I'm a bit of an arbitrary gamer. I mostly enjoy retro games, but not for the challenge. I like games to be a mix of a book and a movie in that they are visually stimulating but still allow the player to fill in the voices and other elements with their imagination. I'm weird and awkward, if you couldn't tell.
Outside of video games, my other great passion is music. I'd consider myself a metalhead because it is what I gravitate towards most, but I don't consign myself to any one genre or style of music. My collection also boasts healthy helpings of darkwave, visual kei, neofolk, neoclassical, classic rock, prog rock, classical, and of course, video game soundtracks, along with smatterings of whatever else has caught my attention.
My favorite games include:
Castlevania II, IV, Symphony of the Night
Cthulhu Saves the World
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Final Fantasy IV, VI
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon
Lords of Thunder
Megaman II, III, V, X
Rocket Knight Adventures
Seiken Densetsu series: from Final Fantasy Adventure to Legend of Mana
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
Tales of Symphonia
Threads of Fate
Tower of Heaven
World of Goo
When it comes to challenge, the general thought drifts to terms such as the number of player lives/continues, enemy health, enemy AI, ease of control, whether or not the game has cheap shots, and the presence of broken gameplay (bad cameras, mechanics). Ultimately, challenge itself is in the eye of the player. All of the above are basically deterrents Ė a common argument against newer titles is that if you have enough time, youíll get through it regardless of skill. But either way, you put in time, and how much a game succeeds in slowing you down is determined by your frustration threshold. I was only recently able to properly articulate the presence of such a thing by a couple of games Ė Iíll get to them later.
In the shortest terms, the threshold is the period of time a player stays with a game before declaring ďfuck it!Ē and hurling the controller across the room. So what determines this breaking point? As stated prior, everyone has a different tolerance, but these tend to be the common factors:
Death Screens Ė with many games, the player doesnít simply die and reappear. You are smacked in the face with a death screen, such as the flashing colors in Zelda II, Deathís piercing gaze as in Shadowgate, and probably the most discouraging, The Silver Surfer weeping in defeat. Itís basically the game pulling you aside and chiding you for dying. You already knew you had failed, and probably knew it a moment before death even occurred, but the game just has to get its say in the most jarring way possible. I always liken them to a comment once left on my old geocities website, which simply stated ďYOU MIGHT DO IT BETTER DUDEĒ.
Those effing jetpack guys are made so much worse by hearing the musical equivalent of "OOPS YOU FELL DOWN!"
Death Rattles Ė More common than the debilitating death screen is the little tune that plays when you die, the best example of course being Super Mario Brothers. Ninja Gaidenís is particularly long and caustic, as is Castlevaniaís. Again, the cue is entirely unnecessary; you know you messed up, and hearing that little sequence every single time is akin to some irritating spectator. Weíve all had an annoying onlooker who just canít help but add commentary to your gameplay, with exclamations like ďoh that sucksĒ, ďso closeĒ, ďit was a pitÖĒ Or in other terms, itís like hearing the horns from The Price is Right.
Both of these elements expedite the process of a player quitting, because thereís only so many times one can withstand hearing and/or seeing them before they crack. Some games even combine the two for maximum frustration. Goldeneye is a prime example Ė you get the long drawn out death song as the blood covers your view, then youíre shown a long death screen where your failure replays three times. Sure, you can skip the second sequence, but it always manages to squeeze in a second just to make sure you saw it.
What really made these elements stand out to me were the games that completely side-step them, and in exchange, present challenges that border on absurdity. Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and Tower of Heaven are perfect examples of this phenomenon. When you die in these games, there is no death chime, no death screen, and most important of all, the music does not stop. Streamlining the music through the death process was a stroke of genius. For me, music is a massive factor in gaming Ė I highly doubt I would have put up with all the times the Dragon killed me (or to be more accurate, all the times the auto-scroll killed me) in Mega Man II were it not for the rocking Dr. Wily theme.
The worst part of the aforementioned components is that they were so disturbing; they rip the player out of their concentration, forcing them to recollect or give up entirely. Itís like trying to see a Magic Eye poster, and some bastard kids come up and ruin it for you. Leaving it all behind allows these games to get away with such cruelty as Doing Things the Hard Way in VVVVVV or taking away the ability to walk left as in Tower of Heaven. Had any of these titles been equipped with even just a death theme, chances are good not nearly as many would complete them. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the games all have incredible soundtracks.
