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FGC #563 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode & Wallachia Reign of Dracula

Thighs!Look, I’ve had a few “rules” for this project from the very beginning. One of those rules is that I not exclusively focus on the big, obvious titles. Stretch Panic needs love, too, and we don’t have to spend all day talking about Super Mario Bros. 3 and its infernal hopping shoes. This is basic stuff, people, and, while I feel I need to address a few games before I wrap up this blog around post #655 or so (less than a hundred to go! I’m sticking to that! Probably!), I am doing my best to not make this blog an endless parade of Final Fantasy titles. There is still time for the likes of Mappy Land!

But, my good dudes, I have a confession to make: I can’t stop posting about Castlevania games. I’m sorry, but they are so… what are the words I’m looking for here… They are so simultaneously rigidly defined, yet variable. There are always the same basic pieces in play, but there are so many ways those components can be arranged that you get a different game every time. Sometimes there is a single castle, sometimes that castle gets flipped upside down, and sometimes you are just stalking around the countryside looking for ribs. You’ve got options! And combine that with gameplay that is similarly “familiar, but different”, and you have a franchise that could prompt this humble blogger to write literally volumes.

So imagine my relief when the gods gifted me two Castlevania games that weren’t really Castlevania games. I don’t have to reset the “days since a Castlevania post” sign now! Hooray!

Let’s start with the Not-Castlevania game that is the most Castlevania: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode.

Flip alongFirst of all, it is known that this blog has previously based entire articles around DLC expansions. So let us be clear here: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode is not an expansion. It is not bonus content. It is an entire game. Why is it so easy to plainly state that? Because B:RotNCM is exactly the length of Castlevania (1). It is by definition a complete game because it apes a complete game in unmistakable ways. There are 5.5 stages with six bosses. It is a complete journey through one (1) haunted mansion, and contains grinding gears, underground waterways, and a surprisingly survivable fall from a tower. There is an axe-bone, shard-stop watch, cross-boomerang, and dagger-uhhh-dagger. This is Castlevania to a C, and, if your only memories of Castlevania exist within a fog that can accumulate over a few years, you would be forgiven for believing this is little more than a remake with HD graphics (and maybe a few serial numbers filed off the Medusa Heads).

But, like a good Castlevania title, the devil’s in the details (vampire’s in the variables?). While Miriam may initially appear to be as limited as the strong-but-crotchety Simon Belmont, actually playing with your protagonist reveals that she has all the finesse of the much more acrobatic Richter Belmont. And that’s kind of amazing! Bloodstained: Classic Mode effectively marries the energetic options of Castlevania’s final “level-based” 2-D hero with the general, measured layouts of the franchise’s premiere. This creates the unrivaled experience of producing a Castlevania game that has a laser-focused path to victory (no branching rivers in this Castlevania adventure) but with a heroine that can afford to backflip away from an encroaching flea-monkey. And when you start finding the “secret” ways to use Miriam’s entire arsenal…

Weeeee

Well, who needs Grant when you’re a one woman army of super powers? Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode initially gives the impression of a nostalgic rehash of things that came before, but is its own experience in all the right ways.

And, speaking of surprisingly innovative titles, there’s Wallachia Reign of Dracula, another game that follows a warrior woman fighting a castle lord through a very different path.

The bestiary has defined Castlevania practically from its inception. You fight Dracula, obviously, but on your way through his humble abode you also battle a Greek Gorgon, a bat of unusual size, Egyptian pharaohs, and Frankenstein(‘s monster buddy, Flea Man). In later games, Dracula’s menagerie would expand to include elder gods, headless pirates, and an arguably extraneous number of succubi. You could imagine an entire tale about where Dracula found all those malcontents! Bloodstained, Classic Mode or no, followed this template while swapping gorgons for dullahans, but still retained much of the (public domain) cast of characters. The message is clear: If you’re going to fight Dracula/a reasonable simulacrum of a nefarious count, you’re going to have to put your weapon of choice through more than a few zombies.

Wallachia Reign of Dracula poses a different question: what if Vlad III Dracula aka Vlad the Impaler was just, ya know, a dude that liked impaling?

Don't look backElcin is a woman that had a seriously bad Tuesday when Vlad invaded her hometown, kidnapped her brother, and killed her parents. Elcin vowed revenge, and took up a bow and sword to track down her tormentor and kick his ass straight off his throne. But Vlad isn’t going to take this insurrection lying down, so he sicks his entire army on the poor woman. And that army? Well, there are a lot of soldiers. Some of the soldiers are abnormally tall, and a couple of ‘em have horses. There are also some really agile dudes that flip around with deadly claws. Oh! And there are a few dogs, hawks, and bears, too. Other than that? Sorry, this Vlad is entirely mundane, so there isn’t a reanimated skeleton to be seen. There are plenty of corpses, as Vlad is still just wild about impaling, but those carcasses aren’t going anywhere. There is horror for Elcin to encounter, but those horrors are no more fantastic than a visit to a funeral home (well, at least a funeral home in a remarkably bad neighborhood).

But a mundane world does not mean Elcin is trapped in a boring game. Wallachia Reign of Dracula publicly advertises that it is a retro title in the vein of Castlevania, but it is much closer to an old-school “arcade action” arcade title like Magic Sword or Willow. And that’s pretty great, as that whole genre seems to have fallen by the wayside as retro titles continue to revisit the likes of Mega Man or Final Fight. The concept of occasionally jumping over obstacles but mostly wholesale murdering a pile of anonymous grunts with long range weapons needs love, too! And you’ve got a sword that works more like a shield for incoming projectiles, too, so there is more nuance here than “grab a turbo controller and let those unlimited arrows fly”.

Look out for jugglersIn fact, it is somewhere in that meticulous combat that Wallachia Reign of Dracula feels the most like a Castlevania title. Even when there aren’t werewolves stalking about, there is still pressure around every corner, and the most important decisions you ever make are regarding threat control. You can take the time to stop, aim, and shoot at that solider that is pacing back and forth on that platform, or you can ignore him, and hope he doesn’t shoot back. Choose your own adventure! And, while such a choice may seem simple in and of itself (how long will it take you to aim? A second? That’s time that could be spent jumping!), the real challenge starts when there are moving platforms, flaming catapults, and an entire tank bearing down on your heroine. Now what do you do? Now what do you prioritize? Make your choices fast, because you’ll be dead on the ground if you can’t reach the verdict. But don’t worry, you do have a few extra lives before the next continue, so if you choose wrong, at least you can see how it might have been if you had just used a charge arrow on that bear instead of relying on rapid fire. Soon, you’ll be reflexively sniping down murderous hawks with ease, but when you first encounter these challenges, there is much to consider before making your (possibly fatal) move.

And this is the true essence of Castlevania. There may be a thousand variables in a Belmont adventure, but, in the end, it’s about choice. It’s about situations where you can go left or right, and, head’s up, right is going to get you killed. In the “old school” games, like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode or Wallachia Reign of Dracula, these choices are generally about monster management. Do you really want to waste your hearts chucking axes at a bone dragon, or do you trudge up those stairs while it is still tossing fire all over the place? In the “Metroidvania” titles, these choices are generally less deadly, but choosing to explore a random nook or cranny may reward (or punish) your protagonist in a myriad of ways. Castlevania is about choice, and games that truly carry on the spirit of Castlevania know that. Both of these featured games know that secret of Castlevania, even if they choose different paths to teach that lesson.

… And, man, I’m going to have a hard time claiming this article wasn’t about Castlevania…

FGC #563 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode

  • What time is it?System: Wherever Bloodstaineds are sold. Playstation 4, Xbox One, Steam, and Nintendo Switch all seem like viable options.
  • Number of players: Miriam can’t even bring along an old lady shouting for blood on this solitary journey.
  • Hey, wasn’t there another Bloodstained “classic mode”? Yes, but that experience is much more of… how to put this… a modern interpretation of retro. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is a game that very dedicatedly included new and interesting features that would never have been possible in an OG Castlevania. And, complete with the sequel introducing a dog mech, the whole thing is a lot closer to a Mega Man X / Zero title, anyway. It can’t be “classic” if your hero spins around in the air with a sword twirling in an endless circle.
  • What about Ninja Gaiden? Oh, screw (attack) you.
  • Favorite Boss: I appreciate that the Mummy du jour is replaced with a pair of doppelgangers. I generally welcome the ways the bosses have been adapted to their “modern” forms, but far too many of them seemed too… familiar. At least the doppelgangers weren’t instantly recognizable exclusively for their obvious connections to the past… even if they are equally weak to “holy water”.
  • Did you know? My solemn belief is that there is no way that Dullahan boss wasn’t also a reference to that wannabe Terminator from Contra 3.
  • Getting toward the endWould I play again: This is a difficult choice! Like, I very much enjoy Classic Mode, but it is also just close enough to other experiences so as to feel… unnecessary? Basically, I have the capability to play Castlevania (1) again, and I don’t do that often, because I usually play the later Castlevania titles. And, in a similar manner, I think I would play Curse of the Moon 2 again before Classic Mode, simply because I like its gameplay options. Will I ever play Classic Mode again? Probably, but it would be as more of a curiosity in a few years than the feeling that I really need to play the game again. And Bloodstained keeps producing other great expansion content, too…

FGC #563 Wallachia Reign of Dracula

  • I know that guy!System: Nintendo Switch ‘n Steam seems to be the answer here. Maybe it will see other systems, but hopping on Switch is enough for me.
  • Number of Players: You’re doing this one alone.
  • Favorite Opponent: You cannot go wrong with fighting bears. They’re so… bears.
  • More Power: “Subweapons” seem to be split into categories. There are special arrows that appear in specifically limited quantities (similar to the items of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and there are helper characters that are powered by collectable orbs (like the old days of Castlevania hearts). On the plus side, the ally abilities are pretty damn powerful, and can absolutely demolish a boss or two. On the other hand, there were occasions where I traipsed through an entire level and never gained enough orbs to use one of those attacks once. I like a screen-clearing attack as much as the next guy, but this seems like it could have been balanced better.
  • More connections: WRoD and Bloodstained are connected in more ways than their obvious influence. For one thing, Elcin can earn Miriam’s default outfit from Bloodstained (but, unfortunately, she doesn’t get to meet a murder barber that can change her hairstyle). Also, both WRoD and B:RotN Classic Mode limit the ability to see the entire game if you play on Easy Mode. This is universally a dick move, and I don’t care who hears that.
  • Let's roll!Did you know? There are two distinct places in this game where a mysterious “fog” is piped into a room, and then “supernatural” things happen, like Vlad’s bride becoming a succubus, or a dragon statue breathing fire. This is a pretty unique way to sneak something more fantastic into a game that is very grounded, and I encourage more videogame protagonists to get super high while battling evil. Yoshi was cool with it.
  • Would I play again: Probably yes. This is a fun “arcade” style game, so I’m probably going to stick another quarter in there in the future. The first few levels are very smooth, so I could see playing them while waiting for my latest Switch purchase to download.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Kirby Super Star for the SNES! Speaking of franchises I can never stop talking about, here’s Kirby! Six times! Please look forward to it!

Just shoot arrows at it

FGC #561 Mega Man Network Transmission

We gonna MegaThe Mega Man franchise has become vaguely unwieldy. A simple game about running, jumping, and shooting at robots has quickly become a franchise juggernaut that now contains thirty years’ worth of titles spanning multiple genres, systems, and epochs. If you want the whole of the Mega Man experience, you need multiple consoles, hundreds of games, and maybe even some time to watch an anime or two.

Or you could just play 2003’s Mega Man Network Transmission. That game has got it all.

This is Mega Man Battle Network!

At the turn of the 21st century, a great many videogame franchises went through a bit of an identity crisis. Nintendo declared Bowser was dead, or a dad, or maybe some kind of skeleton monster. Zelda drowned all of Hyrule, and Kirby got into star racing. The pervading thought seemed to be that old franchises had to change and grow to compete with the new generation, and, while there were some standouts from this period of change (hello there, Metroid Prime), we mostly now look back and lament Mario being strapped to a water gun for an entire console. Don’t worry, 2002 Goggle Bob, we’d regain our somersault jumps in time…

However, one success from this time was the reimagining of Mega Man. Completely dropping the Mega Man storyline that had been inexplicably going since 1987 (a storyline that had, incidentally, wiped out humanity), Mega Man Battle Network told the tale of an alternate timeline wherein Dr. Light/Hikari ditched robotics and really got into his own cyber-sona. This led to universe where Mega Man was not a super fighting robot, but a super fighting digital assistant that was also Dr. Light’s grandson and was also controlled by Dr. Light’s other, human grandson. In this universe where apparently human babies can be converted into immortal digital slaves damned to watch as their fleshy twin grows, ages, and dies, there are also viruses and “evil” net navigators to be fought, so the official Mega Man of the digital generation has a lot more to handle than existential crises in any given adventure.

Mega Man Network Transmission is technically the fourth released Mega Man Battle Network title (fourth or so, there is a little wiggle room with some of the other games that year), but is firmly placed in the franchise’s story as Mega Man Battle Network 1.5. Shortly after Megaman.exe’s first adventure, a mysterious “Professor” pops into the picture, and releases a terrible virus across the net. Lan the Human and Megaman.exe the Undying scramble into action to save the day! But this adventure is a little different from their Gameboy Advance origins, as…

This is Classic Mega Man!

Book it!First and foremost, Mega Man Network Transmission was designed as a retro title that harkened back to the gameplay of the original Mega Man titles. This was the 15th Anniversary of the Mega Man franchise, and MMNT was intended as a throwback to that “old style” that had died with the Sega Saturn. So, whereas Mega Man Battle Network had always paid tribute with its cast of Fire Mans, Proto Mans, and Wilys, now it was going to include actual movement options that recalled those bygone days. Megaman.exe can run, jump, and even slide (slide, slide!). Continually charging while jogging through a maze is encouraged, and memorizing a boss pattern or two is the name of the game if you want to make some progress. There are even some imitations of classic stages involved, like everybody’s favorite Quick Man laser gauntlet. You love instant death? Of course you do! It’s classic gameplay/horrors all over again!

But it’s not all classic gameplay here. Some bits of Mega Man Network Transmission are downright prescient, like…

This is Mega Man Starforce!

Eat some chipsThe big draw of the Mega Man Battle Network franchise (aside from stupid, sexy Dr. Regal) has always been its unique battle gameplay. To quickly summarize what is ultimately a very complicated system, it’s basically a card game, but including action movement, and sometimes the cards have letters that allow you to use multiple cards at once, and I think there are “classes” involved, and sometimes they combine into an “advanced” version, but only if you have the right cards, and you can only get cards from fighting viruses, or maybe by playing a lottery, and if you don’t have any cards, then you can still attack with a basic laser, but that doesn’t have an element, except maybe if you used a class change to be a different color Mega Man, but you can’t switch that during battles, and wood beats electricity. See? It’s simple!

Mega Man Network Transmission streamlines the chip system by a fair amount, allowing you to equip multiple chips at once without fear of matching letters or elements or whatever. Ostensibly, this is because you are using the chips for a much longer time (it takes goddamn forever for that gauge to refill before upgrades) and in a much wider battlefield (in “normal” MMBN, you only ever have to handle a maximum of three viruses at a time), but it works out to a more simplified version of traditional MMBN battle chip challenging. And that’s great! MMNT was meant to bridge the gap between old, new, and people that had just watched the surprisingly popular anime for the franchise, so simple is good!

And you know what else utilized a simplified version of Mega Man Battle Network’s battle chip system? Mega Man Starforce, the “sequel franchise” to MMBN. Was this inspired by Mega Man Network Transmission? Probably not, but it was an acknowledgement that MMBN might have had a little too much cruft from the get-go, and that could only be jettisoned in a spin-off or sequel franchise.

So enjoy Mega Man Network Transmission’s battle system. It’s like living in the future!

And speaking of the future…

This is Mega Man X!

These things are dumbMega Man Network Transmission is supposed to harken back to the good ol’ days of Classic Mega Man, but there is a significant dosage of RNA here, too. For one thing, there’s the plot, and it features the Zero Virus. That sound familiar? Yes, our favorite Wily reploid is now a literal virus that is attempting to cause netnavis to go maverick. And, as one might expect, Zero starts off as the obvious antagonist, but transforms into a helpful dude over the course of the adventure. He might not have as much luxurious girl hair as in his other appearances, but it’s pretty clear that the guest star du jour is straight out of Mega Man X.

And that gorgeous robot-virus-thingy is not the only item borrowed from Mega Man X. There are a number of gameplay flourishes straight out of the Maverick Wars here, complete with the increased speed, the likelihood of using a double jump, and these weird wire things that no one ever remembers fondly (or, often, remembers at all). It was clear that even the classic series was adopting Mega Man X moves later in its life (hi, Mega Man & Bass), but there is more Mega Man X here than Mega Man, even if there aren’t as many stages that directly harken back to that franchise.

But while we’re on the subject of Mega Man’s pal, Zero…

This is Mega Man Zero!

He got a haircutThe number one complaint about Mega Man Network Transmission? It’s too hard. In some ways, this complaint was completely valid, as it was a huge pain to restart entire levels because you got wrecked by a bad boss matchup. Sure, that had always been the way a Mega Man game played anyway, but this was coming off a franchise that allowed for saving anywhere, and a population that had gotten used to Mega Man containing save states. A “back to basics” approach also invited a “back to difficult” style that a lot of 2003’s audience wasn’t expecting.

But this was exactly what Mega Man Battle Network’s 2-D brother on the Gameboy Advance had been reveling in all along. Mega Man Zero was “classic Mega Man” on the GBA before Mega Man Battle Network ever even thought of testing the boundaries of the genre, and, as many had noted, it was super-duper hard. Or, if it wasn’t hard, it at least expected a lot of the player. “Save points” (or 1-ups) were stretched few and far between, and health was always at a premium. In much the same way, MMNT requires your best offenses always be locked behind battle chips, and you are often left unprepared if you blow all your mighty cannons on some middling mouse opponent.

But that’s exactly where Mega Man Zero and Mega Man Network Transmission are so similar: they’re all about resource management. Unlike the original Mega Man games that only encouraged weapon energy rationing (and provided a pile of powerups to help with that), MMZ and MMNT both demanded much more administration from the player. Whether it is battle chips or cyber elves, an inexperienced player is practically required to figure out what works for getting through a level, and then utilize those assets only when absolutely necessary. Of course, that winds up having its own kind of learning curve (and Mega Man Zero’s persistent ranking system seems to punish the player for using any resources, so mixed messages there), so, yes, these games probably could be considered hard. But whereas you only had one Flash Stopper to skip through Quick Man’s gauntlet back in the day, newer takes on that challenge offer additional options to the observant player.

Unfortunately, the challenge of Mega Man Network Transmission really did work against it. While you could claim Mega Man Zero was made for “hardcore” fans, MMNT seemed to aim for a different audience. In fact, you could say…

This is a Mega Man Cartoon!

PointyMega Man has had a number of animated tie-ins through the years. There was that Ruby-Spears nonsense, the anime about saving Christmas, and (particularly relevant to this article) an entire anime based on the Mega Man Battle Network series. It was popular. It was so popular, it rivaled Yu-Gi-Oh for number of stupid card-based plastic wads that were released through tie-in merchandise. And, even better than Yu-Gi-Oh, you actually cared about the characters, so buying action figures was not off the table. Stick that Bass/Forte figure on your desk with pride, young one, as any digital personal assistant that wears a cloak has to be badass.

Mega Man Network Transmission seemed to be catering to the audience that watched that anime. This, the first MMBN to be played on console (and presumably a big screen television), was pretty as a princess riding an oddly attractive horse. It is cell-shaded, various viruses have twinkling auras, and Megaman.exe rarely looked so good (in 2003). It was a feast for the eyes, and the graphics style certainly seemed to be designed to appeal to anyone that was watching cartoons (as opposed to the more “realistic” graphics of its contemporaries).

What’s more, it had full voice acting (albeit, not in many languages), and an easy to follow plot that was more about making friends with your potential enemies than blasting robots into everlasting pieces. Whether it was difficult or not, the general presentation of Mega Man Network Transmission seemed to harken to the many times Mega Man had mega fun with his mega pals on the mega television screen.

Though if you really want to compare Mega Man Network Transmission to another Mega Man experience, you probably should consider…

This is Mega Man Legends!

ShinyMega Man Network Transmission, for one reason or another, was not received well. According to reviewers it was too difficult, too cartoony, and/or too different to survive. Or maybe it wasn’t different enough to be its own thing? Regardless of the reason, MMNT never saw a direct sequel to its distinct kind of gameplay, and the franchise moved on, never taking the time to look back at what might have been in the parallel universe where Mega Man Network Transmission was popular.

So, like Mega Man Legends never continuing again, Mega Man Network Transmission was a gaming dead end.

And nobody has gotten around to releasing it on modern consoles, either!

Mega Man Network Transmission is every Mega Man game all rolled into one. The good, the bad, and the heartache.

FGC #561 Mega Man Network Transmission

  • System: Nintendo Gamecube, and then never anything again. And Capcom loves porting titles!
  • Number of players: The Mega Man Battle Network series is usually two player, but, sorry, only one netnavi at a time here. We can’t always have Mega Man 7.
  • MONEY!Cold Hard Cash: If you want to even stretch it a little further, the frequent zenny coins scattered around the levels are very similar to how screws were used to tempt players in the Gameboy classic Mega Man titles (Mega Man Land?). That said, “Mega Man collects money” is something that seemed to show up all across the franchises eventually, whether that be through screws, alloys, or zenny again. So you’re not getting a full section, Gameboy Mega Man, but you do at least earn a bullet point.
  • What about Mega Man ZX? I guess you can summon bosses? I don’t know. Ask me again at some point when I haven’t typed “Mega Man” 66 times.
  • Favorite Rival Navi: If we’re going with any navi, I choose Shadowman.exe, because I am secretly a twelve year old that loves ninja. If we have to choose one distinctly created for this adventure, though, I’d pick Gravityman.exe. That dude was never going to work in the constrained, “who cares about gravity anyway” world of MMBN, and he feels vaguely weighty (ha!) as a foe. He big. He round. He’s an absolute unit of an opponent.
  • Favorite Chip: For the second game in a row, I’m going to choose the humble sword. I like getting up close and personal with my opponents, and sword chips are so plentiful here, Megaman.exe practically becomes Protoman.exe. Runner-up is the life virus aura, but that does feel like cheating.
  • Did you know? Zero appears and becomes the first Mega Man X character to enter the canon of Mega Man Battle Network, but he would later be joined by Colonel and Iris. Unfortunately, none of the main Mavericks ever had a chance to shine in Battle Network or Star Force, so Wire Sponge got robbed.
  • It's too bright in hereWould I play again: If I was stuck on a desert island, and could only play one (non-compilation) Mega Man title, I would choose this one to get my Mega fix. That said, it is by no means the best Mega Man game, nor is it the most accessible, so the odds of me actually playing it again are slim. But maybe if Capcom deigns to release it again, it could happen…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Q*Bert! The little orange hopping whatsit rides again! Please look forward to it!

FGC #560 Einhänder

Get ready to pewHas it ever been good enough to be just, ya know, good enough?

Today’s title is practically a fetish of a bygone epoch. Square (later devoured and digivolved into Square Enix) is a game company that has been around practically from the beginning of gaming. It was the company that brought us Final Fantasy, The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner, and Rad Racer. Today, Square Enix is responsible for Kingdom Hearts, Dragon Quest, Nier, Tomb Raider, Avengers, and Just Cause. But there was a time in the early 21st Century when there was one major complaint about Square (+/- Enix): “they just do Final Fantasy”. And, inevitably, when “they just do Final Fantasy” was brought up, earlier halcyon days of lore were inevitably summoned as well. “Remember when Square used to make more than RPGs? Remember Tobal No. 1? Remember The Bouncer? Remember Einhänder?” And all involved in such a conversation were nodding sagely at the evocation of the “good old days” of experimental Square, and memories of all those old fighting games, shoot ‘em ups, and whatever the hell The Bouncer was supposed to be.

Except it was bullshit. It was always bullshit. Why? Because no greater than seven people in America ever played Einhänder! And don’t even get me started on Tobal No. 2! Admit it, you don’t have a “buddy” that can “score imports”! Oh, you already traded the disc in, that’s why we can’t play it? Stop screwing with me, Donny, I know what you’re up to!

… Er-hem.

KABAMSquare definitely had an “experimental period” around the late 90s. Mind you, it really was not all that different from Square’s earlier output of Final Fantasy games right alongside “weird” games like Live a Live or Front Mission. But by 1997, everyone was looking to Square when it struck it rich with Final Fantasy 7. With Square at the top of the heap, everyone was diving headfirst into their whole catalogue… or at least reading Game Informer’s list of Square releases. “ Einhänder, eh? That looks cool,” was evidently said by an awful lot of people that didn’t actually play Einhänder, because damn, Ein, I’m pretty sure you got outsold by the Final Fantasy 8 demo disc. There’s no shame in that, it was a good demo disc (and it may have been packaged with a game? Who knows?), but it lends further credence to the theory that goddamned no one actually played Einhänder.

