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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Rock Band Blitz

It’s been tough for Harmonix since the great plastic instrument crash of twenty-ten. Despite the superb Rock Band 3, demand for clacking guitars and Fisher Price drum kits dried up and first week sales of the flagship title did not even break five-figures. It was a far cry from their billion-dollar Guitar Hero days when the sound of friends and families clicking along to Kiss filled living rooms across the land. The craze disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived and not even a keytar could prevent it. Not long after, Harmonix and Viacom parted company and it looked an uncertain future.

They have, however, put out the consistent and well received Dance Central for Kinect. Although this may have scratched a musical itch for the developers, it was a departure from the games that made their name and you could always tell that something else was brewing. That something was Rock Band Blitz.

Blending their more recent gameplay stylings with the track swapping and score chasing of their earlier work, Amplitude and Frequency, it carries on the Rock Band brand without the need for half-sized guitars.

For those, like myself, who possibly overdosed on Rock Band in recent years, what is presented is something that’s very familiar but utterly confusing. On screen are up to five highways – the streams of colourful buttons that represent notes and indicate when you should press buttons – one for each of the instruments in your band. Drums, bass, lead guitar, vocals and keyboard each have their place, and in a different era this would mean there were five people playing along together. In Blitz, however, you play everything yourself; you are the ultimate one-man band.

As the notes rattle towards you, there’s only two buttons to worry about as you tap out the rhythm in time to the song; left or right is all there is. Layered on top of that is the ability to swap tracks. If the drums have grown a little slow or the singer’s nipped to the back of the stage to grab a drink, a tap on the triggers will switch focus to a more involving instrument. Similarly, if the guitar solo’s getting a little too hot for your fingers, flick over to the bass to ensure your combo remains unbroken. With each run of notes your multipliers tick up and you feed your Blitz meter. When that fills the camera drops low, the sense of speed picks up and points are positively hurled at you like knickers at a Tom Jones gig for as long as you can keep the chain going.

It’s all about the high score. There’s no longer the ability to fail mid-song when you reach the twiddly bit and your sense of rhythm collapses under the pressure of syncopated off-beats, your only penalty is that you will score nothing. That, strangely, is a feature I’ve often wished for in the main Rock Band career.

Initial forays will be mini adventures as you get used to the new format, experimenting, and wrapping your head around the focus on scoring. There’s always been points, but not like this, as the keen designers drag you left and right with the introduction of a gated multiplier. Each track must be built up evenly, spreading your focus across each instrument to gain the maximum benefit. Neglect the keyboards and even if you’ve topped out the other highways until they glow like Blackpool seafront you won’t see the caps increased as you pass through various checkpoints scattered throughout the songs.

It introduces a level of strategy I’ve never encountered before in music games. It’s easy enough to play through a song but to master and balance each instrument to know that you’ve played enough notes to unlock higher and higher multipliers needs you to truly know that song. Knowing when the vocals fades out can be the difference between a high score and a wasted run. At this point it goes past the point of simply playing along, as you flit back and forth between the highways, it’s a manic display of finger dexterity.

And it’s compelling. Leaderboards are rampant throughout and the constant comparison to friends is an undeniable draw to giving that song just one more go. And then one more. Maybe third time lucky. A situation only made worse by Harmonix’s Score War feature where you slap your online friends round the face with a digital white glove and call them to duel with you, giving you both three days to set the highest score. There’s in-game currency to win but being called out and showed up is a high incentive to eke out every point from a song.

Adding a further twist are the power-ups that can be equipped before every try. Star Power no longer fuels increased multipliers, it launches bottle rockets, sets off explosions, or calls to your aid a virtual bandmate. With three different types of power-ups, all possibly heavily affecting the way you approach play, it furthers experimentation with each one unlocked. Already around the office tips and tricks are being passed about as new techniques and combinations lead to higher and higher scores.

No matter what has changed, below it all is still Rock Band. The gems still glow as they did before as they glide down the highway, and either side that rock city motif scrolls by with the odd recognisable character briefly flitting into view. It’s a reassuring constant, especially as it imports all your previous Rock Band content. The track list built into Blitz is incredibly solid, with a range from Lady Gaga to Foo Fighters, but the instant expansion gave it a lease of life I find very rarely in score attack games.

For those of you who miss a traditional Rock Band experience, this will go some way to alleviating that pain. It may be reimagined but it shows all the design genius and subtlety that made Harmonix’s name. Where Blitz has its focus however is entirely on competition. Anyone who is alone amongst their friends in downloading this will enjoy it but see very little of its incredible depth. Bobbing your head and floating your way through a song is one thing but when pressed by the knowledge that that bastard Ben has just knocked More Than a Feeling out of the park, that smile will be replaced with gritty determination as you flick tracks like a man possessed.

