Saving the Transient World | A Review of Kamiko

Kamiko is a game that feels like a step between what arcades were all about and what consoles wrought. Perhaps that’s a weird frame of reference, considering the days of entering a cacophony of beeps and blips in a dim room have all but gone away and playing in front of your television is all we know, but it takes the sensibilities of two disciplines and puts you in between them.

Kamiko tasks you with saving the transient world from invading demons, and to do so you must break their seals on four gates littered across each area and then face the subsequent boss after opening its lair. It’s a familiar loop, but with it comes a certain comfort in knowing what you’re doing. Kamiko is by no means a game that pushes boundaries, but it excels at what it does do. You can take it at your own pace; with enough cognizance you can blaze through the entire game in under an hour or take it piecemeal as the game saves every time you liberate a gate. It’s rare to see a game cater to varying play styles like this, which makes it all the more impressive for such a quaint title.

Other elements are at odds with each other, towing the line between breakneck action title and deliberate adventure game. Often doors are sealed until you bring a key or drop a set of orbs onto a pedestal. To keep pressure on the player, enemies constantly respawn. Most times they are just fodder that you slash through to build up your combo meter (which serves as an energy mechanic of sorts), but when carrying something, they become a true hindrance. You can’t unsheathe you weapon while holding something else, so it’s up to the player to navigate through the horde in order to meet your objective. Sure, it can be frustrating at times, but the forced change of pace spices things up.

Combat feels good, with your chosen shrine maiden (who turns into the superhero-esque Kamiko) glomming to foes when you tap the attack button as you drift into combos. One character has you swinging a sword while another offers ranged attacks with an arrow. The last combines the two by giving you a rebounding chakram that lets you jab with a dagger while it flies through the air. Nothing in the game changes depending on which character you choose, but your approach, and in a way the difficulty of the game, does vary.

Kamiko is very subtle in its design, never swaying into a depth of mechanics or world design that would pigeon hole it into a specific genre. It never pushes the envelope, but also never overstays its welcome with its simplicity. I don’t usually equate the price of a game with its quality, but at $5 Kamiko is the perfect impulse buy that leaves you satisfied with what you get while not straining your wallet in the least.

Developed by: Kan-Kikuchi/Skipmore

Published by: Circle Entertainment/Flyhigh Works

Played on: Nintendo Switch

Release Date: April 27th, 2017


Demo Dissection | Spelunker Party!

I like to think that I have a pretty firm grasp of general video game history, but I’m always quickly reminded that’s not actually the case the moment I find something that’s not within my sphere of influence. It’s far larger that most would give it credit for, and while it’s humbling for a moment when I realize I actually know nothing, I’m always eager to learn more.

Spelunker Party! is based on an Atari game from 1983 simply called Spelunker in which you took a miner through a platforming adventure in a cavern to collect gems and such while monitoring an air supply. There was a glut of software on the system in general and all I know are the old standbys, so I don’t have an affinity or really any knowledge of this game until I literally looked it up on Wikipedia for context just before writing this. However, having grown up in a family of actual miners, I do like the concept of exploring a cave with limited supplies trying to find riches while surviving the pitfalls of a treasure hunter. Consider me intrigued.

However, I soon discovered that’s where my enjoyment of Spelunker Party! kind of began and, as I soon found out, ended.

I knew something was amiss within moments of entering the first stage. There’s an unlit campfire on your way down your first tunnel that I assumed you could passively walk over. Instead, I was promptly bounced backwards and stopped in my tracks. Perhaps this is just a holdover from a bygone era I thought, so I hopped over it and continued on. I was then met with a vine hanging from the ceiling in which I erroneously fell of an edge to reach, which prompted me to lose a life even though I was within reaching distance of said vine and had only fallen perhaps a foot from the lip. Not sure what that was all about, I restarted close by, jumped to grab the vine this time and climbed up to a treasure. I apparently jumped from too high up at the next ledge and lost another life. To get past a rocky outcrop blocking my way, hieroglyphics informed me I could drop a bomb off to blow my way through. I did as I was told, but hadn’t walked far enough away from the blast radius and, you guessed it, died yet again.

I understand now that Spelunker Party! expects players to follow its strict regimen of rules that hearken back to the 80s. But I thought to myself: does this necessarily make the game fun? Specificity works well for games like Dark Souls and even the likely inspired-by Spelunky, but they work where Spelunker Party! fails because while their tenets are strict, they’re also fair. In this day and age one would expect that they could redeem themselves from falling into a chasm by at least reaching out to said vine. This game just arbitrary says “screw you” and has your explorer throw a tantrum after failing instead.

I didn’t expect to be swayed to the side of the fence that would have me actually pick the full game up, but curiosity about a historical nugget meant it was worth checking out. While there are ideas worth keeping from Spelunker, this game obviously decided to keep the baby with the bathwater making for an intentionally archaic experience that’s best left buried in the annals of history.

A Boy and His Frog: A Blaster Master Zero Review

Blaster Master is Saturday mornings.

The moment I play it I’m taken back to a time of watching the Smurfs, eating Cap’n Crunch and enjoying the day in a comfy pair of pajamas. It’s a carefree time I honestly wish I could get back. I get to hearken back to it every now and again through my own children’s eyes, but reality sinks in and eventually adulthood takes over.

The funny thing about Blaster Master is that, even though I had fun with it and obviously have fond memories of it, I was also pretty terrible at it. Honestly, I don’t think I ever made it past the first area. There’s something to be said for it having an arbitrary difficulty curve by design, but really I just didn’t have the gumption to stick it out. My parents probably wouldn’t appreciate me leaving the NES on to save my spot, anyways and besides it had to go back to the video store by Monday.

