Friday, November 19, 2021

The Nintendo Wii Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Waggle

 

In 2005, Nintendo announced the "Revolution," a system aimed to change the way we play games.  The following year, Nintendo released its new console, the Wii, to an eager audience.  101 million units later, and the Wii is regarded as one of Nintendo's game changers.  Not only did the Wii introduce a controller with a new level of accessibility, but it opened a new demographic: the casual gamer.  What the Wii lacked in horsepower, it made up for with its creativity.

The System Itself

Costing only $250 at launch, the Wii was the cheapest of the next-gen consoles, plus it was bundled with a game and an interesting controller called the Wii remote.  The Wii remote's design was simple but intuitive.  It could be held in your hand like a remote or sideways to mimic the NES controller.  Attaching the nunchuck provided you with more control.  Nunchucks weren't the reason the Wii stood out; it was the Wii remote.

The fact swinging the remote mirrored swing a baseball bat in-game was enough to impress people.  This excitement led to a few broken TV's and busted Wii remotes, but there was no denying the awe it inspired when you booted up the the console to play Wii Sports with family or friends.  Its easy-to-use functionality attracted people you wouldn't expect to play video games, like senior citizens.

Starting up the Wii brought you to the menu.  From there, you could select between different channels including the Mii channel, the Photo channel, the Forecast channel, and the News channel.  Downloading games or applications added more channels for you to choose from.  The Mii channel let you create in-game avatars called Mii's.  Mii's were featured prominently in Wii Sports and a handful of other games.  They also gave your Wii personality.  You could make Mii's based on yourself, loved ones, famous people, the list goes on.

At some point you had to had tried to make a Mii based on someone famous!

The Art of Motion Controls

When done right, motion controls enhanced the gameplay.  A great example is Resident Evil 4.  On other consoles, you aim with the analog stick.  This wasn't the case with the Wii version.  With the remote's pointer, you could point and shoot to hit weak spots, not to mention save ammo.  Super Mario Galaxy uses them minimally but effectively.  You point at the screen to collect star bits, shake the remote to make Mario spin, and for one level, you guide him on top of a ball by holding the remote like a joystick.

The problem was many games never got it quite right.  Your motions would either barely register, or it would be too sensitive.  This led many to flail, shake, and waggle their remotes like they were swatting away bats.  Nintendo fixed this issue by releasing Wii MotionPlus, an attachment that gave the remote 100 percent accuracy.  The problem was only a small selection of games used this device.  Had the controller been designed with 1:1 accuracy from the beginning, reactions wouldn't have been as divided.  Motion controls weren't the Wii's real problem, it was shovelware.

Shoveling Shovelware

With the Wii winning over non-gamers, low rent companies like Majesco and Destineer decided to profit off this new demographic by pushing quantity over quality.  Why put in the effort when you can release a cheaply made game for 20 bucks?  The result was a deluge of shovelware not seen since the NES.  Chicken Shoot, Ninjabread Man, Game Party, Action Girlz Racing, M&M's Racing, and much more clogged the bargain bins, ready to nab some unsuspecting soccer mom.

Why spend 60 dollars on "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" when you can spend 20 bucks on "Anubis II?"

The Wii had crap, but if you dug deep, there was buried treasure.

First and Third-Party Support

Nintendo put out a mixture of titles catered to core and casual gamers.  You had new entries in the Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Smash Bros. series alongside revivals of Punch Out, Kirby, and Donkey Kong Country.  That's not mentioning original games like Excite Truck and the timeless Flingsmash.  Their major franchise efforts were excellent, but their casual-focused titles were a mixed bag.

Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort are great crowd pleaser with a varied selection of sports to choose from.  The same can't be said about Wii Play, a minigame collection that sold well only because it came with a free remote.  The less said about Wii Music, the better.

Nintendo also attempted to merge gaming with fitness through Wii Fit.  The game came with a balance board, a device that measured your weight and acted as a peripheral.  It mixed real-world activities like yoga and jogging with more gamey ones like downhill skiing.  Considering most people think of gamers as overweight slobs who haven't touched a woman, I commend Nintendo for making something that tried to show how a healthy lifestyle could be fun and rewarding.

First-party releases are important, but it's the third-party support that matters.  Although many major titles skipped the system due to the fact the Wii was "two Gamecubes taped together," it got a lot of releases you couldn't find elsewhere.  MadWorld, No More Heroes, Little King's Story, A Boy and His Blob, and De Blob are one of many distinctive titles on the system.  They took advantage of the hardware to craft fascinating experiences.  Some of these games were visually striking, like Muramasa: The Demon Blade, an action RPG with an art style inspired by Japanese watercolor paintings.

This is a Wii game, folks.

During the Wii's lifetime, the rail shooter experienced a renaissance.  You had ports of classics like House of the Dead 2&3 and Ghost Squad, plus original titles like House of the Dead: Overkill, Dead Space Extraction, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, and its sequel Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles.  These titles breathed new life into a niche genre.  My personal favorite was House of the Dead: Overkill, a game that was vulgar, violent, and funny.

Mainstream genres like open world and shooters floundered on the Wii.  There were some, but not a lot.  Most of the open world titles were ports, but a couple were made exclusively for the system, one of which I'll get to shortly.  As for shooters, one that springs to mind is The Conduit, a hardcore shooter built around the Wii's capabilities.

The Conduit offered a level of customization never seen before in a shooter.  You could swap button placements, change the size of the dead zone, or move around the in-game HUD.  I have a lot of fond memories with The Conduit, particularly the sequel, as it was the first game I ever pre-ordered, I'm not kidding.

Towards the end of the Wii's lifecycle, a few RPGs were released, including Xenoblade Chronicles and Pandora's Tower.  If you wanted a fighting game fix, there was Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All Stars.  Though it featured characters from a studio few had heard of, the game was a spectacular fighter and a great alternative for those tired of non-stop Smash Bros.

The Ports Unleashed

As I mentioned earlier, many major releases skipped the Wii.  The weaker hardware and oddball controller meant developers faced an uphill battle trying to get something like Grand Theft Auto IV running on the Wii.  The ones that made it were retooled in "interesting" ways.  Dead Rising: Chop till You Drop took the classic Xbox 360 game, chopped a lot of key features, and reworked everything else around the Resident Evil 4 engine.  Instead of fighting through hundreds of zombies, Frank West fights dozens of them, not to mention a never-ending supply of zombified poodles and parrots.

Many Call of Duty games were released, including the original Modern Warfare and Black Ops.  The catch was these versions were missing various single-player and multiplayer features.  On the plus side, the pointer controls made shooting precise and accurate.  Strangely, Call of Duty on Wii developed a cult following, bolstered by the fact the servers for these ports were still up and running even after Nintendo shut down the Wii's official servers in 2014.

 

My personal favorites of these Wii ports include Driver: San Francisco and Ghostbusters: The Video Game.  Rather than attempt to emulate their HD counterparts, these ports were built around the system.  In some ways, they were better.  The Wii version of Ghostbusters lets you blast a proton pack by pointing the Wii remote, plus the levels are designed in a way that gives this version more of a pickup and play feel.  Driver: San Francisco on the Wii is a prequel to the first Driver, and a fun open world game on a system that saw very few of them.

The Wii Shop Channel and Wii Online

Wii owners were able to download new titles through the Wii Shop Channel, or revisit old games via the Virtual Console.  Wiiware was the name for original downloadable titles, and there were some great releases, including Mega Man 9 and 10, Strong Bad's Point and Click Adventure, and World of Goo.  I never used the Wii Shop Channel because I was a kid who didn't know what a wi-fi password was, but I was subscribed to Nintendo Power.  Whenever a new issue of Nintendo Power arrived, I would flip to the downloadable section to see what they had to say about the new Wiiware and Virtual Console releases.

