Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando HD (Vita) Review

Many times you've probably read how someone's favorite game was botched in some regard and made a mockery of because of it. Perhaps you are of the opinion that the smartphone and tablet versions of Final Fantasy VI with its odd sprites is a crime against humanity. I didn't really know that feeling until when one of my favorite games got the treatment, although completely unintentional because of the hardware it was ported to. The game in question? Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando for the PlayStation Vita.

The Definitely Un-definitive Version of Going Commando 

Let's get this out of the way right now. Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando is one of my favorite entries in Insomniac's 3D platforming series, and it's also one of my favorite games of all time. However, the Vita version, as part of the Ratchet & Clank Collection, in digital form only in North America, suffers from two glaring issues that make this version the weakest by far. What you're left with is a game that is good fundamentally and structurally, but one that is hindered by two major control problems that are exclusive to the Vita version.

Starting out, you only have access to two guns. However, you are
able to purchase more as Going Commando progresses.
For one, Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando offers a ton of variety. There are gladiator-like arena battles, fast-paced races through desert areas and forested marshes, and even ship combat. The latter is hindered, however, by the PlayStation Vita's analog stick used for movement. Normal air dogfights behave just fine, as you don't need really tight precision flying. However, a grave issue rears its ugly head into the equation when you decide to race Ace Bunyon through a series of rings. While this task is by no means mandatory to beat the game, it is if you want to collect all 40 of the game's Platinum Bolts, which for someone like me who is a completionist, was something I eagerly wanted to do.

Space combat is fine, but when you have to do anything with
a hint of precision, things get ugly pretty fast.
Nonetheless, trying to pilot your ship through the tiny rings is a challenge on the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 under the best conditions. On the Vita version, with the system's incredibly sensitive analog stick, it becomes a nigh impossible ordeal. Your ship moves far too much with every poke of the analog stick, making it so precise movement isn't possible. This means the goal of riding through every ring while beating the competition to get a Platinum Bolt on these missions is a very hard proposition.

Furthermore, Going Commando added a bunch of new helpful goodies to assist players in better enjoying the game over the original Ratchet & Clank. To begin, when you bring up the Quick Select menu, the menu brought up during confrontations and gameplay to select a different weapon or gadget, in Going Commando the game pauses everything. This is while in the original R&C, the action continued while the Quick Select menu was opened.

Aw... Is this blockade of enemies just for me?
In addition to that, using weapons a bunch improves their capabilities, so not only can you defeat enemies to earn more health for Ratchet, but you can use weapons to level them up, making them stronger and more efficient in battle. This continues in the game's Challenge Mode, a mode that lets you replay Going Commando after the initial play-through has been completed. This mode allows you to level up your weaponry further, as well as earn a much higher bolt multiplier. Bolts being the currency of the Ratchet & Clank series, used to purchase new weapons, further the game by buying plot-centric materials, and restock on ammunition for the aforementioned weapons.

These foes get blasted into scrap metal by Ratchet's Blitz Gun.
An added move that Ratchet has in his arsenal in Going Commando and games onward that he didn't have in the original Ratchet & Clank is the strafe. It allows him to continually face an enemy while shooting and leaping over potential hazards fired his way. Once you get accustomed to the new mechanic, you'll wonder how you ever were able to play the previous R&C without it.

Despite using guns as the primary means of disposing enemies,
there is still plenty of traditional platforming to be found.
That said, the strafe maneuver was easy to pull of in the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 versions. Again, not so much with the Vita version. You see, in the PS2 and PS3 versions, the R2 button is easily accessible to reach and hold down. This is how strafing is performed by the player and Ratchet. On the Vita system, L2 and R2 are relegated to the rear touch screen due to the design of the system lacking proper L2 and R2 buttons. It's not just the rear touch screen, it's the corners of the rear touch screen. This makes it so strafing is incredibly hard to do in a consistent manner. When you really need it in the middle of the action, it's sort of like rubbing your stomach while patting your head, a challenge, for sure. It also makes it so certain areas of Going Commando on the Vita are much more difficult than they need to be due to the inferior placement of L2 and R2.

