Thursday, November 13, 2014

Smash Bros: A Crisis

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  I'm having such a crisis at the moment. Simply put, I have no idea who I am going to play the upcoming Super Smash Bros For Wii U (hereafter referred to as Smash 4) with.
  A big part of me plans to buy the game along with the Gamecube controller adaptor for my Wii U, and because I've held onto some of my gaming gear over the years I have enough Gamecube controllers to facilitate some party play, but my life is not what it once was and what stage I am at has changed drastically. This conundrum is really making me question whether I really need the game at all.
  At face value this game should be a day one purchase, the Smash series has always been like that for me: I rented the N64 Original many times and played the heck out of it - I never owned it though because I was young and permanently owing a game back then was rare; Melee however was another story, I bought it day one and for years it was MY GAME. I love that game so much and it is without question one of the greatest Couch Multiplayer games ever made. Brawl came along afterwards and I never really got into it at all, but I'll get more into that later. See part of loving Melee so much was where my life was at the time: I was in my early 20's, studying and surfing between different friend's flats, and when we got together we got snacks, drank beers, and played Smash. All the time. And it was fucking fantastic.
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  But inevitably Life changes: friends move away; surfing between flats becomes staying home raising kids; going out for snacks becomes cooking meals and having dinner parties; and playing video games on Couches becomes playing Online and having a chat when you can squeeze it in. Looking back I realise now why my experience with Smash Bros Brawl was so marred; yes some of the combat system tweaks made it unbalanced, yes the Final Smashes are stupid, and yes the SubSpace Emissary is a giant steaming pile of bad game design - but what marred it for me was because it arrived near the beginning of the end.
  Those friend groups were starting to break down, we didn't get together to game much anymore, when we did get together we either drank or went to music gigs...and drank. All the fun of Smash was disappearing, on account of life starting to change in the ways I just described, but I just didn't fully realise it at the time, I still expected to get a lot of fun out of Brawl. Flash forward to now, 6 years later, with the feelings I'm having surrounding the impending release of Smash 4, I can finally fully understand why Brawl let me down so much.
  The true heart of Super Smash Bros, what makes it so goddamn fun, is Couch based multiplayer. Four or more players, swapping controllers, shooting the shit and talking smack, all in the same room. Smash Bros is, and this a big call I'm about to make, the best local multiplayer game series since Bomberman in it's prime. Yes I realise Smash 4 will have robust online functionality but that has just never been the same for me as playing games with friends and interacting with one another. The developers of the Smash games have made attempts in the past to bolster the single player component - Challenge Mode, All Star Mode, SubSpace Emissary, Smash Run etc - but they've all fallen flat for me, they just aren't what Smash Bros really is all about.
  Life has changed greatly for me, I have a wonderful wife and amazing son now, and our friends don't game together. The fact of the matter is that without this element, at this point I can't imagine myself getting much enjoyment from Smash 4 at all.
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I love Nintendo and I love Nintendo games. I pretty much only play Nintendo games now, I don't bother with the very limited exclusives and formulaic multi-plats on PS4 and XBONE, and I don't own a functioning gaming PC. In Fact the only consoles I own beside Nintendo consoles are a PS2 and a PS3, and I use those primarily for DVDs and Blurays. I work a part time IT job and at the time I had a baby on the way, but a few months back I forked out the cash for a Wii U, Mario Kart 8, and Super Mario 3D World because I love Nintendo THAT much.
I adore my Wii U; Mario Kart 8 is unbelievable, I've had a lot of fun with Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, and almost above all, my Wii U is my Nintendo history box. I love how it upscales Wii games and the Gamepad is one of the best devices I have ever played NES and SNES games on, once the N64 and the long rumoured Gamecube support hits the Virtual Console, man, then I'll be having myself a time. So I love NIntendo and Super Smash Bros is one of Nintendo's premier game franchises, it stands to reason that Smash 4 will be an incredible game and will undoubtedly go on to become one of the Wii U's most loved and long revered games. I know I really want to buy it, but I hate thinking about just how little value I may end up getting out of it. Maybe I should try to bring about a rebirth of Couch Based gaming in my friend circles, a one night a week or month sort of thing - make it a real event...Either that or I could wait until my son is old enough to play with him and his friends, but who really knows what games will even be then and some kid's Dad joining in and playing games with him and his friends sounds...kind of lame.
- Danny

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Video Thematic Vol. 1: Star Fox









Welcome to Video Thematic, a series which chronicles the evolution culturally, sonically and technologically of a video game series' Main Theme or signature musical style over its entire lifespan.
  In the last 30 or so years music in video games has changed a great deal due to increases in things like processing power, storage space, and sound channels etc - but in so many other ways game music hasn't really changed that much at all. The really amazing, tight composition is still as good as ever and the power and emotional impact that surrounds any game's Main Theme has been there since the beginning and hasn't diminished in the slightest.
  Some themes will leave a series but then later return triumphantly, others might change and evolve to the point where they're almost unrecognisable, but there are a special select few who are just too damn iconic to go anywhere. This is Video Thematic: Volume One.

