Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Two Wii things worth mentioning.

One - If you are hooking a Wii up to a TV that uses the 'Y' (green) channel of the component video input  for also decoding the composite video input, expect it to look dark if you use the Wii's composite video cable. Obviously if you have the component video cable for the Wii, you should use that when possible. I happened to notice it over the weekend when my son got to play Sengoku Basara on the TV at my Dad's house. I presume that it's because there's less signal to go around, so the TV assumes that the picture isn't as bright (even though I'm sure the TV's electronics are fully capable of compensating for it.) I had the chance to go get the other cable, and turned progressive scan back on, and the picture was pretty much back to normal brightness. If you were confused by the use of the words 'component' and 'composite' in this context, refer back to my post about HDTV.  

Two - If you didn't have the Netflix channel loaded on your Wii before you put in The Legend of Zelda:Skyward Sword, the Wii will do a 'System Update' that adds it for you. Funny, I just checked for a new system update the other day when I reset my router.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Gaming Things I did in 2011

I finally set Urban Reign to 'Easy' so that I could finish the story mode and unlock Paul Phoenix and Marshall Law. I was stuck on a board just before the end that featured Golem and Napalm99. Yes, I realize it's an old game. It was already an old game when I picked up a couple of copies of it upon its arrival in the discount bin.

I finally changed the settings of Street Fighter 3:Third Strike on Anniversary Collection to 1-star difficulty and 1 round matches so I could beat Gill with the last few people I hadn't finished with in order to unlock Gill as a playable character. Since I was trying to work through the characters in alphabetical order, I hadn't really used Yun and Yang that much. Once I unlocked Gill, I discovered that since I had been playing SF4 occasionally elsewhere my Ryu skills had improved. I was finally able to get a high enough score once I set the game back to its default settings that I was able to fight against Q. (I even finished the game with only 3 continues and a C++ ranking!)

I finally warmed up to Sonic games. I had a hard time with Sonic Riders and Sonic Heroes, and I had a really hard time with Shadow the Hedgehog, but I started to warm up to the Black Knight game, and I really like Sonic Colors (which my older son is playing right now while I'm typing this.) My older son is really the one that got me started, since Super Smash Brothers Brawl piqued his interest in Sonic in the first place.

I finally played NBA Street, which honestly seems an awful lot like NBA Jam with better music. The character animations don't seem to hold up by today's standards, and the voice-over is a little... unnatural. The game is fine, and considering that I paid around $5 for it, I'm pretty sure that I will get my $5 worth.

I finally accepted the fact that I like using Dan in Street Fighter IV, and I'm now comfortable telling people that's who I use. I seem to have a thing for Dan and Sakura since they're both Shoto-misfits. Sean from Street Fighter III hasn't managed to make me feel the same way about him, though. There's something about his rushing tackle move that makes him seem too different to me. I also know that when and if I ever get my own copy of Street Fighter IV, I'll have to endure endless requests to play as Hakan from my younger son. I played Dan because I have an odd sense of humor, so it makes sense that my younger son would take it one step further.

I also finally purchased a Pokemon game - but it wasn't for me. So, 2012 will be filled with frank discussions about evolution of water types versus dragon types, and what moonstones are for - if we can ever stop playing Skyward Sword.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Everything happens during the holidays.

As usual, it's been too long between blog posts, but I think that it's better to have too much real life going on instead of too much internet life. I have also decided to be more inclusive of my musical life in this space.

The band  that I'm in is losing its keyboard player, but we seem to be making the adjustment.  I have talked to a few people about the position, but I have not spoken to anyone that I thought would be a good match yet.  We're in no hurry to put a new keyboard player on board unless they're really going to work out. For what we do, we need someone with traditional piano skills and modern keyboard chops.  Despite all the kids that get forced to play 'Fur Elise' until Zombie Beethoven rises from his grave to eat their fingers off, it's harder than you think to find a substantial keyboard player.  And even if you have classical chops - it's no guarantee that you also have the funk.

A big part of what I like about the holidays is that I get to help other people with video game shopping. I was happy to play the demo of The Legend of Zelda:Skyward Sword at the Nintendo Wii kiosk at Walmart this week, but not as happy as my son was. I only played part of one of the dungeons, but the demo also includes a bird riding section, and a boss battle (and my son played all three sections).  We explained to a few passers-by that you needed the Wii Remote Plus for the game, but that it improves the swordplay a lot. I had to stop playing after a couple of minutes since the controls are slightly different from Twilight Princess and I didn't want to pick up any bad habits just yet. I was also a lot happier being able to recommend the Xbox360 or the PS3 to people with younger kids now, since Microsoft and Sony have made real strides in the last year in widening their audience. But, my most favorite thing this holiday season is being able to answer the question "Is that Batman game any good?" with "Yes, it's awesome" after so many years of telling people to stay away from any licensed games that weren't "Goldeneye" for Nintendo 64. Oddly, the first Batman game in that series (Arkham Asylum) didn't spend too much time on Walmart's shelf, and I can't even tell you why. It's just as good.  Maybe it's because the original game wasn't a holiday season release, or maybe it's because there was some Gamestop promotion that overshadowed anybody else selling the game.

Other than doing some random cubing demos at the local elementary school holiday breakfast while all the kids were throwing snowballs, and at the top of the bridge at our local boat parade, my cubing activity has been somewhat minimal.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ok, this is really about Sengoku Basara.

After having been reminded that I had not talked about it very much, except to cryptically refer to it inthe title of an April blog post, it seems I should get around to talking about Sengoku Basara, and its predecessor, Devil Kings.

When I got a PS2, it was the Christmas after it launched. I was all excited to finally have a DVD player and Tekken Tag Tournament and a way to play PS1 games that didn't involve putting the unit on its side. Despite the good reviews, I had avoided Dynasty Warriors 2. I somehow had gotten the impression that it was a strategy game and you were not directly controlling a character, but merely giving orders to an army out on a battlefield and watching it play out. When I first saw Command and Conquer on PC, I was turned off by the indirect control and didn't want to play a PS2 game where I just clicked on a map and shouted at the screen about how bad my troops were. So, I skipped the Dynasty Warriors series because of my misconception about the game, even though it had gotten good reviews. It wasn't a tough thing to skip this game as there were lots of other good games for PS2 that I hadn't played. Since I had skipped this I opted to also skip Capcom's Devil Kings when it came out, since the way it was marketed I thought that they were similar games. As it turns out, they are similar games, but I was wrong about both Dynasty Warriors and Devil Kings.

It is true that Devil Kings takes place on a large battlefield with many characters on screen, and there is some strategy to it, but for the most part, you control a single character and your so-called allied troops don't do a doggone thing other than get in trouble and make you have to rescue them. Most of the weapons in the game are fantasy versions of feudal weapons, and the characters that you play as all seem to have some supernatural power tied in to them. The Dynasty Warriors games are similar in that you control a single player on a large battlefield, and try to meet certain battle conditions. The biggest difference is that the Dynasty Warriors games take place in China around the end of the HanDynasty and into the Three Kingdoms period. Devil Kings takes place in Japan nearly 1200 years later in the Sengoku, or Warring States period.

A friend of mine had played Devil Kings because it had made it down to the bargain bin and it was a Capcom game, so he gave it a try. When he explained the game to me from his perspective, it seemed a little less like a strategy game and more like a conventional action game. I had mostly forgotten about the conversation other than to remember that he had a lot of fun playing it, and went back to playing whatever it was that I was playing. At the time, it was probably Devil May Cry 3 or Pikmin.

Some time later, probably around the time I was looking for a Gamecube copy of Killer 7 last year, I had spotted both Chaos Legion and Devil Kings for PS2 in the really cheap bin in a GameStop that I was driving past every Friday at the time. I couldn't remember with 100% certainty which of the two games my friend had already played, but I thought it was Devil Kings. Then, I couldn't remember if he had played Chaos Legion or not, but both games gave off a Devil May Cry vibe. Devil Kings goes so far as to use the same font for the title that Devil May Cry does. The character on the Chaos Legion box has that same steely gaze as Devil May Cry's protagonist, Dante, and it has some blurbs on the back imploring people that liked Devil May Cry to try Chaos Legion. Since they were both Capcom games and bargain priced besides, I picked up both of them. I didn't want to get one only to find out later that I should have gotten the other one. I started both the games, got a basic idea of the gameplay, and then called my friend back. He confirmed that Devil Kings was the game that he played, and that he had not played Chaos Legion. I got the idea from the opening movies that the art style of Chaos Legion would be much to my friend's liking, so I sent Chaos Legion to him later. (I never did hear if he liked Chaos Legion or not.)

So that leaves us with Devil Kings. As it turns out, the game is a lot of fun, and I had not played anything on PS2 that was anything like it except for the God of War games. Certainly, God of War does a great job of making you feel like you have to fight against an entire army yourself, and I really like the feeling of being able to tear into large groups of enemies (and not have the game slow down like Gauntlet:Dark Legacy does). I looked up some things online about the game, and found out that it was an overly Americanized version of a game they had made for a Japanese audience called Sengoku Basara. They changed the names of all the characters to presumably suit an American audience, they tweaked the attack system a little to make it more stylish like "Devil May Cry", and they made the map of feudal Japan into a more generic looking land mass so Americans wouldn't have to feel they were playing something based on history in the slightest.

