Saturday, 24 June 2017

Feature: 7 Good Games Brought Down by Bullshit Platforming Sections

By Sam 'White Men Can't Jump' Graham

Back in the salad days of gaming, most of life's obstacles could be overcome by simply jumping over (or on) the fucker. How far would Mario have gotten if he couldn't jump? Well I found out. In Super Mario Bros for the SNES he gets exactly 13 steps before running headlong into that Goomba. I did this several times and every time it was 13. Poor bastard.

My point being platforming is, and has always been, integral to the video game. Whether it’s primarily a platformer or not, sometimes you just need a good run-up. That being said, there are those platforming sections that are so out of left field that it can in fact make the game harder than it should be, sometimes unplayable. Whether due to poor controls, or just a massive difficulty spike, here are seven that I think deserve the spotlight on.

Why seven? Why not.

7) Tenchu: Stealth Assassins

I've got some very fond memories of this game. It was like Metal Gear Solid in Feudal Japan.  Sneaking up on people, gutting them to bits, poisoning dogs, making civilians step on caltrops for a laugh, then getting the shit scissor-kicked out of you by Onikage. The game was almost perfect. The combat was great, the score was fantastic, and it was the first ninja game that incorporated stealth as a main feature. There was even a cheat where you could make it (sort of) two-player, providing Player 2 is a baddie.

But something about this game was always hit or miss: The jumping sections. Especially the ones where falling meant death. Ninjas Rikimaru and Ayame had three types of jumps: The straight up and down, just by pressing X, add a direction for flavour; the moonsault (do a flip and wind up facing the other way), Down, Forward, X, and the strong forward jump, Forward, Forward, X. To clear any sort of distance, you had to do the strong forward jump.

Trouble was, it demanded you tapping Forward, Forward in such quick succession that sometimes it just didn't work and you just did a normal forward jump instead. This fucker knew exactly just when not to work: when leaping over a pit. Every god damn time. Whether it be in the 3rd stage, crossing a narrow stone walkway, then leaping to the passageway off to the side, or in the 8th stage in the forest/mountain. Lots of room for error there. And don't get me started on the last level...

And just to add insult to injury, the Grabbing mechanic doesn't work unless you're exactly the right height. Countless times I've nailed that leap and the divvy ninja bastard just forgets to grab hold of the ledge. Thanks game. Now I've lost the sexy armour for Ayame.

6) Fantasia

Oh Mickey Mouse, you've bought up so much of my childhood in recent years, I often worry you might go one step further and steal my future. Actually steal my seed, then try to sell it back to me like some gangly limbed, man/mouse-hybrid abomination gyppo. You've amassed so much power and influence that I worry you might actually become the next President of the United States.
I never could stand you. Your cartoons piss me off, and your shit-eating grin always made me cringe. I suppose you got the last laugh though. Just don't make Chris Pratt Indy. Don't you dare...

Fantasia, for the Mega Drive was a platformer based on Fantasia, the film (gasp). It was a straight forward affair: walk right through scenes from the film (even the ones the mouse wasn't in), jump across platforms and use magic attacks to kill candlesticks, brooms, pelicans, frogs, and all kinds of weird shit. It came with my Mega Drive at the time. We couldn't have got Castle of Illusion, oh no. That game was good.

The platforms weren't terribly difficult to reach a lot of the time. They just required some timing. What made it awkward was that Mickey Mouse jumped like he was in space. Most of Fantasia's extreme difficulty though, comes from one thing: There's a delay between you pressing jump and the bastard actually doing it on the screen. Games like this require a slick reaction time at the best of times, but to then add a delay? Why?

I said the most of the problem comes from the delay, because this is one of those brilliantly designed platformers where you have to be dead on the mark, or Mickey falls through the bit you're trying to land on, which invariably winds you up getting hurt. Cheap. Just cheap.

Oh what you do, Mickey, do Mickey, don't break my game, Mickey.

5) Shadow Man

Now, before you all start leaving comments in capital letters like it somehow gives your words more resonance, I love this game. And considering I only played the ugly PS1 version, that's saying something. It wasn't until I was an adult that I found out there's a better looking PC version.

