I Overscored A Game I Didn’t Beat

ZOE_Game_of_the_month

Game Informer magazine issue #97 (May 2001) has easily one of the crappiest game to be featured on the cover of that or any other game magazine. The only competition I can think of is the latest Star Trek title or South Park Rally. See, the Xbox was nearing launch and Microsoft was dishing out exclusives to each outlet. GI was still pretty low on the totem, thus we got Azurik – one of the launch games everyone either forget or wish they had.

It also marked my second issue as associate editor. I had started in October 1999 as a web editor (leaving my awesome job as a slave of Gwar). Less than a year and a half later, the same parent company that demanded Game Informer hire a dedicated web staff to make a dedicated website said to shut down the site and lay off some people. I was very fortunate to be kept on and moved over to the print side.

I definitely made some mistakes as a rookie reviewer. My first high-profile review assignment was Zone of the Enders, a PS2 action game where you play a kid in a mech (giant robot) who has to save the world. It was from Hideo Kojima, the man behind the Metal Gear series (as well as another favorite, Snatcher).

After an hour or two, it was pretty obvious this was a quality title. Thank goodness, as there were few other standout games that issue. Baseball games and Super Bombad Racing were about all PS2 had going for it; Xbox and GameCube were months from launch; GBA wasn’t out yet either; and Dreamcast, N64 and PSone were limping along. Though I will say this issue also featured Mars Matrix (buy it), one of my favorite shmups of all time.

Anyway, a game this good meant a large-sized review and possibly Game of the Month. That entailed lots of screenshots – at least a few of them big ones. Back then, we took screens by splitting the video out to our Macs (G4s?). We’d hit space bar, and it would capture the image. PS2 brought about anti-aliasing, which created some ghosting in our images. We found a workaround, but it left the shots looking lower-resolution. Add to that the fact that I was apparently capturing at 320×240 instead of 640×480, and most of my shots were unusable. D’oh. I don’t remember if I had time to go back and recapture shots or not; even if I did, they wouldn’t have been as versatile and organic as the originals.

My second faux pas was more egregious, and I am putting myself out there in admitting it (though you know already, having read the title of this entry). The plot of Zone of the Enders has you piloting this mech that your young avatar Leo quite literally fell into. He wants to save his city while the mech’s AI needs to get its ass to Mars – where an even bigger battle is being waged. So about 5 hours in, maybe more if you count my time taking notes and snapping screens, I’m approaching when I’ll be taking off for Mars – which I assume is the second half or so, in part due to an overhead map in a cutscene.

By then, I’m feeling pretty good about calling it. The gameplay is satisfying and speedy; the graphics are excellent (remember PS2 tech was still considered next-gen); there’s even a little story, albeit with a whiny kid. This is our Game of the Month, I say confidently. I write my review, give it a 9.25, and the reviewer doing the second opinion goes a quarter-point higher with a 9.5. I even say “Unlike a few other PS2 efforts thus far, this is a pretty long game to boot.” You can check out a PDF of the entire review if you feel so inclined.

Fast-forward to this month, May of 2013. 12 years after that issue and that review came out. I’ve had a shrinkwrapped copy of Zone of the Enders ever since, having never played it post-review. I’ve had cravings to pop it in, but it’s just too damn valuable to break the seal. I own a used, mint copy of the sequel, too – Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – but haven’t played that, either. And I hear ZOE 2 is better in every way.

Fortunately, Konami put out ZOE HD Collection (buy here) last October. Unfortunately, it was said to be rife with issues – especially reduced speed of combat. Fortunately, it was patched (though the Xbox 360 version is said to be superior). Unfortunately, it came out during my year-long game-buying ban. Fortunately, I found it on sale so cheap I couldn’t pass it up.

So I played it, a 12-year-old game with a glossy paint job. I see why I liked it so much. Combat is manic and often zero-gravity, but there’s a bit of strategy to it. It’s faithfully to what I remember. Not everything stood up so well, though. I can’t believe how much backtracking there is. It seems that, with every new area that opens up on the map, you have to revisit every previous one to find a specific item or weapon or unmanned enemy to take over. At least you can level-up along the way, and the sub-weapons you find are pretty cool.

The missions have some variety, but there are really only 2 normal enemy types, and one of them is a major pain in the ass. Boss battles, what few there are, are Kojima-worthy. You even get a cool continue screen if you die. Protagonist Leo can be grating, but he’s pretty human as far as game characters go. The way he and navigation AI Ada speak to one other kept me entertained.

But here’s the kicker: Back when I stopped playing Zone of the Enders to write my review, I was probably an hour away from completing the whole game. My total play time, which ended Tuesday night, was 5 hours, 51 minutes and 40 seconds. And I am not a rushed-style player. The game ends before you even get to Mars; I’m assuming Mars is where ZOE 2 takes place (which I heard isn’t much longer than 6 hours itself).