Looking at it now, the game looks a little dated, with enemies popping in to view once you get close enough, and some fog in the backgrounds, but the gameplay is still fun. Each level has a map up in the corner to show you where you, your commanders, the enemy commanders, and where the bosses are. The camera is situated behind you and slightly above. It feels like a brawler, or like the aforementioned God of War, as you fight through hordes of enemies with swords and pikes and various other weapons from the era. (Of course, since I tend to play games without cultural context due to playing them at different times as everybody else, I was unaware that this and Chaos Legion is part of a genre referred to as 'hack and slash'.) A couple of characters have guns, but thankfully you are spared the tedium of endless reloading that the single shot rifles of the feudal era would have required. As you fight, you build up Fury Drive, filling up a bar that lets you unleash a super attack when completed. The controls involve two attack buttons, the fury attack button, a jump button, a block button, and a button that modifies your two regular attacks into some alternate attacks. There are a dozen or so characters to choose from but not all are available at the outset. Each time you play through the story of each character, you level up their attributes a little more. Nothing stops you from playing through on Easy a bunch of times to level up, but you only get 70% of the experience points that you would get playing on Normal, and you don't get the better treasures when you play it too safe. As you level up a character you can pick different weapons and different alternate attacks for them. Also, some treasures collected in levels help you modify your attack and defense attributes as needed, and you are given an opportunity to change them around at the beginning of each level. You are given your pick of enemies at each stage, usually one of two or three, but bear in mind that anybody that you don't fight could come up again later. By the last stage, you have no choice in who to fight since they'll be the only opponent left. You can't save in the middle of a stage, but typically the stages last only a few minutes. I really like that you can play a single session and still make progress. I also like that you can play the same level in different ways and potentially reap different rewards. Some levels even give you experience point bonuses based on meeting certain battle conditions.

The game got horrible reviews at the time, partly due to the heavy-handed localization. This seems ridiculous to me, since people playing Devil Kings were largely unaware that there was a corresponding Japanese game called Sengoku Basara, so I can't see why the localization mattered that much to the review score. The Japanese game has characters pulled from history - the leader Nobunaga Oda is the character in Devil Kings called Devil King.

So since Devil Kings was so fun to play, my older son and I were so excited that Sengoku Basara 3 was made available on Wii as Sengoku Basara:Samurai Heroes. The graphics are greatly improved, due in to no small part to Capcom porting their MT Framework engine to Wii as MT Framework Lite. (There is also a PS3 version, which runs on the full-size MT Framework engine.) Correction: Even the PS3 version runs on the 'Lite' version of MT Framework. Two player splitscreen co-op was included, many more stages are available, more items and weapons were included, some characters were added, although a few characters from Devil Kings are now NPC's, and an Ally system was added to single player mode. As you progress through the game, in addition to collecting items, you can collect allies. When playing in single player mode, you can take one ally with you. As you use them more, they level up their particular attribute. Some Allies are suited to fighting on certain types of stages, some have elemental attacks, some are suited to fighting certain types of enemies. Another thing that I really like in the game is being able to see on the map by color what areas you have already captured, and where the enemies are. All the character names reverted to the original Japanese names, so now my son and I now have confusing conversations involving Japanese names and the corresponding stupid American names from Devil Kings.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A little preoccupied, I think.

I had been working on a blog post for Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 for quite some time, and had failed to remark on what I was actually doing in the game arena altogether. Also, I have been playing more music lately, and that seems to eat into my blogging more than gaming itself does.

Last Saturday, I picked up my third copy of Soul Calibur 2, the GameCube version. I really enjoyed the PS2 version, and didn't seem to enjoy the XBox version as much so far. Not that the XBox version is bad - it's just the only difference in the XBox version is Spawn, who I didn't really 'get' as a Soul Calibur character. The GameCube's exclusive character is Link from the Legend of Zelda. With all of the Twilight Princess and Ocarina and Phantom Hourglass nonsense going around at the house, I felt like I should see what Link was like in Soul Calibur, and I felt confident that we would get our $8 worth out of it.

Last Sunday I managed to get two completely different things done in the gaming arena. First, I went back to Sengoku Basara and finally unlocked Nobunaga.  As soon as I did, I was asked by my older son to turn off the Wii so that I wouldn't start a 'Hero's Story' with him. Second, I  went back and took another swing at New Super Mario Bros. Wii, only to finish the game and discover a couple of extra boards that I had missed.  It's really easy to skip World 8-7.  There's still a lot to do, but I was really impressed by how Nintendo managed to keep people engaged during the credits, and give players a substantial reason to get all of the star coins beyond just opening up the various hint movies.

I hadn't really played either game in quite a while, and I think the only thing I had going for me was a fresh approach - but sometimes that's all it takes.  I always hear that the number of gamers that finish games is a really low percentage, I never believe the numbers, and I'm always disappointed.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer Vacation in Hyrule

After being disgusted with the nature of Virtua Fighter 4 – or more importantly, disgusted with my inability to do the moves, I decided that it was time to get back on the Zelda wagon. I had finished Twilight Princess some time ago, but #1 son had made it about as far as the Gerudo Desert only to find that the disc stopped loading that area, and that we had a short circular scratch on the disk. Since Twilight Princess became one of the Nintendo Select titles, it was a little less painful to get another copy of the game. We both decided to start new games. Thanks to a mad rush to get through the game before school started a week ago, he is all the way to the last area – but I think that there are several battles at the end that have no intermediate save point, so I'm not 100% sure how close to the actual end of the game he is. He got frustrated with the last battles, and I encouraged him to go back and get the rest of the golden bugs, and to do the clawshot minigame. I am not nearly as far along, both because he has been playing a lot, but also because my younger son has started playing it.

There are some things that #2 son can't do that well, but they don't bother him much. #1 son did most of the boss battles for him, and some parts of the dungeons, but #2 son just wants to run around in the towns. He's not quite reading yet, so he doesn't really interact with the information on the screen that much. He's still excited about being able to chop a wooden sign in pieces with his sword. He discovered on his own that you can pet the goats at the ranch. Even more surprising, he discovered that if you attack a chicken enough times, you can control it for a few seconds. I know that he discovered it by himself, because if #1 had read it on the internet and told him, he would have thought that you had to attack the chicken with your sword (which is much harder than it sounds). #2 son figured out a much easier way - Z-target the chicken and attack it with the Clawshot. I was unaware of the glitch myself – and when a 4-and-a-half-year old says "Dad if you shoot the chicken with the clawshot enough times you can control him" it's typically going to be met with skepticism the first time.

So, it got me thinking. As a gamer, trained by previous Zelda games, or Doom, or Quake, or Metroid, we're conditioned to 1) figure out where we need to go next, 2) go as far as we can until we reach some obstacle, 3) get the thing that allows us to overcome the next obstacle – be it a key, or a weapon, or some device that shows us a passageway that we couldn't detect otherwise, 4) surmount obstacle, and 5) repeat. This series of steps creates very linear gameplay, and it also creates a system where designers shoehorn a bunch of things into areas of the game to make sure you have all the weapons or items you're already supposed to have before you proceed. It doesn't always work – there are lots of fans of certain games that delight in finding and exploiting 'sequence breaks' – but it works most of the time if the person playing the game is trying to play within the perceived 'rules'. Sometimes it would be more fun to just be able to play around, but often we're so conditioned to doing things a certain way that you can't (the designer is too conditioned) or don't (the player is too conditioned) really do that.

I really enjoy playing golf games, but only the 'cutesy' ones. (Does Outlaw Golf count as cutesy?) I don't want to have to mimic a perfect golf swing, I just want to strategize how to get through a fairway and on to the green without hitting poor little animated squirrels in the head. My current game is Capcom's "We Love Golf" for the Wii, and I have to say that it was totally because Chun-Li and Morrigan are unlockable characters (and it was on sale). Often times, I have played these games wondering why they won't just let me wander around the course. You could switch between a walk-around mode and standard golf mode, leave collectible items around the course for you to find, post a sign somewhere on a shed about game techniques, or even put a little bit of extra fan service in terms of locations. You could get to play on the Racoon City Country Club course, or perhaps a series of locations from Street Fighter or Zack and Wiki. I suppose the reviewers would complain that "The only way to get all the extra bonus items is to wander around aimlessly in first-person mode, which is a complete distraction from the actual golfing." I don't like that Gran Turismo can't just figure out what cars that you have are eligible for the race that you just tried to pick and let you select one of them instead of the car that you just switched to three screens ago in the "Garage" because you thought that it was eligible for the race you just picked, but hey – that's just me. One guy's fun new mode is another guy's ridiculous distraction. (Did you know that there are people that have Smash Bros. Brawl and have never played the Subspace Emissary mode?)

