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Rayman 2: The Great Escape (Ubisoft)

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Four years after the release of the original Rayman and plenty of celebrated success, Ubisoft released a sequel that changed the concept of the series entirely.  Unlike the original cartoon-like platformer that was tough as nails, we were greeted with a dark, 3D rendered platformer.  While the jump to 3D was hit or miss for various gaming staples, Rayman found a welcome home with Rayman 2: Great Escape, touted by many (myself included) as one of the best 3D platformers ever developed. 

If I mention a cutesy 3D platformer that stars evil robots and pirates it would be hard to tell if I was talking about a Ratchet & Clank, Rayman, or even Conker because the idea is so recycled.  While the plot may remain the same, that’s where the comparisons end.  Instead of the aggressive worlds that had one goal – to kill you – of the original, we are now given fully rendered open environments that crave exploration.  For the most part you are tasked with going from the beginning of any level to the end, but along the way you also collect the glowing lums from the original.  For the lums that are on your path and along the way this is no big deal and it will surely get you to end of the game, but if you want to unlock everything you will have to find all 1,000 lums.  That is where the game goes from a simple level-to-level game and becomes a test of platforming abilities and risky gameplay.  It felt a lot like the convention we saw in Super Mario Galaxy, where the game can literally be as hard or as easy as you like, but back in 1999 this was a new concept.  Rayman 2 is also much easier as a whole, which allows you to appreciate the game and environment instead of threatening to destroy your controller with every new turn.  It’s just a fun ride with enough levels to secure a 6-10 hour campaign.

Which one do you have?

Given the popularity and the mass of platforms available at the time, Rayman 2 has made several appearances on many consoles.  At launch it was released on the Dreamcast, N64, PC, and PS1.  The first three versions are nearly identical, the PC version having the highest resolution, although the Dreamcast has some additional minigames and mild tweaks.  The PC version has issues running in XP and on 64-bit systems if left unpatched, so it is advised that modern PC players get the version on Good Ole Games.  The PS1 version had several tweaks to work with that specific hardware, mostly moving things around and famously reducing the number of total lums in the game to 800.  A few cutscenes were altered and one of Rayman’s interactive choices in the game was removed and instead he just makes the right choice automatically.  This version, however, is significant because it has all 5 European languages on the disc and instead of gibberish, the characters actually speak the chosen language.  Collecting 720 or more lums also unlocks a level from the original 2D prototype of Rayman 2.  This version has been re-released on the PSN’s PSOne collection that works on PS3 and PSP.

A year after its release, Rayman 2 came out on the PS2 with the new subtitle Revolution although this is the same game.  It updated many of the graphics, replacing any 2D models with 3D renders, and redistributed the 1,000 lums throughout the game (including moving the hidden 1,000th lum out in the open).  To assist in collecting the myriad of lums in the game Rayman can now get a gadget that helps him track them down and gives you the choice between having voiceovers in one of the 5 European languages or in gibberish (called “Raymanian” in the options menu).  Unfortunately the game suffers framerate drops and stuttering, which is a distinct contrast to the smooth 60 fps frame rate the series celebrates on all other formats.

Despite the janky camera system not holding up too well today, Rayman 2 was ported several times including the DS (as Rayman DS and it’s a port of the N64 version), iOS (Dreamcast version), PSOne re-release for PS3/PSP, and finally it was converted to 3D in the 3DS launch title Rayman 3D (which is a 3D port of the Dreamcast version).

Two Dimensions

Rayman 2 began life as a 2D platformer for PS1 and Saturn that would probably have been quite similar to the original.  Eventually the concept was scrapped and reinvented as a 3D platformer, although the aforementioned PS1 version does have a level from the prototype of this version as an unlock.  A Gameboy Color version of Rayman 2 was released, which is nothing like the other versions and in 2D.  I’ve heard claims that the game is based on the original prototype although since very little information on that version exists, the potential similarities are irrelevant.

