Wednesday, October 31, 2012

XCOM Blogdier: The Late Captain Ezio 'Doomsday' Auditory

at 3:55 PM
Guys this is really bad news. Soul-crushing stuff. I nearly cried, and I definitely did the Rambo thing (god fucking damnit why isn't this on youtube... you know, when he goes "RAAAAAAAARRRRRRGGHHHH" and shoots into the air). Doomsday didn't... he didn't come back from the last mission.

Captain Ezio Auditory, USMCXCOM, is survived by a turkey leg, a loving flute, and his pet Game Boy Advance. He didn't live the life he wanted us to live, he lived the live for which he wanted us to live, to have to have lived. His service for this video game campaign shall be forever remembered... mainly because I made a new soldier to look exactly like him.

Oh, right. Boo. Happy Halloween. Hope you enjoyed it / scared you.

This time the segue would have worked if I wanted to talk about tension or expendability. Dead soldiers in this game are a heavy burqa to wear. In your base hangs a memorial plaque bejeweled in their honor. Still, you won't feel any moral weight to these casualties, only a practical one. "Argh, that's another Heavy I have to start from scratch" were the words I said when Ezio died. Actually I can be pretty dramatic and probably did do the stuff at the top of the post. Okay. Whichever. I'll have some more interesting things to say tomorrow maybe. Right now the skin on my right hand is dry and cracking to the point where it hurts to type.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

NERD DETOUR! Disney Star Wars

at 10:48 PM
May as well post about this here. First let me remark that I like Star Wars - from a distance. Loved it as a kid, buried myself in the video games and Lego sets and extended universe books, still find the original trilogy to be fantastic and could watch it infinite times, and give at least a passing look at any game tie-ins (Rogue Squadrons I & II and the Dark Forces / Jedi Knight games are favorites). But these days I don't really keep up with it. I liked the prequels when I was 12 but can't stand them now, and don't follow Clone Wars or care for the ongoing BioWare subseries.

Today Disney bought the rights and announced they'd be continuing the film series. Fans are upset. My question is: why? If you loved the prequels and the continuous edits to the originals (Special Edition et al.), okay, I get it. I see why you would want George Lucas to retain control - you can stop reading now. Otherwise, where were you expecting Star Wars to go that this detours? If you despise the prequels like I do, you certainly didn't want Lucas making any more films, unless he was going to bring in completely new creative talent and let go of the reigns. Which is exactly what Disney will be doing.

There are essentially three possible futures for the series.
A.) Lucas keeps making movies
B.) Someone else keeps making movies
C.) No more movies get made
Even if it was A.), Lucas would eventually die and it would become B.) or C.). Me personally, I would've been happiest if it had ended in 1983 after Return of the Jedi, but I also don't care that much what came/comes afterward, because it couldn't/can't actively ruin what are already three good movies (although, surprisingly, Lucas DID find many ways to ruin those three with his interminable edits). More die-hard fans than myself might actually care about the 'image' of the franchise or crave more cinematic content. It's those people who should be thrilled by this announcement.

If there are going to be more movies, who would you choose to make them? The man who was perfectly okay with Natalie Portman being a lead, or literally anyone else in the world. Lucas doesn't have a film-making bone left in his body, if he ever did. He got his second chance, and it blew. We can guess that if he made any more movies, they'd be just as bad. So let someone else give it a go.

Disney has proven (with their Marvel and Pixar properties, if nothing else) that they have the resources, talent, and quality control to make at least consistently decent movies. You can argue all you want about The Avengers, Toy Story 3, and their other recent output, but the fact is, most people seem to like it. A lot. So what reason is there to expect Star Wars Episode VII+ will suck?

And even if it does suck, does it matter? Toss it into the bin with Episodes I-III and move on with your lives, presumably as professional Storm Trooper cosplayers.

Super Mallowio RPG

at 3:07 PM
It just occurred to me that if you've never played Super Mario RPG, first of all, that makes you an ass, and secondably, you probably haven't seen the scene with Mallow I alluded to yesterday. So here it is. Note that at 8 years old I found this to be SAD AS SHIT. [you only need to watch through 1:45]

XCOM Blogdier: Colonel Andrew 'Andy' 'Ice' M

at 11:28 AM
HOO-RAH! I'm not being patronizing - he says that all the time. Both in real life and the game. Because it knows. Here we have our tough-as-tissues de facto squad leader, who takes his anger out in the form of lazers, going through aliens' heads. Yeah, old Ice is so lazy he barely takes a step from the drop point before he starts settin' up shots and knockin' 'em down.

I extremely hate this idea already. See I was going to try to talk about each of the character roles and use that as a segue into discussion of the broader game architecture, but my execution in writing hardly ever lives up to my ideas. In this case, I'm not sure how to keep you interested in the discussion of a combat class that you either already know about or don't need to (and don't care to) understand in order to comprehend the post as a whole.

He's a sniper. Guess what the aliens don't have. Snipers. So you've got a leg up right there. Then again, you don't have Chryssalids. And they have four legs up on you. So who's in charge now? I don't know, and I definitely don't care. XCOM never pretends the playing field is even - in the first mission you'll watch your entire squad die. The whole way, the game wants you to feel outside of your comfort zone, like you're facing an overwhelming enemy as horrifying as that afflicting the in-game (gameic? filmic.) Earth. A lot of tension is on the table, all over the table, oh come on now it's spilling onto the floor will you just go get a paper towel. You can never see the whole playing field, new enemy types are frequently introduced (the game smartly faces you off against an alien collective rather than a species, so it can jump from Greys to Cyberdemons to Xenomorphs while keeping you guessing), and there are fights that you just can't win.

Huh I got sidetracked for the last twenty minutes watching video demonstrations of Turok weapons.

Well anyway, it's fun having a strategy game with such different, unbalanced sides. Like StarCraft, but if the Terrans could only build infantry. One of the things that bores me about Firaxis' (the dev of Enemy Unknown) most popular series, Civilization, is that it's a tech race. Since everyone essentially starts on equal footing, whoever gets tanks first tends to win. Here, you know you're going to be outgunned, so while indeed there's a race to get up to par on alien weapons and armor technology, the emphasis is on tactically outsmarting your opponent - and that doesn't mean choosing units to manipulate a rock-paper-scissors cycle (Company of Heroes, Fire Emblem, etc.). It means thinking about every move and every shot. If you don't find yourself pausing and looking around the map and scrolling through a few characters before every single move in this game, you're having a much different experience than I.

