Tag Archives: metroidvania

FGC #579 Guacamelee! 2

Sit down and eat your guacYo, white guy here, and I’m going to talk about cultural appropriation regarding a country/culture that is the whipping boy of an entire American political party. Oh, and we’re also going to explore a distinctly American vacation destination, too. And if we have time after all that, there will probably be something about a videogame in here.

Just remember: you’re always a wiener when you talk about Mexico, amigos.

For those of you that have not looked at a map lately, Mexico is one of two countries that border on the United States. And, let’s be clear on what has apparently happened here, it is “America’s” “oh no you’re bringing down the property values” neighbor. Canada is always the example of where United States citizens will flee when their chosen candidate doesn’t win an election, and Mexico is always portrayed as the crime capital of the continent. If someone is “going to Mexico” in fiction, they are inevitably doing it to escape the consequences of some wrongdoing, or to commit all new wrongdoings. Or, to put it another way, nobody ever talks about being kidnapped by a drug kingpin in Ontario. And, to be absolutely clear about my position on this nonsense: this is bullshit. You want to talk about a dangerous place in North America, USA? Have you seen yourself lately? Do you know how many school shootings have happened since I started writing this paragraph? Do you know how many of those big, scary drugs were passed around just in a local Wal-Mart parking lot? You want to build a wall, you nitwits? Maybe you could “build a wall” around those Fox News pundits that seem to be suggesting life-saving vaccines are causing boneitis!?

And the kicker of all of this? You can apparently run two separate presidential campaigns on the concept of Hispanophobia, yet one of the chief vacation destinations for “Americans” is Mexico. Look! There goes Ted Cruz now! Mexico is unquestionably one of the USA’s prime spots for relaxation, and the sheer number of all-inclusive resorts available across the country are a testament to how many (literal) dollars are spent in a country filled with people that a political party wants to “keep out”. The hypocrisy is palpable, and the $475,000,000,000 Americans spend a year on Mexican vacations (2016 data) is proof enough that it is more than a handful of Democrats that enjoy the company of Mexicans.

But if you’re looking for a Mexican vacation, and don’t want to deal with the actual country of Mexico, have you considered… South Carolina?

Welcome to paradise

South of the Border is a roadside attraction in South Carolina, USA. It is just past the North Carolina/South Carolina border on I-95, thus, ya know, “south of the border”. South of the Border is a place that has grown from a simple beer stand to a “resort” that now proudly features five restaurants, seven gift shops, 300-foot-tall observation tower, two pools, campground, reptile habitat, and a giant gorilla wearing an ill-fitting t-shirt. And how has South of the Border seen such unprecedented success over the years? By exploiting arbitrary laws! When South of the Border started as little more than a bar in 1949, it was manipulating the fact that the local North Carolina counties were currently dry. And when local prohibition laws lightened up, fireworks were still illegal in many states. But not South Carolina! So people from all over traipsed over the border to the closest fireworks depot available. Even today, when many “safe” fireworks are available across the country, South of the Border utilizes the more generous laws of S.C. to sell some fireworks sets that are… well, they’re not exactly guaranteed to blow off a limb, but the advertising does seem to imply that as a distinct possibility. And through South of the Border’s meteoric rise to fame, it maintained the “joke” of its own name, by importing Mexican “trinkets” and proudly displaying a vaguely Mexican motif around the grounds.

And, to be absolutely clear, I love the place. Bury me in a coffin with zigzagged red and yellow stripes that light up every time someone gets within 40 feet of the thing, because I love this level of kitsch. Nigh everything at S.O.B. is gigantic and garish. There is more neon pumping through this quasi-city than Las Vegas. There are haphazardly distributed statues of dinosaurs, hats, and dinosaurs wearing hats. Gift shops sell an equal number of children’s toys and “the world’s largest condom”. You can eat at a steakhouse or “Porky’s Truck Stop”. There are marginally abandoned rides for the kids, and you may get the distinct impression that there might be a “monster” running around that will eventually be thwarted by some meddling kids. There is “The Sombrero Restaurant”, and, inexplicably, it has nothing to do with the restaurant that is like 100 yards away and shaped like a giant sombrero. There are “Year 2000” mugs on sale in the year 2021…

WELCOME TO THE FUTURE

They’re vintage! Oh, and there’s the official mascot of South of the Border, Pedro.

These dorks
This Goggle Bob photobombed these poor Pedros

Pedro has… issues.

Pedro is the “face” of South of the Border. He’s gone through a few permutations through the years (who hasn’t?), but Pedro has consistently been the most prominent piece of South of the Border iconography for decades. And where did Pedro originate? Well, let’s check the ol’ South of the Border official website for some information…

“Mr. Schafer [founder of South of the Border] went to Mexico to establish import connections and met two young men. He helped them get admitted to the United States, and they went to work at the motel office as bellboys for several years. People started calling them Pedro and Pancho, and eventually just Pedro.”

