Thursday, February 27, 2014

Old School Tunes

Arguably the single best entry in the Metroid series, this SNES title also has some of the best music on the console.  Exploring the underworld of the alien planet Zebes is not for the faint of heart.  It's a foreboding place filled with underwater caves, subterranean jungles, hellish magma chambers and a haunted derelict spacecraft all infested with  horrific creatures.  Thankfully the heroin, Samus, is a fearless professional willing to risk the hazards as the opening theme illustrates rather nicely.

I actually prefer the 64-bit version of Star Fox a bit more than the SNES version if for no other reason than all the hammy one-liners.  That said, the original Star Fox has some of the best 16-bit starting level music out there.  It does a good job getting the player into the high intensity gameplay as well as selling you on the idea that the FX chip can produce fun games to play even if the graphics are kind of crude.   

I've mentioned the music score for Target Earth once before, but I'll mention it here again because, yes, it's that good.  While the title theme is the example I chose to highlight here (as before), the truth is pretty much the entire OST is great.  By all means check out the other tracks, particularly the ending song.

I'm cheating a bit with this one.  Rune is actually only 14 years old at the time of this posting which makes it nearly a decade newer than some of the oldest music pieces on this list.  The reason I added it anyway is twofold.  First, I wanted to include something that was on the PC.  Second, as far as Norse themed tunes about Icelandic sagas and epic journeys go this belongs on the must-listen-to list.

Streets of Rage (or Bare Knuckle as it is sometimes called) belongs on everyone's top five list of best "Beat'em Ups".  It also has some of the finest music you can find on the Sega Genesis.  The number of memorable tracks are too great to choose just one, so I defaulted to the first stage theme...which actually does a good job of expressing the franchise rather well, I think.    

If you thought Rune was too new to be here, your going to really be annoyed with this final choice.  Hotline Miami is hardly "old school" having came out in 2012.  However, it is set in the same approximate time frame as when the other games on this list were released.   Better still, the soundtrack takes a lot of inspiration from that time period.  So while not chronologically appropriate it is stylistically a good fit.  Enjoy!

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Spaces between Space

The notion of alien geometries is something comes up in science fiction stories to reference places that don't exist in the universe as we know it.  A simple example is the artwork of M.C. Escher which in turn has been translated into a PSN puzzle game by the name of Echochrome.  By shifting the view point around players are able to impose forced perspective tricks on the environment.  It's a clever idea, but for the purposes of this blog entry I want to explore the concept in video games a bit further...into higher dimensions.  Be forewarned a lot of science talk is coming up so put on your thinking caps.

Before we jump into the deep end though let's think about perspectives.  Humans have awareness and mobility in three dimensions, meaning we can see and move up and down, left and right, as well as forward and back.  We perceive time, the fourth dimension, in slices.  How big a slice depends largely on the activity of your brain.  Under extreme duress the slices might become very thin, stretching seconds out into what feels like minutes.  Meanwhile, sleeping thickens things to the point where hours pass in the blink of an eye.

To help explain what's coming next let's do a quick though exercise involving tiny hypothetical 2D creatures.  Imagine these flat little guys live on a sheet of paper.  Because of their nature they can only see and move forward and back, as well as left and right.  Everything above and below them doesn't exist from their perspective.  Now imagine for a moment you were to press your finger onto the paper in front of one of the creatures.  From its perspective it would appear as if a large amorphous blob had suddenly materialized in its plane of existence.  Then, of course, lifting your finger off the paper would promptly cause the blob to disappear.  I imagine that the creature would find this rather unsettling and if possible would want to communicate this disturbing event to its fellows.  The witnessing creature's faculties might be called into question, but assuming that such occurrences are a rarity in this 2D world; ghosts, UFOs or even magical interpretations aren't out of the question.  This might sound slightly mischievous or cruel, but a much more devious thing to do would be to bend and twist the paper 2D world on which these creature live.  Again, to them nothing has changed, but if you are operating in 3D (or higher) then things are definitely different than they were before.

In Siren: Blood Curse this kind of effect is represented by a kaleidoscope when the human protagonist of the story is pulled into the lair of the last boss, an alien being that inhabits a higher number of dimensions than four.  Dazzling color displays aside, this final opponent has the ability to seemingly break itself into pieces and then reassemble into several radically different combinations.  In fact the pieces aren't actually breaking apart, rather the player simply cannot see the connecting tissue because it does not intersect with the human plane of existence.

The term non-Euclidean is sometimes used to describe this hypothetical phenomenon since it literally means two lines or, by extension, planes that do not intersect.  The horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft used this kind of terminology to describe the sunken city of R'lyeh.  According to the text the buildings consist of various monolithic stone structures that have angles and gaps that would ordinarily cause a structural collapse.  However, this isn't the case because the buildings are supported in ways our mind can't process visually.  Indeed, in the story stepping through these weird cracks in the architecture can cause a person to come out in an entirely different location.  Obviously this makes it very easy to get lost.  In the point-and-click game The Dig, aliens attempting to explore six dimensional space find themselves lost and unable find their way back to normal space without the help of the player.

Obviously, all this is a bit difficult to imagine in your head, but there are several video game rendering engines that can produce weird geometric effects like Klein Bottles or "spiral" hallways that require 720 degrees of rotation to complete a full circle.  Don't believe me?  Check it out for yourself:

Are you thoroughly disoriented yet?  No!?!  Well, here's one more for you using the Portal 2 engine:

Now, if your sanity is still intact I think it's safe to say that you're a fairly logical minded person.  Whatever you think though don't dismiss all this as a bunch of improvable nonsense.  After all, only about 10% of the matter in the universe is accounted for.  While a number of astronomers have speculated on the nature of black holes and the average number of planets in a given solar system, I think using the catch-all term Dark Matter is a bit misleading because as the game footage above demonstrates, it might not be about light emissions but rather spacial locations.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Developer's Work is Never Done

With each new advancement in gaming hardware comes a substantial boost to how long in takes to make a games for said platform.  What used to take a single programmer a couple months has now turned into multi-year and multi-location teams with members in the hundreds.  Obviously you'd think that with the incredible cost of maintaining such a large stable of personnel there would be a huge emphasis on getting games out in a quick and timely manner.  Well, for a few franchises, such as Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty or EA's yearly sports titles (FIFA, Madden, etc.), this is the case.  However, a lot of studios end up in a rather difficult place wherein they try to make a game by the traditional model, but run out of time or money.

Titles like Battlefield 4 and Rome II suffer from being pushed out the door too early.  In other words buggy under-polished messes that take many months of patching to get to an acceptable state.  Of course this happens a lot less than the other aforementioned case, money.

Early access games started off few and far between, but since Steam has begun to support such a concept the number of titles for sale in an incomplete state has exploded.  The driving factor for this rapid expansion of unfinished commercially available games has a lot to do with exhausted production budgets and empty bank accounts, I'd wager...and I understand that.  Programmers and artists have to eat after all.  Yet there are some dangers to this recent trend as well.

Franchise fatigue, usually only associated with yearly IPs, is now a serious problem for even a single title provided it goes through enough iterations during development.  I can personally attest to this being the case for me and a number of acquaintances regarding Kerbal Space Program.  That said, it's not a real big deal for single player games, but a lot of early access titles are multiplayer only experiences, and as such are more likely to suffer from a shortage of online activity.

The other potential hazard is games lingering on far longer than they really should.  This might sound like a weird thing to worry about, but let me see if I can explain.  We already have DLC, ports, mods, and HD remakes stretching out the life of a game far longer than it would be otherwise.  Now with this new model of continuous development after commercial release we're looking at games that will be changing and expanding in perpetuity.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but in the case of...oh...say...Minecraft the game was coded using Java, a rather kludgy programming language not very well suited to current gaming machines, let alone future platforms.  Another example is Dwarf Fortress, a game that would seriously benefit from an improved UI.  Sadly, that isn't really possible without starting over from scratch.  Nevertheless, I have no doubt that people will still be playing these games decades from now.  Again, nothing inherently wrong with that...I just hope both players and developers realize that sometimes it's best to move on and start fresh.  Otherwise this industry is at risk of sliding into a nostalgia infested pit of stagnation.  Inside which everyone is still wrapped up in the golden oldies of yesteryear while simultaneously raging about edition wars like the worst kind of overweight, stinky neck-beards.

