As a horrendous weeaboo, it is my duty to enjoy grinding in RPGs. To swallow up whatever garbage Japan throws at me, whatever horrible, life-sabotaging timesink, and sit there in my darkened room, eyes glued to the screen, pressing the X button over and over and over again on the same pallet-swapped enemies in order to raise some tiny numbers on my character’s status screen. At least, that seems to be what some people think.

In reality, my relationship with grinding is kind of sporadic. I remember spending one summer when I was sixteen grinding away at the Monster Arena in Final Fantasy X, harvesting those precious fuck-with-the-sphere-grid items to maximise the stat boosts from every space in the board and get all my characters to 99999 HP, 9999 MP and 255 in every stat. I did this in order to fight Penance, the “holy shit are you fucking serious” boss present in the “International” (read: Japan only, HA HA NO PLAY IT STUPID ROUNDEYE) version of the game. Through a glaring oversight in Square-Enix’s Xenophobia Policy, this boss was actually also in the UK version of the game, which is how I was fighting it. But that’s neither here or there. The point is that I got bored and gave up just before I got there, because it literally was doing the same controller motions over and over and over and over again with no challenge and no differentiation in what I was doing.

This experience more or less put me off grinding of the ‘mash the same button for 8 hours of my spare time in a row’ variety. Consequentially, I’ve been very skeptical of games with levels in in general. This naturally extends to MMOs, but it’s prevented me from enjoying games that have in recent years become staples for filthy unwashed weeaboos such as myself, like Etrian Odyssey and its sequel.

When I first saw Disgaea, though, my curiosity got the better of me.

What’s this? Large-sized anime sprites on the screen? This was a FUCKING RARITY back then, in case anyone’s forgotten. Sure, we got a lot of Japanese games coming out translated, but they were mostly ones that could pass as NOT JAPANESE if you were missing half your brain. Stuff that’d be palatable to that mythical majority consumer who doesn’t like subtitles or anything that isn’t recognisably American. You know, that guy the movie and video game industries seem to believe comprises 100% of anyone with any money, for some fucking bizarre reason. And suddenly there was this game, and it was fucking oozing weeaboo out of every orifice, and RUMOUR HAD IT IT WOULD ACTUALLY BE GETTING TRANSLATED AND RELEASED IN ENGLISH. HOLY SHIT, EVEN IF THIS GAME WAS CRAPPY, I HAD TO BUY IT ON PRINCIPLE.

It took a week or so for the excitement to wear off, and for me to realise that the game could actually be an irredeemable pile of garbage. After all, a lot of the anime I’d seen was. I think there’s this misconception amongst people who don’t like anime that those of us who do will watch anything with big eyes, flat chests and cute little sisters dying of unnamed diseases. That isn’t true at all. Anyone with any sense who watches this stuff realises that it has the exact same worryigly high crap:good ratio as any other form of entertainment. Just because you like movies doesn’t mean you enjoy the BRATZ MOVIE, does it? Just because you watch TV doesn’t mean you’ll sit through daytime talk shows, right? Same shit is true with anime.

Where was I? Oh yeah. I realised this game could potentially suck too much to buy. Fortunately, though, an American friend got a hold of a copy and played the fuck out of it. The information she gave me was as follows:

* It’s actually really funny
* The characters are pretty awesome
* It’s very, very long
* You make changes to the game by petitioning a demon congress and beating them up if they refuse
* HOLY SHIT, THE MAXIMUM LEVEL IS 9999

“What the hell?” I thought. “You can get to LEVEL 9999? Surely to god, that must take more grinding than is humanly possible.” Then I stopped being a moron and realised that the game must actually work in one of the following ways:

* You gain levels roughly 100 times faster than in any other RPG
OR
* The game EXPECTS YOU to gimp, glitch and exploit your way up the level ladder as much as possible

Once my friend told me that she’d played for almost 100 hours and was only level 70 or so, I realised it must, in fact, be the latter. I found this idea to be fucking awesome.

So, the game arrived, and three things about it jumped out at me right away:

HOLY SHIT, THIS KID IS AWESOME!

HOLY SHIT, THOSE TITS ARE ENORMOUS!

HOLY SHIT, THAT’S A LOT OF NUMBERS!
(Okay, okay, so that’s someone’s screenshot of Makai Kingdom. But you get my point.)

This combination seemed amazing to me. The game was punishing, and at times it seemed almost designed to frustrate the player, but my suspicions about it had been correct: It was an AWESOME game, and it spat on you and stamped on you, fully expecting you to cheat it and screw it into giving you the levels you crave. It was great. Grinding was no longer about doing the same bullshit action over and over (although admittedly I can think of a few times when I used the same trick twice or three times in a row) but was instead about considering your options as intelligently as possible and making the game work for, rather than against you.

Case in point: Not that far into the main story mode, there’s a map which is mostly covered by an endless sea of panels which make anything standing on them COMPLETELY INVINCIBLE, with only one or two spots that aren’t covered by it. This map was populated by succubi, or some other equally big-titted enemy. I discovered completely by accident that lifting up one and throwing it ONTO another would combine them into one succubus that was the COMBINED LEVEL of the two that had collided. At that point, I got my entire team out, threw one succubus into another into another until there was only ONE succubus literally hundreds of levels higher than my puny characters, and threw it onto one of the non-invincible tiles. I then surrounded it with my team and spent many turns chipping away at its health, its powerful attacks utterly failing to damage me in return thanks to the invincibility effect. The character who landed the final blow got a fuckton of experience and rocketed up many levels at once.

