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On Tim Schafer, Apotheosis, and Video Game Rockstars: A Brütal Legend Review [Game Overview]
Nov 20th, 2009 by Dan

Apotheosis
1. The fact or action of becoming a god; deification
2. Glorification, exaltation; crediting someone with extraordinary power or status.

Do you know who Tim Schafer is?

When I still lived at home, my dad used to ask me, “When are you gonna grow up and stop playing video games?” He tells my mother that he’s sure I’m addicted to the medium. It’s true that I spend the vast majority of my free time playing games. I can name developers, producers, writers, designers, and even composers for games from my favorite series of games. This vast information age enables me to know everything about a game, down to its minutia, just by checking an online database. If there’s not enough information there, I can almost guarantee there are five or six fansites devoted to uncovering every last detail. It must be daunting for developers nowadays to produce in this environment.

My dad says these things, but I’m not sure he understands that this is just the nature of hobbies nowadays. Not too long ago we could almost justifiably claim an unhealthy obsession with the works of Deepak Chopra and transcendental meditation. Eric’s life revolves around photography nowadays almost as much as mine involves interactive entertainment. This is what hobbies are like now. Think of an obscure hobby, like stamp collecting, and I’ll guarantee you that someone out there spends a couple of hours a week producing a podcast for tons of people to listen to.

The point is, there’s a growing number of people who actually know just who is behind the games they play, a huge contrast to the early Famicom days.

It’s not exactly the fault of the developers that we had no idea who was behind our games back in the day. Standard process for Famicom-era games was to credit oneself via a pseudonym to prevent talent poaching. How would you be able to tell that seeing Gondamin credited as a composer meant you were listening to Junko Tamiya’s music? Famed Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune still goes by INAFKING in some games.

Now that games are actually credited properly, it’s not uncommon for people to know that Bioshock was the brainchild of Ken Levine or that the wackiness of Metal Gear comes from Hideo Kojima. Nintendo actually keeps Shigeru Miyamoto’s hobbies on the down low because they don’t want people to speculate on what ideas his brilliant mind will come up with next. We’re talking a complete 180° shift here.

Eddie Riggs: “Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?”
Roadie: “Like the seventies?”
Eddie: “No. Earlier… like the early seventies.”

Embedded within all enthusiast cultures is the cachet that comes with either “being there first” or experiencing a unique experience that the ignorant masses overlooked. Go to Brooklyn, grab the first guy with crazy hair and skinny jeans you can find (protip: you won’t have a hard time finding one), and ask him what his favorite bands are. Chances are, unless you’re from the Brooklyn scene too, you won’t have heard of any of the groups he’s mentions. He will consider you a barbarian for liking commercial music and you will consider punching him in the face.

I think it’s clear where I’m going here, so I won’t belabor the point.

Have you ever played Grim Fandango?

We arrive at the natural conclusion: these developers, thanks to the power of the Internet and rabid fans like myself, are now legends in their own right. When Miyamoto talks, everyone listens and when Tim Schafer makes a game, I buy it (we’ll ignore the fact that I don’t own Psychonauts or Full Throttle). All this devotion and dedication to one man is based on the strength of four games: The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango, the last of which is the only one solely under Schafer’s artistic control (the true Monkey Island games were made by the holy trinity of Gilbert, Grossman, and Schafer while DotT was a Grossman/Schafer collaboration). When I played Grim Fandango for the first time in 2002, it was on the strength of Schafer’s Monkey Island reputation, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you his name until 2007 when I started listening to video game podcasts.

The press gushed and gushed about how good Schafer’s games were and how Psychonauts was criminally under appreciated and created the image of a brilliant game designer whose games featured great comedy writing and stories, but mediocre gameplay. Think about this for a second: Tim Schafer is famous for being a commercial underdog whose games are only hampered by mediocre controls. Before Psychonauts, Schafer’s only games were adventure games. Controls are irrelevant in that context, so Schafer has a reputation based on one game.

What’s worse is that I totally bought into the hype. I found myself thinking, I hope poor Tim Schafer isn’t underappreciated yet again. Really? After one game? This is the industry. This is modern, enthusiast society. This is madness.

Did you buy Psychonauts?

I can’t say that it started there, but the first time I ever saw an editorial campaign intended to raise a game’s sales was back around 2003 at IGN. Matt Casamassina, a fellow fan of Eternal Darkness, was bummed about the lackluster sales of what was actually a really great game, but its downsides were twofold: it was a new IP and it was a dark, mature game launching on the Gamecube, clearly the wrong platform for the game. The point of the campaign was that mature games would not continue to launch on the Gamecube if no one bought it, so everyone should take one for the good of the team and play this game. As you might expect, the plan failed and, for all I know, Casamassina still does his best to drum up sales of mature games on Nintendo platforms (he was back in 2008 when I still listened to IGN podcasts) with the same results. The Internet’s a tricky place. Everyone will agree that these games are criminally underrated by their sales numbers, but no one is willing to actually open up their pocketbooks.

