Adventures in Emulation

     Once upon a time (back in the mid-00’s), I found myself in possession of an Xbox. This wasn’t just any old Xbox though, this thing was packed to the brim with all sorts of games from several systems: NES, SNES, TurboGrafx16, etc. There were even a few Xbox games crammed into it. This was the first time I’d ever had so many games available to me at once and it. Was. Glorious! Games, especially decent ones, used to be frickin’ expensive. And there were no such things as digital download services that periodically have crazy sales and offer retro games for chump change. And I didn’t have my own computer anyway.

     I didn’t realize it then, but I had just experienced my first brush with the wondrous world of emulation. I remember being kinda sad when I had to give up that Xbox; I was gonna miss all those games. Over the next decade or so, thoughts of all those games I would never get to play again never fully left my mind. I would also think about all those games I missed out on as a kid. Then Youtube came on the scene. All I could do was watch other people play them. How I envied those Youtubers. I didn’t have heaps of cash for antique games and systems, so I just let it go . . .

     . . .until about the middle of May of this year. I had been on Steam for about four months by then and loving it. As I mentioned before, I had taken to plumbing its depths, searching for tittles released during previous generations of gaming. I’d already found pretty much all of the Sonic games, Jet Set Radio, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath. Wish I could’ve found more though. And then it hit me: Why didn’t I just figure out how to use emulation software so I could possibly play all the stuff I wasn’t able to find. I mean, I had already grown accustomed to playing video games on my laptop.

     When it came to learning to effectively use this type of technology, the struggle was real.

  • Sorting out the functional emulators from the straight-up garbage
  • Finding functional ROMs (games)
  • Tinkering with all those damned configurations
  • Endlessly obsessing and wracking my brain over what to download next and for what system
  • The copious amounts of trail and error
  • The hours and hours I poured into the whole endeavor
  • And all the constant testing

It was enough to give me a headache.

     After all that nonsense, I can now successfully emulate the following systems: NES, SNES, Sega Genesis and Saturn, Gameboy/Color/Advance, Nintendo DS, Game Cube (sort of), and the TurboGrafx16 (aka the PC Engine/CD). I am having a kick-ass time playing all these games I’m now able to get my hands on. I’m truly enjoying taking a look at all those games I missed out growing up and the ones I played the crap out of on that special Xbox. I have even dove head-first into a bunch of obscure titles that no one talks about anymore.

     Everything is going swimmingly so far, however there have been a few . . .problem children:

  • The Nintendo Game Cube. I’ve read that the dolphin software (practically the only emulation programs for the system) is difficult to run in general. It does make me feel a bit better about my total failure to get this thing running faster than 30-ish FPS and at about 50% speed. Only two of the ROMs I’ve downloaded are decently playable with only sporadic lag.
  • The PS1 and the PS2. The stupid emulation programs I’ve been able to find for these systems will only run at about 50% speed on my laptop. I can’t figure out how to configure those many plug-in thingies to remedy this.
  • The TurboGrafx16/PC Engine. There was only one emulation program for this system on emuparadise.com. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it because it was in Japanese. But on the bright side, I was able to find another one that worked perfectly . . . for exactly five minutes. I decided to tackle this issue from a different angle: downloading an emulator the PC Engine CD instead. It was a complete success and now I can play all the TurboGrafx16 games my heart desires. Still makes me scratch my head.

     As with my delayed arrival to the Steam-y World of PC Gaming, I often wonder why I didn’t just bite the bullet and go for it sooner. Oh, well. Let the (literal) games begin! Whoo!

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The Steam-y World of PC Gaming

     Hey, guess what? I’m on Steam, y’all! I officially entered the world of PC gaming back in January of this year and it has been pretty sweet. I think I’ve been having waaay too much fun, especially when there’s a sale.

     I had been flirting with the idea of joining the Steam community since late October/early November of last year. It was right around the time when the Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth DLC was released. I was honestly considering setting up and installing Steam just to play it because I knew there wouldn’t be a snowball’s chance in hell that Afterbirth would ever come to the WiiU.

     However, I wasn’t exactly on board for totally restarting my entire journey with the Binding of Isaac. I decided to see what else Steam had to offer. I was suddenly very tired of missing out on all those interesting looking games I saw my favorite Youtubers playing. It was time to put that perfectly good laptop I’d bought earlier in the year to use.

      So from the tail end of 2015 until the middle of January of this year, I made it a habit to regularly troll Steam’s massively insane library. It soon became my favorite thing to do whenever I was “talking with” a former associate of mine. (Of course I’m just gonna play with my phone while you drone on and on about nothing, you old fart!) It didn’t take me very long to decide that I definitely needed to make this wondrous thing a part of my life.

     The next thing I did was to create an account and password. (Hi there! garnet_gamer, here!) After this first step, I dragged my feet for quite a while when it came to taking the next one: installing the service so I could properly get my game on. You see, I had a few lingering concerns about playing games on a PC having been a console person my whole life. Stuff like:

  • having to learn how to use a keyboard and mouse to play a game. Virtually no experience with that.
  • whether or not PC-compatible controllers were even a thing. (That’s how clueless I was when it came to this particular topic.)
  • the whole data vs. available memory space issue.
  • the learning curve to overcome when dealing with all new software . . .and possibly hardware.
  • whether or not I’d be able to pull this off without a hitch

     At the turn of the new year, I pulled the trigger. I bought an F310 Logitec PC controller from the local Target then promptly came home to install Steam onto my laptop with that username and password I had created months prior. Then I spent a considerable amount of time mining the depths of Steam’s archives, looking for old games I hadn’t been able to play in years. Did y’all know that Jet Set Radio was on here? The original one that came out for the Sega Dreamcast? Or how about Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath? The version here has been remastered in HD. It’s probably had its difficulty bumped up a little bit because, I swear, I don’t remember this game being this frickin’ hard! My first ever download was a demo of Bastion. Damn thing was totally non-functional so I purchased the full game the very next day. (Then I went back for the other two games I mentioned.)

