Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fashion Show

I'm back in Wonderland this week, and must say that taking a brief respite from the rather monotonous platforming in Alice was just the thing I needed to save the life of my precious black Xbox controller and all of the windows in my living room. Chapter 3 was exhausting, and now that I am tucked neatly into Queensland, or Chapter 4, I am feeling downright jovial about the prospect of seeing the Queen of Hearts in all her head-lopping, stiff-lipped majesty.

If I asked the people in my life who know me well to describe me in a scant few words or phrases, the last thing they would say is 'fashion-conscious'. Not that I leave the house in pajama pants or tube tops by any means, but I tend to spend more money on my weekly coffee habits than I do my wardrobe. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a well designed piece of fashion artistry, and I feel like the creatives behind Alice's revolving dress patterns have done something amazing. Most of the time, changing outfits on a video game character means donning new gear and/or upgrading armor specifically to add to their stats-more defense points, less weight or swifter maneuvering. I can't recall a time when entering a new level in a game changed the protagonist's look just for the visual fun of it. But Alice adapts to each new area by donning the most appropriate threads for the environment. And this interesting little bit of artistry is my number one motivation factor to continue towards the credit roll.

Although I love the semi-Steampunk dress from Chapter 1 (first picture, middle panel), I must say that I am partial to the newest in Wonderland's Summer Collection from Queensland:


I've also dabbled a bit this week in Bastion, the glorious little freshman title from Supergiant. Now, I'm not saying I told you so or anything (I totally am), but I had a hunch it would be one to watch a year ago when I first reported on it after Prime last year when it was part of the PAX 10. I loved the vibrant color scheme of the landscape at first sight, but am surprised by how touched I am by the soundtrack, which easily moves from something that sounds vaguely Middle Eastern to a haunting ballad last heard around a campfire on top of a mountain during the Gold Rush times. And this is just one small piece in an otherwise gorgeous puzzle filled with blue-eyed squirts and delicious tonics, interesting weapon choices and a silent-yet-determined hero. I've yet to grasp the story completely, as I have this horrible tendency to tune out voice-overs when I am fully engaged in a high-combat situation, but I hear this one encourages replay through the holy of holies, a New Game Plus, so I will try to maintain total narrator discipline on my second run through. I am quite impressed.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Retro Revisit-Ghosts N' Goblins

I started my love affair with video games roughly around the same time Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt in dual in cartridge format. Tragically (melodrama added for emphasis, not to make my mother feel guilty) our family wasn't rich, so my brother and I weren't spoiled with an endless rain of gray plastic boxes, our choices limited to the first two Zeldas, Friday the 13th, Dr. Mario and Ghosts N' Goblins. If we had more than that for the original NES, my memories of them have been scrubbed clean by the bright and shiny new experiences of today. It's possible that those were the best and worst of the bunch, the best being the original Zelda cased in gold and the worst being Friday the 13th, which I have talked about in previous blogs (I have no idea why I have so much to say about such an insignificant piece of licensed fluff, but there it is). But if I could name my arch nemesis of the video game world, it would be Ghosts N' Goblins. Curse you and your naked little knight to the seven levels of hell, Capcom.

Ghosts N' Goblins is my white whale -- the one game in my life that I truly had desire to finish but found the task utterly impossible. Sure, I've given up on plenty of games due to lack of interest or because my hands no likey the controls, but nothing compares to GNG in the super failure department. Being a little girl who liked bats and Halloween a tad more than the other little girls in my class, the idea of a scary game with creepy music, zombies and a graveyard setting sounded spooktacular. I mean, I had already conquered the Adventures of Link -- what couldn't I do? As it turns out, the answer was get past the first level in Ghosts N' Goblins. Hours, days and months passed and still the haunted forest remained my torturous prison, limitless Continues under my now shabby and well-worn belt. I am sure my brother was able to do it, but if so my sense of self-preservation has blocked that out completely. Time passed, the SNES was born and newer, shinier titles replaced the old. GNG was forgotten like so many dusty titles from the NES era as the path was paved for A Link to the Past and Star Fox, Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III.

But I'd never forgotten about Ghosts N' Goblins. Any time I found myself in a retro game shop I would paw through bins of old cartridges, hoping to find it nestled innocently amongst the other titles of yesteryear. In order to make this coming together more organic and less forced, I vowed to purchase it during a chance real-world encounter, without the ease of a online shopping cart. And finally, yesterday, while visiting a out-of-the-way little used game shop in one of the stankiest parts of Seattle, I pulled out a large bin of perfectly alphabetized NES games and found FOUR copies of GNG. Scouring for the one in the best condition and confirming with Matt that we had easy access to our NES (of course, he replied nonchalantly), I shelled out $8 and the deal was done-and this time I would prevail. How silly-nay, how naive I was to believe that twenty years of training could lead to a victory over such a clever master.

