Monday, June 28, 2010

Speaking of Nintendo...

After two years of living in a not so desirable part of Seattle, Matt & I have moved to a beautiful new apartment closer to the city in the Greenwood neighborhood. And whereas he is incredibly meticulous and organized when it comes to the packing and unpacking process, I tend to just chuck things into bins at random. So when I started unpacking various unlabeled boxes, I uncovered treasures:

When I shook everything out of the bag two Halloween Pogs fell into my hands along with the games and accessories. Nice! It's a tiny time capsule! And I think I originally had more games than this (I could've swore I had Link's Awakening), but here is what ended up being stowed away:

I remember playing a LOT of Tetris while in elementary school during recess. I also had a Tetris watch when I was in middle school that everyone asked to borrow from me constantly. Apparently Tetris was my thing.

Delving into another haphazardly packed bin unburied this bit of greatness:

Sadly, this isn't my original SNES. I acquired both the console and Chrono Trigger via a nostalgic eBay purchase in the late 90s while attending college. The small bit of plastic guarding the cartridge has never been removed. Shortly after buying the combination I discovered emulators and never needed to even hook the SNES to the television to play CT. That doesn't mean I don't love it immensely.

Back to unpacking, where I am pretty sure my next discovery will be a Sega Game Gear with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Mortal Kombat 2...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How I Lost Touch With Nintendo

The first console we owned was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Our neighbors had been sharing time on their Atari for awhile, so one Christmas morning my mother finally surprised us with the NES and the Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt combo that came with it. My brother was delighted. Awhile later (it was his new toy, after all), I was also delighted. Soon after we acquired a handful of games including the original Zelda, TMNT, Ghosts & Goblins, Friday the 13th and eventually the Adventures of Link. I really loved Ghosts & Goblins even though I don’t think I ever made it past the second level. And Friday the 13th was the silliest game-a 2-D side scroller that primarily involved walking along a forest path and waiting for Jason to show up. I mostly remember watching the sun rise and set in the background and thinking it was amazing that a game could shift from night to day and back again. My mom would occasionally take over and play Dr. Mario for hours. What I recall most about the original Nintendo games, however, was just how HARD they were. Fighting your shadow in the Adventures of Link still holds the record as the hardest boss fight I have ever conquered-and I was a preteen at the time. I doubt I could do it again.

When the SNES launched in the early 90s we were instantly on board. I was twelve, in love with Christian Slater and video games and The Wizard was obviously my favorite movie ever (Use the warp, Jimmy! Use the warp!). As the years passed, Super Mario 3, Donkey Kong Country, Star Fox, A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger dominated our playtime. And these games were brilliant. SM3 had a flying Raccoon Mario, a warp whistle and the exterior map system-you could replay levels to get more coins to gain more lives! The current Mario games still use this system. The storylines in the JRPGs were like the best young adult books I was reading at the time. They included love stories and villains, time travel and 16-bit graphics. I think it was because we hadn’t seen anything like it before-it was innovative and awe-inspiring. And as a child we are more invested in the glory of playtime-learning the workings of toys and games is the quintessential goal of kids everywhere. We were better at it then because our minds weren’t cluttered with the adult world of work-bills-life-stress. Although I am loving my current gaming lifestyle, I must admit that the SNES years may be my own personal Golden Era of video games.

But then the Playstation One was released in the mid-nineties and Nintendo didn’t enter my gaming life again for ten years.

In 2006 I was in a relationship with someone who started working as a game tester for Nintendo (their USHQ is in Redmond, WA, two towns over). When you are employed at Nintendo you get access to their in-house store which offers deep discounts on merchandise. He brought home a GameCube and a handful of games, hooked it up to our bedroom television and put the controller in my hand. I looked through the games and chose Animal Crossing first. I played it for a few days, marveled at its real time quirks, pulled a lot of weeds and then got bored. I had learned from playing The Sims on the PC several years before that demanding video games just piss me off-I hate the guilt factor included in taking care of virtual characters. Whiny digital nonsense. I returned to browsing the small pile of games and Luigi’s Mansion caught my eye. Ah, Nintendo. You had me at Poltergeist 3000. I LOVED Luigi’s Mansion. It was like an interactive visit to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. I would even like to believe that using a flashlight to stun your enemies in Alan Wake can originally be credited to LM (pure conjecture on my part). I am flabbergasted that Nintendo hasn’t developed a sequel for the Wii considering the controller would seem ideal for a nozzle-weapon like the vacuum and the game was incredibly popular. But right as I was in the thralls of a glorious potential Nintendo-Jessica reunion via the GC they released the Wii…and since then the relationship that began in childhood has grown dusty and distant.

