Monthly Archives: April 2014

Block Rockin’ Beeps: Gundam Wing Endless Duel – Epyon

Track Name: Epyon
Track Composer: Hiroyuki Iwatsuki, Haruo Ohashi
Game: Gundam Wing: Endless Duel
Platform: SNES
Sound Chip/System: Sony SPC700 +Sony DSP

I don’t like Gundam Wing. An odd way to start praising something bearing its name but it’s absolutely true. When I was younger and anime was only just starting to find its feet in the UK I watched nearly anything I could find. I’d buy random VHS tapes, record anything that was broadcast in the late night Friday Sci-Fi Channel anime and pick up DVDs based on cover alone. Most of what I watched was, to put it kindly, utter shite but back then this was all we had! Eventually Cartoon Network starting to get in on the anime game and me and my friends were avid watchers of whatever scraps they threw our way. When they started showing trailers for Mobile Suit Gundam Wing we were excited, at 15 years old we were looking forward to giant robots and fights! Something new!

Then it aired and despite my best efforts I couldn’t get into it. None of us could. I think we were expecting something different, perhaps the Gundams being made of Gundanium just sounded too silly or maybe it was poor timing. Whatever the reason, we never kept up with it. We did, however, stumble upon its game one day while messing around with SNES emulators.

It was surprisingly awesome. This was what we wanted, a one-on-one fighter starring giant robots beating the crap out of each other with a genuinely fun combat system. It’s not an utter classic like Street Fighter 2 but it certainly held its own as a fun fighting game, especially in multiplayer, and between me and a friend we racked up a fair few hours of battling.

What also really stuck in my mind was how damn good the music was.

When it comes to 16-bit era music I’m a firm fan of the Mega Drive’s synthesis and often I find the SNES to possess slightly technically superior sound, but with weak and unimpressive samples that render its tunes less impressive. Thankfully this is not the case for Endless Duel.

Epyon is the final boss in the game and is given a suitably climatic and grand track. The opening choir-style sound (that is reprised later) is stunning, appearing more powerful and grand than the SNES should be able to produce. Underneath that the phasing vibrations shift from ear to ear, complemented by the speedy hi-hat hits that create the intensity the track deserves. The central parts of the track are dramatic, emotional and feel very much the kind of sound you’d hear in an anime series itself. It’s not just a giant robot fight; it’s something more important and powerful, something with real stakes!

Even now, some fifteen years after I first discovered the game, the music holds a good sense of power and dramatic composition. The rest of the soundtrack is of similar quality, there’s not a foot put wrong throughout, but the Epyon track is an outstanding piece. Something that feels somewhat removed from the hardware powering it, which isn’t always a good thing, but here it works, it flows and dances in a way you’re hard pressed to find in most chiptune music.

Interestingly the engine for the game was recycled, with some improvements, and used to make Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Fighting Edition, also for the SNES. The gameplay is just as good, even if the licence is a little shoddier, but sadly the music didn’t make the transition and while the new tracks aren’t too bad, they’re nothing on the level of Endless Duel.

Block Rockin Beeps: Panzer Dragoon Saga – Uru Ruins

Track Name: Uru Ruins (Water Theme)
Track Composer: Saori Kobayashi, Mariko Nanba
Game: Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998)
Platform: Sega Saturn
Sound Chip/System: Saturn Sound Processor

Rarity is not an indication of quality, especially in the video game world. Limited runs, prototype carts, competition leftovers, they’re all a part of what makes a game rare and valuable, but a surprising amount of these titles aren’t particularly interesting as games themselves. Family Stadium for the NES, the Japanese edition of “Virtual Bart” on the Mega Drive, Clay Fighter 63 1/3 on the N64, they’re just a few of the shite games that command surprisingly high prices on the collectors market.

Thankfully when it comes to the Sega Saturn’s most famous rare title, Panzer Dragoon Saga, there is an incredible game to be found. When I was a student with loan money to fritter away idiotically I was lucky enough to buy a near-mint UK edition, complete with its card sleeve, for a not-inconsiderable £100. I feared buyer’s remorse but when I played the game I felt it was worth every penny.

