Monday, September 19, 2011

Ms. 'Splosion Man

            ‘Splosion Man was a soul-crushingly hard game.  Across 45 levels and 3 boss fights, it chewed me up, spit me out, crushed my spirit.  I cursed, I raged, I flipped the game off, but I made it through.  I pretty much decided as soon as I was done that I wasn’t going to touch the game again.  You can pretty much guess my reaction when they announced the sequel, Ms. ‘Splosion Man.
            I instantly decided I would buy it.
            Oh yes, ‘Splosion Man was a hell of a thing.  Playing as the titular man, with only the ability to splode, you had to make it through the levels by navigating spikes, lasers, difficult platforming segments, perfect timing, rising death water, and more.  Twisted Pixel’s real art in the recently-revived category of “tough as nails platformers” is their level design.  The single-button control scheme means that everything relies on timing, and you constantly have to time yourself as you splode barrels in mid-air, avoid obstacles, and even solve puzzles.  They also hold off on too much trial-and-error.  While there’s still an element of memorization required, it really comes down to your skill.
            Ms. ‘Splosion Man keeps all of this great level design, and just improves on it.  The biggest addition to the game is the various new elements.  Ms. has added in rails that she rides on, rocket cars, trampolines.  There’s new scientist employees like Mandy (who’s used as both a shield and a boost for jumping) and the wheelchair guy.  The game gleefully mixes elements together, keeping the game fresh across all 3 worlds.  Fresh and hard.  The game has not lightened up on its difficulty at all.  Adding in new elements just means that the game has found new ways to kill you.  Oh, you didn’t jump down a rail and ran into electricity?  You’re dead.  Didn’t jump from the rocket car to activate a switch to spawn a barrel that you need 3 seconds from now?  Straight into the bottomless pit.  It is definitely possible to realize all these elements the first time through a level, and complete it well in par time.  It is far more possible that you’re going to die.  A lot.
            The other new additions to the game are interesting, but not always significant.  The world map feature for the 3 worlds is interesting, but ultimately rather pointless, and it takes a pretty long time to navigate.  What the world map feature adds to the game is better.  Twice in each world, the path will split between a hard level and an easier level.  They aren’t joking around with the red icon and the skull and crossbones.  The harder levels definitely tend to be far more crushing, besides one strange scenario where the hard level was significantly easier.  There are also two secret exits in each world, leading to secret levels.  Some might find them fun to find, some might just head to Youtube.  Strangely, there’s an achievement for beating every level in the game, but not one for just beating the game, so it’s a necessity to find all these exits if you want the proof that you’ve beaten Ms. ‘Splosion Man (and trust me, you do).
            While the game is a lot of fun, it does have some problems.  The camera carries over from the original, and has the unfortunate tendency to zoom out way too much, making Ms. ‘Splosion Man a mere pink spot on the screen.  They also gave Ms. ‘Splosion Man a lot more wacky phrases to say than her male counterpart had.  Unfortunately, she just will not shut up.  I finally just had to turn off her voice after hearing her scream out “ALL THE SINGLE LADIES” for the thousandth time while my hands are sweating trying to get through a difficult part.  And finally, the bosses are just mismatched from the rest of the game.  They’re ridiculously easy, to the point where the level before the final boss is much more difficult than the final boss itself, even considering that the final boss has a sudden gameplay change.  It’s rather jarring to actually find the bosses as relaxing.
            Overall, I highly recommend this game, for fans of the first one or newcomers who want something hard.  The game will absolutely destroy you across its 47 levels, and I loved (most) every minute of it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Hangover Part II

