Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Another Breed of Aliens

Originally, the third mainline entry in the Dino Crisis series was supposed to take place in a near-future post-apocalypse and star characters from the first two games.  Basically, it was going to be a zombie survival horror title except with dinosaurs instead of the walking dead.  However, the (then) recent 9/11 terrorist attacks, plus lackluster performance of Jurassic Park III at the boxoffice, convinced Capcom to change course early on in development.  So, instead of a logical follow-up to Dino Crisis 2, we got a far-flung futuristic setting wherein the player is tasked with investigating a seemingly derelict spacecraft orbiting Jupiter...which as one might guess happens to be infested with not just dinosaurs, but mutant dinosaurs.

Dino Crisis from its inception, and especially in the second game, had a lot in common with Aliens in terms of plot and pacing.  Dino Crisis 3 in particular though feels like Capcom was milking the movie franchise for every last usable idea.  Not only is it set in an industrialized outer space environment, but the dinosaurs themselves are skinless monstrosities that only feel vaguely reminiscent of their real-world counterparts.  Of course, the surprise in-game twist is that these creatures are actually a combination of human and dino DNA and the result of the derelict ship AI going off the rails after the entire crew died of radiation exposure.

Gameplay-wise Dino Crisis 3 is a third-person shooter.  Unlike the previous entry in the series, it forgoes pre-rendered backgrounds in lieu of 3D assets generated in real-time (much like the original).  On paper this sounds like a good thing and yet for Dino Crisis 3 it ends up being the worst of both worlds.  One of the advantages of pre-rendered environments is the increased level of detail that can be accomplished even on relatively lackluster hardware.  The trade off is a camera that has to stick to fixed angles, often leading to poor PoV shots for whatever it is the player is trying to accomplish.  Dino Crisis 3 somehow manages to have a terrible camera that is constantly not facing where they player needs to see, while simultaneously utilizing dull-looking, metallic rooms with little to no set dressing.  It doesn't really make sense from a design perspective, both in and out of the fiction.  Why did the developers not provide decent camera controls?  Isn't that the big advantage of not using pre-rendered backgrounds?  Additionally, the spaceship in which the entire game takes place on is designed to support and sustain a large number of people and yet there don't seem to be any crew quarters...or a recreation center...or a medical bay.  An oxygen garden of some kind would make a lot of sense as well.  Of course, the real reason these things aren't present is because original Xbox hardware wouldn't have been able to handle that kind of polygon count.  So, instead players are left to explore lots of relatively empty cargo bays.  To alleviate some of the blandness the development team did try to add some variety by having modularity built into the ship design.  Players can reconfigure the layout and orientation of some parts of the ship in order to solve puzzles and advance the story.  Again not a bad idea on paper, but this approach leads to a lot of tedious backtracking and annoying platforming both of which are aggravated by special encounter rooms that require the player to fight off wave after wave of mutant dinosaurs ad nauseum.

The story is a drip feed of bad voice acting.  That alone wouldn't be all that bad if the protagonist wasn't such a thoroughly unlikable dunce who is overshadowed by the secondary characters at every turn.  As I mentioned earlier, think poor-man's knockoff of Aliens and you're ninety percent of the way there.  If you want the whole rundown of similarities, a Youtube channel by the name of RedScotGaming has a very thorough breakdown of the entire franchise here.  Since it's over an hour long though, here's a select list of similar plot points for those who don't have the spare time:

  • Botched mission
  • Secret artificial human
  • Ship AI is called "MTHR"
  • Heroic sacrifice involving a hand grenade
  • Self-destruct sequence    
  • Surprise 4th act showdown

...and of course there's the simple fact that the player is trapped in a space sci-fi location shooting lots of hideous monsters with a machine gun...a quintessential survival horror premise that was sadly not at it's finest here.  Then again, the same thing can be said of for much of the Aliens IP, official or derived.  Oh well...at least the mutant dinosaurs looked kind of cool.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Long Shadow of H.R. Giger

Swiss surrealist, Hans Ruedi Giger, is probably most well known for the creation of the "Xenomorph" and "Sil" from the movies Alien and Species respectively, but his body of work goes far beyond film.  Album/magazine covers, guitars, mic stands, jewelry, anime, and interior design are just some of the areas in which he applied his creative endeavors.  That said, the vast majority of Giger's art is in the form of airbrush paintings (more often than not) done on huge cavansas, which allowed for an impressive amount of detail.  Because of this signature style and imagery it's not hard to to spot his influence when it comes to the visual presentation of certain video games.

Officially, Giger only every took part in the making of two games, both point-and-click adventure titles by the names of Dark Seed and Dark Seed II.  I've mentioned them before in other blog posts so I won't go into detail about them here.  If you are looking for more information by all means poke around Youtube and I'm sure you can find some excellent reviews/retrospectives on what are sadly pretty mediocre video games.  Moving on...what I really want to cover here are games that used his visual style without consulting him or giving proper credit to his distinctive biomechanical look.

Since Alien was his most iconic work it's obvious that video games based on that franchise are filled with examples.  There are over 25 retail video game products and that's excluding crossover media with the Predator franchise...needless to say, I'm going to skip over these titles because they are trivially easy to identify.  Instead, I think it's more interesting to point out some games that use the basic Alien creature design without the licence to do so.  Side-scrolling shooters Metroid, Contra and R-Type are three examples featuring a large number of enemy types and environments reminiscent of H.R. Giger's paintings albeit limited in fidelity by hardware available at the time.  Xenophobe is another example (featuring biomechanical monsters) although it originally existed as an unusual arcade cabinet in which up to three people could play simultaneously on  separate horizontal slices of screen real estate.  Another multi-player arcade title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time has an encounter with a yellow Alien-like foe in (where else?) a sewer.

Perhaps some of the most out of left field examples of biomechanics in video games can be found in titles like the last boss from Ecco The Dolphin or the entire final stage (including final boss) of AstyanaxSpace Quest 4: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers similarly has a very biomechanical area near the end of the game, although it somewhat foreshadows this in the beginning.  Last on the list of H.R. Giger inspired surprises is none other than Streets of Rage 2, which features an area within an amusement park about midway through the game that has a very biomechanical look to it.  I guess it's supposed to be an in-universe horror-themed ride or attraction, but my instinct tell me someone on the development team really just liked his/her collection of Giger artbooks.

