Thursday, January 31, 2013

Trying to use a different perspective: A bioblog.

at 2:54 PM
Okay the first draft went off the rails, fast, so let's get straight to it. This is going to be completely indulgent 'introspection' no matter how I approach it, so there's no point in trying to soften the blow. You won't care about any of this. You've been fairly warned.
Fly, you fools!
My history with games can be summarized through just a handful of events. I first got my hands on an NES at age 3 (I have an older brother) and remember spending most of my time on Super Mario Bros. 3, Ninja Gaiden 3, Ultima III (okay now it's getting weird), Mega Man 3 (I'm not even joking), and Batman (phew). It was merely a pastime - I had the kind of parents that put a strict 30-minute daily limit on TV and video games (though Christ I hated being forced to go outside). I'm glad I was thus restricted - while "Bloody Tears" certainly hits me with a wave of nostalgia enough to call forth [bloody] tears, I didn't form the kind of unbreakable rosy spectacles that irrelevantize the opinions of many gamers of my generation. SMB3 straight up blows. So does Final Fantasy VI. I'm not claiming that I'm above subjectivity, only that it's subjectivity of a different kind. I feel a bit adrift in the video game timeline - I'm as likely today to pick up a Genesis game as I am one for 360, and I try to evaluate them in the same light. I don't like saying "well that's just the way things were back then", because I'm not playing it back then. Plenty of old games don't subscribe to supposed limits of their time; Demon's Crest is brilliant. So is XCOM: UFO Defense.

Trying to place everything on a level playing field is part of my larger push, especially with this blog, to evaluate games based on their ideas, not their mechanics. To jump ahead a few years, the most recent step (or second most recent - the latest is probably this blog itself) in my evolution as a gamer was taking on the role of creator. I developed my first game prototype at age 21 (three fucking years ago!) and, well, it didn't like, completely revolutionize my outlook on life or anything, but it instilled in me a voracious hunger to play every game ever. Why? Because when you're creating something, it's impossible to get rid of the niggling sensation that it's been done before. You may not care - as I've realized, you have to not care - but it's still there. My first attempt at a game (and I should say "our", because it was done as a team of three) was a puzzle-platformer called Organ Donor, starring a skeleton who picks up bones and uses them to create tools (hammer, bridge, and ladder were all we got around to implementing). The bone-building mechanic developed naturally from the idea of a skeletal protagonist, but I always knew in my heart that the game was really just A Boy and His Blob.
Ha! Fucking Organ Donor! You can't tell this was a couple students' first game, right?!?!?!
So now I'm on a quest to play anything and everything I can get my hands on, both to remind myself that everything is a derivative, but also that everything is driven by ideas that someone found worth bringing into the world. Classifications exist for a reason, but games can't be simplified down to their mechanics, or their period of origin, or the community surrounding them. They're an artistic medium, a physical communication of intangible concepts that tells a story, no matter how minimalist, nonsensical, or abstract. Every story is valuable and unique. Yeah, a lot of them are stupid as hell or impossible to comprehend or just so frustratingly presented that you can't be asked to give a damn. But there's almost always something to take away, even from just five minutes of play. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying every game is "good" or that you have to like everything, but that my experience has broadened as I've come to accept games for what they are, rather than wielding expectations like a chainsaw and turning everything into a comparison. It's why I don't really write reviews and DEFINITELY don't give scores. The fact is, what any one person has actually played (and in particular, games that are widely known) only constitutes like .001% of the games ever made, so your comparisons are bullshit anyway. Remember that next time you use a superlative (which I do ALL THE FUCKING TIME).

Look at something like the NES Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It's reviled as one of the worst games of all time, and a quick peek at youtube will tell you why. The controls are wonky as a motherfucker, the levels are ungodly repetitive, and it's way too hard. Beyond that, though, I actually think it's a neat idea. Sure, Robot Louis Stevenson novels have no place being adapted as side-scrolling platformers, but the representation of a man losing control to emotion by displaying the world as a freaky horror show ('through his eyes'), forcing scrolling (he can't stop himself!), and inverting progress (the civilized moves in opposition to the animal) is actually pretty clever. I'd venture to say (hilariously unnecessarily) that RLS (R.L. Stein?) himself couldn't have come up with a better way to present that story (which I should clarify that I haven't read and am assuming is basically Incredible Hulk). It's a damn good idea! It succinctly translates the core conflict of the story into a playable mechanic. Make the Jekyll portions a competent platformer (I'm imagining a bourgeois Sonic) and swap in Air Zonk for Hyde, and suddenly it's a classic.
Whining shtick critics like Boggle and The Mad Gaming Dork aren't going to mention that, because they don't take anything away from a game except the immediate time spent playing it. That's something else the role of creator instilled in my experience - the question "what could be changed to make this a good game? How would I have done better?" But the purpose of shit reviewers isn't to ask how to further the medium, but to explode one minor thing they don't like into a tantrum of epic proportion. I've never seen [yeah like I can name an art critic] profanely screaming at the finger of a statue for being improperly proportioned. Execution is indeed key - good ideas do not equal good games, as I mentioned when discussing Anarchy Reigns. You can't play an idea. Nonetheless, anyone truly interested in the medium should recognize a good idea and think about how could that be a good game. I'd say that Jekyll and Hyde is no more deserving of a "worst game ever" accolade than is the conceptually vapid and satisfactorily executed Grand Theft Auto IV - the latter game inspires in me no dreams of a better execution, because there's nothing there that ever could be worth playing, no matter how it was presented.

I was originally going to go on about Darksiders, but this is a long post and I've already made my quota of stupid, unretractable claims for the day. Plus I have enough to say about Darksiders to constitute a post of its own, beyond my commentary about who gives a shit if it's some kind of ripoff king.

Bonus time: our blog from baby's first Organ Donor is still up! http://organdonorgame.tumblr.com/ Check it out and see why I had a bunch of huge arguments with our artist about why do the sprites face the fucking screen! Also, I don't know why the final blog post says we only had two levels, because we definitely had four. Then again, the blog was maintained by the real moron of the team. Which isn't a very nice thing to say.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Twilight Princess, or How to Ruin a Legend

at 4:44 PM
I was listening to The Zelda 25th Anniversary Orchestral Symphonic Arrangement CD, the Legend of this morning on the car to work and it was pretty nice. If you don't have the edition of Skyward Sword that includes said disc, you should use Internet to find it. Following on random play, the next album was Mr. Bungle's Mr. Bungle. Something about the way Mike Patton unironically sing-talks "it's not funny, my ass is on fire" in his stupid nasally joke-voice made me think: Twilight Princess went a long way to hurt Zelda's reputation.

Hmm, if I had cited the part at the end of the same song where he whackily chants "RE-DUN-DANT" in a variety of whacky voices, that last paragraph may have actually made sense. Dodged a lazer there!