Matt & I took turns playing the first level for over an hour. Much cussing ensued. Between the two of us we managed to die in the forest dozens and dozens of times. We memorized the landscape, the enemy pattern, when to duck, when to jump-but nothing worked. And then the game rewarded us with a new weapon-instead of a spear, we now had fireballs. Hiss, groan, the fireballs turned into a handicap that we never overcame, as their trajectory was limp and ineffectual. I left the room briefly and returned to Matt joyously cheering that he had acquired knives instead! With knives, we would be unstoppable, right?! ...we were stoppable-and killable, and fall into a pit-able. And then...just when I had almost succumbed to the maniacal mastery of the Ghosts and the Goblins, Matt decimated the rhino-boss and was rewarded a key. A good omen, to be sure. A page in my mind instantly turned and my eyes beheld a brilliant sight-the Second Level. Success! Invigorated by our joint achievement, I set forth to clobber the flying beasties in this new area...and was utterly murdered for 30 minutes straight, thus crushing my dreams and any desire to keep playing.

Is Ghosts N' Goblins simply a crap title, full of the same glitchy, pixelated graphics and tinny, repetitive midi music that plagued so many nostalgia-inflated games from our youth? After watching someone run through the entire experience in 22 minutes on YouTube, I have to say that I can still see its greatness and feel humility in its presence. I'm not sure if I will ever get through it, maybe it exists to remind me of how games used to exist for the challenge alone-they didn't have to be beautifully rendered and contain depth and emotion, because they allowed us to simply play for the win. To complete goals and feel accomplished. Did the knight even have a name? I never knew his upbringing, his motivations for saving the purple-haired damsel or about how he ended up in a haunted forest near a towering mountain in red underoos. It never mattered. What mattered was the reflex, the quick maneuvers and the ultimate ya-hoo moment after a lengthy bout of Continue screens. These games were about championing an interesting setup of trials in order to feel like a conquerer.

I thought that revisiting my arch nemesis would be a easy victory. Instead, it was a nostalgic defeat. It's possible that I've become lazier as a gamer, evolving my skillset around the easier to play yet more fulfilling experiences of today. But that is a-okay with me, as I connect with games on a much deeper level now than I did when I was a little girl. My hands and my eyes used to be the only tools I needed, but now my heart is more involved. So in that regard, Ghosts N' Goblins, you will remain my white whale-my one that got away. And although I know others who still seek the pure sense of challenge when they play, I now know that I prefer to interact with my favorite titles based more on the sense of immersion and captivation more than merely overcoming adversity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What the Torchlight?

There I was, hacking away at another Insidious Ruin in Alice, almost near the end point of Chapter Three, when in a sudden moment of exhaustive clarity, I lost all motivation to even hold the Left Trigger and turned it off. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Spicy Horses’s Wonderland resurrection is just too damn long and ridiculous monotonous. ‘But it’s so pretty!’ my inner self whined. ‘Don’t you want to see the realm of the Queen of Hearts?’ YES. But I needed a freaking break from the incessant double jumping, a mechanic that I used to find appealing due to the curling butterfly trail our heroine leaves behind after every prance, but just like anything you do a bajillion times, now fails to entice. Have I sent it back to Gamefly, throwing in the towel completely? No. But I moved on for a minute to something else – a game that others have been recommending to me for ages now and was coincidentally on sale at the same moment I wanted to smash in a certain caterpillar’s face with my hobby horse: Torchlight. I chose the bespeckled alchemist character, named him Magellan, gave him a kitty companion and set out to see what the hoop-la was all about.

Torchlight was a breath of fresh air compared to the platforming nightmare I had just untangled myself from-no jumping at all! Just hacking and slashing…and more hacking and slashing. Um, and more hacking and slashing. Okay, not terribly interesting, but it was refreshing in the same way eating oatmeal is-not too tasty, but does the job and makes the hunger pains go away-especially in relation to what I had just set down. But…I don’t know guys, the more I played Torchlight, the more boring it got. Sure, the random loot cache is interesting, but it was better in Borderlands. And sure, it’s fun to min/max your character with the best of said loot, but that was better in Dragon Age. I am a huge fan of a linear loot progression-once I choose a mage, I just want to see mage weaponry. I wanted to be a mage and stay a mage. All mage, all the time. The least available random weapon stolen from dungeon crawlers? Wands. /sigh

One night, during a session of slayage ala dungeon, I fell asleep. I distinctly recall being inside of the Lost Fortress at the time, wandering down dark corridors and hacking away at flyers and creepers, but when I woke up I was next to a merchant in town. I can apparently play Torchlight literally in my sleep. I don’t know if this makes it a great game. It’s possible I am just amazing.

I do love the graphics and the environment-the spell casting is pretty magnificent. The variety of upgrade choices you can make is on par with the likes of Dragon Age and other more high budget RPG titles. Movement is fluid and easy. But in terms of narrative and innovation, I guess I just don’t see why Torchlight was lauded so lavishly. I know that the sequel is on its way, so I hope the influx of support will expand their horizons and allow for more depth, because I think it has amazing potential, it just lacks any real unique qualities. All of the things I enjoy about it I’ve seen done better in other titles. That being said, playing Torchlight certainly served as a fulfilling break from Wonderland. I’m headed back, specifically because I want more dresses. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Seattle Indies Expo

Last night we attended the Seattle Indies Expo, or SIX, for the first time. What a sausage fest! Ladies, if you ever want to 'network' with snuggly gents in the indie scene, SIX is the place to hang. But besides overindulging in testosterone, the event was comfortable fun. Located in an empty warehouse style building down in SoDo and hosted by Haunted Temple Studios, SIX featured about ten or so local developers showing off their creative projects, and we marveled at several accordingly. A few highlights:

After entering the muggy room and acclimating ourselves to the space (games along the walls, cookies and kegs in the middle), we started our self-guided tour at a table near the back windows where four dudes were cheering and jeering sporadically while hunched over an iPad on a teensy table. A small postcard was stuck to the wall behind them that simply said Orbit. The designer was on hand to give us a tour, showing us the simple yet engaging graphics and explaining what to do: "Collect the green stuff, avoid the red stuff and try to hit each other as much as possible". Basically, you play as a colored ship, which you control by using a similar hued button on one corner of the iPad. Holding the button will turn your ship around in circles, while letting go moves it in a forward trajectory. A central planet is available for ricochet movements, but I have to admit, I spent most of my time spinning in orbit. Points are rewarded for crashing into each other, so it's really all-for-himself here, but nothing creates a bond between gamer strangers quicker than some affectionate trash talk. Fast paced and wicked fun, I am sure there are some future drinking sessions in the world that will include rounds of Orbit. More information can be found at Caffeine Monster Software's website.

Next we wandered over to where Shadow Planet Productions was showing their beautiful, dual-stick side scrolling adventure, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. I tried a demo of ITSP at PAXEast and was impressed by the graphics, but failed spectacularly at actually playing the game. I don't think my left and right hands can communicate as quickly as they ought to in order to play this one successfully. So although I admired it for it's bright colors and equally dark shadows, I had my doubts about actually acquiring it next month when it releases on XBLA. At SIX, however, a second television screen was available for the multiplayer demo. Matt & I sat down with one of the reps and played part of a level together, which was still had the same dual-stick frantic qualities, but was a much more enjoyable experience for me than it was at PAX. With partners to assist, I didn't feel quite so burdened by my own limitations. One of the tasks each player is given is to pull a large colored lantern with them to each battlepoint, which illuminates the space. If all three (or four, one for each player) go out, then the game is over. Between shooting things with one mode, switching to carry or grab with another and simple moving forward, your fingers definitely need an education before starting this endeavor. It was great fun, and I was quite relieved. Even though these types of games have the potential to end in loving frustration, I think Matt & I will enjoy some multiplayer action -- I will probably leave the single player campaign to him, however. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet releases on XBLA on August 3rd. Read more about it on the website.

The last title we were able to try was Haunted Temple's Skulls of the Shogun, another game we admired at PAXEast, but never actually experienced due to the long lines and claustrophobic qualities of the Expo Hall. During a point in the night where a raffle was being drawn, Matt & I snuck over to the now vacant space abandoned by hopeful prize winners and got to play a full campaign against each other. The designer let us try a 'winter' level that was still in progress and I got to show him my button from PAX. Aw. Anyway, I really dislike tactical games. Matt adores them, so I've spectated during lots of Valkyria Chronicles sessions and the like, but taking on something akin to a battleland chess game one careful move at a time? Snor-ing. But Skulls of the Shogun takes a tactical game and infuses it with mechanics that aren't so painstaking and graphics that are cartoonishly adorable, which gives it a sort of precious element and makes it digestible for even a naysayer like me. During the half an hour of play we consumed (I am kind of ashamed of this, since we totally bogarted the demo for so long, but...nah) I smiled, I laughed, I taunted Matt, I haunted temples, I created a raven character that stole resources (rice) and gusted wind, I nommed skulls of fallen soldiers, I moved little samurais with arrows and pikes around a brightly colored, adorably animated landscape and was totally still talking about it later that night. Even while I was getting massacred by my loving fiancee, Skulls of the Shogun was absolutely winning me over. Announced recently as being a future XBLA title, a release date is still pending but tentatively scheduled for January. More information can be found on the website.

Big thanks to the participants for another great Seattle night. Seriously, why doesn't everyone live here?