Increasingly later in his life, Giger created a number of sculptures that often gave the impression of being three-dimensional versions of his 2D artwork.  All the games I've mentioned thus far are flat or forced perspective sprite based games.  Indeed, the 2015 video game Tormentum feels like a continuation of the Dark Seed duology in terms of genre and overall visual presentation.  However, there is an interesting game in the works called Scorn (not to be confused with critically panned Agony) that looks to be a genuine attempt to bring H.R. Giger's artwork into a fully realized 3D rendered environment.  The genre appears to be FPS which is eyebrow raising, but I'm willing to withhold any kind of judgment until the game is actually out...after all DOOM featured a generous helping of biomechanical wall textures (not to mention a cyberdemon) and it was a lot of fun to play.

Of course, there are many other examples out there I could mention.  Side-scrolling beat'em up, Alien Storm has a character select screen that feels practically like a cut and pasted job.  Also, look no farther than the covers of Alien Syndrome, Alien Breed, and Baal by Psygnosis for Giger inspired boxart...all old titles, I know, but if you want something more recent there's the AI constructs referred to as "Rusalki" in Axiom Verge whose visual appearances are largely inspired by two of Giger's more famous paintings, "Li" and "Li II".  It's amusing to think about this eccentric artist's influence, and how it has not diminished despite him passing away half-a-decade ago.  Truly the man has a long shadow, which might well grow longer still in the years to come.   

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Xeno Enigma

The soundtrack for James Cameron's film "Aliens" has an interesting feature.  The musical instruments play especially important roles, brass and woodwinds for the Aliens while percussion and strings represent the colonial marines.  Depending on the scene, audiences might only hear one or the other.  However, certain sequences (such as in the track "Futile Escape") the music mirrors how events playout on-screen.  As the music progresses the alien instruments inexorably eclipse the colonial marine ones.  French horns, in particular, grow to dominate the orchestra while the drums and chimes (which start off strong) struggle increasingly to maintain tempo and rhythm.  Apparently, due to time constraints, the entire score had to be recorded in one go which (as anyone can imagine) led to very exhausted musicians.  Debatably, this may have unintentionally added a subtle layer that most viewers would only pick up on subconsciously.  I certainly didn't notice any of this until someone pointed it out to me.  So what does any of this have to do with video games?  Well...when it comes to adaptations of the "Alien" IP video game developers like their bugs and guns, but fail to really notice the disturbing implications at the core of the whole concept...namely, the erosion of complex technology and organization by raw, organic chaos.

One of the best ways to illustrate this theme is by examining the xenomorphs themselves.  Fans of science fiction and horror are probably familiar with these creatures.  They are slender, hairless, humanoids with elongated skulls, fangs, and claws.  Their tongues even have pseudo-mouths of their own.  Aside from a fairly ordinary pair of arms and legs each alien has a barbed tail as well as a set of dorsal tube-like appendages along the back.  This is where things start to get ambiguous.  Most "Aliens" media depicts these oddities as purely decorative, although the Aliens tabletop RPG suggests that they are used by xenomorphs to cling to walls and ceilings.  Sounds plausible although none of the films explicitly show this being the case.  The purpose of the elongated head is another mystery.  Is it tied to the secreted resin Aliens use to build their hives or does the large cranium contain organs serving another purpose?  Overall, the torso and limbs seem entirely too slender for the degree of physical strength Aliens possess.  I've heard some speculation that the xenomorph's tail spike can inject a paralyzing venom which is how they are able to bring hosts back to the hive intact for embryo implantation.

The Alien life cycle is another case of something that is complex, but makes sense in that it's pretty similar to certain species of wasps.  However, the more you study it the less comprehensible it becomes.  The details are particularly bewildering.  What do Aliens eat?...nothing, appears to be the answer...and yet they don't seem to suffer for it.  The fact that they have highly corrosive acid for blood might lead one to theorize that Aliens are actually big, organic batteries.  That might help explain why they don't eat, but it doesn't really address the next obvious question - "how do they recharge?"  The Aliens preference for nesting in warm environments might be an indicator that they can absorb thermal energy which is somehow converted into matter that can be used for growth, repairs and egg laying, but that's pure conjecture on my part.

The intelligence level of the xenomorph has always been difficult to determine.  Are they on par with insects?...predatory cats?...or near human?  It seems to vary from film to film.  Senses and communication are also largely unexplained, so-much-so Dark Horse comics came up with the idea in their graphic novels that the Aliens were actually psychic.  DNA requisition is another aspect to the Alien physiology that has been around since the original film.  The script writer, Dan O'bannon, admitted that his concept of the Alien was inspired by the Lovecraftian monster Yog-Sothoth.  What's less clear is the potential for RNA requisition.  Do Aliens steal not only the genes of their hosts, but memories as well?  If so it appears that any such information is only utilized in ways that expedite the Aliens' primal goals; survive, kill, reproduce.

What is the ultimate purpose of the Aliens?  Dark Horse comics went with the concept of a xenomorph homeworld whereupon they are the dominant species.  Incidentally by implication it might have been more frightening if they were not, but I digress...The enigmatic, spacefaring giant seen in the first film was simply a victim of its own curiosity.  Meanwhile, in the quasi-prequels "Prometheus" and "Alien: Covenant" the xenomorphs were engineered.  It's certainly possible to treat xenomorphs like a highly invasive species or even biological weapons.  Personally, I'm inclined to think of them as a malignant, unsustainable, almost cancerous disease that infects whole planetary ecosystems rather than individual life forms.  I feel like the best way to convey this sort of horrific vibe isn't with tense FPS action or stealth gameplay, but rather grand strategy along the lines of Plague Inc.  Replace the epidemic with Aliens, countries with other-world colonies, and the CDC with colonial marines.  The Aliens themselves can retain the mutation mechanic based on the inconsistencies and speculation surrounding xenomorph biology that I previously mentioned.  In Plague Inc. it's also possible to get a boost from anti-vaxxers.  In a similarly structured Aliens-themed games the boost would come in the form of a Corporate Bio Weapons Division being stupid/greedy.

Now, I'm sure there are a few Aliens fans who would decry my ideas as being too abstract.  Frankly, the best of what the Aliens franchise has to offer has been milked dry by games that aren't even part of the franchise.  System Shock, Starcraft, Doom, Space Hulk, Dead Space and a whole slew of other survival horror titles did it better than any official game has, so if you're going to make a licensed Aliens game why not go with an-as-of-yet-unused macro viewpoint from which players can watch humanity unravel in the face of a threat they can't control or even truly understand?

