The difference between clever and cunning.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Slave Zero Retro Review

Nostalgia can be a powerful, if misleading force. It colors our memories of the past as it shapes our perception of the present. Games and other pieces of media that are fondly remembered do not always hold up under the harsh glare of today’s expectations. 

I first played Slave Zero not long after it came out, in the distant past of 2000 or so. I recall it as having been fun if not particularly deep, and still have fond memories of the game. The game didn’t make much in the way of an impact, and it’s not really remembered as a classic (or much at all) these days. Let’s take a look and see what remains once we’ve peeled away the nostalgia.

Get in the Robot, Chan

Slave Zero’s plot is simple comic book pulp, mostly developed through people yelling at you only to be drowned out by the soundtrack and thunder of combat. The evil SovKhan rules an enormous futuristic eastern-flavored megacity. You play as Chan, a member of an organization called the Guardians that is attempting to overthrow the SovKhan, for reasons.  

Tiny helicopters and tanks oppose you in the early game.
Since the SovKhan has an army of giant robots, and what few Guardians we see are armed with sticks, the Guardians steal the SovKhan’s prototype weapon to even things up. Chan pilots (becomes?) Zero, the first of a line of giant biomechanical war machines called Slaves. For an entity made of so few polygons Zero projects a surprising level of personality between his eternal smirk and swaggering, simian lope. 

A few throwaway lines imply that Chan is permanently fused to Zero somehow, but this is never further developed or explained. This is too bad. Sacrificing your humanity to become a giant fighting machine could have been a fascinating concept to build a story around, but such narrative finesse is beyond a game this big and loud. 

The soundtrack holds up well. A collection of thumping techno with strong organic bass serves as perfect accompaniment to the giant robot on giant robot violence, helping to bring the neon cityscape to life. Give it a listen here.

Built to Scale

Let's be upfront. By modern graphical standards this is an ugly game. Textures are often muddy and polygons scarce. Where Slave Zero succeeds, even despite the obvious technical limitations of the era, is in giving the action a sense of size and scope. 

Tiny cars valiantly attempting to commute through a robot war-zone.
The ground shakes beneath Zero’s mighty swaggering stride while tiny low-poly humans cower and flee. Cars wreck harmlessly against his massive feet as he crosses busy freeways. The helicopters, jets, and tanks that assail you in the early game are as toylike as they are ineffective. Vehicles and other debris can be scooped up and flung like baseballs.

Amusingly the massive civilian casualties and collateral damage your battles through the city must be causing are never mentioned or addressed. Still, nobody ever won a revolution without inflicting a healthy amount of carnage and horror upon the people the revolution is ostensibly being fought for. 

The city has a way of dwarfing even Zero.
 The bulk of your opposition consists of robots Zero’s size and larger. Often much larger. A generous helping of destructible buildings and other elements about Zero’s size further deliver a sense of the firepower getting tossed around. Finally the massive, colorful neo-Tokyo cityscape towers over everything, making even you and your ten story opponents seem insignificant.

Kauju War

Gameplay is not complex. You thunder through highly linear levels, destroying everything in your path. Exploration is minimal and backtracking almost non-existent. Occasional arenas halt forward progress until you explode every other giant robot in the vicinity. Irregular platforming has Zero hopping from skyscraper to skyscraper while rare static segments charge you with destroying or defending something while waves of enemy reinforcement pour in. 

Don't stand in front of these guys...
Enemy AI is weak and most foes are not very mobile. Fragile hovering mechs seek you out and harry you from above while heavier units unleash blistering firepower from fixed positions. Zero’s not really nimble enough to dodge, so you must seek cover and retaliate between barrages. While you can occasionally pick the enemy to pieces with the railgun sniper solid level design and enemy placement keeps combat engaging. 

...because they do that.
Zero can carry a mere three weapons at a time, swapping between handheld bullet and energy guns while firing missiles from a shoulder mounted launcher. Aside from a succession of bigger, louder guns (some so comically oversized they are nearly the size of Zero himself) there is no character progression or upgrade system. While the arsenal is satisfyingly destructive simply grabbing the next biggest gun you find is not always the best option. 

Logistical Errors

The sheer rate at which they burn through ammo makes most of the high tier weapons impractical. The giant beam cannon, for example, consumes your entire stock of energy in about two seconds. Supplies are normally so plentiful this isn’t a big deal, but a number of major fights trap you in an arena with a giant damage sponge and a limited number of pickups. There’s simply not enough ammo in many encounters to win if you are carrying the most powerful but inefficient weapons. 

There’s no garage or armory function to let you tweak your loadout between levels. The practical result of all this is that pressing forward with the wrong weapons can render some fights, indeed the game itself, un-winnable. Indeed, I’m honestly not sure there is enough ammo to beat the final boss on hard.  For a game based around using big, simple, powerful weapons to destroy everything in sight discouraging the use of the biggest and most powerful is a bizarre design decision, bordering on a major flaw. 