Let’s… let’s just sift through the… implications of this story, and the way it is told today. First of all, “Pedro and Pancho” are not recounted by their real names, simply Pedro and Pancho. Dudes inspired the most recognizable part of South of the Border, but they don’t rank high enough to earn a credit like Mr. Schafer. Second, the whole “Pedro and Pancho” thing is a stereotype bordering on slur, right? Did a little research here, and it appears to be something that pops up in On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a book that compared Native Mexican “Indians” to “the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore”. As the tone in that passage seems to indicate that Kerouac is mocking the stereotype, the phrase was probably already widely used in the 50’s. Regardless of whether it was one of those “cultural osmosis” situations or a stereotype that arose from too many episodes of The Cisco Kid, I’m willing to bet that the original “Pedro and Pacho” were not too excited about being renamed for their American jobs. And then they were just both rechristened “Pedro”? Like remembering two separate names was too hard? Or just “telling apart two Mexicans” was going to be a problem for too many people?! And somehow this wholesome story is considered safe enough that it is not only publicly listed on South of the Border’s website, but you can also get it on a t-shirt!?!

This is not okay!

And as much as I love South of the Border, this serves as an uneasy reminder that South of the Border is promoting the general concept of Mexico while doing nothing to give back to actual Mexico. It is not like 70% of every sale needs to assist a random family in Mexico City (though that wouldn’t be a bad idea), but this is still a situation wherein a loose definition of Mexican Culture is being adapted, slapped on a glowing billboard, and then used to sell fireworks. It is nice that South of the Border is unambiguously supporting Mexico with its theming (as of 2021, there were not any signs/merch that I could find that were promoting “keep them out” or alike), but it is still a story of white guys that reduced their Mexican workers to “they’re both Pedro”. In much the same way South of the Border grew as a business by exploiting border-based loopholes, this inextricable chunk of Americana also preyed on the general aesthetics of a Mexico its locals likely would never touch.

You see it, right?And that (finally) brings us to today’s game, Guacamelee! 2. Here is a game about the “Mexiverse” that was made by real, live… Canadians. Huh.

Before we go any further, it must be stated that Guacamelee! 2 is an amazing videogame. And Guacamelee! (1) was, too! Which is good, because G!2 reuses an awful lot from its immediate ancestor. Nearly all of the special moves available to our favorite luchador are rehashes from the prior game, which very well could work poorly for a game that is just enough of a Metroidvania that it should know better. But, on the other hand, Juan always handled like a dream, mixing the simplicity of Smash Bros’ “direction + button” controls with movement and beat ‘em up challenges alike that are the ol’ “easy to learn, difficult to master” that makes up the best of videogames. So, yes, G!2 is a lot like G!1, but G!1 was amazing, so how are you supposed to improve on that? And the new challenges that are introduced, like drifting dimensional zones and various chicken powers, are welcome and well-explored. Did you like Guacamelee! (1)? Do you enjoy beat ‘em ups and/or Metroidvanias, like, at all? Guacamelee! 2 has you covered, and is one of the best entries in two different genres.

And, if you haven’t noticed from the screenshots and name, Guacamelee! 2 is Mexican as Infierno. And, given Guacamelee! 2’s general… levity with everything, it leads to a pretty obvious question: is this another South of the Border situation? Is this an affectionate parody, or a simple exploitation of a culture?

Get 'emFirst of all, according to interviews, the Mexican theming of Guacamelee! (1) was not the origin of the game. The setting for Guacamelee! originated with one of Drinkbox’s animators, Augusto, and was only approved after generating some concept art. And, once again, we are talking about a flock of Canadians here. That is kind of an auspicious start to a game that would eventually feature “The Mexiverse”. And an awful lot of what is featured in both Guacamelee! titles focus on two things: Día de los Muertos and Luchadores. And, while these are two indivisible pieces of Mexican culture, it is also possible to showcase their basic iconography without any more than a shallow reading of the source material. Everybody likes ornate skeletons, right? And wrestlers in funny masks? Throw in some dudes with a decent tan, and that’s Mexico, baby! Let’s get those sweet Coco bucks!

But there is more to Guacamelee! 2 than a few Cempasúchil petals sprinkled around. In an effort to not just be some random white guy talking about a culture he only has the most tangential relation to (technically I have pre-New Mexico statehood “New Mexican” blood in these veins, and all that really means is that there is an ancient recipe for fajitas in my family cook book [oddly, this is not a joke]), I consulted friend-of-Gogglebob.com Zef, a person that is very familiar with Mexico (almost like he lived there for years of his life or something). Here is Zef’s (partially paraphrased) take on Guacamelee!:

GET IT!?“[Guacamelee! has the kind of references that come from] knowing the culture and living in it, and appreciating cultural in-jokes that most people outside Mexico will probably never get, but which have Mexicans in stitches. Instead of appropriating something from a culture for the benefit of, ahem, a foreign audience, it takes the native audience aside and makes a private joke just for them.