     I went absolutely nuts during the Lunar New Year Sale that took place during the following month. I must have spent $25 on five or six games that I installed onto a 32GB SD card I found in my room some time ago. (Seriously, where did that even come from . . . and why was it in my room to begin with?!) But the craziness didn’t end there: I went out and bought a thumb drive with 64 gigabytes of memories just so I’d have the chance to play that kick-ass reboot of the Tomb Raider series.

     Despite all the fun I’m having now, there were initially a few bugs to work out.

  1. Installing the games I purchased to my SD card and thumb drives and not the system folder that was created when I installed the main software. Ending up with a few games on your hard drive is extremely easy to do when you’re not paying attention.
  2. Getting Steam to consistently recognize all the stuff I put on those external storage devices. Getting this one right involved A LOT of trial an error. Fixing this problem involved doing something that most of us probably wouldn’t immediately think of: “reinstalling” a game to the same file location. It makes said game instantly playable . . . along with every other game in that same file.

     There is one more issue that I’m having with Steam that I have not been able to effectively resolve: actually finding the time to sit down and play the titles in my library more often. I’ve only managed to complete three of them so far. And I’ve still got about 30 more of them to get through!

 

Dust: An Elysian Tail

Released on Windows: May 24th, 2013

Platform(s): Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, Linux, OSX, PS4, iOS

Developer: Humble Hearts

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Genre(s): Action, RPG, Adventure, Beat-‘em-up

     Dust: An Elysian Tail is a heavily story-driven game. There are lots of likable characters due to the actual character development. That’s always a treat to see. Especially when it comes to Dust himself. He seems like a decent enough person and comes across as unselfish and a bit reserved. My only issue with him is that he wears that weird had that covers most of his face for almost the whole game.

     One of the most impressive things about Dust is his willingness to be a beacon of good, going out of his way to help every single person that he meets. It seems to come naturally to him. Even more impressive than that is the fact that Dust does all of this while having absolutely no idea who he is. Maybe the amnesia is a blessing in disguise after all.

Presentation

     Dust both looks and plays like a decent animated movie or a top-notch Saturday morning cartoon show. The animation is just so smooth and clear. And the musical scores, though not very memorable, are very fitting to the environments and events that occur throughout the story. Speaking of the environments, all of them are just so gosh darn beautiful to look at with their rich colors and ambient weather effects.

     Every single cutscene and character interaction is fully voice acted which really brings the story to life and helps the player get invested in what’s happening. Dust does have A LOT of dialogue after all. The entire cast delivers a solid performance that’ll draw you into the world Elysium. Hats off to Lucien Dodge, the actor who provided the voice for out titular character. That was some choice casting right there! Dodge’s voicework makes Dust a more sympathetic character.

Story

     This game’s story is actually a bit more complicated than you might think. Everything kicks off with some narration over two shadowy figures having some sort of duel. Then it cuts to Dust waking up in a clearing with total amnesia. The voice of the mystical Blade of Aharah begins calling to Dust, telling him of the journey ahead. Ahrah is closely followed by Fidget, a flying creature called a Nimbat and the sword’s guardian. I still can’t wrap my head around how exactly that works. Just how in the world is such a small, weak, and borderline-adorable creature supposed to protect a sword that can just fly off whenever it wants?!

     Anyway, Fidget reluctantly ‘lends’ Ahrah to Dust until he’s finished doing . . .whatever it is he’s supposed to be doing. The three make their way through the Glade to Aurora Village while fighting monsters along the way in hopes they’ll be able to find insights into Dust’s past and identity. Who is Dust anyway? And why must he be the one to wield this mystical talking blade? Well, this is where the complicated part comes into play.

     It is soon revealed that there is a violent war between the anthropomorphic animals (or warmbloods) of Elysia lead by General Gaius and the anthropomorphic lizard people called moonbloods. And the moondbloods are losing. Many of their people have been mercilessly slaughtered by the general and his armies as they now find themselves on the verge of extinction. There have been many warmblood casualties as well; any of them caught attempting to aid the other side are killed just as ruthlessly. All seems lost for the moonbloods until . . .

     Remember those two shadowy figures that were having that duel in the game’s opening? We eventually find out that they were Cassius, one of Gaius’s elite assassins, and Jin, one of the people who was trying to help the moonbloods. Jin and Cassius simultaneously kill each other and their souls combine to create a being that the moonbloods refer to as the ‘Mithrarin’ or ‘Sen-Mithrarin’, the only being capable of wielding the Blade of Ahrah and saving their dying race. Dust is this being. Doesn’t it just explain so much about his character and abilities? The only thing this doesn’t explain is what Dust will do once he is able to access both sets of memories. It’s probably not hard to guess, though.

Gameplay

     You are in for a smooth ride all the way through your adventure thanks to the tight controls. They are highly responsive. Whether you decide to use a keyboard and mouse or a USB controller, Dust and Fidget always handle beautifully. You’ll notice that this game takes inspiration from several different genres of gaming including: action, adventure, RPG, and metroidvania. There’s even a little beat-‘em-up thrown in there for good measure. Yeah. Sometimes, you won’t be able to leave an area if there are too many enemies onscreen. Now back to the big four I just mentioned.

  1. Adventure – Dust boasts several decently sized, complex areas to explore. And loot. They are filled with interesting characters, quests to go on, and secrets to discover. Also, there’s treasure everywhere for the plundering. So much treasure that I gave up trying to find it all. As much as I enjoyed the journey that is Dust’s gameplay, I eventually got to a point where I was like, “OK. I’ve found enough loot. Let’s go kick General Gaius’ ass and end this thing.”
  2. Action − Plenty of action to be had here. You’ll be battling against all sorts of creatures from beginning to end. . . plus a few boss fights. Those weren’t as difficult as I thought they were going to be. Anyway, Dust’s combat system is primarily built around stringing together as many combos as possible. The bigger the combo chain, the more bonus points are rewarded and the chain is broken whenever Dust takes damage.

