Thursday, 31 March 2016

Angry Video Game Nerd II: ASSimilation: A Review

Shitload Of Fuck II: Electric Boogaloo
Ah, here we are once more. Where do we begin? Plenty of angles to take, plenty of important wafflings to be had about the "new old" style of retro pixel jump n shoot games that have been coming out as of late. Well, I suppose a quick primer is in order to provide context to... what this is. This is Angry Video Game Nerd II: ASSimilation. Heh heh, ain't that a clever title. Like 90% of you know the score with this character already, and are returning once more to a world of old-timey action platforming and loud swear words. Unlike most, however, I dare to provide a little explanation for things without just assuming that everyone "knows" what's going down. So, here is our history lesson. In 2006, when Youtube was rising in power and influence, a filmmaker named James Rolfe uploaded some videos of him critiquing old NES games, picking at every flaw, and swearing up a storm. People seemed to find this very funny and his character, the Angry Video Game Nerd (hereafter referred to as simply "the Nerd"), rose in popularity to easily become the thing James Rolfe is known best for. In 2013, developer Freakzone Games (hereafter referred to as Freakzone) worked in tandem with Screwattack Games to release an actual honest to goodness game starring the Nerd: Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures. It was well-received by a lot of people and made a name for itself. Critics and fans alike helped to put its Metacritic score up to respectable levels, and the game even got ported to both of Nintendo's current systems, the 3DS and Wii U. Truly a rousing success story, and everyone involved felt really good about themselves.

Look, kids! A cameo!
Meanwhile, I hated it. My own expectations about what it would be versus what it actually was deflated me in that regard. See, the main design philosophy that seemed to fuel the heart of this Dread Beast of Code was the plot of the Nerd becoming trapped inside a video game; specifically, a "shitty one". Cue frustrating "gotcha" masocore game design. An area isn't challenging enough? Pepper it with instant death blocks, then reuse that asset ad nauseum throughout the entire game! Not only was that tedious (and honestly a little lazy!), but the game was basically a walking reference factory to AVGN video canon. The entirety of its humor was either juvenile swearing or elements ripped straight from his videos, with very few actual original gags of its own. This was a non-issue for many, and I didn't frame my argument very well when I talked about it in 2013. That got me a little heat. We won't address that here just yet, but it will be dealt with. I really did not like AVGN Adventures, but the rest of the world seemed to be just fine with it. It got high scores and made Freakzone a lot of money, so well done to them for making a thing a lot of people liked. People liked it so much that a sequel was soon announced. It was with some reluctance that I took a closer look at the trailer, and found that there seemed to be some elements that could make my eventual time with it a little less aggravating. Whether or not that improved my time with the game would remain to be seen. An acquaintance hucked me a gift copy of the game on Steam, just like a different acquaintance had hucked me a gift copy of the first game two and a half years ago. History repeats, and so it was that I began to play AVGN2.

Well. It's a little better this time.

Upon beginning the game, a cutscene plays out to explain the story. It's nothing special. Rather than be pulled into another shitty Nintendo game, a beam from space zaps planet Earth and turns it into a shitty Nintendo game. Only the Nerd, who is accustomed to shitty Nintendo games, can collect six pieces of the Sexforce (a sextuple Triforce with a naughty name, ah heh heh heh) to revert planet Earth back to normal. It's only a slight variation on the previous game's plot, but let's be real here. The plot doesn't matter whatsoever, I just wrote about it to give context to what you're doing. So, once the tutorial is cleared, you see your first big change between games; the level selection. AVGN Adventures took a Mega Man-esque approach to its level selection, with eight stages that you could play in any order. AVGN2 does it in a style similar to Super Mario Bros. 3; there's a map screen with five themed worlds on it, each containing three stages and a boss battle, that you can visit in any order you choose. This creates an interesting new approach to level design. In AVGN Adventures, the levels were long affairs that, by the time repeated instant death to all of the tricks and traps was taken into account, would take a player around 15 to 20 minutes to clear. Possibly less, but it's been a while since I played the first game and that's a rough estimate. AVGN2 has more levels, but they are now shorter; even with deaths, levels would only take me about 5 minutes on average. This is a good thing! The brevity present in these new shorter levels allows for new and interesting gameplay elements to be introduced, and smaller challenges to be themed around them! For the most part, the game doesn't milk its new challenges so much that they become annoying... barring one issue I had, but we'll get to that. I will say that I liked the variety, however. The new gimmicks are nothing wholly original, mind; conveyor belts, gravity flipping, teleporter mazes, underwater sections... that sort of deal. Still, as said, they get in and out before really wearing out their welcome.