I guess what I'm getting at is that it would be fun if we could just get back to the play aspect of playing games. I get annoyed when developers seem to forget that part, and sometimes I am envious of my younger son for being able to do that, even in the most linear of games.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Two New Fighters - Well, not really new.

I started playing two new fighting games, except they're only new to me. One of them has the number 4 in the title and a Greatest Hits label on it - Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution. The other one is a release from last summer, Tournament of Legends. Both of the games have a SEGA logo on them, but I would argue that it's of no importance in at least one case.

I had played the regular PS2 version of Virtua Fighter 4 many years ago and couldn't get into it at the time because I was playing a lot of Tekken and I seemed to have bad habits from Tekken that prevented me from really digging into VF4. It also didn't help that VF4Evo came out for PS2 just weeks after I finally bought a cheap copy of VF4. In disgust, I traded in my copy of VF4 the next time I unloaded some games. I had only traded in games a couple of times, mostly to thin out my collection to stuff that I'm still willing to play , and I was clearly not playing VF4. I have tried this series several times, and it doesn't seem to click in like Tekken or Soul Calibur or the Street Fighter games do. I suppose that it could be argued that since I haven't been playing Virtua Fighter since the first one, some of the standard conventions of the game are foreign to me and it would take me a while to get into them. This makes sense, I seem to have a similar problem with the King of Fighters games.

So, I suck at it. I can't do the moves where you have to press two buttons and let go of one of the two buttons after a single frame. I haven't found a character that makes sense yet enough that I can move past the button presses and just play the game. But, I can see that this is a great game with lots of depth and strategy because I am familiar enough with Tekken and Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive to see that Virtua Fighter does a lot of the things that those other games do. In several cases, they are more simply and cleanly done in VF, largely because of the 3-button interface. I have a harder time with the combos in VF because they don't match into the muscle memory of the other fighters I have played. I decided to start with Goh, since he is a new character in this version of the game. I have even fewer expectations about him than I might about the other characters, and a strange fondness for him because he reminds me (appearance-wise) of Brian Fury from Tekken a little bit. They have the same manic intensity in their eyes.

As a side note, during the time that I was writing this, I got to play a little Tekken 6. Bryan Fury plays mostly the same, but for some reason he doesn't look as good. Something is wrong, perhaps he fell down in the 'uncanny valley' a little. My favorite new character is the quick and versatile Alisa Bosconovitch. The yodeling music on the sheep board is a laugh riot.

The other game, Tournament of Legends, was originally just supposed to be a gladiator game, made especially for Wii in an attempt to get the Wiimote and Nunchuck controls acting like your sword and shield. The preview of the graphics were somewhat impressive for a Wii game, but as I recall all of the characters were human. Before they had a distributor, the game was just called 'Gladiator A.D. '. In finding a distributor, developer High Voltage went with Sega again, having distributed some of their other more recent games. Around the time of making that decision they ended up changing the game to have more mythological characters in it. I can only presume that Sega wanted them to broaden their audience and go for a 'T' rating. The weapons and the attacks that were shown in the original version of the game were not changed much, only the characters themselves seem to have changed. It probably made the story of each character a little more interesting than if they had just been random gladiators or barbarians. My older son likes the idea of the game, especially being able to switch the weapons and attributes among the characters. While he is perfectly happy using the Wiimote and Nunchuck to control Tatsunoko vs Capcom, he switched to using the Classic Controller for Tournament of Legends after just a few playthroughs. I warned him that we might have to switch, especially if he felt like the motion controls weren't doing what he wanted. My biggest problem with the game is that the camera is placed oddly for a fighting game. The original 'Gladiator A.D.' version of the game put the camera mostly behind your character for single player mode, making your character slightly transparent so that you can see the stance and the movement of your opponent easily. Its revision moves the camera off-axis a little more than that, but it's more like 35-40 degrees now instead of 15 or 20, and the foreground character isn't transparent. Also, you are not always the foreground character, so depending on who is ahead in a round, sometimes the viewing angle switches. If there is a massive swing in the direction of a match, there is a massive swing in the direction of the camera. It's odd enough to play a fighting game from a wacky diagonal perspective, it's even odder to have to play it with your character sort of facing you and not being able to see what move the computer controlled character is about to do because one of its hands are being shielded by their body.

Between the attempted implementation of motion controls and the odd visibility issues, the game is not as engaging to play as most fighting games. The background elements are interesting, as each one has its own quick-time event required to dodge away from various environmental hazards, but after a while you start rooting for the Kraken or the Giant Crab to just take out the two fighters and end the match. The armor system for the characters is also innovative and interesting, but it's hard to direct an attack to a specific area of your opponent when the controls are hard to deal with in the first place. It would have been nice if they had taken advantage of the Wii Motion Plus technology, or at least offered it as an option, but there is the concern that it would 'break' the game and confer too much of an advantage to a Wii Motion Plus player against an opponent with the standard controls. Ultimately, my problem with the game is that it's a step backwards in many respects and High Voltage could theoretically gotten some help in that regard. There's no particular reason that a fighting game for Wii has to look worse than the GameCube version of Soul Calibur. Granted, High Voltage is not NAMCO, but there's no reason they couldn't have gotten some help from Sega. The controls feel sluggish – again, Sega could certainly helped them out with this as well. How a fighting game plays has so much to do with the feel of the controls and the pacing of the action. I'm sure that Sega's AM2 team was busy with Virtua Something-or-another, and I'm sure that even if AM2 had given High Voltage some pointers, they wouldn't have seemed as important as ideas that came from within the team. I really wanted to like this game, and I will still hold out hope for new companies to make a good fighting game every once in a while. Maybe High Voltage Software can take what they learned in making Tournament of Legends and refine it into something that will get their partners at Sega to take notice.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cubing in Public Places where Alcohol is served.

Cubing in public where alcohol is involved is a hit-or-miss endeavor. For me, operation of the cube itself doesn't seem to suffer at the one drink level, which is about as many drinks as you will ever see me have. Since I'm still just trying to solve it in the 30-40 second range, but while talking, answering questions, being distracted, or working with really bad lighting conditions, one drink is not going to mess me up as much as other things might.

At a private party where everybody knows half of the other people there and many friendly conversations are bound to spring up, my Rubik's cube schtick is usually fun for a few minutes. People that might be inclined to coolly dismiss my demonstration as intellectual grandstanding when sober might be more vocally appreciative after a couple of martinis. One or two people may be really motivated to learn something. I don't know if that's still the case once the alcohol wears off.

In public venue where alcohol is involved, you have the same challenges with the sober crowd, but magnified. Since I had taken up cubing again, it had happened rarely, but I did have to deal with it a couple of times in the last month or so.

As it happens, I play in a band on weekends. We've just gotten to the point where people know who we are and want to listen to us, but it's not like our fan base is universal. A big chunk of the music we play is stuff that was popular 25 years ago, so the average twentysomething may not appreciate us that much if they rebelled from their parent's taste in music. It also might be noted that for whatever reason, a bar crowd may tend to want heavier music to listen to than the standard radio pop fare. Since we play 80's music, I bring a handful of cubes with me in case a fit of nostalgia breaks out, and some people that I knew from high school don't even recognize me without a cube in my hand. There is a bar that is local to us that we have played at a couple of times with mixed results. We didn't even think that they liked us at first. But, they asked us to come back, and my real cube anomalies were both from that second evening.
We showed up around 11 o'clock, which for middle aged people with kids and day jobs is clearly after bedtime. We were scheduled to go on at midnight, and did not really bring any of our own fans that evening. (It's probably past their bedtime, also.) The band that was already playing sounded to my old ears like early R.E.M. They were a 3-piece with a really big guitar sound, but the vocals were hard to discern. It was loud enough that it's hard to talk to the person in front of you without leaning in and talking directly into their ear. I was listening to the band, standing next to the guitarist and saxophone players from my band and nonchalantly fidgeting with one of my Rubik's cubes. One of the women who was playing pool there walked past us, and gave me a derisive look that let me know that I should not talk to her and how dare somebody try and foist a cheap trick on her or subject her to intellectual grandstanding while she's trying to drink and play pool.

Leon, our guitarist tried to liven things up by suggesting I give her a quick demo. "He's really good at it," he says to her.

I stupidly try to open with the same phrase that I would if there were a normal amount of background noise and I were dealing with a person receptive to the idea in the least. "Satisfy yourself that the cube is really scrambled." She has no idea why I am saying this to her, and I am stupid enough to repeat myself, so she grabs the cube from my hand, annoyed, stuffs it in the layers of her shirt like it was her wallet, and wanders off back to her pool table and the drunk guys in the back playing with the punching bag machine. I was later able to retrieve it once I spotted it on a table in a back corner. Luckily I was able to do so without uttering a word or walking into the back corner, and she treated me condescendingly like I was one of the frail, nerdy kids in high school that she use to spit on during her smoke breaks. She doesn't know the half of it. I kept my distance from her the rest of the evening, and tried to concentrate on playing a good set.