No matter how you choose to experience it, Rayman 2 is as essential to the 3D platforming gamer as Super Mario 64.  It is a real testament to Ubisoft’s innovation and contains varied level design and gameplay mechanics to keep the player involved and having fun.  While I personally find the Dreamcast version to the be the definitive format, the game has been ported so often that you should have no excuse not to pick it up and play on something in your house.

Written by spydersvenom

April 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Dreamcast, N64, PC/Mac, Playstation, Reviews

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Is the Wii Really a Toy?

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Yesterday it was announced by Beamdog’s co-founder Trent Oster that the anticipated Balder’s Gate: Enhanced Edition would not be making a trip to the Wii or Wii U.  Some thought that because of Beamdog’s decent port of MDK2 on WiiWare that they might also bring the newest project to Nintendo’s next console.  Oster went on a bit of a tweeting rant to Eurogamer that included the following statements: “We don’t do Nintendo development.  Our previous experience with Nintendo was enough to ensure there will not be another.”  Many assumed that this was in response to the experience Beamdog’s Overhaul Games had with MDK2 that was further backed by his continued statements: “My problems with Nintendo are: requiring 6000 unit sales before payment, a certification process that took 9 months and a 40 mb limit.”  This is nothing new, Nintendo has historically been known to screw over 3rd party developers and include rules and business practices that net no risk to Nintendo while also reaping the benefits of successful titles.  I may discuss that more in a future article but what struck me was Oster’s final statement, “[Wii] is a toy, not a console.”

It’s not a unique thought, many developers have griped about the Wii and compared it to everything from a toy to a re-creation of the problems of the Atari VCS that eventually led to the video game crash of 1983.  I just found that to be quite ironic because Nintendo introduced the Super Famicom (obviously renamed to the Nintendo Entertainment System) in 1985 as a toy, which it wasn’t, and not a video game, which it was.  Fast forward to 25 years later and Nintendo has come full circle with the Wii touting it as the next video game console, which it kind of is, and not a toy, which is more likely what it is.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s put basic definitions and marketing tactics under the microscope to reveal just how toy-like the Wii actually is.

Endless Accessories

Almost every game on the Wii has a gimmick that unfortunately has to do with a new plastic accessory.  Unlike other consoles of the past and today, Wii accessories aren’t necessary to play a given title and add nothing to the experience.  Your Wiimote can be hooked into basically any cheap piece of plastic to allow kids (and probably adults too) to believe it’s something else.  So far it can fit into various plastic sporting items like golf clubs and tennis rackets, gun peripherals, steering wheels, dolls, swords, shields, and plenty of other items I have yet to name.  These items are what make the Wii a toy.  Gamers have controlled all of these items in the past and whether it was a button push or a swing of a motion controller, we never required the controller to look like an item.  Decorating items for playing is something we do as kids to assist in imagination, but on video games the imagination is done for us and we do not need to swing a physical lightsaber to control it.  The only time we use items like that is when we’re playing with toys – adults use it instead of imagination and kids use it to develop imagination.  Either way, turning your remote into anything but a device for which to interact with a console makes it a toy.

How it is Marketed

In many cases the success of the Wii and its versatility to intrigue the masses suddenly removed it from the limelight of the gamer.  It ceased to be for us the moment that we realized Twilight Princess would be virtually alone as a true video game for nearly a year.  Fortunately there were tons of stupid minigame collections, shovelware, and gimmicky crap for kids that parents bought in droves.  Combine that with the aforementioned toy accessories and the Wii suddenly entered every household as more of an interactive toy than a video game.  Once it was there, the inclusion of Wii Fit meant that this console had gotten into the minds of every mom in America, by hook or by crook.  It was at that time I saw things that dropped my jaw – a Wii in Dick’s Sporting Goods.  It wasn’t a video game, it was an exercise device.  I saw it in the toy aisle of big box retailers because suddenly it was perceived as durable and suitable for anyone over six.  In fact, for a short time I could find it in basically any area other than the video game section because stores were so desperate to remove that “gaming” stigma that held back many parents. 