Look at this. LOOK AT THIS.
I experimented while writing this entry to test my theory. While playing Super Meat Boy, I had my iPod queued up with the death theme from Ninja Gaiden. When I would die, I played the theme, then exited back to the stage select screen. On an ordinary day, Iím liable to shout curses at Super Meat Boy, but still press onward. With this style of play, I gave up after a few attempts. Try it out sometime Ė if youíre anything like me, chances are good youíll go insane with rage.
When I see this, I know it's all over.
Of course, some games have done the exact opposite. Iíve never beaten a bit.trip game, and can only finish the first level of Beat. The reason being is that you not only have to endure a death throe and a death screen, but the music breaks up whenever you make a mistake. For me, thatís the perfect combination to set my threshold unbearably low. I can complete Battletoads, Iíve finished Ikaruga (though not with one credit!), but toss a game at me where itís designed to constantly poke and prod me whenever I do wrong, capped off with your paddle shrieking and a neon flashing death screen, and I crumble.
One of the more potent aspects of music is the innate ability to attach itself to memories. Times and people long past are often associated with songs; even non-visual facets of oneís memory may be affected. For instance, whenever I hear Johnny Cash, I can smell my grandparentís study (where I was introduced to his fantastic music) - the scent of musty books, old furniture and their many cats wafts in from the past through some mental trickery. Music affixed to a visual interactive medium is naturally even more cohesive in that same way. Any gamer could probably hear one second of the Level 1-1 theme from Mario Bros. and immediately know what it is with an instant visual picture and the sensation of holding a controller. Thatís how powerful a game soundtrack can be.
Let me get it out of the way, I love video game music more than I probably have the right. As a child, I held my tape recorder to the TV to make soundtracks, and still play them on occasion. My main cell ringtone is Pokey Means Business! My text message notification is the Legend of Zelda secret chime. When my wife calls, I hear FFIVís Theme of Love. Most of my friends are set to a segment of I MAED A S0NG W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT! And when my brother calls, the Dr. Wilyís castle theme from Megaman II starts playing. When I play a game and like the soundtrack, I do whatever it takes to obtain a copy. If I canít buy the album, Iíll spend hours tracking it down online. If I canít find a downloadable version, I will extract it from youtube or wherever it may be available in some form (The Secret of Evermore OST was the most recent acquisition through that method).
With the requisite fapping off the tableÖIíd like to use this entry to discuss my absolute favorite aspect of video game soundtracks: character themes. The typical memorable theme will remind one of a certain level or an obstacle. With the advent of storytelling in video games, the themes began to expand to allow certain characters to have an aural sting. Ostensibly, it began with boss themes, not unlike villainous scores such as the Imperial March. Around the 16-bit era, we were graced with character songs that became more than just a cue for the player to know this guy or girl is the enemy. They became a summation of a character, taking their most identifiable aspects and translating them into music, and were played at key points of the story. Rather than expound on this concept generically, Iím going to use the remainder of this entry to focus on my favorite character-based songs.
Iíd apologize in advance for the heavy use of Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda penned songs, but they are the masters of the craft.
Chrono Trigger (Cronoís Theme) ~ Yasunori Mitsuda
Might as well start off the list with a piece that is the quintessential ďfuck yeah, letís go!Ē theme. Crono never utters a word through the game (sans that one ending), yet emotes so much throughout. His devotion to his friends and their quest to save the future never falters for a moment. Crono serves as a perfectly written avatar for the player, who also wants to do whatever it takes to rid the world of Lavos. Played at key points throughout the game, Chrono Trigger is the perfect blend of bravery and compassion for our favorite time traveling, spiky-headed hero.
Cidís Theme ~ Nobuo Uematsu
When it comes to Final Fantasy VII, Aerithís theme and One Winged Angel are usually the two everyone remembers. And not to take anything away from those pieces, as they are excellent by their own right, but Iíve always found Cidís theme just as moving. Here was a pilot who lived his life with a dream, to reach the stars. His seemingly one and only opportunity was taken from him when he sacrificed the mission to save his friend, who then became the focus of his anger in the following years. Cidís theme perfectly evokes imagery of a grizzled old man, worn out and strung along by his failing dreams. The song begins in sad form, yet betrays a glimmer of hope as it builds, a notion that the dream may not be as lost as all those years past. It makes the climax of Cidís story all the more powerful.