Sometimes strategy/sim games with random battles get tedious to the point where you want to be able to auto-compute the result of small skirmishes so that you can focus on the larger conflict (hi Koei!). This game doesn't belong to that category. Not because the sim parts aren't challenging and satisfying on their own, but because each tactical battle is so enthralling and rewarding.

I'll talk about that worldwide economic and political management half of the game tomorrow, when I feature our next squaddie, Maj. Elesia Bowers.

Monday, October 29, 2012

When you're buying a Virtual Console title...

at 9:00 PM
You ever hesitate to put down the $9 for a NeoGeo game because they burned you last time on some generic shmup? Now recall that those games retailed for $200+ when they were released in the '90s.

A few more rainy game songs from the editor

at 12:20 PM
From the ever lovely Baten Kaitos soundtracks:

Snow is just rain that's been kept in the freezer too long

Another JRPGA (this song has a stormy feel to me although it's from a nighttime scene exploring the slums of a city:

Let's not forget the King of All Storms:

Weird brother of prime rib:

A personal favorite, which plays as the tears of a young cloud-boy rain down from the sky after he learns he is, in fact, not a tadpole:

And here's a link from a friend in case you want to stick with the classic:

Songs of Storms

at 2:05 AM
I have decided not to believe that Hurricane Sandy exists. This might seem odd considering that I live on the East Coast and all the rainy, blustery signs point to it existing, but it just seems too convenient for Big Weather to have all of these storms that are "severe," "dangerous," and "Franken." Big Weather wants you to check the surprisingly spyware and malware filled so it can continue to finance its nefarious get you to check the weather. Thus, I have not checked the weather, and therefore I have no reason to believe the storm exists, giving me no reason to check the weather. My logic is so strong it proves my point twice! 

We could spend many hours arguing whether the storm going on outside is or is not happening, but instead, let us listen to some of my favorite video game songs they are tenuously connected to storms. I do not know anything about music, but I figure the pun in my name gives me some measure of authority.

1. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion- Wings of Kynareth

This song plays when it starts to rain in Cyrodiil. The rolling and swelling string section imitates the swirling winds during a storm and is complemented by the bouncing flute, bells, and harp(?) which create the sensation of falling rain drops. Or something. I don't know; who do I look like, John Phillip Sousa? Just appreciate how serene it is, you harpies. My favorite comment on this video has to be, "I actually literally fell in love with this game. I had the same feelings for when I played it, that I have had with my girlfriends. When I was at work, I missed it all the time and all I could think of was to come home and play it. I wish I could marry a game." He does not sound insane at all!

If only.
2. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia- Wandering the Crystal Blue
This song plays when Shanoa visits Somnus Reef, a two-tiered water level. The bottom of the stage is the ocean floor, complete with giant starfishes and the stage's boss, Rusalka (who is presumably the namesake of Ann Romney's horse). The top of the stage consists of a bunch of floating detrius and ships in a storm. There is a fine line between underwater and rainy music, because to some extent water is water and there is only so much composers can do create a watery atmosphere. Its pretty neat how the stage reflects how this song straddles that line.

3. Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess- Midna's Lament
This song plays when things appear to be at their darkest for our hero; Zant, the King of Twilight, mortally wounds Link's pal, Midna, and turns Link back into a wolf (again). Link carries a dying Midna on his back while he frantically rushes through the rain to find Zelda. The repeated descending notes of the piano express both the desperation of the situation as well as the interminable falling of the rain. The song exemplifies the pathetic fallacy of rain as inherently sad and is pretty good to listen to, besides. Shockingly, my hatred for the Zelda franchise did not exclude this song from my list like it did for the much more obvious Song of Storms. The series has stagnated more than the water on the floor of my college apartment bathroom and people continue to buy it. Way to voice your opinions through your purchasing power, sheeple. 

Here are some other songs that I was too lazy to do write ups on: 
Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past- Time of the Falling Rain
Animal Crossing- Rainy Day
F-Zero GX- Lightning
Final Fantasy X- Thunder Plains
Mega Man 4- Toad Man's Stage (Rainy Sewers)
Add your own favorites in the comments! Not that anyone comments! Or reads this blog!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Friends Known

at 11:16 PM
Keep your eyes posted this week folks, because I'll be peeling profiles on the members of my brand new XCOM: Enemy Unknown squad:

Captain Ezio 'Doomsday' Auditory
Colonel Andrew 'Ice' M
Major Elesia 'Septic' Bowers (a soon-to-be blogger)
Major Greg 'Deacon' Livingston
and introducing Rookie Kyle Reese.

[note: nicknames and rank assigned by game, not me]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

So how long do you wager until game consoles have forced commercials?

at 3:13 PM
Microsoft is no longer disguising their yearly dashboard updates as feature-enhancers. This week's "upgrade"'s only apparent purpose seems to have been to add MORE advertisements to each screen (and to remove the Zune branding, like anyone cares). You thought the old interface was nearly 100% commercials - now they've shrunken the menu tiles for all console functionality in order to squeeze in three-five more ads per page.
Which is from a comedy sci-fi movie about the gradual stupidization of society, and which is from America's most popular video game console of 2012?
Hurray (how the fuck is "hurray" not a word, spell-check?). Better yet, MS has used this opportunity to make it much harder to play games on your console without connecting to Xbox "Ad Revenue Service" Live. Previously I advocated changing your profile settings not to automatically sign in, so the ad tiles would be blank and you could connect only to game/shop. This no longer works - when you turn on your console, it forces you to sign into an account, and even if you sign back out, the ads are cached and remain on your dash.

So enjoy the transformation of your console into a billboard. It's your fault for clicking on the ads and being signed in all the time. Hope you like it. I'll be modding mine to remove the bullshit, and won't be buying Microsoft again.

