Archives For video games

The “what are your top ten video games of all time” question has been making the rounds among my Facebook friends. I’ve posted it here instead because it would be a long scroll on anyone’s wall. The list is mostly in order and out of necessity this one goes to eleven.

Final Fantasy III (SNES, 1994)

At 5:30 that one morning I finished the floating island, dropping the controller into my lap in disbelief at what I was seeing play out. Five minutes later I was face down in my mattress crying like a girl. Awesome.

 

No More Heroes (Wii, 2007)

After having watched punk take a giant shit and then die in the early 1990s (really, I was at the first Lollapalooza so I even bought tickets for the honour) I finally rediscovered that free-thinking irreverence that had been lost once “alternative” wasn’t when I went to save and Travis Touchdown dropped trou. I swear, SUDA, I’ll find a meaningful interest in The Smiths but back in the day I cast my lot with The The.

 

Killer Instinct (arcade, 1994)

Some critics have called it embarrassingly overblown in retrospect but when Killer Instinct came out it generated excitement like nothing I had seen since Pac-Man, and I think it holds up as a solid fighter.

 

Still Life (PC, 2005)

Not only am I incapable of not loving the ventilated corpses of prostitutes drawn by French Canadians, it’s the only adventure game I’ve ever played to spring a plot twist on me which left me gripping my keyboard and screaming at the monitor.

 

The Sims (PC/Mac, 2000)

You can put this on my headstone: The Sims is the perfect game no-one should want to play. As soon as I heard of it, I wanted it. As soon as I unwrapped it, I was out on the Web downloading skins and objects to add to a system I didn’t even understand. As soon as the sun came up that morning, I poured myself a bowl of Froot Loops and went to bed after finishing them.

 

Baldur’s Gate (PC/Mac, 1998-1999)

The Infinity Engine was a revelation and to this day has still taken up a significant portion of my life. Although the story was not as accomplished than Baldur’s Gate II, I didn’t engage with the second one in the same way.

 

Funhouse (arcade, 1990)

I consider myself fortunate to have spent the early nineties with pinball playfield designer Pat Lawlor’s best work. Not as ambitious as The Twilight Zone, but Rudy had the most personality of the Lawlor “talking head” pinball machines.

 

Virtua Fighter (arcade, 1993)

2D fighters never really grabbed me until Killer Instinct, but the technology of Virtua Fighter did. Pai Chan’s Technique of Laughing Crane, where she’d rise up in the air and on coming back down ever-so-gently tap her opponent with the toe of her delicate Chinese slipper, thereby depriving said opponent of one-third of a full health bar, was worth every quarter I shoved into the machine.

 

Tekken 2 (arcade, 1995)

Or “why my wrists crack to this very day.” Thank you, Nina Williams.

 

Portal (PC, 2007)

A masterpiece built around one rock-solid mechanic and eschewed self-important presentation in favour of good old fashioned gameplay. The pacing falls apart somewhat in the final battle, but at that point Valve could have slapped me with a twenty minute cinematic and I wouldn’t have cared.

 

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (3DS/Wii U, 2013)

Easily the best example of a style of gameplay that seemed all but extinct in the current market, Capcom’s sadly niche in the west bosses-only slaughterfest is tactical, tyrannical, and utterly addictive. If Capcom could bottle that feeling where you and your mates lose a fight, take a few minutes to rethink strategies and preparation to come back for a victory they could easily get themselves out of their current financial trouble.

Tomodachi or Not

August 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

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Tomodachi Collection has been available in Japan since the days of the Nintendo DS, and the second version of the game for the Nintendo 3DS saw release in English territories a few months ago as Tomodachi Life. Pre-release, Tomodachi Life drew comparisons to Nintendo’s current king life sim Animal Crossing, but for two games that fall into the same category, the gameplay is very different.

The heart and soul of the Animal Crossing experience is the lawn. You place things, water flowers, and maintain your lawn. Animals will move in or out depending on how they feel about your lawn. I did have one of my villagers cry that I wasn’t paying enough attention to him, but an understanding passed between us that it was really the lack of carnations in my village that sunk my mayorship in his eyes. If that was going to be his stance he really shouldn’t have parked his house on top of my only carnation patch when he moved in but the dialogue options in Animal Crossing are a bit limited so I was unable to address the issue as I would have liked.

Tomodachi Life has no lawn to speak of. The game is set on an island made up entirely of pre-made areas, some of which have some green but there are no insects to collect or trees to cut down. You get to name your island (which is randomly assigned a food-based sea name to break waves in) and then set about unlocking these pre-made areas though gameplay. The only environmental customization is the single-room décor you bestow upon your islanders that functionally only changes the wallpaper. There is no modular furniture in Tomodachi Life, and the collection of clothes, hats, food items, etc. is a much more passive affair than in Animal Crossing.

