Category Archives: musings

You have 10 seconds to survive Sonic Blast’s underwater levels

I played some Sonic Blast the other day, and I almost beat it. I’m not going to tell you why I had the sudden urge to play a Sonic the Hedgehog game, nor why I decided to pick that one of all my options. The game originally appeared on the Sega Game Gear way back in 1996, but also later managed to eek its way on to the Sega Master System…but only in Brazil. Huh. Nowadays, it can be found on various other platforms through collections, even as recent as a digital download on the Nintendo 3DS. My version is found deep inside the 2004 release Sonic Mega Collection Plus for the PlayStation 2, which I got almost three years ago during a PS2 shopping spree.

Sonic Blast clearly wanted to–pun intended–ape the same style of pre-rendered graphics from Super Nintendo’s big 1994 release Donkey Kong Country. For sure, those Rare titles had a look, even if they haven’t aged well. However, to ensure that details are visible, both sprites for Sonic and Knuckles are bigger than their counterparts in earlier titles, which results in a “zoomed in” look. This means you get to see less of the level on the screen and will often not know what is coming up, whether it be a bunch of rings, an enemy, or a death pit of spikes. I also had this problem with Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge and Metroid II: Return of Samus, both of which put all their effort into ensuring you see the game’s hero up close and personal at the sacrifice of gameplay.

And, well…it’s a Sonic the Hedgehog game. You generally move left to right across the screen, jumping, collecting rings, avoiding enemies, and searching for the spinning signpost that signals the level is over. Usually, to get there, it’s a complicated puzzle path. There’s not much new here overall, though you can also play as Knuckles from the get-go, which I did not do. Sonic Blast is relatively short, about five zones long, with each zone made up of a couple levels and a boss fight against Doctor Eggman that tasks you with jumping on his spaceship’s windshield several times to crack it open.

I got all the way up to the Blue Marine Zone, which is the fourth zone. Alas, it’s mostly underwater, with bits of ancient ruins, like crumbled columns, in the background to begin questioning yourself on the true nature of this beast and whether it all takes place on Earth. Also, there’s a bunch of pipes that shoot you this way and that way and all around with fervor and strong water currents to deal with. Here’s the kicker: you’ll drown if you stay in water for too long. If you need air, you can either get out of the water, find an air bubble, or travel along one of the previously mentioned suction tubes.

Drowning in Sonic the Hedgehog games is not whacking the originality ball into space. It’s been there since the beginning, with a wonderfully haunting ditty to remind you that death comes at your fast and there’s no time to do anything about it and you’ll never get to see your loved ones again and the end is oh-so near. That’s whatever, but my main beef with the mechanic specific to Sonic Blast is that…you have no indication of how much air you have left. If you linger too long under the water, you’ll eventually get a 10-second timer on top of the screen silently counting down to the Blue Blur’s demise. That classic piece of music I linked to above does not play. Considering the maze-like design of this zone and limited options for filling up Sonic’s lungs, I was frustrated and lost all of my lives and continue credits in this one section, having had zero deaths up to this point as the difficulty wasn’t all that challenging.

Wait. Okay, no–I had to look up a video walkthrough to confirm I wasn’t missing something, that this was user error, and it sort of was. See, if you stand Sonic over an area where tiny air bubbles are coming out of the ground–because of science, duh–it depletes your number of rings. I guess that means you are briefly buying more oxygen, but it’s not very clear as there’s no meter or picture or even animation from the Legendary Blue Hedgehog to indicate anything is happening; a sound effect would have gone a long way. But just like how Sonic’s air supply was depleted, so was my interest in playing further, seeing as this dropped me unceremoniously back to the title screen.

In the end, my forty or so minutes with Sonic Blast was anything but that. What? You had to know a joke like that was coming. Anyways, maybe one day I’ll feel inspired to go back and finish off its final acts, knowing what I know now about air bubbles and rings. Or maybe I’ll try another Sonic the Hedgehog title in my PS2 collection, considering it has something like 20 games in it, albeit not all star the Blue One and some must first be unlocked. Or perhaps I’ll never touch anything Sonic the Hedgehog-related ever again. All are likely options.

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In 2000:1: A Space Felony, no one can hear you detective

Until February 2, the Humble Monthly Trove is giving out a couple of free gems, some of which are Humble Originals, meaning they were created solely for the program. Neat-o. You can grab the following DRM-free named games, and I do suggest you jump on it before you forget or our country is vaporized in the forthcoming nuclear winter-war, as well as consider subscribing if you end up liking these types of smaller, hand-crafted experiences:

  • 2000:1: A Space Felony
  • Hitchhiker
  • Cat Girl Without Salad
  • Uurnog
  • THOR.N
  • Crescent Bay

That’s six free games, and all you have to do is click a button or two. Naturally, I grabbed all of them lickety fast, and I even played through and beat one already–2000:1: A Space Felony. Now, before I dig into details of the game, I need to do as I always do and come clean about a piece of pop culture that I have shockingly never seen. Yup, my blue eyes have still never gazed upon Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or read Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” that inspired it. Nor have I read the full novel written concurrently with Kubrick’s film. Or 2010: Odyssey Two. Or 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey. Phew. That said, because it’s hard to live life these days and not have these mega-popular behemoths seep into every single thing we see and consume, I somewhat get the main gist: an artificial intelligence goes rogue.

2000:1: A Space Felony takes place on the USS Endowment, an interplanetary spacecraft, which has unfortunately lost communication with Earth. Using your flashy camera skills and natural detective intuition, you must explore this damaged space, document your findings, and figure out what went down during the crew’s final hours alive. You basically do this by taking photos of key areas, people, and items, and then you confront MAL, the ship’s on-board AI system, about what happened, countering its talking points with confidence based on what you already know. Cross-examination in zero G should most definitely be the theme for the next season of Law & Order. Naturally, going into this, given what it is based off and just the fact that the melting pot-universe of books, movies, and videogames over the last several decades has been inundated with stories of corrupt AIs–hello, supercomputer AM from Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, AMEE from Red Planet, and GLaDOS from Portal, just to name a few–you know that MAL is up to no good. The fun is proving it wrong and then deactivating it.

2000:1: A Space Felony‘s look is *chef’s kiss* top-notch. The colors are bright, punchy, magically brought to life through surprisingly simple geometry. It’s not going to win any realism awards, but I lean more often towards games with a unique take on life as we know it. The USS Endowment is not a huge station to explore, a small fraction when compared to Prey, but the spaces are easy to recognize and do come across as lived in. Moving around in no gravity is not complicated, using the WASD keys to thrust in any direction, and there’s even one spinning section that you can land on the floor and walk around in a more traditional sense, which makes the detective work a bit easier. I will forever be intrigued by the design of spaceships, space stations, and so on, and even one as small as this is a joy to explore, both inside and out, eventually feeling homely. Also, MAL’s main room is gorgeous, like the inside of a trippy golf ball or an even more fantastical take on Spaceship Earth.

I found the game’s narration to be especially strong, with ground control more or less narrating every action you take and how you present your case. Represented by a dark silhouette with white glasses and a tie, ground control is extremely straightforward when it comes to this case, with only a smidgen of humor here and there. Often, the juxtaposition between ground control and what MAL says is where Lucy Green’s writing is the most funny and captivating. MAL, voiced by Max McLaughlin, rides the line carefully between innocent, unaware AI and ice-cold, systematic murderer. Nothing really new for the genre in terms of AIs gone bad, but a good performance still. If there was a soundtrack, I don’t remember much from it other than the big, swelling orchestra right at the game’s courtroom-esque conclusion, but you do make a super pleasing donk sound when banging into a wall, and that counts for a lot.

Unfortunately, the part where you compare pieces of evidence against each other is the weakest link in 2000:1: A Space Felony. For a while there, I was missing one piece and had to do another loop of the environment, snapping shots of everything, listening to repeated lines of dialogue while growing frustrated. I also had a hard time seeing what pieces I was connecting, and I’d have personally liked for some screens to have faded out after they were no longer relevant, but that’s just me. I finished this murder-mystery in the silence of space in about an hour and change, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I wonder which next freebie I’ll try (spoiler: it’s probably Hitchhiker).

GAMES I REGRET PARTING WITH: X Squad

From one X to another, we move from talking about the highs of Mega Man X and how much it brought to the somewhat stale format to diving into X Squad, a PlayStation 2 launch title that, if I’m being honest, wasn’t all that good, but still holds a special space in my heart because it was one of a handful of games I owned after acquiring my hard-earned console. Also, by we I of course mean me, because this is Grinding Down, a singular voice shouting into an echo chamber, praying anyone is out there listening. If you are all ears, please, don’t be afraid to say hello. Tell me your favorite Animal Crossing villager or type of sushi roll. Anything.

Well, in X Squad, you play as John G. Ash, leader of the titular group. It’s the year 2037. Graduating at the top of his class at West Point, he excels in both marksmanship and urban-combat simulation, which is probably what got him the commanding role after forming his personalized team of problem-solvers. Something bad is happening, and the X Squad is called in. I think it has to do with a bio-terrorist organization releasing a devastating plague upon a major metropolitan area, but that’s only known from reading a summary over here. There’s not much story to go on from the get-go, with much of the plot kept secret even as you progress through the early levels. The opening cinematic is extremely vague, immediately starting with Ash talking about investigating “the situation” and ensuring that recon is passed on to the right people, but it doesn’t get any more specific than that, which makes it come across as an empty action hero romp–which is most certainly wants to be.

If I recall correctly, X Squad plays a lot like 989 Studios’ Syphon Filter, minus the cool animation you get when you don’t stop tasering an enemy or Gabe Logan’s hypnotizing swaying hips. You can roll in a bunch of different directions, as well as duck or peek around corners to get the upper hand on unsuspecting enemies. That’s all fine and somewhat standard for this type of run-and-gun action title, but the aspect that ends up making X Squad stand apart from its competitors ultimately detracts from the entire experience, offering next to no value. With only a few simple button presses, Ash can bark orders to his teammates, tasking them with things like scouting out an area to backing you up with gunfire. SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs this is not. These commands fall under terms like “follow,” “recon,” and “stay.” Your teammates are never really as helpful as they should be, running into rooms of armed men wildly without even bothering to take cover, but thankfully you don’t need to rely on them 100% to make it through a mission with skin still attached to your bones. Still, the point of a squad is to fight as one singular unit, and that’s not the case here. Ash is better on his own, using his teammates more as distractions than anything else.

Also, X Squad is not a looker. I mean, it was a launch title for the PlayStation 2, and it shows. Besides having a bland, flat look to the environments and character models (save for Ash’s spike-tastic hair), glitches are bountiful, with flickering being a common issue. Sound-wise, there’s a lot going on here. The voice acting is stiff and uninspired, and though I like the inclusion of voiced tutorial prompts, it’s not executed well. Still, the door opening sounds are pretty good. The biggest compliment I can give X Squad is that those are some sick and consistent drum beats playing in the opening level (warning: they don’t kick in for at least a minute, but it’s worth the buildup). Also: really great slap bass lines throughout. Honestly, the OST is the reason to play X Squad, but you could also not play it and simply let your ears enjoy everything over on YouTube. Your call, boss.

Still, all that said, and I continue to lack the words to explain this phenomenon, I regret trading in my copy of X Squad. Maybe it has less to do with the game’s quality and more to do with the fact that the PlayStation 2 was the first console I purchased myself as a working lad, busing tables, and so every early game in my collection was special, regardless if it ultimately was special or not. I’m seeing copies on Amazon for around $8.00, and I sadly think that’s too steep of a mountain to climb. I’d love to see this come to the PlayStation Network as a downloadable, but I think the ship for digital PS2 games on that system has sailed, with no map or fuel reserves or even captain, never to be seen again.

GAMES I REGRET PARTING WITH is a regular feature here at Grinding Down where I reminisce about videogames I either sold or traded in when I was young and dumb. To read up on other games I parted with, follow the tag.

