Saturday, September 30, 2017

Pokémon Gold & Silver Review

Pokémon Gold and Silver are the sequels to the original trio of Pokémon games; Red, Blue, and Yellow. They were developed by Game Freak and released on the Game Boy and Game Boy Color in 1999 in Japan, nearly 4 years after Red and Green. Gold and Silver just came out on the 3DS Virtual Console on September 22, 2017, so what better way to prepare for Ultra Sun and Moon than replaying one of these and catching some some old Pokémon. I went with Silver, since that’s the one I played back in the day.

I wouldn’t normally replay an old GB Pokémon, but these games will be made compatible with Pokémon Transporter soon, so you will be able to transfer your Pokémon to Pokémon Bank, and then use them in the newer 3DS games. This is cool, because you’re not just taking a stroll down memory lane, you can get some rare Pokémon out of it too. There was never a way to transfer GB era Pokémon into the GBA games, so this will also be the the first time you’ll be able to get Gen 2 Pokémon directly from the GBC versions into the newer games. Using Pokémon Transfer and Pokebank to transfer these Pokémon is actually a lot less of a hassle than bringing over Pokémon from Heart Gold and Soul Silver, since that involves transferring to the other DS games first, since only the B&W and B2&W2 games are supported by Pokémon Transfer.

Pokémon Gold and Silver take place 3 years after R/B/Y, in a new region named, Johto. You play as a new Pokémon trainer, whose canonical name is, Ethan. Much like in other Pokémon RPGs, your goal is to be the very best, like no one ever was, and become the Hokage Pokémon Champion. You again have a rival trainer, Silver, who isn't just a jerk, but also the son of Giovanni, the leader of Team Rocket. Silver is by far the nastiest rival in the series. He actually steals his starter Pokémon from Professor Elm. There is also a side story about the remaining members of Team Rocket trying to use a radio tower to broadcast a signal to enslave Pokémon. This part of the story helps connects different areas together and gives you a reason to go into a few more dungeon-like areas. It was a nice change of pace, but didn’t seem as important as the team stories in other games.

At the start of the game, you get to pick one of the 3 starter Pokémon; Chikorita, Totodile, and Cyndaquil. Chikorita is a grass type, Totodile is a water type, and Cyndaquil is a fire type. The rival trainer will always pick the Pokémon that is strongest against your starter’s type, so this decision will affect the difficulty of some battles. I went with Totodile for my playthrough. This made a few parts of the game harder, because, aside from Cyndaquil, fire Pokémon are kind of hard to come by in Silver. I ended up finally getting a Vulpix halfway through the game, but couldn’t evolve it into a Ninetails, because there are no Fire Stones in Johto.

The selection of Pokémon and the evolution methods for a lot of Pokémon are both pretty bad. Gold and Silver adds 100 new Pokémon, but most of the Pokémon you encounter during the main quest are from the original 151. It’s kind of a letdown fighting all those Rattatas, Pidgeys, and Zubats. There’s usually only 1 or 2 new Pokémon in each area. The evolution methods and requirements are very inconvenient in this game too. A lot of those Gen 1 Pokémon have to be traded or require a special stone to evolve. I never even found a stone in Johto, and I didn’t have anyone to trade with, so I played through the whole game with Pokémon stuck in their first or second form.

These games added quite a few elements still present in modern Pokémon games. Gold and Silver introduced held items, shiny Pokémon, a night and day system, the Pokerus, and most importantly, Pokémon breeding. Pokémon breeding allowed you to get a Pokémon egg by leaving 2 like Pokémon together at the Pokémon daycare for a while. After getting an egg, you carried it around in your party, and it would hatch after a certain number of steps. The egg mechanic was actually introduced during the first quest in the game, in which Professor Elm sends you on an errand to get an egg, which eventually hatches into a Togepi.

