I Watched a Magical Girl Anime

It was called… uh… Something Something Madoka Magica, and it was recommended to me by a dude whose tastes I generally trust. The recommendation came with a foreboding disclaimer: I was to reserve judgment until I’d seen three full episodes. No other information was presented, presumably because my friend didn’t want to ruin the surprise. I inferred that the series was going to start out like any other magical girl anime, and then at some point in the third episode would become… something else. It was an intriguing prospect.

I’m not going to be as kind to you, because if I don’t spoil the twist I can’t write this post. So if you don’t want Madoka Magica spoiled for you, don’t read past this paragraph. This isn’t really a review of the show, per se, but rather a description of what I think it was trying to do, and why I think it failed.

This is still a kinda sorta review, though, and because I believe in providing an adequate spoiler buffer, I will point out the one thing that I liked: the animation during the magical fight sequences displayed more imagination than I honestly thought the modern anime industry was capable of producing. It’s not just the design of the monsters and battlefields; it’s that everything about the drawing style and art direction is totally upended in order to create something absolutely deranged and beautiful. In fact, I liked this aspect of the show so much I’m motivated to go get a screengrab:

Nice. I would play that, if it were a PlayStation game. Hmm… actually, with 100+ hours invested in Persona 3, maybe I already have done. It’s really, really cool-looking, is my point. Okay, end of buffer.

In the way of spoilers, here’s the plot synopsis for the first three episodes of Madoka Magica. Episode one: a typical Japanese teenager and her best friend wander into a sort of magical nether-dimension and are almost killed by witches. They are rescued by a Sailor Moon expy and her adorable furry ghost-cat, and learn that not only are magical girls real, but they can be magical too! Episode two: Sailor Moon lays out the rules of being a magical girl: ghost-cat will grant each of the friends one wish, and in return, they get magic weapons and have to join the fight against witches. Meanwhile, a mysterious transfer student attempts to warn them against this strange and wonderful world of magical superheroes. Episode three: the two friends tag along with Sailor Moon on a few more fantastic adventures, and watch in horror as she is gobbled up by a clown monster.

Ah, okay, so there’s the rub. Madoka isn’t really a magical girl anime, but a deconstruction of the genre. Of course nobody expects magical girls to actually get killed in the line of duty. Hundreds of examples exist of anime and manga where fighting evil with flashy swords and transformation sequences is treated as a big game. This story, then, is going to be an exploration of magical girls involved in a real conflict, in which there is real danger and real stakes. Every aspect of the typical magical girl show is examined and rationalized, often in ways that are refreshingly cruel. The bits that can’t be properly lampshaded are instead subverted. By the time you’re six episodes in, and you’re thoroughly convinced that becoming a magical girl is the worst fate imaginable, our hapless heroine begins to learn why she might have no choice but to accept.

It’s a fresh concept, and a good story. I enjoy stories where circumstances start out bad and then get worse and worse. And then, when things can’t get any worse, the bottom falls out and “worse” starts happening on a whole new axis. And I’ll admit, I was charmed to see someone taking the piss out of what I consider to be one of the lamest and most insipid genres of anime available. The pieces were in place and I should have enjoyed Madoka. It became clear why my friend thought I would enjoy it.

But I didn’t enjoy it. Madoka nailed the concept but botched the execution. For a show that constantly and violently reminded you that it wasn’t your bog-standard magical girl anime, it sure as hell conducted itself like one.

Let’s tick down the list. Uninspired art style, complete with side-mouths, pointy dot-noses, candy hair, and big glassy eyes instead of actual expression? Check. Long, meandering conversations about the Importance of Friendship and Being Good and Doing Your Best, played totally straight? Check. Melodramatic backstory baggage attached to every single character? Double check. Fantasy plot that gets so twisty and convoluted that no resolution is possible except a spray of metaphysical bullshit? Checkmate.

The bit about heaping on the melodrama is is particularly bad, as I’m sure that by indulging in the dark, tragic pasts of our heroines the writers thought they were avoiding some number of peppy, saccharine magical girl tropes. Nope! Replacing one bad trope with another means you’re replacing a problem, not solving it. And having a character wonder, out loud, whether she is moe does not remove the queasiness of watching an anime where the characters are, in fact, moe.

Here’s a deep dark secret of mine: the reason I have an aversion to magical girl anime has nothing to do with a distaste for magical girl stories. I could watch a show about cute high school girls fighting crime with big smiles and lollipop swords if one came along that completely scuttled the melodrama, the pretension, and the pandering. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing addition to the genre? If the girls dealt with more interesting personal issues than which boys are dreamboats this week? If they could be defined in ways outside of their hair color, weapon choice and One Single Personality Trait? If the art direction had some integrity to it, and weren’t just cobbled together from the back of How to Draw Manga?

If you gave Madoka a dollar every time it did something cool or interesting, but took away two for each gratutious behind-the-butt shot and slow motion teardrop, you’d have paid off your school loans by the end of the series. When it comes to magical girl adventures, Madoka changes the contents but keeps the packaging — and it’s the packaging I found objectionable in the first place.

I think there is still life in this concept, in case someone else out there wants to take another swing at it. I’d give something along the lines of Madoka another glance if it actually did something to address the melodrama and the fanservice. Or at least added a really kickass battle system.

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Mouse Guard: Final Thoughts

Now that I’ve played a season’s worth of Mouse Guard with my gaming gruop, I figured I’d revisit this blog post about the rulebook and see whether those old comments still held water. A quick summary: my group tends to go really heavy on the roleplay, and I didn’t think a really nuts-and-bolts game like Mouse Guard would go over well with them. I felt a lot of the structure of the game was arbitrary or nonsensical; the kind of stuff that causes players to ask, “Why can’t I do this?” and GMs to answer, “Just because.”

There are a lot of really good roleplaying tools built into the system, but most of the mechanics require the players to approach the system as a game and not necessarily as a world their characters can interact with. What’s worse, the system doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room to chock those restrictive mechanics aside.

This ended up being exactly true, although not the dealbreaker I was expecting. There was some rolling of eyes as the game mechanics were laid out, but the players were mostly willing to accept the rules for what they were and displayed decent aptitude for sticking to them… even the stuff that didn’t make logical sense.

My biggest issue with this aspect of the game is how utterly contrasty it is. Mouse Guard has all these roleplaying concepts cooked right into the broth, but so much of the game forces you to abandon motive and abide cards and dice instead. I’ve known and loved games that lean to one extreme or the other, but Mouse Guard tries to tear itself in half. One moment it’s “ignore the story, what do the cards say?” and the next it’s “ignore the cards, what fits your character?” My players never really got the hang of shifting gears so abruptly, and I can’t say I blame them.

In Mouse Guard, character creation is structured as a series of questions. The GM goes down the list and the entire group (called a “patrol”) answers at once.

This was a mixed blessing. On one hand, character creation is really speedy and organic — think in terms of what your character is, and record that on the sheet, yeah? On the other, the process doesn’t leave a lot of space for fine-tuning. Example: the first thing you do is pick your mouse’s hometown. You are told to select one Skill and one Trait associated with your hometown. This is fine, but most towns only have a single Trait to “choose” from. That’s pretty unfairly restrictive. Several of my players wanted their mouse to be from a town that matched his or her backstory, but didn’t want to be saddled with the Trait the book gave them.

Mulling this around a bit, and comparing it to more standard point-buy systems, I honestly don’t see any real benefit. I’ve rolled up dozens of White Wolf characters over the years and I have never had any trouble arranging my points to fit a particular character concept. And when it comes right down to it, Mouse Guard is still a point-buy system. Every step of the process boils down to, “What did your mouse’s mentor in the guard stress during training? Choose three of the below skills.” Things would have been smoother if the invisible barriers had been removed and players were free to spend where they wanted.

Once you have your skills and such, you level them up by actually using them. Each skill has checkboxes next door to notate passes and failures. Passing a skill test represents getting better with practice; failure imparts important lessons. Both are required to get to the next level.

I feel like this worked really well, although the bookkeeping took some getting used to. I was running with a larger-than-average group, and there was no way I was going to be keeping track in my notes. This led to situations where players forgot to notate a pass or fail until long after it was relevant. Some of the players got into it, though, and by the end of the third session they seemed to be policing themselves.

One benefit of this system I didn’t consider at first was the psychological impact of small, constant rewards. Lots of skill checks per session means lots of little boxes to fill in, pass or fail. Each little bell and whistle is fun and exciting. Many RPGs don’t grant rewards of any kind during a game session, so this was a win.

The rest of your rewards all come through good roleplaying. Over the course of the game you stack up Fate and Persona points, which can be cashed in to improve rolls. You gain these points by staying true to several aspects of your mouse’s personality: his Belief, Goal and Instinct. … At the end of each session the group discusses everyone’s roleplaying and, if you’ve done well, you get points.

This is one of those things that sounds great on paper, but gets really messy if you have players at different levels of roleplaying aptitude. It’s a strange paradox: a skilled roleplayer will pick an exciting Belief that is challenging to play, and thus won’t get rewarded every session. A less-skilled roleplayer will pick a broader Belief that is much easier to play, and thus gets the reward more consistently. As a GM, this is a sticky fucking wicket. If your Belief is “It is good to do good things,” and you do some good things, should I reward you? Even if the guy sitting next to you went with “The pursuit of knowledge is the highest virtue of mousekind”? If he spends the whole session striving to uphold that Belief, and fails, which of you really deserves the gold star?

Goals were equally challenging. Some players picked the most straightforward Goal imaginable; something that was almost guaranteed to happen by the end of the session. The players who created more thoughtful Goals requiring more effort to complete really didn’t accomplish anything except risk failure. Player 1 writes, “I will help the patrol deliver the message to the town.” Player 2 writes, “I will learn something new and exciting about the nature of the scent border.” Player 1 can sleepwalk to the reward. Player 2 has to go out of his way, and might fail. Both players are adhering to the rules, though, so I can’t call attention to the disparity without hurting someone’s feelings.

Compounding the problem is that there is a strong correlation between a player’s ability and willingness to roleplay, and a player’s ability to accept failure as a natural consequence. Creative players who didn’t quite hit their stated targets were fine when they didn’t get their shinies. Players with less creative targets got defensive when I challenged them to explain why they deserved theirs, and got upset in the rare cases when they were denied.

This problem creeps into any game that expects a level of imagination from its players. The only cure I know of is to remove the imagination requirement entirely. In Mouse Guard this might mean actually supplying a list of Beliefs, Instincts and Goals to choose from, with a blue box inviting players to come up with their own.

And, of course, since half of the game is strictly mechanical anyway, it stands to reason there should be strictly mechanical rewards as well. That is, something players can plug into an equation. “I helped kill x weasels, I get y gold pieces.” Mouse Guard doesn’t track that sort of reward, though. This creates a weird gap when players who excel at the roleplaying challenges get bonuses but players who excel at dice-and-cards do not.

The idea is that the GM’s Turn is the mission proper, where the patrol encounters obstacles, gets into fights, works towards their goals, etc. The Players Turn takes up the in-between spots where there is downtime; it’s used to rest and recuperate, obtain supplies, tie up dangling sidequests, etc.