              The other integral part of the combat system is a maneuver called the Dust Storm. Dust rapidly spins the Blade of Ahrah which creates a mini-vortex that can strike enemies multiple times. This ability can be combined with Fidget’s puny magic, fire and lightening projectiles to create something quite remarkable.

     Now let’s talk about the enemies themselves for a little bit. The mass majority of them are relatively easy to take down, only posing a threat when they gather in large groups. I get the impression that they’re somehow aware of this because you’ll hardly ever see a critter all by its lonesome during the entire game. Other dangers to watch out for beside sheer numbers are burning, poisoning, and silence (this one effects Fidget directly). One enemy in particular needs to be avoided as often as possible: the Necromancers, spectral beings that haunt the Sorrowing Meadows. These bastards summon wave after wave of zombies and cannot be directly attacked. Until you are fairly leveled up, run!

  1. RPG − Beneath all that actioning and adventuring, Dust is still an RPG at its core. The reasons behind the constant fighting are gaining experience points and leveling up

            make Dust stronger. You also gain experience points from turning in quests.

            Going up a level is quite the occurrence. First, Dust gets struck by a bolt of blue

            energy from the sky, then he gets a skill gem you can use to beef up his HP, attack,        defense, or Fidget’s projectiles. Level up whatever stats you like to suit your play

            style. Personally, I like to keep everything fairly balanced. One more thing: try

            not to shy away from a little (okay, a lot) of strategic grinding. It just may save

            you some trouble later on in the game.

       Dust even has a crafting system. You meet a blacksmith early on in your playthrough.

She can craft augments for your weapon, armor, and other accessories if you provide her with the right materials . . .and funds. You can get some insanely powerful equipment this way. I had A LOT of trouble with this system until about I was well into the game. The best materials are pretty rare and I never had enough money because I was always spending it on food.

  1. Metroidvania − Any game in which the player must unlock new abilities to reach

                               areas that were previously inaccessible is widely considered to be

                               a Metroidvania-type game. And I’m a sucker for those. There are

                               four such abilities within the world of Dust and they will help you

                               reach every nook and cranny of Elysium. Happy hunting.

Final Thoughts

     Overall, Dust: an Elysian Tail is a solid game. The story kept me interested and invested all the way to the end and there was a whole cast of characters I actually cared about. I think it was the combination of writing and voice-acting that did it for me. Specifically, with Dust himself. He was the kind of character you hope finds what they’ve been searching for in the end. Seriously, if someone wanted to convert this property into an animated series I’d watch the crap out of it.

     This is the sort of game that both older and younger players alike would definitely enjoy. Older players might get a kick out of the mechanics and children just may like the overall character style. It is a bit on the pricey side. So if anyone else out there wants to give it a go, I suggest waiting for a good sale.

 

 

 

 

The Lion King

Released: 1994-1995

Developer: Westwood Studios

Publisher: Virgin Interactive

Platform(s): SNES, Genesis, Amiga, PC, NES, Gameboy, GameGear, Master System

Genre(s): Platformer

     Lion  King is one of the most beloved games from my childhood. I played more times than I can even remember over the lifespan of the Sega Genesis console I had back then. It was a sad day when that little black box of a machine breathed its last. No more Lion King (or Sonic, for that matter) for me. And then I got a brand new Nintendo 64 and I moved on to more complex games with 3D graphics and more involved gameplay.

     Over the next twenty years, and several generations of consoles, my thoughts would return to all those happy days and hours I spent just playing this game and how I wasn’t ever going to get to experience that again. I was content to just hold on to the memory of what Lion King once meant to me . . .until about two months ago. That was when I at last figured out how to run emulation software.

Presentation

     Lion King is beautiful callback to the glory days of 16-bit gaming. The colors are bright and vivid and seem to almost pop off the screen. And all the animation is so smooth. I once heard that actual animators from Disney itself were responsible

And that music . . .Oh my! The Genesis-style renditions of the hit songs from the film have been beautifully reinterpreted. Even the stuff is a pleasant listen.  There were many times during my playthrough when I would catch myself humming or singing along with it. Is there anyone out there that can hear “Can’t Wait to be King” or “Hakuna Matata” without singing the words? Even after over twenty years?

     Anyway, everything looks and sounds really clean and has aged extremely well. This game would easily fit in with this modern resurgence of retro gaming and I’d happily recommend it to anyone who’s into the independently developed (or Indie) scene. Or anyone who has finally been able to figure out just how emulators work. Like me.

Gameplay

     Lion King, first and foremost, is a platform game which means there’s going to be a lot of jumping, climbing and general acrobatics. It’s a good thing that Simba is so nimble because he’s gonna need that in order to avoid all the enemies, obstacles, and bottomless pits. So you begin the game as young Simba who defeates said enemies by pouncing on them. He can also use his ability to roar (possibly lifted straight from the movie) to solve puzzles and weaken foes.

     When you first boot up the game, you’ll see your number of lives on the bottom left of the screen and two bars occupying the top left and right corners. The one on the top left is what I shall refer to as the “roar meter.” It indicates how powerfully Simba can roar at any given moment. The more filled in the bar, the more effect a roar has on nearby enemies. It refills automatically but is totally depleted when used or when Simba takes damage.

     The bar in the upper right corner of the screen is where Simba’s health is displayed. It’s just like every life bar in every video game ever. You lose a life if it gets totally depleted.

     Both bars can be replenished by collecting certain beetles scattered around the levels. There are even special beetles you can find that will permanently extend either one or the other. These beetles are exceptionally rare so you must do whatever you can to grab them if you should happen to see them. And speaking of special beetles there are other special ones that will grant you access to the 2 bonus stages this game has.

  • Bug Toss. You take control of Pumbaa while Timon runs back and forth dropping bugs that you need to catch.
  • Bug Hunt. This time, you take control of Timon and grab as many bugs as you can while avoiding all the spiders and flies. Those will cut your game short.

Collecting lots of bugs in either bonus stage will net you extra lives and continues to make your journey through the game a little more comfortable.

     Lion King has three difficulty settings you should be aware of. The first is ‘easy’ mode where you get nine lives per continue and just about every enemy goes down like a lead rake. I always play on this difficulty because #noshameinmygame. The second is the default ‘normal’ mode. You’ll have e lives per continue and the enemies all put up a reasonable fight. #Neveragain, by the way. And then there’s the ‘difficult’ mode. You only get ONE life per continue so you’re gonna need to bring you’re A+ game and the enemies might as well be invincible. Why would anyone do this to themselves?! I should mention that you will always get the same number of continues no matter what difficulty setting you choose. I guess that’s one way to somewhat keep everything on even ground.

     Now that I’ve covered both ‘presentation’ and ‘gameplay’ it’s time to tackle those 10 gorgeous levels I briefly mentioned earlier.

1. The Pridelands

A short level that serves as a sort of tutorial. This is where you’ll learn about the mechanics of Lion King as well as the tight controls and just how wonderful they feel. You will also learn how to defeat the various enemies and what all the different kinds of beetles and bugs do. Savor “The Pridelands” and its non-threatening atmosphere because things will only get harder from here . . .

2. Can’t Wait to be King

     In case anyone out there was wondering: yes, the whole song plays on loop for the entirety of this level. Anyway, this is where the real platforming challenges begin. You’ll be hopping across towers of hippos and giraffes, riding ostriches across the savannah, and getting tossed from branch to branch by some oddly helpful monkeys. Using Simba’s roar will be integral to getting through this craziness in one piece. There are these pink monkeys that change the direction they’ll throw you when you roar at them. Arrange them in such a way that one of them actually throws you all the way into the next level

3. Elephant Graveyard

     The famous villain theme song “Be Prepared” accompanies your trek through this dark and macabre place. You must maneuver and platform your way through piles and piles of elephant bones, taking down hyenas and vultures all while Uncle Scar watches in dismay. Yeah, you actually see him once you make it to the end. He still manages to look really pissed off even though he’s completely covered in shadow. Oh, and look out for those steam jets that are green for some reason. They cause the insta-death if you touch them.

4. The Stampede

     This stage is wildly different from every other stage in the game. You automatically run forward as you dodge the rocks that appear in your path and the wildebeests that come up from behind. Survive the onslaught long enough and it’s on to the next stage.

5. Simba’s Exile

     Avoid the falling rocks, giant boulder, patches of thorns and bottomless pits to escape Scar’s hyenas. If you ever come back, they’ll kill ya!

6. Hakuna Matata

     I sure hope you’ve mastered young Simba’s controls because you’re gonna need every skill you’ve hopefully been honing up to this point. There are a lot of nasty spiders and jumping frogs in the most inopportune locations and a treacherous climb up a waterfall. It all ends with a face-off against a huge, coconut-throwing gorilla. I spent FOREVER stuck on this level until I figured out that I could knock those coconuts back at him by rolling.

     The gameplay shifts quite noticeably after this level mostly because Simba goes from a cub to an adult lion that can use his claws. This introduces combat into the mix. Your main enemies for the remainder of the game are the same hyenas you’ve already been dealing with (only smaller) and these . . .um . . .cheetah-looking things.

7. Simba’s Destiny

     I suppose this is the game’s representation the scene in the film where Mufasa pops out of the clouds and tells Simba that “he must take [his] place in the Circle of Life” after following Rafiki through some dense jungle. This is where the ‘cheetah’ things make their appearance and rock-throwing monkeys are a constant nuisance.

     This level is relatively tame compared to Adult Simba’s other levels. It’s reminiscent of the first level in the game because its purpose is to acclimate you to playing as a fully grown lion with deadly claws. I remember all of this being long.

8. Be Prepared

     Lion King sure knows how to up the ante. From what I can tell, this stage is all about Simba making his way back to Pride Rock to face his uncle. But seriously, where did all this lava come from?! What, does Simba have to pass through the center of the earth to get back home?

     “Be Prepared” can really chew you up and spit you out if you don’t take your time and plan your moves accordingly. Lava is just all over the place: there is the molten lake of insta-death, lava jets, and it also drips from the ceiling for some reason. Those smaller hyenas I mentioned earlier decide to join the party and the ‘cheetahs’ make a comeback. Keep an eye out for the annoying-as-hell bats. They can knock you into places that you don’t need to be.

9. Simba’s Return

     Like the movie, the level show that Pride Rock went to hell in a hamster ball during Scar’s reign. You will have to navigate a maze-like system of caves and deal with the serious hyena infestation plaguing the Pridelands. Getting through the maze and dealing with the hyenas is already hard enough, but here’s the little detail that makes it all so much worse: you will be unable to leave a room until all vermin occupying it are defeated. Hope your combat prowess is on point.

10. Pride Rock

     This is the final level of the game. Hooray! You made it! This is the epic showdown with Scar that the previous few levels have been leading up to. “Pride Rock” is all about chasing Scar all the ay to the top with a few skirmishes along the way. All you have to do is beat up on him for a bit until he runs off. There’s some sort of lightening storm going on during the whole level, starting many fires and making your treacherous climb even more so.

     The real fight with Scar doesn’t begin until you reach the very top of Pride Rock and your goal here is to weaken him enough so that he flies farther whenever you flip his scrawny ass. Once he’s weak, simply flip him so that he sails over the side to be presumably eaten by hyenas AND burned alive (just like in the movie!) And you’re done. You have successfully completed The Lion King.

