Friday, February 29, 2008

Retro Review: Earthbound

Earthbound (aka Mother 2 in Japan) is a game that is unheard of by most people, overlooked by others, and yet loved to bits by anyone who has had the fortune to play it. It's actually the middle part of a trilogy, but it is the only game in the series that Nintendo saw fit to translate into English and release (although not in Europe, only in the US). Exactly what makes this game so special its fans, and why should you care in an age when audio-visual extravaganzas like Mass Effect and Lost Odyssey are being produced? Pull up a chair and I'll tell you.

Format: SNES
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Ape
Genre: RPG
Region: NTSC (US)
Price: Around £30 (used)
***Tested on the GP2X***

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Earthbound has really great cartoon style graphics which are shown in an isometric perspective when exploring the world. There is a lot of detail in the many towns and dungeons that you will explore, including an arcade with little cabinets, a multi story department store and a town completely over run by zombies. Battles take place in a first person perspective very similar to Dragon Quest or Pokemon, and you will face off against many bizarre enemies throughout your adventure, including Mole Playing Rough, New Age Retro Hippy and L'il UFO. The whole game appears to have been created by people under the influence of drugs, as most evidenced by the decidedly trippy psychedelic backgrounds that appear during a fight.

These guys all belong to a cult that worship the colour blue - I told you it was strange!

Sound: 7 out of 10
The sound is just as quirky as the rest of the game - sometimes areas have no music and instead feature atmospheric background noise, such as the start of the game and whenever you enter a cave. Towns have more traditional RPG style compositions, and battles have rather offbeat tunes with unusual rhythms or tempos. There's nothing that here that would make you consider buying a soundtrack and listening to the music on your CD player, but what is here helps to add to the charm of the game.

Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
The plot of Earthbound, like all of it really, is rather daft. The main character, Ness, is woken up in the middle of the night by a meteor crashing into the hills near his home town of Onett. He goes off at three in the morning (like you do) to explore and discovers a benevolent alien bee by the name of Buzz Buzz which has come to warn the inhabitants of planet Earth about the evil Giygas, an evil being set on the destruction of the world. Buzz Buzz gives Ness the Sound Stone, an item he will need to gather the songs of sanctuary from various locations around the globe. Before Buzz Buzz can finish his message however he is squashed and killed by Ness's mum. Ness then sets out to save the world, and gathers several allies along the way.

The story won't win any awards, but the writing is really humorous... and really that's the whole point of the game - to be fun to play. The modern day setting and original situations you find yourself in is unlike any other game (apart from Mother 1 and Mother 3 of course) and is a refreshing change from all of the dozens of fantasy RPG's that are available.

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
By all accounts Earthbound is pretty solid, traditional turn based RPG (apart from the presentation and storyline of course), but it isn't without its flaws in the gameplay department. For starters, when buying and selling items you do have to go through a few too many menus for my liking, as the game doesn't let you buy multiple items of the same type at once. You are also limited to carrying about twenty items per character, and you can expect four of these to be taken up by equipment, and another five or so to be used up by essential story items, so having enough room for healing items can be a problem. This is mitigated somewhat once you gain your second and third characters and you are able to heal with PSI powers (magic) instead of relying on items.

Each character is clearly defined with their own set of abilities, so Ness gets the majority of the PSI points with the ability to heal HP and cure status ailments, as well as few attacks. Paula has mostly offensive PSI abilities, such as fire, ice and lightning attacks, Jeff can spy on enemies to discover what they're strong and weak against, and Poo can be considered a backup healer/attacker as and when required.

In addition to these battle skills, some of the characters have useful skills outside of battle too. Jeff can repair broken items which usually become better weapons or armour than the stuff that you can buy at that stage of the came, but it only happens if his IQ stat is high enough and even then only randomly when you rest at your house or an inn. Poo enhances the effect of certain healing items so it makes sense to make him the main item user.

Instead of automatically gaining money dropped from monsters (which never really makes sense anyway - why would a snake need gold?), Ness's dad deposits cash into his bank account, and you then have to withdraw it from an ATM which can be found in drugstores and hotels. You also have to save by finding a phone and calling your dad. One of the great things about playing this game on a GP2X is that you can use the Save State function of your emulator to save anywhere you like and not have to worry about going all the way back to town before you can shut off the system.

Taking a stroll downtown with the gang.

Innovation and Cleverness:
8 out of 10
Earthbound scores plenty of points for innovation for merely daring to be different in a sea of cookie cutter fantasy RPG's. Little touches such as a rolling HP meter (which means you can save a party member from death if you act quick enough) help differentiate it from the other games of the time and even today there's been little that compares to it for sheer oddness, except maybe Contact on the Nintendo DS and of course Mother 3. It's also a pretty smart game, as the citizens of the many towns always have something amusing to say. It's obvious that a lot of love went into the game both at the design stage and also when it came time to localise it for the US market.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The game features a good solid 30-40 hours of gameplay, which is just about right for an RPG in my opinion. While the game itself is fairly linear, it's such good fun to play through that you would probably replay it a few years later, and there's bound to be little things that you overlooked the first time through.

Overall: 8 out of 10
The fact that Earthbound failed to sell in high numbers and as a consequence Nintendo decided not to release the GBA sequel in English is a great shame, as this is a fantastic RPG that deserves to be played. It's only hope now is that the original game gets a release on the Virtual Console for the Wii and everyone realises how wonderful it is.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

GP2X: Overview

I've had my GP2X for two weeks now and I love it - it's such a versatile machine and offers hours of fun, the majority of which is free after the initial outlay of £120 for the system itself. In this post I will give a basic overview of the various types of entertainment you can enjoy on the machine in addition to a few links to various resources which I have found invaluable. There won't be any detailed reviews of games or homebrew - these will come later.

