Thursday, October 31, 2013

It's that special day: Hallowed Ween

at 1:12 PM
Why not everyday?
Are you so afraid?
What will people say?

Why don't you take your social regulations and shove 'em up. your. ass.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spiele des Monats: Oktober

at 6:00 PM
I am currently in the longest video game playing drought of my entire life. That makes it really hard to write for this blog, unless I completely disregard the blog's mission to talk about video games and talk about other stuff instead. Hey! I am going to do that thing I just said. 

This is my first year as a teacher, and one of my many responsibilities is moderating the school's games club. Most of the kids just bring their Magic the Gathering decks, but for the minority that do not play that game, I bring a board game each week and teach them how to play after school. Yes, being a hero can be a lot of work. Oh did I say hero? I probably meant to say teacher. 

The board games that we play obviously have to be family friendly and have to be pretty quick because we only meet for about an hour, so do not expect me to talk about Cards Against Humanity or Diplomacy, despite how awesome those games are. So here are some quick outlines and reviews of some of the games we have played so far:

Last Word: I went into the games club meeting last week with an unopened copy of this game and an understanding of its rules derived entirely from the back of the box synopsis. The game functions like head-head-head-head Scattergories. A letter is placed face up and then a subject card is added to the mix. So you could have a card like "H" and "Things associated with Police." When both of these cards are revealed, a timer is started that will last for a random length of time before buzzing. In order to win the round, you need to be the last person to say an answer that fits a category before the buzzer sounds while everybody else is trying to do the same. As you might imagine, it was more than a little chaotic and victories had little basis in your ability to Scattegorize. The randomness factor weakens the goal of the game, so I would not be likely to recommend it to people that take board games seriously. However, it did enable the players to say funny things and create hijinx, which is really the goal for this type of party game. In that way, the game was successful--I did have a moderate amount of fun. That is when everybody was not getting screwed over by a bad Letter card. What words start with "A" anyway?!? As a casual party game you could do a lot worse, but also a lot better. 

Dixit: Journey: Dixit is a pretty well known board game, having won the Spiel des Jahres and all that, but it was one I had never played previously. I bought it about a year ago and played it for the first time at games club. The game is so very wonderful. Each card is so lovingly crafted with great art and a pretty good sense of humor about themselves. One of the first cards I saw was a duel between two knights made of clocks, which was extremely bizarre, yet appealing at the same time. The cards definitely make the game as fun as it is. 

The game is basically Apples to Apples with pictures instead of words. The judge of a round chooses a card from his hand and describes it with a word that gives a hint to the other players which card is his without telling them outright. For example, if I put down the card on the right, I could say something like "Circus." The other players put down their own cards that fit the hint, e.g. someone could put down a card with a clown on it for the "Circus" clue. Then the players attempt to figure out which card was the judge's. The judge gets points if some, but not all of the players pick his card. The rest of the group gets points depending if they picked the judge's card and whether their own card they put down gets picked by anybody. It contains just the right amount player psychology, strategy, and pure fun to be enjoyed by casual audiences as well as the hardcore board game enthusiasts. I highly recommend this game to anyone who has not played it. 

Well I think that that is it for this time, blogrodytes. If you have any board game suggestions for my games club, let me know as I am running out of games that fit the above description in my closet. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Well, Flowers for Charlie was the worst episode ever

at 6:30 PM
Come on. That was terrible. Please, if there was a single joke in that episode, I beg of you to post it here. Sunny wouldn't be Sunny if it wasn't a roller coaster ride of quality, but "Flowers for Charlie" plunges miles below this season's former nadir, "Mac and Dennis Buy a Timeshare", into the ranks of the absolute worst slop the series has ever produced. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that "Flowers" is going into the dumpster of episodes I will never watch again, along with "The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell", "Frank's Brother", and "Pop-Pop: The Final Solution" - and consider that this is a series I've watched from beginning to end at least three times now. What the hell happened here? I'll tell you what happened: guest writers. But I don't really want to talk about that, because I don't know shit about Dave Benioff and DB Weiss of Game of Thrones fame, except that I pray to god they never touch another comedy series I belove. 

What really went wrong is a Flowers for Algernon parody. Seriously guys? A Flowers for Algernon parody? Boy, what an original idea! Why hasn't anyone thought of that one before? You'd think The Simpsons, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Futurama, Family GuyNext Generation, Angel, or thousands of other shows would've already come up with that one... oh wait. They did. But hey, it's such a common trope that we could consider it a sort of rite of passage for a show, like the episode where one of the characters gets herpes and has to get a sex change operation to forget. That'd be an okay excuse if this episode involved any semblance of Sunny flavor or any original spin on the Algernon parable. But it didn't - Charlie was busy getting super-arrogant (his arc was word-for-word identical to Meatwad's from ATHF's "Dumber Days", except Sunny tried too hard to make Charlie's brain-growth believable, robbing us of any comic absurdity), Frank was busy getting jealous (played extremely straight and kind of just sad) and the rest of the gang was mostly sidelined, spending a few moments getting high and stupid for the second fucking time this season and the way too manyth time in the show's history. 


Getting characters high is always playing with fire, but "Mac Day" just barely pulled it off for me because High Frank and Dennis were so exactly what High Frank and Dennis should've been ("yes"). But why are Gassed-Up Mac, Gassed-Up Dennis, and Gassed-Up Dee all the exact same character? I get that they're turning into Charlie/retards or something, but shouldn't they retain some aspect of their original dynamic or represent different aspects of Charlie? (I'm not even going to get into the fact that characters have 'turned into' Charlie before in much funnier ways). WHY PUT THREE CHARACTERS IN A SCENE IF THEY ARE ALL GOING TO BE THE SAME CHARACTER? Jesus fucking christ, that's not how you write comedy. Ever heard of this thing called interplay? But Dave Benioff and Dave Benioff Weiss aren't comedy writers, so the only people to blame are the creators for letting this episode happen. How could they have thought this was funny? That gas-huffing scene wouldn't have passed for a joke even on The Big Banger Theory

Anyway, that was merely a minute minute-long montage. The biggest problem (did I already say something was the biggest problem with this episode? It was so terrible I can't even keep track of all the things wrong with it) was that the hackneyed "Dumber Days" ripoff was the entire plot. Sunny has successfully spoofed specific books and movies before, but it was always as a side bit, a kind of nod for those paying attention. Perhaps the most memorable example is Frank's trip through One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in "Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack". It wasn't jammed in our faces, it was just a silly absurdist aside, as if Frank had somehow stumbled through the rabbit-hole into the fictional world of the novel. The rise and fall of Charlie's faux-intelligence (and don't act like that's a spoiler, because if you actually believed Charlie became smart... maybe you would prefer jingle keys to reading) wasn't fun to watch because it wasn't Charlie, nor was it a unique spin on Algernon, nor was it outrageous in a Sunny way, nor was it at all unpredictable. "Let's take the funniest character on the show and write him as a totally different, completely humorless character!" Brilliant work, DB and DB Weiss. It's like you mathematically calculated the most uninteresting, unpleasant plot imaginable, and then decided that it was so stupefyingly pointless that you wouldn't even supplement it with subplots for the other four main characters on the show. 


And what the fuck was that scene with the Waitress? That went nowhere. I can't even imagine how bad the entire take was that that's what made the edit - what was I supposed to gather from that? What did she walk away thinking, what did Charlie walk away thinking? Goddamnit Smart Charlie was just so obscenely unfunny.

Wait, are Dave Benioff Weiss and DB actually what became of the protagonist of the classic short story after his intelligence began to plummet and he decided to vanish so as not to force his friends to witness his demise? That may actually explain all of this. Their inability to write humor, their obsession with inane plots, their complete lack of consciousness of the comedic timestream. All I can say is that if you think this episode is even remotely close to Sunny's standards (for the (excellent) ninth season or at all), then I assure you that a whole lot of jokes are going over your head every week (see last week, when I felt compelled to write my own review because not a single critic picked up on the fact that "The Gang Gets Quarantined" was a blaringly obvious Walking Dead parody).

Ah well. I realize I'm kinda being a huge arrogant prick here (not unlike Charlie in this episode), but it really makes me cringe to look around and see people eating this shit up after lambasting the layered brilliance of episodes like "The...Desperately...Award", "...Gang Saves...Day", and "...Quarantined". It's almost as if Sunny fans are as oblivious to the show's intelligence as are its critics, which is probably why - despite its middling popularity - no real following/advocacy has congealed around it in the same way as has around Arrested Development, Community, or Louie

Monday, October 28, 2013

Dead week

at 9:31 PM
Heads up to all new-found fans and follicles: the blog and I are not dead, but the coming week probably will be. I'm moving house and working on a beta release candidate at work, so the odds of me finding time between twelve hour days and twelve hour nights to crank out a post are slight. We've been "hot to trot" thanks to five-posts-a-week for the month of October, and the streak will resume come November, but right now I need a break to lift some boxes and yell at some bugs. If you want to come help me move, that's cool too.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Reading material: Sega v. Accolade

at 5:00 PM
On the left: Sega. On the right: Accolade. Hedgehog Court - it's just like Kangaroo Court, but you go insane.
Continuing the "feature" of me "featuring" other content, I recommend checking out this very interesting court case on the subject of software licensing, copyright, and trademarks. Back in the early '90s, Sega tried to stop any cartridges lacking the expensive Sega license from running on their hardware, but a handful of enterprising young developers at Accolade found the practice to be a little too much like extortion and decided to code a workaround that let their games run without approval. Their defense was that reverse engineering a piece of software to decipher how it works was not inherently a breach of copyright. When Sega took steps to lock out and legally entrap Accolade, the rebellious developers struck back with some clever software and legal tactics of their own. You'll have to read the rest here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sega_v._Accolade

The suit is over twenty years old and it's been a decade since Sega has made a console or Accolade even existed, but it established a software copyright case law precedent still referenced today. It's also interesting to read the ridiculously shady shit Sega tried to get away with. Also, I've seen a lot of hilarious court case names in my day, but the therein cited "Anti-Monopoly, Inc. vs. General Mills Fun Group" definitely ranks highly.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Let's Listen: Transitions

at 6:00 PM
Game music sets the mood, puts you in the right mindset. On rare occasions, one piece will transition into another. The effect lends dynamism. Rather than experiencing two disconnected situations with two different themes, you're shifted from one state to another by the transition.


Super Spy Hunter - Levels 1 and 4



To get a good idea of the transition here, you can start listening at 1:13. Super Spy Hunter music is, as ever, pretty badass, with a deep bass and chill lead melody. For excitement, they're accompanied by a driving drum beat and dashes of high pitched squares.

You can hear the transition start at 1:34 in the percussion. Not only is this the exciting channel in the tune, but as a source of rhythm, it's what keeps everything going. When the drum track changes and the melody remains (until 1:39), it's like the rug is pulled out from under you. That said, it still plays nicely with the old melody.

The drums are the bit that change, so they draw your attention, and it makes sense that they get a solo part from 1:39 to 1:44. That bare portion of soundtrack matches the insecure feeling at the height of your car's jump: you're suspended in midair, and somehow you're safe. Somehow.

Your new melody comes in at 1:44 when you can spot the road below you, and you get the direction that gameplay is taking. From here on out, you're jumping from one bit of highway to the next, weaving through enemy fire all the while. You'll need focus to manage this feat, so the music pares it back, focusing more on the cool end of things. You won't find the twists and turns here that you did in the music for the first half of the stage.

You have two moods bridged by a moment of uncertainty. The drums keep you going while you scramble for a new melody.

You can listen to it without sound effects here.


Banjo-Kazooie - Gruntilda's Lair



Any good mansion is a character unto itself, and with a character comes a theme. There's a version of Gruntilda's Lair for every area in the game, and you can hear it transition a few times over the course of this video. Of particular note is the bit from 3:30 to 4:30, where you can hear it go from the regular theme to the Treasure Trove Cove version (3:46) and back (4:23).

No matter where you go in the Lair, you can always hum along with the melody. It's just that you'll get a different rhythm or instrumentation depending on where you are; the regular theme is lonely and creepy, while the Treasure Trove Cove version has all the sing-song bounciness of a pirate shanty. Rather than draping every setting in Grunty's witchy character, this approach takes the theme of Gruntilda's Lair and makes you think of a million different things with it--drunken singing pirates included.

It highlights both the cohesion and the disparity of the Lair construction.


Paper Mario Sticker Star - Gooper Blooper


Music begins at 0:17.

Gooper Blooper marks the climax of, or at least a pretty serious turning point in, Sticker Star. The game up to this point has built up its puzzles (granted, they're still Paper Mario puzzles), and you've just cleared a hefty brain teaser spanning multiple stages. From here on out, the game grows more and more action oriented.

As the battle progresses, Gooper Blooper becomes more agressive, marked by his clapping tentacles. At first his clapping tentacles are in the background (0:37), then the foreground (1:10), and then he uses all four available tentacles (1:43). When he starts slamming the ground (2:20), it's serious time. This is a transition worthy of consideration in itself: over time, the percussion strikes harder and more often, matching the growing tension of battle while Gooper Blooper's tactics become fiercer.

That slamming is a great touch that nails the concept. Slamming the ground not only demonstrates the power of Gooper Blooper's appendages, it also puts Mario in the uncomfortable situation of being surrounded by tentacles. Plus, the sound it makes--both for its bass and for its unconventionality as an instrument--is threatening in and of itself.

But the real transition comes when he gets a taste of his own medicine. At 3:00, Gooper Blooper feels the sting of his ink. Mario's been doing piddly damage so far, and this status effect lets him really lay it on Gooper Blooper. So, it's only fitting that the music switches to Mario's own theme. In a humorous gesture, Gooper Blooper keeps clapping along to it, as if he's cheering Mario on.

Admittedly, it's the thinnest of the transitions listed here. The melody and rhythm are uprooted, and the two portions are only related by their instrumentation and that clapping. The transition itself doesn't graduate from one theme to the next.

You can listen to it without sound effects here.