     I fully acknowledge that this game’s ending is rather underwhelming, but I honestly don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I don’t see it as a detriment to its legacy at all. The visuals, music, tight controls, and the engaging and often challenging gameplay more than make up for it. I would encourage my fellow 90’s kids who grew up with this game to show it to their children. Please, show them what gaming was like when you were young. You’ll either have a good laugh or a wonderful bonding experience. Or both. And while you’re at it, show them the movie. There’s a reason why it’s considered a classic.

Bastion

Released: 2011

Platform(s): All of them, except anything having to do with Nintendo

Developer: Supergiant Games

Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment

Genre(s): action-RPG

     Not long after I had finally installed Steam onto my laptop, I found myself watching  bunch of Top Ten Indie Games videos on Youtube. I was ready to fully sink my teeth into this whole ‘Indie’ games thing and I was gonna do it right. Several titles kept popping up over and over and over again as I watched. However, there was one of them that drew my attention like none of the others could and that was Bastion. This game can still be found on Steam and every other gaming platform in existence . . .except for WiiU and 3DS/3DSXL. Yeah. Sorry, Nintendo people. No Bastion for you!

     Then I started to read and watch online reviews and my curiosity practically exploded. The visuals, the story, the music, the way everthing came together − there was just something spellbinding about it all. I was so taken with all I had seen and heard that my first official act as the garnet_gamer on Steam was to download Bastion’s useless demo that I could not get to work for some reason. That didn’t stop me, though. I purchased and downloaded the full game and vowed to play it as soon as I was done with Aria of Sorrow. (OMG!! Is this the end?! This is just as anti-climactic as the ending Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy!)

     So now that I have played Bastion for myself I’ve got to say I certainly understand why it kept appearing on all of those Top Ten lists and why it still receives praise nearly 4 years after its initial release. It is simply a well-crafted masterpiece of a game. Or, as I said after playing for about an hour, “Simply freakin’ awesome!”

Story

     Judging from the ruins you pass through during the first couple levels of Bastion, Caeldonia was once a prosperous city high above the clouds. That is, until it was virtually destroyed by a disaster known only as the Calamity. And now the city is literally a fragment of its former self. Your character, only referred to as The Kid in-game, awakens shortly after this occurs to find that that all he’s ever known is in pieces.

     Left with no other choice, The Kid begins to traverse Caeldonia’s shattered remains. He finds a couple weapons and takes down a couple enemies while a steely-voiced narrator narrates his every move and spells everything out for the player. The Kid finds a cluster of blue crystals called a core after more exploration. These cores were the source of energy that kept the city of afloat and in one piece. The Kid decides to take the core for whatever reason and that’s when all hell breaks loose. What is left of his home  . . .district begins to fall apart around him and he must make quick escape. Thankfully, that core he found reactivated a skyway which could take him to the only place that hadn’t been touched by the Calamity: the Bastion. (I found out it’s just a fancy word for ‘stronghold.’)

     It serves as the main hub for this game. It is where you are able to:

            *upgrade any weapons you happen to find.

            *swap your loadout

            *brew concoctions that aid you in battle

And that is only the beginning. More functions are added as you play through the game.

     Remember that steely-voiced narrator I mentioned before? Yeah, my original thought was that he would remain shrouded in mystery for the whole game. Or at the very least he would not be revealed until the final act or something like that. Nope! You find the not-so-mysterious narrator waiting for you at the Bastion from the very first time you faceplant there. His name is Rucks and he’s a fellow Caeldonian and Calamity survivor. Rucks turns out to be a valuable source of information and lore as the story progresses. I still have one lingering question about him, though: does he happen to play steel-string guitar by any chance?

Presentation

     Oh. Em. Gee. Bastion is one of the most immersive games I’ve played since I started these reviews. Without fail, I’d get sucked right in every time I would start playing. And the first thing that would suck me in was the visuals. The graphics are, in essence, a perfect example of how a cartoon-y style lends itself to the agelessness of any given title. It’s just so beautiful to look at. The animation is smooth and the characters and environments are expertly designed. Made me wonder if there was any concept art to unlock and how I would go about doing that.

     Then there was the soundtrack. Bastion’s soundtrack is simply phenomenal. It picks up influences from the American Southwest to the Far East and everywhere in between. It’s kind of a trippy ride. And there’s one song in particular that truly stands out from the rest: Zia’s Theme, aka: Build a Wall.  It stands out for two reasons:

  • It’s the only song with actual lyrics.
  • How both the song and the character singing it are introduced to the player.

 I thought that it was rather clever.

Gameplay

     Even though Bastion is an action-RPG, it is divided up into linear levels. The main objective is to get from one end of an area to the other and to collect the power cores (or shards of said power cores later on in the game). Both power cores and power shards are important because they keep the Bastion both together and afloat. Along the way you will need to defend yourself against every wild beast that didn’t die in the Calamity. Damn, there sure are a lot of those. I’ll bet that every one who has played through Bastion at least once has wondered why such a disaster didn’t kill more of the blasted things off. Not getting constantly ambushed by ferocious beasts would have been awesome.

     Fortunately, you will find a small arsenal of weapons with which to defend yourself. Ranging from your simple machetes and hammers to frickin’ mortar canons and blasters, they are gradually found throughout The Kid’s quest. The best part is that everything you can upgrade everything that you find. Upgrades are the rather out of place items scattered around the main levels that make your weapons do more damage, hold more ammo, reload faster, etc. And then there are the truly diabolical features that you can unlock near the end of the game. Enjoy.

    I should mention that the landscape will shift and change all around you as you run and gun your way through Bastion’s respectable number of levels. The ground beneath your feet will appear as you approach. There are holes everywhere so you’ll really have to watch your step. . .and so will most of the monsters that most definitely be attacking you. Well, the non-levitating ones, anyway. That’s something, right? Yaaay . . .

Endgame

Since Bastion is an older indie title, no one’s gonna care about a few spoilers, right?

