A Thousand Words: Rocky Rodent

Rocky Rodent

It’s easy to dismiss Rocky Rodent as one of the follow-on Sonic The Hedgehog knockoffs. But looking at it and looking at the actual Sonic games makes for an interesting comparison to what something superficially similar just didn’t understand.

Judged on its own terms, Rocky Rodent is decent enough. The music is good enough, the gameplay is never outright bad, and the styling is legitimately quirky, both in the haircut power-ups (seriously) and general eccentricity (the first boss is an SMG-wielding mobster in a VW Bus being driven by a cartoon rat). However, beyond that it’s one of the best examples of copying the surface of something but not getting the points.

Part of this is the level design, but a far bigger part is that the game uses what’s essentially Mario’s damage system. You have a maximum of two hit points, power-ups increase them by one, and getting hit with a power up causes you to lose it. In areas where you HAVE to be powered-up to get past an obstacle, this means backtracking to get it again if you’re hit.

Compare this with the rings intentionally designed to give you a huge margin for error (so you can go faster with less skill) in the real Sonic series, and you see the problem. It’s less coherent thought and more just following the two leaders. Thankfully the visuals and competence of the game mean this isn’t more of an issue than it is.

In an era of lazy, outright terrible cartoon mascot platformers, Rocky Rodent can at least be successful gameplay-wise and a little distinct setting-wise.

A Thousand Words: Metal Slug

Metal Slug

SNK’s classic series Metal Slug takes the Contra-type “side scrolling shooter” game and adds an unforgettable art style to it. The excuse plot is you controlling a member of the elite “Peregrine Falcons” against the “Rebel Army”-and more weird enemies.

The art, from the goofy yet legitimately detailed sprites to the lavish backgrounds to the smooth animations, is consistently amazing. The music isn’t as standout (with a few exceptions), but is always at least serviceable. As for the gameplay, it’s both very good and inherently limited.

The action, weapon combinations, and controls are all excellent with the exception of a few clumsy platforming sections. The issue is the games are very short and were originally for arcades. So it’s either “be good enough at this very hard game to avoid deaths or just brute-force your way through with credits”. This probably couldn’t have been avoided, but it’s still a little bitter. That being said, this series is a classic for a reason and the games are well worth playing.

A Thousand Words: Shadow The Hedgehog

Shadow The Hedgehog

It’s time to recall a “fond” game from my childhood, the “classic” Shadow the Hedgehog, where a cussin’, gun-totin, “awesome” cartoon animal runs around. The 3D Sonic games have a bad reputation that I don’t think is entirely deserved. After all, for all the bad camera tricks, erratic controls, and other stuff I’ll get to, I managed to beat and unlock the Final True Canon Route on both this and Sonic Heroes. So they weren’t unplayable bad.

Just bad. Although there was the question of just why they were bad and how they got that way. I’m indebted to the Geek Critique series for finally offering a plausible answer-instead of just staying with the “run through the stage” levels and gradually ironing out the issues across games, Sega seemed insistent on adding all sorts of gameplay modes that just diluted them. They had the excuse to just ditch these here with only one playable character, but no. To get all but pretty much one route, you have to go through maze levels and search levels.

The second is that the game setting felt more and more and more like a bad fanfic of itself. Adventure 1 started the process by having it take place in a semi-realistic world, and the process just snowballed and snowballed until it finally (aided by a jump in graphics that only enhanced the uncanny valley) reached its “maximum” in the later Sonic 2006. For the subject of this review, come on. A have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too experience where you have cartoon animals but also GUNS and SOLDIERS and EXTREME ALIENS is exactly what an “edgy” fanfiction writer would make. (And I don’t know what it says or means, but Nintendo’s core games have almost never had this tonal problem).

This is made slightly worse by there not even being any attempt to smooth out the tone. Would it have been that hard to leave the cutesy-est characters like Amy and Charmy behind and try to make the enemies look at least a little “semi-realistic”? I mean, one of the final bosses in this “edgier” game is a giant slot machine.

