Kamxor 2, and Supporting the Ones You Love

The précis for the past week reads somewhat similarly to last week’s effort: nothing but Kameo and Luxor 2.

I’ll start with the latter: I think I’ve managed to burn myself out on Luxor yet again, pushing through to Stage 12-4 on Normal (and up to the Supervisor of Fledglings rank); whilst I’m getting some jollies from my conservative approach to grinding through the levels, the rewards have started to be outweighed by the relentless pressure of the game. It’s stopped being fun and, though I’m a mere eleven stages away from another rare achievement (and the chance to get my gamerscore modulo five again), I might have to step away… again.

Kameo, though, is finally – after having picked it up on the 360’s launch – off The List. Monday night saw me knock off the two remaining solo Thorn’s Pass Achievements, and a greedy late night attempt at my final Score Attack A-Rank ended in failure when I neglected obscure game traits – like Kameo’s health. But Tuesday morning I woke up nursing a dribbly, muddle-headed cold, and subsequently had two days away from the office… I still had sufficient hand-eye co-ordination to play, however, and a repeat attempt at the final Score Attack was a half-billion-point success. Enabling Kameo‘s inbuilt cheat modes (through Score Attack unlockables) yielded a simple Expert-mode walkthrough, and with that… Kameo was done.

But I still want to write a longer piece on Kameo, so I plunged straight back in and started a whole new game, just to check whether my memories of the game were correct. And it was a blast – my A-Rank skills allowed me to blitz my way through the game, and I almost 100%-ed the game inside a dozen hours, and my level scores nearly all exceeded the A-Rank requirements (except that bloody Forgotten Forest level – grumble). So – the information gathered will now likely gestate for a couple of months before popping out into an experience-piece (as opposed to opinion-piece, or review).

There’s one more thing I’d like to write about this week (having just pissed away a large amount of time watching stuff on YouTube), and that is the battle that I’m facing on an almost daily basis about whether or not I go on a big game-buying frenzy. Now, let’s be quite clear, here: I’m well aware of the need for retail therapy, but what I’m currently feeling isn’t an instance of that; rather, I’m currently being jostled by the desire to Support the Ones I Love conflicting with the need to reduce The List.

One of my many Other Lists is a collection of names that I feel have earned my immediate support – creators that will get my money almost immediately upon release, no questions asked. But that List has been causing me a lot of double-takes lately; whilst Llamasoft seem to have targeted the non-List-impacting iOS, Double Fine have seen fit to release Trenched which, by all accounts (and I admit to not having even tried the demo), is a tower defence game that requires friends for Good Times (a problem for me, since its release in Europe – where most of my XBL friends are – has been caught up in a legal quagmire). And I’m not a fan of tower defence stuff… at all. Platinum Games have delighted with Bayonetta, and then disgusted with a not-returned-to-in-ages MadWorld; the demo for Vanquish didn’t impress me (on either the 360 or the PS3). And after the stunning Killer7 and No More Heroes, I was shattered by the crapulence of Suda 51’s No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle, and am thus wary of grabbing Shadows of the Damned (especially when Suda 51’s next game is slated to be the zombie-filled Lollipop Chainsaw – because I hate the use of zombies in games). If Shadows is shit, that may put Suda 51 in the three-strikes territory for me (as it has for other people).

In short: I want to buy Vanquish to support Platinum. I want to buy Trenched to support Double Fine. I want to buy Shadows of the Damned to support Suda 51 and Grasshopper Manufacture. But I’m scared by the resultant pressure on The List; whilst Shadows looks easy enough, Vanquish most certainly does not, and I’m already struggling with Luxor, another game-style I don’t get on well with, and I doubt Trenched will offer the same opportunities to brute-force progress.

My arm gets twisted when I hear that sales for recent games have been “disappointing”; whilst I have no real idea how accurate the numbers at VGChartz are, Child of Eden is pegged at less than six-figure-sales, and Shadows of the Damned has struggled to sixty thousand sales (split evenly between the 360 and PS3).

And that, frankly, is bullshit.

I went straight out and bought a brand-spankin’-new copy of Shadows. I’ve not played it yet, but at least I’ve put a penny in Grasshopper’s pocket. Vanquish will have to wait – part of the lust behind that was driven by the discovery of a local store selling lenticular copies (on both platforms) for a mere AU$30. But then that’s almost too cheap; I’d actually rather pay AU$50 to buy it on XBLM (or, I assume, PSN) because I believe in digital delivery, and because I figure Platinum would actually get more out of that.

…oh god, what have I done?

No More Heroes

After being blown away by the rather magnificent Killer7, I was keen to check out Suda51‘s next baby. Press buzz around No More Heroes was positively bubbling, with hopes being built that it would be the first massive third-party title for the Wii.

After acquiring the European version of the game (Australia seems destined to forever fall under the shadow of the delayed Euro releases), I decided to forgo my my zillion-playthrough Killer7 plans and leapt right into the game. And it’s really quite a jarring opening: the toonish cel-shading, combined with retro-Lego-inspired blocky models have you questioning the decade in which No More Heroes was written. But, having toddled your way from the front door of your motel room to the stairs, you’re treated to an opening credit sequence that more than tips its hat to Tarantino. Using such a film trailer-esque opening is a ballsy move, and probably the nicest use of FMV I can remember in recent games; and, with heart pumping and a goofy grin on my face, the game engine kicks in for the pre-tutorial sequence: with a guitar screeching in the background, Travis Touchdown incinerates two guards with his light sabr… erm, “beam katana” and punctuates the performance with a hearty “Fuckheads!”

This, clearly, is not Animal Crossing. And that sequence always crosses my mind when I hear someone talk about how the Wii “is just a kid’s machine”.

“Nope, that’s not a light sabre, honest… Mr Lucas.”

The tutorial is just brief enough to tell you that holding “Z” and mashing “A” is good, and occasionally a prompt will appear onscreen giving you a simple gesture to enact an über-move. And this works well on my initial playthrough on the easiest setting: hold Z, dodge with D-pad, mash A. Easy. Blasting through the first level, and it’s all very interesting – but you don’t actually feel like you’re doing anything – the button mashing is animating Travis very nicely, and there seems to be a fair bit of carnage going on by your blade. The first time you have to recharge your katana is a bit of a surprise, but hey – the rapid Wiimote wanking action is second nature. To me, at least.

Eventually you reach the first boss fight, after a chat on your Wiimote cellphone (make sure the speaker on the Wiimote is on, lest you’ll be as confused as I was!). These brief interludes with love-interest-come-boss Sylvia Christel on the phone – and in the pre- and post-mission cut-scenes – are a maelstrom of cheese, corn, and uneven writing; Travis goes from drooling puppy-dog to sneering dismissive with no real rhyme or reason. Sylvia is, of course, a bitch for a reason, but let’s face it – the storytelling isn’t NMH‘s strong suit.

Where the game comes into its own is in the boss battles.
Somewhere around the interweb I heard that No More Heroes shared a character designer with the (rather excellent) Speed Grapher anime, something which the IMDB page for NMH doesn’t verify. Despite the discrepancies, there’s certainly similarities between the two, with bold boss-characters that verge on the bizarrely risqué: from the crotch-laser-toting Destroyman, to the “fuck you, ya little prick” goading of Speed Buster, to the Uma Thurman-esque Bad Girl who provides panty-loving fan service. But the bosses are the only characters that receive any TLC whatsoever; all the other entities you encounter in the game are either completely nondescript low-polygon grunts (grinding katana-fodder for further progress) or hopelessly under-developed side characters (the mysterious – and buxom – Dr Naomi, and the proprietors of various shops).

Bad Girl’s got a filthy mouth. Bless ‘er.

Outside those boss encounters, the “Punk’s Not Dead” ethic of Suda51’s Grasshopper Manufacture is stamped all over No More Heroes – the overworld of Santa Destroy is a jarring mish-mash of beautiful skylines and boxy cars. The washed-out colours and innocuous sounds of the environments give way to brash interstitials, all big guitar chords and bold colours splashed on white. The game exudes style at every turn – it’s just that it’s a different style every time. Go kill a squillion bad guys, raining ash/blood on the landscape, then spend ten minutes petting your cat. Gameplay and graphics from this millennium as you do battle, but back to the eighties for chunky retro status screens and jolly bleepy-boop high-score music. As I said, a mish-mash. Patchwork. Incoherent.

