Mega Man X2 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X2’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection*

When Mega Man X was released in 1994, it served as a unique take on the Mega Man series. It starred a newer, edgier Mega Man that fought evil robots called ‘Mavericks’ over a hundred years after Dr. Light and Dr. Wily of the original series had passed on. The more mature take on Mega Man proved to be a roaring success, so much so that it ended up launching its own sub-series. Mega Man X2 followed suit with its predecessor a mere year later, and while X2 may not add too much newness to the formula, it still provides a stellar sequel.

Set six months after the defeat of the evil Sigma, Mega Man X2 sees the titular Mega Man X (or simply ‘X‘) as the new leader of the Maverick Hunters, following the death of Zero in the first game. Three of Sigma’s most loyal followers – the oddly named trio of Serges, Agile and Violin – have rallied Sigma’s remaining forces in an attempt to destroy X and the Maverick Hunters and rebuild their empire. The evil trio – collectively known as the “X Hunters” – also hold Zero’s body part, which X seeks to retrieve in hopes of rebuilding the fallen hero to repay his sacrifice. The relatively personal plot (bad guys with a vendetta, Mega Man trying to save Zero) helps X2 not only stand out from its predecessor, but the franchise as a whole.

As you may expect, X2 follows the series’ trademark setup: an introductory stages teaches the basics, choose from eight different main stages and defeat the Maverick boss fight at the end of each one, get said Maverick’s power, use that power on a later boss who is weak against it. After all eight stages are completed, the final few levels can then be played in sequential order.

In that sense, Mega Man X2 is a very tried-and-true sequel, but one of the benefits of the platforming genre is that even with similar core gameplay, the level design can make for a very different experience. And in that sense, X2 does a great job in standing out from its predecessor, with new ideas and level gimmicks that keep things fresh and exciting. One stage has X riding on a motorcycle  in the desert, and another sees him avoiding searchlights to prevent traps from activating, Metal Gear style.

“Life goals.”

The eight Mavericks here are Bubble Crab, Morph Moth, Magna Centipede, Wire Sponge, Flame Stag, Wheel Gator, Crystal Snail and Overdrive Ostrich (which is possibly the best character name in video game history). Admittedly, they aren’t as memorable as the Mavericks from the first game on the whole (we’re only into the second entry and they’ve already resorted to a sea sponge?), but the stag, ostrich, snail and gator are pretty darn cool.

Each of these eight levels feel unique from one another. And like the first game, they hide a host of secrets. Each stage features a hidden Heart Tank to increase X’s maximum health, while four stages hide Sub-Tanks (collectibles which store health to be used at a later time), and four contain hidden upgrades for X’s helmet, armor, legs and blaster. While the blaster upgrade is more or less identical to that of the first game, the other upgrades provide different bonuses than they did the first time around.

X2 adds a nice twist to the formula, one that contributes to the game’s aforementioned story. After two Mavericks are defeated, Serges, Agile and Violin will then hide out within the six remaining levels, and can be fought if Mega Man X can find the optional boss room within the stage’s they’re currently hiding. If X defeats one of the X Hunters, he is rewarded with one of Zero’s pieces, and the game’s story is altered if X collects all three. But the X Hunters jump to different stages every time the player completes a level or gets a game over, and they don’t visit completed stages, which will further influence which order the player chooses to complete the levels.

Another area in which Mega Man X2 shines are the visuals. The original Mega Man X was already a visually timeless title that has held up beautifully, and X2 adds to the aesthetic appeal with more detailed environments and character animations (Overdrive Ostrich being a tiny silhouette in the distance before jumping to the foreground to confront Mega Man is a particular highlight). X2 even went the extra mile and added new visual effects into the mix, including some 3D boss enemies.

