Friday, October 14, 2016

The Great PokeClone-Off Part 1: Visuals

Several months ago, I visited a Gamestop with some friends. It was the first time I’d set foot in a physical game store in over a year. As digital markets like Steam rose in popularity, I cut down on corporeal visits. Soon I made the decision to buy nothing used if I could pay the actual creators, and a second nail flew into that coffin. Now I’m a post-college adult with a day job, several creative hobbies and a backlog of dozens upon dozens of games I already own. Brick and mortar outlets are so far off my radar that Gamestop could start doing trade-ins for human skulls and I wouldn’t notice. On top of that, I’d never visited this particular store. So while waiting for friends to inspect some trading cards, I did what any sensible person would do:

I stripped that whole store down to the god damn marrow.

The result was what I’d like to call The Discount Fifteen. 15 games purchased for 30 US dollars. I dug through mountainous drifts of sports games, shovelware and sports games again (there were a lot of sports games) to find the diamonds in the rough. Or more accurately, the gravel shaped like funny faces in the rough. The games I selected were not all good - though you’d be surprised what Gamestop will let sink to the bottom after an arbitrary amount of years. But even those not “good” were at least interesting, and the first I popped in a console was a game called Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals.

Spectrobes is second-most commonly recognized as “that one time Disney tried to make a Pokemon game and we all promptly forgot about it.” Spectrobes is most commonly recognized as a confused expression and a resolution not to speak with you anymore. Technically Beyond the Portals is the second Spectrobes game, and I’ve assembled a helpful graph to determine whether you appreciate this distinction:

Really, the data speaks for itself.

I was not expecting brilliance. I know how to look up a game on Metacritic. Spectrobes, like many of The Discount Fifteen, was bought just as much to write about as to play. So when I was finally fed up with my Spectrobe commutes, I hatched a plan on what games to tackle next. Pokemon Sun and Moon releases on November 18th, five weeks from now. From now until then, I’ll be treating you to a massive five part article series. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce: The Great PokeClone-Off!

The competition will be graced by three contestants! Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, and Pokemon Pearl. All released on the Nintendo DS within a two-year timespan of each other, evening the playing field. They will be rated in a variety of categories such as Visuals, Audio, Gameplay, Writing and more. In each category they will score in terms of “Fraction of a Pokemon”, evaluating how they stack up to the illustrious Pocket Monsters franchise. Note that Pokemon Pearl can still receive an imperfect score, as I’ll be grading on the average quality across the Pokemon series. I’ve also deliberately chosen Pearl instead of its upgraded version Platinum, as its competitors need all the help they can get.

Without further ado, let’s get things underway. It’s time to discover which game is the best place to catch them all! Let The Great PokeClone-Off begin!

Visuals (Creatures) – 10 points

The images processed by your eyeballs are a key part of experiencing external stimuli, and a game of collectible creatures would be nothing without memorable creatures. That’s like a ham sandwich without ham or an article of mine without an awkward metaphor! And technically that’s a simile, so more like an article of mine without a needless qualifying statement. But we’ll have plenty of time to discuss my failings when the court case goes public. We’ve got judging to do!

Pokemon Pearl

Marketing teams love the word iconic, and can occasionally abuse it. But iconic is a real word, with real meaning, and few would argue that Pokemon is iconic. There are designs in these games that have permeated global pop culture and stuck around for decades. You can attribute some of this to marketing or series momentum, but not all. The Pokemon Company knows a thing or two about visual design, and sometimes they really hit the mark. So how do the newcomers in Pearl compare to the other games?


Every Pokemon new to this game seen above. 107 total, but it seems like less when you line up all these tiny sprites.

It’s a shame, because there are certainly still nice designs in there. We’ve got wicked crazy land shark dragons, suave birds wearing pimp hats, and Bidoof. But for each of those we have designs like Tangrowth, Lickilicky and Probopass. I’d describe those in more detail, but it’s difficult to type while actively vomiting onto my keyboard. Exaggeration aside, they’re strange, a bit ugly and either lazily simplistic (Tangrowth) or all over the place visually (Probopass). It’s not a great generation for new designs. Yet even a lesser Pokemon generation is still Pokemon, and there’s enough worthwhile here that it’s still perfectly acceptable. I give it 4/5ths of a Pokemon.

Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals

Spectrobes certainly tries with its creature designs, but so do the participants of a twenty-car pileup, which coincidentally is what most Spectrobe designs look like. Some of the creatures look cool and pleasing visually. But Spectrobes has a lot of problems with its monster designs, and I can boil them all down to one word: Overcomplication. Is…is overcomplication not a word? Fine then. Overcomplicated. Friggin’ spell check, tryin’ to tell me how to live my life.

Look at how most Pokemon are drawn: Clean designs composed of simple shapes with easily identifiable silhouettes and pleasing, limited color selection. This isn’t just lazy design or appealing to stupid children. If you want something with wide appeal that will last, it’s the way to go. Mickey Mouse is just a humanoid rodent, or even more simply, three circles. He doesn’t need an elaborate outfit, crazy patterns on his skin, or spikes every two inches of open space. Speaking of that…here are some Spectrobe designs.

These three cover all three elements and all three forms of evolution. The fully evolved tends to be where things get the most overdesigned. Unfortunately, it’s also the one you’ll see the most.

Keep in mind that these are all promotional art. In game you either get tiny UI sprites or 3D models befitting a Nintendo DS game (about Nintendo 64 level). These are also some of the best designs, the kind that coincidentally would float to the top of a google image search. There were definitely sillier examples I could’ve picked. Hell, the center is one of my favorites. But even accounting for all that, some issues shine through.

Take Leozar on the right. There are some decent ideas on display. The shield beard, the circular piece surrounding the head, the red-to-yellow colors, these all work fine. But it’s like the designer’s pen would explode if they drew less than 50 miles an hour. They just kept adding crap! Now spikes here, now flanges here, now scrunch this, zig-zag that, add purples and blues and blanket the whole thing in swirling tribal tattoos. The most involved of all above Pokemon designs had a fraction of the visual noise of any given Spectrobe.

There are some other factors working against them. While Pokemon stuck to traditional sprite art that looked crisp and clean on the new hardware, Spectrobes goes full 3D. When your existing designs are filled with visual noise, animated 3D models seen from every angle are hard to pull off. On top of that, someone had the idea of giving every Spectrobe three significantly different palette swaps. They had a shaky enough grasp on cohesive colors to begin with, and this does not help. Points for effort and some neat ideas in the spike-and-blades department, but Spectrobes will have to settle for a score of 3/5ths of a Pokemon.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker

Unlike Spectrobes, Dragon Quest Monsters is a well-established series. Dragon Quest is one of the oldest and most prolific names in RPGs, right up there with Final Fantasy. Unlike Final Fantasy, it’s had more limited success internationally. This is probably why you’ve never heard of it, you pleb. The original Dragon Quest Monsters spin-off game was released in Japan in 1998, three years after Pokemon. It’s possible it was capitalizing on the current craze. But to give it credit, Dragon Quest 5 featured collectible fighting monsters as a feature in 1992, three years before Pokemon. So what does all this have to do with visuals? Well, this long-running and prolific series has a long-running and prolific artist: Akira Toriyama.

You may recognize that name from Anime: The Movie: The Anime, more commonly known as Dragon Ball. If you don’t know what Dragon Ball is, shoot me a line. That sensory deprivation bunker of yours will be great for surviving our eventual robot uprising. I’m sure people have varying opinions about Toriyama’s art style. For my two cents, the first Dragon Quest game I was exposed to was this one, and I think it’s got plenty of excellent designs. Case in point: Slimes.


Look at that guy. Look at em! That thing is so incredibly god damn precious. Gaze into that oh-so-marketable face! You could slap that goofy grin on rotten meat swathed in barbed wire and I’d still want to hug it. And much like the best of Pokemon, it’s startling in its simplicity. This is a principle that is carried on in the many more complex monsters of the game. Monsters are formed of simple shapes, limited color schemes, and show off very defined personalities. Though 3D like Spectrobes, they’re well animated and much closer to their 2D concept art by comparison. It’s an excellent roster of creature designs, so it’s a shame that just a couple things are holding it back.