Panzer Dragoon Saga is a unique, wondrous RPG. To date there is nothing quite like it. It evolved out of the two acclaimed rail shooters that preceded it which is a very strange genre shift, but one that led to some truly inspired mechanics. The battle system represents a hybrid of turn-based RPG battles and the real time action that the series was famous for. All battle take place in the air, riding on the back of your dragon; you speed alongside your enemies and choose your actions on the countdown of a timer but at the same time you manoeuvre around your foes in real time. Positioning is essential to success as it affects enemy attacks and defences, as well as your own, which means that you’re always engaged in the action, even while having wait for your attack timers. It’s exhilarating, screaming through the air, flying around your enemies and blasting them out of the skies; even now I can feel the same thrill I had the first day I played it. It managed to keep true to the spirit of the prior two games, but added a tactical depth that fit into this title perfectly.

The other highlight, for me, is during the flight exploration. While not in combat there are two modes of traversal; while in towns or villages you’re on foot and the dragon waits for your return, when out in the world and dungeons you ride upon the dragon’s back. The game is, which was unusual for the genre at the time, in full 3D and when you’re exploring the world you have full 360 degree control of your dragon. Even when in the more closed environments it’s a liberating freedom and one that works surprisingly well.

When I say it’s surprising that the freedom of movement works well it’s partly in comparison to other games in the genre, but mostly because of the Saturn’s infamously awkward 3D. While there are some games on the system that overcame its limitations to some degree, none fared as well as Panzer Dragoon Saga. It’s thanks to several elements that the game comes together, the programmers at Team Andromeda worked well with the Saturn hardware and the artists had an inspiring, strange vision that gave rise to an intriguing world that players wanted to explore. Along with these though I feel what tied the entire package together was the music.

The track I have picked is an eerie, mysterious piece, one of calm desolation. It plays while you explore an ancient ruin, looking for a key piece of information for the story. It’s a wide open arena which you are free to fly around and this slow expansive track scores the experience perfectly. It has the sense of space, the sense of an open area, but also the old and foreboding calmness, the eye of the storm feeling. Much of the game’s score has higher energy with more percussive elements and this track is at odds with that, but in a perfect way, the moment of unusual peace makes the exploration of the ruins more powerful, exploring an atmosphere you’ve not encountered so far.

All the music throughout fills in the gaps that graphics could not. It gives the imagination more to hold on to and elevates every part of the game, breaking its limitations astoundingly. It also achieves something very powerful with its instrumentation choices, giving the music a feeling of alien tradition. The music seems routed in a culture, but it’s a fictional one and yet it feels hundreds of years old.

It’s a sad thing that the game is hard to come by, and expensive to do so, and that SEGA has foolishly lost the source code. This is a game that should be heralded as classic, of the era and of the genre but when actually playing it is as hard as it is, that becomes impossible. The only hope at the moment is for Saturn emulation to reach some form of parity with the hardware, to allow people to experience this masterpiece. That or SEGA to actually take a risk and remake the game from scratch, but with the franchise’s last real outing being the underperforming Panzer Dragoon Orta on the original Xbox that chance seems more and more distant. Thankfully the memory is still out there; last year’s excellent Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed had a fantastic Panzer Dragoon themed track that tugged at my nostalgia strings in the best ways.

If there is any way to play the game for you, do it. You won’t regret it.

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Original

Gabriel Knight 1 is being remade, a 20th anniversary celebration of a highly-regarded adventure game. Its creator, Jane Jensen, is at the helm and her new studio seems to be doing a good job of bringing the old pixel art to life in 3D.

Sadly, according to Jensen, she’s keeping the gameplay identical. That, I feel, is a hell of a lost opportunity and a blockade to her desire to see the franchise resurrected.

store

I’ve been a big fan of adventure games throughout my life starting with my early experiences of Monkey Island and The 7th Guest. I understand the love for the genre and the fervour it creates in fans who feel frustrated that it fell out of favour as a top-budget endeavour. Still, I also understand the frustrations that those classic adventure games bring out. Good stories and characters were often locked behind absurd puzzles and inane invisible triggers, forcing players to twist their minds to the fragmented, distorted logic the designers employed. Even the best games, those that had clever-but-tough puzzles, often fell prey to cheap bottlenecks or poor communication. This issue was most famously discussed on the long-dead site Old Man Murray in this article written by Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszeck where they chronicled one of the worst puzzles in, suitably enough for this piece, Gabriel Knight 3.

There was a lot of bluster in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s about the death of adventure games. It was overblown and needlessly dramatic talk because the genre never died; it was just forced to evolve. Budgets shrank and the focus shifted, but the games stayed, and they improved. Arguably the end of the golden era of adventure games was the release of Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango; a sweeping, ingenious tale of corruption in the afterlife influenced by the Mexican celebration of Dia De Muertos. This hit the shelves at the end of 1998 and while Lucasarts had one final adventure up its sleeve it was, unfortunately, the disappointing Escape from Monkey Island. It was around then that people declared the genre dead and many people believed this was the case until fairly recently. Truthfully, it was only a few years, in 2001, before the release of the first part of one of the best adventure game series of all time, the original Gameboy Advance Japanese release of the first Phoenix Wright title. Granted it wasn’t until 2005 that the game was officially released in English for the Nintendo DS, but the genre was still out there and supported by a huge company, in this case: Capcom.

Over the course of the first three titles Phoenix Wright fixed some issues with the genre, while bolstering the strengths it already had. You play the titular Phoenix Wright, a defence attorney who must defend a variety of people against murder charges while discovering the truth in each individual case and an overarching story in each game. It focuses on interviews and interrogations of a wide range of interesting and hilarious characters, as well as investigating locations to look for evidence. The game relies, mostly, on simple logic and spotting contradictions in testimony and proving it with evidence. It’s not perfect, suffering from issues of needing to hit unknown triggers while out investigating and the most pressing issue, knowing what you want to prove but not which piece of evidence the game expects, which can get you penalised. Despite this Phoenix Wright took huge steps towards taking the frustration out of adventure gaming, solving puzzles relied on logic you could understand, and while situations were often surprisingly complex you could see and figure out what was occurring. The mental gymnastics and psychic powers that were needed to solve older games weren’t present.

museum

Other series have arisen, taking a variety of approaches. Another that is iconic to the DS is Professor Layton, games that separated the puzzles nearly entirely from their setting, making it a strange cross between a puzzle compendium and a regular book that rarely interacted but seemed to resonate with audience in a compelling way. LA Noire took a Phoenix Wright-like approach, only a lot more guided and forced, but again its solutions weren’t impossible to predict (though the need to always kill people on the side quests felt utterly bizarre). Amanita Design released Samorost 1+2 and Machinarium, strange games of exploration and interaction that were often abstract but were much better at communicating information to players, making them much more understandable.

So, back to Gabriel Knight. I have, just this week, played through the original title in its CD-ROM fully-voiced incarnation and enjoyed it quite a lot. The story and the way it was told through gradual investigation was engaging and interesting; talking to characters and gathering information and conversation topics felt natural and believable. The research that clearly went into Voodoo and its history made the plot genuinely fascinating at times and the passion for interesting belief systems came through strongly. Sadly these strengths and hooks were often fighting back against the inclusion of bizarre and frustrating puzzles that block your way with annoying regularity.

One that stuck in my mind happened fairly early in the game. You need the services of an artist at one point but he’s not interested in helping so here’s what you do: first you have to leave, then walk back into the scene and wait for the picture he’s working on to blow away and land behind a fence where he can’t reach it. Gabriel also can’t reach it so you have to get a $20 book token from his store, give it to a hotdog vendor so he’ll give you ONE dog, which you can then give to a tap-dancing child who will reach through the fence, grab the picture and allow you to take it to the artist who will finally agree to help you. Some elements of this puzzle are fine and make sense; others are unnecessary steps that are just odd. You could eliminate the hotdog vendor entirely and just have Gabriel ask the kid for a much more straightforward approach that didn’t feel so silly.

Throughout the game there are moments like this or worse. It’s far from the most heinous offender, especially in the Sierra catalogue, but they are bad enough to be frustrating in the middle of an engaging and interesting game. Now, twenty years later, the game is being remade and none of these issues are going to change. I’m sure the more die-hard fans of the original will be happy to hear its gameplay will remain identical; but ignoring the developments in the genre and the possibilities that exist for remaking the game in a less frustrating manner means its audience will be limited. Many people will run afoul of poor choices and frustrating design, likely giving up on the game, then where will the audience be for the mooted fourth title?

remake

I’m sure people would see this as me calling for the game to be “dumbed down” but that isn’t what I want. I want the game to actually make sense to the player, not just to the designers or people who already know the answers. You can make a tough puzzle without resorting to awkward leaps of logic or obscure connections and it’s those puzzles that feel the most satisfying. It’s a souring experience when you either look up a puzzle or stumble upon the solution by brute force and are left with the answer-less question of “How the hell was I supposed to know that?”

I wish Jane Jensen and her studio well with the remake, truly I hope they are successful, but at the same time I feel this kind of remake, especially when the original is still easily available (and artistically still good to look at and listen to, it’s just the limitations of the time) doesn’t add much to the package. It wastes an opportunity for tweaks to give the same story to a wider audience, in a smoother way, which is a shame.