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FGC #616 Axiom Verge & Axiom Verge 2

This article contains spoilers for Axiom Verge and Axiom Verge 2. We go hard on Axiom Verge, but Axiom Verge 2 spoilers are considered to be “light”. That said, if you want to go into either game “clean”, you have been warned…

Very moodyFear. Isolation. Losing your very sense of self. Learning that you may be becoming a threat to yourself and others. Having an unstoppable magic gun that allows you to function as a God.

Which one of these doesn’t fit?

Axiom Verge is easily one of the best metroidvania titles of the last decade. For that matter, it is one of the best games, period, of all time. But its place in time is important, as much of Axiom Verge relies on an understanding from both the author and the audience of many games that have come before. Metroid was amazing and arguably kicked off the metroidvania (hey, it’s right there in the title) genre, but it was also a glitchy mess. Mario had one minus world, Metroid had an entire planet’s worth of areas that could be discovered if you jumped off of a doorway the “wrong” way. Axiom Verge uses this concept to create “intended glitches” in the form of breach blocks, unique areas, and even enemies that all rely on the visual shorthand of “oh, this area is fudged”. It takes what was already a pretty great planet explore ‘em up and transforms it into something simultaneously new and nostalgic. Axiom Verge is not the only game to utilize “glitches” and the shorthand of the medium itself to create memorable moments, but it might be the game that does so the most seamlessly and wittily. If Axiom Verge was just a dedicated metroidvania, it would be excellent, but its own unique flavor elevates it to something extraordinary.

Aim away from faceAnd, hey, as a special bonus, Axiom Verge has an interesting plot, too. You are Trace, a friendly scientist that was crippled in a lab accident a few years back. But he’s fine now! Because he was revived on an alien planet for the express purpose of committing the most complicated suicide known to man. “Your” Trace is a clone of a young man that would eventually become an interdimensional despot that conquered an entire planet and is at least partially responsible for releasing a plague that is wholly responsible for a genocide or two. Young Trace must now find and stop Old Trace, aka Athetos, and learn along the way that his own allies, the Rusalki, are maybe not the most reliable giant mechanoids in the omniverse. It creates tension from all sides of this tale, and the fact that the Rusalki are fond of reminding you that they can literally kill you at any time with a thought does not exactly engender a trust that you are on the right side of this conflict. Like many of the best metroidvania titles available, Axiom Verge has created a world where you feel alone not just because you’re stuck with only jumpy bugs for company, but because anything that can communicate in something other than screams is likely trying to kill you, too.

Except it is a little undercut by the fact that Axiom Verge seems to transform Trace into a friggin’ god.

Look, maybe I’m confused, and that is the point here. Trace is destined to become an unstoppable monster of a man, and maybe it was the Axiom Disrupter that got him there. Maybe that is the purpose of the exercise for Trace: absolute power corrupts, and absolute gun grants absolute power. But… that does not seem to be reinforced by Trace’s circumstances. When Trace wins the day, he is immediately betrayed by his Rusalki friend, and can only helplessly watch as promises are broken. Throughout the adventure, Trace attempts to show autonomy by resisting the violent nature of being a videogame protagonist, but, save one boss that forgot to lock the doors, Trace is forced to murder every mutant between his pod and freedom. There is even one “boss” that is just a soggy mess of altruistic protoplasm, but it’s gotta go, because it is in the way of a powerup. Over and over again, it is reinforced that Trace has no control over his own existence.

Drill away, tooBut Trace has seemingly unlimited control over everything else in his life. Trace starts with a basic peashooter, but it quickly graduates to something that can fire “bullets” that handle any situation. Somewhere in there, he acquires a drone that allows for nigh-invincible exploration (drones can die, but Trace doesn’t suffer any consequences), a grappling hook that improves traversal immensely, and something that could best be described as a “glitch gun”. That final item is particularly amazing, as even the most powerful enemy can be blasted through a wall until it has been glitched into a state of extreme vulnerability. And just when that glitch gun loses its luster, Trace acquires screen-impacting glitch bombs. And that is right about when Trace gains the ability to teleport to his own drones, so he can toss a lil’ buddy down a corridor, dodge every monster in the area, and then teleport to safety. Want to be the pacifist Trace always claims to be? Just drone around town and have a fun time!

