Monday, September 15, 2014

Happy 10th Anniversary RMGB!

The 10th anniversary of the RetroModern Gaming blog has just passed, and as such I just wanted to put up a quick post to mark the occasion.  This isn't all that I'll be doing to celebrate, however - I plan to create a new series that highlights 3 - 5 amazing games from every year between 2004 and 2014.  This will most likely take the rest of the year and probably some of next year to finish.

Unfortunately there will be no new episode of PS2 Tuesdays this week - the previous Wild Arms 3 episode barely got any views at all, and Destiny just recently came out, so I chose to spend my Sunday playing that instead of making something that nobody would appreciate.  The series will be back the week after, and the delay will give me a bit more time to play some more of the featured game (Jak & Daxter) so the quality should be better overall.

Also, I wasn't going to review Destiny but my nephew has requested it, so I'll see what I can do.  Until then, here's to another ten years of RMGB!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Wild Arms 3 | PlayStation 2 Tuesdays #15

This week it's the turn of Wild Arms 3 - a fantastic and quite overlooked RPG.  I would like to start this episode with another personal history lesson, as I often tend to do, and go over my experience with the series.  I picked up the first Wild Arms in 1997 when it was released for the PS1, and it was actually my first serious attempt to play through a turn based JRPG.  At about 10 or so hours in, I got stuck on a particular boss (Zed), and at this point the concept of grinding for levels was completely alien to me, so after retrying the fight half a dozen times or so and failing, I gave up.  Then Final Fantasy VII happened, and Wild Arms became forgotten until some time around the year 2004, when I found Wild Arms 3 in a bargain bin for £10.  At first it didn't even occur to me that it was part of the same series that I had tried some 7 years before, though when I heard the music and started to get the gist of the plot, it began to come back to me.  After thoroughly enjoying the game from beginning to end, I then went back and played through the first two game in the series (having to import part 2 from the US).  By then, both Wild Arms 4 and Wild Arms Alter Code F (a PS2 remake of the original) had been announced, and I imported them both as soon as they were available.  I hope to get around to covering the rest of the series in future seasons, but first things first, let's dive into what makes Wild Arms 3 so special, and quite possibly the best entry in the series!

Wild Arms 3 is a great western RPG, and by that I don't mean one that's been developed by team from Europe or the US, I mean western in the howdy pardner, rootin' tootin' Clint Eastwood / John Wayne sense of the world.  The western influence has been present in all the games in the series, yet it hasn't always been as strong as it could have been, with the first two games having quite a large amount of fantasy influence in them, and the fourth game veering into the realm of science fiction.  This time around though, every one of the four playable characters carries a gun (or ARM), you get to ride horses, raid a train, fend off dastardly bandits, and do other cowboy type stuff.  The characters include Virginia Maxwell, who is a descendant of "Calamity" Jane Maxwell from the first game, a young Baskar (native American style culture) by the name of Gallows who is desperate to leave his village, the loner Jet Enduro roaming the world looking to make his fortune, and the wise sniper Clive Winslet who is taking on random jobs to help pay for medication to heal his ailing wife back home.

Next up, the presentation - Wild Arms 3 is incredibly polished, with a fantastic animated intro that plays each time you load your save and actually changes to represent what's going on in the story.  The tune that accompanies this intro is also one of the best from the series, bettered only by the extremely catchy whistling theme from the PS1 original.  This is bookended by another great tune and a series of screens that summarise your character level and other stats should you say no when asked if you want to continue playing after you save your game. The music that accompanies the main game also happens to be one of my favourite RPG soundtracks - series veteran Michiko Naruke turns in some fantastic pieces, from the upbeat toe tappers that can be found in the many dungeons and the over world, to the more laid back tunes from the many towns such as Claiborne.  Visually, the game uses a cel shaded look with a paint like texture that looks quite good most of the time, and a bit odd at others.  For instance, Virginia's hands look freakishly huge in her white Mickey Mouse style gloves, with fingers that resemble sausages.  Overall though, the game is incredibly slick, and it feels like you are watching an episode of a great anime show each time you fire it up.

The game play is fairly traditional turn based stuff but there are a few twists that this series throws into the mix.  Early on in the game each of the four members of your party gets their own "Medium" - an object that allows them to connect ancient guardians of Filgaia (the planet the series is set on) which allows them to cast spells, use special abilities an summon the guardians to aid in combat.  To use all these things you need to earn Force Points (or FP), which can be done by attacking enemies, taking hits and evading incoming attacks.  Building up your FP to certain thresholds (like 10, 30, etc) allows you to use spells like Cremate or Heal without actually expending any FP.  Then there are certain character specific abilities like Clive's Lock On which is allows you to hit enemies that usually have a very high evasion rate, or Extend, which lets Gallows use a spell like Heal on the entire party instead of just one person.  These actually do use up FP.

The one other thing I want to touch on the the dungeon design and the puzzles. Each of your characters have their own tools, like a bomb, a flame crest or a boomerang, and there will typically be locked doors throughout the dungeons that will require you to blow something up, light a torch, or hit a switch with the boomerang.  None of it is especially taxing, but it does help to add some variety to the game play and stop you from getting bored with endless random battles.  Also in the dungeons are two different types of crystal - red and white.  You characters have a bank of vitality, and when a fight ends with them on less than 100%, this vitality is expended to top it back up to maximum.  The red crystals in the dungeons refill this vitality.  The white crystals are related to a system that allows you to skip random battles. Just before one is about to be triggered, a white exclamation mark appears over the head of your on screen person and you have a second to cancel the battle.  One ECM point is used up by doing this, and should you run out you will then be forced to fight.  White crystals restore your ECM meter.

If you're still open to playing games on the PS2 and not all about the current generation, then I would really recommend checking out Wild Arms 3.  Whether you check out the preceeding games in the series is up to you - it's not entirely necessary (there are connections to the first game throughout the third, but the story is self contained enough for it to not really matter).  I'm going to try and cover another RPG a bit later on in this season, but they do take a bit more preparation than the standard episode.  Next time though, I'll be looking at a classic platformer - Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (with HD footage!).

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Rumble Racing | PlayStation 2 Tuesdays #14

Rumble Racing is the sequel to a year 2000 PS1 game called NASCAR Rumble which is quite highly regarded by those who played it whilst growing up.  Whilst NASCAR Rumble still had some vague resemblance to the populular US motorsport that inspired it with cars that are covered in liveries that are similar to their real world counterparts, Rumble Racing distances itself even further from everything NASCAR.  It's really just the basic car designs that have anything in common with the sport by this point.  So there's not much there for die hard NASCAR fans, but for those of us who happen to enjoy a fun arcade racer now and again, Rumble Racing actually has quite a bit to offer, with a few reservations.

Firstly, this being a fairly early release in the life of the PS2, the graphics are not super detailed.  The game doesn't look ugly by any means, and it moves at a nice fast pace which is the important thing - but you can tell that the developers hadn't tapped in to the full potential of the console by this point. There are 14 tracks in the game and all of them are nicely designed, with their own unique styles.  There's quite a bit of variety from tracks set in the countryside, on the docks or in special arenas that have ramps all over the place for you to flip off of.  When you do manage to grab some big air, you can hold down the R2 button and press the left stick in a direction to flip your car, and if you successfully land it safely on all four wheels you get a temporary speed boost.  This mechanic reminds me of SSX, and Rumble Racing could quite easily have been part of the EA Sports Big brand, though it wasn't part of that series for whatever reason.

The range of power ups is actually quite good, with the stand out highlight being a twister that lays waste to anything before it.  You have to be doing really badly to get this though - think of it as this games equivalant to something like the Bullet Bill in recent Mario Kart games - the item that quickly lets you get back into the fray after you've been bumming around in last place for a while.  Some of the other power ups that I like include one that makes the front of your car glow and allows you to plow into the other racers, sending their cars careening through the air, and some more standard things like a bomb, oil slicks and acid that you can shoot in front of you.  It's a shame that you can't shoot behind you as well like in most decent kart racers.  Instead your only defensive options are a pulse that fires out in a circle from your car (and can actually help your opposition if you shoot it into them from behind, thus giving them a boost), and a temporary shield. One of the power ups seems a bit useless to me though - it just fires out a bunch of rubble that seldom hits anybody and doesn't seem to slow the other cars down if they drive into it.  Perhaps I'm just using it incorrectly.

Sound wise, Rumble Racing features an announcer that can both be amusing at times and downright annoying at others.  He reminds me of Gregg Proops, and at first I thought it was indeed him, but apparently the guy who actually does the voice is Jess Harnell who is perhaps most well known for the US TV show America's Funniest Home Videos (similar to the UK's You've Been Framed).  He has also done some other well known voices such as Wakko in the fantastic Animaniacs cartoon from the 90's, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon in some of their games, and the Transformer Ironhide in the Michael Bay films.  There is actually quite a decent variety of lines for him to say in Rumble Racing, so you don't hear them repeat too much.  Some of them are actually track specific too.  That being said, some of his one liners are a tad obnoxious, and when you're doing badly at the game they only serve to piss you off.

Finally, we come to the actual gameplay.  For the most part, Rumble Racing is a slick and enjoyable arcade racer.  It's at its best when played in multiplayer - the single player mode however has some issues with its structure.  Firstly, the game only doles out one new track per cup, with the other two tracks being ones that you've already seen before.  This makes progession a little bit repetitive - it would have been better to have had less cups overall if you ask me and have had each of them contain unique tracks, just like Mario Kart (yes, that game again!).  To make matters worse, the game insists that you come in first place before allowing you to move on to the next cup.  As winning is down to a combination of skill and luck, this can prove quite annoying and the last thing you will want to do sometimes after coming second by a point or two is to play the same cup over again.  Luckily though all of the passwords needed to unlock the other cups and cars can be easily found on sites like GameFAQ's - so I would advise you to just do what I did and unlock everything up front so that you can just enjoy the different tracks and not have to beat your head against the wall trying to get anywhere with it.

So then, overall I can recommend that you pick up Rumble Racing, especially if you have someone else who will play it with you. The game can be found for around £5 on sites like Amazon and eBay, and who knows you might find a copy for even less than that if you're lucky enough to have a retro games shop or car boot sale near where you live! That's all for today - tune in again next week for another episode of PS2 Tuesdays!

Shadow of the Colossus | PlayStation 2 Tuesdays #13

Sorry for the belated post - this should have gone up last Tuesday.  As a result you will be getting a double dose this week!

Shadow of the Colossus
is the follow up to Ico, a much beloved action adventure title that was first released in Europe in 2002, and then reprinted in 2006 due to demand from those who had heard of the game but not had a chance to pick it up.  I bought Ico the first time around, and I really tried to like it, but it just didn't grab me.  There was something about the gameplay that I just found annoying.  Since then I have tried again several times yet failed to finish the game each time - with the most recent attempt being a few months ago.  I had originally intended that Ico would be the first episode of PS2 Tuesdays season 2, but after putting the controller down in frustration once again, I finally made peace with the fact that I would never beat it, and I should just focus on enjoying the infitely more enjoyable Colossus.

I also bought Shadow of the Colossus on the day of its release in 2006, and this time fell in love with the game almost immediately.  I had already been smitted by the concept of battling one humungous boss creature after another after reading an article in Edge, when the game was still known as Wanda and the Colossus, and after that I followed the project with great interest until the game finally became available.  I can still vividly remember setting out from the temple for the very first time, using my sword to reveal the location of the beast, and then climbing a small cliff where the creature was to be found.  Battling this behemoth was quite clumsy to begin with, as I had to get to grips with switching between my bow and my sword, and the rather unorthodox grip mechanic.

Each of the 16 colossi that your main character has to slay have rather convenient tufts of hair and other bony ridges that you can hang onto or lodge yourself in while taking a quick breather.  It's up to you to navigate their bodies and locate a weak spot, which is denoted by a glowing runic symbol if you have your magic sword in your hand.  Some of the colossi have multiple weak spots, others just have one (usually on their forehead) and battles usually comprise of two stages, at least for me.  The first is simply working out how to get onto the boss - a fairly simple process for the first few battles but a increasingly complex procedure when your adversaries can fly, swim or are covered in tough armour plating.  A few violent stabs with your sword will wittle down their health bar, whereupon the weak spot either fades away and you must find another one, or you have slain the monster.

But just who is the real monster of the game?  These lumbering creatures that your bringing down don't seem to be doing anybody any harm until you come along at the behest of some disambodied voice.  It is clear that you are killing in the name of love, as the opening cut scene shows your character on his horse with the lifeless body of a girl draped across it.  Whether this is your lover or your sister isn't made clear.  There is a legend that this part of the world holds the secret to bring the deceased back to life, and the gentle giants that populate the landscape must pay the ultimate price.  The dark tentacles that writhe out of their fallen forms and shoot into your chest each time you bring one down suggest that you may also pay a steep price, however.

Shadow of the Colossus
features an amazing soundtrack, and visuals that still look great to this day.  The original PS2 version did have quite noticeable slowdown at times, something which the HD rerelease has addressed, making it the utlimate version of the game. Team Ico have teased us for years with trailers and screen shots for The Last Guardian, the planned third part of the "Ico trilogy", yet it still hasn't been released, and Sony are still adamant that it hasn't been cancelled.  Let's hope it finally makes its way onto the PS4 in the near future, as what has been shown off looks fantastic!