Tag Archives: konami

FGC #604 Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

Reflections are importantCastlevania: Harmony of Dissonance was released back in 2002 on the Gameboy Advance. It was the first Koji Igarashi-directed metroidvania to follow the wildly successful Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and would be followed by the critically beloved Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow a year later. While many at the time lauded Harmony of Dissonance for being a step up from the non-canon, non-Iga-directed Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, in the years since, Harmony of Dissonance has gained the reputation as one of the “lesser” Igavanias. Nobody seems to claim it is particularly bad, but the understood consensus is that you would be better off playing literally any other metroidvania in the franchise. Iga was still getting used to portable Castlevanias, guys, play one of the games after he found his skelelegs.

And that is a damn shame, because Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance has some great ideas that were never seen in the franchise ever again. Take for instance…

Juste Belmont is all you need

This guy looks familiarCastlevania stars Simon Belmont. Castlevania 3 stars Trevor Belmont. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood stars Richter Belmont. And then we got Castlevania: Symphony of the Night starring Alucard, and we only ever saw one Belmont in a headlining role ever again. Juste Belmont is that Belmont, and he’s here to chew bubblegum and whip skeletons (and he’s fresh out of bubblegum).

Juste Belmont plays like a Belmont. There is no gimmick here, no secret power that makes Juste a creature of the night just like his opponents. He runs. He jumps. He attacks with a whip of clearly defined length, and flicks its limp form around to block medusa heads at will. He can perform some of the “later” Belmont abilities, like the slide and backward dash. He even has a forward dash, because some weirdo gave the Gameboy Advance an L and R button. But, a few extra skills aside, Juste is familiar, and a clear descendant of Grandpa Simon (and maybe the old man that trained Richter a few decades later).

And in the friggen Castlevania franchise, it is nice to play as a Castlevania protagonist.

You could claim there is a clear dichotomy between Simon-like protagonists and Alucard-like protagonists in the Castlevania franchise. Soma is an Alucard. Shanoa is an Alucard. Castlevania-wannabe Miriam is an Alucard. But claiming there are only two options is reductive. John Morris of Portrait of Ruin is very close to being the typical Belmont, but there is a lot more nuance and variety to his moveset. Or, put another way, there is no way Juste Belmont could ever turn into an owl. It may be a result of the presence of Charlotte, but, one way or another, John is no Alucard, but he certainly is not a straight-Belmont, either.

And having a 100% Belmont on the team makes for a different, unique game. Juste eventually gains a “super jump” to traverse long vertical passages, but, for the majority of his adventure, he is stuck with little more than a regular Belmont arc jump. And that changes the castle dramatically! There is no expectation here that you will eventually be able to fly into narrow passages as a bat, or “mist” through glass windows. Juste is stuck with legitimate keys-as-keys, and a castle that could reasonably be traversed by a human on foot. And that’s the rub! Belmonts are humans, and that appropriately restrains the Castle to something that is never going to require reversing gravity or filling in map squares by bumbling around as a wolf.

It is nice to be human sometimes and know that castle completion is not tied to some esoteric ability you will find five feet before Dracula. HoD perhaps hampers itself too much with its human protagonist, but a more thoughtful sequel could use this “limitation” to open all sorts of doors.

But speaking of being a Belmont…

The Vampire Killer is all you need

Nice viewLook, I like variety as much as the next guy. I like finding peanuts and learning that Alucard must toss them in the air to get so much as a bite. I like earning the “curry” power, and forcing an ability-copying boss to chuck hot plates like it is his super power. I like there being two different fairies, one with inexplicable piano prowess. I enjoy the sheer breadth of nonsense “stuff” that appears in the Igavania titles, and I appreciate every time I find a new secret or ferryman skulking around in the shadows.

But, dang, sometimes I just want to play a videogame, ya know?

The thing about variety is that is causes choice anxiety. You have a sword, right? And it is fast and strong, but there is a stronger sword that is slower. Which is going to perform more damage per second? Which will allow you to quickly backdash away from danger? Which has the more powerful “arc” to blocking enemy fireballs? They have elements, too? So is the holy sword going to cut down all these undead foes, or are some of these monsters supposed to be resistant to the light of God? Is this one of those franchises where fire beats water, or the opposite? Thunder do anything for anybody? I have a fast, lightning-based sword, but is that going to do zero damage to rocky enemies? Am I thinking of Pokémon again?

Then there’s Juste. Juste doesn’t have to have a brain in his head, because he has a whip in his hands.

The Vampire Killer is supposed to be the greatest Dracula murderer of all time. It was all Simon, Trevor, and Richter ever needed. Juste wields this same weapon, but is allowed to have a little customization. With the right item, it can shoot fireballs like Christopher Belmont, change elements for weakness hunting, or just plain upgrade to stronger versions like back during the Quest days. In general, it is linear progression with the tiniest bit of customization for particular circumstances. And that’s great! You don’t have to spend the rest of your day worrying distinguishing between +1 Pow or +1 Speed when “have whip” is all you need to know. There is joy in finding the secret sword that makes farting noises when it hits skeletons, but there is also joy in not having to worry about your equipment screen, and ignoring any worrying about bringing the wrong hammer to a guardian fight.

Sometimes, the Vampire Killer is all you need… and that never happened in a 2-D ‘vania again.

