Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fun: Good Old Games

I have a new favorite site. And if you love old games like I do, you may have a new favorite site, too. It's like an old school gamer's wet dream.

Good Old Games has a ton of exactly what their name implies, all for the low prices of either $5.99 or $9.99 . . . except for a few that are free free FREE. Those few being Beneath a Steel Sky, Lure of the Temptress, Ultima IV, Teenagent, Dragonsphere, and Tyrian 2000.

And besides offering these great games to folks, GOG has also gone to the trouble of setting them up where they'll work on newer machines with little to no trouble at all! That's pretty swell of 'em, I'd say.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to fill my wishlist up with virtually every single game on the site.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Short 'n' Sour - Splatterhouse 2, System Shock, and Back to the Future (NES)

Splatterhouse 2

Platform: Sega Genesis
Developer: Namco
Released: 1992
Genre: Beat 'Em Up

The Game
It's been three months since Rick donned the Terror Mask and splattered the walls of West Mansion with the vile ichor of monsterkind. Nightmares haunt his sleep and he begins to hear the voice of the Terror Mask again, telling him that Jennifer doesn't have to die. Heeding its siren call, Rick returns to West Mansion to once again wear the mask, using its unholy power to save his girlfriend.

The Good
Far improved graphics than the original (even though Rick still does his little "jump without bending his knees" thing). The scenes in between stages give a small glimpse into Rick's thoughts as well as setting up the next level. There's a new password system allowing the player to get back to the last level they reached without having to play through from the beginning all over again.

The Bad
At first I was excited about Splatterhouse 2. Better graphics, actual story elements, and so on. But as I progressed through the first three levels (which is as far as I got), that excitement gradually wore thin until it finally evaporated.

What I came to realize was despite the prettier packaging, Splatterhouse 2 is still basically the exact same game as its predecessor. Perhaps even more so. Rick doesn't have any new moves in his arsenal, just the old punch-kick-jump-jumpkick routine. He's got some different looking weapons (like what appears to be a human thigh bone), but their basic use - to smash enemies quicker and with a gorier death animation - is still the same. Having gone through the whole rote memorization routine with the first game, I find that it's even more strictly adhered to in this one. The second stage was pure drudgery as I worked my way through the same choreography over and over again, adjusting my moves slightly here and there until I got it exactly right, and the third stage was so set in its own little rhythms, so stuck in a rut that it was painfully obvious a blindfolded man who already knew the right sequence of moves could make it through without breaking a sweat, that I finally gave up the entire exercise as completely pointless.

There's no life to the game, no real strategy. I might as well be playing a memory game with playing cards. Hell, if the playing cards also had images of monsters being squished in horrifically violent and disgusting ways printed on them, the illusion would be complete. Splatterhouse: TCG.

I wonder if there are enough Splatterhouse fans out there that I could market this idea to.

System Shock

Platform: Computer
Developer: Looking Glass Studios
Released: 1994
Genre: First Person Shooter, Action Adventure

The Game
In the year 2072, a hacker is hired/blackmailed into removing the ethical constraints on an artificial intelligence named SHODAN, who runs a space station for the megacorporation TriOptimum. In return, he receives a set of military grade cybernetic implants, and the surgery keeps him in a healing coma for several months. When he wakes up, he finds that SHODAN has gone completely megalomaniacal and intends to use the resources of Citadel Station to take over the world, wipe out all current life, and start anew with herself as Earth's malevolent goddess. Time to rage against the machine.

The Good
A lot of the good things that I mentioned in my System Shock 2 review are here in a sort of larval form, but . . .

The Bad
. . . the larval forms aren't just underdeveloped, they're also poorly implemented in many ways. I don't want to blame the developers here, because they were all wonderful ideas, as SS2 demonstrated five years later. This game was simply way ahead of its time and suffered from it, being limited by the technology current at the time as well as utilizing a lot of FPS conventions that we take for granted now but were completely new back then, untried, untested.

I won't go into all of it (this is supposed to be short, after all) but the control scheme, I think, is the absolute worst part of the whole thing. It's a fully-realized 3D environment, but the mouse doesn't control where you're looking. Instead, it's in a constant interact mode with the game world, leaving all camera controls to the keyboard, which is extremely awkward. The mouse can be used for some limited movement of the character himself, but since you need to use the mouse to click on doors to open them, this can be slightly problematic. The character can be posed using various keys, enabling him to lean to either side, duck down, look up and down and all around, and this all sounds fine in theory, but in practice it made me feel more like I was trying to pose a mannequin the entire time rather than move around like an actual human being.

Have you ever seen the movie Meet Dave, where Eddie Murphy is a spaceship piloted by a bunch of tiny aliens? There's a scene where they're first trying to get used to walking the ship around naturally (part of which can be seen in this trailer), but his limbs kind of go all wacky-like the whole time. This is sort of what trying to drive the Hacker around is like.

I'd already tried playing SS a few times before and ended up quitting after just a few minutes every time. This time I finally made it to a cyberspace node and found the controls there slippery and difficult to get a good feel for, so sadly I had to quit again. It was after I shut the game off and relaxed back in my seat that I realized that I had been tensed up the entire time I had been playing because I was concentrtating so damn hard on just moving around. This does not strike me as an indicator of good game design.

I'm thankful as all get out that SS led to the far superior SS2, but damn. It's just . . . horrible. A great idea buried by its own terrible interface.

