Castlevania Bloodlines: Of World Wars, FM-Synths, Dracula Towers, French Monarchies, Bram Stokers, and Being the Last of Its Kind

 

Bloodlines cover

Before reading this post, I suggest putting on Castlevania Bloodlines awesome FM-Synth music while you read: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL01D23354DB6D47D3

Castlevania Bloodlines was truly the last of its kind, and that is probably why it’s my favorite “Classicvania”. Released in 1994, with a gaming industry so eager to drop 16-bit consoles and jump onto the next generation, Bloodlines was the last* fully original Classic-style Castlevania before the series evolved in the next few years, splitting into “Metroidvanias” and 3D entries of mixed quality. Released 8 years after the original Castlevania, and with about 10 entries into the series by then, it seems everything that could be done within the “classicvania” framework has been done:

  • Simon’s Quest has an open-world style level design that foreshadows Symphony of the Night
  • Castlevania 3 has multiple characters and branching paths
  • Super Castlevania 4 has 8-way whip attack. And um…neat mode-7 stuff.
  • Belmont’s Revenge on the game boy has selectable stages ala-Mega Man
  • Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine takes the branching paths idea from Castlevania 3 and expands it by making it fit more organically within the levels, instead of being discrete choices at the end. It also has 2 playable characters. And also Item crashes, which made most boss fights pretty pitiful. And anime cutscenes. 

Looking at it, Bloodlines doesn’t have that big brand new feature that anyone can easily point to, nothing to call its own. Bloodlines is simply a great culmination of the series at that point. Konami simply looked at the series history, collected the best ideas, modified them, and then put them into the game.

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from GameFAQS

 

For example, you have 2 playable characters in Bloodlines. John Morris is the classic whip-wielding Belmont (and son of Quincy Morris from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for some reason). Unlike Simon Belmont in Super Castlevania 4, John Morris can’t whip diagonally on ground, so now he has to rely on using sub-weapons to cover those vulnerable angles, giving back sub-weapons their purpose, just as they were in the NES titles, and making them much more useful here than in Super Castlevania 4. However, Morris can whip diagonally while jumping. This is mainly useful against high-flying bosses, but it also allows Morris to hook his whip onto any ceiling and swing around just like Simon in the SNES game, although in some ways it’s less essential here in Bloodlines, even though you have more opportunities to use it.

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from GameFAQS

 

On the other side, you have Eric Lecarde, the fair-looking Spanish spear-wielder. He can point his spear in several directions, sort of replicating the “8 way-whip” control scheme from Super Castlevania 4. Lecarde can also use his spear to vault up higher than his jump, making him able to reach areas that Morris can’t. It’s a nice concession to Super Castlevania 4’s luxuries I think. Lecarde inadvertently becomes “easy mode” in this game, while more hardened fans looking for a more genuine Castlevania experience can play with John Morris, who has a more challenging time due to his more limited abilities.

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from GameFAQS

 

Item crashes from Rondo of Blood return here too. But they’ve been drastically toned down, so they’re not as spammable as in Rondo, and they do require the player to be fully power-up in order to use them. And any single hit would lose them.

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from GameFAQS

 

So Bloodlines may not have anything new mechanic-wise, but it does do one thing differently from other Castlevanias: It changes the setting from just Dracula’s Castle to become a cross-country adventure across all of Europe, starting with Dracula old castle ruins in Romania, across Athens in Greece, Pisa in Italy, then Germany, then France, and finally to Dracula’s new lair in England. And throughout the journey, you’ll be going across well known sights, whether it’s Ancient Greek ruins or the leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy or the Palace of Versailles in France. It’s weirdly unsettling to see these familiar places get run over by Dracula’s usual host of monsters, makes the game a little bit more real.

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from GameFAQS

 

And I think that’s what the setting and aesthetics of Bloodlines try to do. They makes things more “real” than ever. Bloodlines added a lot more gore and blood, so much so that it got toned down for the PAL release. The story is set during World War 1, one of the most tragic events in human history, and directly links the cause of the war to Dracula’s resurrection. And the stages as I mentioned take place in real locations across Europe.

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from GameFAQS

 

Of course, “realism” is never a requirement to making any piece of media great, and Bloodlines is certainly not realistic. But it FEELS real, and that is what really matters. Jeremy Parish recently did a write-up on USGamer listing 8 essential ideas that Bloodstained (the crowd-funded Castlevania spiritual successor headed by old-time producer Koji Igarashi) needs to adopt. And one important idea mentioned in that article (and one that was mentioned by Parish many times before in his various writings on Castlevania) is about “The tower in the distance” trait. This was specifically about the appearance of Dracula’s tower (the final destination of nearly every Castlevania) in the background of stage 9, almost exactly the midpoint of the first Castlevania (which had 18 stages).

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The aforementioned tower in the distance from the first Castlevania (Image taken from USGamer)

 

The idea is, unlike a lot of video games at the time, Castlevania levels were made with a real sense of cohesion to them. The sequencing of the levels made sense. Stages fit together long before Symphony of the Night actually made them physically interconnected with no cut-off points. Dracula’s Castle felt real even if it was a giant magical shape-shifting place filled with all sorts of fantastical monsters.

Obviously, Bloodlines cannot exactly replicate that trait because of the way the game’s narrative is set. John Morris and Eric Lecarde are traveling hundreds of miles across Europe. And the stages are geographically hundreds of miles apart. You can’t put Dracula’s tower in the background of Stage 4 since stage 4 is set in Germany, while Dracula’s Castle is somewhere in England. But Bloodlines does tries to maintain that sense of reality and place by instead incorporating real-life sights. I suppose in some sense this is a lazier way to do it, but Bloodlines reproduces each location with a surprising amount of detail. The background artists at Konami were able to accurately recreate these locations on the Genesis/Mega Drive and it’s such a wonder to see and compare them to the real thing. For example, lets take stage 5, which takes place in the Palace of Versailles in France, and see what those BG artists put in:

 

You first start outside in the gardens of the Palace, which now have gone crazy mutant thanks to Dracula’s power, with giant killer roses and thorns everywhere.

Then you come upon the Latona fountain, which turns blood red as soon as you reach it’s epicenter and red skeletons start rising.

Then you move onto the hall of mirrors, filled with beautiful but deadly chandeliers (not just to you, but to the Axe Armors wandering the hall as well).

Next you reach the fifth chapel, where Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette, here the paths split: Eric Lecarde’s vault-jump allows him to go to the rooftop of the palace, while John Morris’s swinging ability leads him to the wine cellar (Although I don’t think the real palace has any sort of wine cellar).

 

Finally, you go off the outer stairs and then fight the ghost of Marie Antoinette, who then turns into a huge killer butterfly because this is Castlevania after all. There’s just stunning amount of detail here, and you can clearly recognize what each part of the stage is modeled after in the real world. Similar attention is also given to the Pisa stage. 

This attention to detail to recreate real life places is one of Bloodlines most impressive traits, and the one thing that Bloodlines can really call its own since not many other Castlevanias are set in real-world locations. But Bloodlines is also a great Castlevania in the traditional sense. The control scheme is at a nice midpoint between the rigidness of the classic NES games and the fluidity of Super Castlevania 4. The difficulty is well balanced, always giving you a challenge but never trying to exploit the Belmont’s (& co.) rigid, slow, and deliberate movement. You won’t find something like the falling blocks segment in Castlevania 3, or the fight with Dracula that’s set on tiny pillars in SNES Dracula X, or the slow-as-molasses race against impending death by spiked-walls in Castlevania The Adventure. And lest we forget, Bloodlines has an amazing soundtrack by the venerable Michiru Yamane, this being her first Castlevania soundtrack. Yamane handled the series from then on, become the main composer for pretty much every subsequent entry. I love Bloodlines but it is a crying shame it never got ported or re-released, not on Virtual Console, nor anywhere else. So the only  way to play it (well, legally) is by buying the original Mega Drive/Genesis cart. And trust me, it will be worth it.

 

* I realize that the SNES Castlevania Dracula X was released after Bloodlines. But that game is mainly a heavily modified port of Rondo of Blood, reusing a lot of assets and sprites. And thus I cannot call it a completely original Castlevania. There’s also Castlevania Legends on the Game Boy but that was after Symphony of the Night so the tides have changed by then, it was already following an obsolete framework of the series. Then therse’s ReBirth on Wiiware but that is an intentional throwback (and a pretty good game too). Caveats, they sure ruin the flow of an argument, right?

A Post About Danganronpa 2

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The first Danganronpa was one of my favorite games of last year, so I was really excited to get into the second one, which some even consider to be better. I thought it would be fun for me to do write-ups about the game every few chapters or so, not in a comprehensive “let’s play” style, since that would require a lot of screenshots and detailed exposition (things which I am too lazy to do). These posts would be just my thoughts on some of the characters or some of the events that happen in the game. More importantly, I wanted to capture my thoughts as fresh as they could be, as I am still playing the game, without the hindsight acquired after finishing the game completely and having learned all that can be learned about it. I hoped to record all the mysteries and speculations I had while playing it, and then see later on if any of my speculations became true or not, which I think would be a lot of fun to look back and laugh at.

Suffice to say, these posts will be very spoilery, as they will definitely spoil the first Danganronpa completely, and Danganronpa 2 partially, which for this post would be right until the middle of Chapter 2 (right before the star of the second trial). You have been warned.

Introduction

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Playing Danganronpa 2 for a while made me realize how it does a great job at disrupting player expectations, especially those coming from the first game (I guess there may be some who skipped the first and went straight into 2 but why would you do that?). It goes so far as to call itself out on the silly plot-twists it pulled in the first game (like the whole memory brain-washing plot-twist at the end, which was honestly a little bit Deus Ex Machina). The way Danganronpa breaks the fourth-wall, not in a necessarily shocking way but more in a self-critiquing and jokey way, is almost Kojima-esque. These fourth-wall breaking parts are mainly delivered through Monokuma, who by now you would expect to say such bizarre and funny stuff. But it’s not just Monokuma, some of the other characters do their part in messing with player expectations too.

Jabberwock Island

Jabberwock Island

For the sequel, the setting is changed from a school to a deserted set of islands called Jabberwock Island. This isn’t like an uninhabited, untouched-by-human-civilization island, it’s more of a well-known tourist destination (with a fancy hotel, an airport, parks, large buildings, mall etc.) that was seemingly cleared out out of people, and only the 16 students, Monokuma, and Monomi/Usami are inhabiting it.

This change into a deserted island setting is funny to me in how the series is veering ever closer to Battle Royale, which is probably the most popular piece of media with the “trapped teenage kids trying to kill each other for survival” plot. But lets get something out of the way: The premises of Danganronpa 1 & 2 are as common as it could be. It’s a little like Battle Royale, a little like kamaitachi no yoru/Banshee’s Last Cry, a little like the Zero Escape series, especially Virtue’s Last Reward*, and plenty more, not just common with media from Japan, but outside as well, like Lord of the Flies or Hunger Games.

