Shovel Knight Review

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Rest assured, if there was any part of my body that even remotely disliked Shovel Knight I would have ran with that just for the excuse of writing “Shovel Knight? More like ShovelWARE!” (Un)fortunately Yacht Club Games have opted to strip me of that minute amount of fun to instead offer a whole bucket-load more of fun within the actual game. Shovel Knight is not just an enjoyable product in of itself, but it’s turned out to be one of the most encouraging projects in recent memory and a candidate for Game of the Year 2014.

Shovel Knight comes to us from former WayForward Technologies developer Sean Velasco, who presumably left WayForward because he wanted to make games with fantastic audiovisual design AND have some actual game design in it (lol).  He claims to have been inspired by games such as Castlevania III, DuckTales and Mega Man; and in the current climate of popularised nostalgia baiting this can be where the eye-rolling begins. Often when developers start listing off old NES games as inspiration, and they seem to be mostly highly popular titles, it can translate into “my entire research for this project was the games I just happened to own when I was 8 years old.” However, the fastest way to sum up everything good about Shovel Knight is it takes all the great ideas and common sense of old Japanese developed NES games, brushes off the few scraps of dirt and presents in a lovingly polished fashion bursting with its own personality.

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Let’s do the mandatory Shovel Knight review thing and unfairly break the game down into its individual parts and which NES game inspired them so everyone gets a vague idea of what they’re in for. The graphics deliberately emulate the NES (although your Nintendo would probably explode if you somehow figured out a way to play this on one), the music actually can be played on an NES and so is 100% authentic chiptune music. You play as the Shovel Knight, who can swish his shovel as a close range weapon (Castlevania) and bounce off enemies with a down thrust like he’s riding a pogo stick (DuckTales); you have to fight a renegade group of Knights in a non-linear order to reach the final castle stages (Mega Man) to defeat the evil Enchantress who has enslaved the land (Castlevania again). As you navigate the map screen (Super Mario Bros. 3)you can visit towns to buy upgrades for your health, magic , armour and Shovel (Zelda II) as well as bumping into bonus “traveller” bosses and treasure gathering extra stages (Mario 3/Bionic Commando?)

As for the actual stages themselves, Mega Man was definitely the core inspiration in terms of the game’s single room puzzle-esque level design and style of boss battles, but here’s where constantly comparing Shovel Knight to its NES counterparts misses the point. It’s easy to comment on certain similarities between Shovel Knight and an entire memory stick duo of NES games, but ultimately I’d argue the main inspiration for the game was common sense.

Here’s an example of that; the stages in Shovel Knight are significantly longer than the average NES stage, so all of them have a whole bunch of visually clear checkpoints. When you die, you get knocked back to the last checkpoint (usually no more than half a dozen screens, and probably not even that) and take a hit to the wallet as bags of your money will dangle tauntingly above where you died, if you can get back to where you died without dying again you can get all that money back and there’s no problem as there’s no lives system at all. In addition, you can break the checkpoints to get a nice treasure boost, but obviously now you’ve lost that checkpoint so you better make sure you don’t screw up getting to the next one here.

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So what we have here is a forgiving checkpoint system that lets the less savvy player get through the game without booting them out of the stage for a couple of mistakes, that also offers motivation for the player to not die twice on one section as they’ll lose their treasure (which also encourages players to spend their treasure and engage with the game’s RPG elements regularly)…and it has an extra challenge built in there for the hardcore crowd without having to change a thing. Wow! That’s really smart! It kind of blew my mind how smart such a little feature is; it completely nullifies the frustrations that came with the lives system from the old Mega Mans, with its “throw yourself down a pit twice to restart with 3 lives” nonsense,without requiring any kind of difficulty adjustment.  I’ve always had low tolerance for games that still relied on lives systems in this era of gaming anyway but now there is literally no excuse for it. The way Shovel Knight handles it is just smarter, and that is so refreshing.

However, the true shining part of Shovel Knight is in the boss battles, which in all honesty, might be the greatest boss battles in any 2D action game. They certainly put anything in classic Mega Man to shame, and those Mega Man X bosses over there aren’t feeling too sure of themselves either. The vast majority of the bosses are against another knight or warrior with their own gimmick, as well the Black Knight who also uses a shovel effectively making him a shadow boss. Speaking of which, here’s a good test for action games, if your game has a shadow boss in it and it’s fun, then chances are your mechanics are pretty much ready to go. Boss battles in Shovel Knight do follow patterns to some extent but it definitely doesn’t feel like that most of the time. Fights against enemies like the King’s Knight almost feel like you’re playing against a second player. These fights are fast and furious, bosses don’t get stunned for too long so skilled players will be able to exchange down thrusts, side slashes and magic to get some “combos” going; but the subtlest touch that makes it near perfect is you don’t take damage from a bosses attack if you’re able to get a strike in first. This tiny little detail translates what in most games is a choreographed dance in pattern avoidance to an actual fight in your brain, if you “outwit” your opponent and get that first slash then as far as the game is concerned you deserve to be winning. It creates really challenging and engaging battles whilst at the same game communicating (through gameplay!) that the Shovel Knight is on par with these guys and is a mighty warrior in his own right.

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Before I briefly touch on things I didn’t like so much in the game, let’s just dedicate a small paragraph to the ridiculously fantastic soundtrack Shovel Knight has, which comes to us from Jake “virt” Kaufman with two tracks done by Mega Man 1 composer Manami Matsumae. Let’s just shovel this in here; because everyone will probably be saying this in five years and I want it on record, Jake Kaufman is the best Western videogame composer working today. He’s also possibly clinically insane, since he’s provided full lossless audio downloads of both the official Shovel Knight soundtrack and an arrangement album on his Bandcamp so you should probably check that out.

So regarding what I don’t like…there’s just kind of too much stuff which contradicts the simplistic nature of the mechanics and level design. You can explore the levels by breaking blocks to reveal hidden pathways and passages where you can find extra treasure and usable items. Treasure is predominately used for buying upgrades, but it’s not difficult at all to find enough treasure to max out the really useful things like shovel abilities and magic points. Other than that you just have items and armour upgrades, and in the case of armour I pretty much just bought them all for the sake of buying something and then only ever used one of them. There’s just too much of this stuff for a game this short, half of the weapons I used once to see what they do and then never picked them up again. Then on top of that there’s potions you can use, but to do that you have to buy a chalice, then you have to go to the lake and talk to apple fish king thing (don’t worry about it) who does a nice song and dance for about 2 minutes to give you a one use potion (things like invincibility and health etc.). But because it’s one use only you just end up putting off using it forever and accidentally beat the game with it sitting in your lap, it’s just a load of fluff for something basically pointless.

It’s not a massive issue or anything, but the problem is the game focuses a lot on the act of gathering treasure (note the paragraph earlier about losing treasure being used instead of a lives system) as its inspiration for exploring levels and completing extra stages on the map, so it feels like all this extra stuff is just there to justify having so much treasure in the game in the first place. The game could have used a bit more balancing in how you buy new magic and how you spend your treasure, because honestly by the end of my playthrough I started not caring about treasure at all when I realised I already had everything worth having and that made me far lazier in terms of exploring the levels.

Also, the level design is consistently tight throughout the game with every stage having its own bag of tricks that stays consistent with the game’s mechanics and basic rules, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t weaken towards the end. The final castle stages, probably in an attempt to be more “challenging” start relying less on clever tightly designed rooms and more on gimmicky instadeath traps that punish you for the slightest mistake. The worst part is the room where the walls move up and down, crushing you if a pixel of your shovelly body is caught under it. I died on this part about 50 billion times, initially out of sheer carelessness but eventually just out of boredom-fuelled impatience.

These are all little niggles, but Shovel Knight definitely needed to be a little more tight in its extra bits to be a true classic, but nothing mentioned above stops it from being a fantastic videogame. The soundtrack and the pixel art come from a place of artistic confidence and not just nostalgic baiting, the level design is fuelled predominately by common sense and everything is presented with a lot of care and love and a cute little story which ends the experience with a satisfied sigh. Yacht Club Games have proven themselves with Shovel Knight and the industry should look forward to their future projects.

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In closing; in the opening paragraph I described Shovel Knight as “one of the most encouraging projects in recent memory” and I’d like to end this review by clarifying that. Shovel Knight is encouraging in both its style of design and the future of the videogame industry in general. A bunch of cool people who knew what they were doing got together and had a great idea for a game, they pitched that idea to the public through Kickstarter who liked it and supported it. This gave them a comfortable budget to work with for the kind of the game they wanted to make, but not requiring 10s of millions of corporate dollars in an unsustainable five year developmental cycle. The product of this is a wonderful little game that the developers can be proud of and that players can love. We need more games like Shovel Knight, and you dear reader, need Shovel Knight in your Steam library.

The pressure’s on you now, Mighty No. 9,Inafune and his team better up their game to follow this.

Score:8/10

Developer: Yacht Club Games

Publisher: Yacht Club Games 

Platform: Steam, Wii U and 3DS in North America, other platforms to follow

Broforce Preview

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Broforce is a side-scrolling 2D run n’ gun shooter that jerks might compare to Contra but honestly its’ got more in common with a demolition derby than any of its fellow shooter bro-thren. Along with its pixelated aesthetic and action movie loving personality, what makes Broforce unique is its entirely destructible terrain and dozens of playable bros that you’ll end up switching between constantly.  Also there’s a LOT of explosions.

A lot of you have probably been trained to roll your eyes at the phrase “entirely destructible terrain” as you’ve been lied to far too many times by games like Red Faction over the years, but Broforce can shout this claim to the heavens without being struck by lightning because it’s completely true. We’re talking Worms level of devastation here, you’re encouraged to blow through stages in less than a minute but if you feel so inclined you’re  free to reduce the place to ashes; and even when you are heading straight for the choppa you’ll probably do that by accident half the time anyway. The stages of Broforce, all of which are set in Vietnam (in the current build anyway), feel very reactive in this way. Things blow up, catch fire and bounce around a lot, it all feels very alive; take what happens in Super Mario BROs. when you hit a block and it kills an enemy sitting on top of it, imagine that happening around 1000 times a second and you’re getting pretty close to how the average Broforce stage usually plays out.

The constant switching of bros is interesting in the midst of all this madness as well. Just like in Metal Slug there are prisoners you can save, but unlike Metal Slug these prisoners are actually captured members of the Broforce and are playable characters all of which are based on popular action movies. In multiplayer saving a prisoner will revive a dead co-op partner as the prisoner, in single player (or if all players are alive in multiplayer) you will automatically change to this character, which also acts as an extra life; losing a life also means you change to another bro at random. Basically, don’t get too attached to any one of the bros because chances are you won’t be playing one for more than 20 seconds at a time.

This is a different design mentality to something like the aforementioned Super Mario Bros, or Contra which people might lazily compare a game like this to. Those games give the player a completely pre-determined challenge with multiple solutions and ways to play…but still are thoroughly linear experiences. Broforce however changes the rules on you constantly, hell even Broforce isn’t sure what’s going to happen next, maybe an enemy will shoot a propane tank and blow up a whole section of the stage forcing you to wall hop your way to another route, or maybe you’ll save a prisoner and turn into Indiana Brones and his useless whip and get immediately ripped to pieces. It leads to a constantly engaging action experience that you can’t ever coast through because there is always something of importance happening.

