Wednesday, August 16, 2017

2017-08-16 Solar Eclipse

In case you haven’t heard, there’s going to be a solar eclipse next week.
Considering how rarely they happen, it is a bit of a big deal. Solar eclipses are far from frequent, and being within a few miles of the path of totality is obviously even more rare. It’s something I want to take advantage of, since it won’t happen again for a long time, and next time would require actual travel plans.


Eclipse glasses have been selling like hotcakes everywhere, and most places seem to be completely sold out. Optometrist offices are giving them out to patients only. Any stores with free displays have been out for at least a week at this point. People are going mad on social media trying to figure out other options.
My mother asked me 2 weeks ago to grab her a pair from a local apparel store that was advertising free glasses. We were tied up for a few days, so I put it off until some time last week. We went by the store, but the sign on the front door indicated that they were out of stock. Well, that’s unfortunate, but I’m sure other places in Spartanburg have some.
On Friday, I decided to spend my lunch break finding some of these glasses. I started driving toward the closest Walmart, and began calling places that might have some. Local libraries were saving them for their viewing parties during the eclipse. Chain stores for glasses and lenses were sold out, but directed me to local optometrists. These local optometrists had some, but were only giving them out to current patients. When I got to Walmart, they were out of stock, as were all of the other Walmart stores that I called.
Finally, some kind soul at one of the various places I called informed me that Croft State Park had some for sale. I called, expecting to be told that they were fresh out. Fortunately, they still had plenty and were selling them for $2 each. Despite the fact that Croft was about a 15 minute drive from my current location, and there was no way I’d get back to work within my hour lunch break, I stormed off to my car and flew out of the Walmart parking lot.
As I drove out toward Croft, clouds rolled in and it started to rain. The deeper I got into the state park, the harder the rain poured. I’ve never been to Croft before, so I didn’t really know where I was going, or even if the map point that I was navigating to was the same place that would have the glasses for sale. Eventually, the trees opened up and I came upon an intersection with a small log cabin on one corner. This was also the place that my phone was taking me to, so surely I could at least get more information inside.
On the way through the forest, it occurred to me that our plan to get glasses at the viewing party with The Children’s Museum was not guaranteed. The event was open to anyone with a TCM membership (as far as I knew), so feasibly thousands of people could show up. Who’s to say that TCM had purchased enough glasses to go around? Who’s to say we couldn’t show up too late, and be left with no way to safely view the eclipse. Instead of just buying 2 pair of glasses for my mother and one of her coworkers, I’d buy at least 4 more for my immediate family.
When I got inside, there were 2 ladies chatting. One asked what I needed, and I mentioned that I spoke with someone a few minutes ago about eclipse glasses. Coincidentally, one of the ladies was the same one that I talked to on the phone before. And lo and behold, they still had eclipse glasses. I asked the lady if she had at least 10 I could buy, and they did. With that many, I had enough for my mother, my own crew, and 4 more just in case someone else needed a few.

Viewing Party

As for where to watch, we’ve decided to go to The Children’s Museum. We already have memberships, so entry is free. Not only that, but they’re supposedly giving out glasses to everyone who comes. Again, I’ve bought enough for my family, but those are a backup option. Nobody is going to know that we have those until I try to get the ones that TCM should be giving out for free.
My employer has announced that they’ll be doing a viewing party outside for the few minutes of the eclipse, but there are a few problems with that. One, I work in Spartanburg, which is outside the path of totality. With an event this rare, do you really think I’m going to accept a sub-par experience when I could go a little ways southwest and get the full show? Of course not.
Several other places have announced that they’ll be hosting viewing parties, but I figured TCM is our best bet with kids. It is both educational, and in a prime location to see the spectacle. I’m not looking forward to traffic in the area, since it has been estimated to be about the same as 3 Clemson football games letting out at the same time. I hate traffic, and trying to find a place to park, but I’ll put up with it for something like this.

Hopefully, this time next week, we will have seen the solar eclipse and not have any damaged retinas. I might try to snap a few pictures and videos, but I’ll mostly leave that to the professionals. There will undoubtedly be people with better cameras, more skill, and better views, creating better photos and videos of this event than mine. YouTube it in a few weeks and I guarantee you’ll find some impressive footage.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV is an action RPG released on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2016. The most recent game in the Final Fantasy series, it has also been one of the most commercially successful Final Fantasy games. Due to a number of different circumstances, FFXV was in development for a decade, an eternity for game development time frames. Does the latest Final Fantasy game stand up that well against the rest of the series, or do the massive sales just reflect fan hype for the long-awaited release?

Story - 7/10

The story of FFXV was surprisingly good, given how cookie cutter the stories of the JRPG genre tend to be. Most could be summed up as, “an unlikely group of individuals band together to save the world.” In contrast, FFXV is filled with nuance, and more poignant interactions between characters. As much as the game starts off with a sort of “hanging out with my bros” feeling, it genuinely builds to something more significant and touching.
Every character in the main cast of FFXV has a depth and individuality that I haven’t seen in a game in a long time. Even without the tie-in content of the anime and other media, the characters seem so real and relatable. They have personality, they have quirks, they have skeletons in their closets. Some of the setbacks that the party experiences seem so much more devastating when they feel like people you actually know. Through the course of the story, every character experiences an absurd amount of growth and evolution. Watching this change, while following the party along their journey, is just such a joy.
As much as the playable area of FFXV feels small, I do like that it seems convincing. Instead of having a suspiciously linear sequence of towns and areas, Lucis is mostly open. There is a region of Lucis that is blocked off until a certain point in the story, but otherwise, it is primarily an open world that players can explore at their leisure. There are larger cities, smaller towns, and all the sorts of areas that one would expect in a real place. It just makes sense. The world of Eos isn’t my favorite Final Fantasy locale, but I did enjoy exploring it.
Length of FFXV is extremely variable, depending on how much players gravitate toward the main quest line. If you do only the core story, you could probably beat the game in 20 hours or so. I did a balanced mix of story and side quests, and finished the game in about 50 hours. Upon finishing the main quest, players can go back to complete other side quests, work on collectibles. Overall, you could probably sink somewhere in the ballpark of 80 to 100 hours for everything. I wouldn’t say this gives FFXV much replayability, but you can spend a lot of time doing non-story content.
The reason that I dock pretty much every point that I did from a perfect 10 on story is the existence of “Final Fantasy XV Universe.” This is a collection of extra tie-in material to explain more about the story of FFXV. In my opinion, any game should be able to stand alone and fully tell its story. Sure, you can add DLC to extended stories, or extra content, but the core game should be able to stand alone. While FFXV *can* stand alone, there is a huge amount of story content that is just entirely bypassed. If you want the full story, you have to play the demo, watch the movie, watch the anime, play the arcade game, and play the mobile game. For me, that is absolutely inexcusable. I understand that it allows Square Enix to recycle content from the decade-long development process that would otherwise be wasted, but I don’t want to play and watch so much other stuff just to get the full story for a single video game. I watched the anime, but I’m not wasting my time on all of the other media. I got from the story what the game gave me, and that’s all I’m bothering with.

General Gameplay - 7/10

Navigation in FFXV is pretty interesting. For most of the game, you use the Regalia as your primary mode of transportation. Players can either drive it themselves with Noctis in the driver’s seat, or pick a location on the map and have Ignis automatically navigate to it. Considering how long the load times are for the game, this usually ends up being faster than quick traveling. Something that isn’t offered by many games, especially those with such beautiful scenery, it’s nice to just sit back and look around as Iggy takes you to your destination.
Menus are mostly straightforward. The map is nice, in that you can scroll around manually, or step through a list of destinations. Items are sortable, and the “tactical” menu in combat can be stacked in whatever order you want. The Ascension grid is where you can spend AP to unlock sequential nodes of power ups. One menu that I didn’t really enjoy was the equipment screen. It isn’t very clear what you have equipped versus what you have selected for individual equipment types. Even when you understand that, I couldn’t find an easy way to determine stat changes for weapons and accessories without unequipping and then re-equipping them. Nothing terrible, but it does get annoying with as much as you might need to change equipment.
Inventory management isn’t much of an issue, since I didn’t encounter any limit on number of unique items, or how many items can be in a stack. While I never bought as many items as I could to try to max anything out, I consistently had enough items for use in combat without hitting a cap on them.
There aren’t many collectibles in the game, but there are several “Royal Arms” that can be obtained for extra benefits. Some are rather easy to obtain, others are pretty difficult. All in all, I think those have a good balance of difficulty and reward. The only unfortunate thing is that there are only 13 of them, so players who want more collectibles might be disappointed.
While variety may seem to be unnecessary, Square Enix decided to throw a stealth level in near the very end of the game. Early adopters hated the chapter, as it added entirely new game mechanics that made absolutely no sense. As such, Square Enix later changed the chapter to make it less cumbersome and offer an alternative route, but the decision to include it at all makes absolutely no sense.

