Sunday, December 30, 2018

My favorite games of 2018: Black Bird (Switch) and Sushi Striker (3DS)

I know what at least a few of you are thinking right now: you put more than 100 hours into Octopath Traveler and published numerous posts about it, but didn't pick it as your favorite game of 2018?

Nope, I didn't.

Which isn't to suggest I disliked Octopath Traveler. On the contrary, I loved it. Sure, a few aspects annoyed me here and there, but those flaws did little to keep me from thoroughly enjoying its sprawling adventure. (Read my write-up, "10 things I adore about Octopath Traveler," for more on that particular subject.)

As much as that SaGa-esque RPG delighted me, though, it wasn't one of my two favorite games of this year. That honor belongs to Black Bird for Switch and Sushi Striker for the 3DS.

What's so special about this pair of titles? Here are a few thoughts:

Fabulous Black Bird fan art by @croppar

Black Bird

This Onion Games release doesn't provide the most appealing of first impressions. Before you've actually played it, it looks like little more than a "dark" Fantasy Zone rip-off that costs $20. Thankfully, Black Bird is far more than a simple clone of Sega's classic looped-level shoot 'em up.

First, there are the bullet-hell elements. These are most obvious during the game's four boss fights, but they're woven into the stages that precede them, too.

Illustration counting down to Black Bird's release,
by @momenko774
Also, there's its score-attack focus. In other words, the point while playing Black Bird isn't to finish its small handful of levels. Rather, the point is to improve your high score and climb the worldwide leaderboard.

To accomplish that, you have to wrap your head around and come to grips the game's many systems--bombs, combos, collectible gems, and more.

Finally, there's Black Bird's soundtrack. It deserves all the praise that can be heaped upon it simply for being so sonically impressive and interesting. (One minute it's marvelously vaudevillian, the other it's otherworldly operatic à la "that scene" in The Fifth Element.) That's not all it brings to the table, though. In addition, it times the introduction of most enemies to the backing tunes in a way that's reminiscent of--if not as interactive as--ASCII's Otocky for the Famicom.

Curious to learn more about why I love Black Bird so much? Check out this post of mine. Also, if you need some help conquering this curious shmup, scroll through my "10 Black Bird tips, tricks, and tactics" write-up. And maybe this one, too: "How to beat Black Bird's final boss in 'True' mode"

Sushi Striker's protagonists, by @meshi3

Sushi Striker

I guess you could say it took me a while to warm up to this indieszero-developed title.

Actually, I was gaga over it after Nintendo unveiled it during E3 2017. After playing the demo the company made available via the Switch eShop early this year, though, my interest in Sushi Striker nearly fell off a cliff. It felt far too frantic for my liking. And it seemed to lack the kind of surprising depth and strategy I usually look for in puzzlers.

Still, I wanted to support its release, so I kept my pre-order for the physical 3DS version of the game.

After putting a couple of hours into the cartridge that made its way to my doorstep in mid-June, I was glad I did. For starters, the final product quickly proved to be a lot less superficial and straightforward than the demo suggested would be the case.

Celia, possibly my favorite Sushi Striker character,
y @carmeladansen
Also, a few of the components I wasn't sure about while playing the demo's three measly stages--the characters, the cutscenes, and the soundtrack being prime examples--displayed their true, eye-popping colors in Sushi Striker's full form.

To learn more about this game's many positive attributes, read my post, "Five reasons I've fallen head over heels in love with Nintendo's Sushi Striker."

Not in a reading mood? Maybe this'll sway you to at least consider picking up a copy of Sushi Striker sometime soon: I devoted more than 51 hours to the 3DS iteration before tearing myself away from it. (And after finishing its lengthy story mode.)

Oh, and I enjoyed the experience so much I bought it for my Switch, too.

So there you have it: my absolute favorite games of 2018. That's not to say I hated every other title I played this year. In fact, I liked a handful of them nearly as much as this pair. Which ones am I talking about here? I'll spill the beans in my next write-up.