Back to the Future (NES)

Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Developer: Beam Software
Released: 1989
Genre: Action Adventure

The Game
In this game based on the hit movie of the same name, Marty McFly has to race his way across Hill Valley so he can hop in the DeLorean time machine and blast back to the future! Can he make it through the various dangers of 1955 to make it back to his home era of 1985? Only time will tell.

The Good

The Bad
That's weird. I don't remember the part of the movie where Marty was running along a street filled with hula hooping girls intent on killing him with their purple spit. Maybe it was in the deleted scenes. I also don't remember him PISSING ME OFF SO GODDAMNED MUCH. He doesn't even really look like Marty but like one of Biff's bullies in a muscle shirt, his hit detection is shit, he has two clocks running against him at once (the disappearing photo as well as the standard level timer), and his theme music sucks. According to Wikipedia, the background music is supposed to be a sped up version of "Power of Love", but I don't believe that for even a second.

Now, moving away from things I don't remember, I do seem to remember this game being better when it was one of the mini-games in Skate or Die. I may be wrong in that. But I also remember playing Paperboy (another game that will likely end up in the Short and Sour stack), and I'm pretty sure BttF is just as horrible. For example, the whole programming the game where power-ups and other items are sitting in spots where no one could possibly ever retrieve them without losing a life. That's smart work, folks.

I don't think I've ever made it past the malt shop "boss" level. It's a combination of said level being stupid hard and the fact that I just don't give enough of a shit about the game to try and get any further. I decided to give up the future during this playthrough after I actually managed to block a good number of bullies but then got thrown out anyway and had to start the whole last section over again just to get back to the malt shop.

Fuck that.

Like System Shock above, I was tensed up during most of the time I was playing. A game should have you on the edge of your seat with excitement, not shriveling up into yourself because you're afraid to make even a single wrong move. BttF was poorly designed, poorly executed, and there's plenty of good reasons why everyone - including the people who made the films - hates it.

Mickey Mousecapade

Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Developer: Hudson Soft
Released: 1988
Genre: Platformer

The Story
Mickey and Minnie hear a cry for help from a mysterious source! Ever ready to lend a hand to someone in need, they set off on an adventure to save whoever it is from whatever the heck is going on!

The Game
Though not exactly a remarkable game in and of itself, the background of the game is actually a bit interesting. It was originally titled Micky Mouse: Adventures in Wonderland when it was released in Japan by Hudson Soft. Capcom then brought it over to the English speaking world, changing the name to Mickey Mousecapade (not Mickey MousecapadeS as so many people, including myself, have called it), altering almost every sprite in the game, and changing the story a bit. The full scope of these changes will be described in the appropriate sections below, but suffice it to say . . . they didn't make too much sense.

In any case, MM is also remarkable in that it started an era of Capcom making Disney-themed games. If nothing else, I think we can all thank MM for paving the way for Duck Tales.

The Characters
The main two characters of the game are Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Disney's prominent mascot and his girlfriend. They're sort of emulating their mostly-silent versions here, as Mickey says a total of two different words throughout the entire game, and as far as I can remember Minnie doesn't say anything at all.

These two intrepid mousies are off on an adventure to save . . . ALICE! ALICE ALICE ALICE! Y'know, from Wonderland? There, I spoiled the surprise. But I had to, you see. Firstly, because in the Japanese version, it's not a surprise. Right from the start it's known that you're going to be battling your way through Wonderland (I mean, heck, it's in the title) to save poor little girl Alice who has been caught and imprisoned and whatnot. Secondly, it needs to be mentioned to help along with the talking about the changes that were made to the game thing. And thirdly, I remember just how bitterly disappointed I was that I was saving Alice. It was made out to be this big huge mystery as to who I was trying to save . . . and it was just li'l ol' Alice.

I mean, I guess she deserves to be saved just like anybody else, but Capcom actually set things up to be like some sort of cool mystery, like there was going to be an awesome twist at the end. Like you beat the game and it turns out you were actually saving Mickey and Minnie and you weren't the real Mickey and Minnie but robots from the future made to look like them sent back to the past to save them from their certain death! But no, it's just Alice.

So if you haven't played the game before and you might have been intrigued by the cool mystery, I have just saved you the bother. No need to thank me. Just doin' my job.

Anyway, next we have the bosses. This is where the major changes to the game come in. As mentioned enough to make one gag already, the original version of MM was set in Wonderland. You wouldn't really be able to tell it from the stages unless you thought about it way too hard, but at least the bosses were Wonderland material through and through. The Cheshire Cat, the Dodo, the Caterpillar, and finally her big bad majesty, the Queen of Hearts. Well, there's also Captain Hook of Peter Pan fame. Apparently Neverland takes up some Wonderland real estate. In the Americanized version, however? These become a witch, a crocodile, a snake, and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. Oh, and the good Cap'n is replaced by Pegleg Pete in his pirate garb.

You may notice that only two of these replacement bosses really have any direct connection with Disney. Of course, there have been some attempts by people to place the others somewhere in the Disneyverse as well. The most logical and probable of these is the crocodile, thought to be the clock-swallowing croc who's always after Captain Hook's other hand. The reason this seems sound is the fact that said tick-tock croc is actually on the game's American box art. Of course, this brings up the question of why they bothered putting in the croc if they took out Hook? Less probable is that the snake is Kaa from The Jungle Book. I mean, it's possible, but it barely looks anything like him. And the most bewildering of all is the witch. There have been a couple of witches in Disney cartoons, but this one doesn't look anything like any of them past the whole stereotypical witch look.

