Shovel Knight Review

Shovel Knight
I’ve been playing Shovel Knight since it was released last week and it’s an absolute blast to experience. Shovel Knight is a game by Yacht Club Games, a company started by the former director and a few other talents from WayForward; another fantastic developer behind some games like Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, Contra 4, Aliens Infestation and DuckTales: Remastered. Shovel Knight was a game that was funded on Kickstarter, their goal was $75,000, they made over $300,000. So there was a ton of hype behind this game. Shovel Knight was released on the 26th of June receiving praise from gamers and critics alike.
Shovel Knight gameplay
The gameplay, music, level design are brilliant, varied and the pixel artwork is detailed and lovely. I’m also enjoying the games sense of humor, you’ll find a lot of characters throughout the game that you can interact with and some say some pretty random things. The controls are tight, which they need to be. The game features a lot of tricky platforming segments similar to that of classic Mega Man games. If you fall off a platform it wont be due to wonky controls, but the players fault. The levels are varied and you won’t play a stage that seems similar to a previous one. Every stage has a theme and a certain gimmick. The same goes for the boss fights. Every one The boss fights are intense and each boss has his own set of special abilities and moves, even if you memorize the pattern it’ll still be tricky to dodge every attack.
The knight
Aside from the main quest the game features some side quests and items you can collect if you want the extra challenge. In terms of difficulty, the stages have four checkpoints which is too many but they’re optional to use. If you don’t want to use checkpoints you can destroy each one for extra treasure which you can then use to buy more items or upgrade equipment. Every level has secrets with valuable items you can find. In towns you’ll come across a blacksmith, armor store and a few other shops where you can upgrade your shovel, equipment, health and magic. Across the world map you’ll also find extra stages where hidden treasures and challenges are located. The game also comes with built-in achievements labeled as “feats”. Once you beat the game you unlock New Game+ which features harder enemies, the checkpoints in stages are decreased to just two and there aren’t any health pickups.

All in all I highly recommend this game, I own it on the 3DS and I love the fact I can play it anywhere. If you’re on the fence about it, just go for it, it’s worth every penny. It’s also available on PC/Mac and the Wii U.

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Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

Metroid Prime concept art
After putting it off for so long I’ve finally gotten around to playing Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. I owned the first Metroid Prime game on my Gamecube but never got around to playing the sequel for one reason or another, but bought Metroid Prime 3: Corruption when it first came out on Wii. A few years ago I was able to get my hands on the Metroid Prime Trilogy collectors edition and replayed the first game again and finally moved onto the second right after. I regret not playing this game much sooner.

The first thing you’ll notice when you first play the game is that it’s pretty dark. Within the first 5 minutes of exploring the planet Aether, you discover dead bodies tied up and hanging from the ceilings of some caverns. You scan them and discover in detail how each soldier died. The more bodies you find and scan, the more the narrative builds. You eventually discover journals of some soldiers and these pieces of information go into even more detail. And this is what makes Metroid so special, the method in which you build the narrative. Even though it’s a game, you’re not told every detail and it’s left up to your imagination.

Metroid Prime 2 features a light and dark mechanic. The game is split between two parallel worlds; Aether and Dark Aether. When you’re exploring Aether the atmosphere and the natural environment is friendly to you. But take a portal to Dark Aether and the atmosphere becomes poison, decreasing your health the more time spent in it, the environment are filled with hazards. Your only place of solace are designated safe zones that shield you from the atmosphere and gradually recharge your health. I wasn’t a fan of it. I thought it didn’t really belong in a Metroid game and would be something we’d see in a Legend of Zelda game instead. The mechanic made me feel constricted in my movement and it punished me for wanting to explore Dark Aether. It felt claustrophobic. But as I spent more time playing the game the mechanic grew on me. In Aether you’re free to roam wherever you want, the environment welcomes it. Dark Aether is the opposite. It’s gloomy, everything within the environment is lethal, the water is poison. Something finally clicked and I realized it fits so well.

