Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tradition or Innovation: which is the right path for PlatinumGames?

I'll start this blog by stating what I view as tradition and innovation in the videogame medium: tradition is the process of taking an existing foundation (genre) and developing a game around that foundation's principles, and while new ideas can be integrated into the existing "formula", the end result is the same for every game that uses the existing foundation; for example, Viewtiful Joe had a ton of new ideas implemented into its gameplay, but after all is said and done, it was still a 2D beat-em-up. Innovation, on the other hand, is a process of taking a foundation and ideas, which can be a mix of new and old, and executing them in a way that the end result is something completely new, which often creates a new type of foundation (ie. the RPG genre) or a new "style" of an existing foundation (ie. the action-RPG genre).

To provide an example, the original Resident Evil is a game that took ideas both new and old, but executed them in a way that resulted in something completely different from past results; the end result was the birth of the survival-horror genre. That would be an example of innovation. Going forward in time, we come to Resident Evil 4, which single-handedly changed the way game developers execute third-person shooting; that said, I wouldn't consider RE4 innovative, because the end result of the gameplay remained that of its predecessors: a traditional survival-horror game. Sure, it was much easier to control, and brought us closer to the action, but the core aspects of the survival-horror formula remained intact. RE4 is a tough example, because I could easily see one argue that it was indeed innovative, but I'll just admit that it comes close to the line between tradition and innovation.

Now, few would say that RE4 wasn't a superb game, and I'm no exception. Despite being traditional, it brought about several great ideas in its gameplay. Platinum would continue this trend with their games; games that were traditional in their execution, but still continued to bring about superb gameplay ideas, often residing close to the line between tradition and innovation. So, in this sense, is there a need for Platinum to be more innovative, and strive to create entirely new experiences? Not really. After all, their games continue to be excellent in all respects, and often become the new standards of their respective genres ...

However, I find that there is one reason for Platinum to at least consider striving to create more innovative experiences, and that reason lies within PlatinumGames themselves. Over time, Platinum has created a standard for themselves. Their games continue to bring about fresh ideas to implement into their respective genres; however, I feel that in the future this could become a problem if they decide to remain in the path of traditional game execution.

The first example as to why being an overlap of ideas within their games. Games from Platinum tend to be quite over-the-top with their visuals, characters, and stories; the result being characters that feel similar to one another. Right now, this doesn't feel like a big deal, but if Platinum continues to keep making over-the-top characters 10 years from now, it's going to feel a bit stale. Another factor that tends to carry over into other games are the "fresh" gameplay ideas themselves. For example, Bayonetta had Witch Time and Vanquish had a slow-time mechanic as well, and while they may not all be used the exact same way, those who've played it know that this idea originated with the Slow mechanic in Viewtiful Joe. If future Platinum games continue to use slow-time mechanics, the idea may become a bit stale, especially for those who have and would continue to play every game from Platinum.

The next example comes from the fact that Platinum's games almost reside entirely in the action genre. If this trend continues years and years into Platinum's future, it will become easier and easier for Platinum to fall into a rut and rely heavily on the traditional foundation of the action genre, as well as become harder for them to create more original ideas to implement into their games. Of course, that scenario isn't definite, especially for a talented developer like PlatinumGames; however, this brings up my main point of this blog entry ...

I don't want to see Platinum's games to fall into a similar situation to that of the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda series; two game series that, over time, began to rely heavily on the tradition in their respective genres, and, as a result, grew stale over time. And, in the case of the FF series, when the time came to try and be innovative, they were met with harsh criticisms; the main criticism being that Square wasn't being traditional in their game design. This situation just brings about a situation where the developer cannot win; if they rely on traditional means, they are criticized for being unoriginal and lacking of any new ideas, and if they try to innovate, they are criticized for isolating the dedicated fans of the series and not keeping with tradition. The end result: Square just can't win with the Final Fantasy franchise, and The Legend of Zelda series has to rely on gimmicks to make themselves appear to be innovative and mask their traditional game development processes. These are but two types of situations I don't want Platinum to fall into in the future, for it could lead to strife for both the developer and the gaming public.

