Nostalgia and Ducktales

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It used to connote a pleasant kind of yearning for the past. Maybe a little bittersweet but an ultimately positive feeling. But lately we’ve become skeptical of it. Some call it a barrier to innovation. Corporations cashing in on thirty-somethings who have families now and maybe some wealth. Just throw something in front of them that they remember fondly from their childhood and they’ll munch it right up. Blame endless sequels or our infinite obsession with superheroes on this. Watch your peers rapidly become how you remember your parents, crotchetly declaring that things used to be better.

I attributed these feelings to an nameless, amorphous critic here, but I share them in part. I don’t mind a good remake or rehash, but I want to see new things more. I’ve vowed I won’t end up one of those old guys afraid of new things and unable to adapt to new technology or music or yes, video games.

Which brings us to Ducktales Remastered, a remake of a 1989 NES game. Let’s be real here: Ducktales is not relevant anymore. It does not interest modern kids, all of whom are much too young to remember the heyday of early 90s Disney cartoons and video games. Ducktales is a kids game aimed at adults, even going so far as to use the cartoon’s original voice actors, which is kind of an outstanding feat. Scrooge and co. all sound much older and gravellier, but still nail their signature voices. It’s worthy to note that ‘kid’s game’ also meant something entirely different, gameplay-wise, in the NES days. While Remastered added an easy mode with infinite lives/checkpoints, it’s still dramatically more difficult than most currently produced, age-accessible games.

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Before we circle back to nostalgia, let’s ask: does a 1989 game hold up in 2016?

Sort of.

The innovation of Ducktales, a platformer like many others following the Super Mario or Megaman greats, was that Scrooge McDuck can use his cane as a pogo stick. Indeed, that’s how you navigate the world. Always be pogo’ing. It’s a cool mechanic. Remastered also obviously updated the graphics. The characters and enemies are sharply done, and look like they hopped right out of the cartoon, though the backgrounds and items are quite muddy and unremarkable. The thing is: other than Scrooge’s unique method of movement, the levels are very simple and forgettable. Enemies don’t do much. The bosses have simple patterns and take too many hits to kill. Add it all up and it’s a fun diversion but not timeless like say, Super Mario Bros 3 or Mega Man 2. Nor does it to compare well to modern re-envisioning like Shovel Knight. It’s appeal is steeped in nostalgia.

The etymology of nostalgia is the Greek nostos, meaning ‘homecoming’, and algos, meaning ‘pain, grief, distress’. When originally used in the 19th century, it was something very dire indeed. Associated with a fictional (& fatal) Swiss disease or the terrible homesickness felt by African slaves. The modern interpretation is far more tame than its origins.

Ducktales made me feel some of the most acute nostalgia of my adult life. I played it at 4-6 years old; naturally amidst some major developmental times. There was a point, here in 2016, where I selected the Moon level and the music played and it was so distantly familiar,I felt a piercing jolt to my upper spine and literally got the chills, so deeply did it connect me to myself, twenty five years removed. Not the nostalgia of watching the next dumb superhero movie or listening to the same old radio station you listened to in your teens, playing the same old music. But the intense, greek version. It wasn’t like I was a slave yearning for a home I was ripped from. Nor do I want to be five years old again by any means. It wasn’t painful. Yet. The combination of intense connection or loss to/of a time gone by combined with that homey feel cannot but remind you of your own mortality. To connect with the past and see yourself now is also to know some day you won’t be experiencing anything at all.

Salt and Sanctuary

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While hired on as a guard to transport a princess across the sea and broker peace-via-marriage between two endlessly warring kingdoms, your ship is hijacked by bandits and tentacled sea monsters (alas) and you’re hurled into the sea. Naturally, you wash up on a mysterious island, unstuck in time, littered with all manner of beasts and creeping haunts and apocrypha.

Salt and Sanctuary is a game that is actively trying to be a 2D version of Dark Souls.

To say that it was merely inspired by Dark Souls or that it is a homage does not do justice to what is actually going on here. It’s a gloomy, abstract game-world that is difficult and requires patience and trial and error to traverse. You pick from an analogue of Dark Souls type classes, right down to the ill-equipped deprived. You collect salt/souls to level up and lose them at death and have one chance to return and reclaim them. At it’s most egregious, and the only point where I found it just too much, you journey to the bottom of the world and see many other world trees in the distance, a nearly 1:1 pasting of one of Dark Souls most iconic areas.

It’s effective. More love-letter than cash-in. And of course, morphing a 3d game into two dimensions changes the gameplay completely. Platforming plays a much bigger role; being knocked off platforms was easily my highest cause of death. A jump button is huge — I could play a slow-rolling, fat armored knight type character because being able to jump (and later dash) solved nearly any mobility woe. As a result, along with some easily exploitable systems and easy bosses, it’s much easier than Dark Souls. It does maintain the heavy feel of combat, and basic enemies can still kill you quickly if you’re not quick and alert.

The places where it deviates from the formula are hit-and-miss. For example, the sanctuary system replaces the bonfire checkpoints; A sanctuary is a sacred area dedicated to one of the various creeds of the island. You pick your character’s religion (or absence of one) at the start and find several others along the way. This allows you to locate defunct sanctuaries and spruce them up and populate them with various merchants — blacksmith, cleric, guide, etc — to make the place more homey and give you access to various tools. When you find opposing creeds’ sanctuaries, you can still perform basic functions like saving your progress and leveling up, but little else. By crushing a ‘bloodstained page’, you can declare (holy) war on the heretic sanctuary and fight its adherents; if you win, the sanctuary now belongs to your creed. It’s cool and a more atmospheric and robust system than a mere checkpoint, but it would have been nice to take it a little further. There’s not much point to converting other creeds and the faction system just requires tedious farming of enemies to level up.

