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25 December 2014 @ 10:27 pm
Merry Christmas.
22 December 2014 @ 11:33 pm
Cinemassacre's James & Mike Mondays just showcased a neat li'l fan-made Atari 2600 Christmas-themed game called Toyshop Trouble that's well worth a look. You're an elf trying to paint a group of toys running down various conveyor belts, and you have to race from bucket to bucket to paint each toy in its correct color scheme: red for fire trucks, green for mini Godzillas, white for...Star Wars AT-ATs. (Later levels introduce multicolored toys - red & blue rocketships, for example - that require multiple paintbrushings.) You can hold only one color of paintbrush at a time - you have to dash to another bucket to switch colors - and while there's no penalty for painting a toy the wrong color, you're under a pretty tight deadline.

The game's actually pretty difficult - I can get only to December 9th (out of 24 days, natch) currently - but it's fast-paced and fun, and it looks good: the programmers really maximized the limitations of the 2600, making the lo-fi presentation work for them and add to the game's charm. (It's such a kick to see those little AT-ATs come down the conveyor belt.) I doubt more sophisticated graphics could've improved on the big, simple blocks of Christmas toyland color on tap here (though the shading is surprisingly detailed for the system), and gameplaywise, Toyshop Trouble's the type of quick-moving action-puzzler that's the perfect balance of fingers and brain. It's such a sweet thing. You can get the ROM (legally; it's freeware!) on AtariAge; out of the available 2600 emulators, z26 was in my experience the most hassle-free.

(ETA: I've discovered that the OpenGL version of z26 can run at erratic speeds on some modern computers; you're better off downloading the SDL version listed directly below. I discovered that even at "regular" speed on the OpenGL verson, the game was running a bit faster than intended; now, at the proper speed I can now get up to December 15 - yippee!)
21 December 2014 @ 11:57 pm
Just in case you haven't caught my other posts, I should start by mentioning that the mission statement of this playthrough has changed slightly. In my recent downtime, I went ahead and played through the rest of Silent Hill 4, meaning that the entire series of posts (not just the first half) is going to be in retrospect. I'm gonna start by going over how I felt about Silent Hill 4 just before I resumed playing it, as well as by reviewing by thoughts on its first half. CutCollapse )
There's a thread at the 1up forums now about indie games and whether they're more sizzle than steak, so to speak - whether too many of them rely too much on high concepts and fall through on execution. Considering my recent experience with The Last Door, I thought I'd make like many of the posters in the thread and take stock of my satisfaction with the indies I've played.

Genuinely enjoyed; these were great: The cooking sim Cook, Serve, Delicious is one of the best games I played in its year, an immensely satisfying combination of planning and quick-hit, fast-fingered gaming with excellent art & sound assets that provide crucial sensory accentuation to the experience. Ib, likewise, is a sweet, imaginative children's horror adventure with a great premise, lovable characters, memorable visuals, genuinely scary moments, and really player-friendly save placement and game length. Puzzle Quest's Bejeweled-RPG mashup was daft yet inspired and addictive, and the game had a good sense of humor. (I haven't beaten its final boss to this day, though.)
I'm getting conflicting info on whether Chime is an indie game - its studio has handled some bigger 360 titles and shovelware but seems to dabble in smaller titles - but it's a sleek & terrific music puzzler nonetheless.

Not entirely successful but interesting: Kentucky Route Zero's artsy ambition and tendency to heap too much on its plate get in the way of it telling its human stories, but it sure is striking visually. Planet Stronghold makes some goofy decisions in a sort-of misguided pursuit of being sexy, but its combat engine did some genuinely interesting & challenging new things, and I took a shine to some of its characters; I'll be playing the sequel. I remember Yume Nikki more fondly as time goes on; it's formulaic in how it's assembled in parts and often too incoherent even for dream logic, but it's unlike anything else out there - it's genuinely surreal. Palette needed some reworking of its script, but I liked the premise and the visuals of the amnesiac protagonist piecing together her shattered memories (with yet-unidentified figures sketched in silhouette like chalk outlines) and trying to string them back into the missing story of her life.
I admired Home's smart commentary on how player freedom often clashes with telling a narrative, even though I gather from other players' experience that some possible routes showcase this theme better than others.