            There was something very enjoyable about the first Hangover movie.  It was one of those movies where a bunch of friends had a bunch of wacky things happen to them, and meet a bunch of wacky characters along the way, but it was very well done.  At least I believe it was.  So soon after No More Heroes made me question the first game, Hangover 2 is such a black hole of comedy that I feel like I have to double-check with people to make sure it was a good movie.  Or maybe ultimately, it was a fluke, and the sequel just proves that lightning never strikes twice.
            The movie has Stu (Ed Helms) getting married to a new woman, with the wedding happening in her family’s native country of Thailand.  He brings along Phil (Bradley Cooper) and, reluctantly, Alan (Zach Galifianikis).  Wanting to avoid all the mischief, he has a single beer with them on the beach…and they end up in the middle of Bangkok, with no memory of what happened, again, and his bride’s little brother Teddy missing, so they go in search of him.
            The biggest problem with this movie is that it’s such a case of “Where did they go wrong?”  I’m trying to analyze what went right with the first and compare it with what didn’t go right in the second.  Thus I’ve decided to comprise a list of what I think the missteps were here.  Maybe we can attribute it to just plain bad writing, or maybe it’s some of the following piling up on a movie that can’t hold itself.
1. It’s the same thing.  It’s one thing to be calling back to the earlier movie, but saying “It’s like before, but different.”  Instead, so much of it is just the same thing.  It pretty much directly copies scenes from the first, and even the pacing of the movie.  It still has that flash-forward of Phil calling the bride-to-be at the start.  It has that scene at the end where they find the photos from last night and look over them.  They even have the same reveal scene of what happened to Teddy.  I feel like it should be a USA series, where each week they wake up and don’t know where they are and have the reveal at the end of where X is.  But being this formulaic simply can’t hold up with a movie.
2. The jokes fall flat.  I think part of the problem here is that the first movie really relied on running into a bunch of wacky characters.  There’s really not that many wacky characters here, and the ones they do find aren’t really that special.  They run into a tattoo artist who’s apparently supposed to be foul-mouthed, but he says the f-word no more than any other character in the movie, so is that really the joke?  They run into a transsexual hooker, where the joke is “SHE HAS A PENIS!” and they really have nowhere to go with that.  Hell, they can’t even hold the shock factor of frontal male nudity anymore (remember when it was actually surprising for movies to do that?).  All it does is get an “Ew, penises!” reaction out of the college fratboys the movie is apparently aiming for.  I don’t know what it says that college kids were still laughing at this, but no kids were laughing during Cars 2.
And then there are the jokes that I just don’t even know if they were jokes.  With the aforementioned tattoo artist, when he first sees a tattooed Stu (which would be surprising along with the shaved-head-Alan, if they weren’t on every poster and in the trailers), he says “No refunds, now get the f**k out”.  Then one of the gang says “Look at the sign”, where the camera shows a sign saying…the same thing.  Is that funny?  Is that even a joke?  I could at least nod my head that they were trying for something during most of the movie, but what was going on here?  Alan has also seemed to go from just being a manchild to a near-psychopathic manchild.  It’s hard to laugh at anything he does when his existence is somewhere between sad and troublesome.
3. There’s no mystery.  Part of the reason the first movie worked was the mysteries.  Why is there a tiger in the room?  Why does Stu have a tooth missing?  Where’s the husband-to-be?  There was enough there that you wanted to find out the answers.  Here, the mysteries just don’t matter as much.  Why does Stu have a tattoo?  Because he got tattooed.  Like, that’s pretty much the explanation.  Why is Alan’s head shaved?  Nobody knows or cares.  I really have no idea why they even bothered shaving his head, it does nothing for the movie in the long run.
4. Flat characters.  This is something that may have been a holdover from the first movie, but it mattered less there.  It was fine that they were normal guys, but they had wacky things going on so their normality could be ignored.  Again, there’s not enough secondary characters or things to cover up themselves.  Stu and Phil are just boring.  Doug’s no longer missing, but he still shows up, and it’s obvious he was never meant to be anything other than the missing character.  Teddy shows some promise early on, but he goes missing so soon that you don’t get anything out of him.
I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something.  There were people laughing.  Was I just not getting it?  Because to me, it easily comes off as one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in a theater.  It was two long laughless hours.  There was this hope early on that it would get funnier.  At some point, I just realized that it wasn’t.  It was just going to go on and on.  They’ve already announced that they’re making a Hangover Part 3.  Please, make it stop.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle

            Good or bad, most sequels are going to make you appreciate the original.  Good sequels will expand on all the good ideas from the original and make them even better.  Bad sequels are going to leave you pointing at all the good things from the original that they just missed or threw away.  No More Heroes 2 may be the first sequel I’ve ever watched or played where I was left wondering if I even liked the original in the first place.  That’s not a good sign.
            Taking place after the original game, Travis Touchdown has stepped down from his number 1 assassin rank from last time, only to be attacked by one of the new assassins, and shortly afterward, has his friend killed by the new #1.  So it’s back to wielding the beam sword, killing much cannon fodder, and climbing up the ranks, this time from #50 up to #1, to get revenge for his friend’s death.
            As before, a lot of the game involves slashing through dudes in ridiculously bloody ways while Travis drops f-bombs.  Then you have a boss fight, and move on to the next ranking.  There’s several problems here.  For one, adding more stages (there’s not 50, thankfully, but still more than the first game’s 10) means you spend a lot more time killing random dudes.  And I mean A LOT.  One stage just puts you in a parking lot and sends wave after wave of enemies.  It felt like hours, but I think it was 20 minutes.  Needless to say, it got old within 5.  There’s no real strategy for killing random people, so you’re just hitting the A button over and over and over, waggling the Wiimote when it gives you a finisher command.
            The boss battles should at least be the bread and butter of the game, but again, having more just hurt the game.  There’s too many throwaway fights.  Early on, there were several boss fights where I didn’t even get to see what they did before they were dead.  Even later, it didn’t really feel like the bosses had much to them.  The first phase of the final boss only has two attacks!  There were a few sparks of coolness, like 2 bosses you fight at the same time, but too much filler.  The one thing the game still does right are the cinematics before and after each fight.  Travis’ loser personality comes out well against characters that obviously have more depth, creating plenty of drama and comedy, often at the same time, and when you kill a boss, you get a finishing move that’s over-the-top bloody.  It’s enjoyable.  Unfortunately, sometimes the cinematics (and gameplay) have slowdown, or just look like they’re lagging.  This game was only released for the Wii, so I have no idea what happened here.
They also made changes past the stages.  They took away having to earn money between the matches to get to the next fight, but this leads to a weird scenario.  They put in new 8-bit-styled mini-games to earn money between matches, which you can spend on new beam swords or use at the gym.  But honestly, half the games aren’t very fun, don’t really give you enough money, and just aren’t worth your time.  I did a few sessions at the gym and then was able to breeze through the rest of the game without needing to go back there.  It felt pointless.  They also took out the open world and replaced it with a menu, which is nice, but again, it just doesn’t matter in the end.  All you’re going to do is choose the next ranking fight.
The game tries to change things up from time to time, always failing.  It gives you a motorcycle segment before two of the bosses…which come off as pointless for one, and boring for the other.  They have you play as Shinobu and Henry, but Shinobu isn’t fun to control, and Henry only gets one boss where you play as him, so what’s the point?   They throw in a stealth segment.  They give you some platforming.  They shake you and say “What will keep you interested in this game?!” and they just can’t figure it out.
But maybe that’s the point.  This is Suda 51 here, a game developer who used to constantly wear luchador masks in interviews, and has only recently started making games that could even be considered real games.  Some people have argued that the first No More Heroes’ empty open world was a commentary on the pointlessness of it.  Maybe the sequel is meant to be a bad sequel.  Maybe it’s saying, “You want more of this?  Well, here’s more of the same.”  It intentionally gives you endless fights against people to show that point.  Travis says to one assassin, “If you’re tired of fighting, why don’t you quit?”  But is he really talking to the assassin here, or the player?  I was certainly tired of fighting.  It tries and fails at pulling innovation, but don’t we just hate it when a sequel does everything differently anyways?  Maybe, at the end of it, I’m supposed to see that the game is just a shadow of the first game, a hastily put-together cash-in showing that sequels crush innovation.  Is it really coincidence that Grasshopper’s second sequel is not only their worst game, but also their least innovative?
Or is it just a bad game, through and through, with the cutscenes being the only saving grace in a sea of dull and endless hack-and-slashing?  Yeah, I think I'll go with that.

Winnie the Pooh

            Winnie the Pooh was a movie bound for box office failure for one simple reason: putting it up against Harry Potter.  It really doesn’t matter how good your movie is at that point, it’s just going to be steamrolled.  And, predictably enough, it was.  Which is rather sad for two reasons: one is that you’d think Disney would be smart enough not to do something like this, and two is that, in my honest opinion, I really enjoyed Winnie more than I enjoyed Harry Potter.
            Oh, they’re two completely different movies, in everything from tone to plot, trust me.  Harry Potter was a suitably epic conclusion to an epic franchise, a spot to be forever remembered that you can adapt a 7-book franchise without hitting sequelitis.  Winnie the Pooh…isn’t particularly epic.  In it, Eeyore has lost his tail, Winnie really wants some honey, and the gang thinks that Christopher Robin has been taken away by a monster called the Backson.  The characters interact along these plotlines for a hair over an hour, and then the movie ends.  That’s it.
            And that’s what makes it work for me.  It’s a traditional Winnie the Pooh story.  They don’t put in new characters, try to get huge emotional resonance in, or load the movie down with a star-studded cast.  It’s a movie where, if you love Winnie the Pooh and the cast of characters around him, you get to spend an hour with them.  It’s wonderful.  Within minutes I had a smile on my face that just didn’t go away until after the movie was over.  There are just so many jokes that work because you know these characters and how they act, and the movie knows well enough to not overuse any of the characters.  One of the best scenes involves all the characters except Piglet in a pit, and Rabbit gets increasingly frustrated as he tries to lead Piglet to get them out.  It gives you puns, visual gags, and two characters that are just being themselves.  And they’re always themselves.  Nobody really has any character development or a huge dramatic revelation.  There’s barely even a moral, besides one scene with Pooh near the end that could almost be considered one.  You’re just stepping into a day in the life in the Hundred Acre Wood.
            There’s really nothing more to say about it besides the fact that it’s purely enjoyable.  The animation is well done, the songs are in the spirit of classic Winnie songs, the voice acting is good.  But it’s all secondary to just sitting back and getting an hour of fun.  It may have been a mistake to put this in theaters in the first place, never mind against Harry Potter.  That doesn’t stop it from possibly being one of the best, and definitely one of the funniest, movies I’ve seen this summer.