Ceremony / The Oracle (Thanatosís Themes) ~ Hiroki Kikuta.
The Seiken Densetsu series is loaded with brilliant music, but doesnít offer much in the way of character themes. However, Secret of Mana held a pair of themes for the villainous Thanatos that have stuck out in my mind ever since I first heard them. These two are hands down the most bizarre and unsettling pieces of music Iíve ever heard in a game. The dissonant bells of Ceremony and the pummeling trip-hop beat of The Oracle clash heavily with the rest of the soundtrack, as well as the vibrant art style, a contrast that is simply ingenious.
Moving from the bright landscapes to the misty drear ruins with this music playing is an example in oppressive unsettlement. You never know exactly what heís doing to the townpeople there, or why they wear those hideous masks, and it just adds to the tension. When you finally face him at the end of the game, he turns into a giant skeleton with a pink and purple robe. Sure, the colors are a bit frightening, but the music is insanity. The tolling bells of Ceremony now swirl around, driven by an infernal beat, and just when you get used to it, the song goes batshit crazy at the 1:24 mark. Mysterious, unnerving, and clinically insane, these two themes will haunt my dreams for years to come.
Celes's Theme ~ Nobuo Uematsu
I had two goals in mind with this list Ė keep the Final Fantasy to a minimum of two entries, and make one of them from FFIV. But I couldnít do it, because Celesís theme is undeniably gorgeous. Throughout the story, she promotes a tough faÁade, though often shows cracks in her emotional armor.
Side Story: In my first draft, I didn't use the word "cracks" there, I used another word that apparently sets off the filter here. I spent 15 minutes combing my draft and saving with certain paragraphs cut out, until I narrowed it to this one. It was until I had to the exact sentence that I realized this word was also a racial slur. This is why we can't have nice things...er words.
This theme is one of fragility, of a conflicted woman who has found herself between two worlds, torn by her emotions and duties. Her longing for Locke grows as the story progresses, and is arguably at its most beautiful during the opera scene. Hearing Celes sing her actual theme is heart wrenching every time I hear it. It taps a self-referential moment visible only to the player, who canít help but be swept into this love story.
Simonís Theme ~ Konami Kukeiha Club
The Castlevania series is another known for great music, but not necessarily great character themes. The fourth entry brought along the definitive theme for Simon Belmont, who is typically the flagship character for both the series and the Belmont family. Itís a perfect aural match to Simonís quest. TheÖquest, not the game subtitled Simonís Quest, oh nevermind. It begins with a slow ominous creep: fitting for Draculaís castle, with a buildup that insists more of the same is to followÖuntil that darkness gets its face whipped off by Simon. Itís classic video game heroism at its finest. And the best part is that when you finally reach Dracula, and wear down his health, it doesnít play some harrowing boss theme, the game plays Simonís theme! Itís the ultimate form of musical badassery in video games. Simon doesnít give the Count one fucking inch; he beats that bloodsucking bastard down on Simon's terms.
And I always do the air drums at the 0:49 mark.
Schalaís Theme ~ Yasunori Mitsuda
Chrono Trigger brims with wonderful themes. I could have made this list entirely devoted them, as they all perfectly exemplify the idea of compiling a character into a song. Schalaís has always stood out to me, even more so than the others. She is a latecomer to the story, and only has a few lines of dialog, yet she is a key component to both the overall plot and Magusís backstory. Her theme manages to say more than any visual cues, painting a kind, loving girl who, despite all the trouble sheís been put through, and faces a tragic destiny she canít avoid, still does all she can to help others, particularly her brother. The song retains that dreamy, magical feel that is prevalent in the Zeal theme, giving it an ethereal elegance that perfectly captures Schalaís story.
The Opened Way (Gaius) ~ Kow Otani
I know itís a stretch since this is more a boss theme, and wasnít solely devoted to Gaius, but I couldnít make this list and not include this incredible piece of music. Everyone probably knows exactly when, while playing Shadow of the Colossus, he or she was hit with pangs of guilt. For me, it was this battle, and this theme that did it. At first, the Opened Way seemed to be portraying the struggle the player was going through, but as I caught a glimpse of Gaiusís eyes Ė that look of confusion and anger Ė the music took on a new form. It was reminiscent of reading Frankenstein, when the Monster talked of trying to understand and live in the world of man and was shunned and attacked.
