Return of the Kings

bk2Banjo-Kazooie is one of gaming’s most revered and remarkable series. It is also, unfortunately, one of the saddest examples of how a franchise of seemingly fail-proof qualities can fall victim to the context within which it exists. The story, to those who are out of the loop, is marvelous and tragic.

When 3-D gaming was somewhere between crawling and trying to stand on its feet for ten seconds without clumsily falling to the ground, Super Mario 64 reigned supreme. It stood tall as one of the finest titles of the era and a masterful example of how what was once a sidescrolling platformer, and an untouchable classic, could be smoothly translated to the new realm of depth while simultaneously reaping glorious benefits and retaining its unique personality.

Tridimensional visuals have been around for so long it is natural to, nowadays, take that transition for granted. But it was no small feat. Thousands of other series would soon make that same leap, and many of the ones that succeeded hiked through the path Super Mario 64 had charted.

A few months before Ocarina of Time would take 3-D gaming up yet another notch, albeit in a very different genre, Banjo-Kazooie came in and topped Mario with style. A product of the house that had, on the previous generation, challenged the plumber with the Donkey Kong Country franchise, this time around that company was not simply aiming to undertake a fistfight for the platforming throne, but rather rip the crown straight out of the mustachioed dude’s head. And they did it.

bkWith Banjo-Kazooie, Rare topped Nintendo on the field of platformers. The colors were more vivid, the gameplay far more varied, the controls tighter, the songs were masterpieces, and the worlds stood as sights to behold and exercises in great game design. And, as if that was not enough already, two years later, Banjo-Tooie would take things to another level and improve on every single area; sometimes via technical prowesses and on other occasions through sheer megalomania.

But it seems truly great runs are never meant to last very long, so – as Rare was going through the tail-end of one of the most unbelievable creative stretches a company has ever gone through, dishing out undeniable classics like the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Killer Instinct, GoldenEye 007, Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Tooie, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day on a six-year span – it was sold, transforming from Nintendo’s most valuable second-party to a Microsoft subsidiary.

Much of the brilliant staff that was responsible for that golden era abandoned the company on the years preceding and following the transaction; therefore, the magic was gone. What was an IP-creating machine was slowly relegated to rehashing its existing franchises, a process whose results were subpar efforts such as Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts: a game that, despite continuing the legendary franchise, stripped it away from all of its major twists by purposely making the titular bear too fat to perform any significant platforming moves.

To many fans, given its transfiguration of the series, the wait for Banjo-Tooie’s successor did not end with Nuts and Bolts’ release, it is still going on. Moreover, since through the last five years three of the four games produced by Rare have been a part of the Kinect Sports line, meaning that the company has gone from a factory of gaming magnificence to a studio focused on motion-based mini-game collections, the hopes for a sequel that would match the originals border on null; Banjo and Kazooie are likely not walking through that door in good shape.

ylThe next best thing, then, and currently the only source of hope to end that dreadful lull falls on the shoulders of a spiritual successor. Consequently, it comes off as a great change of outlook that Yooka-Laylee is precisely that, and as the beautiful cherry on top of the alluring cake is the little fact many of those involved in its production are former Rare employees that tackled numerous projects during the Nintendo 64 era, including Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie themselves.

The list of talents is astounding: Steve Mayles, the creator of the bear and bird; Chris Sutherland, the lead engineer for the two classic titles; Steven Hurst, the man responsible for the groundbreaking environments of the Donkey Kong Country series, and those of the Banjo-Kazooie games; Grant Kirkhope, the series’ original composer; and David Wise, the genius responsible for the masterpieces that were the soundtracks for Donkey Kong Country 2 and Tropical Freeze.

Given the team at Playtonic games could not, for obvious reasons, work with Banjo and Kazooie themselves, the solution was the creation of a new unlikely pair of goofy looking characters. Yooka is a male chameleon of good-willed nature, and Laylee is a female bat who might land somewhere between crazy and hilariously derisive (any coincidences are, clearly, intentional). Much like the classic duo, it is highly likely their distinct nature will open up the way for both team and solo moves that kick open the gates towards platforming level design heaven.

Yooka, a character whose flexibility – in theory – far excels that of Banjo, will likely have skills centered around his tongue, his coiled up tail, and his ability to camouflage. Meanwhile, Laylee’s wings will allow her to lift up her teammate and take on higher flights through worlds whose colors and art suggest a top-notch design, and her sonar will probably be a key tool to navigate dark locations.

yl2The game, which has an open Kickstarter campaign that reached the one million threshold faster than any other previously funded title, is far more important than a Banjo-Kazooie revival, though. The bear and bird are part of a long-lost platforming breed, one that focused on collection and exploration rather than clearing obstacles and getting to the end of a level.

Rare and Nintendo were masters of that realm, but while the former sadly walked towards irrelevance, the latter abandoned that style altogether. Its representatives that have touched on that kind of platforming have either moved on to more linear grounds, like Mario; or embraced sidescrolling as its home, like Donkey Kong. Although those choices have gifted the world with utterly spectacular titles such as Super Mario Galaxy and Donkey Kong Country Returns, they have left an entire subgenre devoid of representatives.

Yooka-Laylee’s ever growing budget, which now guarantees the game will have a fully orchestrated soundtrack, and people’s willingness to cooperate go to show how much the gaming community still trusts anyone with the Rare logo stamped on their résumés. More than that, however, it proves that – on the shoulders of the project – lies the hope to not only finally get to play the long-awaited true successor to Banjo-Tooie, but to also revive a gaming era that is still greatly admired and a gaming genre that has been sadly left behind.

yl3Yooka-Laylee has a long road to go in order to live up to those hopes, but the ones behind it are not the kind to shy away when faced with a challenge; they will tackle it head-on, and sooner or later we will get to see the results. Hopefully, it will be good enough to usher in a new era of explorative platformers.