In the meantime, what were your favorite games of 2018? Tell me all about them in the comments section below.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

13 games I'm looking forward to playing in 2019

The 2018 version of this post I published earlier this year focused entirely on Switch games.

This year's version offers a bit more variety. Not only does it include a few 3DS titles, but it features some for Vita, too.

Are the games discussed below the only ones I'm looking forward to playing in 2019? Of course not. I can think of a few others--like Etrian Odyssey Nexus, the Switch port of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, and even The Princess Guide--just off the top of my head.

Plus, there are still a bunch of 2018 releases I'm excited about sinking my teeth into over the next 12 months, such as Katamari Damacy Encore and Yo-kai Watch Blasters.

Animal Crossing (Switch)--It's appropriate that this 2019 release should come first in this alphabetically ordered post. The reason: it's probably the one I'm most looking forward to experiencing next year. I've long harped about the fact that I prefer the original Animal Crossing above all of its successors, but that doesn't mean I abhor those follow-ups. On the contrary, I put a ton of time into City Folk and New Leaf. I expect to become just as obsessed with this upcoming sequel after a copy of it is finally in my hands.

Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon: EVERY BUDDY! (Switch)--Something else I've trumpeted here and elsewhere for years: I adore the original version of this game. That would be Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon, of course. In fact, I might go so far as to call it my favorite Wii game. As such, I'm absolutely champing at the bit to start my way through this enhanced remaster, which is hitting both digital and retail store shelves in Japan on March 20.

Destiny Connect (Switch)--When the folks at Nippon Ichi Software first pulled back the curtain on this PS4 and Switch RPG, I was of two minds about it. On the one hand, I loved that it harkened back to certain role-playing games from the late 1990s, like Sting's Evolution for the Sega Dreamcast. On the other hand, its art style looked like one that could be either delightful or dreadful in motion. Thankfully, the latest Destiny Connect trailer suggests the final product--due out (in Japan) on March 14--is more likely to fit the former, rather than the latter, description.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 (Switch)--Although I'm not even close to finishing the Switch port of the first Dragon Quest Builders, I devoted almost 20 hours to it in early 2018. And I previously put about 12 hours into the Vita iteration. You might think that would keep me from even thinking of wasting my money on this sequel (how could I when I've yet to complete the original?), but you'd be wrong. In fact, I can't wait to see how Dragon Quest Builders 2, erm, "builds" upon its predecessor. Here's hoping those improvements push me to play this one until I reach its end credits.

Dragon Quest XI S (Switch)--Full disclosure: I bought the Japanese 3DS version of Dragon Quest XI at launch. The cartridge has never left its beautifully covered case, however. So why am I picking up this long-in-the-works Switch port? Because I want to experience its sprawling adventure in English, for starters. Also, at this point, I'm far more likely to play a game on my Switch than I am to play one on my Japanese New 3DS.

The House in Fata Morgana (Vita)--I've heard nothing but praise in regard to this Novectacle-developed visual novel since an English PC version launched back in 2016. To be honest, that's about all I know about it--other than its supposedly intriguing tale spans a number of centuries, let alone decades or years. I'm always up for a good visual novel, though, so when Limited Run Games announced it was prepping a physical release of The House of Fata Morgana for Vita in early 2019, I decided I'd add it to my lengthy to-buy list. Seems like a worthy swan song for Sony's sadly ignored handheld, don't you think?

Kirby's Extra Epic Yarn (3DS)--Speaking of swan songs, it seems like this portable port of my absolute favorite Kirby game (yes, you read that correctly) may be just that for Nintendo's 3DS. Although I would've preferred to traipse through Extra Epic Yarn in the the run-up to the holiday--for whatever reason, I think of it as a Christmas-y game--I know without a doubt I'll play the hell out of it no matter when it's released in 2019. For more on why that is, read my post that compares the original Kirby's Epic Yarn with Donkey Kong Country Returns.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince (Switch)--You might assume I'd choose the Vita version of this puzzle-filled side-scroller over the Switch one. After all, I own similar Nippon Ichi titles like htoL#NiQ, A Rose in the Twilight, and Yomawari for Sony's put-out-to-pasture portable. To be honest, I'd probably make the opposite decision if NIS America sold boxed copies of the Vita release of The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince. Since that doesn't seem to be in the cards, I'll be getting the standard Switch iteration of the game.