Visually the game has aged well thanks to the art style that Retro Studios incorporated. Some textures are low-res but not enough for me to consider it “ugly”. The music is fantastic and each area has a beautiful theme. The creatures and enemies are varied and each area feels alive. I haven’t beaten the game yet and I know of the infamous search for the Sky Temple keys and look forward to reaching it. The game features a lot of back-tracking which I don’t mind since I love the world that’s been built for the player to explore. The story in this game is more prominent compared to the first Metroid Prime game but it’s not something that affects the game negatively. If you come across the Metroid Prime Trilogy at a decent price, don’t hesitate to pick it up. But as of right now Amazon has it listed for over $200, with 5 left in stock.

I love this franchise and I really hope Nintendo allow Retro Studios to revisit it for their next project. It would be very interesting to see what they’re capable of using the power that the Wii U has.

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First Person Shooters, How Much Has Changed?

Wolfenstein comparison

Since the release of Wolfenstein: The New Order this image above has been circulating around Twitter and other social media sites apparently showing how far games have advanced since the release of the original Wolfenstein in 1992. But how much have first person shooters actually advanced? Not really that much. But is that really an issue? I think the problem arises when we look at the bigger picture. First person shooters are the action movies of the video game industry. They’re not necessarily bad, but they’re abundant, lack variety and can get mind-numbingly repetitive, albeit fun in short bursts. When it comes to first-person shooters we don’t really have much choice between what kind of games we’re playing. There are some exceptions like the Half Life, Deus Ex, Metroid Prime and Portal franchises.

The original Wolfenstein popularized the genre of first-person shooters and Doom took it a step further, adding more pixels to the visuals and multiplayer modes. They had ultimately set the foundation and precedent for first person shooters for years to come. In the majority of these games your character is tasked from moving from one room to another killing enemies. Moving through the environment is a basic task for the most part requiring no skill or precision movement. The majority the games get repetitive in single-player mode as you’re just walking from one action set-piece to another. That’s the basis of the majority of first person shooters and that basis hasn’t changed since the release of Wolfenstein back in 1992.

Sometimes you’ll come across exceptions to this rule. These games tend to have a couple of things in common like a strong narrative, choices in how to approach enemies (or avoid them) and environments you can interact with in someway. Half Life was like your typical FPS but it added platforming and puzzle elements. Moving from one room to another wasn’t such a simple task anymore. These two new elements made the FPS aspect of the game less repetitive and added a new dimension to the genre. The Deus Ex games added stealth and role-playing elements. Giving you choice on how you progressed. You could get through any Deus Ex game without shooting a single bullet, or you could go crazy and shoot everything up. Metroid Prime took a 2D game and turned it into a fantastic first-person adventure game. There was a narrative that you could discover by exploring and “scanning” aspects of the environment you were in. It made the game immersive. Portal is a strange game in the sense that you’re not shooting your gun to kill enemies, but to traverse the environment and to solve puzzles. And how weird is it that we consider a game where you don’t have to kill anything unique?

And it’s rare for a first person game to feature an interesting, engaging narrative. The single-player mode in FPS these days feels like an after-thought. The majority of developers seem to focus more on the multiplayer aspects of their games. Some developers have tried to create interesting worlds and stories. Id software released Rage 3 years ago, creating a big world that you navigate with a car that you could customize. The concept was interesting, a mixture of Mad Max and Fallout, but the execution was lacking. You were basically driving from point A to point B, with nothing interesting happening in-between. It was unnecessary. The levels were for the most part incredibly linear. It was a shame, because Rage had a lot of potential. The enemies could be frightening and the AI was intelligent, moving through the corridors at fast speeds avoiding your gun-fire. Then you had games like Halo, which also have the potential of a powerful narrative and a great single player mode. The single player campaign mode in Halo games ended up incredibly mediocre with flashes of brilliance. The multiplayer modes which were fun in early iterations ended up trying to imitate some of Call of Duty’s multiplayer aspects in the later Halo games, which made the game less unique and the fun short-lived.

