Friday, 21 December 2012

Circling the Wagons

  Merry Christmas everybody.  And look at the great presents we got!  Political drama and finger pointing!  Yeah!

  Let’s start at the top of this dungheap and descend shall we?  A short while ago, there was a terrible shooting in Newtown Connecticut, that now everyone is talking about.  The perpetrator is Adam Lanza, and his victims are, for the most part, children.  Nobody knows why he did what he did.  I don’t support any of his actions and I imagine those I shall speak against today don’t either.  Are we all clear on these facts?  Great!  From here, we descend.

  The shooting has started tongues wagging about gun control, and this is now being discussed by Obama administration at the highest levels.  Politically, the first instinct is to address the ease of access to weapons.  There’s a bunch of studies about how America trails the world in gun control and leads in gun violence.  And this has provoke defensive, even shameful responses.

  Senator Jay Rockefeller has used this time to prepare a motion to study the effects of violence in media, with a particular emphasis on video games, specifically to “…examine whether violent video games/programming causing kids to act aggressively or otherwise hurt their wellbeing…”  The timing is tactless, if nothing else, and smacks of a connected Senator trying to change the dialog away from gun ownership and proliferation to the media’s often disproved ability to program children to violence.  I repeat that while Adam Lanza is known to have been active in a technology club, motive, especially motive rooted in media images, cannot be known at this time.  

  The NRA, equally tactless, has at least found something palpable, shall we say the elephant in the room, about video games to latch on to as their scapegoat – the fantasies of violence and modern weapons.  NRA executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has now made history in trying to pin the shooting on video games, choosing perennial whipping boys Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Splatterhouse and, remember these guys, Mortal Kombat, as the cause of all of this suffering.  He at least goes full tilt into this dillusion – the solution, according to the NRA, is not fewer, better regulated guns, but more guns and more people to shoot them.  Mr. LaPierre suggests round the clock armed guards at every school in America.  That will really help with the dozens of problems schools have with being seen as prisons by their students, being overbudget, and otherwise not being safe places to learn and grow.  I’m sorry Mrs. Smith, Timmy had to hospitalized; he went to the store and got one of those cheap pop cap explosive darts boys play with and the guard on duty had a new hair trigger.

  Every part of this discussion seems tactless and self serving here.  I actually feel dirty living only 500 miles away from this.  In this instance, considering what has happened and moral decency, here is the example that I wish we would all follow.
1)      All sympathies must be directed to the victims and to the other residents of Newtown.  This is not fair, but so few things in this life are.  No one may cheapen these lives or this tragedy.  This has happened, and we pray to God for deliverance or at least guidance.
2)      Allow Senator Rockefeller his inquiry.  The implications of his inquiry, the shame of being singled out for witchhunts and the like, is not fair, but few things in life are, and I really don’t think he can do much with this podium.  His actions are cheap and petty, but he lives in a free country and can take his office to be so cheap if he so chooses.  Voters can object, but they have to vote against him to do so. 
3)      To the NRA, you guys are terrible.  If the human mind can’t take responsibility for its exposure to gun violence in iconographic form, why is more real guns … how could that … what part of the human mind could … no forget it.  Don’t argue with fools.  I hope the NRA gets a good sized slice of humble pie, and I hope that it comes not from government, not even from the victims, but from what I would bet is the large segment of NRA members who are also gamers, and who like the Modern Warfare, gun fetishy types of games that Mr. LaPierre demonizes. 
4)      For America, and the world, I hope we can finally do something here.  Guns are not just tools for killing, they are tools for automated killing, they make these sorts of murder sprees more than the results of a deranged mind, they propel those deranged minds to great achievements.  Achievements that we do not support.  Maybe we will never ban the gun, maybe that is not what we ever needed, but I hope we can take gun use away from the province of fully automated, idiot proofed killing efficiency.  

  Peace on Earth and good will towards all, folks.  I swear that I shall not wish ill on anyone, regardless of how far into the sh*t they’ve tried to drag us.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Where did you go?

It’s been about a week since my last post, this despite me clinging to notes made during work easily last Wednesday.  So why have I not found time to post?  Lord if I could forget!

  A very significant family tragedy happened last Tuesday.  Then there was a work Christmas party, you know the type that people work hard to accommodate you but only so much?  You can’t really refuse the last chance for all the other co-workers to get together.

  I haven’t slept since, not out of mourning or work, mind you.  Out of hacking.  The flue hit me hard and every one of my days off I have been in urgent, strangled pleading for my life.  Every year I just assume I can handle it; I definitely should have learned.  

  So yeah, this last week has become the week that will never end!  While I’ve fallen back on the 3DS as one of my last truest friends, or at least one of my most flue-proof friends, I haven’t had the inclination, the gumption, or the ability to breathe that I would need to put up a proper blog post.  Things have changed, now, as last night involved the throat finally going raw and letting the phlegm fly out.  Not a pretty picture, but positive nonetheless.  I’m hacking much less often and medication is starting to take effect!  I haven’t even signalled that I was choking since six am. 
I’m hopeful to put some proper content up later tonight.  If you guys need something to chew on, my first moments of joy came on seeing this trailer.

*sniff,* it’s so beautiful!*

Monday, 3 December 2012

Check Please: Adventure Time

  About a week ago I blogged about Adventure Time: Hey Ice King!  Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?  I commented then about the positive feel of the game, while addressing concerns about how quickly I was blazing through it.

  The final tally for Adventure Time is now just under nine hours, a figure that I feared going in.  Others could play for more or less time, mainly because of how long I was wandering around lost on Ice King’s mountain, the first time around.  For clarity, this number includes the extra campaign, which features slightly hard enemies.  They’d have to get a lot tougher to pad out this game.

Value Assessment

  I bought the collector’s version for $40, about average for 3DS titles.  At that price it kept me busy for about a week, playing through one hour sessions at a time.  It didn’t really stand up in terms of length, and if I could address that challenge alone, I might simply add two or more “lands” to the land of Ooo.  The battle difficulty and acrobatic challenges are just about where I wanted them, and fit a nice difficulty curve. 

  The extras look nice, but they don’t add much to the experience.  I never really used the Sword stylus, nor did I need to.  The Book of Beasts and the map seem like nice swag, but are likewise supplementary.

  I found the music to be very satisfying, with a surprising quantity and quality of voice work.  It certainly makes me wish that more work went into the music player.  Unlocked at the end of the second quest, it’s a one button affair that accesses music sequentially and plays until the music is stopped.  Given that all of the music is ambient, a better player with more common features could allow the game to double as a music album.  I know it’s standard for video game music player design, but that standard hasn’t been updated since Kirby’s Dream Land – it might be due for a redesign. 
The question of how worthwhile is this purchase is a tough one.  I’m mostly satisfied, as Adventure Time carries some of the best spritework and music I’ve seen in a while.  Fans of the show will no doubt be disappointed as the actors voices are kept to a minimum.  The short campaign is backed by an extra quest, but it doesn’t lend itself to much replay value. 

  I think I’ll hold on to my copy, and I think I’ll even take in some of the show on Cartoon Network.  The sense of humor is addictive.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Super Mario Role Playing Games

  There might be such a thing as researching a purchase too thoroughly.  I greatly desire to pick up Paper Mario: Sticker Star, just released for the 3DS last month.  Here’s the review link.  Much of the reason why I anticipate it is because of generally positive experiences in the Paper Mario series before.  But money has become tight recently, so rather than just dive in I decided to research the purchase before hand – a typical action for gamers.  And I came across a couple of odd references that make me wonder again about my tastes.

  The article is a column of Iwata asks for Paper Mario, visible here.  In the article, President Iwata interviews his development team, with the notable absence of Mr. Miyamoto, about their roles in the development of Paper Mario: Sticker Star.  Most notable for me was the part where Kensuke Tanabe commented on the value of story in a Mario RPG:

With regard to the story, we did a survey over the Super Paper Mario (April 2007 Wii) game in Club Nintendo, and not even 1% said the story was interesting. A lot of people said that the Flip move for switching between the 3D and 2D dimensions was fun.
-Kensuke Tanabe, from the Iwata Asks column
  This quote implies an authority, specifically the surveys available on Club Nintendo, to claim that story is the least valuable part of the Super Paper Mario experience.  While that certainly is one way to interpret the data, another might be that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems didn’t find the right story to work with.

  I’ve always liked the Paper Mario Series, but in full honesty I loved Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (2004 Gamecube) much more than the 2007 Super Paper Mario.  This I always put down to personal tastes, but I guess a lot of people didn’t like the story of SPM07.  Qualifying what everyone has so much trouble with is beyond me, but as for my preferences, I found Thousand Year Door stretched the old Mario classic story: Peach is kidnapped by the X-Nauts and feeds clues to Mario to lead him to the lost treasures needed to find her, a much more enjoyable tale than SPM.  In fact, I really don’t know how to summarize that story.

  Considering the story from its components, SPM featured a forgettable cast of powers masquerading as characters; they each mutter quirkly one liners, then join the group and never say another word.  The focus moves from the full cast to a subset, one that features Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Bowser, together with four original characters intended to add drama to the mix and serve as antagonists.  Thousand Year Door for contrast includes new antagonists in the X-Nauts and Shadow Sirens, but these enemies aren’t intended to be matched opposites of the heroes, and the heroes themselves are much more full of character, a koopa with a bandage on his nose, an old sea-bomb (a bomb-omp dressed up like an old sailor), and a pink goomba with a miner’s helmet telling all of the monsters weak points.  They seem to fit their surroundings better, as though they had real lives in Rogue’s Port, rather than simply living in boxes until the heroes come to collect them.  Thousand Year Door had its weaknesses story wise, but I found it a nice lurch forward for Nintendo, a company with deep roots in shallow story telling.