Monday, April 29, 2019

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

More Deep Meanings

Translation and localization is alway a tricky issue in any media, whether it be books, movies or video games.  Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has its troubles as well in this regard.  Nothing truly major went wrong when adapting the text and dialogue, but as is often the case certain little details fall through the cracks.  I've already gone over Sekiro's name, and the kanji used to write it here, so in this post I'd like to expand on that topic and look at a few other things more closely.

First off is Sekiro's sword, a katana rather than a ninjatō, which bears the name "kusabimaru" (楔丸) in both English and Japanese.  The word "kusabi" when translated to English actually means "wedge"...as in a triangular piece of metal used to split logs.  It can also mean "linchpin" in the sense that axes or sledgehammers are usually put together by slipping the metal bit onto one end of a wooden shaft which is then held in place by pounding a wedge into the end of the stick.  This makes the tip flare out so that the head doesn't fall off.  As for "maru"...many people who have a passing familiarity with Japanese naming conventions might recognize it as an affix for cargo ship names.  However, at this particular time in Japanese history (the Sengoku period) the term hadn't really come into use.  Instead, the kanji "maru" here represents one of it's alternate meanings such as "circle" or "complete"...alternatively, it could also mean "all-encompassing" in the sense that a circle has no beginning or end.  Stylistically,  "kusabimaru" also sounds vaguely similar to "kusanagi" or "grass-cutter" which is a famous mythical Japanese sword culturally akin to Excalibur in terms of legends and folklore.

Another weapon added to Sekiro's arsenal about midway through the game is "fushigiri" (不死斬り), a two-handed sword usually referred to as an "odachi" or "nodachi" in Japanese.  As far as I can tell Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice used the former rather than the latter when referring to the kind of blade "fushigiri" is in texts and dialogues.  The kanji for "fu" is similar to the prefixes "un~", "anti~", "non~", "im~" or "in~" while the "shi" kanji is none other than the symbol for "death" that I'm sure everyone playing Sekiro has seen in big, bright red across the screen more times than they can count.  So, "fushi" is essentially "un-death" or "undying" in English.  The word "giri" is a derived form of the verb "kiru" or "to slay" when translated.  All this means that the weapon "fushigiri" is basically "slayer of the undying" although I can sort of see why the translators decided to go with the name "mortal blade" instead.  Just for those who might not know, there's a popular manga, then anime, and finally a live-action film (released in 2017) called "Blade of the Immortal" dealing with parasitic organisms that grant a limited form of immortality to their hosts.  In essence "Blade of the Immortal" influenced Sekiro in much the same way that "Berserk" influenced the Dark Souls series.  On a side note, I also like how the word "fushigi" means "mysterious" in Japanese, although the kanji are completely different...

Anyway...I hope that was at least somewhat enlightening to anyone who happened to read this blogpost.  None of the information I've shown above is terribly important, but interesting details can enhance one's enjoyment of these kinds of games.  At the very least people in it for the lore might be able to draw deeper meanings should they be armed with this knowledge. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Metroid Origins

Now is a sad time to be a fan of the Metroid series.  Hopefully, the scraped development of what was to be the newest entry on the Nintendo Switch will ultimately lead to something good, but the wait is going to be long.  Let me pose a question though in the interim...what was Samus' life like before she entered her prime?  Yes, that question was a rather roundabout attempt at a pun...but in all seriousness there is actually a pretty good answer to it in the form of a 2018 indie sci-fi film entitled "Prospect."

It's not official, of course, nor is there any actual connection to the Metroid IP.  The main character is a teenage girl named "Cee" rather than "Samus," plus none of the other characters or locations have any affiliation with the lore of Metroid.  That said, the setting is an alien world, there are space bounty hunters, and Cee is a blond caucasian female.

Normally, when I here the words "low budget" and "science fiction" in connection with a movie, I tend to assume it's going to have bad acting and even worse sets.  "Prospect" subverted my expectations though with excellent performances and cool-looking slightly retro-futuristic production design.  I say "slightly" because the retro-futurism on display here is more like what people in the 1980s though the future would look like rather than folks in the 50s.  It's a good match for Metroid considering that the first game in the franchise came out in 1986 on the NES (only a few weeks before James Cameron's "Aliens" hit theaters).  "Aliens" is also relevant in that it and its precursor ("Alien") have been huge influence on the Metroid series.  I won't bother to point out all the similarities mostly because there are far too many to list here.  For those who are curious though I will provide a link here that goes into great detail.  Now, back on topic...

The cinematography in "Prospect" is excellent which manages to be an impressive feat considering that almost all the outdoor shooting was done using natural light.  Special effects shots are understandably few given the tiny budget, but what is shown on-screen looks pretty good.  I really don't want to oversell this film...the story is a fairly simple one when you get down to it.  Even so, I was pleasantly surprised overall.  I think the quality can be chalked up to a talented team of film-makers and a fairly lengthy pre-production.  I believe the two co-directors said that they had been working on the film for something like four years!  Although a decent chunk of that time might have been spent on an indie short of the same name that they made as a proof of concept.  It is available for free on Youtube.  As for the actual film, it can be seen via a wide number of video-on-demand service providers.

I highly recommend checking out either or both version for fans of sci-fi films like "Moon" (2009), "Enemy Mine" (1985) and for individuals like me who would love to see an origin story (unofficial as it is) for Samus Aran that's better than anything Nintendo has made up about her. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Tenchu Souls


I've seen Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice compared quite a bit to Dark Souls, Demon's Souls and Bloodborne.  What I haven't seen much of though, is comparisons to the Tenchu series.  Maybe because it's an old IP that hasn't had a sequel in over a decade...or maybe it's because the best entries in the franchise were back on the PS1 (and as such have bad controls - and even worse graphics - by modern standards).  Either way, the fundamental gameplay in the Tenchu series is a very close match to Sekiro...not much of a surprise when you consider that all of these games were created by one developer, FromSoftware.
Basically, both Sekiro and Tenchu have stealth mechanics which the player can utilize to pick off enemies one-by-one.  If that fails, they can always fall back on face-to-face combat or retreat and try stealth again.  Punctuating this loop are occasional (mini-)boss encounters wherein the player must fight without the benefit of stealth.  Even little details like the grappling hook, sub-weapons, and support item shops can be found in both games.  A few of locations and objectives are also very similar:
  • Buddhist monks turned into undead cultists...check! 
  • Important "flower" item on top of a mountain...check!
  • Difficult to navigate forest with sniper archers...check!
Some of the enemy types as well:
  • Hard to stealth by dogs...check!
  • Big, fat dudes with clubs...check!
  • Naginata wielding women...check! 
The last boss in the original Tenchu, much like the last boss in Sekiro, is ridiculously hard as well.

