Friday, April 1, 2016

My Month(s) in Games: February/March 2016

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright - 3DS

I was really looking forward to this game because I enjoyed its predecessor, Fire Emblem: Awakening quite a bit, but something about this title just didn't grab me. To be sure, Birthright is a well crafted title, but the fact is that the Fire Emblem series hasn't evolved much over the years, and the games are starting to feel rather samey to me. If you are a huge fan of what this series brings to the table you will likely not be disappointed by what it has to offer, but if you're a bit more casual in your appreciation, like me, then you might find yourself unable to shake the feeling that the series is treading water.

One aspect of the game - and the series in general - that I find particularly irksome is its difficulty. The Fire Emblem series has long been known for its "permadeath" feature, and it came as no surprise that this aspect of the game is once again present in Birthright. I don't have a problem with this aspect of the game, in fact I rather like it, and you are given the option to turn it off at the outset. No, my problem lies in the challenge offered by the different difficulty options. Basically, if you choose "normal" difficulty the game is just a bit too easy, and if you choose "hard" the challenge seems too steep. The problem of this lopsided difficulty curve is then compounded by the permadeath feature. I think that even experienced players who choose to play on "hard" (the game's recommended setting for "experienced" players) with permadeath enabled will find the game to be patently unfair, leaving "normal" with permadeath to be the only real option for those who want a challenge yet don't consider themselves sadists. Also, since it always seems to come up, I'll mention that I do prefer to play with permadeath on, but I always reset whenever I lose someone. I do it that way because it forces you to be perfect and I'm weird like that.

My VERY big sister!

Another vexing aspect of this game has to do with the multiple campaigns it offers. In essence, Fire Emblem Fates is two games in one. There's Birthright, supposedly the easier of the two, and Conquest, the more challenging adventure. When you initially purchase the game you get to choose one of the two campaigns, effectively walling you off from the other campaign until you purchase it as DLC. I'm not opposed to this idea in general, but I'm a little bit bothered by the pricing structure. At full price you pay $40 for the first campaign and an additional $20 for the other. For me, $60 for the complete game feels just a bit steep for a 3DS title. I'm nitpicking a bit, perhaps, but I think $50 for the whole shebang would have been a little more attractive.

At the end of the day, Fire Emblem Fates is a well made game and a fine example of the strategy RPG genre; I think I'm just a bit burnt out on its particular brand of gameplay hooks.

Grade: B-

Sega Classics Collection - PlayStation 2

Here we have a compilation of 10 remastered Sega classics for the PS2. Each of these remasters was released singly in Japan under the umbrella of their SEGA AGES series and I'll tell you right now: it's a good thing they didn't elect to release these games in that way here in the US. I mean, there are some gems here, but if I'd been asked to pay $30-$40 each for these titles I would have probably felt a little cheated. What I'm saying is that, in general, these remasters have a "budget" quality to them. Good gameplay never goes out of style, but in some cases the remastering process only serves to strip away a lot of the charm of the originals. Still, there was some fun to be had with this compilation, and old school Sega fans might do well to track down a copy of this collection. Here's what I thought of each game:

Alien Syndrome

The original arcade version of Alien Syndrome took the bird's eye view perspective and maze running of Gauntlet and grafted an Aliens-style sci-fi skin onto it. It was decent for its day and noted for its crazy weapons and bizarrely gruesome boss creatures. The remaster retains these elements and also darkens things up both figuratively and literally. By working a grittier vibe and and using low lighting to strong effect, it takes the oddly cheerful color scheme of the original and puts it more in line with its subject matter. By far the best part of the remastering effort was the decision to change the control scheme from the original and make it a twin stick shooter a la Smash TV. This one is worth playing and easily in my top 3 for the entire collection.