These are not monsters made for creature collection. These are monsters made to hack through in a traditional RPG then later adapted to creature collection. What difference does that make? Well first of all, these creatures weren’t designed to be individually memorable. Many draw inspiration from standard fantasy monsters rather than trying make their own. Plenty have names like “Orc”, “Skeleton Warrior” or “Boss Ogre”, and there are a large number of palette swaps. This all makes it harder to latch onto individual favorites.

Lethal armour B is my favorite, but I think we all know he can’t match that stunning natural charisma of Lethal armour C.

And of final note, I feel like it’s kind of cheating to have your creature designs lifted from a pre-existing game. I don’t know how many designs are originally from Joker, but most definitely aren’t. So even though I’m technically just judging visual design, I feel obligated to knock it a bit. That’s why in spite of some strong fundamentals and implementation, I’m giving Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 7/10ths of a Pokemon.

Visuals (General) – 10 points

Since the Japanese space program was rejected, there’s more to these games than watching adorable creatures float lifelessly through an endless void. There are whole worlds out there to enjoy, for given definitions of “worlds” and “enjoy”. And we can take these worlds and, as with all things, while away our lives complaining about them on the internet. So time to tackle general visuals!

Pokemon Pearl

Pokemon took its sweet time to jump aboard the 3D boat, and it’s better off for it. In the early days of the DS and PSP, everyone was enraptured with three dimensions of low-poly gameplay in the palm of their hands. Of course, people were similarly enthralled with early 3D in the mid-90s. Y’know, an era characterized by horribly clunky games that barely hold up, occasionally leading to entire franchises crashing and burning in the transition. I can only presume Nintendo DS developers thought back to that era and responded: “What was that one phrase, something ‘bout history and dooming repeats or…I dunno, probably not important. Now let’s remake early 3D platformers without an analog stick or camera buttons!”

Pokemon waited all the way until 2012 before stretching its polygonal wings, but that isn’t to say they didn’t dip their toes in. In Pearl 3D is used for most of the out-of-battle geometry, like mountains and buildings. And it looks…okay. Nothing fantastic, but serviceable and well-integrated enough that it works. It helps that the areas you run through are colorful and diverse as ever, and some gyms actually make good use of 3D for purposes of depth.

One of the gyms in question, a multi-level building filled with elevators.

But the 2D sprites? Those still look great. This generation of pocket monsters was the last to receive a hardware-based resolution bump before the jump to 3D. The result is some lovingly detailed battle sprites. The overworld sprites are more bite-sized but still work fairly well, my only complaint being their scaling. What these games did was edit sprites on the fly as you move to give the impression of perspective. It was a neat effect, but I find the lopsided way sprites look from certain angles off-putting. (You’d often see people with only one visible eye, for example). It’s a small flaw, but worth noting.

The end result? Pokemon Pearl is no great beauty by today’s standards. But everything beyond some 3D props and sprite scaling has aged very well. I’d say it hits dead average for series visuals, earning it a solid One Full Pokemon.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker

Unlike Pokemon Pearl, both DQM and Spectrobes went full 3D for their visuals. Based on my previous warnings, you can probably guess how this went. To be fair, DQM does a decent job of hiding its limitations. It still manages to get a little detail into its environments, which are varied, colorful, and sometimes even make good use of the vertical design 3D allows. So it’s a good showing overall, but it does come with a couple issues.

The first is that the world is segmented and a little on the small side. The game takes place in a string of islands to mask this, and it’s not as though the game is insultingly short. However, it’s still a shame that you can see something like 1/10th of the overworld in a single view from the right angle. The other issue is that everything is made for GIANTS. In what was no doubt an effort to counteract early 3D camera trouble, the spaces in DQM are enormous. Dungeons and interiors feature vast boxes of empty space. There’s a normal, two-floor residential home with stairs you could drive a semi through. The game relies on a light smattering of environmental props to avoid feeling like Warehouse Land. This puts it ahead of most early 3D games, but it lacks the natural geography and clutter of something more modern.

