Game Music Highlight: Salamander 2

I’ll be real here: I’m not a huge fan of most of Konami’s shooters, mainly because most of the stuff from the Gradius school of design punishes you harshly for any matter of mistake. I do, however, really like the Salamander/Life Force series, mainly because it doesn’t have those checkpoints placed strategically in the areas most impossible to clear when you’re powered down to nothing. (I also dig Gradius V for the same reasons.) Oh, and also because the soundtracks in them are amazing.

Gradius’s release in 1985 came at a time when sound hardware was beginning to evolve to a point where musicians could make songs that were far more musically complex than the 10-second loops ripped off of some public domain ditty. Konami was one of the leaders of this zeitgeist in the arcades alongside Namco, Sega, and Taito, and Gradius was among the first games that made people sit up and take notice of what game music could sound like. Hell, it was impressive from the point where you booted it up and waited for that bubble memory to heat up.

The musical legacy continued throughout the series and into its spin-offs, which brings us to Salamander 2, released in 1996. This was just a couple of years before Konami would begin releasing games like Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution, and future Bemani maestro Naoki Maeda (along with arranger You Takamine) was already beginning to hone his craft in the game’s many uptempo, synth-heavy tunes. In fact, there’s one tune from Salamander 2 that I’m sure the VJ crowd knows very well, and it’s this one!

This song, “Sensation,” was remixed and later appeared in Keyboardmania 3rd Mix (and the PS2 home port, Keyboardmania II, which contains music from the arcade 2nd and 3rd Mix). This was not done by Maeda, but rather Shinji Hosoe, who has had a long and fruitful career in game music (and is one of the key figures behind game music label SuperSweep).

I’ll be honest: I don’t really like this particular remix. I know, I know, it’s sacrilege to say you don’t like a Shinji Hosoe song… or a piece of Bemani music. But something about it just feels off. Maybe it’s the different instrument samples sounding kinda weird, or maybe because it hits so many of my arranged game music pet peeves (“let’s cut out the backing instruments here, it’ll sound great!”).

But you know what? Sensation isn’t even my favorite Salamander 2 song. It’s this one, from later in the game:

It’s got that same fast tempo and heavy synth, but a very different mood to it: it feels more trepidatious, because now you’re further along in the game and shit has gotten real. If Sensation is all about “HELL YEAH LET’S KICK SOME MID-90S PRERENDERED CG ENEMY ASS,” Speed is like “Well crap, we’re really in this one for the long haul, aren’t we? Hope you’re ready.” There’s also a something kind of big and sweeping about it, especially when you hit that bridge of music before the track loops. Pretty great, if you ask me.

Naoki Maeda, like a lot of key Konami talent, is off doing other things these days: last I heard, he was at Capcom working on an arcade game called Crossbeats Rev. (I don’t remember even seeing this one on my last Japan trip, which leaves me a bit worried as to how it’s faring in the market.) Given that Konami’s keen to piss their valuable IPs away, it’s doubtful we’ll ever get any new music in this style… unless, of course, they make a Salamander pachislot. At least the sound could be nice, right?

Stallion Solitaire: Pocket Card Jockey

It’s usually the games you love – or the games that are really, really bad – that are the easiest to write about. When you’re singing praise, the words seem to flow effortlessly from your pen – and the same goes for when you’re telling everyone about a phenomenal piece of hot garbage.

But Pocket Card Jockey for the 3DS? Hoo boy. I mean, how do you even begin to sell this concept of horse-racing sim solitaire to people? That sounds like the most aggressively boring thing on the planet. In actuality, though, it’s an amazingly complex and deep game! …with a huge mess of intertwining game systems that sounds like complete gibberish if you try to describe them rather than showing them.

But by god, I’m gonna try. Because you know what? Pocket Card Jockey is already one of the best games released in 2016. No horsin’ around.

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The growing pains of eSports, case study: Magical Stone

The world of competitive gaming has existed for ages, yet it’s only recently that it’s become big business globally under the nebulous banner of “eSports.” eSports is very quickly turning into a huge moneymaker, but it’s also a field that’s going through some serious growing pains: bad contracts for players, shady team managers and sponsors, cheating and rigged game scandals… basically, all of the problems that plague more physical sports, but with additional internet drama attached due to the online-connected nature of many of these titles (and the online presence of the players and companies).

But what happens when the game itself is the subject of scrutiny?

Japan doesn’t have quite the reputation for being an eSports hub as other Asian countries do, but the field is definitely growing: numerous local teams have been formed, an eSports square has opened in Akihabara, League of Legends has been making a Japanese push, Daigo Umehara is a bestselling author… and that’s just a handful of examples. Longtime competitive gamers are seeing a lucrative market, which has some of them are saying “Hey, why can’t my competitive game be eSports, too?”

Such is the case of competitive Puyo Puyo. Much like the Smash Bros. series, Puyo has gone through numerous iterations, but a subset of the most die-hard players swear by one particular installment: Puyo Puyo Tsu, the second game in the series. Among other things, Tsu introduced the “offset” rule that allows players to counter each others’ garbage drops by assembling combos of their own. Versus matches of high-level Puyo Tsu are mesmerizing to watch as a result:

Sega, however, is more keen on promoting their current version of Puyo than Tsu, leaving competitive players feeling a bit left out – there’s not really a good way to play Puyo Tsu online, much less any sort of streamlining to aid competitive play. That’s where Magical Stone comes in. Basically, it’s a puzzle game that’s ~heavily inspired~ by Puyo Tsu, only with a few additions to make the game more eSports-friendly. In fact, there’s already an eSports team for the game with a few top Puyo players onboard!

…Or, there was, anyway. See, things got… complicated. Friend of the site Gosokkyu alerted me to ongoing drama surrounding Magical Stone via Twitter, and having a passing interest in the Japanese competitive puzzle game scene, I wanted to dig into things a bit more. So, I invited him here to share his knowledge of just what went down with this game — while the controversies have garnered some press on the Japanese side of things, Western eSports coverage completely overlooked Magical Stone. And that’s a shame, because this is an example of what can go wrong when you try and elevate your game to the big leagues — and both players and developers could stand to learn from it.

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Gaming.moe’s Second-Annual Kusogecast this April 1st!

We’ve been around for a while now, and I’ve been doing my best to try and establish a few traditions around these parts. Last year on April Fools’ Day, we ran the Kusogecast, which involved many hours of playing a wide variety of garbage for your entertainment.

Well, we’re doing it again! We’re still going to play awful games for a lengthy stretch of time, but this go-around we’re going to limit it to a single title. We’re going to see how far I can get into the legendary Famicom RPG, Hoshi wo Miru Hito/Stargazer, in a six-hour stretch.

It’s going to be painful. And amazing. Painmazing!

Everything will be going down on my stream channel. We will be starting up on Friday, April 1st, at 5:30 PM PST and end around 11:30-midnightish. Co-commentators will be joining me throughout to share in the “””fun””” and “””excitement””” of one of the most utterly unfair RPGs ever.

(In case you’re wondering: I’m playing the patched, translated version with actual saves and fixed walkspeed. Yes, I know, it’s not the 100% authentic kusoge experience, but I think constant password re-entry whenever I wipe isn’t particularly entertaining as a viewer. No savestates, at least, so I’m still suffering!)

If anything changes — which is possible, given some connection hiccups I’ve had lately — I’ll be sure to post it on my Twitter accounts, @Zerochan and @Gamingmoe. I’m looking forward to another April 1st of terrible retrogames, and I hope you are, too!

The 2015 Gaming.moe Waifu Awards

Ah, yes, it’s that time again – 2015 has shuffled off into the history books, and the majority of 2016 lies untold before us!  Which means it’s also time for a now-annual Gaming.moe tradition – the Gaming.moe Waifu Awards.

