Thursday, 31 October 2013

Duke 3D

NO I am not talking about Duke Nukem Forever (yet) or Manhattan Project (yet).

This is Duke Nukem 3D, a game that brought with it controversy with supposedly excessive violence and raw porn in a game. (Yeah right... a few badly animated gifs) which kicked off censors in ways that most hadn't expected since the Mortal Kombat fiasco and followed on with people crying to the skies for us to think of the children (on a game that's rated 18, so why are they playing it?) and stating how life and society are collapsing around us and we'll all live in sin and base needs or writhing orgies and death and murder and...

What a load of bollocks. One thing I hate more than people decrying games for being corrupting, are those that seem to think that just because something doesn't fit into the world view, it must be stamped out or it'll cause the end of the world as we know it.

In some cases, that's not a bad thing.

But behind the uproar, behind the mask of bullshit of focus groups braying for blood like loud-mouthed toddlers, there's a game and that's what I'm looking at today.

With the main competition being Quake, a 2D based shooter being released at the same time as the full 3D games, was always going to be compared as the last solid bastion against the new age of the prosperous future. While Quake was a full 3D game with focus on combat and showing the 3D arena, Duke was able to utilise the BUILD engine to put a 2D engine game into one of the brightest, most colourful (language too) and humorous games of the 1990's.

In a plot that is summed up probably more quickly than I'm about to do, "Aliens have invaded, go kick their ass", starting with Duke leaping from a crashing spacecraft, watching it fall and explode while landing upon a rooftop and immediately presented with the idea of blowing up canisters to cause things to open, dropping down an air vent into a deserted street by a porn theatre and the fighting begins.

With a massive number of weapons, sporting kicking (Both legs on early versions), pistols, shotguns, ripper guns, RPGs, pipe bombs, shrink guns, laser trip bombs, dual-handed mini rocket launchers and a freeze thrower with bouncing projectiles, Duke is well armed and well equipped to run his testosterone fuelled, muscle headed, one-line quoting ass from here to the final boss. Much in the style of doom, each level is ended by either slapping the end button or killing the boss of the level across 3 (initially) episodes.

On the way you'll be assaulted by an army of alien invader, mutated cops (into pigs... how droll), machines and robots while also encountering every movie and film reference possible from the 70s to the present day from Alien to Star Wars, Terminator to Evil Dead, Space 2001 to Independence day. Practically every level has some reference be it audio or visual to any number of aspects of pop-culture.

The game uses a huge array of textures and structures, with some very clever Build engine tricks to allow for rooms above others in a sort of 5th Dimensional space (coined by Marathon originally), allowing for more convincing levels set with a city, a space ship/moon and another city across the episodes. As cartoony as the graphics are, you can still identify the levels and what the intentions were, while red brick walls are very red still and not the dulled out and brown-washed mess a lot of modern games happen to be.

In many levels, there's the inclusion of "babes" that hold various positions of being offered cash to "shake it, baby" or moan "Kill me" of which killing any of these traps will cause more enemies to be spawn, usually those that require several shotgun rounds and likely, the Octobrain enemies. While other areas of the game act as touch plate spawn points for enemies to trigger or appear as soon as you step on a specific part of the floor or enter specific rooms and then in comes the army. Not hidden behind a wall, not teleported in from another room, but actually CREATED right then and there with no warning at all other than hindsight from playing beforehand. In later levels there's a lot of this type of trap.

The designers and makers of this game and levels show their colours as being children of the 70s and grew up in the 80s, in one level you'll find the obelisk from 2001, another you'll find a smashed up terminator complete with outstretched hand and more subtle take-that's such as a Burger House with drive thru, being supplied by a dog-pound from next door, accompanied by the genitally based quip "Nobody messes with MY meat" to really hammer the joke home and bypass all the subtlety one could have mustered.

A lot of the humour is beaten over the players head until they're forced to groan about it or just left scratching their head at the missed joke as it sails over their head at mach-1. The humour is there, but like a lot of time-based jokes, it falls flat when people no longer remember the incident, such as the OJ case with footage of him fleeing, large signs of "Innocent?" and "Guilty!" dotting the landscapes.