Gamers Didn’t Want It

We all love the Nintendo first-party titles, but whether Nintendo would like to believe it or not, the strength of a console lies in strong third-party as well.  Nintendo was busy playing around in its 40 million unit testing ground by launching huge commercial success stories with Zelda and Mario Kart along with some stinkers like Wii Music, but in all external marketing and in-store displays Nintendo controlled the fact that Nintendo titles were above all others.  This meant that when traditional developers attempted to create titles marketed to hardcore gamers – on-rails shooter Dead Space: Extraction and brawler MadWorld come to mind – it was swept under the rug by Nintendo and retailers because it tarnished the family friendly namesake of the Wii.  Games such as these, which had celebrated success on other consoles, pitifully died with 10,000 or less units sold and it appeared Nintendo couldn’t care less.  Neither did gamers, for the audience of these games had dried up long ago and even random releases had that negative stigma about them that the intended audience wasn’t there.  It only took 2-3 years but the Wii doesn’t exist to many gamers or they have these classic “dust off the console” stories.  Now the Wii finally has a stride with some strong releases for hardcore gamers like Xenoblade and digital releases like Gradius ReBirth and MDK2.  Doesn’t matter, though, the audience isn’t there so it’s left as niche titles to the few people, like me, who don’t throw anything away.  Had I been a gamer that trades in used games, though, I would have dropped my Wii long ago.

Massive Quantities of Unsold Games

It may have been a long time for many of you, but have you checked out a toy store lately?  While the products come and go, the basic layout hasn’t changed.  All the new, hip, popular toys of the moment get big displays and aisles with eye-popping signage and encouragement from the staff to pick up this hot item.  Call up a store and ask for something popular and you may find it’s sold out and that eager moms have purchased meager re-stocks before the manager has arrived for the day.  On the other hand, there are the less fortunate: the clearance toys.  They don’t reside on shelves or storefront displays, they are discarded in metal and plastic containers that look more like decoration than a display.  No organization exists, it’s just tag ‘em and toss ‘em and as a consumer you rummage through a sea of crap with hope of finding that hidden gem.  Most of these toys were so popular you couldn’t find them last Christmas but the new hot items made them invisible only three short months later.  Instead of a normal price tag, it has a bright orange or red sticker that includes a 20-60 percent discount and no one is coming in to find any particular item these bins contain.  That’s exactly what the Wii market is like – nothing but discounted white plastic cases as far as the eye can see.  My Walgreens has an entire end cap of unsold Wii titles that will remain there until they are finally tossed out, each with a $4-$10 price tag that intrigues no one.  It’s the toy cycle and it’s the side effect of shovelware and big companies trying to throw anything they can at a wall to see what sticks. 

Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime just doesn't seem that concerned.

This is only a problem because like a toy, the Wii is just a fad, and my friends the time for that fad is over.  Everyone knows it, especially Nintendo, which has no plans for another title on the console after the release of last November’s Skyward Sword.  It’s a big issue for gaming because the console that put video games back into consumers’ minds and brought the hobby to the forefront again is now synonymous with wasted potential.  No typical household that entered video gaming with the Wii will purchase the Wii U and gamers that were burned will avoid the console completely.  Not only that, it doesn’t look that different from the Wii aside from some technical specs that the mass audience of the Wii never cared about to begin with.  What they will care about is the rumored $400 price tag that takes it off the table for most parents.  Nintendo missed a few opportunities to avoid making the Wii a failure but in the rare cases that they did anything it was all too little too late.  Face it guys, the Wii is a toy and if Nintendo doesn’t watch out the 3DS and Wii U will face the same fate.  I don’t want Nintendo, its properties, or its games to disappear but unless it does a better job of protecting the third-party companies that helped build its empire in the first place, it will fall.

Written by spydersvenom

April 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Blog

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Rayman (Ubisoft)

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Rayman wants to be a strong classic platformer, and it’s really a shame that the steep difficulty curve will turn off even the most determined of contemporary gamers, because from an aesthetic and game design perspective this game should be appreciated.  Alas Rayman has been ported to console after console and seen commercial success, but I wonder how many people have actually experienced most of what this title has to offer.

