Review: Dead Space

Dead Space is a cross between a survival horror game and an over-the-shoulder third person shooter.  The influence the game plainly wears on it’s sleeve is Resident Evil 4, which I had the fortune of playing recently. RE4 basically invented this style of game.  That said, Dead Space has unique appeal of it’s own, with a lot of polish, and a good story with a nice flow to it.  Though enemy encounters are occasionally too frequent, Dead Space is an enjoyable thriller with a long campaign and solid gameplay.

The game is set on a spaceship, the Ishimura, originally involved in a mining operation that’s gone wrong and has sent out a distress signal.  Your crew arrives on another ship, the Kellion, to investigate the signal.  Upon arrival, you discover alien creatures have taken over the ship, who are extremely good at killing humans.  The ship is mostly abandoned, aside from the aliens.  The Kellion gets destroyed early in the game, leaving you and your crewmates to survive on the Ishimura among the violent alien creatures.  You play an engineer, Isaac Clarke, whose girlfriend is believed to be alive somewhere on this ship.

You get a gun early on, and you soon learn that shooting the aliens limbs off is a faster way to kill them then head or body shots.  This motif lasts for the entire game, and is a neat hook.  If you want to conserve ammo, you better be aiming for the arms and legs.  I started playing with the Steam Controller, on which aiming is a little imprecise, and I imagine this was deliberate to add to the game’s tension.  About halfway through the game, I switched to mouse and keyboard, and outcomes of enemy encounters got a lot better.  

Its pretty obvious what you can and can’t interact with, and exploring rooms results in stumbling upon extra ammo, health kits, and money.  Also strangely enough, aliens carry all of these things, which you can pick up after killing them.  There are times when you’re in short supply of the items you need, namely ammo and medkits.  Normally, you’re close to a store, which can sell you these things, but every credit you spend on something like ammo is a credit that’s not going toward something like a suit upgrade or new gun.  You need to use resources wisely.

There’s also a workbench where you can upgrade weapons, armor, and abilities via upgrade trees.  You pick up Power Nodes in your quest, and each one can be used to upgrade a weapon or your space suit.  I put all of my upgrades into three weapons as well as my suit, which worked out well.  Being in three unique weapons gave me good variety for different enemy encounters.  Also, spending on the suit game me more breathing time in outer space and more health.  I rolled my eyes when I first saw the classic back-of-the-box “RPG Elements” box get ticked, but in playing the game, I thought it worked out well.  I was noticing and appreciating the upgrades.

The story of what happened to the people of the Ishimura is told through audio logs, video logs, and text logs scattered throughout the ship.  Many on the Ishimura have fallen victim to a religious cult, in which dying is how you get admitted.  You also come to find some people are still alive on the Ishimura, and for some it’s questionable if they actually want to help you or take advantage of you.  Meanwhile, you and the crew of the Kellion are just trying to stay safe.  I thought the story was excellent.  There are plot twists you don’t see coming, especially by the end.  The story is probably what kept me coming back to Dead Space the most.

The UI is an achievement.  Rather than health being a bar in the top left corner, your health is a series of bars on the back of Isaac’s space suit.  To check your inventory or see where the next objective is, a screen appears in front of Isaac, which is also visible to you.  At no point (unless you press Start/Escape to pause) are you taken out of the action by looking at or using the UI.  It keeps you in the game at all times.

Also an achievement is the sound design.  It’s incredibly eerie.  There are times when you don’t really know if enemies are right around the corner or if it’s just a dramatic use of strings for the scene.  Graphically as well, the game shines with excellent use of lighting and fog.  Playing on PC is the way to go, as there are a number of graphical settings that can be turned on that aren’t in the console version.  Unfortunately, Anti-Aliasing is just an On/Off setting, not a 8x or 16x setting, so some aliasing is noticeable.  Still, the game has excellent graphics for a last-gen title and looks great at 60fps.

This was a hard game for me to finish.  I played on Normal difficulty, and even then, there were spots that were extremely difficult.  It’s a long campaign, and took me 23 hours to complete.  Finally, the game really is tense, and there were times when I just needed to take a breather before getting back into the fray.  None of this is to say Dead Space is a bad game though.  From graphics to gameplay, story to sound design, Dead Space is one of last generation’s best.  The plot twists at the end are worth the (presently low) cost of admission alone.  Dead Space is a great space opera with truly scary moments and a story that keeps you hooked.  I recommend this game.

5/5

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Review: Super Mario Land

Here’s another game from my childhood that I never beat as a kid. Game Boy was the first gaming device I ever owned, and because of this, Super Mario Land was one of the first games I ever owned. I had friends with NES and SNES, so I played the console Mario games. Even as a kid, Super Mario Land often felt like a cheap imitation of its console counterparts, and still to this day that feels true.

