Tag: game review

Super Mario Maker 2 review

Although my friends know me as someone who is an avid video game player, I have a confession to make.  My last Mario game was Super Mario World on the SNES.  I never played Super Mario 64, or anything later than that on the main Mario sequence.  I mean, I’ve played Mario Kart and most of its sequels, but in terms of 2D run and jump platformer Mario games, I kinda left off early. By the time Nintendo 64 was out, I was in college, I had to work, and didn’t have as much time for playing games as I once did.

It wasn’t that the Mario games weren’t good. But I did feel like Mario was kinda over-hyped, and a bit overrated.

There, I said it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Mario.  I do!  But he’s everywhere. With Nintendo’s other star franchises — Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Punch Out, Kirby, Pokemon — you had time to miss them. A new game might or might not come out for this generation’s new console. But it might only be one game. And there wouldn’t be a slew of cameos and guest appearances in other games, either. Mario hype was just relentless, and for me at least, it became somewhat tiresome. It felt like they should come out with a game called Super Mario Saturation, and be done with it.

That’s kindof where we’re at now. After three, almost four decades of Mario games, the developers have a robust, mature Marioverse. They keep coming up with new ideas, somehow, but one wonders just how many more Mario concepts there might be left to explore. Infinity – 1, of course, but one might well ask: Does the world really need another Mario game?

The answer, of course, is: of course. The world will always need another Mario game. Nintendo will see to that, rest assured.

But that said, Super Mario Maker 2 just might be the last Mario game you ever need.

I missed out on the original Mario Maker, as it was a Wii U release, and I didn’t buy into the Wii U. But man, was I tempted to buy a Wii U just to be able to make Mario levels!

The idea of Mario Maker was obvious: Take classic 2D Mario platforming and add the level editor from the original Excitebike, and garnish with social media. This was everything a Mario platformer fan could ask for. Fans unleashed their creativity. People created amazing levels that pushed the limits of Mario physics. Some really amazing levels were made. I can only imagine that Shigeru Miyamoto’s own expectations were exceeded.

So when Nintendo announced Super Mario Maker 2 for the Switch, I pre-ordered it immediately. This is noteworthy, as it’s the first time I’ve ever pre-ordered a videogame. I’ve always felt that videogame preorders were a bad deal and a bad idea — games get canceled all the time, and frequently games don’t live up to the hype when they’re finally released, and it’s always cheaper to wait a bit and buy games on sale. But I’d been waiting — since 2015! — to get my hands on Mario Maker, and I would not be delayed.

So I picked up the game on Friday, and have been playing it for a few hours a day since then.

Mario Maker lets you create levels using most of the 2D Mario engines: classic SMB, SMB3, SMW, New Super Mario Bros. Notably missing is the capability of making levels in the SMB2/Doki Doki Panic engine, which I find sad as SMB2 is a different game and among the best in the series.

To my surprise, I have yet to make my first Mario level. The game has a Story Mode, which I’ve been using to get caught up with all the changes that have accumulated since I last picked up SMW. The story is: the mushroom people had just completed a new palace for Princess Peach, when Undo Dog accidentally sets off the Reset Rocket, obliterating the entire construction. Wiped out, they must build anew, but lack the coins needed to fund the rebuild. So Mario must complete “jobs” in order to earn coins, which are used to rebuild the castle bit by bit. So far, I’m a bit less than halfway through the reconstruction.

The Story Mode gives me the opportunity to experience a wide variety of course designs, and appreciate them as a designer as well as a player. If I struggle with a level, the game gives me the option to edit the level to add a power up, or remove a challenge, to make it easier to complete. This is such a clever way of giving the player a way to get into level design — by editing a professionally designed level, rather than having to start from scratch. If I really have trouble, I can also “call Luigi” to clear the level for me. I had hoped that this would involve watching a computer-controlled Luigi run through the course, so I could see how it’s done, but it all happens off-screen, which is a bit disappointing.

For clearing these Story Mode levels, you are rewarded with coins, which you can use to rebuild the new palace, and each bit of building advances the story a bit further. I find that it really does make me feel like I want to play more levels, beyond my desire to enjoy the levels for their own sake.

So as I’m playing these levels, I’m getting ideas for how I might design a level using the multitude of design elements: time limits, auto-scrolling, platform jumping challenges, hidden secrets, puzzles, enemies, all the different power-ups a Mario game has ever given us — to create an interesting and fun level. There is a lot to work with.

I will probably follow up this brief review with another article focusing on the Mario Maker editor in greater depth. My initial impression is that while the variety of pieces you can work with is a bit daunting, the level editor is polished enough that it is enjoyable to work with it. While a Mario level can be quite complex, it’s pretty simple to get started. From there, you can get as complicated as you want. If you’ve been living under a rock and would like to see what’s possible, without actually owning the game or a Switch, just check out all the videos on YouTube of people showing off their amazing, crazy level designs.

Once you’ve designed a level (which I have yet to do), you can upload it and share it with the world. Then you can download and play levels made by other players, and challenge yourself to complete them. The replayability offered is truly unlimited. And, I would imagine, probably frees up Miyamoto to retire from designing new Mario games, if he would like. I hope that he continues to produce new, creative works, but at 66 years old, it’s inevitable that day will come sooner or later. And, let’s face it, with all that he’s given the world in his career, he’s definitely earned it if he wants to step away.

Even if Miyamoto-san becomes immortal and never stops working, perhaps we could say that the Mario Universe has now been completed, and that from here out, we can make our own Mario levels, and Nintendo can reassign their design teams to developing some brand new ideas. But I’m sure there will probably be a Mario Maker 3, maybe it will be a Mario Maker 3D, and give us the ability to make Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy, and Odyssey levels. But I’ll be satisfied if they release a 2.1 that includes the ability to create SMB2 levels.

Even the title screen of the game is fun. It is actually a complete, playable SMB3-style ship level. No, wait, it’s better than that. It’s a random different level every time you restart the game! I got to the end of it, hoping something special would happen, like I’d get a trophy or unlock something, but I guess it was just for fun. For all I know, maybe there’s some secret I didn’t discover in there.

Super Mario Maker 2 offers so much to the player. I’m tempted to say “everything a Mario fan could want” but without a SMB2 physics engine, it feels a bit incomplete. Still, there’s no end to the creativity enabled by this tool. And even without creating anything with it at all, there’s still a ton of fun to be had from playing the included Story Mode levels, and playing the thousands of levels thas SMM players have created already. Whether you’re a creative, level designer type or just a casual Mario gamer, Super Mario Maker 2 is a must-buy.

I’d love to see Nintendo bring out a Zelda Maker for top-down classic Zelda fans. And if Capcom would put their blessing on the MegaMan Maker project and give them funding, publishing, and everything else they need, that would be sweet. And we should all be asking for a Metroid Maker, and a Castlevania Maker.

Galaxian is a triumph on the Atari 2600

As a child of the 1970’s, I’ve been attracted to arcade video games since I was tall enough to reach the controls. This was 1981-84, during the heyday of the arcade’s Golden Age, a time when games like Pac Man, Dig Dug, and Galaga were new, hot, and everywhere. Grocery stores, gas stations, seemingly anyplace people might spend time, you’d find a couple of arcade games, ready to suck the quarters out of anyone who passed by.

Just slightly older than these games were the ever-popular Space Invaders, and its evolutionary next step, Galaxian. Although these titles were top shelf games in their day, I found that I didn’t enjoy them very much.

Space Invaders was just frustratingly slow at first, but then sped up to an unfair pace by the end, and I could never manage to destroy that last invader on the first wave. You had to have perfect aim to hit it, and it moved so fast it was seemingly impossible to track, so you had to be lucky. If you missed, the slow-moving missile took forever to disappear at the top of the screen, and you couldn’t fire again until it did. Usually this delay meant your death, as the hyper-paced final invader would reach the ground, ending your game. Plus, it was black and white. It felt old. I respected it — even then I could tell that it was a important game — but grudgingly, I had to say that I just didn’t enjoy it that much, although I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone back then.

Galaxian, too, was a game I found too slow and frustrating to play at arcades. It seemed like the next step in the vertical space shooter. Graphics were now in color. A formation of aliens marched back and forth across the screen, but this time instead of descending toward the earth, they stayed at the top of the screen, while one by one, or in pairs, individuals would peel off from their formation and dive bomb you. Their bullet patterns and flight paths seemed to make it all but certain that they would hit you if you didn’t hit them first. I could usually survive for a while, maybe clear a screen, but it never failed that if I happened to miss a dive bombing enemy, it would corner me in the side of the screen and crash into me, or hit me with too many bullets to dodge. You could always dodge one, but there’d always be another one following up, and your first dodge would put you right in its path. It seemed unfair, and so, not very fun. I always gravitated toward the games that I could last a bit longer on, so I could get my money’s worth out of my quarters.

I had a cousin who owned an Atari 5200, and played Galaxian on it once or twice while visiting them. The 5200 port was a very faithful reproduction of the arcade experience, not exactly arcade-perfect, but nearly so. I still didn’t care much for it, because it suffered from the same shortcomings. It wasn’t as bad to lose at home, since it cost nothing, but I still preferred to play games that felt fair.

It never entered into my mind that maybe I just wasn’t very good at Space Invaders or Galaxian. But probably, I was. Ok, not probably. I sucked. But in my defense, I was like 6, and just tall enough to reach the stick and see the screen. But back then, I blamed arcade games for being “greedy” in contrast to home consoles, which seemed to reward players with longer games that were still challenging, but more fun because they weren’t so brutally ass-kicking hard.