Then there are the smaller, regular baddies that roam the various levels. And though most of them had absolutely nothing to do with Alice in Wonderland or even Disney in general, many of them were changed as well. Stuff like switching out gophers for cats and one kind of bird for another kind of bird and even simple color swaps like turning pink flowers red. At least if the flowers had been white in the original and they'd been changed to red for the overseas release, that could have been a very clever inside joke on Capcom's part.

I've taken a look around to see if I could find the reasons for these changes, but the overwhelming evidence seems to indicate that nobody knows why Capcom did this. People have theories of course, but then people always have theories. In the end, it just doesn't seem to make any sense. The only reason to have hidden the Wonderland characters was to keep Alice's presence a secret, which in itself didn't make sense.

The Writing
The original story is very straightforward. Alice is kidnapped by the Queen of Hearts. Micky and Minnie try to save her. As mentioned before, Capcom tried to mix this up a little . . . and in this at least they were halfway successful in making an intriguing story. They hid the identity of the person in trouble, adding some mystery to the proceedings. The box art and the ads showed footprints leading them on, and I remember feeling a sense of following those footprints in the game itself. Which was kind of exciting, sort of like I was an adventuring sleuth on the trail.

But, as also mentioned before, the mystery guest is just Alice. So . . . yay? Seems like a waste of a good marketing campaign. And basically that was all they succeeded at in the writing arena: making a good marketing campaign. The game itself is typical of most older platformers in that if you can find any actual narrative structure, then more than likely it was merely accidental, not something the creators had intended.

Even if one took into account that the game was supposed to be proceeding through Wonderland as per the original storyline, the levels simply have little to nothing to do with Wonderland. You could make cases for the house being the mirror house from Through the Looking Glass or the ocean level being the ocean of Alice's tears, or the forest being . . . um. Well, there were a couple of different forests in the movie, I guess. But see, that's the thing, the levels are at best only vaguely connected to anything Disney in general much less Wonderland specifically. They're just sort of generic settings for Mickey and Minnie to jump around in.

Capcom gets an E for Effort regarding the adverts, but they and Hudson both get an F for pretty much everything else.

The Gameplay
Much of the game is set up to be a pretty standard platformer. There are enemies running around trying to attack you. There are items to pick up. There are, ultimately, platforms.

Players take control Mickey as he jumps his way around these platforms, shooting at enemies with stars (energy balls in the original) and generally just being a typical platformer hero. Players also take control of Minnie. Though by "take control" in this instance I mean "hope she kind of does what you want/need her to do at any particular moment".

Those of you who remember my review of Stimpy's Invention (and why shouldn't you, it was just a couple of weeks ago!) will surely remember that I was rather disparaging of the double-character control setup. Mickey Mousecapade is not disabusing me of that disparagement. Minnie does bring a little to the plate after you've procured her star attack, enabling you to utilize her in an inventive way during boss fights (protip: she's invincible against enemy attack and can climb ladders while you stay on a lower level), but otherwise she's a drain. A lead weight. A nuisance.

If she dies, Mickey dies. And when you're jumping over deadly pits like in the ocean level, she can and will fall into said deadly pits if you're not careful to keep her right there with you. If Mickey is at an exit but Minnie isn't, neither of them can leave the room. This lead to at least a few instances (especially during the final stage in the castle) where I'd clear out an entire room and it would still take me an extra half a minute or so trying to get her up all the platforms to the exit.

And then there's the thing where you find secret items and reveal them with your star shooter only to find out that it's a monster that kidnaps Minnie and you have to get her back by finding a secret key and then playing a guessing mini-game to get her back. So that's fun.


But even if the double character nonsense got taken out, there's still a lot of little annoyances in the game from a single character perspective. I do have to say that it's interesting in a way, at least. Playing a lot of these older games makes me realize just how much we now take for granted in platformer games, even the fancy 3D ones of the modern age. Stuff that simply doesn't exist in this game. Stuff like being able to jump from ladders and being able to jump straight up in the air but then move around to some other position like a floating leaf that tumbles at its own discretion. Here you can only drop from ladders like a stone, usually right into enemy fire, and if you just straight up in the air then you're not going to be doing anything other falling straight back down.

This isn't really bad, per se. It's annoying, but only because I've been pampered by modern gameplay. Otherwise it's merely an interesting thing to note about the evolution of the platformer genre in general.

The Challenge
Y'know, I remember that when I was a kid, I thought Mickey Mousecapade was tough as hell. Ridiculously hard in the grand tradition of many Nintendo games of the age. I was surprised, then, upon picking it up for first time in at least two decades and busting out the first three levels with only a few minor irritations. They were, sadly, irritations of the type where things aren't really challenging in a fair and balanced way but in a "oh FUCK YOU, GAME" way. Still, easily surmountable.

Then I got to the pirate ship stage where the game suddenly became a cheap-shot whorebitch. Fuck you, MM, for setting up four rooms in which hits cannot possibly be reasonably avoided and progress is done more through luck and determination than through skill and gradually learning the curve. Fuck you so very much.

At the very least it had the decency to actually limit it to just those four rooms. The castle level after is back to a more sprawling architecture and is still rather difficult to navigate, but at least it isn't the complete middle finger to the players that the pirate ship manages to distill and compress so well.

I'll give the game a middle of the road assessment on challenge, but only as an average of the two extremes.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I can't really state with any authority of the final boss. I managed to get an invincibility fairy right toward the end of the game and touched Maleficent just before it wore off. I didn't really expect it to work but thought, "Eh, what the hell." It did work, meaning I beat her in a possibly record breaking two seconds. Go me!