Uncharted: Unchartable

at 2:06 PM
This post is a continuation of my series (does 2 count as a series?) of reviews where I tell you about a game you most likely have not thought about in over a year.  Now before you say something hurtful like "get with the times gramps," or "suck a dick fag-wad," or "you'll never amount to nothin'," or "I don't even like your band's cover of Fun, Fun, Fun by the Beach Boys," keep in mind that I don't regard anyone's opinion except my own as valid.  

I am perhaps the least qualified person to write a review of Uncharted 3 because it is seriously like this series of games was made with me in mind.  So let me check my white male privilege at the door and break this down for you, Romney style (political references are SO in right now), with my five year point plan:

A. I can do, like, a TON of pull-ups but even I envy the level of swolebro-hood that Drake pulls off in these games.  Dude has the upper body strength of a orangutan but is more stunningly handsome.  This leads me to my larger point -- namely that I want Drake's life.  Like every sad, sad, history major, I dream of launching my treasure hunting career, jet-setting around the world and using my immense historical knowledge to unravel the mysteries of time and prove to mom that an engineering degree is soooo overrated.  The plot revolving around Iram of the Pillars and T.E. Lawrence makes me feel way cooler than I should.   Plus Drake gets to kill a horde of pirates in this one.  Fuckin' awesome.  

Drake from Uncharted fame

II. Less importantly, game play.  The shooting and beat-em-up mechanics are as tight and polished as the ps3 controller will let them be.  The action is well-paced, leaving just enough time in between bouts of gun-slinging for me to cram a couple pizza bagels down my gullet.  The shoot-outs do just enough different every time to keep it from feeling repetitive and the game gives you enough cool toys to experiment with how best to murder hundreds of enemy suited-up dudes, pirates, and innocent Omani citizens.  Furthermore, the puzzles never get harder than a 4/10 on the how-long-it-takes-Andrew-to-go-to-gamefaqs-scale, which in turn makes me feel smarter than I should for solving them quickly.

Of course! The bigger ones go in the bigger ones! I am crushing it!
D. Uncharted does the whole game-saving thing right, unlike another game I played recently.  I can turn the PS3 off whenever and it will have autosaved not more than 5 minutes from that point.  I share a TV with 6 other dudes so this is a significant function.

5. The graphics are very very good, and often I will stop and admire how neat a particular wide-lens shot looks in one of a myriad of environments.  The voice acting does not make me want to choke small children and the plot, as I've mentioned, drops just enough history for me to care.

Lawrence of Arabia, was, in fact, the fucking man. Dude wrote the book on guerrilla warfare in the middle-east and he was white.
All in all, Uncharted 3 is a perfectly put together action-adventure game that does absolutely nothing new, but I don't play enough games to care about that.  I give it a fun-enough-to-play-even-when-there's-a-party-going-on-in-the-same-room/100. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Happy 100 posts to you!

at 5:21 PM
Hey y'all, check it out, 100 live posts! We've had our highs, our lows, our sick days and our deaths in the family (we miss you Jumbles), but here we are, going strong. Thanks to Andrew and Ezio for being our most loyal contributors, semi-thanks to Greg Livingston for giving it his best, and sarcastic thanks to Kyle Reese for making about two posts and never coming back! I'd thank the readers, but they don't exist. Alright. That's more than enough thank yous for one day. Try working in an office and having to deal with everyone ending every conversation, phone call, and email with "thank you", even if it's IN RESPONSE TO "thank you". It isn't polite, it just makes you sound like you aren't listening. Or like you're a member of a cult worshiping female sheep. And that's why we've made 100 posts on this blog, as a protest of sheep and all sheep-supporting products. So be sure to remember that, and remember too our dearly departed friend.
RIP Jumbles <3

A particularly vicious branching narrative

at 1:58 PM
A brief aside to my previous post, which I wanted to keep short and simple. There is a certain kind of nasty, awful, detestable, utterly indulgent form of forking narrative that is uncovered in certain games because of the discussed impermanence of any decisions made by the player. Let me run you through the example that stands out in my head, from StarCraft II. I'll note that SCII's plot already reads like pathetically vain fan-fiction ("and then the good guys and the bad guys have to team up and become friends again because a huge even bigger but not really different bad guy comes out from under the bed to get them!"), which is a crying shame because of the great writing in the original.

So here's what happens: there's this scientist lady, and she's researching the evil but sort-of-not-evil aliens in her lab. She wants something from you and you can decide whether to trust her. If you decide that she's alright, then you do some mission, get a reward, and she lives happily ever after, never to factor into the plot again. If you decide you don't like her and suspect something is up, it turns out she was an alien sleeper agent and you were right not to listen to her, and she gets killed and the game goes on no different. The idea is that whichever choice you make, the narrative world alters to make it the right one. 

This is the epitome of wish-fulfillment storytelling, where the player can do no wrong. Not every game is guilty to this extreme, but I shake my head in disgust at those that cross the line.

Choices - I choose you!

at 1:57 PM
Here's something for you to skim before moving on, as it kicked off my thought process here.

Moral choices in games are a tough nut to crack. On one hand, the notion is inherently compelling and should provide fodder for uniquely interactive experiences, allowing us to explore our own existential depths. In practice, they're fodder indeed; vapid, predictable, and a dime a dozen. Games like Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls elicit terribly little emotion and rarely drive one to self-examination in anticipation of a game-changing decision.

Here's the first reason. There's no such thing as a permanent game-changing decision. Games are discontinuous narratives, as mentioned here long ago. See, like death, the weight of morality is lost when the player can always go back and overwrite his choices. How is the extinction of some alien race supposed to carry any impact when the main character himself perishes every ten minutes? There's a fallibility to the narrative, a clear understanding that what happens may not necessarily be what was supposed to happen; this undermines the validity of every supposed "choice" and turns it into acceptable collateral damage. Christ, if XCOM: Enemy Unknown (included on their list!) doesn't demonstrate this perfectly.... It's a game where you can let Europe die if you don't feel like ANOTHER GODDAMN TERROR MISSION?
Why isn't there an option to say "Jenkies meant everything to me."
There's always a simple fork (or stack of forks, for you "but it lasted THREE GAMES!" Mass Effecters) to remember as responsible for the ongoing state of the world. The player has too much immediate control for anything to seem organic - as a matter of fact, these worlds aren't interactive at all. They don't take up a life of their own and respond to the player, they simply cave and fold as he pushes and prods. When you KNOW you're responsible for the way every piece falls into place, all that's left is a narcissistic fantasy. Even then, it's still a limited one that conforms to one of X stories that the developers wrote, so really you're just sacrificing unique character-defining moments in exchange for masturbation (see sidebar on StarCraft II*). Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change?