When your strafing doesn't work, put your tail between
your legs and run away!
Another addition that seems small but is all-so-helpful with Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando (and this one is actually problem-free on the Vita version) is the notification when you have reached a checkpoint, or as the game refers to them as "Continue Points." No more do you suffer through a long level, not knowing if you've reached a checkpoint, only to die and have to restart at the beginning of the arduous road all over again.

From a formula perspective, Going Commando is pretty much 100% the same compared to the original game. You travel from planet to planet, completing objectives, meeting NPCs, purchasing information, or doing some other task to receive coordinates to the next planet of the game, where you proceed with this structure. The only real change this time around is that as previously stated, there is a lot more variety to be had in the form of gladiator arena battles, fast-paced hoverbike races, giant mech battles on spherical planets, and galactic battles with you controlling Ratchet and Clank's powerful vessel.

The art design and direction of the Ratchet & Clank games
is simply phenomenal to a high degree.
Going Commando looks relatively good on the PlayStation Vita. There are some pop-up issues in the backgrounds of larger levels with high draw distance, but that doesn't really detract from the overall experience. What does in this version, however, is that certain sound effects will play long after the weapon you used that made them have stopped firing. This is especially obnoxious to the ears with the game's Sheepinator weapon. It's something that is genuinely annoying that it is befuddling how it wasn't found by the developer of this port.

Careful on these platforms, Ratchet! You don't want to
get a taste of that questionable liquid below!
As you have read, the PlayStation Vita version of Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, one of my favorite games, has a lot wrong with it that is mostly due to the wackiness of the hardware of the system, the overly sensitive analog sticks, and the lack of a proper R2 button. It makes it so it is a hard game to recommend playing on the Vita unless you have no other choice. Even the PS2 version, despite being in standard definition, is more worthy of being chosen to play than the Vita version. It's a shame, too, because the idea of playing one of my favorite games of all time on a system I could take anywhere was an idea that seemed too good to be true. Unfortunately, it turned out that Going Commando HD on the PlayStation Vita was just that.

[SPC Says: C-] 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Banjo-Kazooie (N64, XBLA) Retro Review

After taking two days off to ruminate, I am back with a new review. This one is another part of SuperPhillip Central's 3D Platforming Month, Banjo-Kazooie! Replaying this game recently, I remembered why I hold Banjo-Kazooie with such high esteem. Read on, dear SPC faithful, and see why!

Grin and Bear It (No, seriously. 
This game will make you grin.)

The similarities between Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie are definitely apparent. It's no secret that Rare indeed developed Banjo-Kazooie with great inspiration from Nintendo's launch title for the 64. However, there's enough newness here that Banjo-Kazooie doesn't feel like a total ripoff of Nintendo's work. Instead, what we get is a 3D platformer that I have no qualms with saying is a superior product to Super Mario 64.

Banjo-Kazooie begins with the bear and bird pair (that's Banjo the bear and Kazooie the bird, for those of the uninitiated) resting in bed. Meanwhile, Banjo's sister Tooty waits outside, anxious to go out on an adventure. All of a sudden, the wicked witch Gruntilda, known for speaking in verse, rides upon her broom, swoops down, and nabs Tooty. Grunty's plan is to rob Tooty of her beauty while making herself thin and beautiful. Hearing the commotion, Banjo and Kazooie leap outside to find Tooty bearnapped and a helpful mole named Bottles ready to give them advice to help the bear and bird pair rescue Banjo's sister.

Without question, Banjo-Kazooie brims with personality and charm. Gruntilda certainly steals the show with her funny rhymes, as well as her unconventional ways she goes about her business as a villain. This is seen through a late-game game show hosted by Grunty herself that tests the player's knowledge on many aspects of the entire game-- from distinguishing between areas of the game from closeup pictures to deciphering between character voices. Then there is the comedic banter between Banjo and Kazooie, the latter of the which isn't shy about insulting any and every character the duo come across.

Banjo, you're not going to be able to take this bull by the horns.
Banjo-Kazooie is very much a product of inspiration of Super Mario 64. However, Banjo-Kazooie goes a little deeper with the amount of collectibles to gather throughout the duo's adventure. Whereas Mario's 3D platforming romp featured the main collectible in the form of the Power Stars and side collectibles as red and gold coins, Banjo-Kazooie offers much more to acquire if you want to go for 100%.