And that is the brilliance of this track. It plants a seed of remorse in the player that may sprout at any moment, whether itís during battle or in conjunction with the end of battle theme. For me, The Opened Way compacts all of what the player goes through into one piece. So it actually makes it more a theme for the player than any character in the game. Itís epic, tragic, and above all, beautiful.
Overworld BGM (Linkís Theme) ~ Koji Kondo
Ah yes, how could there ever be a list about memorable character themes or even memorable game music without this piece. Itís a fine place to end because like the Mario theme, I donít even need to talk about this one. If youíve played Zelda, you already have the song in your head. You can already see Link from the first Zelda game that comes to your mind. Itís a classic character theme by every definition of the word: a summation of a heroís journey, the exploration, the danger, the triumph, and it revolves on a perfect loop.
So thatís about it. I know thereís a million other character themes, and at least a few of them not in a Squaresoft game, but these are the ones that have always stood out to me. Each piece is a masterwork that bridges the player to an intangible character and ensconces itself in their memories. Often taken for granted, a working character theme is something unique to video games. Movies and TV shows come close, but never nail it. There isnít much better than when you can listen to a few minutes of music and the whole of a character and their story floods your mind.
When I watch a movie that was based on a book, there is usually a smarmy bastard or two who canít help but incessantly remark at the differences in this adaptation. They always arrive at the conclusion that the book was better, and that anyone who hasnít read the book is inferior and probably touches their tacos inappropriately. For all the analysis these smug nitpickers pride themselves on, they never seem to arrive at the obvious conclusion, which is that the book is almost always better (the only exception I can recall at the moment would be The Shawshank Redemption).
The book is better because the reader utilizes their imagination instead of watching what equates to a summary of someone elseís interpretations. My favorite video games tread a similar path, providing basic imagery, accompanying music, and succinct character outlines/development rather than pure text over elongated descriptions and dialog. But one characteristic will curdle my demeanor like the aforementioned smarmy bastards, and that is voices in videogames.
To preempt any knee-jerking for the sake of Kratos, Iíll preface myself by stating that not all voice acting in video games is awful or unnecessary - just a majority of it. Hearing some stilted, monotone voice spit out dialog sours a good script and makes a questionable translation unbearable. Iíve suffered through enough embarrassingly horrible death throes, attempts at drama, and wooden narration to give me an aversion to any game where voices are prevalent. The most recent example is Arc Rise Fantasia. I was interested in the game until I watched gameplay footage and heard the voices: the awkward dialog, the irritating endless chatter in battle. Luckily the game does have an option to silence the pitiful woes of the under skilled (and likely underpaid) actors, but increasingly few games offer this reprieve.
These scenes would have been ruined by voice acting.
Whatís the point? To continue this semblance of bridging two mediums, making interactive movies? Are games with actual voices more credible or mature because they are blessed with bad acting like so many piles of fetid shit shoved into theaters every year? I could argue that there needs to be a better sense of quality control if this standard is to continue, but Iíd rather it discontinue altogether. Iíd gladly trade the few and far between for pristine silence, or even just minimal voices in the vein of Ocarina of Time or Okami. Playing through a game and giving the characters voices has long been part of the experience for me, as is filling out back stories. Any good story telling medium allots the viewer/reader/listener a certain degree of imaginative freedom Ė why should we besmirch an inherit strength in video games that cultivates this freedom?
This one too.
The novelty of voices wore off for me fairly quick, somewhere after Resident Evil. Itís always seemed entirely unnecessary, an afterthought to make the game ďnext-genĒ at worst, a misguided attempt to propel the medium forward at best. Sure, adding actual voices does advance gaming from a technical standpoint, but itís in the wrong direction. Itís too often that a potentially emotional scene is shattered by hammy acting. I loved Lost Odyssey, but felt many scenes lost much potency due to the acting. Worse, piss-poor writing can be glossed over by overacting the same way so many glam bands glossed over their shitty ballads with an overdone guitar solo Ė Heavy Rainís Ethan Mars comes to mind as a prime example.