Game play however, is smooth and fluid, with Duke running around about as fast as the Doom Marine does (and he turns up too in this game in a secret area), generally outpacing most of the planet and sprinting the world over in short time, even faster when taking steroids, while jumping and ducking allows for a few extra ways of navigating levels that many wouldn't have been accustomed to doing since the days of Doom. The extra functions and abilities found within the engine put it head and shoulders above most of the games on the Build Engine and slaughters all Doom Style games save for the best one or two (of which I will be reviewing later).

Multi-button switches, switch combos to unlock doors, flat platforms over platforms, destructible areas that react to the player blowing stuff up, moving carts/train (noticeable on the Subway level), underwater swimming, falling damage, and many more bonus features not found in your standard Doom Engine game, all await you in Duke 3D. Though in some cases you cannot help but feel that some of the features were written in with JUST one aspect of one level in mind and nothing else. That said, there's a lot of features and tricks that can be made within the BUILD engine (that comes on the CD of the game) where you can create and design your own levels and make your own episodes. For some this aspect might be more appealing than the actual game and certainly had myself making a myriad of games when I first started the game, way, way, back.

The satirical edge aside for the humour, there's a very disjointed feel to a lot of the levels when you're jumping from one to another, going from an adult theatre to a red-light district then to a prison, is rather jarring to the flow of the game and then to a submarine and a factor, before turning up at the San Andreas Fault, one can't help but feel these levels could be done in any order and it'd make NO difference to the overall experience. There's no story to be told beyond getting from a to b and a brief (see VERY brief) talk by Duke to the boss of the episode followed by a short, stop-frame, FMV of him doing something... usually ripping off a head and shitting down a neck.

While there is a large level of outrage over the needless sexualisation and objectification of women within the game, serving as either eye-candy for the player or a pointless additional reminded to beat the level and save people, the game wouldn't have suffered at all had it simply removed this aspect of the game, because otherwise the world gets invaded and everyone's dead except for Duke, Aliens and a few scantily clad women. It's a misogynistic view of the future but one that fits Duke's mentality and atmosphere, whether rightly or wrongly and for that matter, suits the character rather well as a guns-blazing, meat-headded, steroidal ass-hat, but one that's fun to play as.

What is apparent, is that there was little clue at the time that this game would accelerate the brand into super stardom and become something many would remember fondly but never find it accurately re-made with ports to the play station, N64 (yep even on Nintendo), and other consoles through the times, other future games being released beyond Duke 3D with one being a return to the platforming roots of the first 2 games then the stunningly, ACTUALLY released, vapourware of Duke Nukem Forever (and it should have remained vapourware). Nostalgia masks this game as being something far greater than it was and all the hype and failures of recent time’s only further cement this game in being something far more than it actually was.

As a game, it's interesting to see a take on Adult that doesn't just rely on gore and swearing but also sexualisation, which a lot of games didn't for a LONG time, and quite likely because this did it and nobody dared to match it in the same shameless manner, while games in the past had facets of sexualisation, few were as readily accessible as this one (except porn games, but that's just obvious and I don't expect anyone to defend porn games because it takes too long type with one hand). Must take balls of steel to implement that as your object in a game's release.

Maybe one day, someone will release the source code and we'll get to enjoy duke in the same way we enjoy Doom with lots of ports and online functionality pushed through the roof and huge levels way beyond the limitations of the build engine.

Until then, we've only this to go back to and play it fondly.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Super Smash Brothers Melee

"But why not the original, or Brawl?"
"Quite simply, I don't have those games, so this is the one I'm reviewing"

To answer a few similar questions over the last few months of "Why this and why not that?" I have to point people to the header of the website and the tagline, but most in particular "Leave disappointed" In which case, you got what was offered.

The premise of the game is an interesting one, take a whole bunch of Nintendo’s mascots, outfit them with platform game mechanics and give them a myriad of attacks and moves, then up the ante by giving them weapons, power-ups and other such pickups and let them go mental at each other until either the time runs out or the last one is left standing.

Nintendo certainly know how to milk a game these days, the initial starter roster featuring characters such as Mario, Fox, Pikachu, Link, Peach, Bowser, Kirby, Captain Falcon, Donkey Kong and a LOT more, with more becoming unlocked as the games continue and rounds are won and lost. The final roster has a lot to offer and plenty of variation between distinct characters, and variations of characters (Mario and Dr Mario, Fox and Falco).

