Archive for October, 2012

Trapped in a creepy old house, far from civilization. Your only means of transportation has fled, your radio is broken, and you only had the presence of mind to bring one magazine for your Beretta.  Thus begins the first chapter of Capcom’s long-running Resident Evil franchise. It set the stage not only for a long-running (perhaps too long) franchise, but also popularized the survival horror genre.

The game begins with a live-action FMV scene of the Raccoon City S.T.A.R.S. team descending on the site of some grisly goings-on, where you find the half-eaten giblets of the Bravo Team. It’s an entertaining little Z-grade chunk of cinema (yes, it’s so far beyond B-movie quality that Reb Brown and Linnea Quigley would be embarrassed to be involved) with plenty of bad acting that of course, segues into the game’s legendarily awkward writing and goofy performances. And you know what? The cheesy dialogue and direct-to-video vibe that the original Resident Evil cultivates is one of its biggest appeals. Resident Evil as a whole is famous for its rather ludicrous plotlines, and the game that started it off is no exception. Yet it still manages to get its oddly convoluted story across even with a script that features such noted silliness as “It’s really powerful! Especially against living things!”.

The game starts you off with a choice of whether to play as Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine. While they control exactly the same, they both have slightly differing storylines and a few gameplay differences. Jill can carry 2 more items, can unlock some doors with a lockpick, and starts off with a pistol. She also gets the grenade launcher in the course of her game, which is a very useful weapon since it can fire a variety of ammo types. Chris has a smaller inventory and starts off with a (useless) knife and a lighter that gets used in one or two puzzles. He can take more of a beating than Jill can, but her game is generally accepted to be easier than his. They cover a lot of the same ground and visit most of the same places, but they interact with different characters and have slightly differing storylines.

Gameplay-wise, it doesn’t stray far from the survival horror hybrid of traditional adventure game and combat elements that Alone in the Dark originated, although it does have a more stable combat system with a focus on gunplay rather than Alone in the Dark‘s myriad melee arms. Indeed, the one close-combat weapon you’re given is a supposed combat knife that couldn’t butter bread, let alone kill a zombie. If that’s all you’ve got, you’re better off running until you can find some firepower. Of course, you can’t run and dodge your way through every problem: sometimes there’s a boss or a stubborn zombie in the way and you need to drop the hammer on them. While you can’t go around wasting ammo, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding enough to finish the game.

But there’s more than just gameplay- puzzles are an essential component of Resident Evil. You’ll likely spend as much time pondering puzzles (at least on your first time through) as you will gunning down the undead. Some puzzles require you to hunt down the right key items (some may even be used multiple times), and others require manipulation and examination of objects in your inventory. It’s fairly run of the mill stuff (and invites you to ponder just what kind of maniac builds a house where the biological affront-to-god lab is easier to get into than the kitchen), and provides decent if mundane challenge for those used to more complex adventures like Gabriel Knight or Monkey Island.

How scary is Resident Evil? Well…not all that frightening, really. The music often helps to strike a macabre tone, but sometimes- like when a room has garish turquoise wallpaper or when there’s a smoking carcass of a snake in the center of the room- it just can’t be helped. However, some parts of the game, such as the cabin, are pretty creepy in spite of some of the less-than-terrifying inhabitants. There are even a few memorable jump moments (some so famous that when the game was remade, they were altered to deliberately mess with players). It’s not the kind of horror that stays with you or has anything deeply disturbing about it, but it’s fun, even if it seems tame by current standards.

I like the original, unaltered cut of Resident Evil. It lacks the improvements made in the Directors Cut or the more serious take on the game that the Gamecube remake (quite successfully) attempted, but it falls into the same instantly likable kind of appeal that a cheesy imported zombie movie would have. I love that about it- it’s NOT by any means a game that’s going to disturb you for great lengths of time, but there are some good creepy moments and a few solid jump scares.

PROS: Solid Gameplay. Wonderfully cheesy presentation. Everything that comes out of Barry’s mouth is a slice of fried gold.

CONS: 1st-Generation 3D graphics and tank controls may not appeal to everyone.

Some games are popular during the generation they’re released in, and then fade into obscurity. Then there are others that strike such a chord with players and leave such an impact that we still talk about how great they are, even after a plethora of sequels. Castlevania is one such game that is so revered.

The debut of whip-swinging vampire hunter Simon Belmont occurred in 1986 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Born from a mashup of classic monsters, gothic scenery, and more than a little inspiration from Vampire Hunter D, Castlevania distinguished itself from its contemporaries with its horror imagery. While most games of the time stuck with the trappings of 80’s action movies or generic fantasy settings, Castlevania took you to the crumbling battlements of Dracula’s castle for a grueling battle.

Just looking at the cover gives you a feel for what you’re in for. Dracula’s castle looms menacingly atop an isolated precipice as the Count himself bares his fangs in a mocking grin. Simon Belmont stands in the foreground, brandishing the Vampire Killer whip and pointing a finger as if to say “I accept your challenge, you bloodsucking punk.” Seeing it on the shelf in the mid 1980’s must have evoked the word “rad”.

After pressing the Start button, we see Simon marching up to the gates of the castle, and the game begins. The first level sets the stage for what became and entire series. These humble beginnings offer us many elements that would become repeated often- the approach to the castle, the entry hall, and of course, the ever-familiar Vampire Killer tune.

The level design is fantastic- although ingenious isn’t quite the right word. Fiendish is more like it, as Konami seemed to deliberately program the game to murder you again and again. Hazards are all over the place- water, spikes, malevolent architecture that takes advantage of Simon being knocked back whenever he’s injured- Castlevania is a place that tests your patience and reflexes at the same time. In addition, enemies become stronger as you proceed in the game, so that knight that took a few hits early on will become a damage sponge in the final corridors of the castle. In addition to the tough enemies, there are the deadly nuisances like the Medusa Heads, the Hunchbacks, and the Bats. They’re annoying because their patterns make them hard to hit and hard to avoid- and they usually show up in those precarious places where you’re going to be knocked back into a death drop. This is responsible for a good portion of Castlevania‘s legendary difficulty (the other portion tends to come from having so many enemies on the screen at once).

I think one of the interesting things about Castlevania– a factor that Metroidvanias abandoned, is that you get to see the boss’ energy meter. In a game like Castlevania, knowing the amount of hit points the boss has left can let you tweak your strategy- if you’ve got plenty of health and the boss is down to one or two blocks, then you can just get in there and throw everything at him and get it over with.  The bosses themselves mostly run a gamut of classic movie monsters- obviously you’ve got Dracula, but he’s also employing the Frankenstein monster and a hunchbacked assistant, mummies, giant vampire bats, and Medusa a la Clash of the Titans. You’ve also got the Grim Reaper, although I don’t know if he’s made that many movie appearances. If I have one complaint it’s that Dracula’s final form resembles something from a more superdeformed game like Ghosts & Goblins.

Castlevania‘s music is the stuff of legend. I’ve written a full article on the series’ music in the past, and the original game starts the series off spectacularly. Just about every track in the game is memorable. It sounds like action oriented video game music of its era, but at the same time it often has a rock beat to it and a gothic or neoclassical sensibility about it. The drum intro for the beginning of the 3rd Level (the music called “Wicked Child”) is impressive and memorable enough that most covers of the song implement it. It’s kind of interesting that for a long time video games had been mostly silent affairs (with the exception of Pitfall 2 and Ultima IV). During the latter half of the 1980s, improved sound hardware meant that games could deliver recognizable music that didn’t make your ears bleed. While earlier games like Mario had memorable music, it was games like Castlevania, Zelda, and Final Fantasy that began to add layers of complexity to the compositions.  Most NES games had music- and that in itself is a milestone.

Castlevania is one of the best remembered games for the NES, and rightly so. It has a far reaching legacy that continues to this day, and it still triggers immediate memories for multiple generations of gamers. If you haven’t tried it…I don’t really know what’s stopping you.

PROS: Divine challenge. Great music. The beginning of a legend.

CONS: Hellish difficulty. Medusa Heads. The corridor before fighting Death.