During the mid 90s there was no shortage of consoles – both the 16-bit generation and 32-bit generation were coming to be, not to mention CD consoles –  and Rayman was caught right in the thick of it.  Not only that, but thanks to Mario and Sonic, platformers were among the highest in popularity behind fighting games.  The title began life as a brainchild of Ubisoft creative director Michel Ancel (who is also responsible for cult favorite Beyond Good & Evil) and the then struggling developer/publisher bet the house on his creation and won.  Rayman started life on the Super NES as a two-player title based on various cultural fairy tales and eventually it was decided that the game would receive a cartoon makeover with better animation and subsequent move to the Playstation CD add-on for the SNES (read that story here).  When Nintendo announced the cancellation of both the Playstation and Phillips CD projects Ubisoft wanted to move to the Jaguar thanks to its specs and eventually chose the Sony Playstation as the lead console.  As you can see, the game was already bouncing from console to console.

Rayman is known for some unique features upon its 1995 release date – most namely because it was a 2D platformer in a time when 3D polygonal graphics were all the rage and it released on Playstation and Jaguar simultaneously (1 week apart) with differences to both.  The Saturn and PC ports would come in 1996 and be identical to the PS1 version.  Lead character Rayman has no limbs – his head, hands, and feet float around his body – which was a design decision due to hardware limitations and not actually part of any plot.  Visually the title is gorgeous with bright colors (up to 65,000 at one time) and made good use of the hardware at the time, not to mention smooth 60 frames per second animation throughout.   Thanks to the CD format, the Playstation version contains a vibrant red book audio (similar to music CDs) format that will play on a CD player if you have the original disc.  Wikipedia cites similarities to Treasure’s Dynamite Headdy, a Genesis title that released in 1994, but I feel the comparison was only made in hindsight and I’ve read nothing to remotely connect the two. 

Rayman’s gameplay appears to be a traditional platformer, but once you start getting into the second world (most people refer to as the “music level”), the game’s difficulty ramps up at an immense rate.  You are consistently trying to dodge pits and obstacles you will only know about if you’ve already died from, it was nearly impossible to “twitch” your way through most obstacles.  As a result, you were forced to memorize most levels; think of it as the R-Type of platformers. In addition, the length of the levels grow as well, probably due to the changes to different platforms and media during development. Rayman also has limited lives (3) and continues (3) after which a game over requires you to start over completely.  This is a bit confusing when you first start out because the game has password and save features, but neither of those allow you to continue beyond the initial lives and continues – there are cheat codes, but you have to know to use them before a game over.  It all comes off, especially today, as an awkward combination of 16-bit and 32-bit game design (which it most likely is).  This is also a collect-a-thon game, requiring you to collect all six caged Electoons in order to move on to the final stages, which can be a blessing to completionists like me and a curse to bare bones players.  Having said that, these are all minor setbacks that in no way eclipse the solid gameplay, decent level design, wonderous worlds, and boss battles that remained in my memory through nostalgic goggles.  Come to the game prepared and take it in stride (this can be easier thanks to the massive amount of portable ports) and there should be no reason for you to not eventually beat it. 

Different Versions

The original version is technically available on the Atari Jaguar, which is most likely similar to the version we would have gotten on SNES Playstation or the canceled 32x version.  It has a few differences from the Sony Playstation version including the removal of Mr. Stone’s Peaks level and Space Mama’s area and battle are also absent.  Rayman cannot shrink like he does in the other versions and the level Erasure Plains has been changed to a new level entirely.  This version does contain the game Pong as a hidden minigame and contains glowing and smoke effects on Mr. Skops’ lava level.  As expected, the audio is considerably weaker because it is compressed onto a cartridge and could not take advantage of the red book audio.  It is one of the few games that demonstrate both the abilities and value of the Atari Jaguar and every collector I’ve spoken to says it’s a must buy if you own the system.  Unfortunately the Jaguar version is quite rare and sells for $50+ online, which is about 5-10 times higher than the many other versions you can find.

