Doing Retro Right

You may be surprised to hear this, but I’ve been playing some games lately. I know, I know, I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself. Specifically, I’ve been playing entries in long running series that strongly call back to earlier, well-regarded games in the series. Suikoden V, which is absolutely steeped in Suikoden 2, and Yakuza 0, which is completely built on top Yakuza 1. In atmosphere, world, and design, both of those games call back on earlier territory. They’re also both very good! In building themselves off of series favorites, they’ve managed to make something exceptional themselves.

So many games try to mimic other games to ill effect. It’s depressingly common for a series to get stuck after an excellent entry as it always tries to recapture what made that game great without ever quite surpassing it. It’s also common for a game to try and ape the features of a successful game from other creators, without understanding what made it great. So why is it that these two games, which are so focused on building off of earlier games, managed to make things work while others in similar situations do not? I’m thinking that they have a lot of features in common. Now, there are other games that take to their big retro focus really well, without necessarily doing any of those things here, so this isn’t an exhaustive list of what makes fandom callback games good, but I think it is a nice highlight of what worked in at least these scenarios

They Built on Top of the Originals

A common problem with games that try too hard to mimic a former entry is that they either settle for being a copy, or if they do expand on the original, they do so in an unsteady manner. New features either don’t mesh with the original model, or they’re implemented in such a way that shows a developers lack of confidence in going beyond the formula.

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Both these games successfully navigate all these problems, by confidently, and successfully, building on top of the established the formula. Suikoden V is perhaps the better example of this. The previous two games in the series had taken some ill-received liberties with the central mechanics of the Suikoden series, and Suikoden 5 proved to be a return to form for the franchise. Yet even as they dropped the familiar mechanics back in there, they still put plenty of new features onto them, changing the way the system worked. The traditional six person setup had formations added to it, adding a bit of new tactics. There were new options for acquiring and utilizing runes, changing up how that traditional rune hunting worked. Navigating the world map took on a whole separate realm of pathfinding as well, as the new system of rivers both broke up the landscape and provided additional routes through it. Suikoden V was a return to form, yes, but even if you just went straight from Suikodens II to V, they built enough on there to change the way the formula works. It’s new and fresh again.

Yakuza 0 operates similarly. The series has been using the same combat formula for however many games now. It’s a solid one. And they’ve already added a new character here, so there’s already new movesets built into it. They could have left it there. But rather, they took the risk on building a whole-new style-switching system into the new engine. The new combat system keeps the mechanics and the spirit of the old-style Yakuza combat but it twists it into something that feels brand new.

In so doing, they escape making an experience that’s inevitably worse than the original by trying to copy it exactly, while also delivering an experience that’s quality by developing the new features both smartly and in line with what made the classics great.

They Subvert Established Expectations

Part of the reason series sell so well is that we know what to expect. An IP builds up trust in the design philosophy, the mechanics, the storytelling, the team behind it. After we have a good experience with one entry in a series, we expect the next to carry through not just a similar level of quality, but in a similar style. That’s why we keep anticipating the next entry, that’s why we keep going back to a series we love. And especially in series that have such a consistent formula as Suikoden and Yakuza, we know what to expect out of it way more than usual, down to the details.

And the two games that spawned this post are well aware of that. And they use that. They don’t need to do the groundwork in establishing your expectations before they start subverting them, they just play off of what the earlier games set.

Yakuza 0 has the most prime example. Majima Goro has appeared every other game in the series, always showing up as the mad dog, blood knight, fighting rules everything type. He may be on your side at times, but you still need to beat your ideals into him in order to earn his help. He is always a wild man, living for his own cause and amusement.

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So when he’s introduced in his first canon playable appearance, and he is demure, prim, and above-all non-violent, it is positively jarring. An explanation is forthcoming, but even after that he’s not yet the powerful figure he is later on in the timeline, and he allows others to hold his leash. This dissonance with the Majima we know adds a lot of depth to the character, one that’s carried through for as long as I’ve been playing thus far.

Suikoden V plays with a common story element that’s been showing up through the series. Every game in the Suikoden series has a big plot twist on betrayal. You’ll have a character who’s been working closely with you thus completely screw your plans by selling you out to the enemy, usually relatively early on. Suikoden V has a betrayal occur early on, but it doesn’t quite fit the element here, so it’s not a satisfactory call back. Then it gives you a character who fits everything to set that up, being both very close to you and having a background that could easily lead to that betrayal. She never does. Then a reliable character claims that another close character had been in the process of betraying you all along. Turns out that was a misunderstanding. The betrayal does come, but way later than usual, to the point that all these subversions had me thinking the game wasn’t actually going to do it, and as a result, hit way harder than I expected.

Honestly, this is probably my favorite element here, that these game use what came before to twist things into something unexpected. Led to some of the most powerful individual moments in those games.

