Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Tunic Review

Developer: Isometricorp Games
Publisher: Finji
Platforms: PC, XBO, XBSX
Price: $30
Version Played: PC

Tunic takes me back to when I first played Zelda on NES. I lived in Puerto Rico and only knew a few English words, so I didn't understand what most of the text in the game said. There was no Internet, and I didn't have a Nintendo Power subscription yet, so my brother and I figured everything out on our own. That's what Tunic is all about. It's a game about discovering things on your own by piecing together the little bits of info the game gives you.

Simply put, Tunic is Zelda AF. Zelda as fox, that is! It's an action adventure game that takes inspiration from everything from the original Zelda on NES to Skyward Sword. It has 5 multipart dungeons, boss battles, items, rupees, and a huge interconnected overworld to explore and cut grass in. The overworld also has sections that play like dungeons and spill over into the dungeons. It's that thing Skyward Sword tried to do but never got quite right.
Tunic gives you the freedom to go wherever you want, as long as you have the items to get you there, but there is also an LttP Light World style main quest that has you collecting 3 medallions to open a door. It's a nice balance between the freedom of Zelda I and the structure of LttP. There is a story in Tunic, but the game is nowhere near as story-driven as Zelda LttP or OoT.
Dungeons have that sort of Castlevania SOTN feel to them because they're mostly about battling through rooms full of monsters to get to the next save point. Saving refills your mana, health, and potions, but also makes all the enemies respawn. That's not as bad as it sounds, though. Since dungeon layouts often loop around and have you dropping down ladders, ropes, and bridges to open paths back to the same save point you started from, you're also opening shortcuts through the dungeon when you get to a save point.
The thing that makes Tunic feel unique is its manual. No, there is no physical version. The manual in Tunic is part of the game. It's built into the UI. You find its pages all over the world, just like you'd find heart containers in a Zelda game. You don't find them in order; though, you find them around where you might need the information on them. It's not just a written tutorial, it's also your guide through the game. It looks just like an NES game manual. It's in the same shape, it's held together with staples, and it’s full of little details, like tears, folds, and little notes written all over it. It also has lots of cute drawings of the Fox hero, which look a lot like the drawings of Link in those old NES manuals. It has maps, tips and hints, and lists all the moves and items. It's a beautiful thing, but it requires effort to understand.
Tunic isn’t a game that doesn’t tell you anything, it just wants you to put some thought into it. Both the in-game text and the manual are mostly written in the game’s runic language. There are only enough English words in it to give you a hint or point you in the right direction. This is why I say it reminds me of when I first played Zelda without speaking English. This language barrier can lead to situations in which you go through a lot of the game without knowing about something you could have been doing the whole time, but that’s part of the fun of it. That's what makes this game feel like it has multiple layers to it. For example, I went through the first 2 dungeons and beat 2 major bosses without upgrading any of my stats. It made the game a lot harder than it should have been, but it taught me that I should really be looking at the manual and menus more closely. This type of design also makes the second and new game + playthroughs very different experiences.

