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Now & Then: Silent Hill

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sh_coverConsole: Playstation
Released: 1999
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Digital Release? Yes, PSN version compatible with PS3, PSP, and Vita for $5.99
Price: $20.87 (disc only), $33.99 (complete), $130.00 (sealed)  per Price Charting

Note: I did not have screen shots available from my last play and it appears all screens online are from emulation.  This title does not look this good on the PS1.

Dichotomies exist in all forms of media.  Whether it’s Elvis or the Beatles, Shakespeare or Marlowe, Alien or Aliens, and even Star Wars or Star Trek, the rule remains the same: you are allowed to like both but you always prefer one.  In the realm of survival horror, the clear competition is Resident Evil or Silent Hill.  Longtime readers and listeners know where I stand (RE), but that’s not to say the Silent Hill isn’t just as easily justified, if not moreso, as the better game even if it’s not necessarily the more popular one.  Despite the original Resident Evil being a living haunted house, the game still rooted itself into a world of intense action, the ability to kill just about every opposing force, and a heavy science fiction/biological manipulation concept – proven even more by the game’s Japanese title Biohazard.  Silent Hill, on the other hand, is classic unexplained horror and phenomena at its best.  Where Resident Evil employed pre-rendered backgrounds and forced camera perspectives, Silent Hill was fully rendered and seemed to follow the player, thus linking the character on screen with the player.  This makes it more terrifying because what happens to Harry (your playable character) seemingly happens to you as well.  Not only that, but the perspective of the title is completely different.  Harry is a regular guy, not a soldier, and he’s frantically trying to find his missing daughter, not to simply survive.  It’s all just a different perspective to the horror game where instead of trying to scare you with jumps and big gross monsters (although you will get those in this title), Silent Hill thrives on the unknown and maintaining tension instead of random fear.  In short, it’s Alien to Resident Evil’s Aliens.

sh_2Harry Mason wakes up to find that his car has gone off the road and his daughter Cheryl is missing.  Not only that, but he’s in the woods on a cold snow-covered night, and in searching the local area for Cheryl comes upon the town of Silent Hill.  With that basic setup you are tossed into a world that is almost like a Stephen King novel come to life.  A heavy fog surrounds the entire town limiting your view, there are no signs of life, and nearly every door is locked.  Eventually you see something emerging in front of you, but once it clears the fog you discover its a hideous bird-like creature with sharp fangs and talons coming right for you.  A pipe works to ward off the beast, but as soon as one goes down another replaces it.  You frantically navigate the town for any alleyway or door that offers shelter, but almost everywhere you turn there are blockades or locks to stop you.  Eventually you find a refuge in an unblocked stairwell, unlocked door, or making your own way through with items available to you, but this only lends to put you in a worse situation than before.  This is Silent Hill.

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I think what’s most compelling about this journey is that Team Silent, an internal group at Konami that would later go independent due to creative limitations put upon them, has properly captured the feel of being the character without the first person perspective.  It contradicts most of what you know about horror: fear of the unknown.  There’s no unknown in Silent Hill.  It flat out shows you what wants to kill you, makes it mortal, and even gives you the means to kill them instead.  What’s compelling is that it surrounds you with visual, audio, and gameplay cues that create tension and unsettles you very effectively.  Director Keiichiro Toyama created the scenario and specifically focused on David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) and the occult for tone, despite Toyama not being a natural horror buff (he also integrated UFOs, but that’s only if you think the dog did it).  He must have succeeded because Silent Hill will consistently make you confused just before it frantically forces you to react on the situation at hand, which is usually jarring.  You will combat dead children in a dilapidated school, wonder the eeriest hospital I had seen at that point, and eventually watch it flip to a rust-covered prison completely overrun with gory creatures.  At various points you may wonder how in the world Cheryl can still be alive in all of this, which only makes the game’s climax even more compelling.  I must sadly admit that the game’s weakest point comes from the puzzles developed by Hiroyuki Owaku, which are more like riddles than anything else, and will most likely be the only obstacle that could make you put this game down.  If you stick with it, Silent Hill will continually freak you out.

sh_1Nowadays the game doesn’t quite hold up as well as it used to.  Since the sequel would release two years later on the Playstation 2, the visuals and controls had been greatly overhauled between generations and it makes the sluggish gameplay of the first game hard to take in.  If you frequent the late 90s Playstation scene, it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment (and may also be of the best controlled titles for the time), but most gamers who look back tend to throw out the old description of “tank controls”.  It’s also a muddy mess visually, which was about as good as that era could do, but especially on large HDTVs you may have a hard time figuring out what you’re looking at.  Thankfully the reduced high resolution screens of the PSP and especially the Vita have been quite kind to Silent Hill and you shouldn’t have any problem knowing what you’re looking at or where to go.  That doesn’t mean, however, that in a world with waypoints, indicators, and arrows telling you where to go that Silent Hill won’t come off as confusing.  You will wonder aimlessly trying locked doors and in some cases get stuck with every apparent path explored before finding that one spot in the room you’ve already been to that has the item you need to proceed forward.  In this first outing it’s few and far between, but it is a concern.  You might also find yourself unable to move on because you wasted all of your ammo too quick and come to an area where you are forced to fight and have no means for which to do so.  Thanks to melee weapons you may have an opportunity to still take out the beastie, but it can be much harder and lead to more deaths than if you had simply hung onto a handful of shotgun rounds.  If you persevere, keep an FAQ bookmarked on your phone, and do your best to immerse yourself in the world of Silent Hill before cheating your way into solutions, you will find this game is as effectively tense and scary now as it was 15 years ago.  Resident Evil may have won the Playstation battle, but even I can’t argue that Silent Hill captures the base words “survival” and “horror” much better than the competition ever did.

If you would like to hear more about Silent Hill, we covered it in our Survival Horror podcast and our Silent Evil podcast.

Written by spydersvenom

September 19, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Retrospective: Resident Evil 4

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Now & Then is different from both a retrospective and a review.  It tackles games you probably already know and is a place for gamers to discuss these games.  Below is an overview of a game’s presence in the market then and now.  Authors of these articles share their personal experience, so we encourage all of you to do the same in the comments.

Editor’s Note:  Although I love classic games as much as the next guy, few games get to be restored as often as Resident Evil 4.  Therefore, the recently released Ultimate HD Edition has the most cleaned up, 1080p native graphics to date and thanks to screenshot technology being what it is we were able to grab those assets directly from the game without any quality loss.  We at GH101 have decided to feature screens from this version in the interest of clarity, despite the fact that they do not faithfully represent the graphical fidelity of the many previous versions.  Hopefully purists will forgive us.  – Fred Rojas

The Story of the Scrapped Versions

re4_boxWhenever a game sits in development hell for too long, it has an adverse affect on everyone’s feelings for the game.  The examples are too many to count but a couple quick mentions are the likes of DiakatanaToo Human, and of course Duke Nukem Forever.  With a few exceptions, games that take too long to make can’t help but not live up to the hype and therefore disappoint an all-too-eager audience.  One of these exceptions is Resident Evil 4.  Originally announced in 1999, the concept was a Playstation 2 game with a brutally strong protagonist that was more action focused per the ongoing desires of Shinji Mikami (series creator that has been trying to go more action oriented since Resident Evil 2).  This new iteration was appropriately tasked to Hideki Kamiya, notable for his director work on Resident Evil 2, and in connection with Noboru Sugimura, writer of Resident Evil 2.  After a European trip that netted a Gothic art style and given the goals of the game it was decided that the camera would have to be dynamic and movable (much like Capcom had started in Dino Crisis) and thus ditch the traditional pre-rendered background in exchange for a fully rendered world.  Much of the development style, tone, and even Kamiya’s direction involved a what was described as a “cool” world and eventually it got so far removed from the roots of both the survival horror genre and Resident Evil series and instead integrated demons and a new protagonist, Dante.  A small fraction of the Capcom Production Studio 4, named Little Devils, converted this new concept with the juggling bug this team had seen in Onimusha: Warlords and eventually renamed the project to Devil May Cry in November 2000.  While it spun off to a good game and an ongoing franchise that still lives today, Devil May Cry left Resident Evil 4 in a rut without a dev team (and some hardcore RE fans still refer to the game as Resident Evil 3.5 since the core concepts remained intact).

