StarTropics

Old school post.

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I died a lot here.

I remember being a kid and going to the local corner store and renting this game.

In point of fact, I remember renting it numerous times as 3 days wasn’t enough to clear it.  The boss in the picture above was the first time I learned to think outside the box in gaming.  There was this item, a rod, which made ghosts appear.  You could not get through this level without the rod.  As the game was rented, it didn’t have an instruction manual and actually using the rod was a mystery.  It took a day to figure it out, and I finally cleared the boss.

Now I’m giving it a shot on my Pi and the game is a pile easier than it was before.  Save states certainly help with that, as the controls are still rather unforgiving and there are spots where lack of input, or taking the wrong path is just plain death.  I can remember the frustration all those years ago of a screen filled with fireballs and having to jump on the exact right spot to move on.  Very annoying.

To top it off, StarTropics is renowned for one more thing – a code within the instruction booklet.  At one point, you get an in-game message that says something like “Remember to dip my letter in water”.  Well, the instruction book came with a small letter, and if you did dip it in water, then you had a code appear.  This code (747) was used to progress in the game.  Without it, you needed to bruteforce the way through.  I think this was the last time I saw this type of DRM used.

Anyhoot, back to the game.  You’re a young guy, armed with a yo-yo, exploring islands and dungeons, killing bats, snakes, minotaurs and finally aliens, all on your way to find your uncle.  The plot is actually pretty good, considering some of the stuff on the NES.  The controls are directional, with no diagonal movement, making some sections quite difficult.  There are various alternate weapons, like a bolo, or a baseball bat.  Enemies have patterns, you have life points, bosses are tough as nails.

It’s a hard game, but one that requires planning versus twitch movement.  With only a few places as exceptions, you can always see what’s coming ahead, and a quick pause can lay out the enemies to plan the attack. The largest issue is the lack of diagonal movement, which the sequel gets rid of (but introduces other quirks).

I have fond memories of the game and it’s certainly longer than I remember.  I thought perhaps I had rose colored glasses here, but StarTropics does a really solid job of holding true over time.  Well worth the trip down memory lane.

Writer’s Block

Plenty of ideas rummaging through my head but I’m finding it really difficult to put virtual pen to paper.  I am reading a lot of blogs mind you, and everyone seems to have something interesting going on.

Games

Kids are enjoying the Retropie.  There are nearly 2000 games on it right now, and browsing through the selection is a pain.  How do you pick one of 700 NES games?  So my kids found 1942, if only because it’s alphabetical. They also like Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World (an oddly difficult game compared to memory) and PacMan.

I’ve played a bit of StarTropics, DKC, Illusion of Gaia, TMNT4…dabbing around here and there.

We also played  a fair amount of Lego Star Wars Force Awakens together.  The game feels like some quantifiable progress in the genre.  I won’t hit 100% because, why?  96% has unlocked everything of merit.

Aside from computer games, we’ve played a lot of Ticket to Ride:Europe (kid mod: remove destination tickets) and Fire Rescue (play family mode).  TtR:E can be played with 2 players, but like Monopoly, it’s more fun the longer you wait between turns.  Long-played strategies are easy with 2 folks, but I can see them being derailed (yeah, I did that) with more players.

Fire Rescue is an interesting beast.  I’ve never lost family mode, or really come that close.  Hard mode, the closest to a win is missing my 1 marker.  I don’t think it’s doable with 2 players, and even with 3 requires a tremendous amount of coordination.  Lots of fun.

Both games are recommended for family play, and I have a 4 and 6 year old.

Other

I built an ice rink in the backyard.  Weather hasn’t been terribly helpful.  Kids enjoy it and have seen dramatic improvements in just a few days of use.

I’m working on an interesting project now that should dramatically change the way that the Canadian government does mobile work.  Finally catching up to the rest of industry.  It’s a project that will impact about 400,000 people, so there’s some kick in the risk/reward facet here.