Well, there is at least one. At some point I got it into my mind that if I wanted to keep seeing good games, I should support the ones that are trying to innovate in the field, regardless of whether I want them or not. It’s why I own Zack and Wiki and Little King’s Story, despite having no real interest in either. I just wanted to support good, non-minigame collections on the Wii. Lucky for me, nine times out of ten the stance that I want to support means that I’m supporting a game or series that I do truly love. Paying for the Day 1 DLC in Dragon Age: Origins is a hot issue for many who are morally opposed to content appearing on Day 1, despite the fact that this stuff probably wasn’t ready for a Day 1 launch. Regardless, I own both packs because I love Bioware as a developer and I want to see them continue to make good games. Likewise, it might have been a few parts my completist nature, but I used to buy every bit of DLC offered by Harmonix for the Rock Band series because I wanted to support their philosophy on music gaming over Activision’s (I also don’t buy used games for a similar reason).

It’s an attitude not limited to games either, I no longer pirate anything and actually buy CDs, .mp3s, and DVDs to support the artists that I treasure. It’s kind of foolish and I get burned sometimes with mediocre stuff, but I think it’s still worth it.

The take home message here is that my purchase of Brütal Legend comes from a complicated place. Tim Schafer, a man elevated to game-god status, a rock star, if you will, being the primary catalyst while the rest of my logic amounted to a combination of wanting Double Fine to find success in their game releases for once and rewarding EA for picking up this title after Activision so unceremoniously dropped it.

Was that a good idea?

It may not be the truth, but it’s the better story.

Brütal Legend is the worst kind of lie. It’s singing love songs with the girl of your dreams on a road trip, but you’re the only one who means it, while your best friend is sleeping in the backseat, blissfully unaware of the metaphor. That’s not to say it’s an evil, insidious lie, it’s just pretending to be one thing while slowly guiding you toward another. Boot up the game, watch Jack Black, go to the Land of Metal, and you’re expecting a 3rd person action brawler. Not too long into it it’s become an open-world brawler, complete with vehicle sections. An hour or two after that and you’re partaking in a hybrid RTS/3rd person action brawler/open-world driving game. It’s bait-and-switch executed marvelously. You might hate the RTS portions, but you’re already hooked on the story and you’ve got to begrudgingly see the rest of it through.

I’ll guarantee that most players didn’t even know that their game had RTS elements before purchasing it. How would they have when all the advertising campaigns featured only the 3rd person combat? Was this an evil move on EA’s part?

As a supporter of Tim Schafer, I say no. It’s a lie, no doubt, but it serves a greater purpose. This game cannot be distilled into its distinct parts in a 30 second action reel. Why not bring in the sales on the game on this promise? It’s not like it’s a total lie, it’s more like a half-truth. You will be fighting in the 3rd person for majority of the game, you’ve just also got to manage your troops well or you will lose. Then again, I have a hard time defending deception to the consumer on such a grand scale. Did Brütal Legend lie to all of us? No one went out and outright said it was one thing, but gave you another. There was even a demo out there. Is it really “Buyer Beware” to give the impression of one thing in your advertisements and deliver a slightly different thing? This isn’t like giving top billing to an actor who only appears for three minutes of a movie, is it?

“We say, over and over again, that the default player actions in a single-player game should be compelling enough to make you believe with all your soul that a two-player deathmatch situation using two player character clones and said default player actions would be at least as compelling as the actual game.”

– tim rogers in his Bionic Commando: Rearmed Review

tim rogers makes a point in countless reviews that a game’s core mechanic should be good enough that you can play it in multiplayer ad infinitum and have just as much fun with it. Brütal Legend takes that just a touch too literally. Double Fine so desperately wants you to love their multiplayer that the entire singe-player campaign is a training mission to prepare you for multiplayer. The final units and mechanics are all finally nailed down for the player in the penultimate battle. I’m not kidding, you can’t do everything until right before you fight the final boss. It goes against everything that “we,” the player, knows about games. When you play the campaign in StarCraft, haven’t you gained access to the entire tech tree after maybe four of the ten missions in the campaign? Maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t true, but it’s certainly not right before the final boss.

I see what the intention is. Strong multiplayer drives down the resale of games. Pre-owned game purchases are money lost to the developer. We’ve seen this trick already, EA, it’s why Dragon Quest made you grind for ages and why DLC and special pack-in unlocks are so prevalent in the games of today.

Back on message, the problem with this structure is that I didn’t want to play multiplayer once I finished. I’ve yet to boot it up once. That’s not to say that the game is terrible, it’s just not mechanically sound (and, lo, we now have a pattern that we can apply to Schafer).

“The road is fuckin’ hard,
The road is fuckin’ tough-ah”

-Tenacious D – “The Road”

Before I dive even further into the mechanics, perhaps a look into the raison d’être for Brütal Legend, its story, is in order. I should start by saying that the most surprising thing about this game is that the player is controlling Eddie Riggs, not Jack Black. Despite his tendency to be Jack Black in almost every role he plays, credit has to be given to Tim Schafer and Double Fine for writing him as someone completely different. There’s not one “skedoosh” uttered by Riggs in the whole game and even the part where Jack Black is Jack Black is decidedly restrained and non-Jack Black-like.

So the player controls this guy, Eddie Riggs, who is a roadie for a fictional metal band, Kabbage Boy, that’s all kinds of terrible in the modern, faux-metal, emo kind of way. The intro has this great part where the band starts off with an appropriately epic power cord, only to have a DJ break in with some scratches while the song devolves into a pop-nonsense song about the lead singer’s girlfriend. After saving one of the band member’s lives due to some reckless climbing (all while staying out of the spotlight), Eddie is crushed by some of the stage and his blood lands on his belt buckle, summoning the Metal god Ormagöden, who kills the members of Kabbage Boy and transports Eddie to a mystical world of METAL (if I could make flames burst out of this review, I would). For a guy like Riggs, this is a dream come true since the entire landscape looks something like the album cover to the metal records of old. Demons rule this world and enslave humans, but there is a small resistance group led by a man named Lars that Eddie joins to get closer to Ophelia, a woman he meets when he first teleports in.