Broforce_May_Update_-_Screen_2Now at time of writing Broforce is still in its Early Access stage and is still receiving regular updates. The most recent of which is the announcement that a new bro is being put into the game that allows directional shooting, whereas so far the game only had Mega Man/Metal Slug style forward shooting, along with extra secondary abilities that vary completely from character to character. I bring it up because at this incomplete stage of its development it’s a great example of everything that is great as well as everything that kind of doesn’t work about Broforce. In most games of this style something like the decision to go for directional or straightforward shooting would be a crucial one made very early on in development for the sake of the level design, but Broforce’s  organic balls-out action nature allows the team to just sort of flop it in there.

This is really cool in the sense that it gives the game near unrivalled variety in its field in the sense that all the characters play differently and the levels themselves are constantly changing shapes. It’s fascinating for an action game with such tiny stages achieve this level of organic gameplay and replay ability without resorting to something such as randomly generated levels. There is level design here, but you will have to attack it differently not just on every playthrough but on every attempt.

The downside to all of this comes from the chaotic nature of Broforce, don’t be mistaken, when the game is flowing and the action is coming hard and heavy it is fantastic, but there is a frustration element that comes with it. Of the probable hundreds of deaths I experienced during my time with Broforce I think I could probably perform a successful post-mortem on what actually killed me maybe…a dozen of them? More often than not something explodes and you jump straight to your next bro or jump back to the start of the level if you’re fresh out of lives. The action always restarts within a couple of seconds, and within a few more seconds you’re probably back to where you were anyway so none of this is a deal breaker. It is also easy to accidentally rescue a prisoner bro and change character without necessarily realising it or meaning to; so you experience some gamer whiplash when you get suddenly get switched from Rambo machine gunning through the stage at ease to say, the jerk who tosses dynamite two feet in front of him that explode on a delay.

Neither of these issues by themselves are major problems as they both play to the ever-changing flow of action in Broforce, but together they create a strange little psychology problem that dangles over the fun parts of the game. Say what you want about how fun the chaotic nature of the game is when its working, but there’s something weird with a game when you start to think “I’m enjoying this character, so I don’t want to rescue a prisoner because I might get changed to someone who’s useless at the moment, but I’m probably going to get killed randomly soon so I need to do it for the sake of the extra life so…DAMNIT!” It’s times like these where the two side effects of the insanity of Broforce start to rub together in a way that makes the game less fun.

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Overall, Broforce is shaping up to be a tasty action game which provides organic high intensity gameplay in bite sized levels which are perfect for speed-running. The only issue is it might be a little too insane for its own good, but regardless that’s all part of its charm. Going it alone on this one might require some caution as the flaws become more obvious when you’re by yourself and thinking about it too much. Hopping online (or local) with friends blowing through Vietnam or the stages you create yourself in the level editor will surely be a blast when the network features have a little more polish to them. Broforce is rebrommended…brocommended….recombroded…just give it a try sometime okay?

broforce_may_update_-_key_artA group of writers from Frugal Gaming were lucky enough to spend some time with the multi together here’s their thoughts on BroForce.

Karlos Morale

TOTAL CARNAGE! I LOVE IT!

An eye-blistering hurricane of ultra-violence, BroForce is the videogame equivalent of a Starburst sweetie. Enjoy a rush of fruity armageddon on your screen for the time it takes you to chew up a tasty treat, then a brief pause to unwrap the next level before you get to savour it all over again. Currently single-player has the edge for me, as the multiplayer suffers from the decision to force all the players to stick to the same screen rather than allow you to follow your character directly. It’s a little too easy to lose your action hero amid the death and destruction. If they can solve this problem then this game receives my unequivocal recommendation and highly-coveted personal thumbs-up.

Bwortang
Set your nostalgia levels to 11, for the best action 80’s game that never was.
Still in early access this adrenaline fuelled action packed
Indie title allows up to 4 Bro’s to deal out aggressive liberation.  Each Bro has their own special weaponry which is instantly recognisable and set to overkill, as you battle terrorists, the destructible terrain an the urge not to release your trigger finger in the fight for freedom.
With scope for more Bro’s, new levels an greater explosions, this ticks all the action retro I’ve ever wanted. I purchased this for £5.99 an it’s without doubt my  purchase of this year.

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If you have ever made a mix tape, have a love for action films and still play video games chances are you are a child of the 80’s. BroForce is jam packed with a whole load of 80’s references, clichés and everything it does oozes machismo. The online multiplayer is a bombastic, if at the minute slightly sloppy whole heap of fist bumping fun, and the couple of hours we played together past by in the blink of an eye.

Sure it has it problems, it becomes so hard to track you on screen hero at times, if your screen centred on your character or even just had a permanent marker above its head would go a long way to fixing this problem. The netcode is as janky as BF4 at launch, but admittedly BroForce is in beta, and will remain that way until the end of the year so there is loads of time to sort that out before launch.

Deathmatch at the minute appears to be local only but I cant wait to check this out once an online version is sorted, and with custom levels and campaigns, race mode and a whole plethora of other bits and bobs to fiddle about with, the game sure won’t be light on content.

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It’s early access, any problems that have been covered above will easily be ironed out.
When it’s finished I expect THIS GAME WILL BE FUCKING FANTASTIC!

Out Now on Early Access Steam.
Developed by: Free Lives
Published by: Devolver Digital

 

Mario Kart 8 Review

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Publisher: Nintendo Developer: Nintendo

Platform: Wii U

Nintendo’s financial woes and marketing failure of the Wii U have been well documented, but at time of writing the console has received a 666% sales boost because of the release of Mario Kart 8! Some might say that Nintendo turned to the Devil for this turnaround, the same Devil that allows you get hit by three red shells just before you cross the finish line. Fortunately, this is the kind of jerky review that points out that 666 is not the original number of the Devil and it’s actually 616, so you can rest assured that the Wii U you bought (probably this week) is not evil. The point is; a lot more people have a Wii U now because of this game, and they would all feel pretty stupid if Mario Kart 8 had come out and sucked.