In general, the Wii's online was a mixed bag.  To share data on a friend's Wii, you had to use friend codes.  This was a 16-digit number most didn't know where to find or how to use.  Any games that supported online multiplayer had spotty servers.  In 2014, Nintendo shut down the wi-fi servers for the Wii and DS, but a handful of games, notably the Call of Duty titles, had functioning servers.  Fans have attempted to resurrect the Wii's online with homebrews and mods, so I appreciate the effort that's gone to resurrect a disabled feature.

Backwards Compatibility

No discussion about the Wii would ignore its backwards compatibility with the Nintendo Gamecube.  Every Gamecube title and most accessories work on the Wii.  Owning a Wii is a great way to explore the Gamecube's library without forking over the cash.  Nintendo re-released a handful of their Gamecube titles on the Wii under the New Play Control label, and Capcom ported the Resident Evil remake and Resident Evil Zero.  These ports are hit and miss, but it was an alternative for those who didn't want to go through the trouble of trying to find the original titles.

"Metroid Prime Trilogy" was the best of these Gamecube to Wii ports.  The addition of pointer controls made a big difference on the trilogy.  If you can find a copy, get it.

What Made the Wii Special?

The Wii was a unique specimen.  It was a gamble to make a system whose innovation wasn't cutting edge graphics, but its controller.  Despite its shortcomings, I think the Wii succeeded.  Yes, it wasn't as powerful as a 360 or PS3.  Yes, there was a lot of crap.  Yes, waggling can be annoying.  For all its problems, the Wii left an impact that's still felt to this day.  Think of the Nintendo Switch and how it mixes console gaming with portable gaming.  Had the Wii not been as successful as it was, I don't think Nintendo would tried to take such a gamble with another one of their systems.

Nintendo knew who the system would appeal the most to and marketed it as such.  The idea was simple but easy to understand, and as the name implied, the Wii was about bringing people together.

I can't say the same about the Move or Kinect.

Playing Catch Up

Seeing how the Wii was outselling both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Microsoft and Sony tried to ride the Wii's coattails by making their own motion-controlled devices.  Sony announced the Move, and Microsoft announced the Kinect.  While the Move was a controller with 1:1 accuracy, the Kinect was a camera that detected your whole body.  "You are the controller," the marketing proclaimed.

They sucked.

The Move and Kinect touted big ideas but delivered empty promises.  The Kinect was sold as a controller-free experience, but it was a pain to set up.  You needed to make a ton of free space for it to read your body, and with many games, it struggled to recognize you were there, no matter how much you readjusted yourself.  Compare that with the Wii, where you need to make some room, but not a lot, to use the Wii remote.  The Move was a bit more forgiving, but where they both failed was a lack of compelling software.

The Move and Kinect tried to appeal towards the casual crowd, but the games they offered were either carbon copies of existing Wii games, or shovelware.  Of the two, the Kinect had the worse selection.  You had blunders like Kinect Adventures, Kinect Sports, and most infamous of all, Kinect Star Wars.  There was the occasional nugget of gold, such as the Dance Central series and the Gunstringer, but they were shining kernels in a mountain of crap.  Kinect games were also housed in a purple case that made it look like your games had taken a nasty beating.

The Move fared slightly better.  You had ports of House of the Dead: Overkill and Dead Space Extraction, plus some big releases like Killzone 3 offered Move compatibility.  The problem was it only applied to a small selection of games.  It wasn't compatible with pre-existing PS3 games, nor did any future releases offer Move support.  Though the Move and Kinect sold well, they were nowhere near as successful as the Wii.  Soon, they were gathering dust in GameStop's and the cluttered bins of many a thrift store.

Closing Thoughts

I have a lot of nostalgia for the Wii.  Our family got one as a Christmas gift in 2008, and we spent a lot of time playing Wii Sports, Guitar Hero III, and more.  I was excited to have a new console after being stuck with a PlayStation 1 for many years.  The family stopped working some years later, but I got my own Wii not long after.  I used it to explore the system's catalog, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

If you can look past the cheaply made party games and Wii Music, there are a lot of great first and third-party titles, as well as some interesting oddities.  I also came to love motion controls.  They made playing games more fun, and I never had a problem with aiming the remote or doing gestures, probably because I have steady hands.  How they were implemented could come off as gimmicky, but developers found some cool ways to use the controller.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the Wii.  It's one of my favorite consoles and proof you can take a gimmick like motion controls and make it work.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Redesigning My Entertainment Room

 

This weekend I redesigned my entertainment room.  What was once a cluttered mess of shelves is now a tidy little room that houses my gaming and movie collections.  This room has gone through many iterations, and it all stems from when I was 12 and decided to collect games.  Fast forward to now, and that dream has come true.  But first, a little history.

From Humble Beginnings

I didn't play a lot of games growing up.  My parents were strict on what I could play and for how long.  Because of this, the only system I owned was a PlayStation 1.  I had a handful of games for it and played it whenever I visited my mother on the weekends.  I missed out on the PlayStation 2, the Xbox, the Gamecube, and all the excellent games kids my age were playing.  That changed in Christmas 2008, when I got a PS2 and our family got a Wii.

Upon getting the PS2, I started buying games with whatever money I earned from doing chores and other odd jobs.  It was exhilarating to finally own games I didn't have access to, or briefly experienced at either a friend's place or a gaming kiosk at a department store.  Around 13 or 14, I decided to start collecting games for the systems I had.  Any games I got went on a bookshelf in my bedroom.  It wasn't much, but I felt satisfied knowing I had a shelf filled with games I owned.

Gotta Collect 'Em All

By age 17, I decided I wanted an entertainment room.  I owned a PS2, a Wii, and an Xbox 360, plus I had all my original PS1 games.  Using the handful of shelves I had gotten from family members, I arranged them in a way that allowed me to show off my collection.  Sadly, I don't have any photos of the original room, so this is based on what I remember.

The idea of making such a room was the result of watching too much YouTube.  Seeing the massive collections certain YouTubers had made me think, "Imagine if I had my own space to show off my stuff, that'd be awesome!"  The problem was I was deathly afraid of working.  No job meant no money.  Financial responsibility was an alien concept to me.

That changed when I graduated from high school and got a job working at Little Caesars.  Now that I had a bank account and understood the basics of saving, I could use the cash to afford more shelves for my bedroom.  Being a fledgling college student, said shelves came from the local thrift store, but I was proud.  Over the years, I built up my movie and game collections, adding new systems and new titles.

My room circa September 2021.

Extreme Makeover: GamerGuy Edition

By 2021, it was time for an upgrade.  The layout of my room had been unchanged for six years, and as the years went by and the collection expanded, it was creating problems.  Nothing says fun like shuffling stuff around to make room for more stuff.  At the beginning of the year, I made a list of goals, one of which was to redesign my room.

After months of working and saving up, I had enough cash to buy new furniture and get rid of the clutter.  I took down all the tapes, DVDs, blu-rays, and games I had acquired, put them into boxes, and moved the old furniture out.

Out with the Old, In with the New






Finding Furniture

I found the new TV stand out of sheer luck.  I work at a Salvation Army thrift store and when it was dropped off I thought, "That's exactly what I'm looking for!"  I ordered the new shelves and dresser off Amazon.  Once everything arrived, I got to work.

Building the shelves was a hassle.  With very little wiggle room, I had to be extremely careful putting the shelves together.  I nearly went mad, but I was able to finish them and save my sanity.  The "fun" part was then restocking them with all the games and movies I owned.