I never played Galaxian on the Atari 2600 back in the day. I’d played the 5200 version and was impressed with its arcade-quality graphics, and I remember seeing the pictures on the back of the box on the 2600 version, and being unimpressed. Since I never particularly enjoyed the game, I didn’t have any interest in owning it on the 2600, never knew any kids who had it in their collection, and so never played it. At some point, we had an Atari 7800, which had Galaga, the sequel to Galaxian, and one of my very favorite games, so I played a lot of that.

I’m not sure when exactly, but at some point I picked up a copy of the 2600 port of Galaxian, probably a few years ago. I recognized it was a significant title in videogame history, and so I wanted it for my collection, despite not having favorable memories of it from its heyday.

I finally got around to playing it today, and came away very impressed. Here’s a video review so you can see what it’s like:

The 2600 port plays much better than I remember the arcade. The motion is extremely fluid, which, considering the limitations of the Atari 2600 hardware, is nothing short of amazing. Maybe I’m just better at videogames than I was at ages 5-8, but I found that the game felt very fair, with divebombing enemies that are actually dodge-able. I’m sure, the horizontal aspect ratio of the screen plays into this somewhat, as you have more room to dodge, and also your shots that miss take less time to leave the screen, meaning that you can fire follow-up shots that much faster.

I was always a fan of vertical shooters of the Atari 2600, my favorites being Megamania, Phoenix, Threshold, and Tac-Scan, and Space Invaders. Galaxian is every bit as good as the best of these, and is still fun to play even now.

Playing Galaxian tonight, I found that my strategy was different from how I played the arcade original some 35 years ago. My old strategy was to try to shoot the enemies still in formation. They were easier to hit, since they didn’t swoop or shoot at you, and it seemed to me safer to eliminate them before they could turn into a threat. I’d try to shoot the divebombing aliens as they flew over me, and dodge out of the way of them and their shots, but mostly I concentrated on blowing away he ranks of Galaxians in formation, much as I approached Space Invaders.

My new strategy was much more successful, and rewarding: I ignored the galaxians in formation, since they don’t do anything that can hurt me, and focused on the divebombing aliens. It turns out, this has many advantages. First, by focusing on the divebombers, you are focusing on the only thing in the game that can threaten you. Shooting them is a much more reliable way to avoid them than dodging. You will need to dodge sometimes, but if you focus on developing skill in shooting the moving enemies, it gets pretty easy to pick them off before they can collide with you. The green Galaxians are simple, slow moving, and easy to hit. The purple ones are harder to hit, but with a little bit of practice the timing becomes easily mastered.

Hitting divebombing enemies in mid-flight makes you safer in two ways: enemies are destroyed before they’re low enough to collide with you, and they can’y get all their shots off. Typically, you’ll hit them as they cross ahead of you, and so you’ll be moving in the same direction, to track them, and the shots they do get off will fall harmlessly behind you, and by destroying the alien as it passes directly above you, you prevent it from getting ahead of you where it can drop bombs that would be dangerous to you.

Additionally, by hitting them as they’re diving toward you, your shot has less distance to travel, which means that you can get off more shots — since you can have only one shot on the screen at a time, when they hit something low on the screen, the shots don’t have as far to travel, meaning they hit the target sooner, meaning that your bullet is consumed and you can then fire another shot more quickly. If you miss one of the bombers, you might still end up hitting one of the galaxians still in formation, especially early in the stage, which isn’t so bad either. But the lower your shots are when they connect with an enemy, the faster you can shoot.

This in turn sets up a rapid flow of firing, hitting a dive bomber, then hitting the next dive bomber with a rapid follow-up shot. Once mastered, you can mow through the entire formation in quick succession in this manner. This turns out to be very enjoyable. You feel more skillful, since you’re targeting the fast-moving enemies, getting more points for them, and it looks more risky, since you’re often hitting the enemies pretty low on the screen, when it looks like they’re most dangerous — but at the same time you’re actually playing the least risky style of play. Of course, that’s what skill is — finding the right pattern of actions to minimize your risk, while doing what looks the most daring.

It’s clever, because the more intuitive way to avoid risk would be to try to avoid the dangerous enemies and attack the enemies that aren’t a threat. But counter-intuitively, when you focus on the dangerous enemies, and take the aggressive approach of destroying them rather than running from them, it minimizes the risk they pose to you, while the enemies that aren’t a threat remain a non-threat.

At this point, I recognized what a truly well-designed game Galaxian for the Atari 2600 is. I’m curious to see whether this strategy applies to arcade Galaxian. Since I don’t have ready access to an arcade with Galaxian in it, the next best thing is to watch a YouTube video of a skilled player.

