ninja gaiden

Nioh Review — Somewhat Soulful Action

by Jed Pressgrove

The word out there is true: Nioh swipes a lot from Dark Souls. Enemies resurrect when you heal at a shrine (a parallel to the bonfire in Souls); you lose experience points (known as Amrita in Nioh) when you die but can regain them if you make it back to your point of failure without perishing; shiny objects on dead warriors attract your eye; and so on. But developer Team Ninja shifts the focus from deliberate horror to whip-smart action, similar to how Hideo Yoshizawa’s Ninja Gaiden (1988) revised Castlevania (1986), and avoids Hidetaka Miyazaki’s pseudo-existential, juvenile gibberish that made the latest Souls games (Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) case studies in pretentious pop gaming. The only catch is that, unlike Ninja Gaiden and its cutscenes, Nioh doesn’t understand how brief storytelling can supercharge spectacular martial arts.

When it comes to the spectacle and intricacies of fighting, Nioh is what Bloodborne should have been all along. Whereas Bloodborne neutralized its speed, its kinetic potential, with awkward risk-reward concepts (such as regaining health by immediately attacking enemies after taking damage), Nioh adds fresh nuance to the 3-D beat ’em up with the “Ki Pulse” move, which rebuilds your stamina more quickly when you tap the right shoulder button just as balls of light touch your character after you perform an attack. “Ki Pulse” is a rhythm game within the action that, when mastered, creates an unprecedented sense of stabilization and can work as a way to recover from combos, set up jabbing strikes, neutralize stamina-draining fields, or avoid a counterattack. (The flexibility of this system surpasses the color-coded defensive cues in the tragically underrated Golden Axe: Beast Rider.)

Nioh’s triumph over its obvious predecessors doesn’t stop there. You can take one of three stances (low, mid, or high) to improve evasion, counterattacking, or power. These stances also alter the normal and strong attacks of any weapon, granting the player artistic and technical license that make the stylistic flourishes in Devil May Cry, 3-D Ninja Gaiden (2004), or Bayonetta seem amateurish in comparison. As you go from boss fight to boss fight, Nioh forces you to grasp new layers of its complex combat. This approach is a far cry from the grinding that players often experience in Dark Souls, where luck can play as much of a role as skill. You are far less likely to be fortunate in Nioh; continued victory demands an articulate understanding of the game’s martial theories and practices, which emphasize the satisfaction, rather than the relief, of winning.

It’s a shame, then, that Nioh is a rambling mess otherwise. As if samurai protagonist William looking almost exactly like Geralt from The Witcher isn’t embarrassing enough, the narration in Nioh’s intro sounds like someone doing an exaggeration of William Shatner’s choppy delivery. And the cutscenes do not get more lively, outside of when bizarre animal spirits show up. Ironically, the most powerful text in Nioh is its message to you when you die (“Freed from this mortal coil”), which kicks off initially sorrowful music that morphs into something peaceful and content (a breath of fresh air after the dread of the Souls series).

In contrast to Nioh’s one-dimensional superiority over its influences, Ninja Gaiden wasn’t merely a better action title than Castlevania. It revolutionized storytelling in video games, allowing a concise narrative to bring a distinct emotional urgency that played off the speed of the hero. Thanks to protagonist Ryu Hayabusa’s pregame outburst about the death of his father, a fatal duel in an introductory cutscene drives every bit of the nonstop action in Ninja Gaiden. In Nioh’s first map screen, a duel is talked about casually, objectively. Yes, this duel involves only a sub-mission, but it’s a wasted opportunity to inject the human condition into the fighting, a missed chance to further enhance an already exciting kind of action, where rhythmic conservation reveals a blistering array of aesthetically sophisticated violence. Let raw emotion run through the entire affair — that’s what Ninja Gaiden on the NES tried to teach the pop video game world, and Nioh is yet another entry that doesn’t get it.

On the Significance of Mega Man 3

by Jed Pressgrove

The release of Mega Man Legacy Collection raises an old question: “What is the best Mega Man game?”

For years, this question has inspired a strand of criticism known as the overly sentimental Mega Man 2 review, which, if nothing else, matches the overly sentimental tone of the game. Mega Man 2’s intro enshrines its protagonist as a defender of justice standing on the top of a building, the wind blowing his hair. Takashi Tateishi’s music starts slow and romantic before awkwardly speeding up to make the cliche of a hero watching over a city seem significant and exciting.

Mega Man 3, the greatest entry of the prolific series, sets a far different tone with its more straightforward title screen. It’s immediately apparent that Yasuaki Fujita is a more sophisticated composer than Tateishi and Manami Matsumae, who scored the original Mega Man. Fujita’s opening notes are bittersweet like the blues (it wouldn’t take much of an imagination to visualize a harmonica), and when the song changes tempo, it forms a sudden yet natural-feeling crescendo, avoiding the contrived anticipation of Tateishi. In Mega Man 2, Tateishi’s music speeds up to get you pumped up. Fujita’s opening music in Mega Man 3 accomplishes the same while carrying a hint of sadness.

