BITpast discovers: Suikoden

Oh has it really been a month? Guess I’ve been caught up with the next PSone classic I’m going to review for you. It’s called Suikoden, was released in 1996 and kickstarted a franchise, and the review starts after this semi-colon:

suikoden_psone_cover

To be honest, my main motivation for playing Suikoden was that I wanted to play Suikoden II, regarded as one of the best RPGs ever made. I did preliminary research into whether I needed to play the original Suikoden first, and the most persuasive responses said some characters in the 2nd are first met in the original and whether you know them or not will affect your emotional connection, or something like that. Since I’ve watched The Force Awakens I totally get that. Also, Suikoden 1 has good music and is short, they said.

Suikoden is about 20-25 hours long, which I suppose is short compared to many RPGs, but has still taken me a month to… hey I don’t want to ruin the tension over whether I completed a game this time. Read on.

The reason I was so tentative about playing Suikoden was that it’s an RPG with turn-based random encounters. Turn-based random encounters is a phrase enough to make me vomit a little in my mouth. If I was to be generous to turn-based random encounter battle systems I would say they are a repetitive, strategy-lite, grindey, cookie-cutter template for any RPG developer to bolt onto their story-based game, call it a battle system and dust off their hands. Game finished, when do we ship?

suikoden_battle

I could be even more critical, but my dark secret is that in the past I have been known to enjoy games with such battle systems (in spite of not because of), but I imagine this will be a rarer occurrence now that I’m older with less patience.

And indeed, it turned out Suikoden does nothing innovative or inspiring with the template. But it did have one basic, huge saving grace: Free Will. In every battle at the bottom of the command list is the option of Free Will, which allows your team to auto-attack with their weapons without you assigning the Attack command to each one in turn. It allows you to get those simple battles with popcorn enemies out of the way quickly without being at the disadvantage of missing out on money or exp if you’d ran away. Such an automated quick command should be a default inclusion in any random encounter RPG where simple, repetitive actions are theme. This Free Will button was instrumental in making me stick with Suikoden. Free Will stopped me losing the will, heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.


GAME DEV INSIGHT!

There should be an RPG where you can make macros of your favoured attack patterns. So for example, you hit the ‘record macro’ button, and then you tell your guys what to do. E.g. soldier 1 attacks, soldier 2 attacks, soldier 3 uses fire magic, soldier 4 attacks. Then you stop the macro. Next turn, you hit the macro you’ve recorded and all your guys do the same thing you just assigned. You can record multiple macros for varying scenarios. In Suikoden, I had a character with a rune which I used every turn while the other 5 soldiers attacked. Unfortunately, Free Will couldn’t accommodate this minor deviation, even though I was repeating the same thing every turn.


As critical as the inclusion of Free Will was, it only meant the battle system was competent enough to stop me giving up, as opposed to wanting to keep playing out of enjoyment. What actually kept me playing must have been found elsewhere…

Was it in the story? The story of Suikoden could best be described as thin. There’s an empire and there’s a liberation army, and guess which side you’re on! It’s actually funny how little agency the player has, and how this is highlighted every time the player is presented with a YES/NO choice, to which the NPCs respond by saying “are you sure? think about this young master!” over and over until you select the option they’re supposed to hear. Making a choice in Suikoden is like being offered a cup of tea by Mrs Doyle. An analogy all the more obvious because there is a part of the game where you’re literally offered a cup of a tea which you can’t refuse! When Warren Spector mentioned Suikoden as an inspiration for Deus Ex because of its presenting the player with choices, I think he was trolling or being ironic.

suikodeus

if you squint and turn your head a little to the side it’s hard to identify which screenshot is from Suikoden and which from Deus Ex

As this is a JRPG the lack of agency didn’t bother me in the slightest and was expected, I just found it funny how clumsily it was addressed. Plotwise there are a few little twists and turns but nothing intricate. The story is not bad in any way, it’s just not riveting, just kind of there. Nor did I mind even this. It means the exposition scenes are few and don’t bog you down in reading simplistic dialogue before you can get on with that other thing you were enjoying. Now, what was that?