Now that “next-gen” consoles are out developers should be taking advantage of the hardware. Sadly when you look at what games they’re working on it seems that things wont be changing in the near-future. Open-world games, third-person shooters, first-person shooters are all for the most part following very similar formulas. Companies want to have the next “big” hit, the next Grand Theft Auto, the next Call of Duty, so they take less risks and we end up with bloated, huge-budget games that end up not selling well. This turns companies away because they don’t see profit. The video game industry made a profit of $93 billion in 2013, it’s a massive market and everyone wants a piece of it. When the video game market crashed in the early 1980′s it was due to the over-saturation of the market, these days it seems like the opposite is happening, we lack choice.

Luckily indie developers are making games that are fun, varied and unique. We have designers, artists, programmers leaving the bigger development studios to start their own little companies to create the games they want and that’s really good news for us, the consumers. And luckily, we live in a day and age where these small studios are (mostly) respected and where they have the freedom to publish their games on whichever platform they choose. Ultimately, choice and variety are (obviously) a good thing. I’m not saying that games like Wolfenstein: The New Order are bad games, they can be enjoyable. But the video game industry needs to discover a balance between “more of the same” and the “new”. If not, how long will it be until gamers get sick of playing similar games, over and over again? How long can it stay fun?

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Flashback Thursday: Great Games, Crap Ads

Final Fantasy Tactics
So you’re releasing a spin-off game of an established franchise, What do you do to advertise it? Put out a dull double page ad. It’s not like Squaresoft didn’t have great artists working on the game. They didn’t just have one artist working on it either. They had three great artists: Akihiko Yoshida, Hiroshi Minagawa, and Hideo Minaba. Instead they focused on three topics highlighted in blue. They load up the ad with a bunch of text. It lacks excitement, enthusiasm and quality. The image they do choose to use features 5 generic characters. It doesn’t do justice to some of the more colorful and intricate character designs the game features.

ff7
Budget doesn’t always dictate the quality of ads. For instance, Ico, a game that didn’t have a large budget had a great double page ad. You’d expect Squaresoft to pull off all the stops to get people excited for a brand new game. The ad campaign for Final Fantasy VII was well done and not overly complex either, using an image from one of the in-game cutscenes. You just feel that they could have done something more with marketing Final Fantasy Tactics.

Resident Evil 2
The problem with this Resident Evil 2 advertisement isn’t artwork. The artwork featured in this ad is creepy and well done. The main problem is that there is too much text and too many tiny screenshots. It seems this is a tactic that companies thought was an effective means of advertising a game. I would have rather they have focused on the important text and had three larger screenshots.

They’re also trying to advertise too many things at once. The game, the strategy guide and some movie sweepstakes. This ad suffers from poor layout so everything feels like they’re squeezed in together. Whoever designed this could have use the space they have more wisely.

Klonoa
Klonoa: Door to Phantomile was a new platform game featuring a character named Klonoa published and designed by Namco. So how do you advertise this brand new character that’s meant to compete with the likes of Mario and Sonic? Don’t make the ad about him and place him in a tiny circle.
Klonoa
This has got to be one of the most oddest choices in regards to advertising an unestablished brand new game. Who is the target audience? The ad exclaims “Everybody wants Klonoa”, but an ad like this ends up alienating a large fragment of the market. And on that note who is the intended audience? The ad isn’t going to attract young adults because it’s not tastefully done and the screenshots show an unexciting and typical looking platformer. It’s not going to attract teenagers because there’s nothing that grabs their attention. I ended up picking the game by pure chance and ended up enjoying it quite a bit, but it’s no wonder this franchise ended up disappearing after two games.