Even though Tunic is constantly referencing Zelda, exploring this world feels different. You can't always use Zelda logic to overcome obstacles. Tunic has its own way of giving hints and guiding your eyes. Breakable walls aren't cracked, for example. While there are definitely switches to pull and keys to find, this game is more about paying attention to the way the environment is laid out and finding paths behind waterfalls, bushes, and in dark corners. Tunic has an isometric camera angle, which rarely changes, and you have very little control of, so you have to think about the environment in 3D. This mechanic of finding paths in places that aren't visible from your camera angle is used a lot, so it does become predictable very early on in the game. It got to the point where I checked every dark corner in every room of every dungeon because it just kept working. That’s just how the game is designed. Walking through these obscured paths is like fumbling around in the dark, so it's not the most fun mechanic, but these sections never last more than a few seconds, so they aren't too annoying. I wish there was more variety to the puzzles, though. An old fashioned block pushing puzzle now and then wouldn't hurt.
Combat in Tunic is more like 3D Zelda than 2D Zelda. It has a lock-on button, dodge rolls, and you have to hold down a button to use your shield. It also has a stamina meter, which is the resource used for rolling and for blocking. If you run out of stamina, you won’t be able to do either. You can still run, though, which you usually do by holding A while coming out of a roll. Blocking is useful early on in the game against enemies that shoot magic at you, but combat becomes more about rolling and using your items in creative ways as you get further into the game. I don’t want to give away any solutions, but there is a type of candle carrying enemy in one dungeon, and you can use items to put their candles out and make them a lot easier to deal with. I did have some trouble with the way rolling works since it changes depending on which way the camera is facing, and the camera constantly rotates during boss fights, but overall, I really enjoyed the combat in the game.
Tunic isn’t the most graphically impressive game, but it has style. Its low poly models and flat colors make it look like an N64 game in HD, but it looks good because of its consistent style. It's also really cute! It’s like what makes Lego sets look cool. The game also has amazing lighting, which makes everything look realistic in a toy-like way. I turned off the depth of field, but that's an option if you feel like it adds to the look. I find it distracting. I played the PC version and I did notice a little bit of stuttering at times, but I think it was just loading. It ran locked at 165 FPS and 1440p most of the time.
Tunic has a very soothing and catchy soundtrack. I think it works perfectly for the game and it often got stuck in my head. It’s not something I’d listen to on its own, though. Well, maybe if I was looking for beats to relax/study to. The sound effects are also pretty well done, but there’s definitely room for improvement. All the enemies and items make some kind of sound, and you can hear water flowing and wind blowing, but not all surfaces have unique footstep sounds, and sometimes things in the environment don’t make any noise at all, which is very noticeable when you’re dropping down a bridge or ladder.

I don’t want to oversell it, but I think this game is amazing! I’ve played great Zelda-likes in the past, but I think this might be my favorite. It’s the way the game integrates the manual that I love so much. It’s not just a great Zelda-like, it’s also replicating that experience my brother and I had playing Zelda for the first time and discovering everything on our own. It’s 2 great experiences rolled into one. I’ve never played anything quite like this. I'd buy some kind of special edition with a physical manual in a heartbeat, and I hope there's more Tunic in the future.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

River City Girls Zero Review

Developer: WayForward, Limited Run Games, Almanic (Original)
Publisher: Limited Run Games, Technos (Original)
Platform: Switch
Price: $15

