Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dual Play: When Playing With Yourself is a Gameplay Mode

Shmups have, at times, been credited as one of the most challenging genres of games as a whole, if not the most challenging altogether. The simplicity of controls and visuals allows for a heightened level of challenge on the player's part, requiring all of those awesome coordination skills of mind, body, and willpower. So it comes as a kind of surprise that a certain gameplay mode has been implemented into the community, both implicitly and explicitly, that at least doubles the difficulty of the genre's challenge, that mode being what is known as "dual play."

This is not to be confused with "double play," in which two chaps sit next to each other and discuss why their strategy for only being responsible for half the screen isn't working. "Dual play" is a style of playing wherein a lone player (being either exceedingly brave or blissfully ignorant) will take the reins of both of the ships / warriors / boats / schoolgirls / pig women that would have otherwise been piloted by two mortal humans. The mere sight of this spectacle is always a treat for everyone, including the player himself, the spectators who admire such bravery, and the corporate owners of things that accept quarters / tokens / yen.

It would appear hard enough to handle 8-directional movement, a fire button, a bombing button, and a couple thousand bullets careening towards you, but here we have 16 directions of movement, two fire buttons, and two bombing buttons. And a couple thousand bullets careening towards you. This requires many more fingers than one is used to, as the pinkies become the most reliable assets in arcade setups. I can't even imagine what added stresses the brain goes through. It's already doing its thing at maximum capacity for single play, as the right half controls movement and the left half controls firing (and wiping the sweat of victory from the brow). It's not like selecting "dual play" grants your brain an increase in activity (or even possibly 2 more halves for computations). You're stuck with the same two hemispheres of thought you had before, only this time they both control everything. At least to me, this sounds like quite a conflict of nerves upstairs.

It's not too bad for games on Playstation hardware, as the controller allows for the advantage of symmetry to guide control. The thumbsticks control the ships, the front shoulder buttons control firing, while the back shoulders control bombs. I suppose the same is possible with the Wii's classic controller (more notably the improved one that doesn't let your thumbs bump into each other), and the Xbox360 controller can certainly accommodate similar stylings, though breaking away from symmetry with the sticks. The real crowd-pleaser is in the arcades, where both sets of controls are in the same configuration, but your hands are not. With stick on the left and buttons on the right, this means an entirely different story depending on which hand we're talking about. The left hand's pinky and ring finger take control of the ship, while the index and thumb take responsibility of firing and bombing. The reverse happens for the right hand, which I assume has an easier time as the stick requires much more dexterity than pushing buttons.

None of this dual play hand placement interested me until I saw a particular set of videos on YouTube showcasing a phenomenal player (VTF-INO) tackling dual play in Ikaruga. The intriguing part was the inclusion of video of his hands synced to gameplay (and quite appropriately filling in those black gaps on the sides of the vertical display of the game). Oh, and even better - there's that extra button in the game that lets you switch polarity on the fly, furthering the separation of tasks within the ranks of the fingers.

What I'm most curious about is why this gameplay method hasn't been addressed directly. Sure, it's in the two latest installments of Raiden, but it doesn't feel like the game's been designed for this gameplay (which I'm pretty sure it hasn't). It's more of a tacked-on mode that's been added to appease the dual players from arcades who want a similar experience at home. Co-op features are just about as bland as dual play, but at least there was some effort made. In gunRoar, your two boats can connect a tether and fire bullets from the midpoint, requiring much coordination of formations. I believe that's also a feature in Battle Garrega, so the idea's been around for quite a while. And shooting behind each other in many games will create hybrid firepower, making for some fun combinations. However, I still don't feel it's been developed and built upon. At all. How sweet would it be if there were a co-op mode that actually required both players to work along with and depend upon each other? I'm thinking along the lines of the experiences found in Gears of War, Little Big Planet, and Four Swords Adventures. You work together to help each other out; not for the sake of just dishing out twice as much firepower (of which is oftentimes halved in strength, but don't worry about that), but for the sake of helping a player out who will soon be helping you out, only to have the two of you working together to fight a greater evil, the two of you with designated tasks that are required for a successful mission.

As much as I'd like that to happen in double play, I'm not as much asking for the same thing with dual play. It may provide you with guidance for where to place each ship at any given time, but that's just one more thing to worry about (or two, if you're still keeping track of all the elements at hand), let alone being in control of so much maneuvering, dodging, firing, bombing, dying, cursing, etc.

And now, an amazing man with amazing hands.

