45 Reviews liked by LukeGirard
part of the reason I love old-school sega games is because I just love the way their games feel. games designed by sega straddle the line between nuanced, logical physics and exaggerated, arcade-y physics with aplomb. the sega rally series captures this perfectly, where the terrain material and topography are intimately factored into the performance of your car while at the same time you can perfectly drift around corners and fly over hills with a bit of squash-and-stretch going on. the tightrope here is between making the player feel like they're in total control of the car (with the consequences that result) while simultaneously hand-waving the internal mechanisms that limit player expression. the early monkey ball games are the same way: the level design is punishing yet it's addicting because any strategy you devise can probably work thanks to how controllable the ball is. it's why I've stuck with this series so long: from barely making it past beginner as a young child, to learning the extra levels as a high schooler, to finally conquering master and master extra in both games as I whittled away time during a global lockdown.
that being said, I didn't want to go into this game with unrealistic hopes. I knew the original engine was not being used here, so I figured it probably would be a bit stiffer and maybe a little hand-holdy. after all, this remake is partially meant to introduce new players and give them leverage to actually succeed in comparison to the original games, where over half of the levels were tucked behind some serious execution barriers. when I popped it in for the first time this mostly held true: I ran smb1 beginner (newly christened as "casual") without much issue. it wasn't until I touched smb1 expert immediately after...
167 deaths. 167 deaths without including expert extra no less, which I accidentally voided myself out of thanks to misreading the helper option menu that pops up automatically (protip to UI designers: don't make both your selected and unselected options bright colors!!!). these levels are no cakewalk, let's be clear, but I know these levels by the back of my hand. I've 1cc'd expert + expert extra in the original many many times, and even now out of practice I can manage 10 - 15 deaths. it just shocked me that this game felt so different, and so much less precise. in a lot of ways it felt like the original levels popped into Unity with a basic sphere physics plugin, and the results were not pretty. my roommates (also long-time monkey ball fans) also immediately wrote off the game after playing it. even though we had been so hype about finally getting an HD monkey ball - a monkey ball game that wasn't garbage and didn't require us to pull out our CRT - all of our energy immediately dissapated once we got our hands on the game.
so what exactly is the issue here? basically everyone agrees that the physics in this game are noticably different from that of the original, but I want to delve into why. after playing this game for quite a bit (all of story mode, up through master mode in smb1, all the deluxe levels, and poking around into other stuff here and there) I think I've narrowed it down to frictional differences between the two games. for those of you who haven't taken high school physics in some time, let me present the equation f = μN, where f is the frictional force applied parallel to surface we are moving upon (usually horizontally), μ is the coefficient of friction, and N is the normal force applied perpendicular to the surface (hence the name "normal"). before your eyes glaze over, let me connect these to some intangible game-feel statements:
coefficient of friction: this refers to how difficult it is to move over a material; for example, it accounts for why it's more difficult to slide your coffee table when it's on a shaggy carpet versus a finished wood floor. as it relates to the how it feels in this game, I'll borrow a quote from my roommate when he was playing the game: "it feels like every single floor is made out of glass"
normal force: this refers to how hard the object is pushing down on the surface, which in this case mainly refers to the gravitational force the object exerts. this scales with the mass, so we can think of it as how much the object weighs; a cardboard box is a lot easier to move than a full wardrobe. this affects the game-feel, as my girlfriend eloquently put: "it's like there's no monkey at all, and you're just rolling around a hollow ball"
so tldr: there's a severe lack of friction in this game in comparison to the original. in the original game, the ball was weighty, and the friction on the goal posts or ledges allows you to grip them easily (and a bit unrealistically for that matter). these things are boons to the player that go a long way towards making impossible looking courses just barely doable with practice. here the stages refuse to budge when you try to force them to, and you end up without a lot of the gravity-defying tricks you could initially pull off. I'll give some examples of situations that pop up that break under the new physics:
stopping the ball: this took a lot of adjustment for me, and while it's just a matter of relearning muscle memory it very noticeably makes some stages harder. in the original game you could stop pretty much on a dime (unless you were rolling to the point of sparks flying), whereas here the ball will sliiiiiiiide all over the place unless you very deliberately deccelerate. this is more of a general issue but a good example of where this becomes frustrating is Twin Cross, where you're expected to roll across a series of 1x1 tiles in diagonal lines. you need to keep a certain level of speed up to avoid falling off when crossing the corners of two tiles, but then also must deccelerate at the right moment to keep your ball from flying off at the end of a line (which itself is just a 1x1 tile floating in space). Edge Master also becomes more annoying than its prior appearances thanks to this issue, as staying within the bounds of the upward face of the first rotation becomes very precise given how much speed you gain when the stage rotates.
narrow lines: approach a ledge in this game and you'll notice that the bottom of your ball will just be barely close to the ledge when your character starts trembling and attempting to balance themself. compare that to the original, where the characters won't start said animation until their feet are literally touching the ledge, far closer to the center of mass for the ball. you basically have a lot less wiggle room on the edge, and it can become very apparent in certain levels that depend on this. kudos to the dev team for adjust Catwalk to accommodate, but on the flipside look at Invasion. I'd say this level was middle of the road in terms of its original difficulty, but here it's fucking brutal towards the end, where you're expected to navigate in a curve on a ledge around staggered bumpers. comments I've read on early gameplay capture on youtube were quick to point to this stage as one of the biggest difficulty bumps for a remade stage.
