Sunday, August 26, 2018

Sierra Dynamics

I've purchased a lot of video games over the years, but the company that has gotten the most amount of my hard-earned cash has to be Sierra Entertainment (and their subsidiary Dynamix Inc.).  Going through the complete catalogue of titles by these two companies, I count forty games made by them that I've tried.  A few I played at friends' houses or else borrowed from (or traded with) neighbours to get.  Even then we're looking at about $1000, which accounting for inflation comes out to about double in 2018 dollars.  That's a lot of greenbacks!  Then again, it was a great time to be playing adventure games.

Sierra got started in 1980, but it took them a couple of years (and nearly complete bankruptcy) to hit their stride with the Quest games they've since become famous for; King's Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest and Quest for Glory.  The success of Sierra adventure games earned the company enough capital to acquire Dynamix, another game developer with a talent for making combat sims.  Dynamix has a less extensive repertoire than Sierra, but I think they still made their mark with the Aces trilogy; Aces of the Pacific, Aces over Europe, and Aces of the Deep.  They also made some other interesting games such as Deathtrack, the original Mechwarrior and Betrayal at Krondor.  Sometime around 1994 though Sierra reached its peak and started to go into decline.  They still saw some amazing successes as a publisher with titles like Half-Life and Homeworld, but by the time those two games had come out the company had been purchased by CUC International.  Before the year 2000 rolled around Sierra was little more than a shell corporation and (after trading a few more hands) was scrapped completely in 2008.

When I think of Sierra I tend to imagine their redwood office building nestled in tall pines just south of Yosemite National Park.  I've never seen the place in person, but my understanding is it has become a medical clinic.  For some reason that makes me a little sad.  I almost feel like I should leave some flowers there and reminisce about the good times I had with Roger Wilco, King Graham, Sonny Bonds, and even that loser Larry Laffer.  Regardless, I have to shake my head and laugh every time I hear someone claim adventure gaming is dead.  A variety of small studios are still cranking out a few new ones every year with exoctic sounding names like Techobabylon and Samorost.  I can also sometimes spot core elements of the genre living on in the DNA of certain horror games like Ao Oni and Unavowed.  Hey, you know what tends to happen to dead things in horror stories, right?  Guess what came back from the dead in 2014...

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Best Games I'll Never Play

I'm usually pretty good about getting around to everything I want to play, even if it takes a couple of years to do so.  That said, there are some games (widely regarded as being excellent interactive experiences) I will never work up the motivation for despite being right up my alley.  Here are a few examples.

Considered an oddity among other entries in the adventure game genre, The Last Express is basically a World War 1 era version of the classic black and white film Casablanca.  Granted, it takes place on a train instead of a nightclub, and it's a bit less sentimental, but you get the idea.  The puzzle elements common to the point-and-click adventure genre are toned down here in lieu of fully voice acted dialogue segments, many of which are subtitled due to the wide variety of languages spoken throughout the game.  As far as out-of-the-ordinary features go though, it's not the sound (but rather the visual presentation) that is truly unconventional.  At a time when FMV games were at their peak, The Last Express tried to differentiate itself by opting for rotoscope animation.  The only other game that I'm aware of that used this technique in a non-trivial way is The Banner Saga.  Obviously, it's rare to see this kind of animation technique anywhere because of how resource intensive it is.  Typically, it's used sparingly, such as in short segments or in the case of The Last Express few frames of animation per second.  The lowest I've heard a cartoon can get away with, regarding FPS, is somewhere between six and twelve.  The Last Express mostly gets by with two to three, with only a few scenes having more.  The overall effect is like watching a rapid slideshow, which some claim is evocative of the timeperoid.  For me though, it's practically unbearable to watch for more than a few minutes at a time.

I played though the entirety of the original Prince of Persia on my Apple IIc, and a decent chunk of the sequel, The Shadow and the Flame.  I also played all of The Sands of Time, but that's as far as I got into the reboot series.  I've always had a desire to go back and play the 2008 cell shaded entry though.  My understanding is it had a somewhat controversial release due to the fact that the player character couldn't die in a fall.  Rather, a helpful spirit named Elika would come to the rescue and drop the player off at the nearest safe point.  Personally, I don't see the problem with this because if the titular prince dies then the player has to reload from a previous save or their last checkpoint anyway.  So why not simply streamline the whole process and have the game do it automatically?  To me the entire thing is a non-issue unless you really enjoy watching people fall to their death...for some weird reason.  What is a problem though is the DLC for this game.  Specifically, if you want to see the real ending, you have to pay extra for it.  Worse still, the DLC is only available on consoles, and not the PC version.  Truly, Ubisoft has gone out of their way to make enjoying the complete Prince of Persia as difficult as possible...and since I no longer have a working PS3 I think I'll just have to pass on this one.