The level select screen of Mega Man 3 builds on this complication. In contrast to the boring level select screens from the first two games, Mega Man 3 puts the protagonist’s face right in the middle of the screen, his eyes moving with the cursor as you browse the robot villains. This anticipation might have been nothing more than a presentation trick if not for complementing elements. Mega Man’s frown is a departure from his usual blank expression, suggesting a weariness about his robot vs. robot fate. The level select screen’s music (the best track of any Mega Man game) supports this interpretation. The lead melody, while catchy and upbeat, evokes tragic possibilities. The music of Mega Man 3’s predecessors was never this ambiguous, and it wasn’t until Mega Man 6 that the series would try to replicate this pathos at the level select screen.

The emotional framing of Mega Man 3’s title and level select screens instills the ensuing action with a sense of rugged duty. After you defeat a robot villain, the weapon-gaining segment recalls the hero’s conflicted seriousness. This effect deviates from Mega Man 2’s funky and tedious post-level sequences, which become especially ridiculous when Dr. Light shares vague references to items. Compared to the original Mega Man (which didn’t waste time with such scenes), Mega Man 2 doesn’t value simplicity. Mega Man 3 redeems Mega Man 2’s approach with style and substance.

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Mega Man 3 would only be half as remarkable without superior action and weapons. Mega Man 2 often receives credit for surpassing the original and making movement a little less slippery and the journey more forgiving. Yet the protagonist in Mega Man 2 still pointlessly slides forward a bit if you don’t release the directional pad through a jump, contradicting the requirement of precision landings. Mega Man 3 corrects this issue and adds an actual slide, a maneuver that, once performed, brings about the realization that Mega Man should have always had this dynamic capability. In lacking this move, the first two Mega Man games ask for more memorization of levels and enemy attacks so that you don’t find yourself out of position. Mega Man 3’s slide represents an extra reflex, allowing the possibility of a skillful evasive reaction. The tactic may seem minor, but unlike Mega Man 4’s charged shot, the slide can’t be removed without rendering the proceedings awkward (as demonstrated by its absence in the beginning of Mega Man X).

The other small tweaks in Mega Man 3 combine for a considerable improvement in pacing and aesthetics. The hero climbs ladders faster, and there’s a shorter delay when the game scrolls from screen to screen as you advance. These two changes sharpen the kinetic rhythm of the series — one of the best sensual pleasures of Mega Man 3 occurs when you scroll up or down a screen while climbing a ladder. It’s the difference between being propelled and being dragged on a dull ride.

The most obvious attraction of Mega Man 3 is a selection of weapons and items that doesn’t inspire head scratching. Mega Man 3 has no lazy missteps like Mega Man 2’s Time Stopper, which runs out of energy so quickly that it resembles nothing more than a throwaway power-up. The laughably named Item 1, Item 2, and Item 3 from Mega Man 2 get replaced by different forms of Rush, Mega Man’s robot dog. Unlike the case with Items 1-3, you can fire your standard cannon while using Rush. This change isn’t about fairness so much as keeping the action logical and appealing. Mega Man 3’s Search Snake trumps its predecessor’s Bubble Lead, which, curiously, wasn’t bubble-like and, absurdly, required to defeat the final boss in Mega Man 2. Mega Man 3’s most experimental weapon (by the series’ standards), Top Spin, illustrates again a subtle attention to detail. Depending on how carefully you initiate contact with an enemy, Top Spin can be a frustrating energy drainer or a unique way of handling problems. Top Spin, like the slide, enriches the grammar of action in a way that only Mega Man X’s wall scaling and dash jumping can rival.

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Mega Man 3 is more epic than Mega Man 2, but of course the former has the enviable position of coming after the latter. This advantage shines when Mega Man 3, while revising four of its primary levels, reuses the eight robot villains from Mega Man 2, forcing you to cycle through weapons to pinpoint weaknesses before being annihilated. These trials emphasize another minor yet major difference between the two games: in Mega Man 3, your standard weapon doesn’t hurt bosses as much as it did in Mega Man 2, creating especially suspenseful moments when both you and the enemy are on the brink of destruction.

As we all know for various reasons, greater length doesn’t always mean better. Some of Mega Man 3’s later challenges may remind you of this maxim. The fight with sea turtle robots is surprisingly innocuous. Although Mega Man 3’s version of the Yellow Devil results in a less monotonous battle than in the original game, its inclusion implies the production team was too comfortable with old ideas. While the concluding bosses are more interesting concepts, that you can use Top Spin to eradicate the final enemy in one hit is a design flaw that encourages know-it-all gamers to feel good about themselves.