Gold and Silver also made a lot of improvements to the graphics and UI. The game still looks a lot like R/B/Y, but all of the original Pokémon sprites have been redrawn, and since this was a GBC game from the start, it has a much better color palette than Pokémon Yellow. The UI does have a lot of little improvements over the first game’s, but it’s still very clunky and slow. They’ve added pictures in the Pokémon box screen, separate pockets for different item types in your bag, and a way to reorder your Pokémon’s moves. The UI needed a complete overhaul, though, which we got in the GBA games. You still had to manually change Pokémon boxes in your PC when you filled them up in this game, because you couldn’t catch more Pokémon if your selected box was full. They wouldn’t automatically go to the next box.

Gold and Silver play a lot like the Gen 1 games. You still go from town to town, talking to everyone, and battling gym leaders. In between towns, you battle trainers, explore caves, and catch wild Pokémon. It’s like a simplified Dragon Quest in a lot of ways. The biggest difference between G&S and R/B/Y is that the world feels a lot more streamlined. The caves are generally shorter and have better layouts, the outdoor paths are not as maze-like, and the quests are easier to follow. The Johto campaign is pretty linear, without a lot of room for exploration, but the post game gives you a lot more freedom. After beating the Elite Four and becoming champion, you can go to Kanto, the region in which the Gen 1 games took place in. All thanks to former Nintendo President, Satoru Iwata. He was the one who made it possible to fit the first game’s map into G&S with his compression techniques. He didn’t even work at Game Freak! He was still at HAL back then.

HMs were still in and they even added a couple, Waterfall and Whirlpool. I hate HMs. I never felt like I could take the team I wanted, because I never knew when I would need to cut a tree or move a rock. Since HMs can’t be overwritten with new moves, and most HM moves suck in battle, I teach as many HMs as possible to a single Pokémon. People call this an HM slave. Sometimes you have to bring a couple of HM slaves with you, leaving you at a tactical disadvantage, and throwing your Pokémon party’s level balance out of whack. I’m so glad they got rid of HMs in Sun and Moon.

Going back to GB games is tough, and going back to an RPG with a bad UI is even tougher, but I had fun playing through this game again. I just love the collecting and leveling aspects of Pokémon. This was a fun trip down memory lane for me, and I think other longtime fans of the series getting ready for US&UM will enjoy it too.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Metroid: Samus Returns Review

Metroid: Samus Returns is a remake of the 1991 Game Boy game, Metroid II: Return of Samus. They dropped the II for some reason. It was developed by MercurySteam, developers of the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow games, along with Nintendo. Series director, Yoshio Sakamoto, who was not involved in the development of the GB game, is credited as the producer of the game. Originally, MercurySteam wanted to remake Metroid Fusion, but Sakamoto wanted a Metroid II remake instead. I’m glad they decided on remaking Metroid II, because it definitely needed a remake more than Fusion, which I don’t think needs a remake at all.

Samus Returns takes place shortly after the events of Metroid (Zero Mission). The Galactic Federation decides that Metroids are too dangerous to stay alive and hires Samus to exterminate the remaining Metroids on SR388. If you’ve played the GB game, or any of the other games that retell the ending of Metroid II, you know where the story is headed. The biggest addition to the story comes in the form of the Chozo Memories, which are basically an art gallery you unlock as you collect items, like Missile upgrades and Energy Tanks.

The main method of progressing through the game has gotten a bit of an upgrade and is now tied into the story. In the original Metroid II, you opened the path to new areas by killing all the Metroids in one area, and making the lava recede. It made no sense and there was no explanation for it. In Samus Returns, you still kill Metroids to progress, but now you collect their DNA and put it into a Mayan calendar looking Chozo machine. When you put the DNA of all the zone’s Metroids in, the poisonous liquid will recede, opening the path forward. The story behind these locking mechanisms is explained in the Chozo Memories.

While Metroid II had a lot of the usual items and abilities, the level design was very straightforward and didn’t require the same kind of exploration the series has become known for. Samus Returns feels much more like Super Metroid and Zero Mission. Every area is full of obstacles that require specific abilities, hidden paths and items, and tons and tons of Morph Ball mazes. There are also plenty of reasons to go back to previous areas when you get new abilities, unlike in the GB game.

