Friday, September 28, 2012

Hidden Gems of Genesis (Part 2 of 2)

In terms of pure fun on the Genesis, titles like Strider, Quackshot or Rocket Knight Adventures really bring the goods.  But oddly enough these titles don't stick with me as much as some of the harder darker themed games that seeped their way into the 16-bit market.  I'd like to take a moment to examine three of those in particular.

Often mistaken for a successor to Another World (or Out of this World if your American) this game has nothing to do with Eric Chahi although the french publisher, Delphine, is the same. It basically plays like the original Prince of Persia except sci-fi instead of fantasy. The game has a plot revolving around amnesia, shape shifting reptilian aliens and a lot of small caliber guns. Like the two titles mentioned above it uses rotoscoping to generate especially fluid animation. I really enjoyed this game, particularly the atmosphere of paranoia, confusion, corruption and greed which make an excellent backdrop for the distopian future represented. The story slumps a bit during the mid game Death Tower segment, and ends on a cliffhanger which was very poorly handed in the proper sequel Fade into Black. Nitpicks aside though this game made a lasting impression on me much more than movies like Bladerunner or Total Recall. Blasphemy, I know, but it just goes to show you how much more engrossing an interactive experience can be than a passive one.

 I have no idea who Will Harvey is or why he though The Immortal would be a good title for a game, but I have to say as far as non-random isometric dungeon crawlers go this has got to be one of the hardest.  I could not beat this game even with a proper strategy guide and only finished the game by virtue of using a password system to skip passed the most difficult sections.  This game is also really gloomy and grotesque.  I have seen some 2D sprites go out in a bad way, but watching the player's character (an old wizard) get killed or take down goblins and trolls has to be the upper limit on the levels of gore Sega would allow in their games.  The plot is pretty straight forward; look for your mentor while avoiding traps and killing foes.  *spoliers* You end up fighting said mentor at the end and get rescued by the 'princess' rather than vice-versa. There's also a dragon who looks a lot like Vermithrax Pejorative, a spider that could be a close relative of Shelob and smaller versions of the desert worms from Arrakis.  The Watcher in the Water also makes a guest appearance.

At first glance you might disregard this game as yet another side scrolling shooter, but that would be doing Target Earth a great disservice.  Aside from varying mission objectives, and a reward system that allows for custom armament layouts, this is another game which I could not win without cheating.  In my defense I managed to make it halfway.  Most people dismissed this game for its brutal difficulty and I can remember seeing it heavily discounted not long after release.  At the time I played it I was familiar with Robotech, but not Gundam so I found this game with its 'assault suits' and the fighting-a-loosing-battle sci-fi military plot/gameplay to be engrossing. Mission briefings and mid mission dialogues help add weight to what you are doing.  It also had an excellent sound track for the time (here's a sample for your listening enjoyment). Target Earth got a sequel on the SNES entitled Cybernator and then a third entry which only came out in Japan. So, I guess this is the first in a trilogy though I must confess I only ever played the original.

There are a number of other titles I could talk about such as Shining Force, the one and only fantasy series to feature Tactical RPG game play on the Genesis.  Or Shadow Dancer, a highly underrated sequel to the somewhat lackluster Shinobi.  But truth be told, I think I've said enough about the Sega and their 16-bit system for now.  For those of you who have missed out on some of these titles though I hope this has been an interesting read.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Hidden Gems of Genesis (Part 1 of 2)

Growing up in the 80s I never actually owned an NES.  I played a bunch Nintendo games at friends' houses, but truth be told I went directly from an Atari 2600 to a Sega Genesis (although I also had an Apple IIc).  Because of that I think my experience, compared to other millennials, is a bit different than the norm.  So getting to the point here, I want to talk a bit about Genesis games.  But rather than talk about well known entries such as Sonic or Streets of Rage, I want to focus on some of the more unusual unique titles that did not get as much attention as I though they deserved, hidden gems if you will.

German for "Duke Two" this obscure early release title for the Sega Genesis was essentially a console exclusive RTS (CE-RTS?  Sound like a chemistry term...) with a lot of the basic elements that would become prominent in titles like Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander.  I actually never owned this game, but I had a friend who did.  He never learned how to prononce the title though.  It wasn't much of a financial success despite having a split screen versus mode and cool box cover art.  Perhaps it was ahead of it's time or maybe the console crowd was more interested in platformers which were in vogue at the time.  Then again it could simply be the odd title choice.  Regardless, it has just recently gotten a remake of sorts in the form of a micro-transaction driven "free-to-pay"...Ahem...I mean "free-to-play" game called Aeromech.  So if your curious to try this game out I highly recommend checking that title out provided you have a PC that has enough processing power to handle it.

