Reload – A quick introduction
There are few hobbies that are so aware of their own history like gaming. The industry, the fandom and the culture of gaming make it’s own history a mandatory subject.
You’d be forgiven for wondering why bother reviewing old titles at all. Not only is the subject matter well known but it’s already usually well reviewed. It’s unlikely a new review of Modern Warfare 2 is going to sell any extra copies, I agree. Instead, what I’m going to review and replay the forgotten greats. Games that at their launch were celebrated and loved and that have now been consigned to the bargain bin. I’ll also cover how easy they are to play on modern equipment where applicable but mostly, I’ll be asking are they worthy of our love again or best left behind?
To help you understand what you can expect, I’ll list a few very loose criteria that each game will fit :
- The game must be at least 10 years old.
- The game should have been popular (critically or commercially) when it was new. The column isn’t going to be about trying to polish old turds.
- The game, or it’s sequels shouldn’t be currently undergoing a revival (think Age of Empires 2 etc.)
With all that in mind, I hope you’ll have some fun reading the reviews and I don’t have to buy too many adaptors.
Unfairly (In my objective opinion) SEGA’s Dreamcast has long languished in car boot sale obscurity. Yung Lean Tumblerfandom aside, it’s blue swirly logo has never commanded the same love or affection as other consoles from the era. Although the Dreamcast’s 2001 debut was met with great fanfare, this rapidly turned into Sad Trombone as it’s beefy new friends like PS2 came along and stole the show. The underwhelming specs left it underpowered, yet overpriced, pants down in a twilight zone between Gen 5 and 6. Despite the Dreamcast’s rapid, humiliating demise (it also killed dead SEGA’s ambitions as a console maker) some titles that appeared during it’s short lifespan remain well known. Crazy Taxi, Soul Calibre, that Sonic, for example are all fondly remembered or reviled. However for better or for worse, most of it’s IPs quietly starved to death, forgotten about after Papa Dreamcast left for cigarettes and didn’t come home.
Of these, the fighting/brawler series Powerstone died harder than most. The second game in the series Powerstone 2 was much lauded at time of release, and it’s 87/100 rating on Metacritic is still enviable. It also sold well, establishing itself as a one of the main reasons to buy the console as well as 4 controllers. However despite commercial and critical success, the series (despite a stillborn attempt at revival, on PSP of all places) and it’s most popular outing remain almost unknown today. In a world where being good at Smash has gone from niche party trick to an actual job, surely there’s room for an expansion in the brawler market? I want to find to out.
Welcome to the Powerstone World
Straight away blinding, white light fills my screen, the words WELCOME TO THE POWERSTONE WORLD blast my ears. The voice boldly asserts a “A good beginning makes for a perfect ending”. What follows is a short film about a Wizard kidnapping us for trespassing into his magical realm. Coincidently the wizard also loves Powerstones (big, multicoloured gems that grant in-game superpowers) and is selfishly hoarding these. This is perhaps understandable when it’s explained these are vital for killing him and escaping his castle. So, in conclusion, steal gems, kill Wizard, punch our way to freedom. Wait a minute, are we the good guys or the bad guys…? “An ambiguous beginning makes for a confused reviewer.”
Morality aside, from the opening video, to the menu that follows and onwards, the game is a total, joyful sensory overload. Colour floods every inch of the screen and even character selection is bright, loud and fun. Stylistically, the design and artwork is loosely Steampunk inspired although it’s got more in common with the Ghibli universe than a NEET with a cog on his hat. Character designs more or less follow standard anime tropes: Victorian Lolita, Airship pilot, Tender Young School Lad, etc. Despite this, or perhaps because we really need some new characters bearing in mind this game was released in 2000, the roster feels pretty modern, fleshed out and with every almost character having a unique play-style. To get started, I hit random and get Garuda, a Native American warrior who looks like a cross between Crazy Horse and an Abrams battle tank. He throws himself out of a cell door (Character selection takes place in the castle dungeon, of course) and into a portal, kicking off the story.
At this point, I am asking myself why PS2 hasn’t been picked up by the wider Fighting game community? Smash Bros has never been more popular or more lucrative. There is depth to the character pool rarely seen, it looks and sounds great, better even than some much bigger titles. I write down “PS2 League?” in my notepad.
It’s worth noting now that the stages themselves are perhaps, the very best part of this game. Each one is unique, challenging and highly dynamic. A complete credit to the designers who manage frustrate and entertain in equal measures. Despite a theoretically Victorian setting, I battle across submarines, airships and Egyptian deserts, defeating different fighters as I go. One stage even sees you end up fighting in a castle throne room (only after climbing the burning wall of the castle itself) that directly references Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic “Ran” in it’s layout and design. Yoshi’s island, this is not. Boss battles (there are two) are complex, multi-layered affairs. The final wizard’s stage being a really quick way to find out how much shouting at your girlfriend you can get away with (the game supports a 2 player CO-OP campaign and a 4P free-for-all mode). First battling through waves of increasingly tough henchmen you finally destroy the wizard himself by hurling parts of his dinner at him whilst he stabs at you with a fork. Damage him enough to reveal a giant heart you’ll both need to bash until he throws up (?!). Completing this enough times let’s you steal his super Powerstone and flee the castle. Again, I’m not really sure who’s the bad guy in this. The elderly Wizard with an eating disorder or a bunch of trespassers out to steal his collection of fancy rocks, whilst killing each other on the way.
Throughout the game Items, generic and stage specific, litter the maps, these can range from the mundane (sword, gun, paper fan) to silly (attack panther, bear trap, stone potion) to game winning (Giant Frozen Tuna, Lighting Sword, 3-way Shotgun). These are likely to delight the layman but also to frustrate the serious fighting game fan. Whilst there is nothing quite like escaping a giant rolling stone ball ala Indiana Jones but on a Vespa, it can be incredibly frustrating to string together a series of hits only to be denied the knock out blow because your opponent has trapped you in a giant soap bubble (I am not bitter, promise). The item list is also massive and a whole sub-mode of the game will have you collecting different items and ingredients to craft items for the next time you battle, (in a round-about way, this is also how you unlock new characters). This collect and craft system does give the game a certain layer of replayability considering it’s very short story length (I managed to finish it in around 20 minutes). Strangely the addition of a crafting dynamic feels very prescient considering it is now more or less the law to shoehorn this “feature” into any major new release. Especially so, when this dynamic only really serves to extend longevity in place of additional depth or content. Personally, I commend the designers for their ability to future proof their assets and keep their game on trend almost two decades after launch.
It’s sad then, that despite all the good that Powerstone 2 has to offer that ultimately, it’s downfall lies in it’s combat. Despite battles themselves being a lot of fun, it’s a flawed system that’s overly reliant on players gathering the Powerstones, which spawn almost entirely at random. Once you have three, depending on your character, you’ll be given god-like one hit K’O powers which can almost always turn the tide of the battle, blasting your foes away in a wave of light, colour and noise. This God-mode is only mechanically constrained only by the fact you can only get one or two moves off before you revert to your original state even this is rendered meaningless by the fact there are no cool-downs or timers and the Powerstones you have collected are dumped at your feet, immediately ready for re-use. As such, the game doesn’t really reward timing or skill but simply the ability to get three gems, hold three gems, use three gems. Additionally, only a few characters can really one hit K’O in this god mode reducing the selection pool to about three or four viable fighters if you are playing remotely competitively. The basically random combat system really makes it hard to plan or even improve as everything is so dependent on one thing, getting those gems. All other outcomes are moot. After several play throughs I couldn’t feel any improvement in my playing ability, only a better understanding of when parts of the map would explode, which did feel tedious at times. You don’t really get better, just luckier. Amongst friends this is probably less important and the game’s complete disregard for balance is really charming in a naive, innocent way. It’s not reliant on an unholy memory for combos and you don’t need to get Carpal to summon arrows from heaven or a flame breathing dragon that consumes the whole map. Perhaps more importantly and despite it’s unbalanced messiness, it’s still hilarious when you hit god mode and fill the map with toy soldiers that hose your friends down with machine gun fire. There is a refreshing clarity of purpose here and that is simply to have a good time. It’s a welcome throwback to when competitive games (especially fighting games) didn’t necessarily come pre-planned with the expectation of an E-Sports League to follow, they just let you beat each other up.
As a game and a series, I’m not sure Powerstone 2 will ever find itself getting picked up a serious contender for tournament time, something that would be essential to any real revival. It’s just too unbalanced, stuck between a party game and a fighting game, played on an abandoned platform. No community so focused on player ability will ever embrace a game that allows for a one hit K’O with a random spawn giant fork, or has you flying through mid air fighting over an umbrella to break your fall from a burning airship. There is no method to Powerstone 2, no APMs or move-sets to learn. Only a vague rhythm to the chaos and you can’t sponsor that or build a pro scene around it or even really learn to get better. Should you get this game? It’s as equally enchanting as it is outdated. It’s hard to say really, only that in playing Powerstone 2, I’m really reminded about how it’s not always really important to get good, it’s sometimes just important to have fun.
Do you have any suggestions for forgotten successes that belong in this series?
Follow author Alex Cornish on Twitter and drop him a tweet if you have any ideas!