Tag Archives: platformer

Yo Capcom, bring on the “Disney Afternoon for Game Boy Collection”

I’ve been working on a review of The Disney Afternoon Collection. It should be up sometime this week; I’d been wanting to hold off on posting until I’d had a chance to put this video together:

And now that I have, I feel like a hold a slightly more informed perspective with which to judge the Collection. Well, OK, not really. This is a mere footnote, not some essential magnifying lens.

DuckTales for Game Boy is, in broad strokes, the same game as the NES release that serves as the crown jewel of the Collection. Look at the details, however, and it’s more of a remix: Same overall goals, same control scheme, same enemies and challenges and general flow, but with all the individual pieces of each stage shuffled around. The game moves a little more slowly and its physical locales are somewhat more compact, and weirdly enough this all works in its favor. DuckTales on Game Boy works (at least, aside from the awful mine cart physics, which are bad on NES and intolerable on GB to the point of nearly breaking the game), and it offers a rare example of an NES game adapted to the diminutive handheld without needless compromise. It’s not perfect, but it gets a lot of things right that many, many other developers fumbled back in the day.

It’s a different enough game, and bodes well for Capcom’s other NES-to-Game Boy Disney conversions, that I’d really like to see a follow-up Afternoon Collection focused strictly on those ports. I doubt Capcom would ever go to the trouble of licensing those releases for reissue; we’re far more likely to see a compilation of their other Disney titles. But a boy can dream, right?

Anyway, DuckTales was a welcome point of light in my efforts to chronicle the Game Boy library. I’ll be taking a break from Game Boy Works for a couple of months in order to wrap up NES Works 1986 and put together the corresponding print edition compilation, but there are some interesting releases on tap once we get back to handhelds.

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Cave Story! Now that I’ve got your attention, play Kero Blaster

Kero Blaster is the latest game by Daisuke Amaya, better known as Studio Pixel. Referring to a single person as a “studio” may seem strange, but it’s a hallmark of the culture that’s grown up around the Japanese dōjin scene, where every release—be it a game, manga, music, or anything else—is attributed to a “circle” of creators who may in fact number only one or two. (Another example would be the infamous ZUN, who releases the Touhou games under the moniker “Team Shanghai Alice.”) In Pixel’s case, the appellation also emphasizes the extraordinary quality of Amaya’s games, which anyone would believe were developed by a team of people if you told them.

This is especially true of Cave Story, the 2004 PC platformer that elevated Pixel to indie superstardom and has subsequently been ported by publishers and hobbyists alike to a bevy of platforms—even the Dreamcast, of all things. In the three years since Kero Blaster‘s release, much of the discussion around it has focused on how it relates to Cave Story—how it compares, how it differs, how it lives in Cave Story‘s shadow, how it’s less ambitious (but that’s OK), and so on. It’s such a dominant line of thought that I’m going to do my best to refrain here.

And yes, you read that right: Kero Blaster has been out for three years now. But it’s still Pixel’s latest game; these things take time when one developer wears every hat on the rack. Amaya is credited with programming, writing, character design, graphics, music, and sound effects. He did take on a second, Kiyoko Kanakawa, who handled level design and project management to get the game finished.

Moreover, Kero Blaster is particularly relevant at the moment as it just recently received a port to PlayStation 4. Despite the Cave Story connection, it seemed to fly under many people’s radar the first time around, perhaps because it was only available on Windows and iOS. Now is a perfect time to correct that.

From the moment you load Kero Blaster, you assume the role of a be-necktied frog clutching a laser gun. The title screen itself is a self-contained stage, with a ladder on the right and a bit of raised terrain to hop over on the left. Hovering above you is the game’s title, where creatures resembling nothing more than bug-eyed clumps of darkness adhere to the grayed-out letters, apparently jamming them up somehow. Shoot them down, and the logo flickers to life like a neon sign, and a telephone in the center of the stage rings. Step up to it, and your frog fellow answers, taking you to the menu to select a save file.

This is all the tutorial you’ll get before you find yourself running and gunning through a series of linear platformer stages. While each stage takes the form of a straightforward obstacle course—full of enemies to shoot, pits to leap, and many different traps to avoid—there are secrets hinted all around their periphery—false walls, hidden gold caches, and tantalizingly placed extra lives. Kanakawa’s contributions to the game are on constant display as you mine each’s stages riches while fighting tooth and nail to the end.

