The funny thing about horror movies is, while I love them, I sometimes dread watching them. They're not technically a "fun" experience. Watching a good horror flick means voluntarily becoming a nervous wreck for an hour and a half. When it's over, the feeling of catharsis and relief is actually what makes it all worthwhile.
When you make a horror game, the same feeling applies. I really enjoyed Resident Evil 4, but I always had to work up the energy to actually start the game, and to keep playing when I died. If Capcom had increased the barrier to entry, or made it too annoying to continue, I wouldn't have gotten past the first village.
Which is exactly what happened with Dementium, a horror game for DS (and one of the platform's only Mature-rated games). The building blocks are well-crafted: the engine is stunningly good for a DS game, the atmosphere is refreshingly morbid, and the sound design is very, very good. But they made the decision to send players back to the start of a level after every death, sucking a lot of fun out of the game. It's not nearly so scary the second time through. Or the third, or fourth. Meanwhile, my annoyance at the game's few missteps (no directional indicator for damage?) grew, until I finally set it aside during Chapter 7 (about halfway through) and turned to Touch Detective instead.
Touch Detective has gotten kind of a bad rap for being all about pixel-hunting and bizarre object usage, but I didn't notice that on my play-through. I did figure out what might give people that impression. The game has a lot of characters that move around as the story progresses, and conversations with them are required before you can get any farther. That's in contrast with the old Lucasarts adventures, for example, where people mostly stayed in the same place--i.e., they could be counted on to be consistent pieces of the puzzle, not dramatic actors. Much like in Hotel Dusk, when the actors in Touch Detective act in unexpected ways, it can take a while to find them and figure out which one will trigger the next puzzle. But in its favor, there aren't that many locations or characters. Come on, guys, it's not that frustrating.
And the rewards for enduring those moments of confusion are a few gems of quietly oddball writing, and a genuinely funny fourth-wall gag. It doesn't hold a candle to Monkey Island, but what does? At ~$20, who cares?
A defining feature of reviews for Hotel Dusk on the DS has been that it requires the player to read a lot. "...it's very wordy, forcing you to read long passages between short bursts of walking around," says Gamespy. You'll have to excuse me if I seem a little annoyed. It's just... well, have you seen Final Fantasy games lately? The ones that are trumpeted by most gamers as one of the consistent high points of the medium?
I hadn't played a Final Fantasy in years, and a few months ago I felt like maybe I'd been missing something. So I started a new save on Belle's copy of FFX. It took ten minutes before I could press a button--I think it was to go right a few feet--at which point the game took control again for another movie sequence.
Now, I like movie sequences as much as the next person, maybe more. But five hours into the game, it had pretty much maintained the same dynamic:
So now Hotel Dusk does much the same thing, with stronger characterization and a fun little noir storyline, but it's text-based so reviewers are having trouble. My only problem with it is that the text moves a bit slowly for my tastes, but there are worse crimes: I can only play Sonic Rush in Japanese, a language I don't understand, the dialog is so very, very bad.
This is why gaming needs new reviewers: not because they're on the take or obsessed with sex and violence, but because so many of them are frightened by the written word.
Metroid Prime is not, as far as I'm concerned, the same thing as Metroid. There are similarities, but the former is a polished first-person shooter--I don't care if it has lock-on, it's a shooter--and the latter will always be a sprite-based side-scroller, which carries certain other expectations. Fighting game fans know what I'm talking about: there's an immediacy, almost an urgency, to the stylized sprite-based fighters that is lost when they move to 3D. It's not to say that the Prime spinoffs aren't fun to play, or far more immersive, but they don't feel like Metroid no matter how many secret hunts and ice beams you throw in. Just my subjective take.
So while Prime and its sequel are (to me) one step removed from the original source, Metroid Prime: Hunters (or just "Hunters" from now on) is a step removed from them. It's also a good game, but it's no Metroid Prime, much less Metroid itself. More than anything, it feels like a Metroid mod for Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament. There's the same hyperactive trigger-happiness of the weapons, a similar look to the environments, and a similar dynamic of counter-counter tactics for certain weapons. What's been added are the different hunters and their alternate forms, which does freshen up some of the FPS tactics.
I'm not complaining, personally. If you have to dress Quake up in Metroid skins in order to give me a fully functional FPS on the go, with Internet multiplayer, that's fine. I can think of worse ways to use the franchise. My only problem with the game right now is that I haven't figured out a counter for Kanden's homing bombs--but I'm confident that like Dr. Doom or Iceman in Marvel vs. Capcom, there is a way around it with practice.
What I do think is interesting is that the Prime games have started to focus more on Samus behind the helmet. As far as I can remember, from the first game on through the cameos in Super Smash Brothers, it was rare to see Samus as someone inside the powersuit. The visor on the helmet was always opaque, and Samus was only shown completely in or out of the suit (although sometimes the helmet was removed for a few moments). It made her armored persona a bit impersonal. Beginning with Prime, the developers reminded us more regularly that there really was someone inside the metal. The visor was made transparent, and at some points a reflection of Samus would show up in the virtual visor. It wasn't a split personality between "armored death machine" and "Samus Aran" any more.
Hunters is not graphically sophisticated enough to give us those kinds of glimpses in-game, sadly, but the FMV movies make a big deal out of Samus's facial reactions. Using the dual screen format in creative ways, the movie will often play a wide angle on one display, while focusing in on Samus's helmet on the other. Is it a definitive glance into her character? Not really: she still doesn't speak, and all we can see is basically a strip across her eyes and down just below her nose. So we know that she's surprised, or determined, or maybe a little angry. Her emotions, to quote Parker, run the gamut from A to B.
And that's okay. I just like knowing that there's someone there. If kids today grow up thinking that real Metroid means a first person perspective and a morph ball that becomes more disturbing the more realistic it becomes (How does that work, exactly? Where does she fit? Doesn't she get dizzy?), I'm happy with the gain of a little humanity. Frankly, unless it's done well, I hope they don't feel the need to pump personality into Samus's portrayal, because we all know how bad that can be. But a few little touches here and there go a long way to get me emotionally involved.
While we're discussing shooters: Nanostray on the Nintendo DS is hard core. Shin'en, the developer, has stated that the Normal mode of this game is really the Easy mode renamed. That said, it's still not "easy" by any stretch of the imagination, which is probably why they renamed it. I beat it in a couple of hours on that setting, but it handed me unlimited continues and didn't unlock anything. The medium difficulty mode gives you 5 credits with 5 ships each, and the hard difficulty only hands out 3 ships for each of its 3 credits. You also take more damage at higher difficulties, which means that it ramps up substantially.
I don't understand why there are so few shooters made for portable systems. It seems to me like they're perfectly suited for it. After all, on a console I can't play them for very long--the repetition and the harsh gameplay gets frustrating after a while. But on a handheld, I'm probably not going to be playing for long periods of time anyway. Nanostray, unlike its predecessor Iridion II, does have a battery save, so you can stop at just about any time. And the challenge missions, which include limitations or artificial goals to meet (no smart bombs, 35,000 points, no secondary weapons, etc.) are a good way to jump in, spend a few minutes, and maybe be rewarded with one of the game's unlockable features. Not that I've managed to do so yet, because Nanostray is hard core.
The perspective isn't completely top down, but it might as well be--the "tilt" is largely an optical illusion and rarely interferes with the gameplay, although it does come into play during a couple of the boss encounters. A more serious problem is the button mapping. There are four non-upgradeable weapon/subweapon combos available at any time during a level, but to switch between them you have to tap the touch screen. I don't necessarily have a problem with that, but to make it work the developers have copied the fire button to the left trigger (normally on A), so you can continue shooting while you change weapon types. That makes my hand cramp up a little sometimes. It would be nice if they'd just included a next weapon function on the Y button, which isn't used. Also, the bottom screen's 2D graphics (radar, health, and super meter) are very pretty, but I'd like them to have been higher contrast so I could see them more clearly in my peripheral vision.
Regardless, these flaws don't make Nanostray a bad game. In fact, it's a pretty good example of the type, and with the current dearth of portable shooters we have to take what we can get. If you can find a copy (several stores won't carry it for some reason), it's well worth the trouble.
I've owned a Nintendo DS, the Big N's new handheld system, for about a month now. Handhelds are really much more personal than home consoles are--they're used at different times to fill different roles, and demand more compromises than a set-top box. I bought a Gameboy Advance my junior year in college, upgrading last year to a GBA SP, which is a really nice piece of hardware. The SP is small (made smaller by its folding case), powerful enough to play fantastic 2D games equivalent to about an SNES (and I love 2D), and it lasts forever on its internal battery. I didn't trade in the SP, but I did loan it to the Nerdlet and I haven't missed it yet, which is a pretty good endorsement of the DS.
I'm mixed on the DS as a hardware platform. This is mainly because I see the unrealized potential in a very good package, which is common to just about every Nintendo offering. Soothing worries that the designers had completely left reality, the two-screen concept turns out to be passable at worst and brilliant at best, and it will be more exploited as programmers figure out the potentials. Likewise for the touch-screen: it not only creates new possibilities for games that could not be realized on any other console (save something like a Zodiac or PocketPC), but it adds special value to the second screen, even if it is only used for virtual keys.
The physical controls are good, particularly for a portable. The face buttons are small, useful in that they can double as a second d-pad for lefties or shooters. Compared to the SP, they're not as comfortable, but you get used to them. The L and R buttons are surprisingly good, easy to hit and a good compromise between the original GBA's large but carpal tunnel-inducing ergonomics and the SP's comfortable nubs. What's really surprising is the d-pad--it may be the best I've used on a console to date. It's not mushy like the Dreamcast or the GBA, shallow like the SP, or stiff like the SNES. Switching back to the SP for complicated fighting games and platformers feels sloppy and lacking in feedback. For a 2D hack like myself, the DS controls are wonderful.
