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.