I'll concede that some good comes out of bad acting (or I would, if the embed would work).
Memorable and emotional moments prior to the advent of voices in games relied on maximizing the mediumís potential. Voice acting could be a fine accent to these established tactics, but instead itís used as a crutch. This is why I shudder when I realize a gameís dialog is exclusively delivered in voiceovers. Give me a game absent of voices over something like Heavy Rain any day. Writers and developers need to focus on making a memorable story, an atmospheric world, an evocative narrative, interesting characters, and great gameplay. Let the player take care of the voices.
Originally, I had intended to draft an entry comparing the two Mario Galaxy games. I finally played the first game a mere seven months ago and recently finished the second, which gave me a fresh comparative perspective. However, the two are obviously similar and the only blatant differing aspect I found was the scope and design of each respective game world. The abbreviated version of the never-composed article is that the first had a more fleshed out and better crafted world while the second felt more like a series of those little side galaxies from the first title.
In gathering these thoughts, another topic bubbled and rose to the top of my mind: the boss battles. As I completed both titles, I couldnít help feeling disappointed in some of the major fights the Galaxy titles offered. Itís a stigma Mario 64 suffered from Ė repetitive boss design. Iíve never been a fan of the Nintendo 64ís flagship game, and while my list of problems in the game is crowned with the myriad of control issues, the fights with Bowser are certainly in a high position. The primary pratfall is that the player is given the same exact battle circumstances over and over again. Iíll concede that Bowser isnít likely to be the most creative of villains (though his sequel makes a fine attempt), but it should be conceivable that heíd try a different tactic when one fails.
The slow moving fist of death isnít quite as infallible as it appears.
And with that in mind, Iím accepting of Bowser spurring the same style of attack at the end of each worldÖup until the final battle. To preface the next few statements, I have never played a Mario game for an engrossing story or especially memorable ending (Super Mario RPG being the one huge exception); I wasnít one of those foolish fans who sent angry letters to Nintendo Power when Mario 64 ended with the baking of a cake. That said, the treatment given to the final battle with Bowser in the Galaxy titles is absurd, particularly in the sequel. Playing through that fight and realizing it was in fact, the last go around was akin to watching the final episode of a series and it being no different from any other episode.
Progressively building the same attack didnít work out so well back then either.
Consider Super Mario World and Mario 3. When you finally reached Bowser in those games, he hurled crazy new attacks at you never before seen in the game. Iíll never forget that moment of panic in Mario 3 when the music kicked in and Bowser began a relentless attack. In World, he had a bit more finesse, again striking fear as one had to figure out how to damage him as he floated around out of range. With Mario Galaxy 2, the moment Mario is thrown onto that same old asteroid with Bowser looming behind, you know exactly what to expect. Sure, they change the pattern his fist strike makes on impact, but everything else follows the same gambit. And after heís beaten once, it appears the game is finally dispensing a worthy final showdown, but instead itís a simplistic reprise of the previous fight.
I love this last line so hard though. It almost makes up for the letdown of the final battle.
The Galaxy titles boast arguably the best platform level design conceived this far. Each area is unique, challenging (often to a controller-tossing magnitude) and above all else, a blast to play. Capping off these games which are highly likely to become legendary landmarks in gaming history should have been equally memorable closing showdowns with Marioís nemesis. While not horrible by any stretch, these fights offer little challenge because by the end, the average player could probably trounce the giant turtle on their first attempt. All the buildup over an epic final level, and this was the best the main villain could muster? Bowser deserves better.
Hey, I know what you're thinking - oh great, another pretentious asshole spewing some diatribe about how great/lousy the Lost Finale was with some loose tie to video games in order to justify its presence here. But you may want to hold your tongue. It'll keep your fingers occupied long enough for you to read before channeling your inner YouTube commenter. First, a little housekeeping - if you haven't seen the final season or can't be arsed to read a synopsis on Lostpedia or wherever, then jog on. Second, I'll keep this incredibly brief as possible, but will still include a tl;dr at the bottom because we're all sick of Lost-related meandering soapbox posts.
