Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Man and Megaman

Above: There are places I remember / All my life, though some have changed / Some forever, not for better

I've been playing Mega Man 9, and enjoying it -- mostly. But there's an unintended consequence of my playing this game: It's causing me to re-evaluate my relationship with Mega Man 2.

Along with Contra, Mega Man 2 is my favorite NES game. Both are considered among the most difficult 8-bit games, but I can beat each one without breaking a sweat. That's not thanks to any particular skill on my part. It's because I played these games until I knew every screen by heart. Playing them isn't a matter of reacting to what's happening onscreen. It's all muscle memory. I know every move my enemies make before they make it. I know what hazards will appear onscreen at each moment. I can leap with confidence to platforms that haven't even appeared yet. I can fire at the exact location my offscreen foes will be seconds from now.

I can tell you everything you need to know about Mega Man 2 more easily than I can remember my family members' birthdays. Beat Metal Man first, then use the Metal Blade to defeat Flash Man, Bubble Man, and Wood Man. The Wood Shield takes down Air Man, whose Air Shooter makes short work of Crash Man (hang onto those Crash Missiles; you'll need them in Dr. Wily's Castle). Use Flash Stop against Quick Man and Bubble Lead against Heat Man.

In Dr. Wily's castle, the Quick Boomerangs will dispatch both the flying dragon and the Gutsdozer with ease. Use Metal Blades to knock off the second stage boss, and Crash Missiles against the fourth stage boss (hot tip: to avoid getting hit by the converging fire from the latter boss, pause and un-pause the game as quickly as you can until the rounds have passed through you). To destroy Dr. Wily's ship, first use a charged Atomic Fire to blast away the hull, and then go at the cockpit with Metal Blades. To defeat the final boss, Bubble Lead is your way to go.

And, of course, if you want to skip straight to Dr. Wily's castle at start-up, the code is A1 B2 B4 C1 C5 D1 D3 E3 E5.

I say all this not because you need to know it -- you probably knew it already -- but to demonstrate how reflexive one's knowledge of an NES game had to be. For me, that was partly a result of simply playing the same games over and over for weeks or months at a time. But it's also what was required to beat these games. You had to know them inside out. They were littered with traps that would be unavoidable unless you already knew they were coming. Unless you could traverse the levels with your eyes closed, you couldn't do it at all. With minimal extra lives, and a frequent "game over" screen, getting through a Mega Man game was a matter of attrition.

This is still the case with Mega Man 9.

As others have noted, and as I will note in my review, Mega Man 9 is a perfect emulation of a Nintendo game. From the graphics, to the sound, to the level design, you could have told me this game was originally released in 1988 and I'd believe you. That's the argument in the game's favor. It's also a stark reminder of how games have changed since then -- for the better, I'd argue.

There is a feeling of accomplishment in getting through a tough game, sure. And the platforming challenges and boss battles I've encountered so far in Mega Man 9 aren't all that difficult from a purely mechanical standpoint. They just require a little planning and practice. (An early example: In Splash Woman's stage, you drop from one screen to the next. If you are not already pressing left or right on the d-pad when the screen scrolls, you will not have enough time to avoid hitting insta-kill spikes.) But this method of level design feels cheap to my 2008 self. Why shouldn't I be able to hang back and regroup? I've seen the "game over" screen more after three levels of Mega Man 9 than I did in the entirety of BioShock.

Still, my enjoyment of Mega Man 9 increased when I decided to hit up GameFaqs for the optimal stage order. For a minute I felt like I was cheating somehow, but then I realized: I never figured anything out in Mega Man 2 on my own. Not a thing. Not only was I told which weapon to use on what boss, I even watched my friend Ryan go through all the levels before I ever completed any of them myself.

There's the basic truth of this: In all my warm and fuzzy memories of Mega Man 2, I cannot remember a time when I didn't know all there was to know about it. That level of mastery colors my perception of the game, as it has for the past 20 years.

