Monday, August 30, 2010

On the Rock Band 3 Controllers

I recently read this preview of the new, more realistic, Rock Band 3 instrument controllers. The improved guitar controller looks like an actual guitar, because it is, and the new keyboard controller looks like a mini keyboard. If you play in pro mode, you have to hit the right fret and string for the guitar or the right keys on the keyboard, while the lower modes are the same as always. The controllers seem to trade off accessibility for realism, and I like it.

I played Guitar Hero a few times and was never very good at it, I imagine I'd be worse with the new controllers. With the accurate frets on the guitar, there are 102 buttons as opposed to five. Guitar Hero always seemed accessible, you can pick up the controller and play for a bit without too steep of a learning curve. How can you pick up a controller with 102 buttons and not feel a little intimidated? Rock Band was always a good party game, but what kind of party game takes 10 minutes to learn?

When playing Guitar Hero, I almost felt like I was playing a real guitar, with the new controller, I actually would be. Instead of just using a gimmicky controller, the new controller is serious. With Rock Band 3, you can actually learn how to play the guitar, which is awesome. In fact, you can replace the controller with a real MIDI-compatible guitar, if you have the adapter. You can also use the controllers in music editing programs via the MIDI ports. You can still play the old way, with the old controllers if you want, but I can't imagine choosing that over the new controller. Chances are that your Rock Band skills won't transfer over to a real guitar exactly, but you'll get close. Plus, Rock Band is way cheaper than a real guitar and lessons.

I would play Rock Band 3 if it could teach me how to play a real instrument. I like the idea that after a few hours with Rock Band, I could play a real guitar, not well of course, but I could still play it. What the controllers lose in accessibility, I think they make up for by offering the possibility of learning an instrument.

Friday, August 27, 2010

What I'm Playing: Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story


I loved Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga for the GBA. Since then two sequels have been released, Partners in Time and Bowser's Inside Story. While I found Partners in Time to be a disappointment, Bowser's Inside Story makes up for it.

The story is about Fawful, a villian from the first game, trying to take over the Mushroom Kingdom. He tricks Bowser into eating a strange mushroom that makes him inhale other people, including Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and other Toad Town inhabitants. Fawful then takes over Bowser's castle and Bowser sets out to take it back, while Mario and Luigi try to escape from inside Bowser. Overall, a fairly original story, and definetly better than the normal “Collect these seven objects to save the kingdom” Mario RPG story. The Mario and Luigi games' stories have always been fairly non-linear and I like that very much. Humor is also a key component to the writing, and while I never laughed out loud, I did chuckle at most of the jokes.

One reason I disliked Partners in Time was that things got a little complicated at times. Trying to alternate between all four of the DS's face buttons during battle was annoying at times, and the game became repetitive and dull after awhile. Bowser's Inside Story retains the two party mechanic of Partners in Time, but this time one of the parties is Bowser, while Mario and Luigi spend a lot of time inside Bowsers in 2D platforming stages. The contrast between 2D platforming and the top down overworld was very enjoyable, and the game was paced well enough so that when you got tired of one you were switched to the other. Mario and Luigi's stages were all about the jumping and platforming, while Bowser's areas were more about hitting or burning everything in sight. The battles are interesting, to deal more damage or block an enemy attack, the player must press the correct button with precise timing. This keeps the turn-based battles from becoming too boring.

While I still have a few complaints about the game, overall it very good. Bowser's Inside Story is fun, without being too complicated. Had I not gotten it free with my DSi, I probably would have bought it eventually.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Purpose of Remakes

I had never played Chrono Trigger before it received the remake treatment in 2008. Arguably one of the greatest RPGs ever, and I had never played it. But thanks to a DS remake, I was able to enjoy this game. While remakes seem mostly arbitrary, they do serve and important purpose.

Remakes allow newer gamers to play older games. Some of the best games ever made are for systems that are no longer made. Yes, you can download old games through services like the Virtual Console, but these are more akin to ports, rather than remakes. When playing a virtual console game, I think this is an old game and therefore should not necessarily be held to modern standards. However, a remake forces a gamer to reevaluate a game by different standards, causing a more accurate idea of how a game has aged.

Remakes also allow the developer to enhance the original game. Most remakes receive a bump in graphics, especially when being remade for newer systems. Remakes may also contain new gameplay elements, or story ideas. Super Mario 64 DS allowed players to play as Mario, Wario, Luigi, or Yoshi to reach different stars. The game also included multiplayer, minigames, and slightly improved graphics. Metriod:Zero Mission's graphics were vastly improved for the GBA, and the game featured an epilogue that expanded on the original Metroid's story. These features allow the remake to set itself apart from the original, while still maintaining the original's integrity.

Remakes are mostly made to honor the original game. Sometimes remakes can go awry, but more often remakes are a delightful way to revisit the past.

Friday, August 20, 2010

My Favorite DS Games

I own quite a few DS games, I love most of them. There are a few however that stand above the rest in my book. Here are my three of my favorite DS games in no particular order:

Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime is a spinoff of the Dragon Quest series that puts you in the role of a slime named Rocket. You are tasked with saving the 100 slime inhabitants of your village, Boingburg, who have been kidnapped by the Plob. Rocket Slime looks and feels a bit like a Zelda game, but instead of using a sword to attack you stretch Rocket and release to attack. When an enemy appears you can either kill them for a few coins or pile them up on you head and send them back to town via rail carts scattered throughout the levels. Other than that, Rocket Slime features giant tank battles. During such battles, you run around your tank, throwing ammo into your cannons until you've done enough damage to go and destroy your opponent’s tank's core. Saving villagers will add them to your tank's crew, and when you've sent back enough of a certain enemy, they too will join your crew. The game is relatively short, but amazingly fun, and the writing is hilarious. Rocket Slime's mix of action, adventure, comedy, and solid gameplay make this game one of my favorites.

Pokemon Soul Silver is a remake of Pokemon Silver for the Game Boy Color. Set in the Johto region, you travel across the land defeating the eight gyms and the evil crime syndicate, Team Rocket. Gold and Silver were two of the best Pokemon games, and the remakes are just as much fun. The added features are welcome and enhance the game overall. First of all, the lead Pokemon in your party will follow you around in the overworld, while a small change, it does help you to feel more connected to your Pokemon. Another new feature is the pedometer accessory, the Pokewalker. By transfering a Pokemon in your box to your Pokewalker, your steps are used to find items and even catch Pokemon. It's nice to have Pokemon that are just sitting in your box, not doing anything, help you. As I am a huge Pokemon fan, of course this is one of my favorite games.

Mega Man ZX is the succesor to the Mega Man Zero series for the GBA. In a time of world peace, some robots have become Mavericks, threatening people and generally making life hard. By combining with Biometals, you are transformed into Mega Man and are able to take on the biggest baddies. By defeating bosses, you gain their Biometals and can access new abilities. This is basically like almost every other Mega Man game ever made, but it is still immensely fun. The gameplay is as solid as ever and that should not be a surprise. There really isn't too much to say, except that this game is a blast, and as such it is one of my favorites.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Modernizing Games

After reading that Warren Spector wants to make a Duck Tales game after Epic Mickey, I was excited. I loved the Duck Tales games on the NES. However, some games just don't modernize well.

Let's take the Sonic the Hedgehog series for example. The Genesis era Sonic games were great and beloved by many, but when Sonic Adventure was released for the Dreamcast, something was lost. Maybe it was the charm, maybe it was the feeling of raw speed, or maybe Sonic just doesn't work in 3D. SEGA may have finally learned from this as Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is in 2D. Sonic tried to juggle 2D ideas and a 3D world, and it just didn't work.

On the other hand, lets look at Mario how games have modernized. Mario started out as a 2D patformer also, but Mario is also good in 3D. Super Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy, and Galaxy 2 are all brilliant 3D platformers. What did Nintendo do right? Well, Mario games have more fine tuned camera controls, focus less on speed, and generally feature less bottomless pits then Sonic games. Mario accepted newer mechanics, but retained the essence of the original games.

Epic Mickey is part of Disney's plan to change Mickey Mouse's image. Because Disney hasn't really exposed younger kids to Mickey, they may not know him as well as Disney would like, and as such are trying to modernize him a bit. A risky move sure, but it could pay off if Mickey is modernized well. Epic Mickey features a moral system, so theoretically, Mickey could both maintain his clean image and delve into darker areas.

And now we return to Duck Tales. Uncle Scrooge is a surprisingly complex character, and Capcom did a great job on the NES games. Assuming that a new Duck Tales game is eventually made, I have to wonder if it would modernize well. Would it be like Sonic or Mario?

Things have changed since the NES. If a game tries to stick too closely to older ideas, the new game will never be good. However, if newer concepts are embraced too much, the game will also fail because it doesn't change. Balance is the key.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Importance of Finishing a Game

I own a lot of games, but sadly, I've left more than a few of them unfinished. I've tried to right this wrong by playing my older games to completion. During the process, I've realized the importance of finishing a game.

The biggest thing is closure. By the end of a game, most if not all, dangling plot threads are wrapped up, giving the player a feeling of completion. If you see the characters to the end you can feel like you know them. As opposed to only playing the the first half of a game, when characters may seem strange, or even unnecessary. Stories are all about progression, if you stop halfway through, you never get to see the full progression. What's the point in playing a game, no matter how fun, if you never play to the end? It's comparable to only watching half of a movie, or only reading half of a book. Yes some games may take a long time to beat, but more often then not the player is rewarded for their hard work. If the story continues into a sequel, then the player is ready to play the sequel, and if not then they are ready to move on to the next game.

Not only story closure though, but gameplay closure too. Being able to play fully upgraded and experienced is very different from playing at the beginning. By the end the player knows the game world, how things work, and what to do in almost every situation. If you see something that you can't get in the beginning of a game, by the end you'll probably have the weapon or ability necessary to reach it. With your inventory full, and all but the last boss beaten, the player can feel confident about playing. This too can be important if a sequel is made, as some sequels use information from the first game, Mass Effect for example.

Some games do not “end” in the sense that a final boss is beaten and the credits roll, for example MMOs, but there is still a sense of progression. Your characters gradually increase in experience or level, and you gradually gain more skills, until you feel confident in almost any fight. Even without a definite end, you still feel like you've accomplished something in the game.

I think that gamers should always finish what they started. Completing a game can be one of the most important part of a game.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Games I'm Looking Forward To

As a gamer, I'm always looking forward to playing new games. Here are a few games I'm eagerly anticipating:

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is the third installment in the Golden Sun franchise. I loved the GBA Golden Sun games, they were nothing short of brilliant. They pushed the limits of what the GBA could do, and did it well. This third installment takes place 30 years after Golden Sun: The Lost Age, and focuses on the children of the main characters from the first two games. Apparently, saving the world in The Lost Age changed everything, and now energy sucking vortexes threaten to destroy everything all over again. If this game is half as fun as the GBA games, I'll be happy. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is due out sometime this holiday season for the DS.

Pokemon Black and White continues and expands the Pokemon series to the far off Isshu region. I am a huge, thoroughly addicted Poke-nerd, so of course I'm excited. Nintendo is great about slowly releasing new information about Pokemon games in order to keep people hooked, and it works every time. Black and White updates the look of the game, incorporating more 3D elements and updated character sprites, and introduces a ton of new Pokemon (approximatly 40 are known at this time). Whenever new Pokemon are added, so too are new attacks and abilities, which means new strategies, and new three-on-three battles up the ante even more. Black and White also adds a “Dream World” feature where Pokemon can be transferred to the internet and you can catch more Pokemon, with alternate abilities, and find items. I'm ready to be addicted all over again when Pokemon Black and White versions are released for the DS spring 2011 (in the US).

de Blob: The Underground is the sequel to the immensely fun de Blob. Once again, you take control of de Blob, but this time you're fighting an evil cult called the Blanks. Blue Tongue took note of complaints and mapped jumping to the A button on the Wii Remote, instead of the wrist flick. The Underground also adds 2D platforming segments that focus more on combat than color. Blue Tounge has also said that they wanted to appeal to more core gamers, and as such have increased the difficulty, variety, and complexity of the game. Four player co-op split screen co-op is also added. Luckily, The Underground retains the original's charm and wit. De Blob: The Underground is to be released for the Wii, PS3, Xbox 360, DS, and 3DS sometime early next year.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Console Redesigns

I recently bought a Nintendo DSi. Not because it was the newest DS, or because I wanted to play with Flipnote Studio. I bought it because my old, original DS broke. Upon playing with the DSi, I've realized that the console redesign serves one purpose: selling systems.

Console redesigns are pointless because they can never really improve the system. Yes, some hardware problems can be fixed (as with the Xbox 360 Slim) or a new interface may be added (as with the DSi) but in order for the same games to be played, nothing important can change. I would personally rather see the money spent redesigning a console put into new games. My games played just fine on my old DS (before it broke) and it didn't have any of the extra features. Sony tried to change things up with their redesigned PSP, the PSP Go, which got rid of physical media and is download only. The PSP Go has since suffered from poor sales and criticism for lack of compatibility with older PSP models and the system's $250 price tag.

Interestingly, the Wii is the only console this generation to not receive the redesign treatment. Why? Because the Wii's sales are so high, it doesn't need a redesign to reinvigorate it's sales. The only real reason to redesign a console is to boost the system's total sales. For example, when the Xbox 360 Slim was released, Xbox sales surpassed Wii sales. Part of the reason the DS has been such a force in the handheld market is because its redesigns keep people buying what is essentially the same system.

I like my new DSi, but if my old DS had not broken, I would never have bought one. Redesigned systems seek only to increase sales by selling the same console in a slightly different form.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It's All About Play Time

When I buy a game I never think about how long I'll be playing it, I just buy the game. It never occurs to me that I could spend hundreds of hours playing it. Still, I wonder about the merits of playing a game for a long time versus a short, but sweet experience.

By playing a game for a long time, I am able to fully immerse myself in the game world. Finding little things and completing side quests, to me helps the game feel more complete. If I hadn't stopped to smell the virtual roses I could have missed out on some small, but important story element, or maybe just an intriguing idea. I don't think I would have enjoyed games like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess if I hadn't stopped to admire my surroundings. Conversely, playing a game for a long time can also force me to realize its shortcomings. For instance, if a game has control issues, a gamer may not be too annoyed if they spend less time with the game.

By playing a game for just a short amount of time a gamer is able to receive the concentrated essence of the game. Maybe the developers never intended for the gamer to stop and look at the world, just play in it. Yes, greater depth can be achieved by exploring a game world, but halts the narrative of a game, making it feel more disjointed. Playing a game less also allows the gamer to really feel the main points the developer was trying to get across. For instance, an innovative game may feel boring if played for too long, but by playing for a short time the gamer is able to appreciate the innovation.

In the end, games are art, and like art, everyone sees them differently. While I enjoy taking my time and exploring, someone else may find it more fun to stay on track with the main game.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What I'm Playing: Cave Story


Cave Story is a freeware game developed by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, for the PC. In the game you play as a boy who wakes up inside of a cave. After some exploration, you find out that the local people, the bunny-like mimigas, are being kidnapped by the nefarious Doctor, and you set out to help. Collecting and leveling up your various weapons is the only way for you to survive the onslaught of the cave's creatures.

Cave Story is a wonderful throw back to classic side-scrolling shooters like Metroid and Mega Man. Utilizing 2D sprites, Cave Story's graphics evoke a certain amount of nostalgia. However Cave Story never feels like it is just a copy. Cave Story is unique from start to finish. The level design is also superb, with each area feeling like a different place. The levels force you to use different tactics to survive, which strengthens their individuality.

The true ingenuity of Cave Story lies in the leveling system for your weapons. As you defeat enemies they drop weapon energy, which you can collect to level up your equipped weapon. Each weapon has three levels, and the effects change as they level up. However, the upgrade is not permanent. If you take damage, the weapon delevels. This means that the player must avoid taking damage to preserve their weapon levels. For me, this increased the difficulty of the game beyond a simple setting. The player is rewarded for not taking damage, for being clever in their attacks, and always looking for the least damaging route through an area. In some games simply running into a room, guns-blazing, is enough to get you through any situation. In Cave Story, that will get you killed.

Cave Story is a wonderful indie game, and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. Plus, it's free!

Pixel's website (in Japanese): http://hp.vector.co.jp/authors/VA022293/
English Patch: http://agtp.romhack.net/project.php?id=cavestory

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

More Than The Sum of Its Parts

Some of my favorite games are admittedly flawed. It is tough to make a perfect game, and even great games can still have a few minor errors. However, even games with a few things wrong can still be great.

A big problem with a lot of games is technology. De Blob for the Wii is one such case. In De Blob you play as a living blob of color trying to take back Chroma City from the color-draining INKT Corporation. For some reason the developers decided to map jumping to the Wii Remote's waggle, but the waggle is often times not detected, leading to the character taking damage or falling off a platform. I struggled with this the entire game, often having to redo sections because I missed a jump. De Blob presents such unique ideas however, that I feel it was worth the trouble. Being able to paint virtually everything and the massive stages were so much fun I didn't care about the waggle so much. The developers have reportedly fixed that issue in the sequel by mapping jump to a button.

Another problem often holding games back comes down to the presentation. In Okami, originally for the PS2 then was later ported to the Wii, you play as the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu in wolf form. Tasked with bringing life back to feudal Japan, you travel around in a Zelda-like adventure collecting Celestial Brush techniques which you can access through a painting system. Sadly this wonderful, amazing, unique game suffered from some annoying presentation choices. All of the cut scenes consist of text boxes and a character's computer synthesized babbling in lieu of voice acting. The introduction alone seemed to take forever. After a while you get tired of the cut scenes and just want to get back to the game. Luckily, I didn't give up and found the game to be very fun and rewarding. The game more than makes up for its flaws with a beautiful traditional Japanese artistic style, a solid and original story, and hours of adventure.

Most of my favorite games have flaws that I choose to ignore in order to enjoy the game as a whole. It is impossible to make a perfect game, and gamers should accept small flaws as part of the game.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pokemon: Simple but Deep

Love it or hate it, Pokemon is very popular. I personally love the Pokemon games and have played them since Red and Blue on the Game Boy back in 1998. Pokemon has spun off toys, trading cards, an anime, books, and even board games, but lets not forget where it all began, the games.

Pokemon uses rather simple RPG mechanics where you catch wild monsters inside capsules, level them up, and then try to beat up other trainer's Pokemon all in a turn-based environment. The game adds in an addictive “catch 'em all” mechanic where you are challenged to catch 493 unique varieties of Pokemon (will increase to more than 500 after Black and White versions are released). On the surface Pokemon seems simple enough, any kid can pick up a copy and play it for hours on end without really understanding how the game works.

For more hardcore gamers it is the hidden number game that keeps Pokemon entertaining. A Pokemon's stats are determined by effort values, individual values, and base stats. Effort values are gained by defeating other Pokemon. Individual values are set for each Pokemon and cannot be changed. Finally, base stats are the baseline stats for a given species of Pokemon. To most people this may all sound like gibberish, but to someone who really knows Pokemon, this is fascinating.

Pokemon has garnered much criticism for simply not changing that much between games. Besides some changes in aesthetics and some behind the scenes changes, this is true. With each game though, Pokemon becomes slightly more refined. For instance, Gold, Silver and Crystal versions on the Game Boy Color added a breeding mechanic where a baby Pokemon could be derived from two other compatible Pokemon. Also, between Gold, Silver and Crystal and Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald versions on the Game Boy Advance stat experience, the old stat increasing mechanic, was replaced with the much simpler effort value system. These seemingly subtle changes multiplied the depth of these games.

RPGs like Final Fantasy may set the standard for depth in games, but most people do not keep playing for long after the game is beaten. Pokemon encourages playing after the Elite Four (final bosses of sorts) are defeated often opening up new areas to explore and more Pokemon to collect. I have logged over 500 hours on my copy of Pearl, and I still play every once in a while.