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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 #562 Q*Bert

No colorLet’s look at the evolution of gaming/Q*Bert over the years.

In 1982, gaming was just taking its first, tentative steps towards Gaming as we know it. Pac-Man and Pong had blazed the trail with their joystick/wheely thing controls, but now we were seeing new and innovative ways to play. Kangaroo, for instance, was a game that was very similar to the likes of Donkey Kong, but added an all-important offensive action to its heroine’s repertoire. Kangaroo could punch out monkeys and apples alike, and one could argue this simple act was the start of “videogame violence” for years to come (sorry, dead monkeys, you gotta start somewhere). And speaking of offensive options, Dig Dug first started digging in ’82, and he had the ability to “pump up” his opponents until they popped. This had the dual purpose of inspiring a generation of bizarre fetishes and featuring a hero that always had the ability to turn the tables on his opponents. Unlike Pac-Man or Mario that had to rely on sporadically distributed powerups, Taizo the Digger was hunted and hunter all in one. This would become the norm for practically all of gaming to come.

But if one game presciently granted a glimpse of gaming of the future, it was Pitfall. Nearly four decades ago, Pitfall Harry explored a large world of tricks, traps, and treasure. Harry had much to do in his (certainly not Mayan) adventure, and, while his moveset was limited, it was contextually sensitive to all sorts of challenges. Harry didn’t simply jump over opponents, he leapt to swing across vines, or hopped over the heads of gators. Pitfall was a revelation for everything its protagonist (and by extension, the player) could do, even if this was still the era of extremely blocky dudes puttering around monochrome backgrounds.

Lookin' GoodAnd 1982 also saw the release of Q*Bert. Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, “punch”, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops.

Ten years later, in 1992, the face of gaming had irrevocably changed. The arcade gave way to the domination of the console, and now Sega and Nintendo were battling it out. But there was the Personal Computer, too! Wolfenstein 3D had just been released, and the whole of the FPS genre was just starting to congeal into Doom (to be released the next year). For some, the “3-D” nature of first person shooters promised to be what “the future of gaming” was always expected to be: fully immersive fighting (through the legions of Hell/nazis, apparently).

But away from the monitor and back at the television, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was pushing the boundaries of the genre that had become known as platforming. Sonic could run, jump, and dash; but he did it at speeds that could not have even been imagined ten years prior. And this latest Sonic allowed for two player simultaneous play! Just like in those competitive fighting games that had been making the scene! And Mortal Kombat was the most prominent “new fighter” of ’92. Now there was a radical shift in gaming! Kangaroo might have punched out a monkey, but, for better or worse, she never tore the head off of an opponent. And look at all those buttons! “Punch” is a thing of the past: Sub-Zero had a variety of punches, kicks, and fireballs (well, snowballs) at his disposal. You didn’t just need an instruction manual for your average fighting game, you needed a strategy guide (thanks, Nintendo Power!).

Good bless QBertBut while we’re considering strategy, let us also consider Super Mario Kart. Mario had cameoed in a sports title here or there over the years (he got really good at Golf, apparently), but he mostly just starred in his own adventures that involved running and jumping. Super Mario Kart was a great success as a fun racing game, but it also showcased how a videogame mascot could shift all their normal “verbs”, but still be unmistakably that familiar mascot. Mushrooms can make you super tall, or they can give you a speed boost. Turtle shells can become projectiles divorced from their turtles. And anyone that has ever played any Mario Kart knows the difference between a Starman that allows you to mow down goombas and one that allows you to speed to the finish line. Mario Kart showed that even the most rigidly defined mascot could be anything, and paved the way for the Sonic Racing or unprecedented crossovers of today.

And then there was Q*Bert for Gameboy, and Q*Bert 3 for Super Nintendo, both released in 1992. Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, six punch buttons, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops. Sometimes there are a variety of new colors and backgrounds, though. You know, at least on the system that has color.

