Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ys 1 & 2 Chronicles Wrap-up

Over the past few weeks, I've been tackling one of my "gaming shames", the Ys series! On my Twitch stream, I played through the first two entries in this classic action RPG franchise. Here's a quick write-up of each title in the Ys 1 & 2 Chronicles + package:

Ys 1 Chronicles +
Even though the version of Ys 1 that I played is a modern remake (circa 2011) of the original game, it still serves a clear reminder of how games were back in the late 80s. Thus the game is interesting from a historical perspective but its wildy unbalanced difficulty and opaque player messaging made it tougher than it needed to be. Much of my time with the game consisted of wandering around trying to figure out what the game wanted me to do next. When I reached the first boss, I found that I had to grind my character up to level 6 (out of a max of 10) before I could even make a dent in the enemy. Naturally, I went into the second boss battle expecting something similarly tough, only to take down the enemy without losing more than a few HP. The game is also without any of the modern conveniences such as fast travel or an automap. Late in the game, I started following along with a guide and I wish I would've caved in and started doing that sooner. However, despite all these issues baked in from the original 1980s design, I found myself intrigued by the world and themes that the game presented. It also helped that the anime-style character artwork and epic soundtrack were right up my alley. Ultimately, my experience with Ys 1 was not a smooth one but it was enough to show me that the series could develop into something I would really enjoy.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 10 hours, 18 minutes (normal difficulty)

Ys 2 Chronicles +
The seconds Ys game picks up immediately after the first (at one point in their development , they were two chapters of the same game). Despite the short period of time between the two games, Ys 2 was a surprisingly significant leap forward in accessibility. While the labyrinthine dungeons and lack of automap are still there, I was happy to find that the difficulty scaled in a manageable way and that the game did a much better job of informing the player of their next objective. As a result, the second entry of this action RPG series flowed much better even though the game world was larger and the quest was longer. After having adapted to the sudden difficulty spikes of Ys 1, there were actually some cases in Ys 2 where I was over-prepared for boss battles and ended up finishing them much faster than I expected. The "bump combat" system, carried over from the first game is a bit more lenient in Ys 2, though it's still easy to for a bad angle of attack or getting pinned by two enemies to result in nearly instant death. Bump combat was a fun thing to try in the beginning of the series, but I'm glad Ys moved on from it in later installments. Overall the game retained the elements from Ys 1 that I liked while smoothing out many of the issues that I had (at least to the extent one could expect in 1988). Assuming this cycle of refinements built upon a strong basic action RPG foundation continued as the series progressed, I'm pretty excited to play a more recent entry in the Ys saga.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 12 hours, 42 minutes (normal difficulty)

If you're trying to decide if the Ys games are for you, I'd suggest watching the intro video to Ys 2. If that combination of high fantasy vistas, anime characters, and power metal makes you feel something, you should probably give Ys a try.

In addition to the PC version that I played, there are also PSP and mobile versions of Ys 1 & 2 Chronicles.

Disclosure: The Amazon links on this page are monetized affiliate links.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Blossom Tales Review