In case you’re wondering – no, we’re not awarding awards to our favorite game waifus, because I’d have the same winner every year. It’s a name we adopted in the general spirit of the site for non-traditional year-end awards. Rather than doing typical categories like “Best Graphics,” “Best Fighting Game,” and the ever-argued-over GOTY, we give awards based on weird, arbitrary categories based on noteworthy happenings of the previous year. (You might want to check last year’s awards to get a better idea, as I explain the concept a little more in-depth there.)

2015 was a very good year for gaming as a whole. We got lots of fantastic new releases, juicy industry drama, and promising new projects. Of course, not all noteworthy happenings were the stuff of major hashtags and gaming news site headlines. Let’s celebrate the best (and worst) Waifus of 2015! Continue reading

The Problem with Level-5

One of the most awkward feelings in the world is seeing everyone around you get excited for something and not being able to partake in said excitement. I get that feeling every time a Level-5 game is announced for localization (or, really, just announced in general). Folks on the professional and consumer side of things seem to get super hype for anything Akihiro Hino’s team from Fukuoka cooks up, while I find myself kind of sitting on the sidelines trying hard not to rain on anyone’s parade. Because frankly, I really don’t like Level-5.

“But Heidi!” you say, completely hypothetically, “What’s not to like about Level-5? They’re one of the few Japanese developers investing in big, beautiful games that have global appeal! They’re proof that Japanese game development can still be on par with Western AAA offerings! Isn’t that a good thing?”

That wouldn’t be an incorrect statement, either. Level-5 is very much like a Western AAA developer – they make games that are graphically sumptuous, filled with charm, and are appealing to global audiences. And that, I feel, is their major problem.

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Misadventures in Romancing SaGa, part 1 of ???

In retrospect, my attempt to do a SaGa theme month for November was… well, not a bad idea, really, but terribly misguided. Here I was, thinking I’d be able to blow through Romancing SaGa 1, 3, and the heavily SaGa-inspired Legend of Legacy all in the course of a month. Not only did that not happen, but I learned a very hard lesson: SaGa games beyond the initial batch of localized Final Fantasy Legend titles require an intense persistence and dedication on the part of the player. The only way these games reward you is if you’re willing to put a hefty amount of time and effort into learning their weird quirks.

Not only that, but you have to be prepared to mess up. Like, a lot.

So in the time I’d hoped to have completed three games, I wound up kind-of-completing… one. Sort of. Actually, I didn’t finish Romancing SaGa at all. Instead, I got to a point where I realized “Holy crap, going into this totally blind was a real bad idea and I’m gonna start over now that I’ve learned what it is I should actually be doing.”

Yep, you heard me. I’m going to toss all my Romancing SaGa progress out the window and restart again at some point down the line. I’m thinking in… March or so? So consider this Part One of a continuing RS1 travelogue, with a continuation down the line once I’ve played through a few other SaGa titles and had some time to read over guides more thoroughly.1

So, the question is: What went wrong this time through, and what did I learn from it?

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  1. I was offered a copy of the PS2 Romancing SaGa remake, as well, which I’ll likely also play through at some point.

This is the post about Undertale (feel free to visit it anytime)

(Header art by ellenalsop from tumblr)

So it’s come to this: I’m writing about Undertale, as is seemingly required of any games journalist worth their salt at the moment. Not that I mind at all – Undertale was genuinely one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had all year, and a game worth analyzing with a critical lens on numerous levels. (I’m only sad that my pile of paid reviews prevented me from getting to it sooner than I actually did, because I could only go into it about 85% fresh rather than 100% fresh.)

I’ve played and finished Undertale on the Neutral and Pacifist endings1. I’ve come to realize that it’s nearly impossible to really talk about Undertale without massive spoilers for the experience, because Undertale is considerably more dense than its short playtime (5-7 hours for each ending in my case) might make it seem. Everything feels deliberately designed to build the game’s world without any dull padding or superfluous filler, which is why the whole thing just feels so darn good – but also why even talking in more than the vaguest terms about the game can detract from the experience. So lemme just go ahead and put this here:

SPOILER WARNING: HOLY CRAP IS THERE GONNA BE SPOILERS HERE, just play the game already if you haven’t it’s real good

 

Ahem. Anyhow!

There have already been a bazillion posts written along the lines of “Undertale made me feels so hard that it took me on a feels trip to the Feeld of Dreams where Officer Fielmann arrested me for feelsing myself in public etc,” so I’m opting for something a bit different in this article. It’s clear Undertale takes a lot of influences from other games – the Mother/Earthbound series in particular – but there are a lot of interesting parallels and influences from other titles that don’t seem to have been picked up on as much. I’m going to point a few of these out – and say why I feel the comparison is valid, in some cases.

So, where to start…

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  1. I watched slowbeef play the “genocide” route because hell no I couldn’t do that, I’m not a horrible enough person

Disturbing Game Overs, Part II: YOU ARE DEAD

We recently covered the phenomena of arcade games using the implication of terrible things happening to the hero and/or the world, so now it’s time to move on to the second kind of disturbing game over: games that rub it in extra hard when you’ve run out of time, lives, and continues. You’ve really screwed the pooch now, and by god, you are going to have to face the consequences!

In the interests of keeping this from getting much too long, I’ve decided to forgo game overs from survival horror games. Bloody, horrifying deaths come with the territory in those games, so it’s not particularly interesting to investigate them, in my opinion.1 In a way, it’s a more shocking if the creepy and/or shaming elements come completely out of left field than it is if you’ve dealt with the threat of evisceration for your entire playtime.

There are also a few more obscure samples I want to include, but I lack the capability to capture them myself at the moment, and all the pre-existing images and footage of them online are woefully sub-par in quality. There’s a good chance this feature will be revised in the future to include these once I’m able to adequately showcase them, so keep your eyes on the Gaming.moe Twitter for updates.

Without further ado, it’s time to venture into a world of shame and failure!

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  1. Well, that and a lot of the survival horror game over footage available online come from accounts that seem really creepily obsessed with collecting death clips of female game characters. Nope nope nope

Disturbing Game Overs, part I: A Quarter Can Save a Life

It’s been argued that one of the most interesting things about games is that they allow the person engaging them to feel guilt and responsibility for their actions, something that can’t be done in more passive forms of media. Designers have actually been utilizing this since the early days of the medium as a way to belittle players’ lack of skill (and, hopefully, inspire them to invest more time/money to get better): think of how Missile Command used “THE END” when you lost all cities instead of “GAME OVER.” Guess what, jerk, your failure with the trackball just doomed humanity! Even a small change like that left a big impact on player psyches, and the medium has since evolved, finding plenty of new and exciting ways to make you feel really bad about what you do in games.

But for whatever reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the game over guilt trip. While most games just come to a screeching halt once the lives and health have run dry, others really go the extra mile to make you feel awful about your failure. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years looking into these , and over the course of my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of disturbing game overs:

A. Things are exceptionally grim, and only the power of a continue can stave off this impending doom! You will continue, right? You don’t want this horrible thing to happen, right?

B. YOU DONE FUCKED UP BUDDY, NOW DEAL WITH IT

Both of these are fascinating in their own way, but as a fan of old arcade games, A is particularly interesting. Arcade games are about spending money for play time, and the end goal for the operator is to maximize profits, so keeping play time down (so other folks can spend money for a turn on the machine) is an ideal. Continues might seem opposed to this concept, but they actually play right into it: You’d get more time-for-money-spent value if you started the game over than you would if you credit-fed, as difficulty tends to scale higher the further you get and credits usually last for shorter and shorter stretches of time. It’s why the one-credit clear is such a mark of pride among the biggest arcade: you’ve basically given “the man” trying to squeeze you for money the middle finger with your mad arcade game skillz.

So, in the interests of getting players to continue more, the devs began to put in continue screens that insinuate that a terrible fate awaits if you don’t put that next quarter/yencoin in. Some, like Blue’s Journey/Raguy by ADK, make a heartfelt emotional plea (and then call you names).

Others, meanwhile, place your character – or their loved ones – in more immediate danger. Won’t you spare a quarter to save our heroes from their doom?

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