The Wonder of Lost Odyssey

I was told when I started playing Lost Odyssey a couple of months ago that it was essentially a modern version of Final Fantasy 6, which is one of my favorite RPGs of all time. Now I’ve had many RPGs recommended to me over the years, and I’ve found that rarely do they ever live up to the strength of their recommendations. In this case, the game completely exceeded its recommendation beyond anything that I would have ever expected. As I write this I have finished Lost Odyssey completely: I’ve beaten all of the optional bosses and have gotten all of the achievements (I am not typically an achievement hunter by any means). I don’t mean to write a full fledged review for this game just yet, so let me tell you a little bit about what, in my opinion, is easily the best JRPG of the 360/PS3/Wii generation, if not even further back.

A frequent criticism of modern JRPGs is that they just don’t feel the way that they used to (whatever that means). I’m here to tell you that this game feels more like a completely modernized version of a 16 or 32-bit era JRPG than anything else I’ve ever played, and that is a fantastic thing. It’s hard to describe in detail, but the way in which you interact with the game world feels very much like Final Fantasy 6 or 8 to me, but with far more relocatable and better fleshed out characters than either of those games had at the time. The writing in this game is absolutely not trite or trivial, which is what allows for characters that I became attached to in a way that had not happened to me in a game since the 16 or 32-bit eras.

A huge part of this are the fantastic visual novel parts of the game that come in the form of Kaim’s memories returning to him. They were written by Kiyoshi Shigematsu and translated into English by Jay Rubin, both of them real authors. These sequences of the game will make just about anyone feel some sort of emotion, and make for very interesting interludes for the game’s otherwise fairly standard JRPG fare gameplay. Rounding out the entire experience is music by famed Final Fantasy composer and frequent Mistwalker collaborator Nobuo Uematsu, art by Takehiko Inoue of Slam Dunk and Vagabond fame, and one of the most fantastic voice casts (speaking for the Japanese audio) ever to appear in a video game.

I could go on and on about how much I love this game and exactly why it is far greater than any reviews ever gave it credit for, but allow me to wrap this up by making a final point. Back when Blue Dragon came out for the XBox 360, it was understandably viewed as the next Chrono Trigger because of the collaboration with famed manga artist/writer Akira Toriyama. What many did not consider is that it was missing a lot of the other collaboration elements that Chrono Trigger had (Yuji Hori, etc.). While Lost Odyssey may not seem as epic of a collaboration when compared to Chrono Trigger (probably due to the fact that Chrono Trigger was the first time that sort of a collaboration really happened), I would certainly argue that its results produce something just as epic given the talent involved.

My plea to everyone who has any interest in playing a JRPG on the XBox 360 is to give this game a chance. If you have any nostalgia for a Hironobu Sakaguchi-era Final Fantasy game, Lost Odyssey will certainly not prove to be a waste of your time.

New Super Mario Bros. U – The Second Coming of Super Mario World?

In all honesty, New Super Mario Brothers U is definitely not the game that sold me on buying a Wii U shortly after the Japanese launch date. I had eyes only for the HD version of Monster Hunter 3G, with absolutely no intention of even buying this new entry in the Super Mario series until it dropped in price a bit. But then I heard the words that made my heart leap and brought back feelings of wonder once felt by my 11 year old self: “It’s like Super Mario World.”

Now I look at Super Mario World as one of the finest games ever made, and most likely my favorite platforming game of all time. I’ve also come to view the New Super Mario Bros. series as having grown somewhat stale after its original DS entry. Therefore I was very weary upon hearing this statement, but then I heard it from multiple sources. They were all sources that I trusted implicitly. So just like that my mind was opened to giving New Super Mario Bros. U a chance, and at full price no less. I’ve now spent a good amount of hours with this game and have just completed (though not 100%) the game’s main mode. So is it really the second coming of Super Mario World?

In several ways, yes it is. At least it’s closer than any Mario game that has come since. The normal New Super Mario Bros. style of world map has been overhauled to make all of the worlds and levels flow together much more fluently, in a manner that certainly hasn’t been seen since Super Mario World. Each world typically contains a fortress ghost house and a castle. Each level also encourages a high level of exploration. And perhaps most importantly, gone are the sluggish controls of New Super Mario Bros. Wii: They have been replaced by a much tighter feeling control system of old.