Let’s hop forward seven years. By the time 1999 rolled around, the “mascot wars” of the previous console generation had concluded, and newcomer Sony was riding high with the Playstation and the serious, cinematic Final Fantasy franchise. This was the year we were finally going to see the sequel to Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy: Whatever, and it pushed the boundaries for what was expected of the JRPG genre. Have you ever heard of Triple Triad? Guardian Forces? Dog Missiles? If you haven’t, don’t worry about it, it was all only around for one game, but it did establish that you could have complicated battle systems that were only relevant for one title. Fight, magic, item wasn’t the only fish in the sea, anymore, let’s get ready to get some gambits up in here!

Go QBert!This was also a time when gaming was getting more serious… but “serious” as more of a teenager’s definition. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater allowed a “real human” avatar to perform intricate skateboarding tricks in a universe that apparently had unlimited and instant healthcare. Silent Hill allowed a player to explore the depths of the human psyche in a world that was going to be complete in a few years with the introduction of a certain pyramid headed fellow that really knew how to swing around half a pair of scissors. Or maybe you just wanted to be the Driver, and cruise around realistic (enough) cities? In a way, these games were just as big on the fantasy as Mario (no, you cannot drive a car into a building in reality and continue to have a good time), but they were a lot more “real” than anything Pitfall Harry ever did.

And if you wanted some fantasy, don’t worry, you still had the likes of Ape Escape or Donkey Kong 64 to hold you over. DK64 saw the collectathon at its most… collecty, and showcased all the different ways Kongs can run, jump, and shoot on their way to an ultimate goal of wringing out 12,000,000 (monotonous) hours of gameplay. And Ape Escape was no simple monkey game, it was a sneak and capture event closer to Metal Gear than Donkey Kong. Even visually “childish” games in 1999 weren’t so simple.

And then there was Q*Bert for Playstation. Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, “punch”, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops. This time there was an adventure mode, but that was just an excuse to stick cinema scenes on either side of a world. Everything else was just Q*Bert hops.

BERT!The following five years allowed for a number of innovations in gaming. In 2004 we saw Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was the first Grand Theft Auto to feature extensive customization to its grand, open world. It also had planes, bazookas, and the opportunity for your C.J. to cosplay as The Notorious B.I.G. for the entire adventure. It is arguable that this Grand Theft Auto went too far into the whacky territory after its sequels eventually tried to rein everything back in with sad Russians in GTA4 and sad dads in GTA5, but the Saints Row franchise carried that whacky football straight to the end zone. Gaming had started goofy, become serious, and then migrated back to goofy all over again.

And speaking of marginally goofy, this was the year we saw Fable, which touted a rich morality system and a story that was different every time you played it. Did that actually happen? Well, not really, but it did seemingly start the trend of games that bet their whole asses on save baby/eat baby morality. It was no longer enough to run, jump, and punch; now you had to determine whether or not you were doing all those things while simultaneously becoming Mecha Hitler. Or Mecha Mother Theresa? You’ve got choices!

But on the simpler side of things, there was Katamari Damacy. This straightforward little game featured a protagonist that could only roll around a ball, but that ball could grow from the size of a paperclip to roughly the girth of a galaxy. And, more importantly than the gameplay, it was released for a whole $20, kickstarting the (now standard) belief that not every videogame had to be a AAA, 40 hour feature. Before internet connections fully graduated from 56K, Katamari Damacy showed us a glimpse of the future of downloadable titles.

Eat it!And speaking of downloadable, this year also saw an official Flash (RIP) version of Q*Bert. In a game that would be ported to “real” Windows a year later, Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, “punch”, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops. At least this Q*venture was free.

Now we fast-forward a decade to 2014. What innovations did this year hold for gaming? Well, we wound up skipping the exact year for a lot of big’uns from this epoch, so we’re left with staring straight at Dark Souls 2. Did you ever hear about Dark Souls? It’s the Dark Souls of Bloodborne games. Love it or hate it, Dark Souls impacted gaming in more ways than we will ever admit, arguably revitalizing the general gameplay of the rogue-like and encouraging increasing your own personal gaming skills while marginally leveling up your chosen hero. In a similar manner, this was the year we saw Bayonetta 2, a shining example of the likewise “hardcore” stylish action genre. Gaming could be slow and methodical or fast and elegant, but, in both cases, it was a little more complicated than guiding a puck through a maze.

