Sunday, December 25, 2016

Ultra Obscure

Over the years I've accumulated some completely trivial bits of video gaming knowledge.  It's pointless, and in some cases nearly impossible to confirm, but if you (dear reader) will indulge me for a moment I'd like to share a few tidbits here.

Missile Command started as an arcade game, but was also ported to a large number of other platforms.  Most of these adaptations are more or less true to the original with the possible exception of the version made for the 128k Macintosh home computer.  This black and white version of the game had an unusual feature to its design.  The Anti-missile system at the player's disposal is capable of launching low angle intercepts that will destroy the cities they are charged with protecting.  For some reason the designers made it so explosions that shave off enough of the skyscraper tops count as a destroyed city during the end-of-round tally.  As far as I know this is the only version of Missile Command to have such a peculiarity, although I suppose its inclusion makes sense.  Apparently Apple didn't believe in fail safe mechanisms.

The Atari 2600 version of Defender is hardly the best port of that game, but it does have a presentation that is fitting for the console.  Unlike the arcade version, which takes place on a series of barren moons, players have what appears to be a city skyline at the bottom of the screen.  Here, they can rescue hapless inhabitants, who don't seem to be stranded astronauts like the original.  Rather they are surviving residents in need of a pickup.  Here's the weird part, the player's ship will drop behind the cityscape making it a form of refuge since the enemies in the game cannot go there.  In essence the player can escape harm by breaking into the third dimension.  I believe this is the first game to utilize this mechanic, although it has been copied in many other side-scrolling games since (Lone Survivor being the most recent example I can think of).

Breakout featured box art that gave the impression that it was some kind of weird take on tennis.  Super Breakout did something similar, but moved the location to outer space.  Normally, if you want to play one of these classics you're going to have to buy a "greatest hits" collection online or else get an emulator and visit some websites of ill repute.  However, folks who use Google Chrome can take advantage of a little Easter egg embedded into the web browser code.  Just type "breakout" in the search box and click the image tab to narrow the search results.

Voila!  The game, or a rough approximation of it, is available here for anyone to enjoy free of charge.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Bangs and Bucks

Looking back on my gaming purchases this year so far, it's clear that I've bought more games in 2016 than the last several years combined.  What's more, pretty much all my purchases have been indie titles.  Because of the price difference, the cost of two dozen of these indie titles amounts to about the same amount as a half-dozen indie triple AAA games.  The variety of experiences is also worth mentioning.  When it comes to video games I've played isometric games, side-scrollers, top-down RTS titles, and turn-based strategy ranging from conquering galactic empires to small bands of individuals just trying to survive.

I've gone adventuring in idyllic fantasy kingdoms and futuristic dystopian hellholes.  I've solved puzzles, jumped platform to platform, and flown starfighters through the void of space.

I've commanded fleets and armies, ruled centuries beyond reckoning, and died more times than I can possible count.

I've filled the shoes of wizened old men, frightened children and muscle-bound barbarians bent on revenge.

I've lead hordes of undead, fought against them in battle, and taken the role of giants made from machine and metal or in other cases flesh and blood.

I've sailed wooden ships from island to island, and conducted trains from station to station.

I've seen other worlds, watched kingdoms begin and end, wielded weapons of ice, fire, steel and hard-light.

I've called destruction down from the heavens with technology and magic.

I've conversed with aliens, ghosts, monsters, and madmen.

I've built starships, dune buggies, and decks of cards.

I've been a pilot, a king, a knight and a cop.

If I had stuck to the triple AAA scene, I might have experienced some of these things from the first or third person perspective.  Even so, I have to ask, "Does it really matter if your character is made of pixels or polygons?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  I think one new experience is worth a thousand of the same old ones...especially when it costs and average of one-quarter the price.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

And the 2016 Award Winners are...

When it comes to real life stuff, this was a pretty rough year.  On the other hand 2016 was fairly good with regards to video games, especially compared to 2014.

Avantgarde Award:
It's a little bit hard to analyse Playdead's Inside, because no matter what your take is you're always left with more questions than answers.  In light of the gainax ending there are huge number of interpretations none of which make much sense unless you view the whole thing as a metaphor.  Regrettably, even then the vagueness means even then each person's take on the game is equally valid.  I've even heard one popular theory that the entire thing is a metaphor for game development itself!  Perhaps that makes it cutting-edge.  Regardless, I'm giving it this award simply because of the ending segment which is a triumph of procedurally generated animation.

