Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Essentials: That's a Wrap!

  1. Rock 'N Roll Racing (SNES) (Silicon & Synapse. Interplay, 1993.)
  2. Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader (GC) (Factor 5. LucasArts, 2001.)
  3. Super Mario Land (GB) (Nintendo R&D1. Nintendo, 1989.)
  4. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (GC) (The Game Designers Studio. Nintendo, 2004.)
  5. Robot Alchemic Drive (PS2) (Sandlot. Enix, 2002.)
  6. Stunt Race FX (SNES) (Nintendo EAD. Nintendo, 1994.)
  7. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (NES) (Sculptured Software. Virgin Games, 1991.)
  8. Pokémon Stadium (N64) (HAL Laboratory. Nintendo, 2000.)
  9. JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (PS1) (Capcom Production Studio 1. Capcom, 2000.)
  10. Ico (PS2) (Team Ico. Sony Computer Entertainment, 2001.)
  11. The 7th Saga (SNES) (Produce. Enix, 1993.)
  12. Pac-Man Vs. (GC) (Nintendo. Namco, 2003.)
  13. Perfect Dark (N64) (Rare. Rare, 2000.)
  14. Suikoden (PS1) (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo. Konami, 1996.)
  15. Suikoden II (PS1) (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo. Konami, 1998.)
  16. Suikoden III (PS2) (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo. Konami, 2002.)
  17. Street Fighter EX3 (PS2) (Arika. Capcom, 2000.)
  18. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (GC) (Nintendo EAD. Nintendo, 2004.)
  19. Déjà Vu (NES) (ICOM, Kemco, 1990.)
  20. Devil May Cry (PS2) (Capcom Production Studio 4. Capcom, 2001.)
  21. Devil May Cry 2 (PS2) (Capcom Production Studio 1. Capcom, 2003.)
  22. Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening (PS2) (Capcom Production Studio 1. Capcom, 2005.)
  23. Faceball 2000 (SNES) (Xanth Software F/X. Bullet Proof Software, 1992.)
  24. Pokémon Puzzle League (N64) (Nintendo Software Technology. Nintendo, 2000.)
  25. Ikaruga (GC) (Treasure. Atari, 2002.)
  26. Hello Kitty's Cube Frenzy (PS1) (Culture Publishers. NewKidCo., 1999.)
  27. Gungrave (PS2) (Red Entertainment and Ikusabune. Sega, 2002.) and Gungrave: Overdose (PS2) (Red Entertainment and Ikusabune. Mastiff, 2004.)
  28. Parasite Eve (PS1) (Square. Square EA, 1998.)
  29. Syphon Filter (PS1) (Eidetic. 989 Studios, 1999.)
  30. Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner (PS2) (Konami Computer Entertainment Japan. Konami, 2003.)
  31. Pilotwings (SNES) (Nintendo EAD. Nintendo, 1991.)
  32. Metal Gear Solid (PS1) (Konami Computer Entertainment Japan. Konami, 1998.)
  33. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2) (Konami Computer Entertainment Japan. Konami, 2001.)
  34. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2) (Konami Computer Entertainment Japan. Konami, 2004.)
  35. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3) (Kojima Productions. Konami, 2008.)
  36. Final Fantasy VIII (PS1) (Square. Square EA, 1999.)
  37. Final Fantasy IV (AKA Final Fantasy II) (SNES) (Square. Square, 1991.) and Final Fantasy V (SFC) (Square. Square, 1992.) and Final Fantasy VI (AKA Final Fantasy III) (SNES) (Square. Square, 1994.)
  38. Final Fantasy VII (PS1) (Square. Sony Computer Entertainment, 1997.)
  39. Final Fantasy IX (PS1) (Square. Square EA, 2000.) and Final Fantasy X (PS2) (Square. Square EA, 2001.)
  40. Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1) (Square. Sony Computer Entertainment, 1998.)
  41. Skies of Arcadia Legends (GC) (Overworks. Sega, 2003.)
  42. Chrono Trigger (SNES) (Square. Square, 1995.)
  43. Xenogears (PS1) (Square. Square EA, 1998.)
  44. Resident Evil (GC) (Capcom Production Studio 4. Capcom, 2002.)
  45. Resident Evil 2 (PS1) (Capcom. Capcom, 1998.) and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (PS1) (Capcom. Capcom, 1999.)
  46. Resident Evil Code: Veronica (DC) (Capcom Production Studio 4 and Nextech. Capcom, 2000.) and Resident Evil Zero (GC) (Capcom Production Studio 4 and Capcom Production Studio 3. Capcom, 2002.)
  47. Resident Evil 4 (GC) (Capcom Production Studio 4. Capcom, 2005.)
  48. Tecmo Super Bowl (NES) (Tecmo. Tecmo, 1991.)
  49. Gradius V (PS2) (Treasure. Konami, 2004.)
  50. Shadow of the Colossus (PS2) (Team Ico. Sony Computer Entertainment, 2005.)
  51. X-Men Legends (GC/PS2/Xbox) (Raven Software. Activision, 2004.) and X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse (GC/PS2/Xbox) (Raven Software. Activision, 2005.)
  52. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1) (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo. Konami, 1997.)

Here's the breakdown:

15 PS1
15 PS2
10 GameCube
3 N64
1 Dreamcast
1 Game Boy
1 PS3

The X-Men Legends games were the only titles listed to release simultaneously on multiple platforms. I counted them under GameCube because that was what I played them on.

The numbers vary depending on how you assess the myriad ports of the Final Fantasy and Resident Evil games.

For the record, I played the PS1 versions of FF IV-VI and Chrono Trigger, the Dreamcast versions of RE2 and 3, and the GameCube version of Code: Veronica X. Because those were all minor ports that did little if anything to improve upon the originals, I thought it more sensible to list the first releases--domestic in each case, except for FFV. The GameCube remake of Resident Evil differs substantially enough to merit regard as its own game, although the original obviously deserves a place on the list, even though I did not specifically discuss it. In the case of Skies of Arcadia Legends, I'm too lazy to research the changes, so I'll just say that my post applies only to the GameCube version.

Anyhow, after a year of weekly posts, "The Essentials" now comes to a close. As with this blog as a whole, I never had a specific mission statement in mind. This is clearly not a definitive list of the greatest video games of all time, nor even all my personal favorites. I think the original motivation was just to set down and share a few personal anecdotes about some games that I loved. Looking back, I think my weaker entries were those where I strayed from that approach.

Honestly, Syphon Filter wouldn't make my top fifty of favorites, but I happened to have an anecdote about it that I wanted to share. Street Fighter EX3 is hardly the greatest Street Fighter, but it is nevertheless a damn fine game that I thought deserved better than its reputation. That was why I chose to post about it, and it subsequently served as the representative for the entire series, not because other entries are less worthy of individual mention, but because I quickly realized that I would not be able to speak intelligently and meaningfully on one fighting game after another. Ditto for Pokémon Stadium and that franchise (no pun intended).

As for great games that I omitted, I would have liked to have included some form of F-Zero, but again, as much as I love that series, I don't think I actually have very much to say about it.

Indeed, the main reason I'm stopping here is that I am now close to out of stories. For now, I am reasonably satisfied that I was able to cover 58 games in 52 consecutive weeks (admittedly, the number of games would be cut down considerably if I limited each series to one representative).

Looking forward, I've considered starting up a different feature covering all the JRPGs I've played--any stories I've saved would probably be included there--but the difficulty with that is that most of them are plot-driven, and I can only remember so much about games that I played years ago.