Now? I may be able to look up strategies to help me get through Mega Man 9, but after that I'll be done with it. This has to do with how games have changed, and how I've changed as a player. What this game has done is convince me that if I played Mega Man 2 for the first time today, I wouldn't like it very much. I can't imagine anything sadder.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Conflict of interest

Gary Hodges at Joystick Division has an astonishing interview with one Richard Kain, the man behind games journalism site GameCyte.com, as well as games PR firm TriplePoint. Kain comes off either as refreshingly forthright or embarrassingly unprepared, depending on your viewpoint, but what seems clear is that, until recently, readers of GameCyte were given no indication of the potential conflict of interest in the site's coverage.

Among the points of concern Gary raises:
  • GameCyte managing editor Jason Babler is simultaneously employed as a creative director at TriplePoint.
  • Richard Kain is an investor in Telltale Games. Telltale Games was once a client of TriplePoint. Neither relationship was disclosed in GameCyte's positive reviews of any Telltale titles.
  • GameCyte's review of Off Road, published by TriplePoint client Empire Interactive, was among the most positive to be found anywhere.

I'll be honest: I never heard of GameCyte before I read this story. If Kain's claim of 62,000 unique visitors last month is true, then it's not a massive site by any means. And it's well within the realm of possibility that the GameCyte staff is doing solid, independent work. But in journalism, transparency is everything.

Gary sums it up when he says this system is "designed in a way that allows for abuse." That doesn't mean it has been abused, only that the possibility is there. And once you open the door to that kind of suspicion, your credibility among your readers is shot -- or ought to be. The simple remedy is disclosure. That's standard practice for newspapers, and if Kain wants to defend the quality of his site's journalism then he ought to hold it up to the same standard.

It seems that since Gary started talking to the GameCyte and TriplePoint people, they have revised their About pages to include more information about the relationship. If you want to know what games journalism really looks like, read the whole interview. Incredible stuff.

Update: Dan Kennedy at Media Nation, writing on a different topic, shares a hilarious aphorism about conflict-of-interest that I'd never heard before: "You can fuck an elephant if you want to, but if you do you can't cover the circus."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Some more Rock Band 2 impressions

The quirks of World Tour mode are bugging me less as I've gone along, and some commenters were correct that Challenge mode seems to do exactly what I wished World Tour did, presenting chunks of songs in increasingly difficult tiers. I still think you shouldn't have to unlock songs if you want to play them with your friends, but we're stuck with that for now.

Otherwise, the gameplay is just terrific. My drum skills are at the point where medium difficulty is a little too easy, and hard difficulty is just about within my range. It seems like Harmonix has calibrated the difficulty levels exactly -- the toughest songs on medium seem about equal to the easiest songs on hard. It's a simple and logical progression for the low-talent drummer. (By the way, I tried using the drum trainer and it seems like it's helpful, but less helpful than learning those same patterns in the context of songs you know.)

I had my doubts about whether online play would work for this game. Not because of the precise timing required -- latency was probably a bigger issue for the original Halo than it is here -- but because I thought at least half the fun of playing Rock Band is doing so with other people in the room. That's still the optimal setup, but playing with friends online turned out to be a blast. I think it helped that we both had avatars that looked (somewhat) like ourselves.

There are so many songs available that it's hard to criticize what's there. It got easier to skip some of the worse songs as I progressed through World Tour. And there are some real gems, too. It's nice to finally see the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr. get their due in a game like this. I might have picked a different AC/DC song, but other than Led Zeppelin there is no band that needed to be in the game more. And one day I will tell you about the time I played the solo at the end of "Alive," and in the process became a being of pure light.

Without having the original drums handy, I can't tell if the new ones are any quieter. They still seem loud, but it's more of a rubbery thud than the high-pitched clacking I seem to remember from the first kit. So far, the neighbors haven't complained. These drums are supposedly "velocity sensitive," and I'm wondering how good a drummer you need to be for that to matter at all. I'm still at the point where I accidentally miss the green pad when it comes up. The kick pedal still slides back and forth along its bar, too. I need to appropriate the solution my friend Pat came up with and clamp it in place.

Finally, that gorgeous guitar. Without question, it's the best-looking fake plastic guitar controller I've seen, and at this point I've seen more than I ever expected to. Feels great, too. The problem with the original Rock Band guitar was the mushy feel of the strum bar, compared to the precise "click" you got from the Guitar Hero axe. You still don't get that click, but the edges of the strum bar's range feel more solid this time. It's easier to play those fast strumming sections purely by feel. Initially, I also had trouble shifting up and down the neck without spaces in between the fret buttons to guide me, but as I've gotten used to it I think this design actually makes it easier to slide back and forth quickly.

It is still hard to escape the feeling that this isn't exactly a full-fledged sequel, and more of a spit-and-polish, but I had that same initial impression about Guitar Hero II and look how that turned out.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Rock Band 2's lockbox

One of the problems with going away for a week is that you may return to find somebody has already said what you wanted to say about Rock Band 2. That Variety post isn't all of what I wanted to say about the game, but it's an important point that's been bugging me since I started playing Rock Band 2: Why do I have to unlock the songs I really want to play?

I should say first that I'm not sure whether Tour mode is any different, better, or worse than it was in the first game. I've only played multiplayer quickplay in the original. But Tour mode in the sequel strikes me as curious. Progression in Guitar Hero games was always logical, if a little boring. Complete a group of easy songs, then move on to a group of slightly harder songs, and repeat until finished. Here, the conceit is that you are actually in a touring rock band, and you have to travel around the country earning fans and money. As a result, it's actually quite difficult to know what you've already unlocked, and what there is to unlock next.

The menus are tough to navigate in tour mode. Each city has three venues, and each venue has multi-song setlists in addition to single-song selections. New venues and new setlists are marked as such only temporarily. I am continually finding things I haven't completed only by taking the time to scrounge around. This could have been organized better. I know the flat list of quickplay mode is unexciting, but, damn it, it works.

Beyond that, the structure of Tour mode means that you have to play some songs multiple times before you earn enough stars to unlock new stuff. I'm having to play songs I don't like repeatedly in order to earn enough stars to unlock some more songs I do like. I suppose the "mystery setlists" are just random, but it's almost as though the game knows I don't want to hear "Conventional Lover" again as long as I live, and has a sadistic streak.

The thing is, in practice I don't really mind having to play everything one time in order to unlock other stuff. I don't think it's necessary in a game of this type, but I'm willing to go with it when it's as simple as it is in the Guitar Hero games. But in Rock Band 2, there are levels of needless complexity I just don't care to master. I seem to be earning virtual fans with each successful show, but so what? I just want to play some music.

Far be it from me to impute selfish motives to the people who made an otherwise fantastic game, but here's what I think happened: Harmonix put the time and effort into making this robust, detailed Tour mode with its endless features and leaderboard options. Whether or not they discovered in testing that many players didn't care about this mode, they didn't want to see their efforts go to waste, so they decided to force everyone to grapple with Tour mode anyway -- even though most people who play the game want to dive right into the rocking, accoutrements be damned.

Which is not to say that Tour mode is a total bust for the solo player. There is some sense in making more of a "game" for the single-player mode. Nor am I yet to the point of using a code to unlock everything on the disc. For the multiplayer, though, it's just nonsensical to hide the game's best songs from the users. That's not the kind of game Rock Band is.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Indulge me for one second

Above: Introducing Mr. and Mrs. Krpata, 9/12/08

So yes, I took a little time off to get married and go on a honeymoon and all that. Truly it was the party of the century, followed by a harrowing journey into the heart of Caribbean darkness -- where the liquor flows freely, and Internet access is spotty at best.

Back to business tomorrow, with a cavalcade of Rock Band 2 posts that will astound the mind and dazzle the senses!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Insult Swordfighting presses the pause button


Life circumstances require me to take a short break from blogging. Initially, I had this great idea to line up some guest posts around a single theme to put up while I'm gone. Then, when I failed to do that, I planned to write a bunch of posts in advance of my sabbatical, so nobody would ever realize I was gone. Well, I didn't do that, either. So I'm going into radio silence for a little while.

Posting will resume the week of September 22.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Fall videogames preview

Above: Ain't these just the cutest little suckers you ever did see?

Hello there. Do you like videogames? Would you like to know what videogames are coming out for your favorite systems this fall? Why not check out the Phoenix's 2008 fall videogame preview?

As you might have inferred from last week's post -- or from the piece itself! -- I had a hard time getting energized for most of this year's selections. Last year's was such a strong lineup, and the year before that we had the launches of the PS3 and Wii to look forward to. This year, you've got mostly sequels: Gears of War 2, Resistance 2, MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, Rock Band 2, Guitar Hero World Tour, and Fallout 3* all appear on the list.

