Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

I've been playing inFamous, and will continue to do so this weekend. So far, I'm not terribly impressed, more for reasons of concept rather than execution. But that will all have to wait for the review! Let's get to some links.

-Seth Schiesel had a nice write-up about Dan Aykroyd and the new Ghostbusters game in the New York Times. What I liked about this piece was that it wasn't just about the video game: it covered Aykroyd's biography, the history of the Ghostbusters franchise, and the new game, and made it all of a piece. Just a good piece of journalism here, and not specifically "games" journalism.

-Matthew Gallant takes a look at the approaches some games take toward guiding the player's eye, and focuses on the masters of the craft, Valve Software. I always knew I liked that aspect of the Half-Life games, but I never knew why until I played through Half-Life 2: Episode 1 with the commentary on. One of the developers explained how they put an enemy on a platform who started shooting at you, so you'd turn in his direction just in time to see some kind of massive ship fly up out of the water. They play you like a fiddle, Valve Software, but their real trick is convincing you that you're the one who makes everything happen.

-Another week, another great read from Jeremy Parish. He reminisces about the "noble failure" of the horizontal pan in Super Mario World. As usual, Jeremy's scholarship is immediately challenged by pedantic commenters. It's true, though -- the shoulder buttons were a great idea, even if it took people a little while to realize why. The same thing happened with the Nintendo DS. For the first year, no one -- gamers or developers -- knew what to make of the touchscreen. These days it's hard to imagine how we ever played portable games without one.

-Gamers with Jobs is looking for writers. They're one of those sites that often gets overlooked when we decry the lack of an outlet that consistently publishes thoughtful, mature game writing. They've been doing it for years! I can think of several bloggers who'd fit in well there.

-Yep, I'm skeptical about Tony Hawk's Ride, too. It's easy to point to the success of peripheral-based games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Wii Fit, but I don't think the lesson to be drawn from those games is that consumers like expensive software that requires extra hardware to play. I would love for this game to work, though.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


(Bob: This template has always worked for me in the past. Call me if you have any questions. x4219.)

To: Our friends in the press
From: Your friends at Acme PR
Subject: [Publisher] announces [new game]!

Gamers everywhere are about to be [violent metaphor] when [publisher] releases [new game], exclusively for [video game system].

Set in the open world of [brown-and-gray city], [new game] stars [monosyllabic name], a grim antihero with the power to [violent ability that differs only cosmetically from shooting a gun]. When the evil [corporation or government agency] unleashes a plot to enslave the residents of [brown-and-gray city], only [monosyllabic name] can stop them.

"We're thrilled to bring [new game] to the masses," says [spokesman for publisher]. "Gamers will love to ["explore," "destroy," or "explore and destroy"] [brown-and-gray city]. And with our proven strength in building brands, we think that [new game] will be a successful franchise for us for years to come."

[New game] is being developed by [developer], known to gamers for past hits such as [identical older game] and [previous game in series]. [New game] uses the [third-party graphics or physics engine] to create a game world unlike any you've seen before.

"In [new game], players will experience unprecedented freedom and immersion," promises [spokesman for developer]. "[New game] has photorealistic graphics, a cinematic storyline, and a brand-new feature we call [catchy name for feature that is not brand-new]."

"It will [violent metaphor] you," he adds.

For review copies or interview requests, contact Acme PR at (555) 555-4200. And prepare to be [violent or sexual metaphor]!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Punch drunk love

Above: It's the rye or the Kaiser.

My review of Punch-Out!! is up at Updates, re-launches, and re-imaginings of old games are nothing new, but Punch-Out!! barely tinkers with the formula. Nintendo has been successful in translating Mario, Zelda, and Metroid into 3D, but in each case that has resulted in something new -- something that has fundamentally transformed each game, while still retaining the feel of the original. Punch-Out!!, though, is the same as it ever was. It plays exactly like Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! did, more than 20 years ago. What's surprising is how fresh it still feels.

