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Sorry, I’m going to be ‘that guy’

Posted : 5 years, 8 months ago on 22 March 2013 10:59 (A review of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes)

Metroid Prime. For over a decade I had people telling me I should play Metroid Prime, that it was no ordinary first person shooter. In fact, according to Nintendo, it wasn’t a first shooter at all: it was a “first person adventure.” Unimpressed with the fancy language I purchased the game and proceeded to play it. Things started off kind of slow despite the fact the opening level seemed more than content to relive the opening to Super Metroid but by the end of the game I was surprisingly sold on the fact that not only Metroid Prime was good, Metroid Prime was actually great. It contained the same exact feel of a 2D Metroid only in a 3D setting. No small feat.

Needless to say I was ready for more and Prime was willing since there were two more games. However, as I was trying to locate a reasonably priced copy of Prime 2 in the kind of condition that would appease my boarder line psychotic collecting standards I ran into an opinion about Echoes on YouTube by The Gaming Brit that really attracted my attention. Whether he wanted to or not, the Brit actually built up Prime 2 to be something special. With my opinion of the original game so high this is the kind of thing I wanted to hear. Anyways, I was able to obtain Echoes from a friend up in Canada but the game sat on my shelf for two months until I saw a video review of the game by somecallmejohnny from the Super Game Bros which was much more negative. Watching this video I could see how some of the things he was talking about could be annoying, but a six out of ten seemed to low considering he gave Metroid II a six and a half – a score I strongly disagreed with. This is nothing new as I fail to agree with many of his scores (Zero Mission and Fusion aren’t THAT good…) but now I was really curious of what Prime 2 had to offer. Whose opinion did I agree with more?

The first thing that really strikes me about the game is how flaccid the opening is. Looking for the federation vessel and fleet is really uninteresting and is just a sorry excuse to get Samus on Aether. Prime cheesed out and used a ton of nostalgia in its opening but we have the opposite situation here and the quicker you get through it the better. This doesn’t mean the game immediately gets better once you meet U-Mos because it doesn’t. It’s really hard to explain why Samus’ quest to return the light to Aether remains in neutral for so long. At first you think it’s the locations - that the maps aren’t up to snuff to those in the first game - but the further you get the more the game disproves that theory. The main areas aren’t really interconnected with one another like other Metroid games until very late in the game, and even then these alternate routes don’t prove too useful. Then there’s Dark Aether which sounds interesting until you explore it. For the most part the dark alternate of the Luminoth’s world slows down an already slow experience making the first half of the game a real test.

In the dark world we meet the Ing, the source of Aether’s woes. Now I’m sure this is a pretty pessimistic point of view, but am I the only that finds the Ing to be uninteresting? They are an obstacle and little else to me whereas the space pirates were brilliantly fleshed out through logs in the first Prime which are in a frustrating, short supply this time around. The capper is the Ing are more interesting when they posses more unorthodox beings (like Quadraxis!) then when they attack in their more common forms. Personally I think the way they bubble around before taking shape has to be one – if not the – ugliest effect in the entire game. Having them move around in more of a mist would have been much more effective.

The only thing that gives the conflict with the Ing any measurable kind of gravity are the logs left by deceased Luminoth warriors. Well, that and the game’s boss fights. The boss fights are easily the games candy and are even more complex than they were in the previous game. You’d think this might become a problem since it almost was in the first game but the game manages to pull it off. And really, that phrase – manages to pull it off – pretty much sums up Echoes. Around every corner Echoes does something that is downright irksome, something its predecessor didn’t do. Yet for all the grief it causes it manages to survive somehow. Is it dumb luck? Is it ingenious attention to detail? I don’t know. But whatever it is Echoes is damn lucky it’s there are this would be a sophomore slump of mammoth proportions.

However, just because the game makes up for its grievances near the end (where it actually creates a few new ones) does not mean I will go easy on it. Yes, Prime 2 is a good game, but it’s not a great game. Most of the fault lies with the games semi-irritating structure but then that’s what makes this game stick out among the other titles in the franchise. There really isn’t another Metroid that feels as detached as Echoes. I wish I could say that’s an endearing quality but it’s not, and that’s why as a game it scores significantly lower than the original with me.

So in the end the game really isn’t what expected or got from either video I referenced in the opening paragraph. I’m not really disgusted with it yet I am far from wanting to have its hypothetical love child. When all is said and done the game is just kind of there, a product that has the potential to be great but doesn’t quite get there because all of it’s notable features/changes are also negatives.

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Mega Man X5: A Battle of Form and Function

Posted : 5 years, 8 months ago on 6 March 2013 07:50 (A review of Mega Man X5)

Mega Man X5: a game that’s purpose was buried under an avalanche of avarice and greed. As I placed this once concluding piece of an abused franchise into my PlayStation 2 to gather data for this review, I reflected on the eternal battle between the words “decent” and “mediocre” in my mind. When does a decent gaming experience become mediocre? Is calling any game decent merely a cop-out for those unwilling to be more decisive in their decision making? With many claiming that giving a game a seven out of ten in review leaves too much of a gray area for those that are reading, does that mean this take on what Mega Man X5 has to offer is doomed to be irrelevant?

Not quite. Like most gamers I’ve come across many games in my time. Some have been spectacular some have been horrible while most have been average. The sole constant in all these games is how their ins-and-outs tell a story. Like books, the quality of these stories varies wildly, with some having more important lessons to teach than others. Such a statement is hardly original, but I’ve found that regardless of the item being judged time rewards analysis. For example, even a bad game can inspire a well-written review. Still, I typically find that good yet conflicted products make the best writing fodder as reading through an unyielding wall of praise or negativity is just boring. A constant struggle between the good and bad describes a lot of games, but as I gazed over the ones I’ve acquired over the years there was only one game on my shelf that filled the bill: Mega Man X5.

A Full Motion-less Hangover?

With a valley as fertile as Mega Man X5, one might think that identifying a starting point would prove difficult. It’s true that there is a lot to talk about – the story, the DNA power-up system, character selection, music and a host of other things – but there is one area that deserves special attention since it is almost always brought up in review: X5’s general lack of full motion video. Many players (including myself) fell in love with its implementation in Mega Man X4 (and perhaps to a little lesser extent in Mega Man 8) which helped mark the franchise’s tenth anniversary back in 1997. Now given the three year gap between X4 and X5 I’m sure a lot of fans were expecting a bit more than what we eventually got with X5 - I know I was when Mega Man X4 blew my socks off and became one of my favorite sidescrollers of all-time – but the fact is many of Mega Man X5’s visual concessions are unfortunately necessary.

Unlike Mega Man X4, which followed the structure of its predecessors, Mega Man X5 attempts to turn its story into something else, something much more tangible than previous games. Whether or not it succeeds at doing that is a debate we’ll get into later, but because the story line is such a large part of the experience the structure of the game is changed dramatically. Because there are so many ifs, ands and buts that affect one’s progress through the game full motion video would have been an insanely poor choice. This isn’t to say it would be impossible – it could definitely be done – but would be real improbable and it wouldn’t surprise me if budget restraints played a hand in such a decision. It’s very possible that Mega Man X4 and Mega Man 8 had a larger pool of capital to work with than X5 did a few years later considering that 1997 was a banner year for the franchise. So while I’m not the biggest fan of how Mega Man X5’s story is presented, from a business-like point of view I understand it. That said the lack of full motion video is far from being the most interesting aspect of the game.

A Misleading Choice

After we view the game’s opening video – which is stuffed full of nostalgia (more on that later) – we come to the title screen. The big addition here is the training mode which mainly exists to teach the player about the two new features in Mega Man X5: rope crossing and ducking. Both of these game play elements are relatively safe expansions although it is worth noting that the concept of ducking was fiddled around with during Mega Man 3’s development – much to Keiji Inafune’s distain. Ducking was withheld in exchange for the now famous slide. As a gamer I’m somewhat curious as to what Inafune’s opinion is about ducking in X5 and beyond; I’m willing to bet he feels it serves the X series better than it would have served the classic games. Anyway, after thrashing a reanimated, abet weaker Magma Dragoon (an awesome callback to X4) we start the game proper and come to the player selection screen.

The player selection screen in Mega Man X5 is an odd place for a variety of reasons. However, the thing one should really take away from it is you’re not making the choice you think you’re making. Huh? On Mega Man X4’s “character” selection screen you were choosing who you’d be playing as for the entire game; on Mega Man X5’s “player” selection screen you’re only choosing who you play the first level as (you can choose who you want to use freely after that point, mostly) AND who gets to keep their initial power-up. If you choose Zero you get to keep the Z-Buster; if you choose to play as X you get to keep the Force armor - which is ironically mistranslated as the “Fourth” armor in the game. This is a really important choice. The unfortunate thing is the path to take is more than obvious and makes the entire decision making process moot. Most players will choose X because the Force Armor proves to be a much more valuable asset than the underpowered Z-Buster.

It’s true that the Force Armor has been somewhat downgraded since Mega Man X4 – it doesn’t allow infinite use of special weapons, has no giga attack and has the plasma shot over the stock shot – but you DO NOT want to play certain levels (like Duff McWhallen’s) with an unarmored X. Seriously, it is NOT fun. Such a situation really presents the player with how unbalanced Mega Man X5 can be. The Force armor allows you to start the game with a respectful amount of power, but if you plan on playing as X for a significant amount of time you really NEED that power. This helps take the thrill out of finding capsules because you already have a decent set of armor, something that is compounded even further by the fact that armor pieces are no longer equipped when you find them. There is no longer an instant sense of gratification when you find a capsule: you now have to find all four pieces to “complete” the armor before you can even wear it – the result of having a starting armor and X5’s new habit of having two new sets of armor hidden in the levels. Of course, the game gives you a real lame excuse as to why the armor can’t be equipped in the field – and it especially can’t be equipped if Zero stumbles upon it (which raises a whole host of questions of its own) but the more pressing question is do we really need four possible sets of armor for one character?

However, before we get too carried away with armor, let’s double back and talk about the road less traveled: the Z-Buster. Again, it’s real easy to pass on the Z-Buster on premise alone. Everyone knows that Zero was cultivated more as a close range, hack-and-slash character in Mega Man X4 and it brilliantly contrasted the long range style of gameplay X is known for. It was more difficult, and in my opinion way more fun, to play as Zero because you had to get right into your enemies faces. That extra element of risk perfectly defined Zero and is what separated him from X. With that degree of separation being so important why would you introduce a weapon that shortens that gap? Let Zero be Zero, let X be X and let them serve their respective player’s level of skill and expertise instead of trying to make both of them immediately accessible.

The Z-Buster fails in many other ways as well. Why on earth would I commit to an attack that nails Zero’s feet to the floor unless I know it’s going to destroy and/or stun my target? The wind up for the Z-Buster is so ridiculously long that even normal enemies can generally get off an attack in exchange and anyone who’s familiar with Zero will probably tell you a blow-for-a-blow philosophy with him is a one way ticket to a game over since his defensive capabilities are pretty much equivalent to an unarmored X. Still, the biggest reason the Z-Buster fails is Zero has superior attack options later on. Now when I say “later on” I mean fifteen minutes into the game, not halfway through or at the very end. Any Zero player worthy of the name will obviously make retiring Slash Grizzly their number one concern as the C-Sword (X5’s equivalent of Kuuenzan) you acquire from his DNA literally molests everything in the game. The only thing C-Sword doesn’t harm is Slash Grizzly himself – which makes an odd amount of sense. While you have to wonder why they would make such a game-dominating weapon to begin with (the C-Sword usually does weakness level damage to mavericks that have clear weaknesses to other weapons) the sad thing about this is the C-Sword is incredibly fun to use. With such a fun, cheap and free alternative available who’s going to use or miss the Z-Buster? Then there is the Z-Saber cancel trick that lets you rip through a boss like a knife through hot butter. Regardless of one’s feelings on that exploit, the fact is pre Z-Buster Zero was a well defined character that did not need any additional attack options.

The last order of business that deals with the beginning of the game has to deal with Alia. Mega Man X5 is the first game in the series to provide X and Zero with a navigator. Every now and then Alia will contact whoever is in the field and give them data or warnings about their surroundings. In many ways this is meant to enhance the player’s emersion and make the proceedings feel more personal. From a surface level this seems like a noble goal: there are many games that use this kind of communication to add a dash of suspense and intrigue to their atmosphere. The problem with this in Mega Man X5 is the situations the player finds themselves in don’t benefit from the additional chit-chat. As for tips, levels in Mega Man games should ALWAYS be self-explanatory. They shouldn’t have to be explained by a disembodied voice that disrupts game flow. By the same token, there are times where things should be left unexplained so the player can experiment and discover things on their own. For the most part Mega Man games haven’t had a problem doing this since their inception in 1987 so why is there a sudden need to do it now? Most gamers would probably be inclined to agree that trail and error is the best teacher and this is especially true now that X5 has one of the most lenient continue systems the franchise has ever seen.

A Game We Shouldn’t Play

With Mega Man X5’s greater focus on story telling it should surprise no one that this element bleeds over into the game’s power-up system. Beyond finding the usual items strewn about the levels – heart tanks, sub tanks and capsules – X and Zero can also obtain power-ups from the DNA of bosses. If this sounds odd - reploids having DNA - rest assured you’re not alone as Mega Man X5 is the first game in the franchise to mention this. However, it should be noted that this is not the first game that references it *timeline* wise. The power-up system at play in X5 is also used (with a few minor alterations) in Mega Man Xtreme 2 on the GameBoy Color which actually takes place before Mega Man X4. Unlike Mega Man X5, Xtreme 2 explains this process a little more thoroughly and even goes as far to represent it graphically with reploid DNA that drops from defeated enemies in the form of health-like pick-ups. It’s a little disappointing that X5 skimps on the details but the main thing the player should know is the concept of reploids having DNA becomes central to the plot of all of Mega Man X5’s successors.