* * *
In this first volume I'll be studying the many frustrating ups and downs of the music of Nintendo's anthropomorphic space fantasy, Star Fox, a series which musically has gone from verging on a sort of rock/techno sound, to going way too military/orchestral, and then thankfully almost getting back again to what it was in the first place. Overall I find it a really difficult series to like musically because it doesn't have a set genre or feel to its sound (as opposed to other Nintendo franchises such as Metroid or Zelda) and it's got such a sonic identity crisis going on right now as a result of so many mis-steps along the way.
  The important thing to understand about the Star Fox Team is that they are not a military force and as such they shouldn't be represented thematically with simple pounding drums and a whole big mess of Brass instruments; StarFox are an elite team of space mercenaries so their music should be uplifting and heroic but also have a rocky, kind of badass edge to it. It was like this at the beginning, you just have to listen to the first game's 'Corneria' to see what I mean, and I wanted it to stay like this but I think the sonic direction of the Star Fox series changed in one single defining moment...but I'll get more into that later.


One of the closest parallels to StarFox that I've found in the rest of pop culture is the short-lived 1990's cartoon Bucky O' Hare and The Toad Wars (in some countries known as ...And The Toad Menace). Firstly, and probably most obviously, there's the fact that they both have animals in space, but they also both include a team of space fighters called in to help out a seemingly inept military force who take on regularly occurring enemies. In Bucky it was the mammal led United Animals Federation and Star Fox had General Pepper's Cornerian Army.
  So it stands to reason given the plot similarities that there are a lot more parallels to find here (check 32 seconds into the video to see a really familiar flying sequence complete with a very Andross like 'boss encounter') but as this is Video Thematic let's examine the Bucky O' Hare theme song: first setting aside the 90's rappish lyrics: the tune begins with a lead guitar driven riff which introduces the main melody with a quick orchestral stab of horns. This is classic Star Fox, and by that I don't mean N64 and beyond Star Fox, I mean how the SNES original's score mixes the rock guitar of pieces like 'Meteor' and 'Corneria' with the orchestral elements of something like the 'Intro/Title Screen' or the 'Space Armada' (all of these pieces can be found on this playlist.) Bucky's chorus is all kinds of uplifting and at the same time badass and you can get this same sort of feeling playing Star Fox whenever you complete a stage ('Course Clear - Band Version') and of course from the game's Main Theme.


This Main Theme from 1993's SNES classic, Star Fox/Star Wing  is absolutely amazing. It is at all times heroic, evokes everything that's great about a good Space Opera, and really pumps me up every time I hear it, even today. You didn't actually get to hear it properly in the game itself until the end credits, and trust me you need a good boost after getting through this beast of a game. Even after 20 years (wow, this year in fact) this game is still an incredibly difficult, fast and intense shooter which really takes it out of you if you manage to finish it.
  Even though the Title Screen was a different piece, Star Fox's soundtrack gave you hints of it's main theme along the way. First early on when you look at the 'Controls', then in the 'Stage Selection Screen' and later in the two excellent 'Course Clear' tracks (both Band and Orchestra versions.) But when you do finally listen to the theme in all its glory you realise just how good it is and probably think you're hearing another Nintendo classic, another 'Hyrule Field Overworld' or 'Brinstar' - a piece that is destined to be revered and celebrated, and then covered and arranged over and over by different composers with more and more complex instruments as the series goes on.
  Sadly this wasn't the case at all, this theme went on to disappear from the series for a long time. In fact I don't think it appeared at all in another video game until is was arranged and included the epic soundtrack for 2008's Super Smash Bros. Brawl. 
  The often talked about SNES sequel to Star Fox, largely discussed because it was finished but then cancelled before release, sought out to follow the original's lead in terms of audio with excellent pieces like this:

 
  