I wish other game makers had the secret formula for difficulty that Nintendo alone seems to possess (even when they farm out development duties, as was the case here). Nintendo games always seem to live at the outer edge of my competence. They always seem difficult but not impossible. The difficulty ramps up so well in Punch-Out!!. No matter how hard an opponent may seem, it's also hard not to try again after losing. You always feel this close to getting it right.

I'm not even sure what's left in Nintendo's stable at this point, but if this is where the bar is going to be set, I say bring on the Kid Icarus remake.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

This weekend is Memorial Day, that somber holiday when Americans honor those who died in combat to guarantee our right to barbecue. And barbecue we will. Glory, glory hallelujah!

-Jim Rossignol contributed a guest post to BLDG BLOG, an architecture blog, called "Evil Lair: On the Architecture of the Enemy in Videogame Worlds." Rossignol is one of the best writers we have, and this is a penetrating, surprising, and funny look at the design of various enemy strongholds in games. Great stuff. I am a little surprised at how awful System Shock 2 is looking these days. Hard to believe that game once scared the crap out of me.

-Maximum PC's retrospective of 3D graphics cards is a wonderful nostalgia trip. It brought back fond memories of my first "3D accelerator." The Canopus Pure3D had the Voodoo1 chipset, but sported 50% more video RAM than was standard at the time -- a mammoth 6 megs of memory. I followed that up with a Voodoo2 that powered, estimating conservatively, about 300,000 hours of Quake 2 CTF. Then the Alienware system I got as a high school graduation gift was rocking the Nvidia Riva TNT2, and now I have some goddamn thing or another. I don't even know anymore.

-About halfway through this Game|Life article about whether gamers prefer violent games, I thought to myself, "Geez, this is really well written." Then I looked at the byline: Clive Thompson. Well, no wonder. Thompson's central point -- that people don't even notice a game's gore once they get immersed in the play mechanics -- rings true. I find it's true of graphics, too. I'll often gawk at new games upon booting them up, but before long I stop noticing the visuals at all, because I've gotten down to business. But that's also why I tend to appreciate games that make the effort to show me new and interesting things. They can shake me out of the stupor.

-Finally, with Punch-Out!! receiving positive notices all over the place (and rightly), I was reminded of the Perry Bible Fellowship's "Punch Bout" strip. The PBF was gone far too soon. Pure genius. If you've never read it before, I'd recommend clicking through them all.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gettin' punchy; or, Insult Swordfighting, ruining your fun since 2006

Above: Little Mac finds Glass Joe insufficiently grateful for us saving his ass in WWII.

N'Gai's famous quote about the Resident Evil 5 trailer was, "Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game." My thought after winning the minor circuit belt in the new Punch-Out!! was, "Wow, clearly no one French, German, gay, or Pacific Islander worked on this game."

I don't want to get too deep into the weeds on this. Still, it's odd that RE5 could provoke such a firestorm of controversy starting almost two years before its release, and Punch-Out!!, which similarly relies on questionable and outdated images as shortcuts for characterization, has so far been given a pass everywhere I've seen.

Let's just run them down. In Punch-Out!!, you face:*
  • A cowardly, effete Frenchman
  • A stern, militaristic German
  • A fabulous, lisping gay man
  • A fat Pacific Islander
  • A womanizing Spaniard
  • A drunken Russian
  • A magical Indian
  • Others

On one hand, it's nice to see this kind of diversity in a game. On the other hand, how much would it have blown your mind if King Hippo were the womanizer, Soda Popinski the homosexual, and Glass Joe the mysterious sorceror? But that would be ridiculous, you say.

Nobody's playing Punch-Out!! for deep characterization, granted. And the game seems to do a good job of giving Little Mac's opponents flashes of personality during the fights. Their facial expressions and body language are portrayed in a classic cartoon style, exaggerated and expressive. That's why it's so disappointing to see such lazy stereotypes providing the characters' foundations -- ironically, the fighters' very design shows that the designers could have done better. (Still doesn't explain why a defeated Glass Joe falls onto a bed of croissants, or why King Hippo collapses amid a buffet of tropical island fruits.)

