Tuesday, March 30, 2010

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a PS2: March

Okay, so my favorite local second hand, MUST HAVE MUSIC AND MORE, has a slew of Playstation 2 games and recently I discovered that a great number of them are being sold for the low, low price of $4.95.  For those of you who have been following along at home, this is how I came across Pryzm , Chapter One: The Last Unicorn, that little gem that I alone made famous last year!  As I was browsing through the stacks the other day I saw a good number of these $5 games that looked at the very least interesting, if not potential diamonds in the rough.  After thinking it over I came to a conclusion:  The PS2 has a vast library and very few catch the attention of the popular culture, but lots and lots of games get released. Somewhere in those stacks of discarded, unloved games must be some really great games just looking for someone to play them and at the risk of five dollars a go, I think it’s worth finding just what is out there.  The result is this on-going experiment, a journey that you and I are going to take through the unwanted library of the PS2.  So strap in, kiddies, we’ve got twelve months, sixty dollars, and a Playstation2 and we’re about to discover what we’ve been missing!


Red Ninja: End of Honor
Vivendi Universal

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am going to tell you right away that we have a winner!  Red Ninja is great and soon I’ll tell you why, but first an admission: this game was not priced at $5.  But fear not, our sacred bond remains unbroken, despite the sub-title of this month’s game, I retain my honor.  You see, I was browsing the stacks at MUST HAVE MUSIC AND MORE, and I commented on this game as I inspected its jacket art (and the buxom young Japanese lady spilling out all over it), “too bad this isn’t $5,” I remarked and put the game back on the shelf.  After about ten minutes of hemming and hawing, really more hawing than anything not big on the hemming, I selected Corvette: 50th Anniversary and headed to the counter.  “Looks like this month it’s going to be Corvette,” I said to my guy behind the counter.  “I can’t let you do that,” says he.  “That game is miserable.  Don’t do it.  What was that game you put back that wasn’t five dollars?”  “Red Ninja, it was $6.95.” “I’ll let you have it for five, you do a lot of business here, I don’t mind giving you a break if it saves you from Corvette.”  And so you see, my friends, because of the good nature of my guy at the second hand, I was able to bring you the following review of a game that can be found for $5, even if you have to work a deal every now and then.  I’ll probably still go get that Corvette game at some point; you people don’t get off that easy…
But before you think this column is some kind of “Day in the Life of Stan” soap opera, let’s talk about killing people with stealth and lots and lots of blood!  
As I said before, Red Ninja is a sure winner and I have no idea why this game isn’t a heralded classic alongside its contemporaries like God of War.  If you are not familiar with this title, imagine Lara Croft as a petite, badass Japanese girl who can, and will, kill with a whisper.  Yeah, I know.  Red Ninja is a platforming game that requires an inordinate amount of stealth and cunning as well as problem solving and fighting prowess.  As a matter of fact, if you conduct yourself properly you won’t do much fighting at all.  This game is all about using your vast ninja skills to infiltrate the deadly Black Lizard Clan and seek out those who left you for dead.  During the course of your missions, you’ll encounter deadly assassins, savage betrayals and a mystery that runs as deep as the blood you’re going to spill.

The game play is phenomenal.  Levels are complex and require a variety of tasks to reach completion.  There are small puzzles to solve, enemies to evade or dispatch, and tricky jumps and maneuvers that all work together to create an interesting and engaging game.  Each level is capped off by a boss fight that is generally a blend of ninja strategy and carefully executing fighting.  The boss fight at the end of level two is an amazing blend of cunning tactics and straightforward blood-letting.   To succeed in your mission, you will have to execute a series of serious ninja moves.  From ripping bad guys in half with your line, to dangling upside down from trees to slit the throat of unsuspecting passers-by, to running up the side of buildings, and even using your feminine wiles to seduce horn-dog guards, you will run the gamut of very cool ninja skills during your quest.
Graphically, Red Ninja is gorgeous.  Lush backgrounds and highly interactive environments frame this epic adventure.  The cast of characters are nicely rendered with fine detail and minimal polygonal dithering.  Not to reveal my supreme dorkiness, but this game is about an extremely hot Japanese girl in very little clothing.  You do the math. But be warned, there is a lot of blood.  The game is aptly named, not just for the kimono that Kuranei, your character, wears, but for the copious amounts of blood that is spilled in combat.  Sometimes this game makes Mortal Kombat look like a Disney title
If Red Ninja has one flaw, it lies in the inconsistent camera angles.  Most of the time the camera is fine and when it is not, you can readjust, but occasionally the camera will get stuck in a bad position and there isn’t much you can do about.  Couple that with the fact that, depending on where you are standing, you sometimes have an incredibly limited view of your surroundings, even if it would seem logical that you should be capable of a better view, and frustration can quickly mount.  Another minor quibble comes from the difficulty of executing some of the more advanced ninja skills.  In level 3 you gain the ability to tie enemies up with the Fundo.  Part of this ability enables you to string bad guys up and literally hang them noose-style or by their feet for a good throat slashing.  Sounds like fun, huh?  Well, despite hours of practice I have been unable to successfully execute this maneuver (pun unavoidable).  I have no doubt it can be done, but some of the moves are not as intuitive as they could be.

Despite those minor criticisms, I have to say that Red Ninja is easily one of the coolest PS2 games I have played and certainly one of the best action-platformers I have played for a modern system.  Being a big fan of Tomb Raider, this game certainly strikes a chord with me, but I think there is something here for anyone who likes this genre.  The gruesome nature of this game may give it an adult rating, but the game play is straight up fun and the graphic nature is incidental not gratuitous, well, not entirely…
Anyway, if you can find a copy of Red Ninja, I highly advise you add it to your collection!  Next month, I have my eyes on a game that cannot be very good, but who knows what I’ll find when I wander into the shop…

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Closer Look at Uncanny X-men for the NES

A Closer Look at Uncanny X-men for the NES

Yes, so here we are again, in a place I never expected to be, much less twice.  Coming to the defense of an LJN game isn’t easy, but once again my eyes have been opened to a game that at first blush appears to be a steaming pile, but upon closer inspection turns out not to suck as much as I thought.  Heck, with the game in question, I’d even be so bold as to now admit that I like the game a lot.  The previous sentences are ones I would have never expected to write about X-men for the NES, but here we are.It all started over on NintendoAge, a fellow website devoted to all things Nintendo, where we are discussing “impossible” to beat NES games and I threw out X-men as a candidate. My previous experience with the game indicated that it was pretty much unplayable. Another poster replied that not only was X-men beatable, but there were people out there who could do it in short order and that once you learned the intricacies of the game, it was actually quite playable.  Certain that I had missed something, and being a big Marvel Comics fan who was sorely disappointed by this title back in the 80’s, I set out to find if this poster was indeed correct.

Step One:  Read the freaking Instruction Manual.  This should be a disclaimer for all video games made before the PSX.  It should be second nature to old schoolers like me, but I’ve been spoiled by the in-game tutorial that is a staple of modern games.  That doesn’t dismiss the fact that I obviously played this as a kid without reading the manual, but it was probably a rental and those never had a manuals, so leave me alone!  Anyway, read the damn manual if you want a shot at playing this game and understanding what is going on.

Step Two:  Play cautiously, learn the game.  The biggest mistake I made was thinking that this game was a standard dungeon crawler like Gauntlet and ran in guns a-blazing.  That will not work with X-men.  You have to play carefully, at least until you are familiar with the game play and level design.  Take your time.
If you follow those two steps you just might be able to salvage your opinion of this game.  And if you are really crazy, like me, you just might find you actually like it, a lot.  What the hell.

So how do you go from completely dismissing a game to playing it for hours on end?  Sheer will power.  If someone else had possessed the wherewithal to actually beat this game, then there must be something to it.  I’ve never let a game best me and I wasn’t about to let X-men be the first! So I started playing and kept playing and playing.  Here is what I discovered.  In all honesty, X-men feels like a sloppily made dungeon crawler that was pretty much already programmed when someone from LJN got a hold of the X-men license and started shopping around what they could do for an X-men themed game.  Somebody pulled out this program and said they could change the sprites to look like the heroes from the comic and minutes later this game appeared on toy store shelves across America.  I kid you not.  The game is only loosely based on the comic books, despite the aforementioned, very well themed Instruction Manual.

The Unstoppable Shooting Juggernaut!
Take the bosses for example: Sabretooth, White Queen, Juggernaut and Boomerang.  Boomerang?  Since when is he an X-men villain?  Dude fights the Hulk and Spider-man and maybe like Daredevil.  He has no beef with mutants that I am aware of.  Why is he in here instead of Blob or Pyro?  Also, Juggernaut, the character known for being “unstoppable” has decided to forgo his usual MO of ramming people into pulp in favor of shooting some kind of electric beams at you.  And while we’re at it, the White Queen acts more like Mystique since she takes your form and attacks you as you.  Heck the sprite even looks like Mystique!  Oh and Sabretooth jumps a lot.  Now you tell me this game was designed with a working knowledge of the X-men and their rogues’ gallery…

Anyway, if we look past the half-heartedly applied theming, what we are left with is an average or below average dungeon crawler that is tricky to learn, but once it has been learned, it proves to be simple and even fun.   For an added kick, once you learn the game, you can reapply the theming and ignore some obvious mistakes and enjoy the game at its fullest.  By no means am I suggesting that X-men is a classic, but it may not suck as much as you or I originally thought.  The key is to be patient and learn its ins and outs.  The remainder of this article is designed as a guide to getting some enjoyment out of this game and to redeem what is otherwise a dismal, comic-based video game.  Having finally beaten X-men, I can say with some authority that X-men for the NES isn’t as bad as its reputation, but isn’t as good as it should have been.