These observations play off the notion that other games are closer to perfection than any Mega Man entry. Mega Man 3’s addition of a mysterious family member, Proto Man, can’t match the understandable melodrama of the father-son relationship in Ninja Gaiden (1988). From a standpoint of action, the gymnastics of the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy outweighs anything that the Mega Man franchise can muster. Mega Man, as a shooter, can’t compete with the traditional Contra series. And if we consider games that involve gaining the abilities of enemies, Kirby’s Adventure is a more consistent masterpiece. But Mega Man 3 is still a better action game than most, and its dramatic kineticism transcends the modest foundation laid by its ancestors. For that, it’s worth remembering.

Axiom Verge Review — Retro Dope

by Jed Pressgrove

Axiom Verge functions as a temporary cure for retro withdrawal, which affects critics as much as it does anyone, regardless of whether they grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Thomas Happ is a talented developer and does manage to make a more impressive game than Phil Fish’s Fez, the corniest Nintendo nostalgia ever peddled. Even so, Axiom Verge’s impersonations mostly add up to a walk we’ve taken too many times. It’s no secret the gaming world has blue balls over the anticipation of another entry of Metroid, the franchise that serves as Axiom Verge’s primary influence. This yearning is evident in the hoopla over watered-down versions of Metroid, commonly referred to as “Metroidvania” games (the “vania” comes from gamer obsession with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a Metroid-esque disaster with countless useless items and a fake ending). To Happ’s credit, Axiom Verge showcases some ideas that are more inventive than the norm. At the same time, this love letter to 8-bit classics will be seen as a Messiah simply for filling a Metroid-sized hole.

From the beginning, Axiom Verge struggles to create a dramatic identity. The game opens with a comic-book cutscene, a device used extensively in Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden trilogy on the NES. Whereas Ninja Gaiden uses such scenes between stages to add melodramatic weight to its swift and linear action, Axiom Verge abandons this style in favor of dialogue boxes that interrupt its exploration. Through dialogue Happ attempts to establish a conflicted protagonist in Trace, who has one funny observation: “The whole ‘chosen one’ story doesn’t inspire much confidence.” With a name that suggests incompleteness, Trace takes orders from sentient, motherly machines to put an end to an unethical science experiment. The closer you get to the end, the more evident it becomes that the storytelling is hamstrung by tradition. Trace might bemoan violence here and there, yet his dry nerd-turned-badass language trumps moral consideration. Trace doesn’t have the believable confusion and anger of Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu Hayabusa. And do players really care about Trace’s tangential moralizing as they blast away at every form of life that stands in their way? Sure, it’s interesting on the surface when you literally trade places with a creature being obliterated by a gun-toting hero, but that’s more of a cute deconstructive trick than meaningful commentary, no more profound than how the broken English of the feminine guides evoke a fanboy’s delight in poor translations of old games. Axiom Verge is a playground, not a philosophical text.

Axiom Verge’s emphasis on reexploring places to find new paths and items is a very familiar Metroid routine that goes like this: as you advance, you notice that you can’t travel all paths because of your limited ability and equipment. You start to recognize specific obstacles as they reject your desire to explore. While on the main story path, you stumble upon an ability that is designed to pass a certain type of blockage, but despite this obvious practicality, you have to retrace your steps, going through the same doors and the same environments again and again and again until you get every last damn thing you can on the map. The repetition of backtracking is somewhat tailored by abilities that allow you to move in different ways (for example, teleportation vs. jumping).

If you’re willing to accept this routine on its terms, the appeal of Axiom Verge ultimately lies in Happ’s execution of the form, which is mixed. Happ is at his most creative when it comes to the abilities and equipment for overcoming obstacles to further exploration. In contrast to Shovel Knight’s mindless pandering, Axiom Verge doesn’t mark walls for easy destruction. You have to poke around with a drill on a mad treasure hunt, and when you finally see a wall start to give, the result is legitimate excitement. Even more interesting is the drone that you shoot out and then control in claustrophobic areas that the hero can’t traverse. As the drone (which features Happ’s best sound design), you have adventures that go beyond the boundaries of single rooms. These segments have a sneaky determination that gives a needed break from the wandering hero bits. Happ’s most provocative contribution to the formula is a gun that can hack enemies and parts of the environment. While sometimes the hacking is merely a stylish way of blowing away pixelated crap, the ability does bring surprises with its effects on enemies. Still, compared to the game-altering possibilities in the otherwise mediocre Hack ‘N’ Slash, Axiom Verge’s hacking gun is quite limited and serves as another reminder of retro withdrawal with its NES glitch allusions.

