Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Moving Changing

I'm going to give Wordpress a spin for a while and see how it treats me.

Part of that will mean a change in subject matter but don't worry I'll keep up the retro reviews they'll just be part of a more diverse "content selection".

Man I wish I could think of a better less wanky way of putting that.

Anyway new blog is here.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Shinobi 3: Rise of the Ninja Master

Year: 1993
Rating: **

I don't often write about games I don't care about. But in the interests of stopping this blog from turning into a bunch of self indulgent love letters to games I like here's roughly 750 words about something that sucks.

Poor Sega, as a company they are a shadow of their former glory being reduced from the number two platform holder to just another publisher. But while that must hurt perhaps the greater shame is that as the history of the first great console war is written Sega is increasingly seen as the poor man's system. Mario, Metroid, Final Fantasy and Zelda are the series that now define the 16 bit era and they're all Nintendo. Sure Sega has Sonic the Hedgehog but really anyone with any taste at all only likes the first of those. Streets of Rage is awesome in a knuckle head kind of way but nobody is deconstructing it's level design the same way Metroid gets regularly pulled apart. So it was with thoughts like this going through my head that I read a couple of dumbarse "Best Genesis EVAR" lists wondering if I was missing something. Everywhere I looked I heard about a game called Shinobi 3. Apparently is was fast, furious, complex and unmissable. It's actually three parts dull, one part cheap bitch.

Load up the first mission, a title splashes up informing me that I'm about to enter "Zeed's Resurrection". Who is Zeed? Am I Zeed? Or am I going to have to fight Zeed? I don't know the answer to any of these questions, I certainly don't know what killed Zeed or what's resurrecting him now. All I know is I'm in a forest facing right and the memory of every platformer I've ever played tells me to walk forwards. Soon a dude jumps out of nowhere, I throw a Shuriken at him and he dies, I continue forwards. Another dude, another Shuriken, then just to break things up a dude in a tree. I jump, throw a shuriken and he dies as well. I have never felt less like a ninja master in my life, I feel more like a ninja master sitting on the couch eating Cheetoes, at least it takes some wits and dexterity to fish a salty cheese snack from behind the cushions. The game doesn't get better.

There are secrets to find but it never feels like your exploring anything more than the most on-rails linier path. You can mess around with the special moves and blocking, and to be honest there is a fairly interesting fighting system buried somewhere underneath the poorly laid out controls. But the fatal flaw is it's never as effective as simply Shurikening dudes and jumping around occasionally. I've said it before but it bears repeating, if you let the player defeat your game in a way that's simple but boring they'll do it, they're under responsibility to make the game fun that's the job of the designer. Worse are the moments it tries to break up the walk-Shuriken-walk-jump-Shuriken levels with weird chase sections like the horse riding section or the surfing section. They feel like playing a shitty Guitar Hero track while only using the red button and no star power. Cowabunga motherfuckers. I'm not saying these bits are too easy but they feel exactly like the time wasters they are.

Perhaps those sins are mostly venal, where Shinobi 3 becomes beyond redemption is the boss fights. To show you what I mean lets just discuss the first boss. How do you defeat him? You wait for him to get close and throw a Shuriken, it hurts him and he retreats a few steps before charging at you. In response you double jump, turn around and repeat the process. Again and again, again and again. And again.


No again.

Still again.

Repetitive enough yet? No do it again.

Oh you better believe again

Yes again.

Okay that's enough... actually you know what? Again.





What are you dead now? Couldn't you perform the same menial task a million times in a row? Pathetic, well back to the beginning of the Boss Battle with you.

Let's get something straight, I'm not against balls-in-a-vice tough boss battles (see Cho Ren Sha getting 5*s) but I am against a game that makes me repeat the same task ad infinitum to stretch the difficultly. Yes I figured out the trick, no I can't execute it perfectly every time but I get the point. Can't we just get on with it now? Shinobi 3 says no, I say Shinobi 3 can crawl back to the pit of despair shitty videogames come from.

Look it's not the worse game in the world, the few moment you get to sword some fool are pleasingly cathartic but really if this is the best the Genesis/Megadrive had to offer no wonder Zelda and Mario are the figures they are today. Honestly I just wished more Yanks would have played a PC growing up, then maybe I wouldn't have to hear about how important Mario and Zelda are constantly.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cho Ren Sha

Year: 1995
Rating: *****

This is one hell of a videogame.

I'm working on a theory, it's pretty half formed at the moment but bear with me. All single player games (and most multiplayer games) are puzzle games. Regardless of whether they get called strategy, FPS, RPG every single player game is basically about finding solutions to problems. Mario is about solving problems with jumping, Doom with bullets and Portal with portals. Sure action games require twitch reflexes but so does Tetris and no one is calling that an action game. Why? Cause it's not about a dude (or dude analogue) with a gun (or gun analogue). Contrary to accepted wisdom videogame genres are named more after their narrative elements than their ludic. Can anyone really explain the differance between a strategy game and a god game without reference to the games narrative? For that matter can someone explain to me the difference between a strategy game and an RPG? Now the FPS looks easy to define cause that's about games played from the first person perspective. Except that ignores a whole host of RPGs that play from the first person perspective that arnt considered FPSs (Ultima Underworld, Oblivion) and then there's Portal which most would describe as a puzzle game. Yet you're still shooting in the first person.

Anyway something to think about.

I bring this all up because regardless of what genre you want to place Cho Ren Sha in I'm pretty much calling it the omni-game. I guess if you want to be acurate it's a 2-D vertical scrolling shmup from the Doujin scene (which is to say it's a Japanese indie game). Thing is that label hardly does it justice. It's got more strategy than C&C, more action than Doom, and can make me feel more God-like than Populous. All while exercising my thinking muscles more than most puzzlers. How does it achieve this feat? By being balls to the wall hard.

I assume we all know what a vertical scrolling shump is they're an ancient genre. As a child the fish and chip store near my house had one. I vaguely remember playing it but I was never any good. Nor did I care, that thing was there to suck whatever worthless change I found lying around. In return it amused me for the few moments it'd take for my order of chips to be done. I don't remember the name of it but I do remember it kind of sucked. Here in the west when 3D graphics hit the scenes and the arcades closed shop the shmup died. I couldn't care less, to me there wasn't anything special about them. Over in Japan the shmup morphed mutated and matured into an entirely differant monster. And I do mean monster. These are games that will rip you up and tear you apart. They mean business. Or maybe they always had shmups this good but they were just holding out on us. In which case, not cool Japan. Why do you have to force crap like this down our throats but you won't share your really awesome goodies?

Recently these new hyper shmups have been gaining traction in the west. My first exposure to this shmup renaissance was Ikaruga a truely wonderful game with a super clever colour matching gameplay hook. Cho Ren Sha is like Ikaruga but not as clever. Which is fine by me, because it feels more pure. It's freeware so you can get it here. I don't really consider myself an expert with these games. The true fans will be able to wax lyrical about the relative merits of title X's bullet patterns to title Y's chaining system. I can't and won't. All that really great devotion and love can be off putting to new people. But it really is simple to play, arrow keys move, press z to shoot, hammer it like a crack addicted school child to maintain rapid fire. Oh yes and X drops the bomb. You now know everything you need to know in order to play Cho Ren Sha. No tutorial level required. You might see a video like the one I posted earlier and think "That's impossible, no one could play that and still have a life. What kind of loser would devote so much time to one game". Lets set the record straight it will take you much less time to get 'reasonable' at Cho Ren Sha then it would to complete Baldur's Gate. The difference is when playing Cho Ren Sha you're constantly honing and improving your skills and Baldur's Gate is a whole lot of wandering and grinding (By the way I really like Baldur's Gate but call a spade a spade).