I've played the original Front Mission and Front Mission 3, but never the second mainline entry in the franchise.  It's a shame because Front Mission 2 is generally regarded as superior to both its predecessor and its sequel.  In large part this is due to the "honor system" found exclusively in the second game, which encourages teamwork and synergy between the various characters that make up the player's team.  Speaking of characters, the main one is a Bengali which is a rare choice of ethnicity when it comes to video game protagonists.  There's also an openly gay secondary character, something practically unheard of back when the game came out in 1997.  Sadly, Front Mission 2 was never released overseas.  One of the development leads claimed it had certain story elements that would have been viewed as faux pas by western audiences.  Odd reasoning considering that kind of thing didn't prevent Metal Gear from becoming a popular IP outside of Japan.  There is a fan translation available on the internet, but getting the game itself to run, especially with all the region locking that went on back then, sounds like a real pain.  Plus, I'm sure I don't have the patience to sit through the notoriously long load times Front Mission 2 is known for.

So, there you have it.  Those are three great games I will never play; not because it would be impossible, but rather because I can't justify the time/money/effort required to myself.  Call me lazy.  Call me picky.  Call me ignorant...or maybe the root of it is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to games to please excuse me while I dive into more Hollow Knight, Doom 3, Dark Souls 3, Shadow of Mordor, Cultist Simulator and Dragon Quest Builders.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Stranger than Fiction

A lot of entertainment media has been made over the years in which dinosaurs make an appearance...or in some cases play a prominent role.  More often than not said media goes in fairly predictable directions when it comes to depicting these "terrible lizards."  The thing is though, when it comes to the truth about dinosaurs, they're a lot more bizarre than most stories make them out to be.

Take sauropods, those long necked/tailed herbivores for example...they had hollow, air-filled, almost honeycomb looking bones to reduce weight.  Their teeth were uniformly identical pegs that functioned like a pair of under/over garden rakes used to strip large quantities of leaves off plants - no chewing involved!  Due to the wear-and-tear of constantly eating sauropods grew in new teeth on a monthly basis.  Their heads, when viewed from the side weren't much bigger than an adult horse.  From the front though, they were much wider and box-like, again, for greater chomping efficiency.  The lungs were also quite a bit different than what humans possess.  Most likely, they were akin to the more complex arrangement that birds have.  Thermal temperature regulation was also probably an issue because of their immense size.  Many paleontologists think they radiated excess heat through their necks and tails.  By modern standards these creatures would probably seem fairly lethargic, only taking a step or two now and then while feeding.  In other words, they were giant slow-motion foliage vacuums that sweeped up wide swaths of plantlife as they grazed.

Moving on to theropods...we have everyone's favorite - velociraptor.  Except, in reality, it had a sleek sheen of feathers similar to a modern day crow or raven.  Sadley, the exact coloration remains a mystery.  It's also possible that they climbed trees and made surprise gliding or diving attacks from above.  As for size...the "Utahraptor" might have been roughly comparable to those seen in the "Jurassic Park" franchise, but given that the recovered fossil remains only consist of a few skull fragments, tail bones, and some claws, it's hard to make an accurate estimate.  All other recovered raptor specimens tend to be analogous to various breeds of dogs in size.

Guesswork is a big part of paleontology, and isn't necessarily a bad's just that media about dinosaurs is notoriously coy when it comes to differentiating between hard fact and approximation.  Case in point, fossilized stegosaurus skeletons (as seen in pictures and museum displays) were an amalgamation of six different specimens, all of different ages and genders.  In addition to this fossilized bones can get warped in weird ways after sitting underground for millions upon millions of years.  Unsurprisingly, when just recently a relatively complete and well-preserved specimen was found it turned out that a lot of what scientists had inferred was noticeably off.

Another similarly problematic area is species classification.  Certain types of dinosaurs have so many minor variants one can't help but wonder if some of them aren't simply juvenile vs adult, male vs female, diseased vs healthy, or natural variations within a single species rather than a genus.  Part of me also wonders if some of these "newly discovered species of dinosaurs" aren't the result of overly eager paleontologists trying to make a name for themselves...