The Metroid battles are a big improvement over the originals. Every Metroid evolution has new patterns and attacks, and feel like real boss fights. Most of the Metroids in the original just lunged at you over and over. It was lame. The late game Metroid evolutions are especially cool. I love the Zeta Metroid, which looks like a Xenomorph Metroid, and crawls on the walls and ceiling. Some of the Metroids have even acquired elemental properties, like fire and electricity, which give them different attacks, keeping even battles against repeat Metroid forms fresh. There are also a few non-Metroid bosses, some of which are the most memorable in the game.

Samus Returns improves upon Metroid II with many of the the great things the series has done since then, so it’s baffling to see them keep one of the worst things about Metroid II in this remake, the refill stations. In Metroid II, there were save, health refill, and Missile refill stations, and they were all separate and scattered all over the map. It was a huge pain to refill your stuff and save, because everything was so far apart and only some enemies dropped health or missiles. Samus Returns completely ignores how later Metroid (and Castlevania) games fixed this problem. All the refill and save stations are scattered all over the place, and now they’ve also thrown teleports and Aion refill stations into the mix, so something as simple as refilling your stuff and saving before a boss becomes a huge ordeal. That’s 5 different things to travel to, to do what could have been done with two. Enemies also drop very few items and are on some kind of respawn timer, so grinding for items isn't as easy as in other games. This stuff is a huge waste of time. Metroid and Castlevania games have moved past this, so why are we going back to Game Boy era design?

The graphics in this game look fantastic. I imagine if Retro Studios had made Metroid Prime in a 2D perspective, it would have looked something like this. Every area has a very distinct look and all the backgrounds are full of detail. There’s Chozo structures and machinery, waterfalls, plants, creatures, and even bosses in the backgrounds. They put a ton of work into making each area much more than rocky caverns. I would have loved to have seen another 2D sprite-based Metroid, but this looks great too. They definitely put the polygons to good use here.

The music is a big improvement over Metroid II’s soundtrack, but aside from a few remakes, it’s just not that memorable. The weird chirps and boops tunes from the original have been replaced with haunting ambient music with some of the old sounds thrown in. Some of these new tunes sound more like something out of a horror movie than a Metroid game, though. All the boss battle themes are fast paced electronic music. I guess they were going for something like in Metroid Prime, but it sounds weirdly out of place. The remixes of songs, like the Maridia theme really stand out, because they’re the only ones that sound like real Metroid music.

If you’re a 2D Metroid veteran, you’re probably used to controlling Samus with the d-pad and aiming in 8 directions with the help of a shoulder button. In Samus Returns, you move around with the circle pad and aim in all directions by holding down the L button, but unlike in previous Metroids, you can't move while aiming with L. That means there's a lot of stopping and going now. It really slows down the combat. You also have to hold the L button down to cling to walls with the Spider Ball, instead of toggling it on, like in Metroid II. All this L button usage means you’re going to be holding your 3DS in a pinch grip that’s pretty uncomfortable, especially during long play sessions. I would have preferred regular 2D Metroid controls, like in Fusion and Zero Mission. Yes, the 360 aiming allows you to post yourself and shoot without having to move around so much, but I was fine with moving around in the other games.

Lots of items from all over the series make a return here. Most notable is the return of the Grappling Beam from Super Metroid, which hasn't been in any other 2D game until now. Unlike in Super Metroid, the Grappling Beam doesn’t become obsolete once you get the Space Jump. Since you can aim it in any direction now, you can use it to pull special blocks around, or pull yourself across spike-filled tunnels. I think they did a pretty good job with the returning items. They didn’t just throw all of them in because they could, and kept most of them useful throughout the game.

The big new ability is the parry, a melee attack in which Samus smacks enemies with her arm cannon. It doesn't do any damage, but if you time it just right, you can stun an enemy and kill it more easily. There's a big focus on this move and you’re expected to learn how to use it. Keeping the Metroid II tradition alive, a lot of the enemies have lunge moves, which you’re supposed to counter with this attack. The enemies will flash right before lunging at you, but the timing for each enemy’s attack is different, so this isn’t a great way to tell when you should press the button, you just kind of have to memorize all these different animations. I really don’t like this move. It reeks of Other M and slows the pace of the combat down even more. Thankfully, you can pretty much ignore it when fighting normal enemies once you get more powerful attacks.

Also new are the Aion abilities. This is what they used the d-pad for. These are new Chozo-made upgrades, which use a new resource called Aion. You get Aion from parrying attacks and killing enemies. There’s an ability that slows down time, a lightning shield, a machine gun-like beam, and one that scans the area, revealing breakable walls and uncovering the map. They’re not super creative. You could have probably rolled some of these into other items or gotten rid of them altogether and had a better game. Getting rid of yet another refill station, at least, would have been appreciated.

This game is far from perfect. It has some questionable controls and mechanics, and it doesn’t come close to touching the best 2D Metroids in terms of level design, but it is an OK game. It’s a huge adventure. It’s probably the biggest 2D Metroid game ever. It has tons of Metroid fan service, great graphics, and good boss battles. It’s a big step up from the Game Boy game, and I’m glad they made it. I just wish they would have taken a few hints from AM2R. Some control options and a few quality of life improvements would have made this a much better game.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers Review

Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers is a remake of the 1994 arcade classic, Super Street Fighter II Turbo. It was developed by Capcom and released in May, 2017 on the Nintendo Switch. Aside from Virtual Console releases, it’s the first version of Street Fighter II to come out on a Nintendo system since Super Street Fighter II X Revival on the GBA in 2001 and the first SFII to come out on a Nintendo console since SSFII on SNES in 1993.

Before I start talking about the actual game, I have to say that this game is nearly unplayable with JoyCons and the Switch Pro Controller. Both the JoyCon’s d-pad buttons and the Pro Controller’s d-pad are terrible for this game. If you plan on getting this game, find some other control method, like an arcade stick, the Pokken controller, or an adapter for controllers for other systems. I’m using the HORI RAP V arcade stick for Switch, which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

USFII uses the new HD character and background graphics from Super Street Fighter II HD Remix and all-new UI and character portraits made by Capcom specifically for USFII. All the the characters and backgrounds were redrawn by artists at Udon Entertainment, a company known for their art books and comics. Sagat actually looks like the giant heavyweight he’s supposed be, Dhalsim looks more muscular, and most characters generally look closer to their Alpha 3 versions. Some characters look better than others, though. It looks like they tried to fix some poses they thought looked awkward, but didn’t change some of the ones that actually do. For example, they drew Cammy with her head turned more towards the camera, instead of looking straight ahead, making her head look wider than it originally did, but they didn’t touch Chun-li’s idle pose, which makes her look like she’s sitting on an invisible stool.

For the most part, the redrawn backgrounds look pretty good. They look like something out of a Street Fighter comic. Some backgrounds have been changed to be more politically correct, I guess. For instance, the painting of Ganesh in Dhalsim’s stage has been replaced with a view of the Taj Mahal, and all Communist symbols have been removed from Zangief’s stage. They also changed Chun-li’s stage to look cleaner and more modern, which really doesn’t match the look of the original. For some reason, some elements, like the boat in Ken’s stage and the clouds in Ryu’s stage, are no longer animated, even though they were in HDR. It seems like an oversight they just didn’t bother to fix. It’s not like the Switch isn’t powerful enough to do it. There are also a bunch of visible white pixels around the borders of some background elements, as if the alpha channels don’t match up with the color channels.

The game was redrawn in HD, but not for a 16:9 aspect ratio. It was redrawn to match the 4:3 aspect ratio of the original. The wide aspect ratio used in USFII is actually zoomed in and cuts a bit off the top and bottom to fill more of a 16:9 screen. Even then, there are still black bars on the left and right of the in-fight graphics. Unlike in HDR, there is no option to play with both the HD graphics and 4:3 ratio. Playing with the graphics zoomed in doesn’t really affect the gameplay, though, so it’s not a big issue. The only real difference is that character’s heads go off screen when jumping and some characters’ torsos go off screen during dragon punches. There is an option to play with the original 16-bit graphics in 4:3, but all the UI stays the same and there are no options for filters or different borders.

