Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Fantavision (PS2, 2000) A Flashy, Tonally Inconsistent Puzzle Game

It's Fantavision!


It's July 4th! In the United States it's Independence Day, a holiday that was ostensibly created for, you know...patriotic America type shit. Nobody actually cares, it's an acceptable reason to get drunk and set off fireworks! In the spirit of this most sacred holiday, I'd like you to take a look at the tech demo-turned-Playstation 2 launch title, Fantavision.

Intended to be a game that the entire family could enjoy, I assume Fantavision was localized to diversify the launch lineup for the Playstation 2 in 2000. However, the top ten best sellers for that year were headed by Madden 2001, Tekken Tag Tournament and SSX. It's a safe bet that western audiences had no clue what to think of Fantavision, and the fact that it appears to be little-remembered (outside of the few who bought it at launch and fell in love) seems to reflect that.

I went with the Japanese version for a few reasons, particularly the disc design


Fantavision's presentation is immediately striking; as a fireworks based puzzle game with no actual character-based hook, the introduction and packaging goes for an odd, somewhat Norman Rockwell-esque theme of a good old-fashioned American family getting together to play some PS2. I'm into the anachronistic, 50's style infomercial look, though some people have said the introduction and inter-stage cutscenes can be off-putting and creepy. And you know what: they're not wrong.


I think it's cute, in a supremely odd way. We need to talk about the greenscreen goofup that sheared half the face off that poor boy on the right, though.


What's Fantavision?


Think of it like a cross between a color matcher and Missile Command! Fantavision is easy to explain if you're familiar with color matching puzzlers in the vein of Dr. Mario, Tetris Attack, Candy Crush and the like. The camera pans slowly over a cityscape at night as fireworks of various colors are launched from the bottom of the screen. Drag your cursor over consecutive fireworks of the same color (at least three of em) and press the Circle button to detonate them in a beautiful, Turn of the Century display of particle effects. Let them hang in the air too long and they fizzle, draining your energy gauge. This is the ebb and flow of the game.



Once you've gotten the hang of chaining consecutive colors, notice how hitting any special fireworks that aren't tied to colors (such as the versatile Wildcards or one of several Items) allows you to start tagging differently colored fireworks! This is where the "Daisy Chain" system comes in. For example:

-Tag four blue fireworks
-Tag a Wildcard firework--now you have a Five Chain, or...
-You can now tag two or more of a different color firework and voila: a 2-Daisy.

2-Daisies are just the start of course, and expert players can plan ahead to get multiple combos in one detonation. Doing this before your fireworks start to fizzle out is another thing entirely, though!

Handy instruction card in the Japanese manual explaining various rules, items and fireworks patterns

Working on a big chain during a "Star Mine" sequence, wherein all fireworks are (usually) the same color

Fantavision begins in a festive nighttime city, but as you progress through the game the player enters Earth orbit (yes, there are fireworks there), a moon base, and finally to a Dimension Beyond Space where the fireworks emerge from all sides of the screen. I'm never making it that far into the game though, because Fantavision is hellaciously difficult and has yet to really "click" with me from a gameplay perspective.

Moonbase gameplay from Youtube. Source: Higher Plains

A fairly robust Replay Mode lets you watch your play from different angles and with various camera/weather effects!

Fantavision was originally created as a tech demo to show how well the Playstation 2 could handle particle effects (perhaps to show off its higher video RAM compared to PS1; correct me if I'm mistaken). Somewhere down the line they realized that a real ass game could be squeezed out of the idea, and Fantavision was released to...polite reviews. Consensus seems to be that it was an average but unremarkable puzzle game, a little thin on content but with nice graphics. Unfortunately I can't find any sales numbers, but according to Youtube comment sections it's remembered fondly!

Regional Differences - A Soundtrack For Everybody!



Here's an interesting oddity about the game: the NTSC-J, NTSC-U and PAL releases of Fantavision all have entirely different soundtracks.