This was not a surprise, honestly. Even though we didn’t have social media back then, I’d quickly heard about the short length of the game. After that, I unofficially decided to put more time into games I was reviewing. I won’t say that I beat every one – there were times when I reviewed 20 games in one issue, or times I had less than a day to play/write/submit a review as a freelancer – but I did give each of them more of a chance.

I don’t know what I would have given Zone of the Enders had I known its actual length. Maybe it still would have been GI’s Game of the Month. After all, it had a lot going for it in its day. But it’s tough to say this many years later when much of what made it special has been usurped tenfold. I know I became a much better reviewer, in part because of that and other mistakes I made.

— Justin Leeper (@StillManFights)

Advertisements

Super Mario 3D Land’s Lost Levels are Included

I bought a 3DS right around the price drop – late enough to get the better price, but soon enough to qualify for the bad-ass Ambassador Program. Since then, I’ve beaten several games on the handheld: Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones, Mario’s Picross, Legend of Zelda, Zelda 2: Adventure of Link, Metroid Fusion… As you may notice, those are all virtual console (or Ambassador) games. Before this week, I had only beaten one 3DS exclusive: The awesome puzzle game Pushmo (in my opinion, the sequel Crashmo – which I broke my no-game-buying ban to pick up – is not nearly as good).

Honestly, I’ve barely touched any of the physical game cards I own. Super Mario Land 3D (buy here) is the only one I’d spent more than a couple hours on. And I really like it. I admittedly haven’t been drawn in by any of the 3D Mario games – sacrilege I know – but this one is a great blend of 2D and 3D with bite-size levels perfect for a portable. Even still, it sat unplayed for over a year.

I recently went back to it, only to find that I was already on World 7. Though it had been long enough that I was pretty rusty – especially since the button config doesn’t match old Marios – I was still able to get through the rest of the game in maybe an hour, to see Bowser defeated and Peach saved once again (spoiler? Yeah right).

Mario Land 3D is definitely built to cater to less-experienced players. It does this thing where, if you die repeatedly on a level, it gives you a pity white tanooki suit that is even immune to attacks. Die more still, and you’ll get the beloved P-Wing from Mario 3. While I see how these could be helpful, I was a little miffed. Sure, I could decide not to use them, but it’s very tempting. I didn’t touch that P-Wing, though; that’s cheating! It’s not as bad as Ninja Gaiden asking to bump you down to Ninja Dog difficulty, but it’s still demeaning.

I felt like I saw everything the game had to offer, which was not unsubstantial even though I only logged 5 hours and 11 minutes by the time the credits rolled. The level design is very creative, not just utilizing the 3D as more than a simple gimmick, but also having fun with Mario tropes throughout the series. I did not get all the Yoshi coins, which show up 3 per level. You need some to unlock nonessential worlds and even some boss sections, but I always had more than enough on hand.

The game alludes to “special” stages post-completion, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to bother. A look at howlongtobeat, however, showed that my 5:11 completion time is an hour below the average, even for just completing the main story. I’m usually a very slow, methodical player. And if you look at those who beat the main game plus did more, there seems to be 4 1/2 hours of extra content. So I decided to check it out.

I’m quite glad I did. Gone is the babying of gifted items and other hand-holding aspects. The all-new special stages – there are at least 40 of them – are more difficult, more clever, and just plain more special than the original levels. For example, there are levels when you have a very short time limit, and have to grab clock power-ups to avoid timing out. It’s almost like that first 5 hours and 11 minutes was a tutorial.

Now, I’m getting my ass handed to me in part because I’m still a little rusty and also because I’m drawn to Yoshi coins. Falling to my death is the norm, and I’m down about 20 lives after getting through the first baker’s dozen of special stages (that just means I have a stockpile of 75 now instead of 95). Sure, I’ve uttered some swears – or alternates to swears like “fut nuckers,” which I literally actually said – but I’m having more fun. Perhaps I just like the challenge after the lack of it for the first Act.

It reminds me of the original Super Mario Bros. That game presented a modest challenge, in part because it was something we’d never played before. When I say “we,” I mean those of us old enough to have been kids when the NES came out and either had one or had a friend with one. I initially fit in the latter category, so my friend Daniel and I would join Bobby in his basement every day after school to play Mario. We’d slowly but surely get further every time; of course, there was no saving, so we’d have to start from 1-1 each day. It wasn’t until we found the 3-1 infinite life loop that we were able to triumph.