Of course a lot of the above are just staples of the genre and setting.  Sekiro might copy a bit, but it also improves on the concepts of Tenchu in pretty much every way.  The environments are far more detailed, the animation is far more fluid, and the world is interconnected rather than a sequence of compartmentalized missions.  In terms of audio, music in Tenchu is surprisingly good.  Sekiro definitely outdoes it with regards to sound effects though.  Voice acting is hard to compare...Sekiro allows for the original language which is almost always the ideal way to play a game.  That's not to say the English dubovers are bad...it's just that inevitably some things get lost in translation.  Meanwhile, the original Tenchu is a shining example of so-bad-it's-good voicework.  The sequels attempted to improve the quality of the English voice acting, but the results were pretty mixed.

So, if I were to compare Sekiro to any other game, my first pick would be Tenchu.  After that, I might go with Legend of Zelda in that both it and Sekiro use non-numerical RPG mechanics and a semi-open world design.  Only after those would I then try to draw comparisons to BloodborneDark Souls and Demon's Souls are, at most, fourth on my list of related games.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Shining Example

I've been on a Sega Classics binge recently so bear with me as I dive once more into another 16-bit oldy.  The Shining series is a bit of an oddball as far as franchises go.  It originally started as Shining in the Darkness, a traditional dungeon-crawling fantasy RPG similar to the first couple of Bard's Tale games.  I must confess that I never got into this one, nor any of the later entries and spinoffs for the Game Gear, Sega CD, Dreamcast, or Nintendo DS (depending on how you count them, there are over 30 games in total!).  Instead, my enthusiasm was limited to the quasi-sequel and it's follow-up; games simply entitled Shining Force I and II.

Something that made Shining Force standout was it being one of the first Strategy RPGs to appear on consoles outside of Japan.  As far as these kinds of games go it's pretty barebones, but considering it was debuting largely to an uninitiated audience I think the degree of complexity feels about right.  One of the more fascinating aspects of the game is how scripted the A.I.'s actions are.  Oftentimes it's done purely for visual appeal; reserves deploying into formation or vanguards closing ranks as the player's units approach.  As a consequence of this the A.I. can feel like it is pulling punches by having its units dance around rather than attacking.  However, there are times when it can be extremely ruthless by going out of the way to target spellcasters, healers, badly wounded units or the main character - who, if slain, causes the the entire fight to reset to a pre-battle checkpoint.  On the plus side players get to keep any experience points earned before the battle-ending blow was struck.  Still, it can be frustrating to have to redo an entire 30 minute combat encounter all over again.  Especially since any other defeated character on the player's team can easily be brought back afterward (no permadeath like Fire Emblem).

The story is about as simple as they come in a fantasy setting; the return of a thousand-year-old evil, a hero of light to stop it...you know the drill.  It's almost painfully generic, but to counterbalance that somewhat the setting is an interesting mix of Narnia and Star Wars with some funny little NPC interactions that make reading the sparse game text worthwhile.  Personally, I rather enjoyed the trials and tribulations of "Guntz," an armadillo-like demihuman decked out in a cantankerous suit of steam-powered armor.

This might sound a bit strange, but Shining Force II (also for the Sega Genesis) had nothing to do with it's direct predecessor story-wise despite being almost identical as far as gameplay goes.  So, if a Shining Force player is looking to revisit with their favorite characters in the next installment, they have to play Shining Force Gaiden on the Game Gear in Japanese...or, in English, as part of the collection Shining Force CD for the Mega CD.  Even back then Sega had a knack for screwing up their own IPs.  Many of the spinoff games aren't just different in terms of story, but also genre; replacing strategy with action or even rogue-like elements.  Needless to say, the Shining series is a bit like the Sonic franchise in that would-be players are probably best off picking out the few gleaming gems from what is mostly a pile of dross.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Old School Mistakes

I think it's safe to say people who have been playing video games for a long time are probably familiar with the term "Nintendo Hard."  There is a semi-related concept I have been tempted to label with regards to a lot of old games and recently  a lot of indie games.  More specifically, brutal difficulty spikes that don't jive with the overall experience.

Within the indie scene it's not a particularly new phenomenon.  FTL had it with regards to the final boss.  Both Banner Saga and its sequel had absurd last boss battles as well.  Bad North (before the developer patched in an easy mode) had a smattering of islands that were essentially deathtraps in which the reward for completing them didn't measure up to the amount of foes the player had to face off against.  SOMA had a particularly ruthless hunter enemy toward the end of the game that (for some) ruined the overall experience.  This eventually resulted in the addition of a "safe-mode," which much to my surprise, bumped sales of the game up significantly.  Other indie titles like Rain World and Wargroove have a problem where the early part of each game is reasonable enough, but quickly turns into grewling slog as the challenge ramps up to become more frustrating than fun...again...patches eventually addressed these problems.  So, all this begs the question, why do indie developers do this sort of thing to their games?

When it comes to the free-to-play model there is a manipulative logic to it.  Difficulty spikes are deliberately inserted at key points in the game in order to incentivise real-money purchases of in-game power boosts.  It sucks, but these games are technically free so I'm not sure how much one can justifiably complain about it - better to not play anymore than resentfully fork money over.

As more game-savvy individuals probably noticed though, the indie titles I specifically referenced previously aren't free-to-play.  Most don't have much in the way of micro-transactions either.  So, why do they have these weird spikes in difficulty?  It's possible that the games in question simply didn't get much in the way of playtesting.  After all, indie studios rarely have the resources to hire outside consultation.  I think there might be another more insidious reason though...as easy as it is to get blinders when working on a project for years upon years, some indie devs might intentionally borrowing a page from old-school design by adding difficulty spikes into their games out of a desire to artificially increase longevity.  There's an unfortunate tendency in a lot of gaming circles for people to assume long and hard is automatically better than short and easy.  Obviously, by their nature indie games tend to be shorter than most big-budget titles.  Oddly enough, price differences seem to only factor into opinions as far as dollar-per-hour ratios go.  Frankly, I think it's a worthless metric because if a developer wants to make their game longer it's easy to go the Darkest Dungeon route and pad the experience out with a bunch of repetitive grinding/farming.

Indie games (like old-school games) can't do the self-perpetuating grind that is live services (unless they're a rogue-like), but they have a sodded bag of tricks at their disposal if the goal is to retain engagement by any means possible.  Regardless of budget, genre or studio though,  I'm convinced that it's always better to end a game with the player wanting a little bit more than a heck of a lot less.   