Skies of Arcadia's boss theme was a runner up for this spot. It changes depending upon your state in a boss battle. There's a normal theme, which then turns sour when you're low on health and optimistic when the boss is low on health.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pokemon X Animal Crossing

at 6:08 PM
See what I did there? Okay, maybe it was a little oblique. The newest game from the Pokemon series is called Pokemon X. There's also a video game series called Animal Crossing. Then there are a bunch of Namco crossover games which combine two different properties and join their titles with an "X", e.g. Street Fighter X Tekken and Namco X Capcom. What I've done with the title of this post is to subtly suggest a crossover of Pokemon and Animal Crossing, while also implying that Pokemon X is the fulfillment of said proposition. In short, it was a title, a metaphor, a homophone, and a tragicomedy in two acts.

The alternate title was to be "Pokemon Y Animal Crossing", for reasons so obvious they don't bear explanation. Well, okay, maybe it's a little opaque. See, the latest game in the Pokemon franchise is titled Pokemon Y. There's this other Nintendo property called Animal Crossing. There's also this thing called the Spanish language - or "Espanish" - into which the English word "and" translates as "y", e.g. "yo tengo rice y quesadillas". What I've done with the alternate title of this post is to plant the idea of a combination of Pokemon and Animal Crossing, while also insinuating that Pokemon Y is that very game. In short, it was the exact same thing as the other version, except with Mexicans instead of Namco. Can't say that about many things.

So Pokemon Y (which is the one I'm playing, because I'm a boy, duh!) clearly wants to expand the Pokemon experience into more of a lifestyle sim than just a monster-battling sim, which isn't all that surprising considering that the series has been lethargically inching in that direction since its inception. I have the sneaking suspicion it's never become full-blown Nintendogs/Second Life simply because GameFreak is incapable of programming gameplay other than Pokemon, but I'll get to that in a second. I don't super-remember Red/Blue and I didn't play Gold/Silver in their original form, but "other bullshit to do with your Pokemon" has been piling up at least since Ruby/Sapphire's "Contests", which allowed Pokemon to enter into competitions that I don't care about and that definitely didn't matter. From there we've seen the introduction of Poke-Dress-Up, Pokeathlons, Pokemon Walkabout (or whatever that Tamagotchi thing that came with HeartGold/SoulSilver was called), and a number of other things I'm sure I'm forgetting. Stuff that has nothing to do with collecting, raising, and battling Pokemon. You can probably tell I don't really like these elements of the games and I completely ignore them, as they have no impact on the main gameplay and are entirely optional.

Really the worst aspect of the Super Contests and Pokeathlons and shit is that they're a massive detour from the main game, to the point of being wholly independent side-games rather than side-quests. They're all or nothing - you're either dressing up Pokemon for the fashion show as they languish at level 10, or you're out battling and progressing through the game. Lord knows people love terribly unfun and pointless RPG side-games (Chocobo breeding has acquired a legacy almost on par with Final Fantasy VII itself), but they really don't do it for me. While Pokemon Y does expand the bullshittery, most of the elements it introduces (in the first ten hours at least) are organically woven into the core gameplay such that you can enjoy a taste without needing to divert the main quest for thirteen hours.

I searched for "Pokemon Y stylist" and THIS was, no joke, the very first Google Image result
The new side elements are really just subtle features like dressing up your trainer, getting a haircut, tending a garden (which grows berries to be used in battle), editing together a "PR Video" (if the 3DS had been made in the 21st century, I'd upload my PR Video here), taking photos of scenic locales, etc. It's minor, but it makes the game world feel more lively, like you're actually a human being inhabiting the PokeWorld. This feels extremely 'right', like everything the stupid side-games were failing to establish - Pokemon has always been about projecting yourself into the shoes of a basically regular kid in a basically regular world, so it's about time they introduced a bit more mundane simulation. Actually (if we ignore the direction they were taken in the past seven years), it seems like exactly the kind of game you'd expect to feature Miis. 

Since the sim elements are so light and the tone of the game so friendly, the overall feeling is reminiscent of Animal Crossing. Even the perspective feels more City Folk/Wide World than Pokemon, although as the first 3D Pokemon game, that's to be expected. But it goes further than that - if Pokemon X/Y didn't explicitly borrow code from the Crossing series, they at least modeled heavily off it. For instance: customizable hairstyles are hardly an innovation of Animal Crossing: City Folk, but I can say for a fact that there are only two games I've ever played that made me choose what kind of mood I wanted for my hair-style: "Something cool", "Something energetic", etc. The whole going-to-the-stylist routine is word-for-word cut-and-paste from City Folk, and considering that it's a completely new addition to Pokemon (and doesn't involve the Pokemon themselves), it seems pretty weird. It's like I'm walking into Animal Crossing for a minute and then I walk back out the door into Pokemon. A lot of little exchanges mirror exactly the feel and flow of Animal Crossing interaction.


Oh, I've been forgetting the little thingy on the "e". Here, let me fix that.

It's kinda wéird - on oné hand I liké that théy'ré playing up what aré osténsibly rolé-playing/sim éléménts, on thé othér hand, thé Pokémon colléction/téam-construction méchanic is alréady an éxtrémély robust rolé-playing systém in and of itsélf. It cértainly doésn't hurt for thé ovérarching journéy to réfléct somé of thé fréédom and intéraction of thé capturé/battlé gaméplay, so whilé I'll say it wasn't dirély nécéssary, it's also a wélcomé mové in thé diréction of a béttér-roundéd virtual world - a living Pokémon world whéré thé Trainér's vocation is only oné of myriad routés a playér might také.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It's Always Sunny: The Gang vs. The Walking Dead

at 6:30 PM
The outbreak begins
What a dead-on send-up of zombie melodrama "The Gang Gets Quarantined" was. The building suspicion, paranoia, and isolation. The suspenseful cliffhanger scenes. The compounding insanity becoming a greater threat than the disease itself. The venture out into the dangerous world of the supermarket. The hysterical reaction to a "breach". The quarantine-within-a-quarantine where the potentially infected are kept. The slow-working disease whereby the afflicted remain in denial of their demise. Not only did Sunny nail every trope of the burgeoning survival/disaster/zombie genre that now plagues prime-time television like the T-virus plagued Raccoon City, they worked it all into the hilariously absurdist framework of a flu-stricken singing competition.

The episode kicks off on the eve of a Boyz 2 Men concert, with the gang - having entered a contest to open for the show as "The Motown Phillies" - quarantining themselves inside the bar to protect their singing voices from the ravages of a seasonal flu. As Frank sets about collecting cell phones and laying out ground rules (no beer, no pizza... no hair?), I first thought the episode was going to parody cohabitation reality shows like SurvivorReal World, and Big Brother (sorry, dated references - I don't know what's on TV anymore). "Quarantined" even kinda sounds like a name for one of those shows. The singing contest also suggested an America's Next Best Modular Chef situation, with Dennis demanding the gang exercise their vocal chops relentlessly. But it wasn't long before things began to, as the gang would say, escalate.