For the most part the game's mechanics are exactly the same as the terrible old shmups of our childhood but by being arse bitingly hard it makes us (for perhaps the first time) appreciate how truely great those mechanics are. At one point I was using my bullets as sonar, not looking at what I shooting, using the sound of them hitting their targets to guide my aim. Why didn't I use my eyes like I normally would? Because there were a million missiles coming at me and I needed to focus on those. Or take the bombs. In most games that involve some sort of super weapon you just save them for the boss fight and they become fairly uninteresting. Cho Ren Sha gives you no luxury, you will need to use them during the level, because if you die and you had even one bomb left it's like losing of a valuable resource, you're not getting that bomb back, you wasted it. Often just after wiping out the thought crosses mind "well at least I died without any bombs". It's like the ultimate "I gave it my all", to do any less feels almost dishonorable.

Cho Ren Sha has one new trick, it's power ups. They appear in groups of three: shield, bomber, and (the imaginatively named) power up. Shield places a shield around your ship essentially giving you a get out of jail free card good for one cock up. Bomber gives you one of the previously mentioned bombs, which is a one use weapon that deals tremendous damage to everything on screen. It also cancels all the on-screen bullets which means that it's useful as both an offensive and defensive tool. The Power Up power up increases the spread and rate of fire of your primary weapon basically making you stronger. This gives the game a strategic dimension as you constantly need to decide which of the three to grab. Until you get really good you'll always be in short supply of all three so all three are reasonable choices. Eventually you'll get good enough that you can maintain your shield for long enough to grab powerups and bombs at will eliminating the strategy element. This is when the game throws and interesting spanner into the works. If you stay in the middle of the three power ups for a short period of time you get all three. It's much harder than it sounds, even positioning yourself in the middle of a moving target for the required time is hard enough, doing so in the face of bullet hell requires balls, skill and luck. Of course if you screw it up you may end up grabbing something you don't need, but if you can grab all three you're in a much better position than if you just grab one and in the later levels you'll need every advantage you can get.

So yeah that's really all it takes to make a genuine masterpiece of a game. Take an old genre no one's really playing with anymore, refine the shit out of it till it shines and throw in one interesting idea that makes the experiance feel fresh. Actually wait that sounds a little cynical let's try that again.

So yeah that's really all it takes to make a genuine masterpiece of a game. Take an old genre no else really gets, love it with so much heart you'll throw away years of your life relentlessly perfecting your homage to it and after all that have the humility to only reinvent one aspect but make sure it's something so brilliant that it will ensure you'll truly leave your mark.

That sounds about right.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Editorial Rant: This is a Spectacularly Stupid Article.

Okay so the vidyagame press is not expected to be on the same level as the Wall Street Journal (and honestly I wouldn't want it to be) but reading this article makes me wonder if some in the profession are even capable of understanding the basic argument they're talking about.

So yeah, it's a "What's the Citizen Kane of gaming?" article. As the author points out it's a dumb question, clearly you're not going to find any game that's perfectly analogous to Citizen Kane. And Citizen Kane largely doesn't represent what a lot of people think it represents. But if you break the debate into the implied questions you can actually make some headway into proving games as a culturally important medium.

The implied questions are

1.) Can games achieve a thematic complexity (or in game terms Narrative complexity) similar to Citizen Kane?

The answer to this is yes, as long as whoever is writing the thing is good enough games can be as thematically complex as any other medium. There is an argument that because games allow interactivity they are thematically alterable and therefore can not be as complex as older immutable media. This is of course 90% rubbish. Try as hard as I can Mario will never be about the experience of war in the same way as Call of Duty. I concede that it's possible that in some rare cases the player's interaction can alter the thematic content but I think it's important to remember that emergent gameplay is the exception not the norm (in that the majority of videogames contain none). Now are there any examples of existing games with the thematic complexity of Citizen Kane? Well I'd argue Planescape: Torment takes a good stab at it, in fact it's even remarkably thematically similar, both are about uncovering the identity of a man, a man who changes constantly, who wears and discards masks at will and more importantly they're both also concerned about what makes someone, well, someone. Or to put it like Planescape: Torment "What can change the nature of a man?" Of course Roger Ebert is going to argue that Citizen Kane deals with the subject matter much better, but honestly I preferred Planescape: Torment's meditation on the matter more. It's worth noting that literally none of the games on the list come close to featuring Kane's thematic complexity.

2.) Can games achieve a formal complexity (or in game terms Ludic complexity) similar to Citizen Kane?

Of course they can, in fact most videogames already have. You want to know what's so formally complex about Citizen Kane? Simple deep space photography and the way Orson Wells used it to create Realism. Oh and I don't mean realism in the sense that it looked real or that it was about realistic subject matter. No I mean Realism in the cinematic sense to say that it attempts to capture a time and place honestly, without the use of flashy techniques to artificially heighten the drama (Actually it does this too but considerably less than say Einsenstien or even the other Hollywood pictures of the day). Deep space photography is not important because it allows you to keep everything in focus it's important because keeping everything in focus allows for staging techniques that are much more naturalistic (and give the viewer more freedom in what they watch) than constant editing. All the other stuff people go on about Kane innovating was widley used before Citizen Kane hit the scene. Anyway, what would I use as an example of a game with the formal complexity of Kane? Well if you wanted, like, mathematical complexity then a first edition dungeons and dragons book should do it but that feels like cheating. I'd say Half Life 2 would be the better bet. It's streamlined level design is easily as sophisticated as anything in Kane and perhaps more importantly it's all done for a reason, it's all deliberate. To me that sounds like a grown up art form (though not necessarily an art form for grown ups).

3.) Can games achieve a level of mainstream acceptance and influence similar to Citizen Kane?

Oh god this one is hilarious and to fair the author of the article in question does get this right. See the beauty of this question is that it goes to show that the people who ask it know literally jack shit about Citizen Kane. To set the record straight, Citizen Kane was a massive commercial failure. The studio RKO almost went out of business the thing was so unsuccessful. It wasn't even particularly loved by the industry. It only won the academy award for best screenplay. What's worse is it isn't even a particularly influencial film. The building blocks of today's Hollywood were already in place before Citizen Kane, it's dark character driven drama is hardly the standard, and even it's stylistic techniques are rarely used outside of the art house. PacMan has more mainstream influence than Citizen Kane. So why do people even talk about Citizen Kane? That brings us to final and perhaps most important question.

4.) Can games achieve a level of academic acceptance and influence similar to Citizen Kane?

