On RPG Maker Preservation

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Video game preservation has been a hot topic, with the takedown of emulation sites such as Emuparadise, but the conversation goes beyond emulation. Digital only games are particularly vulnerable to being lost forever for a variety of reasons. Music licensing issues led to games like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Alan Wake being removed from stores.  Sometimes, games are simply lost, with servers going down and download links disappearing and RPG Maker games happen to suffer from the latter.

Early RPG Maker culture was centered on forums, users sharing games with each other through temporary download sites. More centralized hubs were set up for these downloads, like rpgmaker.net, but many of the early games were never set up on that site, just floating around out there – if they haven’t been lost entirely.

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Ara Fell

I’ve had this game on my backlog for a while now from some hedonistic RPG Maker spending spree. I got Helen’s Mysterious Castle from that and thought it was cool but found the ending to be really unsatisfying and I also got Artifact Adventure, which, I’ll be blunt, holds the dishonor of being one of the few games on here I just didn’t like. I didn’t spend any time on Ara Fell for months, perhaps due to my disappointments.

At least until recently! I was listening to a podcast hosted by one of my friends’, the Sockscast, and they briefly talked about Ara Fell, which finally ignited my interest in digging into this game to see if I had the same thoughts they had. So, without further ado:

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Ara Fell is by Stegosoft Games, released in 2016, one of those indie RPGs trying to evoke old 16-bit JRPGs in a sincere fashion, rather than one of those indie RPGs by condescending western devs believing that they can “fix” a genre based on their limited experiences. Ara Fell actually has a long history to it, originally made years ago as an overly ambitious project, to briefly being revived in RPG Maker XP and eventually getting picked back up and reworked for a formal commercial release after RPG Maker 2003’s official localization.

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Facets

Alyssa lived her life under the oppression of a magic wielding evil empire and watched as they took everything from her. And so, she rose up against the empire, fighting in memory of those she lost, their hearts united as one against the empire of the Guardianship! Alas, Alyssa has been captured by Guardianship goons and they’re trying to wipe her mind – but as soon as they let down, she’ll harness the power of friendship and defeat them! Truly, she is an ideal JRPG heroine!

It’s a shame that you’re playing as the villains in this story.

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Facets is a game made in RPG Maker 2003 by John Thyer, where you are the JRPG villain. You may ask me, “Dari, aren’t you friends with John?” Well, I am, but he playtested my game Fishing Minigame 2 and gave honest criticism, so I thought it’d be fair to do the same.

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Untitled Dating Sim (First Three Dates)

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Pride Month is still going on and I will not let work get in my way! I continue my coverage with Untitled Dating Sim (First Three Dates) by Nilson Carrol (or just “nilson” on itch.io). The game recommends playing this with somebody else, presumably to make choices together, but I have no one to hang out with. So anyway.

You are first confronted with a series of choices. While what you identify as is a cosmetic decision, the other choices build up to who you end up dating (though I don’t understand how the system works). Your three choices of dates are… Nilson, Nilson and Nilson. You date different versions of the game’s creator that mostly acts the same and they instead offer different situations to engage in. The artist Nilson shows off his office and takes you for a walk through an artsy park, the barista Nilson takes you out for drinks and the playful Nilson… dates you at a supermarket.

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The reason why these Nilsons are essentially the same is that the goal isn’t to date a dating sim archetype that you’re into, but to use the dates as a form of reflection. One of the main aims of the dating sim is to sorta act as a tool of self-reflection and it accomplishes this through the game’s choices. There are no branching paths to the game, there’s no secret date night to be found if you pick a certain combination of choices. Nilson generally acts the same no matter what or is written to work around your decisions. The choices you make are the choices you feel. You can express affection toward this weird geeky caricature or act cold. You can express your love for JRPGs and type out your favorite one. You can give your takes on pizza and Nilson will nod along. You are ultimately the only judge of your decisions (unless you’re playing with someone else) and they say more about you than the story.

Whether you find a connection or not is also dependent on you. After a date, you could choose to bail or go on another date. Maybe you didn’t like the first night and wanted to give it another shot, to see if you connect to this version of Nilson. Personally, the playful Nilson kinda reflects my actual relationship in some ways and honestly, I appreciate anyone that loves a good JRPG.

As one can clearly see, the visuals are photographs of Nilson and the environments themselves. I love it because it sorta recontextualizes standard visual novel stuff into a real world setting. Nilson does static poses like a visual novel character and it looks silly, yet endearing. Using photos of real locations also gives this sense of place, like, “hey, I can go out on a date with this person here.” This presentation feels personal, which again ties into the dating sim being a personal experience.

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Going through the dates lasts you an hour. In that hour, I confirmed stuff about myself like that I fucking love JRPGs and anime and that I hate cold days. It’s a simple game, but an interesting approach toward dating sims that acts as a self-portrait for the creator and yourself. It is normally $1.21, but I bought it for a price of $0.68 as part of itch’s summer sale, which is a sale I suggest checking out as an alternative to Steam’s monopoly as Valve continues its spiral into libertarianism.

Artifact Adventure

My New Year’s resolution was to clear through my backlog of games, and I’ve been making good on that so far. Helen’s Mysterious Castle, Space Moth DX and Monolith were part of that list and I consider them cleared. And so, I continue moving on through that backlog with Artifact Adventure.

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Artifact Adventure is an RPG Maker game made by Bluffman, published by your friends at Playism. A nefarious Swamp King is threatening the world and so the king calls on a bunch of heroes to deal with him! …And that’s pretty much the main plot.

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Helen’s Mysterious Castle

Happy New Year! I’ve decided for once to take on a New Year’s resolution and my resolution for this year is to get through my backlog of games. I think that it’s a reasonable goal and hey, I can write about some of that stuff for this blog. So, let’s ring in the New Year with the first game I decided to get out of the way, Helen’s Mysterious Castle.

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Helen’s Mysterious Castle is a game made by a developer named Satsu, published and translated under Japanese indie game publisher PLAYISM. Helen, our silent protagonist, lives in the eponymous castle, holed up on a high floor with her brother, Ardin.  She also wants to leave the castle all of a sudden, so it goes.

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RPG Maker – The Unorthodox Horror Game Engine

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A player walks around a dimly lit room, ambient noises accompanying their footsteps as they check everything over. They find some absurd puzzle lying around, barring their way forward. As they mull over the solution, they hear something enter the room as the ambiance amps up into scare chords. A monster appears to harass the player, forcing them to run, as there’s no way to take the monster on.

This is a basic scenario for a horror game. You may picture some mainstream horror game like Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Point is, you’re probably thinking about some big 3D horror game with a decent budget. However, the kind of game that I’m thinking about isn’t made in a high-end engine by a formal game studio.

So, RPG Maker. RPG Maker is an accessible tool for complete rookies to make their own games, intended to be used for making  RPGs. However, some people decide to ignore the RPG aspect of the whole thing and make adventure or narrative games out of it, such as To the Moon.  There’s a certain genre, however, that’s popular in the RPG Maker engine, to the point that it overshadows the engine’s intended use in some communities: horror games.

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The Witch’s House

I’ve been writing this thing about horror games made in RPG Maker for my journalism class, and it’s been coming along pretty nicely. One of the things I’m doing for it is putting a list of recommendations for newcomers to play and I got a bunch of suggestions on what to put. A popular suggestion was The Witch’s House, which I have not played beforehand, so I decided to get on that and make a write-up while I was at it.

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The Witch’s House is a game made with RPG Maker VX by Fummy, translated by vgperson.  You are Viola, a girl who, according to the letter in her inventory, went to visit her friend. Alas, it appears that she got lost in a forest and a thick bush of roses is blocking her way out. With nowhere else to go, she’s forced to enter the eponymous house. Tailed by a friendly talking cat, Viola wanders around the haunted house filled with absurd traps, under the constant threat of the witch, Ellen.

