Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly: Mechs

at 3:33 PM
The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly takes a look at a character archetype and breaks down where it's gone right, wrong, or just plain weird. While the effort may seem perfunctory, we hope to examine the consonance (or dissonance) between high-level concepts and their practical execution. 

Today we're gonna talk giant mechs. Walkin', talkin', manned robots. These guys have been popular since the first time Japan got their hands on a dev kit, and have only grown in popularity since. Gundam Wing adaptations alone would provide enough fodder for this feature. The sad fact is, most mech games I've handled tend to be... well... mediocre. Not bad, just not exciting either. Robotech: Battlecry, Dynasty Warriors Gundam, Armored Core, they just don't do it for me. They tend to be boring; how do you make the player feel in control of a gigantic hulking machine without slowing the gameplay to a crawl? I'm not claiming to be an authority on the matter; what I can say is that I can identify a few instances that spectacularly succeed and fail in capturing this feeling. 

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The Bad: Nitro (Metal Warriors)

Metal Warriors is, for all intensive porpoises, the same basic sluggish platformer/shooter as Cybernator, yet it's immensely less fun to play. There's no input lag to convey inertia, rather Nitro simply possesses a terribly low walking velocity. The infinite jetpack feels nonsensical and further detracts from any sense of a real physical world - you're never making calculated boosts and dashes, but simply struggling with loose control. The most damning part of it all is actually a feature of the level design that affects movement so much that it has to be wagered against the control: fucking destructible walls. Everywhere you go in Metal Warriors, your path will be hindered by layers and layers of bricks that require you to stand still for 15+ seconds to chip away an opening. Remember Gemini Man from Mega Man 3? It's that all over.

There is no need for this shit. You have to shoot through three rows of blocks just to be able to walk through a passage. It's not challenging, and it's not even rare - it's all over at least the first two levels, just to slow the pace.
So how 'bout that weaponry? What does Nitro have to offer there? In short, jack shit. Nitro's default blaster is a typical machine gun, though the point of fire is strangely distant from the center of the sprite, thanks to an unnecessarily long barrel. This makes aiming at nearby targets a hassle, particularly because the game loves the tiny human enemies that were extremely frustrating for the ONE second that they appeared in Cybernator. An incredibly clunky lightsaber does little to fix this, as it possesses woefully short range and requires that the player stand still for almost a whole second. If you thought the lightsaber in Super Star Wars was a mess, boy are you gonna be thrilled here. The only upgrades to this basic weapon set come in the form of haphazardly-placed timed power-ups, which will again make you resent the designers' insistence on walling off every passageway. I am absolutely NEVER a fan of timed power-ups (come fucking on Super Mario Galaxy, I only get 30 seconds with the Fire Flower?), and they make even less sense in this lethargically paced game. The ONE armament that does pack some punch, a killer rocket launcher, will often vanish before you get the chance to use it on even one enemy. Plus you have to press an alternate attack button to use it - what the fuck is up with that? It's not like the system is ammo based. Don't make me simultaneously press two attack buttons! Fucking Xevious bullshit. 

The Good: Ranger X (Ranger X)

My favorite pick here would actually be the Assault Suit from Cybernator, but I've already discussed that game at length and decided to move on to another excellent 16-bit mecher: Ranger X. Ranger X is typical of Genesis games in that it's hard to love, but it takes a lot to love. A lot of learning, and a whole lotta love. For the best.
It's a rough-around-the-edges shooter that sees the player steering through varied environments, from hangars to forests to caves, battling full-screen bosses and tracking down enemy factories. Ranger X captures one of the most difficult-to-execute aspects of mechdom: transformation. This doesn't just entail a bunch of different robots; on the fly, Ranger can ride or combine with his high-tech motorbike to become a blazing fury of the blazers. In mech form, he's yet another chug-a-lugger, so he can snap onto his trusty bike just as fluidly as Voltron joined up with Voltron Jr. to take off at high speeds across the nation. The bike and mech can be controlled in tandem even when they are separated, allowing for some neat dual-pronged attack opportunities.

As in Cybernator, boost facilities are limited by a recharging meter, requiring the player to make the most of their inertia to keep airborne. Ranger's deeper charge reserves and faster boost speed makes the mech feel more agile and aggressive, in keeping with its hornet-like appearance.

The Ugly: Cyclone Suit/J-Bomb/Thunderfist (Blast Corps)

When I was eleven, I was glued to whatever versions of Gundam Wing and Robotech they showed on Toonami, but the thought of a mech in a video game was nothing but fantasy. I also somehow managed to gain quite a predilection for the sheer destructibility of Rampage, even though I had probably only ever played it two or three times. So when I first laid eyes on Blast Corps, it was like a dream come true. You get to control a mech to lay waste to cities! When I learned more about the game, that it was based around a tight time limit and clearing an immediate path through those cities, I lost a lot of enthusiasm. Time limits are anathema to a little kid who just wants to dick around without any rules. Remember, eleven-year-olds are the primary audience for Grand Theft Auto, so you have to put yourself in that mindset. 

Why, Rare? Why did you do this?
When I did finally get my hands on Blast Corps (which my parents were reluctant to rent/buy for me, as I pronounced the title as the much more violent-sounding Blast Corpse (they weren't too fond of Maximum Carnage either)), all of my dreams and worries were completely stifled by the fact that, what the fuck, the mechs have to somersault into buildings? Or slowly hover to the top to do a piledriver? Agh, it's so strange. I understand that they were trying to add challenge beyond "hold forward to smash", but these limitations lend themselves to a crushing linearity. The mechs don't feel like mechs when they each only have one gimmick-behavior, equivalent to the functionality of the game's other construction vehicles. One wonders what is the point of including giant robot men at all. Smashing buildings is still neat and all, but using robot dance-moves to do it? Fucking weird.

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Though Metal Warriors may be an abomination in play, I respect that it makes some - however misguided - attempt at conveying the sensibility of Mech War. The separation of driver from mech is always a nice touch, present in Blast Corps as well. Other mech games like M.U.S.H.A. and Strania make no attempt to justify their aesthetic of giant mechanical men, which isn't inherently a fault, but at least a missed opportunity. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

If you don't think a console is worth buying, don't buy it?

at 11:54 AM
While Yangtze and his perpetual naysaying are essentially anathema to the optimistic approach I try to maintain on this blog, he seems perceptive, well-versed in the medium, and generally spot-on about the mainstream gaming industry/culture. To that end, I couldn't possibly better voice my disdain for the pending step "forward" the console market is about to take than to point you to his post on the subject:
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/extra-punctuation/10300-We-Really-Really-Dont-Need-New-Consoles

If you think the consumer ambivalence to adopt a new generation was specific to Nintendo's Wii U and their casual market, I think you're severely underestimating just how casual most console-owners are. I can't say I've heard from ANYONE that they are looking forward to the oncoming plunge... I can only hope gamers are willing to take a stand and talk with their dollars rather than their forum handles, as I called for in my post about EA. There are thousands of games already out there that you haven't played - don't act like you can't go on with your gaming hobby without the latest and greatest box. I'm ready to skip the next console generation, take a break from upgrading my PC, and enjoy a relaxing ten years immersed in everything I've missed from the SNES, Genesis, and PSX libraries. Hopefully I won't have to, but also hopefully I'll win the lottery tomorrow.
Other console generations have come at times when the marketplace was starting to dry up with ideas, or run into technological hurdles to accomplish those they had. The SNES was starting to burst at the seams with ideas like Star Fox, N64 and PSX looked for tricks like pre-rendered backgrounds to establish the detail their processors couldn't obtain, and the PS2/Xbox/GCN generation started to grind to a halt for more holistic reasons - the desire for a sophisticated online marketplace, social networking, blah-blah-blah. Maybe in ten years (or maybe after E3) this opinion will seem archaic and trite, but I can't see what the next gen is promising that we don't already have. The technology hasn't run its course - we see prettier graphics, better physics, more refined design every year. This generation started light-years before its full potential could be reached, and we're now going to make a jump after traveling a few miles? The last leap was a good one, so this time around, however ill-justified the new consoles are, there will be many blind leapers. That's a nice short-sighted opinion for Sony and Microsoft to take. But if the blind break their legs this time, will they be able to jump again?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Do you even realize how important life bars are?