The Sights
Honestly, I was fully prepared to just about completely bypass this section with a simple "meh", but upon reflection I find I can't. Much of this reflection has a great deal to do with checking out the various sprite differences between the Hudson and Capcom versions of the game. The thing is, compared to the vast majority of early NES games, MM has it going on. The stages are pretty vibrant, the sprites are actually pretty well constructed in both versions, and it almost looks like it was made at a later stage in the system's life than it actually was. The forest stage is probably the best of the settings, which is kind of surprising given it's pretty much the same thing over and over again only in different seasons.

The Sounds
Not stellar, but still pretty catchy. Seemed like a nice preview of the much better music that would later be heard in Duck Tales.

The Bottom Line
Eh, I have a tough time categorizing this one, really. If you've got nothing else to do some lazy afternoon, bust this game out and give it a whirl. It can be a fun little romp when it's not causing minor blood pressure spikes. But more than it's worth as a game, it should probably be played through at least once for the appreciation of the place in video game history it occupies. Much of what Capcom became through the late 80's and early-to-mid 90's was because they handled publishing this game.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ren and Stimpy: Stimpy's Invention

Platform: Sega Genesis
Developer: BlueSky Software
Released: 1993
Genre: Platformer

The Story
Stimpy has built a new invention, the Mutate-O-Matic! It's purpose? To mutate disgusting garbage into delicious food! Ren is skeptical about this strange machine, so in order to show off how awesome it is, Stimpy turns it on full. Unfortunately this causes an overload which makes the machine explode, scattering the parts all over the place. In order to keep it from causing lasting damage, the intrepid duo must seek out the various parts, reassemble them, and then shut the Mutate-O-Matic down for good.

The Game
Most everyone who lived during the 90's will remember The Ren and Stimpy Show, an influential cartoon on Nickelodeon that led the way for future weird cartoons (such as Spongebob Squarepants) and future "mature" cartoons (such as Beavis & Butt-head). Its popularity (with the viewers, if not with Nickelodeon itself) brought about the creation of several video games, including a few after the show went off the air.

The Characters
Ren Höek is a depraved chihuahua with an eye for the ladies, a mind for the money, and a temper for anything and everything that annoys him. Which is anything and everything, but particularly his buddy Stimpy.

Stimpson J. Cat is a dimwitted cat whose only real smarts are for inventing weird ass shit. He's jolly, good-natured, and basically nothing like Ren.

Not that you really need to know any of this, since their characterization from the show is hardly used in this game in any significant way past being a general frame for the setting.

The Writing
There isn't any, really. There's the setup at the beginning, then the rest of the game is just running around to various random places to collect invention pieces. There's no real plot or humor or anything, just cartoonish action.

The Gameplay
From the options menu, the player can choose to play as either Ren or Stimpy, but it hardly matters considering you can switch between the two at any time while playing the game, and they don't really have any difference in style except for the purely aesthetic. Their moves may look different, but in most cases they function exactly the same. Both characters are, in fact, playable at the same time, and whichever one you're not playing as will simply follow along with you . . . for the most part.

Basically, the double character play is shit. If you want to do a ranged attack, for instance, you have to have the other character near you. I played Ren most of the time, which meant said attack was Ren grabbing Stimpy and squeezing him so that he'd hork out a high-speed hairball. If Stimpy is even just a few millimeters away from Ren, however? Short range attack. I can't express just how annoying it is to be trying to take down a target that's heading at you, you're brimming with confidence that you can take it out before it becomes a threat, but Stimpy moves just a little bit to the left and you get hit because Ren's puny little flyswatter can't reach all the way across the damn screen. Pretty much half the game was spent popping the air uselessly like this.

Having to rely on the other character is also annoying for various hurdles that require both of you to jump up on something, particularly the fire hydrants in the City level. It takes Ren and Stimpy both to make the hydrants propel you up to higher levels, but in many cases you'll jump up and the other character won't. And you try to jump and jump and jump in a futile effort to get them to jump too, but all they do is just stand there and blissfully ignore you.

If you have a buddy to play with, taking control of the second character, this may ameliorate some of these problems . . . but given the way first and second players of video games tend to cooperate, I kind of doubt it. And anyway, it's not like there aren't enough problems concerning just the stuff that you can do without the second character. Trying to grab onto ladders, pipes, and other climbable things is a horrific experience, relying on you pressing up at the precise nanosecond you enter the precise nanometer of actually climbable space. And jumping . . . hoo boy. I won't say it's exactly a deal breaker for playing the game, but it's still a fair bit inaccurate, and even after I got used to it I ended up overshooting my target several times when Ren or Stimpy got just a little bit too enthusiastic.

Overall, for a platformer, the game doesn't do platforming very well.

The Challenge
The hit detection in the game is rather wonky, so you can't really tell when something getting near you is actually going to hurt Ren or Stimpy. It's pretty much the same problem as the ladders mentioned above, only applied to the enemies, and I think the main reason it's a problem is the cartoony look imposed on everything. Of course, it's got to look cartoony 'cause it's based on a cartoon, but unfortunately this really works against it because most everything has poorly defined boundaries as a result. This makes things a bit more challenging than they would be otherwise as a result, more of that false difficulty so common in (poorly made) games of the time.

The level in which Ren and Stimpy puff themselves up like balloons is annoying as hell, particularly since the other character suddenly becomes solid and can either block your path or bump you into bad guys. Even more frustrating is that they also don't help whatsoever except to pick up items along the way, which they'll only do incidentally, never on purpose. So whatever limited usefulness they may have been in other levels becomes completely negated in this one.


