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The Greatest Games Ever– Bayonetta

Posted by nfinit on January 10, 2010

I wanted to finish my first playthrough of Bayonetta before I put together my thoughts on it.  It’s definitely my first playthrough, Bayonetta is one of those games where you know full well you’ll be back time and again even after you’ve seen the end credits.  I don’t know what makes a game do that for me aside from the sheer joy of the play mechanics.  For instance, I didn’t feel that way with Arkham Asylum, despite it being hands down the best action game of last year.

But I think the main reason that I know I’ll be with Bayonetta a long while is that it’s the most Sega-like game I’ve played since the days of Model 2 and the brief, shining heyday of the Dreamcast.  Which is strange, as Platinum games isn’t a Sega-bred developer, they’re Capcom guys.  Yet Bayonetta (and Mad World before it) have shown that Platinum Games gets Sega better than Sega’s own in-house developers.  This goes beyond the obvious Sega homages– there’s two separate Harley Davidson and the LA Riders segments and an entire level devoted to After Burner– it’s also evident in the arcade-inspired gameplay that’s become a hallmark of Platinum Games.  It’s this very sort of intuitive, instinctive, instantly fun gameplay that Sega created its brief empire upon, and Platinum has taken up that mantle.
I wrote a couple months ago about Forza Motorsport 3 and how its single inclusion of the rewind feature justified the game’s existence and made all other games that didn’t utilize that feature obsolete.  Bayonetta is much the same way.  It is in itself a fine 3d action game, but it has a singular feature that makes all other games in its genre obsolete.   Bayonetta calls that feature Witch Time.  Most games of Bayonetta’s ilk allow some form of defensive posture– God of War allows the main character, Kratos, to block most normal attacks, whereas Ninja Gaiden 1 allowed for Ryu Hyabusa to roll through unhindered through sword swipes and anti-tank shells.  Bayonetta has a dodge button, which does exactly what the name suggests– however, the dodge feature has another layer added atop it, and that’s where Witch Time comes into play– when you perfectly time the dodge just as it’s about to land you automatically enter a brief period of bullet time where the power of your blows are significantly increased, you’re immune to attack, and everything around you slows down, allowing Bayonetta to attack with impunity.
This feature fundamentally changes the way combat works in 3d action games– now defense becomes a fundamental tool of your offensive playbook, and you begin looking for places to leave yourself open for attack.  It ads a whole new layer of timing and bravado to the game’s already solid combat mechanics and makes all previous 3d action game combat mechanics obsolete.  I cannot understate how fundamental this single feature is to Bayonetta and how transformative it is to the genre itself– without Witch Time Bayonetta becomes a solid, if weird and slightly derivative gaming experience.  With it, every battle is bent to your will.
The other thing about Bayonetta’s mechanics is how remarkably non-Japanese and forward-thinking the game is overall.  There is no real punishment for death, for instance– instead of a limited number of lives and continues, you are scored at the end of each level.  If you care to improve your score, then you’ll use fewer items and die less often.  However, if you’d rather just make progress and not bang your head against a brick wall against a segment you simply do not have the skills to overcome, you can accept the fact that you’ll receive a bad score for that area and brute force your way through the level.  You can die, but every time you die you can restart at the nearest checkpoint.    It’s all rather amazingly progressive for  Japanese-developed game, and overcomes one of the biggest impediments to acceptance these sorts of games always present– the knowledge that you may well be paying sixty bucks for a videogame that you can’t play more than 2 hours of because you lack the superhuman reflexes necessary to get past a particular boss battle.
Boss battles are another thing that Bayonetta just gets right. In most games boss battles are little more than regressive holdovers from the arcade era, but Bayonetta is fundamentally an arcade game, so the idea works well here, and Bayonetta’s boss battles are amazingly well done.  Sure, they don’t do anything you’ve not seen in previous boss battles, and there’s not a lot of them,  perhaps half-dozen scattered among the 16 levels.  But you’re never at a loss about what the boss fight expects you to carry out, and most importantly each encounter uses the skills you’ve developed while playing the game.  There’s never a situation where the game presents you with a brand new game mechanic unique to that battle to master in two minutes only to never be picked up again.  Instead the bosses either run as extended set pieces within the levels themselves or they’re presented as super-charged regular enemies who are equal  in skill and ability as Bayonetta herself.
I don’t like reviews.  I think they’re generally useless, as videogame enjoyment is more subjective than any other form of media.  So it’s impossible for me to tell if you’d enjoy Bayonetta–  let’s be perfectly honest, unless you find yourself enjoying a very specific range of hardcore videogames, it’s hard for me to recommend it, despite being perhaps the finest 3d action game ever crafted.  It’s not like  Shadow of the Colossus where being exposed to the game is much more important than actually playing it.  If you never played God of War or Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, you’re simply not going to enjoy this game.  But if you do enjoy those types of games, then this is the best game of its genre’ now on the market, and the elements found within will find their way into action games for years hence.

