Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Not Once or Twice, but Thrice

It looks like the Switch is turning into a real success story for Nintendo.  One might be tempted to chalk it up to the originality of the concept.  However, the Switch isn't a piece of engineering that sprang forth out of the eather.  In fact most of it's features have existed in previous iterations of gaming hardware, the Wii and WiiU being two of the most obvious comparisons.  Even the concept of a system that can be played at home or on the go was first, albeit half-heartedly, attempted by Sony with the PS Vita.

Like many gaming enthusiasts, I never got my hands on a Vita in part because there wasn't that killer app, or "system seller," as it's sometimes called.  The hardware was great, but it lacked the software supported needed to draw my interest.  In a broader sense piracy was another issue and, in some ways, exacerbated the problem of insufficient third-party support.  Sony could only do so much with its first-party lineup.  It's a problem Nintendo doesn't have so much, especially since they can now merge their handheld and home console development teams under one platform.  In theory this should significantly boost the first-party output of Nintendo-themed games.  It also helps that Nintendo doesn't have any real direct competition.

The PS4 and Xbox One are definitely aiming at the same demographic, namely males in their 20s and 30s, but the Switch is kind of doing its own thing.  That's not to say people who own a PS4 or Xbox One don't play video games on the Switch...rather it has to do with a certain kind of appeal Nintendo games offer.

"Kid Friendly" might be the first quality that springs to mind though it's not an entirely accurate thing to claim.  Sure, most Nintendo games shy away from sexual themes and gratuitous violence, but the same doesn't hold true for the challenge.  The term "Nintendo Hard" exists for a reason, namely the unforgiving nature of one's experience on higher difficulty settings.  Mario Kart 8 might feel like a total breeze at the 50cc level, but crank it up to the 200cc mark and even veterans of the genre are in for a serious challenge.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild also has it's own hard mode in the form of speedruns.  Speaking of Breath of the Wild, if there ever was a system seller it's that game.  According to released sales figures it has more than a one-to-one attachment rate.  I'm not sure why any Switch owner would want more than one copy of the game (or a copy of the game and no system to play it on), but there you go.  In order to make up for the usual slim pickings that happen during a console's launch window, Nintendo is drip-feeding new titles to keep players invested in their machines.  It's actually a smart move from a business standpoint, which is saying something for a company known to not necessarily make the best decisions outside of game development.

Portability is another advantage the Switch has that only smart phones can match.  Here too though Nintendo isn't going head-to-head with Apple or Android, mostly because the kind of games coming out on the Switch have a lot more meat on their bones (plus they don't go the free-to-play route).  Again, different audiences although not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So, allow me to reiterate in the form of two video game axioms:
  • A console is only as good as its games
  • Better to make a great game a few people will love, than mediocre game a lot of people will think is just okay    
For both of these truths, Nintendo has it covered.  The switch already has a critically acclaimed exclusive out of the gate and, while their style of games aren't as big sales-wise as say GTAV or the Call of Duty series, there's definately a subset of their playerbase who absolutely love the games Nintendo makes...sometimes to the point of toxicity (but that's a subject for a different time).  You've done well so far with the Switch, Nintendo.  Keep up the good work.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Oddly enough nobody wears white in the actual game
My last blogpost ended on a bit of a cliffhanger in that there was a sixth and final arcade game that I consider one of my all-time favorites.  One of the neat things about arcade games is their malleability.  Because each machine is dedicated to playing a single game (Neo Geo aside), it allows for a variety of non-standard control schemes; driving games with steering wheels and pedals, air combat games with flight sticks and seats that shift when the player banks and turns, Paperboy even featured a pair of handlebars for controlling the on-screen bicycle.  By far the most common kind of variation was the light-gun game.  When asked which is the best of the bunch, I imagine most people would reply Time Crisis, Terminator 2 or Revolution X, but for me the standout game was the rather generically named Space Gun.

Right away I think most people will pick up on the Aliens film parallels, industrial environments infested with hostile organisms, sometimes cocooned human survivors in need of rescue, and sci-fi military hero characters representing the player(s).  Like most light gun games it plays from the first person perspective.  There are a few instances where players can choose from one of two paths, as well as the ability to backup via a foot pedal, but for the most part the gameplay is on-rails, shooting whatever happens to pop up in the FOV.  The guns are fully automatic and have several different secondary consumable ammo types that freeze, shock, blast or burn targets.  The alien creatures themselves are a purple/green mixture and come in a few different humanoid shapes.  The most common has three eyes and four arms!  It's possible to shoot off limbs or even the head.  Combine that with the basic plot structure which features the player(s) exploring a spaceship, then a base on the planet it's orbiting around, and one can't help but wonder if Space Gun indirectly influenced the original Dead Space.