So the final season dropped the format of either a flashback or flashfoward to both develop characters and to pad the overall story arc in favor of a flash sideways. From the start, it was obvious these flashes were part of an alternate timeline, as the first episode title LA X confirmed. The characters were, at their core, the same in this alternate world, exhibiting similar characteristics that we saw and grew to hate/love about them throughout the prior seasons. Each character is introduced in a manner similar to their origins, and have a mini-arc that accents both their original story and characteristics. New situations were thrown into the mix, causing characters to have new interactions and connections not seen before. For instance, that bastard Keamy had his shit wrecked by Sayid, as did the multi-lingual Mikhail. Desmond joined forces with the nefarious Widmore initially, but eventually would redeem himself. Ben Linus proved that it just takes the right situation to turn a decent guy into a manipulative, dictating jerk. All of these characters eventually work through their new situations and conflicts to unite in their cause of moving on from this alternate, twisted world.
In Brawl, the adventure mode, or The Subspace Emissary, finds the cast of characters ripped from their respective games and thrown into this new, alternate world, which contains familiar surroundings, but they aren't quite the same. Each character remains the same at their core - Wario is still a disgusting big nosed creep, Dedede remains a clumsy oaf with a good heart who is only a villain until he can find a jelly donut, and Peach still can't manage to retain any of what made her good in Super Mario RPG. Each character is introduced in a manner befitting their original game, and have a small part in the overall story that accents both their original game and character personality. New connections are forged, with villains joining together, heroes working together, and never before seen battles springing up in new locales. They all eventually triumph over the axis of villains to unite in their cause of moving on from this alternate, twisted world.
I don't care what part of either entity one interprets as a limbo or purgatory, <tl;dr> that whole flash sideways was just the The Subspace Emissary mode of Smash Brothers Lost. </tl;dr> Sadly, they never unlocked Frank Lapidus.
As a younger lad, I was fortunate enough to experience large arcades in the local malls, not quite in their prime, but certainly a few years before their decline into the dark days of a few busted cabinets shoved into a neglected corner, one malfunctioning change machine dropped nearby as an afterthought, joysticks and buttons crippled, raped of their former glory by snot nosed punks with their hip shoes and music posters on the wall. Uh, anyway, like most future murderers, I always gravitated towards any game that featured a gun controller, and in particular any game with a gun that involved shooting zombies. I spent absurd amounts of quarters on CarnEvil and House of the Dead, and even after finally beating them, I'd always want to go another round.
There really wasn't anything quite like blasting zombies, at least until a certain gathering of mucus-infested children of a younger, hipper, generation descended upon those pristine hunks of plastic, forever tarnishing the ever-satisfying triggers with their greedy little mitts - but their hotbed of reckless destruction can only last for so long, because the purveyors of the arcade are only bound to live in obscurity for so long, and the eve of reckoning quickly approaches. So about Zombie Panic in Wonderland. I've always yearned for a replication of the arcade experience at home - sweaty palms around a controller, noises blaring all around, people gathered around to watch. But really, no game is capable of bringing all that into one's living room. The House of the Dead ports do come close, but it's just a fact of life that you can't have a true arcade experience in the home. And Zombie Panic in Wonderland may be the first game I've ever played that appears to have taken that notion to heart.
There is a backstory to this game, and it has a few memorable quirks, but it's mostly just fluff. However, it's a zombie blasting game, and story isn't a necessity beyond getting the player from point to point. You play as some standard anime-looking characters, who have just enough distinction to make them interesting to watch on screen. Initially there are only two playable characters, the others unlock as stages are beaten, with seven in total being available at the end. The basic premise is that you are in an amusement park of sorts that is infested with zombies, skeletons, and other monsters. Your goal in each regular stage is to get the clean-up meter to 100%. Clean up is achieved by killing monsters and destroying the scenery. At the start of each stage, the area is rife with props, buildings, and flora, all of which can be destroyed. There is also a timer, so if you don't hit the magic number fast enough, it's game over. Monsters appear in predefined waves, with some advancing towards the front, others just standing their ground and hurling projectiles. The player is only able to move back and forth, as they dodge and blast the enemies - it's a design akin to the Base levels of the original Contra. And just like Contra, one hit and you'll lose a life. You start with 3 lives (which includes the vaunted 'zero guy'), but have unlimited continues.
