26/04/2017

Luminous Arc: That's a wrap


So, did I manage to pull off an Alph solo run of Luminous Arc? Well, sort of. I sure blazed through the second half of the game, polishing off twelve chapters in a mere four hours; and Alph was pretty much my sole asset on the battlefield. I occasionally took a couple of extra party members along for the ride; but being the under-levelled wimps they were, they usually died in a couple of turns, leaving Alph alone to finish the job. Not that it was a problem, mind you; my Lv. 99 Alph was more than strong enough to take care of any foe, and so I managed to reach the final boss without hassle. It was smooth, it was nice, and it was definitely fun.

The final boss battle, on the other hand, is none of these things. It's a nasty difficulty spike of Eiger proportions; and for the first time since my insane grinding marathon, I found myself in a genuine bind. Not only do the boss and his six minions hit harder than any foe before them, but they are also hell-bent on healing and buffing themselves. And since I cannot take them down in one clean hit, even with Alph's most powerful attack, I got stuck in a vicious circle of hitting them only to see them replenish their health and ruining all my efforts in the process. Add to this the necessity to heal myself on a regular basis and you get a perfect recipe for Final Fight Failure. The rest of my crew is virtually useless because of their low levels; and since I got my fill of grinding already, there is no way I'm investing a single extra minute of my time in levelling them up. And thus I'm officially giving up on Luminous Arc after 20 hours of genuinely satisfying play.

That game is not perfect, obviously. Controls are infuriatingly clunky and imprecise (I actually switched to stylus controls after some time because they were less frustrating than button controls, which speaks volumes about the poor quality of said button controls), battles are ridiculously slow, and the story is so asinine that the game would have been better off without it. I wish the options to skip all story segments had been available, because watching said story segments felt like a complete waste of time. Heck, I didn't even bother reading the text anymore after a couple of hours. I could elaborate a lot more about how characters accept new circumstances way too fast, how they are so pure and pristine while all church officials are pure evil and rotten to the core and how the big baddie's ultimate goal hardly makes any sense; but I'll abstain. I've already given that story much more attention than it deserves simply by enduring its unskippable cutscenes.

Still, there's no denying that I had tons of fun playing Luminous Arc. This is the second SRPG in which I resort to over-levelling to break the game and enjoy myself; and I must admit that there is some kind of genuine thrill in subverting a game's rules and playing it in a way that was not intended by developers or by the genre itself. Relying on a single overlevelled character didn't fully work in Luminous Arc, but it sure took me far into the game; and had I been ready to pour a few extra hours into the game to level up a couple of units, I'm sure I could have beaten that cheated final boss and his minions without breaking a sweat. In the end, we always get back to the same point: the RPGs I love the most are the ones that give me the opportunity to play them my way, and Luminous Arc was definitely one of those. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

21/04/2017

Luminous Arc: Whatever works


Boy, is it good to be reunited with my beloved DS at long last! It's been nearly a whole year since I played the system last, and the wave of giddy joy that washed over me as I rediscovered the DS' unmistakable graphical style and low-fi touch made me realize that I missed the system a whole lot. Guess I should play DS games more often then — all the more so as my DS library is by a long shot the largest of all my game libraries. But I digress. This post is not about the awesomeness of the DS, but rather about how I broke, twisted and remodeled Luminous Arc's gameplay beyond recognition in an over-enthusiastic attempt to make the game work for me. And work for me it does indeed, o yes precious.

My playthrough started in a fairly normal and unremarkable way: I fought a couple of battles, noticed right away that everybody but Heath and Alph sucked big time on the battlefield, and decided thus to focus the bulk of my level-grinding efforts on the aforementioned pair and to make them my main battle assets. This worked nicely until the game viciously removed Heath from my party after a mere couple of chapters, leaving me stranded with a reasonably strong character and a bunch of under-levelled losers. Why, oh why, game? I was seriously salty after that backstabbing move, not to mention anxious about whether I would manage to progress with such an unbalanced team; fortunately, the game was kind enough to drop a couple of powerful characters into my party, allowing me to move forward without having to level-up my neglected party members. I then decided to play Luminous Arc as it was visibly intended, i.e. by using all characters and choosing the best fitted for the battle du jour.