Later, I realised that by passing bills through the Dark Assembly (the demon senate I mentioned earlier), it was possible not only to level the succubi up to a much higher point than they were originally (thereby yielding more EXP), but also to triple the EXP of the next enemy I killed. NOW I was thinking 4-dimensionally. I came up with more and more convoluted strategies to level up quickly and cheat the system. Every time I found something, I knew that it had been put in intentionally for me and many other players to find. This was a whole new angle on RPGs that I became utterly addicted to.

It wasn’t just the gameplay, either. Laharl, the main character, is fucking awesome. The son of the demonic Overlord, he’s essentially a selfish, exploitative egomaniac with the voice and body of a cute young boy. On the surface, he’s utterly devoid of anything approaching kindness or humanity… but it’s easy to tell there was a little kid in there, and it makes it not only hilarious to watch him but also makes him instantly endearing. Plus, he has two achilles heels: Optimism and tits. Early on in the game, there’s a scene in which one of his enemies sets a DEADLY TRAP for him – a trap involving huge-titted succubi soothing him with platitudes such as “It’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part!”. Throughout this scene, he was screaming in anguish and appeared to be in physical pain. It was awesome.

Aside from having a story and cast sprinkled generously with this unique charm, Disgaea also had ONE HELL OF A TWIST. It’s a twist which most people I’ve spoken to didn’t even really seem to register, but which impressed me enormously. See, I think that upon seeing all this angels-and-demons stuff, it’s normal to assume that the game is perhaps set in a more superstitious time, or at the very least that the equivalent time in our insignificant human world wasn’t a consideration when coming up with the setting. BUT HOLY SHIT:

OH GOD, WHO’S THIS GUY? HE’S LIKE A SPACEMAN OR SOMETHING AND OH FUCK HE CAME IN A SPACESHIP, DOES THAT FUCKING MEAN–

YES, that’s right. Disgaea takes place in what is, to us, something like the year 3,500 AD. Celestia (heaven) and the Netherworld (hell) are really just two planets locked in an eternal cold war, and the ambitious and technologically advanced Earth has decided it’s time to launch an invasion. They send a FUCKING ARMADA over to fuck your shit up and claim your planet as their own. This guy, Captain Gordon, is the 32nd (or something like that) Defender of Earth – a position which, historically, has been held by the person responsible for keeping the Netherworld’s forces at bay.

For ELEVEN CHAPTERS you’ve played this game. That’s like… what, fucking 70 or 80 hours, and you had no idea that there was some kind of interstellar war going on or that the humans even really knew you existed. But holy shit, here it is, faggot. And guess what? If you feel like it, you can actually GO TO EARTH AND START FUCKING THEM UP. You can actually launch a counter-attack, conquer Earth, and have an ending where you become its ruler as well as the Netherworld’s. Holy shit.

Months passed and finally I wrung (almost) every single secret and hidden boss out of Disgaea. I went through extreme withdrawal. I wanted to play it again, but it was too recent. I couldn’t just play the same fucking game over and over.

And then, one day…

OH GOD OH GOD THAT ART LOOKS LIKE THE DISGAEA ART, OH GOD IT SAYS NIPPON ICHI SOFTWARE IN THE CORNER, OH GOD FINALLY IT’S MORE OF THE SAME ISN’T IT I’VE WAITED FOR THIS DA– Oh wait.

OH WAIT, IT’S TOTAL HORSESHIT.

I bought this game while salivating with anticipation. My experience with it was much like having my face held inside a toilet bowl. For starters, the main character is a total faggot. I’m not even going to waste my space and your time with a picture of him solo, you can see him right there on the box art if you care at all. He’s boring, whiny, and utterly devoid of interesting motivation. In fact, ALL the characters are like that. The most interesting character in the game is Marron, who’s ALMOST a cowboy, except he’s not awesome at all either.

Secondly, the story is boring and utterly devoid of anything even approaching a surprise. No, I didn’t beat it, but I read ahead.

Thirdly, the system just fucking sucks. You know those RPGs where they shovel in some fucking stupid system just to be unique, and it ruins the game? Yeah, it’s one of those. For a start, there’s no grid to move on. I never think this works in a strategy RPG. Instead, you have these little movements of unit roughly equivalent to one footstep. When you move your character, a little circle appears around them showing you the extent of their moveable range. Sounds okay, right? NOT WHEN ALL THE CHARACTERS ARE SPRITES AND THEY’RE ALL CLOSE TOGETHER AND YOU CAN’T TELL WHO’S FUCKING WHERE. There’s also the stupid fucking O.B. system, where anything that falls outside of the bounds of the level is classed as out of bounds, is removed from the map, and some totally arbitrary shit or other happens to it, EVEN IF IT’S A CHARACTER YOU WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF MOVING. Gone are the days where you had to actually earn new classes by fulfilling specific requirements, you can just make anything you’ve encountered or beaten even once now. And best of all – BEST OF ALL – you start each map with just the loli (who is almost impossible to level up at all) and have to “confine” your characters to objects on the map, which limits how many turns they can be in play for and affects their stats according to what you bound them to. It’s just clumsy, stupid, and doesn’t really work. Fuck it.