As I was making my way through the VHS collection, I realized I owned way too many tapes.  I had built up a sizable VHS collection during my college years.  When you have money, but not a lot of it, a VHS collection can come in handy.  They're cheap, plentiful, and there's a charm to watching movies on an older format.  However, VHS takes up a lot of space, and nearly all the shelves I owned were filled with tapes.

I decided to separate the essentials from the nonessentials.  I boxed the nonessentials up and took them to a thrift store the next day.  I also made a new rule for myself: no more tapes.  I like VHS, but I have enough tapes.  For some, one is too many and a thousand is never enough.  For me, I'm satisfied with what I own, and I'm not in a rush to fluff it with movies I may rarely, if ever, watch.

Bye bye tapes!

I got frames for my Godzilla 1985 and Return of the Living Dead Part II posters and hung them up.  A few extra adjustments here and there, and my redesigned media room is complete.

New and Improved







Building Better Rooms

I love my new media room.  It looks great and is a lot more organized and less cluttered.  It's bound to change, especially if I move out and get my own place, but I love it.

To close out this post, here's a few quick tips for those looking to design their own gaming/entertainment room:

1. Know What You Want
2. Design Your Layout
3. Have the Tools, Have the Talent

   

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Then and Now: Resident Evil 2

 

After Resident Evil wowed gamers with its survival horror gameplay, a sequel was guaranteed to happen.  Yet, development wasn't easy.  The original version of Resident Evil 2 was scrapped because Shinji Mikami, creative director of the first game, wasn't proud of what he saw.  With a little help from a then unknown Hideki Kamiya, Resident Evil 2 was reworked and released, becoming one of the highest selling PS1 games.  21 years later, Resident Evil 2 was reimagined for a new generation.

Leon S. Kennedy is driving to Raccoon City to work his first day as a police officer for the RPD.  He arrives, only to discover almost all the populace has been zombified.  While fleeing the undead he runs into Claire Redfield, Chris Redfield's sister.  She's looking for her brother since he went quiet and hasn't been heard from.  The two make their way to the police station, hoping to find sanctuary from the madness outside.  Instead, they find zombies, a corrupt police chief, and a rapidly mutating monster that was once a human being.

Like any good sequel, Resident Evil 2 raises the stakes and introduces new characters who went on to become series staples.  It also has a clearer focus and a better tone.  As I said in my previous review, the first Resident Evil is like a carnival haunted house.  The frights seem scary, but they're not.  This isn't the case with Resident Evil 2.  The atmosphere is one of isolation and hopelessness.  Raccoon City is a ghost town, and the only sounds are the howling wind and moans of the undead.

Fire in the hole!

Trekking through the police station, you see signs of a last stand.  Dead cops and civilians lie about the station, while hastily put-up barricades clue the player in on how dire the situation is.  Diaries and notes detail the final days of struggle between the living and the living dead.  The first half of the campaign is tense and eerie, once you reach the sewers, the tone becomes action packed.  It's a race against time as the characters try to accomplish their goals and escape before everything explodes.

What makes the story unique is its use of perspectives.  The original Resident Evil 2 features "A" and "B" scenarios in which the main characters experience the same sides of the story but from differing points of view.  The first Resident Evil toyed with the idea by offering separate campaigns for Chris and Jill, but the sequel expands upon it.  Choices you make playing as one character effect how difficult or easy the other character's journey will be.  It's a fantastic system that boosts the game's replay value, and while the idea is in the remake, it's not as in-depth as it is in the original.

Let's talk about Leon and Claire.  Leon is a rookie unsure of his potential as a cop and the outbreak doesn't help his uncertainty.  As the game progresses, he becomes more confident in himself and is willing to take a bullet for others to ensure their safety.  During his adventures, he meets Ada Wong, a woman claiming to be looking for her boyfriend.  This is a cover-up for her real mission, to find samples of the G-virus.  She doesn't think much of Leon, but when he saves her from being shot, she starts developing feelings for him.

As for Claire, she finds herself protecting a young girl named Sherry Birkin.  Sherry is the daughter of William and Annette Birkin, Umbrella scientists who were working on a new strain of the T-virus dubbed the G-virus.  William is cornered by government agents assigned to collect the virus.  When he is accidentally gunned down, Birkin injects himself with a vial of the virus and begins mutating into a horrific monster.  Birkin's mutation causes a chain reaction that leads to Raccoon City's downfall.

Birkin's mutations are horrific with a capital H.

The relationship between Claire and Sherry is reminiscent of Ripley and Newt from Aliens.  Claire becomes a big sister to Sherry and is willing to keep an eye out for her, something Sherry's parents didn't do.  She also gets entangled with Bryan Irons, police chief of the RPD.  Irons is in dirty with Umbrella.  Even after the surviving members of STARS attempt to explain what happened at the mansion, Irons dismisses their claims.  He's an asshole and a total creep, which makes his death more satisfying.

Like the Resident Evil remake, the Resident Evil 2 remake preserves the plot and characters but makes a few tweaks.  Instead of looking for her boyfriend, Ada is posing as an FBI agent.  Sherry immediately recognizes the Birkin/G mutant as her father, whereas in the original, she was oblivious to who it was until near the end.  Tonally, the two games are about the same, but the remake plays up the creepy factor.  The atmosphere and lighting are used to create feelings of uncertainty and dread.  Also, the zombies are now terrifying creatures whose guttural screams will send chills down your spine.

Another thing the remake does better is expand upon minor characters, namely Marvin and Kendo.  Marvin is a police officer that warns you about the zombie infestation before telling you to leave the west office.  When you encounter him again, he's a zombie, so you blow his head off.  When we meet Marvin in the remake, he's in the lobby instead of the west office, and he gives Leon or Claire an important piece of advice, never let their guard down, no matter what.

Kendo, a gun store owner, is made into a more sympathetic figure.  His appearance is brief, but you can see the toll the outbreak has taken on him.  His wife his dead, and his daughter was bit.  It's a short scene, but an effective moment.  Compare that to the PS1 original, where he's frightened and gets quickly overrun by the zombies.

Resident Evil 2 and its remake are wholly different experiences.  Whereas the remake of the first Resident Evil felt like a fully realize version of the original, the Resident Evil 2 remake is a brand new experience, one that pays lip service to its predecessor while doing its own thing.

Florida's not the only one with a gator problem.

In both games, the goal is to escape the police station and Raccoon City itself.  Finding a way out won't be easy due to the zombies and other nasties lurking within.  Whereas the first game emphasizes puzzle-solving and item-finding over combat, the sequel strikes a balance.  You'll solve puzzles and collect items necessary for progression, but you'll also blast through dozens of enemies.  Ammo isn't as scarce and there are some new tools of destruction to mess around with.

Claire gets a handgun, a grenade launcher, a crossbow, and a six shooter.  The grenade launcher can be equipped with flame, acidic, or explosive rounds.  Leon gets a handgun, a shotgun, and a magnum.  Unlike Claire, Leon's weapons can be upgraded with parts you find.  The pistol becomes a burst-fire machine, while the shotgun turns into a cannon.  There are also one-off guns to find including a spark shot, the flamethrower, and a submachine gun.

Even though ammo is more plentiful, you still need to be conservative with it.  Never waste bullets on minor enemies and evade them as much as possible.  Besides having different arsenals, Leon gets the lighter and Claire has a lockpick.  Neither character's campaign is more difficult than the other.  However, your choices may make certain parts easier or challenging.  If you find the weapon room keycard, you can equip either pouches for extra inventory slots or a submachine gun for extra firepower.  If you find wires, you can use them to reactivate the shutters and keep the zombies from getting in.  The shutters will short circuit though, allowing the corpses to get back in.