But you can’t help but think that the overworld is so clunky it could only possibly be a joke – a parody of sandbox games, perhaps? – but a joke isn’t necessarily the most fun thing to play. In fact, if there is any complaint that could be levelled at NMH, it’s that the early levels require a bit of grinding – odd jobs or samey assassination missions to fund access to later levels. Whilst this isn’t a massive inconvenience, it does remind you that your “sandbox” is, essentially, linear; you’re always striving to see that next big battle.

After 18 hours, I’d managed to mash my way through the Sweet (Easy) difficulty level. Another twenty or so hours had all my little OCD-driven side-missions wrapped up, and another playthrough on Sweet followed by Mild (Normal difficulty). There’s not much of a leap in difficulty there, and – while I was happy enough with the wacky ramblings of the characters and the gameplay in general – it was with a certain amount of weariness that I started (what I intended to be) my final playthrough on Bitter (Hard) difficulty.

And suddenly, everything’s changed.

Now, it’s true that NMH, at first, appears to be bland – a simplistic, but punkishly stylised, button-masher. But repeated playthroughs – in the fabulous Bitter mode – yield gameplay-changing rewards; rhythms of boss battles are exposed, generating the same kind of feeling that you get when suddenly hearing a buried instrument within a wall of music. The fights become intelligent, demanding cognition. Button-mashing serves no good whatsoever, and the game demands that you fight. And I want to fight these bosses – I see this challenge as something to be savoured, rather than persevered.

I’ve never, ever, felt this way about Boss Fights before.

I love this game. I love the way it has opened my eyes a little wider to the possibilities of gaming; I love that it recognises its place sitting at the edge of the mainstream gaming market, tongue planted firmly in cheek. I love the swaggering cocksureness it exudes, utterly confident in the knowledge of its weakpoints, its failings. I love the backhanded, last-minute throwback to Killer7; I love the competent Great White Giant Glastonbury shooter you find wodged in the middle of the game. I love the fact that Travis Touchdown’s defining monologue is delivered in the midst of the first boss battle, muddied and drowned by the action around it; I love that the brain-twisting monologue near game’s end is delivered in fast-forward, acknowledging the fact that this is, in fact, a game.

Yes, I had to learn to love it, and that’s not something a lot of people will actually bother to do; but I feel now it’s my job to tell others about this wonderful, wonderful experience. Push through that first playthrough, ignore the clunkfest of an overworld; drink in the wonderful Masafumi Takada soundtrack and unlock Bitter Mode. Please.

Shinobu – This girl delivered the Game Of The Year.

In the end, No More Heroes‘ failings are more tragic than erroneous: it’s a shame that few will push past the conflicted presentation, and a tragedy that fewer still will experience Bitter Mode. Regardless, No More Heroes is my Game Of The Year because it’s actually changed the way I think about gaming. That statement may sound lofty and pretentious, but it carries a lot of weight – because it’s true. Bitter convinced me that boss battles could indeed be glorious, rather than a massive pain in the arse; terrific, rather than just tolerable. I will rate my Bitter battles with Shinobu as my (single-player) highlight of the year – utterly, utterly fantastic fights: thrust, counter-thrust, heady attack, frantic defence, each bout whittling us both to within pixels of death. My losses left me feeling drawn, yet desperately eager for more; my breakthrough win felt fucking amazing.

And that feeling alone is Game Of The Year material for me.

2008: The Year in Review

Another year older, another year wiser, right? If I look back to the 2007 Year in Review, this little snippet catches my eye:

There’s far more games than time, and my records show that I’ve still got 63 games incomplete. Maybe I should consider making a New Year’s Resolution regarding the “incomplete” list? Something along the lines of reducing it to around 50? Hah – I’m nowhere near that naïve… a more realistic resolution would be to not let it blow out much further.