Okay, that’s enough about that shitty game. Needless to say, it shook my faith in NIS as a developer. They released Makai Kingdom after that, which was okay I guess, but still had a lot of the stupid shit that Phantom Brave had, and while it was back to AWESOME DEMONS it just didn’t feel as good as Disgaea and the plot was overcomplicated, weird and awkward.

Just when I was losing hope that I’d ever find another SRPG that was as awesome as Disgaea, the best thing ever happens. DISGAEA 2 GETS ANNOUNCED! And it uses Disgaea 1 as its starting point, not fucking Phantom Brave! It’s on grids and you earn things properly and you get to work out neat little tricks to level again, and oh god oh god the gameplay sounds like it’s improved in just about every area, I SURE CAN’T WAIT TO PLAY IT OH GOD YES.

So, I waited and waited, and got that shit the day it came out, eagerly popped it in my PS2 and grabbed my dick in anticipation. Oh god, they have a BUDGET this time, it has an FMV intro, and oh fuck yes look it start with Laharl and Flonne, and…

and…

…. What the fuck is this shit?

Serious business? In MY Disgaea? Sure, the original had some serious parts. Hell, it had some fucking HEARTBREAKING parts, but what is this shit? Surely they just wanted to make an intro that looked kinda serious and cool, right? The game itself has to be awesome, right?

WRONG.

The main character of Disgaea 2 is the last “pure” human on a planet that’s been converted to a Netherworld. Right away, we’re off to a bad start, because we’re into all the meta Multiverse shit that nobody really gives a crap about. (I should briefly explain – Makai Kingdom took Disgaea’s concept of “holy shit, heaven, hell and earth are just planets” and expanded it into a massive cosmic clusterfuck full of multiple overlords and netherworlds and weird shit that nobody really understands. Disgaea 2 took this as canon.) Also, we have a main character whose primary motivation is to kill the Overlord who corrupted his world and return everyone to being human again. Compare that to Laharl’s primary motivation of “AAAAHAHAHAHAHA SLAUGHTER EVERYONE AND RULE THE GALAXY” and you know you’re taking a GAME ABOUT DEMONS in the wrong fucking direction.

Throughout the game, Adell (the aforementioned protagonist) meets Rozalin:

WHO IS NOTABLE ONLY FOR HER TITS. He also, later meets Etna, from the original Disgaea:

Thankfully, she’s as awesome, loveable and worryingly sexy as ever, and is more or less the game’s only redeeming factor.

The story is a generic cesspool of stupid shit, including a NINJA CLAN DECIMATED BY SOME GUY AND THE LAST HEIR WHO HAS SWORN REVENGE or some uninspired crap, and a WHAT A TWIST moment where it turns out Rozalin was the Overlord that Adell had vowed to kill all along. Nobody cares. Sure, the gameplay was actually awesome, and much improved from the original Disgaea in practically every way, but it just sucked. The whole game was an exercise in how to completely remove the appeal of the previous one and screw up a series.

After this, I figured I was better off leaving Nippon Ichi games well alone for a while. My overwhelming sense of withdrawal later caused me to play La Pucelle, which predates Disgaea…

… and has pretty much the hottest girl IN THE HISTORY OF GAMING as its protagonist. While it’s fun, it was obviously made before the refinement, direction and polish that Disgaea brought, and it was difficult for me to get into. No disrespect to it, it’s an awesome game, but it’s kind of like playing Hitman: Blood Money and then trying to go back and play the earlier installments. You can tell they were good games at the time of their release, but now you’re a spoiled brat and want it all to be perfect.

Anyway, I’ve been going somewhere with this whole post, and that somewhere is Disgaea 3. I bought this game recently, and awaited its arrival with heavy skepticism. I’d been burned by anticipation for Nippon Ichi games twice before, and I wasn’t about to suffer the same disappointment again.

Bracing myself for mediocrity, I put the disc in my PS3 and HOLY SHIT:

WE’RE OFF TO A GOOD START RIGHT HERE. The music is back in the original style. There’s humour. There’s actual, you know, DEMONS. Not bullshit “oh we’re humans oh we’re losing our humanity” demons, fucking DEMONS. Everything looks right.

The game itself is no disappointment, either. The story revolves, as you can probably tell from the intro video, around an academy for young demons to learn to be as evil as possible. In this academy, students which ditch classes, resort to violence, behave badly and exploit, extort and bully others are Honour Students, while the delinquents are those who turn up to classes on time, always do their homework, and study diligently.

Our protagonist this time is Mao, the son of the principal (who is also the Overlord), and the top Honour Student. He’s never been to class once since he enrolled at the school, has never washed his hands since the day he was born, and most importantly, his motivation is to kill his father. Why? Is it becuase he wants to be the Overlord himself? No, no. That would be awesome too, but it’s even better than that.

IT’S BECAUSE HIS FATHER ERASED HIS DISGAEA 1 SAVE FILE.

I don’t think I need to say any more than that. This game is totally back on track. It improves on Disgaea 2′s gameplay as much as that game improved on Disgaea 1′s, making for a totally polished, awesome experience, but this time it actually has the setting and cast to back it up. Finally, after so many games in between that failed to captivate me in the same way, NIS hit the nail right on the fucking head and made the most brilliant grinding game ever.