This is very similar to what it does with gaming culture as a whole, as Guacamelee is also [in]famous for all of its videogame memes and injokes. When the most difficult, most brutal puzzle-platforming gauntlet rewards you with the same message as the Special Zone of Super Mario World, you know that was done with intent, and that while some people may need to look it up, those who remember it will gape and then laugh at it. And when it goes and has you climbing onto giant feathered snakes that weave up and down and left and right, deftly combining the iconic ‘Kukulkan descends the pyramid staircase’ Spring Equinox event in Chichen-Itza with the Snake level from Battletoads, that’s like a triple-layer pun and I’m all here for it.

Another important thing that often gets overlooked is that, while the games are full of stereotypes, and ‘benign racism’ is definitely a thing in many media productions, the Guac games go a long way towards diluting those same stereotypes by providing a very diverse cast of characters–protagonists, villains, or even just NPCs. As a concrete example, there’s definitely ‘lazy Mexican in a sarape’ background characters, but because of that variety of depictions, the audience can read them as lazy because that’s what the individual character is, as opposed to the ethnicity or the culture. If anything, given the roles they fill and the circumstances of narrative development, I’d say that they’re fantasy stereotypes first and foremost, and Mexican stereotypes second.

Here we goThere’s also a certain jai ne se quoi in the way characters speak, their mannerisms and word choice, that is distinctly ESL (and this, coming from an English-as-Second-Language person). The script may have been originally penned by a native English-speaking Canadian, I don’t have the credits with me, but it was tweaked and adjusted well enough that, as weird as it may sound, it feels localized from Spanish speech.

Now, of course, Guacamelee does maintain certain stereotypes I’d like to see diluted, myself. Both games take place in ‘culturally distinct’ locations such as rural villages, jungles, deserts, and Pre-Columbian-style temples. Which is all well and good, Mesoamerican civilizations need their day in the sun and it’s nice to show colorful and vibrant villages as opposed to the dusty shantytown stereotype (and thank god it isn’t all just Western-inspired deserts and cacti and sombreros everywhere). But it would be wonderful if Guac 3 had, say, ‘concrete jungle’ locales where you had to navigate a big city with Colonial-era architecture alongside modern glass towers and concrete apartment buildings. Just as there’s variety in the depictions of rural villagers and luchadores, it’d be nice if it could show diversity in many other areas of Mexican culture and not just Day of the Dead. The premise certainly supports it, as AAA Lucha Libre is famous and popular at all strata of Mex society.”

BLINK IT!Thank you for that comprehensive explanation, Zef! And, for the record, Zef would like it to be said that this is just the opinion of one Mex. However, let it also be said that Gogglebob.com officially promotes the opinion of anyone that enjoys Guacamelee! 2.

So what does this all mean? Is Guacamelee! 2 another game that is destined to go down in history as a Mexi-leech that thinks “they’re all Pedro”, or is it a shining bastion of Mexican culture in a medium that barely remembers there is anything other than Japan and “America”? Well, as usual, it is not something that is that cut and dry. But one thing is for certain: Guacamelee! 2 is a damn fine videogame, and it contains a host of loving nods to Mexico that are a lot more interesting than a dude in a sombrero.

And, hey, after everything from the last… centuries… Mexico deserves at least that.