Really, I think it's time I got busy playing some more games and filling some of those holes in my experience. Maybe I'll finally get around to some of those Metroid and Zelda titles. Personally, I've also always been curious about the Silent Hill series, although I'm not really sure where to start.

In any event, having gotten through these reminiscences, I'm now looking forward to making new memories.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bigger is Better

Well, it's not quite enough to get me trading up from my DS Lite just yet, but I definitely think Nintendo's announcement of the big boy DSi XL (or DSi LL) is a step in the right direction.

The pixel-stretching entailed by the new massive screens is of no great concern to me, but I have continually griped against the needlessly hand-cramping smallness of the DS Lite (and similarly sized DSi). I know that a smaller form allows for greater portability, but the truth is that I never carry my DS with me in my pocket. Merely making it smaller would not change that.

Two models later, the original DS (AKA "DS Phat") is still a vastly more comfortable play, despite its dim screens. The DSi XL looks more sharp-edged and less ergonomic--it's ostensibly just a bigger DSi, though it's not yet known if the buttons will be clicky (good) or squishy (bad)--but it actually weighs even more than the Phat.

It is perhaps surprising and a tad disingenuous to see Nintendo reverse course like this and try to sell big after the company itself convinced consumers that smaller was better with its years of aggressive campaigns for the ever-shrinking Game Boy.

But since Nintendo got us here in the first place, I don't suppose there is anyone else more capable of shifting the tides again in the other direction. Already Satoru and friends seem to have worked out some unintuitive marketing of this as a new sort of spectator handheld. I wonder how long it will take for Sony to copy this too and release its own "PS3 Plump" or "PSP Sit-your-fat-ass-down" for those who would live extra large.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The True Face of Terror in Gaming

Haha, I was having a conversation about this just the other day, and it is totally true. I can scarcely imagine how many other kids were traumatized by this doki doki bait and switch.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Essentials #52: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night


After the travesty that was Stunt Race FX for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, I could not see myself hopping aboard that train to the polygonal future that would be the next generation of gaming. Within that depression, however, one game above all others took me gently by the hand and assured me that it would not be so bad. Released for the Sony PlayStation in 1997, Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (AKA Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight in Japan) was a new 2-D installment in a classic series, and that intrigued me. But as I played, I realized that it was presenting me with, not a futile effort to cling to the past, but a future that had more than just fighting games to offer me. A sublime blend of side-scrolling action-platforming, open-ended adventure, and RPG elements, it was by far the richest Castlevania game yet.

At first glance, Symphony of the Night was a very familiar experience. Like past Castlevanias, it was a 2-D action-platformer with fairly simplistic combat mechanics, and some graphics were even ripped directly from previous 16-bit installments. In some ways, it was even kind of a step back from Super Castlevania IV, where Simon Belmont had omnidirectional whipping skills and a dedicated button just for his sub-weapons. As Alucard in Symphony of the Night, the player could basically only slash directly in front of him, and it was back to pressing up+attack to use sub-weapons. Super Castlevania IV was a truer next-generation evolution of the controls, while Symphony of the Night stuck to the sound fundamentals but took those basics a longer way. The idea was to preserve the essential Castlevania feel while still greatly expanding the experience as needed for a new generation of gaming.

Borrowing as much from the SNES classic Super Metroid as from previous Castlevania titles, Symphony of the Night ditched the linear sequence of self-contained levels in favor of more open-ended progression within a unified environment. A player's early progress would be limited to wherever Alucard could walk or jump to, and as acquired tools and abilities expanded his reach, the player could open up previously inaccessible areas. By about the midpoint of the adventure, Alucard would have nearly all of his abilities, at which point the player was free to explore wherever and in whatever order they pleased.

The earlier titles had boasted sharp 2-D mechanics and compelling level and boss designs, but their linear nature had made for finite, predictable affairs, and what replay value existed had been due to a high degree of difficulty that forced players to endure repeated failures along the road to victory. The shift to more adventure-oriented gameplay gave players a longer-form game that they could play in increments over the course of many sessions, though the freedom to chart your own course and at your own pace made for an addicting experience that could be hard to step away from. The format would not have worked for every 2-D game, but, considering that the series always took place in Dracula's castle anyway, it made perfect sense for Castlevania. The marvelously integrated design of the castle included both new and familiar settings, including a chapel with gorgeous stained glass, fishmen-infested waters, a massive library with shelves of enchanted books, and the classic Medusa Head-filled clock tower. Castlevania was made fresh again for at least one more generation, even as so many of its former 8-bit contemporaries failed to transition gracefully.

The Metroid-inspired blend of action and adventure breathed new life into the Castlevania series, but the RPG elements were no minor addition either. Indeed, what made Symphony of the Night so addictive and replayable was the abundance of items and equipment to collect. Alucard had slots for weapons, shields, multiple pieces of armor, and even equippable food items. And unlike far too many loot-heavy games, where you are expected to collect for the sake of collecting, the hidden stuff in Symphony of the Night was actually cool.

In Final Fantasy XII, the "almighty" Zodiac Spear was the holy grail of secret items, and it was a complete and utter waste. Not only was it impossible to discover without reading ahead in a strategy guide or with some other external aid, but even once you got it, it was just a regular spear. It was statistically more powerful than other weapons, but not enough so to significantly impact the player's strategy. Ultimately, the player's pursuit of it would have to be driven only by a compulsive need to collect everything.

In Symphony of the Night, there was no shortage of obscure crazy powerful or crazy weird items that were actually worth the time and effort to find and employ. Take the Sword of Dawn, for example, which could be swung like a normal sword, but which also included a hidden ability that allowed the player to summon up to ten undead warriors to aid Alucard in battle. There was also the almighty Crissaegrim, a sword that slashed dozens of times per second, and which could be swung while moving, transforming Alucard into a walking wood chipper. Or the silly Axe Lord armor, which transformed the player character into one of the classic Axe Armor enemies. Or the Secret Boots that very discreetly increased Alucard's height and had no other effect. The coolest item may have been the Shield Rod. A mediocre weapon on its own, its hidden ability brought out the secret power of any paired shield. Most of these were negligible stat boosts, but the Shield Rod+Alucard Shield combo turned Alucard into essentially the most awesome God mode ever. He could run through rooms while sticking out his shield and, not only would enemies most likely die instantly on contact as though struck by the most powerful weapon in the game, but touching anything with it would restore Alucard's health and hearts AND grant him a period of invincibility. It wasn't a very fair tactic, no, but it was a hidden technique that the average player might never happen upon, and I say, if the programmers are going to go to the trouble of hiding something in their game, it should be exciting when a player discovers it.

The RPG aspect was not limited to the items and equipment. Alucard would level-up and grow as the player gained experience by defeating enemies, and in a marked but not immediately obvious departure from tradition, your character's level and statistics probably played a greater role than your manual skill as a player. Even without resorting to Alucard Shield tricks, most players would have found the game's difficulty horribly unbalanced. At the beginning of the game, a common Axe Armor could take about eight hits to fell, and you would need to work in those attacks in between carefully dodging the cycle of varied and deadly axe tosses. By about the halfway point of the adventure, however, defensive play would become obsolete, as, even without the player trying, Alucard's stats by that point and access to healing items would render most enemy attacks merely irritating. The complete absence of challenge in the latter half was probably Symphony of the Night's weakest aspect, resulting in a string of disappointing bosses who looked imposing but went out like scrubs, including the most pathetic Dracula the series had ever seen.

Personally, I did not lament the lack of challenge too greatly. This was actually the first Castlevania that I ever completed, and there was enough to the action to make it fun, if not always the most intense. In addition to his assortment of weapons and the traditional heart-consuming Castlevania sub-weapons (dagger, axe, holy water, etc.), Alucard's gameplay encompassed multiple other sub-systems. He could transform into bat, wolf, and mist forms as needed to access certain areas, or just for certain offensive or defensive purposes. He could summon servant familiars, including fairy, demon, and bat, to fight alongside him for most of the game. He even had some semi-secret magical spells that were performed by inputting fighting game-esque button combinations. Maybe he couldn't whip in eight directions, but this versatility, along with his hidden Alucard Shield powers, really gave you the sense that, as the son of Dracula, you were controlling a nigh omnipotent character, and maybe that was why the game was such a cakewalk.

I even liked the story of Symphony of the Night, which gripped players right off with one of gaming's most awesome opening sequences. A direct sequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (AKA the original Dracula X), Symphony of the Night began with a recreation of the final battle from that game. Players would take control of Richter Belmont in his legendary duel with Dracula. The fight was of course much easier than it had been in the original game--it was in fact impossible to lose this prologue battle--but it nevertheless very effectively and immediately engrossed players in this never-ending struggle between Dracula and the Belmont clan.

The story lost a little something for audiences unfamiliar with Dracula X and Richter Belmont, which probably included the vast majority of players, given that Rondo of Blood was at the time a Japan-only release for an obscure platform, while Castlevania: Dracula X was a very rare and uncelebrated SNES game. But players hopefully would have known the incorruptible Belmont name, as well as the story of the immortal Count Dracula, who was supposed to return only every one hundred years, hence why almost every original Castlevania story had to star a different Belmont. A delicious twist lay in wait, therefore, when, four years after that prologue, the main game would begin with the slumbering son of Dracula awakened by a disturbance in the balance between good and evil. Soon enough, both Alucard and the player would discover but not understand why it was that Richter himself was the one this time attempting to resurrect Dracula, resulting in the reversal that had the player controlling a vampire in order to take down a Belmont.

Two years later, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver would also play the "hero gone bad" twist, but how many people honestly cared about Kain before that game? Or after? Having a Belmont as the antagonist was equivalent to turning Link or Mega Man evil. It was blasphemy, yet compelling in its perversity. Of course it would eventually be revealed that Richter was under the mystical influence of another's power, but his false motives nevertheless made a scary kind of sense. What need for the shepherd, after all, when the wolves have all gone?

So maybe Richter's turn was a deception, but a player could still have slain him and gotten the bad ending without ever realizing it. Saving Richter meanwhile yielded another fantastic twist. At 100%, the game was only half-complete! Upon freeing Richter, Alucard would discover a portal to an inverted version of Dracula's castle. Not only did this double the amount of map to explore, but the uneven ceilings that now formed the ground made for some sick walking. That it was navigable at all was a testament to the developers' foresight in blueprinting, which had been there all along hidden from the unsuspecting player, but the upside down journey made for a furthermore appropriately corrupted progression toward the true evil.

Finally beating the game then unlocked the ability to play as Richter through the main game. Richter's mode provided a more classic take on the gameplay. He did not level up and could not collect items. He didn't even have a sub-screen. Even his HUD was classic--he had a health bar instead of hit points. Because Richter could not grow stronger like Alucard, his was a more cruelly balanced adventure. For the first half at least, he just destroyed everything with his whip, or he could use his "Item Crash" super attacks to wipe out almost every boss. Also, because he could not unlock special items or abilities to open up locked areas, they just allowed him free rein to make a straight shot to the end. As the late-game enemies grew stronger in anticipation of a high-level Alucard, however, Richter's fixed strength would feel increasingly inadequate, and it became especially hard to get around in the inverted castle, where his lack of a double jump made it a real chore to navigate the uneven terrain. Richter mode was a novelty, but it was cool to toy around with his unique moves for maybe an hour, and the unlockable extra character was something I subsequently looked forward to in every Castlevania thereafter.

As much as it was a culmination of so much of that I loved in the previous generation of 2-D games, it was also for me an introduction to what was newly possible with the CD-ROM format. The story was bookended by pre-rendered movie sequences, and all dialogue was fully voice-acted. Looking back, the movies were very cheaply produced, while the voice acting would become notorious as an example of bad video game acting. It was all very exciting for me at the time, however, and while I do not wish to sound like an apologist, I would insist that the voice acting was actually a rather far cry from something like Resident Evil. No, the performances were not good, but the voices at least matched the characters pretty well for the most part. Alucard was the exception, his voice way deeper than I would have expected coming from a man so youthful and effeminate in appearance, but I adjusted quickly and now have a hard time imagining him speaking with any other voice. Despite his looks, he was after all a centuries-old and very weary being, as well as the inhumanly powerful son of Dracula himself. On reflection, it was right that he had the maturity and authority of a deeper voice.

If there were just one game that I could go back and experience again for the first time, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night would be it. Yet, as I played it roughly a decade ago, I was not vainly hoping to relive an experience from the past. I did not go saying to myself, "Boy, I didn't know they still made games like this." No, what I thought to myself then was that I had never played a game this good before. That is the feeling that I have continually sought ever since, and that is what I will continue to search for as I look forward to all that gaming produces.

Additional Information

1998 brought a Sega Saturn port of Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight to Japan only. This version apparently suffered from performance issues because it was not optimized for the Saturn hardware, but it attempted to make up for those shortcomings by adding a few new areas, a few new items, a few new bosses, and the option to play as Richter's sister-in-law, Maria Renard, in a mode similar to Richter's. Koji Igarashi, director of Symphony of the Night, was not involved in the port's production, and, once he was put in charge of the series, the Saturn version was deemed apocryphal.

The next notable release of Symphony of the Night came as an unlockable included within Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, the 2007 PlayStation Portable remake of Rondo of Blood. This version is basically the same as the PS1 release, but it includes Maria as a playable character in a form completely distinct from her Saturn incarnation. The PSP release also replaces Rika Muranaka's "I Am the Wind" credits theme with a new Michiru Yamane composition that is rather lightweight but less cheesy overall.

Perhaps most significant among the PSP version's changes is its inclusion of a brand new English voice track. As with the Resident Evil remake and the re-translated Final Fantasy Tactics, the promise of better voice acting for Symphony of the Night was bittersweet for players who had grown attached to the memorably awful original. It's especially unfortunate because the new English track isn't even much better than the old one.

Acting on stage is different from acting on screen, while voice acting is something else again. But supplying voice-over for tiny video game sprites and static portraits is yet different from voicing cartoons. I don't think a more subtle approach was what was called for, especially given the grandiose nature of the material. The new Dracula is less laughably over-the-top, but he is also missing the larger-than-life character of the original performance. There is additionally a distracting tinniness to the PSP recordings. The worst part, however, is the voice-over that reads aloud the opening narration. The PS1 version just let players read it themselves in silence while one of the game's most beautiful pieces of music set the mood. In the PSP version, this narrator talks over that music, and that is unforgivable. The PSP game does also include the original Japanese-language track, so that might be a better option overall, but the Japanese has the same problem of unnecessary voice-over narration in the opening.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Not Safe For Work

Woman A: So how was Where the Wild Things Are? You know, my son is just crazy about that book.

Woman B: Yeah, me too blah blah blah but I think the movie's probably too scary for little, little kids. You should probably wait till he's grown-up. Then it'll be like the movie grew up with you. I think it's really for grown-ups, but for the kid in you, you know?

Woman A: Uh-huh.

Johnson (which is not his real name): He calls me "daddy," but I swear, Officer, he's older than I am!

The preceding was overheard while attempting to enjoy my mid-shift break.

This was the first time I'd seen "Johnson," the resident lovable flaming gay guy, since he was moved out of the main lab ("gen pop," as I call it) months ago. Despite his time away, he was clearly as sharp as ever, as he wasted no time butting in just to crack an obscene joke to climax someone else's conversation.

I had to excuse myself from the break room right then and there, but even I could not deny how practically perfect the witticism was on reflection. I would never have spotted that one, but even if I had, the joke would not have meant as much coming from me, nor from anybody other than Johnson. Now, thanks to him, I'll never be able to hear the expression "the kid in you" without it conjuring up horrible images.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

NonEssential #51: X-Men Legends I & II

You know how some movies can be so bad that they're good? The Uwe Boll Bloodrayne, for example, with its horrendous script, atrocious editing, and miserly production, should have made for a painful experience, yet the earnest amateurism made for a diverting sort of train wreck, and I could not help laughing even as I shook my head at Sir Ben Kingsley's slumming it. In fact, most video game-based movies probably fall under that "so-bad-it's-good" category.

I'm not sure if there is such a thing as a "so-bad-it's-good" video game, however. Bad games are usually so due to flawed design or mechanics, leading to a poor experience that is simply bad, never good. The greater investments of time and money involved in playing a game, versus watching a movie, furthermore make it difficult to recommend a bad game for any reason. And while bad movies can gain cult followings through home video and television, video games do not get such second chances. A good bad game experience would likely have to be very short and probably free, so that the player could still walk away laughing before their good mood dissipated.

Or perhaps otherwise perfectly playable games can have "so-bad-it's-good" moments. Such was the case with Activision's X-Men Legends series. These were some pretty good games--not great, mind you, but pretty good--that I nevertheless remember better for the things they did poorly than for those they did well.

X-Men Legends

The original X-Men Legends, developed by Raven Software and published by Activision in 2004 for all three consoles (GameCube, PS2, Xbox), was actually a very solid title. Essentially an X-Men-themed dungeon crawler, it attracted my attention with its four-player support.

Although it was marketed as a role-playing game, it certainly did not match my idea of an RPG, which was defined by Final Fantasy and other, predominantly Japanese-developed console RPGs. The overhead hack-and-slash action of X-Men Legends characterized a particular sub-genre of Western RPG that had its roots in PC gaming, although it also bore some resemblance to Atari's arcade classic Gauntlet. I wasn't very familiar with the design, which was nothing like Final Fantasy, and I approached X-Men Legends as more of a cooperative beat 'em up.

That worked pretty well in the early going, as I happily punched, kicked, and threw my enemies about the destructible environments. Occasionally I would mix in a superpower (although these puny attacks were not nearly as cool as they should have been). Then I realized that the boss fights were completely lame, and there was actually very little of either skill or strategy involved in the gameplay. Even Magneto, ostensibly the main villain for most of the story, was basically a regular dude in combat. The only difference between him and his underlings was that he had more health and did more damage. Fighting him still came down to just running up to him and punching him repeatedly until he plopped to the floor with no ceremony. When we faced him, he wasn't even the last enemy to fall in that fight, and, even as his lifeless body lay on the floor, the battle would not end until we took out one last stray subordinate.

The bigger problem with X-Men Legends was that it was not multiplayer at all times. Rather, the party size would occasionally be limited as dictated by the story. That was truly a shame, because the story was awful.

The Marvel superheroes were originally appreciated for the depth of character they offered over most of their antecedents. They were not just gods and lunatics but fleshed-out people, with dreams and anxieties, who would face realistic life problems both in and out of costume. In the case of the X-Men specifically, the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run of stories that remain the franchise's most enduring was full of melodrama to match the adventure.

None of that came through in X-Men Legends.

X-Men Legends implemented a very lousy conversation system that included an unconvincing false element of interactivity. When speaking with a character, the player would be presented with a list of questions to ask, each one resulting in a voice actor very slowly reciting an answer that sounded completely unnatural. This was not conversation at all; there was no branching or anything, so the "dialogue" consisted just of you selecting one question, listening passively as the character answered with their lengthy life story, then moving on to the next question in the list, which would yield the next chapter of that life story. There was nothing resembling a realistic interaction, so the story was nothing more than a series of dungeons and boss fights.

Worst of all may have been the player character's own dialogue. Because it was possible for the player to be controlling any of a number of different characters for most of the game, this dialogue would always be completely generic, yet it could also be oddly elaborate. Reflecting neither the specific character nor the player, it took you further out of the story when, after hearing a lengthy speech by Patrick Stewart's Xavier, you then had to read your own character's response in silence.

The closest thing the game had to a real main character was Magma, the young mutant recruited by the X-Men at the beginning of the game. Between missions, the player would have to control her while exploring Xavier's mansion, which was essentially the one town in the game, where you could shop, run errands, or just talk to the other X-Men. These bits of story worked a little better, partly because Magma didn't have to be saddled with generic lines, and partly because it made sense for her to ask the X-Men stupid questions since she was still new. What made these segments a real chore, however, was that they were strictly single-player and devoid of action. They were pretty much the last thing I wanted to see in a multiplayer brawler.

The Magma interludes provided breaks for freely roaming the mansion between missions, but the game was otherwise a strictly linear affair, and there was no way to back out of a mission once begun. If you saved in the middle of a stage that was beyond your team's abilities to survive, then you were completely screwed.

That was the game-killing prospect that I nearly faced when the Sentinels descended upon New York. After a few early ambushes, the Uncanny X-Men were down to just Wolverine--literally every other member of the team, including all reserves, had been KO'd by these Sentinels, and I didn't have the money to buy them back their lives.

After a narrow escape to catch my breath, I began to actually strategize for the first time in the game. Rushing in hadn't worked with four men, so a lone X-Man stood no chance. Instead, I would approach the Sentinels cautiously, luring them out one at a time. Although even a single Sentinel could kill Wolverine in two hits, I was much smarter than them, and, so long as I played defensively and carefully picked my chances, I would have the advantage in the one-on-one. If I did take a bad hit, I would simply flee to some distant corner and wait for Wolverine's healing factor to slowly restore him, after which it was back into the fray.

The last man standing, I had to take out a half-dozen of these steel Goliaths in that manner while my fallen teammates watched, depending on me to get them back into the game, and each time gasping when some punk robot landed a lucky blow. It was a slow and methodical process for me, and many times I found myself straddling the razor's edge, but finally, a graveyard of dead metal beneath my feet, I had earned enough money to resurrect a few teammates, though, after taking down a team of Sentinels by myself, I wasn't sure I even needed anyone else. With everything on the line, I had proven beyond all shadow of a doubt why Wolverine was the most hardcore of all X-Men.

Was that a great moment in gaming? Maybe, but it was also kind of awful, as, more than just Sentinels, what I was really fighting to overcome was progression-halting design that would be considered broken in any RPG.

X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse

Raven and Activision's sequel, released in 2005 for all major platforms, was where things really got crazy.

X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse improved upon its predecessor in many ways, but it was also a lesser experience in others, and overall it was just more of the same.

Rightly recognizing that the multiplayer was the first game's biggest draw, Raven included support for four players throughout X-Men Legends II. Along with this, they also removed the boring Magma segments, although I would gradually come to recognize this as a double-edged sword, as the loss of the rookie's perspective to relate to exposed just how exceedingly poor the narrative and characterization really were. Worse yet, as its title suggested, Rise of Apocalypse was based on the really bleak and ugly period of mid-80s and 90s comics, which, among other terrible characters, gave us the four-armed and head-bodied Sugar Man, who appeared in the game as a minor boss.