After we played, there was a couple that seemed interested in our band, and we all tried to talk to them while we were breaking down from our set. I gathered that they were not quite as old as we are, but older than the majority of the bar patrons there, and they seemed to like our music. At one point, while we were talking about the 80's music in particular, I showed them my Rubik's cube prowess briefly. They were adamant that if we played a show for them in the future, that I bring a cube with me and show their kids. Then, as a spur-of-the-moment thing, the wife in the couple grabs the cube from me and hides it on her person. I think the intent was to dare me to retrieve it, and having gone through the indignity of the similar situation not hours before, I didn't even have enough of a sense of humor about it to find it funny. The guitarist quickly attempted to retrieve my sense of humor, and sensing the awkwardness, my cube was handed over. In this second case, I'm sure the behavior was intended as playfulness, in stark contrast to the first situation where the interaction shouldn't have happened since the other party had no actual interest in the information available.

For those of you trying to satisfy your morbid curiosity about the music side of me that I don't normally talk about in this space on my blog, check out our band website at www.reverbnation.com/pwl, or find Pee Wee Lewis & The Hues on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wait, here I am!

So I haven't been blogging lately - my plate has been full with non-gaming things like going to the beach and band practice.  As far as gaming goes, I have been lucky to play a quick round of Pikmin or Pikmin 2 challenge mode just before bedtime.  My younger son Bubba has been hogging the Wii lately despite his lack of platforming skills and only wants to play Super Mario Galaxy 2.  Since the game has been in the machine a lot, sometimes Bubba tells me he wants to see me play.  I finally beat the last Bowser battle only to find that there's another galaxy waiting for me.
I was pretty excited to hear Nintendo's official announcement about their new console. I am glad that they decided to make it compatible with both the old controllers and the old games, because if I had to go through another cycle of buying controllers in this economy I really don't think I could. The only problem I'm having is that the new name. "WiiU" - am I supposed to think of college, Homer Simpson, or what I now have stuck in my head?

Just like I already have the remix of the Yoshida brothers song "Kodo" completely associated with the Wii, Blur's "Song 2" will be stuck in my head just for the "Weeee Ooooooo" right at the beginning of the song.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Don't say I didn't warn you...

...but if you are unfamiliar with Angry Birds, or at the very least annoyed by the fact that the only way that you could play Angry Birds would be if you had a trendy Apple portable device that just isn't in your budget these days, you need to try the in-browser version of Angry Birds at chrome.angrybirds.com.  Yes, this does mean that you will need to use Google's Chrome browser. I had not played it at all before tonight, and I have to say that it has all of the hallmarks of a good game.  1) It is easy to learn.  2) It is difficult to master.  3) Most objects are self-explanatory.  The game does also explain the few things you need instruction for with simple pictographs. My older son was yelling "Kill those pigs!" after just a couple of minutes of watching, and I expect he will give it a whirl tomorrow.  It really sucks you in - so keep a clock handy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Even I have a limit.

After I finished No More Heroes 2:Desperate Struggle on its easy "Sweet" mode, I thought that I would give Suda51's American debut, Killer7, another try.   I had heard so much about it before I played it, and had agonized over purchasing it several times but had passed over it in favor of more action-friendly titles like Devil Kings, Sengoku Basara, and Ghost Squad.  Once I finally purchased it, I played about as far as the first puzzle and stopped.  My kids clamored for me to put Pikmin back in the Game Cube so that they could watch it.  It's more soothing and pastoral than Killer7.  Killer7's visuals, although mostly flat-shaded polygons reminiscent of Star Fox for Super Nintendo and the old I,Robot arcade game from 1983, still have some appeal since they were done with so much style.  The sound design is good, and the story is wacky enough that even Twin Peaks and Lost fans need to actively pay attention.  Sadly, it's not enough.

I had been reminded before that bad controls can ruin a game.  I wasn't that excited about Resident Evil 2 at the time that it came out, because the loading screen between rooms and the tank controls were a big turnoff, especially with having to fend off zombies.  Even though RE2 had made big improvements over the first game, it wasn't enough for me to want to play it because during the few instances where combat was required, I felt totally ineffective.  Since one of the two characters you play as in RE2 is a cop, you would think that feeling ineffective would be a bad thing.  The designers played it off by saying that the control scheme increased the player's fear, making something that was only slightly scary somewhat scarier.  For me, that wasn't it.  It was feeling like I wasn't really controlling the character that kept my immersion level in the game pretty low.  I liked the story and the characters, and I even played the Resident Evil light shooter game Dead Aim, since you could actually aim at your targets in a useful way.  When Resident Evil 4 came out, I thought that most of the problems that I had with the controls had been fixed.  When I tried to show RE4 to my buddies, however, they viewed the game in the context of first-person shooters and were annoyed that you couldn't strafe or even shoot while moving.  I was too excited about an over-the-shoulder camera to care at that point.  The Wii version of RE4 did me one better by allowing direct aiming with the Wiimote. (Awesome!)  So, I was immersed in the game sufficiently.

Now, let's go back to Killer7.  Moving the character in that game is mapped to what normally would be the action buttons for a Gamecube game, A and B.  A to go forward, B to turn around.  Any feeling of directly controlling the character with the... , controller, goes away.  You only use the analog stick to aim while shooting, or to pick a direction to walk when there is more than one way to go. Like Resident Evil, you can only shoot when stationary, and you to have to use the R trigger to ready your weapon (which is oddly similar to RE4). Add to this that most enemies are invisible until 'scanned' with the L button, and it starts getting a little silly.  So, the controls are wacky to me, and I'm never really 'in' the game.  The other disconcerting thing is that the other members of the Killer7, the group that your character is part of, have unique abilities, and you have to run back to a save room to switch when you need to use that ability, and it's another thing that takes you out of the game.  In the majority of games, you have a main character that the player identifies with for most of the game.  I don't really mind the occasional side mission with another character - The Onimusha series and the Ratchet & Clank series both seem to do this well - but seven feels like too many and potentially distracting.  If you could start with anybody from the very beginning so each individual gamer had somebody they could identify with, maybe it would be better, but it's hard to say since I haven't played though enough of the game to really get the big picture on how the 7 different personalities all fit together.

I really like what Suda51's Grasshopper Manufacture team did with the two No More Heroes games, and I know that he worked alongside some of Capcom's people before.  I would have liked Killer7 better if it had used the same game engine as RE4, even if only so that I could move the character a little more directly.  As it turns out, Suda51 and the Resident Evil team are working together on a new game that should be out pretty soon - Shadows of the Damned. (If you're afraid of Electronic Arts or depictions of demons or sidekicks that are actually weapons that have double entendre-laden names, don't follow the link.) As usual, it will be a while before I play it but the trailers are promising to have horror, action, and Suda51's trademark wackiness.

I also got to see a Nintendo 3DS handheld in person (finally) and was unimpressed with the 3-D.  Yes, it's 3-D, but as usual all of the visual cues for depth are coming from the edges of objects and not the surfaces of objects, so we see them as layers like a pop-up book.  I did like that Super Street Fighter IV did not try to make anything closer than the plane of the screen, though. (Maybe it's where I had the slider set.)  I also like that it had enough horsepower to match SSFIV's painting-influenced visuals.  I don't really like playing fighting games on a handheld, though.  Usually there aren't enough buttons, but that is not an issue now.  Now the only issue is that I didn't like the D-pad that much and the circle pad seemed to only be helpful for fireballs but not dragon punches.  If I had chosen a character with 'charge' style special moves like Guile, it might have been easier.  Even so, I would rather have a more fighting-game-specific controller in my hands.  My current faves are the Nubytech/UDON controllers - I have a Ryu one for PS2 and an Akuma one for XBox.  So, as usual, it seems to be all about the controller.  I hope that the 3DS controls work better for their first party titles like Pilotwings Resort and The Legend of Zelda:Ocarina of Time. I would expect them to, as they are more suited to those kinds of games than they are suited to Street Fighter.  I'm sure I'll eventually deal with it, but if it's too wacky and unintuitive to control I can't be bothered.  After all, as much as I like these games, I do have a limit.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

We want cake! Where's our cake?

By this time, I would presume that everybody that had preordered “Portal 2” has had a chance to start digging into it. I really liked the original “Portal”, but I'm not sure what to do about the sequel.

“Portal” places you in a testing facility under the supervision of the Aperture Science Corporation. They are trying out a new handheld device that allows instant teleportation between two surfaces. The device shoots two different colored portals, and only one portal of each color can exist at a time. Your entrance velocity into one portal is your exit velocity out of the other portal, although the relative direction of gravity will sometimes change on the transition between portals. For example, you see a deep chasm below you that you can't jump across. Shoot one portal on the floor of the chasm, and another on the wall above you, and jump down into the chasm. The acceleration due to gravity increases your velocity, and your exit out of the other portal flings you across the chasm that you wouldn't be able to jump across. Granted, this may not be the only way to proceed, but it's nice to have those kinds of options.