All the music has been re-recorded and the game uses voices and sound effects from Street Fighter IV. All the announcer lines have also been re-recorded, with a new voice actor trying to sound like the old one, and failing miserably. You can play with all the old music and sound effects, but not with the old announcer, which is a shame, because the new one’s delivery of lines like “Fight!” is pretty awkward. I guess they didn’t want to mix and match announcers when people played with the new characters.

This game looks like HD Remix, but a lot of the gameplay changes to HDR are not in this version. You can no longer store E. Honda’s super and Ryu doesn’t have a fakeout fireball, for example. This game does have all the easier Street Fighter IV style inputs, though, like down-forward double tap dragon punches. This version also introduces throw breaks, which can be performed by doing your own throw input when being thrown.

Three new old characters join the roster in USFII; Evil Ryu, Violent Ken, and Shin Akuma. These are all lower health and higher damage versions of the originals with a few new moves. Evil Ryu is basically Ryu with a few of Akuma’s moves, like the teleport and Raging Demon. Violent Ken, who first appeared in SNK VS Capcom Chaos, has a new command dash and a KOF style super. Shin Akuma has a double air fireball and even lower HP and higher damage. Shin Akuma is not playable online, because apparently, he’s too cheap.

There are 6 play modes in USFII; Arcade, Buddy Battle, Versus, Online, Training, and Way of the Hado. In Arcade, you play through 12 matches against the AI and after beating M. Bison, you get to see a cutscene that tells you a little bit about your character. In versus, you can play 1 on 1 matches against other players or the CPU, in any stage, with custom rules. In Buddy Battle, you and another player, human or AI, play simultaneously in 4 matches against Violent Ken, Evil, Ryu, M. Bison, and Shin Akuma.

Way of the Hado is a new first person, JoyCon only, motion controlled minigame. You play as Ryu and waggle the JoyCons to perform moves, like Hadokens and Shoryukens. Unlike the rest of the game, this mode uses 3D graphics in the style of Street Fighter IV. This mode is really bad. The controls are finicky and unresponsive, and it’s not worth your time.

My online experiences have been pretty hit or miss. Matchmaking usually takes a while, because apparently no one is playing this online, and half the time, the matches are pretty laggy. When I do find someone who’s not playing on McDonald's Wi-Fi, it’s actually alright. There are options to create lobbies or search with custom rules, including within your region only, but I have not been able to find a single match using them.

At the end of the day, Ultra Street Fighter II is still SFII, and SFII is still one of the best fighting games ever made. I wish Capcom would have put more effort into cleaning up the graphics and maybe included the original game with no alterations. Maybe then it would warrant the $40 price tag. This game is not worth $40, but it is a fun game, and considering how well it has sold, I doubt it’ll go on sale any time soon.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

AM2R Review

AM2R, Another Metroid 2 Remake, is a fan game created by a small group of people, lead by Milton Guasti, over the course of around 10 years. It was released on August 6, 2016, the 30th anniversary of Metroid, for free on PC. The game was only out for a few days before Nintendo sent the developer a Cease and Desist letter. Little did we know that Nintendo was working on its own Metroid II remake with Mercury Steam, which they would reveal at E3 2017. Further development on AM2R has stopped, but the game is still available for download somewhere out there.

Like the name hints at, AM2R is a remake of Metroid II on the Game Boy. It retells the story of Samus being sent on a mission to exterminate the Metroids on SR388 by the Galactic Federation. It also expands on the involvement of the Galactic Federation by adding new areas and story sequences showing them doing things on SR388. This stuff takes a hard turn into fan fiction territory, but it’s done pretty well and it doesn't feel too out of place. The game also has a Metroid Prime inspired logs from Samus’ scans. You don’t actually do any scanning in the game; though, you just get a little text notification telling you that you have a new log entry. It’s a nice touch that expands on what you see in the game and it’s not overdone, like in Metroid Prime.