This is the real stumbling block. See the reason Citizen Kane became the official Greatest Movie Ever is because Andre Bazin became the world's most respected film critic (mainly for that Realism stuff I talked about earlier) and he loved Citizen Kane. I know that sort of paints film critics as a bunch of group thinking sycophants, and well they sort of are. Most academics sort of are. You've heard "great minds think alike?" Well so have they. And if you want to be taken seriously you need to familiarise yourself with the important theorists. Now videogames are gaining acceptance in academic circles, game studies topics are sprouting up all around the place, which is a good sign. So the thing is, for anything to gain the kind of zeitgeist cultural legitimacy Citizen Kane enjoys it's going to need champions. Importantly, champions who know what they're talking about. Which is why it pains me so much to read about Tomb Raider

Pioneered: Three-dimensional exploration, climbing puzzles, breasts.

Really that's how you want to roll Gamesradar? You're going to put Citizen Kane against Tomb Raider and say Tomb Raider is as important because it has breasts in it? I may be over simplifying the dude's argument here but you know what? Fuck you. Look I have no beef with this list as some sort of general "Here's a bunch of games that we think are really important to the medium's history and culture." But you want to play with the big boys of discourse and compare these things to Citizen Kane? Well that means grow up and read some real theory.

Try starting here.

Man and I don't even like Citizen Kane.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines

Year: 2004
Rating: ***
Bloodlines is not a particularly old game but it feels like a throwback. Unsurprisingly I like that. Also this is a long one so buckle in.

My first exposure to pen and paper RPGs was Vampire the Masquerade. I'm not sure why I'm bothering to tell you that I mean it's not like I was ever really into it. Some friends and I played a couple of sessions but we never finished a campaign. Hell our sessions didn't even bother with half the rules and usually just degenerated into frenzied desperate battles. But I do distinctly remember the moment I killed a SWAT officer by drowning him in a toilet. You see a simple bank robbery had gone south and turned into a hostage situation. The DM had sent in the SWAT officers in an attempt to keep things lively. I was guarding the toilet when one of them busted through the window. There was a struggle, I may have been a vampire but as one of the wussy artfag (Toreador I think they were called) vampires I wasn't exactly a warrior. However I did manage to wrestle him into a toilet cubical, push his head in the toilet bowl and hold him till he drowned (Why didn't I just shoot him? He was wearing body armour silly). I remember thinking "Well you can't do that in a videogame."

And I was right, to this day I've never played a cRPG that let me drown a dude in a toilet bowl. Really when you think about it it's something sorely lacking in the genre.

Anyway Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines understands it's limitations as a videogame but like the best cRPGs it manages to capture some of the magic of those silly pen and paper sessions. Namely by giving you a large skill set to pick and choose from and then letting you improvise.

For example let's talk about a quest called Hot Stripper Assassin Action.

The quest begins when a sexy burlesque vampire named Vesuvius tells you about a Vampire Hunter working Hollywood Boulevard undercover as a 2 dollar stripper in a shady porn store. She wants you to kill her but she also wants you to keep it quiet, don't kill any innocents and don't let anyone witness it.

Your options are
1.) You can either kill every thing that moves, leaving no witnesses, Vesuvius super pissed and you'd lose some Masquerade points and Humanity (we'll get to that later (that stuff needs getting to later should tell you something about the complexity of this game's choices and consequences))

2.) Solve the quest in the best possible way, leaving no innocents dead, no witnesses, Vesuvius super happy (oh and if your seduction is good enough she might in throw in an extra "reward") and the biggest xp reward. But doing so is much harder and not even possible for all character builds.

3.) Kill an innocent because either you had to or it was just easier, Vesuvius won't be happy but you might be able to talk her round. You'll lose some humanity but your Masquerade points will be fine.

4.) Leave a witness because you couldn't get rid of them but didn't want to kill anyone, Vesuvius won't be happy but you might be able to talk her round. You won't lose humanity but you might lose Masquerade points (Don't quote me I haven't tried this option yet and if you don't you should.)

That's not a bad amount of complexity there, it still can't match the near infinite possibilities of a pen and paper game but for a cRPG we're moving in the right direction. Also a really important point I want to stress is your options are always open to you, if something isn't working you can change strategies on the fly. You could describe this quest as containing a moral choice but it's handled in a way that is totally different than 90% of moral choices in games in that it's a choice you make as you play rather than a choice you make purely in the dialogue or worse quick time event. For some perspective this is how I think Bioware would handle the same situation.

Vesuvius now has no moral qualms about the death of innocents she just orders you to leave no witnesses. You go to the porn store, to begin with there are no witnesses you are aware of. You kill the stripper-assassin. Then out of nowhere a witness pops out of hiding. She promises to never tell a soul if you let her live.

1.) Tell the witness "Prepare to die bitch" then sit back and watch a short cinematic of your character killing the witness. Vesuvius will be happy and give you a big reward but you'll lose light side points (or whatever they're calling it these days.)

2.) Tell the witness "Okay I believe you, stay safe" then sit back and watch a short cinematic of the witness running away. Vesuvius will be pissed and might half your reward but you'll gain light side points (or whatever they're calling it these days)

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on Bioware, I mean I've really enjoyed every game they've ever made but it seems to me they rely on binary in dialogue choices far too often. These are situations where you know I'm making a choice now and really your choice will boil down to whether you're playing as a Sith or a Jedi (Or whatever they're calling it these days) this time round. Even when they give the two factions some interesting philosophical flavour (like Mass Effect's Utilitarianism versus Moral Law dynamic) the (for serious lack of a better word) mathematics are the same. In Bloodlines you kill the innocent not because you're presented with a single moment where the game comes to a screeching halt and asks "quick pick a side".You kill an innocent because you decide that it's easier that way, and you do it when you want to do it and you do it how you want to do it, and more importantly you do it. Which means it's not a damn cinematic in the middle of dialogue it's something you actually do in game.

So about that Humanity Masquerade thing eh? Basically Humanity represents how in touch with your humanity you are and Masquerade keeps track of how low key you're being. So kill an innocent where everyone can see you? That'll lose you both son. Do it in a quiet alleyway where no one will know? Well that'll just lose you some humanity. It gets a little spicy when you run across quests that involve murdering innocents to protect the Masquerade. Two ways of measuring a character's morality... interesting, two ways that occasionally come into conflict with each now we're getting somewhere (remember conflict equals drama). Oh yeah and rather than being some meaningless stat these have in game effects. Lower your Masquerade too much and vampire hunters will start tracking you down. Even better lower your humanity too much and you might start to frenzy meaning when low on blood you might lose control of your character and he'll suck some poor civilian dry (possibly threatening his standing with the Masquerade). Oh yeah and frenzy isn't actually totally a bad thing because while it sucks when you're walking around peacefully it's handy in combat basically enabling some vicious insta kills that also top up your blood supply (which we'll get to later). If you reduce either Humanity or Masquerade to zero you lose. "Wait so I can't even be a bad guy in this game" I hear you ask. Well yes you can it's important to remember that Humanity and Masquerade do not equal good and evil. At no point does the game tell you if you're good or evil. That's up to you.