     The final level of the game finds you following fellow Calamity survivor and Ura tribesman Zulf all the way back to his homeland to reclaim the shard he stole from the Bastion’s monument. He’s badly injured when The Kid finds him as his own people have turned on him for leading The Kid right to them. This is where you will be presented with a choice to either

  1. leave Zulf to his (probably well-deserved) fate and press on or
  2. slowly and laboriously carry him out of the area while the rest of the Ura look on in stunned confusion.

I’m not kidding; they’re so shocked about your decision to help a traitor that they just stop attacking you. Eventually. Maybe I should have let the bastard rot . . .

     Making it back to the Bastion presents another choice to make. You can either activate its restoration protocol to reset time to before the Calamity even happened. Or you can activate the evacuation protocol which enables the Bastion to anywhere in the world on the winds. No matter what you choose, New Game+ unlocks. You get to keep everything you found or restored. But don’t think that it’s over; you’ll have to play the game at least one more time to potentially find everything that Bastion has to offer. I’ll be back for round two after my Steam account gets a good Dusting . . .

 

Okami

Released: April 15th, 2008 in North America for the Nintento Wii

Developer: Clover Studio

Publisher: Capcom

Platform(s): Wii, PS2, PS3 (HD version)

Genre(s): Action-adventure

*Did y’all know that okami means both “great god” and “wolf” in Japanese?*

     Okami has got to be one of the most underrated hidden gems of the previous generation of gaming. I can’t imagine why. It came to my attention that this game had less-than-stellar sales on the PS2, Wii, and possible the PS3. This was one of the many factoids I picked up while watching one of those “Top 10 Underrated/Hidden Gem” videos on WatchMojo’s youtube page . . .It absolutely blows my mind that one of my favorite Wii games was so unpopular with the general gaming public and it makes me kinda sad that something as wonderful as Okami never got the recognition or praise it so richly deserves. I refuse to let it go quietly into that dark night of complete and total obscurity.

     Okami is basically an homage to The Legend of Zelda, which works to its advantage. It takes that whole ‘Wolf Link’ thing from Twilight Princess and just runs wild with it. The game also takes the best of what other classic action-adventure series have to offer and gives those features a whole new spin that’s heavily steeped in Japanese art, folklore, and mythology. Monsters, deities, legends, mythical figures −all are well represented within the colorful and often surreal world of Okami. Want specific examples? Gaijin Goombah here has some answers for you. He has several videos dedicated to a lot of the major players in this title. But as informative as his videos are, I’d be willing to bet that he’s only just scratched the surface when it comes to the historical origins of everything you’ll see during a playthrough. Or you could click on all the links I’m about to start dropping. Happy reading, y’all!

Story

     One hundred years before Okami’s main story begins, the land of Nippon was a dark and terrible place plagued by monsters. None was more terrible than the dreaded Orochi, an eight headed serpent . . . thing. Its rein of terror continued until it was defeated by Nagi, the Greatest Warrior Who Ever Lived, and Shiranui, the White Wolf of Mystery. They manage to get it drunk on sake and then chop off all eight of its heads. (Spoiler alert: You will get to see exactly how this all went down very late in the game.) Peace returns to the land, the people rejoice, and the slain Orochi is sealed within the Moon Cave at Lake Harami with a sacred sword.

     Susano, a descendant of Nagi, removes said blade from the cave a century later. (He’s kind of dumb like that.) It is an act that frees the serpentine beast to resume its dark designs. That’s when Sakuya, a wood sprite, seals the people of Kamiki Villiage away to shield them from the ensuing chaos. She then uses the last of her power to summon Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun/origin of all that is good/mother to us all, who takes the form of a reincarnated Shiranui to once again send the fiend back from whence he came. But one hundred years is a long time to be encased in stone and Amaterasu (Ammy, for short) has lost nearly all of the celestial powers she once wielded.

     Now Ammy must travel across Nippon to recover those powers in order to destroy the dreaded Orochi for good as well as vanquish evil wherever it decides to rear its ugly head. Of course, a whit wolf traveling all over the land by herself probably wouldn’t be all that interesting. Enter Issun the Wandering Artist, our in-game companion, ‘navi’, and voice for our silent protagonist. He’s a rather . . . diminutive being, spending the vast majority of the game as a little bouncing ball of green light. However, Issun has the biggest personality I’ve ever seen in a companion character. Brash, bold, a bit of a perv, and with confidence that often borders on arrogance, he’s a riot from start to finish. Aside from our main white wolf, he one of the most interesting back stories out of anyone you’ll meet on your epic adventure. I won’t spoil that here, but I will show you what Issun really looks like. Not to bad, eh?

Presentation

     I have never seen a game more culturally atmospheric than Okami. I like to think of it as what you get an already-good action-adventure game and marinate it in Japanese history, mythology, and folklore for several years. The whole thing looks like one big Japan-style watercolor painting in which the colors are usually vibrant and dynamic but retain a certain . . .softness. The soundtrack is very well crafted and seamlessly blends both historical and modern influences in music. Traditional instruments are featured prominently in every track.

     It’s more than just pleasant background noise; it is an integrl part of the world you explore, changing right along with the environment and events in-game. I always enjoyed how there was something on the soundtrack for every single situation.

The World of Okami

     The world of Okami is, in a word, impressive. It’s practically crawling with memorable characters and plenty of interesting things to do and places to see. There’s all that sweet, sweet treasure that’s just waiting to be found and plenty of mini-games to blow it all on. It’s also kinda huge. A thorough play through of this title will most likely take anywhere from thirty-five to forty hours. And it’s probably impossible to get a %100 completion rating with just one run. Seriously, good luck doing all that.

     Anyway, the impressively sized world of Okami is divided up into three major regions. The first is known as Eastern Nippon. That may not be its official name, but that’s where it appears in relation to the second major area on the map. This is where Amaterasu begins her epic quest with Issun and where all of the basic enemy types you’ll be battling against for the entirety of the game are introduced. Notable locations include: Kamiki Village, Shinshu Field, Hana Valley, Agata Forest, Taka Pass, the Tsuta Ruins, Kusa Villiage, and the Moon Cave. Notable enemies: Spider Queen, Crimson Helm, and Orochi.

