Retro Gaming Nonsense

One of the black holes that I’ve been falling into lately is trying to figure out how best to play old game consoles (basically, anything pre HD) on modern televisions. Anyone who’s tried to play a Sega Saturn game on a 4k TV knows it looks like someone dumped a bunch of pixels into a blender and then poured the digital smoothie all over the screen. From what I’ve heard, buying a late model cathode TV is the most faithful, but that’s a level I haven’t resigned myself to. Yet.

So I’m testing a bunch of different options to see how they look: 4K TV with analog to digital converters, 4K through a newer system digital download (downloading a PSOne classic on a PS3, for example), an older smaller LCD TV, Nvidia Shield, Computer emulation (PCSX2), little LCD screen attachments (think PSOne screen), and even PSP (older but emulation robust) and PS Vita (better screen, limited selection of titles) respectively.

At the end of the day, there has to be a better way. Something simple and legal, that can handle all of this. That way I can have more time to do normal grown-human things like cooking, or raking leaves, or auto maintenance.

Or more likely I’ll just play more games.

Shovel Knight Review

The Limits of Cuteness

Platform: Switch

About a year ago, when I was first dipping my toe into the videogame industry, I read a book called Blood, Sweat and Pixels. There’s an entire chapter about Yacht Club, the creators of Shovel Knight. That story (and pretty much every story in the book) was an inspiring little vignette that resonated with a passion I had felt my entire life, and probably pushed me to enter the video game industry.  

Specifically, in Yacht Club, I recognized the rag-tag story of a small dedicated team wearing many hats and over-working for several years to crawl out of obscurity. It’s the quintessential tech-entrepreneurs journey. And I often wonder now how their story will continue to progress as they grow from 4, to 10, to 25, team-members (and so on). I would love to a read an update. A ‘where-are-they-now’ type story.  

Shovel Knight came out right at the beginning of the retro zeitgeist. And as a result, it seems willing to borrow from several sources (Mega Man, Castlevania, and Link (NES)), rather than the more common present phenomenon of ‘Spiritual Successor to Contra’ (or Metroid, or Doom, or whatever).

There is so much care shown in the game. The underlying ‘pogo’ mechanic feels tight. There are small unnecessary animations that provide joy when noticed. The cast of baddies are colorful, and the stages challenging but not unfair. Overall, it feels well tested, which means the team themselves played it over and over.

The bosses are the most interesting characters, which explains why several were given their own featured DLC

What’s strange is that for a game that tries to be charming, it often finds itself stuck between levity and seriousness. Most bosses are humorous, while the overall story is oddly grime. The boss encounters themselves, despite being charming, have almost no real challenge. And the game has this annoying habit of knowing that it’s cute, and at times, forcing the player to revel in said ‘cuteness’ (whether you want to or not).  

It’s easy to recognize a well-made game, and that’s what Shovel Knight is: a very well-made game. But that’s different than anticipation. Even a deeply flawed movie, book or game can create anticipation in its consumption. Something you look forward to at the end of the day. But that was absent with Shovel Knight. I was often curious, but never really excited to keep playing.

Review: ★★★

Memory: The cute-then-annoying Troupple King dance

Smug or Cute?

Hades Review

Better Than the Greek Originals

Platform: Switch

Greek mythology seems to be in vogue. Ubisoft has their Immortals Fenyx Rising. I’ve been watching a shockingly average Greek Mythology anime on Netflix AND reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes at night to cure my insomnia. None of this was intentional. It just existed in front of me. Hades started out the same.

A supportive father

Videogames have cultural zeitgeists just like any other form of media. The Rogue-like/light is one of those movements (not quite as ubiquitous as “Souls-like”, but close). I would have considered rogue-like a selling point in 2013. Seven years later, and it’s grown worthy.

So as a backdrop we have a game with an over-exposed theme, being released into a highly saturated genre: normally a recipe for mediocrity. Which makes the success of Hades all the more impressive.

I could gush for paragraphs about the aesthetics, dialogue, voice acting, progression system, story, and balance. But you get the idea. It’s such a deeply refined experience that it even feels absent of bloat (hold the kitchen sink, please!). My nightly run through the underworld is a highlight of my day. Even after escaping Hades, I find myself returning to see how the world continues to evolve (post-game content that doesn’t feel like a to-do list).

The Pantheon have their own history, of which, you’re a passing interest

It’s rare when a game comes out that reaffirms a player’s faith in the industry. Demon’s Souls did that for me, by introducing a radically challenging experience. Ten years later, the dual alters of content and difficulty, have been prayed to so much that what we often get is bloat and frustration. In that gap, Hades creates something that has been in very short supply – Joy. It took an experience like Hades for me to realize how much I miss that in a game.

Hades is by far my favorite game of 2020.

Review: ★★★★★

Memory: Each Greek Deity’s endearing (and often temperamental) personality.

Dionysus and Aphrodite – Two of my all time favorites

Severed Review

Vita Finale

Platform: PS Vita

Severed so demolished my expectations of what a touch based Vita game can be that I’ve struggled to write about it. The art style is mesmerizing, and fits perfectly in its resonate setting and understated story. Its uniqueness has made me reconsider the medium of “touch” as something more than a wasteland of F2P and convenient mouse conversions.

While it lasted, my days were better because I knew I would get to play Severed later.

The culmination of a gradual descent

Severed makes only one mistake. But it is a cardinal mistake: Death has no consequence. That single choice spiderwebs out into a myriad of gameplay effects, neutralizing entire parts of the game like health items, upgrade accumulation and even inverting the difficulty curve.

Even with that, Severed is a good game. It’s so good I might regret not giving it 5 stars someday. 

Review: ★★★★

Memory: Finding the first member of your family

Forager Review

Little Bits of Dopamine Hits

Platform: Switch

Forager is a very earnest game.

It’s also the kind of game you only need a fraction of your brain to play. One third parasympathetic nervous functions, one third Forager, one third listening to Queer Eye change somebody’s life in the background (Jonathan Van Ness is a gay superhero).

I wouldn’t call Forager a grind. But it’s also never really challenging (besides the occasional puzzle). It’s just more zen: Make that. Pick up this. Build here. Explore there. A loop expanding gradually outwards with each circumference. The hook is a desire to see what quirky thing is going to pop up next.

It’s full of small, thoughtful gestures like comics and ‘making of’ stories

If a game can be ‘hand-crafted’, that’s what this is. Case in point, the creator’s face greets you every time you boot-up. His care and personality are what elevate the game beyond the simple mechanics and broken combat into something distinct.

It’s the kind of thing I would feel lucky to play with my daughter someday.

Review: ★★★

Memory: ‘Foraging’ so much at once the game slows to a crawl

PS Vita (In Retrospect)

The PS Vita is an amazing little machine. I distinctly remember playing Escape Plan in a GameStop circa 2012 and being blown away by the screen. Fast forward eight years, and a jail-broken PS Vita might still the best way to portably emulate in 2020

There’s something that the specs can’t capture about the system. It just feels good. I loved my PSP. That little shit traveled the world with me. And while my Vita doesn’t have as many miles on it as my PSP, it’s still seen a big chunk of the globe and been an occasional safety blank over a tumultuous period of my life.  

From a strictly monetary sense, the PSP was probably a windfall compared to the Vita. Having a behemoth of engineering like the Nintendo Switch release during your life cycle is a rough set of cards. But the Vita had already been soundly routed by the 3DS at that point. In fact, it was pretty clear from the moment I opened the box the way this was all going to play out.

Still, nothing but love from me.  

There’s a part of me that wants to buy the molds for Vita carts and try to talk Sony into a letting Ziggurat continue to press new games (3,000 copies of the recent Limited Run Vita edition of Papers, Please sold out in 30 seconds). It seems like a great outlet for under-appreciated PS3 games like BloodRayne Betrayal.

Limbo Review

Dark Little Dream

Platform: PS Vita

Someone pitched me a game recently. They said they wanted to make a “triple-i” game. They said they wanted 5 million dollars to make it.

That was the moment I realized that the term “indie” was basically dead and meaningless. If it ever really meant much to begin with.

That’s what I like about Limbo. It’s beautiful, creative, and short. It feels like an indie game (the actual 2-and-a-half year, eight-human, development cycle might belie this feeling). And from what I can understand the team kept their original vision intact.

In that short space of a game is a compulsive attention to detail and theme. Everything fits and everything flows. It’s experimental while remaining limited in scope.

 I wish there were more indie games like it- scratch that. Just more games like it.

Review: ★★★

Memory: Death scene physics

Weekend Randomness

If someone wanted to start unwrapping the various neurosis that make me… me, I think my videogame purchasing habits would be a good start. It’s never a constant drip. It’s months of nothingness and then binging on all sorts of weirdness.

So unwrapping my most recent package, in my most recent binging streak, is a lovely Sunday dopamine hit:

Could “Video for All” be the best rental name ever?

Oni on PS2 is one of those titles I should have found a reason to play 15 years ago. But considering it’s lost in a Rockstar purgatory, it never really seemed that urgent.

The trajectory of the game after its release must have been heart-breaking for someone because there was clearly a lot of care put into this as evidenced by the Dark Horse pack-in comic (and at least 3 full-sized issues were released at some point).

I love this mini-comic. It’s both grossly overly-explanatory and kind of psychotic. Rocket powered heart-shaped hard drives? Yes please. If the game is 15% of that craziness, I’ll be a fan.

Parachute. Octopus. Parachute X Octopus. Call it a day.