Basically, whenever the game tries to change up the formula from a standard platformer, it fails and fails hard. The new mechanics feel horribly out of place and end up being even more frustrating than the already poorly designed regular mechanics. As a result of these changes they become the most difficult parts of the game, but purely because they're crap design.

And then what do I get for all my troubles? A crappy instrumental version of the "Happy Happy Joy Joy" song with accompanying bouncing ball karaoke that's off in its timing. Fuck that noise.

The only saving grace is that it didn't take very long to beat. Just a few hours, really. Stimpy's Invention is just one of those games that isn't particularly hard to beat, but every setback feels twenty times more frustrating than it should and there's so little in the way of reward to offset that frustration.

The Sights
If there is one spot where the game excels, it's in the looks department. Said looks may have made the hit detection go all awry, but they're still pretty good. It's got the feel of the show down pat, and it's a rather pretty game overall.

The Sounds
For the first little while trying to play the game, I thought there was a problem with my emulator because the sound wasn't coming on. I thought I'd fixed the problem, but then I learned that the problem was with the game, not with the emulator or the ROM itself. My sources tell me that every once in a while the sound simply won't be there, even if you're using one of the original cartridges. I'm fairly certain that emulating the game may have made it worse, however, as I had to reset it around ten or more times regularly before the sound finally popped on.

But then when it did start up, I almost immediately felt sorry it had. The background music wasn't particularly bad, but the sound effects were. Especially egregious were the fart sounds in the balloon level. I mean really, there are plenty of non-annoying fart sounds they could have used, surely. Why pick the ones that stab me in the ear in a way reminiscent of mosquito buzzing?

The Bottom Line
Honestly, I never really enjoyed the Ren and Stimpy cartoon. I don't hate it or anything. It's just not really my thing. But the fact that the game is Ren and Stimpy was one of the least disappointing things about it in the end. Poorly made from one end to the other. The only real enjoyment I got out of it was the pretty graphics and slapping Stimpy around like it was going out of style. YOU STOOPID EEDIOT!

News: Back in the Saddle

Hey! Got me a new little gadget that allows me to hook up my Playstation controller to my computer, so I'm able to play mah games again. Time to get back to the reviews!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

News: Hail To The Duke

Hey, you guys remember that Duke Nukem game? And Duke Nukem 2? And maybe even Duke Nukem 3D? Let alone all those other Duke games that got made?

But more importantly, remember that one that didn't get made? Well here's the official (WARNING, OFFENSIVE CONTENT) trailer for that game.

Personally, I don't care if I ever get to play this game, or even if I do and it ends up sucking. This trailer on its own was more than enough to satisfy me in several very naughty ways.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Fun: Bustin' Makes Me Bite The Hand

Man, the game I'm currently playing through is taking me quite a while to get through. I might not get done with it by the end of the month! So instead of just leavin' ya hangin', I thought I might sling out this neat video I found of someone indiscriminately killing scientists and guards with extreme prejudice in Half-Life.

Awesome music, too.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

System Shock 2

Platform: PC
Developer: Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios
Released: 1999
Genre: First Person Shooter, Action Adventure, Survival Horror

The Game
In the original System Shock, a hacker was hired/blackmailed into removing the ethical constraints on an artificial intelligence named SHODAN, who ran a space station for the megacorporation TriOptimum. In return, he received a set of military grade cybernetic implants, and the surgery kept him in a healing coma for several months. When he woke up, he found that SHODAN had gone completely megalomaniacal and intended to use the resources of Citadel Station to take over the world, wipe out all current life, and start anew with herself as Earth's malevolent goddess. He raged against the machine that he had let loose and eventually destroyed her using his new implants and his genius hacking abilities . . .

Nearly half a century later, TriOp is still struggling to regain the prestige it held before the incident on Citadel. In a massive PR coup, they manage to land the contract to build the first faster-than-light spaceship, the Von Braun. For its maiden voyage, it is to be accompanied by a military ship, the UNN Rickenbacker. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

A soldier wakes up in a med bay of the Von Braun with no memories of how he got there. A voice speaks to him, telling him that he volunteered for a surgery that would give him experimental cybernetic implants in order to combat a strange force that has taken over the ship . . .

System Shock 2 is the highly acclaimed sequel to a highly acclaimed game, both of which initially released to underwhelming sales and only later were discovered and became known as cult classics. Though perhaps not as well known and/or popular as other FPSes of the time such as Half-Life (which released the previous year) or Deus Ex (which released the following year), both were extremely influential games in their own rights and have extremely dedicated fans. Dedicated enough to actually make the game playable on newer systems, where for many years it was infamously difficult if not downright impossible to get it to even start unless you had a Win98 machine or older. And thank goodness they made SS2Tool, or I might not be doing this review right now!

But yes, influential. How was it influential, you ask? Well, the most concrete instance of this is the Bioshock series, which stands as an official spiritual successor to SS and SS2. Or if that's not your cup of tea, supposedly Dead Space was originally going to be an actual direct sequel to SS2. And even if that isn't true it's still evident that it was heavily based on many of the elements from the earlier game. And all you folks who think Portal is the ultimate of FPS gaming due to GlaDOS and her crazy turrets probably have a great deal of thanks to give to System Shock's SHODAN and XERXES.

So the question is . . . does SS2 actually stand up to all the hype that seems to surround it? Well, that's what I'm hoping to suss out here, of course. But before I really begin, let me just warn everyone:


This game has a lot of stuff in it that may be best experienced by an actual play through. Two of the main secrets of the game (though one of 'em isn't much of a secret if you're paying any attention at all) are gonna be blown right in the very next section. This game is chock full of spoilery twists and stuff otherwise as well.

