A review of Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight

Yes, I caved in and bought the Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight package for the PS4.  Yes, I am ashamed of myself for buying this grossly overpriced cash-in.  Yes, I hate myself completely and utterly, and you can’t possibly put me down in any way I haven’t already done to myself.

Aigis is in it, so I had to buy it. That’s my flimsy excuse.

Now that the self-hatred part of the review is out of the way, how are these games? They’re… all right.  Fine.  Kind of disappointing, to be honest, and not for the reasons you might expect.  The Persona series has one of the best sets of soundtracks of any game series ever, thanks to composer Shoji Meguro and the many performers who play the music.  So I didn’t expect to be disappointed by the tracklists to these games.  Persona 4: Dancing All Night, released back in 2015 for the Vita, was no slouch in the tracklist department and featured a lot of good remixes.  The remixes in P3D and P5D, by contrast, are mostly pretty lackluster.  It’s not good when I end up greatly preferring the original track to the remix – if that’s the case, it would be better just to use the original track instead, and that’s what Atlus ends up doing with a lot of the featured dances.  Another problem is the length of each tracklist – only around 25 or so in each game, not counting DLC songs, and some of them don’t even feature the characters dancing but rather animated cutscenes from the games.  Considering the price tag of each game, this is really not acceptable.

Dancing was invented so Atlus could milk Persona games

Some fans have also been disappointed by the fact that, unlike P4:DAN, the P3 and P5 dancing games have no story mode option.  These games instead have very thin story sections that consist of Velvet Room attendants Elizabeth (in P3D) and Justine and Caroline (in P5D) transporting all of SEES/the Phantom Thieves to special dance studio Velvet Rooms in their dreams while they all sleep to have a dance-off against each other.  The two teams never actually meet, which is another disappointment – since they’re all dreaming, and the Velvet Room attendants assure them they won’t remember any of their dreams (isn’t that convenient) it wouldn’t have affected the games’ stories at all.  Hell, you guys already had the P3 and P4 teams meet in Persona Q, and they’ll all be thrown together again in Persona Q 2, so why weren’t these two games combined into one with separate modes for each team like Q was?

The closest thing we get to story mode is a social/confidant link system with eight conversations with each team member, including Elizabeth and Justine/Caroline.  These conversations are full of references to their respective games, so parts of them aren’t going to make a whole lot of sense to newcomers to the series, but at least we get something to do other than play the rhythm game section constantly.  Although the conversations do have to be unlocked by getting achievements, so you’ll have to work for them.

That’s very “meta”, Futaba, thank you

Well shit.  All I’ve done is complain about these games so far, and I don’t want to give the impression that I hate them.  So what about the positives?  The music is pretty damn good on balance – the original soundtracks to both games are great, after all, and even some mediocre remixes can’t ruin good tracks.  The new Persona 3 character models look great.  And the dancing itself is really well done.  Like in P4:DAN, each character dances in a way that’s very much an expression of their personality – Mitsuru’s dancing is elegant, Yusuke has a weird, artsy style, Akihiko and Makoto use a lot of fighting moves, Aigis is extremely precise, and Fuuka is kind of awkward but clearly trying her best.  The character pairings during dances are also pretty fun; it’s especially cute how Futaba tries to imitate the style of the main dancer when she joins in.  My favorite is Haru, though – I don’t remember if she ever dropped the fact that she’d formerly been a ballerina anywhere in Persona 5, but here she busts out some great-looking ballet moves.  Pirouettes.  Swan Lake?  I don’t know ballet that well, sorry.  I’m not cultured enough; I only specialize in stupid weeb games like these.

Ballet combined with aikido moves makes for a good combination.

I guess the biggest question is whether these games are worth buying at their unforgivably high sticker prices for people who haven’t played or aren’t especially fond of Persona 3 or Persona 5.  The answer is absolutely not.  I don’t usually mess around with bold text, and this is both bold and italicized, so you know I’m serious.  Not that P3D or P5D are really bad games.  To the average consumer, they’ll probably come off as serviceable rhythm games.  And if you see them on sale somewhere, I’d say at least one of them is worth buying for the non-initiate (probably not both, because they’re effectively the same game with different casts of characters and different tracks to dance to, which is partly why I’m reviewing them jointly.)  At a sticker price of 60 dollars each, however, they are stupidly overpriced.  The PS4 bundle, which includes both games and a digital copy of Persona 4: Dancing All Night for 100 dollars, is a better deal, and I might even say it’s worth getting if just to have P4:DAN on the PS4, which isn’t available separately, at least at the moment.  But that deal is hardly worth it for the non-hardcore fan.

If you’re a massive fan of the core games, you’ll obviously get more value out of these.  A lot of the content in P3D and P5D is basically dessert for people who finished P3 and P5.  We also get the expected fanservice with a lot of unlockable costumes, including the usual bathing suits and butler suits for the guys and maid outfits, swimsuits and fantasy bikini armor for the girls.  So if you’re into that kind of stuff, have fun.  There’s also plenty of paid costume DLC too, so have your fucking credit card or Paypal account ready if you really want it that badly.