Now here at the end of this blogpost, I finally come to the part where I talk about video games.  In particular, games that are trying to depict real dinosaurs (such as the original Dino Crisis).  Running with that example, Capcom probably doesn't have any desire to continue, reboot, or remake the franchise.  However, if they did, I hope they'd choose not to copy the look of the dinosaurs as seen in "Jurassic Park" because those dinosaurs are genetic hybrids, whereas the ones seen in Dino Crisis are supposed to be the real thing (brought to the present via time-travel technology.  More importantly, there's an opportunity to surprise and educate would-be players by throwing at them not what they expect, but rather what the science indicates.  To illustrate my point let me conclude this with a pair of examples.

Perhaps the player comes across a harmless brachiosaurus in a lush patch of jungle early on in the game and when they come back to the spot later they find the entire area denuded of greenery, and because of this a previously hidden secret is now in plain sight.  I would also get a kick out of players anticipating a wolfpack-style raptor attack and instead get swarmed by vicious oversized chicken-like creatures packing sharp fangs and sickle claws a la Legend of Zelda.     

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Oscillations and Evolutions

There's a belief among Star Trek fans that goes, the even numbered movies are good while the odd numbered ones are bad.  It's not something I ascribe to since the idea broke down as the film series progressed.  On the other hand, I do think the notion of even (good) and odd (bad) applies rather well to Nintendo controllers.

The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short, had two distinct versions.  The first was the red and brown Famicom, which was a very well made piece of hardware.  However, the grey and black box I'm more familiar with has its share of problems.  Cartridge loading tray issues aside, the controllers were hard on the hands.  Their angular rectangular shape meant that the corners were constantly jabbing into the player's palms.  The D-pad, while innovative at the time, only allowed pressure inputs along the x/y-axis.  So, unless you happened to have exceptionally fat thumbs diagonal movement was always a bit finicky.  There was a special aftermarket cover that attached over the controller and rectified these annoyances.  Funnily enough it essentially changed the shape of an NES controller into an SNES gamepad.

If I had to pick an all-time favorite game controller, it would probably be the one for the SNES.  Simple, responsive and rugged, it was everything a short tempered child (or teenager) would want in terms of design.  The change from the strangely sequenced "B" and "A" buttons to convex "A" and "B", concave "X" and "Y", plus "L" and "R" bumpers meant that the number of buttons (when counting "select" and "start") doubled from 4 to 8.  The D-pad was also improved by having its "+" shape imposed on a circular backing, thus making diagonal movement a breeze.  Unlike its chief competitor the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) 3-button controller, the SNES gamepad didn't suffer from sticky unresponsiveness with age.

Sadely, the N64 didn't carry on the tradition...don't get me wrong...there were improvements such as the rumble pack and thumbstick, but the overall design never felt particularly ergonomical to me.  As far as I know, no game released on the N64 ever made real use of the D-pad, essentially turing the left third of the controller into superfluous ornamentation.  Needless to say, the GameCube controller was a significant upgrade.  Although the yellow c-stick never seemed to get much use, the contours and general shape were comfortably similar to the DualShock and Xbox Controller.

The Wiimote, as its nickname implies, was more of a TV remote than anything else.  The sensors were never particularly reliable, at least until the Motion Plus accessory was introduced.  Technically it was possible to turn the Wiimote horizontally and use it like a fat NES controller (with largely the same problems as that 8-bit design).  On the positive side, it was possible to use GameCube controllers for certain games.

Moving onto the next generation, the WiiU controller was quite nice.  In some ways I like it more than the Switch even though the two are fairly similar in terms of layout.  In particular, the thumbsticks on the Switch are a bit too small for adult hands.  They're not impossible to use, but I find precise movements are a lot easier to pull off on a pro controller.  Unfortunately, using the bulky pro controller kind of deprives the Switch of its primary feature - portability.  The whole setup is also a bit fragile.  I unintentionally found out that Joycons don't hold up well to edge-on impacts.  If previously manufactured handheld Nintendo gaming devices are any indicator, then I imagine we'll see a hardware revision or two for the Switch in the next couple years that addresses the issues I've just mentioned.  As it stand now though, Nintendo seems to oscillate every console generation in terms of controller quality.