So, there you have it. Looks like series that went awry actually CAN get back on track, after all. Except Sonic. That’ll NEVER get fixed.

In my last post, I talked about how I have a horrible compulsion to play long video game series spanning multiple console generations in strict chronological order. Before I begin this post, however, I should really explain why this is necessary for big-name series such as Mega Man.

To put it simply, I never had a NES. A lot of gamers my age who started when I did (late 80s/early 90s) had the NES as the staple of their early gaming years, particularly in America where it sold so phenomenally. Consequentially, a lot of underage gamers who like acting like Internet Tough Guys on forums rag on people who haven’t played certain NES franchises because “everyone had a NES.”

What they don’t seem to take into account is that we had console wars back then, too – and I was young and dumb enough to believe they meant anything. After my initial years with a green-screen PC that could only display ascii and a ZX Spectrum 81, I got a Mega Drive (that’s Genesis to our colonial friends) for my birthday and became a loyal Sega hound-dog. I hated anything Nintendo and wouldn’t even stand for watching the Super Mario Brothers Super Show on TV. They were the devil, they were to be detested and shunned. Everyone knew Sonic was better anyway, right? ….. right??

It gets even worse because, as a Brit, I didn’t get to play a lot of the games that American Genesis gamers considered staples. The problem of delayed (and more frequently, nonexistent) PAL releases of popular games was much worse then than it is now, and even when some of the “classic” games DID make their way to the UK, they were often in such limited runs or so poorly publicised that a lot of kids simply never played them. Remember, these were innocent days before the internet.

I did eventually acquire a NES and SNES in my late teens when they started showing up in my local stores extremely cheap, but by that point it made more sense to just emulate most of the time unless it was a game I really loved that merited going out of my way to play it authentically. (Like the original Metal Gear, which I own a boxed copy of.)

So, I suppose all of that was just a REALLY long-winded way of saying “I never played Mega Man.” The fact that every Tom, Dick and Harry on the internet won’t shut up about it for two seconds made me buy Mega Man 1 and 2 on the Wii Virtual Console a few months ago, which I now regret immensely because not only is the Wii DEAD TO ME (I HAVE NO SON), but I realise that I was a gigantic faggot and effectively paying money to a company I don’t like anymore for ROMs. (To clarify that last statement, I got over the console war bullshit by the N64 and enjoyed both that and the Gamecube thoroughly, bought a Wii on launch day and tried so hard to love it, but when it turned out to have no outstanding games, then spent a bunch of time pandering to people who were nostalgic for franchises I never grew up with, then went all NINTENDO GENERATIONS on us, I decided the company had turned sour.)

The first time I played Mega Man 1, I was pretty wowed. It had been a long time since I’d played a game which would just openly wave its dick in your face at every opportunity. Let’s take a look at two highly infamous areas in the game:

Just look at this. These platforms give you barely any room to jump from one to another, thanks to the low cielings that extend the entire length of the platform, and to top it off, they’re patrolled by small robots which will hurt you and knock you off if you touch them. They also speed up dramatically if you’re on their platform, and they’re largely invincible. This is the FIRST SCREEN of Elecman’s level. And you know what? I’m sorry, but I think that’s awesome. Seriously, completely awesome. I mean, honestly, what’s the worst that happens if you fail? You fall down, lose a bit of health. Do it enough times and you’ll go back to the beginning of the level, which is… oh wait… here. It’s stressful, but not TOO stressful. You gotta work hard to get past it, especially the first time, but it’s rewarding when you do, and it lets you know right away that this game isn’t fucking around. You’re not here to jump through a set of easy hoops.

Let’s talk about that, actually. What is “playing a video game”, really? Is it just defined as interacting with an electronic product that requires you to perform a series of tasks? Sure, why not, that’s as good a definition as any. But what if those tasks are easy, or samey? Let’s take a look at a game that’s guilty of that.

Breath of Fire 1. I took a screenshot from the first battle in the game because this game sucks too much for me to suffer through it again. Yes, I beat it, and it was horrible the whole way through. It’s ludicrously easy, completely unremarkable in every respect, entirely too long and generally unimaginative, with no variety and only very basic gameplay options. I fucking hate this game.

But you see, you can pick up Breath of Fire 1 at any time, and you’re GUARANTEED to make progress in it. If you sit down, boot up the game, and play for half an hour, at the end of that half an hour you will be further than you were when you began. Guaranteed. All you’re doing for the whole game is jumping through hoops – kill this, go here, save her, kill that – and none of it is even remotely challenging. All that’s required to beat the game is to sit down in front of it for the right number of hours and make the obvious choices at every menu. To me, that isn’t gaming.

Let’s go back to Mega Man 1 and compare.

Oh shit, remember this one? To clarify, you’re on a moving platform that follows a rail. A rail which, quite obviously, you can’t stand on. The rails below you have dead spots which cause the platform to tip down when it passes over them – you can see it happening to the middle platform in the screenshot. If you fall down, you’re fucked, it’s over, goodbye. Again, this is near the start of the stage, so it makes you swear and build up a sweat, but it’s not too bad if you fail. It’s fun to try and get past it, it keeps the game solid without being bullshit (more on that later) and overall it makes for a fun game, I’d say.

