Friday, April 25, 2014

One for an Underdog

When it comes to LPers on Youtube a small minority of channels get the vast majority of views.  This isn't necessary a bad thing.  "Cream rises to the top," as the saying goes...but I've noticed an unfortunate pattern that occurs all too often on the bigger channels.  For one thing they tend to do Lets Play videos of whatever the hot new release is only to abandon the series part way through, leaving audience members in the lurch.  Yeah, I get that they lost interest or couldn't draw the number of viewers they wanted, but it still makes for a rather unsatisfactory conclusion.  Another annoyance comes in the form of channels that show gameplay videos of a particular title on a nonstop basis.  I'd honestly like Toby's channel a lot more if he'd give Happy Wheels a rest.  Same goes for Paul Sores Junior and Minecraft, or Epic Name Bro and Dark Souls.  Again, I know that certain viewers go to particular channels because they're looking for specific games, but what it really comes down to in LPs isn't the game, it's the person playing it.

So to get to the point, I'm giving a shout out for one of the many lesser know Youtube gaming channels that I think doesn't draw the amount of attention it really deserves.  The label is "TotalGameFreak," but don't let that discourage you.  The content producer is a guy who goes by the name of Marshall Dyer, which might very well be his real name.  In an age where everyone sports clever sounding internet handles this actually comes off as a rather novel idea.  He's got a good voice and while his commentary was a little uneven early on, he has been making steady improvements to his style.  He also has some skill and knowledge about the games he plays which is more than I can say for some major gaming outlets...*cought* Giantbomb *cought*...excuse me...must have caught a cold.

The thing I like about his channel the most though is the fact that he focuses on lesser known indie titles quite a bit.  Ever heard of Salt, Stasis or To The Moon?  Neither had I until I visited his channel.  The truth is every time a triple AAA title comes out it gets hundreds of LP's on Youtube (not to mention constant streams on Twitch).  Frankly, it's overkill, but then I guess a lot of LPers are constantly scrambling for bigger view counts.  Meanwhile, little releases on Steam or older, more obscure stuff on the PC tends to have no representation on the internet outside of a short blurb on database websites like MobyGames.  There are other Youtube channels out there such as Splattercat that try to educate and provide insight rather than cluelessly screwing around in front of a webcam like some nine year old with ADD.  It's easy to slap together some content (all you need is a fairly new computer, a mic and FRAPS), but putting together something that is polished or informative takes a lot more effort.  For me it's depressing to see guys like PewDiePie pulling in some of the highest view counts of LPers on Youtube.  I guess there's no account for taste...

Regardless, I hope at least a few people will notice this blog post of mine and give Marshall Dyer's videos a look-see.  He's active in the comments section and uploads new stuff on a regular basis...yet his view counts rarely climb over the 100 mark.  The man deserves more recognition so give his channel a try.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Uncut Gemstones

With the rise of indie development studios there are far more games in the works than can be realistically kept track of.  Even database websites dedicated to maintaining exact records are usually only able to accurately list titles already released.  So, in the interests of finding diamonds in the rough I did a bit of digging and came up with three intriguing games that have been announced, but lack much in the way of details.

At the conclusion of the science fiction novel Ender's Game, the protagonist retires from a life of military service to become what is called "A Speaker for the Dead."  While the concept is fleshed out in later books in the series, the short version is these oddly named individuals are people who learn about and then tell tales of nations, cultures and races that have perished so that their legacies will not be completely forgotten.  The idea of making a game built around this theme is fascinating to me...I just hope it isn't a generic puzzle platform.

Supposedly based on extensive research, Riot allows players to take the role of police or protesters in what looks to be a beautifully presented pixel art strategy game.  Although not widely known, there's a huge array of methods and tactics employed by both sides during large scale real life outbreaks of civil unrest.  Just to give a quick rundown of what I'm talking about check out the link here.  Needless to say proper application of these concepts in a game could make for an uniquely educationally, as well as fun, experience.

On paper Below doesn't seem particularly special; yet another rogue-like dungeon crawl, wherein the player must slay and explore...*Yawn*  On closer inspection though the style of this project really stands out.  The player's onscreen avatar is tiny compared to the stark vistas he inhabits, conveying an overwhelming feeling of intimidation and dread.  It's like Legend of Zelda, but with more mature sensibilities. Given Capybara Games' reputation for innovation, I look forward to hearing more about this delve into the depths.   

Friday, April 11, 2014


Inspired by a naming competition done by the Giantbomb crew to pass the time while they signed posters on a live stream for something like 3 hours, I decided to play alphabetical categorization with video game titles too.  Here's the basic ground rules:

  1. There must be three entries all with matching first letters in the title (excluding "Y").
  2. All entries must have been played at some point (by me).
  3. Connecting words don't apply to rule #1 (such as "the","and", "of", etc.) 