So as a system it all works but what about it's soul, any good RPG stands or dies on the merits of it's world and characters. Bloodlines is fantastic at portraying a dark and sexy combination of goth decadence and urban heat. It's interesting that much of goth fashion is influenced by German expressionist cinema, while Film Noir mixed the urban crime drama of serial noir pulp fiction with cinematic techniques borrowed from the same movement. Bloodlines grabs these two distant cousins, throws them in a blender and seasons liberally with other bizarre and arcane references. A reference to obscure art house zombie movie Dellamore Dellamorte? Okay. A Tarentino like budding script writer working in a shitty motel? Sure. Under-age Japanese demon hunter? Fuck yeah. Plus the writing is top notch with some fantastic little flourishes. You know I used to dig a lot of goth stuff and over the years I'd started to forget why, Bloodlines reminded me. It's sexy. It's dark and sensual because it hints at taboos while not necessarily spelling them out. Every fishnet stocking, or spiked arm band hints at tantalizing unspeakable perversions but they only hint. Everyone likes to walk on the wild side even just a little. Which brings me to what holds together this entire game. Blood.

Blood is the most important part of the vampire mythos and as one of the characters of Bloodlines tells you.
"It's your new fucking heroin."
Blood let's you use spells which range from simple buffs through to bullet time, invisibility, and more traditional magic missile stuff. Every character needs to use spells, so even combat monsters are going to want a steady supply of blood and you ain't going to get more blood from potions. Before any major mission you're going to want to top up your blood supplies. If you don't like harming innocents you can buy from the blood bank or hunt sewer rats. But store bought blood is expensive and finding enough sewer rats is time consuming. If your seduction is high enough you can seduce a few mortals into giving up the crimson liquid for free. Or you can pay hookers. Or if you have no moral qualms feed off the homeless in dark alleys but homeless don't give as much blood as rich folk. For that you might need to stalk some blue blood into the toilets and feed on him while he's at the urinal. Or if your a good enough warrior (and fighting humans) you can just feed mid-combat. No matter which way you choose to get your fix you're always presented with the same choice. Stop feeding early, keeping your pray alive, or drain them dry. Draining they dry would of course lose you some humanity. Here's the thing no matter how much you tell yourself you're going to play the "nice" way the temptation is always there to just let the victim die. You might resist, but every time you feed that thought will still be there "If I wanted to I could kill them". Apparently in most games that allow moral choices the overwhelming majority of players decide to play good. That's because in most games evil is just simply not seductive enough. In Bloodlines murder is a constant temptation.

Of course all that is great but this game has to come with a huge caveat, I almost don't really want to mention it. It's not the bugs. At launch this thing was buggier than an anthill but the community has done a wonderful job patching it. It's not the mediocre combat, I don't expect much from RPG combat and if it wasn't for the real problem the bad combat would be totally ignorable. The problem is level design, specifically the level design of most of the big plot line quests. In short they are overly long, repetitive and confusing to navigate. Not all of them are, there's a hunted house near the beginning that's excellent. But from about the sewer crawl on the large set pieces become exercises in frustration. Really there's no point singling any of them out for extra attention they're just all horrible, it kills the game dead.

But I have a suggestion (not that anyone will listen). You know how this thing was really buggy but the community fixed it? I'm just throwing this out there but why doesn't the community fix the level design. Anyone in their right mind can see it's broken, so why doesn't someone do something about it. I know this would set a dangerous precedent for any game that sucks needing to be fixed by the community (although to be fair the precedent was set when the community needed to fix Oblivion's terrible level scaling) but the thing is Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines deserves to be fixed I wish I could go out and recommend it to everyone I know but at the moment I can't. If they solved the issues then maybe this diamond in the rough could start getting the recognition it deserves.

(And sorry for the parentheses)

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Plug

Sorry for the lack of updates. But I have got a sexy new project I'm working on. It's a machinma soap opera using the Sims 3. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and like I said before it is sexy.

I'll post another review once I've played something that isn't the Sims 3.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

The New Rating System

I've decided to add a new rating system to my little write ups. Below are some thoughts on the why, what and how of it. I guess there's even a little something on the who of it too.

I didn't have one previously because I don't really think of these things as objective reviews, more just semi structured musings on the old games I've been playing. See if you're interested in old videogames you don't really need a product style review with sections devoted to Graphics, Story and Gameplay to decide if something is worth your time. More likely you're just curious as to other peoples impressions of an old favourite or interested in checking out great titles you may have missed the first time around.

However it occurs to me that anyone just casualy surfing the web who winds up at this little blog might just want to read about the games I consider really great or really bad. So I've added a simple 5 star rating system. It's very straightforward.

***** Excellent
**** Great
*** Okay
** Bad
* Terrible

A few quick points.

1.) Excellent does not mean perfect. Entertainment is subjective so calling something perfect is a bit silly.
2.) Personaly I prefer games to be creative and imaginitive over polished and balanced. The ratings will reflect this. In other words please don't tell me that the original Fallout doesn't deserve 5 stars because the combat is slow, some character builds are unbalanced or the UI is unintuitive. The game's atmosphere, creativity and roleplaying all more than make up for that. And seriously if you think the most important thing about a game is it's UI you have screwed up priorities.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Doom Episode 1: Knee Deep in the Dead

Year: 1993
Rating: *****
Still the best damn game about shooting things ever.

To kill the standard base level enemy it takes three pistol rounds.
Or one well aimed shotgun blast.

Somewhere in that arithmetic is Doom’s secret. The shotgun is not the base weapon but it’s the gun you’ll use 90% of the time. It is so powerful against such a large array of targets wielding it make us the player feel powerful. Now I realise that in this enlightened new millennia we’re supposed to believe that FPSs are fun because they allow us to test our dexterity in an immersive environment, making use of advanced tactics and clever gamesmanship. But screw it lets throw away the pretence and face facts the FPS is the dominant genre of game because pretending to shoot something in the face is deeply cathartic and doing so from the literal perspective of the shooter only intensifies the experience. Every post-Doom improvement is secondary to that. Advanced enemy A.I was created for lazy level designers hoping the code will provide the challenge not the arrangement of obstacles they create. Regenerative health? Again lazy level designers hoping to do away with all that careful pacing of health packs nonsense. Gears of War style cover? Actually you know what if you’re not already stopping and popping in Doom what the hell are you doing?

And this brings me to the balancing of weapons. As stated earlier the Shotgun is better than the pistol in every respect. If you’ve got a pistol and a shotgun you’ll equip the shotgun. Now days FPSs feel like they need to make every weapon balanced. It makes sense for multiplayer but the shotgun is so deeply satisfying because it’s better than the pistol. Picking up a shotgun in Doom feels like progression. It’s that “I’m stronger now” feeling that is so addictive. It’s why it’s so painful when you die and you respawn with just the pistol. But that’s okay cause in a minute you’ll have the shotgun again. In comparison Halo 2's Battle Rifle (the go to weapon of the game) can only kill the lowest grunt in one burst if you score a head shot and as a result it feels much less satisfying than the shotgun in Doom.

Actually replaying Doom on Ultraviolence began to remind me of a Rougelike. With the generous auto-aim and no need to score head shots the combat is less about technical skill and more about effective crowd control and resource management. It’s oddly fitting that they recently turned it into a Rougelike for mobile phones (edit: Sorry I'm wrong about that). The other fundamentals feel the same, explore, gather loot, level up your gear. Just with a massive shot of adrenalin pumped straight to the heart. You know what I caught myself doing while playing this? Moving my body side to side in an attempt to dodge fireballs. The first time it happened I was totally embarrassed then I just said screw it no one can see me and threw myself into it with wild abandon. You know how many next-gen bloom blasting FPSs have elicited a similar level of immersion? None.