Individual Grade: B


I like droppy puzzlers, and I spent plenty of time playing Columns on the Sega Genesis back in the day, but even then I recognized that it wasn't as interesting or as conceptually solid as Tetris. And once Puzzle Fighter and Puyo Puyo came along I found little reason to return to this game. This remake is fine. The simple, clean Greek-influenced visual style is sharpened up, but otherwise they didn't mess with the look of the original too much. They added a cutesy, anime-styled vs. CPU battle mode that I don't think was in the original. It's a welcome enough addition, but the anime vibe clashes a bit with the Grecian formula of the main game.

Individual Grade: C

Fantasy Zone

This is a game that I've always tried my damnedest to like despite its many glaring flaws. It has a goofy, surreal charm that I've always found intriguing, but the core design of this side scrolling shooter is screwed on such a fundamental level that it's basically impossible to have too much fun with this game. If you've never played it, its biggest issue lies in the way the play field scrolls as you move your ship around the stage. Since stages "wrap around" and you can change direction at any time, the game sees fit to send enemies at you from all directions. The problem is that when you change direction to avoid enemies coming from in front of you the screen takes too long to scroll in the opposite direction and you'll often crash into enemies that were coming up from behind you before you are given the chance to see or react to them. Add to that an unforgiving one-hit kill system and the whole affair just feels frustrating and unfair. Unfortunately, it's a problem that has affected every version of the game including this remaster. This update could have ben fun if they would have tweaked the movement mechanics and maybe added a health system, but it's ultimately just too cheap to enjoy. Truly, the wacky and bizarre shooter category has better ambassadors.

Individual Grade: C-

Golden Axe

A mostly enjoyable update to the original. They've rebalanced the characters somewhat and there are some differences in the level design, but this is a decent remake of Golden Axe. The gameplay works, but the graphics are somewhat rough, as the switch from sprites to polygons saps a lot of the charm out of the characters.

Individual Grade: C+

Monaco GP

I had never actually played this arcade racer before, but I was aware of it, and somehow I thought it was going to be more like Hang-On or Pole Position. Instead it features an overhead view, and the gameplay is far more twitchy than I expected. This type of racer really isn't my jam, but it's decent enough I suppose. There's a "classic" and an "original" mode - which, c'mon, what's the difference? - but they're mechanically different enough that it feels like they've tried to breath some life back into this title.

Individual Grade: C

Out Run

Okay, of all the titles in this compilation, this is the one that got the most love in the graphics department. It plays nearly identical to its arcade counterpart, and its wonderful soundtrack got some nice updates. I was and likely always be terrible at this game, but there's something about its overall vibe that keeps me coming back.

Individual Grade: B

Space Harrier

I just love Space Harrier. It has an iconic look and wonderful gameplay and music to match. This is a high quality remaster job, but I was somewhat disappointed with what I perceived as a slight "choppiness" to the animation in some spots. Still, it's a highly playable update and a nice homage to the original classic.

Individual Grade: B+


Of all the "classics" on this compilation, this title is perhaps the least classic of them all. But that doesn't mean that it's not worthwhile! This remaster is actually two games in one. Bonanza Brothers is the more slight of the two, offering a spin on the gameplay of the notable Atari 2600 game, Keystone Kapers. The far meatier experience here, however, is the minigame compilation Tant-r. Any fan of the WarioWare titles will likely enjoy this wacky collection of 40 bite-sized, twitchy time wasters. I dig it!

Individual Grade: B

Virtua Racing

Here in 2016, as we stand on the precipice of a new dawn of virtual reality, you gotta love a throwback like Virtua Racing. Released in 1992, the comparatively low polygon count and stark environments provide an amusing look back at the "promise" of virtual reality in the 1990s. That aside, this really isn't bad for a simple arcade racer. The animation is smooth and you get a great sense of speed during the races. I think the idea is that you're supposed to use the first-person cockpit view, but I'm glad that an overhead, pulled back view is also available. As a remaster, it doesn't seem like a whole lot was done with the visuals, though perhaps that's for the best, as Virtua Racing seems almost more beloved for its looks than for its gameplay.

Individual Grade: C+

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