In the Groove — 2Q2019 issue

Groovy com­pe­ti­tion in rhythm game market

Just when Kon­ami thought it had the mar­ket cor­nered on rhythm games along came In the Groove. The series took the for­mula of timed arrows, music and dance charts and finessed it into bet­ter charts and sen­si­ble rat­ings; or, you know, things Kon­ami lacked after eight games. In the Groove didn’t nec­es­sar­ily per­fect the mar­ket prod­uct but it intro­duced com­pe­ti­tion in a nice pack­age that still holds up today.

ITG has the same for­mula as Dance Dance Rev­o­lu­tion: Arrows are timed to a song to rise (or drop, depend­ing on the song mod­i­fi­ca­tion used) to meet hold­ers. You’re judged on the tim­ing of your steps and either pass the song or fail based on the cumu­la­tive score and effect of your tim­ing. Let’s not get it twisted, though: DDR and ITG are the same thing. Given that ITG cribs a lot of its ele­ments from the orig­i­na­tor of the rhythm dance game genre, you aren’t likely to see any­thing new or mind-blowing when it comes to ITG.

Where ITG shines par­tic­u­larly, how­ever, is the inter­face and the song choices. There’s a lot to like in those dif­fer­ences. The song wheel inter­face — which presents songs for play — is crisp as are the song titles. The graph­ics appear to mimic the best parts of the DDR inter­face, which is help­ful since DDR made an ill-advised change to its look shortly after. It’s also the intri­cate details such as being able to see a song’s BPM while choos­ing song mods.

In the Groove’s musi­cal selec­tion is no slouch, either. Many songs sound like some­thing in DDR’s cat­a­log; for exam­ple, there’s a series of remixes that imme­di­ately calls to mind the Para­noia sig­na­ture series of DDR. There’s a lot to like with a vari­ety of gen­res represented.

ITG shines also in its acces­si­bil­ity: If you can play DDR, you’ll be able to pick up ITG. It’s not hard to under­stand since it’s using the same engine as DDR. How­ever, the main playa­bil­ity draw comes in its song charts. ITG’s song charts make sense and are intu­itive and aren’t hap­haz­ardly done or pun­ish­ing. The dif­fi­culty sys­tem also makes sense — intro­duc­ing charts with a higher dif­fi­culty than the stan­dard 10 level sys­tem that DDR used at the time — which is a must have in a danc­ing game.

While ITG is a wel­come change of pace from DDR, there are some nit­picks that bother me about the series in gen­eral. First, some of the song mods avail­able aren’t the most help­ful. I’m not keen on silly mods like mines being a default in songs. Thank­fully, there’s an option to turn off the mod, but it shouldn’t be a default part of songs at any dif­fi­culty. And, like­wise, the use of three and four arrows simul­ta­ne­ously — which requires a hand to hit at all arrows at once — is obnox­ious. If a song requires it, I usu­ally steer clear of it. That’s not good for the song list and replay value if I’m skip­ping tracks, and it’s damp­ens my enthu­si­asm for an oth­er­wise great soundtrack.

ITG gets its point across with inter­est­ing game­play addi­tions, a good sound­track and crisp inter­face. With a few more iter­a­tions of the series after its intro­duc­tion, ITG is great as an alter­na­tive on the rhythm game dance floor.

Wrath of the Black Manta — 2Q2019 issue

Ninja copy fails Black Manta

Peo­ple were appar­ently wild about nin­jas in the ’80s. Really wild. I’m guess­ing this because it seems to be a mil­lion and one games about nin­jas that were made in the 1980s. These were all made with var­i­ous degrees of suc­cess in get­ting the point across about the ninja expe­ri­ence. Out of the coterie there were two that stood out: Ninja Gaiden, a time­less clas­sic in the way of the ninja arts; and, Wrath of the Black Manta. Note that we did not use any sort of kind trib­ute for the lat­ter. There is myr­iad rea­sons for this distinction.

