to the various prophecies floating around. However, I am not a big fan of the fact that these five (mostly) original bosses were all herded into the final moments. We could have used original content elsewhere, guys!
  • Did you know? Sheep grow on trees.
  • Would I play again: Maybe we could see this one on the Switch? The grindiness seems like something that would be ideal for a kinda portable system… but then again the same could be said of nearly every modern beat ‘em up. That’s it! Go ahead and put every beat ‘em up on the Switch! It’s the only way to be sure!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… We ❤ Katamari for the Playstation 2! That one is sure to roll up a lot of fun. Please look forward to it!

This sucks for everyone involved