It wasn’t until nearly a year later, late 2001, that the large scale Capcom Production Studio 4 team regrouped to begin development on Resident Evil 4.  Sugimura was still involved at this time and his scenario company Flagship and the original concept was Leon Kennedy breaking into Umbrella’s European headquarters to save a girl (who’s identity has never been revealed) while fighting various types of zombies and other creatures a la the original game.  At this time the third person view was already the gameplay style although Leon was overcome by the Progenitor Virus, thus giving his left hand special abilities, and included first person action sequences like we saw hints of in previous games.

re4_hookmanAs time went on the concept developed into the demo that was shown at E3 2003 known as Maboroshi no Biohazard 4 (Hallucination Biohazard 4 in English), but it has been come to be nicknamed Resident Evil 4: Hook Man Version by those that talk about it in the RE circles (FYI: Resident Evil is Biohazard in Japan but not here due to the metal band’s trademark).  Development of this version began when Flagship’s original scenario was dropped and Mikami brought in Yasuhisa Kawamura, scenario writer for Resident Evil 3, to make a scarier game.  At first the movie Lost Souls was the template and it featured an unnamed female protagonist that found herself in an abandoned building with a killer on the loose.  An in-between version re-introduced Leon as the lead, had him working with a mutated dog as a sidekick, and eventually making his way through Umbrella creator Spencer’s Castle to rescue a girl and fight his way out (with Hook Man as the killer and a newer version of the Nemesis character).  Eventually this was adapted into a final version that would become the demo.  In this version Leon was traversing a haunted castle, infected with a virus, and it was causing a mix of various jarring camera effects and hallucinations.  To help with the goal of a scary atmosphere and merge the perspective of the player with Leon, an over-the-shoulder camera, laser sight, and quick time events (QTEs) were integrated, some of the more notable attributes of the final game.  Enemies in the demo ranged from suits of armor that came to life and eventually a the Hook Man, a ghostlike zombie with a torn hook for a left hand, as a final enemy for the demo.  You can find a 5 minute video of this build on YouTube (pardon if the link isn’t valid over time) that was found in the Biohazard 4 Secret DVD that came as a pre-order bonus for Resident Evil 4 on GameCube in 2005.  Cost of development and technical obstacles forced Mikami to step in and assist in scenario writing and development, something Kawamura has gone on record saying he’s ashamed of, and completely scrapped the game.  It was 2004 and Resident Evil 4 was back to square one.  Fortunately you can find most parts of this version (aside from the demo video) in other Capcom games: many of these assets ended up in the PS2 game Haunting Ground, the Progenitor Virus concept was the base for Resident Evil 5, and of course the Spencer Estate concept was revitalized in the RE5 DLC Lost in Nightmares.

The Deal With Nintendo

re4_3In November 2002, Capcom announced a 5 game deal with Nintendo that would see five of the titles coming to the GameCube, known as the Capcom Five, and among those (despite some miscommunication) only Resident Evil 4 was to remain console exclusive.  After rumors suggested that users and investors were adding pressure to move the game to the much more successful Playstation 2, Mikami even came out and claimed he would “cut his  head off” if RE4 ever made its way to another console.  In late 2003 Shinji Mikami took over directional duties and had a large part in scenario and writing duties to completely re-invent the series.  He spread a massive campaign in interviews and told the Capcom Production 4 Team that the focus was to be on action and not horror.  To assist with this he dropped the Umbrella involvement completely, created the Ganados concept, and clearly borrowed from many earlier versions of the game, including the new Dante-like look and personality for Leon.  By E3 2004 Capcom locked down a January 2005 release for Gamecube and then to everyone’s shock an awe a Halloween 2004 announcement for 3 new Resident Evil PS2 titles revealed that a port of Resident Evil 4 with expanded content would be hitting the PS2 later in 2005.  This made Gamecube fans livid, some of which admitted to purchasing the nearly dead console purely for the now three year prospect of finding the game only on Nintendo’s console.  For the record, Mikami did not cut off his own head and the PS2 version did come out.  I have never been able to find out if there was any action from Nintendo for breaking the exclusivity, although in those days it wasn’t always a paid or contractual deal so perhaps Nintendo had no leg to stand on.

The Game

After all that hype and pressure, it’s a miracle that Resident Evil 4 is as wonderful as it turned out to be.  If you’ve never played it, the genius of Resident Evil 4 is that it sticks to the basics of game design while also offering a look and feel that is fresh.  Easily one of the most gorgeous games from that generation, I still contest that the Gamecube version is the best looking from that time period, so if you have a choice that game really was developed for that console.  Additionally the game was long, like 15-20 hours long, and didn’t feel as such.  Each of the five chapters feel like complete games in and of themselves and while enemy types and bosses do reappear from time to time, the environments and scenarios are unique for the most part.  Even more striking is the way that game develops alongside the player as a whole.

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In the first act you are traversing the woods of Spain as Leon, completely unaware of what’s to come but you know it’s not going to be good.  Eventually you get introduced the Ganados, who at this point are townsfolk that have established farming villages along the countryside, but of course they are violent toward you.  After killing off a pair of cops that accompany you, the Ganados turn full attention on you and with the different ways they attack based on where you shoot them and how close you are too them, it’s clear that these are no zombies.  Ganados will throw weapons at you (that yes, you can shoot out of the air), duck under your laser sight, run around you, and overall give you that sinking feeling of being entirely alone against the world.  Not only that, but the world is quite jarring for the time, with the over-the-shoulder camera and focus with the laser sight on where to shoot everyone, it’s a steep learning curve.  That’s why the first main area, a central town, is so pivotal and one hell of a demo.  You enter into this town that is fully populated by Ganados that all give chase upon your arrival.  You can go in and out of houses, down different paths, jump out of windows, and navigate a small space where you have almost no idea where to go next.  Since your perspective only allows for what’s directly in front of you, a somewhat accurate interpretation of what being in that situation in real life is like, it’s dangerous to take a corner without knowing what’s going on and you always take a risk of being jumped when you dare look behind you.  Sure it’s seen as somewhat tanklike controls today, but back then it was about as good as you were going to get out of Capcom.  Then the chainsaw guy arrives, a larger sized villager with a potato sack on his head and eye holes cut out, and he begins to chase you at a much faster pace than the others.  This doesn’t meant that the horde of Ganados back off either, you’re now thrown in the mix with all of them.  No matter how many times you shoot Chainsaw Guy he won’t die for good and you have limited ammo at this point and most people will probably get caught by him at least once, which triggers and instant death where Leon’s torso is sawed diagonally across the sternum.  It’s freaky and it demonstrates the biggest change in Resident Evil 4: you won’t be scared, you’ll just feel immense tension, which triggers a different kind of fear.   When those church bells ring after a certain period of time and clear the town of danger, I had to literally take a break and step away from the game.  My thoughts at the time were, “damn, that was close.”  It was a great rush.

re4_2From there the game digresses into a somewhat interesting storyline that contains a mass of interesting and tactical scenarios.  Whether it’s fighting the sea creature in the lake, tackling El Gigante for the first time, eventually meeting and dealing with Salazar, knife-fighting Krauser, and eventually unraveling the mystery of Las Plagas, Resident Evil 4 is a thrill ride.  Each new area of the game will challenge the skills you had previously learned and try to force you to use them in new ways to the point that your cumulative skills make the initial Ganados fight seem like a walk in the park.  When I completed the game for the first time after getting the game for my birthday in 2005 (I had a Gamecube for the few other Resident Evil games on the platform) and again that Christmas on PS2, it was fantastic and I couldn’t offer it up to enough people to experience.  Capcom and Mikami had gambled big – the series was to be discontinued if a failure – and they had succeeded admirably.  For better or worse, Resident Evil would never be the same.

It sold well.  1.6 million units on Gamecube and more than 2 million on PS2, not to mention eventual ports to the PC (terrible initial attempt) and Wii before receiving HD remakes on 360/PS3 recently and eventually the Ultimate HD Version on PC this year.  I think the reason it keeps being remade is that Resident Evil 4 still looks amazing today, now with updated assets and filters, and the gameplay, while seemingly dated, is still that perfect mix of locked in time and tolerable to a modern audience.  If you have yet to experience this game and are even somewhat of a fan of Resident Evil, you should pick this game up and give it a go.  It was a steal at $50 back in 2005 and today it’s a reminder that not all re-invented games in development hell end up being underwhelming, dated messes.

Written by spydersvenom

September 5, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Podcast: Silent Evil 2: Resident Hill

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This week we are tackling quite possibly the two most popular titles of survival horror: Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill 2.  Resident Evil 2 was scrapped only a few months before completion and completely redone, resulting in many of the staples that carried the franchise forward and stands as a fan favorite.  Meanwhile Silent Hill 2 waited until the Playstation 2 hit the market and with one of the creepiest atmospheres of all times redefined what horror gaming could be.  We openly discuss the notable aspects of both.


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Written by spydersvenom

July 16, 2014 at 11:00 am

Strider Retrospective

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Starting today the reboot of Strider hits home consoles and PCs as developer Double Helix attempts to capture the charm that came with the original’s dedicated cult following.  When I try to look back at Strider – and yes I grew up playing every version from the arcade at my local bowling alley that was ported to the Genesis along with the completely different NES version – it’s hard to see what exactly needs to be in the new game.  Still, there’s no denying the hardcore appeal of this unique and odd addition to classic gaming that justifies looking back for those that didn’t grow up with it.

Strider_1If you haven’t played it, the original arcade version of Strider is all over the place.  There are multiple languages, settings across the globe, massive mechanical ape bosses, and even lead protagonist Hiryu riding on a whale at the end.  As one of the pioneer titles of Capcom’s new CP arcade platform – think of it as a cartridge-based cabinet that allowed quick swapping of games with only a few ROM changes – the graphics are indicative of the cartoon style all CP titles shared (ie: Ghouls’n GhostsWillow, and of course Final Fight).  Graphics aside, the game is also noted for its crazy gameplay that features hanging from walls and ceilings, fighting massive enemies, and reversed gravity.  To accompany this eclectic melting pot was an equally frantic soundtrack that covered all the bases from electronic progressive music to ambient classical style.  While the soundtrack is uncredited to original composer Junko Tamiya (she also did the solid NES version of Bionic Commando as well as my personal favorite Sweet Home), the original versions of the arcade game didn’t feature the Aerial Battleship or Third Moon stages (replaced instead by the first stage music on a loop) so it can be deduced that someone went back and composed those additional tunes.  While the game itself covers a scant five stages that will take the average person probably 60-90 minutes in total (pros can do it in half that time) the high difficulty and game design that was more indicative of home consoles was fresh.  Instead of trying to rack up a high score or conquer a single mechanic over and over you were progressing through brutally difficult levels with the carrot on the stick being that provided you could afford to continue as many times as it took, you could see the ending.  This is why most people who play it today will either set it to free play on the cabinet or emulator and also explains why the PS1 port flat-out gave you unlimited continues.

strider_2I remember playing it when I was about 10 years old and being blown away by the neo future envisioned in the story’s 2048 Soviet dictatorship, indicative of the continuing fear of Cold War oppression and Socialist/Communist popularity.  Each sound effect, especially the signature slash sound each time Hiryu swings his sword, had a crisp edge and realism I had not heard before.  It was even more impressive that some of these sounds made it into the NES port, which was a technical feat in its own regard.  While the plot is very hard to follow, even today, only playing for a few minutes proved that Hiryu, the youngest ever high-tech ninjas known as “Striders”, was a force to be reckoned with.  This is counter to the gameplay in that the extreme difficulty and new mechanics meant you would die quite a bit through even the most basic levels of the game.  Few titles I’ve ever played master the art of both empowering the player and kicking their butt at the same time, which Strider did in spades.  Each stage and even area of a stage was drastically different from the last and I will never forget the large-scale of each boss.  Not only that but beating the boss did not always mean the end of the level, especially with regards to the massive gravity sphere that destructed the ship you are on when it was defeated, resulting in a frantic escape run before completing the level.  Oh yeah, and there were massive cyborg interpretations of King Kong (large gorilla) and Godzilla (large T-Rex) as well.  Sweet.

Unfortunately I have to admit that I think a title like Strider is a perfect example of a game you most appreciate if you grew up with it.  In a wild development cycle that included three independent companies working on an arcade version, an NES version (who also happened to develop the simliar but different Ghosts’n Goblins port), and a manga in Japan, Strider was unlike most projects in video games at the time.  Ironically enough the Metroid-style open world NES version of the game that directly connected to the manga were completely severed by the business decisions of worldwide business.  A Famicom version of the game was never manufactured or released in Japan and the manga never saw its way to our shores (not to mention the language barrier that separated each medium), so in retrospect it’s one disconnected mess of a story.  One thing all regions had in common was that the teens of the time were enticed by the arcade port and many of them picked up and loved the later Genesis/Mega Drive version that came as close to the arcades as we saw in the late 80s.  Even more odd are the random sequels that share the franchise such as the horrid US Gold/Tiertex sequel Strider II (known as Journey From Darkness: Strider Returns in the US) that probably isn’t worth emulating.  Capcom later fixed the issue by ignoring the licensed sequel and releasing Strider 2 to arcades and later in a near-perfect port to the original Playstation.  While I wouldn’t say it changed the world, it was a cool take on the mechanics of Strider and the odd 3D graphics of the time.  If you play any version, I highly recommend the Genesis port because it really comes with no caveat.  With Grin’s 2009 project being scrapped and Double Helix’s recent success with Killer Instinct 3, here’s hoping that the reboot doesn’t disappoint.  Look back near the end of the week for that review.  Either way, what other game can you say ends with you riding the back of a freaking whale for no reason?

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Written by spydersvenom

February 18, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Feature: Max Payne – A New Perspective

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Growing up, I played Max Payne for the excitement I got out of the gameplay, that slow motion diving and shooting mechanic. It felt perfect when I was in my teens playing these games for the first time. It was over-the-top action fun. I wasn’t looking for realism or a great story, I just wanted to shoot things. The Max Payne games were a perfect fit with their smooth and methodical gunplay.

I’ve played through Max Payne 1 and 2 about four times each, always playing the second title just after the first. It isn’t hard to do. Each game is only about 5 to 6 hours long. If I wasn’t completing one of the games in less than 6 hours it sure as hell felt like I was.

Other things that kept me coming back were the locales. They’re iconic and memorable – a frozen New York City, a grimy subway station, a sleazy hotel, an old church turned gothic nightclub, just to name a few.

“Life knows two miseries: getting what you don’t want and not getting what you want.”

Even though the locales were iconic, the gameplay superb, and the playtimes short, the story of Max Payne was something I had never paid attention to. I haven’t played the first two games in years, but I recently went back and finished them again before playing Max Payne 3.

I originally had no intention of playing the first game again. I own the PC version of the second, but the original Max Payne came with Max Payne 3 as a digital download. Even though I bought Max Payne 3 used, the code was still in the box, unused. I got lucky. I’m so glad I replayed it.

There are no choices. Nothing but a straight line. The illusion comes afterwards, when you ask “why me?” and “what if?”

Max Payne used to be an NYPD cop, but when his family was murdered and he was framed for it, everything went to hell. As he attempted to destroy the people responsible, Payne discovered it wasn’t just a random drug-induced psycho murderer responsible. Forces more sinister, and a story much darker, destroyed Max’s once beautiful suburban ideal.

“The trouble with wanting something is the fear of losing it, or never getting it. The thought makes you weak.”

You probably hear a lot of people say, “Just skip [insert game title] and play the new one because otherwise you’ll get burned out.” This says a lot about a franchise if people think it better to skip entire installments because you might otherwise become bored of the series as a whole. It signifies not a bad game, but one that doesn’t innovate enough, in one way or another, between installments. I hear this sentiment about the Assassin’s Creed franchise a lot. I am now more enthusiastic about the Max Payne series than ever before. I champion for it now, not only for the gameplay and locales, but more for the plot and method of storytelling.