But this is the 'big single defining moment' I was talking about earlier: the cancellation of Star Fox 2 and the subsequent focus and eventual release of Star Fox 64 - which changed the music in the franchise forever, and very much for the worse I would argue. Star Fox 2's title screen and all of the level music included in the dumped ROM (which sadly is most people's only exposure to this excellent game) is so, so very good and frankly it's just incredible to hear more music like the style of that in original. It's like hearing some unearthed Basement Tapes, or learning that Josh Homme, from your favourite band Queens of The Stone Age, used to front an also excellent band called Kyuss.
  So Star Fox 64, which was according to Nintendo a re-imagining of the original game, was where the sonic style of the series shifted so dramatically and somewhat ironically given the company's original intention. I'm not a huge fan of this particular piece of music at all, but this is Video Thematic and we have to examine everything, so here is the Main Theme of 1997's Star Fox 64 (aka Lylat Wars) for the Nintendo 64:


Where the hell is the Bucky O' Hareness of it all gone? Where is the rocky edge? Where are the leanings towards electronic music so wonderfully mixed with the orchestral heroics? I would go so far as to say that the entire soundtrack in Star Fox 64 is shockingly disappointing, especially coming off the back of the original's masterful score.
  Instead of a faithful continuation of the soundscape we were introduced to, what we got was a midi/soundfont heavy mess which sounds nothing like Star Fox should - I've always thought it most sounds like the scrawny little brother of Ocarina of Time's soundtrack. Listen again to the two side by side, they both come from games released at around the same time, and as a result they're way too similar audio wise. In Zelda it fits because it's in tune with the character of the series (pun entirely intended) whereas in Star Fox it comes off as being way to reliant on Orchestra and includes some really sloppy melodies.
  Going back to what I was saying in the beginning about the Star Fox team not being a military force, there is far too much driving snare and far too many unnecessary horns in this soundtrack, it all seems out of place and doesn't pump me up in the slightest. Compare the two game's 'Corneria' tracks and you tell me which one makes you really want to get out there and blow some stuff up:

  

My brother and I used to put on CDs and turn the in-game music off while playing Star Fox 64 because the music was so bad. We both really enjoyed the game but we weren't so interested in having the music plodding along with us while we played. It was usually rock music because that was what we were mostly into at the time, but we discovered that a play-through of Star Fox 64 fits extremely well with Reload by Metallica. Seriously, everyone should try it, provided you play at a competent pace the music will continue to suit the action at any point in the game, even including the ending and credit sequences. 'Low Man's Lyric' playing as you watch the credits roll is truly something special.
  Moving back to the Main Theme though, it seems to be a theme (and an accompanying musical style) that Nintendo really latched onto. It went on to be reworked and featured in Star Fox Adventures (GCN, 2002), Star Fox Assault (GCN, 2005), and than later rerecorded by an Orchestra for 2011's Star Fox 64 3D for the 3DS.

  


Firstly, Adventures' take on the theme reminds me strangely of the start of Predator 2 and what that movie does to its parent movie's theme, which I'll admit isn't an entirely bad thing, but it's best that the music from that game, and indeed the entire game itself, be shelved away and forgotten.
  Secondly, I'm going to put this out there and say that I really love the whole soundtrack to Star Fox Assault. I know I shouldn't because it largely consists of re-workings of tunes from Star Fox 64 but these are the themes as they should have sounded (make sure to listen to Assault's excellent version of the Star Wolf theme) and some of the new compositions do in some part bring back the rougher, edgier spirit of the SNES originals (yes, I am saying there were two games because the ROM dump of Starfox 2 is for all intents and purposes a complete game and you should play it as soon as you've finished reading this, if you haven't already.)
  Anyway, put aside some time to listen to this playlist, Assault's score made me feel good about the music of Star Fox again and it is still today a really good example of a return to form sonically speaking. When compared with 64, game to game, Assault is by no means the better of the two but it does have a much better musical score.
  Lastly, I'm skipping ahead of the series' chronology by including Star Fox 64 3D here, so first I need to go back to 2006's Star Fox Command for the Nintendo DS.

 

On the whole, Star Fox Command has a very interesting soundtrack. Its' levels are scored with a combination of very traditional arrangements and techno re-workings of those same pieces serving as their alternate music when the action in the game ramps up. Command is also a game of many themes; in its OST there is a Main Theme listed for all the game's main characters, I've included Fox's theme here because I think it's just pure Star Fox and I'm glad music like this can still come from this series. But man oh man that theme, the Main Theme of Command is a refreshing and glorious version of that first underwhelming piece of music introduced back in 1997. It sounds like Marco Beltrami got together with Trevor Rabin, played some 64, and then sat down together to jam. It sounds in a way almost groovy but still in every possible way, completely badass.

