If you’ve heard anything about Cuphead, you’ve probably heard that it’s hard. And this is very much true. It’s a couple of hours of content that took me ten hours to beat – and that was without obsessing over the end-of-level rankings, which slap an exam-style grade on your performance. (Mine were mostly B+, which I guess would constitute a pass.) There are two difficulty settings available from the start: “Simple” and “Regular”. The former doesn’t make the game any easier; it just removes bits from it. The latter is the intended experience, and seems designed to break people’s spirits and controllers. There’s certainly nothing regular about it, and you should keep that in mind. Cuphead might not be for you. In fact, it probably won’t be.
All of this is intentional. Cuphead is a fusion of archaic animation and archaic game design. It blends the grainy, rhythmic animation of the 1930s and the simple but exacting demands of 2D side-scrolling shooters. It’s supposed to be hard; as a game comprised almost entirely of boss fights, it wouldn’t be worth playing if it wasn’t. But – and this is crucial – it’s almost always fair. Aside from a couple of late-game encounters that are crippled by an unreasonable amount of randomness, this is an experience that promotes learning by ensuring that success is always just there, a little out of reach, but only one more attempt away. Rarely is that true, of course, but the belief is all you need to keep playing.
Continue reading Review – Cuphead
There is no sound more terrifying, more nightmarish, than the countdown that signifies the final five seconds before Sonic the Hedgehog drowns. It has haunted gamers since 1991, when they first found themselves in the depths of the Labyrinth Zone; an underwater maze cleaved into the decaying ruins of an ancient civilisation, where glittering crystal stalactites hung from the ceiling and spears leapt from the stairs. Players loathed this level, still do to this day, which makes one wonder why Sega included such a level in every subsequent 2D Sonic game. The one in Sonic Mania is Hydrocity Zone, from Sonic 3, a better level set in a stone reservoir with an underground waterpark beneath it. But “better” is a relative term. That countdown hasn’t changed.
Since Sonic has become such a laughing stock, it can be difficult to believe that the blue hedgehog once rivalled Mario as the definitive video game mascot. This was in a gentler time, when video games were basically all 2D side-scrolling platformers, and the home console war was between Nintendo and Sega, and both companies only made games. But it was a time I grew up in. It was a time I adored. My childhood was 16-bit; Sonic’s games, as far as I was concerned, were masterpieces. Sonic Mania, then, is a game aimed directly at me, and at people like me, for whom the word “SEGA”, bellowed at a game’s start screen, had roughly the same impact as the words “I finished” might have to a twenty-something. Satisfaction. Pride. Bliss.
Continue reading Review – Sonic Mania
Another World is an old video game; a stiff, arthritic puzzle-platformer that’s stuck in its ways. It means well, but like everything else that gets old, it’s faintly offensive. It demands pixel-perfect precision and an almost preternatural sense of what’s around each corner. There’s no margin for error. The only way to learn what it wants is to fail to it, again and again, until you’ve both got the message. You both shout at each other a lot. It’s the video game equivalent of your grandma letting the batteries on her hearing aids die.
The elderly smell, they’re ignorant of the last 40-or-so years, and they’re probably racist, but sometimes you have to defer to their wisdom. Another World is like that. This might be a game that includes a new-fangled checkpoint system which records your position on the screen but often not your progress in the game, so you still have to backtrack and repeat things even if you’ve accomplished them and moved on already, but it’s also a game that has a profound sense of visual storytelling. If I were to reach out and pluck a word to describe it, that word might be “cinematic”, which is a surprise considering that Another World – like most of these remasterings of classic games – allows you to switch between the old graphics and the new paint job. To look at those smudges of pixels, thumb-swipes of colour in the vague shapes of people, you’d assume that the cinematic label wouldn’t apply. The whole thing feels too far removed from contemporary game design; much more reminiscent of really old, exclusively goal-oriented titles than something interested in telling a story.
Continue reading Completed #6 – Another World: 20th Anniversary Edition
[This post is part of the Completionist series. Check out the other entries here.]
Is there any genre of video game which ages as gracefully as fighters? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. Of course there isn’t. And you only need to play a game like Virtua Fighter 2, a rereleased (and slightly tweaked) version of Sega AM2’s arcade classic, for proof of that. It isn’t just the shock of seeing a game released in 1994 look and animate so smoothly over twenty years later, although that’s certainly a part of it. More impressive is how satisfyingly deep and complex the game still feels; as much, if not more so, than any contemporary genre fare. For once, it has nothing to do with achievements (for the record they are very easy here, which is a good incentive to check it out, though you should really do that for the game’s own merits) and everything to do with history.
Continue reading Completionist – Virtua Fighter 2
[This post is part of the Completionist series. Check out the other entries here.]
New Rally-X is, technically, a racing game. It’s difficult to tell, although admittedly New Rally-X was originally released in 1981, when games very rarely bore even a passing resemblance to whatever it was they were intended to represent. But it’s definitely a racing game. In it, players steer a pixelated little buggy around a series of mazes, collecting flags and, hopefully, avoiding dead ends, clods of dirt and rival kamikaze drivers. It’s honestly horrible.
I’d love to blame the rampant badness of New Rally-X on the arcade era, which featured a lot of incredibly basic single-concept games that were designed specifically to part players from their loose change. But I can’t. Namco-Bandai re-released a whole bunch of these titles to pad out the Xbox Live Arcade library while the Xbox 360 was still in its infancy, and alongside even those games, New Rally-X is a piece of shit. It’s a dull procession of gaudy, retina-searing maps that are fundamentally uninteresting and never develop in any meaningful way. Even the central flag-collecting concept, which isn’t bad in itself, is undermined by atrociously loose controls and the mingod-numbing repetitiveness of the maps.
Continue reading Completionist – New Rally-X
Even though I said a large portion of what I have to say about Secret of Monkey Island, video game humour generally, and the benefit of re-releasing classic games in my review of the previous Special Edition, here’s some more of that stuff anyway. Because why not?
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge Special Edition (hereafter just Monkey Island 2, thanks very much) is a better remake of a better game. If you enjoyed the first one – in either its original or shiny, high-definition form – you’ll enjoy this even more. If you’d rather boil your own head than play a 90s-style point-and-click adventure… this probably won’t sway you. Yes, the game is better, but it’s better because the jokes are funnier and the puzzles make slightly more sense. The underlying format remains unchanged.
Continue reading Review – Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge Special Edition
Secret of Monkey Island was first released in October of 1990, a time when “adventure games” were still a real thing; the genre monopolised by the two warring monoliths of LucasArts and Sierra. I was a month old.
By the time adventure games had faded into relative obscurity during the latter half of that same decade, I, like most people, was so enamoured with the high-resolution art, CD-quality audio and three-dimensional game worlds of the home console scene that I considered everything which came before entirely obsolete. It took me half a decade to start considering that viewpoint potentially incorrect, and another half again to realize exactly how incorrect it truly was. That was when, twenty years after the game’s initial release, I sat down to play Secret of Monkey Island.
Continue reading Review – The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition