Monday, December 30, 2013

Lament of the Lynx

Ask a gamer what the best console is and you'll get a lot of different answers.  Ask them which console in the history of video games was the most deserving of more recognition than what it got and you will most likely here them speak of the Sega Dreamcast.  It is a sentiment that I can agree to on the one condition that we are excluding portable gaming devices from the conversation.  Otherwise I'd have to pick the the Atari Lynx as the greatest sufferer of gaming injustice.

I should mention that I never actually owned one of the things, but my brother had a revised version of the device.  It was an impressive piece of kit, with significantly better specs than any of its direct competitors.  The Nintendo Gameboy had a small display only capable of shades of grey.  The Sega Gamegear had a color screen, but it was only about two thirds the size of the Lynx's LCD.  Despite having a back light, the Lynx also boasted five to six hours of battery life compared to the Gamegear's three to four.  Another advantage the Lynx held was the ability to flip the orientation allowing the player to swap which side the D-pad and buttons were on, a great feature for people who aren't ambidextrous.

Sadly, there were a few drawbacks as well.  For one, the Lynx was a bit on the bulky side.  It was also more expensive than the competition.  Neither of these things were huge problems, rather, what really killed the Lynx was a lack of games.  Much like the Sega Dreamcast which came later, Atari's handheld couldn't get enough developers on board to build up a decent library.  It's a shame because the games that did come out for the Lynx were generally pretty good.  Faithful ports of arcade classics like Xybots, Xenophobia and Joust were made for it along with an excellent little WW1 flight-sim called Warbirds.  Tod's Adventures in Slime World was probably the single most outstanding game in the collection, and featured gameplay similar to Super Metroid (only it predated the SNES game by two years).

In stores the Lynx came packaged with California Games, and while I didn't care much for the skateboarding or hacky sack mini-games, surfing and especially BMX were a lot of fun to play.  I can remember my brother and I (along with several friends) trying to beat each other's high scores resulting in some rather insane tricks being pulled.  You might think it's impossible to do a 720 degree flip on a bicycle, but I managed to do in California Games...once.  A lot of the games also had a multiplayer component, but unfortunately my brother and I never got to really try that part out much because nobody else seemed to own a Lynx.

Overall the selection of games for the Lynx was well rounded especially when you look at the list of games that were in development, but never saw the light of day due to the discontinuation of the hardware.  The only thing really lacking was a strategy game.  Then again that particular genre was rare on anything other than a PC at the time.  Regardless, my brother's Lynx saw so much use over the years the LCD eventually burned out and one of the buttons stopped responding.  Rest in piece Atari Lynx.  You are, and will continue to be, miss.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Revenge of T.S.H.B.G.

Once more I have produced a list of three movies which would have probably been better off games rather than feature films.  For this outing I've decided to focus on some smaller budget lesser know motion pictures rather than the typical overwrought Hollywood blockbuster.  Incidentally, if you want to read the previous entries in this reoccurring segment you can check them out here and here.  Now on with the show!

Neither good enough to avoid a direct to video release, nor bad enough to enjoy cult classic status, "Moontrap" is a mediocre sci-fi flick staring Bruce Campbell and Walter from "Evil Dead" and Chekov from Star Trek.  The premise is sometime before recorded history humans got into an interstellar war with a robotic race capable of harvesting dead tissue and machinery in order to make Frankenstein copies of itself.  At around 14,000 years ago the conflict ground down to a stalemate and, while the Earth was spared any harm, the moon became...well, for lack of a better term, a trap.  Of course corny dialogue and nonsensical plot points didn't do this film any favors, but the basic components would make for an excellent horror game.  Think Echo Night: Beyond with a more comprehensible story, or Martian Gothic: Unification with better acting.