There is one myth about Doom I’d like to see cleared up. In the age old ludologist versus narratology debate Doom is often brought up by the ludologists as an example of a game that doesn’t need a story. You know what? That’s stupid. Doom may be proof that games don’t need a plot but it doesn’t prove they don’t need story. Story is more than just plot its setting, characters, atmosphere, and themes. Doom has plenty of all of that stuff. Look at the image at the top of this entry and tell me that’s not an iconic character, in an iconic setting, battling iconic foes. Doom wouldn’t be anywhere near as incredible an experience if it wasn’t for all the great work the artists and audio guys put into it’s non game elements. To dismiss all that and say Doom is proof that all you need is mechanics is ludicrous. The first few bars of the first level's music alone are enough to get my blood pumping how about you?

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Videogame Ads Are Stupid Part 1

I stumbled upon an old Shacknews article and it led me to these gems.

Yes that was a pimped out mario you saw for a second there.

Anyway MOAR!!

I kinda like the song in that one. That's the kind of music people should use to sell me consumer electronics, none of this new age folky indie rubbish.

This next one is freaking arty as hell. So much for people who like to say those David Lynch Playstation spots were revolutionary.

Yes the nineties were awesome

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Sunday, May 10, 2009


Year: 1993
Rating *****

This is my favorite game ever.

It was night when I first approached Junktown. The guard posted on duty sized me up and told me to return in the morning. I told him to get out of my way. A few more words were exchanged before we exchanged bullets. Afterwards I took his pistol and left his corpse in the irradiated sand. What followed was an almost sickening display of violence as one by one I wiped out every member of the local police force. A few civilians stepped in and put up a fight. I quickly put them down. At one point I shot a kid, his chest exploded and what remained of his body sagged sadly to the ground. In the final reckoning I had brutally slaughtered damn near half a settlement, what was left would never rebuild. I thought about reloading but then a smile cracked on my face and I wandered off into the desert to continue my quest.

It was a moment that damn near exploded how I thought and felt about video games. Look I had killed innocent NPCs before, in Ultima VII whenever I got bored with searching dungeons or traversing the countryside I would take out the occasional peasant but after a quick chuckle I’d reload my save and get on with it. This was different, when the slaughter of Junktown was complete I didn’t feel like rewinding time and correcting some mistake. See in Ultima I had gone off script and it was fun but only as a distraction. In Fallout, looking at the piles of bodies, seeing my xps go up, checking out my new looted .45 Desert Eagle it all made sense. This wasn’t off script, the game and I were making up the script as we went and in this wasteland almost anything was possible. It was the realisation of Everything Video Games Promise to Be.

Perhaps the true appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is not some dopey hope amongst the wreckage romanticism. I think it may almost be the opposite. You see there’s a part in all of us that looks at this world and wants to tear it shreds. Because with the end of the world comes freedom. Sure we’re mostly free now but it’s a genteel “you’re free as long as you don’t restrict some one else’s freedom” kind of freedom. It’s not real freedom, the freedom to do drugs, sleep with prostitutes and yes shoot a child in the eye. Most of us know that real freedom is unworkable and deeply immoral. But post apocalyptic fiction gives us a glimpse into a world where men and women are allowed to be brutally, disgustingly, hilariously free. Fallout doesn’t look for hope in the wasteland it rushes madly into the abyss howling with laughter. Because if you’re going to rush madly into an abyss then that’s really the only way to do it.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Flight of the Amazon Queen

Year: 1993
Rating: ****
If you’re looking for a review FotAQ is fun. It has great puzzles, a decent art style and a silly but enjoyable plot. It’s also Freeware now so you have no excuse to not try it. Now for a long winded rant about adventure game puzzles.

Put me in front of most point and clicks and I’ll normally only care about the story. The mechanics of these games are never really interesting. Is a streamlined two click interface better than a complicated verb based one? No but who cares? Like wise I’m not normally fussed with the quality of the puzzles (except when they’re painfully bad like say Legend of Kyrandia). But with Flight of the Amazon Queen I found myself getting really excited by the puzzles. These are some of the best puzzles I’ve ever come across in an adventure game and with a couple of small changes they’d be the best puzzles I’ve ever played.

What I love about these puzzles is they cut out 90% of the bullshit. Two of the most common complaints against the adventure game are that items only ever serve one function and the internal logic is obtuse and impenetrable. Flight of the Amazon Queen figured out how to solve these problems and amazingly no one noticed or much less cared.

The reason is because it wasn’t very commercially successful. Hard sales figures for an obscure and old title like this are hard to find but suffice to say the publisher didn’t order a sequel and the studio shut up shop. Which is a shame when you realise that this game was a labour of love by two guys from backwater Australia. Just getting this game to market was an amazing achievement, especially in the days before the Internet made Indie development so much easier. That those two men managed to turn out a game with a LucasArts level of quality blows my mind. But no it didn’t set the world on fire and sadly the adventure genre was poorer for it.

All right let’s get down to brass tacks, why do I like the puzzles so much? Well for starters certain objects have multiple uses. For example the baseball bat gets plenty of use and in different and interesting ways too. And it’s not just inventory items that are useable in different ways. Game world objects really make use of the multiple verb system. For example there is a sarcophagus that requires you to use LOOK, USE, OPEN, CLOSE, PICK UP, and MOVE (PUSH/PULL collapsed to one verb) at different points to solve separate puzzles. Most adventure games with a SCUMM-like interface make half the verbs feel redundant. Flight of the Amazon Queen makes all the verbs feel important. Yes I need separate verbs for USE, OPEN, CLOSE, PICK UP, and MOVE. No a single hand icon will not do and don’t even get me started on this “Right Click” nonsense (Okay I could probably deal with OPEN and CLOSE being collapsed to one verb, I mean when do you ever need to open something that’s already open?). As a result the world feels so much more interactive and some how less gamey. Which in my book is totally sweet.

Plus these puzzles make sense, and when they don’t the game is smart enough to give you a clue. You’re usually given all the information you need to solve any puzzle. For example really early in the game you need to cross dress as a showgirl to sneak past an armed goon. Sure it’s an out there premise not one that would immediately spring to mind but right next to where you find a black wig there is a poster. When you look at it you notice that the woman in the picture has an Adam’s apple. When you hear about the goon’s love of a certain showgirl the wheels in your head should start turning. Now before you get on your “That’s hand holding” high horse consider the Achilles heel of the standard adventure game. No matter what puzzle you create, trying every interaction with every object, and using every object with every other object can always solve it. This is very tedious and dull but if your puzzle doesn’t make sense then the player will resort to it and they won’t have fun. Actually this is a problem with any genre, if the player can get away with doing something that’s boring but effective they will and they won’t have fun.

