Sunday, March 18, 2012

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 Review

Capcom's Marvel vs. Capcom 2 started out as a Naomi-based arcade fighting game back in 2000. The game was later ported to the Dreamcast in an almost perfect translation, with graphics that melded 2D sprites with 3D backgrounds and featured some of the largest, craziest combos that the genre has ever seen. Now, two years later, that perfect translation has been carried over to the PlayStation 2. Like the rest of the versus series, the game has its audience of hard-core fans, especially those that love the various Capcom and Marvel Comics characters in the game, but technically Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is by no means the best fighting game available for the PS2.

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 takes the series' long-running brand of fighting insanity a step or two further, making for Capcom's flashiest 2D fighter to date. It also made some changes to the basic formula seen in the series' previous entries. For starters, the six-button punch and kick system that has served all of the Street Fighter games for the last decade has been replaced with a simpler four-button punch and kick system. The buttons that used to serve as fierce punches and roundhouse kicks are now used to call in your offscreen characters for helper attacks, which leads to the other major change in MVC2 from the original game--you now select three characters instead of two. Also, your super combos can be linked together. If you pick the right three characters and link your supers together just right, you can get combos that range in the hundreds of hits.

Beyond that, you get to choose from roughly the same collection of fighters from the first Marvel vs. Capcom with a few new characters, such as Cable, Jill Valentine, and Amingo, thrown in and some old characters, like Iceman, brought back from previous Marvel-licensed fighters. The gameplay is still very similar to that of the previous Marvel vs. Capcom, with a focus on screen-filling fireballs and ridiculous air combos. Like its predecessor, it isn't the most balanced game in the world, but there's definitely some fun to be had.

To go with the updated gameplay, the graphical style of the game has been similarly updated, though since we're talking about a game that is more than 2 years old, that update isn't nearly as impressive as it once was. While the characters are still made up of 2D sprites, the backgrounds are made up of 3D scenes, full of movement and vibrant color. The contrast between 2D and 3D doesn't work quite as well as you might like, and the resulting clash makes for sharp-looking backgrounds and relatively pixilated character sprites. The scaled-up sprite of the final boss's third form looks especially nasty.

The game's sound is a bit off. The sound effects are nice and crisp, but most of the vocal samples, both from fighters and from the game's chatty announcer, are rather low-fidelity and sound muddy. The music is anything but what you'd expect from a fighting game. While previous games have been accompanied by the typical style of rock and techno that make up most game soundtracks, MVC2 features a strange sort of jazzy lounge music. You'll either love it because it's so hilariously out of place or be annoyed to death by its happy, upbeat rhythms.

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 for the PS2 generates the same sort of replay value as the Dreamcast version did. As you play, you'll earn points that can be used as currency in a shop, and you can purchase new characters, outfits, and artwork. There's a lot of stuff to be unlocked, but anyone who has been playing this old game for any length of time in the past will find that unlocking everything you're already used to seeing in the arcade can be a bit of a hassle. New players obviously won't have this problem.

Fans of the off-kilter action found in the previous versus games will surely be pleased with Marvel vs. Capcom 2, as it represents the first major set of changes the series had ever seen. That said, this game has been surpassed on nearly every front since its original release. Games like Guilty Gear X have shown freshly animated, impressively sharp 2D sprites, and Capcom's later releases, like Capcom vs. SNK 2, are simply better games in almost every imaginable way. If you're a hard-core fan of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, yet somehow missed the Dreamcast version when it was originally released, this game is a port that you will definitely enjoy. But anyone else can find better fighting games on the market.

The fighting genre has typically been about one-on-one contests. Occasionally, you see it try to break out with something a bit bigger than that, though the results have been mixed over the years. Four-player fighters, like Super Smash Bros. and Power Stone, may not have had the complexity of a more traditional fighter, but they provided some fighting game thrills without much of an investment. But once you go over four players, the air gets a little thin. So far, the only game to pull off the concept is One Must Fall: Battlegrounds, a little-known PC game that allows up to 16 players to duke it out online. Iron Phoenix tries to pull off a similar concept--16-player online fighting--but with its surprisingly awful fighting mechanics, busted-up frame rate, and bare-bones gameplay, Iron Phoenix is just a colossal waste of time.