Right off the bat, when you start to play the game you’ll notice that the sprites are minuscule.  Goombas, for instance, are a tiny cluster of dots.  Having such small sprites on an already very low resolution screen makes the game look bad.  There is a part in the game where you’re underwater, and a part where you’re on what appears to be Easter Island, and the potential for great looking levels is ruined by how few pixels every piece of art actually is.

Once you start playing, you’ll notice there’s a real imprecision to how the game plays.  Mario doesn’t stop on a dime, but rather slows gradually to a stop.  There are times when it feels like you should have hit a question mark block, but you don’t.  There are times it feels like you should hit an enemy and don’t, resulting in the enemy hitting you and you losing your power-up or a life.  Finally, there are times when it feels like you should have landed on a platform but don’t, resulting in cheap deaths.  If the QA department was a little more diligent, these are all mistakes that could have been corrected.

These two rather large complaints aside, the game isn’t a half-bad platformer.  Super Mario Land follows the same formula as Super Mario Bros, where, after completing a set number of stages, you learn the princess isn’t in that world.  Only instead of Toad telling you this, an enemy is disguised as the princess, and says “Thank you Mario.” only then to reveal himself.

The platforming elements can be challenging, and the difficulty level ramps up as you keep playing.  I really dislike when a game’s first level is about as challenging as it’s last, so I’m glad there’s a difficulty curve.  There are only four worlds in Super Mario Land, as compared to Super Mario Bros’ eight, but that seems to go along with Nintendo’s mentality in the early days of Game Boy.  Back then, Game Boy’s games frequently were lesser in quality and length then their console counterparts.

This game is interesting from a historical perspective.  It’s sort of Gunpei Yokoi and crew at Nintendo R&D1 taking a crack at the Super Mario Bros. formula.  Despite fuzzy controls and poor sprite work, there is a good platforming game in here, albeit somewhat short.  What makes it really interesting is looking at how much better Nintendo R&D1 got at making a Mario game with the sequel, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, which I rank as one of the best 2D platformers ever made.  Give Super Mario Land a try if you’re curious to play one of Mario’s weaker platforming entries.

3/5

Building Your Own Arcade Cabinet: My Experience

Starting in the fall of 2015 and ending sometime around the fall of 2016, I took it upon myself to build my own arcade cabinet.  I was living in North Carolina, and the idea came about when I made the acquaintance of a guy with years experience in cabinet making.  Building an arcade is something I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the woodworking know-how.   

This is not meant to be a definitive guide to building an arcade cabinet.  This is just meant to be my experience in doing so. There are websites like arcadecontrols.com that can teach you every single thing you need to know to build a cabinet yourself.  I hope you will find something in this post useful, should you ever decide to build one.

The final result is something I’m quite proud of:

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My cabinet making friend in NC was about as excited as I was for the project.  He told me we needed one of two things to start: a schematic, or we could go to a local arcade and use measuring tape to get the dimensions of a cabinet there.  I went the schematic route, and found a replica of the Neo Geo MVS on Ben Heck’s website.  Knowing that an actual Neo Geo MVS cabinet is about six feet one inches tall, we used something called scale to get the height and width of individual pieces from the schematic, and used a basic protractor to get the angles from it.

We took three main creative liberties from what was on the schematic: we designed it instead to use a widescreen HDTV instead of a CRT (let’s not be crazy), we included slots for the speakers below the TV (as seen in the picture), and included no coin slots, but instead two banks of buttons for start, select, and auxiliary. My cabinet-making friend was good at sketching out this stuff on paper. I ordered a HDTV that would fit our schematic.

That’s pretty much all we needed to get started.  We went to the hardware store and got a fair amount of ¾ inch plywood.  ¾ inch is recommended, as it’s durable and works well for the buttons and joysticks.  Over the course of a few weeks, we cut every piece of wood we needed with exact angles.  We also drilled holes for the buttons and joysticks (with a standard one inch drill bit), cut slits for the speakers, and cut out wood to build a brace to hold the TV, and a shelf to hold the speakers.  Finally, we ordered some parts online (rockler.com and homedepot.com), like a lock and key for the door at the bottom, a piano hinge for the door at the bottom (which we cut down to size) and a fluorescent light for the marquee.

I also ordered arcade parts for the buttons and joysticks.  We went with a company called X-Gaming, which caters to hobbyist arcade makers.  There are eight buttons and one joystick for each of the two players, as well as three buttons beneath the control panel for each player.  We decided to use a PC that I had already built for the main hardware of the cabinet.  The one thing we did not order is a piece of hardware that acts as an interface for wiring the buttons and joysticks and connecting it to the PC.  We’ll get to that later.

