Friday, April 6, 2012

Samurai Shodown 2 Review

Putting four-button fighting games on a portable system that only has two buttons is never an easy task. The most popular method for using two buttons to execute different attacks is timing the length of each button press. This means you have to hold a button down a little longer than usual to get it to execute more powerful moves. The trouble with this method is that can hamper your reaction time, since moves don't come out the instant you push the button. While Samurai Shodown 2 for the Neo Geo Pocket employs this timed button press technique, it doesn't take too much away from the gameplay.

Samurai Shodown 2 adds three characters over the last game, which appeared on SNK's older, black-and-white handheld. The game also has a couple of interesting modes. Along with the standard versus mode is the survival mode, where you must defeat as many enemies as possible, receiving only small health recharges between bouts. This mode is tied to the collection of special cards, which add things like increased defense and special attacks. Each character has eight cards to unlock, which are split evenly between the two character modes, slash and bust.

The game uses one button to perform all your weapon attacks, and the other button is used for kicking and dodging. It's a decent enough setup, but using the A button for all your main attacks can get a bit confusing.

The card collection adds some longevity to what would otherwise be a short-lived affair. It would have been nice if it employed a more mission-style mode to it, rather than rely on simple survival matches as its secondary mode. This game doesn't have the universal fighting game appeal that King of Fighters R-2 has, and SS2 should be considered a secondary fighting game at best.

Capcom vs. SNK 2 EO Review

There's really not much new in Capcom vs. SNK 2 EO, the first 2D fighting game for the GameCube and the bazillionth fighting game featuring Ken. This particular version of the game is basically identical to last year's Capcom vs. SNK 2 for the PS2, which was basically identical to Capcom vs. SNK 2 for the Dreamcast, which was a perfect port of the arcade version of the game, which was closely based on the 2-year-old original. All these games have pitted the characters from Capcom's and SNK's many popular fighting games from over the years against each other. Two years ago, the idea of a Capcom vs. SNK game was nothing short of unthinkable, as the two companies were seen as close competitors. Now it's a reality, and the novelty is long gone. What's left is by all means a solid fighting game, filled with many likable characters. Unfortunately, the GameCube's controller just wasn't designed to work well with a game like this, and it cripples your ability to play and enjoy it, regardless of a new control scheme designed for Nintendo's console.

The only real difference between this and older versions of Capcom vs. SNK 2 is the presence of a new optional control scheme exclusively designed for the GameCube. This is an innovative but ultimately misguided attempt to address the fact that the stock GameCube controller is completely unfit for use with a traditional fighting game. For starters, in the new control scheme, you use the GameCube's left analog stick to move your character around, but unfortunately, the analog stick isn't nearly as precise as a digital pad--or a digital arcade stick, for that matter. The controller's two shoulder buttons function as pressure-sensitive punch and kick buttons, allowing you to execute basic attacks haphazardly at best. This bizarre throwback to the giant rubber-coated pressure-sensitive punch and kick buttons from the original Street Fighter arcade game is perhaps amusing, but the amusement ends as soon as you start trying to throw quick flurries of jabs or properly time your roundhouse kicks.

Yet the biggest deal with the new controls is that the right analog stick lets you easily perform all your character's various special moves, which normally would be executed with relatively complex combinations of controller motions and button presses. For example, Russian wrestler Zangief's spinning pile driver, normally requiring a full-circle motion on a joystick or directional pad, is now executed simply by pressing forward on the analog stick. Charge moves such as Guile's sonic boom, which normally require players to press and hold a button or controller direction, now require no charging. Super moves are executed just as easily. Arguably, this grossly simplified control scheme opens up some new tactical possibilities--if you've ever wondered how a computer-controlled Blanka could execute his roll attack while walking forward, well, now you can actually pull off such outrageous stunts. It also saps most of the fun out of the game and makes competitive play pointless. The character balance gets completely thrown off, as relatively hard-to-execute moves are no longer hard to execute, making some of them--like that spinning pile driver--obscenely overpowered. The presence of the traditional control scheme mitigates these problems somewhat, but the GameCube controller doesn't wear it well. That tiny, inconveniently located directional pad is cumbersome to use with this game, and the placement of the other controller buttons is just as bad.