Posted in The Greatest Games Ever | 5 Comments »

The BRC Way Better Top 15 part 3: The Whole Damned Thing

Posted by nfinit on December 5, 2009

So earlier this week, The Onion AV Club released their Top 15 Games of the Decade, which broke down thusly:

15. SSX 3 (EA Sports BIG, 2003)
14. The Sims (Electronic Arts, 2000)
13. Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, 2004)
12. Braid (Microsoft Game Studios, 2008)
11. Advance Wars (Nintendo, 2001)
10. Left 4 Dead (Valve, 2008)
9. Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, 2006)
8. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar Games, 2002)
7. Ico (Sony, 2001)
6. World Of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004)
5. Portal (Valve, 2007)
4. Rock Band (MTV Games/Electronic Arts, 2007)
3. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks, 2008)
2. Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004)
1. BioShock (2K Games, 2007)

Which isn’t a terrible list, even if it does veer randomly between artsy high concept stuff (like Braid) and stuff that clearly exists only because of its importance and/or wild popularity (The Sims). But as a guy who thinks about stuff like this way too much, I couldn’t help but notice some strange choices. For instance, I don’t know why Ico is on the list when Shadow of the Colossus was clearly that team’s best effort. If they just had to put a JRPG on the list, why on earth was it Final Fantasy XII–I’m not even sure if XII was the best Final Fantasy of the decade, much less the best game of the decade of its particular genre. Perhaps World of Warcraft belongs there because of importance, but if that’s a defining criteria why is Rock Band on the list over the original Guitar Hero? And is Vice City really the absolute apex of Rockstar’s art? Furthermore why Portal over Orange Box?

“But Nfinit”, you may say, holding a hand over your eyes as you shield your gaze from my divine manliness; “what games would you have picked as the top 15 games of the decade, and more importantly, why?” I’m glad you asked! Also I can easily stretch this out into three updates and play Dragon Age instead of spending time coming up with things to write about.


(Note: I’ve only had access to the PS3 for like eight months total and I have a blind seething rage for Nintendo. Otherwise this will be perfectly fair and accurate. Also this will be mainly console stuff, as the last relevant game my PC is capable of playing is Half-Life 2.)

15: F-Zero GX

I knew I wanted to put a sim racer in this list, but I also knew that if I did that I’d need to include a racing game that a normal person would want to play. It was either this or Burnout 3, and F-Zero GX wins due to its excellent rival racer system and because Sega. It’s probably the best arcade racer to appear over the past two console generations; and all the more legitimate as it actually was an arcade game at one point. Burnout is more chaotic fun and probably better for pick up and play, but the rubberbanding makes racing against the AI an exercise in futility.

14: Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

Collectively Splinter Cell represents the only time the console industry got stealth gaming right, and Chaos Theory is the best (and least infuriating) of the lot. This is also by far the best thing to ever come out of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy properties; and if Ubisoft were smart they’d have used the break between this game and Splinter Cell: Conviction to re-release the Xbox 1 Splinter Cell games for modern consoles and remind everyone why Splinter Cell matters. The Splinter Cell games are some of the few games to ever successfully convey a true sense of tension– Yeah, Sam is capable of getting himself out of a jam, but its far better not to get into that jam in the first place and the whole process of covering up your mistakes means you’re actually invested in being careful, and dare I say it– stealthy. You’re a spy, not some sort of unstoppable force of nature who’s best off just wiping out the entire military installation on your way to the MacGuffin.

Chaos Theory also represents one of the very few times a western developer has managed to bring together the whole Hollywood-storyline-multiplayer-focus thing that has become de rigueur this console generation without forgetting to include a compelling and worthwhile single player component. Despite Chaos Theory’s outstanding multiplayer modes you won’t feel cheated if you ignore multi and only play the “real” game. Indeed, the two parts of the game are treated almost as equals. This is something we probably won’t see very often ever again thanks to mounting game development costs forcing developers into focusing on one side or the other.

13: Persona 3 FES

I had to put one JRPG up here, and I figured it may as well be the only JRPG of the past ten years that I actually enjoyed playing. That’s largely because Persona 3 took everything we knew about the JRPG genre and tosses out the window. The game isn’t based on some sort of high-magic version of pre-industrial Europe, for instance. It’s based in and around a modern-day Japanese high school. There’s only one real dungeon in the entire game and you’re only allowed in there maybe a third of the time you play, if you try to go in there too often you’ll get sick and screw up progress in the main part of P3 FES– which is a dating sim. In a genre where Squeenix is constantly trying to out-epic itself in an orgy of overwrought angst, P3 FES brings us a story of a bunch of awkward high school kids trying to figure out the whole social network thing while fighting demons and Japan’s terrifying high school examination schedule. If The World Ends With You is any indication, maybe the rest of the industry is taking Atlus’ cue.

12: Resident Evil 4

By this I mean the Gamecube, not the muddied PS2 port or the muddied PS2 port with waggle that appeared on the Wii, I mean the original interpretation as it appeared on the Gamecube. To say RE4 is the best Resident Evil game made is true, but also a little unfair to previous RE games. It’s like saying Dogma is the best Kevin Smith movie. Technically it’s true; but it’s also not in the same genre as anything else Kevin Smith ever did. Resident Evil 4 is not survival horror, nor does it ever intend to be. It’s simply one of the finest action games ever crafted and may well be the single best game to ever appear on the Gamecube. With the departure of Shinji Mikami from Capcom it’s uncertain if we’ll ever see another Resident Evil game live up to RE4’s level of excellence– judging from Capcom’s desperate efforts to ape RE4 with Resident Evil 5, likely not. This could be the last great RE game made until such time as Capcom finally reboots the series.

11: Katamari Damacy

I don’t know if any game I’ve played before or since has managed to exude the same feeling of unbound joy as the first Katamari game produced. Producer Keita Takahashi blended everything together perfectly– the controls, the art style, the dialog, the music, the universe itself– to convey a singular, pure concept of a game that wanted to be played and to be experienced and enjoyed by as many people as possible. Of course, Namco would take this pure, unfettered concept and attempt to make it into yet another stale franchise, with predictable results– but the first two Playstation 2 Katamari games remain true to their core. You start small, roll things up, become bigger, roll bigger things up, until eventually you’re carving great gouts out from the continental shelves. And you can do that in mere minutes using nothing more than two thumbsticks and controls so simple they make later attempts such as the Wiimote feel like a contrivance.

The only thing keeping me from placing this higher is that there’s not a whole lot of actual game to be had in Katamari. You can easily knock out the main portion of the game in an afternoon. It’ll be a throughly enjoyable afternoon, but it’s over all too soon nonetheless. Which is good, in its way– the first two Katamari games never had a chance to outstay their welcome.

10: Grand Theft Auto IV

I never got around to playing any of the Playstation 3 GTA games, and thus I’m full well welling to accept that GTA3 or Vice City or San Andreas may be better games; but GTA IV achieved something wholly remarkable for the realm of console games as far as I’m concerned, and that’s provide actual character development. Rockstar made you care about protagonist Niko Bellic; That’s something most television shows and even movies screw up with most of the time. Even most authors have a hard time showing a character grow and change through the arc of a story; Rockstar’s writers managed to do this in an action-oriented videogame with hardly a scrap of text to be found.

The game itself ain’t too bad, either, provided you don’t mind being bugged by a litany of lonely acquaintances wanting to hit you up for a game of darts when you’re in the middle of tearing through Central Park on a motorcycle while trying to get away from the police

9: Soul Calibur 2

Despite Capcom’s best efforts to kill the genre in the late 90’s, the fighting game has somehow inexplicably hung around, even occasionally managing to produce the occasional standout title– indeed, despite the genre being cluttered with stuff that’s inscrutable to anyone from the outside looking in, it’s managed to remain relevant, and I think Namco’s Soul Calibur series takes a lot of the credit for that. Simply put, the Soul Calibur games are the sort of games where any idiot can feel like they’re making good progress by randomly slapping buttons; yet there’s enough meaty game there to satisfy hardcore gamers as well.

If it wasn’t for the fact that it was released in 1999– and thus ineligible for the whole “decade” thing, I’d put the first Soul Calibur here instead. But while it’s not as important as Soul Calibur 1 was, Soul Calibur 2 has Ivy, and that more than makes up for Soul Calibur 1 providing the entire reason for the Dreamcast to exist.

(also, this over Street Fighter IV? Well, yeah. The Soul Calibur games are inherently more fun than Street Fighter games. Street Fighters are only really enjoyable at a high competitive level and are generally unplayable using a standard gamepad. Not only do you not need a $120 accessory to get full enjoyment from a Soul Calibur game; Namco’s actually went their way to provide something resembling a compelling single-player action RPG with SC2. Plus, you don’t feel the need to put in 80 hours of work with a single player before you feel like you know what you’re doing with SC2. The Soul Calibur games are the most accessable fighting games ever made, and as a result may well be the most fun you can have in a 1-on-1 fighter regardless of skill level. If you’re playing videogames as a job, Street Fighter 4 cant’ be touched.)

8: Ikaruga

The past decade has been terrible for console shooters. Virtually everything new and interesting to come out of the genre has been a direct result of ZUN’s PC-only Touhou Project. It seems like the actual commercial games industry has moved on; the genre itself hasn’t been relevant on a mass market scale since the SNES. And not without good reason; shooter devs did a very through job of drilling down into their core fanbase to the point where the genre became an indecipherable mess to anyone new to games.

So to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure if a shooter belongs on the list, save for the fact that shooters were and remain my first love in gaming and I wanted one here. On the console side there have been maybe three relevant shmups released in the past decade– Ikaruga, Gradius V and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. I happen to love all three of these games, but Ikaruga is the more inventive and interesting of the three.

All that being said– Ikaruga is an outstanding game and is itself one of the best shmups ever made. It’s polarity shot mechanic makes it as much of a puzzle game as it is a shooter, and on top of that involves nascent elements of rhythm based gameplay with its combo system. But sadly it’s still too difficult and too frustrating to ever be enjoyed by anyone who’s not a hardcore gamer who isn’t already familiar with and willing to put up with the various bullshit involved in playing shooters.

Indeed, Ikaruga is so inscrutable to anyone not in the core audience that I’m having a hard time justifying it’s position here at all. If you’re not into traditional console shooters and/or into having your teeth kicked in and trying to rationalize that as “having a good time”, put something more casual friendly here instead, like a nice friendly Sly Cooper game.

7: Forza Motorsport 3

I was hesitant to place something I’d recently played on this list, as I think a game needs time to be judged correctly– but let’s be honest, the Forza games have outclassed Gran Truismo 4 since the day Forza 1 was released, and there’s just no good reason to go back to Forza 2 thanks to unlimited rewinds. Forza 3 is simply the best (if not the most comprehensive) sim console racer ever made, at least until GT5 is released.

6: Knights of the Old Republic

I’ve only recently started playing Dragon Age, and I may well have to adjust this ranking once I’m done with it, but right now I think KOTOR represents the best game Bioware’s ever put out, and on top of that may well be the best Star Wars-related property to be released since Lucasart’s holy trinity of Tie Fighter/Xwing/Xwing vs Tie Fighter.

But beyond that, KOTOR represents the point where it became possible to take console western RPGs seriously. Yes, there was a PC version, and yes the PC version is probably the definitive version of the game– but at the same, Xbox KOTOR wasn’t a regrettable experience. Indeed, Xbox KOTOR felt decidedly like a console game, albiet a console game with the richness and depth of the very best Bioware RPGs. It’s an ability Bioware was able to expand upon in Jade Empire, Mass Effect and most recently Dragon Age. Thanks to KOTOR, console gamers are able to enjoy “grown up” RPGs without any compromise made to controls or immersion– the fact that it’s a damned fine game and one of the best sci-fi RPG games ever crafted is just gravy.

5: Ninja Gaiden 1

For the amount of technical innovation that’s popped up over the past two console cycles that represent gaming in the ‘aughts, there have been surprisingly few genuinely new gameplay genres that have popped up. In fact, I can point to maybe four off the top of my head– the motion control minigame collections that sprouted up as a result of the massive popularity of Wii Sports; open world sandbox games of the sort pioneered by Grand Theft Auto 3, Guitar/Band games as represented by Guitar Hero and Rock Band and my favorite of the bunch, the 3d brawler as introduced by Capcom’s Devil May Cry, and for my money Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox represents the height of the art form.

Ninja Gaiden does that very rare thing where the controls are so good you’re no longer aware you’re controlling the game. If you need to perform a forward diving roll to dodge under the katana of a spider ninja, it just sort of happens, nor are you aware you’re inputting the command to lop that ninja’s head off once you pop up behind him. Nor are you aware of the subtle interactions that must take place to correctly perform a wall run; the commands necessary to pull off the perfect Izuna Drop; the confluence of events to run up a wall and slash an demon in half on your descending arc. Ninja Gaiden perfects the concept of flow, and does so in such a way to make lesser action games feel dumb and clumsy by comparison. Not even Ninja Gaiden’s sequel for the 360 got this concept quite right– although next year’s Bayonetta looks quite promising indeed.

The only thing Ninja Gaiden doesn’t get right, and the only thing keeping it from being the best action game ever made, is it’s frankly unforgivably atrocious camera. While the ultimate goal of the game was to combine 16-bit action game simplicity with the complexity of a 3d fighter; the camera lets everything down, leading to cheap hits an otherwise avoidable deaths. It’s my understanding that Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden Sigma may have corrected this, but Ninja Gaiden 2’s camera was just as bad, I have a hard time believing Team Ninja would have regressed to an inferior, frustration-inducing camera for its sequel. In any event, it’s a fantastic game, perhaps the ultimate 3d action game– it’s just a shame that it’s difficulty and frustration-inducing camera keeps it away from anyone but the hardest of the hardcore.

4: Bioshock

Yes, it falls apart in the final act, yes it doesn’t really hold up in replays and yes the good/evil mechanic was largely over-hyped and underutilized, but man the first 3/4ths of that game was one of the best games I’ve ever played in my entire life. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that– it was uneven and frustrating in that regard, but the game had you traipsing around in a unique and mesmerizing universe complete with fantastic gameplay, better writing, and some of the most interesting and fully realized characters in any game before or sense, and all this in a freaking FPS, for chrissake. Bioshock is full of flaws, but the game that holds those flaws together is so good that it deserves its place in the top five.

Bioshock took a tired, stale genre and made it vital and interesting again– And while it couldn’t keep up the facade through the entire game, what was there was outstanding.

3: Fallout 3

Until such time as I get to reflect on the impact of Dragon Age: Origins, this is my favorite RPG of the generation, and in no small part thanks to the fact that Fallout 3 is one of the greatest aimless games ever made. Sure, you can follow the main story path of FO3, but that’s not the point and doing so shows a remarkable lack of imagination on the player’s part and entirely too much ambition– No, the point of Fallout 3 is just wandering about the wasteland until something incomparably fascinating happens your way. Perhaps you’ll stumble across a desperate caravan being hounded by relentless waves of radscorpions, or maybe a helicopter full of bad dudes in full power armor will drop on top of your head and start shooting everything that moves. Maybe you’ll be beset by a pack of rabid mutant space bears, or maybe you’ll attract the ire of a stubborn missile-wielding robotic sentinel that simply will not go away. Pretty much anything can happen out in the wasteland, but mostly they involve sudden instances of random violence instigated by angry men with laser guns. I’ve dropped a good 120 hours into this game and maybe 20 of those actually had something to do with the story itself, the rest has been simply wandering around and experiencing the barren, absurdly violent grandeur of a radiated and ruined Washington DC.

2: Orange Box

Half Life 2. Portal. Team Fortress 2– Individually, any one of those titles deserve a spot on any list of “Top whatever of the Decade”, the fact that they’re all bundled along with Half Life Episodes 1&2 makes for an absurdist farce of gaming awesomeness. Of course, there’s no good reason you should be playing any of these games on a console if your PC is capable of running them; but Valve did go out of their way to make the transition to game pad as painless as possible and as a whole this package represents something of a change in shift for Valve and their treatment of consoles as afterthoughts to viable platforms for development.

1: Shadow of the Colossus

If you were to ask me to sit down and show you one game to explain why I love gaming, it’d be Shadow of the Colossus.

From a standpoint of pure gameplay technique I can make no excuse for SotC to be placed so highly on this list– That honor would probably go to Ninja Gaiden. But SotC goes beyond that– It’s the extraordinarily rare case of a game that makes you give a damn about what’s happening within it, about the story (as admittedly thin it is) about the characters (exactly three, one of which is you; one of which remains unconscious through the entire game; one of which is a horse) and the world they inhabit. A lot is made of gaming press trying to validate the genre to some unseen higher entity as “art”, we’re constantly asking when we will we produce our own Citizen Kane, when will we produce a game that can bring someone to tears– I contend that
Shadow of the Colossus is art, or at least as close as we’ve come to it. I will admit to weeping openly while playing this game, caught up in the story of a lone teenage kid caught in the middle of a desperate gambit with entities far beyond his control to save the life of the girl he loves, of the sacrifices made; of the feeling of hurt and sorrow felt as you drive your blade into the heart of each of the 12 silent, unknowable titular colossi.