On the PC, Rayman had plenty of expansions that demonstrated a versatility in the concept well ahead of its time: endless level design.  While the original PC version was a mere PS1 port, the 1997 Rayman Gold also included level development tools and contained 24 new levels and the need to collect 100 tings to complete each level.  The included development tool, Rayman Designer, allowed players to create levels and share them on the Internet, which wasn’t popular at the time.  Rayman Forever hit in 1998 and included both Rayman Gold and 40 new user-designed levels to further extend the experience although at the expense of part of the soundtrack, which most fans of the series do not consider a worthwhile trade-off.  Rayman 100 Niveaux was the final release and contained 60 newer levels (entitled the 60 “Niveaux” levels that were only released previously in France as the super rare Rayman Collector) and the 40 user levels, however it does not contain the contents of Rayman or the extra 24 Gold levels. 

Rayman Advance was the first true portable port that made the game easier for various reasons and was close to the same as the PS1 version save for the obvious downgrade in the soundtrack.  The game was also available on Gameboy color – although it only used the plot of the original, level design was from the sequel – and digital downloads on PSP (via PSOne collection) and on DS/3DS via DSiWare.  The PSOne version has the unaltered gameplay and  soundtrack (because it’s basically a rip of the original ISO) whereas the DSiWare version has been made even easier than Advance and features downgraded looping audio and appears to be based on the PC version.  In addition, Good Ole Games released Rayman Forever on its site, adjusting the programming of the PC version to support Windows platforms – DOSbox is required to play the original versions of these DOS-based games.  Both Forever on GOG and the PSOne version are $5.99 whereas the DSiWare version will set you back $7.99.

While the original is important and significant for many reasons, Rayman’s next outing would update it to 3D polygons, a step back for the art design, but was much more approachable.  It held up so well, in fact, that Ubisoft and Nintendo decided to use it as a 3DS launch title.

Written by spydersvenom

April 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm

April Fools: Best Video Game Industry Pranks

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April Fools Day.  This was probably my favorite holiday growing up because you could be truly cruel and no one would call you on it because you were still a young buck.  Well, as much as we in the video game industry (this includes fans) try to fight the fact that our hobby is seen as child’s play, there’s no reason to believe we wouldn’t run with it.  Here are some of the best (and most cruel) April Fools Day pranks played over the years (and yes, I’m aware they’re all EGM pranks, sue me):

1992 – Sheng Long
It was probably the first or second year that Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) began doing the April Fools Pranks that they introduced the legendary character Sheng Long in Street Fighter II.  The way it came about dealt with the English localization of the arcade game, which changed Ryu’s message after a win from “If you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch you cannot win!” to “You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance!”  See, Ryu’s Dragon Punch is “sheng long” in Chinese and the translators mistook the converted name of the attack for a person.  Since Ryu was supposedly trained by a great karate master, we were to assume that was who Sheng Long was.  Capcom even corrected the mistake in the SNES version, changing the phrase from “Sheng Long” to “Dragon Punch” but the instruction manual explained Sheng Long to be the master of Ken and Ryu.  After that it was only one quick clever plan and EGM had people believing he could be unlocked!  According to the article, you would have to beat all 11 fighters without taking a hit and get 9 draws against M. Bison and you could fight Sheng Long.  Let this be a lesson, if it seems impossible, it is.  It was even funnier when the April Fools Contest appeared just under the article.  Ironically there is speculation that character Akuma was created based on the prank and Capcom has admitted that Gouken from Street Fighter IV is a spiritual version of Sheng Long.

1994 – Nimbus Terrafaux
I didn’t own an SNES when it first came out in the early 90s so me and all my Sega fanboy friends found the whole Sheng Long prank quite funny (despite the fact that we were all very jealous of the game being exclusive to SNES at the time).  Back in summer 1993 whenMortal Kombat came out, the Genesis version was the only true version to have every character with blood and the arcade fatalities.  Genesis owners loved it and claimed victory over the SNES once and for all, but one consistency of this version was that the blood and fatalities had to be unlocked via a code (ABACABB at the “code” entry screen before the main menu).  Naturally, jokes about secret characters (beginning with Ermac in 1993) were all over the place and EGM decided to take it a step further and suggest an unlockable character in the Genesis version of the game known as Nimbus Terrafaux.  He was a black kickboxer that could be unlocked by putting in the code R,D,R,A,C,B,B,A,D,R,C,B,Start when Reptile randomly appears and says “Look to la luna.”  The clue actually refers to how to fight him, which involves a shadow flying across the moon in the Pit stage.  So EGM claimed that doing this code while he was on screen would unlock him – you really didn’t have enough time to put it in and even if you did there was no way of knowing if it was right.  I spent weeks trying to get it to work only to find out it was the April Fools Joke.  His name, Nimbus Terrafaux, translating to “fake earth” should have been a giveaway but I was 11, I didn’t know. 