at 4:38 PM
If you're the developers of Crimson Shroud, check here ___ for "no". If you've ever played a game before, check here ___ for "yes". It's especially frustrating because Shroud is the work of Yasumi "Fucking" Matsuno, one of the greatest minds in the gaming world (the creator of Ogre Battle, Vagrant Story, and the entire Tactics sub-genre), and Level-5, a long-acclaimed JRPG dev whose games I have not actually played (Dark Cloud, Rogue Galaxy, Ni No Kuni). With this pedigree, it's impossible to dismiss this as a case of inexperience - this is outright ignorance of interface, a "this doesn't matter". Interface is one of the few aspects of execution that really demands attention, as it is responsible for communicating ideas to the player.

Let me tell you a little story that goes a long way back. A long, long, long way back. Even longer than you can imagine. Yes, a time before time, a time before imagination, a time when I was like, I dunno, sixteen or seventeen. In these dark, prehistoric days, before light, laughter, literacy, or lazers, an enterprising young friend of mine got his hands on an enterprising young development tool called GameMaker, and put it to use to create a Wonder Boy III-inspired platforming romp known today far and wide as HomeVresion. Now, current fans may not realize that in its early days, HomeVresion was barely recognizable as the grandiose adventure we revere here in 2013. 'Twas a mere shadow of a game, a primitive wreck that could only be saved by one man. One play-tester with the necessary vision to turn lead into gold, water into wine, chickens into chicken salad. That man was me, the very author of this very blog you are reading this very day. I don't remember if I mentioned earlier: the other man (the developer of the game) was the other Greg, known in those days as Golem. Greg was reluctant to share his treasured work, but as we now know, it was the best decision he ever made. For, before it entered my hands, HomeVresion wielded only the simplest of Heads-Up Displays - the player's health displayed as a mere number! And the very first opinion I voiced, on the very first game on which I ever had any creative input, was "why the heck ain't there a damn life bar?"

Yes, I consider myself a born proponent of the life bar. As death haunts so many of our games, tying us to failure, the distance between our character and his/her ghastly demise is represented by the notion of health. This abstract idea is almost always maintained by the game engine as two numeric values: maximum and current "health points", or HP - a term I assume derives from traditional tabletop RPGs. Some games, particularly RPGs, choose to present one or both of these numbers directly; among them, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, and Gunstar Heroes
Earthbound shows current HP but expects the player to memorize each character's max...
...as does Final Fantasy VI
Gunstar Heroes makes the same mistake in an action game
While this gives the player the finest accuracy available, it is an inherently flawed approach: a number must be read and interpreted using basic math. It may seem a trivial task - especially in games riddled with numbers - but HP is so critical and so frequently checked that the player wants to have a continuous consciousness of their characters' health without needing to ask "what is 85 - 47?". Discrete HP 'checks', conscious glances over to the HUD, distract a player from the primary action, slowing down the rate of play or even causing risk in action titles. A game like Gunstar Heroes is the worst of offenders, wherein the fast-paced action is completely contradicted by the requirement that the player check their health to evaluate how much damage each hit deals. Think of it this way: every time you have to look at your health is a mini-pause, and the more abstract the health indicator, the longer that pause lasts. So any game designer with even the slightest common sense should ask "how can I reduce or eliminate that pause"?

That question has been answered in dozens of different ways in the past few decades, so much so that we shouldn't need to ask it anymore. Really, no game released later than 1985 has any excuse to have a standalone number HP display. It's primitive and moronic, and begs the question of developers like Treasure (possibly the worst offender, as one of the few action-devs to cling to this archaic interface): do you even play games? If you do, you'll have seen all kinds of different health indicators. Link has a depleting line of hearts and beeps loudly at the player (presumably using his mouth) when he is near death. Simon Belmont and Mega Man have a bar of pellets which represent their status.
Ninja Gaiden uses the most rudimentary (and functional) form of life bar
These HUD meters that sit at the side of the screen may seem no different from numbers, but can be interpreted much quicker through peripheral vision. Some life bars hover under or over their avatar, especially in games with many onscreen characters like StarCraft. They are a concrete translation of abstract life - being halfway dead translates to half a bar. There's so little interpretation that we forget health is a number at all. Even more elegant are character-relative displays: Mario shrinks when he takes damage, GnG's Arthur loses his armor, and Mortal Kombatants become bruised and bloodied. Many modern games, following the example of Call of Duty, use a reddening screen filter to indicate depleting health. These strategies don't require any change of focus or peripheral vision whatsoever.
Arthur is clothed when he has health, and (mostly naked) when he is about to die
The Modern Warfare games and many other FPSs use lens effects instead of health bars
But, okay, most of those examples are action games. Is it really THAT big a deal in a turn-based RPG like Pokemon or Skies of Arcadia? Of course it is, because these games are already lethargically paced - the last thing they need are MORE pauses for the player to figure out what the fuck the game is trying to say. That's where Crimson Shroud really drops the ball: sure, it has health bars, but they're not organized, not connected to the characters they represent, move between turns (!), and create so much clutter that they need direct attention to parse. And let's not forget that Shroud is a 3DS game, meaning that all of this HUD is not even on the screen you're looking at to make decisions. Evaluating health generalizes to evaluating the state of the battle, which must be done before any decisions are made. When it takes a noticeable amount of time (like 1 to 5 seconds) to figure out what is going on, battles are soon dragging on for twice as long as they should. 
God even this still makes my brain hurt. Why is the camera so zoomed in? Why are the life bars behind the text?  Why are both Skeleton B's and Archdemon A's names closer to Lippi than his own? Why is Frea's name on top of the skeleton with a long line pointing to her, when the space over her is completely free?
Crimson Shroud isn't a bad game. In fact, it may even be a great game - I've only yet played an hour. But it will be an experience that I can never fully enjoy, because it is so insistent on reminding me that I'm playing a video game (the dice we can talk about later).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Learning to love traditional JRPGs - a true Retro Game Challenge

at 5:31 PM
One of my newest video game friends, Retro Game Challenge, has taught me a lesson I didn't expect to learn. This lesson is that maybe I can like traditional turn-based JRPG?
One of my favorite Japanese turn-based RPGs is Star Prince
Challenge is structured as a literary anthology of eight fictional '80s-styled games, each deriving heavily from a real-world classic. See this post for more discussion of the overarching narrative that explains why you're playing them. The games are presented one at a time, each with four challenges that must be completed  before the next game is revealed. Each unlocked game can be revisited at will, as the challenges usually do not include seeing the ending. The eight retro games, in order of play, are:

Cosmic Gate (based on Galaga, ex. challenge: get 200,000 pts)
Robot Ninja Haggleman (based on Ninja JaJaMaru-Kun, ex. challenge: beat level 4 without dying)
Rally King (based on R.C. Pro-Am (I think), ex. challenge: complete course 2 in 5th place or higher)
Star Prince (based on Star Force/Star Soldier, ex. challenge: beat the boss of level 2)
Rally King SP (modified "special edition" of Rally King)
Robot Ninja Haggleman 2 (very similar to RNH, with larger levels and harder enemies)
Guadia Quest (based on Dragon Warrior, ex. challenge: reach level 10 with all characters)
Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 (based on Castlevania II/Ninja Gaiden, ex. challenge: kill 100 enemies)

These capture the most popular genres of NES-era gaming, as well as some of their key evolutions. Star Prince introduces scrolling to shoot-'em-ups, Haggleman 3 adds linear progression (instead of looping) to platforming, and Rally King SP adds nothing at all to Rally King. As I discussed in the previous feature, being forced to play each game for a certain amount of time (long enough to complete the challenges) makes the new games feel like exactly that: new games. Even players coming into Challenge without existing knowledge of what's to come will be primed on the "upcoming" releases by the fake in-game Famitsu/Nintendo Power pastiche, creating a sense of anticipation.