Friday, February 7, 2014

En Garde!

A couple weeks ago a little indie title came out on Steam by the name of Nidhogg.  It's basically a 2D fighting game that gets it's name from a rather obscure source.  As one gaming personality put it, the word "Nidhogg" sounds like a racial slur.  However, it's actually the name of a dragon from Norse mythology.  Unlike dragons in other viking sagas, such as Fafnir or the unnamed dragon in Beowulf, Nidhogg resides at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil, presumably chewing away on its roots like some nightmarishly giagantic reptilian gopher.  In this game it's a long pink flying serpent that devours the winning player whole at the end of each fencing match.  Believe it or not though this isn't the first appearance of Nidhogg the dragon in a video game.  While never explicitly stated, Dark Souls has a cameo of this particular mythical creature down in the hidden Ash Lake.

Entomology aside, I've seen a lot of comments here and there comparing Nidhogg the game to the original Karateka.  I can see the similarities, but the game which it reminds me the most of is an old arcade classic called Gladiator.  Originally made in Japan back in the 1980s, it was brought over to arcades in the USA.  Much like Nidhogg in single player mode, the objective of the game is to move right and face off against foes approaching from the opposite direction (usually the same one multiple times).  Unlike Nidhogg though there are occasional trap sections where the player must defend against incoming fireballs, bats, and other projectiles.  Pretty standard stuff, but what makes Gladiator unique is its design emphasis which rewards a cautious approach.  This is something practically unheard of in an arcade game since it's detrimental to profit margins.  Nevertheless, the idea here is to wear down an opponent's defenses by striking high, middle, and low with an era appropriate short sword.  Well timed hits will knock off location specific armor, damage an opponents shield, or even break their weapon, reducing them to a rather impotent state.  Time and again I saw arcade-goers throw cation (and their quarters) to the wind by rushing in with a flurry of blows.  More often than not this resulted in the player loosing the match even against relatively easy A.I. controlled opponents.  However, if a more forbearant player took the time to observe their opponent and plan accordingly then victory became nothing more than a matter of time.  Better still the game actively encouraged this strategy in the form of points awarded for stripping away an opponent's armor (head to ankle) before finishing them off with a blow to an unprotected area.  In this way players could net a higher score and earn their initials on the leader boards.  It's a neat mechanic which I think would suit Nidhogg quite nicely.

That's not to say Nidhogg is a bad game as is.  It just feels like its current state is a cool little PvP component for what could potentially be a much more compelling single player experience.  Imagine Nidhogg with a greater variety of enemies, weapons, and environments.  Not to mention shields and armor which could increase durability at the expense of mobility.  A few scripted visual story beats would add a lot too (à la the original Prince of Persia) or Out of this World (Another World for those of you outside the USA).

Sadly, it sounds like the creator of Nidhogg is more interested in online play and the whole E-sports scene rather than making enhancements to the single player component.  Again, I don't want to be too hard on the guy.  I know this game spent a long time in development and I'm really glad that it has finally become available for anyone and everyone to try's just Nidhogg could be so much more, I think.  *Sigh*...C'est la vie!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst

Is the glass half empty or half full?  If you choose the latter then it sounds like you're a pessimist, but if you choose the former you sound like an optimist.  Regardless of which you choose though, the reality is most of us fall somewhere in the middle.  I find myself often torn between what I hope a game will be while simultaneously trying to hedge my expectations.  Three titles currently in development have been on my mind of late; one nearing completion, one in the process of being crowd funded, and the last has yet to get underway.  Are they half full or half empty?  Let's find out.