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Back to Monstrous Basics

mu1At the time of its release, Monsters University was probably not the movie fans wanted to see from Pixar. After all, it could have been correctly argued that a company that had once been known for completely original concepts had been little bit too focused on sequels, with three of its last four movies falling on that category and with the future holding even more of those, including the seemingly unnecessary Toy Story 4.

However, it cannot be denied that Monsters University was a movie Pixar needed to do. Not because 2001’s Monsters Inc. desperately claimed for an opening chapter, but because following the predictable disaster of Cars 2 and the missed opportunity that was Brave – a movie that perfectly translated to the screen the awful turmoils of its production – Pixar had to find a relatively safe place to land on after their fall from grace.

As it turns out, with Monsters University the studio was successfully able to avert any major damages that could have been caused by the drop, delivering a solid flick after a terrible effort and a subpar one. The movie shows the company was apparently ready to take the necessary steps to climb back to the leading position within the animation industry; a throne that now safely sits within the possession of the Walt Disney Animation Studios following a mesmerizing string of releases that started back in 2008 with Bolt.

Monsters University is a movie with very punctual dashes of the unexpected, something that Pixar has always thrived on. Although, in a sense, the movie follows a progression that is a tradition for blockbuster movies, it offers a few twists and turns along the way to keep viewers on their toes.

Contrary to what their very strong relationship on Monsters Inc. seemed to indicate, Mike and Sully did not get along as soon as they stepped onto the titular university’s campus. In fact, during the movie’s first part there is a considerable amount of time spent portraying their conflicting personalities and painting them both as antagonists to one another. Mike is a hard-working student who finds ways to excel even without a lot of natural talent, while Sully is portrayed as being comfortable with coasting on his family name and clear, but unexplored, potential, employing all his energy on achieving popularity and partying.

Prequels are destined to be inferior to the original material. After all, they are built as introductions to a much bigger and important event; in addition, a big part of the effort is consumed in the attempt to tie all the storyline knots in order to solidify the connection between both pieces. As a consequence, Monsters University is definitely not as good as its source, but it humbly and smartly accepts its role as a supporting movie by making its sequel a better and even more believable movie, and adding even more colors to the impressive monster universe.

The biggest benefit Monsters University extracts from its position as an introductory piece is that it understands it holds no major responsibilities. Nobody expects it to be one of the finest works of the Pixar canon, and therefore it makes no effort to create a massive overarching epic. Whatever struggles and dangers the writers could have created would have their effect vastly diminished, because – in a way – the audience knows the whole ordeal has a nice ending; what truly matters here – as it is the case with any other movie – is the journey, not the destination, and Monsters University makes the best of it.

mu2The college campus is a very light-hearted environment, and the Pixar crew takes advantage of it to make fun or create monstrous satires of staples of the life in a university: the fraternities, the parties, the segregation of students into groups of similar interest and behavior, the threatening teacher, the boring tutors, the adventures that border on outlaw, the expectations, the disappointments and the competition. It is a lighthearted package of satire covered with the charm of the monsters and backed up by the embryonic phase of the relationship between Mike, Sully, and Randall.

For kids, the hilarity of it all comes from seeing Mike and Sully on their younger days; for adults, there is the added delight of recognizing a lot of what they went through on a nicely written animated feature. In the end of it all, the loose and careless environment of a university ends up being the perfect setting for a movie that, while being very important to the company’s rehabilitation, does not have much weight on its back given its prequel status.

In spite of a few slip-ups here and there, such as the ridiculously abrupt way through which Randall goes from being a huge geek and – as a consequence – a natural partner to Mike, to being warmly accepted by the school’s most arrogant and popular fraternity, Monsters University glues together and gives further explanation to all major points of Monsters Inc. To top it all off, it delivers what Pixar has been owing its fans for far too long: a great movie that is solid all the way through.

Posted in Animation | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Jet Force Gemini Review

A charming space-opera whose potential is unfulfilled

jfg6From time to time, ambition may be taken for granted or even confused with lunacy, but it is one of the main qualities that made Rare such a big company during the nineties. Instead of restricting the scope of their projects to a smaller size than that of the other powerful Japanese giants which dominated the industry, the British studio had the courage to compete head-to-head with them, and it did so well enough to earn respect inside the market and be looked at by fans and media alike as one of the best in business.

In fact, ambition took them so far that, at one point, their products were able to compete, and even surpass, those of Nintendo in their own platforms, a feat that hasn’t been achieved by any other company before or since then. Jet Force Gemini was born during a period when Rare was rolling out great games on an yearly basis; however, differently from its majestic peers like Banjo-Tooie and Perfect Dark, its push towards the stars had both good and bad consequences, creating a uniquely irregular adventure when compared to the rest of Rare’s output.

The epic space quest begins as a group of drones led by the evil Mizar take over the planet of Goldwood and a handful of other worlds in its system, enslaving tribals and killing a big part of the population. Locked inside this chaotic scenario, the universe’s only hope lies in the hand of the Jet Force. Unfortunately, their entire fleet is destroyed by Mizar’s forces. Juno, a quiet orphan whose parents were killed during a space pirate invasion on his home planet; Vela, his spirited sister; and Lupus, their smart dog, are the sole survivors of the attack and must, therefore, face the universe’s greatest threat by themselves.

jfg1The straightforward storyline is presented through an effective Metroid-like minimalistic approach. All players get to see is the trio’s ship being attacked by the drone army; the rest of the plot needs to be pieced together via exploration and interactions with other characters, leaving it up to gamers to decide whether they want to know more about what is going on or if they want to focus on plowing through the adventure.

From the get go, Jet Force Gemini shows what it is all about: frantic action filled with explosions of cartoonish gore and plenty of shooting. Due to the sudden attack on their ship, the three main characters get separated and end up following their own path, and exploring different territories up to their meeting place: Mizar’s Palace.

Gameplay-wise, Juno, Vela and Lupus mostly have the same characteristics, and they also carry around the same impressive arsenal of guns that includes grenades, blasters, shotguns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, mines and other special weapons. However, each of the characters has one unique ability: Juno walks on lava, Vela can swim underwater for as long as she want, and Lupus can hover in the air for a while. During game’s first half – while the trio heads towards Mizar’s Palace – players will come across a bunch of inaccessible places when exploring the worlds, an indication that, later, the game can only be complete by performing some serious backtracking.

Even though the settings are plesantly different, most worlds play out similarly. They are brimming with a nice variety of evil drones, doors that can only be opened after a certain number of enemies within an area has been defeated, and lots of locked gates. Therefore, the game’s level design embraces puzzle solving, exploration, and – of course – killing.

jfg2True to Rare’s traditions, everything is done remarkably well: the 15 worlds are gigantic, present different environments, and are given life by a wonderful fauna, a rich flora, and alluring bluidings; all clear displays of the brillancy of the game’s artistic team. Playing through Jet Force Gemini is, consequently, experiencing a welcoming mix of atmospheric delights and thrilling action.

Yet, especially during the first few levels, the fact the controls are far from intuitive can be a bit bothersome, as getting a total grip on them is a process that goes through a long learning curve.

The A-button is used to shoot, the B-button is used to change weapons, characters are controlled via the control stick, the left and right C-buttons allow the heroes to sidestep while blasting enemies, and the up C is used to jump.

The main problem comes in when the R-button is pressed. Given it is used for aiming, its activation slightly changes the camera’s perspective from a third-person view to a boderline first-person scheme where the character is translucent. Doing so makes the control scheme change considerably: the C-buttons will now be used to move around and the analog stick will aim. Mastering that transition can be tough to some.

jfg3The drones players will face have impressive AI. Instead of shooting desperately, they will seek cover on carefully placed objects and only pull the trigger when the time is right, adding a lot to the already fun experience of blasting their heads off. However, such a brilliant AI – combined with huge environments – takes its toll on the Nintendo 64 hardware; when there are a lot of enemies on the screen, the game will suffer annoying frame rate drops, and since having armies of enemies on screen is a common occurrence, such issue becomes frequent.

Still, despite those problems, Jet Force Gemini remains, throughout its entire first half, one of the best games on the system. Sadly, as soon as the second half unveils itself, a world of frustration and anger is added to the package: a poorly designed backtracking kicks in. While traveling to previously visited locations can be a lot of fun when done right, the developers at Rare – in a clear attempt to make the large-scope adventure longer – stumble.

Each of the fifteen worlds that are visited during the game’s first half has a certain amount of tribals that need to be rescued. Instead of making the saving of those poor souls an optional quest to those looking for full completion, Jet Force Gemini opts to force players to find them all in order to finish the game.

As soon the first half is done Juno, Vela, and Lupus are informed that they need to go back to all the 15 worlds they have just explored and use their combined skills – now that the gang is reunited – to rescue every single one of those cuddly bears. Both accessing new areas due to the fact it is possible to use all heroes on all planets and saving all tribals are potantialy interesting concepts destroyed by poor execution.

jfg5The core issue with the latter is that some of the tribals are located right in the middle of the battlefields so, as players try to shoot one of the enemies, there is always a chance they will end up killing an unfortunate bear and being forced to to restart the whole level again just because of a silly mistake. As if that wasn’t enough, some of the drones will actually target and kill the tribals if the trio does not reach the victims quickly enough.

Meanwhile, getting to previously unreachable areas is turned into torture because players are not allowed to freely switch characters right in the middle of the level. For example, if – after fifteen minutes of exploration as Juno – players come across a ledge that can only be reached by Lupus and his hovering techinique, the level must be restarted with the other character. To make matters worse, if Lupus is not on that planet, it will also be necessary to warp to that location first in order to undertake the same fifteen minutes of exploration all over again just to reach that ledge.

Technically Jet Force Gemini is as impressive as it could possibly be on a console back in 1999. It has very impressive graphics, huge worlds, a large amount of breathtaking cutscenes, and a soundtrack that would only be surpassed a few years later by other Rare masterpieces. It exhales an impressive air that only exists in the biggest and most movie outer space epics.

jfg4However, the game is a very mixed bag. While its first half is the very definition of a Nintendo 64 masterpiece filled with charming and clever third-person action, the second half is one of the most frustrating experiences in gaming due to a bunch of terrible game design decisions. To those who are willing to try it, though, the game offers hours and hours of amazing gameplay with tons of collectibles and missions to accomplish. Jet Force Gemini could have ranked among the most noteworthy gaming space quests of all time – a beautiful unique jewel on Rare’s astonishing canon. Unfortunately, from time to time, too much ambition can be the fuel of a downfall.

Jet Force Gemini

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Spirits In The Night

1083_019812B.jpgSpirited Away, the eleventh feature released by Studio Ghibli, is an undeniable landmark. Not only does it mark the peak of Hayao Miyazaki’s stellar career, emerging as the most beautiful gem among the many whose creation the director has been responsible for; but it also opened up the eyes of the rest of the world to the fact that, somewhere in Japan, a great company had been producing stellar animated movies for well over a decade. Spirited Away was, and is, a universal phenomenon whose popularity is worthy of its quality.

The movie’s mass appeal, though, does not derive from the absence of the traditional quirks of Japanese cartoons. On the contrary, Miyazaki’s brainchild, fortunately, reached out to the West without abandoning its eastern roots. In fact, more than any other flick of Ghibli’s canon, Spirited Away is absolutely drenched with nods to the country’s rich folklore and religious traditions.

Those inspirations leak right onto the screen and project a fantasy world of such beautifully uncanny nature that it will prompt many viewers to question from where such imagination came; and the answer lies in the merging of an incredibly powerful mind with the bottomless imagery provided by Japanese tales and beliefs.

spirited_away2The movie begins when Chihiro, a ten-year-old, is traveling to her new home with her parents. As any child within that age range, such a big change makes her both anxious and scarred. A wrong turn on the road leads the car in which the family is traveling to an ominous tunnel that ends on a gorgeous open field where an abandoned amusement park rests. Attracted by the smell of food, and much to the child’s angst, her father and mother are drawn to the park and find an empty stand where delicious recently cooked meals await.

As the adults are distracted by all snacks, day turns into night and the park reveals itself to be a gateway to the spirit world. For their greed, Chihiro’s parents are hit by an evil curse and are taken to a nearby bathhouse where spirits from all over Japan come to rest. Rightfully terrified, the girl – now stuck inside another realm – must find a way to save her loved ones and return home.

A bathhouse in which spirits, like humans at a spa, soak inside bathtubs filled up with hot water sounds positively absurd, and the extravagant nature of it all is spectacularly executed. Miyazaki, drawing inspiration straight from the colorful – and sometimes dark – array of Japanese legends, uses that gathering place as a free canvas on which he can paint the most over-the-top character designs ever projected onto the silver screen.

The result is a awe-inspiring world formed by creatures that would have seemed out-of-place anywhere else. Miyazaki and his artists are able to combine the beautiful and the grotesque with lush animation that will cause viewers to let out genuine sighs of wonder – like the ones emitted by children when they enter a Disney theme park, as well as punctual shrieks of disgust.

spirited_away4The place is run by Yubaba – a very short witch with a giant nose, extreme features, and a son who is a baby of gigantic proportion – who hires Chihiro and magically takes possession of the girl’s name, making her slowly forget who she actually is and where she came from. A humanoid with impossibly long spider legs is responsible for providing water to the numerous tubs. Frog-like creatures and humans work side-by-side welcoming spirits into the bathhouse. And those come in the most varied shapes and forms, with some looking like ghosts, others like dragons, and numerous ones taking cues from different animals, vegetables, and shapes.

It all sounds absolutely over-the-top, and to a certain point it is, but everything comes together with astonishing magnificence.

The key to Spirited Away’s greatness, though, is not the otherworldly. The movie’s greatest trick is how all of that fantasy serves as the background to a very human story. At its core, everything is moved by Chihiro herself – our little innocent window into this amazing world – and her growth is so carefully developed that her arch is by far the film’s highlight.

spirited_away3She starts as a helpless child frozen with fear who is completely dependent on the goodwill of the friends she makes around the bathhouse. However, as soon as she is separated from her parents, she starts to go through a slow and believable development. Her obstacles are immense, but – with a good deal of effort – she conquers all of them one-by-one.

The most interesting aspect of it all is that all of the relationships she builds with other characters are affected by that growth. When events start unfolding, she is the one either being helped or being put in a totally submissive position. By the end of the two-hour running time, though, her active influence ends up unearthing traits and virtues in those around her; her biggest victories are not the changes she goes through, but the heights other characters reach because of her.

Watching Spirited Away is like sitting beside a bud for months and watching it bloom into the most beautiful flower on the valley. The girl who was afraid of moving to a new place becomes the girl who stands up for herself; the girl who needed to be helped transforms into the girl who unlocks the goodness within others. Spirited Away is a major study on how kindness and purity can change those they come into contact with, and the remarkable spirit world surrounding that tale serves as the whimsical setting where the brilliant minds inside Studio Ghibli can run free.

Posted in Animation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Zombies Ate My Neighbors Review

A game whose inspiration far transcends the relatively limited scope within which it inhabits

zombies5To those on the outside looking into the house of horrors that is Zombies Ate My Neighbors, the game might look like yet another run and gun from the early 90s that was somehow transplanted from an arcade machine to a home console. After all, by either controlling Zeke, a blend between a geek and a punk; or Julie, a tomboyish girl whose ragged adventure-ready gear could make her right at home beside any action movie hero, players must blast their way through enemies while rescuing the titular neighbors who are about to be viciously murdered by the constantly respawning mob of monsters.

However, no game could possibly be remembered so fondly long after its release by being a generic work that blends into the mold of its era. As it turns out, Zombies Ate My Neighbors does not merge into the crowd; it stands out brilliantly, for while its very general gameplay lines evoke the idea of a run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up, the colors it uses to fill in the blanks are clever and unique.

Given its development by LucasArts, a group of folks that were once masters of parody, humor, and stylish goofiness, it is only natural that the game’s major and more noticeable strength is its quirkiness. Zeke and Julie are extravagantly designed, and the neighbors that must be rescued are ridiculously insane, because only the craziest – and best – kind of people would be barbecuing, relaxing on the pool, cheer-leading or leisurely taking in the sights while the gates of hell are blown apart and monsters from all kinds are invading once-peaceful territory.

zombies4Speaking of the beasts our juvenile heroes will have to deal with, the moniker Zombies Ate My Neighbors, though somehow precise and witty, fails to capture the lengths to which the game goes in order to bring cartoonish death upon the world. Zombies are, in fact, the weakest and less threatening members of the bunch, working more as fodder for hungry guns than real menaces; they are joined by every single stereotypical creature to ever appear on a horror movie, be it a low-budget flick or a first-rank production.

Vampires, werewolves, murderous toys, chainsaw-wielding maniacs, devilish babies, human-sized bugs of various sorts, Martians, carnivorous plants, mummies, UFOs, amphibian beings of humane features, clone-spawning flowers, and blobs all gladly join the party to bring doom upon the neighborhood. The game takes advantage of that fantastic cast of baddies and the dramatically presented, with cliché horrifying font included, name of its 55 levels to spoof and nod to several cinema products that fall under the horror genre.

It is not all about deliberately mocking others, though, Zombies Ate My Neighbors also dresses itself with some pretty intriguing gameplay mechanics that load it with personality. Firstly, there is the characters’ wide range of equipment. Working with two slots, one reserved for weapons and another for assist items like first-aid kits and potions with various – and sometimes mysterious – effects, players can quickly navigate through each arsenal with the pressing of a specific button (B and A respectively, in the case of the Super Nintendo) and use the selected items with a second pair (Y for guns and X for support objects).

zombies3The game includes a traditional light gun alongside bazookas, fire extinguishers, silverware, weed whackers, explosive soda cans, and much more. Weapons are varied not only in presentation and use, but also on how effective they are against each type of enemy, forcing players to experiment to see what works best against who and to make sure their inventory is always ready for whatever might come next.

Such depth crafts a big strategic undertow not to mention a great need for equipment management, because, aside from the light gun, the other weapons are relatively scarce, and failing to have one of them when a specific type of enemy shows up with abundance in a level will transform the game from a shoot ’em up into a light-hearted, yet terrifying, survival horror.

The originality does not stop there. Zombies Ate My Neighbors has a very unique progression structure that is simultaneously challenging and flexible. All levels possess up to ten neighbors waiting to be rescued. That number, however, is never fixed; it depends on how many people were saved on the previous stage. Therefore, if on the very first stage players slip up and allow a couple of folks to be devoured, from that point on only eight neighbors will show up on each subsequent level, and if any others are lost, that number will keep diminishing all the way down to 0. As a relief, though, for every 40,000 points accumulated, an extra victim is added to your current total.

Players get a gruesome “Game Over” screen whenever they either lose all three of their lives or fail to rescue a single person on a level, hence the importance of keeping the neighbor count as high as possible. Although such a fate, true to the game’s arcade inspirations, will send players all the way back to the start of the 55-level gauntlet, the pain is alleviated by the fact that despite the absence of a saving system, with every four levels that are cleared players gain a password that, when entered, will propel them, with a nullified accumulated score and standard limited gear, right back to where they stopped while maintaining the number of victims they were able to rescue up to that stage.

zombies2That strange yet fascinating system is what creates the contradictory qualities of brutality and accessibility that Zombies Ate My Neighbors carries. Make no mistake, this is an extremely hard game that needs to be played with extreme care from the get go. As it happens on a marathon, it is vital that early levels be cleared with room to spare – without any neighbors being lost, so that players can afford bigger losses later in the game when the hard going gets even tougher.

Yet, given that a new password is given with every four levels that are finished, the game awards players with infinite chances to tackle the long stairwell step-by-step or, more accurately, four steps by four steps. It is plausible and advisable to those who want to reach the top of the hill of terror to strive for perfection four levels at a time so that, slowly but surely, they acquire the passwords that will send them back to progressively advanced stages of the game with a healthy amount of neighbors. To those who are brave enough, though, it is always possible to aim for an unstopped 55-level run to accumulate huge amounts of points and build a glorious score.

In spite of its impossible-to-overlook qualities, however, Zombies Ate My Neighbors has its flaws. The biggest one is its repetitive nature. The amount of stages packed into the game is commendable, but they are not varied enough to keep the experience fully engaging the whole way through. The number of scenarios is somewhat limited, and the visual themes (neighborhood, mall, pyramid, castle, etc.) begin repeating themselves way too much by the time level 20 is reached.

zombies1The game does try to rearrange the locations in distinct ways, and it succeeds to the point that while there are stages with a heavier focus on exploration, others are centered around combat. Yet, regardless of those efforts and its surprisingly deep weaponry mechanics, the fact players will be doing the same thing over and over again on scenarios that are way too familiar despite restructuring and rearrangements will come to the surface sooner or later, meaning that the game’s legs are not resistant enough to survive the marathon it is set to run. Shorter gameplay sessions, though, might diminish that impression.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors ends up being a game whose inspiration far transcends the relatively limited scope within which it inhabits. It is an arcade shoot ’em up that is taken to the genre’s ultimate creative heights, but whose cleverness, despite the title’s undeniable fun, ends up not materializing in its fullest state due to the restricted format it was placed in. That brilliancy, though, is far from wasted. Even if it is not entertaining the whole way through, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a game with good production values (especially on the sound department) and that has humor and style to spare. It might not be for everyone, but it has the potential to charm any gamers that may have escaped its grasp during the game’s original run.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate Review

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate simply cannot be overlooked

mh4uIn a way, Capcom’s stellar Monster Hunter franchise could be considered one of the most realistic gaming experiences out there. Such a notion might sound absurd or even laughable to some ears; after all, the property in question stars creatures of enormous size whose biology mashes up influences from both the real and fictional realms of the animal kingdom, hence giving birth to wyverns, mammals, lizards, reptiles, and insects that are – in equal measures – horrifyingly believable and delightfully outrageous.

However, it is not the design of its fantastic creatures that makes the series truthful; that quality is brought to life by how brutal and demanding taking down those beasts is. While many games will turn majestic ferocious enemies into ridiculous punching bags that helplessly stand at the mercy of the main character’s insurmountable power, Monster Hunter shifts the scale with mastery. Both sides of the skirmish could reasonably end up at the receiving size of a humiliating beat-down; the line between who is doing the hunting and who is being hunted is extremely thin.