Think back to Breath of Fire 1, and how you could just sit down in front of it and be guaranteed to make progress. I’ve spent hours, sessions upon sessions on a single Mega Man level before and ended up no further than I was when I started. It’s been frustrating, yes, but it’s been GREAT, because when I actually beat one, get that precious password and finish writing it down, I know I’ve actually overcome something. I was presented with a challenge, and I have risen to that challenge. Kind of like — GASP — A GAME.

Now, I know I’ve only talked about the early levels, but that’s fine. They illustrate perfectly what I’m on about. Let’s talk about Mega Man 2 now.

One thing that I really love about Mega Man 2 is that it isn’t lazy, and it isn’t constrained. It doesn’t say “Right, here’s your engine, here’s how the game works, here’s what you’re going to be playing for the whole game” and just leave it there. Each level is different from the next – hijacking clouds from enemies and riding them over endless abyss in Air Man’s stage, making split-second dodges when floors come slamming across the screen at light speed in Quick Man’s stage, running away and dodging on tiny platforms while being chased by a giant dragon in Wily’s Castle. In recent years, video games have tried, too hard in my opinion, to take their tips from movies. Thematic and gameplay constraints are too tight. There’s too MUCH consistency. I’ll give you a good example.

Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. “You colossal faggot, you actually played Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories?” Well yes, yes I did. And I beat it. And it sucked. It sucked so much that I refused to go download a ROM of it to take screenshots, because I coudln’t beat the thought of playing through even five minutes of it to get a shot of a battle or a map or something.

Anyway, there’s a reason I brought up Chain of Memories, and that is because it’s the best example of a game utterly contrained by its modus operandi that I could think of. They sat down, said “Right, this game is divided into two segments: One in which Sora runs around a very samey map based on each of the Kingdom Hearts 1 worlds getting into fights and unlocking doors, and one in which Sora engages in real-time RPG battles using cards as attacks.” And that was it. Nothing exciting or different happened in any way, for the entire game. The whole game was the exact same thing, copied and pasted over and over again. Even at points in the game when it would have been entirely appropriate to have a section that played differently, or let you control a different character, the game neglected to do this, because it didn’t fit its tight-knit little perception of how things “should” be done. Yes, there was an extra mode where you played as Riku with a pre-defined deck (and I beat that too, the lack of bullshit card collecting mechanics actually made it better than the main game) but that in itself was constrained by its own system just as much as Sora’s mode was.

Hell, they were reluctant even to make changes for aesthetic reasons, such as giving you originally designed areas that weren’t the KH1 ones. The trip to Twilight Town in the late game proved a pleasant surprise. What’s this? A location that we’ve never seen before? It’s mysterious and new, looks pretty, and hey, it seems like it might actually give us a change from this monotonous bullshit, and a chance to learn more about the truth behind the overall story. DID IT DO EITHER? FAT FUCKING CHANCE. It was just the same shit as the other levels with different sprites and backgrounds. And not even THAT different, holy shit, hold on here, REIN IN THOSE FUCKING HORSES BUDDY. Don’t want to get TOO exciting.

Yes, everything I’ve just said about that horrid, horrid game could be attributed to laziness on the part of the developers. And given who the developers are, I don’t think that’s too unreasonable a conclusion. But it’s also a product of self-imposed constraint, the kind that Mega Man 2 was too early, innocent and imaginative to fall victim to.

Let’s briefly talk about a game that came DURING this trend and still managed to say “Fuck it” to the whole thing.

That game is Jak 3, from the excellent Jak and Daxter series for the PS2. Now, a lot of people give this series shit, and in my opinion they do so for extremely superficial reasons. The first installment was a charming 3D “collect shit” platformer in the rough vein of a much improved Super Mario 64, with real design work having gone into it and awesome environments. Then in the second game, they moved all the characters into the world’s distant, grim future, made the previously silent protagonist an angsty, tortured badass with a goatee, gave him guns and borrowed city-wandering mechanics from the GTA series. In other words, they pulled a Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, only with more being chased by cops. A lot of people criticised this change in tone and gameplay style because it wasn’t what they were expecting and they considered it in some way “defiling” the original game.

I say fuck all that. Jak 2 was awesome, and Jak 3 was even more awesome. They were polished, fun to play, and CHALLENGING. Yes, you had a reasonable chance of making progress whenever you booted it up, but by god you had to THINK and TRY and TAKE CHANCES. That’s what made it fun.

Anyway, I brought up Jak 3 because it changes gameplay style and content whenever it fucking feels like it. Never is the game guilty of not delivering. I remember a point where, after driving your awesome Mad Max-style car through the desert to this one mountain and proceeding on foot to the summit, Jak was captured or incapacitated or something and you had to play as his little furry friend Daxter in order to pull whatever lever needed pulling to release the FUCKING HANG GLIDER. (At least, that’s how I remember it. The exact order of events may have been somewhat different. ) Then, the game entered this hang gliding segment with controls and mechanics that had never been seen before in the GAME let alone the series, and would never be seen again after that one part. It was immensely awesome. I love how they didn’t just get to that part and think “Oh shit that’ll mean programming a whole bunch of crap just for this one part right here, let’s just do it in a cutscene”, or, even WORSE, think “That doesn’t fit with what kind of game this is! This breaks our MO! This means that players might get frustrated with having to adapt to a different style of play than the one they “paid” for, let’s just cop out and make it a cinematic!”