Even with all these great improvements to the New Super Mario Bros. series, this game isn’t quite on the same level of magnificence as Super Mario World though. It was definitely created by people who had the utmost amount of love and respect for its predecessor, but they just didn’t manage to recapture the same magic here. Is it because of the young age that many of us were the first time that we played Super Mario World that makes it seem so unbeatable? Possibly. But I think this game at least proves that that sort of magic can potentially be recaptured again. One of the things that made Super Mario World so great is its originality: It threw in so many new elements that hadn’t been seen in a Mario game. New Super Mario Bros. U dabbles in this, but doesn’t do enough of it to make it a real competitor for the Mario throne.

New Super Mario Bros. U depends a little bit too much on making its originality from features that utilize the Wii U’s unique traits. Being able to play on the Wii U GamePad is certainly a unique feature, and very convenient. The game looks gorgeous on the GamePad’s screen, but I preferred the feel of the controls when using the regular Wii Remote instead of the GamePad. Challenge Mode is very nice for what little I’ve played with it, great for a change of pace. I confess that I haven’t really played any of the other new modes, though it certainly is appreciated that such a high volume of content was added. It gives me a great incentive to revisit this game later on.

All of this said, this game is absolutely worth a purchase, particularly if you love Super Mario World. The sheer amount of content and re-play-ability makes it worth the full price tag. Nintendo should also be told by as many as possible that we support them going back and really attempting to rediscover what made Super Mario World so great.

Dragon Ball Z for Kinect: Throwing Kamehamehas at Your TV

I’ve played a few sub-par Kinect titles on the XBox 360 at this point. Most of then have spotty motion detection at best, and many of them aren’t even much more fun playing with the Kinect instead of a regular controller. Though it’s hardly a must-play, or even worth spending much more than a couple of hours with, Dragon Ball Z for Kinect is neither spotty with its motion detection nor without its amusements while Kinect-ing it up.

This Dragon Ball title re-uses assets from other recent titles and doesn’t do too much new for a Dragon Ball game in general. Its highlight is the story mode, in which you punch kick, dodge, and Kamehameha your way through the major Dragon Ball story arcs as you would expect if you’ve ever played one of the franchise’s titles before. It also has a Score Attack mode in which you can have specific character matches.

All of that being said, it does those very typical things well. If you’ve played several of the DB games up until now, you certainly won’t mind going through an abbreviated version of the story one more time. Very spot-on motion controls accompany all of this, along with a decent array of moves and semi-interesting combo system. Helpful on-screen prompts guide you through completing combos and dodging enemy attacks, making each battle a fairly non-frustrating experience.

In the end though, you’re still throwing punches at your TV. Even though I didn’t have anyone judging me as I was playing, I couldn’t really help but judge myself. For this reason I wasn’t really able to stick it out much past the first story arc. I will freely admit that if I was a young boy I’d probably think that this was one of the greatest games that I’ve ever played. Finally being able to throw a Kamehameha did have a way of filling me with a child-like sense of wonder.

Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter Title Screen Image
Platforms: Playstation 2
Released: 03/11/2004 (Japan), 09/21/2004 (US), 05/27/2005 (PAL)
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Japanese Name: モンスターハンター

There was a time (namely before the HD era of gaming) that big game companies like Capcom were not afraid to take a chance on new franchises. Taking heavy inspiration Sega’s Phantasy Star Online series as a base for its game play, it was in 2004 that the modern day Japanese gaming powerhouse began: the first entry in the Monster Hunter series was released. Though Capcom invented a brand new genre for this game called “Hunting Action”, it was similar to its predecessor in many ways, with just enough different twists to feel like a brand new experience. The basic flow of the game involves accepting specific quests from within a hub world, then setting out into separate areas to complete objectives for that quest. The difference is that in Monster Hunter you’re dropped into a prehistoric National Geographic Explorer where your opponents are dinosaurs, dragons, and other creatures that come right out of their natural environments. Though weapons and armor are constantly being upgraded throughout the game, in Monster Hunter there is an added sense of realism: It’s done using parts carved right from the carcasses of the monsters themselves.