They Make the Originals Bigger

It’s not easy to retroactively add to a story. It’s easy to retroactively make it worse, by spoiling conclusions or adding plot holes, but retroactively leading to a better understanding takes some conscious doing.

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Suikoden V had an easy time of it, as the whole of the Suikoden series is written as if it’s a small part of a greater narrative none of us are privileged to be in on. So this isn’t unique to Suikoden V, the rest of the series after the first does this too, but V was the best at it. Nearly every returning element from another game had their story added to. The best example is Georg Prime, who was just a random mysterious badass with a questionable background in Suikoden II, but becomes one of the leading characters in Suikoden V and you get to see just what the circumstances were that led him there. It also takes the time to explain just what was up between those relic hunters, which was almost completely unexplained in Suikoden II. It goes beyond that, too, showing what happened with your homelands in Suikoden IV hundreds of years after the end of your journey. Playing this game actually rounds out those characters and setting retroactively, so you’ve got more of an understanding when you’re coming back to the originals.

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The original Yakuza always suffered from the fact that its leading villain, Nishikiyama, was a little underdeveloped. He was supposedly a childhood friend of your leading character, to the point that the protagonist is willing to through his life away for him in the beginning of the story, but you never got a chance to really connect with him. The few times you see Nishikiyama before his start of darkness he’s too mired in his depression and his own business to really demonstrate much of the connection he supposedly has with your protagonist. Then, after the time skip, when it turns out that everything you’ve done for him has left him rotten, it doesn’t have that big ring of betrayal that it should, because his original relationship was never established. Yakuza 0 corrects that, starting before everything went down, and showing him as your most reliable ally through everything you go through, and showing the relationship as it should have been shown in Yakuza 0. Haven’t played through the original Yakuza since I started 0, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have a whole different view of events next time through.

They Stand on their Own

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And, you know, this is a pretty big one. Yes, both these games call back to others pretty heavily. Yes, you’re going to have a different experience with these coming in new than if your an experienced player. But they still stand on their own. They’re good experiences either way. The mechanics are sound, the stories fall into a self-contained arc that doesn’t rely on another game for setup or completion, and anyone could pick it up and get a whole, complete, quality game. The retro features are just icing on the cake, and that makes the cake as a whole all the more worth it.

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Raider Time in Fallout Chapter 5!

Last time, on our adventures through the world of Fallout, you guys decided to take our dear, innocent Athena, who has never faced off against anything more fearsome than a giant bug, who has never even fired her weapon at another person, who knows next to nothing about the world outside her Vault, and throw her against a gang of amoral killers and plunderers, each of whom would just as soon slit her throat as talk to her. I hope you all are proud of yourselves.

I know I am! So let’s talk tactics, first. No, not Fallout Tactics. Please, let’s not talk about that one. Battlefield tactics. No, not the EA series. Just… look at this.

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That how the Khan’s base is set up. Most of those tents hold one to two raiders apiece. There’s one raider guarding the front entrance, and two guarding the rear. There’s another seven raiders inside, including Garl, by far the toughest of the lot. Also inside are the two enslaved women we’re coming here to rescue. Most of the raiders are armed with spears, but there’s plenty of gunslingers in their crew. The weapon of choice for the distance combatants is the .44 caliber Desert Eagle, a weapon with more range and punch than the 10mm guns Ian and Athena are wielding. All the raiders are wearing leather armor, the next step up from the leather jackets we’re bearing, save for Garl who’s outfitted in the positively daunting metal armor.

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So in other words, we are desperately outnumbered, completely outgunned, and totally out-armored.

First order of business is preparation. I split the stimpaks we have between Ian and I. Honestly, I’m more worried about Ian’s chances of survival more than I am my own or the two slaves. Dude’s a good shot, but he’s a tactical doofus. I really hope we’re not going to need six stimpaks each, because if it gets to the point that Ian’s spending all his turns healing instead of fighting, we’re pretty doomed, but we have them, just in case. Going in, I’m expecting that we’ll be relying pretty heavily on Athena’s SMG. Using burst fire is a great way to make things dead quick, although it only works well at close range and will eat through ammo like crazy. Getting mobbed is an absolute no go, we need to be able to keep the amount of people within firing range to a reasonable level in order to make it through.

