How’d It Age #5 – Blinx: The Time Sweeper

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Xbox

When I play older games, I like to think of them with respect to their contemporaries. Sure, part of it is just in seeing how they age generally, but also to see how they were compared to what came out at the time. The problem for Blinx is that it’s entirely outclassed by its contemporaries. While the game tried to do some interesting things, it really shows its age compared to other things that came out at the same time that I still continue to occasionally play today.

Blinx came out in October 2002, presumably to be both a mascot for Microsoft’s new console and a way to enter the Japanese market with something more familiar than Halo. The problem is that it was a very busy year for platformers. Looking at the list of big entries we’ve got:

  • Rayman Revolution in January 2001
  • Jak and Daxter in December 2001
  • Ape Escape 2 in July 2002 for Japan
  • Super Mario Sunshine in August 2002
  • Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus in September 2002
  • Ratchet and Clank in November 2002

Each of those games has something I can point at that simply did things better than Blinx, and that’s ultimately the problem with playing this game now. It’s obvious that even at the time it wasn’t doing anything well so much as doing things simply adequately.

For pure platforming, you could easily pick Jak and Daxter or Sly Cooper as the obviously better targets. In both cases, it simply comes down to speed. Movement in Blinx is excruciatingly slow in a way that really surprises me. It often feels like I’m moving at about half the speed I want to. It basically results in jumps being only for vertical purposes. They often play into that with the time control powers (ex: a bridge falls, you can’t double jump the gap – you have to rewind to rebuild the bridge), but that gets into another core problem with the game.

The collection aspect of time powers is a weird thing where you have to build combos of symbols from items dropped in the world. If you match 3 or 4, then you gain some time powers. However, if you don’t match that many before you’ve collected 4 total items, you lose them all. It’s a needlessly complicated system that simply serves to do two things – makes me go slower to avoid picking things up by accident, and makes me backtrack when I figure out the core conceit of the level and what specific time power I require. It serves to loop back to my point that the platforming feels slow, because the mechanics are simply reinforcing that.

The other core mechanic in place is a vacuum to suck up and eject trash at enemies. This is where Ratchet and perhaps Luigi’s Mansion come into play a bit. Sucking up trash is another thing that is excruciatingly slow. It requires you to stand still, suck up a thing for a while then move on. However, you can also suck up the time power items from above, which again reinforces going super slow to be careful to not screw up your combo. This would have been so much better served being a move that lets you passively pull things in that are weaponry and ignore the time powers, as well as not requiring you to stop moving to do so.

Ratchet and Clank is definitely the comparison for the shooting end of things, though perhaps it’s more the second or third game in that series that are better comparisons. In this game, it’s extremely easy to just miss your shots entirely. This game would have been better served with aim assist that later Ratchet titles had to make shots more reliable, but even against the first entry this just doesn’t feel like it spent enough time letting the shooting mechanics cook. It feels hard to aim and doesn’t really feel powerful. Enemies have pretty weird immunity frames – particularly for long periods after they’re hit – that just break the pace of whatever combat was being attempted. Overall this is just a case where it feels like the weaponry aspect is just unnecessary against a more traditional stompy platformer setup.

The final game in that list then is Super Mario Sunshine, and in this case I think the comparison is in the friction of taking damage. Blinx suffers from two problems in this case. The first is that taking damage simply breaks the flow of action in a negative manner. When you take damage, the action pauses, you rewind 5 or so seconds into the past, and lose ALL progress that had happened during that time, even if it was killing some other enemies. In large combat scenarios, it’s pretty frustrating to lose that progress to a hit. You also have a pretty limited set of hits that you can take (start at 3, expandable with in-game currency purchases) that can only be recharged via the time power matching system above or via a shop between levels. It’s slow to regain the retries and frustrating to run out of them.

Compare this against Mario Sunshine’s damage mechanics, where you can take a bunch of hits before losing a life, can easily recharge that with coins scattered all over the place, and time doesn’t stop if you take damage. This results in another case where the mechanics reinforce the game feeling slow, since it felt like I was being pushed to fundamentally avoid damage, rather than just minimize it.

It’s one thing to be frustrated by a game that simply feels old. Billy Hatcher from a couple posts back is a good example of that. However, this game is frustrating because it landed in the middle of a 3D platformer golden age and simply couldn’t keep up. Other games for other platforms were simply doing its core set of mechanics better. All that said, it’s available on Game Pass and you could do worse than free.