And, ultimately, that is the problem. The reason Axiom Verge is great is, ultimately, because it is fun. And you don’t get to be fun by having a severely limited protagonist. It is fun to screw attack Zebes as Samus Aran, and it is fun to glitch, trick, and obliterate your mindless opponents in Axiom Verge. It is a blast to see a final area that initially seems daunting, but then gradually discover how to use your myriad of abilities to navigate the dangers without a single scratch. There is nothing more enjoyable than solving a series of logic puzzles, earning a flame thrower for your efforts, and then barbequing every problem you could ever encounter. Solving problems through variable violence might not be Trace’s bag, but it is irrefutably the most fun to be had on Sudra.

So is it even possible to have fun in a metroidvania without becoming ridiculously empowered and/or presenting a series of challenges that tax those ridiculous powers? Can the protagonist of a fun metroidvania be anything but a killing machine?

Gee, pretty convenient Axiom Verge 2 is right there.

This is a terrible placeIn a lot of ways, Axiom Verge 2 repeats Axiom Verge beats. Indra is a scientist-CEO that knows a thing or two about computer equipment, but not necessarily how to defeat a mecha-bug. She will get there, though, with the help of a number of powerups that upgrade her offensive and acrobatic abilities. And the ability to summon and/or be a drone, which is apparently a recurring thing! Dimension hopping will be involved, subduing someone that is maybe yourself is certainly on the menu, and, in the end, our heroine is going to toe the line between life and death as something wholly “other” from her original self. Every Axiom Verge protagonist dies at least once, apparently. If you took Trace through his metroidvania world, you’ll be perfectly comfortable with Indra bumping around a dimension or two in Axiom Verge 2. It’s a sequel! You’re back for more of the same, so there is a lot of “the same” here.

But where Axiom Verge 2 deviates wildly from its predecessor makes all the difference. Indra does not receive a magical gun at the start of her journey, she obtains something little more fantastical than a pickaxe. When Indra inevitably gains her first sufficiently-advanced-technology-is-indistinguishable-from-magic upgrade shortly thereafter, she gains exactly zero additional offensive options. From there, she gets… a boomerang. It worked for Link, right? Well, it barely works here, and, while Indra gains greater and greater abilities as her quest proceeds, she never comes close to gaining the same destructive strength as Trace. The shock droids of the first area are still just as likely to incapacitate Indra at the end of her adventure as the beginning, and the upgraded “boss” monsters… Well… probably best if you just keep walking, Indra. Ain’t nothin’ you can do to that mobile tank…

But, much more than in Axiom Verge, in Axiom Verge 2, that seems to be the whole point.

Big ol' boyThere is not a single boss in Axiom Verge that must be permanently killed. There are (by my count) two bosses you must actively/temporarily incapacitate, but every other opponent can be ignored. In fact, were it not for the generally claustrophobic halls of the Breach Dimension, it would likely be tremendously easier to beat Axiom Verge 2 by not attacking a single soul. Do you get rewards for smashing robots or felling alien fauna? A health power up here or there is your only prize, as any form of “leveling” is almost entirely based on exploration (there are, like, four upgrades out of a hundred you get from actual violence). Beyond that, you are never chastised for running, and a number of the biggest, scariest monsters will be content to lumber around the same room for eternity if you do not fell them. And why would you? For outright attacks, you have, at best, a cool sword. Ever try to take down a tree with a machete? And the tree is also trying to eat you? Well, it’s like that, so why would you put yourself in such danger? Just walk away, Indra!

Trace may have claimed to be something like a peacemaker, but he literally could not leave his first room without letting his weapon rip. Indra, meanwhile, may gain the (limited) power to be a thinking bomb, but she lives in a world where it is possible to only use that ability to open passageways. She gains similar glitch/hacking tech, but can use it exclusively to have enemies drop health powerups. Indra never becomes godlike in her abilities, and that is a good thing, because, in an exploration-based world, she actually has incentive to explore. Find those passageways! Discover all the ways a breach-attractor can get you out of trouble! Do it all for the possibility of not getting destroyed by a leering space head. You’ll thank me later!

And… that feels weird.

KABAMIn fact, it repeatedly feels wrong. I want to be gameplay-Trace, not plot-Trace. I want to roll around the planet with enough power to conquer said planet. I want the local rabble to fear my strength, because, dammit it feels good to be wholly in power. Hey, droid jet that is trying to kill me? I will hack you, embarrass you, and then kill you! Because I’m the best! But Indra can’t be the best. No matter how many upgrades you find on her world, she will never come close to being half as strong as Nintendo’s intergalactic bounty hunter. Indra is never going to be able to solve her problems with weaponry, because she will never find the weapons that would allow that. So, as a player, I am disappointed in her lack of laser boomerangs.

