17 August 2017

Vanquish | The Marriage Of Two Genres

Imagine a bookcase filled with old magazines - dusty and scratched. You grab one on games and relish in the old memories that come with it as you read its quality articles. Slowly your eyes settle on a single word next to a review: “genre: shooter”. Back then games were seriously categorized with their brothers. Painkiller’s gothic extravaganza was every much a “shooter” as Delta Force’s attempt at realism. While games have always dabbled with combining multiple genres, like with the original Metroid, it wasn’t until Deus Ex and Metroid Prime that the term “shooter” just wouldn’t suffice anymore. This took another step in 2010 when director Shinji Mikami wished to make a modern iteration of the “arcade shooter” after having completed God Hand’s ode to the classic “beat ‘em up” genre. Looking to other modern titles for inspiration he quickly noted that they ‘lacked speed’ and that he wished to break these rules, subconsciously having his game represent both “action” and the classic “shooter”. He had tried to revive the “arcade shooter” before with P.N.03 with little success and wished to take those lessons learned to realize the vision anew with a bigger budget and wider deadline to back it up. The result is Vanquish.

22 July 2017

Nioh: Dragon of the North | How Soaring Ambition Can Lead To Small Steps

I promised them the Land of the Date,
With them by my side, my ambition soared to the heavens like a mighty dragon.

These words, spoken by the antagonist of the Nioh’s first downloadable content entitled Dragon of the North, also speak volumes on the game itself. The original product promised a great number of things and now even more with this expansion - and with its fans by its side the ambitions soared. But did the dragon of the north soar too high into the clouds or did it breach the heavens?
Dragon of the North is exclusively playable to those who have beaten the game, it being a continuation where the main story left off; a unique move for downloadable expansions. This gives developer Team Ninja more control over the challenge presented as they could be sure players were used to certain attack patterns, combat options and tactics by this point. As such they constructed a campaign that starts off in the snow, an immediate breach of the flow we were used to with nearly four new enemy-types introduced back to back. The foes on display here are a large berserker type enemy, the Namahage(生剥), with a move-set built around hard to read slashes, with some breaks in between hits to confused players further. Another is a soldier that appears generic until his head pops revealing a large worm, the Rokurokubi (轆轤首), within. Lastly there are two variations on existing enemies added into the mix and a recolored foe to fit the more snowy vibe. Taken as a whole the variation in these new enemies is mixed, offering new types of engagements but the general concept remains the same: slow hard hitting enemies which rely on patterns to be defeated instead of wits. The lack of a small but quick foe is a noticeable one increasing by each playthrough. Though the Revenant enemy, who has the same moves available to him as the player, is seeing more frequent usage though it is still not enough and his weakness to both parries and sweeping strikes make him a nuisance at best. Taken as a whole the combat is taking small steps in the same direction instead of reaching for new heights.

11 July 2017

Yakuza Zero | A brawl worth surviving?

You’re walking through the crowded streets of Kamurocho, ripe with 80’s wonder. People walking their date home hoping for the ever elusive kiss, standing in line for that delicious takoyaki (たこ焼き) or even duking it out at the arcades in some glorious match of Outrun(アウトラン) - a classic for sure. But as you walk around a sound is heard in the distance: a crowd gathering. You hear terms being shouted. "桐生一馬!!! あいつを捕まえろ"!!! You peak over the crowd and see a man standing in the middle exhuming the aura of a dragon and facing off against a group of delinquents. As he cracks his knuckles you shiver, when his headbutt collides you shudder. A punch to the stomach follows. Then a dropkick. He gets hit once but doesn’t care. This isn’t a fight for honor but a brawl. He uses the momentum of the blow to grab another and slams him into a car." かっこいい で末ね!" says one bystander but you don’t understand. What is going on? When the last of the thugs hits the ground the man dressed in a white suit, with a shirt featuring a golden-chain design, walks off with a cigarette in his mouth and a calm demeanor radiating from his shoulders. As the camera pans upwards out of sight you realize you are not important here. This is a story about Kazuma Kiryu  (桐生一馬), and this is Yakuza Zero (龍が如く0).

22 June 2017

Enemy Variety | What Is The Value of Combat Variety?

If there’s one element while designing a product that restricts creativity - it is time. Time influences what content is cut, what is left in and thus decides which pieces of the puzzle the designers have to play with to keep the game interesting. Each and every director uses time in different ways; some use the time allotted to them to add as many features as possible while others focus on removing bugs or bad gameplay elements.

