A Tragically Low Sum from a Number of Parts – Super Nintendo – Secret of the Stars – 1993

Image result for box art secret of the starsSecret of the Stars
Super Nintendo
Tecmo
Genre: Role-Playing Game
1993

Video games have a variety of ways that they can gain notoriety over time, but they tend to fall into one camp or another. One way is that the game is so well-made, fantastic, or charming that the general public can’t help but fall in love with it. There are a vast number of games from the golden age of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis days that I can think of off the top of my head when I think about the games that captured my attention and have stuck with me to this day.

Then, there is the other way; the way that may not be considered quite as positive as the first. There is a selection of games that miss the mark in such a grandiose way that they become cult classics, revered for the mess of positive and negative elements that they bring to the table. These are the games that are not so universally terrible that they can’t be played, but the ones that effort was put into to make into a game that could walk alongside its technological brethren and hold its head high as one of their equals- and managed to miss the point of why those games were so successful.

Tecmo’s Secret of the Stars is one of those games to me. Before I got the chance to play it, I had heard so much about how terrible the game was but hadn’t really heard exactly why it was awful. It wasn’t that I doubted the people saying these things about the game. Usually, when I haven’t heard of an RPG from the early 90s era by this point, I feel like there’s something off about it that has kept it in mind blind spot over the years. I felt like I would be letting myself down to not at least try to forge through Secret of the Stars and see exactly why it has been panned by so many people, though, and much like some other games I’ve reviewed here, I turned the game on with an open mind in an attempt to analyze it to the best of my abilities.

Let’s see how that went, shall we? Continue reading

They’re Back In Game Boy Form! – Game Boy Color – The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror – 2001

Simpsons, The - Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror (U) [C][!]_02The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror
Game Boy Color
Software Creations/THQ
Genre: Action Platformer
2001

My first introduction to horror growing up came in the form of television specials that would pop up around the Halloween season. I vividly remember episodes of Home Improvement, Roseanne, and Boy Meets World that entranced me as a kid. Honestly, they probably scared me a bit, too, even though they’re probably pretty laughable to me today. They were a good gateway into a genre that I love now, though, and my gaming and movie tastes might be fairly different if it weren’t for those spooky interludes in my sitcom watching days.

As it happens, I also watched a lot of The Simpsons growing up. Like most other sitcoms, they had a Halloween episode carved out each year, too, called the Treehouse of Horror due to the framing narrative involving the stories being told in the oft-utilized structure in the family’s backyard. As an anthology of short Simpson-flavored homages, this appealed to me since I enjoyed reading and the specials were well-produced, I’ve always held a special place in my heart for them.

Imagine my delight, then, when I was looking through my collection for something a bit scary to play while leading into the spooky season (yeah, I start early) and stumbled across The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror. How this had slipped under my active radar, I’m not entirely sure, but I made a quick plan to rectify the problem. After some quick preparation- and honestly, setting myself up for the possibility that the game could be terrible since I had never heard of it and it’s a licensed game- I jumped into the shoes of the familial quintet to see if I was in for a trick or a treat. Continue reading

Through the True Lens of Terror – Playstation 2 – Fatal Frame – 2001

TitleFatal Frame
Playstation 2
Tecmo
Genre: Survival Horror
2001

In general, horror is a tricky genre to be successful in, despite there being quite a bit of leeway as to what “horror” can actually pertain to. Sometimes, horror can be encapsulated by the visuals of a game, making for some gruesome scenes or grisly environments that can offset a player’s senses. Action-horror can give a player weapons and defenses aplenty at their disposal only to let them whittle away as the game continues. Then there are games that don’t even give you weapons, offering either environment or a host of hiding spaces to avoid assailants as you attempt to escape the encroaching danger.

Whatever the specifics are, horror games usually have the primary goal of trying to scare the player. Jump scares can be cheap but effective and atmosphere and digital disorientation can leave a lasting impression but takes a thorough followthrough to pack a punch. There is a delicate balance involving tension, foreboding, art, and programming that has to go into these games for them to achieve their goal.

One game that made this attempt was Fatal Frame, the origin point of a series that never quite reached the popularity of some of its brethren but has a well-sized and devoted following. Touting a rare “based on a true story” label on its cover, the game left quite the impression on me growing up but I never finished the original title, opting instead to play through the second entry with a friend in high school over the course of a night one summer. I’ve had fond memories of the pieces of the series I’ve played in the past, so I decided it was time to buckle in and push through the game that started the series on its quiet course into cult reverence. 

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Even when you know it’s evil, the anticipation of the reveal is sharp

Plot
1986. Japan.

A group of researchers disappears behind the doors of the Himuro Mansion, a mysterious manor that has gone uninhabited for some time. It is said that horrible things happened there that may not be completely of this world. The trio of scholars embarked on a journey into the mansion to figure out its secrets but haven’t been seen since.

Shortly after, Mafuyu Hinasaki ventures to the Himuro Mansion on his own determined to find his tutor and the two people who were assisting him in his investigation of the grounds. Unfortunately, his investigation doesn’t turn up with his missing comrades. He does, however, find something malevolent. Something that doesn’t want him to leave.

Enter Miku Hinasaki, Mafuyu’s sister and a young woman whose determination matches her brother’s exactly. As Mafuyu traveled to find his tutor, she has come to the gates of the Himuro Mansion to locate her brother who has been missing for some time since he left. With very little to go on, she finds the mansion, empty and devoid of any life it would seem. Among the shifting shadows and strange shapes she begins to encounter, she also finds the Camera Obscura. It is said that the camera can ward off spirits, capturing their essence so that they cannot wreak their spectral havoc and endanger the living.

With the Camera Obscura in hand, Miku must brave the haunting inhabitants of the mansion to uncover its secrets- including the fate of her brother and of all those who have walked the halls before her.

Hands

Miku will run into quite a few scares before her nights at the mansion are through

Mechanics
Taking control of Miku throughout most of the adventure, Fatal Frame places you in a third-person view of her as you navigate the halls of the Himuro Mansion. Movement follows the basic principles of most 3D adventure games, and there are a few additions like sprinting by holding down the correct button, that make life a bit easier for both escaping dangerous situations and for exploring at your own pace. Miku can interact with her environment by pressing the X button which will tell her about certain areas she is facing or will pick up items to help her on her way.

Once she engages with the Camera Obscura, Miku will have the ability to defend herself against violent spirits and capture wayward and less dangerous ones. By pressing the designated shoulder button, she will aim the camera like many games utilize an aiming button with a gun or other weapon. This will put the player into a first-person mode to aim the camera at the target. The longer they can hold the reticle over the target, the more power the camera will store up and the more damage taking a shot will do. You will know if you’re targeting your opponent correctly as the circle around them will glow a faint blue. At certain points in the spirits’ movements, they will “open” themselves up for a Core Shot, making the glow turn from light blue to vivid orange. While these moments are infrequent and only last a second, they can result in much more damage and stunning the ghost so that you can reconfigure Miku to line up the next shot. All in all, combat becomes a series of taking one shot and then escaping to a better vantage point so that she can’t be damaged as easily.

PriestLetter

Hints can be found to lead you to your next steps

The camera takes on a few other tasks like unsealing doors by finding particular ghosts or unveiling secrets as to where the items you need to continue will be and mastering how and when to use it is important. Thankfully, the camera has a built-in sensor that will tell you when something spectral looms nearby so you can search for it. As Miku continues to face ghosts and capture them with the Camera Obscura, she will gain points that can be used to upgrade functions of the camera such as the range that it can effectively take pictures from and the size of the capture circle, making it easier to catch those spirits that move oo much to be easily tracked. With the right amount of points, extra functions can be unlocked that can slow the ghosts’ movement down or will let you see them better (since they have a tendency to disappear occasionally during combat, as ghosts are wont to do).

Despite being outnumbered and outpowered by a number of forces in the house, Miku is not without her own advantages. An easily accessible map makes jetting from place to place much easier, and she can find plenty of film of varying strengths to refill her camera with. Even more importantly, there are healing items throughout the game including the oft-found but incredibly useful Stone Mirror, an item that she can only hold onto one at a time but will shatter when her health runs out, refilling her to her maximum so that she can continue on. While the usual resource management is necessary to keep from running out of film or healing supplies, if the player explores the grounds enough, there shouldn’t be much of a problem with the items strewn throughout the mansion.

The Good, The Bad, And…
I’m going to start off by saying that there is very little that is bad about Fatal Frame. The game does a stellar job at making you feel both defenseless and empowered once the Camera Obscura is obtained. The player is rewarded for fast reflexes and being smart about combat as well as the exploration of the Himuro Mansion and its grounds. The amount of slow burn and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them frights outweigh the jump scares in the game, as well, which is more my style and feels more satisfying in general.

Core Shot

A solid Core Shot can change the tide of a battle

The atmosphere and lore behind the game is its main selling point. While the claims of being based on a true story are a bit exaggerated- the developer, Makoto Shibata, claims that his impetus for the game was within his own supernatural experiences- some of the rituals and topics discussed are based on real concepts. Going into detail would get a bit too far into spoiler territory, but it is worth mentioning that the teams put the story and atmosphere first in their developmental process and it shows.

