Wednesday, September 30, 2009

House of Mirrors

So I'm washing my hands at the restroom sink at work. There are three faucets, and, as always when possible, I take the leftmost one against the wall, because it is farthest from the stalls and closest to the paper towels.

As I pre-rinse my hands before applying soap, another man emerges from one of the stalls and takes the rightmost sink. Other guys in the men's bathroom are of no interest to me, and I try to avoid eye contact. I hear a giggling to my right, however, and I cannot help glancing down the mirror to glimpse a disturbing image. It seems we've both come to work dressed in the same clothes--a white-and-blue pinstripe dress shirt and black trousers. He also happens to be one of the handful of other Chinese guys at work, so it's almost like seeing a taller, lankier mirror image of myself.

There's really no salvaging such a situation, but I think, in polite society, the preferred course of action is to pretend that there is nothing at all amiss. Neither man is more at fault than the other, so we should just part ways in silence and try to avoid one another for the rest of the day.

That's what I'm thinking, but he apparently doesn't understand. He just keeps giggling, and all I can do is offer a faint sideways smile in his direction to let him know that, yes, I get it, and he need not draw any further attention to this embarrassment.

I'd like to get out of here now, but I do think it always important to wash one's hands thoroughly, and the job is not quite done. As I work my way through rinsing the soap off, only then do the powers that be bring the cosmic joke to its final punchline: a third Chinese guy takes the center sink, and he too is dressed in a white-and-blue striped shirt and black pants.

WHY?! The chances must have been about one in a million. Yet here we are--three dudes in an office bathroom, all of us dressed in the same non-uniforms.

This third guy is like the shorter, fatter, balding and bespectacled version of me. Also, his are not proper pinstripes but rather grotesquely thick vertical stripes. In fact, had it just been me and him, the similarities might very well have gone unnoticed, or at least very easily overlooked. A true professional, he acts completely oblivious to the two dudes to his sides.

That will not do, however, for the giggler, who can no longer suppress his urge to point out what is shamefully obvious.

"Haha, funny--all in blue shirts, stripes, with black pants!"

Yeah, very funny. Life is just one big joke. Now get me the hell out of here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Some Guy Reacts to Month-Old News

About a month ago, Hideki Kamiya, director of PlatinumGames's upcoming Bayonetta, unveiled his game's "Very Easy Automatic" mode.

Players of Kamiya's Devil May Cry may remember "Easy Automatic" mode. In the original Devil May Cry, if the player struggled in the early stages, the game would make the one-time offer to switch over to "Easy Automatic" difficulty. "Easy" was self-explanatory, but "Automatic" was an additional setting that activated auto-fire on Dante's dual pistols. That was all.

With Bayonetta, Kamiya has gone quite a bit further to design an action game accessible to players of all skill levels. Not only does the easiest difficulty apparently feature regenerating health and pathetically weak enemies, but the new Automatic setting allows players to play with only one hand.

In the demonstration video, the player essentially just presses the "punch" button repeatedly, only switching to the kick for certain special attacks. The AI automatically homes in on enemies, even jumping when necessary, and performs appropriate combos. Noting that you can still manually take over movement or turn off Automatic mode entirely at any time, Kamiya describes it as like "a helping hand from an incredibly skilled expert in the game."

It sounds a lot like the theory behind the "Demo Play" feature that Nintendo has patented for use in future titles. Demo Play will supposedly allow players to hand off control to the AI any time a game becomes too difficult to get through manually. Nintendo hasn't provided any demonstrations yet, but I can think of any number of past games where the AI didn't seem to know how to play very well, so I'm intrigued to see how this turns out.

Some old-school gamers, however, worry that this will mean the end of challenge, or even interactivity, in video games. Bayonetta's Automatic mode at least is still run on the player's repeated pressing of the punch button, but it's clear from the video that the manual input is effortless, the engagement practically nonexistent, yet the onscreen action is highly complicated. To be sure, there could be ill consequences down the line to this catering to the lowest common denominator. But, for now, I'd like to just think of it as an extra option, and I'm additionally excited about the possibilities raised by Bayonetta's take specifically.

Just in the demonstration video, one can see the potential for Automatic to be utilized as a "live demo" mode. A player could play the game with one hand while using the other to point things out in real time. It would make for a much more natural presentation than having to stop and go constantly, or having a second guy doing the talking while the dude with the controller is stern-faced and silent in concentration.

That would really be more helpful for a producer than a consumer, but the idea could be further expanded in ways that I think players could have fun with. Remember the "cinematic camera" mode in Grand Theft Auto III? Set to dynamically cut to the most dramatic angle available to produce film-like camerawork, it could create for some striking shots, but it also rendered the game practically unplayable, since the most cinematic angle rarely provided the most informative view for gameplay. I think the idea could work, however, if paired with the simplified control mode of Bayonetta. With the AI handling most of the work, the player would be at ease to better appreciate the visuals and camerawork.

Taking the concept further, a developer could implement a full-blown "director" mode. Map all the normal gameplay actions to a single button, and don't even bother making the player press it repeatedly--just make it a "go" button that, when held down, tells the AI to play. Then the remaining buttons could be dedicated to enhanced camera controls. While playing the game with one button, the player could simultaneously rotate, pan, zoom, or cut to different angles. Why would you want a mode like that? Well, you probably wouldn't want to play a game that way, but it could provide a nice option to explore a game's visual assets in new ways. A player could use it to grab some dramatic images, or frame footage that could be edited together for, I dunno, a fan-made music video. It would be like the replay mode in sports games, except it would be even more dynamic, since you could act while operating the camera, instead of just reviewing recorded actions. Metal Gear Solid players could finally get those impossible gameplay angles that Hideo Kojima uses in his highly directed trailers.

I'm also thinking of the unlockable "audio commentary" in Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader. It sounded like a cool idea, but then I watched my brother turn it on. You could only run it during a mission, and, once in, my brother had to pause the game for the duration of the commentary, because he could not concentrate on both listening to the audio and surviving the action. That struck me as really lame, because clearly the point of having the audio accompany gameplay was to match the finished work in action with behind-the-scenes discussion from its creators, a la a DVD commentary. But my brother was pretty good at the game, so if even he was reduced to listening to it while staring at a static pause screen, then they probably would have been better off just making a documentary video. As it was, the best way to enjoy the commentary was probably to have someone else play the game while you got to listen and watch. Again, Bayonetta's Automatic mode would allow the concept to work much better. The talk could be appropriately synced to gameplay, but an AI assistant would let players devote more attention to listening, less to performing well.

Although, in theory, "Very Easy Automatic" and "Demo Play" are meant to aid unskilled or casual players, things like audio commentaries or a director mode would only be of interest to hardcore fans. I hope developers are considering options along those lines, because I think there could be plenty of promising applications to truly suit players of all skill and enthusiasm levels.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Essentials #48: Tecmo Super Bowl

Although I no longer actively follow any team sports, they do make for some fun gaming from time to time. Over the years, I've played probably a couple dozen team sport video games--some for love, some for money, some just to cheaply distract myself from the wretchedness of life --but the king of them all remains Tecmo Super Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The 1991 followup to Tecmo's Tecmo Bowl for arcade (1987) and NES (1989), the entirely Japanese-developed Tecmo Super Bowl was the most complete American football game the world had yet seen.

Although the Tecmo Bowl series would later be distinguished from contemporary Madden titles as the alternative "arcadey" take on the sport, inhabiting the same category as NBA Jam, Tecmo Super Bowl for the NES was actually the most authentic football simulation of its day. Most immediately attractive about the package was that it had the licenses for both the National Football League and National Football League Players Association, meaning that it was able to include all the real-life teams and players (well, almost all players). These are basically requirements for any team sports game to have a chance in today's market. EA's exclusivity agreements with the NFL and NFLPA have consequently earned the publisher a lot of criticism for eliminating competition and effectively causing the genre to stagnate. But by 1991, there had already been three installments in the John Madden Football series, and not one of them had either real teams or players.