This Jiggy requires Banjo to play a game of
"Simon Says" off the backs of these turtles.
For one, Banjo-Kazooie's Jiggies, golden jigsaw pieces, serve as the game's equivalent of Super Mario 64's Power Stars. These are the main collectible, and they are used to open new worlds within the game. However, that's just the start of what needs to be gathered. In levels, collecting five differently colored Jinjo characters reveals a Jiggy to collect. There are also Blue Eggs, Red Feathers, and Gold Feathers, providing ammo, the power of flight, and the power of invincibility respectively.

As birds tend to do, Kazooie gets distracted by a shiny object.
Musical Notes, of which there are 100 in each world, need to be collected in some capacity to open locked doors within Gruntilda's lair. The doors lead to new chambers of Grunty's hideout where new worlds await. However, the process of opening new worlds is more involved, albeit slightly so.

Each level has an accompanying picture that is missing Jiggies from it and needs to be completed. Through finding the picture, piecing it together for a finished product, only then will the way to that picture's world open.

Aside from those collectibles, there is one final one to go after, silver Mumbo Tokens. These are the currency in which you deliver to the game's shaman, Mumbo Jumbo, in exchange for him to work his magic and turn Banjo and Kazooie into one of many world-specific transformations. For instance, the first world of the game sees Mumbo Jumbo turning Banjo into a termite, able to trek on slopes that would otherwise be deemed too awkward to climb on for the bear and bird by themselves. Many times a transformation has more than one purpose within a world, but sometimes a transformation is just there for one reason-- to get a Jiggy that wouldn't be reachable without Mumbo's magic.

While Super Mario 64 kicked you out of a level once you collected a Power Star, Banjo-Kazooie allows you full exploration of worlds even after a Jiggy has been collected. Whereas Super Mario 64 had seven Power Stars per level, Banjo-Kazooie has ten, in addition to the 100 Musical Notes to collect, and one Gruntilda switch to stomp on that summons a Jiggy in Gruntilda's lair, the hub world of the game.

There's no time to monkey around when there's Jiggies to get.
Starting in Mumbo's Mountain, the tasks that Banjo-Kazooie asks players to do in order to acquire Jiggies are relatively simple. For honeycomb's sake, some of the Jiggies are right out in the open with no interference from enemies. As you proceed through the nine worlds of the game, the objectives to nab more Jiggies become more and more complicated, making it so that Jiggies that were right out in the open now require more platforming prowess to collect. Meanwhile, some Jiggies require a sequence of events, albeit a bit basic (this is a game meant for everyone, after all), to acquire the golden prize.

With the speed shoes, Kazooie is quick enough to
nab this Jiggy before the hand closes.
The worlds are well designed and feature plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. Each has a set theme and set of challenges presented to the player. The starting world, Mumbo's Mountain, introduces basic platforming challenges, whereas the next world, Treasure Trove Cove, implements a greater focus on puzzles, swimming, and even flying challenges. From the frozen heights of Freezeey Peak to the four unique seasons of Click Clock Wood, Banjo-Kazooie's set of worlds are amazing in both concept and execution.

No, thanks. We don't have the time for a snowball fight!
Unlike Super Mario 64, Banjo and Kazooie do not have their full arsenal of moves immediately from the get-go. Instead, they have to come across Bottles' mole mounds in the various worlds of their adventure to save Tooty. While baseline moves like a flutter jump, great for precision platforming, and a backflip are available, among other moves, Banjo and Kazooie can learn multiple new abilities. For one, Kazooie can learn to shoot eggs out of her mouth as well from her rear end (ouch). Then, there's the Talon Trot, allowing Kazooie's apparently strong legs to carry Banjo up otherwise slippery and steep slopes. By the sixth world of Banjo-Kazooie, the pair will have learned every move in the game. It may feel unnecessarily limiting to some players, but I found it that with all of the moves Banjo and Kazooie can learn, having all of them available at once would have been a bit overwhelming. Not only that, but learning new moves meant that new platforming challenges based off of them could be implemented at a steady pace. It makes for a perfect amount of pacing.

