Monday, August 8, 2011

8-Bit Video Game Reviews: "The Krion Conquest"

The Krion Conquest is one of the most intriguingly unique games I've played, which is ironic because the only thing any reviewer ever says about it is that it is a Mega Man rip-off. Well, Krion Conquest was obviously based on the engine of Mega Man…but isn't that in and of itself pretty unique? A whole 8-Bit library could be filled with nothing but Super Mario Bros. and Contra rip-off platformers, but there are other games nobody ever borrowed from, so it's interesting to encounter one that uses similar mechanics. Remember Battle for Olympus, which was a gameplay copy of, of all things, the odd one out of the Zelda series, the side-scroller Zelda 2: the Adventure of Link? If you rip off something nobody ever rips off, that's an act of creativity in and of itself.

First things first: you play a female. In the eight-bit era. Wow.

I'm straining my brain and I can't think of any other game with a female playable character at the time, except maybe the bizarre "Athena." The main character, as seen in the gorgeous box art, is a foxy female witch.

The box art sold her as some curvaceous 1940's Betty Page type, which is odd because the actual game art shows her as some anime creature. This goes back to the days when Japanime seemed weird and unwelcome as opposed to being a selling point because it's "different" and "exotic," like French cinema.

Me, I've always been a red-blooded, meat-eating American, and if there's one thing I can't stand, it's the conventions of Japanese cartoons and video games, with androgynous heroes, talking rabbit sidekicks, and fifteen year old, flat-assed schoolgirls. So the way I see it, bring on Witch Betty Page!

The difference between Krion Conquest and Mega Man is like the difference between teaching someone to drive and getting hit by a car. The same ingredients are there in both cases (a car, wheels, a road, etc.) but they're all doing something totally different.

In Krion Conquest, unlike Mega Man, you begin play with all your weapons. What does that mean? If you only take away one thing from this review it is this: the game is not a traditional platformer like Mega Man or Super Mario where you run, dodge jump and shoot, but rather, you have to keep your thinking cap on because the game actively requires you to think about how to use your different powers.

That is why I find Krion Conquest so interesting: you don't just run and jump, but you have to actively use your brain and defeat enemies like a puzzle game. No critics of the game ever mention this, which is what prompted me to write this review: one of the most unique things about this gameplay go totally unmentioned. In this regard it's a predecessor of thinking games like Portal.

I wish more games like The Krion Conquest had been made: action games that aren't just spaceship-shoot-laser but also require some mental adroitness.

Take for instance this scene. There's an enemy in a pit up there you can't jump and reach, but he's quite capable of dropping bombs on you below. How do you get him? You have to perform a bit of billiard-ball trigonometry with a bouncing weapon, which works not unlike Captain America's rebounding shield.

There are other occasions where you have to cross distance on a broomstick, one of your many powers. A lot of critics of the game have slammed it because the control on the broomstick is so bad, you're better of setting the controller down and making it move by shouting bad language at your Nintendo. Well, yeah! The control on the broomstick is supposed to be hard, because that's part of the point of the broomstick, as a part of the puzzle-solving element of the game: you're supposed to know where to go in advance and place your broomstick in the perfect spot.

The point of this game is patience and using the right power at the right time. To that end, you approach most screens in a place of safety so you can look over the obstacles and come up with a strategy. Take for instance, this scenario here. This enemy shoots right at you. You should have the Shield Barrier charged immediately, so the instant you land you can have it charged, then shoot behind the barrier in total safety.

When it comes to control, Krion Conquest is something of an improvement over Mega Man in one crucial respect: you can shoot up. This isn't a little thing. Enemies that are impossible in the Mega Man games, like the diving helicopter-guys in the Cut Man stage, are easily dispatched here because you can shoot up.

In fairness, there are some powers that just don't come up at all. The Freeze ability requires you to charge the weapon up, and only freezes the enemy in place. There is literally no scenario in the game where this comes in handy. Likewise, the Fire power is a "kill everything on screen" ability, which has the terrible side effect of stealing a third of your life. In a grueling Mega Man style game where every level is an endurance test, this is never a smart idea.

I hear Krion Conquest had an even more unique and un-Mega Man-esque trait that was ultimately taken out of the American version of the game, a series of cutscenes in between levels. I would have loved to see this and I'm sorry it was removed! For one thing, while cutscenes are common today, this was absolutely unheard of in the 8-Bit era outside of the Ninja Gaiden games, where the cut scenes between levels turned the game into a big story. I understand the foreign versions of the game have cutscenes and I would very much like to see them restored to the game at some future date.

From what little we see, the game is set in the astounding futuristic year 1999. Whoa! Those were heady days, back in 1999, what with the the Euro, Woodstock '99, Spongebob Squarepants...though with the boy bands, Pokemon craze, and Star Wars: Episode I, weren't things on earth bad enough without robot invaders?

All in all, Krion Conquest and Mega Man are similar in the sense that all human beings are similar…what is important and what ultimately truly matters are the unique, distinctive differences.


Eduardo M. said...

"First things first: you play a female. In the eight-bit era. Wow.

I'm straining my brain and I can't think of any other game with a female playable character at the time, except maybe the bizarre "Athena.""

You forget the first Metroid game came out during the 8-bit era and had Samus Aran, a female, as the main character. Princess Toadstool is a playable character in Super Mario 2. There are at least 2-3 female playable chracters in Maniac Mansion.

Julian Perez said...

"Metroid" is an extremely interesting example because you didn't know Samus Aran was a girl until she takes her armor off at the very end of the game! To this day it's still one of the great twist endings ever.

I remember my brother beat the game and went around the house, jumping like crazy, "Samus Aran is a girl! Samus Aran is a girl! No way!"

You can also play as Princess Leia for the insanely ball-hard NES version of Star Wars, though I didn't count that one if you take over for a few levels, or a female character among many isn't what I mean.

David said...

That last screen cap is killing me! Now I'll never know what it was the Krion Empire Robot Battalion brought us to brink of: A global financial crisis, loss of our AAA+ credit rating, a recording career for Miley Cyrus, a series of "Twilight" movies? For the love of Mike, what was the horrible fate we nearly averted?

Thank God it's just a game.

One good thing you can say about anime,'s opened doors for a lot of kids who want to have an art career without ever actually learning how to draw.

Julian Perez said...

Anime is hardly the worst offender - by far the worst in that regard must be "Family Guy," where a lot of animators have slammed it because its style is so crude it doesn't require any effort to duplicate.

One of the "Family Guy" animators showed the audience art models for Peter Griffin angry and Peter Griffin concerned and both looked...exactly the same!

Julian Perez said...

What gets me is when Family Guy has celebrities. I would never have guessed in a million years the Family Guy animated versions of Margot Kidder, Cheryl Tiegs, Charleton Heston and Rush Limbaugh were who they said they were. Rush is especially inexcusable because the guy's a blobby cartoon character that's a borderline abstract shape, one a four year old could draw faithfully.

David said...

Yeah, I wouldn't have known their "Shatner" if he hadn't been drawn in the Trek movie jacket, and even then I had to squint. It doesn't help that none of their voice "artists" can do impressions worth a damn, either. Sadly, though, that show is like "Married With Children": the more you complain about how crappy it is, the more you delight the fans -- who after all love crap -- and paint yourself as the square who just doesn't "get it." Whatever.

When I say anime, though, I don't just mean actual Japanese animation (which is almost an oxymoron, since they don't move)...I'm talking about the whole Manga-or whatever style of big eyes, big feet and characters you'd never be able to differentiate except for hairstyles and outfits. Everyone looks 12 years old, even the "old" guys, who are just bald 12-year-olds. I actually saw a book once that promised to teach you how to draw Manga and it occured to me it's probably the only "how-to" art book that didn't end up disappointing young buyers (Unlike, say, "How to Draw the Marvel Way": step one, draw a square, add a cylinder, step three, flesh out into a John Buscema masterpiece, yeah right). Even a chimp could draw Manga, though if you made him do it you'd probably drive him to stage a real-life Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Julian Perez said...

Mostly what I was able to pull from the How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way book was, there was such a thing as an exciting way to draw and there's such a thing as a dull way. The book didn't tell you how to draw like Big John, the point of it was to get you thinking about how to do layouts to tell a story; what makes for a smooth panel cut and what makes for an awkward one, and how to block and position panels so you actually tell a story that's exciting.

In short, that book didn't teach me to ink like Bill Sinnott, but it got me thinking about how the way you use blocking and composition and angles can be used to make a person feel a certain way about a scene.

It also got me thinking about what makes for a smooth transition between panels.

You know this reminds me of a conversation back in the old STTA forums where we talked about comics pacing and transitions and I argued the eight page story format in old silver age stories had wrong pacing because as they were so short, the transitions between panels were all wrong.