Selecting a character in this weapon-based fighting game is a two-step process. First you select a fighter. These fighters range from demonic-looking humanoids to regular ol' men and women, and each is ranked in a few categories that give them slight differences in speed, power, and stamina. After that you'll choose which weapon you want that fighter to wield. This offers you more of a choice, because it's the weapon in your hand that determines your moves, though most moves (such as each character's lethal strike) are done the same way. Each weapon also has an elemental affinity, as well as stats, such as speed.

The game has a handful of arenas to choose from, and two more are available as free Xbox Live downloads. These arenas have somewhat of an impact on the game, since some have walls to hang from, while others offer multitiered environments, and so on. Some of these arenas tie into the game's challenge ring mode, which is a one-on-one battle mode that plays out like a rocket arena battle, where players duke it out in separate fighting zones and wait in spectator mode while other fights finish up.

The game offers a training mode to teach you some of the basic movement techniques, but it's not much more detailed than the manual is. Your only gameplay options are to play online or offline. There's no dedicated single-player component and no story mode to work through. If you play online you play against humans. If you play offline you play against idiotic bots. Ultimately, there's not much difference, though human players seem to be better about not just randomly running away from you or standing still for no good reason.

When you get 16 fighters in one arena, the action becomes nearly impossible to follow. You can lock onto an enemy to focus your attacks in one direction, but when all the fighters come together, it really doesn't matter. The game does have a combo system of sorts, but it's also somewhat viable to mash on buttons. Considering how hectic and choppy things get when the action heats up, it barely matters what you're actually doing.

The frame rate in Iron Phoenix is one of its worst problems. When many fighters get on the same screen, the frame rate goes south fast. If you toss all of those fighters into one of the game's shallow-water backgrounds, it tanks even harder. With fighting games relying on things like timing, having a frame rate this busted makes the game unplayable. The rest of the graphics aren't so hot, either. It supports 480p, but that doesn't save the character designs and backgrounds from looking bad. The game's soundtrack and effects are some of the game's high points, though in this case, high is relative. The sound doesn't really stand out in any way, and the speech in the training mode is weak.

Without a competent fighting system, Iron Phoenix is already a subpar game. But when you slap on all of the game's technical issues and a real lack of variety and content, it goes from bad to worse. Even if it were available at a lower, budget price, Iron Phoenix isn't a game worth playing.

Due to the ease of compatibility of its hardware (the hardware's cartridge format made game swapping a breeze), SNK has long been entrenched as the arcade kings of bowling alleys, Laundromats, and roadside diners. SNK has made a substantial name for itself with its 2D Neo Geo games. Because these games are much cheaper to produce and distribute than their competition, and they fit into the same convenient cabinet, you could go to the most remote regions of the country and still expect to find a Samurai Shodown, King of Fighters, or Fatal Fury game hidden somewhere in the town. Conversely, you would be hard-pressed to find even the smallest minority of gamers with a Neo Geo cartridge, CD, or CDZ system in their homes, due to the cost, limited amount of games, and extremely limited supply. As a result, SNK has made a habit of porting its games to "competing" consoles like the Saturn and PlayStation. While the Saturn has had the benefit of the better ports, due to RAM cartridge enhancements, the PlayStation has suffered from hacked-up conversions (due to lack of RAM mainly) that could not hope to duplicate arcade quality. When SNK announced its Hyper Neo Geo 64 arcade hardware, fighting fans across the globe drooled in anticipation of all those great SNK fighting games (among others) making the leap into full 3D. Unfortunately, the first fruit of that effort, Samurai Spirits 64, was not what you would call an unmitigated success. The gameplay was slow, the graphics looked no more spectacular than your average PlayStation game, and it suffered from severe slowdown. Lost in the fray were some well-designed characters. Part 2 corrected much of these problems, but not enough to turn the world on its ear. No wonder SNK decided to keep the King of Fighters franchise in 2D for the foreseeable future.

SNK's second attempt to transform a 2D franchise into a 3D powerhouse, however, came with the arrival of Fatal Fury: Wild Ambition. Opening the game is a good and lengthy CG-rendered introduction that reveals the origin of Terry Bogard's hate for the Fatal Fury boss-man, Geese Howard. After the intro fades, the joy momentarily grinds to a halt as you load up a fighting game packed to the gills with irony.