A few years later, Super Mario 2 came out. While I love that game to this day, it was not the actual sequel to Mario 1. That was a game that we wouldn’t see here in the US until Super Mario All-Stars for SNES, under the title “The Lost Levels.” It was essentially Super Mario 1 part II, only much harder. Stereotype says Japanese gamers are more hardcore than us, so they got it and we didn’t.

But in the case of Super Mario 3D Land, its “Lost Levels” are included right along with the regular game! The Reddit nation would probably call that move Good Guy Nintendo. I just call it more time with an old friend, and I don’t mean Daniel and Bobby.

— Justin Leeper (@StillManFights)

Me & Metal Gear Solid 2

There weren’t many games that arrived with as much excitement and hype as Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty for PlayStation 2 (buy here). After all, it was a follow-up to one of the PSone’s best games – which is saying something. I remember the crowd that gathered around Konami‘s E3 booth when the trailer played.

At Game Informer, we got the exclusive review cover. The cover image was drawn by Todd McFarlane. It was the first game to get dual 10s. We had an 8-page strategy guide and a 6-page feature. In an issue that also featured GTA III, Tony Hawk 3, and Dead or Alive 3, MGS 2 was king – and I had nothing to do with any of it.

Okay, that’s not totally true. I got the bright idea to do a 2-page Classic Strategy on the original NES Metal Gear. It was a game I never liked, and forcing myself to “master” it didn’t help matters at all.

The game was reviewed by Kato and Reiner – their last names, as there was already a Matt and an Andy on staff respectively before they were hired. I will always be grateful that they didn’t spoil the game. I, on the other hand, am going to speak freely about this 12-year-old game, so beware. You see, perennial Metal Gear star Solid Snake was only the playable protagonist for the first ~3 hours. After that, you take on winy blond combat rookie Raiden. Can you imagine 16 pages of coverage – we’re talking strategies and screenshots – without giving that away? Props to them!

Of course, I day-one purchased it or got it free from Konami (perk of the job) and quickly devoured the game. Back then, I used to say you always suck for the first couple hours of a Metal Gear game, as you get accustomed to the mechanics and controls not to mention the way it’s more sneak than slaughter. I too loved it.

And just days ago, I replayed it thanks to the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for PS3 (buy here). Note: I bought it on January 6, 2012 so it didn’t violate my year-long game-buying ban. I won’t say I loved it this time, but I got a lot of enjoyment, as well as remembered the things that make a Metal Gear game such a Metal Gear game. I’d like to speak on those things.

First off, the graphics on PS2 were revolutionary. The animation, character models, and textures were all top-of-class for that generation. The slightly updated Xbox port added a lot more effects. I imagine if I popped in the old game, I would be disappointed. But the HD remake essentially looks like how the game does in my memory. It’s smooth yet undetailed. The little extras are all there, but have become pretty commonplace – though things like bean cans floating in a flooded stairwell or a swarm of interactive insects is still very cool.

The story is every bit as head-scratching now, if not more so since it’s not brand new. Let’s see if I can run it down, though I do not expect you to follow:

Solid Snake is part of an anti-Metal Gear organization, and finds out a Metal Gear (giant robo-nuke) is hiding on a Navy-run oil tanker. He goes to check it out the same time Russians commandeer it. He discovers and photographs the new Metal Gear (Ray). But at the same time Revolver Ocelot, a Russian guy from MGS 1, kills the Navy commander and the Russian commander and sinks the ship – seemingly with Snake among the drowned. End Act 1 and Snake as the playable character.
Now it’s two years later. Raiden, a goofy, inexperienced kid who’s part of a black-ops organization run by the same Colonel as MGS 1 (and somehow involving his whiny girlfriend), infiltrates the giant cleanup facility placed over the tanker’s wreckage. Why? Because the President is on there when it was taken over by a group demanding a 30-billion-dollar ransom. That group is a bunch of freaks that can’t die or are vampires and junk. There are still a bunch of Russians on there, too, and together they capture the President, take everyone else hostage, and kill the SEAL teams.
Survivors are limited to Solid Snake in a disguise where Raiden doesn’t know who he is, and the guy who trained one of the freaks – a mad bomber who goes all blow-up-everything before you stop him.
You discover the President committed treason, using his nuke codes to arm the weapon in order to get a piece of the pie from the Illuminati-type group that actually runs the nation. But they betrayed him, so he helps Raiden before being killed by Revolver Ocelot – who had Snake’s genetic twin Liquid’s arm replace the one a cyber ninja cut off in Metal Gear Solid 1. Only Liquid’s spirit is inside the arm and is fighting Ocelot for control. Also, the cyber ninja shows up in the facility though it ends up being the daughter of the Russian commander (and an Act I boss) who is now somehow working with Snake.
You also find Emma, the little step-sister of Snake’s buddy Otacon. Emma has created a lot of the tech involved here, and is a better hacker than her big bro. See, Metal Gear Ray is not the big problem; the entire facility is one giant Metal Gear somehow, named Arsenal Gear. It doesn’t even need nukes to be a dangerous thing. It actually is as much an information suppressor as a weapon. But Emma’s not a bad guy, I guess, because she’s cute and tries to help with a computer virus before she dies and leaves her pet parrot to torment Otacon forever.
The cyber ninja and Snake actually betray Raiden, causing him to become literally naked and helpless. This was just bait to get closer to Solidus Snake, Snake’s heretofore-unheard-of second genetic brother who is also a former President who turned on the Illuminati-type group and has 2 Doctor Octopus tentacles that shoot laser missiles. Around this time, Raiden’s on-call support (Colonel and girlfriend) starts freaking out. Nothing they say makes sense. Turns out they’re 200-year-old AIs or something somehow, emanating from Arsenal Gear itself, and are being affected by the virus. But Raiden’s girlfriend is still a real person too, and discovers Raiden’s past as a child soldier who killed like it ain’t no thang – a history which was somehow set up by Solidus, who commanded them.
Once reunited, Snake gives Raiden the cyber ninja’s sword as an apology present. It’s kind of cool, but doesn’t help at all when you have to fight dozens of Metal Gear Rays back-to-back. However, the final battle has Raiden and his father/godfather/mentor Solidus square off with blades (and those mecha-tentacles in an Inception-esque Manhattan once Arsenal Gear runs aground.