Likewise, the art, sound and animation is usually pretty good, with caveats. I like good 2d art and S&S is mostly there. The environments are beautiful in a cloudy washed-out way, the art merges with the sparse storyline perfectly and it captures the visual excitement an RPG should have at equipping your character with a new piece of gear. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too murky and it can be hard to discern enemies and their attacks. And what is up with those faces?

The game’s biggest failing is they clearly ran out of time by the end of the game. Environments go from complex, many-leveled labyrinths with several exits and entrances and shortcuts to boss corridors without much else in them. Possibly worse is that the number-tuning of the game gets thrown out the window. The last bosses all collapse in a few hits, leading to a bizarre situation where the last boss is much easier than the first one (or second or third or etc). It would benefit greatly from a rebalancing patch, and it does leave a poor impression indeed when you feel like you’re playing a legitimately great game that turns into a merely average one for the final twenty percent.

That said, it was the kind of impressive, joyful discovery that instantly made me a fan of the indie studio, Ska Studios, who created it. 

 

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

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Shovel Knight was a joyous nostalgia trip, but more than a mere trip down memory lane, it was backed up by engaging and rewarding gameplay.

And now it has an expansion.

As part of the Kickstarter that funded the game in the first place, backers got to vote on which of the secondary knights became playable characters. Plague Knight was one of the winners. In the base game, he’s a berobed, masked alchemist with a handful of lines, mostly giggles. Hehe. Plague of Shadows makes him the hero, characterizes him charmingly, gives him an adorable love story. Makes learning to dance a major plot motivation.

Operating from a secret lab below the main town you traverse as Shovel Knight, Plague Knight is out to defeat all the knights of the Order of No Quarter, nab their essences, and alchemize The Ultimate Potion. The game largely follows the same flow as the original. Just in places where Plague Knight, being a villain, shouldn’t be, he gets different sequences than Shovel Knight. Guards attack him instead of inviting him in. The game amusingly takes place concurrently to Shovel Knight’s adventure, which is played for laughs and helps explain why PK would visit his own level.

Plague Knight controls completely differently than Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight was solid — he had tightly responsive controls and his equipment all worked reliably & predictably. Plague Knight, by comparison, is slippery, unpredictable and awkward to control. He can throw bombs, of which you collect a wide assortment with different properties (customizing the arc of the throw, the type of powder in the bomb, and the type of explosion that is released). But the major crux of playing Plague Knight is his jumping scheme. He has a short, stubby jump (shorter than Shovel Knight), a second even stubbier double jump, but so long as you were holding down the bomb button, he has a third jump that blasts him across the screen.

A strange and imprecise control scheme. At first. You learn to always charge PK’s bomb jump, but if it’s charged, you have to release it at some point, which could be tricky when navigating spikes/lava/bottomless pits. I spun off into unintended directions often, slipped down holes, ran out of jumps mid spike pit. Fast forward to now, having beat the game a few times: I soar majestically through each level, barely touching the ground and skipping swathes of obstacles. While the game is partially remixed, and each level has a new Plague Knight specific section that better tests his skills, the majority of the game is still designed for Shovel Knight and his limited mobility. This is still somewhat challenging for the first run as Plague Knight (though being able to stay in the air so long does make the bosses super easy), but once you ‘get’ Plague Knight, it breaks the game wide open and you can beat levels in record time.

There’s two more playable knights coming some time in the future. Can’t get enough of this!

So Many Me

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After my first short session with So Many Me, a game I received free for being an Xbox live subscriber, I figured I’d never play it again.

Why?

Well, it has a cutesy story that is neither cute nor funny and is trying a bit too hard. The gameplay gimmick, that you control an army of “ME’s” that turn into blocks you can then use as platforms didn’t seem enough to base a platformer around. And worst of all, the movement felt imprecise and floaty, which is sort of the death-knell for a good platformer — control is king. On top of all this, the graphic style reminded me of old newgrounds/flash games and just felt sort of cheap.

But I wasn’t really sure what game to play next (and it’s a mild tic for me to always have a book or game lined up to follow the next one or face mild panic), so I decided to give So Many Me another chance. It then completely absorbed me, was a joy to play, and over the next few days I 100% completed it.

Why?

Because, while So Many Me is ostensibly a platformer, what becomes clear after the first few levels is that is primarily a really inventive and well designed puzzle game. The game takes a few simple principles:

  • ME’s can turn into blocks that can be used as platforms, hold down switches, block bullets.
  • ME’s can eat special fruit to turn into trampolines, enemy attracting bait, or automatically rising platforms; these all have secondary puzzle-solving traits.
  • You can only un-transform ME’s back to their normal state (to use again) in the reverse order you used them — so, last one first.
  • ME’s die very easily (100% clocked me just shy of 3000 dead ME’s), but checkpoints are extremely lenient.

That’s it. There’s like 4 or 5 enemy types. But the game combines these features together again and again in novel, interesting, and challenging ways. The levels are not all that long but you will use their entire breadth to pull off a complicated solution to a puzzle — ME’s will be littered across several screens serving as platforms for you to jump across and holding down just the right switches for you to then rapidly dissemble into a new set of platforms before all the enemies you were keeping trapped with blocks and switches swarm you before you can reach the treasure you sought.

I became more forgiving of the controls, and eventually found the visual style charming (though never the story). Even then, when the game gets into full platformer-mode, it is not at its best. All of the bosses require rote memorization to manage the set of tasks and path you must form to defeat them. There’s precise platformer setups you must perform after you’ve carefully organized all your ME’s in a very specific pattern, and if the controls don’t stick the way you expected, it’s maddening to re-create the puzzle solution again.

But, all said: Great game.