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Dungeon Down

So I follow this Driftwood Gaming guy on YouTube, who’s a guy that mostly deals with RPG Maker MV stuff and games made with it. Recently, he’s also been looking at IGMC 2017 stuff (and I recommend checking it out if you prefer more visual stuff). I haven’t watched any of his coverage so that it wouldn’t affect my own judgement, but I’ve caught glimpses. Now, when I glimpsed into my feed yesterday, I saw that he made a 3 hour video on one of these games. Why the huge time sink? I got curious, so I decided to check out the subject of that video, Dungeon Down.

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Dungeon Down is by luizcubas, a game advertised to be a “fast paced dungeon crawler.” Players might balk at the title screen, since it’s one of the engine’s default asset title screens, but I think this is a case where you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

You begin in a safehouse as an unnamed adventurer, a simple letter detailing the game’s instructions that you can check at any time. You are told to go down and explore the dungeon, with a goddess bringing you back to the entrance when you die or reload a save. That’s pretty much the plot right there.

You head toward the stairs, from which you can choose a checkpoint floor (1, 11, 21, 31, etc). Each floor gives a small randomized dungeon where you can pick up treasure to equip, ending in a sequence of fights. Picking up treasure kinda reminds me of loot heavy games like Destiny or whatever, with stats being somewhat random and equipment having a whole lot of tiers. Every tenth floor lacks the dungeon segment, but offers a trove of treasure upon beating the sole boss class enemy.

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And so, we finally look at the game’s special active-time battle system. The system’s real simple, with no menus to screw around in to waste your time. Skills of different elements are mapped to your WASD keys and you can use an HP or MP potion with the 1 and 2 keys respectively. You use a move and wait for it to cooldown, which takes less longer if you take the time to upgrade it. A basic elemental system is in place, with fire skills screwing up ice-typed enemies while being ineffective against other fire-types and water-types. You’re told what elements the enemies of a floor have in advance, so you can equip needed skills and upgrade them beforehand. Most of the battles are nice and quick, a lot lasting for less than half a minute, especially if you’re taking advantage of elemental weaknesses.

I think this battle system is real great. Complex battle systems are nice because they offer variety and encourage tactical thinking, but simplified battle systems are great in their own right. The simple battle system can be more inviting to casual players and fits the quick pace the game’s trying to for; I also think that simple systems fit active-time battle systems better, because you don’t have to worry too much about strategy or setting up buffs or whatever while enemies use the time to beat you up.

When you’re killed, you’re sent back to the entrance of the dungeon. You keep your levels, gold and skills, but you lose all your equipment – unless you’ve used an Eternum Stone on them before death. Worry not, because you can use that gold to buy equipment and items from the shops and you can upgrade them further to buy better equipment. This point is important starting from the 80th floor.

After reaching the 80th floor, each floor onward has a boss on the level of the “tens floors” bosses, each one representing one of the game’s elements and progressively getting harder. With chests never spawning except as a rare reward and no normal encounters to fight, the game essentially becomes a boss rush at this point. From here, you can easily buy needed equipment and items at the entrance and the bosses give enough money to buy them back on retries, so the game’s priorities switch from gathering equipment to focusing on improving skills so that you can kill the bosses faster than they can kill you.

People may argue that the game is repetitive. And it kinda is, especially with the game’s switch in priorities starting at the 80th floor. But as I played it, I fell into the same trap I fell into with clicker games. It’s a simple enough game that it’s easy to get sucked into, but with just enough depth to keep me invested. The randomized loot called to me, asking me to gather a whole lot of them and look through for anything worthwhile to equip. Then there’s that desire to see those numbers you can push out increase, so I kept at upgrading my skills. Dungeon Down exhibits a lot of simple but addictive systems in video games. All it needs are loot boxes and it’s pretty much your modern day video game.

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As engaging as the game is though, there’s some problems that need to be addressed. The most obvious one is that there’s no story. In fact, there is no narrative to speak of. Your character doesn’t even have a name, for crying out loud. The gameplay is Dungeon Down‘s main hook and while I think that it’s a good hook, there’s nothing else to encourage players to press on in the game, which might be a problem if they’re not already hooked.

