Thursday, April 29, 2010


Matt is going through an intense board game phase. He is building an epic collection of Spiel des Jahres winners and player favorites that are now currently taking up residence on our shelf of wonders-our six shelf bookcase that holds all of my toys (Johnny Depp action figures) and his anime DVDs. We stuck a flag in our favorite coffeehouse and have been spending many an afternoon and evening across from one another, strategizing. It’s been a bit of a challenge acquiring the best combination of games that we can play together, however. Being an Action Adventure kind of gamer, I am all for simple moves and rules. Long term strategies are not really my forte. My boyfriend, on the other hand, is wicked brilliant and quite comfortable with board games that come in boxes that weigh as much as our fat cat Mina and include a treasure trove of tiny men, cards, miniature houses, meeple sheep, colorful glass marbles and small bound novels containing the rules. You may be thinking, ‘Like Risk?’ And I would say to you, pshaw, my friend, that’s some Parker Brothers baby talk. So after a lengthy (and ongoing) quest, we have found several games that both of us enjoy together. And since this is a video game blog I thought I would highlight a couple of them that are also available via XBLA.

One of my long-term favorites is a game called Carcassonne. I actually played it for the first time as an Arcade game without even knowing it was also a board game in the physical sense. Playing involves…well, here is what Wiki has to say:

“The game board is a medieval landscape built by the players as the game progresses. The game starts with a single terrain tile face up and 71 others shuffled face down for the players to draw from. On each turn a player draws a new terrain tile and places it adjacent to tiles that are already face up. The new tile must be placed in a way that extends features on the tiles it abuts: roads must connect to roads, fields to fields, and cities to cities. A follower can be placed on the just-placed tile, and must be placed in a specific feature. A follower claims ownership of one terrain feature—road, field, city, or cloister—and may not be placed on a feature already claimed by another player's follower. The game ends when the last tile has been placed [and the game is scored accordingly].”

I really like to play Carcassonne because it’s like an interactive puzzle game. There are many different strategies to win but none that involve serious analysis from move one. As you place the tiles a beautiful pastoral scene with roads and castles emerges, a landscape shaped according to you and your opponent’s decisions (see above picture). I admit, sometimes I place pieces just because I am trying to fill a gap between the tiles. Carcassonne is the kind of game that is best played on a lazy Sunday afternoon or bundled up and taken on vacation. We took it along on our Alaskan cruise last summer and spent a few lovely afternoons in the front facing bar looking over the waters of the Inside Passage while building the French cityscape. One of the great things about playing via the XBLA version is the computer scores the game for you (and adds horse and church bell sound effects while doing so!), which is a blessing as it can get confusing. There are also many expansions for the game that add different rules and flavors to the gameplay.

If given a choice, I would rather play Ticket to Ride over any other game we own. I first played this one via Arcade and liked it, but there is something about the physical board and the tiny trains that is hard to resist. Ticket to Ride is a stealth game. Basically, you are trying to connect two points on a map using matching colored cards to build routes-like the blue route that connects Houston to New York in the screenshot above. But your opponent may be trying to claim a similar route according to what Destination Card they have chosen. So you have to fool them into thinking you may be going somewhere else or they may block your path with their own trains (jerks!)-a fun game of misdirection. I think I like this one because I win a lot. Hey, it’s one of the only ones, so I can glow about it just a little. More than that, however, I just like the Battleship aspect of trying to guess what your opponent is doing based on the clues that emerge during gameplay while still trying to accomplish your own goal. And being in the travel industry (sigh), I also like the maps. Matt thinks I like certain games because of their settings and he is somewhat right when it comes to Ticket to Ride. I also like that it’s another simplistic board game where your only real strategy is to keep a secret as long as you can (and build a train!). We have four different versions: USA, USA 1910, France and Europe. The classic USA version is my favorite, but the European versions add some different kinds of routing and rules to the game.