To this end, the game I most avidly awaited was of course the last to be unlocked, Haggleman 3. The first two Hagglemans are too basic for my taste; as arcade-style platformers, they share more in common with Son-Son or Mario Bros. than what we now consider the defining work of the genre, Super Mario Bros. Plus I fucking love adventure platformers like Castlevania II and Wonder Boy III. Unfortunately, what I do not love is traditional turn-based RPGs like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and Ultima III. I've tried to weather a number of these games and simply don't have the patience for it, nor do I derive much pleasure from incessant turn-based battling. But Retro Game Challenge gave me no choice: if I wanted to play Haggleman 3, I was going to have to stomach at least a few hours of Guadia Quest

What's shocking is that this dangling carrot was all I needed to become engaged in Guadia Quest, to the extent that I didn't even put it down after unlocking Haggleman 3. Up til that point, I had been playing Challenge as a curiosity, not because I particularly needed a refresher on retro gaming - I already play NES games on a near-daily basis. I wasn't expecting to come away with any greater understanding or appreciation of these game-types - after all, I hold games from the '80s in equally high esteem as those from the '10s. So it came as something of a surprise that an archetype I had already felt decided upon would take on new life in this form. But has Guadia Quest really changed my feelings on early JRPGs? Does enjoying this one mean  I'll suddenly be able to plumb new depths of Breath of Fire and Phantasy Star?
One of the coolest parts of Retro Game Challenge is that it includes full manuals for these fictional "classics"
I suppose first we need to ask how much Guadia Quest actually has in common with the classics - how well it would fit were it released in 1988, as Challenge posits it was. I'm not gonna run through the JRPG trope list in detail - let's just quickly summarize. These games feature quests to save the world, over-worlds full of random battles, towns as shelter/restocking/healing/save points, maze-like enemy-filled boss-topped dungeons as levels, turn-based battles, rigid immutable class systems and character growth, and Java+++ scripting language. Guadia Quest happily ticks all those boxes. Fixed-strength encounters communicate to the player what party level they should be at to conquer each location, experience and gold is scaled to battle difficulty such that tougher victories are better rewarded, and there's even a very light monster capturing system. Save-anywhere is a convenient feature NOT found in most of the classics, though save states are so common these days that it doesn't feel unusual to a retro-player in 2013. The difficulty curve is steep, with frequent death leading to multiple replays of each section. The player's party is made up of a warrior-type (high attack, no magic), a paladin (moderate attack and healing/defensive spells), and a black mage (low attack/defense, powerful offsensive spells), which is about the most basic assortment known to man. Implied die rolls decide whether each attack hits, criticals, or misses. 
"A", "B", and "Z". Boy this guy was creative with his character names. Mine were "You", "Womp", and "Yaky"
If Guadia Quest makes significant modifications to the JRPG formula, I don't know the formula well enough to notice. So it's not the gameplay itself that made the difference. It has to be something about the circumstances that led me to like this RPG yet reject Phantasy Star IV - and that's intentionally "like", not "tolerate". I think it's one particular sequence of challenges that changed the way I approached the game. The first is to reach Level 10 with each party member, a simple task of grinding as familiar to a gamer as the neckbeard on their chinny chin chin. This facilitates a sort of aimless, goalless wandering, where it doesn't really matter where you go or what you see, because you're always getting closer to your goal. There is some freedom of choice in that the player can try to survive a handful of high-level encounters or safely power through dozens of easier ones, but the goal remains abstract. It doesn't really matter which way you go.

The following challenge requires the player to obtain 1000 gold. As each battle comes with a monetary reward, this at first seems the exact same as the previous objective. But this treasure-hunt in fact highlights the adventurous nature of the genre, reminding me more of Dark Souls than Final Fantasy V. The need for greater rewards than victory-pennies (I think that was a kenning!) centers the experience around defying immediate danger in order to make it as far as possible on individual expeditions, always trying to make one more step on failing legs rather than giving up your progress by using a town portal. La-Mulana was another adventure that kindled this same spirit; the notion that powering up cannot in and of itself be an end. The difference between this type of play and run-of-the-mill grinding is that each quest for treasure has its own binary metric of success: you either find the gold, or you don't. There's no in-between, no reward for making it halfway. It brings life, purpose, and risk to each step forward. "Can I make it across the room without running into a random battle?" "Is it worth setting myself back 500 gold to get better equipment to survive deeper into the dungeons?" Like Dark Souls, there's a weight to failure - continue to screw up, and you're going to be sinking more and more gold into revival and healing items, which pulls you further and further from your goal. There's also an exhaustibility to rewards - you can't collect the same treasure chest twice, so you have to forge on to new territory.

I'm honestly not sure how well this immediacy will be preserved when I inevitably retry a classic I had previously dismissed (probably gonna be Phantasy Star III). True, it's simply a matter of mindset and didn't involve any real change to gameplay, but I was also being externally motivated to think that way. If I had a blog, you might be able to follow how well this experiment goes. Unfortunately, I don't :(

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly: Marios

at 9:27 AM
The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly takes a look at a character archetype and breaks down where it's gone right, wrong, or just plain weird. While the effort may seem perfunctory, we hope to examine the consonance (or dissonance) between high-level concepts and their practical execution. 

I'm not here to tell you the best Mario game. I wouldn't dream of it. That's for you and your local priest or medicine man to resolve. Rather, I'd like for us to have a calm, level-headed discussion about which incarnations of Mario should and should not exist. 

The only rule of Mario is that no one fucking cares what he's doing, he has to be fun. Funsylvania. Mario is an ideal. Almost nonstop since his appearance in Super Mario Bros., he has served as the pattern from which other player-characters derive. He is the patron saint of muckin' about, against whom all shall be judged. Everyone wants to be Mario, except for a brief and sad period where they wanted to be Sonic, who himself is really just another wannabe. At his best, we're thrilled just to steer Mario around a flat (Donut) plain. But every plumber has his fall from grace....

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The Good: Mario (Super Mario 64)

No one even understood how to make a 3D character until this. This Mario is the first and best character to deliver the sensation of running around a real environment just for play. There's no streamlining, no shortcuts around physical logic for the sake of gameplay - Mario runs around like a person would run around (realize that even to this day, the majority of PC games use digital control - Mario was full analog in 1996!). What's crazy is how gratifying it is. Triple jumps and wall-bounces and other complex acrobatics take some know-how, but still derive from the same one-button control scheme. Discovering what Mario can do is a game in and of itself, and the delight is in learning when and how to use your new second nature.
Oh, plus he can fucking fly. If you're going to take advantage of 3D, that's the way you have to do it.