AM2R’s version of SR388 is loosely based on Metroid II’s version. Similarly to Zero Mission, it uses the original game as a guideline and then changes things around and puts new stuff in. There are definitely areas that will remind you of the Game Boy game, but most of the enemy layouts and obstacles are different. Some areas got more enemies thrown in, some got new obstacles inspired by other Metroid games, and some areas even got new puzzles. The original game left a lot of room for improvement, so anything you do is probably going to be better, but some of the new things aren’t really that fun either. Sometimes it feels like they went out of their way to use the hardest and most annoying enemies in Metroid II, over and over again, for example. I feel like the level designs are at their best when they just try to improve upon the original instead of doing something different.

The bosses are kind of a mixed bag. The Alpha Metroids still don’t do anything but lunge towards you and now have shells on their backs, so they’re even more annoying to kill. New bosses inspired by mini bosses from Metroid II and other Metroid games were added, but none of them are very good either. The new Omega Metroid and the final boss, the Queen Metroid are both pretty awesome, though. The Omega metroid is now a big T-Rex looking Metroid, about as big as the one at the end of Metroid Fusion, and now has actual mechanics to it. The Queen Metroid is now a multi-phase fight that actually requires more than just spamming missiles.

AM2R uses a mix of Metroid Fusion, Zero Mission, and original sprites. The original sprites look really good, for the most part. They blend in very well with the GBA sprites. The new sprites for the evolved Metroid forms look especially good. The game adds a few lighting, motion blur, and physics effects, but they’re hit or miss. The effects added to Samus’ movements and attacks don’t blend in very well, but the lighting effects on the environments look nice. The physics effects look cool when you blow enemies up or freeze them in mid-air and watch them fall, but having enemies fall in inconvenient places can make it harder to kill them.

The soundtrack is made up of remixes of the old songs, recorded by Milton Guasti himself, and are a big improvement over the originals. Metroid II on GB had a few good tunes, but some of them just sounded like random noises. The soundtrack in AM2R has better composition, and of course, much better audio quality.

The gameplay in AM2R feels a lot Zero Mission. Samus moves at about the same speed, you can shoot diagonally, duck, ledge grab, wall jump, and aim just like in Fusion and Zero Mission. AM2R gets rid of the timing requirements for the wall jump and Space Jump. You no longer need to somersault jump to do either one and you don’t have to perfectly time your button presses to continue space jumping. Part of me feels kind of weird about messing with the controls like that, but it’s actually kind of nice to be able to do these moves more easily.

Pretty much every item from every 2D Metroid is in this game. Everything from Metroid II is in, plus the power missiles, power bombs, Speed Booster, Gravity Suit, and Charge and Plasma Beams. I think the only items not in this game are the Grappling Beam, Scanner, and Charge Missiles from Fusion. And unlike in Metroid I and II, all the beams stack for more powerful beams, instead of overwriting or replacing each other.

This game has every UI and quality of life improvement from Fusion and Zero Mission, plus options for however you prefer to play your Metroid games. Unlike in the original, we get a map. They also get rid of the health and missile refill items that were hidden around the world and just refill everything at save stations, which there are plenty of in AM2R, unlike in Metroid II. There’s options for things like Fusion or Super Metroid style aiming, missile selection, and Morph Ball activation. The controls are fully customizable and the game supports XInput controllers. I don’t think it supports DInput controllers, though. I tried using a PS3 controller with no luck. I played the game with a Wii U Pro Controller and a Mayflash adapter in the XInput setting with no issues. Even the rumble worked.

I think this game is much better than the GB game. I don’t think the level designs ever reach the quality of Fusion, Zero Mission, and Super Metroid, but it’s still pretty impressive. The game has an enormous amount of polish and the people who made it obviously have a lot of love for Metroid II and the Metroid series as a whole.