Backlash Award:
There's a lesson to be learned hear about the dangers of over-hyping a product. Never have I seen so much wonder and anticipation turn to disgust and rage.  Additionally, the 60 dollar price tag served to exacerbate the problem to such a degree that people were doing pretty much anything and everything to get a refund.

Brutality Award:
I completed XCOM: Enemy Within on the classic difficulty setting with only one death.  When it comes to XCOM 2, on the other hand, I can't even finish the game (regardless of casualties) on anything higher than the "normal" difficulty setting.  Anyone who finishes XCOM 2 on the hardest setting deserves a medal...probably the purple heart for suffering from PTSD.

Canvas Award:
One of the potential pitfalls of using a vibrant color pallet is the risk of creating something truly garish.  Thankfully Hyper Light Drifter produces a wonderful feast for the eyes in each of it's four major locals.  Maroon cyber-trees, teal fungal-crystals, and a deadly pink energy are just a few examples of the weirdly enigmatic stuff you;ll find here.  Much like a multi-course banquet each area mangers to hold a special place on the color wheel without looking tacky.

Ecology Award:
Typically when I hear the word "sequel," I think of something that is similar to it's predecessor, but also distinct in it's own way.  However, in the case of Banner Saga 2, "sequel" really just means Act II of what will probably being a single game.  There are very few new assets here and what little there is comes mostly down to reusing or redressing of stuff that was already in the first game.

"Engrish" Award: 
When Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars started it's early access program a common complaint was the lack of a tactical withdraw option.  Enter the "Rereat" button.  Introduced as part of the first major update, it didn't work.  Then again, it wasn't spelled correctly either.  Whatever "Rereat" is supposed to mean it doesn't involve fleeing from combat.

Esoteric Award:
Paradox games have always had a certain opaqueness to them and the Hearts of Iron series is no exception.  Despite being the fourth and most approachable entry in the franchise, it still feels like you have to be a real-life World War 2 history buff to play this game...not to mention stand any chance of grasping what the heck is going on with all those fleets, airplanes and armies.

Lemon Award:
Where to begin...?  There's the brain-dead AI, floating guns, objects bouncing around the environment of their own volition.  Plus reviving a fallen ally causes them to spawn anew out of their lifeless corpse.  The sound effects are bugged too.  Worst of all though is the premise, which doesn't make sense on a geo-political level anymore than it does in terms of basic human behavior.

Testosterone Award: 
Before the rise of proper clothing, but after the invention of full body waxing there was a time of hard-bodied savages, who liked to stick sharply pointed objects into each other.  Many vital fluids were spilt and glaring faces made.  Unto this came Rahaan and Sheyna, chosen by a bare-skinned goddess to decapitate, disembowel and eviscerate their way to victorious revenge.  Now let me tell you about the days of gore-splattered nudists...

Underdog Award:
A ghost story about four teens on an abandoned island might not sound like anything special, but Oxenfree manages to elevate the premise into something truly memorable thanks to a strong cast of characters.  The writer did an excellent job of crafting individuals who are simultaneously relatable and annoying in the most plausible ways.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Kinetics in Play

Contrary to what the title might imply, today's blog post has nothing to do with Microsoft Kinect, Sony Move wands, Wii remotes or any form of VR.  Instead I want to get back to basics.  On-screen movement and controller inputs in video games are a tricky combination to balance well.  Too much emphasis on natural looking motion and it can become difficult for the player to traverse the in-game environment.  Meanwhile, placing an overriding priority on control can lead to a disconnected weightless feel.  In first person shooters it sometimes manifests itself in the form of a "floating gun" effect, while in other genres it can result in problems like button mashing or clipping with objects in the environment.  Of course it's perfectly possible to end up with flat out bad interface that neither looks realistic, nor is particularly responsive to player inputs.  However, when it comes to complaints, I notice far more people taking umbrage with realism messing up what they want to do than the other way around; case in point - horses.

Players love to grumble about horse handling in Red Dead Redemption, The Witcher 3, and Shadow of the Colossus, but the bitter truth of the matter is that's the way horses act in real life.  They aren't motorcycles with legs.  Another great example of design choices that players take issue with is sudden changes in directional input.  Realistically, it isn't so quick and easy for a fully grown person to suddenly reverse course once they're going full tilt (especially true if said person is burdened by heavy equipment).  Either the character needs to skid to a sudden stop (like in Mario Brothers) or pull a tight 180 degree turn.  Personally, I slightly prefer the former over the latter, but I don't think either is objectively better than the other.  Ultimately it comes down to gameplay design decisions.  Wind-up animations might seem annoying to some folks in games like Monster Hunter or the "Soulsborne" series, but they're integral design elements.  The same goes for tank controls in Resident Evil.  They might be frustrating and seem bad all around, but take them out and the main antagonists of the series, shambling zombies, are no longer a threat.  Granted developers could make them into the fast sprinter zombies, but that would fundamentally alter the gameplay.  I happen to like Resident Evil 4 along with the remake of the original, the second entry and Nemesis, but I know people who feel that the frenetic pace of the more recent additions to the series killed the mood that they enjoy in the originals.

So to summarize, I'll say this; there are good controls, bad controls, and then there are controls meant to enforce a certain style of gameplay.  For the sake of accurate developer feedback, make sure you are certain which it is before ranting/raving about it.  As a side note, I'm not all that keen on standardized controls because as it stands now there's already a lot of homogenization - Mad Max, Assassin's Creed, Uncharted, they all play similar to such a degree that I sometimes worry it's preventing innovation.  So, in that sense, I think it's important to keep an open mind (although there's no excuse for not having an invert axis option).  You might not be able to teach a old dog new tricks, but I don't see why a keyboard-and-mouse guy can't learn how to use a video game controller or vice-versa.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Cross Media Deja Vu

In case you don't know "deja vu" is a French phrase used to describe an event that feels like an exact repeat of a previous experience.  I've never had a feeling of deja vu while playing a video game, but I have had it twice (back-to-back) recently while watching movies.  The most bizarre part is the feeling of witnessing it all before wasn't tied to other films, but rather video games.

I suppose it's not all that unusual to be reminded of a video game while watching a movie.  I've heard people say that watching "Big Trouble in Little China" reminded them of Mortal Kombat (even though the former pre-dates the latter).  At the very least Shang-sung and Raiden look like they were lifted directly from the film.  Another example is "Children of Men" and Half-Life 2.  Aside from both taking place in European dystopias, the two have very little in common story-wise.  However, the visual style and subdued color pallet of both mesh so perfectly it's hard not to see the resemblance.  In my cases of deja vu though the connection between film and game probably won't be immediately obvious even to people who are familiar with both pieces of media.

I'm up to four "Paranormal Activity" movies that I've seen now.  While critics are generally negative toward the series, I've always had a soft spot for found footage films.  There's a certain art to making a film look like it was shot on a cheap portable camera by amateurs while still retaining the cinematic essence of a scene.  It wasn't until the third entry in the franchise (not counting that spinoff in Tokyo) that I realized how much the film series felt like a later entry Silent Hill game, particular Silent Hill: The Room and Silent Hill: Homecoming.  At the very least Dahlia Gillespie could pass herself off as Grandma Lois' sister (not to mention a member of the same cult).  The plot point of having a gateway opening up inside your home that leads to another time and place isn't exactly original, but here it seems especially poignant considering the supernatural elements aren't attached to a place, but rather an individual.  In "Paranormal Activity" it's usually one of the protagonists (or their kids) while in Silent Hill it's characters like Cheryl/Alessa/Heather, Walter Sullivan, or Alex Shepherd.  The background info is also similar in many respects although this could simply be the result of both creative teams drawing inspiration from the horror classic "Rosemary's Baby," which in turn presumably comes from tales of occult practices.

Knowing how much was deliberately copied versus transmitted unintentionally through cultural osmosis can be a hard thing to determine, in some cases though it's pretty obvious.  Take, for example, one of Hideo Kojima's first games - Snatcher.