Unfortunately, around the time we got all this work done, I had to leave North Carolina and head back to my hometown in Pennsylvania.  My cabinet-making friend agreed to ship the parts and everything we worked on back to me in PA.  The real reason it took a year to complete the cabinet is that after I received the parts, they kind of just sat in my basement for a long time.  There was work to be done like assembling the TV brace and the speaker shelf, and I didn’t have the know-how to do it properly.

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Then one morning in 2016, I woke up and said “I’m going to finish this darn arcade.”  I found a carpenter online who agreed to finish assembling the cabinet.  Most of it was already cut out, so it wasn’t a lot of work, he said.  He put it together in about two days, and charged me a reasonable price for his time.  He was going to charge me as much money to paint it as he charged to assemble it, but I said no, I know how to paint things.  I used small foam paint rollers (available at Home Depot or a local hardware store), and a white high-gloss enamel.  It took a morning to prime the cabinet, an afternoon to paint it, and a day to let it dry.

We’re getting toward the end here.  I did some work with my old man in this next part, so that’s who “we” refers to.

We needed a couple of things now.  One is artwork, and the other is acrylic (more commonly called plexiglass).  The artwork was pretty easy as it turns out.  I wanted a Street Fighter IV cabinet, so I found super high resolution images of Ryu and Ken on a Google Image search, as well as an equally high resolution image of the Ultra Street Fighter IV logo.  I put the three images on a USB drive and walked to a very local FedEx Office.  The young woman behind the counter was very helpful.  I said what size I wanted the images to be, and said that the Street Fighter IV logo was going to have light shining through it.  She showed me a special kind of paper designed for light to shine through, and showed me in Photoshop that the sizes were correct.  It was going to take a few hours to print, so I left the store and received a call that afternoon saying everything was ready.  Finding those super high res images paid off, because they looked fantastic blown up to scale.  I paid and said thank you.

Going back to the cabinet, I used a T-square to get a perfect right angle on both sides of the cabinet, marked it with a marker, and affixed the two side art pieces with spray adhesive (picked up at Home Depot).  The marquee image was also affixed with spray adhesive.

Now for the acrylic!  We needed two pieces: one for the marquee, and one for the control panel (we realized it’s uncomfortable to play games on painted wood).  If you’re cutting a simple square or rectangle, you can get your acrylic cut at Home Depot, which is exactly what we did for the marquee.  The control panel acrylic was a bit more complicated however.  Yes, the shape is again a rectangle, but there are holes in the control panel for buttons and joysticks, which needed to be cut perfectly to the size and location of the hole.  Cutting acrylic is seriously tricky business.  We started going down this rabbit hole of looking up ways to cut acrylic at home.  We tried a couple things on spare acrylic, and neither way worked great.  Upon further Googling, we found out that cutting acrylic is so complicated that you should hire professionals to do it with lasers.

I live outside Philadelphia, and we found a place in the city called Lasermation.  I had a good phone call with the owner (it’s a small shop), and he asked me to measure the locations of the holes and write them down.  I started doing this, but realized that it needed to be exact to about the 32nd of an inch, which was hard to measure exactly.  I called the guy back and asked if there was another way.  He said if I brought the control panel in, he could scan it and the holes would be cut according to the scan.  That’s exactly what we did.  The result was phenomenal.  The holes in the acrylic were in the exact right places, and the buttons and joysticks slid right through.  As an (important) aside, we had screw holes cut in both pieces of acrylic around the edges, as drilling directly into acrylic causes it to crack.

After screwing in the top and bottom acrylic, there was was pretty much one thing left to do: wire the buttons and joysticks to the PC inside the cabinet.  There are interfaces that allow you to do this, which are basically circuit boards with slots for the wires that connect to the input devices, and and a USB or PS/2 cable to connect to the PC.  I went with one that’s pretty reputable in the arcade building community, the I-PAC.  

I’ve tried my hand at wiring things with solder, and have not had the best results.  So I hired an electrician to do the wiring.  It took him about a day of work to do the wiring and install the I-PAC, and he did a really professional job.  The wired I-PAC plugged directly into the PC via USB, and comes with a piece of software for mapping the buttons to keyboard keys.  Pretty simple.

On the computer, I used a fancy piece of Windows software for launching games in emulators called LaunchBox.  LaunchBox launches automatically when you start the PC, so you can basically start selecting the game you want to play and play it as soon as the machine boots.  Just make sure you’re using your legally backed up ROMs, kids.

And that basically sums it up.  I have a fully working 2-player arcade, which plays not only arcade classics, but also classics from consoles like NES, SNES, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, and Genesis.

I tried to stay away from individual prices for things (including labor), mainly because I don’t remember all of them.  But all told, excluding the computer, the cabinet cost $1200 to build.  Not pocket change by any stretch, but worth the cost if you’re an enthusiast.