Game veterans ought to know the name Eiji Aonuma. He's the guy who's been Charles in Charge of the series since Majora's Mask (previously serving as co-director of Ocarina of Time). His declared focus has always been the introduction of new elements to the series to keep it relevant, from the ticking clock in Majora to the sky-y skies of Skyward Sword. Certain steps along this path have lent more to forgettable gimmickry (horse combat) than true innovation (horse combat), developing an eventual notion that every Zelda has the same core experience with some set dressing to make it "new". It's become an understanding that Zelda has like a main town and a half dozen dungeons and a trading side-quest, but, you know, what else is there? What draws attention is how that base has been presented; the icing on a cake that is slowly growing stale. It's a fallacious understanding (the cake and the icing are inverted!), but one with valid origin.
Not the comically dramatic image of "upside down cake" I was hoping for
A few years ago, the series was a beacon of inspired revolution. Wind Waker and Majora's Mask threw away everything you knew about a dungeon-crawl and rebuilt the adventure from scratch. The notion of dungeons/temples worked themselves back in (not surprising, as they've become action/adventure/RPG fundamentals), but from a basis of entirely new concepts. Majora at heart is Groundhog Day by way of Animal Crossing. Give everyone a happy day. Oh, right, also the world is ending, so probably make that not happen too. Interpersonal diplomacy precedes monster battling. You still get to solve some block puzzles and duke it out with a few bosses, but only as many as needed to progress the overarching story. The same way that The Dark Knight needs to have motorcycle fights to prove that you're still watching Batman, Zelda needs some epic boss conflicts to befit Link's legendary status. Wind Waker sets you out to find something to do at the ocean. Island-hopping. Sea monsters. Sunken treasure. Pirates. Then you get a dungeon or two. Again, these establish the story as a Legend of Zelda, but serve primarily as a reminder of how much the world (and the game) has changed. The temples are relics of a long-forgotten past, congruent to the well-worn gameplay they present.
A screenshot from Majora's Mask
Twilight Princess is indisputably the fuck-up in the lineage. It was the first Zelda that established a willingness to simply add junk without excision (or, that is, to "refine"), and is thus responsible for that misguided popular opinion mentioned above, that Zelda is a formula. The blame lies with the very same critics and fans that at the time were begging for what they now lament. Wind Waker's callbacks weren't enough - The Legend of Zelda, in the opinion of these folks, was synonymous with Ocarina of Time. We need an updated OoT! Think of what it could be with contemporary graphics and refined mechanics! A horrifically short-sighted demand at the time, the years have revealed that Aonuma's greatest misstep was caving to it. Remember, Eiji originally wanted to continue further in the direction of Wind Waker. To speculate on what could have resulted is pointless - Western insistence on a "proper", "mature" sequel to Ocarina ensured we got the Twilight Princess that we did. The folly of this otherwise completely idiotic move is that any revitalization of Ocarina was destined to become just as outdated, at which point it would lose its entire raison d'etre.

In 2013, now that Princess has suffered its destined downfall (particularly at the hands of poorly aging motion controls), "unnecessary" is the only word that comes to mind. Ocarina-devotees still return to the N64 game, and everyone else (me) remains satisfied with the still-unique Wind Waker and Majora. Let me bring it all back to cake. The "core" Zelda experience - the item-inventory and archery mini-games and musical instruments - that ought to be the icing. When we scrape it away, we should find a totally unique cake, one about oceanic discovery or a carnival apocalypse. Because the cake is what we're really there for (the cake is the meat of the game?); without it, the icing is just a sugary mess. Twilight Princess tries to use some fan service and a gimmick or two as icing - you see it and you say "wow! look at those graphics and that tone and it's gonna be just like OoT!" Then you take a bite and say - wait a second - it's a little too much like Ocarina! In fact, it's just stale leftover bits of the old cakes! Do you get it? A good sequel swaps the cake and reuses the icing. The core experience is new, while the bells and whistles are familiar. A trash sequel (though it may still be fun) reuses the cake and applies new icing. From a distance it looks fresh, but tuck in and you'll find that the same old treat isn't so exciting anymore.

Maybe that metaphor isn't gonna win the Figurative Super Bowl, but who likes football anyway.

P.S. There are handheld games that I've intentionally omitted from the discussion, as, regardless of whatever good intentions, the portable games are really just there to give you the same experience in bite-size. I think a complete assessment of gaming as a whole barely needs mention of handhelds - not that there aren't good games to be played (I recently noted that RE: Revelations is far better than recent console Residents Evil), but because it isn't really a forum for new ideas. And when it is, those ideas usually flourish better in console adaptations. But this discussion is for a lengthy sidebar that will probably never come to be. Suffice to say I do not give a shit about Phantom Hourglass and kin, except to say that I played them and they were fun and now I don't remember them.
Wind Waker HD is already causing a storm of controversy. It's just fun to bitch about Zelda.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rumble: Why, when, where?

at 5:11 PM
Look, can people stop FUCKING telling me about how Link Wray's 1958 "Rumble" is the original heavy metal song, or inspired all of punk rock, or that it turned Bob Dylan into a frog? I mean, when I say "can people stop [FUCKING] telling me", I mean "can I stop reading people's websites of my own volition and happening across their claims about Shrink Wray and his 1958 tuneski "Rumble"?". Even still: SHUT THE FUCK UP ALREADY. Unless Link (way 2 be cr3ative d00d, you used the default name) recorded this song onto a vinyl, then threw that vinyl so fast that it traveled forward in time and into the hands of AC/DC, who then re-recorded it as "T.N.T", using completely different notes and rhythms, then I do not give a fucking fuck about it's posthumously claimed position in music history. 
Oddly enough, that was going to be today's opening paragraph even if this post wasn't about controller rumble. You know what Torah says: if you have lemons, make lemonade. The problem is that you need sugar and water for lemonade, and having sugar and water seems to circumcise the pretense of the adage, which is that you're stuck with a bunch of shit no one wants. Sorry, my mom asked me not to curse so much on the blog. I meant to say: "a bunch of *diaper biscuits* no one wants".

Opening paragraph #3. Sometimes I casually refer to a blog post as a "meditation", "discussion", "contemplation", or "thinkery-do". My primary objective in doing so is to play down any aspiration towards formality or finishedness-of-thoughts. I've written many essays in my storied academic career; every last one was done in one shot off the top of my head, with neither planning nor revision. The difference was, with those I was pretending that I had put in a concerted effort and given my work extensive examination and research. That was a lie, but it was a good lie. A healthy lie. An American lie. What... was I............ talking.... about? Oh, meditation. Or rumble. Well clearly I'm in the right spaced out mindset for that sort of thing.

God someone remind me to delete all the fucking concert poetry readings from my Hawkwind albums. 

Then in this paragraph there was going to be like a 'parody' guided meditation where instead of going to some kind of "peaceful, clamming place", I was going to take you through the history of controller vibration. It wouldn't have been fun, funny, or functional, but the only reason I didn't go through with it is that I feel uncomfortable with delivering a computer-centric experience without force feedback. Without your keyboard and mouse tap-dancing up a storm (frightfully, Blogger lacks a means to accomplish this), how would you be drawn into such disparate experiences as: wandering past a gentle brook filled to the brim with gently chirping birds; a helicopter gently exploding in the distance like Zeus gently sneezing; or the gentle embrace of gently electrified barbed wire? Thanks to my incomparable adjective capabilities, you'd probably be caught up in a sensual hurricane regardless, but weaker writers like Martin Scorsese and the people who made Shank need a crutch like shaky hands to pull you in. Yes, what better way to connect the player to the fictional narrative than by making him feel like Michael J. Fox wielding a leaf-blower.

I'm going to stick with "rumble" for the generic term, since I have no idea when "force feedback" became the industry standard, presumably due to some copyright debacle. Force feedback just makes me think of... well basically the wacky electronic dickery I'm listening to right now on Space Ritual. That or, you know, the evaluation form Luke had to fill out about Obi-Wan at the end of New Hope. Puns: nature's candy. The fancyman's buzzword is "haptics", though that should probably be saved for more sophisticated research than a little magnetically charged box that has performance modes limited to "shake" and "don't shake". The general aspiration of haptic technology is to create a means by which to virtually replicate for the sense of touch what a monitor does for visuals and a speaker for auditory experience. This notion arrived in the world of video games by way of experimental arcade cabinets, like Sega's 1976 Fonz. Yes, rumble technology as we know it exists because of a bio-game about Henry Winkler. If only he knew that one day his work would all be worth it. As time went on, arcades introduced more and more intense and "realistic" haptic feedback - if you were ever in an arcade in the early nineties, you probably were too embarrassed to try that one game (e.g. After Burner) where the whole seat/capsule would tilt during gameplay - plus it always cost like two bucks to play. I realize as an adult that's because the cabinet probably cost ten times as much as the stationary ones around it. 
Controller rumble is the lazyman's solution to the haptic dilemma - one I'd scorn much less had it been a passing experiment or evolved at all since its popular introduction in 1997 with the N64's Rumble Pak. The controller may shake when just about fucking ANYTHING happens - frequently it's hard to figure out why it's vibrating at all. Using rumble during gameplay tends toward the distracting, and using it during cutscenes is laughable - even if you haven't set down the controller as so often happens, do you really think watching a movie could benefit from a whirring stick in hand? What it comes down to is that haptic feedback (or any feedback, really) is supposed to draw me deeper into the game world, to make me forget I'm playing a game at all. Rumble reminds me that I'm holding a stupid controller, and that I need to go into the options to turn it off. That is the exact opposite of its objective. If the default settings had controller vibration turned off, how many players do you think would actually seek out the option to turn it back on (or even notice its absence)?