The Japan version was composed by Soichi Terada, an electronic musician known for composing for Ape Escape and co-founding the musical group Omodaka (!!) while the North American soundtrack was scored by Ashif Hakik, a composer whose credits list is short but includes Sly Cooper and Tomba 2. Both versions have their own bright spots, with a mix of funky techno and more atmospheric, new-age sounding tracks. The PAL version, by contrast, is the work of composer Jim Croft and is decidedly more European in its dance club feel. Of the three I prefer the Japanese version best, though all of them are decent.

One very odd thing is the PAL version's intro music; rather than the appropriately goofy muzak style of the Japan and NA release it goes for a techno tune that is strangely dark and unfitting against the visuals. Super weird!

Also of note are the announcers. The Japan and Europe releases feature separate female VAs calling out the onscreen action while the North American version uses a slightly bored sounding male announcer. It's a tossup between the PAL and JP announcers for me.


Skip to 0:15 to hear the European intro music.




And here are the three soundtracks for Fantavision if you'd like to compare them yourself! They're all quite different.

North American Soundtrack
Japanese Soundtrack
European Soundtrack

Competitive Mode



I haven't played it myself, but it's said that the real fun of Fantavision is in its 2-player Versus Mode. Players compete to get the highest explosion combos while a variety of items also fly onto the screen to give yourself an advantage (or mess with your opponent). The western releases of the game got this mode out of the box; it wasn't until the Japanese rerelease titled Futari no Fantavision ("Fantavision For You And Me" or more literally "Two-Person Fantavision") that Japan could play 2-player as well.

"I want to enjoy every possible thing within today as my heart wishes, but I will leave some for tomorrow." You said it, kid

So that's Fantavision! Should you play it? I don't know, maybe. The steep learning curve, idiosyncratic soundtrack(s) and bizarre cutscenes seem as if they would be off-putting to the wide audience that Fantavision aimed to please. Now that I'm older and weirder I find it a very interesting piece of art that you don't see so often in mainstream games.

You won't find anything earth-shattering with Fantavision, but it's an neat little game with great music and an odd presentation style that makes it stand out from the crowd. Get the lovely HD version of it on PS4 if you want to go that way!

I'm also a sucker for anything with fireworks, though...

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Single Player Offline - The Lonely Ritual of Disconnected Console Gaming



On Christmas day 2017 I experienced something I didn't know I was missing--and never thought I would miss--when I went into the neglected room where all my retro game consoles are kept.

Rather than playing the PS4 copy of Dragon Quest Builders I had just gotten (I know, I'm so late) all I wanted was to start a file on Nightmare of Druaga for PS2. I hadn't laid eyes on this game in 13 years and upon discovering that it had not appreciated in value at all, I had to get a copy off eBay the week earlier.

At the time I didn't even realize this game is part of the long running Mystery Dungeon series

So I dove back into the dark, unforgiving and slightly depressing dungeon crawler I hadn't played in over a decade. Before long I was suddenly hit by how different it felt playing on an old system rather than if it were a modern game (or even a re-released PSN title).

Of course the somber, isolated tone of the game probably added to the effect, but I was struck by how much more 'alone' I felt when I knew that it was just me and the game; no achievements, no friends lists, no updates or DLC, no popup notifications. Just a fairly obscure (and little celebrated, as far as I know) game from the now-far-off year of 2004, crystallized in time.

Hell yeah I've got Windjammers on here

Not to get too poetic, but since then I've been fascinated by the 'intimacy' inherent in solo retro gaming, knowing that it's just the player and their game in that moment. This is especially true for adult retro gamers today, who probably aren't sitting on the floor in front of the TV with their siblings or next door neighbors. No screenshot buttons or built-in social media features letting everyone know what you're playing. What a revelation! In a time where we're increasingly wary of just how much our activity is being monitored and collected, playing on a console with no internet connection is almost surreal.

The sense of isolation and inconvenience inherent in all this has become a welcome part of what I'll call the 'ritual' of retro gaming.