Some new franchises are on the slate, of which LittleBigPlanet strikes me as the most promising. (My interest in The Force Unleashed wanes by the day.) Mirror's Edge also looks striking, but that's got my vote for game most likely to be delayed until 2009. Dead Space and Left 4 Dead both look solid, though hardly revelatory -- finally, someone had the balls to make horror-themed shooters!

As Matthew Gallant notes, previews are busted even when they are laudatory. Still, what does it say when I can't gin up excitement for anything based on preview copy? I hope to be pleasantly surprised by many of these games. Otherwise, it's going to be a short best-of list come December.

*Granted, Fallout 3 isn't quite like its counterparts here. Enough time has passed that a Fallout sequel is necessary and welcome.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Do not fear the Large Hadron Collider

Above: I am the man who will fight for your honor.

Gordon Freeman is on the case.

But just in case, I recommend stocking up on crowbars and batteries.

(By the way, do you remember how mindblowing the opening sequence of Half-Life was? If there's a better way to start a game, I haven't seen it yet. The introduction of Black Mesa is perfect. Then the interactive sequence in which the resonance cascade opens up and Gordon is temporarily transported to Xen. And then, everything that had seemed so familiar and safe is changed forever.

Really, the whole game was one brilliant, sustained dramatic sequence. Valve never relied on cutscenes or lazy storytelling. They used in-game, scripted events and intricately crafted level design to ensure that the player's attention was always focused in the right place. That's why you caught glimpses of the G-man through windows and around corners. It's why the scientist dangling off the ladder screamed just long enough for you to locate him visually before losing his grip and plummeting down an elevator shaft. It's why facehuggers leaping out of dark places was just as scary the fiftieth time.

Don't even get me started on the propulsive nature of the level design. After the dimensional breach, all anyone wants is for the military to bail them out. All you want is to reach the surface. Finally, you reach sunlight in time to greet the military -- and they open fire on you. So you plunge right back the way you came, back toward the hideous creatures below. Going forward is terrifying, but going backward is even worse.

Excuse me, I have some business to attend to on Steam.)

(Yes, nearly this entire post was a parenthetical.)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Have you seen this man?

Above: Super Mario, missing since 3/9/08

This week I've been toiling on the fall preview for The Phoenix. It's my annual look at the biggest and best videogame releases of the holiday season. The process isn't too scientific: I check out the release schedule on Gamestop.com, Gamespot.com, and Gametops.com*, make a note of what seems interesting, and then write a fluffy paragraph about each game. My choices are unfortunately based more on what's been marketed well, or what's a big sequel, than on any direct contact I've had with these titles.

What's been interesting about the 2008 edition is the total lack of any exciting new Wii games. That's not to say there won't be any good ones this season. Every year, some of the games I mention turn out to be duds, and it's easy to overlook something that'll be great. Last year's preview didn't even include Call of Duty 4! There's also the inevitable delay immediately after the preview goes to press. But some selections are no-brainers for a preview like this, and this year none of them are for Nintendo.

I've read that Nintendo seems to be bowing out of the preview business, preferring to launch games on short notice without the usual build-up of publicity and expectations. On one hand, that's refreshing. Not much is worse than previews written years in advance for a game that ends up disappointing. And it's not as though they need help convincing people to buy a Wii at this point. Still, to look on the holiday release schedule and see nothing for the best-selling system is unprecedented.

Sure, there's Wario Land: Shake It, which... I don't know. Are you psyched about Wario Land: Shake It? Or would that be an affirmative-action pick?

More to the point: Am I evincing a critical blind spot because I can't see anything but shooters and sequels as games worthy of previewing?

*One of these sites is not real.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Too Human review

Count me among the philistines who just didn't get Silicon Knight's opus, Too Human. I sometimes wonder what's the point of crafting such a complex system of weapons, armor, and status upgrades if you're going to make navigating and understanding that system flat-out impossible. It's not a game devoid of any pleasures, but I can't imagine ever touching it again now that nobody's paying me to. And it was hell of presumptuous to herald the awesomeness of the Too Human trilogy without making the first game justify two more.