As each member cracks under the pressure of isolation, one by one breaking the quarantine, we're treated to delightful scenes of subterfuge as they cover their contaminated tracks. Dennis' jovial phone conversation with a pizza parlor with a punchline twice as funny for its eerie similarity to a particular Walking Dead twist, Dee's sneaky trip down from the ceiling, mouth stained with a blood-like substance, and Mac and Charlie's nervous glances as they deny the "breach" make for hilarious moments of melodramatic parody. In reality, the gang is just hiding stuff like ordering pizza and drinking beer, but it's treated with life and death gravity, drawing attention to the preposterously heightened self-seriousness of shows like The Walking Dead and Under the Dome

Combing... combing... til you were dead!
What really ties the episode together is Frank. The lurking insanity beneath his dead serious performance is both a great execution of the hysterical doomsayer and a perfect use of DeVito's character. I'll be the first to say I'm not generally a Frank fan - he's occasionally funny, but more often seems to be the lowest common denominator hyper-wacky catch-all used to present ideas that wouldn't fit into the well-defined foursome that drives the show's character-based shenanigans. He's a cartoon character devoid of the shreds of humanity that make Sunny's maniacal protagonists that much more ridiculous. Anyway, the quiet madness on display in "Quarantined" really suits Frank - it gives him a tangible creepiness that makes his freak-out moments all the weirder. His obsession with hair was for whatever reason also extremely funny to me - I think it works because the idea that hair == disease is so weird and stupid, but just believable enough as one of those conspiracy theories you might see some Annunaki loon squawking about on YouTube. 

The big twist about the flu was one of those great "how did I not see that coming?!" moments. Sunny definitely swings and misses sometimes with unexpected plot developments (Country Mac's death, ugh), but that makes it all the more satisfying when they knock it out of the park.

The only shortcoming of "Quarantined" is that it's a little too quick to bend the Sunny characters to fit the overall satirical narrative. Each member has some characteristic moments (Dennis proving he can still sing being a particular favorite - is Glenn Howerton the greatest comedic actor of all time?) and is taken in the direction you'd expect, had someone written a zombie Sunny show (Frank is the one who goes insane, Charlie and Mac are the screw-up 'survivors', Dee is the traitor), but the interaction feels lazy and underwritten. Why is the gang listening to Frank and Dennis? While I find it funny that the preposterous Motown Phillies is the one and only scheme that has managed to fully unite the gang and align their passions, it isn't really setup that way and also breaks from the pretty clearly established (in episodes like "The Gang Recycles Their Trash") and itself much funnier truth that the gang simply cannot work together and succeed. I feel like Dee and Mac would've had their own competing schemes going on. In terms of the dialogue itself, the characters weren't really bouncing back much at each other - in particular I was baffled to watch Charlie cast as the boring straight man in a number of scenes. Just felt like a case of subverting the show premise in order to execute the episode premise. But the episode had a great premise and was executed superbly, so that's purely a nitpick. And, as aforementioned, I wish we saw more of this take on Frank.

So that's yet another fantastic high-concept episode from Season 9. Along with "The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award", this ranks among some of the finest material from one of the finest comedies in TV's last decade. Perhaps this is one of the weakest seasons in terms of progressing the characters (barring "The Gang Saves the Day", one of the best introspective character episodes ever), but I can't say I really hold that against the show - we're in so deep that it's hard to see how much further they can bend these caricatures without breaking them (look for comparison at what Seinfeld was doing in Season 9: "The Butter Shave", "The Frogger"). Even Increasingly Gay Mac (who personally I enjoy) is really rubbing fans the wrong way (though for whatever reason the same fans happily gobbled up Fat Mac). Moreover, "The Gang Gets Quarantined" demonstrates that the show continues to be outstanding at unhinged satire and mockery, so I'm perfectly happy for it to continue in this direction.

Monday, October 21, 2013

No, actually, it's not time to take Sonic out back and shoot 'im

at 3:47 PM

Those Lost World reviews really slid out, huh? Maybe I don't whore the review sites anymore, but they didn't even make headlines on Joystiq or GamesRadar. Wonder if that reflects more on Sonic, or Wii U? Probably also reflects on "don't release your review embargo on a goddamn Friday". Anyway, I'm really shocked to hear that people are finding the game to be highly uneven. That's not the Sonic I knew! I guess we the Sonic fandom have learned to take reviews with a grain of salt. 

I feel like the amount of Sonic coverage on this blog may actually lead one to believe I consider myself part of the Sonic fandom. Such is not the case. The above sentiment was to be considered a joke, and at this time it would be appropriate to commence laughter.

After playing through Sonic's recent output, the "it's time to put Sonic to rest" cliche (which I admit I myself parroted for years) feels somewhat exasperating. Like 'em or not, the recent games (Unleashed/Colors/Generations) are clearly driven by some core race-platforming that isn't overwhelmingly common elsewhere, and they're well-made products, even if often misguided. The kind of review and comment section feedback we get for games like Sonic Unleashed and Lost World would make an onlooker think the series has completely fallen to pieces and is vainly clutching at the threads of past glory. In fact, recapturing past glory doesn't appear to be on Sonic Team's radar at all (Generations seemed to evidence that they only care superficially about the old games) - the modern 3D series has an identity all its own (you can argue about the quality of that identity all you want, but it's there...).

It's only the tired "put Sonic to rest" outsider mantra that forces the series into a backward perspective - it demands that Sonic should be solely in the hands of people who grew up playing Genesis. While I agree that every franchise has to stay true to its identity to justify its existence, I also think its identity can evolve over time. In this case, I don't see how comparing every Sonic game to the now decades-old Sonic 2 is a valuable or realistic perspective on the series' identity - if anything it seems to reflect the stunted growth of the individuals insisting on the comparison. They're just old nerds in denial, wishing they could be 10 and playing Sonic 2 again. They oughta leave the new games to those of us who like 'em.

If you were 10 when Sonic 2 came out, you are too old to matter
And if your job requires you to keep playing Sonic games against your will (poor reviewers!), maybe try professionalism?

Friday, October 18, 2013

More comedy search hits

at 5:34 PM
Here, culled from Bloggers traffic statistics, are a few more of the top weirdest search subjects leading to this site. Here are some older ones, too.

"yyyyyo"
Sometimes it's important to know who else is talking about "yyyyyo".

"history of the mushroom kingdom"
It makes me really happy that I could educate someone.

"cinéplat (tiger)"
While this is obviously the work of a non-English-speaker, I like the idea that in French, a cinematic platformer is the same concept as a tiger.

"ganbare goemon anachronistic"
Yes. Yes it is.

"kybernator game 240x320"
I can see how this led here, but perhaps the searcher may have been looking for the below moose-themed cell phone (?) run-and-gun. By the way, that linked Cybernator post is embarrassingly awful. I hope to God I was on drugs when I wrote that.

The Batman subcategory:

"batman with starpower"
They actually meant "batman has starpower"

"batman brownie recipe"
So are those brownies made from Batman, made by Batman, or shaped like Batman?
if my three sons looked liked that, I'd be having kitchen fun too...
"fuck injustice batman"
Angriest search ever? I was pissed at Injustice too, but how is this search supposed to accomplish anything? Maybe it's just Rule 34 at play.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Here today, Godzilla tomorrow: Learning to adapt

at 6:56 PM
Sometimes, when a licensed property is planted in fertile soil for just the right amount of time and administered just the right amount of care, a metaphor is born. Lavished with love and tenderness, that metaphor may just grow up into a fresh bowl of shredded cabbage.

Super Godzilla and Godzilla: Save the Earth present different facets of the character. The Godzilla character, not the shredded cabbage. We're off the cabbage thing. Move on already.