There’s also the randomized dungeon bits before you fight a floor’s encounters. I like the idea of them, but also, they really don’t serve any purpose besides acting as a medium to get treasure and to run around in for HP and MP regeneration to work their magic. As all encounters are set at the end of the floor and their make-up is told in advance, there is no sense of danger. The fire themed set of floors offered damage tiles, but the damage they did was negligible, especially with HP regen in mind. Sure, maybe story isn’t important for a game like this, but I think that the dungeon segments can stand to be more meaningful, if the creator ever plans on working more on this.

Is Dungeon Down a perfect game? No. But Dungeon Down is a game that grabbed me and might be one of the most engaging entries in IGMC, at least in terms of gameplay. I kinda picture this game to be something that you can find on iPhone or whatever and I honestly think the creator could go for publishing it on those stores with some improvement.

The Golden Pearl

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The Golden Pearl is by The Mighty Palm, a game that’s very much in the vein of Link’s Awakening and the Zelda Oracle games. Your character, a blue-haired caped fellow by the default name of Arty, decides to go look for the powerful wish-granting Golden Pearl. For some reason. To gain access to it, however, Arty must clear through the temples of fire, water and earth and get their rings. And so, he sets out to look for them.

…That’s pretty much the general plot, actually. The story’s mainly an excuse plot, at least until near the end. How’s the setting? Is this place a mythical dream land? Honestly, it probably doesn’t matter, let’s go exploring.

The general gameplay is a sort of distilled version of the Game Boy Zelda games, with a larger emphasis on exploration and puzzles. A good chunk of the map’s open to you and the items required to access the rest are easy enough to get. There are plenty of small quests from the game’s quirky NPCs, a lot of them offering Power Pommes (the game’s Heart Container equivalent), so there’s a good amount of stuff to do. You can gun straight for the dungeons, but you’ll be missing out on a bunch of content that easily puts the game over the contest’s one hour limit.

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There are enemies in the game’s overworld, but for the most part, you can’t properly fight them. Thus, confrontations typically have you, the guy decked with unlimited bombs and arrows, running away from a boar. That said, there are boss battles that you can properly fight, which were kinda hit-or-miss for me. Watching the boss of the earth temple repeatedly get stuck certainly showed me that having proper combat throughout the game would feel kinda off. A later boss also throws out a whole bunch of projectiles during the fight, which ended up slowing my game down, which I feel also could have been a concern if combat was prevalent through the game. Other bosses do try to work within the engine’s limitations. My favorite’s definitely the one for the water temple, mainly because it does something I didn’t expect and gives a creative use for one of your tools.

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As for the game’s puzzles, they’re pretty easy to get, especially if you’re a veteran of these Zelda-type games. If you’re looking for some real challenging puzzles, forget about it. But if you just want to have a good time, they’re welcoming and won’t be a frustration.

The game is buggy, which you can expect from a jam game, especially one that defies the engine’s limitations. Now, focusing on the game’s main goals, you aren’t likely to run into bugs, at least, ones that would obstruct you. A lot of the concerning bugs that I did run into were relegated to the game’s side areas, the most frustrating of which being a transfer bug taking me out of a cave immediately after I entered it and pretty much rendering it inaccessible.

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As for the presentation of the game, it’s real solid, its art staying true to the Game Boy games it’s inspired by. The music is also pretty nice and I love the contrast of between the adventurous overworld music and the oppressive, slower dungeon stuff. The track for the final dungeon’s probably my favorite, carrying a nice sense of finality and hyping you up for the end.

Also, the opening animations with the title screen and a nice pixel version of IGMC’s mascot are real good and a nice thing to open the game with.

The Golden Pearl is a nice game and it does try its best to follow the spirits of the Game Boy Zelda games. Exploration and puzzles were great, while the fighting that wasn’t non-existent’s hit-or-miss. Some bugs might make going for 100% completion frustrating (and impossible), but I generally had a good time with The Golden Pearl and I think it’s a nice contender for IGMC.