In this last couple of console generations players can interrupt a game and just, you know...do something else on the console. Of course system menus have been a thing as far back as Sega Saturn and PS1; but once the game started, you were in the game.

As of 2016, digital games have soared to 74% of all games sold, meaning you usually don't even have to get off your dumb ass and find another disc when you're ready to change games. Of course platforms like Steam heavily influence these statistics, but digital sales are on the rise in the console world as well.

Behold, the only physical Switch games I own. Even considering that, I hate switching them out

For my part, I'm so used to modern gaming that the restriction of being stuck with your selection until you power off the console and put in a new disc has actually become...kinda novel. I really like it! We're getting dangerously close to 'ONLY 90's KIDS WILL REMEMBER' territory, but the ritual of selecting from a shelf lined with discs or a shoebox full of plastic cartridges; blowing dust from the contacts (don't do this, use a q-tip with rubbing alcohol) or buffing fingerprints off of the CD with your shirt sleeve; plugging it in and committing to the game you chose...not many people get to experience it anymore, I bet.

Sometimes when I'm playing old games I'll find myself wanting to do something that console makers didn't come up with for years, like sharing screenshots or video of something I found interesting or funny (the number of times I've tried to press the nonexistent Share button on a NES pad is embarrassing...) I'm currently doing a playthrough of an awful Wii launch title called Escape From Bug Island! (don't forget the exclamation point) and this game is a shit show. Because I'm playing on real hardware and don't have any capture devices I've been taking crappy photos of my TV and sharing some of the more unbelievable moments on Twitter.




badly cropped cellphone photos: how Bug Island was meant to be experienced

OK, I'm probably enjoying this half-assed Let's Play more than anybody who follows me likes seeing it. What is mildly fascinating to me is that the reality of living in an era where I'm now used to the convenience of streaming and screenshot share buttons has led me to adapt those things to my childhood games as well! With these shitty screenshots I've added a new layer of hands-on inconvenience (and, in my opinion, fun) to the ritual.

All this isn't actually a new epiphany to me or anything. Back when my family first got the internet, NESticle was the hottest thing in town (speaking of Only 90's Kids Will Remember). I called it The Emulator Problem. Suddenly I had every NES game in the world at my disposal, something that would have melted my brain back in 1989. If I got frustrated with one or I wanted to try something else, a new game was an ESC keypress and a couple mouse clicks away. I'll be honest, it kind of ruined NES games for me for a long time. My attention span and tolerance for frustration went straight into the dumpster and I just couldn't appreciate them anymore. It wasn't until I started doing it the old way that the magic came back for me.


I do have an Everdrive flash cart for convenience sake, and to play prototypes and romhacks on real hardware. However, when it comes time to play some of my favorites (I'm talking about Balloon Fight of course) I dig into the ol' box of games. Sure, I'm speaking from a place of privilege because I have a big-ass collection of old games, a big ass CRT set to play them on and a decent setup to plug them all in. If I were smart I'd have nothing in that room but the flash cart. HOWEVER, since I have the means to do so, I think I sometimes owe it to the games that shaped who I am to play them the way nature intended.

In conclusion: if you're a retro games fan and you've been playing mostly on PS4 and Switch lately, why not dig out your old SNES or PS1 and re-commit to the ritual? Pop in Resident Evil 2 or relive some old RPG glory of your childhood. If you really wanna feel old, see what's on those ancient memory cards in your drawer and what the timestamp on your file is :^0

Like me, you might find that this is something you didn't even realize you missed doing!


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Ridge Racer: World At War (exploring connections to Ace Combat)

*warning: this is the nerdiest thing I've ever written on this blog*

Long time no see! Get ready for some Deepest Ridge Racer Lore. If you've played Namco's excellent Ace Combat 5 (or Ace Combat 2...or Ace Combat 4) you've probably seen a character named Kei Nagase:


Kei Nagase in Ace Combat 5 (left) and Ace Combat 2 (right)
...And if you're a Ridge Racer fan, that name sounds very familiar:

Reiko Nagase as she appears in Ridge Racer Type 4

Namco's other well known Nagase, Reiko, is the face of one of their most famous non-Pacman franchises. A once respected Elder Statesman in the arcade racing genre, Ridge Racer's star has faded since its introduction in 1994. For children of the late 80's/90's, however, it shares a spot with Sega's Daytona USA as an example of an all but lost racing ideal: blue skies, loud music, unrealistic physics and pure arcade driving action. In the meantime it's up to independent developers to fill the void these games once occupied, but we're getting off topic.