FGC #579 Guacamelee! 2

  • System: Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. Personally, I prefer the Switch version, as you can play the “important” parts on the TV, and futz around with the more challenging areas while in handheld mode/watching TV.
  • Number of players: Four! You can have four different players at a time! That sounds really fun! And absolutely not something I’m ever going to be able to get a group together to actually do! I’ll be more likely to organize a road trip to South of the Border first…
  • Is it hot in here?Speaking of Challenge Levels: Like in G!1, G!2 has a number of areas that really test the valor of your luchadore. And, like in the original, I am forced to complete every one of these challenges, as I kind of live for that nonsense. Luckily, the respawn rate for these challenges (and the rest of the game, for that matter) is tough but fair, and no challenge seems too far outside the realm of possibility. Even if it did take like two hours for me to get through that chicken crucible…
  • Weird Connections: Speaking of, the existence of “The Crucible” and way too many chicken jokes really reminds of Fable 2. Whatever happened to that franchise? … No, I’m not actually asking that question.
  • Favorite Mexiverse Timeline: The conceit of the Mexiverse at large allows for Juan to visit a number of videogame parody areas, like “Limbo”, a grindy JRPG universe, or a whole timeline apparently dedicated to being a terrible cell phone gacha. That said, the best timeline is one where you get to beat up a car not once, but twice. Thank you, Street Fighter, for giving us the iconic struggle of man versus random vehicle they just happened to encounter. And, hey, thanks again to Zef for reminding us that the featured car is not remotely random, but another “Mexican reference”. Once again turning my mic over to the expert… “The classic Volkswagen Beetle used to be ubiquitous on Mexican roads, as it was cheap, easy to get parts for and repair, and efficient as a taxi cab for its size and ease of driving. So, it received the moniker of “Volchito” (or, to some, Vocho). That’s the kind of detail that comes from knowing the culture and living in it, and appreciating cultural in-jokes that most people outside Mexico will probably never get, but which have Mexicans in stitches.”
  • He is The Juan: There is much made of the plot with Juan being the last living Juan in the Mexiverse. But… is that the joke? Like, Juan died at the start of Guacamelee!, and I’m moderately certain he is dead again about 5% of the way into Guacamelee! 2. Dude basically lives in the realm of the dead, so I don’t see the big deal about sticking a dead Juan’s skull on any random body. He’s a resilient guy. He’ll get used to it.
  • Favorite Costume: Hey, the Switch version came with all the DLC. Guess I’ll dress up as Flame Face, because I like racking up the combo meter and having a flaming head. It worked for Nicolas Cage!
  • Our final fantasyFavorite Boss: Zope y Cactuardo combines two things I love in a game: a boss that is using “your” moves against you, and a giant cactus. Wait, no. The giant cactus is good because it reinforces how Juan really “only” punches and grapples, so a boss that is too spikey to touch is completely omnipotent. Please, nobody give Juan a gun! It will mess up his mojo!
  • Did you know? Drinkbox has claimed they created new moves for Juan, but went back to the originals after determining the OG moves were more intuitive. Just as well, performing a perfect headbutt still feels satisfying when destroying a hundred skeletons.
  • Did you know (South of the Border Edition)? If you think I’m the only person that has ever taken notice of good ol’ South of the Border, please refer to this frame from Season 6 of The Simpsons.
    GET IT!?

    Yes, in 1995, Bart vs. Australia was already parodying of our friend in the sombrero. The Simpsons did it, indeed.

  • Would I play again: This game is super fun. I will play it again. That’s it. That’s the answer. I love this game.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mega Man Powered Up for the Sony PSP! Mega is all powered up and ready to go! And he got really short for some reason, too! Please look forward to it!

Gobble
No no. This isn’t right at all.

FGC #517 Retro Game Challenge

What we are looking at here is exactly what modern gaming has been chasing for the last decade.

Died right at the end

And you don’t even notice it.

Retro Game Challenge is an odd duck swimming in a flock of odd geese (they’re over at Lake Eerie). It is a game technically based on a Japanese game/variety show (and we use that already ambiguous definition loosely) named GameCenter CX / Retro Game Master, which has been running for 17 years as of this writing. It’s apparently out-surviving Survivor! And that seems appropriate, as the main focus of the show is its host, Shinya Arino, attempting to complete classic games with legendarily great difficulty levels. This isn’t just some random stream, though; between the commentary and jumpsuit, this works out to something closer to Mystery Science Theater 3000 for videogames. And how does that translate to an actual videogame? Weirdly! “Put upon, sarcastically titled Retro Game Master-Arino” becomes a vaguely malevolent, virtual “Actual Retro Master of Games-Arino” who curses the player to be a child flung back in time to play videogames with Arino’s younger self. Master the games, beat Arino’s challenges, and you’ll return to your present… And one would hope that reward is better than a childhood where you’re cursed to play videogames all day…

VrooomBut that’s just the story of Retro Game Challenge, what’s really important is the actual game that’s involved. Scratch that, the game involved is games. Retro Game Challenge does its best to create modern facsimiles of retro games of the past. Rather than turn this into a simple retro compilation hosted by a celebrity (and, to be clear, this humble blogger would not object to such a thing), Retro Game Challenge goes the extra mile and crafts loving homages to the games of yesterday. There’s Cosmic Gate, a (slightly) advanced reimaging of Galaga, and Star Prince, a slightly more advanced shoot ‘em up in the vein of Gradius or R-Type. Then there’s the Haggleman series, which starts off as a simple arcade action title ala Mappy Land or alike, but graduates to a full, cinematic action-explorer like Ninja Gaiden with a touch of Metroidvania underpinnings. Rally King evokes the bygone days of racing games before the advent of Mode 7, and Guadia Quest is Dragon Warrior mixed with a little Final Fantasy and Pokémon. In fact, Guadia Quest seems to stand as the mission statement of the Retro Game Challenge titles: it’s very much a classic JRPG, but it’s also concise and user-friendly, and does not suffer from any of the jank that might detract from someone enjoying a classic JRPG in modern times. It looks retro. It feels retro. But its sensibilities are decidedly modern, so you’re not going to eject it from your DS after the eighteenth time you had to search for the STAIRS command.