Thus, my proposition to Platinum is simply to consider taking some risks now and then in trying to create something innovative and fresh; not just with new gameplay mechanics and visual styles, but with an execution that results in something entirely different than previous games. Platinum is basically the best when it comes to action games, so why not try to create an entirely new type of action game. You had the right idea with Bayonetta, it just needed a more original execution; because, in actuality, Bayonetta is just the Devil May Cry 2 you guys never got to make. Vanquish felt like a step in the right direction as well; it really felt like it's aim was to bring Neo-Human Casshern to life, yet it felt like it held back to be more realistic. Please, never limit yourselves in what you do. You're games constantly tread that fine-line between tradition and innovation, just put forth that extra effort to not just set the standard, but create entirely new standards to be set.

NOTE: I don't bring up Anarchy Reigns or Metal Gear Rising in this post because I feel I haven't seen enough footage nor know enough details about the games; however, they could end up being true innovations, thus making this post worthless, heh.

Friday, March 9, 2012

My Thoughts on PlatinumGames

NOTE: This is from a casual gamer's perspective.

When I'm asked about who my favorite game developers are, my mind doesn't usually go to PlatinumGames/Clover Studios quickly despite the fact that several of my favorite games have come from the developer. I thought this way rather strange, so I asked myself why I thought this way, and I came to the conclusion that it was due to the shortness of the impact that the games from Platinum makes.

To make a comparison, games from Platinum (with one exception, but more on that later) provide a similar experience and satisfaction to that of the best games of the golden days of the arcade. Classics like Afterburner, Dungeons & Dragons, The King of Fighters, Metal Slug, House of the Dead, etc. are probably the closest comparisons I can make to the games of Platinum. Why? Because the experiences provided by these games are original, stylish, satisfying, and memorable, yet are over fairly quickly. Yet despite the short length of time we played games in the arcades, we still felt it was time and money well spent because the experiences we had with the games, however short, felt rich and satisfying. I think Platinum's games carry that same sort of weight.

Games like Bayonetta and Vanquish are incredible action games with superb gameplay, graphics, music, and execution there-of. With that said, both games can be completed in 6 hours or less. Does this make them bad games? No. However, I feel it does hurt their staying power in the minds of gamers, at least those who don't pour dozens upon dozens of hours to achieve insanely high scores or try to get every single achievement. The feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction are there, but because the experience was so short, there isn't much to remember or take away from the experience, especially when looking back on the game after a lot of time has past. The same effect occurs with fighting games; what's present is very enjoyable, but ultimately, a fighting game is a contained amount of content that doesn't really grow much other than the player understanding the systems more. Of course, this is satisfying for a while, but ultimately, the fact that the player is restricted by the contained amount of content given to them comes to light and satisfaction begins to take a dip. Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta, Vanquish, Godhand; all amazing games, but all ultimately harmed by their contained amount of content. This is where I feel the games of Platinum/Clover share their similarities with arcade games.

So how did arcade games deal with the constraints that their limited memory caused them to have? They made sequels, and lots of them. These sequels allowed the games of the arcade to not only grow in terms of content, but learn from the mistakes of their ealier iterations and make even better games with their sequels. This process of making sequels not only gave the gaming audience more content to enjoy, but better content. And it is with this observation that I find my opinion on Platinum/Clover comes full circle: the games of Platinum/Clover are superb gaming experiences, yet when they are finished, that's it. Replaying a game from Platinum/Clover can only provide so much satisfaction, so when I've had my fill, the game simply becomes a nostalgic memory, rather than an experience that sticks with the player.

How can Platinum remedy this?