slopes: friction is the reason why we don't instantly slide down slopes in real life, hence why we use snowboards and skis instead of just standing on mountains waiting to gain speed. however, in monkey ball the goal is usually not to slide down slopes unless you're explicitly supposed to, and many levels depend on you being able to balance yourself on slopes either while waiting for a cycle or when speeding through before you have a chance to fall off. Drum and Twister back-to-back in smb1's ice world were originally breather stages, where you simply had to keep yourself balanced in brief intervals before reaching the goal. here they became much more precise than I feel was intended, as even slightly moving from the narrow top of the curve on either of these levels will send you careening to your death with no recourse. from smb2 I can absolutely not forget to mention Warp... oh my god Warp. this level was already surprisingly difficult in smb2, given that the flatter part of the curves here are covered with bumpers and maintaing yourself on a slope is already a trickier technique to learn (I see a lot of more casual players get stuck on Floor Bent from smb1 for this reason). here it's nigh impossible to do thanks to how little grip you have. Cross Floors is another smb2 example that requires a lot of practice in the original and here feels terrible to attempt.
centripedal force: some of you may have seen charity donation recepticles shaped like curved funnels (I've seen them in american malls at least), where you can put a coin into a slot and it will spiral around the funnel down and down until falling through a hole at the bottom, much like water spinning in a drain. there are multiple areas in the original monkey ball games that utilize this phenomenon to great effect, and it relies on the friction of the slope or wall that the ball is on to keep it from dropping out. however, when I first played Spiral Hard in this game, I was very surprised to find that I could not simply drop in as I was accustomed to, as even with a decent amount of speed the ball does not grab onto the slope and instead falls off. it took me several tries to successfully drop in, where I had to come in with an exceptional amount of speed, heavily tilt against the slope to avoid falling off, try to balance out before I lost the speed I needed to stay in, and then continue on my way. this level is already difficult enough as is, with a path that narrows the further it spirals down and a goal that is difficult to aim for, so I don't see why dropping in needs to also require a lot of set up when it didn't originally. the end of Stamina Master is also much more difficult than before thanks to this, as the spiral towards the end becomes nearly vertical, and I would often drop out of it completely before I reached the goal. the pipe stages also seem to struggle with keeping you moving, such as the smb1 expert extra stage Curl Pipe, where the second hill virtually always stopped me dead in my tracks (though I've had this happen occasionally in the original as well).
this would be a good time for me to also mention how the camera has changed significantly from the original games. the camera used to rather aggressively stick to the ball's back, whereas here the camera will follow your stick without really staying glued to a particular orientation on the ball. to solve this there is now camera control on the right-stick... this sort of defeats the purpose of the original one-giant-banana-joystick control scheme, but I'm sure plenty of players will feel more comfortable with it there. the big issue here comes when trying to line up straight lines: in the original game it was very doable to turn in place with the camera lining up directly with the center of the monkey's back. here it's already hard enough to turn in place given that you slide around with so little provocation, and now you must center the camera manually using... non-analog controls? yes, the right stick does not seem to have a real gradient of turning from my time playing with it, giving it little more functionality than d-pad camera controls. you can at least adjust camera sensitivity, but I feel like you're forced to sometimes go in and change it per stage, ie high sensitivity for when you need to turn quickly or steadily on fast stages, and low sensitivity when you line up precise shots. the latter was a necessity on Exam-C (a particularly infamous stage) and the aforementioned Twin Cross, as well as Checker, and it made all three of these stages much more tedious than I would've liked. sometimes the camera just breaks entirely, most notably on Centrifugal from smb2, where the speed of rotation in the giant wheel of death causes the camera to get stuck outside the level geometry, or flip in front of you to mess up the angle you're tilting the stage in.
I wanted to include this diatribe about the physics in here just to have some sort of document with the issues I've noticed with this game, and as to provide a detailed summary of why and where the physics are different without just saying they are. players who know the levels above might have noticed that they're virtually all pulled from expert and master: this is because the beginner and advanced difficulties (casual and normal) are totally playable regardless of the changes. that is not to say they aren't still difficult (I still have not beaten Polar Large in this game and, much to my consternation, can not even figure out a good route through it for some reason) but if you're coming in just to fuck around a bit, play through part of story mode, enjoy the cameos, and play minigames with friends, you're not going to notice the different game-feel to the extent of it being overbearing. on the flipside, I do feel justified in presenting my opinions on this in pedantic detail because beginner and advanced only make up 108 stages out of the 258 total stages between the non-DX games, which is to say that for over half of the game you will likely notice what I mentioned above unless you have never played the originals.
regardless of everything listed above, I've actually rated this one a bit higher than super monkey ball deluxe, a collection that still has the original physics intact. my rationale: banana mania is an amazing package overall. what honestly frustrates me more than anything about this game is that it perfectly captures the features and content I'd want in a remake of these games without the tight gameplay I originally adored in the originals. whereas deluxe (on ps2 mind you) was a poorly performing mess with overly-long course structure and a lack of improvements over smb2, this game is packed to the brim with extra modes, great cameo characters, and accesibility features. not everything really hits, but I appreciate how much effort and material there is here with so little development time.
the main game specifically deliminates between the first two games for its courses, unlike deluxe where stages from both games were interleaved. each course is 1:1 with their original set of stages, with extra stages now being unlocked if all the regular stages were completed without the helper functions active. master mode for smb1 is now accessible just by completing expert without the 1cc requirement or even extra stages being finished. there are also marathon modes for each, which while not as wild as the ultimate course from deluxe, still are great additions. stages in both have been rebalanced, with the original layouts being included in a special purchaseable game mode. overall the rebalances were really well done: probably the most notable for me was Arthopod, a stage from smb2 that was complete bullshit originally and has now been made less annoying to deal with by far by removing gaps. virtually all of smb1 master was rebalanced as well, with Stamina Master getting a much-needed nerf to its infamous middle 1x1 moving tile balancing section (which balances out the more difficult first and last sections a bit). the other master changes honestly make some of the stages like Dodge Master and Dance Master trivial, but I don't really mind considering that the requirements for obtaining master are less restrictive now. other changes are more subtle, such as adding curved inlets to the titular launchers in Launchers (which honestly don't help very much) or an extra 30 seconds for the timer in Exam-C (which helps an insane amount).