In other words, if we were inhabitants of an awesome world in which the monster hunter profession existed, then Capcom’s franchise would be a very precise simulator; a brutal and unforgiving test that has on the Nintendo 3DS’ Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate its most fine-tuned and complete version.

mh4u1When things begin, players take control of a fledgling hunter: an under-equipped and under-prepared avatar with lots of untapped potential that, at the request of a man looking for answers related to a mysterious artifact he has acquired, joins a traveling caravan. He must, therefore, slowly make his way through a gigantic amount of quests and locations in order to get to the bottom of the riddle.

The game’s choice to adorn its core gameplay with a storyline, consequently giving direction and meaning to all hunts, is a commendable one. However, to most players, all dialogues and situations that derive from the constant plot development will be either, at best, a minor complement to the game’s true meat; or, at worst, empty padding that takes place in-between Monster Hunter’s real heart: its missions.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has more of those than all titles that preceded it, with the single-player campaign, the online hall, and the random Guild Quests amounting to more than two hundred assignments. True to the franchise’s traditions, the goals are relatively varied: mining for ore, fishing, slaying small monsters, tracking down resources, stealing eggs from nests, and – of course – defeating the threatening giants the game is famous for.

mh4u2Truthfully, with the exception of the very last kind of mission, all of the others feature some kind of annoyance. For starters, given the random nature of ores, fish, and other resources, players might spend considerable amounts of time running around the map looking for harvesting spots and hoping that the required item will show up. Secondly, quests centered around hunting small monsters are so easy they feel effortless. Meanwhile, raiding a nest incurs angering a monster and having to carry the egg all the way back to one’s base camp while the mad beast charges at you mindlessly, making up a chore that feels more dependent on luck than skill, as hunters are unable to do anything other than running while carrying a egg.

Thankfully, though, all of those problematic types of goals are a very minor part of the game. Not only do they amount to between 5% and 10% of all the quests, but many of them are not mandatory, allowing those who are not completists to skip them at will. Most of the game’s quests are concerned with bringing down fearsome violent monsters, and – at that – the game excels masterfully.

Fifty-one large monsters await players in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, and defeating each and every one of them is a massive challenge that demands patience and skills. As it happens in all kinds of missions, players are dropped in a remote wild location with limited supplies and a fifty-minute time limit; if they succumb three times during battle or let the clock run out, the mission will fail and the hunter will have to restart things from scratch.

mh4u3All monsters have very unique attack patterns that are slightly altered as their energy gets closer to zero. As a consequence, every new creature that is encountered comes along with the need to play defensively and focus on figuring out what are the openings left by each move and when to flee from a barrage of vicious moves that may severely deplete one’s vitality. Identifying each monster’s cues and finding the balance between attacking and defending so that the fifty minutes will not run out and the monster will not beat the hunter down mercilessly is a very steep learning process that comes into play on every mission that introduces a new species.

The latter goal is specially hard to achieve given there is no visible life bar to indicate how much health the monster has left at any given time, leaving players clueless as to whether they should be more aggressive or careful. Fortunately, though, all monsters start showing clear signs of being worn out once their health reaches critical levels.

The game is not forgiving in the slightest. Although veterans will most likely sail through the first few missions, the early quests have a considerable level of difficulty and it does not take very long for them to get progressively harder. In order to be able to tackle tougher monsters, players will have to do more than hone their skills and learn enemy patterns; they will need to make their avatar stronger. And that is precisely where the series’ greatest prowesses come in: its grinding nature and its constant sense of satisfaction.

Taking down a beast, as mighty as it may be, will not automatically make one stronger; the game has no experience points and a character-based level system is non-existent. Instead, hunters must upgrade their stats by the forging of increasingly better armor sets and weapons that can, then, be leveled up to a certain point. The twist is that making those items often demands many different materials that can only be obtained by slaying monsters.

mh4u5Hence, the game creates a cycle in which in order to be able to defeat new tougher monsters, players must beat previously encountered creatures repetitively and carve their bodies for resources until they acquire all materials necessary to produce that shiny impressive item. It is grinding at its purest and truest form, but it works, for Monster Hunter manages to be incredibly satisfying, as obtaining the tiniest resource can feel like a huge prize when it is bringing players one step closer to the equipment that will probably allow them to kill the monster that has humiliated them during a series of brutal fifty-minute battles.

Gameplay-wise, the biggest change implemented by Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a very positive one. Hunters are now much more mobile and agile than they have ever been; their movements have a much better flow, and the agility that allows them to escape incoming blows has been increased without making the game too easy – on the contrary, it actually remains quite hard.

That nimbleness reflects on the fact hunters have gained a pleasant little assortment of movements. All of the game’s scenarios have been built with an extra focus on vertical structures, and such constructions allow characters to perform nice aerial moves, landing blows while jumping from great heights for increased damage, and giving hunters the chance of mounting a monster that has fallen to the ground in order to land numerous attacks while trying to hang onto the angered creature’s back. It is a decision that adds a great degree of action to what was already a heart-pounding franchise.

mh4u4Part of that thrilling nature must be credited to the game’s impressive visuals, especially when it comes to the monsters themselves. The scenarios on which the battles take place are beautiful, big, and varied, encompassing many distinct environments within the same map, but the monsters are the real graphical gem here. They move with uncanny smoothness, exhale an urgent air of incoming danger, and display incredible details, such as the wounds and scars that appear on the models as certain parts of their bodies are broken or wounded by constant attacks. Much of the gameplay thrives on the peril displayed by the beasts.