Blaster Master Zero isn’t just a remake or reimagining of Sunsoft’s seminal classic; it’s a redemption. Not for the game itself, but for me. It was created in a fashion that not only evokes the emotional beats of the original, but in a way that makes it possible for everyone to enjoy thanks to a more welcoming design that comes with decades of iteration. To drive the point home, I may or may not have audibly whooped and pumped my arm just because I got to level 2.

The game opens to a not-so-subtle nod to the original game; a young roboticist follows a frog into a hidden alcove and stumbles into a wondrous underground world and explores it via a jumping tank with the keys apparently still in the ignition. Things are fleshed out this time, with the opening cut scenes mentioning an ice age in which humanity builds a bio-dome to survive that our protagonist Jason Frudnick re-discovered millennia later because he lost his magical frog. It’s an interesting amalgamation of the American translations boy-saves-frog plot, the militaristic sci-fi story of the Japanese version and even a smidge of goofiness from F.X. Nine’s Worlds of Power book adaptation from the height of Nintendomania.

It doesn’t have much of an impact on the game as a whole, more of a means to an end like most game plots were back in the day. It tows the line between being serious and being goofy. Not meaningful enough to be the impetus of progress, but not obtrusive in any manner, either. Rather, Blaster Master Zero works better from a mechanical perspective, but that doesn’t mean a few themes don’t permeate that to make the game endearing beyond a purely game play driven positive qualities.

Even though the game takes place within a desolate and abandoned underground habitat, it has a vibrancy to its post-apocalyptic scenery. There are blue skies above rundown habitations, the shadows of sea-life above you in submersed laboratories and flowing grass on the ground in the opening forest area. It’s a subtle reminder that a world without man is still a world. There isn’t toxic fallout; there’s life. In this sense, Blaster Master Zero has this odd, peaceful isolation to it as you explore a place where people haven’t existed for generations.

Which is then promptly broken up when you meet Eve.

The sense of segregation never truly goes away, but the lonesomeness of your journey is assuaged with your new companion. Other than doing the plot-driven tracking for you, Eve doesn’t have a whole lot of function in-game. However, you can chat with her when you are in Sophia III (the tank); doing so sheds a little bit of light on Jason and Eve’s personalities or are informative as far as new gear goes, but it’s all frivolous but flavorful. Which is great; rare is the opportunity to do character building, especially in an exploratory platforming game. Personally, I just liked the break and seeing them sitting beside each other in Sophia III, which even gives the tank itself a bit of a personality and feel like a safe area in an otherwise dangerous place.

While being given an opportunity to have characters you can care about are great, it would mean nothing if the game they starred in wasn’t so damn fun. There’s something weirdly empowering about tooling around in a hopping juggernaut in a mutant-infested world. It’s driven home by the fact that at any point Jason can hop out and tackle things on his own if you wanted to. While there’s a time and place for that, those moments in between exiting the vehicle and entering alcoves are harrowing because a few hits will end your itty bitty hero. Even a fall bigger than a few spans will kill you off if you’re not careful about it. Sophia III isn’t just your means of traversal; it’s your haven.

While inside the various caverns, laboratories and installations, the game transitions into a top-down view as Jason finds a new piece of kit or gate-opening boss within. In the original Blaster Master this was a nice change of pace, but in the end it was just as distressing as being outside Sophia III. In Zero, Jason is so empowered to the point where, if you can keep your health and weapon gauge high, you can blast your way through any situation. Whereas in the original game you could power up your weapon by grabbing the appropriate power-up, here the game not only does that but changes the functionality with each level up. You get shields, wave beams, wall-piercing rounds and flamethrowers that you can switch between and use as situations dictate. At first I just kept to the highest leveled gun, but later tuned in to the fact that they all have their uses for different enemies. It’s far more robust and involving than I initially thought and makes for a deeper experience in the end.

However important these solo excursions are, they aren’t as entertaining as exploring the world inside your tank. Blaster Master Zero as a whole feels like a transitionary evolution between level progression-based platformers and Metroidvanias. Each new area is distinct and you need to fight a huge boss in order to net the next piece of kit you need to move on. You’re essentially going from point A to point B and knowing where to go next is pointed out to you rather than being organic. What makes the game open is that you can plumb the depths of each area and find other cubbyholes and grottoes to fill out your arsenal. It’s not essential (unless you want the true ending, as I discovered the hard way), but definitely worth your while. It makes you a veritable badass and makes the game on the whole more manageable. Perhaps it’s not as eye-opening today, but when you realize it’s based on something made over twenty years ago, you tend to appreciate the design decision a little bit more.

Blaster Master Zero is Saturday mornings.

It’s sitting in your pajamas, playing co-operatively with your son in your basement, taking down the final mutant that’s been terrorizing the Earth from within. It’s a moment of respite in this world of adulthood I find myself in, a few moments of being without obligation and just enjoying the moment.

I wish I could go back in time and tell my ten-year-old self that we got up to that mysterious outcropping at the beginning of the game, to see what was behind that monster-gated door and get to play a new version of Blaster Master where the game entrusts you with the skills, gear and quality of life additions that make it possible. After the initial shock that we’re still playing video games at almost forty wears oold, I’d like to think he’d be impressed.

I know I sure am.

Developed by: Inti Creates

Published by: Sunsoft

Played on: Nintendo Switch

Release Date: March 9th, 2017