Welcome to the personal blog of TheMrIron2

  • TheMrIron2

    Let's talk about the Wii scene.

    I'll start with an apology - this entire post is going to come off as juvenile and stupid to most. And I'm completely aware of that! In fact, any "drama" manufactured by the Wii scene is usually inherently petty and stupid. I'm aware of that writing this post, and it took a long time to convince myself to even spend the time writing this after promising not to do this again.

    The reason I did, in the end, is because there are people who are being genuinely affected by this. It is costing some people their dignity, their esteem and even their mental health - and as silly as that sounds, that's true. A lot of the stuff from the Wii scene is childish, but there are instances of genuine toxic behaviour that is having meaningful negative impacts on people. It's not bickering over Mario Kart scores - it is the denigration of people on racist, homophobic and transphobic grounds, particularly towards adolescents who are particularly vulnerable - and as a result are particularly badly affected. Badly enough for me to sit down, write up as much as I'm aware of, and try to publicise this behaviour in an attempt to stop it.

    It's been almost two years since I wrote a "PSA" post publicising bad behaviour by RiiConnect24, which was frankly carried out almost entirely by lead developer Larsenv - you can read that here if you want a refresher or didn't read it the first time. I'll start with the positives - that post caused a few glaring security issues to be fixed. And "RiiConnect24" (ie Larsenv) have become more conscientious of their behaviour.
    That's kind of it, to be brutally honest. Larsen has simply become more careful in how he showcases his egotistical, abrasive and narcissistic personality. The staff team have only further isolated themselves from the user base by cutting out the moderation role altogether, rendering the staff team nothing more than a breeding ground of nepotism, bias and mislaid authority.
    In fairness, the problem now has more parties involved now, so RiiConnect finally has some worthy adversaries in their quest to be repulsive and conceited figures of authority.

    The above paragraph is really scathing and borders on a straight up ad hominem attack, but unfortunately I have evidence backing up every corner of my claims.

    The leader of RiiConnect24, Larsenv, is a narcissistic, nasty and insecure figure of authority. Let me be fair; he does have a vested interest in the Wii. He isn't in the scene purely to spite thousands of people - but you'd be forgiven for thinking that. Larsen owns the "official" Wii homebrew guide, wii.guide, and RiiConnect24 - and he uses this position for his own leverage to tie his projects together. That doesn't sound bad until he excludes everyone else. In the previous post, I talked about how he rejected requests to mention other services; the main issue being Disconnect24, a service started because Larsen was so difficult to work with that the developers involved would have preferred to work on their own and start from scratch - which they did. Despite proclaiming on their own page that they had no rivalry with RC24, Larsen was relentless in his work to shut it down. After my previous post, we made an agreement; Disconnect24 would be the "testing branch" of RiiConnect24 and RC24 would incorporate DC24 code once it was ready, and in return DC24 would get its own attention on the guide and in general.
    Yet Larsen refused to honour his own agreement - he regularly and openly moaned about his distrust of the Disconnect24 service, and even dropped comments like this to flatly discourage anyone from supporting the project:
    And later that day he said he might shut the project down, as it "runs the same code as the main server" (ie. RC24). He never agreed to the agreement to settle the disputes; he did so so that he could shut down Disconnect24 from the inside. He could agree, gain authority within DC24, then create a backhanded and insidious propaganda campaign within his larger group to create distrust and finally use that to justify shutting it down altogether. He agreed to a co-operation so he could take it over and shut it down. Larsen continued and removed the developers from the Disconnect24 GitHub page, after Spotlight resigned and transferred ownership to Larsen, so that no more changes could be made. This obsessive self-serving behaviour only continues.

    Before he shut it down, CornierKhan1 - one of the only remaining DC24 developers who still had the heart to continue under Larsen's megalomaniac ownership - gave Larsen his own server and resources as a gesture of goodwill from Disconnect24, so that common good could be achieved. His only condition was that Larsen did the work openly so that others could contribute.
    Low and behold, Larsen breaks the only rule set out for him. In an almost unbelievable act of apathy and spite, he broke the only condition and used CornierKhan's DC24 server - which Cornier paid for out of his own pocket - for nobody's gain except his own. I couldn't make this up if I wanted to! In the DC24 discord, CornierKhan1 said last February that Larsen "seemed to be on a mission to use our VPS and have us pay to upkeep RC24". Later that day, he made the following statement:
    That's not all. Larsen has purposefully withheld progress for over two years. I backed up the picture below to my Google Drive in January 2018, and first screenshotted it even earlier; this was a "sneak peek" of RiiConnect24 on Wii U that a developer posted in the RiiConnect24 announcements channel, but Larsenv deleted it. This shows - and I got confirmation later from Larsen himself - that the weather channel was working on Wii U. Great! So I asked him when it will come out or why he deleted it. He said it was almost ready, but needed a few fixes. He continued saying the same thing and even admitted, all the way back in April 2018:
    And that same day, he also admitted that "EVC works fine on wii u mode". In other words, RC24 works on the Wii U; the Everybody Votes Channel works completely and while news/weather have timestamp issues, they work fine too. Yet it has been over two years since this was revealed, and he has still not released it. The reasoning is that he only wants to release it when it's all finished, but that's a complete excuse - when developing RC24 for Wii, he just released channels as they were finished. He released the first channel as soon as it was ready, then the next, and even released EVC too early! Yet he refuses to release RC24 for Wii U without reason. The only reason I can think of for him withholding this is that he's too protective of the Wii. He has openly spoken about how he prefers the Wii to the Wii U, despite owning both, and is fully aware that other people - maybe even himself - regularly provide WC24 as the main reason for why it is "better".
    Below is proof of WiiConnect24 on Wii U, working with news items.
    [​IMG]

    In summary, Larsen is a selfish, self-motivated person who will marginalise thousands of Wii U owners in his userbase for no other reason than to confirm his own opinion, one that is rooted in a childish defence of an older system desperately trying to provide advantages in the face of a newer one. He provided the false security of an "agreement" with DC24 in the name of open development, only to take over DC24 from the inside, shut it down and abuse its resources for his own gain.
    This man owns not just the biggest Wii service outside of Wiimmfi, but also owns the primary Wii homebrew guide - wii.guide - and to his credit, he has done an excellent job of "search engine optimisation". This ensures that his websites come before anyone else's whenever a potential new user googles "wii homebrew". As if he wasn't self centered enough, he continues to filter out any alternatives from his guide and has returned to openly admitting his dislike of Disconnect24. He never trusted anyone there to begin with, because they didn't serve his interests. DC24 was set up for the benefit of the Wii scene, to benefit from new code done in a different, better way. But this was too much of a threat for Larsen, and he embarked on a successful mission to shut it down and restore his monopoly on the scene.


    So regarding the more general toxicity of the scene... where do I begin? Unfortunately, aside from anecdotal evidence, I cannot offer as much as I'd like for this - because Larsen banned me quite recently from RC24, even though I had not been in the server for a long time. He also has me blocked, so no appealing there. However, I do have one recent bit of toxicity that viciously attacked a teenage transgender person who had repeatedly attempted suicide. A Twitter account was set up to publicly shame this person, but it has been shut down. I still have some evidence of this; a collection of screenshots was posted in one tweet, captioned "Twitter, don't compress this! It's a worthy read!", collecting pictures - taken both in and out of context - of her both joking and seriously discussing the possibility of suicide, and people getting fed up of the repeated threats thinking it wasn't serious. I may have a copy of the full resolution original somewhere, but for now this is all I have (I will update the post if I find a better picture):
    [​IMG]
    And yes, that is me in a few of those screenshots. I appear in multiple messages here as one of her possible suicide attempts, where she went offline and said goodbyes, caused a serious stir - and all I could do in the server itself was attempt to calm people down. In retrospect, even I will admit that my frustration at her repeated empty suicide threats looks really bad on my behalf - but it was certainly at a point where we thought she was looking for attention. What's really despicable is that this Twitter account was set up after it was confirmed she was going through serious problems, with the username "Anti Pastel" (Pastel being the girl who was the victim of all of this) and a flurry of posts calling her an attention seeker for her suicide threats at a time when she was undergoing episodes of gender dysphoria.

    But don't take my word for how RiiConnect has devolved into a cesspool of narcissistic admins and immature children. Take it from the "Riivolution" group, who tried to stage a coup in the RiiConnect24 discord. I am not kidding!
    Here's a simplification of the whole affair.
    An admin, sks316, said that she won't be online one day because she will be sheltering from a tornado. Another admin, Artuto, made jokes about this, thinking this was funny. This moderator had also made questionable remarks at the fact that sks is transgender, and this was the last straw for her. The situation had to be defused by Larsen writing an "agreement" both of them would sign.
    Each wanted the other to sign first, and while this was happening, sks also objected to the fact that Artuto was given a "Developer" role for making the bot and she got nothing for developing the site, which Artuto objected to because... well, why not? When we're dealing with kids like this, who cares? He probably felt special and empowered by the role.
    As the situation heated up, a moderator called WiiMaster - siding with sks - created a plan to take over the server, ban Artuto and probably also to blackmail the administration team.
    Yes, that's right. A moderator and an admin (later joined by another mod and another admin) tried to hijack their own server to ban fellow staff members!
    A moderator called Dismissed works on a way to trick the server owner, KcrPL, into submitting his login token - allowing the "Riivolution" team to hijack the server. A group of "non toxic" (in WiiMaster's eyes) staff members were added to a group chat about this coup, and some left very quickly. Some others - such as dht (who has been very helpful in telling me about the situation, and has never been one of the "bad" staff members) and another admin called Ciel - said they would not participate, but did not leave the group.
    The coup failed. Artuto was later banned for his behaviour, and two polls were ran about his fate as this decision was made by either Ciel or WiiMaster without consultation. The community one supports Artuto, the staff one does not; in the end, an executive call was made to choose the staff poll.
    Fast forward to the end of the day, and Artuto was unbanned and given back admin. sks, the victim of Artuto's abuse, was banned from the server permanently.
    TLDR: one admin regularly harassed another admin (including on questionably transphobic grounds) - not to mention other users - and the end result was a failed coup in which the victim of the abuse was banned and the harasser retained his role at the top of the server.
    UPDATE: Thanks to sks316 herself, I have an image proving they're still at it and they're still talking shit about her very openly, where she can't defend herself.
    [​IMG]

    This also ties in nicely to another occasion where Larsen talks shit about people where they can't defend himself because he's too much of a coward to face them. Another user, Diema, was banned from RC24 for calling out Larsen on a number of topics and, when Larsen refused to fix a security hole, he exploited it to overload the votes in one Everybody Votes poll. Here are some of the things Larsen has said about him behind his back:
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    The best part is, Diema's original statement quoted at the end of Larsen's post is completely factually correct (if even more blunt than this post) - and Larsen cowardly avoided talking about it in front of Diema himself. Have a read:
    [​IMG]
    Diema saw this through screenshots, and passed on a response that obliterated Larsen's spineless defences - this screenshot makes this post worth reading alone:
    [​IMG]
    Needless to say, Larsen did not respond to this rebuttal, and Diema was banned instead.

    For more of this evidence, Mikemodder's chat log of the Disconnect24 server as of late February 2019 is an excellent resource, from which I obtained most of my quotes. Search up Larsen's name and you might even find more than I was bothered to! I only checked the general chat and skimmed it at that. The RC24 discord is probably a living treasure trove of this sort of behaviour, but I'm still banned, so I can't confirm. And because I'm banned, I really have nothing to lose by making this post and naming everyone who's at fault here in an attempt to shine light on the downfalls of this scene in an attempt to improve life for the victims of toxic behaviour, and for the passive Wii users who want none of this juvenile drama. My previous post clarified that I really didn't want this to become a hate letter, and I stand by that - but I'm finished with sugarcoating the issues at play here. They are causing problems for hundreds of people, directly and indirectly, and enough is enough at this point.

    I don't want this to look like an essay just to plug my own server, so I want to say as a footnote that today I created an alternative community for anyone who is interested in the Wii, but wants to avoid the RiiConnect stuff. Certainly as someone who was banned for no obvious reason and blocked by the owner, this appears to have been my only option, so may as well open it up: https://discord.gg/hKYZpYq
    Anyone can join - even the most vitriolic and nasty members of the Wii scene - on a clean slate, but if they continue to be abrasive they will be removed so that at least one centralised place for Wii discussion exists.