And on that note…

Mundane Monsters are all you need

Prior to Harmony of Dissonance, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon introduced the concept of particular monsters dropping unique abilities. After HoD, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow pioneered a system whereby literally every monster dropped some kind of attack, ability, or upgrade. This became the standard for Castlevania titles going forward, and now it seems completely normal to fight mermen over and over until you can breathe underwater.

Harmony of Dissonance made no such attempt at having a wholly unique “ability drop” for every monster lurking around the castle. And, not coincidentally, Harmony of Dissonance also included this creature:

Creepy Crawly

Now, I’m not saying that when you grant every monster a unique, obtainable ability, you lose the chance to make some gigantic weirdos that have nothing to do with “can throw spear” or “+2 Con”, but… It does seem like more than a coincidence that we never saw that dude again.

Nobody wants to grind a hundred skeleton spiders.

Two Castles are all you need

Out and inCastlevania: Symphony of the Night turned the franchise on its head by including an entire hidden castle in addition to the “traditional” solitary sanctuary of Dracula. Later titles would either stick to one large castle (the Sorrows, Bloodstained [which we are still claiming is a Castlevania]) or one castle plus a number of “level” areas (Portrait, Order of Ecclesia). Never again did the franchise try two separate, but similar, castles.

And two castles are the exact right number of castles to have!

The concept of a “dark world” works similarly to time travel in many videogames. In short, you have two distinct areas, but they influence each other in interesting ways. In the time travel adventures, you can usually affect change in the past that dramatically impacts the future. The classic “fill a lake in the past, see a future where a desert becomes a forest in the future” dichotomy serves as an easy example here. Similarly, you can have “light/dark world” situations wherein one area is a funhouse mirror version of another area, but making changes to one “castle” can drastically impact the other. The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past or Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver are the classic examples here, but many videogames utilize these dual worlds to create exciting scenarios and save on assets. An evil mirror world is fun and economical!

Unfortunately, for having two castles (both distinctly noted as being formed from two differing minds), Harmony of Dissonance whiffs on doing anything interesting with the concept. Whether there was ever meticulous thought put into the differences between the “normal” and “chaos”-based castles is irrelevant, as the end result is a castle that is effectively double the size, but with very few actual parallels. Yes, you might find some similar or “reference” monsters in comparable rooms. Yes, you are likely to see a few more deadly monsters or blood-red sunsets in the “bad” castle. But, beyond a few extremely basic “wasn’t this room a little different over there” situations, this is a complete waste of a brilliant idea. Harmony’s two castles could be so much fun in a different, more considered game.

This is funAnd that is the tragedy of Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance: there are a lot of appealing ideas here, but they ultimately add up to an experience that is aggravatingly rote. With proper budget, drive, and familiarity, a direct sequel to HoD’s ideas could be one of the best titles in the franchise. As it is… well… Let’s just say that Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow keeps getting paired with HoD in collections, and it is obvious which game you should play.

(And in case you’re curious, it is the one that actually had its own sequel.)

FGC #604 Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

  • System: Gameboy Advance on two separate occasions! Later, we had a WiiU release, and now it is on modern systems thanks to the latest Castlevania Advance Collection.
  • Number of players: This Castlevania quest is even more solitary than usual. Do you learn that weird shopkeeper’s name? That seems like it should be important! Guess we are sticking to one player.
  • Story Time: Props to HoD for featuring almost exclusively two characters: Juste, and his frenemy Maxim. Literally no one else matters in this story of childhood friends having occasional spats over kidnapping other childhood friends, and that kind of laser focus on the task at hand is great in a Metroidvania. I guess Death gets to squeeze a word or two in, too? Who cares? That dork is a little too Strider this time, anyway.
  • Love this bossThe Other Hero: Naturally, Maxim mode is unlocked upon completing the game. And Maxim rocks! While the meticulous planning that went into producing this Belmont-based adventure goes right out the window the minute Mr. Triple Jump appears on the scene, it is fun to see how much of the castle can be explored immediately without a need for keys or teleporters. Give Maxxy a way to level up, and it would likely be one of my favorite “other” modes in Castlevania history.
  • Favorite Sub Weapon: Juste has distinctly Sypha Belnades genes, and can utilize magical books to powerup his attacks. Unfortunately, this skill is completely useless, and should be ignored. Sorry, Great Gramma Sypha, you cannot beat traditional holy water.
  • Favorite Boss: Speaking of Sypha, two Castlevania 3 bosses return in modern-ish form: the Skull Knight and Cyclops. Cyclops is my favorite in the game, as he looks so goofy compared to his original, menacing sprite. Skull Knight does get a rad laser, though…
  • Interior Decorating: Apparently, that “Furniture Room”, where you can collect various tables and candelabras and such to decorate one tiny cube in Dracula’s Castle is a holdover from an idea that was nixed during the production of Symphony of the Night. This would have absolutely made sense for Alucard, as he would logically have his own room in his father’s castle. But Juste Belmont? A man who knows damn well that castle is going to collapse seven seconds after whipping an evil count? He should know better than to put effort into trimming such a damned castle.
  • ClassyDid you know? The doors that Juste uses to travel between the two castles look just like the portals the Doppelganger used in Symphony of the Night. Does this mean Alucard didn’t kill a monster, but an alternate universe duplicate? Probably not! And don’t suggest that again. Alucard has enough guilt without potential murder-suicides!
  • Would I play again: Probably not. Or at least not for another few decades. I want to see the HoD sequel, but the actual game isn’t all that fun… particularly when nearly every other Castlevania would be a better time.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Curses ‘N Chaos! We’re going to celebrate the Day of the Dead with a visit from Castlevania ‘n Curses’ old friend Death. Please look forward to it!

