Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tetris and Lost Relics

Platform: Game Boy
Developer: Bullet-Proof Software (original concept by Alexey Pajitnov)
N.A. Release: August 1989

The world-encompassing reach of the Tetris name is undeniable. Unfortunately, the wider a popular concept is spread, the shallower its real impact tends to become over time. The extraordinary stories of Alexey Pajitnov's conception of the game and Nintendo's battle to secure the rights to make the first blockbuster rendition of it still exist, but are long buried under sedimentary layers of adaptations, ports and free online knock-offs.
You can even play whatever this is, available now on the official website!
But I'm not going to tell those stories; they're already out there if you're willing to search. Instead, I'd like to tell you about the one Tetris game pak that would mean the world to me to have.

I never knew my great-uncle Jim that well, and he passed away early enough in my childhood that I don't have a great store of memories from which to draw of him. But there's one image I saw much too often to ever forget: whenever he and my great-aunt Rose visited my grandmother's house, he would sit in the same chair at the bar, beneath the overhead light, and huddle over Tetris on Game Boy.

I do mean huddle. He never actually held the system, as far as I can remember. It was always resting on the bar in front of him, with one of his fingers on the D-Pad and another poised over the B and A buttons. And that's how he would stay, tapping away with the intense confidence of a scientist at the helm of his nuclear powered robot.

The Game Boy almost never held anything else but Tetris. His children had tried to buy him other games to play like Qix and Super Mario Land 2, but I only know this because he let me play them one of the rare times I visited his home. He barely touched them himself, if he ever did at all.

The picture definition of "iconic."
No, great-uncle Jim's Game Boy was very much a Tetris-only machine, and the severity to which it had to bear this dedication still amazes me. The small grips that are on every Game Boy's directional pad were worn off completely, the entire pad itself somewhat sunken into the hole from which it protruded. The vibrant red of the B and A buttons were faded to a medium-rare pink in the center. This was all from the heat and friction of my great-uncle's large fingers over the many hours he spent playing a single cartridge.

Best of all, there was always a small strip of paper just below the screen, sealed into place with a piece of scotch tape: his high score. Occasionally changing, it was worn by that Game Boy like a badge of honor and always possessing a number I could never dream of getting close to.

It's not that great-uncle Jim was all-consumed with Tetris. He always took time to talk with the family, and he had no qualms about letting me play with his Game Boy once he had finished his current game—which often took an especially long time to an impatient 7-year-old but is something I can look in awe upon today.

If I had known back then how fondly I'd look back on that gray piece of plastic, I might have it today. Unfortunately, my childhood self never asked what had ever happened to the Game Boy and its treasured game after my great-uncle passed away. In fact, it wasn't until last year when I actually contacted my great-aunt, still living, and asked her if she had kept it with her all these years. She had not. She had given it away to another child whom she does not recall.

I wish I could run my fingers against that strangely smooth d-pad, or for the life of me remember that last high score and see how it stacks up on the Internet today. Sometimes I wonder if some kid now will feel this way in 20 years about an iPad he watched a loved one play Angry Birds on. Yes, I know that sounds silly now, but all I know is in a world full of so many ways, there's one game of Tetris I'll never be able to play again.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Blackwell Legacy and City Folk

The Blackwell Legacy
Platform: PC (experienced through Steam)
Developer: Wadjet Eye Games
N.A. Release: December 2006

Here's a riddle for you: How is New York City like an old-fashioned point-and-click adventure? They both exist under a set of rules that feel almost entirely outside the rest of known reality.

So if you're going to recreate all the for-better-or-worse traits of such games, why not set The Big Apple as your backdrop? Developer Dave Gilbert has made the city somewhat of his signature, creating games such as The Shivah, in which you play as a New York rabbi, and the Blackwell series, where a reclusive woman inherits a ghost.

She probably would've just been happy to get the dining set.
Playing through the first Blackwell title, The Blackwell Legacy, I find myself both fascinated by the main character, Rosangela “Rosa” Blackwell, and wondering if she's too stereotypically “urban.” See, playing as Rosa is setting yourself in the shoes of a neurotic and socially cringe-worthy character. This is not just to flavor the dialogue, although it certainly does; her anxieties also work into some of the puzzles.

