Sunday, 5 July 2009

Review: Shade Castle

Author: Violet CLM
Year: 2006
Genre: Single Player
Filename: FSPIID.j2l
Download: J2O

I was a bit harsh in my review of Violet's FSP: Rent Collection, so I decided to be a bit nicer and review what I believe is his best level released. I've been intending to do this one ever since I reviewed FSP, and I should have done it a lot sooner.

Shade Castle was meant to be a preview of sorts to the sequel to FSP. I don't know how much Violet ever made of this sequel, but I'd like to hope something of it might still come out one day. It would be a shame if it was abandoned like so many other projects, because while this is only a single level - and not a very big one at that - it shows a remarkable improvement over the design of the original FSP episode. None of the complaints I made in my prior review apply here.

This level, like the ones in FSP, requires you to collect a certain number of coins in order to win. The level is open-ended, so the only way to win is to explore. That's where the similarity ends, though. Unlike FSP, Shade Castle is actually designed like a JJ2 level. This means it has plenty of ammo, and special moves are encouraged rather than prohibited. Furthermore, enemies are actually used in a sensible manner. While I did find one annoying invisible wall, it was nothing serious and could only be found using RF jumping anyway. Another change is to the coin-collecting mechanism itself: in FSP you would win immediately after collecting all the coins, but in Shade Castle you have to collect all the coins and then go to the coin warp. This is only a minor difference, but it's worth mentioning.

One of the main draws of this level is that the tileset use is absolutely stunning. Violet claims he made it in a rush, but I can't see any sign of that. The level uses a tileset that is notoriously difficult to work with, and yet he's managed to pull of a completely unique look which I haven't seen in any other level. Everything has been placed perfectly, making this one of the best looking levels that I have played. One of the neat things is a lot of the eyecandy is actually made via "unintentional" use of the tiles. This sort of creative tile placement is used by many people, but often it looks more ugly than not, especially when people try to get too creative. Violet managed to sustain a good balance in this level, since it looks great. My only complaint in this area is that the spikes are often hard to see: I ran in to them by accident several times.

As for the actual design of the level, it's creative too, with a lot of fun little details thrown in to keep the player interested. The heavy use of trigger scenery really adds to this element. There aren't too many enemies, but they are used in a way that gives the player a decent challenge. Overall this means the level is fun, balanced, and dynamic. I especially liked the part where you hit a trigger crate, causing a bunch of goodies (and enemies!) to appear in a corridor you just passed. There are also plenty of moving platforms: those tend to be one of the best elements a level designer can use, because so much of JJ2 is about movement, and when the level itself moves the game becomes far more interesting.

Unfortunately, Shade Castle is not perfect. The exploration element is taken a bit too far at times, and when playing, you will probably find yourself having collected seven or eight coins (out of the required ten) and then wonder how to get the last few. Those last ones might take you a while to find. I took about twenty minutes myself. The problem is that in order to progress, you will need to find a trigger crate, which opens access to another area (which might be on the other side of the level). This area has another crate, which opens up another area, and so on. In other words, you'll be required to explore the level over and over, to find out what you just unlocked. The order is completely arbitrary, and rather unintuitive. It makes the level easy to get lost in. Also, one of the crates is very well-hidden, and you will probably miss it unless you look very closely. I'll give you a hint: it's on the same screen as one of the locked doors.

I don't consider these problems to be too severe. The occasional item hunt can be fun, and because this is just one level, it doesn't get boring. I'd have a different opinion if this were a large series of levels where I got stuck in each one: in that case, it would probably be too much, and I'd get annoyed.

Shade Castle is a very good level, and I highly recommend that you play it if you enjoy open-ended gameplay. It's also a good example of how to design a good non-linear level. I know from experience that it's easy to fall into the trap of making a level too non-linear, and winding up making something that feels more like it belongs in multiplayer. Finding a balance is important, and this level has it. All it really needs is to be a bit more intuitive. These sorts of levels often work best when the player is given small hints on where to go next, especially when triggers are being used. Text strings are the easiest method of doing this, but having arrows appear in mid-air is another useful method.

As a final note, I recommend that you save the game regularly in this level. Don't abuse the feature (since that is basically cheating), but don't underuse it either. A good idea would be to save every time you collect a few coins. The reason for this is the level does not feature checkpoints - the open-ended style prevents that. Therefore, if you die, you must play the whole thing over again. Also, saving the game in this level won't cause any problems, unlike some others which tend to crash... (and that is something I will be discussing in my next review).

I don't see any reason not to give this a 5.0. It might not be groundbreaking or anything, but it masterfully accomplishes what it sets out to do, and doesn't have any serious failings. New ideas aren't always necessary for a level to be great; often, it's better to simply take existing ideas and try to perfect them. That, I think, is something a lot of people forget, regular players and level makers both.


  • One of the best examples of open ended level design
  • Has virtually none of the problems seen in FSP
  • Very good eye candy
  • Good music (from Mega Man 7!)
  • You might have trouble finding the last few coins
  • Spikes are hard to see
  • No checkpoints means you have to save the game on your own
  • Forces you to explore certain areas in an arbitrary pre-set order

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Game board tileset

Violet has pointed out to me that the tileset I reviewed last year, Game Board, was actually uploaded to J2O. The version on J2O is called "MattBoard" and contains 20 extra tiles. It is also for version 1.24 rather than version 1.23. The different name and version of the tileset caused me to miss it completely.

I've added a review to reflect this, and updated the download link. The rest of the review remains unedited, but it's probably a bit obsolete now.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Review: Jazz Unleashed Demo

Author: BlurredD
Year: 2003
Genre: Single Player Episode
Filename: UD-Intro.j2l
Download: J2O

Jazz Unleashed Demo is a short episode by BlurredD, who is well known for being the creator of the JJ2+ patch, as well being the creator of a large number of multiplayer levels he has made over the years. He has even a few tilesets. His levels are known for being highly polished, and tend to feature some very creative ideas. This happens to be his only released single player pack.

This episode is not for the faint of heart. It may only be a somewhat obscure, short demo of five episodes from an unfinished (and probably never to be finished) episode. It is also, however, unarguably one of the most difficult JJ2 episodes ever, featuring some of the cleverest, most diabolical, and perhaps mean-spirited level design I have seen. Personally, this is the hardest episode I have ever played. It goes from fairly easy in the first level, to basically impossible in the fifth one, with everything in between being "just" extremely hard. I recommend you play this episode only if you have played a fair amount of JJ2 single player, and find most stuff to be rather easy.

It is not possible to exaggerate how hard this episode is. There are no carrots in the levels, so the only way to get them is if they are dropped by enemies. Checkpoints are common, but not common enough. There are no extra lives unless you play on easy mode. The number of enemies is not overwhelming, but they are placed in the most creatively evil ways possible. And to top it all off, bottomless pits are everywhere. (It's also worth mentioning that this episode is the first one to use instant-death pits extensively, though this is a common feature now.) Easy mode could be accurately relabeled as "extremely hard". Medium mode ought to become "soul-crushingly difficult". And as for hard mode, I'm too afraid to even think about it. Save often if you want to retain your sanity (F5 and F6 are the hotkeys), and expect to get game over several times. This is the only episode I know of where it's hard to win even if you use cheat codes to make yourself invincible.

Difficulty is not the only thing that this episode has, however. Practically nothing in Jazz Unleashed Demo is mundane; the entire thing is packed with challenges and puzzles which cannot be found anywhere else. In fact, nearly every screen features something unique, and every level has its own distinct feel. This level of originality and variation is unparalleled, and it gives the levels a very professional and polished feel which usually can't be found elsewhere. At least, that applies to the first four levels. The fifth is a different story... more on that later.

When playing this episode, I couldn't help but think of the NES game Battletoads. There is a real similarity here: Battletoads is a game that is known both for its extremely brutal difficulty, and for its tendency to have a different sort of gameplay in each level; it was totally groundbreaking despite the fact that virtually nobody could beat it. These days it's a bit easier, with the advent of emulators and savestates, but back in the early 90's none of that was available. The game was hard, and that was at a time when games were a lot harder than they are now. It's worth mentioning that it also had very good graphics for the time. Jazz Unleashed Demo has a similar level of difficulty, and like Battletoads, it is also is characterized by its varied gameplay and good eyecandy. Suffice to say, I enjoy both, and also enjoy the feeling that comes with finally beating the damn thing. On the other hand, many people have the opposite opinion, and prefer to give up in frustration than play through until the end.