And if you still wanted the mascots of yore, don’t worry, they were represented, too. If you wanted to see everybody fight everybody, Super Smash Bros 4 WiiU/3DS was released in 2014. Smash Bros was always a shining example of videogame protagonists leaving their usual genre and sailing into something completely different (Star Fox left his ship!), but Smash 4 would eventually grow and mutate to be a veritable yearbook of every character that had ever mattered in gaming (sorry, Geno, you don’t matter). And if you wanted something new from “cartoony” characters, this was also the year that Shovel Knight proved Kickstarting retro platformers was wholly viable, and could have amazing, enduring results. Come to think of it, Shovel Knight was partially inspired by Dark Souls, too…

CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTERBut there was one game released that year that was not inspired by Dark Souls. Q*Bert Rebooted, seemingly rebooted to promote an Adam Sandler vehicle, was a game where Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, shovel, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops. He also hopped to nearly every platform available, so this one is still downloadable on modern consoles.

And Q*Bert returned for the most recent time in 2019 for iOS. Do we need to review the gaming breakthroughs of such a recent year? Fire Emblem: Three Houses and its perfect blend of chess and dating simulation? Super Mario Maker 2 and its ability to grant the player full creative control over familiar gameplay? Untitled Goose Game and its goose? Whatever the hell happens in Sekiro? (I gather it is a photography simulator.) 2019 was an amazing year for gaming where we not only had all this, but also Q*Bert. And what did Q*Bert do? He moved from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changed blocks colors. He baited a snake into a pit. Q*Bert only knows hops.

He was Q*Bert. He is Q*Bert. The face of gaming may irrevocably change, but Q*Bert is Q*Bert forever.

@!#?

FGC #562 Q*Bert

  • Go lil buddySystem: I’m pretty sure the lil’ Bert appeared on nearly every console system, give or take a few outliers. Playstation 2? Sega Genesis? And I’m pretty sure he wasn’t on Atari Lynx, either. Other than that, there’s probably some Q*Bert in some form on your preferred console.
  • Number of players: One Q*Bert, but two people can take turns if they are so inclined.
  • Don’t make a sound: Q*Bert’s claim to fame has always been the bizarre recordings that approximate the sound an orange monster man might make when brained with a purple marble. Unfortunately, playing Q*Bert in the year 2021 just reminds me that I never want to hear from a belligerent orange creature ever again.
  • Hey, what about Q*Bert’s Qubes: The only Q*Bert to truly mix up traditional Q*Bert gameplay was… not all that different. It basically just added the idea of “rotating” cubes according to the direction Q*Bert hops (as opposed to one simple, all-purpose tap), and added a handful of new enemies (there may have been a crab). Other than that, the way it “separated” the blocks made the game a lot more difficult to visually parse, and there’s probably a reason this Q*title is generally forgotten and ignored.
  • Did you know? Q*Bert for Playstation started with a cinema scene based in Q*Bert’s blocky little world. Weird thing? His weirdass universe looks a lot like modern Minecraft. Did Steve colonize Q*World? Is that the secret origin of the franchise?
  • Would I play again: Q*Bert is great for a whole five minutes before you remember it’s just goddamned Q*Bert. I will probably waste those five minutes again in the future.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Wallachia Reign of Dracula! Or did ROB actually choose Bloodstained: Classic Mode? Actually, it’s both! We’re going to have a double header next! Please look forward to it!

GO FOR IT!

FGC #555 Dead Rising 4 (Frank’s Big Package)

Frank West is a consumer whore.

Dead Rising (1) is a videogame that, arguably, is wholly unique in the history of gaming. It’s a Capcom title, and, given the pedigree, it should not be surprising that it superficially appears to be a continuation of the Final Fight-esque beat ‘em genre. There are hundreds of thousands of zombies to clobber, and, like in Haggar’s trek across his beloved city, there are going to be a lot of haymakers from one side of the screen to the other. But calling Dead Rising a beat ‘em up is extremely reductive, as there are those precious JRPG elements that were all the rage at the turn of the millennium. Frank is a scavenger, and you better believe he learns new and interesting ways to beat back the hordes while carefully managing the resources littering his immediate area (even if the sheer number of meats hanging around is a bit Metro City-esque again). But it’s somehow even more complicated than that, as the hard timer on the plot and various requirements cause Dead Rising to border on rogue-like territory. You’ll never beat this game optimally without some knowledge from prior deaths! And this was all sold on a marketing campaign that leaned heavily on the “look how many monsters are on the screen” thing. And, while this was indeed a remarkable accomplishment for the new Xbox 360 and the future of its gaming generation, it wound up being one of the least impressive segments of Dead Rising’s many accomplishments. Dead Rising is a game’s game, with so much to enjoy, conquer, and just plain do. And persistent references to Mega Man Legends weren’t bad, either…