So yeah, the story is kinda crazy. However, it actually tries, and that’s important. And it goes places that you can sometimes follow, many of which are unexpected even if they don’t always land. I do enjoy how it tackles government corruption and even video-game escapism. There are no taboo subjects. Hell, Otacon even slept with his step-mom (Emma’s mother)!

The important thing is how the narrative entails a roller-coaster of gameplay variety. The gang of freaks really is cool, even if you don’t fight one of them. You’ll run around in disguise, track down cleverly-placed bombs, do some swimming, and even have an escort mission that doesn’t suck. It always seems like you have options with what to do next or how to tackle obstacles. It’s not as open as, say, Deus Ex, but also isn’t as linear as God of War.

We have become spoiled with good cameras in games. MGS 2 still uses the fixed-camera perspective, a la old Devil May Cry and Resident Evil. There are times when you can only see yourself from the knee down. It can be frustrating, but the radar is a big help.

First-person is essential for accurate shooting, but it requires pretzel fingers. To shoot in first person, you’ve got to hold R1, hold Square to raise your weapon, and aim with the analog – sometimes holding L1 to lock onto a target. But you’ll only shoot a pistol when letting go of Square.

As I said before, Raiden is a pain in the ass. His actions are so unprofessional, to the point where you want to smack him. And when he and Rose start up, I was almost tempted to skip over the dialogue. Maybe Kojima hoped painting him as a killing machine near the end would redeem his cred, but I’m unconvinced (though I have yet to play his spinoff action game, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance [real title]). If there’s good about the switch in player-character, it’s that we got to view Snake with more awe because he wasn’t stuck being in our clumsy hands. He got to mentor us, as the player. That’s kind of neat.

I’m glad I went back and replayed Metal Gear Solid 2. Looking online, there are enough hidden goodies that I’m half tempted to try it again. Instead, I’ll probably finally play Peace Walker, which was originally a PSP game but included in the collection. Or, ya know, Konami could either port Kojima’s visual novel Snatcher to a current format or localize its Japanese-only spiritual sequel Policenauts.

***EDIT***
I originally gave this game a review score, but I’m deleting it. I think this is a rare case of a game where it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. It does something unique with its medium, and with the concept of sequels and expectation, and is therefor worth playing by anyone who is a fan of said medium whether they expressly “enjoy it” or not.

— Justin Leeper (@StillManFights)

Bioshock Infinite: $44.99 at Amazon

Bioshock was a game I should have loved, but maybe tackled at the wrong time. I got a little pissed at it, and didn’t complete it. I know there’s a big “thing” about it, and I’ve fortunately avoided any spoilers. I fully intend to go back to it.

Even still, if I was not in the clutches of a self-imposed game-buying ban, I might have pre-ordered Bioshock Infinite. Barring that, once the amazing reviews came rolling in, I would have bought/played the game with the quickness. This is easily game-of-the-year material, after all.

Barring that, I at least would have jumped on this amazing deal like Mario crushing a Goomba in World 1-1: Bioshock Infinite is currently on sale at Amazon for $44.99, both Xbox 360 and PS3 versions. One of my missions is to post deals I would love to take advantage of but can’t, so you may live vicariously through me. Enjoy.