I hate stretching for criticism in games that don’t feel like they warrant any, but there are a couple of things that bugged me in Fatal Frame. For one, the game feels like it can’t be completed correctly without a second playthrough as some of the optional spirits appear before Miku acquires her camera and in the New Game Plus, she starts with the camera immediately, giving her the ability to capture them. The “true ending” of the game also can’t be obtained without playing on the highest difficulty- which unlocks after the first playthrough. Even without that, the story feels complete, though, and you don’t miss much by not capturing the first few spirits unless you’re a completionist.

Doll Room

The atmosphere of the Himuro Mansion is as dreadful as it is enamoring

Presentation
Looking at Fatal Frame is a treat, though it can get a bit monotonous due to how limited the locale is involving the Himuro and some of the outdoor environments around it. The visual designers remedy this, though, by adding pops of color and small details throughout the dreary wooden hallways that give the game a particular style that both feels natural and lifts it from how mundane it could have felt. In action, some of the ghosts are a bit muddy. That could have been a visual choice, though, so it’s tough to feel one way or another about it. The only real drawback is that some of the flashbacks that happen throughout the game can be a bit too dark and grainy, making some important details a bit tough to see.

The weakest part about listening to the game is in the voice acting and that’s more by comparison to the rest of the game than anything. While not Resident Evil levels of cringe, the voice acting feels a bit “off” in most places, either overacted or under. The rest of the game, though, is beautifully atmospheric. Sometimes, being unable to tell whether the noise you’re hearing is a ghost incoming or just some creak or wind through the walkways is what is absolutely necessary to build tension and strike the right chords. Like most games aiming for the type of atmosphere Fatal Frame achieves, the music is generally understated and well-orchestrated, adding unease and action where it is needed.

Conclusion
It’s a shame that while Fatal Frame has a robust base of fans now, it fell to the wayside while competing with franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill when it came out. The original game feels a bit dated, but only because it is a good looking game from a couple of generations ago. If it had come out today, it would most likely make a splash in the cult survival horror market like its spiritual successor, DreadOut.

The game is genuinely creepy, though, and doesn’t pull too many punches. It creates a game that is just difficult enough that it isn’t unfair and maintains a chilling atmosphere from the moment the curtains rise on the Himuro Mansion. If you’re a horror fan at all, it would be worth your time to find a way to play this game to see some masterwork horror design in place. Tecmo set out to scare and engage their audience. Fatal Frame delivers elements to do both of those impeccably.

August in Review

3pmegamanstyle

Hey folks! I’m a few days late, but it’s been a hectic beginning to September so I hope you’ll all forgive me.

So far as life is concerned, it’s mostly been work and trying to be social where I can. A lot of that involves gaming, which is nice, but I’ve also been working on getting back into reading. I’ve pretty much careened through the first book of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, in an effort to read through some of his connected mythos. It’s been nice having a book reel me back in again, and I’m hoping the reading bug catches me this time around. There are a lot of great works out that I’ve been meaning to get to.

I also featured on a co-stream with my best friend, Sparkhive (who’s stream can be caught here!) and introduced her to the game, ObsCure (which I also reviewed here). It was a blast to not only collaborate with a good friend live and in front of a bunch of fun folks, but it reminded me that I enjoyed streaming when I could for the most part before. It may be something I look into doing every so often once I have an apartment or a place to live where I can do it in peace.

Gaming itself has also been pretty erratic, though I’ve tended toward the spooky over the past month. I managed my way through the original Fatal Frame and have started up with Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly. I’ve also worked through three or four run-throughs of The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan, Supermassive’s follow-up effort to one of my favorite games, Until Dawn, which I’ll have some impressions of up on here shortly for. My co-op playthrough of Dead Rising 2 is coming to a close soon, too. Not to be outdone, though, my Switch has gotten quite a bit of playtime with a second run-through in Fire Emblem: Three Houses and the Final Fantasy VIII Remastered release a few days ago.

Needless to say, it’s a great time to be a gamer!

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Reviews and Posts

Keeping on my horror slant, most of the games I wrote about this month had some hand in the macabre. Exploring Castlevania 64 after all of these years was a fun romp into one of my favorite series, even if the experience is a bit lacking. The original Dead Rising left the same kind of taste but as the origin point of the series, it kind of makes sense that there were some bumps in the road. Surprisingly, DreadOut: Keepers of the Dark was a solid sequel that followed the original DreadOut (review) faithfully and kept most of what worked so well in the original.

The one deviation was A Boy and His Blob which I had wanted to revisit since I first owned it on the NES years ago. It’s an interesting little title that’s worth a peek and has made me interested in the remake that came out on the Wii some time ago.

Castlevania (N64)
Dead Rising (360)
A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia (NES)
DreadOut: Keepers of the Dark (PC)

The only editorial piece I did this month came from the “Adventures in Collecting” series I’ve attempted to keep up- though this one was a bit of a warning to budding collectors more than anything. From my advice pile to you: “make sure you read the fine print”.

(Mis)Adventures in Collecting – Fire Emblem

Looking Ahead

Aside from write-ups on Fatal Frame and some impression on Man of Medan, I’m hoping to continue on with my Dead Rising write-ups and finally put the finishing touches on my overview of Left 4 Dead. I have a few other games that I’m looking forward to but I hesitate to chat about which ones I’ll actually get to jot my impressions of down in here before the end of the month. It’s actually feeling like there might be quite a few editorial pieces upcoming for some reason.

Really, the sky’s the limit and I’m not totally sure what will be coming up in the blog for September- especially since we’re heading into the Halloween season, my favorite season of all. If my gaming habits are any indication, though, you’ll be seeing some fun horror and RPG titles over the next few weeks.

Hope you’re all having a fantastic start to your month- and I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading, watching, gaming, or just generally doing that you’d like to share!

– Matt (a.k.a. The3rdPlayer)

(Mis)Adventures in Collecting – Fire Emblem

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It’s been a little while since I wrote anything about collecting. It’s not that I’ve stopped necessarily. In fact, I have plenty of material to share but my methods of collecting aren’t super interesting on the whole. I’ve had a few lucky finds nearby or wound up with some neat stuff by searching around on the usual websites. For me, it’s more about what I find over how.

There are dangers with every hobby, however, and game collecting has a metric ton of pitfalls to run into while trying to curate certain pieces at a quality one might like. There are questionable descriptions on eBay and Amazon, for example. Your version of “very good” might not be exactly what the person selling to you believes it to be. You may find that perfect listing for a complete-in-box copy of the game you were looking for- until you read the fine print that says “manual only”. Found a copy of some old Playstation game at your local thrift shop? You had better make sure to check the back of the disc unless you want to take the risk that it looks fresh off of a sanding belt.

My point is that there needs to be some attention to detail once you hit a point where you aren’t just generally collecting whatever you can find. As I’ve shown with some of my Atelier posts in the past, it can certainly be as simple as finding a copy of Mana Khemia when you dip into a retro store while on a day trip or hunting down a copy of the Premium Box of Atelier Rorona on Amazon to snatch up. All of my adventures collecting for the Atelier series have been pretty painless.

In contrast, collecting for Fire Emblem has been a nightmare.

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Of course, I’m being a little hyperbolic here, but I’ve run into more difficulties trying to buff up my collection of the Nintendo property than I have all of my other online purchases combined. Everything from outright cancellations for no reason to being sent a tablet meant for someone else while my product was missing in action and even issues involving a monsoon (which is clearly understandable but unfortunate nonetheless). A few months ago, though, I found someone selling a copy of Fire Emblem for the Gameboy Advance at a fairly reasonable price. I took a quick look at the pictures and clicked to buy it immediately. I was going to manifest my good luck into this purchase. I kept looking at the tracking number over the next couple of weeks and it arrived a day or two early, to my excitement.

I opened the parcel, and the game’s box was a little beaten up- but I had seen that in the pictures. I pulled open the top of the box and slid the cartridge out. It looked a little strange- but I had seen that in the pictures. There was no manual, which I had known, so while I decided on how I was going to tackle finding that, I looked at the back of the box.

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My face flushed. I felt my head shaking as I let out a deep sigh. Despite the boasts of this being a 100% authentic copy of the product, the packaging read like a mistranslated mess that was just a basic description of the game mechanics. After taking a moment to reconcile with the fact that this was another issue with my Fire Emblem collecting, I went back to look over the listing I had followed on eBay.

Even in the pictures, I could tell where I had gone wrong. Everything was as I had received, hackneyed translation and all. I had left a ‘Neutral’ rating for the transaction- everything was as shown in the ad and the product arrived on time but the game was certainly not an authentic Nintendo product. Like any great social media interaction, the seller immediately contacted me to change the feedback. I tried explaining myself and received a response still telling me that I was wrong- until I wrote out the description on the back of the box. Mind that I hadn’t even asked for my money back. Sure, I was entitled to it but the hassle felt like it wasn’t worth it and really, I just wanted people to know that this was not a legitimate claim. The seller immediately dropped the argument, apologizing for my dissatisfaction and tell me not to buy from them again.
It went without saying, but at least they were standing their ground.

So now I own this:

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It’s not a substitute, though I would imagine it plays correctly on a system and functions as it should, but as a collector, I’m obviously disappointed. Thankfully, it didn’t set me back too much so for now, it’s more of a placeholder or maybe something to give a friend if they want to play through the game. Maybe this could act as a cautionary tale, too, even if it’s one that’s already tried-and-true.

Make sure you examine everything about the product you’re buying. While it would be nice if everyone were honest and well-meaning, it’s really up to you to make sure that what you’re getting is actually what you intended.