The Max Payne titles follow and adhere to one another as if they were one complete story, with each game referring back to its predecessor, including Max Payne 3. Going back and playing through the first two titles first had a vast impact on my appreciation for the series as a whole – I would not feel the same way had I not gone back.

“Punchinello was burning to get me. The feeling was mutual. He was trying to put out my flames with gasoline.”

The man who created Max Payne is Sam Lake. He wrote the script, he created the story, and he was the literal face of Max Payne in the original game. Lake’s studio, Remedy Entertainment, is responsible for developing the game – of which he also assisted in level design – and also created Alan Wake. (Notice their names sound similar: Alan Wake and Sam Lake.)

I have a newfound respect for Remedy, and especially Lake, that I even want to go back and replay Alan Wake. I’ve realized now, how genius Lakes writing talent is. It’s because I’ve grown up (sort of) that I can appreciate a good story, no a great story, when I see it.

Dialogue in Max Payne 1 and 2 is witty, raw, and drenched in noir style. Coupled with the voice of James McCaffrey, Max Payne feels like a living, breathing, and ultimately heart-broken human being. He’s not a caricature, but a real, sad person. I wish I could meet Max Payne and buy him a drin- er, maybe that’s not such a good idea.

Max is a deep character. His interactions with others and the world have weight and consequence. His emotions and attitude have merit. You want him to overcome the death and sadness surrounding him. I felt like I was Max Payne, feeling the stab of every horrible moment he felt, and truly sympathized with him.

All of this is accomplished through Lake’s ability to write, with the necessary help of McCaffrey’s ability to voice act, and McCaffrey’s deep voice to inflect at every opportune moment.

Whoever at Remedy chose to use comic strips as cutscenes had a brilliant idea that lent heavily to the atmosphere. Many of the characters aside from Payne are caricatures by design. This causes a superb effect that brings the entire world of Payne into a surreal comic book existence.

After Y2K, the end of the world had become a cliché.”

But not all is depressing and dark. Lake also wrote some extremely funny stuff, especially in MP2, that will have you chuckling and shaking your head. This lightens up the mood at the most opportune, sometimes even juxtaposed moments. For instance, there’s Dick Justice. Just saying the title makes me laugh aloud: Dick, Justice. He is a rip-off character, his story is Max’s as a blaxploitation television show seen at certain moments throughout the games on TVs and posters. Another is in reference to video games. At certain points Max’s inner monologue will refer to the HUD interface and feeling like he’s being controlled, like in a video game. Don’t forget about the Captain Baseball Bat Boy TV show, which is continuously referenced throughout the series. At one point in MP2, you go to a someone’s home that is littered with fan items. This guy even has a huge full-body suit of the main character, which he is wearing when you find him. If he takes it off: Kaboom! A bomb is strapped to it, triggered to go off if he ever removes the suit. Lake writes in such a way that approaches the fourth wall but never quite breaks it. It’s hilarious and ultimately damn good writing.

Like Alan Wake’s name is a reference to Alan waking, so is Max Payne’s name a reference to maximum pain. Something I have yet to see anyone talk about, even after many Google searches, is Mona Sax’s name. The first letter of the first name and the last letters of the last name spell out “Max”. On top of this, Mona Sax’s hideout is located at a fun house entitled “Address Unknown”. Yet another almost fourth wall breaking item named after the television show with the same name that mirrors Max’s paranoia throughout the second game. This meta-level is when I officially jumped onboard the “champion Max Payne” train.

Valkyr was meant to be a white-winged maiden that would lift you up to a warrior’s heaven.”

Underlying almost every title and name in the game lies something deeper still: Norse mythology. A nightclub entitled Ragna Rock, a drug pivotal to the story is called Valkyr, and the company you storm is named Aesir Corporation. All of these reference mythological entities and locations in Norse Mythology. I had never recognized any of this until this latest playthrough of the games. The scope of the storytelling grew larger during every minute of playtime, as did my amazement of it.

Finally, the theme songs for the series are haunting and excellent to say the least. They raise the hair on my neck and bring me to a state akin to Max’s sad and angry isolation (in a good way).

The storm seemed to lose its frenzy. The ragged clouds gave way to the stars above. A bit closer to Heaven.”

Games rarely have me feel this way, let alone gush about them with love. I feel this way about the original Halo and Mass Effect 1 to some extent, but Max Payne is now my favorite video game character of all time.

They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had led to this point.”

If you have never played Max Payne 1 or 2, or thought about playing Max Payne 3 without playing the previous two installments, you should go back and give the original two installments a try. Even if you’ve played Max Payne 3 but didn’t understand the main characters motivations and liked the gameplay, or only played the original(s) years ago, like myself, you should definitely consider replaying them. The stories are mature (in the true sense, not in terms of content), and the gameplay is also damn fun. You can complete both games in around 12 hours and then hopefully jump enthusiastically into Max Payne 3 like I did. All of the same praise I have for these two titles continues in the third game along with an amazing finish.

I lied to myself that it was over. I was still alive; my loved ones were still dead. It wasn’t over.”

If interested, my review of Max Payne 3 will be posted in the blog at EZ Mode Unlocked within the next two weeks.

Written by spydersvenom

November 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Now & Then: American McGee’s Alice

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Now & Then is a series where we dissect the culture of a specific series or genre or compare an influential game from the past and how it holds up today.

Then

It’s a bit wierd that American McGee (yes, that’s his real name as far as I know) was given an opportunity to be a Creative Director on this ambitious project, even moreso as an early project with EA.  He began his career at idworking mostly in level design for many of the first person shooter series that I grew up playing: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.  He was fired from id for reasons not known and eventually ended up at Electronic Arts, where after a few sound design and writing projects he was given a large budget and the role of Creative Director for Alice.  Why EA back then agreed to put his name as part of the title or allowed him to create such a vivid project (in the Quake III engine, for irony’s sake) is beyond me, but it was a solid and pivotal decision.  American McGee’s Alice is one of the darkest, most twisted games I’ve ever played and takes the story begun by Lewis Carroll more than a century prior and turns it on its head.  To be fair, Wonderland has never been a “normal” place, begot mostly of fantasy concepts and mind-altered states, but I never felt that violence, murder, and insanity were heavy themes.  While the gameplay wasn’t spectacular even at the time, the imagery and graphics impressed gamers enough to sell more than 1.5 million copies.

As you play through the game, the previous history of a shooter level designer is more than clear: Alice is a clunky character and each level has tons of wasted real estate that I found in many shooters of the time.  Interestingly enough, you don’t seem to notice or care as the sinister tale of Alice’s dead family in the hands of a house fire unfold and you travel deeper and deeper into her insanity.  Along the way you will be greeted by evil versions of characters you probably grew up reading about or enjoying in Disney’s animated take.  I also need to amend my “wasted real estate” description by stating that although no enemies or interaction happens in large parts of the level, they are definitely brought to life with plenty of detail.  Couple that with a handful of so-so boss battles and you’ve got a game.  American McGee’s Alice was the game every PC player had in the year 2000, but rarely did anyone beat it.  I don’t recall cheat codes being in the game, and thanks to some wacky platforming it wouldn’t really matter anyway, not to mention the crazy mazes and extended final levels as you approach the queen.  In fact, the final two areas are easily just as long as the rest of the game, so just when you think you’re at the Queen of Heart’s front gate, you’re only really halfway there.  Alice’s mix of a strong story, gorgeous graphics, and violent world continue to make it a well-remembered game for the time, even if you have to adjust for the nostalgia factor.

Now

A lot has changed since American McGee’s Alice premiered, although it doesn’t seem McGee has learned his lesson with the sequel – I almost wonder if he designs a few levels first and then tries to build a game around them.  Putting aside his newest release, Alice does not hold up all that well.  Like it or not, today’s gamers (even the ones who grew up with these titles) do not easily tolerate a limiting camera and the platforming delays and small ledges are aggravating.  Fortunately the game allows you to save whenever you want at the touch of a button, which means you can literally save before each jump or turning the next corner, and in truth you may actually have to do at times.  The down side to this is you become more focused on saving than you do with the actual game and it soon feels like you’re playing Mega Man 2 or Castlevania on an emulator – sure, you may beat the game, but you feel like you cheated to get there. 