Half Full:  Finally an Alien themed game that's not just another bug hunt.  A relatively helpless player, only one xenomorph, and a poorly lit claustrophobic retro-future's like a sci-fi version of Amnesia: The Dark Decent (but not Soma because that would be redundant).  Driven by a complex AI, the Alien itself promises to threaten the player dynamically rather than a forced reliance on scripted events.  Outmatched, the player must depend on a motion tracker, welder, hiding places, and possibly an incinerator unit to survive.  Based on what I've seen it looks absolutely terrifying in a good way, of course.  The time frame is set between the first and second films, which gives the story line some interesting opportunities to introduce new characters and locals.  Perhaps we will learn more about the enigmatic race of space engineers too.

Half Empty:  Two words about the development team - Creative Assembly.  I've talked about these guys in the past (link), but in case you aren't aware their track record isn't exactly stellar. In all likelihood we're looking at something that will be a buggy mess with so many issues, flaws and janky bits it will hardly be playable.  Expect months and months of patches to get it into a properly polished state.  Not that anyone will really care because the story will be some terrible piece of fanfic with a total playtime of about two hours.  Don't worry though, they'll still charge you full price for it.  Also, the Alien will get stuck on the level geometry and make a lot of generic animal noises for some reason.

Half Full:  Currently gathering funds on Kickstarter, this tactical RPG is the brainchild of Yasumi Matsuno (creator of Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy: Tactics, Vagrant Story and more recently Crimson Shroud.  He's one of my favorite Japanese game designers in no small part because his games resonate with real medieval history, rather than typical JRPG trappings taken from the J-Pop scene or story beats better suited to some paint-by-the-numbers TV Drama.  Better still, it looks like a bunch of ex-Sega "gaijin" are on the development team which means this particular title could be a fusion of the best that east and west game design philosophies have to offer.  Provided they can get enough cash together the talented composer, Itoshi Sakamoto and two veteran translators are going to join the team as well.  Overall it seams to be a very promising title for fans of strategy games.

Half Empty:  The Kickstarter will fail to reach a worthy goal.  Or worse still, it will greatly exceed the goal only to founder afterward resulting in vaporware.  Mr. Matsuno isn't exactly the most mentally stable individual either.  I understand that it's a fine line between genius and insanity, but initial flip-flopping on twitter about his degree of involvement with the project isn't exactly encouraging.  Worst of all though is the lack of any proof of concept.  The game thus far is nothing more than some hand drawn artwork of landscapes which isn't very helpful when you consider that the game is supposed to use a 3D engine to render environments (as opposed to flat backdrops).  The Kickstarter could really benefit from a vertical slice or something (anything really) to show what the design team is going for.

Half Full:  First off, if you haven't seen the teaser trailer for this game go check it out on the official website here.  Personally, I really dig the art style.  The use of negative spaces really coveys the perfect kind of atmosphere for a horror themed RPG.  The idea of characters having to struggle with both mental and physical threats in a dynamic way is a relatively unexplored concept when it comes to electronic entertainment.  Also, fantasy themed video games are so ubiquitous these days it's refreshing to see a title that sets itself apart from the pack with unique mechanics, character archetypes, foes and overall style.  It doesn't hurt if you're a huge fan of old-school Dungeons and Dragons or the H.P. Lovecraft Mythos either.

Half Empty:  The problem with trying something new and untested when it comes to video games is the danger of becoming trapped in development hell.  Mechanics that looked fun on paper turn out not to be in play, or else end up being incredibly difficult to achieve due to unforeseen complexities of their design.  The "affliction mechanics" could very well be overly simplistic or more annoying than fun in practice.  Worse still the game could be the kernel of a revolutionary new aspect of video game design which ends up being marred or scrapped entirely because the creators lack the resources or confidence to see their idea through to the finish.

To the three development teams of these games, I wish you luck, but all the same make sure to watch your step.  The road ahead is filled with perils.  Choose wisely though and even greater glories await you.