    In summary:
    - The owner of RiiConnect24, Larsenv, is a self-motivated narcissist who has a firm monopoly on the Wii scene, has a history of bad behaviour and single-handedly used his authority to dismantle a passive alternative homebrew service - but not before using their resources for his own gain. He refuses to advertise any alternatives to his work on the guide he bought out. He has also withheld finished work that would help many people because it would threaten his opinion.
    - The RC24 staff team is rampant with nepotism, toxicity on many levels and self-indulgent administrators who abuse their power and harass not just their own members, but their fellow staff too.
    - Two years after my original post, nobody has learned and if anything the scene has just gotten worse. It's about time I wrote a post that pulls no punches and exposes absolutely everything.


    Thanks for reading.
    Trash_Bandatcoot and sks316 like this.
  • TheMrIron2

    [PSP] Dev Diary: A year of progress and bringing the PSP into the next decade!

    This year, the PSP turns 16 years old. Indeed, the PSP was a landmark in handheld gaming; it was the first handheld console that was capable of a truly console-quality 3D experience, one which Nintendo couldn't match for years to come. The PSP wields a mighty 333MHz CPU with a 166MHz GPU and 32MB RAM (64MB on some models!); while powerful at the time, this forces our homebrew development scene to think differently. It's not like PC, where you can write code that you'll "get away with", or code that focuses on slow accuracy over speed, hoping that stronger PCs will be able to brute-force your program. You have a capable, but limited, hardware setup, one that you can use many tricks to get the most out of. It's a fixed setup, so you can use some tricks that use the quirks and unique parts of the system to get more out of it, too.
    So with that refresher out of the way, what has the PSP scene brought us recently?

    DaedalusX64 - Nintendo 64 emulator

    A long-time favourite, DaedalusX64 is one of the most impressive and ambitious homebrew projects in PSP history. It is, fortunately, still alive and kicking! While some members have shifted their focus to a PS Vita port, some have stayed behind and worked on the PSP version. One member in particular has been particularly diligent - z2442, one of the instigators of the revived Daedalus project, has recently completed an experiment that completely changes the way the emulator works!
    The PSP has two CPUs; the main CPU, Allegrex, is a MIPS CPU @ 333MHz with a floating-point unit (FPU) and a vector unit (VFPU). The other CPU, the Media Engine, is also a 333MHz MIPS CPU, which also has an FPU! It lacks a VFPU, but that's the only glaring difference.
    Daedalus generally runs all of its main emulation code on the main CPU, which is what you'd expect - and its asynchronous audio mode passes audio jobs to the Media Engine, which is usually used for audio anyway. Sounds sensible, right? Well, since the Media Engine isn't quite like running a second core, there are often timing issues associated with it. Jobs have to be sent to it, processed, and sent back in time; if the CPU doesn't send the job quickly enough, that's another issue as well. z2442 has done great work recently, not just in eliminating these timing issues, but in reversing the roles!
    Recently, z2442 has put the main emulation on the Media Engine, and the audio processing on the main CPU. Why, you might wonder? It makes a lot of sense; with less work to do, the CPU - which is better suited to managing the system - can more efficiently hand out jobs, manage the running tasks and hopefully improve stability and performance. This is not quite release ready yet, but it does work - stay tuned!

    [​IMG]
    In other Daedalus-related news, in late October, the team released DaedalusX64 v1.1.8 for PSP. This includes z's fixes to improve Media Engine performance and stability, an all-new speedhack, updates to the latest coding standards and convention for better performance and PS Vita detection. Performance is damn near full speed in many of the big-hitter titles; Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask all run very well, to name a few, and some lesser known games such as Aerogauge run even better!
    [​IMG]
    ADQuake

    Quake is the dominant engine on PSP for any action games, and while a lot of deviations exist from the incredible Kurok engine to the lightweight Insomnia ProQuake, one has remained in active development thanks largely to a user called st1x51. ADQuake has been under active maintenance with irregular updates to the GitHub repository, and some of the improvements have brought big speedups. One of the most inspired commits in recent memory has been the addition of VFPU math; using the PSP's vector unit to perform specialised maths calculations faster. The CPU is often the bigger constraint in Quake on PSP, and this is an excellent example of tapping more power from the PSP.
    An example from 2018 of how this flexible engine has produced some very impressive projects is st1x51's own Counter Strike project, CSDM, for PSP; running smoothly, with support for bots and online multiplayer with robust physics, CSDM is a faithful recreation of Counter Strike 1.6 for PSP. Another example is STALKER Portable (see below), but take this video as a demo of the engine by the main developer himself:


    STALKER Portable

    Recently, a Russian team led by st1x51 and D. NeyRin have been hard at work remaking classic PC game STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl (2008) for PSP. They've worked incredibly hard and their work is paying off. Recently, they published a new release on their ModDB page, a day after the Discord server tested it and gave it the OK. The game is incredibly ambitious, trying to deliver a convincing replica of the grandiose 2008 PC game on a 2004 handheld using a heavily modified 1998 engine - but the end result is very promising. The most recent release improves the scripting, graphics, implements VFPU math from ADQuake, fixes a number of issues and added a new map with updates to existing ones. The game is under active development by a few enthusiastic developers and we look forward to seeing more from the project!

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Project Enigma

    Despite periods of inactivity, Project Enigma is alive! Enigma is a realistic multiplayer first-person shooter designed with the PSP as priority number one, while also looking to get a release on PC among other platforms such as 3DS and Vita. The game's original focus on WW2 is still in mind, but the team is experimenting a bit, with parts of American Civil War and Rainbow Six Siege coming in as inspiration. Below is a picture of a map in the making, my "Mansion" map, which is being optimised to guarantee a silky smooth 60FPS on a real PSP - so the PSP can remain competitive against other platforms! Also below are pictures of a few other maps from this year - in order, BCDeshiG's "Dungeon" map, and Diema's "Moravia" map. All run on a real PSP!

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Fury (previously Project Frost)

    Project Fury is a working-title project that has been worked on intermittently by one man called Diema over the past few years. While initially targeting PS2 and PC, with the aim of improving the software Quake for PS2 into a game-ready hardware-accelerated port, Diema decided to move to PSP after I talked to him around two years ago about the idea of moving to PSP, which coincidentally had an established Quake engine with many projects and support for both handheld and TV mode - in other words, a "better" PS2 in this context. Taking inspiration from DOOM, Quake, Painkiller and the like, Fury's main objective is to provide a frenetic and fast first person shooter with less regard for story than pure shooting mayhem. As he is doing all of the work himself, and has just one PSP-1000, work is slow but it gets done when it gets done. A few playable demos have been released to the public, and while the project has been silent at the moment, Diema has been quick to reassure everyone that the project is still in the works, saying that he's "trying to push the PSP to its absolute limit, and I'm just one guy doing all this... in Trenchbroom, Blender and GIMP".
    More will come with time!

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Minecraft PSP

    Minecraft PSP has been an established homebrew for a while now, but this year marks one of the biggest shake-ups in its history. Developer Iridescence has been remaking the game from the ground up to allow for infinite worlds and support for original Minecraft assets! The core gameplay is not there just yet, but chunk generation (infinite worlds), the sky system and rendering is all complete! Here's a look at the remade Minecraft in action:

    Before then - up until July this year - Iridescence had previously been working on improving the established Minecraft homebrew by Woolio. He reduced memory consumption significantly and upgraded to new code standards. Until the remade Minecraft is ready for use, this version is still a very good version of Minecraft comparable to MCPE and running at an unwavering 60FPS.


    Other Projects

    The PSP scene has had other projects that I have forgotten to mention, or were not big enough to warrant their own section in this already lengthy article. One is "Jump IT" by mrneo240; a Dreamcast developer primarily, Neo originally designed Jump IT as a Dreamcast Game Jam demo. While looking to experiment with his cross-platform coding, neo ported the game to PSP and expanded upon it. It is now a short, playable platforming demo that runs on PC, PSP and Dreamcast!
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    Another cool extra is showing off how easy PSP development can be in 2020. Mrneo has an automated build system where, with one click, he can build his program and PPSSPP will automatically launch the newly compiled program! Check the video out here because GBAtemp won't embed Discord video links.

    Developer zdohdds has also been doing some random experimentation with the PSP. After reading that the PSP supported hardware texture compression, he set to work to figure out how to use it. Sure enough, he wrote a fully working example! With the limited memory available on PSP, his working implementation of hardware DXT1 texture compression may serve to improve many projects that decide to implement it. Here's a GIF of a spinning Paper Mario cube with DXT1 compression on the texture.
    [​IMG]

    Also worth mentioning is the all-new game engine Simulant, described as "Unity for old consoles". While primarily designed for Dreamcast and PC, a PSP branch does exist and is in the works. Eventually, we will be able to make optimized 3D games of any kind and quickly and easily test across Dreamcast, PSP and PC! Check out the website here.
    [​IMG]

    Where do we go from here?

    The PSP scene has a lot of exciting things coming for 2020 and the rest of the decade. It's a great time to get into the PSP!
    For starters, DaedalusX64 has revamped the way it runs as mentioned before - and this could bring some newfound stability and performance boosts to what is already quite an impressive technical feat of an emulator.
    Project Fury and Project Enigma are in the pipeline and soon, the PSP will have two new (very different) multiplayer shooters on their hands!
    STALKER Portable is making great strides and has some playable builds already.
    Jump IT is an example of how easy it is to bring code to the PSP in the modern era. It's very promising and we hope it encourages more developers to get stuck into PSP development!
    So while the Vita may be taking the interest of some people, spare some time for the PSP - which is undergoing a second wave of homebrew and is the most active it has been in a very long time!

    If you are interested, join the main Discord server where you can stay up to date on the latest homebrew projects and talk to the devs and other PSP users. We won't bite! https://discord.gg/bePrj9W
    Thanks for reading, and here's to another decade of development for this cool little handheld. :yaypsp:
    Hoppy, Sinon, Silent_Gunner and 7 others like this.
  • TheMrIron2

    Music in Video Games - How video games compose suitable music

    (The example game in question I'll be examining is The Last Story, composed by Nobuo Uematsu - a famous composer responsible for scoring much of the Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger and an assortment of other games)
    Music is always a tricky thing to talk about since the ability of people who "like music" ranges from "tone deaf" to "perfect pitch", but I'll do my best to bring a good amount of detail while keeping it accessible.

    Using The Last Story (Wii, 2011) as a case study, I'm going to examine the appropriate use of music in different scenarios - and why it's effective. Nobuo Uematsu is regarded as one of the best composers around and this game was no exception to his good streak, containing some of his best pieces to date.
    Yet The Last Story is a different case. For the first time since his work on Final Fantasy 1 on NES, The Last Story almost made Uematsu quit working on the game. He submitted a batch of songs and ideas that were very much in the classic RPG mould, which was outright rejected by his long-time friend and director of the game, Sakaguchi. During his second music submission, which happened a month after his first was rejected, Uematsu said in an e-mail to Sakaguchi that he might leave the project if Sakaguchi still felt the compositions didn't fit his vision of the game.
    For a veteran composer to "fundamentally change the way [he] approached the task" is no small feat, which is why I'm taking The Last Story in particular as a case study.

    The Last Story tries to strike a balance between traditional game music and movie music. Rather than the traditional video game emphasis on melodies, jingles and motifs that are a common constant throughout different songs, The Last Story focuses far more on ambience. This is evident from the theme of the town itself, one you will hear quite a lot. Take a piece of town music from Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask - two games renowned for their music aside from everything else.
    - In Kakariko Village, the main melody repeats in a varied form after just 36 seconds, clearly in an attempt to have a recognisable motif (a recurring idea) throughout the song while maintaining a bit of variation.
    - In Clock Town from Majora's Mask, the first motif is set up and is then repeated immediately afterwards. Then a short second melody is brought in and repeated. Finally, a short string interlude is repeated a few times before reprising the main melody from the start. A surprisingly straightforward composition, almost too simple for some people! The song, excluding the jingle at the start, spans from just 0:17 to 1:14 before looping - less than a minute long. Clock Town clearly focuses on a melody, and this is used to good effect as the melody is re-introduced in different parts later in the game in twisted, more sinister pieces. It is by no means a bad piece because it is short, but it is a prime example of melody-based composition in games.

    [​IMG]
    So let's look at The Last Story's town theme for a comparison. A very different approach; there is very little in the way of a recurring melody. There is no recognisable "jingle", but a very ambient and atmospheric sound that tries to present the idea of a town in the form of music. There is, however, one use of a musical motif; at 2:05, the game's main theme is briefly mentioned as the only recognisable part of the song. Otherwise, the song is both constant and evolving. The song uses much of the same sound, dominated by a flute and clicks and clacks (meant to simulate the sounds of a town) for the first two minutes before moving on to another "section" that sounds totally different.

