Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dissidia: Final Fantasy Review

Let's face it: Smash Bros. is popular as hell. It's a fanboy's dream come true. An assortment of beloved characters in an immense crossover where your wildest fanfiction dreams play out in button mash murder. Since the franchise's inception, there have been many emulations of the crossover party fighter concept, from Capcom's Onimusha Buraiden to Ubisoft's upcoming and none-too-subtle named TMNT: Smash Up. Let's forget that Castlevania Judgment business altogether, shall we? I'd prefer it stays locked up in the recesses of supressed memory far deeper than my being molested as a child by Lee Majors.

Now it's Square Enix's turn at the plate, and they've come swinging the Nail Bat (materia is for pussies) with Dissidia, a hyperactive crossover brawler for the PSP featuring the main protagonists and villains from each entry of the first ten Final Fantasy games.

Now, as a reviewer, it's my duty to remain as unbiased as possible and give each game a fair rundown based on its own merits in a completely objective fashion. However, as this is the Final Fantasy franchise, this is absolutely damn well impossible for me to do. That being said, the series died with Final Fantasy X. Additionally, forgive the following fangasm (please insert "squees" wherever you feel appropriate).


Ahem. Moving along, let's take a look at the game beyond the fanservice.

It goes without saying that anything produced by Square Enix will push the graphical boundaries of any system to its limits, and Dissidia does not disappoint. The lush, vibrant visuals are unbelievably dazzling, from the gorgeous FMV cutscenes to the epileptic laser-shows of every battle. The graphics engine improves upon the one last seen on PSP in Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core with smoother animations and better particle effects. Most of the character models themselves are a sight to behold, particularly characters from the 8 and 16 bit games that have been wonderfully recreated from the original art of Amano Yoshitaka (expect lots of horns). On the other end of the presentation spectrum is Dissidia's wondrous score. Newer pieces such as One Winged Angel and Jecht's theme return, along with excellent remixes of the standout pieces from each title (Gilgamesh's theme and series staple Prelude sound friggin' amazing). In addition to the expected new arrangements, Dissidia composer Ishimoto Takeharu introduces a handful of original songs, including a vocal piece and a piano instrumental nearly the caliber of Uematsu's work. The quality of the voice work is parabolic, with strong performances like Johnny Yong Bosch (of DMC4 fame) as Firion and disappointingly wretched vocal fare, such as Bryce Papenbrook's Zidane. Again, I lament that Square Enix never includes the option to switch vocals back to the original Japanese (Sakurai Takahiro's Cloud is impeccable).

I fiddled with the Japanese version of Dissidia upon its release late last year, and I was completely shut out by the schizophrenic gameplay and ambiguous damage systems. I chalked my confusion up to language barrier, and now that I can finally play the game in English...well, it's still confusing as hell at times. Gameplay-wise, Dissidia falls more in line with Atari's Dragonball Z: Budokai series. Matches are one-on-one, three-dimensional fare in various exceptionally destructible arenas. All three dimensions are used to full extent, as characters are capable of flying, dashing, running on walls, and other Advent Children-esque chaos. While characters do have health bars, focus lies in the Bravery Gauge, similar to Guilty Gear's Momentum system. Bravery points are depleted with Circle combos, and once the Bravery gauge is depleted, HP damage combos can be employed to their fullest extent with Square. It keeps the entire battle a game of tug of war, and keeping pressure on your enemy while evading BP-crushing combos is vital to a quick victory. It's a nice change of pace from the standard fighter's health gauge or Smash Bros' glorified ring out combat system. Combat is nothing more than messy button mashing, but it's some of the prettiest button mashing you'll ever encounter.

Beyond the frantic combat itself is a staggeringly deep portable experience. Along with the standard arcade and versus modes (both CPU and multiplayer), the game features a full nonlinear story mode that plays out similarly to the tactical battles sections of Suikoden III. Character customization is expansive, with alternate costumes, fully customizable movesets and abilities, a shop system, Espers, and all the other RPG element dressings to remind you this is Final Fantasy (oddly enough, the game has a menu-based battle option to make it feel even more like the originals). Throw in the ton of unlockables and online play, and Dissidia becomes a pretty nice package for the PSP.