WRONG

FGC #593 Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Straight to hell!Let us consider the economy of Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest (and how it has screwed me up to this day).

Castlevania 2 is an ambitious NES title that is also extremely broken. Much like Link’s second adventure, the curators of the Castlevania franchise decided to branch out in a more explore-y direction with Simon Belmont’s second quest. Unfortunately, it seems that the Goddess Zelda watches over all of her titles and guarantees proper Q&A testing… while Dracula just gets a graveyard duck. Or the graveyard duck was intentional! Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest has a legendarily inscrutable localization… but it ain’t that great in the original Klingon, either. The NPCs of C2 go out of their collective way to be cryptic at best, and downright dishonest at worst. There is a bad merchant in this town? Are you referring to how the ability to buy a white crystal over and over again is broken, or am I searching for a hidden dealer somewhere around here? And do not insult that kind lady peddling Holy Water. I wouldn’t be able to beat Dracula without her!

So is Simon’s Quest broken? Well, yes, because those ending screens are pretty damn fractured by any rubric. But is everything before Dracula’s defeat broken? Well, no, just all the information that the player needs to successfully complete this quest is some combination of esoteric and obfuscated. Finding your first mansion housing a rib might be child’s play, but knowing from there that you have to kneel at a nondescript lake or show a bleeding heart to a ferryman (or that said ferryman is apparently canonically cursed!) is the kind of thing you would never in a million quests personally discover “accidentally”. Some hints in the Japanese version were mangled for the American release, and we can blame a number of Debora Cliff head injuries on this simple fact; but, even then, you kind of have to “know” that the crystals work when you are just standing around… And “stand still and wait” is not exactly the prime way a videogame works. Simon’s Quest is not broken in every way, but a clear explanation of what is happening and what should be done would certainly help a fledgling player. Just give me a ferryman that outright states that they are looking for something, and we can go from there!

And then there is the economy of Simon’s Quest.

Just don't look!Previously on Castlevania, hearts fueled “sub items”, and that was it. There were moneybags that provided points, but there was nothing to buy. A heart “bought” you the ability to fling a dagger, though, so you had something you wanted to ration and “save” for the rough spots. A proper cross boomerang and the hearts to fuel it could be the difference between life and death. This would be the standard for Castlevania games after Castlevania 2, too, and we would not see exchanging currency for goods and services in the Castlevania franchise again until Symphony of the Night ten years later.

But in the meanwhile, here was Castlevania 2. Before you even leave the first town, you are introduced to the concept of trading hearts. In fact, items available in the first town are very clearly outlined as…

Buy Once, Use Forever Items

My aching crystal50 Hearts will get you two different items in Castlevania 2’s first bout of commerce. Local townsfolk will note that thou must purchase a White Crystal, but the Holy Water is available, too. And both items are literally essential to your adventure. The White Crystal will allow access to (or at least illuminate a hidden platform in) the first dungeon, which is a vital stop on the way to earning Dracula’s Rib. But do not discount the Holy Water, as you absolutely need its ability to break “soft” blocks. Oh no! You’ve only got fiddy hearts in your pocket when the game starts, and you need a hundo! Time to get to farming skeletons!

And you will want those extra hearts, as Holy Water, the White Crystal, and the eventually available basic Dagger are all the best items to purchase. The Holy Water not only unlocks previously inaccessible areas, but also is the most straightforward item in the game for consistently hitting enemies below Simon. The Dagger might fly much straighter, but it is also much more powerful, and can completely supplant the whip if you are saving up for something better. And the White Crystal? Not only do you need it for basic platform-seeing purposes, but it also has a resale value! You can trade the White Crystal for the Blue Crystal, and then trade up further to the Red Crystal. All of those crystals are critical, and, given a lack of fast travel or mobile merchants, you really shouldn’t leave home (town) without it!

Unfortunately, not everything in Castlevania 2 has the same kind of utility. Let’s just go ahead and whip that notion in the bud…

Straight Upgrade Items

STAY AWAYSimon already killed the only vampire that ever mattered, so the legendary Vampire Killer whip is apparently sitting on a shelf back at the Belmont estate. In the meanwhile, Simon has pulled out the trusty leather whip that he picked up down at the Transylvania S&M store (Grant DaNasty’s Nastiest Emporium). Unfortunately, this budget whip is far from the best, and a variety of other whips are available from more savvy storefronts. Would you care for a Thorn Whip? Chain Whip? Chain Whip with little star dealy bopper? You’ve got options!

Or… you have no real options at all. Unlike many modern games, you absolutely do not need to upgrade your whips sequentially. You will likely find a vendor for the Thorn Whip before anyone else, but, if you save your hearts, you will eventually find that Morning Star shop, and own the best whip hearts can buy before anything else. In fact, if you really know what you are doing, you can farm nighttime zombies, make a beeline for that miraculous whip, and wield all the power of Lucifer before entering your first mansion!

And there is a valuable lesson here: why waste your hard-earned hearts on anything but the best? Only one whip can be upgraded (for free!) to the critical Flame Whip, and only one whip has the power to fell Death before he can make his lethal approach. Why bother with anything less? The Chain Whip is one of the most expensive items in the game, and it is literally completely worthless if you can afford a Morning Star. Save those hearts! Go for the greatest! Do not waste time on incremental upgrades! Shoot for the gold!