Just pile on the fanservice boys, the more the better

Anyway, ratings.  I can only give each of these games a 4 on my scale – just passing.  The dancing is fun and all, and it’s nice to see our beloved P3 and P5 casts together again, but there were too many disappointments here with their respective tracklists to give these games anything higher, and I’m pissed off at Atlus for effectively using these games as a DLC delivery service.  As far as rhythm games go, the Vocaloid title Project DIVA Future Tone is far better, both in terms of value and variety of music, and it’s the one to buy if you don’t care about injecting Persona fanservice directly into your bloodstream. Bump that score up a point if you can get either or both of these games for a bargain, because they are basically good, but I’m still pissed off about the whole thing.

Maybe dessert truly is the best way to describe these games: buying and playing them are like gorging on cake.  Nice at first, and incredibly sweet, but in the end you feel sick and regret what you’ve done.

On the other hand, maybe it’s worth it to hear Akihiko’s underwear tips.

With that, I’m done spending money on games for a while.  I’m trying to keep my head above water and save some money to put a down payment on a house after the next housing bubble pops, so until Shin Megami Tensei V or Disgaea 6 forces me to finally buy a Switch, you can look forward to a bunch of reviews from my massive backlog, along with my planned soundtrack reviews, “games for broke people” reviews, the occasional post about law, and the constant depression and bitching and moaning I deliver.  In other words, nothing’s really going to change.

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Saya no Uta revisited: A Valentine’s Day review

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovebirds.  To commemorate this wonderful day, I decided to replay a game I covered several years ago – the most romantic game I’ve ever played.  As far as contemporary love stories go, you can throw Twilight in the trash, toss Fifty Shades in the woodchipper, dump all those grocery store romance novels in the landfill, and dissolve all those Hollywood romcoms in a vat of acid, because we have Saya no Uta.

Saya no Uta (translated as The Song of Saya by JAST, publisher of the official localization) is the creation of developer Nitroplus and writer Gen Urobuchi.  If you’ve watched Madoka Magica, you might have a vague idea of what to expect from this visual novel.  My original review of this game was spoiler-free, so if you want to check out Saya no Uta unspoiled, you can find it here.  This new review of Saya is an analysis rather than a glossing-over like the first, and it contains major spoilers about the plot and the endings, so stop reading after the below image if you want to avoid those.  Finally, the usual disclaimer that anyone has to tack on when talking about Saya: this game contains sexually explicit content and some extremely disturbing imagery and scenarios, so if your imagination is especially active or you’re just not interested in that sort of thing, you might want to stop reading and also avoid the game altogether.

Scroll past Saya for major spoilers

My new playthrough of Saya no Uta several years after my first was very different.  Not in terms of its content – Saya is a short VN, about five hours for a 100% run, and only features two branching option paths and three endings.  It was rather different in terms of the response the game got out of me.  If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely already played Saya and know what it’s all about, but for those who haven’t and just don’t care about being spoiled on it, here’s a brief summary: our main character, medical student Fuminori Sakisaka, is nearly killed in an accident that claims the lives of both his parents and leaves him with a seemingly incurable condition that causes him to see all people, animals, and things in the world as mounds of horrible, stinking meat and flesh-beasts.

Fuminori is driven to the brink of suicide by his condition, but he unexpectedly finds hope when a girl appears at his hospital bedside.  This girl, named Saya, claims to be secretly living in the hospital while looking for her missing father, a university professor.  Fuminori clings to Saya, the only other being in the world who looks like a human to him, and promises to find her father if she agrees to live with him in his now-empty house in Tokyo upon his discharge from the hospital.  Saya agrees, and they begin their life together while Fuminori does his best to return to his normal routine, struggling to hide his mental disorder from his friends and fellow med school students Kouji, Oumi, and Yoh, his doctor Ryouko Tanbo, and the rest of the world out of fear that he’ll be permanently institutionalized if they learn the truth.  Meanwhile, Fuminori and Saya go beyond mere roommates and develop a romantic relationship (and a sexual one – this is most of the reason why Saya is an h-game.)

Since my last playthrough of Saya, I’ve tried out a little fiction writing, and despite being a total hack I do have some opinions about what makes for good and bad storytelling.  One of the hallmarks of bad writing, in my opinion, is going for shock value with no purpose or goal beyond offending the sensibilities of the reader.

Saya contains a lot of shocking content.  The most immediately obvious is Fuminori’s relationship with Saya, who is apparently not much more than a kid (of course, she’s really not a kid, or even a human, but we don’t know that until the game starts to drop hints about Saya’s true nature halfway through the story.)  In the course of trying to protect his life with Saya, Fuminori also commits kidnapping, murder, and cannibalism.