Pokémon (Switch)--My most recent post lays out how Let's Go renewed my interest in the Pokémon series. I know that doesn't ensure I'll similarly love the next mainline game, due out sometime in 2019, but I'm planning to give it a shot anyway. I just hope I don't find its larger cast of characters and additional gameplay elements to be as overwhelming as I've found them in previous entries like Pokémon X.

Romancing SaGa 3 (Vita)--Here's another upcoming release that I probably should purchase for Switch rather than for Vita. But I've already got the Romancing SaGa 2 semi-remake that dropped in late 2017 taking up space on my precious Vita's home screen, so it seems only right that this similar reimagining of Romancing SaGa 3 would join it there. Assuming Square Enix bothers to publish a Vita version in English, of course. And if it doesn't? I may pick up both for Switch.

Umihara Kawase Fresh! (Switch)--Much like Destiny Connect, I've been on the fence about this title since it was revealed. In part that's because I thought early screenshots of it looked a bit too mobile-game-ish. It's also due to my rather ho-hum response to Sayonara Umihara Kawase. I'm still not sure I like the aesthetics of Umihara Kawase Fresh!, and I'm also not sure its gameplay will entice me the way earlier efforts--Umihara Kawase Shun being a notable example--have, but that won't keep me from adding it to my ever-growing pile of Switch games in 2019.

Work x Work (Switch)--If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me mention that I've owned a Japanese copy of this intriguing RPG since it came out in early October. Surprisingly (or not), I've yet to even pop its cart into my Switch. My goal is to do just that after the holidays, but don't let that fool you--it's extremely unlikely I'll play it long enough to finish it thanks to the language barrier. Which is why I'm desperately hoping someone announces a 2019 English release of Work x Work pronto.

Yo-kai Watch 3 (3DS)--To be totally honest, I'm not entirely sure why I pre-ordered this game as soon as I was allowed to do so. Although I had a great time with the first Yo-kai Watch, I completely passed on its sequel and spin-offs, I've been curious about Yo-kai Watch 3 since I learned it changes up the series' battles a good bit. Plus, it'll provide a nice excuse to put away my Switch and pull out my 3DS in early 2019.

Are you looking forward to playing any particular games in 2019? If so, let me know which ones in the comments section of this post.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

How Let's Go renewed my interest in Pokémon

When Pokémon: Let's Go was revealed earlier this year, I paid it no mind.

My lack of interest had nothing to do with me being too cool, hardcore, or even old, mind you. Instead, it had to do with my, erm, "complicated" relationship with this long-running series.

You see, although I've bought a lot of Pokémon games over the years, I've barely played--let alone completed--most of them.

A few cases in point: before Let's Go, the only Pokémon title I ever "beat" was Red. I got close with Black, but became distracted as I approached its finale. All the rest, though? Well, I put about seven hours into X, and maybe four into Diamond and Emerald. Meanwhile, my copies of SoulSilver, Black 2, and Moon all remain unopened and unexplored.

Now my initial shoulder-shrugging in regard to Let's Go makes a lot more sense, right?

The thing is, although I was frosty toward this Switch remake at first, I thawed on it shortly after copies finally hit stores. Why? Glowing word of mouth, to be frank. Plus, screens and video footage of the game made it look like a lot of fun.

So, after a bit of hemming and hawing, I handed 60 big ones to the evil superpower known as Amazon for a copy of Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! and then (impatiently) waited for it to arrive on my doorstep.

Based on all of the above, you might assume the first few minutes I spent with this title were the gaming equivalent of love at first sight. They weren't.

In fact, after putting about an hour into it, I was wondering what on earth I'd done in buying it. I found it boring and slow. Honestly, if I hadn't spent so much money on it, I would've popped its cartridge out of my Switch and never looked back. Because I did drop a wad of cash on it, though, I stuck with it. A few hours later, I was all but smitten.

