Monday, July 29, 2019

Blazing Chrome Review

There’s no shortage of indie Metroidvanias out there, but there aren't a lot of indies making run and gun shooters in the style of Contra, Metal Slug, and Gunstar Heroes. In comes Blazing Chrome to fill that Contra-shaped hole in your heart. Blazing Chrome is a run and gun shooter from Joymasher, the developers of Oniken and Odallus. It might look like a straight up Contra: Hard Corps clone at a glance, but it does enough of its own thing to set it apart from Konami's classic series. I played the Steam version (with a Switch controller) for this review, but it's also available on XBO, PS4, and NS for $16.99.

If Contra is Terminator x Aliens, then Blazing Chrome is Terminator x sci-fi Anime. As far as I can tell, Judgement Day happened here and there’s no John Connor around to save the day. The year is 21XX AD, decades after some great war. You play as Mavra and Doyle. Mavra kind of looks like Sheena from Contra HC wearing some Probotector inspired armor. She is part of the resistance against the machines, or "Toasters" as she calls them. Doyle is a Toaster with a red mohawk who has been reprogrammed for good. Basically the T-800. Mavra and Doyle are on a mission to destroy the machines' power supply. Yeah, sure. It’s just an excuse to blaze some chrome.

Blazing Chrome is structured more like Gunstar Heroes than any Contra or arcade game. There are 6 missions in the game, but you don't have to play them in order. When you first start a game, you can choose between any of the first 4 missions, and when you beat all 4, the 5th one opens up. When you beat the 5th one, you automatically go to the last one. You get 5 lives on Normal difficulty, but you don't have to make it through the whole mission with just those 5. There are frequent checkpoints and infinite continues, so when you get a Game Over, you just go back to the last checkpoint and not to the beginning of the mission. It has 2 player local co-op, but you can play it just fine by yourself. And just like most Contra games, Blazing Chrome has 1 hit deaths with instant respawns, so you can go through those 5 lives pretty quickly if you're not careful. I like how the game lets you continue from checkpoints. It allows the game to be really hard without feeling impossible. I might not have stuck with it if it was set up like the Genesis version of Contra HC because there’s no 30 lives code here either.

Blazing Chrome plays like a mix of many classic run and gun games. You can run left and right, jump, duck, hang on pipes, shoot in 8 directions, post yourself and aim by holding R, and do a Metal Slug-like "get off me" melee attack to enemies that get too close. You can also roll left or right by pressing down and jump, which is basically the slide from Contra HC with a different animation. I think this roll move is more annoying than it is useful, though. If you're more used to playing every other Contra besides HC, you'll probably be accidentally rolling to your death when trying to jump while shooting downwards diagonally or trying to fall through a platform, which you can't do in this game.

Mavra and Doyle's default weapon is your run of the mill sci-fi assault rifle, and there's also 3 special weapons you can collect; the grenade launcher, flamethrower, and laser. The grenade launcher fires off a grenade that explodes on contact with enemies or when you release the attack button. The longer you hold the button, the farther the grenade will fly before exploding. It's a tricky weapon to use in a game in which you want to constantly be shooting everything as quickly as possible, but it does a lot of damage. The flamethrower fires a constant stream of flames while you hold down the attack button. It's just like the flamethrower in Contra III, except it's pink. It has a short range, but it does a lot of damage. The laser can be fired rapidly for weak attacks or be charged up for more powerful longer lasting beams. It's technically the most powerful weapon, but also the hardest to use because charging means you're not shooting enemies. You can carry all of these special weapons around after you find them in capsules and switch between them with ZR (R2), just like in Contra HC. You lose a weapon if you die while using it, but you get to keep the rest, so you can just switch to your regular gun and save these for a boss if you want.

I'm not a big fan of the special weapons. Their usefulness feels very situational. They're good for bosses because they do a lot of damage and you actually have time to charge them and stuff, but they're not great for the regular run and gun gameplay because they either take too long to use or have bad range. There's a few other item drops that I like a lot more; the speed boost, shield, and attack drone. These don't count as special weapons; though, so you can't switch off them and save them for bosses. You also can't use 2 of these at the same time. If you pick one up while you already have one active, you'll drop the one you have. The speed boost increases your speed and gives you a double jump, the shield lets you take a few extra hits, and the attack drone follows you around like a Gradius option power-up and fires a second stream of bullets like your normal gun.