The selling point and main differentiator between Tomodachi Life and Animal Crossing is that Tomodachi Life is populated entirely by Miis of the player’s own choosing, the intent being for players to move in the Miis of their friends and watch the hilarity ensue — which in practical terms means that players will force their friends and favourite actors into horribly embarrassing situations and clothing, which brings us to the raison d’être of life simulation games.

It is possible to be a jerk to your villagers in Animal Crossing, but Tomodachi Life is the 3DS’s most potent id X-ray to date. Beating an unnaturally coloured chipmunk with a shovel simply doesn’t compare to the schadenfreude of seeing the eternal romantic loser on your island get cruelly dumped yet again (or maybe it does because I did want those carnations). Celebrity stalkers out there might also want to take note that trying to become “special someone”s with a certain Mii is like throwing spaghetti at the wall, unless you specify that Mii Ryan Gosling/Mii Angelina Jolie is breathless at the sight of Mii you on moving them in.

The trial versions of Tomodachi Life, limited to taking a handful of requests from one particular Mii, don’t do the experience justice as it takes about twenty resident Miis and a week for the drama to really heat up, but anyone who has ever wanted an Animal Crossing without the insects and more character interaction would be well served by Tomodachi Life.

Damn you, Capcom.

July 15, 2014 — Leave a comment

You already had my money for Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. Don’t make my wait any harder.

I’ve enjoyed all of the previous Level-5 Guild titles with apologies to Yoot Saito, as I downloaded Areo Porter on sale after Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate came out and therefore have not found the time to find Aero Porter as addictive as he would want; and Liberation Maiden and I aren’t the best of friends because I’m left-handed. Damn, Crimson Shroud was an incredibly executed concept, though.

The first Western release from the Guild 02 series, The Starship Damrey, held an interesting promise for me as someone who grew up during the golden age of home computing, when tutorials were non-existent and even manuals (sometimes nothing more than a mimeographed sheet) were scant: you are dropped into the situation, and you have to figure everything out for yourself. When games consisted of I, J, K, and M controls and anything onscreen that responded to your input was you and anything else that moved was generally to be avoided or subjected to pretend laser fire this was not usually a tall order. The complexity of modern console games makes tutorials a must in most cases (and for a game like Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate the gameplay is so demanding it could be argued that all progression is instructional) so this waving of the DIY ethos under my nose made The Starship Damrey a first-hour Nintendo eShop purchase for me.

I’m no real fan of ghost ship stories as I haven’t seen a single one that I felt justified my time and/or money (and one in particular will find a way to get me that ninety-plus minutes back if there’s any justice to be had in this life, because at this point I’m willing to forget the CDN$8.50). On this front The Starship Damrey was surprisingly good. The design of the ship and its technology, which the player mostly traverses in near darkness and inspects with nothing more than a headlamp, had a hard-edged but not trying too hard to be futuristic look that lent absolute gobs of atmosphere to the experience. Although the game didn’t go for many jump scares, the pervading darkness of the ship was as eerie as it was serene. The story broaches some of the usual ghost ship clichés, but in the ending and post-ending sequences manage to provide some plausible and even clever reasons for them. Characterization of the Damrey’s crew members and the assistant robot that acts as your eyes, ears and hands for much of the game is handled exceptionally well. Even though the player has little face-to-face interaction with the crew, all of them emerge as sympathetic or interesting at the very least. The assistant robot that you guide through hallways with that “zzzzsh zzzzsh” sound like some technologically accomplished carpet sweeper has moments where it shows genuine bravery and wit. One cinematic in particular which can be interpreted as either an homage or flip of the bird to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is worth the price of admission and time invested alone.

For all its promise The Starship Damrey’s gameplay fell short of the golden age experience for me. None of the puzzles tested my lateral thinking, which at the time felt merciful because of all the zzzzsh zzzzshing I had to do through the halls for the sake of rubbing one object against another, but in retrospect it feels disappointing. The one big puzzle-solving breakthrough I had was when I finally made a ninety degree turn in the right place to find the right machine to allow me to manipulate the object the assistant robot was currently carrying in the needed way. Disappointments aside, I’ll definitely be purchasing any future games in the Starship Damrey series. I think there are a lot of improvements that can and are likely to be made in future titles set in the game’s universe, which was established beautifully in this first outing and begs to be further explored.

