Thursday, November 08, 2018

Ten Black Bird tips, tricks, and tactics

As my last post here hopefully makes clear, I like Onion Games' homage to Fantasy Zone, Black Bird, a whole heck of a lot.

I like this Switch shoot 'em up (though it's also available via Steam) so much, in fact, that I've put more than 16 hours into it since I bought it a few weeks ago.

That means I'm a bona fide Black Bird pro, right? I wouldn't go that far. My high score at the moment is a smidgen above 15 million, which puts me around 265th on the worldwide leaderboard. (This is just among Switch players, by the way. The Switch and PC leaderboards are separate.)

Still, I'd say I know my way around the game pretty well at this point.

Black Bird fan art by @karinto_angrm

That's what prompted me to publish the write-up you're reading now. Well, that and the fact that I've yet to come across a single English article or blog post or FAQ that shares tips, tricks, or tactics with players who are struggling to wrap their brains (and thumbs) around Black Bird's many gameplay elements.

So, that's what you're getting here: every hint, tip, trick, and tactic I could think of after obsessively playing Black Bird for the last 15 or so days.

1. First and foremost, never forget that only the black bird's eye is vulnerable to attack--This is part bullet-hell shmup, after all. And that kind of thing (making just a small portion of your "ship" assailable) is par for the course for the sub-genre. Keeping that in mind should make Black Bird's boss battles, in particular, a lot easier--or at least a little less stressful.

2. Don't bother hammering the shoot button--Save your thumb a lot of discomfort and even some cramping and just hold it down. Believe me, doing so won't make playing Black Bird a bore. You and your other thumb will have plenty to do--and plenty to worry about--even if your right one remains static. (Well, except for when it shifts positions to hit the "X" button and unleash an enemy-obliterating bomb.)

3. The key to combos is to keep shooting enemies (and to not get shot yourself while doing so)--You've heard this game has combos, right? Well, they're one of the keys to getting the highest of high scores. Actually, they may be the key to getting the highest of high scores. At any rate, starting a combo is easy: just shoot and kill one of Black Bird's many enemies. (Yes, even though they're cute.) To keep a combo going, though, you have to continue shooting and killing them.

Black Bird fan art by @Taite283
But don't dawdle. You see that yellow gauge sitting just below the score in the upper-right corner of the screen? If that empties, your combo comes to an abrupt end. The same happens if even one of your foes' bullets hits your precious plumage mid-combo, by the way. So do your best to keep those projectiles at, uh, wing's length as you go about your murderous business.

4. And the key to upgrading your weapon is to keep grabbing gems--Sadly, I can't tell you how many of these gems, dropped by felled baddies, you need to grab to successfully upgrade your weapon. So grab as many as you can as you zigzag your way through Black Bird's wrap-around stages.

5. Try to balance the number of enemies you kill with the amount of time you spend on a level--Down enough baddies during a stage and you'll be awarded a ton of bonus points. How many is "enough"? It depends on the stage. You'll know you've succeeded in that regard, though, when the game offers up a "superb!" while tallying your results. You also want to shoot for "superb!" when it comes to your level-completion time. Achieve that and the bonus points you netted for your enemy kills are tripled. (They're doubled if you get a "great!")

6. Use your bombs wisely--During my first handful of Black Bird playthroughs, I saved these eye-popping and often ear-splitting explosives for the final boss, mostly to make its last form a little easier. I still hold on to a few for that purpose, but now I use some within the levels that precede the climactic battle, too. Anyway, to get the most bang for your buck, don't drop one of these weapons of mass destruction until you've maxed out your combo meter. (You'll know this has happened when its text turns purple.) Also, I'd recommend against wasting any bombs on the first three bosses--even while tackling the game's "True" mode. With a bit of practice and patience, you should be able to beat them using regular bullets--or whatever shoots out of the eponymous fowl's beak.

7. Speaking of bombs, you can't have more than six in your inventory--And you can't have more than eight life bars at any one time. Keep that in mind as you collect the power-ups that pop out of Black Bird's grinning "curse pots." (They're the little brown bowl-shaped objects that tend to be hidden beneath the dirt, behind doors, and among tree branches.) You only get a handful of points for collecting another after hitting those limits, so aim for a different power-up instead.

8. Patience really is a virtue, especially during Black Bird's boss fights--All of this game's bosses do their best to tease you into being more aggressive than maybe you should be. The third one, Paladon, is a good example. If you go into that tussle with all guns blazing, your life meter is sure to suffer for it. A much better tactic is to stay calm and to time your moves and shots with the openings it eventually offers up. In other words, don't rush these battles.

Black Bird fan art by @r_stk

9. Don't ignore practice mode--It's a good place to come to grips with the game's many components and to practice strategies without committing to a full playthrough. Sure, you can do the same in Black Bird's "normal" and "true" modes if you want, but why waste your time with that when there's a far more efficient option?

10. If you see something sticking out of the ground, shoot it!--Why? For starters, it may be a curse pot that's just waiting to provide you with a power-up. On the other hand, it could be "Aspara-san," the wonderfully strange character that's part asparagus stalk and part rocket. To be totally honest, I don't know what unearthing the latter does besides net you 10,000 points and reward you with a chuckle-worthy soundbite, but I usually give the guy a helping hand out of the ground anyway.

Have any of you played Black Bird? If so, share any of the hints, tips, tricks, or tactics you've amassed thus far in the comments section of this post.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Onion Games' Black Bird is the dark Fantasy Zone clone I didn't know I wanted or needed

When Onion Games announced earlier this year that its next release--after the pair of mobile curiosities known as Dandy Dungeon and Million Onion Hotel--would be a PC and Switch shoot 'em up called Black Bird, I was nearly beside myself with excitement.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the time I spent with the aforementioned Dandy Dungeon in 2017, but I had similarly thrilling experiences with many of company founder Yoshiro Kimura's previous offerings--Chulip for PS2 and Little King's Story for Wii chief among them.

My enthusiasm for Black Bird waned a bit after seeing the game's first real trailer a few weeks ago. Not only did it look a little too close to Sega's Fantasy Zone for my liking, but it also looked a little too much like a bullet-hell shmup. (The only bullet-hell shmup that's tripped my trigger to date is the gay, smutty Sugar Shooter.)

So, I didn't buy the Switch version of Black Bird upon release as planned. And at that point, I wasn't sure I'd ever pick it up. A few days later, though, I apprehensively plopped down $20 on it anyway. Why? For starters, I'd been looking forward to it for so long that ignoring it seemed wrong. Plus, I felt like both Onion Games and Kimura deserved the benefit of the doubt. Neither has done me wrong yet, so why start second-guessing them now?

Boy, am I glad I went ahead with the purchase. In the 10 days since I bought Black Bird, I've put more than nine hours into it. That's quite an accomplishment when you consider the game has just four stages and its normal mode can be finished in about 20 minutes.

So why do I keep returning to it over and over again? Here are five reasons I'd say are as relevant as any:

Black Bird may be short, but it has a lot of depth--This game may not have a lot of raw content, but it makes up for that by having a lot of components. There are weapon upgrades. Combos. Collectible gems. Bombs. End-of-level bonuses. And they're all intertwined in a way that takes some time to understand. (Hell, I still haven't wrapped my head around a few of them--and I've played Black Bird for nearly 10 hours.) Given that, I actually think this game's brevity is a plus. It allows you to come to grips with its many elements without asking for too much of a commitment.

When everything "clicks," it feels like you've entered another plane of existence--OK, so maybe that's overstating things a bit. I don't think saying it's easy to "get into a zone" while playing Black Bird is hyperbolic, though. I often feel like I'm on autopilot--and I mean that in a good way--whenever I make another run at a high score. (And let there be no doubt: moving up the online leaderboard, and not reaching the end credits, is the focus here.) Is that due to its entrancing soundtrack? Maybe, but I think there's more to it than that, too--like all of the mesmerizing details that are crammed into each level and the sheer number of enemies and projectiles that careen around the screen at any given moment.

Black Bird's amazing soundtrack is like an extension of its gameplay--Don't take that the wrong way; the music here isn't interactive like it is in, say, ASCII's Otocky for the Famicom. Still, Black Bird's gameplay and soundtrack feel intertwined in a way that's unique and unusual for the medium. Even if that weren't the case, though, the tunes here would be well worth trumpeting. Besides the poppy, Beatles-esque theme song, they're so otherworldly vaudevillian they'd surely make Danny Elfman proud.

Some of the enemy designs in this game are so cute I almost feel bad shooting them to smithereens--The key word here is "almost." After all, they'll gleefully gun you down if given the chance. Still, there's no denying most of them are downright adorable. I especially like the ones that bob around the screen with colorful balloons tied around their waists. (I'm also pretty fond of "Aspara-san," who is part asparagus, part rocket, and mumbles "let's kill something" as he launches himself into the air.)

I appreciate that Black Bird's story is bleak--Or at least it seems to be bleak. You see, Black Bird's story is told through painfully short between-stage vignettes that feature no words or voices. (Aside from the occasional exclamation or guffaw, that is.) Still, those bits and pieces make it clear this is no childish fairy tale. A case in point: the game begins with a little girl falling over dead on the street as people pass by without missing a step. After an old man pokes her corpse with a cane, she transforms into the eponymous fowl.

Clearly I'm in love with this peculiar, pint-sized shoot 'em up. That doesn't mean I think everybody will feel the same way about it. If you're not a big fan of the genre, you may not get your money's worth from Black Bird--especially given its $20 price tag. Those of you who fall head over heels for shmups, though, should download it to your system of choice (PC or Switch) as soon as you have the funds.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Five reasons I hate myself for waiting 17 years to play through Luigi's Mansion for the first time

The Nintendo GameCube came out at a time when I basically ignored video games.

Although I remember playing a bit of Super Mario 64 with my college roommates, that was pretty much the extent of my involvement and interest in the hobby for a good number of years.

In fact, I don't remember coming back into the fold, so to speak, until sometime in 2004--after Nintendo dropped the price of the console to $99 and released a "Player's Choice" version of Animal Crossing.

Did I follow up those acquisitions by purchasing Luigi's Mansion, too? Nope. Sadly, I can't tell you why I failed to do that, though I suspect the "word on the street" that the game was criminally short had something to do with it.

Oh, well, all is forgiven since I eventually picked up a copy, right? Plus, as the headline of this post hopefully makes clear, I also own the recently released 3DS port (remake?) of the game.

Speaking of Luigi's Mansion for the 3DS, I played through it last week. Yes, all the way through it--right to the end credits. Here are my favorite aspects of that 10-plus-hour journey, which double as reasons why I hate myself for waiting so long to fully experience this game.

Sucking up ghosts with the Poltergust 3000 is surprisingly fun--I know what some of you are thinking here: how could sucking up ghosts not be fun? The thing is, I played a tiny bit of the GameCube version of Luigi's Mansion before I started through this 3DS port-make (sorry, I don't know what to call it), and that aspect of the game left me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I found it refreshingly unique. On the other, it was more annoying--or maybe I should say less thrilling--than I assumed it would be. Well, you can toss all of that out the window. It didn't take long for the 3DS iteration to wipe those earlier experiences from my memory. For the most part, bagging baddies here is both amusing and gratifying. There are exceptions, of course--the final battle being a prime example--but thankfully they fail to spoil the fun.

Luigi's humming makes my heart melt--And not only that, but it makes traipsing through the halls and rooms of his freebie mansion more grin-inducing than it has any right to be given the game's ghoulish focus. On a related note, I'm pretty sure I followed every single stint with Luigi's Mansion by humming its theme song myself. If that's not a testament to how cute and catchy both the tune and the character's rendition of it are, I don't know what is. (By the way, a similar aspect of Luigi's Mansion that makes my heart melt and mouth break into a grin is that it dedicates a button to calling for Mario.)

The room designs are dazzling--Gaining access to a new room in Luigi's Mansion (you unlock them as you progress through the game) is an honest-to-goodness treat. Each one sports a different theme--from bathroom to ballroom to billiards room and beyond--and each one is lavishly decorated. Picking a favorite must be like picking a favorite child if you're a parent. It's impossible! They're such a delight that contemplating which ones are the best is a complete waste of time. Instead, I'd suggest you do what I did: accept that all of them are top-notch and then brace yourself to be bowled over whenever you get to venture inside one for the first time.

The game's portrait ghosts and battles are pretty awesome, too--If this component of Luigi's Mansion doesn't return for the just-announced Switch sequel (I've heard that 2013's Dark Moon eschews it), I'm going to have a hissy fit. It's right up there with the titular manor's lovingly appointed rooms in making this such an endearing and entrancing game. Why? For starters, the "portrait ghosts" in question are quite a bunch. There's the scarf-knitting granny, the lily-loving bodybuilder, and the bed-wetting girl--plus 19 others. Also, they all attack you in different ways, and they all have different weak points, too. In other words, Luigi's Mansion keeps you on your toes--and gives your eyes a pretty good workout as well.

Experiencing all of the above in full 3D is so mind-blowing I couldn't play it any other way--Before you roll your eyes at me, consider this: my 3DS' depth slider rarely leaves the "off" position. I made an exception when I booted up Luigi's Mansion for the first time, though, because I knew that was the game's raison d'être. I ended up liking it so much I spent my entire 11-hour-ish playthrough with the 3D effect turned on. What can I say? It made the mansion's numerous living spaces look even more marvelous than they did otherwise.

Have any of you played either the original version of Luigi's Mansion or the 3DS rerelease discussed here? If so, what did you think of it?

See also: 'five reasons I hate myself for waiting 29 years to finish Capcom's Sweet Home' and 'five reasons I (mostly) hate myself for waiting 26 years to play Super Mario Land 2 for the first time'

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Five reasons I hate myself for waiting 29 years to finish Capcom's Sweet Home

Like Super Mario Land 2, which I discussed in my last post, Capcom's Sweet Home is an old game I've been meaning to play for many decades now. Nearly three decades, in fact.

Unlike that 1992 GameBoy title, however, I'd at least booted up this scary Famicom RPG from 1989 on a few occasions over the years.

I'd never gotten more than an hour or so into it, though--or at least I hadn't until I started my way through it about a week ago.

Well, that's all in the past. This time around, I played Sweet Home for just over 12 hours. And not only that, but I finished it.

So why do I hate myself for waiting 29 years to thoroughly explore this game's hair-raising halls and grounds? Here are the five reasons that first popped into my head:

Sweet Home absolutely nails the feeling of being locked in a haunted mansion--Seems impossible, doesn't it? After all, not only is the dwelling in question crafted using 8-bit sprites, but it's depicted using a top-down perspective, too. Despite that, Sweet Home is as nail-bitingly claustrophobic as any survival-horror game that takes place in such an eerie (and similarly cramped) locale. You really feel like you're stalking the spooky hallways of an evil manor while playing Sweet Home, and that's a real accomplishment as far as I'm concerned.

Its soundtrack only adds to the tension--Sweet Home's music isn't always easy on the ears. Hell, sometimes it's downright annoying. It's pretty much always fitting, though. As in, even when the game's backing tunes are discordantly irritating, they complement what's happening on your TV screen. Don't take this to mean there are no standouts on Sweet Home's soundtrack. In fact, quite a few of its songs could be heralded as stellar. I'm especially fond of the "eastern garden" tune, with its lightning-like percussion flourishes, and the sweetly melancholy "fresco theme."

I love how its story is revealed in bits and pieces--In most RPGs, you learn about its story through banter between party members or conversations with non-player characters. Here, you're mostly made aware of it via notes and even paintings you discover while exploring the titular "home." That gives the game an air of mystery I'm not sure it would have if it'd stuck more closely to the traditions of the genre. It also enhances the sense of loneliness and unease that permeates this Japan-only release.

The turn-based battles in this game are surprisingly unique--Yes, you read that correctly: Sweet Home features turn-based battles. And they're not unlike those you encounter in Dragon Quest or Mother or numerous other 8-bit RPGs with first-person fights. So what's unique about the ones on offer here? A good example is the "pray" option, which increases your power if you time things right. Another example is the "call" option, which lets you bring straggling party members into an on-going battle. (Although five characters are at your disposal while playing Sweet Home, you're forced to split them into groups of two or three. When you select this command, the game cuts away from the fight at hand so you can move one or more other party members to its location.)

It's nearly the perfect length for an RPG--As I mentioned earlier, my just-completed playthrough of Sweet Home took just over 12 hours. That's a breath of fresh air for someone (such as myself) who rarely has the time, energy, or attention span to deal with 100-plus-hour behemoths like Octopath Traveler. Which isn't to suggest Sweet Home's pacing is perfect. I actually thought it overstayed its welcome by an hour or two. Still, I'll take that over the aforementioned alternative any day.

There's only one other aspect of Sweet Home that turned me off, by the way. What is it? The way it severely limits how many items you and your intrepid companions can hold. I understand why the game's developers decided against giving players unlimited space for these objects (which include candles, fire extinguishers, and pieces of rope), but I wish they'd been a bit more lenient. Thankfully, you can drop seemingly pointless tools and wares on the ground and return for them later if the need arises.

That pair of slight missteps notwithstanding, I found my latest (and most successful) foray through Sweet Home's halls and grounds both fascinating and exhilarating. So much so, in fact, that I can't wait to enter its creepy confines again this time next year.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Five reasons I (mostly) hate myself for waiting 26 years to play Super Mario Land 2 for the first time

You may have heard me grouse here or there about the fact that I've never played Super Mario Land 2 for the GameBoy.

It's my own fault, of course. No one kept me from playing it.

The thing is, I can't really say what did keep me from playing it all this time. Which is strange, as I recall enjoying the original Super Mario Land quite a bit back in the day.

Granted, that title launched alongside Nintendo's first handheld in 1989. And it was a lot easier to please GameBoy owners then than it was when Super Mario Land 2 followed it onto store shelves in 1992.

Did I become a more discerning game fan during the three-and-a-half-year span between those two releases? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Far more likely, in my opinion, is that I couldn't shake the (admittedly uninformed) feeling Super Mario Land 2 was little more than a poor man's version of Super Mario World.

Do I still feel that way about the game now that I've played and even beaten it? (I accomplished the latter last week.) Not really, and here are five reasons why:

It's far less of a Super Mario World ripoff than I assumed it to be--Some of you probably are wondering why I ever thought Super Mario Land 2 was a ripoff of Super Mario World. To be honest, I can't remember. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the Mario sprites in both games look pretty darn similar? Regardless, I no longer have such an erroneous opinion of the iconic character's second portable outing. Instead, I now respect its uniqueness and even silliness.

The zone maps are everything--Seriously, how could Nintendo give us something so fabulous and then never return to it? Each and every one of the zone maps included in Super Mario Land 2 brought a smile to my face during my breezy playthrough, though the Mario, Pumpkin, and Space ones especially thrilled me. Admittedly, they're just maps--and single-screen maps, at that. Still, they add a sense of childish whimsy to the experience that most side-scrolling Mario games lack.

Many of its enemies remind me of the first Super Mario Land--And by that I mean they're completely bonkers, of course. They're also a breath of fresh air compared to their counterparts that appear in nearly every other Mario game in existence. I mean, who needs Goombas and Koopas when you have pigs who shoot cannonballs out of their huge snouts (they're called Bomubomu) and fish-cow combos (Mōgyo) that try to gore you with their pointed horns?

I like its mostly unique (for the Mario series) soundtrack--I'm used to Mario games featuring tons of reused tunes. That's not the case here. In fact, I'm not sure any of Super Mario Land 2's music was pulled from previous entries in the long-running series. Regardless, pretty much every song this cartridge offers up is almost profanely exuberant. That makes playing through this platformer even more grin-inducing than it would be if it sported the typical Mario soundtrack.

A late-in-the-game stage pays homage to the "Balloon Trip" mode of Balloon Fight--Some of you may not know this, but I absolutely adore the "Balloon Trip" mode of Balloon Fight. It's the ultimate "just one more try" type of game experience for me. Does this mean I've been playing the Super Mario Land 2 stage alluded to above over and over again since I first encountered it? Not on your life. I sure enjoyed my first time through it, though, and I'll always look forward to it in future attempts.

As for that "mostly" I hid in this post's headline, well, I did that because I don't love each and every aspect of Super Mario Land 2. For example, jumps in this game feel stiffer than they do in other Mario side-scrollers. Also, it's far from the meatiest platformer I've ever played. (I finished it in a few minutes over three hours.)

Despite those minor missteps, I had a blast getting to know Super Mario Land 2 via my trusty 3DS recently. It was the polar opposite of the samey New Super Mario Bros. titles Nintendo's frustratingly focused on for the last decade-plus.

Here's hoping whoever there heads up the next Mario sequel turns to this 1992 release for a bit of inspiration.