Ninja Taro

Ninja Taro (or it’s proper name, Sengoku Ninja-kun) is the exact type of game I hope to find when randoming in through old roms. I can’t expect to find some beautiful classic I never heard of (unless it’s on some obscure system I never knew about), but I can sometimes stumbled into flawed, quirky games with a good bit of ambition.

Ninja Taro isn’t a particularly good game. Just going by controls, it’s a bad game. But it fits a genre of game I always am interested in when I bump into them. I love finding an old ass Zelda clone. For all its popularity, bold faced Zelda clones are surprisingly rare. Zelda 1 clones are the most rare (Golden Axe Warrior being the only one that quickly comes ot mind) but most fit this weird in between zone between Zelda 1 and a LTTP.

Ninja Taro is right in this zone, though perhaps leaning more toward Zelda 1. The game is fairly linear but doesn’t restrict you. You can, and sometimes must backtrack. The game wants you to go one place, but the level design tries to keep up the illusion of a larger world. The overall structure of Ninja Taro is excellent, perfect for a Gameboy game. A more guided version of Zelda that never completely veers into restricted linearity.

Ninja Taro’s biggest issue sadly is it simply doesn’t feel good to play. 4 way awkward grid movement makes combat more about standing in the right spot and waiting for enemies to do all the work rather than active combat. Attacking on the move just isn’t a reliable thing, and you have to wait for Taro stop move to the next sub-grid piece before taking an action.

Most of the items you get are utterly useless. The game gives you ninja camo, fire, bombs and probably some other stuff, but no situation merits using anything but unlimited use swords and protectiles. Even bosses fall fast enough to rapid attacks that using any of these items is simply a waste of time

The game contains other gadgets. Ladders, bridges, sacred offerings… but having to go into the menu to equip them, use them, and then back to reequip your favorite sub weapon is needlessly tedious. Almost a punishment for misplaced ambition.

The game still gives a lot to find. You regularly find powerups for your basic weapons. We’re not talking about like a “+8 sword” like I found at least 30 of them for one of my swords and all that damage adds up. With pickups for two swords and 3 different throwing weapons, plus health, there is a lot of rewards for looking around. The weapon variety isn’t great though. You quickly find a sword that hits in all 8 spaces around you and thee is little reason not to use it. I theorize there might be more +1s for the default sword, ultimately leading to it doing more damage, but given how fast bosses die, this would be a weak sacrifice. Short ranged ninja stars seem to have more damage than throwing knives, but there range is so short they seem pointless to use over a sword. I enjoy the variety in the game, but the bloat does take a toll in terms of usability

While bosses are underwhelming, basic enemy design is neat? While your movement sucks, they seem to be designed with that in mind, being varied but predictable, allowing you to plan. Some are just dumb simple tanks, some always turn 90 degrees. some grow in ever growing circles, but regardless they’re all easy to understand.

The game is mostly linear but there seems to be things you can do in different orders and other things like optional bosses. It’s extremely fleshed out in a way you wouldn’t assume from the game in the first 10 minutes. It manages to set up simple stories and reoccurring characters that are extremely basic yet perfect for an early Gameboy game.

The game is simple looking but at moments the art drifts into the grotesque. Walls with eyes, giant fleshy demons. All great stuff mixed in with this otherwise cute game.

Sadly the game drags at the end. The difficulty ramps up exponentially. The game has no lives and forgiving continues. You keep all items and other progress when you die, but simply get sent back to the nearest town you saved at. Sadly by the last areas of the game are large and the travel time to retry grows and grows. The game also gets way into illusionary walls near the end, which adds to the crazed level of trial and error. I could forgive a lot about the game but this dragged it down a lot for me. Fortunately some online maps makes things a little bit more reasonable.

Is Ninja Taro worth playing? Probably not. But if you like weird old quirky games not a lot of people have played, it’s kinda cool? Definitely glad I finished it.

The Great Skatepocalypse

So at this point my blog is used about once a year to act as a year-end roundup for all the important games I’ve played. I realize now that this is stupid. Why try and remember a game I played 12 months ago when I can write about them as it happens?

So, for whatever reason recently (actually it was because of some tweets but that doesn’t matter) I was like “Huh! I’ve never played a Tony Hawk game! I should take care of that!”

I started with no particular destination in mind but I managed to span from THPS1 to THUG2 before moving on to some other skate games… but we’ll get there in a sec.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1

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What is the essence of a skateboarding game? What is realism? Can an arcade game speak essential truths about a real world activity? What, at it’s core, is a Tony Hawk game?

