The Two Faces of Metroid: Other M

April 19, 2014 2 comments

Metroid: Other M iconI’ve been hesitant to write about Metroid: Other M because it’s such a controversial topic. But I still felt that I wanted to say something about it.

My thoughts are summed up as thus: it’s a great game with a decent story that’s rather poorly told. It’s a fascinatingly inconsistent experience, and the dichotomy is what really makes it interesting to me.

To be clear, I do really like the game, but again, I like it on a couple of different levels. For one, the gameplay is amazing. To me, it’s far more faithful to the classic 2D Metroid games than the Prime series ever was. The storytelling, on the other hand, is laughably amateurish and blatantly self-indulgent. But I really can’t get angry about it, because I’m genuinely amused at how awkward it is.

Let’s take a closer look. Rather than talk about the entire game as a whole and trying to address every little detail, I’m going to focus on one particular part that I feel epitomizes the Other M experience: the boss fight with Ridley.

In my opinion, the battle, itself, is excellent, and one of the best Ridley boss fights in the entire Metroid series. It’s dramatic, well-designed, and Ridley comes off as a real threat. He’s quick, vicious, and sets the entire platform ablaze. Samus is no slouch, either. Her melee maneuver against him involves jamming her arm cannon into his mouth and firing a Plasma Beam down his throat.

Screenshot of Metroid: Other M

Now that’s awesome.

Yet, this great sequence is sandwiched between two of the most awkward story scenes in the game. Previous to the fight when Samus first sees Ridley, she is shown as a literal frightened little girl. Not only is this unnecessary, but it’s incredibly heavy-handed. And once the fight is over, the silence that would’ve perfectly carried the emotion is shattered by yet another jarring monolog from Samus that has to spell everything out. Plus, it’s accompanied by a ridiculous flashback to things that happened less than five minutes earlier in the previous cutscene.

Metroid: Other M screenshot

Is this from the same game?

I honestly do think it’s an interesting contrast. Director Yoshio Sakamoto is certainly a master game creator, but he clearly doesn’t understand tactful movie-making. The way the game shifts so swiftly between being brilliant and inept makes for kind of an amusing experience. Even more interesting is how the developers attempted to make the transition between gameplay and cutscenes as seamless as possible, which is really well done, only to have it undermined by the inconsistent competence between them. A great example of the difference between the skills of game-making versus film-making.

In light of what it is, I think I get what it was trying to do, but it’s derailed by the presentation. That is, I don’t think the execution matched the intent. That’s not to say it was ever going to be a masterpiece, but in more capable hands, it would’ve come off less offensively. I also believe there were some subtle but crucial cultural differences at work here that rubbed some people the wrong way.

This article wasn’t meant to be an apology for the game, just an understanding. At the end of the day, I love the game as a game, but it also makes for a really fascinating case study. Personally, I would love to see the gameplay mechanics used again in a future Metroid game, but I think that’s unlikely. It’s unfortunate because, if you’ll pardon the expression, it’s a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Favorite Characters – Psycho Soldier Team

April 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Psycho Soldier iconSince my last two Favorite Character articles focused on very well-known characters, I’ve decided to mix things up a bit and pick something a little more obscure: the Psycho Soldier team from The King of Fighters series. This is a little bit of a cheat since they’re a group and not a single character, but KoF is about teams, so I think I can get away with it.

The Psycho Solder Team is a mainstay of the KoF series, and it consists of three core characters: Athena Asamiya, Sie Kensou, and Chin Gentsai. There are four other characters also associated with the team, but we’ll get to them a little later. They were based on the arcade game Psycho Soldier, from which Athena and Kensou originated (although Athena’s roots can be traced back to an earlier game called simply Athena).

The Psycho Soldiers are considered to be the comic relief of the KoF series. For some reason, I tend to gravitate towards the cute, silly characters in fighting games. Maybe it’s because their style and personality stands out to me a little more, or maybe I just like the non-serious attitude. In any event, the Psycho Soldiers are definitely non-serious and very humorous.