If you understand everything that's going on in the video, both visually and under the hood, then you must be the player himself. Otherwise, it's probably best to go my route and just smile, nod, and appreciate a spectacular performance.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Project RS3: I'm No Fanboy, I Just Appreciate Art

Project RS3 is the codename for quite possibly one of the greatest shmups ever created. It hasn't exactly been released yet, and the last I heard of it, production on the title has come to an indefinite halt. So why am I prematurely crowning the game for all of its achievements in areas of technicality, artistry, and gameplay? Probably because the other two original shmups they produced have also been deemed "quite possibly one of the greatest shmups ever created." I'm just following the pattern.

This all really amounts to what the company, Treasure (), did to the genre with each release. Simplicity is the ultimate theme here, as Radiant Silvergun abandoned the collectible powerups in favor of an RPG-like auto-upgrade system (use it more and it becomes more powerful over time), while Ikaruga tossed out the idea of powerups altogether (unless of course you consider your own personal, evolving skills as a powerup). True, Silvergun immediately gives you access to all seven (yes, 7) weapons from the get-go, but they're really just variants of three main ones (and there aren't any bombs, so I think it balances out nicely). Ikaruga went ahead and only gave you one kind of primary fire and a homing shot that you had to earn in order to use. There's a very fine line between gimmick and innovative mechanic, Treasure's games taking the latter due to their ideal application of usage. Though I do find myself enjoying the magnanimous sprays that other games can grant, there's something special about this table-turning back to the days of simplicity.

The layout of the levels - all of them - are beautiful pieces of work I sometimes regret blowing up as soon as possible, but then again, the act of blowing up those beautiful patterns of enemies and scenery was designed to be just as beautiful. And though these types of games generally need limited instruction and backstory, they provide it. This quickly adds a sense of reason, of why you're flying around shooting the things you shoot. It all starts to make sense why your final battle involves shooting (i.e. dodging) a crystal made of pure evil (something R-Type didn't quite nail the first time around). The story helps drive the action. I have no problem calling these two games a work of art. And in setting off that alarm, a new paragraph about art must ensue.

When I say art, I mean art. It's merely something that I find to be appealing. That's really it. We as humans have been discussing what "art" really is for, what, thousands of years? And no one really has a definite answer. I then question why "games as art" is such a heated topic, when "oil paintings as art" is just as unresolved. Oil paintings are just pigments on canvas. They aren't art unless someone thinks they are, at which point they are "art" to that person. This makes the subject a matter of opinion, which is more than likely my attempt to avoid participating in a since-time-began-long discussion about what makes art art. If Duchamp wants to make art, it's art. If I see a pattern of light coming through trees, it's art. Yet no human crafted that view. Who cares? If I find it appealing above other patches of light through trees, it's art. I could even find art in every patch of light ever. It's an art. And nothing more. So, back to Treasure. Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga are works of art.

Of course I've just branded a FANBOY label across my forehead, but that's really what Treasure does; they make people love their games (if only the general public would give them a chance). This post was originally going to be a review from the future for Project RS3. My feelings towards this non-existent game are so strong, I can almost sense the very things that solidify the game as another "greatest shmup ever." The story will enrich gameplay. The visuals will be simple, yet powerful. The music will be compelling. The controls will be spot-on. The driving mechanic, that "not a gimmick" element that they add will be ingenious, never-before-seen, and yet feel familiar. Gameplay will be easy to pick up, hard to master, and have quirks of design that don't start to create a symphony of gameplay until you really get into the depth of it all. It'll be out-of-print rather quickly, only cherished by those few in the world who really appreciate the art of Treasure's work. Did I just review RS3, or was that also congruent with Silvergun and Ikaruga?(Replayability Tip: read again) More importantly, if a boy creates a cardboard colossus in his living room and strikes its weak points with a poster tube, he is recreating the art that is Shadow of the Colossus. If I go and write a from-the-future general review of Project RS3, am I an impatient fanboy who thinks he knows what he's talking about, or am I an appreciator of art just the same as that boy who calls his dog "Agro?"

Knowing Treasure, I'm happy to announce that I can't predict what they will do with this game. Being unpredictable is their staple. They've consistently been pushing innovation against limitations (and accepted limitations) since the days of the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive, as I aim to please the international readers out there). They themselves probably aren't too sure what it is that will be RS3 - not until countless variations and experiments are carried out to see what works, what doesn't, and what will ultimately be something we've all been waiting for.

It's all very exciting, but in accordance with the mystery of the company (and all three of its interviews with the public in the last 10 years), the timelessness of patience is the real winner here. I believe the team for RS3 is currently finishing up Sin & Punishment 2 for Wii (the only reason for dusting off my white underdog in 2009), so at least we'll have something in which to indulge, other than lamenting the beast that is Longai-O.