I can't point out to you the exact moment when my opinion of Let's Go, Eevee! changed, sadly. All I know is that I began one play session with a yawn and ended it with a grin splashed across my face.

That grin stayed in place for most of the next 40 or so hours I spent with the game, too.

I "blame" its charming cast of characters--the eponymous monsters, especially--for most of the pain I endured as a result of that days-long smile-fest, by the way. What can I say? There's just something about how the original 151 Pokémon creatures are depicted here that makes me happy.

The same could be said about the new, Pokémon Go-ish capture mechanism. A lot of people despise it, I know. I adore it. In the past, I often found the "wear 'em down until they're just about to faint" aspect of this series' random encounters to be draining. That's no longer an issue here.

Also, combining that aspect with wild Pokémon that are visible on the overworld map makes progressing through the game a breeze.

Are those three components really enough to change someone's mind on this series? I can't speak for anyone else, but for me that's certainly been the case--much to my own surprise, I have to admit.

Will my renewed interest in all things Pokémon (or at least some things Pokémon) remain strong if the mainline game that follows in the footsteps of Let's Go in late 2019 drops either or both of these last two bullet points from the back of its brightly colored box? I honestly don't know.

I can assure you I'll approach it with an open mind, though. And who knows? Maybe I'll walk away from it 50 or so hours later (as I did after I finished Let's Go recently) feeling like I got my money's worth from the purchase--something I've rarely been able to say about Pokémon games.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

A few thoughts on Dark Souls: Remastered from a gay guy who usually plays cute games

I've been curious about FromSoftware's Dark Souls since it first made a splash all the way back in 2011.

I've even considered picking up the Xbox 360 version on a couple of occasions. I never went through with the purchase, though, because that system's spent more time tucked inside its box and hidden away in a closet than it's spent connected to our TV.

When publisher Bandai Namco announced it was prepping a remastered iteration of the game for the Nintendo Switch, however, I knew I had to get off my butt and give it a try. So, I pre-ordered a copy as soon as I could--and then rather impatiently waited for it to make its way to my doorstep.

Although it took me a few days to work up the courage to stick the Dark Souls: Remastered cartridge into my Switch, it didn't take me long to fall in love with the game that diminutive cart contains.

In fact, I've put more than 16 hours into Dark Souls: Remastered for Switch since I first booted it up. I'm not tremendously far into this unnerving adventure, I've got to admit--I just entered the Lower Undead Burg after spending a ton of time in the Undead Parish. Still, I'm having a blast, and that's all that matters to me with any game I play.

What does "having a blast" mean in this case? I thought you'd never ask. Here are some thoughts on my Dark Souls: Remastered playthrough so far.

It's not as tough as I thought it would be--Don't get me wrong, I've died a ton of times since I first started playing the game. But dying isn't a very big deal in Dark Souls: Remastered. Unless, of course, you bite it after you've accumulated a ton of "souls" and "humanity" and before you've saved at a bonfire. Even that's not the worst thing in the world, though. I guess what I'm saying here is I started Remastered expecting it to be completely overwhelming and instead found it to be surprisingly accessible.

I appreciate how its gameplay puts patience ahead of brute force--Although I'm sure with the right "build" you can brute force Dark Souls, too. I'm not skilled enough for that, though, so taking things slowly is the only option for me. Thankfully, Dark Souls seems as OK with that as I am. At the very least, I've never been punished for approaching a new area or enemy carefully rather than running in with guns blazing (or, um, with daggers swinging), and I think that's pretty cool.

I also appreciate how Dark Souls severely limits your ability to feel "safe"--Dark Souls: Remastered may not be as tough as I assumed it would be, but it's just as scary. Actually, I'd say it's scarier than I thought it'd be. Why? Because any time you're not squatting beside one of the game's few campfires, you're basically a sitting duck. I love that. It keeps me on my toes and even forces me to improve my abilities and tactics.

Playing this game while wearing headphones is both amazing and terrifying--Here's something I've rarely admitted here or elsewhere: I usually play games with the sound turned off. I do that because I often play games while sitting on the couch with my husband as he watches TV. I've bucked that trend while tackling Dark Souls: Remastered, though. What a game changer--pun intended. In particular, hearing the footsteps of nearby enemies when none are plainly visibly in front of you is unsettling, yes, but it's also beyond helpful (in terms of keeping you from racing into an ambush).

The ability to "cheese" certain enemies and even bosses makes me really happy--This may be the aspect of Dark Souls that's surprised me the most thus far. I honestly expected the game's developers to force players to win fair and square at every single turn. Instead, they went in the opposite direction. The result: you're free to "win" however you can--even if that means taking the easy way out. (Such as by luring a particularly tough baddie over the edge of a cliff rather than bothering to actually fight it.)

As much as I'm enjoying Dark Souls: Remastered, I have a feeling I'll never finish it--After the game first clicked with me, I was sure I would stick with it until the bitter end. Then Black Bird and Pokémon: Let's Go stole my attention away from it. Although I'm done with the latter and I'm only returning to the former every now and then, I've yet to pick up where I left off with Dark Souls. I hope to rectify matters in 2019, but even if I don't, I'm glad I learned this series isn't, as I initially feared, too hardcore for me.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

How to beat Black Bird's final boss in 'True' mode

If you're anything like me, your first few meetings with the final boss of Black Bird's "True" mode won't end in success.

Oh, hell, who am I kidding? If you're anything like me, your first, I don't know, 30 meetings with it won't end in success.

In fact, I put around 25 hours into this Onion Games release before I saw the credit roll in this mode. What changed? To be honest, I found and watched video footage of someone else fighting this shape-changing baddie that clued me into a few mistakes I was making.

If you're having a similarly difficult time toppling this Black Bird adversary and you're not sure why, the following tips should help.

1. Try your best to reach the boss while in the bird-ship's fully powered-up form. (It should look like mine does in the screenshot above. Also, it should shoot large, circular bullets straight ahead and launch homing missiles that look like little crows from the side.) Believe me when I say this will make the task ahead a lot easier than it'll be if you arrive on the scene without enough ammo.

2. If possible, don't use any bombs during the first two portions of the fight. Should that not be an option for you at this point, at least save a couple of them for the battle's third phase. (Need some specific advice here? Let me know in the comments section below and I'll do my best to help.)

3. Speaking of which, I pretty much always drop a couple of bombs during this brawl's third segment. You'll know you've reached it when feathers--or whatever they're supposed to be--begin to rain down from the top of the screen. It's possible to avoid even the ones this multi-faceted foe launches at you, of course, but doing so takes more skill than I currently possess. At any rate, unleashing a bomb just as this iteration of Black Bird's final boss attempts to pelt you with projectiles not only keeps you from being hit, but it also keeps you from losing your precious homing missiles. (Assuming you're still fully powered-up.)

4. Those of you who are used to Black Bird's "Normal" mode, or those of you who've yet to get past this portion of the "True" mode's last fight, are in for a bit of a surprise now. Not only isn't the scuffle over (as it would be if you were playing the game's easier setting), but it's got two more phases. Thankfully, the first is a breeze. All you need to do during it is avoid the green prisms that surround and then try to squeeze you. The only advice I can give you here is to stay still until the objects lock into position, then move in whatever direction is needed to avoid being pinched. Rinse and repeat until just one of those little buggers remains.

5. Enjoy that rather calm segment of Black Bird's final fight while it lasts, by the way. The fifth and final portion of this clash is the toughest and most chaotic one yet. Or it is until you realize it's not nearly as nightmarish as the game wants you to believe it is. Basically, you've got to deal with two different attack patterns this time around. During the first, the boss inhales a bunch of asteroids from the edges of the screen. Your focus here needs to be on avoiding those rotating, damage-dealing boulders. The only time you should change that tactic is when you lose your homing missiles. If you ever find yourself in that situation, go ahead and drop a bomb--assuming you have any in your arsenal. That should return you to fully powered-up status. And if you don't have any of those explosives? Shoot the green planetoids. They'll drop gems that will produce the same result.

