Wednesday, August 16, 2017

GJG Game Review: Sonic Mania

Happy 28th Birthday to me for pre-ordering Sonic Mania!

For starters I have been pretty hard on Sega and Sonic Team for the whole year of 2017 so far. Some of the criticisms that I myself have presented to the Sonic franchise have been at least somewhat valid (I hope) and I feel that it's been time for gamers to start being more honest with Sega and Sonic Team about how they feel about the Sonic franchise as a whole, both 2D and 3D. 

With that said, I have been keeping a close eye on Sonic Mania for many months in 2017, and the news I have been getting has come across as nothing but positive. Everything that led up to Mania's release has been a refreshing, reassuring spin on the Sonic content we've been getting in recent years. The marketing campaign that went in to Mania has been very impressive, and the closer we got to the release date of August 15th the more convinced I became that I ABSOLUTELY needed to pre-order this game. August 15th, the day before my 28th Birthday, August 16th. What are the odds?

Controls - 20 out of 20 points

Pretty much flawless, by all accounts. If you're familiar with the original Sonic Genesis games of yesteryear, you should have no problem at all getting used to the controls of Mania. This game is built off the platform of Sonic 1 through Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Mania instantly reminds you of how cool it was to just plug in and play the Genesis games. You could go through an entire sitting of a couple hours and play a Sonic Genesis game with joy. You can Spin Dash, and now you can Drop Dash, which is the only mini-bummer of this game. The times of when you need to use the new Drop Dash ability as Sonic are a mystery, though the ability itself is really cool.

You can play as Sonic, Tails or Knuckles right off the bat and they play just as you remembered them playing in the Genesis games. This sense of familiarity is such a strong plus. 

Graphics - 20 out of 20 points

Wow. Beautiful. Wonderful. Amazing. Without going too much into this, if you have already played Sonic Mania, then you should already know how stylistic and breath-taking the graphics of  Sonic Mania are. It's a hybrid of the Genesis style of graphics and a 32-bit look, somewhat reminding gamers of the Sega 32X days. I'm sure you remember Knuckles Chaotix, right? The art that went into this game deserves some sort of end of year award. Seriously.

Music - 20 out of 20 points

You will immediately feel right at home as a Sonic fan when playing through Mania because the music soundtracks immediately get you to realize just how creative and catchy Sonic soundtracks usually are. These soundtracks are fitting for the environments they attach themselves to, and for the old reliable zones that we all know and loves, the soundtracks for these zones are remixed in such a way that could possibly blow your mind. Give credit to the music producer of the Mania team for this because he knocked this category out of the park!

Replayability Factor - 20 out of 20 points

There is no doubt about what I'm going to say here. This game is absolutely, positively worth replaying again and again. Here's one good reason why Mania gets an A+ in Replayability Value; the order of the mini-bosses and bosses you fight in Mania is NOT always the same. This means that you could be facing different foes such as the various Hard Boiled Heavies, or Dr. Eggman himself in drastically different orders depending on who you play as, and possibly depending on how fast (or slow) you complete a stage.  

What also helps the Replayability in Mania are the Bonus and Special Stages that are scattered throughout the game. You quickly familiarize yourself with the challenge of having to collect many Blue Spheres in a maze, but then you will also have to retrain yourself to complete a daring mission of catching a fleeing aircraft in a race track. This latter stage should remind gamers of Special Stages that we've seen in games like Sonic CD and Sonic Heroes. This Special Stage concept is excellent, the execution of it is great, and most importantly, these additions keep you motivated to play.

11 Bonus Points for Creativity

As an aspiring game dev myself, I definitely appreciate it when I see creative freedom being put on display in a game. I advocate for creativity, I encourage it and I humbly challenge other aspiring game devs to put their creativity out there in game projects. What Christian "Taxman" Whitehead, Headcannon and PagodaWest Games did for Sonic Mania is a textbook example of being able to use enough creativity in a video game and showcasing what they know about the Sonic Universe.

Seriously, I could also say that the levels of creativity used in this game are "off the charts", "blasted past the outfield fence for a home run", and "top of the mountain quality". Sonic Mania is THAT good, whether you play this game as a Sonic fan or not. 