Part of my eventual disenchantment with professional team sports was due to my growing awareness that the leagues were largely populated by cheats and criminals. I'm sure the pros of my youth were merely more discrete with their sins, but I would still argue that Tecmo Super Bowl featured the greatest generation of NFL players. That included Joe Montana (49ers version), Jerry Rice, Barry Sanders, Lawrence Taylor, Warren Moon, and Dan Marino. Admittedly, the game predated the peaks of some future stars' careers--Emmit Smith was mediocre, John Elway kind of stank, and Steve Young, arguably the most talented quarterback of all time, was still just Joe Montana's scrubby backup. This was also before all that Brett Favre crap, but the game did include a lousy Vinny Testaverde, which is just as good in my book. And in a move that first introduced me to the complications of licensing, Randall Cunningham and Jim Kelly were missing from the game, but the faceless "QB Eagles" and "QB Bills" had their skills and positions.

The biggest star of all, however, was Bo Jackson. Although his professional career was cut short by a horrific injury and he is these days largely forgotten, he was the greatest sports phenom of my childhood. One of the most complete athletes in history, Bo Jackson was a professional in both football and baseball at the same time. While there have been a small handful of other modern two-sport pros, only Deion Sanders (also in Tecmo Super Bowl) was anywhere near as legit in both as Bo, who was actually an NFL Pro Bowler and an MLB All-Star. In his own time, his exceptional versatility was legendary, inspiring the popular "Bo Knows" Nike ad campaign, as well as two lackluster video games, THQ's Bo Jackson's Hit and Run! (AKA Bo Jackson: Two Games in One, containing both football and baseball modes) for the GameBoy and Data East's Bo Jackson Baseball for the NES. But Bo's name is probably most often brought up nowadays in connection with his appearance in Tecmo Super Bowl. "Tecmo Bo" was quite simply the most dominating video game athlete of all time.

The running back for the Los Angeles Raiders, Bo was so unstoppable that it was almost pointless to run any non-rushing play with the team. Against the weak AI, almost any ball-carrier could stay ahead of rear pursuers by zigzagging up and down as they slid just above or below your current position, but Bo Jackson didn't even need that. As the fastest player in the game, if he found a single hole through the initial wall of defenders, there would be no catching him on his way to a touchdown. Virtual Bo could literally run from end zone to end zone, leaving an entire defensive line gasping in futile pursuit.

Indeed, the key to Tecmo Super Bowl's success and longevity was that the arcade elements made for a fun game that was as exciting as the real thing only pretends to be. When real-life players are described as "monsters," it is always hyperbole (unless they really are monsters, a la Michael Vick, convicted former operator of "Bad Newz Kennels"). A viewer with only passing familiarity with the sport is unlikely to recognize a seven-yard carry by Adrian Peterson as anything impressive.

I played the recent demo for Madden NFL 10, and the experience was an exercise in frustration. It would take multiple completed passes to make first down, and my most successful running play yielded maybe three yards. Of course, at the NFL level, the sport of football really does proceed in small increments, and a ninety-yard rushing play would be historic rather than routine. In my opinion, it's fine to aim for realism, but, in order to appeal beyond the market of hardcore sports maniacs, a title needs to offer gameplay accessible enough for players to feel that they themselves are the stars. I long ago gave up on my dreams of becoming a professional athlete; I don't need to face that same disappointment in my video games.

Bo Jackson was the best, but he was not the only player that Tecmo Super Bowl juiced into a superhuman video game character. A powerful fullback such as Brad Muster could leave unprepared would-be tacklers literally bouncing off him. Even with five men covering him, Jerry Rice would not fail to receive Joe Montana's pass. It was not uncommon for Tim Brown to take a kick return all the way. And key moments, such as diving catches or interceptions, were highlighted by cuts to dramatic cinematic animations. As a game, Tecmo Super Bowl's only really annoying flaw was the inability to switch players on defense once a play was active. Subsequent installments in the series would fix that, but those releases would not have Bo Jackson or other legendary players.

Back on the sim side of things, Tecmo Super Bowl also included such revolutionary features as a full season mode with stat-tracking, thirty-man rosters with substitutions and injuries, and customizable playbooks. Besides getting injured, players could also just have good, bad, or average days, as suggested by their fluctuating "Physical Condition" rating. This added a realistic factor of player mood and health to the season grind. Many sports games today don't even simulate this, or, even when players seem to exhibit streakiness, there is no related statistic disclosed to the player. The Pro Bowl was also in there, and unlike All-Star games in most sports titles even a decade later, it was actually possible to customize the lineups, reflecting the spirit of the event, which in real life bases selections partly on fan votes. You could also set up "COM VS COM" games, pitting the AI against itself in a contest theoretically determined purely by the numbers. It may not have sounded like a lot of fun, but people still simulate matchups with video games in order to settle bets. Alternatively, you could play games in "Coach" mode, wherein you watched from the sidelines as your team operated automatically according to the plays that you selected. All of this stuff was nearly unheard of when Tecmo Super Bowl was released, and some of it still isn't standard.

Not only do I consider Tecmo Super Bowl the greatest team sports video game ever, but I also like it quite a bit more than the real sport and league that it is based on. Even as I have come to loathe the NFL and its players, I have never stopped loving Tecmo Super Bowl. So I often wonder if video games in general should be recognized as sports themselves. Considering the success of "career" gamers like Fatal1ty and the huge national presence of StarCraft in South Korea, you might say that competitive gaming already is a sport.

What real football has that video football lacks, however, is the limitless human element. People watch hours of tedious sports in order not to miss the rare moments when they might see something real--those moments when competitors fight against all odds, all reason and push beyond themselves to achieve what should have been unachievable.

Yes, the video game players are also human, but they are limited in what they can achieve by the programming, which defines all that they can and cannot do. When a virtual batter knocks a baseball deep into right-center field, effort plays no real part in whether the fielding player will make the catch. Either he can or he can't get to it; there's no tapping the button harder or faster to get just a little more out of him. Even if that were a feature, there would have to be a defined upper limit to how many button presses the game would recognize. In those respects, a video game like Tecmo Super Bowl is really closer to a finite board game like chess, which, I realize, is also considered a sport by many. There are more sophisticated games, of course, whose limits may lie beyond human reach, and regardless of whether they fit everybody's definition of "sport," what's clear is that video games can be highly competitive.

Whether or not it could be considered a sport unto itself, Tecmo Super Bowl was simply a well-made video game, whose mechanics players could enjoy regardless of how much they liked football. Licensing issues will prevent it from ever being re-released in complete form (i.e. with all teams and players), but its legacy is evident in the many fans who still recite war stories of how they ran Bo Jackson just short of the end zone, then turned to run the length of the field the other way, ultimately going end-to-end multiple times on a single play, before finally scoring the touchdown to put the defense out of its misery.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Mistakes Were Made

"The Life Vol.2" in NBA 07, a late PS2 release, was much shorter, and the title defense story is never as exciting as the rise up. But the sequel did add an interesting twist by having players alternating between the parallel seasons of The Kid and his nemesis from the first game, "Big W." The rivalry comes to a head in a scenario that pits the two protagonists against one another in a mid-season game. The player plays the first half as The Kid, then switches to Big W to finish things off. The actual execution is kind of disastrous, since players basically end up kicking their own asses, but I know of no other game in any genre that allows players to experience consecutive phases of a single contest from opposing angles.
I have a confession to make: I was inadvertently kind of directly responsible for the disaster that was that episode of "The Life Vol. 2."

To begin with, let me describe how the scenario originally played out, before I meddled with it.

(Note: Although I have a copy of NBA 07, I don't have any save data allowing me to access these stages. After playing it through hundreds of times as a tester, I have no intention of playing it again on my own time. Therefore I am describing the following from memory alone. The details may not be exactly accurate, but the basic idea should hopefully come across fine.)

This showdown between The Kid and Big W actually spanned four consecutive stages. Each episode corresponded to one quarter of the same single NBA game, but the player could save and stop after each, just as with any other self-contained stages.