Wrath of the Black Manta is your stan­dard adven­ture game cen­tered on find­ing miss­ing chil­dren in New York City, the appar­ent bas­tion of all evil and where the most heinous crimes take place in the video game world. A drug fiend named El Toro is hell­bent on turn­ing these chil­dren into addicts and it’s up to you and your ninja skills to make Toro get down or lay down with the War on Drugs.™

The premise is run of the mill, the con­trols con­fus­ing and clunky and the action extremely repet­i­tive. The back­grounds do change from level to level and there is a lot of ground to cover. But, all you’re going to do is walk around search­ing ware­houses for chil­dren and gang­ing up on infor­mants from the car­tel to get infor­ma­tion. What should be an absolute clean sweep is a clus­ter because get­ting that infor­ma­tion with­out being killed from ridicu­lous hits is a nightmare.

The fact that most of the action is ripped off from the infi­nitely bet­ter and more inter­est­ing Ninja Gaiden doesn’t help here because you’re going to die a lot from ter­ri­ble jump­ing and those afore­men­tioned hits from ene­mies. The sound­track also does Manta no favors as it’s just barely ser­vice­able. Even the art is ripped off from some­where else: Word on those mean streets of NYC is that some of the art was taken straight from the book “How to Draw Comics the Mar­vel Way” when the Japan­ese ver­sion was ported to the U.S. I’m guess­ing they thought no one would notice, but it goes over with the sub­tlety of a ton of bricks. Speak­ing of a lack of sub­tlety, the obvi­ous “stay away from drugs, kids, if you want to live” mes­sage and the hit-you-over-the-head irony of char­ac­ters named Tiny (a in no way sur­pris­ingly large boss char­ac­ter who tries to stomp you to death in the first level) means you’re in for a long ride with this whether you want to or not.

The key to this bat­tle is, if you want to play a ninja adven­ture just play the released at the same time Ninja Gaiden. Gaiden is far supe­rior in every way and has more appeal in terms of story. Wrath of the Black Manta is the poor man’s Ninja Gaiden and is in no way stealthy enough in its sub­tlety to earn any sort of title of ninja anything.

Mega Man X Collection — 2Q2019 issue

A mega col­lec­tion of Blue Bomber greatness

I’m a huge Mega Man fan. If allowed to, I would dec­o­rate GI head­quar­ters in every room with gear resem­bling Capcom’s infa­mous Blue Bomber. After Mega Man’s last adven­ture on the NES, I found that dur­ing the tran­si­tion from 8-bit to 16-bit gam­ing a new char­ac­ter known as Mega Man X would appear, giv­ing the Mega Man series a new chap­ter set years after the orig­i­nal. While I played a few MMX games when it was on SNES and PSOne, I real­ized that I liked the X series but won­dered if Cap­com would do a col­lec­tion for the PlaySta­tion 2. My wish was granted in Mega Man X Collection.

MMX Col­lec­tion is sim­ply as adver­tised: A col­lec­tion of the first Mega Man X games released. It con­sists of MMX and MMX2 from their SNES debut; MMX3 — another SNES game that was ported to PSOne; and MMX 4, 5 and 6, which were released for PSOne. There is also an unlock­able game, “Mega Man Bat­tle and Chase,” an exclu­sive never released out­side of Japan.

In each MMX game, you take con­trol of “X,” a new ver­sion of the Blue Bomber cre­ated by Dr. Light years after the orig­i­nal Mega Man. X is a more pow­er­ful ver­sion of our blue titan but with free will. 100 years later, after Dr. Light’s death, X was found by Dr. Cain, a robot­ics expert who devel­oped robots based on X’s design known as “reploids.” How­ever, this began a rise of rebel­lious reploids, known as mav­er­icks, which led to the for­ma­tion of a group known as mav­er­ick hunters to stop them. Alas, the mav­er­ick hunter’s leader Sigma became a mav­er­ick (and the series’ main vil­lain), forc­ing X to team up with another mav­er­ick hunter named Zero to stop Sigma’s plan for global domination.