Wreck the mallsAnd, of course, no discussion of Dead Rising would be complete without noting its well-worn plot. Tell me if you have heard this one before: Frank West is an “everyman” journalist that inadvertently gets caught up in a zombie outbreak that takes place at a gigantic mall. Frank must survive not only the zombies, but also other survivors that maybe aren’t coping in the healthiest of ways. Yes, give or take some extended lore that tells the full story of the origin of this outbreak, we’ve got Romero’s Dawn of the Dead here, right down to helicoptering into a mall “sanctuary”. And, to be absolutely clear, that’s perfectly fine! Donkey Kong is legally distinct from King Kong, and Dead Rising is allowed to liberally borrow a few elements from the grandpappy of all zombie movies. And, in both cases, it seems the main venue of the mall is important: there is a bit of commentary on the fact that the “mindless hordes” are obsessed with “stuff” (brains/supplies), and malls were the meccas of brainless entertainment for years and years. And, in both stories, any conflict that isn’t caused by the “force of nature” zombies is inevitably the result of survivors that snap and give in to their desires. It doesn’t matter if that desire is “want to live without revealing an infected wound” or “I need some mutton”, struggle and death is the result of these selfish actions. A mall might be a simple place to fight over bargains in our mundane world, but, in a zombie invasion, that same war is escalated to literally deadly levels. And, even if our heroes may be cantankerous and aggravating, they win and succeed as best they can because they do not give into their baser desires. Frank West and Peter alike avoid suicidal bad endings because they ignore the temptations of the world and do their best, despite their situations not being anywhere near “best”.

And then there’s Dead Rising 4’s Frank West. That Frank West is just going to have fun with it.

Gonna get itDead Rising 4 apparently started production as Dead Rising 1: Remake. This makes a certain amount of sense, as Dead Rising 2 focused on a wholly different character and setting, and Dead Rising 3 did much the same. Yet, through all of that, Frank West was regarded as the hero of the franchise, despite now canonically being an “old man” of about fifty (fifteen years happened over those plots!) who only pops in for the occasional DLC. A Dead Rising reboot could bring the franchise back to its more famous roots, and, bonus, you wouldn’t have to worry about that whole “whoops, we cured zombieism” issue that popped up in the later games. However, that reboot didn’t actually come to fruition, and Dead Rising 4 became a game that simply looked a lot like Dead Rising 1. Here’s the same town again. Here’s the same hero again. Here’s the exact same premise again. Throw in a terrible helicopter ride, and, yes, this might be Dead Rising: Fifteen Years Later, but it is certainly unmistakably Dead Rising: All Over Again.

Actually, scratch that, Dead Rising 4 is nothing like Dead Rising. The plot and players might be the same, but Dead Rising 4 wholly eschews the “rogue-like” elements of its predecessor. There is no time limit, and the plot is going to barrel forward regardless of your inability to rescue a survivor or two. Absent the claustrophobia imposed by a timer, DR4 becomes an incredibly open experience. Couple that with adopting Dead Rising 3’s “town structure”, and “Dead Rising” practically becomes a wholly different genre. This is no longer a game that could be called “survival horror”, it is Grand Theft Auto with zombies. And that can be fun! GTA NPCs are practically indistinguishable from zombies even on their best day, and, if you’re driving down a street and mowing over pedestrians, they may as well be the walking dead. And Dead Rising has always been about collecting to a certain degree, so an entire abandoned city (abandoned by the living, at least) is ideal for grabbing random knickknacks. It actually makes more sense to loot an abandoned hotel room in an outbreak than randomly robbing places all over Liberty City!

