Sunday, February 19, 2012

Nothing beats a great boss fight

I've been writing a lot about video game boss fights this past week, and it got me thinking about some of my favorites.

The boss fight is one of my favorite game elements. Some argue that modern games don't need boss fights, that they are a relic of a bygone era (I'll be covering that issue very soon), but I love them.

Among my favorite boss fights of all time, is the Stage 6 Boss from Metal Storm for the NES.

I know many of you may be asking "Metal wha--?", so let's start there.

This game rules!

Metal Storm was released for the NES in 1991, and was developed and published by Irem (most famous for being the creators of the R-Type series).

Metal Storm is a side-scrolling action platformer with an interesting mechanic that lets you reverse the gravity at any time. This gravity-shift is very useful in helping you approach and fight enemies and also factors in very heavily with the game's puzzle-like elements (gravity-shifting can sometimes affect the environment around you).

To better get a sense of the gameplay, here's a video of me playing through the game's first level.

In addition to being a ton of fun, the game looks really great for an NES game!

Jumping ahead 5 levels brings us to the boss of the 6th level. Here's a video of the boss fight:

It's a quick fight, but it is tough! One the key elements of this fight is that if you touch either the floor or the ceiling - you instantly die. You have to continuously ride the machines (snowmobile engines?) that are circling the room to keep for touching either surface. This requires a combination of well timed jumps and even better timed gravity shifts.

I really like the fact that your ultimate goal is to destroy the only things that are keeping you safe! It's really fantastic when you think about it. The most important part of the fight is when all three machines turn red (meaning that they will destroyed with only one more hit), you have to very carefully plan out in which order you will destroy them. If you don't plan your attack carefully, you could be left with nothing to stand on and fall victim to the energy beams above and below.

A defining characteristic of this boss fight is that beating it relies heavily on both an understanding and a mastery of the game's mechanics (a signature trait of any truly great boss fight).

Boss fights are shining examples of game design expertise and ingenuity at their finest, and this one is no exception.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Game Music Jukebox #6

Game Music Jukebox has spent a lot of time in the past. Today, we'll listen to some more modern game music. Steel yourself, and prepare to die as we examine the music of Dark Souls.

Dark Souls is my choice for the best game of 2011. Everything about the game is top notch, including the music. While most of the music featured in Game Music Jukebox so far has been classic video game music, with a signature chiptune sound, this is a fully orchestrated soundtrack (featuring a performance by the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus) that effectively conveys the intensity and dark foreboding of the game.

One of Dark Souls' main highlights is it's boss fights. Earlier this week, I praised Batman: Arkham City for having a particularly cool and interesting boss encounter, and I stand by that. But if one were to select a game that overall features the best boss fights, then Dark Souls wins, hands down. Almost every boss fight in Dark Souls is a seemingly impossible encounter, until you are finally able to devise (and execute) an effective strategy.

This article is about music, so why am I talking about the bosses so much? Well, of the 23 tracks on the game's original soundtrack, 18 of them are boss themes. The soundtrack itself acts as proof of the importance of the game's bosses.

The soundtrack was primarily composed by Motoi Sakuraba. Looking over his past works, you can see a strong background in JRPG's (Star Ocean, the Tales series and Valkyrie Profile). The soundtrack was made available digitally to those who pre-ordered the Collector's Edition version of Dark Souls (which I definitely did!).

Firelink Shrine:

Let's start off light. This is one of the only area themes that you'll hear in the game. As this is the theme for the game's central hub area, Firelink Shrine, you'll hear it often. The safest area in the game, this is where you'll frequently come to rest and seek respite from the hoards of undead demons that seek to kill you at every step.

While not an intense theme, by any means, it is hardly relaxing. You can feel the despair, especially as you look around and see characters huddled around the bonfire, failed adventurers beaten by the dark world around them. This is where the desperate and downtrodden gather.

Also, my wife swears that she hears a little bit of Final Fantasy VII in this track.

Taurus Demon:

The Taurus Demon is the first real boss of the game (technically, there is a boss before during the tutorial level that you can stubbornly choose to fight without aid, if you so choose). This is likely the first true "wall" that players will encounter. If you're careful, and experienced, you may be able to get through the game's first area, Undead Burg, without any real difficulty. But then, you'll face the Taurus Demon.

The Taurus Demon introduces itself by leaping over a castle wall and charging straight at you. The Taurus Demon (like most every other boss in the game) is massive, and will likely make short work of you when you first meet it. Which is a shame, because you won't even get a chance to properly hear this beautiful and intense music.

