Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Hard Corps: Uprising Review

In 2011, the makers of Guilty Gear and Dragon Ball FighterZ, Arc System Works, made a Contra game, without the Contra name, Hard Corps: Uprising. It was published by Konami, plays just like Contra, and takes place in the Contra universe, so I don't know why it doesn't use the name. It was originally supposed to be the first in a series of games, but that idea was scrapped after the game’s low sales. Maybe if they had used the Contra name, it would have sold better. It’s a available for $15 on PS3 and Xbox 360, and the 360 version is also playable on Xbox One.

Hard Corps: Uprising takes place in 2613, 20 years before Contra, and 28 years before Contra: Hard Corps. The world is ruled by an evil organization known as the Commonwealth, whose foot soldiers look like Nazis with red KKK hoods. To combat the Commonwealth, one of the playable characters, Bahamut, forms the Hard Corps, a group of elite resistance soldiers.

Old-school Contra fans will quickly notice that this doesn't look like your usual Aliens/Predator/Terminator inspired Contra. Arc System Works replaced all that action movie stuff with their own brand of anime inspired designs. The game opens with an anime cutscene straight out of an animated series, the main characters look more like Sol Badguy and Samus Aran than Rambo and Dutch, and the stages and weapons wouldn’t look too out of place in a Guilty Gear game. This is basically Guilty Gear Contra, and that’s okay with me. I wouldn't want or expect ASW to make a game full of 80s action movie machismo.

This game sounds like Guilty Gear, too. A lot like Guilty Gear. The games share the same composer, Daisuke Ishiwatari, who is also the art director of the game. The soundtrack is mostly new stuff, but there are a few remade Contra arcade tunes in there, and the title screen, stage clear, and game over themes are all new heavy metal versions of classic Contra themes. I think it’s a great soundtrack. I love the air guitar heavy metal sounds. The voice acting; however, is ridiculously bad. The voice actors are all Japanese, so every line sounds like it's being read by someone who doesn't understand what they're saying. This is some SNK quality stuff here. It’s as funny as it is bad.

The game comes with 2 playable characters, Bahamut and Krystal. There are also 3 DLC characters available for $2.50 each, Sayuri, Harley Daniels, and Leviathan. Each character has different attributes, like more or less HP, so each one is sort of like a different difficulty setting. For example, Leviathan can only carry one weapon, and only has 1 HP, so playing as him in Arcade Mode will give you the closest experience to the classic arcade and NES Contra games. Sayuri uses a sword instead of guns, so playing as her makes it almost like a Strider or Ninja Gaiden game.

The 2 main game modes are Arcade Mode and Rising Mode. Rising Mode starts you off with 3 lives, the same amount of HP each character has in Arcade Mode, and no actions, like bullet reflection. As you play Rising Mode, you gain points which you can spend on new skills, and upgrading everything from your HP, to the level your weapons will be at when you get them. You can get a triple jump, a second air dash, and even 30 lives per continue if you input the Konami code on the start screen. Unlike Arcade Mode, Rising Mode has a stage select screen, which lets you start on whatever stage you’ve reached, with all your lives and continues. You can get a game over on the last stage, and then start a new game on the last stage again, if you want. Rising Mode seems like it's the mode the most work went into. This isn't some shoehorned in extra mode. I think it's the mode most people will play, since it is much more forgiving than Arcade Mode.

Arcade Mode lets you play the game more like the old Contras. You get 3 lives and 3 continues, and depending on what character you pick, you'll have different amounts of HP. None of the Rising Mode upgrades carry over into Arcade Mode, and you will not gain points to buy upgrades with either. You get preset abilities, like bullet deflecting and dash vaulting, and each character has different run, dash, and air dash speeds. Because of the limited lives, this mode is extremely challenging. You unlock 573 continues after using 100 continues, so running out of continues won’t always be an issue, but trying to progress to the next checkpoint with only 3 lives will push even the most hardcore to the limit.

Hard Corps: Uprising plays a lot like classic Contras. The most notable additions to the controls are the action button, double jump, and dash. The double jump and dash are mostly for platform jumping. You can dash both on the ground and in the air, so you can jump pretty far by combining double jumps with air dashes, and even farther if you get a running start with a dash before a jump. The action button lets you do a bunch of cool things, like vaulting, deflecting bullets, and character specific moves, like Sayuri’s “Samurai Action” combo. These additions make the game flashier and more stylish than any other Contra. It reminds me of games like Mega Man X2 and Strider.