It worked well enough and I progressed unhindered until chapter 13. However, there was one tiny problem: I was bored. I didn't use most of the characters often enough to master them all in earnest and pull off genuinely satisfying strategies. Most of the time, I used only the top dogs in my team — a.k.a. the "Fab Four" Alph, Saki, Nikolai and Lucia — leaving the rest of the crew in their underlevelled slumber. I could have levelled up that sorry bunch and gotten used to them by abusing free battles, but Luminous Arc is so stingy when it comes to XP granted in said free battles that it would have taken a million years to get decent results. But most importantly, the fighting in Luminous Arc is so unbearably slow that attempting full-party deployment will quickly turn into a complete torture for anyone who isn't a Zen monk. The more characters involved, the snappier the fighting system: this is an unwritten rule that all RPGs should abide to lest they transform into massive snoozefests.

Not only was I bored, but those cursed battles were harder than I expected. My fine quartet was overlevelled to some extent; but that wasn't enough to ensure a smooth ride, and fighting was slowly but surely turning into a chore. And given that Luminous Arc consists solely of battles with fixed screens and a bit of chatting in between, being sick and bored of said battles would have made the whole game pretty pointless. That's when I decided to break the mold and treat myself to a bit of easy grinding by crawling back on the world map until I reached a free battle point where foes where so undelevelled that I could take them down in one hit. And since I wasn't sure how long Saki, Nikolai and Lucia would stick around, I decided that Alph would be the sole beneficiary of my grinding efforts.

At first, I solely wanted to unwind and grind a couple of levels in a relaxing environment; but things took a different turn after I fought a few battles and realized how unbalanced the XP gain dynamics were. To put it simply, defeating strong foes gives too little XP and defeating weak foes gives too much XP. Not only that, but there is actually a minimum amount of XP given for killing a foe, regardless of your character's and the foe's levels. That amount is 6 XP; and it never gets any lower than that, even if your character towers at Lv. 99 and the foe crawls at Lv. 1. Combine this to the fact that the number of XP required to gain a level is precisely 100 and never varies, and you get the perfect set-up for a mammoth grinding marathon and a massive breaking of the game.

Heck, I'm sure you guessed what happened, dear fellow gamers. At first, I grinded a dozen of levels; then I wondered if I could grind a dozen more, just for fun. I did so, and it was so painless and pleasant that I decided to add a couple more to the mix. And then, I was hooked for good, and I just couldn't stop for the life of me. The result of that epic grinding fest can be seen on that picture: MC Alph is now Lv. 99, and I'll probably be able to blast through the rest of the game without breaking a sweat. I'm a hardcore grinding aficionado, as you all know; but I swear I never, ever planned to go that high with Alph. The fact that I got so engrossed into senseless grinding is solely due to the deliciously predictable nature of level-grinding in Luminous Arc. It took exactly the same number of foes and roughly the same amount of time to gain a level, and that regularity put me into a transe of sorts that was both relaxing and stimulating. I didn't need to put always more and more effort into climbing the level ladder, but rather the exact same amount of effort for every rung of that level ladder; and boy, was it deeply satisfying. In fact, Luminous Arc has one of the best level-grinding systems I've ever encountered, despite the imbalance of its XP gain dynamics — or maybe precisely because of them.

After having completed that heavy-duty bout of grinding, I can safely claim that the developers never intended players to take party members all the way to 99. The mere fact that only the freshest foes give decent amounts of XP was probably conceived as an encouragement to forge ever on; and the existence of the XP minimum indicates that Imageepoch didn't think for one second that players would backtrack and engage in crazy level-grinding marathons. On top of that, all characters stop gaining skills and special attacks after Lv. 46, which makes me think that the crew is probably supposed to be around Lv. 45 when the final showdown unrolls. Well, guess I broke the game then. That's your fault, Imageepoch, for making level-grinding in Luminous Arc so deliciously addictive.

I can now go back to the main story, and I'm really curious to see how things will unfold. Will I blast through the rest of the game, leaving a trail of burnt land and dead bodies after me? Will Alph's impossibly high levels be enough to ensure smooth victories over the many foes ahead? Will I manage to pull off a de facto solo run of Luminous Arc' second half? Well, we'll see, and very soon at that. Stay tuned for my next run report, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

15/04/2017

A bunch of games I couldn't play


To my utter dismay, I've hit a bit of a dry gaming patch lately. I've been unlucky enough to encounter not one, but three games in a row that didn't click with me and that I ditched around the three-hour mark, utterly blasé and disgusted. I'd be tempted to attribute that stroke of bad luck not to a temporary failure of my ever-dependable gaming instinct, but rather to the fact that the involved games were cheap digital-only PSN games, and such games are pretty much hit-or-miss propositions. Without further ado, here are the offenders, along with the reasons they failed to enthrall me:


Vagrant Story: I grabbed that subterranean Squaresoft cult classic for a couple of euros; and at first, it seemed like an inspired purchase. I was extremely fond of that game's claustrophobic vibe, in medias res introduction à la Dark City and vagueling menacing eroticism reminiscent of '70s exploitation films; and although the gameplay first conjured horrific memories of Tomb "Them controls are too fussy" Raider, Vagrant Story's physics were sleek and polished enough to make me quickly forget that first impression. On the other hand, I was not so enthusiastic about the fighting system, which struck me as dreadfully boring. Instead of treating us to some hack-and-slashy goodness, Squaresoft introduced a tedious extra step in the fighting process: enemies must first be locked on, after which you have to choose the body part that will get the most damage. Whether Squaresoft chose those mechanics for the sake of being original or because automatic aiming with melee weapons was not possible at the time, said mechanics take all the urgency away from combat. On top of that, killing foes is busy work: they don't grant XP and they drop loot once in a blue moon, so you're basically killing them just to clear the way. But the dealbreaker was the fact that each weapon is efficient only against a given type of foe and that weapons must be levelled-up and switched on the fly if one wants to progress smoothly. The though of spending hours of my life levelling up weapons filled me with such dread that I wisely decided to give up on the game. I really liked Vagrant Story, but I'm not sure I can ever muster the courage to touch it again.


Siralim: I had an instant crush on this game, to be honest. It boasts everything I love: nostalgia-inducing 8-bit graphics, a simple and fast-paced turn-based fighting system, randomly generated dungeons that are a joy to explore, tons of missions that give perfect incentives to roam&grind and, last but not least, the possibility to run solo. With such a perfect list of features, there was absolutely no reason for me to lose all interest in that game after a mere three hours of play, wasn't it? And yet, that's exactly what happened, and that untimely defection can be blamed on two factors. First, the number of dungeon floors is actually infinite and there is no definitive end to the game; and that killed all my drive to crawl on the spot. If it's up to me to decide when I want to stop crawling, I might as well save myself some time and not start crawling at all, all the more so as I've never been fond of sandbox games with no grand finale: I need a goal, a challenge to keep me playing. Give your dungeon 500 floors if you want, but make it finite. Secondly and most importantly, Siralim uses level scaling, which makes level-grinding entirely pointless. This means that the only way to overcome difficulty spikes (the first one being pretty early on at floor 5) is to farm all sorts of materials to improve your weapons and spells; and I dislike farming, which I deem too random and unproductive. All in all, this game is an exercise in sheer, utter laziness. The developers dispensed themselves with implementing a balanced difficulty curve, thought-out difficulty spikes and a seamless progression towards a final boss; instead, they threw in a bunch of algorithms for random dungeon and mission generation, level scaling and difficulty spikes and called it a day. I don't see why I should play that lazy excuse for a dungeon crawler when there are dozens of better dungeon crawlers available.


Bastion: This highly praised title crystallizes everything I despise about indie games. With its anaemic, simplistic and unpolished gameplay craftily hidden under a thick coating of gimmicks and edgy aesthetic choices, Bastion is the perfect illustration of the expression "style over substance". Alas, the game's flashiness and apparent originality wear off very quickly. The gimmick of the levels assembling themselves as you progress is just like the 3DS' 3D effect: it wows you at first, but you stop noticing it entirely after five minutes. The narrator gimmick could have been a neat one if the developers hadn't been dumb enough to reveal said narrator's identity after ten minutes of play. One quick tip, guys: when the narrator is one of the story's characters, it's better to wait until the end for the big identity reveal. It has, like, more impact that way. The baroque, colourful art style is undeniably gorgeous, but there's so little variety to the levels that it becomes boring after a while. The story is told in a disjointed way for mystery's sake and ends up being totally incomprehensible in the process; and last but not least, the bleak atmosphere à la Limbo becomes seriously depressing after a while. All this arty varnish wouldn't be an issue if the gameplay were satisfying, which is unfortunately not the case: Bastion's real-time fighting system is sloppy, unprecise and frustrating. There are often so many mobs attacking at once that the only way to progress is to slash and shoot blindy while running around, dodging and chain-healing; and while these hectic one-against-hundreds battles are undeniably thrilling at first, they quickly become irritating. Enemies also feel a bit too insubstantial to be really pleasant to slaughter, and that's all to blame on their wobbly hitboxes. Hitboxes are everything in Action-RPGs and can make or break a real-time fighting system; in the case of Bastion, they don't utterly break the fighting system, but they certainly don't help its case either. Once I got bored of the fancy gimmicks and fully realized the gameplay's utter lack of depth, there was no more hope for Bastion and I dropped it just like its two predecessors.