It's lonely at the top of a miles high city. Watch you step.
Boss fights are (as they should be) among the game’s most memorable encounters. Each pits you against a massive enemy Slave that dwarfs Zero. One boss fight sees you climbing a vertical chamber flooding with lethal acid while the hovering boss blasts away at you from the center. Another gives you an extremely limited number of skyscrapers to safely stand on, which the boss steadily demolishes over the course of your duel. Managing ammo supplies and collecting more without wasting it is at least as important in these encounters as dodging attacks. 

Code Rot

The inevitable change of hardware and software over time have left Slave Zero with some considerable technical issues. Downloading the latest version of nGlide helped remove the savage stuttering the game suffered from, but I could never fix the resolution so my shots didn’t pull to the left of my crosshair. This made long range sniping difficult and broke homing missiles entirely. 

More seriously Slave Zero crashed every time I got close to or took a shot at a specific kind of late-game enemy. I couldn’t find a technical fix and this bug almost scrapped my run of the game.  Fortunately there weren’t many of this particular enemy and a few dozen crashes and some weird footwork was enough to get me past them. 

The sewers are visually dull and full of robot spiders.

Slave Zero is not a long or complex game. You can probably blow through it in a weekend or less. The core gameplay is simple and accessible enough that it holds up today. Other games attempting to convey a sense of relative size and scale between giant characters and environments should look at what Slave Zero accomplishes even with its technical limitations. As a gaming artifact it provides an excellent example of big, dumb, loud fun, left dangerously close to unplayable on a modern machine by the march of time. 

Reasons to play: Game sells the sense of size and scope of being a giant robot. Thumping techno soundtrack. 

Reasons to pass: Simple gameplay and weird weapon/ammo balance. Serious technical glitches on modern machines.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Short Games Double Review

It's been a while since I last updated this blog, but unfortunately I haven't had as much time for gaming as I'd like. If you find yourself with a similarly busy schedule here's a few more short games that can be enjoyed to completion without committing to an epic six-month slog.

Spirits of Xanadu is a first person, minimalist sci-fi horror game. There’s a bit of shooting, a bit of puzzle solving, and a lot of subtle atmosphere. The game’s DNA owes a bit to Deus Ex, a bit to the films like The Black Hole and 2001, and a great deal to System Shock 2. If (like me) you crave being trapped in space on a ship where something has gone Horribly Wrong™ you’ll be right at home.

SoX is set rather anachronistically in an alternate 80’s, which gives artistic license to all the boxy robots, tape decks, and ship-wide smoking permit. You’ve been dispatched to investigate the silence of the research ship Xanadu, in orbit over a distant world, and bring her home. You dock to find the small crew missing, the on-board security system berserk, and the ship deliberately sabotaged.

Space Madness

There is also the small matter that you may be going insane. Eerie Kabuki masks stare at you from cupboards and corners before fading without a trace. Brief thumping sounds come from the next room over. At one point it appears to rain inside the ship, completely without explanation, stopping just as suddenly.

SoX’s horror is a bit more psychological and cerebral than many similar offerings. While there are hints of some sort of affliction among the now vanished crew there are no zombies, mutants or necromorphs stalking the corridors. Body horror is conspicuously absent, and the few traces of blood stand out all the more for their rarity. The Xanadu’s robots are creepy, but the silence and sense of isolation on the ship when everything is quiet is more un-nerving than any number of homicidal machines.

Nice to see the Daleks are still getting work.

There is a certain amount of robot shooting to be done, but this is more an adventure game than a blistering FPS or resource scarce survival horror excursion. Health regenerates and your laser weapons never run out of ammo. The Xanadu’s security system puts up a decent fight and will likely kill you a few times, but this just results in you being hauled to the easily escape-able brig.

Indeed this is the source of SoX’s only real gameplay annoyance. Every time you die the bulk of the Xanadu’s robot population respawns, including a batch right outside the brig. You’ll likely need to shoot this same group of bots a few too many times on your first playthough. Careful and observant explorers can eventually find weapons beyond the starting pistol that all but trivialize combat, and ways to deactivate large parts of the security system. If you truly find the combat intolerable there’s even a menu option to remove it altogether.

The Missing 

While you (arguably) never meet the Xanadu’s missing crew they left a host of notes, files, and audio recordings detailing the events of their mission. Picking through what these people left behind where they lived and worked and getting to know them is one of the subtle pleasures SoX offers. Each crew member is a fully fleshed out character with their own history, personality, strengths, and failings. Eventually you’ll be able to tell who sat where in the cafeteria just by examining what is on each table.

I can't wait to find the pie all this strawberry jam came from.

Graphics are sparse but effective, with detail where it’s important. Not everything needs to look like the latest installment of the Crysis series. The sound work and voice acting is excellent, especially in the crew audio-logs. 