"Watch your fire and check your targets"
The last chapter also features the obligatory rush to escape while a self-destruct timer counts down.  The end boss battle emphasises one of Space Gun's more defining features, the player has to be mindful of where and when they shoot.  Obviously, they don't want to gun down fleeing humans (or "hostages" as they are called for some reason...), but in addition to this, targeting incoming projectiles or monsters winding up for a melee attack also serve as examples of skilled gameplay.  Additionally, the guns the players use deplete an ammunition reserve when fired, but refill when allowed to idle.  Hence, shooting non-stop will cause the weapon to "chug" at a reduced rate of fire.  In the aforementioned final battle (which takes place onboard an escape shuttle) players must do their best not to hit the control panel in the background while dealing with the last boss.  If the ship takes too much internal damage during the battle it will be unable to take off, dooming the player characters and anyone they had rescued up to that point.  In other words, being too gung-ho nets you the bad ending.  It wasn't a gameplay feature unique to Space Gun (even at the time of its release), but in my mind the emphasis on player restraint did help set the game apart from the pack.

FYI, Alien 3 had one facehugger,
 one chestburster, one xenomorph,
and no guns, Sega
Other than that, there are a few distinct variations on the standard type, automated sentry turrets, flying enemies resembling giant insects or manta-rays, and a few snake-like mini-bosses.  There's also a motion tracker display at the bottom of the screen that tips-off players to potential dangers (not to mention further reinforcing the Aliens analogue).  Three years later Sega would copy the format of Space Gun when they introduced Alien 3: The Gun to arcades using a fairly similar rendering engine and gameplay interface.  Apparently, the developers over at Sega completely forgot the plot of the Alien 3 movie though...

Weird film to video game adaptations aside, Space Gun is the sixth and final entry in my top six arcade games list.  Due to an itchy trigger finger, I never got the good ending, something I found very frustrating at the time, but in hindsight makes me respect the designers for trying to evolve the genre despite having a fairly unoriginal premise...oh and the arcade cabinet was really cool looking too.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Favorite Arcade Games

Recently, I've been browsing various Top-10-Arcade-Game videos and articles across the internet.  Sadly, my person favorites rarely make the cut or even get a mention.  Maybe my tastes differ from the norm.  Then again, I have a feeling that more than a few of these lists were composed by people who were too young to catch more than the tail end of the era.  Either way, I'd like to do a top-six list (I don't do that top 10 stuff) of my favorite arcade machines.  So, in no particular order let's begin.

This one stands out in my memory for three reasons.  First, I was a huge fan of "Kaiju" movies growing up so the concept of getting to play as one of those gigantic monsters held enormous appeal to me.  I usually played as Lizzie because she reminded me of Godzilla.  The second reason is Rampage wasn't a quarter eater like most arcade games.  You could actually last quite a long time provided you made an effort to devour those hapless little humans, an act that would restore a small amount of health.  This brings me to the third reason for liking this game, co-operative play.  With the help of up to two friends I was able to make a complete tour of all the cities (essentially seeing all the game had to offer) at the paultery cost of $2.25, or nine credits worth of gameplay.  Very few arcade games, before or since, have offered that kind of bang for your buck.

Operation: Starblade
I've discussed this game at length in another blogpost (here) so I won't go into a great deal of detail here.  In short, it was a sit-down rail shooter visually similar to Starfox (minus the anthropomorphic animals).  It had an exceptionally large display screen for the time (courtesy of an image reflection system) backed up by a surround sound speakers setup.  Needless to say, it was an immersive game with a few neat stylistic flourishes that reminded me of the space battles seem in Star Wars and The Last Starfighter.  I must have beaten the game half-a-dozen times growing up.

Eight-year-old me thought it was strange that this four-player top-down dungeon crawler/shooter was named after an armored glove when no such item ever makes an appearnce it the game.  It wasn't until a few years later that I learned the word "gauntlet" has another meaning which accurately sums up what it's like playing through the game.  As I recall, there were four different playable characters; a wizard, an elf, a barbarian, and a valkyrie.  I liked to play the valkyrie because her perk was a 30 percent reduction to damage. Each character also had their own kind of projectile weapon (fireballs, arrows, axes, and daggers respectively).  The dungeons themselves were maze-like structors populated by monster spawners that would spit out a trickle of enemies.  Ideally, ranged attacks would be used to defeat them, but it was also possible to take foes down in melee combat (doing so would incur damage to the player's character though).  Other than that there was treasure for scoring points and food for restoring health.

While interesting to a degree, I've always felt puzzle game like Tetris and Columns needed an extra layer of gameplay to make them truly shine.  Puzzle and Dragon did the latter right, but before that Atari did an excellent job of improving on the former.  Rampart is divided into three tightly timed phases.  The first, wall building, plays out similarly to Tetris except the idea is to make fully enclosed spaces around keeps rather than solid rows.  Doing so nets points which, in the second phase, grants the player cannons that they can place inside their castle courtyards.  The third phase is combat, in which the cannons can be used to bombard other players' walls and cannons.  The process then resets until one side can no longer maintain a castle.  There's also a single player mode that features ships attacking by sea, but to me the game was really only fun versus other players.

In order to maximize profits, most arcade games were brutally difficult with mechanics deliberately designed to discourage caution.  An exception to this design trend was Gladiator.  Essentially a 1-vs-1 fighting game, players were reward for systematically wearing down opponents by breaking their weapon, shield and armor until an opportunity to deliver a well timed killing blow presented itself.  Because the game allowed for this kind of methodical approach, I could last a ridiculously long time with just one quarter (oftentimes vexing friends and family in the process).  I rarely watched anyone else play this particular arcade game, but the few times I did it was horrifying to see players foolheartedly rush in mashing buttons with reckless abandon.  It was a tactic which, more often than not, resulted in the player losing, whereas well timed strikes, probing attacks and a fair amount of patience would almost always result in victory.

I said that this was a top six list so that means there's one more game I want to mention.  However, I want to go into detail on it and to do so here would make for a very long blogpost.  So instead I'll make a separate post on it next week.  Until then...

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

Best/Worst of Show

It seems like every time E3 rolls around there's one game that really grabs my attention.  In previous years it has been titles like Below and Horizon: Zero Dawn.  This year it's the stylized cyber-punk thriller The Last Night.

Very little information has been released about the game thus far.  It's a 2.5D platformer with some stealth elements.  Nothing remarkable, but what makes the standout is its visual direction.  Rainy nights and neon lights are pretty standard fare since "Blade Runner" came out over three decades ago.  However, the use of pixel art mixed with numerous foreground/background layers and enhanced lighting filters gives the game a distinct look.  As far as I know, I don't think any other game has done this sort of thing before which makes The Last Night unique in its presentation.  In other ways though, it might be less outstanding.

My personal hope is, if it doesn't totally vear off in its own direction, The Last Night takes inspiration from the best of the subgenre; namely Flashback and Out of This World (Another World, if you're European).  The prototype version of the game, made in just six days, only takes a few minutes to finish and as such doesn't offer much insight into what a longer version of the game might be like.  Another title the development team was working on, Behind Nowhere, has been postponed indefinitely.  So, with only a few screenshots to go on, it's hard to garner much regarding the studio's approach to design based on that game either.

The head of development, Tim Soret, also has a somewhat checkered past going back to that whole SJW vs Gamergate controversy of 2014.  Tim has since apologized for past remarks claiming that his views have changed since that time.  I'd like to believe him.  People are allowed to change their mind on things after all...plus I'm a strong believer in the Death of the Author philosophy when it comes to critiquing any media (not just books).  That said, I doubt I'll ever get a chance to play The Last Night because I don't own an Xbox or a copy of Windows 10.  Oh well...I can alway enjoy the pretty art direction via a Youtube LP or Twitch stream, I guess...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What's in an RPG

Are men imitating beasts?
Are beasts imitating men?
Sometimes video game acronyms can be pretty confusing.  "RPG" is usually shorthand for "Role-Playing Game," but can also mean "Rocket Propelled Grenade."  Add a capital "T" to the front and sometimes it's a "Tactical Role-Playing Game," such as Shining Force, Vandal Hearts and Fire Emblem.  Then again the "T" could stand for "Tabletop Role-Playing Game," which is the one people play with paper, pencils and dice.  I've also seen CRPG written a lot which is supposed to mean "Computer Role-Playing Game."  The opposite of this is, for some reason, "JRPG" or "Japanese Role-Playing Game."  Japanese because it's made in Japan...or is it?

I recently watched a Giant Bomb Quick Look of Cosmic Star Heroine, and while the game wasn't made by a Japanese development team it sure tries to look like it was.  Of course, this brought up a semantics argument.  I didn't bother to get involved in the comment section mostly because I don't think there's really many meaningful distinctions that can be made between the two subgenres anymore.