ChillyAnd, for many players, this change in gameplay is an unequivocal check in the plus column. You could easily make the argument that Frank “unfettered” is the most fun way to play any Dead Rising, and isn’t that what you were always working towards in the previous games? That all-important “free play” reward you’d obtain for clearing all the stiff requirements of the “real” game? It’s just in reverse here, as the “old” gameplay was still available (eventually) as DLC. Hell, if you’re playing the game on the Playstation 4, you can skip right to that mode immediately. But for the many other players that simply want to have fun transforming zombies into putrid pudding, all you need is the ability to hit that start button, and you’re off to the (shambling) races. There’s a great big world out there, Frank West, go have fun with it.

But… should Frank be having fun? Should an entire zombie apocalypse be fun? You can count the surviving population of Willamette without clearing a hundred, so Frank is living through something approaching genocide. Given this outbreak hits at the start of Black Friday, the underlying tragedy of Dead Rising 4 is that the local populace was gearing up for a lovely holiday with their families, and are now collectively damned to be little more than a tick on Frank’s hit counter as he plows through on a bizarre lawnmower-bumper car combo. Frank is quipping all the way, the player is having fun earning experience points, and… Dawn of the Dead this ain’t. That movie is a bummer, man. And what was that about a mall being the height of greed and consumerism? You’re not going to find that here. In fact, Frank West freaking loves being a consumer.

Like a sharkDead Rising 4 is a stuff-based game. A dollar bill is useless in zombie society, but “scrap” becomes your new currency, and it is veritably indistinguishable from any other kind of zenny, gil, or cash. You can spend money at “shelters”, and, if you’re a good little Frank, you can rescue other survivors that will expand a shelter’s inventory. That’s right: your most coveted reward is the opportunity to buy more things. And even if you somehow don’t engage with this scrap-based economy, you’re going to need every last trinket and inexplicable Vega claw you can find. Weapons break frequently, and you’re always going to need to find something new to bash the hordes. But wait! There’s more! This limited time offer allows you to combine weapons and items into even better items, so having a spare dinosaur hat or Christmas decoration is always going to be appropriate, because you never know what might turn out to be the essential component of a 5-star weapon.

And, assuming you somehow were missing the central moral here, please take a look at how Willamette is shaped. There are safe areas. There are places where you are all but guaranteed to find a new weapon or snack. And you know what these places are? Stores. “Safe” Shelters are where you can purchase respite, and abandoned stores are where you are most likely to find that shiny new thing (to kill with). The message is 100% clear: consumerism is good, places you can spend money are the best, and you’ll never have any fun unless you accumulate as much as possible (And don’t even get me started on the ultimate weapon, an exo-suit, is the product of the military industrial complex). Frank West is greedy, but his greed is not going to impede his survival, only enrich it.

That’s a far cry from your usual zombie land lesson.

Dead Rising PresentsDead Rising 4 is not a bad game. Far from it! But in a franchise that previously did its best to be downright oppressive with limiting indulgent tendencies, having so much freedom right from the start neuters the message of Frank’s previous adventure. No longer do you have to carefully weigh the cost of time spent recovering that Servbot hat against saving a survivor’s expiring life force, now you can leisurely grab as much of this world as you want, anytime you want. Dead Rising 4 is a very different game from its predecessors, and, as a result, it undermines the original in more ways than one.

And, gee, I wonder if there’s a connection between this franchise descending into its uncritical love of consumerism and its omnipresent setting of Christmas…

… Nah, probably a coincidence.

FGC #555 Dead Rising 4 (Frank’s Big Package)