But enough defending LJN games, next month I’ll take a Closer Look at something that we have unknowingly allowed to happen over the past 30 years, and we are worse for it…


Ranged vs. Melee Heroes.  Your team is split into two types of characters: ranged and melee.  My first instinct was that ranged was the way to go, but I soon discovered the advantage of the melee type.  Ranged characters are great because they can attack from a distance and hit multiple enemies at once.  Where they come up short is defense.  A few good hits means curtains for them and if an enemy spawns under them, it’s goodnight Gracie (George Burns, look it up).  Melee characters have to get up close and personal to take down bad guys, but they have more HP and defense to make up for this fact.  I prefer the melee guys for this very reason.  If you are going to use ranged heroes, pick up every, and I mean every, Energy and Invincibility power-up you see.  This is a good strategy in general (see below), but for ranged characters this is not optional.  Iceman can have full health one minute and be seconds from death the next.  Do not risk it.

Colossus is the best character in the game.  Why?  Durability.  He has the most HP and he packs the biggest punch.  I believe you can beat the game with him alone if you have to.  Sure he’s slow, but so what?  That really only comes into play in the Robot Factory and even then you can work around his speed.
Storm and Nightcrawler are useless.  Useless.  Both have the resilience of a paper hat in the rain.  They will die instantly upon contact with an enemy and their attack power is not sufficient to make up for their lack of fortitude.  These two are expendable.  Do not use either as your main character unless you just really want a challenge.
Wolverine, Cyclops and Iceman are all good middle of the road characters.  Wolverine is a lot like Colossus, but with a little less durability.  He can go a long way, but sometimes needs some help.  Cyclops and Iceman are the best ranged attackers, but they can’t take too many hits, so use carefully.  Other than the fact that Iceman can fly (?) they are virtually identical.

My strategy is to start with Colossus and Storm in the Underground Sewers level.  Storm will fold like a chair at the civic center pretty much as soon as the level starts, so get that out of the way.  Colossus is best to fight Sabretooth since Toothy tends to jump a lot and Colossus can just stand there and wail on him.  Plus Sabretooth tends to work in an “L” shaped pattern so he will just keep running into Colossus’ fists.  Next I take Cyclops and Nightcrawler to the Future City Street Fight.  Once again, Nightcrawler lasts about as long as a bag of cookies at my overweight aunt’s house, so he’ll be out quick.  Cyclops is pretty fast and has powerful optic blasts so he can mow through bad guys pretty easily.  Iceman is equally reliable, and if Cyclops goes down, Bobby is my back-up.  Next I take Cyclops (or Iceman) to the Robot Factory along with Wolverine; sorry Logan you’re not going to make it.  Again, Cyclops is great against Juggernaut because he can wail on him from a distance (see below about Bosses that Shoot).  Finally, I take Cyclops and Iceman, one of them must die sadly, to the Living Alien Ship and run amok in there.  The White Queen is an easy kill.  Then I load everybody back up into the station wagon and head for Magneto’s house, where we all get soundly trounced and I get to try it all over again… (see below about Getting to Magneto)  You may find it strange that despite my previous adoration for Colossus, I only used him once in this mini-walkthrough.  That is because he is my go-to.  If everyone else gets slaughtered in a mission for some reason, I know with reasonable certainty that I can put Colossus in there and get us through the mission.  Thus, I never put him on the front line unless I have to (like in the Sewers).

Laser gates are instant death.  I don’t care if Colossus has full health; he cannot make it through a laser gate without dying should the gate close on him.  Oh sure, you might make it once, but I promise you the odds are against you.  What’s worse, there is no real rhyme or reason to when they open or close.  It appears to be totally at random.  The only way I have found to get through these gates is to kill baddies until one drops an invincibility power-up.  Grab the power-up and run like hell through the gate.  It may take a minute for one to drop, but I promise the alternative is 99% certain death.