Back in the 8 and 16-bit era the Japanese video game industry was making RPGs pretty much exclusively for the console market.  Western developers, not wanting to compete directly made their own RPGs available on home computers.  There were some overall aesthetic differences.  I'm not going to get into them primarily because Extra Credits did an excellent three-part series on Youtube about it awhile back (link to part 1 here).  Recently, I feel like whatever distinctions there were though have become blurred to to such a degree that it's hard to point to any definitive differences.  Case-in-point, western made RPGs come out on consoles just as much as the PC these days.  This has lead a few people on the internet to start throwing around the term "WRPG," or "Western Role-Playing Game."  Personally, I don't see the point in splitting stylistic hairs like this when we have more useful terms that can be attached to the front of "RPG" such as "turn-based," "open-world" or even simply "action," all of which do a good job of informing someone as to how the game is played.

I guess if you have some deep-seated love/hate of anime then there might still be some small worth in distinguishing between eastern and western made RPGs, but in my mind the usage of genre terms really should evolve with the times.  Sadly, that would require people to change their way of viewing and thinking as well.  It's a problem that goes far beyond video games and this blog so I'll end things here.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Zelda Maker

The sun has set on the WiiU.  Looking back on its library of games, I find myself hard pressed to come up with more than half-a-dozen standout titles (especially when the selection criteria is limited to system exclusives.   Even so, there are a few really great games for the console.  If I had to choose one in particular, I probably go with Mario Maker.  I might be an outlier on this, but that game feels like the amount of play time you can get out of it greatly expands thanks to the creativity of the user-base.  I'm sure Nintendo has a sequel in the works for the Switch.  However, it might not be Mario-themed since there's another IP that's well suited to the format - The Legend of Zelda.

The challenges associated with designing intuitive editing tools for Zelda are far greater, I think, than in the case of Mario Brothers.  For one thing Zelda is potentially much more complicated in terms of layout.  As for eras of play, I think the top-down 2D perspective titles are the most feasible.  Specifically, the original NES Legend of Zelda, SNES Link to the Past, Link Between Worlds on the 3DS and maybe one more (I'm not sure which).  Maps could consist of a bunch of interconnected rooms or outdoor zones that can be filled in with monsters, chests, claypots, traps and other obstacles/challenges.  Treasure should probably be limited to classic items such as the lantern, raft, ladder, bow, boomerang, wands, outfits, as well as shield and sword upgrades.  Consumables can be hearts, arrows, rupees, and bombs.  I'm not exactly sure what the best approach would be for bosses other than the obvious solution of having some customizable templates, such as a dragon that can be designated with a specific weakness or one of several different breath weapons.

Another important point to consider is food.  It played a big part in Breath of the Wild in terms of loot.  Fairies have traditionally been the stand-in for this mechanic, but it might be worth including a few food items (such as apples and meat on a bone) even though though they technically didn't exist in certain earlier iterations of the franchise.

The way levels are shared through the Nintendo network would require a bit of tweaking.  Perhaps the best way to handle it would be a generic central hub area that branches off into user created overland zones with entrances to dungeons (each of which contains a shard of the Triforce).  Merchants should also be included in some way, shape, or form, although I'm not sure whether or not it's best to let their location and wares be defined by the level creators.

Other than that, I can't think of any particular aspects of a hypothetical "Zelda Maker" that would have to be radically different than the format set by Mario Maker.  Not being a developer, I'm sure there's some important things I am oblivious to, but if Nintendo can pull the concept off elegantly then I have no doubt it would be a welcome addition to the franchise.  I've always wanted to craft my own Zelda dungeons and I'm sure there are more than a few fans out there who feel likewise.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Make it a Game

To paraphrase something movie reviewer Bob Chipman said:
There have been eight Alien films at this point and only the first two were good -just stop making them already.
It a comment I can relate to except I don't think it needs to be the end of the franchise.  I'm not talking about reboots here, rather I think any future Alien-themed properties should be in the form of video games.

Aside from novelizations of "Alien" and "Aliens" the books have been mediocre at best (with the possible exception of Aliens: Labyrinth).  The same is true of the comics although there are a few clever ideas scattered throughout them.  Video games have a pretty dismal track record as well, but the most recent adaptation of the IP, Alien: Isolation, has shown potential.  Don't get me wrong, the game is far from perfect.  For one thing it goes on for way too long, and for another there's a lot of pointless side characters whose presence seems to contradict the the title of the game.  Even so, I think a less action focused Alien game is the way to go.  Sure, everyone wants to recreate that classic battle between the xenomorphs and colonial marines, but it's been done to death now.  I'm not just talking about licensed games either, franchises like StarcraftResident Evil, Halo and DOOM have mined "Aliens" for every last piece of usable material.  The later movies have little of value to offer, and the original motion picture has been sucked dry too.  So where does that leave the IP?  As far as I can tell there's really only one place left untapped, and that's the prequels.