Just as in classic Contra games, weapons come flying across the screen in little metal containers, which you have to shoot down to get. Like in Contra III, you can carry 2 different weapons with you, and switch between them with the press of a button. Classic Contra weapons, like the Spread Gun, Machine Gun, and Laser are back, along with the new Ripple Unit, which shoots waves in a cone for a short distance, and creates a barrier over you if you dash while shooting it. It's creative, I’ll give it that, but it’s one of the worst weapons in the game. You can also upgrade every weapon 2 extra levels when you collect a duplicate of the weapon you have equipped. Even though you have HP in this game, you still lose your special weapon after 1 hit, just like you would if you died in a classic Contra game.

The stages in Hard Corps: Uprising are full of familiar sections and obstacles. For example, the first stage is in a desert, and there's a bunch of quicksand around, like in the desert in Contra III. There’s a stage in which you ride through a city while riding a hoverboard, kind of like the bike stage in Contra III, and a few stages end with you having to jump and grab onto a helicopter, just like a section in Contra III. If you miss the jump to grab onto the helicopter, you lose a life and get a game over if you don’t have any more. This game doesn’t pull any punches.

This game has some great bosses. It's the layering of attacks and patterns, and the way they keep coming back for more that makes them so memorable. In a few levels, the final boss of a stage is the mid boss coming back for revenge, in a different form. One of the last bosses shows up multiple times during the game. Even the classic Contra metal wall shows up on more than one occasion, each time with a new trick up its… sleeve? The bosses start off with simple attacks, layer in more as the fight goes on, and even switch forms multiple times during a fight. They're all very well done, and push the controls, and the game’s mechanics to their limits.

Hard Corps: Uprising is the definition of a hidden gem. If you're any kind of Contra fan, or even a new fan of the genre because of Cuphead, you will probably enjoy it. You can have your super challenging game in Arcade Mode, or a game anyone can eventually beat, if you keep at it, in Rising Mode. It's a shame Arc System Works never got to make another one, or even continue making games like this without Konami, because they made an awesome game that's definitely worthy of the Contra name.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition Review

Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition is the latest update for SFV. It comes with new training mode features, a redone UI, Team Battle, a new V-Trigger for every character, a bunch of balance changes, and Arcade Mode. It’s available for $40 in one package with the base game, or as a free update for those who already own SFV. The standalone version comes with all the season 1 and 2 characters, and 1 extra costume for each character, but besides that, it’s the same as the free update. As part of the launch, everyone gets a 1 week free trial of Sakura with all her costumes.

The biggest feature in this update is the Arcade mode. That’s right, Street Fighter V has been out since February 2016, with no arcade mode. It feels like they’re trying to make it up to us with this update, though. This new mode lets you play through 6 different Arcade Mode versions, each inspired by a different Street Fighter game or series. These modes retell the story of SFI, SFII, the SF Alpha series, SFIII, and SFIV, and reveal new character specific details about SFV’s story. The description of each version even spells out the chronological order of the games, which is; SFI, SFA, SFII, SFIV, SFV, and SFIII.

Each version of Arcade mode has new remixed music and a game specific roster. Some versions also let you pick your opponent SFIII style, if there are enough characters for it. There’s some cool little details and callbacks to the original games in here. The SFII mode has a barrel breaking bonus stage, featuring Final Fight thug, Two.P. Sadly, there is no car smashing bonus stage. Fights take place in the character’s stages, or the next best thing. Fighters wear the clothes they wore in those games, and you might even encounter Akuma at the end of SFIV.

Every version of arcade mode features unique endings for all characters playable within them. Characters that appear in all versions, like Ken and Ryu, get 6 endings in total. These endings are basically comic book spreads with a little bit of text. SF1-SFIV’s endings are mostly retelling the character’s stories in those games, but the SFV ones are all new.

They made the best of use of what’s available in SFV to make these different Arcade Mode versions. There really isn't a lot of new stuff, it's just SFV characters and stages presented in new ways. Some versions, like the SF1 and SFIII ones, are really reaching to make something out of what's available. SF1 is severely hurt by the absence of Sagat, who was the game's last boss, and a huge part of Ryu’s story. It’s also hurt by the fact that Ken, Ryu, and Birdie are the only SF1 characters in SFV. They've thrown in Abigail, and Guy's sensei, Zeku, in what looks like an attempt to fill in the gaps with Final Fight related characters, and it sort of works. FF was actually going to be a sequel to SF1 at one point, and it was almost called Street Fighter ‘89, so I guess it makes sense to combine it with SF1.