An over 9000 joke in 2016. Yes. They did that.
Then there's the new mechanics and the many little tweaks Freakzone made to AVGN2 from the first game. As the Nerd, you play through the retro-themed jump n shoot levels by... well, jumping and shooting. Your Zapper blaster can be aimed in 8 directions by holding down a shoulder button on your controller (not sure if this is as unfortunate to play on a keyboard as the last game apparently was, however) to take out enemies at odd angles. AVGN Adventures had three unlockable characters you could find while playing, each with their own different attack style and attributes. This system is absent from AVGN2, but has been replaced with hidden permanent upgrades, not unlike Mega Man X. Hell, if you need proof of that, the first one you get enables you to wall jump. Credit where credit is due; the wall jumping in this game is used well. I've got almost no fault with it; you go where you want to go, and though a lot of the wall jumping involves tricky triangle jumps past sawblades/spikes/hazards, Freakzone was kind enough not to make those instant death traps. That's a relief, because I was skeptical from seeing the wall jumping in the trailers. My only gripe is that wall jumping from the very bottom of a ledge is a bit finicky; you slide off the side of the wall before you can kick off. This isn't the only upgrade you can find, though; if you're clever enough, you can permanently upgrade the Nerd with five more powers. Fortunately, it doesn't work quite like the extra characters did in AVGN Adventures; in that game, you had to collect them in a certain order because each one's special ability unlocked the next. Granted, at least two upgrades require you to have other upgrades in order to collect them, but you can get three with your standard skill set. Unfortunately, the upgrades aren't all that good. The Power Glove can get you some extra goodies and get you through certain obstacles a little easier, and the Turbo Pad/Super Scope give you a charge shot and a damage boost, respectively. The "Swear N Scout" lets you see hidden blocks and you can find some extra lives or powerups with it. The Cape lets you glide, which isn't as big a lifesaver as you might think. I was a little underwhelmed once I got all of the upgrades; you don't actually feel that much more powerful. Some armor to give you extra health might have been nice. Or, even better, a shield of some kind to let you take one hit from an instant death obstacle per life. With this kind of game, that would have been infinitely more helpful. Also present in each level are four collectible Nintendo cartridges, each with a letter on them, that spell NERD. Some of them are tricky to get to, but a completionist can go for them. Getting them all adds to the challenge, but they don't actually do anything other than tick off an achievement or two on Steam. Unlocking a secret boss fight for getting them all, or hell, even altering the ending slightly would be welcome for the mild effort it takes to get every one.

Presentation wise, the game is fine...ish. It does look nice, but there can often be a lot going on. Some of the auto scrolling levels are particularly busy on the eyes; between your character sprite, the multitude of bullets you're shooting, the enemies coming at you full speed, and the bloody giblets of them exploding, it can be a lot to take in. Then there are the level that play about with the art style. The Japan-themed world has heavy neon everywhere, and it's a visual marvel... but also a bit hard on the eyes. Then the horror-themed world starts off in black and white and has all these low visibility filters everywhere. Freakzone really loves these, as evidenced by their remastered version of their Manos: The Hands Of Fate game. The gimmick in the horror world involves hitting switches to create platforms and "colorize" the stage for short bursts of time. At least they give you enough time to get across each gap while also dealing with the hazards; they could have been real jerks about that. Clever as it may be, all the filters and low visibility fun do end up getting kind of annoying after a while. As for sound and music... it's okay. A lot of people who praised AVGN Adventures praised the music a lot, and I didn't really get it. It wasn't bad, but it just wasn't particularly memorable. I can remember maybe two or three songs from it. AVGN2's music is a little better, I suppose, but even having beaten it twice now I can't tell you any music from the game beyond the theme for the Japan world, which has a girl saying... something in it, and kabuki YOOOOoooooOOOO noises. It's not bad. Just, nothing that sticks out in my mind. Though, it has to be said; boo on re-using the music from AVGN Adventures for this game's final level. The composition has been tweaked a little, I suppose, but it's the same thing.