The biggest shortcoming of Happ’s Metroidvania riffing is a problem that the superior Magicians & Looters avoided: the pointlessness of so many items that, in turn, raises the question of why anyone would want to find them in the first place. Axiom Verge has an appreciable number of weapons, but the Kilver, perhaps best described as an electrifying shotgun, renders almost every other gun a waste of space. The Kilver comes early in the game and not only destroys enemies quickly but also shoots through platforms and walls. When you reach a particular boss that constantly shields itself, you can make short work of it by running straight through the shield (taking damage all the while) and firing the Kilver nonstop. While the health enhancers are more useful than the obligatory guns, Axiom Verge fumbles again by pretending that random back-story notes reward exploration. I’m starting to believe that not even a prison sentence would discourage developers from hiding fragments of a weak story and presenting them as trophies to be won.

Despite the flaws, there’s nothing revolting about Axiom Verge. There’s also little that’s special about it. The hype behind Metroid wannabes reflects the low bar that game culture sets for everything and a dreadful memory (after more than 12 years, Metroid Prime is still better than the imitators). Axiom Verge will receive Game of the Year consideration just as Shovel Knight did last year, which will further propagate the cliché that all games are influenced by others and that’s it’s all about execution, with few reflections on why influences matter or what we value in the execution of ideas. This boring echo chamber overlooks Amazing Princess Sarah, Shutshimi, and other games inspired by classics that go beyond gentle homage, acceptable pastiche, and momentary cessations of retro cravings. The Verge writes “Axiom Verge feels like a brand new Metroid.” So what?

The Fetishization of Violent Enslavement in Gaming: A Response to Retro Gamer

by Jed Pressgrove

As surely as artists have the right to depict violence, people also have the right to enjoy and criticize violence in art. From the enjoyment angle, many gamers are sensitive about criticism of violence in video games, partially due to politicians and media using violent games as a scapegoat for their own failures to foster a safe society. Indeed, the idea that violent games breed killing machines is an overstatement from a statistical standpoint. At the same time, it’s fair to raise questions and make claims about how violence is used in games and how its usage might impact our sensitivity to violence or conflict with our morality. Some game critics have written good analyses of game violence (see articles by Patrick Lindsey, Ed Smith, and Mark Filipowich, among others). But a recent article in Retro Gamer (Issue 131) gave me considerable pause after I read its evaluation of a certain act of violence in BioShock.  The most troubling sentence was in the article’s final paragraph:

‘A slave obeys,’ it tells us, as we smash our own father’s head in with a golf club — an activity we had no choice but to perform.

Let’s note that we, the audience, always have a choice about what art we consume in our homes. We can stop reading books, watching movies, listening to music, or playing games at any point. I recall Takashi Miike, the transgressive filmmaker of Audition and Ichi the Killer, saying that if the violence in one of his films gets too much for you, take a break and resume later. This very simple choice that we have as an audience stands in contrast to the notion that a game segment was “an activity we had no choice but to perform.” This notion rejects enjoyment of violence in favor of a morbid fascination with supposed enslavement.

The Retro Gamer article in question is part of a regular column called “Future Classics.” I was unsurprised to see BioShock selected for this distinction. The game is overly loved by game critics. The issue doesn’t lie with people enjoying the game or discussing its themes. The issue arises when critics, such as Leigh Alexander and Tom McShea, promote a sort of cultural elitism when speaking about BioShock or creator Ken Levine (Alexander’s and McShea’s negative reviews of BioShock Infinite do little to refute their appraisal of Levine’s superiority). All that said, my disappointment in Retro Gamer’s article is more related to its refusal to place BioShock’s patricide in a meaningful historical context; after all, history is the magazine’s strength (Retro Gamer is my favorite magazine for this reason). Instead, the article blandly sets us up with an unenlightening genre statement: “It [BioShock] took the assumptions developers (and players) had made about the FPS protag, turned them on their head, and fired them back at us.”

What about the assumptions that the above claim makes about all of us? This line of thinking about BioShock’s “subversion” brings to mind the commentary of The Stanley Parable, which draws a useless parallel between pushing buttons in an office, pushing buttons as part of a mechanic in a video game, and pushing buttons on the controller as a game player. Sure, some gamers are unintelligent and exploited by big studios, but are we all as unaware and dumb as The Stanley Parable suggests?

Moreover, are the gaming literati that unaware and dumb? Have they forgotten that not one but two 1980s action games toyed with the idea of confronting one’s father in violence? As if it couldn’t be anymore obvious, both of these 1980s games starred ninjas! Retro Gamer should have known better. The BioShock article ignored the precedence of Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden and glorified a more graphic form of patricide with the takeaway that we really didn’t know any better. On the contrary, I’m pretty sure most players know what a plot twist or design choice is. The suggestion that BioShock and The Stanley Parable enlightened us might be more than condescending. It’s starting to seem flatout dishonest.