Over the years I have played a lot of board games turned video games but I would say that these are two of my favorites. Although the Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit video games are quite fun their transition to digital media gave them a lot more animation than necessary, turning them into a garish splash-a-thon of colors and sounds. (I am pretty sure they dumbed Trivial Pursuit down quite a bit as well.) I am glad we are board gamers in addition to video gamers-board games create more social functions. And tabletop gaming is the best way to meet people at gatherings like PAX. I would say that 75% of our friendly gatherings in the last three months or so have involved a board game and a laugh. But I am also glad that the XBLA versions of some of these more obscure games exist. I am currently learning Catan on the Xbox before heading out to play it with some friends in the near future. And because without the Arcade I never would have found Carcassonne in the first place…and then I wouldn’t have impressed my wonderful and nerdy boyfriend by beating him (once!) via Xbox Live, which may or may not be the reason we are dating today. ;)

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Link to My Past

When I was a preteen gamer I loved playing Super Mario, Zelda and Dr. Mario. I was lucky to have a little brother who asked for console systems for Christmas and birthday gifts, so by the time I was a teenager I was grinding levels in Final Fantasy III for the SNES having already kicked some Shadow Link ass in Zelda 2 for the NES. Without Jordan I would never have become the adult gamer I am today. While I was asking for things like My Little Pony houses and Barbie dolls he was making sure we had copies of Ghosts & Goblins and Friday the 13th in our house. By the time I realized all that girly junk wasn’t really my style we had graduated to the SNES and I was knee deep in Chrono Trigger and painting watercolors of Magus in high school art class. We were always a Nintendo family-no Sega Genesis in our house. I didn’t even play one until high school when a friend introduced me to Sonic while listening to Blue Oyster Cult on vinyl (pretty good mix if I say so myself). There is even an XBAND story from our youth-our first real digital connection with a gamer community and a place to play Killer Instinct with strangers. For those who are confused, imagine a less functional version of Xbox Live without any pretty colors and graphics. ( Weirdly enough, I also remember receiving a lot of creepy poetry from teenage boys with handles like “Church of Satan”. I guess teenage girl gamers in the early 90s weren’t as prevalent as they are now, so the novelty was noteworthy.) We moved from Nintendo to Sony to play Final Fantasy VII and by the time I was in college I had a SNES of my own and a PS2 that I used to play a lot of (drunken) SSX Tricky with Jordan and his friends. From there it was a hit and miss ride with whole years passing in between games. It was a Guitar Hero 2 session with Jordan that brought me back to my roots via the Xbox 360 and I’ve been here ever since-and more passionate about it now than ever before.

I was thinking about video games in relation to my brother this week because he finally broke down and bought a PS3 to primarily stream media ala Netflix. Although Jordan was the purveyor of the video game paraphenalia in our childhood household he has left a majority of his gaming life behind. He's now a savvy business owner and outdoorsman, preferring faraway travel and mountain cabins to consoles and controllers. But for the first time in our adult life-where I am now the primary gamer in our family-Jordan and I have been reconnected via the PSN and I felt a little nostalgic for those days when we used to play together as kids. Jordan may only play Guitar Hero and some Katamari now (hopefully I can talk him into at least trying things like Bioshock and Assassin's Creed), but just having my brother there makes me happy.

*The above photo was used without permission from the subject. :)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

From East to West

After reaching a point in FFXIII where I can either choose to move forward in the narrative or start the grinding process to gain levels (which is Chapter Eleven for those playing along), I have decided to put the game aside for awhile. I don’t play a lot of JRPG’s, so I lack the skill set to expertly combine weapons and accessories. Because of this, I kind of like the grinding process. It allows me to gain levels so I don’t necessarily have to worry about being so clever with combinations of characters and equipment. But doing this can be unbelievably boring. For any novices to the genre out there who are curious, the process involves hunting around for enemies that offer high amounts of CP (XP) and then running around in circles fighting them over and over again until you feel comfortable enough to progress. So in order to not get totally burnt out on the game, I am only going to grind a couple of hours at a time until my Crystarium is up to Level 5 for each character's Main Role and before continuing with the main quest. I am up to Level 4 with each, so it shouldn’t be too long.

In the meantime, I have started a quest in Dragon Age: Origins. That’s right, I moved from a Japanese RPG to a Western RPG. For those keeping track, this RPG streak is pretty unusual for me. After falling deep into the pool of Action Adventure games with some FPS’s thrown in the mix, turning back around and starting games that involve so much, well, thought, hasn’t been the most comfortable transition. My least favorite part of progressing through a standard RPG is the intricate equipment/item menus. Gathering items, combining items, deciding which armor set works best. Picking up weapons, analyzing stats, creating the best kind of spell map. This is a language I only took introduction classes to in high school but never took in college, leaving me with only the basics such as ‘My name is Jessica. Please show me to the library.’ Or in this case, ‘I am a Human Mage. Please upgrade my shield automatically.’ Despite all of that, however, I have become completely sucked into Dragon Age. Matt has been assisting me with the equipment and quest menu since he played DA last fall, which is helping me a lot. Unlike FFXIII where the combat system is interesting but the story lacks luster, the narrative in DA is very compelling in a Tolkienish way-the loading screen informed me last night that I have been playing for nine hours already and I was surprised. I have travelled as far as Redcliffe and am currently trying to gather knowledge about a sick Arl while seducing a dude named Alistair. Oh, and I won an epic battle involving zombies. Good times!