Okay, so I wasn’t playing this for its battle system or plot. Just what, if anything was Suikoden’s big draw? I think I know. I think the answer is Pokemon.

Pokemon’s a cool game, right? Even though it’s another random encounter repetition-em-up, we didn’t play Pokemon because of the revolutionary battle system it didn’t have; we played it because YOU ARE REQUIRED TO FIND AND CAPTURE ALL OF THE POKEMON™. Suikoden did Pokemon a few years before Pokemon, filling the game world with 108 characters that you can add to your army. Many of these will join up automatically as part of the story, but others are hidden and require some searching or completing rudimentary side quests and mini-games to get them to join up with you. There is even a Pokedex precursor in the form of a stone table with all their names and stats written in! You build a personal team from this stock of characters, which does make the battle system that bit more enjoyable, and the story occasionally requires you to rotate a few members in and out, promoting more variety in the battles.

But the single best part about having a large force has to be the castle which you convert into the headquarters of your army. Between missions you can wander this castle at your leisure, talking to the different characters you’ve recruited, playing games with them and exploring new rooms they’ve excavated to keep up with the expansion of your army. You give a name to your castle. Mine was “Shining Castle”.

Some recruits are specialists in different areas, not merely fighters. Like the librarian to whom you bring books detailing the lore of the world; books found in chests and dungeons. You sit there in his library, in silence, reading this lore. It’s the first time I found myself caring about the background to the world, sat there in serious silence. Maybe it was the first time it hit me of the attention to detail and care that went into putting this little, unnecessary but lovely thing in the game, and so I wanted to appreciate it.

castle

Suikoden’s medieval stone castle has a state-of-the-art lift installed. You may laugh, but they did the same later with Osaka castle. Life imitating art!

Ah, the best thing is the guy who sets up a vault where you can store all the spare items you find. Standard practice for me, whenever I recruited somebody new, was to strip them of all their assets and add their items to the vault, and from there redistribute them to those that needed them: an extremely effective implementation of communism at its purest.

Some recruits are merchants or blacksmiths, and they set up their shops in your castle. Though as far as I could tell they were still making the same profit margins as when they were in the city. What about mate’s rates, you robbing bastards!?

Oh, but I absolutely must tell you about the guy who builds a communal bath in your castle! And you take your squad and have them just sit there, doing nothing. And you sit there, looking at your screen, watching them sit there. You can find antiques and paintings in the world dropped by enemies and hang them up in the bath rather than selling them. None of this has any material benefit to you in-game.

bath

I sat in there, watching the steam, a partition segregating the male and female members of my force, and suddenly felt bad that I had just one woman on my team, and she was sitting in there alone, nobody for company.

And that’s how it happened. That’s how I played Suikoden for 25 out of 25 hours and finished the blasted thing. Because in spite of an average battle system, an average storyline, with averager writing, everyone likes collecting things. And like how it’s not good enough to just collect things, you have to put them all on show, presented neatly in a polished display case. That was Shining Castle to me: a display case for my collection.

Imagine Pokemon. Now imagine you can talk to the monsters. Oh, and the music IS good. Summary: 25/25 – getting too old for sword and sorcery, I just want to sit in a steam bath and look at a vase.

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BITpast discovers: Alundra

For some reason I was supremely over-confident in my last post when I said “See you in 30 hours”, expecting to actually complete my first PSone Classic title, as opposed to abandoning it in disgust after approximately 4 hours in.

Alundra is like a poor man’s Zelda, and by poor I mean a homeless man in a favela.

It controls like Zelda. The combat consists of slashing and slashing and slashing and slashing something until it dies, and you do this by pressing the X button creatively, i.e. would you like to press the X button in rapid succession, or press the X button then wait half a second before pressing the X button again? The choices are endless.

The viewpoint is like Zelda, but different in that they’ve gone for some verticality instead of the more direct top-down approach. This introduces jumping as a big mechanic to the game, which is often a frustration as sometimes the lack of shadows and perspective make it unclear how high various terrain is in relation to others. Mercifully, in the 4 hours I played there were no sections where this could actually get me killed or hurt, but it did force me to start some jump puzzles over again, and caused me to not even realise there was a path to higher ground on some occasions.