There are a lot if these murder-mystery visual novels with similar premises. And Danganronpa knows that, pulling the same tropes found in the genre throughout. In fact, Danganronpa 2 does a ode to one such murder-mystery adventure game series: the Japanese-Only Twilight Syndrome series, by Human Entertainment (the first three of which were directed by Goichi Suda). Danganronpa 2 makes a mini-game based on it, and puts in within the world as an arcade game that the students themselves can play. It’s a really cool tribute.

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Still. it’s not the broad strokes and general plot that make Danganronpa great, it’s the specific events and characters that do it for me (and that goes for a lot of things, not just video games).

As I mentioned before, The cast of characters also works into that “subverting of expectations” deal. Some draw parallels to the cast in the first game in direct ways (like Akane Owari. She’s pretty much this game’s Aoi Asahina, filling in the role of the super athletic girl with big boobs who eats a lot of fatty food. Although Akane’s personality is more hyper than Aoi). Other characters have a much more subverted meaning behind them. So lets take a look at a few of the more interesting ones:

Byakuya Togami, The Ultimate Affluent Progeny

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“Wait, Byakuya Togami? The same Byakuya from the first game? But he’s fat now? What is happening?”

That’s what I thought when I first saw Byakuya in the opening movie. It looks like this is the same Byakuya. He looks the same, maybe a little bit overweight. He has the same voice actor (and voice clips). He wears and acts just like the Byakuya we all know and love. But he never really mentions anything about what happened to him in the first game. Byakuya did survive the first Danganronpa, so it could be that after the ending, he may have gained a few pounds, got kidnapped again, got his memories erased again, and was then thrown back into the fray. But with Danganronpa, you’re never really %100 sure about anything.

More importantly, Byakuya seems to be continuing his character arc from where we left him off during the last game. At the start of Danganronpa 1, Byakuya was simply a pompous selfish asshole, but at the end, he learned to start appreciating others, and to help and protect his friends in order to achieve a common goal (while still maintaining his somewhat pompous sense of pride). And that is exactly the Byakuya we see here in Danganronpa 2, one that is striving to protect his friends from any harm as long as he is alive. This supports my initial theory that Byakuya simply lost his memory again, while still maintaining his now reformed sense of morality he got after the end of Danganronpa 1, and that memory loss cannot take that away.

Byakuya in the first Danganronpa...

Byakuya in the first Danganronpa…

...and in Danganronpa 2.

…and in Danganronpa 2.

So OF COURSE Byakuya is the first one to get killed. The whole series is about “Despair”, and what could be more dreadful than killing the one character whom the whole cast of desperate students looked up to, the one who comforted everyone with his promises of safety, the one who took very careful measures to protect everyone.

But more importantly, Byakuya was the most relatable character to the player since players are already familiar with him from the first game. He is an old friend, the only known face out of a bunch of strangers, the one we were happy to see come out alive from their hellish stay at Hope Peak’s Academy. This is what Danganronpa 2 says with its first kill: Nope, not even those characters whom you loved, who made it out from the first game, are safe. The first Danganronpa did a similar thing by killing off Sayaka first, who was Makoto’s friend, his only friend out of a cast of strangers. And sure, it does have a little bit of a “shock” to it, because it hit Makoto hard particularly out of all the cast, and players are expected to emphasize with the protagonist, even if they only knew Sayaka for an hour or so before she gets killed.

But with Byakuya, it’s much more immediate. Players literally knew Byakura longer than the rest of the cast. In a sense, he is even more relatable than the main protagonist of Danganronpa 2. And killing Byakuya off was the worst case scenario the average player would have hoped not to happen, the one leading ever closer to “TRUE DESPAIR” (unless you hated Byakuya anyway).

Nagito Komaeda, The Ultimate Lucky Student

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By far the most enigmatic student of the group is Nagito Komaeda. He is the “Ultimate Lucky Student” just like Makoto in the first game. In fact, he even looks a lot like Makoto, wearing a similar greenish hoodie with reddish highlights, and voiced by the same voice actor in both English and Japanese (well, actress technically). Even his name is similar as it is almost an anagram for Makoto Naegi (in English at least, I don’t know if there are any significant similarities with their names in Japanese).

However, unlike Makotot, Nagito is not the main protagonist. He is just one of the other students beside the protagonist. Actually, Nagito is the first student you meet. He quickly befriends you and helps you meet the rest of the cast. And unlike his cohorts who are all terrified at their terrible ordeal, Nagito seemed to be well adjusted and taking the situation in stride.

But during the first trial, his true colors show, revealing his sick nature as someone who revels in the death of his fellow survivors, spouting nonsense about how “The Ultimates” will bring about hope amidst this despair, seemingly lacking empathy towards his friends, both the dead, and the survived. He’s such a crazy person that he doesn’t even care about his own life, willing to sacrifice his life if it means it would help achieve his rather ambiguous goals of bringing about “hope through despair”. This isn’t some sort of heroic gesture, and it doesn’t seem like he’s being suicidal due to a severe depression or something like that. He’s just a lunatic who just does not seem to grasp the gravity of the situation he is in, what sort of nonsense he’s saying, and how monstrous he sounds. He is almost out of touch with his reality, like he’s some sort of avatar being controlled by some insane manipulator. Like he is being played with.

Makoto Naegi, Ultimate Lucky student and the protagonist of the first Danganronpa.

Makoto Naegi, Ultimate Lucky student and the protagonist of the first Danganronpa.