    The transition is smooth, but from just before the two minute mark, a change is obvious. A marimba is brought in to populate the sound scape, and a woodwind instrument plays the game's main melody over it. A short interlude breaking up very different sounding sections of the same piece.
    Once that section is finished, a string-dominated section comes in. If you pay attention, a flute can be heard in parts of the background, but the piece is otherwise made up of a variety of string instruments for the next minute before a simple "clack" sound brings us straight back to the beginning.
    That's three minutes of very contrasting and different music. Yet all of it fits in the style of a town. Indeed, the music does an excellent job of conveying a town that is not futuristic, nor antiquated; it is clearly set in an older time, with a scorched look on many of the bricks and rocks as the town seems to be denied some of its beauty by overbearing sunlight. In my opinion, the atmospheric approach the music takes in this game is very effective.

    So how about a different type of music? I'll examine a few other extremes - sad music, crazy music, romantic music and battle music.
    To begin with, The Last Story has quite a few elements of tragedy; without spoiling anything, one is when Zael achieves his goal of becoming a knight to help people, only for his very first mission to be mercilessly raiding a civilian village with other knights. To quote the narrator's introduction to Chapter 29 of the game:
    "And with that, the Lazulis [knights] broke into Gurak Castle. However, what they saw were not enemy soldiers, but women and children, panicking as they tried to flee."
    This clearly sets up a horrible, twisted tone as well as sadness and anger; Zael's dream of helping people as a knight comes to a horrible conclusion and his protests are in vain as the other knights ransack the city. As a cutscene plays demonstrating the horror of their actions, this music plays in the background. Using a poignant piano as the leading instrument, with nothing extra for the beginning of the song except a slow, melancholic melody and minor chords to convey sadness.

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    At 0:20, it uses F# major in the key of B minor. This is a very important chord because it represents suspension; a major dominant chord (dominant: 5th note of a key; do, re, mi, fa, so) in a minor key creates a suspended sound and creates tension. This is a further contrast because the rest of the song uses minor chords almost exclusively - and you can hear it. The strings largely play second fiddle to the piano for the first two minutes, but from around 1:50, they swell and become a more important part of the arrangement. They are made louder, more dramatic and add extra emotion and much-needed dynamics and variation to a piano melody. Also, at 2:00, something interesting happens as the strings become more prominent; without changing from the key of B minor, D# is introduced as the song resolves. What's the significance of that? Well, D# is not in B minor, but not only that - D# is one of the main things that separates B minor and B major. The chord of B major is B, D#, F#, and the chord of B minor is B, D, F#. What do you notice?
    The sharp raises the note by a semitone, so the only difference in their sound is that the middle note is raised. So by introducing D# instead of D, the song tries to create a happier, major sound in what is clearly a sad piece. Not only that, but immediately afterwards, the song continues to sound minor. Why? Well, there's actually a very clever explanation for this. The next resolution (the point at which the song tries to find a sense of finality usually in the first chord of the key) is at 2:30... and resolves to E major. What the game has just done is modulated (changed key) with incredible subtlety. Had I not stopped to break this song down, I would not have noticed at what point this song shifts its key; but it is this subtle movement and change of direction that makes this piece really shine, and separates it from any sad song with a bit of incredibly clever composition to subvert your expectations. It not only changes key by quite some distance, but resolves a very sad, mostly minor song to a major chord that is almost half an octave away from the original base. It's incredibly clever, subtle and a powerful piece of music.
    (I think after all of that writing I can be spared a comparison.)

    So after that essay, it's time for another one. Insanity is a very interesting thing to try and convey through music, because you have to create a song that sounds erratic and discomforting but it has to be coherent and "work" as a musical piece. Here are two pieces from The Last Story; this is one from an evil character who is consistently unlikeable throughout the game and the game has to try and demonstrate that in music. Here is one of his main themes on his descent to madness, and here is the music that plays during your final encounter with him. While the ambient songs of The Last Story tend to use atmospheric ambient sounds rather than use motifs and melodies, characters tend to have common motifs that change in their style with the characters themselves.

    Firstly, breaking down Declining Nobles. This song starts in F minor. The music sets up disease from the very beginning; the melody jumps from F up to E flat (Eb), which is a distance of a minor 7th away. This gives it an unresolved sound. After a few jumps to Eb, it jumps to G, breaking the expectation, then does it one more time before jumping to E. This is a really strange progression; while Eb and G are both in F minor, E is an odd note as it is just one semitone below the tonic (main note of the key), F - which sounds unusual in a minor key and is often used for suspension, as we saw in the sad piece. So within the first 10 seconds, we have quite a lot of discomforting melody work, but it gets even better. This melody repeats, but jumps to Bb then Ab instead of E. This actually does resolve the chord of F minor, which is brilliant. The listener expects E here, but instead, the song ironically makes us uncomfortable by throwing that expectation of tension out and providing unexpected resolution. The next melody (0:26-0:34) is not offensive, but is important for setting up something that is. With a guitar sprinkled in the background to provide a bit of variance, this melody changes significantly on its reprise at 0:39. It starts on the same note, but changes so dramatically that it changes key. It uses a clever piece of musical technique called tri-tone substitution to change key. The explanation is complicated, but put it this way; the melody the first time around starts as Ab, F, Eb, and this time it goes Ab, Gb, E and descends in its new key. In other words, the notes shift up a semitone. But while this change might give the impression of moving to E major (a weird change indeed!), it returns to F minor before it even finishes. The full melody for the second time is Ab, Gb, E, Eb, Db, Ab, Bb, C. Up to the Ab here, you might think it has gone to E major, as this suits the new key up to this point. However, it throws in Bb, which is interesting as this is a tri-tone (the furthest possible distance between two notes) away from E, moving our key back, and resolves to C - which is the dominant note of F minor. So we have smoothly transitioned between F minor, E major and back within one phase!
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    It gets better, though. At 0:52 we hear another tri-tone - B in the key of Fm - and the melody goes B C D C B A Ab A Ab Gb Ab E. Notice the amount of chromatic movement (moving in half-steps, or semitones) in this; B and C are a semitone away, and so are A and Ab. Chromatics create a sense of unease, and even without spelling out the notes you can hear the disconcerting sound it goes for. Even more importantly, multiple notes break our key; B, D and A are all not in F minor, giving us a very odd sound. The reprise of this melody at 0:59 actually brings us into E major! The melody this time goes B C D E D C B Bb Ab Gb E. The bass line moves in just two notes; F to E. Isolating the notes, B, Ab and E is a complete chord of E major. Combined with the bass line accompanying it, we get a clear key change to a key that is not just a semitone away, but is also now a major key. It’s very disconcerting and effective.

    The final part of this song worth talking about is at 1:11, the final 6 notes before an interlude brings us back to the beginning. These notes are the most important in the song because they throw any hopes of a consistent key out the window! They are D, Gb, E, repeated once. D is not just out of both Fm and E, but E7 - the most suspended possible chord of E, looking to move anywhere else - is E with D at the end of it! So clearly, even though Gb and E are fine in the key, D throws us off. It’s a song full of musical twists and turns that I could make a video on, but my video skills are poor and I did promise an article!

    Fortunately, the battle version of this theme reuses most of the trademarks of Declining Nobles. However, it introduces one or two parts worth talking about. To begin with, this song should be very recognisable but very different in its battle form, now in the key of E minor as well. It brings back the motifs established in his normal character theme in an aggressive form, backed with the unusual help of an orchestra and a distorted guitar in the style of surfing music! Up to 2:42, it is basically a revamped version of this character’s old theme. However, it introduces an interesting new progression at 2:42.
    [​IMG]
    From 2:42 to 2:56, the chord progression goes A, C, Am, F, Em, B! Some musicians might spot how odd that is right off the bat. A major and C major are very different chords that are dissonant between them; A major is A, C# and E, while C is C, E, G. They share one note in common, one note a semitone away, and one note a tone away! So the result of combining these two is an unsettling sound.

    Not only that, but the fact it changes to A minor immediately afterward breaks things even further. Am is the relative minor of C, so the song does manage to connect in that way, and furthermore Am to F is a nice progression. However, it’s when we get to Em to B at 2:50 that things get really interesting. Em -> B is the same thing as we heard in the sad song, a major dominant progression, and the way the game plays it here is one of the strongest, most suspenseful ways possible. The violin plays a sustained G note while the distorted guitar hammers the note B (the common note) for our chord of Em, before the violin slides down a half-step to Gb, bringing us to B. Finally, every other instrument goes silent and a flute plays F# and B to complete our chord of B - before the song brings us straight back to the beginning without skipping a beat! The brilliant thing about this is that the flute, finishing on B, can seamlessly bring us back to E minor - our main chord.

    Well, that brings us to the end of this article. I'm sure there are points here where anyone would get lost - that's the nature of a 15,000 character article about something as confusing as music. However, if there's anything to take away from this, there is an immense amount of depth in the best pieces of video game music that go well beyond the surface level to create the sound the composer and designers want. Thank you for reading.
  • TheMrIron2

    What should I write next?

    Yeah so things are gonna be pretty laid back for the Christmas break and I’ll have time for some more writing, and I have a lot in mind that I can’t decide on. Here are a few ideas if anyone wants to vote on them but I’m open to suggestions:

    - Analysing a game from a tech perspective
    - Overview of a console’s hardware
    - Singing technique (yes, really)
    - Analysing video game music
    - Review
    cauliquackers and MicmasH_W like this.
  • TheMrIron2

    In Defence of Garfield Kart: Why Garfield Kart is just as good as Mario Kart

    Ah, Garfield Kart. Where do I begin? I could give you any number of hollow, ironic comments about it - you could really write a book from the Steam reviews alone - but instead, I'm going to do something more interesting. I'm going to argue, to the best of my ability, that Garfield Kart is a better kart racer than the zeitgeist of the genre, Mario Kart. It has areas where it is weaker, sure, and has a smaller overall community; but it is not a game you should dismiss based on its joke appeal.

    Gameplay
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    The two games are really quite comparable. Both are kart racers and share many of the same mechanics; reach the end before everyone else by any means necessary, using shortcuts, power-ups and ruthless racing. Except Garfield Kart does this better. Why? That's a ridiculous claim, so let me explain:

    - Garfield Kart introduces a totally new aspect; jumping. One such power-up Garfield Kart offers that Mario Kart does not is the spring, allowing the user to jump into the air. This opens up completely new shortcuts, and indeed, some maps even accommodate this and allow you to take completely new paths.
    - Garfield Kart removes the blue shell. It's widely agreed that the blue shell is not the most enjoyable power-up in Mario Kart, and when someone can ruin the first place racer from 12th, there's no reason to use it except pure spite in many cases. I'd argue this makes the game more balanced.
    - Garfield Kart adds a number of power-ups that are simply not present in Mario Kart. An example is the magic wand; if you can hit a player with the wand, you will swap positions with them. It requires good aim and timing to pull off, but can be ver rewarding without ever being broken.
    - Garfield turns drifting into a more interesting mechanic. While in Mario Kart it can practically be used as a free speed boost, drifts require more precise timing in Garfield Kart. You can't pelt forward at full speed and drift at the same time; you have to take your foot off the accelerator before drifting, like many other classic arcade racers such as OutRun. This is not only more realistic, but makes drifting more important; you have to get your timing right and you'll be rewarded, pulling tight turns off with ease, or you'll just lose speed and bump into a wall.

    Visuals
    This one is a bit more interesting, because Garfield Kart has recently been released on the Switch as well as the PS4 and XB1. This opens up some direct comparisons on Switch, so here's one:
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    [​IMG]
    As you can see, they are surprisingly comparable. One might even prefer the dreamier, post-processed look of Garfield Kart! Garfield Kart runs at a native 1920x1080 on PS4, and while I don't have figures for Xbox One or Switch I'd be surprised if they were sub-1080p. The Switch version of the game is sharp and cohesive, while Mario Kart is interesting - it might be natively 1080p, but lacks any anti-aliasing, resulting in a jagged image at times.
    Garfield Kart on Switch uses high resolution shadows and textures - the shadows cast in the above screenshot prove that they have no signs of being low-res or have cutbacks at all - and the bloomed-up post-processing pipeline gives the game a very vibrant, colourful look.
    We can also mention the PC version of Garfield Kart, which allows us to run the game at ultra-wide resolutions, higher frame rates and with lots of bonuses applied on top that the Switch can't do.
    Both games support 4-player split-screen on all platforms (or, in the case of MK8D, Switch), which is a nice touch, as well as supporting online play. Overall, they are comprehensive technical packages, and there is no clear winner. It's quite subjective as to which looks better.

