Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Happy Youth Vandalism

I was recently on the lookout for an inexpensive digital game; my short-list included the indie survival-horror Amy, the beat-them-up Scott Pilgrim vs The World, the experimental and innovative Flower, and the action-packed Hydrophobia. Yet none of these titles fully convinced me. And then, browsing what was on offer at the psn, I finally found it; Jet Set Radio, one of the finest games I had played back when I was the proud owner of a Sega Dreamcast, and which I loved to bits.

The original game, which has been remastered in HD, for every conceivable platform, is one of the early experiments in cel-shaded graphics, and awarded true classic status, having received accolades ever since its original 2k release. If you are looking for a game that will take steady persistence to complete; brilliant, since the gameplay from JSR is rather old-school, making the difficulty level quite high; even the game's tutorial is just about the hardest in recent memory. Having said that, the title packs an irresistible dose of nostalgia, and comes with nifty extras.

And so I find myself as a gamer, in the capable hands of another Japanese creation. The story is straight-forward, as you are part of a gang of graffiti street artists, which other skaters later join, competing against other gangs in quirky turf wars, while a relentless troup of policemen; who evidently watched the film Maniac Cop one time too many, chase you, led by Cap. Onishima; who in turn, is surely a big fan of the movie Psycho Cop. But there are also shady corporations and ruthless assassins; powerful enemies awaiting the ever-expanding GG gang. This, at least, is what happens in between cut-scenes, during which everybody just boogies.
The art direction is quite simply superb, and holds up wonderfully after all these years. As the story goes, the developers wanted to replicate the fashion and music styles they saw in the streets of Tokyo during the nineties, with a little bit of western elements thrown in for good measure. This is, after all, a Smilebit creation, a talented game development studio if there ever was one, responsible for many great Dreamcast titles, as well as others for various platforms.
Jet Set Radio presents more hardcore gameplay, so to speak, with time limits, than its sequel, Jet Set Radio Future, released for the original Xbox, which is more accessible, having no time limits. In JSR, you often have to replay a level, given that there are secret passways, which lead you to completion of the level. In fact, if you do not plan everything to perfection, you will not clear the levels; this is the game's greatest weakness and greatest strength. The game mechanics may remind you of the Tony Hawk series, as you grind and do tricks that net you points, yet JSR takes place in a cartoony world, hence the flashy combos get a free pass, even though they kind of defy the laws of physics.
The original soundtrack is pure awesomeness. Some of the stand-out tracks are Let Mom Sleep and Humming the Bassline, by composer Hideki Naganuma, as well as Magical Girl and Super Brothers by indie band Guitar Vader, and Everybody Jump Around, by Richard Jacques, a composer I have admired for a long time, due to his work on Metropolis Street Racer and the Headhunter game series. I can't help but compare JSR to the Skate series, in that they are both landmarks in gaming; distant relatives connected through the decades via similar game mechanics, and the fact that more computing power and the evolution of the medium itself, has allowed for much smoother controls, more depth and precision, at the service of a fun ride. Only for hardcore gamers.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Now You're Playing With Power

When you're ready, step inside. I highly doubt you'll survive this fight. But hey, there's only one way to find out, right? Give it your best shot! I am 100% certain you're returning from this battle, Travis... In a body bag. But trust your Force, and head for the Garden of Madness! - Sylvia Christel

Most gamers in their thirties, like myself, have been playing games for around fifteen years, and in the past, experienced such classics as Mario and Sonic. As it happens, yours truly wrote for a vintage-gaming site years ago. So a game which brings back youthful memories, is more than welcome indeed. Enter No More Heroes: Heroes' Paradise, a port of the popular Wii game, with additional content. Meet Travis Touchdown; you know, just your regular trendy assassin with a beam katana.

The objective of the game, is to defeat the top ten assassins who outrank you on the UAA contract killers hierarchy, and reach the number one spot, through gloriously over-the-top battles. But that is not all, as this is also an open-world game. To fight each adversary, you need to pay an entry fee, so you must carry out smaller assassination missions, and partake in some hilariously mundane jobs, to gather cash. Plus, you get to move around in a sweet motorcycle, and purchase clothes and weapon upgrades.

The gameplay itself is a throwback to games of generations past, with precision button mashing, collectable items, high-scores, and laborious boss battles; all of them memorable. Even without the ps3 Move peripheral, and simply using the dualshock 3 gamepad, this is one of the most unique and creative control schemes you can find on Gen 7 consoles, while being a bit less organic than that of Nintendo's own Wii.* Add to this the wrestling moves, and you are looking at one tough Otaku.
No More Heroes: HP is chock-full of references to other titles in gaming history, and the very design of the game itself, as seen in the menus and in-game effects, is graced by vibrant audio-visual nostalgia, making you recall the days of classic game consoles. The game also pays homage to the film Kill Bill; after all, you are a hitman with a death-list to complete, and the battles usually get humorously bloody; of course, that movie was also a collage of Japanese references itself. There are also various versions of this game, since the visuals have been improved for the ports, and bosses have been added from the Wii's sequel to this game. The Anime-flavored cut-scenes are also a joy to watch.
Santa Destroy, the sunshiny town where the game takes place, comes alive as you progress, with various things to do, reminding me somewhat of the original Crazy Taxi. Even the motel room which our contract killer occupies, is a place of interest; you can access your card collection, pet your cat, watch TV; where you can play a game within a game, check out the fridge, change clothes; this is after all, a fashionista-killer, and of course, save your progress in the game, by using the toilet. There are even humorous calls from the video rental shop, asking our suave hitman to return his steamy tapes in time.
And what to say of the excellent electronica soundtrack, composed by Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda. It was released as a three-cd set, and included such great tracks as Do Not Destroy, which is Travis' living room music, Gorgeous Blues, the addictive open-world, bike music, as well as several variations of the motif from Beam Katana Chronicles, the main theme from No More Heroes. Perhaps these tracks could help uncover who is the man wielding the laser blade, as I feel Travis is no cipher at all; though depicted in a quirky way, he has clear motivations; to find a suitable challenger, to fight a battle that will put him to the test. He does, as well, have a soft spot for Sylvia Christel, his flirtatious, passive-aggressive supervisor.
Being the first Suda51 game I have played, it was a thrill to experience the work of a true game auteur, a visionary of which there are but few not just in games, but in artistic expression. Along with Hideo Kojima, Fumito Ueda, Yu Susuki, Keiichiro Toyama, Hideki Kamiya, Shinji Mikami, Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Masayoshi Kikuchi; Goichi Suda, the creator of No More Heroes and Killer 7, is one of the great talents-for-export to have come from Japan. Just about the most fun I've had since Pac-Man; in one word, Moe! *Except for one minor glitch.