Both campaigns feature one-off sections where you play as Ada or Sherry.  These are a nice reprieve and mix up the experience.  While Ada has a pistol, Sherry has nothing to defend herself with, so she needs to avoid enemies.  Speaking of which, the enemy roster features some familiar faces and new threats to contend with.

Zombies, spiders, cows, and dogs are joined by lickers.  Lickers are creatures who crawl on all fours and attack with their tongue.  They can't see but are attracted to sound.  If you're crafty enough, it's possible to sneak by lickers and then bolt before they get the jump on you.  Late in the game, you'll face a giant alligator, moths, and plant monsters.  Then, there's Mr. X.

Resident Evil 2 Remake revisits the age old question, "How do you kill something
that's already dead?"

During the "B" scenario, Umbrella deploys a Tyrant nicknamed Mr. X to kill any survivors.  He's slow but his hits deal a ton of damage.  Despite his intimidating stature, Mr. X isn't much of a problem.  It's easy to fake him into punching before running by him like he's nothing.  You can try taking him on, but it's a waste of time since he gets up when you leave the room.  Mr. X is cool on paper but lacking in execution.

This also applies to William Birkin.  He's constantly mutating throughout the campaign, each form less human than the last.  It sounds neat, but the fights are underwhelming.  You stand in a corner, unload your most powerful ammo into him before he flees or is temporarily incapacitated.

Resident Evil 2's remake overhauls the gameplay in many ways.   Instead of fixed camera angles and tank controls, the game is an over-the-shoulder, third person shooter.  Even though the game is modernized, there are many old-school flourishes in its design.  On normal or easy, the game autosaves at regular intervals, and saving on a typewriter doesn't require an ink ribbon.  Autosave is disabled on higher difficulties and you need to find ink ribbons before you can use the typewriter.  Puzzle-solving and item finding are an important part of the gameplay as is resource management.  

As for combat, it's a wholly different experience.

By today's standards, the zombies in the original Resident Evil games aren't a threat.  They're easy to dodge and go down after a handful of shots.  Like the Resident Evil remake, the Resident Evil 2 remake reinvents the walking dead into deadly creatures.  These shambling corpses will chase you from one room to another and can soak up a lot of damage before going down.  Even a close-range blast from the shotgun will only scar them.  Sometimes, the best thing to do is stun them with a headshot and run by in an effort to conserve ammo.

These zombies are tenacious, so don't be reckless.  Ammo isn't plentiful, but you can mix and match different types of gunpowder to create more bullets.  While zombies behave differently, other enemies like lickers and dogs function the same as their PS1 counterparts.  Pro-tip: try tiptoeing around lickers as much as possible, you'd be surprised by how effective this tactic is.  Spiders and moths are absent, while G-mutants populate the sewers.  The plant monsters are now plant/human hybrids that can only be killed by burning them or shooting their weak spots.

Mr. X is another story.

Instead of being an inconvenience that's exclusive to one half of the story, he is an unstoppable juggernaut that stalks both Leon and Claire.  Be ready to have a back-up plan if you run into Mr. X as he will make your life a living hell.  One time, I was moving bookshelves to form a makeshift walkway.  I heard a door opening and the footsteps of Mr. X increasing in volume.  I quickly stopped to see where he was, only to notice him go through the next door.  I resumed what I was doing and got across before he had a chance to come back.

Don't bother shooting Mr. X unless you REALLY want the trophy for shooting
his hat off.

The reworked combat and enemy behavior require you to think about what your objectives are, what the best paths are to take, and where the save rooms are in case you need breathing space.

Boss fights are an improvement.  While most of them rely on hitting weak spots to hurt them, they're a step up from what was in the original.  The bosses pursue the player, have attacks to avoid, and require you to keep your eyes open for windows of opportunity.  Because of this, I found the fights with the mutating Birkin and even the final fight with Mr. X to be more enjoyable.  The only exception is the giant alligator, which is now a scripted sequence, but the way it's been redone reminds me of the boulder chase from Resident Evil 4.

Both versions of Resident Evil 2 are loaded with content.  Besides the campaigns, there are extra modes, hidden weapons, and alternate costumes.  Beating both campaigns in the original unlocks Extreme Battle, where you need to make your way from the underground lab to the police station, collecting four bombs along the way.  There's also the 4th Survivor, where you play as the agent HUNK and need to escape the lab.  Beat that, and you unlock a version where you play as a block of tofu.

The remake features three bonus missions in addition to hidden weapons, costumes, and concept art.  One of these missions is a remake of the 4th Survivor, while the other two are "what if" scenarios where you play as Kendo or the mayor's daughter.  These missions are challenging.  Each character has their own loadout, plus distinct enemy types to square off with. They're tough, but also a great way to test your familiarity with the combat.

Resident Evil 2 on PS1 boasts a bit more graphical polish.  Characters and environments are more detailed, and there's more variety to the looks of the zombies.  The CG cut-scenes are an indicator the developers had a bigger budget to work with.  As for the remake, it looks fantastic.  Every character, location, and gun are rendered with incredible detail.  The physics and gore system are impressive.  Dead bodies crumple in realistic fashion, and when you shoot at limbs, they slowly detach and fall off in visceral detail.  If nothing else, the remake wins the award for most detailed hamburger in a video game.

Tofu: the true hero of the series.

Sound design is great in both games, but the original is better for one reason: the music.  Instead of cartoony synth, we get a proper soundtrack that sets the mood.  The police station theme provokes emotions of mystery, intrigue, isolation, and uncertainty.  Then you have Ada's theme, which is calm but romantic.  Also, the fully upgraded shotgun packs a wallop.  While some of the dialogue has that trademark Capcom cheese, the performances are a huge improvement.

The remake features excellent sound work, but the music is lacking.  It's ambient, and at times, the music lifts motifs from the original, but it's nowhere near as good.  Fortunately, the voice acting is stellar.

If I had to rank my favorite Resident Evil games, Resident Evil 2, both the original and reimagined version, would sit comfortably in second place.  I think both games are great for different reasons.  The original Resident Evil 2 built upon what its predecessor did.  The game was more focused and less obtuse.  While I like the first Resident Evil, it can be confusing at times, not the case here.  I also like the characters and how it expands the universe in interesting ways.

Resident Evil 2 does what a remake should, honor the legacy of the original while doing its own thing.  It adheres to both modern and old-school gaming tropes to create a satisfying survival horror experience.  The game is tough but fair.  The zombies are tenacious bastards, but with a little patience, you learn their tricks, and become a better player for it.  Resident Evil 2 has the polish of a big-budget game but the depth of an Olympic swimming pool.

Final Score: 8/10

Friday, October 8, 2021

Then and Now: Resident Evil

 


2021 marks the 15th anniversary of Resident Evil.  What was conceived as a spiritual successor to the Famicom game Sweet Home became the franchise that defined survival horror.  It spawned sequels, spin-offs, movies, novels, and more.  It taught gamers about the healing power of herbs, and how boulder-punching isn't a skill, but a way of life.  My introduction to the series was through Resident Evil 4: Wii EditionResident Evil 4 balanced terror with action and popularized the over the shoulder perspective.  The result was a fantastic game made better by the pointer controls of the Wii remote.

This was back in 2014, back when I was a stupid teenager afraid of earning money through something called "work."  Five years later, I acquired the first three Resident Evil games for the PlayStation and was able to experience the series' roots proper.  For my first annual Arcade of Terror, I'm covering the original Resident Evil's and their respective remakes.  Resident Evil may be a long-running franchise, but its stories have been retold more often than once.

