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FGC #442 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And… I enjoyed that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FGC #442 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

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

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

Robin!

FGC #433 Castlevania: Bloodlines

BLOOD!If gaming is a language, then franchises must be dialects. And among dialects, of course there must be regional variances. And Castlevania: Bloodlines is, unfortunately, the regional dialect of Atlantis.

Gogglebob.com: come for the videogames, stay for the extremely strained metaphors.

Castlevania: Bloodlines is a game very near and dear to my heart. Back in my younger days, I was very much a Nintendo kid, but a Sega Genesis was available to me by about the midpoint of the 16-bit console wars. And, while I owned a mere three Genesis games, my dad granted me one Sega Genesis rental every two weeks. So, about twice a month, my ADD-addled brain got to experience a brand new videogame for a few days, and that whole new experience that was sure to make me scream, “Sega!”

…. Or I just rented Castlevania: Bloodlines again.

I’ve always been a Castlevania fan, and, frankly, I’ve always been a sucker for a game that I have to “defeat”. It took me a long time to come to grips with the idea that I don’t have to “beat” or “100%” a videogame, and showing my love for a piece of art doesn’t mean I have to experience every last secret room or collectible. But back in my younger years? If there was a game that I thought was even marginally fun, and I didn’t beat it? Then what the hell was I even playing the game for!? Fish gotta swim, dogs gotta bark, Pokémon gotta track my sleep for some reason, and videogames gotta get beat, ya know? And, since Castlevania: Bloodlines was an enjoyable Castlevania game that I absolutely could not beat (on Normal difficulty), it meant that I had to retry that title over and over again until I finally conquered death itself (and Death). My young thumbs were still not developed enough to suffer through its insane final boss gauntlet, but I was going to try, dammit!

Swing is the thingAnd, if I’m looking at this title with some kind of wizened hindsight, I can probably admit that the other reason I kept coming back to Castlevania: Bloodlines was that it was simply a damn good game. It features the signature measured level design of previous Castlevania titles, and, while your protagonist often feels like he is being propelled by the same force that could eventually push a snail to cross a parkway, the majority of the title feels fair and appropriately scaled to Belmont (Morris) speeds. The dual heroes of the tale are different enough to feature their own unique (and fun) moves (spear vaulting is great for vertical areas, and whip swinging is… amusing to look at), but also similar enough that we don’t wind up with an X/Zero situation where one character is that much more of an advantage. And, as always in the Castlevania series (give or take a Gameboy adventure), the music is top notch, and the creepy crawlies that haunt the European countryside are numerous and inventive. And murderous. They’re always murderous.

So it’s kind of a shame that the majority of the Castlevania loving public forgot Castlevania: Bloodlines ever existed.

Possibly more than any other franchise, Castlevania has always been a very… what’s the complete opposite of progressive?… nostalgic franchise. When Bowser got seven Koopa Kids and a brand new butt stomp for Super Mario Bros. 3, Dracula was still using his same ol’ teleport/fireball pattern for Castlevania 3. When Mega Man X completely redefined everything that Mega Man ever was, Super Castlevania IV still had Simon trudging through Drac’s dilapidated hallway o’ zombies. This isn’t to say that Castlevania has never had an original bone in its obviously an angry skeleton-based body, but Castlevania has always reveled in its past since before it escaped the gravity of the NES.

DEATH!And (I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear me say this) there is nothing wrong with a little videogame nostalgia. Particularly in the 16 and 32-bit days, it seemed like games were rapidly attempting to burn their pasts on the altar of “cool” and “new”. But it was still cool to see old mainstays like Frankenstein(‘s Monster) or Medusa show up when many contemporary titles were trying to reinvent the wheel by detonating every nearby car (literally, in the case of Grand Theft Auto III).