If I were reviewing just the first four levels of this pack, I'd give it a perfect score without hesitation. The first level is easy and simple, but fun, and is designed in a way reminiscent of old platformers. The second level takes place on a train, and while the level design itself is limited and cramped, the theme of the level makes it fun. It is the only decent (released) level that I know of which is set on a moving train, and it manages to convey the idea rather convincingly, even though the tileset was never designed for that. The third level is where things become really unique, and it is probably the most famous level of Jazz Unleashed Demo. In it, you ride a floating rock to the other side of the level, and have to avoid all manner of obstacles along the way. It's an extremely hard level, since you have such a small space to stand on (not to mention the fact that it's moving), but at the time it was the only level of its kind, and is still quite fun - and still better than whatever shameless ripoffs have been made since. As for the fourth level, it's not as good as the other three, but still memorable: the start is particularly unique, since it forces you to run through a large cavern without running out of time. The time limit is very short, which makes for a frustrating experience when you run out a few tiles from the end, but again, this level was the first of its kind, and still the best. The rest of the level is more generic and not as interesting, but it's really the first few moments that defines it. The only complaint I have with that level is that it has an annoying block pushing puzzle that requires an obscure trick to solve.

So far so good, right? Well, unfortunately, there is one more level after that, and it is absolutely horrible. I said if I were reviewing the first four levels, I would give this pack a perfect score. Well, the opposite is true of the fifth level: if I were to review it on its own, I would give it the lowest score possible. It's that bad. The problem? The creator of this level himself has never beaten the fifth level. It is not impossible, but it requires such a superhuman level of skill that it might as well be. The lack of checkpoints and carrots doesn't help, but what really sets it apart from the rest is the fact that you can't save the game. The difficulty of the other levels is offset a bit by the save feature. Here, you have no such safety net.

No one has ever beaten this level without cheating. And no one ever will. In my book, that means it is unplayable. And if something is unplayable, it deserves a big fat 0. Or maybe a 0.5, since the scale I use here doesn't really go below "half a carrot". But maybe I'll make an exception in this case. It's that annoying!

However, not all is lost. Because Jazz Unleashed Demo has no story, and is really just a series of unconnected levels, you really don't lose out on anything if you decide not to play the final level. You can just skip it. You won't lose out on any plot, or even a little "congratulations" message at the end. I characterise this as an "episode", but the term only fits loosely. This could just as easily be a pack of five standalone levels: the only thing that really makes it an episode is that it is, technically, a demo for a larger project (which presumably has/had a storyline). Therefore, the terrible fifth level does not harm the other levels as much as it would in a normal episode, because it is not strongly connected to them.

I think I can safely say that Jazz Unleashed Demo is still one of the best JJ2 episodes ever, in spite of how it ends. Still, it's not good enough to get a perfect score. You can play the first four levels and quit. You can even pretend the fifth level doesn't exist (and I recommend you try). But one day, you'll want to see just how bad it really is, and you'll play it. And then you'll hate yourself for not listening to my advice. Due to this, I can't give this episode a perfect 5: a thing as awful as its last level is impossible to ignore completely.

And don't say I didn't warn you!


  • Extreme difficulty
  • First four levels are excellent
  • Some of the most creative level design ever
  • Extreme difficulty
  • Fifth level is utterly horrible - just pretend it's not there
  • No carrots!

Oh yeah, this thing...


I went on vacation, and when I came back I kind of lost interest in this blog. It's been about a year. In that time, I have mostly been working on finishing my single player series.

Well, it's done now. And since I'm done making JJ2 levels for quite some time, I think I might as well go back to writing about them. Plus, a few people have been bugging me to revive this thing.

As usual, I'll be focusing on single player, though I might mix it up with something else too. I also might finally get around to posting about my *own* projects, since for the first time in quite a while, I'm not actually working on one.

Can't say how long I'll keep this up before inevitably losing interest again. It really depends on how long before something else distracts me. Though, if you're interested in me keeping this up, feel free to tell me, or if you wish to, post comments.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

No updates for a while

I haven't been able to do any updates in the last week, and there won't be any coming for the next two weeks either, since I will be on holiday. I'm just posting this so you know I haven't abandoned this blog or forgotten about it. I still have ideas for new reviews and some unfinished stuff waiting to get posted, and plan on doing a bunch of writing once I get back home.