Review – Pokemon Black Version 2

[Note: This is a sample review I wrote for Game Podunk, so if you think the formatting’s different from usual (or like my old review style!), now you know.]

Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date: October 7, 2012 (US)
Pokemon Black Version 2 reviewed

For being the first Pokemon game to be a direct sequel, Pokemon Black 2 has a lot going for it. Black and White ended up being a breath of fresh air for the series, with some interface upgrades and removing earlier Pokemon from being caught until after the main story is beat. However, it did all that while still having that familiar Pokemon feel, with its mostly unchanged graphics and age old formula of ‘collect eight badges, traverse Victory Road, defeat the Champion, The End’.

So, how does Black 2 stand up to its predecessor? Will it rise to the top of the bunch, or fail and fall to the bottom of the mountain of Pokemon games?

Black 2’s story begins like any other: You’re an aspiring young trainer, about to set off on a journey away from home with your Pokemon to topple the Pokemon League and become the Champion… and maybe even save the world along the way. You’re quickly introduced to your spikey haired rival, who might have had a little too much sugar and holds a fire-y hate for Black/White’s Team Plasma. As Bianca, now Professor Juniper’s assistant, and Cheren, the first Gym Leader, show up you’ll learn a bit about what happened in the two year period between Black/White and its successor, but it’s nothing much that will deter those that haven’t played the first from playing the second.

In fact, it may be for that reason that the story of Black 2 seems a little disconnected from the original. There are plenty of cameos to be had, and without playing the first you might be confused about the ‘heroes’ and legendary Dragon Pokemon, but for the most part there isn’t anything story wise that may confuse those that haven’t finished Black/White’s story. It’s a little disappointing, since Black/White’s was honestly a huge step up for the series.

However, while Black 2 fails in the story, it succeeds in other aspects. Black 2 re-introduces earlier Pokemon into the wild, so you can catch your Growlithes and Marills on top of Unova’s offerings. While Black/White’s approach of ‘Unova Pokemon only’ was a great idea, it would be hard to pull off again, and seeing familiar Pokemon in the wild was welcome. The addition of Trainer animations is also nice, and more little upgrades make the Pokemon experience slightly more hassle-free (“Your Repel wore off! Would you like to use another?”)

Perhaps where Black 2 shines best is in all the extra stuff you can do. Musicals from the previous entry are back, as well as PokeStar Studios, essentially a scripted Pokemon battle which you do (and can alter) to create movies. It’s really a lot of fun and a nice distraction from the story. In addition, there is the Battle Subway (basically the Battle Tower) and the Pokemon World Tournament for your non-story battling needs. After you beat the main story, you can even download extra PWT matches, including bouts with previous generation Champions and Gym Leaders to keep things interesting. Finally, there’s Join Avenue, a place where you can have people you meet and NPCs build shops from anything like raffles to Pokemon training to item shops. The sheer amount of extras to play through, in addition to the usual ‘catch ’em all’ mentality will keep most fans busy until the next Pokemon entry.

Let me take a moment to admire the music in Black 2. There are tracks new and old in this sequel, and they all sound great. Black/White had a pretty good soundtrack in my opinion, and Black 2 does just as well… and maybe even sets the standard a little higher. There are some tracks that are directly from Black/White (namely town themes), some remixed tracks, and even some new songs added in, and they all sound great. Make sure to play this one with the headphones on, especially if you’re going off to battle Team Plasma!

So, what’s the verdict? Well, Black 2 is a Pokemon game, for better or for worse. There’s not much in the way of moving forward in the series aside small upgrades, and does nothing in shaking up the tried and true Pokemon formula. To the hordes of Pokemon fans, however, this entry is still a great continuation to a great series, and while there might be a few missteps, it’s hard to disagree. Here’s to another entry one of Nintendo’s most popular series!

+ Takes all of the improvements of Black/White and adds even more
+ New Trainer animations minimal, but good looking
+ Music is fantastic
+ All of the additional content adds some value and fun

– Doesn’t do well as a continuation of Black/White’s story
– Lack of new visuals and assets make a retread of Unova boring at points

Pokemon Black Version 2 might not be the end-all Pokemon entry, but it’s still a solid game that most fans will enjoy.

When Tapping, Waggling, and Smashing Get in the Way

When the average gamer goes out to buy a game, rarely do they think of how well the game controls. While it’s an important part of certain genres, for the most part gamers are more worried about things such as the story, game mechanics, or even graphics and music. However, how a game handles controls is a very important part of a game itself, and if done incorrectly, can ruin the experience.

What makes a game have bad controls? Well… there could be any number of reasons. However, as we look through the gaming ages, we can see that control issues sprout up more and more in later generations. This is mostly because of the evolution of controllers throughout the times.

Remember when the original Nintendo controller had only the D-pad and four buttons? With a controller like that, it’s hard to mess up the technical side of controls… though on the flip side, developers were forced to keep simple controls schemes. Sure, there were still issues with the developmental side of controls such as unresponsive or floaty controls, but that’s an issue I’ll get into in a bit.

Ah, the simple times of old… at least controllers don’t have sharp corners anymore.

Nowadays, controllers have way more than four buttons. The PS3 and 360 controllers each have a D-pad, two analog sticks, and thirteen buttons. With so many ways to input control, it can be easy for developers to get overwhelmed or over ambitious. However, the Wii is the worst; while having far fewer buttons, the Wiimote uses motion to control games, and that leads to a whole new can of worms involving programming (and messing up) controls. When the Wii first was released, many games were sited for sloppy, unresponsive, or just plain odd controls. When developers don’t know what to do with button happy controllers and motion gameplay, things can go awry quickly.

But, that’s not the only aspect of detrimental gaming controls–the game creators can easily make controls more convoluted than it needs to be. One of the most common cases is the developer using a gimmick in their controls; for example, a DS game using full touch controls when it’s unintuitive or a PS3 game that tries to fully utilize the Sixaxis controls. Usually it doesn’t work out, and makes a good or great game a mess to play. Just try Mad Maestro! and its pressure sensitive button tapping rhythm based controls and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

Oh, sorry! You pressed X slightly too hard. Try again!

That’s not the only time developers screw up the controls, though; sometimes it’s just a simple lack of thinking things through. Many game creators in this camp stand on one of two sides: Either the majority of the controls were an afterthought, or they thought too hard about them and made it over complicated. This sort of control issue is exasperated by the complicated controllers of the current generation… sometimes developers just don’t understand they don’t need to use EVERY button on the controller.

Finally, there’s the problem that controllers have nothing to do with… and that’s bad in-game controls. A game could have its controller perfectly mapped, but controls can still end up sloppy from programming decisions made within the game itself. This could be things like delays between pressing the button and the action happening, game characters having bad physics (so being ‘floaty’ or ‘heavy’), or certain moves or commands not working properly.

Out of all the problems mentioned above, this is the one that had been consistent throughout all of gaming’s history. It all boils down to the programmer’s skill and time constraints at that point… and often the factor that can make or break an otherwise great game.

Older games have control issues too… even if they are sometimes overlooked (or sometimes opinion based)

So, to answer the original question… when does it get in the way of the game itself? Well, bad controls can easily and quickly turn any game experience sour, giving any game a frustration level never intended by the creators. Many games could be be regarded on a more positive level if the controls simply worked better… and that doesn’t go for just racing or fighting games. All genres need to have good controls to be enjoyable, and controls are a bigger factor than you may think.

A-Z Challenge: NightSky

It’s sort of hard to talk about NightSky, which is why I put it off for writing my thoughts for it for so long.  It’s certainly a game, at the very least, albeit a largely uninteresting one.  It sort of reminds me of Marble Madness, though the only common factor is being in control of a round object that you have to navigate through certain areas.  It has something like a story, but don’t ask me what it is or anything to do with it.  NightSky, really, is a game I’d probably forget about if it wasn’t in my Backloggery list and not my ‘N’ game for this challenge.

To be blunt, NightSky is a physics based platformer/puzzler.  You navigate a marble-like ball through short three screen stages, using the terrain and objects available to get from the left hand of the screen to the right.  It’s very simple at its base, and only later in the game can your little marble gain ‘powers’ to float, defy gravity, and other effects that are rarely used.

I think the game’s major problem is in its presentation.  The stages are supposed to create atmosphere, but I personally find them a bit boring, since it’s mainly black silhouettes on a somewhat pretty background. In addition, there’s no music… at least, I think there’s no music.  If there was, it either played so rarely I forgot about it or it simply didn’t work.  With no music to entice me, and lack of interesting visuals, it makes for a game that leaves little impression on the player.

I suppose NightSky isn’t a bad game, it’s just… underwhelming.  It’s an idea that’s been done before, in a way that doesn’t help it stand out. In the droves of indie games, it kind of just blends in, making it a game easily forgotten against more original, eye-catching efforts.

A-Z Challenge – Zombie Driver

Ah, Zombie Driver, how I wish I had never gotten you in a bundle.  I guess I didn’t have much hope for you anyway; you were a gimmick at best, an even more annoying version of Crazy Taxi at worst.  But, I had an odd attraction to you, wanting to play you over the vastly superior Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner for my marathon.  Playing through you was bittersweet… wait, it was actually just bitter.

Zombie Driver isn’t exactly a great game.  As a man with slightly more sense than the average citizen in a zombie crisis, you jump in a taxi and start running over zombies, when the military contacts you to rescue survivors.  The game follows this formula for almost the rest of the game: Get mission, save people, next.  There are also secondary missions of time limits, clearing out zombies in certain areas, or killing a certain amount of zombies.  It’s all very cut and dry, and nothing unexpected happens until the final briefing.  Also, the story is so paper thin I’m surprised they even tried.

As you go through the motions, you unlock new vehicles, upgrades, and weapons.  It allows a little bit of customization and strategy in saving the survivors… will you use the bus to grab everyone, or use the police car for more speed, but multiple trips?  In the end, I went for the former almost all of the time:  Fast cars are hard to control, and it’s far too easy to ram into a Boomer-like zombie that’ll wreck your car effortlessly… and it was easy to run over tons of zombies at once, too.

Wait… why’s there a map in that corner?  Is this even Zombie Driver!?  DARN IT I NEEDED THAT MAP.

Zombie Driver’s real failure is in its gameplay.  It’s all simple enough, but the controls can sometimes be a struggle.  Why did Space have to be the handbrake, when it would be so much better off as the weapon button?  Why need a handbrake when stopping is as simple as holding down for reverse?  Also, the car movements feel a bit without weight at times, making it hard to judge speed and ramming power.  Even with these issues, the game would have been substantially less frustrating with a simple map feature, especially involving the final mission, where one wrong turn can make you lose.

So, Zombie Driver?  Probably not worth the effort of beating it.  I doubt many people that own the game actually bought it in the first place, but if you did, shame on you.  Go play Zombie Vs. Ambulance instead.

Time to mash it together!

So, I thought about something… I have posts scattered around the internet other than my current WordPress and Game Podunk blog, so I’m gonna gather the ones I liked the most and stuff them in this blog.

What does that mean?  Posts that date back to the mythical 2010 and later, and new catagories I may or may not ever use again!  Also, some posts without any pictures I need to update!  Anyway, there’ll be some old time additions in the next… week or so, so there you have it.

How the Z-Axis Changed the Game

Gaming has evolved much in since its inception. We’ve seen our controllers gain more buttons, our consoles and computers got more processors, and the games themselves get jammed packed with content. Of all of them, one of the biggest and most dramatic changes we’ve seen in gaming is in how games look. Hardware has evolved with the times, and video games have reached heights that developers on their Commodore 64s or Ataris only dreamed of. However, in these evolutions, we’ve almost lost something that was once commonplace…

…and that is the two dimensional look and feel.

Today, a vast majority of video games are in 3D. Two dimensional games are reserved mainly for indie and niche audiences, while three dimensional games rule the realm. Many games that even feature sprite art aren’t truly 2D, featuring sprites on a 3D plane, such as many games from Nippon Ichi and Compile Heart.

So, what happened to the style of old? Why did developers move on from the two dimensional plane, and from the sprites and colorful worlds that came with it? The answers might be more simple than you think…

Developers want to be innovative with what they’re given. To stand out in the gaming crowd, they need to bring some different to the table, and what better way to do so that to push the hardware to its absolute limits? Back in the 8-bit days, that was done by creating beautiful and colorful worlds with what little they had. However, when F-Zero came out in 1990 in Japan, it brought something almost unheard of: Mode 7 and its illusion of 3D. There were a few games in the past that tried a similar technique, such as Space Harrier 3D, but the idea was mainly reserved for powerful arcade machines, and even then it was rarely seen.

With the introduction of Mode 7, many developers tinkered with the idea of 3D in their games, resulting in at least twenty-four games released implementing the feature in some way to be released for the system. Sega, on the other hand, released the Sega CD, which helped the Genesis achieve similar effects. While the Sega CD did not do well, and only a very small percentage of Super Nintendo games used Mode 7, the idea of 3D gaming began to plant in developers’ minds.

Then came generation five. When the Nintendo 64 was first announced, and details started to flow in, gamers and developers alike were amazed by the 64’s ability to create true 3D worlds. With the Nintendo 64 and the original PlayStation, everyone got to see brand new horizons for video games. Developers could now create bigger, more open worlds, and gamers clamored for just that, especially after seeing the impressive feats from games like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy VII, and many others.

With games in general moving into three dimensions, 2D games almost abruptly lost their appeal to gamers. There were still some games that invoked a feel of a two dimensional feel but with 3D graphics and models–also known as 2.5D–but developers’ visions and gamers’ demands alike shifted towards new technology and new ways to use this new dimension.

It’s been this same song and dance since, with developers creating bigger, more realistic gaming worlds and gamers clamoring for more ever since. While whether that’s a good thing is another subject entirely, a 2D art style simply doesn’t have much of a place in mainstream gaming anymore.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s completely gone. 2D games are still out there, hidden in niche places. Ark System still puts out 2D sprite based fighters that look great, and Vanillaware sticks to the 2D realm with their beautifully and painstakingly crafted graphics. In addition, the growing indie market makes the genres and styles of old their playground, bringing us both nostalgia and innovation in one lovingly made package.

To most, 2D gaming is a thing of the past. However, if you look for them, you can still find the colorful, beautiful worlds without that Z-axis. Sometimes they’re recreated for the modern experience, and sometimes they’re created with the retro aesthetic in mind… but while the 2D style is no longer mainstream, it’s far from dead.