There are branching narratives that I find effective. As much as I hate to reduce it to a single "trick", it seems the key is keeping the system behind the scenes, outside the player's immediate attention. In this situation, moral impact is discovered, not mechanically constructed. The player may be surprised by how the world reacts and forced to re-evaluate ALL of his past actions, questioning where he went wrong. Ambiguous morality can't be achieved simply by investing each choice with a sprinkle of good and a dash of evil - all that creates is a checkerboard. The choices themselves need to be hidden. See Ogre Battle 64 (or any of Quest/Matsuno's numerous games), the original XCOM: UFO Defense, probably need another example here.

If you think morality-choices as currently popular are anything but a shallow gimmick, let me ask you this: when was the last time you picked up a Choose Your Own Adventure paperback instead of a novel?

Who am I fucking kidding, no one reads.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Response to Yourself's "In-game Politics: Part One"

at 8:03 PM

In answer to Yourself's question about where the Empire vs. King narrative occurred in history: 

Other than the resentment that a few monarchs had towards the Byzantine Empire, there is no real Emperor vs. King conflict in the medieval period, because, again, the Holy Roman Empire does not count. Fantasy games are simply re-appropriating a narrative constructed in a later era and imposing it on a medieval setting. The Empire vs. King archetype came from the American Revolution where a democratic group opposed a mad controller of an exploitative empire. All fantasy stories have to be set in the middle ages because that is when Lord of the Rings took place, so in order to use this narrative that is instilled into the American character, fantasy games always portray the king/queen/prince/princess/frog-princess as being a monarch of the people, thereby making them seem like they are "democratic" and sympathetic. No medieval monarch was ever like that, because they were not raised to think that their peasants were worthy of rights or food for that matter. Fantasy stories stretch the truth in order to make it applicable to a modern audience who were raised to love when Democratic underdogs take on an evil empire. 

Yourself might claim that this narrative is boring and black and white, but there is a lot of evidence which suggests that this narrative is loved and valued by Americans:

1. America's decision to join World War I. There was no real difference between Emperor Wilhelm II and any other monarchs, but we convinced ourselves that the German Empire was evil, so that we had the moral grounds to enter the war. We had an obligation to join the other pseudo-democratic powers, like England, to combat the "totalitarian" empire because of this narrative. 

The Once and Future Jedi
2. The democratic minded Princess Leia and her struggle against the Empire. Star Wars is set in the past (well the future, but you know what I mean) but we still keep the story of Empire vs. King the same. Tolkien did not use this narrative in his stories, because he was not American, but in our fantasy stories we do.

This is not to say Yourself is wrong in his assessment of the genre. I can think of exactly zero video games who are able to take this narrative and apply it to a medieval fantasy setting successfully, and can think of about a billion that do it poorly (looking at you Fire Emblem!). To be fair to the industry, it is a bit difficult to make this story work in a medieval context, and difficult things are hard to do!

What's with Kingdom battling Empire? Part 1 of a look at in-game politics.

at 3:57 PM
A major plotline in two of the games I'm playing right now, The Witcher 2 and Yggdra Union, revolves around a conflict between a kingdom (with hereditary rule) and a conquering empire. In each game, the kingdom serves as the "good guys" and the empire as "bad", most characters falling clearly on one side of the black-and-white conflict and being designated heroes or villains accordingly. That players are supposed to parrot the patriotic sympathies of the main characters has always been baffling to me - then again, so are American politics and the willingness to toss individuality to the wind in favor of partisanship. Still, it's a pretty stupid plot device, and I'll explore how after posing a historically motivated question that will receive no answer because this is a blog and not a

So where the fuck in history does this come from? Everyone knows that political conflicts in fiction all come from political conflicts in history (some more specifically than others), because Fantasy is essentially Period Piece with Dragons. I'm not saying it's not real, I'm saying I don't know and am curious, because it seems well-enough known that game developers so commonly employ it. The kingdoms in the examples I'm thinking of are pretty feudal, so it would have to be post-Rome and pre-Renaissance (in the West, where these games are ostensibly set). But when I think of feudalism, I think of the world divided into tiny pieces, and pretty much an empire-free period where all conflicts were localized. Sure there's the Holy Roman Empire, but every history book and its brother will tell you that was 99% a name and 1% a real political entity. Then if I forget about feudalism for a second and think empires, when was there ever a big emperor versus kings showdown? Rome was always fighting it out with barbarians and other empires (Carthage etc.), Britain was more about enslaving the third world, one village at a time, and... everything else I can think of was too different a time or place to serve as inspiration for this kind of fantasy.

Well I guess I probably could post it to Yahoo Answers. Okay, BRB. Will update you when I hear the word on that. 

Kinda now feeling like going on a tirade about whatever dickhead decided fantasy had to include king and queen politics. Tolkien never did none of that bullshit, and since the rest of fantasy is just a matter of plagiarizing him, I have to wonder where it came from. Oh well. I'm saying it here, now, for all eternity. No one gives a shit about King & Queen politics; it isn't Shakespearean, it's boring.

Maybe it's a difference of opinion and upbringing in the country of origin for these games, but in the States we tend to have been taught to frown upon monarchy as a generally unjust, unbalanced, and cruel system of governance, where those who inherit power do so by chance and their quality of rule is just as random. I can't say that my education has predisposed me to view empires and kingdoms any differently. As a matter of fact, the notion usually was that the most patriotic thing a people can do is depose a dictator. So when a game like Yggdra Union or Odin Sphere (Mercedes' quest) wants me to jump behind a hereditary princess and help her to the throne to replace a tyrant... my immediate desire is instead to kill the tyrant AND the young tyrant-in-the-making princess. As a matter of fact, the emperor who seized power actually seems to be the lesser of two evils, as he apparently earned his title through political motivation and ambition. The princess only is such because she had the right parents. Do players in the 21st century view that as just cause for a war?
Hopefully you can tell from those heels that she's Queen material, because
the game isn't about to give you any other reason why she's the hero
The best these games can do is tap on misplaced patriotism, and the worst they can do is incite it. Loyalty, honor, the will of the gods; these are archaic themes that are despicable to see pandered to an impressionable audience who ought to in turn spurn this type of content. But instead they want a flag to wave, to be able to forget their identities and fall into lockstep with a dictatorial ideology, whether fantastic or real.