Anticipating the objections: Yes, most of these characters have been in the series from the beginning. If tradition were a good reason to perpetuate this stuff, you'd still see the Confederate flag flying from state houses in the South.**

And, sure, this is all in good fun. It's supposed to be funny! Not like Resident Evil 5 at all, which was all booga-booga. That's exactly the problem. Much as some observers thought that RE5 was using loaded racial imagery as a replacement for creating new horror ideas, Punch-Out!! employs stereotypes for humor, without commenting on them, or even seeming to consider them. The joke is that the French guy is a pussy. The joke is that the Disco Kid is a flaming queer. These are not good jokes.

I'm not saying Punch-Out!! would be improved with realistic opponents. But there is one character in the game who shows how you can have silly, cartoonish characters without dredging the bottom of the barrel: Doc Louis. He's a good trainer, and he often gives Mac good tactical advice between rounds. But his inspirational speeches make no sense, and even though his job is to keep Little Mac in shape, he himself is overweight. Doc may still be assembled from off-the-shelf parts, but unlike the other characters in the game, his parts come from different shelves.

*Punch-Out!! roster provided by Wikipedia.

**Oh... wait.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

I've had a two-week layoff from reviewing games, and in that time I have played... nothing. Didn't pick up an old favorite, or finish off something that had been lingering. Haven't even turned on a console. Weird. But I've still been reading lots of blogs!

-There were a couple of good editorials at Game|Life this week. Earnest Cavalli said good riddance to Duke Nukem, calling him a relic with no place in 2009. It's true that Duke is an anachronism today, but it's possible that a solidly executed Duke Nukem Forever would have made that seem like a good thing. After all, who doesn't get sucked into watching Commando on AMC every time it's on? Even though the character might still have his place, it's probably for the best that we close the book on Duke Nukem, forever. This game would have had too much baggage, regardless of how it turned out.

(As an aside: Remember when Daikatana was an oft-delayed, much-maligned punchline? It's still got nothing on DNF, right?)

-Also at Game|Life, Chris Kohler decried the looming possibility of an English-only audio track for Final Fantasy XIII. Although I think it would be nice for players to have the option of Japanese audio, I disagree with his premise. Movies and games are not a fair comparison when discussing the merits of dubbing and subtitles. The reason for this is simple: all video games are dubbed.

Sure, I'd rather watch a live-action movie in the original language, with the voices belonging to the actors onscreen. It's jarring when the movement of someone's lips don't match the words coming out of their mouth. And, quite often, inferior actors are used for the voiceover. In a film, the dialogue, the actor's voice, and his movements are equal parts of the performance. You can't reconstitute it from its many parts and make it work. I doubt anyone would argue that.

But in the majority of animated films and video games, the voice actor in the studio is providing only one element of the performance, whether he's the "original" performer or not. He's not doing motion-capture in most cases, nor is the movement of the characters' mouths so precise that you can tell when the lip-synching fails. There is no inherent drawback to dubbing animated characters. The process for giving them voice is exactly the same. (It may be the case that the Japanese voice actors are better than their American counterparts, but that's confusing the issue. The solution to that problem would be to hire better American actors.)

Kohler's larger point about not scrubbing the "cultural odor" from the Japanese-made game is one that I sympathize with a little more, but that's not the reality of the market. If Square Enix wants to sell millions of copies of Final Fantasy XIII to Western audiences, they have no choice. Maybe it's a shame, but you may as well complain about the sun always coming up in the East.

-Michael Abbott makes a great point about what video games are really sending the wrong messages to kids. Certain culture warriors get hung up on depictions of violence, sex, and profanity in games, but one thing they never seem to do is consider the context. Often, violent games make an effort not to reward indiscriminate bloodshed. Even the notorious Grand Theft Auto series sends the cops after you when you break the law. Believe me, I'm not giving a pass to GTA or anybody else, but at least they implement some kind of recognizable morality system in their games (usually too simplistic a one, in fact).