It was like watching a DVD, set to skip, so you only saw every fifth frame.

Because of this sense of missing panels, there were zero transition between panels, and the basic fundamental job of transition was found in overuse of captions that "patch up" panels that don't cut to each reattaching a car door with duct tape.

As a result of that style of storytelling, you can read an eight-page story and get the feeling you didn't get a story, you got a summary of a story, like the "Previously, on Deep Space Nine!" bumper at the start of a TV drama.

At the time, I remember my point was shut down in a reliable, tried and true fashion: a non-sequitur about how "not everything can be modern decompressed storytelling."

I swear, some of our conversations wouldn't pass the Turing Test. IF my statement is variable = $a, THEN 20 PRINT "$moderntrend, which is the only alternative and you are obviously in favor of, is much worse" GOTO 10 END.

YOU: Al Plastino drew very beautiful women.
ME: No he didn't. His women were absolutely sexless and dressed like Quakers.
YOU: Yeah, well, all women can't be 1990s bad grrls in dental floss!

Thinking back though, I think you honestly didn't understand what I was saying. Perhaps I didn't explain it correctly.

If a person's comics diet is mainly eight-page backups that don't have good transitions as a part of the storytelling, the "jumpy, summary" style covered over by constant transition captions is what you know...the idea it feels jerky and unpleasant must seem weird because it's all they know.

And that's the lesson I always got from books like "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way." It wasn't a lesson in draftsmanship, but something like the basics of a film school course for comics.

One amusing side anecdote: in the Goofus/Gallant type comparisons between how to make a scene exciting, all the "boring" panels set up for contrast where heroes sit around doing nothing...look identical to Don Heck!

By the way, characters you're unable to distinguish except by hairstyle? Somewhere, I hope John Byrne is laughing.

David said...

If I understand you, I think I agree up to a point. Which is to say, modern comics storytelling occurs in a language entirely different from old-fashioned comics storytelling, to the point where readers from different generations can literally not know what the heck is going on when they read stuff outside their preferred period. But which method is "wrong" depends on your point of view. Probably the "sweet spot" occurred in the late Bronze Age, when artists like Simonson and Miller were able to control pacing through layout and panel design, eliminating captions and dialog, but still managing to tell a story in 22 pages.

I also agree about "How to Draw" being mostly valuable as a guide to storytelling technique. But I still say it's funny how it goes from "shade a circle to make it a sphere" at the beginning to "now that you're an accomplished artist, here's how to lay out your page" just a couple chapters later. Of course the real irony of the book is that so little of Kirby's work is held up as an example for "Do's", when it was Kirby who invented the visual language of Marvel comics and for many years the answer to "How Does One Draw the Marvel Way" was "Copy Kirby."

Another irony came when I re-read the second Superman/Spider-Man crossover last year and found John Buscema's art dull as dishwater, including this panel,

which I can't see without imagining Stan's voice saying, "Here is how NOT to draw a hero making a dramatic entrance. Try for a little excitement!"

It didn't help that every single "Clark" or "Superman" head in the book looks exactly the same, like the whole book was done with photostats.

And that was Kurt Schaffenberger who I said drew pretty women, to which you answered, in essence, "I can't see their nipples, so how hot can they possibly be?'

David said...

Sigh...the panel didn't show up. You can find it here:

Julian Perez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julian Perez said...

I apologize if my previous response was excessively confrontational. And if I'm remembering it right, the "1990s bad grrl" comment wasn't from you. The failure was mine because I didn't explain myself the first time.

One of the best examples of what I mean are transition captions like "And so later..." or "Meanwhile..." that shows like Wonder Woman make fun of. The amazing thing is, by the time Wonder Woman was made, nobody used that kind of caption in a while, because comic book guys figured out if you're telling the story right you don't need them!

You know it's funny. I hate decompression more than anybody else, and for no other reason than to destroy my blood pressure, I decided to do a quick calculation.

There was one issue of that bald bastard, Brian Bendis's New Avengers, which had two splash pages. One was an exterior of the earth. The other was a splash page of earth with some energy ribbon going at it.

Now, the comic cost me $2.75, and it had 21 pages of non-ad content.

Averaging out around .13 cents per page, basically, I paid .26 for two photostat pictures of the friggin earth.

No telling how much I've paid over the years for art of the SHIELD helicarrier which for some reason everybody draws as a SPLASH PAGE EVERY TIME.

Interestingly enough, I hated the decompressed House of M when I read it in issue form, but when I read it in trades I actually didn't find it that bad. The amazing part is people say the same thing, which leads me to believe the reason for decompression storytelling is to fill out the trades that are sold in bookstores.

Great for the trades, but terrible for the single issue buyer.

You might be on to something with that bronze-age sweet spot idea.

The amazing thing is that Chris Claremont, who never saw a single Alan Davis panel he wanted to cover up with text like black bars on a naked lady, is now considered an old-fashoined writer. There's something of an irony about that, because back in the 1980s, when compared to Claremont's Uncanny X-Men, you had Englehart's Silver Surfer, Avengers West Coast and Fantastic Four were considered downright retro and behind the times, stylistically.

One of the great mistakes of recent times was the loss, in my opinion, of the thought bubble. The reason is that comics can do something movies can't, which is get us in the character's head.

David said...

Well, I will say that even though I prefer the "old" methods of story-telling, I never had much patience for "Meanwhile" captions and the like. In fact, I almost never read them. The most distracting of all were the old "Captain Marvel" (Fawcett) comics, where the captions ran UNDER the pictures:

BILLY BATSON: "Holy Moley!"
CAPTION: "Billy is shocked at what he sees."

Nobody laid on the verbosity like Marvel, especially in the Bronze Age. Yackety, yackety yack. If there's anything more annoying than "Meanwhile back at Avenger's Mansion" (which we can SEE, thank you), it's purple prose like "Then in a mind-numbing explosion of psychic energy, the world seems to crumble beneath his feet, blah blah blah..." Like the artist didn't just work his butt off drawing that very thing.

I really think this is a by-product of the "Marvel method" of making comics. If you just give the artist a vague outline as a starting point and let him more or less tell the story, decide the pacing, etc, then by the time it gets back to you to fill in captions and dialog, the feeling has got to be "well, I'd better earn my pay." So you pile on the text like crazy, as if to say, "Look, I contributed, too!" For me, with Marvel, artists and writers often seemed to be trying to one-up each other, sometimes to the detriment of the books.

But as you say, wordy was "in" back then, even when the artist and the writer were the same guy. Before taking the plunge on the massive (and pricey) Simonson THOR omnibus this Spring, I looked back at my floppies and thought, "Holy crap, these pages are text-heavy!" Everyone just talked their freaking heads off, but at the time, that's what we wanted; Perez and Simonson and Byrne filling every square inch of the page with a zillion little details, and the writers giving us tons of prose. If you couldn't get 20 minutes of reading out of an issue, you'd been ripped off.

As you imply, the real reason for the change has more to do with commerce than art; there's money in trade collections, and they read better when they're not so dense. So when the goal was to satisfy the monthly reader, you put more content into each issue, but if the goal is to slowly amass content for the eventual trade, you write for the reader of the trade.

I was on a message board recently that claimed a higher-up at DC has declared an end to "Writing For The Trade." By which they meant that now that the focus is on digital comics, they're going back to trying to deliver a complete experience in each issue. Interestingly nowhere in the long thread that followed was even a hint of outrage that DC had previously been "Writing For the Trade." Which suggests, I guess, that most people don't mind paying 3 bucks a month for a skimpy chapter in a bigger story. But it also helps explain why sales continue to fall; why spend money for updates on a "work in progress" when you can buy the whole story later for less money, in a format you can actually put on a shelf? The mere act of treating monthlies as "sneak peeks" at the REAL product, the trade, suggests a certain contempt for the traditional format on the part of the publishers.

For the record, I quickly got re-accustomed to "wordy" THOR, and I love the Omnibus.

Julian Perez said...

I hadn't heard that DC was going to switch to a single-issue format but that is interesting, and I think I can guess why.

Just like the trade paperback was the big moneymaking format in the 2000s, in the 2010s the next big leap will be totally online content and distribution, which we're already starting to see happen.

What does that mean? I don't know, but I can tell you one thing: no more "writing for the trades."

People slam Roy Thomas for being wordy but the way I see it he used caption boxes absolutely correctly: to describe things in all five senses. Comics after all, are words and pictures together. He provided some color prose to go with it - it wasn't just describing what we can see or competing with the artist. Maybe it didn't work sometimes, but that's how it ought to be done. A lot of stuff goes without words (like a lot of Eisner's stuff), so the pacing of it feels off as you don't know how much time to spend on a panel.