Most commonly cut content include levels, music tracks, certain set-pieces or gameplay mechanics - but data-mining finished games mostly finds cut enemies. Why is this? Well, enemies influence a lot of aspects of the game. For instance they need to be designed to work in numerous combat scenarios but also need to be able to deal and be dealt with all weapons available to the player - all while being different enough from others to warrant its existence. Due to this designing a single enemy can take up as much work as a whole new mechanic for all the pieces it brings with it.

While enemies being cut doesn’t stand out in more exploration based games like Horizon: Zero Dawn or platformers like Super Mario 3d World - it can turn into a glaring issue for action titles as the majority of the gameplay is spent facing off against these foes. The less there are, the faster players might get bored or be left unchallenged. And the worse their design or A.I., the less the combat can shine for a good combatant needs strong enemies.

Yet there are still games that despite cut content offer ample enemy-variety such as Ninja Gaiden Black, Dark Souls, Bloodborne and The Witcher 3: all bursting with more enemies than most series have across all their entries. But isn’t the old saying, “It’s not what you got, it’s how you use it”? While this comment is mostly used to refer to our third sword-arm, let’s get that little in-joke out of the way and focus on the meat of things here. Namely, the topic of this piece:

Enemy variety versus enemy usage, how to make the best possible combat experience under pressure?

07 June 2017

Viewtiful Joe | Revealing underlying talent - or exposing lack thereof?

Creative minds rarely start as they are now, only having gotten this far through hard work and an environment that allowed growth and experimentation. Itagaki from Ninja Gaiden fame had years to grow as a director, gain experience and preference - to find his style. Hideki Kamiya, the man of the hour in this piece, had no such environment. After his stint as system planner in the original Resident Evil he became director of the series moving forward with its sequel Resident Evil 2 and the later re-imaging of the franchise with Resident Evil 4. Yet during 4’s development Kamiya started to show his teeth as a creative element and as a result went a bit to far, leading to the change of Resident Evil 4 into Devil May Cry; a subject we’ll no doubt cover in later articles. But what’s important to note here is that Kamiya always had to focus on existing franchises and to build them further ahead, yet with Devil May Cry he proved he could create new material just as well if not better. As a result Capcom’s Production Studio 4, of which Kamiya was a member, started what would be known as “staff-focused projects”. These aimed to increase the skills and expertise of Capcom's staff but most importantly Kamiya himself. Born out of this came his first real own game.

"Viewtiful Joe" 

01 June 2017

Interview with Kagerasimaru | Master of the Ninja Arts

Kagerasimaru, or Kokoromaster to some, has been a force of nature in the Ninja Gaiden community. Offering strong advice and some helpful video content for both new players and veterans alike! Despite a near eight hour time difference we managed to briefly talk to Kagerasimaru about his passion: action games!

Kagerasimaru! It doesn’t take more than one glance at your Youtube channel to see a strong emphasis on action titles, what pulled you into this genre compared to others?
I believe it was the moment I began playing the first Devil May Cry. That game opened up a lot of options and ideas to me as a player. I then slowly branched out to Ninja Gaiden and quickly realized just how amazing this series is. Especially Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is an action game milestone to me. I suffered a lot learning the game, beating "Path of the Master Ninja" difficulty as well as spending the time to practice and improve myself as a player. 

Funny that you should mention Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, as your first set of videos cover that game. What prompted the sudden desire to record?
As I slowly began to get comfortable with the game I wanted to share the knowledge I had developed over the years with other players, so I could help them with overcoming the difficulty of "Path of the Master Ninja". The videos offered entertainment, combos, as well as insight on how to approach enemies and bosses in an relatively easy way for players to use.

15 May 2017

Nioh(仁王) | Resurrection or smoldering ash?

This article on Nioh is a rewrite from the one posted on 20-02-2017. It has been revised as new gameplay elements rose to the surface and the game was patched. That and the original article was, admittedly, rushed to meet the hype of the game. This review is up to date with version 1.6 and includes the free DLC-missions from that patch.