    Competitive Play
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    Here's the most interesting argument; while both games pose a decent bit of party fun, I'm willing to go the extra mile and say that Garfield Kart is not just the casual winner, but also the better competitive game. Let me explain:

    - The more engaged drifting mechanics require more practice and skill to master.
    - Power-ups such as the spring add new ways of getting an edge altogether. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a bad offender for hyperbolic amounts of power-ups; the "8" power-up giving you 8 separate items is ridiculous and as I've mentioned, blue-shelling the front-runner from 12th place serves no purpose but to spite the people who are better at the game than you. It doesn't benefit you at all, frankly, in that position.
    - The game is flatly more difficult. Cornering is harder due to the sharp, more arcade-like drifting mechanics, power-ups require more thought and some courses will punish the user back several places if they take a mis-step.
    - The community for Mario Kart is more toxic and people who play Garfield Kart are much more laid back. There is no Garfield Kart competitive scene (yet) (that I know of), but it's not uncommon for people to take Mario Kart far too seriously. Garfield Kart commands more respect, ironically, because a hard-earned race can't be thrown out the window because you got hit by a flurry of power-ups that required no skill at all.

    Music
    Okay, let's be fair here. Mario Kart's soundtrack is excellent. It takes lots of well-known tracks and arranges them in a cool, new way, and even has some original compositions. But Garfield's soundtrack is not without merit; it certainly has some blunders, but has many fitting pieces for its courses. They are short, repeated motifs for the most part, as short as 26 seconds in one case and rarely much more than a minute, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The City Slicker theme, for example, is jazzy with a hint of synth as you drift through a bright and colourful neighbourhood. Similarly, the "Play Misty for Me" and "Loopy Lagoon" themes are predominantly jazz with bursts of rock influence in the form of an occasional, intervening guitar and a gentle bass line. It's not quite going to take Mario Kart off its pole position in this regard, but it's a perfectly respectable collection of tunes that does the job well.

    [​IMG]

    Conclusion
    Yes, not everyone will agree with me. Some people will vigilantly stick with Mario Kart as a sacred nostalgic entity; others will dismiss Garfield Kart as a joke off the bat. But if you're willing to see what Garfield Kart right, there is plenty of reason to enjoy it more than Mario Kart. It can be more frustrating, but it requires more precision than Mario Kart, has a more tight-knit community and it has a pleasing, effervescent post-processing pipeline resulting in a visual direction that is full of life and spirit in its own way. It's worth not dismissing, at the very least, and is a source of laughs and frustrations with your friends just like Mario Kart.
  • TheMrIron2

    [PSP] Dev Scene Diary: Hello, World! 1 Year of PSP development, in summary, and where we're going from here

    I decided to write this up because things have really been heating up on the PSP development server (see bottom) and I hope to inspire some people to become interested by writing about everything. So without further ado, enjoy.

    An Update

    I'll kick off with some updates to the existing projects.

    Perfect Dark: Reloaded: For those unaware, we've been working on a Perfect Dark remake for PSP. To be more pragmatic we plan on doing multiplayer if anything, singleplayer being an afterthought. Development had hit a wall and gone on hiatus due to the massive work involved in correctly converting everything, and we lacked a dedicated scripter or any model rigger - but recently, there has been a resurge in interest.
    I've had some free time on my hands, and I've been working on finishing my own hand-made remake of the Facility map from GoldenEye - otherwise known as Felicity in Perfect Dark. Texture scaling is skewed as a result of the editor not showing what it looks like in-game, making it very trial and error, but I'm working on it. Enjoy this pic of the latest progress!
    Project Fury: This is an all-new and unique first-person shooter, also built on the Quake engine. This project is primarily spurred by Diema, with me contributing a few textures and one map so far (the "Castle" map). It's a game set in the polar opposite of hell - that is to say, hell has frozen over, which brings out many interesting environments combined with Brutalist architecture for a distinct look and aesthetic. Diema's own description of the game, and images, can be found just below.
    STALKER Portable: Wait, where did that one come from!? A small group of Russian developers have started work on a faithful remake of the classic PC game STALKER for PSP. It features a massive map, NPC interactions, an assortment of weapons and some incredibly detailed environments. It currently suffers from some framerate problems on a real PSP, but we have some ideas on improving things - I'll talk more about that below! The project as a whole is not complete yet, but regular progress is posted and shown off by the lead mapper D. NeyRin on the discord and the engine engineer st1x51 is also there. Check it out! Note that the following images for STALKER are taken from PPSSPP at 1080p, so the textures scale badly and are not representative of their quality on a real PSP screen.

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    DaedalusX64: One Daedalus developer has relocated to another server, but z2442 and I are both in the server representing Daedalus. Progress has been slow as of recent, but compared to where it was one year ago, a lot of cool experimental optimisations have been made making N64 emulation on PSP even more viable! The project now uses modern C++ programming standards and with an updated compiler, Daedalus is faster, and the sound code for the Media Engine is now written in assembly (machine code) for maximum performance! Media Engine stability has always been contentious but it is improving.



    Other Projects: The developer of the incredible ground-up remake of Spelunky for DS (aptly titled "Spelunky DS") has started work on Spelunky for PSP! Currently, the basic rendering and tile system is complete and working, as the GIF below demonstrates. The project has a lot of hope for when the developer can commit to it properly!

    [​IMG]

    The latest version of DeSmuME has also successfully been ported to the PSP. The framerate is not in a playable state in any game, because everything is currently chucked onto the CPU and it is using a slow, unoptimised interpreter. However, Exophase (the developer of DraStic for Android and the GBA emulator gpSP) has said that while he reserves his scepticism due to the work involved, it should be possible to get some games running at good speeds! He's too busy to help us personally, but has given us the green light for using his GBA emulator code to get great emulation of the DS's second CPU immediately!

    [​IMG]

    Project Enigma has stalled due to MotoLegacy pulling out to focus on Nazi Zombies Portable, but this has allowed us to re-align our priorities a bit. We will be using the Insomnia ProQuake engine, Quake maps and models for optimal performance now instead of being tethered to DQuakePlus's poor performance (the NZP engine). It is just a matter of time before the maps are wrapped up and the scripting commences!

    So, back to the point

    As you can tell, so much has happened on the PSP scene in the last year that it took a tangent to get much of it out of the way. That wasn't even mentioning the new Counter Strike Portable (the developer of which is also with us), the slick sci-fi cyberpunk proof-of-concept Spy-Fi or the fantastic CM File Manager by Joel16 with new functionality like FTP file transferring. So what did I start this to write about again? Ah, development!
    If you don't know anything about coding, you can skim or outright skip this section.

    The shooter projects on PSP all base themselves on a derivative of the Quake engine. These generally accept Half-Life 1 MDLs (models) and BSPs (maps), but not all of them. They are as following:

    Insomnia ProQuake: The fastest engine at the moment. Only supports Quake 1 maps and models, but HL1 map support is there with a lighting bug.
    DQuakePlus: An established engine used in projects such as Nazi Zombies Portable. Performance is generally 25-30FPS worse than Insomnia, but supports Half Life 1 MDLs and BSPs.
    ADQuake: A revised version of DQ+ with slightly improved performance.
    ADQuakePlus: An even better version of the above two engines which is being worked on with a big performance improvement or two, but is currently closed source. Technically illegal to do so, but then again, homebrew programming is not the cleanest area of the law.

    Confusing? Yeah, we get that. Hopefully this will be narrowed to just ADQ+ and IPQ.

    Even Insomnia does not perform as well as we would like. But fear not! We have some ideas.

    Meet Kirk. No, he's not a person. Kirk is a cryptography chip that is little known, but exists on the PSP. Put as simply as possible, a BSP file is basically a sorted tree full of IDs that point to other data. The Kirk chip seems like it would be suited to SIMD (single-instruction, multiple-data), ie. traversing this tree. Right now, this tree traversal happens on the CPU, and it is a core feature of how polygons get put on the screen. The less this happens on the CPU and the more it can get hardware assistance from other chips, the better the framerate. Diema concocted this mad idea, and hopefully we can put this information to use to free up the CPU and get better performance using an obscure part of the PSP hardware nobody really knew existed!

    Diema has also come up with a few other optimisation ideas, because he's pretty much a wizard who makes Gandalf look like Joey Essex.
    First, he came up with the "texture scale trick". Quake generates lightmap data and polygon information with the size of the textures as a factor. By increasing the scale of the textures and stretching them out, we generate less accurate lightmap data that performs better. Sounds alright, right? Well it gets better when you realise we can load textures externally to load a full, high-quality texture at runtime. So effectively, we generate less wpolys with no impact in visual quality in areas where lighting can take a hit!
    Secondly, he has set up a very handy compiler setup that, in conjunction with ericw's tools, allows us to have baked ambient occlusion, phong, bounce, surface lights and new sunlight shadows with no performance cost! He has personally experimented with it for the best settings.
    Lastly, using TrenchBroom, he has managed to make some very convincing terrain and geometry.. in the stock Quake engine! Using clever vertex editing, some very nice terrain can be made without needing any terrain generation tools. Check out the images below, all of which run on a real PSP!

    Last thing! In regards to DS emulation, currently everything is handled on the main CPU. This means the ARM9-to-MIPS interpreter for the main DS CPU, the ARM7-to-MIPS interpreter for the secondary DS CPU, all graphics rendering, sound, input and anything in-between. However, if we space things out as such:

    - Main PSP CPU: Emulates the main DS CPU, a 66MHz ARM9 core. Ideally using a dynamic recompiler (JIT) for best performance.
    - Second PSP CPU (almost as good as the main!): Emulates the second DS CPU, a 33MHz ARM7 core. This is fortunately just a higher clocked GBA, which is already emulated very well on PSP, so a dynarec/JIT already exists thanks to Exophase's gpSP.
    - GPU handles all graphics rendering

    Then we will get much better performance! On top of this, the secondary DS CPU could not have custom code written directly to it, so we could likely use high level emulation and only emulate the required calls instead of emulating the entire processor. That would make light work of that core, at least. Being frank, an ARM9 to MIPS dynarec is a bit of a long shot, but if we even get up to the point where we have everything else in place, we'll be really on the right track.

    TLDR

    The PSP scene is more alive now than it has been for years. Multiple projects, new and old, have sprung up from the ground. Interest has surged; the dedicated PSP discord has amassed 1,000 members in 1 year! And despite all this, we still want more people and more developers on-board to help kickstart this PSP renaissance. More about the PSP is being learned every day (just see Kirk for example! Even the second CPU isn't totally tamed yet) and as more people hop on-board every day, the scene is growing once again!

    (I'll remove this if the moderators want, but since so much of this takes place on the Discord server, here's the link: https://discord.gg/bePrj9W)

    I hope you learned something from this post and I hope to talk to you guys on the server, or if you have any comments or questions feel free to talk below! Thanks for reading.
  • TheMrIron2

    How to play The Last Story on your Wii online - and why you should

    This is a quick guide I wrote for my Discord server dedicated to the game, which I have published on GBAtemp on request. People are unsure about how to play the game online or whether it still works at all, so I'm posting this to alleviate any doubts and answer a few questions.

    Before I get into how, I'd like to touch on why you should play the game online with a brief summary of the game's online mode.

    [​IMG]

    The Last Story Online


    The Last Story has two online modes: Versus and co-op Boss Rush.

    Versus mode pits up to 6 players against each other in a team deathmatch or deathmatch scenario in maps from throughout the game. Any protagonist or antagonist from the game can be chosen, with varying skills and traits, and you can customise your arsenal of snappy quotes with thousands of lines from the game. Versus does not take into account your singleplayer progress, so it is an even playing field.

    Boss Rush is a 6-player co-op boss fight experience where you team up to face 7 bosses from the singleplayer game. Unlike versus mode, your equipment and level transfers from your singleplayer game. However, low-level players can still be effective by focusing on supporting play, such as creating heal circles or casting magic which the melee players can benefit from.

    When you win in either mode, you will unlock some items, weapons or armour for the singleplayer game, some of which is rare and valuable.

    For those unfamiliar with the game, The Last Story is an action game with RPG and real-time strategy elements. You can take cover and sneak up, flanking enemy formations, or order your squad to cover you in different ways as you charge in head-first. There is also a unique mechanic called "Gathering", where all nearby enemies focus their attention in you - but in exchange, you gain small amounts of HP in return for damage you deal, you can revive your teammates more quickly and your teammates cast their magic more quickly. The presence of magic in the game might set off an alarm bell to people who usually don't play this type of game - it was to me - but it is very straightforward and never feels out of place.

    The game was created by Hironobu Sakaguchi, a name that might be familiar to Final Fantasy fans - because he created the entire series. He also brought along the composer of Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu. His goal was to take a back-to-basics approach, throw out the rulebook and make a new game as if he was making Final Fantasy all over again - in the modern era. The gameplay is fast, intense but intuitive and rewards smart play. Since it takes elements from such a broad range of genres, I would recommend you try it out and see if you like the game, rather than guessing whether it is "close enough" to a hack and slash, strategy, stealth game or whatever other genres this game may touch upon.

    Getting Online

    The Last Story can still be played online using a custom, revived server hosted by fans. The most popular is Wiimmfi, however WFZwei and other servers are equally valid. We will be providing instructions on how to patch your game for use with Wiimmfi.

    Wii/Wii U
    : You have multiple options. Note: All of these except the final option require a Wii with homebrew, or a Wii U with a home-brewed virtual Wii.

    Option 1: Patch your ISO of the game to use Wiimmfi.

    0. If you have not done so already, rip your disc of the game using Configurable USB Loader or a similar program and copy it to your computer.
    1. Download Wiimm's Wiimmfi Patcher. http://download.wiimm.de/wiimmfi/patcher/wiimmfi-patcher-v4.7z (Note: if you are on Mac, download v3.0 of this patcher.)
    2. Extract the patcher and place your copy of the game in the folder. For example, if you are on Windows, place it in the wiimmfi-patcher-v4/Windows/ folder.
    3. If you are running Windows, run patch_wiimmfi.bat to patch your game. If you are on Mac or Linux, use the patch_wimmfi.sh script.
    4. The game should now be patched. You can find it in the wiimmfi-images folder.

    Option 2: Patching your disc copy of the game on-the-fly.

    1. Download the Auto Wiimmfi patcher, and place it at the root of your SD card in the apps folder.
    2. Launch the patcher through the Homebrew Channel, ensure your disc is inserted and enjoy!

    Option 3: Internet Channel patcher (No homebrew required!)

    1. Ensure your Wii is set to 60Hz mode.
    2. Go to http://chadsoft.co.uk/wiimmfi/ on your Wii.
    3. Add the page to your Favourites.
    4. Return to the Wii menu.
    5. Open the Internet Channel again and click on the newly added "Wiimmfi" bookmark.
    Then simply wait for the game to start!


    PC:

    1. Follow Option 1 to patch your ISO. Ensure your SD card is inserted in the Wii with about 500MB of free space.
    2. On your Wii, open the homebrew channel and press the home button, then select "Launch BootMii".
    3. Select the first option to back up your NAND - your Wii's storage - to your SD card. (Note: this menu may be controlled using either a GameCube controller or: Reset button = OK, Power = next option. Wiimotes will not work!). You will now have a file called nand.bin on your SD card.
    4. Follow the Dolphin guide to import your NAND. Dolphin 5.0-3416 and later have the option to automatically handle the import process, but if you wish to stick to an older build, there are instructions to do the process manually. See https://dolphin-emu.org/docs/guides/nand-usage-guide/ for more information.

    Enhancements

    The Last Story has a number of enhancements available to PC users. The biggest enhancement that is recommended is the HD GUI texture pack. This updates all of the user interfaces in the game with high definition replacements. It can be downloaded here.
    If you use an Xbox controller to play The Last Story, you may appreciate the Xbox 360 controller texture pack as well. There is also a PS3 controller pack a few posts later in the thread, so look for that as well.

    I am working on a HD texture pack for the game, but at the time of writing it is nowhere near completion. Only a few areas and characters are complete, but I may post what I have so far once I deem it to be in an "alpha" state. (Here are a few pictures: one of Lazulis City, one of the Castle courtyard area and one of the Arena)

    Thanks for reading, and I hope to play with some of you online some time!
    snails1221 likes this.
  • TheMrIron2

    TurboGrafx-16/PC-Engine: A Complete Analysis

    (Foreword: I decided to write this article because of the recent announcement of the TurboGrafx-16 Mini. Many people have dismissed this and even compared it to the Vectrex, a "GameBoy Micro Mini" and other derisive comparisons - so I thought I would make a post about this often-overlooked system that reigned champion in its own ways!)

    The TurboGrafx-16 (known as PC Engine in Japan and Europe) was the forgotten console that kicked off the 4th generation of consoles. It was developed by the company Hudson Soft, a Japanese company founded in 1973, in an attempt to break into the market by offering something different. Hudson Soft - named after Hudson trains, of which the founders were big fans - began selling and developing software for early computers in its early years, and in fact, they were the first third-party developer for the Famicom (NES) and throughout the NES's lifetime, they developed multiple hit titles for the system, including Bomberman, Bonk's Adventure and of course, the first third-party game on any Nintendo console - Nuts & Milk. Interestingly, Hudson Soft continued to publish games for the NES and SNES despite the fact their very own TurboGrafx-16 was directly competing with those systems!

    So, what of the TurboGrafx-16? The TurboGrafx-16 was released in Japan in 1987 (as "PC Engine"), the USA and France in 1989 (as "PC Engine") and a limited release in the UK and Spain in 1990 (simply under "TurboGrafx").
    Though it was meant to compete with the NES at inception, the TurboGrafx-16 ended up as a competitor to the Genesis and SNES. It was discontinued between 1993 and 1994 depending on the country, giving it between 4 years (France) and 7 years (Japan) as its lifespan - not including derivative models such as the TurboDuo, which lasted until 1995. On the note of regional differences, the PC Engine and TurboGrafx look very different from each other and could be confused for being totally different systems - the Japanese PC Engine still holding the title of "smallest home console in history". Interestingly, the PC Engine was actually very successful in Japan, as its earlier release time allowed it to outsell the Famicom and become the Super Famicom's main rival. At one point, it was the top-selling console in Japan.

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    So why did it fail outside of Japan? A big factor was Nintendo - and not because the NES and SNES were overwhelmingly successful, but because Nintendo punished third-party developers for developing for other systems. This meant early releases were dominated by Hudson and Namco titles, as both companies were too important to punish. While some original developers shone on the TurboGrafx-16, many companies that were successful on the Famicom and NES couldn't take the risk. Hudson Soft fought Nintendo about this in court and won, but it was too little, too late. Nintendo were not the only factor - Hudson Soft handled the localisation of the TurboGrafx-16 very unusually - but there is no doubt Nintendo used their stranglehold on the US market to pressure developers into not developing for the TurboGrafx-16, a monopolistic and greedy move that cost the TG-16 greatly.

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    Under the hood, the TurboGrafx-16 itself is a contradiction. Despite the title of TurboGrafx-16, the system used an 8-bit processor! Some criticised this as a misleading marketing trick - one Atari was quick to repeat - but the reality was it was a fast enough 8-bit processor, and it had a 16-bit graphics processor, so it got away with this trick. The CPU is based on the same architecture as the NES and even the SNES CPU, the 6502 architecture. It was a straightforward 7.16MHz 6502, which gives it a substantial clock-for-clock CPU advantage compared to the NES, which had a 1.8MHz 6502 CPU, and even the SNES in some situations - which was based on a 65C816, effectively a 16-bit 6502 CPU, at 3.55MHz. So with the exception of register width, the TurboGrafx-16 is practically the same CPU as the SNES at its core. On top of this, many Sega conversions from Genesis to TurboGrafx-16 are agreed to be better on the TG-16. So is it that misleading? You decide...

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    At its core, the TurboGrafx-16 hardware was incredibly straightforward. It only has three main chips in it: The CPU, GPU, and video encoder. Compare this to the Genesis or Super Nintendo, both of which had a plethora of different odd chips. It has 8KB of work RAM and 64 KB of VRAM, with a theoretical maximum resolution of 565x484 - though the highest resolution used in any commercial game was 512x224. Being the first "16-bit" console (it has a 16-bit GPU, I'll let it count in the context of graphics), the TG-16 lacked some features in hardware that its later competitors had, such as the ability to have a second background layer. This could be circumvented by the programmers by implementing their own software solution, but the fact remains it lacked the capability in hardware.

    What is interesting is the advantages the TurboGrafx-16 had over the SNES and Genesis. While the SNES could only have 256 on-screen colours at once, and the Genesis just 64, the TG-16 could have up to 482 - almost double that of the SNES and Genesis. The SNES had more total colours (32,768), which is why it looks better than the Genesis and PCE (512 total colours) in most cases. This is also aided by the fact that all consoles have tricks such as dithering to increase the effective amount of colours. In any case, the fact it is a supercharged 6502 means that there are situations where it will do better than the SNES - though the fact that the SNES had extra hardware to handle many tasks means its CPU has more time than Genesis or the TG-16, where the CPU does more heavy lifting. Despite this, the TG-16 had very balanced and fair hardware; the main CPU could do the miscellaneous handiwork around the system with plenty of cycles to spare and while it wasn't quite as feature-complete as its competitors, the GPU was strong enough to compete right until the end.

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    So, case in point; why should we remember the TurboGrafx-16 in 2019? Well, it did a lot of things right; as the first 4th generation console, using an 8-bit CPU despite its moniker, it did incredibly well to keep pace with the Genesis and SNES which had 2+ years more to develop. It was also the first console to support CD-ROMs, something that eventually became one of the (if not the) biggest selling points for the PlayStation 1. Interestingly, the TG-16 wasn't able to handle FMVs; this meant it dodged the terrible FMV games the Sega CD got, while the storage space of the CD-ROM allowed for truly beautiful cinematics to be stored without fear of compression or storage - and many games use this brilliantly. It is also still home to a strong back catalog of 2D shoot-em-ups, one that is still impressive to this day, in both Japan and the USA. It also has some classic games, such as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, that are worth your time today.

    Personally, I admire the TG-16 as a system and I feel I never delved into its library deep enough, so I am really looking forward to the TurboGrafx-16 mini. Hopefully I've told someone something new by writing this article - if I did, tell me below. Otherwise, if you've reached this point, why don't you just give me the like anyway? Go on, it's one click away and it's literally right below you, I didn't do all this writing for nothing!
    Thanks for reading, in any case.
  • TheMrIron2

    This is how capable the PS3's Cell processor really was

    The Cell processor is probably the most mythical chip in console history. Many say the Cell had buckets of untapped potential, citing complex hardware design as the primary reason the system was never fully tapped. But do these claims hold water in any scenarios, practical or not? The truth about the chip isn't as straightforward as a set of statistics or a benchmark. These claims are partially correct, in fact; the PS3 was more capable than it showed in any games that were produced for the system. The issue runs deeper than difficulty with the design, however.

    [​IMG]

    Let's get to grips with what the Cell really consists of before we get into the problems. The Cell consisted of one 64-bit, dual-threaded 3.2GHz PowerPC core (the "PPE", or Power Processing Element) and 8 SPEs (Synergistic Processing Elements) - of which 7 are available in-game. Some people misconstrue these SPEs as 8 cores, but this is a misconception - I'll explain why below. The SPEs are optimised for SIMD operations (Single instruction, multiple data - self-explanatory) and have 256KB of local store/SRAM. This doesn't sound so bad; what's the issue?

    Well, the SPEs are fatally flawed in a few vital ways. The SPEs are able to talk to each other, but they do not have branch prediction - in other words, self-modifying, changing or "branching" code (such as common "if", "then" or "else" statements) is very problematic, as the PPE has to babysit the SPEs when branching code is in effect. This puts a lot of strain on the single PPC core because along with sending instructions to the GPU and likely doing work itself, it has to manage 7 active SPE units. The Cell is designed to compensate for this with compiler assistance, in which prepare-to-branch instructions are created, but even then it's not a perfect solution because
    Let's suppose this isn't an issue and you have very efficient PPE code that cleanly manages this process - time to deal with the next big issue with the Cell: the pipeline. The Cell has a 23-stage pipeline, between the PPE and the SPEs; this is obviously quite a long pipeline to go through every instruction. This problem is exasperated by the fact that while the PPE has some very limited out-of-order execution capabilities (the ability to execute load instructions out-of-order), the SPEs are strictly in-order - that is to say, instead of being able to execute instructions without any fixed order, every instruction must be individually processed in-order. A long, in-order pipeline is a further expense to performance.