One of Rosa's first tasks is to get into her own apartment building, as the substitute doorman does not recognize her (and in fact believed her apartment to have always been empty). She must find her next-door neighbor, to whom she's never introduced herself, to vouch for her. As per point-and-clicks, it's of course no simple matter, but the reasoning does feel somewhat more “real” than you'd find in other titles. Rosa's neighbor is performing for a group of people, and repeated attempts to simply walk up to her will reveal a long, labored monologue in which Rosa tries to psyche herself up to make a scene in public and... just can't. It's a bit sad, really, and you have to find alternate means to make the neighbor come to you.

That's what she--no. Not doing that here.

As you might remember from my Blaze the Cat post, I adore the art of inner monologue and enjoy the depth it adds in The Blackwell Legacy, too. Put it in New York City, though, and something just feels a bit overdone about it.

Maybe I'm just a country boy who never got it, but it seems almost every “urban” female in media—and especially ones in New York City—are either skanky and manipulative socialite/professionals (hi, Sex and the City!) or the female incarnations of Woody Allen. You're either an insanely beautiful queen of the concrete or an adorkable hipster. There are few in-betweens.

Is that really how it is in the big city, though? How can a place with so many people, that is prided on being a mix of the world's cultures and ways, be portrayed in ways that always feel so similar?

Oh, well. This is just nitpicking, really. I doubt this will affect my enjoyment of the game as I continue. I especially love the old-timey use of Video Graphics Array (VGA). Not only is it classic, but its restrictive animation style melds very well with Rosa's awkwardness in socializing and showing emotion. 

But I'm keeping my eye out. If this game even shows me the word “appletini,” I will puke.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mario Kart 7 and the Right to Win

Mario Kart 7
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Nintendo EAD/Retro Studios
N.A. Release: December 2011

If you want to incite gamer rage (and I don't say that like it's a hard thing to do), remember two simple words: Blue Shell.

Regardless of the teeming numbers of people who still adore this series, odds are you'll be bombarded with racers relating in huffy terms their recollections of  getting hit with one of these leader-seeking missiles just 2 feet (it's almost always "just 2 feet") from the finish line, costing them the win, and how and these game-breaking abominations should've been removed after Mario Kart 64. 

They're one of the most divisive items in video games, yet consider this: everyone in a Mario Kart race has the same objective. Some actual driving skill does apply in achieving this goal, but at any given time on the field, the person in first might've have been much farther in the pack and the player in last might've been the leader just 20 seconds earlier. Heck, they may have been a victim of a Blue Shell midway through the race, but that doesn't tend to draw much whining. It's the end where we have placed all the importance, and how dare we let luck or circumstance determine the victor there. That's skill's realm, even if every part of the race leading up to it has been a whirlwind of mindblowing wackitude.

This is what we consider fair; consider "real." Except it kind of isn't.

How many times have you heard of the more deserving candidate being overlooked for the promotion, or the obviously weaker team winning the big game through a fluke? In fact, let's take a second to look at real-life racing.

Carl Edwards took the lead with 1 lap to go in the 2009 Aaron's 499 at Talladega Speedway. His skills got him there--in-depth knowledge and experience with the track, his car, his team and the other races. He was poised to take the win going into turn 4, but the car behind him wanted to win too. That car tried to pass, accidentally got into Edwards and...
Edwards's number is 99, by the way. Not 66.
The second place car won, while Edwards took a trip against the upper sections of the safety fence. Thankfully, he escaped the crash with no injuries. 

It's obvious what he did next, right? Take every opportunity to complain about how he should have rightfully won the race if only that jerk behind him hadn't put fate into motion? Appeal to NASCAR to instill some sort of "fairness" rule that would give him the points for winning?

Nope. He got out of his car and ran across the finish line, Talladega Nights style.
He waited for the other cars to pass, of course.
Edwards was disappointed, naturally, but he had perspective. He knew that skill and talent can get you toward the front in the end, but it's by no means a guarantee of victory. He was denied this time, but there would be--and have been--other times when he would take the victory after the misfortune of others. That's just the way life works sometimes, and we're conditioned to put more emphasis on the times we've been slighted than the times we've unintentionally slighted others.

So when you're the one for whom the Blue Shell tolls, don't whine like you're the only one it's ever happened to. Just take them as part of the experience--especially when you know you'll be tossing them next race.