Four Kings:

At a certain part of the game, you enter the Abyss... a lifeless void shrouded in complete darkness. There you meet the Four Kings. Once proud leaders, they gave in to the darkness and protect the Great Soul that gives them their power. Each of the Four Kings is a massive phantom of a warrior king that strikes at you from within the darkness of pitch black void.

This is one of the most intense battles in the game. If you are not efficient, not quick enough, you will have to face all Four Kings simultaneously. Each of the Four Kings arrives one-by-one at a timed interval, so it's as much a race against time as it is a fight against an opponent. The high energy and intensity of this theme effectively conveys the desperation and struggle.

Ornstein & Smough:

If the boss fights are a key feature of Dark Souls. Then the fight against Dragonslayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough is the MAIN EVENT! This folks, is a battle for the ages!

Taking place in the grand hall of the great castle of Anor Londo, this battles puts you up against two of the deadliest warriors in the entire game. I won't go into the specifics of the fight, too much. But this is a battle against two royal guards, which the music effectively communicates. It's also great that the music doesn't hold back the epicness either. A very fitting theme for the greatest battle that you'll (hopefully eventually) overcome in Dark Souls.

One of the most interesting things about the Dark Souls soundtrack is that, while it is an excellent soundtrack, I did not have any recollection of hearing the music during the game. The boss encounters are so intense and so engrossing, that at the time, I wasn't even properly experiencing the music. To really "hear" the music, I've had to sit back and listen to it outside of the context of the game. I did find, however, that on my second (and third) playthrough, I was much more comfortable and familiar with the dangers, and therefore could take in the music more easily.

Honestly, I'm not even sure if that's a good or a bad thing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I (heart) Great Design: Best Boss Fight of 2011

Disclaimer: possible (minor) Batman: Arkham City spoilers below

Last year was a great year for games. One of the best in recent memory, in fact. In this edition of I (heart) Great Design, I would like to write about one of my highlights from 2011: The Mr. Freeze boss fight from Batman: Arkham City.

The fight against Mr. Freeze is one of the standout moments in this absolutely stellar game. It's a sneaky, cat-and-mouse, head-to-head showdown that requires the use of almost every skill that you've learned and mastered up to that point in the game. As Batman, you have to sneak around Mr. Freeze's lab and continuously find new ways to take him by surprise. And you can use each tactic only once, because Mr. Freeze adapts his own strategies to protect himself against your attacks.

When the fight begins, Batman gets a rundown on Mr. Freeze's suit uploaded to him from his trusty Bat-computer. You get information on Mr. Freeze's twelve weaknesses. For example, because of the domed helmet that Freeze wears, he has a complete lack of peripheral vision. This allows you to easily sneak up behind him and land an unexpected blow. However, upon being hit from behind, Mr. Freeze activates a counter-measure that fires a stream of ice continuously out of the rear of his suit, so he can longer be attacked from behind.

Now you have to find another one of Freeze's weaknesses to exploit.

The whole sequence is a welcome change from the traditional boss fight (strike, strike, dodge. Dodge, strike, dodge. Honk, honk, brake!). It requires strategic planning and effective use of a wide arsenal of abilities. You even have to find clever uses for the bat-gadgets you've obtained up until that point.

This was a great segment of gaming goodness that was possible thanks to some great design.

Also, since it's Valentine's Day: a reminder to anyone playing Batman: Arkham City, don't forget to visit Calendar Man today!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Game Music Jukebox #5

Thanks to another reader request, let's take a look (and a listen) at the music from Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest for the SNES.

One of the most beloved series of games on the Super Nintendo, all three Donkey Kong Country games are very solid platformers that feature some of the best gameplay of the time (1994-1996). Each game has a great soundtrack, but DKC2 is most commonly referred to as the best.

The music for the Donkey Kong Country games was composed by David Wise, who composed the music for many games developed by Rare in the late 80's and early 90's. He is responsible for the music from many games, such as Battletoads, R.C. Pro-Am and Marble Madness (and many more).

DKC2 has a great soundtrack that covers a wide range of instruments and melodies that perfectly complement the wide range of areas featured in the game. Volcanoes, pirate ships, beehives, amusement parks and ice caverns all come to life with beautifully appropriate musical scores. Here's my personal selection of the best that DKC2 has to offer.

