Sunday, February 28, 2021

Obscusion B-Side: Transforming Ghosts' Adventures in Wii Recon: Next Level's 2010 Rail-Shooter Duology

Based in Vancouver & established in 2002, Canadian developer Next Level Games got its start developing 2003's NHL Hitz Pro, the final entry in the hockey equivalent to Midway's iconic NBA Jam & NFL Blitz. Following that, the studio would enter a relationship with Nintendo, developing Super Mario Strikers for the GameCube in 2005 & sequel Mario Strikers Charged for the Wii in 2007. These two games were just the start of a strong partnership with the Japanese gaming giant that has since resulted in Punch-Out!! for the Wii in 2009, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon & Metroid Prime: Federation Force for the 3DS in 2013 & 2016, & most recently Luigi's Mansion 3 for the Switch in 2019, almost all of which were received rather well (that Metroid game notwithstanding); there was even an unreleased Mario-themed volleyball game that went unknown until 2014. This relationship has been so strong that Next Level announced that it would work with Nintendo exclusively after 2014, & just last month Nintendo announced that it had purchased the studio outright, with the acquisition planned to finalize at the start of March. So, in this final month of independent life for the studio, I want to take a look at a pair of games Next Level developed that came out in 2010 that are interestingly similar, despite being published by two different companies & based on two completely different licenses, and see if their less-than-stellar reception at the time was due to actual game quality, or if they were simply victims of Nintendo's most successful system ever.

By the time 2010 came around, it was becoming more & more obvious that while the Nintendo Wii might be outselling Microsoft's Xbox 360 & Sony's PlayStation 3 by wide margins, its under-powered architecture meant that it wasn't really able to deliver the same experience when it came to certain games made for the competition. Sure, you had admirable & honestly unbelievable ports, like for the Call of Duty series, but for the most part the Wii got one of two options: A completely different game that was only related to what was coming out on the HD-compatible consoles... or just not getting anything at all. That was the conundrum Next Level Games found itself in the first year of the 2010s, and my only guess is that the studio got approached by two companies at around the same exact time, because that's the only way to explain what happened here. Anyway, June 22 saw Activision release Transformers: War for Cybertron, a third-person shooter by High Moon Studios that served as a prequel to the classic "Generation 1 era" of the franchise, detailing the war between the Autobots & Decepticons over on their home planet of Cybertron, long before the two sides crash landed on Earth. This saw release on PS3, 360 & PC, while the Nintendo DS saw a dual-release by Vicarious Visions that adapted the two campaigns across two games, one for the Autobots & one for the Decepticons. As for the Wii, Activision released Transformers: Cybertron Adventures, a rail shooter that acted as a "companion game" that took place during the plot of War for Cybertron. To say that it wasn't well received would be a bit of an understatement, though there were some positive reviews that acted as outliers, including one by Jim Sterling, who worked for Destructoid at the time & was notoriously contrarian very often (that's not a dig at Sterling, mind you).

Five months later, on November 16, Ubisoft (&, no, I will never get used to that name being only one word) released Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon for the Wii, which despite the simplistic title was not a mere port of the original game from 2001. Instead, it was a rail shooter similar to (but not exactly like) Transformers: Cybertron Adventures, but in this case the game wasn't developed to act as a "companion" to any new game in the franchise, unless you want to count Ghost Recon Predator, a PSP game that came out on the same exact day as the Wii game in North America (but was released a month earlier in Europe & Australia). No, this Wii entry was effectively the franchise's "main attraction" for consoles in that year & was also the first new entry in the franchise since 2007's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2; there also wouldn't be another console entry until 2012, not counting Shadow Wars for the 3DS in 2011. To say that it wasn't well received would be a bit of an understatement, though there were some positive reviews that acted as outliers; sorry, but no Jim Sterling review this time around. What's interesting is that, outside of some shared animators, the two games feature mostly different staffs behind them, despite being very similar conceptually. In particular, the games were individually directed by Jason Carr & Michael Inglehart, respectively, who had teamed up to co-direct Punch-Out!! the previous year. Ghost Recon (Wii) would be Inglehart's last directed game at Next Level, before founding mobile developer Hothead Games in 2011.

Personally, I've always been curious about whether these two Next Level Games productions are truly all that bad, or if they were victims of just not simply being what people really wanted from them, whether that meant being a partial lie by way of its marketing or being looked at as bad joke by people who really wanted "GRAW 3".

Friday, February 12, 2021

Obscusion B-Side: Headhunter & Its Thrust-Upon Mission to "Kill" Metal Gear Solid

Whenever something innovates & become a standard setter, it's only natural for others to take advantage of what it did & follow that path. For video games this has been essentially the natural way of life, whether it was Atari's Pong leading to the proliferation of "Pong Consoles" during the 70s, Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. leading to the NES/Famicom becoming filled with platformers, Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog leading to the mascot craze of the 90s, & so on. Sometimes, a game effectively creates an entire genre in & of itself, resulting in said game becoming the literal name for the genre, like how id Software's Doom lead to all games like it being deemed "Doom clones" until the term "first-person shooter/FPS" became more widely accepted, or how Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, & Ken Arnold's Rogue still remains the namesake for the roguelike genre, even 41 years after it first came out. That being said, sometimes a game becomes so popular that other games similar to it that would come out later are given a different terminology, usually by journalists in an effort to help hype up games that they themselves are excited about, even if the end result is only similar on a surface level.