Also unlike Super Mario 64, the camera seldom causes trouble or unintended deaths. Now, to be fair, Super Mario 64 was the pioneer of the 3D camera, not having many contemporaries to take notes off of. However, Banjo-Kazooie does, and it makes for an experience with the camera that rarely causes aggravation and headaches. Another example of the superiority of Banjo-Kazooie over Super Mario 64.

Don't look down. Don't look down. Don't look down.
I find myself preferring Banjo-Kazooie over Super Mario 64 for several reasons other than just the camera. For one, a handful of courses within Super Mario 64 featured plenty of tedious tasks and Power Stars to obtain. Not only does Banjo-Kazooie feature far less of these tedious tasks, but it also doesn't kick you out of the level once you've nabbed a Jiggy. Now, obviously Super Mario 64 modestly altered levels based off what Power Star you selected as the one you were going for, but still, this meant that you were oftentimes required to play through the same portion of level again and again just to acquire a different Power Star. I don't want to remember how many times I've scaled Tall, Tall Mountain in Super Mario 64. Needless to say, the lack of repetition in Banjo-Kazooie makes it easier to replay for me.

"There's sand in my shorts!"
Banjo-Kazooie also possesses a lot more wit and humor, offering a cast of supporting characters that deliver humorous conversations and characters in levels that adorably refer to themselves in the third-person. I adore the dynamic soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope, delivering the same theme in a given level, only in a different octave or key depending on the area traveled to. Combine all of this with tight controls and a more beginner-friendly move set (thank you, Kazooie's wing-flapping to slow my ascent on jumps), and you have why I can't get enough Banjo-Kazooie.

[SPC Says: A+]

Monday, April 20, 2015

SuperPhillip Central's Favorite VGMs - Bookended by Final Fantasy Edition

Hello everyone! It's your blogger friend Phil here with five more themes from the world of video games! It's of course time for SuperPhillip Central's Favorite VGMs, dishing out even more superb sounds for all to enjoy.

This week I have selected tracks from five more games. We will start off with an awesomely orchestrated classic theme from Final Fantasy VIII, and then we'll move on to some Spanish flavor with music from the indie hit Guacamelee! Moving on from there, we dive into two unique platformers, Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg and Puppeteer. Finally, we wrap up this edition of the old VGMs like we started, with a track from a Final Fantasy game, this time Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles!

If you're just joining the site or want to listen to past songs selected by yours truly, check out the SuperPhillip Central Favorite VGM Database for all the great video game tracks I love and cherish!

v856. Final Fantasy VIII (PS1) - The Man With the Machine Gun (Orchestrated)

We start this edition of SuperPhillip Central's Favorite VGMs with one of my favorite orchestrated pieces in Final Fantasy history, The Man With the Machine Gun. This peppy and empowered piece goes from techno and electronic to bold and daring with its big brass and sensational strings. It makes for a cherished orchestral version of a classic Final Fantasy VIII tune.

v857. Guacamelee! (Multi) - Temple of War ~ Rain

Guacamelee! is a Metroidvania game, and that genre of 2D platformer is no stranger to the indie scene. However, this game is one of my favorites in the genre with its great level design, awesome use of moves in not just to reach new areas but also to defeat foes in combat, and luchador styling. Temple of War ~ Rain gives listeners a Spanish flavor with its guitar while also delivering a nice mix of electronica into the fold as well.

v858. Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg (GCN) - Volcanic Orchestra

Tomoya Ohtani was the main composer behind Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, and his name should be quite familiar to those who have listened to more modern Sonic the Hedgehog games, such as Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Colors, and Sonic: Lost World. Ohtani and his merry band of composers including Mariko Namba did a great job creating a colorful soundtrack to accompany the colorful world of Billy Hatcher.

v859. Puppeteer (PS3) - Danger

Patrick Doyle composed the music for Sony's Puppeteer, a cute and quaint 2.5D platformer that stunned in its presentation and did rather well in its gameplay as well. Perhaps my greatest complaint with the game is its constant interruption of the gameplay with its presentation and storytelling. A little story goes a long way in a platformer, kids!

v860. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles (GCN) - When the Northern Sky Is Clear

The theme of Rebena Te Ra, one of the final areas in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles on the Nintendo GameCube, When the Northern Sky Is Clear is accentuated by backing vocals and a xylophone ostinato. The level itself is a confusing maze filled with powerful monsters that only the brave and bold can conquer.