A picture of one of the islands outside of combat, for scale. Note you can’t even see that dock on the map, which covers about half the island.

One last thing to note is NPCs. DQM features a fair number of people wandering its islands. It does not, however, feature a fair number of faces. There are easily over a hundred random NPCs wandering the isles, yet they share less than a dozen character models. It would be nice if we could at least get some swapped hairstyle models or something. This isn’t a huge issue given the style of game, but you do begin to question why 1/8th of the world population is shirtless muscle-dudes in weird ski masks.

…what, do you think I’m kidding?

…well, uh, I’m not.

Fun fact I found out trying to prove I’m not kidding: Absolutely no one on the internet has a picture of muscle dudes in question. Damnit.

There’s a fair bit of effort here, and it shows. But the hardware holds it back and it hasn’t aged perfectly. The result is Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker netting a respectable 7/10ths of a Pokemon.

Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals

In what may become a reoccurring theme in this series, the flaws of Spectrobes can be found by taking minor issues in DQM and multiplying them a dozen times over. The game is segmented into planets and then further segmented into small “rooms”. The indoor environments are legitimately warehouse sized, and almost completely devoid of any type of furniture or decoration. The outdoor environments lack any sort of verticality or interesting methods of traversal. They’re all flat planes in uninteresting shapes with nothing to see beyond the background and skybox. Cities are barren and lifeless. Giving them interesting backdrops doesn’t save them from being devoid of buildings, points of interest, or much of anything beyond a few token NPCs.

I couldn’t find a picture of the dull, empty cities, so here’s a combat scene instead. Aw yeah, check out how well all those minute details on Leozar translate to a tiny 3D model!

The NPC models are okay, but probably even less in number than DQM. I say “probably” because they’re all horribly forgettable. These issues are edging into gameplay and writing ones, so we’ll shelve them for now. But bottom line, some passable skyboxes and nice colors here and there don’t save this game from looking generic and uninspired.

This wouldn’t be the worst fate, but there’s one feature that makes it even worse: the camera. The camera in Spectrobes is absolutely abysmal. How bad is it? Well, DQM has a basic “hold the triggers to rotate the camera left or right” situation. No alternate angles or zooming in and out, it’s pretty basic stuff. Yet when I swapped out Spectrobes for DQM, I was hugely relieved!

So how bad is it? Well here’s how it works: The right trigger locks onto an enemy, and the left swings the camera behind you. So far so standard. It’s not as nice as free rotation, nor helped by your character’s forklift turning radius, but it’d be fine on its own. Then you try and press the left trigger while turning and everything goes to hell. As your camera is just about to line up behind you it jumps by about 90 degrees, dragging your facing with it. It’s so quick and jarring I had to open the game and do some testing to figure out what was even happening. I think it’s trying to compensate and show the direction you’ll be facing if you keep rotating. The rocket surgeons behind this strategy failed to realize this means you’ll never face where you want to when you stop rotating. Long story short? It’s a mess, and I could never get it to work properly unless I ceased moving entirely. This is something of an issue for a camera used in real-time action fight scenes.

And I’m sorry, but there’s no excuse for this. Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals came out in 2008. The arcane secrets of rotating cameras had long since been unraveled. It was also a sequel, so they had ample time to see this tilt-a-whirl pandemonium in action. So for an utterly average suite of visuals with an awful camera, Spectrobes earns a mere 2/5ths of a Pokemon.

And thus, the 1st Not-Even-Slightly-Annual Great PokeClone-Off is underway! I think we can all agree based on the results so far: This is going to be a close one! As in, by the end of this, Spectrobes fans will be close to murdering me. But who knows what could happen! Next week we’ll delve into the music of these games. Maybe Spectrobes will turn things around and earn a solid victory! I mean, y’know…it’s not impossible. It could happen.


See ya next time!

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