Game Ramblings #176 – Sea of Stars

More Info from Sabotage Studio

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: Windows, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series

This is an interesting game, not the least of which is because it’s distinctly a JRPG not developed in Japan. It very clearly takes inspiration from games like Chrono Trigger, with which it shares a composer. It also clearly leans into games like Suikoden, FF6, and Lufia. However, the one it really brings to mind to me more than any of those is Super Mario RPG.

It was pretty early on when my brain went straight to “this is SMRPG” and the video above is indicative of that. Sure, it’s not exactly the same attack but the cadence of the deflection there is the same kind of cadence in executing a super jump and getting the full combo. Those little details are all over in combat. Timing your own attack bonuses is different with each person’s basic and special attacks, giving a bit of skill in making sure you stay fresh in using everyone. Learning the attack timing of enemies is even more crucial in order to reduce incoming damage. All of that is straight SMRPG in my brain. Sure it isn’t the only game to ever do things with attack timing in a JRPG, but it is the one that stuck for me.

Sea of Stars does it all wonderfully well. The animation tells on both sides of the equation are at a level of fidelity that I could only have dreamed of 25+ years ago and really enforce learning the timing of everything well. The precision of all of it feels just right – with it rewarding the timing but not making it too loose. The rewards for successful execution beyond just normal attack+ and defense+ on an attack are also nice, with it opening up combos and ultimates quicker if you’re good at executing the timing. That set of things in particular is where SoS starts to feel like a modern take on the genre. The way combat is setup feels distinctly more active than a lot of the “classics” of the genre.

MP is regenerative via attacks, which goes a long way to enforcing actual use of skills. Since you aren’t trying to horde items, you’re instead doing what you can to mitigate attacks entirely. That ties into the little icon panel above the targeted creature in the screenshot above, where successfully executing those types of attacks before the creature’s turn effectively wipes out their turn. That then ties into the successful execution timing, where a successful hit generally instead does multiple hits instead of just being a number++. That then also ties back into the use of combo attacks, which take multiple characters and multiple types of attacks and unify them into one turn.

I suppose what I’m ultimately getting at is that each part of combat feels like it’s supportive of the rest. Unlike a lot of classics of the genre, which often leaned more into numbers games, Sea of Stars legitimately feels like you can skill your way to victory. Smart attack timing allows you to be more aggressive, because building up the combo meter quicker means that you’ll have rapid access to a large party heal. Concentrating on cancelling enemy attacks means that you’ll reduce incoming damage just by not being attacked, again encouraging aggressive play styles. Being able to swap your party on the fly like more modern games have done means that you’re always encouraged to use very specifically the exact person that is useful right now instead of trying to make best guesses as to what party setup will be most useful over time within a dungeon. I’ve mentioned it as recently as One Piece Odyssey, but hot swapping is one of my favorite things that is becoming more common, as it means that you use your entire party all the time instead of being stuck on just a subset that is convenient.

That said, there were definitely some things that didn’t hit for me as well as combat. A decent portion of the game is spent without the ability to reasonably fast travel, which is a bit of a bummer. Rather than feeling natural within the game, it ended up just kind of reducing me wanting to explore areas that I’d been to to find new things. Very late in the game you gain the ability to go anywhere you want, but it felt a bit too little too late. The game also kind of dragged by that point anyway. You open up your full arsenal in combat by probably about the midway point in the game. Up until then you’re slowly being given new capabilities that allowed me to be spending time in new dungeons experimenting with interesting combat flows. However, once I was at full capability combat kind of started to drag. Other than bosses, a lot of the trash enemies are pretty samey, which is fine when you’re trying new things but is kind of slow otherwise.

There’s also something to be said about the fact that the story is often very convenient. It’s not that I found it bad or anything, but a lot of the plot points kind of resolve themselves quickly and with little effort on the main party’s part. For example, at one point an entire city basically gets leveled by the main antagonist, but within an hour or less it’s basically rebuilt, everything is back to normal, and you move on with your life. One of the main character’s story beats revolves around him not being able to fight in some specific battles, but he’s perfectly able to tell you exactly what you should be doing. Things like that kind of keep happening throughout the game. Obviously the things need to happen, but the way in which they occur just always feels like the shortest way out, rather than the way that makes sense for the world.

I suppose where that ultimately ends up is that the sum of the game’s parts were more than good enough for me to want to get to the credits, but not good enough for me to really want to push for full completion. There is a true ending that I knew about having backed this on Kickstarter, but I didn’t want to go throught the tedious process to finish the checklist of things to do. Combat wasn’t going to grow and the story wasn’t going to change that much, so I confirmed that via watching it on Youtube. From a plot perspective it kind of made me wish that they had skipped the alternate ending and just made it the core plot.

That said, I think this game is absolutely one worth playing if you’re a JRPG fan. The combat mechanics alone are good enough for fans of the genre to enjoy without needing to worry about anything else, and the game surrounding it is at least good enough for a core playthrough. It took me about 25 hours or so to get through, so it’s not even a particularly long entry to the genre. It may not quite live up to the bar set by its higher budget inspirations, but it leaves me in a place where I continue to be excited about where this studio is going after its shipped this and The Messenger.

There’s also something to be said about another game giving me fishing!

How’d It Age #4 – Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Gamecube via Dolphin

This is such a Sonic team game. It’s a strange concept that could seemingly only come out in the early 00s. It’s a 3D platformer that completely skips the lessons that Nintendo was giving out with their own games. It has every single problem that the Sonic Adventure games have. But despite that, it’s still surprisingly fun.

The one thing that really stood out to me was how fun the egg mechanic was. Besides eggs giving you core abilities (faster movement, jumping, attacks, etc), it was just fun to see what would come out of them. Sometimes it’s little helper dudes with elemental powers that can help traverse levels (ex: a water-based seal that can put out fires). Sometimes it’s hats that can provide additional benefits to your eggs (Ex: iron egg that increases attack power). Sometimes it’s useful items (ex: TNT that you can toss at enemies). You can learn over time what the eggs are, but because they are sort of scattered around the levels haphazardly, you’re encouraged to rapidly grow and hatch the eggs and move onto the next one so you can build your arsenal up throughout a single mission. By the end of the level, you’ll typically have some partner animal, some hat, some item, and be able to use them to achieve whatever the specific goal of the mission is.

More often than not I was kind of ignoring where I was trying to go and just looking around to find eggs for the sake of finding new things to hatch, which is an interesting change from what is otherwise a pretty standard platformer setup. Each world has a set of missions that you do one at a time, where you kind of traverse different sections of the area during a specific mission. Disconnected from the egg stuff, it’s not really all that different from a Mario 64 pattern. However, the eggs provide a distraction and thing to go after that Mario or even Sonic Adventure really didn’t have.

However, it’s pretty obvious that this is a Sonic Team game because it has all of the hallmark problems of the rest of their 3D titles of that era. The game starts out pretty manageable, with simple flowing level designs that really encourage the higher pace egg rolling, but it starts to slowly go off the rails. Levels start concentrating more on platforming, which works fine but isn’t really a strong point. In a lot of cases, it just feels like there isn’t much flex room in the platformer timing. Gaps aren’t quite forgiving enough or platforms are a little too tall for the jump height to where it doesn’t necessarily feel hard but feels unnecessarily frustrating.

In particular, you start running into wonky physics issues as things get more complicated. Sometimes it’ll be that your egg gets on top of a platform but you don’t, causing you to fall to your doom. Sometimes it’s a slightly unpredictable way that your character’s speed works that causes you to roll off the edge of a platform instead of stopping. Sometimes it’s a set of rails that you’re trying to roll onto that you instead clip through. This is all distinctly not aided by a typical Sonic Team camera. It has a habit of turning when you don’t want it to. It has a habit of not ever being focused on the boss that is attacking you. It has a habit of clipping through the environment and completely blocking your view.

However, those were all things that I was expecting. I know it sounds weird to go into a game expecting some subset of bad things to be there, but with Sonic Team that’s just kind of the experience I know I’m getting into, for better or worse. Nights had these problems. Sonic Adventure had these problems. Post-Sega games like Balan Wonderworld still had these problems. It’s just one of those things that I go in expecting, so I was annoyed but not unhappy about it. The thing that kept me playing was the rest of the stuff around the known garbage, and that was fun. The core egg stuff was all just kind of fun enough for this to still be good 20 years later. It’s a weird little 00s with all those problems, but it’s still a totally fun experience despite the issues.