I want to go over the evidence that suggests that the Ridge Racer and Ace Combat series exist in the same timeline, while also giving a short primer on the two characters that the theory revolves around.

"STRANGEREAL"? NAMCO'S ALTERNATE UNIVERSE

 

Strangereal ("Strange Real", a strange or different version of the real world) is the internal name for the universe in which most Ace Combat games take place. It sounds clunky and was only intended for developer use to refer to the game's setting (only one Ace Combat game, the 2011 mobile title Northern Wars, references Strangereal in-game) but the term stuck for fans of the series. Officially, the setting of Ace Combat is simply called "Earth".

This isn't Earth! Oh wait, there's.....Antarctia?
As you can see, the Strangereal version of Earth shares a couple things with real-ass Earth, namely Antarctica as well as the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. The rest are fictionalized analogues to real world locations. In the words of Kazutoki Kono (head of Project Aces) this creates an "accommodating world" that allows the developer to  play with realistic themes and settings while throwing in unrealistic technology (not to mention avoiding the baggage that comes with using real countries).

This brings us to the Ridge Racer connection, and this is where it gets a little weird. But first, a few words about Reiko Nagase.

REIKO NAGASE, THE FACE OF RIDGE RACER

 


Though her in-game presence is limited, for my money Reiko shares the spotlight with Pacman as an iconic Namco character. First appearing as an anonymous Race Queen in Rave Racer but not officially named until Rage Racer (yes, they're both Ridge games), Reiko grew in popularity until she became a sort of mascot to the franchise.

The point where Reiko became a Big Deal was undoubtedly the introductory cutscene to Ridge Racer Type 4. Though some of it may be a little wonky today, this was truly impressive at the time! Classy, sexy, and able to introduce the players to R4 in a way that didn't feel like a video game cutscene -- no one had seen an intro movie like this before.

All of this was accompanied by a brilliant dance tune with jazzy vocals by Kimara Lovelace, setting the stage for the best soundtrack in any Ridge Racer game (don't @ me). Bless your speakers by watching it below.



So popular was Reiko that there was actual fan outcry when she was briefly replaced by another mascot in the Playstation 2 launch title Ridge Racer V; she remains a prominent presence in the franchise, such as it remains in 2018. In later games she even acts as an opponent driver and official spokesperson for the UFRA (the United Federation of Ridge Racing Association, thank you for asking).

KEI NAGASE AND THE ACE COMBAT CONNECTION

 


With all this in mind we come to the 1997 Playstation release Ace Combat 2, and the thought that your wingman would have the same last name as another very prominent Namco character is too much of a coincidence, right?

Kei herself is not only one character, however. Much like Link, unrelated versions of her with different backstories show up in a number of Ace Combat games. The interesting thing is that many websites (likely all cribbing from Wikipedia) claim that the version of Kei from AC2 was "officially" (see below) identified as Reiko's younger sister. Her birth year of 1977 would put her at 22, two years younger than Reiko. That's pretty cool! Case closed, right?

Another interesting point are the references to Ace Combat within the Ridge Racer universe. Ridge Racer 7 includes a gear manufacturer named Arkbird, which AC5 fans will recognize as the low orbit spacecraft of the same name that plays a large role in the story.

Left: Ridge Racer 7. Right: Ace Combat 5.
Even more interesting is this car from Ridge Racer 6 with "Erusea" branding, referencing the Kingdom of Erusea, a prominent country in the Ace Combat universe that served as the main antagonist in Ace Combat 4 - Shattered Skies.