And this is one way in which Retro Game Challenge was prescient. RGC was revitalizing in 2007/2009 (took a lil’ bit to localize that one) because it had been so long since we saw these “retro” titles. The concept of 2-D platforming had been demoted to the occasional portable title, and, outside of a Castlevania or two, that kind of “retro” gameplay had been constrained to the shadows. Similarly, JRPGs were, at the time, wholly grand affairs that featured 80-hour long plots and battle systems that required a master’s in exp point management (reminder: RGC was on the same system that featured a Xenosaga title). The “simple” Retro Game Challenge titles were a breath of fresh air in that thick fog of Assassin’s Creeds and Batmans that looked like Assassin’s Creeds.

CheekyAnd history has proven that people liked that fresh air. Retro Game Challenge was released just before the online stores of consoles found that people actually wanted retro titles… they just maybe didn’t need to spend $60 on a disc to get ‘em. Make it clear that these retro titles were not trying to compete with whatever defined AAA that week (remember when everyone was obsessed with Left 4 Dead? That feels like a distant dream…), and suddenly people were all about Mega Man 9 or (console) Cave Story or whatever came down the pike. Retro Game Challenge seemed to herald the start of the age of retro games being available on online stores, and, soon enough, you wouldn’t have to wrap these games up in a faux-compilation, people would just be willing to drop a Hamilton on Haggle Man to play for the afternoon. Retro Game Challenge saw our shores just as online storefronts offered more and more retro game challenges.

But there was one aspect of Retro Game Challenge that was visionary and wholly unique. Need me to draw you a picture?

Who's that pokemon

You have a built-in audience.

Game Master Arino has sent you back in time to play videogames with Child Arino. Technically, throughout the whole of Retro Game Challenge, you are effectively living with Child Arino, playing on his console, reading his magazines, and occasionally consuming snacks provided by his mom. You are playing games that he owns, but does he ever ask for the controller? Does he ever demand you boot up two player mode? Does he ever even take a break to the Little Arino’s Room when you’re approaching hour seven of going for the high score in Space Prince? Nope! Arino is always there. He flinches when you lose a life, and he cheers when you find a secret. He is the perfect host, but, more importantly, he is the perfect spectator. He is never bored with your gaming. He never tires of seeing your latest accomplishments. He is enrapt in your gaming, and only asks that you occasionally answer a random, inane question or two. So, yes, not only is he the perfect audience, but he wants to hear your opinion on matters. Ask me anything, Arino!

LOOK AT ME DO THIS!And isn’t that what every youtuber and streamer is chasing? Hell, isn’t that even the secret point of most MMORPGs? Any game with an online social feature lives and dies by the ways it allows the player to “brag” about their accomplishments. Nintendo avoided “achievements” and “trophies” for this very reason? Well, why do I seem to keep seeing raids in Pokémon Sword/Shield featuring ‘mons that are completely useless, but abundantly shiny. Stop showing off, trainers! I see you! I get it! People have a natural, understandable urge to boast in almost every setting, and much of modern gaming has been constructed around showing off your latest “legendary pull” or “raid loot”. From Pokémon Go to Fortnite to Final Fantasy 14 to whatever that one shooter is that I always forget the name of (Destiny? I want to say Destiny), there are a richness of ways to crow about your achievements, and build a potentially rapt audience around your accomplishments. Modern gaming and entire websites are literally built around this concept, because if you’ve got spectators, you’re never going to stop playing. Of course you need to buy that new DLC, you’ve got to stay at the top of your game for the fans. You wouldn’t want to see that subscriber count go down, would you?

And it all boils down to trying to impress a friendly kid sprawled out on the carpet. It’s all chasing an audience as attentive as Young Arino.

One title predicted the next decade of gaming through a background element that most saw as an afterthought. Retro Game Challenge was secretly Prophetic Game Challenge.

FGC #517 Retro Game Challenge

  • System: A Nintendo DS game posing as a series of Nintendo Entertainment System games.
  • Number of Players: It kind of looks like there should be two players, but you’re actually going it alone on this one.
  • Favorite Retro Game: It says something that, back when this game was released, I was most interested in Gaudia Quest, the faux JRPG. Nowadays, I barely have time for real level grinding, left alone mini level grinding, so I’m going with Haggleman 3, the Ninja Gaiden/Metroid-alike. Haggleman 1 also gets bonus points for being exactly what it wants to be. Rally King can be hurled into the sun.
  • Poor kidLet’s Read: This is one of the few videogames… uh… ever that praises the gaming magazines of the retro era. Retro gaming histories at large seem to ignore the tremendous impact a simple preview for Super Mario Bros 3 or Final Fantasy could have on the curve of gaming’s history, and this is at least one game that acknowledges how “Classified Information” likely sold more titles than Toys R Us. Come on, whatever Mega Man Legacy Collection comes next, you can license a few Nintendo Power pages for the gallery.
  • And now a word from our Sponsor: Retro Game Challenge also promotes something we rarely saw in the United States: games with corporate sponsorship. There are a number of Famicom titles that tie in to various products and services, but it seems like the best we could ever get in the West was a Ninja Turtle or two. Of course, RGC would only be appropriate for the US if its Cup o Noodle version of Rally King was converted into Super HaggleMan 2
  • Goggle Bob Fact: Five years ago (damn!), back when I was still trying to figure out exactly what I was even going to call this site, I originally considered naming this whole “random games to play and write” project “The Retro Gaming Challenge”. Then I was reminded that that was taken by this very game, so I switched over to “Fustian Gaming Challenge”… primarily because I like the word “fustian”. And then, approximately seventy entries later, I realized I should have just gone with “Random Select”. It would explain all the featured fighting games!
  • Don't haggle meDid you know? At the absolute end of the ending, Cyber Arino will remind you that there isn’t anything more to the ending by stating plainly, “Even if you wait, there won’t be anything”. You can then wait for a full thirty minutes (not easy to do on a handheld!), and finally be greeting with Arino’s concluding statement of… “See ya”. He’s an honest guy.
  • Would I play again: Everything about this game is a delight. Not only will I likely play it again, but maybe I can dig up a fan translation of its sequel. Man, I hope that localization is half as good and thoughtful as the original…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Cannon Spike for the Sega Dreamcast! … Isn’t that just a special move from Street Fighter? Huh. Street Fighter is pretty good, though… Well, uh, please look forward to it.

Keep on kickin'

FGC #449 Cave Story

LETS EXPLORE SOME CAVESCave Story is an excellent combination of one of my favorite games ever, and my absolute worst fears.

Before I start waxing poetic by using phrases like “waxing poetic,” let’s look at the game itself. Cave Story is a metroidvania in the most classic of molds, harkening back to the original Metroid with its cave exploration and general graphical fidelity. You’re a protagonist alone in an unfamiliar place, and it’s your job to find the right combination of weapons and items to find your way out and maybe exterminate an ancient evil along the way. However, unlike Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night where you rarely encounter a single helpful soul (Maria barely counts as a human, left alone a helpful human), Cave Story has a deep and rich plot that is bolstered by interesting and relatable characters that may or may not have been transformed into rabbits. Hey, it happens. In short, Cave Story deftly combines the old school gameplay of Metroid with the more modern storytelling that advanced technology (and text limits) have afforded us. It’s the best of two epochs!

And, frankly, I love this game because it speaks directly to me. Things like hidden health upgrades, bonus missile stocks, and weapons that can only be obtained through careful planning (and never taking the first trade offered) are like catnip to my brain. Add in some fairly unique movement options like the machine gun and booster V2.0, and, in a way, there was never any way I wouldn’t absolutely love Cave Story. And, again, let’s not discount the plot and characters involved. Cave Story is actually about three or four totally different plots (the story of the science expedition, the story of the androids, the story of the original wizard bad boy, and the story of wabbit season) that coalesce in delightful and subtle ways. Quote learns a valuable lesson about, I don’t know, eating unusual flowers or something, and the world is saved once again thanks to teamwork and properly salvaging tow ropes. I approve of this game in every conceivable way. On some days, I’m convinced the game was made for me.

RawrAnd, in a way, it was. Cave Story was created by the one man team of Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya. He created the game over the course of five years, pulling together everything from the banging soundtrack to the individual pixel work on each sprite. He modeled the game after the beloved titles of his youth, so, yes, that Metroid link is as deliberate as it feels. This was a labor of love by someone who adores the genre, and, yes, someone else that has those same feelings is going to feel that love. As a result, I may have never been anywhere near Pixel in my life, but it feels like he has known what I have wanted all my life (I have very simple, Metroid-based dreams).

And, while Pixel may have touched my very heart, it’s unfortunate for him that my wallet has not touched him in kind.