Before dedicating a fairly large chunk of his life to the Metal Gear franchise, Hideo Kojima made a little point-and-click adventure game.  It mashes together visuals and story elements from "Bladerunner," "the Terminator," and David Lynch's "Dune."  In typical Kojima fashion he took building blocks of ideas he liked from other works and applied a hefty portion of his signature storytelling mortar to hold it all together.  In that sense, it could be called a rip-off since there are way too many similarities to deny outside influence.  That said, if you're going to call Snatcher the product of a hack, then you better be prepared to attach the same label to a lot of other great games, such as Red Dead Redemption.  After all, the three major areas in the game represent the three primary subgenres the make up the Western.  The middle starting area harkens back to classics like "Little House on the Prairie," "Bonanza," and a whole slew of Westerns staring John Wayne.  Mexico is basically a big-o-plate of spaghetti westerns while the final area of the game dips into the revisionist western, the most iconic representation of which is the film "Unforgiven."  This brings me to my second example of deja vu.

I was watching a Japanese movie called "Yurusuzaru Mono" which translates to "Unforgiven" in English.  In fact the film is a re-make/adaptation of the Clint Eastwood motion picture of the same name.  The big difference between the two is the location.  "Yurusuzaru Mono" takes place in Hokkaido during the Meiji Restoration as opposed to the Wild West setting of "Unforgiven."  Because of that "Yurusuzaru Mono" doesn't remind me of Red Dead Redemption.  Instead I was constantly drawing parallels between the film and another open world video game, Way of the Samurai.

In some ways the resemblance is a no-brainer since the first Way of the Samurai game takes place in a similarly isolated Japanese village during the Meiji restoration.  Hence, it makes sense that similar clothing, hair as well as notions of the ending of one era and the beginning of another, dominate the narrative.  However the similarities extend even further to plot elements; assimilation by a ruthlessly militaristic government official, a blood-thirsty killer who actually isn't all that bad, not to mention an ending that involves copious amounts of fire and bloodshed.  There's even a damsel in distress.  It's all a bit odd considering that "Yurusuzaru Mono" is supposed to be borrowing plot points from "Unforgiven," and yet aside from the basic outline the resemblance between the two films feels inconsequential compared to Way of the Samurai.  Did the director of "Yurusuzaru Momo" play this old PS2 game during his formative years?  I don't know, but if he didn't that's one heck of a coincidence.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tsushima Part 3: Results

When I ran the first phase of the battle I wasn't really sure what to expect.  I decided to play as the five lead Russian pre-dreadnoughts and let the AI handle the four Japanese pre-dreadnoughts along with two armored cruisers.  As fitting Admiral Togo's disposition at the time, the computer controlled units were set to aggressive.  Following an almost immediate intercept, I began the combat encounter and steadily issued broadside orders to each of my pre-dreadnoughts in sequence.  Additionally, I didn't designate any priority targets.  In this way I hoped to recreate certain conditions of the battle, namely the poor gunnery and ill-suited formation of the Russian ships.  The results of the engagement were surprisingly authentic.  Initially, there was an impressive lightshow of green tracers, backed up by purple rounds moments later.  As both sides closed the distance to under 10km an eruption of red secondary battery fire began.  When the pyrotechnics finally subsided four of the five Russian pre-dreadnoughts were out of action, their radiators completely shot away.  A few had even been blown in two by concentrated fire.  The last surviving Russian pre-dreadnought, while technically still capable of fighting back, had lost all its fuel tanks leaving it unable to maneuver.  Meanwhile, the Japanese had only suffered the loss of a single armored cruiser and even then the damage wasn't especially severe.  As for the Japanese pre-dreadnoughts, only the lead ship had taken a significant number of hits.  Two others, in addition to the one remaining armored cruiser, were completely unscathed.

As one might gather, the results mirrored the actual battle quite closely.  Of the four Japanese pre-dreadnoughts at Tsushima only Togo's flagship, the Mikasa, took a substantial number of hits.  What's more, the only Japanese capital ship knocked out of action during the battle was the armored cruiser Nisshin (over 100 casualties including a junior officer who lost two fingers and went by the name Isoroku Yamamoto).  Even then the ship was repaired and returned to service not long after.  Japanese naval guns had used a special kind of incendiary ammunition called "shimosa."  It set fire to Russian ships quite effectively (going so far as to ignite the paint) and in some cases forced Russian crews to abandon ship or else be roasted alive.  It's a decision that must have also faced the crews of the spaceships once their radiators ceased to function.  The glowing hot hulls of the smashed Russian pre-dreadnoughts are eerily reminiscent of flaming hulks seen in artwork and photographs of the actual battle.

For the second phase of the engagement things went a bit more off-script.  Six Japanese armored cruisers attacked a force of three Russian pre-dreadnoughts and one armored cruiser.  Two Russian pre-dreadnoughts were disabled at the cost of two Japanese armored cruisers destroyed and a further two crippled.  In the actual battle none of the cruisers in the Japanese second column took serious damage, but then again they probably weren't as aggressive as in the simulation.

The third and final phase was basically a wash.  The torpedo boats proved wholly ineffectual due to the limited performance of their torpedoes.  No hits were made and several boats were knocked out of action by Russian gunfire.  I ran this last part of the simulation twice more with more-or-less identical results.  While not a true representation of the actual battle, the results do line up with the state of self-propelled explosives at that point in history.  Torpedoes wouldn't come into their own until the first World War, and it wasn't until decades later still that all the kinks finally got ironed out.  At Tsushima real torpedo boats were only used to finish off badly damaged Russian ships or else attempt surprise strikes under poor visibility conditions.

Thus concludes my attempts to re-create the Battle of Tsushima in a space sci-fi setting.  For me it was an interesting experiment that let me get a bit more millage out of the game while waiting for updates.  I hope it proved to be entertaining to read about as well.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tsushima Part 2: Execution

Weaponry is as good a place to start as any, so lets begin with guns.  I decided to go with four types of conventional ballistics:

Obviously green guns are pre-dreadnought exclusive.  Purple represent the primary armament for cruisers.  Yellow is a tertiary, while red acts as a secondary armament on certain vessels.  Unfortunately, the number of guns can't be directly carried over from real-world designs.  In particular, pre-dreadnoughts tended to have four primary guns, but the firing arcs paired in fore and aft turret configurations ensured that the ship always presented at least half of its main battery to the enemy.  The best we can do to replicate this in Children of a Dead Earth though is to have a pair of guns in each quadrant of a Cartesian plane.  There are still blind spots along the z-axis, but it's an unavoidable consequence of applying a two-dimensional concept to a three-dimensional space.

For torpedoes I opted to go with a custom 1.61Mt boosted fusion warhead backed by a combustion rocket motor and enough fuel for about 306kps of DV.  It has "short legs," but that's exactly what I wanted.  The launcher is exasperated from the ammo supply and has a very low rate of deployment.  Again, this is an intentional attempt to replicate the actual sea-going warships that took part in the Battle of Tsushima.  Typically, torpedo boats from that era carried three of these self-propelled explosives so the storage container for the launcher has been set to match appropriately.

As for actual ships, I came up with four basic designs:

Since the battle was fought near a small island (between Japan and Korea) next to a much larger one (Honshu), I decided to set Sylvia as the location for the fleet action.  Most historians agree that the battle was divided into three phases.  Initially there was the crossing of the "T" by Admiral Togo, which then lead to an long range artillery duel between four Japanese pre-dreadnoughts (Mikasa, Shikishima, Fuji, and Asahi) plus two armored cruisers (Kasuga and Nisshin) versus five Russian pre-dreadnoughts (Suvorov, Alexander III, Borodino, Orel and Oslyalya).

After this first clash, secondary columns of ships on both sides met; six Japanese armored cruisers (Izumo, Azuma, Tokiwa, Yagumo, Iwate and Asama) against three older Russian pre-dreadnoughts (Oslyabya, Sissoi-Veliky and Navarin) in addition to one armored cruiser (the Admiral Nakhimov).

Lastly came a night action in which individual Russian ships fleeing to Port Vladivostok fell victim to hunting packs of lighter Japanese warships.  This final part of the battle is a bit harder to represent, but I was thinking about doing something along the lines of a few engagements involving isolated Russian pre-dreadnoughts and armored cruisers fighting off attacks by small numbers of Japanese torpedo boats and protected cruisers.

Next blog post I'll run the simulations and report the results.    

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tsushima Part 1: Concept

Children of a Dead Earth is a game that attempts to simulate tactical engagements in space using real world technology.  It's an admirable goal which is sound in terms of ideas, but a bit off in execution.  Targeting systems, proximity fuses and coil gun physics are kind of wonky at the moment.  Additionally, the game doesn't account for certain things like logistics, communication, sensors, or manufacturing costs aside from the raw materials being used.  Of course, CoaDE is the product of a single individual, and the scope of the project is ballooning a bit beyond what one person can possibly tackle.  Maybe (someday) we'll get there, but for now the game is like a nearly complete puzzle that's still miss a few important pieces.  Nevertheless, I've always enjoyed military science fiction based on navel traditions - whether it be World War 2 in space (like Wing Commander and Homeworld), or a more age-of-sail-in-space style conflict such as the long running Honorverse series of novels.  There is a narrow time frame, in the real history of navel warfare, that I've always found especially interesting though - the era of the pre-dreadnought.