After beating Arcade Mode, you unlock that character’s ending in the new Gallery. You can also unlock other pieces of Street Fighter art by meeting certain conditions during your playthrough. For example, you can unlock a piece of art by completing SF1 Arcade Mode with Ryu, without using continues. You can also view both the old and new opening movies, and listen to the game’s soundtrack in the Gallery.

AE comes with some big changes to how the in-game currency, Fight Money, is earned. The big weekly mission’s prize has been halved from 5,000 FM, to 2,500 FM. You also can no longer get FM from survival mode, demonstrations, trials, character stories, or story mode. You can still get XP from some of these offline modes, and you still get Fight Money every time you gain a level on a character. These changes make it much harder to get enough FM to buy any DLC with, pushing you to use real money instead.

Another new mode in this update is Extra Battle. These are timed challenges which you pay Fight Money to play. They can reward you with titles, costumes, character XP, and Fight Money if you win. It's literally gambling. The first challenges available were a 1 round fight against Shin Akuma, which could reward you with a title or 10k XP, and a fight against Rashid in a Viewtiful Joe costume, for the chance to win the costume piece by piece. Shin Akuma is, of course, super cheap and OP, will Raging Demon you for about 75% of your HP, and starts with full V-Trigger and super meters. This mode seems like a trap to take your Fight Money, so you spend more real money on DLC. No sir, I don't like it.

Hidden on a second tab in the VS mode, is the new Team Battle mode. This is not a Marvel VS Capcom style tag battle mode, like the name might suggest. It’s more for elimination matches between two teams. You can set the rules up to play King of Fighters style matches, too, which is how I’ve been playing it. It’s pretty cool. It’s a shame it’ll probably be ignored by most people, because it’s not online.

Along with AE, come a bunch of balance changes, which you can read about here, a second V-Trigger for every character, which you can read about here, and watch a video of all of them here. The new V-Triggers generally try to give you options for different styles of play. For example, Guile’s VT1 gives him quick Sonic Booms, while his VT2 gives him Flash Kicks that shoot out Sonic Booms. I especially like Sakura’s VT2, which gives her the hurricane kick that launches her opponent in the air from Street Fighter IV.

As part of the AE launch, everyone gets a 1 week free trial of the newest addition to the SFV roster, Sakura. You can also buy her Street Fighter Alpha 2 stage, which comes with an awesome new version of Sakura’s theme. She plays a little differently than she does in SFIV, but she’s still a fun character. Sakura also gets a new character story in Story Mode, which deals with her growing up, getting a job, and her relationship with Ryu. It definitely goes places I didn’t see it going. Weird places.

Fight Money and DLC shenanigans aside, this is a great update, no matter how you get it. This is how the game should have come out 2 years ago. It sucks that it has taken this long to get the game up to the standard of SFIV at its launch, but at least we have a game you can recommend to any Street Fighter fan now, and not just to the tournament crowd.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Review

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was originally released in 1997 for the PlayStation. It is not the first Castlevania with exploration and RPG elements, but it is the one for which the term “Metroidvania” was coined for. The game uses the Castlevania lore and characters, but is structured more like Super Metroid than the previous games. It has a huge interconnected world, a very Super Metroid-like map, save rooms, and abilities that help you reach new areas. It incorporates Zelda-like environmental puzzles, and it has RPG elements, like leveling, stats, and loot. It was a pretty big departure from the action platforming gameplay the series was known for, and even from what Castlevania II: Simon's Quest did on the NES.

Regardless of what the opening sequence suggests, SOTN is not a sequel to Castlevania: Bloodlines. SOTN is a direct sequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, and takes place about 4 years after it. Following the final battle with Dracula, Richter was left weakened and was inflicted with Shaft’s curse. Over those 4 years, the curse allowed Shaft to take control of Richter, and bring him to the castle. After Richter went missing, his sister in-law, Maria Renard, goes looking for him in the castle. Alucard then awakens from the supposedly eternal slumber he went into after the events of Castlevania III, and storms his father's castle to stop Shaft from resurrecting Dracula once again.

Having played Rondo of Blood a few months ago, the first thing that struck me about SOTN was how different Alucard feels from Richter. The Belmont's always walked slowly, and had weighty jumps with very little air control. Alucard almost glides across the floor, and can even turn and change directions in mid-air. And while the Belmonts used the Vampire Killer whip, Alucard uses a large arsenal of swords, staves, and shields, which he can swing much faster than any Belmont could whip. He can also equip capes, armor, and trinkets, which give him different stats and special effects, like faster regenerating MP. Overall, Alucard is a lot easier, more responsive, and more intuitive to control than the Belmonts.