Most of Blazing Chrome is just regular run and gun obstacle courses and bosses, but there are a few sections in other styles to break things up. The ones you spend the most time playing are the hoverbike sections. They're very similar to the ones in Contra III, Hard Corps, and Uprising. You ride a hoverbike through an auto-scrolling area and shoot down enemies. Blazing Chrome adds a little Battletoads to the mix by throwing in some pits and roadblocks sometimes, too. There's also sections where you can hop in a Mega Man X-like mech suit with a machine gun, laser, or drill arm. One of these mech sections also gives you the option to hang off a helicopter while shooting everything below. There’s also a very Space Harrier-like sprite-based 3D tunnel section that’s really well done. It’s much better than those After Burner levels in the Bayonetta games. This stuff is not as good as the regular run and gun stuff, but it's still fun.

Blazing Chrome looks and sounds too good to be an actual Genesis game, but it nails the Genesis style like Shovel Knight nails the look and sound of an NES game. Blazing Chrome uses few colors with rough gradients to closely capture the gritty look of games like Contra HC and Castlevania Bloodlines. It also has tons of little details everywhere. You can see animated heat waves, clouds, and lightning in the backgrounds, bullet casings flying off your gun, reflections on glass, and smoke, explosions, and robot guts flying all over the place. The Steam version ran super smooth locked at 60fps at 1080p for me, too. It's a great looking game. It doesn't sound as crunchy and distorted as a Genesis game, but the chiptune hard rock is very reminiscent of 90s video game music from games like Mega Man X, and the low quality voice samples sound like something out of Streets of Rage, which got a laugh out of me.

Blazing Chrome is a lot of fun. It's not as good as the best Contra games, but it's close enough. If you're a run and gun fan and like challenging games, I think you'll enjoy it. If you’re trying to decide between this and the Contra Anniversary Collection; though, I say go with the Contra Collection first and then buy this if you’re still looking for more run and gun action.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Super Mario Maker 2 Review

What would happen if Mario Paint and Super Mario Bros had a baby? You'd probably get something like Super Mario Maker. The original SMM on Wii U was not the first Nintendo game with a level editor, but it was the first time Nintendo gave fans official tools to make their own Mario levels. A lot of people tried making Metroidvanias instead, though. Super Mario Maker 2 on Switch expands on every aspect of SMM1 from the single player mode to the level editing tools themselves. There's new enemies, obstacles, level themes, and a new Super Mario 3D World game style, which doesn't actually play like the 3D games.

Super Mario Maker 2 is more than a level editor, it has a pretty big story mode with 120 new and unique levels, too. In story mode, Undo Dog has deleted Peach's castle like a bad Mario Maker level. Why didn't he just undo that? You can undo a full level deletion in the editor. Anyway, now Mario must get a construction crew of Toads to rebuild the castle, and he must pay in gold coins. Mario will have to work for the coins, though. Anonymous level makers will post levels for Mario to play, and pay him for completing them. You also get to keep any coins you collect in the levels. They're not full of coins like NSMB2, though. I really liked the story. Toad and Toadette have a lot of cute dialogue, and the anonymous level makers' job postings are also pretty funny. Some of them are actually Mario characters, like Captain Toad, Bowser Jr, and Bowser. I can just tell by what they say.

The story mode levels themselves are all designed to show you how different elements of the level editor work and what you can do with them. There's levels that show you what you can do with the Angry Sun, how the new level completion conditions work, and some that introduce you to the new 3D World style and its unique quirks. These levels are fun and creative, and there's some pretty challenging ones in there, but they are not like anything in any Mario game. They're good levels, and they're much better than the ones that came with SMM1, but they're not mainline Mario game good.

You might expect SMM to play like the NES and SNES Mario games when playing levels using those styles, but that's not how this game works. The core Mario gameplay in SMM feels like New Super Mario Bros, and that stays the same no matter what game style you're playing in. The graphics might make you think it feels different, but Mario runs, stomps, and jumps the same in all game styles. You can't put a jump in your level that doesn't work in the other styles without using game-specific mechanics, like the wall jump. You have a lot of air control, you don't have to hold up to jump out of the water, and you can super jump when bouncing off an enemy in all styles. SMM2 even takes this a step further and gives small Mario a ducking animation in SMB1 and 3. Something that wasn't in the games until Super Mario World. You still can't butt slide or throw items in SMB, or wall jump in anything before NSMB, though. They didn't go that far in modernizing the old styles.

