Saturday, 27 October 2012

What’s wrong with Skyward Sword (And how to fix it)

  There are two truisms in the world as according to video games.  That (1) everyone makes mistakes and stands to learn from those mistakes, and (2) Nintendo fans comfortably insulate Nintendo, knowing they can deliver flawed products and still turn a profit.  Even now, I suspect that many fans are gearing up for a hissy fit merely on reading the title.  The following is an article themed on “What can we learn about Skyward Sword, now a year on (okay, 11 months, so sue me, for I’ve good ideas).  I know I speak blasphemy against the cult of Ninty here, but I’ll ask invested fans to cool the fan rage for a bit. 

  Skyward Sword feels rushed, and it shows.  The world lacks the many “off the beaten path” discoveries the series is known for, there are precious few NPCs and no town anywhere on the surface, flying comes close to Windwaker for its lack of engagement.  Other criticisms, such as lack of HD, voice, or other common film properties that are gradually dominating video games, are mostly from corners of the gaming world that have no great love of the old ways.  That being said, it’s Skyward Sword that packs in more cutscenes than any other Zelda before it, and that can’t be helping that case.

  So that will be my first advice.  Nintendo, if you want to make a product full of cut scenes, get the best film grads you can and make a Spirits Within.  I can’t promise it will sell as well, but it’ll be a film judged by film standards, rather than a video game judge by film standards.  As things are you are only creating expectations for yourself that you have no intension of reaching, and we don’t and have never wanted you to!

  Second point, I would love some more content.  Zelda’s have always been about two things, overworld exploration, complete with all kinds of goodies and surprises, and dungeon combat with puzzle solving.  Skyward Sword was supposed to be an experiment in blending the two.  You have rather missed the mark, and both feel absent.  The dungeons are each plentifully long, though one or two more never hurt.  What is sorely needed is an overworld with lots of surprises. 

  I suspect that Skyward Sword has become dauntingly pricey, so let’s make this easier for you.  I always wanted to see more of Zelda II, and Skyword Sword, with its heavy focus on sword combat, is the closest thing seen in a while.  Why not drop it some of those old, 8 bit tropes.  Overhead map, hidden caves and dungeons, random encounters with monsters (complete with sprites on the map showing weaker monsters, stronger monsters, and fairies).  One might ask how that works with the existing 3d architecture; the answer is to design and reuse simple terrain-themed theaters and fill them with mobs. 

  Once upon a time, Nintendo, you were a master of this.  You could skillfully fill a world with a few repetitive items and manage their supply and use as to make finding them like winning the lottery.  In many ways, the heavily complicated enemy drop system still does much of this.  But Zelda II is still remembered for its enormous world to explore and vast surprises in every cave, to say nothing of its difficulty.  Skyward Sword comes up shy, not for lack of assets but for lack of a sense of space.

  Nintendo could make whole worlds fill up TVs much smaller and simpler than the ones common today.  I guess we all live in hope that you’ll remember those achievements some day.  I guess it’s why we’re still sticking around.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The PC Museum in Brantford, Ontario

  Monday I spent the evening at the PC Museum (in Brantford), where I volunteer.  The Museum is worth a little bit of traffic, so indulge me as I give it a free plug here.
What drew me to the Museum, aside from being unemployed and looking for a profitable use of free time, was the immense wealth of old machine the Museum collects.  Not just old PCs, but old peripherals, old advertisements, and old games.  If you’ve been playing PC games as long as I have, you’ve probably lost hope too, of ever playing those old gems again. 

  Inevitably, playing the games proved more satisfying than programming them.  The PC Museum caters nicely to this odd niche, preserving in working order showroom versions of some of the most venerable machines ever built.  Favorites like the IBM XT 5150, the Commodore 64, and more versions of Apple PCs than you can shake of floppy at (up, wait, bad idea).  The website also hints at the innumerable number of games that lie buried on the Museum’s shelves.  Just browsing I’ve already found the Ancient Art of War at Sea and the Dr. Radiaki!  Who’s even heard of those old-timers anymore?

  The Museum is in some trouble – long term they may finally get their storage issues sorted out (as it has too much great stuff)!  That could end up saving them some money on storage, rent, and even hydro.  In the short term, they are looking to draw attention to some upcoming fundraisers.  They left a choice hanging in the volunteer meeting, so I’ll not say more about it until the choice is made.  As a standby, if you have money lying around, the Museum will thank you for sponsoring a machine dear to your memory.

  But I do want to draw attention to the following: the PC Museum will be on a feature with Marc Saltzburg for Canada AM on October 25th at 7:45 am.  Well, Sid told me 7:45, but the web announcement calls for 7-8am; I’d just as soon watch the whole thing to avoid missing it.  There is also the Technology and Electronics Show at the Western Fairgrounds coming up in London, Ontario on November 16th and 17th.  If anyone wants to know more about the PC Museum, Sid Bolton, the man with the plan behind this whole thing will be there that Saturday.  The next open house is Saturday November 10th, when the doors of at 13 Alma Street, Brantford Ontario are flung wide open for guests.  Drop-offs are also accepted every Monday 6:30 to 9:00pm, and one can always ask Sid if they can browse the museum on those days.  It’s another thing entirely when all of the machines are off, though, so aim for the Saturdays.

  There aren’t too many people out there focusing on preservation of gaming.  Just from my own web browsing there's The Video Game Museum, who seem to offer pictures, and your guess is as good as mine what else.  I also found a Preservation Group of the Internation Game Developers Association.  They have full thematically curated web exhibits.  Neat!  The PC Museum still offers a well curated space for exploring the old timers of PC design and game design.  Anyone with an interest in PC and gaming history in near range should give it a look, as it really is a amazing effort.

Monday, 22 October 2012

A critique of Retro City Rampage

  This work, almost entirely the work of Brian Provinciano, is a blast to play that ultimately yields to all of the worst inspirations it lovingly adopts.  The core game is inspired by Grand Theft Auto, as realized in an 8-bit engine, and the hook is the innumerable references it works into it.

  The emotions evoked by RCR are joy and a deep satisfying sense of nostalgia.  Generation NES gamers in particular will get a wry grin from every reference to Super Stomps, radioactive plumbers, Super Speed Shoes, and Bionic Commando claws.  Others who might enjoy this game are those who get a wry grin from the Go-go Busters, Bif Wayne as Bifman in his battle against the Jester, and running battles with Green Melee Fighters emerging from a machinegun-toting van called a Shelley, or wry comments from the T Team.  The jokes are fun and entertaining, and recall the good old eighties just as kids of that age remember them.

  Then there’s the bad part.  Arcade gamers may remember the significantly stacked difficulty, and its use to pad the game length.  Even with this padding, Retro City Rampage comes to about 10 hours of playtime.  Some of the later stages are transparent arcade through backs, and Provinciano expresses a depressing fondness for one of the worst NES levels of all time with the clearly Turtles inspired water levels (complete with rotating underwater flamesticks: I’m so conflicted!).  I felt more than a little upset that so many great cameo’s are made so flawlessly integrated as quest givers, and then silently walking out of the narrative never to offer another quest again!  Common Dude from the Paper-Shredder company, don’t you have other missions for us to get rid of those Turtles?  It’s not like the first one could have worked!
The main aesthetic this game delivers on is challenge, and there’s a lot of it. RCR rarely leaves you clueless about where to go, frequently complicating missions in humourous and believable ways: as Player puts it “A tailing mission?  I’m going to have to drink coffees just to avoid being bored to death.”  RCR also delivers on exploration and narrative, as Player is relentlessly pulled back into the main quest looking for new quest givers, new rampages and weapons, and new types of exclusive cars.  It includes a sandbox mode for rampaging and killing cops, but that seems less than satisfying. 