The beauty of Schafer’s tale comes from the heavily enforced role of the roadie. Eddie Riggs is not out for glory and, despite the fact that he is the resistance and the main character throughout the entire game, he is not the hero. Maybe it’s Eddie’s personality, but he is firmly devoted to being a roadie and unused to the spotlight. It’s so ingrained in his character, that the narrative only addresses the discrepancy between what Eddie does and what he gets credit for maybe twice and both times he quickly brushes off. The story isn’t about Riggs becoming a hero in a world in which he belongs, which is strange, because it clearly features him uniting humanity and freeing mankind. Instead it’s a (METAL!) love story between Eddie and Ophelia and a damn good one at that.

Both the characters of Eddie and Ophelia are believable and both the dialog and voice acting between Eddie and everyone else is among the best I’ve seen in any game (top marks also go to the Uncharted series, the second of which I played right before Brütal Legend). The metal legends chosen to make cameos (Ozzy Osbourne, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister among others) do fantastic jobs of being both themselves and (especially in Ozzy’s case) fucking metal. Even the professionals like Jack Black and Tim Curry do some of their best work while industry veterans Jennifer Hale continues to prove that she’s one of the best in the business (don’t believe me? Check out her gameography).

At the end of it all, it’s clear what Schafer’s true strength is: world-building. Grim Fandango takes place in a wholly unique, single-serving world inspired completely by the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico with a dash of hell, demons, and the 1920s mafia. Psychonauts takes place within the brains of its cast of characters, with each mindscape inspired by psychology featuring wildly different neuroses, themes, and ideas. Brütal Legend, as you know, is inspired by heavy metal and creates a world where bass notes can heal, guitar strings are crafted by metal spiders, and guitar solos have the power to literally melt faces off. In each case his brilliance and creativity shines through and the player never wants to leave. He is unparalleled in this respect.

Brutal Legend draws itself up proudly. “I am a bastard child of the schizophrenic postmodern age. Know only that I am metal, and that I was forged from the raw materials of innumerable genres. No single acronym can contain my all. I am pure hybrid.”
-Chris Clemens. “At the Gates of Genre

Should Tim Schafer give up on games? I refuse to go on the record as saying that Brütal Legend is a bad game. Trust me, it’s not. On the other hand, it’s also not very good. It’s wild hybridization of multiple game styles and mechanics don’t combine for the better and the game winds up a jack of all trades, but, well, you know the rest. No one aspect of the actual game mechanics make me want to boot the game up again. Melee fighting is shallow because only two buttons can be allotted (you need to be able to control your troops and play guitar with the others). Driving is just a faster way of getting from point A to B and feels unsatisfying.

Quick Aside Time

I understand that this is hard and that resources are better spent elsewhere (not to mention that invisible walls serve to keep the player within them), but we, as gamers, need to take a stand against the goddamn trees in video games. How many fucking metal :throws up horns: nitro boosts did I waste because a thin, pathetic looking tree turned out to be The Epic Tree of Arrested Momentum. Seriously, if you’ve got small logs that I can drive through at low speeds, then why can’t I drive through a thin bit of underbrush? Then again, my car can fall thousands of feet and take no damage, so maybe my car and the trees are made of the same mystical, physics-distorting material.

Back to the review…

I can go on ad infinitum about every system in the game: the guitar solos are shallow, the RTS-style mechanics are frustratingly imprecise, the quest structure is repetitive, and the collectibles are annoyingly difficult to track and collect. Tell me Schafer, if I’ve got a map that automatically draws itself as I discover new parts of the world, why can’t it have a toggle switch to show me which collectibles I’ve already found? Ask my friend Ian how many hours I spent searching for the last (of 120) Bound Serpent in the game. It’s MADDENING.

At the end of the game, when evil has been vanquished and all the credit and accompanying hero worship has fallen on Lars and his sister, Lita, we see Eddie drive away, content to be a mere footnote in history, despite being the only reason that the history of that world continues. I return to the question, should Schafer stop making games himself? Wouldn’t he be a much better world designer for other projects? Isn’t Tim Schafer a better Eddie Riggs than a Lars? On one hand, I want him to continue to have the freedom to make his own full, artistic visions come true, but with two consecutive commercial failures under his belt (Brütal Legend has reportedly sold only 200,000 or so copies in Rocktober, but we’ll see what Christmas brings), will the industry keep giving him a chance?

Lars: “What do you do with a bunch of kids that just wanna bang their heads all the time?”
Eddie Riggs: *tears in eyes* “You start a revolution Lars…”

Tim Schafer is a rock star. There are few people in the industry who get what it means to craft a world, but the staff at Double Fine, Schafer-included, need to sit down and think about game design a little more. It’s got to be hard to reign in Schafer’s monstrous creative energy, but it would be a good idea to try to focus on getting fewer things perfect in their next game. The sad truth is that they haven’t got many more chances. Most of them could probably find jobs elsewhere, but the only member of their team with absolute job security is Tim Schafer. He will always be a Lars in the industry. Developers would be nuts not to give him top billing of some kind (note that the boxart for Brütal Legend explicitly states “A Tim Schafer game” above the title) and he deserves that kind of praise. So, to answer my previous question, Tim Schafer should absolutely make games, but perhaps he needs to narrow his sights a little bit and focus more on his core mechanics. Less can be more when you have to sacrifice quality.