Not only that, the game is still freaking hard even if you do save with every move you make and cheat codes have definitely gone the way of the dodo, so regardless of whether you’re on PC or console, your online achievement provider will force you to beat it legit.  If somehow none of these things I’ve mentioned discouraged you, perhaps the various maze levels and the fact that you can wander around utterly lost for hours may do the trick.  There are plenty of walkthroughs for this game and although the 8 hour campaign may feel like a tiresome journey, realize that for $10 you’re getting a decent deal.  In addition, plenty of those gamers that never finished it as a child may want to go back and prove they can best the Queen once and for all, which was definitely my draw.  I also have to completement the music, which I never noticed before but I’m keenly aware of this time around.  Most of the music is made up of percussion-like sounds from children’s toys, which I recently found out was written and performed by Chris Vrenna, better known for being the former drummer of Trent Reznor’s band Nine Inc Nails.  It’s best to go into this game with an open mind and realize that by the time you want to quit, you’ll be just far enough along that you should proceed onward to the eventual end. 

There is a charm to Alice: Madness Returns and it does an excellent job of taking a dated concept into the contemporary gaming space, but you appreciate it even more when you play the original Alice and see where these concepts were born.  Sure, the big draws from more than 10 years ago have all gone from positive aspects to negative ones, but this title is far from unplayable.  It just stands to show that while you may remember American McGee’s Alice as this creative masterpiece from your teenage (or in my case college) years, perhaps you glossed over some of the finer points that deterred you before.  Keep in mind though, we rarely completed any of the games we played back then. 

Alice is available on Steam, XBLA, and PSN for $10 or free with new copies of Alice: Madness Returns. Please note that it requires you to own Alice: Madness Returns and is accessible through that game’s menu.

Written by spydersvenom

June 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Posted in Now & Then, PC/Mac, Reviews

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Now & Then: Mortal Kombat II (Midway)

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Midway must have known it had a hit on its hands with the original Mortal Kombat because no time was wasted creating the sequel.  While most of us anticipated the home release of the first title, Mortal Kombat II (MKII) snuck into arcades and blew our minds.  This game literally had it all – more characters, more fatalities/finishing moves, and more violence.  For most MK series fans, myself included, this is considered to be the best and it’s one of the highest grossing video games of all time. 

MK Meets its Match

The original Mortal Kombatwas an impressive fighter, especially for one that was developed with digitized actors in only 10 months, but creator Ed Boon wanted to do more.  “[MKII] had everything we wanted to put in the original MK but didn’t have time for,” he said in an interview with EGM2 (issue 5, Nov. 1994).  It does seem like there’s some truth to his claim, especially with the introduction of more stage fatalities, a second fatality for each character, and even joke finishers “friendships” and “babalities”.  I’m not so sure the roster was an initial idea, nor was the background concepts of Outworld, but I can definitely see the Midway team wanting to break away from the perceived reality of the original.  Not only was MKII the definitive version of the original concept, but it continues to be the template for which all other titles in the series are based on.  

In the second installment, Liu Kang has won the tournament and Shang Tsung returns to his home dimension of Outworld, defeated.  He begs his ruler, Shao Kahn, for another tournament, this time in Outworld.  Kahn agrees and gives Tsung back some of his youth while Raiden gathers a new batch of fighters.  As a result the cast of 12 characters is made up of half Earth realm fighters and half Outworld fighters.  In addition, all backgrounds take place in the demonic realm of Outworld, giving a slight cartoon feel to the previous game.  While the game was in development it was decided that the motion capture sprites would be replaced by chroma key implementation (an effect that allows multiple layers into a moving object).  This technique resulted in more muscular and shiny looking sprites, which helped to remove the reality feel of the first.  Finally with extremely violent fatalities and joke finishers the game gave a distinct “not too serious” impression on what originated as a very dark theme.

All of the original fighters were planned to be in the sequel, but memory limits claimed the deletion of Sonya and Kano and in their place Reptile and Mileena were added.  For those that wonder why the same number of characters can take up less memory, these are all palette swaps with already existing characters and thus require much less space to implement.  This also explains why secret characters Jade (a green palette swap with Kitana), Smoke (a gray palette swap of the various ninjas), and Noob Saibot (a shadowed black version of the ninja template) all originate with other characters.  Extreme attention to detail was taken and this is clear with the inclusion of Kano and Sonya in the background of the Kahn’s Arena stage as well as plenty of secrets held within the game.  We’ve already mentioned them, but each character this time around two fatalities, a stage fatality (used on the Tower for spikes above and the Pit II for cement below), a friendship that gifted the opponent in some way, and a babality that would turn the opponent into a crying baby.  The Acid Pool level also had a way to uppercut enemies into it, however this move was specific to that level as opposed to stage fatalities that were specific moves for each character.  Rumors of “animalities” sprang up with Liu Kang’s second fatality dawning a large dragon that bit the opponent in half, which may have later led to the inclusion of these finishers in Mortal Kombat 3.  Each secret fighter had a specific way to fight them and they all posed difficult threats just as Reptile was in the original – side note: Noob Saibot’s name derives from taking creators Boon and Tobias backwards.

I still remember the day this first came out and in an instant dethroned the original Mortal Kombat as an arcade gem.  No one touched the Mortal Kombat cabinet if MKII was there, even if it meant waiting in a long line.  This also started the collecting and passing around of moves and fatalities – with the Internet not mainstream we actually had pieces of paper that we would bring with us to collect everyone’s moves – and was a true testament to word of mouth.  While we all still picked up the original for playing at home, Midway had found a way to get us to the arcades just as often as before.  As expected, when the game came to home consoles a year later, there wasn’t a video game system owner that didn’t want it and this time around Nintendo wouldn’t make the same mistake.

Homekoming

As was the case with the previous game, Probe would be responsible for the Sega ports including Genesis, Game Gear, and now 32x.  Since the Genesis was expected to be the lead platform and the largest performer – remember that although the SNES version was technically a closer port, many gamers had opted to get a Genesis for the original and would then get the sequel on that console as well.  This time around there was no blood code to unlock and tons of secrets were included in the game with everything from one button fatalities to the infamous “Fergality” (you could enable the “Oooh Nasty!” cheat and play as Raiden on the Armory and make Probe CEO Fergus McGovern appear).  This version was faster performing than even the arcade version due to its strong processor and visual limitations, but the game did look rough around the edges.  In addition several things like backgrounds, winning animations, and sound effects were cut or changed from the arcade version.  For most gamers, though, this didn’t seem to matter as the game’s fighting mechanics were spot on and the six button controller closed the gap that some users of the first game complained about.
Probe’s 32x port was supposed to significantly improve the sound and visuals, creating a more complete version of the game, but after playing it I have to say it’s pretty much the Genesis version.  A few sound effects are included and all the winning stance animations are now intact, but hardly worth it for the advertised improvements.

The SNES version did look and sound extremely close to the arcade counterpart, especially given that all the blood had returned to the game after lackluster sales of the original (in Japan the blood was changed to green and fatalities were performed in black and white).  Not only that, but Nintendo was so scared of consumer backlash for the violence that the game had not only a large “M” rating in accordance to the ESRB, it also had a large warning label from Nintendo warning of the extreme violence.  Although there were some bugs in the original release (you couldn’t face Noob Saibot, for example), they were fixed and updated by the second release window and I never heard any of my SNES friends complaining.  For those of us in the Mortal Kombat gaming scene, this was the version to grab. Mortal Kombat IIon the SNES also broke the mold on how violent games on the console would be moving forward.

With Probe on board for both portable iterations and Nintendo laxing its rules on violence, there was a degree of brutality in each version.  The roster was stripped by four fighters, obviously the palette swapped characters all making it into the game, and each character had one fatality and oddly enough a babality.  Both the Gameboy and Game Gear versions were identical save for the addition of color, blood, and a few extras in the Game Gear version.  Some of the fatalities in both versions were altered slightly to re-use animiations for the sake of storage space.  For what they are, both games are an achievement on their respective consoles.