A title commonly bundled with the Genesis was a bizarre side scrolling title by the name of Altered Beast.  Following that was Golden Axe which was what my friends always wanted to play whenever they came over to my house.  Then finally came Alien Storm.  Thus making a trio of games from the mind of Makoto Uchida, who has since faded into obscurity despite releasing seven other titles on various platforms. Oddly enough this last entry was probably better than the more famous Golden Axe in a number of respects. The gameplay is more varied, animations smoother and environments more interactive. Sadly, few people remember this title. Yeah, I know there's at least one person who's reading this and thinking "I played that game to death! What are you talking about, dude!?!" I should also mention that this and its two predecessors were also arcade titles among other things. Although the Genesis version tended to have more content in the form of additional levels, modes, or even enemy variants and boss presentation.

Out of the 915+ titles to be released on the Genesis my favorite by far was a self explanatory title called Gain Ground.  It was essentially a top down shooter but featured a number of unique gameplay aspects.  For one, the area of each stage was fixed to one visible location enabling two players to work together to a much greater degree than in other similarly themed games.  Another interesting feature was the types of units available.  Twenty in total each had their own unique strengths and weaknesses which made them more or less useful depending on the current situation.  Setting the game on easy or normal difficulty would allow for the rescue of new units on the battlefield, as well as the recovery of units who had been downed in action via towing their diminished forms safely to the exit.  This sometimes created a crazy dynamic in which players had to find ways to recover units without killing all the enemies, since that would end the stage prematurely.  Alternatively it was also possible to simply lead all your units one at a time to the exit, thus clearing the stage with minimal bloodshed.  However if time ran out for the stage only units which had made it to the exit would then advance.  On hard this could be problematic since players would start with a full set of units but would receive no additional reinforcements which altered the dynamics considerably. After clearing ten stages the theme would also alter from the Stone Age to the Iron Age then to the Industrial age followed by a post-modern era and finally a futuristic sci-fi setting. On a side note the arcade version allowed for three players though it lacked one of the level themes and its corresponding stages. A remake was also released on the PS2 in Japan.

That's all for this week, but I want to talk a bit more about the Genesis next time.  Although I'd like to shift themes a bit.  So think of this post as being divided into two parts.  Until then, check out some of the titles I've mentioned above if you haven't already.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Software ≠ Automobiles

Time and time again I keep hearing the argument that video game piracy is evil because it's stealing.  Then almost without fail the comparison to automobile theft is brought up.  Developers, producers, heck even website reviewers do this.  Not to mention there's always a few people on any given internet forum who say this whenever the topic is brought up.  Well, I'm here to tell you that, yes, stealing another person's car is wrong.  But that's not the same thing is as pirating a piece of software.

Let's break this down into three main differences:

First, an illegally downloaded copy of a game does not equate to a lost sale.  When a thief steals something off a store shelf it's commonly refereed to as "shrinkage" and it is lost revenue since the item that was taken can no longer be sold.  This applies to pretty much any form of physical goods, including video games sitting in boxes at your local gaming outlet.  But it's somewhat different with digital software.  Since, there is no way to definitively prove that the person who acquired the game via torrent would have paid money for it to begin with.  This holds especially true when you consider that many pirates don't necessarily have the funds or earnest desire to purchase what they download unlawfully.  So, when companies like Ubisoft claim that they lose more than half their game sales do to pirates I gotta to cry "bullshit!" because there is no way they can know for certain that any of those people would have purchased their game otherwise.  Sometimes this is referred to as victimless crime.

Second, a car costs a considerable amount of resources to make even once schematics have been drawn up and a prototype has been manufactured.  In contrast any piece of software can be duplicated pretty much cost free after it's written.  Yes, developers incur costs during programming because coders have to eat, and for that reason there is need of financial reimbursement for services rendered.  But let me ask you this; if I were to delete a piece of software would that constitute a loss of materials?  Obviously with cars it is, driving your automobile into an active volcano is a sure fire way to lose a big chunk of metal.  It's not easy to replace since more ore will have to mined and processed to make another one.  But with data it's no big deal because it's just a bunch of strings of 0's and 1's which can be replicated with the click of a button.  What I'm getting at here is the concept of digital verses physical.  A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their head around this idea.  Simply put we live in a post information scarcity world, and people who grew up before that time often don't really understand it.

Third, I know for a fact that there are people out there who enjoy driving.  Personally, I was more of a dirt bike kind of guy than a sports car enthusiast.  So, I never really saw the appeal while growing up, but I'll accept that there are people out there who think of cars as a form of entertainment.  For the vast majority of us though I'm pretty sure that automobiles serve primarily as tools to get us (and any stuff we throw in the back) from point A to point B.  Cars are a transportation devices, meant to make our lives easier.  When one of us is the target of automobile theft it's a big deal because that's a very important utility of our daily lives lost.  Video games on the other hand are really just entertainment.  I don't know anyone outside the industry who would get fired from their job if they could no longer play video games.  Yes, it would suck if someone stole your compete collection of Mario Party titles, but lets face it, compared to cars video games are hardly a necessity of life.