The major boss fights, meanwhile, were probably the area of most marked improvement, as they were all basically modeled after the one good fight in the first game--the very difficult final battle that required players to move together as a unit to operate several switches spread about a room, all while taking heavy fire from a giant foe.

But what I mainly remember are the bugs.

The first X-Men Legends was already not the most polished game, but the sequel must have been rushed to market after the original's success convinced Activision of its viability as an annual series. As a result, X-Men Legends II was riddled with glitches that ranged in severity from minor to completely heinous.

Like the original, the game was of course rife with text errors and other minor bugs, such as a character's name accompanied by a different character's face in the dialogue box.

At the end of the first mission, we came across the first more serious bug. As Juggernaut, I tried to initiate a conversation with Professor X, and what I got back was a completely blank dialogue box. Or, rather, it brought up the usual list of questions, but all the text was invisible. As I scrolled up and down the list of invisible options, I never even knew what question Professor X would be answering in response to each of my button presses. Panic nearly set in, however, when I lost my place in the list of questions. Unable to tell which was the bottom option, I found myself repeating questions and unable to find the one response that would just make Patrick Stewart shut up and end the conversation. A bit of patience got me what I wanted, so it was not too serious an issue, but it was such a bizarrely stupid bug that my brother and I even joked that maybe Xavier was giving Juggernaut a hard time because of their history of hostility in the comics.

That bug was just the beginning. At one point, my brother and I were flying around the city as Iron Man and Storm. During the course of the first game, it had become clear that flying was the preferred way to get around, to the point that we rarely played as non-flying characters. But I noticed that, while my Storm hit an invisible ceiling very quickly, my brother's Iron Man was able to soar much higher. This was especially odd because I knew that Storm had had more points invested in her flight ability. But Iron Man was a hidden character, after all, so maybe he was just special.

I knew something was not right, however, when he just kept ascending. As Iron Man soared ever higher, the details below him grew smaller, until eventually, like a scene out of Dark City, it was revealed that there was no outside world beyond the walls of that city, which became just a speck floating in a field of infinite blackness. Whatever designs he may have had on escaping were dashed, however, when he ran out of gas and plummeted to the ground, dying instantly on impact. As we progressed further into the game, the bug would recur many times. And it had nothing to do with Iron Man or that stage--it could happen anywhere and with any flying character.

A more freak incident occurred when our X-Men/Brotherhood coalition, led by none other than Magneto, went in half-cocked to lay siege to an enemy factory. Midway into the level, a gang of robots suddenly burst into the room and decimated almost our entire party within seconds. Once again, my Wolverine was the lone survivor, but even he could not win this fight by himself. Against the Sentinels, I had managed to reduce it to a series of simple one-on-one engagements, but here I was facing a large mix of fast and aggressive machine men. My only option was to flee.

Because of the overhead camera, I could not see very far behind me as I fled, but I could hear the metallic clangor of the stomping feet behind me, and, to my horror, the sound would not subside no matter how far I got. In this chase sequence more horrifying than anything in Resident Evil, all I could do was keep running and never look back. Their noisy footsteps did not stop following me until I got all the way back to the X-Jet and flew back to base to regroup.

But the machines' pursuit had not been the only sound echoing in Wolverine's ears.

The entire time I was running, I also had to hear Magneto's repeated cry of "I am in need of assistance!" But Magneto was dead! Right before I was forced to turn and run, I had seen it all clearly with my own eyes--a two-ton steel giant shattering Magneto's every bone with a massive backhand to send him flying into the wall, then the former Master of Magnetism's body sprawled motionless across the floor. I would never have left a man behind unless I knew for certain that he was already gone. More importantly, the game would not have allowed me to scroll a living team member off the screen. So how could he still be screaming?!

Then I looked up at Magneto's vitals on the heads-up display and noticed something odd. Although his health was completely empty, his portrait was not grayed out like the other dead team members. Some bizarre glitch had left him in a state that was neither living nor entirely dead, where the only thing he could still do was yell for help. It was all in vain of course. There were no resurrection potions in this game, so there was nothing Wolverine could have done for him.

I should clarify that even dying characters would not call out for help on their own. The dead Magneto was screaming incessantly because my brother, who had been controlling Magneto, was still deliberately spamming the "call for assist" button. The way the game operated, players would always have a party of four characters, with the AI filling in any spots not taken by human players. The AI would stick to conventional punches and kicks unless the player pressed the assist button, which would instruct the AI to use a superpower. Usually, this would be preceded by the player's character yelling out some stupid line calling for help. Magneto's clips were by far the funniest, as he would spout such improbable dialogue as "Help me conquer my enemy!" Alternatively, characters would also yell things out as they defeated enemies or used their own superpowers. Sadly, the most common sound was that of your character informing you that you could no longer perform a move because you had exhausted the special meter. This would result in the even more unlikely Magneto line, "I cannot do that because I lack the power."

But there was one major game-breaking glitch that was not so funny. A little over halfway into the campaign, our game locked up in the middle of a fight. After a little digging online, I found out that this most egregious of bugs was actually a very common issue among players of the game. The cause was all the item and health drops that scattered about the floor whenever we defeated enemies. In X-Men Legends II, these drops never blinked out. If you didn't collect them, they would just remain where they were until you did. And unlike in the first game, it was possible to return to earlier stages in X-Men Legends II, and, sure enough, the items you left behind would still be there. Add in the fact that enemies respawned and you could have potentially an infinite number of prizes littered across the game's maps. But the game console hasn't got infinite RAM; eventually the number of dropped items stored in memory has got to hit an upper limit, and then something's gotta give. It's common sense.

In X-Men Legends II, that breaking point was practically unavoidable because we simply could not pack everything we came across, especially since most dropped pieces of equipment were useless to us. Always we would be taunted by these "Nanobelts" or "X-Armors" that required us to be ten levels higher before we could equip them, at which point there would surely be some new "Nanofiber" that was twenty levels stronger than that. Eventually we just stopped collecting them. Big mistake. After the game-freezing bug hit us, we had no choice but to stroll backwards through the game to find and proactively destroy all stray items lying on the ground. The most disgusting thing about this bug was that it was so commonly encountered, and the cause so elementary, that Raven and Activision must have known about it, yet they shipped the game out in that state anyway.

Both X-Men Legends titles were seriously rough games, but they were also some of the best cooperative four-player experiences of the last generation, and though there may not have been a lot of competition in that category, that they were even generically mediocre still made them worthwhile. I had a lot of fun with them, but, crazy as it may sound, I remember them best and most fondly for the terrible (yet amazing) moments.

* * * * *

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance

After the two X-Men Legends titles, Raven and Activision decided to expand the scope of the series to encompass the entire catalog of Marvel superheroes. The result was Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, released in 2006 for all major platforms.

I'm actually still in the middle of this game. I've been playing it on and off because the game is kind of a chore. The idea of X-Men Legends with a greater mix of Marvel characters sounded pretty cool, but I think, with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, the series may have finally become just a bad game.

There are some improvements. The most significant is the inclusion of an "arcade" mode. Not only does it feature a fun arcade-style scoring system, but it makes for a less frustrating experience by allowing dead characters to automatically resurrect mid-fight after a short time, so long as at least one other player stays alive during that time. It basically prevents any encore of my "Wolverine vs. Sentinels" episode, although, taken another way, it actually puts a new spin on the "last man standing" strategy, only replacing Wolverine's healing factor with the universal resurrection element.