Now let me sing you my video game ABC song (with links).
A is for Asteroids, Archon and Armored Ambush.
B is for Breakout, Bioshock and Battle Bugs.
C is for Contra, Castlevania and Choplifter.
D is for Dig Dug, Double Dragon and Diablo.
E is for Earthsiege, Enslaved and Extermination
F is for Final Fantasy, Food Fight and Fatal Frame.
G is for Gladiator, Gemcraft and Gain Ground.
H is for Heretic, Halo and The Horde. 
I is for ICO, inFAMOUS and The Immortal.
J is for Jet, Joust and Journey.
K is for Killzone, Kengo and Karateka.
L is for Lemmings, Limbo and The Land of the Lounge Lizards.
M is for Metroid, Mechwarrior and Myst.
N is for Nocturne, Nova 9 and NARC.
O is for Oni, OutRun and Ogre (never actually played the original board game).
P is for Populous, Paperboy and Pirates!
Q is for QuackShot, Q*bert and Quake.
R is for Rogue, Rampage and Ring of Red.
S is for Strider, Siren and Sword of Sodan.
T is for Tetris, Thief and Trine.
U is for Uncharted, Ultima Underworld and Unreal (before it became an engine).
V is for Valis, Viking and The Visitor.
W is for Wolfenstein, Warlord and The Witcher.
X is for Xybots, Xenophobe and X-COM.
Y is for Year Walk, Yar's Revenge and Yume Kojo: Dokidoki Panic.
Z is for Zelda, Zork and...well...Z...

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Back in the days of FMV gaming it was pretty common to see amateur actors while playing early CD-ROM titles.  Since then though that atheistic has fallen out of fashion to the point now where it's practically unheard of to even see box art featuring images of real people.  While I can honestly say I'm glad those dark times are behind us I still think the use of live-action performances has a place in gaming culture.  Not in the form of movie adaptations so much as straight up parody works done purely for comedic relief.  Here's three example videos of Final Fantasy VII, Streets of Rage, and Doom to illustrate my point:  

Incidentally, you might have noticed that the Doom video clip was actually directly from the film adaptation.  This is true except for the targeting reticle and the sound effects (which have been changed back to those used in the original game).  Personally, I found this a significant improvement to what was already the only interesting part of an otherwise dull movie.  I guess it just goes to show you the cheesier it is the more humorous it becomes.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Long Shadowed Cherry Blossoms

Sakura Wars, or Sakura Taisen in the original Japanese, is a long running franchise consisting of five main titles, numerous spin-off games, various comics, an anime mini-series and a feature length animated film in addition to a ridiculous amount of plastic merchandise.  Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of the Sakura Wars (aside from being classified as a "tactical role-playing adventure game") is the fact that it had a stage musical with the voice cast from the game reprising their roles in live performances.  Despite considerable domestic success though the franchise has never gained much traction outside of the land of its birth.  That said, the series has had considerable influence on a variety of games made outside of Japan.  Just to name a few, GTA IV, Wing Commander III, Mass Effect 2, and Dragon Age: Origins all utilize mechanics that made Sakura Wars so innovative in its heyday.  In particular, cultivating a team, earning their trust, and building person relationships in order to foster greater effectiveness in combat are key mechanics which did not exist before Sakura Wars.  Their is a whole lot else that made this series unique; some good, some bad, and some downright ugly.  Lets start with the good.

Set in a 1920s alternative history in which World War 1 never occurred, Sakura Wars focuses on a single cosmopolitan city (either Tokyo, Paris or New York, depending on the game).  The main cast of characters are psychically gifted and as such are charged with halting demonic incursions, essentially satanic cult terrorist cells.  In order to give these heroes a fighting chance they have been outfitted with steam powered mecha.  Cross a turtle, armadillo and beetle, build it a suit of armor using a deep sea diving suit as the template and you have "Kōbu" (or "Spirit Armor" if you translate the meaning of Kanji to Enlgish).  Personally, I find the design pleasantly refreshing.  Compared to the rather generic ultra-slick hyper-kinetic mecha that dominate the genre, Sakura Wars opted to go with much more bulky yet durable looking machinery.  It makes sense after a fashion.  If you think about it, psychically gifted individuals are a rarity which means they need to be protected from harm. While the Kōbu might inhibit mobility, and offensive potential, it greatly reduces the chance of injury or death.  Thus ensuring that the unit retains combat effectiveness over multiple operations.  Instead of traditional RPG style leveling up based on the number and type of enemies defeated, characters improve by interacting with each other outside battle.  Good moral equates to stat bonuses, making good management of the team essential to achieving victory.

