Tag Archives: platformer

FGC #531 Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3

It's getting squishyThey don’t make anti-heroes like they used to.

Literally.

Today’s game is Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. After premiering in Super Mario Land 2 as the main antagonist and only man with the raw chutzpah to steal an entire land out from under Mario’s moustache, Wario returned for his own adventure in the direct sequel. This is fairly significant, because, in almost all other cases with Nintendo characters, it takes forever for prominent villains to get their own adventures. And that’s assuming it ever happens at all! Ganon(dorf) wasn’t playable in a “real” Zelda game until Hyrule Warriors, and the canonicity of that one is dubious at best. Bowser similarly is usually only allowed to costar in spin-off titles, and King Dedede is only ever granted a turn as the hero when his wee nemesis is taking a nap. Other mascot villains don’t fare much better, as our favorite mad scientists didn’t see playable appearances until much later in their careers (Dr. Wily is, of course, represented by his creations in this example. Dude does not want to leave his hoverpod). The opposite numbers for our favorite heroes back in the 90’s were rarely controlled by the player, which was a huge shame, as everybody wants to be the villain. Wario being a playable character so soon after his introduction was unheard of in its time, and it is still a rarity today. Final Fantasy 7 Remake didn’t involve a single playable Sephiroth!

But Wario made the scene in his first “heroic” appearance. Wario wasn’t on a quest to save the princess or liberate some foreign land: he just wanted housing! Wario was homeless after Mario kicked him out of his ill-gotten estate (and what does Mario need a castle for anyway? He’s always away! He’s probably listing it on AirBnB as we speak), so Wario turned his eye to a group of pirates so he could steal their castle. Never mind that the pirates had apparently heisted a building-sized golden statue (!) that Peach had commissioned (!!!), Wario was is in it for the possibility of having a roof over his head. That’s a sympathetic quest, right? A man just wants his own sanctuary, and if a billion little round guys with spears are standing between him and his goals, that’s on them. Wario might not end up with Captain Syrup’s castle in the end (mostly because it exploded), but he does collect a hefty helping of coin over the course of the quest, so he buys his own castle/shack/planet (variable ending!) off a genie. Happy ending for everybody! Wario might be a “bad guy”, but his goals are not so much bad, just a little self-serving. It’s the American dream!

But if you think for even one second that Wario is at all a good guy, well, take a look at this malcontent:

It's Wario time

Wario is established as his own man in a variety of ways. He has Mario’s mad ups, but he also has a downward “butt stomp” that was new for the gamers of 1994. His “fire” isn’t a flower that launches balls, but a dragon hat that functions like a flamethrower. Garlic, not mushrooms, will cause Wario to become super, and his most iconic powerup turns him into something approaching a raging bull. And, whether he’s part bovine or not, Wario doesn’t run, he smashes with a forward shoulder. Wario’s Wario Land appearance is an expert case in modifying “normal” gameplay to still be extremely similar, but just different enough to establish the new protagonist as his own man. When Nintendo did the same again for Princess Peach’s solo outing, the addition of magical umbrella emotions to the Mario formula felt clunky and “gimmicky”, but Wario was a slam dunk right from the starting gate (I am working on understanding sports metaphors).

But none of that matters, because look at this bitch:

It's Wario time

Wario moves and looks like a… well… asshole. Wario is designed to quite literally walk around like he owns the place. Lesser monsters bounce off of him, blocks tremble in his presence, and the ground literally quakes at the force of his unruly ass. Through it all, Wario perpetually gazes out at the player as if to say, “Hey, I’m gonna wreck some shit. Wanna come along?” And that’s the thing: Wario doesn’t say anything. Wario is just as mute as Mario was in his previous adventures, and, long before anyone ever heard about how it was “Wario time”, Wario had to showcase his boundless personality through mime and pixels. The game starts with Wario menacing a pirate duck, and, before the player even smacks start, Wario is out and proud about the fact that he’s a gigantic jerk. Even if you missed Super Mario Land 2, this nimrod with elf shoes establishes himself inside of the opening seconds without so much as uttering a “Hello, stupids”.

And Wario isn’t alone! The pixel pioneers of the 90’s were apparently experts at establishing “this is your protagonist, but he is not a good guy.” It seems like there is a dearth of antiheroes on the pre-FMV consoles, but when you do have a bad guy in a starring role, they’re established pretty damn quick. Want to see another famous walking animation on the Gameboy?

He's a real Firebrand

Firebrand is not a friendly dude, and his jaunty little walk is the signature of a demon that is going to burn down your village. Firebrand is saving his kingdom right now, but if you need a princess kidnaped later, he’ll swoop in when he gets a chance.

And, at the risk of sounding like a nostalgic old man, you just don’t see that kind of instant character formation anymore.

Back in the day, you knew when you were dealing with an anti-hero. What do Wario and Firebrand have in common? They were both enemies first! If you stood in opposition to a brave knight or plumber, you knew you were on Team Bad Guy. Nowadays? Who bloody knows what makes a bad guy. Kratos has a kill count that is literally the population of Ancient Greece (complete with gods!), but his most recent adventure portrays him in a very forgiving light. The criminal stars of Grand Theft Auto participate in the same carnage as your average Lego title, but Trevor has terrible hair, so he’s probably the worst. And it’s telling that at least one franchise was able to hide the fact that you were playing as the main villain all along, the player just didn’t notice due to being so numb to the average amount of slaying inherent to the genre (I’m talking about this game/franchise, for the record). It’s difficult in your average modern videogame to tell whether you’re a playing the part of a vaguely homicidal hero or a villain with a heart of gold. All these heroes and villains are just so good at murdering…

That's one big birdAnd, by and large, this is by design. One way or another, the saintly protagonist of one game is supposed to look like the secret maniac of another tale for all sorts of reasons. Is this a game where the ultimate revelation is that you were the bad guy all along? Or how about you were supposed to be bad, but the plot has proven you were in the right, and it was society that was bad? Or is it just because market research has told us that mostly white guys with dark hair buy videogames? Whatever the root cause, our heroes have become indistinguishable from our antiheroes, and the only thing you can really count on is that the more villainous among us at least are going to make surly comments after encounters.

But is that all we have now? One-liners that are more or less cutting depending on the darkness of the character involved? Even the good guys have goatees, so we can’t judge someone by malevolent facial hair. Gone are the days when a walk would tell you everything you needed to know; you have to complete a 40 hour adventure just to figure out if your protagonist was on the side of the angels or the devils. And don’t even get me started on whether or not the slightest drip of moral ambiguity is going to cause a flood of youtube explanation videos that will list all the ways you’ve been wrong all along. The real villain was the player all along? Gosh, you don’t say. Throw another plank of switcheroo wood on the pile, Shamus, this lumber will keep us warm for another seven winters.

Wario does not know uncertainty. Wario does not have a greater, more benevolent motive. Wario is an asshole. He looks like an asshole. He moves like an asshole. There is no debate: Wario is an asshole, and that’s all he needs to be.

Give us more modern characters like old school Wario. Give us more amusing, unambiguous assholes.

FGC #531 Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3

  • System: Gameboy. This one came back on the 3DS Virtual Console, and is well worth a look if that thing is still around.
  • Don't get stabbedNumber of players: Wario needs only his pith helmet on his quest for riches.
  • Big Bad Wario: I want to say Wario Land was the first 2-D platforming game where I was allowed to bump into a weaponless opponent without suffering terrible consequences. Mario can’t so much as get within spitting distance of a goomba without losing his powerups, but Wario bumps around bad(der) guys with ease. Unless Wario is hit by the pointy end of something (which, granted, happens a lot), he is practically invincible compared to his “good” counterpart.
  • Favorite Powerup: Give me Jet Wario or give me death. Incidentally, I was very saddened when I first grabbed a fire hat after having a jet hat, and it didn’t transform into a flying-dragon hat. That was only in the Virtual Boy game! And I liked that!
  • Bizarro World: It’s interesting to compare the map of Wario Land to Super Mario World to see how many similarities there are. Inexplicable giant dome-hills are always nice, and there’s a prerequisite Forest of Illusion waiting before the final areas, too. I wonder if this was an effort to further affirm that Wario, right down to his very “land”, is a funhouse mirror version of Mario… Or if there just weren’t that many great ideas for world maps back in the 90’s. It could go either way.
  • So, did you beat it? Not only did I beat the game, but I apparently earned Wario his own planet. I guess you only have to have all the treasures and clear about 10,000 gold to get the highest reward. And that’s not too hard when you get lucky with the “double your money” chance game after every boss fight. … Or use save states to always get the best result. Yes, I’m cheating, but it’s what Wario would have wanted.
  • Winner!Did you know? Apparently there is an unused scene in the game data for Bobo, the giant vulture boss that rules the roost of the SS Teacup. It seems to showcase Bobo sitting in the woods… and that’s about it. Was Bobo supposed to be more involved in the plot? Was he the big bird of the island that initially appeared to be the main antagonist, but was then replaced by Captain Syrup? Was this the inspiration for Captain Toad’s arch nemesis? The world may never know.
  • Would I play again: This is an excellent game, and possibly one of the best Gameboy games. That said, the Virtual Boy sequel and Wario Land 4 does this basic gameplay better, and the later Wario Gameboy titles are revolutionary in new and exciting ways. Wario Land is great for a long car ride in 1990, but it has been surpassed by its sequels in every way. I’m glad for having playing Wario Land again, but it’s unlikely to happen again while other Warios are around.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Crazy Taxi for the Sega Dreamcast! Let’s go for a wild ride! Please look forward to it!

Does this explain lousy AI?

FGC #523 Blues Brothers 2000

Gonna sing the bluesYou have to understand just how impossible it is that Blues Brothers 2000 for the Nintendo 64 exists.

As one might expect, this long, sordid story starts with The Blues Brothers, the 1980 film. Ever seen it? It’s a great movie! It’s a comedy featuring two comedians at the top of their game, and it is also, incidentally, completely bonkers. It’s a movie with a plot, an easily followed story, and clear, well-defined characters… but it’s also a bunch of dudes just messing around and seeing what they can get away with. This was the movie that originally held the record for most wrecked cars in a single film (a title that would eventually be stolen by GI Joe, apparently). James Brown, John Hooker, and Aretha Goddamn Franklin all turned in amazing performances that proved they had no idea how to lip sync to their own songs. Dan Akroyd claims to have included cocaine in the film’s budget to “help the cast stay awake during night shoots”. This may have had an impact on some of the actors involved, as there is this anecdote (compliments of IMDB) involving John Belushi:

John Belushi disappeared while filming one of the night scenes. Dan Aykroyd looked around and saw a single house with its lights on. He went to the house and was prepared to identify himself, the movie, and that they were looking for Belushi. Before he could, the homeowner looked at him, smiled and said, “You’re here for John Belushi, aren’t you?” The homeowner told them Belushi had entered their house, asked if he could have a glass of milk and a sandwich, and then crashed on their couch. Situations like that prompted Aykroyd to affectionately dub Belushi “America’s Guest”.

Despite the Vatican approving of the film as an official “Catholic Classic” in 2010, there may have been some sinful behavior occurring during the creation of The Blues Brothers. And, unfortunately for the world at large, some of that behavior may have caught up with the iconic cast. John Candy, the marginal antagonist of the film, passed away at the far-too-soon age of 43. John Belushi, milk and sandwich fan, passed earlier at 33. And Dan Aykroyd, most tragically of all, made a guest star appearance on Home Improvement. The pillars of The Blues Brothers had fallen into oblivion since their amazing movie that had grown from little more than a Saturday Night Live sketch, so it was unlikely we would ever see the iconic characters ever again.

And then there was Blues Brothers 2000.