The answer is “Mario 64”. At it’s best, Tony Hawk Pro Skater is Mario 64 through the lens of a skateboarder and skateboarding problem solving. Skateboarding, in it’s most punk sense, is an activity where one uses a skateboard as a tool to impose your will on the world. Mario 64 is a game about inflicting your will through what might as well be parkour. The worlds in these games might be designed with you in mind, but they are not designed as tracks to be followed. They are Connect-the-Dots puzzles that give you a gentle guideline that both games encourage you to chaotically scribble over.

Even the metaphor of collecting tapes has much the same feel as collecting stars. The levels are smaller, you’re restricted to a minute time limit, but even then you explore and search for secrets. The games are not brothers, but they are close cousins.

The game looked surprisingly good, the controls, while a bit rough, well exceeded what I expected from a PS1 game and the level design was mostly extremely strong with occasional moments of extreme pain. Also the soundtrack ruled. A soundtrack of mostly stuff I didn’t know felt really appropriate for a skateboarding game. Despite it’s humble origins as the first game, it’s still one of my favorites.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2

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This game has some serious “go big or go home” energy. Everything is bigger,

the controls are smoother, the first level along is filled with crazy interactive elements. Customization, unlockable boards, create a character… The game was loaded. Granted, when I saw I could only choose between some basic parts to make my own teenage male dweeb I just went with Rodney Mullen. But hey, it’s a start.

The biggest stealth downgrade in the game is the money system. Not only does it somehow seem to degrade the Mario 64 “stars” feeling of the game, it makes unlocking things and buying stats all the more tedious and menu heavy.

Another downgrade for me was the soundtrack. At the time it would have been an upgrade, but playing it now it’s like… Powerman 5000?? God, remember when they were big? It’s not bad, but it lacks the griminess THPS1’s soundtrack had. Like simply “not having the Dead Kennedys” is a big downgrade already.

The biggest and most important feature is the manual. THPS1’s biggest combo limiter was the grind. If there was no way to jump to a new grind, there was no way to extend a combo. Using a manual to link tricks and act as a bridge between grinds allows the game combo system to completely wild. Now vert is the bastard child of the game — you can’t combo into or out of a vert in a reasonable way but at least you can get some special tricks in.

With this, the tension to perform gets higher but the rewards for skill gets higher too. Still, the game isn’t ‘complete yet’. While a huge upgrade from 1, the games that come after it for me makes THPS2 one of the lesser games in the early series.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3

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THPS3 is the big finale for classic Tony Hawk. As the final game to feature the “2 minute round” gameplay, THPS3 is easily the best of the early entries. I moved to the PS2 for this one and the game just felt rock solid compared to earlier entries. Most of the finickiness was gone. The level design for this style of play is at its peak.

Reverts become the final piece of the mechanics puzzle. Reverting into a manual out of a vert landing now makes it so every aspect of the game can be chained together, with the only limiting factor being speed. Grinds are now more magnetic and impart a lot of speed, allowing for even more ridiculous, winding paths through levels.

Despite being great, there is surprisingly little to say about the game. Most of the stuff that applies to 1 and 2 applies here. The game is just great, with all the mechanics firing on all cylinders.

Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4

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THPS4 is an important entry in the series that suffers from the fact that it is so quickly obsoleted. It’s big gimmick? Ditching the 2 minute rounds to make exploratory levels. I like this change in concept, but THPS4 hasn’t figured quite how to pull it off. Insread of having Mario 64 style exploration, you just kinda go from quest giver to quest giver, slowly depopulating the levels until you are left with a barren free skating level.

Yeah there are new mechanics. Spine transfers, skitching, probably something else… but it doesn’t matter. The core is there without these mechanics. Also the new mission structure leads to some… funky missions. The whole free open structure was used as an excuse by the devs to make a few stupidly brutal missions. You get to meet some pro skaters too which was probably really cool at the time… but it never quite comes together? The flow just isn’t there, leaving THPS4 as a very forgettable game. It’s not bad, it’s just… not much.

Tony Hawk’s Underground

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Underground is easily my favorite Tony Hawk game. You get into and out of missions quickly now, keeping a pace through the game that gets it back to that “Mario 64” energy. The move from “Pro Skating” to “Underground” doesn’t change much. Tony Hawk games always had that scummy, grimey feeling that is accurate to pro skating… but it does lead into the story.

Story?? Tony Hawk? Well, shockingly, it… works? It works SURPRISINGLY WELL? Your quest to become pro with your scummy best friend who betrays you for fame shockingly has emotional weight. Eric Sparrow is a piece of shit and it rules. Your relationship seems genuine, his dumbfuckedness seems genuine and him totally turning full douche has just strikes the right balance.

Sadly, I could write a whole blog post on how the Eric Sparrow story fails to pay off. You finally get to be in a competition with this dickhead who stole your footage and you’re ready to embarrass and crush him and he… gets second place? Eric Sparrow is a great skateboarder. All his success is earned. He’s a piece of shit but he’s a talented one. The story concludes with you chasing him down a huge line, following him move for move to get back your lost footage and you… beat him simply by keeping up with him. You don’t prove he’s a fraud. You don’t best him. You merely match him. THE GAME GOT ME TO HATE THIS SON OF A BITCH BUT COULDN’T GIVE ME THE PAYOFF. UGH.

One funny note on the game is if you play as a girl the game is kinda hilariously and awesomely gay. None of the dialog is rewritten so your character will talk about liking russian girls and will have Rodney Mullen scold her for checking out bikini babes. I can imagine the conversation in neversoft. “But if we allow custom girls we’ll need two scripts.” “Like hell we will, make her gay!”

But more importantly, the levels are fast, breezy and fun. You can get off your board now for better and worse — making it easier to get into position but also leading to ridiculous things like… stealth sections?? There are some other mechanics too but they don’t really mean much. At this point in Tony Hawk, most of the mechanics are filler and the real gift is the formula. It’s hard to articulate how fast you can blow through missions and how much just… punchier it feels than THPS4. THUG1 has its cake and eats it. It has its rough points (besides the story, the last segment in the game is kinda tedious and dumb and weird), but it mostly works, has a fun art style and is charming. It exceeded all my expectations.

Tony Hawk’s Underground 2

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This game is…. a lot. And not necessarily in a good way. The style is pretty great. The energy is pretty great. Bam Margera is occasionally even funny in a “this happened so long ago it’s cringe wraps around to ironic” kind of way but… it just kinda doesn’t pull things off. At this point, the missions stop feeling like they’re about skating. You’re basically doing fetch quests with a little bit of skating in between. It’s chaos, with skateboarding as a secondary, almost forgotten feature. You get one high score challenge per level that’s your real change to skate, but most of it plays like a platformer with a skateboard.

Storywise it kinda… goes nowhere. Nothing happens. Nothing develops. You don’t know when the ending is going to come. Like sure sometimes Bob Burnquist gets nuts in the balls with a tennis ball and Eric Sparrow is finally, almost apologetically treated like an absolute loser but it… generally just feels like a bunch of stuff happens and then the game ends. That’d be fine, if the game part was good — that’s been the whole serious up until Underground 1 — but it isn’t. Some of the pro skaters get to show some personality I guess?? That’s kinda cool? I feel like this game has the perfect read on who Tony Hawk actually seems to be: An entity of chaos who is just really good at pretending to be respectable. He’s the guy who you have talk to the cops when they show up. Not that he hates them any less than you, he can just fake it better.

There IS a whole ‘classic mode’ that seems way better than the main story mode. I didn’t play through all of it and it seems a little poorly fit, but I still had the most fun playing that way. The spraypaint tag editor is surprisingly detailed but… serves little purpose? The game does stuff to do stuff. Here, drive vehicles which are more boring than skate boarding. Throw shrimp at people I guess. I don’t know, who cares about the mechanics of the game?? It’s a letdown.

The game also goes from zero lines of tweaked dialog for female characters to 1: Your character gesturing to her breasts to appeal to Bam Margera, asking him how he could chose a kid in a wheelchair over THESE???

The only part of this that bothered me was the idea of coming on to Bam Margera like please have some self respect. At the end of the day the game lost it’s way by trying to be Jackass. Apparently American Wasteland pulls this off better, but at this point I was burnt out on Tony Hawk. End result?

THUG1 > THPS3 > THPS1 > THPS2 > THUG2 = THPS4

Skate 3???!

WAIT WHAT WE’RE STILL GOING???

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Hell yeah! I remembered my friend had a copy of Skate 3 and asked if I could borrow it! I figured after all this arcadey Skating I should try something more on the simulation spectrum.

Skate 3 is weird all the way through. From the intro video to the weird meta lines, to the horrible mission structure to it’s weird blend of ‘this is a more serious and realistic skateboarding game’ and ‘throw yourself out of a bell tower to see how many bones you can break’. Skate 3 is weird.

What differentiates Skate from THPS? Skate controls much harder. Grinds have to be lines up and your inputs much match the grinds you want to do. Flip tricks? Flick around the right analog in a manner that resembles how the trick is actually performed. This, combined with lower ollies and other gameplay factors take Skate away from the endless combo gameplay of THPS. Tony Hawk can be STRESSFUL You’re constantly pushing your luck, at risk of losing it all. Skate 3 just wants you to go and do your best. What’s more… Skate 3 is funner to play around it. Screwing around and freeskating in THPS felt pointless. I could be working toward a real goal! doing anything actually impressive in THPS felt incredibly stressful. Skate 3? you can cruise around a mostly open world, fool around and save and edit clips of the cool things you did. Which is important because the actual game and its missions suck. Boringly right goals or super specific tricks or just super repetitive gameplay in modes designed for multiplayer that I feel like no one actually ever wanted to play

Instead, the funnest thing to do in the game was to cruise. The flick-it style controls leads to an intimate relationship between you and your board. I just found myself doing things for the sake of doing them, something I never did in Tony Hawk. If Tony Hawk is a game about epic lines, Skate 3 is about intimacy with ‘the trick’. Or it would be, if not for another game…

Sadly most of Skate 3 is busted. The servers are down. DLC packs you need to say… upload footage to youtube? Gone. Custom decals and stuff? Gone. bu it’s okay, I was able to use cell phone footage to cut together a video part because I’m lame as hell.

This is the character I’ve been playing in all the other Tony Hawk games. She’s supposed to be Sinlen’s maid, which is inspired obviously by that one artist everyone has to see on twitter all the time. But anyways, Skate 3’s half dead state lead me to get my chill, cruisin’ skate vibes elsewhere, especially since Skate 3 had other issues. The map just felt… almost comedically conducive to skateboarding. When everywhere is a spot, nothing feels like a spot. I found myself avoiding extremely crazy ramps and super obvious tricks because it just felt like it was handed to me on a silver platter.

Session

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Skate 3 is not the ‘simulationist side’ of the skateboard spectrum. Maybe it’s simulationist-of-center? But either way, SESSION is the game that truly is the simulationists skateboarding game.

The controls are an obvious progression from Skate, where it clearly draws its influence. Where Tony Hawk had tricks as a binary input, Skate had them as an analog input. Session? 2 analogs. One for each foot. Want to ollie in Skate? you slam the analog down and then up. Session? You hit down with your back foot and up with your front foot. Kickflip? Down with your back foot, to the side with the front foot. And the incredible thing? When you 180 and go switch… the analogs reverse.

The thing with THPS and Skate is… Switch hardly matters. Yeah technically you skate worse switch in both games, but I never noticed the difference. Sure in Skate if you’re switch, a kickflip input becomes a heelflip input, but… from a game perspective, I don’t care if I don a kickflip or a heel flip. At least not until I’m made to care. In THPS I rarely cared what tricks I was doing. Are they fast or slow?? Skate… I’d be concerned about the GENRE of a trick. Shuvits vs kick/heels vs bigger fancy flips and like sometimes I’d want a specific grind but I’d just be happy to hit the rail… Switch? Forget about it? Nollies? An afterhought (or ‘never’ in THPS).

Session though… it makes things so much more tactile that I care. It’s not even necessarily harder. Having two whole analogs make the inputs less tiny and precise! I’m way more consistent in Session than Skate… but in a way that feels authentic? Skating switch matters. Doing something “fakie” makes sense. Switch is frustrating, but in a way it’s SUPPOSED to be because actually skating switch is hard as fuck. The game doesn’t penalize you for what stance your in — your hands do.

You also turn with the shoulders which trips people up, but it kinda feels great? No accidental turning or anything. The game is fun just to cruise in without tricks, especially since you get to explore a legitimate slice of NYC. It’s a big learning curve for osme people but I took to it super fast.

There is also manual catching, where you have to input an analog to actually catch your tricks in the air at the right time. Now what tricks you do matter. The timing to catch a treflip is different from catching a 360 hardflip, even when they ‘feel roughly like the same trick’ when I’m playing Skate. Heel flips are slower than kickflips. Shovits are extremely forgiving but might make you land crooked. Now I EXTREMELY CARE about what move I’m doing. Now everything is intentional and when it isn’t, I feel extremely lucky. The game is just awesome.

The problems? Well, in some ways the two foot metaphor doesn’t work. Like riding regular, down on the right analog followed by up on the left is an ollie. But switch it… feels like that should also work to get a fakie ollie? Instead, fakie ollie is up on the right stick, down on the left. This is kinda a compromise since things would get weird otherwise. Oh yeah, this is also an early access game. In fact, there is no game to speak of. You can get footage, but the clip editor is super buggy (ALWAYS KEEP BACKUPS, ESPECIALLY WHEN ADDING FOV AND SPEED KEYFRAMES). Collisions can be dumb. Grinds can be buggy. Anyone who follows me on twitter has probably seen a ton of funny bugs. Customization is limited unless, like me, you’re willing to mod the game (which isn’t HARD but also requires UE and isn’t easy either. Intermediate modding!).

… But despite it’s flaws, it really kinda rules? If you think this is a game for you, it probably is, and if you have misgivings, they’re probably warrented. Anyways have my Maid’s next video part because I’m the least cool person on earth.

Expect more about Session when it finally matures into a full game.