The absolute worst thing they could borrow from Zelda, however, was the lock and key backtrack fest. You know the one: where you can explore as much as you want IN THEORY, until you get to a big boulder in your way – we call this a locked door – for which you need a bomb (the key). And when you get bombs, you can go everywhere boulders were, until after that you reach a thorn bush. Our hero can cut down lizards made of rock, but his sword is wholly ineffective up against a thorn bush.

So I wandered round Alundra for a while running into locked door after locked door. The annoying thing is it’s not disguised. There’s no point where you’re stopped in your tracks and wonder “hmm, how will I get over there, or through here”. You just see a boulder, or a bush, or a different colour boulder (bomb proof!) and you think “okay, I need a bomb here”, “Okay, I’ll need some weed killer here”, “Okay, I’ll need some unidentified item to remove those arbitrarily bomb-proof stones here”. Seriously, in Alundra the locked doors are literally as inventive as different coloured rocks. This rock can be blown up. This rock can’t be blown up. This rock is invincible to explosives too, but you can crush it by ramming it with a mine cart.

In Zelda, the locks and keys are a bit more inventive, and crucially – crucially! – the backtracking you must perform in a Zelda world is usually done through varied and interesting environments, so you don’t mind as much.

Allow me to explain why that’s not the case in Alundra: You see, I did like the graphics in Alundra for the first couple of hours I played: they were crisp and very detailed. It’s fair to say that in the first half of my playtime I liked all the shades of green that I saw. And then when it dawned on me that I was ONLY going to see shades of green, I got bored of the shades of green. I’m not joking, look at some screenshots on google.

Even more illustrative, look at the world map: Alundra-World-map

Has there ever been a more uninspiring overworld and colour palette? They could have achieved this game on the Gameboy. By the way, there isn’t even an in-game map of the above, despite being sorely needed (good luck remembering where all those locked doors were). Some research reveals they did include a paper map with the original game though:

Alundra

Yeah, they actually made it that terrible colour apparently, like they were embarrassed their world was only made of shades of green so they thought “shit, just tint the whole map red, they won’t know!”

In summary, Alundra takes all the bad from Zelda to create a game which is a variety of shades of green for you to misjudge jumps and backtrack through for 30 hours. I’m afraid the prospect was too much to bare for me, and I threw in the towel after 4.

Hence, my official review score for Alundra today is: 4 out of 30.

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Retro news: I bought a PS Vita

The debate over just what counts as ‘retro’ rages and will continue to rage on. For my own interpretation, with Sony having shifted focus and ceased in-house development for the system, we can all but declare the system dead, and what can an old, dead system be but retro!

Haha, I kid of course. Hahahaha.

Really, what I meant by the PS Vita being a retro console is that one of the main incentives to buy it is its ability to play PSone games (retro) and, less compellingly, PSP games (retro?). Also, recently the firmware was hacked and emulation of older systems made possible. More recently than even that, Sony patched the firmware! So emulation of older systems is once again out (if you want your Vita to continue playing other games, too). But! I have confidence the system will once again be hacked. Piracy: it’s an arrms race.

Note that I don’t condone piracy, I only condone emulation. The emulation of dead systems with wild, free abandon. But they come as a package: can’t have one without the other, which is a shame because it will just ensure Sony is on the ball with keeping homebrew locked out.

ANYWAY. Emulation or no, I’ve got a ship load of PSone classics on my wishlist that I’m excited to play. I never owned a Playstation, and whilst I have played most of the system’s big hitters via friends or ports to later systems, there are a lot of golden oldies waiting to be discovered.

The potentially interesting point to all this is I’ll be reviewing these old PSone classics, and from a position of no added nostalgia, so you can guarantee every one of my words will be solid gold spears of objective truth, spearing your heart. The final word.

First up: Alundra.

Alundra_field

See you in 30 hours.

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Adoration of Sega over time

sega_love_hate

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The Sega Saturn

Nowadays I’m exclusively a PC gamer. But that’s only because the Sega Saturn retired circa 1999. Which was the same year I got my first PC. Coincidence?

saturn_logo

If Sega Saturn titles were still being released today, I suspect I would never have owned a PC in my life. You wouldn’t be reading this blog post because I wouldn’t have been able to write it. I’d be too busy playing Shining Force VI instead, or Panzer Dragoon Saga Zwei, having the time of my goddamn life.