Marketing games specifically to kids that emphasize rabid consumerism, materialism, and social climbing -- that's just as bad. Now, I don't think playing a first-person shooter will make a kid shoot up his school, and I don't think playing Style Up for Prom will make a kid max out her parents' credit cards. But I've called for everyone, from publishers to players, to take the messages of their games more seriously, and what's bad about the games Michael mentions is how innocuous they seem to be. Lots of parents look at Grand Theft Auto and say, "Not appropriate for my kid." What parent would say the same about these?

-Finally, Gary Hodges bids farewell to Joystick Division, and, apparently, to freelance game reviews. Can't say I blame him. It's very hard to do this for the love of the game, especially when there's so much about the game that makes it hard to love. In his reviews for Village Voice Media, and his posts on JD, Gary's always shown thoughtfulness, integrity, and a real ability to get to the core of a game in just a few words. We'll miss him.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Racing the Beam

The Atari Video Computer System was built to play Combat. That's it. Every piece of its hardware -- each chip, the iconic joystick, and the half-dozen toggles on the console -- was designed to run Combat perfectly. And Combat was an impressive game for 1977. It featured 27 different game types, each with single- and two-player options, and even with the option to handicap the better player. The story of the Atari VCS (later re-named the 2600), as told in Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost's Racing the Beam, begins there.

The book, part of a proposed series of "platform studies," tells the tale of the VCS by examining several important games throughout its life cycle. As the authors tell it, the console's defining hardware characteristic was the Television Interface Adaptor, which displayed the software's visual information at the same pace as the electron gun that draws the picture on a standard CRT television. It was a solution that made perfect sense for Combat, whose playing field was exactly one screen in size, and whose only moving elements were two vehicles and one or two projectiles.

But the more interesting story of the VCS is all the things it wasn't designed to do, and how programmers made it do those things anyway. There were no hardware shortcuts to create the multi-screen dungeon of Warren Robinett's Adventure. (In fact, one of my favorite bits of trivia in Racing the Beam is how the instruction manual for Adventure had to explain to players how to navigate between screens. It was that novel a concept.) The colorful neutral zone of Yars' Revenge was an innovative bit of programming trickery without precedent on the system. And until the advent of Activision, the first big third-party publisher, it was usually a lone programmer hashing out these games in a period of months or even weeks.

One of the most oft-cited examples of VCS failure is Tod Frye's adaptation of Pac Man. As Racing the Beam tells it, it's amazing that the game turned out as well as it did. In contrast to Combat, nothing about the VCS's design was suited to Pac Man. The intricate, asymmetrical pathways of the arcade version were too cumbersome for the system memory. The system wasn't supposed to be able to compute the movements of so many sprites at once. Most troubling for Pac Man, the TIA didn't even allow the display of circular objects. Frye's solutions to the challenges that faced him (in a timespan of only six weeks), frankly, seem like ingenuity at its finest.

Racing the Beam can be a bit technical in parts, but it requires no expertise to enjoy the stories of programmers finding new ways to squeeze more performance out of increasingly antiquated hardware. The jump from Combat to Yars' Revenge to Pitfall is so pronounced that it's almost like moving onto a different platform altogether. Turns out that programming isn't so different from playing games. First you learn the rules, and then you learn how to break them.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Let's hit the links before the weekend.

-At Gamasutra, Ian Fisch details 10 game design pitfalls. It seems to me that almost everything he lists comes down to the same lesson: playtesting, playtesting, playtesting. I was also interested in pitfall number 8, "Entering production without something fun." Consider how much fun it is to jump from building to building in Crackdown, or how Horde mode was the way to play Gears 2. If a game doesn't absolutely nail one core mechanic, it doesn't matter what else the developers add to it.

-So, not a day after I do a faceplant trying to tell the world that PC gaming is broken, I see that Electronic Arts thinks the PC is the biggest platform of all, thanks to digital distribution. The lesson, as always: I'm an idiot. Let's just move on.

-Speaking of which, if you want to read somebody who knows what he's talking about, Ed Borden explains why digital convergence is a myth. His core observation: we thought that PCs would take on the functionality of the rest of our consumer electronics, but instead, the rest of our consumer electronics have taken on the functionality of our PCs. And that might be the worst possible news for Microsoft.

-I don't have anything to add to reports of 3D Realms' closure, but it strikes me as huge news all the same. Somehow, that this would be the final word written on Duke Nukem Forever -- that it would go out not with a bang, but a whimper -- is more tragic and more appropriate than any ending I could have imagined. I'd been prepared for anything from a monumental success to a Daikatana-level catastrophe. But I still thought they'd eventually release something. As is usually the case, if you want the smartest take on an important story, read what Jeremy Parish has to say.

-Ben Fritz leaves the Cut Scene for the Los Angeles Times. He'll continue to do great work no matter what he covers, but I hope they're planning to put him on the games beat at least part time.

-Still trying to summon outrage about major league baseball players using performance enhancing drugs. Frankly, there's no one who would surprise me at this point. And if everyone's doing it, then it's a level playing field. This is the world we live in.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Demigod y'all

Above: Didn't look like this on my computer, that's for sure.

My review of Demigod is up at I'm linking to it here, because that's just a thing that I do, but honestly it's among the worst work I've ever done. I don't recommend reading it. It's not that I don't know better than to review PC games with heavy strategic elements, it's that sometimes there's no other choice. And when that choice gives me minimal time to play a game on a PC that's not up to the task, with multiplayer servers that are fickle at best, well, this is what you get.

So, I'm sorry about that. Some things never change.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

I can't remember the last time I've been to a show, but that all changes tonight when the Electric Six comes to town. I have no idea what to expect from those lunatics. Frankly, I'm a little frightened.

-Jeremy Parish has been writing a great series for 1up's RPG blog about Final Fantasy XIII. Everybody who just regurgitates press releases and screenshots ought to look at this series for how to make talking about an upcoming game interesting. Parish brings a lot of knowledge and insight to bear. It's all good, but unfortunately he hasn't tagged the series in a way that would let me link to every part at once. So here, check out part 10, "Sword Beats Gun."

-Important news: You can get Fairway Solitaire for free. Wait, let me amend that. You must get Fairway Solitaire for free. I've written about this game many times before before, and I still play it. It's that good. (h/t Dubious Quality)

-At Offworld, Tom Armitage posted an insightful piece about The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. His main point, which I agree with, is that the game's success is due to its convincing portrayal of its setting and characters as physical entities. Prowling the halls of Butcher Bay as Riddick feels authentic, especially when it comes time to take somebody on in hand-to-hand content. There's heft and weight to Riddick, his surroundings feel sturdy, and the forcefulness of his attacks is surprising.

One more thing I'd note: last year, I was impressed by the physicality of the characters in Far Cry 2, Dead Space, and Mirror's Edge. Riddick beat them to the punch by four years.

-This is awesome. A YouTube user named Underworld23 has posted a ton of classic RPG music, sorted by category: town themes, overworld themes, battle themes, and a lot more. Yes, I spent far too much time listening to these last night.

-I've never read anything more blatantly whorish than Harry Knowles' explanation for why he wouldn't review X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The problem isn't so much that he wasn't planning to write a review. That's his choice. But just read that first paragraph: he recommends that his readers skip the movie, because none of his editors were invited to a press screening! Astonishing.

Further still, Harry says:
I'm more eager to spend my money on a film I do support, which is why I have bought tickets for my third watching of STAR TREK next week, and if I were you - I'd save up to see it twice, rather than have a bad experience this weekend.

Star Trek -- that's the movie that Harry watched at a surprise screening, where he hung out with the film's screenwriters and producer. The one where Leonard Nimoy showed up and his very presence made Harry cry. Look, AICN is a fan site, and it's never really pretended to be anything else. But since we've been talking this week about a lack of scruples in the games press, it's nice to see, at least, that we're not the only ones who deal with it.