I'm talking about the "[insert game here] killer" label, and in particular how Sega & Amuze's Headhunter was stuck with it.

Back in late 1998, Konami released Metal Gear Solid, Hideo Kojima's return to the two 8-bit stealth-action games he had made for the MSX computer (plus an infamous NES port of the first) back in 1987 & 1990, respectively. With gameplay focused around being stealthy that the large majority of people had never experienced before (at least on console), a striking visual style by Yoji Shinkawa, an instantly memorable cast of characters (combined with stellar English voice work, especially for the era), amazing music (even if the main theme was later found to be way too similar to Georgy Sviridov's "Winter Road" for Konami's comfort), & a story filled with all manner of subversion of expectations & fourth-wall breaking tricks (which would only be dialed up more in the sequels), it's no surprise that MGS would go on to sell over seven million copies worldwide & turn the Metal Gear franchise into one of the most renown in the industry (at least until Konami decided to burn as many bridges as possible with its game development staff over time), while also popularizing the stealth genre as a whole, alongside the original Tenchu & Thief games from that same year.

Therefore, while people were essentially salivating over the eventual release of Metal Gear Solid 2, gaming journalists started noticing a game in development for the Sega Dreamcast titled Headhunter. Featuring a mysterious-looking action hero who can use stealth to either avoid confrontation or take out enemies covertly, a similar-looking radar system, & even VR missions (which itself was turned into its own bonus release for MGS in 1999), it pretty much instantly started getting labeled as the "Metal Gear Solid killer" in previews. Unfortunately, the incoming death of Sega's final console resulted in Headhunter being one the last PAL-exclusive releases, though if you use something like a boot disc on an NTSC console the game will still display just fine, showing that it likely still included support for 60 Hz displays; coincidentally, Headhunter came out just three days after MGS2 did on the PS2. However, Sega's move to being a third-party did result in Headhunter also coming out on the PS2, via Acclaim, in March of 2002 in Europe, with North America finally receiving the game later that May. Unfortunately, while the original Dreamcast version received tons of praise at the time, those few months of difference resulted in the PS2 port not being received quite as well, though still generally positive; today, the Dreamcast version is considered superior, with slightly better visuals & more stable performance. Still, Headhunter must have done well enough for a sequel, since Headhunter Redemption would come out in mid-2004 for both PS2 & Xbox in Europe & North America, this time beating Metal Gear Solid 3 to market by a few months.Unfortunately, developer Amuze would go out of business in 2005, having only made these two games, plus a couple that never saw completion.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Obscusion B-Side: Maximum Chase: The Only Thing Missing is Don LaFontaine Narrating the Trailer!

Microsoft's first video game console, the original Xbox, didn't see release in Japan until February 22, 2002, being the second region in the world to receive it. The company was hoping to give the console more of a worldwide appeal by bringing in Japanese third-parties to develop original games, and while it didn't help systems sales in Japan (where it never even broke 500,000 units), it certainly wasn't for a lack of trying. While there weren't a ton a Japan-created titles in the OG Xbox's nigh-1,000 game catalog, only 47 of them actually stayed exclusive to the region, though that still includes the likes of Magatama, Double-S.T.E.A.L. - The Second Clash (a.k.a. "Wreckless 2"), Shin Megami Tensei: Nine, Rent-A-Hero No. 1, & the original version of Metal Wolf Chaos. The second Japan-developed game that Microsoft Japan published, after Media.Vision's Nezmix/Sneakers, wound up being Genki's Maximum Chase, which saw release in its home country on September 26, 2002; this was Genki's third & final Xbox game, after Kabuki Warriors & Phantom Crash.

Though the game uses letterboxing for cinematic effect,
I'll only be keeping them for relevant screenshots.

Though inspired by Hollywood movie chase sequences & starring "gaijin talent" for its live-action FMV cutscenes, the game wouldn't actually see international release until November 3, 2003, when Majesco Entertainment suddenly licensed it from Microsoft for North America; there was no European release, sadly. At the time the game was dinged points partially for being sold at standard MSRP at the time ($50), even though it was more of an arcade-like experience, but this game wound up being only the start of bigger things. As the life of the Xbox went on, Microsoft had plans to release games like Yukio Futatsugi's Phantom Dust & Double Fine's Psychonauts in North America, but wound up cancelling both releases in 2004. Luckily, both did eventually see release, and their savior was one & the same: Majesco Entertainment. Personally, I feel that Majesco bringing over Maximum Chase is what gave the company the opportunity to then rescue both of those later games from their respective fates (Japanese exclusivity & Unreleased Hell), but what about this first game itself? Let's take a look at Genki's original Xbox swan song, see what it aimed to do, & if it's worth a play today, nearly 20 years after the console's North American launch.

After beating his partner Det. Ervin Barret in a gun range target shoot-out, "traffic cop" Det. Rick Summer of the LAPD gets into his 1970 Chevrolet Camaro to enjoy his day off by attending a baseball game. While waiting at a red light, a woman suddenly enters Rick's car, saying that her name is Catherine Stanfield & asking for help. While Rick initially wants to shrug her off as a crazy person, they're suddenly shot at by unknown assailants, resulting in the two gunning it to escape... And Rick just washed his car! Rick now has to figure out why people want Catherine dead, and eventually how all of this relates to LA's "King of Narcotics" named Coleman & an ex-Soviet hitman named Ivan, both of whom Rick has dealt with in the past, & a new energy bomb code named "Overflare".