6. The second attack pattern of this phase is the polar opposite of the first. Instead of inhaling objects from the edge of the screen, the boss spews them outward from the center of it. This is where most people freak a bit. I know I did early on. Don't follow in my footsteps. Instead, stick to one side of this many-staged adversary. When she unleashes her fury (you'll know it when you see it), stay close to the line of red "bullets" while shooting the other projectiles she sends your way. Oh, and only use bombs here if you absolutely need to do so. They won't help you power up, so save them for the first segment of the fight.

7. You'll cycle through these patterns until you've died or you've defeated the boss, so get comfortable. And make sure you aim at least some of your bullets at Black Bird's biggest baddie during this Groundhog Day-esque segment of the final battle. This is why it's so important to start the fight fully powered-up. The homing missile-bird thingies that come along with that allow you to pick away at the game's antagonist even when you're not facing her.

8. Fill "Amoris Nova" (apparently that's the name of this iteration of the last boss) with enough ammo and she'll finally explode--and in a fairly satisfying way, if I do say so myself. What's next? Why, the game's score-tally screen and credit roll-cum-ending sequence, of course. Congratulations!

9. One last thing: should you wind up with fewer than 25 million points, you won't see the game's true ending.

If you're struggling with that task, check out my post full of Black Bird tips, tricks, and tactics.

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

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. Simply unearthing this guy will net you 10,000 points, but that's not the reason I'm suggesting you go out of your way to free him from the dirt. So what is? If you can manage to expose the tips of one or more Aspara-sans and then use a bomb to pull them the rest of the way out--and into a swarm of enemies, preferably--you'll be rewarded with a ton of points. (Thank you to @topherocious for bringing this tip to my attention!)

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.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Manual Stimulation: Crazy Climber (WonderSwan)

I've long ignored Crazy Climber for WonderSwan because it looked just a little too antiquated for my liking.

Granted, the original arcade version of the game came out all the way back in 1980, so this portable port from 1999 was bound to have an old-fashioned air to it, too.

If this is your first foray into the world of Crazy Climber, you're probably wondering: wasn't it updated or modernized at all between 1980 and 1999?

You'd think so, but as far as I can tell, the answer to that question amounts to "not really."

Maker and publisher Nichibutsu improved the looks of most of its console ports and sequels, but even Crazy Climber 2000 (from--you guessed it--the year 2000, and released for the original PlayStation) features the same "scale a skyscraper using two joysticks" (or directional pads) gameplay as the quarter-muncher that birthed the series 38 years ago.

So what prompted me to do an about-face and pick up a copy of this nichiest of niche titles? One catalyst was that I found out it's played holding the WonderSwan system vertically. (I've always been a sucker for that.) Another was its cartoonish and colorful box art.

Speaking of Crazy Climber's lovely cover illustration, I've got admit I kind of assumed it meant the game's instruction manual would be stuffed with similarly eye-popping imagery.

Boy, was I wrong. In fact, except for the manual's last spread, it's nearly devoid of art. The only exception is the awkwardly drawn hands found in the lower-left corner of page seven.

Don't take that to mean I'm disappointed with my purchase. I'm still glad I own this version of Crazy Climber. Hell, I'm still glad I own this booklet. Its cover and second-to-last page alone make it worth every penny.

If you're wondering what the illustrations on the second-to-last page are supposed to represent, by the way, that would be the game's "characters." I put it in quotes because some of the depicted objects obviously don't fit the typical definition of the word.

Anyway, you encounter all of these so-called characters as you (attempt to) make your way to the top of each of Crazy Climber's mammoth buildings.

Most aim to do you harm. The lone exception: the "lucky balloon." It kindly hauls you up a handful of floors without asking for anything in return.

One last comment before I declare this post complete: click on any of the scans you see here to take a closer look at them.

See also: previous 'Manual Stimulation' posts about Engacho! and Lode Runner for WonderSwan