There's at least one good thing to be found in this series of unexciting games: if I lose access to my digital games once the PSN bails out, I won't shed a single tear for these three. Needless to say, Siralim and Bastion reinforced my natural aversion to indie games, and I don't think I'll purchase many more of these in the future. For one gem like my beloved Rainbow Moon, there are ten turds like Siralim and Bastion that rely on lazy algorithms and attention-grabbing gimmicks to get by. I have a couple of digital indies left to play, such as Titan Souls and Hotline Miami, and I wouldn't be surprised if I end up hating them as well. But hey, only play will tell! And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to dig up a REAL game from my precious collection to compensate for that festival of mediocrity. (Yeah, I know; that jibe's easy and cheap, but it feels so good). Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

30/03/2017

Super Mario Land: It's VERY complicated


After having replayed Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle, I was in the mood for a retro rampage and decided to take a trip even further down memory lane by replaying The Game That Started It All: Super Mario Land, a.k.a. The First Video Game I Ever Purchased. I was an industrious kid and saved my pocket money on a regular basis, and that's how I was able to purchase a brand-new copy of SML very quickly after getting my Game Boy, saving myself from an dreary Tetris diet in the process. I cannot remember why I picked up that particular game, but I'd reckon that it was both because it was wildly advertised and because it was one of the very few Game Boy games available at the time. I didn't know what to expect from SML, but I sure hoped for the best. Alas, the best didn't come.

I'll be blunt: I don't like Super Mario Land at all. Right from the start, I had this tormented, twisted and passionate relationship with it: I loathed it, and yet it lured me in time and time again. The reason for these intense feelings was pretty simple: SML was way too hard for me back then, missing the challenging mark by a couple of miles and landing straight on the infuriating mark. My father would regularly comment on the fact that I was ridiculously riled up when playing that game, that my face was so flushed he thought I was having a heart attack and that I'd better go outside to get a breath of fresh air; and mind you, I did just that more often than not. On top of introducing me to dedicated portable gaming, SML introduced me to the concept of ragequitting. I spent weeks stuck in front of King Totomesu and felt the crush of despair when fake Princess Daisy turned into a disgusting giant fly, I fell over and over again in the millions of bottomless pits littering the game, I cried tears of blood in the Chinese levels; and the only time I actually managed to reach final boss Tatanga hanging onto my last life, my nerves were so frayed that I couldn't make a move and died on its first fireball. SML required a level of platforming skill that I couldn't muster at the time, and thus it ended up being a torture tool to young little me. To make matters worse, my father was adamant that I polished off the game entirely before purchasing a second one and was hardly swayed by my teary-eyed protests that SML was just too difficult and frustrating; and while that logic made perfect sense from a parenting point of view, it was utterly absurd from my burgeoning gamer's perspective. Games were supposed to be fun, so why wasn't I allowed to ditch a game that not only failed to entertain me, but irritated me to no end every time I picked it up? But my father had the power and the car that could drive me to the toy shop standing in the next town, and thus I had to abide by his rules and spend a couple of extra weeks toiling on SML and enduring its sloppy and slippery physics, its nerve-racking boss theme and its insanely demanding platforming.

Interestingly, while SML was overall a nightmarish experience for young little me, it absolutely didn't put me off gaming. On the contrary, it made me more eager than ever to tackle new games; and I think that's a testament to the vibrancy and intensity of my love for gaming. I was a yound kid, and gaming could have been just one of the many fads I embraced before ditching them without a second though; but this was something deeper and more serious, and I probably felt it at the time, if only confusely. And there I am, 27 seven years later, replaying SML and polishing it off in less than half an hour. Things sure have come a long way when it comes to my platforming abilities; but amazingly, replaying SML with a complete mastery of the gameplay was still not a pleasant experience. In fact, I felt the exact same mix of frustration, restlessness and emptiness I used to feel when I played SML as a kid, and I was so dispirited at the end of my short playthrough that I seriously considered selling my cartridge or even throwing it away. Heck, I'm still considering it.

If SML didn't me make me steer clear of video games as a whole, it sure made me steer clear of the Super Mario series. And yes, I'm aware that SML is not a true blue Super Mario game, having been developed by Gunpei Yokoi instead of Shigeru Miyamoto; and that's precisely why I decided to give the series a second chance by purchasing and playing New Super Mario Bros on the DS. Did I love it? Nope, not more than its Game Boy ancestor. Well, I guess my heart just belongs to Sonic after all.

In the end, my relationship with SML is still pretty complicated to this day. This was my very first game, and I have to acknowledge its importance and meaning in my gaming career; but on the other hand, I really don't like that game and don't think I ever will. So I'll probably put it to rest one way or another and wisely abstain from ever touching it again. Bad gaming memories are better left undisturbed, all the more so in a present that's brimming with fulfilling gaming experiences. I'd be curious to know what your very first game was and if it was a lacklustre experience or an amazing one, dear fellow gamers; so feel free to let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

25/03/2017

Pokemon Sun: A Nuzlocke solo run


A.k.a. The Run That Opened Even More Avenues For Future Solo Runs. It all started with Sieg's innocent question in a comment: "Will you ever try out a Nuzlocke Challenge?" My first impulse was to answer that there was no way in hell I'd ever go back to playing party runs in Pokemon and that as a result, the probability of me ever tackling a Nuzlocke challenge was virtually inexistent. But then I paused and asked myself: could there be a way to tweak Nuzlocke rules in order to make them work for a solo run? My interest was seriously piqued; and before I knew it, I had devised my own solo run version of the Nuzlocke Challenge, which goes as such:

  • The solo run must be attempted with the first 'Mon captured in the very first patch of grass on Route 1. If recruitment fail during the first encounter, it has to be performed during the second encounter and so on until it succeeds, without moving from the first patch of grass. 
  • The whole run must be 100% solo, with no other 'Mon in the team. A 'Mon can be recruited only for mandatory Double Battles and must be released immediately after. 
  • As a consequence of the aforementioned rule, the use of Revives is strictly forbidden. 
  • No healing in Pokemon Centres. 

I was seriously pondering if I should treat fainting as death, but I decided to shelve that rule for another Nuzlocke solo run (because indeed, there will be more of these). What I wanted to achieve with that very first attempt was what I would dub a "Route 1 Crappy 'Mon Solo Run". Let's face it, dear fellow gamers: none of us has any sort of respect or even consideration for Route 1 'Mons. They are used as convenient training fodder to level up our Starter before the first Gym, and we capture them solely to fill up our Pokedex. And when we keep them in our team for more than five minutes instead of sending them straight to the PC, it's usually for the sole purpose of padding said team before better and cooler 'Mons become available. In a nutshell, Route 1 'Mons are universally viewed as the very embodiment of genericness and mediocrity  in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if dictionaries featured a picture of Rattata along the definitions of these two words. And because they are so widely sniffed at, I was curious to see for myself if they could be decent solo run material.

Let me tell you: the Pikipek Solo Run that ensued single-handedly changed my opinion of Route 1 'Mons forever. I now have the uttermost respect for these often overlooked creatures, and never again will I look down on them and discard them as mere training fodder and Pokedex fillers.

That being said, it took some time to get there. I was none too happy with my new recrue at first: Pikipek looks like your generic Flying 'Mon, the kind you've seen a million times before in Pokemon games. His middle form left me even more unimpressed: not only is it just as generic as his initial form, but it's quite ungracious to boot. But when Pikipek's ultimate form appeared before my hopeful eyes, I had a total change of heart and fell in love with that form on the spot. Mean-looking Toucannon is just positively hilarious, with his giant colourful beak and evil eye; and I couldn't help but run to the Name Rater and change his name to "Big B". I had to! Toucannon is hands down one of my favourite final evolutions in Sun and Moon so far, and cruising Alola with him was an absolute delight.

Looks are all well and good, but how did Pikipek & evolutions fare when it comes to fighting? Well, that was the biggest surprise there and the reason for my newfound respect for his kind: this banal, innocuous Route 1 'Mon absolutely rocks on the battlefield. He's an absolute powerhouse, with perfectly balanced overall stats and an Attack Stat as high as the Everest. Interestingly, while Pikipek and middle evolution Trumbeak also boast really high Speed, the Speed Stat takes a dive when the ultimate evolutionary threshold is crossed, leaving Toucannon with a surprisingly poor Speed Stat. (This was not a hindrance in my solo run, though; by the time Toucannon took center stage, he was so ovelevelled that he still got to act first in 95% of fights.) Unlike his avian cousin Oricorio, Toucannon boasts a really neat and varied offensive Move pool brimming with Physical Moves that take full advantage of his sky-high Attack. Normal, Fighting, Flying, Grass, Fire, Steel, Bug, Rock Moves: you name them, the big-beaked bird can learn them and unleash them on the battlefield with style. For the record, my final Move pool comprised Toucannon's signature Move Beak Blast (Flying), Bullet Seed (Grass), Thief (Dark) and Brick Break (Fighting), and that Move quartet had me covered in pretty much all battle situations. Cherry on the cake, my Toucannon had the Keen Eye Ability, which meant no Accuracy reduction on the battlefield; and gosh, did this come in handy more than once.

