Friday, December 16, 2011

Rayman Origins and the Case for Classic Eclecticism

Rayman Origins
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
N.A. Release: November 2011

There is no doubt this season has been bountiful with games--an onslaught of quality year-end releases that has pushed many gamers to joyful bankruptcy. Yet in all the festive frenzy, one poor, deserving game has fallen by the wayside; a game whose performance may very well influence the creative future of the industry.

Rayman Origins is a critically adored 2D platformer whose whimsically oddball style coats an extremely well composed level design. This game is quite frankly a joy to play, but according to sources, only 50,000 copies of it were sold in the first month.

I can't begin to describe what is going on here, but let me assure you it is glorious.
It's easy to blame these criminally low sales numbers on getting lost in the holiday shuffle, but it's worth asking: of all titles, why this one? Rayman isn't exactly on the top tier of mascots, but the brainchild of Michel Ancel has held his own pretty well, if merely by the fact he's not occupying some circle of gaming hell with Bubsy and Blinx the Time Sweeper. Recognition is there, as are the glowing reviews and some good deals on Black Friday (which I took advantage of). So why did this game get overlooked?

Do we just not give 2D platformers the same recognition we used to?

Oh sure, we still have the kings, Mario and Sonic, hanging around, but they just can't seem to stay out of 3D (for better or worse) and their modern 2D offerings tend to get treated as nostalgic sidelights rather than main entries to the series. Donkey Kong Country Returns did relatively well for itself, but it's tough to call it a blockbuster. The only other character who seems to remain consistently 2D is Kirby, and bless his little pink soul for it.

But those are the good memories. Back in the SNES and Genesis days, 2D platformers were in abundant supply; and while there were masterpieces, there was also a slew of copycats who just didn't provide as satisfying an experience. You couldn't swing a Super Scope without hitting some "me-too" critter with obnoxious '90s attitude and a set of phoned in stages to stumble through. Poor controls and redundant design killed a lot of these titles and may make us subconsciously gun-shy when even a semi-familiar friend returns in 2D--or at least think a game is not beefy enough to warrant a price similar to its 3D brethren.

Check out the above screenshot. If you were around to play it, I wouldn't be surprised if it reminded you of Earthworm Jim. Now that was a game that also had a unique character and an incredible art style, but honestly, I didn't really consider it that much fun to play. It has its fan-base, but the series is kaput--the fodder of iPhone ports and small murmurs of possible-maybe-one-day comebacks. Origins might be the same, right? Another "classic" character fading into the mists of obsolescence, flailing in a desperate yet mediocre attempt at relevance?

Take in the animation and ambiance of this scene in action and it's as engaging as any 3D world out there.
No. We must not allow ourselves to treat the terms "classic," "artsy" and "2D" as remnants of a bygone era and handheld-only appearances. To do so would be denying crucial elements and amazing experiences when someone manages to combine them all correctly. There are certain artistic and mechanical licenses 2D games can employ more effectively than 3D; creators and developers that can flourish much more brilliantly on a flat plane. And as methods evolve, both forms have and can continue to benefit from each other's breakthroughs.

Please at least try Rayman Origins. The gaming industry needs now more than ever the confidence to put its money behind artistic and creative exploration. An ocean of indie developers with the potential to do extraordinary things to the fundamentals of gaming is out there just waiting for green lights. And when something as right as Rayman Origins comes along, all the important people are watching.  

Monday, December 5, 2011

Harvest Moon, the Birds and the Bees

Harvest Moon: Magical Melody
Platform: Nintendo GameCube
Developer: Marvelous Interactive
N.A. Release: March 2006

It has been a long time since I've thought about it, but suddenly I've been pondering a return to one of the great--and some would say taboo--experiments in gaming: playing a Harvest Moon game as a girl.

Of course this may not seem like such a sensational endeavor nowadays, when you can engineer a space captain of either gender in Mass Effect and have him or her knock matter with a choice of galactic inhabitants, but the simplified, real-world(ish) setting of Harvest Moon titles lend a certain wistfulness to the way your character finds and courts a spouse. Guys, do you want to have to constantly search for, analyze and properly respond to every single little signal your potential love interest may or may not send out to you, hoping to God you are responding in a way she will perceive as strong, yet caring and romantic? Or do you want to give her a piece of cake every single day for a year? 

Strive for the shaky green lines of happiness, my friend.
We know which choice sounds more convenient, but life just doesn't work that way. And it's ethically dubious to say it should, as it's merely reducing one's emotional and spiritual satisfaction to a game of Santa Claus. The Harves Moon social system is a rather objectifying way of treating people when you get down to it, but younger Tim wasn't thinking about that back then. Younger Tim was going onto GameFAQs to cheat and find out what the token bookish girl liked best.

But that's why I've always had a strange interest in turning the roles around. How has the system been set up to work with a woman courting guys? Are their responses to gifts and actions similar, or are they keyed differently? Each Harvest Moon game I've played--the last being Magical Melody--I vowed I would start a game as a girl and find out. But wait! First I had to play through as a guy because I just had to find out which virtual lady matched my personality best; and by the time I did that, well, Harvest Moon is a long game and I had moved on to something else.

But now that I'm older and more well-versed in the real-world ways of love (or at least the explosively disastrous aspects of it), it may be time to finally conduct this experiment. And if I can find a copy of
Magical Melody or another reasonably decent title, I shall. There's one question I've always had about the female side of the game, though...

One of the "goals" of life in the game after marriage is having a child. When I played as a guy, my wife and I found out we were expecting when she
collapsed one day. So, well, guess having a kid in this world is pretty taxing.

You missed your "Whoops!" moment by about 9 months, Mr. Smooth.
But how does having a child work out when you play as a girl? If/when you become pregnant, are you just supposed to keep laboring on your farm day in and day out until it's time, or do they place some realistic limits to prevent the expecting mother from becoming sick or working to exhaustion? Do any of the other characters care at all? What were the production meetings like for this consideration in the game?

They're weird questions, sure, but someone has to think about them. And as long as there isn't a delivery mini-game, I'm willing to look for the answers. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and the Unbreakable Armbreaker

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Capcom
N.A. Release: November 2011

I should have known better than to go online with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

You can probably find no greater disparity between casual and advanced players than within the realm of fighting games. Coming across a serious fighting gamer as a novice is like showing up to a chess meet and sending your first pawn out, ready to have fun and learn. Then you're unable to do anything but sit back in shock as your opponent somehow manages to capture all your pieces, kill your king, and ban you from ever coming back in one move.

You will feel violated.
Whereas many other games have some sort of reactionary element to them, providing more of a chance for beginners to get the upper hand now and then, fighting games operate on a strict, formulaic system that players can analyze and take advantage of, finding inescapable combos that will destroy your character while you might as well drop the controller and go to the bathroom.

And hey, that's all fine if you're only playing others like yourself; those who spend nights studying matches on YouTube, building character tiers and practicing the timing of your button presses. But a big problem--and one that alienates fighting games more than many other genres--is that many of the pros will use their techniques indiscriminately. Or, worse, they get pleasure from wiping up noobs who just want to try things out.

Our high school had the "games expert," which at that stage of life means being the kid with access to enough parental funds to have an impressive library of games. He became a fighting guru, and on one field trip we had a layover stop at a mall, which meant an arcade. He invited people to challenge him to Mortal Kombat 4. Some of us did, and he beat us all. But was it impressive? Not in the least. He beat a bunch of kids who openly admitted they haven't played the game much by literally repeating the same unblockable arm-breaker move on everyone until they died. Eventually we learned trying to play with him was the opposite of fun.

You can have a longer, flashier-looking combo, but if it's all you use to defeat an opponent, you're not really much better than my high school example. There are people who play to master the game and again, that's cool. But there are also people who like to play because they love the design and characters. It's not hard to identify the players like us. We're the ones who are unashamed to use fighters like Rocket Raccoon or Felicia.

This is the only image of Felicia I found on the internet that I felt morally confident in posting.
So pros, how about it? The next time you see you're facing someone online with a 0-10 record (I know they exist because I am one), how about taking that opportunity to try some new things with the game instead of using your same old memorized combos to pulverize them? Doesn't it get boring doing the same thing over and over? Doesn't it kind of deaden all the creative elements the developers built around the system you love to manipulate? Wouldn't it be nice to let someone else actually feel like they might be able to win for a few moments; let them have some actual fun? It might encourage them to get into the game more and become a real challenge to you, instead of having them rage quit and go back to Super Smash Bros.

I may get labeled a button-mashing whiner for stating all this, but I can handle it. I've taken enough lumps as it is.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sonic Rush and the Inner Monologue

Sonic Rush
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developers: Sonic Team and Dimps
N.A. Release: November 2005

Do you know how certain things tend to tie together in your mind? My birthday is just a couple days away, on Nov. 15. It's a Tuesday this year, making it a prime release date for games like Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Halo: Anniversary, but there's only one game I associate with my birthday: Sonic Rush.

Released Nov. 15, 2005, Sonic Rush is not only one of the higher points in the the tumultuous modern generation of Sonic titles, but also marked the debut of my favorite character: Blaze the Cat.

You can tell she's a different Sonic character because she's wearing reasonable pants.
Blaze is a princess from a separate dimension who is charged with protecting her land's Sol Emeralds, mirrors of the series' famous Chaos Emeralds. A stalwart dedication to her duties has resulted in her being quite solitary and socially underdeveloped, although through the course of the game she learns to embrace the values of friendship.

In a cartoonish realm that highlights very bubbly and/or forward personalities, introverts--especially in female characters--seem to rarely find much of a platform or popularity.

Although a new one did show up last year. It's always the purplish ones.
Blaze, however, has managed to establish a healthy and positive following. In a lineup of characters that have very one-track motivations ("I want to beat you, Sonic!" "I want to prove I'm superior, Sonic!" "I want to knock you out with a hammer, tie you to my bed and ravage you until every one of my raging biological desires is satiated, Sonic!") Blaze's separation actually makes her feel relatively deeper.

But if a character is not wont to be chatty, how do you reveal enough of him or her for the audience to care? It's really not that hard if you're not using voice acting: reveal the inner monologue through text!

A hefty amount of Blaze's text in Rush is not her talking to other characters, but herself in her mind. The shortness of her spoken responses come through, but are also matched with lines of inner mulling over her choices and behavior that make you empathize with and even feel a little sorry for her awkwardness. It's not the deepest soliloquy you can find out there, but as Sonic's plots are never that deep to begin with, it still proves effective and outright fascinating.

It's likely my journalistic background talking, but I wish the inner monologue was a more regularly applied technique. I heard so many manufactured soundbytes in my time that I started wondering just what a politician or press rep was really thinking while they were talking to me. And I now realize that my thinking of that back then was yet another truth hidden within my mind as I went through my own reporter motions.

There is an entirely separate universe of thoughts and feelings others will never know, locked away in each and every one of us. Perhaps it's best we can't access them in each other--I doubt society would be a better place if some of those secrets were let out--but in the realm of fiction, it's a reminder that every word we hear can be floating on a hidden ocean of thoughts.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Professor Layton and a Gentleman's Patience

Professor Layton and the Last Specter
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Level-5
N.A. Release: October 2011

A stereotypical gamer action that has always annoyed me is the way some will complain about any text and semblance of story building a game, demanding they get back to “the action” as soon as possible. I'm willing to hold some empathy if the game is nothing but bullets and explosions and suddenly wants to derail that for a small Shakespearean performance, but if a game is actually trying to establish a certain atmosphere or depth throughout its course, then its dialogue and recorded contributions are worth more than a spastic mash of the continue button.

Of all things, I thought puzzle games would be safe from this knee-jerk criticism. They're about as cerebral an exercise as you can get on a screen, and if a player is willing to take a hefty number of minutes considering the answer to a puzzle, surely an interesting plot would be worth the time as well.

Note the lack of stoners and dog.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter, as with the other games in the series, loosely frames its puzzles within an overarching mystery that reveals itself in pieces along the way. Kotaku's Stephen Totilo, in a recent “quick impressions” article, expressed his distaste with the way Last Specter establishes its plot:

The problem is that the game opens with long cutscenes, a mistake in handheld gaming that I thought was exclusive to to the PSP and, 17 minutes into my first session, I only found one puzzle. I'm not playing Layton for the story. I want more puzzles, and I wanted them right away.”

I have no ill will toward Mr. Totilo, and his impressions are valid if this is what he felt at the time. However, I would like to offer a gentlemanly counterpoint.

I can clearly see how someone would be frustrated by cutscenes in a portable game if they had, say, limited playtime on the bus. The surge of phone-based games such as Angry Birds cater to this desire for a pick-up-play-and-quickly-stuff experience, and there is certainly no shame in that.

But to say that long cutscenes are a “mistake” for portable games that wish to employ them seems too broad of a statement. There are a great many people who play their DS and PSP at home for long periods of time. Each system possesses both quick-play games and lengthy RPGs that sink time into story. Both kinds receive loyal audiences and there seems to be no reason to decry one over the other.

A cutscene about reading? The horror!
To take the story out of Professor Layton would leave you with little more than an interactive puzzle book. Some people would like this, of course, and there are games out there exactly like that. But I'm not sure many Layton fans would want to see this happen to their series.

There is a unique and extremely charming style—both aesthetically and through its stories and characters—that sets the Layton series apart and helps drive its play. Is it always perfect? It may have a couple dull points, sure, as many stories do. But I doubt the majority of people who enjoy the series would be willing to drop it all to get to the puzzles quicker. It's not like Level-5 is just hacking this stuff up for filler. When your developer is working with the world-renowned Studio Ghibli, perhaps they know what they're doing.

I'm not so conceited to say that the mysteries of Professor Layton would appeal to everyone. That is a matter of personal taste and such criticisms should be respected. But to complain about the mere presence of a story over the actual substance of it, that... well, it causes an ache inside that makes me want to hug a book. Our world becomes increasingly geared toward instant gratification, but sometimes we need an English gentleman to remind us how to savor our moments.

Friday, October 14, 2011

K.O.L.M. and Mechanical Mommy Issues

Platform: In-Browser Flash
Developer: Armor Games
Release: November 2010

If you have not played K.O.L.M. yet, I heartily suggest you click that link above and give it a go before coming back here. It's a solid, simple, atmospheric platformer that'll take an hour tops to beat—and since you came here, it's likely you have some time to kill, anyway. Otherwise, you're going to hit spoilers, so don't say I didn't warn you.

K.O.L.M. is the charmingly mysterious tale of a robot brought into a bleak world by a remote, matronly being known as Mother. Stumbling and half-blind, the fragile creation leans on the guidance of Mother to find the parts he needs to become whole again.

I wish my mother used emoticons when I was growing up...
If you've been reading this touching synopsis so far (or not reading this and actually playing the game) and thought, “So when does Mother flip out and try to mess this robot's junk up?” then congratulations, you've been paying attention to the role of the matriarchal voice in many sci-fi games.

There's something about a dystopian future that seems ripe for the placement of a calm, feminine voice to lull the player toward the inevitable eviscerating machines. Portal's GLaDOS is the hands-down favorite in this department, although System Shock 2's SHODAN is noteworthy at the most very least for coming onto the scene 8 years earlier. Halo fans even question whether the helpful AI Cortana went nuts during the series.

Perhaps the element lies in the disorientation a futuristic setting effects upon us. Much like toddlers, we are attracted to a helpful voice, even if we aren't fully aware of its source and, as we gain more self-awareness, become increasingly wary and concerned of its behavior. You know, just like with real moms!

But why pull the turnaround at all? Why not keep the pleasant helper throughout the game, especially since it seems we're coming to expect the betrayal? Maybe, deep down, we want it?

I'm talking mainly to you, fellow primary male demographic. Although we grow up and even somewhat appreciate the queenly guidance we may have received growing up, are we still strangely terrified by yet attracted to the thought of meeting a girl who knows way more than us and is willing to use that knowledge to a manipulative end?

Are we frightfully allured by a woman who knows lots of SCIENCE and MATH?

Should I stop now before I try to tie these AWKWARD QUESTIONS back to our MOTHERS?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fallout 3 and Puppy Love

Fallout 3
System: Xbox 360
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
NA Release: October 2008

I'm standing in a puddle next to an undetonated nuclear warhead, letting irradiated water seep into my boots, and I have to wonder: just how far am I willing to go to please a woman?

That Moira Brown at Craterside Supply; I have to admit she's kind of a cutey. She's always ready with a kindly word in that folksy, Midwestern “don'tcha know” dialect that some small part of me finds a turn-on although I'd absolutely deny that in a court of law. And when she said she was writing a book? Literary type! Be still my heart!

Oh, Moria. What pillow talk we could have.

So when she asked for some help with her survival guide, I naturally said yes. Sharing pursuits is an instant foundation for a healthy relationship.

Then she told me to go out and contract radiation poisoning. I told her committing to such an act was ridiculous, but she pleaded that it wasn't and promised she would fix me up right away if I managed to stagger back to her in time. I guess a post-apocalyptic future negates the possibility of getting a simple homecooked meal as a reward.

But as I stand here waiting, watching my radiation levels slowly rise, I began to wonder if it's all worth it. I mean, I know I'm starting to get up there in years and the potential spouse pool is shrinking, but is a nice woman worth this much? I would very much like to continue the family name, but should I cast aside my self-integrity and risk passing on extra limbs and antennae to my kids merely for the chance?

But this is how devotion is proven, right? Men say they'd be willing to risk their lives for those they love, but you never know for sure until the moment arises. This is just removing all doubt right off the bat! Yes. I'll crawl back and pass out in front of her door. If she leaves me to decay, it was never meant to be; but if she takes me in, it'll be a scene worthy of any of those old romantic films!

I mean, this has to be my in. What else could she possibly ask me to do; walk through a minefield?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ghost Trick and the Gym Floor Lake of Fire

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
System: Nintendo DS
Developer: Capcom
NA Release: January 2011

Back in elementary school, I appreciated any physical activity that didn't involve dodge balls bounding off my face or making my best impression of a spastic pendulum at the bottom of the gym class rope. My favorite game was more cerebral; something the teacher not-so-creatively dubbed “Mission: Impossible.”

The class was separated into two teams, one on each side of the gym. In the middle of the floor, what seemed like the entire contents of the storage room were dumped into a haphazard pile: mats, cones, jump ropes, hula hoops, bean bags—you name it. A few of these items were also given to kids on each side. At the teacher's mark, the teams had to use their starting items through whatever means necessary to reach the cache in the middle and form a bridge to the other side of the room. The floor itself, in pure childhood form, was imagined to be lava and would force any player who touched it to start over.

The true fun in this game was the way it made us kids look differently at the items around us. Floor mats became scootable ships. Bean bags became a revolving set of stepping stones. The hula hoops... well, the hula hoops were junk, but you get the picture.

Ghost Trick, a clever and sadly overlooked DS title, runs much on the same improvisational mentality. As a freshly made ghost, players are confined to jumping from object to object around them, manipulating them in ways to open the path forward and save various characters from suffering the same ethereal fate. What were once simple tasks while alive must now be carried out with proper planning and precision using whatever is at hand. A smart style and sense of humor (think Phoenix Wright—it's the same creator) make for a fascinating, interwoven mystery to unravel, one item hop at a time.

In the "Ghost World," the items you can leap to are marked in blue.
Muse beyond the games, though, and both Ghost Trick and “Mission: Impossible” (I'm mildly ashamed to have to call it that) carry some sentiment to the ways we may look at life. Sometimes, we are hopeful we can hop to our goals, step by step; using a less-than-ideal A to get to B to reach the dream of C. We try to view and predict how it can all make sense, afraid of hitting a dead end or falling off into failure. Or, perhaps, we see ourselves more as the characters who need saving by the specter, hoping there is something behind the scenes pulling all the right invisible strings to ensure our welfare and success.

It's not a new idea.
And the fact is, there are paths that have been made that lead to goal, and there may also be something that guides the circumstances around us specifically to a plan. But whereas the other side of the gym and the end of the game are clearly laid out objectives, we are never privileged to know fully where our stepping stones may lead.