there's a story mode identical to that of smb2, with truncated cutscenes in mime retelling the lovably bizarre plot of the original. personally I don't mind this change, as the story isn't really that important or complicated. I'm a little puzzled at why they didn't use the expanded worlds of deluxe's story mode, but it's not a big difference either way. as I mentioned prior stages that were changed have their original versions present in a standalone mode, and all of the deluxe-exclusive levels have a mode as well. playing through them all back to back, I have to say I still like them for the most part, as there's a lot of great ideas present (maybe one too many maze stages tho). there are also a few modes that remix the levels. golden banana mode is probably the best of these, where you need to collect every banana in a stage in order to clear it. this actually changes how the stages need to be approached quite a bit. the opposite of this is dark banana mode, where any banana touched instantly causes a game over. while the idea is good in concept, they're designed for a level of precision I just don't think exists in this game. finally there's reverse mode, where certain levels start you at the goal and make you work your way back to the starting point. the best level of these is Free Throw, where they make you throw yourself backwards onto the starting platform in a cool twist. the others mainly just require you to tread the same path as whatever the hardest goal is, so they come across as rather redundant.
minigames are also back in full force, with all of the features from deluxe retained to my knowledge. the big thing that turned me off here was the lack of alternating multiplayer, which even in a patch could be such a trivial addition. I bought this on ps4, where I don't really have extra controllers to work with, and it's frustrating that my roommates and I can't play monkey target or billiards by passing the controller around. overall the minigames seem to be pretty much as I remember them from the old games, with all the customization you could want to boot. I can't really pretend something like monkey race isn't scuffed as fuck, but they were in the originals as well so it's pretty faithful. all that I played other than monkey target look very solid... monkey target is honestly a "Made in Dreams"-ass game here, but it's so annoying in its original form that I'll let it slide here. most of the other games here I can just experience via yakuza or really don't care that much about, beyond perhaps trying to go for completion later down the line.
I also wanted to briefly mention the art design for both the menus and the levels, which are absolutely phenomenal. beyond some UI nitpicks I mentioned earlier I think the interface is very clear and clean, and feels like an accurate translation from the older games to a modern style. the world designs are really gorgeous, and blew me away with their accuracy. I really would not have thought a quickie project for RGG would capture the style and detail of the original worlds so well in HD, but they absolutely nailed it here. the banana blitz-era monkey designs I'm not crazy about but they do the job fine, and the cutesy redesigns of kiryu and beat are so fun; I still can't believe they're in the game!! the music has all been remixed as well, though I personally think they're pretty middling overall. the original soundtracks are legendary so I definitely didn't expect them to live up here, but they really veer into tacky EDM territory more often than I would like.
finally, I wanted to bring up the accessibility options, which are much-needed additions for newer fans looking to try the series out. you can use helper functions in each level to double the timer as well as open up a very useful slow motion mode for the cost of receiving no points upon clearing the level and disabling the extra stages for the course. I messed around with these a bit and I think they do a good job of covering the bases for someone learning a given stage. if stage is too taxing, you can also pay 2000 banana coins to mark it as cleared. which is a hefty toll but honestly worth it when poking around in the special modes to skip annoying levels that would take a lot of practice. finally, the jump from banana blitz has been added in as a purchaseable item, and surprisingly it doesn't void trophies/extra stuff like the helper functions (though it can't be used in ranking mode). when watching trailers I thought I wouldn't touch this at all but I decided to try it out when struggling on Warp and wow did it really save my ass. because the jump wasn't present in the original games, it opens up a lot of ways to break previously challenging level design, and honestly that became the most fun part of the game for me at points. skipping all of the tiring maze levels from smb2 feels so great, and I even managed to pull off a strat equivalent to the speedrun route for Stamina Master by jumping at the peak of the first ramp. it honestly made the final worlds of story mode a lot more enjoyable given how many frustrating and gimmicky levels are contained within it (they were bad in the original too, not just this game). when I eventually get around to smb2 master and master extra, I'm sure I'll have fun finding ways to break levels that originally took me dozens of lives to beat.
I think I've exhaustively covered every aspect of this game that I've played so far... and now that I've finished this giant wall of text I can finally move onto some other games. I don't think I've wasted my time with this game at all, and I'm glad this package exists, but man does it really not scratch that itch that the original games do. perhaps an engine on par with the original simply isn't capable of happening without the original source code available... but at the end of the day I'll still have the original games to return to when I really want to experience monkey ball as it originally felt.
Libble Rabble is a game that exists within its own unique pocket of space and time. Seemingly based off of the simple pleasure of wrapping string around pegs on a board, It draws from concepts that predate video games. But it’s also an 80s game through and through, what with its basic, score-focused setup and presentation. Despite this, the game doesn’t feel dated in any way. There is absolutely nothing else like it, it remains totally alien and futuristic. In a similar vein as Katamari Damacy, Libble Rabble is the past, present, and future of game design contained within a single piece of software.
