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.