Cave Story was initially released as a free download. Pixel had created his magnum opus as a labor of love, and, ultimately, a hobby. So it made a certain amount of sense that he freely shared the game with anyone that would be interested. He’s got a day job, dude, don’t worry about it. In time, Cave Story grew in popularity. Somewhere around there, American game publishing company Nicalis came calling, and worked with Pixel to bring the title to Steam, Wii, and Nintendo DS. From there, Nicalis ran with the title to release it on every videogame system under the sun. Give or take a rather unique 3DS version, it is exclusively Nicalis, front and center, releasing these versions of Cave Story that are all just the same Cave Story all over again. Yes, there may be new features or quality of life improvements, but the average player likely wouldn’t notice the difference between the OG PC version and latest Switch version. And it seems rather significant that only one of those versions is completely free…

And it also seems significant that Pixel’s next game was about a poor lil’ dude that is nearly killed by an uncaring “boss” that speaks some kind of incomprehensible, foreign language…

Where it all startsIn case you’re missing the official Goggle Bob brand complete-lack-of-subtlety subtlety here, I’m saying that Pixel created an amazing game from practically nothing, and Nicalis has been running with it for years and making a mint. And, however that arrangement works, I can safely say that I personally have not given Pixel a cent for Cave Story that didn’t also go through Nicalis.

And, as a creator myself, that scares the bejebus out of me.

Okay, look, if you’re this far into this article, I can technically say you’ve read this website in at least the most perfunctory ways. Some of you have been around from the beginning, and some of you likely just stumbled onto this article thanks to one of my more popular twitter friends. That’s okay! I’ve somehow written nearly 450 articles about individual videogames, two extensive Let’s Plays about four different games, and now two amusing (hopefully?) histories of two other videogame franchises. Taking just the FGC articles as an example here, my average essay runs about a thousand words before the lil’ “extras” section there at the bottom. That means that, assuming my math is remotely accurate, I’ve written 450,000 words about random videogames. Google claims adult books (sounds sexy) average around 90,000-100,000 words. This means, technically, if I wanted to publish my FGC articles as some manner of book, I could easily squeeze five volumes out of the project. And that’s just one section of this website! Don’t get me started on Goggle Bob’s Unauthorized Guide to Kingdom Hearts!

Pretty bubblesUnfortunately, not unlike an amazing and original videogame that unfortunately reuses copyrighted sprites, I’m sure such a project would have to be severely compromised for public publication. And GIFs! I love my GIFs! I can’t imagine some of these articles without angry hyper-realistic cats or Pac-Man waddling along. And Lord knows Disney (forever may The Mouse reign) might have an issue or two with me calling an officially licensed character an “unrepentant turd that should be boiled alive in his own festering juices” (also, to stay legally inculpable, I’m not going to name that turd as Axel). This whole website is a fan project, basically an excuse for me to justify three decades of being glued to a controller, and not something I ever thought I would monetize through something like a book.

The actual book I wrote, on the other hand, that’s a little different.

Everybody has a novel inside themselves, right? Well, mine is a ridiculous little story that has been kicking around my head roughly since I was a teenager. It sounds vaguely insane, but it’s a tale I’ve told myself while attempting to fall asleep on many a restless night. Over time, the repetition caused some mental editing and reformatting for something that might entertain another living human being, and, sometime around a few years ago, I decided to put pen to paper on the first volume. I want to say I could ream seven or so full books out of these little adventures, but I’ve got one completely written and edited by a surprisingly excitable editrix.

And she’s about the only other person that has ever read the dang thing.

Some kind of dog?I am a writer. I like writing. You know what I don’t like? Advertising myself. Selling myself. Aside from being a writer, I’m also a computer geek. Thanks to a lovely fluke of the universe, my skills are in demand, and people seem to tolerate paying me money for my services. As a weird result, (and I know some people are going to hate me for saying this) I’ve never had a legit “bring your résumé” job interview. In the most basic sense, every interview I’ve ever had was “make this doohickey work again”, and then I did, the end. While (as another weird twist in my career) I work “with” advertising, I am absolutely terrible at promoting myself. And I’m not trying to claim I’m humble or some such thing (I am absolutely the first person to ever tell someone that I’m awesome), it’s simply that I am absolute crap at conveying to someone else why they should care about something I care about (namely, again, me). I consider myself extraordinarily lucky that I’ve been able to participate in a field where my skills seem to speak for me, else I would have starved to death a long time ago (or at least be subsisting entirely on only the cheapest of discount ramen).

But I have no idea where to start with publishing a successful book. And emphasis on “successful”, there! I know I could self-publish. I know I could pay Amazon to put my words out there. Hell, I’ve got a website right here, and I could put up a chapter a week for the next year. I could do that with very little editing (though it would be weird to put posts on this site without any random GIFs…). On the other hand, I could pursue a legitimate publisher or, at the very least, a literary agent. But I have no idea how to do that! Or I have no idea how to produce a submission that is at all going to separate my story from the 10,000 other submissions they no doubt receive on a daily basis. I don’t have any idea how to sell my idea, whether that be to an audience that pays directly, or a company that sells novels to keep the lights on. How am I supposed to compete when my life’s work could never get as many hits as (what are the kids into these days?) a video of myself on Thicc Tok of my ass cheeks rhythmically clapping together to Mr. Sandman (nailed it)?

But why not just give it away? I mean, let’s be real here: I don’t expect my dinky little story to become the next Harry Potter. I don’t foresee a movie franchise or television series or even a commemorative holiday in my hometown. This is a book that, in my wildest fantasies, would probably only earn me a car payment or two. I know the state of the union of the written word, after all, because I can’t remember the last time I bought a fiction novel that wasn’t based on at least one of the Home Alone films. I could easily take the Pixel route, and simply release my fandom-influenced, labor of love work for free, and see if it picks up some steam from there. What’s the worst that could happen?

Well, the last game I played by Pixel was a heartfelt shooter that certainly looks like something by the guy that brought us Cave Story…

GO FROG GO

While the last game I played featuring the protagonists of Cave Story was a slapdash fighting game that seems to exist only to bolster Nicalis characters…

What is even happening

And… that concerns me.

I’ve had this story in my head for decades. More importantly, I’ve had these characters bumping around my noggin for years. I’m not going to say anything so hyperbolic as “these are my children”… but… uh… Well, they’re fictional, exist almost entirely in my imagination, and they’re at least more important to me than my amiibos. And, end of the day? That’s all I have! If these bad boys and girls aren’t going to earn me a mint, then at least I still have these toys securely in my mental toy chest. And you know what they’re not doing up there? Fighting each other in a crossover title that somehow also includes Shovel Knight! That would be a little weird!

But that’s the order of the day for Quote and Curly Brace. They’ll dance to whatever beat Nicalis plays. Forever.

They're fighting againYes, more than anything, this is a side effect of final boss stage capitalism. I put an extreme amount of effort into something that is unique and solely mine, and I’m not going to let it go until it can do something significant for me. Maybe I’ll make it into a webcomic (if I could only draw…)! Maybe I’ll eventually get off my butt and find a reputable publisher! Maybe I’ll actually profit off my ideas! But, in the meanwhile, I have no aptitude for finding a way to benefit from my own sweat and toil, and I’m not going to sign some devil’s bargain just to get it out there. I’ll lament that, unlike Cave Story, this work isn’t freely available to people that would enjoy it; but, by the same token, at least I don’t have to worry about my original character winding up in a Super Puzzle Fighter knock-off. C’est la vie.

It might be hypocritical, but it’s my choice.

I am jealous of the craft involved in Cave Story, but I am frightened that its ultimate fate could happen to my own creation. Cave Story is a potential dream and a nightmare all rolled into one videogame.

But, hey, at least it’s a damn fine videogame.

FGC #449 Cave Story

  • System: Initially just PC, but then it got around. Options include every Nintendo console and portable going back to the Wii, Linux, and, I don’t know, probably the PSP.
  • Number of players: It was initially a solitary quest, but more recent versions include two player co-op. Curly is always so helpful!
  • This sucks!Port-o-Call: Most versions of Cave Story are pretty much the same thing with a slightly variable translation or set of extra options. But there was also the 3DS version that reformatted the entire game into a psedo-3D environment optimized for the lil’ portable. And NIS’s Prinnies guest starred in a number of areas. It was weird! And kind of hard to judge jumps! But at least it was a slightly new adventure. And Quote gets a new hat!
  • So you’re the tired cliche of being highly successful in a very objective industry, but secretly want to break into a much more creative field? Hey, I never said I was highly successful.
  • Secret Confession: I think I have the route memorized at this point, but everything about saving Curly still makes me apprehensive. Every. Single. Time.
  • Favorite Weapon: God help me, I love the machine gun. But then I can’t get the amazing wannabe charge beam. I kind of hate that there isn’t an absolutely best weapon for every situation, and you must make a choice somewhere. If this game wasn’t so damn good, I’d be really annoyed!
  • Sanctuary: Oh, and hiding the most difficult challenges in your game behind a hidden and optional area available as part of the finale is some kind of brilliant. It completely recontextualizes the adventure, but it’s also wholly unnecessary if you don’t feel like mastering the ol’ Booster V.2. Pixel really knew what he was doing with this game, and it shows.
  • What the hell is Balrog? He’s a toaster. A sentient toaster. Or a frog. But only sometimes.
  • Did you know? Ballos, the absolute final boss of the game and the originator of so much misery (but not Misery), is a playable character in Nicalis’ Crystal Crisis. This seems wrong on so many levels that it may have inspired this entire article.
  • Would I play again: Release it on my damn toaster, and I’ll buy it for my damn toaster. Nicalis, you know the drill.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… MOOOOOORTAL KOOOOOOMBAT! I’m guessing my robot learned about my other recent endeavors, and wants to help, too. And you know what? We’re turning it into a theme week (or two). Show up next week for an article on Mortal Kombat, and then some vaguely related articles for the next two weeks on M-W-F. Extra content! Woo! Please look forward to it!

Super Happy!

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!