Ringing in the new year with 90,000 Gamerscore

When I hit the 80,000 Gamerscore mark in August 2017, I predicated I’d earn the next full 10,000 by March 2018. Mel went with April 2018. Er, whoops. We were a bit off on those guestimations. Here we are almost two weeks into January and, thanks to a number of recently completed games and the Iron Fist martial arts tournament, which I’ll touch upon below, I punched 90,000 Gamerscore perfectly in the nose last night, shortly before hitting the hay:

Go me, go numbers growing higher. Also, at some point, I really do need to look into updating my avatar, seeing as I haven’t rocked a full beard now for many, many months. I can also make my body size a bit slimmer.

Let’s see. Obviously, the games I’ve touched most recently–Wolfenstein: The New Order, Night in the Woods, and Prey–played a bit part in climbing this mountain. As did Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and all its DLC, which, until typing those very words, I had honestly wiped from my memory despite the number of hours that whole thing took to complete. There’s also Slime Rancher and Murdered: Soul Suspect, of which I got most for the former and all the Achievements for the latter, plus a bunch of smaller games here and there to fill in the gaps, inching my Gamerscore a wee bit closer to the clouds.

However, after finding every single hidden enigma code collectible and unlocking the first puzzle-related one in Wolfenstein: The New Order last night, I saw that I needed 20 more Gamerscore to hit 90,000 perfectly, which wasn’t going to work with the remainder of enigma-related Achievements left in the game. So I began searching through my installed games list, on the hunt for something worth either 20, 15, 10, or 5, though I was hoping to find an easy one for 20 and call it a night. Enter Tekken Tag Tournament 2, and this little gem involving pressing X+Y+RB three times in Practice mode against an opponent standing still and not blocking, all of which took me about 30 seconds to do:


Master of the Direct Tag Assault (20G): You pulled off 3 Direct Tag Assaults.

My skills are undeniable. I don’t even remember which two characters I picked for my team. Either way, the job got done.

Will I achieve 100,000 Gamerscore in 2018? You bet your butt I will.

Captain B.J. Blazkowicz resolutely takes on the Nazis

I’ve got bad news: I know all the spoilery bits for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus already. That’s just one of the few sacrifices I had to make to listen to Giant Bomb‘s 2017 GOTY deliberations, along with knowing where things ultimately go in NierR:Automata, Yakuza 0, and Persona 5. Oh well. Thankfully, I was able to complete both Night in the Woods and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild just before the year came to a close. But considering that I’m only just now finishing up Wolfenstein: The New Order, here’s hoping I forget many details about the much-talked about sequel…whenever I get to it (my prediction: somewhere in late 2019).

I got Wolfenstein: The New Order, along with the follow-up/prequel Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, The Inner World, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, during Microsoft’s big Black Friday sale in that crazy year called 2017. Anyways, I’m trying to make a more conscious effort to the play the games I buy instead of letting them sit for months unattended, and so I recently loaded up Wolfenstein: The New Order, kept it on the default difficulty setting, and quickly got about putting Nazis in their place. It’s good fun, if surprisingly straightforward, both in terms of gameplay and plot.

I’ll do my best to provide a plot summary. Some three years after the destruction of the Black Sun portal, the Nazis deployed advanced technologies, which enabled them to turn the tide against the Allies. On July 16, 1946, at dawn, U.S. special forces operative Captain William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, accompanied by pilot Fergus Reid and Private Probst Wyatt III, took part in a massive Allied air raid against a fortress and weapons laboratory run by General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse. Unfortunately, the three of them were captured and brought to a human experimentation laboratory where Deathshead forced Blazkowicz to choose one of his companions to die–either Fergus or Wyatt. Afterwards, Blazkowicz escapes the laboratory, but suffers a critical head injury, rendering him unconscious and putting him in a coma for 14 years. He comes back to life in a psychiatric asylum in Poland, now determined more than ever to find his friends and blast apart some Nazi faces. Phew.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a first-person shooter that, at many times, asks to you to do things stealthily. There’s also cover-based shooting and entire sequences where you are exploring an area or solving some simple puzzles. I came at this as I do all first-person things–cautiously. Unfortunately, when the chaos kicks in and you are discovered, the best thing to do is keep moving and don’t stop firing. The game is pretty generous with armor, health, and ammo pick-ups, so, honestly, go nuts. However, when I got to Chapter 12: Gibraltar Bridge, I hit a serious snag, finding the difficulty–even on the normal setting–to be a bit much to overcome. I’m not alone in this. You are basically climbing up a broken bridge, at a serious disadvantage, with numerous enemies high above you and out of sight. After about ten or so attempts, I gave up and dropped the difficulty down to “Can I play, Daddy?”, which at first bothered me, but then I had a good time mowing down everyone in B.J.’s way without even giving a second thought to taking cover or needing more health.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Wolfenstein: The New Order is its perk system. Instead of collecting XP and leveling up your B.J.–keep it clean, kids–to spend skill points on perks, you earn upgrades by doing specific tasks. Kind of like in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where if you want to raise your blocking stats with a shield, start blocking with a shield more. These minor upgrades enhance Blazkowicz’s combat aptitude by increasing his maximum health, ammo count, and damage taken, which is all well and good, but you are playing on the easiest of difficulty levels this doesn’t matter much. Still, going after them is enjoyable, and I really had a good time sprint-sliding and killing Nazis to ultimately strengthen my skills at…well, killing Nazis. Also, you can totally take advantage of key checkpoints in certain levels to grind out some of the trickier perks, which I totally did.

So yeah, that’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. I’m currently playing clean-up on some of its collectibles and Achievements (none of them related to difficulty settings though), but I suspect after that I’ll move on to Wolfenstein: The Old Blood…soonish. Eh, maybe. I also need to finish Prey, and then I’d love to get into Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Eep, too many games.

Paul’s Preeminent PlayStation Plus Purge – Titan Attacks!


It’s 2018, and I’ve never played Space Invaders, and I probably never will. That time has passed. Though clearly I’m aware of it and its influence on the gaming industry; I mean, you can’t walk down the Ocean City boardwalk and pass a T-shirt store without seeing those iconic pixelated aliens on some piece of unlicensed merchandise. Space Invaders was one of the earliest shooting games, releasing in arcades in 1978, with the goal being to defeat waves of aliens with a laser cannon and earn as many points as possible. It sounds simple to our ears today, but Tomohiro Nishikado, the game’s developer, had to design custom hardware and development tools to make the thing.

But I’m not here to actually talk about Space Invaders specifically, but rather a tribute from Puppy Games called Titan Attacks!, and yes, the game’s title ends in an exclamation mark, which will probably drive my editing eyes nuts, but that’s life. In this arcade shoot-em-up, you play as the last surviving tank commander on Earth and must single-handedly turn back an invading evil alien army called the Titans. If you can drive them back across the solar system, you might be able to defeat them on their homeworld, saving yours from total annihilation.

Titan Attacks! retains the same easy-to-learn and score-based gameplay of classic arcade shoot-em-ups, but does bring in some new features and strategies, along with stylish neo-retro visuals and a pulse-bursting, head-bobbin’ soundtrack that is ultimately the thing I came away from liking the most. Earning bounty money allows to you upgrade your tank-ship-thing with extra cannons, better shields, and special single-use powerups. While zipping left and right on the ground and firing up into lines of incoming aliens, you’ll also need to destroy falling wrecks, dodge hurtling asteroids, and capture escaping aliens. It starts out slow enough that you can keep track of everything, but the chaos ramps up the further you progress. Thankfully, you can take a hit or two and keep moving, though you’ll lose your multiplier bonus. No biggie.

I played Titan Attacks! for an hour or two, but didn’t get too far down the planetary path–there’s something like 100 levels/waves–before both taking too much damage and losing interest. That’s fine. I had fun for a bit, but this style of game is never going to hook me (as you’ll see in an upcoming post on Ultratron, also published by Puppy Games). Chasing high scores through repetition does not get me salivating one bit. Now, maybe if I could dress my tank up in different outfits and craft powerful weapons from various materials and check off quests one by one in some sort of log book, I might more interested in seeing this to the end, but alas, nope. Not for me.