There are a bunch of other little improvements as well. For one, there appear to be no limits on continues with the difficulty settings. Granted, I've only done Easy and Normal, but the higher difficulty levels might actually be possible now, and not just seem like "jokes" on the shitty game. Though there's probably a YOLO mode somewhere that only gives you one hit for the whole game, but that's not my jam. In addition to that, on every difficulty that isn't the standard hardest, your lives refill after clearing every stage! Best of all, though... there's no randomly generated AVGN-style "I'd rather X a Y than play this Z game" death quote when you die; you just plop right back to your last checkpoint after a second. All of these elements combined make the game infinitely more playable, and it plays in sync with the masocore elements rather than clash against them like the previous game. Replacing the screen-clearing powerups of the last game are some new useful items, though some show up more than others. Rocks and F-bombs (that is, cartoon bombs emblazoned with the letter F) are somewhat useful thrown weapons that have their applications. The most useful item by far is the keg, a full heal item; with only three hit points on Normal mode, this is extremely helpful. One disappointment, though, is the power up that gives you a spread shot. It's great, and helps you blast things with less hassle... but take one point of damage, and it's gone. This was a flaw in the first game as well with its similar Super Scope powerup. This could have been fixed to be like the other powerups, where only a death takes it away. Maybe Freakzone was worried that it would be too easy to have the powerup through a bunch of the stages, to which I say... it's a masocore game with lots of instant death hazards. The average player will die sooner than later and lose the item. It wouldn't have been that bad to let them keep it for a bit, trust me.

So, Freakzone fixed a lot of things! They've created a game that is tolerable to play this time and tweaked many of the elements that so disappointed me personally last time. Well, I'm sad to say it's not all sunshine and roses. Beneath the sheer and shine of all these new and improved elements, there's still a Dread Beast lurking within the Code. Its name is the Death Block. "Less Death Blocks!", the trailer promoting the game's release proclaimed. "Yeah, okay." I said to myself. "But how many instant death obstacles are still there?". As it turns out, still quite a few. Bottomless pits, laser beams, gigantic underwater mines, Thwomp-styled crushers... death will happen. The levels are brief enough that you'll get by with only mild frustration... but then there's those bloody death blocks. They are not quite as spammed in place of legitimate challenge as AVGN Adventures delved into, but there are still sections that call back to my annoyances with that game. A nasty bit in the final horror world level where the low visibility just has the death blocks appearing in front of your face. Granted, you can shoot ahead of you to see if your shots hit the invisible death blocks... but it's when the game alternates between "hurry past the crusher" and "NO WAIT TAKE IT SLOW, INVISIBLE DEATH BLOCK MAZE" that you get killed by cheekiness. Then there's the final level, which just goes overboard and shoves almost every gameplay mechanic, hazard, and enemy into one long stretch of stage... with loads of death blocks at almost every turn, some filling the entire screen with tiny safe zones to dash between. This is the same territory as the first game, and it's unfortunate that Freakzone dropped the ball here; it's as if they were 85% done with the game, having created all these nice new hazards and challenges, but then couldn't fight the temptation to revert to their old ways at the last second. It's disappointing. Somehow, in a strange paradox, the rest of the game ended up being kind of... easy by comparison? The bosses especially. The game gives you a keg at every boss, but they also sometimes like to shove beers in to heal you as well. It's a nice gesture, but it just goes to show how much of a dud the boss fights are. Without the keg and the beers, some would be frustrating (and at least one I can think of does this) and would have you trying time and time again. On the other hand, some bosses give you way too much health and just become boring. Particularly the final boss; you can beat it with very little effort. Badly designed as he was, at least Fred Fuchs, the final boss of AVGN Adventures, was a tricky bugger to fight. This thing, while large and imposing, is not really that challenging. It's a game that's too easy in a lot of places, which makes the parts that are hard in the same ways that AVGN Adventures was hard stick out like a sore thumb.