The original Super Mario Maker was the best showcase for how the Wii U could be used. You could design levels on the GamePad with a very accurate touchscreen and stylus and then playtest your creations right on the GamePad, or just pick up a Pro Controller and playtest on your TV without having to dock the system. Super Mario Maker 2 on Switch doesn’t do any of those things quite as well as the Wii U game. The GamePad is the system on Switch, so it has to be docked to be played on a TV, and the JoyCon doesn't have a real d-pad. The analog stick is a bit better, but not as good as a real d-pad would be for a 2D game. You can use a Pro Controller with an undocked Switch, but then you have to set it down farther away from your face. It's just not comfortable either way. I'm seriously considering buying that HORI JoyCon with the d-pad for this. Along with one of those styluses with the transparent discs on the tip.

I have tried using both my fingers and normal pen-sized styluses, and they work, but I have to keep zooming in to make the squares bigger. Normal styluses and fingers are just too big for the squares on the level editor's grid in the default view. Constantly holding the Switch with one hand is also very tiring. I ended up just making levels on the TV with a Pro Controller most of the time. The new wheel UI feels like it was made with the controller in mind, and the onscreen cursor you get when using the analog stick is much more accurate than a finger or stylus. Button and stick controls are not available in handheld mode aside from a few shortcuts, by the way, so it's not like you can use both control methods at the same time. Overall, using the Switch's touchscreen and controllers feels like a downgrade from the Wii U GamePad.

The new UI works really well with either a controller or the touchscreen. It's kind of like having a bunch paint trays in a binder you can quickly flip through. It makes sense when you think of level making as something like painting. Everything is grouped by type, so it's easy to remember where to look for something. All the powerups are grouped together, for example. You can't customize your wheels, like you could customize your drop down menu in SMM1, but your recently used items stay in a row on the top of the screen, so you can still have a little swatch of items.

Another big change to the UI is the introduction of the long press and popup menu. You used to have drop things on top of other things, or shake them, to get different versions in SMM1. But with the popup menu, you don't have to drop a mushroom on a Goomba to get the giant version, you can just long press on it and see all the modifiers you can apply to it. This idea took some getting used to, since nothing tells you which pieces have different modifiers, but I like how it takes out a lot of the guesswork and trial and error out of level making.

One of the most hyped up things about SMM2 before release was the new 3D World game style. To call it 3D World is kind of misleading. It's not actually a 3D Land/World level editor. It's just a 2D level editor with polygon models from 3D World. The rest of the games all use sprites. Even NSMB uses pre-rendered sprites, like Donkey Kong Country on the SNES. Polygon graphics aren't enough to make this game style any good, though. It's just so limited compared to the rest of the games. A lot of my go to level pieces, like mushroom platforms and bridges, are not available in this mode, it doesn't have popular enemies, like Lakitu and Wigglers, and some of the level themes are just plain ugly. The sky theme is a wooden building block city, for example. The controls are also kind of awkward. It feels like NSMB with 3D World moves, like the crawl and spin jump. It does have some cool exclusive things, like the cat suit and climbable trees, but all the stuff that's missing makes me go right back to the other styles every time. And that means restarting the level from scratch because you can't switch between styles from or to 3D World without wiping the level. They don't even let you keep the things that are in the other games. I really don't like the 3D World style. It's a shame because it's a new style of 2D Mario, and that should be exciting, but it's too barebones compared to the other styles. It's like going from Photoshop to MS Paint. 3D World is on its own little island, so I'm only talking about the other styles for the rest of this review.

The old game styles did get their fair share of new stuff, though. There's new obstacles, enemies, and new themes with their own unique elements. There's only one new kind of ground piece, but it's a major one; slopes. There's steep and gentle slopes. You can combine them, they blend right into the ground tiles, and you can put them wherever you want, so you can make them stalactites in your cave level if you want. You can also make vertical levels now, which are great if you want to make a level that's all about sliding on your butt. Vertical levels are limited to sub-areas; though, so you have to go down a pipe first and then come back out through another pipe to get to the goal, since you can only have a goal in your main area.

I think my favorite addition to the game is the new level themes. They added desert, forest, snow, and sky. They all look like they belong in those games, too. For example, the forest looks like the Forest of Illusion in SMW style, but looks more like worlds 3 and 7 in SMB3 style, with pipes instead of blocks for the ground tiles, metallic platforms, and hills in the background instead of trees. I especially like how these new themes look in SMB1 style. SMB and LL never had forests or deserts, but these themes fit right in with the originals. They did have Sky and Snow Levels, they look completely different here, and look more like the other new themes.