Anyway, before one gets down to the nitty-gritty of using DNA to bolster X and Zero’s abilities, one needs to tackle the concept of time in Mega Man X5. Counter to practically every other Mega Man game in existence, the events in X5 are affected by its ebb and flow. This may scare some that are reading but do not fear: the time being counted is not literal. You’re not expected to race through every level at breakneck speed like it’s a time trail. After the opening level, the player finds they have only so many hours – or “units” – of time to destroy the plummeting Eurasia space colony before it collides with the earth. When you enter a level and then leave it (either by beating the boss or using the game over menu) you consume one unit of time. While exploring a given location you can continue as many times as you need to without elapsing any additional time. Time also affects the level of the game’s bosses. Like a role-playing game bosses now have a level assigned to them that determines the length of their health meter. The earlier the boss is defeated during the impact countdown the less life they’ll have; the closer the Eurasia comes to the planet the more life they’ll have. This concept becomes a lot more interesting when one realizes they can obtain more than a new weapon if they defeat a higher level boss. Weak DNA will just afford the player the defeated maverick’s weapon, medium strength DNA will yield the weapon and a life/weapon-up and strong DNA will produce a weapon, a life/weapon up AND a part.

Such a system allows the player to tailor the game’s initial challenges to their liking. First timers may want to defeat all the bosses as quickly as possible so they will face the least amount of resistance possible. A more accustomed player may want to purposely burn through some of the earlier “hours” to make the opposition stronger and receive the benefit of obtaining more power-ups, potentially making the end of the game easier. It’s an interesting decision since both roads lead to the same finale but the roads are bumpy and complicated because the player doesn’t always have total control over what power-ups they get. Much like life itself these roads are filled with choices that must be met with compromise.

Many may be wondering how choosing your respective power-up from medium and strong DNA becomes complicated. When it comes to medium DNA you get the boss’s weapon and the choice of a life-up (the equivalent of a heart tank) or a weapon energy-up. While the decision is really up to player preference, this decision is a lot like choosing X or Zero at the beginning of the game. Life-ups take obvious priority over weapon-ups because there are other, much more efficient ways to get more out of the weapon energy you start with. Taking the life-up over the weapon-up makes even more sense when using Zero, who only has two weapons backed by weapon energy and has the abusive C-Sword to fall back on. That’s all fine and dandy but what about strong DNA? Here’s where we start running into problems. With strong DNA player has the choice between a life-up and a part or a weapon-up and a part. The first problem is the game doesn’t tell you what part you’ll obtain for either option. Why is this secret? Parts are not random, so why is the player left in the dark about this outside of reading a FAQ? Second, say I want the part that comes with the weapon-up option but I don’t want the weapon-up, I want the life-up in the other choice. Too bad – if I want that part I have to take the weapon-up along with it – a power-up I didn’t want. Why does the game box me in like this? Given a decent amount of planning I should be able to build my characters in a manner that suits me; not forced to make two decisions with one selection.

If you think this would be the end of this DNA-fueled nightmare you’d be wrong. Things are further complicated by the fact you don’t get your life/weapon-up immediately after your decision. It takes an hour to process the DNA into that item. What does this mean? You have to plan on which character you using at that exact point so the right character gets the power-up! What if you beat a boss with X, make the decision of what item you want on the mission clear screen and then play as the character you don’t want to give the power-up to the next time you come up to that screen? A system like this might have worked if Mega Man X5’s structure was set up like Xtreme 2’s extreme mode - and if there was no time limit - but X5 had to forgo such an option due to plot points in the later half of the game. This makes being able to play as X and Zero on the same save file near pointless; you’re much better off choosing one character to play as, build them up with all the items you can (Zero looses out here because of the items only obtainable with X’s Gaea armor) and leaving the other character to their own devices until your next game. Given all of this, I don’t see what harm it would have done to allow X and Zero to share the life/weapon-ups like the sub/weapon tanks. Making it so both characters are on par with one another wouldn’t have made the game anymore broken than it already is. To this end the DNA power-up system boils down to poor planning, poor execution and a lack of explanation and is the most bungled feature of the game. Future sequels would try and do a somewhat better job at this – it’s possible to get every single power-up in those games and distribute them much more evenly – but the folks at Capcom generally combined item collecting with some most irritating tasks which helped strip down the presentation and overall fun factor.

The Devil’s in the Details

When it comes to Mega Man games, most players know not to expect much of a story. It’s at a juncture like this that I usually point out that the Mega Man Legends series had a good… nevermind. I could go on why the Legends series deserves way more love and respect than it will ever receive but then I’m sure some would whip out the old “Legends isn’t a Mega Man game” defense. Endless debate aside, Mega Man X5 contains what is perhaps the most complex narrative a side-scrolling Mega Man game had for it’s time. Again, I’m sure some are snickering after reading “Mega Man,” “narrative” and “complex” in the same sentence but the structure of X5’s story clearly sets it apart from the earlier games in the series. However, before I really dig into the events of the game, I have to address some concerns that started to take shape when playing Mega Man X4.

Considering this is a video game we’re concerned with here, I realize that realism is an impulse we’re meant to ignore. If imagination can’t roam free in a video game – or any form of entertainment for that matter – where exactly can it? Semantics aside, for the most part I have no problem believing the future as it’s presented in the first three Mega Man X games. Sure, there are a few segments you could nick-pick over, but generally the games didn’t suggest anything too wild or irrational. This kind of changed with Mega Man X4 and its starting level the Sky Lagoon. Now, I know I’m not suppose to ask this question, but who in this imagined future said “you know what, I think building a huge, floating structure reliant on electricity over a huge metropolitan area is a good idea.” In all honesty why would ANYONE think that’s a good idea? Yes, I know I’m over thinking it, but there is a reason why. Okay, so in X and Zero’s “world” the Sky Lagoon fell and caused untold devastation. Given such a tragic event, you’d think the people of the world would learn from their mistake? Hell no! They build a freaking orbiting space colony with an artificial gravity device! This just REEKS of stupidity (especially with someone one like Sigma running around) although considering some of the dumb things our own elected officials spend money on this may actually boarder on brilliance. Regardless, the point here is I know the stories in games are fallible, but a scenario writer should not leave a trail of brain dead ideas through the later (and weaker) half of a series of games. Mega Man X4 and X5 have some gaps in logic but games like Mega Man X7 and X8 blow the doors off the believability barn. The lesson? Game developers should take care when cultivating the worlds they’ve created. If they don’t, someone will literally tear it a new one. And on that note, I won’t even begin to talk about the Final Weapon....

Somewhat back on track, let’s talk about the opening level. This city and its statue are seen in the game’s opening video prior to all the panic. Now, this is probably me over thinking again, but where is this city? Is it on the earth or is it within the Eurasia? The game is really vague about the setting and you really have to read into several context clues after the level to realize you’re not on the Eurasia. To most such a revelation is pretty much pointless, but this was the first time in the entire series where I was like “where I am?” Prior to starting the stage and reaching the base of the statue, we see that Sigma has returned from his latest defeat along with a new gun for hire, Dynamo. By this point I don’t think anyone is surprised by Sigma’s involvement, but I’ll give Capcom some credit for not trying to make the origin of this latest threat a secret, a pathetic charade we’ve never been fooled by and all know the end of. Dynamo on the other hand is a near-pointless character beyond his initial involvement with the Eurasia incident. The game even readily has him admit he’s nothing but a nuisance, a fly on the wall who lays down some ridiculously blunt foreshadowing about X and Zero’s future. So all-and-all Mega Man X5’s villains bring nothing new to the table.

Upon returning to headquarters after Sigma’s explosion in the opening level scatters the Sigma virus all over the globe, we learn that the Eurasia is on a collision course with the earth. After Signas (commander of the Maverick Hunters) explains the grimness of the situation Douglas (an engineer) outlines the two operations that may stop the falling Eurasia: shooting it with the ancient beam cannon Engima or crashing into it with a space shuttle. Both options need additional devices (upgrades) added to them to make them feasible. However, due to the effects of the Sigma virus these devices are all under the control of various mavericks. With X and Zero the only hunters free of the virus’ influence, the task falls on them to enhance the Enigma - or should that fail – power-up the space shuttle.

Sounds simple enough, right? Generally it is, but there are a few story-based elements tied into X5’s gameplay. The first one we’ve already discussed is the passage of time. Fail to destroy the Eurasia before counter’s up or encounter failure with the Enigma and the space shuttle operations and you’ll not only lose an important character, you’ll receive the game’s bad ending. While it seems you would want to avoid that (especially if you collected a lot of power-ups with the character you lose) you will want to beat the game this way at least once to see what happens. The second gameplay/story element at play is the virus meter. While traveling through the environments in the game you’ll encounter purple apparitions that represent the virus. Making contact with these viruses first effects the virus meter, but make contact with enough of them and it will affect the amount of life in your character’s life gauge in one of two ways depending on your character. This difference is actually a key plot point in action and is one of the more enlightened aspects of the game. Clever as it is to show this reaction visually, the unfortunate part is the player can easily play through the game and never witness it. There are several “choke points” where the game is obviously trying to force this event to take place, but there are too many variables at play. This plot point is also conveyed through an important story scene but as you’d expect actually seeing it before you read about it makes much more of an impact.

A few other things involving the Mega Man X mythos are also thrown to the wind in Mega Man X5. With the increase of capsule and armor parts it seems that Capcom has given up on the idea that Dr. Light’s capsule holograms are recordings. Contrary to the other six pre-Mega Man X6 games in the Mega Man X universe Dr. Light now has the ability to engage in conversation. Are we for real here? Dr. Light is dead. D-E-A-D. Dead? How do these holograms know who Zero is? Forget Zero, how about Alia? Maybe Dr. Light is physic or perhaps he’s building power-ups from beyond the grave…! You might laugh at the last part, but the game – oddly enough – proves this is true. The first capsule Zero finds Dr. Light says he is sorry he can’t offer Zero any power-ups because he knows nothing about his body. Fast forward a few hours to the secret capsule in the second to last level and a time paradox later and we have the Black Zero armor! Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad this armor exists – but do we have to tear down things we think we know to include it in the game? Of course, the game actually has somewhat surprising answer for all of this but capsules go back to being pre-recorded messages in the proceeding games! Ah, bloody hell….

Vast inconsistencies aside, we should probably get back to the earth which was in peril a few paragraphs ago. So the planet’s in crisis and we have to save it with the Enigma or the space shuttle. Well, what determines whether or not these acts are successful or not? Is there a certain path through the game that guarantees success or some kind of a hidden trigger? No, not exactly. So if the player has no real control over what’s successful and what’s not (outside of running out of time) what force governs their path through the game? What separates the good endings from the bad one? That thing, sadly enough, is pure, straight-out randomness. There’s a part of me that wishes I was kidding about that but I’m not. To this day I have yet to see a fool-proof way of always getting the result you want. To those that are aware of what this means, this would seem to indicate that you have no way to completely remove the potential threat of losing one of your characters which could prove to be devastating if you assigned a lot of power-ups to that character. This is where you can cheat fate. Assuming you saved prior to either event (and didn’t save afterwards) you can keep reloading your save file until you get the result you want. Suffice to say if it wasn’t for this loophole the threat of permanently losing a character – without any possible way to prevent it – would severely affect Mega Man X5’s allure faster than Mega Man X6’s lack of English voice acting.

Still, regardless of how one saves the earth, there are some lingering questions. For example, let’s say the Enigma failed to destroy the Eurasia colony. What’s to stop the Maverick Hunters from firing it again? If the Enigma is truly a one shot deal, then why don’t they explain why? If the window for striking the Enigma is really that small, the whole idea of time-based game play X5 is based on is technically flawed since you can fire it at any point during the countdown. I’m sure I’m just over thinking again, and hey, we got to justify the back-up plan that is the shuttle which would be completely unfeasible in real life – so I guess I’ll just turn off my reality detectors again.

Progressive Toe Tappin’

When it comes to Mega Man music has always been an iconic element. Like the series’ gameplay, Mega Man music has become its own “brand,” becoming identifiable based on style alone. Those familiar with the soundtracks that have graced the various games this is rather amazing as – unlike a franchise like Final Fantasy – no one composer is responsible for the bulk of this work. Many different members of Capcom’s sound team have composed Mega Man tunes and they’ve all had the uncanny knack of being able to uphold an overarching sound that links it all together. Such heritage is important to note because the music of Mega Man X5 presents one of the first notable shifts in style. The change is subtle – you won’t be hearing a one-eighty change in direction – but X5’s music isn’t as straight forward as previous soundtracks like Toshihiko Horiyama’s (excellent) work in Mega Man X4. This time around, Naoto Tanaka, Naoya Kamisaka and Takuya Miyawaki created something that is a little more off beat and a little less focused, something that takes a bit of influence from the progressive rock genre. This vibe quickly comes alive when traveling through the levels that belong to Izzy Glow, The Skiver and Squid Adler and proves that many tracks in Mega Man X5 deserve a great amount of respect. I could really care less about the boss theme – yuck! – but X5’s soundtrack is important for another reason.

Out of the three composers commissioned to write music for Mega Man X5, Naoto Tanaka’s involvement would be a sign of things to come as he would be involved with creating music for the following three games in the series: Mega Man X6 (solo), Mega Man X7 (with an insane amount of other people) and Mega Man X8 (with Yuko Komiyama). It’s through his work on Mega Man X6 that we learned that he composed the thunderous “X vs. Zero” and the less impressive “Dynamo” since those tracks were reprised in that game. As a huge fan of video game music, Tanaka became one of my favorite composers with the previously mentioned “X vs. Zero” acting as a catalyst. It’s a shame we’ll likely never know what else he himself wrote for Mega Man X5 since the credits that were released with the soundtrack in 2003 weren’t comprehensive. Such is the case with many soundtracks, but unreleased information aside I will always remember the music of Mega Man X5 for introducing one of the franchises most interesting composers: a composer who literally saved Mega Man X6 from being a complete and utter bust.

The Nostalgia Bomb

Mega Man X5 attempts to differentiate itself from its predecessors beyond its slight departure in the music department. Given that X5 was planned to be the final game in the franchise the team behind its development paid homage to the previous games here and there with various references. Some of these are a little inconspicuous (bosses borrowing attack patterns from earlier mavericks and certain stages replicating memorable geography) while others (remixed music, returning adversaries and oddly familiar weaponry) are fairly obvious. In many ways it’s interesting to see things come full circle but does Mega Man X5 really benefit from its use of nostalgia? When you get past all the preconceptions that come with the word, nostalgia really is a perplexing concept. Despite being relatively young I am often accused of wearing “nostalgia goggles” because my gaming habits focus more on the older games I grew up with. My goggles can be pretty thick from time to time yet I will not hesitate to call out a game if it has not stood the so-called test of time. An opinion of what has aged well and what has aged badly can be contorted by the memories born out of nostalgia, but what about an experience that attempts to use it to make itself more viable?