Health-wise, I didn’t really make any new year resolutions.  I’m finding it very hard to play hockey multiple times a week and continue to strength train.  I’m at the strongest yet, and my legs have grown a fair amount.  Heck, I need to buy new weight plates.  I also need to re-jig my nutrition – I can feel something is off, so time to strip away and go back to basics.  I should be down to high school weight by the spring.

All of that to say that I am realizing that I need goals to function.  I do not do well by just fluttering in the wind.  I have, both luckily and not, achieved a fair set of my goals much earlier than I had anticipated.  Some of which I didn’t expect for many years.  I need to sit down with my better half and do a rejiggering.  Adulting, here I come!

My Own Emulator

Ok, maybe not my own.  It’s a gift for the kids for Christmas.  My eldest played a bit of the SNES at our friend’s place a few weeks ago, and her face was something to behold.  I want to see how that works out.

Ever since I’ve had a computer, I’ve had emulators.  I modded my XBOX way back when to include an emulator.  My tablet has a SNES and PS emulator… It’s the way to go.  I’ve owned a lot of consoles and games, and having them all accessible makes a world of difference.  Having the save battery die in an NES game…or SNES game for that matter… not fun.  Doesn’t happen with an emulator.

So for this project, I wanted to build something with controllers that my kids could enjoy.  It had to be relatively mobile to transport, and it had to be relatively cheap.  So either a cheap tablet with a mini-HDMI and bluetooth controllers, or…RetroPie

I went the latter.  I started hunting on amazon for a new Raspberry Pi, but remembered that I am cheap.  I was also looking for controllers… again, cheap.  I then remembered that I had a Pi running a Minecraft server and that the entire thing was based on a microSD card.  Off to the store.

Found a 32GB Class 10 card for $12 and two F310 controllers (USB) for $18 a piece.  So all told, less than $50 for all the gear.

The RetroPie config process is almost a joke.  Download a file, load an image, transfer to the card, done.  I think it took 20 minutes to complete all the steps.

A couple quick searched and I had Atari, NES, and SNES games ready to go.  That was about another 30 minutes of work.  Transferring them through SAMBA requires no extra software either.  Even the boot up was a simple thing, as it detects the controllers and let’s you map button presses.  I hooked it up to wifi (needed a USB keyboard for that) and bob’s your uncle.  Even my wife was impressed and took a seat to watch.

Adventure Island, Yar’s Revenge, Super Mario World…my youth in a tiny box.  More specifically, my youth on a microSD card no bigger than a fingernail.

All that’s left to do is wrap up the package and let them unwrap it.  Then a couple plugs and we’re good to go.  I realize I have lofty expectations here, and that compared to today’s gaming options emulators seem ancient.  Still, there’s something to be said about a gaming system with a joytiq, one button, 16 colors and giant blocks and nothing but your imagination.

South Park – Stick of Truth

Clearing up the Steam backlog and South Park is on the list.  I used to watch it fairly regularly but I cut cable a few years ago and haven’t really paid much attention since.  I had heard good things about the game, and obviously it was at a good price.

The game certainly takes the source material to heart.  It’s voiced with all the same folks as the TV show, the art is the same, the story is full of the same with, sarcasm and black humour.  It really feels like an 8 hour episode, and I’ll touch on that in a bit.

The game is RPG, all the way.  Classes (all very similar in effect), melee and ranged weapons, 3 armor slots, customizations for that gear, HP/MP and special powers.  Very generic and trope-like items, but with a South Park twist.  You’re as likely to find a giant dildo as you are a shovel.  Max level is 15, and that should be easy enough to reach by the end of the game.  There’s enough tinkering here to make you feel like you’re specializing in a particular type of role.  I personally prefer to stack the Bleed effect, as everyone appears vulnerable and it deals a lot of damage over time.

Combat is very similar to Paper Mario.  Turn-based, with you getting 1 accessory skill and one attack per round.  Press a button in the middle of an animation to deal more damage, or defend for more.  Nearly all fights are against multiple opponents, even a few boss fights.  You get to team up with 1 of 6 possible NPCs to help fight.  I liked Butters, Stan and Cartman, once they became available.  Stun an enemy in the overworld, and they show up stunned when the fight starts.  It’s fun to find the little links between the various skills and effects, which can make combat either very simple, or quite complicated.