This aspect of the game was a total failure. As much as the book wants to pretend that the players are ever in control, they never really are. Even in the Player’s Turn, a player is limited by the amount of checks s/he has, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the gamestate and “solve” the Player’s Turn. I very purposely left loose ends at the end of every GM’s Turn, hoping the players would pick up where I left off. This is how the book describes it, and this is what other Mouse Guard players told me to do. It didn’t work. It always devolved into, “Okay, we have this many checks. We need to do this many things. We have to cure this many conditions. We do this and this and this and this, in this and this and this order.”

It’s another symptom of the game tearing itself apart. From a roleplaying standpoint, going around the table spending checks should be a really fun process that helps to grow the story outward from where the GM left it. Mechanically, though, when your mouse has two conditions and you have exactly three checks, “organically growing the adventure” no longer looks like a viable option. Even less so when the guy sitting next to you failed the test to cure his Injured, and you’re hurting the party if you don’t give him your spare.

“So we were in town for three days. During that time they were able to eat, get drunk, hire a cartographer and restock their ammo. But you’re telling me I had so little time I had to choose between getting a good night’s sleep and getting my spear repaired?”

Yeah, speaking of those Conditions. Since Mouse Guard doesn’t have a traditional health system, wear and tear is represented by the effective equivalent of status ailments. These are doled out as consequences for failed roles or lost conflicts, and the book goes to great lengths to explain how important and effective they are. I think at one point it literally states, “Conditions are awesome.”

Conditions are not awesome. I gave out lots and lots of conditions over the course of the game, and no player was ever glad to get one. Getting rid of them is just a chore you do on the Player’s Turn, and they don’t even make narrative sense. One of my players was stuck with Tired for three sessions. I kept telling him, “You just can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep,” but what he kept hearing was, “You have a bad card and there is not much you can do about it right now.”

Just another example of a roleplaying game trying to play by board game rules. They helped balance the dice out but they never added to the story.

The secret to “combat” in games like this, though, is that as long as it flows quickly and gets the job done it sort of doesn’t matter how well it works. … I might have to just write up another post about it once I’ve seen the system in action.

The conflict rules (which incorporate combat, negotiations, long journeys through the wilderness, and so-forth) are the most choice examples of Mouse Guard shedding all vestiges of being a roleplaying game. They involve splitting the players and NPC opponents into teams, and having each team select three Action Cards each round. The cards resolve against each other in a quasi-RPS manner, numbers go up or down on either side, and then the whole thing starts over. Once everyone understands the rules it works really, really well; a bit like resolving a hand of Magic: The Gathering or a war in Risk. It is, after all, a game.

That’s my big problem with it, though. The conflict system works equally well whether you roleplay with it or not. “We try to negotiate with the bad guy.” “Okay, play three cards then roll these dice. You lose two Disposition. Now play three more cards.” You can resolve entire combat scenes or weeks of travel that way.

In fact, attempting to inject roleplaying into the scene just muddies up the issue. Say you play an Attack card and then roll really well. Awesome! You therefore declare that you’ve swept your sword in a wide arc, stunning your opponent with the flat of your blade and sending him reeling to the floor! Exciting!

…except the opponent’s next card reads Attack, and you say, “Wait a minute, why should he be able to attack me after I just knocked him down? Isn’t he equipped with a knife? I should be out of range! That doesn’t make any sense.”

Of course it doesn’t, but cards is cards. You have to do what they say. My players didn’t like hearing that.

That’s the biggest difference between combat in Mouse Guard and combat in, well, anything else, really. In other games you declare your action, then use the dice to determine the result. Succeed or fail, the action itself is all you. Your imagination. Your idea. Your response, in fact, to the current state of the game world. The dice are the medium, but you are the message. In Mouse Guard, the cards are the action, and the description only comes afterwards. An afterthought. And since each three-card play occurs in a vacuum, there’s not even really a game state to consider.

I can’t say there is no strategy; my players were combining their three actions in novel ways by the end of the last session, so that each mouse played up to his or her strengths. That’s commendable, but it’s not the same thing as considering a real-world scene and then imagining what sorts of things would work within that scene.

In the end, I think my group had a reasonable amount of fun with Mouse Guard, but everyone had to put up with a lot of hassle to eke that fun out. They (and I) enjoyed the roleplaying bits, and also enjoyed the game-y bits, but the system is just not designed for the two halves to blend together very well. Sad to say, but I don’t know that we’ll be revisiting it anytime soon.

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Sonic Generations

I haven’t been keeping up on Sonic news. Is the Sonic Cycle still turning? Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was certainly lamentable, and while Sonic Colors was bad I definitely had a bit of fun with it. Enough fun, in fact, that I didn’t mind picking up Sonic Generations when it was released last year. I had more pressing games on my plate at the time, though, so I didn’t do much with it other than burn up the levels and see the end credits. I didn’t bother writing a post about it because I didn’t think I’d have anything to say that I hadn’t already said about Colors: “Sloppy and dumb, but good clean fun.”

I think my initial assessment of Generations was incorrect. I’ve spent the past three days digging back into it, and I’m convinced the game is legit good. Colors was a hot mess that reached into your brain and plucked your Pleasure Neurons so fast you didn’t have time to notice that the game was a jumble of dumb ideas and poorly-designed stage layouts. Generations is a quality game that adequately celebrates the history of a beloved gaming mascot without overreaching its station.

Once in a while I get a sudden, powerful urge to play some goddamn Sonic. I’m not what you’d call a “Sonic fan”, but I do have some nostalgia for the old Genesis games, and I like to revisit them from time to time. Here’s what happened last time the urge struck me. I reached for Generations this time because I had left a so much of it unplayed. Lots of little challenge levels still to go, lots of stuff to unlock, lots of red shinies to find. I was expecting to be sated after maybe an hour or two of running around Chemical Plant, but when I glanced up at the clock I realized I’d been playing for six hours. Yikes.

(Incidentally, the reason I reached for Generations and not Colors is I have no desire to play with the Wiimote what I can play with a sensible controller. I wonder if, subconciously, this is why I haven’t gone back to replay either of the Mario Galaxy games.)

Part of what makes Sonic Generations so good is its structure. There are nine zones, each nicked from one of the nine games chosen to represent Sonic’s illustrious vidjamagame history. Each zone is broken into two acts. Act 1 is “classic Sonic”, and plays just like the old Genesis games. This version of Sonic has a spin dash, but no homing attack, and is confined to a 2d plane. The gameplay focuses on precision platforming amidst lots of moving parts, interspersed with speeding segments. It’s very important to make the distinction between “classic Sonic” and “modern Sonic in 2d”. There is no boosting and no daisy chains of monsters to zoom off of. The stages are not structured like roller coasters, and you do not earn points by doing tricks. They do not work off of Sonic 4’s abysmal physics. They are HD versions of Genesis levels, with all the glow and grime that statement entails.

Act 2 is “modern Sonic”, which means the gameplay was lifted from Colors, more or less. Modern Sonic games are split up between 2d platforming sections, 3d ride-the-line sections and gimmicky sub-games where the player is expected to perform some weird, un-Sonic-like action. I haven’t played a modern Sonic game outside of Colors, but judging from reviews and comments and gripes dating back to the Dreamcast days, I get the sense that the third thing has done the most work to tarnish Sonic’s reputation. Before I delve into that I will simply say that the modern-style 2d segments are quite fun (and, as mentioned, distinct from the classic-style segments), and that the 3d segments are cleanly designed and have good flow. This contrasts with the 3d segments from Colors, which flowed about as well as a tangle of Christmas lights.

It’s the gimmickry that always made me shake my head. Whenever I would read about how Sonic games made you play as characters nobody cares about, two thoughts would occur to me. First, knowingly plays a Sonic game to spend half the time as, say, Bigs the Cat? Isn’t Sonic kind of the bloody point of the thing? Even in the old games, Tails and Knuckles were just Sonic clones. The core gameplay didn’t change with the color of your spinning ball. And second, doesn’t it mean the developers are spending resources on non-Sonic stuff that could be better used to polish up the core gameplay? The old Sonic games were good because they were tight. The ideas behind that early gameplay were so simple that you couldn’t help but build to their strengths. Dumping more and more concepts into the pot couldn’t possibly improve the flavor, and years of poor review scores seem to bear this out.

Colors handled its gimmickry by shelving the hangers-on and instead giving Sonic temporary abilities in the form of alien gumball capsules. Pick up a pink one and you can roll along walls and ceilings. The brown one, and you can drill through the ground. These were different enough to shock you out of the standard Sonic gameplay, and just frequent enough to annoy you when they popped up. They added something to the game, but I can’t honestly say they were fun in and of themselves. If the rest of the game had been the same quality as Generations they would have bothered me more.

Generations solves the problem by cleaving the gimmickry off into stand-alone challenge levels. Ten for each zone — five each for classic and modern Sonic — in addition to the two complete acts. These levels have you practicing new moves, using new items, or teaming up with one of Sonic’s friends to complete a unique challenge. This last thing is handled rather elegantly; rather than assuming direct control of a character you don’t care about (because s/he isn’t Sonic), you simply push a button to summon them and activate their special ability. These challenges vary wildly in quality and composition, but in the end they succeed in exactly the spots where former Sonic gimmickry failed: they’re short, they don’t break up the main levels, and they’re optional. A player who just wants to make Sonic run and bounce and swing doesn’t have to pay Charmy Bee so much a a sidewards glance.

There are minor bits of gimmickry in the main levels, but only to the extent that gimmickry was also present in the game the level was originally lifted from. City Escape has skateboarding segments because it wouldn’t be an accurate re-creation of the Sonic Adventure 2 level if they’d been excluded. Planet Wisp works in the magic powers from Sonic Colors by including only one of them: the orange rocket. Which, as it happens, is the most intuitive and most satisfying ability from that game. These decisions were made very carefully, to bring the flavor of the original levels to life without straying overmuch from the core Generations gameplay. At no point did someone point to a section of Sky Sanctuary and say, “Right here, we need the player to be Knuckles and punch through a bunch of walls.”

In addition to the challenges, each act has five red star rings to collect. Hunting these doodads is what caused me to really notice the thought that went into the design of each level. I have never had a high opinion of the exploration aspect of Sonic games. I’ve played four of the nine games represented in Generations, and all of them struggled with the duality of hiding secrets in stages you’re supposed to memorize and then blaze through at top speed. I did scour every level of Sonic 3 & Knuckles searching for the hidden bonus stages, but methodically climbing every wall and flying over every loop doesn’t trigger fond memories. Meanwhile, the stages in Colors were so chaotic that I couldn’t imagine being able to define their boundaries, let alone find the hidden whatsits. But man, hunting for red rings in Generations brought me to that same warm, happy place as hunting for DK Coins or walled-up super missiles.

The first reason is so simple I can’t believe it never occured to me in previous Sonic titles: there’s a built-in hint system. One of Sonic’s buddies is stationed outside of every zone entrance, and talking to them reveals the location of one of the red rings. I don’t mean they give you a vague clue; I mean they outright tell you, “do this, like this, at this spot”. The levels are big enough that the hint still requires some interpretation, but varied enough that when Espio mentions “the second wall-jump” you will know just what he’s talking about.