The last thing I want to say is I view the cabinet still as a work in progress.  Because I’m using a flat screen TV, we could easily cut the depth of the cabinet in half, and make it take up less space.  I could also hire a professional artist to do some game related art for the left and right sides, though that could get expensive.  I could get some thin acrylic for the left and right side for a nice glossy look.  Basically, there’s always more that can be done.

I hope this is helpful to someone. I couldn’t have done it without the help of others, but this is definitely my arcade, with my stamp on it.  I look forward to continued gaming on it.

Review: Wario Land 4

The Wario Land series finally gets the graphical (and sound) upgrade it deserves with Wario Land 4 arriving on Game Boy Advance.  This game removes the puzzle part of the puzzle-platform game that was Wario Land 3 and makes a traditional platformer where you collect gems and uncover secret rooms.  The game takes the better elements from all the previous Wario Land games and throws in an excellent soundtrack and fantastic boss fights.  Sadly, the game is short, but if Nintendo-style 2D platformers are your kind of game, there’s definitely something in Wario Land 4 for you.

Again, Wario Land 4 borrows from all previous games in the series, but is unique unto itself.  Similar to the first two games, you’re collecting things, but instead of collecting coins, you’re collecting gems, which translate into a dollar value at the end of every level.  Wario’s primary move is still ramming into things with his elbow, but some enemies can transform Wario into things like a bat or a zombie, as a holdover from Wario Land 2 and 3.  Finally, Wario Land 4 has a big focus on platforming, like the first two games.  And it’s the best platforming yet.

The game has plenty of gems to collect, but levels are meant to be explored, because if you look carefully, you’ll often find secret passages or breakable blocks that lead you somewhere with something more desirable.  There’s a blue diamond that’s worth 1,000 points, which are often hidden somewhere off the beaten path.  There are four treasure chests in each level, each of which contains one piece of a gem.  After scouring the level for all the chests, the pieces come together to form a large gem which helps unlock the door to the boss. There’s a key in each level that unlocks the door to the next level.  Finally, there are CDs which unlock tracks in the Sound Room, which are optional, but always well hidden.  Needless to say, if you like games where you’re collecting things, this is a game for you.

The soundtrack is excellent.  It’s definitely “game music”, but it runs the gamut from smooth jazz, to electronica, to prog rock.  Having a Sound Room and collectable CDs was a nice touch.  I found myself humming the tunes when I took a break from the game.  I can’t really say that about previous Wario Land games, with the exception of the first one.

Boss fights are some of the best I’ve seen in a 2D platformer.  It’s much more than just hitting a weak point.  There are multiple ways in which a boss can damage you, and after you attack it one way a certain number of times, you typically have to figure out a second way to attack it because the first way stops working.  You can play mini-games to buy items prior to the fight to make it easier, but I enjoyed just going in without any items.  You’re on a time limit, and if you take too long, treasure for beating the boss gets taken away from you, adding to the challenge.

Again, it’s unfortunate, but the game is pretty short.  There are 18 levels and six bosses.  But the quality of the platforming in the levels, the hidden areas, the music, and the boss fights all add up to a fantastic game that’s perhaps the pinnacle of the series barring length.  Give Wario Land 4 a try if you don’t mind beating it in a day.

4/5

Review: Wario Land 3

Wario Land 3 is one of those games you need a guide or FAQ to play.  That said, it’s really a refreshing take on the series.  Where the last game in the series went awry was trying to be a platformer so simple that anyone could beat it.  Wario Land 3 instead has carefully crafted levels and an almost Metroid-like progression in its you-can’t-go-here-quite-yet game design.  Perhaps a Metroid comparison oversells it, but Wario Land 3 is a fun puzzle game that will keep you busy for hours with new challenges.

Wario Land II was a platform game about collecting as many coins as possible and avoiding enemies who make you lose them.  Wario Land 3, on the other hand, is more of a puzzle-platform game.  Yes there are coins, but it’s not the focus of the game.  There are enemies as well, but there are no serious repercussions for running into one.  At its core, Wario Land 3 is a game about finding a key and using it to unlock a treasure chest.  Treasure chests often contain items that help you progress further through the game.  But the path to the key and the path to the chest are usually rather maze like.  Enemies play a large role in building these mazes.

On your way to a key or chest, you may need an enemy to feed you a donut, so you’ll get fatter and break through a series of bricks in the ground.  Or you may need an enemy to light you on fire so you can light four torches and remove a stone with a fire symbol on it.  Enemies typically have a unique effect on Wario upon contact and are strategically placed.  Finding out how to use this effect to get closer to your goal is a big part of what makes the game fun.