OK: I was obsessed witih Terraria once I finally got around its ridiculous save-eating problem (in short: play it only through the Steam client; do not download it separately), but after I finished with the game, I didn't feel the slightest need to go back to it; it's utterly disposable. The Crooked Man lacks inspiration, though it has solid work put into it. Wizorb's OK if you're using a mouse and arrrgh otherwise. Five Days a Stranger has some good puzzles and Trilby's Notes some deft cutscene direction (and the origin of Slenderman, if you care about that), but I like them and their uglier aspects less as time goes on and I become better-acquainted with their superior inspirations.

Groundbreaking experiments that are important but flawed: Gone Home is an interesting, exhaustive study of how to tell a story through documents and environment, and I like the story - which has really resonated with a lot of people - but my overriding sentiment to the game is still "that was not worth twenty bucks." Dear Esther: that story is a big bunch of hooey, but it did demonstrate, as one GameSpot reviewer put it, how "video games allow for pacing and discovery that would be impossible to reproduce elsewhere" - and those are dang purty caves. I respect what Depression Quest is trying to do, and it's smart in how it plays with game conventions to reproduce the mindset of depression - but it falls down a good bit when it comes to addressing how to treat the illness (byproduct of the designer living in a land of unlimited healthcare, I suppose), and the ridiculously, unrealistically sunshiny best ending makes the whole game ring a bit false.

Didn't work: Neverending Nightmares and The Last Door. Also Desert Nightmare and The Longing Ribbon. All of these are horror games, and all of them share, in different ways, a fatal callousness toward their horrific events. Good horror demands empathy.
Sword & Sworcery is near-entirely a delivery system for geddit-geddit memey humor that's not up my alley. Lone Survivor is too busy trying to elbow the player in her ribs with unsubtle Silent Hill references to notice the gapingly stupid game-killing flaws in its designs; wish it hadn't taken me over three hours to do so.
Hello? Hell...o? assembled a slew of interesting story gimmicks and completely forgot to write a story worth telling with them.
(Continuing from a couple categories above: 7 Days a Stranger and 6 Days a Sacrifice are largely ecch.)

Cannot play due to technical issues: I know Anna got critically drubbed, but I was intrigued by the setting - a dark but smallish and overgrown abandoned building located in a sunlit mountain range. I wanted to see if the designers could use this contrast of dark and light, and the overwhelming presence of nature, to their advantage. The camera just whips around at an utterly unplayable speed, though, and the frame rate is garbage. (My computer just might not be equipped to handle the game, though it's played seemingly more demanding games without a hitch.) I also downloaded the demo for Blueberry Garden a couple nights ago, but something about the character movement makes me nauseous. (I also can't figure out what the heck's going on in the game.)

Conclusions in this experiment:
- Indies are prone to trying too hard to be edgy or memey and thereby forgetting to be good. Horror titles are particularly susceptible to this.
- Many good indie titles, or at least good aspects of indie titles, are born out of coping with limitations (Gone Home: we don't have the budget to animate characters, so let's concentrate on telling a story through documents; Chime: we're blowing most of our budget on song licensing, so let's make sleekness a hallmark of our by-necessity streamlined interface & gameplay).
- The more ambitious and better-funded - or at least most expensive-looking - titles (Dear Esther, Kentucky Route Zero, Gone Home, Neverending Nightmares) often let their ambitions trip them up on the basics of either gameplay or storytelling.
- Across every category, in fact, there are mistakes made that wouldn't make it past the QA process of mainstream ventures (Terraria's lost saves; Lone Survivor's dead ends; Yume Nikki's...well, it's not a mistake, but I don't think anything in Yume Nikki would get through corporate).
- Not all of this experimentation pays off, at least in the game that introduced it, but it gets ideas into the market that wouldn't arrive there any other way. It's heartbreaking when great, original ideas don't deliver, but that's the nature of experimentation - not everything leaps into the marketplace fully-formed, golden & gleaming, like Athena out of Zeus's head.
- The variation in quality in a given gamer's indie game portfolio probably has a lot to do with buying habits, too. The minute barrier to entry presented by Steam-sale bargain prices and RPG Maker free-for-alls means that the average player is willing to take a good deal more risk and try stuff that wouldn't get by their purchase-vetting process normally. I didn't like Desert Nightmare at all, but I wouldn't have given it a second glance if it weren't free in the first place.
- Where indie games seem to succeed, mostly, is in introducing the market and audience to new ideas, which certainly isn't a bad thing. And, hey - at least in my experience, I've beaten Sturgeon's Law, at least. I can't say indie games are doing much worse than mainstream commercial titles for me this year (*coughcoughChronoCrossSeikenDensetsu3LegendofManacoughcough**).

My, those conclusions were original and illuminating! Most assuredly, they were worth all that rambling!
10 December 2014 @ 11:17 pm
I did the "celebrate Halloween all month long" thing for the first time last October. I'm a bit ambivalent about this relatively new practice: it's had the bonus of holding Christmas creep a bit at bay, but a month seems a bit too long to spend dwelling on the dark and dreary. But I enjoyed it! My celebrations were mainly limited to posting spooky material on Tumblr, reading a couple vampire novels, and playing horror games, but I think that's part of the formula for success - don't constantly steep yourself in horror; take it in doses over a period of time.

Oh, and I did carve a jack-o'-lantern. It doesn't seem like many people actually do that anymore; if the pumpkins are carved at all, it'll be with scenes and patterns from stencils, not the traditional faces. Most of the time, though, they'll just put a bunch of pumpkins around the outside of the house. Rainy Maine is quite productive when it comes to...well, produce, so pumpkins are plentiful and cheap, and many folks take the opportunity to support local farmers by being rather lavish with their decorating. (The Pine Tree State takes a similar tack with evergreen wreaths: one on every window, not just on the front door.) I think, though, there's a lot to be said for the old-school charm of a hand-carved jack-o'-lantern; it encapsulates the homemade feel of a holiday marked by parent-crafted costumes and kids going around their neighborhood door-to-door. (That image may be a little antiquated, but it still fits enough around here.)

Anyhow, I decided to attempt that some holiday-post-a-day thing on Tumblr for December that I did for October, but it ain't goin' as well as before: while it was relatively easy to find spooky shots, I'm having a heck of a time finding Christmas (or even suitably winter-themed) shots from games. An unusual number of Japanese action & sci-fi games take place during Christmas (Spy Fiction, D2, Overblood 2, Blue Stinger, Raw Danger), perhaps owing to the influence of the Die Hard series - particularly in the 32-/64-bit eras, where many designers were heady on the newfound freedoms of 3D & the space afforded by CDs and set out to realize their interactive-movie dreams. I can't rely on those games exclusively, though, and I went through a lot of the obvious candidates for this post from a couple years ago. Here's hoping for some Christmas fanart in the tags I check.

(I tried searching DeviantArt for Christmas fanart for various titles, but save for a cute Terranigma piece and, of all things, a reenactment of the triple-dog-dare scene from A Christmas Story with Pyramid Head and Valtiel, I came up empty-handed. Also: I know that niche fetish art was always present on DeviantArt (obviously), but did the site just completely go down that hole recently, or what?)

In other Christmas news: since I don't have many people for whom to buy Christmas gifts this year, I've decided to participate in one of those programs where you buy presents for needy children from wishlists they've made. It's actually been pretty fun! One of the kids was fond of tractors and racecars, and I managed to find at the local farm-supply store a set of diecast race tractors. (This kid was also into what his list calls "MN-10 characters"; if anyone knows what this is, please weigh in.) Another kid I chose because he asked for a "boy dollhouse," and since I live in a rural area, no one else around here is going to fill this request, so I had to step up. Since he specified that it be a "boy" dollhouse, I assume he doesn't want a regular one, so I found this log cabin dollhouse online that I think'll fit the bill. Here's hoping he likes it! (And that it arrives on time.)

I'm less certain about how I handled shopping for the third child, a 4-year-old girl who "likes Frozen" and "loves pink and purple" (that being the entirety of her list). I got her a Frozen doll, then a pink penguin (to go with the theme, see), a pink & purple plush purse w/ballerina mouse attached, and a set of pink-and-purple costume tiaras. Beauty & dollies & not much doing. Hm. I'm limited by the very short list and also by what a 4-year-old can safely do - you can't give her much that's not a hazard at that age - and I imagine any girl whose defining interest is "loves pink & purple" is going to be a gender traditionalist, but...well, I'm still disappointed in myself for not finding a better solution.

I've spent a bit more than I intended for each kid; I'd see a pretty OK gift at one store, reason that I might not find anything better down the line, get it...and then, whaddaya know, find something better down the line (that I would also purchase). I'm also vaguely unsatisfied with this R/C car I got racecar kid...did anyone actually like R/C cars growing up? I had this Camaro that hung around a long time, but I didn't actually do much with it. It's the little car you control that goes around by itself, it looks neat, it should be awesome, yet you run it back and forth a few times, and that's all you can do with it. I had the foresight to get him a car that can be recharged via USB (I'll include a charger) so his parents won't have to spent big bucks on batteries, but, well.

I've gotten a couple gifts for myself recently: I bought the 20th anniversary Angelique artbook that was recently released and a fancy Sailor Saturn action figure from Figuarts. Naturally, given my luck, both came with imperfections: the figure's box is crushed on the bottom (which doesn't matter to the figure but drives me nuts reflexively), and the book somehow, be it in transit or right after I opened the package, got a stub on one of its corners that shows up on over 3/4 of the freaking pages. It's small and, due to the positioning of the images on the pages, affects (very minorly) only about three of them, but - daisies, can't I have anything nice?! The book's really beautiful, though. Yura Kairi's light colors and delicate line art are made for the printed page, and there are so many details that are lost in the electronic versions. Really recommended for any fan of the series.

Not sure about the Sailor Saturn figure, though. It has such huge, ugly marionette joints in the elbows! Judging from the photos, I don't think they show up on the outside of the elbow, only the inside, but I'm waiting till Christmas to open the package, so I'm not sure. The figure was on sale; I wouldn't have bought it otherwise. We'll see, I guess. Desperate suspense!

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All right, so I was scanning Etsy for game stuff in an attempt to procrastinate on a huge job that's coming due, and in searching for Kain Highwind tchotckes, I found...well, look at this.

I'm not laboring under some sort of misconception here, am I? Legend of Dragoon is widely regarded as a bad game, right? 'Cause I'm running, by complete accident, into more stuff for it than I can find for, say, Lunar, for which I am deliberately looking. Is it because it was an RPG in the genre-barren early days of the Playstation? But it's not like you see Beyond the Beyond merchandise. ...


......OK, I just checked; there are no Beyond the Beyond Perler sprites or anything on Etsy; part of the world still makes sense. I do see, though, that Legend of Dragoon was released a full three years after FF7 in the U.S., so my "early PS1 RPG" hypothesis doesn't hold water, either. So what's going on here? Do we just adore dragoons that much? Can our love for the class not be confined to one easily-brainwashed man?

In further adventures in slacking off on work, I discovered that the site for Spy Fiction has been taken offline. The Wayback Machine has a good part of it saved - most of the text parts, anyhow, though I think stuff that was to a degree hidden, like Dietrich's backstory, got nuked, as did most of the images. (Wayback saved the fancy Flash animation that opens the site, though, bafflingly.) The images weren't revelatory, and I managed to translate the most vital parts of the vanished material (the Dietrich saga, Michael's marvelously snippy explanation of Nick's backstory), but I would've liked to have had the original text on hand - because, I mean, that's the source material, not my ham-handed interpretations of it. Those who can read the original text deserve a chance to do so. There were also some rough character sketches that, while not spectacular, would've been nice to have had archived.

Yeah, I know, big surprise that a promo site for a PS2 game went down, but it had survived for such an unlikely period of time that I suppose I had reasoned it was never in danger of being taken offline. I should've backed it up. Dammit, dammit, dammit. (I'd ask the guy who runs Spy Fiction Translation if he saved the site, but he's been AWOL for a good long while, too.)

Also, in looking back for that first Legend of Dragoon post I made, I've discovered that I haven't been that prolific at all this year, either in writing here or in non-work translating. A lot of real-life interference.

This is depressing. Here, have a Rabite hat.
After The Crooked Man and Lone Survivor and now The Last Door, it occurs to me that Silent Hill is becoming the game equivalent of the Lovecraft mythos - something that writers are treating as this huge collaborative universe to which they wish to make their own additions. Granted, Lovecraft created his universe with collaboration in mind, while I doubt Konami did, and the Silent Hill nods in other games (particularly indie games) are more of the look-at-me-I'm-so-clever variety, but they're becoming so widespread, and the idea of an "other" universe where the emotional becomes tangible (usually decorated in Hellraiser chic) so ingrained in the language of game horror, that we might as well acknowledge the trend for what it is right now.
I bought The Last Door from $5 on Steam hoping for an atmospheric Lovecraftian pixel-art adventure game. I got a game that forces you to make a character go through every painstaking motion of hanging himself (gathering the rope, climbing a chair, hanging the rope over a rafter, tying a noose, watching character clutch helplessly at his throat as he chokes to death) in its very first section, which blares LOOK AT ME LOOK AT HOW FUCKING EDGY I'M BEING with all the subtlety of an elephant. It also has a protagonist who has to be laboriously yet ever-so-gently prodded to take usable items (absolutely refusing to do so on the first click) and who moves at a speed that recalls that Evil Tim Castlevania 64 LP line about being so slow you're mocked by layers of sedimentary rock. Then there's the puzzle where you pick up a dying, bloody, nearly-pecked-to-death crow, its anguished cries echoing throughout the soundtrack all the time your crazy fucking protagonist has it in his inventory, and "end its suffering" by putting it in a cat food bowl and letting it be further mauled and ripped apart by the household feline.

Then I hit the Options out of extraordinarily ill-advised curiosity and discovered four short playable side-stories. I chose "Wanderer in the Fog," which lets you play as a Dr. Kaufmann interviewing a patient who dreamed of being "trapped in the fog" in a "land that loves silence," and who proves her story's veracity by producing a tarot card, WHICH WAS THE SAME CARD FROM HER DREAM, and on the card is FUCKING PYRAMID HEAD.

So it's back to Soul Blazer! It's the game that keeps on giving!


That's not the protagonist speaking.

The last Castlevania I played before Circle of the Moon was Harmony of Dissonance - which is convenient, as Dissonance is the next Metroidvania in the series chronologically. Dissonance makes a good point of comparison to Circle of the Moon in other aspects, because they're opposite ends of a spectrum: while Dissonance largely hews to traditional Symphony baroque excess, with its fancy-boy protagonist and bevy of loot and wealth of screen-clearing gee-whiz item crashes & spells, Circle is far more spartan: you will take your standard five Belmont subweapons and traditional Castlevania levels and absolutely minimal story and like it, thank you. Also - crucially - while Dissonance is stupid easy, Circle is stupid hard. I mean STUPID hard.

Part of this has to do with issues in the execution of the classic Castlevania style. For one, Nathan's whip is pixel-thin. It's a wet noodle, and it's hard to target enemies, because your weapon has such a narrow hitbox. For another, Nathan has ridiculous knockback. It's at least half the screen. You can imagine the fun to which this led in Circle's version of the clock tower. It also makes just plain progressing through the castle a huge slog, considering the sheer distance you're sent back (and down, through gaps in platforms) for getting hit; to have such ridiculously overblown punishment for failure is extraordinarily patience-trying. While I respect the game for trying to inject a good helping of toughness back in the franchise, Circle's difficulty isn', like it is in the best of the level-based games. It's dependent on cheaply unbalanced numbers.

But back to that in a minute. Circle's mission, seemingly, is to marry Symphony of the Night's then-new style of explorative gameplay to the franchise's old-school roots, with a limited moveset and at-times punishing difficulty. I respect the attempt, but I can see why Castlevania ultimately went the other route. The lack of neat stuff in Circle, be it from a mechanical or audiovisual perspective, is a letdown. Loot in Metroidvanias is a reward for exploration: you see cool stuff and get more neat toys to play around with if you poke around the castle instead of blazing straight through, even if said stuff & toys are ultimately not very useful. In Circle, on the other hand, you'll just get one of three bog-standard (and very meager) stat increases from discovering new areas (through whipping walls, which here yield short secret passages instead of the traditional Belmont wall meat). It's disappointing to find a hidden path, only to be rewarded at the end with another dinky 5-point life/magic/heart pickup.