Proceed with caution.

The Characters
The main character of this little venture is generally known only as the Soldier, since he's just a random soldier picked out from the military forces of the Rickenbacker. He's your standard silent hero with little in the way of personality or back story. This jibes with the original game in which the main character was only known as the Hacker and had little in the way of personality or back story. The only real defining characteristic of this character is chosen by the player him or herself, that being whether he's in the Marines, the Navy, or the OSA (psi-corp).

He's also gained the fan nickname "Goggles" because the cyber-implants on his eyes look like goggles. I'm not very partial to this name myself, so I'll be referring to him as "Soldier" for this review.

Anyway, who cares about what the boring ol' hero is like, right? In this game, it's all about the villains! And in this case, those villains are . . . the Many.

"Villains" in the plural is a bit misleading in this case, however. The Many (and this is one of those spoilers I was talking about) is actually a biological mass of various semi-autonomous creatures that share a single hive mind. They were found several light years away from Earth on Tau Ceti V and brought on board the Von Braun to be studied as the first concrete evidence of alien life on other planets.

Though these creatures come in several different forms, the primary strain is the parasitic annelids that burrow into people, gestate for a bit, burst out of their chest, and then angle back to burrow up through the neck into the brain, whereupon they take complete control of their host's motor functions. The poor human this happens to has some awareness left of what has happened to them, but is unable to do anything about it.

That's just your basic foot soldier in the Many's army. There's worse out there. Way worse. And they're all looking to either add you to the mass of the Many or destroy you for opposing them. And that is basically what the Many is about. They want to expand their glorious nature, to absorb more minds into its own consciousness, to exult in the warmth and pleasure of the flesh. Which is not as delightful as it may sound at first. And their ultimate intent upon the Von Braun upon finishing their preparations is to sail the FTL ship straight back to Earth and assimilate the entire population.

Opposing this is - surprise of surprises! - SHODAN, the AI Who Would Be God. She guides the player's actions throughout most of the game as she attempts to use him to destroy the Many. But wait! How did she survive the destruction of Citadel Station so many years ago? Why does she want to destroy the Many? Well . . . those I'll go ahead and leave as spoilers. You'll just have to play the game to find out!

Who else is there? Well, the only other sort-of notable character is XERXES, the AI running the Von Braun and - to some extent, it seems - the Rickenbacker. After the whole SHODAN incident, AIs became extremely restricted, so Xerc was purposefully built with no self-awareness. He was also built and programmed for cheap, since TriOp is still trying to get their financial legs underneath 'em. Both of these elements together lead Xerc to be easy pickings for the Many, who reprogram him into their digital slave. This spells bad news for the Soldier since the wayward AI runs the security system and the various robots on the ship and will send waves of enemies to attack whenever a camera spots him. He gets some of the best lines in the game, though, since he's still trying to run the ship like everything was normal while adding in bits like "glory to the Many, glory to the mass" every once in a while.

And then there's the crews of the two ships. Eeeeeh.

Don't get me wrong. It would definitely have been to the game's detriment if these characters hadn't been included . . . it's just that compared to the show-stealing trinity of the Many, SHODAN, and XERXES, everyone else is sort of forgettable. I will give special mention to Bronson, tho'. She's a hardass.

The Writing
One of the main draws of this game is the writing, and I really think it's from there that a lot of the other elements that make it so wonderful spring.

Both SHODAN and the Many are wonderfully written characters with well-defined personalities, modes of speaking, goals, and attitudes toward the player. Even the generally forgettable background characters all have distinct personalities and characterizations. XERXES, like I said, gets some of the best lines ever, but just about everyone gets at least one moment of absolute awesome in their dialogue. Let me just give you a small sample . . .

"Anatoly, there's only so much corporate calisthenics I can go through before I start to feel a little queasy, so let's get down to brass tacks here. We don't like each other. We each have our own motivations for undertaking this mission, so let me give you a little warning. I cannot be circumvented. I cannot be tricked. I cannot be manipulated. And I cannot be bought. You come at me straight and keep the fancy maneuvers for your next board meeting. Just because my father swam with the sharks doesn't mean that I do."

That's from William Bedford Diego, captain of the Rickenbacker, leader of the military forces on the mission, and son of the CEO that hired the Hacker to hack SHODAN in the first game, by the way. He's a bit of a badass.

There are tons of neat little twists throughout the story as it goes along. Some are rather predictable, but that doesn't make them any less awesome. Learning the back story of the Many and how SHODAN got all mixed up into things is pretty trippy.

And there are a lot of little side-stories here and there that nevertheless tend to tie in seamlessly with both the overall plot and the gameplay itself, mainly in the form of cleverly placed clues that help you advance in the main storyline or simply point you toward much-needed gear and how to get to it.

Unfortunately, there are a few plot holes, I won't lie. Fortunately they're mostly ignorable should you even happen to notice 'em.

Like the previous System Shock almost all of the back story and a healthy chunk of the currently running story is told through the use of recordings that the Soldier finds littered throughout the ship, mostly work and personal logs left behind by the crew members. Most of them are found in a jumbled order, sometimes detailing what happened after the introduction of the Many to the ship and sometimes before, but always progressively revealing bit by bit what exactly is going on. As long as the player takes the time to seek these logs out and listen to them, a masterfully designed story of mutiny, betrayal, horror, and emergence will unfold.