The game presents as the ultimate party game, up to 4 players picking a character and systematically beating the shit out of each other in a variety of levels from various franchises. Paying homage to a lot of Nintendo’s history and structure of their games. Samus from Metroid appears and a few of her levels too, serving mainly as a nod and short trip down memory lane for the players that remember, or cared. The game can be customised fully to permit specific items appearing in matches, or none at all, or just Pokémon for a huge fight throwing god-knows-what at each other while creatures that fit in a pocket wreck havoc on almost interplanetary scales of damage.

Each char has the rudimentary move set of attacking in 4 directions, jumps, double jumps (sometimes more), blocking with a bubble that slowly fades, dodges in the air and along the ground, B-Moves in 4 directions for more specifically suited attacks to the character (Mario’s cape, Bowser’s flame throwing and shell spin etc), and 4 smash attacks where the player has to press the direction AND attack at the same time for a harder hitting attack that can be charged too. This is not counting moves that stack and build up, counter attack moves, catch moves and grab/throw moves which alone give the characters a huge variety of attacks and skills. Then they pick up a baseball bat...

The aim of each fight is to knock the opponent out of the area. You can beat on them, smack them around and slap the shit out of each other until the cows come home, but the damage only increases the height and distance they get knocked back. Hitting someone on 10% damage will knock them back a little, hitting someone on 250% damage will likely launch them into the stratosphere (though not always). Smash them off the sides, the top or the bottom and you score the kill/point. Person with the most points at the end of the timer, or if it's a life game, the last one standing, wins.

Some of the levels are static, while most of them are themed from various characters and having changing aspects to the level. A flying airship that travels across an arena, eternally looping Ice Mountains, lava filling death pits, fighting across a race track, the choices and hazards are huge for the game's possibilities, down to the final battle arena that's a simple flat area with no platforms for those that like combat to be decided upon fighting rather than avoiding unbiased hazards.

The single player mode gives people the choice to play the adventure, which is a series of levels themed on various games such as Mario with a level taken from the series with minor enemies within it, to the duels with other characters and making your way towards harder and harder challenges like Metal Characters, mazes to boost your collections and the final battle with a large Bowser (and maybe Giga Bowser) or the Master Hand (and Crazy Hand if you did fairly well), or even worse... a lot of the Game and Watch nutcase characters.

Collectors will find trophies dotted around the games to collect and unlock further things, other collectors will try to receive every battle award from "Switzerland" where you never attack or get hit, to the more elusive "No damage run" where you beat the whole game without being hit even once.

The game doesn't stop there, with the single player challenge mode, 50+ varying challenges that have players trying to fulfil specific criteria while either choosing their character, or being dictated by the computer/setup. Such as a Pokémon match where ONLY Pokémon moves will cause damage and nothing from actual melee will work. To one-on-one duels to try and unlock bonus characters.

Otherwise there's the sandbag that you have to launch within 10 seconds to send it the furthest after beating it up. Or play smash-the-ten targets.

The control system is incredibly responsive, reacting to each twitch and flick of the analogues and button presses, making the characters as nimble as your reactions. You rarely ever feel that the game has stitched you up, but more that a loss or failure is down to the player rather than the game's mechanics. (Except in sudden death... random bob-omb explosions). Some of the levels are better designed than others, with combat taking a back step while people JUST navigate the level and failure to do even that, will likely result in a loss of life (if the fight waits that long).

The game seems to borrow a lot from Power Stone 2, with the moving levels, 4 player chaos and multiple items, but like that game, it also suffers from over congestion. 4 players on screen, each throwing a pokeball, gives another 4 Pokémon on screen doing their moves and some of those moves smother the screen in special effects, it's very easy for people to lose track of their character and accidentally try to control the wrong one, and walk themselves off the edge of the level. (Throw in 4 ice-climbers, leading to 8 characters on screen at once...).

Musically, Smash Brothers Melee comes with a huge accompaniment of remixes from earlier titles tracks, be it from Metroid, F-Zero, Mario, Kirby, Donkey Kong Country and many others, enough to be significant of a change to warrant their inclusion, while also bringing a new flavour that will remind the older players while being upbeat enough to be interesting to the younger players.