It helps that the DS can play GBA games in addition to its own, SD card-sized media. The beautiful screens make later titles like Metroid Fusion and Metal Slug something to behold. The backlighting is more even, and you can choose which screen to use for GBA carts. Here's my first caveat, however: the buttons in GBA mode can't be remapped. I'm sure that it might have been a pain to add that ability to the legacy titles, but games like Street Fighter Alpha III Upper would really benefit from moving the L and R functions to the X and Y buttons. When playing normal platformers, it'd be nice to move the A and B up a row, because it's easier for my thumbs to reach them there. I understand why Nintendo didn't want users messing with the mappings and then confusing themselves during new games, but it's a missed opportunity for advanced gamers.
It is also too bad that Nintendo didn't wrap the GBA multiplayer protocol with the DS WiFi--I don't necessarily need to be able to interface with a GBA, but playing Four Swords wirelessly would have been a nice treat. Instead, there's no multiplayer at all for GBA titles. Most DS games do offer wireless one-cart play, which is a nice evolution from the underutilized GBA one-cart mode. I don't play a lot of multiplayer anyway, because few of my friends own a handheld, but I'm looking forward to the Internet play to be offered later this year. It should be very exciting.
Oh, and the biggest reason to buy the DS over an SP? Headphone jack. Removing an audio jack from the GBA was lunacy, and it's good to see a standard interface return, so I can finally listen to my games hassle-free. Battery life is also great, equal to the SP in GBA mode and not much shorter for the DS. A long battery is one reason why I can't see myself buying a PSP--I remember the Game Gear, and if I have to think about charging it, I'm not interested. I plug the DS into the wall about once a week, better than my cell phone and my PocketPC. A PSP would have me charging it every night, and that's just not something I feel like I should have to do in 2005.
So all in all, it's good hardware, and its liabilities may be fixed in the future, as the DS goes online and new firmware is released through homebrew or Nintendo itself. Still, any console is only as good as its games. Although the DS technically has access to a fine library of GBA games, the hardware can only be exploited with new software. A few impressions:
Metroid Hunters: First Hunt
This is just a demo that comes with every system, but nevertheless it was the game that convinced me to buy a DS. I'm a huge fan of first-person shooters like Unreal Tournament and Halo, but I don't really like playing them on gamepad--although I got pretty good at Quake 3 for Dreamcast. The only real way to own an FPS is with a keyboard and mouse, something not really offered on a home gaming system so far. That has changed with the DS--using the "S-type" control setup, the touch screen acts like a mousepad, and your thumb becomes the mouse. It works very, very well. It looks like Goldeneye will be the first to really exploit this in June, but once it gets out I expect ports of lots of classic shooters, either official or through the homebrew circuit. A WiFi Quake deathmatch on the go is just about my idea of heaven.
Feel the Magic
Feel the Magic is an oddball launch title. It's like WarioWare crossed with a dating game, and uses the touch screen exclusively. I liked it, but there's not much replay value here, and most of the minigames aren't terribly engaging. I sold it back for...
Yoshi Touch and Go
Touch and Go is another oddball--a score-based arcade game, not quite a platformer and not quite a puzzler. This is another game that could only be done on the DS hardware. I've read a lot of reviews that are disappointed because it's not a sequel to Yoshi's Adventure, which was probably the best platformer ever made. And the game is, on its own, pretty limited--the levels are semi-random chunks linked together to form one long scroll, and there's no immediate progression of abilities or challenges. On the other hand, it's terribly addictive. The real challenge is in refining your technique. As you play, you'll start to figure out new strategies that help you pass the same obstacles more efficiently or safely. That makes Touch and Go more like classic shooters (Ikaruga, Life Force, R-Type) than its obvious Mario heritage. End verdict: I like it a lot, and I'm looking forward to Kirby and the Cursed Canvas, which should combine the stylus-based gameplay with a more platformer feel.
Super Mario 64 DS
The flagship game of the DS, Mario 64 is pretty much a port of the N64 classic. I never played the original, so it's entirely new to me. I like it, but I don't think I'd have missed it if I hadn't gotten it free with my barely-used DS. I haven't had a chance to get into the mini-games, but I hear they're very good and addictive. What I will say is that the much-maligned touch screen control is not nearly as bad as it has been made out by the gaming media--basically, it provides a virtual analog onscreen, which can be dragged around with the thumb-strap. I'm doing about as well with it as I usually did with analog sticks. It's no Jet Grind Radio or Prince of Persia, but it works just fine. I think the time has come to point out that analog sticks do not a perfect 3D platformer make--if you think they do, try handing Super Mario Sunshine to a relative neophyte and see how they do. Most people will be very frustrated. The ability to control a character in 3D using one of these is an acquired skill, and most of the gaming press seems to have forgotten that.
All in all, the launch titles have been a little sparse, but respectable. Anyone who remembers the PS1 launch knows that there's still plenty of room to recover, and I'm genuinely excited about several titles. Kirby looks great, Band Brothers and Electroplankton are revolutionary, and the multiplayer possibilities of Metroid, Goldeneye, and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles (among others) have me giddy. This will be a good year for my Metro rides.