And it looks like this is indeed the strategy to employ, although this player also has enough time to target plenty of enemies still in formation. I think the 2600 and arcade versions are different enough in their game play that they feel like different enough that while the basic strategies are more or less the same, the specifics are different. In the arcade, there’s much more space between the bottom of the screen, where you are, and the top of the screen, where the enemy formation is. But ultimately, I think the Atari port gives you less time to target the enemies in formation, forcing you to spend most of your time focusing on the swooping divebombing enemies.

In any case, Atari 2600 Galaxian is a fantastic game, and if you’re into vertical shooters is a must have, being one of the finest examples of the genre on the Atari, as well as an outstanding port of a historic and classic game.

Influential Games: Mountain King

One of the more memorable and innovative titles on consoles and home computers in the early 80’s was Mountain King by CBS Electronics. I knew it on the Atari 2600, but it existed on other platforms also, including Atari 5200, Commodore 64, Vic20, and Colecovision. It was atmospheric and spooky and mysterious and inspiring, and one of my favorite games of all time.

Mountain King (Atari 2600)

There were a number of things that made Mountain King special, and examining them in detail is worthwhile.

Non-violent, Yet Scary As Hell

There was very little death or injury in Mountain King. It had a theme of exploring, not violence. The biggest threat in the game was the clock running out. Things that would hurt or kill you in another game imposed a time penalty on you in Mountain King. Fall too far, and rather than die or take damage, you’re stunned for a length of time proportionate to the height of your fall, and slo-o-o-o-wly get back on your feet. The wait could be agonizing, making seconds seem like hours. On certain difficulty levels, there are time limits for accomplishing certain objectives, and in any case your remaining time rolls over and is added to bonus time which dwindles with each re-claiming of the crown, so you are always under significant time pressure and there’s a feeling of speedrunning when you’re playing for a high score.

Mountain King spider

There is one deadly threat in the game, a giant man-eating spider that inhabits the lowest levels of the mountain. You can’t fight it, only run from it, but it is not normally necessary to descend to this level, so it is mainly in the game to provide a sense of fear of the depths. If you accidentally fell to the spider level, the scuttling sound of the approaching spider would fill you with panic and dread, and make you scramble toward safety with new urgency.

Audio Innovator

Most home videogames of the day did not feature music at all, or if they did, it was little beyond an introduction jingle that lasted a few bars, or a repetitive loop that quickly became annoying. Mountain King not only used music, but integrated it into the game in a novel way. A special theme plays when it is time to find the Flame Spirit, and the music gets louder as you come nearer to its location. A mostly-invisible entity which blinks sporadically, can can only be seen in full in the beam of your flashlight, using the music volume to triangulate and home in on the location of the Flame Spirit was one of the more novel mechanics in a videogame, and holds up well to this day.

Upon taking the Crown, a well-done TIA chip rendition of Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King plays, signaling your time-limited escape run to reach the Perpetual Flame at the top of the highest mountain peak in order to advance to the next level. The music created a sense of frenetic pace and urgency as you raced to the mountaintop. During the ascent, bats appear, which (similar to the Bat in Adventure) would rob you of the Crown. To avoid them, you sometimes had to hurry, and sometimes it was better to wait. This heightened the tension and anxiety you felt as you tried to make it out without losing the Crown, a setback which normally left you with insufficient time for a re-attempt, and meant an inevitable game over. More than any other feature, possibly rivaled only by the scare factor of the Spider, this made the game memorable.

Mountain King used silence to great effect, as well, for most of the time you are exploring the depths of the diamond mine in pitch dark and in complete silence, apart from the sound effects of picking up diamonds and the squeaking of bats. And if you fell, the sound effect — a simple descending tone — effectively conveyed not just that you had fallen, but how far. When you fell so long that part of the drop was in silence, you just knew you were going to be in for a long recovery time.

Each of these audio elements combined superbly to create a great mood, one of the best on the Atari 2600.

Mystery

Mountain King’s themes of mystery and exploration are enhanced in a number of ways. First, the instructions don’t tell you exactly what you need to do — rather, they hint and allow you to figure things out for yourself. Enough information is there to figure the game out, but enough is left out that it leaves the player with a sense of mystery and discovery. The Flame Spirit and the Skull Guardian and who placed the Crown in the mountain are never explained, leaving the player to wonder and speculate.

The game reinforces the mystery and discovery directly in game play, by making a number of things invisible — black sprites on black background, discoverable only by shining your flashlight everywhere. Treasure Chests, which are worth a lot of diamonds, are not essential to find, but are common enough that you are likely to encounter a few of them as you collect diamonds. The Flame Spirit is unique and critical to the game, and normally invisible, but the combination of the musical theme and its occasional flickering into visibility make it findable even without the flashlight, but by learning to use the flashlight to find Treasure Chests to boost your diamond score enough to find the Flame Spirit sooner, the game leads you to use it in discovering the Flame Spirit as well.