The Gameplay
SS2 is not your typical FPS. There's a reason why the "Genre" listing near the top of this review lists three types of game that are generally considered to be quite separate from each other. These are the three, by the way, that Wikipedia lists for SS2, but I'm sorely tempted to go ahead and add "Role Playing Game" in there as well. In order to ease the description of the gameplay, I'm gonna break this section down into those three genres.

Ah, well the hell. I'll do all four!

First Person Shooter
Perhaps first and foremost, SS2 is indeed an FPS. It's the way most people tend to categorize it, I understand, though it's really just as a shorthand since it doesn't cover the full scope of the game.

Anyway, yes, the game takes place from the main character's viewpoint, and you go around shooting the shit out of whatever is stupid enough to stay in the center of the screen long enough. It follows many of the standard FPS conventions, such as a selection of the basic weapon types (pistol, shotgun, bludgeoning melee weapon, assault rifle, laser pistol, etc.), lots of switches and buttons to flip or press, and some minor platforming sections.

One interesting addition to the standard FPS model is the introduction of different types of ammo as well as different firing types. For example, the pistol and assault rifle - which use the same ammo - have three different types of bullets: standard, anti-personnel, and armor piercing. The first is your basic, balanced pew pew, of course. The second is best used against the squishier members of the Many, and the last is primarily good for taking down rogue robots, turrets, and other metal-covered monstrosities.

Each ranged weapon also has two different firing modes. The rifle can be changed from single shot to full auto fire, while the energy pistol can go from normal blasts to overcharged shots that do a lot of damage all at once, but it takes a while for the pistol to recharge for the next shot. These add a wide selection of options on how to proceed through the game, and often has the player having to switch ammo on the fly during fights, adding to the tension.

Action Adventure
Exploration is a large part of the game. The Von Braun is a sprawling ship with lots of twisty, curvy pathways that lead all over the place, sometimes seemingly at random (justified in-universe by TriOp hiring really cheap ship designers), and several areas seem to exist solely for the sake of said exploration and finding hidden caches of weapons and other equipment. Since getting around the ship isn't really a strict case of "getting from point A to point B", it sometimes feels a lot like a Metroidvania game. And even though it's easy to get lost a lot of the time, the areas you might find yourself in are often quite interesting anyway and have lots of neat stuff to grab up!

There are plenty of puzzles to be had. Though still simplistic by today's standards, they were still fairly sophisticated for FPSes at the time, and many of them involved using combining facets of the inventory, stats, and mini-games elements, as well as making heavy use of the previously mentioned exploration aspect.

There's a lot of stuff to pick up in this game. Weapons, ammo, armor, medical supplies, technical tools, mission items, random pointless junk . . . tons and tons of stuff. An inventory screen (which also serves many other purposes which will be described further on) is therefore provided, based on a grid system. Weapons take up three spaces while most everything else in the game takes only one apiece, and how many spaces you are provided with is based primarily on how strong the Soldier is. So that's the "adventure" part. Where the "action" part comes in is that the inventory is accessed in real time, meaning that while you're trying to move stuff around, there still might be some nasty nasty monster trying to chew through the back of your neck in the meantime. It adds a sense of urgency and amps up the feeling of paranoia and danger . . . you're not safe, you're never safe, not even in your own inventory screen.

Survival Horror
Past the FPS bit, this is probably the part that everyone remembers SS2 for best. Virtually everything about the game is designed to make you feel as if you're trapped and doing everything you can to make it past insurmountable odds. Unless you're very careful and know what you're doing, ammo is very limited, especially toward the beginning of the game. Inventory space can be very hard to come by, and you often have to figure out what you're going to keep and what you're going to drop. You often hear monsters well before you see them, and this early warning is far less comforting than it is creepy as hell.

Oh, and your weapons degrade with use. And having one of your guns jam right in the middle of a fight without warning? Very unnerving. You have to use the maintenance skill every once in a while to keep your weapons in good repair, otherwise you might be up the creek when they fail you. Unfortunately, in many cases they degrade a little too swiftly, and the developers have mentioned that that's their fault entirely . . . they'd meant for them to wear out fast, but not quite that fast. Still, as long as you pay attention and know what you're doing, the problem will remain only just enough to keep you sweating, not enough to frustrate you completely.

Part of this is somewhat mitigated by the use of Quantum Entanglement Devices, which when activated can resurrect the Soldier at their location for a small amount of nanites, the in-game currency. This can damage the "survival" part of the game somewhat, since once you can find a QED on your current deck, you're effectively immortal and death is merely a minor setback, but fortunately it doesn't quite shatter the illusion completely. And considering how often and in how many ways you can die in the game, the QEDs are pretty much essential to getting further into the game.

Role Playing Game
The inventory screen isn't just for inventory! It also gives access to all the audio logs you've picked up, your character's stats, and other useful tidbits. All of the Soldier's abilities are dependent on his stats. Depending on how you built him up during the training portion of the game, he already has a few points in various abilities, but all the rest are increased through the use of cybermodules, which are SS2's version of experience points, gained after completing certain objectives or (on occasion) found randomly about the ship. By accessing certain terminals around the ship, the Soldier can use these modules to improve his stats and skills, becoming a better hacker, getting more psionic abilities, or gaining the ability to use certain weapons.

There are four special terminals found throughout the game that also give a selection of perks that the player can choose from, as well as software upgrades that give bonuses to the Soldier's technical skills and implants that while powered up can improve his stats and skills or give him new (and sometimes surprisingly disgusting) abilities. In all, it's a very in-depth system for an FPS, and it works extremely well.