Well it’s a good thing it doesn’t suck then! For the initiated, it’s another Mario Kart, and that’s probably all you need to know. Only this time there’s mostly gimmicky but still exciting anti-gravity tracks in it that twist the tracks around and let you drive up walls and stuff. It also feels great, it runs at 60 frames per second in 1080p, the weapons have been rebalanced a bit, they brought back the coins system so the game can punish for getting hit without taking your weapon away which really sucked in Mario Kart Wii. The online matchmaking is a little thin, and you’ll probably end up watching another race for a few minutes before you actually get to play one, but when you actually get into a race it runs smooth and good times will follow. It also still has Moo Moo Meadows in it, yea I bet you love Moo Moo Meadows you sick freak.

MK8_201402_04So that’s you guys covered, if you already like Mario Kart and have a Wii U there’s nothing anyone can say to stop you buying Mario Kart 8 even if it did suck. You can close this tab right now and go play your videogame and have a gay ol’ time.

Are they gone? Alright, by now I should be left with the slightly less hardcore Nintendo fans who might actually be interested in what someone has to say about Mario Kart 8. If you’re still reading this I’d guess you own at least one book and probably go no longer than three months between haircuts. While we’re all here, let’s talk about the philosophy behind Mario Kart for a little bit.

Mario Kart is a game that punishes you for succeeding at it and rewards you for failing. Say what you will, but rocking a track on Mario Kart 8 in 1st place for the majority of the time will reward you with no action happening on the screen and item boxes will only give you bananas and coins and other boring stuff that makes you wish you had just got nothing at all. Meanwhile, at the back of the pack all the noobs will be crashing into each other, getting Bullet Bill pickups and Golden Mushrooms and other such goodies.

The nature of the items that you get while near the back of the pack have always intrigued me. Of course there’s the infamous Blue Shell, which will crash along the track and unavoidably explode the player in first place. And there’s the one that really gets me, the lightning cloud that shrinks and slows down every other racer on the track. The ideas behind this seem to be that if you suck at the game or aren’t doing well then the best way for the game to make up for this is to allow you the opportunity to screw over as many of the other players as possible. If this isn’t making you cringe yet, I’ll add that this is the exact sort of design philosophy that made them put tripping into Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

MK8_201402_01The theory seems to be that Mario Kart 8 always expects a specific amount of fun to be had, but this fun is constantly divided up and split between the players regardless of skill or how much they actually care. Trailing along at 10-12th place the entire time is no fun at all for a lot of people, so Nintendo’s solution is to build a game where the person in last place is always in a position where they can irritate the person in first place. What Nintendo want to happen is have a game where the entire pack of players are constantly changing position or “rubber-banding”, so most players will get the thrill of being in first place and being under pressure as well as experiencing the chase from the back of the pack. It’s not necessarily a terrible idea, but it undermines any sense of finesse or skill that could be applied to Mario Kart 8, and whenever you do that in a videogame it’s particularly guaranteed to lead to frustration every now and then.

Just in case you’re confused, I just wasted three paragraphs and potentially a couple of minutes of your life explaining that Mario Kart 8 is a party game and not a competitive one. Specifically the kind of party game that feels like it would be too much of a shame for anyone to be left out. Not that I want to start sounding like some socialism-fearing American right-winger, but when you start spreading the fun in this fashion you put a limit on the fun that one individual can have.

For example, when I’m running through the single player Grand Prix events to unlock stuff and learn the tracks, I can’t help but be annoyed that I have to perfect all the events on 50cc as well. Gosh darn it Nintendo, it’s Mario Kart 8, and you already suckered all the newbies in with motion controls on the Wii version, stop making everyone play on 50cc. I basically have to do it first because jumping straight to 100cc or 150cc first then ducking to the slower mode would feel so gross I’d probably puke all over my nice new gamepad screen. At least this would probably set off the touch screen horn so there would be a comedy sound effect to accompany it.

MK8_201402_02A lot of people will defend Mario Kart 8 for a lot of the things I’ve been talking about. They are after all, definitely deliberate choices on Nintendo’s part and not just bad (and absolutely not lazy) design. Mario Kart 8 is multiplayer focused, and getting screwed over by a red shell seconds before you win is great banter for a party situation with friends. But then again, it still happens when you’re playing the game stag and are being expected to get 1st place on every course for full completion…and in this context it’s just frustrating.

Don’t take this review as a dismissal of Mario Kart 8 or anything other than a recommendation. It’ll need more time to settle into my system, but in all honesty this could be my personal favourite Mario Kart yet; it is a perfectly polished piece of entertainment that knows its target audience and caters to it. I just can’t shake the feeling that I could be having more fun with it than I am, and so could a lot more of its hardcore followers. A lot of Nintendo products are being harmed by their pre-tense to create something that grandma and your little cousin who chews the wallpaper can play with you…when the vast majority of Mario Kart 8’s players just want to play a great racing game with their friends.

I wouldn’t worry about it though, it’s still got Moo Moo Meadows so every thing’s cool.

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Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Review

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Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Publisher: Level-5 Developer: Level-5/Capcom

Nintendo 3DS

Fanboys don’t want to hear this, nor do most people who post on internet forums; but when it comes to fiction crossovers usually suck. This is easily explainable; creators and writers are often highly protective of their intellectual property and rarely take huge risks for the sake of usually non-canonical stories that take place in a world not entirely of their own creation. The truth of the matter is that crossovers, more often than not, are a compromise between the two franchises rather than a sum of all the parts which is what makes so many of them disappointing.

Having said that; on paper it’s hard to imagine a more perfect crossover videogame than Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright. Both franchises concern themselves with puzzles and mysteries, and their general formulas would seem to complement each other. Professor Layton games are often somewhat sluggishly paced and have a bad habit of the actual mystery being solved by the professor in a cutscene that has nothing to do with the players input, leaving a huge void between interactivity and the story that some Ace Attorney courtroom drama could flesh out happily. Of course, in between courtroom sections the “investigation” segments of Ace Attorney games can get a bit dry themselves, so some Layton style puzzles can jazz these bits up as well.