We arrive there at night, by design. Everyone’s going to be missing more in the dark, but as Athena’s perception rises at night, she’s going to fare better than most. Garl had said in no uncertain terms not to come back after last time. I’m not sure if that means the Khans are going to be aggressive on sight, but we don’t risk it, in any case. Athena moves along the edges of the camp, and circles around to the rear entrance of the building. If possible, I want to take out remote groups a few at a time, and the people in the back are the most vulnerable. Athena sneaks around the corner, tucks in between the building and the nearby outhouse, then takes careful aim with her weapon. Knowing that this is the last moment in which she’ll be in control before the shots fired draw the entire horde upon them, devolving the camp into a maelstrom of complete madness, she carefully draws a bead on the nearest guard, slows her breathing, calms her mind, and…

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freaking. Misses. Ian, who I’m sure scoffs at her a little bit, steps up to the plate and nails the guard with two shots in a row like a freakin’ pro. The two raiders approach, and two of the raiders inside hear the sounds of fighting and come out, but Athena and Ian gun down the first two before they come near. One of the new raiders has a gun and fires on our duo, but misses. Athena misses her return fire. Ian aims at the gunwoman and scores a critical hit to the groin, taking her out of the fight for the moment. Athena continues her missing spree, but Ian scores hits on both of the raiders and ends them.

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Cooking with Testosterone: Steak and Sprouts

My family cajoled me into writing a dumb thing about cooking again.  I thought there’s a slim possibility someone other than them would enjoy it, so what the hell, let’s share it here.

So what we’re looking at today is steak and sprouts, a meal that became a classic the instant it emerged from my head. You might remember brussel sprouts as those vegetables you haven’t seen ever since you got your own home because your parents always made you eat them because they were ‘good for you’ even though they both looked and tasted like green cow poop. As it turns out, it’s not only possible to make them taste good, it’s easy, you just have to get over that parental idea that only bad things are good for you.

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If you’re lucky enough to have one of those moms who loves you, then you might have no idea what brussel sprouts look like. You can see them in the picture here. I used frozen brussel sprouts for this dish. Fresh brussel sprouts would almost certainly be better, but that’s a risky proposition, as the chances of you eating them before they go bad is almost nil on account of the fact that they’re brussel sprouts. Our first step is to cut them into chunks. Then we bake them. We do this first, because brussel sprouts take a long while to cook. That means that not only did your mom make torture you with her lame, disgusting sprouts, she put a lot of work into her torment too.

After that, it’s time to prep the steak. We’ll rub Worcestershire sauce, salt, and fresh black pepper into both sides. Keep in mind that Worcestershire sauce uses sardines as an ingredient, so if you’re making this steak for your vegetarian friends, maybe find a substitute sauce. Then we’ll let that sit for a while.

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In order to get our sprouts tasting good, we need to add something that counteracts both their bitterness and their healthiness. So we fight the brussel sprouts with another superfood, and mix pomegranate juice with maple syrup. We’re going to boil this concoction down until it’s thicker than the maple syrup in consistency.

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As our brussel sprouts are starting to get crispy, we’re going to break out the manliest of cookware, the cast-iron pan. Requiring regular care and upkeep, with a passionate fandom behind it, and heavy and sturdy enough that you can use it to fight of the horde when they show up at the door, this pan fits every uber-male stereotype I care to think of at the moment. We’re going to drop some oil in it, get it good and hot, and sear one side of our steak. Once that’s done, we flip the steak over, and immediately pop it in the oven, pan and all, for a good bake.

Sprouts are done once they’ve crisped up and are starting to brown in the core. The syrup’s done when it’s a syrup. I’m sure you know what to do then.

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And that’s how it all comes out. So how good is it? Well, I’d tell you, but I wouldn’t want to make you all jealous that I got to eat this and you didn’t.

The Higurashi Notes, Chapter 2: Watanagashi-The New Major Factors

In spite of just starting the tale over using the same setting and conflict, and mostly the same characters, Watanagashi does add a lot of new things into our understanding of the Higurashi world. Let’s take a look at some of the more major ones. And, as always, be wary of spoilers. We won’t cover anything from later chapters, but I’m taking everything from Onikakushi and Watanagashi as fair game.

Cycles

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Watanagashi resets the clock on the whole Higurashi deal. As you might recall from the last chapter, Onikakushi, the story consisted of an arc wherein Keiichi moved to town, made friends, had good times, then everything went to hell and he died in mysterious circumstances after killing his friends. Watanagashi rolls the clock back to right at the beginning of when Keiichi started having good times, then starts taking things in a different direction. So it starts over. Rewinds time, then retells the story with different happenings. Lots of things do that. So what’s the issue?

Well, it’s clear that everything in Onikakushi still happened. Keiichi’s life still fell apart, he went insane and probably killed his friends, then died himself. This is not a simple narrative tool, where we’re getting to see a different dimension to the story. Something actually occurred to restart things, to flip the pages of Keiichi’s story back to near the beginning, and then it moves differently from there. We know this, because when whatever refreshed things happened, it left behind some scars.