Friday, March 15, 2019

Poor Man's MGS

I have to start this by saying, I'm a firm believer that when it comes to the Front Mission franchise go turn-based strategy or go home.  Yet, here we are with Left Alive, a game that somehow managed to absorb the weak points of the properties it tries to emulate without acquiring any of the strengths.  Rather than proceeding with everything that is wrong with this lackluster spinoff though, let's go back to the original series and chart a new (abiet hypothetical) course from there.

Front Mission is made up of five mainline games and seven standalone titles.  The side games vary from middling to downright bad, but the five sequential titles are all solid.  That said, each iteration isn't especially different from its predecessors.  When comparing the original SNES Front Mission to Front Mission 4 on the PS2 the differences mostly come down to visuals and a new subsystem or two.  Because the fundamental mechanics don't change all that much, it's the story and setting that make each entry unique.  The first game takes place on a fictional island in the pacific, the second in the middle-east, the third in asia, and so on.  Generally, the stories told are international technothrillers with the primary distinction being the "wanzers."  These mechs-by-another-name are every gearhead's dream in that they can be customized in all sorts of interesting ways.  Since the Front Mission series never really gained a sizable audience outside of Japan, it might be a good idea to reboot it...not necessarily a hard reset, but perhaps by advancing the timeline past some sort of global disaster.  Advanced Wars did exactly that with Days of Ruin, a post-apocalyptic take on the series.  In this way, it's possible to retain the mechanics while ditching the convoluted background fluff.  Given the world of Front Mission is made up of superpowers jockeying for dominance, it's not a big jump to envision a scenario in which it all goes horribly wrong.  Not only are old nations erased, but new ones could be allowed to form based on player input.  The wanzers themselves could also get a bit of a redesign, making them more grimy (rather than the ultra-slick look that has dominated the franchise since its inception).

It's not the most original idea, I know.  However, the circumstances would allow the series to have a much needed fresh start.  Now, before anyone says this is starting to sound a lot like Battletech, let me just say, better a good clone of that than the crappy Metal Gear knockoff we ended up with.         

Friday, March 8, 2019

KSP vs SR2

Rocket science is paradoxically very complicated and surprisingly simple.  Engineering challenges mixed with the counterintuitive nature of space flight can impose some pretty major obstacles when it comes to exploring beyond this little magic bubble we all call Earth.  On the flipside certain fundamental questions like "will this rocket fly?" are straightforward mathematical problems that can be solved using basic algebra.  "Where can I get to in this rocket?" is a little more complex, but with the aid of a scientific calculator (specifically one that has a 'ln' or 'natural logarithm' key) it's certainly possible to get numbers that can be compared to a delta-v map; a bit like a subway commuter comparing the funds in their wallet against route ticket prices.

Now, I know looking at just the title of this blogpost might cause some to think that it's about an obscure crossover fighting game.  Alas, no...this is actually about a pair of semi-realistic space flight sims.  The first is Kerbal Space Program (or KSP for short) while the second is SimpleRockets 2 (abbreviated SR2 and the upgraded PC sequel to a much more basic 2D smartphone game).  Comparing the two might seem obvious to some (both are games wherein players design, build and fly rockets into the great void), but others may feel it's a stretch (apples and oranges).  Regardless, I think there is some insight to be gained by facing these games off against each other.  So, let's dig in.

Right away it becomes obvious that KSP is more feature complete...which makes sense given that the game has been in development for the better part of a decade.  SR2 on the other hand has just debuted (at the time of this blog post) as an early access title.  It might be tempting to conclude (based on this information alone) KSP is the superior product, but the truth is SR2 holds a significant advantage in that it can learn (and in some ways has already learned) from KSP's mistakes.  The parts used to construct rockets is a great example of this.  KSP has five different sizes each of which has their own subsets of different lengths, different adaptors, and different storage properties.  The result is a Lego bin of pieces that can be fun to sift through, but also a pain in the neck when you know what you want yet can't seem to find it.  In KSP's defense there are sorting tools to alleviate some of the frustration, but SR2 has a much more elegant approach.  Instead of a myriad of parts it has a short list of generic sized essentials which can be shaped and modified quick 'n easy by clicking and dragging with the mouse.  Enough about parts though...it's time to fly.

There's a noticeable difference in loading times between the two games.  Specifically, KSP takes its sweet time while SR2 has much better optimization.  In part this is due to KSP being developed in Unity (a generic game creation engine) instead being coded from the ground up to be a space simulator.  Another problem that has plagued KSP since its inception is weird bugs.  Often the blame lies with Unity and nowhere is this more apparent than with the dreaded "Kraken," a particular kind of physics glitch that crops up when parts are loading into the game or are under time acceleration.  As far as I can tell, SR2 doesn't have a kraken...yet.  It may never thanks to a lack of any third party software.

Of course many of the merits of SR2 are present in KSP provided one is willing to install fan-made mods.  In fact KSP has a huge number of these available, allowing each and every player to customize the game to their heart's content.  The problem is said mods tend to exacerbate the fundamental issues KSP has; more bugs, longer load times, and poorer performance.  SR2 represents a clean start on the concepts that KSP pioneered.  Whether or not it will ever surpass its predecessor though remains to be seen.  Perhaps one could say (in so many acronyms) SR2 is the SpaceX to KSP's NASA.         

Friday, March 1, 2019

Amusement Park of Illusions

Want to go on another ride?
You won't have to wait in line,
but you will have to sit through loading screens.
...many, many loading screens.
I was thinking about Anthem and how it not only represents a step backwards for Bioware, but video games as a whole in a lot of ways.  I'm not just talking in terms of storytelling here, but also gameplay.  It seems the general consensus is the action in Anthem doesn't even hold up to Mass Effect: Andromeda - a game which, itself, was not well regarded.  Exploration, too, seems pretty basic in that the world of Anthem amounts to a large surface area with little underground (or underwater) places to investigate.  Sounds fine...except when you think about it, isn't that really just the original Legend of Zelda for the NES all over again?  RPG elements also somehow manage to be inferior to 8-bit Final Fantasy in that there's no way to view character stats.  What has changed dramatically is the presentation.  Everything looks and sounds impressive at first glance.  However, upon closer inspection it becomes obvious that all the glamour is hollow, paper thin, and completely lacking in substance.

When you look back at games like the Worms series, Red Faction 2 (and Gorilla), or even Minecraft there were genuine attempts to allow the player to make a mark on the world; specifically environmental deformation.  More recently, games like From Dust, Metal Gear Rising and Astroneer have taken small steps toward improving on the concept, but when it comes to live service games (with the possible exception of Fortnite) the design is noticeably regressive.  Every object and surface in the world is indestructible and enemies themselves are just bags of hit points that burst into non-existence once their damage numbers reach a predetermined threshold, only to later reform out of the ether much like a Disneyland ride that has just been reset in preparation for the next visitor.  There's no persistency, no such thing as injuries, crippling battle damage, or scaring; there are no thoughts of retreat or escape.  Things exist or they don't exist, and on top of all that the AI only seems to have two settings idle about or attack...basically everything has a switch with two setting: off or on.

The expression "wide as the sea, shallow as a puddle," is usually applied to content in video games, but in Anthem that can literally be applied to everything including the Javelin that the player controls.  I'm not talking about a lack of character development (although that is an issue), rather I mean where is the power plant, actuators, shield generator, sensors, communications equipment or weapons systems?  None of these components are represented in the mechanics of the game aside from flight thrusters which can sometimes be disabled temporarily (usually for mission scripting reasons).  The pilot, for all intents and purposes, is impervious to harm.  Even cosmetic damage like scorch marks, slagged armor, leaking coolant and sparking wires are completely absent from the visual presentation.  Sure, there's pyrotechnics and a cacophony whenever a fight breaks out, but that's it.  It's like if a motocross bike did a couple of laps on a race track yet didn't get a single drop of mud on it.

To some degree these sort of things are limitations any video game must wrestle with.  I don't need to explain why "personalized story" and "multiplayer adventure" are mutually exclusive, right?..and yet live service games will claim that it's possible to have your cake and eat it too.  It can be frustrating to hear complaints like "I wish I could grapple enemies," or "my melee attacks contect like a bar of wet soap."  I want to tell such individuals that this is the inevitable result of games that depend on netcode...at least for companies that want to minimize bandwidth usage.  Would games like Anthem (or Destiny, for that matter) have been better had they gone the single-player offline route?  I don't know (it depends on how much you enjoy playing with friends online), but the potential for a more substantive experience would have certainly been there.  On the other hand if it's a live service, you are pretty much guaranteed to get something shallow, half-baked, and filled with microtransactions.

Friday, February 22, 2019

RE2.5

It's a little difficult to find the right term for the new version of Resident Evil 2.  Is it a remake?...a remaster?  It's not a reboot, nor is it a reimagining.  Personally, I kind of like the notion that it's Resident Evil 2.5 since there was an aborted attempt by Capcom to make a sequel to the original that fans have dubbed Resident Evil 1.5 (there's even a nod to it in the new game in the form of one of Claire Redfield's DLC costumes).  Labels aside, I sort of forgot how much RE2 is like the movie Aliens.

Goopy hives, embryo implantation, and monsters bursting out of people chests are some of the more obvious similarities.  In a broader sense there is the transition from a purley horror original (Alien and RE1) to a more action-driven sequel.  The relationship between Ripley and Newt feels mirrored in a lot of ways with Claire and Sherry.  There's also some reworked themes having to do with government institutions falling prey to corporate influences (swap Weyland-Yutani with Umbrella Pharmaceutical and Colonial Marines with Racoon City Police and I'm sure you'll see what I mean.  Heck, in both film and game a lot of time is spent poking around the the ruins of a fortified position.  On top of all that, the finale has a surprise fourth act involving a final showdown right after a self-destruct sequence.

Gameplay-wise, the new RE2 is superior to the old PSX version in almost every way.  Even so, I feels like the dev team missed out on an opportunity to more tightly intertwine the stories of Leon and Claire.  I also miss the ability to head stomp leg-biting zombies.  Ada's high-heel shoes seem really out of place to me too.  I know she's supposed to be a femme fatale and all, but those shoes?...with all the walkway gratings?...and monsters about?...and after that nasty thigh wound?  This might sound like an insane nitpick, but remember she did have much more sensible footwear in the old game.  Nitpicks aside, the game is pretty darn scary in places; zombie ambushes and that T-00 (a.k.a. Mr. X) got me pretty good a couple of times.

I've heard a rumor that the team behind the new RE2 will be doing a similar treatment of Resident Evil 3 next.  If so, I't be interested in playing that game as well.  I have fond memories of playing cat-and-mouse with the Nemesis bioweapon through the streets of Racoon City.  Certain aspects of that game may require a more serious overhaul than what was done to RE2 though.  I can't see the quasi-QTE's of that game being well received these days, nor the anti-climatic showdown with the secondary antagonist Nikolai.  Still, counting spin-offs, I can honestly say RE3 is better than the majority of Resident Evil games and as such I think a RE3.5 has potential.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Verdant to Brown

Once upon a time consoles had radically different hardware.  This meant games found on one platform were rarely seen on another.  Porting was a labor intensive process that didn't happen much because it might entail rebuilding a game from the ground-up; re-recording sound and music, re-drawing sprites, etc.  Few as they were, ports tended to be pretty similar.  Mortal Kombat and Earthworm Jim for the Genesis/SNES were almost completely identical.  On the other hand, Alien 3 tie-in games for those two 16-bit platforms are radically different despite having the same titles and cover artwork.

It was also common in those days to see games made with the express purpose of challenging a rival system-seller (i.e. a popular game exclusive to one platform).  Franchises like Phantasy Star and Sonic were created by Sega in order to complete against Final Fantasy and Mario Brothers respectively.  Killzone was often thought of as a game made to directly oppose Halo.  To a degree this sort of think became blown out of proportion by overzealous fanboys, but the fact remains that exclusives helped sell consoles; Golden Eye on the N64, Gears of War on Xbox 360, and...well...to this day Sony maintains a number of studios that develop games only for PlayStation hardware.  Naughty Dog is probably the most famous, but there are others such as Team Ico, Gorilla Games, and of course the newly formed Kojima Productions.  Exclusives are what has allowed Nintendo Switch and PS4 to overshadow the Xbone in terms of Market Share.  When you get down to it though, there aren't many differences between current-gen consoles.  All of them are basically using similar off-the-shelf-parts found in gaming PCs.  As such it seemed like exclusivity was going to become a thing of the past, and the only difference between ports would be some minor variations in graphics fidelity or operating system feature sets...that is until Epic decided to take a bite out of Steam's market share.