Mysterious murders outside Raccoon City result in the STARS Bravo team being sent out to investigate.  When nothing is heard back, STARS Alpha Team is sent to find answers.  Turns out Bravo team's chopper crashed, and nearly everyone was killed by grotesque-looking hounds.  Alpha team is ambushed and retreats, but their helicopter pilot panics and takes off.  Left alone in the woods, they seek shelter at a mysterious mansion.  Turns out the place is infested with an assortment of monsters, all the result of secretive experimenting by the Umbrella Corporation.

Concerned Barry is concerned.

Resident Evil's story plays out like a video game version of Night of the Living Dead.  A small group of survivors are stuck in a house and need to find a way out.  How the story is told is where the original and its remake differ.  Resident Evil on PS1 is like a cheesy B-movie.  It tries to scare you, but you're more likely to die from laughter than shock.  

The voice acting is amazingly awful.  Dialogue is delivered with the gracefulness of someone trying to read a script written by aliens.  Everyone and their mother have talked about "Chris' blood!", "Jill Sandwich," "I'm Rebecca Chambers," and all the other lines that have been quoted to death.  The live action opening sequence piles on the cheese by featuring a bunch of nobodies dressed as the main characters fighting off what looks like Muppets from hell.

That's not to say Resident Evil is a total laugh fest as there are some genuinely creepy moments.  One of my personal favorites is the art room with the crows.  Seeing them perched above, waiting for the chance to swoop down and attack is quite nerve-inducing.  Then, there are the hunters, bi-pedal lizards with huge claws that show up at the halfway point.  Just when you think the mansion is safe, hunters show up to slice your head off.

Notes and journals you find give an insight into how things were before the outbreak happened.  Guards and technicians describe the shady activities of Umbrella and clue you into the state of things before their demise.  As the game progresses, you discover the corporation is up to no good and one of your own is a backstabber.

Spoilers for a 25-year-old game, but Albert Wesker, Alpha team's captain, is in cahoots with the company.  He sicks the Tyrant on the heroes as a last-ditch effort but is killed by his own creation.  After hours of puzzle solving and exploration, the game climaxes in spectacular fashion as the player kills the Tyrant and escapes the mansion before it explodes.  Depending on your decisions, certain characters might survive or not.

In the world of Resident Evil, dobermans make great zombie dogs.

Resident Evil's remake keeps the story but ditches the unintentional comedy for pure horror.  The game's atmosphere is dense with a capital D.  The mansion is turned into a Gothic manor, complete with a cemetery area, lots of lightning, and lots of fog.  Excellent sound design adds tension as you explore the house and hear moans coming from unseen places.  The plot plays out the same, but there are a few changes.  For example, Richard Aiken, a wounded Bravo team member, can be saved if you're fast enough, compared to the original where he dies no matter how long you take.

Another addition is in the form of Lisa Trevor.  Lisa Trevor was a family member turned test subject by Umbrella.  Injected with the Progenitor virus, she became a grotesque creature that stalks the halls of Spencer Manor.  Diaries detail her family's attempt to save Lisa, only to be executed by Umbrella.  She may be a grotesque creature, but you feel sympathy for her when you realize this was done against her will.  If the original Resident Evil is like a Universal monster movie, the remake is like the Hammer Studios version, darker, a little more violent, a little more Gothic.

Resident Evil on PS1 crafted the survival horror formula, and the remake flavors up the concoction to make it more irresistible.  The goal is to escape the mansion and uncover the truth.  To do so, you'll complete puzzles, unlock doors, and try to survive the tank controls.  Instead of using a traditional set-up, the original Resident Evil games use tank controls.  When you push the analog stick forward, the character moves forward.  To move left or right you need to tilt the analog stick in the direction you want to go then move the stick forward.

At the start, you are given the option to play as either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine.  Both characters have strengths or weakness.  Jill has eight inventory slots, gets access to a grenade launcher, and is the master of unlocking thanks to a lockpick she receives near the start.  Chris can take more damage and has a lighter.  The drawback is he only has six inventory spaces, not to mention he can't do a lot of puzzles without help.  First-time players will want to start with Jill since she's technically the game's normal mode.

Inventory management is important because resources are limited, as is the space to carry items.  It's smarter to try and run around zombies instead of shooting them.  You'll save ammo and in the case of the remake, deciding whether to burn bodies, more on this later.  Despite being labelled survival horror, Resident Evil is more akin to an adventure game.  The emphasis is on puzzle-solving and item finding rather than combat.  Nearly every door requires a key to open, and while Jill can open some with her lockpick, Chris needs to rely on keys if he wants to get anywhere.

The graphical difference between the original and remake is night and day.

Resident Evil does not hold your hand.  Expect to ask yourself, "Where do I get next?" more than once.  You're given clues about where to find things, but not always.  The challenge comes not from combat, but from keeping track of your progress.  The remake alleviates the frustration by marking rooms as cleared once you've nabbed every item.  Plus, part of the satisfaction from playing Resident Evil is your increased familiarity with your surroundings, helpful on future playthroughs.

However, the remake throws many curveballs at those familiar with the PS1 game in the form of new areas, as well as redone puzzles and mechanics.  In the original, when a zombie dies, they stay dead.  In the remake, zombies are dead temporarily.  After a while, they return as crimson heads, which are faster and vicious.  To ensure they stay dead, you need to burn them or blow their head clean off with a headshot.  Kerosene fuel is limited, so either try for the head or get around them.

Zombies aren't the only thing to worry about.  There are also crows, zombified dogs, hunters, a giant snake, giant spiders, and a giant snake for good measure.  The crows aren't much of an issue, but dogs can gang up on you if you're not careful.  Spiders aren't a threat or a nuisance, but an inconvenience.  I never understood why people found them scary since they're easy to run by and only once are you required to one on mano a mano.  If you get hurt, use herbs and first aid sprays.

While Resident Evil's puzzles will flex your noggin, the boss fights won't.  Most of them can be defeated by standing in a corner and unloading ammo on them.  The sharks are the exception since you must drain the flooded hallways to render them useless.  It's even possible to kill the giant plant in the guardhouse by concocting a special serum.  The final fight against the Tyrant is a bit of a hassle, but if you keep at least one or two healing items on you, you'll be fine.

When the game is beaten, you earn a rank based on how long you took and how often you saved.  If you're good enough, you can earn the coveted A rank or S rank.  Getting a high rank rewards the player with new weapons and alternate costumes.  When the remake was re-released on HD consoles, extra outfits were added to provide extra incentive for replaying the game.  This version also includes the option to swap between tank controls and traditional controls.

Just when you thought it was safe to be dead.

Visually, Resident Evil on PS1 looks dated but the visual style has held up.  The pre-rendered backgrounds mixed with 3D character models give the game an old fashioned but timeless appeal.  On the other hand, the remake looks gorgeous.  Two decades later and the graphics have aged spectacularly.  I played the Wii port and even on a lower resolution the visuals hold up.  The mansion is beautiful in a macabre sense.  Every hallway, bedroom, and lab are drenched with detail and the game makes great use of shadows.

Voice acting in the PS1 original is amazing.  That is all.  While the remake has better performances, all the magic is gone.  When Resident Evil received a Director's Cut re-release, a new soundtrack was composed.  The music is good, but some of the compositions sound like someone farting on a Casio.  Then again, the composer was allegedly deaf, until it was revealed he had been faking it the entirety of his career.  The remake relies more on ambience, which adds to the creative factor.  Footsteps echo through the mansion's halls and the distant pounding of a door or window keeps you alert.

