Sunday, July 26, 2009

World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck- Genesis- Sega

I grew up watching the Disney Channel, and didn't even know thatt Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network existed until I was nearing ten. So, it should probably come as no surprise that I played a lot of Disney games during my youth and especially anything that offered the ability to play as that cantankerous duck in a sailor suit, Donald. It just so happens that Sega's 1992 World of Illusion offered me such a treat, and I was quick to be in line for that magic show. So is the game as magical as I remember or did Sega drop the deck mid shuffle?

The story is fairly simple. Mickey and Donald are practicing their magic act, when Donald is startled by one of the tricks, causing him to fall backwards through the curtains. This leads the two to discover a magical disappearing box. Donald, deciding that it'd be great addition to their act, hops in and immediately vanishes. Mickey, worried about his friend, begins to search for the trap door in the box when he too vanishes. As the two plummet into another world, they hear a voice telling them that besting him in magic is the only way he'll allow them to escape from his domain. Now, Mickey and Donald must traverse this world of magic and illusion if they ever want to see home again.

Visually, the game is gorgeous with detailed spirits and fluid animations. The world is as bright and cheerful as one would expect from the House of Mouse and Sega, and the levels exude that charm that is all but mandatory in a Disney game.

Though there are only 5 levels, each seems to to send the player to a multitude of various locations. From the forests to the mountains and under the sea, Donald and Mickey will be whisked to several beautiful and whimsical areas, and that doesn't even cover the stranger stages like a giant study, a world of cookies, or wonderland itself.

The enemy sprites are either pulled straight from various Disney movies and shorts, or they are made up of common characters that have been tweaked to make them fit into the theme of the level, such as Tweedledee and Tweedledum being redone as poppers for the Christmas Tree level.

The gameplay is fairly simple. The A button runs, B attacks, and C jumps. Though simple, the layout controls feels a bit awkward, especially as I like having the run button close to jump. Luckily, the controls are fully customizable, and it seems that their is no difference between a walking jump and a running jump.

As the game was meant for children, the action is of a nonviolent nature. The attack button cause Donald or Mickey to swing out a magical cape, which transforms their enemies into harmless magical items such as a dove or a card. Whether that is a worse fate than death, I'm not entirely sure.

The game is also very short. I was able to beat the game in about forty minutes the first time through as Donald, in about thirty as Mickey, and in about an hour during the two player mode. World of Illusion isn't a game that would last a seasoned platformer very long, but it's the perfect length for kids.

Luckily, though short, the game does have a good bit of replayability, due eniterly to the fact that each character has a unique segment in each of the five levels. The levels follow a specific pattern by starting the characters in a shared environment before sending them to their own section, which is followed by another shared section, which ends in a boss battle.

It is my opinion that the differences between each characters levels replaces the difficulty options. For example, during the third level (an underwater level), Mickey is able to crawl through a small gap and ends up in the belly of a whale. Donald, on the other hand, can't fit his large rump through the gap and is forced to double back and swim to the surface for a more challenging platforming section. Of course, if the game were being played by two players, than Mickey would be able to pull Donald through the gap, which would send the pair to either Atlantis or a bizarrely dry version of King Triton's Palace.

That leads us to probably the best bit about the game. It is not only a two player game, but an actual cooperative game. The players must work together to not only overcome enemies but obstacles as well. They can stand on each other's shoulders to reach high platforms, lower ropes, and help push a handcar through a collapsing mine.

Each of the cooperative sections are more challenging (due to the cooperative nature) and often more inventive than the single player sections, except for the final one. Where as in the single player game Mickey or Donald explore the area behind the mirror or a hedge maze respectively, in the cooperative mode, the two end up in a room of doors, each of which takes them back to an already explored area. Seeing as the game is only an hour long, the section ends up feeling extremely tedious.

The bosses, unfortunately, are no different between the various modes, meaning that they are even more simple on the two player game. Most bosses take about five hits to bring down, and when two players are working in tandem there isn't really any strategy required.

After each boss, Mickey and Donald are granted a tome of magical knowledge, which will grant them a spell that will get them through the next level. These spells are mostly just varying modes of transportation, such as a magic carpet, a bubble that allows them to breathe underwater, and a teleportation spell. Even the spell that allows them to control cards does little more than create platforms. Though these spells don't change the gameplay up to drastically, they add to the magic of the game and are still enjoyable if only because hearing Donald say "Alakazam" is always amusing.

The music is definitely the highlight of the game. It covers a wide range of styles and almost all of them are pleasing even if they aren't terribly memorable. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the sound affects, though most are passable, some, such as the sound of swimming in the bubble, are grating to the ears.

All in all, World of Illusion is a well made game. It's beautiful, and the music is wonderful. However, it's simply too easy to be played multiple times by someone good at these types of games. Yet, if you have a kid that has a friend, than this game would probably be right up their alley.

Monday, July 20, 2009

No update this week.

I apologize for the lack of an actual review these past two weeks. I have been out of town and have only just returned at which point I discovered my cat has gone missing. The original plan was that I'd write up another essay, but with my cat being gone, I will probably spend today looking for him.

I'll be back next week with a new review. I hope to see you then.

Thank you.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Defying the Odds: Power Fantasies of the Single Player in the Current Generation

We've all done it at some point, whether it was as children or last Tuesday while on the drive to work. We've all had those little moments where the mind begins to walk its own path, separate from both reality and logic. In those moments, we envision scenarios for ourselves in which we become a larger than life persona, a sort of superhero . We become powerful, confident, and content. We leap from the roof tops, win miraculous court cases, fend off armies, or win the love of that model on that particular billboard we always pass. But all too soon, logic breaks through to our little safe haven and pulls us back to life, leaving a part of us that feels silly that we allowed ourselves to get so taken in by our delusions of grandeur. And yet, there is another part, the part that holds onto our childhood dreams like they were fragile, ceramic Legos, that already misses the fun and the rush of the imagined world.

That little vestige of our childhood is what the single player mode in video games reaches out to. The single player, or story mode, does not target the same emotions that a multiplayer mode would, nor the same that can be found by playing board games or card games. That is not because there is some inherent difference in how each one is a game, but rather, it is due to a difference in the stakes.

The prime reason for this is competition. In games where the main mode of play is that which pits a person against against a varying number of others, all the combinations of skill and luck that can exist between come into play. In a game like Go Fish, it is hard to know who will be asked for a card or what that card may be. Likewise, one never fully knows what word someone may play next in Scrabble, or if an opponent will rise over the hill in Halo to interrupt ones ambush. As a result, though winning does feel good and accomplishing something difficult feels great, it is rare to have those moments where one gains and maintains that feeling of absolute dominance over one's surroundings that are required in a power fantasy.

Story mode though, in many cases, is custom tailored to create that feeling. Often, the player controls either the sole person capable of saving the world or a small group of heroes capable of defying the odds. So, while playing, one becomes the sole deciding factor between not only the player's own life and death, but also almost everyone else on the planet's. And through the characters, the player becomes so central that the weight of a world is on their shoulders. It does not mater that others have experienced the same victory. At that time and in that place, it is all on that particular player.

Over time, the core group of players that stuck with the hobby have improved, which makes games seem to have gotten easier. There are a combination of factors at play here besides just increased player skill, but for the experienced player there is only one important thing. The weight on their shoulders is little more than than the weight of a a baseball.

It's a pressure so minor that one could dance underneath it, take risks, and reap huge rewards. And yet, it is a weight that is still constantly present. The difficulty reminds the player that it exists, but it never actually impedes ones progress. It's a carefully crafted and balanced experience designed to never frustrate. As a result, the player begins to feel super human, as enemies capable of destroying armies during a cinematic collapse easily under the weight of the player's onslaught.

In Gears of War, the player takes the role of Marcus Fenix, a man freshly freed from jail. As it turns out, the war against the Locust that has been raging while he was inside is not going well. Luckily, Marcus is just the sort of hero that is required in a situation like this. Under his leadership, a squad of four are able to punch through enemy lines and deliver, what the player and Marcus believe at the time, to be crippling a defeat to the Locust. Of course, the need for a sequel negates the force of the ending a bit, but the point still remains. The player does what millions of men could not, when he or she drives back the enemy. Hope springs again in the hearts of man because of the actions of the player and his or her squad.

It is the kind of situation that would seem ridiculous in life, but on the screen and in the game, that very ridiculousness only increases the effect. We can easily turn off the brain as we pick up the controller, and become the kind of hero that we've always dreamed of. And when we put the controller down and turn the system off, we can return to reality without the feeling that we might be a bit too silly, because not only have we saved the world, but we've also driven back the boredom in our lives.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Gex-PSX-Crystal Dynamics

Childhood favorites are always the hardest games to write about. I got Gex for the Sega Saturn back in 96, while a friend got it for the Playstation. I must have played through the game countless times, enough that I could almost remember every level in detail of Crystal Dynamic's little gem. However, like all things, coming back to it years later has brought the nostalgia crashing into the reality of the game. So is Gex as good as I remember, or is it just killing my TV?

The story of Gex is a bit convoluted. Most of is only revealed in the manual, and never mentioned inside the actual game. The manual discusses Gex's adolescence in Maui, Hawaii. Raised by his mother while his father worked his job at NASA, Gex lived a rather idealistic life, hanging with friends, surfing, and throwing poi parties. Until one day, his mother receives a phone call. Gex's father had been killed when the rocket he was to be piloting blew up the launch pad.

Rather than dealing with his problems like the rest of the family, our lizard friend bottled up his emotions and began to focus all of his attentions on the television. When Gex's addiction grew problematic, the family tried to intervene by moving to California and leaving the TV behind.

The loss of his TV caused Gex to run away from home. He lived on the streets for several months, until one day, his family found him again. Due to the death of his father, Gex, as well as the rest of his family, had inherited a massive fortune. With his share of the money, Gex bought a mansion back in Maui and a giant TV, where he wastes his days away. That is, until Rez pulled Gex into the Media Dimension. Now, Gex must destroy televisions in order to escape.

There's actually a slight bit of pathos to the story. More so than most heroes at the time, Gex had real issues and had taken refuge from them in a very humane way, especially considering he's a lizard. But not only that, there's a slight air of condemnation for the sedentary life that Gex is living. The player is constantly being reminded by Gex that he doesn't have a life and that the only way to escape the Media Dimension is to kill your TV.

Oddly enough, little of this makes it way into the actual game. Without reading the manual, the only thing that the player will know is that Rez has pulled Gex into the Media Dimension, and now he's got to escape. The interesting thing about this is that it grants an interesting story to the gamers that want it, while never forcing it down the throat of those that don't.

Regardless of the story, Gex remains the wisecracking hero that was so prevalent in the 90's. Unlike Bug though, Gex's jokes and banter serve as a way to strengthen the character and draw the player deeper into the game. This is in part because because Gex was voiced by the comedian Dana Gould, who was able to deliver the quips and commentary in a much more pleasing way.

The game is actually rather simple. The player must guide Gex through five themed worlds (A sixth is hidden), in his quest for freedom. Each world is made up of a small collection of levels and a boss battle, and new levels and worlds are opened up by finding the remotes that are hidden in each one.

Though the structure is simple, actually accomplishing the objectives in Gex can be a bit of a challenge. Near the end of the game, the jumps, traps, and enemies require more than just a little bit of finesse to bypass. Thankfully, Gex is quite talented in both combat and navigating terrain.

In combat, Gex has a standard tail attack that can defeat most enemies. The only problem is that getting so close to them leaves Gex vulnerable. As there is a bit of a delay between when an enemy is struck and when they no longer cause damage, this is not always the safest path. The tail bounce is a much safer decision if the player wishes to fight in close, as the bounce after landing on an enemy ensures that Gex is well out of harms way.

Additionally, Gex can eat special orbs that contain flies. These orbs grant the lizard several different special abilities. A red orb allows him to shoot fire. A dark blue orb allows him to shoot ice. A yellow orb lets him fire out a spread-shot of lightening. These orbs grant Gex with an almost unfair advantage over his enemies, but that power is lost if Gex takes damage.

These powers also stack. Eating three fire bugs gives Gex not only three extra slip-ups before the powers are gone, but also three extra hit points. Combine that with the orange orbs that increase Gex's maximum health for the duration of that life or level, and it becomes not uncommon for a skilled player to possess nine hit points at the end of some levels instead of three.

There are other orbs as well: an orb that increases Gex's speed for a time, one that increases his jumping abilities until he takes damage, one that creates a wind shield that protects Gex from damage, and simple ones that restore health or grant extra lives.

Early on the player will likely eat every orb they come across, hoarding as much power as they can, but later on the game becomes much more tricky. Sometimes all one wants is a health refill, but all that is available is a speed boost. Luckily, by attacking the orb rather than eating it, Gex is able to take that speed boost orb, or any orb, and turn it into health.

To move through levels easily, Gex can climb walls, ceilings, and certain backgrounds. When combined with his ability to tail bounce off of most enemies and several obstacles this grants Gex a freedom of movement that not many other platforming characters have.

Unfortunately, the game is neither that long nor that difficult. In my mind, I remember Gex as a lengthy and challenging platformer that defeated me forever. And in a sense it was.

Though few in number, most of the levels are actually rather long, and many have branching paths and up to four or five checkpoints to keep one from having to go back too far. The later levels are also rather challenging. Deaths can come suddenly from instant death pits or slowly from a simple onslaught of traps and enemies.

So what makes the game so easy? It gives out lives as if they are M&Ms. The first time I played through the game again, I reached Rez with 96 lives, and beat him with 82. Lives are gained so frequently, that despite the game offering a feeling of danger and tension, it never really matters much. In fact, many of the most difficult sections are proceeded by a checkpoint and several lives. It's not uncommon to gain lives by dying at certain points.

And other than Rez, the bosses are extremely easy, due to their patterned nature. Thankfully, they are at least interestingly varied. Ranging from superhero with super-gas to a snake-like monster that Gex must race up a mountain, each boss manages to remain unique. Even the battle with Rez boils down to simple patterns. Fortunately, Rez changes up so often and actually damaging him is so difficult that most players will lose a life or two to simple human error.

Musically, the game is nothing amazing. Each area has three music tracks: one for the world map, one for the levels, and one for the boss. Though a little banal, these tracks do manage to fit the theme and the B-movie vibe of the game very well. The sound effects are excellent, every attack carries a snap and auditory punch that makes the world sound alive. Gex's quips and the little bit of Rez's dialogue are well delivered, even if Gex does tend to repeat jokes extremely frequently. Some of the jokes have also become dated, but a good number are still funny today.

Gex is a fantastic game, but it's not without its faults. The controls are slightly slippery and the challenge is a bit uneven. It's also a little on the short side and predates memory cards. So it'd be a good idea to have some paper and a pen ready. However, if you can endure a couple over used jokes and are looking for a PSX or Saturn platformer, Gex will be sure to amuse until he escapes the Media Dimension.