Interestingly enough, this game was also re-released on PC, Sega Playstation, and Sega Saturn a couple years later.  While we did not get the Playstation version, most of the disc-based versions of this game were plagued with sound issues because Probe didn’t make the tracks into redbook audio (or CD tracks) and instead included synthesized data on the disc.  Furthermore the game would completely freeze up with the MK dragon in the center as it loaded each character’s morph with Shang Tsung – the Sega Saturn version allowed you to pre-load a few characters before the match and it would also allow palette-swapped characters even if not selected, thus granting the player at least half the roster when selecting Shang Tsung.  Aside from those minor hiccups, these ports are extremely close to arcade faithful. 

You can also find this game on various other platforms like the Midway Treasures Collection Vol. 2 on Xbox, PS2, and PSP, as well as an unlockable for completing the PS2 title Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks.  For a brief period of time a completely arcade faitful port was released on the PS3 as a downloadable PSN title, complete with online play, but it was removed once licensing with Midway expired.  Now you can find the game in the download title Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection on XBLA and PSN, which includes the first three games all enhanced with online play.

Kontroversy

This game was one of the first to be banned in Germany (we covered many banned games around the globe here), and Jax’s arm rip became one of the official bloodiest moments in gaming history by IGN as well as one of the goriest games of all times in an issue of EGM (1995 buyer’s guide).  Another interesting controversy surrounded something that wasn’t even in the game: the rumored “nudality” or “sexality” that many spoke of as being an unlockable feature in the game.  Now I can scoff that off as proposterous, but back in the arcade days when we were discovering different secrets left and right, it sure seemed possible.

Written by spydersvenom

June 19, 2012 at 11:16 am

Now & Then: Mortal Kombat (Midway)

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Last week Mortal Kombat released for the Playstation Vita and while I was playing it for review I couldn’t help but notice that the series has not changed much since it first released.  Normally this is a bad thing, but in the case of this series its strength relies on its simplicity.  Mortal Kombat is a game all about beating the crap out of your opponent and then topping it all off with a finishing move that is extremely violent in nature. 

First Impressions

I still remember the day that I saw the first Mortal Kombat arcade out in the wild.  It was 1992, I was 10 and frequented the local roller rink where I could meet up with friends and play arcade games.  Yeah, even in 1992 the roller rink was still alive and well in Chicago’s northern suburbs.  At that time the arcade was dominated by Street Fighter II, a cartoon-like fighter from the geniuses at Capcom, but I wasn’t all that good at it and truthfully had little interest in fighters.  That is, until I walked in and saw a new game that prominantly displayed the title “Mortal Kombat” in bright yellow letters.  My first thought was how stupid it was that the word “combat” was misspelled, but then I noticed that the game used digitized realistic looking actors. Even more impressive was when the first uppercut made contact and a shower of blood erupted from the opponent’s face.  I was intrigued. 

The line was long to play the game and I would waste a good 30 minutes “quartering up” (a term that meant you would place your quarter on the glass bezel to signify your place in line).  The game consisted of seven characters – two ninjas that shared the same costume with different colors, a guy that looked like Jean Claude Van Damme, a guy with a half-Terminator face (T2 had just come out), Bruce Lee, some chick, and finally a lightening guy with a ridiculous hat – you probably know the cast better by their actual names which are (in order of my descriptions): Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Johnny Cage, Kano, Liu Kang, Sony, and Raiden (misspelled Rayden in certain ports).  I favored Kano and Raiden because back then I based it purely on what the character looked like, not how they played.  Those first inital weeks were spent getting to know the game, utilizing all the moves that emitted blood, and learning the special moves.  Then one day I saw a guy playing as Johnny Cage beat Sonya and when it said “Finish Her” (usually a cue to uppercut) and he put in some special move, the screen darkened, and he punched her head right off.  As the stump spewed blood like a volcano, we all stood in absolute amazement and for the moment that guy was the coolest gamer I’d ever met. 

Mortal Kombat has always held a special place in my heart because, lets face it, I was young and it was violent.  Some say it doesn’t have the game mechanics necessary to be a true “fighter”, whereas others feel the fact that any skill level can have a chance is intriguing.  Whatever the reason the game was responsible for taking at least half my weekly allowence.  Then the big news came: Mortal Kombat would be receiving home console ports to the Genesis, Super NES, Gameboy, and Game Gear.  Each game was to release holiday 1993 and it was unknown whether or not the blood and fatalities would remain.

History

Mortal Kombat was initially created by two men: programmer Ed Boon and graphic designer John Tobias.  The two men wanted to create an arcade game where Jean-Claude Van Damme would run around and beat up bad guys (Bad Dudes?) and even toyed with a fighting game based on Bloodsport (Pit Fighter?).  It turned out that Van Damme had been in talks with another developer, passed on the license, and that title never saw the light of day.  Midway then asked that the team develop a fighting game that was to compete with heavy hitter Street Fighter II and with a one year or less development cycle. Mortal Kombat would successfully be completed in 10 months. 

Starting out Boon and Tobias recruited John Vogel as another graphical artist and Dan Forden for sound design.  The team would extend beyond this, but these four crafted the original members of the Midway team and would go on to gain quite a bit of fame in the early-to-mid 90s for their work on the Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam series.  One of the first decisions made was to model Johnny Cage after Van Damme as an homage to the actor (complete with initials “J.C.”) and famously included a splits groin punch after the scene in Bloodsport.   Ho Sung Pak played the screaming Liu Kang and ironically the final boss Shang Tsung (ironic because the cannonized plot has Liu Kang winning the tournament).  Elizabeth Malecki played Sonya, Richard Divizio played Kano, Carlos Pesina played Raiden, and brother Daniel Pesina would round out the cast playing Johnny Cage, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile.  Goro, the sub-boss for the game, was a stop motion miniature because of his mutated look and four arms.  While not many members of the development team made appearences in the first game, they would make subsequent appearences in sequels and a couple were even secret characters in the NBA Jam series. 

Of all the things the development team struggled with, the name was one of the biggest.  Discarded names included Kumite(sparring), Dragon Attack, Death Blow, and even Fatality.  Eventually someone wrote over the word “combat” on Boon’s white board, giving the word a “K” in the title instead of a “C” and pinball designer Steve Ritchie, during a visit to Boon’s office, suggested the name “Mortal Kombat“.  According to Boon, after that the name, “just stuck.”  From that point on, the developers would tend to integrate “K” in for “C” for various words.

Mortal Kombat Komes Home

Mortal Monday, which was some Monday in the summer 1993, was the official launch day of Mortal Kombat on home consoles.  There would be four versions, one for each home and portable console for Nintendo and Sega and none of them would have blood or fatalities.  Well, that’s not exactly true, Sega wisely decided to include the one aspect of the game that people wanted but shipped with the blood locked away behind a code.  At that time Sega was self-rating its games and gave Mortal Kombat an MA-13 (the game equivalent to PG-13) with the ruse that the rating was based on the “locked” version.  There is not a gaming child of the 90s out there that can’t tell you about ABACAB (these are the button presses to unlock blood on the “code” screen) and DULLARD (button presses to unlock the cheat menu).  Lesser known but still valuable was 212DU, the button presses for blood that was on the 3rd “code” screen in the Game Gear version.  As a result, while I was enjoying ripping off heads and dangling spinal columns my SNES friends were looking at gray “sweat” blood and “finishing moves” that were pathetic. 

MK on SNES (gray blood)

While it was nowhere near as pretty as the SNES version, the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat clearly took home the prize for best port.  It’s rarely discussed, but the speed for which the game moved also provided a benefit for Genesis owners, whereas the SNES version was sluggish and felt slightly delayed.  Later on a port for the Sega CD was released, which took advantage of the extra colors and memory to create a version that looked much closer to the arcade.  This version also had red book audio, which made for the wonderful soundtracks that CD-based games of this time often had, and Mortal Kombat was no exception.  Unlike all other versions the blood was unlocked from the start and thus the game was internally rated MA-17 by Sega’s board, but also unlike all other versions the CD format brought with it load times each time Shang Tsung would morph into a new character.

