Saturday, March 29, 2014

Basic Game Cleaning Techniques

Buying used games means getting some dirty cartridges and game cases with stickers all over them. Some people don't seem to mind, but it drives me crazy. Fortunately, it's relatively easy to deal with. So, I'll show you how to take care of cartridges and case stickers quickly and easily.

Dirty cartridge and a sticker on the label. Off to a great start.

So, we've got a nice and dirty copy of F-Zero X that came from Goodwill for $3, and a copy of Jade Empire Limited Edition that's in great shape and only cost me $5 at a used game/movie/music store. We'll be consulting two things that should be in every collector's cleaning cabinet; Mr. Clean Magic Erasers and Goo Gone.

Usually around $5 each.

We'll start with F-Zero since it's pretty obvious how to use Goo Gone to handle stickers.

Thankfully, the price sticker peeled off without doing any damage to the label. It is possible to replace labels, you'll need some kind of sticker paper and a good scan of the label. I haven't replaced anything as large as an N64 label, I've done it for a Game Boy game and a DS game, but as long as you're working with a high enough resolution, it will look nice. 

If you are printing out a replacement label, don't be a jackass and use scissors. Get some kind of paper cutter to make a nice straight edge. Once I had the label cut out nicely, I used some sort of tape that isn't very glossy and is relatively thin and also large enough to cover the label with one piece. This gives it a more retail look, and protects the label from getting dirty. I've only done this twice though. There's probably some kind of sticker paper you can buy that has the right level of gloss to it, but my tape solution works really well if you can find the right type. For the two I did I can't even notice the difference. 

It's a lot of work, so really you should just not buy games with fucked labels. Anyways, get that Magic Eraser ready and start scrubbing away at the dirt and shit on the cartridge. Don't get too close to the label, it'll wear at the paper since the erasers are gritty and sandpapery.

Almost like new.

And there we have it! Just a few seconds worth of scrubbing and it looks great. The label is a little bit dirty, it's hard to tell from the picture. The rest of the cart looking better makes it less noticeable. I'm not bothered by it. If a label is sort of dirty, you can't really do anything about it short of replacing it. The pins were a little dusty, so I just ran a Q-Tip over them to clean them up a bit. This is important, because DON'T BLOW IN YOUR FUCKING GAMES. Seriously. I never blew in any of my cartridges, and they all work perfectly today.

Anyways, on to the next one. It's important that you take EVERYTHING out of the DVD case. Goo Gone is very oily and it will spread all over the surface of whatever you put it on. Don't leave the insert in the case. Nothing. Everything out. In case you're stupid, it looks like this.


Then, drip some of the Goo Gone onto the sticker. This was a really old sticker, so it was on there pretty well. I think it said Electronics Boutique, either way, this is the really old style of used sticker that EB and Gamestop used and I wouldn't be surprised if it had been there since 2005. The Goo Gone will soak into the sticker pretty quickly, and you'll notice that oily shit goes everywhere. If the sticker is at all close to the top of the case, it'll go in-between the sleeve and the case. It's impossible to avoid.

Once you've done this, let the case sit with the Goo Gone on it for about 5 minutes. Come back to it, and it should peel right off. After you've done this, you'll notice that the Goo Gone is basically fucking impossible to take off with paper towels or an actual towel or anything else. After I've hit the case with some Goo Gone, I usually was them off with water in the sink and then dry them thoroughly so that there's no trapped water to get the sleeve or manual wet when I put them back in.

After that, admire your work.

Simple, quick and looks a hell of a lot better.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Thoughts On the Metal Gear Series

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes came out last Tuesday, and I bought a copy. However, I sent my Xbox 360 off to get reballed and it hasn't been returned to me yet. So, I'm going to take a look back at the series and some of my thoughts about it. Massive spoilers for just about every game follow, so you are warned.

Kaz didn't get to be on the North American box art. Poor Master Miller.