I could sit here and write out a full overview of how the game works, but if I go into too much detail about all of its beautifully obtuse mechanics, your brain will shut off and you’ll fucking die. You’re just going to have to put your hands on it and figure this out yourself. What I will say is that Libble Rabble is a game about space control. The core gameplay involves circling off different chunks of the playing field to capture enemies and items.
But the question is how big should your circle be? Make it too big and you risk losing track of your characters, and either getting disoriented by the stage hazards or killed by the enemies. And if you make it too small, it’s harder to locate buried treasure and wrangle all of the mushroom dudes within the time limit. This is a complex, fuzzy problem with solutions that always vary moment to moment.
My favorite wrinkle in its gameplay is actually something that I didn’t notice until I had spent a few hours coming to grips with the control scheme. As you play, little dot items will gradually spawn in on the screen. Over time, they grow into sprouts, then flowers, and finally a seed. Once they’ve become a seed, they explode and scatter a handful of new dot items around, causing the cycle to repeat. If these items are left alone, they will slowly form into a garden that’s always growing exponentially larger.
The reason that this happens is that collecting these items will partially refill the game’s timer, which by the way, doesn’t naturally refill upon completing a stage. The further along in the life cycle that a plant item is, the more your timer is filled. So if you’re about to run out of time, what do you do? Collecting the dots right away will briefly stall the timer, but it also means that you’re wasting the item before it has a chance to grow into a seed and sprout more dots.
I’ve found it helpful to keep a couple of plants around for a rainy day, but doing so poses its own unique problems. Having too many on screen restricts the amount of space you have to capture enemies, and the little cloaked dudes will even try to steal the seeds if they’re left alone for too long. This element adds a whole extra dimension of problem solving onto an already mechanically overstuffed game. It's a wonderfully messy experience.
Libble Rabble represents 80s arcade game design at its absolute peak. What at first seems like an approachable and easy to understand concept quickly gives way to an impossibly complex fever dream that could only come out of the mind of an insane person. It’s such a transparently genius game, playing it fills my heart with love and reminds me why I decided to stake my life on such a silly thing as video games. If Pac-Man didn’t convince you that Toru Iwatani is one of the greatest game designers who’s ever lived, Libble Rabble will.
it took me ENTIRELY TOO LONG to understand that this is a quintessential video game. my past attempts at plumbing its depths have failed—it felt cramped and clunky compared to super metroid or even the nes original. every so often i would make another failed attempt and come away with the impression that it was one of those "you had to be there" experiences and i had simply missed the boat forever... which sort of reinforced my uncertainty about its whole appeal, because, i mean, i HAD a game boy and i love and cherish the handheld mario and zelda games of the same era. what was i missing?
maybe first and foremost—and i am certainly not saying anything new or revelatory, here—that cramped screen space is a boon to the claustrophobic atmosphere of this thing, definitively setting it apart from other games in the series. you especially begin to feel this when you've made some progress and begin to hurt for a map, or some indication of where precisely the metroids you've yet to find and defeat may be lurking. the sheer empty darkness of these chasms is both smothering and informative of the barely fathomable scope of the world around you. this rules! metroid 2 is a HORROR game. its music often being sparse gothic dirges, all discordant 4-bit harpsichord, pulse wave doom and skittering alien noises, the vibe is relentlessly eerie. an even spookier precursor to the dank jams of castlevania: harmony of dissonance. it takes you back to a time when nintendo weren't afraid to experiment and make strange, almost avant garde art with their games. this is just about a masterpiece of exemplifying the beauty of technological limitations.
i won't get deep into the storytelling aspects, but one of the more impressive things to me, here, is the fine balance of streamlined, almost arcade game like flow to things (read: yes, it can feel a bit repetitive (though i DO feel this has been overstated, as the quake and lava-lowering that marks its gated progression is actually pretty satisfying when you've been hunting for a while...)) and environmental, cinematic (dialogue-free) storytelling. the events of super metroid resound in my mind now that i have my own experience with the oddly bleak return of samus in there, too.
(note: i played this in retroarch with one of those game boy color shaders that represents the handheld's screen as a frame around the game itself and i 100% recommend this.)
(extra side note: if metroid was inspired by alien, metroid 2 would seem to be obviously inspired by aliens in that it is primarily a mission of extermination... but it also presages the ideas of prometheus—specifically with regard to the fate of the chozo and the engineers and their role in the existence of each's lethal cosmic progeny—in some pretty interesting ways. makes u think.)
i had never finished psychonauts before, but i had played it before. attempted it at least twice prior, bouncing off after oleander or sasha. it was actually my interest in the hype surrounding psychonauts 2 that inspired me to finish it, which usually isn't the case for me. but i remembered it as a kind of unfinished business for myself, so i wanted to try and see it through genuinely.
i dont have much of a history with schafer or double fine/lucasarts. i like adventure games but theyre not a natural fit for me unless they lean towards the esoteric. point and clicks work fine for me but im not well versed. ive dabbled in monkey island and grim fandango but thats really about it. so i dont go in with a lot of that moon logic puzzle bias.
the more salacious of my stances is my aversion to platformers, especially collectathons. i tend towards preferring 3D platformers over 2D ones, i have my pet faves (klonoa, napple tale, ape escape, sonic adventure) but generally im cold. like yeah i grew up playing mario 64 but i dont really have affection for nintendo platformers like that. and ps2 era mascot platformers certainly recall being huddled in front of a CRT trying to max out ty the tasmanian tiger or whatever but its rarely what i play games for anymore. its really more the collectathon stuff that gets to me. i dont feel satisfaction when number goes up, most of the time i feel dread. deep, existential dread. its not a them thing its a me thing.