Video Game Violence Heats Up

With the home version finally in place and most gamers in the country eagerly playing, it was only a matter of time before parents and governmental officials took notice.  All of the graphic violence and digitized realistic characters would have been ignored had it not been for the game invading homes and kids were playing for endless hours.  It was impossible to avoid – screams, blood, and decapitation was in front of every parent’s eyes.  It was at that time that violence in video games not only came under scrutiny, but Mortal Kombat was instantly connected with every case the senators brought up.  While historically the focus over video game inappropriation and violence likes to put Grand Theft Auto on the forefront, it was begun by Mortal Kombat and Night Trap way before that.

Toasty Eggs

Another great aspect of Mortal Kombat was the various secrets hidden in the series.  Back in those days it was difficult to confirm or deny any rumors you had heard and those that weren’t in magazines or early web sites could also be dominated by simple playground talk.  I had friends who unlocked the power to play Goro in the Genesis version, performed a “nudality” and saw a naked Sonya in the SNES version, and even unlocked Ermac in the arcade version.  None of these were true of course, but that didn’t stop people from making up whatever rumors they wanted to.  It didn’t help that a lot of the true secrets and easter eggs were so off the wall that anything was possible. 

You could fight against Reptile, a hybrid of Scorpion and Sub-Zero with a green costume, in the first game.  It was no easy task: you had to be on the pit, shadows had to cross the moon (only one in six fights on the arcade version), you had to get a double flawless victory without using block and perform a fatality.  If all of these things happened at once, you would get to fight Reptile at the bottom of the pit with a 10,000,000 point bounty on his head.  He was brutally difficult and although the points didn’t really matter, it was a surefire way to get your initials permanently placed at the top of the machine’s leaderboard.  In the console versions there were ways to glitch the game and create a green-coated fighter for the second player if they joined while you fought Reptile. 

Some of the rumors were based on possiblities, like the Ermac being the rumored name of Reptile if the machine accidentally glitched from time to time on the arcade.  The glitch would display Reptile as red instead of green and an internal counter would trigger and “ERror MACro” would be displayed.  This lead to the idea that a fighter named Ermac could be unlocked and fought, but he never made an appearence until Midway created him as an unlock in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3.  There were obvious blood code rumors for the SNES version, but the only truth to that was a simple Game Genie code that would change the grey sweat to red, thus emulating blood, but nothing else changed.  Electronic Gaming Monthly also put an April Fools prank out suggesting the unlockable fighter Nimbus Terrafaux in the Genesis version, complete with an altered image that fooled me for a few weeks.

As for all the other rumors, they rely solely in gaming urban legends.  Several Mortal Kombat clones were released, all of which were terrible, that attempted to bring some of these rumors to light.  Primal Rage was also developed by Midway and had similarities to Mortal Kombat, but only had controversy thanks to a large ape named Chaos that could throw up and urinate on his opponents.  Time Killers removed most of the hassle of remembering fatalities and waiting for a win, instead allowing the removal of limbs through regular gameplay and generic finishers that dismembered the other player.  Data East also created an unreleased arcade game called Tattoo Assassins that was nearly finished and exists in a fully playable version on MAME, that had multiple fatalities for each character and even the rumored “nudalities” that would stip the player down to nothing (no actual nudity was displayed).  Even Naughty Dog’s first game was a horrid recreation of MK called Way of the Warrior, which existed only on the ultra expensive 3DO, but don’t worry you aren’t missing much.

Mortal Kombat!

There’s no doubt that this fighter was one of the definitive games of the early 90s, during a time where the genre was beginning to rule supreme.  It’s not a particularly good fighter and its focus is more on button mashing than anything else, but it was that simplicity that made the game fun.  Oh yeah, and a ton of blood.

Written by spydersvenom

May 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Now & Then: The Simpsons Arcade Game

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Now & Then is different from both a retrospective and a review.  It tackles games you probably already know and is a place for gamers to discuss these games.  Below is an overview of a game’s presence in the market then and now.  Authors of these articles share their personal experience, so we encourage all of you to do the same in the comments.

Last week The Simpsons Arcade Gamereleased on the PSN, the XBLA version coming out a few days earlier, and completed Konami’s classic beat-em-up licensed arcade series.  For some reason media outlets decided to review this game – this makes little sense to me given that by definition the game will be outdated and any potential customer has already played it – but I know plenty of freelance reviewers that have amassed a decent collection of free retro games by trading a review for a download code.  Although this is not the best arcade brawler on the market, even among licensed peers X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it’s probably the most popular.  There’s a good reason for this, as Simpsons mania took America by storm at the beginning of the 90s, it was impossible to avoid the disfunctional family from Springfield, USA.

Then

It was a completely different world in 1991 when this arcade game made its first appearence.  Arcades still existed in abundance, the fighting genre had yet to gain momentum from Street Fighter II, which would release that summer, and you couldn’t enter a pizza joint, bowling alley, amusement park or theater without one.  Previously two arcades had been staples to most of Chicagoland: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Capcom’s Final Fight.  That was before some genius at Konami looked over potential arcade licenses and realized that of the most popular television shows out there, the animated format and family setup of the Simpsons would be perfect.  Since the family contained five members, Maggie always being a side note in most episodes, that a four-player brawler could easily be crafted on the series.  By this point the Simpsons was nearing the end of its second season and Thursday nights belonged to Fox.  Bart, the foul-mouthed troublemaking son, was a favorite among pre-teens and equally hated with parent groups.  Couple him with the other quirky members of the family – brainchild sister Lisa, moronic manchild father Homer and scratchy-voiced homemaker mother Marge – and you had a game on your hands.

This wasn’t the first time a Simpsons game had come out, but attempts at pathetic Bart-centric platformers (ie: Bart vs. the Space Mutants) failed in every way on home consoles.  Little did Konami know that its decision to include the whole family as a single unit would allow for better marketing as the show aged into varying degrees of character focus.  Series staples Mongomery Burns, Homer’s aged greedy boss, and his assistant Smithers would play the antagonists, as they did so frequently on the show.  It came packaged in a bright blue four-player cabinet with a large 25″ monitor and different colors that corresponded to each player.  No matter what arcade you entered, there would always be a crowd of players and bystanders attempting to save Maggie, Bart’s blue controls would always be taken and Marge would be ignored. 

Given the circumstances of gaming and arcades at the time the phenominally short campaign – I usually clock in at about 30 minutes completion time – was never realized by most gamers.  Back then arcades were slogs of bad guys intent on taking your quarters and it was nearly impossible to complete the Simpsons on even a few quarters, let alone one.  Furthermore we arcade gamers usually refused to continue on someone else’s game, their progress was not ours, so we’d always start over from the beginning.  As a result, no one ever saw the end and late levels like the Channel 6 news station were such new environments whenever my sister and I would reach it that we would die before reaching the samurai boss.  Back then it was also customery for parents to come yank you away from the game when your pizza was ready, the game of bowling started or the movie was starting, so we couldn’t beat it even if we played a “perfect” game.  In addition, the popular characters – in my neck of the woods it was Homer and Bart – would usually have broken joysticks or buttons, so you’d start a game only to find out you couldn’t jump.  It was all part of the experience of the arcade and the Simpsons.  It was a different time and I loved every second of it.

Now

The Simpsons Arcade Game suffers a major flaw that all modern arcade ports have: it tries to make a retro-style title out of a quarter-chugging arcade.  These games were never intended to be very skill-based and your urge to continue was supposed to drive you to cough up more money.  Once you limit continues, increase difficulty or attempt to beat the game in one life you are trying to do something the game didn’t intend you to actually do.  When this happens, especially in the interest of making a lengthy game out of something that isn’t, frustration or boredom result.  Attempting to beat this game on one life (or 10 total on Expert) is a crash course in masochism and with endless continues you’ll rarely feel like beating it more than a few times.