You can’t return to previous stages, but you can backtrack as much as you like in the current one. Gold is used to purchase weapon upgrades and life extensions, but since shops are located roughly halfway through each stage, you may hesitate just before a boss to weigh holding out for the next shop against hoofing it back to the last one to be in peak condition for the big fight. Early in the game, you also gain the ability to perform two different kinds of double-jump: a shot straight upward with low horizontal momentum, or a boost far to the left or right without much height. Both are needed in different situations, and choices like these—on top of the usual questions of “Which weapon should I use here?” and “How do I avoid taking damage here?”—make the moment-to-moment play of Kero Blaster quite a bit more nuanced and cerebral than ancestors like Contra and Mega Man (to which it’s often compared).

The going is often tough, but the charmingly lo-fi art spurs the player onward. This is the most prominent element marking Kero Blaster as a “retro” game, and there are places where it’s clearly even simpler than it needs to be (such as the lack of a ladder-climbing animation, in favor of your frog friend incongruously gliding upward in a single-frame pose). But while many indie developers leverage their constraints by nostalgically recreating the aesthetics of older platforms, Amaya doesn’t attempt authenticity, be it 8-bit, 16-bit, or anything else. He can only do the work of one person, but the result is a minimalist aesthetic entirely his own. He wields it with confidence, too, intelligently limiting his use of color and rendering button-cute characters as convincingly as chthonic horrors.

Translation by Tadashi, 2007.

Stages are delineated with scenes revealing Kero Blaster‘s story, which may be best summarized as an emotionally ambiguous, increasingly surreal satire of the daily grind. Cat & Frog Inc. is a business where “work” is done; they just do Work. The stages you visit are described only as a “quota,” and if you’re wondering just what it is you’re accomplishing with all your guns out there? “Custodial sciences.” Your foes do eventually intrude on the plot, but only with the most curious explanation for what they actually are: “Pieces of your past that have been cast off. I guess.”

This brilliantly dry humor hearkens to AmeManga, a series of comics Amaya created from 2000 to 2002 that remain available on his site to this day. Some of Kero Blaster‘s characters actually originate there, and you can imagine Amaya carrying this world around in his head for over a decade before finding a home for it here. Studio Pixel’s games are no stranger to the phrase “labor of love,” but this particular inclusion reveals a quality in Kero Blaster even more intimate than usual.

Whether it was made by a team or a single auteur; whether it’s more or less like Cave Story; whether it’s authentic or merely “retro”; Kero Blaster‘s most important distinction is simply that it’s a fantastic game. Make sure not to miss it the second time around.

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Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap | The Retronauts review

Remaking a beloved classic forces developers to grapple with their own pixellated version of the Ship of Theseus paradox: How heavily can a game be altered while remaining fundamentally the same work? What parts should be altered? To what degree should those modifications be allowed to reshape the underlying work?

LizardCube’s new remake of SEGA Master System metroidvania Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is one of the rare instances in which the developers were able to sidestep this question altogether right at the outset. This remake began as a programming exercise for an enthusiastic fan (Omar Cornut) who wanted to dissect the tech behind the game and rebuild it for new systems. Rather than taking broad liberties with this new rendition of The Dragon’s Trap, Cornut prioritized fidelity first and foremost. This is a remake in the most literal sense: Not a reimagining, but rather a genuine recreation of the 8-bit work from the ground up.

Much as with Saber and 343i’s Halo Anniversary Editions, The Dragon’s Trap gives players a visually upgraded overlay that sits atop the original game, modified to run on new hardware and containing a handful of bonus secrets, but ultimately unchanged. The world layout, the physics, the enemy movements: They’re all the same as they were way back in 1989 on Master System. In fact, as with the aforementioned Halo remakes, The Dragon’s Trap allows players freely toggle between the new look and the original game sprites with the press of a button. The 8-bit visualizer mode isn’t simply the original Master System game running under emulation, either; the graphics have been modified to fill the widescreen layout of modern devices like Nintendo Switch (the version I’ve been playing) or PlayStation 4.

It’s a stunning exercise in digital archaeology, the programming equivalent of unearthing a dinosaur fossil and reassembling it perfectly… then allowing viewers to observe it as either a bare skeleton or with a detailed new skin. It almost seems excessive, but in the best way possible. How many remakes allow you to take a password into the original version of the game to play for a while, then seamlessly carry the progress you made there back into the new rendition?

This scrupulous fidelity to the source material comes with both benefits and drawbacks, of course — the developers’ pixel paradox in action. On the plus side (and this is an enormous plus), it means the extravagant new visuals don’t compromise playability. The Dragon’s Trap looks absolutely gorgeous, with elaborate, stylish, and above all fluid animation fleshing out the game’s sprawling world. Purists can opt to play with the original bitmaps, garish color palettes and all, but I can’t see why anyone would. The remake looks as good as any other 2D platformer I’ve ever seen, and possibly better.

But LizardCube’s core design philosophy — that is, change none of the game’s substance — neatly sidesteps the biggest issue that normally arises when a game looks this nice. Beautifully animated games tend to prioritize animation above responsiveness, an issue you’re especially likely to experience in other hand-drawn games of European origins. Think Rayman: Games that look great and move with visual grace, but which insist on playing out a full animation cycle on-screen before responding to player inputs. Because The Dragon’s Trap is ultimately running on a reconstructed 8-bit framework, it moves like an 8-bit game. When you tap the controls in a given direction, your character immediately moves in that direction. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment on display here (in a release that sets several technical standards for future classic remakes) is the way in which the characters still manage to animate fluidly within those limitations. There’s a whole lot of in-betweening work that plays out between the stilted animation cycles of the Master System original, and each of your protagonist’s five incarnations manages to pull off a variety of moves without ever breaking the illusion. It’s truly extraordinary, all the more so for the impression that every frame of every character and bad guy was drawn individually rather than relying on Flash-style “puppet” animation that many other best-of-class 2D developers (e.g. Vanillaware, WayForward, or Klei) sometimes use as shortcuts.

Taking such a faithful approach does present its share of problems, though, and The Dragon’s Trap unfortunately falls afoul of the biggest of them: Namely, by holding so faithfully to a game from nearly 30 years ago, LizardCube chose to forego any opportunities to refine it.

Now, some may hold to the idea that new developers have no business monkeying around with someone else’s classic, that the point of a remake like this is simply to reproduce the source material, warts and all. I disagree. Game design has come a long way in 30 years; back when Westone first created Wonder Boy III, developers were still tinkering with fundamental concepts of balance and fairness. To their credit, this game feels far less punishing than other contemporary nonlinear games. Wonder Boy (or Girl — one of the more thoughtful cosmetic elements of this remake is the option to chose your protagonist’s gender) can soak up quite a bit of damage from foes. If you venture into an area and find yourself hopelessly outclassed by the bad guys there, you shouldn’t be in that area just yet.

That said, the original game still had its share of minor frustrations. The physics can feel a little odd for those accustomed to the elegant jump mechanics of other games, and there are a few places (especially late in the game) where enemy placement feels needlessly punishing. The world desperately needs a few reverse shortcuts, too. Every area has a door to warp players back to the main village that serves as the game’s hub, but you need to trek the whole way on foot when you want to venture out to the hinterlands. If you lose to a boss, you can look forward to slogging your way back from the start. Likewise, the one shop that sells precious life potions is a good five-minute jaunt through a mouse-sized maze, even for a powered-up hero. You’ll get to know that route quite well, since you have to bumble through it any time you want to restock your potions.

It’s a testament, then, to the excellence of the original game that it still plays well in 2017 despite these quality-of-life issues. The third chapter in the sprawling Wonder Boy series (along with the other Wonder Boy III, Monster Lair — yes, it’s confusing, but we’ve sorted it out for you in podcast form) built on the rudimentary action RPG elements that appeared in 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Where Monster World had the brisk pacing and simplistic structure required for a game originating in arcades, though, Wonder Boy III appeared strictly on consoles and could afford to indulge in fully non-linear design. It’s packed with secrets, equipment, and pathways that you may spot right off but can only explore once you’ve acquired the appropriate power.