psychonauts then is not a game i have any baked in affection for. its in a genre i tend against and by a house i really dont think about. in spite of those odds i found myself really charmed by psychonauts and what it presents outwardly. i might go as far as to say i loved it but only in very qualified terms.
a lot of games, to my tastes, are best when they are intricate, bespoke dioramas that give you a toolkit built to define and shepherd and express within your engagement with that space and the narrative those interactions produce (on top of whatever more direct narrative is impressed upon by developers over said intersections). a lot of my favorite games are all about this quality, the emphasis on space and player's relationships to it. i think this is the chief success of psychonauts. anyone with a modicum of familiarity with the title knows the primary pitch is within its psychic framing, how the levels are mind palaces and reflect on the psyches of characters within the fiction. and it works. it really does! but i think more than that the primary hub location won me over. the summer camp setting that the front end of the game takes place in is teeming with its own idiosyncratic artifical life, so vividly drawn and presented, so typically a playground for mechanical expression and exploration, but in the best ways. its a really memorable locale, filled with little burton-esque demon children who snort and chortle and gossip and peek and make out. its all very elevated and solidly evokes mid aughts cartoon network sensibilities with healthy dash of tim burton/early laika claymation. i wouldnt be surprised if this was in anyway reciprocatively influential; camp lazlo definitely came out after this and the aesthetic of the camp there definitely recalls whispering rock, and paranormans modeling of humans and ghouls isnt so different if we are being honest. its very sumptuous visually, and individual within the medium, remarkably accomplished for its age on top of being accomplished today, especially in those dioramas of the mind. my favorites visually were all late game, but really after the disappointing oleander fields they all basically work for me.
the other key thing is writing. i wont front, i dont think the writing is particularly side splitting. i laughed or giggled a bit, especially towards the end, but what i find more valuable is the tone. psychonauts is very irreverent, very affable too, with a bit of meanness in its bones that actually makes it possible for it to be funny. im sorry but nicecore comedy like tim lasso or whatever the fuck will never be funny to me. nor will like mike schur style character centric positivity writing. comedy is subjective obviously but i think you need a little embitterment or spite or maliciousness for capital-C Comedy. this is why that run of children friendly softcore outsider art cartoon network shows like courage and billy and mandy worked at all. but that meanness is given levity and a generous spirit. theres tasteless things here but its more semantic; the never outright fatshaming, the use of indian burial ground setting for a government agency, how romani caravans are used and described, things like that. the end result though isnt how thatd sound, because the game itself isnt really interested in punching down.
the bigger concern i suppose is the depiction of mental health and at least to me i find it simultaneously irreverent and empathetic. like it derives lots of jokes from pop psychology and the lack of stability of its cast, but because the most otherwise clear targets of this are given like some psychological depth, albeit still in cartoons and cereal terms, it really doesnt feel aggressive. raz himself is a subtly accepting avatar; your dialogue choices can be reductive in the way pep talks are, but especially in the asylum section he's pretty genuine and well intentioned and non-judgemental. its not deep but it isnt tasteless or reactionary or interested in low hanging fruit. also raz can be outright funny, his little quips kind of go hard, i especially love how he tells seagulls hes psyblasted "see you in hell!" like what the hell kid 😩
i think psychonauts, within its chosen temperament, is more comfortable being a weird little era contemporary nasty kids cartoon than it is a statement, but i do think theres a delicate hand at work with some of the ideas that become more prevalent in psychonauts 2. the counsellors, specifically sasha but also milla, do frame their lessons in consent, asking students if they are ready, considering how much they can or cannot handle, trying to like teach and be paternal. raz, as a kid, doesnt think about those things as much, so his use of the psy portal often neglects any permission, even if his intentions are good. there is a real sense of camaraderie and belonging developed: all the kids develop their own little relationships; oleander is accepted back into the fold and forgiven (for some reason!); the psych ward patients end the game torching the asylum that so abused them; the camp, even though its a training ground, functions explicitly to help psychics, often ostracized by their communities, find belonging. this is the sort of genuine kindness i see in the game, its intentions a little more good in nature than its irreverence suggests, and thats really the interesting thing here.
also, i think the funniest thing in the game aside is definitely the way common game verbs are completely reconsidered in these pop psychology terms. your collectibles include mental baggage and figments of the imagination, your health becomes mental energy, your lives are layers of astral projection, your bullets are manifested anger composed and then released, level select is collective consciousness, stuff like that. the puzzles arent as funny per say but i also found them generally intuitive, the only thing i recall looking up was the first stage of the final boss (also meat circus daddy issue dimension... amazing). on the movement set, raz is very dexterous and agile, and while the early game feels a little off i think the jank makes navigating and circumventing puzzles and platforms really fun and expressive, especially once you get the ball, which has marble blast kind of rolling and momentum physics. the combat is painless, mostly, but especially early on the bosses just feel Bad. boss challenges all zelda style puzzle bosses but theyre a little finnicky and tedious imo. platforming never felt bad to me per say but there are some ledges or routes that are more fine tuned than the game comfortably handles. maybe the most outright ridiculous part of gameplay is that maximum completion necessitates grabbing all figments, and man, a level like waterloo makes that absolutely a maddening proposition. a few psi cards felt a bit absurd in placement. collectathons do nothing for me, so i tried to make that stuff negligible for me, and that mostly worked, but i get why someone wouldnt have affection for the gameplay. after millas dance party it just feels right to me, though, the lil levitation circus ball is so much fun and so busted.
wait, ok, last complaint. the fucking escort mission navigated through platforming? unnecessarily cruel and tedious. horrible decision for a gimmick in the final level. 😒
so yeah. all said... really good video game. i get the hype broadly, even though a lot of my friends are more lukewarm/negative on it. its really kind of singular in a lot of ways, absolutely written in a way it couldnt have been today, designed in a way that only made sense then. but in spite of what faults it had the charms worked on me, especially in terms of its world and level designs and general aesthetic principles. i had a good time, and i actually felt compelled to finish it after two aborted attempts. thats solid in my book lol.
YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is an experience unlike any other. It's hard to begin to put the game into words. I think a lot of critics are quick to dismiss YIIK because of it's pretentious title, ridiculously unlikable protagonist and the ongoing controversy surrounding the game over time - some of which is justified, some of which is blown out of proportion. These things are true, unfortunately. The subtitle of YIIK is ridiculously pretentious, and regardless of intent the protagonist, Alex, is deeply, deeply unlikable. But what more is there to YIIK? I think what is here conveys more than a failed pretentious JRPG-wannabe meme game. This game IS saying things, and I think considering just how much of a process this game was for the developers - who saw their own mother die during production of the game - it would be disrespectful for me to disregard their intentions and attempts at making meaning through the gameplay and the story. So, forgive me if this is a long review beforehand.
YIIK focuses on a year in the life of Alex Eggleston, the most average young adult white dude to have probably ever been conceived. We all know someone like Alex YIIK (which is what I will be calling him in this review.) Vapid, yet confrontational. Smug, yet substanceless. Every human flaw you can imagine, Alex YIIK has it in droves, and he doesn't really have much in the way of positive attributes to like him. Why do people... LIKE Alex YIIK? What are his positive traits? He's never succeeded at anything worthwhile, he's not kind or big-hearted, he's not particularly smart or attractive. As a result, Alex YIIK, our protagonist, is the walking flaw. He's an amalgamation of everything that could possibly be wrong with a human being. The creators know it, and they make it very clear after a while. He's a pretentious little brat, who thinks the world revolves around him.
You might think it's a bit weird that I've gone on to talk about this first before talking about the gameplay, or the overall plot - but it's important to understand that if Alex YIIK does not work, this game does not work. If this game cannot make Alex YIIK into a deep and substantial character with a strong role in the story then it's game over. The whole game revolves around him. A lengthy amount of what I'm saying is going to be about him.
So, how does Alex YIIK play out? How does he fit into the story? ... Good question.
The idea of the story presented by YIIK is that Alex YIIK is explicitly a bad person. All of these negative traits are not a byproduct of poor writing, they are intentional. So, the story necessitates that he grow and become a kind person who cares for his friends and appreciates the world around them. It's a simple moral. Alex YIIK starts off the story by being a bad friend, bullying Rory, and berating his mother for not doing good enough. At the end of the story, YIIK is clear - Alex YIIK is a terrible guy, and he has hurt all of his friends and family. He knows it, and he makes a vow to change. So, we have an arc. How does the story actually engage with this, and importantly, can a story like this work in the first place?
You'll quickly notice that every question you can ask of YIIK leads to another one. This is because YIIK is very poorly written. It's an undeniable feature of the game that no amount of reduced monologue options (yes, that is a real feature) can fix. YIIK is convoluted, often needlessly, requiring you to interrogate every aspect of the text with a fervor to understand basic things about it. Despite what detractors would have you believe, this has nothing to do with postmodernism. It has everything to do with incompetence. Characters recite wikipedia articles to Alex YIIK about the mechanisms of metaphysics, Alex YIIK goes on borderline nonsensical tirades to the audience about whatever the hell he feels like and the two endings presented are incredibly abstract in an uninteresting and somewhat lazy way. So, decoding Alex YIIK and the story itself is needlessly hard, because YIIK tells its story very poorly. Again, the memes are right, and funny. "Vibrating With Motion" is more than just a meme, it's an indicator as to how the game's writing fails.
However, despite this, I think Alex YIIK does KIND OF work as a protagonist. His unlikability is undeniable, but the story does have a few very compelling ideas working with him.
A) Alex YIIK's unlikability is very, very well established. The story constructs his role well, and a lot of his internal monologues provide this increasingly frustrating sense that Alex YIIK knows what he is doing is wrong, but that his arrogance won't let him stop. It is genuinely harsh and sometimes almost personal to see him be a fuck-up. They wrote the most unlikable man in the world, to great effect.
B) The idea that Alex YIIK REALLY IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE is deeply, deeply fascinating. The world does revolve around Alex YIIK, and it's something that Alex YIIK explicitly rejects. But really, all he is rejecting is the responsibility and the acknowledgement that comes with. He was fine with acting like he was the only one who mattered until responsibility came with it. So, when he faces the facts? When he realises that his presence in the universe is what will tear everything apart, and then he sees it happen? That's incredibly emotionally damaging for Alex YIIK, and does GENUINELY humble him. I like that. It's a good subversion.
C) The game essentially ends on the twist that you, the player, are the Alex YIIK of your own dimension. That sounds... ridiculous. That's because it is. It does really add to him, though. Alex YIIK goes from an unlikable bastard, to an uncomfortable mirror. Somewhere, in another universe, you could have been Alex YIIK. Exactly like him. Earlier, I mentioned that we all know someone like Alex YIIK. That someone is us. Alex YIIK has flaws so numerous, inevitably, we will see that flaw in ourselves. This is really cool. I think it explains why Alex YIIK is so viscerally hateable. It's like looking into one of those mirrors that makes you look fatter than you really are. Everybody laughs at a hall of mirrors, but if you're afraid of being fat, seeing that in the mirror can be quite impactful and scary. Alex YIIK is that for every flaw a person can have. That's scary, and quite powerful. I like that a lot.
D) The ending of the game does hold Alex YIIK accountable for being such an asshole. I have my issues with the ending but Alex YIIK doesn't get off scot-free. Just the opposite, he gets punished extensively.
That's what I like about Alex YIIK. I think he's a very interesting character when viewed through these specific ideas. However, uh, while I think these ideas really work, there is a story going on around him that he does not work in.
Alex YIIK has friends who seem to forgive him for everything and treat him like some kind of saint. Why would he even have friends who care about him? He's done nothing to earn their respect and friendship. He has no redeeming qualities at all. Yet, even when he shows basically no reform and offers weak-willed half hearted apologies, everybody falls to their feet to pray for him. This is really stupid. The rest of the cast will consistently break character just to puff Alex up. It just runs in contrast to the game's themes. Alex YIIK has to care for his friends, be a nice guy and do for them what they do for him - he can't be totally unlikable all the time and have people fall at his feet. This happens for the whole story, to the point where it gets all of his friends killed. This is what really instigates his change, but this is only for the final few hours of the game. They sell it, but it's already too late. Alex YIIK does go through development before that point, becoming marginally nicer - but it's not enough of a constant change to lead to this kind of Persona 4 style friendship group that support each other all the time. Especially not when Alex YIIK can make one of the characters kill themselves. Which, disregarding the obvious tastelessness on display, is absolutely terrible - and is tolerated by the main cast. It just doesn't work out. Alex YIIK develops in a way that feels totally disconnected from the rest of the cast, and it seriously kills the theme of the game.
In summary on Alex YIIK himself before I talk briefly about the rest of the cast, Alex YIIK simultaneously works, and yet, he doesn't. He's a great character concept carrying poignant ideas throughout the story, even if he's written poorly - but he is in total disconnect with the world around him. This kills him as a character, and makes him feel more like he is being celebrated for being a bad person, rather than growing - which he needs to do for the story to function.
The rest of the cast are rather hit or miss. I was a really big fan of Rory and Claudio. Rory is a sweet but really depressed guy who's struggling with his mental health after the death of his sister. He doesn't know how to cope, and this has led him to the point of delusion - when he meets the cast, he almost seriously hurts them because of this delusion. This plunges him into depression when Alex YIIK screams at him, telling him nobody cares about his dead sister. A lot of the game is helping him cope, and becoming a better and more confident person who can help others. He's sweet, and I like him. Claudio, on the other hand, is a mature black man who runs a record shop and is super into weird anime. He's really chill and respectful, and he doesn't like to lose his mind over anything. He's got a business of his own, a comfortable adult life, and he's happy that way. I like that. He's a good contrast to Alex YIIK - when he isn’t breaking his character to lick his boots. The rest of the cast suck and are boring. Most of them are just exposition dumps. Michael especially is probably the most boring fictional character ever, despite being a clear expy of Yosuke from Persona 4. I found most of them grating, with Rory and Claudio being the only major exceptions.
I still haven't talked about the gameplay yet, and it's for good reason. It REALLY sucks. Everything is based on little QTE minigames, and all of them are very unfun and repetitive. These minigames are clearly inspired by Mario and Luigi, but they lack the diversity to keep them interesting. Instead, you are doing the same QTE on loop with little to no strategy. It's just painfully boring, and that is all there is to it. Add on the uninteresting dungeons that do little of note with their puzzles as well as mind-numbing grinding requirements throughout the game, and actually playing this game is terrible. The gameplay just isn't up to par.
The music, on the other hand, is somewhat solid. It's all hit or miss with this game, but I think this soundtrack does land some good ones. Alex's theme is actually pretty good, and it makes for a good leitmotif that reappears throughout the game in various new contexts. A lot of the battle music is really awesome, and diverse, due to the huge amount of composers who worked on the game. Some of the tracks are still really bad, though. The soundtrack lacks consistency and cohesion outside of Alex's motif, which is definitely a result of numerous composers who were working on different pages. The visuals are particularly striking and memorable, too. I really liked them, they really do encapsulate post-modern visual design, conveying many emotions and scenarios through minimalism and surrealism. It's a cool visual fulfillment of post-modernism inspired by post-modern paintings and artists.
So what's left to say about YIIK? Honestly? A lot. Maybe one day I will make a full-on video essay on this behemoth. It's a complex beast, and I'm glad I sat down and really gave it a chance. However, it also really, really sucks. It sucks to see a game that I personally find myself morally agreeing with in many ways just... suck so much shit. But still, I think there is something to be learnt from this. I think just like how Alex YIIK represents our worst insecurity - YIIK itself is no different. Anybody could have made a game like YIIK - ambitious, with a lot to say, that falls short for one reason or another. I feel for the developers, because I think they had a lot of ideas and everything just kind of came crashing down on them. Their heart was in this, and so was their passion. It just hasn't born out. It can happen to anybody, it really can. I don't fault them for this game. I don’t fault Alex YIIK entirely, either. Because in both cases, it really can happen to anybody. We’ve all got a bit of Alex YIIK in us - and we all have the potential in us to make something like YIIK, for better or for worse. This isn't just a "quirky Earthbound-inspired RPG,” like many people insist that it is. This is a uniquely bad game - something that could only come from passion, and love.
So, YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is bad. Really bad, actually. But it is genuine. ACKK Studios was making what they wanted to make. This is an earnest trainwreck, rather than a cynical attempt at a generic, indie RPG. Maybe that brings you comfort. Maybe that makes the game even funnier. Personally, I think that makes this whole thing hurt just a bit more.