Besides supporting a series of substandard plots, underdeveloped characters, and contrived science fiction, there are two main activities associated with the G-Man: destroying cities and fighting monsters. After all, most of his movie titles are built from the words "Godzilla", "Versus", and "Destroy" (Godzilla vs. Destroyah cuts right to the chase). So it's only natural that in playing a Godzilla game we'd expect to control some egg-huffing reporter/cop who has to convince his boss that some giant monster is about to go crazy, and we'd expect to completely drop out of the game and have nothing to do after about 20 minutes. Or we'd want to be a young, optimistic politician/military officer who has to rally Japan's defense forces in their futile struggle against the unstoppable G. I kid, but it only took one adaptation before Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters (NES) shifted gameplay to a Famicom Wars army-versus-Godzilla structure. While there's certainly something to that approach, the most obvious appeal of the Godzilla franchise is shifting the Big Bad Beast into the protagonary role, giving us a break from fighting monsters and lettings us play as one. As Godzilla, the players are going to want to smash, crash, and bash; elements any decent adaptation would be wise to incorporate.

2004's Godzilla: Save the Earth and 1993's Super Godzilla are indeed decent adaptations. They let us control Godzilla, they let us wreak havoc on civilization, and they let us go toe-to-toe with other towering foes. They let us drive a Godzilla-shaped bus, eat Godzilla-shaped cereal, and brush Godzilla-shaped teeth using a Godzilla-shaped toothbrush.

Godzilla: Save the Earth is the easier game to describe, so let's start there. One of the main things Godzilla has done is his half-century as our spiritual guide is lay waste to other big dudes. Particularly in the late Showa era (~1966-1975), Godzilla served the function of a gigantic reptilian Hulk Hogan. The kaiju had human personalities, their own signature move-sets, and match records to defend. This was the era that gave us Destroy All Monsters and All Monsters Attack. Save the Earth was a semi tie-in with 2004's Final Wars, a revival monster mash that made for a temporary sendoff to God-Z and his over-sized compatriots, so it's to be expected that it's a 4-player 3D arena fighting/wrestling game the likes of Power Stone and other games in that genre that I don't play. Rakugaki Showtime? That's such an obscure reference I'm not even sure it fits here. Anyway, Save the Earth isn't completely off-the-hook Party Fighter; the big focus is on one-on-one matches, and practiced strategy is enough to overcome ad-hoc "equalizing" mechanics like power-ups and environmental attacks. It kinda goes without saying why this works for the Godzilla franchise - of course we want to select from the classic kaiju lineup, of course we want to battle it out across cities, of course we want multiplayer mayhem. The entire concept is a no-brainer, it sells itself.

Save the Earth, in accordance with the film era that inspired it, is very man-in-a-suit Godzilla. When we step into Godzilla's (or any other kaiju's) shoes, we aren't necessarily restricted in unusual or specific ways any more so than when we take over Sub-Zero or SoulCalibur. It looks like we're playing as a giant monster, but doesn't inherently feel like it. Godzilla controls like a human. BUT!, Godzilla's capabilities and surroundings are not in keeping with those of a normal human. He towers over a fully interactive playground of office blocks, skyscrapers, boulders, and oil tankers. The uniqueness of this interactive incarnation of the Gentle Giant comes from what you can do, not how you do it. The game gives us control of a massive all-powerful abomination and lets us gleefully run rampant in the sandbox of civilization, freely flexing our new-found might without limitations. Chuck buildings? Swat helicopters? Swing a radio tower like a club? You better believe Godzilla can in Save the Earth. It's a game that lets our imagination run wild over what it might be like to have a tiny city at our feet - what it might be like if we were the man in the suit. It's a game about the abstract concept, appeal, and potential of Godzilla.

On the flipside, Super Godzilla lets us feel like we've stepped into the films and wormed our way into the cinematic flow. The Heisei film run (1984-1995) focused on the antagonistic, monolithic nature of the big G, painting him as mankind's terrible curse that repeatedly comes back to punish us. This fully animalistic Godzilla is indifferent to humanity, often destructive but occasionally manipulated to good ends. Super Godzilla sticks with this framework and the general storytelling rules of the movies, using a human cast to bridge the player to Godzilla and providing only second-degree control of the monster. The conceit, if you'll allow me to use that word in a way that it is not supposed to be used but frequently is, is that Japanese scientists have developed a device that draws Godzilla in a certain direction, north, south, east, or west. (This feels loosely based on the "bird-machine" from Godzilla ('84) that used magnetic "bird-waves" to draw Godzilla into a volcano). Godzilla marches forward on his own, but the player sets his direction as indicated by an onscreen arrow. The split-screen interface pairs a symbolic tracking map with a widescreen video monitor on the beast himself, steadily plodding forward. When Godzilla moves through an obstacle we watch on the monitor as he autonomously interacts, tearing terrain to pieces and shrugging off gunfire. The boss fights likewise implement a heavily cinematic spin on fighting games, in which the player needs to time attacks with Godzilla's and the enemies' "fighting spirit" to execute lengthy cut-scene specials.


The player gets the sense that they're barely in control, clutching the reigns of this relentless force, struggling to coax it to the desired goal. They can never concretely specify a path or destination (or an attack in the boss fights), left with the imprecise means of the Bird Machine. Godzilla can't be expected to wait or make intelligent decisions on his own - direct him through a building, and he will crash his way through. He is a dumb animal, but a powerful one. That makes it that much cooler that we have even a little bit of input - our limitations show how powerful he is, while the extent of our influence is enough to make that power feel our own. Super Godzilla puts the inhuman, savage power of Godzilla in the hands of the player.

Save the Earth and Super Godzilla make a pretty interesting pairing, both as different types of Godzilla games and as different types of adaptations. Save the Earth decides to hone in on the most game-ready aspect of the franchise and run with it as far as possible, letting the player indulge in the sensation of control in a familiar setting; "if I were Godzilla, I would...". Super Godzilla recreates the movie-going experience from top to bottom, establishing the core audience participation that defines the films: the simultaneous awe and terror in response to Godzilla, the notion that this is a horrifying, destructive monster... that is also essentially innocent and thus fun to root for. The real battle is for control of Godzilla. It's kinda interesting that the more cinematic and what could be called more mature interpretation is the one that came out in 1993. Anyway, what we have are two really great adaptations. Great games by their own right? Who cares. No one's trying to sell them without the 'Zil. But absolutely a great case study in how to successfully translate other media into video games.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cool article about Space Ghost

at 9:45 PM
In these dire times of not being able to finish a post today, I thought I'd at least share a link to something else interesting to read. 

I'm a big fan of the underappreciated genius of Space Ghost Ghost to Ghost. While it's routinely brushed off as "stoner comedy" (like Aqua Teen Hunger Force) or random for random's sake (can you say Sealab?), the fact is that it's far more adventurous and layered than just about any other "adult" animated show to date, each episode going to great lengths to drive home a unique experience. Home Movies and Venture Bros. are the only Adult Swim shows that belong in the same tier of originality, and while I'm not going to go judging the animation world at large, let's just say that Space Ghost rules from a throne miles above the reach of mainstream primetime shows like Archer, Simpsons, and Family Guy

Anyway, any fan'll definitely appreciate this article from 2001 by some dude who was picked up to help write the "Baffler Meal" episode (that's the one that introduces the Aqua Teens). Anyone who was watching TV in the '90s might also appreciate the surprisingly dated perspective (lamenting the unavailability of media is so... history). 