Look you don’t need to flash clues up whenever the player gets stuck. Hiding clues in things like posters, comic books, NPC dialogue etc all work fine. In fact they give the player a reason to really explore all the details of your game world which in turn pulls them deeper into your story. In a perfect world Valve’s multiple iteration, player first, design process would have been invented before the adventure game kicked the bucket. Have you played Portal? Do you ever remember ever getting well and truly stuck? Of course not, check out the developer’s commentary on it some time to see all the various ways they subtly poked and prodded you into the solutions. This philosophy applied to adventure games could be really powerful. Anyone engaged in the fight to bring back adventure games should seriously consider it. Flight of the Amazon Queen doesn’t quite hit those lofty goals (The giant snake is afraid of fire? How the hell was I supposed to know that?) but it’s so tantalising close to the promised land I can make out the hot chicks in bikinis.

One problem this game doesn’t quite solve is the where multiple objects could, in the real world, perform the same function. For example at one point you need to gather some sloth hair. Once you’ve lured the sloth into reach with a flower (which a priest is kind enough to mention sloths like) you use your knife on it but that doesn’t work. No instead you need to get the scissors from the pygmy hairdresser. Look I get it, it’s easier to design a game this way but seriously if you’re making an adventure game please remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. Just because Monkey Island did it doesn’t make it written in stone. I know Monkey Island was an awesome game I’m glad we all agree but wouldn’t you like to make a game that’s better than Monkey Island?

Every review I’ve read of Flight of the Amazon Queen says that they were heavily inspired by LucasArts and didn’t quite live up to their idols. How insulting, they weren’t just inspired by LucasArts they were inspired to try and beat LucasArts at their own game. Okay so they didn’t quite succeed. The writing, while fun, isn’t up to snuff but at least they tried. Learn from them because the only way we are ever going to see the adventure game rise like a phoenix and not a zombie is if someone finally has the talent and balls to make a better game than Monkey Island.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Legend of Kyrandia

Year: 1992
Rating: *
Legend of Kyrandia is exceptionally mediocre. From the dull plodding story to the pathetic puzzle design it holds nothing of interest to anyone. It deserves to be forgotten and thankfully for the most part it has been.

The first thing you need to know about Legend of Kyrandia is that it contains the following puzzle.

You’re told that to get magical Macguffin #2 you need to collect your four birthstones and place them on the marble altar in the correct order. To get the gems you have to search the entire map hunting for gemstones, of which there are twelve. You only need four but you have to collect all twelve because you don’t know which four you will need. Once you’ve got all twelve you head to the altar and get to work. You place the gemstones on the altar one at a time. If they sparkle and disappear then you’ve used the right one. If they burn and disappear then you’ve used the wrong one. If you’ve used the wrong one you need to reload your save and start again because you may need to use that gemstone later in the sequence. There is no way to figure out the puzzle without constant trial and error. You will need to save every time you luck into using the right gemstone. You might think this is some elaborate copy protection, it is not. Consulting a walkthrough will not help because the gemstones you need to use and the order you need to use them in is randomly generated every time you start a new game. Once you are finished you will feel like you have just swam through a swamp of bullshit.

The second thing you need to know about Legend of Kyrandia is that this is not the worst puzzle in the game.

The last thing you need to know about Legend of Kyrandia is that the characters, world, plot and humour are completely lifeless. It’s a cheap Kings Quest clone without the charm. Check out the disclaimer they had to put on the box.
I mean Jesus Christ.

Why don’t they make adventure games any more? I don’t know but I think Legend of Kyrandia deserves some of the blame. It isn't to blame but I feel like making it a scapegoat anyway.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Police Quest

Year: 1987
Rating: ***
Did you know they once claimed that this game was used as a real life training sim for police cadets? By that logic I’m now ready to take down drug pushing thugs. Let’s just hope RL has a better text parser interface.

You know I’ve got to love Jim Walls. He works for the Californian Highway Patrol for fifteen years until he has a particularly rough day at the office (bullets were involved) and retires. What is a man to do in that situation? Well if you’re Jim Walls you befriend Sierra Co-founder Ken Williams who offers you a gig as a consultant on an up coming game called Police Quest. Somehow you take on the task of writing and designing said title despite having absolutely no background in the video game industry. Legend has it that when he began at Sierra he needed to be shown how to turn on his computer. I don’t know how true that is but at any rate he must have been a remarkably quick study because right out the gate he managed to create what many consider a classic.

I think it may have been his outsider status that gave him an edge. By the time Police Quest rolled around Sierra had already published three very successful adventure games. To a certain extent they had already found their formula. A formula that probably stayed unchanged for too long in the end. But Police Quest is a different breed of adventure game. Gone are the obtuse lateral thinking puzzles and spot the pixel item hunting. In their place is nitty gritty police procedure. I wouldn’t even call them puzzles really. Is it a puzzle to know that when approaching a suspect in a stolen car you should call for back up? Beating Police Quest doesn’t require you to figure out the Byzantine pathways of the designer’s mind. To reach the end all you’ll need is common sense, a working knowledge of cop shows and, yes, some patience.

Approaching the previously mentioned stolen car is the virtuoso scene of the game. I enjoy how it is subtly built up at the beginning. During your first briefing, in a throwaway line, the chief mentions that a light blue sedan has been reported stolen. I almost immediately forgot that detail. Later another hint is dropped and as you complete the next couple of missions the blue sedan is always sitting in the back of your mind. Those missions are fun and interesting but you're never in any real danger. Then when you hear the dispatch blaring to intercept a light blue sedan you think to yourself "Shit is about to go down".

I won’t ruin the scene by describing it but it is as tense as typing short sentences into a text parser can be. What’s remarkable is that you don’t even fire your gun. This game isn’t about violent cops and robber heroics it’s about the simple street level tension of being a cop. You may think that sounds boring and that surely no one would want to play it now days. Sure I’ll admit you probably couldn’t get away with a triple AAA console game like this today but anyone who thinks there isn’t a market for this kind of drama needs to take a look at all the police procedurals currently clogging book store shelf space and television prime time. When was the last time you saw a cop on Law and Order fire their gun? Sure it happens but that show can go for weeks without a single gunshot. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t filled with tense compelling scenes they’re just tense and compelling in a different way. Police Quest is like that at times.

There is one slight problem though and for me it really spoils the experience. When your character finally shots his gun it happens automatically so you never get to type ‘Fire Gun”. It’s in the final climatic scene too. I mean Jesus Christ I just wanted to waste one dude. The whole rest of the game can be a prick tease building up to the final moment but let me have my damn satisfaction. Don’t yank it away from me in a cut scene. Much more recently Army of Two does the exact same thing which makes you wonder when the hell are people going to learn. For all that Police Quest is an almost awesome game and one-day I’ll probably play through the sequels just to see if they ever managed to do it right. If they didn’t, well that just means there’s the potential and opportunity for someone else out there to finally close the case on this weird sub-genre once and for all.

Oh and at one point you dress like a pimp. It’s fantastic.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Balance of Power

Year: 1985
Rating: ***
I don’t like this game but I think there should be more like it. Doublethink is a difficult thing to reconcile.

I want to like Balance of Power. I like its creator and I like his aims. But this is his masterpiece and I can’t stand it. I find myself feeling slightly ashamed to admit that. If Balance of Power was a girl she’d be the frumpy bespeckled girl sitting alone in the International Relations section of the library with a pile of books and a hatred of men. Oh sure you can tell underneath it all she’s really smart and interesting and not at all like those other prettier more vapid girls but still you never really want to go talk to her. Cause if you do she’ll talk your ear off about post-modern theories of empire in the bored kind of voice people reserve for the stupid.