The world itself is well done, with plenty of side quests to undertake. Each area has sub-areas, often locked behind story progress to attain a new skill.  Shrinking, anal probes, shooting, or one of 4 types of magical farts.  It sounds dumb, but when you’re playing it makes sense.

Without spoiling the story too much, there are clear acts within the game.  The town, sewers, Canada, a spaceship, school, a tower…and your own home.  This last one, well, it’s worth playing just for this 15 minute section of the game.  The battle with the Gnome Warlock is the most unique boss fight I have ever played.  Just don’t play with the sound up too high, or without headphones.

The final battle is reminiscent of FF’s model of multiple end bosses, with twists.  It works, not because of the mechanics, but because of how absurd the entire thing plays out.  When I completed it, I felt as if I had accomplished something, that the story had seen an end, and that in some way, it made sense.

There are certainly weaknesses here, though it’s hard to tell if they are on purpose or not.  The Girls recruitment quest exemplifies that issue.  Repetition is a little strong in some areas, where it feel more of a grind than it should be.  But then you get a quip from a character stating just that, and it gets too meta.  Some skill balance issues remain, where massive AE attacks and status ailments are just way too powerful compared to other choices, and the last skill for each class just changes the game – again, this is likely done on purpose.

If you play this as a straight RPG, then you’re gonna have a bad time.  If you play it as an interactive TV episode, then you’re likely going to find it too much of a grind.  Instead, it finds a solid ground between both.  It’s certainly made my top 10 RPG list.

 

 

Irony Had a Baby

Ok, less gaming related today.

Two interesting stories to mention.  First, that Republicans are feeling targeted on college campuses (NYTimes) and second, that the CIA is complaining that a foreign government had a direct hand in a democratic election (all over but this one from WSJ).

Reading both, it feels like the Onion no longer has any relevant material to write about and that I need to pay double attention to see if an article is real or a joke.

 

My friends and family can certainly attest that I am far from a bleeding heart when it comes to society.  I am a firm believer that people have way more control over their lives than they think they do, and that the wide majority of actions and reactions are based on their direct input.  I would say that I swing left as compared to my elder generation, center when it comes to mine, and right when it comes to the younger one.

That’s not to say that the system isn’t rigged against them.  You need the chips to play poker, and the collateral to call a bluff.  Very few people on this planet have that.  I am more than aware that I live in the upper echelons of my country and as compared to the world wealth, I’m in the 0.10%.  Minimum wage in Canada would put that person at 3% globally, which is just about our country’s poverty line.

Money is not a cycle, it doesn’t trickle down.  Its distribution curve goes only one way.  It’s entirely reasonable that someone who tries hard, puts in the hours and effort and loses their job because of factors outside their control would be resentful when they lose their job and their boss gets a raise.  (Reminds me a bit of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where all middle managers are sent away on a space ship to colonize Earth).

I get that when someone gets a bum deal, they start thinking about Maslow’s pyramid.  If you have no personal safety, or for those you care for, then it is not possible to be empathetic to others.  People feel isolated and alone.  They make rash decisions that are shortsighted and emotional.  I can assure you that I’ve been in that boat, longer than I care to admit.  Managing change takes energy, and energy is scarce when you’re just scraping by.

Society then breaks into smaller groups, where sameness is key and threats are diminished.  Individuality is washed away, replaced with group-think.  Uniqueness, the underlying quality of each of us, is squashed. 2 people become 3, become 5, become 100.  Mob mentality, where a sense of accountability is lost, but belonging is strengthened.  You end up with Occupy Wall Street, just a rash cry for attention without any goals.

People are not rational by default.  We are emotional creatures that need stability, caring and purpose.  It is remarkable how easy it is to lose all 3, for the fall is quick  is from up high, and we forget the people that surround us when it happens.