Just for the record I use Steam, but I'm not a fan of Steam or their borderline monopoly on digital game distribution.  I also appreciate attempts by smaller competitors to weaken their dominance thorough cheaper prices and less restrictive terms-of-service agreements.  Unfortunately, a recent tactic is the timed exclusive.  I first encountered one of these with the indie game Bad North and felt that it was a terrible business practice because it basically comes down to strong-arming customers into using a particular service provider.  True, it doesn't cost anything to download and install Epic's client Software, or GoG's, or Origin's...or Uplay's.  Having said that, none of them are particularly useful either; beyond having an alternative digital storefront from which to buy games.  There's no reason why, from a consumer's perspective, a game should only be available through one service.  Of course from the publisher/distributor viewpoint there can be many reasons; almost all of which have to do with stuffing more money in already fat pockets.  Basically, it's a case of pachyderms butting heads...and we all know what happens to the grass when elephants fight, right?

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Dark Ages DOOM

It sounds like Starbreeze Studios has run afoul of the law and it's anyone's guess as to whether or not they will continue to exist as a publisher/developer of video games.  For most folks, I imagine that their fondest memories associated with Starbreeze (if any at all) are tied to games like Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  As strange as it might sound, the game I remember the most by Starbreeze is one of their lesser titles, Knights of the Temple: Infernal Crusade

This game came out way back in 2003 so my memory might be a bit fuzzy, but it's basically an action adventure game played from the third-person perspective.  As I recall it was possible to go into a first-person view when using a bow.  The main character is a medieval knight, who becomes increasingly covered in armor as the game progresses.  A number of weapons can be found ranging from axes to maces and of course swords of various calibers.  There are some puzzles and a few useful items that can be found by exploring the environment.  eventually the player will also be able to cast paladian-like spells.  That aside, the core gameplay is close quarters combat.  Enemies consist of mad monks in the beginning and, by the end are mostly made up of demonic monsters.  In between that are a lot of warriors of either european or middle-eastern origin that the player must fight their way through to advance.  To make the melee interesting a lot of work was put into the mocap.  Character animations, across the board, are superb with different attack combos based on weapon or enemy type.  The game also employs what's called a "dynamic camera" that shifts view points (as well as pans and moves about) rather than a standard over-the-shoulder viewpoint.  The closest comparison I can think of is Silent Hill 1 through 4...or the original Dino Crisis.

Despite the camera setup being ideal for a horror game, Knights of the Temple: Infernal Crusade isn't scary.  The story is (obviously) set during the time of the Crusades and features a variety of locations appropriate to that era; monasteries, castles, and lost cities from antiquity.  There's also hell.  Although, if you ask me it feels like the level architecture was lifted directly from Quake.  The story is nothing special; a maiden known to perform miracles is kidnapped by an evil bishop, who plans on using said maiden as a key to open up the gates to the underworld.  It's a lot like DOOM actually, except set in the past rather than the future.

Knights of the Temple: Infernal Crusade was mildly fun when I played it a decade-and-a-half ago, but I doubt to would hold much appeal to most people these days.  It had a tie-in music video by the rock band Within Temptation.  That was kind of cool and fits well with the DOOM comparison I made previously.  Oddly enough none of the their music appears in the actual game though...instead, it's just a bunch of rather uninspired orchestral tunes.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Alien Storm

Between the debut of the Golden Axe and Streets of Rage there was a very odd stand-alone beat'em up title released by Sega called Alien Storm.  Initially an arcade game, it was quickly ported to the Genesis.  Much like the original Golden Axe, the two versions of Alien Storm were fairly similar with a few minor downgrades made to the home console version (probably due to hardware constraints).

While not the most bizarre game Sega has ever made, Alien Storm is definitely somewhere near Altered Beast in terms of weird imagery.  The basic premise is the standard Earth-invaded-by-creatures-from-outer-space plot as seen in a vast number of science fiction films.  In this instance the only real opposition the invaders face comes in the form of three heroes (a man, a woman, and a robot), who incidentally operate a roach coach business on the side.  Basically it's Ghostbusters if the ghosts were replaced by monsters from the stars.  The enemies themselves look heavily inspired by films such as "Alien", "The Thing", "Gremlins" and...well...a lot of other rubber suit monster movies.

In terms of gameplay, it's pretty standard beat'em up fare with a few noteworthy distinctions.  Players have two bars to keep track of; one for energy and the other for health.  Energy depletes little by little when making attacks.  Normally, it would never run out because there are more than enough restoratives to be found while playing.  However, there is a screen-wide AOE attack available to players that kills aliens real good, but takes a big chunk off that energy bar.  Sounds risky to use, but even if the energy bar does end up completely depleted the player can still perform a weaker set of attacks.  So, players don't have to worry about becoming completely helpless.  The health bar doesn't drain very fast either (even when the character it's attached to is taking a pounding).  Much like the Ninja Turtles arcade beat'em up though it's the only life the player gets per credit (or continue, depending on which version of the game it is).

To break up the action there's also some SHMUP and first-person rail-shooter sections.  Much like the gameplay, the music is also an eclectic mix.  Some parts sound like pop or electronic, but the level intros have these creepy stingers attached to them that feel straight out of a horror/suspense film.  There is a fascinatingly disparate collection of attack animations unique to each of the three playable characters as well.  It can be kind of mesmerizing to watch one of the heroes zap, blast, shoot and burn a foe all in the span of one or two seconds.  Just to cap off what a crazy mix of ideas this game is there's a post-finale dance segment to wrap things up.

Alien Storm never got a sequel which, based on the way things are nowadays, makes it prime material for a franchise reboot.  Personally, I would be perfectly happy if that never happened.  Beat'em ups are, for better or worse, a product of their time, and Alien Storm is an exemplary way to show that point.  Attempts to adapt the genre to more modern game designs has been pretty mixed in terms of results.  Beat'em ups are (at their core) all about positioning and in a 3D space in becomes a lot harder to gauge that precisely.  It's a fundamental problem with games like The Warriors and Golden Axe: Beast RiderSleeping Dogs handled it better than most, but there's something about the genre that just seems to work better when it's 2D sprites.

Athstetics is another big part of beat'em ups.  Getting the right balance between goofy versus serious and realistic versus stylized is like trying to walk on a pair of parallel knife edges.  Titles like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim fell off one side, while Dragon's Crown and Mother Russia Bleeds toppled off the other.  I worry that the planned Streets of Rage 4 may not have quite grabbed onto what made the original three so memorable simply because so much time has passed between then and now.  Of course, the same could be said for any attempt to bring an old franchise to the modern age.

Hold up...what this?