Power-ups:  There are two power-ups you should ALWAYS pick up: Invincibility and Energy.  Dying in this game is easy, very easy.  Stupid very easy.  To stave off the grave, pick up these two power-ups every, and I mean every, time they appear.  The Invincibility is great for obvious reasons and the Energy will refill your entire HP every time.  Picking these up every time is a no-brainer. Avoid the Magnet Mines like they were the plague.  If you are playing with a weaker character, these are instant death anyway, and they can be just as fatal for good characters.  The Time Stop and All Kill are good, but I wouldn’t risk anything going for them.  Use as you see fit.

Defeating Bosses that Shoot:  For some reason Boomerang is a boss in this game and he throws boomerangs at you (shoots).  Also the Juggernaut shoots at you, despite that being contrary to his very nature.  When dealing with bosses that shoot, for any reason, your best bet is to avoid being on the same level (line) as they are.  When you share a level (line) with them, their shots can hit you, otherwise they cannot.  Position yourself just below their level or just to the side if working vertically, and then wail on them with melee attacks or blast them with range attacks.  If they move to your level, adjust and repeat.  They will continuously try to walk to your level so if you are careful and time it right, you can often bounce them back and forth into your attack until they are vanquished.

Look before you leap.  Until you know the levels inside and out, walk carefully.  The levels are littered with poisonous floors, traps, spike pits and other pitfalls that look nothing like those kinds of things.  If you are walking and you hear the noise that indicates you are taking damage, check where you are, chances are good you are standing on a trap or other floor hazard.  Get off of there quick.  Weaker characters will be pretty much instantly killed by these, so mark them well and avoid.

Violence is NOT the answer.  Most of the time, the bad guys in this game are not really out to get you as much as they are just meandering about.  Thus, for several of the levels, you can clear entire areas with little to no violence at all.  Just run past everything.  Why is this a good idea?  Killing an enemy causes it to respawn and sometimes that happens right under where you are standing resulting in a quick death if you are not careful.  If killing them causes this, why do it?  Plus if you don’t stop to kill everything that shows up, you cannot get surrounded and blitzed from all sides. Play around and see which levels/areas you can clear with a minimum of conflict.  It may save you in the long run!

A note about escaping the Robot Factory.  On your way out of the boss room, you are going to pass through an area where the walls close off part of the room.  RUN.  Fast.  If you get stuck between these walls all you can do is sit and wait for the bomb to go off and kill you.  It is in your best interest to learn this room and its three closing walls well.  At the start, grab an Invincibility power-up if you can and then make a run for it.  If you get closed off before passing the first wall, you can always go back out the teleporter pad and come back in and the wall will be open again.  I have actually gotten stuck in the wall before as it closed on me, however I was able to wiggle free by repeatedly pressing the A and B button and pausing and unpausing the game.  Not sure if this will work every time, but it got me out once.  Also, occasionally picking up the Time Stop power-up will give you a speed boost, not sure what governs when and if this happens.  You can also use this to increase your speed and escape the closing walls. If you are playing as Colossus, this strategy is a must.
Ok are you sitting down?  Are you ready for this?  There is absolutely nothing in the game that tells you how to access the final level against Magneto.  There is nothing in the instruction manual that tells you how to access the final level against Magneto.  The only thing that even hints at how to do this is printed in extremely small print at toward the bottom of the label on the game cartridge itself.  Not only that, but the hint that they give you on that label is WRONG.  You heard me.  If you beat all four regular levels, the game appears to be over, as you can only access the PRACTICE level.  However, once you have completed the four main levels, on the stage select screen, you press UP + B+ SELECT + START and it will take you to the character select screen where you pick the two heroes you want to take on Magneto and then it will whisk you off to the final level.  How totally messed up is that crap?
Now, before you race off to fight the bastard, spend at least one round in the PRACTICE level.  Why?  Doing so grants you access to all of your heroes again, even the dead ones – creepy, huh?– for use in the final level.  So killing off Iceman on the last level isn’t so bad after all.  And trust me, you are going to need them, Magneto’s lair is way tougher than the previous four levels!  Actually, you can do this after successful completion of any level, and that might be good for you as you practice, but don’t rely on it as a crutch, play the game!
Be careful!  Magneto’s lair is bigger than any of the previous levels and is a perilous maze.  Many of the passages lead to dead ends and the floors are riddled with traps.  The enemies move faster, spawn quicker and hit for more damage.  Once you get to Magento, he’ll act a lot like a Boss that Can Shoot, so use those strategies.  The only real difference is that the battle area is smaller, so watch your step.  Also, if he hits you with his magnetic beam, your controls will be temporarily reversed.  That is not good.  Your best bet is to try and trap him in the upper right corner of the screen and give him what for!

Hopefully, the above tips and strategies will help you get more out of this game than you did the first time you made a go at playing it.  Heck, if you are stupid like me, you might even like the game, but I’m not making any promises!