* * *

So where are we now? Two years ago Star Fox 64 3D happened, and being an almost straight remake of the 64 game it didn't include any more new music for the series, so nothing much has moved forward sonically in recent times.
  I talked before about 2008 when Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out and gave the series back its' original theme; well that incredible game also included new arrangements of Star Fox's 'Space Armada' and 'Corneria' themes. So it seemed back then that the music of Star Fox was beginning to come full circle. However it all cycles back to what I was saying earlier about the cancellation of Star Fox 2 being that one defining moment for the music of the series. I believe that if Star Fox 2 was finished and released to the world then the music in each of the subsequently released Star Fox games would be very different to what it is today. Star Fox 2 retained all the character and nuance of the original's score but that game was of course pushed aside in favour of Star Fox 64 and born out of that was an entirely different style of music that unfortunately became known as the series' signature sound.
  So I think it's fitting to end with how it began and how I think it should of stayed. This is the Main Theme of 1993's Star Fox for the Super Nintendo, performed by the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra and included on the CD, Orchestral Game Concert Vol 3. Good bye and...umm...do a barrel roll!


- Danny

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pixel Art

Created by me on Microsoft Excel using online source material.

Firstly, I'm really surprised with how tall Samus is compared to the others. But I suppose her relative sprite size on the game screen does indicate this.
  I think I did quite well with the colours I used, I was originally going to match the skin tones of Link and Mario but this exercise made me realise how the different colours used in their respective sprites help to convey their ethnicity.
  Overall I'm most proud of how Mario's sprite turned out but I think that's just because it's easily the most iconic image of the three.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Items in Shadow Complex (so far)

The following is a list of what power-ups I’ve come across so far while playing this highly original and completely groundbreaking game.

I began the game with a Flashlight that shows up secrets and displays structural weaknesses and their colour which corresponds with what weapon can destroy them. Sort of like the X-Ray visor (Super Metroid) and Scan Visor (Metroid Prime) in one. Since then I have found these items:

* A backpack with climbing gear so I can grab onto ledges, kinda like in Metroid Fusion.

* Grenades which can be placed or thrown. They blow up green doors and surfaces.

* Multiple Health Packs which increase my maximum health in blocks of 100.

* Bionic Armour Suit. Hi-tech thermal gear that decreases damage taken from enemies and can be upgraded with Armour boost pickups.

* Suit Part: Air boost back-mounted jet – a sort of mini jet pack that can be used in mid air to extend the height of a leap, y’know like a Space Jump.

* Suit Part - water breathing apparatus. Allows full movement under water and fits over my head obscuring my face and eyes. (Hell, I’m even becoming more aesthetically similar to Samus.)

* A Foam gun that shoots purple Foam which disrupts electrical equipment. Can be used to open purple doors. Also incapacitates enemies for a short amount of time that can then be used as platforms. So it’s the Wave Beam with a bit of Ice Beam thrown in, I assume in order to plagiarise that too.

COMING SOON:

Missiles that can be used to open red doors.

_____________________________________

Still though, damn good game.

Passenger 57 and Speed are good movies because Die Hard is a great movie. The Magician is a good book because Lord of the Rings is too. So following this logic: Shadow Complex is a good game because Super Metroid is one of the best games ever.

- Danny

Monday, August 31, 2009

Metroid: Other Complex

When I was playing Shadow Complex (Epic Games, XBLA, 2009) last night I found myself thinking less “this is a huge waste of time, I could be playing Super Metroid (Nintendo, SNES/Wii, 2004,2007)” but rather more “this borrows A LOT from Metroid games but you know what, it’s making me really geared up for Other M!”

ShadowComplex_NolanNorth-thumb-550x309-22183 metroid_otherm_screen3

(Left – Shadow Complex / Right – Metroid: Other M)

In fact, if Metroid: Other M (Nintendo, Wii, 2010) manages to succeed in the areas where Shadow Complex fails then I’m on the one hand looking forward to and on the other hand apprehensive about what will probably be one damn fine game. What little gameplay elements I can decipher from Other M’s E3 trailer indicate that it looks as if it shares the 2.5d shooting on different planes aspect of Shadow Complex, and the real positive thing here is that in Shadow Complex it all works. Complex, as has been said rather well in other places, plays very much like Super but the whole while you’re operating your controller and shooting your weapons like you would in a 1st person shooter on account of the free aim with the right stick feature. At the outset it all seems as if the world and your head will explode, but this feeling, or the actual event doesn’t look or feel like happening at any point. Instead, it all gels, it’s gripping, and it all works. It’s such a relief in a way; this was my biggest concern about Other M, in other words the primary source of my apprehension, and to see it work so well and be so fun in another game is a massive source of excitement.