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Mean Streets

One of the first entries in the beat'em up genre was a NES game called River City Ransom.  Surprisingly, this 8-bit game was slightly more in depth than most of its 16-bit predecessors.  It had certain RPG elements baked into the design while what came not long after was in large part a distillation of the concept; stripping away everything but the actual fist fighting.  Sega's take on the street brawler subgenre was no exception to keeping things simple; a trilogy of Genesis titles known as Bare Knuckle, or (in the USA) Streets of Rage.

The franchise starter was, at the time of its release, fairly unique when compared to the rest of the Genesis library of games.  That said, much of the DNA found in Streets of Rage can be traced back to other games in the genre, namely Final Fight and Double Dragon.  Even the screen-wide AOE special attacks seen in Golden Axe worked their way into the gameplay.  Additionally, another nod to this fantasy beat'em up predecessor comes in the form of some enemy types (especially bosses) towering over the player characters.  Either Mr. X is ten feet tall like the Death Adder or Blaze, Axel and Adam are all midgets.  One thing that helped Streets of Rage stand apart from other beat'em ups was its excellent soundtrack.  Even the sequels never quite matched it in terms of quality.

Speaking of sequels, Streets of Rage 2 benefited from an increase in cartridge storage capacity.  This hardware improvement allowed for much more detailed sprites and backgrounds.  The AOE attacks in the original were replaced by special extra powerful melee attacks for each character; dealing more than usual damage in exchange for a bit of the characters own lifebar.  The result was an interesting system wherein players had to weigh the costs/benefits of using these special abilities during moment-to-moment gameplay.  The player character roster was also expanded with one of the original three being replaced by two new brawlers.

The last entry in the Streets of Rage series is a bit of an oddball.  The plot of the games had been pretty silly up to that point, but the replacing-people-with-robots throughline of the third installment feels specifically like a jumped-the-shark moment.  Gameplay-wise there are some improvements to the formula such as the ability to dash left and right or roll up and down with a quick double tap on the D-pad.  Powerful melee attacks can be used without health loss this time around provided the player lets a special energy bar refill between uses.  In theory this sounds like a good thing except for the fact that some bosses are reworked to pretty much force the constant use of special attacks in order to be defeated.

For a long time I used to think that the third game was the best of the series mostly because it was possible to play as an outlandish secret character, Roo (a boxing kangaroo).  However, I've recently replayed all three games and I now have to go with the general consensus and declare Streets of Rage 2 the game in which the franchise peaked in terms of overall quality.  The first game, while good, lacks some of the critical refinements of the sequels.  Meanwhile, the third game  (plot aside) has the weakest soundtrack, plus the backgrounds and general environments (while thematically appropriate) start to have a been-there-seen-that vibe by the third outing.  Hang on a moment though...what about that franchise reboot that's in the works?  Well...much like Golden Axe: Beast Rider, it's a game I want to come back to later.  Next, I'm going to take a look at one more classic Sega beat'em up.  It's a stand-alone title that has a more sci-fi aesthetic than either of the previously covered IPs. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Golden Age of Beat'em Ups

Staring in 1988 there was a little over half a decade or so that marked an incredible time for side-scrolling sprite-based beat'em ups.  It was an era wherein Double Dragon and Final Fight hit the arcades, but for me a series of Sega titles are what really defined the genre.  Let's take a look at one of the IPs, shall we.

Golden Axe initially came out as an arcade machine in 1989, but was quickly ported to the then new launched Sega Genesis (also known as the Sega Mega Drive).  The home console version boasted two additional levels, but oddly enough lacked some of the polish and flare of the original arcade version.  For example the eyes of the gigantic turtle and bird, that help by conveying the player(s) on their backs from one area to another, don't animate giving the impression that they are lifeless entities rather than semi-divine forces of nature.  The corpses of slain enemies also quickly vanish in the Genesis version, whereas in the arcade they remain but take on a earthly brown hue.  The final boss gets a more interesting intro in the arcade version of the game as well; snakes slither into a pile of corpses then coalesce into a supernatural executioner rather than simply having him barge through a door at the top of the screen.

Both the arcade game and the Genesis port got a sequel although neither has much of anything in common with the other.  The arcade machine, Golden Axe: Revenge of the Death Adder, draws its namesake from the last boss (of both original and sequel) which has more than a passing resemblance to a quintet of Frank Frazetta paintings entitled "The Death-Dealer" I to V.  The arcade game also allows up to four people to player simultaneously though for some reason only one of them is from the original game - the dwarf who is inexplicably riding piggyback on a big dude.  The other three characters are also pretty bizarre consisting of a little guy with a pitchfork, a centaur woman, and a blue loincloth-wearing barbarian that looks a lot like Ax Battler (A.K.A. Tarik) from the original game, but is in fact a different character named Sternblade.  The mounts are somehow even more outlandish than the original as well.  Thought riding an oversized chicken was weird?  How about a giant mantis or scorpion!  Because of the sprite size things can get pretty crowded on-screen, particularly when playing with all four players at once.  On the plus side though it's possible to perform special team attacks on enemies and even bosses.

Meanwhile, Golden Axe II for the Genesis is a very different beast.  The original three player characters are back and largely unchanged in terms of appearance and movesets.  Enemies get new looks, but aren't much different in terms of attack patterns.  However, the magic system did get a significant overhaul.  The thieving gnomes from the original game were replaced by small wizards able to fight back and who drop spellbooks in lieu of potions when hit.  Unlike the all-or-nothing potion-based magic system of the original it's possible, here, for the player to select the power level of their screen-wide AOE magic attack by holding the magic button and letting it charge then releasing it at the desired level to unleash the attack.  It's an interesting feature that is unique to the second installment on the Genesis.

Never released in cartridge form outside of Japan, Golden Axe III took one step forward and two steps back in terms of design innovations.  It had some improvements in terms of character movesets, including team attacks similar to what was in the arcade sequel, and a branching stage progression routes.  Unfortunately, the environments are pretty bland looking regardless of which direction players go and the sprite animation for characters and enemies look stiff and awkward compared to previous installments.  The magic system also regressed back to the all-or-nothing of the original game with the added setback of giving all four possible player characters the exact same magic meters.  Cosmetically speaking, each character retained their own unique set of visuals when making magic attacks, but that little extra layer of the game having to do with how best to distribute potions (or spellbooks) for maximum effect was largely removed.

There were a few other entries in the Golden Axe series, including a one-on-one fighting game and a pair of Zelda-style adventure games.  Much later the licence would be contracted out by Sega to a third-party developer resulting in Golden Axe: Beast Rider.  Suffice it to say, the game was not good.  I will return to it at a later date, but next I want to talk about another Sega beat'em up series with a more contemporary setting.