So by making Nagito similar to Makoto, is Nagito then a commentary on players of Danganronpa? Obviously, players real lives aren’t at stake when playing these games. Lives are cheap in video games, and death is so abundant. So many games task you with killing 100s of people or creatures. More than not, death usually represents a stepping stone towards achieving your goals, to reaching the end and “beating the game”, whether it’s the death of a final boss, or the death of the player-character in super difficult game, which forms a learning experience, bettering players, and allowing them to overcome that obstacle or level through trial-and-error. Or in the case of Danganronpa and similar murder-mystery games, death signals the beginning of a new chapter, a moment of excitement where we expect new dramatical revelations to happen, and new twists and turns to appear in the plot. So players expect (nay, desire) a few deaths to happen in a game like this. These expectations sound normal in the context of players of Danganronpa, but it would instead sound maniacal when heard in the context of other characters in the game. That may be what Spike-Chunsoft is saying with Nagito.

Or Nagito is just weird because he’s just weird like that. This is Danganronpa after all.

Monomi/Usami

Monomi

In the parlance of Jerry Seinfeld, what’s the deal with Monomi? She looks like Monokuma. She seems to be his “little sister”. She has her own weird vocal theme song. She always appears out of nowhere at random times just like Monokuma. Actually, she seems to have taken part of Monokuma’s duties from the first game, appearing whenever a student has a small question or request, so Monokuma doesn’t need to appear as often as he did.

And yet, Monomi doesn’t seem willing to work for him, which is why she gets tormented by Monokuma, getting cartoonishly beat up all the time by him (the poor thing). She doesn’t even harbor ill will towards the students. All she wants is for the students to get along and be friends, and to collect all those hope fragments. She doesn’t want anyone to die, at all.

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Believe me, I took this screenshot and yet I have no idea why Monomi said that.

Monomi is a total mystery. Is she being controlled by someone who is also trapped in the island by Monokuma? Or is this whole pity-act just an facade by an accomplice to Monokuma? Or are both Monokuma and Monomi being controlled by 1 person simultaneously, one side being the tough mean bear, and the other the whimpering sad sympathetic bear, just as a psychological tactic to coerce the students to kill each other? I don’t know, but it seems like Monomi is this somewhat independent entity between the captivated students, and their captor Monokuma. The students (and the player) are not sure on which side of that divide Monomi falls on. Given that the general premise of Danganronpa 2 is very similar to the first game, the existence of Monomi herself brings about a certain level of unpredictability to an otherwise similar-looking plot. And knowing what’s her deal will definitely be one of the bigger revelations in Danganronpa 2.

Chiaki Nanami, The Ultimate Gamer

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In some sense, I feel like I’m being duped into liking Chiaki. Obviously, I’m a “gamer”, and most of the Danganronpa fanbase are “gamers” too. Spike-Chunsoft knew that they’re making a fan favorite character with Chiaki. I wouldn’t call her pandering, but there’s certainly a little bit of “fanservice” in her, not the pervy kind (even if there is a lot of that in Danganronpa 2, more so than the first game).

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But despite that, I think she’s a great character that’s always fun to talk to. She’s this soft-spoken girl that loves video games and has this immense knowledge about them. But she seems to always be tired and drowsy, and has problems paying attention, always slipping off and staring into space, or even napping whenever the chance arrives (ironic given that you’d expect “The Ultimate Gamer” to have a little bit more of an active and attentive personality).

Chiaki likes to bring up video games ever now and then, whether she’s talking about herself or by using video game terminology to explain whatever current ordeal is happening in her own gamer-centric point of view. She also references other games, and they’re always real games, which is kind of hilarious in that bizarre unexpected “Wait, did she just reference Trio The Punch” way. But unlike Hifumi in the first Danganronpa (who I still like), Chiaki is not so obnoxious about her nerdy hobby. She’s pretty chill about it. And I like that about a character.

Gundham Tanaka, The Ultimate Breeder

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When I first saw Gundham, I tried to guess what sort of “Ultimate Student” he is. For the most part, it is pretty easy to guess what sort of “Ultimate” each member of the cast is: Mahiru is the Ultimate Photographer because she has a camera, Teruteru is the Ultimate Chef because he’s in chef clothing, Peko Pekoyama has a sword (a bamboo sword, to be precise) because she is the Ultimate Swordswoman. And so forth.

With Gundham, I was almost sure he was some sort of “Ultimate Ninja”, with his menacing leer, the scar across his eye, and the long scarf. And then he pulls tiny adorable furry creatures out of nowhere like so:

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And then proclaims proudly that he is “The Ultimate Breeder”. This is exactly why Gundham is so awesome. His intensity and melodrama just clashes with the fact that he is the best man at breeding cute little animals. He calls his tiny hamster/gerbil/guinea pig friends “The Dark Devas of Destruction”. He talks like an insane person, spouting about demonic eyes and evil dimensions, but you somehow can get the point he’s making under all his crazy-talk. And you even start to understand how his eccentric personality would make him the Ultimate Breeder.

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Just like Chiaki, talking to Gundham is always a fun time. I’m always excited to hear what sort of madness he’ll be talking about at every meeting. It is why I try to spend time with them both whenever I get any free time, at least before the game kills them off.

They’ll probably be killed off, right? Oh please don’t kill them off. Please don’t, Why would you do such a cruel thing, Danganronpa 2? Why oh why I HATE YOU DANGANRONPA!