It's somewhat sad that the biggest problem with Capcom vs. SNK 2 EO isn't even really intrinsic to the core game. The good news is, there are a few ways to get around the awful controls, if you desperately want to play Capcom vs. SNK 2 on your GameCube. There's at least one good arcade-style GameCube-compatible joystick available, the X-arcade, and at least one other such peripheral is on the horizon, though currently no standard six-button gamepads are either available or planned for the system. Alternately, you could spend money on converter cables that let you hook up a PlayStation 2 gamepad to your GameCube. These solutions are viable, but costly and awkward, effectively making Capcom vs. SNK 2 EO a lot more expensive and inconvenient to play than it should be.

As a sequel, Capcom vs. SNK 2 adds some new characters, some new moves, some new game mechanics, some new backgrounds, and some new music. However, there's also a lot of the same old graphics, same old sounds, and same old gameplay. The impact of the changes made to the game will depend on how serious you are about your 2D fighters, and given the control issues, it seems ridiculous to discuss the subtler aspects of the gameplay at length.

There are about 40 different characters available in the game, though of course not all of them are completely unique. Some of the better additions in this sequel include Eagle, the British stick fighter who dates all the way back to the original Street Fighter game, and Haohmaru, the cocky sword-wielding samurai from SNK's Samurai Shodown series, whose katana would presumably give him an unfair advantage. Fortunately, other characters have no problem deflecting Haohmaru's long, slow slashes with their forearms. Other notable additions include the kung fu fighter Yun, from Street Fighter III, and Rock Howard, the bastard son of Geese Howard who first appeared in SNK's Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves. Some of the other new characters, such as the over-the-hill martial artist Ryuhaku Todo, from SNK's Art of Fighting, and Maki, a rip-off of SNK's Mai Shiranui who appeared in the sequel to Final Fight, are surprising additions to the lineup, but not necessarily good ones. Capcom and SNK fans alike will probably find that they can think of a few equally rare characters they would have rather seen in the game.

Cardinal Syn is the product of Kronos, the same company responsible for the abysmal PlayStation fighter Criticom and the mediocre Dark Rift for the N64. Cardinal Syn sticks to the Kronos model as a good-looking 3D fighter that offers nothing in the vein of innovative gameplay.

The game starts out with eight playable characters, but every time you beat the tournament mode the game unlocks a new playable character. It's got the usual modes of play we've come to expect from fighting games: tournament, vs., team battle, survival, and training mode. Cardinal Syn, as far as gameplay features go, is fairly standard. The only crazy things outside the norm are the in-game hazards and treasure chests. The hazards include things such as a mining car that rumbles down the tracks, which you and your opponent happen to be fighting on, or a giant snowball that crashes down a nearby mountain. The levels also have various treasure chests lying about that contain health, added strength, and bombs that damage your character.

Visually, Cardinal Syn is quite appealing. The characters and the 3D arenas that they fight in are incredibly detailed. The motion of the characters is a little fast but looks fairly fluid. That mixed with snazzy lighting effects gives Cardinal Syn a very clean look. All of this is seen from a camera angle that for most of the time is a side view, although sometimes the view is obscured for a frustrating second or two when a piece of the background gets in the way. The music and sound effects fit the medieval theme of the game quite well. With the clashing of swords and over-the-top modern gothic music, the game sounds noticeably rich.

The AI of the computer-controlled fighters is just plain poor. They run through preset patterns that you can see even after only a short time playing, and once you've learned the patterns, you simply create a pattern that counters theirs. Needless to say, this becomes incredibly boring. Even on the hardest setting the gameplay is composed of knocking your opponent down and trying to keep him there. Otherwise he gets up and starts this seemingly endless barrage of high and low attacks.

Cardinal Syn has some nice graphics and sound to set it apart from other games in the genre, at least on the surface. But once all is said and done, with its typical weapon-based fighting system that plays like Soul Blade and Dynasty Warriors, Cardinal Syn just ends up coming off as another 3D fighting game knockoff.