That strong humor and personality is a large factor in what makes these characters so memorable to me. It’s really easy to imagine them having their own adventures outside of the KoF series, and in that sense, they transcend the games. In my opinion, they’re perfectly suited to having their own cartoon/anime or comic/manga series.

Athena Asamiya

So, let’s begin with Athena. She’s just a regular Japanese school girl, but with “psycho powers.” And she moonlights as a pop idol. And studies kung fu and enters international fighting tournaments. Oh, and she’s also supposed to be the reincarnation of the Greek goddess Athena.

I’m not sure if there was any rhyme or reason to her design, but that bizarre mix of traits is kinda what makes her fun and interesting. The other thing she’s known for is frequently changing her outfit throughout the series, which fits her fashion-conscious pop idol persona. However, in more recent games, she’s stuck with a traditional school uniform, and that’s a little more generic. But her constant changes throughout the series have kept her fresh and interesting.

Sie Kensou

Kensou was originally the player-two character from Psycho Soldier, and as such, his moveset was, at first, very similar to Athena’s. His character, on the other hand, is far less random than her’s. Kensou is a good mix of “cool” and “silly.” He’s definitely a goofball character, but his more recent appearances in the series have leaned a little more on the “cool” side. Still, he never lost his humor, which is what I find appealing about him. He’s also probably the most balanced character on the team.

Chin Gentsai

Chin was an original character created specifically for KoF. He’s the classic “drunken master” stereotype, and is almost too silly for his own good. I admit, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into using the character if he wasn’t part of the Psycho Soldier team, but he’s grown on me over the years. I like how he goes from being completely drunk during the game to spouting Confucius-like wisdom in the endings.

Finally, four other Psycho Soldiers have been part of the team over the years. Bao, a very young boy with psycho powers, was added in 1999 as the fourth team member during the NESTS Saga. I don’t mind him, but he’s really unpopular among KoF fans. Momoko, a girl who fights using capoeira, briefly replaced Chin on the team in KoF XI. Although she’s a much more popular character than Bao, she was only playable that one time. Kaoru first appeared in the ending to KoF ’97, and she was simply a fan of Athena’s who later became her friend. She appeared as an alternate striker in KoF 2000. Bai Tang is a panda bear who really doesn’t have much to do with the team other than being an in-joke. (Chin hates panda bears.) He was also an alternate striker in KoF 2000.

Despite that these characters were only playable in a few games (or not at all), they have continued to appear in the endings of recent KoF games. For me, having this extended cast adds to the feeling that these characters could have carried their own franchise. I feel that there’s really a lot of potential for them, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy them so much.

Psycho Soldier Team

In the interest of space, I haven’t gone too in-depth on each individual character, but as I’ve eluded to, I think I appreciate them more as an ensemble. Each character has his or her own charm, but they’re more interesting as a group. Their individual personalities and their relationships with each other make for a fun dynamic. Perhaps one day, SNK Playmore will spin them back off into their own Psycho Soldier series.

Arcade Mania – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)

April 4, 2014 2 comments

TMNT IconAh, here it is! One of my very favorite arcade games of all-time: the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I wish I could remember the exact circumstances of when I saw it for the first time. I think it was only a brief glimpse at some mini-golf arcade, but it instantly captured my imagination. It looked just like the cartoon series! It even used the same theme song! I don’t think I ever saw a licensed video game that was so faithful to its source material before.

The game, itself, is a fairly straightforwards beat’em-up. You play as any of the four Ninja Turtles, and you hack and slash everything that gets in your way. This includes mostly multicolored Foot Soldiers, but also other enemies from the original 1987 show, including Bebop, Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman, Krang, and of course The Shredder.

TMNT screenshot

It really was the presentation that made it fun, however. Not just in the graphics and sound, but also in the overall style. Part of the fun was the multiple ways enemies would appear on screen, bursting through doors, jumping out windows, driving by on motorcycles, and flying in on helicopters, among others. It always kept you on your toes, and made the game more exciting. Several humorous voice samples also played during the game that not only made it feel like the characters were interacting with each other, but they were accompanied by dialog balloons that harkened back to the franchise’s comic book roots.