Some of the new platforms and "gizmos", as the game calls them, include seesaw platforms, On/Off switch platforms, snake block platforms, and a claw machine swing. Seesaw platforms are seesaws that can interact with enemies, items, and some obstacles, so they have a lot of potential for puzzles and platforming. We still don't have the pulleys from SMB, but seesaws are close. Snake blocks are the moving block platforms from SMW. You can set their paths and ride on them. They're a lot like putting a platform on a track, but you can do a few new things with them, like making you stand on a single block as it moves upwards. The claw machine swing is probably the coolest new gizmo. It grabs pretty much anything that comes near it and releases it when it comes near you. You can make it grab items, enemies, or jump onto it and swing on it, like a vine in DKC. I made a little claw machine item grabbing minigame with it and the On/Off switch in one of my levels. The on/off Switch can be used for more than switching red and blue blocks on and off. They also work with conveyor belts and tracks, so you can make something like those SMW levels where you ride on a platform on rails and switch from track to track. Some of the other new gizmos include falling icicles, Banzai Bills, and those twisters from the Angry Sun level in SMB3.

There really aren't a lot of new enemies, but the new ones are pretty cool. Finally, we have a Goomba that doesn't walk off ledges with the Goombrats from NSMBU. We also get Bowser Jr and Boom Boom, so we don't have to use Bowser for every boss battle. You can even put Bowser Jr in the clown copter and have him throw out Koopa shells, or put wings on him to make him throw hammers. He basically fills the role of Koopa Kids from SMB3 in his default form because his attack patterns are the same. I wish Koopa Kids were in too, though. And of course, the Angry Sun is finally in the game. It behaves exactly the same as in SMB3, and it has an alternate Moon form that turns your stage into night and kills every enemy on the screen if it hits you instead of hurting you.

Once you use the Moon for the first time, you unlock night versions of every level theme. 3D World doesn't get night themes either, by the way. The night themes change both the look and mechanics of each level. For example, the night version of the desert theme has wind that affects your running and jumping, like in Lost Levels, and the night version of the forest theme turns the water into poison, which is basically purple lava. These night properties even change between the 4 original game styles sometimes. The night desert theme's wind blows from right to left in SMB style and from left to right in SMB3 style, for example. These night versions generally make your levels a lot harder, so you really have to put some thought into how you use them.

All this new stuff is cool, but there's still a bunch of stuff from the original 4 games on NES and SNES still missing. Where are the Swoops? Bats are a staple of 2D action games and platformers from Super Mario World to Mega Man and Castlevania, and we still don't get bats? The way you can control the water/lava level in the castle and forest themes is cool, but why can't I get water I can place anywhere in my levels? They put in a desert theme and the Angry Sun, but where are the cactus enemies (Pokies) and quicksand? And where is the big Cheep Cheep, Big Bartha? That would have been perfect for SMB3 Forest theme levels. And we still don't get Fire Bros in the original games, but they put them in 3D World? I feel like they added more quirky new stuff than stuff from the old games that people have actually been asking for.

Speaking of things nobody asked for, this game has NSMB style online multiplayer for some reason. It sucks in NSMB, and it's even worse here. Its implementation is horrible, and it's very laggy most of the time to boot. The matchmaking system seemingly picks random user made levels for multiplayer, but most levels aren't made with multiplayer in mind, so you often get thrown into levels where everyone will die over and over until someone manages to finish it. In slow motion because of all the lag, of course. Even if someone makes a level with multiplayer in mind and tags it as such, there's no guarantee that it will ever actually be used in multiplayer. The whole thing is a mess.

Most of the music in SMM2 is from the original games, of course; however, the new level themes have new music for both the editor and the gameplay if those themes were not in the original games. Koji Kondo actually composed new music in the style of the original games' soundtracks for SMM2. SMB1 has new early NES style chiptunes, SMB3 has new ska/rocksteady style music, and SMW has new music in that sort of ragtime SMW style. It's worth checking out for Mario music fans, even if you're not buying the game. You still can't mix and match level music, but you can attach a small selection of songs to an object or character to change the music of a level. Some of the songs you can use include the main themes from Galaxy, Sunshine, and Super Mario Kart. I like to put those on the character to replace that horrible "Bah! Bah!" NSMB music in my levels.

Super Mario Maker 2 feels like an expansion that has been ported to a system it doesn't work as well on, but if you like making levels, this is a must have. I've already spent over 150 hours on this game. Mostly making levels. It's a creative outlet for me. I just love free-form level making. If you're not the creative type, maybe this isn’t the game for you. The story mode is cute, but not mainline Mario quality. User created levels make this the never ending Mario game, but 99.99% of the levels out there are terrible, in my opinion. Mine are awesome, of course. If you'd like to play my levels, you can check them out with my Maker ID, X0F-YBR-CPF.