With a long, sullied history of extremely poor DBZ games before it, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai was a bit of a revelation when it was released in 2002. Here was a 3D fighting game that, while not offering the deepest combat system, was still reasonably fun to play. Moreover, it featured a great story mode that basically summed up the entire run of the Dragon Ball Z manga-cum-anime in just a few hours. A year later, we got a sequel with improved cel-shaded graphics, but the slick story mode was replaced by a lame board game, and the additions made to the gameplay just didn't seem to mesh with what was already there. Dimps, the little-known developer responsible for the entire Budokai series, learned some lessons and has now returned to the scene with Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3. This is far and away the best Dragon Ball Z game around, and it's a must-have for DBZ fans. However, the action is also so fast-paced and viscerally satisfying that it can genuinely appeal even to those otherwise uninterested in Dragon Ball Z.

The action in the Budokai games has never been particularly technical, and though Budokai 3 retains all the fundamentals, it adds several new gameplay mechanics that have significant impact on the action. The first is the new teleportation counter system, which, following a simple tap of the D pad and the X button at the right moment, will instantly teleport you right behind your opponent so you can deliver unto him or her a nice, crushing blow. If your opponent is quick enough on his or her feet, though, he or she can pull a reversal and teleport behind you, keeping this move from being an overpowered one. This little teleport maneuver can also be used to pop up behind your opponent after he or she has been knocked through the air, which lets you ping-pong him or her back and forth a few times. While this may sound like kind of an oddball mechanic to outsiders, Dragon Ball Z fans will recognize it as an integral part of just about any DBZ fight.

Also key to Dragon Ball Z are massive energy attacks, which the Budokai series has dutifully represented. Budokai 3 is the first entry in the series to introduce the concept of a "beam struggle," which basically involves two characters throwing a massive beam of energy at each other. Each then tries to overpower the other's beam. Once you find yourself locked in a beam struggle, all you need to do is rotate the analog sticks or mash on the buttons as fast as you can while hoping that you're faster than your opponent. Tactically, it's not a big deal, but it brings the gameplay experience that much closer to the source material. Also, some very heavy lighting and particle effects make the beam struggles look extremely cool.

All of your energy-based moves use up ki, which is represented by a set of bars that are separate from your life-energy bar. You can fill up these bars just by connecting with your attacks, or if there's a lull in the action, you can stand still and power up, which fills your meter rapidly but exposes you to attacks. Keeping your ki meter full is of paramount importance, because your basic punch, kick, and grapple moves won't have as much of an effect when your ki meter is empty. Ki is also needed for transformations, such as when Frieza evolves through his different forms or when any of the Saiyans want to go into their blonde-hair, blue-eyed super-Saiyan mode. But probably the most important use of ki in Budokai 3 involves hyper mode. If you have enough ki (four bars will do), you can press all four face buttons to enter hyper mode. The intense red glow given off by characters in hyper mode is unmistakable, and when they're in this state, they have a few moves they can't execute otherwise.

The dragon rush is the most important move strategically, just because it comes into play more often than other moves. If you're in hyper mode and you have your opponent on the ropes, a well-timed press of the circle button will launch a dragon rush, which boils the rock-paper-scissors underpinning of all fighting games down to its very essence. The camera cuts from the usual side-profile position to give more-cinematic shots of the character that launched the dragon rush to unleash incredible pummeling attacks on his or her opponent. However, the attacker has to get a little lucky if he or she wants to do the most possible damage. At three points during the dragon rush, both players have to press one of the face buttons. If the attacker can avoid hitting the same button as the player being attacked at each of these intervals, the series of attacks will end with a punishing energy blast. If the button presses match up at any point, though, the defender can cancel out the dragon rush and go back to regular action. The action is so incredibly over-the-top, and the camera cuts so perfectly, that the dragon rush is mind-blowing the first time you see it. The downer is that the dragon rush is basically the same for every single character, though there are a few subtle permutations based on specific characters and specific environments. More variety would have been nice, but the dragon rushes are still fantastic additions to the action.

Knuckle Up is a masterpiece of simplicity. With an elegant control scheme and old-school, pattern-oriented gameplay, Knuckle Up is universally playable and invariably fun. Veteran gamers will hail the game as the mobile answer to Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! for the NES. Newcomers to the genre will enjoy Knuckle Up's lighthearted approach to character design and its strategic sparring.

Knuckle Up is basically a series of boss fights in the classic, video game sense. Each of your opponents has a distinct fighting style and pattern, which, once learned, leads you to victory. For example, one character, The Mole, will fiercely guard his face and body, rendering him invulnerable. Occasionally, though, after blocking a few blows, he will unleash a torrent of punches on you. If you are able to dodge these, you'll have a chance to hit him a couple of times before he returns to blocking. Rinse and repeat.