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Dark Souls 2: What to Expect

dark souls 2
Dark Souls II has been out for a day and there has already been over two million deaths. But don’t let that scare you away. Even though the series is known to be incredibly difficult and frustrating From Software has gone to some lengths to make Dark Souls II more accessible to new comers. So what should you expect when you start a new game? Well, your character moves better than they did in the first Dark Souls thanks to snappier controls. There’s a new attribute you can level up called “Adaptability” that improves the speed your character performs actions. There’s a new common item called Life Gems that you’ll be using to recover your health, it can be dropped by enemies or bought at shops. You can now fast travel between Bonfires, which isn’t as big of a negative as I thought it would be. The world seems larger than the world in the first game. There seems to be more NPC’s around to interact with. Talk to them and they will reveal some lore. Keep interacting with them and they’ll gift you an item.

But the game has also been made tougher in other ways. Every time you die the total amount of health you have decreases. You have to use a Human Effigy (which are quite rare and expensive to buy) to become human again and remove the limitations set on your health. The more often you die, the shorter your health gets the more “zombie-fied” you look. If you succeed in killing an enemy 12 times, they’ll disappear. This makes it harder for you to farm for souls. On the other hand this can also make things easier by clearing out difficult routes. The tutorial can be completely skipped this time around as well. Oh, and there’s a coffin that can change your gender if you sleep in it.

There are quite a few other things that are different, things I’m still discovering. And That’s part of the joy I get out of the game. Dark Souls is not a game made for everyone. It’s just not fun for some people which is understandable. The fans of the game all like it for various reasons. It could be the combat system, the PvP aspects, the co-op mode, the intense and brutal boss fights or just the sense of discovery. Most importantly, We all accept that death is an integral part of the experience.

Ultimately, before making a decision on whether you want to spend money on this game, be sure to read more about it and watch some game play videos. Check out the community on Reddit, they’re (mostly) helpful when it comes to answering questions from newcomers. Even though Dark Souls II is more accessible it hasn’t sacrificed what made it so great to begin with. It’s still a well-made, well-rounded game, it’s still brutal and rewarding and hasn’t been dumbed down. If you’re a Dark Souls veteran you’ll still find a challenge, if you’re new to the game, welcome to the community!

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Flashback Thursday: Delayed.

Its been a pretty busy week so I haven’t had enough time to prepare something good for today, hopefully I’ll have one up in the next two days. Until then, here’s a look back at some of the previous posts.

Women in Ads & Fear Effect 2

Jet Grind Radio & Fun Ads

Two Words – Shenmue, Dreamcast.

Ico & The Perfect Ad

1999, Year of the Cyber Athlete

Magazine Covers – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The Dilemma of the 90′s, 2D or not 2D?

Update: No Flashback Thursday this week. Freelance work keeping me occupied.

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Arkham Knight Announce Trailer – “Father to Son”

So Scarecrow is the main villain, looks like Two-Face will play a part AND you get to drive the Batmobile in the game. This already sounds better than Origins.

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Strider Review: Welcome to Metroidvania

Strider
I’ve never played any of the Strider games growing up for one reason or another, but when I heard that the new Strider game was inspired by Metroidvania it piqued my interest. Super Metroid and Castlevania Symphony of the Night are two of my favorite games while the 2D Castlevania games on the GBA and Nintendo DS were great in their own right. So how does Strider hold up?

The controls in the game are solid and really responsive which is necessary when you’re meant to be controlling a ninja. The world is supposed to be non-linear like Super Metroid and you’re rewarded for exploring with items that increase your health, concept art or new game modes. Killing enemies is satisfying and the boss fights are intense and require you to memorize a certain pattern. I’m playing the PS3 version and it looks good in certain parts but the art direction in specific locations are a let down at times. Some areas just look very generic and sometimes it’s hard to tell where your character is. The camera can be annoying at times especially when it moves in close. I wish there was a way to control the distance of the camera and to keep it static. There doesn’t seem to be a great variety of enemies, most of them are generic soldiers that are very predictable and easy to kill. Another annoying aspect of the game is the way enemies spawn. In Symphony of the Night for instance enemies will respawn once you leave the room you’re in. In Strider enemies will at times continuously respawn while you’re still in the same area. This is annoying and an out-dated feature I’d only expect see in Mega Man games. The music is largely disappointing too and I wish it featured more dominantly as it’s not incredibly memorable and at times unnoticeable.

Even with those complaints the game is still fun. Running around, exploring and killing enemies can be an addictive process. It could have been a greater game if they had gone with different design choices. I’d still recommend it especially if you enjoy playing side-scrolling adventure games.

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Flashback Thursdays: The Dilemma of the 90′s, 2D or not 2D?

Earthworm 3D
Back when Sony and Nintendo released the Playstation and Nintendo 64 one aspect that they pushed was 3D graphics. Established franchises like Super Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy were going three-dimensional. The new hits like Tomb Raider, Tekken and Resident Evil were also 3D. Everyone was jumping on the bandwagon because gamers were pushed to view 2D games as “simple” while 3D games were complex and had depth. You had other franchises like Earthworm Jim who were attempting to make the transition and ended up with horrid games.

There were two Castlevania games in development in the mid-90′s, the 2D Symphony of the Night and the 3D Castlevania 64. One would end up a timeless hit while the other, even though met with positive reviews was gradually forgotten over time.

SoTN
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night went against the grain. It was a 2D side-scrolling non-linear RPG. Instead of stage progression like previous Castlevania games you had one large castle to explore. The developers added role-playing elements such as leveling-up to make the game easier for average gamers. It was a deep game featuring a long main quest and extra game modes post-completion to add to its replay value. You could also unlock a new character which required you to play the game in a different manner. It was brilliant and critics loved it. The problem that this game faced was that people weren’t looking for this type of game. Who wanted to play a simple 2D side-scroller when there were more fancy 3D looking games? It didn’t help that the marketing for the game was poor and relied on word-of-mouth.

And looking at the advertisement above, do you blame people? We’re given four tiny screenshots that reveal nothing significant. There’s too much text that’s laid out in an annoying fashion. Everything is forced to the side to accommodate that photo with the cheesy tagline. With the limited funds they had to market the game, they wasted it on crappy made double page ads like the one above. Over time Symphony of the Night became a big hit and would join the Playstation 1 Greatest Hits collection. Konami would go on to make more great 2D Castlevania games for the Gameboy Advanced and Nintendo DS. They would also would go on to make more mediocre 3D Castlevania games.

Symphony of the Night has made a lasting impression on the game industry that can be felt to this day with games like Cave Story, Shadow Complex, Strider and Guacamelee! all being released in the past 5 years.  So if you haven’t played Symphony of the Night it’s currently available to download in the Xbox Marketplace and Playstation Network store and holds up pretty well.

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Nintendo 3DS: Happy 3 Years!

3ds-2The Nintendo 3DS turns 3 today and as of the end of December its shipped 42.7 million units. Pokemon X & Y is the top selling game with 11.6 million units sold. I bought a 3DS at launch because I loved the Nintendo DS before it and played thousands of hours on it. I bought a 3DS at launch and even though the first year was rough things turned around. Nintendo gave back to the customers who bought the 3DS at launch by creating the Ambassador Program. Thanks to the Ambassador Program the customers who bought the 3DS early in its first year were given a bunch of GBA and NES games for free and many of the games are still unreleased in the eStore.

Here are some of my 3DS stats:

735 hours played – My most played game was Animal Crossing New Leaf: 83 hours.
129 games – This includes DS, 3DS, Virtual Console and eStore games I’ve downloaded.
294,862 steps taken – I barely get to walk around with my 3DS because everyone drives in Kuwait and public transportation sucks.

My top ten most played 3DS games:

  1. Animal Crossing New Leaf
  2. Pokemon Y
  3. Virtues Last Reward
  4. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  5. Fire Emblem Awakening
  6. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
  7. Shin Megami Tensei Devil Survivor
  8. Mario Kart 7
  9. Shin Megami Tensei IV
  10. Radiant Historia
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