  The visual and audio aesthetics are sheer joy, complete with the option to turn off the NES sprite flicker.  New age gamers would be depressed by the poly count being zero, but the sprite work is top notch and a credit to some of the very best sprite games of yesteryear.  The sounds would likely be torture to modern gamers, but fondly recalls some of the best again, and the truest homage is the complete absence of voice work.  Actually, I think there is one clip only.  Sega fans rejoice!

  For its price of $15, RCR is a good value, and rounds out its offerings with a series of indie games in the arcades, together with a variety of features to change the display settings to match classic old school consoles and computers.  I confess tears of joy with the VBrick settings, despite its 4 shades of green, monotone sound being near painful. 

  Its lasting value as art, well that’s trickier.  I certainly like the game enough to value keeping it, but that’s because it hits all of the classic notes for me.  It feels timeless for a Gen NES gamer, but I can see others finding its thrills and spills more like yawns.  It also doesn’t really do much to advance the medium, despite gleefully looking back and shouting “hoorah!”  Give it a download it you’re looking for a cleaned up version of what gaming used to be.

Friday, 19 October 2012

More on Giana

  Having begun life as clones of Mario in Luigi in a dreamscape eerily similar to the mushroom kingdom, Giana is now proclaimed her own entity, powered by her own development teams ideas. 
I’ve found it desirable to know more of the developers, at least in so far as I can get from their website and Wikipedia (in English, thanks Spellbound!) before continuing with the slightly hurtful words clone and copy.

The Great Giana Sisters (1987)
Giana Sisters DS
Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams

Graphic Artist


Fabian del Priore

Developer Name
Timewarp Productions
Spellbound Interactive
Black Forest Games
Publisher Name
Rainbow Arts
DTP Entertainment/ Destineer
So far Greenlight by Steam

  None of these are terribly unknown developers.  Most went on to develop games like Turrican and Airline Tycoon, common enough names here in Canada.  Armin Gessert has passed as of November 8th, 2009 after 25 years working in the video games industry.  The Giana sisters appear to be his brain children, and his company Spellbound was still working on them with the port of the original to the Nintendo DS in April 2009.   It was November 2011 that the DS game made it to North America.
This is a franchise that overnight made itself a sensation, attracting all the worst attentions of game companies much more entrenched and powerful than themselves, way back in 1987.  Much of Giana’s releases since have been decidedly under the radar, perhaps to the games benefit.  The DS version, visible on Youtube still looks quite similar to Super Mario Bros, including floating bricks, zero gravity gems, and item based transformations. 

  It’s the trailer for Twisted Dreams, and the playable demo, that offers hope for Giana’s future.  If the game turns out like either suggest, Twisted Dreams could finally cement Giana as a full equal in standing to some of the greats of the platforming genre.  Chris Hülsbeck’s composition doesn’t hurt at all.

  But just to be clear, Giana still faces competition.  For one thing, her games deliver on all of the aesthetic appeals (the emotional payouts) that Mario delivers on, from challenge in the form of an obstacle course, to discovery in terms of finding hidden caches of goodies.  There is difference, but these are the main reasons gamers would come to Giana, or have to choose between Giana and Mario. 

  I like to think Giana has an advantage in graphics and sound, if only because the New Super Mario series plays it much too safe for my liking.  Galaxy 2 is another matter; too bad for Mario that nothing like that is coming out soon.  What else might pull these two apart is story, or narrative.  Let me confess, I’ve long ago given up rescuing the Princess, and only now do I ever accomplish that goal when it happens to be the last thing in the game to do before shelving it.  If Giana has a much more compelling narrative than it to would count to her advantages.

  Understand my point: difference is good.  I remember Giana quite unfondly, for despite her great level designs and music she was still a patent clone of Mario.  But that isn’t wholly true now; the demo for Twisted Dreams impresses me, and I cannot wait to welcome her as a genuine, and original, video game heroine with just a hint of an inglorious past.  This also is not going to keep me from enjoying the next Mario, I just wish a little more difference could be seen there…