"The Last Battle," or in the original French "Le Dernier Combat," is a black and white art house film made by (the then 24 year old) Luc Besson, who later in life went on to  direct "The Fifth Element" among other movies.  What makes this post-apocalyptic tale stand out is the nearly complete lack of spoken dialogue.  Apparently people lost the ability to vocalize words as a consequence of the largely unexplained disaster which befell humanity.  Our hero is a lone male tinkerer, scavenger and aviator of sorts trying to survive in a desolate wasteland.  During the course of his journey he comes across a doctor who he befriends, and an adversarial brute who he does battle with using a lot of improvised weapons and armor.  Overall the film has a quasi-medieval vibe focused on basic needs such as food, water, shelter and companionship.  Imagine The Last of Us, Condemned: Criminal Origins and MadWorld all rolled into one and you have a pretty good idea of what this movie would be in video game form.

Last is "Gedo Senki" or "Tales from Earthsea" as it is called in English.  It's Goro Miyazaki's first film and a rare instance in which Studio Ghibli made a lackluster animated movie.  In part this is because of the ineptly written screenplay which disregards all the best parts of the source material in lieu of dull and disjointed attempts at an original narrative.  The saddest part is Earthsea is a rich and unique setting with interesting characters, plus a original system of magic based on Taoism and a bit of Jungian psychology.  By use of true names and an ancient language of creation, wizards are able to alter reality through spoken words which only a gifted few can comprehend.  The only problem is if the natural balance is disrupted to much the consequences can be disastrous both mentally and physically.  Imagine what this would be like as a video game.  It'd be like if Scribblenauts were to combine with Ni no Kuni and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Beautiful graphics and original gameplay!?!  Where do I sign up?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Unseen, But Not Undiscovered

I read a statistic that claimed half of all the people who play video games are female.  While my first instinct was to cry "bullshit," I've since thought about it a bit and come to the conclusion that if we're counting casual titles with really bare bones gameplay then, yes, it's most likely accurate.  A good example would be the hidden object subgenre of puzzle games.

Sort of a digital evolution of those activity books for young children, the primary mechanic of hidden object games is to look at relatively static pictures and find things from a provided list.  The closest I've ever gotten to playing one of these games is a free flash title called 6 Differences.  In the case of that game it's a dreamlike visual tale about pulling an all-nighter in a big city.  The storytelling is practically nonexistent and there's no dialogue.  However, in the case of many hidden object games the story is much more prominent with text driven conversations and narration.  Plots also tend to by centered around mother/daughter relationships.  I should point out that not all these games are about ponies, rainbows and other "girly stuff."  A lot of titles feature themes straight out of pulp novellas.

Another interesting aspect to the hidden object subgenre is the way the games are marketed.  They tend to be downloadable only, include free trail versions, are very cheaply priced and have low system requirements.  Personally, the artwork and certain story elements remind me a little of point-and-click adventure games.  Especially when it comes to the relaxed pace and overall style.  Unlike adventure games that I played in my youth though hidden object games tend to feature an integrated hint system.

While not something I feel terribly compelled to get into, I have to admit it's a category of video games that I knew nothing about until its existence was pointed out to me in a video courtesy of Extra Credits.  Kudos to them for shining a light on what is a rather low profile part of the gaming industry.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

And the Winner is...

The end of 2013 draws near and that means is time for the (now annual, but still non-standard) game of the year awards.  A lot of indie games made the list year (for better or worse), and not a single next gen title.  Take note that there are a few disclaimers at the bottom.

Avant-garde Award:
When a FPS tries to be realistic it usually opts for stuff like muzzle climb, recoil inaccuracy and bullet drop off at longer distances.  However, a largely ignored fact of firearms is the intricate and complex variety of configurations.  So, here we have a unique take on the genre.  No ammo counter, you have to remember.  No targeting reticle, you have to line up the sights.  Instead of auto-reloads, players need to hit a minimum of three different keys (a lot more if you need to put fresh rounds in an empty clip).  Your enemies are sentry turrets and flying tasers.  And the storyline...well...let's just say it's out there.