Press it my friendThe troubled creation of Blues Brothers 2000 could fill an entire article all on its own, so let’s just hit the bullet points. First of all, John Landis (director/writer) and Dan Aykroyd (Grosse Pointe Blank) originally created a script that was essentially exactly the first movie, just with slightly different guest stars. That was scrapped, but, somewhere between that and the final product, Landis & Aykroyd reportedly reached a point where they were convinced the “studio changes” made to the film would guarantee Blues Brothers 2000 would be a bomb. And it was! Ten years after the release of Blues Brothers 2000, Entertainment Weekly named the film #4 in the Top 25 Worst Sequels Ever Made. Why? Well, a pretty obvious reason is that Blues Brothers 2000 went in a wildly different direction from its origins, and adopted a very “magical” and arguably “kiddy” tone. Apparently this was a side-effect of that previously mentioned “studio meddling”, as the edict for Blues Brothers 2000 was to create something more child-friendly. Yes, somehow, somewhere, someone thought that it would be a good idea to make the sequel to a movie where the entire cast was high on cocaine into something that was an all-ages romp with a new, child Blues Brother that had previously starred in 3 Ninjas Kick Back.

But… well… it wasn’t a super terrible idea? After all, Dan Aykroyd had also starred in Ghostbusters, a film that took off in a surprisingly child-friendly direction. What was a movie that included harsh jabs at the concept of mortality, bureaucracy, and at least one instance of a protagonist preparing for some date raping became an animated series starring Garfield and produced enough toys to fill a (my) basement. Even now, the “child-friendly” Ghostbusters became more enduring than the “OG” versions of the characters, as you sure don’t see anything but Egon’s pomping rat tail on the comic shelves. Ghostbusters 2 seemed to lean into this child-friendly version of the Busters, so it made a certain amount of sense to hope for similar success with wee Buster Blues. It worked once, so let’s see if we can get Blues Brothers 2000 to the same point as Ghostbusters and its toys, spinoffs, and videogames.

Or you could just create the tie-in videogame regardless of movie popularity, and hope for the best. Let’s go with that option.

NEVER!There is evidence Blues Brothers 2000 was originally going to be a much more ambitious project. It was going to span multiple systems (aka the Playstation 1, and not just the N64, though this was also the era you could never rule out a Gameboy tie-in…), include some distinct racing/car chase segments, and, at the very least, contain many more locations from the actual film. Unfortunately, much of what was showcased in previews for BB2000 was never to be. What wound up being the final product was little more than a collection-based 3-D platformer that loosely followed the plot of Blues Brothers 2000. Elwood Blues has to get the band back together, and, thanks to a little clerical mix-up, he has to fight his way out of a prison and then against the mob to do it. Blues Brothers 2000 might not be an exact adaptation of its source material, but it’s the kind of thing that could work for a videogame. There’s a good chance it could be a successful movie tie-in product.

Of course, that would assume the game wasn’t released a solid two years after the release/failure of the movie. Hey! At least this Blues Brothers 2000 finally came out in 2000!

Big FightAnd Blues Brothers 2000 for the N64 could have had a chance if it released concurrently with its movie. In 1998, we were a mere two years past the release of Mario 64. 3-D platforming collectathons were still fresh and new! Camera controls were difficult, but even Mario had an issue with his Lakitu a time or two. There would have been a lot more forgiveness for a janky 3-D platformer in 1998. But in the year 2000? This was after Banjo-Kazooie had demonstrated that Mario wasn’t the only jump ‘n collect in town, and then Donkey Kong 64 exhausted all that good will. In fact, 2000 was just about the end of that console generation, so the likes of Perfect Dark, Majora’s Mask, and the entire Dreamcast library were hitting the shelves. This meant Banjo-Tooie was there, too, a title many claim is one of the best N64 games available. 1998 could have worked, but two years later was not the time to release a game where a malformed 3-D dude collects musical notes. It draws… unfortunate comparisons.

And if you think those extra two years of production were dedicated to making a more polished experience, you’ll be disappointed. Blues Brothers 2000 has some interesting ideas, like a pile of varied minigames, “hub areas” that are more than haunted castles, and powerups that only spawn while a gramophone are playing (it’s inexplicable, but at least it’s interesting), but all of them are more than a little half-baked. First and foremost, there is a mandatory PaRappa-esque rhythm game that pops up on occasion, and it is impossible. This could have been Guitar Hero before Guitar Hero, but, nope, it’s a haphazard “press A now” affair with terrible beat-detection and absolutely no indictors as to what you’re doing wrong. It’s “difficult” entirely because there is zero useful feedback on what the game wants. The combat of the game is similarly difficult, as the hit detection is atrocious, so you can never be quite sure if you’re losing because your timing is off, or if Elwood is being tossed across the room because his opponent suddenly gained the same attack range as a Belushi-sandwich search. And there’s no invincibility frames for poor Elwood! The odds of him being instantly obliterated by some errant door laser are high! There’s a skeleton of a good idea here and there, as this isn’t just a “stupid” collectathon that treads the exact same ground over and over… but that skeleton probably needed another 2000 years of playtesting.

ZAPAnd, while we’re considering what it would take for Blues Brothers 2000 to become an actually good videogame, also consider whether or not Blues Brothers 2000 was ever supposed to be, ya know, Blues Brothers 2000. Surprisingly enough, there is not much information from the creators of Blues Brothers 2000, so we’re left to wonder what happened here. The first stage is Elwood breaking out of Jail? Great! That makes sense for the often-incarcerated Elwood. And Chicago? That’s a gimme of a level for the Blues Brothers. The Louisiana Swamp makes a certain amount of sense considering the film’s finale (even if it mostly looks like a more mundane Bob-omb Battlefield most of the time), but “Spooky Graveyard”? That is about as generic as a videogame level as you’ll ever see, and could have been imported from literally any other title in production. Both Blues Brothers films featured a variety of iconic locations and set pieces that could easily be converted to videogame scenarios, but Elwood was never afraid of no ghost. Was this some generic platformer that was eventually married to a movie property? Was this something that happened during production? Did someone just need another level, and “haunted” was what came up on the ol’ genre roulette table? Titus isn’t offering any answers, presumably because they are still working through the backlog of unanswered questions regarding Superman 64. That’s a Clark Kentian task all by itself!

Big funBut, whether Blues Brothers 2000 was a random hackjob or a very dedicated piece of licensed software, Blues Brothers 2000 for the N64 happened. It is a very late 90’s Nintendo 64 title based on an ill-conceived sequel to a beloved classic starring many actors that were dead before said sequel was conceived. There is no way anyone should be able to control Elwood Blues with an analogue stick, but, apparently, here we are. Despite literally everything, there is a Blues Brothers 2000 game for the Nintendo 64.

The Nintendo 64: it missed out on the entire Square catalogue, but it had Blues Brothers 2000.

FGC #523 Blues Brothers 2000

  • System: Nintendo 64. Sorry, Sony fans, Nintendo has got a lock on Blues Brothers fun.
  • Number of players: The main campaign is single player. However, the rhythm game (which is a crime against humanity and basic decency) is available as a two player mode. I do not care for it.
  • Pak Watch: This is one of those N64 titles that would be capable of saving, but, nope, you need a N64 memory card controller pak to do so. Luckily, the whole of the game only takes like two hours, so you don’t really need that save feature. And additional lucky: no one will ever bother to play Blues Brothers 2000 through to completion, so don’t worry about it.
  • Just play the gig, man: You’re collecting musical notes to play music actually from the movie. And the background music seems to be N64-erized versions of familiar songs, too. The soundtrack of Blues Brothers 2000 isn’t quite as iconic as the original Blues Brothers, but, hey, it’s not bad hearing some bastardization of John Popper while hopping around.
  • Unsolved Mysteries: I have no idea what happens if you reach the final area and haven’t found every last collectible. Presumably, you’re barred from seeing the true ending that involves a skeleton playing the trumpet.
    Jug band!

    Can’t miss that!
  • Say something nice: Elwood Blues looks kind of cool in a N64-polygonal cartoon character kind of way. And the enemies seem vaguely reminiscent of the later Psychonauts. Does this mean Double Fine drew inspiration from Blues Brothers 2000? Probably not.
  • Did you know? “The Warden” is the first big boss of Blues Brothers 2000. In the actual film, the warden is played by Frank Oz. By association, this means that, without question, Elwood Blues has beaten up Yoda.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely not. This is not a fun game in any real way. It is absolutely passable, but should not be played over any other game for any reason.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2! Whip it good, Miriam, it’s time to show the moon whose boss. Please look forward to it!