Running from Rathalos in the Opening Cut SceneMonster Hunter Character Creation Screen
The only thing missing from this action scene is a Michael Bay style explosion as the hunters leap off the cliff away from Rathalos…My strange male Harley Quinn inspired character that I can’t believe there was even a facial option for.

Since there are a good number of different monsters to hunt throughout the game, there are also a good number of different weapons and armors to forge. Many sets of armor will give certain skills that will prove useful both in and out of battle, and many weapons will contain different types of elemental and status damage that can be used to your advantage against monsters with those weaknesses. There are a few different types of weapons to suit different styles of play: Sword and shield (the starting weapon, and for those who like to a speedy and combo heavy attack style), great sword (for those who prefer a slower but heavier damaging weapon, though it didn’t have the charge mechanic yet), hammer (if you want a weapon that’s heavier than sword and shield but not as heavy as great sword, and want a different feel than a bladed weapon. Also note that while it has the ability to charge, it doesn’t yet have the golf swing after two pounds), lance (if you want to be able to hide behind your shield and poke, or just love that 3 stab/evade combo), and light or heavy bow gun (you can attack from a distance, but these are really not good weapon choices in this particular installment). The western versions of this game actually featured the ability to create dual swords as well, though this feature would not come to the Japanese games until Monster Hunter G. The variety in weapons means that each monster battle requires a great deal of planning: Which armor set to wear, which weapon type to use (certain types are arguably more suited to specific monsters), and which element or status to use (if any).

Forging these weapons and armors are one of the many things you can do in Kokoto village, which acts as your hub world. In addition to accepting quests from the village elder and buying/upgrading weapons and armor, you can also buy some items (though you’ll primarily be gathering them when you’re out in the world), and just see what the other villagers have to say. Different levels of quests will unlock as you complete key quests in previous levels, allowing you to fight new and different monsters in new areas, and ultimately get better equipment. For those familiar with Phantasy Star Online, this is a very familiar game play loop. And like PSO, you’ll quickly loose interest if that loop isn’t satisfying to you in some way, since there’s very little story to be had here.

Kokoto Village's DrunkThe Dusty Bed Flop
And here I am spending some quality time with the Kokoto Village drunk. Every village has one!I call this one the Dusty Bed Flop! Seriously though Harley, I don’t think you should actually sleep in that bed…

When fighting a monster, observing their patterns and behaviors is critical. This isn’t your typical action game, and you can’t start pounding it with your weapon and expect to win. In fact the ability to read a monster’s tells and know exactly what it’s going to do next is a point of pride for any good Monster Hunter player. You’ll also never see the monster’s health, and will only be able to tell when it’s weak once it starts limping away. Most monsters also have breakable and cutable parts on their bodies. Bladed weapons are able to cut off tails in some cases, and all weapons are able to break a part if it’s breakable in the first place. The act of doing so often results in the related monster parts as quest completion rewards. These elements give Monster Hunter a depth not found in any similar game before it. They also make fighting the monsters themselves incredibly fun. The feeling of encountering a new monster and having no idea what it’s going to do is both thrilling and stressful, making the discovery of its patterns all the more rewarding. Each monster feels like a living, breathing creature that’s full of personality, instead of just another enemy with a different AI.

Digging Through Dinosaur PoopVelociprey in the Opening Cut Scene
Man, all the shit you have to go through to get anywhere in this game…Wait, I didn’t mean…They should all be destroyed!

There is one big drawback to be found here, and in fact in all console Monster Hunter games prior to Monster 3 on the Wii: The control scheme. The designers unfortunately thought that it was a good idea to have weapon actions controlled with the right analog stick: Instead of using the controller’s face buttons to swing a sword/hammer/lance or shoot a bow gun as you would do in later entries, the directional movements of the right analog stick are used. This means that the right analog stick is not controlling camera movement, as might expect. So how is camera movement controlled? Well with the D-Pad of course! This results in the player’s left hand being in a very awkward and uncomfortable position given the shape of a PS2 controller: Thumb on the left analog stick to move the character, with forefinger on the D-Pad to adjust the camera. With the optional middle finger on the L1 button reset the camera, it makes the player’s hand look like a withered claw (The name for holding the controller in this style is even nicknamed “the claw”). Even with this painful left hand configuration for managing character and camera movement, weapons could have still been controlled with the face buttons as they later would be.

Versus the VelocipreyEgg Carying
The first minor enemies you really encounter are these raptor lookalikes called the Velociprey, or Ranposu.Velociprey jump accuracy really hurts when it comes to everyone’s favorite Monster Hunter quests: Egg carrying!

But despite having one of the most obtuse control schemes ever, this first entry in the series was successful (though not even close to being the most successful in the series). This was undoubtedly due to all of the attention put into the general design and feeling of life that inhabits the game. “Leveling up” does not occur through stats that increment with battles fought, but rather with the increase in your own proficiency that comes with time and practice. This makes grinding monsters for parts used in the weapon and armor crafting system that much more bearable. It’s very repetitive due to the surprisingly low amount of quest rewards that you get after defeating each monster compared to later games in the series though. You can expect to fight a specific monster quite a few times if you want to create a full set of armor made from their parts. The individual areas in the game are not graphically mind blowing, but they do all have a life of their own. With each area being separated into individual and divided sections, not knowing exactly when a large monster may appear in front of you is one of the most interesting facets to how the area maps themselves were designed. Though the load screen that briefly appears during section transitions is a bit jarring at first, it becomes just another part of the game after awhile.

Introducing the VelocidromeVersus the Cephalos
Velocidrome/Dosuranposu – The King of the Raptors. See? He’s bigger!Not all of the minor enemies are as small as the Velociprey, such as the Cephalos. He loves to hip check and tail whip, so have fun carving out his liver!

Both online and offline modes WERE available in Monster Hunter: Offline takes place in the previously mentioned Kokoto Village, whereas online takes place in a larger city called Minegarde. Once connected, a player could team up with up to 3 other players to take down monsters in online-mode specific quests. The monsters are largely as in the offline mode, with the big exceptions of a couple of elder dragons (they could only be fought online), most notably the huge lumbering Lao Shan Lung (who you have to fight much differently than any other monster). Players are forced to work as a team, each one playing a specific role dictated by their weapon choices, if they want to take down the monster. Though the objectives don’t change, it makes fighting monsters even more exciting than doing it all alone. It’s almost enough to make you wish that this game featured voice chat, but at least there was USB keyboard support. Minegarde was a fully functional city that also included a marketplace, armory, player housing and a tavern to accept quests with other players in. Playing online in Japan required a monthly fee, whereas the US and PAL versions were completely free. Unfortunately the servers were shut down on 06/30/2011 in Japan, and quite a bit earlier for the US and PAL versions of the game. This means that the online-only quests are no longer accessible by standard means.

Rathalos Roars!Yian Kut-Ku
Ratahlos would just like you to know, via an in-game engine cut scene, that he is NOT happy that you are stealing his eggs!While the Yian Kut-Ku might look like he rides the Monster Hunter short bus, he is a Japanese fan favorite. He’s nicknamed “sensei” due to being the first large monster to fight, so he really teaches you how the game works.

There probably aren’t many who would recommend starting with the first game in the Monster Hunter series, myself included. I don’t have much nostalgia for these very early entries in the series myself, since it was slightly later ones that hooked me. And by then quite a few more quality of life improvements were introduced over what can be found here. This is one of those series where the best entry to start with is always the latest one. None the less, it set the foundations of everything that will make later entries in the series truly great, and gave those seeking a new mission-based gaming experience something fascinating.

Akumajou Dracula

Akumajo Dracula Title Screen
Platforms: Famicom Disk System/NES
Released: Released: 09/26/1986 (Japan, Famicom Disk System), 05/1987 (US), 12/19/1988 (PAL), 02/05/1993 (Japan, Famicom)
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Japanese Name: 悪魔城ドラキュラ
Translated Name: Devil's Castle Dracula
Localized Name US: Castlevania
Other Localized Names: Castlevania

When you think about the first entry in the Castlevania/Dracula series, you probably think about two things: The incredible atmosphere  and the high level of difficulty. Neither of these things change when you go from any of the western versions to the Japanese one, though some qualities of the Japanese version alter the difficulty slightly. A common point of frustration in the Western versions of the game is that you can’t save your game at all, unless you’re playing on one of those fancy emulators. But how would it change Castlevania’s difficulty if you could save your progress each time you got a game over?