Putting it nicely, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are not good films.  The visuals are well shot courtesy of long-time directory Ridley Scott, but other than that the mystery is poorly revealed, the horror bits are cliche, and the plot is a total mess.  For whatever reason the writers chose to ignore most of what the previous movies had established, resulting in contradictions all over the place in terms of the Alien lifecycle and overarching timeline.  I could go on a rant about all the inconsistencies, but I'd prefer to keep things positive here (and more importantly - constructive).

Figuring out the origins of the Alien isn't as interesting as it might seem.  On the other hand learning more about the enigmatic Space Jockey race is worth exploring in more detail.  Unfortunately, in the 2 hours and X minutes running time allotted to films these days, it's practically impossible to do the subject justice.  So instead we're given an abbreviated version with disjointed events and scatter-brained ideas, as well as character actions and motivations that don't make much sense.  The hands of the writers are also clearly visible at times since they want to go from point A to point C without taking the time to come up with a satisfactory point B.  These are all problems that could be solved if both these films had been video games instead; more time for the story to unfold, ideas to be fleshed out, and characters to behave in believable ways.  The player could actually get to explore the ruins of the engineers' civilization, uncover the secrets of their technology.  They could fully read the poems of Shelley, Milton and Byron, gain a deeper understanding of David's fascination with T.H. Laurance, not to mention have branching dialogues with various characters.  Best of all, the story need not be confined to a single path.  Think The Dig meets Until Dawn and you're well on your way to a proper video game adaptation of Prometheus.  Incidentally, it would be pretty awesome (not to mention subversive) to have an alien story in which everyone survives through sheer competence and teamwork.  It might not bet especially true to the franchise, but the simple fact of the matter is xenomorphs are basically oversized bugs with the brains of chimpanzees.  Deadly, to be sure, under a certain set of circumstances.  However, once they become a known quantity they're not an unsolvable problem.  Compare them to to Space Jockey race and suddenly humanity appears to be in far greater peril.  Unlike the xenomorphs, this species of (once pachyderm-like) interstellar travelers has technology far in advance of even what exo-world colonizing humans posses.  What's their culture like?  Their psychology?  Do they have outposts scattered across the galaxy?  How long have they been roaming the stars?  Based on what is shown by the holographic map in Prometheus the implied answers are "many" and "for a long time."  That begs the question though, are there any other planets with engineered life?  If so they must be close to human...maybe that's what the line from Aliens was on about regarding Arcturians...

The Alien franchise has followed a very bizarre course over the years.  It's started off as a very simple, but well thought out (and executed) melding of sci-fi and horror.  As more and more films have been released for the IP though the premise has become increasingly muddled until it degenerated into the brain-dead wrestling match that is the AvP movies.  Then it flip-flopped hard and turned into a bunch of pretentious nonsense.  A video game adaptation could potentially give this franchise some much needed grounding, structure and balance.  Of course, it would still need a competent storyteller which might be too much to ask of the video game industry.  Hmmm...I wonder if John Gonzalez is available?       

Friday, May 26, 2017

Needs More

Having watched some gameplay footage for the upcoming Middle-earth: Shadow of War, I've been pondering over the large number of video game developers who push their concepts out half-baked and, due to poor profit margins, never get the chance to improve on their ideas with a sequel.  I'm not just talking about buggy launch titles or the whole early access scene.  What I really mean is games that straight up need more to them.  Let me see if I can explain a bit further by picking out a few examples from this console generation.

Event[0], if you're not familiar with it, is a first-person adventure game in which you spend the majority of your time interacting with a computer A.I. via text inputs.  The two of you are stranded on a starship drifting aimlessly around Europa.  Over the course of the game it becomes apparent that the crew are all dead or gone, but, as a climatic ending twist, it turns out that one member of the crew uploaded their consciousness into the computer system and is constantly vying with the A.I. for control of the ship.  Throughout the game this dueling of personalities doesn't come to light except in the form of odd little glitches in the A.I.'s behavior.  Too me, it feels like a lost opportunity to inject some real tension into the game.  The player could be put on the spot as they try to unravel the mystery of what happened by forcing them to work with, and compromise between these two competing entities (a "friend triangle" if you will).  There could have been all kinds of tension, deception and outright lies going on, as well as a hefty dose of HAL9000 style paranoia.  Alas, what we ended up with was basically Dr. Sbaitso with better graphics and bit more story.
Another example is the Order 1886.  Critics have rightfully panned this game for it's relatively short playtime, bland cover-based shooting, and bog-standard (not to mention highly anachronistic) weaponry.  Where they really dropped the ball though is in the story department.  The setting allowed for an a lot of interesting possibilities, or at the very least some tongue-in-cheek humor.  Instead, we have a jumbled mess of inconsistencies, nonsense, and plot holes conveyed with the utmost severity - nowhere does anyone smile, or even try to crack a joke.  Ostensibly, the titular Order exists to fight the threat of werewolves (and possibly vampires), but aside from two quicktime event boss battles (the second of which is pretty much an exact repeat of the first) we shoot it out against a bunch of ordinary people packing guns.  Maybe if the game had more adventure elements, or some puzzles, it would have elevated itself above a glorified Gears of War copycat tech demo.