(Hopefully, they won’t die before my next post. See you then)

* I guess Danganronpa may have inspired VLR since Danganronpa 1 came out before. In fact, the Zero Escape games were published by Chunsoft, while Danganronpa were by Spike. And both companies soon merged together to form Spike-Chunsoft. Plus Kotaro Uchikoshi, writer for the Zero Escape Series, did mention on his twitter that he’s friends with the Kaz Kodaka, the writer for Danganronpa, but my point is, they share a lot of ideas.

King Of The Underdogs: An Ode to King Of Fighters XI

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The progression of SNK’s King Of Fighters series is really an uneven one. Some games, like KOF 96 or KOF 99, bring drastic new elements to the series, while a game like KOF 98, arguably the most popular entry, was merely a update to KOF 97, with no brand new characters, just ones brought back from older games, and some new balance updates. KOF 98 doesn’t even have a new soundtrack, as most of the music was reused from previous entries. Sometimes, KOF games regress back, like in KOF 2002 where the 4-member team striker system used in KOF 99/2000/2001 was dropped for a more traditional 3-member team system. Even the rosters are not consistent. Characters that are added in one game get taken out the very next. And if they do make it consistently, they themselves get drastic changes in their looks and movelist, even for major mainstays like Kyo or Terry or Athena or Iori. It’s actually one reason why I love this series.

More pretty KOF XI promo art for ya

More pretty KOF XI promo art for ya

KOF XI (presumably the topic of this rambly post) came at a turbulent time for the 2D fighting game genre, just after Capcom Fighting Evolution and Guilty Gear Isuka failed fans of each series, leading Capcom to take a sabbatical from fighters, and Arc System Works to go back to the safety of more Guilty Gear XX updates (though to be fair, Arc System Works did make a Fist of the North Star fighter in 2005, which was great, especially for fans of the manga/anime series). A time where reading the words “2D Fighting games are dead” was commonplace on forums and website (of course it was never true).

some of the 2D Fighters released around this time.

some of the 2D Fighters released around the time.

Within the scope of KOF itself, KOF XI is the only mainline KOF made for SegaSammy’s Atomiswave arcade hardware, during a transitional period between the Neo Geo era and the “HD” era starting with KOF XII. It’s also at a time when SNK Playmore were trying to expand the series laterally, with the 3D spin-off Maximum Impact games, or with crossovers like SVC Chaos: SNK vs Capcom & Neo Geo Battle Coliseum. There were also ports of older KOFs on PS2/Xbox/Dreamcast with extra features like added characters/stages, or rudimentary online play. There were even remakes like KOF 94 Re-bout. Suffice to say, despite leaving the Neo Geo hardware and the yearly subtitle, there were plenty of games for KOF fans to play (of varying quality) in the mid aughts.

KOFs and KOF Crossovers at the time

KOFs and Crossovers games with KOF characters around 2004/2005

In fact, for once it seemed that a mainline KOF was overshadowed by other projects within SNK Playmore. SNK Playmore were banking on KOF Maximum Impact being a big success. The Maximum Impact games received bigger budgets and better marketing, with a TV commercial in the US for the first game and an anime web-series titled “KOF Another Day” to market the second.

It seems in between all of these games, KOF XI simply struggled for attention. The fact that the game was ported on PS2 in 2007 in the US and Europe, a year after itss Japanese release, and so late into the Playstation 2’s life, didn’t help either. Coupled with the fact that there hasn’t been any other port of it, and that it’s an Atomiswave title, a hardware with shoddy emulation compared to the Neo Geo, means that KOF XI somewhat remained ignored after release.

That’s a damn shame, because KOF XI is one of the best games in the whole series.

 

King Of Fighters XI is the second game in the “Ash Saga” that started in KOF 2003 and ended with KOF XIII. As with the previous “NESTS Saga”, the Ash Saga appointed a new protagonist, Ash Crimson, along with a new systems: the tag-team system, and a new leader system, where 1 fighter of the 3-member team is appointed “leader” and has access to a more damaging Leader Desperation Move (Desperation Move is SNK terminology for Super Moves. sometimes shortened as DM, or in the case of Leader DM, as LDM). KOF XI maintains all that, but introduces a few more innovations that freshens up the tag-system and makes it much more versatile and useful than it was in KOF 2003. Additions like “Quick Shift” and “Saving Shift” make for much more dynamic matches, ones that give reasons to constantly tag characters in-and-out in order to extend combos or to save yourself from getting ruthlessly comboed. And the Skill Meter, a separate small bar situated above the standard power meter, used for the aforementioned Shifts and for supercancels, means that using these tag-shifts can work together with DMs, without having to trade-off DMs for tags. This way, tagging can compliment DMs rather than compete with them (unlike KOF 2003, where tag-attacks cost the same as a standard DM). Additionally, KOF XI introduced “Dreamcancel”, a flashy move where a leader character can cancel from a DM into a Leader DM for big damage. All these features help make KOF XI get a very distinctive playstyle compared to other KOFs, without having to clutter the screen with 3 or 4 characters at once like the striker-system in KOF 99/2000/2001. And unlike the Max-Mode system in KOF 2002, where only a handful of characters (out of 44) could utilize in any meaningful way, the tagging and dreamcancel features feel much more uniformly useful for all of the cast.

Personally, I Dream Cancel all the time just so I can wake up and get to work….*crickets*… sorry. 

More importantly, the roster in KOF XI may be the most radical in the series, doing its best to shake things up, removing many long mainstay characters to give some underdogs their time to shine. The arcade version didn’t have Robert, Joe Higashi, Chang, Leona, or even Mai Shiranui, one of SNK’s more popular female characters if not THE most popular (although SNKP did put Mai and Robert back in the PS2 port, along with a few more characters ripped from Neo Geo Battle Coliseum). And unlike KOF XII, these seem more like deliberate decisions rather than a matter of game development running out of budget, leading SNK Playmore to ship an anemic game in order to recoup as much of their expenditure as possible.