 

It’s just unfortunate that empathy is so difficult to achieve unless someone experiences the same events as another.  Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes has never been more apt.

Deus Ex – Mankind Divided

TLDR: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a bigger version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution – without the horrible boss fights.

Seriously.

There is more here that didn’t change than did, or at least that’s what it appears to be.  Hacking is here, identical to before (like lockpicking for the past 10 years in Bethesda games).  Shooting, stealth, jumping up, punching walls, turrets, sentries, alarms, vents, picking up boxes, pocket journals, PRAXIS, stealth, CASSIE (for influencing conversations).  All of it – pretty much identical to last time.  There are new augments to use, but aside from remote hacking, none seem to have any real dramatic impact on gameplay – unless you want to go Rambo that is.

What has changed is the scope.  Where the previous game felt like chapters in a story, now you’re in a large hub (split by subway trips that take way too long), and run around finding new side quests and leaving to other zones for the main quest.  The maps feel bigger, and much more vertical than before.  There are at least 2 paths, if not more, to each goal.  It makes the non-combat aspects much more appealing because you know that there’s a way, you just need to find it.

RPG Growth

Simply put, it is not possible to play this game at level 1 and complete it without combat.  Going the combat route is a challenge, since anything other than a head shot means you need to empty a full clip.  And nearly every room has 2-3 enemies, and another 2-3 around the corner.  It takes about 4-5 solid shots and you’ll keel over.  So you need to invest points to get stronger.

I’ve personally found this as a weakness in the games, in that the foundational elements are so poor, that you need to pick a customization from the get-go.  Unless you want to ignore more than half of the game, you need to invest in hacking above nearly everything else.  CASSIE, the system that lets you detect human reactions in conversations, is the only way to get through some areas without shooting a gun.  Need that.   Rebreather so you don’t die in the numerous poisoned alleyways – need that too.  Actual power levels to be able to knock out more than 1 enemy per 30 seconds – need that.

It makes it feel more like the old WoW talent trees, where everyone has to take the same talents and the true customization is two or three real choices.

What usually ends up happening is that I judge an encounter and look for alternate routes.  Oh, this one needs me to jump 3m?  Get that upgrade.  I need to hack level 5 terminals?  Get that.  Punch through a wall?  Get that.  I am never taking talents because they sound cool, or expand the game.  I am taking them because I need them to progress, making them not a choice at all.

Quests

Maybe it’s just the timing, but the overall themes of oppression because of differences seems to hit the mark just right.  You play as one of the oppressed, working for the oppressors, trying to figure out who is black/white/grey in the whole mess.  It generally works, but the limited (almost binary) dialogue choices stiffle any creativity.  After having played Tyranny, I miss the opportunity to take a different approach to a conversation.

Sure, some people may live or die, but I end up at the same spot regardless.

The writing is good, the voice acting solid, the themes are relateable.  That part is fine.  It’s the investment in choice and character that’s missing.

Combat

It’s a thousand times better than before, but that’s like comparing a generic brand of cracker to a brand name.  It’s not a hard hurdle to pass.

Stealth

This part works, and it works well.  Enemies see you from farther and come searching in smart places.  They look down more than up, which is logical.  It’s entirely possible to sneak through a giant complex of a hundred enemies and never need to touch a single one.

It honestly feels as it the entire game is based on this single premise.  How can we get Jensen from A to B, acting as a ghost.  It takes thinking and coordination.  You can throw a box to distract a guard, turn off cameras, put them to sleep, punch holes in walls to bypass sections… it all works and works well.

And that’s really it, isn’t it?   A really good stealth game, with a myriad of tools that serve little to no other purpose than to move the story forward.  I find no joy in doing anything but the stealth aspects.  After hacking the 10th computer in the same room, why do I need to prove I can do it again?  Why do I need to shoot 20 people to open a door to have a talk with someone?  Why do I need to sit in a subway loading screen for 2 minutes in order to walk into an apartment for the quest to complete?