In the theory of infinite universes, in one of them the Saturn won the console war and there were no more console generations, because it was gameplay that people loved, and they recognized gameplay had reached its zenith, and that it was a waste of time and money to develop new technology which could only be used to improve graphics.

death_tank2

Death Tank Zwei: the apogee of gameplay. Graphics optional.

But ladies and gentlemen, in this universe the Saturn didn’t win, so we look back on the Saturn as a curious relic which failed in business terms. But for the game loving gamer who loves games, it was a resounding success.

The real success of the Saturn was its architectural complexity, which acted as a barrier to entry to developers of middling ability, ensuring that 100% of all games that were actually released for the Saturn were stone cold classics.

The-Incredible-Hulk

Wait, that’s not true. In fact, many developers DID have a go at the Saturn without having a sodding clue how to work with it. They did their best, bless them, but many of the games came out piss poor, forever tarnishing Saturn’s reputation as a 3D console.

But when a developer came along that could make the Saturn sing, oh how it sang. There WERE stone cold classics, and enough of them.

guardian heroes nights sega rally radiant silvergunpanzer dragoon saga saturn-bomberman shining force 3 street-fighter-alpha2 panzer dragoon zwei burning rangers

Anyway, my nostalgia hard-on for the Saturn only gets more fierce at the enigma and mystique surrounding this arcane and baffling hardware. When hobbyists crack it open to look at the innards it’s like wiping the dust off an obscure relic from an ancient civilisation found buried under a pyramid in Atlantis. People still don’t know how it works, 20 years on. Nobody can emulate it properly, despite later more powerful consoles being emulated nearly perfectly. The Saturn is like trying to solve the Stargate.

So when honest-to-god geniuses come along that DO understand something about the Saturn’s inner workings, it feels like a real life James Spader coming to save our ignorant minds with nerd heroics. Check out the video below.

I watched this video and thought “ahh. Now I see how we landed on the moon”.

Here’s another one of an amazing Chinese guy explaining how graphics work on the Saturn. See how the subject matter is so trivially simple and mundane for his genius brain that he decides to do the whole video in a second language he’s learning, just to keep things interesting for himself.

So the Saturn, then. S’cool.

cool saturn

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Review: Mark of the Ninja

As a real life ninja, I found this ninja simulation to be woeful at portraying the realities of the Way of the Ninja. This is mainly due to two central design decisions. And you almost can’t blame the game itself, because these come as standard in every other modern game.

Checkpoints
and
Achievements

Why do we become ninjas and stick to this path we have chosen? You will find many answers to this question, but a common thread is the adrenaline we get from putting ourselves in tense, risky, and frightening situations. When I am out on a raid, I’m often holding my breath as I weigh up my options, each decision momentous because of what I could gain or lose by the next action. There is no room to put a foot wrong, not even once.

In Mark of the Ninja, however, missions are segmented into many many checkpoints. If you make a mistake you can just restart at the most recent, never losing more than a couple of minutes work. No situation is scary in MOTN. No decision momentous.

When you throw in achievements into the mix, the game becomes more about experimentation and playing around with mechanics, rather than true stealth and survival. I’m not talking about Steam achievements, but in-game achievements, designed into the core of the game. You will get little sub missions, like ‘complete this level without destroying lights’, which add a gamey element and its reward. You are therefore encouraged to fool around, as opposed to becoming immersed. And all the more so because there’s a checkpoint 2 minutes back, so you have nothing to lose by trying something fun.

This is all wrong. Real ninjas like me are always focused on the mission at hand. We become truly immersed. We enter the zone. We do not entertain ourselves by seeing how many funny ways we can scare a dude.

My ninja days are behind me, so I look for the right ninja simulation to recapture those days of adrenaline, tension, risk, fear, and finally triumph. Where is the triumph in knowing every mistake was rewound, erased out of the game’s memory? My search goes on.

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TEAM 17 making first Worms sequel in 16 years: Worms WMD.