It is the sort of story that can only be told within the medium of games– And is unique for that, as at no point does Shadow of the Colossus lower itself to Hollywood aspirations. If this industry is to ever get over the inferiority complex that it’s brought upon itself by the constant comparisons it forces upon itself with the motion picture industry, its games like SotC that need to be looked to.

Posted in Sperging about games, The Greatest Games Ever | 2 Comments »

Greatest Games Ever– Magician Lord

Posted by nfinit on November 21, 2009

This pretty much encapsulates everything I've ever wanted to do with my life

Chances are you’ve never heard of Magician Lord, much less ever actually run across the game– It was an early 90’s SNK arcade release, one of the very first wave of games released to America using the Neo-Geo hardware, and to be honest the only time ever encountered the game in the wild was in a little laundromat arcade back in Conover, North Carolina, back when you could count on laundromats and Pizza Huts and even convenience stores to have at least one good arcade cabinet hiding somewhere, usually with some forborne store manager muttering under his breath why he just doesn’t get rid of that stupid machine.

But that old SNK cabinet– an six-game MVS unit no less, capable of playing an entire arcade’s worth of games with a single button– played a huge role in my budding gaming obsession.  An inordinate chunk of my free time was spent hoarding quarters for the weekly Saturday afternoon trip to the laundromat, and I’d be heartbroken if my dad would decide on a whim that it’d be better to drive to a different one instead.   In that cabinet laid some of the greatest examples of classic sixteen bit arcade gameplay that could be found– Cyber-Lip, Sengoku, Baseball Stars, Crossed Swords, including a harbinger of a troubling obsession that’d drive SNK for the next twenty years– the very first Fatal Fury.

Ninja + Anything is a good shot for awesome, something the Wachowski brothers know well.

But the game that enchanted my heart in that old MVS cabinet, and the subject for today’s update is Magician Lord, a game you’ve probably never played, yet something I consider on of the greatest games ever made.

Magician Lord is as old-school Japanese as a game can be without involving 16-bit dithered hentai and Majong.  Take for instance the spiked balls that continually plague our hero– Now, in most games, you’ll get some sort of warning before something drops from the roof onto your head.  Maybe there will be a shadow on the ground, or maybe you’ll hear a distinctive clink-clink-clink from the chain holding the spiked ball aloft shortly before it dents your head in, or maybe the ball will simply fall slow enough for the quick-witted player to avoid a concussion.  Not Magician Lord!  You find out where the spiked balls have been hidden by having them land on your impudent little wizard skull.  Be more careful next time!

Magician’s Lord is an Arcade Game, and is not shy about its intentions.  It’s there to squeeze as much money out of you as possible while at the same time keeping you around with it’s stellar gameplay and enormous, gorgeously detailed sprites.  Dying  places you right back where you came from, with enemies, even bosses, having retained the same amount of damage as before, even after using a continue.  Bosses were quarter sponges– the art wasn’t in getting past them, it was doing so by spending as little money as possible.  Of course, that’s hard to convey in this day and age of emulators with save states and limitless continues, but if it makes you feel better you can add up the theoretical money  the first level skeleton miniboss would have deprived you from and then subtract that from how many theoretical copies of Todd McFarlane Spider-Man comics that’d have bought you instead.  There’s no small wonder I was never into comics in my formative years.

But back to those graphics.  I hate to talk about graphics when talking about older stuff , it seems like we should be above stuff like that at this point.  But there’s something about a huge, well-animated sprite that just doesn’t come across in a 3d model, no matter how much geometry you try to shove into it, and few developers have had the talent at drawing a sprite than SNK.  Magician Lord is a sadistic mistress who knows full well you’re there to gawk while being punished.  If you wanted to be treated with respect you’d be playing something sensible like After Burner.  Magician Lord’s spritework still hold up today, evoking stylistic hints that’d crop back up in SNK classics like the Metal Slug series.

This was about the exact moment I realized America could never be as cool as Japan

This was the exact moment I realized America could never be as cool as Japan


Of course, we’re talking about the 16 bit arcade era; and none of this would matter if the gameplay couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain.  And while there isn’t terrible much so far as controls– Walk left and right, fire and jump– what it has is spot on, and while you die often you’ll know full well the cause of your death was because your reflexes weren’t up to the task of avoiding the game’s many sadistic, credit-soaking traps.