As the name implies, these vessels ruled the seas before the introduction of the all-big-gun warships leading up to the First World War, but after the ironclad had faded into obsolescence.  Some important factors of note from this time period include the relatively short range of guns (typically less than 6000 yards), a lack of aircraft and submarines, as well as the rise of the torpedo (and by extension the torpedo boat) as a weapon of war.  The only major navel engagement fought during the age of the pre-dreadnought was the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.  It was between Japan and Russia, and proved to be a rather one-sided victory for the former.  It was also the last military conflict at sea that took place purely on the surface of the ocean.  So, getting to the point of all this, I want to use Children of a Dead Earth to create a sci-fi version of Tsushima.  Yes, I'm taking a game that's supposed to be realistic and making it less so, but since it's not quite there yet anyway, why not?

In order to do this though there are some important things to consider, namely ship mass, weaponry and armor.  Based on the classes of vessel from that era it's pretty easy to come up with some rough guidelines; pre-dreadnought at around 8kt, cruisers at 2~3kt, and torpedo boats under 1kt.  Guns should be limited to conventional designs with relatively low muzzle velocities.  Obviously, copying over the weight of projectiles is impractical, but the ratios can be preserved.  If we consider the quickfire hand-loaded guns used on warships at the time as the baseline, then a cruiser lobs a projectile about 8 times that weight, while a pre-dreadnought can toss a shell over 40 times the baseline from a main battery gun.  When it comes to armor, pre-dreadnoughts obviously lay it on thick. Cruisers also tended to have partial protection covering the vital areas of the ship (engine compartments, ammunition magazines, etc.) while leaving other parts with only the basic hull structure for defense.  In game-terms I'm thinking about having a default armor scheme for each ship type (stem to stern) and then adding a narrow belt or two underneath to capture the feel of a citadel or conning tower.

Torpedo tech was pretty crude at the start of the 20th century so I'm thinking low acceleration missiles armed with nukes and loaded up with very little fuel.  In this way I can force torpedo boats to get in close before launching an attack.  I'm also going to set the maximum range to 10km so the AI uses them in a way that matches with their real life counterparts.  On the plus side guns won't be able to target torpedoes, since the only defense against them at sea during that time was outright evasion.  That's all I've come up with so far.  In the next blog post I'll apply these ideas to some actual designs and see what happens.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Bland Brands

Video game consoles seem to have a curse over their proverbial heads when it comes to market branding.  Practically every single hardware platform has had a name that's boring at best and incomprehensible at worst.  There has also been a lot of misdirection going on from pretty early on.

Intellivision was supposed to be a contraction of "intelligent television," but (as any gamer knows) the TV is simply providing feedback on behalf of the box it's receiving signals from - no thinking involved.  Atari liked numbers such as 2600, 5200 and 7800.  Unless you are familiar with the part numbers manufactures use though it's not really obvious what these numerals represent, nor the significance of a two (or three) fold increase.

Sega had it's share of weird names for gaming platforms as well.  Why is it called the Sega Master System?  What is it master of?...certainly not the market share.  Then came the Genesis which wasn't the beginning of anything.  It's name outside the USA was the Mega Drive, which is kind of funny when you consider its initial chief competitor was the Turbo-Grafx 16.  It's as if Sega and NEC were in a competition to see who could come up with the most extreme(ly stupid) sounding name.

Sony and Microsoft both seem to be content to use the most unoriginal labels possible with PlayStation one to four and Xbox, Xbox360, followed by Xbox One.  It sound like the former trudges mindlessly ahead while the latter ended up back where it started.  The peripherals aren't any better with names like Sixaxis, Kinect, and Move. 