Overall Score: 91 out of 100 points (11 Bonus Points)

I have never felt more happy about playing a new Sonic game that I have for Sonic Mania, and late last week on the 11th I made the decision (at the last minute, really) to pre-order this game. It turns out that Sonic Mania was by far one of the best gaming purchase decisions I have ever made. Sonic Mania blew me the crap away, to put it somewhat bluntly. Sure, it's just a 2D side-scrolling platforming game at the end of the day, but it's not just that. It's a call to remember what Sonic used to be, and that he used to be one of the best video game characters in history. Sonic and his friends can reach that status again if Sega allows Sonic Mania to be used as a building block for future 2D Sonic installments. 

While the jury is still out on the future of Modern 3D Sonic games, which is another story altogether, Classic 2D Sonic is officially back like a boss. Sonic Mania is already going to be one of the best video games in history when this is said and done. A fitting Happy Birthday gift to myself!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Comprehensive Game Design Analysis Part 1

I avidly study game development when I have the time to do so. I often search through YouTube and various other places on the internet (Shout out to Gamasutra!) to find other opinions on game design, what gamers like and what they don't like about certain games. As you can tell from the embedded video above, I'm going to be commenting again on a game that I own for the PS4, and it's obviously nowhere near my favorite video game to play. I already made a review on Mighty No. 9 a couple months back and gave it a mediocre overall score, and that was mainly because I have never been a huge Mega Man fan and I never backed the Kickstarter campaign for this game.

What this video goes into is how ridiculous the game design was for Mighty No. 9, and for the most part I definitely agree with the author of this video. I find it inexcusable as to how certain parts of game design were implemented in Mighty No. 9, and after watching this video you'll come to realize just how much better this game should have been, but Comcept basically refused to make it better.

Enemy Placement
The placement of enemies in Mighty No. 9 was jarring in many areas. You didn't feel like you were necessarily rewarded after you reached a seemingly special part of a level where you could collect extra health items and power-ups. If anything, you felt somewhat punished for doing so. What made this case was how "in your face" the placed enemies were. The moment you felt you had some room to work with, that space would be taken away by an ill-placed enemy, making your gaming experience unnecessarily more difficult.

Color Discernment
If you hate having to discern the difference between an object that's in the background of a level and an object you actually have to take down in the foreground, then you might want to stay away from Mighty No. 9. Especially during boss fights do you have to deal with colors that blend in with each other, which means that you sometimes will be guessing which object to attack, and which object to ignore. Pick the wrong object and you will pay for it. Not good.

No Set Pattern of Level Choices
I find this to be an interesting argument, and one I agree with. For those of you who play Mega Man games you would know that there's a pattern in choosing levels, preferably from the easiest to the hardest. If you guess the pattern of level choices right then the gaming experience overall will feel more rewarding. If you tackle the harder levels first and then go to the easier levels, then it may not feel as rewarding. Mighty No. 9 suffers from not giving you any initial hints as to what set pattern to rely on. Should you take on Mighty No. 2 first? Or should it be Mighty No. 5? You don't know, and that's the problem. You won't get any help in improving the quality of a level until after you beat a boss and pick the level that matches that defeated boss's help sequence.

Learning Moves
Another frustrating part of Mighty No. 9 is the learning curve, especially considering the types of moves that Beck can perform. In the options menu of the game you can try to learn how to perform certain moves that you feel will help Beck progress through a level. However, many of these moves seem to be counterproductive in how they are executed and how they complement a level. There's this one move called the "Drop Shot" where you jump backwards and shoot down at a 45 degree angle. On many occasions this move is simply worthless and doesn't help you.

Mighty No. 9 simply suffered from this feeling that two game dev teams worked on the game instead of just one. There was no cohesive vision as to what Mighty No. 9 wanted to be as a game, and when conflicting features of the game tried to merge with each other, it became a mess. Having said this I still have no problem owning this game because I don't have a big emotional attachment to Mega Man style games, but I feel that this information is worth sharing with my blog readers.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Time to Reconsider DLC?