So indeed, this was a great run that pulverized all my expectations regarding Route 1 'Mons. The next step is to tackle a Nuzlocke solo run that includes the rule "Fainting = Death & Release", because such a run could be wildly interesting as well: it could involve recruiting and training several 'Mons over the course of the run, which would allow me to cruise solo with unlikely solo run candidates. Now that I think of it, I don't even need to wait for my 'Mon to faint: I can decide beforehand to release my 'Mon at some point and continue my run with a freshly recuited 'Mon. Gosh, now I have even more ideas for potential Nuzlockey solo runs. A brand-new world of Pokemon goodness opened right in front of my eyes, and I'm going to enjoy it to the fullest. Not right now, though: after six Pokemon solo runs in a row, I need to take a break from the series in general and from Sun and Moon in particular. But I'll be back, and probably sooner than later: I still have to tackle a Popplio solo run, and I love Alola so much that I'll be drawn back to it eventually. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

20/03/2017

Tales of Phantasia: See you, so long, goodbye, hooray


Now's the time to reveal my feelings about Tales of Phantasia, and said feelings can be summed up in one short sentence: I love that game. I love it so much that it can claim the honour of being my favourite Tales entry so far. I love everything about that debut, from its retro aesthetics to its dreamy atmosphere, without forgetting its thrilling fighting system and unobstrusive story deliciously light on cutscenes. And the cast is by far the best I've seen on a Tales game: no whiny teenager, no hysterical loli, no overbearing big brother, but rather a dignified quartet intent on fulfilling a crucial mission. Sure, said crucial mission is by no means original, since we're talking about the meat and potatoes of all J-RPGs, i.e. Saving The Bloody World; but still, things are presented in a way that's pleasantly toned-down for a J-RPG and a Tales game  especially when compared to latter Tales entries and their distinctly hysterical storytelling.

So yes, I do love Tales of Phantasia. I love it so much that I would be hard-pressed to find a glaring flaw in that gem of a game; but if I had to nit-pick about something, that would probably be the fact that the random encounter rate is a trifle too high in dungeons and a trifle too low on the world map. I would have preferred to get either the opposite or a more balanced encounter rate overall  all the more so as dungeons are labyrinthine and bristling with puzzles, and it can be quite hard to keep track of what you're doing when you're interrupted every five seconds by a random battle. I could also mention the stiffness and slowness of the fighting system, which makes retaliation or escape impossible if you happen to be stuck in a bad pattern of enemies cornering and chain-hitting your team. But since it was a first try, I'll be lenient and forgive the fighting system's shortcomings, all the more so as it's quite efficient and entertaining overall.

I love Tales of Phantasia, I really do; and yet, I'm now dropping it after roughly 20 delightful hours of play. And the reason for this untimely defection is quite simple: I've had enough of it, in the most positive way possible. As a matter of fact, as far as my personal RPG clock is concerned, ToP should end right now, at the 20-or-so hour mark; this just feels like the perfect length for that game. Not only that, but I've explored the whole game world and I'm currently standing at the foot of the big baddie's castle, so now would be the absolute perfect time to wrap up that game. But we're talking about a Tales game there; and if my meagre experience in the Tales department is any indication, ToP simply cannot end in such an unfussy and straightforward way. There has to be a plot twist down the line, as well as a whole lot of detours and meanderings that will obviously involve backtracking. To confirm my growing suspicions that I was in fact far from being done with ToP, I checked an online walkthrough; and sure enough, it turned out that I had actually only cleared two thirds of the game. With that, my decision to quit was cemented, and I erased my save file to make sure that I wouldn't crawl back to the game in a moment of weakness. I'd rather stop playing while the game is still pleasant and restart a brand-new run if I feel the need to play it again; since I know what to do now, the early stages will flow faster and I can hopefully come considerably further, maybe all the way to the end of the game, before I start longing for closure.