Now, as I said, it's impossible for me to review this game without bias. I spent years obsessed with this franchise. I wrote fanfiction. I ran roleplaying guilds. I created an FF-based pen and paper RPG from scratch. I have played every single game and memorized so many facets of the overall mythos you'd think I was a Trekkie. For Mog's sake, my own loathing of Final Fantasy VIII brought me together with my fiancee. Truly, the original Final Fantasy series holds a deep meaning for me. Regardless, the game manages to properly pay homage to the franchise and replicate the epic feel of the battles with the chaotic battle system, so brawler/fighter fans will probably enjoy this anyway (it's not as though there are many alternatives on the handheld). But for those of you like myself who have loved this franchise and its many wonderful stories and memorable characters for years, this will be a treat. I cannot resist the widest of grins upon the imposing first notes of One Winged Angel's cacophony or be overcome by gooseflesh upon seeing Garland knock you all down in the Chaos Temple or feel a powerful tinge of delight seeing characters like Exdeath and Cecil Harvey represented in glorious 3D and on such a grand stage. Truly, if you are any sort of FF-fanboy, this will hold all the same sweeping nostalgia as Nintendo's own fanservice brawler.

Dissidia: Final Fantasy is just as bizarre and rowdy as its name. Its convoluted battle system and its grandiose presentation of gaming's foremost RPG series earns it a cavalcade of mixed feelings and truly makes it one very spoony bard.

Final Score: In lieu of a numerical score, my review of the game rests simply that fans will eat it up and I cannot speak for anyone else. Or, if you're really damn pushy about it, I guess an 8.0 or something.

Seriously, though, the storyline is an utter ripoff of a concept I created seven years ago...jerks.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Turtles in Time: Reshelled Review

Time for a nostalgia bomb. Imagine you're back in 1991 and presumably below the age of twelve. The 80s are dying away, with only remnants of fades and teased hair, Metallica and Run DMC, and other cultural miscellany left as the new 90s subcultures arise. But there is one thing that has remained strong until now: the arcade. You are not horsing around outside or doing other typical kid stuff. You are surrounded by teenage sweat and pizza grease in a dark place lit by flickering monitors and neon. There is something in your pocket that burns a hole and screams to be devoured by these bright, loud machines. Clink clank as you feed the machine and are greeted by only the most bodacious of surfer slang.

The place? The arcade. The thing? Your hard-earned quarter. The slang? Cowabunga!

The game? The sequel to one of the hottest arcade beat 'em ups ever: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. If you were anything like me as a child, you were swept up in both Turtlemania and the allure of the arcade and there was nothing better than pouring your coin into this badass cabinet. Four player co-op through your most beloved franchise? What could be sweeter?

Perhaps a remake to bring back all those arcade feelings? It has been said that online play is the console equivalent of the arcade environment, and I believe XBLA has been the haven for old school style revival. Thus, from Ubisoft Singapore comes TMNT: Turtles in Time Reshelled, a full 3D remake of the original classic. So what's changed?

Most apparent is the graphical overhaul. The game is beautifully rendered in 3D, and the visuals are certainly Reshelled's greatest aspect. All the environments are bright and colorful and very evocative of a comic book. The dark, neon glow of Big Apple, 3 A.M. or the various candy-colored foot soldiers really make the game eye-popping and vibrant, and the redone attack and enemy animations and the large sound effect bubbles really enhance the cartoony feel. Fans will gush over seeing their favorite characters redone in the 3D models and the wonderful new concept art. The music has also been redone, and while the remixes are nice, they lack the charm and catchiness of their original MIDI counterparts. The game also features new voiceover work by the cast of the 2003-Present TMNT television show, complete with original lines such as the ever-infuriating "MY TOE! MY TOE!" (You know what I mean and you know that made you rage as a kid.)