  • System: The OG was Xbox One exclusive, but it has migrated over to Playstation 4 (with DLC!) by now.
  • Number of players: There are some multiplayer extra modes/DLC, but the original is single player. I guess you have some options.
  • How about those expansions: Mini Golf and Multiplayer appear to be strictly… uh… multiplayer, so I’m not hitting those anytime soon. Frank Rising is the obvious continuation of the story and a pretty interesting concept (Frank is a zombie!), but it quickly just becomes a fairly rote rehash of recurring Dead Rising stories/gameplay (Frank is a zombie… but that just means he has a different standard moveset and can’t ever pick up a bat for some reason). Capcom Heroes, a mode where you can randomly utilize the moves of other Capcom “heroes”, seems like it would be right up my alley, but considering it’s tied to a complete play through of the entire game again… it’s really not a substitute for the real thing. Also, giving Ryu a chi grenade seems wrong somehow.
  • Favorite Combo Weapon: I am not immune to the siren’s call of “get as much junk as possible”. I am but a man! And I am a man that loves hacking down the zombie gangs with Sub-Zero’s signature ice sword. I naturally gravitate toward melee weapons in these games (because I can’t aim for a damn), and freezing everything in sight is a nice bonus for studying the blade.
  • I’m Rick James: Look, I know a lot of people complained about “Old Man” Frank West becoming virtually indistinguishable from Ash Williams of the Evil Dead franchise. And I can see how there is a clear parallel there in setting, situation, and mentality. And you know what? Who the hell cares! More characters should be like Ash Williams, because Ash Williams is awesome. I look forward to a Nintendo game wherein Mario has a chainsaw arm and boomstick.
  • Stupid soldiers: I’m not a big fan of the sheer number of times Frank gets shot. Could we stick to monsters that generally claw, jump, and maybe spit acid? That feels a little more…. normal for a zombie apocalypse.
  • HadoukenDid you know? The original Dead Rising was chastised for employing a font that was optimized for HD resolutions, and was practically unreadable on old, standard definition televisions. This problem indicates that Dead Rising was initially released billions of years ago, possibly before the extinction of the dinosaurs.
  • Would I play again: I might be rough on the general messaging of Dead Rising 4, but that’s just because I hate a society that is somehow based on “buy all our playsets and toys”. Once you get past that, this is a pretty fun game, and I would gladly stomp around Willamette again (with the aid of a flamethrower car). I have always enjoyed “free mode” in Dead Rising, so I’m not exactly upset I don’t have to micromanage Frank’s life to have a good time. I’ll be back in time for Christmas!

What’s next? Speaking of Christmas, we’re going to have a look at another Christmas adventure… uh… kinda. Check back on Christmas Day for some holiday hijinks! Please look forward to it!

Go Captain

FGC #537 PaRappa the Rapper 2

You are now believingSo what’s wrong with failure?

PaRappa the Rapper is a phenomenon that is hard to explain to modern audiences. Look, it was like this: for a long, long time, videogames were just beeps and boops and graphics that were blocky as hell. Or, perhaps, it was just a matter of, for many “gamers” of the time, this had been all anyone had ever known, and that “ever” was our entire childhoods. Studies have been performed that have proven, without a doubt, that, when someone is a child, a year lasts approximately eleventy billion millennia. Meanwhile, when you’re older, a single weekend lasts roughly as long as one cheese sandwich. This created the lopsided imagining that videogames would always be no better than what could be pumped out by an NES or Sega Genesis, and the concept of a theme song or graphics that existed in three dimensions was little more than a pipedream (the old videogames did have a lot of pipes, incidentally). This meant that when PaRappa the Rapper was released stateside in the fall of 1997, players went unexpectedly nuts. In 1997, in one game, you had a CD that featured what many hailed as the culmination of an entire franchise, another disc (or four) showcasing the future of the JRPG genre and what was possible for storytelling, and, finally, here was this weird little rap game that went in another, amazing third direction. The graphics were distinct, bright, and colorful. It had voice acting for every scene, level, and character (in English!). The gameplay was wholly new, or, at the very least, it felt new. Rhythmic button pressing wasn’t new by any means, but this didn’t feel like FMV nonsense or some earlier attempt at guitar heroing. PaRappa was an unexpected feast for the eyes, ears, and thumbs.

Of course, nowadays, everything that made PaRappa unique is completely mundane, and it has been for nearly twenty years. If you’re still excited by voice acting in 2020, you were either just beamed here from the distant part, or you finally figured out how to crank your hearing aid. Or maybe you’re just excited a fighting game finally earned an English dub

Let's rapBut PaRappa was an unexpected success in 1997, and that inevitably meant it was time for sequels. And that’s great! Because the original PaRappa the Rapper sucked. Yes, the characters were memorable. Yes, it was charming as all get out. And, yes, the nonviolent setting that managed to tell a compelling story was and still is a breath of fresh air. But have you ever actually played PaRappa the Rapper on the original hardware? Practically constructing the entire rhythm genre from raw materials comes with its own share of problems, as so much that we take for granted today is nonexistent in this maiden voyage. Button prompts sometimes appear microseconds before they’re relevant. “Hit detection” is scattershot, and it’s difficult to know exactly why “U Rappin’ Awful”. And, for reasons that no one has ever understood, the instant feedback of a congratulatory tone when you do something right (or perhaps a punishing buzz when something is performed incorrectly) is replaced with… farts. Seriously! I can’t figure out a way to describe these noises in any other way. I’m trying to press triangle at the right time, failing, and the only indicator as to what might be going wrong is some dude slightly off-screen taking his shirt off and going to town with the armpit noises. It’s not helpful, Musical Mike!

So, yes, from a gameplay perspective, PaRappa the Rapper had some significant issues. It was very easy to lose, and, given you had to repeat the entire stage after every bomb, every loss grew more and more frustrating. Was this by design? Was the game “artificially padded” to prevent immediate progress so as to obfuscate the fact that there are a total of six short stages? If you know what you’re doing, you can complete PaRappa in less time than it takes to watch a television show (granted, this is true when speedrunning most games of the era, but this is without even trying). Was the advanced difficulty meant to extend the length of the game? You gotta!Or was the lack of relevant feedback meant to simulate learning a “freeform” skill like rap? It’s not just about pressing buttons at the right time, player, there’s a je ne sais quoi that cannot be captured by a simple tutorial or… anything but a fart noise. PaRappa the Rapper is exasperating, yes, but it may be for a reason. And if it isn’t for a reason, then they’ll fix it in the inevitable sequel. … Right?

PaRappa the Rapper 2 certainly went in… some kind of direction.

On the surface, this is the same game, just a generation of hardware later. PtR2 is an adventure starring PaRappa where, in an effort to see a dog get deflowered by a flower, you must guide PaRappa through a series of rap battles wherein he gains confidence and the ability to buy a hamburger. All of the raps are new, there are a few more levels on top of the original count, and everything looks and sounds better than it did on the old hardware. There are even escalating, clearly labeled difficulty levels to add a little more replay value to the experience. PaRappa the Rapper 2 did everything PaRappa the Rapper 1 did, but better (give or take your subjective feelings on whether or not a moose driving instructor is better than a moose drill sergeant). But was it easier? Did the directors make more of an effort to help the player through a rap or two? Well, PtR2 did at least give us this guy…

Let's practice!

Come on, PaRappa, relax, it’s time to address this weirdo from your second game.

That’s Boxxy Boy, and he appears at the start of every level. It is his purpose to provide a “simple”, beat-heavy version of samplings of the song, so you’re granted an opportunity to practice before starting a level. You cannot fail Boxxy’s training sessions, and you are welcome to test out your phat beats in an environment where you either pass or keep trying (and are never told you’re being awful). It is a safe space, and, frankly, it’s a great concept for inclusion in a rhythm game. The Hatsune Miku games of today (and games based off the same basic concept) have major problems with starting a featured song with 40 required inputs before you even have a moment to figure out the BPM, so a little “here is what this is like” is welcome. Nobody likes to see a game over five seconds after the “level” starts!

Proof I can do thisBut… would that be so bad? Obviously, it sucked whenever you failed a level in PaRappa the Rapper 1, but, nine times out of ten, that wasn’t because of errors in the opening seconds. It takes time to get to a complicated bridge! And what was the punishment for failure in PtR1? Nothing. You had to repeat the level, but you didn’t have to repeat every previous level, or insert a quarter, or search all over for your missing turtle friends (I’m probably thinking of something specific). Failing sucks, but you’re always a quick restart away from trying again. PaRappa the Rapper 2 is no different, and its additional emphasis on scoring and replays means that there are even greater reasons to ignore any botches that would happen without the omnipresent training tutorial. What’s bad about failing except knowing that you failed?

Or is simply knowing you can suck enough?