While Mega Man X2 equals its predecessor in most respects, there are a few areas which prevent this sequel from being an all-out improvement. The concept of levels being altered depending on which order yo play them in – which helped set the first Mega Man X apart from the original series – seems completely forgotten with this second go around. One could argue that the X Hunters traveling between stages is X2’s equivalent of the first game’s altering of levels, but simply replacing one element with another, when so much of the game is decently similar, may not seem like a fair trade-off to some players. Additionally, the music – while still great in its own right (this is Mega Man, after all) – doesn’t quite reach the same heights of its predecessor.

Mega Man X2 continues what its predecessor started, even if it doesn’t surpass it. While that obviously raised some eyebrows given the reason that Mega Man X existed in the first place was because the Mega Man franchise had grown a bit stagnant, X2 is still an exceptionally fun action-platformed even today. Mega Man X2 may feel like a tried-and-true sequel, as opposed to a series-redefining second installment like Mega Man 2 was for the original series, but if this is a case of ‘more of the same,’ then it’s more of the same of a very excellent experience. And that’s not so bad, right?

 

8

Advertisements

Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles

With my recent overhaul of Wizard Dojo (with a new overall look and new scoring system), I figured I’d ring in this new era of Wizard Dojo-ing with a revised version of the very first ‘top list’ I ever posted here at the Dojo; Top Video Game Launch Titles!

The first time around, I listed five games, plus some runners-up. This time around, I’m upping things to a top 10!

Video game consoles are defined by their best games. Sometimes, a console doesn’t have to wait very long to receive its first masterpiece, with a number of consoles getting one of their definitive games right out the gate. Although it used to be more commonplace for a console to receive a launch title that would go down as one of its best games, the idea of a killer launch title is becoming a rarer occurrence in gaming.

Still, launch games have more than left their mark on the industry. Here are, in my opinion, the 10 most significant video games to have launched their console.

Continue reading “Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles”

Dark Souls Review

*Review based on Dark Souls release as Dark Souls Remastered*

Dark Souls is a difficult game. Many enemies and bosses can kill you with one stroke, deadly traps will lead to instant death, and invading players always have it out for you. The challenge of Dark Souls has become the stuff of gaming legend. And yet, that difficulty is hardly the summation of Dark Souls. Rather, the steep challenge is justified by being part of one of the most tightly constructed, immersive and overall satisfying experiences in all of video games. Yes, Dark Souls is difficult, but it’s so much more than that.

Director Hidetaka Miyazaki followed the blueprint of his earlier title Demon’s Souls when crafting this spiritual sequel. Dark Souls transcended its predecessor by delving into deeper gameplay territories. The most prominent of which being its merging with the Metroidvania sub-genre, with each land to be discovered in the game connecting with another, and shortcuts between them to be found once you meet the right requirements.

The world in question is Lordran, one of the great settings in video games. The people of Lordran suffer the curse of being undead. Unlike most fantasy stories, the undead of Dark Souls look like human beings, but they are unable to die, instead losing more and more of their humanity upon death, eventually becoming a ‘Hollow’ (essentially a mindless zombie, and more akin to what is usually labeled as ‘undead’). Players take on the role of the ‘Chosen Undead,’ who escapes from the Undead Asylum and arrives in Lordran, where they begin a pilgrimage that is destined to bring them face to face with Lord Gwyn, an old god responsible for the undead curse.

As is the standard for the series, most story and world elements are intentionally vague, with snippets of character dialogue and flavorful descriptions of items giving insight into the world of Lordran. It proves to be one of the more effective means of video game storytelling, with players able to delve into the narrative should they choose, or simply bask in pure gameplay.

From the get-go, Dark Souls’ gameplay presents a staggering amount of variety: Players can customize their character to be more focused on heavy physical damage, magic attacks, healing, quick strikes, and more. And even when you do decide which direction to take your character, there are still several different routes you can take with each build. Even the core gameplay provides different styles, whether it’s a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, two weapons, a weapon and a staff, there’s no shortage of options. You can even swap into holding a weapon with both hands at the press of a button.