    So let's assume you have written optimised code that minimises branching operations and has the PPE efficiently babysitting the SPEs. Surely that's not unreasonable?
    Still not the end of the problems, unfortunately. The SPEs only have 256KB SRAM each dedicated to them, so unless your program is small enough to fit into that 256KB, it needs to be transferred in from memory. To add salt to the wound, the SPEs cannot directly access RAM; they have to perform a direct memory access (DMA) operation through the SPE's controller to transfer the data, 256KB at a time.
    On top of all these issues in a game scenario, the SPEs often had to spend much of their processing time compensating for the PS3's weak, lacklustre and in some cases broken (see: antialiasing) GPU.

    That sounds pretty bad, really. In order to fully "tap" the Cell, you have to write code that effectively doesn't change/branch, it has to be straightforward enough to fit within 256KB of memory and it has to be efficiently parallelised to ensure none of the SPEs are waiting for the pipeline to finish. In a game scenario, that is realistically impossible and the peak throughput of the Cell is unattainable, with the final results being significantly less than the brute computational power it is capable of. So maybe you're wondering about scientific calculations - like, you know, all those simulations run on Cell clusters? That could be feasible, right?
    Unfortunately, even then, the Cell's design backfires. In theory, this use case is very practical - and indeed, physicians used this setup to simulate black holes among other things, and in terms of theoretical throughput, a cluster of Cells remained one of the top 50 supercomputers for longer than the average supercomputer. So what's the issue?
    The problem is, many scientific calculations rely on double-precision floating point calculations due to the sheer amount of numbers involved - in other words, non-integer numbers involving 64-bit calculations - and this slaughters performance on the PS3. In theory, each SPE @ 3.2GHz is capable of 25.6 GFLOPS; when using double precision floating point numbers, each SPE is capable of a pitiful 1.8 GFLOPS (with the entire system capable of 20.8 GFLOPS in total, including the PPE, in these cases). At 25.6GFLOPS, all 8 SPEs would have a combined theoretical maximum throughput of 204.8 GFLOPS; with double precision floating point calculations, 14.4 GFLOPS is the collective total the SPEs can attain in an ideal situation, which is paltry.

    To summarise, in a game situation, it is effectively impossible to "fully" utilise the Cell's potential; you would need to write extremely concise and small code that has the absolute minimum amount of branching (if/then/else etc.) and code that parallelises calculations across 7 chips - keeping them all busy and timing operations so as to waste zero time with the pipeline - while also compensating for a weak GPU. Even in a scientific context, the most applicable use for the Cell would be dealing with 32-bit numbers with very efficient code. So in theory, while the Cell is very competent, the usable potential of the chip is a fraction of what it may appear to offer on paper.
  • TheMrIron2

    Video Game Music: Deus Ex (2000)

    So I decided to make this a series. I'll be covering the compositional techniques used in Deus Ex, including what makes Deus Ex and its successors so musically solid -- and I'll provide my own piano cover of the main theme song too, plus chords. So without further ado, let's cover Deus Ex's music!

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    Deus Ex was released in 2000 for PC and Mac OS, with an enhanced PS2 port (I say "enhanced", but.. that's for another post) following 2 years later. The game was released to critical acclaim and commercial success because of its successful blend of action, adventure, RPG and stealth gameplay and its moral mechanics; you can take on situations lethally or non-lethally and citizens will treat you differently depending on your actions. Just to clarify, Deus Ex released a whole 15 years before Undertale allegedly pioneered or perfected this trick -- sorry, Toby Fox!

    The game was set in 2052, in a dystopian American future. The game's music was praised for combining elements of techno, jazz, classical and other genres to create a strong ambient atmosphere. Themes change based on your action; music will change to a combat theme upon entering combat and so on. The game's main theme is what I'm going to be focusing on here, however. You'll quickly see why picking apart every song would be tedious and difficult.

    Deus Ex: Human Revolution went one step further by creating different variations of ambient music to fit different situations - walking around the streets of Detroit, one ambient song can quickly change into an erratic combat version of the same song. For the purpose of this post, though, I will only be covering the first game's memorable main melody.

    MUSIC BREAKDOWN
    (If you are completely lost with this, you can skip to the end where we summarise what the song does)

    The main theme of Deus Ex (check the link if you need to refresh your memory) is in the key of A minor. The notes that make up A minor are A, B, C, D, E, F and G -- pretty straightforward, right?
    Well.. there's a catch. That's the natural minor scale. The harmonic minor key of A minor is the same, with one key change (no pun intended) -- the seventh note (G, in this case) is shifted up one step, to G#. Still with me?

    The reason I mention this is because in the harmonic key of A minor, with G#, you get the potential for some really nice chord progressions (as G# just "links" better to A because it's closer). Deus Ex's theme exploits this.
    The first chord of the theme song is A minor (Am), which makes sense, because that's the key the song is in. The chord of Am is made up of A, C and E. This image shows the chord being played on piano. Simple enough.
    [​IMG]

    People familiar with music might say "Hey, that's inverted! The order of the notes is changed!". That's not too important, and there's a reason I have shown Am like this. Deus Ex uses Am followed by E major (or just "E") throughout the song (see below). If you're astute, you'll notice something; Am and E look very similar! E just brings down two of the notes by a semitone, or half step. This is called a chromatic movement, and it's very popular among some composers because of the "pull" (or link, as I said earlier) between notes that are just a semitone away.
    [​IMG]

    So the chord progression of Deus Ex so far is A minor, E, A minor, E. And it sounds good, as I've described. So what happens next? Well, Am is the "relative minor" of the key C major. This means that the keys overlap and are very similar - the natural Am scale, as I mentioned at the start, is actually identical to C major. Minors and majors are a different topic, but I mention this because this theme song is definitely in Am, but it uses C for a nice effect. The chord C is composed of C, E and G - Am is composed of A, C, E - so the chords are similar, but not the same.
    Major keys and chords usually sound "happier" or more bright than minor keys. Horror movie themes are generally written in minor keys, whereas pop music is more often written in major keys. This means that C major is a nice "bright" sound thrown into the song after about 10 seconds.

    This is followed by D minor - another minor key, this time made up of D, F, and A.
    [​IMG]
    You might notice something; this is still similar to the chord E! Notice how the last two notes are just a semitone away from E and G#. This was clearly done with the intention of being another "chromatic" chord. This links up with Am nicely though, because as you can see this chord already has A and is a half-step away from having E as well.
    The song then goes back to Am and E major again, just like the beginning. This is the main melody of the game's theme song and it is repeated twice.

    Then there is a short bridge section. This starts out on the chord C, which is (as mentioned) practically a "brighter" Am. I think the song modulates (ie. changes key) to C major here as well, to create a less melancholic or serious tone to the main melody.
    This then goes to the chord G (G, B, D). The reason for this is that it uses a musical technique called "cadence" - "imperfect cadence", specifically. In this context, this is when a song moves from the first chord of a key (in this case, the chord C) to the fifth chord (G).
    Cadences are used to give a nice "resolved" sound with notes that link up in-key nicely.

    The theme then continues to move from G to Am; this is another use of cadence, where the song changes from the fifth to the sixth chord. This creates an interesting, "interrupted" sound.
    The song then moves to Dm (which as I've mentioned is a nice link with Am).
    Deus Ex's theme song isn't done with music technique yet though; the song then jumps to G minor (G, B flat, D) - and this chord is actually out of key. This is called an "accidental" and is used from time to time by different songs, often for the sake of harmonising or changing the key more smoothly. Suddenly introducing a minor chord where a major chord is expected (in this instance, Gm where G major should be in key) gives the song an interesting sound.

    Then, the chord changes back to Dm, jumping to the D in G minor to ensure the song still flows.
    Finally, the song goes to E major and then returning to the original "tonic" or "root" chord -- A minor.

    If this is a lot to take in, then I understand - because it is. I've just introduced music technique up to potentially grade 5. I'm mostly self taught, only recently taking formal training up to grade 3, so I understand the difficulties of learning all these concepts (let alone at once!). So to make everything easier, I'll summarise and provide my own piano rendition of the song.

    SUMMARY

    Deus Ex's theme song uses a lot of nice music techniques to make the song flow.

    One of these techniques is the use of a "dominant" fifth (V) chord. The song is in A minor, but the fifth chord uses E major instead of the expected E minor. This creates a powerful "pull" with a leading note that is closer to the root of the key (A, to be clear) because it uses E, G#, B, (instead of E G B in Em). This is one of my favourite musical tricks because of the satisfying, resolving sound this produces.

    Deus Ex also uses different cadences, which are a reliable way to produce nice progressions in any key. There are many different types of cadences that connect many different chords, but this theme uses perfect (E major -> A minor), imperfect (G -> C) and interrupted (V -> vi).

    Finally, the theme also uses an accidental - G minor in the key of C major/A minor, which uses an "illegal" B flat. Accidentals are handy for transitioning between keys smoothly or just for a temporary change because sometimes they "work" harmonically even if they're out of key. On top of that, G major was used just a few chords prior to the Gm, which is another nice touch - the listener expects a major chord but the song uses a minor for effect.

    I almost forgot -- as promised, here is my arrangement of Deus Ex's main melody. Note the chords (groups of 3 notes at a time) being played on my left hand, lower on the piano, while the melody is played higher on my right.


    In any case, I know there was a ton of information to take in here, but I hope something of value was learned and I hope the summary gave some advice to budding video game composers!
  • TheMrIron2

    Considering starting a series of blog posts about video game music and compositions

    As the title says. Considering starting a series about the composition of game music and analysing game tracks, noting particular examples and perhaps suggesting tips if anyone is interested in the composition process too. Thoughts?
    IncredulousP and VinsCool like this.
  • TheMrIron2

    A Retrospective Analysis of BLACK (PS2, Xbox)

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    BLACK was a 2006 first-person shooter by Criterion, who were well known for games such as Burnout and their flagship engine RenderWare was used across many different 6th gen games, including AAA titles such as Grand Theft Auto, Persona and even Call of Duty. Criterion's own games had focused on a maniacal over-the-top style of gameplay; Burnout was all about wreaking havoc on everything in sight. After the success of the Burnout games, Criterion decided to take this exaggerated gameplay philosophy and apply it to a proper action game.
    Meet BLACK.

    BLACK was designed with one goal in mind, to "do for shooting what Burnout did for racing - tear it apart."
    BLACK pushed the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox to their limits and as an end-of-life title for the flagship era of the PS2 (or, indeed, one of the last big titles on Xbox) the game was comparable across both platforms and tailored for each. There is plenty of destruction, a lot of explosions, ridiculous weapons and beautiful visuals, all in one Hollywood movie-style package. A recipe for success, if ever there was one.
    I'm going to cover what exactly BLACK did that made it so special - and in some cases, some things that even games today don't do often or at all.

    DESTRUCTION

    Destruction, with a capital D, was a core component of BLACK. Explosive barrels, gas containers and other combustable objects were generously placed around the environment. To complement this, ammo was abundant and most weapons had almost comical magazine sizes, with many at least doubling their real-life counterparts in terms of clip size. Small explosives could be shot and cause large-scale eruptions that tear down buildings, sending enemies flying in the process.

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    Destruction in BLACK seldom felt forced. The game often encouraged it quite openly, but it never felt like the only way to tackle a problem. In the places it was encouraged, destruction was immensely satisfying. It felt organic; BLACK allowed you to do quite a lot with destruction, from tearing apart signposts to destroying buildings to shattering glass.
    Speaking of shattering glass, this brings me to another important aspect of BLACK's destruction; physically based weapons. Weapons in BLACK have a physical length and moving the muzzle towards glass will shatter it. Shorter weapons will only break glass at a very close proximity, whereas a sniper will break the glass without a sweat from a foot away.

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    VISUALS

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    For 2006, BLACK is simply a beautiful game. These marketing shots, rendered at 16x the original game resolution (2560x1920, to be precise) are a great representation of the game at its best. Coincidentally, the Xbox One X also renders BLACK at this exact resolution.

    But while it's tempting to dismiss promotional shots as airbrushed pictures which featured upgrades or improvements you wouldn't see in the original game, BLACK's pictures are actually using the exact same code if you are astute enough to spot the drawbacks you see on a real console. A few distinct things to note are:
    - The text on the silencer, even at 2560x1920, is illegible - which shows they made no attempt to use higher-quality assets or improved texture filtering.
    - The wooden flakes flying out of the destroyed boxes are low resolution and hold up badly upon close inspection -- another example that further shows the fact that they're using original assets.
    - Upon zooming in on the explosion's orange area or the ceiling lights, you will notice a stippling effect. BLACK, on PS2 at least, (citation needed for XBOX) utilised a lower bit depth frame buffer (I suspect 16 bpp, so 65,535 colours allowed in total - compared to 24bpp, which allows for 16.7 million colours, used in some other PS2 games where memory was not so much of a commodity) to conserve memory, and this stippling effect is caused by the fact that it's struggling to make smooth shaded colours with 65,000 colours.

    If they were really trying to enhance the game above what was possible on retail code, these discrepancies wouldn't be visible. This is really what BLACK looks like at a higher resolution, otherwise unmodified.
    BLACK uses a lot of gorgeous pre-baked lighting in this photo; pay attention to the rays of light spilling into the scene. These are not dynamic and it would be a waste of computing time to make these real time, so they are pre-calculated instead. This doesn't detract from the effect at all, however. Also note the sheer level of environmental destruction on display - meshes are being blown off pillars and flying in all sorts of different directions. Alpha effects, with particles emerging from the destruction, also populate the scene.

    [​IMG]

    In this photo, there's also a lot to take in. There is a significant amount of alpha effects yet again; note the sparks from gunfire spraying everywhere, the translucent fire and smoke billowing from walls that are being indirectly blown to chunks. It's also worth appreciating just how incredible BLACK's weapon models look; the textures are very sharp and clean, and many weapons (such as the MP5 above) employ a subtle but nice reflection effect, especially visible at the end of the gun. It's not quite as aggressive as, say, Perfect Dark's reflective mapping, but the subtle shimmer from the barrel of many of your weapons is one of many fine details that often go unappreciated if you aren't paying attention.
    Bullet casings shoot off everywhere as you fire as well. In some cases, such as the AK-47, they actually eject the wrong way -- but many of these decisions were intentional so the casings were more eye-catching to exaggerate the action.
    BLACK revolves around firing the weapon, but its presentation is no slouch and a nice depth of field effect is used to blur your surroundings as your character focuses on reloading. Unfortunately, not everyone knew this could be removed by pressing any of the face buttons while reloading (except O for melee).

    [​IMG]

    On that note, upon close inspection, many weapons in BLACK are exaggerated. Not a single weapon gets away without at least one completely useless rail mount, as the Internet Movie Firearms Database wiki page for BLACK mocks to no end. This was, again, intentional; when describing their vision for the game, BLACK's developers said that other games do not make their weapons look or sound interesting. I'll cover their sound effects below, but the gun models speak for themselves; pistols have useless, under-barrel mounts, the shotgun has a useless side mount and the AK47 is riddled with useless ridges with what must be the intention to mount attachments as well. In other words, guns have been redesigned with the intention of looking interesting more than technically correct.

    SOUND

    BLACK's sound design was nothing short of terrific. The game was nominated for Best Audio at the 2006 BAFTA video game awards,, and won Best Art & Sound tied with Burnout Revenge at the 2006 Develop Industry Excellence Awards. The game's hyperbolic nature was taken to the next level in its sound design, from musical composition to gun samples. The game's sound design for weapons is unique, and was referred to as a "choir" of guns by the designers. Rather than having a single sound for weapons that is randomly pitch-shifted for variety and varied according to range, each enemy weapon in a given area is assigned a "voice" with different pitch, so each sound is distinct from the others. Movie sound effects are often used instead of sampling real weapons, often from specific action movies or TV shows - such as Die Hard's MP5 sound sample and Jack Bauer's pistol from 24. For example, if there are three enemies firing, one would be assigned a low voice, another a middle voice, and the third a high voice. This allows all the weapons being fired in any particular scene to harmonise and deliver a distinct sound.

    In regards to the soundtrack, BLACK features a fully orchestrated score composed primarily by Chris Tilton. However, the game's reprising main theme was co-written alongside Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino. The soundtrack's quieter sections often revolve around violins to create a heightened sense of tension, but during the "loud" gunfights or climactic end-of-level shootouts, the entire orchestra kicks in with emphatic brass instruments puncturing the soundscape.

    With a combination of the game's unique weapon sampling technique and the orchestrated soundtrack, the only thing that they could have possibly done better was add surround sound support -- and they did. On the PS2, it used Dolby Pro Logic II to generate a 5.1 surround signal, whereas the Xbox used its hardware 5.1 decoding to use true surround sound. The PS2's method of 5.1 is interesting, as it uses the Dolby Pro Logic solution; essentially, four channels of sound are mixed down into an ordinary stereo (two channel) soundtrack. From there, the game "unfolds" that downsampled mix into four channels again, and creates the fifth "centre" channel by placing it equally in the middle of the left and right channels.
    While the PS2 is capable of 5.1 surround sound decoding, it uses precious CPU time (it has a dedicated MPEG-2 video decoder, but nothing for audio). Hence, it works for DVDs, but was scarcely used in real games.

    GAMEPLAY

    BLACK's gameplay is blissfully over the top and does a great job of comically recreating Hollywood action movies. Guns have absurd magazine capacities - the M4/M16 in real life holds 30 bullets, but in BLACK holds 90 to name one example - and to compensate for that, enemies fire equally distressing amounts of bullets at the player. Fortunately, both you and (unfortunately) your adversaries are really rather resilient. That means that no matter whether you have 16 or 60 rounds in a clip, it won't be much use if you empty them straight at your enemy's body. The skill - and much of the satisfaction from BLACK - comes from headshots. Indeed, upon hitting an enemy's head with a bullet, their helmets will be shot off with a resounding "clink" letting you know that he's not getting back up from that injury. Oftentimes, headshots are further rewarded; if you catch an unsuspecting guard with a headshot when he is near a railing, he will manage to fall over the railing in incredibly dramatic fashion, for example.

    [​IMG]

    Because BLACK is primarily about shooting guns, that's always the primary focus. Except for when you can't shoot any more. BLACK features a few interesting mechanics with reloading. The depth of field effect provides focus on the reload (because as much as I like to say I can multitask, I can't change a magazine and dance around enemies while tracking their movements) and, more interestingly, you reload faster when you are under fire. Another minute but welcome touch. Reload animations are also exaggerated with generous checks of the weapon's slide in most cases.
    Even outside of reloading, when you drops below two bars of health, the screen fades to black and white and the sound of the character's heartbeat become the overwhelming noise, drowning out surrounding gunfire. The large and small controller motors also rumble distinctly, giving the impression of a heartbeat. This effect dissipates when you recover to two bars again, but the game does not regenerate your health past that point.

    In summary, there is never a moment where BLACK is trying to not be excessive. Luckily for us, it's the good kind of excessive. Some games try to be "over the top" in an attempt to mask a complete lack of substance, but not BLACK. BLACK's overenthusiastic developers only made it more fun for us.
    Now let's be clear; BLACK is not a perfect game, and is not without its niggles and omissions. But for what it is, BLACK gets a hell of a lot right even by today's standards.
    MrCokeacola and kikongokiller like this.
  • TheMrIron2

    [Review] The Last Story (Wii, 2011)

    A movement called Operation Rainfall was responsible for the worldwide release of three Japanese games; the revered Xenoblade Chronicles, sleeper hit Pandora's Tower and The Last Story. Often overlooked as Xenoblade's little brother, The Last Story is an action-RPG by the creator of the Final Fantasy series - alongside the composer of FF1. Don't let the "RPG" in the title fool you; this is no traditional RPG. Combat is an intuitive real-time system with cover mechanics, ducking and rolling with none of the turn-based mechanics from Final Fantasy games prior to FF12. The game revolves around the protagonist Zael, who - alongside his band of mercenaries - quickly becomes enveloped in a much bigger problem than monster cleanup - saving the land, to be precise.

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    STORY
    The title tells you that this game has its story at the very core of the game. Zael, Dagran, Syrenne, Mirania, Lowell and Yurick compose the 6-man squad that stays with you throughout the plot. While clearing out the opening dungeon, Syrenne gets critically wounded. Zael, with a mix of anger and sorrow, has an outburst and cries out about losing the people close to him - and his outburst is heard by a mysterious power, which grants him "The Outsider". It transpires that Zael is, deep down, full of sorrow after a tragic childhood - just like this mysterious power - and going forward, he can use the power of The Outsider to divert enemy attention and fire towards himself to assist his teammates. This is one of the main mechanics of the game and while you're using this power - "Gathering", specifically - your teammates' magic also conjures twice as fast. It's very beneficial, but you can get in real trouble if you become surrounded, and balancing its use is key.
    Just under an hour in, you are introduced to a new, very important character: Lisa. Lisa has run away from home - which turns out to be a castle with her noble family - where she is kept inside all day, much to her frustration. Her initial naivety and character is perhaps a bit cliché (which you could extend to most of the ragtag team, with the amusing exception of Syrenne) but is nonetheless very satisfying to see two innocent, pure-of-heart characters interact. This sort of interaction is, in itself, a nice break from the platitudes of most similar games, which tend to swerve and veer around the concept of romance awkwardly until the end. It often results in some heartfelt scenes where you feel a genuine emotional connection with Zael and Lisa - again, a nice change of pace from either awkward avoidance or forced romance.

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    This engaging "connection" extends to the rest of the cast, too, though not romantically (unless you're one to fantasise). I was going to single out one of the characters for regularly dropping cutting jokes and remarks, but really, they all have their moments and the oscillating relationships between characters result in often surprisingly funny moments of cheeky jabs and natural banter - conveyed through what is also surprisingly good British voice acting. It gives the game a bit of character compared to the often Americanised characters and while there will always be those unsatisfied with anything but the original Japanese voice acting, the voice acting was generally praised and the characters were often highlighted as a key part of the game's personality. Zael's occasionally childlike innocence, Dagran's cool and collected leadership, Syrenne's alcoholic antics, Yurick's strong and silent nature with occasional wisecracks, Lowell's smartass comments and flirts and Mirania's special relationship with nature all come together to give the cast moments of bona fide hilarity for the player. In short, The Last Story's assorted team provide genuinely funny moments with their unique chemistry, and the story - while perhaps hinging on a few unoriginal tropes from time to time - does a good job of driving the player forward.

    Gameplay

    The gameplay in The Last Story is really quite unique. It blends a Gears of War style cover mechanic - which rewards leaping out at unsuspecting enemies with surprise attacks - with gameplay straight out of a sword-fighting action game, without almost any of the superfluous RPG features, and it is definitely more frenetic than traditional turn-based RPGs. As the game progresses, you get the ability to stop combat to issue orders to your crew, be it offensive or support magic from Yurick, Lowell or Mirania or charging into action with Dagran and Syrenne. The cast varies and the special abilities developed later on does add some satisfaction to using Command Mode to activate them. The game, by default, attacks automatically once you walk up to an enemy, and while this sounds like it takes getting used to - it does - it becomes second nature after a little while, and the game still gives you the option to manually attack in any case.

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    The game is quite easy, to be frank. The game rarely forces you down to one or two lives, but on that note - you have five lives before a game over, which refill automatically at the end of a battle as well as your HP. There are certainly flashes of challenge when you are forced to use a smaller squad of maybe two or three people, but for the most part, you will rarely see a game over screen. That doesn't mean it's unenjoyable, though; the game is often very satisfying. On a related note to gameplay, the game is very linear and if massive worlds with complete freedom are a big deal for you, then you won't appreciate The Last Story. The environments are well crafted, but often you are just travelling from area to area within Lazulis town and castle. You only go outside of the town for a total of a few hours on a ship and then onto the Gurak homeland. It's not a bad linear structure, but it is definitely linear. The sidequests are usually quite barebones, though there are occasionally optional chapters which are worth playing. If this bothers you, it will probably be a recurring criticism of this game, but it is worth stressing that the locations you travel through are related to the plot and never feel like you shouldn't be there.

    Design

    The visual direction of The Last Story is well thought-out and fits with the story the game is trying to tell. If the colour and lighting were slightly different, Lazulis Island would be beautiful, but the island is caked with a burning glare which, while offering its own aesthetic, does reinforce the fact that Lazulis is no haven. While the game gives you a lot of control over your clothes as you advance, the mercenary band's clothing is appropriately unimpressive. Dagran and Syrenne don a tattered hunter suit that looks like a ripped bib, Lowell's most defining piece of clothing is his scarf, Yurick is wearing a short blue jacket with a plain undercoat and Zael and Mirania wear a pretty insipid all-black outfit with dashes of gold. It is perfectly representative of their social status; they are down in the lower ranks of society, working as frowned-upon mercenaries to get by. When they get their job for guard duty in Lazulis castle in the opening hour or two, they stand out as lower class than the knights. Needless to say, the game looks very good for Wii - and while there are moments of slowdown, the game is usually fine in terms of performance. Textures are a mixed bag, with some being very high resolution (one sky from memory was a combination of two 1024x1024 textures, the highest the Wii supports) and some are simply muddy looking, high resolution or not. The game received some flak on release for its visuals and performance, but it did its best to get the most out of the Wii - which was aging hardware by launch, let alone 2011. Dolphin allows the game to truly shine, but it is perfectly fine enjoyed on a CRT TV as well.

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    This is drifting into story territory, but it is important to mention: Dagran swears he will make knights of his team, and Zael truly believes him. As events unfold, Zael and co. win noble Count Arganan's favour and rise up the ranks, but the game makes a point; even by accepting the system and doing as you are told, you are feeding the system and validating it. Zael and his team are indirectly causing misery for the lower class he came from. The tragedy is that Zael is too inexperienced and young to realise this; he does what he has to in order to rise up the ranks and make a living. But as his power, The Outsider, makes clear with its growing intensity, he cannot continue to rise inside the system while being the "Outsider" and while retaining moral integrity. The plot, at least for almost all of the game, makes an effort to form a convincing argument against the power system, corruption, greed-driven conflict and divisions in society and politics. The island deteriorates due to human intervention and conflict causes the game's design to alter radically and irreversibly; food and other goods fluctuate in value, allowing cunning players to profit from necessity in a turbulent war economy. Familiar environments are scarred by war, and even characters evolve throughout the conflict.

    The game, save for the final few hours, is meticulously designed and what the game does offer is a solidly designed package. However, some aspects fall short. Sidequests, save for the few side-chapters, are uninteresting and unrewarding; scripted events sometimes need to trigger to allow you to progress, sometimes without indication on how to trigger them, and as I have hinted at, the game's ending seems to defeat what the game stood for up to that point. It's these few problems that prevent The Last Story from being a truly special game. For me, these were made all the more frustrating because I was loving this game and could not get enough of it, and I wanted to overlook these flaws but my second playthrough only made me pay more attention to them. The game is only 20-25 hours long, for an average playthrough; which is a nice change from traditional RPGs which required a massive commitment closer to 200 hours than 20, but some diehard RPG fans might be disappointed in the length. There is at least additional replay value to be gained through the online mode, which offers co-op and versus multiplayer for up to 6 players -- and while this still works thanks to Wiimmfi and other revived services, you'll be hard pressed to find many players as I found for myself. (I'm working on it!)

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    CONCLUSION:

    STORY - 8/10:
    Potential to be very unique and special, but the game scraps everything it stands for in order to meet the status quo and give a satisfying ending
    GAMEPLAY - 9.5/10: Exceptional - very enjoyable, unique and a refreshing change of pace
    DESIGN: 9.5/10: A game helmed by the creator of Final Fantasy could hardly fail to deliver in terms of design, and it is one of Sakaguchi's most intricate works yet, despite its short length and strict linearity

    OVERALL: 9/10 - Amazing

    The Last Story has its fair share of problems and unfortunately, these problems are big enough to warrant a meaningful deduction from the final score. However, if you are willing to overlook these flaws, what you will find beneath the scratched surface is a special game. It is a game that, despite its problems, offers rewarding gameplay and characters that create engaging bonds which come together to form an experience that is, even with its problems, a great experience. If you have forgotten about your Wii or your Wii U, or even have the game in your backlog backed up for Dolphin, it is worth dusting out your old system for one Last Story.
  • TheMrIron2

    Please play "The Last Story" (Wii)

    To clarify, my intention here is not to write a review of this game. This is a summary of the game, if anything. I've looked all over Discord for players to play this game online, to no avail - and this game is an absolute gem for anyone interested in action games, RPG games or story-driven games. The game's 6-player versus and co-op functionality both work online via modern-day Wiimmfi; however despite my best attempts throughout this week, I have found nobody who's able to play.

    Why am I writing this then? To cut a long story short, since you didn't click on this for a review, The Last Story is a good game. It's actually very good. After playing it through, I would say that the game has its flaws but what it does right, it does so well that it overpowers its drawbacks. In some respects, The Last Story still has not been emulated by any other game and remains a unique mix of RPG and modern, real-time combat with a story that forges bonds between the characters which make the player feel a true connection with them, woven into some really nice hand-crafted environments from castle to caverns. But while I recommend everyone with a Wii at least gives this game a try, that's not exactly why I'm writing this blog post.

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    This blog post is, honestly, a bit of a last resort to see if I can find anyone interested in playing The Last Story online with me. If you're on the fence, practically any reviews online will tell you that this game is good. It was made by the creator of the original Final Fantasy with the composer from that game as well, and focuses on throwing himself back into that mindset when he created FF - but with experience, new tools and new ideas. So as you can tell, this game is at least worth looking into if you have a sliver of interest. You can play the game online using an easy-to-use Wiimmfi patcher of your choice, whether that's patching an ISO or using an on-the-fly disc patcher.

    So to summarise, if you have even a small interest in this game, I recommend you give it a try. It's worth dusting out the Wii (or Wii U!) for, and I'd love to be able to play with more people online in a game which, after I decided to try it (as someone who is usually not a fan of RPGs) I got hooked until the end, and I'm sure there are more people out there who will have a similar experience if they give it a try. It would be really nice to play this game online, even once, and I'm sure it would be fun for everyone involved. Let me know below if you're interested!

    EDIT: Here's a link to the Discord server I have created for the game: https://discord.gg/n4ybGcJ
  • TheMrIron2

    GAME REVIEW: Perfect Dark [N64, XBOX 360]

    [Reviewed on Xbox One/N64]

    Rare have made many blockbuster video games over the past 30 years or so. Among the first to come to mind would be GoldenEye 007, Banjo Kazooie, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Battletoads... but one important game is sometimes overlooked, released for the N64 at the turn of the century; Perfect Dark. Perfect Dark took the core of GoldenEye and upgraded it, pushing more things out of the N64 than arguably any other FPS game on the platform. It added "Simulants" - bots for multiplayer - as well as a high resolution mode, support for 5.1 surround sound, dynamic lighting and so many more new things that Rare employees estimate that only 30% of the GoldenEye engine was left, to provide a basic framework for Perfect Dark.

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    Story

    Rare were offered to make another 007 game after the rapturous sales and reviews of GoldenEye, but the team didn't want to make another Bond universe title off the back of GoldenEye so they politely declined. Bolstered by GoldenEye's success, Perfect Dark began development as a cyberpunk, dystopian sci-fi shooter in which humans and aliens end up working together to destroy a mutual enemy. The game centers around Joanna Dark (coined from "Jean D'Arc", or Joan of Arc) who is working for Carrington Institute and is determined to stop Cassandra and the dataDyne team. The motivation behind this is a galactic war between Maian aliens and "Skedar" aliens, with Carrington supporting the Maians and dataDyne supporting the Skedar, both in exchange for rewards to become the most powerful corporation on Earth, with some twists opening up along the way explaining the threats of the Skedar in more detail - which I won't cover for obvious spoiler reasons.
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    Gameplay

    Perfect Dark's gameplay is exactly what made GoldenEye great, but even better. In the general gameplay sense, things were vastly improved; dynamic lighting allowed you to shoot out lights and change the appearance of the whole scene, 5.1 surround sound and "high res" mode (on top of 16:9 support) as well as more detailed animations (such as reload animations) and 45 minutes of scripted, fully voiced real-time cutscenes made Perfect Dark incredibly immersive in a gameplay sense. Multiplayer had more new game modes, a set of challenges and up to 8 bots alongside 1-4 players. The game is much more technically proficient than GoldenEye, with more detailed environments and weapons - including effects such as beautiful and reflective environment mapping, a rarity on N64 - as well as the aforementioned improvements.

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    One of the other big changes with PD is the secondary weapon abilities. A Laptop Gun can change into a sentry gun simply by using its secondary mode. The Shotgun has a double burst mode, the Falcon 2 has a "pistol whip" mode, the CMP150 has a follow lock-on mode (which, when used correctly, is very effective)... and the list goes on. Even your fists have a secondary mode, namely the "disarm" mode, in which you can punch an enemy and take away their weapon. If you pull out a weapon after disarming them, the enemy will surrender.. usually. Sometimes, the enemy will pretend to surrender and will pull out a pistol or secondary weapon instead. Sometimes, enemies will have short dialogues with each other. Sometimes, enemies will exclaim things like "I don't want to die!" as they get shot. Sometimes, enemies will jam their guns. The personality in every character adds to the immersion of Perfect Dark more than your usual game.
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    Another big deal is the co-op and counter-op modes. Perfect Dark's campaign can be played with a friend in co-op mode, but what's even more interesting is the campaign's counter-operative mode; one person takes the reins of the main character, Joanna, while the other person possesses an enemy soldier. This makes for a fascinating and fun experience that is quite unlike anything else you'll find.
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    Design

    Perfect Dark was well aware, during its development, that it was going to be a Nintendo 64 game. For that reason, the art style was never completely realistic; the team struck a balance with a half realistic visual direction, which ended up working perfectly. The game was designed to be a cross between something not unlike Blade Runner X James Bond. For the remake, this same direction was cleaned up but still maintained, and this is ultimately a decision that benefitted the remake.
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    Weapons looked futuristic without looking ridiculous (did someone say Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare?) and some weapons, like the Falcon 2 and the K7 Avenger (below), were made up of largely reflective surfaces (achieved using actual environment mapping) which glistened in the dynamic lights and really looked better than any low-resolution texture could have made them look. Some of the textured weapons also look nice, however, such as the Dragon - though reflective weapons were more common to emphasise the lighting.
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    The overall feel of the game was absolutely nailed. Whether you were infiltrating a corporate conference or on an alien planet, Perfect Dark's tone never set a foot wrong. Planets felt suitably foreign, but never too weird, and unnamed government research centers are set up convincingly. This is one of Perfect Dark's greatest strengths; almost every level has a vastly different setting, and there is always a sense of variety and originality when going from level to level. Speaking of different settings, the game's replay value is ridiculous. Playing a level on "Perfect Agent" will add many more new scripted sequences and objectives compared to the basic Agent difficulty, so combined with the labyrinth of a multiplayer mode, Perfect Dark will keep you coming back.

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    Unfortunately all of this design took a toll on the original N64. On an Xbox 360 or Xbox One, you are treated to a crisp 1920x1080p presentation at an unwavering 60FPS during normal gameplay with the Xbox Live Arcade ["XBLA"] remake, but on N64 the frame rate could consistently be 20FPS in some places. Not to say that the game hardly hits 30FPS, but many levels struggle under the weight of N64 limitations and for some people, this could make the game feel less responsive and a bit sluggish. It's nothing unbearable - unless you try 4-player split screen with bots - but the game's frame rate issues were cited in many of even the overwhelmingly positive reviews. Additionally, some levels make you resort to trial-and-error to figure things out, which can be frustrating. The design is not perfect, but it's undeniable what the team at Rare had achieved with Perfect Dark in an artistic and design sense.

    CONCLUSION:

    SCORE
    [N64]: 8.5/10
    SCORE
    [XBLA]: 9.5/10

    Perfect Dark reminds us of what makes a great game. Not flawless, but Perfect Dark is easily one of the best shooters on any Nintendo console to date and is arguably one of the best shooters on any console to date. The N64 version loses points for its frame rate which, while you get used to it, could make the game feel sluggish as one or two levels rested in the teen region for frame rate. The XBLA version gets bonus points for being an incredibly crisp and faithful remake which really brings out exactly what the designers wanted from the N64 classic, with the addition of online multiplayer.

    The bottom line is that regardless of platform, Perfect Dark is an experience that anyone who calls themselves a fan of sci-fi games or action games must play. If you are willing to overlook the imperfections, you will not regret picking up this game, and if you like collecting (or maybe just playing) Nintendo 64 games then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up. Otherwise, PD is $10 on Xbox Live Arcade; if you like sci-fi or action games, that's a bargain for one of the all-time greats of either genre.

    Hope you enjoyed the review. If you're a Perfect Dark fan, consider checking out Perfect Dark: Reloaded for PC and PSP - we're making big strides with the project and we'll have some news to show soon enough. Otherwise, tell me what you think in the comments below. See you in the next blog!
    bandithedoge, VinsCool, MCNX and 2 others like this.