The Bad: Super Paper Mario (Super Paper Mario)

Come on. This game is so bad. It's one of the worst games to bear the Mario moniker (excluding the million weird non-canonical cameos), it's a travesty against the genius that was Paper Mario, and it only contributes to the utter lack of substantial first-party efforts on Wii. Hmm, "contributes to the lack"? That's kind of an oxymoron. I don't think you can say that. Luckily, I can. But I made a promise that I wasn't gonna pass judgment on Mario games - not today - and that's a promise I have to keep. For the good of whalekind.
Still, the not-a-game-ness of SPM is inextricably linked to the shittiness of its edition of Mario. This is a 2D game; Mario has flourished in two dimensions for decades, longer than just about any character we know. He's to this day great in his original flatness, as New Super Mario Bros. can attest. But SPM, as a walkabout RPG without platforming or combat, trashes every precept that has made the character great. This "super" "paper" "Mario" has no momentum, he is not victim to gravity, friction, acceleration, or any other real-world forces - unless you count the Wiimote's gyroscope - he doesn't spring, he has criminally little effect on the world, and he has to bounce on enemies numerous times to make them even flinch. And don't forget - for each bounce to give maximum reward, you have to waggle the remote! I'm not as rabidly anti-waggle as some Wii-haters, but could there possibly be a worse place to require it than when MARIO JUMPS ON THINGS? He does it non-stop! Why interfere with his defining characteristic?

This is #2 on my list of reasons to blow up Shigeru Miyamoto's family, because yes, I hold him personally responsible for this game which I'm sure he had zero input on. How did Intelligent Systems make games as Intelligent as Tetris Attack, Paper Mario, and Fire Emblem without knowing what makes Mario Mario?

The Ugly: Baby Mario (Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island)

Baby Mario is just so fucking annoying and pointless, contributing in no way to the gameplay of what is one of the most overrated and unnecessary platformers of all time (is there any reason not to skip directly from SMW to Yoshi's Story?). I mean, were people really begging for Mario to be relegated to a sidekick in his own main series? And for him to be turned into a baby? Yeah, there's nothing more adorable than a screeching plumber baby (NOT baby plumber... although I guess Baby Mario does just as much plumbing as does Regular Mario). You don't even get to control him - his sole purpose is now to annoy you if you screw up. Cool, guy! Couldn't they have just invented a new stupid character to do this? They invented Bowser Jr. (or I guess Princess Toadstool gave birth to him, but whatever).

Nintendo at least had the courtesy not to make us play as BM, and one can hardly complain about Yoshi. But I do cringe every time I see him included in one of the Mario _____ (Kart/Tennis etc.) games. Baby Mario for Smash Bros.!

This one was a tough call, as Sunshine's FLUDD Mario is a weird one too. FLUDD may have been the last thing we wanted to see strapped to Mario's back, and many agree that the non-FLUDD levels were the best part of Sunshine, but I'll be damned if the thing isn't a blast to play with. So it gets an honorable mention. Even though I don't really know what the "Ugly" category even means.

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Look if my goddamn computer hadn't been blue-screening like a blue-screener for the last couple days, I would've written a better post. But it didn't and I didn't and that's where we are. There's not a lot of new things to be said about Super Mario 64, I'm afraid. I mean I guess probably no one's ever called it African-American, but only for fear of NAACP intervention.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Giana Sisters? More like Giana Sparksters! More like a rant about euro-games!

at 4:36 PM
I don't know how I'm supposed to get a whole post out of this. I played the XBLA demo of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, and it was bad. We done? Good.

It looks like we're not done, because this paragraph. Little history lesson: the original Great Giana Sisters is some kind of Super Mario Bros. ripoff (get it? Italian name? siblings? adjective? platforming? computer games? Internet telephony?), although they couldn't even get the title parody right (shouldn't it be Great Giana Siss.?). It was originally developed for the Comedydore 64 (uh oh) and has the feel and production value of like, maybe Chex Quest? I dunno, I think Chex Quest was better. Maybe Leisure Suit Larry. That's probably still too nice. How about Action 52? It's just a weird, cynical, European game with no apparent reason to exist - it isn't really a parody, because it has no jokes, but it isn't an original game because it has the exact same gameplay as SMB, down to the evil turtles, bouncing fireballs, and breakable blocks. The only thing that clearly distinguishes the two games is that GGS is clearly worse programmed and has uglier graphics (what C64 wasn't hideous? It was only a quarter step up from a ColecoVision.). I've heard some defend the game by saying "well NES and SMB had no foothold in Europe at the time", but SMB was non-existent on the Genesis/Mega Drive and Sega still found a way to compete without copying.

Euro-games are a thing though. I don't think I truly in my heart understand [mainland] Europe, because they like such weird crap. And I'm not trying to sound racist here. I just am racist. How come they never caught on to rock music? How come Germans have such a bizarre sense of humor? How come Latinos are obsessed with Morrissey? None of it adds up. And who's that old guy in the funny white hat that lives somewhere in Italy? What's his deal? I suppose it should come as no surprise that they have their own style of video game as well. Euro-shmups are unnecessarily slow, physics-heavy, and shop-driven, like Xenon; euro-platformers like Turrican and our very own Great Giana Sisters have bizarro level-design and completely rip more popular games; euro-brawlers turn out like Cyborg Justice. I actually just invented the term "euro-brawler", but man does Cyborg Justice make me glad it wasn't a thing. It kinda baffles me that we Americans are better able to relate to the Japanese game world than the European - then again, many genre 'baseline' games came from Japan (Space Invaders, Funky Kong), so we don't really differentiate between "Japanese games" and plain old "games".

You know how it's always obvious when an old game was developed in Europe? They just had a special touch for not understanding anything that made games fun. Or how to program. It's the Cyborg Justice thing where I think they'd probably only ever seen video games, not played them.

Sorry, I'm being Negative Nancy, Electrically Supercharged Superheroine of the Superfuture. There certainly are/were good European game companies - Britain alone has loads. There's fucking Rare, Ubisoft, Eidos (though most of their classic dev squads like Ion Storm, Looking Glass, and Crystal Dynamics were American), Ninja Theory, Digital Reality, and CD Projekt. Even Nintendo of America makes some great European games in the Europe. Truly a cavalcade of talent and overwhelming.

Because a whole continent is capable of collectively making a bad decision, a 2012 sequel to GGS was crowd-funded into existence, courtesy of Kickstarter. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams appeared on Steam last year and Xbox Live Arcade in early 2013, and good lord why is it exactly a Rocket Knight game? Well, that's not quite fair. RKA and Sparkster are blazingly fast, varied, enthralling to look at, and overall excellent. Twisted Sisters appears to be none of that. The reasons I make the comparison are mostly superficial, but superficial in a way that feels a bit more than coincidence. Again, recall that I only played the demo of Twisted Dreams, so it may take off in a lazerjet and explode into the troposphere an hour in. Sorry if it does. I'm so sorry. I don't have a million years/dollars to wait around for lazerjets in every game ever. I'm not Ignatius IGN. Ignatius IGN, that's a pretty good one. IGNatius. Yep.

So G-STD shares the following with Rock'n Night: rocket packs, boucing off walls at 45-degree angles, IDENTICAL blue and red diamonds, and dimension-swapping (like in the RKA waterfall level).
I dunno, they don't play all that similar - it's just strange to me that a "throwback" platformer with "unique" mechanics would draw all of those mechanics from a single game/series that started around the time it's throwing back to. Not to mention a series which was recently rebooted on the very same platforms.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sleeping Dogs Revisited: A love letter to... something

at 4:22 PM
Yeah, Sleeping Dogs is a great game. I'm certainly not alone it noting it as the sleeper (ha! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! HAHAHA! HAAA!) hit of 2012; many critics waxed on about it's elegant post-Arkham hand-to-hand combat and elephant post-Max-Payne shootouts and whatever driving. Need for Speed driving I guess, since it happens on roads but is also races. You know roads, right? The flat black thingies? Well, you'll learn. All things in time. It was like someone said, "let's make Grand Theft Auto, but this time around, we'll include gameplay". I haven't played the True Crime games*, but Sleepy Dogs might have sold me. I feel like I should at least play Shenmue now (hi Greg! agh who am I kidding he doesn't even read the blog that's half named after him).

Sometimes I feel like I don't completely 'get' the game, though. I've never much delved into that John Woo China-Crime action-drama filmic thing, because I don't typically get a ton out of crime movies. My reaction to The Godfather was like, eh, okay. What I have delved into (and need to delve more... into) is martial arts cinema, because hey, it's awesome. Enter the Dragon is one of my favorite movies ever (see my list of Netflix IQ movies for a few more I like). Jackie Chan is in my book like A++ greatest actor of all time. Supercop, lol. And what my cursory knowledge of this genre indicates to me is that Sleeping Dogs is posed as the gamic adaptation of about a hundred different movies. Which I think is pretty cool. I don't like adaptations, but I do like culture, and this game is brimming with it.

The most overt nod to cinema comes in a DLC called Zodiac Island. This campaign tells the story of Wei Shen's journey to an exotic island to participate in a mysterious martial arts tournament, where he his joined by other masters from around the continent. If this setup feels familiar, it's because it's the backdrop for Mortal Kombat: The Motion Picture. And if Mortal Kombat: The Motion Picture felt familiar, it's because it was based on Mortal Kombat: The Game. And if Mortal Kombat: The Game felt familiar, it's because it was heavily inspired by Enter the Dragon. And if Enter the Dragon felt familiar, it's because it was based on a Sleeping Dogs DLC called Zodiac Island. And if [...]. In case you don't get the reference, Sleeping Dogs goes the extra mile (perhaps one mile too many) in packaging the adventure as a corny '70s martial arts import film. The cut-scenes use a film-grain effect, the music is far too funky/disco-y for anyone's good, and there's even a lengthy opening credit montage using bold red faux-Asian typeface. It's a bit more of a bludgeon than a nod, but I still appreciated that credit was given to the game's roots.
A detour to make Sammo Hung proud
Even if the gangster parts are as heavy on references (that I wouldn't get) as the martial arts parts, this isn't some kind of Scod Pilgrum. Dogs has its own agenda - the game's raison d'etre is not simply to make references, and for the most part it's relatively straight-faced in its implementation of long-running tropes. This is a game that wants to embody the spirit that drove these movies, not recreate them in a different medium. It nails the action, the setting, and the pace, but falters when we look deeper, not doing a particularly strong job of translating the driving thematic material.

To put it simply, I was so stupefied by Dogs' story that I found myself in perpetual anticipation of something, ANYTHING that would justify the moronic course of the tale. No such twist ever came. You play as an undercover cop, which provides the main source of confusion - outside of a few "cop missions" which have no ties to the main story, no police-work ever takes place. The idea is that our hero, "No" Wei Shen, is tasked with bringing down the Sun On Yee triad. So Wei joins at the bottom, making his way to the top and making friends (who soon die) along the wei. Seriously, everyone in this game dies - to the extent where in the final mission, when the writers go looking for a dramatic moment by killing off Wei's childhood bud, my emotional reaction was to roll my eyes. So the thing is, Wei gets all friendly with the people he's supposed to be taking down, and experiences the classic undercover cop dilemma: his loyalty is challenged. Should he be cop, or should he help criminal. The resolution Sleeping Dogs finds is downright hilarious: Wei always remains loyal to his most immediate triad friends (who are introduced by the mission since, like I said, they ALL die), but he is completely helpless/useless and they end up in a worse state than they started. Which, coincidentally, is a GOOD thing according to the police department. It becomes farcical - this could've been a Naked Gun movie. For instance, when the mission is to provide security for your triad buddy's wedding, Wei is thinking as a triad and intends to keep everyone safe. He fails miserably, leading to the death of the entire wedding party at the hands of a rival gang. Which, in turn, makes the police happy, because it rid the streets of a lot of criminals. So it's like, whoops, the player's mission was fruitless, but also, worked out anyway??? At the end of the game, when all Wei's friends are dead, the police are like "well done Wei. Mission complete. Also, one of the main cops was a traitor. It wasn't worth mentioning for the first 95% of the story.". While maybe this could hold some narrative intrigue - that the only way to complete one obligation is to screw over the other - Wei's sense of duty as a cop is never explored. As the story presents the character, ALL he cares about is his triad. He doesn't give a shit about the Mission Complete - he's never trying to fulfill BOTH roles, the triad and the cop - so there's no conflict. And when you take out his role as a cop, the whole thing seems like a pretty terrible tragedy. At the end of the game, the Sun On Yee is in ruins, and all of Wei's friends have been killed, often thanks directly to him.
It's like the developers said "wow... this is a really sad. But if we make him a cop, then it makes it look like he was the best cop ever! With lots of dead friends! Totally happy ending!"
So, yeah, Sleeping Dogs is more a popcorn flick than an epic journey, which does beg the question why it's so fucking long. As I mentioned earlier, it scrapes by on the skin of its teeth thanks to solid mechanics and rotating pacing, managing always just barely to keep the player coming back. Then again, not every movie needs to be Hard Boiled, and missteps in tone and all, Dogs is still a thrilling adventure that will keep both action and martial arts fans fed for a long time. If United Front can nail down a coherent narrative next time 'round, they'll find themselves at the forefront of the current action boom. Although, who am I kidding, it's not like anyone HAS really managed that total package, not since RE4 at least. So they pretty much are at the head of the pack. It's just that the head of the pack isn't quite where it thinks it is, not just yet.

*Dogs was originally advertised as the third True Crime game, TC: Hong Kong, though the series relation is dubious at best. Basic accepted truth at this point is that Dogs started as an original title, then due to its similarity to True Crime was publisher-rebranded as TC:HK, then due to a publisher change and rights issues, returned to being an original title. Still, many acknowledge that the games have a lot in common, and Dogs has inspired in me the hope that open-city games can actually be worthwhile. Lord knows it took the Incredible Hulk (Ultimate Destruction) and Prototype (its spiritual successor) to get me to have any fun mucking about a present-day city.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Give This Game a Shot: ActRaiser 2

at 3:28 PM
In Give This Game a Shot, we give a fair shake to games that have been overlooked due to commercial failure, more popular siblings, or straight-up non-release.

Hey look, I finally gave this occasional feature a description. I've been all about features and descriptions these past one days. 

SNES fans are born with a full working knowledge of Enix/Quintet classic ActRaiser, but for those still catching on, it's a weird combination of platformer, simulation game, and top-down shooter. The player starts in control of a "sky city" floating over a giant continent peppered with Tiny Towns (TM). Zooming in on one of these city-states switches the player to control of an angel equipped with 4-way bow. The angel is tasked with combating respawning foes while directing the progress of the city's technological and geographic growth. When the player has ushered the budding society into prosperity, he will be asked to (literally) conquer its demons, shifting the game to a standard '90s platformer. Contrived as it may be, I love ActRaiser; it has that special Quintet touch - the beautiful music, the haunting atmosphere, the grace switching between micro- and macro-stories, the abundance of Mode 7. The premise of playing as a heavenly entity freeing the world from demonic bondage is carried over to the second game, but the only gameplay mechanic that remains is the over-world map.
Observe ActRaiser's world map, sim/shooter, and platforming modes of gameplay
I'm tempted at this point to go on a long tangent about Quintet and their six SNES games. Temptation averted!

ActRaiser 2 is often dismissed for eliminating the god-sim elements that made the original stand out against the sea of platformers drowning the SNES. On paper, it sounds like a disappointing betrayal. In practice, ActRaiser 2 is as unique a game as its precursor, though for reasons less immediately obvious. Where ActRaiser relied on novelty to distinguish itself, 2 reaches for thematic depth and dense gameplay. It isn't a game about developing civilization and cultivating faith; rather it addresses the vices of society (in the form of the seven deadly sins) and the plights of developing cultures. The game spans multiple continents, from which the variously characterized people beseech God to rescue them from their downfall.
ActRaiser 2 eliminates the sim, skipping straight from world map to completely redesigned action stages
The Master (aka God aka the player) travels the over-world in his floating castle (Heaven) and descends upon troubled cities to hear of their suffering. The citizens will point to the most immediate threat to their happiness, which will lead to a preliminary action stage. After the people are thus liberated, they will plead the Master to destroy the manifested source of their oppression. For instance, when the Master visits Leon, he learns that its people are being heavily taxed, with offenders thrown into a cavernous jail. The Master sets out to free the prisoners, then returns to the city to find the townsfolk still suffering under the crushing taxation. He climbs to the golden palace east of the city and topples the mad king, who has been transfigured into a dragon by the demon Greed. In luxurious Temponia, the Master discovers that the demon Gluttony has consumed all the food and the people are dying of starvation and infighting. A trip to the nearby desert of Modero reveals that the souls of the deceased are being accumulated into a Legion-like beast with innumerable mouths. The Master frees these souls and then tracks the food-stealing ants to their nest, where he must defeat Gluttony's ant-queen to save the Temponians.

Note that the names of characters and locations directly reference their role in the story (some more obviously than others - "Modero", the desert where the souls of gluttons are punished, is clearly derived from "moderation", but you might have to look up "Leon"). I like this straight-up allegorical approach to storytelling. If anything, it's something we don't often see. I can't imagine anyone being bothered by the Christian mythological baseline any more than they are by the rampant use of Greek and Norse mythology in other fantasy games - this isn't Bible Adventures Jr. The art has a creepy Baroque/Divine Comedy feel; the monsters are exaggeratedly hideous, yet extravagant, bedecked in detailed appendages and clothing. The image of the Master draws from the opposite end of the artistic spectrum: his anatomically correct, chiseled and mostly naked figure calls to mind Greco-Roman Classicism and its ideals for man. This David-like appearance emphasizes the champion's role in ridding humanity of its imperfections. Better yet, the Master's earthly form is actually an awakened statue; we see at the beginning of each stage his stoic, solemn perfection even amidst the surrounding chaos.
If you don't think ol' Angry Cloud with Death would fit in on  your local medieval tapestry, you've been looking at different local medieval tapestries than I have.
Artistically and thematically the game is a step up from ActRaiser (and just about any other SNES game), but that's not the reason it remains largely unrevered by retro gamers. That would be a terrible reason to be unrevered. No, it's the platforming itself that draws such grief. ActRaiser's Master was the most basic possible platforming protag: he could duck, attack, and jump. 2 goes in the complete opposite direction - this Master is one of the most complex 16-bit characters this side of Cybernator. He can duck, jump, double jump, float, glide, and dive, and perform a unique sword AND magic attack in any of those states. The main complaint leveled at this complexity is that the character is unwieldy, as an unchecked double-jump quickly becomes a glide which causes a long skid on landing. This 'flaw' is simply an unwillingness of players to learn the controls - the level design knows how advantageous, and simultaneously dangerous, the glide can be, and will fuck players for trying to abuse it (a simple tap of the jump button cancels a glide). If an intro level like Industren isn't good enough to teach the cancel move (with its high, small platforms), maybe the player would be better pleased with Bubsy.

This Master is a tank - his lethargic pace is necessary to keep the player focused on eliminating enemies rather than evading them. He makes up for this lack of mobility with new offensive and defensive skills - his shield is impervious to almost any projectile when standing still or ducking, his sword can be swung high, low, or in between, and from the air he can perform powerful plunging and diving attacks. The previous  Master (ActRaiser) had a few screen-clearing magic spells (only one of which could be brought into each stage), but this one has six specialized moves, each deployed by charging/releasing a basic sword attack. The spell unleashed is determined by the Master's movement state: if he's standing still, he unleashes a forward flamethrower; if he's diving, he transforms into a fiery pheonix; if he's aiming upward, he lobs a tripartite grenade, so on. Magic points come sparingly, but a careful player should have at least five or six saved up for each boss battle, giving plenty of room for magical improvisation.

Even if the winged Master is more than a match for the platforming, the armies of demons guarding almost every inch of real estate provide the real challenge. Few rooms are clear of enemies, and those that are will make the player wary of trickery, as pits alone are not enough to stop this God. Standard enemies are largely level-specific and single-purpose (archers or bouncers or flying sentinels), ranging from tiny to half-screen-tall (some bosses are in fact as tall as the screen), kept fresh through their presentation environment. The level Stormrook, for instance, introduces a scutum-toting axe-tossing knight impervious to frontal assault. The player first encounters him is in a high-ceilinged hall, where a double-jump and glide attack will suffice to strike him from behind. The knight next appears atop a staircase, where the Master can stay low to avoid his attacks, but can't get over him. Here the player learns that a correctly timed upward or jumping attack can hit the knight while his shield is down. Later still, the player faces off against him in a flat corridor, which will probably be the first time they notice that he has high and low axe throws, and that they can use their own shield to get close, then duck-attack when he throws high. This type of stage-variance is what keeps players coming up with new strategies to approach the same basic-patterned enemies, and forms the substance of most modern 3D action games.

This idea certainly wasn't invented here, and goes back at least as far as Super Mario Bros., which pulled similar tricks by putting Hammer Bros. on flat ground, stairs, and elevated platforms. What ActRaiser 2 does well is combine it with a complex avatar who has multiple avenues of resolution to each conflict, with varying degrees of functionality and challenge to execution. Knowing how to survive isn't the same as surviving, and player state is determined on a continuous spectrum (life bar), reflecting their ongoing performance. Perfect execution can allow room for later mistakes, and early mistakes can be redeemed by later skill.

What ActRaiser 2 doesn't do well is balance difficulty. If the game had eschewed a rigid lives system (three deaths and you're back to the map screen), it could've paralleled Demon's Crest in terms of rewarding challenge. As is, it's, well, really fucking hard to beat. There are plenty of checkpoints throughout the levels, but strangely, NOT before bosses (with one or two exceptions). The pre-boss checkpoint is key to  accessibility in punishing games like this (see Mega Man), because it allows the player to get at least one clean, full-health run at their foe (assuming they have a spare life). Take away that checkpoint, and the entire space between the final checkpoint and the finish line becomes PART of the boss fight. This makes no sense and is extremely frustrating. A smart player will stockpile magic to use against these big bads, but that's far from a guaranteed win - lose a few lives, and you have to start the entire gauntlet from scratch. The relaxed stage-order (a slight variation on MM7: there are six 'starter' stages which can be played in any order, the completion of each unlocking a unique followup, i.e. you can play 1-1, 2-1, 3-1, etc. in any order, but you have to beat 1-1 to get to 1-2, 3-1 to get to 3-2, and so forth) alleviates this somewhat, but not enough to ensure that a casual player will see the ending. This is one of very few games where I endorse the usage of save states (I used them only to provide pre-boss checkpoints, which, with the existing infinite continues/passwords, made the game completely manageable).

And hey, unless you've got the original cartridge, there's no way to play that WON'T allow you to use save states. I highly recommend it - beyond a gorgeous audio/visual journey and engaging narrative, ActRaiser 2 provides a unique action-heavy precursor to latter-day swords and sorcery action.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

LPGA: The Return Thereof

at 2:22 PM
We haven't let's played in a while, because it's a hassle and universally produces unsatisfactory quality. With that in mind, enjoy the first half hour of this Skyblazer LPGA, which took like an hour to set up and still has unlistenably poorly recorded commentary. If there's one thing that LPGA goes to show, it's that hard work never pays off, even when the motivation is stupid.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly: Ninjas

at 1:41 PM
The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly takes a look at a character archetype and breaks down where it's gone right, wrong, or just plain weird. While the effort may seem perfunctory, we hope to examine the consonance (or dissonance) between high-level concepts and their practical execution. 

The ninja is a difficult concept to execute. While the Genji biopic 3 Ninjas made the profession a popular favorite world-round, it's since become famously misrepresented. Historically, ninjas (the correct plural is "ninja", but I don't fucking care) were the feudal Japanese version of assassins, their famous vestments and weaponry as much an exaggeration as peg-legged swashbuckling pirates and cowboy shootouts at high noon. It's not exactly clear why an assassin would need to wear a pitch-black shozoku (yes I just looked that up on Wikipedia) to duke it out in broad daylight against towering dinosaur demons, but at this point we've accepted that "ninja" is just another synonym for "action hero". The ninja is virtually the definitive "just because" protagonist; BGU doesn't take "just because" for an answer. If a ninja is supposed to be silent and lethal, let's see some silent lethality.

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The Bad: Ryu Hayabusa (Ninja Gaiden)

Ryu is impressive in that he's starred in such a wide variety of games, each equally successful in misappropriating the ninja archetype. His debut came in the arcade Ninja Gaiden (the first of three completely different games to use that title), a textbook Double Dragon-cloned beat-em-up. Why a ninja in full stealth garb would be strolling the streets in broad daylight, beating down goons with only his fists and feet, is anyone's guess. Perhaps that's why it's a "gaiden" (side-story): this is what Ryu does on his days off from stealth. His next appearance was in Ninja Gaiden (NES), assuming the demon-hunting role which would define him for the rest of his game career. Again, the clothing is baffling, but we also have to ask what the hell a ninja is doing battling the hordes of Hell (or whatever version of the netherworld is used in this mythology). Open combat isn't really their specialty. Did you ever see James Bond piloting a tank to defeat the Soviet army? I guess I finally understand why I so frequently hear that Ninja Gaiden is the Goldeneye of ninja games.

The Good: Mark (Mark of the Ninja)


Mark is one of the few properly stealthy ninjas we've seen outside of the Tenchu series, and provides accordingly precise violence to skilled players. One of the first rules introduced by Mark of the Ninja is that the ninja only draws his sword to deal the death blow, never sooner. As such, the level design entices the player to mold the environment in such a way that he can quickly and silently pounce on each oblivious (or terrified) foe. This won't be new to players of Arkham City or Splinter Cell, but Mark of the Ninja is particularly successful in making the player feel like a supernatural specter, capable at any point of vanishing into even the most insignificant shadow. Mark has his share of tools to blind and unhinge the enemy, but at the core of the game is the notion that he alone is a weapon, materializing only in the moment that life is extinguished. Also, I don't know his actual name, I just inferred from the title that it would be Mark.

The Ugly: Ebisumaru (Legend of the Mystical Ninja)

Yikes. Ebisumaru is one weird d00d. Most of the ~dozen Ganbare Goemon games never made it out of Japan, due to being so goddamn motherfucking Japanese as hell, but a few managed to pass the sanity filter and land in my SNES or N64. Dr. Yang, as Ebi is known in the NA version of Legend of the Mystical Ninja (aka Ganbare Goemon), makes a first impression as an updated, '90s version of ninja. Fat, bald, uncouth, and of ambiguous sexuality. Put Jason Alexander in a lavender shozoku and you've got a pretty solid casting for the live-action film adaptation. If the defining goal of a ninja is to make sure everyone is unaware of his existence, the defining goal of Ebisumaru is to make sure everyone wishes they were unaware of his existence. Let's recall the two adjectives I chose to describe ninjas in the introduction: "silent" and "lethal". Keep those in mind while watching this demonstration of Ebisumaru's weapon of choice:
Yes, party horn. I suppose it'd be the last thing a shogun's bodyguards would expect. I wonder if there's a reason Goemon always tries to leave Ebi behind?


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So what lessons can we take away about the serene and noble ninja in its natural habitat? Well, one common theme seems to be anachronism. No one knows where to place ninjas in time. More importantly, the feeling of a ninja is derived not through strength, speed, and body count, but lethality. A ninja is by definition a killer, and slapping around a bunch of falcons and mummies isn't his territory. Without slumped corpses and pooling blood, you may as well be playing as a plumber. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

OHHHHHHH NOOOOOOOOOOOOooOodoOOo

at 8:51 AM

As the current events correspondent here at GNG I feel it necessary to bring this to our readership's attention.  Watch the video and read the first comment.  God save us all.

Friday, April 12, 2013

If You Choose Not to Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice: Bioshock Revisited

at 1:44 PM
I recently completed Bioshock Infinite on 360, but I have too many disorganized thoughts on the plot to warrant a post about it yet. Booker DeWitt's jaunt through the the city of Columbia and a special cameo at the end inspired me to return to the first entry in the series, years after originally playing it, or rather, watching my brother beat it. 

I am not being innovative in saying that the city of Rapture is cool. Its leaks, art deco style, and Circus of Values vending machines are charming, and dare I utter, "atmospheric." Upon "re"playing the game, however, I could not for the life of me understand why the game taking place in the city was important to the narrative. You might be thinking, "No way, Objectivism and Andrew Ryan are important to the plot," or start screaming "IMMERSION!" at the top of your lungs. What purpose did Objectivism serve to telling Levine's story? There was no progression to that theme, it started off as this is objectivism, and its a bit silly, and ended much the same. The city and its philosophy just serve as a backdrop for relating the game's true narrative. Much like the new game, the more finite Bioshock is a commentary on gaming itself. Specifically, it tackles the issue of agency.

Agency is the ability for an individual to act or make choices. The strength of one's agency is often determined (ha!) by the degree to which one can act against the structures imposed on that individual. It is not quite free will, but its similarities will be good enough for our non-graduate-coursework discussion of the subject. One quick note: Objectivism is just the idolization of individualization agency, so the failings of that philosophy that the game points out serves to argue the game's bigger message.


Not that kind of free will. Or is it? You decide! Or don't!