The stages range from linear and somewhat fun to nightmares like the aptly-named “The Doom“. Even the better ones are made worse by the need to constantly replay them in order to get the true ending. As for having to redo the bad ones-well, that’s about as “fun” as you’d expect.

And, in conclusion, the silly tone is one of the few parts that actually made some internal sense. At least it had an intended purpose. Very little else does. Who thought a game series built on speed needed mazes? Who thought it needed to have every single franchise character, regardless of if they fit the tone or not? Who thought the padding needed to be this awkward? The 3D Sonic games were sometimes talked about as if they were total failures, which isn’t true or fair, especially for the earlier ones. But their bad reputation is deserved.

A Thousand Words: Time Gal

Time Gal

The 1983 video game Dragon’s Lair pioneered a feature to get around the then-primitive graphics of the time. Animated scenes would play via laserdisc while the player engaged in what are now called quick-time events. One of the more memorable versions of this is 1985’s Time Gal.

First, it has legitimately good-quality animation, no doubt due to the presence of the big-time Toei Animation doing the work there. Second is its premise. Basically, someone stole a time machine and Reika, the game’s heroine, must pursue him throughout many times, from the far past to the far future. Goofy anime antics and quick-time events galore ensue. There’s a tiny bit more depth in that from time to time, the game will briefly stop and allow the player choices, only one of which will succeed.

One of the more bizarre coincidences of the game is the one that ties it to Fuldapocalypse. The “AD 1990” stage features Reika avoiding M1 Abrams tanks and an AH-1 Cobra helicopter on a battlefield. The closeness of the then-future date to the actual Gulf War is uncanny, especially given how pop-culture to outright wrong everything else is.

This is a goofy spectacle that was meant to be a goofy spectacle. For the voice acting to be technically “better” or the animation to be more recent and even smoother would ruin the experience. And while many “interactive movie” games were cheap bandwagon-hoppers, this is not.

A Thousand Words: Undertale

Undertale

It’s the 5th anniversary of Undertale , the cult classic indie RPG/homage to Earthbound. It’s hard to really explain, because in some ways it’s a victim of its own success. There was a yo-yo of crazed fandom and understandable backlash. People know the plot twists now.

When I first played, I didn’t, and I could appreciate what it delivered, and what’s been lost. So yeah, I know it’s a five year old game now and has been successful, but I’m going to be spoilering it all.

You control a deliberately androgynous-looking child (I thought the sprite looked more feminine) as they fall, Alice-in-Wonderland style, into a sealed-off world of goofy monsters. The battle system is an action-RPG hybrid where you can move around on a screen to avoid attacks.

What works is how it works with the expectation of it being a normal RPG. Basically, I thought “You don’t have to destroy anything” was just a sardonic comment like Postal 2’s “only as violent as you are”. Flowey, the psychotic flower-beast, is basically a “lolmeta-lolgoofyIkillforfun”… at first. When I first battled Toriel, the overprotective monster-mother, I was convinced that reducing her to zero HP would just trigger some kind of cutscene, and that she’d be fine. (She wasn’t).

To date, one of my absolute best video game moments comes from fighting the dogs. Now, they’re portrayed as little more than normal enemies and not the most special, so I deal with them. Then I go into the town and they ask where the dogs were and how good they were and wonder what happened to them and I go…

“Oh.” (gulp)

That’s why I haven’t personally played the game since my one violent neutral route. In many way it’s still a short, cheap, simple indie game, and the magic just wouldn’t be there if I knew what was happening.

Even with the blind run, the game had some down parts. The Hotland area is execrably bad, being a combination of the same lame social media joke, an extremely annoying character, and puzzles just hard enough to annoying but not complex enough to be fun. I felt like I had to stagger through-then came the finale.