Resident Evil is a solid game.  While the PS1 title is dated, the game's unintentionally campy tone and challenging gameplay keeps you drawn to the experience.   The remake plays it straight and serious.  The game feels like survival horror and not in an ironic way.  The redone mechanics turn the first entry into a more contemporary experience that still finds ways to surprise gamers.  If the PS1 Resident Evil is a theme park haunted house, one where the scares make you laugh, the Resident Evil remake is a legitimate haunted house, one where the horrors toy with your mind.

Final Score: 8/10

Friday, October 1, 2021

From Script to Ink: Don Calfa's Revenge of the Living Dead

 


Return of the Living Dead is one of those topics where once you get me started, I don't stop talking.  What was once a movie that scared me as a 12-year-old became one of my favorite horror movies.  Yet, none of the sequels matched the original.  Part II was decent if uninspired, while Return of the Living Dead 3 tried and failed to make us sympathize with a boy and his not so dead girlfriend.  The less said about Necropolis and Rave to the Grave, the better.

For 16 years, the series has laid dormant.  While there has been a plethora of merchandise, from t-shirts to posters to barbeque sauce, no one has attempted to resurrect the series.  This is because of a legal snafu between the family of the late Tom Fox and the producer behind the later, made for TV installments.  That hasn't stopped people from pitching their own ideas, including those who worked on the movies.

Don Calfa, who played the mortician Ernie, teamed up with writer Roger Carney to pen a treatment called Revenge of the Living Dead, which picked up moments after the ending of the original.  While writer/director Dan O'Bannon loved it, producer Tom Fox wasn't interested.  It sat on the shelf for decades until it was turned into a graphic novel by Dead Mouse Productions, the studio behind the upcoming RoboCop documentary RoboDoc.

We thought the nuclear blast killed everyone.  We were wrong.

In Revenge of the Living Dead, the nuclear blast that was meant to eradicate the zombie outbreak in Louisville missed its target.  Burt is killed by falling beams, so Spider, Casey, and Chuck head back to the mortuary, where Ernie and Tina are trying to hold off the zombified Freddy.  Tina spikes him with embalming fluid, which renders him docile.  Meanwhile, Colonel Glover is ordered by the higher-ups to contain the outbreak and find the Trioxin barrels stored at the Uneeda warehouse.

Coming in at 60 pages, Revenge of the Living Dead packs each panel with violence, gags, and gore galore.  The action isn't contained to a tiny portion of Louisville; instead, the whole city is caught up in the chaos.  Attempts to flee are rendered futile by the zombie masses.  Soldiers are unable to stop the legions of undead, and anything they do spreads Trioxin amongst the masses.  Revenge of the Living Dead is what Return of the Living Dead Part II should have been.

I say this ironically because there are a lot of similarities between the two.  As mentioned, the action is set in the city, and the military has quarantined the town to ensure nothing escapes.  There's also a heavier emphasis on comedy.  Many background zombies are modeled after famous people.  Keep an eye out for zombified versions of George Romero, Dan O'Bannon, William Stout, and even Bernie from Weekend at Bernie's.  The comic even has its own versions of the severed head and severed hand scenes, the former of which sees Tarman chasing the cast around the warehouse while holding on to his head.

The difference between Return of the Living Dead Part II and this comic is everything is played straight instead of for laughs.  The situation is treated seriously and the undead feel like an unstoppable threat instead of a slapstick brigade like in Part II.  However, the comic makes the same mistake the second movie did by relying on too many callbacks to its predecessor.  A lot of the dialogue is re-purposed from the original.  For example, after giving a report on the situation in Louisville, a fighter pilot tells Glover that "They'll be home in time for Ethel's lamb chops."

The story also shares some similarities with "Resident Evil 2 & 3."  At one point, the gang
even rescues a truck driver who got bit.

What's most surprising about Revenge of the Living Dead is how Ernie is now the man in charge.  With Burt incapacitated, Ernie steps up to the role of leading man, and his knowledge of dealing with the dead becomes quite useful, especially with handling Frank and Freddy.  Frank didn't quite burn himself to a crisp as we thought, but it did leave half his face scarred up.  Using his embalming skills, Ernie turns the two into sharp-dressed corpses and holds off their brain cravings with embalming fluid and formaldehyde.

Ernie becoming the hero was likely influenced by how actor Clu Gulager and director Dan O'Bannon argued on set, so he was written out for the sequel.  Although killing Burt at the beginning highlights the fact that in Return of the Living Dead, no one is safe.  Ernie calls all the shots, while Spider acts as his right-hand man.  On the military side, we get to spend more time with Glover as he tries to find the barrels and clean up the mess.  New characters like General Mainwaring are thrown into the mix to not only bark orders at Glover, but to become brain food for the zombies.

Revenge of the Living Dead carries on the idea that the military are utterly incapable at handling major disasters.  Squads of biohazard teams and troops are sent into deal with the threat only to get annihilated.  When they start using flamethrowers on the ghouls, it only spreads the gas and infects the citizens they're supposed to be trying to help.  Soon, news reporters see what's really going on, and it's only a matter of time before the pot boils over for Glover and company.

While I like the new characters, none of the main cast, save for Ernie and Spider, get much development.  Tina and the rest of the gang act about the same as they did in the original; in other words, panicking their butts off.  Revenge of the Living Dead could have benefitted from an unexpected curveball like killing off another one of the punks.  None of them get harmed during the adventure.  At one point, Casey panics and leaves the guys behind, but before they get overwhelmed, she changes her mind and goes back to save them, and everyone escapes intact.

Things seem dire, but not for long.

Revenge of the Living Dead's art style is colorful and cartoony.  It reminds me a lot of The Real Ghostbusters with how the characters look sort of but not quite like their film counterparts.  Ernie looks more like a chiseled tough guy, square jaw and all.  Frank bears no resemblance to James Karen, though since half his face is gone, it's excusable.  The artwork even references some of William Stout's zombie designs.  While some might find the cartoony redesigns off-putting, you quickly get used to it.

Revenge of the Living Dead is an interesting case of what could have been.  It picks up immediately from the first and takes the story into a new direction, while increasing the action and gags.  To put it this way, this comic is the Aliens to the first movie's Alien.  The best part about the comic is how it makes Ernie the protagonist, and had it been made into a movie, it would have allowed the late Don Calfa to go all out and become a hero.  This comic doubles as both an unofficial sequel and a tribute to the late actor's work.  If you can track down a copy, check out this comic for the sequel that never was.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Lollipop Chainsaw (Xbox 360) Review


If there's one thing you can say about the games of Grasshopper Manufacture, it's that they are unique.  Their games feature eccentric characters living in eccentric worlds, and who take part in extraordinary situations.  Case in point Lollipop Chainsaw.  A game starring a monster-slaying cheerleader, 2012's Lollipop Chainsaw saw the studio collaborating with James Gunn, writer of the popular Scooby-Doo movies and the director of some movie called The Suicide Squad.  The result meshes Grasshopper's oddball nature with Gunn's twisted sensibility.

It's Juliet Starling's 18th birthday!  But what should be a momentous occasion is derailed by a zombie outbreak occurring at her high school.  One of the victims is her boyfriend Nick, but Juliet saves his head, literally.  She discovers the outbreak was caused by Swan, the school's outcast.  Fed up with being treated as a loser by his peers, Swan used black magic to open a portal to the Rotten World, summoning five Dark Spirits in the process.  With chaos unfolding across the high school and surrounding area, Juliet and Nick set out to defeat the spirits and close the portal before it's too late.