Glitch World

These mysteries are fine enough, yet pale in comparison to the Glitch World that hangs high above the mountain itself. It seems that not much is known for certain about the Glitch World, whether it is truly a bug in the game, or whether it might have been placed there by the programmers deliberately for unknown reasons. But there are platforms high above the mountain which are just barely reachable if you make a super jump from a specific place on the mountain.

I discovered this all on my own quite accidentally by jumping around aimlessly, and it was one of the most exciting things I had run into in a game before. In an era that predated the internet, there was little chance of learning anything about this but by discovering it yourself, and the excitement of this, and the intimacy of learning a secret that, for all you could know, was known only to you and (maybe) the programmers of the game, was very special.

In the early pre-Nintendo 80’s, kids would talk at school about accomplishments and discoveries they had made in video games, often times to incredulous schoolmates who would demand proof, or claim to have seen the same thing on their Atari. There were a few books and magazines out there, even then, but we didn’t have access to information the way we do today, and it gave us the opportunity to discover things ourselves. There were of course some kids who became notorious for lying and making up something in an effort to seem cool and special, as well, but the fact that you couldn’t 100% disprove a claim, and everyone would insist that they were not making stuff up. The only way one could verify extraordinary claims (in a still mostly pre-VCR-era) was if you witnessed it firsthand, so this made the rumors and secrets surrounding videogames something extra special, and if you were a witness, it made you special. I fear that era is gone forever, changed irrevocably by the Internet Age.

And for me, Mountain King might have been the most mysterious. Warren Robinett’s Adventure Eater Egg might have been cooler, but because it gave you a message, it seemed to have a purpose, and however cool it was, it just didn’t have the same mystery that the Glitch World in Mountain King had. We never found anything up there, no matter how high we climbed, but we never doubted that if we could only find some way past the impossible point, and get just a little bit higher, some great secret would be waiting for us, and all would be revealed.

Game Review: Iron Tank (NES)

Iron Tank (1988, SNK) is a mostly-forgotten title for the NES, but deserves more recognition than it’s gotten. I think of it as a spiritual companion to the other great NES WWII Shooter, Capcom’s 1943.

Many of its features were successful in other popular games, but it has enough of its own unique strengths that it can stand up proudly as an innovative game with an experience you will find similar to many other games, but still feeling original and well done, not generic or derivative:

  • Radio communications screen for narrative elements (Bionic Commando, Metal Gear). The radio will sometimes give you warning about upcoming challenges, or some mission background to explain why you’re here and what you need to do. This is mostly inessential because the mission is always “Stay alive, destroy enemies, and advance, and destroy a boss.” but it still gives the game a story of sorts. Often the radio message will be “too late” advice, warning you to be careful about a challenge you just got through. Toward the end, the enemy starts broadcasting to you, threatening/begging out of desperation to get you to turn back. This boosts your ego, and is a neat reward for the player.
  • Configurable power up system (many NES games featured this, but Iron Tank’s is unique in its implementation, but perhaps could be described as a combination of Mega Man and 1943.) Your main gun has four different types of power boosts — Long range, Rapid fire, Armor Piercing, and Bomb shells — which you refill through pickups.The pickups are odd in that they are letters which sometimes don’t have an obvious relationship to the power boost they represent. L = Long Range (ok, fair); V = Rapid (velocity?); F = Armor piercing (huh?); B = Bomb Shells (right). Rather than remain enabled until expended or a timer runs out, you can enable/disable them on a sub-screen as needed. This means there’s strategy to the game — you can save up your power and use it when you hit a really tough spot in the game. Managing your power-up resources is critical to winning. Knowing when you need them, and deciding what you need at a given time, and balancing that against the yet unknown challenges that lie even further ahead makes for a cerebral game that layers on top of the action game. There are times when an obvious approach of using power-ups isn’t really necessary, because a subtler strategy will enable you to get by with a stock configured tank, and it often pays off to take the harder challenge now, conserving the power boosts for an even more difficult challenge later.
  • The most interesting power-up mechanic is the [R]efuel tank, which gives you a secondary life bar that extends your primary life bar — but only if you choose to have it enabled. Another interesting thing is that you can both shoot and run over foot soldiers — and the game seems to encourage you to run them over, as doing so gives you a tiny but vital boost to your main energy.
  • Infinite continues, and a password save feature, allowing the game to be longer than would otherwise be practical to beat in one sitting, and not punishing the player too severely for not being able to make it through the challenging parts of the game, and allowing therefore for those parts of the game to be even more challenging.