So, what's bad about this game?  Well, for one thing the steam mecha are underutilized.  Color schemes aside there isn't a whole lot of other visual customization.  Mechanics-wise only the signature weapons of each character make a difference.  Here too the designers drop the ball.  I'm cool with the idea of these mechanized soldiers using traditional Japanese arms since the damage isn't done so much by the weapon itself, as a psychic extension of the character.  In other words, the weapon is a focal point for the character's innate power.  If you still have no idea what I'm saying go check out this clip on weirding modules from the film adaptation of Dune.  So, speaking in-universe it makes sense that something like an ancestral sword would better suit one of these psychic warriors than a more conventional weapon.  Unfortunately the game seems to abandon this idea shorty after introducing it since some of the characters employee pretty silly armaments, such as a holy-cross shaped machine gun or steam-powered laser beams.  It's a pity because there's more than enough variety to feudal Japanese weapons.  Off the top of my head we got a single katana, a daishō combo, the long-bladed ōdachi, the neither-here-nor-there nagamaki, the naginata, the yari, and the kanabō.  Worst comes to worst getting down and dirty with Aikido, Judo or Karate are also viable strategies.  After all, watching mecha duke it out (while causing extensive collateral damage) is one of the highlights of the genre...which is also why it's disappointing that Sakura Wars uses a bland abstract hit point system rather than location specific damage modeling.

Mecha issues aside, the character interaction segments tend to fall into the dating sim variety.  Eventually the developers steered clear of this territory when they moved on to make Valkyria Chronicles.  While an improvement, I think the best model to follow would be something akin to Telltale's The Walking Dead series.  It's interesting to note that Sakura Wars was one of the first to employee time limited dialogue trees, and it even had an episodic format (except all episodes in a season/game were sold as one set, so to speak).  Regrettably, the script writer seemed to adhere to the format a bit too much in that the villains of Sakura Wars fall into the hammy, Saturday-morning-cartoon category...and here's where things get ugly.

Racial stereotypes and the kind of sexism that comes with harem anime (you can only play as a guy and all the other major characters are young attractive single women) are problems.  Generally speaking , the storytelling is too reliant on overused character archetypes and cliche tropes.  Just to give a quick example of this, the first combat encounter of the very first game has your team dispatched to Ueno Park in Tokyo to stop demonic forces that are engaged in destroying a bunch of temporary snack vending stalls.  So, basically these bad guys are on the same level of evil as a bunch of mischievous teenagers.  Overall, the execution of the concept feels like it has more in common with Power Rangers (excuse me, Super Sentai) than anything else.  Any kind of dramatic tension is also tossed out when the heroes arrive on the scene via a special subway train...that leaps out of the park pond like a giant metallic serpent!  Let me stress, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially for the time in which it was created.  The thing is gamers have grown older and the new generations thankfully don't have to same tastes as those that came before.

Despite one failed attempt to market the game overseas it sounds like Sega still clings to the hope that Sakura Wars will find a substantial audience overseas.  The only way I think this can happen though is with a re-imagining of the franchise.  Replacing demons with the Cthulhu Mythos would go a long way toward giving the setting a time period appropriate threat.  Instead of romance being the main theme, I'd make it a secondary to keeping the team (of equally mixed gender individuals) alive and sane.  At the same time the setting should avoid getting too grimdark since the key theme of Sakura Wars has always been a blend of comradery and nostalgia.  Turn based strategic combat and a specially trained unit formed for the sole purpose of fighting off cosmic horrors might scream X-Com to some people, but I think this too should be avoided since distinctly memorable characters with compelling story arcs is the series strong point.

On a technical side it would be advantageous to integrate destructible environments and accurate damage modeling.  Some of the tech on display in titles like Beam NG Drive would add a lot to the visuals of mech combat.  Heavy use of Kanji and other signature visual could be adapted to a western UI in the form of roman numerals, analogue dials and fluid gauges (not to mention vacuum tubes).  The turn based combat sections of Sakura Wars were derived from table-top war games.  Another useful source for inspiration might be CthulhuTech.  Futuristic trapping aside, the setting material contained in this table-top RPG could provide helpful structural guidelines for rebooting the IP.  Just be sure to swap out cyberpunk with steampunk.

Like a lot of Japanese media, Sakura Wars represents a combination of interesting ideas tailored to an overly insular market.  Sure, the "Otaku" crowd love it, but I find myself agreeing with Miyazaki Hayao when he says they're what's holding the medium back.  Then again with a fresh perspective and a bit of creativity this landmark series could bloom again.