WHY THERE MAY BE NO CONNECTION AFTER ALL

 

This brings me to what a lot of people are already thinking: "you dumbass idiot, Namco does this kind of thing in tons of games!" You're not wrong, hypothetical fun-hater. A big hole in this theory is the fact that as enticing as these references are, Namco does this ALL. THE. TIME. Now we get to the contradictory information that suggests the Ridge Racer and Ace Combat connections are simply non-canon easter eggs.

Namco references everywhere!

 

Forget Nintendo; Namco is known for relentlessly referencing its own IPs in games where they don't belong, and Ridge Racer might be their biggest culprit of all. Here's a fun selection of Namco references! This is an incredibly incomplete list.

-Mr. Driller Drill Land:  One of the minigames is called The Hole of Druaga, an RPG-themed mode inspired by The Tower of Druaga.











-Super Smash Bros For Wii U: Pacman's taunt will call forth a pixelated image of any number of classic Namco games.











-Marvel Land: References to Phelios (!!) and many other Namco games during bonus rounds.











-And of course Ridge Racer, with course signs and cars that sport liveries referencing tons of other properties. Here's a course called Phantomile, referring to the 1997 PS1 title Klonoa: Door To Phantomile.








 

 

Ridge State:

 

A map of Ridge State. Source: http://ridgeracer.wikia.com/wiki/Ridge_State

Ridge State is Namco's effort to flesh out the world of Ridge Racer more and add context to all that driving. Introduced in the series' 6th installment on Xbox 360, Ridge State is an archipelago that includes multiple seaside courses and Rave City (sick reference to the arcade only Rave Racer). While reading a wiki page on the subject, I was pleased to find a map of Ridge State, which led to perhaps the dorkiest thing I've ever done; scouring the old Strangereal map to see if Namco had actually geographically placed it in the Ace Combat universe.

Unfortunately the results were inconclusive. I checked over the entire map (focusing around the equator where R6's many beach tracks suggest it would be located) and couldn't match it up at all. Maybe someone with a sharper eye could? Here is a link to a much larger version of the Strangereal map.

The last two points I'd say are pretty inconclusive; just because Namco likes putting references to their own games everywhere, that doesn't mean there's no connection. Likewise, the map of Strangereal was created for Ace Combat 5, presumably by a different team than that of Ridge Racer 6. Perhaps it just wasn't important for them to make sure it matched a map used by a completely different genre of game? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

"Kei is Reiko's Younger Sister"

 

This is both smoking gun for the two games' connection, and the big strike against the whole theory for me. The Ace Combat and Ridge Racer wikis both state this (as well as Wikipedia), but they only provide one source for their claim: an Ace Combat 2 preview from the August 1997 issue of Computer And Video Games magazine:



Unfortunately, Computer And Video Games seems to base this solely on Kei's name and birth date of March 1977, placing her near Reiko's age. Did they get this information from the developer of Ace Combat 2? Is this an official confirmation though? Without a primary source (Namco themselves) explicitly saying that the two are related, it's my opinion that this may be a case of Namco doing Namco and endlessly referencing and parodying its own properties within other games.

SO! Let's look at the evidence against. The fact that there are multiple Ace Combat characters named Kei Nagase, coupled with a lack of a reliable primary source for her relationship to the Ridge Racer character and the developer's particular love for self-referential easter eggs) poke some holes in the admittedly funny theory that Ridge Racer is about people holding gran prix in a war-torn alternate Earth. This doesn't even touch on the fact that Ridge Racer Type 4 explicitly refers to each racing team as belonging to specific, non-Strangereal countries.

Did I write all this bullshit out only for the truth to be that Namco is just having some fun? Maybe. I'm a huge fan of classic Namco though, so it's an interesting thing to think about. Until someone who is equally interested in this and can read Japanese tracks down an old interview confirming Kei and Reiko's relationship, who knows?

I'd love to be wrong! Let me know if you've got some more info on this completely pointless mystery.