The tradeoff with arcade mode is that you can't have any AI-controlled characters in your party. While the AI may not be especially helpful, the downside of losing them is that you cannot spam the assist button to hear the ridiculous dialogue that has always been one of the best/worst parts of the experience.

Where the game suffers is in the lack of character variety. A more all-encompassing Marvel game should have taken the series in the opposite direction, but, in practice, the characters all feel largely the same because they do not have distinct functions as before. In the X-Men Legends games, you needed Iceman to create ice bridges, Jean Grey to telekinetically operate switches, and Colossus to move heavy objects. There is almost none of that in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. It's just a lot of fighting, and every character handles that about the same. I suppose, as part of the streamlining process, the idea is to spare players having to constantly swap out characters just to progress, but, while the intention may have been to allow players to use only whichever characters they like, the result is that I don't really care who I use, because nobody feels unique. For a game based around superheroes, that's nearly a deathblow to the experience.

The story is still crap, the dialogue terrible, and the game still extremely unpolished, but there has been nothing so interesting as the bugs in X-Men Legends II. The funniest one I've come across involves the background NPCs that will walk around in circles whenever you're in the middle of a conversation. Sometimes their paths will intersect with a static character's position, so, for example, while my Captain America is standing engaged in conversation, some dude might walk into him, and, instead of turning and going around, the guy will repeatedly bump his body and shake, as though he's humping Captain America, who seems so absorbed in the boring talk that he doesn't even notice what is extremely distracting to the player. This has happened more than a few times, and there's nothing random about it.

So far, the best part of the game was when the villain Arcade transported the party into a spot-on recreation of Activision's Atari 2600 classic Pitfall!, complete with blocky Marvel sprites and archaic platforming mechanics. It's a cool and unexpected moment, but, honestly, when the best part of a game is its inclusion of a much older game that I never liked to begin with, that's not a good sign.

As with the X-Men Legends games, I bought this mainly because there is a terrible dearth of even just competent local co-op games for more than two players. But this game is so lackluster that my teammates have completely abandoned me.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 just came out, but I think it's safe to say that I'm done with this series.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Dirty Job

Have you ever wondered about the process of the restroom sanitation staff? If your answer is no, then you had better stop reading now. It's not a profession often examined closely in film or television, or even reality TV. After suffering some unsettling close encounters, I can understand why.

Some months back, I happened into the workplace restroom while Alberto of the cleaning staff was in the middle of a job.

Usually they have up a "closed for cleaning" sign while they are working, but there was no such notice this time. I wondered if perhaps Alberto (which is his real name) had simply forgotten, if perhaps I should not have been there. I took in a quick view of the room, however, and I concluded that this was not a full job; he had his cart of water with him, but he was not mopping or doing anything else that should have required a traffic-free environment. No, Alberto was busy scrubbing a urinal, and since I was only there to wash my hands before going to lunch, I decided it was fine for me to be in and out quickly.

With the sinks opposite the urinals in this arrangement, I could see Alberto's back in the mirror. He was working with a conventional toilet brush. I noticed that he was dipping the brush into the bowl's own water and using that to scrub the walls of the urinal.

I must confess, I don't do a lot of toilet cleaning myself, so I was surprised to learn that this was how it was done. What was the use then of that tub of water he dragged along, which I had always assumed was filled with cleansing chemicals? But I couldn't think of any approach that would have been much more sanitary, and Alberto was a professional after all, so I wasn't about to tell him how to do his job.

Then I caught something more disturbing. From scrubbing the urinal interior, Alberto then proceeded directly to use the same toilet brush and the same toilet water on the flush lever.

Okay, so the urinal is dirty, and the urinal handle is also dirty. That's not news, am I right? That's why the last thing we do in there is wash our hands.

Well, not quite, and it was my next restroom run-in with Alberto that I witnessed something truly scary. He was using the same toilet brush to scrub the restroom door's steel push plate! Not only would a simple towel have been a more efficient instrument for this job, but the use of the toilet brush effectively negated any benefit from washing one's hands before exiting. And the audacity of Alberto to do it right in front of me!

Yes, I already knew that the push plate was also dirty. Dirty people put their dirty hands on it after all. That's why I always used a paper towel to handle any restroom door. Now I knew I was not being excessive. If anything, I may not have been cautious enough. From that day forward, I made sure, given the option, to only exit the restroom by using the kick plate. With my foot, I don't possess the same level of precise control as I would with my hand, so anybody on the other side had better watch out, but these are the methods that ugly truth has driven us to.

Today I ran into Alberto again in the restroom. This time, he was not just the custodian but also a "client," so to speak. After he finished enjoying the fruits of his labor, he walked directly out--no flush, no hand washing. These are the people that we trust to keep our workplaces clean. Perhaps he knew better than to touch anything in that restroom (although he still had to push the door to exit).

In a somewhat related grievance, the management promised us months ago, after requiring us to clear our desks of personal items, that a benefit would be that the custodial staff would be better able to clean our areas in the evenings. Well, I've had to watch the dust pile up on my practically empty desk several times now, each time ultimately cleaning it myself. So what did we gain?

Yes, it's a dirty job all right.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Essentials #50: Shadow of the Colossus

2001's ICO was not the best-selling PlayStation 2 title, but the groundbreaking work of interactive art gradually came to define Sony's console as its most critically lauded first-party release. The system had other commercially successful and well-reviewed exclusives, but ICO was the one title that PS2 owners could always point to as a unique experience that could not be found on any past or contemporary machines. So as the PS2 approached the end of its life cycle, fans were eager to see what else Team Ico and director Fumito Ueda could give them. In 2005, the answer arrived in the form of Shadow of the Colossus (known in Japan as Wander and the Colossus), another transcendent game to redefine and essentially close the book on the story of the PS2, much as ICO had begun it.

Bearing more than a few similarities to Ueda's previous game, Shadow of the Colossus again tossed players into the middle of a foreign, seemingly post-human world with little exposition. The protagonist this time was Wander, a young warrior bearing a magical sword. His only living companion in the game's desolate setting would be his horse, Agro. This time around, the girl in the story was already dead before it began, so Wander's quest was not to protect her but to resurrect her. He would attempt this by striking a bargain with a disembodied entity, which would instruct him to slay sixteen colossi spread across the land. That was about all that the player would be told, and then it was off to hunt these behemoths.

Although it contained much more dialogue and also included a traditional heads-up display for gameplay purposes, Shadow of the Colossus was even more minimalist in its narrative than ICO. ICO told the player almost nothing about the characters or the setting, but, while the dreamlike world inspired many questions about the backstory, the action and events within the game were not too hard to follow, and the journey was largely self-contained. Ico and Yorda's partnership was one born out of immediacy. Perhaps they had lives before their meeting in the game, but the pressing concern that they shared, which the player also shared throughout the adventure, was to escape the castle that held them both prisoner.

In Shadow of the Colossus, the player and Wander were clearly not on the same page. For Wander, this was a deeply personal quest, but he would disclose little of what he knew to the player. As a result, the game would not grip the player as tightly, as instead of identifying with Ico, I began initially unable to empathize with Wander's circumstances, and consequently I felt a little lost while having to share in his arbitrarily herculean trials. Nor would there be any developments along the way within the game to really alter the narrative from those beginnings; Wander was basically just repeating the same task over and over, and although there were obviously a finite number of colossi to conquer, there was not much besides the decreasing number itself to indicate a progression. Most likely that was why the developers chose to include some tedious exposition at the beginning of the game. Like the voiceover narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, this text did not feel very native to the whole of the work, which was so deliberately spare in its story, but it may have been necessary because otherwise players would never have had any idea what was happening.