Sadly, with the game's huge roster of characters, there's a tier of skill and ability falling in place. Some characters will constantly and consistently outshine and outperform other characters unless there's some heavy luck based pickups doing well for those characters. Though if the opponent is that high in tier, they should have no difficulty in navigating around the attacks and going on to win the battle regardless of the other character's ability and skills. It can get rather one-sided when you're competing faster characters against slower characters or fast-fall characters (gravity does what it wants here) with those that not only fall slowly, but can double, triple, quadruple jump and more. But then, it's not about balance but more about having fun and enjoying the game with the characters you like the most.

The game is the ultimate party game for platform enthusiasts, perhaps not for beat-em-up hardcore nuts. The combat is a little lacking in complexity when you compare it to games like Soul Calibur, Dead or Alive (ignoring the excessive tittage), or even the Street Fighter games, those looking for a more in-depth fighter will find this game coming short against the competition in that regard. Having said that, with the right people this game can become a huge boon to any gamers library of games, on its own though there's the challenge of getting through the single player modes with their difficulties, getting the fastest times but the game really comes into its own with 2-3 friends round and going silly with the fighting.

It's also a great game for settling those pointless playground fights of who'd win between Mario and Kirby, the answer is 'The Off Button'

Thursday, 24 October 2013

C64 Barbarian

For some games it can be hard to tell whether it's a blatant rip of a franchise or other Intellectual Property, a parody of the source material or if it's a genuine attempt to reproduce the source in an alternative form of entertainment. Beyond that, it is done for money, for the challenge or simply to advertise themselves and their talents.

It's almost always for the money, a company that sets up to not make money, isn't a company. It's a charity.

Barbarian, on the C64, is harder to categorise as to whether it's a blatant rip or an actual genuine attempt to honour the Conan films. It's certainly not what one would call or describe as a parody of the films. Given the lack of plot beyond "Beat the warriors, kill the warlock, save the scantily clad cluster of pixels" the game itself is an interest blend of homage and beat-em-up.

The premise is simple enough; each warrior enters from their respective side, armed with a sword. They each get 6 life spots and lose a half per hit they receive while a timer counts down. The first one to lose all their life spots is dead and the green goblin creature drags the dead body away. Failure to kill the opponent results in a draw and rematch, back at full health, as opposed to the "one with lowest health, loses" rule we see in more cash-based franchises, especially in arcades.

Depending upon the opponent, whether in single player or vs. mode, the background changes after each battle from one to another, given the complexity of the combat, one could forgive the lack of choice in backgrounds. But the game's main focus is the combat and there's a lot of it there in the arsenal of moves the characters each have. Graphically there's no differentiation from one enemy and another save for the colour of shirt they're wearing and the specification of which level you happen to be on (Save for the Warlock but more later). Each combatant has the same moves, mirrored depending upon whether they're on the left or right side of the fight.

While on the subject of graphics, the combatants are fairly recognisable as Barbarians, while the goblin looks green enough to be a goblin, the backgrounds form enough of the artwork to be recognisable as a dungeon, throne room etc. Blood spots in the soft red shade, the snakes hiss and animate each time a wound is scored on the opponent, serving as borders to the screen and the play area.

One would be forgiven for thinking the combat would be limited if each player has a simple joystick and just one button as a control system, but borrowing heavily from International Karate, the control system works well on the C64 to provide a suitable selection of moves and abilities. Each character responds to the 8 directions of the joystick by ducking, rolling, walking, jumping up or holding a block stance to cover the body or the head from attack. Each direction used with the fire button depressed, permits the character to attack in one of 8 different ways, from kicks to leg chops, body attacks, head butts, twirling the sword and the infamous, "flying head chop".

While all this is going on, the characters are duking it out to a fairly solid rendition of the main theme music to Conan the Barbarian and reproducing faithfully with the SID chip, even taking the full length of the piece of music into account that many viewers of the films would likely miss save for the longest fight scene, the composer having really done their research on this one and it shows. Thankfully it can be switched off too to listen to the sounds of swords being twirled, flesh being chopped and laughing little goblins when they collect the corpses.

The complexity of the game permits a level of depth that one wouldn't normally associate with a game of this time. For each move there is a counter, be it ducking a high attack, blocking a mid, rolling or jumping around moves and such, for there's one move you WANT to avoid at all costs, the flying-head-chop, an easily accessible, long build up move that if it connects, decapitates your opponent and sends their bonce sailing away from their neck. Instant win, goblin collects body, kicks head off stage, next level. But thanks to the large run up time to the move, it can be easily avoided and even if barely avoided, takes half a life spot if it hits anywhere other than the critical area.