Even more horrific are some of the acts that Saya commits, however.  Her true form, or her form as the rest of the world aside from Fuminori sees it, is a monstrous mass of flesh and guts, just the sort of creature that Fuminori sees all other humans as.  When Saya first meets Fuminori in his hospital room, she shows up intending merely to scare him – just the sort of innocent prank a kid might try to play on someone, and she’s surprised when Fuminori sees her as a human being instead of the eldritch abomination she really is.  Throughout the game, as Saya and Fuminori grow more emotionally attached to each other, Saya starts to commit far more atrocious acts.

While Fuminori tries to protect Saya from the outside world, Saya also does her best to protect Fuminori.  Collectively, the pair end up killing one of Fuminori’s former friends and attempting to kill another when they try to investigate his new life.  The third ends up suffering a fate even worse than death at Saya’s hands.  Saya, after conducting a few experiments on the neighbors, discovers that she can rewire human brains to see the world as Fuminori does and even convert humans into creatures like her that Fuminori sees as human, molding and mutating them to compensate for his mental disorder.  The results of these experiments are completely horrific and lead to what I and probably most other people would consider the most disturbing scenes in the game.

Even though all of this content is shocking, though, none of it is gratuitous.  While playing Saya, I never had the sense that Urobuchi was writing a scene merely to turn my stomach.  Every one of the terrible acts Fuminori and Saya commit make sense to them, and every one serves the purpose of plot or character development or both. However, while we can understand why Fuminori and Saya do what they do, we can’t forgive them.  At key points in the story, Saya no Uta shifts the player’s perspective away from Fuminori to his friends and his doctor.

When the game puts us in the minds of Tanbo, Kouji, Yoh, Oumi, and humans other than Fuminori, we see the world as it truly is, and we see Fuminori as the rest of the world sees him – a man who avoids his former friends and snaps at them when they try to approach him, who lives in a house with overgrown grass and weeds in the front yard, whose house stinks to high heaven with the smell of rotten meat, and who happily lives and mates with a flesh-monster that hunts and kills other humans.  Fuminori is the protagonist of Saya no Uta, but there’s no doubt that both he and Saya are the villains of this story.  They pose an extreme threat to everyone living around them, especially Saya, whose abilities to mutate human minds and bodies are constantly growing.  Which is why, when Kouji decides to try to kill Fuminori (either with or without Tanbo’s help – one of the two branching paths in the game) I can completely get behind his decision, even if I feel some sympathy for Fuminori.

This is how you know Saya wasn’t written by an American.

Which is why it’s so strange that the objectively best ending of the game is so god damn depressing.  In one of the three available routes, Dr. Tanbo and Kouji, Fuminori’s former best friend and lover of Oumi, one of Saya’s victims, confront Fuminori and Saya.  Tanbo manages to inflict a fatal wound upon Saya by splashing her with liquid nitrogen, and Fuminori, in a rage, kills Tanbo with an axe and then turns the axe on himself in despair after seeing that Saya is dying.  Kouji survives the ordeal but goes insane, and it’s implied that he later commits suicide.  I know this doesn’t sound like a traditional good ending, but aside from these four, Oumi, Yoh, and a few other of Saya’s human victims, the world is saved from disaster.  (The ending that most people consider the “true ending” involves Saya dying after sprouting a set of wing-like protrusions that multiply into countless seeds that spread throughout the world, turning humans into Saya-like creatures, which was what drove her instinct to consume Fuminori’s, uh, essence – something Saya herself doesn’t seem to realize until this moment.)  Still, it doesn’t feel good watching these events play out, because we’re watching characters we’ve been with the whole game meet their ends.

None of them are completely unsympathetic, either – not even the villains.  Fuminori has completely discarded his humanity by the game’s third act, effectively becoming a predatory creature like Saya who lives on raw animal (and human) flesh, but it’s clear that his mental condition drove him to that point, even if he did eventually make the conscious decision to arrive there.  Even Saya remains pure in some sense, because everything she does is meant to please and help Fuminori.  As we learn near the end of the game, Saya seems not to have even made a conscious decision to come to our planet (or our universe – it’s not clear whether she’s a standard alien or an extra-dimensional being, though I’m leaning towards the latter.)

And that’s why Saya no Uta is a great romance.  The acts that Fuminori and Saya commit in the course of the story are unforgivable and unjustifiable, but none of them are gratuitous in the context of the story, because they’re motivated by the pair’s unnatural love for each other, and Urobuchi writes their love in a way that we can believe and understand.

As bad as the “every character dies” ending is, this one is far worse.

Damn, I did not intend to write that much about Saya no Uta.  But I couldn’t really help it.  This game made me feel things, and that’s not very common considering how cynical and emotionally locked up I am.  Since I’ve heaped a lot of praise on the writing in Saya, it would be unfair not to mention the game’s beautiful art (even though a lot of it’s meant to be ugly) and its atmospheric soundtrack.  Saya is still one of my favorite visual novels, though I absolutely would not recommend it to some, or even most, considering its mix of Lovecraftian horror and sexual content.  Even though it contains a lot of explicit content, however, I don’t consider Saya to really be an h-game.  Yes, it has sex scenes, but even those scenes move the game’s plot and character development – and they’re clearly not meant for that purpose.  At least, it’s hard to imagine the sort of person who would be aroused by anything in Saya.  I’m sure such a person exists in the world, and I hope I never meet them.