Of course, half the challenge is in the execution. These are still Sonic levels, which means you’ll spot an alternate path 0.2 seconds after it’s too late to take it. This was a major problem in the Genesis games because you couldn’t replay finished levels, so only expert players who have the whole game memorized will get everything on a normal playthrough. Colors allowed you to replay stages, but they were so scattershot that even if you noticed a path you might not be able to take it consistently. This is the second thing Generations did to make the treasure hunting fun. Each act is pretty big, but breaks down into individual sections. Within each section there are generally two or three paths to take, but the paths converge at the start of the next section. There are no situations where missing a crucial jump on the first rail grind locks you into an unrewarding bottom route for an entire act. If the area you need to search is 80% of the way through the level, you can play that first 80% as sloppily as you like. And if the area you need is right up front, you can pick “start over” from the pause menu to restart the level immediately, without having to kill yourself or finish the stage.

(One caveat: restarting uses up an extra life, and the game doesn’t let you do it if you’re on your last life. That’s stupid, but in that case dying and restarting with a full stock is functionally identical and still takes less time than finishing or exiting the level. I would have preferred a “restart from last goalpost” option, myself.)

I did begin the process of collecting red rings in Sonic Colors, but I gave up after a few stages. Collecting anything as small as a red ring is tricky even in a slowly-paced 3d game, and that problem is compounded in a game about high speed and bad controls. Remember painstakingly aiming the cannons in Super Mario 64 to collect airborne stars? Yeah, like that, except the object you’re aiming for is half the size and your dude moves five times as fast. I expected Generations to be just as hostile, but it’s not. Half of the red rings are in the classic acts, after all, which means nice friendly 2d platforming. The majority of the red rings in the modern acts are in line-following sections where Sonic’s position is fixed. The challenge is to find and land on the grind rail in the first place, and then the ring is situated at the end. I think of thirty-five modern red rings I’ve collected so far, there have only been two that were ruined due to shoddy 3d controls. One was halfway through a weirdly-angled jump; the other was in a sidepath during a chase sequence that I managed to keep running past. While annoying, I don’t think either took me more than three tries to finally collect.

In addition to clearing challenges and finding hidden shinies, you have the challenge of scoring S-Ranks in eact act. I’ve never been good at completing Sonic stages super quickly; I simply don’t have the reflexes for it. However, by the time I’d collected all five rings in an act I knew the stage well enough that S-Rank was well within my reach. It helps that the time requirements for S-Rank are actually achievable by mere mortals, rather than only speedrunners and YouTube gods. (One of the reasons I’m no longer on speaking terms with Mario Kart.)

The game does have two blemishes, one rather nasty, and one merely perplexing. The boss fights are all rather bad, not for being too difficult or poorly-designed, but merely for lousy conveyance. Sonic boss fights usually involve lots of running, and the goal is to figure out when during the chase you can strike and deal damage. I don’t think there is a boss in the game I didn’t learn to damage by accident, and it was usually obvious what I had to do after I stumbled into the solution, but that doesn’t quite make up for the twenty boring minutes of running and dodging I had endured. The final boss in particular was inexcusable. All of Sonic’s friends chatter constantly throughout the battle, but not a single is even the slightest help. There is no feedback whatsoever that anything you’re doing works. Actually, there is quite a bid of feedback that doing the right thing doesn’t work, because you have to do it for a very long time for it to have any effect. You will be stuck on this fight for ages, but I guarantee you it won’t be for lack of ability to spot incoming homing shots. Christ.

Then you have the game’s skill system. Both Sonics can complete challenges and collect red rings in order to make new skills available at the in-game shop. These skills can then be equipped in sets, either amplifying what the Sonics can already do or giving them new moves altogether. For example, the elemental shields that defined Sonic 3 & Knuckles‘s gameplay are all upgrades you buy in the store. The problem is, each upgrade has a point value, and Sonic can only equip 100 points worth of upgrades. Most of the truly unique ones — the ones that really change the way the game is played — cost 60 or 70 points. So you don’t get to really customize your Sonic so much as you equip one cool skill and then a couple of less essential nickle-and-dime ones. Faster running speed and an extended boost gauge are helpful, but you don’t really notice them as you play. Some are just flat out pointless; I rolled my eyes pretty hard when the red rings from Seaside Hill earned me faster wall jumps. Plus, the interface to customize and equip skill sets is clumsy as all hell, which is pretty strong disincentive to experiment with different combinations in the first place. Oh, and you can’t bring skills with you into the challenge levels, where they would be most useful. This feature feels like it was tacked on to an otherwise completed game. I won’t say it added nothing to the experience, but it could have used a bit more simmering.

One other little hiccup is the zones themselves. The selection of them, I mean. I guess this was a hard judgment call; there’s only room in the game for nine zones, and there have been way more than nine Sonic games. Wat do? They tried to break it down into three separate “eras” of Sonic: Genesis, Dreamcast, and… uh… everything-since-Dreamcast. A noble effort, but it doesn’t really jive with the two-Sonic-style the game is designed around because the Dreamcast games aren’t appreciably different from the modern ones. Not in the same way the 16-bit games are different, I mean. Since you control two Sonics, this splits the game 3-6 in favor of modern levels, which didn’t sit well with me. I mean, I can understand why you’d want to count Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles as a single entity. And I get why you might want to just forget that Sonic 3D Blast exists. But Sonic CD wasn’t worth its own level? Did we really need an urban level from each of the Sonic Adventure games? Then there’s the troublesome modern era, where no matter which three games you pick you’re going to be stuck with two bad ones (plus Colors).

I realize that this is highly subjective, and that no two Sonic players are going to be able to agree on which nine zones should have made the cut. However, one of the primary goals of Generations was to celebrate Sonic’s 20th birthday, and it does that by first remixing your very fond Genesis memories and then gradually mangling them with visions of Sonic ’06 and Sonic Unleashed. It’s like the series is degrading in front of you in real time. Maybe they could have mixed the stages up a little? Start out with an easy, forgettable zone from Sonic ’06, and place Sonic 1‘s trickier (and far superior) Star Light Zone towards the end? In any event, one thing Sega and I apparently agree on is that Sonic 4 doesn’t deserve to be celebrated to any extent. Heh heh.

Let’s see, what else. Oh! Music! My god, the music in this game is awesome. Each zone is comprised of three remixes of old tracks: a retro-style song for classic Sonic, an updated song for modern Sonic, and a short orchestrated loop for the level select screen. In addition, clearing challenges and collections nets you more and more songs for your jukebox, which can be played during any level. I tell you, laying the Marble Zone music over Crisis City Act 1 was sublime. (Yeah, yeah, Lava Reef would have been better. But I haven’t found it yet.) And all those old, bad, cheesy vocal tracks? The awful poppy buttrock you can’t help but love for being so damn upbeat? They’re all here. Setting the final boss to Super Sonic Racing makes the fight almost halfway tolerable.

I don’t think I need to mention the story. Whatever melodramatic nonsense Sonic Team thought their cartoon hedgehog needed, they’d gotten it out of their system by the time Colors rolled around. There are a few cute scenes with most of the cast, but you can ignore and/or skip them. Just like the old good Sonic games, Generations is all about the levels.

I feel pretty good about recommending Sonic Generations. I don’t know if it broke the Sonic Cycle, or just made it wobble a bit, but it is a damn fine game and a worthy celebration of the highs and lows of one of gaming’s most tumultuous series. If you’ve been holding off on playing it for fear it’s as disappointing as the last dozen games, you needn’t worry. It’s $30 on Steam, maybe less if you find it used at GameStop, and that’s a fair price for equal helpings of nostalgia and solid, speedy gameplay.

As for me, I’ve got six more red rings to find in Rooftop Run, then it’s off to Planet Wisp. Wish me luck.

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When will I vote Republican? (and also ponies)

I try to leave politics off the ol’ blog. I sort of assume you dudes would rather read about NetHack ascensions and broken Xboxes than listen to me bitch and/or gloat about elections. But seeing as how we just had a big one, and seeing as how my guy won, I feel like I should use this space to decompress a bit.

Even now that the election is over the political climate in this country is pretty repugnant. We have one side crying out how half the country are liberal welfare sponges who are letting a socialist dictator destroy the nation, and the other side thumbing their noses in celebration that the evil, racist conservatives are finally starting to die off. I don’t take solace in either of these positions. I didn’t in 2004, either, when they were mostly reversed.

Right now, it looks to me, the Republican base is becoming more and more marginalized with each passing year. From a sheer demographic perspective, the US is going to tend towards a single-party government unless some changes are made. That sounds just as bad to me as this current mess with “the party of NO”. To my mind, the question isn’t “how can we right-minded liberals finally deliver the final crushing blow”, but rather, “what has to change before we have a viable conservative party again?”

In other words, under what circumstances could I see myself voting Republican?

First, the social issues have to go. Until they get straight on gay rights and women’s reproductive issues, there’s no point even inviting me to the table. Less important issues (to me) would be cleaning up our immigration policies, putting an end to state-sponsored paranoia and lifting bans on what an adult can put into his own body. Start with “harm none, do what ye will” and regulate from there. When your argument begins with “we need to legislate morality”, it ends with me voting for the other guy.

Next, and every bit as big a dealbreaker, the denial of science has to stop. I am willing to hear counter-arguments to evolution, stem cell research, alternate energy and climate change, but those arguments had better come in the form of peer-reviewed research. This has gotten so extreme that we had an elected official actually say, in 2012, right there in front of everyone, that rape doesn’t lead to pregnancy. When your idealogy is so strong you attempt to warp reality around it, I don’t want you running a car wash, let alone a government office. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Damn straight.

Third, and just as important, stop treating people who disagree with you as though they are villains out to destroy your country. Liberals are just as guilty of this as conservatives, tis true. The key difference I’ve noted in the past three election cycles, though, is that with conservatives, the hate actually comes from the top. Maybe this is confirmation bias, but I do not recollect Obama making value judgments about Republican voters at any point in the ’08 or ’12 elections. Romney, on the other hand, called me a “moocher” who “wants things for free”. Me, personally! I’m a hard worker who pays his taxes, manages his debt, gives to charity, obeys the law and cares about his fellow man! How dare you, Mitt?

That last thing might be my biggest hurdle, when it comes to voting Republican. Jeb Bartlet, my favorite fictional president, said during one of his debates: “I’m the President of the United States, not the President of the people who agree with me.” To dismiss a group of Americans so completely and utterly is a very clear sign that candidate has no interest in representing that group of Americans once in office. By contrast, one only needs to look at all the whining liberals have done about Obama to see that, whatever else might be said about the man, he is doing his level best to represent everyone. Even the people who hate him.

This isn’t a universal trait amongst Republicans. I don’t think Romney actually believed the things he said in the infamous 47% recording. He was, quite bluntly, playing to the crowd. It saddens me that moderate politicians have to twist their positions toward unreasonable extremes in order to gain votes. Even amongst the heaviest-hitters in the Republican party, it’s not hard to find chinks in their armor. I remember seeing video from a McCain rally in ’08 where he spoke out against lies being spread about his opponent. It wasn’t the complete McCain/Palin message — more an anomaly than anything — but it was honest. Respectable. “No, Obama is not a Muslim or an Arab terrorist.” That isn’t what his people wanted to hear, but it was the truth.

I believe the reason John McCain and Mitt Romney appeared so awkward and disingenuous during their respective elections is they had to adopt a message which stood in opposition to their personal political views. Both of them lost as a result.

If you look at politics as it plays on the world stage, the American perspective on left vs. right is pretty warped. Anywhere else on the planet (well, anywhere with free elections at least) Obama would be considered just right-of-center. Since I voted for Obama twice with a clear conscience, I think that neatly answers my original question: when the Republican party can run a reasonable politician who lines up with my own right-of-center politics, I will feel good about voting for them. I’ve got my fingers crossed for 2016.

ENOUGH ABOUT POLITICS. BRING ON THE PONIES.

I got mild enjoyment from the season three premiere of Friendship is Magic. It had most of the same problems all the two-part adventure episodes have had, and only one of the three songs is worth adding to my pony playlist. I did appreciate that there was no mention of elemental friendship superpowers; each of the ponies contributed via her personality and talents, rather than by firing candy lasers. (The flip side of that, of course, is that the day was instead saved by vague and convenient love-and-light lasers. Ah well.)

Cadence and Shining Armor are boring characters. I hope they aren’t becoming fixtures.

There are the barest hints of a vast metaplot slowly encroaching on the story. I hope the writers know what they’re doing with this, and aren’t just pandering to the fanfiction crowd. TV writers who start playing to the fans are a bit like conservatives who start playing to the dammit there I go again.

Screw it, I’m off to play NetHack.

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Your bloodthirsty blade attacks. Yeenoghu screams! –More–

Ragnar the chaotic orcish ranger joins Dez the archeologist, Grundle the caveman, Rosa the priestess and Big Bertha the valkyrie in the Brickroad pantheon of NetHack demigods. (Yes, I am fanatical about ticking off each and every ascension. They are all of them very special to me.)

Looking over my log file, I see it took me twenty Ragnars to finally ascend one. Most of those landed somewhere on the learning curve of figuring out how to manage the ranger’s missile weapons and finite ammunition supply. One of them was my first ever death by petrification — I killed a monster while blinded, and then stepped onto the square where its corpse fell. Turns out it was a chickatrice, and I wasn’t wearing gloves. Two lessons learned: 1) don’t melee monsters while blinded unless I know what they are, and 2) until I have gloves, use [m] to move while blinded until. (This causes you to take a step without attempting to attack or feel what is laying on the square. For example, a chickatrice corpse.)

But no, mostly it was just getting used to the bow and arrow. Rangers start with two stacks of arrows: one stack of +0 and one stack of +2. There are a lot of arrows in each stack. More arrows, in fact, than I had ever seen in one place on any of my previous characters. But those arrows go fast. Rangers commonly fire more than one arrow per round, which is a good thing, because it’s a fast and effective way to kill monsters without having to melee them. But every arrow fired has a chance of breaking, so the more skirmishes you get into, the fewer shots you have. The +2 arrows break less frequently, but still frequently enough that you can’t afford to miss shots with them. If all your arrows run out, you’ve got nothing to fall back on besides a shitty stupid dagger and whatever melee weapons have showed up in the dungeon. (Which, very early in the game, are usually too shitty to use or too dangerous to try. “The curved sword welds itself to your hand!”)

At first I tried to ignore the bow altogether, let my pet do all the killing, and make do with my dagger. This worked for a while — it was similar to the archeologist and priest’s early game — but once second-tier monsters started showing up I was outclassed. Also, I’m really bad about keeping my pets alive past six or seven floors. And besides, the archeologist and priest both had combat options the ranger didn’t. Sure their early options sucked, but they didn’t have to go into the fray with an orcish dagger in one hand and their dick in the other.

So I slowly learned to embrace the bow. I used the [Q]uiver and [f]ire commands for the first time. I learned to use my supply of +0 arrows first, which would usually skill me up enough to #enhance my bow skill before [Q]uivering the +2 stack. When kobolds and gnomes fired arrows at me, I made sure to pick up their supply. Sometimes I would take a stack from an #untrapped ^. An early potion of sickness became a lucky find. (You can #dip a stack of arrows into a potion of sickness to poison them. Poisoned arrows are immediately fatal some percentage of the time.)

No matter what I did, though, the arrows would run dry long before I had a good melee backup or some cache of escape items. My usual early game of clearing out dungeon floors and paying a visit to Minetown wasn’t accomplishing much but piles of dead, hapless Ragnars.

I had to change my strategy. The earlier I could get escape items, the better. They don’t always show up in the dungeon, or in the Mines, but they do always show up in Sokoban. My plan became to push for Sokoban immediately, forgoing all other dungeon exploration, and stockpile the wands, rings and food found there. Clearing Sokoban usually left me with lots of spare arrows, usually a couple of strong pets, and at least one good Elbereth wand. So armed, I could go back and carefully explore the upper levels, pet-testing armor and getting myself to around -1 AC. Then, it was a matter of pushing downwards until I found an altar, where I could sacrifest until an artifact weapon showed up.

I reached the point where I could consistently get Stormbringer and make a serious dent in the dungeon. Even at that point, though, I realized what a powerful tool my bow was. I already knew what monsters had to be fought from a distance, and what monsters were dangerous enough to soften up a bit before reaching for my sword. I was a little bummed when I found out rangers can’t #twoweapon, but that’s balanced by the expert skill in bow. Eventually I’d have a stack of 60 or 70 blessed poisoned +6 arrows. Taking down a master mind flayer from across the room with two volleys gave me a huge boner.

My early game sorted, I only lost four more Ragnars. Two of these were probably the most stunningly stupid deaths I’d ever suffered in NetHack, and they provide me with a good opportunity to talk about the guts of the game a bit. So buckle in.

When you have an altar aligned to your god, you can #offer a monster corpse in sacrifice. Do this enough times and your god rewards you with an artifact weapon. (Doing this over and over for the expressed purpose of receiving a good weapon is what I mean by “sacrifesting”.) The rules for sacrificing are pretty simple: don’t #offer up any pets, don’t #offer up any corpses that are old and nasty (no mummies or zombies, please), and don’t #offer up your own species.

That last rule has a little bend to it. Chaotic characters, such as Ragnar, can safely #offer their own species. At least, “safely” in this context means “god won’t get mad at you”. In fact, you are rewarded, in a fashion, by having one of the endgame demon princes summoned to your location. This demon prince is so impressed at your cruelty that he regards you as peaceful. As long as you don’t attack him, he is no danger to you. The benefit of this is, that particular demon won’t be generated later in Gehennom. (Not that demon princes are very dangerous opponents by that time, but you know, one less thing.)

It’s usually pretty hard to accidentally attack a peaceful entity, including shopkeepers, priests, guards and the like. If you bump into one, the game asks for confirmation so you don’t totally screw yourself. This is true for peaceful monsters as well, up to and including demon princes. The only exception is when you’re armed with a bloodthirsty blade. In that case, your weapon has a mind of its own, and doesn’t wait for permission to shove itself into whatever friendly you just typo’d into.

The most common artifact weapon received during a chaotic character’s sacrifest is Stormbringer. Stormbringer is a decently powerful broadsword that sucks life from monsters. Also, it is bloodthirsty. And from here even unsophisticated NetHackers can piece together the puzzle. After getting well and truly trounched by an angry Yeenoghu in the middle of Minetown, I had no recourse except to laugh out loud and say, “Well that was fucking retarded. I’ll never make that idiotic mistake again in my NetHack career.”

Bollocked if I didn’t lose the very next Ragnar in the very same way, with the very same Stormbringer, by bumping into the very same angry-ass Yeenoghu.

The next Ragnar, I thought I was going to ascend. He managed to avoid pissing off the peaceful demon princes he summoned, for one. He took the fight all the way down to the deepest depths, got his grubby mitts on the Amulet of Yendor, and made it all the way back to the Astral Plane. The first two altars he checked were of no use to him, and on his way to the third Death came up behind him and killed him twice. This death stung. It was the farthest into the game I’d ever lost a run; the only time I’ve ever died on the Astral Plane. And it was entirely my fault! Death (as in, an actual monster called Death) was only able to catch me because I had forgotten to swing by my Sokoban stash and pick up some spare wands of death and teleportation. If I’d been able to slaughter and/or teleport the mobs of ants and dragons and vampires and such on the Astral Plane, instead of standing on a square futiley swinging Stormbringer around like some moron, Death would have only had time to touch me once or twice. Over 200 HPs, gone in a flash. Twice. Wow.

Lesson learned: you can never, never be over-prepared for the Astral Plane. It doesn’t matter what your AC is, what intrinsics you’re packing or how many HPs you have, the riders mean business. If you’re ever in a situation where you’re meleeing Death, something went wrong somewhere and it’s already too late to fix.

The next Ragnar triggered a boulder trap on the second floor, dying almost immediately. [a]pply trombone.

But then!

Yes, the next Ragnar had everything he needed. All the lessons from Ragnars past converged into one beautiful, white-hot point: skill up on the shitty arrows before switching to the good ones… treat Stormbringer with respect… don’t neglect the Sokoban stash. As far as lucky advantages went, this Ragnar only had two, and neither were particularly useful in the early game. For one, he found a cloak of magic resistance very early in the dungeon. (Of course I didn’t actually know I had this until I did my mass-identifying later on, but I probably wouldn’t have worn it anyway. Rangers start with a +2 cloak of displacement, and displacement is more useful than magic resistance in the very early game.) For another, there were a lot of general stores. At least four huge shops got generated above Sokoban, providing me with lots of resources to play with in the mid game.

But in the early game? Forget about it. Lots of counting arrows and frantically managing E-squares. Sokoban had a bag of holding, and the Minetown altar was cross-aligned, which meant I had to push into the scarier parts of the dungeon without reflection, magic resistance (remember, I didn’t know I had it) or a decent melee weapon. I used up most of my food rations taming cats and dogs. I got into the habit of [s]earching before every step, so as not to bumble into a polymorph trap. I was down to [f]iring cursed orcish arrows by the time I finally found an altar to use. And even then, Mars didn’t play nice with me. Instead of Stormbringer, he gifted me with Grimtooth, which was just a souped of version of the +1 dagger I already hated.

I sacrifested some more, and once again, no Stormbringer. Instead I got Frost Brand, a long sword which deals ice damage. Not great, but I had flashbacks to the thousands of turns Dez spent sacrifesting in search of Grayswandir, and decided, “Meh, good enough. At least I won’t piss off Yeenoghu.”

Around this time I got my cloak identified, but I wasn’t that stoked about it. Ideally I decided I’d want gray dragon scale mail, which offers magic resistance in the body armor slot, so I could keep wearing my cloak of displacement instead. Fort Ludios and the Castle both generated gray dragons, but neither dropped scales. Medusa had a polished silver shield, which was good for reflection (I think this is guaranteed, actually). In addition, I’d gotten an early ring of polymorph control and lots of helpful rings had been generated as metallic. This meant I could fill up on intrinsics by transforming into a metal-eating monster and then eating rings. This got me fire and shock resistance, a few spare points of Constitution. (Sadly, no increased damage or teleportation control. And I ate like five of each of them.)

Polypiling the Ludios haul earned me speed boots, a helm of brilliance, and some other knick-knacks. I examined the holes in my ascension kit. All I really needed was AC and gauntlets of power. I hadn’t yet used my wand of wishing.

I decided not to. Usually I like to wear gray or silver scales, gaining magic resistance or reflection, respectively, but I already had both of those from other armor pieces. Displacement is nice, but not critical. Instead, I just enchanted up some orange dragon scales to get my AC topped off. Kind of weird, but why use a wish if you don’t have to?