The first two quarters had you playing as The Kid's team. The first, starting from tip-off, was fairly straightforward. A player skilled enough to have made it that far into the story mode should have been able to meet all of the mission's required statistical goals with time to spare, at which point they would probably just run up the score, draining three-pointers to pass the time against the hopeless AI. The second stage was more of the same.

For the last two stages, the player would switch over to the opposite team to finish the game. The third was a one-play scenario that began players at the final seconds of the third quarter. The fourth was nearly a full quarter (Note: "The Life" ran on five-minute quarters) that required the player, as Big W's team, to win the game by at least six points, in addition to fulfilling other goals.

The issue that I originally observed was that there was no statistical continuity across stages, even though they were all the same game. In other words, even if, at the end of the first quarter, I was leading 50-2, the second stage would begin with a preset score that was closer to 21-23 (again, I don't remember the exact numbers). The minor issue did not detract from the playability, but it clearly made no sense and was therefore a bug.

I submitted a report on it, which was all I could do. Indeed, one of the more frustratingly unfounded accusations that reviewers often make is that a buggy game must not have been thoroughly tested. The reality is that testers can only find and document the bugs. It's up to the programmers how to fix them, or to the producers whether to even bother. In the case of this minor NBA 07 issue, they did address it, but the fix ended up more problematic by far than the original bug.

In the finished version of the game, the score did carry over from the first stage to the second, the second to the third, and the third to the fourth. But remember how I mentioned that the first two scenarios left the player ample time to establish a huge lead with The Kid? Well, now that huge lead carried over to the third stage, and in the fourth it became the unknowingly self-inflicted deficit that the player would have to overcome in order to win as Big W.

Theoretically, this could be a truly heinous, game-stopping defect. If the player had played their absolute best during the first two stages, then the fourth quarter would have been more than just a surprising challenge; the game would have become impossible, because stage four would have required them to be six points better than their best, in about half the time.

In practice, it was a major enough issue that the episode was specifically described in Aaron Thomas's even-handed review for GameSpot:
By far the biggest problem, and the only one likely to keep you from seeing the story all the way through, is the uneven difficulty. Some challenges are quick and a piece of cake, while others are lengthy and involve multiple challenging goals. One in particular gives you 4:51 to complete four dynamic goals, make 10 shots with Big W, and limit the opposing small forward to two field goals. You also have to win the game by at least six points, which means you'll need to outscore the other team by 18 points in that time span. Some challenges ask you if you want to temporarily drop down to easy if you fail repeatedly, but after failing over and over for 30 minutes in the case above, the game never offered any sort of mercy.
There was no scenario in NBA 07 that explicitly required the player to come back from a twelve-point deficit to then win by six. It's apparent that Thomas did not know know why he started that stage so far behind. Therein lay the true deviousness of it all. Unless the player were paying the same careful attention to statistical continuity as I had as a tester, chances were that they would never realize that they were burying themselves in those first two stages as The Kid. Because each of the four quarters was its own short scenario, because most scenarios were self-contained with predetermined scores to work from, and because most were easy enough that players hardly had to keep track of team scores, the average player would not have been conditioned to even consider that they had done this to themselves. They would have just thought, as Thomas did, that it was a particularly unreasonable mission.

Since a tester's work is ordinarily the stuff that you don't see when playing a finished title, I have to admit it was oddly gratifying to have something I was responsible for, albeit inadvertently and not proudly, mentioned so specifically in a published review. But this was probably a case where I would have done my job better by keeping quiet, where playability would have been better served by suspending logic. Of course, even if I hadn't pointed it out, I'm sure some young go-getter colleague would have noticed it eventually.

Furthermore, in my defense, there was actually one more bug contributing to the nightmare in the "fixed" game, which, had it been addressed, might have solved everything. Astute readers may already have spotted it.

Remember that the third stage actually only covers the final play of the third quarter. Yet the score at the beginning of the third stage is the exact score carried over from the end of stage two. In other words, neither team scores a single basket during the third quarter, up until the final play, which is the only part that the player plays. Even if both teams were putting up the most tenacious defense and deficient offense of all time, that's nearly a statistical impossibility. Yes, I wrote up this bug too, but, alas, there would be no fix this time.

The proper fix should have carried over the score from stage one to stage two, but then taken advantage of the elapsed "missing" time in the third quarter to balance things out in advance for the fourth stage. The programmers should have set it to automatically add twenty points to The Kid's score while boosting Big W's to, say, six points behind whatever that would be. So if the second quarter had ended with The Kid leading 86-12, the third stage would have begun at 106-100. Would it have been reasonable for Big W's team to have scored 88 points in under five minutes? No, but I don't think even I would have submitted that one as a bug.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Happiness Is a Warm Gun"

Speaking of Beatles: Rock Band, in the Game Informer cover story a few months back, there was a short interview with Yoko Ono, wherein she promoted the game while also briefly addressing the "games as art" question:
Well, I think it is definitely an art form, but also--like all art forms now, it's going toward a very violent direction, you know? So this venture, doing it all with the Beatles, is really beautiful, because it's not that direction at all; it's to just enjoy music, and to learn about music.
I certainly didn't need Yoko Ono to alert me to the violence that pervades gaming, but it's a good time anyway to bring it up again. The depressing reality is that, if, as a budding patron of the interactive art, you wish to explore the medium beyond the casual fare, you will come up against a "core" gaming library built predominantly on violent themes. Sports/racing is a distant second, and there is little else of quality out there to scratch any other emotional itches.

Like everyone else, I have ideas for filling that void. But I'm not a game designer, so I'll start for now by just pointing to a few examples of existing good, fulfilling titles that are neither violent nor casual experiences.

Along the same music game lines as Beatles: Rock Band, the first compelling non-violent video game that comes to mind is iNiS's Ouendan series for the Nintendo DS. The stylus-based gameplay is not radically different from other rhythm game titles. What sets Ouendan apart is the story that goes on behind the timed tapping.

The premise has the player commanding a Japanese cheer squad that responds to the cries for help of citizens facing challenging life situations. For example, one mission sees a restaurateur desperate to attract business, while another has a student struggling to get ready for exams, and yet another has a young man predictably trying to win the heart of the girl he adores. In each case, the Ouendan team arrives to encourage them through their difficulties, and as the player performs successfully, the short stories likewise develop to show the characters bearing down with increasing confidence to realize their goals. Some of the episodes involve conflict, but the others are no less rewarding. Thanks to the emphatic art and well-matched song selections, it's almost always inspiring to feel your cheers motivating these people to happy endings, no matter the obstacle.

Ouendan unfortunately remains Japan-exclusive, but iNiS also developed Elite Beat Agents, a version of Ouendan localized for American audiences. I don't like it quite as much because it strips out all the "Japanese-ness" that is so much of Ouendan's charm, but it's the same basic idea.

Actually, many of the Japanese music games (e.g. PaRappa the Rapper, Space Channel 5, Gitaroo Man) have tied the rhythm gameplay to light narratives, recognizing that the music-playing need not be an end unto itself. It's a shame that, between its twelve or so Guitar Hero releases a year, Activision can't find time to even try for anything of the sort, especially considering it was the fantastic ad for Guitar Hero II for Xbox 360 that really opened my mind to these possibilities that the games themselves have failed to run with.

Moving on to something completely different now, it's about time somebody gave some props to Sony's series of NBA games featuring "The Life." Full disclosure: I worked on NBA 06 and 07 for the PS2. But I worked on them as a tester, playing them twelve hours a day for weeks straight, which should give me every reason to hate them more than the average consumer.