So in conclusion apples and oranges.  Anyone who gives you the whole piracy is straight up robbery doesn't really understand the issue and as such has taken an oversimplified view...possibly because they aren't comfortable with the complexities of the modern day world.  Now, let me end this by saying I'm not saying piracy is okay.  What I am saying is there are major fundamental differences between stealing software online and stealing physical products, which muddle the ethics of it all considerably.  Morality aside, people who completely take a pro or anti stance on this issue are really only saying one thing about themselves, namely "I haven't though deeply enough about this."  

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Deficiency of Ideas

"Need some help mining that?"
To start, yes, I know there's nothing new under the sun and that every new concept is build on the inventions of others.  I'm not arguing the semantics of  "originality" here.  Rather, I want to point out the lack of vision that periodically troubles the game industry.  Now for the record there's nothing wrong with a new IP that's a combination of two or more pre-existing games.  That's called hybridization in botany and it's important to the evolution of...well...pretty much anything including video games.  The issue that's bothering me is cloning.  No, not of sheep although it might be the case that the people perpetuating the production of game clones are metaphorically sheep.

I've heard it often said that developers have no shortage of ideas.  I find that hard to believe.  I suppose if your definition of "ideas" is the extremes of vague pie-in-the-sky concepts or nitty-gritty set piece action bits then, yes, I'll agree.  Developers have no shortage of those in-house workshop, design by committee, throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks "ideas."  What I mean though when I say "idea" is a much more expansive middle of the road concept.  Whether or not your a fan of Tim Schafer, Peter Molyneux or Markus "Notch" Persson it's very clear that these guys had an idea that was only the tip of iceberg for something much much more.  So, I guess what I'm saying here is there are ideas and then there are ideas.  I'm sure we can all agree that the video game industry has a lot of the former and not much of the latter.

I know this sounds like a bunch of ranting from an armchair game designer.  And, no, I don't think I am or ever could be of the same caliber as guys like Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro or The Two Guys from Andromeda.  But that's not really the point I'm trying to make.  An idea, as I think of it, is a seed you plant in the mind of yourself or others.  Once it takes root the concept can come to fruition through synergy.  I understand that inspiration is a fickle thing and sometimes an artist's well of creativity runs dry.  The important thing is when it has become a punch your card, by the numbers, rest on your laurels situation time to step down otherwise you risk becoming deadwood..  No shame in doing so either.  After all trying to come up with a new IP when your in a torpor is like digging for diamonds with a wooden pick, even if you find them you won't be able to capitalize them.  That is unless you have the help of someone with an explosive imagination.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dead Filler

The Dead Space franchise is steadily approaching it's third iteration provided you don't count all those spinoff games, comic tie-ins, the novel and the animated movie.  Based on what I've seen so far it doesn't look very promising.  Granted the original game was fairly derivative, borrowing concepts from a slew of horror films along with other survival horror games (namely Resident Evil 4).   I wont knock it for that though.  If your going to use other peoples' ideas it's best to steal from the masters such as Shinji Mikami, Isacc Asimov and Arthur C. Clark.  At least then the copy your making will be clean and crisp.

Looking back on Isacc Clark's first outing I can still pick up on some of the more carefully crafted bits that went into the design process.  The sci-fi Gothic architecture of the USG Ishimura gives off an aura of claustrophobia and oppressive danger adding to an already ever present need to get off the ship.  The hard metallic bone-like skeletal suit worn by the player character contrasts bizarrely well with the soft necrotic flesh bags which hunt him at every turn. Then there is the ubiquitous Church of Unitology, creating and element of paranoia on top of the madness produced by exposure to the alien Markers. So, while the game was less than original, it was a finely tuned nostalgic trip down horror lane. Unfortunately, the sequel didn't take the series anywhere new and worse yet lost some of its charm by virtue of being a copy of a copy in many respects.

Now, having seen the E3 trailer and demo I find myself looking at a copy of a copy of a copy which is called Dead Space 3.  All horror elements are faded and washed out. Necromorphs are no longer scary since Isacc can cut through them with ease. Rolling, taking cover and shooting soldiers only muddles the experience further. The word "dismemberment" could just as easy be applied to the story as it could the gameplay. Oh and drop in drop out co-op has been added for the sake of "bro-mance" (especially so when you consider that the main character's female love interest appears to perish at the beginning).

On the artistic side of things haunting zero-G vistas have been replaced by snowy landscapes which honestly feel like a rip off of Lost Planet or The Thing (the game not the movie).  Even the engineer suit has been redesigned to look more and more like something a comic book superhero would wear.  The creeping dread of stalking the corridors of a foreboding planet cracker starship have been replaced with trivial quicktime events and tension dispelling cursing.  Worst of all though is the huge amount of wasted resources poured into this title.  So much so EA claims that Dead Space 3 needs to sell five million copies to be worth while. Maybe there's too much dead wood at the developers offices? Regardless, going for a broad dude-bro audience isn't going to save this IP. A hefty dose of fear along these lines might breath new life into it though: