Monday, August 28, 2017

HORI RAP V Hayabusa for Nintendo Switch Review

If you want a Switch arcade stick with real arcade quality parts, there’s only one choice. In this corner, measuring 18.4 x 11.2 x 5.7 inches and weighing in at 6.5 pounds, HORI’s Real Arcade Pro V Hayabusa! 8bitdo has the N30 Switch arcade stick, which looks pretty nice, but it’s a small stick and does not have real arcade quality parts. If you already have a PS4 or XBO stick, I’ve heard the Brook adapters for XBO and PS4 to Wii U work on Switch. The RAP V is pretty pricey at $150, but I think you get what you pay for with the build quality.

The + button and 8 face buttons are 24mm and 30mm Hayabusa Matte Pushbuttons. They have round edges and a matte finish instead of the usual glossy finish. They are “short throw” buttons, which means that they are low profile and button presses register quicker than on the average button. The 30mm size means that they are standard size and can be replaced with buttons from other brands. The low profile of the buttons feels a little weird after playing with Sanwa buttons for so long, but they are responsive and feel pretty good now that I’m used to them. I don’t really know what the purpose of matte finish is, but they feel good. I guess it’s to make them less slippery. I’ve never had problems with slippery buttons, though.

On the right side of the stick there are 6 buttons for Home, Screenshots, -, L3, R3, and the Turbo function. These buttons are not in a great position. They are out of sight and their labeling is small and sideways. You probably won’t need to hit those buttons a lot in the kind of games you would use this stick with, though. I would prefer it if these buttons were on top of the stick, like on some of my Madcatz sticks. The stick doesn’t come with any instructions on how to use Turbo Mode, so I had to watch a YouTube video to learn how. First you hold down the Turbo button and then press the button you want turbo on. You can set it to use turbo on button presses or automatically. You can set turbo to the 8 main buttons, but not on +, -, or any of the side buttons. Weirdly enough, you can also put turbo on a direction on the d-pad.

Also on the side are 4 switches for switching between d-pad, left stick, and right stick, Switch and PC modes, and turning the Assign and Tournament functions on and off. Windows does recognize the stick as a controller when in Switch mode, but game compatibility is hit or miss. When in PC mode, Windows recognizes the stick as an Xbox 360 controller and worked fine with everything I tested it on. The only weird thing is that A, B, X, and Y are mapped to the buttons with the same label on the stick, so they’re all on the opposite side they would be on an Xbox 360 controller.

I tried using the stick on Wii and Wii U with no luck, but surprisingly, it works on PS3. All the buttons are mapped to the same position they would be in on a PlayStation controller, but the Home button doesn’t work, so you still need a PS3 controller for that. I have not tested it on a PS4.

The Assign function allows you to remap buttons on the stick. So, you could map L and R to A and B, for example. L and R would still be L and R; though, it doesn’t switch the buttons around. This mode is sort of confusing to use, since the stick doesn’t come with any instructions for it either, and when you flip the switch on, the LED for Turbo Mode lights up. I had to watch a video YouTube to find out how to use this too. The Tournament Mode switch just disables buttons like Home and +, so you can’t accidentally pause the game in the middle of a match at Evo and lose the round.

The joystick is a Hayabusa lever with a square gate. The Hayabusa lever is supposed to have 5-15% faster input than other sticks and it is noticeable. The stick will click and register an input with less tilt than a Sanwa lever. It really doesn’t feel that different when you’re actually playing, though.

There is a cable storage compartment in the front of the stick and it has a 10ft USB 2 cable. There is no wireless option, but you can use the stick with the Switch undocked using a USB to USB C adapter. However, since the USB C slot is on the bottom of the Switch, you can’t prop the Switch up with the kickstand when you have a cable plugged in.

There’s also 2 foam rubber pads on the bottom of the stick. I think they’re there more to prevent the stick from scratching any tables than to feel comfortable on your lap.

Some things missing from the stick are rumble and NFC. I’m fine with not having these things on a stick. I wouldn’t want these things driving the price up. I don’t think I would want a rumbling arcade stick either, and I can always use another controller to scan amiibos.