To be sure, these were some severely flawed basketball video games. The gameplay, fundamentally broken, made for neither a competent simulation nor a fun game besides. Seriously, my 16-bit NBA Live '96 was more playable AND more realistic. Hell, even NBA Jam adhered better to certain vital rules, such as the goaltending violation. NBA 06 didn't allow goaltending, but instead of actually programming in the call and penalty, the developers simply made it so that the game rendered intangible any hands that would try to get between the basket and the ball on its way down. That's some of the jankiest workaround BS I've ever seen. There were other blatant cheats too, like how the game would magically teleport your players back to your end after every basket you made, because it didn't know how else to keep you from stealing the brain-dead AI's inbound pass. So, yeah, it was a pretty awful basketball game. Yet it should not simply be dismissed, because it did include one mode that presented the sports video game in a whole new way.

"The Life" was a revolution that sadly nobody noticed. More critically acclaimed sports titles, such as MLB 07: The Show and NHL 09, have drawn praise recently for their "Road to the Show" and "Be a Pro" modes, which allow players to embark on personal virtual careers, starting as rookies and slowly working their way up the ranks eventually to land in the Hall of Fame. It can add a more personal level of investment to play as your own virtual self, instead of controlling an entire team as both talent and management. But these are still modes based around statistics rather than narrative, and they ultimately do not offer much different from the standard season and franchise modes. Whereas "Be a Pro" simulates the grind of a professional sports career, NBA 06's "The Life" treats players to the glamor of superstardom.

The mode is actually a scripted drama, casting players in the role of a thirsty young point guard nicknamed "The Kid." The story follows him through his first NBA season, from the life-changing draft out of junior college to the NBA Finals. Along the way, cut scenes depict his volatile relationships with his teammates, his coach, his rival, his agent, and the press. Licensing and marketing keep the plot from getting into the really dirty stuff that everybody knows exists in pro sports, but it's not entirely a fluff story for kids either. It's a mostly sober tale of a young star nearly overwhelmed by the too sudden transition from the streets to the show. There's even some enlightening discussion of the "Q score" that is so much the concern of agents.

On the gameplay side, "The Life" gives players a series of objectives besides just winning, but, instead of being randomly generated like in "Road to the Show," these too follow a script. Rather than play season after season, the player progresses through a linear series of episodes not unlike the traditional single-player modes of other genres. Instead of full regulation games, most stages are mid-game scenarios that require fulfilling certain conditions to pass (e.g. "Score the game-winning basket with your point guard"). These are usually tied to the story and meaningfully integrated with the narrative. For example, when The Kid wants to establish himself early on as the franchise player, the goals involve hogging the ball to score tons of baskets. Then, after he realizes that he cannot win by himself and must repair relations with his teammates, the objective becomes to dish more assists.

"The Life Vol.2" in NBA 07, a late PS2 release, was much shorter, and the title defense story is never as exciting as the rise up. But the sequel did add an interesting twist by having players alternating between the parallel seasons of The Kid and his nemesis from the first game, "Big W." The rivalry comes to a head in a scenario that pits the two protagonists against one another in a mid-season game. The player plays the first half as The Kid, then switches to Big W to finish things off. The actual execution is kind of disastrous, since players basically end up kicking their own asses, but I know of no other game in any genre that allows players to experience consecutive phases of a single contest from opposing angles.

The biggest problem with "The Life" was that it didn't really play to NBA 06's audience. The divide between those who play sports games and those who do not grows increasingly pronounced. The idea of a cut scene-heavy story mode centering around fictional characters would probably sound preposterous to a sports maniac in search of a simulation with solid mechanics and stat-tracking, while those not interested in sports games would likely still not care. To be honest, even I haven't personally pursued the series beyond the two installments that I got paid to play.

For those who did pick up a copy of 06 or 07, the frustratingly flawed basic gameplay and severe lack of polish probably kept "The Life" from being an altogether enjoyable experience, but the concept was good and fresh. It not only provided a new way to experience sports in gaming, but it featured a story that was roughly equal in length and depth to most action games. Admittedly, that isn't saying much, and, no, it definitely wasn't brilliant writing, but, at the very least, it showed the potential for interactive narratives to be fulfilling without relying on violence.

We as human beings are so much more than just destructive beasts. It shouldn't be that hard to construct a thoughtful and engaging interactive experience that appeals to any of those other aspects of who we are. In fact, in the cases of Ouendan and "The Life," these are both games that basically just add goals and context to existing genres and mechanics. Yet these are badly outnumbered by the Guitar Hero and Madden releases that, while perhaps fun, are decidedly not art. Truthfully, the problem, as I see it, is not so much that the violent games should be less violent, but that the non-violent games are usually even less ambitious.

* * * * *

But the issue becomes further complicated when you consider the recent story of the Karmapa Lama playing violent video games as a way to satiate aggressive feelings. It has often been the not altogether convincing defense of game violence that, by satisfying their violent impulses virtually, players are able to forgo having to express them in real life.

That's all well and good, but I think it indirectly raises concerns about what we get out of our non-violent gaming pursuits. Does playing Rock Band lessen one's ambition to play a real instrument? Does playing sports video games dampen our drive to become real athletes? The number of NFL players who grew up playing Madden would seem to indicate otherwise, but then where does that leave the Karmapa Lama's argument? Realistically, I'm sure that music, sports, and war are probably all different enough to preclude a universal answer.

But I wonder how a video game might capture the concept of "love." Then my mind turns to dating sims. Although prevalent in Japan, serious gamers in the West generally look down upon the genre as one of the lowest forms of gaming. Often nearly devoid of gameplay, these are basically interactive novels of wish fulfillment fantasy, and many veer into erotic territory. If people are playing these as a substitute for real love, then maybe it would be better for us all if gaming were to avoid trying to tackle certain aspects of life.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Plastic Oh No Band

As I mentioned previously, I've been playing a lot of Guitar Hero and Rock Band lately, all leading up to the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, which I have now also played and completed.

As far as last year's games--Guitar Hero: World Tour and Rock Band 2--are concerned, I have to say that I'm firmly in the Guitar Hero camp.

Rock Band provides a better-looking, more convincing simulation of the tour experience, but that translates to an unexpectedly turgid campaign mode. At first, I liked the realism of starting from local venues and having to earn fans through small gigs. But the progression system requires an absurd amount of repetition to collect enough fame, cash, "stars," whatever to even just earn the right to play all the songs.

Guitar Hero, on the other hand, feels much more like a party game. Its interface is less sleek but more functional. Its tour mode is comparatively much more straightforward, presenting players with self-contained gigs one after another and no repeats. Things go by fast, and I additionally appreciate the detailed score breakdown after every performance, which offers much more ammunition for trash-talking with other players.

Also, the Guitar Hero guitars feel way better than the Rock Band guitar, which makes sense, since peripherals were always RedOctane's specialty. It's not a big deal thanks to the cross-compatibility of instruments, but I still have to mention it as a point in Guitar Hero's favor, considering I would rather use RedOctane's guitar even when playing Harmonix's game. (I'm not rich enough to own both drum kits for comparison, but, with my lack of rhythm and coordination, the rig probably doesn't matter.)

Reviews in favor of Harmonix's game note that it offers 1) more faithful note charts and 2) a much larger catalog of downloadable tracks. I'm not so hardcore a player as to play on Expert, so the former bears little significance for me. Likewise, while I much prefer to play tracks that I already know and enjoy, I'm not so into the make-believe that I'll pay extra money to play a plastic instrument version of a specific song. What's on the disc is good enough for my purposes, and, while the two titles are closely matched in that regard, I'll personally take World Tour's "Beat It," "Band on the Run," and "Hotel California" over Rock Band 2's "White Wedding," "Psycho Killer," and "Pinball Wizard." Not that it really matters, since I bought both games and remain mostly satisfied with the combination. If anything, the greatest disappointment is the number of tracks the two games have in common.

Moving on to The Beatles: Rock Band, this is easily the best Rock Band/Guitar Hero yet, and it's not just because of the music. The presentation is extremely slick and really feels like an authentic Beatles product. The linear story mode is a brisk but mesmerizing journey through all the stages of the band's history.

I do wish the chapters were better tied together through some sort of narrative. To really appreciate the progression, you kind of have to already know the band's history. I don't need a documentary delving into all the drama, but I wish there were at least some narration setting up each venue, or an explanation for why they stop touring later on. A lot of that actually comes out in the trivia associated with the unlockable photos, but providing the information as a reward seems out of order.

That said, the tracklist is ultimately the most important part of a music game, and you cannot go wrong with The Beatles. One of the failings of the regular Rock Band and Guitar Hero releases is that they try too hard to have something for everyone, and consequently they don't have enough for anyone. The Beatles: Rock Band is great for Beatles fans obviously, but it's also probably the most nearly universally appealing music game yet. These are the songs that everybody knows, and, in Rock Band form, they make for tracks that even casual players can pick up very easily.

While it's impossible to complain about what is on the disc, it was equally impossible for Harmonix to contain everybody's favorites without literally including every Beatles song. I'm not a Beatlemaniac by any means, but even I felt the glaring omissions of some of the band's most universally recognized hits. Perhaps certain classics would not translate well to the Rock Band format, but I don't think "She Loves You" and "Help!" fall into that category. It's possibly a shrewd and not necessarily mercenary approach, however, to extend the life of the game, keeping it in the news and in players' consoles with a steady flow of legitimately exciting downloadable track packs down the line. I may even consider buying them in this case, but I still feel it a shame that these signature hits were not integrated into the story mode.

I haven't actually tried harmonizing, but this is one game where I almost want to try singing while playing an instrument at the same time. It's a good addition to the band game formula in any case, and it's a shame that there's no way to patch it into Rock Band 2.

On the flip side, with Guitar Hero 5 featuring the ability to play with four instruments on one screen, it's unfortunate that Harmonix could not include the option to play John Lennon's rhythm guitar. Playing bass on these games has given me a very slightly finer ear and appreciation for the bass line in the music that I hear even when not playing, and there's no technical reason I can see for why we couldn't have had another guitar part at least to further deconstruct and reconstruct the sound. Keyboard/piano would be even better, of course, but I can't see any way to render it in a simplified plastic form that would be manageable for mainstream gaming while still being sufficiently evocative of the real experience.

The technology aside, I wonder where the genre goes from here. As someone who always found the band-centric Guitar Hero titles underwhelming, I would think now that every band approached for their own game should want the Beatles: Rock Band treatment. The thing is, I don't know what other groups would merit it. The main reason those Guitar Hero titles were so lame is because none of those bands, in my opinion, had enough worthy material to build a full-price standalone game around. A game covering Michael Jackson's entire career would have enough hits, but I don't know how much that catalog could offer those who would only play the instrument parts. Even as a karaoke game, I'm not sure how accessible it would be. Whereas The Beatles had songs that just about anybody could sing, much of MJ's greatness was in his own performance.

I suppose there's Activision's Band Hero on the way. With this being the "mainstream" version of Guitar Hero, wouldn't it be great if they could get some Kanye West songs in there for the Taylor Swift avatar to sing?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Essentials #47: Resident Evil 4

Infogrames's 1992 Alone in the Dark may have been the first "survival horror" game, but Capcom coined the marketing term and popularized the genre with Resident Evil in 1996. Despite its eccentric design, Resident Evil managed in a short span of time to inspire hordes of imitators, most of which were more horrendous than horrifying. Of course, Capcom itself would wear the mechanics pretty thin with numerous sequels, ports, side stories, and sister series. By the time of Resident Evil Zero's release in 2002, both the series and genre seemed spent. Series creator Shinji Mikami must also have realized that change was in order, and he worked his team through an extended development period that included at least three discarded prototypes before finally arriving at the revolutionary Resident Evil 4 for the Nintendo GameCube in 2005.

Perhaps there is no greater credit to the meticulousness of Mikami's craft than his fiscally reckless tendency to restart projects that are already well into development. Series historians will point to "Resident Evil 1.5," an early version of Resident Evil 2 that was nearly finished, before the developers scrapped it and started over nearly from scratch. The Resident Evil 4 team endured several more of these agonizing false starts. Devil May Cry actually began life as one take on RE4, before Mikami and Hideki Kamiya realized that it had ventured too far from what Resident Evil was. They were able to put what they had to good use as a brand new IP, but, for RE4, what followed were lengthy years that included doomed prototypes such as the "fog" and "hook man" versions. The latter featured the beginnings of some of the new mechanics seen in the final version, but most of the art assets and story concepts, considered too derivative of previous "zombies in mansions" outings, ended up discarded. The finished product was one that departed significantly in every aspect from its predecessors in order to revitalize and, truly, to reinvent a franchise.

The differences began with the story and setting. Resident Evil 4 featured the long-awaited return of Leon S. Kennedy from RE2, arguably the series's finest entry. As the solo protagonist, he was now far from being the rookie cop of that game. Since surviving the Raccoon City incident, he had somehow risen through the ranks to become a secret agent for the US government. The fight against the zombie-producing Umbrella Corporation, still unresolved at the end of Code: Veronica, no longer seemed to matter. Formerly the overarching plot tying the franchise together, it was now dealt with summarily in the opening prologue, which explained that, in the long gap between Code: Veronica and RE4, Umbrella had been shut down by the government. Leon's mission instead tasked him with rescuing the president's daughter, who, it would turn out, was being held captive by a cult in a rural Spanish village. The villagers and cultists would unsurprisingly turn out to be a new form of biohazard, "Los Ganados." They looked human and operated with some level of intelligence, but they were actually infected with parasites that made them act savage.

This anti-civilization had a Deliverance vibe to it that took the horror in a new direction, but the gameplay was far less concerned with scaring the player. With RE4, Resident Evil was no longer a survival horror adventure, but now more of an action game. Although the character-relative controls remained intact, they were no longer as debilitating when coupled with the new 3-D camera, which would remain fixed behind Leon's back as the player explored the real-time environments. There wasn't actually very much exploring, however, in the very linear campaign, which for the first time provided the player with the tools to face the aggressive enemies head-on in combat. While aiming, the camera would zoom in to an over-the-shoulder view that allowed the player to manually aim with accuracy in order to pinpoint the enemies' various vulnerable spots. Shots to the legs could stun or drop them, bullets to the hands could disarm them, and critical headshots could take them out instantly (unless "Las Plagas" sprouted in place of their missing heads, in which case they became a lot meaner).

Was the over-the-shoulder camera really a revolution in action game design? It didn't actually open up any options that hadn't already been available in most first-person shooters by that time. But where other developers might try to distinguish their takes on popular genres by adorning them with unique, never-before-seen gimmicks, Mikami favored a distilled, impeccably polished design that he could control, not as a player, but as the omnipresent director.

Leon still could not walk while aiming, and the only automatic weapon was highly lacking in firepower, so combat was far more methodical than in a typical shooter. But in those limitations, the restrictive design philosophy behind the series came into play again, as Mikami's team constructed the experience around these deliberate peculiarities to craft an action game that would feel distinctly different from any of the popular titles of the time.

The Ganados were smarter and more versatile than the old zombies, but they were still far from intelligent. They would periodically shuffle from side to side in order to dodge fire, but they would also tend to react slowly and telegraph their attacks, giving the player often just enough time to down a pack of enemies with some well-chosen handgun shots. Of course, the developers tried to keep the tension perfectly balanced, and the sheer numbers would be imposing enough to keep most players too excited initially to see through the act. Once comfortable with the enemy behavior, some might have asked why these imbecilic foes would waste time standing in place and pointing their fingers at a man pointing a magnum back at them. But the fights would have been unwinnable with seven enemies all running at Leon at the same time, just as they would have been too easy if Leon could start circle-strafing around guys armed only with pitchforks. They could still have kept things balanced by making both Leon and the Ganados more capable, but, the more power you bestow, the less control you have over its wielders. That again was the idea--to control how the player experienced the game.

This was further reflected in the careful scripting of the game, as nearly every encounter was presented as a set piece. The game's defining sequence was the barricade cabin that had Leon and one AI ally fending off a mob of villagers attacking from all sides. You would begin by pushing bookshelves in front of doors and windows to slow their entry. As they hammered their way through, you would then have to do your best to cover all entry points with just the two of you. Inevitably the room would be breached by too many Ganados flooding in, and your partner would signal a retreat to the second floor. You might then lob an incendiary grenade down the stairs to catch pursuers in flames. Up top, you would then have to continue to hold back the ones charging up the stairs, while also knocking down the ladders raised by villagers trying to get in through the second-floor windows. As things got too intense, you might switch from the handgun to the crowd-clearing shotgun, and if multiple deadly Plagas emerged from their blown-off heads, you could toss a flash grenade to instantly fry any exposed parasites.

Not every battle would be that elaborate or dynamic, but the game always tried to keep the enemy sets in harmony with the stages. You might find yourself stuck in a pit with two chainsaw maniacs. Or taking cover against some dynamite-hurling loonies who were not afraid to blow themselves up. Or escorting the president's daughter through a hall thick with shield-bearing cultists. Or how about cutting across a battlefield while assisted by helicopter fire?

The experience was certainly helped by the enemy variety, which was the best of any game I've played. In addition to the different varieties of villagers and cultists, the game would periodically mete out fiercer opponents that, far from being just bigger versions of Ganados that took more bullets, would test the player in other ways. There were the "Garradors," lethal but blind berserkers who could only be felled by sneaking behind them to target the parasites on their backs. The "Novistadors" were giant, invisible insects that only betrayed their locations with their visible breath and drool. Creepiest of all were the "Regenerators," whose internal weak spots could only be viewed with the thermal scope on the sniper rifle. And of course there were the building-sized "El Gigante" ogres, which had no real place in the mythos of Resident Evil, but which again provided something completely different from normal combat against Ganados.

Then there were the excellent boss fights. Some of these could be won through conventional means, but the best of them concentrated on unique mechanics specific to those encounters. There was the Jaws-like "Del Lago," for example, which Leon would have to harpoon from a boat perilously tethered to the lake monster itself. Or the nasty "Verdugo," which would stalk Leon in a frantic cat-and-mouse game seemingly inspired by Alien 3 and Terminator 2.

Alongside God of War, RE4 also helped to popularize about the most extreme example of scripted gameplay, "quick time events," as a standard action game element. During normal gameplay, the A button served as a multi-purpose context-sensitive button that allowed Leon, depending on the situation, to dynamically suplex a prone enemy, dodge an incoming attack, jump out a window, knock down a ladder, etc. Then there were the true QTE sequences that required the player to press a specific button as instructed on cue in order to avoid an instant death. Sometimes this was as simple as tapping A repeatedly to outrun a boulder after watching a cut scene of some villagers rolling it toward you. But they could also happen without warning during cut scenes, which is where players should usually be most at ease. In fact, there was one entire "boss fight" that was nothing more than a cut scene involving multiple QTE button presses that grew increasingly tighter. Accounting for nearly all of my deaths in the game, that cut scene was one of the most frustrating video game sequences I'd ever come across. But afterward I thought back to the clunky hand-to-hand boss battles of the first three Metal Gear Solid titles, and I knew that this RE4 fight would have completely sucked if it had been just a regular in-engine sequence featuring canned gameplay animations.

Otherwise, my only major gripe with RE4 was its excessive length. At over twenty hours for a first playthrough, perhaps closer to thirty, it was about double the length of the average triple-A action game. RE4 boasted greater variety than any other action game, but the length of it still wore me down. The story was first of all too weak to keep me interested, but, more importantly, I believe most players operate with an internal deadline for when the narrative needs to provide some feeling of victory. No matter how exciting the action may be, if the hero must carry on for too long without any results to show for it, the fight eventually becomes a slog.

A worthy contender for the finest game of its generation, Resident Evil 4 was a second beginning to a series that, like Final Fantasy VII or Metal Gear Solid, introduced it to a brand new audience of gamers. Just as the original Resident Evil was followed by legions of copycat horror games that exhausted the genre, tons of newer action games--mostly Western-developed shooters, actually--have since adapted elements of RE4's design. The original game may stand out a little less as a result, but, truthfully, none of its would-be successors have actually managed to equal it for combat depth, enemy variety, or cohesiveness of set piece construction.

Additional Information

Although Mikami early on assured that RE4 would be strictly a GameCube exclusive, even joking that he would cut off his own head if the game ever came to the PlayStation 2, it did indeed arrive on PS2 before the year was over.

The PS2 version was noticeably graphically inferior to the GameCube original, but the porting team added several features to enhance the value. The most significant was a short extra campaign starring Ada Wong, which cleared up some lingering questions about the plot. Also added were some extra unlockable costumes and an extremely powerful unlockable weapon.

In 2007, the game was ported again, this time to the Nintendo Wii.

Because Mikami was not involved in any of the ports, some do not consider the additions canonical, but the Wii edition is unquestionably the definitive release, combining all the extra features of the PS2 version with the technical merits of the GameCube original. Perhaps more importantly, it also offered new pointer controls using the Wii Remote with Nunchuk.

With the new controls, shooting becomes much easier, but I'm skeptical as to whether it is really due to the Wii Remote itself being more accurate. While aiming with the Remote, the old laser sight is replaced by a large reticle. Because the reticle does not become any harder to see when far from the target, the player is able to make impossibly long-range shots with just the handgun. It actually feels like the developers made the Wii edition artificially easier in this way, as if to compensate for the Remote itself maybe being less precise than traditional controls. And since the game is not otherwise rebalanced in any way, the experience is stripped of nearly all challenge.

So why is the Wii release still the definitive version? Because, unlike all of Nintendo's GameCube-to-Wii ports, Capcom thoughtfully left in the option to play with a GameCube controller. As a result, there's really no reason to hang onto the GameCube version. It may not come in a fancy SteelBook, and the white Wii case may not match the tone of the game, but RE4: Wii Edition is the right way to do a Wii-make.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fraggin' Civies

The above is taken from the arcade version of Capcom's Saturday Night Slam Masters (AKA Muscle Bomber: The Body Explosion).

Long before I seriously considered starting up a blog, I had already made up my mind that, if I ever did have a blog or website, I would name it "Fraggin' Civies," after Gunloc's losing quote that had so baffled and enthralled me. At the very least, I might have used it for my MySpace quote.

Then, on April 16, 2007, the Virginia Tech massacre happened, and in the face of that tragedy, for the first time it occurred to me just how badly "Fraggin' Civies" could be misinterpreted. Of course, Gunloc could not possibly have meant anything involving shooting civilians--that interpretation made zero sense in context--but I could not risk being so misunderstood. The expression was no longer safe for casual use. Truthfully it never had been, though I had been too dense to see it before.

I would not start this blog until more than a year later. You might think that that would have been enough time to come up with something new, but those who have been around since the beginning of this may recall that, for the first few weeks, I had just "blog" as a placeholder title. Even now, I'm not altogether satisfied with what I finally settled upon. In my heart, I still think of this as "Fraggin' Civies," and I continue to dream of a world where the expression need not instill panic nor demand a defense.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Good Stuff

So Sony sent me an e-mail to let me know that, for a limited time, I can order Papa John's pizza through my PlayStation 3 (via a simple button in the PS3 browser that links to the Papa John's website). Exciting news?

Kind of makes me want to retch, actually. It does, however, remind me of an episode from a time in my life when I worked as a game tester on PlayStation software at Sony Computer Entertainment America.

One day, as a way of thanking us for our hard work and long hours, the company treated all of the lowly QA staff to a pizza lunch. These gestures were not common, so it was an exciting day in any case, but one tester further remarked that it was very impressive how they didn't settle for, say, five-dollar mediums from Domino's. This was "the good stuff"--large, multi-topping orders from, yep, Papa John's! "That stuff ain't cheap!"

But, seriously, my heart ached for that poor sap, who thought that Papa John's was the pinnacle of pizza pies. Perhaps I had been blessed with a more lavish life than I realized, because it had been some years since Papa John's had become the standard (only due to geographical convenience) for pizza night in my household, and some years again since we had all had enough of that subpar dough, the processed cheese, and those meager toppings.

Although I too came from SoCal, even I knew that Papa John's (as well as Pizza Hut and Domino's) was no more a real pizza than Taco Bell was authentic Mexican cuisine. Another part of me envied him, however, because, living in California, it did me little good to know that a better pizza existed. The knowledge only tormented me, allowing me to observe brilliance without being able to grasp it.

I would have had him carry on living in blissful ignorance, but, alas, with a Chicago native and a few New Yorkers in the building, pizza day inevitably turned ugly. Soon enough, we were all made to believe that none of us had ever tasted a real pizza. When the Chicago snob finally declared that he only ate deep-dish pizza shipped across the country from his beloved Lou Malnati's, that the frozen stuff still could not compare to the real thing, there was nothing more that anyone else could say. To pay forty dollars a pie for the merest semblance of home, he clearly took his melted cheese on dough more seriously than the rest of us. And so we sat in silence, chewing on that Papa John's that tasted ever more like sand in our mouths.

Yes, I ate my fill that day. I had earned that free food after all.

Monday, September 14, 2009

U.S. Open 2009 (or "CBS is still trash")

So, once again, I had to skip work in order to catch the rain-delayed men's championship. This year, CBS actually had class enough to air it live, even preempting the season premiere of Dr. Phil (ugh).

The match started out pretty lackluster, with Federer seeming about to dominate again en route to a sixth straight title, but then Juan Martin del Potro sprang to life off the energy of the crowd and some critical use of the challenge system that Federer so despises. It stretched into a marathon that further required the preempting of a full hour of Oprah.

So why is CBS trash? Because after the monumental mid-match turnaround Del Potro effected to become the only man other than Rafael Nadal to defeat Roger Federer in a major final, CBS tried to rush him through his acceptance speech. Then, when Del Potro asked if he might be allowed to say a few words in his native Spanish, sportscaster Dick Enberg initially refused to allow it, saying that they were too short on time and still needed to thank all the sponsors, name all the sweet prizes coming to the humble Argentine, who even now had only three people in his players' box. After getting through all the bureaucratic obligations, Enberg reluctantly allowed DelPo to recite some brief thanks in Spanish, after which the broadcast terminated with no further post-match interviews or analysis from the CBS chuckleheads. So the greatest moment in this twenty-year-old first-time champion's life was being cut short for, what, a rerun of How I Met Your Mother?! On the West Coast, it just cut to the useless local news. Shameful.

Why, it was nearly as bad as what Kanye did to Taylor Swift. Well, not really, but it was still pretty bad.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Essentials #46: Resident Evil Code: Veronica / Resident Evil Zero

Resident Evil Code: Veronica

After three installments on the Sony PlayStation, Capcom's biggest franchise of the 32-bit generation had wrung all it could out of the console and was ready to move on to more powerful hardware. Released for the Sega Dreamcast in February 2000--not six months after the release of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis--Resident Evil Code: Veronica was, despite the lack of any number in the title, the fourth main installment in the series. After a year of exclusivity to the doomed Sega console, it then gained wider exposure on the PlayStation 2 as Code: Veronica X, which added a few minutes of real-time cut scenes to the story. Code: Veronica X was then later ported to the Nintendo GameCube in 2003, and that was the version that I played.

Code: Veronica took advantage of the power of the Dreamcast to generate backgrounds in real time for the first time in series history. While noteworthy as a technical achievement, the new backgrounds were honestly not that big a deal. They were more dynamic but not as sharp as the pre-rendered stages in RE3, which was one of the PS1's best-looking titles. The cameras, their positions still fixed, would sometimes swivel a little as characters moved across the stage, but the process was entirely out of the player's control, and instant cuts to obscure angles were still the norm. What the environments really allowed for was real-time cut scenes with far more sophisticated camerawork.

Along those lines, what really impressed at the time of Code: Veronica's debut was the new character graphics. A huge step up from the smeared, static and expressionless faces of the 32-bit days, Code: Veronica followed Namco's Soulcalibur as one of the first games to offer decent-looking character models that bear some resemblance to what we are still working with today. The zombies were the best part. While they had perhaps looked decayed and ugly enough on the PS1, they now had more realistic flesh and more fluid animation, making the semblance of life all the more chilling in these undead. Even a year after its debut on the Dreamcast, the visuals still held up well next to early PS2 fare like Onimusha. Three years later on the GameCube, it of course looked like garbage compared to the RE1 remake, but, hey, not even that game featured real-time environments.

Still much the same since the first game, the Code: Veronica gameplay actually even took a few steps back from RE3. While the 180-degree turn was thankfully here to stay, players would have to go back to making do without Jill's more advanced dodge and roll maneuvers. Developed concurrently with RE3, this was a return to a slower-paced and purer survival horror experience. Also much more straightforward than RE2, there was only one scenario in Code: Veronica, and the delivery was completely linear. For the first half, the player would control Claire Redfield, still searching for her brother Chris, who would then take over on the second disc. With a playing time of 15-20 hours, it was the longest Resident Evil yet, as well as the most densely plotted.

The first three titles had featured typical George Romero-inspired B-movie zombie scripts, but Code: Veronica greatly expanded the original concept, taking the series to new and outrageous Japanese video game territory. Although zombies were still the most common enemy, they had surprisingly little relevance to the plot, which now featured intelligent superhuman villains, a boss fight on board a mid-flight plane, an Antarctic excursion, a rifle-wielding psycho in drag, and the queen of the ants. The gameplay was still survival horror, but, beginning to lean more toward Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien: Resurrection than Ridley Scott's Alien, the story emphasized action, which was what those aforementioned real-time cut scenes mostly delivered. For many following the series, this was where you either felt it jumped the shark or you became a fan for life.

The new attitude was reflected in the characters as well. In the first Resident Evil, Chris was just a generic-looking white guy. His blandness ironically made him a more sympathetic character in the context of survival horror, because it was easy to project your own feelings of fear onto him. But evidently Capcom did not want a disposable random space marine or World War II guy as the leading man of its biggest game. Chris and Claire both were now bona fide action heroes. While they could not so much as walk while aiming during gameplay, they would pull off impossible stunts in the cut scenes. To give evil a face, they even brought back Albert Wesker. Just a shady guy wearing shades in the first game, he now had the moves and manner of an agent out of The Matrix. They had all started with simple designs and the bare minimum for personality, but these were now franchise characters and one of the main reasons for fans to continue following the series.

Code: Veronica was the second new Resident Evil release in under six months, the fourth in five years. With RE3, many players had already begun to criticize the lack of innovation or even reform in this series that some considered blatantly flawed to begin with. Perhaps they would be distracted by the slick Dreamcast production and polish on Code: Veronica, but it was essentially still the same game. But the thrill-laden adventure, the biggest ever, was as genuinely captivating as it was endearingly wacky. While the mechanics were old, the experience was still solid, and the story set the series in a new direction, giving followers a reason to keep coming back to Resident Evil. Plus, it had gaming's greatest sad sack, Steve Burnside.

* * * * *

Resident Evil Zero

Just a few months after the release of the Resident Evil remake, Capcom released Resident Evil Zero for the Nintendo GameCube in 2002. Some anticipated this as the first original Resident Evil release for the GameCube, but expectations may have been unrealistically high, considering that the project was actually initially unveiled in 2000 as in development for the Nintendo 64. The transition to a new hardware generation had delayed the game's development and release, but the concepts were clearly old.

Comparing the final release against the original N64 trailer, the difference was just as astounding as between the RE1 remake and the PS1 original. Graphically, RE0 was a perfect stylistic match with the remake, and it was technically even slightly superior. Instead of just using still images, RE0 mixed some animated movie files into the backgrounds to great effect. The opening train level provided the most visually stunning pre-rendered backdrop yet, as characters progressed inside, outside, and even on top of the moving locomotive. The rest of the game would not equal that opening sequence, but later environments would take the series back to the moody vibe of the first game's mansion.