River City Girls Zero is a port of the 1994 Super Famicom game that inspired River City Girls, Shin Nekketsu Koha: Kunio-tachi no Banka. This was the last Kunio beat 'em up released by Technos and it was never released outside Japan. Until now! Even though there were a bunch of Kunio games in between Renegade and this game, its title and gameplay give me the impression that it’s supposed to be Renegade 2. River City Girls Zero gives Shin Nekketsu Koha the special retro collection style treatment with a new animated intro, Manga cutscenes, music from Megan McDuffee and Demondice, saves, and a gallery with pictures of the original Super Famicom box and manual.
Of course, the main attraction is the translation. RCGZ is playable in multiple languages, including Japanese, Spanish, Italian, German, French, and English. It also has a sort of modern River City Girls style English Translation, which is what I mostly played with. There were a few lines that made Misako and Kyoko sound like they do in RCG, but it mostly just seems like a PG version of the "Literal" translation, which has cussing and makes Kunio and Rikki look like completely unlikable teenagers. The modern translation is not funny and clever, like River City Girls, at all. Save files are translation version specific, so you can’t switch on the fly, but there is a password system, so you can start a new game with a different translation and use a password to get back to where you were in another save file. The original game did not have save files, by the way. The save files are more like save states in the emulator.
The new Manga cutscenes are black and white Manga pages with a little animation and voice acting, just like the ones in RCG. They show Kyoko and Misako getting a hold of the SFC game and playing it on a vaguely Super Famicom looking device. They don't know anything about what happens in the game, so I guess that means RCG exists in its own separate universe. There are only 2 cutscenes, one for the intro and one for the ending, so it's not like you're going back and forth between the game and Manga. I wish they did cut back to them every now and then, though. I would love to get their take on what's going on in the game more often. The actual game is nowhere near as funny and entertaining as they are. It's actually kind of serious and dramatic. It's a completely different tone from RCG.
The story of RCGZ follows Kunio and Rikki as they try to clear their name after being framed for killing someone in a hit and run motorcycle accident by the Samwa gang. They go to jail, break out, and go right to their schools to find Misako and Kyoko. It's totally unrealistic 80s action movie stuff, but it's not done in a tongue in cheek kind of way. It comes off more like an edgy teen novel, especially with the "Literal" translation.
The actual game in River City Girls Zero is a very different kind of BEU from River City Girls, River City Ransom, and Double Dragon. This isn't an arcade style BEU or a BEU/RPG hybrid. This is a strictly linear and very story-driven BEU with lots of talking before, after, and during almost every level. It splits levels up into tiny 2 or 3 screen arenas, like Renegade and Combatribes, you get unlimited continues, and Kunio and Rikki only get new moves once you're done with the intro levels. Instead of an arcade-like lives system, you have to switch between your 4 characters before they die. Each one has their own life bar, but if you let anyone die, you get a game over and have to restart from the last checkpoint. That’s not too bad; though, because it's usually no more than a couple of rooms back. It's different, but I think this structure works if you're trying to make a story-driven Renegade sequel for a console. It's just that the story isn't good enough to warrant the main event treatment.
Each of the 4 playable characters has different moves, but generally speaking, the combat in RCGZ feels like the evolution of Renegade and Double Dragon. The hurricane kicks, throws, elbows, back kicks, and ground stomps are all here. Nearly every move and combo in this game can be traced back to either Renegade, Double Dragon I and II, or Street Fighter II. This was 1994, so Street Fighter II was super popular. A few of Misako and Kyoko’s moves were clearly inspired by Cammy and Chun-Li’s moves.
The main new things RCGZ adds to the combat are the block and the jumping grab, which can be used to climb onto stuff, and to hang from things, like light fixtures, and kick people in the face. The block is more than a defensive maneuver. You can cancel the block into 4 special moves by pressing jump, punch, kick, or back attack while in the blocking animation. The hanging move is mostly useless, but the special moves coming out of a block are the strongest and most useful moves in the game. I had to figure all this out on my own, by the way. The game never tells you how to do anything besides the most basic moves.
I think RCGZ technically plays better than the Renegade and Double Dragon arcade games it's drawing from, but I don't think it reached its full potential. RCGZ has a lot of moves, but it lacks polish. It's missing all the little things that make everything gel together. There's running, but there are no running attacks, you can't throw enemies onto other enemies, you do the ground stomp even when there are no downed enemies around you, and Kyoko and Misako are missing grabs, throws, and the ground and pound. There are also no weapons or destructible environments in the game, and you never fight more than 2 enemies at once. The game is missing that action movie fight scene feel that makes BEUs, like Combatribes, Final Fight, and Streets of Rage, not only fun to play, but fun to watch as well. I also feel like the reach and hit stun feel off. Enemies recover too quickly and start hitting you while you're in the middle of a combo and it feels like you have to get too close to enemies to hit them. The Renegade and Double Dragon 1 and 2 arcade games feel even worse when I go back to them now, so maybe they were just going for something like those games, but it just doesn’t feel as good as stuff like Final Fight and Streets of Rage.
I kind of hate the motorcycle levels. There are 4 of these in the game and they basically play like Hang-On with Road Rash's kicking. You drive down a highway and try not to hit the walls while trying to kick enemies off their bikes. It's not a horrible minigame, but it's way too unforgiving. You can't switch characters, there are no checkpoints, hitting a wall means instant death, and you have to do the whole thing over if you die. I spent more time playing each of these bike levels than I spent on any other part of the game.
Like most retro game releases these days, this game has a few display options to choose from. You can choose between 3x, 2x, and its native resolution of 240p, which is really tiny. The game is always scaled to 720p, so there is no 4x (960p) option. This is fine by me since 3x at 720p covers more of the screen than 4x at 1080p. Interestingly enough, all those options are displayed in the 8:7 aspect ratio (AKA Pixel Perfect). There’s no 4:3 option, but there is a stretched wide screen option, which looks ridiculous. There’s also a scanlines option, which looks fine, and a couple of Limited Run Games themed borders, which are both pretty ugly. The actual game looks pretty nice for a SNES game, and it has almost no slowdown, but that's probably because you never fight more than two enemies at once.
River City Girls Zero is a fun enough game for $15, but it’s a better Kunio history lesson than it is a game. If you're a fan of River City Girls, Kunio lore, or just the old Technos beat 'em ups, you'll probably find something interesting here. If you're just looking for a fun beat 'em up to play; though, there are better games to choose from out there. I love the special treatment WayForward and LRG have given the game with the translation, saves, animated intro, gallery, music, and Manga cutscenes, but the actual game here is an average BEU at best. It's interesting seeing the game that inspired RCG, and all the familiar faces and places, but I don't feel like this story affects what's going on in WayForward's Kunioverse either.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

EarthBound Review

Developer: Ape, Hal
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: SNES, Wii U, 3DS, NS, SNES Classic
Version Played: NS

Twitter trends and wrestling signs might give you the impression that EarthBound is an incredibly popular game which sold millions of copies, but that’s just how loud and passionate its fans are. The game is really more of a cult classic. It didn't sell anywhere near as much as the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games coming out at the time. I remember seeing brand new copies of it going for $10 while shopping for PS1 games. There's something special about the game, though. Something about it sticks with people. Its art style, music, and presentation all feel fresh and unique, even among today's RPGs, but it's the setting, characters, and story that make it such a fun experience for me.
On its surface, EarthBound is a game about saving the world from an alien invasion. You travel around the world meeting new party members while collecting 8 doodads until you're ready to take on the final boss. It sounds like a hundred other RPGs. Its setting is what turns the ordinary into extraordinary. The world of EarthBound is anything but your typical RPG setting. This is a world of psychic powers, reptilians, zombies, and even Nessy and Bigfoot show up. It's weird, it loves being weird, and it gets weirder the further you get in the game. Not only is it weird, but it's also kind of mature in a strange way. There's a cult, mobsters, hippies, crooked cops, bribery, and all kinds of things you'll never see in other Nintendo games.
EarthBound also stands out from most RPGs because it takes place in modern(ish) day. It's kind of 80s, but also kind of 60s. Most of EarthBound's world looks like a warped version of America as imagined by someone whose inspiration was stuff like Peanuts and Stand By Me. Everything is bright, colorful, and kind of old-fashioned in a Midwestern America kind of way. If you've lived there, you know. There are no swords or magic spells in this game, instead it has baseball bats and psychic powers, you shop at department stores, revive party members at hospitals, and travel by bus or bicycle. Enemies don't drop money, your dad puts it in your account and you have to get it from an ATM. EarthBound is 100% committed to its setting and I love that about it.
EarthBound’s gameplay borrows heavily from Dragon Quest. You travel from town to town, talk to NPCs, do a dungeon, repeat. It's a bit more streamlined than a DQ or FF, though. There isn’t as much exploration since there is no traditional RPG overworld and most places are connected by caves or small stretches of land, and not wide open fields with something in every direction. It feels like a predecessor to Pokemon in that way. Which makes sense since the two games were made by a lot of the same people.
Moving the story forward in this game gives me more of a point and click adventure game vibe, though. NPCs in EarthBound are constantly giving you key items you have to deliver to someone or use somewhere, the world is constantly changing, so you have to revisit some places multiple times, and sometimes you just have to do something that might not even make sense to you. I don't want to give away any solutions, but there were definitely times when I had no idea what to do. Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention to the story or didn't read enough item tooltips. Thankfully, Nintendo always makes the guide available in PDF form whenever they rerelease the game.
The key item system really shines a spotlight on how terrible the inventory system is. Every piece of equipment, consumable, and key item takes up space in your inventory, and nothing stacks. Important stuff like your bike, phone, town map, and Sound Stone all take up a slot too. You can't even put some of these things in your bank. Putting stuff in the bank is also a pain. You have to call Ness’ sister on the phone to send someone to either deliver or pick up your items, you can’t withdraw and store at the same time, and you can only store or take out 3 items at a time. Each character also has to carry their own equipment and items to use them, so you can’t equip a new weapon on Jeff if it’s in Paula’s inventory, for example. You’d first have to go into Paula’s inventory and move it into Jeff’s to be able to equip him with it. And, of course, both Jeff and Poo depend heavily on their items to be useful in battle, so their inventory is almost completely taken up by Poo’s water and Jeff’s gadgets.
Even though EarthBound was kind of just following the Dragon Quest blueprint in a lot of ways, it was doing some cool new things when it came out in 1994. Not a lot of RPGs had gotten rid of random battles, for example. Enemies in EarthBound are visible in the world, they run after you if they're around your level, and run away from you if you're much stronger. This makes it a lot easier to avoid unwanted battles and takes away a lot of the grind usually associated with RPGs. There's also a mechanic that guarantees you the first turn in a battle if you run into an enemy from behind, or allows you to skip the battle entirely if you're much stronger than the enemy. There really isn't a need to grind in EarthBound. I never felt like I was underleveled or lacking money for equipment, which is a big issue with the first game, Mother/EarthBound Beginnings, and many other 8 and 16-bit RPGs.
EarthBound's battle system is basically the same as Dragon Quest's, and pretty much every other RPG that didn't use FF's Active Time Battle, but it also did something new. EarthBound has rolling HP meters that kind of look like old gas pump meters. When you take damage or heal, the meter starts rolling up or down in real-time. This makes it so that if you take mortal damage, you might be able to save your character if you hurry and get a heal off on them before their HP reaches zero. You can also mitigate incoming damage by overhealing your party members before they take a hit. It might sound like a small thing, but it really gives battles a sense of urgency that you don’t usually find in most turn-based RPGs.
EarthBound's UI is kind of a mess. It does that thing Dragon Quest games used to do where a menu pops up when you press A instead of just interacting with the thing in front of you. Mother/EarthBound Beginnings did the same thing. It feels archaic. There is a button that just interacts, but it's on the L button, which is just weird. This wasn't much of an issue on Wii U, where you could easily remap your buttons in the Virtual Console menu, but it is kind of a pain to work around on Switch, where you have to change what the A button does on a system level, which can get very confusing. You just have to deal with the weird button mapping on 3DS and SNES since there is no way to change it there.
EarthBound has a great art style. It's very different from the big-headed anime style most SNES RPGs were using at the time. It looks like Peanuts. Ness looks like Charlie Brown, houses look like Snoopy's dog house, and it uses a similar color scheme. It's kind of on the nose, but that's not a bad thing. It looks great and it fits the tone of the game perfectly. The graphics didn’t look very impressive when compared to games like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Final Fantasy VI back in the day, but the art style stands the test of time.
Of course, I have to mention the psychedelic battle backgrounds! They're so cool. It's like battling in front of a giant lava lamp or mp3 player visualizer. I just love these things!
The game does have big framerate problems, though. The game skips frames and slows down everywhere outside of battles. Some areas in the game slow down so much it feels like when you're wading through the water in the swamp area. At least it doesn't affect the music.
I love EarthBound's soundtrack, but it does sound very similar to songs by popular musicians, like Bob Marley, The Beatles, The Who, and even Xevious. I do love those Jazz and Reggae tunes, though.
Even with its annoying UI, bad framerate, and horrible inventory system, I think EarthBound is definitely worth going out of your way to play. It really feels like a cultural touchstone these days with Pokemon still using so many things that started in it and games like Undertale being inspired by it. I also just love this weird mash up of paranormal stuff and Peanuts. It's like putting 2 clashing toppings on a pizza and finding out they taste great together.