I wonder how the American remake of Oldboy is too, I should check it out

One more note about Saya: in 2010, IDW released a three-volume comic book adaptation of the game titled Song of Saya.  It apparently put the story through the bowdlerization machine.  Saya now looks like a woman in her 20s, which is understandable considering the trouble IDW might have gotten into if they’d tried to depict Saya as she is in the original work.  But I’ve heard that the writers made a lot of other changes that were not even remotely necessary and that it just sucks in general.  I have a weird fascination with shitty media and bad adaptations, though, so if I ever come across these Song of Saya comics in a bin somewhere for a few dollars I’ll probably check them out just for the hell of it and let you know what I think.  I haven’t read this thing, so maybe I’m being unfair.

Anyway, happy Valentine’s Day once again, if you’re still in the mood for romance after reading all that.  I’ll be sitting at home working.  Love is nice, but money is better.  I guess I really am a cynic at heart.

 

The Best (and the Rest) of Windows Entertainment Pack, part 3 and final thoughts

Finally, we come to the end of our Windows Entertainment Pack tour with the last nine games.  There have been some real ups and downs in this tour – a few great games and a few truly lousy ones – but most of the games have fallen somewhere in between in terms of quality.  Will the final nine be so great that they significantly raise the average?  (The answer is no.)

As before, the games included in the Best Of collection are marked with a + so you can tell them apart.

+ TetraVex

Despite what you just read, TetraVex is actually a good puzzle game.  The rules are quite simple – just match each edge with the same number and complete the square.  TetraVex features game boards from the extremely easy 2×2 to the mind-bendingly difficult 6×6, but most players will probably be comfortable with the 3×3 and 4×4 boards.  Nice game to kill some time.

I’ll tell you right now that this is the best game among the final nine in this post and probably the only one worth seeking out, just in case a fire is starting in your house and you have to call 911 and escape and only have time to read up to this line.

+ Tetris

Okay, okay.  Tetris is one of the most famous and classic puzzle games in existence.  This version, though, is not even close to the best version of Tetris you can play.  It doesn’t allow the player to move pieces down more quickly in order to slide them into slots – your options are either to slam the piece down or to wait for it to move down at its normal pace, which is a real annoyance.  This version also doesn’t feature the Tetris theme, which as you might know is the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki” – here it is as performed by the Red Army Orchestra, and here it is as performed by the Game Boy.  In fact, it doesn’t feature any music at all.  Still, there’s only so much you can do to fuck up Tetris.  It’s not too bad, but if you have a Game Boy and a Tetris cartridge, you should play that instead.

TicTactics – At first I thought TicTactics was just a normal tic-tac-toe program, which would have been the second-laziest idea on any of the Windows Entertainment Packs after Jigsawed.  However, this game adds a twist.  It lets you play a boring old game of 3×3 tic-tac-toe, a.k.a. the game that will always end in a tie unless one player is severely sleep-deprived or has suffered massive brain damage.  It also lets you play 3D tic-tac-toe in a 3x3x3 cube.  Yes, this is the future, and we have 3D tic-tac-toe.  There’s also a 4x4x4 option for the real freaks.  The addition of another dimension mixes things up, though in the end it’s still just a game of god damn tic-tac-toe against a computer opponent and once the novelty wears off you will be bored of it.  Now if they’d found a way to make four-dimensional tic-tac-toe, that would have been impressive.

Tic Tac Drop – It’s Connect 4.

That’s the substantive part of my review of Tic Tac Drop.  The worst part of it is the creators don’t even acknowledge their theft of the idea for this game, even though it would have been obvious to everyone.  Connect 4 was published by Milton Bradley in 1974 and a copy was in damn near every American household by the early 90s.  If you want a real laugh, check out the help file for Tic Tac Drop, in which the writer gets all exuberant about the creation of tic-tac-toe and how it was designed by the Lord Himself so that one day someone would create a variation of it for the computer.  Yes, the game allows you to change the victory conditions to require a longer sequence of checkers, but guess what number it’s automatically set to?  That’s right: four.  The makers of Tic Tac Drop thought they could fool us, but we all know this game’s true name.  Tic Tac Drop can go fuck itself.

+ Taipei – remember in part 2 when I said I don’t like mahjong solitaire?  I still don’t like it.  And this is mahjong solitaire.  Not even a good version of mahjong solitaire, either.  It does feature several layouts of tiles, but the graphics are poor and the tiles are so bunched together that you have to squint to tell some of them apart.  Technically playable, but I can’t say more in its favor.

+ TriPeaks – Yet.  Another.  Motherfucking solitaire card game.  This one actually isn’t that bad – a bit like Golf in that you have to create a sequence of cards to clear the board and win the game, but in this case the cards are slowly revealed as you draw the ones on top of them.  For some unimaginable reason, the creators thought it would be a good idea to add a scoring system based on US dollars so that you’d be able to win and lose fake money as you played.  Because that certainly raises the stakes.  TriPeaks is made for high rollers only.  Remember to wear your dinner jacket and make your Grey Goose vodka martini with an olive before you sit down for a game.