I think the first game I actually played in the series was the NES version of Metal Gear, which is honestly fucking horrible. As always, the Angry Video Game Nerd sums it up pretty concisely. I didn't have a PlayStation at the time the game came out, and I found out about emulators and started checking out every game I was curious about. Metal Gear left a bad taste in my mouth, and I felt pretty asleep about the franchise from that point on.

Unfortunately, I was a Gamecube owner when it was a modern console. Everyone goes apeshit over the Gamecube now, but owning one at the time was a fucking nightmare. Roughly two good games came out a year if you were lucky. People love the Gamecube now because they can just go back and buy all of the good games in one fell swoop and get a lot of play out of them. Being a Gamecube owner at the time was a slightly shameful experience. One of the good games that came out was a remake of Metal Gear Solid called Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. It's basically the exact same game with redone voice acting, and it uses the engine from Metal Gear Solid 2. Personally, I think it's a pretty excellent remake that does a great job of proving just how well designed the original game was. Even with the updated game mechanics, it's still the same core experience.

This was a reason for me to stop playing Dreamcast in 2004.

One other thing that was changed with the Twin Snakes was the cutscenes. Personally, it doesn't bother me one bit. Things get a little bit Matrix-y at times, but it changes nothing about the game. If you look at forum discussions between hardcore MGS fans though, they think it's blasphemy. You'll see things like "not true to the character" or "absolutely ridiculous." I say fuck that. This is a series where people can be turned into cyborg ninjas and turn completely invisible. That's without mentioning a character sewing another character's arm onto his own cut off limb and hypnotizing himself with nanomachines to become that person. Having gone back since and played the original PlayStation version, it's sort of a toss up in my opinion. The original experience is important to have, but the Twin Snakes will suffice.

Which... speaks to how fucking insane the story can get. All of the games have some bizarre, outlandish element. It doesn't make the stories bad, but it does make the individual stories of the games a bit less impactful. The games are all carefully plotted, but the story can feel a bit thin in some aspects. I mainly feel it can be a bit thin because of how Big Boss is made to be the greatest soldier and how Major Zero wants to use him as the face of the Patriots, going so far as to use one of his clones (Solidus) to become the president of the US. The part that confuses me about this is that Big Boss is made out to be a huge hero. I've never quite understood if this was something that was limited to military circles, or if this was public knowledge. Is Big Boss supposed to be sort of a classic war hero who is well known and gets parades? Wouldn't someone notice that the president looked exactly like Big Boss if this was the case?

One clone too many.

I always thought the whole Solidus plot was a little stupid. Solidus becomes president, orchestrates Shadow Moses (the events of MGS), then gets publicly revealed in a book, goes into hiding, organizes a terrorist cell, then shows up with some crazy fucking power armor and dukes it out with Raiden on top of Federal Hall. In fact, fuck Metal Gear Solid 2 in general. It's not a bad game, it's just not a great game either. It's a radical shift in tone from MGS, and there are articles that staunchly defend the game's storytelling (I have read all that). Frankly, I don't think Kojima is that clever of a writer. I think fans can do a lot in terms of creating a meaning and legacy for a game when there really isn't one. Somewhere along the way Kojima got twisted into some master storyteller who sets up incredible plots.

Speaking of Kojima's writing, it's a bit odd and I sort of wish he had someone who was a native English speaker to let him know when shit was getting a bit too ridiculous. In particular, naming a character Hot Coldman. Hot Coldman. Hot Fucking Coldman is basically the man who set the events of the series in motion. In Peace Walker, it's revealed that he set up the plot to kill The Boss. Other than that, what the fuck does Ground Zeroes mean? There's a lot of other strange uses of language and weird character names that sort of break immersion (naming someone Dr. Strangelove?), but I'm drawing a blank for the others right now.

While MGS2 was a misstep, Metal Gear Solid 3 was excellent. The jungle stealth added a great twist to the series, and finally seeing Big Boss in action was awesome. MGS3 avoided most of the bizarre plot points, and set up the origins of a lot of future aspects of the series. The moment that sticks out the most in my mind is the death of The Boss. Being a Metal Gear game, there was of course a lead up to the moment in the form of many cut scenes. Then the moment came...

Big Boss (then Naked Snake) stands over The Boss, aiming at her. I let it sit for (what felt like) a few minutes, thinking it was still the cut scene and Snake was just hesitating. Then I realized that I had to pull the trigger. The Boss was an interesting character, but having to actually pull the trigger made me more invested in the character. It made me feel shitty, and it made Snake's anger at LBJ and the government as a whole at the end of the game a shared emotion. 

Though this does bring up another issue with the story as a whole that I have. There's nothing in MGS3 that indicates how Big Boss goes from being the character that he is in this game to the guy who goes bad in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2. Peace Walker doesn't really do anything about that, either. Big Boss sort of disowns The Boss when the AI that's based on The Boss sacrifices itself, but it still doesn't indicate any massive change in his character. I really hope that Metal Gear Solid V addresses this fully. 

Speaking of Peace Walker, it's an excellent game. The stripped down controls make the game a joy to play, and the way missions are broken up makes it easy to hop into the game quickly. I suppose this is since the game was designed for the PSP, but it works just as well on the console version that's in the MGS HD Collection. If I didn't know it was a PSP game, I probably wouldn't have thought anything of it. It definitely has lower production values than the other games (comic style cut scenes), but it's a really excellent game. Building Mother Base is a lot of fun too. I mostly only got into it because it's really hilarious to attach the Fulton device and see the soldiers get sucked into the air.

Somehow, no one made a GIF of how they get immediately pulled into the air. It's hilarious.

Anyhow, Ground Zeroes and the Phantom Pain are smacked right between Peace Walker and Metal Gear. Let's talk about the real Metal Gear. The real Metal Gear is actually a really awesome game. It's included in MGS3: Subsistence and the HD Collection. The real Metal Gear was actually an MSX game, not an NES game. It seems like it would have been possible to just do a straight port to the NES, and I'm really not sure why they didn't; the graphics are basically the same and it's not a complicated game. I haven't actually finished MG or MG2 yet, but they are definitely worth playing if you don't mind going back to the 80s to play some games (you shouldn't, it's no different than watching an old movie, really).

In summation, MGS is a damn fine series. I didn't discuss MGS4 because I've never had a PS3, so I just read a lengthy plot summary. While it is an excellent series in terms of gameplay and design, the story does have some oversights. The individual pieces of the series are greater than the sum of its parts, but that doesn't really dampen my excitement to get my 360 back to check out Ground Zeroes. Ground Zeroes is apparently a pretty short experience, but I also doubt that'll dampen my excitement for The Phantom Pain.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

DJ Hero (PlayStation 2) Impressions

Before I talk about DJ Hero, let's talk about the game hunt for the week. It was payday week, so I went bargain shopping at three different Goodwill stores and a Big Lots. I went to Big Lots because all of their games were 75% off. I knew it was a discount store, but there was a thread over at Cheapassgamer and some people had found some really cool games. The one I went to only had about 10 copies of Michael Phelps: Push the Limit.

I'd have to smoke more weed than Phelps does to play this. Even for $1.25.

So, that was a let down. At the third and final Goodwill store, I found a fat PS2. I snagged it immediately because I really don't like the slim. The main problem with it is that it has two lid sensors. These let the console know when the lid is closed. They did this because people figured out that you can play burned games with the PS1 if you swap a disc out at the right time. I'd have no problem with the two lid sensors, except the back one never fully depresses. I keep taping it down, but it pops back up. So, I've been putting a book on it. Fuck that. Anyways, I tried to calibrate the laser in the fat PS2 but it was already too far gone. In other words, there will soon be a guide on here for replacing a fat PS2 laser.

Yesterday was an overall disappointing day, but today I noticed a store right near one of the Goodwills I frequent that I never noticed before. It was one of those hole in the wall places where half of the things in the store are from the owner's house. One of the finds was an Xbox HD AV pack, so now I can get surround sound from the original Xbox. Those packs are strangely uncommon. The other find was (no shit) DJ Hero for PS2.

This game hit the bargain bin pretty quickly, at no fault of its own. People accuse EA of bleeding franchises dry, but I'd say Activision is ten times worse. Yearly Call of Duty, multiple Guitar Hero titles a year (until they cancelled it), yearly Tony Hawk titles (same thing as Guitar Hero though). By the time DJ Hero came out, people had basically given up on music games. I remember actually wanting it when it came out because the mixes they played in the commercials were pretty awesome. On top of that, DJ Shadow was involved in the game and (almost) any DJ Shadow is good DJ Shadow.

This copy was brand new and only $20. The box was a little beat up, but it was new enough that the game was never opened and the batteries were still in the box, so I'm going to call it brand new. The appeal of this game over Guitar Hero becomes obvious almost immediately. The music is unique to the game, and using a half size turntable feels a lot more real than a half size plastic guitar. DJ Hero has some truly insane mash-ups as well, even one that throws David Bowie and 50 Cent together. There are some pretty odd combinations that turn out really well (Gwen Stefani's Holla Back Girl and Rick James' Give It to Me Baby) and some are obvious combinations that turn out excellent (Black Eyed Peas' Boom Boom Pow and Benny Benassi's Satisfaction).

Hold my drink, bitch.

Gameplay is pretty simple; there are three buttons on the record, and three "streams" on screen. Two of the streams represent the two songs, one of them is a sound effects track. You have a crossfader and an effects knob. There will be circles that come along the streams (like Guitar Hero) that indicate a button press or a scratch. The streams will also move to the left or right, indicating where to position the crossfader. My only real complaint with this game (so far) is the crossfader. The neutral position is in the middle, and it only very slightly snaps into place. If the game is giving you a pretty fast sequence of fades, it's impossible to get it into the right position. If the crossfader is anywhere other than fully left or fully right, the game treats it as neutral. So you don't have to center it, but it feels more natural if it is centered. If you're doing well enough in the song, you'll get a rewind where you spin the record backwards and it'll move back to an earlier section of the song. This had potential to be really cool, but when you spin it back there's an obvious pause and load time, instead of an immediate pick up in the song.

If I have any other disappointment it's that the game seems to have compressed the audio quite a bit. I've got the PS2 connected to my surround system through optical, so I'm getting the raw sound. There's not a lot of range to it though. There's very little obvious bass in the tracks, and it ends up sounding sort of lifeless. There are apparently around 90 tracks here, so something close to lossless audio wouldn't have been feasible, even on a DVD. Either way, it seems like a game like this would have paid a little bit more attention to sound quality.

I'm definitely not disappointed with the game. Considering that these can still be found at discount stores brand new, it's worth picking up if you come across a set. I'm not sure it's something that I could sit down and play for hours on end, but the curiosity at how certain songs turned out mixed together adds an excitement to the game that Guitar Hero's original tracks and shitty cover versions never had.

You don't have to be stoned to enjoy it, either.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PlayStation 2) Review

This review has spoilers but it has been 10 years since this came out, so who gives a shit?

Castlevania's storyline covers several centuries, because every 100 years there's yet another Belmont to take on Dracula. Until Koji Igarashi took the reigns, the series' beginning was 1450 when a female Belmont (!), Sonia, took on Dracula for the first time. After Igarashi retconned a fair amount of games, seemingly without any rhyme or reason in some cases, Lament of Innocence came out and placed the series' origins in 1094. This was intended to be the true starting point, showing the origin of the Dracula and explaining why the Belmonts constantly clash with him. It's a pretty lofty goal.

Such gothic. Very melodrama. Wow.

So, does it succeed? Not at all. 

That isn't to say it's a bad game, though. You would probably expect this game to be pretty story heavy, but it's about on-par with the majority of the Igarashi Castlevanias. The entire set-up for the game is in the manual. If you don't have the manual, you're pretty shit out of luck when it comes to the story. It's archaic in the worst way. There is an intro to the game which consists of scrolling text and some voice over, but it doesn't get you up to speed very well. You play as Leon Belmont, who has ventured out to Dracula's Walter Bernhard's castle. Bernhard is a vampire who has taken Leon's (wife? girlfriend?) Sara hostage. Your friend Mathis Cronqvist has told you about this, but you won't see him until the end of the game. Some friend, right?

So, you meet a shop keeper (Rinaldo) who gives you the Whip of Alchemy and fails to tell you any other useful information. Rinaldo seems to be doing his best to be a dick, dishing out tiny amounts of information when it's absolutely 100% vital for you to know it.

Need to know basis, motherfucker.

Anyways, you set off into the castle and that's where the story ends (for the most part). The castle is broken up into sub-areas, each with their own boss. Occasionally a boss will say something cryptic, which Rinaldo might elaborate on a tiny bit, but nothing advances the plot. 

Let's talk about the gameplay for a bit. Similar to other Igarashi Castlevania games (with the exception of Order of Ecclesia, which sucked infinite dicks), this game is a cakewalk. I think I died maybe three times, two of which came on the final boss. One thing that baffled me about the game is that you have basically no character progression. There's a few (maybe 10-15) combos you get late in the game that really expand your arsenal and improve gameplay, but by then it's too little, too late. There is some kind of orb power-up system, but it's so useless and irrelevant that you could make your way through the game being entirely unaware of its existence. Aside from your whip, you get the typical sub-weapons like holy water, axes and daggers. The orbs are actually cool when combined with the sub-weapons, and power them up quite a bit. However, the orb and sub-weapon combo is basically just for that Raiders of the Lost Ark moment where you don't want to waste time fighting a room of enemies.

To hell with this.

Lament of Innocence tries to have some permanent power-ups, like other Igarashi titles, but it fails. Backtracking is tedious because the castle is pretty boring. Long bland halls join similar rooms. It's enough of a chore seeing the same environment over and over one time, backtracking without warp points? Unbearable.

Anyways, once you clear out all of the castle's sub-areas, you get Sara back from Drac...Bernhard. She's in the process of becoming a vampire, so Rinaldo basically goes "kill that bitch to power up your whip, yo." Leon goes "aight, no big deal braj," her soul gets sucked into the Whip of Alchemy and it becomes the legendary Vampire Killer. Sort of a cool origin story for the whip in an otherwise bland game.

Anyhow, Leon ventures back into the castle and kills totally not Dracula. Then, this old friend Mathias shows up and he's a vampire now. He sucks up Dracu-Walter's soul and becomes Dracula. 

This turn of events has basically no emotional impact because you've never even seen Mathias until now. So, Mathula runs off and makes you fight Death because Igarashi clearly had no idea how to write a good story for this situation. You finish off Death, and then this happens:


And...we give a fuck why? Seriously, this is the worst possible origin story ever. On top of that, it makes no sense. You're trying to tell me that in 1000 years of fighting Dracula, not a single Belmont just went "you know what...I'm not going to be a vampire hunter." That would've been all it took. Let's take a deeper look at the implications of this story;

1. This 1000 year feud is because Leon's (girlfriend? wife?) something died. Several generations of Belmonts dedicated their lives to training and killing vampires just because of this.

2. Leon didn't even care that much. For the Belmont bloodline to continue, he had to have a child with someone else. Unless he already had a son with Sara. Either way, we don't know. That's sort of an important detail.

3. Guyliner.

I'm aware that the Belmonts sort of did say "why the fuck do we care?" in the 1800s, but before Igarashi retconned the Nintendo 64 Castlevania, Reinhardt Schneider actually was a Belmont, who didn't take the name. So, without that game being removed from the timeline, that's a lot of people who went "Dracula did what? I'mma get that punk" for 1000 years.