And, while Castlevania: Bloodlines certainly pays tribute to the Castlevanias we all loved before (“Hi, Frankenstein! Hi, Medusa!”), for a long time, it seemed like appropriate acknowledgment was not paid to Bloodlines in kind. Castlevania Symphony of the Night is the uncontested turning point of the franchise, and, as a direct sequel, it owed much of its plot and iconography to Rondo of Blood and its PC Engine/SNES origins. It also was clearly influenced by much of the imagery of Super Castlevania (that’s where Death met his buddies!), and the Reverse Castle featured the pieces of Dracula of Castlevania 2 mixed with the iconic bosses of Castlevania 1. And, while it almost seems like a footnote at this point, let’s not forget that Alucard premiered in Castlevania 3, and wound up fighting his zombified allies. Truly, Castlevania Symphony of the Night was the culmination of all console Castlevanias that came before, and paid homage to all of those titles in fun and inventive ways.

Except Bloodlines. Nobody cared about Castlevania: Bloodlines.

This is not a glitchAnd, unfortunately, this created a sort of ripple effect in the fandom. While Symphony of the Night encouraged visiting old titles to see first appearances of Slogra & Gaibon, Phantom Bat, or Grant DangheNasty, there was no such drive for Bloodlines. And when future titles decided to bring back more past friends and foes, we saw Skull Knight of Castlevania 3, not Mecha Knight of Bloodlines. And when we finally saw some significant references to Bloodlines in Portrait of Ruin, it was to let us know that both of Bloodlines’ protagonists died inglorious deaths, and Eric’s lance would only return as an accessory for a ghost. A whole Castlevania game was lost, and when the entire experience was lost and forgotten from the virtual consoles and collections that accompanied the new digital era, nobody batted an eye. You could download Super Castlevania, Castlevania: Dracula X, and even Castlevania Rondo of Blood, but Bloodlines was wholly absent. And there were no conversations about the title, because, frankly, who cared? We got all the good Castlevanias, right? If Bloodlines was any good, it would be referenced heavily like those other titles. Symphony of the Night was the pinnacle. IGA wouldn’t steer us wrong.

But a miracle happened just recently. Castlevania: Bloodlines was released as part of the excellent Castlevania Anniversary Collection. Now, Bloodlines is able to stand tall next to its early Castlevania console brethren. Now, people are talking about Bloodlines, and many of them are talking about it for the first time. And they like it! They really, really like it! Because it’s a good game, and always has been! After a 25 year banishment from the gaming consciousness, Bloodlines has returned, and people are again speaking the language of magical lances and Gear Steamers. Bloodlines can once again take its proper place in the Castlevania pantheon, and rest easy knowing that now more people have seen its horrible Dracula and his disturbing crotch face.

DONT LOOK AT MEUltimately, I find this success story to be the best way to conclude this Game Preservation Week (“Week”). None of these games that have been discussed have to be gone forever. Like Castlevania: Bloodlines, we’re always just one collection or digital release (or mini console, apparently) from a title returning to the gaming consciousness. And let’s see some solid videogame archiving in the future, so another game isn’t lost to decades again. The future of gaming may be streaming, but let’s remember our past, our dead languages, and see how they can make our future better.

And then let’s whip some skeletons but good.

FGC #433 Castlevania: Bloodlines

  • System: Sega Genesis. And now available for Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Steam via the Castlevania Anniversary Collection. Sweet!
  • Number of Players: Two choices, but only one player. We’d have to wait for another forgotten Castlevania title to see some multiplayer Castlevania.
  • Goggle Bob Fact: I rented Bloodlines from the local rental place so much, I eventually bought the cartridge when they were liquidating some of their “old” stock. That makes Bloodlines my fourth or fifth owned Sega Genesis game (the real money went to my beloved SNES).
  • Out of the Castle: Bloodlines follows John ‘n Eric as they battle around some of the more interesting mystical spots in Europe, like Atlantis or Pisa (?). This leads to some more interesting venues for our hunters to traverse, and maybe an excuse to battle a minotaur or two. And you get to fight World War I German war skeletons. That is so close to whipping undead Nazis!
  • RatzisFavorite Character: I lied earlier. Eric LeCarde makes this trip through Europe so much more manageable. His additional reach is a godsend, and the ability to vault straight into the skies… isn’t all the useful, actually, but it’s fun in exactly one room at Varsailles. Oh! And he has beautiful girl hair! I don’t see how that helps vampire slaying, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
  • A Little History: The big deal of Bloodlines is that it tries to tie the Castlevania mythos to Bram Stoker’s Dracula by claiming the vampire slayer Qunicey Morris (and thus his son and grandson) was actually a Belmont descendant. Who cares? What’s important is that Bloodlines seems to imply that Elizabeth Bartley started World War I as a cover for resurrecting Dracula. Now that’s something they don’t cover in history books!
  • Did you know? The Princess of Moss, the boss of The Versailles Palace stage, is a monster moth initially disguised as a woman. And that woman is apparently supposed to be Marie Antoinette, famous queen and cake-eater. Now, this is not to say that it is official Castlevania canon that Marie Antoinette was some manner of undead, immortal insect creature… but the opportunity is open for future Castlevania titles.
  • Would I play again: Now that I have it permanently loaded onto my portable Nintendo Switch? You’re damn skippy I’m going to play it again!

What’s next? Random ROB is back in action and has chosen… The Legend of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link! Are you sure that isn’t an Error, ROB? Oh well. Please look forward to it!

I hate this jerk.  He just... rains.

FGC #421 Saints Row 4

Saints!Saints Row 4 is an over-the-top videogame about a world beset by aliens, destroyed, and then rebuilt in a Matrix-esque virtual reality wherein your player avatar, The President of the United States, is granted amazing super powers in an effort to eventually conquer the alien threat and conquer all of time so as to save the human race.

So let’s spend this article talking about urban planning.

Wait, sorry, I have been informed that it is moderately possible to stay on topic while addressing this blatantly boring matter, so we may as well give that a try. Take two…

Saints Row 2 was an amazing little chunk of a game. After Saints Row was reviewed as “like Grand Theft Auto, but we forgot to figure out the ‘but’”, Saints Row 2 shook the gaming world by being the most Grand Theft Auto-est Grand Theft Auto to ever Grand Theft Auto. That is to say, the Grand Theft Auto from before Rockstar decided to smother any fun in the franchise by sticking its head so far up its own butt that no excitement could ever escape this airtight asszone. And it wasn’t just about a completely bonkers plot that may or may not have contained covering sections of the city in raw sewage! No, Saints Row 2 took the customization features of San Andreas and dialed them up to eleven. So many options! So much clothing! Hell, they had to build an entire mall to house all those shopping choices!

And, in my humble opinion, that mall might be the best part of Saints Row 2.

WeeeeeYes, it’s just one silly area. Yes, it’s an area that probably ultimately only exists for one set piece mission that involves a shootout in a mall (that seems less funny in 2018). And, yes, I might just like it because I have a weird inclination toward hanging out at any mall, virtual ones included. But whatever the original reason for that lil’ shopping center, it is one of my favorite spots, and a significant reason for this is simple: it’s a place. It is somewhere in the Saints Row 2 city that you can actually go. It’s not just another empty, set-dressing building. It’s a real location, and, even if there is an obvious “now loading” parking garage or elevator, it still feels like an organic piece of the city. It’s not just a place to customize your trench coat, it’s a place, and it makes the world of Saints Row 2 feel that much more real.

And, like in our blighted present, you can never go to the mall again. Saints Row 3 dropped not only the mall, but seemingly the entire concept of going inside a big, open building.

And, let’s not kid ourselves, people noticed. I noticed. Saints Row 3 was an amazing game, but almost everyone seemed to recognize that its base city was somehow… less. There were more exciting cutscenes, set pieces, and the occasional reason to deploy a parachute after leaping from your hover-bike, but there weren’t any malls. There weren’t any places that made the SR3 city feel like a real place; simply stores that were singular rooms, and the occasional “level area” that felt very much like a Hyrulian dungeon. The Saints Row 3 city was a shell of the former glory of the series, particularly at a time when other franchises seemed to be moving forward with more immersive worlds.

And then Saints Row 4 effectively told the world that that was good enough, and outright reused the “old” city of Saints Row 3. New game, old city. Party foul, Volition, directors of Saints Row 4. You destroyed half the fun of an open world game before I even opened the box.

Tanks for the memoriesOf course, anyone familiar with the franchise or its producers knows the truth of the matter. In short, without reusing assets to an absurd degree, there literally would be no Saints Row 4. And that would be a major loss for the universe! Saints Row 4 is an irrational amount of fun, predominantly because it takes the typical, mundane world of Saints Row 3 (well, as mundane as any world with Mayor Burt Reynolds could be) and adds super powers. Run like The Flash, fly like Superman, and telekinetically whip some cars around like Matthew Malloy (like you can’t use Wikipedia). When you were previously tethered to finding a conveniently unlocked car every seventeen seconds, being able to Hulk jump straight out of a lake and onto a building is a bit of a game changer, and truly makes Saints Row 4 its own experience. The wisdom of Solomon is telling me you don’t need a new city when you’ve got the speed of Mercury.

But you know what? Let’s stop trying to justify the loss of a new city, and acknowledge that Steelport, the official city of Saints Row 3 & 4, is actually pretty great.

Consider the number one complaint about modern open world games: there’s nothing to do. From Breath of the Wild to Skyrim to Dragon’s… Dogma? Age? Something like that… For all of those worlds, it seems the number one complaint is that there’s a crazy, humungous world to explore, but nothing to do. And that makes perfect sense, as any neighborhood where every dungeon and dragon is squished together is going to feel a bit claustrophobic. If your horse doesn’t have anywhere to run around, everywhere is going to feel like Hyrule Field, and then you may as well just be playing an N64 game. A big world needs the option to feel boring, because wide open spaces are practically a requirement.

WeeeeeeeBut all of the open world games named a moment ago are fantasy-based worlds. An empty field feels natural in Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls because “the wilds of the frontier” are practically built into the genre. That’s not going to fly in an urban environment, because, come on, when was the last time you saw seven inches of a city uninhabited by anything. In New York City, I saw a landlord-tenant dispute over a sleeping bag. This means that, assuming you want your sandbox city to be remotely realistic, it’s time to populate every millimeter of the place with something. There are no nice rocks or fields of tumbleweed in Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row; no, every bit of the city has to have a building or fountain or maybe just a spot where some dude carrying a dildo spawns. You need something, otherwise the world is going to look unfinished.

And then there’s the form and function factor. This is a proper videogame, not some manner of Endless Ocean nonsense, so there are missions. Missions require venues, so of course robbing the bank or destroying the alien antennae needs a spot to be marked on the map. So that means you have to build a bank or an antennae. And they can’t be next to each other! No! There must be some space between them. And there’s a car chase at the tail end of the mission? Wow, better design the streets around that for some interesting twists and turns. Don’t forget to add a fruit cart! Now multiply that kind of thinking by about, what, twenty? To account for all the story missions? And how many optional missions are there? How many street races, ragdoll showcases, and gang fights have to be included? And what do you do when missions start running into missions? It’s not like every section of the city is walled off entirely; you need to account for jobs that will use the same highways and byways. Everything has to fit together, and I don’t have to remind any artists out there how difficult it can be when you have to change just one thing, and are then forced to change every damn thing around it. Smoothing out one road might change the entire shape of the city!

Just thinking about it gets me exhausted.

Take a lookBut this is the strength of Steelport. With a limited number of changes, the same city was used for two different games brimming with content. And that’s amazing! Considering that Saints Row 3 and Saints Row 4 have dramatically different movement options available (a tank is not the same as Supergirl speed), the fact that the same city can be used at all is a minor miracle. And once you factor in all the missions across both games, well, it seems a little silly to be worried about the loss of a few open buildings. Yes, you might not have the same “lived-in” feeling of Saints Row 2, but SR3 and SR4 both use their shared city to do their jobs incredibly well. If you can use the same city to stage a noir-ish gang war story of betrayal and luchadores in the same place as a sci-fi epic featuring aliens and Agent Smith, then you’re clearly doing something right.

There’s nothing lazy about building something to last, and there’s nothing indolent about Steelport. This is how you reuse assets: by building something amazing and adaptable right from the beginning, and showcasing that remarkable flexibility. Here’s to the city planners of Steelport, because they know how to shape a city for the ages.

Though I do still miss the mall…

FGC #421 Saints Row 4

  • System: Available on PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, and Xbox One. The Gat Out of Hell expansion (/entirely new game) came out at just the right time to boot this one up to the current gen consoles.
  • Number of players: Like SR3, this one has multiplayer that I have literally never tried. Let’s assume it’s good!
  • Favorite Weapon: There is a gun that inflates people’s heads. While I would like the ability to randomly inflate other body parts (I would very much like someone to explode thanks to unreasonably swollen calves), I can’t say no to N64-style body morphing.
  • OuchiePresident for a Day: It impacts practically nothing, but this title begins with your protagonist as President of the United States. I would personally like to play more adventures where you’re a Super Hero President… but then I start thinking about how my ideal game is Dynasty Warriors: Oops All Presidents, and how much it would kick ass to take out hordes of enemies with an extremely over-leveled William Howard Taft.
  • So, did you beat it? Yes. This is one of the few titles I actually completely Platinum’ed. I would be more proud of that if it didn’t involve rubberbanding a controller so I could fly around on a hover bike for an hour…
  • Did you know? This game canonizes the “Saints Row 1 model” character as a virtual reality created “boss” during one mission. This means that, without a doubt, if your protagonist is female in Saints Row 4, she’s trans, and not just implied to “look different” like in Saints Row 2. I think this means we have exactly one videogame franchise with a potentially trans hero. Progress!
  • Would I play again: Absolutely. I intended to play through Saints Row 4 on PS4 for this review, even… but it’s a long game! And I have a 100% save file right there on PS3! And I like running around like an invincible idiot! It happens!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Captain Commando! Caaaaaaptain Commaaaaaando! Or… maybe I’m thinking of something else…. No matter! Please look forward to it!

Where did it all go?

FGC #417 Mega Man 11

Here comes a Mega Man!So here’s why Mega Man 11 is an excellent videogame, but an awful Mega Man game.

Good videogames are good teachers. Whether you’re a veteran of gaming culture or a random scrub that was just handed a controller, if you’ve ever played a videogame, you first had to learn that game. And while there’s always going to be some overlap between disparate games (Super Mario Bros. and Bioshock both, technically, have jump buttons), every game has its own rules and tricks that must be memorized. Heck, right from the get-go, most videogames ask you to do something you’ve been doing for years, like walking forward, but all sorts of buttons and levers must be employed to do this simplest of tasks (or, well, at least one button). As such, any game worth its salt takes the time to teach the player “the basics”, and then gradually ramps up the difficulty as the adventure progresses.

Yes, this is all a basic way of saying “Level 1-1 is easier than 8-1”, but I like hitting a word count sometimes, okay?

Mega Man games are their own little universe, however. Somewhere out there (or right here), there’s a poor child (who is now an adult, and me) that fired up Mega Man 2 for the first time (because Captain N was a cool television show), was greeted with the ability to choose his first level (unlike every non-Duck Tales NES game ever), and immediately chose Quick Man (because head-boomerangs are awesome). This ended incredibly poorly, as this poor boy (who is literally writing this article) was forever scarred (not really) by immediately and unmercifully dying repeatedly to the instant death lasers of Quick Man’s stage. And an attempt at the deadly platforming of Air Man’s stage didn’t go much better! It wasn’t until Flash Man’s stage that the poor boy discovered that one of these stages could end. Mega Man 2 Crispypossesses no tutorial or opening stage, so, without trial and error, the instant death of spikes is initially equally as threatening as a common mettaur. It is only through trial and error that these lessons are learned, and if you chose the hardest stage to start, well, hope you have the patience to discover the rest of the game isn’t nearly that punishing.

Mega Man 11 tries something a little different.

Mega Man 11 does not include an introductory stage, so, once again, you are given the choice of where exactly you would like to begin your Robot Master rampage. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to showcase Acid Man’s stage. Why? Because it’s color-coded.

The theme of Acid Man’s stage is “chemistry”. Or… maybe something to do with how liquid changes colors? Ugh, you know what? It’s a water level. It’s the water level of the game. The end. Water levels in Mega Man games are always interesting (if not fun), as water makes Mega Man move slightly slower, but with an incredibly high jump. And you can get your sealegs pretty easily in the opening, blue areas of Acid Man’s stage.

Acid!

Look at that! There might be a few hazards around, but life is better down where it’s wetter in the opening bits of Acid Man’s lab.

Acid!

Things escalate by the middle area, though. It’s still pretty easy, but instant-kill traps are more prevalent. Yes, they’re effortlessly avoided, but the very fact that your adventure could be over in a hit is now going to be the new normal. Will things escalate for the Blue Bomber? We’ll find out, right after this break!

Acid!

Yay! Mini-boss! These things are apparently required by law now, and we’re lucky that this beast only pops up once in this stage (other stages seem to feature “a big guy” twice, once ala carte, and once with some extra stage hazard added). Unfortunately, since this device only has one chance to shine, it’s kind of a bullet sponge, and feels like it overstays its welcome by about half. Does this mean we should use the new Power Gear? Probably! But good luck timing/aiming that sucker properly.

Acid!

Now we get a checkpoint, and Mega Man 11 really kicks into gear. We’re still in the yellow area, but either thanks to the close proximity of the respawn point or the fact that we’ve now entered flavor country, there are a lot of spikes around. You must either know the exact arc of Mega’s signature water jump, cheese your way through with some invincibility-through-damage, or die. Yes, Mega Man will be teleported back to life nearby, so it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s clear at this point that the kid gloves have come off the robot kid. And should you survive…

Acid!

Now we’re in the thick of the “old school” “you gonna die” “exploding robots forever” challenge of Mega Man games of yore. There are spikes everywhere. Entire rooms are just instant death traps, and, even with that brand new Speed Gear, you damn well better know exactly how Mega Man controls, or you’re dead. It’s not the end of the world, these are challenges you can complete, but…

Acid!

Never mind. This is bullshit. Don’t make me do this! Don’t make me perfectly navigate some wall of spikes, or jump up through a vertically scrolling area that may or may not have a ceiling full of instant death (okay, the ceiling is, obviously, completely fatal, but the question is how close is that ceiling). This is the closing rush before the finale, but it doesn’t have to be this bad. I would kind of like to see that Robot Master I selected.

Acid!

Oh, there he is. Time to beat down Acid Man and call it a stage clear. Wow, nothing about this fight could be as difficult as the challenges that preceded it. Is that a problem? Maybe. But it’s not the problem.

The problem is that this level design is incompatible with the lives system of classic Mega Man titles.

Mega Man 11 emulates the traditional Mega Man style of defaulting to three lives to complete a stage, and, should you lose those lives, it’s back to the very beginning. This setup carried us blissfully through all of the NES titles (and a few X jaunts), and, while there may have been a problem with the system here or there (hello, damn Boo Beam Trap), it worked out well enough that Mega Man became a cherished franchise complete with this “handicap”. Even though Mega Man 11 showcases some new advances (like being able to replay Wily stages, or really excellent weapon switching), the “lives factor” wasn’t the worst part of the classic series (that would be the Boo Beam Trap, again), so that tradition should have worked out just fine.

It didn’t. It didn’t work out at all.

Lose all your lives, and it’s back to start. It is tradition, but it completely fails in a game that so rigidly adheres to the “graduating lesson” structure of every Mega Man 11 stage. Fail at the opening? No big deal, you start back right at the start. But fail in the middle, and you have to repeat the basics of the beginning all over again. Got past the miniboss? Well, that’s super, but you’re going to have to waste time on that bullet sponge again if you only got that far with zero lives remaining. And the final gauntlet areas? Awful, because these areas are literally designed to kill you quickly and often, and you’re going to boomerang back to the easy opening all over again if you lose your precious 1-up stock. And that makes it nearly impossible to clear the most dangerous areas, because, in order to practice the difficult parts, you have to waste time on the tranquil bits over and over and over again. By the time you return to your robotic remains, can you even remember what killed you the last time? Oh, right, it was those spikes. Back to the top.

And let’s not pretend this was always a problem with the Mega Man series. Yes, the lives/continue system was always there, but what happens on literally the second screen with buoyant water in the franchise ever?

Bubbles!

Sink or swim, Mega Man. Classic Mega Man stages are less about teaching the player new tricks, and more about tossing ‘em in the deep end right from the start.

Bubbles!

Or at least like ten seconds later. And, don’t worry, this kind of thinking did continue when classic became slightly less classic, as, lest we forget, the most unforgiving jump ever in the franchise is before its stage’s midway point.

Run the Jewels!

And, while my ruler might not be close enough at hand to give it a check, it seems Mega Man 11’s levels are longer than most of the classic stages. Which makes sense! When you’re ruled by the concept of gradually increasing difficulty through three-part stages that include a generous sprinkling of mini bosses, you’re going to wind up with a lot o’ level. And it means you’re going to repeat a lot of those levels.

And the saddest part of all of this? There was a modest solution to avoiding this mess built right into the Mega Man formula: Dr. Wily Stages. Take all those “final”, super difficult areas, and weld them together for the actual final areas. Make four Wily stages by combining the hardest bits of eight Robot Master stages. Simple! It’s happened before! It’s worked really well before!

So, in the end, Mega Man 11 winds up being a game that uses traditional videogame structure in a traditional franchise that does not work well with traditional structure at all. Mega Man 11 is a great game, it’s just not a great Mega Man game.

FGC #417 Mega Man 11

  • Look out!System: Available now for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. And PC! The only system actually seen during the game…
  • Number of players: Capcom refuses to acknowledge my requests for a Secret of Mana-esque Mega Man adventure featuring Bass and Proto Man, so just one.
  • Hey, why don’t you just crank down the difficulty, smart guy? If Capcom wants to claim one difficulty is “Normal”, then I’m going to assume that is the way the game is meant to be played until further notice.
  • Special Ed: Yes, I did have to pay a premium to buy the version with an amiibo, stickers, and a microfiber cloth (which I think is a kind of Final Fantasy equipment). If you thought you lived in a universe where I would not buy such a thing, then hi, welcome to GoggleBob.com for the first time!
  • Classic Rumblings: Electric beats ice, ice beats fire, fire beats… bomb? Bomb beats the dude with the blocks. This is the foundation of our universe.
  • Favorite Robot Master: I still think Bomb Man has the dumbest design. And, appropriately enough, Blast Man seems to have a similarly lazy visual design. But there is more to Blast Man than his dumb haircut, and this explosion loving pyrotechnic and his dedication to theme parks has won me over in a big way. You’re a blast, Blast Man.
  • Did you know? This is the first time a new “classic” Mega Man game has had a physical release on a Nintendo console since Mega Man & Bass. Am I talking about the original Super Famicom release or the aggravating Gameboy Advance rerelease? Yes!
  • Would I play again: I really like this game! It makes “lives” the worst thing ever, but the rest of the game is tops. I’m a lot more likely to play this again than Mighty No. 9, and, frankly, I think that says it all.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen to take Halloween off, so we’re going for spooky times with… Castlevania Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon! Yes, two modern-retro style games in a row! It happens! And maybe there will be skeletons! Please look forward to it!

Little Devils