     The next area visited in the game is called the Ryoshima Coast which is, in my humble opinion, is the largest region in Okami. It’s also my favorite region. It takes me longer to get through this section than both the first and final sections . . .combined! There are just so many important characters and events that occur in and around Ryoshima. Notable locations: Sei-An City, City Checkpoint, Dragon Palace, and Oni Island. Notable enemies: Blight and NineTails, the big-bad of the Ryoshima Coast.

     The final leg of Amaterasu and Issun’s quest takes place in Kamui, the snow-covered lands to the north. It is also referred to as the Land of Darkness several times in the game. Finding this place took me completely by surprise when I played Okami for the first time. It was never mentioned and I had no idea it even existed until it was time to go there and straighten out the chaos the lands to the north had fallen into. I totally understand why Issun never brought it up during all of our crazy adventures in Eastern Nippon and on the Ryoshima Coast. It’s because (spoiler alert!) that’s where Ponc’tan, his home village, located. Notable areas of Kamui include: Wep’ker Village, Yoshpet Forest, Wawku Shrine, Laochi Lake, and The Ark of Yamato. Notable enemies: all of the big-bads from the previous two regions, twin mechanical demons Lechku and Nechku, and the lord of all evil himself: Yami.

Gameplay

     All right. NOW let’s get into the gameplay. There are plenty of things to do in the wondrous world of Okami, but the activity you’ll engage in the most is exploration. As I mentioned earlier, there are treasures and untold riches hidden throughout the landscape(s). Grab as much loot as you can; it can really pay off later in the game. You’re gonna need to be filthy, stinkin’ rich by the time you reach your ultimate destination.

     Using and restoring the power of the Celestial Brush is the whole reason for Ameterasu and Issun’s little trip across Nippon. With it, Ammy can bend the fabric (or paper) or reality to her will, command the forces of nature, and screw with people to her heart’s content. Shiranui (Ammy’s previous incarnation) once wielded a complete Celestial Brush which was powered by all 13 Gods of the Brush, which are based on the animals of the Eastern Zodiac with the cat making 13. They were all lost and scattered to the four corners of the world when Shiranui met her end at the . . .um . . .heads of the evil Orochi. Many suffered terrible fates. For example: Yumigami, the god of the moon, was swallowed by a huge fish. I could go into great detail about each god, what power they bestow, where they ended up, etc. But there’s a perfectly good wikia page I found that explains everything beautifully.

     When I really think about it, the whole “Okami” experience is built entirely around the Celestial Brush mechanic. All of that exploration stuff I was talking about, finding new brush powers, using the ones you already have to find new ones, fighting through hordes of monsters . . .Oh, right! That’s the other thing you’ll spend a lot of time doing: ripping through creatures that look like they crawled right of a book of Japanese folklore. Your brushwork is often the key to ensuring they have a bad time.

     You will have plenty of weapons to choose from to get the job done. They are divided into three distinct types:

  1. Reflectors. They are the first kind of weapon you receive in-game and look a lot like mirrors.
  2. Rosaries. Strands of sacred beads that are almost whip-like when used in combat. I think they’re the best weapons in the game because they can deliver the most hits in the shortest amount of time.
  3. Glaives. They’re basically swords. Sorry I don’t have much to say about these. I just didn’t like using them very much and couldn’t get into the swing of things. (Hint hint.)

And you can find these weapons all over the place. There are a few given as rewards for taking down certain monsters. There are even some that require you to shell out some serious yen to purchase.

     All of the weapons you find can be equipped as both main and sub weapons which changes how they function during battles. They can also be powered up with a substance called gold dust that is only available in limited quantities. You can buy it at certain shops or receive it for completing specific side quests. Please keep in mind that each weapon can only be powered up once so choose wisely. Or just don’t bother using the gold dust on the first couple weapons you get. They kinda suck.

     If any of you lovely people reading this review would like the pleasure and challenge of experiencing this hidden treasure of a game, then here are a few things you should keep in mind.

  • You gon’ be in it for the long haul. Okami is NOT a game you can just breeze through. Be prepared to spend at least 30 hours or more with this game . . .especially if you want those delicious presents from Issun at the end. That guy gets his hands on some pretty good stuff.
  • Remember what I said about that gold dust. There’s only so much of it you can get during any given playthrough. And once you’ve used it all − that’s it! No more for you! So start a new game file and remind yourself that the first few weapons are gonna be garbage whether you power them up or not.
  • Be open to the idea (and the tedium) of grinding monsters for cash. I suggest getting your grind on in the Ryoshima Coast area. There are decent payouts for quickly and efficiently taking out every monster you find.

     Even though everything starts off at a snail’s pace and can drag at times, Okami is still one of the most memorable games I have ever played. I love the rich story, the colorful characters, and the living, breathing environments. And thanks to its stylized, cel-shaded graphics it has aged remarkably well despite being nearly eight years old. I once heard someone say that “cartoony” graphics hold up a lot better over time than more “realistic” ones.

     I would urge any fan of adventure games to check this game out if the opportunity ever arises. I can almost guarantee that you will not be disappointed. There’s just so much here to like, especially for all of those Legend of Zelda fans out there. That may be why is so thoroughly enjoyed playing through a game like Okami for the first time. I was reminded of everything I have come to hold dear about Zelda . . .only Okami puts more emphasis on exploring the world rather than puzzle solving. Come to think of it, it don’t recall encountering a single brainteaser in all eight of the years I’ve been playing this game. Huh. Kinda surprised at myself for not noticing that sooner. Oh well. There’s still so much awesome adventuring to be had.