The depth in gameplay just never lets up. There are new mechanics constantly being introduced, and some which are so subtle you may not realize they were there until late into the journey.

Two of the key mechanics players will need to know are souls and humanity. Souls are acquired from defeating enemies, and work as both experience points to level up your character and currency for buying items, weapons and armor. Humanity is a bit rarer, being an occasional drop from enemies and scattered about the world, as well as rewarded for helping other players fell bosses. When the player dies (and you will die), they become Hollow which – along with making their character look more deathly – prevents you from summoning other players for help. Adding to the game’s challenge, every time you die, you lose your souls and humanity (though you retain unused humanity in your inventory). You have a chance to reclaim your lost earnings if you can return to the spot you died, but if you die again before you make it, you lose everything.

The now-iconic Bonfires serve as checkpoints, but are also where you spend souls to level up, repair and upgrade equipment, and where you can spend a humanity to undo the effects of Hollowing. Resting at bonfires also refills your Estus Flask – your primary source of healing – and you can increase the usage of your Flask at any bonfire you’ve kindled, which also costs a humanity. Suffice to say, discovering a new bonfire after a series of rough patches is a godsend.

The sheer amount of detail that emits from every environment of Lordran is staggering. The level design is among the best of any Metroidvania title, with every destination being perfectly staged with enemy and item placements, not to mention secrets around every corner (a number of which rival Symphony of the Night’s inverted castle in how they change and expand upon the whole experience). Even in its most painfully difficult moments, it’s all too easy to get absorbed in Dark Souls’ structure and depth.

If things get too difficult, you can always call on other players to help you out by finding their summon signs across the land (with players usually leaving them around bonfires and boss doors). You can summon up to two other players to aide you in an area until you rid it of its boss, but you can’t summon players when hollowed. There is a caveat to staying human, however, as whenever you’re not hollow you are susceptible to invasion by enemy players. Of course, if you’re getting stuck on a particular segment, or simply want to help or hinder someone else, you can always leave a summon sign or invade another player for a change of pace.

On its own, the multiplayer of Dark Souls – both cooperative and combative – has rightfully proven influential over the years, as it remains a fun and refreshing change from multiplayer norms. But to add another layer to everything, players can join Covenants throughout their journey, which often have their own benefits and rewards for both friendly and fiendish multiplayer.

I suppose we do have to go back and talk about the notorious difficulty of Dark Souls. While the game can get brutally difficult – to the point of intimidating some players – it’s never unfair. Whether its equipping the proper armor to withstand poisoning or finding the right spot to best hide from a boss’ devastating attack, there are always methods to what seems like madness. More importantly, there is always a sense of strategy, with players able to survive any onslaught if they know when to dodge, block or attack. While a lesser designed game may simply leave you throwing your hands in the air and giving up under such difficulty, Dark Souls is so well designed that it will leave you wanting to push yourself to see things through. Dark Souls may have you feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, going about the same situation in different ways until you get it right. And when you do get it right, there’s seldom an experience in gaming that even approaches its sense of reward.

Though it was originally released in 2011, Dark Souls’ visuals have held up nicely, with the remastered version making it look all the more at home on current hardware. Better still is its art direction, which should rank among the best of the medium. There’s not a location or creature that doesn’t stick with you. Combine that with the game’s incredible musical score and unparalleled sound work, and Dark Souls is quite the spectacle, and presents perhaps the most absorbing fantasy world in gaming.

There are a few minor issues with Dark Souls, but nothing that truly undermines its overall excellence. Later in the game you gain the ability to warp between specific bonfires, though you may wish you gained the ability a little sooner when you find yourself going back and forth in the earlier half of the game. Then there’s the backstabbing mechanic, which is just far too easy for players to perform on one another. While being invaded by opposing players may be par for the course, it kind of sullies a lot of player-versus-player encounters when everyone is simply trying to pull off a backstab on each other in place of using their full moveset. But again, these are little more than quibbles.