Since I have committed to switching back and forth between two different 70-80 hour games I can’t see myself starting anything else for quite awhile. I am starting to fall behind on the new games, which is okay because summer will give me a chance to catch up. My PAX Prime badge has officially been purchased. It seems crazy to just get back from one and start planning for another. Luckily, this one doesn’t involve flight and hotel arrangements, so the planning stage only really requires requesting Friday off work and acquiring a badge. I registered on the Penny Arcade Forums to try to get more involved in the actual Seattle PAX Community, but so far the gatherings in Seattle seem largely LAN related. I can’t imagine what a meetup of console players would look like (Maybe a bunch of frat boys roughing up a couch and swearing while playing Madden or COD?), so I suppose it makes sense.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Xbox is Dead. Long Live the Xbox!

So after a long and lengthy life snuggled up against our PS3, my Xbox 360 has decided that it’s time as a gaming machine is over. It will now live as a DVD player and Netflix streamer underneath the television in the bedroom. I know what you are thinking-did it go the way of all old 360’s and display the Red Ring of Death? Alas, no. That happened within months of owning it back in aught eight. This time it’s death pattern has emerged as an frustratingly random pattern of red light green light. When a game stops mid-play (red light!), it doesn’t start again unless you completely restart the system (green light!). In games that auto-save this is merely annoying. In games that have random save points scattered across a map this is seriously obnoxious. But in games that require you to manually save, oh, whenever you remember or decide to stop (Bioshock 2, *sob*) this is a deal breaker. And before anyone offers any troubleshooting ideas, please know that we have tried them all.

But all is not lost. We do have a second 360 in the bedroom (switcharoo from hers to his), so don’t feel too bad for us. But just know that all of my free time this weekend will be spent going through an EPIC list of Rock Band DLC and redownloading roughly 150-200 songs one by one onto a new hard drive. Thank goodness the most current games I play are on a memory unit. We wanted to upgrade to the Elite long ago, so it looks like this fall will bring us a brand new console with loads of space. But Godspeed, November 2007 360, and best wishes to you in your new life as a film projector.

There may be a delay in new blog entries-not because of the 360 situation, but because I am actually nearing the end of FFXIII and want to keep the momentum going before starting something new. But ‘nearing the end’ could mean fifty more hours (I am currently on Hour 32) even though I have reached chapter 11 of 13. Next on my plate: God of War 3, Dragon Age, Splinter Cell, Red Dead Redemption & Alan Wake. Whew!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Road So Far...

For the past three weeks I have been slowly progressing through Final Fantasy XIII. I am now proud to say I have reached hour 16 (in this blog we evaluate JRPGs in hours, not levels or chapters), but it’s been a fairly dry and dusty sort of road to follow. The first seven hours or so took me two weeks to get through. The narrative was confusing, the characters were one-dimensional, the gameplay was uninspired. Thinking about delving back in sounded as interesting as doing household chores. But last Friday night I snuggled into my couch with my controller and joined the gang back in Lake Bresha (or wherever straight and narrow road they were on at the time I last turned it off) to see just how far I could make it before falling asleep at the wheel. And surprisingly, I didn’t look up again until about six hours later. Obviously, something grabbed me. Was it the storyline? The characters? Have I fallen into a JRPG pit of mindless progression?

Weirdly enough, I love the new combat system. Guiding only one character suits me far better than controlling a party of people. The paradigm system is simple enough to manage while still allowing you the freedom to make the best choice for you and your teammates. Plus the OCD side of me likes the upgrade via Crystarium so much that I have to force myself to wait roughly three fight sequences before going back in to use my CP points (after a boss fight I jump right in-1000 CP!). I love hearing the chime of another +30 of HP added to each character. I hate capping out each character mid-chapter because then I know I won’t get to upgrade them again until the game transitions into the next one. All of your characters continue to gain CP points even if they are not currently in your party-once you join Szah and Vanille again heading towards Nautilus (for example) you will find they have enough CP points to bring them up to the levels of the active party members from the previous sequence. No level grinding! At least, not yet (the path is so linear right now there isn't anywhere to grind, anyway). I have no idea what the future beyond Chapter Seven brings because I have tried to avoid any in-depth reviews or articles. But so far the combat and upgrade systems are the key to my desire to continue playing. The narrative is getting better over time, but the dialogue is so unbelievably melodramatic that I find myself snickering instead of choking up during poignant moments. Maybe it’s just the English voice acting, but it’s so over the top that I roll my eyes every time someone says the word ‘hope’-even if they are just talking to or about Hope, one of the main characters.