Nioh (仁王",  "仁" meaning "benevolent" and "王” standing for "king") is a story of rebirth, inside and out. Based on unfinished script of famed writer Akira Kurosawa the game has been in production since 2004. While originally scheduled for release around 2008 the game struggled with multiple studios and engines before ending up in the hands of a then struggling developer, Team Ninja; who came from strong rich action game roots, having laid out the template with Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox back in 2004. Yet after the departure of key staff members the studio hadn’t been fighting for glory or honor, but for survival. Dead or Alive 5 and its subsequent reiterations had been successful but the foray of Ninja Gaiden unto the new generations had been met with lukewarm reception. Ninja Gaiden 3 tried to be something new and failed and its re release Razor’s Edge was a rushed redemption building on what had been done before. Just as Nioh, Team Ninja needed a second chance. Like the eastern spiritual animal Suzaku, the vermilion bird of the south, they needed resurrection. With these stakes, Team Ninja decided to invest heavily in player feedback. Nearly a year prior to release the game had multiple open betas paired with questionnaires for feedback. Armed with the data the game was tweaked and adjusted constantly, finally seeing release on February 2017. But did Nioh grow out of the ashes as a new bird, flocking among the greats of the genre?

10 May 2017

Interview with Ron Schuijt | Life of an illustrator, heart of a gamer!

The designer of Stinger Magazine’s latest logo, wielder of a strong but well maintained beard, carrier of a fierce passion for games and art; an applause from behind your computer screens everyone and welcome Ron Schuijt.

Ron is an illustrator, character designer, concept artist and animator from the Netherlands. Alongside his projects as a freelance designer he is the proud creative mind behind the European comic-strip series Tijl with the second strip being released next year. When not wielding the wacom-pen to draw he uses it as a mouse, tapping his way to victory in the latest game that caught his fancy. Stinger briefly sat down with Ron to discuss his work and gaming hobby.

Ron, welcome! You were contacted to make the design for this site, can you tell the readers a bit on how you made this logo. What’s the process behind it?
Basically I started with gathering images of typography used in action and fighting games for inspiration. Getting the right font and adjusting it to fit the motion I was looking for took the longest, the first sketches had too much effects piled on top of each other and felt a bit too campy, but I’m happy with the end result!

03 May 2017

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst | When combat is not the focus, how do you design it?

It is June 10th, 2013. As the ink-pen edges over her skin viewers are wondering what kind of trailer they are watching. Does the upcoming tattoo signify anything? Are we looking at a sequel or something new? Before viewers can even begin to speculate fans of the cult-classic Mirror’s Edge start screaming at the top of their lungs as they witness protagonist Faith wall-running through a hallway ablaze with gunfire. It’s beautiful, it’s fast, it’s vibrant in its colors… it’s Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. And we never thought it would see the light of day.

Now you might be wondering why this game is getting a article on Stinger; a site solely dedicated to combat. While not every game focuses on fighting it finds itself present in nearly each and every game; being easily used to give a feeling of conflict. What remains in our minds after the credits are not the scenes oozing with drama but those dripping with blood. So how well does a game’s combat-engine hold up when it is not the focus?
Before we get into the combat let’s take a quick look at what the game is meant to be: a parkour game. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst has a first person perspective and a colorful yet distinctly Apple-like setting; a joy to behold with its strong mixtures of white and primary colors. The usage of the color black is somewhat lackluster, only appearing on the main character to help her stand out in promotional material. It would have been excellent to have it see more use.

Gameplay is all about movement, the longer you run without stopping the faster you’ll be; momentum is key. Controls are divided into five options: High, Low, Attack, Dash and Turn. Pressing High while running results in a jump but when close to a wall it becomes a wall-run. Pressing Low lets Faith crouch but if pressed while running will make her slide across the pavement. It’s when these options are combined that the movement goes full-circle. For example turning while sliding lets you turn 180 degrees while maintaining your momentum. It’s a fun set of mechanics to toy around with that can give you a plethora of movement options just to get around one simple fence. Surrounding this is the open-world structure, replacing the classic level based lay-out of the original. At first you’ll be at a constant loss but eventually one will recognize routes and find shortcuts until the city is mastered. But you’ll often stumble upon dead ends which is at odds with the games soul, as movement options like the grappling hook are unlocked throughout the story. Exploration is not recommended. This is a shame because if there is one word the designers have tattooed in their soul, it is motion.

22 April 2017

Hard Mode | The way it was meant to be played?

Reaching the credits is usually where the game ends but for others it is merely the beginning. As newer difficulties are unlocked we are challenged over and over, pushed to new limits and beyond those we thought reachable. But what makes a difficulty good? Often times one talks of a game being hard or having hard settings, but rarely on how the difficulty is done right or wrong. In this article we’ll try to analyze the origin of the higher difficulty settings, their purpose, what defines a good high difficulty setting and offer some examples of higher difficulty settings done right.



ORIGINS



While consoles like the Magnavox Odyssey did break ground, gaming’s fundamentals are found at the arcades... one coin at a time. With the mechanic of a death costing you a coin games quickly became very hard and as a result only the most dedicated players could finish them. To obtain this level of difficulty mechanics like instant-deaths, strange enemy patterns or ambushes were abused which emphasized memorization; unknowingly leading to experienced players being able to beat a game using a single coin. This had an effect on score-based games which went on indefinitely but were eventually crashed due to player skill like with Pac-man where the maximum score obtainable is 3333360 before the memory overflows and fun things start to happen.1 Many arcade games did allow arcade owners to change certain variables of difficulty via DIP switches unbeknownst to the player if they wanted their visitors to spend more money - an evil practice. Another part where difficulty stems from is experience in the medium. While board games had been around for centuries, these had mostly focused on player versus player. Video Games - with exception - were about the player versus the machine. Others were difficult not because they were hard but because the controls were unresponsive and enemies had strange hitboxes or glitches surrounding them giving them an unfair advantage, all due to developer inexperience. It is because of these elements that older games are known to be more difficult than those of the current generation. No matter which point in time you're reading this piece this will be true (a special welcome to our augmented readers of the year 2052).

08 April 2017

P.N.03 | Mastery through memorization

You tap your feet on the floor at a tight rhythm. Shots fire and bounce from the wall. An engine roars and you lift your leg up to the beat and snap your fingers. Nothing can hold you back. Your head bounces, you nod as foes fall before your magnificence. As the screen fades out you see how well you did while your head keeps nodding. The beat forces you to press on.
You are playing P.N.03, congratulations for you are one of the few; and you are lucky for having done so.

P.N.03 was part of the now infamous Capcom Five: a series of five games made by Capcom exclusively for the Nintendo Gamecube. These games were set to launch yearly, starting with 2003. In the original planning the games released would be Viewtiful Joe (2003), Robot War Game (2004), Resident Evil 4 (2005), Killer 7 (2005 as well) and Dead Phoenix (2006). With Viewtiful Joe leading the pack director Shinji Mikami could focus on directing Robot War Game, Resident Evil 4 and Killer 7. Yet after the announcement of the Capcom Five in late 2002 an internal delay hit Viewtiful Joe hard, forcing it out of the fiscal year. As a result Robot War Game was pushed to the front of the release calendar. After only five days of development Mikami changed the direction of the game towards that of a more action-shooter with a clean design aesthetic to set it apart from his other games which had a more bleak visual tone. After the protagonist Vanessa Z. Schneider was seen dancing past bullets Mikami originally intended for the game to be called Jaguar but other staff members didn't care for that title, forcing Mikami to come up with a new name. Despite this one animator changed Vanessa’s crouch animation to one that resembles that of a jaguar, to keep the spirit in tact. The final name would be Product Number 03, shortened to P.N.03, to give off a more mysterious feel.

03 April 2017

Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman | the inspiration of Devil May Cry?

♪ Once upon a time a blue eyed boy from the west
Learned one of life’s cruelest lessons
That evil was bigger than his gun
So he followed the footsteps of a mysterious master to the far east
Where he learned the secrets of the sword
And came back home with the heart of a gunman
And the soul of a samurai ♪
- intro themesong of Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman -

Fans, meet the source of all you love. Intentional or not Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman, a Playstation 1 exclusive, has inspired action-hack&slash games since its launch in 1999. Developed by UEP Systems (ウエップシステム), a company that mostly focused on action sports games like Cool Boarders 2; Rising Zan was a bit of a creative departure for the team. Starting off with the above quoted song the game prepares the player for what is to come: a flawed but unique experience. This begins with the game’s name which is miss-pronounced at the title screen. While being sung as Rising Zan, the Samurai Gun Man, rhyming ‘Zan’ and ‘Man’ the title announcer says Rising Zan, The Samurai Gunmen; ignoring the rhyme. A theme of things to come.

28 March 2017

Weapon-switching: quality or quantity?

If there is one nail in the coffin for action titles it’s when a review begins by saying: "the game lacks combat-options or depth", while this is often not the case. Games like Bayonetta offer a huge variety of weapon combinations to the player while others like Killer is Dead only have a single weapon. One can assume the former is better but it goes much further than that. A mechanic like weapon-switching - which allows the player to switch between weapons, abilities or even complete move-sets on the fly - has to fit the vision of the game to be work; thus it needs careful consideration.

This article will cover the different ways action games have handled weapon-switching, together with the up and downsides to each one and what it does to the overall game. Not every usage is done perfectly and some don’t even fit the games used in the example, but I hope this article will show that the combat system of games like Devil May Cry 4 and Bayonetta 2 aren’t the only one worth considering.

But first it’s important to acknowledge why games have to do this to begin with. First up is the human element; most can only store around five to nine actions in their short term memory.
Then there’s the technical side. One being a lack of buttons: modern game-consoles offer four face-buttons, four shoulder buttons, two control sticks and a d-pad with older controllers offering fewer options. Secondly, older games couldn’t load too many actions at the same time. In the original build of Devil May Cry 1 protagonist Dante couldn’t fire his guns and wield his sword at the same time due to memory limitations. While this was thankfully was fixed in the final release other weapons still had to be switched to via a long animation or menu. This is important to note as these progenitors, held back by these design flaws, influence games to this day.
With those disclaimers out of the way we can take a look at the most common ways switching between weapons and abilities is done. Note that some generalization is present here but most games will fall in these seven categories. While switching is often done between weapons, abilities, stances etc. we’ll call it weapon-switching for the duration of the article.

21 March 2017

Ninja Gaiden: past to present

These articles were originally published separately, but after posting them I felt they belonged together so I combined them in one big piece. As a result each was slightly altered to prevent double explanations and to have the story flow better. As an extra this version includes a short epilogue about the Ninja Gaiden community. Enjoy!


(一)

CHAPTER ONE
ninja gaiden



覚えゲー(pronounced OH boe GHe) is a term often used to describe games that focus on the player memorizing the patterns of his enemies to continue through the game, loosely translating to “remember the game”. The original Ninja Gaiden on the Nintendo Entertainment System from 1988 was one such game; filled with unexpected traps and combinations of foes that had to be circumvented to reach the end goal. The larger than life boss fights were equally pattern based, each with distinct moves that could be predicted and responded to perfectly if the player was sagely enough at the game’s mechanics.

In 1999, following his rise to fame after the successful Dead or Alive 2, Tomonobu Itagaki was ordered by his commander in chiefs to start production on an action game. Itagaki has often remarked that his philosophy of game-design centers around player interactivity, with their actions quickly being reacted to by the game; reflex based gameplay is his niche. Dead or Alive 2 used a counter-system which allowed players to negate enemy attacks if they became too predictable or if their reactions were fast enough. An almost mixture of the 覚えゲー style of gameplay and his own reactive philosophy. No surprise once we delve into Itagaki’s history, him being mentored by Yoshiaki Inose who programmed the original Ninja Gaiden in 1988. Dead or Alive 2 is a child of Itagaki’s nature and nurture. His own personality and the training he had received in his craft.

17 March 2017

Ninja Gaiden Sigma & Sigma Plus

In June 2007 the Playstation 3, one generation later than planned, received it’s own version of the original Ninja Gaiden, subtitled with Sigma.
The name of Sigma () can be interpreted in a few ways. By definition it means the summation of an equation; a statement that this game holds all the lessons learned from the previous versions and that they are now put together in one final game. This can also be taken to a personal level as the new director Yosuke Hayashi is at the helm this time, being a former apprentice of Tomonobu Itagaki; all his lessons learned from his master are on display in this game.

So far Hayashi had mostly worked behind the curtains, his biggest team effort with Itagaki being on the Ninja Gaiden game for the Nintendo DS; Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword.
As a child he would play videogames himself and one of his favorite moments were the credits. He hoped, and imagined, that one day his name would be among them. When asked about his inspirations he immediately points out Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo fame. But it’s important to note that this is probably in the sense of motivation to pursue the craft, not inspiration in their vision on the art-form. Instead of Miyamoto as his teacher, he had Itagaki watching over him.