I think I used up all my wisdom right where I said “a more realistic resolution would be to not let it blow out much further” – because, at the time of writing, The List only shows 65 games incomplete – hardly a blowout at all! (Of course, this is largely due to a ridiculously productive December, which saw no less than five games get knocked off).

But let’s not focus on the numbers too much (however much they rule my life); let’s have a look at a number of pithy categories in which I can toss the names of the games that have touched me (oo-er) this year. Forgive me for recycling several topics from earlier compilations…

Disappointment of the Year: That Wii Fit hasn’t magically halved my weight. Bastard!

Proudest Achievement of the Year: Easy – Mutant Storm Empire‘s Black Belt Grandmaster. There’s a little bit of ninja in all of us, and World 4 Level 2 made me dig deep and harness that little bugger up good. An honourable mention should be made of No More Heroes and its deliciously difficult Bitter Mode.

Under-Appreciated Game of the Year: Everyone slated Microsoft’s choice of Undertow as compensation for a spotty Xbox LIVE service last Christmas, which is a shame – it was a thoroughly enjoyable shooter that really came into its own when played with online co-op on the hardest difficulty level. But, hands down, No More Heroes takes this award for being the game that everyone seems to be sneakily sliding into their Top Ten lists to appear edgy and cool, but which no-one bought. You bastards.

I’m-Still-Waiting Award: The PS3. Come on, tempt me with a game that I actually want to play! The closest it’s come so far is with PomPom’s Astro Tripper (which, given I’ve played Space Tripper to death, isn’t even that compelling).

Pulling Teeth Award: Bullet Witch‘s Hell Mode. All that effort for One. Fucking. Point? I guess that’s why I call myself O/C. Or maybe I’m just a beggar for punishment.

2008 Blast From The Past Award: Let’s give an award a game prior to this generation, purely because I have been – and will always be – catching up on my gaming history. Psychonauts? Killer7? Let’s go with the former; barely a single criticism can be levelled at Tim Schafer’s previous game, and my appetite is well-and-truly whetted for Brütal Legend.

Where Have You Been All My Life Award: Killer7. Because I can’t bear to let it go unrewarded (see above), and because it’s absolutely, completely, stonkingly brilliant.

Funnest Gaming Moment of the Year: Seven cars sitting at the bottom of the quarry in Burnout Paradise, side by side as at a drive-in movie, waiting for our online compadre to finally nail his barrel-rolls. A cheer goes up – he’s done it! – followed by a yell of “Car Cuddles!” as everyone proceeds to smash into each other, laughs and merriment a-plenty. Ten minutes later, the next Challenge starts :)

Multiplayer of the Year Award: Burnout Paradise – see above. Challenges, or simply smashing the shit out of each other, there was nothing that came close to the online experience of cruising Paradise with seven friends.

Bringing Indy To The Party Award: Braid, or World of Goo? Both displayed impossibly impeccable production values; tiny teams easily upstaged the bigger names. Goo gets this award, since it’s a shining example of what two people can do with a gorgeous demo; having said that, Jonathon Blow‘s contribution to the indy gaming community is far from overlooked.

Gaming Payback of the Year: No More Heroes, Bitter skill level, the third boss encountered – Shinobu. I’ve written about this previously, but this fight turned my gaming world on its head – previously, boss battles had been automatically deemed abhorrent in my little mind. Shinobu changed all that.

Earnest Navel-Gazing Award: Braid, for slipping a story of weight and depth into a brilliant game… even if most of it is hidden from those who brand Braid a “Mario rip-off”.

Best Game Writing of the Year: No More Heroes, hands down. It’s got no plot, and yet the paper-thin characters still manage to feel convincing, and the fast-forward exposition prior to the final boss fight is deliriously good. Proof that a good page trumps bad volumes.

Worst Game Writing of the Year: Mercenaries 2. Because, playing as the hot chick merc, you can pimp yourself as follows:

Chinese Contact: “Ah, welcome back mercenary. I have need of you.”
HCM: “Well you can afford me, let’s not waste time.”

And, as cool as that may seem on paper, it actually leaves you feeling a little icky. So you dress up in a chicken suit, drop a MOAB on a building, then sky-dive out a helicopter. It’s all good, right?