In the bizarro world that is Japan, you could do just that! Why was this feature taken out of the Western version? Castlevania was released in Japan on the Famicom Disk System, rather than on a regular Famicom/NES cartridge (though it would be much later on, in 1993). This meant that saving your progress did not require the creation of a password system or the inclusion of a battery inside of the game cartridge, since it could be written directly to the floppy disk. Apparently it wasn’t deemed worthwhile to develop a password system for the Western release (as was done by Nintendo for the Western release of Metroid, for example), or it simply never occurred to anyone. The ability to save progress obviously makes playing through this difficult game much more manageable. Even though playing it on the Disk System results in some load time, it’s arguably the definitive way to play a physical version of Castlevania.

Akumajo Dracula's name registry on the Famicom Disk System VersionSimon Belmont approaches the gates of Castle Dracula
The original Disk System version actually required you to enter your name for seemingly no other reason than just to label your save file. However the mix of English (“name”) and romanized Japanese (“touroku”) is delightful!Simon Belmont approaches the gates of Castle Dracula. This is really an impressive feat for a 1986 Famicom game!

The Disk System debuted on February 21st 1986, and this was Konami’s first piece of software for it. Truly story driven games weren’t common at this point, most home games were trying to emulate an arcade-like experience. Castlevania certainly has an arcade feel to it (in fact an arcade conversion would be released a year later: VS. Castlevania) and you get no explicit story telling throughout except for the impressive opening sequence of Simon Belmont opening the gate to Dracula’s castle. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t thought put into the story though! The following is a translation of the story straight from the Japanese manual:

There is a legend that says once every 100 years in Transylvania, when Christ’s power is at its weakest, Castle Dracula will be resurrected from the prayers of the wicked-hearted. At this time, evil magic grows stronger. Dracula was brought back to this world once in the past, but was stopped by Christoper Belmont. He returned Dracula to his slumber in the Transylvanian countryside.

On Easter night 100 years later, a grand carnival celebrating Christ’s rebirth was held. On the outskirts of town in a ruined monastery, heretics poured blood of the living onto the corpse of Count Dracula in a black mass ritual. Suddenly black clouds covered the city, and blinding flashes of lightning struck the monastery. Count Dracula returned to the world once again. Simon Belmont of the Belmont clan took up his whip, containing mysterious powers, that has been passed down through his family. He set off alone to Dracula’s castle.

The map screen that allows you to track your progress to DraculaMedusa, the second boss of the game
It’s like one of those Hollywood star maps, but for classic horror movie monsters! No, actually it’s just to give you a sense of progression as you go through the game…boring!I guess at some point Medusa just became a giant disembodied head who can’t actually turn you to stone with her gaze…

In 1986, this story was more than enough to set minds ablaze! To enhance this thrilling back story, the game uses one very key element that sets it apart from so many of its contemporaries: Atmosphere. The foremost element in setting up this atmosphere is the sense of change that the player feels when they’re moving through each level of Dracula’s castle. That is to say, each level is actually set in a different part of the castle. This gives you the feeling of moving through the castle toward Dracula, instead of just playing re-skins of previous levels with only slight differences. The map of the castle that’s shown between levels supports this idea, since you can see yourself getting closer to the final showdown. The bosses for each area of Dracula’s castle also include some well known creatures of horror: Frankenstein, Medusa, The Mummy, The Grim Reaper, and more. Determining the best strategy to beat each of these formidable bosses is an important part of the game as well. Pattern observation and having the right sub weapon (Hint: it’s almost always holy water) is key to getting through them. While certain liberties were taken in the way some of these monsters were presented, their depictions are all very loving ones in the end. Try not to take it too personally, old horror movie buffs.

Simon versus The MummiesSimon vs. Frankenstein and Igor
The Mummies are beaten by pretty much just sitting up on one of these blocks and hitting them with the whip. Was it that easy in the movie?Here is Frankenstein with his jumpy little friend Igor. I hate that little bastard…

The other component in creating Castlevania’s atmosphere is one that’s recognized by many, and rightfully so: The music. Composer Kinuyo Yamashita did an absolutely superb job in creating tracks that not only perfectly fit the Gothic atmosphere of Castlevania, but also were of superior quality when compared to a lot of the music that we’d heard on the Famicom or Disk System thus far. Not to mention this was her debut work as a game composer! The music of this series will continue to be a high point throughout its life, and its creation will end up falling to a few different composers. There can be no doubt that we have Yamashita’s original compositions, as well as her further involvement in the arrangement of the soundtracks to thank for such continued high quality. All of her compositions would go on to be remixed and reworked by other composers later on as well.