Of course, it was at its most fun playing with other people. There was nothing like getting a full-on four-player game going and letting the carnage unfold. It got really crazy as the game would dump a lot more enemies on the screen if there were at least three players. It was perfectly suited to the social nature that arcades used to have.

TMNT screenshot

For me, it was like an addiction. Every time I saw the arcade game anywhere, I was compelled to drop a quarter into it, and keep dropping quarters until I beat the Shredder and saw the credits. I finished the arcade game several times back in the day.

An NES port eventually came along, retitled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game (since there was another TMNT game published for the system before that). While it was lacking the presentation and frenetic pace of the arcade game, it did have all of the stages, sometimes in extended forms, as well as two new stages. The arcade game was also ported to several home computers. It later appeared as an unlockable in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Battle Nexus on the GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox, but with much of the audio replaced. Another slightly modified version was also available on Xbox Live Arcade, but has since been removed from the service.

TMNT screenshot

The original arcade game was followed up with two sequels. One was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project for the NES, and the other was the true arcade sequel, Turtles in Time, later ported to the SNES as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV.

For such a straightforward game, it’s strange that it’s been so difficult for more recent TMNT games to recapture that original magic. Is it simple nostalgia? Was there some secret formula? Or was it just the right game at the right time? Whatever it is, it holds up nearly 25 years later, and it’s still a blast to play through.

That’s… Turtle Power!!!

Ruminations – Koji Igarashi

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair iconA couple of weeks ago, the news broke that Koji “Iga” Igarashi, the former producer of the Castlevania series, had left Konami. In interviews, he said that he wanted to start his own studio so that he could make the kinds of games he wanted to make, and by extension, the kinds of games his fans wanted him to make. As one of those fans, I can say that I couldn’t be happier.

Interestingly, he mentioned that one of the things that motivated him to take this step was Keiji Inafune and the Kickstarter for Mighty No. 9. I can’t help but remember Inafune saying that he hoped to inspire other Japanese developers, so perhaps Igarashi’s move is proof that it worked. Not that we haven’t seen plenty of other prominent Japanese developers go indie in the past decade, but it feels like they are moving closer and closer to a tipping point.

I was playing through a number of Iga’s Castlevania games last year as part of my “Castlevania-thon,” and even then, I was wondering what happened to him and why he hadn’t worked on any new games recently. I had hoped that Iga would go indie, but I didn’t think it would actually happen. Now that it has, I’m looking forward to seeing what his next project will be.

Most fans seem to expect him to make a thinly veiled Castlevania clone, just as Mighty No. 9 doesn’t hide its Mega Man roots. I certainly wouldn’t object to that, but at the same time, this is an opportunity to do something new and different. Castlevania got bogged down by its own weight. There are only so many ways you can fight Dracula or the Grim Reaper or any of the other creatures that made regular appearances in the series. I would hope Iga would take the chance to start with a clean slate and come up with fresh ideas, and not to just rehash what’s already been done several times.

Iga has also mentioned that while he may do a 2D game, he still has a desire to try making a good 3D action game. Although I’m a fan of 2D myself, I also want to see Iga continue to evolve as a developer and try new things. So, if he did decide to do a 3D game, I would still be excited for it.

Most of all, I’m just glad to see him getting back into active game development, whatever direction it may take. I wish him all the best of luck.

The Music of Donkey Kong Country

March 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Donkey Kong IconWhen it was first released in 1994, the original Donkey Kong Country was noted for its eye-catching graphics. While they were groundbreaking for their time, what has really stuck with me over the years is the game’s soundtrack. Composed mainly by David Wise and Eveline Novakovic (credited as Eveline Fischer), the music from the original DKC trilogy is among my favorites of the 16-bit era. In fact, the DK Jamz album is the first video game soundtrack I ever bought. With David Wise having returned to score Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I’ve decided to look back at some of my favorite music from the series.

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