Lollipop Chainsaw is no ordinary zombie game.  Releasing during a time when the market was oversaturated with the living dead, Lollipop Chainsaw was a reminder that the undead don't have to be taken so seriously.  The dialogue is crass, and the gags are plentiful.  You can see the styles of both Grasshopper and James Gunn shine through in the set-up and writing.  Structurally and conceptually, it's reminiscent of No More Heroes.  Instead of fighting ten assassins who are spoofs of superhero and anime clichés, you fight five spirits that are caricatures of different rock styles like punk rock and death metal.

Johnny Napalm from "Guitar Hero" has fallen on hard times.

As much as this feels like a Grasshopper game, it very much feels like one written by James Gunn.  Before directing blockbuster superhero movies, Gunn cut his teeth as a scriptwriter for Troma Films, in addition to directing cult flicks like Super.  His earlier works were raunchy and vulgar, and Lollipop Chainsaw is no exception.  Juliet's mentor is a sensei named Morikawa who tries his darndest to look up Juliet's skirt while giving her exposition.  One of the spirits, Zed, using his cursing as a weapon, taunting Juliet with tawdry phrases like "Vanilla Slut."

Some of the jokes miss, but the dialogue is hilarious.  What's most surprising about the writing isn't the profanity, but how it flips the tables on the characters.  Take Juliet.  She wears a skimpy cheerleader outfit, and her voice sounds like a typical bubbly teenage girl, but underneath the pom-poms is a character who's strong, smart, and can hold her own.  Juliet was raised in a family never afraid to take on a challenge, no matter how insurmountable the odds seemed.  It's her determination that gives her character, and like Lara Croft and Bayonetta before her, she mixes beauty with brawn.

Ironically, it's her boyfriend Nick that is treated like an object.  The dumb jock obsessed with football and boobs is reduced to a head on a keychain.  He feels humiliated for most of the adventure, but by the end, he realizes his lack of a body shouldn't make up for how much he's willing to support the one he loves.  Lollipop Chainsaw's premise doesn't overstay its welcome, and the game reaches a satisfying conclusion in the form of a boss fight with a fat, giant Elvis demon.

Lollipop Chainsaw's hack and slash gameplay is competent but enjoyable.  The goal of each stage is to cut through zombies and defeat one of the Dark Spirits.  Juliet is equipped with pom-poms and a chainsaw, which deal light and heavy attacks respectively.  Halfway through the game, her chainsaw is upgraded with the ability to shoot projectiles.  The pom-poms are great for peppering enemies with fast, quick attacks, while the chainsaw is useful for keeping bad guys at bay, though its wind-up leaves Juliet vulnerable.  

He won't be doing any "easy riding" anytime soon!

When an enemy is stunned, they become dizzy.  Dizzy zombies can be instantly decapitated.  Decapitating three or more zombies in a row rewards Juliet with a "Sparkle Hunting" bonus.  Said bonus is in the form of extra coins, which can be used at the shop to buy upgrades, items, and other goodies.

On paper, Lollipop Chainsaw isn't too different from other titles in the genre.  In fact, it shares a lot of similarities with the Onechanbara series, right down the scantily-clad protagonist.  The difference is Lollipop Chainsaw never becomes a snore-fest due to a little something called variety.  Besides slicing up zombies, you'll rescue survivors.  Survivors are students that need to be saved and escorted to a safe spot.  Protecting survivors isn't too annoying since they aren't harmed by your attacks.  Should they die under your watch, he or she will come back as a super zombie.

As mentioned earlier, Nick's severed head accompanies Juliet.  Juliet can put Nick's head on glowing blue zombies, which initiates a mini-game where you must press a button in time as Nick makes his way over to a steel shutter that needs to be opened or to clear away rubble.  If you have a Nick ticket, you can trigger a roulette wheel where you pick a move from a handful of special attacks.  Tickets double as a revive if Juliet dies, so it's important to decide if you want to use a ticket now or save it for later.

Zombies come in many shapes and sizes.  There's the standard undead, but there's also zombified firemen, football players, cops, and other personnel that are harder to kill.  Fortunately, there's "Sparkle Mode."  Killing zombies adds energy to the meter that when activated, makes Juliet invincible and lets her insta-kill zombies.  Sparkle mode is useful for racking up coins and can make a difference in the final ranking you earn.  The player receives a grade based on factors like how long it took to beat the stage, how many zombies were decapitated, etc.

Pom-poms are a cheerleader's best friend.

Every now and then, the game puts you in a one-off sequence.  You'll find yourself launching zombie heads into a basketball goal, helping Nick in a game of zombie baseball, or driving a combine harvester.  These sequences are a welcome change of pace as the combat gets repetitive.

While Lollipop Chainsaw offers schlocky fun, the gameplay is hampered by various design problems.  Levels are incredibly linear to the point you can't even jump over cars.  Whatever collectibles are available to find are often placed along the path you're taking.  The game is also easy, even on normal.  Lollipops acts as health items, restoring Juliet's health when needed.  On normal, you can carry at least five, but on hard, it's reduced to three.  Lollipops restore a large chunk of health, so dying isn't too much of an issue.

Boss fights are a colossal disappointment.  I like how each one is modeled after a different style of music, but they barely pose a challenge.  The game tells you what weapon to use and where their weak spots are, meaning the player doesn't have to worry much about figuring out how to defeat them.  Each boss has three forms, but these only serve to pad out the fight instead of mixing things up.  While there is a decent selection of moves to unlock, you can get by relying on just a handful of attacks, like the back-kick, which instantly stuns foes.

Lollipop Chainsaw is a colorful game.  Some of the textures look muddy, but the excellent art style makes up for it.  Zombies explode into sparkles when decapitated and the artwork is heavily inspired by classic comics like Tales from the Crypt.  Voice acting is great.  Tara Strong voices Juliet Starling and gives the character an enthusiastic performance.  The rest of the cast features the likes of Michael Rooker, Linda Cardellini, and Jimmy Urine, lead singer of Mindless Self Indulgence.

They look so happy together!

Jimmy Urine also composed the boss music for the game, with Akira Yamaoka composing the rest of the score, and it's an excellent soundtrack.  Each stage's music reflects the boss you're confronting.  For example, Vikke's music features a lot of death metal, while the tracks in the Fulci's arcade level emphasize the techno.  Peppered throughout are licensed tunes that are used when necessary.  It's not everyday you kill zombies to the tune of Toni Basil's "Mickey.

Lollipop Chainsaw is like the B-movies it's based on.  It's schlocky, gory, often in bad taste, but nonetheless absurd.  The premise is absurd, but the writing is on point.  Juliet seems like a brainless cheerleader, but she's really a badass who likes a good challenge.  At seven hours, the game's length is just right and never does tedium settle in.  The game has issues, notably a lack of challenge, but Lollipop Chainsaw makes up for its shortcomings with its irresistible charm.  For those who like their games a little gonzo, this is worth checking out.

Final Score: 7/10

Friday, September 10, 2021

No More Heroes (Wii) Review

 

Editor's Note: This game was previously reviewed in 2015.  However, that review is outdated and horrible.  Consider this a "Revisited" on No More Heroes.  You can find the original review here.

In a world inundated with sequels, prequels, and reboots, it's challenging to sell consumers on a new idea, regardless of what the concept is.  However, a new video game console is the perfect opportunity for developers to sell people on their new property, as well as drum up attention for the system.  By late 2007, the Wii was dominating the console market, selling 5.84 million units at the end of 2007.  Yet, its focus on the casual market combined with the plethora of shovel ware made hardcore gamers wary.  That changed in 2008 when developer Grasshopper Manufacture and publisher Ubisoft released No More Heroes, a game where you kill guys and jack off a lightsaber.