The gameplay in Wild Ambition is actually as responsive as you might expect from an SNK title. While the animation might seem choppier than its 2D counterparts, and the response times feel different, the control is actually very good. For the first time you can battle with Fatal Fury favorites Terry, Andy, Mai Shiranui, Joe Higashi, Billy Kane and the rest of the FF crew in full 3D. Even Duck King and Mr. Karate appear as hidden characters. While the game is in 2D, primarily, Wild Ambition does make concessions to the 3D environment. Unlike Fatal Fury's past, the option to sidestep into the foreground and background is handled differently here. Defaulted to the triangle button is a "shift" command that lets your character roll into or out of the background, allowing players to dodge attacks. While nothing revolutionary, this actually can be effective and isn't some useless add-on like it was in Koei's Dynasty Warriors. In the matter of offense, there is plenty to use in the course of pummeling your opponent. The key to your success in Wild Ambition is watching your heat gauge. With each successful attack your heat gauge rises. When the gauge is full you can unleash a heat blow, which does a bit more damage than the usual attacks. If you successfully land the heat blow, your opponent will be momentarily stunned, giving you an opportunity to tack on a couple extra smacks. You may also execute a "super special skill" or an overdrive attack, which are even more powerful than the heat blows. Should your heat gauge reduce to zero because of too many hits received, your character will become stunned. Also added are air recoveries and easier counterattacks. It's a good thing the gameplay is competent because the graphics are a huge let down. While this is the least important aspect of the game, since everything else is handled so well, it's a shame that the graphics and sound are so poor.While the recently released King of Fighters Dream Match 1999 for the Dreamcast features the same old 2D characters, fighting in a pseudo-3D backdrop, Fatal Fury: WA features 3D characters dishing it out against completely flat, 2D backgrounds. Large 2D bitmaps scroll independent of the grainy floor textures as if they had nothing to do with each other. In fact, the odd thing is that the 2D backgrounds are considerably less detailed than SNK's usual backdrops. If this is any indication of the level of quality expected in Hyper Neo Geo to PlayStation ports, perhaps SNK ought just to skip them. Wild Ambition is one of the poorest efforts in a fifth-generation PlayStation title to date. Not even remotely approaching the level of visual quality as, say, Street Fighter EX, and seeming more at the level of quality found in Fighter Maker, Wild Ambition's characters are blocky and pixelated. They aren't light sourced and they're prone to polygonal glitching. The "special" effects are also pixelated, and they make little, if any, use of the PlayStation's transparency effects. The high points of the game are when a character executes a special hold attack and the camera switches to a dynamic perspective, kind of like Rival Schools - but it isn't nearly as good. The sound is also very rough, with the announcer's voice sounding like he's reading through a phone book. Sound effects are stock quality and seem recorded in mono at a fairly low frequency, as are the character voices. The music recorded for the CG intro is quite nice and sets the mood well for the game.

As far as options are concerned, there is little else beyond the arcade, versus, and practice modes. There are character profiles and stat tracking, as well as a movie viewer that lets you watch the opening movie along with all the little cutscenes peppered throughout the game.

All in all, the game is still quite fun, despite the graphical letdown. While the gameplay is in place, it is rather underwhelming. You really need to be a fan of the Fatal Fury series to appreciate this game since the casual passerby would be so much better off with Tekken 3 or even Zero Divide for that matter. Let's hope SNK's Naomi-based games fare better.

Vampire Savior (Import) Review

Vampire Savior is the third game in Capcom's Darkstalkers series, which up until this point has essentially been "Street Fighter with monsters." At its core, Vampire Savior is still just that, but it has a few twists that manage to make it feel quite a bit different.

How? Instead of going by a best-two-out-of-three-round system, VS takes the Killer Instinct approach, where each character has two life bars. When one is drained, the character falls down, refills, and the match continues. Another new twist is the Dark Force power-up, which takes one level of your super meter and acts a bit like the gems did in Marvel Super Heroes. Each character is affected differently by Dark Force. Some characters get armor, others get mirror images of themselves that double their attack power, etc. There are two types of super moves in Vampire Savior. ES moves are powered-up versions of normal moves, like super fireballs, extra damaging throws, and multiple dragon punches. EX specials are entirely different moves. For instance, Demitri can turn his opponents into little girls (even the boys turn into girls - don't ask), pick them up by the neck, and choke blood out of them, while Lilith tosses a top hat at her opponent. If the hat hits, her enemy is forced to do a little dance, taking damage all the while. A good portion of the EX moves are, in a word, insane. They go a long way to making the game substantially more fun than your average post-Street-Fighter-Alpha-2 Capcom fighting game.