Just like their competitors Microsoft and Sony, it has become apparent that Nintendo is following in their footsteps by presenting DLC packages and deals to gamers. It's no secret that nowadays in order to truly get the full experience of a game you will need to buy some sort of DLC exclusive. Sometimes it's absolutely needed to buy a DLC deal in order to 100% complete a game. Nintendo in recent years has picked up on this financial strategy and have put their own spin on it by way of using their Amiibo collectible toys.

The linked video above will tell more of the story, but the gist of it is basically Nintendo has been catching on to what Microsoft and Sony have been doing for many years, since at least the start of the 2010's. Make no mistake that this strategy of implementing DLC attached to main games has been working like Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket, but this leads me to ask the following questions.

Is it time to reconsider DLC? Is it time to start re-evaluating the worth of Downloadable Content? What have we learned from this business model of throwing DLC into a game package? It's 2017 and we're getting closer to the end of the 2010's, so I would think that normally the Video Game Industry would step back and start thinking over what they have introduced in the past decade.

What has DLC ultimately replaced in this past decade? Cheat codes. Think about it. Very rarely do we ever hear about new games having any sort of cheat code system. You see, cheat codes were once a unique part of a gameplay experience back in the day. In the 1990's when computer technology wasn't as advanced as it is today, gamers had to rely on trial and error in order to obtain secret cheat codes in their favorite games, and once these codes were submitted in the cheat section of an option menu, the gamer would get a brand new experience because he or she would get to play the game in a different way. Plus, the kicker here is that the gamer was rewarded with a FREE new feature!

Not to say that every single DLC offer costs you an arm and a leg, because that's not entirely true, but the fact that every DLC offer is bound to cost you, the gamer, something out of your wallet means that you have to try harder to save money in order to get the thing about your favorite game that you really want. Doesn't it sometimes rub you the wrong way how you buy a game first and you assume that you have everything in that game, but then realize the game dev company is going to release DLC packages to make that game "more complete"?

Cue the picture of a rabbit chasing a carrot dangling on a stick.

Okay, that's close enough.

The Video Game Industry is a business, and sometimes gamers lose sight of that. It's a fun business to be a part of, but it's still a business nonetheless. These game dev companies are looking to expand their business, and if they think that DLC is the way to go for them, then guess what? They're gonna offer DLC deals.

I guess where I'm going with this is my concern over how much is too much when offering DLC. Costing an arm and a leg to buy DLC simply isn't ideal for many gamers. They just bought the original game for an already steep enough price, especially if they bought that game just a day or two after official release. To ask gamers to spend more money on DLC just so they can have a "more complete experience" with the original game sounds crazy and foreign to me. That's just how I feel as I've grown up as a gamer in the late 1990's and early 2000's.

Ultimately my stance on DLC is this. DLC probably has a place in today's Video Game Industry, but it should never be abused by game dev companies just for the sake of economic convenience. There's a fine line to draw here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Mario Gets Too Much of a Pass

I'd like to pull this above video out and have you guys listen to it. This video discusses why there seems to be an obvious bias in the way that some gaming media companies review certain games. When you go over the reviews of some games, don't you sometimes get the feeling that the reviews and the scores given to games are intentionally biased?

The prime example of there possibly being a game review bias: compare any platforming game against a Mario game. Many companies seem to be guilty of doing this. many companies appear so ready, willing and able to just automatically give Mario games high review scores right after they're released out to market, and when another platforming game comes out, whether it's Crash Bandicoot, Sonic the Hedgehog, Ratchet & Clank or whatever, these same companies will view these games through a completely different lense.

Consider the remake of Crash Bandicoot that was released not too long ago. Check out the review scores of this trilogy collection from some of the big name gaming media companies. Check out IGN, GameInformer, GameSpot and others. Compare their reviews of Crash's original trilogy remake to that of recent Mario games. Does it feel like night and day to you at first glance?

I think it's important to note how game critics review games because we should pick up on the tendencies of these critics. We need to know whether or not a critic is being consistent with what he or she is saying about particular game genres, as well as the games themselves. If a critic isn't being consistent, then you know something is up. If a game critic is praising a certain game even though it's a hard game to master, but then turns around and bashes another game for being in the same ballpark of hard, then you know a certain agenda is being pushed.

I mean, there are different interpretations of a hard video game, but we shouldn't make the gap of these interpretations so gaping that it becomes difficult for readers to understand which kind of hard is acceptable and which kind of hard is unacceptable. That's why game reviewers need to describe what it is about a game that makes it so hard, and not just say "Oh, it's too hard for me to play!" Reviewers need to avoid being so vague as they write down their game reviews.

Back in the day only Nintendo Power (when it was still active) had the excuse of hyping up Mario games in their reviews because they exclusively promoted Nintendo products, so in their case it made sense. Nonetheless, if a game isn't up to par to the standards that its series intended it to be, you call the game out on it. You review that game accordingly, whether it's a Mario game or not.

I'm a firm believer in honest journalism. That's one reason why the Gaming Journalist Gazette blog exists. I'm here to give my readers honest journalism. I have to be honest about the games I play and the game news that gets announced. I have to present my honest opinions on gaming topics. I can't present something that I don't believe in. My honest opinions on games may not always be received well by people like game critics, but I write what I write, and that's that.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Mobile Game Project: Postponed Indefinitely

Remember when I told you that there were good things being developed on my end? Remember that mobile game project that I promised would get finished this year? That cartoony platformer/fighting hybrid of a game where a boxing kangaroo goes around punching down enemies and fights a boss in the style of a boxing match?

I am sad to report that this project has pretty much been postponed indefinitely.

It shouldn't come across as all that shocking to my blog readers. Many times this has happened to projects that were initially ambitious and filled with optimism. I'm sure you can name at least a dozen game projects that you were excited to see get completed... only to see those projects get shelved, left to gather dust for who knows how long.

The sad thing about this is that I was ready to go ahead and help put the finishing touches on this project. I was ready to get back to work in early 2017 (Spring time and on, at least) and finish what I had set out to do. It seemed like all the puzzle pieces were in place for me and my team to finish this. I generally had a good feeling about where this project was headed. I generally enjoyed working with my two teammates on this project and I felt like we developed the kind of working relationship we needed to get some things done.

What happened? One of my teammates not only bailed on this project, but he left the game dev team altogether. Reportedly he wanted to pursue other interests. This means that this project was left hanging out to dry. This former teammate left the team in early 2017.

How do I feel about this? I'll be honest. I'm not happy. I'm not happy about how all this spiraled down into what it is now. It's an unfinished project that hasn't been worked on since August 2016. Generally speaking I don't like leaving anything unfinished. Whether it's a success or a failure I want to see something through the whole way. There has been talk between myself and my other teammate about putting this mobile game onto a different engine and having an art revamp.

Being in No Man's Land for game development isn't a good feeling, so where do I go from here? Until my other teammate and I can agree on a time when we can restart this project, in the meantime I may have to start all over with a different project and work with other game devs. Unless I receive other forms of help for this project, I don't see what else I can do at this point.

Let this be a lesson for any aspiring game dev out there who wants to get a mobile game project made; expect this to happen often in your game-making career. You may love to make games, but be prepared to get knocked down by unforeseen real life circumstances. Don't let this discourage you, but don't turn a blind eye to this neither.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Takashi Iizuka: Endless Sonic Experiments

For 2 blog posts here I have been discussing the topic of Sonic Forces, the newest Main Sonic Series game that will come out in the fall of this year. I have already put it out there that while I believe this game will sell well because of the feature it offers, the Create-a-Character option, I don't believe that Forces will serve as the long-term solution to what needs to be done for the franchise moving forward. I don't feel like I need to go too much more in depth when it comes to Forces at this point, at least until after Forces comes out.

What I want to discuss here, though, is the head of Sonic Team, Takashi Iizuka. Personally he sounds like a guy who would be okay to chat with at dinner, a guy you can approach and shoot the breeze with. What I'm about to say shouldn't be taken as a personal attack or anything. That's not what I do here on this blog.

I'm saying this; Takashi Iizuka simply isn't as professional as he should be.