Flight of the Zinger:

This is the music that plays during the hive levels. You find yourself in the middle of a hive surrounded by giant hornets buzzing in every direction. You really don't belong here and you really don't want to be here. This music does an excellent job of capturing both the tension and the excitement of these levels. The track has a slow build and at about 30 seconds in, things get a little creepier before reaching greatness at the 1 minute mark. Things start to settle down and then it loops and we go on that wild ride again. Amazing!

Kaptain K. Rool:

I love boss music. I think it's always a shining moment in a game's soundtrack. Especially the Final Boss. This is the music that plays when you meet the final boss of DKC2: Kaptain K. Rool. The fight against Kaptain K. Rool is a marathon head-to-head brawl that is as difficult as it is climactic. You fight K. Rool in his flying airship high above his pirate island castle. This theme features a suitable "technological" sound, but you still get you fair share of horns that blast out a pirate theme (check it out at 0:33), just to remind you that K. Rool is, in fact, a dastardly pirate.

Stickerbrush Symphony:

This was the first theme that came to mind when I was asked to do a feature on this game. This is the highlight of this game's soundtrack. The longest piece of music in the game, it takes a while to get going, but the beauty of this track is utterly undeniable. This is one beautiful piece of music. This theme can be heard when venturing through the brambles; mazes of thorny bushes high in the sky.

This piece of music is powerful and introspective in a way that is usually reserved for the endings and credits sequences of games. This is definitely Mr. Wise's finest piece of work!


Stickerbrush Symphony (Remix):

A remix of Stickerbrush Symphony is featured in Super Smash Bros Brawl for the Wii. Working from pretty amazing source material, this is one of the best remixes I've ever heard, listen and enjoy!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

We need some REAL cross-platform gaming!

One of the most overlooked problems with this so-called "console war" that's constantly going on in the gaming industry, is the inability for friends and fans to "cross borders" and play together. This perpetual divide that keeps gamers in separate camps, with separate allegiances (PS3 vs. Xbox 360, specifically) also keeps them from being able to play together.

Firstly, I'll chime in with my personal opinion on this "console war":

The correct answer is always (and has always been): ALL OF THEM

Now, that doesn't apply to everyone. Not everyone can afford this solution, and I respect that. But the truth is, there is no platform that is superior to the others. They are all different, and each one offers something unique. If you want to really experience everything that makes gaming worthwhile, you have to own all of them. If you prefer a particular console, that's fine. Don't crap on someone else's preference. We need to stop this completely ridiculous flame-war.

< /rant-within-a-rant over >

Back to the topic at hand. Many gamers own only one of the gaming platforms (be it a PS3, Xbox 360, Wii or a PC). And there are many games that are released on many of those platforms (games that are released for both Xbox 360 and PS3 are quite common). My point is that there is no reason that these versions of the same game should not be able to interact with one-another.

I am a pretty big fan of fighting games. I love fighting games. Few things in life disappoint me as much as when I meet someone and discover that they share a love of fighting games as well, but they play on a different platform. I love me some Super Street Fighter IV, and recently I've met some other Street Fighter fans, and have faced a disappointing dead-end when they told me that they play online on Xbox LIVE (I prefer to play my SSFIV on a PS3). This is an alarmingly common experience that keeps happening to me. Fighting games, racing games, I play on PS3, they play on Xbox 360, I play on Xbox 360, they play on PS3... it never ends.

There is no reason to split a game's online community between two platforms. Everyone who plays Street Fighter online, should be able to play with anyone else who plays Street Fighter online (PC included, of course).

Of course, this is my wishful thinking. There are many business-related reasons to oppose this. For different versions of the game to interact, they must of course, be identical. Meaning, that no version of the game can feature any unique elements (obviously, the Xbox 360 version would not be able to have a character that is not in the PS3 version). If neither version can be promoted as better than the other, then how can the console manufacturers convince people to buy their version?

But I disagree with this way of thinking. I believe that developers and publishers owe it to gamers to let them play together. Besides, there are many other reasons for a player to prefer one platform over another: the shape and feel of a controller, for one.

I'm tired of only being able to play with half of my friends (and no, buying the game twice is not a solution in my eyes). C'mon developers! Publishers! Let's do our jobs and get people playing together!

It would be the first step in ending this tiresome "console war".

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My greatest influence

I've been asked "What game made you want to start making your own games?" before. And it's a very good question. After much introspection, I've traced back my love of gaming to a single game that first made me think "I want to make these". That game is Pitfall II: Lost Caverns.