For better or for worse, however, the gameplay remains almost completely unchanged. There are a couple tweaks. The turtles now have their own unique stats (Don still has the longest reach, don't worry) and have the ability to signal their location on the screen at the push of the button, clearing up the old "where the hell am I?" confusion during co-op. As the game is rendered in full 3D, the combat is also now three-dimensional. This means players no longer have to adhere to the beat 'em up staple of remaining on the exact same plane as an enemy in order to hit them and allows players to pincer attack bosses from all angles. It's a small change, but really serves to freshen up the beat 'em up formula. Unfortunately, as exceptionally as the original game has been served up on a gleaming silver platter, it's still just the original game. A survival mode and four difficulties have been added, but the game is virtually unchanged. Ubisoft had the opportunity to pull a Zero Mission and do a truly impressive remake, replete with additional levels, characters (perhaps Karai of the original comics and most recent film), modes of play...or maybe just the ability to play the original version of the game (a bizarre and criminal exclusion). Instead, we've just received the exact same game, which is a shame considering how good the new engine is. Hopefully Ubisoft sees fit to use the same engine to make a completely brand new TMNT beat 'em up for XBLA.

The value of this game will really depend on the individual. The game does feature both local and online co-op, but the game is frightfully short and replayability will depend on your love for the franchise and the genre as a whole. The game goes for only $10, so if you loved the original or the TMNT franchise in general, the game is certainly worth downloading. Plop down with three friends and a large pizza and relive some glory days.

However, if you don't find yourself saying, "Why the hell isn't Slash the boss of Prehistoric Turtlesaurus anymore" or "Boy, Baxter Stockman makes a better nerdy Jew than a psychotic black guy," this game probably isn't for you.

Final Score: 7.8

Monday, June 1, 2009

Wish granted.

In the Raiden Fighters Aces review, I urged readers to purchase the game so sales would incentivize a North American port of the latest game in the series, Raiden IV. Well, just to make me feel like an ass, UFO is bringing us that very aforementioned port.

As I'm fully convinced that my word is cosmic law and I possess some form of eldritch magic laced into my very utterances, I issue the following:
"Now, if only Treasure would get off their fat asses and port Radiant Silvergun to XBLA..."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Expansion Pack.


It has come to my attention that the Bandicoot12 Studios blog is exceptionally boring. While I plan to continue reviewing the smaller games that typically do not receive media attention (not to mention hopefully post updates on Bandicoot12 projects), such things are far too typical. I feel an obligation to all three of my readers to be more than just informative. As a game designer and a writer, I am part of the entertainment industry. Thus, this blog should be entertaining. I have decided to begin developing new features for the blog beyond simple reviews.

So I turn to you. What would you like to see implemented on a weekly basis? Ideas circulating include a possible podcast/webshow with a couple of my fellow hardcore gamers, a webcomic, and a weekly rant series on the various pet peeves that plague gaming as a whole. However, I don't feel like proceeding without the thoughts of those around me. After all, as any sort of journalist, I am at the service of my readers. I am here to inform or entertain, so I must give the people what they want to know or what would shock, infuriate, titilate or humor them. I would like to develop a hub for gaming thought, a place where gamers can be informed and discuss their thoughts and find new ways to foster their culture as a whole.

So come on! Post some comments and give me your thoughts! Otherwise, we're looking at a Velvet Assassin review, and I don't think either of us want that.

Insert coin to continue,
Iwasaki Koji

Monday, May 11, 2009

Raiden Fighters Aces Review

After long overlooking my obligations to Bandicoot12 Studios and this blog, it is wonderful to return to the art of weekly updates with an equally overlooked genre: the shmup.

For those of you not familiar with the term shmup, it is a portmanteau of "shoot-em-up" and refers to the typically ship-based shooters evolved from classics like Zaxxon or Space Invaders. They come in different varieties: horizontal (Gradius, R-Type), vertical (Ikaruga, 19XX), or arena (Geometry Wars). These games are typically Japanese arcade exclusives and are notorious for their unrelenting, rape-you-until-every-orafice-bleeds difficulty. The genre requires the quickest reflexes and ability to navigate enemy attack patterns known only as "bullet hells."