For those out of the know, Project RS2 was later to be known as Ikaruga, though it shares no direct sequel status with RS1. The same goes for RS3, which will undoubtedly don a new title and feature something drastically different than what its predecessors offered. However, it was stated that the game would continue in the tradition of being top-down, vertically-scrolling, with 3D backgrounds, etc. Those are pretty much the backbones, while the rest of the game is a delightful mystery. Although I feel it's safe to say that this guy will make another triumphant return. That and the epitome of all crystalized evil there is in the world.

I have no footage to show, no screenshots, no mockups, no anything. All I can add to this post is a deep breath of fresh air (reader participation dependent), exhaled with a slight twinkle of thought that surrounds the fact that one of these days, the world will be graced by the beauty of Project RS3 (I sometimes wonder if Treasure developers read these kinds of things and take into account how much their pocket-sized community of fans adores their work).

Oh, and Gradius V is art, too.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sinistar: Things I just can't do.

Just before the end of the first videogame boom, right before everyone thought that "fad" of going to arcades and hooking up interactive video machines to your TVs was just about dead, along came Sinistar, a game designed to instill fear in the minds of children, young adults, and grown-ups alike (or designed to allow you to destroy the greatest entity of evil so-far discovered in the universe; whichever). The game has certainly been ringing in my ears ever since. And I hadn't even been born at the time.

Now, when speaking of "things I just can't do," I'm referring to two very important senses of the human body: sound and touch (thank goodness technology prohibited the scent of Sinistar's eager appetite for U.S. quarters). Let's get touch out of the way, as we all know what sound(s) play an important role in the world of entertainment (even more so than that Wilhelm scream found in every Star Wars movie / videogame / television show / comicbook / cardgame).

Sinistar was the first game to use the 49-way joystick. Holy cow. Fourty-nine ways. I tried really hard to think of any more directions than the standard 8-way joystick already provided that could benefit the player's maneuvering through a starfield. A little Googling and it turns out it's just a 7x7 grid that's more accurate in reading the standard 8 directions. Still nifty. Anyway, the only upright cabinet experience I have available at the moment is in one of those 5billion-in-one machines that seem to think splotching together marquee art from every game into one hectic collage of action is a great marketing strategy to get people to come over and play. Regardless, it uses one kind of joystick to allow control for a wide array of different games. I think it's only a four-way stick, as I can't seem to move diagonally in any game that should allow it (thank you, Galaga, for restricting me to one dimension of movement). For those keeping track, that's 45 ways of direction I'm being deprived of when playing Sinistar. Needless to say, for a game designed around precision movement, being able to move in only four directions makes for some challenging play. I doubt it's just me that's causing almost every sinibomb to collide with a planetoid instead of that glass-jawed mechanical life vaccuum.

And now onto sound.

There's really only one other scream in my life I can't get out of my head that makes me just feel bad on the inside whenever I hear it, that being the howl of becoming a wolf in Altered Beast. It might have been the sudden drop of music for the audio clip, or how the transition animation was just a flickering bird-in-cage setup to make me think the human and wolf were one-in-the-same. Regardless, the event was a positive one, as it meant the player had maxed out his or her powerups and was ready to go beat the life out of Fester Addams.

So, there may be seven very notable quotables to come out of Sinistar's planetoid hole, but the one I speak of is the yell he emits upon eating your ship. It's offensive; it's evil; it's blood-curdling; it's perfect. It makes me want to blow his face up (I love how grammatically incorrect that sounds, yet veterans may have trouble putting it any more accurately). His death call is even in stereo, another feature first seen in Sinistar. There's some dandy fansites out there, as well as an ingenius article titled "The Philosophical Revelations of Sinistar," referring to the character itself, though I must give credit to Noah Falstein for the work he did overseeing the game's completion.

And speaking of Noah Falstein, this here videoclip from ages past refers to an easter-egg hidden in the game. Deep in the game. So deep, in fact, that it isn't really documented anywhere that I can find. Well, anywhere except for an informal interview with Noah from sometime in the (I presume) 90s where he says, "There's an easter egg hidden in the attract mode, triggered by an odd combination of button presses that we've all forgotten, but soon I may have the chance to rediscover it..." I'm sure he's been bugged about this time and time again, but I feel the need to ask once more (because I have a good feeling he's reading this right now) - What is the easter-egg hidden within Sinistar?

There's a good chance this one will never be surfaced, much like the quest to find out what the common thread was between all of those Half-Life 2 teaser videos from 2003-04. It wasn't "the presence of broken toilets," and Gabe Newell's certainly not spilling the beans, so if anyone finds out, please do me a favor and fill me in.

Instead of just showing gameplay to the video, I'll link to a bunch of things - all surrounding Sinistar culture (yes, it's out there).
- Some gameplay (love those explosion sounds)
- The Seven Phrases of Sinistar
- Drum n Bass mix
- and another mix
- Sheena Easton music video where her boyfriend plays Sinistar?

