Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Not Once or Twice, but Thrice

It looks like the Switch is turning into a real success story for Nintendo.  One might be tempted to chalk it up to the originality of the concept.  However, the Switch isn't a piece of engineering that sprang forth out of the eather.  In fact most of it's features have existed in previous iterations of gaming hardware, the Wii and WiiU being two of the most obvious comparisons.  Even the concept of a system that can be played at home or on the go was first, albeit half-heartedly, attempted by Sony with the PS Vita.

Like many gaming enthusiasts, I never got my hands on a Vita in part because there wasn't that killer app, or "system seller," as it's sometimes called.  The hardware was great, but it lacked the software supported needed to draw my interest.  In a broader sense piracy was another issue and, in some ways, exacerbated the problem of insufficient third-party support.  Sony could only do so much with its first-party lineup.  It's a problem Nintendo doesn't have so much, especially since they can now merge their handheld and home console development teams under one platform.  In theory this should significantly boost the first-party output of Nintendo-themed games.  It also helps that Nintendo doesn't have any real direct competition.

The PS4 and Xbox One are definitely aiming at the same demographic, namely males in their 20s and 30s, but the Switch is kind of doing its own thing.  That's not to say people who own a PS4 or Xbox One don't play video games on the Switch...rather it has to do with a certain kind of appeal Nintendo games offer.

"Kid Friendly" might be the first quality that springs to mind though it's not an entirely accurate thing to claim.  Sure, most Nintendo games shy away from sexual themes and gratuitous violence, but the same doesn't hold true for the challenge.  The term "Nintendo Hard" exists for a reason, namely the unforgiving nature of one's experience on higher difficulty settings.  Mario Kart 8 might feel like a total breeze at the 50cc level, but crank it up to the 200cc mark and even veterans of the genre are in for a serious challenge.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild also has it's own hard mode in the form of speedruns.  Speaking of Breath of the Wild, if there ever was a system seller it's that game.  According to released sales figures it has more than a one-to-one attachment rate.  I'm not sure why any Switch owner would want more than one copy of the game (or a copy of the game and no system to play it on), but there you go.  In order to make up for the usual slim pickings that happen during a console's launch window, Nintendo is drip-feeding new titles to keep players invested in their machines.  It's actually a smart move from a business standpoint, which is saying something for a company known to not necessarily make the best decisions outside of game development.

Portability is another advantage the Switch has that only smart phones can match.  Here too though Nintendo isn't going head-to-head with Apple or Android, mostly because the kind of games coming out on the Switch have a lot more meat on their bones (plus they don't go the free-to-play route).  Again, different audiences although not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So, allow me to reiterate in the form of two video game axioms:
  • A console is only as good as its games
  • Better to make a great game a few people will love, than mediocre game a lot of people will think is just okay    
For both of these truths, Nintendo has it covered.  The switch already has a critically acclaimed exclusive out of the gate and, while their style of games aren't as big sales-wise as say GTAV or the Call of Duty series, there's definately a subset of their playerbase who absolutely love the games Nintendo makes...sometimes to the point of toxicity (but that's a subject for a different time).  You've done well so far with the Switch, Nintendo.  Keep up the good work.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

beep-Beep-BEEP!

Oddly enough nobody wears white in the actual game
My last blogpost ended on a bit of a cliffhanger in that there was a sixth and final arcade game that I consider one of my all-time favorites.  One of the neat things about arcade games is their malleability.  Because each machine is dedicated to playing a single game (Neo Geo aside), it allows for a variety of non-standard control schemes; driving games with steering wheels and pedals, air combat games with flight sticks and seats that shift when the player banks and turns, Paperboy even featured a pair of handlebars for controlling the on-screen bicycle.  By far the most common kind of variation was the light-gun game.  When asked which is the best of the bunch, I imagine most people would reply Time Crisis, Terminator 2 or Revolution X, but for me the standout game was the rather generically named Space Gun.

Right away I think most people will pick up on the Aliens film parallels, industrial environments infested with hostile organisms, sometimes cocooned human survivors in need of rescue, and sci-fi military hero characters representing the player(s).  Like most light gun games it plays from the first person perspective.  There are a few instances where players can choose from one of two paths, as well as the ability to backup via a foot pedal, but for the most part the gameplay is on-rails, shooting whatever happens to pop up in the FOV.  The guns are fully automatic and have several different secondary consumable ammo types that freeze, shock, blast or burn targets.  The alien creatures themselves are a purple/green mixture and come in a few different humanoid shapes.  The most common has three eyes and four arms!  It's possible to shoot off limbs or even the head.  Combine that with the basic plot structure which features the player(s) exploring a spaceship, then a base on the planet it's orbiting around, and one can't help but wonder if Space Gun indirectly influenced the original Dead Space.

"Watch your fire and check your targets"
The last chapter also features the obligatory rush to escape while a self-destruct timer counts down.  The end boss battle emphasises one of Space Gun's more defining features, the player has to be mindful of where and when they shoot.  Obviously, they don't want to gun down fleeing humans (or "hostages" as they are called for some reason...), but in addition to this, targeting incoming projectiles or monsters winding up for a melee attack also serve as examples of skilled gameplay.  Additionally, the guns the players use deplete an ammunition reserve when fired, but refill when allowed to idle.  Hence, shooting non-stop will cause the weapon to "chug" at a reduced rate of fire.  In the aforementioned final battle (which takes place onboard an escape shuttle) players must do their best not to hit the control panel in the background while dealing with the last boss.  If the ship takes too much internal damage during the battle it will be unable to take off, dooming the player characters and anyone they had rescued up to that point.  In other words, being too gung-ho nets you the bad ending.  It wasn't a gameplay feature unique to Space Gun (even at the time of its release), but in my mind the emphasis on player restraint did help set the game apart from the pack.

FYI, Alien 3 had one facehugger,
 one chestburster, one xenomorph,
and no guns, Sega
Other than that, there are a few distinct variations on the standard type, automated sentry turrets, flying enemies resembling giant insects or manta-rays, and a few snake-like mini-bosses.  There's also a motion tracker display at the bottom of the screen that tips-off players to potential dangers (not to mention further reinforcing the Aliens analogue).  Three years later Sega would copy the format of Space Gun when they introduced Alien 3: The Gun to arcades using a fairly similar rendering engine and gameplay interface.  Apparently, the developers over at Sega completely forgot the plot of the Alien 3 movie though...

Weird film to video game adaptations aside, Space Gun is the sixth and final entry in my top six arcade games list.  Due to an itchy trigger finger, I never got the good ending, something I found very frustrating at the time, but in hindsight makes me respect the designers for trying to evolve the genre despite having a fairly unoriginal premise...oh and the arcade cabinet was really cool looking too.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Favorite Arcade Games

Recently, I've been browsing various Top-10-Arcade-Game videos and articles across the internet.  Sadly, my person favorites rarely make the cut or even get a mention.  Maybe my tastes differ from the norm.  Then again, I have a feeling that more than a few of these lists were composed by people who were too young to catch more than the tail end of the era.  Either way, I'd like to do a top-six list (I don't do that top 10 stuff) of my favorite arcade machines.  So, in no particular order let's begin.

Rampage
This one stands out in my memory for three reasons.  First, I was a huge fan of "Kaiju" movies growing up so the concept of getting to play as one of those gigantic monsters held enormous appeal to me.  I usually played as Lizzie because she reminded me of Godzilla.  The second reason is Rampage wasn't a quarter eater like most arcade games.  You could actually last quite a long time provided you made an effort to devour those hapless little humans, an act that would restore a small amount of health.  This brings me to the third reason for liking this game, co-operative play.  With the help of up to two friends I was able to make a complete tour of all the cities (essentially seeing all the game had to offer) at the paultery cost of $2.25, or nine credits worth of gameplay.  Very few arcade games, before or since, have offered that kind of bang for your buck.


Operation: Starblade
I've discussed this game at length in another blogpost (here) so I won't go into a great deal of detail here.  In short, it was a sit-down rail shooter visually similar to Starfox (minus the anthropomorphic animals).  It had an exceptionally large display screen for the time (courtesy of an image reflection system) backed up by a surround sound speakers setup.  Needless to say, it was an immersive game with a few neat stylistic flourishes that reminded me of the space battles seem in Star Wars and The Last Starfighter.  I must have beaten the game half-a-dozen times growing up.

