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.