Unlike ICO, which proceeded continuously along a linear path, Shadow of the Colossus was structured almost like an open-world game, although its massive environment offered no quests to undertake, no enemies to slay, other than the sixteen colossi. After every battle, Wander would restart back at the central structure, and his magical sword would emit a beam of light to direct him to his next foe. The sword drew only a straight path, however, offering no guidance as to what turns to take en route, and the crudely drawn in-game map was almost no help. The farther away and more hidden in twisted geography the destination was, the more tiring and aimless a journey could begin to feel. Frankly, this was one of my biggest complaints with the design of the game, as I wasted too many hours just trying to find the next fight. But at its most effective, the design gave the player time to pause and reflect as Agro carried Wander across the expanse.

As in ICO, the ruined yet still magnificent architecture littering the landscape would inspire questions about the world. More than that, while wandering to the next destination, the lengthy breaks between battles would provide time enough to wonder about Wander and his quest. In Gungrave, this was the sort of mandatory interlude that would give way to a revelatory flashback. In lieu of any such cut scenes in Shadow of the Colossus, it was my mind that wandered to consider theories for the backstory. What would motivate a man, armed with almost nothing, to scale these living mountains? This was not about saving the world, or protecting yourself or anyone else, or even pursuing revenge. The colossi were terrifying, but they were not terrorizing the land; it was Wander who would actively seek them out to pick a fight. Why? Of course it was to resurrect the girl, but what was she to him anyway? The game would not tell the player much, so the question eventually turned inward as I asked myself, what would I do it for?

The trial-and-error mechanics of many video games could be reduced to sequences of simple questions, but when I arrived at this one, what astonished me was the realization that I had never asked myself that question before. Other objective-based games would tell me my motivation, and even if it was silly or stupid, I would go along with it. This was clearly a game that needed a motivation but did not supply it, asking instead that the player find one by looking within. So the question became, not what the girl was to Wander, but what she might represent to me. A player who could provide an answer to justify the suicidal mission would quite likely find Wander suddenly a character easier to empathize with and more human than any of the nobler heroes in other games.

Shadow of the Colossus may have been pitched as a game composed only of boss battles, but the battles actually played out as puzzles not altogether unlike those that made up most of ICO. The challenge was never in dodging an enemy's attacks and landing your own, but in figuring out how to get on top of the towering colossus. Once you figured out the tricks, the actual sword action was usually very simple, as you would just stab their weak points until they fell. Seemingly testing your wits and resourcefulness, rather than your manual skill, the best of these were probably the most rewarding boss fights I'd ever experienced.

The problem was that many of the puzzles were highly unintuitive. ICO's puzzles also followed some peculiar logic that drew less from common sense and more from a player's video game experience--blocks are to be pushed, levers pulled, and bombs exploded--but at least both the tools' basic functions and the eventual objective would always be clear, and the fine challenge would be usually in how to properly order or assemble the pieces. At its heart, Shadow of the Colossus relied on even more arcane game logic--if it glows, whack it, or if anything seems otherwise conspicuous, it is probably the key to it all, even if you have no idea why. Thus would I find myself standing on a brown disc in the middle of a dirt field, waiting for something to happen, all the while having no idea what the actual plan was until after the result came to pass. Ueda and his team must have even realized at some point that it was just too esoteric; whereas ICO laid the pieces on the floor and left it to the player's imagination to put them together, Shadow of the Colossus would throw out clues in the form of text messages that would pop up whenever the game sensed that the player was just not getting it. These would range from enigmatic ("The armor it wears seems brittle...") to patronizing ("Grab on to the colossus's tail..."), but, much as the opening exposition seemed a concession to help ground players in a story that left them little to latch onto, these messages were basically an admission that the puzzles were not as elegantly constructed as they ideally might have been for an organic experience.

The puzzle-battles could be frustrating in that way, but the game was more downright infuriating in others. Shadow of the Colossus had many technical glitches that were forgivable because it clearly pushed the PS2 hardware harder than any other game, but it also suffered from more serious shortcomings.

As great an enemy as any of the colossi, the camera would almost always be inadequate to contain all necessary information. Because many of the colossi were so huge that, at close range, they took up most of the frame, it was very difficult to maneuver around them to an advantageous position on the ground. It was simply impossible for the camera to capture both what you were running from and where you were running to, so quite often you would be working with humongous blind spots. A pulled-back camera would have been easier to use, but Ueda and his team must have chosen the closer angle for dramatic effect. All things considered, that probably was the right decision for the sensations they wanted to excite, but sometimes the camera would also just wander for no reason during platforming sections. The recurring example would have me hanging from a ledge, needing to jump off and grab onto an opposing ledge, but, because Shadow of the Colossus employed camera-relative controls, as opposed to an absolute character-relative scheme a la Resident Evil, an unexpected change in camera angle would suddenly alter my jumping angle and cause me to miss my target.

I was also foiled often by the loose controls and physics, which were carried over almost exactly from ICO. Like Ico, Wander moved with very jerky motions, operated with delayed response to button inputs, and could only swim very slowly. But the most annoying thing was that, if he was knocked to the ground, it would take him forever to get back up. And instead of trying to make off with Yorda, the enemies in this game would hang around to target you some more. There was one colossus in particular that was not shy about exploiting this prolonged rising period, and it would repeatedly attack me just as I was getting up, leaving me no chance to do anything about it, until finally I ran out of health and had to start over. That was the sort of cheap that would break me out of the experience and leave me seriously wondering if whatever I was fighting for was worth it.

I suppose I should also discuss the horse mechanics. In Shadow of the Colossus, when you mounted Agro, you did not actually directly control the horse, but rather you continued to control Wander, who attempted to control Agro. There were buttons for acceleration and steering, but these were more like suggestions to the AI Agro, who, while never disobedient, could come to a screeching halt if, for example, you leaned too heavily on the stick to make a turn at high speed. The horse was not useful for much other than getting across the map, and its idiosyncrasies were more bothersome than endearing. It was surprisingly effective in select battles, however, where you could largely let it steer itself while you focused on aiming your bow and arrow.

Back to the game's virtues, the same camera that was so problematic when Wander was on the ground became central to the experience once you managed to get on top of the colossus. As it writhed about to shake you off, and you gripped the R1 button to hang on, just as Wander clutched for dear life to the hairs on the beast's back, the wild swings of the camera to track the violent motions of the living creature that had become the stage itself, along with music that transitioned deftly from ominous to triumphant, and even the game's use of the controller's vibration feature, combined to produce a thrill beyond any before felt in gaming. There was a rarely achieved sense of weight to the action, as the world shook and Wander dangled from one arm, and you realized that this Goliath was resisting just as hard as you had fought to get on it, and whoever survived now depended on who was more determined to defy the other. Then, in that moment when it could shake no more, and you could feel its life as though it were a tangible object in your hands, the feeling of victory was almost godlike. If a player drew nothing else from the experience, this sensation alone made it worth playing Shadow of the Colossus.

ICO was a flawed masterpiece. Shadow of the Colossus, in addition to inheriting most of its predecessor's blemishes, also introduced a large number of new and more serious problems. But there are those exemplary titles that approach perfection in their command of established mechanics, and then there are those that shatter expectations by creating entirely new experiences, and those latter are no less masterpieces despite the roughness that comes with the uncharted. It did not matter ultimately that Shadow of the Colossus did not succeed in all technical aspects, because it showed me things I'd never seen before. The case could certainly be made for it being the PS2's best game.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Citizen Game

Michael Thomsen has sparked a lot of community controversy this week with his IGN article and ABC News segment attempting to answer the oft-repeated question, "When will gaming have its Citizen Kane?" Thomsen asserts that it has already arrived in the form of 2002's Metroid Prime.