EDIT: Since Andrew WAS SO UNHAPPY about my Japanese examples: Skyrim. That's only the most popular/acclaimed game of the last five years.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Stupidest lyrics on Ziggy Stardust, straight up

at 8:25 PM
Five Years - "Drinking milkshakes cold and long" - The Longest Milkshake

Soul Love - "All I have is my love of loves, and love is not loving" - A better rhyme hasn't been written since Gang of Four rhymed "bikini" with "bikini" with "h-bomb" (yes I did steal that joke)

Moonage Daydream - "I'm an alley gator!" Whole song is dumb but it's the classic

Starman - "Let all the children boogie" - As comical as is the word "jive", "boogie" somehow beats it (and "jive" gets its time in the sun later...)

It Ain't Easy - "Hoochie coochie" - don't even know

Lady Stardust - "Boys stood upon their chairs / to make their point of view" - no, this isn't how we express this idea in English

Star - Song is kinda forgettable, huh

Stuck on this - it's weird how many
times he was photoed with a shake
Hang on to Yourself - "We move like tigers on vaseline" - I can't imagine a tiger on vaseline being very graceful... is that what he's saying? (also note that this is the song where the Spiders? aspect comes up)

Ziggy Stardust - Your pick - "Jamming good with Weird and Gilly" brings a smile to my face, but I think I lol every time I hear "jiving us that we were voodoo" (I think cuz it sounds like even Ziggy is a little confused about what it means)

Suffragette City - "Awwwwwwwwwwwww... SUFFRA-JYATT!" - never understood how this fits into the album

Rock n' Roll Suicide - Actually this song has great lyrics

David ponders which shake was the longest... write in with your answer!


You know a funnier blogger would've done "Stupidest ten Ziggy [...] as photoshops". I'm nearly crying at the missed opportunity that is "Suffragette City". Though I don't much know how to visualize "jiving". 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

NiGHTS does plenty of other stupid stuff, don't worry

at 4:35 PM
-What the hell is going on at the beginning of each stage when you're the walk-around guy/girl and get hit by an enemy, every bone in my video gaming brain tells me "go chase them", not "ignore what's going on and go run into that dancing guys".
-Why are those blue orbs called chips and how long is it supposed to take to figure this out?

-Why are you even allowed to prematurely drop off orbs (chips) when you don't have enough to finish the stage? It offers no apparent benefits and serves to severely confuse what is going on
-It's a racing game but you want to take as long as possible to finish a course
-Did Nights just turn tiny?
-When you touch an enemy, sometimes you grab it and sometimes it grabs you (hurts you). Luckily when you're moving at 170 mph and the graphics are upscaled 32-bit 3D, it's SO easy to tell which is the safe and which is the sharp side of the enemy
-Who thought it made sense that when Nights touched an enemy, he would latch onto and slowly orbit it in a rigidly motionless position? It takes three and a half years to even figure out they're supposed to BE enemies because of this unresponsive, irregular behavior and their unceremonious introduction in seemingly random placement throughout courses.

This is mostly harmless silliness, if moronic enough to engender utter bewilderment on first encounter. It's the very bizarreness that makes the game memorable. However, two particular flaws stand out as outright poor design and take the fun factor down a couple pegs.

The boss battles exist in their own world of preposterousness, removed even from the rest of it. They're not necessarily built on bad mechanics (though yes, the mega-pirahna battle is atrocious), they just each have a completely unique set of rules that goes without any explanation from the game. Perhaps they could get away with this vague experimentation-oriented approach, IF exactly everything else in the world didn't contradict that. The fights are timed, they're scored based entirely on time, they're at the end of every normal stage, and dying (running out of time) immediately sends you back to the stage select screen. So you can kiss goodbye to those four A runs because the ten-second boss battle completely screwed it up.
"I never realized Gulpo was a parana(sp?), mainly because I've never had the game. How do you beat him?"
-MermaidNeko, 6 years ago to this very day

The second fault is universally present throughout the game and manifests in a few ways. It speaks of a product not properly or objectively tested, or not given enough time for completion. The entire novelty of NiGHTS is as a 2.5D flying game that has you zooming through interconnected paths threading a continuous 3D world. But this notion of navigating a 3D world in 2D is completely botched because the developers couldn't figure out how to or didn't think they needed to establish a concrete plane of existence for the player character itself.

Let's briefly compare to another pioneering 2.5D game, Klonoa. Klonoa is perfectly successful with this idea of interlooping paths and avid dudes might remember I called the sequel one of the best platformers (and hence games) of all time, thanks largely to its spatial execution. How does it succeed where NiGHTS fails? Easy, really. The game has ACTUAL paths. Klonoa walks on the ground, so you can always see where his next step is going to be. If he's about to veer off toward the screen or into the background, you know because you can see the footpath leading in that direction. NiGHTS doesn't have that, so it comes up with a substitute, an age-old mechanic used to designate paths: collectibles. Rings, stars, and orbs sketch out the general idea of where you're supposed to go, while leaving room enough for improvisation.
Here is a bird's eye view of NiGHTS, as seen by an actual bird. I've flattened the Z dimension into the page, as if we were looking straight down into a fishtank from above. This green rectangle represents an entire level (3D) and the colored curves are the "mares", or 2D rails, that Nights is locked to. The purple triangle dude is Nights, the eye and black lines the camera and its field of view, and the orange dots are collectibles. The dotted purple line is the apparent 2D plane Nights is traveling through. Notice that based on your perspective, you'd expect Nights to be picking up the rightmost orange, but he actually flies right by it. Then notice that based on his current trajectory, you're expecting him to fly into the orange on the yellow path, but actually he's about to turn and fly toward one that currently appears in the background
Where they fucked up is execution - it's the right idea, but it doesn't work AT ALL, and if anyone except the dev team had laid their hands on the game prior to release, they could easily have pointed this out. The collectibles in the entire 3D level are always visible, and nothing is done to distinguish foreground from back-, so you'll constantly find yourself asking "Can You Get to That?". Why do objects that I CAN'T collect need to be visible? Just hide them until I get to that part of the level! It's perfectly counter-intuitive design. First you put the rings there to show the player where to go, and then you put in more rings that the player can't get to, so it won't be clear where to go. There's also a big problem where Nights will take a ninety degree turn sometimes with no warning, making what appeared to be the background suddenly into the playing area.

Eventually memorization will take over for sight-guessing the paths, but this is cold comfort and virtually the definition of bad game design.

It's frustrating because you can tell they had the right idea and their heart on the right track, then they fumbled it so severely. It's not quite at the level of "if only they had the right perspective and time, think of how things could've went down..."; more like "this could've been a good game. Instead it's the mangled corpse of a good game."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On T2 and D3: In this corner, we have Diablo III

at 6:50 PM
Arnold's greatest role
Yes, T2, the Judgment Day, rarely, and perhaps fairly so, compared to the third film of the Mighty Ducks franchise, where I believe they all went to college or some such. Terminator 2 is better, it's like a million times better, it's definitely the best Terminator movie and perhaps Arnold's greatest role (who cares?).

Now that I'm done paying lip service to a joke that I wrote last week, because that's what comedy is, let's talk turkey: Terminator whoa lol typo IRL I mean Torchlight II, Diablo III's biggest mainstream competitor. Torchlight II is a relatively sudden sequel (it's <2-year dev-cycle cowering beneath D3's 11 years in the pipe) capitalizing on the unexpected success of the first game. Torchlight itself was an action-RPG descended from Diablo and rightly so, as the creative personnel from the former Blizzard North were responsible for its development (including the composer - love those tunes).

Torchlight was, well, fucking fun, simple, and cheap. Didn't even have multiplayer. Torchlight II "corrects" that last bit by bringing to the table that element so craved by mindless e-junkies, but otherwise its improvements on the first game are sparse. The visuals are fairly identical, the classes more reshuffled than new, and the levels... as randomized as ever. So hey, it's more SNK's idea of a sequel than what we have today, but it still feels more refined than the first game (at least from the first act). Because I'm lazy and because both games are generational contemporaries of D3, I'm going to refer from here on to "Torchlight" as a single entity encompassing both games. Also because you can get BOTH Torchlights for barely half the price of D3.
Somehow, Torchlight ends up looking the more WoWy of the games, despite the outcry of so many Diablo fans that III looked more like WarCraft than Diablo
Diablo III is far more striking than Torchlight. It grabbed me and made an immediate impression - both the Voodoo Guy and Monk classes gave me familiar but refreshing gameplay from the geckos. By comparison, I played the first few quests with three of Torchlight II's four classes, all of whom immediately fell into recognizable roles: the summoner, the ranged (amazon/hunter/whatever), and the brute. It feels old; comfortable, but dated. This is exacerbated by Torchlight's such closely timed releases, which left little room to do anything unexpected. The immediate experience, those first few clicks, certainly put me in D3's corner. Maybe Torchlight was a fun stopgap, but now Diablo was BACK.

A few hours into each (aren't demos fucking great? Helping you make decisions and all? Thanks, consoles!), that impression had been largely inverted. Yeah, the snappy and visceral melee crunching makes D3 quickly rewarding, but it suffers hugely from the aforecomplainedabout skill system, on two fronts. Strategically, because Blizzard has done everything they can to simplify combat - the way they've limited slots and dropped hot-swapping feels like consolification (funny, since of the two games, Torchlight is the one available on consoles). What it comes down to is that you essentially pick one skill to be your mainstay, put that on the left mouse button, and click away. There's no encouragement toward or room for experimentation in the early game - as I discussed before, every new skill requires an old one to be swapped out, so at low levels when you only have access to two or three of those slots, it's an extremely rigid experience.

The simplified skill development has also resulted in a de-RPGing of the game. Every character is the same and all new skill upgrades come at fixed levels. Beyond the loss of customization, this is a pretty powerful deterrent to level progress. In these hacking RPGs, one of the biggest things that keeps you going is the urge to get "just one more" level up, one more skill point to put just where you want, giving X spell that extra status effect you've been waiting on or earning a new summon for your reanimated army. Take build determination out of the player's hand, and all of a sudden that determination wanes. If I'm playing a fire-centric caster at level 13, and D3 has decided for me that there isn't a new fireball boost until level 17, that pretty significantly moves back the goalposts, and maybe soon they vanish from view altogether.

After the [period of time it takes me to regain the energy to make a post], I'll talk about what Torchlight II does in contrast to these missteps, and also some of what fucks it up.

Hey, this post kind of was a Judgment Day! Thanks T2 for being as timely and accurate as ever!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Let's Play Sonic Adventure (Side B)

at 1:00 PM

Yourself spent a whole post talking about D2 without bringing up the Dreamcast horror title, so I figured I'd make up for it by posting more Sonic Adventure stuff.
This week, I've got the second half of Let's Play Sonic the Adventure. Sonic Adventure has plenty of bits that aren't fun, even within Sonic's stages, the supposedly good parts. Still, I find myself drawn to them, and there's something nifty about each one.

Uh oh. There's more videos after the jump.

Yum, brownies for the heart (A recipe review?!)

at 4:54 AM
Hey out there, bloggendarmerie [blog readers; France, 19th century], here's what definitely won't be a new feature because it's boring to read and so far out of my realm of qualification that, well, never mind, I'm not qualified for anything I do or say here in even the slightest. But what does qualification really mean...?

[cue speculation, contemplation, meditation, soul-searching, brain-searching]

Huh, turns out I did all those self-journeys for nothing; "qualification" is right here in the dictionary.

My friends and robots know me as a bit of a cookery and bakery; I am as exploratory within the culinary arts as I am among games, music, and literabooks. These days, thanks to the Internet (thanks) and the Food Network, literally anyone can cook literally anything ever. The only barriers to entry are literacy, a few cheap kitchen supplies, and access to a grocery. If you can literate, you can cook.