As long as that option remains, I don't have much room to complain, but I wonder who exactly are the proponents of the mechanic. After Sony got into hot water for removing it from the Sixaxis, it became taboo to suggest that video games ever even existed without rumble. Was there really such a uproar demanding vibrating controllers? PS3 sales were hurting at the time, but it's maybe a minor stretch to suggest that the reintroduction of the DualShock drove their recovery. I simply don't get the significance of rumble. You'd think console manufacturers would want to kill it off, if only to reduce the cost of fabricating controllers. Do consumers refuse to buy games that won't shake their hands? Are developers demanding vibration availability to express their artistic vision? Publishers forcing it down their throat for a marketing bullet? Maybe the actual rumble units are manufactured by a third party with its hands in Sony/MS/Nintendo's pockets? What market force is demanding the continued existence of this comically obsolete feature?

Wait wait wait, I just figured it out. It's a conspiracy led by the AA battery industry! Remember how it's unnecessarily hard/expensive to find rechargeable batteries, even though obviously they should be the only batteries that even exist anymore? Well, what is the fastest way to waste controller batteries? Rumble! So, fill in joke about Energizer rabbit

Monday, January 28, 2013

Demon's Crest: Play this now (also fuck Capcom)

at 4:54 PM
Seriously Capcom, fuck you. Why do you so frivolously mishandle all your best series? You put out Gargoyle's Quest as your VERY FIRST game on 3DS's Game Boy Virtual Console, but leave Gargoyle's Quest II (NES) and Demon's Crest (SNES) to languish in your archives for the 7+ years of the Wii VC's lifespan? I don't get the whole deal with not releasing games on VC - seems like it would be almost pure profit; then again, what do I know? Somewhere between "a little" and "basically everything". Depends on the day of the week. 
Presumably to discourage identification with Satan, Firebrand the Red Devil is green in the US box art for his debut starring role. Then again, he's green in the game too, but so was every Game Boy hero.
Despite the fact that it's virtually unavailable commercially, you know and I know that you can find a way to play Demon's Crest, and it's high time you went and did so. In fact, make it the next game on your toplay list, if you can even in the tiniest way appreciate a 2D platformer. I think we all have room in our hearts for that. 

Even among those aware of its existence, Demon's Crest has a tendency to spook players with threats of insurmountable difficulty. I've even seen FAQs and video walkthroughs mention that the game is "near impossible". This is "near 100% made-up". Complete myth. It is indeed "near impossible" in the same sense that it's nearly impossible to tie your shoes, or nearly impossible to eat a bowl of cereal. To succeed, all you need to do is try. The only excuse not to finish Demon's Crest is that you were like, I don't know, hit by a car while sitting in front of your TV. And I live on the ninth floor, so that hardly ever happens. The two traditional means of rendering a game "unbeatable" are limited tries (Super Mario Bros.) and obscure puzzles (Castlevania II). Crest has infinite continues (there is no lives-system at all - when you die you can respawn at the last checkpoint or return to the overworld) and little in the way of puzzles - certainly not anything as difficult as the widely played Super Metroid. The legendability of its difficulty is simply a misunderstanding of dumbschoolers (?) expecting Mega Man boss battles, or onlookers associating the game with its MUCH harder GnG cousins (Ghosts'n Goblins, not Greg 'n' Greg [this blog hahahaha! Ahahahahahsaahahahafdshsafdha!]).

The first two Firebrand games (Garg Quest I and II) play like a top-down RPG with random battles and one-time dungeons, with platforming taking the place of turn-based battles and dungeon-crawling. Demon's Crest, the third, uses a Mode 7 free-roaming overworld reminiscent of ActRaiser II (another criminally overlooked game) or Final Fantasy VI (once you get the spaceship). You can safely fly around this map until you choose to land on one of the clearly marked stages or shops. Landing will take you into one of the handful of branching 2D side-scrolling stages, each of which is littered with hidden items and alternate routes. Each major path will lead you to a boss conflict (that's right - some stages have as many as four! different boss fights), each boss will leave behind a power-up, and each power-up will expand your abilities in a manner similar to Mega Man X. These new abilities will make available new routes, so on so forth, you get the idea. There's a wealth of such optional content - a player going straight from point A to B without exploring or replaying stages will experience less than half of what the game has to offer. Thanks to gradually unlocking stages (two at a time) and clear visual presentation, you'll always know where to look for places to use your new skills. This isn't Super Metroid where you have to go to every single room in the game and use a Power Bomb - it lends itself to a rather succinct linear playing order like Mega Man.
Beyond its Goldilocks scale, where Demon's Crest truly excels as an adventure platformer is in providing rewards for exploration. Let's look at the standard examples for a sec. In Super Metroid, getting an optional item usually means you can open up another identical cave area to get another item to open up another identical cave area. The new tools are fun in and of themselves and offer new means of transportation (lazer feet, grapple) or combat (charge beam, ice beam), functioning to modify your repeated traversal of the same basic world. The real goal of the game - the entire notion of progress - comes from upgrading your capabilities. Metroidvanias like Symphony of the Night take a radically different approach, in which new talents serve almost solely to open new doors, sort of just splaying a normal linear level path across an interconnected world. 

Demon's Crest takes a little bit from each of these approaches. In the larger world, new abilities do work like Metroidvania-style keys, unlocking entire new stages that could have just been presented linearly, if not for the challenge of discovering them. Since, unlike in Symphony, exploration is totally optional, these hidden routes are far more rewarding - secret levels are fucking exciting! As a matter of fact, the experience becomes full-blown Super Mario World. But then you're also powering up in a non-trivial way. This ain't no pansy-ass Alucard sliding kick. Firebrand gets a number of different attacks and transformations that completely alter his movement mechanics. And, you guessed it! The hidden areas emphasize the abilities it takes to unlock them. You don't get the full impact of Water Firebrand until you uncover the underwater cave substage that plays like Ecco the Dolphin. By exploiting your growing skill-set on the main path, you'll arrive in areas that offer unique stage design (and, as aforementioned, boss battles) that the game world otherwise totally lacks!

For all this talk of navigation, you may be surprised to learn that the focal point of the gameplay is the bosses. Are the bosses? Ugh, there's just no way to make that sound right. You'll spend a substantial portion of your playtime in these conflicts, and they're likely what'll stick with you after you put down the game. It's not quite Alien Soldier, but a kindred spirit nonetheless. You won't die many times in the levels proper, certainly not after a playthrough or two has taught you their ins and outs. The challenge lies in the lengthy but fair boss fights which require space management (zoning), timing, and aggression. See, I actually like bosses with deep health reserves, because it means you can't get lucky and, as Golem would say, "cheese it". These ain't yer pappy's nonsensical reflex-driven Mega Man battles; they're methodical and rewarding of strategy. This is reinforced by the almost universal pre-boss checkpoints which allow you to infinitely retry each battle. Lesser games mask poorly designed boss fights by throwing you back to the beginning of the stage when you lose - Demon's Crest is confident enough in their challenge that it puts you right back in the thick of it. 
Oh, right, and they're huge and awesome-looking.
Play Demon's Crest. Even if it doesn't impression you as strongly as it has me, it'll at least provide new perspective on those classics you do love.

I think my new e-handle is gonna be fingernail_of_the_spectre. That is a very real item from GarQ (pronounce: "gark"). Someone's been messin' on Wikipedia! Look out for me on such sites as Internet.com and TheInternet.com.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Protagonistas: a few styles, briefly

at 4:07 PM
What does it mean when "ista" is added to the end of a word? Spaniards? Can I get a ruling?

Game protagonists suck. I'm sorry to say it, because I love the medium and respect its burgeoning maturity, but it is highly troubled in this regard. The vast majority of games just don't know what to do with protagonists. Should the protagonist be the player-avatar or an NPC? Should they spout their own dialogue or rely on the player to choose it, or should they be altogether silent? We want to be taken into a character's story, but we also want it to be our story. There's a real have your cake and eat it too problem. It's one of the reasons games are so hard to adapt to other media (and vice versa) - there just tends to be this huge question of who the game is about.
Tricked you - it's about Raziel AND Kain!
America's most popular 'tag's seem to fall into one of two groups: dialogue tree guys and Introspection d00ds. By dialogue tree guys, I mean characters that only say exactly what you tell them to say, but whose role in the story is otherwise fixed. A Commander Shepherd, if you will. The problem I have with these types is that they are very much a role, not a character. They are defined by their function, by the fact that they knock the story into place. They don't have flaws or personalities or arcs, they just chime in at mission-critical moments to keep things underway.

On the other end of the spectrum we have heartily defined protags like Max Payne and Ezio Auditore, whom I would call Introspection guys. They get enough exposition to drive me to suicide, but the actual action of the game is completely disconnected from their internal monologue. Max is totally fucked as a character because his search for purpose has nothing to do with cover-shooting in a graveyard, and his wanton murder streak goes a long way toward rendering the character a joke. Now we have a case where the protagonist has a persona, but is undercut by his status as an avatar. The player's love for killing things is making it impossible to connect with a character who shouldn't.

An alternative approach that pops up from time to time is Ishmael. You've read Moby Dick, right? You've got the famous first line tattooed across your shoulder-blades? "Call me Ishmael, but don't call me late for dinner!" Etc. To recap, Ishmael serves solely as a lens through which the audience views the drama. He himself is sidelined by the story arc. FFXII does this with ol' whatever-his-name is, Vahn, right? That's a weird name. Anyway, you play as Vahn, but he doesn't have anything to do with the story. It's about some losers named Bosch or Blathers or something. Don't think I liked the plot of that one. Too many evil bad-guy ghosts and secret twin brothers.

Anyway, it's silent protagonists that are the proper incarnation of Ishmael in gaming. Beyond all the mindless fan-adoration, Link has never been much of a hero at all. Sure, he usually brings together all the macguffins that draw the story towards its climax, but the true stories within each Zelda game are those of the non-player characters we meets along the way: Medli overcoming her timidity, Midna's exile, Makar doing whatever the fuck was the deal with him but god I loved that character, Groose accpting his own insignificance, etc. The greatest example, of course, is Majora's Mask, in which nearly every character has their own developing storyline encapsulated by the quest for the associated mask. Beyond Zelda, we could also have a look at Half-Life 2 and its narrative, viewed through Gordon Freeman but actually about Alyx and Eli Vance.
Remember the time in high school English when I filmed myself playing Wind Waker while one of my friends read from Moby Dick, and we called it a "re-enactment"?
I'm not saying "silent protagonists are the only good protagonists", even though it sounds like that's exactly what I said, because they were the only ones I discussed using a positive tone. There are plenty of good player characters that are correctly matched to the experience, like RE4's Leon Kennedy, quipmaster extraordinaire with just enough heart and charm to melt a young girl's icy heart. That said, young girls probably have the most meltable hearts out there. Legacy of Kain's Kain and Raziel are probably my all-time favorite leading men, thanks not only to stellar voice-acting, but in particular to their carefully drawn out and interweaving plot. Kain is developed through Raziel and vice versa. Jumping across chasms and solving switch-puzzles may not lend much to their characters, but their insatiable appetite and wanton destruction need to be witnessed to truly understand their roles as gods.

The end. Boy I'm tired of this post.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bonding with Fire Emblem: Awakening

at 7:10 PM
Yourself gave his impressions of the Fire Emblem: Awakening demo, so I thought I would share mine with you also.

1. Along the lines of more customization, I like how Fire Emblem resurrected the 1st person tactician character that was used in Fire Emblem 7 (The first US game). As Yourself touched upon, it is a great storytelling tool, doubly so because your character has [gasp] amnesia and needs every basic thing explained to them. Hey it's cliché, but it is better than reading a narrator's text being like, “Welcome to the world of Eur'op'a (The only difference between our world and a fantasy world is needless apostrophes)! Here are five fun facts about it!”

The best part of the inclusion of your avatar is that he is not just an NPC this time around. In-game Ezio has middling stats all around, but the game gives you the opportunity to make one of your stats good and one of them bad. Hint: Res should be your disadvantaged stat. Your character also has the ability to use both swords and magic, atypically to the series. I like that a lot, because I can make a Mage with good survivability, which is pretty gamebreaking.

2. The other notable addition to this game was the idea of banding units together. Previous games in the series had the “Rescue” mechanic, which allowed Unit A to pick up Unit B and carry them around. This was useful because it allowed a unit with a lot of movement transport units with low movement. In addition, enemies were unable to attack Unit B after Unit A rescued him, which let you protect vulnerable units like healers. These perks came at a cost, however, because Unit A would suffer penalties to their stats due to the burden of carrying Unit B around.

Awakening has altered this mechanic, and by doing so altered the whole strategy of engaging the enemy. Instead of incurring penalties to stats, when Unit B bands with Unit A, they give them a bonus to their stats (e.g. Archers give characters some increased speed and accuracy). Banding also will occasionally let Unit B attack the enemy or block one of the enemies incoming attacks while Unit A is fighting. Keeping units separated allows you to be in more places at once and for your troops to do more damage a round, because you will have twice the troops that are able to attack. Keeping units banded together will make all of your Unit A's stronger and means that you have half the units taking damage a round. So the player has to make choices every turn according to the flow of the battle. The relative ease of changing between banded and unbound modes means that you are able to band your healer to your mage one turn to give them increased attack power, and then on the next turn unband so so that the healer can restore one of your knight's HP.

I appreciate the idea of this mechanic—it should make me think significantly more about my decisions on both how to navigate the battlefield and how to conduct combat. However, I do not know if it is going to be particularly successfully executed throughout an entire campaign. Carl von Clausewitz wrote in On War, “Defense is the stronger form of war,” and I cannot help but think that this will be true for Awakening. I say this because Fire Emblem games rarely penalize you for having a conservative strategy, and units that are stronger than normal provide an astoundingly huge advantage. Ike, of Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn, has slightly better stats than any other unit; enemies do less damage to him and he does more to them. This escalates quickly to the point where other units cannot harm him and he can pretty much one-shot any baddie. Soloing the Gamecube game with him is not challenging unless you get super RNG screwed. There were no banded enemy units in the demo, and if this holds true for the rest of the game, I believe that my banded units will be unbeatable by the masses of weakling enemy myrmidons and soldiers. Yourself is right about change being needed to keep this series fresh, I just do not know if this is the right change to make. 

3. The battlefield sprites might be even uglier than the GBA ones. 
I do not know if nostalgia is the reason I forgive the GBA sprites for being poorly visualized and find them charming, but these new ones look uninspired to me. Bleck. 

Awakening the potential with Fire Emblem

at 5:10 PM

The collective Fire Emblem is a great experience. I've said it before - it made my top 10 SRPGs of all time. The problem is that it's composed of something like a dozen individual games spanning 20+ years. That's a whole hell of a lot to simplify into just one generalized playthrough memory, but it does so with no problem. They're all the exact same. And I'm not talking like "all [insert-genre]s are the same!", I'm talking like exact same characters, exact same classes, exact same combat rules, exact same environments, exact same subject matter, exact same story, exact same graphics, exact same music, exact same everything. Okay, maybe they change the main character's hair color from time to time. Seriously. It's not even like iterations of a fighting game where they at least throw in a handful of new characters and arenas. I would honesty say, mean, and fight to the death over the claim that there is more variety in the Street Fighter II subseries (i.e. Turbo, Super, Champ. Ed., etc.) than there is in Fire Emblem's entire discography.

Then there's that "trademark" element, permanent character death. I'm going to move my diatribe against perma-death* to the end of the post, because it's going to be lost on anyone who isn't a series fan.

Fire Emblem: Awakening wants to finally take a step forward with the series. It'll blow classicists minds right off the bat by providing the option to turn off perma-death. While I'm a bit insulted by the fact that this mode is called "Casual" - fuck you Nintendo, I'm playing a goddamn Fire Emblem game - it's an addition that totally opens up the strategic playing field to a degree never available before. Think of how your tactics will change, now that units are disposable. If all you can see is an easier, "casualer" game, you aren't being creative enough. 

Allowing units to perma-live is a natural decision considering the focus of the game's evolution: role-playing. Where warriors' growth was once rigidly predestined (except in Sacred Stones where you could choose-your-evolution), Awakening introduces that role-playingist of role-playing elements: customization. As a matter of fact, someone might argue that a game cannot be an RPG without character/world customixation. The degree to which that's true can be sidelined for this discussion, because directly compared, Awakening is much more an RPG than its predecessors. The first thing the game has you do is create an avatar - his (or her!) appearance, name, and statistical preference. The demo suggests that this may be an Ishmael character - one of my preferred tacks to video game storytelling. Other characters promise to have flexible classes and skill sets, deepening their individual roles and allowing the player to create a personalized army.

The game's newborn visual style emphasizes this further. Equipment is displayed in true paper-doll fashion and battles are viewed from an (optional) first-person perspective. Synergizing teammates are shown entering battle side-by-side, rather than as a hidden statistical bonus. The game wants to draw you deeper into the emotional level of the combat.

Boringer players might object and lament that "hey, you got your micro-managing Tactics in my pure chess-like board-game strategy", but, who gives a fuck. For better or worse, it is indeed time for a change, and Awakening seems to bring a bit of that spirit. Maybe it's not the utter revolution the series needs, but it's the minor uprising it deserves (TM (Batman (TM))). 

I am gonna call bullshit on the hero being called Crom though. I mean, fuck that. Or I guess I should say "then the hell with you!"

*Perma-death, as it's so fondly called by fans, is fucking stupid. The idea of perma-death is that if a unit dies, you now need to fill that gap with a weaker unit that is going to need to catch up. Since Fire Emblem rigidly dictates what back-up units you have (and provides them in finite supply), it's easy to get into a situation where there is no replacement. Also consider that letting even a single unit die permanently weakens your entire army, as there is no training/practice/grinding to make up for the lost experience. This means that losing units is not only a temporary inconvenience, but a permanent difficulty spike. Considering the difficulty already increases over the course of the game, and the added consequence that a lost unit may have been the key to unlocking further allies or items (thus making one death equal to multiple lost units), it becomes apparent to even the most casual player that letting a character perish is simply not an option. So instead of a system where mistakes have game-changing consequences, you have a system where the player must win without mistakes every time. Which just makes for a lot of restarting missions.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Skyrim: When the world is running down, you make the best of what's still around

at 1:21 PM
Can't believe I'm fucking sick again. Anyway, I wrote this post a while ago and didn't really like/finish/proofread it, so I'm putting it up today in lieu of a reflection on the Fire Emblem: Awakening demo that I can't get off the ground.

Skyrim wants me to save the world, but I'd rather just turn it on its side.

By this point, The Elder Scrolls has gained a bit of a reputation for awful main plot lines. They're macguffin-heavy, more rigid than a chicken bone, boring, and cliched. Frankly it's emblematic of video game storytelling in general. None of the "primary" quests have been any good for quite a few games now - Morrowind I don't know - people defend it, but I don't believe people, and I haven't seen for myself. The point is, Morrowind through Skyrim at least (that's ESIII - ESV), they all come down to "save the world". That world's name changes from Vvardenfell to Mournhold to Solstheim to Tamriel to Cyrodiil to The Shivering Isles to Skyrim back to Tamriel back to Solstheim, and the big bad awakening villain/god/demon from Dagoth Ur to Almalexia to Hircine to Mehrunes Dagon to Umaril to Jygalaag to Alduin to Harkon to Miraak, and yes the point of listing all those was to highlight that if you've been playing The Elder Scrolls for the last decade, you've saved essentially (often literally) the same world from essentially the same villain nine times. Sometimes you have to stop a dragon from being reborn, sometimes you have to stop a dragonborn from being reborn. I'm not even making that up.

This tale as old as time sucks everywhere, but I'm picking Elder Scrolls because I want to point out how little it actually makes me want to save the world. Wander Skyrim a bit or read up on the history through the in-game books (or Wikipedia), and you'll realize that everyone in Tamriel (the continent where the whole series takes place) is a dick, they've had like a million apocalypses and world wars, and it's generally just a nasty place. Okay, I admit, maybe the real world isn't super-nice either. We all remember that time that Morgan Freeman quotes Ernest Hemingway at the end of Se7en, which I've memorized by heart and will now quote with exact precision: "the world isn't very good, but I guess I'll fight for it, if I really have to". The real world works like that because it's the real world. Our lives and loves and futures are there. The Tamriel world doesn't get that freebie. It's kind of shitty and honestly feels like it could use a cleaning of house. Especially to get rid of all those demon-gods mucking about. As a matter of fact, that the game would even dare to suggest that Tammy is worth saving seems like an outright mockery of the worth of (IRL) human civilization. It's like The Elder Scrolls is saying: "you idiot. If you'll fight for this, you'll fight for anything."

I ain't about to get all philly [philosophical] in here about val/human/life or whether Earth is all that great; I'd rather just point out that it's why it's so crucial for the game to make me feel like a god. Because if the world is already going to be this fucked, you may as well let me fuck around with it further. And by "fucking around", precise a term though it is, I don't just mean running through towns and lighting people on fire like a GTA/Prototype-type kill-'em-all sandbox. I mean killing the giant spider that no one said could be done. Skyrocketing to the head of every major guild and organization. It's like, hey, this world is a bitch, so I guess I better get on top. Who gives a shit about saving it from impending ruin - I am impending ruin.

So was the reason I didn't like my first character because he was a weakling?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Arcades are cool I guess

at 10:42 AM
There is a pretty interesting article over at The Verge about the evolution and eventual death, then rebirth, and then death 2 of video game arcades:  here is the link.

I thought the link between pinball and video game cabinets was dubious, especially considering the article acknowledges a few times that there was a multitude of coin operated games out there before Computer Space was released in '71.  Not that there wasn't a connection in the cultures of the two games, but they're obviously two distinct platforms.  Maybe an argument can be made for the contrary, however.

I think the article points to an interesting dichotomy in the existence between public versus private gaming spheres.  There's not a good reason I can think of for arcades not succeeding as a semi-permanent business model.  Public consumption of other media works just fine: e.g. movie theaters, art galleries, concerts.  That's all theoretically of course; the article quotes a number of people as claiming that the "economics aren't there anymore."  It comes off a little too close to insinuating that the decline of public video gaming was some sort of economic/historical inevitability for my liking: this sort of determinism is bad writing and leaves a lot of questions about the actual factors which led to the arcade's decline. 

(Maybe Ezio can come in and write something about the culture wars that emerged around both the pinball and the video game arcade.  There's an obvious comparison to the 1954 Comics Code and all that jazz that I'm sure he knows very slightly better than me.)

In any case, the article is definitely worth a skim for those with an interest in gaming history.  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Killer is Dead: More from Suda

at 2:49 PM
Just thought it necessary to pass on the debut trailer for Suda 51's newest, Killer is Dead. A Japanese release is confirmed for this summer, and while no NA plans have yet been announced, I think it's safe to say it'll show up here eventually. If we got Lollipop Chainsaw (by way of Warner Bros. no less), I don't know what it would take for Suda to render a game untenable for the West. From this trailer, looks like the game is going to continue in the footsteps of No More Heroes, both stylistically and in terms of gameplay. There was also a quick burst of shooting in there, but I doubt it'll be full on Shadows of the Damned. Lollipop had some brief throwaway gunplay as well.