Gauntlets of power, I decided I could just do without. The extra melee damage would have been nice, but I’d already poly’d up more wands of death and teleportation than I could ever use, and had a huge stack of poisoned +6 arrows besides. I stowed away my wishing wand for an Astral Plane emergency. (Partially-eaten chickatrice corpse, maybe?)

I thought the ranger quest was a lot of fun. I’d been warned against it by a curmudgeonly NetHack dude I know, who said it was boring because it involved lots of walking through corridors fighting centaurs. It turns out, though, that only one floor is like that, and the floor contains lots of trees and iron bars, which are fun symbols you almost never get to see. There’s also a “hunt the wumpus” level partway through, which I thought was cute. (“You fall into a pit! Luckily, it wasn’t bottomless after all.”) At the end you kill some easy-ass scorpion thing and get the Longbow of Diana, which provides telepathy and can be #invoke’d to spit out a stack of arrows.

The ascension run was a hassle thanks to a couple of particularly tenacious arch-liches. It wasn’t until I’d spent fifteen or twenty minutes chasing a purple L through hordes of summoned nasties the entire way across Orcus Town that I realized I hadn’t seen, wished for or written any genocide scrolls. Until now I never appreciated the wisdom in standing on the upstairs to kill a powerful, teleporting, spell-casting monster… probably because I normally wipe them out. Fuck it, I’m already running wishless, I might as well run genocideless too.

I made sure to triple-check my Sokoban stash. This time, the Astral went as smooth as can be. I got lucky and found the altar on my second try, but I was well enough equipped that I could have checked them all twice, if need be. That makes this my first ascension without the [C]all exploit, as well. (I got scolded for using it last time.)

Ranger started out as a hassle, but after learning the ins and outs I started to like the class more and more. The early game was pretty nice because orcs start with poison resistance, which means they’re easier to feed. I wonder how much different an elven ranger’s early game is? (I wouldn’t have lost a Ragnar to a wand of sleep in that case, at least!)

And now, with twenty Ragnars behind me, it’s time to hang NetHack up for a while and move on to other games. I hear DoomRL is pretty damn fun?

Here’s Ragnar’s endgame dump, in case you’re a nerd who likes reading lists of wands and monsters vanquished.

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MINERAL COG!?

I started uploading Let’s Play Metal Gear yesterday. You should go and watch that, if you haven’t. One of the first things I say in the first video of the series is that the game is not about sneaking or killing dudes, but about mapping. I mapped the hell out of Metal Gear, and if you don’t believe me, click these thumbnails and despair:

Warning: some of these have chocolate on them because I am a gross slob.
I played the game as part of the Metal Gear Solid 3 HD Edition package, which includes both classic MSX games and, in fact, was the primary reason that particular package piqued my interest. It only took me a few days to play both games to conclusion, and I think both of them are extremely good games, and quite ahead of their time. It’s not unusual to see Metal Gear fanboys (who should not be confused with Metal Gear Solid fanboys, who are a different breed entirely) proclaim Metal Gear 2 as the finest game in the series. I see where they’re coming from, but my insatiable love of mapping and I have to disagree. I prefer the original, which is why I decided to LP it.

It took me a while to think of a good way to phrase my reasoning. At a purely technical level, MG2 is the superior game. It does more stuff, and does it better, than MG1, plus it throws in the compelling and/or long-winded narrative the series eventually became famous for. It switches up the way alerts are triggered and erased, which helps to create an atmosphere of sneaking around a forbidden place that the first game didn’t really nail. Soldiers had conical vision, so you can no longer hide two pixels outside their direct line of sight. You can crouch and crawl on the ground, which opens up a wealth of hiding spots and alternate paths. The nine-screen mini-map helps to plan routes, so areas of the game are handled more as actual areas and less as stand-alone rooms.

To extrapolate on that last point a bit, MG2 has a much better sense of place than MG1. I don’t think the actual game world is much bigger, but it is a lot denser, in that areas are used multiple times for multiple purposes, and you often have to go back to old areas in order to explore them in new ways. It helps the game to feel as though a plot is unfolding in a particular setting, rather than MG1‘s blatant and videogame-y series of levels.

All that said, though, MG1 is the better experience overall. A lot of that is just the primal joy I get from drawing and studying accurate game-world maps. This was neither required nor useful in MG2. More than that, though, I think MG2 tried to be a little too big for its britches. It’s one thing for a game to be ahead of its time, and another thing for a game to be ahead of its hardware generation. Simply put, MG1 felt like a fantastic 8-bit game, and MG2 felt like a well-intentioned 8-bit port of a 16-bit game. We used to see lots of these on the NES and Game Boy back in the early ’90s.

Let’s start with the plot. MG1‘s plot is nothing more than a justification to run Snake through a couple buildings full of soldiers and rolling barrel traps. You go in, you do the thing, you save the guy, you blow up the other guy, you get the credits. Top-down Mega Man, basically. In MG2, however, the plot is at the center of the game, with the gameplay draped over it. This means there are actual characters, and important dialogue, and plot twists to worry about. These things take time to introduce and develop… and that’s where it falls apart. No 8-bit hardware is up to the task.

We’ll take Gustava as an example. (This will work particularly well if you’ve played Metal Gear Solid, but nothing earlier.) At one point in the infiltration, Snake is told to hook up with a female soldier named Gustava who can help him contact the scientist he’s searching for. He does, and the two of them decide to work together. Just as it looks like they’re about in the clear, Gustava is cut down by the enemy and dies tragically in Snake’s arm, leaving the rest of her mission in his hands.

If this reminds you of Meryl Silverburgh, that’s because the entire subplot was re-packaged for the sequel. The difference is, the PS1 hardware had the muscle to sell the player on the whole Meryl plot. When Meryl and Snake spoke with each other they weren’t just two stacks of pixels in the middle of the screen; they were actual people who would move and react. When they spoke, their dialogue wasn’t just a box of letters you advanced with the A button; they were voice-overs, which brought a layer of emotion and inflection to the dialogue. And when Meryl finally got her fool self shot, it wasn’t just a screen flash followed by an abrupt change to a sideways stack of pixels. You heard a gunshot which sounded like a gunshot, a painful cry that sounded like a cry, and saw blood spatter that actually looked like blood spatter.

…and then your boss sent you on a stupid fetch quest back to the beginning of the game. Whatever. My point is this: the buildup of Snake and Meryl’s relationship, followed by the cinematics of her death, made me care about who she was and what her impact was on the story. Gustava, on the other hand… well, she’s in the game all of maybe twenty minutes. I had to Google her name a few paragraphs ago, because I had forgotten it.

One thing Metal Gear games are pretty consistently good it is showing part of its story as an extension of its gameplay. Even the original has its moments, such as when Snake recovers his equipment only to find a transmitter has been hidden in it. MG2 has a fair amount of this too, but again, it’s a little too meaty for its time. Lots and lots of, “Oh, I can see what they were going for here. But still, that was really annoying.”

A few examples. Most of the boss fights qualify, actually. The bosses in MG1 were mostly just standard top-down action game fluff — “shoot the bad guy more times than he shoots you” sort of affairs. The bosses in MG2 each had a twist or gimmick to them, and a lot of these twists don’t seem to work as advertised. One boss has perfect camo, and so is invisible, and you’re supposed to track him based on the sound his footsteps make against the different floor material across several screens. His bullets weren’t invisible, though, and there’s really no way he can stalk you in a top-down sprite-based game, so the real way to win the fight is to wait until he shoots you, shoot the spot the bullets are coming from, and then eat a ration when your life gets low.

Another: in one fight, the boss simply leaps on your back and starts choking you out. Since the game has no actions outside of Walk, Punch and Crouch, the only way to win is to send remote-control missiles at your own back. The battle is slapstick comedy at that point. Forget the boss music; someone should cue up Yakety Sax.

The most egregious of these is the temperature-sensative key. This is another feature MGS players will recognize: the player gets a key that takes a different shape depending on how hot or cold it is. So you bring it to a hot or cold room, depending on what you want to do with it. This was a little silly in MGS, but it was used mostly as a pacing technique. The scene is placed in between two thrilling boss fights, and various NPCs take the opportunity to advance the narrative as Snake is backtracking from place to place. Also, Snake is traversing relatively low-risk areas that he hasn’t spent a lot of time in yet, so it’s not really boring.

MG2‘s temperature key is just busywork. Instead of spacing out two boss fights, it spaces out a bad boss fight and an ill-conceived instant death trap (which could be another paragraph all its own). Instead of using the time to advance the narrative, characters on both sides of the radio stay silent the entire time, and nothing new or interesting happens. And instead of backtracking through a low-risk section the player is still somewhat new to, you’re backtracking through guard-infested territory you’ve already crossed many times. You dodge the same guards, in the same exact way, all because there’s only one fridge in the entire complex… for no reason other than someone thought the game needed to be twenty minutes longer. Bad!

The last major quibble I have with MG2 is its keycards. Snake tends to accumulate a stack of numbered cards as he goes through the game, and every single door he comes across can be opened by only a single card. The game tries to help you out by eventually consolidating some of the cards, so instead of systematically trying 1, then 2, then 3, he can try 1/2/3 all at once before moving up to 4, then 5, and so on. Still, this means four inventory transitions every time you find a new door. It annoyed me.

This did not annoy me in the original Metal Gear, which had far more doors and did nothing to consolidate anything. Why is that? Well, for one, I’d been carefully mapping each new room of MG1, so backtracking was as easy as glancing at my map to see which key I needed. Mapping is unnecessary in MG2, but that has the side effect of having no way of knowing what number each door was outside of rote memorization. And MG2 had lots more backtracking.

Aside from that, though, I think it was a matter of conditioning expectations. MG1 is a maze, and the game is about solving the maze, which means mapping and unlocking the maze. Actions taken in a maze often include putting the right pieces in the right slot, and numbered keycards are only one example of the sort of inventory gates MG1 uses. Broadly speaking, you just walk through the game equipping whatever the proper item is at the moment, until you win. Card #5 is no different from, say, a Compass or an Enemy Uniform in that sort of game.

MG2 is not a maze; it’s an adventure. The game is a sequence of events, which logically follow one another as the player moves through a world that is trying to sell itself on being realistic. Your inventory is no longer just a keyring; it’s a toybox. You often have to consider what items are — what they consist of, in some cases — and work out how to logically use them. This makes for really satisfying “aha!” moments, but rubbing keycards against doorknobs sticks out like a throbbing blister by comparison.

The problem need not exist, and I think that’s what bugged me. One solution would be to simply give me some visual indicator as to which card goes with which door. This need not be as blatant as slapping a 5 on every Card #5 door. Something subtle would do just as well. A color, a shape, the positioning of the hinges. Another “aha!” to discover. Or, more elegant still, go with MGS1‘s solution: each new keycard functions as all the cards beneath it, thereby making them redundant. Also does wonder for inventory clean-up.

None of this is to say Metal Gear 2 is a bad game, or that you should not play it. It’s a great game and you should play it, if for no reason than to understand its rightful place in gaming history. For us Ameritards who never had an MSX to play with, it also serves as a nice showcase of what 8-bit games looked and played like outside our little NES ghetto. I simply didn’t enjoy playing it as much as the original, is all. And it doesn’t lend itself as well to LPing.

If nothing else, the two games taken in aggregate paint a pretty hilarious picture of how practically every single scene in Metal Gear Solid was lifted wholesale from one of its prequels. I think the reason for that might be someone looking at the PS1 and saying, “Hey, all those great ideas from the pixel game that didn’t fly very well? Now they shall soar.“And since MGS2 is an admitted rehash ofMGS1, that means there weren’t any truly original gameplay ideas in the series until MGS3. Which is the series’s best game anyway, and the one you get if you want to download the MSX classics to your PlayStation. A nice little package, all in all. Highly recommended.

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So… I guess we’re back?

I woke up today to find my YouTube account had been reinstated. So… happy day? I still don’t know why it was terminated in the first place; YouTube’s e-mail only says something along the lines of “we reviewed your case and it turns out you’re not in violation”. Still, it was good to log in and see this:

So tomorrow we’ll be back to business as usual!

If nothing else, this whole ordeal has been a kick in the pants to evaluate my backup policies. I only had an embarrassingly small amount of video content stored locally, and had to rely on the amazing kindness of strangers to get most of it back. My current project to get my own archives up and running is still a priority over here, so next time this happens I’ll be ready for it.

This does mean there’s no reason to host torrents, though, unless that’s something people really want.

I have spent the last two weeks reading lots of stories like mine. It is still frustrating to me that I don’t know the reason my account was bitch-smacked in the first place. I’m glad to learn that neither LPs nor helpful Kickstarter plugs are against their community guidelines, I suppose, and I understand that I’m using their service for free in a world where nothing is free. I still think they could and should do a better job communicating with their users.

And there really needs to be something between “your account is in good standing” and “your account has been banned and you can never make a new one”. Personally speaking, the hardest part about these past two weeks hasn’t been the inability to upload videos, it’s been losing all my subscriptions and favorites and such. I watch YouTube like most people watch TV. Having to log out of Google and then log into an alt account every time I wanted to watch a video was taking a serious toll on my psyche.

Thanks to everyone who wrote nice notes and who helped get the bulk of my archives back. You are good folks! I’m glad so many good folks enjoy my nonsense.

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Let’s Play Shantae, coming to a torrent tracker near you!

There hasn’t been any news from YouTube. And if the various complaints and conversations I’ve turned up while researching other folks who were in my position, probably none of us should hold our breath.

But the time for mourning is over, and the time for rebuilding is nigh! This post is about my plan to get my Let’s Play empire back up and running, and about how you can help!

First of all: if you’re one of my YouTube subscribers that doesn’t follow my blog, well, thanks for dropping in! I know there are at least a few of you because some of you left me nice comments on that last post. I hope you guys hang in there, and if you’re dying for some good ol’ Let’s Play content in the meantime, you should probably read this forum thread at Talking Time where I’ve been playing Final Fantasy II for almost two years now. There are a few more screenshot-style LPs here that you probably haven’t seen, too!

Secondly: I made a new YouTube account, TheRealBrickroad. (Accept no substitutes.) I did this mainly because it was driving me nuts not having a way to access my subscriptions, but if there’s no news about the old account forthcoming soon I will start uploading videos to it. Feel free to preemptively subscribe! I want to start putting videos up maybe next week, probably some mix of new and old stuff. If you’re a newer subscriber, the old stuff will be new to you anyway. Just pretend I caught a cold that makes my voice sound like it’s being filtered through the world’s most awful microphone.

Third-like, and most important-like: I didn’t have a lot of my oldest material backed up, because I am a gargantuan fool with really bad PC storage habits. Fortunately an extremely awesome dude named MJG stepped up and supplied me with pretty much every video I’ve ever made. I’m currently going through and organizing this material, and I’m going to start posting links to torrents on this blog so you can download the old series for yourself.

And this is where I need your help! What I can never recover without access to my old YouTube account are the video titles and descriptions. You know, the little “Wherein…” blurb I stick at the bottom of each video. I’m going to be too busy compressing and organizing and torrenting and uploading stuff to re-watch and re-write those old descriptions, so I’m outsourcing the job to you. Your job is to watch these old videos and come up with funny and/or interesting titles and descriptions. Just leave your suggestions as a comment on this post and I’ll be sure to see them.

Here is a link to the Let’s Play Shantae torrent, all 59 parts:
Let’s Play Shantae 

I’ll be back later with more torrents to more old stuff.. As thanks for your help, I will prioritize getting Risky’s Revenge up as soon as I can, as well as make available a pretty sweet 34-part series of Riven that I have sitting here collecting dust. You guys like Riven, right?

Thanks again for watching and for helping me out.

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Why My YouTube Account Was Terminated

The short answer is, I don’t know.

The closest thing YouTube has given me to a long answer is: “This account has been suspended due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube’s policy against spam, gaming, misleading content, or other Terms of Service violations.”

That doesn’t sound like an accurate description of anything I’ve ever used YouTube’s services for.

My history with YouTube is pretty benign. For a couple years after signing up a YouTube account, I didn’t use it for anything but managing subscriptions and favorites. Then I bought a cheap USB screen capture dongle thing and, to test it out, uploaded a silly video of some dancing dogs from Suikoden. Maybe a year or so after that, just to prove to a guy on Talking Time that I could do it, I recorded myself beating Ring Man in Mega Man IV without any weapons and without getting hit. And then, since I had a microphone laying around, I recorded myself talking over Mega Man III. Then I did a couple more games, included an obscure Game Boy title called Shantae. That one got watched by the game’s creators, who linked up my YouTube channel on their blog and gave me more subscribers than I ever imagined I could get.

It’s been a lot of fun. Making and uploading Let’s Play videos has been the most rewarding hobby I’ve ever had. I’ve had lots of webpages and blogs and indie game projects and forums and things, but I had never had a real audience, and that made all the difference to me. It’s a good feeling knowing that a thousand people like some thing you made.

Let’s Plays exist in a kind of murky legal space. Nobody’s really sure whether they are covered under Fair Use, largely because nobody’s ever challenged them in court. I believe nobody has ever challenged them because, from the game company’s point of view, an LP series is at worst a harmless derivative work, and at best free advertising. That being said, it’s still possible that a game company could come along and slap an LP with a copyright claim. This is something we just sort of live with, just like people who write fan fiction or make unofficial sequels or remakes. In fan communities, authors or companies that actively hunt down fan works are considered draconian.

Since there’s no official set of rules to making LPs while staying within the bounds of copyright law, I’ve always adhered to a few unofficial ones:

  1. Never LP a game that isn’t at least one year old. Putting up complete gameplay videos of brand new games has always seemed tacky to me, Fair Use or no. This is why I let my blind run of Mega Man 10 chill on my hard drive for a year before uploading it. I have a blind run of Journey chilling right now for the same reason.
  2. Keep the videos family friendly. Vulgar videos are more likely to be flagged, and besides, I liked the thought of little kids enjoying my videos along with their gamer parents. (I know of at least one case where this has happened, and it made me feel all warm and squishy inside.)
  3. If a video was ever flagged or removed, do not contest it. No matter what, I had to remember that I was uploading copyrighted material, and that the copyright holder had every right to remove that material if they so chose. Lots of YouTubers just re-upload the video (sometimes to the same account!), which struck me as petty and stupid.

I never held any illusions that these things would protect me forever, but there are a lot of LPers on YouTube who skirt the copyright lines a lot more dangerously than I ever did. Never once, though, have I had a video flagged or removed for copyright reasons. I’ve received a few copyright notices, little automated responses from YouTube saying “Hey, this might be a problem, but it might not, so don’t worry about it for now.” I think I accumulated three of these over 700+ videos.

These notices, by the way, are not the same as “strikes”. When your account receives a strike, that means that a copyright holder has filed a complaint against your content and the content was pulled. Three of these, and the account is terminated permanently. This has never happened to any of my videos. If it had, I would have removed every video from that LP series, as well as every LP series of a game by that company. And then I might have taken a six-month-long hiatus from uploading new series, since that’s how long it takes for a strike to go away.

The truth is I don’t know why the account was terminated. YouTube didn’t offer any warning or explanation. There are several appeal forms at various parts on the YouTube site — and I found a couple more doing research into people whose accounts were similarly banned. I filled all these out to the best of my ability. Some of the articles and conversations my research turned up implied that I could wait forever for a response and never get one. Others say their accounts were reinstated after various periods of time. I have no idea where on that line my situation falls. A couple of these resources mentioned writing an open letter to YouTube to plead your case, so that’s what I’m doing now.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think my termination had anything to do with copyright violations. I had a screwy moment logging into Google early today saying there had been “suspicious activity” on my account. I immediately verified my account using my cell phone, changed the password, and purged a couple of websites linked to my Google login that I no longer use. It wasn’t until I tried refreshing my YouTube window that I was informed my account was gone. It’s possible my account became compromised somehow.

I’m also aware that it’s YouTube’s policy to “ban first, ask questions later”. There are lots of complaints of innocent folks getting their accounts banned because of users falsely flagging their videos. If, say, a bunch of people went through my Mega Man videos and flagged them inappropriate for hate speech or pornography, YouTube’s robots would ban the account automatically. This doesn’t strike me as particularly likely, though, because it would require me to have some really malicious enemies… and quite frankly I’m not that interesting.

It’s also been pointed out that last week I uploaded a video with no purpose other than to plug a friend’s Kickstarter project, and that might run up against one of YouTube’s meaningful content terms. I don’t think this is very likely either, though, because that video stayed up until this point without incident, and if it had been in violation I would think the violation would be minor enough to merit a strike rather than immediate termination. But, again, I have no way of knowing.

My message to YouTube: Please re-instate my account as soon as possible. If the termination was a mistake, please correct it and you will have my gratitude. If it was in response to a copyright claim, please inform me which video is the offender so I can remove it and all the ones related to it. If the account cannot be reinstated, at least tell me what went wrong.

I have never made a dime from uploading Let’s Play videos; it is a hobby, pure and simple. I have received many offers from dubious “gaming networks” who wanted to monetize my videos, but I have ignored them all. Part of your mission statement is to give people a platform to showcase their skills and talents. Well, my skills and talents begin and end at playing video games and being capable of witty banter. That may sound strange but about a thousand people seemed to really enjoy it. It brightened their lives and it brightened mine too. I would like to keep doing it.

My message to my subscribers: I don’t know what this all means for the future of my Let’s Plays. If my account is not reinstate then my oldest stuff, like Shantae and Secret of Evermore, is simply gone forever. As for the rest of the stuff, it may or may not appear on another video site at a future date. As for the current series, Shiren and Risky’s Revenge, I will try and make it a priority to make them available, if possible.

If you have the means, please try and politely let YouTube know that you would like to see my account reinstated. There is no way I know of to contact YouTube directly via e-mail or the website, but you can spread the word about my ban and why you’d like to see it lifted by hitting your social media of choice and pointing people to this blog post. Better yet, you can upload a video to YouTube with an open letter of your own. If nothing else, the show of solidarity will do me good!

Above all, I want to thank everyone who watched and enjoyed my videos. I never wanted anything from you guys except your eyeballs, and I really loved having the chance to entertain so many people for so long by doing the silly kind of stuff I’ve been doing on my own since I was a kid. I know I have done a lot to entertain folks, and to introduce them to games they wouldn’t have played, and to help them experience games they didn’t want to play, and to teach them something about gaming history as I understand it.