Con­trol of X is sim­ple as any reg­u­lar side-scrolling game, espe­cially with the option of switch­ing between the ana­log sticks or direc­tional but­tons. X’s main weapon, the X-Buster, and other weapons he acquires from a level boss can be pow­ered up in addi­tion to find­ing upgraded boots, hel­met and armor via secret areas in each level. Using a sub screen, I appre­ci­ated that it was under­stand­able and sim­ple in orga­niz­ing items and weapons since, in other side scrolling games, look­ing for needed items is time con­sum­ing and morale-draining. Zero is also playable in MMX 4, 5 and 6 where con­trol­ling him is a guar­an­teed good time as he is not only equipped with his own Buster weapon, but also his sig­na­ture Z-Saber cuts ene­mies down to size.

The graph­ics have been refreshed, ensur­ing that a thought­ful bal­ance of action-adventure and anime-styles ele­ments are intact. Capcom’s music depart­ment did an awe­some job remix­ing each game’s sound­tracks. With the amount of detail put into this game, the replay value is high, espe­cially if you’re want­ing to get deeper into the Mega Man lore.

The Mega Man X Col­lec­tion is the per­fect answer for a devoted fan­base of the Blue Bomber. While the MMX series may be in ques­tion, I hope Cap­com hears Mega Man’s fans’ calls to con­tinue his leg­endary return to gam­ing as the MMX col­lec­tion is a great way to con­tinue Mega Man X’s hunt.

Cool Spot — 2Q2019 issue

A refresh­ing platformer

Every so often there will be a licensed game that’s actu­ally worth some­thing. It will have a great sound­track and decent con­trols and not be so obnox­iously unplayable that legions of older gamers remem­ber it with a cer­tain hatred that burns deep within their soul to be passed down through gen­er­a­tions to come. Cool Spot, licensed from Pepsi part­ner 7UP, is the excep­tion to the norm. If you’re expect­ing a half-baked idea of plat­form­ing solely because it’s a mas­cot, think again. This romp to release sen­tient lit­tle red dots is actu­ally not half bad and has genre-redeeming qualities.

Cool Spot starts off innocu­ous enough. Spot must res­cue its friends, who are trapped through­out 11 lev­els in cages. Why its friends are trapped, we’ll never know but it’s up to Spot to res­cue them and lec­ture you about not drink­ing dark sodas. Spot’s tra­ver­sal through these 11 lev­els is noth­ing short of amaz­ing despite the ram­pant prod­uct place­ment. It’s sur­pris­ingly good, with solid con­trols that don’t make con­trol­ling Spot a chore, and com­pe­tent sim­ple mechan­ics that don’t get in the way: It’s mostly jump­ing and shoot­ing mag­i­cal sparks at ene­mies and barred gates. The life sys­tem — hilar­i­ously denoted by an ever-peeling and dete­ri­o­rat­ing pic­ture of Spot — is more than gen­er­ous and there are helper power ups galore to get through lev­els. The lev­els them­selves have a lot of depth and are timed just right with enough time to explore or get the bare min­i­mum expe­ri­ence in the search for Spot’s miss­ing friend.

While Spot might be on a prod­uct placement-filled jour­ney, it’s a lushly drawn trip. Cool Spot is no slouch when it comes to the audio-visual depart­ment. The back­grounds are drawn with Spot mov­ing through an obvi­ously human world at about 25 per­cent of the size of every­thing else. It isn’t big at all but the world sur­round­ing it is and it shows in the sheer scale, though my only gripe with the game comes here: The back­grounds, while beau­ti­ful, are recy­cled except for a few stages. At least the first three stages are repeated and reused, just with new stage names and some recol­or­ing in spots.

While you’re soak­ing up the beauty of it all, how­ever, the sound­track is rock­ing in the back­ground. Cool Spot is one of the best sound­tracks for the Super Nin­tendo and should be in every gamer’s library. Mag­nif­i­cent pro­duc­tion val­ues, crisp audio and nice, deep bass lines make for some inter­est­ing tracks that don’t sound like stan­dard 16-bit audio. Tommy Tal­larico, pre-Video Games Live fame, put obvi­ous love and care into the audio and it shows. It’s one of the best sound­tracks for its time.

Cool Spot has a lot to offer in the way of good ’90s plat­form­ing. If you can work around the prod­uct place­ment and shilling for the 7Up brand, you’ll find an uncom­pli­cated hop-and-bop with depth and a bang­ing sound­track that’s sur­pris­ingly refreshing.

Animal Crossing Pocket Camp — 2Q2019 issue

Camp­ing with friends

My love affair with Ani­mal Cross­ing began in 2003, a year after the Game­Cube ver­sion was released in the U.S. It wasn’t enough to merely start a life with a char­ac­ter — known as Rubes(kitty) — in my pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated town known as Tokyo; I had to col­lect every­thing in my cat­a­logue, build my house into a man­sion and catch every insect and fish just for com­ple­tion sake. In the ensu­ing 16 years, I have played every iter­a­tion of Ani­mal Cross­ing avail­able. So, you can imag­ine my pal­pa­ble joy when a mobile ver­sion of Ani­mal Cross­ing was announced in 2016. Cue Ani­mal Cross­ing: Pocket Camp in 2017, and I’m still going strong in my quest to build the per­fect camp.

Pocket Camp is a spin­off of the main Ani­mal Cross­ing series but retains ele­ments of the series. Famil­iar tasks such as pay­ing off your debt for your liv­ing quar­ters, com­plet­ing requests for ani­mals that visit or improv­ing your finances through item sales are abun­dant in the Pocket Camp land­scape. New to the series is the timed rota­tion of the ani­mals that are in one of four loca­tions scat­tered around the land­scape. Four ani­mals will be in these loca­tions with options to talk to you and request items; whether you choose to give them the spe­cific items they request or just chat it up for expe­ri­ence points is up to you. Also new are the afore­men­tioned expe­ri­ence points. Each ani­mal has a meter that gauges their friend­ship level with you. The higher the level, the more rewards they give in exchange for items they request. The rewards are also new, usu­ally in the form of Leaf Tick­ets and raw mate­ri­als that are used in craft­ing fur­ni­ture and clothes that can be used to dec­o­rate your camp site and RV.

Pocket Camp, in its most sim­plis­tic form, is a dumbed down portable Ani­mal Cross­ing main game that requires inven­tory man­age­ment and micro trans­ac­tions. And it’s a sat­is­fy­ing way to get that quick Ani­mal Cross­ing fix. Much like the main series, it’s relax­ing and fun to pop in and check with the camp site to see what’s hap­pen­ing, pick up some gifts or get involved in fes­ti­vals and events at my own leisure. Time is still mea­sured real­is­ti­cally, and insects and fish are still viable at cer­tain times, though the sea­son require­ment is not in use. Money is still prac­ti­cally around every cor­ner, and it’s eas­ier than ever to pay off the debt of upgrad­ing your hum­ble abode when rare bugs and fish are more plen­ti­ful this time around. It’s also quite nice to be able to buy items from other play­ers world­wide in an item mar­ket­place with the Mar­ket Boxes option. The econ­omy that has devel­oped still has some work to do, but the abil­ity to find rare insects, fruit, shells and fish for sale from other friends and strangers is a great start.

For a long­time Ani­mal Cross­ing player, the fun in Pocket Camp is imme­di­ately there but not with­out some caveats. After a cer­tain point, the in-game cur­rency of Bells ceases to be a prob­lem. While scarce in the early going, Bells aren’t an issue once the final upgrade for the RV is obtained and paid off. I now reg­u­larly have about 1.8 mil­lion Bells on hand daily and can’t spend it fast enough on things other than craft­ing and a rare item inven­tory econ­omy that has con­ve­niently sprung up in my friends list. This is like the issue of Bells in the main series so while it’s not sur­pris­ing, it’s still an issue that needs to be reme­died with more things to do. And, the price of Leaf Tick­ets is a bit much. Their addi­tion is help­ful, but their pric­ing should be adjusted. Also, in-game cur­rency should be allowed to be used to buy Leaf Tick­ets. That would give another rea­son to hoard money later in the game.

While it might not be a main­line game, Ani­mal Cross­ing: Pocket Camp is still a neat and wel­come addi­tion to the Ani­mal Cross­ing fran­chise. With its con­tin­ued updates and addi­tions, the Ani­mal Cross­ing pop­u­la­tion is still growing.

1942 — 2Q2019 issue

Pacific bat­tles fly in 8-bit form

Capcom’s warfight­ing 1940 series reminds me of the good times when arcade gam­ing ruled my week­ends and I was for­tu­nate to find some rare gems that later became gam­ing clas­sics. Dur­ing that time, I played 1942 in the arcade and on the NES and walked away from this expe­ri­ence with some valu­able infor­ma­tion: 1. The first game in a series may or may not guar­an­tee future suc­cess; and, 2. The cre­ators of some of our favorite games had to cut their teeth on low-tier games before they received the big breaks that made them what they are today. One of those games is 1942.

1942 is a vertical-scrolling shooter that takes place on the Pacific front of World War II. You take con­trol of a P-38 Light­ning plane assigned to go to Tokyo and destroy the Impe­r­ial Air Force fleet.

Game­play of 1942 is sim­ple: You can move either ver­ti­cally or hor­i­zon­tally. Con­sist­ing of 32 stages, the P-38 will be chal­lenged by Ki-61s, A6M Zeros, and Ki-48s with a long-range bomber known as G8N as level bosses. To give the P-38 Light­ning a fight­ing chance against these planes, it can do air rolls or ver­ti­cal loops. If you time your attacks right, some planes will drop upgraded fire­power or an escort team of two smaller fighter planes to com­bat the relent­less assault from planes that WILL attempt to knock you out of the skies, espe­cially if you’re just tak­ing off from your air­craft carrier.

While I liked 1942, there are some issues that annoyed me. Tim­ing of move­ments, includ­ing the ver­ti­cal drops and air rolls, must be pre­cise because of the high chance of being shot down by enemy planes. Also, you must watch for attack­ing planes in front and behind as the Ki-48s are mas­ter­ful at get­ting the unsus­pected into close-area shootouts, which will reduce the num­ber of lives quickly.

The music qual­ity of 1942 is an acquired taste as the repeated use of a snare drum made me think that Cap­com phoned in a lack­lus­ter drum beat, which made me turn the vol­ume down to con­tinue play­ing. The chal­lenge is decent since you will be on your toes to avoid enemy fire non­stop. It has strong replay value and would be a great time-killer as a nos­tal­gia trip for arcade vet­er­ans. Also, it’s a great exam­ple for those who want to know how side-scrolling games played a major impact in the gam­ing world.

1942 serves not only as an icon in gaming’s hall of fame but also dou­bles as one of Capcom’s entries into the gam­ing world. It helps that 1942 was the start of look­ing at Cap­com as an up-and-coming game com­pany want­ing to expand beyond its home of Osaka, Japan.

Fun facts:

    • The P-38, Ki-61, A6M and Ki-48 were actual war planes used heav­ily in the Pacific Con­flict between the U.S. and Japan. The com­pa­nies who built them — Lock­heed Mar­tin, Kawasaki, and Mit­subishi — are well-established in the defense indus­try and con­tinue to play vital roles in var­i­ous areas of aero­space tech­nol­ogy.
    • 1942 was Yoshiki Okamoto’s debut game for Cap­com. He was also the orig­i­nal game designer of Konami’s Gyruss. Because of inter­nal dis­putes involv­ing pay, he was fired from Kon­ami. After 1942’s suc­cess, Okamoto remained at Cap­com where he played an impor­tant role in pro­duc­ing Final Fight, Street Fighter II and Biohazard/Resident Evil. He retired from game devel­op­ment for con­soles in 2012 and is cur­rently devel­op­ing games for var­i­ous mobile devices.