Pro-tip: There are a lot more characters than shown here, hidden to the left of Ash where that arrow is.

In place of these characters were more obscure ones. From Art Of Fighting, Eiji and Mr. Big make their first reappearance in KOF since 95 and 96, respectively. And Kasumi returns to KOF after leaving post-KOF 2000. On the Fatal Fury side, mainstays like Joe Higashi and Andy were dropped out in favor of newer characters from Mark Of The Wolves, like Bonne Jenet and Hotaru Futaba, or really old characters like Duck King and Tung Fu Rue.

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Not pictured: Duck King’s little duck friend does appear in the match to cheer on him.

But what’s even more amazing is that KOF XI goes beyond the Art Of Fighting and Fatal Fury series to enlist characters, and that never happened before in the series (or since, really). From Buriki One, SNK’s eccentric 3D Hyper Neo Geo 64 game where buttons were used for movement and joystick directions for attacks, KOF XI brings in Gai Tendo and Silber. And from Kizuna Encounter, the original tag-based game SNK made in 1996, it brought Sho Hayate and Jyazu. This odd but amazing roster makes KOF XI feel like a real “crossover” game again, which is how this whole series began in the first place, and somewhat deserted later on.

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Gai Tendo even maintains some factor of Buriki-One’s odd control scheme as his string specials are done solely by directional inputs.

Weirdly, it seems this focus on bringing characters from different SNK games may have hurt the brand new cast introduced in KOF XI, screwing up their balance. Barring cheap boss characters Shion and Magaki, there are 3 brand new characters in XI: Oswald, Elizabeth, and Momoko. Oswald turned out to be extremely strong. Watch any random KOF XI tournament match on youtube and you’ll surely see Oswald in one of the teams (and/or fellow top-tier characters Gato and Kula). He has everything, and then some*.

Elisabeth on the other hand feels a little unfinished. She only has 3 special moves. Sure, 3 special moves may be fine for a character like Ash, who is a “charge character” with a very defined play-style, but with Elisabeth, she just feels like she needs to get another special or two to round up her play-style. Her main strengths in KOF XI rely on a few gimmicks (like her anywhere juggle DM). Thankfully, Elisabeth reappeared in subsequent KOFs where her move-list was expanded, and she feels much more complete as a character in KOF XIII.

But then there is Momoko. Poor poor Momoko. Being a hard-to-use strings-based character like Angel or May Lee meant that mastering her requires a lot of practice, more so than your average KOF character. But even so, Momoko is just nowhere near as versatile as May Lee or Angel, and thus nowhere near as strong. And her short stature means that her normals are short on range. So she ends up relegated to the worst tier. And unlike Elisabeth, Momoko never got a second chance to flesh out her move-set and generally get new buffs in a newer KOF.

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Momoko basically doesn’t have a chance of winning any fight, At least she seems like she’s taking it in stride and not getting sad about.

All in all, I think what makes KOF XI special is that it really tried its best to differentiate itself from being just another KOF, after 10 iterations of them plus a few more spin-offs. The tagging mechanics feel much more realized here than in KOF 2003, making tagging midcombo much more doable, and thus making the leader system make much more sense. The roster eschews away from your expected mainstays and more towards lesser known underdogs from the SNK-verse, even characters from games that were never featured before in a KOF. Couple that with a nice soundtrack and some beautiful high-rez backgrounds (thanks to the beefier Atomiswave hardware), and you’ve got one of the best KOFs, nay one of the best fighters of its time. If you ever want to play a KOF with a unique-zest to it, The King Of Fighters XI will surely deliver.

 

* Seriously, Oswald has everything, such as:
  • great normals and command moves
  • can do damaging combos from low attacks
  • can actually link like 4 or 5 crouch light-punches instead of the usual 2 or 3 because of how long and fast they are
  • his air-C is one of the best cross-ups in the game
  • His string-moves mean that he can escape punishments if the strings were blocked by ending them with a safe attack like Qcf+P
  • his qcf+E string-ender move, while may require strict timing and placement, can do incredible damage equivalent to a DM but without having to spend the meter
  • he has a pretty decent ranbu DM that can reflect fireballs because why not?!
  • His hcb x 2 + P DM has a super effective Geese-like raging storm range & hitbox but without the complex pretzel motion
  • Speaking of Geese, Oswald has a counter move that teleports him behind opponents to initiate a free combo. Oddly not as strong or effective as it sounds, especially against air attacks.
  • His LDM is an anywhere-juggle that can easily be used in combos

A post about Splinter Cell Blacklist

In some parts, Splinter Cell Blacklist is the best Splinter Cell, passing Chaos Theory, the renowned pinnacle of the series. Levels are much more open to you. The AI is smarter. You have more tools than you ever need to tackle levels in so many different ways. And the UI interface makes it much clearer to the player to know when they are being spotted and when they’re hiding in safety. But at the same time, Blacklist is the entry with the least creativity, the least ambition, and the one most devoid of any personality or purpose. It’s a game made by highly capable robots completely adhering to the requests of suits, focus-testers, and play-testers without interjecting any sort of personal input to the game’s design.