In single player, the game progresses from one opponent to another for 8 levels, each opponent getting tougher in difficulty as the player completes each one, later opponents will also attempt the flying head chop and shocking, can achieve it. If the player loses, game over, thanks for playing. However, should they progress far enough to the Warlock, the game play changes to either jumping or ducking magical attacks while trying to progress across the stage to the opponent. One hit from a magical attack spells death while just touching the Warlock, beats the game. The shift in game play and objective usually is so jarring, and without warning, too often kill the player before they realise what is going on. After beating 8 opponents in sword-combat, to suddenly play a game of fatal dodge ball, is a huge dick move on the part of the designers.

It's on the same lines as playing a game for 20 hours, you're well versed and practised in how to play the game, and you know the moves and have come to learn several combos and specials. Then in the last five minutes, you have to play a version of Tetris where the colours have to link up rather than beating lines, you learn it quickly but the final boss already has 20 specials performed on you before you do the first piece.

The game play however does suffer from the clunky movements of the walking-meat-sacks, moves take a short time to perform, while this gives an opponent a chance to dodge, also allows the pixel perfect reactions of the AI to slaughter someone before they realise what they're doing. Rolling is BEYOND annoying, the animation is jerky, movement unrealistic and it knocks the opponent down if it connects with them. Holding down the attack just after, raises into a kick move that most opponents cannot avoid, giving you a hard and fast method of beating EVERY opponent (AI at least), for another amazing flaw in AI routines and exploitation methods.

Barbarian is an interesting piece, while it might appeal to fans of the source material, the stories, the films, the comics, there isn't enough here for the average player to want to come back to it, though playing it with another player and trying to fake each other out for the decapitation moves, is worth a chuckle at least. Nowadays there's less substance within the game than one could expect from games like Street Fighter 2 and onwards, Mortal Kombat and such but there is a level of charm, lightly glistening upon the surface of the game which shines through as a mark of dedication by the programmers.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Double Dragon (Arcade)

While not the first beat em up with depth (moving to the background and the foreground) Double Dragon is believed firmly to be the first co-operative playing beat-em-up. This is quite the break from tradition, previous games being of the 1 vs. 1, mano e mano, method of playing where two pointless characters stop everything to kick seven shades of shit out of each other. Or the brawling games known for having one character on a lone quest to stomp out several hundred other characters in the name of stomping for the sake of stomping.

Double Dragon, the great grand daddy of the brawling games. Featuring large sprites, scrolling levels and backgrounds, huge bosses (sometimes) and even a little cut scene at the start showing the motivation anyone needs for punching, kicking, whipping, baseball-batting, knifing, massive number of colour swap dudes to death (and a few dudettes); a woman gets punched and carried off. Can't think of a better reason myself to start a huge brawl against one of the possibly the largest gangs in the world with more members than McDonalds has workers.

The game's premise isn't exactly ground breaking and not something that hadn't been done before in games or films. One (or two, for the first time ever) man, conveniently colour coded in blue and red, sets out to avenge a woman by breaking skulls, legs, and generally beating to death every single thing in his way. Your method of executing this is the now oft recognised means of walking, punching, kicking, jumping, grabbing weapons and using these skills and abilities in a myriad of ways to overcome all obstacles in the protagonist’s way.

Unlike other incarnations of the same game, on different systems, you start out with full access to all your moves and abilities. You have the 8 directional movement, you have your punch button, kick button and jump button. A simple system yet the game allows for more involvement than just this. While you're walking up to enemies and punching and kicking them, repeated hits allow for bonus moves such as roundhouses and uppercuts. Jumping while attacking can give flying kicks, or reverse jump kicks if you're not moving. Double tapping a direction gives the well-known, head butt and use of both attacks at the same time performs the elbow smash which in itself, is a huge game-breaker if used to maximum exploitative means.

Enemies usually come at you in waves of 1 to 3 opponents at a time, bosses are either some HUGE guy(s) (called Abobo... go check the flash game out based on just him) or a very tough clone of the main characters. Or it's the final boss being a cheap bastard with a machinegun that can still be butchered with the same exploit moves. Having said that though, some of the boss set ups can be rather straining on the machine, particularly on the second level where there's a significant slow down as a result of the multiple enemies on the display.