And if you've never watched Coast to Coast, well, go take care of that. Try starting with "Girl Hair", "Kentucky Nightmare", or "Knifin' Around".

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Witcher and Ultima VII are like opposite ends of the Isometric RPG timeline

at 7:27 PM
It's serendipitous that I chose Ultima VII: The Black Gate as my buy-one-get-one-free with The Witcher, as Black Gate is one of the original (if not the first) real-time isometric RPGs, while The Witcher seems to mark the place where the genre transcends itself and merges into the broader BioWare/Bethesda trend of modern WRPGs. Alongside first person games like the Elder Scrolls series and Ultima Underworld, the isometric style dominated PC RPGs for over a decade, providing us with your basic list of citations of classic WRPGS: Fallout, Arcanum, Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Diablo, and Whatever.Com

Something something something we could talk about how the genre goes back to Rogue and Adventure and how it obviously spawned originally from tabletop games. Anyway, some of the big deals about Ultima VII here in video game world are that it does away with grid-based movement, automates turn-based combat in a real-time format, and introduces investigative dialogue trees (i.e. the player learns keywords that then become choices in future conversations). That's a short list, and I'm skimping here because Western RPGs are far from my area of expertise, but the idea is that Black Gate really cut back on the discretized feel of RPGs up to that point. The isometric style was a giant leap in the direction of real-time cinematic gameplay, even if it was still turn-based and heavily governed by off-screen calculations. It was a much bigger step away from tabletop than, say, the early Wizardry games. I realize this has little to do with isometric graphics, but, well, that's just how it happened. I'm not lying with the above list of examples (or the many more Internet and I could cite) - these games are bound by far more than their visual style, even if it is the most immediately recognizable characteristic. 

With that in mind, I should note that while Diablo II and its isometric dungeon-crawling progeny like Fate, Torchlight, and Sacred are certainly influenced by the WRPG trend born of Ultima VII, their hard real-time action and dungeon-crawling focus pretty significantly distinguish the gameplay to the point where most gamers put them in a subclass of their own. We'll just call them action-RPGs or dungeon-crawlers. 

Not that Knights of the Old Republic and Fallout 3 aren't already closely tied to the classic isometric RPGs of yore, but The Witcher really brings it all back home in that the player can literally switch back and forth between traditional fixed-overhead-camera point-and-click Baldur's Gate gameplay and over-the-shoulder free-look WASD Mass Effect action. The combat is somewhat turn-based, offering a command pause for complex actions (like using spells or potions) and syncing attack strings to rhythmic clicks instead of waiting on one-to-one inputs like The Witcher 2. The classic hub structure is present, latching the player to a temporary home base while they fan out completing quests, but the environments are thoroughly interconnected and deviate from the dungeon model. Dialogue trees, now not as Zorkily arbitrary as Ultima VII, are the fundamental means of fleshing out the story. It all comes together as a very explicit Farewell to Isometry; a changing of the guards. Playing it in 2013, six years after its original release and loooong since any mainstream isometric RPG, is enough to make one nostalgic for the old days. 


Playing The Witcher back to back with Ultima VII gives an interesting look at how far we've come - and in particular, how not that far we've come. It's funny - all those little gripes I listed about Ultima VII yesterday are totally and amazingly resolved in The Witcher (most of them were resolved by, uh, 1994), yet the latter game doesn't seem particularly better. Oh, it's way funner, and I'm far more engaged already. While last night I had to force myself to make it through a half hour of Black Gate, I played The Witcher for two hours straight and was barely able to put it down. But there's nothing driving me to play Witcher instead of Ultima, nothing I'm particularly anxious to experience, discover, or overcome - it's just easier to play. Somehow, in the 15 years that passed between these two games, no new means of interaction have become standard. The medium, or at least this subset thereof, is still offering players the same choices it has been for decades. This really isn't an inherently good or bad thing, but it's certainly an observation warranting reflection. 

Not here on this blog though!

Aside: off-topic, but this isn't really worth another post. The Witcher is notable as a great jumping-on point for isometric RPGs. The genre is notoriously inapproachable, with the general consensus that if you aren't willing to learn the AD&D rulebook, you don't deserve to get anything out of these games. While mastery of The Witcher may not make Icewind Dale any easier, it at least provides a semblance of the experience at a perfectly palatable learning curve.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Alack, how dost one play Ultima VII?

at 6:58 PM
Sure it has one of the most insanifying, reality-breaking perspectives every created, but I knew that going in. In fact, it didn't take long to get over the culture shock and accept that the game is set in topsy turvy world.

And sure it has the choppiest animation I've seen since the Atari 2600 era, despite a 1992 release date that makes it a contemporary of A Link to the Past and other games that have more than two frames per animation. But, ya know what, I got the hang of completely animation-free first-person RPGs like Etrian Odyssey and Guadia Quest, so I'll take any movement at all as a luxury.

And sure, there's no control guide in the game OR EVEN THE MANUAL explaining how to interact with items, pick things up, use expendables, equip gear, talk to people, see your partners' inventories, and enter combat, but the Internet was happy to answer those questions and even provide me with a list of hotkeys to keep in a window next to DOSBox.

And, sure, not an hour went by before the quest required me to break out the packed-in cloth map and turn the manual to the decoder page to understand the runes used to label it, but heck, I guess that's quaint in a '90s PC game kinda way. 

Yes, surprisingly I made it through the first town of Ultima VII in high spirits, drinking in the adventure and puking out the grandeur. While the driving murder mystery seemed transparent, I was intrigued by the use of a Scientology stand-in for the plot's villains-to-be, ready to track down the leaders to see what they were hiding. And from a meta perspective, I was pleased both by the humanism of the story and that it'd managed to capture my interest by keying on a combination of overblown tropes and more subtly unraveling ones. I'd even already had the chance to role-play a bit, choosing which characters were allowed in my party, how to outfit them, and how to interact with the townspeople.

It's not just acclaim that makes me want to keep going with Ultima VII - despite the thorny interface, it shows a lot of promise. Rather than an introductory dungeon or a plodding cinematic montage, the game starts with a puzzle-driven investigation requiring the player to inspect a crime-scene and interrogate witnesses and suspects. This is straight adventure game stuff that would fit just fine in Zork or Monkey Island, which is exactly what makes these old WRPGs unique; they're a purer form of what BioWare's been hacking for fifteen years now. I know I'm not alone in seeing the allure of this combination of brain-teasing puzzles with open-world and dungeon exploration, even if it's not a popular style anymore.

Yet as soon as I set out into the world, free to wander the fields and find my destiny, Ultima VII lost me. I don't have any scathing indictment or obvious flaws to point out - all I know is that I lost interest real fast. And yeah, it may have largely been a visual thing. With such a confined field-of-view, it is extremely difficult to gauge my position even in my immediate surroundings. It's hard to tell how far in any direction I've gone, how far I've yet to go, or even whether I've been to the same area before. It doesn't help that the characters' walking speed is so lethargic that it takes ages just to get from town to town. "Running" makes travel times more manageable, but it also makes the screen scroll so quickly that the already difficult to parse scenery becomes a complete blur - not to mention it makes it extremely easy to run straight into an enemy and quickly lose a fight. And it certainly doesn't help that the perspective doesn't work outside of the towns. The problem with the game's POV is that the buildings and characters are rendered from an angled 3/4 type view, while the ground and landscape is shown eagle-eye. You can kinda forget this in the towns where the isometric buildings obscure most of the view, but in the field, where standalone plants and trees appear to be growing sideways, it looks like the sprites are falling off the world. There are times when certain characters walk upside down because of how weirdly the angles work out.
No, the world isn't tipping over. That's just what it looks like.
And of course I only managed to make it through two battles (lost two as well), as, as difficult as the controls were to learn, there's a whole new set of mechanics that play out automatically in real time once battle starts. So really the big problem is that all of this unpleasantness is just setup for me to try (and fail) to learn the battle system.