Being an SNK game the story is delightfully incomprehensible.  At some arbitrary point in the level– quite often it felt like the designers just decided the current level had gone on long enough– You’ll be presented with some variation of a magical skeleton possessing a scimitar that will run back and forth trying to run you over or cleave your head open with a diving chop or at one point turning itself into a meteor– defeat this midboss and you’re berated by an evil wizard shortly before being forced to do battle with some variation of a face-in-a-wall mid-level boss.

"Impudent Human" was the original name for this blog.  True story.

Now that you see the butt chin you can't unsee it.


The levels themselves are not structured in a typical “run to the right and end” sort of way, they stroll as much vertically as they do horizontally and there’s no obvious path to which to find the end of any given level, and there’s a good amount of secret doors.  Every once in a while you’ll wander across a powerup that’ll transform your wizard into a dragon or a ninja, but they’re rare and honestly overpowered for the game proper, and as you’re nearly always losing health in this game you lose the transformations pretty quickly.

And that’s all there is to it, really.  A sprawling level that feels something like the town levels from Castlevania 2 and a couple bosses at the end that follow a rather predictable pattern.  Sometimes that’s all it takes, just doing one very simple thing and doing it exceptionally well.  Magician Lord is enjoyed for its gameplay and it’s art, and since it’s an arcade game, it never overstays it’s welcome– you can always just wander off to the next machine if you get bored.  That’s something that’s just not feasable for games today.  In Magician Lord you understand what you’re there to do in the first ten seconds of the game.  There’s not even a multiplayer mode, it’s strictly man vs stacks of expensive early 90’s ROM boards.  What you make of it past that point is entirely up to the player.  The only platform something like that is allowable on today is cell phone games,  and even they’re becoming mired in complexity thanks to the iPhone and Droid.

Perhaps "volume 1" was being a bit pretentious


Magician Lord encapsulates a history and a franchise all its own.  SNK stopped making platform shooters early in the Neo Geo’s life and focused on beat ’em ups and fighters up until Metal Slug, which may represent a sort of spiritual successor to Magician Lord, although it’s obvious the Metal Slug series owes more to Contra than anything else.  There was never a sequel and the game was largely forgotten until it popped back up with last year’s SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1, which is a solid retro purchase, encapsulating all the high notes of SNK’s early arcade work save for the lamentable exception of Cyber-Lip.

Posted in Retro Wankery, Sperging about games, The Greatest Games Ever | 8 Comments »

The Greatest Games Ever: Road Rash

Posted by nfinit on November 8, 2009

It occurs to me that readers of this blog may be under the impression that I hate games.  After all, I hardly show passion for the games themselves– Anyone who didn’t know any better may assume the only interest I have in the gaming industry is whining at Billy Kotek and being unreasonably upset at the industry’s utter failure to understand simple ergonomic design.

But the fact is, I love games, I care deeply about them, and through the power of bitching and moaning, I want other people to care about them too.  But sitting around throwing monkey poo at the industry is easy; it’s safe.  I want to also make people understand what it is I love about the industry I love.  So I want to use this blog to talk about the games I love, and maybe, if I’m lucky– or good– make you, the reader, care about them as well.

So how do I get you to care about something like Road Rash, a racing game for the Genesis made well before the age when racing games finally became playable?  Simple.

It’s Final Fight at 180mph.

Still there?  How could you not be?

The central conceit of Road Rash revolves being a member of a hard-charging outlaw motorcycle racing club tearing through the wilderness of Central California, beating the shit out of each other with bare fists and police batons and into oncoming traffic in the process– and if you can ignore the bit where this outlaw motorcycle racing club races exclusively on Japanese crotch rockets, the concept works amazingly well.  The locales will feel familiar to anyone who’s spent a lot of time watching Sons of Anarchy.  However, it’s a very early 90’s sort of game, and asks that the player believe that yuppies called “Biff” would be allowed to hang out with skinhead biker types without the poor bastard waking up a Tijuana motel room in a bathtub full of ice missing several lucrative internal organs.

The racing action is as compelling as any console racer of it’s time (as befitting the guys responsible for Grand Prix Legends) and the gameplay requires you be as adept at beating people senseless as you are at racing.  In a lot of ways, it may be the best arcade racer of it’s day– and sense sim console racers really didn’t exist in any credible form prior to the 3d0, you could make an argument that Road Rash represented the premiere racing title for consoles– But that’d require someone capable of making a value judgement of F-Zero on the SNES, and I dont’ know that I’m prepared to do that.

What I do know though, is that while Road Rash’s gameplay was outstanding, what is oft overlooked is that Road Rash also represented the some of the most advanced console racing game tech of its time.    When you press left or right, your bike–not the screen–actually travels left and right.  Prior to this almost all non-SNES racing games featured a car stuck squarely to the center of the screen and when the player turned, the screen itself was merely extended left tor right.  Here’s an example, here’s the Sega Genesis version of Outrun, produced by no less than Sega themselves:

Sega’s effort looks amateurish in comparison to in Road Rash, and for years it was considered the best home port of any arcade racer.

Even Sega’s own Super Hang-On looks bad– sure, it has gorgeous, huge,  chunky motorcycle sprites, but your bike is stuck to the center of the frame at all times and the miniscule draw distance is cleverly hidden by constant and jarring elevation changes.  Admittedly, Road Rash had the benefit of appearing several years later than Hang-On or Outrun, but even contemporaries such as Super Monaco GP II didn’t begin to touch what Papyrus was doing with the Genesis’ primitive pseudo-scaling abilities.

But beneath the graphics, Road Rash had a number great touches that many modern racers still fail to get right.  There was a working rival racer system, for instance– try to cave in an opposing racer’s skull once too often and they’ll  remember, and make a point of looking for blood the next race.   The CPU AI in general was pretty interesting to work with;  as befitting a game where your main form of CPU interaction was via the business end of a police baton, the CPU was an outright bastard most of the time, taking sadistic glee in forcing your player into oncoming traffic.  The physics are simple, but  feel right– If you strike an enemy racer using the momentum of your bike to back up your fist, you stand a pretty good chance of knocking your opponent into a cactus.  Also few games give that same “oh holy shit no no no no yes yes yes YES!” rush the way Road Rash does when you crest a hill at full speed, propelled a hundred feet through air, over oncoming traffic, above enemy bikers, clear a billboard and somehow manage to land on both wheels.

In fact, the most perplexing thing about Road Rash is how Electronic Arts failed to make a franchise off it– keep in mind, this game was released during the heady days of Madden and NHL and Desert Strike; the era where EA began building the foundation for the soul-crushing corporate behemoth we see today.  It’s blend of arcade-friendly fighting and racing was a perfect fit for the 32 bit era, so what happened?  By rights Road Rash should be a sixteen bit legend alongside Megaman X and Contra IV, not a footnote in Genesis lore.

I'll be honest-- This paragraph is here entirely so I could post this sweet box art

Road Rash II tried to mix things up a bit, allowing the player to assault the rule of law in such far-flung locales as Hawaii, Tennessee and Vermont– the logistics of a motorcycle rally race starting in Hawaii and ending on the East Coast of the US is an exercise best left to the alert reader.  But of course, no one really cared about being a Kawasaki-riding badass tearing through Vermont, so no one really cared about Road Rash II, either.

After an ill-advised dalliance with digital sprites in Road Rash III, the series made a valiant attempt at a return to relevance with Road Rash 3D for the usual 32-bit suspects, bringing back the sprites and Cali-only outlaw motorcycle flavor, but by then the magic was gone.

The problem was Road Rash never really grew outside of its core concept, and while that concept was indeed intriguing, people generally agreed that it had been done the best time the first time.  The nearest thing we have to a modern Road Rash exists within the Lost and the Damned expansion to Grand Theft Auto 4– which makes a sort of sense, as if anyone was going to be able to do this concept right it’s Rockstar, and well, Lost and the Damned borrows more than bit from Sons of Anarchy.

It’s just a shame that the closest new gamers have to Road Rash lay within an Xbox Live Achievement for an expansion to a Grand Theft Auto game.

EA.  has pretty much forgotten the Road Rash brand exists, outside of the EA Replay compilation disc for the PSP. (which is itself an excellent find for 16 bit aficionados– All three 16 bit Road Rash games, Ultima 7, Desert Strike and Mutant League Football!)  Confoundingly, it’s not made a reappearance on Virtual Console or Xbox Live Arcade– Which is too bad, as the Wiimote’s B-trigger is in the perfect mashing spot for bashing people on the head while sliding by at 180mph.

So there you have it.  For it’s time, the best game of it’s type, and no one ever talks about it, a relic from a time when EA pushed boundaries instead of media franchises.  It’s probably just as well that Electronic Arts has forgotten the game ever existed, if they were to do something with the franchise now it’d probably be something regrettable bit of fluff involving the iPhone.

Posted in Sperging about games, The Greatest Games Ever | 2 Comments »