Furthermore, have I learned anything about hero-worship in the industry? If anything, I think that writing this review has caused me to reevaluate the stances I take for granted on game companies and the artists I love, in general. I still think that the most effective way to lobby for anything in this industry is with consumer dollars, but I’m finding myself increasingly disenchanted with how little the sales from a small, dedicated fanbase amounts to. I mean, look at what my money did for the MLB Power Pros series in America? Given the decision again today, I would still go out and buy Brütal Legend. I like it that much, game mechanics aside, but with only 200,000 in sales, I’m pretty sure it will be a while before Double Fine is able to round up as much capital as I’m sure they did for this game (which may be to their benefit). On the other, Dan-has-learned-something hand, I’m pretty sure that I’m no longer giving everyone a carte blanche license to earn money from me. Metal Gear Solid 4 was such a disappointment to me that it will take some prodding for me to really trust Kojima again. Nintendo has flip-flopped around so much with Mario that I’m unsure where I stand. Mario Galaxy was not the breath of fresh air I thought it would be, but New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a masterpiece of sharp, 2-D game design combined with the brilliant addition of 4-player co-op. I no longer buy mature titles for the Wii. DVD box sets of shows that I casually want to remain on the air no longer get bought. Some things have been learned.

Take Home Review Message:
Brütal Legend is a definite rental, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending that you buy it until you’ve tried out the multiplayer.

BlazBlue, Twitter x WoW, Lucasarts Back Catalog, Ueda vs. Miyamoto, and More [Game Overview]
Jul 10th, 2009 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

I figured I’d start with BlazBlue today, since the game just came out and I sunk an evening in playing it. I don’t have all that much to say about it yet, but it’s intriguing in a very not Street Fighter way. The fighters are all insanely detailed and designed in an intricately anime fashion, leaving no moe niche unserved and the fighting system is deceptively simple, but actually WAY complicated, as most of these things are nowadays. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to sink into it, especially because Street Fighter IV has nabbed my attention yet again, but I will keep posting impressions as I play.

Get BlazBlue!

Get Street Fighter IV!

Indie Darling Gets on XBL

Fez has been confirmed for 2010 release on XBL, according to Giant Bomb. I don’t know much about the game other than that the press loves it and you play as this little white dude with a block head. I’m sure someone out there is jumping for joy, but then crying a little bit because it means the 2009 release date has been pushed back. There, there.

Brilliant Game Design

Giant Bomb reports that Tekken 6 has finally gotten it right. The game will ship with all of the characters unlocked. Honestly, this is some of the best news that could have hit for a fighting game and I hope that other developers take up this and make it a trend. There’s no reason why players who just want to get playing online should have to spend hours completing menial tasks against the AI just to get access to the hidden players. Heck, if I didn’t bother with that I would never have unlocked Cammy, my Street Fighter IV main. I know there are legitimate reasons for doing this, namely to increase the longevity of the game that a consumer purchased, but how about making things like costumes or colors (the second of which is already a SFIV unlockable) the real secret content. Extra stages are also acceptable, since they have no real gameplay significance in, say SFIV. Either that or include an option, like in Rock Band 2, where you have all of the content unlocked, but achievements are disabled. This would be far preferential to the current methodology currently en vogue.

Get Rock Band 2!

Now the world will know about your phat lewt

I know what you’re thinking: I love to tweet and I love to play WoW, but goddammit, it’s far too difficult to do both at the same time. I have to Alt-Tab and everything! TweetCraft has got the solution for you, an in-game Twitter client. With Peggle already integrated within WoW, I’m starting to wonder what other apocalyptic life-distracting measures are going to be added in the future.

Sad Half Year for the Japanese Bottom Line

Gamasutra reports that the Japanese gaming market is down a scary 25% in the first half of the year so far. Dan reports that perhaps we’re prematurely worried? Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, as of 8 July, has sold some ungodly 3.5 million or so units in the country while this Saturday will see the monumental release of Dragon Quest IX on the Nintendo DS (forecasts say there are already 2 million pre-orders put down for the game), and the recent release of Wii Sports Resort has seen major success as well. I think it should be a healthy year for Japan, it’s just been stacked toward the second half.

L4D2…Kinda Sounds like a Droid, no?

In unsurprising news, Valve has announced that players who pre-order Left 4 Dead 2 will have early access to the demo. This is pretty much exactly what happened with Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2, so no surprises here.

Other neat news claims that players will have access to a cricket bat a la Shaun of the Dead.

Also reported was a rumor that L4D players might be able to interface in a meaningful way with L4D2 players, meaning a less fractured player base. I hope they get it worked out; online games live and die by their player base and dividing it is never wise.

Bonus Left 4 Dead Sackboy Images!

Get Left 4 Dead!

Look! A Three-Headed Monkey!

Ok, so it doesn’t include that game, but Lucasarts is releasing a classics collection via Steam that includes seminal adventure titles such as The Dig, LOOM, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It’s great news to see that they’re finally capitalizing on their adventure game library and it, combined with the re-release of The Secret of Monkey Island, gives me some confidence that we might see other HD remakes. Day of the Tentacle remake, anyone?