Yet, Axiom Verge 2 still winds up being one of the best games I have ever played. Axiom Verge 2 may actually be one of the best examples of gameplay-plot synergy out there. I genuinely believe Samus Aran is capable of being vulnerable around the space dragon that ate her parents… but it is harder to believe after I have seen her explode entire planets. Meanwhile, Indra is a mother, scientist, and CEO, and I believe this is how someone from those circumstances would become a powerful robot lady. Is she vastly changed by the end of her quest? Of course. But she also is not vaporizing space monsters with a cannon capable of melting mountains. She might be able to morph into a drone, but that doesn’t give her a leg up on swinging a sword. While this author doesn’t know anyone that became a cyborg while exploring another dimension, that progression seems right. Axiom Verge 2 might turn the typical Metroid paradigm on its head, but it feels like it gets there by an honest path.

But this is a videogame website, so we have to ask the question: which is better? We have two vaguely mundane protagonists, but only one wielding a god-gun. And which makes for a better game? Well, I am a wiener, so I am going to claim both. I want Axiom Verge, because I like mowing down monsters. But Axiom Verge 2 felt more genuine and thoughtful, so I suppose I can give up raw power for authenticity. Axiom Verge 2 initially disappointed me by not being Axiom Verge, but it seems like a game I might think back on more often than its progenitor.

… Or I’ll just grab a new weapon that doubles as a grappling hook, and forget those “feelings” things ever happened…

FGC #616 Axiom Verge & Axiom Verge 2

  • Zipping AroundSystem: Axiom Verge was released on everything relevant at its release (PS4, PC, WiiU, Xbox One, the friggen’ Vita), and a few extra systems since (Nintendo Switch). Axiom Verge 2 is currently on Switch, PC, and PS4, and I think a Playstation 5 version is incoming. Or it is just the PS4 version? Who the heck knows.
  • Number of players: Speed running against other players is kind of like competitive multiplayer, but it is primarily single player.
  • Just play the gig, man: The music in both games is incredible. And so is the pixel art, level design, and general plotting. But the music is really good! … Like everything else. Dammit.
  • Alone in the Dark: Okay, maybe my main “disappointment” with Axiom Verge 2 is that it uses dynamic lighting to create “dark” areas in early parts of the game. While it makes for an excellent, moody setting, I abhor any malady in a videogame that hampers the player’s sight. This also applies to status effects in Kingdom Hearts PSP titles, and any time Mario encounters a “dark” ghost house. I am having flashbacks to my college, tic-tac-sized TV screen. It’s traumatic!
  • A matter of skill: Also, I do not care for allocating “skill points” in Axiom Verge 2. This is a great way to take hold of your unique playstyle or something, but it mostly just gives me choice paralysis, and I never upgrade anything, because I assume I am going to get some awesome ability later in the game, and not have the scratch to buy its cooler version. And that happens! When you get a flying powerup super late in the game! Please go back to just dropping missile containers, please.
  • Just hanging outStory Time (super-duper spoilers): It is possible and very probable that the big connection between Axiom Verge and Axiom Verge 2 is that Indra of AV2 eventually becomes Ophelia the giant robot lady of Axiom Verge, thus making AV2 a prequel to Trace’s adventures. And there are a lot of little lore bits, too, like how your breach buddy can accidentally infect humans, and transform them into Axiom Verge bosses. Or it is all a bunch of coincidences in an infinite multiverse, and we should really just relax.
  • Favorite boss (first game): Never going to forget that Kraid wannabe that was peaking out of an acid pool in Axiom Verge. He might not have moved much, but he certainly was tall. And, sometimes, tall is all you need.
  • Favorite boss (second game): The “always revive every time” boss battle with yourself seemed to initially tease that you were both invincible, but having a respawn point right there added a special level of futility to the proceedings. Violence is not the answer! When everyone is immortal, at least…
  • Did you know? Okay, nothing in Axiom Verge 2 comes close to the hallucination sequence in Axiom Verge, so it is hard to admit that one game isn’t better than the other.
  • Would I play again: Yes. Duh. I was excited to have an excuse to play Axiom Verge again in time for Axiom Verge 2, and I will likely still think the same in five years when Axiom Verge 3 rolls around. Good stuff!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Astro Boy: Omega Factor for the Gameboy Advance! Get ready for the other little metal boy on the block! Please look forward to it!

Here it comes
Just go ahead and utilize that doomsday weapon for funsies

FGC #613 Santa’s X-Mas Adventure & Hades

They're like the same gameSanta’s Xmas Adventure Complete Edition ostensibly should be the most Christmas-y game available for my Playstation 4. However, when Santa’s Xmas Adventure appeared on a Black Friday Sale, I also picked up a physical copy of Hades, a title about a dude trying to escape some pretty hellish circumstances. And you know what? Hades might just be the most yule title in the inventory right now.