That puts a fresh batch of brownies only a midnight craving and a browser's click away, and hit with such an imperative on this very night, with no particular recipe in mind, I landed on a thinly veiled Genesis reference, Alton Brown's Cocoa Brownies [AB[A]C[A]B (Abacab)]. In the past and future, I've found dear old Alton's recipes to be somewhat lacking in personality - a positive to my mind, leaving customization to ME, the cook - and all too often reliant on some ridiculous contrivance to bestow a dish with "perfection" (for Sweet Baby Ray's sake, just look at what he goes through to make a grill). But I did spend many of my would-be formative years as a would-be professional chef hinging on every word he said, and this here brownie recipe lacks his trademark gimmickry. So I said, "okay. Make a brownie."
........................k brownie monsters
If you didn't read the linked recipe, it's basically a handful each of sugar, eggs, cocoa, and butter, and a lil' bit o' flour. It calls for more eggs (four) and a bit more cocoa than your daily dessert deity might demand, but doesn't further deviate from the beaten path except to incorporate affirmative action in the sugar department: 1c sugar (white) and 1c sugar (brown).

The results were deceptively plain. Brownies are brownies, meaning they're a treaty bird no matter how well or poorly composed, and this particular batch is certainly a chocolate delight just waiting to bring the children back home. What's lacking is anything to stop immediate dissolution into the collective memory of "brownie". They're just normal, probably better than the ones in the Betty Crocker box, but not noticeably so. The texture, possibly thanks to the four eggs, is a weird middle ground between the ever-polarizing "cakey" and "chewy". They're dense as a doornail and moist as a middle fingernail, yet crumble and refuse to stay in carefully measured aesthetically pleasing golden rectangles.

One can't review a recipe without giving lip service to the lurking omnipresent paradox: does the recipe suck, or is it just the cook? I neither desire nor intend to answer this question, because honestly I feel like I'm never going to write another one of these. Oh while I'm at it, I guess...

I give Alton Brown's Phoned-in Cocoa Brownies a: This is a recipe I could spout out off the top of my head out of 10

Friday, October 12, 2012

On D2 and D3: Which is better?

at 12:29 AM
For about a year when I was 16, then again when I was 20 or so, I suffered under a powerful malady. That affliction is known to the wider gaming public as D2: The Mighty Ducks. A gripping film brimming with love, triumph, defeat, black people playing hockey (?), and Queen's "We Are the Champions", Disney's D2 has spent the two decades since 1994 pulling at the heartstrings of America's youths and adults alike. Sadly, those who took "D2" above to refer to this age-old tragicomedy will be sorely disappointed to learn that I meant Diablo II.

Yes, just about every review of Diablo III started with the writer giving a long-winded story about how he/she "spent many long nights" in the thrall of 2000's Diablo II, perhaps losing a girlfriend, house, homework assignment, or dog over it. I don't think my tale is quite as pathetic, mostly because (in my original run) I was playing on a shared family PC that sat in our living room, significantly limiting and publicizing the amount of time I spent online. I still of course loved the game (as did just about anyone who let it sink its claws in deeper than level 5 or 6) and spent more hours with it than I care to calculate, so it's no mystery how anxious I was to get my hands on Diablo III.

The trick with these addictive types of games is that "once you pop, you can't stop", as Dave Pringles famously said - but if you don't start [pop] at all, you probably won't get the fuss. So when my machine (a 2010 laptop with integrated graphics) failed a quick Can You Run It lookup for D3, I said "whatever" and moved on. What I learned from this is twofold: A.) don't trust anything Can You Run It says about integrated video because it's probably wrong and B.) always try the demo. On my way to play StarCraft II today I decided to give the Diablo III "Starter Kit" (i.e. demo) a spin, and lo and behold, it ran fine. I didn't even look at the graphics settings -  whatever it auto-adjusted to (I'm guessing the lowest levels) ran as smooth as you could want (well, like, probably 30 fps or so - fast enough that there was no visible lag).

Man again my boring stories take up way more space in a post than I expect. You'd think you were reading some asshole's blog and not a professional video game journalism site. But that's what everyone thinks, here at IGN.

Diablo III's skill system is stupid, that's what I'm here for you to learn. It's not exactly awful, but why they decided to take such a step back from D2 is beyond me (or is at this point in the post beyond me - later we'll learn that I know exactly why and I'm just being a good storyteller, you're welcome). I can see why Blizzard thought it was time to shake up the old skill-tree paradigm which has been languishing since the '90s, that every RPG and its brother, and its brother-in-law, has done to death. But uh, just completely dropping custom leveling for fixed unlocks seems a bit backwards. The system is quite simple to explain: at fixed levels, you unlock a predetermined skill which can then be swapped into a categorized slot. Unlike D2, you can't assign any skill to any slot - instead, you have Primary, Secondary, Defense, etc. skills and one slot for each, so at any given time you can only have one of each equipped. That means that every time you level up and gain a new skill, you have to sacrifice an old one if you want to equip it. 

There are no "skill points" to be allotted; once a skill is unlocked, its strength is determined solely by your gear. That means the only point of customization is equipment - stripped down, every level 67 Barbarian is identical to every other, meaning there are only ten characters you can ever make: male and female (superficial difference) of each of the five classes. The game clearly knows this, as there are only ten save slots.

According to Blizzard and fans, this system is to allow a player to alternate styles at any given time, without needing to create a new character (or hack to "respec" their old one). According to me, this system means that unless you intend to max level every character you play, certain skills will always be locked away from you. Forgive me for being a "casual" player, but I don't necessarily pick up a game with the intention to pour hundreds of hours into it, nor expect to have to do so to access all its content. Even with a dungeon-hack like this, I lose a significant amount of steam once I've been through the story - even as much as I loved D2 (see above), I never came even close to maxing out a character, so I certainly don't intend to this time.