Conviction might have been a more simple game, with a dumbed down minute-to-minute mechanics & level design. But it did have the grand idea of Sam Fisher being on his own, without tactical support or any sort of high tech gadgetry, depending on his wits and natural talents. And Double Agent before it had you going undercover into a domestic US terror organization, wherein you try to balance your actions throughout the game between trying to appear loyal to the organization and yet not going too far off the deep end, becoming just as bad as any of the “real” members. Blacklist goes back to the old mold of Sam Fisher working in his old unit (now called Fourth Echelon instead of the disbanded Third Echelon), doing the same style of missions as the ones in Chaos Theory and before. Again, nothing bad with going back to basic. The problem is all the other stuff Blacklist adds.

Blacklist’s campaign looks like a checklist of borrowed ideas from the generation’s biggest action games. Sam now possesses the same extraordinary upper body strength that Nathan Drake & the Assassins in Assassin’s Creed have. He can climb and leap several feet in the air & ascend buildings like the slyest of primates. Between missions, you hang around on your high-tech airplane (called The Paladin) where you can walk around slowly and talk to your teammates, upgrade equipment, or choose main/side missions, just like the Normandy spaceship in Mass Effect. Some side missions require you to dispose of wave after wave of enemies moving around a sea of chest-high walls & other forms of sticky cover points, just like horde mode in Gears Of War. At specific points of the game, you can choose to either spare or kill people, a decision which seems to hold no consequence whatsoever, just like about a million other game.

And then there’s so much Call Of Duty in here, with the plot that just serves to give “reasons” to travel around the world to disparate political hotspots with little merit (why is the president of the United States tasking one man to infiltrate a terrorist organization in Benghazi, extinguish fire in a liquid natural gas facility in Sabine Pass, disarm bombs in Philadelphia, and prevent terrorists from poisoning the water supply in Chicago all in a matter of hours is beyond me). Then there are the myriad mini-game sections, like the UAV mini-game, or the sniper mini-game, or the 1st person shooter sections (which are honestly competently made but never really made me want to play them over the proper parts of Blacklist). There’s even a QTE knife fight with the leader of the terrorist organization at the end of the game too.

Yes you’re watching footage from Splinter Cell Blacklist

But borrowing ideas is not inherently bad. In fact, Sam Fisher’s newly gained climbing abilities do greatly enhance the stealth mechanic of Splinter Cell. Stealth is inherently all about maneuvering through an environment, finding the safe path through a level while at the same time trying to time your movements to be made away from enemy eyes. So in a sense Stealth works a lot like a pure platformer. And with your climbing abilities, you get more pathways and places to access that are more vertical, making the level spaces more intricate and open. When Blacklist puts you in a level with a few dozen enemies and says “have at it”, it’s at its best.

The problem is that there’s so much uninteresting clutter between each of this instances, whether it’s the uninteresting cutscenes or the myriad sections where you’re forced to shoot your way out of situations, or the meandering walking-around-your-plane scenes. And again, none of that is bad inherently. I understand that Ubisoft’s intent is to create these scenes that are supposed to make you connect with the characters and “immerse you” into the game, it’s just that I had zero investment. I don’t care about Fisher or any of his cohorts. And I am a longtime fan of this 10+ year old series. I’m one who has played and beaten every single Splinter Cell game, even the mobile phone version of Pandora Tomorrow & the game boy advance one (both were good actually). Fisher might have had a bit of charisma previously when he was voiced by Michael Ironside and when he actually looked as old as he is supposed to be, but this new Fisher just squanders what little character Fisher used to have, and in turn what little character the game itself has. And the story is just a safe, by-the-numbers, flat imitation of a below-average season of 24. Nothing happens to Fisher or anyone else. And even things that are supposed to be “important” are dealt so clumsily.

For example, there was a scene where a high-level government official, who was taken hostage by terrorists and was tortured by having his fingers chopped off one by one, seems about to concede and comply with the terrorist’s orders to transfer some sort of important file on a computer. So your character springs to hold the government official by the neck and then proceeds to snap it. The hostage dies. And then that’s it. You, one of the good guys, just killed a tortured, mangled hostage. And the justification is that he was ABOUT to spill government secrets to terrorist, possibly.

And yet, the gravity of this decision seems to fly over the writers’ heads. It’s never given the deserved attention this scene so clearly needs. It’s never brought up after, or foreshadowed/built up to before. None of the characters, least the killer himself, seems to care about it or even recall it happening. All it adds up to is just another uninteresting cutscene put between the fun “gamey” sections of Blacklist, a cutscene I wished I’ve skipped. I don’t care. The characters don’t care. No one who played it seemed to care. A bunch of nothing.

The aforementioned scene. skip to 10 min and 10 sec. Spoliers obviously

This crystallizes the whole problem with Splinter Cell Blacklist. A lot of its parts are composed of parts from other popular games just because they are popular games. They are all just added in with little thought or purpose. But when it gets back to the fun parts, when you are really playing Splinter Cell, it’s as good as any other Splinter Cell if not better. It’s just that there are a lot of times when it’s just not Splinter Cell at all.

A post about Saudi Arabia’s Gamer’s Day 2013

Last week, I and about 40,000 other people attended the 2013 annual Gamer’s Day convention held in the International Convention & Exhibition Centre in Riyadh. The male-only Gamer’s Day is Saudi Arabia’s biggest video games-focused con (why male-only? Long-short is, because Saudi Arabia). The Sony-sponsored convention got its start in 2008 and kept growing steadily year by year. I attended last year’s con on the first day and it was quite the mess. Apparently, it was much better for day 2 & 3 but I didn’t bother to go anyway. This year’s con, however, was much more organized thankfully and made it a much more enjoyable experience.