That high score? She will be me mine. Oh, yes, she will be mine.

Kirby’s Adventure

For the first time in a long time I’ve pulled my NES down for the loft. Although this time it hasn’t been for a quick retro kick before returning it to its dusty abode, I’m actually sitting down and playing the games that I remember fondly from my early and informative years. Too often over the last two decade has it been brought down as a novelty but my latest apathy for home consoles has meant I’m sitting down and enjoying my past.

Having said that, Kirby’s Adventure is not a game I actually owned at the point when the Nintendo Entertainment System was considered cutting edge. Like many games with prices tags beyond the reach of a child’s pocket money, it was one I coveted, alongside the likes of Digger T Rock and Mega Man. So when it arrived on my desk, sat next to my foot-tall, cuddly Kirby, I felt like it was an early 1990’s Christmas.

Kirby’s Adventure featured surprisingly late in the NES’s life having launched in 1993, long past the release of the SNES. Though it was not the first Kirby game, it set in place a lot of what makes the pink vacuum what he is today. His previous Game Boy outing did not include his ability to absorb the powers of others, and so that and his trademark colour were both seen for the first time here on this his only outing of the generation.

So, for what was effectively his debut I found it interesting how synonymous Kirby’s Adventure is to the how the rest of his “career” has unfolded. It is definitely a platformer, there’s no doubt about that, but the combination of his ability to fly and absorb enemies, taking on their powers, makes much of the actual platforming redundant. I’ve often wondered if it was just the modern iterations of my favourite Nintendo character that found him floundering when it came to slotting him into a role but it turns out he struggled right from the start; his powers well surpassed that of a basic platformer and yet was asked to play that part.

To compound matters the level design is pretty uninspiring. Whether this was down to the designers being fully aware that intricate jumps and fiendish mazes would be wasted on a character that could easily short cut them by hovering out the trouble, or simply because the player feels no inclination in testing it out, it’s hard to say. Either way, each world is there to provide a setting for fun but little challenge.

Stages are filled with strange foes, from whirling dervishes through to what appears to be a sentient witch’s hat replete a broom. Hoover them up and the wonder unfolds as Kirby goes from being an average guy to someone who can morph into a wheel, wield a sword, become a bolt of pure electricity, or cause the entire screen to detonate, wiping all sentient life from it in the process. For the shortcomings in the level setup, the sheer variety of forms that the pink blob can take on is staggering and the main reason he has probably endured now into his third decade.

My personal favourites are probably his least practical. Inhale one dozy looking character and you find you have the power of “sleep”. Dab the B button and sure enough he’ll start snoozing, no matter what manner of danger is around him. It’s ridiculous, useless, and also highly amusing. Also the stone, which will cause him to transform into a slab of rock and plummet straight down, a huge frown upon his now geological face.

With each new power his playful charm comes across thanks to the animators who added such expressions on his small, chubby face. There’s no recycling of frames here either; each ability will stretch Kirby in new ways, and the way he reacts gives him a sense of character that 8bit Mario could only have dreamed of. Whatever Kirby lacked in basic challenge it made up for with its leading man.

Where the challenge lies is within the mini-boss battles that crop up here and there, and with the larger bosses that blocked each world’s exit. These are the only times players will probably be troubled. Initially this is probably from the sheer shock of not being able to waltz through to the end of each level but, although they each have common elements, it will also be down to figuring out the weaknesses and just how to crack them.

If you’re able to fire lasers or turning into a cracking ball of sparks then most will prove a second thought as you whittle down the poor soul’s life bar. At some point, possibly on the third boss that I had sat back and sniped, I realise I was almost doing myself out of the adventure. Effectively fast-forwarding through the best bits. At that point the memories of tough but rewarding boss battles that epitomised the era came flooding back. Timing jumps to avoid the pouncing lion, standing just close enough to the angry clock to suck up and spit out his music notes, or the endurance of the final fight with King Dedede returned me to the good old days.

It was a proud moment to complete a game twenty-years after its release, and that achievement alone should prove Kirby’s Adventure still contains an appeal. Though most of the content is joyful fluff that you waltz through, toying with all the powers at your disposal as you go, it has more to it than that. The charm and flexibility of the lead character mixed with a batch of much needed and more testing fights against now cult characters means it stands up moderately well despite its age.

They may be rose-tinted glasses, but through them Kirby is pinker than ever.

Portable Pal

Do you know what the best piece of software that you can get on the 3DS is? Do you know what digital reason makes it a permanent feature in my bag whenever I go somewhere? It’s not the sublime Super Mario 3D Land, which I still play with regularity and glee; it’s not the collect-athon that is Pokemon (I haven’t played one seriously since Yellow); and it’s not the always-pleasurable-yet-stupidly-named Mario Kart 7. What it is, is built directly into the hardware.

When it was first announced, StreetPass came across as something I could give or take. The Wii’s strange attempt at online friends and its Connect 24 that promised to pull content down from the ether if you left it permanently plugged in had failed to impress. Nintendo’s seeming inability to pull through with any level of connectivity or simple, intuitive content delivery left me believing that whatever appeared would be far from the promises. I had visions whereby this seamless hand-shake between two passing 3DS’ would only be so if you considered menus three layers deep and the need to write down something akin to a phone number as your definition of “seamless”.

So when it launched and not only worked but surpassed expectations with its discreetness I was pleasantly shocked.

As long as it’s enabled, all two handhelds have to do is pass by each other and a surprising amount of data can be passed between the pair. I’ve collected StreetPasses across supermarkets, from offices upstairs of my own, and even from passing trains. Ok, they were just pulling off, but it was still a train and it was definitely passing no matter how slow it may have been travelling. All bad memories of the DS Internet dongles have now been banished.

Though what I have been equally shocked at is also how it hasn’t just been a fleeting novelty. The initial wave of StreetPass enabled games included Pro Evolution Soccer and Street Fighter, both allowing players to pit teams of player and fighters against each other respectively in a virtual match. It meant that in each you were constantly dabbling with line-ups to make sure that you were not only beating the AI but setup to ensure you weren’t embarrassed by random strangers. It was like 3DS’s equivalent to an Xbox Live Quick Match, but with less rage quitting and swearing American teenagers.

Elsewhere there were Pokemon trading games and a cute little Mario and Sonic Olympics card swap game, but it was the return of the plumber that once again stepped up my admiration for StreetPass. In Mario Kart you swap ghosts with other racers, so as you walk round you are effectively getting slapped with a white glove and challenged by complete strangers. I don’t know about how others take this but I am somewhat affronted and will take them down even if it takes me the best part of the next hour.

Whilst on Super Mario 3D Land you gratefully find that your StreetPass visitors are not there to call your talents into questions but rather help you. When the little light goes green whilst bouncing around the Mushroom Kingdom, your guests will pass you power-ups. A free super mushroom or fire flower is a most welcome sight the further you get into the game. With these two examples Nintendo not only show us how the feature can be used to keep you playing their games; not simply by getting you to rejig a team roster as in the early days, but really draw you in to the content itself and experience the core of the game. Without StreetPass I think my expeditions into both would have been much reduced.

Though with all these positives, there are strange creatures who don’t own such games. There are those out there who seem fine in owning a 3DS’ and classing them as Lego or Nintendogs machines, unaware of what they’re missing out on. You can’t StreetPass with a game you don’t own, for fairly logical reasons, and so comes the true reason I will not leave home still without my pocket-sized console: StreetPass Quest and Puzzle Swap.

Contained within the firmware itself these tiny games are simple but addictive. Puzzle swap is the modern day Panini sticker album and with each person you meet you can exchange tiles to build up 3D pictures of games and characters from Nintendo’s history. StreetPass Quest on the other hand is a surprisingly well thought out RPG where groups of Miis head down into the dungeons and slay their way through a variety of ghouls and monsters.

What is so lovely about both however is that there’s an immediate sense that you’ve “played” with another Nintendo fan. No action is passed off as a simple data transfer, instead your Mii’s meet, smile and exchange pleasantries. Tile pieces are swapped as you both gaze up at your collected work, and each Mii warrior goes to face the evil forces of darkness with a sword in their hand and a steely determined look in their eye. Seeing your friends, or even complete strangers, help you out in some fashion is completely endearing.

I admit it may not be the most social form of gaming – after all there’s not real way of ever getting in contact with these Miis again – but getting little snapshots of others is compelling. Knowing that I passed Bobby from Canada and he helped me slay a dragon, that at some point I crossed paths with Mattio whilst shopping and he’d just been playing the new Mario game, or that Rekop has a hat made out of a Japanese Famicom is wonderful. Random people, seemingly random actions and yet adding such personality into a device. Minor factoids about who you met and where they’re from make me stop and try and see I actually saw them; were they them?

I’m sorry, Vita. You may have had a reprieve after a good showing at Gamescom but it’s not just my worry of breaking your analogue sticks that stops me from slinging you in my back pocket when I go out. With my 3DS I get to make friends and influence people.

Sound Shapes

In the hustle and bustle of the Gamescom floor I found a sanctuary in Sound Shapes. Sat upon one of the many beanbags strewn across the PlayStation booth, I bolted the headphones firmly to my head and lost myself in the boldly-coloured platformer. The strong shapes and enchanting beats shut out the frenzy of thousands upon thousands of folk pushing past the stand. Back at home and away from the masses, I may have significantly less to shut out but it’s just as easy to lose yourself in Queasy Games’ beat-centric platformer.

Conceptually it’s as simple as you get. You control a “blob” moving through a series of very surreal or abstract worlds. Some surfaces you can stick to, allowing you to roll across the ceiling for example, and some you can’t; the only critical rules is that touching red objects will send you straight back to the previous checkpoint. No one could ever accuse Sound Shapes of being overly complex.

There are elements of N+ in the way the initial tutorial levels offer supremely reduced worlds, as you jump and stick your way across highly geometric scenes. But that comparison stretches further as the very simple core set of rules mean that you always know exactly what is possible from the very start. Complexity never comes from throwing in a strange mechanic but by taking what you have known and stretching it until you operate on a level of faith that you can make that jump and there’s no skulduggery other than your mistimed button presses.

Sound Shapes is never overly tough, however. Most levels are a procession, leading you through the game’s strongest suits: its visuals and its soundtrack. Do not fear, we’re not heading back to the kind of reviewing that was deemed acceptable in the mid-90s where graphics were weighted as highly as gameplay. Instead, this charming little adventure places a huge emphasis on taking on you on a trip that will wow the eyes and the ears. The lack of difficulty spikes, generously placed checkpoints and gentle progression reinforces that the developers are keen for its players never to become frustrated and always to see their experience through to an end.

Of the five “albums” – their way of describing a selection of levels – included, each one is set in very different worlds and with equally different music. One pulls heavily from the history of gaming and offers very pixelated worlds, packed with spinning meteors, robot sentries and disappearing Breakaway blocks; another feels reminiscent of Twisted Shadow Planet as its high-contrast foliage and caverns draw on onwards; and yet another will show a tiny office block as a backdrop as your scurry in and out of boardrooms and server farms. A far cry from the stereotypical lands found in many platformers across the years.

Although the surreal natures of the settings are definitely intriguing in terms of their sheer variety in theme and art style, the music is what ties the whole experience together. Each album also features a distinctive sound and Sony has brought in the likes of Deadmau5 and Beck to provide the soundtrack. They don’t just play though; you have to build them up. As coins are collected from across the screens, tracks will form and grow a note at a time until they are a fully realised song. This in itself proves fascinating as your actions effectively grow the momentum for the level, starting out with nothing but adding coin by coin you grow your musical accompaniment to a crescendo.

Each level seems alive with the beat, too. Enemies move and fire in time to the rhythm, certain background objects will sing along, and if you can hold a beat yourself it will help you with timing tricky jumps as the world pulses with music.

So interwoven is the audible experience that you can tell when you’ve missed a coin. A tune will feel unfulfilled and offers the best incentive I’ve ever come across in a game to make sure that you hoover up all the collectibles in any given level. Of course it is possible just to rush through a level, but anyone who does will have missed the point of Sound Shapes.

With only five albums, each offering a maximum of five tracks each, it’s easy enough to plough through the initial content relatively speedily. Some may want more for their tenner but in balance what you get are of such a high level of quality that I would easily opt for that over quantity. Making up for this in some respect is the Editor mode where users can upload their own levels to the Community.

This is considered such a core feature that it’s included in the initial tutorial and creating a level is very easy, as you’d expect with a system that has more touch screens than it knows what to do with. With each level completed the reams of templates and items you can place grows massively and to see what can be achieved you only have to download a couple of the higher-rated Community levels to bear witness to people’s imagination. A murder mystery comic that unfolds as you roll from screen to screen, a take on Jack and the Beanstalk, and a large number solely concentrating on the musical nature of the editor. Of course there’s a lot of chaff but the wheat can be very much worth taking in.

For those who do want more further challenge levels can be unlocked, but for me they lost some of the magic of Sound Shapes’ premise. Whereas the main levels take you on a journey, the challenges are far more arcade-like and pit you against a tricky setup and time limit.

The whole package captivated me, with each album tying perfectly together the choice of looks with the style of the music chosen to back it. It has to be said that this audio-visual presentation layer is required to elevate an otherwise just-above-average-platformer, but I also feel that making the actual gameplay any more complex or pernickety would have been to the detriment of the experience as a whole. Worrying about pixel perfect jumps or extra powers would have distracted from beat that was building or the bizarre scenery you past on your journey. This is for anyone who enjoyed Rez or delighted at Child of Eden.