Last up is a double shot, or rather two games which individually are not good, but combined together might have been something special.  Specifically, I'm talking about No Man's Sky and Mass Effect: Andromeda.  The former has a severe deficit of story and player motivation, while the latter boasts it has a whole new galaxy to explore, but only allows the player to land on an handful of worlds.  If these two teams had been folded into one project they might have complemented each other.  The No Man's Sky team would have brought the breadth, while the Mass Effect team would have provided the depth.  As is, both lack what the other has...well, aside from a capable animation team..both were kind of lacking in that particular department...then again so is the Farm Simulator series...

A good perspective to take during the pre-production phase for any video game dev team would be from a place of interactivity.  If the answer to the question, "what do you do?" is ultimately "not much," then I think it would be wise to reconsider the approach.  After all if there isn't a lot of meaningful input from the player then why not just turn the game into a novel or movie instead?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fictional Games

When it comes to video games making cameos in movies and television there's really only two categories; either it's an actual game (such as Shadow of the Colossus in the film "Reign over Me"), or it's a game made from scratch to serve as a set prop.  Obviously the latter is preferable from a licensing standpoint.  However, there are some bizarre instances of these fake games turning into actual games people can play.  The text-parser adventure game seen in the Tom Hanks film "Big" (playable here), and "The Last Starfighter" arcade cabinet are two such examples.  The most outstanding purveyor of this phenomenon though has to be the long-running animated TV series - The Simpsons.

It's a funny thing to think about considering there are numerous licensed video games for the franchise (including a four-player-side-scrolling-beat'em-up arcade game).  While at the same time over a dozen made-up games have appeared on-screen.  Many have just been background decorations, but there are six in particular that are prominent enough to be worth mentioned here.

Kevin Costner's Waterworld (no relation to the actual Waterworld movie tie-in game for the SNES) made a brief appearance when Milhouse gives it a try at the local video arcade.  Apparently, the machine takes forty quarters (10 USD!) to play, and results in a "game over" screen for no reason after a few seconds of the player character walking left to right.  This opening segment is meant to be a one-off joke poking fun at the film's 175 million dollar budget (due to wasteful spending and difficulties associated with shooting a movie off the coast of Hawaii).  The humor didn't work for me, in this case, because I personally think "Waterworld" isn't really that bad, and while it was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, many summer blockbusters have exceeded the 200 million dollar mark since.

Escape from Grandma's House is another arcade title that honestly feels a lot like a 2D pixel-art version of Alien: Isolation.  The basic premise appears to be avoid the monster (in this case, Grandma) by hiding or using weapons found in the environment.  During the brief time we see the game in action, Bart uses a wall mounted shotgun on Grandma which, surprisingly, doesn't phase the old lady much.  On the plus side it does net him some points (displayed on a scoreboard in the upper right-hand side of the screen).  Aside from grandma, there appears to be other hazards including deadly mothballs hiding in the closet.

Hockey Dad is a one-vs-one fighting game in which the rivals are a pair of bad-tempered fathers.  While watching a junior league hockey match one parent makes the comment, "Your kid sucks!"  Thus, begins the brawl which inevitably ends in one of the two combatants down in a bloody heap on the ice while the winner is hauled off to jail.  It's mildly funny, although the main reason I like this segment is the indirect callback to early hockey-themed sports video games that featured embedded fighting mechanics.

Bonestorm is, as far as I can tell, a parody of Mortal Kombat.  Aside from the fact that it's a 2D fighting game, the biggest similarity is the combatants (they look like Goro clones except with six arms each instead of four).  We only see it in the form of a Christmas advertisement, but sequels to this fictional game pop-up in the background of later episodes, providing a sense of continuity which doesn't normally exist in The Simpsons.