There are four chests in each stage.  Chests’ treasures can benefit you in two ways: giving you access to new areas (e.g. seeds that plant climbable vines), or giving Wario new moves (e.g. flippers to swim).  The most apt comparison for this kind of progression is a Metroid game, where new items allow you to do things you couldn’t do before.  There are a lot of treasures, and the constant world map-hopping to see what you can now do somewhere else does wear thin after a while.  But I applaud Nintendo for letting the game progress in a way other than linearly.  You can always talk to the “Hidden Figure” at the start of the world map to find a place you can now get new treasure from.  It’s worth noting some treasures are just collectables.

I’m going to reiterate that you really need a guide or FAQ to play this game.  Generally speaking, the first key and chest in a level you can figure out yourself, but the puzzles get more obtuse as you work your way toward the fourth key and chest combo.  To play without a guide would probably make you feel like a genius in places, but if having a guide doesn’t bother you, by all means use one.

I really have to give Nintendo credit for undoing the mistakes they made in Wario Land II.  They completely reinvented Wario Land into a puzzle game with plenty of head-scratching moments and satisfying victories.  I have to wonder how many people have actually played the game, seeing as it came late in the Game Boy Color’s short-lived life with the Game Boy Advance coming out next year.  If you like puzzle games, you should absolutely give Wario Land 3 a try.  It’s fun, quirky, original, and plenty long enough to be worth your eShop purchase.

4/5

Review: Wario Land II

What a disappointing sequel.  Wario Land II takes what was good about the first Wario Land — challenging platforming and fun power ups — and does away with it in favor of poor level design and power ups you typically don’t want.  Wario Land was a favorite game of my youth, but I feel sorry for the kid who picked this up at the store in 1998.  That same year, the kid could have been playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Wario Land II has very poor level design.  You use your ramming ability quite frequently to ram pots, crates and the like. These pots and crates aren’t placed in any clever sort of manner though.  They’re just scattered throughout levels randomly.  Enemy placement is pretty well random too.  The goal of the game is still to collect coins, but there is generally no real challenge to doing so.  You’d arrive somewhere and say, “Oh, I happened to have reached an area that has twenty or so coins.  Better pick them up and move on to the next area just like it in about a minute.”

You can’t die in Wario Land II.  That’s right.  There are no lives to speak of.  Quite simply, if you get hurt, you lose coins.  If you have no coins, you lose a step and continue on.  This was the biggest shock to me.  It eliminates the challenge of the game.  You can run into every enemy and every set of spikes repeatedly and still see the credits roll, all without getting one Game Over.  I have to assume they did this to make it easier for little kids, but it ruins the game.  How about instead of being invincible, there are multiple difficulty levels with the you-can’t-die option on the easiest setting?

The power ups are terrible and you generally don’t want them unless they’re needed to progress through the level.  You can turn into a ghoul, and walk very slowly and lose the ability to jump.  You can get flattened and drift in the breeze before stopping by landing on the ground three seconds later.  You can even, if you can believe it, be “Drunk Wario”, who doesn’t always move in the direction you press on the D-Pad.  The only way to stop being drunk is to jump in water.  The power ups in the original Wario Land were all enjoyable for their own unique reasons.  In Wario Land II, almost every power up is an annoyance.

Bosses are actually a highlight to the game, if only because you’re never doing the same style boss fight twice.  One boss you actually roll into a ball and shoot into a basketball hoop three times to win.  He can turn Wario into a ball and shoot baskets with you as well.  Three scores and you need to start over.  Again, the challenge to boss fights is lost because you can’t die, you just start over.  But this is an area where the development team got creative. 

Wario Land II has it’s moments.  There are rare occasions when the platforming actually is fun, and collecting coins is still enjoyable like in the first game.  But in so many ways, Wario Land II falls flat on it’s face as a poorly designed kids game going out of it’s way to be too easy.  I thought it might be fun to review the whole game series but now I’m second guessing that.  I understand Wario Land 4 is something of a cult classic, so it could be worth sticking around for that.  Wario Land II though, is a game that can be skipped.

2/5

Review: Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3

Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 is a game I first played when I was about four years old.  I lacked a fully developed brain back then, and perhaps that’s why it’s taken me until today to beat it.  Wario Land is an oddball in the Nintendo catalog.  Wario was the villain in Super Mario Land 2, and got his own game immediately after.  Some familiar Mario concepts are in the game, but Wario Land is very much it’s own thing.  Wario Land is a clever platformer that never feels too hard and is a worthy successor to it’s predecessor, Super Mario Land 2.

Wario has his own repertoire of moves.  Yes, he can jump on enemies like Mario can, but many enemies have protective covers that hurt you when jumped on.  Also, jumping on an enemy merely stuns them.  You need to find another way to completely dispose of one.  Wario’s main ability is ramming into enemies, elbow first.  For some enemies, you need to do it twice, but the reward for doing so is a coin.  You’re collecting coins throughout the game in a bank, so every coin counts.

Wario also has sort of hat power ups, not unlike Mario.  One, a viking helmet, gives you more ramming speed and lets you butt stomp enemies.  Another, a dragon hat, let’s you shoot fire from your head.  Last, there’s an airplane hat, which let’s you fly in a straight line for some time.  Wario can also just be big or little, but you really don’t want to be little Wario.  The game is much harder that way because you can’t use your ram attack.  The power ups are fun, and it’s enjoyable to use the power up they don’t intend for you to use in certain parts, like having the airplane hat when you’re not supposed to to fly over large sections.

A criticism is that, after the first world and with the exception of boss fights, the difficulty level doesn’t really ramp up.  The stages in the second area aren’t much less challenging than the one’s in the last.  Level design overall was good however.  For an added challenge, some levels have a locked door in one section, and a key in another.  Bring the key to the door (which isn’t always easy), and you get a piece of treasure to hold with your coins.

Boss fights are generally the standard fare.  Hit a weak point three times.  Knock the opponent out of the ring.  To the game’s credit, it didn’t rely on one idea for every boss fight.  The boss fights do get more difficult as you make progress, but they’re never that challenging.

The game is short — I finished in about six hours — but I think it’s a quality sequel to Super Mario Land 2, which happens to be one of the best 2D platformers ever made.  Wario Land isn’t quite that good, but considering this is a new kind of platformer from Super Mario, and it launched a new game series which spans five games, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 is a good start to that series.

4/5

Review: Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition

I’ve never played an Infinity Engine game before I played Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition.  Infinite Engine games have long been considered some of the best games the PC has to offer.  Some games are remembered more fondly than others, such as Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment.  I’m not sure what drove me to play Icewind Dale first, other than remembering reading somewhere that it’s fairly short.  So what do I think of the game?  It’s a good RPG with often unforgiving combat, but it has well written dialog and interesting side quests.

There’s a story to this game but it’s really not worth mentioning.  This game has more in common with Diablo than your typical Western role-playing game.  Orcs, yetis, giants, and more are wreaking havoc on the land, and you go from the comfort of a town to the wilderness to fight these monsters.  The combat is really unforgiving.  The game sort of plays itself, as in your party of up to six will just automatically attack the nearest enemies, but you can pause the game and dictate individual character actions.  Due to the game’s intense difficulty, two of my characters died in the first skirmish of the game.

You can revive your characters at a temple, but it was 100 gold per character to do so at the first town’s temple, which was more than I could afford after outfitting my team with weapons and armor.  Perhaps it was just a bad dice roll, but every time I went into the first battle, the same two characters died.  I did some internet searching to learn that the game has a difficulty slider (not sure if this is unique to the enhanced edition) in the options that you can lower.  Set it all the way to the bottom, and you’re pretty much invincible.  I felt a little cheap spending a lot of time playing this way, but I couldn’t get past the normal game’s difficulty.  No matter how good the armor was, the same two characters would die.  Maybe I just needed to drop them from my party (which you can do).

The game starts by being in a town, finding out that the town has a problem (a caravan of goods hasn’t arrived) and leaving the safety of the town’s walls to investigate what happened.  There comes to be a deeper story by the second town, and in the second half of the game, you’re mostly in dungeons. There are side quests in the towns as well as dungeons, which are usually worth doing as they net you a lot of experience.  The side quests are fun, and range from clearing a cellar of a rodent problem, to getting an innkeeper to admit to town elders he took the inn against the will of the previous owner.  I found side quests gave the game’s character’s personality and added nicely to the story.  I was disappointed to learn that in town, for the more generic of townspeople, the dialog options are exactly the same between all of them.  I understand Icewind Dale is really mostly about combat, but it would have been nice if the individual characters all had unique dialog options.

Almost every enemy you face in the field has some sort of loot on it, and if you’re in a dungeon, there is loot scattered about there as well.  There is so much loot that it’s usually not worth carrying all of it back to town, as you only have so much space in your inventory.  This means cherry-picking the good stuff, and selling the rest to the local blacksmith or general store keeper.  I found that after the first town, there’s enough high quality loot in the dungeons that you don’t need to spend a lot of time in the stores picking items.

The game still looks good graphically.  I assume a lot of the art is hand drawn, and it still looks sharp.  I don’t know a whole lot about what changed in the Enhanced Edition, but there’s been an increase in supported resolutions.  Also, there have been some interface tweaks, which I wouldn’t know about having not played the original game.  One cumbersome thing about the interface is not being able to do a side-by-side comparison of two pieces of armor or two weapons.  You need to right click to get an item’s stats.  Other than that, I have no qualms about the UI.