Super Castlevania IV
the writing in this game is just
"WOAH THERE MR. BADASS MCSWAGOTRON! HOW YA DOIN WITH THAT BITCHIN NEW MISSION EH????? HOW BOUT THOSE SEXY NEW GUNS?????? AHAHA ANYWAYS MY WIFE LEFT ME BUT THATS BESIDES THE POINT, WE GOTTA GO KILL THAT ULTRA BONER NAMED HANDSOME JACK! ANYWAYS, I GOTTA GO, MY MICROWAVED BURRITOS ARE DONE! FUCK EM UP MR. AWESOMESAUCE!"
hire me randy and then treat me like shit
Make no mistake, despite the low score I actually had a great time with the original Yakuza! However, it's also not hard for me to admit the game does kinda suck.
For context, I recently played through Yakuza 0 and absolutely fell in love with it, so I've decided to do a sort of marathon of the series. A friend of mine gifted me a PS2 copy of this along with Yakuza 2 for my birthday. If you're reading this bro, thanks again, man! Sorry if you may not agree with everything I'm about to say though.
I kinda pity those who started with either Zero or Kiwami and didn't like the combat from there, because ho boy, they really don't understand how far the series has come. Combat in this game is kind of a clunker. Kiryu is noticeably slow in this game in both turn-speed and frame-data. When you attack in this game, he will commit to swinging his fists in that direction, but the enemies you encounter are very slow too, so I can't say the game isn't designed around Kiryu's slow moveset. However, the main problem is that Kiryu doesn't have a hard lock-on like in other action games. He has to rely on a soft lock-on that doesn't give an indicator to when it activates and isn't very intelligent, as it will often break mid-combo. Combine that with the uncontrollable camera in battles, battles will often look like drunken fisticuffs where Kiryu clumsily whiffs his fists 40 degrees away from someone right up in his face. This becomes a problem when in the later half of the game you fight crowds of people with bats, swords, or god forbid guns and you get wobbled around in hit stun because your big kick didn't combo properly. Combat is still relatively easy though. Most of the problems Kiryu faces into can be solved by hitting square 4x > triangle and it will eat their guards and knock them down most of the time, where you can walk up to them and hit triangle for a heat execution move. This was my end-all-be-all stradegy for about 90% of the encounters in the game, which isn't exactly very engaging. By around the half-way point of the game, I would actively try to avoid walking into encounters in Kamurocho (which by the way, the encounter rate is comically high in this game, like Final Fantasy IV bad.) because they weren't exactly pounding my pulses anymore.
Speaking of walking around in Kamurocho, I was surprised to see just how hard they nailed the atmosphere in this game. The streets of Kamurocho are often dark and litered with trash, only brought to life by the illumination of neon signs and dim street lights and the bustling crowds of noisy people. The fixed camera angles while walking around also makes the city seem daunting, as the camera angles often pan above Kiryu to make the city seem larger than he is. It's absolutely fascinating stuff, and you combine that with the side quests you can find while talking to NPCs on the streets (which unfortunately most of them are fetch quests, with a scant few being memorable side stories) you really get the feel Kamurocho is a living, breathing metropolitian, crime-ridden, red light district.
As for the story, it feels like a great proof of concept. I was suprised to see how briskly paced it all was, baring one chapter which mostly felt like filler. Maybe a little too brisk. I feel the cast of characters introduced here the devs haven't decided what to exactly do with yet, so they end off coming off more as prototypes for the larger narriative than real explored characters yet. One of the few characters that actually do get some scenes of character development outside of Kiryu and Haruka, Detective Date, gets his scenes in the aformeantioned filler chapter. It doesn't tie into the main story at all, but it was also nice to see a side character with his own struggles with the themes of family in this game.
Unfortunately that may also be because this game has a quite frankly hilarious dub. I miss when Sega was the kings of shitty akward dubbing, and this game offers plenty of lines that made me burst out laughing. It's still unfortunate because the actual good performances in this game like Mark Hamill as Goro Majima still has to wrestle with the horrid sound mixing. The dub does kinda ruin the mood of some scenes that were genuinely cool, there's still a lot of hype moments in this game that unfortunately gets bogged down by bad voice direction or bad sound mixing. Let me share some of my favorite iconicly bad lines:
"I did feel the urge to hit some balls today... I suppose yours will have to do"
"Go! Kill this arrogant mo-ther-fuck-er!"
"Women: "Are you fucking [R slur]?" Kiryu: I'm not as stupid as you."
I know this whole review seems kinda negative so far, but I was being genuine when I said I actually still had a great time with Yakuza despite all these flaws. Perhaps it was the brisk flow of the story, the atmosphere, and the discovery of all the little side content within the streets of Kamurocho is what kept me engaged throughout this experience the most. It's rare to see a game attempt to experiement with a bunch of ideas and still come out with something unlike anything back in the day.
The entire experience actually reminded me a lot of when I played Demon Soul's last year. Both games where born from internal company failure and both directors set out to create a new ambitious idea to lay the ground work of a now iconic series, rising their studios to fame. Both games do feel a tad clunky and maybe less-fleshed out than they should be, but both games still feature experimental mechanics and atmosphere unlike anything else from their respective series. It's special to play a game like that, but I would argue Demon's is a more polished game overall, which is why I've played through that game three times as of writing this.
I'm not sure when I'll return to Yakuza 1, because while I did have my fun with it, I can also see this as a hard game to come back to if the other games deliver as much as people say they do. Yakuza is a beautiful messy blueprint and I'm ready to see how they'll iron out these kinks of this pretty solid game in its sequels.
1 Lists liked by LukeGirard