Basic gameplay

There’s a very good “Let’s Play” series on YouTube, if you aren’t familiar or need to get reacquainted. You are Iron Snake, commander of the Iron Tank, invading Normandy and liberating Europe from an implied but unnamed Nazi occupation. And by “liberate” I definitely mean “blow the hell out of.” Actually, there are occasional resistance fighters and POWs who you’ll rescue throughout the game, as well.

Controls

Controls are often a weak point in games featuring tanks. Not so in Iron Tank. Your tank features an aimable turret, which allows you move and aim independently. The way this was implemented on the standard NES gamepad was effective — hold button B and the D-pad controls the turret. This takes a little getting used to, but is very effective and you can be quite nimble with practice. Being able to aim to the side or diagonal and strafe is an important tactic, and makes the game more realistic and more fun.

Graphics

There is a huge variety of tile-based backgrounds, for simulating the European countryside, cities, docks, airplane hangers, the Normandy beach, cliffs, trees, roads, paths, rail tracks, fortresses, you name it. Even for the 8-bit NES, these are a little rough in spots, though never truly bad, and the variety makes up for it.

Music

The music in Iron Tank is really first rate. It is heroic and epic, evokes both the military marches and the WWII era, adds drama and tension, and provides cues to when more challenging areas are up ahead. Most of the music is in the lower and mid octaves, which gives it a characteristic unlike most other background music on the NES, while seeming suitable for a game about tanks.

Enemies

There really isn’t anything in Iron Tank sophisticated enough to call AI. The enemies all move in basic, simple patterns and pre-set routes, but a lot of variety makes the game challenging. Some tanks sit still, others chase you, while others seem to stand off at a distance and duck and feint, and still others will enter, make a quick attack, and then retreat before you can retaliate.

There’s also a great variety of enemies: infantry, officers, tanks, train guns, fortresses, turrets, and boss tanks called “Think Tanks”. I guess they’re hard enough that you need to think about how to defeat them? You even do battle with airplanes and submarines. Of course tanks are the star of the game, and there is a satisfying variety of enemy tanks, different styles of light, medium, and heavy, which vary in their speed, armor, and armament. Some are barely any threat to you, while others necessitate caution.

This variety of enemies invites a variety of tactics, which keeps the game fresh and challenging. The key tactic is avoiding being in range of the enemy cannons, flanking the enemy’s turret when you can, or when that isn’t possible, waiting for a pause in their fire and placing a well-timed shot to take them out. You can also sometimes use your long range shots to safely take out enemies before they’re able to engage you with their own armaments. Individually, their cannon fire is usually not too hard to dodge, being limited to 8 directions, resulting in predictable pie slices of safe zone. It’s not too hard to take out enemy tanks when they don’t outnumber you too badly and there’s plenty of room to maneuver. Sometimes moving slowly and cautiously, taking out the enemies one at a time, picking apart their defenses is the best approach, other times it’s better to just run for it.

Terrain

Some terrain is more open than others, however. The variety of terrain matches the variety of enemies and enemy tactics, and itself influences the tactics that will be most effective in a given area. Although the game is 2D, there are simulated ledges, cliffs, and rooftops where placed guns can harass you, sometimes out of your own reach unless you have some power boosts enabled. There are walls and buildings and natural barriers that can constrain your movements, but provide cover in return. Water likewise blocks your path, but leaves you exposed to fire.

There are wooded areas where the tree canopy foregrounds partially obscure the action beneath them. The NES didn’t have a capability of alpha channel, but they still made the forest sprites partially see-through, so that when you go under them, you can see the unobstructed part of your tank (or lurking enemies) through them. This is really cool.

Insta-kill anti-tank landmines will block your progress along otherwise open and inviting pathways. They blink, being invisible half the time, so can be difficult to spot.

Destructible terrain

While not dynamically destructible, there are enough buildings and walls that you can blow up to uncover secrets or alternate paths that it’s worth mentioning. Being in a tank and not being able to destroy these things just wouldn’t feel right.

Multi-path map

I don’t know of any other NES game that did this, so Iron Tank deserves special recognition for this design. At several points in the game, you’ll encounter road signs that point out a fork in the road. Depending on which path you take, you’ll proceed to a different level, with different terrain and enemies. One path might be more difficult, but you have no way of knowing before you make your choice. This means that in order to experience every bit of the game, you’ll need to play through it multiple times.

Map x-wrapping

Instead of having an edge, the map wraps on the x-axis. There are certain places on the map where there are no side walls, and you are unbounded in your horizontal direction, but in these locales, the map wraps around. While not exactly realistic, it does make for some potentially useful tactics, as you can return to an area by continuing in one direction, without needing to double back.

Overall

Iron Tank is a solid effort from SNK. The game integrates a lot of the features and design elements of successful NES classics, and does it well. While mainly an action game, the story elements provided by the radio communiques and the configurable power-ups give an element of strategy almost like a proto-RPG. It’s one of my favorite lesser-known games on the NES.

See Also

If you liked this game, you’ll want to check out 1943, Guerrilla War, Commando, Jackal, Heavy Barrel and Ikari Warriors. All have a similar WWII/war theme and vertical scrolling shooter gameplay.

Game Review: Home by Benjamin Rivers

Last night I attended Akron Film + Pixel‘s Indie Games: Play and Discuss, and (among other things) played a game called Home, by Benjamin Rivers. As it turned out, it seemed that there was a bit more Play than Discuss at this event, so I thought I’d review it the day after.

This game held my interest enough to play through it once, which was all I had time for. I don’t know that I’d play it again, although I gather from the ending that if I did play it again, it would be a different experience of a different story, assuming I made different choices.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the choices to be all that interesting. Do I pick up the gun or do I leave it where it is? Do I pick up the key or do I leave it where it is? Do I pick up my wallet now that I’ve found it, or do I leave it where it is? Do I flip the switch or do I leave it alone for now, only to come back later and flip the switch because that’s the only way forward? Do I look at the thing that automatically highlights when I walk by it so I can get another element of the story, or do I no longer care and just want to continue walking until I get to the end of the game? I DON’T KNOW, ALL THESE DECISIONS ARE TOO MUCH FOR ME! WHAT WOULD YOU DO?!

This and many other decisions like it await!

Apparently if you make different choices, the story that unfolds in flashback as you walk through this amnesiac world trying to put the pieces together and figure out if you’re a murderer or not changes. Not that your decisions affect the future, but that your decisions somehow retroactively affect the past, such that, as you recall in flashback what happened before you blacked out, what you recall will be different based on what you did or didn’t decide to do in the present.

This might make it seem interesting, but when all the story elements are as boring as they are likely to be (based on the ones I actually saw when I played through it), probably you don’t care what other stories you might have crafted had you made different decisions enough to actually go back and make those different decisions in order to find out. After your play-through, there’s an invitation to share your story on the game’s web site, so if anyone actually does that, I suppose you can find out how things worked out differently for them based on their choices, but it all seems so boring an uninteresting that I really have to question the sensibility of anyone who’d actually spend time describing what they’d been through on a web site, other than as a to warning to others. Ahem. Like this.

Home bills itself as a horror game, but the only thing horrible about it might be that it could have been interesting and immersive, but wasn’t. Each play-through feels very linear (despite the fact that you can make choices that change what you remember happened in the past), provides no danger or challenge or conflict, every bit of blood in the game has already been shed before you begin playing, and the tension that rises as the story unfolds while you re-discover your recent past never sufficiently pulls itself into the present moment. The apparent climax, when you decide whether you find the body of your wife in your cellar, or whether you don’t find her and realize that she must have never actually existed except as a delusion, leaving you with even more unanswered questions that never get answered, is the textbook definition of anticlimax.

As I played, I kept expecting to run into someone else — anyone — maybe my girlfriend/wife, maybe someone (a familiar friend? a stranger?) I’d need to rescue or team up with in order to survive, maybe the killer(s), or even the police — would they keep me safe? Would they arrest me? Would I have to convince them of my innocense somehow? Were these items I was picking up going to incriminate me? Did picking up the gun protect me from the murderer finding the gun and using it against me, or did it implicate me in the murders that had already happened, whether I’d actually perpetrated them or not? There were so many ways which the plot could have developed that would have made the game vibrant and interesting. But none of that ever happened.

What else can I say about it? The pacing is slow. There’s no run button, no jump button, no way to go any faster through the game. There’s a tiny bit of exploration offered, but it’s not terribly interesting. The pixel art graphics are OK to pretty good, and I do like pixel art, but when blown up to fullscreen, there’s so much jpeg artifacting (or what looks like it) that it ruins the work put into it.

Worst of all, there are parts where I wanted to go backward, and was prevented from doing so by the game telling me “You don’t want to do that.” I think I should be the one who decides what I want! I guess I should thank it for sparing me from wasting time going back to someplace that will not advance the game, but it’s much better to provide an external reason, as it does in certain parts of the game, than a “you just don’t feel like it, sorry” reason that is total bullshit.

And there are so many unanswered questions: What happened to everyone? Who was the killer? Is anyone still alive besides you? Why do you need a flashlight everywhere you go, even outdoors, or indoors in places where there should be light?

In fairness, I did not get to play the game with sound, so it could be that I’m missing out on some crucial elements that would have made the experience more enjoyable, even worthwhile. And to be honest, I didn’t find myself hating the game so much while I was playing it, as I did after once I had been through everything and realized that that’s all there was. It just built up to something that it never delivered. I did continue playing it, hoping that the plot would deepen until it got better. It just never did. Home tries to offer an interesting interactive narrative, and while it does contain a good bit more narrative than many videogames, that doesn’t make it good narrative, or a good videogame. Other narrative art forms give you way more (read any halfway decent book!) and other video games give you more as well (pick your poison).

I don’t get it. There are plenty of positive reviews for the game. Is it possible that I simply made all of the most boring choices possible, resulting in an anemic plot where nothing drastic actually happens, in spite of copious dead bodies found nearly everywhere, without sufficient explanation other than maybe you did it? Or is this some kind of “art game” that is great art because it turns the notion of a game on its head, and offers for your consideration that a game can be boring, thereby challenging your notions about what games are about?

I won’t recommend staying away from Home if you are in the mood for reliving the experimental 80’s text adventure genre in a rather dull implementation that offers barely any puzzle beyond how to navigate around the screens and no interesting choices or decisions. If you absolutely have to play every game in this genre, then so you shall. Otherwise, there’s probably something better you could do with your time, like trim your toenails or perhaps watch an aquarium full of snails.

Game Review: Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP

Yeah, way late to the party on this one (as usual — I’m quite patient these days when it comes to to getting around to playing games, and I don’t have to be the first kid on the block to play something. I’ve grown immune to hype and appreciate bargain sales.)

Speaking of which, Humble Bundle 5 is out, and as of this posting you have about 7 days left to buy it for $NameYourPrice. I really suggest you do. First, because naming your own price is awesome. Second, because the games are so worth it: Bastion, Amnesia: Dark Descent, Psychonauts, LIMBO, and Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP. [Update: They just announced the addition of Braid, Super Meat Boy, and Lone Survivor to the Bundle!] Thirdly, they’re DRM-free. Fourth, they’re cross-platform, playable on Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux.

Of the five titles in the Bundle, so far I’ve only played Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP, or S:S&S EP as it’s commonly abbreviated. I’d longed to play it since I first heard about it, but considering it was launched as an iPhone game and I do not own an iPhone, that was kindof hard.

The EP release was an enhanced version released for PC/Windows, and I feel it probably made the transition from touchscreen and tilt sensors to traditional PC reasonably well –although since I still have never played the original platform version, it’s hard for me to say. Still, it’s a very enjoyable experience to play it on a PC.

Despite not being all that challenging, I’ve really gotten into Superbrothers’ Swords & Sworcery EP, I guess mainly due to the flavor and vibe of it. While disarmingly crude at first, the minimalist beauty of the pixel art graphics is charming and evocative, providing incredibly vivid mood and atmosphere, the audio effects and music is absolutely excellent (who is Jim Guthrie?!?), and the sense of adventure is there.

It has a bit of the feel of a tabletop RPG come to life. There’s no dice-rolling, no stats and leveling, and very little hack and slash, but something about it reminds me of children making a game out of telling each other quasi-medieval fantasy stories, and figuring out weird puzzles that they’re making up on the spot as they go along. That sense of adventure, and I’ve never had it so full-flavored in a computer program. The anachronistic text narration and “regular guy” voice acting amplifies the effect, perfecting it.

The game does not focus on combat, which is rudimentary yet satisfying, and instead the game seems mostly to be about exploration and puzzle solving. The puzzles, once I got a feel for the first few, have actually been quite easy, so far, but it took me until about 30% completion to actually figure out how to see what I’m supposed to do.

Once I caught on, they became rather fun to solve. The early puzzles were more frustrating than challenging, with lots of staring at the screen and wondering wtf I’m supposed to do, while clicking, tapping, dragging around all over like mad until I finally accidentally do something, then puzzle out the rest of it from there. But as soon as I learned the idioms of the interface and became immersed, I was hooked. From that point, the puzzles still weren’t all that challenging, but were delightful and satisfying to solve anyway for some reason.

The way the story is presented, using variously camera pans and zooms, music, visual cues from the in-game characters gesturing or barking at you, on-screen text, is very well thought out and executed nearly flawlessly. It’s a highly polished indie game and the developers’ artistry is fully realized.

Overall as I played, I felt relaxed and like I was having a pretty good time. The fights gave me a little bit of tension, but only a little bit. There was a certain feeling of dread and pressure, but after dying a few times and realizing that the consequences of doing so weren’t too bad, and got a feel for how the combat system works, I was able to calm down again. The game never punishes you excessively for failure, which makes for a soothing and relaxed play experience. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where the combat system is both turn based yet fluid and time sensitive, and where patience, anticipation, and timing is more important than reflexes and rhythm.

If you are lucky enough to have enjoyed the 1991 classic Another World [US Title: Out of This World], I found that I had a very similar emotional experience with this game. And that’s a very high compliment.