Even Hell, shadowy and forsaken abyss for the lost and the damned and the eternal prison of torment and hate reserved for Lucifer and his legions of avarice who so defiled the grace of Heaven...doesn't seem harsh enough of a term for this bullcrap.

Being such that the genre demands more dedication and mastery than a fighting game, these games are the very definition of niche, thus falling right up my alley. The genre has been rather dormant on the Xbox 360, with only a few XBLA games filling the void. Enter Raiden Fighters Aces to save the day (and make you look like a bitch). Most of us are familiar with Seibu's Raiden series. The original hit arcades way back in 1990 and has devoured our quarters ever since. However, we laymen who have sought refuge in consoles since 1995 may be oblivious to the spinoff trilogy Raiden Fighters. Lucky for us shmup fans, Valcon has brought us a compilation of all the games:
Raiden Fighters, Raiden Fighters 2: Operation Hell Dive, Raiden Fighters Jet, and Raiden Fighters Episode 4: Khan Strikes Back Harder.

The games themselves are extremely straightforward. Pick a ship, fly through an assortment of stages (around nine areas per game) while avoiding enemy shots and unleashing havoc. Attacks include shot, charge shot, and bomb. Each ship has two shots depending on the pickup type you grab (Laser or Missile) and each ship has unique helper drones that add to your firepower and can absorb damage for you. Don't think this means little variety, though: the trilogy boasts a ridiculous 14 fighters (even more than the Castle Shikigami series!), including a cameo by the Raiden MK-II from the classic Raiden trilogy. The trail to a legendary score is blazed by a combo system based on how quickly and in succession you are able to destroy enemies the moment they spawn and dotted with combo-based medals and other rare pickups. The bosses are immense, some of them actually comprising the entirety of the stage, leading to some rather lengthy and challenging battles. Unfortunately, this series runs on the one-hit system, so even grazing an enemy bullet will kill you, and since the hitboxes are a little too large to even be considered forgiving, the beginning player will die. A lot. Mercifully, you can bump up the default three continues all the way up to free play, so you don't have to see that gamer over screen so often. Additionally, you don't have to share this burden alone, as the trilogy includes the genre staple of local co-op. Oddly enough, the compilation lacks online play...but that doesn't mean this port isn't loaded to the hilt with some impressive features.

Those looking for an arcade perfect port won't be disappointed, but there's plenty else to do here. Exclusive to this collection are classic modes such as boss rush, score attack, and even a new expert mode, which increases the hectic enemy shot patterns tenfold. Beyond increasing playability, this home version includes features to please the hardcore shmup obsessive. Along with the obvious online leaderboards, the game includes a practice mode with an optional bullet time feature that puts the game into slow motion and allows players to easily identify exactly how to navigate a certain bullet hell. The most laudable feature here, however, is the ability to save recordings of your runs and upload them to Xbox Live. This way, players can not only show off their skills, but study the techniques of the world's top shmuppers.

These are the exact sort of things needed to invigorate the shmup community on the 360, and hopefully this compilation will inspire others to bring this genre back to console prominence. Though Raiden Fighters Aces is not the most complex or difficult shmup out there, the 20 dollar price tag, easy achievement points (I racked up around 400 gamerscore after about an hour of play), and incredible extra features make this an irresistable package to the hardcore shmup fan or those interested in the genre. Of course, if you're actually looking to break into the genre, I only have one piece of advice:
Buy a Dreamcast.

Final Score:
(I don't care how you guys voted, I like the single floating point system.)

Editor's Note: Buy this game so those lucky Japanese bastards feel compelled to release Raiden IV for the North American version of XBLA.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Guitar Hero: Metallica Review

Guitar Hero has become a force of nature within our pop culture, parodied in television and film and played by millions, both gamer and non-gamer alike. The guitar simulation series has become so successful that life has begun to imitate art, with bands lending more than their music to the production of the games: their likenesses, their trademarked style and stage presence, even their very own legacy. This intimate pairing of game and music industry became inevitable the moment bands began gaining more notoriety (not to mention sales) from new listeners faster than ever before (DragonForce saw a 126% increase in CD sales and a 500% increase in digital track purchases after being included in Guitar Hero 3). What began as guest appearances by Slash, Tom Morello and Bret Michaels has expanded into a new line of band franchises, starting with last year's unexpectedly excellent Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. Aerosmith allowed players to play a huge selection of the band's best tracks from over the years, along with favorites from bands Aerosmith had played with. You could play as not only Aerosmith's guitarists, but other musicians as well, including hip hop legend Darryl McDaniels. Yes, Aerosmith was a glorified expansion pack, but all so much more, with band interviews that completed the full presentation of the rock legends. Yes, the game was fantastic...but it still left many wanting.

This is because of the long-running rumors of a highly anticipated Neversoft/Metallica collaboration that had circulated just as GH3 was released. The notion was a pleasing one, particularly since the series had neglected so many appropriate songs from the band (One simply wasn't enough). Metallica continued existence as a rumor out in the gaming aether until the release of Guitar Hero: World Tour. Neversoft announced that the band's newest album, Death Magnetic would be available as DLC (along with the song "Trapped Under Ice" being in the included set list) and the uncertainty was put to rest by a teaser trailer in GH:WT's video menu featuring the song "Master of Puppets" and boasted the tagline Ride the Lightning.

A few months later and here are with Neversoft's celebration of one of the best-selling and most influential metal bands in history. Was the wait and anticipation worth it? To the Metallica fan (such as myself), the answer is an easy one. To the's still an easy one. But before commanding you to add this game to your library, let's examine.

The set list is the most obvious feature to inspect. Upon first glance, it's incredible. Over 20 guest acts and hits from Metallica's extensive catalog, mostly consisting of older hits (there's only one track from the unfortunate abortion that was St. Anger). Additionally, a good amount of these songs are from the band's two masterworks: Master of Puppets and the "Black Album." The highest selling point for me was the inclusion of instrumental masterpiece "Orion," a lifelong favorite showcase of late bassist Cliff Burton. At a second glance, however, the setlist shows some problems. The primary issue here is the paltry sum of 49 tracks, only 28 of which are by Metallica. That's not a small amount, but contrasted the sheer number of songs in the standard GH series (World Tour shipped with over eighty), it feels insubstantial. The quality of the guest acts is a mixed bag. While there are some truly kick-ass tracks, like "Blood and Thunder" by Mastodon or "Toxicity" by System of a Down, too much of it feels alien in the context of this game. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone" and Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" are fine songs, but southern rock just doesn't fit in with the edgy spirit of the game (why they didn't include Metallica's own covers of these songs from Garage, Inc. is beyond me). More appropriate bands abound, like Slayer and Samhain, but I am baffled by the exclusion of other 80s metal (particularly Megadeth, for obvious reasons). This game could have been a glorious celebration of the thrash metal genre spearheaded by its reigning kings. Whereas eclecticism is essential to the main GH series, it feels a little odd here. I will, however, make an exception for Queen, as they are one of the best damn bands in the history of everything and better damn well get their own game soon.

The gameplay is...well, Guitar Hero. However, unlike Aerosmith, which ran on the GH3 engine, Metallica runs on the GH:WT engine. This is a two-edged sword. The con: GH:WT engine is not as responsive as GH3. The pros: World Tour's tap/slide mechanic make certain solo much more forgiving (I'm looking at you, One) and the full band experience truly soars in this context. Having four players fully realizes the series' effort to immerse you in a rock star fantasy, and Metallica does just that. You're not simply playing fake guitars, you're stepping into the shoes of Kirk Hammet or Robert Trujillo. The drums, particularly, are a star feature, considering Lars Ulrich's relentless style and trademark double-bass work. The game capitalizes on this by featuring support for a second bass pedal for the GH:WT drum set used in the game's new Expert+ difficulty. I was extremely dismayed to discover this new difficulty was only available for drums, and any hopes for open notes for lead guitarist or more demanding charts for bass were demolished.

Speaking of which, the game's difficulty (more precisely, the lack thereof) is baffling. The Metallica tracks in previous GH titles were among the most challenging, so one would assume GH:M would be the hardest game yet, but many of the songs are incredibly easy for veteran players. I five-starred a good portion of the songs on my first try. Now, the game isn't without challenge. Tracks like "Battery" and "Master of Puppets" are soul-crushingly tricky, and Slayer returns to top the horror of GH3's "Raining Blood" with the almost impossible "War Ensemble." The game's climax is the absurdly easy "The Thing That Should Not Be," played in a dark ice cavern surrounded by the tentacles of the Nameless One (rad!). "Master of Puppets" is a far more difficult chart and oft considered their magnum opus, so I would have picked that as the finale...or, at the very least, capitalize on the Burton-inspired Lovecraftian surroundings and include "The Call of Ktulu."

Such exclusions are the game's greatest downfall. Whereas Aerosmith felt like a full collaboration between Neversoft and the band and a full representation of their storied career, GH:M ends up feeling slightly incomplete, like a big track pack with a few new characters. Now, the game has some really nice features. New to the HUD is Rock Band's patented star meter that lets you know the progress of your final grade whilst playing the song. The in-game manifestations of the band are polished and well animated, and the overall aesthetic fits the content. The lyrics (and for some, a concert video) are included for every song, and most tracks have a mode called Metallifacts, which plays out like VH1's old Pop Up Videos. The digital band will perform on screen while factoids about the song play at the bottom. It's a neat feature that provides interesting trivia with a listening theater, but the factoid list is too short and will repeat, sometimes 2 or 3 times, before a song is over. You have a good deal of actual guitars at your disposal and World Tour's create-a-character mode returns along with two guests: 80s rocker King Diamond and Lemmy of Motorhead fame (finally!). This is where I take the most fault with the game. Only Metallica's current four members are included. No Newsted, no Mustaine (again, where the hell is the Megadeth?), and sadly no Cliff Burton. Neversoft said the exclusion of former bassists was to not "slight" Bob Trujillo, but I feel they've slighted the fans and the memory of a phemomenal musician by excluding proper tribute to Cliff. This is something the common player will be completely oblivious to, but as for me and other hardcore Metallica fans, this will stand out as the most irking oversight.

But is it fun? Hell yes. Should you get it? The aforementioned easy answer is yes. Even at sixty dollars, this glorified expansion is still a welcome series addition brimming with variety, and some of these songs have been awaited for far too long. Metallica fans will eat it up and others will be introduced to some of the most memorable metal anthems in history. If you love Guitar Hero, this is a no brainer. Grab your axe and ride the lightning.

Final Score: 3 Facemelting Shred Solos out of 4.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Paging Mr. Hollister.

It has come to my attention that fellow gaming journalism and Fire Emblem enthusiast Sean Hollister has been visiting the Bandicoot12 Studios blog. This gentleman was one of the Nintendo booth attendants at Wondercon and was a true joy to interact with.

Sean Hollister! If you are reading this, you are commanded to email your contact information and friend code for Shadow Dragon to as soon as possible.

And an additional comment regarding Shadow Dragon: Sean is correct on the items being the balancing factor. Upon fully exploring the forge, I realized how easily I could turn a simple rapier into an instrument of God's will, an implement so omnipotent and filled with limitless power that a simple brandish could eliminate our world. (Damned crit rate, always getting me one-hitted...)

Insert coin to continue,
Iwasaki Koji

PS: To all of my friends and readers and fellow tacticians, let's engage in warfare!
FC: 4382 7584 0843