So let’s see how ostensible Christmas title Santa’s Xmas Adventure stacks up to Hades.

Christmas is about Presents!

Santa’s Xmas Adventure is straightforward. You know the elves? And all the presents they make for children? Well, those Tolkien-rejects done messed up this holiday season, and now the presents are spread all over the North Pole. Santa must venture out into the cold all on his lonesome to retrieve the presents, and only once his sack is filled to the brim with gifts will Christmas truly begin. Go, Santa, collect all the presents for everlasting peace!

Very puzzlingExcept there is a significant step missing in this Santa’s Christmas quest: he doesn’t actually give any presents. While Santa collects all the lost presents, he patently ignores distributing the presents to all the good little boys and girls of the world. I understand that some Santa’s Xmas Adventure fanfic rectifies this issue by creating unique scenarios wherein Santa flies presents around the world at (apparently) the speed of light, but the actual game does not include any present delivery.

Meanwhile, Hades is lousy with present giving and receiving. Zagreus is going to fight his way through every last level of the Underworld on his way up to the surface, but he wouldn’t make it past his first surprisingly fast fat guy without a boon or two from the Olympians. Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes, and a whole host of other gods are continually offering their assistance to Hades, and, while these boons are fairly random, they are indispensable when Zagreus is mowing down plague rats. Zagreus gets by with a little gifting from his friends.

But gifts are not a one way street! Zagreus may return the favor by offering gifts of his own to gods, friends, and skeletons. By the time Zaggy is making significant progress in his Sisyphean journey, he is bubbling back up at home with a whole host of presents for any friendly that happens to be skulking around the great hall. And is there anything more Christmassy than giving the family dog some extra pets and an ambrosia treato?

‘Tis better to give than to receive, and Zagreus knows that better than Santa.

Hades: 1
Santa’s Xmas Adventure: 0

Christmas is about making lists, checking them twice

Check it as many times as you needIt is right there in the song: he is making a list, and he is checking it twice. Santa is known for his list keeping, but isn’t this a tradition that has transferred to us mundane humans? Of course you are getting gifts for immediate family members, but which of your friends rank? Are you going to the Hallmark store for your coworkers? Did Debbie in accounting rank this year, but Judy at reception is right out? And don’t forget to weigh all of your buddies against shipping times! I know Jimmy is a fan of all those etsy stores, but you better order that custom keychain two months before his favorite holiday!

Hades is a rogue-like. In a way, Christmas is a rogue-like. You make progress, you do good, you do bad, and, no matter the end result, it is still going to be something you have to do again next year. And, in much the same way you gradually get better at giving your friends and family gifts (or just learning that some people are only ever worth a Shrek 12th Anniversary Commemorative Ornament), you will gradually get better at guiding Zagreus to the surface. And lists help! There are lists to spare in Hades, with everything from the prophecies that offer rewards for performing specific actions, to oodles of skills and abilities to upgrade. And, like in real life, the lists serve to simultaneously highlight your goals and allow you to make informed decisions. Sure, you might die if you do not get that triple attack bonus/a gift for Steve, but wouldn’t you rather score something so much more useless because it allows you to put another check next to a name on a list? You know what is really important, right?

Santa’s Xmas adventure just lists whether or not you have collected all the presents in a level, and how many presents you need to unlock the next area. Ho Ho Ho-Hum.

Hades: 2
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 0

Christmas is about Santa

Surely Santa’s X-Mas Adventure is going to score the point here! This is a game all about a magical bearded dude in a red robe who judges…

SANTA!

Okay, both games get a point for that one.

Hades: 3
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 1

Christmas is all about Winter

So icy!Santa’s X-Mas Adventure nails this one! Santa must trawl all along the North Pole to find his missing presents, and the environment is veritably the reason for the season. Santa’s home is known for its icy conditions, so that lends itself smoothly to sliding blocks around to make a path for jolly ol’ St. Nick. Granted, games have made the “slide blocks” concept work without blizzard conditions before, but it is nice to have an explanation for why your cursor can modify the landscape. Couple this with the endless snow during the game, and Santa’s X-Mas Adventure has got the Solstice Season down pat.

Except… well… It’s hard not to give Hades a point here, too. The concepts of temperature and seasons are woven so subtly into the narrative, it is impossible to ignore how Winter is just as important to the quixotic quest as a certain three-headed dog. Zagreus was born and raised in the underworld, so he literally does not understand an environment that is completely lacking in a steady stream of lava. Upon reaching the surface, Zagreus is shocked by the snowy landscape, and, from that point on, he gains the ability to utilize the cold (of grandma) as a chillingly effective offense. In the land of the hot, the cool is king! It may be hard to pin down an exact year for Hades’ origin, but it can be said with some finality that it takes place during a (the?) winter.