  I’m probably reading too much into these things, for after all, Mr. Miyamoto is famous for his claims that Mario’s stories should be kept spare.  There’s a good editorial on that opinion here.  But the Iwata Asks feature suggests a future focus on gameplay without the story.  While I love Mario games for their gameplay, I found the push for platforming aesthetics with flat characters (literally and figuratively) interrupting me to talk about the weather less than enjoyable.  Paper Mario suits the need for a deeper story about the characters of the Super Mario universe, and it works better as a deeper narrative exploration.  While I still plan to give it a play through early in the New Year, I hope my deep memory with the franchise is not going to work against me.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Adventure Time review in progress

  Sorry for the incomplete posts last night.  They’ve been updated today.  The second post has the images from my unboxing, while the first post has been updated with the link to the theme song, posted online by D3Publisher and hosted by Song Cloud. 

  Today I follow up on the mission to review Adventure Time, or the piece that I’ve seen through last night.  As ever, I try to avoid spoilers.

  Visuals and music convey a strong sense of whimsy.  I’ve read reviewers online refer positively to the 8-bit tunes; the developer Wayforward definitely brought their A game to the music department, even if they are not strictly chiptune tracks.  The melodies are strong and memorable, the instrumentation varied, and several tracks overlap each other to make each song.  The overall emotion delivered, of playfulness in a land of fun and goofy characters, stands out strongly and is reinforced with each new character introduced.

  As a reminder, I have no prior acquaintance with Adventure Time in any other form, but distinct personalities are coming across well, showing a certain amount of care went into personification.  The dialog is mostly drole humor and wordplay, and I can imagine a dozen or so references to the show zooming over my head.  The best compliment I can pay here is that familiarity with the source is not a requirement, and fanatical Zelda nerds like myself can still have a fun time with the game despite it.

  Judged in terms of gameplay, the mechanics are simple, adding up to some well-wrought dynamics.  Items are navigated thanks to BMO, the game console partner acting as the lower screen.  He also pauses the game, but critically, he switches between the two.  The system looks deliberate, and adds a nice slice of tension to the game; you must look down to select items in real time, giving enemies a chance to sneak up on you.  The touch interface is perfectly calibrated, and I haven’t yet had need of the sword stylus in the box; my finger has proven most comfortable.  Condiments are a welcome addition, recalling Earthbound brilliantly.  They can make food items more or less effective at healing (or hurting) Finn, and requiring logical experimentation to find the best combos.

  Navigation is done on the overworld map, displayed on the top screen, while BMO optionally displays a map on the bottom screen.  Backtracking is frequent, but Wayforward once again masters the concept by keeping it sparse and uncommon; I’ve never caught myself expecting the need to backtrack, until I enter the dungeons.  Random monsters keep Finn and Jake alert to their changing surroundings, and a small number of items are doled out in battle that can give the player new options on the map.  Jake (the dog) also learns powers that open new sections of the map, and these are always accessed with a minimalist, but always effective press of the A button.

  Towns and social interaction are mostly a game of memorizing where the inhabitants of the Land of Ooo are.  Their professions are mostly evident from their costumes, and when unclear they always tip off their role in the story with the text dialog.  Though not immensely new, it is a system that works, and keeps the player focused on their objectives almost at all times without the need for bossy partner characters or interrupting the flow of the game.  “Hey!” “Look!”  Such annoyances are thankfully gone from Adventure Time.  I have gotten myself lost once or twice, and been stymied for a few long minutes, but got myself back on track just by reading the comments on my quest items.  All and all, I consider this perfect, if a little short (more on that latter).

  Combat is a brilliant return-to-form beat’em up.  Finn sallies into battle against multiple enemies at a go without missing a beat.  Injuries follow carelessness, and the sword will not work when Finn is low on health.  Gameover, a fate I only saw once (stop laughing!), is quick, and reloads the game from the last save point with all your gear intact.  Items increase damage dealt and taken, jump height, restore and sacrifice health, and add fire element to attacks, but as discussed above, you need to look down to use them, raising the tension for those who don’t plan ahead.  The 3D effect remains a beautiful gimmick, the game plays exactly the same in 2D but looks so much better with the depth of field.

  For the most part, the game is a treat for classic gamers, and I predict dozens of “Best references to classic games in Adventure Time” articles to appear on the net in the years to come (but not from me, I promise!).  The one thing that causes me to fear, though, is the length.  I’ve already beaten two of the world dungeons last night, ostensibly the easy half of the game, but still half.  The 3DS records that I’ve been playing for 2 hours and 51 minutes.  I’ve got my hopes up for some kind of twist or extra, hard mode quest, but that’s just speculation at this point.  10 hours is a comfortable minimum for adventure games, but I confess enjoying greatly games with longer play times like Pok√©mon White (150 hours), or games with a lot of replay, such as Kid Icarus Uprising (34 hours total).

  For those fans of the show, looking for an adaptation of the show to their game system, I’m afraid that I have to leave the job of comparing the materials to their source to others.  I’ll chime in again when I’ve beaten the game, but I intend to take my time with it, so expect other content from me in the near future.