One annoying thing about the stick is that you can’t turn the system on or wake it from sleep with the stick. You can’t turn the system on from an off state with a Pro Controller either, but you can wake the system up with it. I also remember turning on my 360 with a stick, so I don’t get what the issue is. It must be a Switch specific thing. Since you can’t wake the system up with it, you’ll either have to use the power button on the system or turn it on with another controller and then switch the controller order in the options to make the stick player 1.

Another thing I don’t like is that the joystick and buttons are kind of low on the the stick. Since they are so low, the lower part of my hands usually ends up resting on the bevel and it can be a bit uncomfortable if I don’t adjust. I wish the joystick was a little higher, so that my wrist would naturally bend where the bevel starts.

The artwork on the stick is lame. It’s just red. Some of the text uses a metallic paint and that looks cool, and I like that they went with black buttons and balltop, but overall, it doesn’t look very interesting. You can always mod it with new plexiglass and custom art if you want, though. Websites like sell both the plexiglass and art printouts.

Overall, I like the stick. It has a long cable, the buttons and joystick feel good, and the Turbo function could be nice for some games. It’s annoying that I can’t wake the system up with it and a the plain red color is lame, but it’s nothing major. The most important thing is that I can finally play Switch games without using the horrible d-pad on the Pro Controller.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Shantae: Pirate Queen’s Quest Review

Shantae fans’ wishes have been granted! Risky Boots finally has her own game. Sort of. Shantae: Pirate Queen’s Quest is an expansion for Shantae: ½ Genie Hero. In this version, you play through ½GH from Risky Boots’ perspective. ½GH is available on XBO, PS4, Steam PC, Wii U, Vita, and Switch for $19.99. I got Pirate Queen’s Quest (for Wii U) a little early, since I backed the KickStarter, but it will be available for everyone else on August 29th for $9.99.

The original Shantae trilogy played a lot like Zelda II, Castlevania II, and the Wonderboy in Monster World games. They were Metroidvanias. ½ Genie Hero and Pirate Queen’s Quest are much more like Mega Man X. The levels are linear action platforming levels and you get new abilities after beating a boss. You also have to go back into the levels to find stuff after you get new abilities. That might sound a little bit like a Metroidvania, but it’s more like when you go back into the levels in Mega Man X to hunt for Heart and Sub Tanks, and the Light Capsule that gives you the Hadoken.

Pirate Queen’s Quest cuts out a lot of the filler that was in Shantae’s game. In ½GH, you played through a level, then went back to town and talked to people, and then went back to the levels, rinse and repeat. It felt like padding to make the game longer. There were way too many fetch quests and collectables for only having 5 main areas. Risky’s game doesn’t have a town, her home base is a bubble bath on her ship, so that cuts out all the talking to people, and every level is available from the start, so she doesn’t need to find maps to open them. Risky also starts out with more abilities and has less abilities to collect than Shantae, so you can get more collectables from each level in less playthroughs. The game ends up being shorter, but also a lot more fun.

The story in Pirate Queen’s Quest is Risky’s version of the story in ½ Genie Hero. You have to keep in mind that Risky is evil, though. Comically evil. She is self centered, vain, and obsessed with power and riches. She’s kind of like Wario, or Nami from One Piece meets Skeletor from Masters of the Universe. So, maybe she’s bending the truth a little bit. The story starts off with the scene in ½GH where Shantae and her friends have completed the Dynamo, and it turns out that Risky switched the plans for it, and they actually built the final boss of the game for her. Risky makes off with the Dynamo and hatches a plan to upgrade it and make the power of the Genies her own, but she needs 5 new parts first. She knows the Barons of Sequin Land will have them, so she sets off on a quest to beat the parts out of them. She’s also going to need 15 Genie Crystals, because we still need stuff to find in these levels.

This game uses the same levels as in Shantae’s version. Some levels have been remixed a bit and have different obstacles to make them better suited for playing with Risky’s powers, but the layouts are mostly the same. The biggest difference is in the enemy placement. Risky’s game has a lot more enemies and new trickier enemies. The game ends up feeling harder and more combat focused than Shantae’s game. The bosses are also reused, but are a little harder in this version. I felt like some had a lot more HP than in Shantae’s game.

Risky Boots’ movements feel a lot like Shantae’s in ½GH, but her abilities are more like Shantae in Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. Risky uses a scimitar instead of whipping her hair, she uses a pistol instead of magic, and she can’t crawl or backdash, like Shantae, but she can slide like Mega Man. Risky can also summon Tinkerbats to fight for her for a few seconds. Some of the abilities Risky gets after beating a boss are straight out of Pirate’s Curse, but she also has a few new ones. She can get a pirate hat that lets her glide and a cannon she can use to double jump. Some of the new abilities include a grappling hook and a new bomb shot for her pistol, which she can break blocks with. All of her abilities, health, and damage, can be upgraded with pieces of Dark Magic hidden around the levels. Since Risky doesn’t have to dance and transform, like Shantae, she has all her abilities available at all times and this really speeds the pace of the game up.

The voice acting for Risky Boots is awesome. It’s all done by Cristina Vee, who is also the voice actress for Shantae and the singer in the game’s theme song, “Dance Through the Danger”. Risky sounds snobbish and has a teasing tone most of the time, but her rougher voice comes out when she gets angry. She has voice clips for when she gets items, uses abilities, and a lot of one liners during cutscenes. Her voice is the cherry on top of an already lovable villain.

I thought ½ Genie Hero was an OK game, but I had issues with all the fetch quests. Pirate Queen’s Quest fixes that and ends up being a much better game. Risky Boots is a fun character and long-time fans of the series will love playing a whole game of nothing but Risky. The game is also a bit harder and faster paced, so people who thought Shantae’s game was too slow and easy should be happy about that. It is a very short game (I got 100% in about 3:33), but it is an expansion. I think this is a must play for Shantae fans.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Sonic Mania Review

Back in the 90s, Sonic was a pretty big deal. Sonic Mania was running wild. The first game was such a hit that it became the pack-in game for the Genesis. Sonic had a line of canned pasta, Sonic themed soft drinks, an animated series, and the launch of Sonic 2 taught kids what Groundhog Day was. Sonic could do no wrong. And then the 16-bit era ended and Sonic’s downward spiral began.

Sonic Mania tries to go back in time and fix the timeline, like in a Sonic CD level. In this timeline, Knuckles Chaotix never happens and Sonic Mania is the true follow-up to Sonic & Knuckles. This game is actually not developed by Sonic Team. The developers of Sonic Mania are people who have made Sonic fan games and worked on ports of Sonic games. The game runs on the Retro Engine, an engine created specifically for making 32-bit Sonic games. This same engine was used for the mobile ports of Sonic 1 and 2 and the 2011 re-release of Sonic CD.

This game feels like Sonic & Knuckles 2. It’s like a new addon cart that also works with Sonic CD. It takes many zones and themes from the 16-bit games, mixes them up, and presents them in new ways. There’s stuff from Sonic 1-3, Sonic CD, and Sonic & Knuckles. There’s 12 zones, with 2 acts in each. Eight of them re-use themes from the 16-bit games and 4 of them are new ones inspired by the old games.

Sonic Mania has 3 gameplay modes. The main campaign mode is Mania Mode. In Mania Mode, you can play through the game’s 12 zones with Sonic & Tails or Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles by themselves. You can even play co-op with Sonic and Tails. You can’t change characters after you’ve started a game, but there are 8 save slots, so you can have a save file for each character if you want. There is also an option to play a game with no saving at all, for the hardcore Sonic fans. You can also collect Chaos Emeralds in 3D bonus stages, like the ones in Sonic CD and Sonic & Knuckles here. And yes, they still suck.

Competition mode is a split-screen multiplayer race, just like in Sonic 2 and 3. And just like in those games, it is stretched and looks horrible. You can play as any one of the 3 characters and race on 12 of the 24 acts in the game.

In Time Attack, you can do time trials in 23 of the 24 acts. The only act not available in Time Attack is act 1 from Mirage Saloon, which is an auto-scrolling level with Sonic jumping around on top of Tails’ biplane. You can play as any character in Time Attack, and it has online leaderboards, so you can compare your times with others’ online.

The first act in each zone is usually a remake of an old level with some new stuff and the second act is an all-new level that introduces new elements to the zone. The game starts off with Act 1 of Green Hill Zone from the first game and act 2 is a new level, which and adds ziplines and corkscrew ramps, for example. Some of the other returning zones include Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant Zone, Sonic & Knuckles’ Flying Battery Zone, and Stardust Speedway Zone from Sonic CD. The only Sonic 3 zone theme used in the game is Hydrocity, a zone which is mostly underwater and is one of the worst zones in the game. It looks like they didn't like the original either, because neither of the levels is a remake. I guess they just wanted to try making a water area and liked that theme. Hedgehogs and water still don’t mix.

One of the 4 new zones is Mirage Saloon Zone. It’s a zone inspired by the unused desert zone from the 2011 Sonic CD re-release and the unused desert level from Sonic 2. The first act has Sonic jumping around on top of Tails’ biplane, the Tornado, just like in Sky Chase from Sonic 2. The second act is a more traditional level with an Old West saloon theme. This is probably the coolest zone in the game. The music and graphics are great and it’s full of little references to old Sonic games. And it’s just awesome that it's based on old unused levels.

Another one of the new zones is the Press Garden Zone. It takes place on a snowy mountain area with lots of cherry blossom trees and stone lanterns in the background. This might be the most beautiful zone in the game. The first act takes place inside an overgrown printing press and has Sonic bouncing on conveyor belts. The second act takes place outside and uses a mechanic that freezes Sonic in a block of ice and throws him around.

Sonic Mania looks a lot like the 16-bit games. A lot of the sprites look like they're ripped right out of the old games. I heard everything has been remade, but you could have fooled me. Most of the environment sprites look like stretched and recolored versions of the old ones. The work done on the backgrounds is much more obvious. All of the backgrounds have been touched up in some way, some more than others. For example, the Oil Ocean Zone has new buildings in the background and the Green Hill Zone has huge totems more scrolling background layers now. The sprites for Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles are all-new sprites based on the old ones. They look like they’re in a higher resolution, have a lot more frames of animation, and they have a slightly different style that looks a little more like the old games’ key art. The game also runs much better than any 16-bit Sonic game ever did. The framerate drops a little in the Sonic CD-like 3D bonus zones on Switch, but it’s always a solid 60FPS in the rest of the game, even when Sonic hits something and all his rings come flying out.

All the music has been remade by a YouTuber known for his Sonic remixes, “Tee Lopes”. The remade acts have the same music composition as in the old games and the new acts have new music inspired by the old music. All the tunes sound great, but maybe it would have been nice to have an option to use chiptunes too.

Sonic Mania is a good game. It’s a Sonic game made by people who love Sonic games, for people who love Sonic games. If you don’t like the old games, this one won’t change your mind. I liked the old Sonic games, but they were never my favorite platformers. Sonic was always more about style and flash than great level design. The best part of Sonic Mania is the new stuff. The new acts have the best level designs and play around with the Sonic mechanics in fun new ways and the new zones have the best graphics. I would love to see a sequel with nothing but original zones. I think the developers of Sonic Mania have proven that they’re up for the task with this game.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood Review

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (AKA Dracula X: Rondo of Blood) was originally released in Japan on the PC Engine (Japanese TG16) in 1993. It was one of 3 Castlevania games being developed at the same time. The other two were Castlevania for the X68000 (Castlevania Chronicles on PS1) and Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. The original version of the game never made it outside Japan, but it is now available on Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles for PSP/Vita and on Wii Virtual Console, which is the version I played for this review.

Rondo of Blood is the first part of the story of Symphony of the Night. The game takes place in 1792, 101 years after the original Castlevania and 5 years before SOTN. Dracula has been resurrected once again and decides to take his revenge on Simon Belmont’s descendant and heir to the Vampire Killer whip, Richter Belmont. Dracula has his minions kidnap 4 girls from a nearby village, including Richter’s girlfriend, Annette, and Richter’s distant relative, Maria Renard. Now Richter must save the kidnapped villagers and kill Dracula once again.

Rondo of Blood plays a lot like the NES Castlevania games. Your movement is a little slow, you have very little control during your jumps, and whipping has a slight delay between button presses and actual damaging animation frames. The old whip upgrades are gone, but you still use hearts to use the sub-weapons. All the sub-weapons are the same as in Castlevania I, but there is a new way to use them, the Item Crash. The Item Crash allows you to use a bunch of hearts to do a special move that will do a lot of damage and hit everything on the screen. For example, the Holy Water Item Crash makes it rain holy water and the Cross makes giant crucifixes fly up the screen. Richter also has a new move, the backflip. You do a backflip by double tapping the jump button. It’s is kind of like a backdash and a high jump at the same time. It goes a little higher than a normal jump, so it can help you jump onto ledges or avoid attacks you normally couldn’t with a regular jump.

Rondo of Blood doesn’t have multiple difficulty settings, but it does have Maria Renard. You might know her from SOTN. This is the younger version of her. She is 12 years old and dresses kind of like Princess Peach here. Maria has a slide, a double jump, she can attack while running, and has much quicker attacks with longer range than Richter’s whip. She uses her animal friends for all of her attacks. Instead of whipping, she shoots doves out, and instead of the regular sub-weapons, she summons animals, like a cat and a turtle. Playing with Maria is basically an easy mode. Her double jump and quicker attacks make even the hardest bosses a breeze. She feels like a character with powers from other popular video game characters, like some sort of inside joke.

What really sets Rondo of Blood apart from the rest of the series is the branching paths. After stage 1, the path on the map splits into 2. The upper path goes into Castlevania and the lower path goes into the wilderness around Castlevania. The paths meet again on stage 6, where you fight Shaft for the first time. The stages themselves also have branching paths. You could go through the main entrance or fight your way through the sewers below in stage 2, for example. Each path leads to a different boss, and depending on which boss you kill, you go to a different stage. You can cross over into the other path after every stage, until you get to Shaft, if you want. Castlevania III also had branching paths, but all that involved was picking a route after beating a stage.

Rondo of Blood is not an action adventure or Metroidvania, like Simon’s Quest or Symphony of the Night, but since there are multiple paths through the stages, they feel like they’re a little bit more open than in Castlevania I and III. In previous games, when you fell down a pit, you died and started over from the last checkpoint. In Rondo of Blood, you might fall down a pit and end up in the previous area or in one of the alternate paths. There are still pits in which you will die if you fall in; though, so finding the alternate paths takes a bit of experimenting. One of the paths through a stage is usually much harder than the other, so making it through one path can become a way to challenge yourself. There is a stage select on the main menu, so going back to play through each path doesn’t require starting the whole game over.

A lot of stages in this game pay homage to stages from the NES games. This game might actually be more faithful to the NES original than Super Castlevania IV or the X68000 game, which were retelling the original game’s story. Stage 1 starts off in a burning village that looks like it’s straight out of Simon’s Quest. Stage 2 is a remake of stage 1 from the NES game, which takes you through the main hall, down into the sewers, and back up into the area where you fought the giant bat. The last stage has the same bat infested bridge leading up to the clocktower, which leads you up to the iconic stairs going up to Dracula’s throne room. I love the consistency here. The developers were obviously big fans of the NES games.

Every boss from Castlevania I appears in this game. Shaft actually makes you fight the Giant Bat, Medusa, the Mummy, and the Creature to get to him. Death and Dracula are also very similar to their fights in the original. Some of the new bosses include the Minotaur and the Werewolf, which were used as normal enemies in some of the future games. A boss from Simon’s Quest, Carmilla, also appears in this game. She would later return as the main villain of Circle of the Moon on GBA. The bosses felt extremely tough at first, but they’re actually pretty fair. The game even has perfect run strategy videos for all of the bosses in the main menu. We didn’t have YouTube back then, so this was a nice addition.

Back when CDs started being used for games, some developers took the opportunity to fill their games with tons of horrible, low resolution, live action video. Luckily, Konami went with the other popular trend, anime cutscenes, voice acting, and CD quality music! The cutscenes are a lot like the pixel art cutscenes you found in other games of that time, but with more animation. There are cutscenes for the intro, the ending, and every time you rescue one of the kidnapped girls. The music in the game was by far the best in the series up to that point. SOTN’s soundtrack really took the music to another level with all the different genres they used, but Rondo’s soundtrack feels like the beginning of that trend. I could tell that music had more of a hard rock or a classical sound now. It was a huge step up from the chiptunes of the previous games. The game also features full voice acting for all the cutscenes and new sound effects and voice clips for a lot of enemies and bosses.

This game used to have a sort of mysterious aura around it. I only saw it in game magazines back in the day. Not many people had played it, since it only came out in Japan, on a system not many people had in the West. Not anymore! It’s only on one of the best selling systems of all time. Rondo of Blood might be my favorite old-school Castlevania. I think the original NES game is still great, but Rondo does everything the original did even better. It definitely lives up to the hype.