While I can’t really say that Mega Man X5’s use of nostalgia is annoying – aside from the battle themes that play when fighting the Shadow Devil and Rangda Bangda – does it do anything to bolster the game’s identity, especially to someone who’s a bit of a sucker for that kind of thing? A situation similar to this played out in the 2007 role-playing game Wild Arms 5. This game marked the tenth anniversary of that series and the references to previous games were out in force. It’s true that Wild Arms and most RPGs have always been keen on cross-referencing ideas between their various games but something was different about it this time. Wild Arms 5 wasn’t referencing previous games in an effort to give the player a warm reflection on the series roots; it was referencing them to make up for its own deficiencies. In many ways Wild Arms needed to come to an end much like Mega Man X. The difference is while both games take a look back at previous – and ultimately better games – Mega Man X5 doesn’t sell out like Wild Arms 5 does. One is pandering while the other is respectful. Still, regardless of comparison, neither game truly benefits from the implementation of nostalgia.

Lingering Curiosities

Beyond its attempt to take a look back at its long and storied history, Mega Man X5 presents a few other curiosities. One that history somewhat gave us a precursor to when Kinuyo Yamashita basically used Guns ‘n’ Roses “My Michele” as Neon Tiger’s stage theme in X3 is the naming convention used for X5’s mavericks. While Mega Man X4 had some strange concepts for mavericks – like Cyber Peacock and Split Mushroom – it’s pretty clear that inspiration was running low at this point in the game when it came to adversaries. It got even worse in the game’s that followed but was naming these bosses after the members of a self-destructing band from the 90’s really that clever? Yes, I’ve read in several places that Guns ‘n’ Roses has a particularly large following in Japan, but when I’m faced with a name like “Duff McWhallen” which is a hysterical amalgamation of words I start to think that the original, Japanese names are a work of art. The opening of Axle the Red’s Stage is another clear nod to the band yet when one considers what a joke the band has come since most of its members have left is this something that you really want to reference? I enjoy several Guns ‘n’ Roses songs – my personal favorite being “November Rain” – and hindsight is always 20/20 - but most people had moved on (musically) by 2000. Is it really wise to date your product even more with allusions like this?

Of course I’m just being a bit of a hard-ass with the above. I’ve become quite accustomed to these names over time and the same goes for the game’s various levels. X5’s levels take the best concepts from X4 and tries to recreate them with a varying degree of success. The Slash Grizzly stage is very akin to Slash Beast’s domain as jumping from truck to truck is very similar to jumping from train car to train car. The levels for Duff McWhallen, The Skiver and Squid Alder all have distinguishable goals that helps set them apart although this is not the case for every level. Axle the Red’s level doesn’t really have a gimmick, unless you count a lot of rope crossing as a gimmick – and Dark Dizzy’s Planetarium is nowhere as clever as it thinks it is with the background controlling the game’s frame rate. Playing a sloppy level like this really makes me miss a well done technological level like Cyber Peacock’s. X5 trying to replicate X4’s excellent stages aside, there are some sections that don’t look as good as they did in the previous game. The big offender is the spiral staircase in the Izzy Glow stage which was obviously swiped from Split Mushroom’s Bio Lab level. However, X4’s superiority in this area is far from being X5’s biggest problem. Mega Man X5’s biggest problem is the existence of Mega Man X6.

Damn the Machine

As we’ve dissected the various elements that make up Mega Man X5 and its strengths and weakness, we’ve avoided what is perhaps the most important aspect of the game as a whole: the various endings. You may wonder why I’d cover these separately from the bulk of the story but rest assured there is a method to my madness. Now, it’s kind of hard to explain why the endings are so important without actually running them, but all you need to know is what happens occurs for a reason. It’s these events that make Mega Man X5 the game it is and to a certain extent this is undeniable. But what happens when such dramatic events are double backed on, when the corner the writers purposely wrote themselves into is altered after the fact? You turn a meaningful moment into something cheap and tawdry. The fact is Mega Man X5’s ending once had a purpose, a purpose that was absolutely shattered by the story of Mega Man X6. In many ways it’s completely inexcusable to retroactively damage one product with another, but X5 looses out through no fault of its own. Greed, avarice and an inability to let go of an aging property all played a part in this and created an ugly, ugly situation. The real insult in all of this is despite there being three more games in the series Mega Man X5 is the last game of any importance. Mega Man X6 and X7 were not only terrible gameplay wise but added nothing to the franchise’s mythos. Perhaps what is more insulting is how Mega Man X8 tried to appear important but was anything but. The point? Mega Man X5 and the franchise would have been better off had this been the last game – there is literally no question about it. With recent releases like Resident Evil 6 and Devil May Cry and the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3 many gamers have claimed that Capcom has “screwed the pooch” but many of them have forgotten that they’ve made some incredibly poor decisions before. The lack of respect they showed Mega Man X5 tells us a lot about the corporate culture of the company and – at the end of the day – games are a business and the almighty dollar is what is important.

The Ending Battle Dust ~ A Resolution

Still, as damaging as Mega Man X6’s recons are, in the end you can’t really blame Mega Man X5 for something its developer did after the fact. It’s true it’s hard to look past the nastiness – especially if you’re a fan of the franchise – but the fact is Mega Man X5 needs to be judged on its own merits. Having done that above (save for the second to last section) how does the game hold up? After revisiting it for the first time since 2005 Mega Man X5 is not the mediocre game I rationed it to be in my mind. It’s true that there are some parts that needed some extra attention and that the overall level of inspiration was beginning to wane, but the truth is it’s still a respectful product. Mega Man X5 is also a better ending to the series than Mega Man X8 could ever hope to be, proving the game fulfilled its original purpose quite well. However, this begs the question of which is more interesting: the game itself or the story behind it and Mega Man X6? The answer to that is likely to vary from person to person, but to this reviewer Mega Man X5's intended purpose will never be forgotten regardless of Capcom’s failures.

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Not even nostalgia can save Wild Arms 5

Posted : 5 years, 9 months ago on 23 February 2013 10:07 (A review of Wild Arms 5)

Wild Arms - Sony’s player in the once viable console role-playing game market. Born on the original PlayStation in 1996, Wild Arms is many different things to many different people. To most Wild Arms games were filler material used to bide time until the titles from the genre’s heavyweights made their debut. There’s nothing really wrong with that per say, but there were those who appreciated the series for its own merits. Such a group includes myself, who thought the original game was a real winner despite not arriving on game store shelves with the fanfare of a paraded title like Final Fantasy VII. In fact, I believe I may like Wild Arms and its first follow-up more than any given Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, while Wild Arms may have had it tough with competition in the PS1 days, it would be the PlayStation 2 years that would really do it in.

As a fan, I can’t really describe what hurt Wild Arms 3 so bad. On paper it looks like it has all the tools - and the game generally did well enough with critics - but there was this feeling that something had been lost, that Wild Arms had been lead astray. Such a description is ironic because Wild Arms 3 did very little different from its predecessor. Sure, the game may have presented the most western-influenced would out of the all the games – which many people ate up – but when it comes to game play the game was stuck in neutral for most it’s duration. Wild Arms 3 may have looked better then Wild Arms 1 and 2 (especially in battle) but could the game really compete when and where it counted? Virginia wasn’t really a bad protagonist but I’d be lying if I said she could hold a candle to Ashley Winchester or Rudy, Jack or Cecelia from the first game. Michiko Naruke’s music was nowhere as hit or miss as it was in Wild Arms 2 but did it really represent a new plateau for a composer as much as it proved a predicable formula was taking shape? Whatever element I tackle I’m sure some will feel I have it out for Wild Arms 3. However, the games that followed would mostly reinforce those feelings.

After two years of delays courtesy of Agetech, a game like Alter code:F seemed to be the game that would bring any kind of Wild Arms fan back into the fold, especially considering my fondness for the original. Media Vision really had me hyped for this thing but all the hype, hopes and dreams were buried under an avalanche of painful realizations. I could have tolerated the aging Wild Arms engine if the spark that fueled the first game was present but sadly it wasn’t. All that was left was an empty shell of a game that felt like a copy of a copy of a copy. Other games were actually going places and Wild Arms wasn’t. It was time for change….

Wild Arms 4 would be full of changes: a new battle system, a new way to utilize tools, the toning down of the Wild West influences and shifts in personnel. The Hyper Evolve X-fire sequence (the battle system) was a step in the right direction as it replaced one of the most archaic battle systems in the genre and the change in composer (Naruke fell ill) breathed new life into the game’s musical score. It took a long time for me to realize that Wild Arms 4 took a decent stab at reinventing itself and that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. However, as much as the game pushed forward other factors pushed back even harder. It’s easy to commend an attempt at change, but once you face the fact that these advancements came up to bat at such a late hour the series literally ended up back where it started. As much as I didn’t want to admit it back then it seems more than easy to say now: Wild Arms was one franchise that time left behind.

So what does this mean for Wild Arms 5? A lot - because time is running out. This is further intensified by the fact the game marks the series tenth anniversary – and for most of that time it’s been trailing the pack. Can Wild Arms 5 restore the franchise to the glory of its early days or is it the do not resuscitate order that’s been hanging over its head for the past few games? Rest assured there’s an answer, but it’s pretty damn depressing.

The first thing that really strikes me about Wild Arms 5 is pretty inconsequential but is a big one in my book. Watching the opening, animated video I can see that Xseed or Media Vision or whoever was responsible has learned not to shoehorn cringe worthy English lyrics into a J-Pop song like they with Wild Arms 4’s “I Look Up At The Sky Because You Are There.” This isn’t to say I really like “Justice to Believe.” I don’t (Noriyasu Agematsu did a much better job with Wild Arms XF’s vocal theme “A True Lie”) because of how the lyrics coincide with the music but at least this situation is not made worse by trying to Americanize it. After this we are introduced to the game’s first problem: Dean Stark. I would really like to know what is up with Media Vision and these young, male protagonists. Why do they insist on dumping these “supposedly” relatable teens on us? Personally I’m a little sick of it and it’s really unimaginative for a genre that seems a little too comfortable repeating the same formula. This is one of the reasons people make fun of role-playing games! Where are those main characters I adored? Is it so much to ask for someone with the maturity of Ashley Winchester or the strength to overcome personal demons like Jack, Rudy and Cecelia? Okay, I guess I will admit that Dean isn’t too bad and that he is an improvement over the annoying, snot-nosed Jude Maverick, but he quickly - and thankfully - works his way into the background as more tolerable characters like Rebecca, Greg and Avril come into the picture.

Once the player gains control of Dean and his companions one will find that most of the work that went into dungeon exploration in Wild Arms 4 has been scrapped. The Crash Bandicoot-like platforming has all but disappeared as the game more-or-less reverts back to its pre-Wild Arms 4 form. This is very disappointing for a variety of reasons. I’m not going to sit here and say that WA4 offered a breakthrough in this area when it “borrowed” this type of gameplay or that Wild Arms 5 should have stayed the course (it shouldn’t have) but just because an experiment falls short doesn’t mean you have to give up and retreat back to safety. Why not take another shot instead of making every puzzle boil down to push/pull this and shoot that? Making the various tools into different cartridges fired by Dean’s (and only Dean’s) ARM doesn’t really give the other characters a chance to shine outside of combat and conversation thus adding to the overall lack of interest in exploration.

Exploration doesn’t just take place in dungeons however. After its absence in Wild Arms 4 a tangible world map makes a return. Such knowledge may make some happy but the fact that features that almost everyone hates (e.g. the search system) have returned with it will take the wind out of most people’s sails. As a player of the series I have – for some odd reason - never disliked this system, but Wild Arms 5 exacerbates my relationship with it due to the gargantuan size of the map. Do we really need this much worthless distance between locations? The landscape and its geography isn’t memorable in the slightest and it’s main purpose seems to be hiding treasure chests in the most obscure, out of the way places. The amount of time it takes to comb the land for items (one of which ends up being necessary) boarders on the insane. In fact I was finding items that several FAQ writers had missed. The real kicker is when I happen to know where an item is numerically and I have to press start and check my X and Y coordinates fifty million times because they didn’t have the forethought to make this information viewable in any kind of sensible fashion.

If you’re anal enough to scour the massive world map for items – most of which you can’t use until the end of the game – you will be doing a lot battling. The good news is the Hyper Evolve X-fire sequence from Wild Arms 4 makes a return with a handful of awesome tweaks (every character can move and attack in the same turn now!) and accounts for most of the game’s charm. However, this positive quickly becomes a negative. It’s not really hard to level to match or exceed the strength of the enemies in a given area; once you do your characters usually get a long string of turns before the enemy can even lift a finger. Because of this it is easy to wipe out most of the opposition you’ll face. This eventually makes random encounters dull and uneventful meaning there is a lot of pressure on boss battles to pick up the slack. Such battles generally do since the hex setups are different when combating a more substantial threat but all battles mainly come down to a war of attrition and little else. The enjoyment that can be derived from the game’s combat is further damaged by an untelegraphed spike in the encounter rate a few dungeons into the game. Seriously, this game was released in 2007 and we’re still dealing with this kind of bull crap? Battles take long enough to begin with without one popping up every other step. It may be true that you can turn off enemy encounters if you purify (defeat) a dungeon’s Sol Niger but the encounter rate in the game should be fair enough where I don’t have to employ such an option.

Beyond its gameplay Wild Arms 5 commits even more sins. My memory is a little hazy (e.g. I couldn’t force myself to play the game long enough during my second playthrough to confirm all the details) but Wild Arms 5’s big “claim to fame” is its story’s focus on class warfare. Many, many years before the start of the game a portion of Filgaia’s populace abandoned the planet for space due to the decaying environment. After traveling through space for a substantial amount of time these people evolved and become known as the veruni. After their efforts in space proved fruitless, the veruni eventually returned to Filgaia where they would somehow become the ruling class. Controlling the native peoples of Filgaia with cruel and harsh methodology, and sometimes even outright owning them, the planet began to biologically reject the veruni due to the changes they underwent in space. The conflict and differences between the classes/races was prophesized to come to an end when a mixed race child was born in a small village. This child would bridge the gap that separated the races and restore peace. However, such an event would never come to be. Due to the torment this child experienced from others because of his heritage this prophesized “bridge” would become wicked and twisted being.