The Gasping Grin Award: World of Goo, end of World 3. I’ve no idea why, but the laughter and evolution of that level left me wrung out, in much the same way that Braid conjured emotion.

The Gasping Gasp Award: Braid, the final level. I’ve never felt a greater cognitive click.

Still Kickin’ Award: Rez HD. Into its eighth year and Rez is still as glorious as ever.

AAA-Title I Missed Award: Ummm, that goes to pretty much all the triple-A and mega-hyped titles released in 2008; pretty much the closest game I got to AAA was Burnout Paradise.

So there you have it, kids. My 2008 in a nutshell. Big props to Braid, Burnout Paradise, No More Heroes, Rez HD, and World of Goo, with belated kisses and cuddles to last-gen’s Killer7 and Psychonauts. These are the games that made the biggest mark on me this year, though honourable mentions should go to a couple of older current-gen games, Excite Truck and Mutant Storm Empire, for continuing to bring the fun.

“That’s a nice capsule summary up there, Pete,” I hear you say. “But I need something more concise. Come on then, you crapulent wordsmith: what was your Game Of The Year?”

I think you know ;)

Killer7 (Part 1)

I like to be challenged in the art department. I like my art to be confrontational, emotive, engaging in the headspace. I love my obscurities, my non-mainstream, my fringe. I listen to free jazz, mexican death metal, j-punk, and all the genres in between; Lynch and Cronenberg and Jarman and Kaurismäki and Jeunet are all welcome visitors in my home.

But Killer7 is absolutely, positively, one-hundred-percent, completely batshit insane.

It’s also utterly brilliant.

And it’s also an incredibly polarising game – more marmite than Space Giraffe, as incredulous as that may seem. Killer7 offers the gamer every opportunity to hate it: from the harsh and occasionally garish cel-shaded graphics, to the minimally-interactive on-rails action, to the deliberately obtuse plot. Having to stop movement, take an attacking stance, scan for the enemy you know is there, then wibble your gunsight around the screen to attack the source of the mocking laughter in your ears. Lift off A, hold R, hit L, move stick, whack A, twiddle C. Not exactly the most overt control scheme.

And yet, it carries its head high. Killer7 is a distilled production, the essence of style. Suda51‘s brainchild is clearly of greater value than the sum of its parts – the caustic gameplay, glorious anime cutscenes, and eerie aurals meld into a cohesive package that rivals Rez in terms of its completeness.

Yes, the game is pretty short – 15 hours for my first play-through. Yes, the puzzles are pretty basic in nature (necessarily so, given their somewhat eccentric solutions). The inbuilt hint system is a laugh – the idea of having a helpful hint-provider turning into an abusive bastard (with double-deuce action) merely by shooting his lucha libre mask is… well, different. Then again, humour is everywhere – one of the first blood-splatters you see on the wall says “How Soon Is Now”… the Killer7 are all Smiths, geddit? The different psyches of the Killer7 are also a hoot – it’s pretty hard to go past Dan “The Hellion” Smith, though each of the Smiths manages to maintain their own love/hate relationship with the player. Boss battles are… odd, ranging from simple to WTF. Killer7 versus the Handsome Men is one of those giggle-fests that makes you reconsider the evilness that usually accompanies boss battles.

But, in the end, it’s the plot which carries Killer7 (avoid the Wikipedia article, it’s a spoiler-filled funbuster). I came into the game with the understanding that I was controlling seven psyches, but the reality-bending that subsequently occurs almost defies belief. In the end, all the threads presented are kinda pulled together, and I’m pretty sure I figured out what was going on… but in the world of Killer7, it’s hard to be absolutely sure.

I will say this, though: the final level of the game (as opposed to the post-credits snippet which is the icing on the cake) is one of the best end-of-game levels I’ve ever played. No, scratch that – this easily usurps the Halo run home. It’s a couple of minutes of the most glorious brainfuckery that I’ve ever experienced. And it’s ironic that, within a rail-based game, the level with the least interaction is the pièce de résistance; but that’s the parting shot of Killer7, the last stand of one of the most confrontational interactions I’ve engaged in.

I like to be challenged by my art, and Killer7 delivers in spades.