To give a little background, Thomsen does not even work as a reviewer for IGN, perhaps due to his aberrant views--he has previously praised Haze and Red Steel, two first-person shooters that were almost universally panned. I haven't personally played Metroid Prime, so I can't fairly agree with nor refute Thomsen's opinion, but I do disagree with his approach to the loaded question.

The games that I might consider art--ICO, Ikaruga, Resident Evil--even as they may draw on cinematic techniques, really strike me as closer to painting or music than to film in the ways that they engage players' emotions. Rather than attempt to tell profound and thought-provoking stories, these games use directed interactivity to construct moments that affect us as powerful images or phrases. Of course, I enjoy a good story as well, but I don't know if there are any in gaming that I would consider close to the best in film and literature. Rather, the closer games get to art, the more impossible it becomes to draw direct comparisons to those other narrative art forms. So the question, "When will gaming have its Citizen Kane?" seems to me poorly conceived in a way. I would agree with the implication of the question, however, that gaming is still an immature form that has yet to produce a work of high art comparable to Citizen Kane. So the real question is how long we will have to wait before gaming matures the way film did, or if it even can grow up and break out of its current narrow spectrum.

To me, what holds back gaming as an art form is, not so much the limits of the interactive medium, but rather the practical constraints of the industry. It is simply not feasible for a single artist to produce a major video game work without the backing of a large publisher, and that severely limits the variety of input. Not only are games very expensive to make, but it is exceptionally rare for one person to have the artistic vision as well as the arcane technical expertise--computer programming and art--to even get off the ground with an idea. Working under a publisher, art becomes subservient to business bottom lines, and escapism, most often taking violent forms, is what seems to sell. I think that is truly what is holding back gaming compared to all recognized art forms. While the movie industry may also be largely profit-driven, there are still independent films that can reach a significant audience.

Take Paranormal Activity, for example. An independent "mockumentary" horror film in the model of The Blair Witch Project, it now stands a chance also of duplicating that movie's unprecedented success. Directed by Oren Peli with a hand-held camera and an $11,000 budget, it has received favorable reviews across the board, even earning the praise of Steven Spielberg, while a quasi-guerrilla marketing campaign has generated a lot of buzz. In limited release, it has already grossed several times its production costs, and now Peli has secured a much larger budget for his next film. I have not seen Paranormal Activity, but the story behind it is what blows my mind. It blows my mind because I used to work next door to this guy.

At Sony Computer Entertainment America, Oren was the senior online programmer on MLB 06: The Show, while I was working in quality assurance as a tester principally assigned to the online component. Online was typically the most unstable part of any game, so Oren's name was quite familiar to those of us who had submitted many reports to the defect database; as senior online programmer, he was often listed as the guy assigned to the bugs I found. The relationship between programmers and testers was a delicate one--they often mistook our work as criticism of theirs--so I only once met him in person, when my thumbs were needed to demonstrate a difficult-to-reproduce crash bug that I had written up.

I had heard stories about this guy from the more veteran testers, but he was seemingly better known for his Israeli accent and tacky sweaters than for any of the work he did. During my brief meeting with him, he was relatively professional, but I also noticed that he seemed rather detached and dispassionate about what was to him just a job. That was not unusual among the programmers that I met, and I guessed that it was the crazy hours spent working on a yearly sports title that left these men hollow at the office. Now I know better that his heart was focused elsewhere on something real.

Oren was not really a young man then, and, although I never felt his inferior, his income must have been already several times my own. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel inadequate considering where we have each gone since that encounter. But I digress.

The point is that, while money helps, vision and ambition can more than make up for limits of funding and equipment, and a small, independent team can put together a successful film. I just do not think the same is possible with video games, and I think Oren's case exemplifies that too. Because they are so technical, not just anybody with an idea can realize it as a game. And because they are so costly to produce, it is difficult for profit-driven publishers to justify taking chances. Yet that is really the only way for any art form to grow. Unfortunately, I really don't know how gaming can overcome this impasse toward art. Then again, I still have yet to play Metroid Prime, so perhaps I should get on that.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


The catchphrase for 5th Cell's Scribblenauts for the Nintendo DS is "Write Anything, Solve Everything." It drew a lot of attention at trade shows for its ambitious promise that players would be able to manifest almost any object just by spelling it out. Despite the praise, I remained highly skeptical. How could such a small development team possibly account for all the words a player might pose? Not only would it take a ridiculous amount of labor just to program in all the words and have them tied to objects, but it would be an even more impossible task to ensure that the practically infinite combinations (e.g. cat and dog, cop and robber, water and fire, etc.) played out in logical interactions. Having now played the retail release for myself, I am both impressed and disappointed.

I am genuinely impressed by how many words it is able to recognize. Yes, even working within the strict criteria--only physical objects, no proper names, no shapes, no places, no races or cultures, nothing copyrighted, nothing age inappropriate--you will come across some basic omissions. Sometimes a single object definition is stretched a tad loose to match multiple words. Nevertheless, it works better than I ever would have dreamed. I won't spoil things, but I'll say that it works more often than not, and my attempts to stump the game yielded some of the most pleasant surprises.

The object interaction is not as good, but again it's far better than I would have expected, considering how impossible the concept sounded. Friendly characters pretty much do nothing, while hostiles will destroy everything. Some virtuous characters will target evil ones, but it is somewhat random who will come out on top, making the game not a very good way to settle fantasy battles. Also, animals seem to be arbitrarily either friendly or hostile. That is largely the extent of interaction for lifeforms. Tools and vehicles may sound less exciting, but they are where the real fun is, especially when you get into the science fiction stuff.

Even though Scribblenauts includes no multiplayer modes, the experience is much enhanced when tossing ideas back and forth in real time with others. Actually, I grew mildly frustrated at my own evident lack of imagination. While others were staging Armageddon or somehow reenacting Star Wars, I could think only of copyrighted or obscene terms. I certainly can't blame the game, however, for my own failings.

Unfortunately, the game has more severe flaws that the developers must take credit for. Up to now, I've mostly been describing the interactive title screen, which is probably the best part of Scribblenauts. It's no wonder that the game demoed so well, if trade show attendees only experienced the title screen, where players are free to stage whatever scenarios they want with nothing at stake.

Once you actually get into the main, objective-driven modes, the mechanics fall apart. The game is borderline unplayable due to some horribly misguided design choices. The big problem is that almost everything is controlled via the touchscreen. That includes moving the player character, accessing and typing to the notepad, placing objects, and using or equipping objects with the player character. As has been the trouble with nearly every stylus-based action game, the burden of this many functions is simply too great for the imprecise touch recognition. The more elaborate the scenario, the greater the likelihood that something will go horribly wrong when the game misinterprets your intentions. Too often I would attempt to grab an object to the right of my character, only to end up tapping blank space and sending him sailing off in that direction to his doom. What makes it all so baffling is that the D-pad and face buttons both only control the camera, which is itself surprisingly dodgy in a 2-D game. It's such a shame that, after working so hard to bring the concept to fruition, 5th Cell completely flubbed the more basic platforming elements.

The thrill of Scribblenauts lasted a good hour for me. Those with greater imaginations or vocabularies could get more out of it, but it does fall apart once you try to actually play it as a game. Yet I still feel it is a noteworthy and important title. Broken though it is, it is still a remarkably ambitious design, which may yet be fixed for a future sequel. It is also a game that will have you days later at work suddenly and excitedly wondering what this or that word might yield. That alone makes it worth a try.