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They’re deep scars, ones you can’t see very well, but they’re still there. Keiichi gets the odd feeling that he can’t explain, momentary flashbacks to what happened last time around, that he’s no longer in a position to understand. Something in side of him is screaming for him that he’s in danger, but given that his memories are lost with the time, he’s not able to pick up on it. This is most clear when he first runs into Ooishi, and where last chapter he warmed up to the detective pretty quickly after a bit of a cold reception, this chapter around he automatically gets some pretty severe misgivings every time Ooishi shows up. Not only that, but he’s already way more familiar with both Ooishi and Tomitake than he should be when they first meet. Those memories are leaking through, he just doesn’t realize it. Because why would he?

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It’s not just Keiichi that these memories seem to be leaking through with, either. Takano already seems to know more about Keiichi and his limitations than she should for someone who just met him. The police made no connections between the murders and the disappearances last chapter, whereas they’re completely on top of the pattern this time around, although that may be less the memory-wipe breaking down than it was Ooishi just dicking with Keiichi in the previous tale. Tomitake seems to have his odd misgivings as well. Whatever’s going on to reset time here, it doesn’t just seem to be localized to Keiichi.

Overall, Watanagashi is waaaaay less into the “maybe it’s people, maybe it’s magic” deal than Onikakushi was. Except for this. And this alone. But the nature of these cycles, whatever it may be, is huge. And for that reason, Watanagashi feels a lot more supernatural in nature than Onikakushi did, even though outside of time repeating itself, there’s very little that doesn’t have a person directly behind it. Some sort of outside force sent time spiraling back to it’s start, and it would take quite a bit of doing for that to have been something the people made happen themselves. These are almost certainly some other-that-human forces at work, here.

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How long have these cycles been going on, though? How many times has time repeated itself. Think back to the opening of Onikakushi. Before it got into the story proper, it opened with a narrating character killing a woman with several sickening blows. At the time, I had theorized that was what was going on during the period of time that Keiichi had blacked out at the end of the chapter, before he woke up to find his friends dead, but maybe that’s not the case. Sure, that could easily be Keiichi and Rena, but at the end of that chapter, he apparently murdered his friends in his room. When the chapter opened, the scenery showed an outdoors location, under the open sky. Maybe, rather than filling in the gaps in Keiichi’s cognition, that actually showed similar occurences in an earlier timeline?

You know, the idea of cycles may not be limited to temporal loops. A big chunk of last chapter also focused on how Keiichi was repeating the final actions of another, posthumous character before that guy had disappeared. Stuff repeats in Hinamizawa. And I guess it doesn’t usually lead anywhere fun.

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How about you and I… Play Fallout Chapter 4?

Hey, we’re back. With this thing. You know, where we’re out in that whole post-apocalypse deal. Let’s pick up where we left off. You might recall, we just cleared out Vault 15, and found that the only hope for salvation that we knew about was completely obliterated and everyone we love was probably going to die of thirst. So what do we do now? A whole bunch of unrelated milling about in the middle of nowhere? That sounds like a great idea!

In any case, after plumbing the depths of Vault 15 for largely naught, we stump our depressed little heads back to the village of Shady Sands. I figure, if we can’t help our people, why not make the Wasteland a friendlier place by helping someone else’s?

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First things first, we head to the farm side of town. After gawking a bit at the Brahmin, the big, unwieldy, two headed cows that make up livestock in the wasteland, we find ourselves chatting with a farmer. As with most of the NPCs we deal with, there’s nothing visually to tell he’s anything special, but if you’re meticulous about looking at all the villagers, well, a few of them do stand out in description.

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In any case, we had pointedly avoided this guy before, because we have to do this sidequest the first time we talk to him, and it requires us to have a certain scientific capability that Athena didn’t have until she leveled up. You remember how school always made you dissect rats? I guess Athena’s been doing that. With bullets. And that taught her more about crop rotation, which she tells this guy about. This improves Shady Sands architecture and sets in motion events that will see the community grow and foster and give relative stability to the lives of thousands and build a single beacon of order in a world that truly lacks for it, but more importantly, it gives us a few hundred experience points.

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Second, we head to the town doctor, Razlo, and give him the radscorpion tails Ian’s been carrying around in his pants. The doctor can synthesize an antivenom from the poison sacs therein, and gives us a free dose of antidote for every tail we bring him. We walk into the back of the doctor’s home, where he has Jarvis, Seth’s brother, resting there in treatment for the bad case of radscorpion poisoning he’s got. We administer one of our doses of antidote to him because Razlo apparently couldn’t be arsed, and Jarvis starts feeling better. Not well enough to be like jumping around and dancing or anything, but at least his life is out of danger. Again, we don’t get much of a concrete reward for this, but we do get a bunch of experience points for it. Enough to put us at level 3, in fact! We wait until night to take advantage of Athena’s Night Person nature, then level up. You know what time it is now? Time for some more audience participation! So every three levels, we’re going to get a new perk, and I need you guys to… oh hey. Already taken care of. Glad I remembered to get something done before my life turned all to crap.

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