While in the Metroid games Samus had a large assortment of bombs, missiles, and abilities that opened doors, or allowed her to reach new areas, Alucard uses key items and 4 main abilities to get around. One of these abilities is the double jump. Alucard can also take the form of a bat, wolf, or mist. The mist allows you to pass through gates, the bat allows you to fly wherever you want, and the wolf allows you to dash and jump farther than you can as Alucard. Eventually, you get so many upgrades for these forms that you can get away with only using the mist, because it can fly anywhere, and even damages enemies. I actually didn’t even use the wolf form during this playthrough, since I got the double jump before I got a chance to.

SOTN also has Zelda-like environmental puzzles and obstacles. There’s some box and switch pushing, and some more clever ones, like one that requires you to lure an enemy across the zone, so that it can break something blocking your way. They’re just cool little obstacles that make sense within the world and logic of Castlevania.

Even though this version of the castle is mostly new, it is full of familiar places from previous games. The entrance, Clocktower, and Dracula’s throne room are almost exactly the same as they were in Rondo of Blood. You can even match some of it up with how the NES Castlevania’s stages are ordered. The actual design of the castle is still one of the best out of all the Castlevanias in this style. It feels like a real place, because the layout makes sense. It’s not just copying the way Metroid does it.

One of my favorite things SOTN introduced is the familiars. Familiars are small AI controlled pets that follow you around. There’s a ghost, sword, bat, fairy, and a demon. These familiars will level up from the experience you gain, and can use some familiar only weapons. The bat will follow you around and attack. It will also call another bat when you turn into a bat, for a sort of gothic homage to Gradius. The fairy will replenish some of your HP, heal your status effects, and even revive you when you die sometimes. This is one idea I always wanted Metroid to steal. We’ve seen a little bit of it, but I want it to be a main part of Samus’ character. It would make perfect sense for Samus to have a Metroid familiar in Metroid 5.

Most classic special weapons, like the axe, holy water, and knife are back. Some with new effects, like the cross, which has the item crash effect from Rondo of Blood, but doesn’t have the boomerang attack anymore. There’s also a few new ones, like the Vibhuti, which works like caltrops. In addition to the special weapons, you’ll also find a bunch of one use special items. You can equip these items like you would a weapon or a shield, and attack enemies similarly to how you use the special weapons. Since these weapons are gone after one use, and you have to go into the inventory screen to equip them, they’re really not very useful. The health recovery items are even more convenient to use, since you have to equip them, and then you throw them on the ground when you press the button, and have to walk over them to get the benefit.

I played the PS Classics version on a PS3 for this review, and while I can appreciate the 2D art, it was made at a very low resolution, and doesn’t look great on a big HD TV. This was the best looking Castlevania at the time, though. The backgrounds are all unique to each area, and are full of little details. You can actually sit in every chair in the background. Why? Because it’s cool! The game is full of little things that don’t affect the gameplay in any way, but add a lot to the atmosphere. There’s a ton of enemies, every boss from the first Castlevania is redone, and every item has a sprite for it. They could have just made a wall turkey sprite and called it a day, but no! Every mushroom, ramen, and pot roast has a unique sprite.

This game has my favorite Castlevania soundtrack of all time. It is one of the best soundtracks of all time period. It has an amazing new remix of “Vampire Killer”, awesome heavy metal tracks, like ”Prologue”, and tons of moody, and haunting tunes, like “Lost Paintings”. My favorite is the rock flamenco tune that plays in the colosseum, “Wandering Ghosts”.

Symphony of the Night is a true classic, and probably more influential than people give it credit for. Metroid usually gets all the glory. It marked the end of the Classicvania era, and the beginning of the Igavania era. It has a good story, great level design, one of the best soundtracks of all time, and some of the best graphics in the series. I wish it would get some kind of remaster or remake, because it deserves better than to be stuck on old systems.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Cuphead Review

Don’t let its cute looks fool you, Cuphead is pure concentrated evil. Cuphead is a love letter to old-school shooters, like Contra, Gunstar Heroes, and Gradius, written in blood! This is the kind of game you will die hundreds of times in. This game is so hard, I thought I might never beat it. It seemed impossible at first, but I slowly got better, until I finally put the Devil in his place! If you think you’re up to the challenge, Cuphead is available on Xbox One and PC for $19.99.

The thing that will draw most people to Cuphead is its graphics. Cuphead uses sprites made from real watercolor painted drawings, combined with lots of film grain and dust particles, to recreate the look of a 1930s cartoon. It looks good enough that you could mistake a screenshot for a scene from Disney’s Silly Symphony. The developers of Cuphead are obviously big fans of animation. This game is full of references to old cartoons, like Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, and even stuff you don’t hear about so much these days, like Popeye, Betty Boop, and Woody Woodpecker. Fans of hand drawn animation will likely fall in love at first sight with Cuphead.

Like in a lot of those old cartoons, the music is a big part of Cuphead. The game features Swing, Ragtime, Jazz, and Barbershop Quartet songs, which perfectly fit the game’s art style. The Barbershop Quartet songs even have lyrics about Cuphead. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill soundtrack. It really feels like a lot of thought was put into it.

The story of Cuphead is also like something straight out of an old cartoon. Cuphead and his brother, Mugman, wander far away from home, and end up in the Devil’s Casino. Inside, they bet on a game of craps against the Devil. If they win, they get all the loot in the casino. If they lose, the Devil gets their souls! Of course, they lose, so they make a deal with the Devil to save their souls. The Devil will let them off the hook, if they bring him the souls of all those who ran off without paying him, by tomorrow at Midnight. Those deadbeats are actually all the bosses in the game.

The bosses are all a lot of fun and very creative. There isn’t one boss that I can say is just a slightly different version of another boss. Each boss starts off with a few simple attacks, and either adds more attacks as the fight goes on, or changes into something completely different in each phase. Some bosses are really more like 2 or 3 bosses in one. The thing that’s really amazing is how they all stay fun, even when you die a bunch of times on them. Well, at least they did to me. There are 19 bosses and 6 separate run and gun levels in the game. Some of the boss fights take place in Parodius-like shoot ‘em up levels. These have you flying on a plane, while fighting smaller enemies, along with the boss, in a side scrolling level. There are no separate shoot 'em up levels, like the run and gun ones, though.

The run and gun levels are fun and challenging, but nothing I haven't seen before. I was often reminded of Metal Slug and Gunstar Heroes, of course, but there's a lot of Mario and Mega Man in there, too. These levels are really more about platform jumping and avoiding enemy attacks than they are about shooting. You can actually unlock a black and white mode if you can beat them all without shooting anything.

Cuphead is not set up like a typical, stage-based arcade game. It has an overworld map you can walk around in, like in Super Mario 3D World. You don’t have to play levels in a specific order. You can play whatever level you can get to. You do have to beat some levels in order to open the path to new sections of the map, though. Maybe a door will open, or a bridge will be built after you beat a level, sort of like in Super Mario World. There are 4 worlds in total, but the last one only has the final battles in it.

Cuphead doesn't use lives and continues. Instead, you get a health bar with 3 hearts by default, so you die on the third hit. It’s not too different from playing Contra with only 3 lives. There are no checkpoints, so when you die, you have to replay the whole level, but you can retry as many times as you want, since you don't have limited continues.

Even though Cuphead is a shooter, he doesn't carry any guns around. He just kind of snaps his fingers and shoots magic out of them. You start off with the straight line shot, the Peashooter, and you can buy new weapons with the gold coins you find in run and gun levels, from a shady looking pig named Pork Rind. There are 6 different weapons, including a spread shot, homing shot, and a charge shot. Pork Rind also sells charms, which you can equip to gain different perks, like extra hearts, or a faster filling super meter.

Cuphead does have a mechanic that adds a new twist to the old-school action, and that is the parry. You can press the jump button, while in mid-air, and bounce off any pink colored bullet, enemy, or enemy attack. Of course, if you mistime it, you will take a hit and lose a heart, but if you hit it, you gain meter. You can ignore parrying early on, but it’s a requirement to beating both bosses and run and gun levels later in the game. Choosing whether or not to parry an attack to gain meter can really affect a fight, so it’s a mechanic that keeps you on your toes. Parrying is also how you revive another player when playing co-op. When someone dies in co-op, their ghost will fly upwards, and the other player must parry off it before they fly off the screen to revive them.

Cuphead is a must play for any fan of 2D shooters. Just be prepared for a real challenge. I love the cartoon art style, and the soundtrack is something special. The story is cute, and I enjoyed spotting references to old cartoons. This is one of those games in which everything just comes together beautifully.