There is a refreshing amount of interactivity to be found in the environment, reminiscent of games like Deus Ex. Food and drink can be scarfed, toilets can be flushed, and drawers can be opened to check for items of interest. Shoot out enough power boxes and you can even kill the lights for that area. These touches help bring the relatively simple geometry of the ship to life.

The Xanadu is a long way from home. Perhaps it should stay that way.

The Xanadu is not a large ship and this is not a lengthy game. While your first playthrough will likely take a few hours it is possible to speed-run the game in ten minutes or less. Indeed there is an achievement for doing so. The bulk of your time not shooting robots will be spent figuring out how to get the Xanadu’s various sub-systems up and running again. There are multiple endings, some obvious and others obtuse, so there is replay value to be found.

If you’re hungry for an excuse to dismember space-zombies, or a survival-horror gauntlet that makes you count each bullet, Spirits of Xanadu may not be quite what you’re looking for. The horror is real but subtle. Exploring the decks of the Xanadu is an absorbing way to spend a few hours, and an experience that will likely stay with you long after you finally steer the ship to its ultimate fate. 

Reasons to play: Atmospheric, creepy, sharp writing, and good replayability.

Reasons to pass: Very short. Slightly annoying death/enemy respawn system.

Guns, Gore, and Cannoli is a 2-D side scrolling shooter with highly polished gameplay and attractive, cartoony, hand-drawn animation. Both art style and gameplay owe a lot to the colorful Metal Slug arcade series. It’s the best lighthearted, gangster themed shooter set in a zombie apocalypse you’ll play this year. 

GGC benefits from a strong sense of place, set firmly in an enjoyably exaggerated roaring twenties. As mob enforcer and made man Vinnie Cannoli you arrive in town to conduct some “Legitimate Business”, only to discover the city overrun by hordes of hungry undead. The simple setup sees Vinnie blasting his way through lovingly detailed seedy docks, speakeasies, tenements, and more. 


The game is a lean, pure experience. There are no leaderboards, point totals, character advancement, or progression systems. All possible fat has been trimmed out. The core gameplay is more than strong enough to stand on its own without such fripperies.  

The cartoony environments are lovingly detailed.

You fight your way from left to right, wielding a slowly growing arsenal of generally era appropriate weapons and explosives. Vinnie can jump, crouch, and kick to fend of smaller enemies while re-loading. Tremendous care has clearly been paid towards ensuring jumping, movement, and shooting feels just right.  The occasional platforming section and movement/timing based puzzles are a joy instead of an exercise in hair pulling aggravation.

GGC is punishing on higher difficulties but never unfair. This is a game un-afraid to deliver bracing, deeply satisfying challenge. Checkpoint and health pacing feels just about perfect. Vinnie can take a few hits but the game is balanced around the expectation that you’ll be dodging damage, not face-tanking it. While memorizing the level layout and enemy spawn patterns will give you some advantage good reflexes and quick decision making are more important. 

Mooks, Goons, and Palookas

Vinnie battles a diverse array of zombie types, each with their own weaknesses and attack patterns. Swollen butchers shuffle forward hurtling meat-cleavers, detonating in a cloud of cartoonish gore that damages everything around them. Zombified soldiers wear helmets that block headshots while spraying tommy-gun fire in a downward arc. Infected rats boil towards you in giant swarms, prompting a hasty grab for the flamethrower. Combat is absorbing and never repetitive.

Gangster flick aficionados may spot familiar (if decaying) faces.

Aside from zombies you also face rival Mafia enforcers and military soldiers. Human opponents fight more defensively than the undead, using firearms and cover. Their presence helps vary up the combat and keep it from becoming stale. In a nice touch humans and zombies will attack one another on sight, which makes sense and creates some interesting tactical situations when both factions are on-screen at once. 

Enemy AI is robust for a 2D shooter. More agile zombie types have no trouble navigating a path to you if one exists. Human opponents recognize grenades and move to avoid them. Far from idly waiting to be killed they’ll employ explosives and poison gas canisters of their own to flush you out.

Boss fights represent major difficulty spikes and are can get quite brutal. Each will likely kill you a few times as you try to understand their movement and attack patterns. Fortunately checkpoint placement is more than fair, especially on the multi-stage final encounter. 

No true mobster can carry on a conversation without the use of their hands.

Tying it all together is a simple but functional and admirably coherent story. Characters are broadly drawn and entertaining without dipping into obnoxious or offensive territory. The well animated cartoon cut-scenes are a high point, and as you would expect characters talk a lot with their hands. 

GGC’s campaign is unlikely to run you longer than 4-5 hours the first time through. Unfortunately once the credits roll there’s not much left to the game but to replay it on a higher difficulty (which I did). Co-op is limited to local only, which is awkward at best, but don’t let these minor issues discourage you from playing this meticulously polished indie gem. 

Reasons to play: Meticulously tuned, deeply satisfying 2-D shooter gameplay. High quality hand-drawn animation. Very high level of polish.

Reasons to pass: Just one short campaign. Local co-op only.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.