Yes, Dark Souls is a very difficult game, but it’s so much more than that. While most of the video game world became preoccupied with trying to replicate the spectacle of Hollywood once the medium made the jump to 3D, Dark Souls instead feels more akin to what would have happened if the older style of games from the 80s and early 90s had evolved into the present day. Like the best games from those early years, Dark Souls requires its players to gain an intimate knowledge of its every last location and trinket in order to see things through. It combines those older traditions with one idea after another that are entire its own, and continues to build on them throughout its entirety.

Dark Souls is a difficult video game. But it also happens to be one of the very best.

Praise the sun!

 

10

Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn Review

In this day and age, where pop culture is obsessed with nostalgia, it seems anything is fair game for a remake, reboot or sequel. Whether it’s beloved franchises making a welcome return, or something more obscure crawling its way back into the spotlight, if it existed in the 80s or 90s, it’s making a comeback. 2017 saw the baffling return of Bubsy – the nadir of the 90s platforming boom – and now 2018 follows suit with the “long-awaited” sequel to Shaq-Fu, widely regarded as one of the worst video games of all time. Though to its credit, Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn at least knows what it is, and while that may mean it’s a bad game, does it hurt it that much if that’s pretty much what it was trying to be?

Calling A Legend Reborn a sequel to the original Shaq-Fu may not be entirely accurate, as both are actually very different games. The original was a fighting game, while this entry is a side-scrolling beat-em-up. What they have in common, however, are Shaquille O’Neal, and a whole lot of absurdity.

Here, Shaquille O’Neal is a “humble, Chinese rickshaw driver,” who learns kung-fu from Master Ye-Ye. Shaq ends up being a chosen one destined to defeat an evil demon who threatens the Earth every 1,000 years. The demon’s newest plan is to subvert the human race by “stupefying” them with celebrity culture. So it’s up to Shaq to fight armies of demons and celebrities in order to save the world.

Yeah, it’s stupid, and it knows it. The downside is that the whole “ironic, self-aware, fourth wall-breaking” brand of humor is kind of white noise in this day and age (sorry Deadpool fans). Making fun of tropes has become the single most cliched trope out there by this point. With all that said, I will admit that Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn has some genuinely funny moments, due in no small part to Shaquille himself, who certainly seems to have a great sense of humor at his own expense (one of the game’s best meta-gags is that its life-replenishing item is the Icy Hot Patch, which Shaquille O’Neal is of course the spokesperson of in real life).

The jokes on celebrity culture can be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, basing a boss fight off an angry, drunken Mel Gibson is something that will always be funny, but a boss fight parodying Paris Hilton seems about a decade late. Of course, due to legal reasons, the game can’t use the real names of these celebrities (a la South Park), so instead has to make due with approximations that you wish could at least be a little bit closer to the real thing (a la The Simpsons).

In terms of gameplay, well, it’s fittingly mindless. Just punch hordes of enemies to build up “combo points” which you can then use to unleash Shaq’s size 22s to flatten the bad guys. And if you build up power (which is strangely separate from the combo points), you can perform the Shaq Smash, which easily dispatches foes. Occasionally, you can find two different power-up transformations: The Shaq Diesel merges the basketball star – excuse me, rickshaw driver – with a diesel engine, allowing Shaq to perform rapid punches simply by holding the attack button. But punch too much and you’ll have to unleash a diesel powered Shaq Smash, lest the engine burn up without unleashing that power. The other transformation (and another one of the game’s best gags) is the “Shaqtus,” which is, as it sounds, Shaq as a cactus, allowing him to shoot spines at enemies.

The transformation sequences are the game’s best bits, as they are really the only times the gameplay changes from what is a rather monotonous beat-em-up. Sure, you can pick up weapons here and there, but nothing else really changes up the button-mashing gameplay to any significant degree.