RE0 was the only primary entry to not star Chris, Jill, Claire, or Leon. The protagonists were Rebecca Chambers, a supporting character from the first game, and Billy Coen, previously mentioned in a report filed by Rebecca in the N64 version of Resident Evil 2.

Whereas the first two installments had provided separate scenarios for each of the selectable protagonists, the key mechanic of RE0 was the "partner zapping" system that allowed the player to control both characters throughout the game. This was about the only new addition to the survival horror formula of previous installments, but it had a more significant impact on the experience than might have been expected. Rebecca and Billy would travel together through most of the adventure. The player could switch between them with the press of a button, and the other character would automatically follow along. Since this was a simple, still fairly low-action game, there wasn't much AI needed. While exploring, your partner could alert you to off-camera enemies, usually by opening fire suddenly. You could not regulate their behavior except by choosing what weapons to give them, but it was easy enough to coordinate your offense with theirs in order to ensure an efficient expenditure of ammo. In lieu of heavier weapons, the two characters could alternate handgun shots to create an almost machine gun-like "wall of fire" effect.

The partner zapping also added one new trick to the traditional puzzles. Oftentimes a block or lever-based puzzle would require the use of both characters, either simultaneously or in turn. For example, when facing a locked door, the player might have to fix Billy at a switch that would open the way for Rebecca to walk through. Then, playing as Rebecca on the other side, the player would have to find an alternate means to allow Billy through. These sorts of two-character puzzles were nothing new to gaming as a whole, but they were at least something different for the series.

The partner system was most felt in its effect on the tone of the game. With the constant presence of a second gun to back you up, it became a much less oppressive, much less frightening experience. Since the two of them actually depended on one another throughout, the Rebecca-Billy relationship was also a partnership in a much more real sense than the Chris-Jill or Claire-Leon pairings. The story was far less involved than in Code: Veronica, but, just as Resident Evil had always conveyed its horror narrative through artistic framing and atmosphere rather than plot, RE0 developed this relationship between an officer and a fugitive without relying on dialogue. As the two stuck side-by-side and back-to-back through every nightmare, it was almost Ico-like in the way that each gave the other hope in this hopeless situation. It's a shame that Capcom has yet to revisit either of these characters since.

RE0 was perhaps less frightening also because of its less imposing lineup of enemies, which supplemented the usual zombies with a variety of infected animals. The grotesque Hunters and Lickers of the earlier games were replaced by some rabid monkeys, which probably were no more deadly than they had already been pre-infection. The one panic-inducing foe was the leech man, somewhat taking the place of Mr. X or Nemesis as the persistent terror. Upon entering certain rooms, audio cues--discordant tones and the sickening noise of the leeches clustering into man form--would alert the player to the presence but not the precise location of a leech man in the room. These guys were fast and highly resistant to conventional weapons. The only really effective means of dealing with them was to set them on fire with Molotov cocktails, a new and somewhat awkward thrown weapon that existed almost solely for this purpose.

The only other major change to the Resident Evil formula was the abandonment of the linked item boxes. Instead, players were now allowed to drop items on the floor, to be picked up from the same spot later if necessary. This saved you the trouble of having to backtrack to an item box if your inventory became too full to pick up a new key item, but it also made it harder to hoard herbs and ammo, since you could not expect them to be magically transported to the nearest box. For the most part, the system worked. RE0's progression had you revisiting areas more frequently than in Nemesis or Code: Veronica, so there was never too great an agony over having to leave a particular item behind forever.

As a prequel to the first game, RE0's story offered some enlightening glimpses at the events that led up to that nefarious mansion incident. The two games fit together somewhat as RE2 and RE3 had, but RE0 was less engaging overall, since it did not really progress the story further beyond what players already knew. Clearly meant to be played after RE1, so as not to blow any of the twists in the first game, it was also highly revisionist in its additions to the increasingly convoluted mythology.

Players introduced to the series with the RE1 remake would have found this a good followup, while diehard veterans would have found that the partner system added something new. It was a good game, perhaps the most polished in the series. But it was also the fifth Resident Evil (sixth if you included the remake) running on the same often criticized mechanics, and there was little denying that the series was due for a change.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Origin of "Omega Warzard"

I had a dream that I was sitting at work as boss man made an announcement.

"May I have everybody's attention, please," he said. "We've received a large shipment of stones that need to get done ASAP. So I'll be sending half to Jerry and half to Omega."

I was shocked that he would have referred to me by my online ID, but it must have been the name I'd used on all my official work papers. He did not know me personally, so he must have picked the name out of the employee database based just on the performance numbers.

One guy, taken aback, hissed, "Who the hell is Omega?"

I sheepishly looked the other way, and the rest of the dream was just the usual work-related nightmare.

In the dream, I did not get a chance to explain myself, and it occurs to me now that the name "Omega Warzard" may very well sound ridiculous to anyone who does not know the story behind it.

Back in 1996, shortly after I first joined the World Wide Web, I needed to come up with an account name for my e-mail address. As a minor, it obviously would not have been safe for me to have used my real name. Of course, with a name as common as my own, it would have been impossible for me to have had that user ID without tacking on some random extra numbers at the end of it. I prided myself as an original, so it would have been unacceptable to announce myself as the 2836th anything.

I sat thinking long and hard trying to come up with something awesome, unique, and not devoid of meaning. I could think of nothing that met all three criteria. Comparatively small though the Internet was back then, still any remotely normal, cool possibilities (e.g. Batman, Skywalker, Master Blaster, God, etc.) were already taken many times over. I did succeed in registering a few mangled spellings and terrible dictionary words, but those accounts were quickly aborted, and we will speak of them no more. Finally, I suddenly remembered something I had read just recently.

A few days earlier, while searching for Street Fighter art--what else was the Internet good for?--I came across a gallery of screenshots for a new Capcom 2-D fighter by the name of Red Earth. In parentheses was the title of the Japanese release: Warzard. To this day, I still have yet to play the game, but the portmanteau of "war" and "wizard" struck me as remarkably clever.

I figured it was worth a try. I applied for the name, and, to my surprise, it was not yet taken. Indeed, obvious though it now seems, I am quite certain that I was the very first and, for many years, the only Warzard on the Internet.

I think that e-mail address lasted me into early 2002. I had let my claim to it lapse, because it had become overrun with spam, and I had already switched to two other primary e-mail addresses. When I tried to check it after about a three-month absence, I found that someone else had already found it expired and snatched it up. I was offended, but I should not have been surprised. While checking search engines for traces of myself, I had already come across a few false Warzards. What had once been quaint was now something to be fought over.

It was still rare enough that I could get it most places I went. But as long as there was even one other Warzard on a single database on the Internet, then nobody could definitively claim that identity. Just because you knew one Warzard on some forum did not mean that the next Warzard would be the same guy. I didn't want to ever have to answer that question, especially not in the negative. The time had come for me to craft a new identity. But, although posers had now stripped it of all meaning, I still could not simply surrender and give up on a name that had served me well for years. I would have to somehow improve it in a way that would make it mine again.

Again, it would not have done to just attach random numbers or, worse yet, replace letters with numbers. I could no longer be Warzard prime, but I would not be less. I experimented with various lofty modifiers, but everything felt like a diminutive to what was pure perfection. Finally, I returned to where it all began, looking to my beloved 2-D fighting games for inspiration. Digging through my memory, I recalled one character who was the model of resurrection with grace.

Rugal Bernstein (or just Rugal B.), the original and ultimate King of Fighters boss, had seemingly died at the end of KoF '94. A year later, however, he returned stronger than ever. Rebuilt and improved with a cyborg body, he was now "Omega Rugal." And his appearance in '95 was even more special to me personally than his debut had been.

Thus, thereafter would I be "Omega Warzard," in honor of both Capcom and SNK.

Of course, I still try also to secure the plain Warzard name wherever I set up a new account, but only to protect it from pretenders. If you run into a Warzard on some forum, it's probably just some nobody. Omega Warzard is the real thing.