Bioshock argues that all games are an exercise in deceiving the player into thinking they have agency when they are actually on a set path and have little freedom to deviate from it. The phrase, "Would you kindly," embodies this argument. It is in the form of a request, not a command, suggesting that you have the ability to choose whether or not to carry out the request. But in truth, it is an iron fist in a velvet glove. The player is unable to deny Atlas' "requests", as is demonstrated at the very start of the game, where you cannot even exit the Bathysphere until you obey Atlas to pick up the shortwave radio. From the very beginning, the game is structured that you cannot advance until you follow its instructions. Jack eventually begins to fight against the chains of obedience which bind him, but is following the track the game set you on to kill Frank Fontaine any different from the one he set you upon to kill Andrew Ryan? The answer is clearly no. 

Even after the first time that the game reveals that our assumed agency was nonexistent, it tries to convince that we have free will all over again. Such is the way of games, I suppose. Without this deception we would merely be along for the ride, watching a movie, not feeling that our crucial "A" button press was the reason Link defeated Ganon. The biggest moment of Bioshock, i.e. Andrew Ryan taking a golf club to the face a few times, happens in a cut-scene, further stripping the player of his belief in his own agency. "A man chooses and a slave obeys," and we are all secretly slaves who think that we are men. This all making sense, yet? Because this is not even the part that will blow your minds. 

During my playthrough, I recalled the most common complaint about Bioshock when it was being reviewed: the stupid moral choice whether to save the Little Sisters or not. I thought it dumb at first, because it was just trying to be hip and doing what every game of that era did with morality systems. Thank goodness we have moved past that a bit. I now feel that the game's reviewers and myself had a gross misinterpretation of what the game was trying to do by letting us harvest or rescue the Little Sisters. The game presented players with a choice. Hey, you might recall that I spent about 500 words talking about how Bioshock is about players discovering that they do not have the ability to choose what they do, so this might seem antithetical. However, every review's complaint that the choice to be evil or nice to the Little Sister does not matter, validates my argument. 

If you are evil in the game, you get more ADAM, basically money to buy superpowers, from each Little Sister. If you are good, you get less ADAM from each Little Sister but you get a bonus every time you save three, which makes up the difference. So mechanically there are few changes between picking one path or the other. How about plot differences then? Again, only marginal changes. The ending of the main plot stays the same, save for a 15 second clip at the very end that has you dying alone or not after the conclusion of the game's events. Getting the "good" or "bad" endings do not matter significantly to your experience with the game. It is the equivalent of another LOTR where Sam does not marry Rosie at the end. Yeah, its different, but it does not impact the narrative, which is, at its heart, the quest to destroy the ring. 

The morality system is yet another prong of Bioshock's efforts to unveil the lack of agency of players. Its uselessness is a statement on how the good/evil duality systems that games were then imposing on players was a bad way to create a sense of agency. In fact, it might even make games feel more scripted. After every conversation it tells you how many nice guy or bad dude points you got; your choices are numbers, not decisions in that system. The Little Sister moral choice is the biggest decision that the player is able to make in this game, and when your choice does not matter, how can you feel that any of your decisions mattered while venturing through Rapture? Did you even have the ability to make decisions, or was everything already predetermined? The narrative of covering up and then uncovering that the player has no agency fits too nicely with the questions the Little Sister morality system raises to make me think the terribleness of this mechanic was unintentional. You might think that generous of me, to defend, or even praise, the one weakness that everyone ascribes to the game. But considering how genius everything else in the game was, I am going to assume Levine and Co. knew what they were doing, even if we did not.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The theater is dead, but frame stories aren't

at 2:03 PM
Super Mario Bros 3. Mario Party 2. Papers Mario. Black Knight Sword. Nin2-Jump. Battleblock Theater. What do all these esteemed games have in common? I dunno. What do you? Well, the second word of that last title should give a hint. Or, shit, you probably read the headline by this point.

Battleblock Theater is the latest in a long-running pseudo-series (i.e. not-a-series) of 2D games set on a stage. Not "stage" as a synonym for "level", rather a raised platform in an auditorium. Take a looksy.
Note the silhouetted audience...
...and the puppets...
...and the curtains and shadows
The obvious implication of this imagery is that the game we're playing is a stage show, performed by actors (e.g. David Duchovny) or puppets (e.g. Fozzy Bear). This explains why, for instance, SMB3 lets the player sneak behind the scenery, and why Black Knight Sword scrolls the backdrops instead of the camera. Occasionally the setting has some slight effect on gameplay , as when the gallery throws junk at Paper Mario, but for the most part it's just a look. A snazzy look, but one that begs the question: what's the point? Is there some thematic solidarity between these titles? Are the recent ones referencing classics like SMB3?

These theatrical games call to mind a narrative technique as ancient as pizza: the "framing story". The notion that the world we are experiencing is a game within a game, the secondary level of scope being that of the theater patrons. Literature loves this shit: Hamlet, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Catcher in the Rye - these all employ framing stories to a varying degree, utilizing parallels between the inner and outer narrative to add thematic complexity. Where these game examples appear to fall short is in making little to no attempt to tell the secondary frame story - the one outside the stage-play. Why the characters are performing their story, rather than living it, is left to guess-work by the player. I can't see how any of these games would change if the extra scenery was stripped away and they were set in the "real" world (the All-Stars version of SMB3 does exactly this, to no observable effect).

As a matter of fact, Battleblock Theater is the only one (to my knowledge) that provides any extra-theater play, and even then remains extremely confusing with its usage of drama. The game is set on an island where the protagonists are forced to participate in a gladiator-like series of platforming challenges for the amusement of a cataudience. But the preceding story, before they get to the island, is also told as a puppet show. How does this make any sense? It's simply an example of how little thought goes into the whole theater thing - it really is just there because it's "unique" (though, as we can see in this post, it's far from it).

The truth of it is that a game set on a stage isn't much of a framing story. Not because of the failure of the aforementioned examples to thoroughly execute, but because of the combination of media. A game within a game should be exactly that: two different games. Not a stage-play and a game. It could be argued that this is done through playable flashbacks in games like The Witcher 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction, but those are just basic discontinuous narratives. As for mini-games, such as the Game Boy in Super Mario RPG or arcade cabinet in StarCraft II... I guess those are games within games, in a spiral array, but come on. That's a completely trivial example. It's the same situation as the theater setting: yes, technically it's a frame, but with so much dissonance between the two levels that it may as well not be. 

I'm currently working through Retro Game Challenge, one of the better framing games I've played - which wasn't something I expected to call it. The overarching narrative places the player as a kid from the present who is sent back in time to play a bunch of 'classic' video games as they are released (classic in quotes because these are fictional games based on real ones). While some players may glance over this entire story thread and view the game simply as an anthology similar to Namco Museum or Mega Man Anniversary Collection, they won't get much from the experience. The frame story, playing as the kid who plays the games, is intended to provide the experience of growing up in the '80s, living through the release of these classics. There are manuals to read, Nintendo-Power-esque magazines to browse, and a friend who provides rumors about secrets and upcoming titles. This is a genuine interactive narrative - the gaming experience is as important as the games themselves. 

This strongest aspect of the frame story is that the games-within-the-game have a fixed release schedule. I imagine some players of Challenge will be disappointed to find that they need to play through each of the eight games before the next becomes available. I know that discovery initially left me annoyed. When you realize that this is NOT a collection, but a story about the evolution of games and gamers, it becomes clear how much sense that linearity makes. We all want the next big game to come out, we all wish we could be playing the next Zelda or Vanillaware game today. But until then, we make the most of what we have, pushing us to discover the depth in old games. Which re-emphasizes the purpose of the 'classic' games in the game: to demonstrate the value of the old, and how much it affects our perception of what's new!

That is how a framing story is done. Not by putting a bunch of curtains and hecklers in the foreground.