Not only that, this port is an afterthought at best.  Backbone has ported the game over, sans many of the functions and features they have included in other arcade ports, in a quick bare-bones version of the arcade.  Even the screen side art, which is necessary for widescreen TVs that want to avoid horizontal black bars, is nothing more than a black outline of an arcade cabinet.  Really?  It’s nearly indistiguishable from no art at all.  There are two options for graphics: sharp and smooth.  Sharp takes the pixels from the original 288×224 presentation and giant-sizes them for 1080p (1920×1080) resulting in a bad version of blown up sprites from the mode 7 days.  Smooth does what you’d expect, blends out pixels so it looks like the poor resolution blurry mess we all remember from the arcades, so be sure to keep that as your visual option.  Even the inclusion of the Japanese rom does nothing more than change the scoring system and refill your life at the end of a level, nothing I feel lucky to recieve. 

What I used to love best about The Simpsons Arcade Game was playing it with other people, which ended up being my sister most times.  Now that I have the option to play with online strangers I figured it would be more fun but the interactions I’ve had are limited to silent people avoiding enemies to unlock an achievement or people who join and drop games like it’s a professional sport.  Trying to get four people on the couch is not only difficult, but expensive these days as I don’t have four $60 controllers to spare.  At a price point of 800 MS points/$9.99 it’s just expensive enough to be a tough sell for most of my friends.  Thankfully this game was a free title on PSN+ and just like many of the retro titles before it (mostly Sega games), this is the type of free content I appreciate.  It was a great nostalgic romp from days I have forgotten, but sadly even on my own MAME cabinet that provides an actual arcade as opposed to a virtual one, The Simpsons Arcade Game is best in short, infrequent doses.

Written by spydersvenom

February 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Posted in Now & Then

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Now & Then: Resident Evil Code: Veronica

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Now & Then is different from both a retrospective and a review.  It tackles games you probably already know and is a place for gamers to discuss these games.  Below is an overview of a game’s presence in the market then and now.  Authors of these articles share their personal experience, so we encourage all of you to do the same in the comments.

Technically the Resident Evil series has more Sega console lineage than what I and many other gamers regard as a Sony franchise.  The original launched on the Saturn alongside the Playstation and although it took some time, enhanced versions of the second and third title appeared on the Dreamcast.  Mind you, all three of the first titles still premiered on Playstation and were ported to Sega’s platforms.  Code: Veronica was first announced and released on Sega’s Dreamcast and marked a significant change for the series.  A mere one month after its February 2000 release date, the Playstation 2 had one of the worst launches in history with a vast library of titles no one wanted to play.  To have Veronica on the launch list to usher in Sony’s new console would have been amazing.  This wasn’t a case of Capcom turning its back on Sony, though, they had always planned on having named titles on non-Sony consoles, reserving numbered titles for Sony.  Given that Sega co-produced the game, it was clearly a paycheck game to give the Dreamcast a strong exclusive library, but it also ended up being a great addition to the series.

Despite his incessant begging, Claire decides it's best not to come out of hiding

Then:  When the Dreamcast launched, the timing in my world was really lousy.  Coming out at the beginning of my senior year in high school, I was swimming in a sea of amazing Playstation titles at bargain used prices.  By then the Internet was more prominent and I had a subscription to Electronics Gaming Monthly (EGM) so I knew that the PS2 was around the corner with a DVD player and backwards compatibility with all my Playstation games.  Even though the small $200 price tag of the Dreamcast was tempting, my college dorm would be screaming for a PS2.  Furthermore, the controller was awkward and the library of games looked like a lot of arcade title ports, which had begun to dwindle and held little interest to me.  I wanted longer, deeper experiences like I was enjoying with Parasite Eve and Resident Evil.  Needless to say it was like a kick to the chest when Code: Veronica released as an exclusive title for the Dreamcast just before the PS2 launch.

To make things worse, the game was given high marks by all the major gaming publications and many were saying it was a return to form for the series.  Technically it was a sequel to the second game and expanded on the Chris and Claire Redfield storyline.  Even more tempting the game was huge, taking up 2 discs on the Dreamcast, which already had higher capacity than CDs.  I loved RE3 and critics felt it was only okay, so needless to say I needed this game.  Luckily for me (but not for Sega), the Dreamcast discontinued quickly and I was able to pick up the console plus Code: Veronica during holiday 2002 for around $100.

Early enemy once you take control of Chris...seriously...

It was great, the pinnacle of the concepts that had been established before.  You really felt isolated as you trudged an abandoned island where you found almost no survivors, zombies randomly respawned and you were trapped with huge monsters with no way to escape.  This game was hard, much more than any of the previous games, which really only employed an occasional difficult hook.  In Code: Veronica you were always on the verge of death with no ammo in tow; it was the only time in the series that I actually used the combat knife.  After a brutal eight hours of play I finally overcame the impossible odds only to fall at the hands of Umbrella as Claire.  I stared at the screen in disbelief, what the hell else could they cram on that disc?  Then I was prompted for disc 2, which at that point had been completely forgotten, and began the second half of the campaign as Chris Redfield climbing rocks to aid his sister.  A brief plot point from the beginning came rushing back as I began the even more difficult half of the game.

In the end it was just too much for me, having no easy access to a walkthrough, and I gave up on defeating the Ashford twins on that remote island.  I wanted to cry when I walked into a GameStop not a month later and got propositioned to pre-order Code: Veronica X, a higher quality PS2 port.  Not only that, there was a special bonus disc, Wesker’s Report, that came free with pre-ordered copies.  This was my first, and definitely not last, experience with companies tempting me to re-purchase games I already owned for a meager upgrade in content.  Never did beat Code: Veronica X either, this time quitting almost immediately following the Chris portion of the adventure.

Now:  With the re-release in HD on modern consoles, I’m still reminded how much this title is the apex of a concept thought up in the second game.  A fully functioning island with everything going awry and every nook, cranny and building could be explored.  Sure, it was properly planned and the fixed camera angles remained, but credit should be given to creating a fully interactive island.  Furthermore, this title is sparse in items and insane in difficulty – easily the hardest in the series – which makes your heart pound when you’re low on health, haven’t saved for 25 minutes, and getting chased by three dogs.

Fight a tyrant in the cargo area of an airplane? Code Veronica makes you do just that.

In hindsight, I can’t see modern gamers wanting to play this title in the least – hell, even my coveted Wesker’s Report DVD is rampant on YouTube.  It harkens back to a time long forgotten and only if you had tracked the progress through each game would you appreciate Code: Veronica for what it accomplishes.  Tank controls, fixed camera angles, large difficulty and sometimes unfair scenarios are just a bit too much when compared to all the the better options in contemporary survival horror.  Still, if you can appreciate the series for what it does best or go into it knowing that the experience will feel dated, you can find a gem with this title.  The story goes deep and helps expand on a plotline that I hope will be picked up at some point in the franchise.  I now have a full walkthrough and I’m trudging slowly through the game trying to my best to not constantly consult the guide.  I’ve died a half dozen times, gotten stuck once, and fully started over so far.  How am I ever going to do this if I’m not even as good as I used to be?

Fact Sheet

  • Release Date: February 3, 2000
  • Consoles Released For: Dreamcast – all other versions are the enhanced Veronica X: PS2, Gamecube, PS3, Xbox 360

Fun Facts

  • While it was supposed to be the beginning of the spin-offs on non-Sony consoles, Code: Veronica is the only game in the series that builds heavily on the cannon without a true number in the title.  Even more baffling is that most other spin-offs like Survivor, Dead Aim, and Outbreak all appeared on Sony consoles.  Despite not being a numbered addition, most fans consider it the fourth installment to the series.
  • Despite being named in the title, Veronica Ashford is actually a dead relative that doesn’t appear in the game.  In addition it is revealed that the Ashford twins aren’t quite what they seem (but I don’t wanna give spoilers).
  • The 50+ programming team of the first three Resident Evil games would eventually form Capcom Production Studio 4, which would be solely responsible for Resident Evil titles moving forward.  Since then things have changed, but they were responsible for Resident Evil 4.  Capcom Production Studio 4 was not responsible for the GameCube remake or Resident Evil Zero, that was actually Production Studio 3.

Written by spydersvenom

October 27, 2011 at 12:58 pm

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