Simon facing down his greatest foe, the stairsThe Grim Reaper, one of the game's hardest boss battles
Those who can’t grasp the intricacies of the controls will dread their encounters with…the stairs!One of the hardest boss fights in the game: The Grim Reaper. Basically there are sickles everywhere.

As mentioned previously, this game is known for its high level of difficulty. Some common reasons for this are the inability to control Simon mid-jump, having to hold directions to ascend and descend stairs and the rather large knock-back to Simon when hit by an enemy. While all of these things are legitimate flaws by today’s control standards, they’re by no means insurmountable. Learning to understand Simon’s jump arch is essential, and once you do it won’t matter anymore that you can’t change his direction mid-jump. You’ll know if you didn’t execute a jump correctly the moment you do it. It’s also completely possible to make it through this game without the ability to save, even though you have to be dedicated to learning many enemy patterns, strategies for more easily defeating bosses, and the best ways to hold onto that holy water and get those II and III power-ups to increase the amount of them that you can throw in one burst. There are some particularly frustrating parts in the game (perhaps most notably the fight against the Grim Reaper), but none of them stop it from being fun. Many call this an essential game of the 8-bit era, and for very good reason. It’s a quality action platformer all the way through.

The beautiful moon just before the fight with DraculaThe final boss fight with Dracula himself
Take a moment to enjoy this fine depiction of the moon before going into the final boss fight with Dracula!Here’s Dracula himself! Perhaps not as imposing as I would have imagined…though his head did appear on-screen before the rest of his body.

If you’re good enough to make it through the game and defeat Dracula, you’re treated to a rather amusing credits sequence in which classic horror movie-themed aliases are used. For the staff portion of the credits, they’re credited with roles in the same way that they might be in a movie: Directed by Trans Fishers, Screenplay by Vram Stroker, and Music by James Banana. Though it’s made extra amusing in this case due to the theme, it wasn’t at all uncommon at this point in Japanese game development to use aliases for staff in the credits. This was because companies were afraid of their staff being poached by another company if their full names were listed. Even the characters themselves got credits though: Dracula – Christopher Bee, Death – Belo Lugosi, Frankenstein – Boris Karloffice, Mummy Man – Love Chaney Jr., Medusa – Barber Sherry, etc.

For those who don’t want to invest in a Famicom Disk System or emulate, you have a few different options. The contents of the Famicom cartridge version that was released much later on are mostly the same, but it includes a new easy mode to compensate for the lack of a save feature. Because the Super Famicom was Nintendo’s main console at the time, not many copies of this cartridge were produced. That makes it quite rare and expensive. A Game Boy Advance version also came out in 2004 as part of the Famicom Mini collection, complete with the ability to save progress. Lastly, you can download this game from the Wii, Wii U and 3DS Virtual Consoles in all regions.

Headless DraculaDracula's final form
After you take down Dracula’s health his head goes comically flying across the room! No, seriously!And then for his final form he turns into some strange monster that has wings but can’t do anything more than jump. What is with that sprite?

If you’ve played later entries in this series, it’s pretty fascinating to go back and look at the straightforward action platforming roots. Some prefer this type of Castlevania game, and some prefer the Metroidvania type that’s yet to come, but this is where it all began.

(The following are scans of some of the amusing art found in the instruction manual of the Famicom Disk System version)

Castlevania - Story Part 1 (Manual Scan)
Previously mentioned story blurb, part 1
Castlevania - Story Part 2 (Manual Scan)
Previously mentioned story blurb, part 2

Castlevania - Monsters List Part 1 (Manual Scan)
Monster list, part 1
Castlevania - Monsters List Part (Manual Scan)
Monster list, part 2

Castlevania - Monsters List Part (Manual Scan)
Monster list, part 3

And here is the Japanese TV commercial