+ Tut’s Tomb – Blessedly the last solitaire card game in the WEP, and this one is undoubtedly the worst of all.  It’s based on Pyramid, a game that’s not bad in itself, but the creators of Tut’s Tomb inexplicably changed the game to make it nearly unwinnable.  I’ll let someone smarter than me explain why.  That’s an article about Tut’s Tomb by the same guy who wrote the insanely comprehensive guide to FreeCell I linked in part 1.  Anyway, Tut’s Tomb is a pile of shit.

Winmine – Hey!  This isn’t Winmine!  It’s fucking Minesweeper!  I don’t know why Microsoft is trying to trick me with this alternate name, but here it is – it’s Minesweeper.  This game was featured on every single PC from Windows 3.1 to Windows 7, after which it was no longer bundled but included as a free game in Microsoft’s app store starting with Windows 8 (well, “free” – more on that shortly.)  I don’t know why this wasn’t included in the Best Of collection except for the fact that it was bundled with every copy of Windows separately, creating the impression that it was not actually a WEP game but rather just a game that came with Windows like Solitaire.  But it was in fact introduced with the first Entertainment Pack in 1991.

I’m not a fan of Minesweeper.  I know a lot of people who like it, but the fact that the ends of so many games rely entirely upon a 50/50 coin flip guess as to where the final mine is bothers the shit out of me.  It’s bad game design.  (This was not the case with the above lost game – I actually fucked that one up all by myself.  But my point still stands.)

Wordzap – The final game of the WEP series, alphabetically speaking.  And it’s… okay.  Just okay.  It’s a timed word jumble game you play against the computer.  I really have nothing to say about this.  One of those games that might have had some value back in the early 90s but not too much now with the advent of the internet and a million other games like this.  It apparently didn’t have enough value at the time to make it into the Best Of collection, though.

So that’s the lot of them.  Every game in the Windows Entertainment Packs reviewed.  These games were the early 90s equivalent of modern mobile apps, now relics of a time lost to history – a time before internet connections in every household, before smartphones.  Before Candy Crush and Fruit Ninja, before gacha games, before microtransactions.  Not all of the games we’ve looked at over the past few posts have been great, but there’s still an innocence to them, even to the bad ones.  Most of them were just programs that Microsoft employees had been messing around with.  As much crap as I dumped on Fuji Golf, Jigsawed, and Tut’s Tomb, I can’t accuse them of pretending to be “free” and then trying to take my money by promising me a chance at rolling something really good or concealing new abilities behind a paywall to make their challenges easier to overcome.  And they weren’t infested with ads.  You know what is infested with ads, though?  Minesweeper.  It is now, anyway.  Microsoft decided to ride the ad train by putting ads in Minesweeper, the office timewaster classic since the early 90s, and graciously allowed players to remove the ads for a fee.

Forget every shitty movie adaptation of a video game you’ve seen, and forget those stupid Star Wars prequels and the fourth Indiana Jones movie.  This betrayal, more than anything, destroyed my childhood.  And I didn’t even really like Minesweeper.

Well, at least they haven’t fucked up Chip’s Challenge.  Not yet, anyway.

Just you wait, Chip… just you wait.

 

The Best (and the Rest) of Windows Entertainment Pack, part 2

Today our grand tour through the four Windows Entertainment Packs continues. Did these early 90s tie-ins really offer that much entertainment beyond the games everyone already knows about? Let’s find out.  As before, the games with a + next to the title were featured in the Best Of collection.

Jigsawed – This “game” takes a bitmap file and cuts it into squares for you to reassemble. Pretty goddamn lazy. And as you can see, it completely fucked up the colors in the .bmp file I gave it. I chose this screenshot of Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion because it fits the time period of Windows 95 perfectly, but now it works on two levels, because Asuka looks pissed off about her colors being all screwed up.

I was initially going to use the infamous “wall of Jericho” screenshot, but, well… while it’s not quite not safe for work, it’s not quite safe for work, either. I’m always thinking about my readers, especially the ones who are working shitty office jobs. I know your pain all too well.

See, here’s Asuka in Paint in 256 colors, looking more or less as she should. It’s not the fault of VirtualBox, it’s the fault of Jigsawed.  Go home, Jigsawed.  You’re drunk.  I’ll call an Uber but you’re paying for it, you lousy fuck.

Klotski – A moving block game in which you have to extract the target block from its box. This is a classic puzzle premise, but the execution in Klotski is lousy because it requires you to do a lot of tedious dragging and clicking. If you needed a way to speed up your impending case of carpal tunnel, play Klotski.