And Noah, if you're reading this:
On the contrary; It was you who made my day.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Battle Garegga: More pink flamingos, please

I don't know about you, but when I play shmups, I hold the fire button down until I either get a Game Over or beat the game. I capitalized "Game Over" because it is most definitely a proper noun. It's the last thing you see upon every play, and all-too likely, the most visible memory you have when thinking back to certain experiences (I shake my fist at thee, Andross). In the case of Ikaruga, the way the game is frozen while you enter your initials (or "AAA" in a fit of rage from missing that 4 mil mark on Chapter 1) and then reanimates back into motion with a mechanical buzzing sound of defeat is all it takes to make me want to come back and prove the game wrong. At least in Ikaruga, I know it's possible to come back and do better and get a little farther. At least the game is beatable when I do my best. I wish I could say the same for Battle Garegga.

Developed by Raizing, the game is one of those pivotal entries in the genre that helped define all of that manic craziness that we know and love. It apparently was a heavy inspiration for DoDonPachi's golden joyride, so why not love it, too? Probably because it hates you. I speak of course of the rank system in the game, an invisible collection of algorithms designed to slowly deteriorate you from the inside-out. Sure, rank systems are in all kinds of games, not just shmups. GTA IV has a dynamic system that changes the difficulty of missions based on how many tries it takes you to complete them. Left 4 Dead heavily uses a ranking system that fluctuates difficulty in real-time based on how well your party knows how to avoid being vomitted on. So why point out Battle Garegga's rank? Because if you just hold down the fire button, dodge every bullet, and collect every power-up, the game will become literally impossible to beat. It simply cannot be done. And it's all thanks to the omni-present rank which oversees your every move.

Unfortunately, the dedicated community over at the shmups.com forums have collected a compendium of knowledge around this one aspect of the game. Unfortunate, in how I now know just what goes into deciding the rank (quick summary: everything). Let's start with collectibles. If you touch a power-up, rank goes up. That goes for weapons upgrades, options (helper pods at your side), bombs, medals, and auto-fire upgrades (big no-no on touching those). If you shoot a bullet, rank goes up. If you use special bullets, rank goes up. Using a bomb, gaining a life, beating a boss, simply existing; it doesn't matter. Rank goes up (Yes, simply existing without dying makes rank go up). The list goes on. Rank is even so evil that it will sneak its way into your next play session, requiring a reset of the ROM or PCB or whatever you may be using to play it in order to get it back to default. The only true way, in fact, that lowers your rank is to die (what a wonderful lesson this game teaches us about life and its hardships). The less lives you have when you die, the further the rank is reduced (excluding having 1 life left, at which point dying will inevitably give the game another chunk of your soul).

This may be bleak news, to find that anything you do in the game in order to survive and get ahead only pushes you further back. If I recall correctly, the final boss to Final Fantasy VII had a similar fate if you maxed out your characters' stats, rendering the battle impossible to win (making it even more ironic that the very final battle with Sephiroth is impossible to lose). I suppose on the bright side with Garegga, you don't have to invest dozens of hours into one game with no backup saves only to find that you can't beat it; that realization takes only a few minutes. The best way to play (i.e. complete) the game is to take your time collecting power-ups, avoiding certain power-ups altogether, only shooting when necessary, etc. Players going for score use this same recipe, though they incessantly dangle their fragile progress in front of the rank system, pushing it as far as it can go without causing an implosion of the game and its local universe.

Fortunately, as with almost all games in existence, there are a few tricks to getting an upper hand. There's a few sneaky ways to exploit massive point gain with some later bosses. My personal favorite is by hassling a flock of pink flamingos that found refuge in a castle, shrouded by a small forest, in the first half of level 2. Your fire disrupts their peace, forcing them to migrate north, at which point spraying them with more bullets / fire can cause your score to become an overnight millionaire. None of them seem to be harmed, so it's okay that I mention finding extreme joy in sending a flamethrowing special move into their haven.

I originally thought this game would be an ideal place to go for a good ole 1CC. Further reading made me not back off, but rather take my time with pacing if I ever wanted a shot at seeing some sort of credits roll. That rank system is just about as in-your-face as Sinistar's ego-centric taunts. At least Sinistar eventually shows his ugly grin.

Because showing a skillful run of this game is a slow and flavor-filled art, even under my respectful gaze, I'll just show you those awesome flamingos instead. They may be hard to see, but they're all flapping away from 0:28 to 0:38.

And finally, I wish the best of luck to Zakk from Hey Poor Player! in his endeavors to get a 1CC in Battle Garegga.