This is the first time I've been worried about Suda's originality folding in on itself. No More Heroes and Shadows worked as satire and Lollipop and NMH2 as homage... frankly I'm happier to experience a failed experiment like Contact than yet another over-the-top actioner. But who knows. Killer is Dead could have any number of tricks up its sleeve, and at worst will probably be a really fun game.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Anarchy Reigns: To be damned by optimism

at 3:22 PM
Before I get any further, let me clarify that I have NOT played Anarchy Reigns. It merely represents the latest in an unfortunate trend of games: those with good ideas reliant on community support.

Let me give you the ice cream on Anarchy Reigns, since no one has heard of it. You should have, since it's the pseudo-sequel to MadWorld, one of the best action games of this generation, and since that of course means it's developed by Platinum Games, developers responsible (sometimes by different names) for everything from Devil May Cry to Okami to Bayonetta. MadWorld was basically a modernized Streets of Rage - sizable open-ended stages without linear guidance were stocked with respawning goons, mid-bosses, death-traps, and mini-games. Anarchy Reigns expands this into a giant continuous open-world brawl. Since it's just a big city full of hostile brawlers, why not fill it with human combatants? Because, after all, the Internet is a place of magic and wonder.
This is a pretty good idea. It's less ambitious (i.e. more reasonable) in scope than an MMO, but still dense enough to offer a repeatably unique challenge. You just can't replicate human behavior and unpredictability, even with today's high-tech technological advances in technology. This comes with an inherent risk: every role needs an actor, and they need to be present at all times for the show to go on. Without players fully populating matches, all you're left with is an idea on a drawing board. A great idea, but gamers can't play an idea. Only ghosts can do that.

That's a risk that any multiplayer-centric game takes, but it's a much smaller barrier to overcome in, for instance, a 1v1 fighting game that only requires you to have one friend and allows you to sit in the same room and share a copy of the game. Tatsunoko vs. Capcom had no reason to be successful, but since I could always find at least one person online, or just get a friend to swing by, all was well. Hinging your entire concept on the notion that there will always be like hundreds of people playing requires A.) a giant budget and marketing campaign (Call of Duty, WoW) or B.) a heart full of hopes, dreams, butterflies, and optimism. Sometimes someone strikes gold. Other times it's Anarchy Reigns.

The thing that bugs me is that Sega, Platinum, and everyone involved had to know that the game wasn't going to be popular enough to sustain an online community. MadWorld sold like 35 copies. It's full of weird subject matter, super-mature content, poor graphics, and was launched at a terrible time for this type of title, against the likes of Capcom's gargantuan Devil may Cry and Platinum's own (for a different publisher of course) Metal Gear Rising: Revengreances. That's not a recipe for success. So is this a case where we can say the game is genuinely bad for hedging a bet that definitely wasn't going to pay off? Platinum knew there wasn't going to be community support, but they propped up the game with it anyway. Isn't that the same as developing an offline single-player platformer where there's a 95% chance the game will crash after stage 1? Even if stages 2 and on are the most brilliantly designed levels in history, it doesn't matter if you don't get to play them.
Americans completely eat up weird shit like this, right? Wait, I forgot my "not a completely moronic thing to say" hat this morning.
Yeah, Anarchy Reigns has the token single-player mode, and I guess that ought to be fun. It's almost enough to get me to buy the game, just because I can't get enough Platinum combat. But that's clearly a patch on the giant gaping damned-from-the-start black hole of the would-be multiplayer beat-'em-up. In the analogy above, the single-player is the equivalent of a stage 1.

Anarchy Reigns is far from the only offender. Look at Castlevania: Harmony of Despair or the thankfully canceled Mega Man Universe. It's good to experiment, but sticking a power-drill into your pupil isn't an experiment. As a gamer I just shake my head - this is Sega's mistake and their loss, not mine. As to an alternative solution, how we could make that great idea actually come to life... well that would take the genuine commitment of a company with a genuine budget. That discussion is the territory of marketing, not game design, and one that seems could use a heaping dose of common sense.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Look I just watched The Omen and I gotta say

at 3:34 PM
I don't get what all the hullabaloo is about. I'm not too huge on Catholic horror, be it the '70s Exorcist/Amityville Horror edition or the '90s re-emergence in The Ninth Gate and Stigmata. I don't want to be Tim Bible-Beater here, but Hollywood tends to take a lot of liberties to make Scripture a lot Scarier. Frankly I think it's just not fair to the impressionable kids watching these movies to paint the Bible as this fiery violent arcane apocalyptic tome, only to leave them to discover on their own that most of it is about how Jeb was the son of Jadley was the son of Jauffre was the son of whateversville. Maybe if someone made a movie about a museum curator who accidentally discovers that God only hated 666 so much because he lost the lottery when he played it, I'd, I dunno, I'm gonna say watch it because I feel confident this won't happen.
As per The New Yorker's Greg Livingston: 
"It's raw, it's emotional, and it's a family story we can all relate to."
Livingston is cleverly (or not-so-cleverly) circumventing any qualitative comment on the film because frankly, it's not great. It's not outrageously bad (the only real so-bad-it's-good moment occurs when the protagonists immediately agree that a Biblical prophecy about the Holy Roman Empire refers to the European Common Market), but I can't see why it's a classic. It's kind of pretty poorly written and plotted. Gregory Peck and the villain from Time Bandits have to discover the secret Satanic identity of Peck's five-year-old son, except that the Second Doctor already showed up like a million times and unveiled that secret, that the boy is Christ's Aunty. Did you know that "antichrist" is an anagram for "anarchist"? Coincidence, or something much more sinister??? Peck spends the entire movie in denial I guess, except that he certainly shows no sympathy or compassion for his son. And it can't be a man vs. himself conflict where his denial is sourced in the refusal to accept that his seed could be the Antichrist, because we and he know from the very first second of the movie that it's not his biological son, it's just a fake kid from some fake background. As a matter of fact, it seems like Peck and wife don't even particularly like Damien - they never once speak to him. So when bodies start piling up and a mysterious and overtly evil nanny with some vicious hounds arrives to defend lil' Dami (like twenty minutes in), your brain is left screaming "it's the fucking kid! kill him!" It's too much suspension of disbelief, because it doesn't set up any thematic points. You've got a completely flimsy plot built from an impossible and unearned leap of faith. For plot's sake, Damien shouldn't have been so blatantly evil from square one, but that also would have deprived the film of its one genuinely fun (and underutilized) element: unleashing a sinister toddler on his unsuspecting caretakers.

The scene that really gets me is this: they take the kid near a church and he has this hysterical screaming fit and physically attacks his mother until they hastily drive off (to humorously disgusted looks from the church-goers). Now, either the father brushes off the connection to the church and assumes it a coincidence, or he accepts that Damien refuses churches. If we assume the former, that he's in denial, wouldn't he bring Damien along for their next church visit and see the symptoms repeat? If the latter, well, if you accept that your son can't go into a church without attempting to murder everyone around him, you're certainly far enough down the Antichrist rabbit-hole that you probably don't need to go to Italy to look at a handful of skeletons for proof.

Actually, the word "proof" calls to mind that the movie is plotted essentially like a legal drama. You know all the roles, you know who the bad guy is and so does the hero, but the hero needs to make society (or a judge) see the truth. The whole movie would make a lot more sense if the climactic scene had Peck operating the prosecution in the trial of his son. It also would have been a lot funnier because the film is set in Britain and you know they all wear those funny wigs in court. Putting one of the most respected actors of all time in a Funny British Court Wig can go a long way to redeem a picture.

Beyond this unspeakable wig omission, what could have been interesting characters go completely to waste - the setups exist to develop interesting individual plots, but are tossed aside to focus on Peck's tedious and hammy quest to satiate what amounts to little more than frivolous curiosity about a child he already knows is the spawn of the devil. For example, Evil from Time Bandits plays a photographer who has a series of unexplained run-ins with the Damien family and IN THE GODDAMN BACKGROUND pieces together the entire mystery. His photos begin to evidence a weird trend - they seemingly predict the manner of death of their subjects. And then - uh oh! - he takes a picture of himself and it shows him being decapitated! Oh no! This setup is full of classic potential - the man who knows his own due date. Does he try to defy fate, guarding his neck with chain-mail and avoiding all... things at neck-height? Is he overcome with reckless abandon, setting out to kill the antichrist before the reverse can happen? Or does he run off and get as far away from the situation as possible, hoping to hide in ignorance? Let me spoil it for you: he flies on a plane with Gregory Peck to dig up skeletons in Italy. That he has had a premonition of his own death serves solely to explain why he's in the plot - it's never addressed further and, yup, he really arbitrarily gets killed to little emotional effect.
Making friends over a weekend grave robbery
There's also the Second Doctor, a priest determined to convince Peck that Damien needs to be eliminated. We find out after his death that this guy actually used to be a devil-worshiper and then apparently changed his mind. This sounds like a pretty interesting tale to explore. What caused his change of heart? What is he atoning for? Not addressed! His whole backstory is revealed in exposition and everyone shrugs and goes on with their lives because, yeah, he's dead by then.

I could go on about the shitty plot and nonsensical relationships, but allow me a brief compliment. The music is great. Check out this great Fantomas cover of the theme, "Ave Santini". Also, the famous (and at the time controversial) scene in which Damien's nanny brutally hangs herself is excellently thrilling.

Okay done. Don't bother watching The Omen, I mostly felt like it was a waste of time. Though at this point, since I've already wasted the time, maybe I'll continue in the series, because I'm honestly kinda curious how they dug more plot out of it, and I've already given up all standards related to sequels - Tremors 3 is sitting on my Instant Queue as we speak.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Resident Evil Revelations - Early revelations

at 3:02 PM
Ah, Resident Evil, what a popular series to hate. Ever since regaining its steam with RE4, the series seems to have run out of steam. RE5 conservatively repeated the approach of its predecessor while introducing a few superficial interface experiments, all of which miserably failed. If you don't believe a game can be utterly ruined by superficial interface experimentation (a la inventory management), you haven't played Resident Evil 5. Worse yet (per fans), the series was beginning to have completely drifted away from its survival horror roots! Being the not really a fan of the series as I am, THAT I couldn't care less about. So what if it used to be survival horror? It clearly isn't trying to be anymore, so how can you evaluate it on that basis? I guess by being the type of gamer/reviewer who prefers evaluating a work in terms of personal expectations rather than what the creators set out to achieve. 

Anyway, I'm still optimistic about 6, which had a great demo but hasn't yet found its way to my Xbox, so until then I'm occupied with Revelations (which came out on 3DS during the long pause between 5 and 6). I have to be honest - I was not optimistic about Revelations, having been relatively disappointed by the demo and discouraged by reviews that wanted to talk more about context than content (e.g. "this is the best Mature title on 3DS", "makes good use of 3D", "production values"). Also, I don't really like handheld games. Oops. Anyway, I'm glad I gave ResiRev a chance (thanks Golem!), because it's had me locked onto the handheld far more than any other game thus far.
Remember back in RE1 when just ONE zombie was scary?
In direct contrast to series fans, my immediate fear in the first few minutes of ResiRev was that it wasn't going to be a shooter. Or, more appropriately, that it was going to be a poor shooter. Taking RE4/5 expectations into Rev, I was startled by the lumbering enemies that chew up and spit out handgun bullets with barely a shudder. That the enemy count would be lower was predictable - I didn't imagine the 3DS could (or Capcom would dare push it to) handle RE5 mobs of dozens of villagers - but I wasn't ready to have to turn and run from the very first foe. At first I was thinking, what the fuck, this is just plain unfun. Needing to unload two full clips to take down what was apparently the most basic foe didn't bode well for the pacing. Gradually, however, I came to realize that this was a return to the mechanics of the very first Resident Evil. These claustrophobic rooms where just one or two enemies give chase and are bounded by doors are exactly what made up the environment in RE1.

The callback jumps from subtle to overt in the second chapter (about forty-five minutes in) when Jill wakes up in a locked room without a weapon. The subsequent fifteen minutes should be bliss for survival horror purists - a defenseless avatar, monsters bursting from closets to give chase down narrow hallways, racing against time to find that right key or door before they catch you. I call it an overt reference because until that point the game had been set in the dim, steely blue, swaying corridors of an ocean liner - then, just as the gameplay becomes really RE1y, you're transported to opalescent, warmly lit living quarters that, not knowing any better, one might assume comprised an old-world New England mansion (which, for the uninitiated, is where RE1 was set). Frankly, I found this decision downright cool. At this point the series is so far removed from its origins that it was the last thing I was expecting, and it completely recolored the game I'd been playing up til that point. All of a sudden I understood why I had a dodge move to escape monsters at arm's length, why I'd been circling past so many locked doors, and why I could only carry a limited amount of ammo.
ResiRev welcomes you back to the mansion
I'll tell you later (when I get there) how well ResiRev holds to this revelation, but it's a truly exciting prospect. With a modern streamlined inventory (far simpler than RE4's and light beers better than 5's), friendly auto-saving, no ammo-scares, and surprisingly pretty visual presentation (nearly on par with RE5 but for the low resolution and lesser effects), this could be the best traditional Resident Evil out there. Oh right, a major interface advancement I should mention, since it solves one of RE1's worst problems, is a Metroid Prime style universal environment scanner. At first I was all, "ru4srs?", worried that it was dragging down the pace even further, but this tool proves a major boon to the scavenging nature of the Resident Evil quest. There's no longer any excuse to walk straight by a key that you could barely see or a statue that you didn't realize you could interact with - this provides immediate identification of all interactables without resorting to glowy outlines or sparkles.

I've strategically (or just regularly) avoided thus far mentioning that there are intermittent chapters that play completely differently from this main haunted house/boat adventure. The two thus far have been balls to walls shooting action (even arcadier than RE4). These create an excellent pace for the game, allowing it to have its cake, and eat its cake too. Hmm when you read "have your cake" there in the uh Biblical sense, it's a pretty frightening expression.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Jumping the Sharpedo

at 4:22 PM
Oh what a job it must be to be the dude/dudette who is tasked with translating new Pokemon names from Japanese to English.  I've always imagined it just was one person, arduously going through the new version's pokedex one-by-one and just really letting the creative juices flow.  Whatever word-scientist first invented the portmanteau must have zombie-cringed in their grave just around 1996.  Cringed hard.

It took me a surprisingly long time to puzzle out "Sharpedo." 
So Pokemon X and Y are on their way to America this October, and as usual there is some hubub about the starters and legendaries and all that good stuff.  Now I most certainly won't play X or Y because it's hard to stomach coughing up 40 bucks for a game I've bought 3 times previously.  That doesn't mean that a time-honored tradition need be neglected when the time comes: being weirded out by the increasing absurdity of the freshly-minted sprites.  Let's pause to reflect on some of the fucked up things the Pokemon corporation has envisioned while trying to pad their pokedex roster:
Top 10 Strangest Pokémon Ever Conceived - Klink (Black / White)
People tend to forget that Pokemon don't have to be limited to strange morphing of real-life animals, they can also be objects.  Look around wherever you are right now and pick something at random.  Draw it poorly.  Add a face. Sell it to Nintendo for millions.  Use those millions to fund your own creature-battle game.  Call it Digimon.  No wait, don't, it's taken apparently.  Call it....uhhhh....how about something like "Battlezards?"  
476Probopass.png

Yeah, I mean I don't even know what to say about this guy.  Are his arms the heads of birds?  Are those his arms?  Is that a mustache or pubic hair?  So many questions.
This guy's face just freaks me out.  He looks like he knows something I don't.  Also his existence begs a question regarding the new water starter:
Froakie (Water)
Meet Froakie.  Which I reason out to be a combination of "frog" and "croak" with an affectionate-sounding ending.  Odds that the Pokemon team just plain forgot they already had created a water type frog Pokemon?  About 50 percent.  Odds that they just didn't care?  The remaining 50 percent.

I'll leave you with the trailer for the new game.  


Really stunning stuff here, folks.

Sick as a dawgggg

at 2:36 PM
Y'all know the drill. Need to be in bed rather than blogging. This week, look forward to posts on Kid Icarus: Uprising, platforming protagonists, a new top ten perhaps, and maybe a much-anticipated follow-up about voice acting. Or, more likely, completely different subjects altogether, as is the wont of this blog.

I guess at this point it's become tradition when I'm sick to link some music that no one will listen to. It's annoying to think I've got a sick tradition, that that's how unhealthy I've been in the last year. Anyway, here's a lovely song I've got playing right now.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Retro done Rocket Knight right: The post I accidentally didn't write yesterday

at 1:27 PM
Before I shot off on a tangent faster than the sun shoots lazers at the moon, I was going to write yesterday (now it's two days ago, since I didn't finish this post Thursday as intended) about the underrated Rocket Knight and reigning eShop fan-fave, Mutant Mudds.

[Things are about to get a bit hairy nomenclaturally speaking - the Rocket Knight/Sparkster series is confusingly titled. Let me give you a "cheat's sheet" here. There are four completely distinct games in the series:
Rocket Knight Adventures (Genesis, 1993)
Sparkster: RKA2 (Genesis, 1994)
Sparkster (SNES, 1994)
Rocket Knight (XBLA, 2010)
and the main character is the same throughout, known dually as Sparkster and the Rocket Knight. Note that I'll always bold the titles, so if you see the names in tiny text, it means I'm referring to the character or the series whole. The sign of good writing is the need for a "cheat's sheet", though I think the blame this time rests firmly on Konami.]

I chose RK and MM because they're on opposite ends of the retro spectrum, whatever that means. A spectrum doesn't really have opposite ends, ya know, it's a continuous FINE who cares. Rocket Knight is retro game type I: a revival of a long-forgotten (or long-missed) property with intent to continue rather than reboot. Megan Man 9, Double Dragon Neon, and dare-I-say Street Fighter IV fall into this neighborhood. Mutant Mudds is retro type II: an entirely new property created as if in the past, like La-Mulana or Dark Void Zero. And remember, I said it's a spectrum, so games like Bit.Trip fall somewhere in between. Whichever the means, the intention of each type is for you to sit down and feel as though it's 19XX again.
Let's take a look at these means, since the degree to which they're successfully executed becomes the degree to which the game accomplishes the goal of retro (recall: to evoke a specific time, place, and packaging). At first it might seem as though Rocket Knight has the easier task; it's already got characters, setting, and gameplay to draw on. "Isn't any game starring Rocket Knight immediately retro?", you ask. In fact, that franchise nature makes things a lot tougher - see Donkey Kong Country Returns for a game unable to overcome the same baggage. It's not good enough to regurgitate the iconic series elements and say "ta-da", because saying "ta-da" has historically accomplished little to nothing in virtually any situation. At best that constitutes a fan-game - it's too easy to assume that a classic game is classic because of exactly what's in it, that to recreate greatness, all you need are the elements of greatness. The original Rocket Knight Adventures earned its belovation through innovation, uniqueness, and the solidification and expansion of ideas established by the sequels. By varying the core concepts of the original game, the continuing entries reflect on their predecessors and clarify their identities, while also incorporating new ideas into the body of work. This is why even the less-than-fun Rocket Knight Adventures 2 is valuable. Its weird insistence on super-hidden collectibles (basically Chaos Emeralds) calls focus to the element of exploration within the series that is otherwise easy to ignore - after playing RKA2, what seemed like aimlessly open environments in Sparkster become open-world mazes, promising exploratory platforming rather than accidental footholds.

So what we're really looking at isn't how Rocket Knight duplicates RKA and Sparkster(s), but how it presents new means of experience in congruence with the ideals of the older games. Rocket Knight presents the familiar (if you're Golem or I) anthropomorphized possum/pig/wolf world of the series, once again torn asunder (yeah boy) by war between... apparently an entire army vs. Sparkster. Though war has always been the backdrop of the games' stories, this time it's immediate, all-consuming, and epic. This is partially accomplished simply by an increase in resolution - with 1080 eyes to work with, a lot more can be jammed onto the screen, an opportunity Rocket Knight uses to populate the landscape with lively battles between pigs, wolves, and their war machines (sadly for RKA2 fans, the lizardmen do not return - get your fix from Skyrim instead). The choice of environments also keeps Rocket Knight focused - there aren't any detours through giant-musical-instrument-world this time around. Sparkster himself has become a more violent avatar, with more attacks than ever, an emphasis on close range combat, and an overactive jetpack. All of this serves both to recall to us the omnipresent world-at-war atmosphere of the Rocket Knight and to bring it to the fore, providing a new element of focus to go back and rediscover in the classic trilogy.


Mutant Mudds, on the other hand, gets a blank slate to write on. It's emulating a time period - let's say 1990, just for simplicity's sake - and thus can pick and choose from anywhere in the massive berth of game design of that era (or just pull heavily from Super Mario World and Virtual Boy Wario Land). Where Rocket Knight had to prove that there was still something to be done with the series, some way to evolve it creatively, Mudds isn't really out to prove that 1990 can be more than it already was. Instead, it wants to show us how simply fun a game can be without contrivance, how the olden standards remain not just functional, but viable. The success or failure of Mudds doesn't establish it as part of classic canon or prove that it would or would not have been awesome and original had it been released in 1990, rather it says "hey, guy. This old baseline, this still works. So there's nothing stopping you from innovating on top of it."
Someone should point out that I seem to be trivializing Mudds, shrinking its goals so it's easier to declare as successful. Well, that someone should go play the game and then see if they can stand by their contention, because frankly, if you can see any kind of ambition or experimentality in there, you have keener eyes than I (and everyone knows that I have the eyes of an eagle - an eagle which has lazerbeams for eyes. An optometrist told me this. I am not kidding.). The game gives you Firebrand's hover (Gargoyle's Quest), Mega Man's cannon (Mega Man), and drops you straight into the level hub, which is just a room full of doors. There are exactly 100 'coins' and one hidden door in every stage. You have infinite lives/continues and there are no checkpoints. It pretty much says "look, platforms, okay? You know what to do."

The platforming aspect of the game isn't so interesting to discuss, though I will say it works as well as any reviewer might have you believe, if not better. Mudds' true success as retro is in showing us that there are still fun characters to make, even without dialogue, duologue, diatribe, dissension, declamation, double talk - double talk, IT'S ALL TALK. You tell 'em, Adrian Belew. The titular Mudds are an alien species serving the role of Goombas and Koopas, varying in size and appearance corresponding to their function. Sure they're all brown, but I came to affectionately nickname each of them by the time I'd collected all forty water sprites (more specifically, I nicknamed each one "Tim"). The game's protagonist is definitely named Alex or Maximillian, I don't remember which, but he too is a success. Though clearly inspired (consciously or un-) by Earthbound's Jeff, the developers give Aleximillian just enough personality - his dorky, overly enthusiastic wave at the player when the controls go silent, the brief flash of buck teeth as he strolls along, and of course the shorts. The game makes you wish we got more such colorful 8-bit silliness, simply by non-referentially throwing us an example.

No one likes an excessively long post, which is why I decided it would be perfect to end this week of being too busy to write. If you made it this far, your special reward is that I'll remind you that you can demo both of these games for free! And both are available on PC with relatively modest system requirements! So if you're reading this post, you can probably have them downloaded and ready to play by the time you finish reading this post, had I put this paragraph at the beginning!