Now, as you can probably guess, this child grew up to be the main villain of Wild Arms 5. On its own I can’t say Volsung’s backstory is particularly strong, but in a certain sense it probably speaks to anyone that’s ever been the victim of a bully. The problem with this is the game doesn’t show the player how such a process occurred, how this glimmer of hope was darkened and snuffed out. No, the game only tells us. Because we are told and not shown it is borderline impossible to believe there was any goodness in Volsung at any point when we know the opposite is true. This makes him a threat you can’t take seriously (even when he kills a handful of people effortlessly) until you actually fight him. This flies right in the face of all role-playing game logic. Think about the first time you encountered Golbez in Final Fantasy IV. You did not have to fight him to know you did not want to screw with him. This was accomplished in many ways – Nobuo Uematsu’s music being a big one – but the feelings of fear or respect never apply to Volsung despite the fact he is clearly meant to be a fearsome and misunderstood character.

That failure aside I’m getting ahead of myself. Why? Because Wild Arms 5 has another villain that is actually worse. What? Really? Yes, there is a villain that is actually worse and even less fleshed out than the main one. A member of the “radicals” (who work under Volsung) and responsible for the tragic events that lead Greg – one of the game’s better characters – to become a Golem Crusher is Kartikeya. When we first meet Kartikeya we learn he’s an insane, depraved and nearly-god-like in that it would take one hell of an event to take him out. Beyond this and his connection to Greg’s past we ever learn anything about him. Can someone tell Media Vision that insanity for the sake of insanity is not interesting? What makes this even more depressing is Media Vision has gotten this kind of character right before with Judecca in Wild Arms 2. It’s true we never find out anything about of Judecca’s past (in a certain sense you didn’t need to) but the character and why he was insane was built by the narrative in an infinitely better fashion. In Wild Arms 5 Kartikeya psychosis is flat out boring and completely uninteresting.

I wish bungling the personalities of enemies was the end of the story but it’s not. Not only do we have some poor excuses for adversaries we have some poor excuses for playable characters. Again, I’m not a Dean fan but he, Arvil and Rebecca make a respectable team (and I love how their hair is all different colors) and Greg is perhaps the easiest character to form affection for. However, a bunch of “decent” characters doesn’t really equate to enough to sell a game and they don’t make up for a character like Chuck Preston. When the player first meets up with Chuck it’s a few hours into the game where he’s about to be hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. At this point Chuck is tolerable, but it’s not until many hours later that one realizes Chuck’s death would have been a good thing. Sadly Dean’s big mouth ends up inadvertently saving him from execution and gives us the cringe-worthy sunset scene.

After we fast-forward through the next fifteen to twenty hours of the game we run into Chuck again, this time as he tries to save his love interest from being sold into a life of servitude to the veruni. Its here and his clash with Fereydoon (another member of the radicals) that we learn that Chuck is all talk and little else. It’s true that he may have confronted the veruni but at the same time he lacks any kind of spine – or as the instruction manual puts it he has “a weak heart.” It’s pretty hard to get over this when he smiles in battle before attacks and acts all cocky. In a lot of ways he’s like Arnaud from the previous game only Arnaud’s character had someone to play off (Raquel) and change for the better where Chuck does not. Well, I shouldn’t say that. In a later confrontation with Fereydoon the game “attempts” to have Chuck grow as a character but it fails miserably. It’s really hard to care about someone (Chuck) who can only boost himself up by putting down another character (Fereydoon) when Fereydoon is easily one of the most honorable characters in the game despite being one of the radicals. In many ways Fereydoon is like General Leo from Final Fantasy VI: a well-intentioned person who just happens to be on the opposite side of the conflict. Anyway, as I sat there and listened to what the self-righteous Chuck had to say to Fereydoon I got angry. Angry because whoever wrote this game’s script is full of excrement and created a bowel movement called Chuck Preston.

Unfortunately, even after that I was not done dealing with Chuck. A few hours before the conclusion of the game the game committed the ultimate sin: making me split up my party and use all my characters. This meant that I HAD to use Chuck and the ever-so-forgettable Carol. So I split my characters and got my ass handed to me because – get this – Chuck is a terrible character in combat as well! Chuck’s ARM, the L23 Pile Bunker, is interesting until you realize it has atrocious accuracy. It was at this point that I had enough of the game and whipped my hands clean of what else it had to offer. Well, there was this and getting stomped by a level 90 Sol Niger on the world map that more-or-less told me not to waste anymore time on the game. This is really something because I had played all the previous Wild Arms games up to this one (the 10th Anniversary game) to completion and this was the one that broke me. This just wasn’t fun anymore and I was done lying to myself… I could only do that for so long. What happened to those games like the first two Wild Arms; games that were full of charm and were able to beat back what seemed (and generally were) superior products? Where did the soul go? When did these games start feeling like pale facsimiles?

Beyond disappointing me in the major areas outlined above, Wild Arms 5 dropped the ball in many other ways as well. Despite his excellent work in Wild Arms 4 composer Masato Kouda’s music failed to ensnare me like it did before; even worse was the fact that he learned nothing about making good town themes that shied away from stereotypical ideas - and Wild Arms XF’s music proved he never would. This meant it was up to series newcomer Noriyasu Agematsu to provide great tracks like “Terrible-monster Attacking Crew!” and “One Day You'll Forget Your Hopes and Dreams” that made the game worth listening to. The overuse of nostalgia also hurt the game since its obvious this was trying to distract me from the fact that the game wasn’t as good as it thought it was. Bosses from previous games kept popping up as cute little references every now and then (and there was one really funny joke that involved a name/password from the first game) but that still couldn’t keep the cold, hard truth at bay.

Then there are the facts I faced when I tried to replay Wild Arms 5. I didn’t even get to the bad bits of character development late in the game before all the shortcomings in the game play made me question why I was playing it. A few hours in I quit playing, hooked up my recently acquired Nintendo GameCube and played Metroid Prime for the first time. Sorry to say that was a stroke of genius on my part as I ate that game up – even a decade after its release – and Wild Arms 5 was pretty much as stale as it was the minute it was released. I’m sure some will say that’s an unfair comparison but I’m sure I’ll play Metroid Prime again at some point. Wild Arms 5? Probably not so much…. but the collector’s edition does look cool sitting on my shelf!

So if I find Wild Arms 5 such a chore, why did I buy it, sell it and repurchase it? Well, a big reason is memories fade – even bad ones. I had to replay Alter code:F half way through to remind myself why it will never reach the same plateau as the original, thus I had to replay this to remind myself that this game was a sign that the franchise needed to end. If it wasn’t for some silly need to collect all the games in the series or the awesome, eighty page artbook that comes with the special collector’s edition (a sweet item!) I wouldn’t have re-bothered. It’s sad to say that Wild Arms 5 is far from a product that fought to keep the Japanese role-playing game market viable at a critical juncture; instead it probably did more harm than good by containing way too much genre-based retread. Couple that with the fact that the series would retreat to the strategy role-playing market after this game and you can literally smell the desperation.

I’m sure some reading may feel I had fun dismantling what Wild Arms 5 has to offer. While I’ll admit the thoughts in this review have been a long time coming, nothing would have made me happier than if I had actually enjoyed the game either time I played it – especially considering it marked the series tenth anniversary. Unfortunately, all we got was a reminder that the genre’s time in the spotlight is over and another semi-pointless trend (first person shooters) has replaced it. Perhaps I should reserve judgment until I get around to playing Wild Arms XF but if Wild Arms 5 proves anything it’s that the series time is over – pleasant memories be damned.

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A curious game that’s borderline broken

Posted : 5 years, 9 months ago on 19 February 2013 11:58 (A review of Mega Man Xtreme 2)

Video games have come a long way since their inception. What was once seen as a passing fad by retailers in the Atari years has blossomed into a full-blown industry. As the oldest of gamers grow older and technology advances there have been many shifts in the business: some of them good and some of them bad. As I watched a commercial for Dead Space 3 on YouTube as I waited for video of the twelve year old GameBoy Color title I was more interested in playing to load, I grew to dislike current video game trends even more.

Now I know what you’re thinking, that I suffer from an acute case of nostalgia goggles were everything that’s older is better. That’s probably (definitely) true to some extent. Yet at the same time you have to love (e.g. hate) the mentality that occupies both sides of the developer/player fence these days. I don’t remember being anal enough to nick pick over the polygon count in a game or worry about a slight dip in the frame rate every now and then. Then there are developers who sell out their vision to appeal to a broader base because if the game doesn’t sell x amount of copies it automatically becomes a failure. I know no one will ever be able to separate the unappealing business side of game development from the overall equation – or have it where artistic vision overrules the almighty dollar – but you have to feel somewhat distraught when these company spokesman try to justify these “necessary evils” to consumers when the game itself tells the players all they need to know about what went on behind closed doors.

While survival has become the name of the game in an industry that tries to appeal to everyone under the sun, what is often lost on a lot of groups is sometimes… sometimes things need to die. Sometimes ideas outlive their expiration date and their place in the scheme of things. Devout fans may rage against the blatant truth as a property flails about, grouping for a surface to stick to but the sad fact is prolonging the life of an outmoded product is often more cruel than it is merciful. Sometimes these attempts at remaining relevant become downright embarrassing. This is a lesson I learned having experienced the twilight years of the Wild Arms and Mega Man X franchises. For the longest time I made up excuses that these struggling series were still relevant when they were anything but. I will always remember the great times I had with these games – especially the earlier ones which were way better – but at some point you got to quit lying to yourself. You got to pull off the band-aid and expose the truth.

Unpleasant as admissions like these are, they don’t always represent these kinds of products as a whole. At times games like these are interesting case studies in what to do and not to do in a video game. To some this may appear to be another attempt to see a silver lining on an ever darkening cloud, but face it: you’re eventually going to find faults with something you encounter down the road. The game’s developer may be at fault for those flaws, but it’s ultimately up to the player to decide how they impact their experience. Concepts such as these wrapped themselves around my brain as I played through Mega Man Xtreme 2 on the GameBoy Color. At first glance, Xtreme 2 appears to add little to an aging franchise. No matter what argument you make, this is true to some extent. However, while the game is a little more touch-and-go than the first Xtreme, there are some ideas at play here that deserve some analysis.

Even though it’s not the main element of the game that grabs my attention, it’s probably best to tackle the story of Mega Man Xtreme 2 first. Now, beyond the brainless, automatic tripe I always run into on message boards (“you play Mega Man games for the story? Ha ha ha ha…”) I actually do care about the storyline angle of these games to a certain degree. I’m not expecting the equivalent of a good book per say, but I was interested until utterly pointless games like Mega Man X6 and X7 came into existence. Anyway, most people will have an issue with the storyline in Xtreme 2 right away because, like the first Xtreme, it’s solely built to allow the game to reuse the bosses from previous games while still being canon. Really, that’s the only prerequisite the stories of these games have to fulfill. If that seems kind of cheap, that’s because it is. However, Xtreme 2 attempts to sweeten the storyline pot with the appearance of Iris from Mega Man X4. This works because Mega Man Xtreme 2 occurs before Mega Man X4 in the Mega Man X storyline, but the fact of the matter is Iris is woefully underutilized outside a few specific conversations. Now, if Iris is actually acting in lieu of Alia (X and Zero’s navigator who wasn’t introduced until Mega Man X5) why not use her in that manner during gameplay? Okay, I guess I should admit I kind of disliked how I always had to read Alia’s messages in Mega Man X5 (and was irked at how they interrupted the game’s flow) but there are a few times in Xtreme 2 where a warning of certain hazards would have been helpful. I know I was kind of irritated at being killed by certain hazards in the Volt Catfish (wow, so the water’s electrified and deadly in THIS area!?) and Flame Mammoth (I see these completely untelegraphed fireballs are of the deadly variety) levels. The whirlwinds in Overdrive Ostrich level look pretty innocent since they remind you of the whirlpools in Launch Octopus domain but step into one and see how wrong you are. Crazy as those moments are, the only thing that’s memorable about Iris’ appearance is the joke the game’s illustrators crack in the Mega Man X Official Complete Works artbook about her being not being as “physically developed” in this game as she was in Mega Man X4. So reploids experience puberty and the minds of Japanese game developers will remain forever filthy? Sounds about right.

Another key aspect of Mega Man Xtreme 2’s story are what are eventually dubbed as “DNA Souls.” The game states that a reploid’s DNA is like the soul of a human. This is important and interesting for a variety of reasons. The concept of a reploid even having DNA is never mentioned until Mega Man X5 where it is the basis of the game’s power-up system. So, in a round-a-bout way, Mega Man Xtreme 2 explains gameplay elements that Mega Man X5 never gets around to explaining. Personally, I find this to be nothing short of ironic, but considering how wayward the series narrative would become I guess I’d rather have the explanation at some point than not at all. The focus of DNA in this title could also be seen as a precursor to its importance in Mega Man X6 considering it was released a few months later. Then there’s the massive amount foreshadowing in game’s two false endings where the language used enforces the events at the end of Mega Man X5 and beginning of Mega Man X6 while the closeness between X and Zero they describe comes off as creepy.

Even though the above helps make a case that there are a few interesting moments in Mega Man Xtreme 2’s narrative - aside from it’s fleeting reference late in Mega Man X6 - it doesn’t really account for the game’s original antagonists: the “Soul Erasers” Berkana and Gareth. From the beginning these two have an obvious Queen/Knight-like relationship that is intended to be interesting. Berkana plays the ever-so-vain queen that is obsessed with beauty and power while Gareth’s only true purpose seems to be doing her dirty work. For the most part it’s far from entertaining. Then again, I don’t think anyone expects anything too interesting to come out of an adversary in any Mega Man game – even when Sigma’s goals and “purpose” were fleshed out by the babbling Lumine at the end of Mega Man X8. Still, some of Berkana and Gareth’s exchanges with X and Zero do lend a curious flair to the proceedings. I personally loved how Zero becomes enraged when Gareth casually justifies his actions and the same goes for Berkana when she mocks X’s tendency to give speeches and ability to remain cute even when he’s angry. Still, beyond these small sparks the script and translation are rather stilted with the occasional typo popping up every once in a while.

