Battle of the Backlog Episodes 6 & 7: Taking Stock

Not my pile of shame, but not far off.

Not my pile of shame, but not far off.

One man, Harry Nezumi — some say brave, others foolish — stands against his backlog. With but five months between now and a move some 9,000 kms from home, does he have what it takes to complete all the outstanding games in his collection? Follow his quest, his Sisyphean toil, here on Sega Addicts as he tackles one hundred and seven games over twenty weeks. The journey will not be easy, the day grows dark and the hour late. Yet there is hope. How did Harry fair over the holiday break? Was there any time for games between turkey, ham and stuffing sandwiches and the Top Gear Christmas special?

Completed: Tech Romancer (DC); Steep Slope Sliders (Sat); Bust-A-Move 3 (Sat); Sonic Adventure 2 (DC/XBLA); JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (DC); Sonic 3D (Sat); Kengo (PS2); Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner (PS2/360)
Postponed: Left 4 Dead (360); Jet Set Radio Future (oXB)
Retired: Dark Chronicle (PS2); Skies of Arcadia (DC); Mass Effect (360); Mass Effect 2 (360); Grand Theft Auto IV (360); Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City (360); Fallout 3 (360); Oblivion (360).

Christmas and New Year is a time for reflexion. With this in mind I headed off to the superb HowLongToBeat website and did a little estimating. It would seem if I cut out frivolities like sleep, work and food I will be able to meet my targets. Clearly something has to give. I looked over the RPGs in my collection — never my favourite genre — and decided to cut out the ones I could justify. Racing through an RPG is no way to appreciate it, furthermore, many of them have been superseded since I bought them. Why play Oblivion when Skyrim is already available? Similarly, Skies of Arcadia’s definitive version is on the Gamecube and I sunk around 10 hours into the first Mass Effect near launch before growing bored. The only big miss will be Dark Chronicle, I will have to get my fix of farming, town building and dungeon exploring at a later date. Beyond these retirements I managed eight games over the festive period, I’d aimed for ten so I have a little catching up to do in January. With a total of 56 games left and around 8 weeks to go, it’s doable but challenging, like all the best games.

Game of the Week: Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner (360).
Nightmare of the Week: Sonic Adventure 2 (DC/XBLA).

Alas, poor RPGs, I didn't know you well.

Alas, poor RPGs, I didn’t know you well.

Tech Romancer (DC) — This is technically the third title in a series that never settled down into a fixed genre. The first title, Armored Warriors, was an arcade exclusive in the Final Fight mould – with massive robots. Its sequel, Cyberbots, came home to the Saturn as a Japan exclusive and iterated on the Street Fighter 2 model – with massive robots. Tech Romancer moves into the third dimension being modelled in part upon Rival Schools – albeit with massive robots. The mechs themselves are well designed with both a sense of flair and humour. They pay homage to famous anime series of the past and both look good and move well. The mechanics, however, prove the stumbling block. With little in common to previous titles there is not really anything to iterate on. Consequently, it feels like a ‘new’ game in its feature set and experience, sure, everything is functional, but it fundamentally lacks variety and depth. It’s great to see Capcom trying something new, it even manages to tell an engaging story, but this is not a patch on Project Justice and hard to recommend beyond enthusiasts of either Capcom or the mecha genre in general. 3/5

Steep Slope Sliders (Sat) — Like a snowbound Manx TT, Steep Slope Sliders offers an enjoyable arcade experience and little else. Indeed, the package presented here actually makes Manx TT look generous. Developed from the Titan-based arcade machine this is effectively a one-to-one conversion, albeit with the expected graphical downgrades. We get to choose a racer and a course, then spend c.3 minutes on that course. That’s it. No championship mode and little variety beyond the graphics of your chosen character. There are some unlockables, mostly new boarders as a reward for setting course records, but nothing that will make you come back for more. Yes it is a faithful conversion, but this is to a fault as there is little more than 15 minutes of game here. It does play well — though not as compellingly as Manx TT — and this really is a case of ‘buyer beware’ as it is most certainly poor value for money at anything beyond £5. 3/5

Bust-A-Move 3 (Sat) — Puzzle games are my bete noir. On the surface they’re often saccharine sweet and have such simple mechanics it’s hard not to be beguiled. The devil is in the difficulty level, though, and Bust-A-Move 3 proved almost completely beyond me at anything other than its most basic. While it is clearly not ‘my type’ of game, it excels in evenly matched two-player mode and has clearly stood the test of time in both the arcade and home market. This is not just a title for puzzle fans, but a gateway drug into a world of magical girls and strangely aggressive balloons that, with enough practice, will charm almost anyone who plays it. 4/5