According to interviews, Boxxy Boy’s tutorials were implemented because Rodney Greenblat, the man responsible for fashioning PaRappa and his world, was bad at playing Um Jammer Lammy. Thus, Boxxy was implemented to offer a “gentle” tutorial for anyone that was desperate to make it through the “real” game. And that’s a noble goal! Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Boxxy only repeats one distinct section of the song, and does not prepare a player for pushing through those final beats. So ol’ Rodney is probably still going to lose, except now he knows there’s an entire, useless “mini stage” attached to his failures. Is this why we haven’t seen any new PaRappa characters since? Rodney is too demoralized by Boxxy?

You gotta love?And is that the fear here? That people will give up on PaRappa the Rapper because it is too easy to fail? Is failure so disheartening that people won’t even try? You could claim modern games that revel in try and retry, like Dark Souls and its ilk, disprove this theory. Everyone is chasing that Dark Souls pie right now! But, on the other hand, Souls and the entire “rogue-like” genre is wildly divisive. So much as coughing out the words “Dark Souls” on a forum (they still make those, right?) will lead to a thousand gamers explaining why DS is simultaneously the best and worst thing to ever happen since the Power Glove. And a significant reason for this is that you know there are hundreds of players out there that tried this fancy shmancy new genre, died 70 times, and made up their collective minds to never “waste time” like that ever again. Failure may be upsetting, but squandering your precious time on something that will never lead to success is even worse. Isn’t that why you have a day job? And what is the point of playing a game if you are never going to “beat it”?

And maybe that’s why Boxxy works. Failure sucks, and you absolutely cannot fail when practicing with Boxxy. There is no game over, there is no “thou must not pass” (as you can always skip the lil’ dude with the start button), and Boxxy does not judge you. Boxxy is a safe, friendly buddy, and, while you might not beat the next level, at least you can have a little entertainment with this sentient boombox. Is it as much fun as the “real” game? No. But at least no one is going to judge your skills here. Pass? Fail? You’ll be fine just pressing buttons.

There’s nothing wrong with failure, but it is nice to have a place you can avoid failure. Boxxy is here to help.

But he won’t be back again, because PaRappa the Rapper 2 was a failure, and the franchise never returned.

… So maybe it is a good idea to avoid failing.

FGC #537 PaRappa the Rapper 2

  • System: Playstation 2 initially, and then Playstation 4. I don’t think there was a PSP/Vita version, but I would not be surprised.
  • Yummy!Number of players: Invite over a friend for a rap battle! … I have never subjected anyone I know to this fate.
  • Favorite Level: Stage 5: Hair Scare features Um Jammer Lammy and her band, Milk Can. I like Um Jammer Lammy so much more than the little dog in a beanie, so I appreciate that stage. Look, Lammy is just objectively better, as she gets through her entire game without trying to get laid every five seconds, while PaRappa is just a horndog.
  • Play it Cool: Every one of the teachers (save the friendly ghost of Stage 1) encourages PaRappa to freestyle until he hits “Cool” ranking. I have never understood what exactly makes PaRappa go Cool, as I have no sense of rhythm, and I only know how to make raps good through excessive rhyming. I’m a writer! Not a musician! … Do you think Boxxy could give me a tutorial?
  • What’s in a name: PaRappa Town might sound like one of those lame “the planet is named after the main character” situations (Nobody lives in The World of Lufia, dammit), but “PaRappa” just means “paper-thin” in Japanese, so it’s appropriate for this 2-D environment. Now nobody render anything in 3-D, or it’s all going to fall apart.
  • Very Concerning: Beard Burger Master is rapping from beyond the grave in an effort to help PaRappa construct hamburgers. This is a vision of Hell, right?
  • Did you know? Rodney Greenblat, the character designer that is responsible for PaRappa’s iconic look, Let's Jamalso was responsible for the album art for They Might Be Giant’s self-titled debut album. Put your hand inside the PJ Berri head!
  • Would I play again: It takes a whole hour to complete PaRappa the Rapper 2, so the fact that it is loaded onto my PS4 means it might see play again. It’s a fun little game, Boxxy invasion or no.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Cadillacs and Dinosaurs! It’s like Jurassic Park! But with cooler cars! Please look forward to it!