Castlevania is currently available on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service.

I’ll get this out of the way: I suck at fighting games. ESPECIALLY Capcom fighting games. The key to victory in fighting games tends to be knowing combos, and I’m always at a disadvantage if I don’t have a manual (or if the game lacks a training mode). Part of this is laziness on my part, and part is probably that I’m a PC gamer at heart and I’d rather set a hotkey or create a macro for more complex button combinations. I’m also not very dextrous with a thumbstick or D-pad, so fighting games are commonly on the back burner for me.

With that in mind, let’s talk about Capcom’s Darkstalkers. It’s immediately pretty familiar- essentially Street Fighter II meets the Monster Mash genre, Even the subtitle, The Night Warriors, recalls Street Fighter II’s, The World Warrior. There’s even a dude from Brazil with a green skin tone! It’s a Capcom fighting game to the core, and a rather primitive one at that. But the supernatural characters certainly feel fresh compared to the ubiquitous range of kung fu movie stereotypes that populated Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and there are a wide variety of them to suit your taste. Even if you’re not familiar with the series, you’ll probably recognize Morrigan from her appearances in other Capcom fighters. There’s also a vampire, a Frankenstein monster, a wendigo, and numerous other classic monsters. Jon Talbain is a pretty cool mix of werewolf and Bruce Lee, and Rikuo the fishman’s name is a shout out to Creature From The Black Lagoon portrayer Ricou Browning. My personal favorite is the metalhead ghoul Lord Raptor, however, who must be a relative of Iron Maiden’s Eddie and Megadeth’s Vic Rattlehead.

The stages are also varied and nicely detailed, ranging from a laboratory, to the top of some buildings in Vegas (is that Nyan Cat?), and a dug-up graveyard. They’ve got plenty of nice details, although the limits of the PlayStation’s resolution means they aren’t drawn particularly sharply, and the graphics suffer outside of the standard definition CRT screens that were in use during the era the game was released. You can’t really blame them for this though- that was just the limit of tech at the time.

As I mentioned, I’m not really a fighting game aficionado, so I may not be the best one to judge the gameplay- but I found the arcade mode to be pretty difficult even with the difficulty cranked way down. Again, this comes down to exactly what I don’t like about most fighting games, and that’s that the game is basically a quiz on how well you know your combos and specials, and all I managed to figure out is that Morrigan has kind of a hadouken type move that used the same controller motion. The game’s AI is pretty unforgiving- the kind that predicts your moves, blocks everything and seems unblockable itself. This is particularly bad against Anakaris, who seems to combine Dhalsim’s reach with Zangief’s size; and Rikuo, who seems to have a counter for everything you throw at him. When you block, you still take damage. When Rikuo blocks, he’s invincible! And then there’s what I assume is the final boss- some kind of robot who can drain half your health from anywhere on the screen. After about 20 minutes of trying and failing to beat him, I just gave up on him and decided “well, there’s another fighting game I’m never gonna beat.”

I like the idea, and I definitely like the cast of characters. I think the problem is I’m not much of a fighting game guy, and when I do play them I tend to fare better with 3D Namco type fighters. Had there been a Darkstalkers beat-em-up, I probably would have had a little more fun.

PROS: Diverse cast of monsters, instantly familiar playstyle, nice visuals. Lord Raptor. Fanservice ahoy if you’re into that.

CONS: No training mode, cheap AI, great characters but  no real plot. Early PSX load times.

Darkstalkers is currently available in its original form on the PlayStation Network as a PS1 Classic.

A Change in the Weather

Posted: October 4, 2012 in Uncategorized

Do you feel that October breeze, perhaps see the leaves changing color and the chilling of the air as we approach Winter? I certainly don’t. We don’t really get that in the desert. What I’m trying to say is that the winds of change are upon me, and in fact many things in my life.

So, I decided to combine writing about two things I really love- gaming and horror. You may be familiar with some of my work when I was with BNBGaming, which is unfortunately shutting down soon. I’ve decided to try and breathe new life into my love of writing about games, and as such I’ve decided to launch a new blog. This…would be that blog.

I bid you welcome.