As it stands, I could just get the PC version of “Portal 2” at some point over the summer if I think that I will have time to really dig into it, and it wouldn't matter so much when I play it. I'm not that worried about spoilers. I can hold my ears, or not – it won't matter so much since I heard the internet meme of “The cake is a lie” for so long before I actually played “Portal” that I wasn't even sure what it really meant by the time I played the game. It's like when you look at a familiar word too long and start to break it down into letters, or like when Vizzini starts second-guessing himself endlessly (to his peril, I might add) in “The Princess Bride”. Was there really a cake, or did they want me to think that there was a cake? But if that's what they thought I was going to think, then was there any need for an actual cake? Or perhaps there was a cake but also a specific reason for making me think that there wasn't a cake, making me want the cake more knowing I couldn't have it?

Needless to say, I played “Portal” unencumbered by the thought of cake – trying to think in portals was challenging enough. I had even played the predecessor to “Portal” - “Narbacular Drop”, but that game while sharing the basic mechanic of a portal gun, doesn't play that much like “Portal” due to a less interesting set of physical rules. I am looking forward to returning to the world of “Portal”, even though GlaDOS, the computer that runs the testing facility in the game scares the crap out of me.

(Side note: I answered the phone at work one afternoon about a month ago, only to find that I was being robocalled. Not just a crappy recorded message to tell me to refinance my mortgage – but high quality voice synthesis, and an adult female voice just a little too close to Ellen McLain's, the voice actress who played GlaDOS in “Portal”. I hung up the phone and had to get up and walk around to shake off the feeling of dread.)

The real problem for me is that of the expanded game this time. No, I'm not talking about all the new game elements, because any series of games will always add or subtract elements as it progresses. I expect that. I'm talking about the cooperative mode. It would be one thing to just wait for the right moment to play the single player game and immerse myself in the experience, but now I fear that if I wait too long to play it, I may rob myself of the opportunity to play the co-op part of the game. I hear that the console versions have split screen local co-op. Maybe I'll have to teach my older son to think in portals.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Follow your instincts.

There was a day, years and years ago, that I thought that I saw an upright bass in a pawn shop quickly through the open front door as I drove by.  As it was around the corner from the house, it was easy enough to go and check on what I thought I saw.  Oddly enough, what I thought I saw turned out to be a large camera tripod that had been fully extended - but they did have an upright bass in the store.

For me, this was an important lesson in following my instincts.

So, today when the little voice in my head said to stop by the Play N Trade store because I'm never usually near it, I listened.  I scored the DS version of Desktop Tower Defense, which my son was pretty jazzed about, but what I was really excited about was scoring a copy of Metroid Prime Pinball, also for the Nintendo DS handheld. I had given up on this game since it was released pretty close to the original release of the DS.  One of the nice things about Play N Trade are that they still have games and accessories for older systems there - there were a few dozen N64 games, quite a number of PS1 and XBox games, and I even saw a few Dreamcast controllers thrown in there along with the pink Xbox360 controllers that some retailers are having a hard time moving.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

This is not about Sengoku Basara.

I have been trying to work on a big writeup of Sengoku Basara, with a whole compare and contrast to Devil Kings section in it, only to realize that it's getting in the way of me actually playing the games. I think I need to go back to shorter blog posts for a while.

Over this last weekend, #1 son and I went to get Okamiden and No More Heroes 2:Desperate Struggle at our local Gamestop. Since I waited so long to pick up NMH2, which came out at the same time as Tatsunoko vs Capcom, it was only $13. I was completely losing my mind when the clerk asked me if I wanted a used copy for a dollar less, and I know they make more money from used copies, but I did not want to be their test pilot for a used copy only to save a dollar.

Since the weekend, #1 son has spent a lot of time playing Okamiden, predicated on finishing his math homework first. I even got him to finish his weekend math homework Saturday morning before he ate his breakfast because I told him that I wanted him to get that out of the way before we purchased Okamiden.

Okamiden is a DS game that is a sequel to Capcom's Okami. You play as Chiberatsu, a pup of the wolf goddess Ameratsu featured in the original game. Evil once again rises up in the land, and Chiberatsu solves puzzles and meets friends to help combat the menace. Since a main feature of the game is using written symbols to interact with your environment in a variety of ways, it is quite suited to the Nintendo DS and its touchscreen. Instead of drawing symbols with an analog thumbstick or drawing in the air with the Wiimote, the stylus and the touchscreen allow you to draw more naturally. In battle mode, just drawing a slash across the screen is an additional attack. If you need the sun when it is dark, draw a circle in the sky. If there is a crack in a wall, draw a circle with a diagonal line through it (like a Q, but upside down) and a small cherry bomb appears to open the wall for you. As you go through the game, you find more friends and brush techniques that allow you to make further progress. I can wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone that liked Okami, and to anyone who likes action/adventure games, unless you're stylus-averse.

Once we got back to the house Saturday with both games, #1 son quickly absorbed into his DS, and I didn't really talk to him that much the rest of the day unless he was laying in the way. I didn't start No More Heroes 2 until both kids were otherwise occupied, and I had dishes to wash anyway.

No More Heroes 2:Desperate Struggle is the sequel to Ubisoft's critically acclaimed Wii game by Suda51 and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture, No More Heroes. Our protagonist, Travis Touchdown, gets back in the assassin business about the same time he discovers that his one real friend in the city of Santa Destroy has been brutally murdered by a group of thugs. Armed with a beam katana (that's what you call a l*ghts*b*r if you don't want to have to pay George Lucas a nickel every time you say it or swing it around) and an array of wrestling moves learned from countless hours of TV wrestling, Travis once again works his way back up the assassin ranking ladder to fight the #1 assassin and avenge his friend.

It's very easy to pick back up, even though it feels like a long time since I've played the original No More Heroes. The biggest difference I noticed was how much harder it was to recharge the sword. In the first game, you aim the Wiimote skyward, hold the 1 button, and shake the Wiimote back and forth. (You can keep the jokes about what that looks like to yourself.) In this game, all of that is the same but it seemed like it took a lot more effort. Of course, it could be that me shaking a virtual beam katana handle to recharge my virtual batteries were beating the heck out of my actual Wiimote and the actual batteries. I had to swap batteries at least once, although the state of all the rechargeable AA batteries in my house probably has more to do with a few marathon sessions of New Super Mario Bros. Wii than anything else. The one thing that I don't like about the game is that you can't just walk around the city any more, but the giant empty city was the biggest complaint that most reviewers made about the first game. I really like the empty city and driving the motorcycle around, or even walking. It made the city seem more real and gave it a sense of place. Now, that is replaced with a menu system overlaid on a map of the city. I might have preferred the option of going places instantly via the map when I wanted to, but also being allowed to venture out into the city when I wanted to. Some of the things that you found by wandering around the city in the first game are in treasure boxes in the boss levels in this game. I haven't figured out how to view the collected items yet.

I can only recommend this game to adults that have a firm sense of reality, since this game is fairly detached from reality in quite a number of ways. There is an excessive amount of violence, a fair amount of profanity, and a couple of unrealistic characterizations of female characters. While it is not required, the game will make a little bit more sense if you have played and finished the first one already.

In other news, I finally got a new set of wheels. What am I excited about? I am excited that all the doors open, the A/C works, I can fit stuff in the back, and there's a 1/8” Stereo jack marked “AUX” that I can hook the audio from the Nintendo DS into. I sense a mobile session of Korg DS-10+ in my future.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Today is the beginning

of the 3D revolution.  North American retailers are going to have the Nintendo 3DS handheld game system for sale starting today!  While I am not one of the people that will be buying one today, I feel oddly compelled to go watch the carnage.  Also, I'd really like to see the 3D for myself if possible.

I think this may have repurcussions in some of the big box stores - it might actually hurt their 3D TV sales a little, as some customers knowing that this new technology is now available will wait for it to trickle up to larger screens instead of dealing with glasses.  I will be listening for store employees that make odd comments about that, also.

Viva la 3D Revolution!

P.S. My older son is _really_ going to bug me for Okamiden if we go out to the store to look.  I can hardly blame him.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

New Street Fighter Characters! + News from the Kiosk.

New Street Fighter Characters!
Well not really new, but how on earth would I know? Thanks to the sad state of the American arcade, it would take quite a bit of driving to get to an arcade where I could play Super Street Fighter 4 instead of just down to my local mall or movie theater - and I haven't been to the movies in months, so if they had put in a SSF4 machine I still wouldn't know.

In December of last year, an Arcade Edition of Super Street Fighter 4 was released that includes Yun and Yang from the Street Fighter III series, Evil Ryu from the Street Fighter Alpha series, and a new version of Akuma simply listed as "Oni". "Oni" loosely translates to English as "ogre" - fans of one of Capcom's other series, "Onimusha" may already be familiar with the word. I was hoping to include a link to some video - there's lots out there on Youtube, but since most of it is shot on handheld cameras it's not quite as good as some of the demo videos of the other characters that are available that are direct video feeds.  The other problem is that Capcom has been taking down some of the videos of Oni Akuma and Evil Ryu, although it's hard for me to figure out how they choose which ones to take down.  It's easy as pie to just search "Oni Akuma", and they're not all taken down, just some of them.  As of this writing, there are still plently there to see.

Yun, Yang, and Evil Ryu play largely as expected. While not 100% identical to their counterparts in previous games, it's close enough from what I am able to see.

Oni is a little different and should not be mistaken for Shin Akuma. His super moves are different, and some of his strategy has changed because of changes to his special moves. He doesn't have a 4-way teleport move like regular Akuma does, ((f,d,df or b,d,db) + (PPP or KKK)), but he does have an air dash, and a new move (d,df,f + K – strength determines distance) that moves him forward quickly with a rushing punch. The Roundhouse (Heavy Kick) version will cross up if performed close. It's no teleport, but it could get you out of a corner in a jam. It's hard to tell how safe this move is if blocked because people seem to want to show video of it connecting more than video of it being blocked. His (f,d,df +K) move has been changed from its usual diving kick guessing game to a high-hitting smash that can be used as an overhead if done as an EX move (two kick buttons instead of one, uses one level of meter).

Word is that these additional characters will be available for download for consoles at some point in the future for owners of Super Street Fighter IV. The original Street Fighter IV console version was not programmed in such a way so as to allow additional characters, but apparently Super Street Fighter IV is. Let's hope.

News from the Kiosk

I noticed something new at our local Walmart game kiosk - they had the demo version of LEGO Star Wars 3 for PS3 and for XBox360. My older son and I fired it up on both units in an attempt to see how they looked. Sadly, the XBox360 was not set up for maximum resolution and it looks rather fuzzy compared to the PS3 version. There was no way to adjust the XBox's output resolution from demo mode. I just know that the PS3's video output was set correctly because I was there the first morning that they fired up the PS3 and know that the TV was correctly set for some flavor of 1080. Sadly, the XBox360 looks like it's running in standard-def because it was only scarcely better than the Wii running Mario Sports Mix on the other side of it.

But what about Mario Sports Mix? I have played the hockey and the dodgeball parts at the kiosk. The dodgeball did not have intuitive controls, so I floundered against the computer. The hockey had great controls, so I thoroughly trounced the computer even though I started from way behind (0-3) at nearly the end of the first period. I think I finished the second period with a score of 15-5. I'm going to pass on this game unless someone else can convince me otherwise.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Emergent Gameplay

I talked with a co-worker after work the other day about bout Super Smash Bros. Brawl in comparison to other fighting games. I like to talk to him about it because he is more skilled at the game than I am, and I can gain some insights into what makes the game tick. While I am certainly no expert at Smash, I admire the straightforwardness of it. Smash Bros. takes a different kind of strategy than traditional fighting games. We digressed into talking about what makes a great game, and I think that we were both able to agree that the games that were the simplest in premise but that had lots of options as to what could happen were the most satisfying games for us. I rattled off Katamari Damacy and Tetris right away, because they are games that you can explain easily. We quickly realized that we could have easily been talking about baseball or soccer or basketball.

My co-worker suggested that American Football had no hope of ever really catching on in other countries to the degree that it has in America because its rules are too complex to easily explain and games tend to run long. Then it occurred to me that those restrictions had never stopped cricket from being spread across the globe everywhere.

Then, I got to thinking about fighting games again. Why was Street Fighter II the game that took off and not Street Fighter? Why didn't they just come out with Darkhorse vs Data East 4 starring the dudes from Karate Champ, Fighter's History, Diet Go!Go! and Tumblepop squaring off against The Mask, Hellboy, Abe Sapien, and The Goon? Aside from the fact that Data East has been defunct for several years?

It's not special moves, Street Fighter had them. (Heck - Atari's incredibly lame Pit-Fighter had 'special' moves.) There is no difference between Ryu's fireball motion in Street Fighter and Street Fighter II. You rotate the joystick from the crouch position to the direction that your character is facing, and then press one of the punch buttons. The difference is that Street Fighter II had gameplay that evolved beyond the rules that the programmers gave it. It didn't hurt that it added variety in the playable characters, and made playing against human opponents more of a focus, but the animation programming of the game led to certain things behaving in unexpected ways. In Street Fighter, if you do the motion for a fireball with correct timing, a fireball surges forth from your character's outstretched hands. If your timing is incorrect, then you only see the animation for the punch button that you pressed. In Street Fighter II, if you press the jab button (the quickest, least damaging punch) quickly while doing the fireball motion, you may see a couple of jabs come out, and then the animation of the fireball motion cancels out the animation of one of the jabs. In addition, the logic for determining if you have done the motion for a special move correctly also accepts letting go of the required button instead of just pressing it, giving you a second chance to finish the motion correctly. Many special moves in Street Fighter II can cancel the animation of some of the regular moves. Also, when an attack lands on an opponent, there is a window of time where the opponent is stunned, allowing for another move to be landed in quick succession. This is referred to as a 'combo' although it has very little to do with cheese filled pretzels or how you get your school locker open. When Street Fighter II was programmed, these combos were another unknown. Hit stun and block stun were designed for making the game feel like the programmers wanted the game to feel. The combos that emerged from it were only discovered by people actually playing the game against each other. Other annoying little things were discovered like tick throws - getting your opponent to block a normal attack and then throwing them during the time that they are stunned from blocking the attack - and other variations on exploiting stun and move canceling.

Certainly, this is not the only way you come up with emergent gameplay. Sometimes, it's just as simple as leaving a bunch of objects in an environment with known individual properties and waiting to see how those things react with each other. The Grand Theft Auto games from GTA3 on are a good example of this, because the wide variety of items and environments combined with pedestrian AI behavior, although we have seen things like this before on a smaller scale. In Adventure for the Atari 2600, the erratic behavior of the bat flying around and swapping objects can turn success into death or failure in seconds.

I would contend that unanticipated behavior can come from any sufficiently complicated system. If you have only one thing in an environment, then you have only one interaction. If you have two things in an environment, you have each thing interacting with the environment plus one more interaction of the two things interacting. Three things, six interactions. Four things, ten interactions. The number of interactions increases as the square of the number of objects.

Warning: Math Content - For x objects, the number of interactions is x squared plus x all over 2. With five objects, we take 5, multiply it by itself, (that's x squared) and get 25. Add 5 more to get 30. Divide the whole thing by two, and that's 15 interactions. For ten objects, ten squared is 100, add 10 to get 110, and divide by two to get 55. There is no danger of getting half an interaction, even though we're dividing by two at the end since we're dealing with integers (whole numbers). If x is odd, x squared is also odd, so adding them together is an even number. If x is even, x squared is even, so adding them together is still even.

For those of you that skipped the math paragraph above, suffice it to say that with more stuff comes a lot more complication. Also, remember that this math having to do with interactions technically also applies to the code used to write the game in question. If the designers of a game are looking for a finely crafted experience, they usually make an effort to play test (or get their stable of testers to play test) through most of the possible interactions both as a way to make sure the game has as few bugs as possible, and to make sure some unforeseen interaction doesn't totally break the game. The play testers also have to deal with design and difficulty elements of the game, so it's not like looking for glitches are their only emphasis. With the limits of time available to make a profitable game, this means that there is limited time to do play testing, so sometimes games will ship with bugs or glitches. Sometimes the glitches are minor, and sometimes you're up to version 1.7 and every patch description starts with "Fixes exploit where..." Now, as far as I know, the Street Fighter games haven't needed major patching - even if the game has been slightly unbalanced, we as players have managed to deal with it. In light of that, maybe Capcom needs to make a first person shooter with Hadoukens.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Marvel vs Capcom 3, February 2011 edition

So, Capcom's new fighting game Marvel vs Capcom 3 has been out for a week or so, and I forgot to mention about the last two characters that were included in the game. Hsien-Ko is a character from the Darkstalkers series, and you may remember Sentinel from Marvel vs. Capcom 2.

Sentinel seems just as in-your-face as ever, even for being a rather large, slow character. He has a wide variety of beam attacks and long-range punches to make up for his slow movement speed, and one of his super moves is a large ball of electricity easily as big as Chun-Li's 'Kioushou' move and pushes opponents into the corner from mid-screen. In the X-Men comics, the Sentinels were sent out to crush all the mutants, whether they were X-Men or not. In Marvel vs Capcom 3, Sentinel is out to crush everybody like he did in MvC2.

Hsien-Ko is a nice change, since she is unlike the majority of Capcom fighting game characters in that she has a move that reflects projectile-type special moves. My older son reminded me that Karas in Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom can reflect projectiles also. It is a little odd, with her being a jiāngshī, or "Hopping Corpse" and with her sister taking the form of a piece of paper on her hat. Her inclusion in the game has less to do with zombies being the 'in' thing right now and more to do with her being a popular and unusual fighting game character.

The final boss of the game is Galactus, world-eating enemy of the Fantastic Four, but no members of the FF are directly in the game for reasons unknown to me. Super Skrull has all the moves of the Fantastic Four, but that's about all you get. Capcom apparently tried to build a Silver Surfer character, as he is a friend of the FF and usually warns people about Galactus eating their planet for lunch, but they weren't able to make it work with the surfboard and didn't want him to look like Iceman.  Maybe we'll see them in the endings.

So, I have already seen a great deal of complaining posted on the internet regarding this game.

Couldn't they have come up with something better since Marvel vs Capcom 2?
No. This game wasn't even in the works until after other developer licensing agreements expired in 2008, and Capcom got them back again so it could republish MvC2 as a downloadable game. Capcom wasn't even ready to officially announce MvC3's existence until 2010. Just because fans had been whining about it for years, didn't mean anybody with any authority had been working on it.

Why doesn't this have more game modes? Can't they change it up more like Smash Bros., Mortal Kombat, or Tekken and have more game modes?

Let's take this one in three parts. Believe it or not, despite the great number of game modes available, any group of Smash Bros. Brawl players that I've come across tend to have items turned off if they're playing "seriously", because they don't want random item drops to ruin their skill. Correspondingly, they will likely have a favorite stage that they tend to play on to nullify any perceived undue advantage some character might have. So, despite the numerous modes available, I've seen very few of them used.

Mortal Kombat has had an adventure mode crammed into several of the versions (although the first one in Mortal Kombat:Deadly Alliance was just an overgrown training mode), and a simple Kart racer, and a rudimentary puzzle game. Come to think of it, they even managed to make a battle chess game in Mortal Kombat:Deception. Compared to Mortal Kombat:Shaolin Monks, where the adventure mode was the entire game, you might think that the Mortal Kombat fighting games suffered from having some of the staff work on the extra modes.

Tekken's extra game modes have been the best ones, but still aren't quite as good as the fighting game itself. Tekken Force Mode in Tekken 3 was mandatory to unlock one of the characters. I have no explanation for Tekken 3's Tekken Ball mode other than to say that it's volleyball for crazy people. Tekken Bowl, a bowling game on the Tekken Tag Team disc was fun, and it was too rudimentary a game to be sold on its own disc so I find it better that it was included with Tag instead of being a bargain bin title. I almost think that it was some sort of a tech demo for their developers working on the PlayStation 2 for the first time. Tekken Tag Team also included a training mode with enough hand-holding for new players, which seemed like a good choice with new people coming on board for the PlayStation 2. Tekken 4's Tekken Force mode made a lot of improvements from Tekken 3, and still managed to use the characters in mostly the same way as they do in the regular part of the game. However, for all of the improvements with Tekken 4's Tekken Force mode, they abandoned all of that for a Jin-only side quest for Tekken 5. Thank goodness that they included the arcade versions of Tekken 1, 2, and 3, and StarBlade in Tekken 5 - well, I'm not really that excited. Tekken 3 is adequate, but Tekken 1 and 2's visuals don't hold up well against the modern games. StarBlade's visuals are even lower fidelity than Tekken 1, but since it's a space shooter, it suits it well and so the gameplay isn't dragged down by old-school visuals.

So, with all that being said - it does still beg the question of why they couldn't have at least included the same modes that were available in Super Street Fighter 4. I don't know if a bevy of complaints will get them to release a patch, but I seriously doubt it.

Why is there a simplified control scheme? I want my six buttons back!
I think I covered this before, but Marvel vs Capcom 2 already had a simplified control scheme. (Medium attacks were removed to make room for two Partner buttons.) The new one allows for three attack strengths more easily to accommodate fireball traps and attack range variability. It worked well in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, and once you got used to it, it was more reliable than Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (for me, anyway).

I have been pleasantly surprised to see that now that the game is out, people are not complaining about the graphical style. I would be surprised at a $5 costume pack that comes out March 1st and only covers six of the characters, but since it's Capcom I'm not so surprised. That does seem to be the way they handle DLC. My sincere hope is that the game sells well enough that they decide to make a Wii version and decide to include the DLC characters. What? It could happen.

Marvel vs Capcom 3 was released February 15, 2011 for Playstation 3 and XBox 360 by Capcom and is ESRB rated "T".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A clear case of fatigue.

The long time music game series Guitar Hero is getting the ax. Should I have said 'axe'? I guess it's no surprise. It's the same reason that we're not buying Tony Hawk Skateboarding games like it was 2001. It's game fatigue.

Colored dots come streaming down a screen, and you play the dots as notes in time with the music that your are listening to via a guitar-like plastic controller, and it's basically the same from Guitar Hero 1 on. From Guitar Hero 1 to Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, not counting DJ Hero or handheld releases, that was 12 games in the span of almost five years - from November 2005 to September 2010. What makes that even more ridiculous is that Guitar Hero (2005) and Guitar Hero II (2006) were the only releases of their respective years, which means the last ten games were crammed into the last three years of that. By comparison, the last ten Mario games stretch all the way back to 1988 - although that's only Mario platforming games and doesn't count all the sports titles, Super Smash Brothers, or Mario Party games.

Of course, it's no coincidence that Activision took over the series from the original developer in 2007. Harmonix had been purchased by MTV Networks/Viacom right after Activision acquired RedOctane. RedOctane was the other half of the original Guitar Hero/Guitar Hero 2 dream team, the half involved with the plastic guitar controllers. Harmonix went right to work on a conceptually identical competing game, Rock Band which added drums, bass, and vocals to the existing guitar paradigm. Guitar Hero was quick to add the other instruments in an effort to keep up.

In an eerie parallel to the previous Tony Hawk situation, Activision brought in developer Neversoft to work on Guitar Hero once they took it over . Also, similar to the Tony Hawk scenario, they dedicated themselves to cranking out sequel after sequel. I'm not sure about Tony Hawk in this respect, but a real problem with Guitar Hero is that playing it against an opponent doesn't do anything for its replay value. Once you really learn the song in Guitar Hero, that's pretty much it. The competitive aspect shoehorned into Guitar Hero 3's so-called 'guitar battles' helped put me off of Guitar Hero for good. Well, some of you would say - but Guitar Hero is so much fun at parties when there's a group playing! That's correct - but that's cooperative, not competitive. So probably there are a bunch of agreed-on songs that everybody likes, and you play those, and that's about it. If you do it again, the experience is largely the same. Even in a platform game, it's harder to replicate the experience exactly and additional playthroughs may yield some new area you didn't find the first time, and it's not like there would be a hidden alternate ending of a song if you changed one chord at a certain point to something that wasn't on the screen. Well, there could be, but since a musician thought of it instead of a game designer, it can't be in the game. There aren't new special moves to learn, or an added-in character in the new version that forces everyone to re-learn all their strategies, or a game-changing new weapon to try. If you want a new song, that might be something genuinely new, but it's a lot of work for something that only a few will purchase as a download, and many will resent as a standalone release.

At a certain point, I would guess that fans of the music game genre were starting to wonder if they should run down to their local Guitar Center and pick up some guitar stands. If you had the original PlayStation 2 Guitar Hero guitars, they didn't work on PlayStation 3, so you might have been better off buying new guitars with the sequels. If you switched to Rock Band at some point, you had to buy new guitars for that, also. Then, the newest Guitar Hero games included super Expert Plus modes for even more plastic button pushing, and Rock Band fights back with MIDI-compatible instruments with more realism and little 25-key keytar. Did I mention that there were drumsets? Do you even have enough room to set up a fake plastic drumset where your game console is without moving a couch or a bed? I wonder how many people opted to set up their Guitar Hero rig in a garage so that they could get the full garage band experience. Also, did these new little faux-garage bands take advantage of the newer features of the Guitar Hero games? Are these the sort of people that would get extra mileage out of the game by creating their own music? At a certain point, playing Guitar Hero makes me just want to practice real guitar more instead of playing to the canned tracks - perhaps they could have garnered my favor with a substantial version of "21st Century Schizoid Man" in Guitar Hero 3 instead of waiting until Guitar Hero 5.

At a certain point, I think the audience was sick of paying over and over again for ostensibly the same experience every time. There's a sweet spot - games like Perfect Dark (that Rare made right after GoldenEye) and Super Mario Galaxy 2 have it - where all the things that you wished that you could have put in the first game end up in the second game. It was the same experience, but better, richer. Once you get past that sweet spot, it seems like some publishers just crack the whip on the developers for frequent sequels to get the short-term cash in lieu of building a long-term brand.

So, dear readers - what game genre or brand will get ruined next?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Never say never, Mr. Bond... I mean, Mr. Ebert.

Since I assume that I am brain damaged in some way, I can rarely tell the difference between genuine conviction in an idea and the low-down dirty attempt to invoke or simulate conviction for the benefit of some greater force. Every once in a while I run across a carnival barker or used car salesman that lets me see behind the curtain of deception a little, and I gain some tiny insight into how that mechanism works. But, it's not foolproof, and I am often tricked into thinking that I'm being tricked.