Even with full hindsight, I can say this-the finale, whatever route, is the highlight of the game. Part of this, I believe, is that it plays everything straight and goes for legitimate gravitas. The best fiction, even the kind that’s often silly, knows when to be earnest, and the conclusions of Undertale count as that.

It’s still good-the music and art are both excellent, and the mechanics, while simple, aren’t bad by any means. Undertale definitely deserves its success. It’s just that I think it was at its absolute best when you didn’t know what to expect-and I was fortunate enough to play it that way.

A Thousand Words: Waterworld

Waterworld

Guns N’ Roses November Rain is widely recognized as the final, out-with-a-bang entry of the musical niche known as the “power ballad.” Kevin Costner’s infamous Waterworld kind of feels like the movie version of this. Of all the movies labeled the worst ever, this deserves it the least in hindsight-though it’s perhaps fitting, since critics never cared much for hair metal anyway.

The plot and setting make no sense, and the acting is nothing special, barring Dennis Hopper’s typically hammed-up villain. But what this movie offers is spectacle. Before CGI truly came along and money became tighter, the huge practical effects epic had to have one final giant push. And in the form of the evil ski-jumpers, hamfisted environmentalism (from a movie that had to make a giant, inevitably polluting, artificial island in its production), and piles of (oil-burning) pyrotechnics, it succeeded.

This movie can’t really be considered “good”, but I had a lot of fun watching it.

A Thousand Words: Revolution X

Revolution X

What happens when you take a pair of has-beens fading rapidly from relevance and merge them together? You get Revolution X, an arcade light-gun shooter starring a past-its-prime Aerosmith. The plot is simple-save Aerosmith from a bunch of people in yellow gas masks who’ve outlawed fun. You do so with a gun that fires CDs as well as bullets. Yes, it’s that kind of game.

The gameplay is mostly simple-fire at the hordes of enemy goons on your screen, put more quarters in when they inevitably kill you, repeat as necessary. Two of the later levels make this worse by trying to be more complicated. One, a maze, is simply annoying. The other, a time-sensitive mission where you have to completely destroy a bus before it reaches its destination, is considerably more aggravating.

By the time of its release, Aerosmith had long since fallen from the heights of their popularity, and with more powerful and smaller consoles just coming out, arcades would soon follow. This game is one of those weird novelties that can only happen at a specific time.

A Thousand Words: Red Dawn

Red Dawn

The 1980s classic invasion movie, Red Dawn is a strange beast. While it rightfully ranks up there with Top Gun as one of the most iconic and remembered movies of its generation, I found it had some fundamental issues. And no, it’s not anything dealing with the actual premise.

The production values are very good. The acting is, at the very least, sufficient. Yet the movie’s biggest problem is its conflicting tone. There’s two types of invasion stories, what I call “grim invasion” and “pulpy invasion”. Grim invasion is what most of the original invasion novels were, while pulpy invasion is something out of, well, guess.

Red Dawn sort of awkwardly teeters between elements of both without really settling into one or the other. While not a deal-breaker for the movie, it sours it somewhat and leaves me with the feeling that picking one type, likely pulpy given the concept, would have made for a better story. That being said, the film is still well worth a watch.

A Thousand Words: Violence Fight

Violence Fight

The video game Violence Fight is a very, very strange game. It’s also very, very bad. One of the pre-Street Fighter II arcade fighting games, this Taito “masterpiece” only stands out for two reasons.

The first is its “story”, where, in the 1950s an underground fighting tournament is popular among (exact words) “mafia, reckless drivers and general businessmen.” This is a 1950s that includes a World Trade Center, a wannabe Mr. T, and multiple tigers for the player to fight. It’s weird, but this is an old video game, so it’s a little less weird in context. The second is the bizarre effects that occur with a hard blow, like “GOGON” and “BOGOON!”.

Otherwise, it’s not very good. The controls are multi-axis but bad, like Pit Fighter, another dud from the same time period. The graphics aren’t bad for the time, but that’s pretty much it. It’s a weird period piece and that’s all.

A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.