Thank you for reading, and fingers crossed that this whole thing blows over quickly.

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Final Fantasy V: Four Job Fiesta

The rules of the Final Fantasy V Four Job Fiesta are simple: each time one of the four crystals gives you a new set of jobs, you randomly pick one to keep. One job from each crystal: that’s it. You can mix and match however you like, but you can only use abilities from those four jobs, and you have to have one of each in your party at all times.

I’d been following the Fun Club thread at Talking Time, but I wasn’t going to participate. After all, I’m already neck-deep in a Final Fantasy Tactics challenge run, and I wasn’t looking to do an FF5 replay anytime soon. But then Theatrhythm came out, which made me want to replay every FF game ever, so I figured why not.

(You’re supposed to use some Twitter shenanigans to get your job picks, but I didn’t feel like re-activating my Twitter thing, so I just used good ol’ random.org.)

My Wind Crystal job was Thief, which almost scared me off the challenge right then and there. Thieves are pretty weak, and I’d have to use a party full of them until the Water Crystal, which didn’t sound like much fun. Their attacks are weak, and the first town doesn’t even sell Daggers, so I would have to do the Ship Graveyard virtually unequipped. On the plus side, innate Vigilance meant I’d never have to worry about back attacks!

I quickly learned that Thieves had another advantage I’d always overlooked: the !Flee command enables you to skip random encounters. Whatever else happened, if the going ever got too rough, I could always just make a beeline for a save point or dungeon exit to regroup. This boiled the game down (mostly) to a series of boss fight challenges, which sounded a lot more manageable to me.

Karlabos
The first boss is the mean-looking lobster dude in the canal. Not much I could do here but attack, and use Potions where necessary. Fortunately, that’s about all it takes to kill it.

Ship Graveyard
A couple of Daggers dropped off the Skeletons here, so I was able to get my damage output somewhere respectable.

Siren
I wasn’t expecting to have difficulty with Siren. Partway through the fight she turns undead, and I figured, hey, I can just chuck a Phoenix Down or an Elixir at her. This is where my ignorance of FF5 began to shine through, because apparently that trick doesn’t work in this game. (Or, at least, it doesn’t work 100% of the time.) I managed to skate through the fight on my Daggers, but it was touch-and-go for a couple rounds.

Magissa and Forza
I had to lose this fight twice before I came up with a workable strategy. Magissa is not a big deal; she uses attack magic, but nothing some quick Potions can’t stay on top of. The trouble begins when she summons her boyfriend Forza, whose powerful physical attacks can one-shot a Thief on the front line. This meant I had to switch everyone to the back row once Forza showed up, which enabled me to survive but slashed my attack power in half. Magissa is nearly dead by this point in the fight, but Forza has lots of HP. The fight became a war of attrition; as long as I had Potions he could never beat me, but once I ran out it was all over. That ended up happening, and I had to run back to town to restock. After many rounds of 20-damage hits, though, he finally went down and I got on with my life.

Walse Castle
Judicious use of !Flee allowed me to get my Elven Mantle without any trouble.

Garula
Oh good, it’s just the Forza fight again, except with more HPs! Fortunately, I had been dutifully !Stealing from each new monster in a hungry grab for resources, and discovered the Wyverns in Walse Tower yeild Mythril Knives. Four of these brought my damage output to the next level, and Garula wasn’t much of an issue.

I was pretty stoked to get my Water Crystal job, because I was getting a bit tired of the Attack/Potion/Attack/Potion/!Flee routine. Alas, my desire for deeper strategy was destined to go unfulfilled: my new job was Berserker. This meant that all White, Black, Time and Summon magic would be forever denied to me. It also meant I’d have to figure out a way to get through several already-pretty-tough boss fights without anything but physical attacks and Potions. Eventually I’d be able to give my Berserker the Artful Dodger ability to increase his Speed, but someone would have to master Thief first, and that was still a way’s off.

Fire Ship
!Steal proved its worth over and over again here, providing an easy and endless source of Ethers and Hi-Potions. One of the treasure chests is a Moonring Blade, which would allow one of my Thieves to hit from the back row at no penalty.

Liquid Flame
This boss has three forms, and each form has different properties. I never bothered to learn what they were, though, because normally you just summon Shiva to end the fight before it starts. I didn’t have that luxury this time, though, so I had to do some figuring.

The three forms are Man, Tornado and Hand. The boss mainly attacks by countering damage, so if you need a breather you can just lay off and focus on healing. (Or, rather, you could as long as you don’t have a goddamn Berserker on the team.) The Hand’s counter is most deadly; it casts Fira on one of your guys, which at this level is pretty much a OHKO. The Tornado’s counter is to cast Fira on itself, healing lots of HPs. The Man counters by using Blaze, which hits the whole group, but can be somewhat easily healed.

The boss’s weakness is its limited MP. By laying off the Hand, but hitting the Tornado as much as possible, I was able to get it to Fira itself dry. All I had to worry about then was Blaze, which is a free spell, but by that point the tide was in my favor. Hurrah!

Karnak Castle
I ran the Karnak escape sequence twice. On a normal game you have no problem getting all the treasure (Elixirs, mostly) in the time limit, but there was no way my team would manage it. Fortunately, failing my first attempt gave me enough insight to breeze through my second. I pocketed lots of gil, and a Ribbon, and another Elven Mantle, and a Main Gauche (which, surprisingly, was an upgrade from whatever axe my Berserker was using). In addition, you can !Steal Mage Mashers from the wizard guys in here, which means the whole team got an upgrade.

Iron Claw
I could see this fight going bad, but it didn’t. Attack until gg.

At this point the game awards you with three of the Fire Crystal jobs, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Should I roll for my third job now, or wait until I had all five became available? The benefit to rolling now was a 3/5 chance of increased abilities for the next dungeon. However, I decided to tough it out with what I had.

Ifrit
The same strategy that worked against the Liquid Flame worked again here, with this addition: my Mage Mashers were able to inflict Silence, thus removing Fira from Ifrit’s spell list. I still had to contend with Blaze, but he wasted too many rounds, and I outlasted him.

Byblos
This guy, on the other hand, this total speed bump nothing guy from any “normal” FF5 playthrough, was a nightmare and a half. Byblos is a prime example of a few really annoying traits coming together to make an almost unkillable boss. The first complication is, he counters physical hits with Protect. So the fight stretches out twice as long as it needs too, right out of the gate.

Most of his attacks are status ailments, which weaken you a bit but can’t actually win the fight for him. His physicals were harsh on my front-row Thieves, but I had farmed up lots of Hi-Potions, so this wasn’t an issue. The issue was Wind Slash, which took a huge bite out of my entire party. With three Thieves working overtime issuing Hi-Potions I could recover from this, but it was going to take a lot of Hi-Potions. I went in with about twenty, and that wasn’t enough, so I went back and farmed up twenty more. Even a team of Slow’d L1 heroes (which is what I had, thanks to his constant use of Web and Dischord) can win this fight, 28 damage at a time if need be, as long as the Hi-Potions hold.

They held, but Byblos had one last trick up his sleeve: at low HP, he starts countering physicals with Drain instead of Protect. This heals him for about 200, and a Berserker with a Main Gauche who hasn’t been hit by Dischord can land 170 on a critical. Running him out of MP didn’t seem to be an option. All I could really do was hope my Berserker landed a couple good hits in a row which either didn’t trigger Drain, or otherwise hope for Drain to miss.

One of my Berserkers got Dischord’d, lowering his damage output to 40 or so. There’s no cure for this other than to just kill the Berserker so he doesn’t get in your way. Too bad.

My next increase in power level wasn’t going to be until someone learned Artful Dodger, which would have taken so much powerleveling that the stat increases probably would have won me the fight. Fortunately it didn’t come to that, and after my third 20-minute battle against Byblos I finally won. This is where someone comes along to tell me of an amazing strategy I missed, or some way for Thieves to deal Fire damage, or whatever. But that won’t harsh my mood; I’d successfully worked through my first real struggle of the game, and was looking forward to the next.

Sandworm
As it happens, the next struggle almost caused me to give up. The Sandworm continuously pops out of one of three holes, and if you hit an empty hole instead of a worm you get nailed with Gravity. Berserkers, of course, don’t discriminate between targets, which meant eating a lot of Gravity. The only way to avoid this was to enter the fight with my Berserker dead.

That left the Sandworm’s main attack, Quicksand. This deals damage to the whole party and inflicts Sap, so your HP slowly drains away for the rest of the fight. This isn’t a problem if you have Hi-Potions, but I was running low, and the plot had conspired to deny me access to my Hi-Potion farming grounds temporarily. The only other place to get them was from a rare monster in the library that doesn’t appear until you’ve killed several lesser monsters.

What was holding me back was a simple mental block. See, right near the desert are giant bird creatures you can steal Elixirs from. Spamming Elixirs in an early game boss fight just didn’t seem right, so for some reason my brain didn’t make the connection right away. But that’s what I had to do to win. (Of course, after spending thirty minutes farming up Elixirs one of the Talking Time guys stepped up with a hot tip abut stealing Hi-Potions from Ramuh, so I spent a few minutes doing that too.)

Cray Claw
My third job turned out to be Bard, which is like way-bro-awesome, because Bards are sickeningly broken in this game. A quick trip to Istory scored Romeo’s Ballad, which is an all-but-guaranteed multi-target Stop spell, at no MP cost, that works on many bosses. Spamming this song became my bread and butter. The Cray Claw didn’t even get to attack me.

Adamantoise
Ditto.

Soul Cannon
Another tough nut to crack. This fight starts with two small guns throwing Gravity-type attacks at you. These can’t kill you, but the Soul Cannon itself fires off a huge blast every couple of rounds which can. The problem was, the small guns inflict Old, which reduces your stats to basically nothing. Even if I managed to sneak my Berserker through without getting Old’d, I wasn’t doing enough damage to keep up with the constant laser blasts.

Then someone told me where to !Steal a Death Sickle, which was a monumental damage upgrade. This didn’t help with the luck-driven aspect of the fight, but it brought the battle down from insanely difficult to merely somewhat tedious.

Archeoaevis
For some reason I always remember this boss as giving me no end of grief, but it did absolutely nothing to get in my way this time. No doubt that Death Sickle helped quite a bit.

At this point I got my fourth job (Samurai) and Galuf left the team. I designated him as a Thief, which meant I was locked in to Berserker/Bard/Samurai for the World One Boss Hoedown.

Purobolos
Romeo’s Ballad prevented them from acting at all, heh heh.

Titan
I had been dreading this fight the entire game. Without a full-party heal, I had no idea how I was going to survive his Earth Shaker attack, which he uses upon death. The canonical way to survive earthquake attacks is to use Float, but 1) I didn’t have a White Mage and 2) you don’t get that spell until World Two. I was afraid I was just going to have to powerlevel until my Samurai had enough HPs to survive Titan’s final attack.

Luckily, some research revealed a monster called Gaelicat in an early dungeon that casts Float if you Confuse it. Bard to the rescue once again, with the Confuse-causing Alluring Air song. Within minutes we were floating and Titan could no longer reach me.

Manticore
Neutered by Romeo’s Ballad… which brought me to World Two!