Combat - 7/10

I make it no secret that I hate action RPG combat. For me, turn-based is the best way to experience an RPG. I’ll play action RPGs here and there, but most of them are just alright in my mind. Fortunately, the combat of FFXV was done really well in my mind. It isn’t quite button mash-y, but you also don’t have to be super precise and skillful with your inputs. Different weapon types have different mobility options, and there is an interesting dynamic between what you prefer to use as a player, and what individual enemies are weak to.
In addition to weapon resistance and immunity, most enemies also have weakness and resistance to elemental attacks. Elemancy in FFXV consists of combining elemental essence with items, and storing them in flasks. A flask can only have up to 3 casts of a particular spell, and each flask takes up one of your 4 maximum weapon slots. This means you can only have a single non-elemancy weapon equipped, if you have each of the 3 elements equipped. Changing equipment can be done on the fly, but it can also be really annoying to have to do it frequently to match.
Once you get the Ultima Weapon, you can mostly ignore the rest of the weapons and elements. For better or for worse, the damage of Ultima pretty much outweighs any sort of weaknesses and resistances otherwise. I probably spent the last quarter of the game with only Ultima equipped and had no issues that made me want to equip anything else. It’s broken, but that also means I don’t have to bother with swapping and type matching for every single enemy encounter.

Difficulty - 5/10

Unlike most previous Final Fantasy games, FFXV actually has difficulty levels. Easy mode makes Noctis effectively invincible, while normal mode does allow the party to die. The main benefit to playing on a difficulty higher than easy is a late-game trophy that requires the player to beat a certain boss without easy mode.
Otherwise, I think FFXV has a good difficulty level. Some criticize it for being too easy, but it isn’t so easy that hardcore players should be disappointed. I think it simply makes the game more approachable for new players. The game is, after all, “a Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers.” Most of the core content can be finished without much hassle, but the non-story content can be deceptively hard. It all depends on how much of the game you want to complete.

Graphics - 10/10

Despite my criticisms of the game, I will note that it is gorgeous. The environments are luscious and colorful. Enemies are varied and well-animated. As I mentioned before, it’s nice to just let Ignis drive and watch the water and the rolling hills of the Lucis region. I’m not one to typically care much about graphics, but FFXV is one of the best looking games I’ve ever played.

Music - 9/10

The music of FFXV is honestly fantastic. The original music for the game is great, but they also added in-game items that unlock music from previous Final Fantasy games to be played in the Regalia. FFVII is a favorite of most players, and you can live up that nostalgia by having the music played while driving around. If you like some of the more forgotten games of the series like FFIX, you can pick those tracks up as well. In addition the the score of FFXV and previous games that were included, there is also a cover of “Stand by Me,” performed by Florence + The Machine. I don’t even like that band, but their cover is simply amazing.

My Take

The Good

I wanted to hate the game for being an action RPG, but it ended up being nowhere near as bad as I anticipated. Fortunately, the story and characters make up for it by a huge margin.

The Bad

No single video game should take 10 years to develop.

The Ugly

I maintain my position that tie-in content is absolutely awful, and should never be used in lieu of fully telling a story within a game.

Overall - 7/10

While I originally had low hopes for FFXV, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally played it. The story is great, besides the terrible decision to spread it out across multiple titles. The combat, despite it being an action RPG, really isn’t bad. The difficulty makes it approachable for long-time veterans of the series, as well as those who have never touched a Final Fantasy game. Graphics are music are absolutely incredible, and easily add to the appeal of the game. It definitely isn’t my favorite Final Fantasy game, but it was certainly an enjoyable play.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: Ratchet & Clank (2016)

Ratchet & Clank released in 2016 is a PS4 “reimagining” of the original “Ratchet & Clank released on PS2 in 2002. Serving as “the game, based on the movie, based on the game,” is Ratchet & Clank (2016) a solid addition to the series, or a shameless ploy to milk more money from the series in the wake of the movie?

Story - 9/10

The story of Ratchet & Clank works surprisingly well, with how it is framed as a recollection from the present. I wasn’t a huge fan of one significant deviation from the story of the original (something I won’t spoil for those who haven’t played it), but the story does stand on its own very well. Recurring characters of the series stay true to their personalities, while still managing to seem fresh and interesting. Long time fans will appreciate cameos and nods, but new players aren’t bombarded with jokes that they don’t understand. The balance of old and new is near perfect.
As the series has progressed, Insomniac Games has done a remarkable job of giving depth and detail to characters. Ratchet and Clank have become individually more interesting, and their relationship more nuanced. The other characters that they encounter have a palpable reality. Even if the game doesn’t give an explicit background for every character that the player encounters, it genuinely feels like they belong. Every important character experiences a sort of growth as the game progresses. Both intrinsically within the character, and externally via what the player learns about them, there is a great amount of change in characters across the course of the game.
One of the most vivid features of every game in the Ratchet & Clank series is the setting, and the reimagined 2016 release is no different. Every world has a story, and each planet exists in a sort of cohesive net of interconnectivity. These aren’t individual places, cut off from everywhere else. The entire galaxy is a living ecosystem, and each planet is firmly a part of the galaxy, despite having their own distinctive environments. Even outside the playable area, these cities and places seem full and complete.
The length of the game is one of the best in the series. While some Ratchet games have tended to be too short, and others have felt too lengthy, the 2016 title just feel right. Each planet has enough material to let you fully explore, but not so much that you get bored of a place before moving to the next location.
Replay value is spectacular is always great in Ratchet & Clank games, the 2016 version included. With challenge mode, there is a risk reward factor where enemies are more powerful, but sequential kills without getting hit give a multiplier to the bolts you earn. Couple that with the beefed up versions of weapons that you can unlock and purchase, there is genuinely a compelling reason to play the game through another time or two in order to obtain and upgrade everything.

General Gameplay - 9/10

With a number of different vehicles and transportation methods, gameplay in Ratchet & Clank is extremely varied. As Ratchet, there are platforming segments to jump around on, grind rails to slide through levels, jetpacks to fly freely, and a number of Clank mobility tools. In addition to what Ratchet and Clank can accomplish on their own, there are hoverboard races and ship segments that have their own mechanics. Having so many different styles of gameplay makes the game continuously interesting.
Like other games in the series, there are numerous collectibles and bonus content in Ratchet & Clank. There are gold bolts scattered across the game, that reward the player with unlockable skins for Ratchet. Skill points have been excluded from this game, replaced with PSN trophies. Such an exclusion is unfortunate, but expected, given that trophies and skill points were basically redundant forms of the same mechanic.
Controls in this Ratchet & Clank are extremely tight. Where previous games in the series have relied heavily on aiming assist for the shooting mechanics, the lock strafe mode of Ratchet & Clank (2016) works particularly well. It’s nice to still have a pretty liberal amount of aiming assist, since the game is far from most first person or over-the-shoulder shooters of today.
As for the currency, the balance of bolts to the cost of items is one of the best I’ve seen in the series. Weapons aren’t prohibitively expensive, but they also aren’t handed out like candy. You can prioritize which ones to buy first, but you’ll easily make enough bolts to buy all weapons without an excessive amount of grinding.

Combat - 9/10

The combat of Ratchet & Clank is all about big guns and big explosions. Fortunately, the weapon selection is really good, and every gun is reasonably useful. Unlike previous games that had a few great weapons and a bunch of mostly useless weapons, none of the weapons in the 2016 game are notably bad. Some are obviously better than others, but none of them are specifically annoying or worthless.
One thing that has been improved drastically in Ratchet & Clank (2016) is the ability to combo weapons and items. In previous games, there wasn’t much overlap between the effects of weapons. At most, you could throw some turrets and then switch to another weapon. With items like the Groovitron and Proton Drum, you can combine the effects of weapons for a more useful combination. The whole, in this case, is greater than the sum of the parts.
Amidst all of the things that Ratchet & Clank (2016) did well, ammo drops are painfully rare in boss fights. Through most of the game, there are enough ammo crates to keep a reasonable amount of firepower. Even if you burn through ammo at a faster pace than what the game gives you, you can buy more at vendors. In a boss fight, however, you’re stuck with what you have and what you pick up in the arena. As you improve weapons, this becomes less of a problem, and challenge mode basically removes it completely if you’ve been upgrade your weapons sufficiently. The first few fights in the game, however, can be pretty tight on ammo.

Difficulty - 4/10

Unlike previous games in the series, Ratchet & Clank offers multiple difficulty levels besides the step up for challenge mode. Every game in the series has been traditionally pretty easy, but it’s nice to see them offer more of a challenge for veterans of the series.
The game is still pretty lenient. Dying puts you back to the previous checkpoint, and there are numerous checkpoints in every level. There are no lives, so you can die as much as you want without a more severe penalty. Some segments can be tough in the later game, but the presence of so many checkpoints means they aren’t terribly inconvenient. Don’t go into the game looking for something genuinely difficult. It began as a game made more for younger teens, so forgive it for being easier than, say, Dark Souls.

Graphics - 10/10

The visuals of Ratchet & Clank are absolutely beautiful. Planets are lush, and rich, and just spectacular. Instead of limiting what players can see the only the playable area, Insomniac Games went the other direction and pretty much created an entire world that players can only reach part of. The backgrounds are full of activity, with buildings and landscapes, and often actual moving points. Everything looks crisp and clean, and somehow manages to avoid lag. The entire series is probably one of the environmentally complete that I’ve ever played, and the 2016 title stays true to that vision.

Music - 7/10

Ratchet & Clank (2016) is one of the few games in the series without music by David Bergeaud. Regretfully, this change in composers is noticeable. The music still isn’t bad, but it is nowhere near as atmospheric and fitting as Bergeaud’s music for previous games. As it is, the music in this game is good, but not great. Certainly nothing that will stand out to a player outside of playing the game.

My Take

The Good

All around solid game, from gameplay to story and everything in between.

The Bad

There were some big story changes from the original, which makes it less of a true retelling.