So, yes, everyone is a winner for this Winter Solstice.

Hades: 4
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 2

Christmas is all about the music!

I like it hereHades has some rocking tunes (played by one of the most famous bards in the business). Unfortunately for our rankings, Hades contains exactly zero verifiable Christmas songs. A tune or two may include some bell, but that is as good as it gets.

Santa’s X-Mas Adventure meanwhile… Wait… Dammit! There are no Christmas songs in this Christmas game. Terrible! I mean, nobody is demanding Mariah Carey do some licensing for a game that started out as a cell phone distraction, but could we grab a few public domain ditties for a little more Christmas cheer? A very chiptune Silent Night? A carol about caroling? Something?

Hades does not receive a point, and Santa’s X-Mas Adventure loses a point. This is the only fair path.

Hades: 4
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 1

Christmas is all about family!

All about the familyThere is the theory that if there was no Christmas, someone would invent Christmas. Christmas comes at what has historically been the worst time of the year; a time when the crops have all frozen, we must rely on the leftovers of whatever is immediately available, and, if you leave grandma outside too long, she’s not getting a tan, she’s losing a toe. It is only in the most recent years of human history that “the winter” was anything but a death sentence, so it is only natural that everyone would come together during these trying, annually precedented times and find a way to celebrate. Over the years, it has gone from celebrating what might be the last stretch available with loved ones to a time when Debbie from accounting xeroxes the bottom of her elf costume during company cocktails, but it is still a celebration in defiance of a world that seems to be trying to kill you and yours.

But it ain’t always pretty.

We humans huddle together with our tribe when facing brutality, whether that brutality come from unfeeling elements or other tribes. This does not mean our own “tribe” is a boundless fountain of love. This does not mean we even have to like our own tribe. It simply means that those that we band together with have the tiniest bit of empathy, and are going to be more useful in times of danger than a blanket made of angry weasels (Winter is rough, man). As everyone knows and is reminded this time of year, visiting family may lead to a warm bed and a few gifts, but it may also lead to conversations that remind you that you inadvertently belong to a “tribe” that also includes an unhealthy amount of hate, fear, and blockchain evangelists.

When you get down to it, Hades is about that same thing. Hades is the story of a father that lies for altruistic reasons, a son that demands to know the truth, and a mother that genuinely wants to help, but is too hurt to do so (or she doesn’t understand how boats work). Everyone else is trying to assist in some way or another… though sometimes that support varies from doling out boons from the heavens (which, ultimately, is the Ancient Grecian equivalent of mailing an Amazon gift card) to rounding up your sisters to actively attempt murder (the toughest of loves). Friend, foe, or puppy that desires satyr snacks, they are all cooperating with our hero in some way, and they all have their own motivations for doing so. And, in some of the most twisted ways, every one of these characters cares for Zagreus. They are a family. And Hades is about family at all times.

Santa’s X-Mas Adventure features a Santa that might not even have a family. This is a Santa Claus entirely alone in a cold, endless winter. This is a depressing Santa. Nobody wants that!

Hades: 5
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 1

Happy Holidays, everybody. Now go out and use those gift cards to score the hottest Christmas game available, Hades.

FGC #613 Santa’s X-Mas Adventure

  • Okay we're done with this nowSystem: This has to be a graduated mobile game, right? Regardless, there is definitely a Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 version. Maybe it was just designed for the Switch? Touch controls seem kind of natural…
  • Number of players: Santa is a lone (timber) wolf, baby.
  • So it’s a puzzle game? Yep, just move blocks so Santa can walk to the goal. You are supposed to gather presents along the way, but you don’t strictly have to do that to unlock graduating levels. Eventually, the game ends when the heat death of the universe guarantees that human life can no longer survive.
  • What’s in a name: This is definitely Santa’s X-Mas Adventure. One must assume that Santa’s Christmas Adventure was already taken. Either that, or Master Xehanort stole naming privileges.
  • Did you know? Frosty the Snowman, It’s Beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Let it Snow, and Little Drummer Boy are all copyrighted Christmas songs. The Wassail Song, We Three Kings, and Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella are all public domain. Choose wisely.
  • Would I play again: It is nice to see a game that is unashamedly cashing in on grandmas that don’t know what to get their videogame playing grandchildren. I appreciate that. This is a terrible, boring videogame, but I appreciate its Christmas chutzpah.