The system
The new F200 model of the GP2X is quite attractive, certainly no worse looking than either the DS Lite or the PSP. It is comfortable to hold, the buttons are laid out well and the screen is both a decent size and nice and bright. There is a slot on the top where you insert your SD card (SDHC is also supported up to 32GB), and there are ports for plugging in headphones, a USB cable, an AC adaptor and a TV-Out cable, all of which are covered over by little rubber flaps. My only quibble with the unit itself is that the heaphone port is on the top of the machine, so you need to have headphones with a decent length of cable. The F200 model also has a touch screen that wasn't present in the previous models, but there are very few games that support it right now (with the major exception of ScummVM which plays brilliantly).

The speakers on the GP2X really pack a punch - I'd say they were easily 4 times louder than either the DS or the PSP.

Commercial Games
Now the GP2X isn't exactly drowning in commercially released games (there is a grand total of three so far) and you can't just walk into your local branch of GAME and expect to find them on sale, but what is available is very good. I have played the demos of each of them and they all show off the potential of the system to great effect.

First up is Payback, a GTA clone that has previously been released on both the Amiga and the GBA, but the GP2X version can be considered the definitive version. It's scrolls smoothly, features a full MP3 soundtrack and voice acting. There are 11 different cities featuring 50 missions to get through - very impressive stuff indeed. You can buy the download version for £9.99 or boxed versions for £17.99 here. There is also a 53MB demo for you to download and see what you think first.

Secondly there is Vektar, an old school arcade shoot 'em which looks similar to Geometry Wars but actually plays more like Asteroids. This game really shows off the power of the GP2X, it is extremely impressive. Again you can buy a downloable version priced at £4.99 or a box version for £12.99 here, and there is a demo available.

The final game which is only available as a download for €8 or €12 with a customised player sprite here, is Wind and Water: Puzzle Battles. If you love to get stuck into a decent puzzle game then you will be in heaven playing this game as there are tons of modes and missions available. If you have a GP2X cradle you can use two USB joypads, hook it up to your TV and then enjoy two player games with a friend. This is easily as good as anything on the DS or PSP and I look forward to seeing more games from developers Yuan Works in the future.

Wind and Water: Puzzle Battles looks fantastic - easily as good as anything on the Nintendo DS.

Pretty much any pre 8bit, 8bit and 16bit computer or console is emulated on the GP2X, and there are a few 32bit machines as well! The best example by far has got to be PicoDrive, a Megadrive and Mega CD emulator that is virtually flawless. When I saw games brilliant games like Snatcher and Sonic CD running perfectly in the palm of my hand my jaw dropped. There are also very good SNES, Mame and Neo Geo emulators available, although the latter does take a bit of work before you can get it up and running. There are literally thousands of retro games out there that can be played on the GP2X.

I have already mentioned that ScummVM is available, but for those who haven't heard of it before what can it do? It was originally created to play the classic LucasArts graphic adventures such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle or Sam & Max, but it has since been expanded to play a much wider range or games including the Broken Sword series, Simon the Sorceror and the Kyrandia games. I loved these games in my youth and I still replay them from time to time. The touch screen is perfect for playing the games on the move.

There is also a huge range of other PC games that people have ported over to the GP2X including Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Transport Tycoon Deluxe, Tyrian and Star Control 3, although a lot of these require you to have the original game files in order to play.

Homebrew games
There are also tons of independent developers all slaving away on their own homebrew projects, most of which will be completely free to download and play. Highlights for me so far are Cave Story - a brilliant Castlevania/Metroid style action adventure that has three different endings and over 20 hours of gameplay, and Ruck Man - an extremely glossy update of Pacman. New games are appearing on the scene every week which is just one reason why it's so exciting to be a GP2X owner.

Pretty much any video format (with the exception of .wmv) can be dropped onto an SD card and played back straight away, as long as the resolution is under 720 x 480 pixels. I have watched quite a few episodes of 24 on the bus to work which I converted myself and the colours are very vivid (once I discovered how to adjust the contrast). This is one function that will be getting a hell of a lot of playtime.

I have lumped these all together because none of them are a major selling point as far as I'm concerned. The GP2X does an adequate job at playing MP3's but the built in player doesn't have a resume function which is a bit useless in this day and age. Chances are you will already own something that can play MP3's and you're better off sticking with that. Photos can be viewed on the GP2X which could be useful if your digital camera doesn't have its own screen. Ebooks is a bit misleading as it is really only a plain text reader and doesn't support proper ebook files or .pdf's. You probably won't use it.


Where to buy a GP2X: - they sell the console, most of the accessories and the commercial games - could be a good deal cheaper importing from Asia

Files - all the latest games and applications as they are released. - a really useful site with lots of torrent files to download. You can download various monsterpacks designed to fill up SD card of various sizes, with all of the games/emulators already configured properly to work straight away.

If you still enjoy playing classic games or prefer the unpredictability and accessibility of homebrew, then the GP2X is a must buy. Is it better than the DS or the PSP? Well, they all fill their own niche and to be honest I love them all just as much. I would definitely buy a GP2X over a PS3 right now though, that's for sure (and in fact, I did just that).