Backlash Award:
Between this and Aliens: Colonial Marines it hasn't been a good year for sci-fi/horror games.  Unlike Gearbox's franchise flop which fell on its face out of the gate and ended up in most people's trash bins, Dead Space 3 keeps being brought up time and again as the prime example of everything wrong with recent game design philosophies; micro-transactions, "real ending" DLC, social desirability bias infested focus testing, plus it's made by EA.

Brutality Award:
Based on old arcade classics like Rastan and Ghosts'n'Goblins, this has to be the most difficult game to come out of Kickstarter.  Checkpoints are few and far between making it difficult for players that don't memorize the location of every spiked pit, giant snake, arrow trap and club brandishing lizardman that stands between Völgarr and his goal.  Let me put it this way, if this were in an arcade instead of on Steam it would eat quarters faster than the stingiest slot machine in Las Vegas.

Canvas Award:
On top of having several show stopping bugs at launch (which you can see here an here), this indie title starts off with predominantly bland brown/green foliage and dull grey stone.  Once you get past the early levels though it splashes you with a more vibrant color pallet.  Crimson rivers of blood, teal northern lights and the antique whites from the tree of life are just a few examples.  It's a sad story, but it's presented in a beautiful way.

Ecology Award:
Aside from some crudely repetitive animations and unremarkable voice work, this overpriced game is practically identical to its board game predecessor.  Gameplay, graphical presentation and the scenarios themselves are unchanged (dice rolls and all!).  Worse still no editing tools were included at launch, nor any other ways to customize or enhance the experience.  I guess the design team felt that anything other than a carbon copy replica would be heresy.

"Engrish" Award:
I'm not sure if the title of this game is meant to be catchy or simply a confession regarding a lack of branding creativity from the marketing department.  Either way it's not a translation error.  That said I think most people native to countries like Australia, New Zealand, England or the USA would raise an incredulous eyebrow when told the name of this game for the first time.*

Esoteric Award:
Yes, you can just slap a bunch of rockets together and make it into orbit or maybe even the nearest moon.  But if you really want to master this game be prepared to learn about stuff like Hohmann transfers, gravity assists, the Oberth effect, Tsiolkovsky's rocket equation and most importantly Kepler's laws of planetary motion.  Now if you'll excuse me I got to break out my calculator and figure out the delta-v budget for this new design I've been working on.†

Lemon Award:
No need to trigger an disaster from the options menu in the 2013 version of SimCity, just trying to play the game is a disaster in itself.  Countless bugs at launch, most notable of which was the inability to actually play do to always online server authentication issues.  More than half a year later it still has major problems, the biggest of which are fundamental design flaws related to poor AI for traffic and the citizen behavior.    

Testosterone Award:
Where to begin...drinking, smoking, drugs, shootouts, brawls, tattoos, torture, rock music, tough guy one liners, jumping/sliding/exploding chopper motorcycles. absurd sex scenes, and a revenge plot involving 1960s California biker gangs...check out this rather graphic trailer for just a sample of what this 20+ hour game has to offer.  Why did I choose this over the better made, but similarly themed GTA V you might ask?  Well, unlike this id fueled teenage power fantasy, GTA V has a bit of intellectual sophistication in the form of biting social commentary and snarky satire on the ills of modern life.

Underdog Award:
Originally released by Level-5 as part of the "Guild01" game collection only available from the 3DS eShop, this obscure little title is the product of Yasumi Matsuno (creator of Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy: Tactics and Vagrant Story).  It represents a fusion of board game and video game; players can role polyhedron dice using the touch screen and navigate by selecting rooms from a hand drawn dungeon map.  Combat is done via in-game miniature figurines which twirl, topple and shake.  To a degree you can choose what loot you get from defeated enemies which is important since characters only improve by equipping better gear.   Definitely worth checking out, if for no other reason than the evocative writing.‡  

*Only out in Japan in 2013

†Counted as a 2013 release because of the addition of a campaign mode

‡Actually a December 2012 release, but counted here since it was after last year's award ceremony

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Adventures with the Old, Obscure and Odd

I was fortunate to have access to computer games early on in my childhood.  Unlike most kids my age, I didn't actually own a Nintendo, but instead had an Apple IIc.  By far my favorite games on that machine were Sierra "Quest" titles.  However, those weren't the only adventure games that stuck with me all these years.  In fact there are a few oddities that I can still remember playing in detail, not because they were fun, but rather because they were truly bizarre one-of-a-kind experiences.