So when put into practice does this all work out? Short answer: pretty much. The two franchises gel so well the only confusing part about this game is why no-one thought to do this project sooner. What’s also interesting is the writers went for a story about witches set in a fantasy land, now Professor Layton veterans will know that there’s usually some pseudo-science anime style explanation for any supernatural elements to the mystery. However, the Ace Attorney series has dipped its toes into the realms of magic in the past so for this crossover you’re not entirely sure how much “magic” is actually at work in the story. This actually adds more intrigue to the mysteries of the game and keeps you guessing until the very end, which already puts it above the more recent Layton entries such as Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask.

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The absolute standout moments of Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright are the courtroom sections, mostly because it’s so interesting to see a) Phoenix Wright taken out of his comfort zone and having to make arguments based on arbitrary magic-based rules and b) the Ace Attorney formula being handled by a different team of puzzle designers. The scenarios presented in this game are as sharp as broken glass, there’s little to no witness testimonies that can be passed by brute forcing obviously contradictory evidence at, you need to really get a mental grasp on what is being said and what actually happened to get anywhere in this game.

The gimmick the crossover adds is having multiple witnesses testify at once, and pressing one of the witnesses may end up giving you opportunities to question one of the other ones and open up new paths to get new information. It is mostly a gimmick that changes the game very little, but it does seem to say a lot about how much fun the team working on this project were having. Near the end of the game there’s a section where you have to cross-examine 10 knights at once, and this is only for two testimonies. It would have been ridiculous easily to rewrite the script so the testimony was given by one or two guys, but they wanted this to be a memorable scene so they actually bothered to design and fully animate 10 whole characters, 8 of which would never be seen again before or after this segment. The amount of effort that was placed into half an hour of a 25-30 hour long game is astounding and really should be applauded.

On the Professor Layton side of things the game feels a little weaker. Due to the long trial segments this game only contains about half the puzzles that the average Layton entry would contain, and none of the side mini-games the series has become known for. This is all understandable, and it would certainly be unfair and flat out incorrect to claim that Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright short changes anyone on content; but there is kind of a “phoned-in” feeling to the puzzles. This feeling could just come from (personally) playing five of the Professor’s previous games and being a little burned out, but considering this is a crossover title bursting with fan-boy appeal we have to assume that the vast majority of people playing this game know their way around Layton puzzles by now, and these ones just don’t feel up to the same standard. It’s hard to say considering different people will have different experiences with the puzzles, but there seems to be far too many puzzles that can be solved immediately, or by accident, or by just “hitting it until it works”.

These are all minor complaints though, overall Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright generally holds up in the puzzle department. The other side of the coin here is the story, and with the fantastic visuals, soundtrack and overall presentation if the game can pull this off then we might be in a position to call it one of the best crossovers ever!

This is where things get more complicated…

Okay, the story isn’t terrible; it’s not even bad really. The mysteries as discussed earlier hold up really well for the majority of the running time and keep you guessing to the end, there’s just a few weird things about it. First off, outside of a couple of mostly irrelevant cameos no-one from either franchise makes an appearance other than the four leads. There’s no problem with that, personally I applaud the game for having the stones to be its own thing and not subject itself to constant lowbrow fan-service, the problem is a lot of the new characters aren’t especially interesting.

There are some exceptions, and few of the new characters are awful, however the most important character that the entire game is based around definitely IS awful. Her name is Espella, and she’s an incredibly boring and impossible to care about character who is the centre of this games universe, neither Phoenix or Layton have ever met her before yet they’re completely devoted to saving her to an extend that just starts to get weird. It’s hard to go into details here without spoiling things, but here’s one factoid about Espella, she’s such an obviously empowered and amazing character that she attempts to commit suicide FOUR times in the story. By the third time you’ll probably be cheering her on yourself.

Professor Layton 2

There’s also the nature of the ending, which it has to be said will be a deal breaker for a lot of players. Maybe you’re reading this having already beaten the game and are shaking your head thinking “well didn’t mind the ending”, that’s good for you champ! But it has to be mentioned that it’s really going to bother a lot of people. Although things are basically all explained and there aren’t any massive plotholes that break the story, there sure as hell are a ton of little ones that will probably make this game fall apart slightly on a second playthrough. Again, trying to avoid spoilers here, but basically the crime that the third court case is based around doesn’t make any sense whatsoever in light of the ending, and the entirety of the story could have been avoided if it had occurred to one character to just go to a therapist or something.

As a fan of both franchises, I can say that Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright is a mostly happy marriage between the two games. Frankly, I see no reason why there couldn’t be a sequel to this game, there’s certainly still untapped potential in having the characters of Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright on screen together. Maybe the ending and elements of the story will leave a bad taste in your mouth at the end, and hey, you’ll just have to settle for the 20 hours of good times you had before the game got to that. Then again, you might be totally fine with all that and retain a gooey feeling from seeing these two iconic characters together in a project that was so obviously adored by its creators.

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The Five Best Videogame Dogs

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There’s a lot of hype circulating around that upcoming Ubisoft game Watch Dogs, which the publisher wants stylised as WATCH_DOGS ­because it looks cooler or something. The problem is at the International World Group Meeting of Videogame Journalists we all got together and decided that all intellectual property must be put into italics within our content, and italics do nothing to that silly underscore in WATCH_DOGS and it mocks the entire thing so no journalist will ever go for that. So I’m just going to call it Watch Dogs and you should too.

Well anyway, Watch Dogs is coming your way at the end of May, unless you only have a Wii U for some reason and in that case you’ve got no-one to blame by yourself. And what better way to get excited about this than celebrating some of the best videogame DOGS as we WATCH the release date draw nearer! (Disclaimer: I did not get paid to write this it’s not worth getting upset over)

With that being said, let’s take a long at the top 5 videogame dogs, and it should be noted right now that PaRappa from Parappa the Rapper and Sam from Sam and Max are not on this list despite both being pretty cool videogame dogs. The reason for this is because they both wear human clothes at all times, and here at Frugal Gaming we consider people who dress up their dogs equal to people who take “Before and After” pictures when they shave their genitals.

There will also be no mention of the dog from the PlayStation 2 game Dog’s Life; because I want you at least think that more effort went into this list than just putting “dog game” into Google.

Best Videogame Dog #1 – Rush from Mega Man

Mega Dog

Rush is pretty much like Inspector Gadget crossed with Brain, the Swiss army knife of canine companions. Debuting in Mega Man 3 he basically replaced the lazily named “Items 1-3” from Mega Man 2 and became a cute little addition to the series that could be put on the box art (although Capcom USA decided not to in their wisdom, and instead opted for a picture of Mega Man shooting a robot in the groin)

As cool as Rush is there seems to be a dark history behind his appearances in the games. In Mega Man 3 he acted as a highly functional springboard and fully controllable jet, in Mega Man 4 the jet was only partially controllable and other than that you went where Rush gosh-darn wanted you to go, and by Mega Man 5 even the springboard thing wasn’t useful anymore. When Mega Man 6 and 7 came around though everyone was sick of his nonsense and Rush got smashed into pieces and Mega Man just flew around while wearing him as a jet pack. By Mega Man 9 Rush’s spirit was crushed and he was back to his basic coil and jet functions and never stood up for himself again.

Man, that’s sad. But we’ll never forget the times where Rush stood up for all of dogkind and would hilariously drop Mega Man to his death while flying over huge chasms if he wasn’t fed enough.

Best Videogame Dog #2 – Mira from Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill Dog

This is the little cutie from the infamous “dog ending” from Silent Hill 2. If you’ve got a bunch of the other endings in the game and do some other arbitrary stuff you can unlock this joke ending; where protagonist James Sunderland stumbles into a control room to find Mira standing on a little swivel chair and realises the entre experience was being manipulated by her the whole time.

Here’s the thing though, the Silent Hill 2 designers have said the game has no true canonical ending, in series lore it’s later revealed that James went to Silent Hill and disappeared. So the Mira ending is canonically just as viable as the other endings! Silent Hill 2 is a pretty good game; so the fact a dog could have such natural instincts for subtly, horror and narrative pacing is incredible, so Mira deserves some props for that. Also, she wears headphones that don’t actually cover her ears in any way, which all modern science confirms to be inarguably adorable.

(I am aware that Mira also appears in endings for Shattered Memories and Silent Hill Origins, but that is lame fan service trash so there will be no discussion of either of these games, so there.)

Best Videogame Dog #3 – The Frisbee Dog from Wii Sports Resort

Wii Dog

It was between this and the Duck Hunt dog, and after some soul searching and intense thought it can be concluded that the Frisbee Dog (I’ve decided that’s its name) is way better.

Here’s the thing with Frisbee Dog, he never ever misses your Frisbee when he runs out to catch it, and he looks so happy about it. When calibrating the Wiimote for each throw you have point directly at the Frisbee in his mouth as he cheerfully wags his tail and shudders in anticipation. The only time Frisbee Dog fails to make a catch is when your throw is so god-damned pathetic that it goes flying off the screen. In which case on your next throw Frisbee Dog will stare at you in angsty frustration (seriously!) until of course you pick the Frisbee back up again, where he instantly re-hypes himself because all he wants is to catch more Frisbees.

This is so much better motivation than the Duck Hunt dog, who laughs at you if you screw up in a gargled 8-bit kind of way. The problem is the Duck Hunt dog is a jerk, a jerk that you can’t ever shoot in the face no matter how much you try, so who cares what he thinks. But screwing up and disappointing Frisbee Dog, the most adorable and capable companion you could ever have, that’s some deep psychological stuff. It’s like when you’re busy and only have time to take your own dog for a five minute walk, then he stares up at you as you unhook the lead as if to say “…are you freaking serious…?” It eats away at your soul.

Best Videogame Dog #4 – Missile from Ghost Trick

Ghost Trick Dog

Oh dear, this is some unfortunate overlap, I already wrote a critically-acclaimed review of the critically-acclaimed Ghost Trick on this very site. But screw it, Missile is one of the best parts of that game and we’re talking about cool dogs so let’s go for it.

Missile is cool because he talks exactly how people imagine their dogs think. Of course dogs don’t really think anything; they’re scavenging pack animals whose instincts don’t expand much further than eating, pooping and sleeping. Let’s ignore all that though and get cutesy, Missile is adorable because he’s constantly talking about loyalty and getting confused by real world human objects. On top of that he’s a Pomeranian which are pretty much “broken tier” on the canine calendar of cuteness. SPOILER ALERT: He also dies at one point and comes back with the powers of the dead, and uses them to the full extent of their powers just to save his mistress.

Oo er, that was probably actually a bit too spoilery, I should probably leave this here. Consider the remainder of this paragraph a reminder that if you own a Nintendo DS or tablet device you should probably be playing Ghost Trick right now.

Best Videogame Dog #5 – Wonder Dog from umm, Wonder Dog

Wonder Dog

For those that don’t know, which is probably the vast majority of people reading this, Wonder Dog was a side-scrolling 2D platformer that came out for the Sega (Mega) CD and Amiga in 1992. The game also blows so don’t worry about playing it.

It’s seriously hilarious how much Wonder Dog sucks, in the sense that it plays like a collection of decisions made my businessmen who have never touched a videogame before, or if they have they washed their hands for 15-20 minutes straight afterwards. Using the Sega CDs FULL MOTION VIDEO the game starts out with a stupidly long opening cutscene that looks like something you’d see on Newgrounds.com in 200. It’s filled with dog puns and a story about Wonder Dog coming from a planet of dogs sent to Earth (it’s the Superman story, don’t worry about the details). After crashing on Earth in an extremely phallic spaceship he meets some kid and bonds with him like any other dog, but the kid’s dad won’t let him take Wonder Dog home, so the CHASE IS ON as you run through colourful worlds to find that kid again I guess.