And a lack of Einhänder playing is clearly the greatest shame of late 90’s gamers. Is Einhänder good? Listen, bub, it might be the best shoot ‘em up of the Playstation 1 generation by a pretty wide margin! Not only is it just a good shmup in the tradition of Gradius or R-Type, it also utilizes the Playstation graphics engine in ways that are still impressive today. This mix of polygons and whatever the hell makes a PSX disc go is a feast for the eyes, and, if this article had not already firmly established the release window for Einhänder, then it would likely be very easy to trick you, dear reader, into believing this was a game released at the established, tail end of a console’s lifecycle (and not practically at its beginning). And it is not just about the graphics here in Einhänder Land (apparently the moon and/or Earth all along), the gameplay of Einhänder is as good as a shoot ‘em up gets. You dodge. You shoot. You score the occasional powerup through shooting. Opponents have easily-understood patterns, and you are given opportunities to respond and retaliate in kind. Your Einhänder is fragile, but powerups can take a few hits, so you are not always teetering on the abyss like a Vic Viper that forgot to load shields. In short, Einhänder is gorgeous, fair, and simple enough that anyone could learn to be an Einhänding master.

And maybe that is why no one played the damn thing.

WATCH OUTLook, Square didn’t become famous because they created Mario, Sonic, or Mike Haggar. Square gameplay was and is always going to be associated with one major thing: dudes with swords using those swords in complicated ways. Final Fantasy was never a game that stood by the standard “A is jump” mantra of many NES titles, it was a game where you had to cycle through three different menus just to get your little red dude to swing his sword at anything more substantial than thin air. From there, not only did the method to make your wee swordsman to swing said sword get more complicated (what the hell is a “Runic”!?) but the worlds surrounding our fantasy armies became significantly more complicated, too. Where once we just kind of accepted that there might be a space station still floating around the relics of a lost civilization, now we had to have fictions that told long, intricate stories about these capital-A “Ancients” and how modern scientists were still trying to mate them with Pokémon for some reason. Where once your hero didn’t have a name, now not only did they have names, families, and complicated motivations, they also had identity crises wherein they debated the true nature of being loved. By the time Square got around to smooshing all its most popular swords guys against Mickey Mouse, the “default” story that had to be told was expected to contain a tale of identity theft, teenage possession, and at least thirteen dudes in cloaks that will probably reveal their true motives in approximately fifteen years. Square makes complicated games. Square seems to revel in making complicated games.

Almost the endAnd, don’t worry, Einhänder contains a plot that could reasonably be described as complicated for its time. While this is not on the same echelon as Chrono Trigger and other contemporaries pushing the boundaries of what could be in a videogame story, this is still nowhere near “princess captured, rescue princess”. Your Einhänder is piloted by an anonymous pilot that thinks they’re just doing some basic military maneuvers for the glory of their planet/celestial body/whatever, but, in a shocking turn of events, it turns out that this soldier (and all soldiers like them) is a lot closer to being on a suicide mission than anything that could ever be survivable. And that’s bad, apparently! In the end, your unknown Einhänder pilot learns the truth, rebels in pretty straightforward ways, and ends all war forever or something through sheer survivability, and we all learn a valuable lesson about reading the fine print on any potentially earned medals.

But, while Einhänder has what might be considered a complicated plot for a shoot ‘em up (the Space Invaders Ultimania guide is thinner than a dehydrated needlefish) it also has a plot that is barely there. There are cutscenes in Einhänder, and they’re almost exclusively featuring whatever giant robot or missile you’re expected to shoot next. Other than that? Any and all explanations for what the hell is happening are constrained to the opening and ending. And that’s brilliant! We don’t need another game that does not understand how some genres are completely incompatible with “now stop playing and watch a movie”. Einhänder is a white-knuckle shoot ‘em up wherein there should not be a second where you feel safe to put the controller down. It even suits the underlying plot! You are in mortal danger at all times! Sitting around and reading a data entry on your local corrupt government is only going to detract from the Einhänder experience!

… Except that means that you are probably going to miss the semi-intricate plot as a result. That means that this shoot ‘em up is going to come off as… just another shoot ‘em up.

Yo!And is that good enough? This is the best shoot ‘em up of a console generation from a time when its parent company could have greenlit practically anything (“You want a Mana game that drops all previous gameplay conceits and can barely be described using human language? Legend of Mana it is!”), and, yet, we live in a world without an Einhänder 2(: Revenge of the Moon). By whatever rubric Square had for its late 90s releases, Einhänder did not succeed enough to merit further promotion or even a spiritual sequel. To this day, the best Einhänder can accomplish is starring in a mini game or two across different Square Enix properties. Einhänder, in the absence of the “complicated”, thorny nature of its brothers of the era became slippery, and slid right out of the gaming consciousness. If you played Einhänder in the 90’s, I salute you, but it is likely only because you are naturally attracted to weird German robots, and not because someone recommended it to you. The byzantine games of the era sucked up all the oxygen surrounding Square titles, and Einhänder wound up occupying that same “I heard about ‘em before they were cool” imaginary headspace. Nobody listened to Smash Mouth’s Fush Yu Mang, and nobody bought Einhänder. It was a good game, but that’s all it could ever be. Ain’t no cosplay Sephiroths mingling with giant robot monkey boss cosplayers in 2001 or 2021.

Einhänder, you were amazing, and great at what you did. But all you did was what you did, and it looks like that wasn’t enough.

FGC #560 Einhänder

  • System: Playstation 1. Could be available on the Playstation 3, if, like, you lived in Japan.
  • Number of players: This is a game that has made “one” part of its identity.
  • There's a secret moveFavorite Ship: Screw the unlockable bonus ships, I’ll take the simplicity of the Einhänder MK III any day. I like my one-handed spaceships like I like my coffee: straight, to the point, and capable of demolishing entire armies.
  • Favorite Powerup: I am easily influenced by box art, so I love me some laser swords. There is nothing I enjoy more than getting some weird ass weapon in a shoot ‘em up, and then being rewarded for standing inordinately close to a monster spewing bullets while my sword apparently hacks away while wholly motionless. It is a beautiful showcase of swordsmanship.
  • What’s in a name: Breaking it down, “händer” translates roughly to “handed” in English, while “Ein” means “that dog from Cowboy Bebop”. So an appropriate localization of Einhänder would be “a game about that really smart puppy that now has hands”. I think it is supposed to be about the shape of the ship.
  • Difficulty Modes: In addition to the usual easy/medium/hard/dark souls difficulty modes available in Einhänder, the Japanese version also includes an “unlimited mode” that grants infinite lives at the expense of not being able to score points. And they removed it for the American release! That’s the best feature available to a shoot ‘em up, and they took it out! Those bastards!
  • Lotta pewsDid you know? There was a strategy guide for Einhänder published in Japan. I realize this was the heyday of guide books, but I would never consider needing one for a shoot ‘em up. I’m assuming it was just a few maps, some random lore/art, and every other page simply stating “practice until your thumbs fall off”. That’s a good strategy.
  • Would I play again: Put it on Switch, you monsters! It’s all I’ve ever wanted! Or at least I will claim that is true for the remainder of this article!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mega Man Network Transmission for the Nintendo Gamecube! It’s time to jack in to the net, Lan! Please look forward to it!

ROBO MONKEY

FGC #558 Mappy Land

Mappy time!Namco, you screwed up. You chose the wrong company mascot.

Pac-Man sucks.

Look, I get it. Pac-Man is definitely a cultural touch stone. In a lot of ways, Pac-Man is the original videogame mascot. Statistically, most people reading this are too young to remember (as people that remember so far back at this point are mostly just slurping up apple sauce and accusing the staff at The Home for Retired Gamers of being “space invaders”) but there was a time when “Pac-Man” gripped the nation. You could buy a Pac-Man lamp, watch, and mini freezer down at the local Sears, and still be home in time to watch the Christmas Special. Pac-Man had his own hit song and a parody song by Weird Al (granted, it was more of a B-Side, but it counts!). Pac-Man was everywhere for a few years, and, while many regarded it as a fad (because it absolutely was), the idea of a culturally significant videogame character paved the way for Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Steven McMinecraft.

But, in much the same way that early videogames had to work out all the kinks before graduating to their later, sublime heights, Pac-Man was not built for the big leagues right out of the gate (maze?). Sonic showed his attitude from the first moment he paused to sneer at the player, and even pudgy, boxy little Legend of Zelda Link established his adventuring roots once he was told how dangerous it was to go alone. Pac-Man, though? That dude didn’t even have eyes. There is genius in the simple, immediately recognizable design of Pac-Man, but you could say the same of a football. And you don’t see any NFL mascots that are just giant, sentient footballs, do you? (I am genuinely asking here, I don’t watch a lot of sports.) Pac-Man is amazing, but he’s more pac than man, and an outside longshot to attach to an entire merchandizing empire. This ain’t a funny Star Wars beeping trashcan pushing action figures, Pac-Man is barely a complete pizza.

And then there’s Mappy. Mappy’s got legs.

(… Uh, literally. Pac-Man doesn’t naturally have those, either.)

Let's danceLet’s start with an obvious advantage: Mappy is vaguely human shaped (eat it, puck man). He’s also a cartoon mouse. Those things are pretty popular. He’s also a cop, and, while it is difficult to approve of that vocation, it does give him a clear purpose. Mappy has the eternal goal of arresting the bad guys. Pac-Man? He’s just a mortal sin (gluttony!) personified. Mappy is trying to clean up the mean streets of wherever anthropomorphic cats and mice hang out, and he’s doing it one trampoline at a time. Oh! And that allows for an immediately recognizable dichotomy, as Mappy winds up involved in a literal game of cat and mouse. That even explains how this all works, right? Mappy is a mouse, so contact with an unrestrained cat is going to lead to instant death. It is immediately easy to understand, which is essential in a videogame. Nobody needs a tutorial to understand that cat beats mouse.

And the gameplay of the original Mappy? Similarly straightforward. You can use trampolines to bounce to separate levels, and it’s your job to collect all the doodads scattered around. Unlike some protagonists, you’re not collecting for the sake of amassing wealth (though you do get points), but to rescue these stolen items from the nefarious cat gang. You’re raiding a criminal warehouse! Just like Batman! Everybody loves Batman! And also like Batman, Mappy is not a trigger happy police officer, he uses traps and strategy to tackle his foes. Mappy’s greatest weapon is not a gun, but a bunch of doors that open with varying strength and inexplicable abilities. Some doors possess meager door-range, but a number of rainbow doors fire… I don’t know… door-beams across the arena. Microwaves? And, if you’re smart, you’ll be able to utilize these magical doors to negate an entire gang of nefarious cats. Mappy is not a strong hero, he is a clever hero.