FGC #613 Hades

  • Bounce backSystem: Oh, good, a game with an actual Wikipedia entry… PC, Mac, Switch, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series XS… Yes, this is the new Shovel Knight for “awesome and available on damn near everything”.
  • Number of players: It seems like finding some way to DLC two player content would be the exact kind of thing that would happen to this critical darling, but I think it remains single player.
  • So, did you beat it? I refuse to even acknowledge any “no boons, infinity heat” challenge runs that are out there, but I did see to it that this family could experience something like a happy conclusion. I mean, it really is kind of impressive that there is a legitimate “ending” for a game that is meant to loop infinitely.
  • Favorite Weapon: Exagryph, the Adamant Rail, is my end all and be all. In any game that puts a premium on health (well, technically, that’s every game, but something like Mega Man is a lot more generous with the healing), I am going to take the choice that allows me to win… but be way the hell over there. And some of the tracking powerups allow for a complete lack of aiming, which is great for my sniper-adverse ass.
  • Most Hated Boss, Oh my God: Theseus and his bull buddy can eat a whole trash bag of expired gyros. I conceptually understand that they are the “master class” for Elysium, and basically only use attacks that imitate the minions that were creeping around the afterlife for heroes. But! They’re both way too… is random the right word? It feels random! They might be as carefully patterned as every other boss, but, yes, that fight feels random, and that is the enemy of fun in a rogue-like. … Yes, I know rogue-likes are random incarnate! Shut-up!
  • PlinkDid you know? “Classical” Zagreus seems to be most remembered as the son of Zeus, not Hades. This is presumably because Zaggy’s mother is fairly consistently Persephone, and Hades’ involvement is nebulous when you’re talking about a guy that ultimately seems to have wound up as a Dionysus-esque party god. He’s generally associated with being dead or a god of the dead, though, so he is an excellent choice for a professional Hell escaper.
  • Would I play again: If I had played this game in 2020, it likely would have been my game of the year. Oh well! It’s still pretty damn amazing in 2021, though! Oh, speaking of which…

What’s next? The time has come yet again for the annual year end round up, so the first post of 2022 is going to be the best of 2021. Please look forward to it!

FGC #593 Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Once, Use Forever Items

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

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

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

Straight Upgrade Items

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

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

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

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

One and Done, Limited Items

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

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

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

Wish I could say the same about our final category…

Freemium Items

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

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

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

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

Er-hem.

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

FGC #593 Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

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

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

I can!

FGC #592 Muse Dash

Let's DashSo you’ve decided to get into the wonderful world of the videogame rhythm genre. Good for you! Rhythm games are some of the best pickup and play games out there, as they traditionally feature challenges that are exactly one song’s length. No half-hour failure states to be seen in this genre! And the music! Who doesn’t love music? Nobody, that’s who! So everyone should love rhythm games, too!

But, please be aware that there are three distinct kinds of rhythm games. In an effort to help a neophyte understand what has been happening in this genre that has been kicking around for 25 years, please enjoy a quick rundown of the places you’ll see.

The Artisanal Rhythm Game

There were proto-rhythm games practically as long as gaming has existed (anyone remember that bit in Back to the Future? I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet), but many point to PaRappa the Rapper as the true origin of what we consider to be rhythm games. And it makes sense! This was one of the first games released on a CD-based system that could handle something like “real” songs (if there is a library of early PC games weeping in the corner at this statement: good), and, after a slew of games where children wearing their pants backwards demanded that you make their videos, someone had finally figured out a good way to marry music to gameplay. On a superficial level, PaRappa was just pressing prescribed buttons to a preset beat. But on a practical level? Like all artisanal rhythm games, PaRappa was an inimitable experience that left an indelible impression on anyone that dared take driving lessons with a rapping dog.

Take it easyAnd why was PaRappa so unforgettable? Well, quite simply, because it was fun while goddamned everything about it funneled back into “make this more fun”. It was fun to press buttons to the beat. It was fun to be ranked “cool”. It was fun to meet these goofy characters. It was fun to see this unique art style in motion. The music was fun. The graphics were fun. Even seeing a game over screen, complete with PaRappa lamenting how he apparently did not believe hard enough, is fun. Absolutely everything about PaRappa fed back into one incredibly solid presentation, and, while the game was maybe not as long as those “70 hour JRPGs” that were also on the system, every moment you did play was incredible. It was not just about the songs or the lyrics or the characters, it was everything.

PaRappa the Rapper itself had a handful of sequels, and there were a few other games outside of PaRappa’s universe that tried for something similar. Gitaroo-Man immediately springs to mind as one of the luminaries of this era of rhythm games, but there was also the likes of Mad Maestro and Vib-Ribbon. All of these titles were unique not in just their subjects and presentations, but also in that they generally had wildly different ways to interpret “rhythm” as more than merely “press X when I say so”. Um Jammer Lammy and Gitaroo-Man both strummed their guitars in very different ways. And, give or take the classics of Mad Maestro, all of these games had wholly unique soundtracks that had to be good songs and good levels.

Unfortunately, it seems that this kind of presentation was not sustainable. Even at the height of the artisanal rhythm game age, there were only a few Space Channels to tune into. Entirely “artisanal” titles basically required that the games last about as long as your average album (or maybe a 2-disc greatest hits CD set), and, amazing presentation or no, people wanted more content. Pouring piles of resources into a 40 minute experience was never going to be viable, and the only reason we have a modern descendant of this age of rhythm games is that apparently Hatsune Miku is more prodigious than we ever could have imagined. If you want a Gitaroo-esque experience, you basically need to sign on with a Vocaloid. Otherwise, you are probably playing with the rhythm genre that ate artisanal’s lunch…

The Song-based Rhythm Game

Stay classyThis one makes sense, right? You play rhythm games for the music, so why not base the entire game around the music. Drop any unnecessary graphics, give up on even the illusion of a story, make all the characters generic avatars, and pour your entire budget into licensing rights. Maybe invest an extra six bucks in some hunk of plastic vaguely shaped like a musical instrument, and, bingo bongo, you’ve got an award-winning genre. Guitar Hero killed the Gitaroo-Man.

And that may not have been a bad thing.

If we acknowledge that artisanal rhythm titles were unsustainable, then perhaps we should admit that the likes of Guitar Hero, Rock Band, or even Dance Dance Revolution could be an infinite source of games. There is new music being produced every second of every day, and it would not be impossible to adapt every week’s Top 40 to a Rock Band chart. And, looking at a few digital storefronts, I am pretty sure the Rock Band DLC model tried that! And why wouldn’t they? When divorced from the burden of things like varied presentation or any semblance of a plot, you can just sync up your game to the radio and call it a day. Nobody is ever going to complain about more Beatles songs!

And while it may sound harsh to repeatedly insult an entire genre because nobody wanted to dress a teenager up in a winged helmet anymore, let us be clear on one thing: these rhythm games are just as fun as their more intricate forbearers. There is a reason the Guitar Hero controller became a staple of households in the early 21st Century, and you will pry my Taiko: Drum Master drum from my cold, calloused drummin’ hands. Some attempts within this genre did not work particularly well (hello again, DJ Hero), but whether you were rolling out a dance mat or an entire multipiece rock band, the rhythm games that existed to support their song libraries were universally fun. And modern releases in this genre (Taiko drumming is back, baby) remind us that we do not need ridiculous peripherals to have fun. Of course, Just Dance 20XX already knew that…

ShinyBut, as Rock Band gradually faded into memory (and Dance Dance Revolution barely made it out of the 90s), a simple question was posed: could rhythm games get back to being games? Sure, we have all seen people use a DDR mat to beat Final Fantasy 7, but could there be games designed to be videogames and rhythm games? Not quite the rhythm experiences of the artisanal titles, and something that could include a playlist like your typical Guitar Hero? Well…

The Rhythm Game Games

What makes a videogame a videogame? Why is digital solitaire considered some kind of empty diversion, while Triple Triad is lauded as the second coming of Cyber Jesus? How is Tetris the most important videogame of all time, while Candy Crush is exploitative dreck? Because nerds are snobs we have certain expectations about what makes a videogame a videogame. If you want to differentiate Lord of the Rings cosplay from a formal Final Fantasy game, you need a few of those trappings that always work as bullet points on the back of a box. Leveling system? Item management? Crafting? Gimme something, potential videogame, otherwise you will have to wallow in the Minesweeper pit.

Hit itDespite ranking and scores, there is a lot about the Song-based Rhythm Games Collection that does not feel like a videogame. It is just pressing buttons to a rhythm! You could annoy the rest of the freeway and just do that with your FM radio and a car horn! Similarly, while the Artisanal Rhythm Game may have all the progress and “numbers go up” you would expect from seeing Cloud venture forth to murder the guy with the best hair on the planet, the natural limits of the presentation preclude unlimited song variety. If only there were a way to keep a rhythm game visually interesting, include a variety of “systems” to keep the gamers happy, but still keep it simple enough to slot in an entire Top 40 worth of content. And it wouldn’t hurt if there were unlockables for days, too…

The Rhythm Game Games scratch the rhythm and game itches equally. On one hand, you have a game that is simple enough to support an initial pile of songs, and then include DLC tunes that will last until the workers stop building them new ones. On the other hand, you have all sorts of interesting “systems” included, and many of these systems allow you to unlock new songs, styles, and playable characters. Can you do such in other games? Of course! But in a Rhythm Game Game, it actually matters.

Take the title that inspired today’s article: Muse Dash. Muse Dash touts “97 initial popular songs” and “continuous free updates” as of its 2019 launch. Playing this title two years later, I am pretty sure I have discovered it currently includes 9,409 songs… though my math may be a tweak off. It takes a while to scroll through the song menus! And the sheer variety of songs available is important, because you are going to want to play through a lot of songs as Muse Dash allows your “player profile to level up”, and earn a lot of bits and baubles along with every level up. Want to earn all the playable characters? The “playable” assistants? Loading screen images? Marginally animated title screens? Well then you better get to playing through some of those 88,000,000 songs, because you have a lot of trophies to earn!

Look awayActually, referring to all the collectibles in Muse Dash as “trophies” is wildly reductive. Star high school quarterbacks and gamers alike all eventually learn the same truth: trophies are useless. But in Muse Dash, you earn actual gameplay elements. There are multiple characters to unlock (well, technically, there are only three characters, but they have multiple costumes that apparently change said character’s personalities, so same diff), but, more important than the cosmetic changes, every character allows for a different play “style”. One choice allows “excellent” ratings to be more easily attainable, while another continues the combo count regardless of an errant button press. One option even transforms the game into a vertical mode! In much the same way that playing as different characters in a fighting game radically changes the experience, the possibilities in Muse Dash similarly change the game. And that is before we get to the “helper” characters that not only offer different possibilities individually, but may combine with the playable characters in strange, unique, or just plain profitable ways. Think of all the different ways you can combine these choices into a game that is wholly customized for you!

Why, it is almost like there is an entire game in these menus before you play the rhythm game proper. It is a Rhythm Game Game.

This is, of course, nothing new in gaming. The idea that you spend more time outside of battles fiddling in menus in Pokémon or Final Fantasy alike is something that was established well before the turn of the millennium. And, in fact, simulating that “menu play” from Final Fantasy may have accidentally birthed this whole genre in Final Fantasy Theatrhythm. This is all nothing new to gaming at large, but it is new to the rhythm genre that has never really found the same kind of foothold as beat ‘em ups, fighting games, or even rogue-likes. Thanks to games like Muse Dash, people who “like videogames” can like rhythm games!

Or… uh… it looks like the company that made Muse Dash filed for bankruptcy in April?

Looking forward to updating this article with the next, next generation of rhythm games!

FGC #592 Muse Dash

  • Good coloringSystem: Nintendo Switch is where I played it, and this apparently also has a following on mobile devices. … But playing without buttons is not for me. Warioware can go touch itself.
  • Number of players: You could see how split screen could work for this without much effort, but this is definitely one player.
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: There does not seem to be a single named male character in this entire game. That’s good! And the first item on the PeroPeroGames webstore is a statue of the Muse Dash heroine in bunny lingerie. That’s bad! The background noise of Muse Dash seems to split its attention between “bubblegum cute” and “these characters are sexy and bouncing” amongst its various menus, but the actual gameplay and general tone leans closer to “cute”.
  • Favorite Song: I would very much like to tell you my favorite song, but… I lost it. There was one in there I really liked! And I should have marked it as a favorite, as now it is lost in the hundreds-strong playlist of Muse Dash. The dangers of always adhering to that “random” button…
  • Favorite Stage: If I have one major complaint about Muse Dash, it’s that it contains a whole seven stages for its billion songs, and of those, approximately 80% seem to utilize the boring “Space Station” area (which looks more like a construction site). That said, the Castle area, filled with ghosts, skeletons, and a succubus, should be the dominant level. Those goofy vampires look so happy!
  • Get 'emDid you know? This game recommends you wear wired headphones on every boot. I have not worn headphones with a gaming system since… the Sega Genesis. What? I usually play in a room by myself! I like a warm sound in the room… Or to be listening to something else.
  • Would I play again: This is a fun game to have loaded on my Switch forever. I could see playing a song here or there when I have a few moments between more dedicated playing experiences. … Or when I’m waiting for Smash Bros. to download an update… Whatever! This is a fun gamey game, and I can continue to earn bibs and baubles while playing great songs anytime.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest! It’s time to see if we can reassemble even a single Dracula! Please look forward to it!

Let's go!
Sometimes things can get hectic