This is the second game to support the Saturn's 4MB RAM cart, and the results are similar to the first (X-Men vs. Street Fighter) - an arcade-perfect translation with very little load time. So not surprisingly, the graphics in Vampire Savior are pretty good. All of the backgrounds look great, and most of them are pretty animated. There are a lot of frames of animation in this game, and the Saturn pulls them all off without a hitch. The sound and music are also quite nice. The speech isn't muffled at all, and the music fits the game very well.

Overall, Vampire Savior is a lot of fun. It's easily the best fighter Capcom has put out in years. It doesn't fall prey to the cookie-cutter formula Capcom's been using to make Street Fighter games for the past few years. It's almost completely in English, and there is a code to make the entire game play in English, so Capcom was obviously thinking about importers when it designed this one. Saturn releases are few and far between, and this one isn't coming out here, so all Saturn owners would do well to get a RAM cart and pick this one up.

Street Fighter Alpha 3 Review

Not so long ago, the thought of a nearly perfect version of Street Fighter Alpha 3 for a portable gaming system was unthinkable. We've always wanted portable fighting games, but for the most part, we've never really expected them to stack up to their full-blown counterparts. Yet the Game Boy Advance has seen the release of several surprisingly uncompromised fighting games, and the new Street Fighter Alpha 3 is probably the best of them. The third and apparently final installment in Capcom's popular fighting game series marked the return of the entire cast of the legendary Street Fighter II, and it featured a number of other new and old characters to make for a huge roster of more than 30 fighters. Numerous gameplay modes and several other twists gave Street Fighter Alpha 3 incredible longevity, and in fact, Capcom has hardly even attempted to surpass Street Fighter Alpha 3 since its release more than four years ago. Now the entire game can be held in the palm of your hand and played on the go. While Street Fighter Alpha 3 for the Game Boy Advance does cut a few corners here and there, it takes a discerning fan to notice any real difference between this version and the arcade original--and that's pretty amazing.

The GBA version of Street Fighter 3 features all the characters, moves, and strategies of the original. The graphics have been scaled down slightly, so the characters aren't quite as detailed as you might recall, but they're still as colorful as ever, and they move fluidly. Many of the game's backgrounds have been brought over intact, complete with parallax scrolling effects and lots of little details. At least one stage has a color scheme that makes it very difficult to see your yellow life meter at the top of the screen, but that's not a big deal. More importantly, the original game's relatively smooth animation is intact, and so are the flashy special effects for the various moves and finishers. This is therefore a great-looking GBA game by any standards, and it's all the more impressive if you're familiar with the original.

The audio is quite good, too. Street Fighter Alpha 3's music was never anything special, and it suffers in translation here somewhat, turning out tinny and oversynthesized like a lot of GBA soundtracks do, though it isn't bad. On the other hand, what speech there is in the game sounds excellent, so expect to hear all the game's characters utter their signature lines as clearly as ever. Some of the voice samples did get cut from this translation, particularly some of the ones used during characters' win poses. That's a bit unfortunate, but if you're hard-core enough to take notice, then you can no doubt reproduce those particular sound bytes using your imagination.

The gameplay is true to form, though it's limited by the four-button design of the Game Boy Advance. Since Street Fighter Alpha 3 technically uses a six-button control scheme, the GBA port by default handles medium punches and kicks by forcing you to press both punch buttons or both kick buttons at the same time. This works reasonably well, though you'll still wish you had six buttons to work with. Conveniently, the game provides an optional system that allows you to use simplified controller motions for executing super moves. At any rate, the directional pad still allows for precision control, and you'll either get used to the abbreviated six-button system or make do with four standard punches and kicks instead of six. Of note, the GBA port of Street Fighter Alpha 3 retains the original's three separate fighting style options, adding an extra layer of depth to what would be an impressive variety of fighters anyway.

The standard arcade mode provides a flexible challenge that should last for a good, long time as you play through as all the different fighters and attempt to unlock some of the other hidden modes and characters. A two-player versus mode is available but requires both players to have a copy of the game, while other modes such as time attack and survival can provide a nice alternative to the standard best-of-three-round match. Yet the most enjoyable alternate mode is dramatic battle, in which you're partnered up with a computer-controlled partner (or another player) and get to double-team on a series of opponents. The game doesn't miss a beat with three large, fluidly animated characters duking it out simultaneously, and this mode is quite enjoyable. There's also a practice mode that lets you come to grips with the controls and practice your moves.

Street Fighter Alpha 3 has been a very popular fighting game over the years, and with good reason. It has plenty of likable characters, good controls, and a lot of depth and variety. This new Game Boy Advance port is as faithful a rendition of the original as can reasonably be expected, so it's not just one of the better fighting games from the last five years--it's also a terrific game to have on the go.

Whose idea was this game, anyway? As if it weren't enough for the world to endure the lethargic silicon fallacy that was Primal Rage, someone then decided to create a bigger, better dinosaur trap. "We can rebuild it. We can make it stronger. We can make the six-million-dollar dinosaur fighting game!" This must have been the rallying cry at some forsaken boardroom meeting when discussing the fate of Warpath: Jurassic Park.

Developed by Black Ops Entertainment, those crafty code-slingers responsible for Namco's Treasures of the Deep and the recently released Tomorrow Never Dies, Warpath is as straight up a dinosaur-fighting game as there ever has been. While this game no doubt may have looked good on paper (get dinos together, have them slug it out, throw in a few encyclopedic touches, and there you go), it is truly horrible in practice.

While the dinosaurs themselves look really nice, their surroundings (or environments) are warp-tastic adventures in texture-map glitching. Surfaces buckle and distortion abounds as the PlayStation struggles to keep all this geometry under control. The occasional graphic highlight (read: gimmick) will attempt to liven things up in the form of a human running around and waiting to be eaten or small dinosaurs walking between the combatants only to be crushed by unsympathetic dinosaur feet.

Graphical guffaws aside, the fighting "action" is atrocious. If ever there was a game specifically designed for button mashing, then this is it. Sadly, button response time is bad. Much like elevator doors pause before closing, after you hit the button, so, too, does Warpath when you press, say, the bite button. Press the button, wait, and the dinosaur attempts to bite. The game continues like this no matter what you do, and it's not long before this disjointed battle of cause and effect wears out its welcome. Simply put, it's hard to feel any sort of control over your actions in Warpath. There are Tekken-like hold moves with which to either throttle your opponent or cause a vicious impaling move, but once again, your chances of pulling the move off when you want are hit and miss. Executing a combo of any sorts is directly linked to how fast you can whack the buttons, but even the combos gives you mixed results due to the poor collision detection.

Once past the button mashing, the sound effects are insignificant, although Black Ops did a reasonable job trying to simulate "authentic" dinosaur sounds. While the selection of dinosaurs is decent, many are hidden at first, and it's quite possible that even the youngest gamer will tire of the unlocking process rather quickly. Although there is a decent dinosaur fact-file and other should-be-standard "secrets" waiting to be discovered, this is nothing more than a useful tool for a science class. As a game, Warpath: Jurassic Park is well past its due date. Pass with prejudice.

Last Blade, The Review

Another month has passed, and another NeoGeo fighting series has made its way to SNK's portable powerhouse, the NeoGeo Pocket Color. This time around, the weapon-based fighting series The Last Blade has gotten the portable treatment, and the results are pretty favorable. The portable version of the game manages to keep the game's basic features intact, and it also adds a few new modes and unlockable features to keep the game interesting longer than your average fighting game.

The character roster is varied, with a good deal of hidden characters to unlock. As in the NeoGeo version, you can choose between speed and power variants for each character, which govern a character's supermove. There is also a parry, which lets you reflect attacks and stun your opponent for a brief second so you can strike. The parry button default is back and B, which is a little cumbersome, but you can change the parry to A+B in the options, which is significantly easier to deal with.

Aside from the standard story mode, the game also has a survival mode, a time attack, and a training mode. The survival mode, aside from challenging you to survive, has little side tasks, such as using your parry twice or executing a specific special attack. If you accept the side bet, you'll earn points by completing the task, but you'll lose points if you fail. These points, which are also earned in the game's story mode, are used in a Soul Calibur-like gallery, where you spend your points to open up tidbits of information, such as character stories and endings. Eventually you'll unlock extra modes, including an addictive little home run derby minigame that lets you really rack up points quickly.

Graphically, the game is standard fare for the NeoGeo Pocket Color. The fighters animate fairly well, and the effect during supermoves (a large portrait of your character appearing on the screen) is really nice. The music is well done, and the sound effects are as good as you'd expect from a handheld system.

The Last Blade is a good fighting game, with more options and features than you'd expect from a portable fighter, but if you're new to the system and looking for the best fighting game available, you're still better off with SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium.