Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My 10 Most Influential Games: Panzer Dragoon (Sega Saturn)

Truth be told, I've never been a fan of rail shooters. You know, the type of shmup--or shoot 'em up--where the ship or flying character moves and shoots into the screen while the game pushes them along a set path.

A few examples, if the description above isn't enough: 1985's arcade classic, Space Harrier, 1987's Thunder Blade and 1988's Galaxy Force, among many, many others.

Don't get me wrong, I love the looks and even the general idea of each of those titles. Their gameplay has never appealed to me, though--or maybe I should say their gameplay has always confounded me. Moving around a screen while simultaneously shooting into it just feels weird to me.

Still, when I bought a Japanese Sega Saturn system in early 1995 (embarrassing aside: I paid about $600 for the console, one controller and a copy of Virtua Fighter), I also bought Panzer Dragoon.

Admittedly, I didn't realize Panzer Dragoon was a rail shooter at the time. I had a feeling that was the case, thanks to all the articles I'd read in magazines like DieHard GameFan and Electronic Gaming Monthly, but I wasn't absolutely sure.

I wasn't disappointed when I finally spent some time with this particular into-the-screen shooter, thankfully. Its softly colored visuals, dynamic camera positions and majestic soundtrack helped acclimate me to it, I'm sure, but they only would've taken me so far had Panzer Dragoon's gameplay been a total bore.

I guess some folks may describe this Sega product using that term, but not me. In fact, I've found its gameplay exhilarating since day one. Chiefly responsible for that, I think, is the fluid movement (for the time, at least) of the blue-and-pink dragon that serves as the protagonist's airborne "steed."

That movement gives Panzer Dragoon's gameplay an element of depth I thought was lacking in older rail shooters--I have a hard time judging where I am in relation to oncoming enemies in the vast majority of those games--and that was key to me finally enjoying one of this shmup sub-genre's offerings.

Did this surprising love affair prompt me to seek out, play and even lust after other into-the-screen shoot 'em ups?

To an extent, yes. I certainly found 1997's Star Fox 64 for the Nintendo 64 far more appealing than I would have if Panzer Dragoon hadn't pushed my buttons, so to speak. And the same could be said for 2000's Sin and Punishment and 2001's Rez.

Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say rail shooters have become one of my favorite game genres thanks to this early Sega Saturn title, but I definitely enjoy them a lot more than I did before I took it for a spin. For that reason alone, I think declaring Panzer Dragoon one of my most influential games makes perfect sense.

See also: previous '10 Most Influential Game' posts about The 7th Guest, Balloon Kid, Bubble Bobble, Final Fantasy V and Kid Icarus

Sunday, July 23, 2017

I tried the Hey! Pikmin demo and I think I liked it

When Nintendo first revealed this handheld Pikmin spinoff last September, I immediately added it to my ever-growing (or maybe I should say never-shrinking) "buy these 3DS games as soon as is humanly possible" list.

Later, when it slipped out that Hey! Pikmin's developer wasn't an internal Nintendo team but the forever-maligned Arzest--makers of Yoshi's New Island, among other titles of debatable quality--my interest flagged a bit. It diminished even more after early hands-on impressions of the game made their way onto the Internet.

None of the above caused me to give up on Hey! Pikmin entirely, mind you. Even when my (uninformed) opinion of it was at its lowest, I still expected I'd pick up a copy once my bank account allowed.

Fast forward to this weekend, when I played through the Hey! Pikmin demo Nintendo recently--finally!--dropped onto the 3DS eShop. The gist of my reaction to that bite-sized version of the game: I'm definitely buying it, and sooner rather than later.

As for what tossed me back onto the Hey! Pikmin hype train, here are the first four reasons that came to mind:

The game looks great when splashed across a pair of 3DS screens--OK, so "splashed across" probably is the wrong phrase to use here, especially if your 3DS is of the LL or XL variety. If you use one of the original 3DS models, or one of the smaller New 3DS systems, though, Hey! Pikmin looks superb on its screens. Which shouldn't be a surprise, really. 3DS screenshots often disappoint visually when viewed on a computer or phone, but the games they represent almost always appear many times more impressive when experienced in motion and on the "real deal." At any rate, the hand-painted art style Arzest employed while producing this platformer is beyond pleasant. It reminds of the aforementioned Yoshi's New Island, but improves upon that title's aesthetic in pretty much every regard.

I already love its rather deliberate, exploration-focused gameplay--Early on, Hey! Pikmin's gameplay stumped me. It looked like a side-scrolling platformer, but that didn't really gel with strategic nature of the series' other entries. Thankfully, everything becomes abundantly clear once you start plodding your way through this portable Pikmin offshoot. Basically, it is a side-scroller, but it doesn't require players to hop from platform to platform, à la Super Mario Bros. Instead, you move Captain Olimar to the left or right with the 3DS' circle pad--or its directional pad or even A and Y buttons--while a tap of the systems' touch pad launches the Pikmin that follow in his wake to and fro. (You do the latter to collect or break objects, or to damage enemies.) I know it sounds clumsy, but I found it to be both competent and comfortable while completing the demo.

No 3D? Doesn't bother me a bit--I know some folks gets riled up when a 3DS game doesn't support the system's stereoscopic 3D feature, but I'm not one of them. Although I understand where they're coming from, and I wish every release made for Nintendo's second dual-screened handheld allowed people to customize their experience in such a way, I never turn on 3D while playing 3DS titles. Plus, adding stereoscopic 3D effects to Hey! Pikmin wouldn't have made much sense, as most of its action takes place on the portable console's lower screen.

I also can't say I mind being forced to use the 3DS' circle pad and touch screen--A lot of people prefer to use traditional input methods--directional pads and buttons--while playing games. I get that. In the case of Hey! Pikmin, though, ignoring the 3DS' touch screen would only make corralling the titular creatures more awkward than it needs to be. I guess the developers at Arzest could've included a mode that aped the control scheme of Yoshi's Island (where pressing a button brings up a target reticule, and another press launches a Pikmin). Even if they'd gone that route, though, I'd personally stick to the one highlighted in this demo, as I found it plenty precise.

Don't take all of the above to mean I had no issues whatsoever with the Hey! Pikmin demo. One negative that popped up during my 30-minute playthrough: the frame rate chugged or skipped now and then. It didn't bother me much, but I could see it being a problem if it happens frequently or if the action ever slows down substantially in the retail release.

Also, the soundtrack in the Hey! Pikmin demo is a bit too subtle for my liking. That doesn't mean the same will be true of the full game, of course, but I won't be shocked--or dismayed--if that's how things play out.

Have any of you tried the Hey! Pikmin demo? If so, what did you think about it? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section of this post.