I enjoyed my time with Icewind Dale.  I can’t help but feel I would have had a lot more fun playing multiplayer.  I tried researching to see if you can actually play with six people, but I didn’t find a conclusive answer.  Even so, two player co-op would have been more enjoyable than a single-player go.  The game is good for fans of games like Diablo and Torchlight, with a difficulty level that can be punishing.  All told, it’s an enjoyable RPG that would be made better if played with a friend.

3/5

Review: EarthBound

EarthBound is probably in the top three most talked about retro video games on popular internet game message board NeoGAF.  So what is it that makes EarthBound so special?  Well, after a couple times playing the game never making it out of the first town, I decided to try to figure that out.  What is my conclusion?  The game has charm.  EarthBound is an RPG set in a different time and place than most all other RPGs with a lot of personality in it’s characters with satisfying but challenging combat.

What makes EarthBound unique among RPGs is it’s setting.  EarthBound takes place in a 90’s take on America.  There are game arcades, pay phones, hospitals, and ATM machines, among other modern conveniences.  Still to this day, quaint suburban American towns aren’t a common setting for the latest AAA titles.  What makes EarthBound fun and funny are the people you meet.  For example, you have a neighbor who dug an underground cave through the floor of his house looking for treasure.  The doctor at the hospital, after curing you of your ailment says “Look at what a great doctor I am!”  There’s a cult in the game, obsessed with the color blue, that chants “Blue blue”, except one of the followers says “Green green”, only to immediately say “Sorry! I’m new to this”.  The writing is very simplistic but these sort of silly characters and jokes give EarthBound it’s personality.  

The game starts with a meteor that crashes outside your house.  When you approach the meteor, a bee that was carried by it comes to you saying it’s from ten years in the future to tell you you must stop the alien invasion.  To do so, you must collect melodies in a sound stone at eight sanctuaries throughout the world.  After a fight with the aliens where the bee really gives the aliens a whooping, the bee dies when your next door neighbor swats it (go figure).  As you progress through the game, you see that the aliens have turned people, animals, plants and objects into your enemies.

Combat revolves around facing these alien-possessed enemies and taming them, turning them back to normal, or destroying them completely.  The combat takes place in the first person, with your health and magic meter on the bottom.  The combat is turn-based, and you can choose to do the usual stuff in combat, like attack, defend, use an item, or use magic.  Combat, in a word, is grindy.  Enemies can do a heck of a lot of damage to you when you first encounter them.  Don’t be surprised if you have to do a lot of combat over again because you’ve lost all your HP to a tricky foe. You’ll soon realize that the best approach is to do a little fighting, then going back to the nearest hotel to heal up, then go back to the area where you just were and progress a little farther.  I didn’t mind this, as grinding is actually one of my favorite things about RPGs, but for some, this may be a nuisance.  

As long as you put the time in to grind levels, boss fights shouldn’t be a challenge.  Unlike many JRPGs, you see your enemy before you fight them.  If you’re high level enough — usually after beating a boss — enemies will run away from you.  If an enemy isn’t facing you and you enter combat, you get the first round of attacks.  If you’re so high level that you’re practically guaranteed to win, you don’t enter into the combat view at all.  The prompt in the game just says “YOU WIN” and tells you the experience points you received.  All told, the combat isn’t the most robust of any RPG out there, but it’s serviceable, and you get that same satisfaction when you level up enough to beat foes in a given area with ease.


The music like the game itself can be quirky.  But at the same time, there are some genuinely great tracks in the game.  The game features a band, the Runaway Five, which is almost without question, a Blues Brothers tribute.  There’s also at least one mention of The Beatles in the game.  When you’re playing a game from the 16 bit era, graphics only go so far to set an atmosphere.  The music is generally light and airy, and fills in the rest of the game’s atmosphere pretty well.

EarthBound is long.  I must have played for 35 hours.  Truth be told, it sort of slogs at the end, with your characters frequently revisiting towns to pick up some doohickey or to fight a boss.  At the same time, I found the very end of the game to be endearing.  Ultimately, I think the game could have trimmed a lot of fat, with more of an emphasis on just getting the eight melodies for your sound stone and facing the final boss.  This is my biggest complaint about the game.  You’re too often doing stuff that’s more like a side mission than something critical to the game’s story.

Finally though, now I think I get EarthBound.  I understand why it’s fanbase is so fervent.  It’s modern day setting sets it apart from other RPGs of it’s time, even leading into the 32 bit era.  Also, the game has a great sense of humor that’s been translated well into English.  Really, there’s nothing else quite like it.  Personally though, I feel no drive to play the game again.  I’m mostly just happy that it’s cleared from my backlog.  There’s always the fan translated Mother 3, but I think I’ll try less atypical video games next.

4/5

Review: Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 is a game that is perhaps most famous for popularizing the “over the shoulder” camera angle later most famously used in Gears of War.  Some consider it to be one of the greatest games ever made.  The game did come out twelve years ago, and a lot has changed in the game industry since then.  So does Resident Evil 4 still hold up after all this time?  Well, RE4 has some weak points to be sure, but it absolutely holds up as a game worth playing today.