The next title is an unnamed home console game we see Grandpa Simpson attempting to play with his grandson, Bart.  The game itself looks vaguely reminiscent of Asteroids, but the actual gameplay reminds me of Star Raiders.  The humor comes from Bart's frantic attempts to advise his grandfather on how to play the game, a task the elderly man is not up to given the amount of stuff happening on-screen.  That said, it looks like the kind of game I would have totally loved when I was eleven.

Unlike previous examples which are single-scene featurettes, this final entry is the subplot for an entire episode.  The name of the game is Super Slugfest, a homage to Punch-Out!! for the NES with one big difference; A two-player-mode.  The key plot point of the episode involves Homer going to the Noise Land video arcade so he can learn how to get better at the game under the tutelage of a child who has mastered it.  Typically Homer is depicted as being bonehead stupid, but here is a rare exception to that trend because upon returning home he proceeds to thrash his son, Bart, at the game when every time up until then it has been the other way around.  Unfortunately for Homer, the TV gets unplugged before he can deliver the coup de grĂ¢ce.  Subsequently, Bart announces his retirement (as the undefeated champion), denying his father the catharsis of just one victory.

These final two examples struck a chord with me in that I've always had the utmost respect for (grand)parents who go out of their way to enrich themselves in the hobbies of their children (despite not having any person interest).  The common theme of the son surpassing the father is something that exists in virtually every form of competition, but here it highlights a special generational gap.  Baby Boomers didn't have access to games growing up, but Generation Xers did.  Now, with the millennials starting to have children of their own, gaming has become nearly ubiquitous across multiple generations.  Overall, I'd say that's a good thing.  Even so, it's also nice to see a piece of media that chronicles the cultural history divide of video games in it's own quirky way.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Lord of the Wasteland

When it comes to certain games I'm a bit behind the times.  Case in point, I've only just got around to finishing the Mad Max game by Avalanche Studios.  Overall I enjoyed my time spent wandering the wreckage-strewn Australian outback, but I can't help think there might have been a better way to approach the franchise.  It seems like when it comes to adaptations of this setting, they tend to come in two varieties; micro or macro.  The former is the more common with examples like the Fallout series, Rage, Wasteland, and The Last of Us.  They're games focused on a single individual or small group of people trying to endure in the aftermath of a global catastrophe.  The latter is the rarer of the two and is a bit harder to find examples for.  There's a Crusader Kings II mod entitled After the End which features a post-apocalyptic North America divided among a number of tribes.  Another game is Atomic Society, an early access title soon to be available through Steam.  In both cases they put the player in charge of a community (or tribe) and give them a bird's-eye view of what's going on.  I guess you could call them part of the RTS genre.  The problem I have is neither of these video game subgenres quite have what I want.  One category has lost it's luster, while the other feels too detached to capture what makes the setting interesting.  I think though, there might be an untapped sweet spot somewhere in-between.

Imagine taking the role of Immortan Joe, Lord Humongous or Aunty Entity.  How did they get started?  Were they once wanderers like Max?  How did they recruit followers, secure resources and deal with potential rivals?  In a post-apocalyptic future basic necessities are almost always in short supply, which means raiding is one course of action, another is trade.  As the leader of a faction how do you go about getting things like drinkable water, eatable food, adequate shelter, life-saving medicine, and a fuel supply for your vehicles?  That final point is especially important since if you have access to it, you can maraud for the rest.  There's always the risk though that you might run up against someone bigger and meaner than you, which places a certain value on alliances (for mutual protection or simple strength of numbers) Aside from the usual itinerary of burn, pillage and enslave, there could be groups within your own collective that have other motives or desires.  Perhaps a cult springs up from within your ranks or some of your members begin to take up cannibalistic practices.  Do you suppress it and risk rebellion or embrace it and become all the more dogmatic?

From a gameplay standpoint, I like the idea of having some kind of "nemesis system" akin to the one we've seen in on display in the upcoming Middle-earth: Shadow of War.  Instead of branding individuals though, I think it would be cool to focus on salvaged vehicles.  To begin with the players would only have access to motorcycles and dune buggies, but after obtaining the services of a talented black thumb (black finger?) the repertoire could steadily expand into sedans, trucks and the penultimate vehicle in every aspiring post-apocalyptic conqueror's arsenal, the war rig.  Of course the absolute pinnacle is a flying machine, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here.  I like the idea of keeping the gameplay in the over-the-shoulder-third-person perspective because it gives players a chance to not only see their customized rides up close in action, but their warlord and followers too.  As the game progresses he (or she) could go from an unremarkable wastelander to a grizzly-looking cross between a samurai general and punk rocker.  The player's underlings could also have distinct looks with some variation between individuals.  Even the base of operations could have it's own set of "modules" such as gates, walls, garages, cisterns, depots, and armories that make it unique.