LucasArts was closed by parent company Disney yesterday. Although the studio’s output in recent years was somewhat sporadic and lacklustre, LucasArts’ heyday in the 1990s easily qualifies it as one of the most influential game development studios of all time, with widely revered titles such as Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Maniac Mansion. Loom, and the Monkey Island series to its credit. LucasArts also harnessed great industry talents such as Brian Moriarty, Ron Gilbert, and the legendary Tim Schafer.

My fondest memory of LucasArts games was the Jaleco-published Maniac Mansion for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It featured a lot more purple than the original DOS version and age-inappropriate content was removed or changed, even though the hardest working hamster in video gaming got no salvation at the hands of Nintendo’s kid-friendly nonviolence standards. Razor’s theme, however, is still one of the most rocking five-channel compositions I’ve ever heard.

Rest in peace, LucasArts. Your legacy lives on.

My latest decision on Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon was not to buy it because of the late March/early April retail and eShop 3DS release glut, but the free flashlight included with the premium edition convinced me otherwise. The flashlight’s presentation is exceptional, with a silver metal case and the game’s logo painted directly on the all-metal flashlight itself, and the single-button controls work flawlessly.

Reviewers of Dark Moon have heaped high praise on it for the gameplay, but what struck me (and several reviewers have made a point of this as well) is that the game is also exceptional in its characterization of Luigi. Watching the pre-launch videos I thought that Luigi’s near-constant Tex Avery-esque “WAAAAH!” would grate on me, but in the full game his fear and trepidation are much more understated and entirely believable. As I was directing Luigi around the mansion, listening to him sing along with the background music and look around warily, I realised he was acting exactly the way I would have in that situation. Luigi at times may be overdone for comedic effect in his limited appearances as second banana to his older and less interesting brother, but the year of Luigi could prove that he’s one of Nintendo’s most compelling but criminally overlooked characters.

Mario Kart 8 1/2

March 13, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’ve never concerned myself with answering the the “are video games art” question because it seems like the proverbial quest to nail a gelatin dessert to a wall, but the debate itself can be interesting and enlightening. Brian Moriarty, a former game designer for Infocom and Lucasfilm Games among other credits, gave a talk at the 2011 Game Developer’s Conference that takes the form of an apology for, and a defense of, Roger Ebert’s well-established and much-debated position that games cannot be considered great art.

Are video games sublime art? If not, why not? If so, how can this stately designation be justified? Brian Moriarty attempts to answer these questions, and draws some interesting and surprising parallels between the games industry, the movie industry and museum-legitimised works of visual art.

One of the features or purposes of great art Moriarty examines is that it seeks to convince the viewer of an inevitable conclusion. Games are guided systems of player choice, and as such work against this effect as part of their nature. Active and conscious participation dilutes the kind of contemplation necessary to be moved to that inevitable conclusion the artist intended. Although Moriarty’s lecture focuses on visual art, the same idea of viewing versus participation holds equally true for literature. As a reader my only task is imagining what the author has described for me, and not to exercise any purposeful will in a constant action/reaction cycle.

I remember some of the loudest silence I ever heard after reading the final line of George Orwell’s “1984,” closing the book, and lowering it. Was I ever the same after I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl?” I hope not. My only experience approaching the sublime in gaming is Kotaro Uchikoshi’s visual novel 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Visual novels are a type of video game that follow the form of Choose Your Own Adventure books with more intensive art requirements, scrolling text, and sound. In most of these games the story generally unfolds in a linear way, with occasional dialogue choices determining which branches of the story are followed to the end. 999 explodes the linear tree structure by featuring five endings that must be played through following multiple non-linear and overlapping paths before the sixth “true” ending with the most complete explanation of the game’s events becomes accessible; and it is spectacular exercise in narrative structure. It is also a seemingly gigantic and inefficient pain in the neck to play through the set gameplay sections repeatedly to find new dribs and drabs of information that inform the complete picture of the “true” ending.

While playing 999 the biggest metaphorical slap to my face was the moment several playthroughs deep where the protagonist realised the truth of the situation he was in; a situation which was violent, brutal, and created with a contempt for humanity that nature could hope to emulate with access to better technology. However, this revelation could just as easily have been a particularly well-written passage of a prose story, or the camera slowly tracking to a close-up of the character’s face as this new information dawns on him. I understood that I was experiencing something transcendent and only possible in a video game at that moment when I realised that the flaws in the gameplay were being harnessed to tell the story.

Did this qualify the game as great art? It was certainly a memorable experience of an artistic cultural product, but to my mind being able to call it “great art” ultimately wouldn’t change anything about the game, how I felt while playing it, or the achievements of the game’s development team.