Let's consider the 2 links to separate interviews above. Now I caution my blog readers to carefully tread through the 2nd interview because quite frankly the interviewer comes across as an arrogant jerk who shoves his opinion down people's throats. The interviewer is obviously super duper unprofessional and he has no business conducting interviews.

Back to Iizuka, pay close attention to the answers he gives in these interviews, and consider where he's going with these answers. If you ask me, I have no idea at this point what he's trying to say because it seems to me that the meaning behind his answers have multiple meanings... more like 15 or more meanings wrapped inside 1 answer.

Probably the most glaring example of Iizuka's answers having too many meanings behind them would be his comment on how he and Sonic Team thought that Sonic Mania wouldn't be received too well by gaming communities. That alone would have to bother any gamer because an answer like that shows how oblivious Iizuka and the current Sonic Team are to the ever changing climate of the Sonic Fan Base and gamers in general. The trendy thing to do right now is to play games that have a retro-like vibe to them, as in play some games that are wrapped inside 2D technology which are new but give off the feeling of old school games that we enjoyed in years past.

I believe that the more you read into interviews with Iizuka, the more you will realize that he has no clue as to which pressing issues need to be addressed in the Sonic franchise. Consider the games that he and Sonic Team have developed in these last 11 years. Let me run them down for you.

  • Sonic Unleashed
  • Sonic Colors
  • Sonic Generations
  • Sonic Lost World
  • Sonic Boom (supervised Big Red Button to make this)
  • Sonic 4 Episodes I and II
  • Mario & Sonic at the [insert trendy location here] Olympic Games

To get it out of the way, the game Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric was a disaster not only because of how Big Red Button Entertainment developed the game, but really how Sega and Sonic Team monitored their development process. We cannot excuse how lazy BRB were in implementing Boom's gameplay controls for all playable characters, but we also cannot excuse Sega and Sonic Team for how they restricted BRB in certain fundamental aspects, specifically concerning creative freedom.

These games that feature Mario and Sonic going to the Olympics sell well. There's no denying that. The Mario & Sonic Olympic Games even control well for the most part. However, when we get down to the bottom of this, what did these spinoff games really accomplish? Yes, the appeal of Mario and Sonic actually getting together to do something cool in a single game was there, but Sega and Sonic Team misinterpreted that appeal. Are the Olympic Games all we ever want to see from Mario characters and Sonic characters together? Is it really as difficult as they say to make an actual adventure game featuring both Mario's and Sonic's staple gameplay mechanics?

Sonic 4 Episodes I and II were not really Sonic 4. Let's be honest about that. Sega and Sonic Team once again misinterpreted what gamers were wanting when they asked for something that was loyal and true to the original Genesis games that put Sonic on the map. While these games were not terrible and do have a couple redeemable qualities to them, these games simply missed the mark because in no way did they ever feel like true continuations of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. If anything, from what we're seeing now, Sonic Mania will blow Sonic 4 out of the water when it comes to this.

The group of siblings known as Unleashed, Colors, Generations, and Lost World... I might as well bunch these games together as a family because they all equally represent my next point. Inconsistency. That's the first word that comes to my mind when I review these 4 games together.

Unleashed separated gameplay mechanics between night and day. During the day you were simply Sonic the Hedgehog. At night, however, you were this "Werehog". Just cringeworthy. Colors introduced power-ups that I absolutely despise to this day because these things represent part of the main reason why we don't have Sonic's friends back as playable characters. The Wisps... Serving as just a band-aid to a wound that's not getting any better.

Generations was a celebration of Sonic's 20th Anniversary as a game franchise, and yes, this game paid tribute to some of Sonic's most iconic levels. However, it's just too bad that Sega and Sonic Team managed to highlight their main problems with this series in this game as Sonic's friends were treated like helpless cheerleaders and Classic Sonic became the Gimmick of the Year. Lost World introduced Parkour gameplay mechanics which wasn't all that bad, but the level designs were lacking, loading screens were not up to par, and once again, the writing of the game's story was ridiculously bad.

Now Iizuka believes he has something good in Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic and the Created Character named "Hero" teaming up to take down Dr. Eggman and company. That's all well and good if you don't mind sitting through a story that will most likely not make any sense. The Create-a-Character feature itself in Sonic Forces isn't a bad idea. In fact, it is clever when it comes to marketing the game; you're attracting new gamers to the product that way. However, (how many howevers is that?) what is Forces going to accomplish at the end of the day?

"Let's throw something at the wall and hope it sticks!"

"Let's keep experimenting with new gameplay mechanics until we find the right one!"

"We can't bring back Sonic's friends as playable characters until we figure out Sonic."

These endless Sonic experiments need to have some sort of climax to them. Ultimately you have to have some sort of idea where you want to take a game franchise. You have to know after so many experiments what works and what isn't working. You have to understand your gaming audience. You have to understand how the "gaming climate" is changing. You have to know just who is antagonizing you (such as this 2nd interviewer linked above), and who is trying to give you sound advice.

My greatest concern is that these Sonic experiments are going to continue for another 10-15 years, and that ultimately Sega and Sonic Team still won't figure anything out, meaning that all of us will have time wasted.

If Iizuka can't get himself and his team to figure out what makes true Sonic gameplay in 3D, then I believe he and most of his teammates at Sonic Team need to step down. They need to go. If this current Sonic Team can't advance us forward in the Sonic series, then we need a new team of game devs to come in with fresh new ideas, and a solid vision for what needs to be done to Sonic in 3D games. That's what needs to happen.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Video Game Inspiration: Alaska

Alaska... A good place for game dev ideas?
Here we are on July 1st, which is Canada Day, and we're just 3 days away from Independence Day in America. However, the topic that's being written today involves a place that is cushioned against both America and Canada, and it's just a hop, skip and a flip away from the eastern tips of Russia.

In the dog days of Summer I'm actually writing about Alaska, and better yet I'm writing about Alaska in the context of video game writing. Slow day at the Gaming Journalist Gazette office? Maybe, but this isn't the most random topic to discuss. I have ventured into more random topics before.

The small community of Barrow, Alaska is a very fascinating study, and not just in the sense of digging up interesting history. Barrow is by far the most northern point of the entire United States, and if you happen to visit this place you will realize how often Barrow receives snowfall throughout the year. How about we try pretty much every day? Yes, this includes the Summer season where a few inches of snowfall touch down on the grounds of Barrow.

The way of life in Barrow is fascinating because it simply doesn't march to the same beat as small communities that you see down here in the mainland of the United States. Alaska in general is like that. Unlike the mainland 48 states and the other distant state Hawaii, Alaska has that sense of mystery surrounding it. The great unknown... you never know what you're gonna get once you venture through the heavy wooded areas or scale up tall hills and mountains in Alaska. Sounds exciting, huh? Tell that to those who actually live in Alaska, and they'll tell you just how tough life is in this state.

A fun fact about Barrow that soon (if it hasn't happened already) it will be renamed back to what it was originally named, which is Utqiagvik. For the sake of this blog post, though, let's just keep calling this place Barrow to avoid confusion.

It's no wonder why an environment like Alaska's is so appealing to game devs, especially if they're trying to make a cool survival style adventure game where the main character has to find a way to outlast the opposition. Barrow in particular would be a great example of inspiration for game devs because they can see from this example of how hard life really is in Alaska. It is the job of the game devs to make an experience that on the surface may look boring and turn that into something exciting enough for players to engage in.

To make a certain game environment work you would have to get a feel for what that environment is like. In this case if you want to make a video game about Alaska, then you have to get an understanding of what Alaska is like. It's not just about Alaska being a cold place. Everyone knows Alaska's a cold place. How do people go fishing in Alaska? How do people hunt for food? How do they track down moose, deer and other large animals when they hunt? How do people stay warm in Alaska? How do people create their own shelters?

See where I'm going with this? You have a basis for making an appealing game already if you utilize Alaska's features and implement them into a game. Can you say RPG? Can you say survival simulator? How about an ambitious platformer? Or even a thrilling Mystery & Suspense Third Person Shooting Game where you're figuring out a bizarre murder mystery?

When you think about it, Alaska really isn't that bad a place for making a video game around. I suggest watching the linked video above, a documentary on Barrow to see what northern Alaska is like. If you're a game dev you might want to take some notes.