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The convention floor was occupied by a few  companies. Sony had the biggest booth in the center area, showing off several PS3, PS4, and PS VITA titles. Namco Bandai, EA, Koei Tecmo, 2K, and Ubisoft attended, though each only brought 1, 2, maybe 3 games max to the show.

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But what impressed me more was how much of the floor was occupied due to local efforts. There was an indie games booth, where you can try out locally and regionally developed indie titles and then get to meet their creators. There were a few local institutes advertising educational programs that allow students to get into the games industry. Local games sites Saudi Gamer and NG4A had booths where you can get to meet and talk with the staff. Saudi Gamer even recorded a live podcast panel in front of dozens of their fans who have been listening to the show for close to 5 years now. There were even a few cosplayers.

Indie games floor. Who knew Batman is also a talented game dev with some cool games (not really).

Indie games floor. Who knew Batman is also a talented game dev with some cool games (not really).

In this culture, in the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, there are grown men who have seriously decided to pursue a career, to base their future, on either making video games or on covering them, definitely not because they are viably lucrative career choices, but because it’s one they greatly enjoy.  And then there are tens of thousands of fans who greatly admire their work and support them by buying their games or going see a live-recording panel of their favorite video game podcast that they listen to week after week. This all should just be surreal to me, but it isn’t and it’s great. It is cool to know there are thousands and thousands of weirdos like me who have wasted their lives and invested so much into the  juvenile, frivolous indulgence of video games. And it’s not just Gamer’s Day, GCON is the female-only equivalent which is happening later in October. And there’re a few other cons happening around the country and region. And it’s seemingly growing. I don’t want to talk about what this means to Saudi Arabia in terms of the cultural, social, or political sense, mainly because I’m not interested in such topics, but I feel like learning to let loose a little and have a bit of good clean fun can only be good for everyone…maybe.

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I remember back in 2004 when I was thinking about college, my mom half-jokingly suggested I become a game developer. My dad (always the realist) dismissed that, justifiably, not because it’s a silly career to choose, but because it was not a viable (nay, non-existent) career path. I don’t regret my choice, but I feel like my decision-making process would have been totally different today.

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Anyway, I had fun. And I also tried some games. I should be posting my impressions in the next blogpost but they’re games you probably already seen or read about months ago by more capable people who played it way longer than I have.

VGMusings #1 Gyakuten Meets Jazz Soul

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My inaugural VGMusings is about one of my all-time favorite arrange albums, the Ace Attorney Jazz Album, called “Gyakuten Meets Jazz Soul” or “Turnabout Meets Jazz Soul”. The Ace Attorney series not only has great music but just great sound design all around. And this album proudly shows it.

Instead of being an arrange album that “plays it straight” by maintaining the same genre and tempo, and merely actualizing the real instruments that the original songs inferred, Gyakuten Meets Jazz Soul drastically changes the style and mood of the songs. In parts it’s following the original song’s melody and structure, and then in other parts it’s improvising (a necessary part of Jazz in general), and then swinging back and forth between these two states. Some songs sound so drastically different from the original that they become unrecognizable, specifically the Steel Samurai theme. The original is an upbeat, heroic theme song, very fitting for a superhero show made for kids. Here, it’s just a complete opposite. It’s slow and more somber. Some of the other songs sound much more faithful to the original, like Godot’s theme “The Aroma Of Black Coffee”.  Though that’s not surprising considering the original was itself a Jazzy tune.

(And now this is the part where I just fill space by reading off of VGMdb.net)

The Album was arranged by Noriyuki Iwadare (VGMdb page here), who composed for Ace Attorney Trails and Tribulations (Gyakuten Saiban 3), Ace Attorney Investigations (Gyaktuen Kenji), and the Japan-only Gyakuten Kenji 2. He’s also returning for Ace Attorney 5: Dual Destinies, which is sounding great so far. Before the Ace Attorney games, he composed for the Lunar & Grandia RPG games for Game Arts, and the Lagrisser tactical RPG games for Career Soft (This blog post expands on that part of his history pretty neatly). He arranged for a host of games, from Afterburner to Fire Pro Wrestling to Devil Crush & Alien Crush. He also contributed to a lot of “Omnibus” soundtracks featuring a host of famous VGM composers (like Kid Icarus: Uprising or many CAVE Shooters).

The music was performed by Metamorphosis Jazztet (sometimes incorrectly translated as Metamorphosis Jazz Band). They are a long-running prominent Taiwanese Jazz band, having started in the late ’90s and are still active, playing in concerts and other live gigs. This Taipei Times interview with them back in 2001 is a great introductory piece about the band and about the Jazz scene in Taiwan and Asia. And here is the discography of the band and some of its members’ solo projects, though none seem to be on iTunes or other digital music services.  They also have an official website, though seems it hasn’t been updated for a while now.

VGMusings #0 An Introduction

Hi, I’m Badr AlOmair AKA BadoorSNK. You may know me from this blog about video games. Well, this blog here is ALSO about video games, but without any specific topic. Just your regular old general topic video game blog. However, I am starting another new series, one about video game music (or VGM) called VGMusings.

What is VGMusings? Well, it’s a series of posts highlighting video game music that I really like, some for games I played, many from whole game series I never tried. But rather than do the standard series-focus stuff (like TOP 20 ZELDA SONGS), I’ll be focusing more on specific albums (both original and arranged ones, though mostly arranged) or live shows, or fan-covers or simply the artists behind the music, anything beyond putting a playlist of ripped video game music. Though generally speaking, there is no strict rubric I’m following.

I guess we both will see how this will shape. But I hope you’ll enjoy reading it anyway.