The game also wisely benefits from the auto-lock system implemented for the first time on Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. While the device does not always keep the monster in focus, something which would completely take away the franchise’s core battle dynamic of having to manually keep the creature in sight, it allows players to – with the simple touching of an icon – reset the camera in the monster’s direction. The fact the option is entirely optional, as it can be activated and disabled in the midst of battle, gives purists the chance to keep their Monster Hunter experience intact while making the game more friendly to newcomers.

The game’s customization is also, in a way, supported by its impressive amount of combat styles its weapon types support. The twelve returning categories include long-range tools like the bow; the balanced sword-and-shield; the far-reaching lances; the speedy dual blades; the versatile switch axe, which can be used as a slow hard-hitting blade and also as a lighter instrument; and the heavy, yet powerful, long sword and hammer, which deliver quite a lot of damage but make hunters very vulnerable to hits. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate adds the Charge Blade and the Insect Glaive – a weapon that can summon an insect and support a leaping attack – to form quite an impressive arsenal players will have a blast exploring and figuring out which weapon is best suited to beat each monster.

mh4u6By itself, the single-player adventure packs quite a punch, but Monster Hunter has always been at its best in its online mode. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is no different. Up to four hunters from around the world can join forces to take on the numerous quests available on the Gathering Hall. Some of those missions are the same as those available offline, which is perfectly good given it lets players get the full offline experience, sans the plot, in multiplayer fashion; but most are exclusive to the Gathering Hall, including some devastatingly powerful monsters that do not show up on the regular adventure.

In order to make up for the extra hunters, online monsters have much more health, are faster, and more aggressive than its offline counterparts, which makes teamwork indispensable for online survival. Sadly, the game’s sole online hiccup is fully retained: the fact all hunters share a three-life pool. Consequently, if one of the players has trouble in battle and ends up losing all of the group’s lives, the whole team will be punished with failing the mission. It is a frustrating characteristic that unfairly makes those who committed errors during battle shoulder the entire blame for failure.

The game’s online is nicely improved by the existence of Expeditions, a brand new single-player mode that sends players to a special region known as Everwood to do some research, which means getting items dropped by monsters that might appear. Everything that is acquired during an expedition earns players a few points, and when a certain threshold is reached a random Guild Quest is unlocked.

mh4u7Given the pool of Guild Quests is large – and some of them feature rare monsters, it is extremely likely each players’ available Guild Quests will differ. Consequently, since those Guild Quests can be taken online for a spin and get progressively harder each time they are cleared, it is possible to come across completely new quests online and share the ones you have acquired with other players, adding even more value to an absolutely monstrous game, and deepening the sense of community that is so important to the franchise.

The verdict is that Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate does precisely what is expected of a sequel to an established and critically acclaimed franchise. It builds on what previous games have presented, makes a few punctual changes here and there, and delivers the biggest and most solid experience in the series’ history. It will not change the minds of those who look at Monster Hunter as an experience focused on mindless grinding that features a harsh difficulty curve, but it will utterly enchant anyone with the tiniest bit of love towards the brand. The property has never been as fun, time-consuming, thrilling, and polished as it is here; Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate simply cannot be overlooked.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Liebster Strikes (Not Once But Twice)

liebster2If you don’t know about the Liebster Award (I sure did not before I received it myself), it is a simple tag through which bloggers nominate other users whose work and writing they like. It is a way to spread the word about great blogs and show appreciation for the posts made by others. Therefore, I thank both Prof. Mcstevie and Cary for choosing me, and I also advise anyone reading this to check out their wonderful blogs: God This Is Gonna Go Wrong and Recollections of Play, respectively.

Getting the Liebster Award means I have to do three things: firstly, I must answer the queries posed by the ones that tagged me; secondly, I need to post eleven random facts about me; finally, I have to list other blogs worthy of the award and ask them a bunch of questions.

Given I have been nominated twice, I have two sets of questions to answer. Let’s get to them. I will tackle the ones made by Cary first since she nominated me before Prof. Mcstevie did.

mario_bros_31- What is your earliest gaming memory?

I am not sure how old I was at the time – I am assuming either three or four years old – but the first videogame console my parents gave me was a NES (unquestionably the wisest choice they could have made at the time). My earliest gaming memory is playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on it and failing to finish it every single time. I had my fun, though.

2- If you were forced to play only multiplayer (local or online) games or only single-player games for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?

Online. Local is indeed better, but given my friends and I have got jobs, gathering a lot of us in the same room is becoming rarer by the year, and when we do meet we tend to go out since most of my best friends are not gamers. So yeah, it has got to be online for me.

3- Put your iPod/mp3 player on shuffle. What are the first five songs that play?

“Bad Seed” – Metallica

“Bristol Steam Convention Blues” – The Byrds

“Debaser” – Pixies

“Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” – The Smiths

“Life Is Simple In The Moonlight” – The Strokes

4- What do you think video games will look like in 2115?

I am sure it will involve virtual reality glasses, and for the sake of my descendants I hope Nintendo will still be around.

zebes5- What video game setting/world would be a great place to visit but a bad place to live?

It has got to be Zebes. It is advisable, however, that such visit occurs when one is equipped with a power suit. Otherwise, things can go pretty bad.

6- You decide to go shopping. Do you leave the house or go online?

Online. Unless it is for clothing. I don’t go to the mall often, though; I dislike them, especially because I live in a city with so much natural beauty (more on that on the random facts about me).

7- Do you tend to keep or trade/sell your games?

I have sold two games my whole life, it was on the tail end of the Nintendo 64 era and eleven-year-old me was trying to save money to buy the upcoming Gamecube. I have regretted selling those games (Mario Kart 64 and World Cup 98) ever since. I have gotten the first one back, though.

8- Name one video game artifact (i.e. not a game) that belongs in a fine arts museum.

If it is a museum that is inclined to take in items that are representative of pop culture, then it has got to be Mario’s Super Mushroom. If it is a fancier sort of museum, then I will nominate any one of Okami’s settings; those things should be hanging from walls beside the Mona Lisa.

majoras9- Name one video game artifact that should be destroyed for the sake of all humanity.

Majora’s Mask. They say the evil spirit leaves the mask by the end of the game, but just look at that thing… do you really think it can be completely devoid of evil?

10- What is your favorite historical era?

The Age of Discovery or The Golden Age of Piracy were probably spectacular if you were either an explorer or a pirate.

11- What was the last thing you wrote by hand?

A composition for my Spanish class just last week. It was about how reality is perceived differently by everyone – deep stuff.

1. What got you into blogging?

I was sixteen – it was 2006 – and I was starting to learn how to write complete texts in English, so I decided that blogging would be a good way to practice. Almost ten years later, here I am still doing it.

2. How often do you stay up all night?

I am a morning person, so it is a very rare occurrence. I do stay up all night between four and five times a year, though.

asoif3. What’s a story you’d like to tweak a little bit, maybe smooth the curves a little?

I am a big fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I have read through the forums of the books so much I have a few ideas on how some things could be improved.

4. How many times have you moved house in your life?

Just once. I moved about 300 meters within the same neighborhood when I was four. My parents left the small house they were renting and bought an apartment. Hopefully that number will go up to two soon since I am planning on moving out.

5. What would the first thing out of your mouth be if you were suddenly told you were the president of the USA?

“Call Reggie Fils-Aime right now! Nintendo of America must bring Mother 3 to the United States or else…”

6. How comfortable is your set-up to blog? Are you sitting down, on the move etc.?

Sitting down, and I usually write my texts when I have a break at work.

7. How did you start to market yourself as one among many in the blog-o-sphere?

I am not sure I have started doing that! Maybe I should?!

8. Do you or anyone you know suffer from shyness?

I do! It is not terrible or anything; I can speak in front of other people just fine and I usually perform quite well in presentations, most of that comes from a teacher’s course that I took when I was 18 and that helped me overcome my previous fear of speaking in public. However, I am usually very quiet and it takes me a long time to get used to “new people”.

Pixies9. What would your superhero name and power be?

Tony. And my super power would be riding around on my bicycle like a pony. Why? Because I would get to have this awesome theme.

10. You are told you have a family member in prison, how do you react?

I am not sure… I would probably try to talk directly to said family member to hear their side of the story first.

11. Would you rather be in stone cold silence or a loud, chaotic environment?

I love peace, quiet, and nature! So stone cold silence is my choice.

Now, here are some random facts about me:

rio-de-janeiro1- I live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Yes, that wonderful paradisiac city that is also plagued by major problems such as violence, poverty, and corruption (just like the rest of the country).

2- Since I live in a place with so much natural beauty, most of which is available to be visited for free, I love just being outside. I ride my bike by the beaches and other sights on weekends, hike with my friends to the top of mountains that hold quite a view of the city, and do lots of other outdoor activities.

3- I love learning languages! I am fluent in Portuguese and English, but I also speak Spanish and French. I don’t have as much domain over those last two languages as I have over the first pair, but I could survive with relative ease in countries dominated by those idioms.

4- I have two jobs: my normal full-time work is being a Systems Analyst in one of the countries largest IT companies, one that holds what is perhaps one of Latin America’s largest databases; and on Saturday morning I teach English.

5- I listen to a lot of music (in case you have not noticed, some of my blog titles are references to songs; this one, for example, references a The Clash song out of the enormous “Sandinista!” album). I try to listen to at least three new albums every week (I usually listen to them two times every day).

mk6- Twice – between November 2008 and January 2009, and between December 2010 and February 2011 – I worked at Walt Disney World through a College Program Disney maintains. Those were the best months I have ever lived.

7- On those two aforementioned trips I worked at the Magic Kingdom. The first time around, I operated Goofy’s Barnstormer; and on the second timespan I was a custodial on the Frontierland, Adventureland, and Liberty Square sections of the park.

8- I am Brazilian, but I dislike soccer. The sports I like to watch are: baseball, football, golf, formula one, and basketball.

9- Even though I work with technology and I have a bachelor degree in Computer Science, I refuse to have Internet on my cellphone. I am positively scared of how most people are completely addicted to and dependent on their cellphones to live nowadays, and I do not want to become one of them.

10- My two favorite TV shows ever are Seinfeld and Frasier. Call me close-minded, but I doubt anything will ever top their greatness.

11- When Ocarina of Time was released I gave it a try to check if I wanted to purchase it. Given my limitations with the English language at the time, I couldn’t play it properly. Therefore, I – instead – opted to purchase the dreadful Bomberman Hero. Don’t blame me, I was only seven!

Now to my eleven questions:

1- What was the best trip you have ever taken?

2- What are your three favorite movies?

3- What game does everyone seem to like but you do not?

4- What game do you like but everyone else seems to hate?

5- What characters should be added to the next Super Smash Bros. installment?

6- What long-gone gaming franchise needs to be resurrected?

7- What long-standing gaming franchise needs to go?

8- What job you would never take?

9- What would be your reaction if extraterrestrial beings made contact with us?

10- What is your favorite videogame song?

11- Will you forbid your children to play videogames whose ratings are not appropriate for their age?

Here are my nominees, and since I know many great writers around WordPress, I would like to apologize in advance for not being able to mention all of them.

Wizard Dojo

A Lady and Gaming

A Most Agreeable Pastime

Extra Life Reviews

Very Very Gaming

Posted in Others | Tagged | 8 Comments