Now, let’s talk about Other M briefly, well namely what we’ve seen of it so far:

Firstly, as I eluded to before, between say about 1:35 and 2:00 is the only real sense of how the game actually plays I can find and even that doesn’t give me a very good idea. In roughly 25 seconds of footage I can see Prime like 1st person snippets, God Of War like quick time events, I can see Tomb Raider like running and jumping, and I can see Super Metroid like shooting complete with similar enemies. This jumbled mess of content does not a picture of a cohesive action game make. Now of course the questions and thoughts and ruminations I have about how this will play based on what I’ve seen in an E3 trailer could all be rendered moot and unfounded if you consider this as a point of reference:

What little gameplay this Metroid Prime (Nintendo, GC/Wii, 2002) trailer almost but not quite shows bears just about no resemblance to what the game finally turned out to be. But that being said I prefer this trailer a great deal, and there’s a big fat massive reason why. Whereas Prime’s trailer is largely concept art based with a lesser focus on gameplay; Other M’s trailer is primarily cut scene based and gives me the impression that the game relies heavily on story, and you know my feelings on story mixed with Metroid. Metroid for me is about discovery and exploration, if there has to be cut scenes or story in my game I want it to be found in computer logs I have to search for and investigate like in Prime, or during Elevator/loading sequences like in Fusion, or, in the case of older games in the series, in the frikkin’ instruction manual.

The other thing I just can’t abide and don’t in a million years want is a noticeable graphical difference between FMV and gameplay which I hate because it’s lazy and it’s un-immersive. It immediately begins to fundamentally make me feel like the game and it’s story are two different things which should never be the case. The Metroid Prime series shares it’s excellent storytelling technique with Half-Life (Valve, PC, 1998), in that both of them never try to break the action or the flow of the game on account of their story. Now don’t get me wrong here, I know the Prime series is over, I know it’s a new developer and all that so maybe I should just accept that it will be completely different. However I won’t be overly pleased if this aspect of the trailer is a huge part of the final product.

This whole change thing could be a good thing though. The whole lose all your powers and slowly gain them as a result of heavy exploration on a large and varied but unusually very well connected set of locales nature of Super, Fusion, and the Prime series is after so many years getting a little stale. For instance, does the announcement this week that Retro Studios may one day return to the Metroid Universe, despite previously saying they had moved on, mean that one day we’ll get a 4th game that is behind the shell of it’s mere changes essentially again the same game? Look at Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (Nintendo, GC/Wii, 2004) for example: it’s two biggest innovations were a dark world and the Screw Attack, and those were nabbed from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, SNES/GC/Wii/GBA, 1991) and past Metroid games. So maybe if someone like Epic Games can come along and make Shadow Complex and get away with it (at this juncture I want you to know I think it is a very good game by the way) maybe that means it is high time for something new.

But really truly, thanks Shadow Complex, you’re lack of innovation coupled with new elements and actual real fun has made me more excited about Metroid: Other M. Now I just need more videos or another game completely out of nowhere to make me more excited about Super Mario Galaxy 2 (working title) (Nintendo, Wii, 2010).

- Danny

Monday, June 9, 2008

Best Scene In Cinema Hisory

INT. RUSSIAN HOTEL - DAY

GRIGORI MUSCOVIC, a swarthy Russian Mobster (Udo Kier), stares through his foreign gimlet eyes at BUSHNELL (DiCaprio).

MUSCOVIC
Misterra Bushnell, we demand rights
for your Tetris game.

BUSHNELL
Just a second.

IVAN KARNOV, a portly little fellow in a furry hat (Viggo Mortensen), brings BUSHNELL a phone on one of those silver platters they put phones on in the Seventies, right?

KARNOV
Atelephone forra you, Misterra Bushnell.

INT. ARCADE - DAY

TERRY NASCAR, a sweaty, long-haired arcade proprietor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), holds the phone feverishly to his cauliflower ear.

NASCAR
Nolan?? Nolan, is that you, man?? Listen,
we need answers now! HOW DO WE
REPLACE THE BUCKET FULL OF QUARTERS??