Abductor
You fight this guy with just Bartz, and Bartz happened to be my Berserker at the time… so I just watched this fight play out. I don’t think you can actually lose it.

Gilgamesh #1
And you fight this guy with just Galuf, who was my Thief. I did that so I could start stealing Genji equipment, but apparently he doesn’t carry any during this first fight. Total bummer.

Gilgamesh #2
Again with the no Genji equipment. Was my memory playing tricks on me? Residual traces of FF12 clogging up the neurons? Oh well, Samurai and Berserker took care of him pretty quickly.

Tyrannosaur
Every FF game has one undead boss you kill by chucking a Phoenix Down at. This is that boss.

Dragon Pod
Apparently isn’t immune to KO, because my Berserker proc’d Death off his Death Sickle and won this fight in about eight seconds.

Gilgamesh #3 + Enkidu
Gilgamesh isn’t a problem in this fight, but Enkidu is. You can’t focus on killing Gilgy because Enkidu uses White Wind to heal the both of them. And focusing on Enkidu causes him to start Draining you. Aagh! Shades of Byblos! To make matters worse, Enkidu is in the back row, so physical attacks do half damage to him.

After a painful loss (lots of cutscenes to re-watch) I swapped some equipment around. Giving my Dancing Dagger to my Berserker and hoping for a fortuitous Sword Dance proc turned out to be just the edge I needed; that dealt way more damage than Enkidu could Drain back, letting me win the fight. Oh, and I stole some Genji Gloves, so my memory wasn’t totally stupid.

Atomos
This is a trick fight no matter what jobs you bring. He spams Comet until someone dies, and then starts dragging the corpse across the map to eat it. As long as he’s in corpse-dragging mode he can’t kill another character, so if you leave one guy dead and then revive him just before he gets snarfed, you can get in a lot of hits. Problem is, with my team’s low damage output, I wasn’t sure I could win before everyone got eaten. I cut it pretty close… in the end, everyone was just a few pixels away.

Crystals
!Zenigage, followed by !Zenigage. These guys don’t mess around, so I didn’t either.

Gilgamesh #4
You can !Steal the Genji Helm from him after he transforms, but other than that it’s the same old Gilgy. Since last time I saw him everyone had gotten a nice, beefy weapon upgrade, and I had also gotten my first mastered Thief. A Berserker with Artful Dodger is a wonderful thing.

Exdeath
I tried to win this fight legit, honestly I did. But Exdeath throws powerful spells way too rapid-fire for a team with no multi-heals and no burst damage to survive. Fortunately one of my YouTube subscriptions yeilded the answer: equip Reflect Rings, have someone !Hide, then survive until he uses Zombie Breath. Since Zombies can’t be killed, and your !Hidden character can’t be targeted, it’s impossible to lose the fight in this state. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for him to use Level 3 Flare a few times, which will bounce off your Reflect and deal 3000 damage to him. I ate tacos and watched a whole episode of Breaking Bad waiting for Exdeath to finish killing himself.

Seriously, look at this hilarious shit.

And that brings me to World Three! I was surprised to see I cleared World Two in record time; a little over four hours. (Keeping in mind some of that was letting the game sit idle, because I play it at work and have to divide my attention.) I think that’s because in a normal run I spend so much time filling out spell lists and banging my head against the Gil Turtle and what-have-you, whereas this time I pretty much just kept on task. No point going out of your way to hunt Catoblepas when there are no Summoners in the party, right?

Antlion
You only get two heroes for this fight, but then, he’s kind of a pushover. I pretty much just pummeled him.

Gargoyles
The Gargoyles are annoying because if you don’t kill them at the same time, or at least very close together, they will continuously revive each other. And with a Berserker on the team actually timing your hits can be very difficult… especially with low damage output like mine. (I could have grabbed the Chicken Knife before this fight, but I forgot about it.) !Zenigage could have mopped up here, but I pretty much just gunned it hoping I’d get lucky, and eventually, I did.

Moore Pyramid
This was a long, arduous dungeon I never would have made it through without Romeo’s Ballad. (Or remembering to get the Chicken Knife. Heh.) But I looted the entire place, by thunder, picking up a nice Earth Hammer for my Berserker. Now, at long last, I had a semi-reliable way to damage multiple targets! (My Samurai had a Wind Slash, but its attack power was too low to use in general fights. Go figure.)

Melusine
With Reflect Rings handy Melusine couldn’t actually damage me. Her attacks served to heal her, of course, but never for more than I could dish out. She has four “forms”, only one of which is susceptible to physical attacks. However, that one form was taking punishment from a maxed out Chicken Knife and a pretty pissed off Berserker. The fight dragged on and on, but my victory was really inevitable.

At this point the game opens up considerably. The idea is you’re supposed to run around the world completing subquests to unlock all the endgame spells and equipment, but I decided to skip most of it because it just didn’t pertain to me. I did swing by the Sealed Castle to pick up a Rune Axe, Masamune and Apollo’s Harp. The Masamune in particular was nice, because it guarantees first strike, so equipping it and !Flee onto my Samurai made avoiding combat trivial. I also visited the Phantom Village for four sets of Hermes Sandals (auto-Haste) and completed the chocobo sidequest for a Mirage Vest (auto-Blink), picked up my Magic Lamp (free summons), and filled out my !Sing repertoire. The new songs included Sinewy Etude (Strength buff) and Hero’s Rime (increase party’s level), both of which got plenty of use.

And so with a team around L30, it was into the Rift with me!

Calofisteri
…is vulnerable to Silence. Pulling out the ol’ Mage Mashers was the key here, then I simply whacked her to death.

Omega
…is vulnerable to Stop, and therefore chain-casting Romeo’s Ballad is a winner. However, he only stays Stop’d for a very short amount of time; even two Haste’d Bards !Singing full time will let him sneak an attack in once in a while. And without proper equipment (much of which I didn’t have) a single attack will destroy me. So I had my actual Bard !Sing Swift Song, which increases everyone’s Speed stat, and then had two other heroes with !Sing carefully timing their use of Romeo’s Ballad while the Berserker killed Omega with the Chicken Knife. With Hermes Sandals and Artful Dodger, the Berserker got to attack between each layer of Romeo’s Ballad, and after a couple tries to get the timing worked out I was rewarded with my very own Omega Badge. Huzzah!

Apanda
A tough fight, but with three strong, fast attackers under the influence of Sinewy Etude, he didn’t last long.

Azulmagia
This is an optional battle, but winning it opens a save point right in front of a few other tough non-optional bosses, so I wanted him dead. He essentially uses Blue Magic nonstop, which is notorious for being a random grab-bag of effects. Blue Magic is incredibly powerful if used properly, but I was hoping the RNG was too dumb to use the right spells and that I could get lucky just pounding the boss into paste. And that’s what happened. Thanks for the save point, noob!

Catastrophe
This boss spams Earth Shaker like nobody’s business. There was simply no beating him without Float. I’m sure there are better ways to get Float at this point in the game, but I was pretty comfortable on the couch and didn’t feel like getting up to check the wiki, so I just ran out of the dungeon and paid a visit to my old pals the Gaelicats. If you’re Floating, Catastrophe opens with 100 Gs, negating the status. Bleeh. With Reflect Rings on, though, 100 Gs bounces off, and what’s better, he’s too stupid to try anything else. In other words, I could have won this fight barehanded with a single character.

Halicarnassus
Aside from Frogging everyone right up front, I didn’t note anything difficult about this boss. He didn’t seem to have any multi-party attacks, and I had lots of Phoenix Downs. I actually got use out of my Mana’s Paean song, using it to buff the party’s Magic and then using the Magic Lamp to summon Bahamut and Leviathan. (The Magic Lamp casts each Summon in order, beginning with Bahamut and working down. The next spell in the cycle was Odin.)

Twintania
Odin, by the way, happens to be a OHKO against this massively difficult boss. There’s even a book in the last dungeon that clues you in to this.

Gilgamesh #5
Stole the Genji Shield from him, then he ran off.

Necrophobe
After the Sandworm, this had to be the hardest boss in the game. He starts out surrounded by four barriers that spam Holy and Flare at you. They bounce these at you, meaning you can’t Reflect them. The only feasible way to win this fight was to spam !Zenigage to take the barriers out before they could kill me with high-level magic. Of course Necrophobe himself has lots of high-level magic, too, so Elixirs were my only reliable way to heal. Eventually Gilgamesh shows up to finish him off for you, and I used the opportunity to steal his Genji Armor.

Exdeath and Neo Exdeath
Exdeath’s first form isn’t a pushover, but his most dangerous attacks are all single-target, so I wasn’t worried about it. His second form has a spell called Amalgest which deals way more damage than my party had HP. (My highest HP total was 1400; my lowest was 750.) The only way to avoid Amalgest was to kill the portion of the boss that uses it before it could get it off. Which, even with my Chicken Knife and Masamune, wasn’t going to happen.

Then someone reminded me that level factors into !Zenigage’s damage calculation (something I should have remembered, honestly), and that I could use Hero’s Rime to beef everyone’s level. Letting Hero’s Rime run the entire time my Berserker was soloing Exdeath’s first form brought my !Zenigage damage up over 8000, so a couple volleys was enough to take the boss out before he was able to inflict a single point of damage.

The next spells in the Magic Lamp cycle were Carbunkle, Catoblepas and Golem, so I went into the finale form with Reflect and a physical damage wall up. That turned out to be overkill, but hey, overpreparing is what FF5 is all about.

I decided against doing Shinryu, because it would require the same Zombie/Reflect/!Hide strategy that World Two Exdeath required, which is boring and mindless and stupid. And while I feel bad about skipping most of World Three, I have to say I’m still pleased I managed to complete the game in 20 hours at the lowest levels I ever have (32/30/32/32).

My overall assessment of the team is that Bard is almost game-breakingly good, first because of Romeo’s Ballad and later because of Hero’s Rime. !Zenigage is the same way, and I’m not sure how I would have gotten through a few sticky spots without it. Aside from that, though, the combination of Thief and Berserker has got to be the worst possible draw from the first two crystals. Literally any other job from either of those crystals would have given me far greater access to damage output, healing, or both.

Thief in particular was a really strange job. It has lots of powerful advantages: spotting passages, no back attacks ever, stockpiling items early on. But these advantages really only shine if you’re in a party of weak heroes… say, oh, mostly Thieves. In that sense they’re a lot like the Wh.MAGE from FF1; sure, Wh.MAGEs can CURE and RUSE and HARM, and all those things are great, but they’re really only required if you’ve gimped your team by putting multiple Wh.MAGEs on it in the first place.

Berserker, on the other hand, is probably the worst job in the game. With one on the team you lose any capability of focusing fire or timing your attacks properly; the only way to avoid triggering a boss’s counterattack is to incapacitate your Berserker. To compensate for these drawbacks, Berserkers get one of the worst weapon selections in the game. Axes and hammers have low hit rate, and there aren’t very many of them. Rune Axe — the “legendary” Berserker weapon — is particularly weak for the point in the game where you find it. Thor Hammer is an upgrade (defensively as well as offensively, since the Berserker can throw it from the back row), but he still can’t outdamage a Samurai. I can’t imagine he could outdamage a Knight, Monk, Ninja or Dancer either.

I did have a lot of fun with this challenge and will probably do it again next year. This is like a yearly thing, right?

In any event, back to Theatrhythm for me. See you!

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