Still, it amazes me to see that I always get that feeling that Tales games should wrap up and bid adieu around the 20-hour mark. In my opinion, these games seriously overstay their welcome and try to inflate their average play time by resorting to fake longevity tricks such as forced backtracking, time-sensitive side quests (which I never touch) and high random encounter rates in dungeons. The issue here is not the playing time per se  35 hours is a perfectly reasonable playing time for an RPG, and I've been pouring many more hours than that in many RPGs  but rather the fact that Tales games don't have the necessary resources to sustain such long playthroughs. They usually feature pretty small game worlds, which makes backtracking mandatory in order to stretch playing time beyond the 20-hour mark. Likewise, dungeons are quite tiny despite being mazy, so the random encounter rate must be cranked up to eleven to ensure that these dungeons last longer than five minutes. And last but not least, the fighting system is only skin-deep despite its steep learning curve. Once you've been mastering the art of positioning your characters and timing your attacks, you're pretty much set; and the only thing you'll need to learn afterwards are the resident foes' move and attack patterns and the range of your new Skills. Basically, what you do during your very first battle in the Forest of Spirits is what you'll do throughout the whole game, only with flashier and more potent Skills. I genuinely love ToP's unique brand of fighting; but for all the flashiness of its name, it's hard to deny that the "Linear Motion Battle System" is definitely not deep enough to provide 35 to 50 hours of continuous enjoyment.

And so I'm quitting Tales of Phantasia before it becomes stale and aggravating; but I'll probably come back to it one day, if only because I enjoyed it so much. That being said, I wonder if there is a Tales entry out there that lasts less than twenty hours; if such a game indeed exists, then I would gladly get my paws on it, because a Tales entry that doesn't overstay its time and keeps things nice and short would most certainly be a blast to play as far as I'm concerned. Feel free to fill me in in you know anything about the matter, dear fellow gamers. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

16/03/2017

Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle: A snapshot of 1990 portable gaming


Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle was my second Game Boy game and saved me from a frustrating diet of Tetris and Super Mario Land, two games I only marginally enjoyed. BBCC, on the other hand, turned out to be one of my favourite Game Boy games, and I played it extensively until third game Ducktales came into the picture. It goes without saying that I purchased BBCC solely because of its ties with the Looney Toons franchise, which was the cult classic cartoon series of my childhood; and being especially fond of ol' Bugs, any game that featured him as a hero was a must-buy. Little did I know at the time that the game had been designed with Roger Rabbit in mind and that my favourite carrot-munching rabbit was just a placeholder amongst many; but had I known it, it probably wouldn't have changed anything. Bugs Bunny as the star role or not, this game is one of my personal Game Boy cult classics; and after a whopping 25 years spent without touching it, I finally decided to play it again and see how it measured up to my pristine and perfect childhood memories.

Surprisingly, BBCC stood the test of time pretty well. I only wanted to clear a couple of levels before writing down a password and picking up the game later, but I find myself playing it for two hours straight without a shred of boredom, irritation or lassitude. Not only was playing BBCC genuinely fun, but it was also quite interesting from an historical point of view. BBCC was released in 1990, and it reflects faithfully the gaming trends of that very year; and yes, I'm zeroing on a single year there, because this was the time when the gaming industry took quantum leaps every passing year. And since BBCC was one of the very first Game Boy games, it also marks the beginning of dedicated portable gaming and is thus doubly fascinating.

So what does BBCC tell us about 1990 gaming in general and portable gaming in particular? Well, it first tells us that fake advertising was definitely a thing back in the days. It still is nowadays to some extent, obviously; but oh boy, is current fake advertising totally innocuous compared to its 1990 counterpart. See the cover art for that game? You have Bugs bouncing around with a milling mass of foes at his heels. That screams action, right? And the title! Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle: now that promises some insane gameplay, right? I mean, how can a game called like that, with a cover art like that and one of the looniest cast of characters ever created not be a frantic romp of epic proportions? Herm, maybe because the Game Boy wouldn't allow such a game to exist and run on its weak hardware? But nevermind that; fake advertising had to work its nasty magic on that game and make us believe we're purchasing an action-packed game when BBCC is anything but. Such underhand tricks were the meat and potatoes of gaming advertising back in the days, and that was probably a necessary evil; because let's be honest, no one would have purchased a game based on said game's real looks and performances. You really needed a whole lot of advertising polish to sell the dream and help people view games as more than just a bunch of crappy pixels.

Although BBCC is definitely not the frantic, action-packed game it masqueraded to be, it's still an excellent game with a really interesting gameplay. And that leads us to another characteristic of 1990 gaming, namely the fact that gaming genres and subgenres were not so finely determined back then. Nowadays, we tend to praise games that cross over genre boundaries and borrow gameplay elements from different genres; but such a thing was routine back then. Experimentation was the key word and developers were not afraid to try all sorts of new things; and that was all the truer in the burgeoning Game Boy scene, which provided the perfect terrain to tinker with gameplay formulas at a lower cost. BBCC's gameplay is a beautiful illustration of that open and daring state of mind. The game looks like a Platformer at first glance, but there is no jumping or platforming feat of any kind. It's not a pure Puzzle game either, because the presence of foes deadly to the touch and determined to have Bugs' hide creates some tension and trepidation that are usually absent from Puzzle games. I remember vividly that back in the days, BBCC was classified as a "Strategy" game, and maybe that's the aptest description for what is actually happening in that game. You're presented with a series of tableaux in which you must find a viable way to pick up all the carrots lying around while avoiding deadly enemies; isn't that the perfect embodiment of what "strategy" is about?

Then you have more random gameplay elements, such as the very pronounced Stealth flavour: more often that not, you have to avoid enemies and work your way around them rather than confront them. As a kid, I didn't perceive that Stealth dimension: I always went out of my way to eliminate as many foes as I could, making the game much harder than it needed to be in the process. I dare say that there is even a touch of Rogueliking in BBCC: the way you move Bugs around has a direct influence on the way enemy sprites move, and you can manipulate enemy movement to some extent. Starting a level by heading left can and will often have totally different consequences than starting the same level by heading right; and sometimes, heading in a certain direction at the beginning of a level is totally mandatory to clear said level, because it will set enemy movement a certain way and allow you to access areas that would be blocked by foes otherwise. Of course, like with so many games back in the days, it's hard to know if such a feature was fully intended by developers or if it was just the result of hardware limitations leading to programming oversights. That's the beauty of 1990 gaming: you could find ingenious ways to break games and relish in the thought that you were exploiting programming foibles to do things that were never planned by developers. We'll never know if Kemco actually wanted BBCC players to exploit enemy movement to their own benefit; but it works beautifully all the same.

When engrish ruled in games.
Last but not least comes the defining characteristic of 1990 gaming, especially in its burgeoning portable guise: while it took me several weeks to finish BBCC back in the days, the two hours I spent playing it a couple of days ago were enough to polish it off entirely. Indeed, 1990 games were short, and 1990 portable games were even shorter. While such games may have been considered poor investments, this was the norm back in the days, and everybody accepted it good-naturedly. Such paltry lengths would be unacceptable nowadays, in a gaming scene where even the meanest indie Platformer or Puzzle game packs more content than BBCC; and yet, I feel that short games are more rewarding than they may seem at first glance and should be granted a place in the current gaming landscape. Being able to polish off a game in one neat, clean go generates a feeling of completion and fulfillment that can't be emulated by longer games, no matter how tailored they are to short bursts of gameplay. I was deeply content when BBCC presented me with its final screen bristling with typos  another quirk of games of this era  and even somewhat relieved that I wouldn't have to pour more hours into the game. I'd like to get more of these gaming quickies in the current gaming scene, with the gentle price tags to match  all the more so as just like BBCC, such games tend to pack a lot of replay value.

All in all, replaying BBCC 25 years after I last touched it was a great experience: it aged surprisingly well and is still very much worth playing today. The gameplay is challenging and stimulating without being unnerving, and although the game is not soul-crushingly difficult, it still provides ample opportunity for some solid brain-racking. BBCC is also weirdly relaxing, a quality I would be tempted to attribute to its barebone, nearly abstract level-design: it's like we're dealing more with a bunch of symbols than with game sprites, and I found myself unusually focused and alert as I progressed through the levels. In fact, my focus only grew as I played, as if the game was acting as some kind of meditation device; and although I died and had to restart levels more than once, I never felt a shred of irritation or lassitude. Now I remember why I loved that game so very much back in the days and why I wasn't disappointed that it didn't sport an hectic gameplay: Super Mario Land did rile me up so much and so often than getting to play a game as relaxing as BBCC was like a breath of fresh air and a soothing balm on my gaming wounds. Although I decided to snatch BBCC primarily for nostalgia's and old days' sake, I'll definitely indulge in playing it again at some point; and I certainly encourage you to do so as well if you have the opportunity, dear fellow gamers if only for the sake of getting a taste of 1990's brand of gaming. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!