Nintendo sets itself apart from the above by bouncing around between silly, dull and nonsensical.  The NES (or Nintendo Entertainment System) was a pretty inauspicious start, but at least it made sense.  The Japanese name of Famicom, short for "family computer," was downright misleading.  Then came the "super" prefix for everything.  Gameboy was a bit better, but got slapped with a bunch of labels like Pocket, Light, Color, Advanced and Micro.  Eventually, the brand name was replaced with DS, or "Dual Screen," which makes sense in a really obvious kind of way.  After that it got a "3" slapped on the front, and then a "2" when players lost interest in that particular feature.  The absolute worst though has to be the Wii.  Originally it was code named the "Revolution," but someone at Nintendo though English words wouldn't get enough international recognition so they changed the name to the Wii.  Once the "U" got attached to the end it sounded like gibberish in pretty much every language with the possible exception of French.

Looking back on eight generations of console hardware though, I get the impression that branding and success are inversely proportional.  To be more specific, the better the name the worse it does sales-wise.  Jaguar, Lynx, Saturn and Dreamcast were all financial failures.  However, the reverse doesn't necessarily hold true, Ouya and CD-i both had terrible names and still sold poorly.  Interesting little facts aside, I guess the old axiom holds true, a console is only as good as the games available for it.  This is something Nintendo should really keep in mind when it comes to the Switch.  Lots of important questions are being asked about it regarding price point and battery life, but for me the big thing is region locking.  If Nintendo wants to get behind their gaming-anywhere image they shouldn't throw up a bunch of artificial barriers between countries.  They might think their fighting the threat of piracy, but all I see is slap in the face of anyone who travels abroad.  More "joy" and less "con"...know what I'm saying? 

Oh least it isn't Red Dead Revengence!...then again Revolver Ocelot would fit right in...

Friday, October 28, 2016

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Road Trip

One of the big selling points of Final Fantasy XV is its concept of the road trip.  Four dudes, dressed up like an emo rock band, are cruising around the countryside getting in to all kinds of adventures.  It's not bad idea, but it isn't a terribly original one either.  In fact the road trip, as a core component of the gameplay, has seen a lot of use in recent years.

Take Oregon Trail for example.  No...not that old educational game where you're in an enclosed ox-driven wagon.  I'm talking about the reinterpretation featuring a family of survivors traveling across the USA in a station wagon.  It borrows a page from the novel "World War Z" by Max Brooks in that what remains of humanity, after a zombie apocalypse, has taken refuge along the western seaboard.  In large part this is due to the Sierra Nevadas providing an excellent natural barrier against the wandering hordes of undead.  It's a free flash game, but there's also a paid directors cut that breaks with the one-to-one emulated design of the original and instead adds some new features like boss battles and assorted mini-games.

While still in early access, Jalopy puts players in the driver's seat of an automobile called the "Laika," apparently a real life nickname for the "Lada Riva."  Regardless, it is definitely the people's car, and roughly analogous to the Volkswagen "Bug" in terms of ubiquity and reliability...or perhaps I should say unreliability.  The goal of the game is to limp, nurse and cajole this hunk of scrap metal across several countries in Eastern Europe shortly after the fall of the USSR.  Despite being a major eyesore the Laika is quite customizable.  Parts can be salvaged off wrecks abandoned along roadsides, or else purchased at shops with spare cash made from the sale of "contraband" (cigarettes, booze, medicine, etc.) also found over the course of the journey.

The world of Mad Max might be a place of fire and blood, but it also has a pretty big map.  So much so, getting from one end of it to the other can be an adventure unto itself.  Players don't have to worry about repairs or maintenance thanks to "Chumbucket," a deformed side-kick mechanic who reminds me of the character Ephailtes from the movie "300."  However, the player still needs to manage the gas gauge and upgrades, plus the car can still get smashed up by marauders requiring a pull over.  There's plenty to run into as well, including roving warbands, enemy enchantments, world-ending dust storms, or just some poor wanderers trying to find a little water to drink.  Needless to say, it's a wasteland full of adventure.

Now granted, none of the games I just mentioned have the exotic monsters  found in Final Fantasy XV, but some do have RPG elements baked into their design.  What's more Max wears black, albeit less stylized than most J-Pop fashion trends.  Also like Mad Max, there's a car mechanic in FFXV (a "she" instead of a "he") though still deformed...just in different ways.  So while the road trip idea could work for Square-Enix, their recent track record is such an abysmal mess of poorly made video games I wouldn't be at all surprised if players find themselves squarely in the center of Big Nothing...New, that is.