Graphically, this game is fantastic. Zombie Panic in Wonderland is colorful, smoothly animated, and chock-full of little destructible doodads. Both player and enemy characters are beautifully drawn and animated, full of charm, and a pleasure to watch. Think later-era PS2/Gamecube, and you'll have a good idea of the quality to expect. The best part of the graphics department is that even when the field is crowded with enemies, enemy fire, and player fire, I never once experienced a slowdown in gameplay.
Mastering your zombie smasher is a cinch, thanks to the superb control scheme, which takes full advantage of the nunchuck/wiimote setup. On the Wiimote, the B trigger is the fire button, the A button fires grenades, while aiming is accomplished as expected by pointing. The control stick on the nunchuck moves the player from left to right, while the Z trigger performs a dodge move and the C button swaps weapons. It's a simple setup, properly placed to give the player total control. My only gripe in the control department is that there is no pause/menu button, so once you start a level, it's do or die. I did give the game a try using the Wii zapper, but actually found it was more comfortable to use the standard setup, as you'll be making heavy use of the nunchuck, and mostly just holding the B trigger on the wiimote endlessly.
Weaponry comes in a few flavors: the starting gun, which fires unlimited semi-automatic bursts, a heavy machine gun that tears through any enemy with ease, the flamethrower, which is invaluable against swarms of zombies, and lastly a grenade launcher, perfect for clustered enemies. Ammo for each of these weapons drops regularly from blasting pieces of the scenery, so it's always a good idea to shoot absolutely everything. Though the weapon types are a bit limited, the mechanics of the game allow for some different strategies on the player's part. Because ammo for the flamethrower and heavy machine gun runs out quickly, using them exclusively to mow down a wave of enemies will leave you underpowered. But using the flamethrower for just a couple of seconds to ignite a horde, then using the regular gun to pick off the weakened foes is highly effective, as is firing a spray of heavy machine gun ammo to fend off the pesky birds while using standard ammunition to knock back the slower moving fat zombies.
Enemies also come in a variety of styles. There are lurching zombies, booger-flinging zombies, ninja zombies, sickle-tossing skeletons, dive-bombing ravens, skeleton archers, armored zombies, fat zombies (boulder tossing and charging types), pumpkin hurling tree monsters, and even a zombie santa claus. Each enemy type has a distinct behavior and fire pattern, so recognizing how each attacks is key to surviving. As the stages progress, waves of mixed hordes start to appear, resulting in harrowing gauntlets of varied enemy fire. Once you start getting into the skeletons that throw spinning sickles, zombies that hurl slow moving projectiles, birds that divebomb periodically, and fat zombies tossing fast moving boulders, it almost becomes like a bullet hell pattern, requiring great dexterity from the player to navigate while shooting down the enemy. Bosses are a different affair, offering multi-stage cinematic fights somewhat similar to House of the Dead. Every boss looks fantastic, and poses unique challenges to the player. The giant Tin Man was my personal favorite.
Surprisingly, this little game offers a decently varied soundtrack as well. It starts with J-pop sounding tunes in the start, and morphs to more rocked out themes in the forest and somber piano melodies in the winter areas. They aren't exactly tracks that will have players foaming at the mouth for an OST release, but they do a great job in accentuating the mood of each area. Sound effects run along the same path, doing a fine job in differentiating each weapon, each enemy, and each combination of the two. It is a little strange to hear the birds make a deep death grunt, but then again, we are talking about a game where cute anime girls massacre monsters in an amusement park.
As I mentioned at the start, this game isn't designed to exactly bring an arcade title into one's home, but it mimics several aspects while taking advantage of the home console environment. The story mode allows the player to pick up at the stage where they left off, while the arcade mode offers free play on any conquered stage. The levels are challenging, but never have those irritating quarter-sucking moments where you are destined to lose a life. The gameplay is easy to learn, takes some time to master, and is addicting as hell. It took me three sit downs of about an hour or so to finish the first time, and immediately after, I was starting the game back up with another character. The two-player option is a blast as well, especially during the crazier moments.
Zombie Panic in Wonderland isn't a genre-defining experience, a hilarious romp, or something you'll remember and discuss at every opportunity. What it is however, is an arcade-style shooter that just oozes charm - from the cute little strut that the characters do at the end of each level to the tiny dwarfs that meander about during heavy gunfire, the game is full of little touches that make it a great experience. For a mere $10, you really can't lose if you have any interest in this sort of title.