Oh look, another reoccurring feature for Grinding Down. At least this one has both a purpose and an end goal–to rid myself of my digital collection of PlayStation Plus “freebies” as I look to discontinue the service soon. I got my PlayStation 3 back in January 2013 and have since been downloading just about every game offered up to me monthly thanks to the service’s subscription, but let’s be honest. Many of these games aren’t great, and the PlayStation 3 is long past its time in the limelight for stronger choices. So I’m gonna play ’em, uninstall ’em. Join me on this grand endeavor.

My first solo chicken dinner in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

The pier was bereft of life. Not a single other soul dropped there, as far as my eyes could tell when quickly scanning the sky as I parachuted to the dirt. It was just me, and 99 madmen elsewhere on the main island. Time to scavenge.

I immediately made for the largest house in the area, scooping up every weapon, ammunition box, and gear item I could before eventually settling down in the attic. I found two different rifles and a pistol. I left the crossbow and bolts where they lay upstairs, an emergency backup option only. Overall, I had some decent stuff. Not enough ammo–because there’s never enough ammo in an isolated and cutoff existence where the only way to keep on eatin’ is to shoot everyone still–but enough ammo for the time being. I checked to see where the circle was. Somehow, I was almost directly in the middle of it. Phew. I stayed put, watching out the windows and listening for any movement downstairs. I mostly put on my patience pants and waited.

Outside, the engine of a vehicle drawing near got my attention. I hurried to the closest window and spotted a large truck trying to get up and over some small hills right outside my building. I didn’t hesitate, opening fire, the window shattering glass everywhere, but I think I only landed one shot before the player drove off to safety out of range. Oh well. Also, my cover was now blown, but I knew what was coming, and so I got prone on the floor in front of the staircase, waiting, listening. A minute or two later a man came up the stairs, and I fired instinctively, not even giving him a chance to know where exactly I was. I looted his body for goodies, but didn’t get any more ammo for my weapons. One kill.

By then, the circle had changed, shrinking away from me and the pier and up north towards the farmland. Alas, I would have to move and leave my safe perch on high. I zipped out of the house, keeping low and to the shadows, and made my way to what I quickly saw was a very open field. Not good. I got just inside the circle and instantly found a bush to squat in, watching my surroundings like a hawk. I didn’t move until the blue started creeping in more, and after taking a few steps, someone behind me began shooting at my butt. I spun around and managed to take them out without receiving much damage, but there was no time to loot or even take in the moment–the blue crept onwards. Two kills.

I made it to another bush just inside the circle unscathed. In the distance, I saw two players battling it out, and I watched with concerned interest as one took out the other and then began crawling on the ground…right in my direction. I waited patiently, popped out of my bush, and took him out. Three kills. At this point, my one rifle was now out of ammo. That left me with another rifle with like 20 shots and a pistol with something like 60 rounds. I also had some kind of grenade, but I never remember to use grenades.

As I moved closer to the next circle, a player in a vehicle came out me, clearly intent on running me down. I fired, using all of my ammo, but took the player out. Naturally, I stole their car. Four kills. Also, it had a full tank of gas and was not terribly damaged, so I was feeling really good about that, especially since I could see/hear another player nearby driving around in a vehicle too.

At this point, there were four people left alive, one of them being little ol’ me. One was driving around, trying to ram me, and two…were clearly hiding nearby. There were no buildings, only bushes. Both of us drove around in circles in the circle, hoping to find these hiders. I managed to run one over. Five kills.

It got down to two players left after the other guy in the car ran over the third remaining madman, and unfortunately we couldn’t just drive our vehicles around forever. This player certainly thought the strategy of putting it into reverse and trying to run me over backwards sound, while I took pot-shots from my P1911 pistol and hurried out of the blue. Using a buggy for cover, I sealed the deal. Sorry, TheScoobySnoop. My hands were shaking, and Melanie and I both let out an exclamation so quickly and loudly that scared our cat Timmy off of the couch. It was, to simply say, exhilarating.

Six kills.

Winner winner, chicken dinner.