Mike LeRoi has problems. 120 of them in fact, dotted all throughout the game. On top of that there are 5 serial killers he has to defeat, an apocalypse he has to thwart, and an old voodoo lady with a thick Caribbean accent he has to lay every once in a while, just so she can come back in the sequel looking completely different with an American accent.

To top off his ever-growing to-do list, he's got the same problem as Alan Parsons: He can't look down. There's a lot of jumping, climbing, and shimmying involved if you live in Deadside, and while Shadow Man can stand still and look around in 1st person all he wants, he can’t do it on the move. The camera is fixed on the same plane as the character. You can only pan it left and right. If you need to jump to anything below you, you can expect to either fall short, or overshoot it and fall into lava.

Fortunately, Shadow Man is one of those games where death is just a minor inconvenience. Downside to this is you have unlimited opportunities to fuck up.

4) Apocalypse

I have this theory that every Bruce Willis film is actually a Die Hard sequel. Fifth Element is Die Hard: Florescent Futurescapes, Surrogates is Die Hard: The Sims Edition, Armageddon is Die Hard in Space, Twelve Monkeys is Die Hard: Viral Apocalypse, Pulp Fiction is Die Hard: In the Fifth, Your Ass Goes Down, and Sixth Sense is Die Hard: The Death of John McClane.
Oh and Moonlighting was Die Hard: Origins.

So when he lent his voice and likeness to the PS1 game Apocalypse and not Die Hard Trilogy, I was excited.

Apocalypse is an underrated gem from the PS1 library. A run 'n' gun set in a murky future where Trey Kincaid John McClane is a scientist doubling as a triple-hard bastard. He escapes from jail via a murder-rampage, then proceeds to treat the rest of the game like it’s an American High School. Oh, he also stops the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

It’s a solid game. Simple, and very fun. I do wish they hadn't included so many jumping sections though. McClane jumps at least 3 times his own height. That might be normal if you're a fat plumber, or Jeff Goldblum if he'd gone in the teleporter with a hedgehog and a tin of blue paint instead of a fly, but for Bruce Willis...

The overt difficulty with these platforming sections come from the following: The camera zooms way out in these sections, falling is always immediate death, and he jumps way too fucking far. Usually it's easiest to use your shadow to judge if you're over the ground in games like this, but a lot of the time you're too busy shooting stuff, or the camera's zoomed too far out to see it properly.

It’s still a solid game though. Jumping sections aside, if you still have a PS1, I'd recommend checking out Die Hard: William Gibson's Pixelated Future Killing-Spree.

3) The Revenge of Shinobi

Writing this, I can already hear your disagreement. I'll be frank, this one is a personal addition. Back in the 90's, there wasn't a kid in town who didn't have Mega Games 2 for the Mega Drive (unless you were one of those Nintendo kids).  Alongside the classics, Golden Axe and Streets of Rage, was The Revenge of Shinobi  - sequel to Shinobi, which started as an arcade game and was ported to consoles, best of all being the Master System.

In the game you play as Joe Musashi (not Shinobi) as he walks right and chucks knives at green ninjas, green ninjas with wings, samurai, dogs, and that's about it, because the second level is absolutely impossible. The second level as far as I've seen is a big waterfall. Joe has to traverse the rocky path, occasionally jumping on bits of driftwood as they descent from the top of the screen, down to the bottom.

Joe jumps pretty high, granted, but if you hit jump again at the very highest pixel of the jump, you do a flip. And as anyone who has seen enough crappy ninja films will know, doing a flip will grant you an extra 30 feet of airtime. Just like how rolling prevents bullets from hitting you.

It’s this gnat's bollock hair accuracy that demands absolute mastery to progress. A pixel too early or too late on his jumping animation and the second jump doesn't work. Half of the time, by the time you've landed on the last log in the sequence, you're too low down to get to the next rock, so you have to backtrack and wait for the next set of logs. But oh wait, you can't, because the previous logs have already descended off-screen. And just to make sure you're proper screwed, winged ninjas often swoop in with shurikens and knock you off the logs too. Fucking what?

This one is on the list, because as you've guessed, I'm shit at it. Even to this day, saving after every successful jump on an emulator, I still can't do it. This should have been the last level. If you can get past this part, you're a saint. You must be an actual ninja. I have no idea what the rest of the game is even like. Surprisingly though, I can clear most of Shinobi III without dying.