Jak3 is fucking awesome. I might even make a post in the future about how awesome it is. But this post was SUPPOSED to be about Mega Man. Let’s get back to that by talking about Mega Man 3.

This game is gloriously, wonderfully challenging. The previous Mega Man games had me making angry faces at the screen but loving every second of it. This one, however, is just a total bitch, and it KNOWS you love it. For a start, instead of the usual circle of robot master weapons and weaknesses, where each robot master is vulnerable to another’s special weapon in a big loop, Mega Man 3 has TWO circles that have nothing to do with each other. That means that you need to find not one, but two precious points of penetration into the circle, where you have to kill a robot master with just your shitty default mega buster or a weapon it’s not vulnerable to.

Snake Man is one of the more common “points of penetration” into his circle because he’s comparatively easy. However, that doesn’t mean he’s not still a total and utter dick. His pattern seems to have been designed with the exclusive purpose of making it awkward to dodge, even though it’s simple, repetitive, and his offensive capabilities aren’t that spectacular.

But the real challenge comes after you beat all of those robot masters. SURPRISE! You have to beat ALL the robot masters from MEGA MAN FUCKING 2, only this time you don’t have the weapons they’re weak against (and there’s no way you can get them in this game), they occupy remixed (read: harder) versions of the Mega Man 3 boss’s stages, AND there’s two per stage!

Look at this crazy shit right here. Allow me to explain exactly what is happening in this screenshot.

First off, those platforms above me there? Those open up in the middle and let you fall through when you jump on them, giving you a very short window of time in which to jump off. Second, see that thing at the top of the screen that looks like a weird, inverted lightbulb? As long as that thing’s on screen, anything that isn’t a sprite (such as Mega Man, the enemies and those disappearing platforms) is made invisible and replaced by a shot of outer space. This means that you can’t see where the pits or walls are. Thirdly, that enemy right in front of me that’s about to kick my ass can jump up and down ledges and a ton of them come from the right to kill you. Also, they explode when they die, and the explosion can hurt you and knock you back. Oh SHIT.

To make it even worse, in these remixed levels with the Mega Man 2 robot masters, if you die fighting a boss, you go ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF THE STAGE. (Or, if you die fighting the second boss in the stage, all the way back to just after the room you fought the first one in.) You’d better get serious if you don’t want your ass handed to you.

I absolutely love all of this in ways I can’t possibly describe. It’s hard. Very hard. At times it feels unreasonable, like it’s throwing stuff at you just to piss you off, but it’s great. The game is basically saying “Think you can take me on, you pussy? COME ON, TRY YOUR HARDEST, BITCH BOY”, so when you beat it, it’s great. It’s like punching someone particularly smug in the face, only to have them smile, reveal that they were just acting all along, shake your hand and congratulate you on being so awesome. That’s the feeling that I love. That’s the feeling that so many great games give you, and that so many unchallenging or samey games like Breath of Fire or Chain of Memories fail entirely to deliver.

I’ll say one last thing about classic Mega Man before I finish. And that is, I’d like to talk about the controls. They’re fluid, perfect, and you always know exactly how to do what you want to do. They’re responsive and fair. What you mean to do is always exactly what Mega Man does on-screen, and if he fucks up it’s because YOU fucked up. Let’s contrast that to a game which caused me an awful lot of anger, despite not actually being that bad at all.

Ah, Sonic Adventure 2. Not, in my opinion, as good as Sonic Adventure 1, but good nonetheless. Arguably (and I’d argue so myself) the last of the decent 3D Sonic games…. of which there are only two anyway.

So what’s my problem with Sonic Adventure 2? It’s the fucking horrible controls, at least on the Gamecube version. Yes, yes, I’ve never played the Dreamcast one, I never had a Dreamcast. Whatever. It’s fine. I’m not bashing the game or saying it’s bad, I’m just relating a bad experience I had with the controls on the Gamecube version as an example.

Basically, when playing as Sonic or Shadow, this irritating thing happens where, for no readily available reason, pressing the jump button does not in fact cause you to jump straight up or in the direction you indicated but instead to jump sideways as fast as possible in a random direction. I have absolutely no idea why this happens. Perhaps it’s a glitch, perhaps there’s a bona fide reason for it, but I couldn’t work it out even after reading the manual, FAQs, and asking people on the internet, which makes it a shitty control mechanic.

Now, there’s a level at the end of the game which takes place in space, where the gravity is constantly shifting depending on what surface you’re standing on The platforms and rails are tiny, lead in weird directions, and are almost always directly above a long fall into the dark, cold abyss of space. This is actually REALLY AWESOME, and it makes for a really fun level, except WHOOPS! You told Sonic to make a short, careful hop to the right to get on that rail, and instead he decided it’d be better to SUDDENLY LEAP AT FULL FUCKING SPEED TO THE LEFT, HURLING HIMSELF WITH RECKLESS ABANDON OFF THE EDGE OF THE PLATFORM AND INTO DEEP SPACE WHERE HE WILL SUFFER A LINGERING DEATH FROM COLD AND ASPHYXIATION. TOO BAD, FAGGOT, BETTER HOPE THE CONTROLS DON’T CRAP OUT NEXT TIME.

It’s stupid, it feels unfair, and it IS unfair. When you fuck up in that level, it’s not your fault, it’s because they were too lazy/incompetent/pressed for time to make controls that respond properly. YOU didn’t fuck up, the game did, and yet you get punished for it.

In Mega Man 3, by comparison… well, you’re dying a lot. But that’s because YOU’RE fucking up. If you lose, it’s YOUR fault, too bad. Suck less.

It’s harsh, but fair. It’s challenging, rewarding, and well designed. Despite being extremely formulaic, it’s never afraid to break away from your expectations and surprise you. And that’s why so far, I think the classic Mega Man series is awesome.

It seems to be quite common to proclaim yourself “obsessive-compulsive” on the internet. Not trendy, like saying you have autism or Asperger’s syndrome, mind you – it’s more that you can say you’re OCD about something and then talk about a funny, interesting or cute habit you have. That’s fine, I guess. It’s not particularly offensive or bothersome.

There is, however, one thing that I really AM “so OCD” about. The worst thing in the world. I’m not bothered by VCR timers blinking at me for days after a powercut, microwaves with the door popped and “0:01″ on the display, anything like that. No, what bothers me is skipping ahead in series of video games.

I must play everything from the absolute beginning. EVERYTHING. And I must beat it, usually fair and square. This means I beat Final Fantasy I before anything else. This means that I PLAYED FINAL FANTASY II FOR THE NES TO COMPLETION. For those of you who have played that game, I want you to think about that. Go on, think good and hard. Did you enjoy that game? No? That’s because it sucks. Just look at that horrible levelling system. I don’t even want to talk about the game any more than that, it’s like having flashbacks to being in a warzone, or kidnapped in the basement of a rapist. God.

This compulsion is worsened when games have some kind of chronology – Castlevania, for example. I have played and beaten every single Castlevania game ever released, apart from Portait of Ruin, which came out after I’d done my little “pilgrimage” through the series, and which I’m playing right now. Every. Single. Castlevania. Game. The shitty Gameboy ones. Simon’s Quest. The N64 ones. (Which I actually love, but I know everyone else hates them for some reason.) And I didn’t even do it in release order, I did it in CHRONOLOGICAL order, beginning with Lament of Innocence for the PS2 (set in the late 11th century) and ending with Dawn of Sorrow (set in the year 2036.)

One day a few weeks ago I decided to take a look at the Monster World series. For those who don’t know (and I’d understand that fully because the series name is so generic), Monster World is actually a kind of sub-series that runs alongside (and often INSIDE) the Wonder Boy series. Go check Wikipedia for the full story behind the naming and chronology if you care, it’s too confusing and retarded to bother taking up half this post with.

Anyway, I discovered that Monster World IV (which is also Wonder Boy VI or some bullshit) now has a translation patch putting it into English. And it stars a girl with a green ponytail. This compelled me to play it in ways I can’t possibly relate in text, caused by my intense fixation on girls of that ilk, which will probably be the subject of another (very creepy) post at some point down the line. However, due to my horrible compulsion to play shit in order, I resigned myself to slugging through the Sega Master System games that make up the early series in order to get there. I decided to let myself get away with starting on Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which is Wonder Boy II, because it’s first in the Monster World series. I could just say I was “working through Monster World”, see, and not “working through Wonder Boy.”

So far, the game has been a horrible, painful, terrible experience. I am about to show you why, in order to save you from having to play this godawful nugget of feces yourself.

Looks like solid retro fun, doesn’t it? A nice sidescroller with RPG elements, not too complicated, fun to play while you chat to friends or just when you’re oversaturated with complex, modern games and need a bit of a break. Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Except, guess what? It’s a port of an arcade game. That’s not so bad, though, right? Loads of great games appeared on the arcade before being ported to home consoles – the first Castlevania, for example. But look at the status bar at the top. See that hourglass?

SURELY THEY DIDN’T, RIGHT? Well, yes they did. Yes they damn well did. They left the time limit intact from the arcade version. A feature designed to make sure you weren’t being a dick and screwing around in the same few screens and not letting anyone else play the arcade machine by penalising you for dawdling was left in for the home console release. This timer runs down constantly, and whenever it runs out completely, you lose a heart off your health. But that’s not too bad, right? I mean, it just means you can’t fuck around too much and you have to get on with the game, right?

Oh, but look at that! There’s not one, but TWO shields for sale in the shield store. A weaker one that costs less, and a stronger one that costs more. That’s pretty standard stuff for RPG-like games, and the choice here is the same as the choice in most other games following the same vein: grind for the better stuff now, or deal with the increased challenge of playing with weaker equipment until later in the game when the items which seemed so pricy back then now cost chump change.

Except, hold on a moment here. I CAN’T grind for the more expensive equipment, because holy shit, I’m on a time limit! And it’s not just shields I have to think about too, there’s armour, boots, magic, a bunch of crap like that. Even if I just bought the weakest version of everything, I still couldn’t afford equipment for my entire bo–

Wait, what? In the time I was busy typing that crap to you, I got shoved outside the store, and now it’s closed PERMANENTLY and will never re-open? Yeah, that’s right. If you take too much time browsing in a store, where the timer doesn’t even run down and where any other game in the history of mankind would have the decency to STOP THE ACTION, you get booted out of the store and it counts as “having visited it”. Most of the equipment stores shut down forever after you’ve visited them once, whether you bought anything or not, so fucking around like this will only mean the store closes, you get tossed out on the street and you can’t buy anything.

Of course, this means that you CAN’T EVEN JUST GO INTO THE STORE TO CHECK THE PRICES, YOU BETTER BE GODDAMN PSYCHIC AND KNOW EXACTLY HOW MUCH MONEY YOU NEED BEFORE YOU EVEN STEP FOOT IN ONE, OR YOU’RE A DUMB BASTARD AND YOU DESERVE NOT TO HAVE ANY EQUIPMENT AT ALL. Since the Master System’s actual pause button doesn’t work in the shop screens, if you’re in a store and you need to take a piss, or the doorbell goes, or the phone rings or something, you’d better be prepared to come back to a nearly-dead character, because not only will you get thrown out of the store, but the timer will keep on ticking, sapping your precious hearts while you DARE to go and attend to your real-life business.

It gets worse, though. BELIEVE ME it gets worse.

So, you’re on a time limit and you want to grind a bit to get money for items. You’d think there’d be some method of refilling the timer without sacrificing one of your hearts, wouldn’t you? Well, lucky for you, there is!

Stores like this one will sell you ale or mead to refill your timer, give you some health back, and prompt the barman to give you some vital information for finishing the chapter, such as the answer to a question asked later on, or the boss’s location or weakness. So that’s alright, isn’t it? You can just go out, kill some enemies, collect their gold, and spend some of it on refilling your timer every minute or so, kind of like a much faster version of the “fight, gain money, and use a portion of it to rest up in order to fight some more” mechanic used in so many classic RPGs.

BUT GUESS WHAT?

THAT FUCKING STORE CLOSES TOO. You only get to go in there like twice, three times tops before it’s barricaded up forever and you can never get back in. So there goes your last hope of being able to gain money sustainably for better equipment.

As a side note, the FAQ I referred to mentioned something interesting. The game has certain spots, completely unmarked, where jumping will cause a bag of 10 or so gold to materialise out of thin air. So if you’re willing to read the FAQ for every single screen of the game and jump on all of them, you might have enough gold for the best shit, but otherwise you’re just screwed. The FAQ also reccomended some tourneyfag technique for “waggling” back and forth over these spots to cause a glitch where the same spot gives out gold many times in a row, but screw doing that. If you even NEED to do that, that’s bad game design, isn’t it?

Anyway, those of you who know this game will know that I’ve been talking about the second level here. Well, the first REAL level, since level 1 is so short and easy. Of course, I got further in the game than this. Let’s talk about something that happens later on.

So here I am on level god-knows-what. I can’t seem to find this level in any FAQ, probably because I took some weird route that went over the clouds to some southern island. As you can see, I have more hearts, my equipment is better, blah blah. So I’m going through this level merrily…

… when I come to this. An enemy in an unhittable position that swoops down and hit me as I jump on small platforms over lava.

Sure enough, just like every old game designed to frustrate you, you also jump back a million miles whenever you get hit. Fortunately, I didn’t land on the lava. Even if I did, though, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem, because all the lava does is make you lose one heart and give you that just-hit period of invulnerability. In fact, I passed this section by deliberately getting hurt and using that period to just walk over the lava to the other side.

So, here I am at the boss door to this round. I’ve been knocking on it, but it just won’t let me in. This is fairly normal because in Wonder Boy in Monster Land, you need to collect the key from somewhere in the level in order to get through the boss door. That’s pretty standard stuff, and a lot of great games past and present have used the same mechanic. One of the previous levels in this game sent you past the locked door once in order to swim under the small island you were just on, collect the key in the water, and circle back to the door to unlock it.

Unfortunately, the right hand side of this screen is a dead end, and there are no pits in the floor or stairs to climb that could take me to other location. This level DID consist of a lot of areas, though, so I probably missed the key in one of those, yeah? I should go back and get it.

BUT WHAT’S THIS? I can’t go left back out of this cave and into the previous area. In fact, I can’t go ANYWHERE. There are no hidden doors or routes that I can find, and I’ve jumped in every spot to try and find some of those retarded hidden things. No, I’m just STUCK here with a steadily decreasing timer and a bunch of respawning enemies that take like 5 hits to kill, hovering directly over lava. And because this game doesn’t save data to an internal battery or use a password system or anything remotely logical, my only choice is to RESET THE ENTIRE GAME AND TRY AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING.

WHO THOUGHT THIS WOULD BE A GOOD IDEA? This game is complete and utter tripe. I’ve suffered through some terrible shit for my play-every-series-in-order fixation, but this really does take the cake. Thankfully it’s mercifully short, so I don’t have to deal with it for like 30 hours of my life like I did with Final Fantasy II, but it’s like every little aspect of this game was made specifically to irritate the player. Some games do that well, like the classic Megaman games. Hell, there was an indie game created in recent years – I Wanna Be The Guy – which was designed as a homage to the intense difficulty and unfair bullshit that those games pulled, and it’s actually pretty fun to play.

But Wonder Boy in Monster Land is not fun in any of those ways. In fact, it’s just not fun at all. Its nostalgic retro charm is completely negated by its utter unplayability, piss-poor design and terrible execution. It’s not even “so terrible it’s fun to play” like Bible Adventures or Superman 64. It just sucks, I’m sorry I’ve wasted my time playing it, and I’m even MORE sorry that I’m going to force myself to finish this fucking thing in order to work up to Monster World’s better installments.

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