As clear as it is that Mega Man Xtreme 2’s narrative is a side story and little else, what about the gameplay? Given that the game carries the Xtreme moniker it should come to no surprise that it handles identically to the original. This is good news as the original game did a great job at of handling of it’s on-screen real estate despite the smaller sprites. Some players will be at odds with some changes like Zero not having or obtaining the ability to double jump (which does make odd sense considering this is pre-X4) or having to hit jump after jumping to execute the air dash but time eventually heals all wounds. Other issues that typically pop up when players critique the game is how the vast colors used in the backgrounds are not used in the character and enemy models, which is probably the result of the developers wanting to keep the action in the foreground so it would not be difficult to see. It is disappointing to see that some of the small touches in the animation have been toned down since the last game but being able to play as two characters (with the ability to switch between them on the fly after a certain event) is a more than adequate trade-off.

Those familiar with the later Mega Man X games on the PlayStation 2 may wonder if the ability switch characters during play is a big deal. Well, it’s not this feature alone that gives Xtreme 2 it’s identity but how it combines with the game’s structure. As players play through the game they will tackle three main scenarios: X’s mission, Zero’s mission and extreme mode. X and Zero tackle their own/a different group of mavericks/levels in their individual missions until the ability to use both characters opens up before the final levels. This ability to switch your character on the fly remains intact until the last level where X and Zero split up to tackle the villains pulling the stings. After the conclusion of the X or Zero mission you’re given the chance to save your game and start the opposite character’s scenario. If you’re wondering why you would do this – saving one scenario over into the other – it’s because it gives you a head start in the second. For example, if one plays as X the first time around Zero will start the second half of the game (his scenario) with the weapons X bosses would have given him if he had defeated them. Additionally, if you had the Dr. Light capsule power-ups for X he’ll still have those equipped once you get the ability to switch characters later on. It’s a lot like the dual scenario system that was a big part of Resident Evil 2 combined with its zapping feature. The downside is while your main character will now have a full set of weapons (which isn’t possible during your first playthrough) you still only have access to half the heart tanks and sub tanks since you only have access to half of the first eight levels.

The idea of limiting power ups may seem to tear down the concept at play here, but it really doesn’t as you don’t need access to every item to be successful in the initial, semi-individual missions. Clearing the X and Zero missions grants you access to extreme mode, a combination of the previous two modes. You have to start with a clean slate when you start this mode (you can’t transfer anything over from a previous save) but you have unrestricted access to all eight of the maverick levels right off the bat and can switch between characters from the start. This would appear to be the best mode (and it is) but there are a few things that make it less straight forward than it seems. The big catch is when a boss is defeated only the character that delivers the finishing blow obtains a weapon – not both. This means you need to plan ahead with the knowledge you gained from previous play throughs and decide which weapons are the most important to you.

I’m am sure there are a lot of people out there who have an issue with such a system and the game takes no time in proving that such worries are valid. Without the aid of certain weapons some power-ups become inaccessible. This is a real problem because two of the items that are affected by this (that are Zero related) are insanely important. You would think the “equivalent” weapon on the opposite character would act in lieu of the necessary weapon but that simply isn’t the case. Beyond the possibility of permanently missing out on items, this take on weapon obtainment fails in other ways, namely that its attempt to add a layer of strategy is a big failure. The fact is that most special weapons – regardless of which character has them – are usually worthless. Seriously, you could beat every boss in the whole game without the aid of additional weapons and no, it’s not really a case of purposely doing it as some inane challenge. You can do it because it’s easy (most of the mavericks that are included here are those with the most obvious and memorable patterns) and it’s ultimately much less of a hassle.

There are two reasons why this is so but one is much less pressing than the other. Unlike the original Xtreme, many of X’s weapons have been altered despite their familiar names. The thing is while they still serve rather recognizable purposes some of the imposed limitations are detrimental. The Sonic Slicer has a really bad wind-up now and the powered-up spread shot no longer covers the entire screen. Neon Tiger’s Ray Splasher has been replaced by the short-ranged “Ray Claw” and Launch Octopus’ Homing Torpedo has been nuked out of existence and turned into a Storm Eagle Storm Tornado-like vortex. Mucking around with well established and thought out weapons is a foolish battle the game clearly loses but things get even worse when you have to make up weaponry for a character (Zero) that didn’t get weapons in the games this game is based off. Zero’s special weapons have very little personality to them and some of them (like Lightening) are extremely hit or miss and annoying to activate from the status screen.

As unappealing as the weaponry is (the only weapon I really made use of in battle was the Ray Claw which really helps verses Launch Octopus and Volt Catfish) it really doesn’t matter since X’s X-Buster and Zero’s Z-Saber are the weapons you’re going to utilize after you realize how deliciously broken they are. I myself was having trouble beating my first boss until I realized there was no reason to charge my X-Buster. Seriously, there is no reason to ever fire a charged shot in this game since X’s normal three-pellet shot backed by the auto fire option is just as effective. Back this up with some of the parts available through DNA Souls like Buster Plus 1, Buster Plus 2 and Speed Shot and it becomes even more powerful. If you want to see some real craziness, add the Ultimate Buster part to the previously mentioned combo (on an unfully armored X – skip the helmet capsule) and watch the charged shots fly out of X’s arm like explosive diarrhea. All I can say is thank God bosses have post-hit invulnerability animation frames or you’d cut through them even faster than you already do. Zero isn’t nearly as abusive but affix his saber with Saber Plus 1 or Saber Plus 2 and Ultimate Saber and the game is practically over again. Furthermore, it’s not really hard to obtain the necessary number of DNA Souls to buy these parts.

Other disappointments wait around the corner as well. Unlike the first Xtreme, Xtreme 2 takes more chances with its level design; there are many more original sections despite the overall design schemes being lifted from previous games. There are parts that are clearly “borrowed” like the section of Volt Catfish’s level that was a part of Toxic Seahorse’s domain in Mega Man X3. This is kind of a shame because while you obviously want fresh layouts for the levels to help justify Xtreme 2’s existence they don’t match the level of quality present in their 16-bit counterparts. It’s a respectable effort but as most people know level design is something you can’t phone in: you either have it in spades, end up with something that’s a reasonable facsimile or not at all. Some of these maps are home to semi-blind jumps and other irritants that sometimes stretch your patience a little thin. This issue really comes to a head in the final level when X and Zero split up and tackle what are some of the most unforgiving terrains in the game. The section X faces in particular has a very, shall we say “fickle” jump that the game forces you to deal with immediately because of the impending doom with those wonderful, electrified waves of destruction making their return from the Volt Catfish level. This is not to say I don’t expect some trial and error when traversing through a level but there has to be a certain amount of respect that accounts for the player’s initial unfamiliarly. Mega Man Xtreme 2 comes close to crossing that fragile line but manages to stay in-bounds.

The remaining element of the game one should touch base with is sound. Like Xtreme, Xtreme 2 takes its tunes from its 16-bit brethren and downsamples it for use on the GameBoy Color. Like stage design some could see this “borrowing” as a cop-out, but the tunes that were crafted for the SNES are pretty iconic even though some had issues with gritty guitar attack in Mega Man X3. I didn’t exactly share that opinion (even though the soundtrack had some obvious deficiencies) but Xtreme 2 takes some shortcuts that come off as sloppy. The big one I noticed was the editing of the Volt Catfish theme that completely removes the track’s guitar solo. That’s a rather memorable moment of that particular piece and the part that remains really loses out when the track loops and resets. However, in Capcom’s defense, this may have been the result of a cartridge space issue.

So that – in a rather large nutshell – is Mega Man Xtreme 2. Despite the fact that there are enough games in the series (and that I was far from enthused when I started playing) it is an interesting piece of software that will prove unessential to most of those reading. Even though those who have a devotion to the series (even if it’s been slightly damaged by the more recent games) will find that it offers a meager side story and little else. However, once you experience certain moments – like taking down the final, true boss with both characters (which manages to outshine anything in Mega Man X7 and X8) the justification for potential ownership becomes much more obvious. That said the Mega Man Xtreme games aren’t the kind of game you should break the bank for. They are nice to have around to round out a serious Mega Man X collection but will remain passing curiosities to anyone else at the end of the day. Still, problems and loopholes aside, don’t worry about the quality within if you’re interested: despite the limitations it will give any X and Zero fan a quick fix of the (portable) action they are looking for.

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A Little More Resilient Than You May Think

Posted : 5 years, 9 months ago on 12 February 2013 09:47 (A review of Mega Man Xtreme)

The Nintendo GameBoy is everybody’s favorite, light, portable, gray brick from the late 80’s and early 90’s. The GameBoy is notable for many things: bringing handheld gaming to the masses, making Tetris a video game staple and, perhaps most importantly, beating back what seemed like superior competition. However, the GameBoy had lots of help against its competitors and that help often came from those competitors’s shortsightedness.

Over the years and in the late 90’s/early 2000’s the GameBoy would see a few tweaks and revisions. The first major overhaul I remember was the GameBoy Pocket which was a lot more sleek, compact and economical than the original. Add in a much better screen – gone was the green on green hues the system was known for – and you had an obvious winner. Then there was the GameBoy Color which added a dash of color to the games which was previously only available through the Super Game Boy but in a much more limited way. Still, the advent and rise of the original PlayStation pretty much saw to the unintentional end of my interest in handheld gaming. There was no clear cut decree that I was uninterested, it’s just the kind of thing that happens when a console packing an awesome assortment of titles comes around.

History aside, where does Mega Man Xtreme come into play? Well, Xtreme was more or less born on the edge of the GameBoy/GameBoy Color handoff. The game is fully playable on the original GameBoy (in back in white or green on green) but was designed to take advantage of the advancements of the GameBoy Color. As a Mega Man X fan, a copy of Xtreme (and by extension Xtreme 2) are items I’ve always wanted to add to my collection despite the fact neither game really adds much to the series (now extremely fudged-up) story line. But in reality, while Mega Man Xtreme’s story isn’t one for the ages (despite it being specific to this entry) the story is one of the more notable aspects of the game since the parts you get to play are generally recycled from Mega Man X and X2.

So if Mega Man Xtreme is mostly retread why play it? Well, good point, but the fact is while Xtreme is retread it’s extremely well done retread. The game is obviously limited being a GameBoy game (the way the road falls down in the intro level “Awakening Road” is pretty pathetic) but beyond such trivial matters the game brings the goods. The revived mavericks from the first two games retain an impressive amount of animation and have all the attacks you know, love and possibly despise. The music is a faithful 8-bit take on the iconic 16-bit tunes that powered the SNES games and even the level designs are pretty close to the originals.

Still, out of all areas concerned it’s rather surprising how the animation of the characters and enemies stands out. There are even small touches that aren’t present in the originals like how X’s leg bobs when sliding down a wall or how X exposes the palms of his hands when decelerating at the end of a dash. My favorite touch has to be how X beams into a stage as it’s a step-by-step recreation of how this occurs in Mega Man X4, X5 and X6 but with Mega Man X1, X2 and X3’s sprites. Clever as the little moments are however the real surprise is how well the game manages its on-screen real estate. If you’ve played any of the previous Mega Man games on the GameBoy you know that the environments are little more compact because Mega Man’s sprite takes up more space on the screen than it does on the NES. Xtreme forgoes this convention because it has to; boss characters are generally larger than X in most cases. You might worry about controlling a smaller character but you shouldn’t since Xtreme handles this very well. Along with this attention to detail are the controls. Once you get the dash upgrade all your forward jumps off walls are automatically super-charged to make up for the fact it would be impossible to hit dash and jump simultaneously due to the control setup. There’s also an auto charge and auto fire option that helps your thumb from becoming sore.

Unfortunately, while the above is more than adequate for 99% of the game, there are times where things fall apart. The big offender is the game’s final battle - which is a reprise of the last fight in Mega Man X – that is simply a nightmare on a small screen. There simply isn’t enough room for this fight to play out as intended and if it wasn’t for the fact there is an easy way to cheese your way through it would hamper what is an otherwise fine game. Why? If you run out of lives fighting this monstrosity you’ll have to fight the previous five bosses just to get another crack at it. The auto save feature helps a little but you obviously can’t rely on it every time since it’s deleted when it’s loaded. The truth is the end of the game needs to be broken up into more levels.

Story wise, Xtreme contains many parallels to Mega Man X4. There’s a large amount of pathos near the end of the story that’s once again tied to the fates of characters specific to this title. That’s okay in and of itself but unlike the tragic characters in X4 you won’t remember those from Xtreme nearly as long. Additionally, the events that play out in this game are never referenced in any other game unlike Xtreme 2 which gets a quick nod in Mega Man X6. The narrative runs into a few other issues that are exacerbated by necessary evils. There are a few times where the writing feels stilted, but considering it was probably difficult to squeeze the English translation in place of the original Japanese it’s forgivable – it’s not like the lack of English voice acting or proof reading in Mega Man X6 or the lack of emotion in X7’s voice actors – things that really were insults and should have received more attention. The other problem is when the game fails to amend important plot points graphically. This being the GameBoy color I’m not expecting much as far as fireworks go, but there are a few times where even a slight change would make certain moments clearer.

Bad points aside however, Mega Man Xtreme is a solid cart to add to any expanding GameBoy collection. Again, there is a great amount of retread here, but when isn’t there retread in a Mega Man game? It’s true that it’s one of the less important pieces of the Mega Man X saga but is an interesting side note to the more prominent console releases. If you’re into Mega Man you’re probably already sold on the game despite what I’ve said but if I can give you any advice it would be not to fork over too much for it if you find it. It’s a curious item and it’s more than playable but it will be far from being the centerpiece of anybody’s collection.

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Naruke may be gone, but the spirit remains...

Posted : 5 years, 9 months ago on 4 February 2013 01:49 (A review of Wild Arms: The 4th Detonator Original Score)

Born on the fledgling PlayStation in 1996/1997, Wild Arms is a series that has known what it feels like to be the underdog. Even the original game – as great as it was in general – was seen by many as a filler title, or perhaps more accurately as a small distraction to pass their time until the highly touted Final Fantasy VII dropped later that fall. Still, as important as those few months were for Wild Arms, it was really the years and trends that followed that relentlessly tested and broke it as a brand.

However, as sad as the tale and the fall of the console role-playing game market have been to those with interest in it, most of Wild Arms problems were self-inflicted. While other role-playing games were experimenting with core gameplay elements like combat Wild Arms seemed a little too content with the standard, everyday bread and butter. By the time Media Vision shook things up with Wild Arms 4 it was much too late. As wide as the gap between what the series needed and what the players actually got may have been (especially to those who had played every game offered through the years) a big part of the equation was probably the amount of funding Sony was affording Media Vision to produce the games. Of course, being on the outside, I don’t know all the details, but as an observer having played almost every game, it’s pretty easy to discern certain things and see that the lack of financial backing set some of these games back.

As disappointing as that may be, one area where the games almost always succeeded was music. Like Final Fantasy before it, Wild Arms had a dedicated, series composer in the form of Michiko Naruke. Naruke quickly won hearts with her work on the original game (seriously, “To the End of the Wilderness” has been permanently engraved in my brain since 1997) and she would win even more with the following games like Wild Arms 3. Yet this take on Naruke doesn’t acknowledge the bumps on that road, as her evolution as a composer is nowhere as smooth as such a line of thought would insinuate.

So where has Naruke fumbled the Wild Arms’ football? Many devoted video game music enthusiasts point to her work on Wild Arms 2 without so much as a second thought. As passionate as I am about the second game and its music even I have to admit that problems were brewing with many of Naruke’s creations being at odds with one another. By no means was it horrible to the point of being unworthy of Wild Arms name but it definitely caught some people off-guard in the wrong way. When Wild Arms 3 rolled around most fans buried the hatchet and embraced what was seen as the most wild-western sounding score the series had seen. Unfortunately, while others loved what they were hearing I was a bit more skeptical. Sure, the music of Wild Arms 3 was an improvement (just look at main boss theme “Blood, Tears, and the Dried-up Wasteland” compared to those in previous games) but something about it always felt off to me. I’ve never been able to figure out what that “thing” is, but I have learned it’s pointless to pretend it doesn’t bother me.

With mixed messages from two scores, one would think that Naruke revisiting the tunes from the first game would be the video game music equivalent of hitting the easy button with fans minds being littered with nostalgia. Not quite. As simple as rearranging the soundtrack for a new generation of hardware sounds, the thick and bold instruments used by Naruke over complicated what were originally effective and sufficient tracks. The irony in all of this was while she smothered many old pieces with a synthesizer pillow, the new pieces ended up being the real reason to listen to the score, which helped defeat one of the main selling points of the game. Still, one can’t fault Naruke alone when Alter code:F failed across the board to recapture the magic of the PS1 original.

This brings us to Wild Arms Another code:F, or as it was eventually renamed Wild Arms the 4th Detonator. Now given that Wild Arms 4 was teaming with changes when compared to last few games in the series – a new battle system, a new setup for tools - not to mention the series’ first usage of voice acting - you might think this would spill over into the music as well. Well, yes and no. Yes, there is a dramatic change the soundtrack is known for but no, it’s not really musical. Huh? Without delving too far into why I would use such an awkward turn-of-phrase to spearhead my thoughts on the music of Wild Arms 4 - not to mention on why and how it has changed - it should be said one must examine Naruke’s work before they can even get close to the answer.

The first piece of music that really strikes me (other than the fact that “To the End of the Wilderness” makes a pointless return) is the main battle theme “Gun Blaze.” “Gun Blaze” isn’t really at the top of the list because it’s really, really good (it wouldn’t crack my top twenty battle themes if I were to make a list) but the track is solid and it represents improvement on the part of Naruke. Now you may question how this track is an improvement when Wild Arms 3’s “Gunmetal Action” was widely praised. It’s kind of complicated but at the same time it’s not. To really get down to the reason why, one must look at “Critical Hit!” from Wild Arms and “Battle Force” from Wild Arms 2. These are good, catchy battle themes that serve their respective games well. Great as that may be, they don’t really ask much of the listener. To put it another way, there was simply more room to expand these tracks beyond the artificial boundaries they contain. This wasn’t the case with “Gunmetal Action” as it stoutly lived outside of battle and thus was superior in many ways to Naruke’s previous efforts. Unfortunately, if you were unlucky enough to play the actual game, there was a decent chance by the end of it you were sick of hearing it since the random enemy encounter rate was so high. In the literal since this isn’t Naruke’s fault, but the fact that the track was very susceptible to listener burnout (much like Motoi Sakuraba’s “Cutting Edge of Notion” from Star Ocean: Till the End of Time) is quite damaging. So what does all of this have to do with “Gun Blaze?” Well, in a nutshell it contains the maturity of Naruke’s PlayStation 2 work while easily skirting the issue of burnout. Again, I’ll admit it’s not the kind of track that’s going to top too many lists but at the very least it maintains a compositional standard while avoiding past pitfalls.

Great as it is to see the main battle theme lead the charge when writing about any soundtrack, “Gun Blaze” is far from being the main attraction on the 4th Detonator Original Score. So if it isn’t battle themes what is Wild Arms 4’s specialty? As might expect, the game holds the answer. Those familiar with role-playing games (especially the Wild Arms games) may recall hearing talk that Wild Arms 4 toned down the wild-west influence the previous games where known for. For the most part this it true (kind of making it the opposite of Wild Arms 3) although the influence is still ingrained in things like the character design and sections of Naruke’s music. The thing is when it comes to the music of Wild Arms 4 it’s not really the main driving force or influence – at least not anymore. So where does the music derive its sense of being? The in-game characters adversaries. Most of the characters your party comes into conflict with are part of a military organization; it’s this - an almost musical form of militarism - that pushes this soundtrack forward. From Masato Koda’s sad and unforgiving “The Taste of Sand That Sheds No Tears,” the proud “A Future Wet With Tears,” Nobuyuki Shimizu’s tactically pleasing “Infrared Threat” and “Force, Storm and CRISIS” to Ryuta Suzuki’s booming “Ghost of the Knights” the score is teaming with military influenced pieces that are an absolute delight. But wait, who are Masato Koda, Nobuyuki Shimizu and Ryuta Suzuki? Why are they writing the music for Wild Arms and not Naruke? Alas, this is “change” I was referring to earlier. So what’s the deal?

During the production of Wild Arms 4 Naruke fell ill. To this day I have yet to see or hear a detailed explanation about it beyond the phrase “Naruke’s illness.” In a certain sense I’m sure it’s none of my or anyone else’s business based on the principal of privacy, but the way it was stated made people all the more curious. Anyway, it obviously had to be of a serious nature to cause such a dramatic shift in personnel. The thing is while I mean no disrespect towards Naruke herself - and would never wish ill will on anyone - her exit may have actually been for the best.

When one looks over the twenty four tracks Naruke completed before Koda and crew took over the reigns, one will find that the majority of these pieces are key numbers like the main/vocal themes and those that accompany the game’s full motion videos, items that would have been more important had she completed the core of the soundtrack. However, once you begin dissecting the score (as far as who wrote what) it becomes clear that the tracks she did complete become the orphans of the soundtrack. This isn’t to say her work doesn’t intermingle with the work of the others, but once you realize that battle themes like “Critical Attack – Breaking Boundaries,” “The Shinning Spear in the Darkness” and “That Is Where the Spirit Becomes Certain” (the last of which is really horrendous when played in context) it becomes apparent they are just part of a larger pattern that’s been held over from Wild Arms 3. Granted, there is only a small sample of where Naruke was headed with this music so I can only guess where it was headed, but the cynic in me really doubts what *would* have been composed wouldn't have solved my problems with the style she cultivated with the third game.

This becomes somewhat of a problem – and a blessing – because for a large part of the score Koda, Shimizu and Suzuki out “Naruke” Michiko Naruke. “For the Sake of One Flower” may sound like Naruke but that’s Koda. “over the wind,” the overused world map/crossover dungeon theme HAS to be Naruke, right? Nope, that’s Koda again. “Falling Stardust, Dancing In the Wilderness”? Shimizu. It goes on and on and on and you wouldn’t know any better until you glance at the composition credits. It’s very impressive that these composers could glue the various ends Naruke left behind together so cohesively, but those kinds of accolades are ultimately sidelined when you realize these tracks aren’t good because they emulate Naruke’s style, they’re good (and fresh) because they weren’t written by Naruke in the first place.

Unfortunately for Naruke, things only get better for the soundtrack the further Koda, Shimizu and Suzuki get from her sound. For the life of me I can’t pass up the devilish delights Koda whips up in the eerie and downtrodden “Shadow Territory,” the inherent sadness in “From Your Tears…” or the semi-seedy and jazz laden “Nightless City Guara Bobelo.” Successful as these tracks are it’s the last of the three – the quintessential town theme – that seems to give Koda trouble. In the early going it’s pretty well hidden with the Naruke-like “Port Rosalia” but once the listener reaches “Frontier Harim” this weakness becomes much more obvious. Koda’s deficiency is more-or-less born out of a bad habit of taking certain settings too literally. The funny thing about composing over-stereotypical town themes is this happens to be an odd strength Naruke forged during the production of the second game. Such strange quirks aside, the sad fact is Koda would never overcome this shortcoming before the series eventual discontinuation – Wild Arms 5 and Wild Arms XF are home of these unfortunate kinds of tracks as well.

Problems aside however, I have learned a lot with my recent revisit with the 4th Detonator original score. I’ve learned that while my auditory honeymoon with Michiko Naruke music was over soon after the opening tones of the Wild Arms 3 soundtrack, there’s little doubt that Wild Arms 4 would have failed in mending such a bridge if she had worked on it to completion herself. Such a realization only fuels my interest in what Koda and his associates bring to the table even more and they truly make this score theirs despite keeping it the bounds of what was expected. The results easily make the 4th Detonator original score not only a standout entry in the Wild Arms series, but a standout soundtrack in general. Much like the game it’s part of, there’s really more here than meets the eye.

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Great, but there are some things to be aware of…

Posted : 5 years, 10 months ago on 22 January 2013 11:12 (A review of Metroid Prime & Fusion Original Soundtracks)

Released in 2003 as a joint project between Scitron Digital Contents and Nintendo’s Kenji Yamamoto, the Metroid Prime & Fusion Original Soundtracks helped celebrate the return of the beloved franchise after an eight year hiatus that followed the sensational Super Metroid on the SNES.

Back before the Nintendo 64 was released (when it was still dubbed as the “Ultra 64”) and I was still entranced with the experience Nintendo put fourth in Super Metroid, I often imagined how Metroid would adapt to the third dimension which was still very much in its infancy. However, as successful as Nintendo was at luring me away from the Genesis with the Super Nintendo – especially with later generation titles like Donkey Kong Country – the Nintendo 64 failed to keep my interest in the PlayStation at bay. Sony’s machine simply had titles that seemed more gritty and mature and when one considers the fact this generation was spearheaded during my teenage years it’s probably no surprise I left Nintendo’s camp for Sony’s. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, I think (at least subconsciously) a big set back of the Nintendo 64 was the lack of a Metroid title.

Metroid games offered such a mature experience without having to do anything cheap or pandering to attract attention. That in itself is perhaps why the franchise is so attractive. Yet an eight year gap between titles (which most of which was due to Nintendo not knowing what to do with the series) would probably wear down even the most devoted fans. When coupled with the obvious momentum Sony had going from the PlayStation to the PlayStation 2 it’s easy to see why the overtures of the GameCube failed to ensnare me. Of course, like countless others before me, a BIG reason why I was skeptical of Metroid’s return was the change of in-game perspective. I wasn’t as critical of the first person genre in 2002 as I am today, but as you would expect its rise in popularity only fueled my disinterest in it. It seemed I would never get over that initial hump and actually play the game.

A decade later I would. After years and years of being told that “even if you dislike first person shooters you will like Metroid Prime” I took the plunge. I can’t say it was perfect, I can’t say it dethroned Super Metroid in my personal hierarchy but Metroid Prime was a really good game and it was a shame it took me so long to actually play it. Yet this was hardly the first contact I had with the Prime series as I had listened to the Metroid Prime & Fusion Original Soundtracks many years prior to playing either game. Back then a lot was lost in translation without hearing these pieces in context. This isn’t to say one can’t enjoy a video game soundtrack outside the confines of the game as I have but there are times where having this kind of knowledge helps immensely in dissecting and discovering things that would otherwise go unnoticed.

It’s my belief that both scores presented here are pretty dependant on context – just to different degrees. There are many tracks in Prime – like the area themes – that really don’t need the game to accompany them. For example, both Ice Valley tracks undoubtedly convey the landscape of the areas they play in when they come across your speakers and the same can be said (somewhat unfortunately) of “Lava Caves.” But the area themes are really the exception and not the rule. The remaining subsections of Prime’s music, like menu and boss themes, cry out for you to know their accompanying context. It’s really hard to imagine what kind of conflict is taking place in “VS Flaahgra” until you actually see it. Once you have – or better yet partake in it – you’ll see that Yamamoto and Kyuma are on the right track with what initially seems to be an uninviting number. The only battle theme that really escapes such a conundrum is “VS Meta Ridley” which is a remix from Super Metroid and the video game music equivalent of hitting the Staples easy button.

Still, the situation facing Prime’s battle themes bleeds over into Minako Hamano and Akira Fujiwara’s work on Fusion. Once again these tracks an appropriate (and some are a little more accessible) but the concept of immediate accessibility is pretty much lost with this score as a whole. This mainly has to do with the fact that Fusion’s music is much more cerebral and atmospheric, and depending on your definition of the genre, ambient than Prime. This is far from a bad thing, actually it’s quite brilliant given that Fusion (as a game) plays off the feel and mood of Metroid II in many, many ways despite borrowing it’s looks from Super Metroid. The problem is while the composers take influence from the correct source, the result is something that doesn’t really live beyond its use in the game. This doesn’t mean that I dislike its inclusion in this set but those that enjoy soundtracks like those from Konami’s Silent Hill series will get a lot more out of this music than I.

While Fusion is definitely the more atmospheric of the two scores, this doesn’t stop Prime from tying to throw its hat into this ring as well. Unfortunately, this is one card I wish wasn’t pulled from beneath the composer’s sleeves because most of the time it’s accomplished by using one of the most painfully overused cards out there: choir singing/chanting. Yeah, I get it, I’m supposed to be impressed, but I’m not. Sure, it sounds all “epic” but you know what’s even better? Creating an epic piece that doesn’t use bottom of the dresser drawer tactics like this. Further cementing such shortcomings are shorter pieces like “Phazon Area” and “Impact Crater.” The former works well enough but it’s the later that has very little compositional value and is a real flimsy pretext to the game’s final area.

Disappointing as that may be, the biggest blow to the Prime soundtrack (outside some of the unnecessary, past game reprises) has to be “Phazon Mines.” Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE this track – and it really took playing the game to show me how good it is – but why is it only twenty-five seconds long when most other area themes creep into four minute territory? Sorry, I don’t need “Lava Caves” to be that long when this track could have been given a chance to breathe and develop into so much more. It’s true the track’s length doesn’t become a problem until it’s listened to outside the scope of the game but fifty-three seconds of this bugger is still not enough meaning that some of Prime’s best musical avenues are left somewhat unexplored.

However, beyond a few “what could have beens” how does the Metroid Prime & Fusion Original Soundtrack fare when put up against other video game music releases? Pretty well. Unfortunately, while it’s still amazing that these scores were ever pressed onto disc I can’t completely ignore the faults outlined above – especially the fact that some listeners will feel lost when hearing certain tracks until they see the accompanying action in the game. Experiencing the game was a big factor in my decision to track down this soundtrack and I can see it being one for others as well. That aside, if you are into video game music the Metroid Prime & Fusion Soundtracks is a great choice despite its age and price tag.

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WA4: The Pension Grillparzer of Video Games

Posted : 6 years ago on 23 October 2012 10:13 (A review of Wild Arms 4)

Entertainment. It goes without saying that the people of this world love entertainment, whether it’s the latest Hollywood blockbuster (that is usually far from being original) to the latest TV sitcom, entertainment is big business. Yet as we are bombarded by products from left to right, we often overlook the true purpose of entertainment: escapism. Escaping from the actualities of life is something people take very seriously – at least on a subconscious level – and the masses are more than willing to pay for it. Simple as the premise is however, the real debate begins when one starts analyzing the value of each form and how it influences the culture of society.

Given that this review is posted on a website focused on video games, it’s probably best to admit that video games suffer from a slight identity crisis when it comes to this. That said, with the oldest of gamers growing older, gaming has garnered a bit more acceptance in this arena (the topic of video games being art or not being rather widespread) but games still haven’t reached the plateau that books and movies are proudly perched upon. Yet its books and movies, well a certain book that was turned into a movie in 1982, that really gave me an inside look at the latest game to reach one of my game consoles: Media Vision’s Wild Arms 4.

Released on the PlayStation 2 in early 2006, what could John Irving’s 1978 novel “The World According to Garp” possibly have in common with Wild Arms 4? At first nothing, but the more I thought about the themes in the protagonist’s short story “The Pension Grillparzer” the more I realized how the book I was reading acted as a parallel to game I was playing.

So what’s “The Pension Grillparzer” all about? A “pension” is a type of boarding or guest house. In the story we follow a father and his family as they travel throughout Europe and secretly rate the pensions they come across for a travel bureau. Initially, the Grillparzer has a C rating – the lowest classification – but the establishment is applying for a B. The Grillparzer seeks the increased rating to attract more business but there have been some rather unsavory rumors and complaints about the pension. “A class C trying to be a B” quips the father. So how on earth does Wild Arms 4 factor into this? Easy. Wild Arms 4 is the Grillparzer. It’s a class C game trying to be a B even though – through and through – it’s a C, and just like the business it parallels it leaves the player (the family) with plenty to judge:

“When it comes to localizing J-RPGs, you’d think that localization teams would learn this one rule.” said Ashley.

Really, I can’t believe I have to bring this up. Recording English, in-game dialog for English-speaking audiences is fine. In fact, it’s expected. What’s not expected – and is downright not appreciated – is trying to shoehorn English lyrics into a J-pop song. Stop that. Bad Xseed, bad! Why companies feel the need to introduce fragmented lyrics into a song simply not designed for them is beyond me. If a song is good I should be able to enjoy it despite the language barrier and if I want to know what they’re singing about I’m sure someone on the internet with the expertise has already translated it. Compounding this even more is when they remove the native Japanese lyrics from these tracks and turn them into instrumentals. This needs to stop as well. If a developer is so worried that a J-pop song with Japanese lyrics will turn off Western audiences they should really create a piece to replace it so there is no leftover void. The original Wild Arms accomplished this devilishly well with its ending credit sequence.

“Brionac’s a little more than the late night snack I remember them being.” said Yulie.

Okay, this one’s been a long time coming – six years – but I’m willing to admit that the members of Brionac are a little more interesting than I originally thought. I’m not putting them on the same level as the Metal Demons from the first game or Odessa from the second but they are more than just temporary obstructions. Additionally, you can’t underestimate how you must adopt a different strategy to defeat each member. That kind of diversity really pays off and is instrumental in forging the path forward for the HEX battle system.

“Children are to be seen and not heard. They should also be occasionally spanked by the Brionac forces.” said Marivel.

I guess if I’m going to play and critique Wild Arms 4 I have to deal – and live – with the fact that Jude Maverick is only thirteen years old. *rolls eyes* I know J-RPG characters are always young (and Pokemon has always taken this to the extreme) but come on. The only role-playing game that really got away with such a ploy is Breath of Fire III and that’s because Ryu doesn’t say a single word during the childhood portion of the game. Simply brilliant. Here we have to put up with Jude’s constant inability to approach anything – or any situation – with any kind of caution or forethought and it’s absolutely exhausting. It’s like being around an actual child who has had too much sugar. I wish I could say the story leaves it at that but it doesn’t…

“The adults are bad but children are AWESOME!” said Tim.

…it only gets worse. Sure, every time I see that portrait of Jude with his nose turned up like a brat and that scowl on his face when someone says something he doesn’t like I want to reach through the screen and give him something to really cry about but then I find that much more tolerable then the whole “you kids don’t understand how the world works” yet “children are the future” but “adults are corrupted as is their vision” and yadda yadda yadda. This is really unfortunate because beyond this pandering crap (yes, its crap) the game’s script is really well written. A lot of the conversations sound pretty natural despite their heavy gravity and you have to give the writers and Xseed credit for that.

“Wait, there was a war?!” said Jude practically unphased.

A lot of players pick on Jude’s initial reaction – or lack there of – to the barren, war-scorched land of Filgaia. Without going into it too deeply they’re right. It definitely breaks down the believability factor (even though the entire concept behind the Ciel Shelter is enough to do that alone) but let’s not let it taint what the game does right. Seriously, I can’t be the only one who gets chills when the war and immediate post-conflict era are explained when traveling through the ruins of Celesti. This, the game’s first “real” dungeon, and the pacing of the revelations to Jude by his comrades is just insanely well done and it’s a shame that it has to be so brief. Still, I thought the game did a great job of parlaying that into the atrocities committed by the Global Union within the White Orphanage – another particularly powerful segment of the game.

“It’s nice to see someone can write characters that effectively blur the line between good and evil.” said Jack.

This is important because a lot of games attempt this and completely blow it. The Mega Man X series would become notorious for this in its later, adult diaper wearing years and Mega Man X Command Mission would really try - and completely fail - at driving such a point home. Unfortunately for Capcom a maverick is a maverick and I’m going to “retire” (talk about your gross evasions for a word as simple as “destroy”) them. No, I’m not going to feel bad about it (unless it’s Iris from X4) and they were in my way. Anyway, as laughable as Capcom’s attempt to play this card is, nothing could be further from the truth when Media Vision plays it. There are very few inherently evil characters in Wild Arms 4 and those that are don’t play a real prominent role in the story. A lot of your adversaries are mostly blinded and possessed by their noble ideals gone awry. Sometimes they even do the right thing for the wrong reasons. I’ll admit it’s easier to understand an enemy that’s one dimensional and unapologeticly evil but are these kinds of characters always interesting? No… and if you need some proof take a quick look at Kartikeya from Wild Arms 5.

“A twist in a story can be a marvelous thing, but don’t insult the player’s intelligence by making it insanely obvious.” said Dean.

Those who have played Wild Arms 4 should know what I’m talking about, but in case you don’t, if you didn’t guess who the eleventh member of Brionac was when Asia and Fiore were babbling all about it you probably expect to fight someone other than Dr. Wily at the end of a (classic series) Mega Man game. If this applies to you I’m sorry for being so harsh but the game makes it so tearfully obvious that you just have to question the intelligence quotient of the members that comprise your in-game party for not noticing all the signs. Also insulting are action scenes so outlandish that they have no credibility even in a fantasy setting. Yes, video games are a place where imaginations should be able to roam free – and where the laws of physics should occasionally be suspended – but at some point the audience is going to draw a line. Cross that line as a developer and you might find it hard to get back into good graces with the player. Unfortunately for those that have played beyond this entry, this is a course that Media Vision has failed out of more than once.

“While Michiko Naruke’s absence is regrettable the soundtrack is a little more resilient than you’d think.” said Clive.

Many people, including myself, were initially disappointed that series composer Michiko Naruke only composed about one fourth of Wild Arms 4’s soundtrack before handing off her duties due to illness. To this day I have no clue as to what illness she was afflicted with (in a certain sense it’s none of my business) but this shift in personnel is easily one of the most interesting aspects of the game as a whole. Still, despite the heavy heart and the fact that the music of the series has been on shaky ground since the second game, perhaps giving the reigns to Masato Kouda (who previously composed music for Capcom) was the right choice. To this day I find it hard to believe that “over the wind” – the overused world map and crossover dungeon theme – was actually penned by Kouda since it sounds like something Naruke would compose. “Shadow Territory” is another track that quickly proves its worth when exploring the previously discussed Celesti Ruins and the application of “From Your Tears…” in battle is simply astounding in its serine splendor. Also of note is the thunderous “Ghost of the Nights” by Ryuta Suzuki that pumps an exceptional amount of adrenaline into armed conflict and acts as a wonderful precursor to some of the music in the fifth installment. Now if only the field music didn’t reset after the conclusion every battle.

“Whether it’s wrecking the enemy stronghold or tugging at your heart strings, Raquel is one dynamite lady.” said Arnaud.

When it comes to my favorite character in Wild Arms 4 there is no need to mince words: Raquel, the voice of reason, wins my vote. Why Raquel? The better question is why not. Making the quintessential “tank” and “heavy hitter” of Jude’s entourage a woman? An unusual and alluring combination. Ripping through a wave of enemies with a full force gauge backed with five turns via Intrude? Priceless. A character that marches forward with a clear mind while battling the never ending questions of her own mortality? Astounding. Really, I like Arnaud and Yulie (and their back stories) well enough but Raquel is just something else entirely. And even though the game does not revolve around her it is definitely better because of her. What would I change? The game is awfully cryptic about what ails Raquel as a character and I can’t resist the urge to learn more even though there is nothing more to discover. But then that’s what makes Ms. Applegate so interesting; the tinge of mystery topping of one of the best characters the series has ever seen. Regardless of the reason, Raquel has certainly captured my mind and heart and I’m sure she’s captured those of others as well.

“Can the hexagonal-based combat system rescue Wild Arms from one of its most antiquated and uninspiring aspects?” asked Brad.

In the simplest since yes – but it’s not that simple. It’s common knowledge that some people were displeased with the Hyper Evolve X-fire Sequence but even these players have to admit that Wild Arms desperately needed to segregate itself from its original, plebian combat system. 2005’s Alter code:F could get away with it because it was a remake but the lack of advancement was obvious as way back as 2002 with Wild Arms 3. Such rustic ventures aside however the real burning question brought fourth by Wild Arms 4 is how much depth and strategy do these changes bring to the table? This is where the base of players making up the potential audience for this game divides upon itself. The more gingerly and forgiving crowd are more likely to be pleased with what the HEX system has to offer because it *feels* like a proverbial gold mine compared to the previous combat engine even when it isn’t. The more introspective and wide-eyed crowd will forgo such a focused observation and compare Wild Arms 4 to other J-RPG fare. If this was all Wild Arms 4 had to worry about it might have been able to mount a more capable offensive against such preconceptions but since there are countless other factors that contribute to the J-RPG market the series sadly winds up where it started before all these changes.

“Art shmart. It has nothing to do artistic license and everything to do with money – it always comes back to money.” said Virginia.

I’m probably going to make a few enemies with the section but I feel it’s something that needs to be said. I have read review after review for Wild Arms 4 praising the comic book style presentation of the conversations between the game’s characters. In general the approach is well executed yet I feel that many players overlook the blatant truth. These art-filled sections weren’t employed by Media Vision by choice but rather by necessity. The console can easily handle cut scenes rendered by the Wild Arms engine (which is good but average anyway you slice it) but the development team simply didn’t have the required capital to produce all the animation they wanted. I don’t say this to disenfranchise the company or reinforce the opinion some hold that the series is or has always been “filler” for players to paw through between the more popular and bigger budget titles; I say this because at some point you have to admit there is a reason why SCEA (Sony Computer Entertainment America) stopped localizing Wild Arms games after the tiresome Wild Arms 3. As unkind as that truth is, fans should be a little more grateful that there are smaller studios willing to bring games like this over, which leads me to:

“It’s been six years people. I think it’s time to forget a few measly oversights and move on.” said Rebecca.

Honestly, enough is enough. Yeah, it looks pretty shabby when I’m throwing a “ hamtom Line” rather than a “Phantom Line” with Jude but I’m not upset. I’m also not upset about the inaccessible EX Key and the two features it blocks. People act like a voice acting library (where the voice acting is good to decent) and a art gallery (an art gallery doesn’t mean anything to me unless it’s outside the confines of the game – see the awesome 80 page art book that came with the 10th Anniversary Edition of Wild Arms 5) are make or break bonus features. They aren’t. You know what’s a make or break bonus feature? New game + and it is unaffected by the removal of the Dalawa Bunny and Accident Rabbit. Things happen. Did people really expect Xseed to send them re-pressed copies of the game? Considering that gamers are completely accustomed to getting whatever they want when they complain now (Mass Effect 3) I’m sure they did. I hated the ending of Mega Man X8. For over a decade I played those games and felt cheated by the “conclusion” I got. Did I write to Capcom and tell them to change it? No. I put the game away and just reflected on the good times I had with the better games in the series. You know who I really blame for these oversights? Sony. If the PlayStation 2 hard drive and online community wasn’t such a big joke patches for console games would have come into existence much earlier and this wouldn’t have become a “problem.” Still, I count my blessings that didn’t happen. In the pre-DLC era 99.99% of games worked as intended. Sure, gamers ran into balance issues and in turn exploited the hell out of them but they still loved those games. This is why Xseed’s minor slip-up should have been dead and buried years ago. The games that Xseed has brought over since Wild Arms 4 (their first effort) have been a more than adequate apology - and those that really think about it will agree. I mean did you really want Agetech to be the ones who got the rights to localize Wild Arms Alter code: F in the first place? *shudder*

“While no one likes to admit it, there nothing as reassuring as a punch in the gut to remind one that they are still alive.” said Jet.