Aria of Sorrow

Released: May 6, 2003 (Game Boy Advance); Oct. 23, 2014 (WiiU)

Developer/Publisher: Konami Computer Entertainment, Tokyo

Platforms: Game Boy Advance, WiiU Virtual Console

Genre(s): action-adventure, RPG, metroidvania

Producer: Koji Igarashi

     Aria of Sorrow is the final installment in a trio of Castlevania games released for the Game Boy Advance (or GBA) in the early 2000s. Preceeded by Circle of the Moon and considered to be the definitive GBA Castlevania game, it is said to the best out of the three.

     Even though I have not played the other two games ( . . .yet . . .) I can certainly understand why Aria of Sorrow was received to positively back in 2003. When I first started playing, it wasn’t very long before I found myself completely immersed. I played for about two and a half hours without even realizing it. I think that’s just how it is whenever I get my hands on a metroidvania-style game; they are my absolute favorite type of game in existence. I love them even more than RPGs.

     The features kept me playing through this game to the very end are the very ones that drew me ever deeper into the first game of this type I ever played: Metroid Prime. I can still remember the kinds of questions that were running through my head as I played:

  • What it that I need to do in this place?

  • What’s in all those rooms that I can’t get to yet?

  • What kinds of new weapons/items/abilities am I gonna find on this journey?

  • How much of an unstoppable killing machine will I become before everything is said and done?

    Story

     Aria‘s story is a bit of a departure from your average Castlevania affair. It takes place in the year 2035 in Tokyo, Japan. And instead of playing as one of the Belmonts or Richters (or even Alucard), you get a completely new character by the name of Soma Cruz. I bet that the Castlevania fans of the early 2000s were all like, “Who the heck is this dude and why does he look like Alucard from Symphony of the Night? Come on, now. We’re all thinking it. I mean, look at him and then look at the Son of Dracula over here. That same white hair, that same pale skin . . .they really look like they could be related, don’t they?

     Aria of Sorrow opens with Soma living in Japan as an exchange student near the Hakuba Shrine. During a solar eclipse, the first one of the 21st century, he visits the shrine with his childhood friend Mina Hakuba. Suddenly they, along with several other people are drawn into said eclipse where the powers of the infamous Dracula himself lie sealed. You see, the Belmont Clan finally managed to destroy him for good back in 1999. They were the ones both his castle and his powers within the eclipse in the first place and I seriously want a game about how all of that went down. I wonder if that is what one of the preceeding GBA titles was about.

     Getting back to the story, it seems that all involved have been summoned to the castle because of a prophesy that states that Dracula’s reincarnation would return to it in 2035 to inherit his powers. Wonder who it could possibly be. Soma’s been killing monsters, absorbing their souls, and and using their powers. Yep, putting all my money on him.

Gameplay

     Aria of Sorrow is, at its core, an action-RPG which makes it heavily combat oriented. There’s hardly a moment that goes by when you’re not defending yourself from a gaggle of ghouls. Every kind of creature you can imagine stalks the halls of Drac’s shockingly immense castle from the Hanging Gardens to the Underground Resevoir. I had no idea how huge this place was when I started out in this game. There’s also critters that you would never imagine a million years. I’m talking about cockatrices, a manticore or two and the skeletons that kick you, shoot laser beams, and . . .throw curry???

     Constantly getting harassed by monsters isn’t all that bad, though. They can drop some pretty useful items: armor, weapons, and accessories you can either keep or sell to the weird guy in front of the castle. More about that in a sec. You get experience points from every single monster you defeat which you need to level up and increase your character stats. It’s a good idea to level up as much as possible throughout your quest. Otherwise, you WILL be getting your pixelated butt handed to you on a regular basis. Also, allow for some strategic level grinding before particularly difficult boss fights.

     Everything gets harder and harder the deeper you venture into the castle. Tougher enemies, crazier bosses, and new obstacles that will stop you dead in your tracks and make you scratch your head and wonder, “ What the heck am I supposed to do about this?!” Thankfully, you’ll regularly find better equipment and defeating bosses nets you crucial abilities that just make it all so much easier.

     The monsters you’re almost always fighting drop red soul orbs every so often that let you use their powers in battle. They are divided into three categories: the ones you can attack with (RED), active (YELLOW), and passive (BLUE). Together they are known as the Tactical Soul System and I have no idea is my classification of it is correct. It was never really explained at all in-game.

Dracula’s Flippin’ Castle

     It’s flippin’ huge!I had absolutely no idea just how huge this place would turn out to be. It easily rivals the world maps of both Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night. It may even surpass them. I am seriously questioning whether or not Dracula’s castle could be considered its own world within a world. It is divided up into many different areas: Main Corridor, Dance Hall, Clock Tower, etc. There are more but I can’t recall them all. There are secret rooms passages everywhere so exploration is a vital part of the gameplay. And since Aria of Sorrow is a metroidvania type of game, backtracking is a must.

     Strangely, backtracking is one of the aspects I actually enjoy about this kind of game. I find it satisfying to return to an area, effortlessly destroy the enemies that gave me such a hard time, and then find something entirely new using a new skill or weapon I found along the way. This is exactly why I got sucked into every Metroid game I’ve ever played. This Castlevania game was no different.

     Aria of Sorrow was exactly the kind of gaming experience I was looking for when I rediscovered it on my long-neglected e-shop wishlist. I honestly can’t even begin to remember exactly why I put it there or what possessed me to download it out of the blue the way that I did. And thank goodness I did. I would have missed out on something truly special . . .AGAIN. (I never had a GBA back in the early 2000s. Awful, isn’t it?) Playing this game was one hell of a way to be formally introduced to this series. Now I truly understand why it was/still is seen as the defining title of the GBA Trio by both critics and fans alike. Aria has the best visuals, gameplay, and the most interesting deviations from the ‘tradional’ storyline. It introduces an all-new character with such cool powers, something I don’t think happens very often when it comes to these games.