The best feature of Knuckle Up is its no-nonsense control, which uses only your phone's five-way directional pad. The up key performs a quick jab; the down key blocks; the left and right keys control lateral movement; and the "OK" button launches a haymaker. While this system does not allow for a great degree of punch variety, it is infinitely preferable to the more complex control of competing games, such as Sorrent's Fox Sports Boxing, which requires the use of number keys in conjunction with the directional pad. Knuckle Up's limited repertoire of punches is not a big weakness. It is far easier to manage two punches than it is seven. After all, Knuckle Up is an arcade-style game, not a boxing simulation.

The game's graphics are appropriately cartoony. While the visuals aren't going to trigger fits of ecstasy in gamers, the goofy character sprites might elicit a few laughs. I found Pretty Boy, a scrawny blond of exceptional pallor, to be particularly amusing to look at.

The only thing keeping Knuckle Up from obtaining a higher score is that the game ends too soon. The final boss, Tubby McGraw, is fairly easy to overcome, once you learn his formulaic approach to butt-kicking. A greater complement of characters would have made a welcome addition to the title. Better still (dare we say it?), a multiplayer mode could have been added to allow a player to challenge an anonymous combatant on the Sprint Vision network. Such a feature would have made this game immortal. Alas.

Nevertheless, Knuckle Up packs a lot of classic flavor into its mobile punch. Its simplified, robust gameplay makes it a great game for the medium. Highly recommended.

Virtual On has been the mech-lover's dream since it first appeared in arcades back in the mid-'90s and subsequently in the A-for-effort port to the Sega Saturn in 1997. When AM3 unleashed the Model 3-powered sequel, Oratorio Tangram, the general opinion was that the game was little more than a flashier, more graphically potent version of its predecessor. In the meantime, similar games like Armored Core and Frame Gride have come along and upped the ante with customizable parts and stunning graphics, respectively. Now that games like Virtua Fighter 3tb, Sega Bass Fishing, and Sega Rally 2 have all found their way home, how does Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram fare as not only a Model 3 conversion but as a port to the consumer market?

The first part of that question can be answered like this - VO:OT is, graphically, the best Model 3 conversion yet, with incredibly accurate models and all the special effects of the arcade, with little to no compromises made. Whereas Virtua Fighter 3 had inconsistencies and slowdown compared with the original arcade version, and Sega Rally 2 lacked the full-bodied look of its arcade counterpart, VO:OT is basically a pixel-perfect translation. Closer than any Model 3 conversion yet, the game never suffers from any sort of slowdown and cruises along at a shimmering 60 frames per second at all times. Sega hasn't taken any shortcuts to achieve this either. Every background, while admittedly simple, is rendered in full three dimensions, while special effects abound at every turn. After an impressive opening CG sequence, you'll be treated to a parade of light-sourcing effects, gorgeous gourad-shading, crystal-clear transparencies, and other effects that most gamers now take for granted. However, you've never seen graphics like these, wrapped around polygonal models like these, in such high resolutions as these, since Soul Calibur.

Despite all the visual mayhem onscreen, Sega still found ways to implement real-time shadows as well, keeping the entire graphics package intact. While definitely different, this is the first game to visually stun you the way Soul Calibur did. On par with every graphical hardware effect out there, Virtual On: OT is a visual tour de force. The graphics look so good, in fact, that you will find yourself in the game's watch mode for hours just watching the comp-controlled mechs duke it out. Each mech, designed by Macross designer Katohi Hajime, is constructed of a huge number of polygons and is represented in a DNA model and an RNA model. These differing models feature different attacks and color schemes. While some backgrounds are spare and barren, others are replete with large stalagmites jutting up from the ground or large obstacles and structures to hide behind and use for cover. Other stages will add elevating slopes and hills where you can mount your attack or defense. Some battles even take place underwater, a la Dural circa Virtua Fighter 2. Intelligent use of these geographical elements will often be the difference between a loss and a win. Your mech also changes in appearance as you take damage, much as the robots did in the old PlayStation title Zero Divide. When a part of a leg or arm is blown off, for example, you'll see interior parts of the mech showing through.