The Ugly

Ratchet & Clank as a series has a definite formula, and the 2016 title thoroughly sticks to this formula without adding anything new.

Overall - 9/10

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for some Ratchet & Clank games. Exploring vibrant, beautiful worlds and blowing things up has always been a blast, and they have a formula that works time and time again. Remasters and re-releases can be cop-out ways to milk money from a series, but this is different. It’s a neat way for original fans to look back on the beginnings and see how far the series has come. Simultaneously, it’s a good entry point for new fans to get a taste of the series and learn some background, without actually playing through some of the more cumbersome early games. Insomniac Games didn’t take any risky steps to push the series into new territory, but they did make a great game with the same style as previous titles in the series. I can’t say with certainty that Ratchet & Clank (2016) is my favorite in the series, but it is absolutely a great game and I think anybody would have a good time with it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review: Pokemon Red and Blue

“Pokemon Red” and “Pokemon Blue” are an RPG pair released on the Game Boy in 1996 in Japan, and 1998 in North America. They have since spawned a huge following, and a number of different sequels, spin-offs, and more. However, were the original games really all that good? Do we remember them with nostalgia because of the quality of the sequels, or were the first generation games as great as fans remember them being?

Story - 8/10

The story of Pokemon Red and Blue is inspiring, if not entirely believable. A young boy goes on a journey to capture a team of Pokemon, and take on the Pokemon League. Along the way, he meets new friends, explores the world, and defeats an entire criminal organization. A kid, typically accepted as 10 years old, takes down a crime boss and all of Team Rocket. It’s far-fetched, but boy if it doesn’t send kids a strong message of “you can do anything you set your mind to.”
The characters of Pokemon Red and Blue are entertaining, if predictable. The protagonist is shallow and ambiguous, nothing more than a persona for the player to don. This is, after all, your own adventure. Professor Oak is the scholarly type, and a source of motivation for your journey. Blue, or whatever the player chooses to name the antagonist, is less of the “bad guy,” and more of the “you’re a jerk and I want to put you in your place” character. The characters never really deviate from these roles, but I don’t think it’s necessary for them to. The entire premise of Pokemon Red and Blue is more about the player and protagonist, and their own personal journey. You don’t really need depth or evolution in characters, as long as the roles are in place.
Despite the simplistic limitations of the Game Boy as a platform, the region of Kanto somehow manages to appear real and lifelike (and apparently parallels the Kantō region of Japan). There are dense forests, dark caves, wide swaths of ocean, and everything in between. The port city of Vermilion almost gives off the familiar scent of the ocean. Celadon genuinely feels like a busy shopping mecca.
One of the most beautiful things about Pokemon Red and Blue is how variable the length is. Just getting through the main story, defeating all the gym leaders and the elite four, can reasonably be done in 20-30 hours. Putting in the effort to actually complete the Pokedex and build up a team to battle with others can easily tack on a hundred hours. It all depends on what you want out of the game.
Pokemon games in general have a great replay value, and Red and Blue are no exception. With the main story being so much shorter than an average length RPG, players can go back through without much investment. And with the variety of Pokemon species and moves, each play through can be vastly different. Even beyond the initial choice between the 3 starter Pokemon, what you catch and how you train it is wide open.

General Gameplay - 8/10

Getting around in Pokemon Red and Blue is straightforward, with all the options you would expect of an RPG. There is a bicycle that players can access early in the game, which doubles movement speed. Somewhere before halfway, you can get the hidden machine for Fly, and teach it to a Pokemon, in order to fly to any previously visited place. This really makes fast travel believable. You don’t just stumble upon an airship, or imply that the protagonist physically traveled the distance in the blink of an eye. With the size of bird Pokemon, it seems perfectly reasonable that these birds might be able to carry a child quickly from one place to another. Plus, you don’t just always have the capability to fast travel. Specifically, you must have a Pokemon in your party that knows Fly. This adds another level of complexity to team building, where players must plan for a Flying type Pokemon if they want to be able to fast travel at will. In addition to flying, the other hidden machine techniques of Cut, Surf, Strength, and Flash offer more options for overworld movement.
Inventory management is the one place that Pokemon Red and Blue really suffer. Every single item is collected into the same menu, and the number of inventory slots is very limited. Considering all the different healing items, the levels of Pokeballs, and all 50 TMs, there is a delicate balance between selling items, storing them in the PC, and keeping them in the bag. Many items are fortunately stackable, but I feel like this adds an unnecessary frustration to the game. Future Pokemon generations separated the bag into different pockets for different types of items, and eventually removed the item limit completely. While item storage is annoying in this generation, they did at least learn from their mistakes and vastly improve it in future generations.
While there aren’t necessarily collectible items in Pokemon Red and Blue, filling the Pokedex could be seen as a sort of collectible in and of itself. It isn’t necessary for game completion, and it takes quite a bit of effort beyond what is necessary to beat the Elite Four. I will say that the reward for collecting all 150 (151?) Pokemon is tremendously disappointing. The only thing players receive is a message of congratulations from the developers. No super powerful item, no secret story addition, just a pat on the back. It’s nice for bragging rights, but not much else.
Variety in gameplay stems from the multiple different goals the player can have in Pokemon Red and Blue. If your chief concern is beating the gyms and Elite Four, you can just power through the main story and knock out the trainers as quickly as possible. If you want to complete the Pokedex, you can take a break from strictly battling to look for rare Pokemon in the wild or train up ones that you’ve caught to evolve them. Most of the gameplay mechanics are the same across the board, but what you choose to do with them allows for some variation.
Pokemon games have always been one of my favorite examples of multiplayer. It isn’t necessary for game completion, but it also gives incentive beyond arbitrary levels or achievements. With the Pokedex, there are Pokemon that are exclusive to Red or Blue specifically, and you must trade with other players to obtain every Pokemon. If you don’t care about completing the Pokedex, this is inconsequential. As much as many of the exclusive Pokemon aren’t bad, they also aren’t necessary to build a solid team in either game. If, however, you do care about filling out the entire Pokedex, you absolutely have to have a friend with the other game. Beyond trading for completion, being able to battle allows players to test out their own parties against each other. There is no need to compare single player metrics to see who is the better player, you can go head to head with link cable battles. Again, it isn’t remotely necessary to enjoy the game on its own, but it does give incentive to continue playing the game with other people even after finishing the main campaign.

Combat - 8/10

I genuinely love the combat of Pokemon. As much as people tend to criticize Pokemon as being a franchise for kids, they have very solid RPG core elements. The balance of types, and how it’s like a massive web of rock-paper-scissors interactions. Instead of the 4 or so elemental types that most RPG combat uses, water, fire, ice, lightning (or some similar variation), Pokemon Red and Blue have a 15 type system. This was eventually bumped up to 18 types in subsequent games.
With a party of up to 6 Pokemon, the player must balance defences by knowing what their Pokemon are weak to, with offenses by equipping their Pokemon with powerful attacks. Each of these 6 Pokemon in the party can learn up to 4 moves. These moves can cause status ailments, damage, or stat alterations. Every damaging move has a type, and Pokemon using moves of their type get a 50% Same Type Attack Bonus (STAB) to its damage. With all of these facets in play, there is no perfect party of Pokemon. It all comes together in this delicate balance of maximizing your offensive capabilities without sacrificing your defenses.
While intricate and complex, the combat in Pokemon Red and Blue is extremely unbalanced. As much as I love the mechanics, they are broken in the first generation. Long time fans will know how overpowered Alakazam could be. With Special being a single stat, as opposed to physical being divided into Attack and Defense, Alakazam’s ridiculously high Special buffs both special attack and special defense. Additionally, it gets STAB from Psychic, which is an already broken move. With such a high Special and Speed, Psychic typing, and the STAB from Psychic move, Alakazam is completely broken. Level for level, it can dish out probably the highest damage of anything besides legendary Pokemon.

Difficulty - 6/10

The difficulty of Pokemon Red and Blue is a complex affair. While the combat is broken and easily taken advantage of, the difficulty outside of those tactics is actually some of the hardest in the series. The games do not hold the hands of players by offering free healing and navigation hints. Hence, Pokemon Red and Blue can be rather difficult the first time through, but become much easier as players learn the unstated tricks.
Besides the difficulty of combat, Pokemon Red and Blue are quite reasonable in punishing mistakes. Fainted Pokemon can be brought back with Revives either in or out of battle, provided the player has at least one more active Pokemon. If the player does lose all 6 Pokemon, the punishment is a percentage of their money, and a return trip to the most recently visited Pokemon Center. Considering the ample opportunity to spend money on items, this death fee could be inconsequentially small. The biggest frustration is to wipe out in some of the longer segments of the games, such as cave systems and hideouts. Still, all of the defeated trainers remain defeated, so the player just has to make their way back to where they were before.

Graphics - 7/10

The graphics of the entire Game Boy platform weren’t amazing, but you can’t blame the graphics for one game on limitations of the handheld. The sprites of individual Pokemon in battle look great, and I have to praise the designers for that. Every Pokemon has a unique sprite, and it is genuinely amazing what they were able to come up with for such limited hardware.
Everything else is completely lackluster, however. Environments are repetitive, with very few unique textures. People in the overworld all look nearly the same. The biggest problem in my mind, however, is how Pokemon in the party menu share sprites. There are 150 individual Pokemon species and… 10 sprites. If you’ve nicknamed your Pokemon, there is literally no way to know what type of Pokemon it is without actually looking at its details. I understand that with so few pixels per menu item, it would be difficult to make unique sprites for every single species. Still, it seems like they could’ve easily made more than just 10. Not everything in my party is a Rhydon.