(Which, incidentally, is better than a certain “hero” that can only be described as “hungry”.)

I recognize this mazeAfter the success of the arcade-based Mappy, Namco(t) did its best to adapt that clever mouse gameplay to the home consoles. In much the same way that Mario Bros. had to go Super and involve gigantic, scrolling stages, Mappy left the warehouse, and started to venture across multiple levels. Mappy Land saw Mappy visiting island getaways, the Old West, and haunted graveyards (yes, Pac-Idiot, Mappy can handle ghosts, too). It is not a coincidence that the first area of Mappy Land is a train station, sending a clear message to the player that Mappy is ready and willing to travel the world. And don’t worry! The different stages are not just some half-assed attempt at graphical variety: every land Mappy visits has its own share of tricks and traps, from bowling balls to boxing bags to other things that probably start with B.

And, to be absolutely clear, these items and traps are the best thing to come out of a videogame from 1986. In every level, your cat opponents will ineffectually dance at the sight of a common cattail cat toy or stack of coins (those money grubbing cats), or be knocked out by catnip. In a medium that usually involves your opponents being blown to smithereens, it is delightfully goofy. And even more than the items, the traps are continually cartoony. Mappy rides a pulley that zooms across the screen and bowls over his opponents. Mappy rapidly spins around on handlebars to banish pirates. And, my personal favorite, Mappy drops small “bombs” that detonate and launch cats into the sky to become glorious fireworks. At a time when games were abstract but still clearly violent (you think Mega Man is shooting tickles at the robot masters?), Mappy evidently inhabits a “toon universe” where physics are only important if they don’t get in the way of a gag. No, I don’t think an adult mouse man can actually fly across the dawn while suspended by a balloon, but it does make for an interesting stage mechanic.

And then what was in store for Mappy after his stunningly creative 1986 adventure? Nothing.

BANGOkay, yes, there have been a handful of Mappy games since his NES premiere. Much like Pac-Man Jr., Mappy’s son got into the act for the sequel, but Mappy Kids almost entirely dropped the trampoline-based gameplay of the originals for something like a more traditional platformer. It was more standard, but it was also a lot more forgettable (you know, except that part where you play Spot the Difference with a picture of a klansman). Then, about a decade later, there was the arcade “arrangement” version that was basically Arcade Mappy 2… though with the significant caveat that it never made it over to home consoles. And from there all Mappy could ever scrounge up was a pachinko machine or two, and a mobile game that has an extremely dubious existence (go ahead and find me a video of Mappy World. I’ll wait). And then there’s Touch the Mappy. Nobody wanted to touch the Mappy. Poor dude had a memorable arcade game, a stellar console debut, and then he was trapped by the mousetrap of history.

Pac-Man, meanwhile? There’s a guy who barely had a game to begin with, yet, after decades of games that barely make a lick of sense, he’s palling around with Donkey Kong, Lucina, and Cloud.

Let's fly

And he stole Mappy’s trampoline! And he’s letting everybody use it!

Namco could have had an excellent, understandable mascot creature, but they dropped him for a gliding circle. You messed up, Namco, and everybody knows it. Mappy should have had that top spot, and yellow dot creature is still the most hopeless of gaming’s popular mascots.

FGC #558 Mappy Land

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System to start, then there were a few dozen years of no Mappy Land, and then we got it on WiiU. Now it is available on Switch as part of the Namco(t) Museum Archives Collection (Volume 2).
  • Number of players: 1 Player Mappy, because, what, you going to feature Mapico, Mappy’s wife? Preposterous!
  • Hey, what about Hopping Mappy? We don’t talk about any pogo-stick based games here.
  • Lovin' the tropicsFavorite Level: I’ve always appreciated the tropical stage that features moving trampolines, climbing vines, and all the fish you could ever eat (or feed to cats). In a weird way, the whole level feels like an expanded version of Donkey Kong Jr., and I would certainly be down for a Super DK Jr. any day of the week.
  • Favorite Trap: Did I already mention the fireworks? Because it’s the fireworks. You can somehow get multiple cats at once with one wholly stationary bomb. These cats are apparently pretty dumb!
  • What’s in a name: The actual names of your feline antagonists are Goro (the big guy) and his lackeys, the Meowkies. I would use these names more if Goro didn’t call to mind another significant arcade antagonist.
  • Goggle Bob Fact: This was one of my few NES titles when I was the youngest of the young. I hated it. I played 800,000 hours of it. I… was a conflicted child.
  • Did you know? Namco Super Wars, a tactical RPG for the Wonderswan that may be the precursor to other tactical Namco games, includes Mappy. He’s a white, fuzzy mouse-man, and, given the art style of the game, this anthropomorphic animal would likely be a lot more comfortable in the Five Nights at Freddy’s universe. I would post some official art, but I’m afraid of those cold, red eyes following me into the night.
  • Would I play again: I mean, if you’ve got a general hankering for some slightly graduated arcade action, you can’t go too wrong with Mappy Land. It is easily available on the Switch now, so the only thing holding me back from another playthrough is the Switch currently contains every game that has ever existed. That’s some steep competition for a little mouse.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity! That’s going to be a fun time for all those lil’ Hyrule Warriors. Please look forward to it!

Looks familiar
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