Travis Touchdown is an otaku who spends his time sitting on the toilet instead of working a job.  He buys a beam katana off the internet, a decision that leads him to a duel with a man named Helter Skelter.  Killing him makes Travis number 11 on the ranking board of the United Assassins' Association, UAA for short.  The organization's leader, Sylvia Christel, promises Travis that if he fights his way up to number one, he'll be crowned the winner.  Travis accepts, with the bonus of getting to sleep with Sylvia if he succeeds.

No More Heroes is a wild game.  It's violent, bloody, lewd, and crude.  The hero is a guy who wants to make it to the top not for the desire of power or wealth, but to have sex with a woman.  The ranked assassins Travis duels are colorful individuals that come off as crazy yet sensible.  For example, Destroy-Man is a mild-mannered mail carrier turned incredibly egotistical superhero.  Shinobu is a katana-wielding high-schooler who wants revenge because she believes Travis killed her father.  The characters are absurd, but everything is played straight, and it rides the fine line between ludicrous and grounded.


Boss fights are fun and require looking for windows of opportunity to lay damage on them.

While No More Heroes is clearly inspired by the works of Takeshi Miké and Quentin Tarantino, it also reminds me a lot of the movie Repo Man.  Both follow a punk protagonist who gets caught up in an unusual line of work.  In No More Heroes, it's the job of being an assassin, whereas in Repo Man, it's the job of repossessing cars.  Otto's job leads him to encounter a variety of colorful individuals and get entangled in a government conspiracy involving a Chevy Malibu.

Meanwhile, Travis' job leads to him cutting off a lot of heads and meeting some interesting folks along the way.  Repo Man is odd yet at times philosophical, with characters waxing about the lattice of coincidence, same goes for No More Heroes, where characters mediate on things like death and finding paradise.  The town of Santa Destroy is a place with few opportunities, like how Los Angeles is a decrepit city where the only jobs give you room to move...as a fry cook.  I guess you could say No More Heroes is the Repo Man of video games.

At the center of it all is Travis Touchdown.  He's equal parts brash, badass, and goofy, but he's determined to reach the top.  As much as No More Heroes is about fighting unusual characters, it's also about going through the daily grind to achieve success.  Success doesn't fall in your lap.  It takes hard work, perseverance, and the desire to push yourself.  Every first rater started as a third rater and worked their butts off.  Travis is trying to do the same, albeit in the name of sex.

No More Heroes' gameplay is a mixture of open-world exploration, hack and slash combat, and odd job simulator, resulting in a concoction that's weirdly addicting.  To move up the ranks, Travis needs money.  Each ranked fight requires an entry fee to be paid.  The higher the ranking, the higher it costs to get in.  The main way to earn cash is to do jobs and complete contracts.  


Santa Destroy is "bustling" with activity.

Jobs are picked up by visiting the job center.  New jobs become available as you progress.  You'll mow the yard, collect coconuts, rescue cats, and perform dangerous stunts to earn cash.  Once a job is complete, you earn the chance to complete a contract from K-Entertainment, a hitman's association. Contracts see Travis either killing a specific target or eliminating a group of bad guys under certain parameters like melee only.

That's the basic rhythm of No More Heroes, but there's a lot more to do besides killing and capturing scorpions.  As the game progresses, new businesses become available for Travis to visit.  The Thunder Ryu gym lets you work out to increase your strength and stamina.  Beef Head Video sells wrestling tapes for Travis to watch and learn new moves from, and Dr. Naomi's lab is where you go to buy new beam katanas and upgrades.  Scattered across Santa Destroy are Lovikov balls.  Find seven of them, and you learn a new technique from Randall Lovikov, a drunk Russian who hangs out at the bar.

Additionally, if you're in need of a little extra spending money, you can go dumpster diving to find cash or shirts.  Alternatively, there's the free fight missions, optional encounters that involve eliminating enemies without taking damage.  I only recommend doing them once you're intimately familiar with how combat works.  On that note, let's talk combat.

Despite being on the Wii, the fighting makes good use of button presses and motion gestures, resulting in a satisfying combat system.  Tapping the A button swings his beam katana but tilting the remote up and down makes him shift between a high and low fighting stance.  When an enemy is weak enough, you finish him off by swinging the remote in whatever direction the game indicates.  Pressing the B button initiates a melee attack that can stun an opponent and leave him vulnerable to a wrestling finisher, at which point you need to swipe the remote and nunchuck in the prescribed direction.

Don't do it.  You'll make Jesus cry.

Killing an enemy makes a slot machine reel appear on the bottom of the screen.  Getting three matching icons triggers one of five Dark Side Mode variants.  "Strawberry on the Shortcake" boosts Travis' speed and lets him one-hit kill enemies.  "Blueberry Cheese Brownie" lets him shoot energy blasts out of his katana.  "Cranberry Chocolate Sunday" turns him into Darth Travis, where opponents fear him and he's able to finish them off with ease.  "Anarchy in the Galaxy" nets you a special bomb that kills all enemies in the vicinity.  Finally, "Cherry" slows down enemies' movement speed, letting Travis score multiple hits.

Using the beam katana drains the battery.  If it runs low, you need to recharge it by pressing 1 and shaking the Wii remote.  Just remember to not shake it too hard, or you'll go blind.  I prefer to use quick, precise shakes, edging the energy bar all the way to the top.

Masturbation jokes aside, there's a rhythmic flow to the combat that keeps the action going.  It's gratifying when you land a killing blow followed by gallons of blood erupting from their bodies.  The violence is brutal, but it's so ridiculous that you laugh instead of reeling from the carnage.  However, you'll need to be mindful of your surroundings because in some areas, enemies can gang up on Travis and stun lock him.  Fighting goons with guns is especially irritating since they run off to a different corner of the arena after firing their weapon.

As fun as the combat is, the sandbox feels empty.  Its only purpose is to connect the key locations together, and aside from looking for hidden goodies, you'll find yourself speeding from one location to the next to get things done quicker.  It's a shame because Santa Destroy is a large locale, and there was untapped potential.  Too bad No More Heroes 2 jettisoned the open world.

Some might grow tired of the constant loop of "Work, Save Up, Kill, Rinse and Repeat."  I never became bored of doing the odd jobs and contracts, simply because I knew the pay-off was another ranked fight.  There's a satisfying sense of progression as you unlock new moves, weapons, and increase Travis' strength.  You feel like he is getting stronger and more confident in his ability as an assassin, and that he's willing to take on what lies next.


When you gotta go, you gotta go.

No More Heroes' cel-shaded look is distinct and plays to the strengths of the Wii's less-than-powerful hardware.  Character models are solid and cut-scenes are well-directed.  Environments are flat and basic, and the short draw distance and scant number of pedestrians only serve as a reminder of how barren Santa Destroy is.  There's also some wonky collision detection.  Travis' motorbike can run down trees, but patio furniture sends him flying off.  Plus, the frame-rate drops when the action gets too hectic.

On the flip side, thee voice acting is great.  Robin Atkin Downes shines as Travis Touchdown. He gives the character the right amount of cockiness, while sprinkling in some goofiness for good measure.  No discussion about the sound design would be complete without mentioning the music.  The theme song is simplistic yet catchy, and there are a lot of remixes that are played during the combat sections.  Exploring the sandbox is made tolerable by the rockabilly music that plays while driving around town.

No More Heroes is a one-of-a-kind game we rarely see nowadays.  It's gory, funny, and even a little philosophical.  The story and characters are offbeat yet cool.  There is no clear-cut good guy or bad guy, only a moral grey where men and women fight to see who will come out on top.  Even though the gameplay can get repetitive and the open world leaves a lot to be desired, No More Heroes' eccentricity pulls you back in.

In short, I love No More Heroes.

Final Score: 8/10