After loving the FF games from the (distant) past so much because of the emotional attachments, it feels strange to like one less because of the character dynamic…

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

With a Spooky Little Girl Like You

Halloween is my favorite holiday for a whole cornucopia of reasons. Since I live in the Pacific Northwest I am lucky enough to see the trees change from green to orange and red while the air turns crisp and cool. The sun sets earlier, the sky darkens sooner. But mostly it’s because of the spooky overtone of the holiday. I adore being scared. And not the ew-blood-and-gore-and-oh-god-are-those-brains-I-can-see-pouring-out? kind of scared but the tiptoeing through the dark woods and hearing a noise you can’t identify and holy-crap-maybe-it’s-a-killer-or-a-werewolf-or-a-sparkly-vampire kind of scared. But alas, I am now in a relationship with someone who is pretty ho-hum when it comes to scary movies, so I don’t really get a chance to watch them anymore. Who would want to watch a scary movie alone? Half the fun is clinging to your partner in faux fear when that mystery sound finally pops out of the woods. So I have found an alternative to the scary movie genre in my life-survival horror games.

One of the first I played in the horror genre was Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly for the PS2, a Japanese game with all of the dark and ghostly elements that I love in scary movies. You play as a little girl who has lost her twin sister in the woods while chasing an ethereal red butterfly. When you finally catch up with her you realize you are now trapped in a city full of ghosts. While exploring the overly creepy and seemingly abandoned village you acquire an antique camera that exorcizes ghosts. I guess you’ve heard the old adage that a camera will steal pieces of your soul-this game takes that to heart. The combination of eerie music and the beauty of the setting kept you on the edge of your seat-knowing that at any moment the sensor on your camera would start flickering and you would be going up against an unknown entity. Instead of fighting stock ghosts with all of the same features you encounter all kinds of tortured souls-weeping women, angry men, little girls…All enigmatic qualities I love in my horror games. I know there are four in the series (even though the fourth was developed for the Wii but never released in the West) but I never played any of them beyond 2.

I took the above picture at PAXEast and got an itch to rent The Calling last weekend. It starts off with a series of instant message texts across the screen where students are conversing about someone reading a website or watching a video and then disappearing or dying-like if Fear Dot Com and Pulse (two really bad horror movies from a couple of years back) had a baby in the form of a Wii game. I played the first two chapters-both were spooky and dark with the occasional ghost popping in to say hello. You use the Wii-mote as a cell phone, so while you are nervously creeping through a house full of creepy dolls (ugh!) or an abandoned school the phone will ring loudly and scare the pants off you. A child’s voice on the other end tells you they are on the way up to shake you (or something) which is wildly disturbing and certainly gave me the shivers. But the controls were off center and slight hand movement turned into giant screen movement and after about an hour I had to turn it off due to motion sickness alone. And although it is definitely startling to get jumped by a ghost, if the game gets stuck and the same ghost keeps jumping you the game play suddenly loses its eerie charm.

Last year I picked up Silent Hill: Homecoming for the 360. I hadn’t played any of the previous games, only watched others play them, so I wasn’t quite a veteran of the series (does watching the movie count?). Apparently, the Silent Hill games have very definitive strategies that I was unaware of-and the combat gets HARD. I loved the setting-standard abandoned town and mutated creatures with drifts of snow and ash falling innocently around you-but I could only get about 1/5 in before I found myself in an impossible situation. Boss fight, no health packs, half life. Dying meant starting over in the same place-with no health packs, half life. And you can’t retrace your steps-the game only moves forward. The only way for me to progress was to start over- but I was already about 7-8 hours into the game and admitted defeat instead. Sadly, I was having a lot of spooky fun prior to this setback and was disappointed. So in addition The Calling, I also acquired Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii last weekend. In the beginning the game warns you that it will psychologically profile you to mold the game into ‘your worst nightmare’. Apparently, this means giving you a ‘Yes or No’ quiz that includes such questions as ‘Do you make friends easily?’ and ‘Do you enjoy sexual role play?’ Yikes-rated M for Mature, indeed. The premise is based on a past event-you are the main character speaking to a psychiatrist about getting into a car crash and losing your daughter in, of course, Silent Hill. I like it so far and intend to keep playing, but the ‘psychological tests’ make me giggle. For no explained reason, I colored this:

I like the Japanese survival horror games because they terrorize you psychologically more than physically. Chasing a butterfly in a quiet forest at night may sound peaceful and calm, but trust me, something wicked is certainly following behind. Western horror games tend to focus on monsters, zombies, blood-your basic slasher film. I like the subtlety of the Japanese horror genre much more than the gorefests the Western climate prefers.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Why My Experiment with Wii Home Fitness Failed

Last October I decided that going to the gym is boring. Well, I thought this all along but still went on a semi-weekly basis because it was the right thing to do. And although I never minded the actual exercise, I really hated the monotony of the programs. So when Nintendo announced last fall that it was adding more game elements to it’s Wii Fit program I thought it would be a great alternative to the slogging routine of a post-work gym membership. Instead of chugging along on an elliptical three times a week I could play a game that would whip me into shape. I love games! The week Wii Fit Plus was released I cancelled my gym membership, marched into a Best Buy and confidently purchased the system and the game. I think I even did the math, bragging about how much my gym dues were versus my new Wii + Wii Fit Plus as some sort of long term investment plan. Obviously, I was a financial genius. And now we had the Holy Trinity of gaming systems as well. IT WAS BRILLIANT.

And for one month, it was brilliant. Every other night I would drag the balance board out, queue up several of the pre-programmed workouts and sweat it up in my living room. I quickly discovered my favorite of the mini-game type routines and was excited when they would appear during the session. I was a hula hoop and marching band master. I could never juggle well, but it didn’t matter because I was exercising. All through October I looked forward to my Wii workouts. But as October transitioned into November the love started to wane. A couple of days would pass where I would make up some excuse not to play and then it would turn into a week. It wasn’t because I was lazy and didn’t want to work out (well...), I just wasn’t terribly interested in the game anymore. Plus the game is programmed to make you feel extra guilty if even two days passes without a workout and I admit I was avoiding the computerized guilt trip more than anything else. The only way for a game like Wii Fit to have any impact on you physically is to use it all of the time. And with the limited amount of programs there wasn’t enough content to keep me motivated to continue playing. With the exception of maybe Rock Band, I have a really hard time playing the same game for infinity. This is why I am not a MMO gamer. Now, I’ve never played an MMO so I will admit I don’t fully understand what goes on inside the magic WOW box…but the idea of going back to the same world over and over again and engaging in the same type of general game play sounds monotonous even if all of my BFF are with me.

I wasn’t ready to give up on my new BRILLIANT workout plan, however. I decided that Wii Fit just wasn’t strenuous enough of a workout and acquired EA Active. Now, THIS was a workout game. I was running, doing squats-lunging! And the routine changed day to day-perfect! Yep, for two weeks. Once again, I got bored. I know my perspective was wrong-I should have been thinking about both as workout programs instead of GAMES. But I couldn’t. My BRILLIANT plan failed after only two months. I suppose I should know more about my motivations to play-I kept thinking that since at heart I am a gamer and not a workout maven that this would be the best plan for me to follow. But alas, I am a gamer with a limited attention span. This is why I am a console gamer-I love the mechanics of a great game, but I also love the epic cut scene at the end followed by the credit roll and the promise of something new on the horizon.

So here it is, April, and I am heading back to the gym. Now that I have my iPhone I have a BRILLIANT new workout plan that includes uploading videos and watching them while chugging away on the elliptical. Tried and true results, I guess. Matt bought Just Dance last night and we giggled and hustled around the living room to such classics as Eye of the Tiger and Step By Step (NKOTB forever!!). After an hour I realized that I was sweating and my heart was racing and briefly entertained the idea of entering it into the workout plan but quickly tossed that idea aside-I can now admit that I would be setting myself up to fail. I will treat Just Dance like I do any other game and just enjoy it before the next new and shiny comes along.

In other news I have now reached the 7.75 hour mark in FFXIII. I think I deserve something sparkly. Maybe some sort of Spark Ring.