But you may have to blow a few hearts along the way on…

One and Done, Limited Items

Eat it, orbYou may make an immediate run for the Morning Star, but there is one thing standing in your way: a deadly, life-draining swamp. The only solution to surviving this problem is to purchase some Laurels, initially only available about as far east as you can get without the aid of a tornado. Laurels make Simon temporarily invulnerable, and that is just the right level of vulnerable you need for a purple swamp filled with fire-spewing beasts.

But Laurels come at a cost. In an effort to guarantee Simon is not invincible forever, Laurels are limited items that can only be used a set number of times. You buy two Laurels, you get to be invincible twice. Pretty straightforward! In a similar manner, there are Oak Stakes, purchasable only within haunted mansions, which are essential for unlocking Dracula Part Orbs ™, and are immediately consumable. And, while it may seem like they are wholly optional, bulbs of garlic fall into the same category. Garlic initially presents as simply an offensive item that works similarly to the Holy Water of Castlevania (1), but it also summons random Romani in graveyards to distribute daggers and bags and whatnot. You could get through the whole of CS2 without a single clove of garlic, but it is going to make your life better in more ways than one if you shell out for that veggie.

And, give or take experimenting with garlic in any old graveyard, these one-and-done items are all very situational. You could use a Laurel anywhere, but you probably are going to conserve it for the moment you approach those shining, purple shores. Garlic is rarely necessary for average encounters, so save it for shop summoning or the occasional pizza. And you only ever need one oak stake per mystical orb, so you can stow that away until you need to earn a fingernail. In short, once you have a relative idea of what you are doing, you will never be in a situation where you can potentially “waste” one of these valuable, limited items. Short of whiffing it big on tacking an inanimate circle, you are not going to “accidentally” need another 50 hearts for a replacement anytime soon.

Wish I could say the same about our final category…

Freemium Items

MortThe Silver Knife can be found by properly placing garlic in the graveyard. The Gold Knife can be recovered from a downtrodden Death. And the Sacred Flame is hiding in a dark dungeon, but free for the taking if you gaze with Dracula’s eye. They are freebies! Items of absolute importance (well, maybe the Silver Knife is kind of a waste), and unerringly useful. The Sacred Flame is like an advanced Holy Water that can immolate Freddie the Claw Skeleman without a thought. And the Gold Knife can re-kill Dracula before he even has time to teleport out of his coffin. No wonder Death was hanging onto that blade!

But there is a bit of a drawback to these weapons of Drac destruction: they each cost hearts. Each of these items is free to add to your inventory, but cost a heart per use. And one or two hearts may not be the difference between life and death, but you need as many of those hearts as possible for all the finest upgrades. You need a new Oak Stake in every mansion, and who knows when you are going to have to reup on Laurels? And, if this is your first time venturing through Castlevania (or you just have a terrible memory), you would not know if you needed additional hearts for anything else. That Morning Star cost nearly every heart you could ever have, but is there something better out there? Some armor, maybe? Blue Ring? It worked for Link…

And, if you have not already guessed, this is why I never use the Silver Knife, Gold Knife, or Sacred Flame.

Sure, I may have hearts to spare by the time the final mansions are being raided, but would I ever use a weapon that consumes two whole hearts per use to clear those areas? Certainly not. I might need those hearts for later! Using these freemium items may make my life easier, but what if they are going to make my life worse when I need to grind for more hearts? And Dracula isn’t dead yet! What if I get up to his final chamber, and I run out of hearts!? I would have to engage with actually fighting Dracula the real way, and I simply do not have that kind of time. I would rather make every other part of this game harder than ever even think about wasting my valuable cash on something as trivial as my 10,000th violent skeleton. I’m saving up for that vacation home Simon is never going to use!

Er-hem.

Anyway, Castlevania 2 is apparently why I don’t play mobile games. Thanks for reading.

FGC #593 Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

  • What a horrible night to have a swampSystem: Nintendo Entertainment System to start, and then it at least showed up on the recent Castlevania collection for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. It was also on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS. Sorry, Castlevania 2 does not see as many releases as Mega Man 2.
  • Number of players: Simon is facing this horrible night to have a curse alone.
  • Forever Apart: The various chunks of Dracula could also be considered usable “items”, but every other item save the initial rib is so… not useful. Also, can we take a moment to acknowledge that an official body part of Dracula is his ring? Not a single limb in there, but we somehow need his signet to cross his dumb bridge? And, while we are looking at lugging around bits of the count, is his complete lack of a brain there to account for his generally braindead plans? When you have to rely on the wizard Shaft to get things done, you know you are missing some pieces.
  • Boss Time: Castlevania is a franchise known for its bosses. And, in C2:SQ, there are a whole two of them, and you can walk right past one. Nobody likes you, Death! Camilla and her bloody tears is required, but only on the technicality that she drops the cross item that allows access to Dracula’s ruined castle. At least these jerks respawn for any potential rematches. I would not say no to seeing that in Symphony of the Night…
  • Goggle Bob Fact: I played this game so much as a child, I memorized the code that grants all the items. It is complete gibberish, but I can recall this random assortment of letters and numbers immediately. If you ever see me in person, quiz me! I would transcribe it here, but I don’t feel like having Google steal my code for maximum Laurels.
  • I do not talk about musicAn end: Damn is it hard to get the best ending without optimizing dang near everything. Also, is it really worth it? Because it sure does seem like the accompanying text for any given ending does not match what actually happens. And, ya know, there is that whole “Simon dies almost every time” thing. Dude just cannot catch a break.
  • Did you know? According to the Castlevania timeline, Simon killing Dracula, blasting him into literal pieces, reassembling said pieces, and then immolating the count all over again only bought the world fifty years of Dracula-free time. Juste, Simon’s grandson, was the next Belmont to take up the whip chronologically in Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. And Juste only had to beat Dracula once to keep Drac chilling until Richter time.
  • Would I play again: Yes. Dammit. It’s a Castlevania game, so I will blow my hard-earned hearts on any version of it that is ever released. Put this sucker on a cell phone with in-app heart purchases, and I’ll buy it, too.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Aero Fighters 2! Take to the skies! To fight! In flight! Please look forward to it!

I can!

FGC #576 Contra

June 1, 2633

GIFs you can hearMy name is Lance Bean. I have been dispatched to an archipelago near New Zealand with my partner, Bill “Mad Dog” Rizer. Why is he called Mad Dog? Because he was responsible for packing for this mission, and the dumbass didn’t even bring any shirts for us. Multi-purpose gun? Check. Suntan lotion? Bug spray? A friggen towel? Nope. I am traveling with an animal.

And our superiors apparently recognized that. Mad Dog is here to shoot stuff, but I have been distinctly tasked with documenting this journey. Apparently, prior to two years ago, this was a completely abandoned island. Then a meteorite crashed on the area, and the place has been hopping ever since. Now satellite images show that there appears to be a heavily armed militia preparing for an invasion, and nobody much likes that. However, no one can figure out the exact affiliation of this army, so there is some conjecture among the science types that these dorks arrived here on that previously mentioned space rock. Do I truck with that theory? Of course not. But I have been tasked with documenting this mission and any “weirdness” (their exact words) that may be involved. I’m not holding my breath there, but it at least gives me a reason to send Bill out in front while I scribble down some notes.

Mad Dog, I’m going to spend most of this mission looking for a t-shirt shop thanks to you, so you’re going to deal with these dorks and their stupid exploding bridges.

June 2, 2633

What even is this thing?Bill and I have ventured through two distinct areas, and I have learned two things:
1. The “army” doesn’t seem to be affiliated with any known superpower, but they do call themselves Red Falcon.
2. Red Falcon hella loves backpacks.

Other than that? Nothing to report. Where we landed was some dense forest, and it was crowded with guys running around doing nothing. Guess we interrupted Red Falcon calisthenics? And then Bill blew ‘em all to whatever afterlife is relevant to backpack worshippers. There were a few turret guns and a literal gun wall, but nothing we couldn’t handle. I mean, look, our boys back home keep sending gun modulations through flying orb thingys, so we’re not going to be impressed when confronted with a cannon that can aim in a whole three directions.

Once we got on the other side of that defensive wall, we at least saw Red Falcon had some interesting tech. I emphasize “had”, though, because we blew it all to Kingdom Come. It is not my fault if you seal all your doors with extremely volatile, glowing red buttons. Oh, and head’s up, Red Falcon? Some weirdo doing jumping jacks across a wall is not the impenetrable defense you seem to think it is. Incidentally, as per my orders, I did want to stop and take a look at all this tech sprinkled around the base, but Bill… well… Bill apparently got a flamethrower modulator on his gun, and having a flamethrower pissed him off so much, he had to burn the whole base down. First world problems…

Regardless, nothing extraordinary about Red Falcon to report so far. There was some kind of weird, angry eyeball thing at the end of this labyrinth fortress, but it was probably a robot or a hologram or something. It shot bubbles? Literally nothing to write home about. Apparently we’re going back outside tomorrow, so looking forward to that.

June 3, 2633

Thar be dragonsMad Dog is a dick.

Look, Bill, this is really straightforward: you jump and tumble and whatever and shoot the bad guys, and I hang back and write up these mission reports. I have to stand there and take notes. It is my job. And it’s cool that you get to flip around like a coked-up acrobat on floating rocks or whatever, but do not leave me behind. This is pretty basic stuff. I am your partner. I am helping. And I will literally die if you run ahead of me and leave me to get blasted while I’m trying to catalogue that 800th backpack dude. Yes, I know you think this is stupid, but it is important to the mission, and that means it is important to you. You want to get medals, Bill? Oh, no, I guess you don’t, because you can’t even remember to bring a shirt. Dammit, Bill.

Stop calling me “scorpion”, Bill. Is that supposed to be an insult? No, scorpions are not known for being slow. That isn’t a thing.

For the record, the waterfall was nice and pleasant. Nothing too exciting going on here, but the “gun wall” from that first base was replaced with some kind of mobile dragon statue. Red Falcon apparently is really into robotic masonry, but this has otherwise been a pretty uninteresting day. Now for another day, another base.

June 4, 2633

Where is my shirt, BillFirst task of the day: another dumbass series of hallways. Who cares? This is, like, exactly like the last base, but with more guns. Been there, done that. There was even some kind of hologram monster thingy shooting bubbles at the end. Red Falcon apparently has decent technology, but it uses it all for bubble cyclopes and dragon statues. I admire that, though it isn’t particularly effective in the face of Mad Dog.

But speaking of Mad Dog, I was cursing my dear companion for most of the day (again), because today’s adventure was blanketed in snow. How does that work? We were looking at a reasonable 50-60 when we touched down (yes, Bill, I understand that it is Summer at home, but we’re in the southern hemisphere, genius), but now we are trudging through a blizzard. Technically, we are also close to where that meteor touched down, so it is possible there was some manner of ecological event here, and, (conjecture) the meteor is somehow “draining” the life (and temperature) out of the area. Or maybe Red Falcon invested in a weather machine, and is training its grunts for snowy backpacking. Really could be a lot of explanations here.

Regardless, Bill couldn’t care less, and he seems to keep warm by pressing himself up against “spike trucks” (his words) and firing away. I guess the adrenaline is keeping his shirtless self going. There was some kind of “hover ship” at the entrance to the next base, but that thing barely warrants a mention. However, it does seem like that base is going down into the Earth and “following” that meteor that hit the archipelago two years ago, so we might see some answers tomorrow.

And maybe, once we’re inside, Red Falcon will turn up the thermostat.

June 5, 2633

I do not like this dudeThis has been a… memorable day.

So our first stop was some kind of factory or power company or… something. It’s hard to tell, because whatever was ever supposed to be going on here appears to be partially broken now. There are pipes that are half broken, expelling… something that is deadly. You do not want to touch that stuff. And, whether the place is actually functioning or not, there were a pile of soldiers defending the area. Maybe they like the energy blasts? Trying to warm the place up? This Energy Zone (Bill’s naming scheme, based on the fact that he woke up and “crushed” some stupid energy drink) is a complete mystery, and I can’t see any humans actively working within this “factory”.

Oh, and the reason I note that “human” thing? There was what appeared to be a person in a football uniform guarding the following area… except he was about three times the size of your average human. This goliath tossed some disc thing around the area, but the biggest threat was the fact that he was just… big. I could have reasonably described everything “big” we faced up to this point as some kind of robot, but this was definitely a biological entity. He (it?) smelled alive, at least. Is this the effect of the meteor on a human? Some genetically manipulated malcontent? However this beast came into existence, we put it in the ground, albeit after it soaked way too much artillery.

By comparison, the following area was fairly mundane. It seemed to be a deliberate “trap zone” (how does that work for you, Bill? Hangar Zone? No, that’s stupid) to keep invaders like us out. Of course, the whole area seemed… off. Like maybe someone on the planning board had read about how to repel invaders, but didn’t quite understand what was actually going to be useful. Spiked walls? Deadly. A mine cart that just putters along at 5 MPH and doesn’t go anywhere? Maybe head back to the drawing board, Red Falcon. You’ll get us next time, I’m sure.

Regardless, one final door busting, and we’re good to go. Given all these fortifications, I’m guessing we’ll see the heart of this mission tomorrow.

June 6, 2633

Java is cancelledOkay…

Okay.

That was… something.

I will keep this report brief: yes, the meteorite apparently brought some aliens with it. I have no idea how to even describe these things, but Bill called the big sausage-looking thing “Java”. Why? It made me spill my morning coffee, and Bill was having a laugh. He has been a jackass to the very end. Also, I would love to document more of what we experienced on that wretched island, but our favorite jackass blew up the whole island. Was that part of his mission? Destroy every last trace of the nightmare I just experienced? Good job, Mad Dog, you shot a pulsating, mammoth heart until an entire archipelago detonated. Oh, did I not mention the solitary heart the size of a Hummer? And how it was protected by an army of spider-aliens that were continually spawning from acid-dripping eggs? And how I had to spend like twenty minutes prying one of those suckers off Bill’s face? That was not a fun time for anybody involved.

I am done with this nonsense. Yes, there were aliens. Yes, a lot of those “backpack dudes” were probably aliens, too. It was, probably very literally, aliens all the way down. And I am done. I’m not doing that again. You want to send this “Scorpion” against an army of aliens again, you can count me out. I know that meteor had to come from somewhere, but If these aliens strike back, that’s super, but I’m staying home.

I’m going to need thirty lifetimes’ worth of therapy now…

FGC #576 Contra

  • System: We do not have time to name every system that has hosted Contra. I can at least confirm that everyone thinks of the NES or Arcade versions, but some of those ports have appeared on the Nintendo DS, Nintendo Switch, Commodore 64, and… let’s say Playstation 4.
  • Number of players: Two player simultaneous in a time when that was rarely ever seen. Particularly in an action game! That’s important!
  • Back in Action: And, while 2-P is important, I’d also claim that one of the chief reasons Contra became so popular was that “instant respawning” was practically unheard of at the time. Nobody likes to restart from the beginning of the level! They want to pick up right from where their corpse lies! And Contra’s instant respawns were wonderful! Just a shame that Lance and Bill were always so… fragile.
  • Favorite Weapon: Spread. It works in other games, too. Special shoutout to the incredible uselessness of flamethrower, and the horrible “tiny shield” that is generated by coupling a laser with a rapid-fire controller. It’s like tackling the alien hordes with a blowtorch!
  • Land of the Rising Fun: The Japanese version of Contra includes cutscenes, snow, pulsating alien hives, “mission reports”, and a full map. It’s all available on the modern console Contra collection, and I will admit that not being able to read those mission reports may have inspired this article.
  • Goggle Bob Fact: This is a game I can finish without ever taking a hit. I rarely “practice” that hard on a game, but it happened with Contra, because I had to record Contra footage about a decade ago, and I refused to record any deaths. My mortal enemy is this pipe, though.

    Stupid pipe

    Or maybe Achille’s heel is a more appropriate moniker for that one…

  • Did you know? American editions of Contra seemed to downplay the whole “future war” thing, but keep all those whacky aliens and magical guns. This is a weird choice that nobody in 1987 actually cared about.
  • Would I play again: I like to run ‘n gun. This is the ideal game to play for like a half hour and just be done. That happens a lot in my household.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Rock ‘n Roll Racing for the 16-bit system of your choice! First we are going to rock, then we are going to blow up a race car, and then we might roll. Please look forward to it!

Hate this guy

FGC #551 The Legend of the Mystical Ninja

Let's go ninja!The next two weeks will feature articles that are aggravatingly autobiographical as part of Recklessly Self-Indulgent Autobiography Week(s). I realize I’m not too conservative with the ol’ autobiographical moments on a good day (hey, this is my blog), but I feel these stories need to be told before I wrap up the FGC project (in another hundred articles, gotta plan ahead), and, well, if you can’t indulge yourself, then who else can you indulge?

So, fair warning, FGC #551 and #552 are going to be about videogames and friendship, and #553 and #554 are going to be about videogames and love. If you are just here for random videogame musings that aren’t entirely centered on my life experiences (then why are you here!?), we will resume true randomness with #555. I think E. Honda may be involved? I’ll have to check.

And with that caveat out of the way, let’s talk about what I learned in college.

The Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a very special videogame to yours truly. For one thing, I’m rather fond of legends, mystics, and ninja. So we’ve got a clear winner here. For another thing, it was inexplicably one of my few Super Nintendo cartridges back in the early days of the system. It wasn’t a launch game, but it was a game that came along early in the system’s lifespan, and well before I had a handful of JRPGs that were capable of capturing about 40 hours of my life at a time. And I feel I need to remind my presumably adult audience (I use swear words, like “butt”) that, when you are a child with nothing to do, any enjoyable distraction is forced to last for the approximately 40,000,000,000 spare hours you have over the course of the day. In short, I played The Legend of the Mystical Ninja a lot.

WeeeeeBut it wasn’t just about the single player experience in The Legend of the Mystical Ninja. TLotMN, like many games of the era, contained a 2-player mode. Unlike many games of that era, however, its two player mode wasn’t a Mario-esque affair where you constantly traded turns back and forth. TLotMN allowed both players to play at both times! Like Contra! These Konami guys are pretty great! So TLotMN got played an awful lot not only by myself, but also in tandem with my next door neighbor and best friend, Jimmy. Final Fight might not have been two-players, but The Legend of the Mystical Ninja was, so we cooperated and did our best to save Ancient Japan from the forces of whatever the hell we were continually hitting with pipes.

Sad truth? We never, ever beat the game.

And, to be clear, this was not a game we played when we were young and hopelessly inept. Yes, back in the NES days, Jimmy and I were but babes, and we were generally about as effective at beating videogames as we were at solving quadratic equations. But by the Super Nintendo era? Brother, we were all-stars! I mean, like, literally, we beat Super Mario All-Stars. We also were able to one-credit stomping all over M. Bison in Street Fighter 2 (on, uh, the easier modes). Yes, by the time we had to grapple with L & R buttons, we were ready to conquer the world. … Just so long as that world didn’t contain The Legend of the Mystical Ninja.

EAT YO-YOAnd, looking back, I don’t exactly blame my younger self (plus guest) for not finishing the game. Yes, there are generous continues, but the password “save” system is one of those final relics of the NES era that needed to lay buried the absolute minute the save battery was invented. And TLotMN demands its players know exactly what to do when. For instance, if you blow all your cash in the arcade in Level 3, you’ll never be able to afford the mandatory travel visa in Level 6 (there’s probably a life lesson there, but I’m mad right now, and not having it). Cool powerups (that are advertised right there on the cover!) require time, money, and effort that continually makes them about as useful as actually trying to solve your problems by riding a tiger. And, yes, this is an early Konami game, so there are a few places where the directors apparently expect you to have Gradius-level reflexes. Yes, playing The Legend of the Mystical Ninja now, as an adult with save states, seems to portray the title as something on the easier side of the Sesame Street 123 – Battletoads scale, but there was a time when this game refused to allow entry to the final level. Beating that giant weeble wobble was just too hard for two children!

Eventually, emulators became available. Eventually, likely out of a misplaced sense of vanity, I conquered The Legend of the Mystical Ninja. But it was a lonely journey. By this time, there wasn’t anyone in my life that was still interested in Super Nintendo games (the N64/Playstation was the new hotness), and it seemed unlikely I would ever rectify the life-long mistake of not having completed TLotMN “the real way” (or at least the real way according to Bubble Bobble). Would I ever again have a friend that wanted to play as Dr. Yang ever again?

Enter: college.

MeowIt’s hard to explain to the youth of today, but, when I was first entering college, there was some weird kind of faux-retro thing going on for the NES/SNES era. To sum it up nicely, one time a number of us sat in the quad staring up into a dorm window while some unknown individual played Punch-Out! with a TV pointed toward his enrapt, outdoor audience. They were pretty good at it! It may have simply been the marketing of the time (I want to say this is right about when Hot Topic started stocking 8-bit Mega Man shirts), but the NES/SNES era was totally “in” when I was first matriculating, so, surely, this was the time to avenge myself upon various games. I was gonna save the princess with a buddy once and for all!

And, yes, gentle reader, I did find a buddy. I found multiple college buddies in fact, as it was apparently a pretty popular job to work odd hours as tech support for the college computer labs, and I was a human being that liked computers and odd hours. I “hung out” with a number of young techs from late at night to the early morning because, hey, that’s just the kind of guy I am (an insomniac, to be precise). And, given there was no authority but these techs in these computer labs, any time except mandated exam time wound up being given over to LAN parties and emulators aplenty. We even hooked a Dreamcast up to a VGA monitor once! It was horrible! But it happened, and someone managed to score a perfect in Soulcalibur against the computer before the screen was even properly operating. In fact, that very person was Jim, obvious spiritual descendant of the earlier mentioned Jimmy, and he and I attempted The Legend of the Mystical Ninja one evening.

It… didn’t go exactly as planned.

We sailed through the first level. That was fine. We were enjoying ourselves, beating up townsfolk, collecting lucky cats, etc. Then we got to the second zone. Contained within the second act is one of the many available minigames in The Legend of the Mystical Ninja. We had already tried goblin tossing and paint in the first area, so we decided to hit the faux arcade and play whatever was actively 2-player.

Here it comes

There is a game that is, effectively, Pong. Given it is only available in a 2-player game (there is no CPU opponent available), I jumped on the chance to play this otherwise gated content. Jim probably just wanted to give Pong a try. So, we did.

Get ready

And, since save states aren’t just for cheaters, we were also able to continually “reboot” the minigame anytime we wanted. Thanks to the ability to immediately reload from the top of a game, we technically could play this version of Pong all night.

Now this is happening
Dramatic Recreation

And we did. We played The Legend of the Mystical Ninja Pong from 11 PM until approximately 5 AM. It was nearly the entire shift, and it was entirely Pong.

We never beat The Legend of the Mystical Ninja. We never beat the second level.

And that’s okay.

We had fun playing Pong. We didn’t accomplish what I set out to accomplish, but we had fun playing a videogame. Acknowledging the simple pronoun difference there is important.

It's hammer timeThough I loath to acknowledge the term, I am a gamer. I play videogames. I beat videogames. Nine times out of ten, if I’m playing a videogame at all, I am playing to win. And it doesn’t matter if I’m battling a human opponent or attempting to steer my protagonist toward some AI final boss: I need to cross that finish line. I need to be the very best, like no one ever was. I have no time for this inconsequential “Pong”, I have to get out there and beat the game!

Except when I don’t. Except when I can just have fun with the game, because it is, ya know, a game. It is made for fun. A videogame is not designed to be beaten, it is created to be enjoyed.

Want to know what I learned in college? It was that life sometimes doesn’t go exactly how you’d expect, but it’s still worth enjoying yourself. Sometimes you save Ancient Japan, and sometimes you play Pong for hours on end. Sometimes what you expect is not what happens, but it can be enjoyable regardless. You can’t control life. You can’t control other people. But you can control what makes you happy.

I also learned you can sneak liquor into the computer lab. But I think I already knew that…

FGC #551 The Legend of the Mystical Ninja

  • System: Super Nintendo. Didn’t it get rereleased on the Wii or WiiU? I think it was WiiU.
  • Number of Players: Did you read the article!? Goddammit!
  • I hate youMaybe actually talk about the game for a second: Didn’t I? Whatever! I’ll talk about it more, then! The Legend of the Mystical Ninja is an extremely weird game in how it mixes 2-D “action” stages with towns that are loaded to the gills with, essentially, distractions. There is very little overlap between rewards you can obtain for painting buildings or hot tubs that restore health and the “real” progression in the plot, but, dammit, it’s fun. Long after I finished with other, more straightforward titles, I returned to The Legend of the Mystical Ninja for random fun and hijinks. Wait, dammit, now I’m veering back into autobiographical territory.
  • Favorite Minigame: I like painting. I feel like this whole “don’t ever go over the line again” thing has appeared in many other games as a minigame, but rarely as, like, a real game. I guess it’s like Snake? But not really? I like this better than Snake.
  • Eternal Trauma: I feel like entering Zone 6, and finally having a required amount of money to progress scarred me for life. I used to be such a happy child, using elixirs and spending money willy nilly, and now I am someone that hoards every last item and gold piece, confident in the idea that the game will require six hundred whositdaddies to advance. I blame Kid Ying.
  • Now I get it: For the record, that giant octopus at the end of Zone 3 is now a little more recognizable. No wonder he is attacking the (apparently eternal) Konami building!
  • More killer clownsLand of the Rising Fun: Yes, this is a game that was radically changed for localization, as it is aggressively Japanese. In the East, you’ve got Ganbare Goemon vaguely based on the historical/nigh-mythical Goemon, and in the West, you’ve got Kid Ying, who is just some marginally shifty dude that lives with a blue weirdo. That said, the game is still pretty damn Japanese, and it’s not like they changed Ancient Edo to be Old York City or something.
  • But they did change riceballs into pizza, right? Yes. Americans are physically incapable of understanding Japanese treats. See also: Ace Attorney, Digimon.
  • Did you know? There’s a “theater” in Zone 3 that features Dr. Yang dancing and farting. For some reason, it was removed from the American release. But! It is still referenced in Nintendo Power, a separate hint book, and the instruction manual. So we were obviously a hair’s width away from Ebisumaru blowing us all away.
  • Would I play again: Hell, why not? I like this game, even when I’m just playing Pong with friends. It is delightful, so The Legend of the Mystical Ninja always has a seat at my table.

What’s next? Recklessly Self-Indulgent Autobiography Week(s) continues with Smarty Pants for the Nintendo Wii! Never heard of it? Well, that’s kind of the point! Please look forward to it!

Pew Pew
This is getting pretty meta