Mega Awesome

Tired of adorable Mega Man videos? I’m not. Enjoy.

That kid’s little brother sure is a pain…reminds me of my childhood.

BONUS ATARI REMAKE MEGA MAN VIDEO:

Music Was Better in the Past

I’m not sure if there’s actually a re-release of the Chrono Trigger Soundtrack imminent in Japan, but this recent trailer sure seems to suggest something of the sort.

If it is being re-released, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out in September when I head over to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Get Chrono Trigger DS!

It’ll Soak Up Water!

I’m pretty sure you all know that I adore the folks over at Giant Bomb. Here’s their hilarious commercial for their iPhone app. I won’t be getting it (too much $$ for my tastes), but the commercial sure is funny.

Critical Much?

Says famed game designer Fumito Ueda regarding news that Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired by Shadow of the Colossus and built a level around that:

Yes I have played it, it was hard to not to since it was rumored that Miyamoto-san was inspired by me. But I had expected more, that segement {SIC], was like the rest of the game not so fun as it could had been. I think the fans made a big deal out of nothing when they said Miyamoto had stolen from me. The thing I am critical over isn’t that they didn’t borrow anything that isn’t unique for my game, but that they didn’t make more fun stages out of it.

To clarify, the level in question is the boss fight on the small planet where Mario must guide Bullet Bills to sensitive spots around a giant robot to defeat the boss. Way to be a jerk Ueda. I mean, your games are held to ridiculous artistic plateaus that Miyamoto’s have never been elevated to. It’s like comparing pop art to Picasso or something. I’m not saying that Miyamoto’s not a genius in his own right, but rather that the man doesn’t need to ape Ueda to make a fun game. The boss fight was a homage, not a direct attempt to bring Shadow of the Colossus to Super Mario Galaxy. There’s no need to get so pretentious!

Bonus Fact: Picasso’s full name is: Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. I guess it makes sense that he only went with the first and last part, that would be hell to sign on all of his works.

Get Shadow of the Colossus!

Back Away From That Sun

Speaking of Miyamoto-san, he had this to say about all of the people clamoring for a new Kid Icarus sequel:

Wait, please.

There you have it. Chill out guys, it’s coming.

Nobody Likes a Guy Who Plays to Win

Professor David Myers, under the guise of science, played City of Heroes for a while to find out about the psychology of social groups. His account, published as Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt came to a predictable conclusion.

It seems that when Myers PvPed and fought with what are considered “cheap tactics” he was alienated and hated by everyone on the server, including people on his own faction. Myers stuck harshly to the rule set, but took the whole Heroes vs. Villains thing way too seriously for most, choosing not to adhere to social conventions within the game. To be fair, it’s pretty lame to have these accepted “Let’s not fight” zones in PvP areas. I mean, it reeks of grade school playground, doesn’t it? Anyway, it confirms what we already know about MMORPGs, the prevailing culture within the server trumps in-game rules and some things just become conventionally taboo. It’s the same with real life. For more interesting reading, check out Malcom Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker entitled How David Beats Goliath. It’s brilliant reading and conveys a lot of the same points without being a thinly veiled excuse to play City of Heroes for hours on end.

Whoops! Here’s More Work!

Back to Shigeru Miyamoto. It seems that he accidentally forced the Wii Sports Resort developers to include Golf within the game.

Says Takayuki Shimamura

“Right after getting back to Japan, he suddenly said: “You know we’re including golf now.” Apparently he’d stated in an interview that this time round golf shots would be determined by the backswing, even though at that time a golf game didn’t exist in any shape or form!”

How’s that for an origin story?

Houston…Well, I guess you can guess what comes next…

Battlefield 1943 came out this week! Kind of. The game is unplayable as of right now (as of when I write this). Servers are clogged and some users can’t even launch the game. Money well spent, I guess…

EDIT: It appears to be up and working properly now.
EDIT 2: Whoa, I’m wrong. Still wonky for the most part.

This is terrible news for a small, online arcade game like this. Games like these live and die by reputation and first week experiences, unless the Battlefield pedigree will carry it until they get it fixed.

Rhythm Heaven Review [Big N]
Jun 11th, 2009 by Dan

I’ve always harbored this delusion belief that I would be pretty good at music if I ever picked up an instrument. I have no evidence to back this up. Back in the fifth grade when I played the recorder I wasn’t an instant pro and I didn’t pick up the drums in Rock Band without some struggles (I still can’t play expert). I just know two things that give me this notion: 1. I can keep a beat down fairly well and 2. Other people don’t seem to be able to.

Logically, this isn’t what separates Jimi Hendrix from the average Joe who picks up a guitar or we’d have unbelievable musicians coming out of our ears, but it seems to me that the most essential skill behind successful musicianship, rhythm, is in short supply among people I know. It would be a gross oversimplification (that’s 144 times as much oversimplification for those keeping score at home) to even presume that skill on the Rock Band drums translates into real, musical talent, but on the other hand, I find it hard to believe that someone who can’t hold a moderately easy beat on easy or medium difficulty in that game has any musical ability at all.

So now we’re back to me and how I think that the only thing keeping me from being a rock star is actually picking up an instrument, a hypothesis based almost exclusively on my ability to play Rhythm Heaven, it seems. Does that mean that people who can’t manage to play the game can’t play music? I think I’m finding more and more flaws in my argument by the minute…

Former-roommate Min Chen tried his hand at some Rhythm Heaven not long after I picked up the game and the esoteric and heavily Japanese-influenced game seemed to mystify him. This is a man who plays the piano, and pretty well, mind you, who can rock pretty hard on the drums in Rock Band (expert difficulty, thank you very much), but he can’t manage to beat the very first level in Rhythm Heaven. It’s not really all that complicated: you hold the stylus on the bottom screen to cock back the bolt launcher and when the two nuts intersect, you flick the stylus to launch the bolt to connect the nuts. The rhythmic catch to this mini-game is that you’ve got to hit the nuts with precise timing. They come in from opposing ends of the screen playing a scale as they come in: Do Re Mi Fa So. You launch at So. Cake, right? I beat it my first attempt and I think I got a perfect on my third. Not one pass from Min. It makes absolutely no sense to me, because I thought he’d be great at the game.

There’s a reason it’s called Rhythm Heaven, you know. The game supplies visual cues all the time, but in 99% of the games you honestly could close your eyes and still play quite effectively. Some games are actually harder if you’re watching what’s going on just because of how trippy and strange the visuals are. The controls seem intuitive enough, you really only ever have three things to do with the stylus and they’re about as fundamental as can be. You either tap, flick, or hold. It seems like child’s play, but if my boy Min can’t do it, I’m almost reluctant to recommend the game to friends of mine who don’t fall squarely into the gaming category. You know what, I’m gonna just say that practice will help you move past most challenges, meaning that even the most unpracticed of gamers can manage to successfully play this game, with a little bit of practice.

Nintendo is actually really keen to this part of the audience. A quick look at the ad-campaign surrounding this game proves that they are actively targeting the novice gamer for this title. Beyoncé Knowles headlines one ad while 16-year old girls are the focus of one of the others. Here’s the hidden genius behind Nintendo’s design, there exists, within the game, a café that the player can enter at any time to “take a break.” Fail a song three times and you’ll see a little speech bubble hovering out of the café. The owner is beckoning you inside. He’s concerned and he doesn’t know how to say it without offending you, but are you having trouble with the song you keep failing? If you want, he can unlock the next one for you and you don’t have to keep bashing your head against the wall. It’s entirely up to you, of course.

The first time you see this, if you’re a long-time gamer with way too much pride, like I am, you’ll scoff and ignore it. Who does the café guy think he is to tell you that you suck at a game and give you a free pass? You go back to the main menu and attempt to tackle that game some more. You probably beat it. You’re quite happy with yourself for your accomplishment. Screw the café guy for thinking that you couldn’t do this on your own. Later on in the game you’ve failed the same game for a half hour. You’re tired of the garbage that they localized the soundtrack with. You realize that, hey, no one will know if you move onto the next one. It’s not like the game is going to call up your Halo-playing buddies to tell them that you needed help. Just like that, you take the free pass, move onto the next challenge, and you’re having fun again. Just. Like. That.

There’s some serious hypocrisy at play here for me. I’m the same guy who was so annoyed with the ease of Super Mario Galaxy that I wrote a whole blog post about how games were too easy. How can I justify, nay, laud a game for easing games through its challenges. I honestly don’t have a good answer to that question. There’s something about rhythm/music games that annoys me when it comes to failure. I admit that it’s mega-frustrating to play the same level ad infinitum until you can master a specific jump or get its timing just right. Just today I was playing Bubble Bobble Plus! with Eric and he clearly reached the limit to his patience when the remake’s ridiculous level design managed to stonewall us at level 72. He was about ready to quit. If I hadn’t looked up the solution online to the busted game mechanics, we wouldn’t have beat the game’s hundredth level and I would have remained a freakish, bubble-blowing dinosaur. It’s not the fate I wanted.

Digressions aside, imagine playing the same goddamn song over and over and over again. Play it some more to really get to where every note in that song makes you want to hurt someone. This is why I don’t mind easy progression in music games. The genre is about listening to new songs and mastering their challenges, but I think music reaches an annoying threshold a lot faster than missing a jump in Super Mario World. When your content revolves solely on progression to experience it, does it make sense to hold the player’s hand and help him along? I admit that this is a question of game design that far exceeds my expertise, but it is much appreciated in this case.

Well, we’ve hit about 1200 words and I haven’t even really explained the game at all, so I’d say we’re about due. Most websites will tell you that Rhythm Heaven features 50 unique mini-games for you to complete. This is something of a lie. There are actually 51 challenges, but only 24 are unique challenges, 10 are remixes composed of compilations of the other mini-games to different music, one is a playable credit sequence, and 15 are harder versions of past stages. Each unique stage has you using the stylus (and one button in one case) in unique ways to the music to earn a passing grade at the level. The remixes are brilliant combinations of the mini-games, the most fantastic of which sometimes interrupt you and transition to the next game with such fantastic flow that you’re already completing the next task. Some of the later ones will play upon this tendency and do the opposite to trick and cause mistakes.

The stages combine to make for the most fantastically random collection of characters and locations ever seen in a non-WarioWare game. One second you’ll be controlling a dog ninja slicing vegetables, bones, tires, and frying pans, the next you’ll be a DJ messing around with a turntable. Word on the nets is that some of the WarioWare folks were actually behind this game and the strength of their design, which allows randomness to mesh into a surprisingly cohesive experience, truly shines through.

When you’re tired of the rhythm games, there are other rhythm toys, basically ideas that didn’t make the cut, for you to mess around with and that’s about it. Most people’s biggest complaint with this game is just that, there’s not a whole lot of game there when you get right down to it. If you’re the type who wants more than ten hours of relatively shallow game from your portable collection, this isn’t the right title for you. If you love music, love intelligent design (not the kind that opposes evolution, the type that means a fine game), and love fun, well this is the game for you. It will have legs because you love the music or the quirky games and there’s always the pursuit of perfect scores to hold your attention.

There are some issues with the game that mostly revolve around its localization. I understand that you can’t really bring a game like this to the states without translating the Japanese, but for some reason the vocal localization seems way lacking in comparison. Uninspired lame English vocals just don’t hold a candle to the Japanese tracks. I’ve said it before, but the Japanese could totally suck too, but my lack of understanding would prevent me from realizing it sucked. Keep it in Japanese.

I can’t really emphasize how truly awesome this game is. It’s hard to think of a DS game I’ve had this much fun with in a long time. The combination of quirky strangeness and razor sharp mechanics make for a well-spent $30.

Game Overview: Editorial: Instruction Manuals and In-Game Tutorials
Jun 8th, 2008 by Dan

“It used to be, if you found a key in a Zelda game and you didn’t know what a key did, you were either mentally handicapped or you reached for the instruction manual. I suppose, eventually, someone in Nintendo’s R&D did a big Powerpoint presentation, with the cooperation of a local psychiatrist, proving — quite logically — that people absent-minded enough to forget what a key does have probably also lost both the box and instruction manual of the game they’re playing. As an employee in a videogame company’s marketing division myself, I could put up a convincing presentation to explain that we should probably just explain once what a key does, and then leave it up to these instruction-manual misplacers to either remember that, or figure it out anew. If anyone attacked my views and said that we can’t shut out the morons and the idiots just because most people — not to mention most gamers — aren’t either, I would jump up onto the boardroom table and scream, what the fuck do you do if the person loses the fucking cartridge, huh? What the fuck do you do then! Would you give out a free game and console to a shaky kid who showed up at a game shop and said that first he lost the manual, then the box, then he forgot what keys did, then he lost his lunch money, then he lost the game cartridge, and then his DS? There’s a certain line, separating the place where enough is enough and the place where enough is more than enough, and incessant “You got a key!” messages, as a habit, is at least a couple steps into “more than enough” country.”

-Tim Rogers in his review of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

The time: Thanksgiving 2007
The place: My parent’s house out in Florida
The game: Super Mario Galaxy

I may have some of the details wrong, of course, but I distinctly remember the conversation. Shortly after receiving a new game and liberating it from its plastic prison, I immediately popped that sucker into my Wii and started playing the game, eager to see if this was as good as all the critics claimed. Eric saw this and then he asked me a question. “You’re not gonna read the instruction manual first like we always used to?”

I don’t remember if I told him my reasoning or not at that point, but it all boils down to the fact that, after the opening cutscenes have ended, the game explicitly tells me that I can jump by pushing the “A” button. Why should I bother trying to pick up and read the manual to a game when I’m gonna have to learn how to play the game in the opening zone anyway?

Video games weren’t always in such dire straits when it came to hand-holding (I addressed a similar topic, difficulty, not too long ago here). Blame it on the limitations of the medium, but the video games of the past had neither the time nor the desire to try and clue you into the mechanics of the game. Take Tim Rogers’ example of the key in Zelda. Graphics had evolved far enough from the Atari days that we could recognize that Link was picking up keys. They had also evolved enough that a door blocking our path had a keyhole in it, something that most people have the schema in place to understand requires a key to open. There was a counter in the bottom left of the screen and when you used a key on a door, the door permanently opened and the counter performed a little n– (although this may have predated C++…).

As games approach “photo-realism” you can be damn sure that keys look a hell of a lot more like keys. Zelda games are also not shy about the locks they put on their doors: behemoth masses of chains linked to a lock whose size is approximately 1/2 the height of Link himself. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t even need the game to tell you that you’ve picked up a key. Whenever you walk over one for the first time or you get one from a chest, you’re always treated to a scene where Link holds it high over his head. An explanation may be necessary to understand just what a bombchu or hookshot is, but a key? It’s trivial.

Back to game-starting tutorials: it’s not a mystery as to why they have superseded the instruction manual. You think gamers bitch enough about having to read in-game text? Imagine forcing them to :gasp: read a booklet to understand how to move around the map. I can also see the compelling argument that, as a kinetic medium, gameplay is best learned kinetically. It’s one thing to read that to aim in first-person in Metal Gear Solid 3 all I have to do is hold R1 to enter first-person mode, hold L1 (I think) to pull out your weapon in aim mode, and then push Square to fire, all while using L2 and R2 separately to lean left or right, respectively, or both simultaneously to move your first-person view up. It’s another thing entirely to do this properly in the game (I should know…I got my ass handed to me by Olga Gurlukovich the first time I fought her in MGS2). If you think about it, teaching you how to do it while the game is running is brilliant. You not only are learning how to play the game so you don’t throw down the controller and quit in frustration, you’re also getting some practice in.

So, as soon as they could start to fit them in the game, the (oftentimes mandatory) in-game tutorial was born. This was a real bummer for me for two entirely selfish reasons:

1. If I knew how to play a game already (I read the manual, for Christ’s sake, I know how to jump!) I was stuck playing something that counted as a level for the designers that was mega boring and unskippable. Final Fantasy games as early as FF VII mercifully allowed you to skip their materia tutorials and whatnot, but their modern day equivalents like FF X have fully scripted, unskippable tutorial battles! Ten games in and only now do they feel the need to teach me how I should be battling. Really?