Music - 8/10

The music of Pokemon Red and Blue is filled with memorable tunes. Especially the tracks for rival battles and gym leaders feel so intense. The theme from Lavender Town, probably one of the most iconic tracks in the entire Pokemon franchise, exudes remorse. There have been numerous tales and urban legends about children killing themselves after hearing the theme played backwards, and other such stories. Not to praise such tragedies (if they even did happen), the fact that music from such a limited platform is able to cause such a wide response is remarkable. The music in these games may be simplistic, but it is ridiculously catchy and occasionally haunting.

My Take

The Good

The very first Pokemon games did the RPG genre right, and set into motion what would eventually become an enormous intellectual property.

The Bad

These are clearly first generation (in every sense of that word) products. They can be clunky at times, and the combat is absolutely broken.

The Ugly

Going back to the very first entry of a decades old series in its original form is a shock from the polished suave of the modern Pokemon games.

Overall - 8/10

Pokemon Red and Blue are flawed masterpieces. They reflect a level of genius that has taken decades to fully realize. The massive market for Pokemon games, shows, movies, and merch is clear evidence of that. What began as one man’s desire to make a game based on his hobby of bug collecting has turned into a household name across the globe. The first two Pokemon games aren’t nearly as polished as the modern games, they don’t have the bells and whistles introduced in later generations, and the combat is far from balanced. However, for a first generation title, they are absolutely remarkable. Beautiful in their simplicity, Pokemon games introduced a gateway to more mature RPG titles, and gave us characters who are still relatable so many years later.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: EarthBound

EarthBound” or “Mother 2” is a Japanese Role Playing Game released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1994. Originally not very popular, the game gradually developed a sort of cult following for its quirky story and interesting combat. Is EarthBound genuinely a great game, or are fans of it seeing through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia?

Story - 7/10

The story of EarthBound is undeniably the most distinctive facet. I have described it before as “a representation of how the culture of the United States is seen from the perspective of Japanese video game developers,” but even that doesn’t fully describe what EarthBound is. From one perspective, it is almost boringly typical of a JRPG. A great evil threatens the world, and a young boy is chosen by destiny to join with a group of friends and defeat this evil. The nuance, however, is just strikingly odd. It’s very much like asking someone who has never been to United States to describe Americana culture. They likely get the highlights and iconic pieces, but it isn’t anywhere near what you would get from asking someone born and raised in America.
The main cast of characters in EarthBound are almost placeholders, present only to give the player an opportunity to experience the game. Each character in the main party has a simple background given, but there is little to no character development over the course of the game. Besides meeting each other and becoming friends, there is no realization or growth as a result of the story events. The extent of the story’s resolution is basically, “Well, we saved the world. That was fun.” I wouldn’t say that I actively dislike the characters of EarthBound or that they aren’t memorable to a degree. It’s more that the game doesn’t explore the characters enough to make them any more than mild acquaintances to the player. I have a hard time getting emotionally attached to such flat, static characters.
Oddly enough, the auxiliary characters of EarthBound are significantly more interesting than the main cast. Mr. Saturn, with their weird text font and wonky behavior, are lovable in the way that you can’t help getting attached to the strange-looking puppy in a litter of otherwise normal dogs. The Blues Broth- I mean, Runaway Five are always getting themselves into trouble, but somehow manage to come through for Ness and the gang when they need it most. I was tremendously more entertained by various characters you encounter in the game, than I was with the people you actually play as.
Speaking of the Blues Brothers, all of the pop culture nods in EarthBound manage to tread a thin line between blatant and obscure. If you know of the source material, a lot of moments in the game will give you a good chuckle. Instead, if you aren’t aware of the reference, you still don’t really miss much. The allusions aren’t shoehorned in at all, but they are good for bonus entertainment if you catch them.
The individual areas of EarthBound are surprisingly varied. Instead of simple color and sprite swaps, some areas have mechanics unique to one location. Such differences include making Ness and company much smaller on the screen to give the image of a larger world, or having areas darked out to make them more difficult to navigate. For the era, this sort of variety is absolutely astounding in my mind.
I never noticed a play time indicator in EarthBound, but the length feels appropriate. There are 8 main areas in the game, with a little bit of buffer between each area. I don’t know how many hours I spent playing, but there was enough material that I didn’t feel it was cut short, nor was I ever just dying for it to end. It would’ve been nice to have some extra optional content, but I can’t complain about the length of the core content.
Replay value for EarthBound, as with many games of the RPG genre, is minimal. Once you’ve experienced the story, there isn’t much incentive to go through it again. There is only one ending, and no decisions within the game that have any bearing on the story. It’s nice to go along for the ride, but at the end of the day, you don’t really have any reason to play it again.

General Gameplay - 7/10

Navigation in EarthBound is simple, but in a good way. The first few areas of the game are in a scripted order, and the game throttles you in order to teach you the mechanics and build up a party. After maybe halfway through, you unlock an ability to return to any prior area. The best part about the navigation is basically that you don’t notice it. You just play the game, and things happen in a way that feels right.
Inventory management is slightly tactical, but also slightly annoying. Each character can only hold so many items, and players can only use items in battle that they are holding. If a character dies in battle, their items are off limits. This wouldn’t be that much of a problem, except that there are key items that only Ness can hold. There are enough spots that you can play through the game without much hassle, provided you regularly sell off items you won’t need, but it is something that must be handled. Equipping gear can be a bit of a pain, since players need to be holding the item before they can equip it.
As I mentioned before, there isn’t any sort of optional content in EarthBound. Hence, there aren’t any collectibles either. The benefit of this is that you don’t have to read up on missable items and pay attention to what you have and haven’t picked up. The downside is that when you beat the game, it’s just done.
Enemy encounters are one of the best aspects of EarthBound. Enemies have sprites in the world, and only trigger an encounter if they touch you. This mechanic offers a lot of variety to how you play the game. When you enter an area, if you don’t like the spawn pattern, you can just leave and return to try for new enemies. This also works within the same area if you have enough distance. Beyond managing what enemies appear, the game has a system where enemies can actively pursue you or flee from you. If you’ve reached a high enough level, depending on the enemy, they will run away from you. This makes it much easier to get around in previous areas, so that you don’t have to deal with repetitive encounters that will yield very little reward.

Combat - 10/10

The combat in EarthBound is quite possibly the best turn-based combat I’ve ever played. The game employs a “rolling HP meter,” which means that an attack’s damage takes real time to fully apply. There are numerous enemies that deliver a powerful final attack as they die, but you can avoid most of the damage if you quickly exit the battle. Furthermore, a player that would have normally died from an attack can be saved if healed before their HP hits zero. This gives players incentive to be quick with their actions in certain situations, but they can just as easily play at their own pace and have the damage of an attack applied normally.
EarthBound also employs a system of early attacks or ambushes depending on how Ness hits the enemy’s sprite. If Ness hits the enemy head on, or by most angles to the side, the battle starts normally with both the player and enemy getting a full turn. If an enemy hits Ness from behind, the enemy gets a full ambush turn before the player gets a chance to attack. Alternatively, if Ness hits an enemy from behind (which becomes significantly easier once enemies flee from him), the player gets a full turn of uninterrupted attacks. The fact that ambushes and pre-emptive strikes aren’t determined randomly, and that the player has a say in how they occur, is absolutely spectacular.

Difficulty - 4/10

The difficulty of EarthBound is moderate, and can be minimized with grinding. If you blow through without any grinding at all, the game can be harder, but still not necessarily hard. Plus, if everyone in the party dies, you can just “try again” from the beginning of the dungeon you were in. With the rolling HP meter, you can err on the side of caution and heal before most characters die anyway. I died a few times through the game, but most of them were due to me playing risky. None of my deaths were unfair, just a consequence of my play style.

Graphics - 7/10

EarthBound graphics stand out in their style, as compared to the anime style shared by most other games in the 16-bit RPG era. They’re simple, bright, and colorful. I wouldn’t describe them as notably “good,” but they also aren’t bad. On their own, the graphics are alright, but I respect that the designers didn’t go with the status quo and tried something a little more unique.

Music - 9/10

Often cited as a potential reason why the game went so long without a release or remaster on modern consoles, the music of EarthBound is absolutely fantastic. I could easily listen to the soundtrack on its own. Tracks for different areas just sound appropriate. Some are cheerful, some are eerie, and some are just strange. The best music in the game occurs during the Runaway Five and Venus shows. While the player won’t confuse these segments with actual recordings of live shows, the composer absolutely nailed the musical style.

My Take

The Good

Combat in EarthBound is fantastic, and I wish more games would emulate it. It’s the perfect balance between active and static.

The Bad

The main characters are boring, and the core of the story is the same as pretty much every JRPG that has ever been released.

The Ugly

It’s weird. For better or for worse, EarthBound is just a weird game.

Overall - 7/10

EarthBound is entertaining in its quirkiness. To call it “one of the most unique games of all time” would be absolutely true. To call it “one of the greatest,” is taking some liberties that I just don’t feel it deserves. Yes, I do think the combat and music are amazing, but I don’t think they make up for the characters and story. It is fun, no doubt, and I would say it is still completely worth playing. Just don’t go into it expecting something life changing, from the way the game’s cult following praises it. EarthBound is undeniably weird, and certainly good, but not quite great.