As simple as a premise as it may seem, I don’t think there is a person alive that will deny that pain is an effective tool in building a character. Well, not so much pain itself, but in how that character deals and overcomes that pain. While there have been numerous examples throughout the history of literature and film (perhaps you can even think of a real-life example) the one most gamers are familiar with – somewhat unfortunately – is the fate of a particular character in Final Fantasy VII. Granted I wouldn’t be so hesitant to reference this event if the fanboys hadn’t placed the game on a sky-high pedestal but they’ve made their bed with that one and they know it. Anyway, while you can’t quite say this is an original plot device, it sure as hell did at that moment, and the way that scene was presented with “Aerith’s Theme” playing in the background and the commencement of a sobering battle it’s easy to see why it was not just a defining moment in the game but for the genre itself. So what does this have to do with Wild Arms 4? Well, a lot actually. Wild Arms 4 is home to a similar scene and it couldn’t be anymore beautiful and brutal if it tried. It’s “brutable.” Also, you DO NOT talk about fight club. Oops, sorry, wrong piece of entertainment. Regardless, when it comes to these two scenes I think Wild Arms pulls slightly ahead (*Final Fantasy fanboys gasp*) because the event is a little more untelegraphed – e.g. surprising – than a certain black caped man’s assault. Surprise is another feature of narrative you can’t underestimate, whether is revolves around a pink dressed flower girl or former heretical ARMS researchers from the defunct Global Union.

“Puzzle solving: a previous passion rejuvenated or an illusion of lies leading to the darkest depths of the abyss? inquired Cecilia.

One of my favorite aspects of the Wild Arms series has always been the puzzles. It’s true that Media Vision owes a lot to Zelda when it comes to this but then it’s not quite the kind of sticky-finger grab that manifested itself as a mere carbon copy. Wild Arms, or more specifically, Wild Arms and Wild Arms 2 made this type of gameplay theirs and I absolutely bathed my brain in its utter delights. Then something happened. That something was Wild Arms 3 and a lot of unfortunate things happened in and with that game – one of the biggest victims being the brain teaser. Gone where those intelligent puzzles that would have me stumped for a few days, hours or until I broke down and looked on the internet or that horrible text-only Prima guide. Much like the series’ combat the puzzle solving aspects of Wild Arms 3 joined the growing list of things damaged by retread; the watered-down solutions and un-evolving set of tools proved quite damaging. The only real escape from such a freefall was Alter code:F’s wonderful take on the puzzle box quest. Given such a dire diagnosis, does Wild Arms 4 provide the cure or postpone the inevitable? Media Vision mostly postpones the inevitable. We’re still a long ways away from recreating the magic of the first two PlayStation entries but there are some definite glimmers of hope here. Some dungeons are extremely well done (the Valley of Oblivion easily taking home the top prize) and I have to commend the effort. However, this is only one side of the coin that is Wild Arms 4’s puzzle solving; the other, more platform oriented variety (with it’s somewhat “borrowed” identity) really needs to be discussed on its own.

“Does anyone know if the chambermaid switched my copy of Wild Arms with Crash Bandicoot when I wasn’t looking?” asked Greg.

I know the idea of that comparison makes me laugh, especially when you phrase it that way, but it’s downright crazy (and a little sad) that Wild Arms finds the need to emulate another series and genre. But what’s crazy is it manages to work and pry at your reservations even though it never quite assimilates those elements as well as Castlevania did those from Nintendo’s Metroid. But this side-scrolling disguise Wild Arms seems intent on wearing this time around is important for other reasons; namely, making the experience feel more brisk than its predecessors. As it turns out this is one of the underlying principals the game is built on, but when it combines with the fact that your characters don’t make tremendous gains in combat or have a permanent set of tools the pace of the game is once again slowed down. The only thing that really pushes the game forward or advances it is the narrative. This isn’t instinctively wrong as most role playing gurus out there will be quick to admit a good story is fundamental to any self respecting role-playing experience but it fights against the grain of what fans have come to know and expect from more compressive packages.

“And just like that the myriad of pointless and soul-sucking sidequests were banished from the landscape of Filgaia.” said Gallows.

For those that are interested you can complete Wild Arms 4 a little less than twenty hours. Why am I stating this? Because it is one hell of a beautiful and wonderful fact. After spending sixty hours on Wild Arms 3 and Alter code:F (remember that Alter code:F touts it’s sixty hours of gameplay on it’s back cover like a badge) I imagine someone at Media Vision had the balls - or the ovaries – to say “enough is enough.” “We are diluting our product with all these stupid and mindless tasks” they’d say. “Do we really believe players want a one-hundred level dungeon with no save points?” “Do we really think this makes the game better?” I may be deluding myself in thinking this fictitious person actually exists but if they did someone should have given them a medal. No. Someone given them a half a dozen Sheriff Stars. This is part of the reason Wild Arms 4 is so attractive: it lacks these things, these obstructions that masquerade as being worthwhile. They are not. No, I don’t want to fly around the map trying to find the one stupid little square I haven’t crossed over yet and I really don’t want to cast Analyze on half the monsters I come across during the game. When did Wild Arms become synonymous with the words insane and absurd? So yes, the short completion time and manageable list of extras is something the game can hold above its two, mal-proportioned predecessors and it undeniably creates a better end product.


So now that the father’s (our) notepad is filled with observations about our stay at the Grillparzer/Wild Arms 4 and the troubling habits of its make-shift employees/elements what’s the final score? Well, in the story the family leaves the pension in a hustle the following morning with much more negative than positive to say. Then the father interjects and gives the Grillparzer Pension the B rating they are seeking – not because they deserve it – but out of pity. This is where the story and my opinion start to differ. I’m not giving Wild Arms 4 a B because I “feel sorry for it.” No. I’m giving Wild Arms 4 the B rating because - in some ironic way - it deserves it.

But the story is not over. Years later, one of the children that traveled with the family in the story would revisit the Grillparzer pension with their own family. The pension didn’t hold its B rating very long (mirroring the cold fact many people won’t remember Wild Arms 4 for very long) and most of the people that were involved that one peculiar evening long ago have met rather unapologetic ends. So what does the end of this story teach us? What theme is T.S. Garp trying to drive home? Death. The fates of the characters in the story parallel what Wild Arms is desperately trying to avoid – and despite putting forth a good effort here one still gets the feeling that the days of the series (and the viability of the console J-RPG) are numbered. As a product Wild Arms 4 is all about death. It doesn’t do that intentionally but the mood and the feelings are there and are unmistakable – and time would ultimately prove it to be true. Wild Arms is now gone while Media Vision tries to avoid its own “death” by working on uninspired, licensed products. Art often imitates life they say, but like the characters in Garp’s own life that inspired his writing there is no denying that “we are all terminal cases” – Wild Arms included.

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Half full or empty depending on your philosophy...

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 23 July 2012 12:57 (A review of Pighammer)

Recently I set out to re-rip my music collection in order to re-listen to the mountain of albums that have fallen by the wayside over the last few years. One of the highest peaks belongs to Finland's Sonata Arctica whose pre-Unia material was in desperate need of revisiting but another substantial peak belongs to Static-X. My interest in Static-X actually began with my opposition to their material. A few years ago when employed at a local electroplating plant my supervisor would play their music all day long and, being the semi-lovable jerk he was, would not allow anyone else to have access to the stereo. As you'd expect I became pretty well versed in most of the band's greater known pieces but one day this came to abrupt end. Due to some personal issues my supervisor would resign and take his iron-fisted rule over the radio with him. As you would expect it was nice to have some (shared) control over the radio after that point and not have to listen to the same thing all day but slowly but surely I started to miss those Static-X songs I had heard a million times. Thus it was my turn to explore the music for myself.

Knowing what I know now, I can safely say that I'm glad I took the time to do just that because while my former boss played a decent sized portion of the band's music his selections only gave me part of picture as he mainly stuck to the tracks that were popular and were used as singles. Hearing all the songs I missed out on due to his selective taste was akin to unearthing a gold mine; there was a lot of material that was really good but not good enough to make it onto his mixed CD's. However, as much as I was enjoying the band's music the upcoming release of Cult of Static presented a unique situation: being able to hear new material at the time of it's release and without any kind of previous exposure.

When Cult of Static dropped in 2009 I think I was really presented with my first Static-X based disappointment. That said, I don't think it all had to do with the album. With past albums I had an idea of what to expect because of other people playing the music. Granted that didn't mean I was going to like the tracks I hadn't heard but it definitely eased the transition. With Cult I was flying much more solo in my interpretation and in the end that probably made my final impression a lot more honest and thorough. I enjoyed quite a few tracks but had to admit some of what was presented didn't really suit me. The same situation applies with Pighammer but this time it's much easier to pinpoint where the experience unravels and why. For the lack of a better description Wayne's effort here can be split into to halves or acts. Ironically, those acts play out in order on the album itself - act one being the first six tracks and part two being everything that follows. The difference between the two is as stark as night and day.

Part one starts off with the obligatory intro that pretty much confirms we're going to hear Wayne's ex-porn star wife on every Static-X/Static-X themed album from here on out. I'm not really annoyed by that but it is pretty unimaginative. Anyway, the first two cuts "Around the Turn" and "Assassins of Youth" are solid (even though I kind of wish the former was a little longer and fleshed out) and the intro of "Assassins" always puts a smile on my face. Not as good but perhaps more important is "Thunder Invader" which has my vote for being a great example of what "Evil Disco" has to offer. It's here where you can really start to detect the comeback of the electronic airs that previous albums put on the backburner and I for one couldn't be more pleased with their return. Rounding out this section is "She" which only reinforces that fact and offers up a fresh (well, fresher) vocal presentation that really adds something to the album.

Unfortunately, as high as the album climbs with the above the remaining tracks only serve to diminish their effect. The main problem - which was actually present above but was brilliantly detracted from - is the lack of speed. Most tracks on Pighammer are mid-tempo or slower and the only real burst of pure adrenaline is "Chrome Nation." The placement of this track really suggests that Wayne was aware of this but the track fails to act in the necessary manner with its odd structure which is unlike any previous material. I wish I could say the last part of the previous sentence was more of a complement but it's not; "Chrome Nation" has noble goals but spins it's conceptual wheels in an effort to give act two some much needed traction which prevents the album from growing some real legs.

Because of this Pighammer more-or-less ends up on equal footing with Cult of Static in that it seems full of promise but only delivers on half the deal. The difference is Cult's problems aren't lumped together and even then it's really hard to describe what's awry. Here the issue(s) are front and center and are easy to detect and results in what could be the most lopsided album in the band... err... act's? history. As negative as that may sound the first half of the album is worth the price of admission and is a great companion piece to any fan's Static-X catalog. Still, it is a shame that this album is only half full as it stands.

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A Tale of Two Xaviers

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 July 2012 11:12 (A review of Xavier: Renegade Angel - Seasons 1 & 2)

Like most people, I have a love/hate relationship with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. From shows that aggravatingly live on despite the fact they are terrible (Children's Hospital) to shows that deserve way more credit than they receive (Garth Marenghi's Darkplace) the revolving door and endless parade of programs makes one wonder how many times a network can try to recreate the success of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

I wasn't always a fan of ATHF. In the early going I thought a show with such an aimless plot was below me. But considering some of the trash TV I watch (Two and Half Men) I was merely fooling myself, the show eventually wearing down my defenses. I can't say I enjoy every episode, but I have to give credit where credit is due, that Aqua Teen Hunger Force pretty much forged the Adult Swim brand as we know it. So what does ATHF have to with Xavier: Renegade Angel? As one would expect given the audience it was created for, Xavier is an extension of the irreverent brand of Aqua Teen humor. The same could be about a show like Squidbillies; but where Squidbillies is nothing more than a carbon copy of a successful idea, the same can't be said of Renegade Angel.

Xavier: Renegade Angel opens with the wayward Xavier (a humanoid creature whose body is composed from the parts of a handful of different creatures) wandering through the desert. More often than not, this setting is just an illusion, a metaphor for a wanderer that makes his way from town to town. Not soon after arriving at a given location, a problem presents itself to Xavier who tries to solve it with his inadvertently warped philosophy and self-serving delusions of grandeur. Noble intentions aside, Xavier's "solutions" usually backfire and do more harm than good to the people around him. Blissfully unaware of the damage he's caused, he then rambles on to the next town where a similar yet altogether different series of events will play out once again.

Oblivious as Xavier is about such consequences, there's more to his quest than enlightenment. Early on we learn that Xavier is looking for the person responsible for his father's murder. While it's obvious to the viewer who's to blame from the very first episode, the truth eludes Xavier until the spectacular season one finale. With this mystery "solved," the plot shifts towards the peculiar relationship Xavier had with his mother. It's here where series becomes divided upon itself, as the streamlined focus of the first season disappears in favor of a free-for-all, anything goes approach. In doing this, the second season overloads what was a simple yet effective premise and leaves behind a mass of confusion. The show's greatest sin is when it tries to be more than TV show, a higher form of art and expression. Painful as this is to watch, such a scheme falls flat on its face and the line between art and entertainment is eventually restored.

The mess that is season two aside, I can't stay mad at Xavier. While the second disc of this set rarely meets the tray of my DVD player, the first season is unbelievable with it's crafty wordplay and is more than enough to make up for it. That said, for those who have yet to develop a taste for Adult Swim's type of humor, it's doubtful that Xavier: Renegade Angel will change their minds. For those into odd, off-beat shows however, Xavier may prove to be just the ticket.

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