2. I loved reading instruction manuals. I can still still remember the (asinine) story of Donkey Kong Country as told by its instruction manual. The epic tale featured a frightened Diddy Kong guarding a treasure trove of bananas before he is beaten up and stuffed in a barrel. That’s all without mentioning the hilarious asides that Cranky Kong tossed into the margins of the manual as he complained about the complexity of modern day games compared to games of his day.

The problem is that I’m in the majority for #1 and the minority for #2. I know too much about games and love stuff like Final Fantasy too much for them to care about annoying me with tutorial battles. They just don’t want to scare away that tiny market fragment that’s never played a Final Fantasy game. As for the second problem, well I like to read and that’s kind of rare in the video game audience. For every one of my friends who loves an epic storyline that you have to read or listen to, I can think of two or three other friends who shudder at the thought cutscenes in general (“Why am I not killing stuff yet?”). Even friends of mine who love reading in their spare time make the distinction that they don’t love to read when they’re playing a video game. Just try and get one of them to have to read an instruction manual before they understand what’s going on in a game and you’ll find yourself minus one game sale.

We mustn’t forget that the instruction manual quality has also been dropping, since no one reads them any more. Why spend extra bucks on a good writer for something that most people aren’t gonna even take out of the game case? Heck, many of them aren’t even in color anymore to cut costs.

I recognize that I’m a part of a dying breed of gamers who used to enjoy instruction manuals. Tim Rogers (boy I bet you’re sick of hearing that name in this blog by now?) is just about the only non-family member I know who loves them too, as evidenced by his spending a whopping three paragraphs and 561 words reminiscing (although some commentors would say droning on) about how much he loves and misses them in his review of Blue Dragon and that’s just the intro; I’m pretty sure he talks about them more in that review. Still, I can’t let go of them and I hope they one day return to their former glory.

Unfortunately, with the advent of digital distribution, I’m pretty sure we can kiss the instruction manual goodbye. When your game doesn’t even have to be physically put into a box, you can be damn sure that most won’t even bother with a .pdf to explain game mechanics when they can just do it in-game. Here’s to hoping that in-game tutorials stop sucking some day soon. Whether they’re just too damn long like GTA IV (5-10 hours in and STILL doing tutorial missions) or too damn boring like Super Mario Galaxy (“Press A to jump!”), they can still use some major tweaking.

Game Overview Editorial: Difficulty in Video Games
May 8th, 2008 by Dan

You’re playing through an RPG. You’ve gained five levels, found some sweet equipment drops, minimized the use of your precious items, and then it happens. You come up against a behemoth of a monster. Your party is decimated, your progress lost, your controller tossed through the screen.

Does this even begin to sound familiar to anyone? It’s like modern gaming, in an effort to bring in an even broader audience, has started to dumb down our video game experience. Think back to the last four, at the very least, Final Fantasy games (not counting XI). Aside from side quest bosses who are geared to be a challenge, how often did you even find yourself remotely challenged in these games? I honestly don’t think I worried much about save points in any of these games (aside from when I was hunting the harder mobs in XII) at all. There was none of that between-save-point stress and worry that a game with any difficulty might throw at me. I just go on through the game, breezing through the fights and find myself at the final boss, sometimes taking more than one try to kill him, but, more often than not, just breezing through him too.

It’s not just RPGs either. Think back to Mario Galaxy. The only challenge in that game came from the green stars where the developers were given free range to punish players into some of the toughest, most fun challenges possible. Even The Legend of Zelda isn’t safe. The last two console installments, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, were among the easiest games I have ever played. Sure, their stories were epic and fun, but the bosses were jokes compared to past Zelda games. They dealt close to no heart damage, they had hyper-predictable patterns, and they were just plain not challenging. I don’t think that I’ve evolved much in skill as a gamer since about the sixth grade and I definitely remember more challenge in both Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past when I played them (late to the game, I know).

There is hope. Mistwalker’s latest RPG for the Xbox 360, Lost Odyssey, will actually make you hope that a save point is imminent. The enemies will brutalize you if you mess up. It seems odd that I’m actually hoping for a game to punish me for screwing up or not leveling up, but I just can’t take a game that doesn’t even challenge me in the slightest. I consume games mainly for story, this is true, but I don’t want the story-telling to come so easily that I might as well be watching a movie or reading a book. It can get frustrating when a game is difficult because it’s broken or the computer cheats :cough: Mario Kart Wii :cough:, but it’s also tremendously satisfying to spend an hour bashing your head against the wall trying to defeat a boss only to finally get it down and win with just a sliver of health left.

This is why I look forward to the day when I will be able to devote more time to Persona 3: FES. The short time I spent with the game already almost beat me in a random encounter and I’m sure that an actual boss will own me several times. I fully believe that a game should punish you for making a mistake and I already know from experience that Persona will wail on me for being an idiot.

There’s certainly a market for casual games and casual gamers out there, one only needs to look to the Wii to see that fact with obvious clarity, but surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for developers to go out and actually make a game tough for players. The inclusion of difficulty levels, even with the fact that it means more work, will satisfy me. Here’s hoping that we see harder games in the future.

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