BONK

FGC #517 Retro Game Challenge

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

Died right at the end

And you don’t even notice it.

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

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

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

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

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

Who's that pokemon

You have a built-in audience.

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

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

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

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

FGC #517 Retro Game Challenge

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

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

Keep on kickin'

FGC #516 Celeste

Let's climbWhat does it mean when “difficult” equals “fun”?

Today’s game is Celeste, which Google apparently describes as “A game about climbing a mountain”. Big deal! You climb about seventeen mountains across your average 32-bit JRPG, and it’s hard to even recall how often you are forced to dash across mountaintops in your average platformer. Mario was climbing mountains before he was even born (technically)! But what makes Celeste different from any other trip up some rocks is that Celeste is truly about the challenge of climbing inhospitable terrain. On its surface, Celeste is little more than a basic platformer: you run, you jump, you cling, you dash, and that’s all you got. There is combat in only the absolute loosest sense (maybe you can hop on the occasional angry ghost), and the typical “collectibles” are little more than excuses for challenge rooms. Celeste is a very simple game, so its surface-level description as “A game about climbing a mountain” is very apt. This isn’t a complicated experience for a complicated world, this is climbing a mountain, plain and simple.

But don’t let the simple trappings of Celeste fool you into believing this is a retro title bereft of a plot. Celeste is about climbing a mountain, but, more than that, it’s about a woman learning that she can climb a mountain. Madeline is climbing this mountain, and, when her journey begins, her self-loathing and doubt is so palatable, it transforms into a living entity named Badeline. While Madeline and Badeline initially clash, over the course of the adventure, Madeline comes to accept Badeline, as Baddy was never her evil twin, but a part of herself that she tried to ignore. Once Madeline has accepted herself, “bad side” and all, she levels up as a character and a human being, and gains a second air dash. This is life-affirming and hella sweet. Along her way to self-actualization, though, a number of levels also seem to follow a sort of “lesson” framing, with that previously mentioned angry ghost demonstrating the dangers of putting the needs of toxic people over your own, and another level ending with instructions on breathing exercises that can help mitigate depression and panic attacks. Celeste might have an extremely basic plot, but the narrative successfully turns this simple videogame goal into a story about overcoming challenges both mentally and physically. The mountain is a metaphor!

This is funAnd we’ve seen “the mountain is a metaphor” before on this very blog. There’s another game that sticks in this humble blogger’s head that used the exact same story framing: Catherine. Catherine is a game that is mostly remembered for showing its whole ass with some of the worst sexual politics this side of Persona 5 (gee, wonder if there’s a connection there), but it was also a story about comparing the struggles of Vincent and his dream-mountain climbing to real-life decision making and the trials and tribulations of navigating the dangers of reality. And, if you think that metaphor is simply implied, don’t worry, the writers of Catherine assumed you were an idiot, and framed their story with a character breaking the fourth wall to shout “it’s an allegory!” at all the nimrods that bought Catherine because the logo looked like panties. To say the least, Celeste was slightly more subtle with its morals while maintaining the added benefit of 100% less upskirt camera angles; but it still boils down to the same palpable lesson: you can treat the complications of life like a video game. This mountain may initially seem insurmountable, and you may fall again and again, but you will reach the peak. Whether you’re Vincent or Madeline, you can climb.

But when multiple stories present the moral that you can triumph in real life despite hardships, what does it mean when you play these games to face those “hardships” for fun?

Why compare Celeste to Catherine? Well, Catherine might have an odious plot and tone, but its gameplay is almost wholly different from anything else that has come down the pike in the last decade (and, as you may be aware, I’ve played a lot of videogames over the last decade). The combination of puzzle and action in Catherine is a sweet success, and, while it might be fair to say the writers of Catherine should be shipped off to Penlackicus: The Isle Where Pens Are Forbidden, the gameplay of Catherine is something that can be returned to again and again. It’s unique! It’s frenetic! Occasionally sheep are murdered for their insolence! That’s always a good time (assuming you’re not a shepherd). Similarly, Celeste is an amazing platformer designed by people that understand the genre better than most Sonic curators, and solving each environmental conundrum is as delightful as it is precise. Once you have a full grasp of Madeline’s moveset (and its occasional evolutions), you’ll be revisiting each path to collect a pie’s worth of strawberries not because you have to, but because you’ll want to spend more time bounding and dashing around her world. Celeste and Catherine, two games containing obvious lessons about triumphing over impediments even when such a thing seems impossible, are both games that make those impediments… fun.

NOT FUNAnd, on a personal note, Celeste is the game I played most during the Spring Quarantine of 2020. The world was falling apart in drastically unprecedented ways, I personally had no guarantee whether or not I would have any kind of income from day to day (spoilers for anyone concerned: I made out okay), and there was the threat of a deadly virus striking seemingly at all times. Granted, as I write this article, things aren’t much better, but there’s now a certain kind of uncomfortable familiarity with the situation. Yes, leaving the house is still a gauntlet of social distancing not unlike attempting to dash through a hotel filled with malevolent and deadly energy, but at least it no longer feels like the whole of society is going to gradually slide into the nearest ocean (we have to wait for 2038 for that). Back in March, when everything was unknown and something as basic as “wear a mask” was reported with equal claims of it being our one saving grace and a way to instantly obtain a malady known as “fungus nose”, things were a lot more ambiguous. And, thinking back on that time, I can safely say that I was probably about thirty seconds away from a mental breakdown every moment. I won’t exactly say I was tangibly depressed, but it was more like I was… concerned. Perpetually concerned. Perpetually might-have-a-heart-attack concerned. In retrospect, it was a surprisingly gentle time, as most businesses were closed (so there was little reason to go outside and risk my life for a damn haircut), the concept that someone might be financially hurting was universally understood (extra unemployment and money from a government that was pretending to care about its citizens that week), and, give or take some supermarket meltdowns, people seemed unusually empathetic for a month or so (we’re all in this together!). Maybe it was just an illusion brought on by not having to directly deal with (much of) the public for a month or so, but, in retrospect, the general start of this COVID insanity seemed like it was the best part; something approaching a reprieve before we settled into Let's move itthe usual rhythms of watching our leaders toss more and more “essential” workers into the meat grinder. But when that “reprieve” was happening, it seemed like anything but, as I deal with uncertainty about as well as having a swarm of bees in my pants. March and April’s COVID situation brought me seemingly unlimited stress, and I chose to relax by… playing a game that is supposed to be stressful.

And it eventually dawned on me why I was doing such a thing: even when it seems impossible to make progress in Celeste, even when the next obstacle seems completely insurmountable, even if you’re barely trying, if you fail, at least you won’t lose anything.

And, in an uncertain world, that is infinitely comforting.

Celeste is about climbing a mountain, yes, but the climb happens one screen at a time. Madeline might be required to exhibit some arduous acrobatics, but if she fails, she’s immediately returned to the last place she had even footing. There are no continues that have to be conserved, or lives that have to be limited. While you will lose a strawberry bonus for dying halfway through its retrieval, once you have hit solid ground with your bounty, there’s no way to lose that prize, whether through immediately failing on the same screen, or at some later point in the level. Celeste is also extremely forgiving with save locations, so you can pop into a precise third of a stage if you want to clock in some practice in a particular area. Madeline may become frequently frustrated by the various trials she has to face, but the player is given every advantage in attempting the climb. There might be a number quickly approaching infinity next to that death count, but it’s all worth it if you finish the stage. You won’t be locked out of any future content for burying Madeline more often than the X-Men.

And, hell, I don’t know what Madeline has to worry about. I’m pretty sure I’d be happy as a clam if I mortally screwed up over and over, but came back fresh as a daisy five seconds later every time.

This blowsRemember those uncertain COVID times I mentioned earlier? In the Fall of 2019, I finally took the initiative, looked at my rainy day fund that hadn’t been touched for literally years, and cashed in on remodeling my ancient, remembers-the-fall-of-Napoleon bathroom. It was a lot of money, but I sat down with a ledger, looked at the past year’s profits and losses, and determined it would be a passable expense. I also consulted with my fiancée, who informed me she would leave me if she had to deal with a bathroom that involved a crankshaft toilet one more time. Wait, excuse me, she wasn’t my fiancée at the time. That came later, with the other major expense I picked up in February: an engagement ring. In that case, it was money I really didn’t want to spend, but, hey, I’m pretty sure I love the woman I’m buying it for, and she is a material girl ™ , so may as well make the love of my life happy. So those were two huge, once in a lifetime expenses that I decided would be endurable if typical trends continued. And then a worldwide plague tossed the idea of “typical trends” straight out the window. So, right about when I was concerned that my profession wasn’t as Thunderdome-proof as I might have liked, I also had blown my emergency savings on a sink faucet that doesn’t pour out exclusively spiders (I… really needed that bathroom renovation). Once again, to be absolutely clear, I made it out of that initial quarantine with a job and only a modest hit to my income, but did I know that would be the outcome in March? Of course not. I spent my days worrying over decisions I had made during The Before Time, and I wouldn’t stop worrying until there was a more comfortable “end” in sight. What good is an engagement ring when you can’t support the ones you love? What good is a tile shower in the face of a catastrophe? Can I just reset to a save point from a scant few months prior? Can I get a do-over on this apocalypse thing?

WeeeeeAnd, when I think about it, this is why I play “hard games” when things are stressful. No matter how badly I mess up in Celeste, it’s not going to impact my life. No matter how many times I damn Vincent to death in Catherine, it’s not going to make a dent in my bank account. Every setback in Bloodborne might mean I lose some resources, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to lose my home. Calling a videogame hard is all well and good, but the fact that there are no consequences (maybe beyond losing a few useless hours of actual life) is what transforms “difficult” into “fun”. Drop any consequences for failure, and repeated failures are enjoyable.

The climb is long, hard, and treacherous. But when you won’t lose a thing doing it, it’s fun.

FGC #516 Celeste

  • System: This is another “whaddya got” situation: Steam, Linux, MacOS, Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and certain garage door openers. This one is probably going to get around in future generations, too.
  • Number of players: Maddy rarely enjoys company, as she is a bit of a loner.
  • ScaryFavorite Level: The hotel stage is my uncontested favorite. It has a decent moral, a quasi-boss battle, and I love me some little black ghosty things that don’t allow you to re-traverse certain edges. It all works together beautifully, and seems to encapsulate what’s great about Celeste.
  • So, did you beat it: I’m sorry to say I don’t have every last strawberry, but I’m good with everything else that is going on. Celeste is damn good stuff, and it’s worth triumphing over tribulations to grieve over grandmas. Or… something.
  • Missing Pieces: I completely missed Theo’s explanation of the mountain and its ruined city during my initial playthrough, so I’m pretty sure I assumed the whole of the game was little more than magical realism on my first go. Mind you, that’s still kind of accurate, but Mt. Celeste is apparently supposed to be a “real” location in videogame Canada, not a complete hallucination like my initial impression.
  • Speaking of Dreams: This is the best animation of 2018.

    YUMMY

    Slurp!

  • Black Lives Matter: Celeste was my go-to “relax during quarantine” game, but it also publically resurfaced recently as part of the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. I will literally never get through the 1,741 bits of software that were included in that bundle, but I enjoy being reminded that that amazing set of games was so successful in raising $8,154,644.19 for a worthy cause. Way to go, Itch.
  • Did you know? M. Thorson made a full thread on Twitter about all the ways Celeste is designed to “feel right” for the player. I’m just going to go ahead and link to it rather than recount the full details, so just be aware that there is an inordinate amount of care involved in the creation of a good platformer. Also, “coyote time” is something that should be applied to every platformer ever. Looking at you, Castlevania.
  • Would I play again: Celeste is platforming comfort food for me. And I feel we could all use a little more comfort right now.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Retro Game Challenge for the Nintendo DS! Speaking of challenges and retro games, here’s… uh… both. I guess. Anyway, please look forward to it!

HUGS