LifeGenesis – Interesting in theory, LifeGenesis is a unique take on Go or Reversi in which you have to place pieces on the board and promote the growth of your own territory, which changes automatically after placing your pieces according to a specific set of rules, while limiting the growth of your opponent’s. The trouble is that the computer opponent seems to be broken. You can place pieces for both players, but the computer player does absolutely nothing. I’m not sure whether it’s just a problem with my copy or with the game itself. It’s kind of fun to draw random patterns and watch them mutate across the board according to the game’s rules, but other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much of anything here to experience.  It’s possible I’m missing something here – if you find it, feel free to post a comment about how I’m a dumbass.

Maxwell’s Maniac – Probably the closest thing to a hidden gem among the games that didn’t make it into the Best Of collection. If Maxwell’s Maniac looks familiar, it’s because it was created by Dima Pavlovsky, the same guy who made JezzBall. Despite the cosmetic similarities, though, this is a completely different game that requires you to channel the balls into the required chambers – first the red chamber, and later red and blue chambers depending upon their colors. Maxwell’s Maniac is interesting, though I can see why its sibling JezzBall made it into BOWEP while it didn’t – Maxwell’s lacks that “simple to learn, hard to master” feel that real standout puzzle games have. It’s still probably worth playing a few rounds, though. You might end up liking it a lot.

PeggedPegged. Yeah, this game is called Pegged. If you’re imagining something weird, though, get it out of your head – this isn’t a game about unusual male-female relations but rather a simulation of a simple peg solitaire game. These were popular as puzzle games back in 19th century Europe according to the game’s help file. Not a bad diversion, though it doesn’t add anything to the traditional peg game that you can find on Amazon or probably in a Brookstone way, way marked up. I don’t understand how specialty gift shops like Brookstone and Sharper Image have hung on, in fact. Even before the days of Amazon, when I was just a kid, I’d go in to look at all the weird products being sold, and I swear I never once saw a soul buy anything there.

Sorry, getting way off track here. Pegged is okay as puzzle games go, I guess. They really should have given it a different name, though.  Maybe it didn’t have the same connotation in the 90s.

+ Pipe Dream – Finally, a game you might actually know about.  Pipe Dream was featured in the Best Of collection and is one of the more beloved of the pack’s puzzle games.  And rightly so.  It’s simple to play but involves some tension with a race against the clock to construct pipe before the sewage spills out into the grid, leading to a game over.  Constructing too much pipe results in a score reduction per length of unused pipe, so there’s also some strategizing required.  Pipe Dream is a good game.  And it was even distributed by LucasArts, a company that developed some of the best adventure and space sim games of the 90s.

Rattler Race – A Centipede clone.  There’s not much more to say about it.  It’s a marginally worse version of Centipede.  The controls are okay, but other than that there’s nothing special about it.  If you were starving for Centipede in the early 90s and you couldn’t get to an arcade and you didn’t have a console version of it, I guess you’d have to make do with this one.  There’s no reason to bother with it today, though.

+ Rodent’s Revenge – my second favorite of all the WEP games after Chip’s ChallengeRodent’s Revenge was a fun puzzle game with an original bent.  You play as the mouse in the center of the mass of movable squares, and your object is to trap the cats that spawn in a space of one square, after which they turn into wedges of cheese that you can eat to gain 100 points provided that the screen is otherwise clear of cats.  If any cats remain active, the trapped cat merely takes a nap and waits either to turn into cheese or be inadvertently freed by you while you push blocks around to trap the other cats.  The game board will inevitably turn into a mess, and part of the fun of the game is trying to trap the cats in an increasingly chaotic environment.  And of course, the cats are constant coming after you, and if one catches you, you lose a life.  Later levels include immovable blocks, mousetraps, and other obstacles to complicate your mission.

Rodent’s Revenge is absolutely worth checking out.  No game is quite like any of the others, and you have to use creative thinking to beat later levels.  I don’t bother with mobile gaming much at all, but I’d be surprised if this didn’t have clones in the Apple or Google Play stores.  Probably with a bunch of horrible ads infesting them, though.

+ SkiFree – Probably the most famous of all the WEP games.  SkiFree was included on damn near every PC in the early 90s, meaning that almost everyone played it at least once.  It’s a very simple game and a very short one, but a skiing game was a real novelty at the time, and the creator threw a few surprises into the mix.  I wrote a short retrospective of SkiFree here, so check that out if you’re interested.  The only thing I’ll add is that it took me a while to realize the implication that the “free” in the title at the top of the slope is composed of dog piss.

Stones – Once again, this title has nothing to do with private parts or acts involving them, but rather with… mahjong tiles?  Are those ever called “stones”?  I’ve played mahjong, and I never heard anyone call the tiles “stones”.  The help file claims this is loosely based on the “ancient Chinese game of mahjong”, but what it means is that it’s based on mahjong solitaire, which is a completely different thing (also, neither of them are ancient unless the late 19th century and the 1980s respectively count as “ancient”.)  I was never a fan of mahjong solitaire, and I’m not a fan of this game either.  You have to place all the tiles on the board such that their neighbors match at least two of three attributes.  I don’t know, maybe someone would like this game.  I didn’t.