Had he not tried something similar before, I would not question Roger Ebert's recent declaration that 3D Film will never 'work'. Had he not made a bold statement some time ago that video games could never be art like a movie or a book or a painting, I might have believed unquestioningly that there were no larger forces at work and his current Luddite position against 3D movies was completely sincere. The house of cards that his video game argument was built out of came crashing down, and he even went so far as to apologize and admit his foolishness in breaching the topic - but it got thousands of comments and many times more page views in the meantime. Why shouldn't I think that he has an ulterior motive again?

Mr. Ebert has made some improvements this time. This time he has the opinion of a film editor to back him up, and not just some guy that worked on two effects shots for a direct-to-DVD horror film. He has the support of Walter Murch, editor and sound designer on some of Hollywood's most visually and sonically impactful films. To summarize Mr. Murch – the basic flaw with 3D films, in his expert opinion, is that we're asking our eyes to focus at one distance (the distance from your seat to the screen) and converge at some other distance (the distance from your seat to the perceived object on the screen where your eyes think they are looking). This is mostly problematic when the perceived object is well in front of the plane of the screen, asking your eyes to converge well ahead of the focus distance. I'm sure there is a substantial crowd of people that will cry foul at Mr. Murch's assertions on a variety of grounds. The first and most obvious point will be that similar complaints were lodged against sound and color when each of those were introduced to film. Another point is that a conventionally filmed movie already does funny things to our sense of perspective, focus, and convergence anyway so why should the 3D part matter? Yes, some people walk out of 3D movies with headaches. It may be that some people's brains aren't happy with the effects of simulated 3D. I would argue that those people now know not to watch movies in 3D, and in most instances can go watch the same feature in 2D in the same theater. I would love to do a thorough survey and testing of people that have issues with 3D films, but I'm guessing that the MPAA has no interest in a study being run by an engineer/mathematician/film nerd with no neurology credentials.

Part of the reason Mr. Ebert has to say this now and loudly enough for his peers to hear, is because Nintendo is about to put glasses-free 3D in the hands of hundreds of kids fairly soon. The handheld Nintendo 3DS comes out in March of this year which includes a glasses-free lenticular 3D top screen and adjustable depth slider. Nintendo is already adding 3D photography and looking into movie releases on the system. If you can't deal with the 3D, you can turn it down to nothing. If it turns out that it's a horrible flop, he has to say something now to look like a genius. Of course, if he turns out to be wrong, there's no harm because everybody will just go "Oh, that Roger Ebert. He's just a grumpy old man that doesn't get it." I think we heard that cry from the commenters before on the video game/art thing. The other part of the timing of this had to do with Mr. Murch's letter to Mr. Ebert primarily being a response to a tiny side note in Mr. Ebert's review of the new "Green Hornet" film where he complains about the 3-D film being "dim" - and we're talking about apparent brightness and not about a plot written for morons. I think on a certain level, we 'get' that there won't be quite as much light heading to our eyeballs since we're wearing glasses that are intentionally keeping some of the light from our eyes - the image that's for the other eye is kept out by polarization. That particular problem is surmountable, seeing as there have already been great strides in improving the reflectivity of movie screens since we started watching 3D movies. I think the biggest problem, and perhaps it is a problem that Mr. Ebert himself does not realize (or has blocked out in some strange case of dissociative amnesia), is that he has watched a lot of lousy 3D movies thanks to their recent resurgence. Walter Murch worked on one of the most-watched 3D movies of its era, Captain EO. But, like most of the other badly constructed 3D movies, they stupidly try to send a meteor way out in front of the screen, causing the very focus/convergence problem that Murch is complaining about. Another issue that I would take with the current crop of 3D movies is that many of the big-name films that were done in 3D were actually shot in 2D and had the 3D done in post-production, which is about like trying to take a still picture and turn in into a pop-up book, which looks like, a movie made out of a pop-up book. Everything tends to look like flat planes. Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton - that one's totally your fault), several Harry Potter movies, The Last Airbender, Superman Returns, G-Force, and the lousy (no offense to Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, or the late Pete Postlewaite) 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans were all shot in 2D. I find it sad that Paul W. S. Anderson's Resident Evil film team has to show up all of the alleged A-listers by using James Cameron's most excellent camera system.

Knowing that I was going to attempt to write about this, I trotted down to my local Sony Style store, and the kids and I put on some funny shutter glasses again and looked at a few things on the 3D TV's in the store. 3D TVs are inherently different from the movie experience - liquid crystal shutter glasses synchronize to the quickly alternating frames displayed on the monitor so that each eye only sees the relevant frames of the film.

We gave a nature documentary a try, and a little of Alice in Wonderland - I think it was the scene where Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee while she's still small - and a little bit of Gran Turismo 5. Alice in Wonderland comes off very unreal - Tim Burton spends too much time trying to break the plane of the screen, and having things fly around in the foreground. Looking at the screen without the shutter glasses on, the objects on the screen are very far apart, much farther apart than they would be in your normal field of vision unless they were only a foot away. Gran Turismo 5, on the other hand, was hard to tell that it was in 3D unless you put the glasses on - and then the landscape was so well-rendered that it actually made it easier to drive because I had a better sense of the space. The nature documentary was somewhere in between the two in 3D quality - I am always wondering how they aim cameras in a 3D system, and whether there is any convergence, or whether they just aim the cameras straight ahead and make you slowly crazy with the unreality of it. The 3D needs to be a positive experience for the audience, and add to the experience, and more importantly not take you out of the experience.

Most people that I know that have had a positive experience with 3D movies have had their most positive experience with animated features. How to Train Your Dragon, Legend of the Guardians and Coraline were all mentioned. James Cameron's Avatar is easily at least half animated CG. Of course, in a computer animated feature, it is comparatively simple to add a second virtual camera to the performance data, and render the film in 3D. In processing a 2D film, you would almost have to create a CG wire frame virtual set and map the 2D film back on to it, draw in a bunch of missing textures not normally visible, and then add in the second virtual camera. The flaw in a system like that is that the natural variations in lighting in textured surfaces would not occur correctly and it would still have the flat, pop-up book effect. Conversely, I found that Legend of the Guardians had a very natural 3D look most of the time, largely due the the wood and feather textures giving the viewers very good visual depth cues, and most of the shots were at a distance that helped that work. I don't remember them breaking the plane of the screen except possibly in the opening credits.

So, I contend, that it is possible to make a good 3D film. Certainly, some things need to be done differently - maybe there should be less things jumping out of the screen, maybe there shouldn't be so many jump cuts in a 3D film. People seem to show up and pay for the bad ones that are out now, so I think to say that they don't 'work' is a gross overstatement that some box office numbers would certainly disagree with. A problem like that should not keep us from our path of self-improvement. Additionally, learning how to make a quality 3D film may give us important insight into the nature of vision and how the brain processes it. Just because a new media possesses some new technical challenges is no reason to dismiss it out of hand.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Marvel vs Capcom 3, January 2011 edition

Over the holidays, without much fanfare, they added Haggar and Phoenix to the roster for MvC3. Haggar is finally making it to a fighting game long after his Final Fight compatriots Guy and Cody. Guy first appeared in a Street Fighter game in 1995 (Street Fighter Alpha), and Cody followed soon after in 1998 (Street Fighter Alpha 3). No, I don't consider Saturday Night Slam Masters a fighting game, it's a wresting game which is arguably its own genre.

Haggar certainly has a lot of moves that are similar to Street Fighter's Zangief, but the Red Cyclone never had to whip out a big lead pipe in the middle of a combo.

The powerful and beautiful Phoenix finally graces the screen, waiting for us to be able to handle her awesome power. She has homing fireballs, air fireballs, giant Kikoken style fireballs, flaming rushdown moves, and great range on the ground. I guess if Capcom's Dante and Trish are fair game now, there's no reason to hold back on Marvel's mightiest mutants.

Akuma and Taskmaster were just recently announced, but it took a few days for them to show up on the Marvel Vs Capcom 3 website. Akuma is simple - he's been in so many games that most people expected to see him. He's more of a draw for flashy players than Ken is, with his more varied moveset, air fireballs, and punishing super moves. Typically, this is offset by Akuma taking more damage from opponents. True to his original nature as a hidden character, Akuma is an unlockable character based on accumulating 'play points' during the course of playing through the game, similar to the home versions of Marvel Vs Capcom 2. Akuma is packed full of more moves than ever, and his air combos look pretty vicious. Here's his trailer.

Taskmaster is getting the same unlockable treatment as Akuma. In the comics, he's a mercenary with the uncanny ability to mimic anyone's moves in battle - just the sort of thing that reminds you of Mokujin from Tekken or Olcadan from the Soul Calibur games. Here's Taskmaster in action.

You'll see him doing a lot of Cap's and Spidey's moves here, plus some serious arrow action. I wonder if that means we should expect to see Hawkeye later, since this game is already Avengers-heavy.

On a side note I'm pretty proud of #1 son for finally defeating Megahammer in Super Mario Galaxy 2 after being stuck on that board for weeks.