I own a Wii. I have talked about playing Wii Fit Plus and Just Dance in a previous post. But I don’t really play on the Wii. When it first launched I was curious about the new motion gimmick and took it for a test drive via Wii Sports, Cooking Mama, Trauma Center and WarioWare. I was unimpressed. I mean, it was new and it was different, but was it fun? Not to me-I prefer using a standard controller. Using the Wii-mote often makes me feel motion sick. And the biggest problem after launch was the flood of poorly developed games that followed shortly after. Nintendo has an incredibly impressive library to pull from-why weren’t they being featured on the new system? Even though the titles on the Wii have undisputedly gotten better, I think that ultimately Nintendo and I have lost touch. Every Wii game I start I don’t finish. New release information doesn’t move me in the slightest. New Pokemon DS game? I never understood the Pokemon culture. New Mario game? Tried it, no thanks (totally frustrating). A few spooky Japanese games sounded interesting enough to rent, but were forgotten days later.

I have every intention of playing Donkey Kong Country Returns in the fall, but there still is no guarantee it won’t end up with the other catch and release Wii games in my life. And it’s not really Nintendo’s fault, they are doing what they have always done-releasing games for an audience in which I am no longer a participant. Nintendo was my gaming parent, nurturing me through my formative years with the innocence of Mario and Zelda. Now that I am an adult I prefer high resolution graphics, more mature narratives and twenty button controller combinations. For now I will continue to play games on the 360 and PS3, but I imagine when I have a family of my own I will turn back to Nintendo. Because even through my own disconnect, I still believe that no one is better at creating the interactive family gaming experience than Nintendo.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Summer Gaming Challenge-Aperture Science Edition

E3 announcements are dominating the headlines of all my game feeds this week. Some of them were anticipated since many of the games have been on the burner for awhile now (COD: Black Ops, MGS: Rising, Fable 3, etc), whereas others have been welcome surprises. Microsoft officially named its new motion controlled peripheral Kinect. Sony is still talking about the PSMove and Nintendo finally unveiled their 3DS. All in all, E3 has been more spectacle than surprise, which seems to suit as it certainly functions as one giant advertisement. For me, E3 serves as a preview for what might be playable at PAXPrime in the fall. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is a sure bet, as well as Rock Band 3 (no one can resist the power of the keytar) and Fable 3. Nintendo just announced a sequel to Donkey Kong Country, DKC Returns, which is supposed to release sometime this fall, so the twelve year old in me is jumping up and down in squealing excitement over spending more time collecting bananas in the mines (wheee!!!). But one of the E3 spotlight games I am looking forward to most is Portal 2-although I never even finished the tutorial of the first game. How can I possibly be so excited about a sequel to a game I never actually played?

When I got back into gaming a few years ago I started hearing inside jokes regarding companion cubes and cake. The internet was littered with blue and orange portal memes and pictures of heart adorned cubes. I had no idea what was going on, but I thought it was adorable. I discovered that the source of the hype was a game called Portal, released by Valve and included with Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 in a collection called The Orange Box. The gameplay is part puzzle, which I like, but also part first person action/shooter, which wasn’t something I felt as though could handle at the time since I was a FPS novice with serious motion problems (I had a really hard time moving and shooting simultaneously). A friend briefly showed Portal to me as he attempted to create a ‘falling into infinity’ pattern for an achievement (Terminal Velocity 5G), but I was already so immersed in stumbling through Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed in late 2007 that I could barely think about playing anything else. So due to the timing and the first person aspects, Portal ended up passing me by. It wasn’t until Rock Band released Jonathan Coulton's Still Alive as DLC that I even thought about it again.

I am the designated singer for our band, Christine loves Noah, in RB so I am always on the lookout for downloadable songs that I can sing without stripping my vocal cords to shreds (thanks a lot, Metallica) and Still Alive was perfect. I thought the lyrics were hilarious and Matt informed me that it was the end song from Portal, the game I had almost completely forgotten about from the previous year. I decided I wanted to give it a try and rented The Orange Box a couple of days later. I instantly loved the writing and the world, but as I got deeper in I started to falter through the movements. I didn’t have any problems setting the portals up in the appropriate places, but quickly moving them and myself simultaneously was hard work. I got to the last level of the tutorial, attempted the portal pattern dozens of times, sighed heavily and stopped playing. It was depressing. The actual game was right on the other side of the proverbial wall and I had my hand up against it without any hope of passing through. And although Matt could’ve taken over and gotten through it for me, I was stubbornly self-reliant in those days and refused any assistance. So stupidly, I gave it up instead.

But I loved the lab. I loved the passive aggressive remarks of GLaDOS and her little droids and I adored the portals, as seen in my 2009 Halloween pumpkin alongside Matt’s Splicer bunny mask (nerds!). The writing is truly inspired. And I really want to try again. I have progressed from novice to beginner in the FPS world and as a result have much better control over first person environments. Watching the Portal 2 teaser from E3 has motivated me. So as part of my Summer Gaming Challenge that includes playing the Prince of Persia games and diving into Mass Effect, I am adding Portal to the top of the list. It’s the only way I can truly justify my excitement for Portal 2 in 2011. Plus if I remember from the tutorial, I was promised cake, and I love cake!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Achievement Unlocked: Confession

I get a lot of grief for preferring to play all of my games on the 360. When I confess this to fellow gamers, they instantly start lecturing me about the many games I am missing on the Wii or how the graphics on the PS3 provide an infinitely better experience. When I came back to gaming a few years ago following a long hiatus it was via the 360. Things had changed dramatically since my PS2 heyday-instead of having a small machine that offered strictly a gaming experience, I now had a console that offered a connection and a community. And it offered something else, something controversial and potentially shameful in some ‘serious’ gaming circles-Gamerscore. Ah yes, almost every conversation I have about my 360 preference ends with ‘You’re just doing it for the achievements.’ But so what? Why is that idea so prone to negativity? Is there a way to be an achievement addict and have a better gaming experience? I believe so, and I am here to stand proud and suggest that yes, in some ways it can be about the achievements, and not for the associated negative connotations, but for positive ones instead.

Achievements are added by game developers and function as a sort of ‘checklist of completion’. Many of them are associated with attaining a particular character level, finishing a chapter, or completing the game. Some give Gamerscore for eliminating or collecting a certain number of something, whether it be a certain number of kills by shotgun or the gathering of feathers hidden throughout Italy. But my favorites are the extraneous achievements that reward the player for moving outside of the narrative quest and as a result, add to the experience the developers would like us to have. And if you are a completionist like me, having a well developed list of motivators is not only great for my own personal sense of accomplishment, but also helps me feel as though I have explored the game in its entirety. For example, I played an adorable little game called Mini Ninjas last winter. One of the achievements was to eliminate ten enemies as a boar (Boardom-10G). I may not have made it one of my goals to even use the spirit form to become a boar otherwise, but tusking ninjas to death turned out to be pretty entertaining. Silly and almost useless to the narrative, but fun nonetheless. A few of the LEGO Star Wars games reward you for using one character to break apart another such as using Anakin to destroy Vader (Undecided-10G), and one encouraging you to break up tiny LEGO Jar Jar 20 times (Crowd Pleaser-20G). And many games use their achievement list to insert some humor in unexpected places. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Simpsons-You Pushed Start: Easiest achievement…ever. A funny homage to the show and a great way to start the game (even if the game wasn’t great at all). There was also a 0G achievement for dying a certain number of times in a row-like the mean spirited ribbing of a friend. Guitar Hero II had something similar with the Long Road Ahead reward for failing a song on Easy mode. Rewards for failure-awesome!
Fable 2-The Party Animal & Pied Piper: Being rewarded for getting villagers drunk and then making them dance is pretty hilarious. Kind of like being a wicked puppet master in the name of hedonism. Also, Fable 2 gave you 5G for dying all of your clothes and hair black with The Goth. Apparently, Lionhead Studios was very upset with everyone for not changing their clothes enough in Fable 2, so I imagine we will see more of these type of achievements in Fable 3.
Bully-Skidmark & Over the Rainbow: As a bully, it is very important to give the less fortunate their fair share of wedgies, and this achievement encouraged the player to let those underpants bind! Fifty people felt the pinch of my superiority. Less understandably, as a bully it is also important to make out 20 times with boys around campus. I giggled every time I seduced one of the closeted jocks.
Assassin’s Creed 2-Red Light Addict: I paid courtesans 5000 dollars to escort me around. That’s right, 5000. I could have paid the thieves or just waited for traveling groups of people to blend with, but I chose the ladies instead. I’d like to believe they smelled nicer.
Borderlands-You’re on a Boat! & A Sucker is Born Every Minute: Borderlands was chock full of humor, so it was unsurprising that a few of the achievements were tongue in cheek. You get You’re on a Boat for heading off the beaten path and getting in a boat. Then you get off the boat. Hooray for you! And it’s unlikely you can even hear the phrase without singing it, too. In the last of the DLC, the Crimson Armory, there is a Roadside Attraction called the World’s Largest Bullet. The bullet is right in front of you, can’t miss it. Yet there is still a collection box next to the door that is willing to take a ton of money from you if you are willing to pay it. Nothing happens. You are a sucker. Congratulations.

Ultimately, choosing a gaming console based only the rewards it gives you would seem to defeat the purpose of playing the game. Then you aren’t enjoying the journey any longer, you are focused solely on the praise. Along those lines I don’t think anyone is really ‘doing it for the achievements’, but I do think that placing specific goal-oriented achievements in games that take a player out of the linear quest actually enhances the gaming experience and adds an extra feeling of accomplishment. Being a completionist, I have often extended the playtime of many well-loved games by thoroughly exhausting the Achievement checklist (to the best of my ability). And to me, that is worth being called an Achievement Whore.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Light is in the Details

Sometimes I don’t realize how much I love a game until it’s over and I want to play it all over again. This happened with Alan Wake. While cruising through it I could only think about finishing it, but after the credits rolled I lamented not spending more time exploring each level, peeking in every corner and behind every tree. It wasn't the perfect game, but it was obviously made with loads of love-and that affection reflects throughout the landscape of Bright Falls.

As I previously summarized, Alan Wake plays a horror novelist who gets caught in a nightmare while visiting Bright Falls, Washington. The narrative twists and turns through six episodes while Alan fights the manifestations of ‘darkness’ with ‘light’ in the form of flashlights, flares, spotlights, flashbangs, streetlights, etc. Darkness = danger. Light = safety. Anyone who ever insisted upon a nightlight as a child is well aware of the wicked things that hide in the dark. And they do, and they have chain saws, knives and axes. The light objects are beautifully rendered throughout the game-beacons in an otherwise shaded environment. A flare gun is the ultimate weapon and has its own red-hued animation, splashing a bright glow across the screen and obliterating the dark. Alan spends a lot of time between destinations on densely forested trails in the shadows of large trees and fight sequences are often preceded by gray mist and a musical crescendo, so whenever I saw a streetlight or neon signpost shining dimly on the horizon I literally felt the tension leave my hands as I hurried him towards it. The designers did an amazing job characterizing the juxtaposition between the halos of light and the creeping darkness.

The creativity and details in the setting are brilliant. So many games reuse landscapes or fail to fully actualize a setting, so it was delightful searching the nooks and crannies of every building or gazing off mountain trails onto waterfalls or rivers below. The forest areas are all very similar, but the pathways lead to different abandoned logging areas or contain bridges and ‘Historical Settings’ just like you see in a National Park. The collectibles are manuscript pages that hint at what happens next (adding to the anticipation) and slightly less understandable coffee thermoses. Some of the buildings contain televisions, which are interactive and tell a story of their own using a show called Night Springs. I searched diligently for all of the small radios and would sit and listen to every show long after the announcer transitioned to the music. Artists like Nick Cave, Poe and Poets of the Fall are featured between episodes or filter out of the radios if you listen long enough, which is an unexpected treat. Posters line the walls, a jukebox rocks a tune, possessed couches toss themselves at you occasionally, the cars contain lit overhead dome lights and a promotional cardboard cutout of Alan Wake travels throughout the game as a sort of comic relief-always welcome considering I was startled by practically everything skulking in the dark. It is all of these fully fleshed out details that add depth to an otherwise basic story of Good vs. Evil.

I would like to say that the narrative is unique, but it’s not. I saw these plot elements in Stephen King’s Secret Window (which is no surprise considering the several reverent mentions of Mr. King) where it turns out the writer having the experience is actually penning his own story. I was following along with no problems until the very end where it heads into the realm of mysterious abstraction. Not that I was disappointed-it was still unexpected and thought provoking. And the story kept the game moving along at a brisk pace, thankfully, adding to the sense of urgency constantly humming on the horizon. But was it scary? Nah. Startling, maybe (when you are fighting from the front and suddenly get knifed in the back) but nothing was ever really terrifying about Alan Wake. Maybe a new subgenre should be created under survival horror: Cinematic Thriller.

I also wasn't impressed with the in game advertisements. There is an episode of Futurama where the main character has a dream about flashy underpants. When he awakens he possesses an irresistible urge to purchase said underpants. His friends inform him that in the year 3000 advertising has now taken over our dreams. Troubling, right? Apparently, Alan Wake is having the same dilemma. While battling shadow figures and desperately trying to uncover what has happened to his poor wife his subconscious is also pondering his cell phone provider and car choices. I mean, using Energizer batteries was bearable-you could barely read the packaging. But making me watch a Mustang and a Verizon commercial (and giving me 5G as a reward) and then peppering the map with billboards selling the same was excessive and ridiculous. I shirk watching television shows during their regularly scheduled programming because I loathe being battered with advertisements. I assume this is the wave of the future and I should probably learn to go with the flow, but I swear if I start dreaming about flashy underpants I am going to be very upset. However, I will admit the screenshot above is adorable, in a meta kind of way.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

We Can Be Heroes

Reading this article from Pop Matters inspired me to ponder the Apocalypse. Or, more specifically, the alternate reality settings many of our favorite games use to tell their stories. I favor the post-Apocalyptic settings because I think they provide an interesting landscape that speaks to the potentiality of society’s downfall in a variety of ways. We are often fighting against the disastrous results of what went wrong, searching for humanity amongst the rubble of corruption or supernatural force that has stolen control away. In Bioshock we are struggling to escape the mutated state of Andrew Ryan’s Utopia, because according to our perception what is happening in Rapture is wrong. We never see the mutations as a misstep in the progressive path of plasmid development and the game certainly doesn’t guide us into a scientific trial and error process to further Ryan’s dream. Why not? That story has potential as well. But in that context we are not saving a world gone wrong, we are assisting with its continual destruction. We are not heroes, we are villains.

In Borderlands you cruise through Pandora, a world abandoned by its corporate leaders and sent into chaos. Now, I understand that Pandora is a fictional world, but it certainly can be seen as the alternate history of a world abandoned by its economic infrastructure and left to fend for itself. You play a set of characters trying to create order from the dog eat dog world that remains. Why not play a set of characters destined to promote the ruffians subversive behavior and provoke continual discordance? That scenario isn't very humane and it doesn’t have a well placed end result that allows the player to feel heroic. I am currently playing Alan Wake and trying to save my wife from a perceived ‘Darkness’ by using ‘Light’ in a nightmare (alternate) reality. I could have easily played the part of the villain and directed the narrative from her point of view. But I want to save my wife and be a hero. I want to see the end cut scene where we reconcile and everything is glorious once again-me and you against the world, dear. I stayed strong to save the Princess even when she was ‘in another castle’ because I was Mario, the plumber with a heart of gold who could overcome all of the obstacles in his path to win her favor. I like being a hero. I don’t want to be a villain. I want to save the world from chaos and unrest over and over again in different ways. I want to feel as though I could handle any situation the universe could head our way-I’m prepared.

I was thinking about this when I spent a couple of hours back in Denerim (Aw, you thought Dragon Age was behind me? Think again!) last week playing the most recent DLC, The Darkspawn Chronicles. This time I was playing for the wicked team as a Hurlock assisting the Arch Demon in taking down Ferelden. It felt decidedly gross to slaughter all of your teammates one by one and I swear I almost choked up when I savagely gored Alistair to death. Even if I hadn’t spent 40+ hours loving my Warden party, I think it would still be strange to kill off the characters that are fighting for peace and harmony across the land. When I was playing as War in Darksiders I felt as though the widespread angel massacre was all in the name of justice and balance-same with Bayonetta, who was supposedly a character playing for the wrong side. There is always someone else whose evil nature outweighs your own (You think I’m bad? Check out this guy!).

I am sure there are plenty of games out there where you guide the most evil character you can think of to the high point of chaos, but I don’t think those are for me. I love being the savior and hero. And I especially love all of the storylines that craftily steer you through a post-Apocalyptic landscape where everyone is counting on you-whether you are saving your fellow man from corruption or saving the world from supernatural annihilation. And although a game centered on plasmid research and development might be interesting, using it to further Ryan’s megalomaniac dream just sounds f**king crazy.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Prince of Purrrsia

On Friday my office allowed everyone to enjoy their three-day weekend a little more by allowing us to leave two hours earlier than normal. I had every intention of using this time to camp out on my couch and further progress in Alan Wake but instead decided to swing over to the closest theatre and give Prince of Persia my precious paid hours. And seeing as how I ran into the Cineplex with only minutes to spare until the next showing, I figured it was destined (I’m snickering as I write this, I promise). First let me say that I have almost zero knowledge of Prince of Persia as a video game franchise. I’ve mentioned my inability to master the 'wall-run’ game mechanic, so I have opted out of further humiliation by not even giving them a chance. I’ve only spent a scant few hours in the 2008 release and most of them were frustrating. And to be honest, the narrative wasn’t all that captivating. I liked the flirtatious banter between the male and female leads but got bored soon after when it became obvious the most action I was going to get was between Mr. Unnamed and the vines along the walls. I fell off so often I had to see the ‘oops, let me catch you’ cut scene hundreds of times. I have the Forgotten Sands on reserve right now, but haven’t really made any moves to acquire it. Basically, dear reader, I am trying to convey to you the sheer apathy I had about the Prince of Persia series.

We don’t watch a lot of video game to movie adaptations in our household. The crossovers are usually silly and over the top, making the lead characters into cartoonish figures, and the narratives contrived and unbelievable. And Prince of Persia was all of those things. The characters were stereotypical-the hero, the heroine, the villain and Miscellaneous. The plot meandered around the desert and the ending was obvious (come on, the Sands of Time?). Through all of that, though, watching the movie was actually pretty fun. Jake Gyllenhaal played Dastan swoonishly well with his giant puppy eyes and terrible wig. His female counterpart was ridiculously beautiful in an Arabian princess kind of way. Ben Kingsley wore too much eyeliner and always looked as though a wicked laugh could emerge from his throat at any moment and surprise everyone (even himself). It was like movie ice cream for people who would love Aladdin’s unwritten PG-13 romance novel. Trust me boys, it’s a date movie. The ladies will love it. And did it hint affectionately at the video game? Yes. Dastan spends a lot of time jumping over rooftops and using wooden poles jutting out of buildings to leap around. He even does a two-second wall-run (I was looking for it). There is a scene where he stands above the city on a ledge and the camera does a full pan around him ala Assassin’s Creed. I wanted him to dive into a haystack so bad.

If nothing else beyond pure entertainment value, watching the movie has inspired me to continue playing the games. The combination of history, romance and the paranormal usually pique my interest and I regret not giving the franchise a proper chance. I am now planning on doing something unprecedented for me-playing the original version of the Sands of Time. Maybe if I give the more critically acclaimed volumes a chance I will find a new series to love.