Now, Circle has a tarot system that should provide for some fun experimentation - you have a series of primary cards and a series of secondary cards that you get from random drops, and each combination of primary with secondary yields a different effect - bathing your whip in flame, or changing it into a thorny sword that unleashes a torrent of rose petals with every swing, or giving Nathan immunity against poisoning, etc. You're not told, though, what the effect of each combination is until the character actually makes use of it in-game, and while some of the effects are self-evident (the weapon augmentations, for instance), in some cases, they're not so apparent (with the status immunities, you have to be actually hit by the status-inflicting attack before you're learn you're now immune).

The problem, of course, is the goddamn difficulty. While the tarot effects are neat, you're allowed to activate only one effect at a time. I clung like grim death to the "increase damage by 25%" one, because otherwise, I would've had no chance of surviving in most of the game's areas, particularly later on. Circle has too many overpowered enemies who are ridiculous controller-throwing threats. There's this waterway area populated by knights with ice magic who, when you first encounter them, will take off 9/10 of your health and freeze you long enough to ensure they land that finishing blow - meaning, essentially, that Circle is the first Castlevania to feature an area with all one-hit kills. There's a good number of miniboss-type enemies who have significantly stronger attacks and can't really be run past effectively but who are big health drains to fight. (One of these, in fact, lurks between the next-to-last boss room and the nearest-yet-not-very-nearby save room, ensuring I had to refight that boss at least three times despite defeating him each time because I'd get wrecked post-fight by the miniboss before I could make it back to save.) Then there's this demon miniboss who summons this ice asteroid storm that covers like 75% of the screen (with the remaining 25% broken up into little tiny crevices), which then sweeps across the screen diagonally, making evasion impossible. Combined with the knockback and the falling and everything else, it's just so, so...well, I keep returning to the word ridiculous, but that sums it up; no one on the dev team cared whether or not these threats were survivable.

The easy ("easy") way out of all of the bruising combat is to grind levels. Sometimes, there's nothing else you can do; there were a couple times where I'd run into a new area and discover that I was doing only 1 damage to everything, and final-stage Dracula fight more or less requires you beforehand to go kill grunts for 45 minutes or so. This seems to suggest that I was traveling through the game underleveled, but I'm not a speedrunner by any means - I like to take my time and explore, which usually results in me being overleveled - and I didn't have any inordinate problems with the bosses (the bosses, mind you, not the regular enemies) for three-quarters of the game. Circle is too often just unbalanced. While I can understand that RPG elements are still kind of new to the series and their implementation isn't going to be perfect, the blatant stat walls are aggravating and, taken with the other cheap gameplay mechanics, make the game reek of a certain type of laziness.

The game's artistic aspects gravitate toward being at the very least serviceable but certainly not the focus of the production. In another version of Circle's back-to-basics aesthetic, most of its soundtrack is taken from previous games, which isn't bad - it has a snazzy rendition of "Vampire Killer," a version of "Clockwork" that goes in an interesting, more modern direction, and a couple welcome deep cuts like CV3's "Nightmare" and Bloodlines' "The Sinking Old Sanctuary" (Circle deserves credit for rescuing the latter from obscurity; no one cared about Bloodlines till Portrait of Ruin). I wish the game had more original tunes, though. It does, perhaps, have one of the better-looking end bosses in the form of Xenomorph Rocket Sled Dracula up there, (and, strategywise, even after you beat the grinding game, he does require you to think a bit to figure out how to counter his various moves, which is welcome). Though the game is otherwise wholly visually unremarkable - save for the fact that it gives Dracula a treasury with giant piles of gold coins & jewels & crowns & stuff, which Dissonance, despite having a specific Treasury level, failed to do - I did kind of like its atypical palette of off, muted shades of blue, green, & grey to match its hero. Not that the hero, or anyone else, is remarkable in any other way: the kidnapped-mentor story is, like I said at the start, serviceable in that NES-manual sort of way, but after Symphony and even, God help us, Castlevania 64, we expect a little more in the plot department.

But I expected more in the combat, too, and, welp.
23 November 2014 @ 10:05 am
Someday, I will be able to take a Japanese-to-English translating job and not have to worry that the document will turn out to be a lengthy denial of WWII war crimes involving comfort women.

(Granted, I should've been tipped off by the fact that the job was written like a news article but had random phrases throughout the document highlighted in red.)