Saturday, October 27, 2012

#20: John Madden's Football

Madden! Madden!
Last week we had the fourth installment in possibly the most popular jRPG series of all time. Today we have the second installment in what is almost certainly the most popular sports franchise, at least in North America. (I think the FIFA series does pretty well also, but that's neither here nor there.)
I read some of the backstory behind the franchise and it's pretty interesting. A guy at EA wanted to make a football game in 1984 and went to John Madden for help. Madden insisted the game be awesome and wouldn't put his name on a title for 4 years until they came out with something he thought was realistic enough. It's nice to see someone's name in the title and actually find out they put in hard work and fought for having the game be good. (Unlike, say, Bill Laimbeer and his combat basketball.)
EA didn't have an NFL or NFLPA license for this game. And yet when I set up a game between San Francisco and Detroit I was told that San Fran has the best quarterback of all time. Also, Detroit loves to run the ball with their awesome running back. Hmm... Joe Montana and Barry Sanders? In the game there were no numbers or names or anything but it still seems like they were treading on the NFL's toes...

At any rate, I set about playing the game using the overpowered San Fran team against the truly terrible Detroit team. I found the game to be pretty hard because I couldn't figure out how to properly catch the stupid football. Kick-offs would sail over my head. Passes would appear to pass right through my players. I think I completed all of one pass in the first half, but it went for a touchdown because Jerry Rice is better than everyone on the Lions' defense put together.

Barry Sanders for -22 yards? Suck on that!
On defense I took my standard plan of 'call a blitz, control a guy not in the blitz and make him blitz too' and just charged at the quarterback. I got a safety out of it in the first half and forced a lot of negative yardage runs. I also gave up two passing plays for 136 yards total, but those are the chances you take. You'll notice all of the Lions points came in chunks of 6. 2 field goals? No. I blocked every extra point. The Lions blockers suck!

This game was missing tons of features I expect to exist in a football game now. No onside kick. No 2-point conversion. No way to catch the damn ball. (Ok, that's probably me being bad.) But compared to other games around the time this game is fantastic. Actually having a good playbook to call from is pretty sweet. You can call audibles. There's instant replay. There's a play-off mode. This game actually feels like coaching football. People can complain all they want about how the Madden franchise just sells the same game every year but they started out with a pretty good game and each iteration has made some marginal improvements. This game, without most of those improvements, is still an impressively good game.

Rating: A-

Saturday, October 20, 2012

#19: Final Fantasy II

For those who may not be aware I have a generic gaming blog which updates each weekday. One of the main topics covered there is a Final Fantasy marathon where I'm playing through all the games in order. Earlier this year I played through Final Fantasy IV and posted about it here.

Final Fantasy IV was released in the US as Final Fantasy II. Square hadn't ported the actual FFII or FFIII over to North America and figured it would be too confusing to jump from I to IV. Which was probably true at the time, but doesn't work out that way now. At any rate, I'm playing all North American SNES games so for the rest of this post I'm going to refer to the game as Final Fantasy II and only really talk about the game in the SNES cartridge.
A dark knight's life is full of regrets.
At any rate, I don't really have a strong desire to play again in full, but I'll play a little bit to get some screenshots. Instead I think I want to talk about the different parts of a game and compare Final Fantasy II to the 18 games I've covered so far.
Cecil is no Yzerman.
Plot - Well, most of the games in the early SNES days didn't have anything even vaguely resembling a plot. Final Fight had a kidnapped girl. Super Mario World had a kidnapped princess. ActRaiser had a reviving god plot going on. Drakkhen actually had a decent plot. Final Fantasy II blows them all away. Ancient evil coming back to life, an epic backstory, surprise lost brother... It absolutely takes the cake of every game played thus far

Character Development - Most of the games have no character development at all. Mario doesn't grow as a person during his game. The Chessmaster is good at chess? ActRaiser actually has a reasonable amount of character development among the NPCs manning your temples. It's actually pretty good. Final Fantasy II again blows them all away. You've got the dark knight who redeems himself and becomes a paladin. The ninja that has his parents brutally deformed by a mad scientist who grows as a person when he kills them. The young girl who gets sucked onto another plane where time flows faster. All the NPCs in Mysidia treat you differently at different parts of the game. The spoony bard and the old man. A love story. Pretty much every other game thus far has been an exercise in mechanics. FFII has actual characters in an actual story.
Graphics - Viewed through today's lens the graphics of all the games are mediocre to poor. Compared against each other FFII actually has pretty good graphics. It makes use of the mode 7 graphics to handle airship flight which is pretty sweet. I wouldn't say it has the best of the games I've played thus far (Super Mario World would get that call I think) but it's definitely above average.

Sound - Simply put, Nobuo Uematsu is awesome. Some of the games have had terrible sound (I'm looking at you, Chessmaster) but FFII has incredible music. Not just the music though! The sound just fits. Definitely the top of the pack.

Jump up! Jump up! And get down!
Gameplay - Well, FFII innovated substantially over previous Final Fantasy games. It's hard to really judge gameplay head to head against something like Final Fight, which is a completely different genre. But Final Fight was bad for a fighter and Final Fantasy II is good for an RPG.

Overall, I really can't complain about any aspect of Final Fantasy II at this point in the SNES timeline. It's a masterpiece.

Rating: S

Saturday, October 13, 2012

#18: Darius Twin

I popped in Darius Twin, a side-scrolling shooter where you have three lives, and went game over in less than a minute. I started a second game and went game over in less than a minute. I started a third game where I didn't try to kill things, just avoid them until I got some power-ups, and made it a little bit further. Then I started a fourth game where I cleared out two levels without dying once...

This game suffers from the problem many power-up based games suffer from. The level designers didn't seem to understand that the power of your ship was going to increase massively over time. So your ship without power-ups can't even kill the wimpiest enemy in one hit. Your ship with a bunch of power-ups is essentially invincible. I died once, costing me my powered up shield, and then died many times in succession to lose in short order. (The level had foreground overlays so I couldn't see the enemies coming until they were on top of me... Knowing where they spawn from now I could get through the level I'm sure, but I really don't want to.)
How is my score so high for only doing zone A, C, D?
Enemy design was interesting in that they were all giant fish. I liked that the game had 'auto-fire' turned on so I just needed to hold the shoot and missile buttons down instead of mashing them, but even that started hurting my hand. No other buttons did anything. So why didn't they just have my ship always auto-fire? I couldn't conceive of a reason to not be constantly shooting so there was no decision making involved...

It's like the 'run' button in RPGs. Initially you couldn't run at all. Then you had to equip an item and hold a button down to run. Then you had to hold a button down to run. Then you ran automatically and had to hold a button down to walk. I want games like this to have a 'stop shooting' button and otherwise just constantly shoot!

I actually don't think I'd played this game before. But it's pretty much a worse version of other shooters. It has the same lag when tons of stuff is going on. It has the same problems with bad difficulty design relative to expected power-ups. And it doesn't have any power-up customization like some of the better shooters (UN Squadron/Gradius III). It did have a level map where you didn't have to do every stage so there was some replayability there I guess.

Rating: C-

Saturday, October 6, 2012

#17: Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball

White men can fight?
After the awesomeness that was ActRaiser last week I find myself stuck with a game I was dreading. I don't like basketball. I don't know that combat would add much to a game of basketball. And I don't have a clue who Bill Laimbeer is so having his name in the title doesn't encourage me in any way.
One game only, please!
Apparently the game comes with a league you can save. This is actually interesting. If I wanted to keep playing I would totally go investigate what goes on in a league. But after having played twice I can safely say I've had my fill of combat basketball.

My first game ended 5-4 in the computer's favour. Yes, a basketball game with only 9 points scored between the two teams. It turns out the 'combat' part basically means you have a diving double-punch button that knocks down anyone you hit and gives you the ball if they have it. Combine that with making it almost impossible to pass the ball (you can't really tell where your teammates are from the mini-map and the AI for your friends is terrible) and you actually don't make very much progress. Basically you have two guys from each team punching themselves at the middle of the court.
After playing once and losing by one point I wanted revenge. I was going to play again, and I was going to win. Before doing so I decided to look up the controls on the internet since I couldn't seem to find a way to make any of the buttons do anything except for B. It turns out that's because they don't do anything. B is for passing, shooting, jumping, and attacking. Yes, on a controller with 6 easy to hit buttons they crammed everything into a single button. It's like playing a Commodore 64 game on a SNES. When you only have one button it's pretty cool to see different ways to use the button. When you have 6? Use them! You idiots!

At any rate I won the second game 18-17. I figured out a good way to score points... You see, after you score a basket the other team has to pass the ball out from under the basket. And the AI only brings those two players back. So you send one of your guys up to punch the received as soon as he gets the ball. Then you punch the guy who passed the ball. With them both down you get time to take one shot from close range. Turns out a lot of those shots go in. Of course, once I'd scored a bunch the computer started cheating and every one of his shots would go in. So I had a big lead at half time and then he started spawn camping my net after he scored just like I'd been doing. Except all his shots went in. Eventually I broke out (power-ups spawn on the field so you can actually escape containment if you get a run speed buff and a heat seeking missile) and managed to score a couple more times to win. Woo?

I have a feeling my brother rented this once as a kid and I'd then blocked it out of my mind. The characters seem familiar enough that I don't think this is new to me but I didn't remember just how terrible it was. Maybe it's better with another human? More likely we just keep punching each other at the middle of the court. This game is terrible and I can't recommend anyone ever play it. Now or when it came out.

Rating: F-