One particularly interesting bit is the research skill. Occasionally the player will run across objects that have no description and must be researched before they can be utilized. Toward the beginning of the game, these come mostly in the form of organs taken from the bodies of the Many, and when fully researched, a damage bonus is then conferred against those particular enemies. Later in the game, unresearched weapons and implants can be found. Besides needing an appropriate level of researching skill to figure them out, the player has to search out certain chemicals that can be found on the various decks of the ship in order to complete their research.

System Shock 2 has a lot of different types of gameplay going on all at once, but it never really feels cluttered or too busy. Each segment fits perfectly into a larger whole and works together beautifully. It many ways, it almost deserves to have a new category all its own.

The Challenge
There are four difficulty settings: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Impossible. These are all pretty much exactly what they say on the tin. I usually play on Normal myself, and once upon a time this gave me a decent challenge without being too horrible frustrating, but now after a fair amount of practice, I may need to move on up to Hard.

Regardless of which one you're on, however, the survival horror aspects of the game are still in there, making sure things aren't too easy on you.

The Sights
The ship itself is beautiful. Horribly designed (though that was by design), but beautifully textured. It's extremely atmospheric, very dark and creepy looking, and has lots of interesting stuff to look at. The lighting is especially well done . . . a bit too dark at times, but that's what the gamma adjust in the options is for. Either way, it's best played with all the lights around you turned off, not just so you can see better, but to help the mood along.

The character models, unfortunately, is where the game's graphics fail. Looking outdated even for the time, most of the NPCs (corpses, primarily) and creatures (the human-looking ones, anyway) are extremely angular and have low-grade textures. It's a bit of a shame, but what're ya gonna do?

Well, what you're probably gonna want to do is get some mods. As I said before, SS2 has a very dedicated fanbase, and there have been several mods made that upgrade the textures of the characters as well as the ship itself, all without effecting gameplay at all. About a third of the way into this last play through, I installed the SHTUP (objects) and Rebirth (NPCs) mods. While I won't say they can match the cutting edge graphics you'll find today, they certainly go a very long way toward prettying the game up. And since the game was already rather pretty in the first place, it's pretty much going from "Nice!" to "Spectacular!"

The Sounds
The music soundtrack for SS2 is primarily techno. Cyberpunk, after all, is all about the techno, so there's plenty of high-speed drumbeats and synthesizered sounds to be had. Personally, I love it and have most of the music downloaded to listen to while I'm writing. While playing the game itself, it's particularly fun to zoom through the engineering section to the heartrate-increasing beat jamming out of your computer speakers.

The voice acting is . . . varied. Some of it is absolutely wonderful. SHODAN, of course, is famous for her particular mode of speech as well as the charged dominatrix tones provided by Terri Brosius. XERXES excels with his deadpan deliveries of truly disturbing lines. The Many's mix of various voices is weird and discombobulating, just as it should be. And a number of the folks doing the audio logs are surprisingly good, considering most of them were just plucked from the ranks of the game's developers, programmers, artists, and such. But sadly, some of them sound exactly like they were just plucked from those ranks. Flat lines, cheesy accents, and so on. It's not horrible enough to ruin the game or anything, but it can be a bit distracting at times.

But where the sound really comes together for this game is in the ambient sounds made by the various monsters in the game. It's not just what they're saying (though a lot of the things they're saying are weird as hell), but the fact that you can often hear them but not always see them. Not until they're suddenly all up in your face and trying to tear you a new one, that is. Even for a lot of experienced players - like me - this can lead to a whole lot of "OH GAWD WHERE IS IT WHERE IS IT" and swinging the mouse wildly around in an attempt to find an eliminate the source of the noise. You can hear things on the other sides of walls, floors, and ceilings as well, meaning that even if you can figure out that the tromping and synthesized burbling is coming from the floor above you, you're still going into the situation knowing that you don't know exactly where on the floor above you it is. And in SS2, not knowing can get you murdered horribly.

Perhaps the most disturbing of the monster noises are those made by the protocol droids. Like XERXES, they seem to be under the impression that everything is still just fine, and all they want to do is help you, sir.

The Bottom Line
So I was at a buddy's house one day, and he asked if I had ever played System Shock 2 before. No, I told him, I hadn't even heard of it. So he took me to his computer, installed the game, and then sat me down in front of it. On his way out of the room, he turned off the light.

Approximately six hours later, he stuck his head in the door and asked if I was doing alright. My exact answer was to turn around briefly and drool "buuuuuuuh" before going back to the game. I think he laughed briefly before leaving me to it again.

He knew. The bastard knew what he was doing to me, and he didn't warn me! Well let me warn you, if you haven't played SS2 before: This game lives up to its hype, it is absolutely frickin' awesome, and if you're not careful, it will take over your life for long periods of time. It wasn't until much later that I read this Penny Arcade strip, and I can obviously tell you that it is not in any way an exaggeration. This can actually happen to you. It is that good and that immersive.

After playing it "briefly" the first time, I eventually borrowed the game from my buddy and played through the entire thing a couple of times before giving it back. Then, years later, I managed to find a copy of it just sitting on the shelf at a local used game store for forty bucks. While I did happen to have the money on me at that time, it was supposed to be my food money for the week. I stood there and agonized for several minutes, but in the end I walked away with my very own copy of System Shock 2, and it was totally worth every penny and the near starvation.

Is it the best game ever made? Well, probably not. It does have a few unfortunate downfalls. But it is definitely one of the best ever made, and very high on that list besides. If you don't have it, find it. If you can find it, play it. It doesn't matter how you get it. Buy it, copy it, steal it, whatever you have to do.

System Shock 2 fucking rocks.