What Blizzard is doing, and you can hardly blame them for it, is catering solely to hardcore fans ("gamers") - the people who KNOW as soon as they purchase the game, "I WILL spend 500 hours on this". Those are the only ones who are going to appreciate this new skill system, and who are dedicated enough to grinding for gear to customize their avatar. That uh, fucking sucks for us who have jobs and bills.
Blizzard: A once-great developer now making games for this guy (girl?) instead of the rest of us

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Last Blade 2!

at 2:56 PM
You may remember in this post I mentioned that my highest recommended Wii Virtual Console SNK fighter was The Last Blade. Aren't we so lucky as to have the sequel released today! As per SNK tradition, the game is more a baby step than a sequel, adding four new characters and uh... aerial blocking. Not much to be excited about. But now at least (if you've not already spent your points on the first game) you can know you're getting the best version.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

NiGHTS is so weird

at 5:21 PM
Everyone here knows I've played a lot of games, and you'd be doing yourself and my ego a service by admitting it. Hm, inbox is pretty quiet. Is there anybody in there?

I know how abstract, bizarre, and Japanese things can get. Blaster Master is about a boy using a tank he found in his backyard to chase down a frog - see how mundane that sounds? That's a perfectly average video game premise. Pac-Man was being chased around a maze by ghosts, what the hell was happening there? You start puttin' plans under microscopes and nothin's gonna make sense. There are a lot of blanks, because the storytelling is indirect and expository narrative is minimal; our brains can pretty easily make sense of and/or ignore these bizarre setups. It may not be in the text of the game, but everyone knows that Super Mario Bros. is about an eight year military campaign against the Koopa Army throughout which Bowser sires the eight "Koopa Kids" who will go on to lead his forces in years to come. And don't even get me started on the Kirby games, a satire of the cop-on-the-edge-playing-by-his-own-rules filmic cliche.

There are also those games which are simply dedicated to symbolism, like El Shaddai and Shadows of the Damned, or function as extended metaphors, like Bit.Trip or Braid. Feeling like a bit of a broken record with those examples, so you can fill in your own if you're tired of them. You didn't think I was going to put effort into writing this, did you? There are also downright abstract games of the Rez-delineated nature. 

That's why I don't use the term 'weird' loosely. As a matter of fact I'm sure I do use the term 'weird' loosely, but I don't mean it. It's not a very descriptive word. It's like 'fucking [adj]', it only exists in my vocabulary as a placeholder for whatever word I really meant but couldn't come up with because my brain was dumb. My brain has certainly gotten dumber over the years, which is why this blog is full of so much inappropriate language. Once upon a time I knew how to write a paper.

Oddly this is one case where I'd say the American commercial is stranger than the Japanese - what the hell was Sega of America thinking with their hyper-aggressive marketing back in the day? It didn't help the Genesis beat the SNES, so...?

Yet no word but 'weird' really captures the effect that NiGHTS has. It's not because it's about an androgynous jester flying around physics-defying dream-worlds, it's because, what the hell is going on at any point in time. The game is full of unpredictable nuisances and unuintuitive gameplay mechanics that seem to come out of nowhere. The only scenario I can conceive for the game's development, short of Sonic Team having brain damage, which they do, is that some guy had a dream about a game, typed it out and put it through a free translation program into English and then back into Japanese, then gave it to someone he'd never met before and told them to make it happen. You can almost hear the game designer saying "wait, so the birds have baby heads... and if you smash them together with enemies it makes the music change?"

It feels like it was either cobbled together from unused mechanics from other games, or like it intended to expand much further on its own ideas but was never finished. The sparse level selection, the lack of intros or outros (for stages or for bosses), the unexplained scoring system (eventually you'll figure out that the game is about doing as many laps as possible), the division into two character campaigns which have no noticeable differences (they both turn into Nights as soon as the level starts), the words (Nightopia, Nightmaren, Mares), it's all just severely lacking in reason or justification. Everything in the game makes me say "WHAT?!" then "ugh, why?"

And that's without even touching on whatever the hell this is. Seriously, listen to it. I'm talking to you.

It's pretty fun though. Possibly the stupidest fucking game ever manufactured, but better than the typical Sonic Team output. Though it does revolve around their claim to fame, a camera that is far too close, obscuring what's coming next and forcing memorization. And also, everything is way too bouncy, it's fucking annoying.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

XCOM = Sw33t (updated to say FUCK YOU MICROSOFT)

at 11:45 PM
Not a real post here, just felt like saying the XCOM: Enemy Unknown demo felt awesome, surprisingly cinematic for a turn-based strategy, surprisingly visceral for a turn-based strategy, and like it preserved just about everything that made the original game so deep and replayable while maintaining a modern level of accessibility. Only choice left is whether I should buy it for 360 or PC - my laptop can only stomach the lowest graphics settings and the framerate hiccups when the explosions really go down, but I'm really going to miss mouse control. Using a console pad to point to locations on a grid is plain tedious; there's a reason you don't see anyone using an N64 controller to make their monthly audit report in MS Excel.

I want to go play the old game but feel like now I've been spoiled by high-def head explosions.
Ah, figuring out these old pictorial interfaces is always such a blast.
Edit: ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME MICROSOFT?! I actually did start a new game and then fucking Windows decides it's time to restart without warning (updates!) while I'm in the middle of a fucking fullscreened battle. Who the hell decided it was an acceptable practice to interrupt all processes and shutdown just for a stupid OS update? Pester me all you want with notifications, but don't take over my goddamn machine. How has no one ever lost money because of this and then turned it into a lawsuit against MS?

Let's Play Sonic Adventure (Side A)

at 1:00 PM
So, recently, I've been working on this thing. It's another coop LP with yourself Yourself, only Yourself isn't there.

I see a lot about design in 2D Sonic games (cough), but I haven't come across much on 3D Sonics. I guess that's to be expected, but I think Sonic Adventure deserves a look. Depending on your region, it came out in 1998 or 1999, but it feels like an early 3D platformer. Sonic Adventure fumbles about, seeing what 3D can do for the platforming genre; it just kinda strikes out at any idea that grabs its fancy.

Maybe this speaks to my lack of experience, but I get the feeling most 3D platformers from that era fit in one of two categories: either you have corridors, like Crash Bandicoot, or wide open plains, like Super Mario 64. Actually, I can't think of any other corridor platformers off the top of my head. What was Croc like, again?

[G]Regardless, Sonic Adventure straddles the two, breaking free from corridors without going all-out open-ended. This hardly makes Sonic Adventure unique, but it does make Sonic Adventure a game that I enjoy.

I'll let the videos speak for themselves. This week, I'll post the first half of the LP. [ed: click past the break for the rest of the videos]