Tag Archives: metroidvania

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 #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!