Monday, August 29, 2016

AO (Video Game)

Some of you are probably wondering "Why aren't you reviewing Shin Megami Tensei IV this week?" and you would be justified in wondering that. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get the game finished, or even to the point where I could write up a third or so of the game in a first impressions. On the other hand, I've been playing a little indie puzzle-game that I got in the mail recently.
About a week ago I saw a post on a forum I frequent about a game that was published by the publisher of this one, Bomb on Basic City. During my correspondence with the publisher, they offered this game to me for review as well. It sounded like it would be cool, so I accepted, and now here we are.
I'm unaware of any kind of deeper meaning behind the title. There is of course the obvious character in the center. I'm not sure whether it's Japanese or Chinese (Which is kind of embarrassing) but I'm pretty sure it reads as "AO" or something to that effect.
AO is a top-down puzzle game similar to Super Monkey Ball. You've got a thing that you need to roll to the exit, avoid the obstacles, don't fall off the edge. The added challenge is in the fact that you're rolling a rectangular box around instead of a ball. It starts out deceptively easy and becomes pretty hard as the game progresses.It's pretty cool at first, but as time goes on it gets somewhat tedious. It's not a bad game by any means, but some of the later levels seem to have been deliberately designed to be intuitive. However, that makes it all the sweeter when you ultimately figure out how to get to your destination. On that front I would say that the game is incredibly satisfying. On the other hand, there is absolutely no replay value whatsoever. Best I can tell there are one or two different solutions to each of the thirty-three puzzles, possible three for some of the more open levels. There's no story, there are no characters, just you, the instructions, your box and the levels. Not to say that every puzzle game has to be Portal, just that it'd be nice to have some kind of a theme to it. You can't just re-release the original Tetris over and over, you've got to add new play modes, new background elements, things like that.
Let's go over the mechanics quickly. You've got your block, which can be rolled lengthwise or width-wise.There are two different kinds of switches. Light switches, which merely require one or more halves of the block to rest on top of them to activate, and heavy switches which require the block to be standing on-end to trigger them. These switches can add platforms to the level or remove them. Which they do is up to the player to find out. There are teleporters that take you to a designated spot, (Again, up to the player to find out) hard floors that can be rolled on any way, weak floors that can only be rolled on horizontally, and the goal, where you have to stand the block to complete the level. All of this is shown in the manual, and again on the screen around the single-player mode. This means that the entirety of the level is always visible on-screen, which is good because it helps you figure out what all you can do. Plus you don't have to have the manual at all times to figure out what to do. The issue with this is that the levels never fill the whole screen, and the stakes don't get amped up all that much. I was expecting some kind of gigantic, screen-filling level that made use of all of the mechanics that the game had, as opposed to a gigantic maze full of light switches tied to two bridges and one heavy-switch tied to a single platform required to get the block in the right orientation so you can get it onto the island where the exit is. After that you get a screen with your score. If you press start you get dumped back to the title-screen.
Your score is determined by how quickly you completed the game. Your score goes down by about one point per every second and a half by my count. As if there's any reason to care about score. It's not like the game just ends when you run out of time/score either, you can keep going for as long as you want, and I did. I beat the last ten levels of the game with triple zeroes across the board.
I will congratulate the developers for not feeling the need to include lives in the game, because you will roll off the edge a lot in this game, and forcing you to play through the whole thing over again just because you depleted an arbitrary number would basically make the game impossible to complete, or just deplete the players patience. Just like most of the NES library.
Then there's the soundtrack, or rather the single loop that keeps playing in the background in perpetuity. Fortunately this can be turned off by pressing the Select button, but it shouldn't have to be. With the lack of enemy AI, the two animations in the game, the six tile types, and a total of three splash-screens with very little detail to them, you'd think there would be enough space on the cartridge to fit a decent sound-track. Not much, just give me five decent tunes and I'll be happy.
All in all, while I don't think that the game isn't worth playing, it's certainly not worth the $35 asking price, especially not for the thirty-three levels that it's got. If there were maybe a hundred or so levels with more complexity and better variety, then it'd be worth at least twenty bucks. I also doubt that the game is hiding any kind of unlockables behind a score-wall, because I played through the game twice and found nothing other than a mild dislike for the color blue.
There's only one additional mode that I can find, and that's competitive two-player. The map is replicated in green in the lower right and the two players race to see who can complete the game the fastest. It's not much, but it's something. I would have also liked to have seen co-operative two-player where one player controls the X-axis and the other the Y-axis, kinda like Katamari Damacy's multiplayer.
Speaking of which, the controls are a bit touchy. I can't count the amount of times I rolled off the edge because the controls react too quickly when you're trying to roll around tight edges quickly. Thankfully the game doesn't go full-on amateur and keep moving the box when you're holding the d-pad down. The d-pad is the only thing you use to control your block. That's not bad, a limited control-scheme is alright when the game isn't particularly demanding.
By the way, in case you haven't figured it out yet, this is a new NES game. As in a game someone made for the NES in this day and age. I commend the dedication the developers and publisher had to have to put out an actual physical NES game in a box with a manual. The cartridge is pure black, and it's not like the old unlicensed NES carts like the kind you'd see back in the day. This is a legit cart based on the old NES cartridge molds. The ridges, the arrow, everything. It's a three-screw cart, but still. As for build-quality, it has only a bit more give to it than regular NES carts do when I squeeze it, and it's not made of the kind of brittle hard plastic that tends to make up the hilts of dollar-store knives and swords. The one thing I feel the need to mention negatively is that the cartridge bows outwards at the bottom like a bunch of my original licensed NES games do. I would have liked to see them improve a bit on that design-flaw, but it's not like it's a huge breaking point.
The manual that comes with the game is only four pages long, but it is printed in full color, and gives a decent summary of what the game's about and what you need to do. The unfortunate thing is that there are actually six pages in the manual, two of which are blank.If those two had been printed on then a whole piece of paper could have been cut from the manual without losing anything. Plus, the manual's contents aren't exactly well-arranged, and the text is pixelated to hell. I have been informed that Second Dimension is aware of this however, and will be fixing it as soon as possible.
Something that kind of bugs me is that the cartridge itself comes inside a thin plastic bag inside of a cardboard box instead of the thick plastic sleeves that NES games came in back in the day. Plus, the case for Bomb on Basic City tells me that Second Dimension are capable of putting out a game in a plastic box, which would be infinitely preferable to cardboard. Even if they kept it at the same size as the actual NES boxes and just changed the material to something sturdier, it would be a lot better. Then again, this is just my outright distaste for cardboard boxes and slip-covers talking.
The interesting this is that they apparently didn't harvest parts from other games, AO cartridges are made of entirely new material, which is a good thing in my book. Probably costs less in this day and age of people charging extortionate prices for Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt carts too.
While AO is short, it's pretty satisfying to complete and not what I would call a waste of your time. However, the levels that we got seem like a chunk of a much larger game, akin to that of the shareware versions of Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein. If this was part of a bigger whole, like Portal was to The Orange Box, or something like that, the $35 asking price wouldn't be too much, but as it is I'd much prefer to pay somewhere in the order of $10-$15 dollars for a physical release and somewhere closer to $5 for a digital one. The core problem is that I've played games like this for free on places like Newgrounds and other flash sites for most of my life, and I can't get that price-point of "free" out of my head. With a bit more polish and a bit of interesting context a sequel might be well worth a $30+ price-point.
In the end, I give AO a 5.1*. I feel like the developer can and should do better. Maybe move up to SNES or Genesis for the next game? At the very least you'd have access to better sound hardware.

Thank you for reading my review. If you liked it, please feel free to toss me a few bucks on my Patreon. Anything you can give me helps, even if it's just a dollar.

Game provided for review by Second Dimension. It can be found for purchase at Cover scanned by me.