- One way is to make sequels. To me, SNK was the Platinum/Clover of the 90s; they had so many incredible games and made many sequels to these games, thus creating a legacy. It is this legacy that I remember most. I don't remember a specific KOF or Metal Slug game, rather, I remember the entire series as cohesive and satisfying wholes. I believe creating sequels for games like Bayonetta, Madworld, and Vanquish would help create such legacies and thereby make the games feel less like short-but-sweet game experiences and more like expansive experiences that covered many years of my life. Of course, I would say the same for games like Viewtiful Joe (which, granted, was on the right track thanks to recieveing two sequels; perhaps that is why I remember Viewtiful Joe the fondest of all Platinum/Clover's games) and Godhand, but, of course, the split from Capcom prevents that.

- The other way is to expand past creating "arcade" games, and create vast, expansive experiences. Platinum/Clover has already done this with Okami, a game I constantly forget was made by the same group that made Viewtiful Joe and Bayonetta, simply because of how expansive and epic it is in scope and gameplay. The epic scope of Okami provided an entirely different level of satisfaction than the arcade-style of games that Platinum/Clover had made previously, and has made since. Okami is the one game made by Platinum/Clover that I had no desire to see a sequel to because of just how whole it felt; in that sense, Okami created its own legacy. If Platinum could create another game with such scope as Okami, than the creation of sequels would not be neccessary, but as it stands, games such as Madworld, Bayonetta, and Vanquish cannot do such a thing because of their small amount of content and restraints there-of, no matter how satisfying they are.

In conclusion, my fondest memories of the arcade come from The King of Fighters and Metal Slug series. They had strong origins with KOF '94 and Metal Slug, both of which had amazing graphics, music, and gameplay. However, they didn't stop there, both games received sequel after sequel and expanded and enhanced their content to new levels with each new game. In doing so, SNK created an amazing legacy of games that feels like one cohesive whole rather than seperate pieces of a puzzle. It is this legacy I want Platinum to create with their games.

Now, I understand that PlatinumGames isn't the biggest developer, and the constant creation of sequels is a practice that isn't really looked at in the highest respect, especially in this generation of games. However, I feel that PlatinumGames has yet to create a true impact on the industry, which I find surprising considering that they are perhaps the most talented game developer at present. What's holding them back is this constant stream of "arcade"-style games. Each one of their games has been "revolutionary" in that they set the bar for certain aspect(s) of game design, whether it be graphics, gameplay, or execution there-of, but because their games are scattered about in different genres, styles, and directors (have you noticed how divisive the games from Platinum/Clover are based upon their directors), its difficult for their games to have a focused impact on the industry. A legacy cannot be built upon a small group of countries scattered about; it needs to grow from one central location and expand upon itself.

How PlatinumGames can create this legacy, I am not sure. I have suggestions above, but because I am ignorant on how the game industry functions, my suggestions could be completely asinine. Furthermore, my suggestions are basically asking PlatinumGames to limit themselves to certain genres, styles, characters, and gameplay systems. Limitation on a developer's talents is something I'd hate to even suggest, but I feel that if a developer could continue to be creative and innovative while making sequels or large-in-scope projects, its PlatinumGames.

This is all my opinion of course, but I really want PlatinumGames to create a legacy for themselves. I want there to be collections of artbooks and CDs that cover their entire legacy, and I want there to be legends of the developers that created their games, and not just their directors, but the artists, the musicians, the designers, and programmers. I want Platinum to make a name for themselves. Many will probably tell me that they already have, but I'd have to disagree with that. The games from Platinum are remembered for specifics rather than their cohesive wholes, and that is no way to leave your mark on the industry. People have to look at PlatinumGames and have a clear picture in their mind; a state I don't believe they've reached quite yet.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Retro Review: Muramasa: The Demon Blade

This post will be a review of a game I've already reviewed in the past: Muramasa: The Demon Blade. I'm doing this because I think I gave the game too high of a score in my first review, and I'd like to see what happens if I review the game now. So, here we go ...

Gameplay (7.5/10) - The gameplay of Muramasa is a solid execution of the classic 2D beat-em-up formula that was popularized by classics like Shinobi on the Genesis, but Muramasa manages to add its own additions to the formula. For example, combat in Muramasa is combo-based with an emphasis on air juggling, special moves, and dodging; the result is combat that feels almost like a 2D version of combat found in Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. Combat is given a bit of diversity thanks to each of the games 108 swords having their own unique special moves (though some are just powered-up versions of previous sword's special moves) and a good diversity of enemies of bosses. With that said, combat can get quite repetitive as the game progresses; this is mainly due to most battles playing out in the same way, for enemies, for the most part, all behave in similar ways. Sure, some enemies fly, some disappear, and other block your attacks, but really the combat system just comes down to getting close to an enemy and attacking them. If the process of getting close to enemies was more diverse, then the combat would benefit from some diversity, but that isn't the case. Bosses offer more diversity in combat, and also show how a stages geometry can affect battle; thus causing the player to not only understand the bosses attacks and patterns but often the geometry of the stage as well. The bosses show how some more complicated geography in the stages could have benefited the diversity of normal enemy combat; unfortunately, there are only a few stages that have anything other than a flat surface. Regardless of these criticisms, Muramasa's combat is a fun experience throughout the game, as the player is consistently challenged by new enemy types and given many swords to utilize in combos. However, Muramasa's combat could have benefited from more diversity in enemy behavior and possibly a projectile weapon(s) to keep the flow of combat flowing. The combat is a step above that of classic 2D beat-em-ups, but not the evolution I'd come to expect from Vanillaware.

Muramasa's other gameplay systems include a cooking system for healing items and a forging system to make new swords. These systems help keep the player busy even when out of combat. These systems are also vital to progressing through the game, so they help add another important process to the game design, thus making Muramasa more than just a bunch of fights.

Graphics (9.5/10) - As expected from Vanillaware, the graphics are incredible. As opposed to Odin Sphere, Muramasa contains many different environments to travel through, each looking very different from the other. The result is a visual tour de force through Japan, all in Vanillaware's beautiful artistic vision. Characters and monsters are all very well designed and animate very well. The animations aren't always superb, but always look great when it counts, most notably in boss battles. The environments are amazing to behold as well thanks to the subtle little animations found throughout them; from gorgeous lighting to stalks of grains moving in the breeze, the game is truly beautiful. The only real flaw is that the environments lack real impact other than being beautiful; this is mainly due to flaws with the story, but it's still a noticeable problem, at least after the huge impact Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire's backgrounds had.

Sound/Music (8.5/10) - Muramasa's soundtrack is as beautiful as it is diverse. First of all, the soundtrack is expansive and has different themes for each of the games' areas as well as themes for each boss fight, and has pieces for cutscenes as well. Secondly, while the soundtrack mostly uses traditional Japanese instruments, it also uses modern instruments such as electric guitars; the result is a sound that is both unique and traditional, beautiful and eccentric. And finally, the quality of the soundtrack is superb, and definitely matches the high standards of Basiscape's other works. The only flaw in the soundtrack, similar to the graphics, is that there isn't too much attachment to the pieces from the perspective of the player. While many stage themes are beautiful and memorable in their own right, they don't often create an attachments to the story or environments. So, as a result, Muramasa's soundtrack is great for the moment you hear it, but it isn't really one that sticks with you when your done the game.

Story (4/10) - For a 2D beat-em-up action game, Muramasa's story is above and beyond what most have come to expect from the genre; however, as a Vanillaware game, the story is absolutely disappointing. While there are decent characters, many different environments to trek through, and two seperate stories to go through, it is simply shallow in comparison to the stories of Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire. The characters aren't particularly likable and are hard to care for, the world of Japan is never given much history nor is it really talked about, thus most of the environments the player go through lack much impact on the player other than being pretty. The story does have some genuinely nice and sometimes emotional moments, though they are reserved for Kisuke's story, who's is easily the better of the two. I'm not saying there isn't anything to enjoy in the story, as it is present and there is a story to pay attention to, but there simply isn't much to care about, and for the most part, the story simply comes off as a means of getting the player from one location to another rather than the story being the ends of the effort the player puts into the gameplay. Overall, for those who are playing Muramasa as their first Vanillaware game, you'll probably enjoy the story enough to be entertained by it then quickly forget it after you're finished the game, but for those who played Vanillaware's previous games (Princess Crown, Odin Sphere, and Grimgrimoire), Muramasa will most likely be a huge disappointment in terms of content, characters, and impact.

