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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Going back West

While the developers of Red Dead Redemption 2 have been reluctant to acknowledge the sources of inspiration for their game, it's pretty obvious that there were many.  "True Grit," "Unforgiven," "Gone with the Wind," "There Will be Blood," "Oh Brother Where Art Thou," "Bone Tomahawk" and a 2007 film starring Brad Pitt with an unusually long title are just a few of the more easily identified examples.  To a lesser degree there are nods to "The Hobbit," "Cowboys and Aliens," as well as the TV series "The Walking Dead" (not to mention "Breaking Bad").  "Romeo and Juliet" is highlighted in-fiction as a kind of shorthand for one of the plot points that comes up over the course of the game. Others, such as "Revenant" and "Tombstone," have noticeable influence...although it should be mentioned that both these films are loosely based on real-life events.  The same holds true for the mutated banjo player at Butcher Creek and the female serial killed in Valentine.

A lot of the movies I've mentioned above are derived from novels and judging by the amount of characters that can be found throughout Red Dead Redemption 2 reading books, I think it is safe to say that novels influenced the development of this game in addition to cinema.  Take George R.R. Martin's novel "Fevre Dream."  Predating his epic fantasy series, it's a tale about paddle boats and vampires set in (and around) New Orleans.  It might be tempting to call this connection to the vampire in Saint Denis pure coincidence except for the fact that both stories feature blood-drinkers that prefer to use a knife rather than their fangs...not to mention each having a noteworthy character who attempts to copy the vampire lifestyle despite not actually being one.

Moving on, if I had to pick one source which encapsulates the Red Dead Redemption 2 experience it would have to be a little known book entitled "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy.  That name might sound familiar to a few since a number of his novels have been adapted to the big screen.  One in particular, "The Road," provided a lot of inspiration for The Last of Us.  So what does "Blood Meridian" have in common with Red Dead Redemption 2?  Well...for starters it's about a gang whose members include a fellow who likes to write and sketch in a journal, another who is an ex-priest and a third who is younger and joined up after the group formed.  There's also a charismatic leader who is fond of spouting confusing, inflammatory rhetoric that comes across as strangely charismatic.  The novel also features a torturous expedition down to Mexico (although that has more to do with the first Red Dead Redemption than the second).  One of the characters in the novel (Judge Holden) is also mentioned in some text on an optional side-quest in the game.  What really makes "Blood Meridian" a perfect match though is the violence.  Specifically, I'm talking about how players sometimes approach the open-world aspects of the game; going on destructive rampages.  The novel is also filled with scenes of depravity.  The characters are less anti-heroes and more misanthropes.  Even when the gang in "Blood Meridian" reaches a point where they could settle down and live comfortably they continue with their wicked ways to a catastrophic end.  This mirrors Dutch's obsession with outlawry in Red Dead Redemption 2, in that by the start of the game he has amassed enough money to retire in style, but refuses to do so ultimately resulting in the downfall of the gang.  So in a sense the book captures elements from both the scripted and open parts of the game.

I don't really have a good way to wrap up this post, but I'd like to bring it to a close with a quote from "Blood Meridian."  It's one that I think sums up every quarrelsome video game forum thread or bickering string of Youtube comments.  "Man's Vanity man well approach the infinite in capacity, but his knowledge remains imperfect." 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Sanguine Libations

"Crematorium Ash" is the only
color scheme that isn't murder on my
I've been trying out a bit of Shrouded Isle recently and it's odd.  The game doesn't have any kind of tutorial which makes things hard for newcomers.  What's worse, I found the game fundamentally a lot more challenging in the beginning than toward the end.

If you're not familiar with the Shrouded Isle, it's basically a resource management sim with a unique twist.  The resources are a collection of socio-religious traits associated with an isolated community of fanatical cultists.  Their particular brand of faith is centered around the deity Chernobog.  The game's take on the "black god" has less to do with the actual entity originating from ancient slavic folklore, and instead opts for a more of a Lovecraftian vibe akin to Cthulhu.  Pseudo-theological nitpicking aside, tribute is paid in the form of seasonal human sacrifices (four a year!).  Since the game is set over a period of five years that means a total of twenty victims are needed to make it to the end.  Candidates for this dubious honor are drawn from a pool of individuals divided into five families.  Considering each family only has four to eight members, it's safe to say that a large chunk of the community is going to be ritually exterminated over the course of the game.  Sacrificing members of the same family back-to-back though tends to cause rebellions which turns into a "game over" screen if not righted after one season.  Additionally, sacrificing individuals who only have minor vices (rather than major ones) also causes a great deal of unrest.  The only way to really regain lost approval is to put one of the offended family's surviving members in an administrative role.  Now here is where it gets especially tricky.  The game also has five other stats (outside of the five that track the disposition of each family).  They are labeled "Ignorance," "Fervor," "Discipline," "Penitence," and "Obedience."  If any of these indicators drop below a certain threshold that's also a "game over" unless redressed by the end of the next season.  Unsurprisingly, putting a person in command depletes these resources faster if if the leader has a major vice rather than just a minor one.

Hmmm...who to sacrifice?
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe...
As you can probably tell, the player has an almost overwhelming number of things to consider.  Just to add one more wrinkle, the game obscures or outright hides most family members' virtues and vices.  So the player can only reveal the truth slowly over time.  Here's the thing though...once the player knows all the juicy details the whole process becomes almost trivally straightforward.

I must have failed two or three times by the end of the second season (literally only ten percent of the way to completion), as well as had another half-dozen attempts in which I only made it slightly farther.  Eventually though I managed to get over that early-game difficult hump at which point I was coasting on easy street to the conclusion.  Maybe I just lucked out and happened to click in all the right places, or maybe the procedural algorithm that assigns virtues and vices to each cultist in the beginning decided to be nice that time around.  I don't know which it was.  It might have been a combination of both.  Regardless, I think I would have prefered if this game had placed more emphasis on the story elements.  I especially liked the little decision-making interludes that were peppered throughout the game.  To me they were a lot more flavorful and consequently more memorable than watching a bunch of abstract meters and gauges rise and fall.