Gauntlet
Eight-year-old me thought it was strange that this four-player top-down dungeon crawler/shooter was named after an armored glove when no such item ever makes an appearnce it the game.  It wasn't until a few years later that I learned the word "gauntlet" has another meaning which accurately sums up what it's like playing through the game.  As I recall, there were four different playable characters; a wizard, an elf, a barbarian, and a valkyrie.  I liked to play the valkyrie because her perk was a 30 percent reduction to damage. Each character also had their own kind of projectile weapon (fireballs, arrows, axes, and daggers respectively).  The dungeons themselves were maze-like structors populated by monster spawners that would spit out a trickle of enemies.  Ideally, ranged attacks would be used to defeat them, but it was also possible to take foes down in melee combat (doing so would incur damage to the player's character though).  Other than that there was treasure for scoring points and food for restoring health.

Rampart
While interesting to a degree, I've always felt puzzle game like Tetris and Columns needed an extra layer of gameplay to make them truly shine.  Puzzle and Dragon did the latter right, but before that Atari did an excellent job of improving on the former.  Rampart is divided into three tightly timed phases.  The first, wall building, plays out similarly to Tetris except the idea is to make fully enclosed spaces around keeps rather than solid rows.  Doing so nets points which, in the second phase, grants the player cannons that they can place inside their castle courtyards.  The third phase is combat, in which the cannons can be used to bombard other players' walls and cannons.  The process then resets until one side can no longer maintain a castle.  There's also a single player mode that features ships attacking by sea, but to me the game was really only fun versus other players.

Gladiator
In order to maximize profits, most arcade games were brutally difficult with mechanics deliberately designed to discourage caution.  An exception to this design trend was Gladiator.  Essentially a 1-vs-1 fighting game, players were reward for systematically wearing down opponents by breaking their weapon, shield and armor until an opportunity to deliver a well timed killing blow presented itself.  Because the game allowed for this kind of methodical approach, I could last a ridiculously long time with just one quarter (oftentimes vexing friends and family in the process).  I rarely watched anyone else play this particular arcade game, but the few times I did it was horrifying to see players foolheartedly rush in mashing buttons with reckless abandon.  It was a tactic which, more often than not, resulted in the player losing, whereas well timed strikes, probing attacks and a fair amount of patience would almost always result in victory.

I said that this was a top six list so that means there's one more game I want to mention.  However, I want to go into detail on it and to do so here would make for a very long blogpost.  So instead I'll make a separate post on it next week.  Until then...

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

Best/Worst of Show

It seems like every time E3 rolls around there's one game that really grabs my attention.  In previous years it has been titles like Below and Horizon: Zero Dawn.  This year it's the stylized cyber-punk thriller The Last Night.

Very little information has been released about the game thus far.  It's a 2.5D platformer with some stealth elements.  Nothing remarkable, but what makes the standout is its visual direction.  Rainy nights and neon lights are pretty standard fare since "Blade Runner" came out over three decades ago.  However, the use of pixel art mixed with numerous foreground/background layers and enhanced lighting filters gives the game a distinct look.  As far as I know, I don't think any other game has done this sort of thing before which makes The Last Night unique in its presentation.  In other ways though, it might be less outstanding.

My personal hope is, if it doesn't totally vear off in its own direction, The Last Night takes inspiration from the best of the subgenre; namely Flashback and Out of This World (Another World, if you're European).  The prototype version of the game, made in just six days, only takes a few minutes to finish and as such doesn't offer much insight into what a longer version of the game might be like.  Another title the development team was working on, Behind Nowhere, has been postponed indefinitely.  So, with only a few screenshots to go on, it's hard to garner much regarding the studio's approach to design based on that game either.

The head of development, Tim Soret, also has a somewhat checkered past going back to that whole SJW vs Gamergate controversy of 2014.  Tim has since apologized for past remarks claiming that his views have changed since that time.  I'd like to believe him.  People are allowed to change their mind on things after all...plus I'm a strong believer in the Death of the Author philosophy when it comes to critiquing any media (not just books).  That said, I doubt I'll ever get a chance to play The Last Night because I don't own an Xbox or a copy of Windows 10.  Oh well...I can alway enjoy the pretty art direction via a Youtube LP or Twitch stream, I guess...