For all the work done here, this game is a rather large disappointment.  If fixes nearly all of the issues I had with the previous game, but it replicates the stale gameplay even further.  The stealth portions are incredible and only Dishonored really comes out above.  It’s too bad, since there’s so much potential here…

 

Arkham Knight Complete

I had started it a few months ago, on sale naturally, and drifted away at the halfyway marker.  Batman fatigue perhaps.  After playing through Tomb Raider, the itch came back, since the controls are quite similar.

I will say that the game mechanics are better here than in any other game previous.  The combat flows better, the gadgets are smoother, enemies are more diverse.  FF13s “Press A” this is not.  There’s a very strange difficulty curve here in that the mid-point is absolutely more challenging than the tail, solely because of upgrades.

And that gets me to the Disruptor. See, Batman isn’t bullet proof, or stun proof, or knife proof.  All those things hurt, a lot.  The Disruptor prevents enemies from firing guns, restocking, reviving and a few other things.  It essentially turns them into target dummies.  So the game ends up having 2 phases, before the ugpraded Disruptor, and after.

Two of the side missions are to take down enemy fortifications.  These have sensors that shoot if they detect you, small and giant sentry guns, enemies packing more than Rambo, and usually only 1 way in.  They are the dragons of AK, that cannot be defeated until you get the holy sword.  I’m pretty sure this is the reason I stopped playing, now that I think of it.

I like challenges, more specifically I like puzzles.  It is very satisfying to play a stealth event, picking off enemies around corners, using gadgets to distract and disarm.  There’s a logical end.  Combat challenges are more like button mashing fighting games.  I played a lot of them when I was younger, and you needed tight controls and reflexes to make it work.  Batman controls are not agile, they are brunt and blunt.  So throw me in a ring with 10 enemies who can all shoot me, odds are I’m going to die.

So I move forward with the story, unlock more gizmos and then come back.  The combat challenge suddenly becomes a puzzle.  1-2 tries and it’s done.  Odd that.

Tanks But No Tanks

I like the concept of the Batmobile, I do not favor its execution.  Moving, transporting, puzzles – that works.  Me vs 50 other tanks, that doesn’t.  There is one side mission, and one of the main missions that puts you in this combat scenario.  Again, upgrades make a massive difference.  I much preferred the AI hack to take over the big tanks and get allies.  Without a fully upgraded car, some of these would not be possible.  Heck, two of the main boss fights are in tank-mode, and I needed to cheese line of sight to finish them off.

And yeah, let’s believe that Batman, shooting a cannon, is “not killing anyone”.  OK.

Joker’s End

Spoiler I guess?  Well, he’s dead in the last game, less dead here.  It’s a neat effect to have him part of you, adding color commentary throughout.  The final portion makes little sense in terms of gameplay (all of a sudden you’re playing an FPS), but thematically it’s a neat closure.

The game ends as I fully expected it to.  As all Batman series do.  It is so strange that Batman is the only superhero that cannot continue to be a hero and let the public know his identity.  You think that if people figured out Supes was Clark, that all of a sudden he’d leave the planet?  Miller did it first, and it made sense in that context.  Nolan did it, and it made no sense.  It’s done here and makes less sense.

Riddler Can Jump Off a Bridge

Who completes them all?  I mean that seriously.  Who in their right mind wants to explore every nook and cranny.  Who wants to fiddle with the wonky physics engine to make the ball fall just so.  I think the core Riddler work is ok.  It teaches you how to use Gadgets in a different way, and you get to banter with Catwoman.  Cool.

But finding the little trophies, hidden in sewer drains, or taking a picture of a random element at just the right angle.  I’m good.

Overall

Taken as a whole, there’s way more good here than bad.  Combat is excellent, the story is tight, Scarecrow (John Noble) does an excellent job.  The world building is superb.  Side missions make sense.  The high notes are some of the best in all games I’ve played this year.  Even the lows are better than the high notes of some other games.  Well worth the trek to play Batman one last time.