Oh, I'm pretty sure I know what they were thinking.
Then we come to the humor, and the references. I tore into AVGN Adventures hard for leaning almost entirely on jokes that did little more than reference gags and characters from AVGN videos. Yeah, sure. There's going to be some fanservice in this game; it's primarily for AVGN fans. I am an AVGN fan. I'm a part of this game's target audience, then. That doesn't mean I'm impressed when I see that, for instance, you walk over a block-wide gap in a sewer themed level and the Nerd's running commentary says "You can just walk over it? Why even have that there?". Yeah, I get it. It's a reference to his Ninja Turtles video. I've seen that video. This entire world is a TMNT reference; you've got Mousers, the electrified kelp from the infamous dam stage, and the boss fight is... the not-Battletoads. Close enough, since they were a TMNT ripoff anyway. I get it. The game hammers it in enough with the Nerd constantly piping up and complaining. Just because I get the joke, though, doesn't mean I'm impressed. References are not jokes. This is an important distinction. AVGN Adventures was lousy with this kind of reference-based humor (and kind of lousy because of it), but AVGN2 manages to have some original jokes. More than the first game, at least. At its core, we still are playing with the "Do you UNDERSTAND the REFERENCE" mentality. Not that I expected them to tone it down or anything; the people who loved the first game didn't say anything bad about that aspect, and why would Freakzone tweak a winner, right? It's just disappointing. There are two big new AVGN canon references that the game's added, and the first ones are the recurring appearances of his rival Internet media personality, Doug Walker's "Nostalgia Critic" character. Apparently people wondered why he wasn't in the last game. Well, here he is. He doesn't bring any of his own canon in here, thank goodness, because the Nostalgia Critic has his own gigantic canon of in-jokes and memes that he could have dragged in here to bloat things. All he does is show up in certain levels as a miniboss/arch rival. His fights always give you a keg and you can just rapid fire him and tank his hits. He's nothing. The second big thing is an entire world dedicated to the AVGN movie that came out in 2014. Again, obvious that they would do this. There's a somewhat clever joke in there regarding this world, I suppose; there are death lasers and a gravity gimmick, and the boss of the world, a military general from the movie, turns into a scorpion in his second form (this being a reference to the AVGN Star Wars video, see, I told you I know what these jokes are calling back to). The running Nerd commentary is all about how this has nothing to do with the movie, the joke being that movie-based games on the NES usually have nothing at all to do with the events of the movie. Even the good ones; look at Sunsoft's Batman. I will say that the references annoyed me a little less at first while playing, mostly because the actual game part was more tolerable so I wasn't in as foul of a mood. It's still disappointing to me, but the people who loved the first game shouldn't have a problem with it. I'm not fond of it because it makes everything a bit too clique-ish, lowering the net from "people who like retro-themed jump and shoots" to "people who like retro-themed jump and shoots, and have seen every AVGN episode". Would people who don't know all the AVGN jokes like this game? I don't know! It would be nice to widen the net a little, I think, just in case! Which this game has done to some degree, I suppose. But only a little.

That is AVGN2. It honestly does improve upon the first game in a lot of important ways, and makes a tolerable experience overall. There are some personal annoyances, and a lot of what made the last game so frustrating is still here. Not only that, but it's incredibly short when you get down to it; I cleared the thing in about two hours. Granted, it's tolerable enough that there's replay value, I suppose, but at the asking price of $15 USD I find it a bit steep. I just think that there are better options out there. For that price, you can get Shovel Knight, which is an infinitely more well-crafted game that will last you a longer time. If you want retro action that references old video game things and tropes while having lots of tricky jumps and traps, there's Castle In The Darkness. Not only does it last longer, but it's a third of the price. If you want to hear AVGN jokes, all of the videos are out there on Youtube, for free, to watch. If you want to hear AVGN jokes and support James Rolfe, rent or buy the AVGN movie. I'm glad that Freakzone made a game I don't hate. It's a playable game that I didn't dislike the actual act of playing. I was pleasantly surprised by its quality level, and it is better than I was expecting in a lot of ways. In the end, though, with all these other retro-themed experiences out there, I'm afraid I have to say that you can do better with your money. I'd love to see Freakzone try their hand at more original games that don't reference something else, be it a media property or other old games. There's one or two on mobile, I think, but with this game they've proven to me that they do have the potential to make a decent experience.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

An ANALysis Of The Angry Video Game Nerd II: ASSimilation Trailer

You knew this wasn't over, in your heart of hearts. I exorcised the first game back in November. It only took 3000 words or so, and here it is again for posterity. Even then I knew I wasn't done. The sequel game was in the works, and I knew that it would be hucked at me when it came out. Sure, I could deny playing it and save myself the headache. I readily admit that. I wasn't expecting to dislike the original so much... nor was I expecting the hilarious backlash. I'm courting fate by playing the sequel, in order to write about it, in order to possibly make people angry online and call me bad at video games for not liking the Angry Nerd game. I admit that. One day I may get over myself... but it is not this day. On this day, the release date looms over us, a Lavos Spawn hurtling towards the planet at high speed. March 29th. By April Fool's, I should have cleared it twice. I'll be writing about it by then, I imagine. Until then, all we have is the trailer. Which, despite being only 65 seconds, reveals a great deal. Let's analyze this, because I want to have my expectations on record this time for when the game actually comes out. It'll make writing about it a lot easier. So, for those of you following along at home who haven't seen the trailer yet... Let's stick the little bugger right into the writeup.

Okay, we've all seen it now. Let's dig deeper into this. I've got approximate timestamps for the stuff I'm going to talk about, if you want to follow along with the trailer and get visuals of what I'm mentioning. With that in mind, let's dive in.

0:06- We're going with the "oh no, trapped in a shitty Nintendo tape" plot again. Serviceable, but hardly an excuse to make the game bad while you're at it. I do like the pixel art for the Nerd's game room, though. There's even a Donkey Kong Country 2 poster rendered good enough that I can tell what it is. DKC2 was a tentpole of my childhood. I'm so sorry it had to be in this. No clue what the other two posters are; they're too vague for me to tell.

0:10- And right away we come to the one big change I'm actually excited for. Yes, I said that. We have a Super Mario Bros. 3 style level progression now, as opposed to the previous game's Mega Man style of "pick one of these 8 stages". This could actually be really good, if it's done the way I think they're going to do it. See, from the look of it, there are a shitload of levels on that map screen. It's hard to tell, but it seems like there's going to be 3 or 4 in each "area" and then a boss? It could work, and the reason I think that is brevity. The first game's levels were about... oh, let's say 20 minutes each? Definitely more if you weren't wise to the traps or down with the old-timey action platforming. They were also slogs of instant death gotcha moments. Now, unless Freakzone has made a gigantic 10 hour masocore fest, the levels should, in theory, be shorter in exchange for there being more of them. 3 or 4 minutes each, maybe. That sounds manageable! 4 minutes with a quick gimmick revolving around a certain hazard, escalating it across screens and then ending the level to move on to another before it gets stale. I like the idea of that. Whether or not Freakzone is actually going to do that or not is another story, but this is the one area I actually have some faith in. Don't burn me again, boys and girls.

0:14- Oh, god damn it. To be clear on this one, I'm not complaining about the boss. He's a big imposing thing who fits with the "totally rad" aesthetic Freakzone goes for. No. Look closer. The edges of the levels are dark. Please. I'm beggin' you. When we get to the graveyard set of levels, don't bring that fucking low visibility gimmick back. It's awful. It's just plain awful and you ruined your Manos game by adding it into the remaster. This isn't a found footage movie, we should be able to see shit while playing your game.

0:16- There. Now we can see shit. I really like the neon aesthetic of this level. It looks really pretty, even though I'm not sure what "generation" we're going for with the pixel aesthetic. 8-bit? 16-bit? 32-bit? Pick a side, guys. This is also a good time to point out the upper right. Yeah. The lives counter is back. You borrowed the SMB3 map screen just like Shovel Knight, why not borrow the infinite lives thing from them as well? Especially if you're gonna kill us over and over again. You'll probably put that on Easy Mode again and give the Nerd a pink Zapper again. Which raises a whole mess of problems I won't delve into here.

0:20- More borrowing from Super Mario 3 by adding in P-switches, essentially. What looks to be a good and exciting level gimmick can easily be ruined. It will all come down to one thing: how much leeway time do you have to get across the P-switch platforms and onto safe ground? If there's a second or two of wiggle room, then fine. If it's pixel perfect "we are giving you the absolute bare minimum of time" mechanics then it can go fuck off.

0:23- Portal gimmick. It seems like it could work well and create... interesting mazes. Just as long as it's used for good and not evil. Now that I'm all jaded, I look at these cool mechanics with hesitation because, when it comes to not making video game mechanics into super-difficult shit I detest, I trust Freakzone about as far as I can throw 'em. 

0:28- Now this I remember from the earlier trailers; the armor power ups. Yet again, it could be good, if not abused and tainted by terrible mechanics. Namely the one that plagued your blaster power-up in the first game; getting hit once took it away. If the armor power ups end up staying on until you clear the level, that's great. Even better if you do go full Mega Man X and make them permanent upgrades. Speaking of Mega Man X...

0:33- Fucking wall jumping. I'm real wary about this one. On the surface, it sounds like a rad mechanic from Mega Man X. Except, look at the timestamp of this bulletin point. There's wall saws you have to jump between. This isn't Mega Man X, it's goddamned Super Meat Boy. The wall jump in Mega Man X was there to evolve the movement options in Mega Man and give general good feelings when you pulled off wall jumps. This? There's no way I trust Freakzone to not put all kinds of insta-kill shit on the walls that you have to triangle jump around with utter precision. Time will tell on this one, but I've got a bad feeling.

0:35- AVGN reference "humor", back in full force. Like I really expected this to go away. I have to wonder, though. That entire sewer level is made to look like the sewer stages in TMNT 1 on NES. What came first here? Did Freakzone plan out a sewer-based level and then just so happen to add in the AVGN joke about just walking over the platform? Or did, god help us, they say "Hey let's add in this joke" and then craft the level as a walking reference to it? I'd love to astral project myself back in time to watch the planning meetings on that sort of thing, just to understand the thought process behind the design.

0:42- Race cars. Okay then. I wonder if this is going to be like a Turbo Tunnel sort of thing. Freakzone hasn't invoked Battletoads yet and the Nerd did do a video on it...

0:45- Riding a giant tanuki who is on fire and shooting waves of enemies in a shmup setpiece. See, this is the kind of stuff I actually liked in the last game. I would really love to see Freakzone make a full shooter game. They're not half bad at that in short bursts. It would be interesting to see, if only to get them out of the current rut they're in of making pixel art jump-n-shoots.

And that's all I have. What am I expecting? To be honest, more of the same. Gotcha traps with "self-aware" humor in an attempt to excuse it. The new mechanics look nice, but are rife with potential to be abused in the name of "tee hee it's a shitty game". Still, if that map screen prediction I made is correct, at least the levels will be brief enough that you can take breathers in between. You won't be mired at the same bit for too long. We'll see how it goes. All we need to do now is wait three weeks. Then, the fun begins.