If you haven’t heard of it, Balance of Power is a strategy/simulation where you pick one of two superpowers and engage in old fashion Cold War doomsday dodging. It’s like chicken with nukes but with so much detail that it boggles the mind. One of the first screens in the game informs you “Those who play this game without reading the manual are wasting their time.” Seeing that was when I first thought about giving up. But hey I’ve got a blog to write and I won’t let a little reading get in my way. About one third of the way through the manual I got bored and decided warning be damned I’ll just play the game (In my defence it’s a very long manual).

In less than a turn I had lost. These were the words that greeted my defeat

“You have ignited a nuclear war. And no, there is no animated display of a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure.”

I’ve been frustrated by games before. I’ve given up on games before. I have never felt emasculated by a game before. Let’s be clear here, I like politics more than it can be deemed reasonable. I enjoy reading about the machinations of powers and their effects on our world. This game is probably the purest realisation of a political simulation possible and it puts me to sleep.

I read the rest of the manual. I tried again. I lasted longer that time but still saw those same words again.

“We do not reward failure.”

I can just see her sneering at me, I tried to prove that I am her equal but I don’t even know the historical precedents of the Velvet Revolution. A few more tries and I gave up. If you like this game I’m sorry it just isn’t for me. I wish I could but I just don’t enjoy playing a game of chicken against a computer. The computer does not know fear so how can I defeat it? Answer: I can’t.

Of course just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the shit out of it. I think if you were going to make a game about politics this should probably be your inspiration. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the whole serious game movement. These are games whose aims are to educate their players rather than entertain. And I don’t mean educate in the sense of how maths blaster made you use arithmetic to shoot enemy formulas. That sort of game tries to entertain their players first and stealthily drop knowledge in their heads when they’re not looking. If you’re playing a serious game it’s because you want to learn something. They can be useful as training tools for everything from doctors to labourers. Some people are even starting to use them for propaganda.

Take for example September 12 – A Toy World. In this game you are tasked with the goal of defeating terrorism by blowing up terrorists. However, killing civilians or damaging buildings creates more terrorists thereby making your goal harder to achieve. The rub and source of the message is that you can not not kill civilians. Now I can see where this game is coming from and I can even agree to it’s underlying assumption but doesn’t it strike you as incredibly simplistic? Surely the War of Terror can not be accurately depicted with two or three rules? I would guess that the makers of this game agree, but would insist that their purpose is not to represent the War on Terror in the most accurate way possible but instead to make a simple statement on one aspect of it. And that’s their problem they’re just making a statement. Anyone can make a statement. They’re simple, easy and you can use them as a club against people you disagree with. But a statement without detailed thought and argument to back it up will never convince anyone of anything.

Balance of Power is not a statement. It’s an incredibly reasoned and intellectual meditation on the nature of Cold War brinkmanship. Above all else it attempts to depict its subject matter accurately, and as a result it leaves the player in no doubt as to the nature of the Cold War. Mad horrific and ultimately pointless.

“We do not reward failure.”

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Contra III: The Alien Wars

Year: 1992
Rating: ***
Is Contra III a serious social commentary on late era Cold War American foreign policy? Probably not. But it is a pretty bad arse action game.

Historically speaking The Contras were a counter revolutionary terrorist organisation from Nicaragua that engaged in a bloody war with the Sandinista government throughout the eighties. The Contras were funded and equipment by the CIA in an attempt to contain communism in Latin America. They are almost universally reviled by left wing types, partly because of the terrible human rights violations they committed but also because Reagan had such a hard on for them (the left tend to ignore or gloss over the human rights violations of the government forces). Basically it was a period of human history that was violent, tragic and far more complicated than either side cares to admit.

So at some point before 1987 a Japanese game design dude is reading a newspaper, sees the name Contra connected to real genuine human misery and thinks “Wow that’s an awesome name for a video game”. I would like to high five that man… to the face… hopefully breaking his nose in the process.

Actually according to the series cannon (and wikipedia) Contra means

“A title awarded to a superior soldier possessing almost super human drive and ability, while excelling in guerrilla tactics”

That sentence mixed in with the hyper masculine characters, the endless waves of faceless alien others and steroid to the dick gameplay leads me to believe that Contra may be the most right wing game ever created for a home console. Not that I’m complaining, I might be a pussy liberal but even I can admit right wing wackos can make awesome art when they want to. For example 90% of all films starring Charles Bronson.

I wanted to play a Contra game because I’ve heard good (admittedly hyperbolic) things. I chose Contra III because I could easily get my hands on it. I’m probably going to talk about it like it's representative of every Contra game ever. I assume it is I could be wrong. It doesn’t have the famous Konami code so I was only able to beat the first couple of stages. Not that it matters, those stages told me everything I need to know about Contra. It is a good game but I will never truly love it.

Have you ever heard the saying “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”? Well Contra is a hedgehog and the one thing it knows is “shooting shit is fun”. To that end the entire game design is focused on presenting the player with shit to shoot, fancy weapons to shoot shit with, huge set pieces to shoot shit in and many different ways to shoot said shit. It’s actually fairly impressive just as you think they’ve wrung out everything they can from the simple mechanics you find yourself dangling from a cable killing an endless horde of flying monsters barely inching forward in the small moments when you’re not fighting for your life. It has moments to remember and as an object lesson in “turning it up to eleven” it’s fairly peerless. It also has co-op gameplay which I can only assume would increase the game's enjoyment by a factor of N, when N = Bitchin x Awesome / How ever much your friend sucks at video games. Yep both players share a pool of lives so if one person is stinking up the room the other suffers for it. I can just see the sibling beat downs that must have arisen from this game.

The only slight problem is it all just turns to noise. The action is so unrelenting you start to switch off from it. The problem is made worse by the fact that you die so often you replay the same sections again and again. So to progress you need to learn the frankly ridiculous enemy attack patterns. After a while certain sections start to feel more like decoding a sequence with trial and error than playing a game.

So yeah it’s stupid and fun but probably not a masterpiece and hugely over rated by the “only-ever-plays-old-SNES-ROMs” breed of retro gamer. I like those guys but come on pick up an Amiga game sometime.

I read somewhere that CliffyB (you know the Jazz Jackrabbit guy) once described the act of firing a gun in a shooter as a way of “touching”. That’s slightly disturbing but maybe also a little true. In Contra the only way you interact with anything is by killing it. Storyline wise you’re meant to be saving the planet but everything you “touch” explodes in a fiery mess. In a way it’s tragic. At least it contains the potential for tragedy. The characters of Contra don’t seem to mind, they’re too stupid to care about their damnation. But I would like someone to take these characters (or characters like them) to their realistic and logical conclusions. I think that would be a game I could love.

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Commander Keen

Year: 1990
Rating: ****
Everyone is talking "Rollercoaster" or "Sand Box" and which is the future. Keen is neither but he's still pretty special.