You play the role of Leon Kennedy, a U.S. government agent on task to save the president’s daughter from captivity in a strange town in Spain.  Yeah, saving the president’s daughter isn’t the most original game plot, but uncovering the story behind this Spanish town is what keeps the game’s story so interesting.  The villagers here come at you with hostility from the get go, throwing torches and waving pitchforks at you.  Put simply, there’s no way to get through to these villagers in a friendly way.  If you don’t act, they will kill you.  They speak a foreign tongue, vaguely Spanish sounding but different.  You later learn these people are part of a religious cult, the “Los Illuminatos”.  The story is delivered in cutscenes, but also in notes left in obvious places throughout the game.  The notes are most informative, and often give you hints about what’s going to happen next.  I really enjoyed learning about the story this way.  I thought the story in general was handled very well, both in terms of writing and pacing.  There are surprises along the way, and I was never disappointed to be at a cutscene.  Even the voice acting is well done, which is rare for a Japanese game from 2005.

The action of the game revolves around attacking the hostile religious followers.  You start out with just a pistol, but you encounter an arms dealer frequently throughout the game (the famous “What are you buying?” and “What are you selling?” guy) who can sell you things like a shotgun and a submachine gun.  Rather than relying on monster closet cheap thrills like in past Resident Evil’s, you pretty much see your attackers right from the start.  If not, you need to scan your surroundings, but they’ll let out a noise well in advance instead of sneaking up on you.  

Combat is often about using the right tool at the right time, for example using a grenade to take out a group, or using the pistol if you’re facing a few enemies up close.  You can’t go guns blazing, as there is limited ammo, so lining up shots is key.  There’s also limited health that doesn’t regenerate, so taking a hit is serious.  I found each set of enemies was sort of like a puzzle, and you might get a game over until you get it right.  This can be a weakness, as you’re likely to get frequent game over’s in the trickier parts.  Still, combat is undoubtedly a highlight, and likely a big part of why RE4 is so fondly remembered.  There’s real tension in having to switch between weapons because you’re low on ammo.  There’s real strategy in knowing when to throw a grenade.  There are times you just barely make it through to the next room with the enemies absorbing all your ammo and sapping all your health.  It’s really exciting to get through these spots, and you’re left with a sense of reward for doing so.

There are boss fights, but it’s not what RE4 does best.  Typically boss fights are just hitting the boss until it dies, or hitting the boss until it exposes its weak point which you attack until it dies.  You’re going to use a lot of ammo with bosses, but the game does a good job of making more ammo available to you after a boss fight is over.  If nothing else, bosses break up the monotony of going around attacking folks, but in my mind the time could have been filled with something different, like clever platforming puzzles.

The game is divided into three acts, the hostile village, a castle, and *spoiler alert* a secluded island.  The second act is the longest, which is sort of nice because at times, it resembles the mansion from the first Resident Evil.  The castle is filled with puzzle solving, getting a two pieces of a crest (or something like that) to fit in a slot in a door to unlock the door, not unlike a puzzle from RE1.  The village sets up the game nicely, while also having it’s own town-gone-way-wrong charm.  The last act is a satisfying conclusion.  No act is bad, and they all have their own unique appeal.

I played on PC, and for a game from 2005, it looks great.  With anti-aliasing up to 8x and a locked framerate of 60fps, the game is quite a sight to behold.  I understand (as of early 2017) there’s a group of dedicated modders working to increase the texture quality of the game by redrawing texture art.  I can only imagine how great it will look then.  I played with a Steam Controller, and have no complaints.  Truth be told, you rarely use the right analog stick or, with the Steam Controller, the right haptic pad, so you’re mostly using all the standard buttons the Steam Controller already has: a left analog stick, face buttons, and the triggers.

The PC port isn’t without it’s flaws though.  There were multiple times when the game glitched on me with the same glitch.  It consistently wasn’t registering a button press each time I pressed it which was required to progress through the game. I had to do some Google-fu to find a workaround that let me get past that point.  It was a major letdown that it happened, and also a letdown was the amount of time I spent trying to press that stupid button.  It would be nice if Capcom could patch the game, but it’s so old I don’t think they care.

I feel better for having played Resident Evil 4.  It’s filled a gap in my video game knowledge, where I now know why so many people talk about and like this game so much.  Though combat has it’s frustrating moments and the boss fights can be lame, the game still belongs on a Top 100 Games of All Time list.  It really changed survival horror in a way no one could have predicted.  I’d like to finally finish the first RE, but I know I’m not going to have as much fun.  In the meantime, Resident Evil 4 is in my Steam account, ready for the next time I feel an itch to play it.

5/5