Those powers helped make the game so interesting. The journey begins at the finale of the previous game, with the final boss encounter working as a sort of prologue; once you defeat the last game’s boss, Wonder Boy is cursed to become a monster. With each new boss you destroy, you’re cursed anew to become a different creature: A lizard, a mouse, a fishman, etc. Each form has both advantages and drawbacks. The mouse, for example, has absolutely awful attack range, but can slip through tiny passages and climb certain walls. In time, you gain the ability to swap between your cursed forms at certain key locations, and learning when and how to make the most of each curse becomes a huge part of completing the game.

Original developers Westone put together one of the most advanced and interesting action RPGs of the ’80s, one that could stand toe-to-toe with hits such as Zelda II and would go on to exert some very obvious influence on the likes of Castlevania: Symphony of the NightShantae and Little Samson. Its problem was one of obscurity. Wonder Boy III appeared on multiple systems back in the day, but they were all the least popular platforms of each category: Master System, TurboGrafx-16, Game Gear. Hopefully the fact that this visually stunning (and still quite entertaining!) remake is showing up on the most popular platforms of the era — PlayStation and Steam, as well as being one of the first notable releases for Switch — will allow this 8-bit masterpiece to finally receive the acclaim it’s due.

The remake’s changes are literally skin deep… but what a great-looking skin they’ve created. And that skin been fitted over a game that didn’t really need much corrective surgery in the first place. I wouldn’t have complained about a few minor gameplay refinements, especially options to make navigating back to conquered areas less time-consuming, but I can’t fault LizardCube for creating a brilliantly, beautifully faithful take on this 8-bit classic.

Verdict: Highly recommended

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
Developer: LizardCube | Publisher: DotEmu
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Steam, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: April 18, 2017

This review was based on software provided by the publisher for review purposes.

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A chance to reconsider Crash, maybe

Yesterday Activision announced that their HD remaster of the PlayStation Crash Bandicoot trilogy — newly dubbed the N. Sane Trilogy, because without a name what kind of gravitas could a trilogy possibly have? — will arrive June 30, almost exactly a year after its announcement at last year’s Sony E3 press conference. Now that I’m over the cognitive dissonance of Activision publishing Crash (when I was a lad, that was a Sony franchise, thank you very much), I find myself looking forward to the N. Sane Trilogy.

I am not, to be honest, a fan of Crash… which is precisely why I’m eager to try the new HD reissue. I don’t feel I really gave the Crash games a fair shake back in the day. The original game was part of the late 1996 wave of first-party publishers attempting to take platform action games into 3D, along with Super Mario 64 from Nintendo and NiGHTs: Into Dreams from SEGA. I was on the outs with Nintendo consoles at the time and starting to develop an appreciation for the PlayStation vision, so I should have been the target audience for Naughty Dog’s platformers… but they didn’t do it for me at all. Super Mario 64 was so grand, so impressive, that the other publishers’ respective forays into that space left me cold.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable, in the context of the times. Super Mario 64 felt like the future, a fully open 3D platform game that not only pulled the genre into a new dimension, quite literally, but also did it with style and refinement. Yeah, there would be better 3D platformers, but Nintendo got so much right with Mario 64. By comparison, Crash’s linear into-the-screen design felt like playing, say, S.T.U.N. Runner compared to Mario 64‘s DOOM.

At the time, there was also a suffocating sense within the media and the tiny little online gaming community that existed in 1996 that game design was a one-way journey: Progress or nothing. If a game didn’t shatter the bounds of technology and design, it wasn’t worth your time. S.T.U.N. Runner ceased to be fun once DOOM came into being, and Super Mario 64 mooted any game that restricted action to a mere two axes. This, of course, is nonsense, but it would be a few years before I became dislodged from that way of thinking and found a happy medium between that mindset and its “hardcore” USENET opposite, which posited that the value of a given game was directly proportionate to its age.

Now that I’m older and wise enough to recognize that a game can be great without pushing any particular envelopes, I want to go back and reconsider Crash. Maybe I was wrong about it, and there’s something great there despite being relatively less ambitious than Super Mario 64. Then again, maybe not — big first-party games cause a certain degree of blindness among the first-party faithful (hence the popularity of Smash Bros.…), so maybe Crash‘s adulating fans are simply suffering from an overdose of Kool-Aid. Either way, I’m eager to see for myself.

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