Sonic Adventure 2 (DC/XBLA) — This is the poster-boy for the ‘more’ versus ‘better’ discussion. Sonic Team saw fit to give us the former when the series desperately needed the latter. As a consequence there is a mish-mash of gameplay styles that veers schizophrenically from one concept to the next as the design team desperately tried to find something, anything, that worked. The speedy abandon of a Sonic level is bookended by slow paced platforming from Tails’ bizarre mech contraption — a playstyle for which the controls and the camera were simply never intended — and the horrendous, interminable Knuckles/Rouge levels that feel like a punishment for progress. I’ve been with Sonic through thick, thin and thinner and Sonic Adventure 2 is the gameplay equivalent of an addict desperate to implode just so they have something to do. For every good thing that Sonic Adventure 2 achieves (the Sonic levels, the replayability), it is counterbalanced by two awful choices (the camera, those unjustifiable Knuckles/Rouge levels, the ‘story’, the production values). It feels like Sonic is trapped in an abusive relationship with the Dreamcast. Don’t become an enabler. 2/5

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (DC) — A common theme in Capcom’s early 3D fighters has been a far smaller moveset, Star Gladiator, Tech Romancer and Rival Schools all have a comparative lack when compared to the Street Fighter juggernaut. Whilst JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is 2D, originally being released to the arcade on Capcom’s CPS-3 hardware, it shares its era with many of these titles and, as a new IP, seems to have taken inspiration from the 3D realm. Fortunately, the otherwise limited moveset is augmented by the ‘stand’ concept. Each character has an alternative avatar that can be activated, these have their own moves and it effectively doubles the options for each character. This adds depth as their activation is tied to a gauge that is built when taking damage. Not only does it expand the options available, but it also acts as a way to get back into a fight that is slipping away. Something must be said of the visuals, based on the long running and popular Japanese manga, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure neatly captures the comic aesthetic and ties it to a wacky and inventive take on the fighter. There is a lack of depth, though there are two games to play, and a lack of refinement, but it’s a strong game and certain to entertain fans of the series and genre. 3/5

Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Isle (Sat) — For all the troubled development of Sonic games on the Saturn, Sonic 3D represents a surprisingly robust experience. Going into Christmas 1996 without a major release to prop-up their ailing 32-bit console, Sega repurposed this Mega Drive title with beautiful colours, a Richard Jacques soundtrack and an all new Sonic 2 inspired special stage. With such limited time available these largely cosmetic changes, not dissimilar to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, fail to compensate for the issues with Sonic 3D’s design. Namely, the isometric viewpoint which stifles any attempts at moving through the levels with the graceful joy normally associated with Sonic. The ability to lose Sonic in the 3D effect was at least recognized and compensated by having depopulated levels. This stops the problem of constantly running into enemies, but relegates the title to little more than an extremely well presented collect-‘em-up. In accommodating this design flaw — which was really market pressures for 3D titles being exerted on antiquated 16-bit hardware — the essence of Sonic has been removed, leaving a frustrating fetch quest that is an hazy facsimile of the hedgehog’s glory days. 2/5

Kengo (PS2) — Having sunk several hours into the one-player mode and completed the tournament, it is safe to say that Kengo is completely unlike anything else out there. It strives to be a samurai simulator, rather than a traditional one-on-one fighting game. Consequently, a high level of technical skill and timing is demanded of the player, this requires an investment of time and a thick skin to overcome the initial acclimatization period. Those willing to persevere will find a combat system with depth and nuance and no lack of deadly, tense encounters. In striving for martial verity, one mere blow from a blade can all but end a bout. Though the gameplay may be markedly different, the tension is reminiscent of titles like SNK’s Last Blade and Sega’s own Last Bronx with battles that are both swift and deadly. Frustrations do creep in, targeting is particularly poor, leading to missed combos and the game desperately needs a form of ‘Z targeting’. That this is one of the few one-on-one fighters that also excels in one player mode, as your character trains at dojos, learning new skills and customizing the moveset, is just the icing on the cake. This is well worth anyone’s investment in time. 4/5

Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner (360) — Being kind to The 2nd Runner feels like letting it down. You see, it seems to want to be disliked in the same way a masochist wants to be hurt. The difficulty spikes in this title are, frankly, beyond obnoxious and border on the poisonous, revelling in randomly throwing a series of softballs interspaced with the kind of frustrating nonsense that sternly tests both controller build quality player patience. Yet, for all its efforts to be disliked, it is a superb experience. The emptiness and lack of depth that plagued the first game has been overhauled. There’s so much more to do in combat, so many more demands made of the player, that it is intensely engaging. That this is wrapped up with superb designs by Kojima Productions and a graphical overhaul that sings in HD really add to the package. Indeed, it is testament to The 2nd Runner that, for all its flaws, I could not stop playing it. This engagement goes beyond the mechanics as there is a well crafted, beautifully realized world within that is expressed with a creativity in design and gameplay that is rarely seen. It is just unfortunate that the title comes so very close to greatness only to be let down by its difficulty. It is, after all, called a difficulty ‘curve’, not ‘mountain range’. Prepare the pitons, they will be needed, and climb the mountain for the best reason: because it is there. 4/5

Next Week

Next week, on Battle of the Backlog…