Going out on a sour note here, unfortunately, but there are still nine games left to review.  Look forward to the exciting conclusion, coming soon!

The Best (and the Rest) of Windows Entertainment Pack, part 1

Some time ago, to commemorate the godawful month of February, I decided to play and review every single game in every one of the four Windows Entertainment Packs published in the early 90s for use with 16-bit Windows operating systems. Why in God’s name would I do such a thing, you might possibly ask. Everyone knows about the Best of Windows Entertainment Pack that was a tie-in with most 90s versions of Windows, but there were quite a few other games featured in the four regular Windows Entertainment Packs that you had to actually buy that didn’t make the cut. BOWEP included some real gems like Chip’s Challenge, SkiFree, and Rodent’s Revenge that I spent some hours playing as a young boy in the distant, mystical past of the pre-internet era, so I wondered whether there were any overlooked classics among the games that were left out.

An embarrassment of riches

Turns out there weren’t! Not quite, anyway. But I had to dig through all of the following games to confirm that, and some of them are, if not necessarily good, at least interesting. I threw in the BOWEP games as well because why the hell not – those games will be marked with a + before the title. See if you can find a pattern (i.e. that most of the non-BOWEP games suck!)

I admit that this is going to be of interest to literally no one, but that describes most of the posts I write. Before we get started, I should note that there are 29 games in the queue, far too many to jam into one post and expect anyone to have the patience to make it through to the end without succumbing to a coma, so I’ll be dividing them as evenly as possible throughout three posts – ten games in this and the next post and nine in the last.  I’ll be sorting them alphabetically, not by which pack they were in, because I’m positive no one cares about that and I can’t be assed to keep track of such a detail.  For the same reason, I won’t be subjecting any of these games to my patented seven-point grading system.  You’ll know how I feel about each of them well enough, I promise.

Chess – It’s chess.

No, nothing else to say. It’s just chess. If you like chess, you’ll probably like it. Or not. It doesn’t seem to have a lot of features. Decent enough for a chess game, maybe, though I don’t have the expertise to judge it very well.  It’s probably safe to say there’s no reason for anyone to play this version anymore.

+ Chip’s Challenge – Definitely the best game in the pack, with a lot more time and care put into it than any game in a game bundle tied in with a new OS has any right to. It is an absolute classic as far as puzzle games go. See my full retrospective of Chip’s Challenge here. I wrote everything I had to write about the game in that post.  Suffice it to say that you should check out Chip’s Challenge if you have any interest in puzzle games.

cruel

Cruel – This is a solitaire card game, the first of several in the pack. The icon is slightly interesting – the Windows Solitaire icon with a knife stuck through it – but otherwise, there’s nothing special here. Move randomly dealt cards to complete four suits in sequence from ace to king. Seems to be entirely based upon luck. I don’t know why the icon features a knife or why the game is called “Cruel”, unless the cruelty lies in how boring it is to play.

+ Dr. Black Jack – This is a little more than a plain old blackjack simulator. Dr. Black Jack gives you advice about your game, counseling you about when to hit and stand, and even features advice incorporating card-counting techinques. Kind of like Kevin Spacey in the movie 21, except Dr. Black Jack won’t try to grope you. Not a bad game if you want to play some no-stakes blackjack or need some extremely basic training before you take a trip to Vegas.

+ FreeCell – Another solitaire card game, but this one is special. FreeCell really needs no introduction. It’s bundled with Windows 10, for fuck’s sake. Everybody knows FreeCell. It’s perhaps the most maddening of all the solitaire games because you can see exactly where every card is, including the cards you need that are inaccessible, sitting there buried under a pile of immovable cards, mocking you.

The original FreeCell featured 32,000 different configurations, one of which was famously unsolvable. If you want to read a near-obsessive analysis of the various versions of FreeCell, check out this site. Anyway, as much as I don’t care for most of these solitaire card games, FreeCell is good. You’ve got to respect a classic.

Fuji Golf – Now here’s a shitfest. Fuji Golf tries to simulate an 18-hole golf course and falls flat on its face for the simple reason that the mechanics of the game are ass, relying on finicky as hell mouse controls to make fine adjustments. The only good thing about this game is the opening screen with a nice pixelated depiction of Mt. Fuji for some reason. Other than that – I’m admittedly not good at real golf, but 14 shots on the first round? Fuck you, Fuji Golf.

Go Figure! – This is one of a couple of educational games in the pack. The player has to arrange an equation with the preset numbers to arrive at the solution given by the game. I can’t really fault a basic educational game like this. If you drew a line of educational game goodness vs. shitness with Oregon Trail on one end and Mario is Missing! on the other, Go Figure! would be right in the middle.

+ Golf – Thank the Almighty God this is not another golf game like Fuji Golf. It’s just another solitaire card game. There’s seemingly no lack of solitaire games in this package. Golf isn’t that bad, really – you just select the cards on the top of the piles in sequence and try to complete the sequence without exhausting your turns. A lot more simplistic than FreeCell but not as boring as Cruel. Might kill five minutes while you wait for your porn torrent to finish downloading.