2) The Last Ninja

What is it with ninjas? Why can't they jump like Mario, or better yet Samus Aran? This game should get a bit of leeway, because it’s so old, it’s for the Commodore 64. It doesn't though. Not from me, and not from my burning resentment that's festered over 25 years and made me into the recluse I am today.

You're the eponymous Last Ninja, and you walk around Japan in diagonal lines, punching, kicking, then eventually stabbing, slashing, and battering people with nunchaku. It’s fun once you figure out the controls- only having one button meant the devs had to get creative. However, The Last Ninja stands as an advert for why you should never put platforming sections in an isometric game.

In level one you come to two spots. One is a small pond with stepping stones and the other is a muddy bog with driftwood (Oh god not this again). Both play the exact same way: you take your time, you line the last ninja up in the same diagonal line as the first step, you leap...
And then the ninja become extinct. Mr Ninja lands in the water/mud, sinks and dies. While you could scold yourself for messing up the jump, it’s much easier to ask yourself why the hell a ninja can't swim? 3 lives and that's your lot. No checkpoints, no continues. This is old skool hard. Games like this were kicking kids’ arses long before the Souls series turned this kind of masochism into something we enjoy.

Until this point it’s a solid game. The score is great and suits the feel of the game. The combat lacks variety, but that's forgivable, and for the C64 it looks fantastic. That one fatal flaw though...
The pond you don't even have to bother with. You can go around that. The mud is the path to the end of the level though. I've never seen beyond it. I doubt it even exists. I think I might just have a weakness to driftwood...

1) Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles

Don't act like there aren't shit-loads of bad Star Wars games. For every Republic Commando there's a Bounty Hunter and a Force Unleashed 2.

Trouble is, Jedi Power Battles isn't a bad Star Wars game. Not by a long stretch. Back in the day it was one of my absolute favourites (the other few being Jedi Knight 3: Jedi Academy, Republic Commando, and Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader. I was a Mega Drive kid, so the Super Star Wars Trilogy eluded me).

It played similarly to the Lego Star Wars games, 'cept without any of the nut collecting, and was much faster paced. You run around scenes from Phantom Menace, brandishing a lightsaber and swinging it around like its 1991 and you're Paul Reubens in a cinema. It’s awesome. It’s even co-op, so you and a mate can go Fred & Rose West on the Trade Federation army.

And here comes the big, hairy but...

Every stage has at least one section that requires some deft platforming, and my god, these will test you. They're purposefully designed to make you throw the controller in a tantrum. I'm convinced that these sections must be the trials that the Jedi talked about.

It’s another one of those 'use your shadow' tactics. The Jedi can double-jump, but once you're moving in the air, you can't stop. You have to be dead on, or you're doomed. And like with Tenchu, you don't always grab the sides. Sometimes the platforms move, like in the Coruscant level which is an entire platforming section, and more often than not there are enemies present too. Packing a lightsaber, you can stand still and deflect shots until they're gone, but that won't get you anywhere in Tatooine. Sand People don't shoot lasers. They shoot bullets. They can be blocked, but not deflected, so you have to time your jumps in between their shots, then decide if its worth jumping over to their platform to kill them or not, because you might miss a jump on the way back. It’s a real sweaty hands affair.

And bugger me, if it doesn't get harder. Co-Op is always fun. It’s great. A dual Jedi rampage is the stuff wet dreams are made of. But when you get to a platforming section, you've just hit the expiration date on your friendship. Here's why:

                     You share lives,
                     The game is buggy as hell
                     The camera is practically a baddie, because if you go too far away from each other, it'll just ignore both of you.
These points are especially annoying in Tatooine as a lot of the platforms are only wide enough for one Jedi, so one is always one platform behind, and you both have to make your jumps at the same time. You depend on him not to fuck up, and he depends on you. It’s destined to fail. You're destined to fail.

So there are my 7. If you have similar experiences with these games, let me know in the comments. If you got past the waterfall in Revenge of Shinobi, I salute you. What's the rest of the game like? If you can think of any more overly difficult platforming sections, feel free to share tales of your pain.

Enjoyed this piece? Then 'like' The Crusades of A Critic on Facebook. Sam also has a novel which can currently be viewed here, and features ten times the swears, snarc, and rage of the above piece.