Replay Value (8/10) - Being one of the few 2D beat-em-ups of this generation, Muramasa is a fun and accessible game to come back to and enjoy simply for the gameplay and beautiful visuals and music. There are also multiple endings for each character, which get even more gameplay out of the game (though you won't have to replay the entire game to get the other endings). There are also secret battles to take on that are often much harder than even the bosses; so people wanting try out their combat skills can try them out. Overall, like many classic beat-em-ups, there's much fun to be had even after the credits roll.

Satisfaction (7/10) - Muramasa is a great game, for it has superb visuals and music, solid gameplay, and some generally amazing moments that combine all three of those factors; however, there's nothing in Muramasa that feels truly spectacular. Especially for a player like me who has had previous experience with a Vanillaware game, there are standards that Vanillaware has set for themselves, and, in the end, Muramasa falls short of those expectations. The reasons behind this fall of expectations all really comes down to the story. I know it seems harsh to penalize an action game based upon story, but when I play a Vanillaware game, I don't expect just another great game, I expect an incredible experience, at least that is what I've come to expect after playing the masterpieces that are Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire. Muramasa comes close to being such a game, but the lack of immersion in the characters, environments, and conflicts in the game as a result of the poor story-telling really hurt my satisfaction of the game as a fan of Vanillaware. As a fan of 2D action games, I was very happy, it isn't the evolution of the genre that Viewtiful Joe was, but it's still a solid entry in the genre.


The score I should and want to give it - (8.5/10): Muramasa is an amazing game is solid gameplay that adds more to the classic 2D action gameplay of the past, all while being beautiful to both the eyes and the ears. The story isn't particularly strong (especially for a Vanillaware game), even if it has some emotional moments, but the main concerns in this genre is the gameplay and visuals, and Muramasa delivers in both categories. It's disappointing that Muramasa didn't have more complex gameplay or evolve the genre past what it's Genesis ancestors did, but it's still well worth a player's time to play through this great game that harkens back to simpler time in gaming history.


So, I guess, in the end, Muramasa still holds up well. The game is great, even if it lacks a bit of depth. But really, that shouldn't be surprising, as George Kamitani has stated that he basically wanted to remake the 2D action games of the NES and arcade days with Muramasa. And, he and his team accomplished that. It's just that with Vanillaware's past games, I've come to expect more than just beautiful executions of existing genres, as well as having amazing stories. And, that's really the only thing holding back Muramasa, it's poor story. And I stand by that criticism, because Kamitani has shown in the past that he can write some of the best stories in any medium, and when he follows up the masterpieces that are Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire with Muramasa, it can hurt pretty hard for a hardcore fan like me.

Unfortunately, this trend may continue. Grand Knights History has a very minimal story to it, which is disappointing; however, GKH isn't directed by Kamitani like previous Vanillaware games, so I'll probably let that slide. However, Dragon's Crown, is directed by Kamitani, yet has nameless character, which is often an indicator of a minimal story. Furthermore, the 2D beat-em-up genre, which Kamitani wants to evolve with DC, is infamous for having little to no story. I hope Kamitani doesn't continue that trend and actually gives us a good story with DC. I'm not expecting much due to the characters simply being classes rather than named characters, but I hope the world and NPCs can make up for it. A great story doesn't need to have named characters, nor much dialogue, but to pull it off is a rare feat. Can Kamitani and his team pull it off? I guess I'll have to wait and see.