But hey, this game was designed entirely to be a joke and follow-up one of the most infamous games of all time. So I guess the monotony was intentional? Even if we give Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn that benefit of a doubt, however, the game still has some glaring shortcomings in execution and technical polish.

First and foremost, it’s baffling to think that Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn is exclusively a single-player game. Beat-em-ups are a genre made for couch co-op, and with a game like this, which is intentionally stupid, wouldn’t it be the kind of joke that’s funnier if you’re sharing the experience? This is only magnified more by the fact that, at six stages, Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn is incredibly short, and provides little (if anything) in the way of replay value. Had the game featured multiplayer co-op, the act of sharing Shaq Fu with someone else might have been incentive enough for some replays.

Then there are technical issues, and not just simple slow-downs and light freeze-ups, either. During my playthrough, the first time I died wasn’t by an enemy hand, but by Shaq randomly sinking into the ground and the game suddenly telling me I’m dead. And the game completed froze on me at least four times (two of which were on the same section) in my playthrough.

Look, I don’t know what else to say. Is Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn a good game? Certainly not. But that’s kind of the point. It’s a title made entirely to live off the legacy of a notorious 90s game. It purposefully sets the bar low, and, well, it hits the mark it set out to. Not all of the humor works, the gameplay is repetitive, and the technical issues are glaring. But hey, Shaquille O’Neal himself has a good sense of humor about it. So I guess I can too.

 

3

Rediscovering Dark Souls

I love Dark Souls.

I think I’ve made that pretty apparent here at the Dojo. I named Dark Souls 3 as my Game of the Year for 2016, placed BloodBorne and Dark Souls 2 within the top five of such lists for their respective years, and really haven’t stopped singing their praises. With that said, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until Bloodborne that I really got into the series. Now, it wasn’t the first one I played, but it was the first one I finished and really got sucked into.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the Dark Souls games before then, because I did quite a bit. But I didn’t quite “love” them, for lack of a better word. Though that’s probably more on my part then the games, because I never got very far in them. Again, I really enjoyed what I experienced, but I didn’t properly get sucked into them. In fact, in the first Dark Souls (the most acclaimed entry in the franchise), I only reached the Gaping Dragon before I got pre-occupied with other games and, tragically, didn’t go back.

Well, I of course had to get Dark Souls Remastered now that I’m a proper nut for the franchise, and started playing through it recently. I still have a long ways to go, but seeing as I just defeated the Gaping Dragon, I figured now would be a fitting time to write about it.

Frankly, I was surprised at just how much I remembered of the game up to the point where I last left off. From shortcuts to enemy placements to secret items, it was amazing how well it’s all been coming back to me, even though I probably hadn’t played Dark Souls since 2012 (shame on me). But really, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Part of what makes these games so special is how strongly they resonate and stick with you. They are presented and progressed in such a way that memorizing the layouts and dangers become second nature.

Not only do I remember what I traversed before to surprising detail, but with my new(ish) appreciation for the series post-Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3, I find that I have a far deeper involvement in it. I can now safely say – as I wish I could have back in 2011 – that I “love Dark Souls.

While there are some obvious elements that the sequels improved on (Bloodborne has more accessible combat, and Dark Souls 3 has fast-travel, which I now feel naked without). On the whole, Dark Souls 1 is every bit as masterful as those aforementioned successors.

It’s amazing how well it holds up, really. While many more contemporary titles can feel like standouts in the year of their release, they seem to wow less and less with return visits. But going back to Dark Souls feels like going back to a timeless SNES classic, where you still feel constantly surprised and delighted, even when you know exactly where everything is.

Simply put, even though in the past I may have “merely” respected, appreciated and enjoyed Dark Souls from an objective standpoint, I now feel a more personal level of admiration for it now that my eyes have been more widely opened to the genius of its design. Yes, I still have a ways to go, and it’s still a tough S.O.B., but I’m loving every minute of it.