Commander Keen is a strange and weird breed. A platformer for the PC. In the early days of consoles the platformer was king. This was never really the case on the PC it's hard to know why. Maybe it's because the PC with it's keyboard interface could easily support complicated genres like management sims, strategy games, RPGs, flight sims, adventure games, god games ect from the get go. Genre's that never took off on the console because mapping their controls led to horrible and unworkable UIs (In some cases still lead to). Ever tried to play Sim City on a console? You never ever want to put yourself in that situation. Maybe it's because the people who owned PCs tended to be older and thus had more patience for genres that take longer to learn. Like I said it's hard to really know why.

Still people did make platformers and one of those was Commander Keen. At first it looks like a fairly dodgy Mario clone with a couple of extra features but much worse sound and level design. But then you see the old school ID logo and read names like John Carmack and if you've got any sense you'll give the guys who would go on to create Doom the benefit of the doubt.

I know I said that at first the level design looks dodgy compared to Mario but it only looks that way if you judge it by what Mario was trying to achieve. One of the reasons Mario is held in high regard these days is because it's level design achieves an incredible sense of flow. Each level is simple and linier and the player always knows what they have to do next, it never confuses you just arranges a neat progression of challenges for you to overcome. Flow is currently game designs favourite buzz-word/mantra and in this way Mario was very ahead of the times. I appreciate flow it's generally a good idea but then I remember when re-playabilty and non-linier were the mantra. The simple truth is that while maximising flow is a great way to design games it is not the only way. If Commander Keen's objective was to maximise flow then it'd be a failure. Luckily this wasn't ID's objective.

To get to my point I'm going to back up and talk story. Commander Keen is about a small boy who in order to escape his bed time builds a rocket ship and flies off to go explore Mars. Aside from it being a cute concept (which it totally is) this also shows that Keen's number one objective is to explore. He's not racing off to save a princess or rescue animals. His mission is to poke around a planet and have a goddamn adventure. When he gets there aliens steal vital space ship components which he then has to find. How do you find things? You look for them and cause you don't have a clue where they are it ties neatly into Keen's original objective of exploration. Mario's got to rush to save Peach so a tight well flowing level design makes sense for that, it's the kind of narrative that needs to push forward at all times. Keen is in no such rush, he's exploring taking his time having fun on an alien world. Hell it's actually not in his interests to finish up quick cause then he'd have to go home and get to bed early.

The level design of Keen consists of huge sprawling environments with seemingly randomly placed challenges and basically no set path. In fact, in some of the levels it's pretty darn easy to just blast through to the exit and ignore 90% of the content. If your going for the now standard Half Life 'roller coaster' approach to action adventure design this doesn't work at all. But Keen isn't a roller coaster, I wouldn't go as far to call it a 'sandbox' either. Nah Keen is something better. A jungle gym. I like jungle gyms cause they're full of interesting little challenges and paths but you're free to play with them however the hell you like. Hey player, see that teddy up on that ledge? I bet you can't get up there. Do you have to? Nope, but hey wouldn't it be fun to try. And it is.

There's another thing in Keen that is totally out of vouge these days. Key collecting. The arguments against key collecting are many. It leads to backtracking and artificially lengthens the game. It sucks when you've found the exit but you can't continue cause you haven't hunted down the key. And worst of all key collecting wastes the player's time. Keen gets by these arguments by doing key collecting right. First off exits are easy to find so you never feel like you've slogged through hell only to have the fun come crashing down because you haven't got some arbitrary object. Backtracking is fun in Keen because it contains so many extra paths and optional challenges that whenever you backtrack you're almost certain to have missed something the first time around. And how exactly is it a waste of the player’s time if they're having fun? Oh sure it makes the experience longer but if that longer experience is still fun isn't that better? But why have key collecting in the first place? Because it's a way of making you explore the levels. If you didn't have to collect keys you'd just race through and miss all the content. Key collecting makes you explore, the game design makes exploring fun so key collecting becomes fun. It's kind of elegant and beautiful in it's own way.

(A quick little shout out to the pogo stick. In Keen you can jump or you can use the pogo stick to jump really high. But the catch is the pogo stick is difficult to control so in any jumping puzzle situation you've got to balance hight with control which can sometimes be a tough choice. I like tough choices.)

Today Keen plays like an anachronism. What it did well has largely been forgotten in favour of other more fashionable ideas. But I can't help but wonder if one-day jungle gym level design won't become the new buzz word.

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Year: 1992
Rating: *****
The finest platformer ever made.*

If you do a quick search for Flashback you'll soon find some website telling you that it's an action-adventure platformer. This description is insufficient. Flashback is a thriller right down to the core of its soul. From the plot, the pacing, the step learning curve to the gunfight mechanics every element quietly seethes slow burn suspense.

In your first hour with it you'll die, a lot, and in stupid humiliating ways. If you're like me you'll probably want to quit. But don't it's worth it. Slowly as you retrain your gaming instincts, as you get used to the esoteric controls as you begin to approach every situation with extreme caution you'll get it. The game isn't so much really hard as it is easy to die. As long as you're careful and think about what you're doing you'll be fine. It gives everything a sense of weight, of substance. When I play most platformers I can switch off and go along for the ride but I never really suspend my disbelief. Flashback above all is believable. I believe in its mechanics, its world, its characters, its story. It's like a giant snowball effect with the end result being an intensely atmospheric and immersive experience.

Flashback was created by seminal developer Delphine Software. Long before anyone was asking if games were art, Delphine like the French bastards they were just knuckled down and made great art. They remind me of Jean-Pierre Melville the French filmmaker who took American Film Noir and turned it into something more up scale and classy in the process inspiring the likes of Scorsese and Tarantino. Every time people talk about how games like Half-Life and GTA are pushing the medium in a more mature direction I think of Flashback and it's grimy dystopian world.

I very briefly mentioned how the gunfight mechanics are suspenseful and I just want to explain what I mean. In most gunplay based games you run around blasting enemies away in a frankly reckless fashion. The idea is to give you a steady stream of excitement. In Flashback you approach every enemy with caution. You look at where they are, figure out how you can reach them and from that formulate a plan. You have to because bravado will get you killed. Often times the fun is in the anticipation of the gunfights. Also pulling off your elaborate scheme carries an immense sense of satisfaction. Okay so sometimes the plan doesn’t work and you have to improvise. But when that happens the mad scramble is exhilarating because unlike most games you don’t spend 90% of your playtime in it.

Flashback is a platformer for the hardcore. Don't ever let anyone tell you Sonic and Mario are anything but casual, sure they can both be extremely difficult at times but so can Dinner Dash. What really makes something casual is the way it nurtures the player and guides them into the experience. Flashback throws you in the deep end and expects you to swim. You won't you'll drown but if you keep plugging away at it you'll find something much richer and more adult than the standard SNES and Mega Drive fare. Is it less fun than Sonic or Mario? Depends on your definition of fun really. Is candy tasty? Of course. Is beef jerky tasty? You betcha. Do they taste anything alike? I hope not.

*Cheers to Glyn for that line.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Schooling the Old Mission Statement

The Plan.

To write some smart analysis of classic video games with an emphasis on what designers could learn from them today.

To do so at least once per week.

To avoid snark unless it's absolutely necessary.

To be humorous if it's at all possible.

To be at least readable in terms of grammar and spelling.

To avoid getting off topic.

To fail gracefully at all those aims.

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