I want to keep at Ultima VII even in spite of the messy prototype feel that the outside areas have. I'm kinda taken aback, as by 1992 I figured it was just a given that there would be passable walk-around-and-hit-stuff mechanics and comprehensible graphics (this game came out the same year as Soul Blazer and just a few months before Secret of Mana). By comparison to tabletop DnD, I'm sure it seemed amazingly advanced, and the mystery/dialogue/story stuff is sophisticated and immensely appealing, but it's not a particularly video gamey game. I really hate to put this down as yet another inapproachable WRPG (along with Baldur's Gate 2, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment), so here's hoping it starts growin' on me.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Great deal FYI: Free Witcher

at 9:07 PM
Here is an advertisement. Now how do I get the money? Does it just show up in the mail or...? Anyway I was just gonna email this to Greg L but figured why not put it here. It wasn't supposed to sound so salesman-y but that's the magical excitement of good deals. Whoops I did it again.

Through 10/17, if you buy ANYTHING on GOG.com, you get The Witcher for free. I'm sure they've got some $5-10 games I've meant to play so I'll be jumping on the offer. For instance, I might go with Wizardry 6 & 7 for $6. So that's $6 for all three games. Ultima VII is just $2.39, as is the pack of both Ultimas Underworld. This is why I stay away from GOG; every time I look at it I want to buy everything. Arcanum is $6 and I still haven't even watched a video of that, despite it being considered one of the greatest WRPGs of all time. Man and they've even got Gothic II! I've been wanting a good way to play that for ages.

See that's how they getcha. Guess I better reign it in and stick with Ultima VII/Witcher for now, I've read there's a 30% chance of developing brain cancer from playing a Wizardry game.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Indies on Handhelds: A nice interview w/ Brjann Sigurgeirsson

at 4:57 PM
Here's a recent NintendoLife interview with Brjann Sigurgeirsson, co-founder of Image and Form, Swedish development team behind the acclaimed SteamWorld Dig for 3DS eShop. I've yet to play Dig (it's on the list), but that's not really what the interview is about - Sigurgeirsson talks about being an indie working in the current handheld climate. He makes some excellent points about the mobile marketplace (I particularly like what he has to say about the iOS App Store) and has some charming (if not terribly original) remarks about discovering one's work is an unexpected hit. It's nice to see an indie developer who strikes a balance between humility and confidence rather than being a quippy know-it-all. Reading between the lines, Sigurgeirsson seems to be saying that Dig has yet to become a financial success, but it's interesting how confident he is in the 3DS as a platform and in Nintendo's relationship with independent developers. I realize the interviewer probably didn't want to put him on the spot, but I kinda wanted to hear which particular indie games he was so hotly anticipating. I'll also be interested to see how much of a tail Dig (and the SteamWorld franchise as a whole) ends up having.

He does talk about SteamWorld Dig for the first two minutes, so if you haven't played that, you might want to skip ahead. But the majority of the interview isn't specific to the game. 

Be a dear and give interviewers NintendoLife a hit rather than watching the embed below.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What I'm Playing, September '13

at 6:50 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Fall at last. What a delightful treat. I've played a lot of Disney games this month for no particular reason besides that Castle of Illusion and DuckTales Remastered came out on XBLA. So, that's clearly the reason. But no other particular reason. Once I got going on the old Sega and Capcom games, it was hard to stop - they're almost universally excellent.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse (Sega Genesis)

Here starts the legendary coupling of Sega development studios and the Disney license. I've had trouble uncovering much information on Emirin, Thomas Yuuda, and the rest of the team behind Castle, but this was certainly the start of a good thing. The art and sound design are top-notch, the platforming is spot-on, and the Disney magic is there.

The game just has great atmosphere. It communicates both Mickey's wonder at experiencing these fantastical worlds - and his fear. Many environments are bright, colorful, and lively, yet the fact that such monolithic cheeriness is lined with danger lends the world a false, creepy, mechanical feel. An illusory aspect. This is exemplified by the toy-soldier death squads in the playroom and the dessert world's bizarro carnival music and vertigo-inducing spinning backdrop. The mood varies between scenes; one of the best parts of the game is the quiet clifftop calm-before-the-storm level, hinting at malevolent powers brewing while also offering a reprieve between the saccharine toy and dessert-themed lands.

The gameplay works fine, but it's unambitious. Compared to Mario, Mickey moves lethargically and floats in the air for ages, but the levels are appropriately paced such that the gameplay as a whole never feels slow. Each level has some identifiable gimmick, but most aren't used to much effect - many are discarded as quickly as they're introduced. So the platforming, while solid, has a bit of a thin feel. It's a journey more than a challenge. But we'll come back to that when we talk about the remake....

World of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (Sega Genesis)

This is the sequel/crossover of Castle of Illusion and QuackShot, borrowing a few mechanics from each game but generally keeping the air of a straightforward adventure platformer. Most of the thematic elements and the structure of the adventure derive from Castle, but stuff like the run button, crawling, and stunning enemies are straight outta QuackShot.


While Castle of Illusion isn't tough, World is woefully easy - really the main thing I came away thinking was what a trivially easy game it is. That's particularly disappointing considering that it's short (about 40 minutes - and that was with a number of deaths) and it reuses two (of five) worlds from Castle. The silver lining here is some level variation depending on whether the player chooses Mickey, Donald, or both (2P).

The Magical Quest starring Mickey Mouse (SNES)

Of course, Sega weren't the only ones making good Disney games. Capcom had control of the license on Nintendo platforms and put out a litany of okay platformers and a few great ones too. People like to declare which is objectively better: Magical Quest or Castle of Illusion. I'm going to go with perhaps most basic answer: neither, really. They're both good games, but they're so different that they don't really bear comparison. What I will say is that Magical Quest feels much more like a generic shooter/platformer with Mickey inserted, while Castle of Illusion and the rest of Sega's games feel like they were built as Disney from the ground up.

But character isn't Magical Quest's strength, so who cares. What we get instead is something like Mega Man X meets Bionic Commando meets Super Mario World, in perhaps the safest way possible. Instead of blending these games' mechanics, the developers chose to give Mickey swappable outfits that grant him unique sets of powers, so the game plays like a level from MMX, followed by a level from Bionic Commando, so forth.

That's really not a problem since the individual ideas work so well, particularly the puzzle-shootery Fireman Mickey. FM gets to interact with the environment a lot, pushing blocks around and putting out fires. Little touches, like that flammable objects are relit when they touch other flames (rather than based on a timer) make this segment that much more engaging. I still don't love Climber Mickey, AKA Bionic Commando, but for the duration of one easy level, I can tolerate 'im.

Aside from the Best of Capcom feel, I really took a strong Demon's Crest impression away from Magical Quest. Everything from the music to the art-style to the level design to the boss fights (which are unfortunately a lot easier than Capcom's typical fair) reeks of Crest - the first boss battle is a frickin' Disney Red Devil. The power selection reminds me of Crest as well, as it transforms Mickey's movement abilities in addition to his weaponry.

Games Started:

QuackShot starring Donald Duck (Sega Genesis)

A very mildly adventure-dosed shooter/platformer. QSsDD probably has more in common with Mega Man 7 than Castlevania II, but that's okay. We teach ya. Sorry I'm too tired to write another one of these. It's good. The run-and-stunning is a welcome twist that manages to introduce speed to the scrolling shooter without making it incessantly hard. The challenge becomes to get past an enemy before he gets unstunned. The open-ended structure is pretty minor. As far as I can tell, the second halves of the levels (as each level has an entrance/exit halfway) are stuck to a linear order. It's cool though, it's still more engaging than a completely straight shot like Castle of Illusion.

DuckTales Remastered (XBLA)

This one is exactly what it claims to be. I talked pre-release about the mysterious nature of "remakes" in the contemporary gaming landscape, but there's thankfully no ambiguity to DuckTales Remastered. 3/4 of it is the exact same game as DuckTales. Same environments, enemies, layouts - even the same secrets. The new parts are explicit extensions, like the additional cut-scenes, the new opening stage, and some new mid-level sequences like the Gizmoduck rampage on the Moon. I barely remember playing DuckTales as a child, so this is really my first time with this game.

The most striking thing about the design is how collection-oriented it is - in fact, it's something of a precursor to Donkey Kong Country. There is something hidden on almost every screen, giving the stage design a (sorta literal) second layer. Unlike DKC, DuckTales Remastered is ostensibly quite easy to complete - blowing through the stages while just grabbing the necessities is almost a trivial task, especially once you've picked up one or two life extensions. The majority of the gameplay quickly becomes collection, which is perfectly appropriate for an adventure of avaricious treasure-hunter Scrooge McDuck. Great concept/gameplay synergy.

What's unique about the collection is that most of the game's treasure is hidden in plain sight, but invisible. Thus the challenge isn't to solve puzzles or keep an eagle eye out for secret paths, but to traverse every inch of every screen. The challenge is in finding ways to reach all the boundaries, planning the use of destructible platforms, and navigating around traps and enemies.

It's a neat game that I definitely like (I even eventually warmed up to Remastered's jarring blend of 2D and 3D), but the levels feel long as fuck and kinda not all that varied. If I was allowed to play them in 10-minute sessions instead of 40 minutes at a time, they'd probably be less draining. As is, the five mega-levels feel bloated.

Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse (XBLA)

Wow am I loving this game. As someone who'd barely played the original there wasn't much nostalgic connection for me here (I remember Magical Quest and World of Illusion much more fondly), but it was definitely a wise move to run through the original before getting into the remake. While Castle '13 works excellently as a standalone game, one of its most impressive feats is revising and improving upon the original while still remaining faithful both to its gameplay and intentions.

The original game's level gimmicks had a tendency to fall flat and be completely under-utilized. This remake turns that train around so hard that someone's brain exploded. In fact, each individual mechanic is typically so fun and cleverly utilized that the biggest disappointment is that, like in the original, they never get a second pass or any ongoing development.

For instance, the both games have this gelatin shit that shows up in Toyland. In the original there are a few floors made of the sticky substance that work basically like a clingier quicksand. Mickey sinks slowly into the jello and can barely jump to get out. That's the extent of it - it lasts about thirty seconds and counts less as a mechanic than a thing that just happens. In Castle '13, the red goo again makes a forgettable cameo in Toyland, but it's brought back a second time in Just Desserts. This time, there are blocks of jello positioned throughout the environment and Mickey switches into a kind of swim when he jumps into one, suspended inside of it. They are mixed up with enemies, placed over pits, and used for scaling large vertical shafts. This stage also introduces green gelatin blocks with inverted properties. Instead of sinking into these, Mickey springs off like bouncing on a trampoline. The only way to get through them is to slowly tiptoe in. The multicolored blocks are mixed up for sections where Mickey is thrown around by the bouncy green blocks and caught by the sticky red ones.

It's a great expansion of what was a throwaway idea from the classic game, allowing it to feel like Castle of Illusion while developing completely new platforming ideas. The core concept is the same, it's just that more interesting things are done with it. And that's Castle of Illusion '13 in a nutshell.

Games Finished:

Killer Is Dead (Xbox 360)

Don't know if I have anything new to say about this at the moment, plus how do you expect me to remember something I beat at the beginning of last month. The ending was interesting - it had a nice unpredictable but inevitable twist that shed considerable light on the story and will make a second playthrough even more entertaining.

I have to be honest - as the difficulty of the game peaked, I found myself tiring with the gameplay. By endgame, the No More Heroes games were so dead-set on throwing curve-balls and skipping straight to boss-fights that it was impossible to get tired. By comparison, Killer (and likewise Lollipop Chainsaw) is happy to let the formula run all the way to the credits, essentially feeling like a game with no final act. It has a very "that's it?" ending. It's in keeping with overall sobering of the Suda style that Killer exemplifies, but this is one of the places where being more like popular/critical favorites is a shortcoming rather than an improvement.

Wild Guns (SNES)

Player: I am Clint the invincible!

Final Boss: I can't believe being defeated by you!


Amazing game. One of the best on the SNES, probably one of my favorite action games of all-time. Play it.

Mario Golf (Game Boy Color / 3DS VC)

Mario Golf is interesting in that, although it's the first (to my knowledge) Mario sports game, it has little in common with later spinoffs. In particular, where the later games (particularly in the Gamecube era) became wacky over-the-top arcade-style "sports" games, akin to NFL Blitz, Mega Man Soccer, and Base Wars, the original Mario Golf is for an intents and purposes a serious golf sim. While it features no real locations or golfers, it otherwise aspires to teach the fundamentals of golf and provide a reasonable and realistic (for Game Boy) simulation experience.

That is, until the first set of credits roll. Returning to the game after conquering all four courses, the player will find a final challenge: face off against Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom Club Tournament. The MKCT, or M...T for short, doesn't change the gameplay from golf bread-and-butter, but it certainly makes the holes as wacky as possible without breaking the laws of reality. Star bunkers, microscopic greens, and fairways shaped like Shy Guys - Camelot had fun with it and put together a goofy bonus round that pays homage to the Nintendo great and makes a neat reward - and challenge - for players who put the time in to make it through the main circuit.

Undoubtedly the strangest moment in the campaign comes when the player returns to his home clubhouse after vanquishing the Mush...ament. The powers that be, or whoever, sit down for a somber, sobering debate about whether the world is ready to learn that Mario has been defeated (in golf). The conclave concludes that the news should be leaked slowly, for to reveal that Mario has lost would be to destroy every golfer's goal to conquer the unconquerable. In the immortal words of Tom Never-Talks-At-Any-Other-Part-Of-The-Game, "Golf without a dream is no golf at all". I got the weird feeling that they were telling me not to tell my friends I had beaten the game.