Each level starts with the characters on the far left and progression is made by walking to the right, navigating occasionally ladders and pits which rather unfairly remove a whole life if you're dumb enough to walk into them or unfortunate enough to be throw/knocked into them. Once having walked right enough to run out of the appropriate level, the boss appears and attempts to kill you rather quickly. Interestingly for the game, once a level is beaten you actually are seen to move to the next section in an almost seamless progression before starting over on the right-walking once again.

Just to avoid too much monotony, certain enemies drop weapons or some levels feature extra items that can be used such as cardboard boxes (ow? I don't think so), barrels (that's more like it), or gifts like dynamite (who seriously brings dynamite to fight?) knives, baseball bats, whips and such. Each level providing more and more deadly traps from pitfalls at construction yards, broken bridges, walkways and being stabbed by statues or slammed by shifting bricks... yeah that last one is rather Indiana Jones and very much a break in the style of the game, serving as nothing more than a means to drain your coins and credits with heavily punishing damage from what seems to be dodgy collision detection and arbitrary "you're fucked" moves.

The difficulty ramps up exponentially through the game by the use of more awkward locations, the previously mentioned "fuck you" damages from level 5 and that every enemy increases in health for each level you progress. The supposed difficulty however is not from the challenge the enemy provides as each enemy fights the same way no matter what level they're on, it's a grind fest of damaging a health bar you can't see. Unlike games like Final Fight or Violent storm, there's no way of knowing how much damage you've caused to an individual in seeing if you've done 1 bar or 5 bars of injury, or if they're on 50 bars before you fight. As such, you've no way of seeing which moves are the most effective in killing your opponents. But if you're winning and surviving, that can be seen as a progression of sorts.

The co-operative aspect of the game, all depends upon how well your partner can play. While it's an idea to see someone getting beaten up and wanting to jump in and save them with a flurry of wild attacks, the game will register the attacks on the other person, meaning you'll hurt them, maybe even kill them. The potential for knocking someone down and killing them in pits, or hurling huge weapons that bulldoze everyone including your partner, there's a lot of dick moves to enjoy and before long you'll be punching the person playing with you, and the fight continues outside of the game into the arcade and the friendship is over. Maybe, thankfully.

However, despite the dickary potential, it's a solidly good co-operative game that excels in the aim of being enjoyable for 2 people to play. Except at the very end, where if both players have defeated the last boss, the guy with the machinegun, then the real final boss becomes, the other player in an all-out battle on one life (or more if you REALLY want to spend coins) for the right to rescue the punched-out woman from the start of the game. It's an odd situation for a game to encourage a solid co-operative attempt throughout, only to then reward the players with turning them against each other by force and play as opponents. An original game concept in its execution and one that's rarely been repeated in games since then. (Streets of Rage perhaps depending upon choices).

Musically, I think nearly everyone that knows of this game, at the mention of Double Dragon could hum a few bars of the theme tune and likely the first level as well. It's choppy and upbeat for the most part and definitely reeks of an 80s composition vibe heard in multiple tracks released that decade, particularly the earlier years of the decade. It's not something you'd bump your head to, but you'll find yourself humming it along with the game as it worms its way into your ear.

The game though, does suffer from the repetition of repeat plays, being an arcade game you know every time which enemies will appear, holding what and so on but I'm beating at a limitation of coding rather than the game's actual faults. It still holds well on the nostalgia factor and will bring people back for the occasional play just to remember what the game was like and to remind ourselves of how far we've come from such roots. Despite the aged looks and appearance, the game is still just as playable which is more than could be said for a lot of other games and the rather unique aspect the game does have (beyond being the first co-op brawler) was that it had more moves and attacks than say games like Final Fight which relied upon attacking, jumping and special/desperation moves.

I have to say, were I to actually own an arcade, I'd have this one out on the floor. Not at the forefront perhaps, but down the back or the sides, a little darker in presenting than the others but it'd be there, for those willing to explore a little further, willing to see a little more and see the older days as a show of honour. Not without flaws but given it started something, it did it well enough that many games failed to match it. Now THAT deserves recognition in the least.