Well, Now I HAVE to Get Kingdom Hearts 3

I may not be the biggest Kingdom Hearts fan out there. Despite some fun ideas, I find the games are bogged down by an utterly convoluted, incomprehensible plot, cliched original characters, and often monotonous gameplay. Not to mention the fact that all the spinoff titles released on a myriad of different platforms all serve as parts of the main story have made it impossible for anyone but the most diehard of fans to follow.

But by God, Kingdom Hearts 3 has a Frozen level!

Allow me to fanboy-out for a moment here. Frozen is my favorite Disney animated film, and yes, one of my favorite films, period. And yes, its presence in Kingdom Hearts 3 is enough to sell me on buying the game (again, the series isn’t horrible. If it were, I wouldn’t buy it even with the Frozen stuff).

Now, this really shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise. Seeing as Frozen is the biggest animated film in history – and is especially popular in Japan – it would be nothing short of dumbfounding to leave it out of a game filled with Disney franchises. But to actually see it in action is just…YES!

On the downside, some of the dialogue in the reveal trailer suggests that this entry may still suffer from the narrative gobbledygook of the series. But heck, I’ll push through it for Anna and Elsa.

Although I still have my skepticisms with Kingdom Hearts 3, I do admit I’m intrigued by the fact that it seems to be emphasizing modern Disney movies more than past entries of the series. Along with Frozen, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Pixar films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. have already been announced. I’ve made it no secret that I think Disney’s current run is their best ever (I don’t care what your nostalgia says). So while some older Disney films will be making a return (Hercules), I’m happy to see something as prominent as Kingdom Hearts is putting modern Disney in the spotlight.

Yeah, I would probably prefer Kingdom Hearts if it were just the Disney (and Final Fantasy) characters. But whatever. We get Frozen. And they even nabbed Josh Gad to voice Olaf for the game, which is pretty great.

Anyway, here’s the reveal trailer for the Frozen stuff in KH3, though be warned, some elements are clearly unfinished (pretty sure Elsa’s ice blast is supposed to have sound), which makes some parts a little awkward. Same goes for the fact that Haley Joel Osment is still the voice of Sora, despite the actor now being 30 and the character still a teenager (have we learned nothing from Goku’s ungodly Japanese voice?).

 

…I promise I’ll add meaningful content soon.

Celeste Review

An inspirational climb to greater heights.

January has never been a heavy hitting month for video game releases – it functions as a relative calm before the storm. However contemporary showcases have proven to be a delightful exception to the rule, transcending January into a mainstay of quality. January 2013 saw the release of one of the best modern JRPGs in recent memory, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and January 2017 introduced the franchise resurrecting Resident Evil 7: biohazard, a franchise reviver and one of the best games of 2017. This past January also had a masterpiece simmering under the radar, the independent platformer with tremendous heart, Celeste. While its sense of scale is rather diminutive compared to the previously mentioned January entries, its level of quality never faltered, making it an undeniable front-runner for game of the year. Plated with its impeccable level design, brilliantly simple mechanics, and slew of deviating paths and hidden goodies, Celeste transcends into a remarkably defined staple of the modern 2D platformer. Its pitch perfect gameplay and refined mechanics are enhanced by its impeccably crafted pace and gameplay implementation, introducing new twists and turns at every corner, significantly upping the ante with each new chapter. Aside from its mechanical prowess, Celeste boasts one of the most beautifully crafted narratives to ever grace the gaming sphere, a creative element typically undermined or absent in mainstays of the genre. Celeste’s inspiring coming of age story is a breath of fresh air to the expanding portfolio of 2D platformers. While these two fundamental structures of Celeste are inherently separate, both exude an unparalleled level of quality, becoming prime examples of their craft and are seamlessly harmonized as a result. Celeste is not only a remarkable start to the new year, it is arguably the best modern 2D platformer, standing tall amongst the meteoric heights of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Ori and the Blind Forest.

Continue reading “Celeste Review”