T. rex was probably the first adventure game I ever owned.  Like many children, I had a deep interest in all things dinosaur related.  Advertised as a simulation/education game, it was more like a crude prehistoric version of Dark Souls.  The gameplay mechanics were unforgiving to say the least. despite being labeled an adventure game, survival seemed to be the only real goal. A bleak atmosphere mixed with feelings of foreboding also permeated the entire experience. Needless to say, my poor Tyrannosaurus became a premature fossil so often that the tagline "Prepare to Die" really should have been printed on the box. For me though, the most outstanding memory I have of this game would defiantly be the time I finally managed to bring down a Triceratops only to perish immediately after from overeating (as if worrying about things like dehydration, body temperature and fatigue weren't bad enough, the Tyrant Lizard King can also eat himself to death).  No wonder dinosaurs went extinct...

Next  up is Dondra: A New Beginning.  Basically it's a text adventure game with some pasted still images mixed with crude animation.  This one really threw me for a loop though with its 3-D sticker box art.  At the time, I had just seen a censored version of the cartoon film "Heavy Metal," obviously there is a parallel with regards to amazonian looking women riding on giant bird-creatures.  I couldn't understand what the relationship was between this game and that movie though.  Many years later, after the invention of the internet, I did a bit of research and found out that Dondra also goes by the name Questmaster.  Apparently it had nothing to do with any other licensed property.  Regardless, the setting was a bewildering collection of random places and characters which exuded a fantasy vibe, yet featured jarring signs of modernity such as firearms and industrial machinery.  Granted, weird adventure games were hardly anything new at the time.  I had already played Manhole for the Mac and that featured a fully voice acted jive talking dragon!  The interface was also strange.  At first glance it worked like most text parser adventure games, but had several areas in which the player would die if they lingered for very long.  To compensate for this it was possible to turn off all the images (making it a truly text only adventure) as well as the ability to stack input commands such that multiple things could be carried out in rapid succession.  Supposedly, two sequels were planned that would allow you to import your character from previous entries but for whatever reason Dondra never got past its first outing.  Maybe because no one could figure out what the game was supposed to be about...?

Zork has actually been around for quite a while.  Originally a text only adventure game series, it eventually became a point and click Myst-style game with the advent of CD-ROM technology.  This was a major departure since in its new form Return to Zork featured live action prerecorded video and audio segments along with detailed still images. Performances, generally speaking, were bad despite a cast consisting of real actors. Gameplay was mostly item gathering mixed with brief character interaction. There were a couple of mazes to navigate through as well. One unique feature was the ability to take photos of people or places and then show the pictures to other characters, who would comment on them. It was also possible to kill or scare off just about anyone in the game. Although doing so usually resulted in an un-winnable situation. Luckily this problem was offset somewhat by multi-solution puzzle design. Much like Dondra or Manhole the setting is really random and without a hint guide most players will spend the game fumbling around trying to figure out what to do and where to go. At one point in the game you are required to dump everything you are carrying in order to progress (rather cathartic for an adventure game). The story is incomprehensible and culminates in a sort of face off against the big bad (Morphius) which is settled by a match of "survivor" (it's a little like chess except each side only has one piece). Since the game didn't bother to explain much to me, I can't explain much of the narrative to you, but to this day I do remember little details like the Bonding Plant (needed to gain access to a comedy club) and a glows-when-wet fuel source called Illumite. Other than those factoids though nothing made more sense at the end of the game than it did in the beginning.

Now here's a game that's talking sense!