IdleWild – This one was a real surprise – it’s a screensaver pack! Not a very good one, though. Especially if you already had After Dark installed, which you probably did if you were using a computer in the early 90s. Most of the screensavers in IdleWild are either eye-destroying or boring. But it’s something different, at least. And it features a crappy slow-loading depiction of the Mandelbrot set! That might have been impressive when it was released in 1991.

+ JezzBall – I already wrote about the existential nightmare that is JezzBall. I will not write about it again.

That’s it for part 1.  Stay tuned for part 2, coming soon!  It will definitely be more interesting than part 1, I promise.

Games for broke people, extra edition (Becalm)

I didn’t expect to make another one of these posts so soon, but if I had found Becalm a few days ago I would have added it to the last one I wrote, so you can consider this a sort of extra to that.  This program, available on Steam and itch.io, is a nice free stress reliever by creator colorfiction.  Even though I’m posting this under the “Games for broke people” title, I feel like I have to call this a program rather than a game, because you don’t exactly play Becalm.  There wasn’t a whole heap of gameplay in TAKANARIA or What Never Was, but there is absolutely none in Becalm, which is kind of the point.  The entire experience consists of a five-minute sailboat ride through one of (as far as I can tell) three randomly selected dreamlike seascapes set to a background of ambient music.  There’s no need to avoid obstacles.  In fact, you can’t even steer the boat.  All you can do is look around at your surroundings while the massive sun crawls across the sky and sets in the distance.  The game ends shortly after the sun sets, at which point you’re either kicked out to your desktop or kicked into another five-minute boat ride depending upon which mode you’re playing.

I found Becalm to be relaxing.  You might not, though, because this kind of thing is extremely subjective.  Some people might find this to be simply boring.  Some people might prefer to relax with a horror game filled with jumpscares.  And some people like to put ketchup on hot dogs.  Aside from that last one, all of the above feelings and tastes are equally valid, so I can’t say you’d be wrong for disliking Becalm.  But even if you hate it, you won’t lose any money for trying it out, at least.

Games for broke people, government shutdown edition part 2 (TAKANARIA, What Never Was)

It continues.  Seemingly without end.  Will the federal government ever open again?  Will it replace all its furloughed employees and disgruntled unpaid TSA agents with androids that don’t need to eat or sleep or get paid? Will we finally see a real-life Aigis or 2B or Reverie from Planetarian? Or will they be waking nightmares like Sophia?

If you find yourself in a predicament because of this idiotic bullshit, consider playing a couple of relaxing free games from the Steam store.  As is the tradition now, the two games reviewed in this post have at least one thing in common: they’re both exploration games.  Just what you need to unwind, aside from some kind of chemical substance (or maybe that’s just me.)

TAKANARIA

TAKANARIA I love CAFÉ, it's my favorite place.

Yeah, the title is written in all caps.  No, I don’t know why.  TAKANARIA is a 2D pure exploration game starring the player character and her friend, both anime-style animal-girls of some type, trekking across an abandoned island town.  The character art is cute and the graphics are nice.  I don’t know if Crownbird, the creator of this game, put together this island with pre-existing assets or whether they were made from scratch, but either way respect to the artist for this quality.  The game also features weird totem-looking creatures that you can discover.  They don’t attack you or anything.  In fact, there’s no gameplay here as we’d usually understand it, and the whole experience lasts about 20 minutes as your two characters discuss what they see on their tour.  But again, the point here seems to be simple relaxation and exploration.

TAKANARIA feels more like a very early demo or proof of concept than anything like a full game, but maybe its maker plans on building upon this base with something more developed.  And the game provides dialogue in English, Chinese, and Japanese!  Rare enough for a game to give you dialogue in three languages at once.  The English isn’t great – I assume it’s not Crownbird’s mother tongue.  But it’s not a hindrance.  This is a nice way to spend a short lunch break at your shitty office job, assuming the boss isn’t monitoring your every move (he is, by the way, in case you didn’t know.)

What Never Was

What Never Was I went running around the world for this?

I initially noticed this game because the title reminded me of the Led Zeppelin song What Is and What Should Never Be, which I like, but this game has nothing to do with that song. It’s a 3D exploration game that takes place entirely in the attic of the main character’s recently deceased grandfather, who was a stereotypical late 19th/ early 20th century British explorer. Main character Sarah, a college student, is tasked with sorting through Grandpa’s stuff. Sarah and her grandfather were apparently close, so much so that he has left a mysterious message for her on a tape recorder. The entire game takes maybe around half an hour to play and contains one puzzle that might give the player a little pause.

What Never Was seems pretty well done in a technical sense, with nice graphics and pretty decent voice acting. Once again, this feels more like the prologue of a complete game, a very short demo or a proof of concept than anything else, but it’s free, so you can’t expect much more. Not generally, anyway. If creator Acke Hallgren follows up What Never Was with a full-scale project, I’ll definitely be checking it out.