Weapons are always important and guns are what everyone wants most.  However, they might not be so easy to come by, the same goes for ammo, so they tend to be reserved for elite units while the rest make due with improvised weapons; pneumatic dart launchers, crossbows, spiked clubs, knives, machetes, and fire axes are just some examples along with armor jury rigged from sports equipment, or my personal favorite - a shield that's actually just an old road sign.  That said, improvised explosive devices such as the thunder sticks seen in Fury Road or molotov cocktails aren't hard to fashion out of scrap.  Grappling hooks and spring loaded harpoons are useful tools for when one vehicle attempts to commandeer another.

Looking back on what I've written thus far, it occurs to me this hypothetical video game I've brainstormed here doesn't have to be an exercise in power hungry conquest.  I've always liked the idea of a post-apocalyptic King Arthur and his knights errant.  Through good deeds it might be possible to form a just and sane government from which society could rebuild.  Good or evil though I think the important thing is to let the player decide how they want to rule the wasteland.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Nintendo Lingo

Whenever a piece of media is translated from Japanese to English (or vice-versa) things inevitably get tweaked or modified to better suit the intended audience.  How exactly one goes about this though isn't always clear, leading to variations between successive translators as well as legacy issues that can crop up in later additions to a franchise.  Nowhere is this more apparent in video games than with Nintendo.

Hypothetical situation - a Japanese and American are talking about their favorite video games and one of them brings up Mario Brothers.  At first there isn't much in the way of communication difficulties since characters like "Mario," "Luigi," "Yoshi," "Wario," and "Waluigi," are basically the same in both languages.  However, when the Japanese person mentions "Kinopio" the American suddenly finds himself at a loss.  "Who's Kinopio?" they might be wondering.  It turns out that Kinopio's name in English is "Toad."  Those small brown creatures that Mario is always jumping on are "goombas" in English, but in Japanese they're called "kuribo."  Interesting aside, "kuri" means "chestnut" in Japanese which kind of makes sense given that the little critters do look a bit like chestnuts with faces and a pair of feet.  The turtle people are "Noko-noko" in Japanese, but in English are "Koopa."  Complicating things further, "Bowser" is called "Koopa" in Japanese, although I can see why his title is "King Koopa" if you interpret that as shorthand for "King of the Koopa."  Other characters such as Princess Peach and Princess Daisy, are pretty much direct translations in either language.  I'm not sure what became of Princess Toadstool though...

The same sort of mystery surrounds the Koopalings.  According to Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario Brothers IP, Bowser Junior is the only actual offspring of King Koopa.  The rest are simply his lieutenants.  Who their parents are, and who Bowser Junior's mother is, has never been revealed.  This kind of bizarreness isn't unique to Mario Brothers either.  Another venerated Nintendo franchise has its own brand of weird.

A great example comes from The Legend of Zelda series, and Link's iconic steed - Epona.  I've heard my share of arguments over whether it's pronounced "E-po-na," or "E-pon-ya."  Turns out, either pronunciation is valid depending on where you hail from.  If you ever played the original Dead Space you probably noticed the planet-cracking starship that most of the game takes place on is called the "Ishimura."  In Japanese and English it's pretty much the same, but in the spin-off game Dead Space: Extraction, for the Wii, one of the british voice actors refers to it as the "Ishimyura."  Phonetically,  "mu" and "myu" are distinctly different sounds in Japanese, but in the U.K. it's just a regional accent - the same goes for Epona.  You might be tempted to say whichever is closer to the original Japanese must be correct, but I'd advise against going down that road.  It's a linguistics quagmire that will get you into more trouble than it's worth.  Knowing which syllable to stress is also a problem.  Are they "bo-ko-BLINS" or "bo-KOB-lins"?  Also, I'm not sure which pronunciation guidelines should be followed with regards to certain nouns.  Case in point, "Hyrule" is "high" plus "rule," but "Hyrulian" could be "hi-RU-li-an," or it could be "Hi-ru-LAY-en" (like the adjective "Hylian").  Typically, when it comes to four syllable words the emphasis is on the second, but there are exceptions (such as "Transylvanian" and "Filipino") where the stress is on the third.

In the past, most of what I've just talked about hasn't been of much importance because until just recently most Nintendo games have been light on the text and dialogue-free.  However, with the introduction of recorded speech in Breath of the Wild I wonder how Nintendo plans on tackling this.  Will they enforce consistency, or will it be left up to the voice actors to decide?  I have a feeling that, much like the original translations, it will depend on who's in charge of the project and what languages/dialects they're familiar with.