The game itself is ridiculous, levels are called Zones instead of Acts so you don’t notice they’re ripping off Sonic (I noticed), there’s seriously a collection of levels called “Planet Weird”. Wonder Dog’s attack is shooting cartoon stars, but he bounces them off the ground like the fireballs in Super Mario Bros, but like he smashes the stars into the ground and they go flying uselessly towards the top of the screen. Whereas the Mario fireballs are delicate and deliberate in their bounce (and unlike Wonder Dog, aren’t the main way to attack enemies), the stars in Wonder Dog capture the game feel of a bunch of change falling out of your pocket when you pull out your keys. You have to play it to appreciate how stupid it is (don’t though).

Most hilariously of all, there’s a picture of Wonder Dog’s face on the GUI at the bottom of the screen, where he looks increasingly worn down as he takes hits like in freaking Wolfenstein 3D (the game pre-dates Doom). It’s unbelievable how much Wonder Dog is just a collection of crap thrown in a pot and vaguely packaged as something sellable, I flat out refuse to believe that anyone working on this knew anything about videogame design.

Here’s the thing; Wonder Dog is still actually kind of cute, as stupid as the opening cutscene the bit where he cries in it is still a bit of gut punch. There’s nothing worse than seeing a dog crying (partially because it’s physically impossible) even if does run around dressing like Mario and ripping off Sonic and dying a lot because he doesn’t control well. The only conclusion for this is; Wonder Dog is vaguely likeable based purely on the fact that he’s a dog, and isn’t that the best advertisement for dogs ever? Even freaking Wonder Dog on the Sega CD couldn’t find a way to make dogs rubbish, and that is why Wonder Dog gets a spot on this list, even though I’ll never think about him or his crap game ever again.

And with the best dogs in videogames ever set in stone and agreed upon by all, I’ll end this here. To make up for the fact that I stubbornly ignored him for no real reason, here’s K.K. Slider to play us out:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cICKPQzh0c]

If you’d like to, you can also totally follow me on Twitter @Lesmocon

Super Mario Bros Deluxe Review

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Super Mario Bros. Deluxe
Publisher: Nintendo Developer: Nintendo
Game Boy Colour/Virtual Console

It’s rough when you hit hard times and have to do degrading things. Say, just for example, you’re a recently graduated journalism student with no job or money (to the point where you can’t even afford The Amazing Deals Posted Everyday Here At Frugal Gaming!) and have to subject yourself to signing up for the Nintendo Network just because they promise you a free game out of it. In this case the free game is Super Mario Bros Deluxe off the Nintendo eShop for the 3DS, and granted it’s originally a Game Boy Colour game from 1999 but a lot of people are probably playing it right now and got it for free so it’s not exactly off the Frugal Gaming message so let’s give it a review.

Actually let’s not review it for this paragraph and briefly touch on Nintendo’s Virtual Console. Let’s get this straight Nintendo, you allow people to create their own save states on the 3DS, but you absolutely do not allow anyone to alter the controls. Super Mario Bros Deluxe defaults to B for run and A to jump on the 3DS, possibly (and irritatingly) simply because those buttons have the same name as the Game Boy buttons. However, the game is designed for the Game Boy/NES button layout which means it would make more sense for Y to be run and B to jump. Maybe the default scheme works for you, maybe you also pour Mountain Dew on a bowl of grass shards for breakfast, but the fact that there’s no option to change this is unacceptable.

So keep that in mind, for that reason alone this game is probably a lot less fun to play on the 3DS than it was to play on the Game Boy Colour. Having said that, Super Mario Bros Deluxe is still dumb.

SBowseruper Mario Bros. Deluxe is a remake/touch up job of the original Super Mario Bros; this review also isn’t going to comment too much on the original Super Mario Bros because there’s already more content online about why that game is a masterpiece than there are My Little Pony avatars. So let’s assume the original is the classic that it’s recognised as and discuss Deluxe on its own merits.

The first noticeable change gameplay wise is the camera, the Game Boy Colour unfortunately didn’t have the screen size to contain all of Super Mario Bros radness at once so Deluxe is sort of like playing the original game through a hole in a fence. Tapping up and down on the D-Pad moves the camera up and down to make up for this, but two huge issues come with this. First off, there are times where you’re “big Mario” and need to crouch to avoid obstacles and you don’t exactly want the camera crashing into the floor and lose your bearings, and secondly if you’re playing this on 3DS you’re probably using the analog stick rather than the disgustingly awful D-Pad so it’s easy to accidentally jiggle the camera around.

It’s probably fair to say that the limitations of the Game Boy Colour pretty much make Super Mario Bros Deluxe objectively worse than the original, the issues with the camera placement that the original didn’t have at all make it easy for the player to lose their bearings or on some stages not see the floor or platforms they’re jumping to and “leap of faith” gameplay rears its ugly head unwelcomely to a Mario title. Some of the additions are nice though, there are a few more colours and sound effects, and everything generally looks a bit bolder and brighter, also at the end of a castle stage Toad now does a little dance rather than passive aggressively standing still and flipping you off. There’s even a little jingle on the title screen now! If this game was a 1992 NES re-release of Super Mario Bros it would probably be pretty sweet.

It’s everything else about Deluxe that rubs the wrong way however. First off, why is there a map screen now? It serves no function other than giving the player the opportunity to switch between Mario and Luigi (who play exactly the same in this game remember). What is this, retroactive continuity? “Oh, the games after this had World Maps so this game has to have one too now.” The original Super Mario Bros is essentially a collection of rock solid platforming stages held together with string, and now they’re replacing the string with turkey twizzlers and made it all flabby. There’s no need for this to be there, and Nintendo basically admit this by letting you wham the start button to skip it entirely, a map screen with no functionality is just a couple of extra seconds between each level where you’re not playing the gosh darn videogame.

Mushroom1The grossest addition though is the “Checklist”, which comes in hand in hand with the map screen. From stage 1, you see a sheet of all the stages you’ve done and how many are left to go. Just…why, it’s Mario…just let the game be about the running and jumping that people crave. No-one wants to be dunked back into a map screen, watch a little sprite of Mario walk from one featureless blue dot to a featureless red dot, tick off the level and think “just 17 more stages to go!”

Really, this has all been pointless rambling since Deluxe basically reviews itself with its “bonus” features. These “bonus” features include; a calendar, a slideshow of unlockable pictures and (this isn’t a joke I swear) tarot cards. These had to be last minute additions, or maybe they were the ideas of some Make-a-Wish foundation kid visiting the Nintendo offices and they were guilted into using them. When you view the scrapbook of pictures there’s a nice little jingle, but when you actually select a picture to view the jingle stops and you stare at a stock picture of a Goomba that looks like it was drawn in Mario Paint…in complete silence, as if Deluxe is forcing you to have a quiet moment with yourself to think about what you’re doing with your life.

That is Deluxe’s review of itself, because at some point the designers realised how pointless the entire project was. Ultimately, it’s an inferior version of (at the time) a 15 year old game, so of course they dunk pointless “bonus” stuff into it to try and justify its experience. It’s impossible to recommend for purchase today in the context of the far superior Game Boy Advance remakes of classic Mario titles, and seeing as you could just buy the original and better Super Mario Bros on the same store.

But hey, if you got the game for free like I did, then you got to spend 15 minutes of your life playing a version of Super Mario Bros that has some title screen music.

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Reviewer: Matthew Leslie

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective Review

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Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Publisher: Capcom/Developer: Capcom
Nintendo DS/iOS

Why would anyone want a book when there’s Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective? Books don’t have 2D rendered sprites of hand drawn 3D models, you could have animation by flipping through the pages quickly but it would have to be an absurdly huge book to be anywhere near as cool. You would definitely drop a book that big on the bus and lose your place; drop a Nintendo DS on the bus and it’ll snap shut and save your place internally just because it loves you so very much. The point of this ludicrous opening paragraph is not that books are rubbish, but just that Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is really really good.

It starts off with a murder; a detective called Lynne stumbles across a corpse in a junkyard, before a hitman bursts onto the scene and shoots her down for unknown reasons. After an enchanted lampshade informs the ghost of the discovered corpse (that’s you) of your “Ghost Tricks” it’s up to you to use these tricks to save Lynne. The catch is that you have no memory of who you are or why you were killed tonight; and Lynne is your only potential lead on unlocking this mystery before your time runs out at dawn.

That probably all sounded fairly straight and narrow before the stuff about ghosts and the enchanted lampshade cropped up didn’t it? Ghost Trick comes to us from Shu Takumi, best known as the creator of the also slightly insane Ace Attorney series, and those familiar with his work will see his fingerprints all over this outing too.

It’s hard to discuss the story in too much detail as even the smallest piece of information could have 100s of spoilers attached to it, but Takumi games often have really “out there” nonsensical plots. This is sometimes too much for some gamers; a lot of people especially get grumpy about the Ace Attorney series regular inclusion of spirit mediums into the plots, but Takumi gets away with it because he grounds everything with the characters.

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Takumi views his characters as the foundation of the craziness not crash test dummies that the craziness just happens to slam into, and as nuts and convoluted as Ghost Trick gets you’ll come out of it remembering the people more than the events. The ending of this game really doesn’t work for some people, but gosh darn it, it’s such a pleasant ending and so wrapped up in this worlds own logic it’s impossible to hate despite how silly it is. A lesser game wouldn’t get away with it; fortunately Ghost Trick is anything but.

As the comparison to books at the start and this review’s absolute refusal to discuss (or ruin) core plot points might imply, the main event of Ghost Trick is the story but this isn’t just an interactive novel, there is gameplay afoot. You spend the game moving around with your “Ghost Tricks”, these allow you to hop a short distance between inanimate objects and manipulate certain objects, such as chiming a clock or swinging a pendulum. Much more spectacular however, is the ability to communicate with recently deceased spirits and rewind time back to four minutes before their death.

The core element of the puzzles in this game are these “four minutes before death” sequences, where you have to toy around with objects in a room to avert someone’s fate. It’s a clever mechanic in how the designers choreograph a death sequence, sort of as a “what if” scenario and give you limited tools to change it, as it also gives your ghostly spirit an excuse to actually communicate with all the other characters in the story. The one downside to it is it does mean basically everyone in the plot has to die at some point as part of one evening’s events, Lynne especially is a bit reckless as you’ll be saving her about six times in the game, you really get the feeling that as soon as your spirit fades away at dawn all these clutz will trip over their shoelaces and all die in one big pile and it’d all been for nothing.

Anyway, the actual puzzles are fairly trial and error in nature, but that’s not the smarmy criticism that it sounds. What the game does is give you situation and a whole bunch of toys to play with, you’ll probably spend your first attempt playing with them and getting everything wrong, but you’ll figure out what to do. Time is frozen when moving around in the Ghost World, and you rewind to the start as many times as possible and the game is never a douche about it, stuff just goes wrong in Ghost World sometimes. Solving a puzzle in Ghost Trick is more like completing a Sudoku grid than solving a crossword clue, you keep clawing away at it until eventually you get all the pieces in the right place and it all becomes obvious.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a beautifully presented story full of heart and spirit (hey this was a joke thanks for reading). Anyone who likes adventure or story-based games but gets frustrated at the structure of classic PC point n’ click ones should really love this, and anyone who is a fan of Ace Attorney or Professor Layton will be all over this as well. Whether you like, love or hate it, it’s guaranteed that you’ll never forget it.

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Reviewer: Matthew Leslie