After modding my Joycon earlier this month, I found myself looking for something brief, 2D, and action-oriented to break in my newly installed D-pad. Since the indie Zelda-like game, Blossom Tales, had recently been getting a lot of buzz on Twitter, I decided to pick it up on the eShop. Here are my thoughts on this little retro-style adventure now that I’ve finished the campaign:
  • Right off the bat, Blossom Tales makes it very clear that it’s inspired by The Legend of Zelda series, especially A Link to the Past. Anyone with prior 2D Zelda experience will immediately be familiar with the move set, items, structure, and overall visual language of Blossom Tales.
  • If you’re gonna copy A Link to the Past, one of the most revered video games of all time, you better get it right. To studio Castle Pixel’s credit, they got it right. Blossom Tales legitimately feels like a Zelda game and I occasionally had to remind myself that it wasn’t one.
  • When exploring the overworld in Blossom Tales, I kept finding myself getting sidetracked. I’d be on the way to the next quest objective, only to find myself asking “I wonder what’s over there?”. Thirty minutes and several heart pieces later, I would suddenly remember that I was on a quest to save the kingdom and get back on the path. This is a sign of good Zelda design.
  • The dungeons in Blossom Tales are a little more straight-forward than A Link to the Past dungeons, more like NES or Gameboy Zelda dungeons. Each of the game’s four dungeons are a single-story maze of rooms and halls with enemies to fight, switches to flip, and puzzles to solve but the progression is mostly linear. I never got lost or stuck in a Blossom Tales dungeon, so the challenge mostly came from individual puzzles and enemies or navigating precarious platforms rather than the overall structure of a dungeon.
  • There are only three or four basic types of puzzles in Blossom Tales and the player is introduced to all of them fairly early in the game. The puzzles scale well in difficulty as the game progresses but I think they would feel too repetitive if the game was much longer.
  • Blossom Tales’ bosses depart from the Zelda formula in that they rely less on puzzle-solving and more on avoiding a bullet hell-style barrage of attacks. As someone who enjoys bullet hell games and has been finding the Zelda’s “expose the weakness” format to be a little stale, this was a welcome change.
  • Regarding combat, the game starts off moderately difficult, probably a step above the 2D Zelda games. However, as the adventure progresses there are ample opportunities get heart pieces, healing items, and weapon upgrades that can take the edge off. In my case, I may have gone overboard with scouring the map for upgrades and ended up making the endgame easier that it was supposed to be.
  • I had a few minor nits to pick with the game’s user interface. While you can remap the controls, the game forces you to map the “accept” and “sword” commands to the same button. In A Link to the Past, the “sword” command shares a button with “cancel”. Since Blossom Tales is otherwise so closely mirrors Zelda, it took me a while to get used to this difference. It also would’ve been nice if the game’s inventory screen provided a description of what each item does (it gets explained once when you get the item, and that’s it). I forgot what several of the non-Zelda-based items did and underutilized them as a result.
  • With so many aspects of the game that emulate Zelda, Blossom Tales uses its writing to set itself apart from its inspiration. The game begins with a grandfather telling a story of knights and magic to his grandchildren; the player plays through this story as its told. As a result, the grandfather’s narration and the interjections of his grandkids (in the form of text boxes) both provide the player with direction as well amusing commentary. In addition to the frame story, NPC’s also sometimes say surprising and humorous things. I really appreciated this little bit of extra personality.
  • For Blossom Tale’s music, they went for a Gameboyish sound that fits well with the game’s mood even though the sound is more retro than the game looks. However, like most modern chiptune soundtracks the audio features embellishments beyond what classic sound hardware could output.
  • While at first glance, the graphics might look pretty similar to a retro Zelda game, Blossom Tales uses a wider color pallet and modern effects (lighting, particles, etc) to give it a little extra pop. While some of the character sprites look almost too geometric for my taste, I really like how vibrant the world looks. Little features like butterflies and flowers are a nice touch.
The bottom line: If you’ve been craving a new 2D Zelda game, you owe it to yourself to check out Blossom Tales. It may not hit the lofty heights of its inspiration, but it certainly does an admirable job. Studio Castle Pixel has shown that they know how to make a quality action-adventure game and I'm hoping to see something more ambitious and original from them in the future.
Completion Time: 11 hours, 6 minutes (main campaign and most collectables)
Note: In addition to the Nintendo Switch version that I played, Blossom Tales is also available for Windows.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Ease into Ys

It's been too long since I've tackled a Gaming Shame or done a Twitch stream, so I'll be killing two birds with one stone with my new series "Ease into Ys"! I'm on a roll with Zelda-like games after coming off Blossom Tales, so I'm taking this opportunity to finally dig into Falcom's classic action-RPG series! I have zero prior experience with the Ys franchise, so I decided to start at the beginning with Ys 1 & 2 Chronicles.

Streams will start this evening on my Twitch channel. I'll be announcing each individual streaming session on Twitter, so be sure to check there if you'd like to know when to tune in!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Joycon Modding

As a launch day Switch owner, I’ve spent a lot of time with my drab, grey, and somewhat unreliable pair of Joycon. Lately, I’ve been seeing flashy new colors and designs of Joycon (some of which include real D-pads!) that have been turning me green with envy. However, these Joycon I’ve been seeing aren’t off-the-shelf models from Nintendo but are the result of mods using aftermarket parts. When the mod kits went on sale recently, I couldn’t resist.

My launch day Joycon before modding. They were due for an overhaul.
I went into this mod to address two nagging issues I’ve had with my Joycon: the left Joycon desynchronizing from the console and the lack of a proper D-pad.

While for many people the desynchronization issue was a chronic problem, for me it cropped up very infrequently and not in a manner that was repeatable. I lost a few lives in Zelda here and there as a result, but it wasn’t quite irritating enough for me to go through the hassle of sending the buggy controller to Nintendo for warranty repair. The problem is caused by electronic interference or static electricity disrupting the antenna on the left Joycon. Nintendo’s official fix is to insert a small piece of conductive foam on top of the antenna to prevent this disruption from happening.

Regarding the D-pad, I’ve been getting by with the directional buttons on the Joycon or opting to use a Pro-controller. The recent wave of challenging 2D indie platformers on Switch has changed my mind, however. A D-pad would have been especially useful when I did my handheld playthrough of Celeste.

The Process
For my supplies, I picked up the Basstop transparent blue Joycon kit with D-pad and the Keten Nintendo screwdriver set. The screwdriver set was necessary because the exterior screws on the Joycon have unusual tri-wing heads. Once the case is open, the interior screws are Philips' head so any set of very small screwdrivers will work from that point forward. The overall process is to disassemble the Joycon, transfer all the internal electronics to the new Basstop casing, add some shielding to the antenna, replace the directional buttons with the new D-pad, and then reassemble.

Left Joycon completely disassembled
Opening the Joycon was both a fascinating and overwhelming process. The sheer amount of components crammed into such as tiny space is truly a marvel. This also makes disassembly and reassembly a slow and tedious process; losing or breaking one of the many tiny pieces is an easy thing to do if you’re not cautious. There are two things that I would highly recommend when going into this process: carefully study a video showing the assembly process (I suggest this one from IGN) and use a good pair of needle-nose tweezers to handle the small parts, especially the ribbon cables. Unfortunately, I didn’t have such a pair of needle-nose tweezers, so I had to make due with the ones you see below and my own short stubby fingers.

Trusty tweezers for many things but less than ideal for electronics repair.
While I'm pretty good at keeping track of small screws and delicately handling components, removing and then reinstalling the ribbon cables and trigger springs proved to be especially tricky. When it came to the antenna repair, the official Nintendo solution is to use conductive foam; however, much to my dismay, none of the foam I had laying around the house was actually conductive. The other options that people on Reddit claimed have worked are static-dissipating foam (such as comes packaged with a graphics card) and anti-static plastic (e.g. the baggie that hard drives come in). As somebody who builds and modifies PCs, I happened to have both of these materials laying around, so I decided to hedge my bets by using both materials together; I placed a small piece of an anti-static bag on top the antenna and then used a little chunk of graphics card package foam to hold it in place. 

Ironically the fix for my state-of-the-art controller was something that most people just throw in the garbage.
Putting the whole thing back together again proved to be no small task. The Basstop shells are remarkably accurate to the original Joycon shells but are not quite perfect. Specifically, the screw holes are not pre-threaded so the tiny little screws must be driven very carefully to get them to twist into place straight without stripping the heads. Despite the challenges, after a little over five hours (split between two evenings) of delicate work, the process was complete.

The Result

My Joycon after the mod was complete
It may have been much more involved effort than I originally expected, but I think the fruits of my labor came out looking fantastic. The feel of the Basstop parts is noticeably different than those made by Nintendo but still feels high quality. Even though the texture of the Basstop shells is smoother than the original Joycon casings, they thankfully don't show fingerprints. The new D-pad is definitely an improvement over the original directional buttons but since it uses the same four microswitches as the buttons, it still has a clicky segmented feel. In games, though, it responds the way I would expect from a D-pad so I'm happy. Regarding the antenna fix, I haven't played much in docked mode yet, but so far I haven't run into any issues and the wireless connection seems very stable.

While the aesthetics are excellent and the quality is quite high, I did have some minor quibbles with the final fit of the parts. There is a slight mismatch between the upper and lower shell on my right Joycon that causes there to be a small gap between the two halves. I initially thought this was an error on my part but reading through Amazon reviews show that many other modders noticed the same issue. This misfit is minor enough that most people won't notice it but it did bug me a little at first. I suspect there was a small piece of excess plastic somewhere left over from the mold that I would have had to shave off to get a perfect fit. Also, the face buttons feel a little stiffer than they did before but they've been loosening up as I use them, so they might just need to break in.

Overall, I'm happy with the results of this project and as somebody that is inclined to tinker, I found it to be an enjoyable yet challenging endeavor. However, this is definitely not something for everyone, so make sure you have the time and patience before getting into it. If you decided that you're up for the challenge, the Basstop parts can be ordered from Amazon.

PS: Don't be a chump like me, remember to pick up some needle-nose tweezers!

I really like the look of the blue and black together, so I elected to keep the original ABXY buttons rather than install the colorful Basstop ones.

Note: Since a lot of the games and accessories I write about can be purchased on Amazon, I decided to join the Amazon affiliates program. This program monetizes the Amazon links in my posts. That being said, the presence of the links does not influence the content on this site or the opinions and review scores that I give. 
Starting with this post, the following disclosure applies:
Tales from the Backlog is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.