Pitfall II Atari 2600 cartridge

Let me begin by saying that I started playing games in the early 80's. The first games I played were games like Defender, Asteroids, Missile Command and Pac-Man. Even as a young boy, I loved these games but realized that they were all just endless exercises in reflexes that continued until you ran out of lives and your reward was a score. You played and played to achieve higher and higher scores. That was fun, but I felt like I needed something "more".

I remembered when I first played Pitfall! on the Atari 2600... Released a few years before Super Mario Bros., it's the game that introduced me to the side-scrolling platformer (my favorite genre of game). Featuring great gameplay moments like swinging on vines, and jumping on crocodile heads to cross ponds, it was a lot of fun. The only problem with the game, was that, although it wasn't a sci-fi shooter (like many of the other games of the time) it was still just an infinitely long game that continued forever until you ran out of lives. Your goal was still ultimately to just get the highest score possible.

Then one day, I found Pitfall II. Which, incidentally, was the first game sequel I had ever encountered. I noticed that the game played similarly to Pitfall!, but it seemed to feature a larger, more coherent world, not just a single horizontal path. You could descend into caverns and swim in subterranean lakes. But, what I soon discovered, and the thing that changed me forever... the game had an ending.

That "guy" is actually Pitfall Harry's pet mountain lion, Quickclaw

While simple by today's standards, Pitfall II had a narrative (presented entirely in the instruction manual) and a goal: you have to save Rhonda (Pitfall Harry's niece), save Quickclaw (Pitfall Harry's pet mountain lion) and find a priceless Diamond Ring. When you achieve those three objectives, the game ends and you win. The concept of "completing" a game blew my childhood mind!

Suddenly, I realized that videogames weren't just a "toy" or a simple diversion, they were a way of presenting a story. Just like a movie, you could create characters and worlds, only you could let the player experience a story, on their own. I had instantly discovered my greatest passion in life.

That was the exact moment that I knew I wanted to make games.

To any fellow developers out there, what are your biggest influences? Or anyone who just loves games, what game turned you into a lover of games? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A great place for fond memories

I recently came upon a great tumblr blog, called Mapstalgia.

Mapstalgia is a collection of hand-drawn maps of video game areas and locations. It's a really great nostalgic trip and the blog has a really great sense of community. All maps are user-submitted and allow for people to offer feedback and comments. These maps are really great conversation starters for old-school gamers.

The mantra of Mapstalgia is "Video game maps drawn from memory". The from memory part is very important. The charm of these maps is in their details, and especially in their flaws. This site is so cool, because it is all about memories.

If you're in the mood for having you mind blown, then I suggest checking out this post in which someone mapped out all of Half-Life from memory.

I was so inspired by Mapstalgia, that I even created and submitted my own map. With a submission, they ask you to include a little write-up, about the game and also about why you made it and what it was like (what did you remember, what couldn't you remember, etc). Hopefully, it'll appear on there soon, but in the meantime, here's a preview:

C-Island from Startopics (by Jason Canam age: 30)

When you have some spare time, check out Mapstalgia, and browse through all of the maps. They're nicely organized by game, by genre and by platform. Hopefully, it'll stir up some fond memories, and you'll be inspired to contribute something, too.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Game Music Jukebox #4

It's time for a second round of Super Mario RPG music!

Last time, I focused on the music that accompanied the battle sequences in the game. This time around, I'll feature the music that gave life to the different areas of the game. These are the pieces of music that really give the game character. Each theme below perfectly describes the area in which you hear it.

Mushroom Kingdom:

Ah, the mushroom kingdom, the home Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and the Toads. In Super Mario RPG, the mushroom kingdom is a home to a castle-town inhabited entirely by the toads. This theme has a very regal sound to it, especially when it "kicks in" at about the 0:46 mark.

Booster Tower:

To understand this particular piece of music, you really have to know Booster.

This is Booster:

Booster is a fan-favorite

Booster the Seventh is a wealthy lord who lives in a tower with his minions and his toys. He has the mind of a child, kidnaps Princess Peach because he likes how she smells, and then decides to marry her when he learns that there's cake involved (Also, the cake is a boss fight -- how awesome is that?). Simply put, Booster is awesome.