After 16 years of growing the franchise in a direction no original fan of the series wanted, Team 17 finally admit: “Yes, you were right, Worms Armageddon is the best Worms game. We’re sorry about everything we did afterwards.” At least, that’s what we imagine them saying. You see, for this year’s installment of Worms, Team 17 are going back to that classic that never died.

The parallels with Armageddon are immediate.

There must be something special about a game from 1999 which has a more active community than any of its sequels. Team 17 have just realised this and want some of that magic. They’re going back to it, taking everything that made it good – everything that keeps those die-hards in that lobby, such as its physics – and they’re adding some stuff.

Wait, they’re adding stuff? Isn’t that when things start going wrong? Well, as always, all changes to proven formulas must be treated with fear and mistrust, yet at the same time we recognise Worms Armageddon only reached its peak by finely tuning and adding elements to the core gameplay of the original Worms game.

We like: the idea of buildings. Tunnelling networks into the terrain to force a tactical endgame was one element we love. Buildings seem like ready-made mini-forts to spread tactical play through to the mid and early game too. Excellent!

We’re not sure: vehicles and mounted guns. Some look clumsy, and – might they be a mite overpowered? Will players rely on them too much, with the winning strategy being to focus on commandeering and keeping possession of them? I hope not. Else I hope their quantity can be adjusted via settings, just like we could set the number of mines or oil drums.

But the big news is the ninja rope. The more Worms games were released, the more realistic the ninja rope became, and the more realistic the less fun. Were they too overpowered in Armageddon? Yes! We are not afraid of attacking sacred cows here! But the reason it was overpowered was not how it controlled, but because of rope knocking, and the fact that each team started out with five of the things. When the rope is so powerful that you can use it to get from almost any single point to any other point in the landscape without your worm breaking a sweat, then we think five was too much. It made the game less about aiming, more about swinging. We are all for the return of the original, fun ninja rope, but put a limit on how much it can be used. I want to have to lob some grenades, too.

The old, clean UI is back from W2/WA: a popup window from the side of the screen with small icons laid out logically in rows where you can find everything quickly. Tasty!

top row, utilities, second row artillery, third grenades, fourth melee...it just makes sense.

Worms Armageddon. Top row: utilities. Second row: artillery. Third grenades, fourth melee…it just makes sense.

worms 2: armageddon

I can’t find shit!

The art – Worms games have gone through three main art styles – pixel art, crisp cartoony art and 3d art, peaking at Armageddon which lay flat in the middle of the cartoon era. The graphics were always progressively evolving, but since Armageddon that evolution applied not to art direction but technology. As the backgrounds got noisier, the landscapes chunkier and more dimensiony, much of the identity was lost, and the animation became choppy. Armageddon was from a time when Team 17 felt 3d screen dressing could be eschewed in favour of crisp, clean artwork and a smooth, constant 60 frames per second animation. Worms Armageddon is like a sinewy old man beating a panting, obese 20-something to the shops.

Well I’m delighted to say it’s back to real, hand-drawn, 2d artwork, this time going for a beautiful painterly look. It’s an evolution of the cartoon style we love, but this time the right evolution. It’s as clean and sharp, yet more detailed, more interesting. It has personality again.

worms WMD

Sparse backgrounds are back, and worms which stick out against the landscape (though, they could still do with a few goes on the treadmill). And water. Water is there, right at the bottom of the screen where it belongs. It’s only for drowning in, the developers reassure.

By releasing a new installment and changing the formula so often, the online Worms community has become fractured, creating longer than comfortable waiting times for all games bar Worms Armageddon. Each fork in the road of Worms development has created its own fans. Some stuck with Armageddon. Some moved on or joined when 2d moved to HD. Others took to the 3d games. All have their fans. So we wonder, who will be along for the ride this time? And crucially, will there be enough of them?

The challenge is to make me – and other die-hards – want to stop playing Armageddon and buy this instead. Which will be difficult because Armageddon still plays very well, has been patched to look good at higher resolutions, and as mentioned above has a very active community. If WMD can deliver the core gameplay of Armageddon, but with nice addons like controller support and a well-managed ranking system, I’d be very willing to make the switch.

I hope Team 17 get it right finally.

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