I’ve always been a sucker for Game & Watch ever since I got Game and Watch Gallery 2 on GBC. So Nintendo Club only Game & Watch promotional games are going to check all the boxes. Yeah, it does feel a little lazy to only include three games on each cart (my old GBC game had twice that). But the fact that Vol 2 only has two games and then a third is a mash-up of those two games is so unabashedly classic Nintendo, how can you not love it?

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

Better and Worse than Dark Souls

Platform: PS4 Pro

After beating Sekiro you still have one more action to take. It consists of walking up and pushing the action button to que a cutscene.

I sat in the stage for a week. It’s not like I kept playing and mopping things up. I just didn’t touch the game. After all that intensity and adrenaline, to end it all seemed more overwhelming. Because it was a weird, unbalanced, and enjoyable ride.  

The show stealer is the combat and boss battles. For me, it’s the most innovative combat engine this console generation. It’s a momentum-based system effortlessly balanced between risk and reward. There’s few things as satisfying in video games as a Mikiri Counter into a deathblow on a boss. Especially after you’ve died twenty times on the jerk beforehand.

And that’s the flow. Cursing and swearing and chipping away at a boss a little more every time. Because the game makes you earn it. Some bosses are so overwhelming that at first that you think you’ll never have a shot. And it’s mostly in the offensive and pressuring in on the bosses that you make progress. Even at the end when you want to lob the last couple hits over the net, it doesn’t let you. You need to earn it.

And that’s what I see as the evolution on the Souls/Bloodborne universe. Because if combat is the evolution, narrative is the anchor.

In the Souls/Bloodborne games you’re a silent anonymous actor that’s been cast into a bizarre world and inexplicably propelled towards a destination that even you (especially you) don’t fully understand. It’s not even really clear why you’re fighting or if you should be fighting. And what little the world does reveal is only a reminder of the depth that exists beyond your perception.  

Sekiro on the other hand doesn’t cast you as one of those nameless and faceless agents (but it might as well for how much personality you have). Instead, you’re the hero (or anti-hero). Which is fine, but that demands a more coherent narrative. And I’m sure it’s there. You can kind of read the tea leaves: Oh, these are the bad guys. Oh wait, these guys are. No wait… Confusion, and muddled motivation, doesn’t work as well when you’re trying to make people care about plot and people. It’s all very specific, and yet weirdly esoteric.

And then there’s this small feeling like they planned more. You just feel a sense of last minute cutting sometimes: areas that don’t seem very meaningful, concepts that seem innovative but never really matter (Dragonrot…), and a couple boss battles that break the challenge curve (I’m looking at you Headless Ape, you asshole!). In fairness, those boss battles are few and far between. But when you hit one, man does it take the wind out of your sails. Not because of the challenge, but because it’s so arbitrary. Even when you beat it, you’re not really sure why.

What a flawed masterpiece. Thank you Sekiro for all the Covid love.

Review: ★★★★

Memory: The last three bosses…

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice First Impressions

It’s probably not fair to call this a first impression. I’m guessing I’m halfway through the game and have been meaning to give my thoughts for a week.

Here are a few quick things that I loved about Sekiro before even booting up the disc: no DLC. From Software has said the game was complete upon release. The Souls and Bloodborne, while incredible, always had this feeling of something incomplete. You always had this feeling that there was more to be uncovered (or you wait until the GOTY and came to the party late). It’s a brave decision that probably doesn’t make financial sense but that I deeply appreciate.

No online components. This one is a little harder to describe. I miss some of the online features like the often intentionally misleading messages in Demon’s Souls. And I even liked killer shades entering the game in Dark Souls. But calling people into the world only works if the levels/bosses were designed with co-op in mind. Nioh is probably the most aggregious example of this. The bosses go from infuriating solo to a cakewalk in co-op. I understand it’s a an “easy” mode, but the idea of specifically designed solo-bosses is attractive at this point.

And so with all that in mind, how do I find the game? It’s an incredibly enjoyable experience: it’s well balanced. Plenty to explore. Linear but flowing.

And the part that I absolutely adore, that I continue to be impressed with, is the combat. Whomever came up with the concept of “Posture” system is brilliant. I would go so far as to say that the combat system is the most dramatic step forward since Demon’s Souls introduced the idea of a fragile constantly rolling protagonist. It almost makes me sad there’s no additional boss DLC…

The weaknesses are also not so much the games fault but the weight of it’s predecessors. The world is interesting, but not as mysterious and challenging as the Souls series, and nowhere near as engrossing as Bloodborne (which is almost unfair given the insane level of creativity and the disparate influences that game pulled together). It’s more literal. There’s a story, and you can even track it to some degree (shocking!). The people look like people. And there’s some demons and monkeys and snakes. But so far it’s mostly feudal Japan.

And the final thing is the graphics. They look good. But somehow they seem less striking than their predecessors, even though this is years later and I’m playing it on a PS4 Pro.

There’s still plenty of game left. It will be a cool experience to
see how this comes together.