As Mario works his way through Booster's tower, he encounters toy trains, cannons, fighting marionettes, and he even has a daydream wherein he remembers what it was like when he was a blocky 8-bit character (a hilarious segment that is sadly far too short). Booster's theme is a rockin', weird piece of music that fits this off-the-wall part of the game, perfectly.

Forest Maze:

This is a fantastically haunting and atmospheric song. It really evokes the feeling of a creepy, poison-mushroom-filled forest. I've heard this song re-used, remixed and re-purposed more than any other song from this game's soundtrack. And I know more than a few people who count this as one of their favorite game songs, ever.


Ending Parade:

This is the music that plays during the game's ending credits. It's a great medley of themes from the game (you'll undoubtedly hear a bit of the mushroom kingdom in it). I'm a big fan of "ending" music, and this is one of the best. It's a great 6-minute song that closes the game in fine style!

Next time, another request. The music of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Game Music Jukebox #3

This is my first reader-requested entry of Game Music Jukebox. Last post, I got a request to do an entry on the music of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. So here, goes!

This game is awesome!

The only problem is that Super Mario RPG has a huge soundtrack, that is far too awesome to contain within the confines of a single entry. So, I'm going to present the music of Super Mario RPG as two separate entries: the first one highlighting a few of the different battle themes, and a second one for area and event themes.

So, here are a few choice tracks from the battle scenarios of Super Mario RPG.

But first, a little background info. The music of Super Mario RPG was composed by Yoko Shimomura, who before, had composed some of the music for Street Fighter II (a classic game soundtrack!). The game itself was a co-production between Nintendo and Square (of Final Fantasy fame).

The game came out near the very end of the Super Nintendo's life-cycle (The Nintendo 64 was released about 6 months after this game). What this meant was that composers had had years to master the nuances of the SNES's sound capabilities (some of the SNES's best soundtracks come from games released between 1994 and 1996). The game is a fairly lighthearted RPG-Adventure, and the music suits the game very well.

Battle Theme:

It's a good thing that this is one catchy tune, because you hear it about 500 times throughout the game. I have fond memories of renting this game and playing it with my brother and my cousin, and we would all be humming along to this tune. The series of percussion beats that signal the loop (at 0:29) is my favorite part of this piece.

Boss Theme:

This theme let's you know that things get serious. This music plays when you encounter a strong opponent - a boss character. It carries a more sinister tone than most of the other tracks in the soundtrack, but doesn't stray too far from the lighthearted theme of the game. This is one of my personal favorite pieces of music in the entire game. It has a really nice gradual build that reaches it's peak just before the loop. It's really great!

Smithy Battle:

Smithy is the main villain of the game. He is a being from another dimension who creates armies machines and weapons (living swords and cannons) to take over the mushroom kingdom. This is the music that plays when you encounter Smithy at the very end of the game. I think it's a very industrious and mechanical theme, which suits the character very well. You also get a nice sense of urgency from it, letting you know that everything is on the line with this fight.


Battle against Culex:

Final Fantasy Veterans will immediately recognize this music as the boss theme from Final Fantasy IV (released as Final Fantasy II in North America). This track was composed by master composer, Nobuo Uematsu, who is the composer of the Final Fantasy series of games - some of the most recognizable and most beautiful video game related compositions of all time (more on that subject at a later date).

That's it for the Super Mario RPG battle music. Next time, even more Super Mario RPG music!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

My Gaming Log: January 2012

One month in, I'm proud to announce that my New Year's resolution to log all of my gaming is my most successful New Year's resolution ever! Granted, it's a really easy one to stick to. But nevermind that.

With January done, I now have a complete record of everything I've played last month.

Click for a larger view

First thing you may notice is that I maintain a healthy diet of both new and retro games (a gamer cannot live on current-gen alone). The amount of Gameboy Advance games is a direct result of the Gameboy Micro I got as a Christmas gift (which was especially great because it completed my Gameboy collection). I have a pretty long daily commute (anywhere from 2-3 hours per day spent commuting on the train) and portable gaming really helps pass the time.

Some of the more notable accomplishments from this month:
  • Jan 3rd: Platinum Trophy: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
  • Jan 14th: Played some Kinect games for the first time
  • Jan 29th: Platinum Trophy: Dark Souls
I also finished Uncharted 3's single player campaign, and am getting knee-deep into the multiplayer. So Uncharted 3 will definitely keep appearing on these logs for a few months.

Finally, on the 31st, I tried the long-awaited Twisted Metal demo.

All in all, a pretty good start to the year.