2001 – Sega Neptune Factory
Okay this prank was good because it was based loosely on truth and I was able to figure out it was a prank from the moment I saw it.  Sega had announced in 1994 that it was planning to release the Neptune in 1995 that was a Sega Genesis 2 with a built-in 32x and retail for $200.  While one division was busy working on the Neptune the other division completed the Saturn at around the same time a prototype was complete.  With the Saturn being a newer and stronger system, they scrapped the Neptune (although there are actually a few in the world today and at least one of them works).  EGM claimed, many years later, that it had uncovered a company with a warehouse full of Neptune consoles and was unloading them for $50.  A web site was given that would point you to the order page that (I recently found out) actually existed.  When you tried to add the item to your cart you were redirected to a “fooled you” site along with a counter of how many had fallen victim. 

Neptune prototype

2005 – Realistic Windwaker
This has got to be the dirtiest trick because I went nuts trying to find the damn thing, complete with getting steamed at a GameStop employee.  I was then 23 and had a degree from an accredited university so I figured that I couldn’t get tricked (and had completely forgotten that EGM did April Fools pranks).  In the letters area there was an announcement by EGM that if you pre-ordered Twilight Princess (which had a different name back then) you would receive an updated graphics version of Wind Waker for free.  This was tempting for some of us who hadn’t purchased Wind Waker and wanted both for free, plus it was clearly going to be a limited run.  With all the freebies, especially Zelda ones, Nintendo had given out over the years (this might have been the same year that the Zelda Collection on GameCube was a freebie with subscriptions of Nintendo Power) it was entirely plausible.  I should have known that when my local video game stores had no idea what I was talking about that it was too good to be true, and with my current savvy of the industry I would know immediately that this was a tremendous undertaking that wouldn’t have been free.  As it stood, I kept looking at that screenshot and fearing I wouldn’t get a copy while persistently bugging too many Chicago retailers to let me pre-order.  Needless to say I felt like a complete jackass that summer when I finally read some back issues of EGM only to discover it was hoax.  I still want my realistic Wind Waker guys. Prankster KarmaAll of these tricks are funny and all, but not as funny as the real tips and tricks that have been mistaken for hoaxes over the years.  Here are a few:

  • A joke screenshot of the Battletoads in Double Dragon wasn’t so funny when Rare decided to later release the game Battletoads & Double Dragon.
  • There was a code in EGM for Mega Man X that gave him the ability to perform Ryu fromStreet Fighter II’s  haduoken as an attack.  Since Capcom created both games, it was not only possible, it’s actually in the game.
  • In 2000 EGM coveredTwelve Tails: Conker 64 in which the previously bubbly kid-friendly squirrel’s N64 outing (he was on Gameboy Color first) would be abandoned for a trash-talking toilet humor adult game.  Especially because this would come out from Rare on a Nintendo console it seemed completely untrue, although I am very pleased it was real.
  • Although not technically mistaken as jokes, there were two cases where a prank in EGM ended up being possible.  The first was having all the Bonds available in Goldeneye on the N64 (Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, and Roger Moore in addition to Pierce Brosnan).  The code was supposedly implemented because Rare didn’t get licensing for it, which turned out to be in the game’s code and can be unlocked with a GameShark.  Another was the nude code in Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball for the Xbox, which hackers later created and patched into the game allowing those with modded Xboxes to play the updated ISO via hard drive or burned disc.

Written by spydersvenom

April 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Features

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