Friday, July 8, 2011

All Encompassing

I thought that mastering the cheevo list for a particular game would feel like total victory, but instead it’s almost anticlimactic in direct relation to its exhaustive qualities. Somewhere in the thirty hours I spent breaking various crap into collectible pirate-themed LEGO studs I lost my mojo to actually play the game and instead turned it a laborious chore to reach the finish line in my mind. It doesn’t help that the LEGO games, albeit quite entertaining, are chock full of bugs everywhere you turn, particularly environmental ones, where falling into a tree or rock occasionally locks you or your partner in a perpetual jog, magnetized permanently to an object until you have to restart the level, grumbling. I loved being immersed in the adorable mini world of high seas mayhem and delight, but probably would have stopped after the first round had the mad-eyed completionist resting directly underneath my normally quite lazy skin not grabbed a hold of me and gripped me in its tempting grasp, visions of a 100% status flashing before my eyes. I wish you could choose either Story or Free Play right off the bat because I prefer the Free Play environments so much more, but I suppose that would defeat the purpose of the methodical plod-through that Traveler's Tales has designed for its players.

I had the newest Star Wars LEGO game in my Gamefly Q up until its release date, but took it out after realizing how vital narrative elements and theme are to me now that I have several LEGO titles under my belt. And I have zero interest in Star Wars, as a movie franchise, as a collectible catalog, as a lifestyle. Taking the Clone Wars out of my Q is merely a small bit of a bigger picture where I don't want to play games for playing sake's any longer. When I first started this blog, I felt obligated to taste test everything I could get my mitts on – primarily in the Xbox category, but not limited to my normal choices. After a year of dabbling in some of these less than Jessica-savory experiences where I start something just to set it down moments later, I am vowing to stick more to those titles that encapsulate the graphically stylized, narrative heavy, environmentally engaging, romance-is-a-plus themes that warm the cockles of my heart. Which means I am culling down my option list quite significantly. But I am pro this choice, as I feel less pressure to be a ‘I like all kinds of games’ kind of person and can really invest my attention and time in those titles that remind me why I love playing. Losing yourself in the majesty of a fantastic creation is an immeasurable emotion, and one I am quite addicted to. Going through the motions because of some sort of self-enforced inclination to heap variety on the pile is ridiculous. Until I get paid to do this (har-de-har-har)…

Enter Alice: Madness Returns. Good goddess, Alice is gorgeous. Spicy Horse had me the moment I walked into Victorian London and saw our heroine’s black and white striped stockings. I am shipwrecked under the sea in Chapter Two, and have only a vague idea what my objective is, but could care less considering how much I just like to jump around to see the butterflies and swirls flowing off Alice’s many different dress styles. Alice is an example of a game with boring mechanics-platforming, platforming, collecting, collecting, more platforming-that transcends its dullness through its artistic delights. Whereas a game like POP: Forgotten Sands overcame its boring environment with interesting platforming choices-freezing water, turning back time, memory items-Alice does the exact opposite. This isn’t really a problem, per se, but when you get inevitably caught in a platforming jam, such as continually failing to jump onto a ledge in a perfectly timed manner to avoid giant metal fists trying to pummel you, it’s unbearably annoying. I want to play more specifically to see more. I’m not sure if this is a fail or a success, but I am entranced enough to keep playing to find out.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Video Games in the Wild

We decided to participate in the annual Zombie Walk this year, assisting Seattle in its attempt to steal a Guinness World Record for largest measurable zombie hoard away from New Jersey. We broke it with 4,522 blood-drooling undead attendees, so hooray! I find the most amusing bit about hand crafted zombie outfits is how costumey they are in their construction. It's as if each participant stepped into their closet Saturday morning, surveyed their options and decided that last year's Halloween costume was the best candidate for zombification. So instead of a bunch of boring old 'human-like' zombies shuffling about, it inevitably turns into a huge undead costume party. I like to imagine that should-nay, when the zombie apocalypse is upon us, everyone's last gasping thought will be to yank on an Elvis jumpsuit or a slutty Alice in Wonderland getup before succumbing to the virus pumping through their system, as though shuffling around this barren world in fairy wings will gain you some sort of edge in the living flesh department.

Along this vein, we encountered Mario & Luigi, probably unrelated to the naked plummer duo from my last post (although in the same location, the Fremont neighborhood), but still adorably disturbing. There were a couple of witches running around ala Left 4 Dead, and a couple of members of the elite Umbrella Corporation on hand to keep everyone under control. When it comes to choosing a zombie persona to don for a day, video games seem the perfect media to turn to for inspiration. Sadly, I missed getting a photo of a Silent Hill nurse and the Zombie Link, whose shield was covered in blood.

All in all, another great summer day in Fremont-this time with no rain, just brains.