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Sunday, Aug 17, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-18

While I’m not the type of person who subscribes to the idea that a gaming system or company has to have a mascot to survive, it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Despite its tremendous stable of long-running characters, Mario will always be identified as the true symbol of Nintendo.  Sega, for better (the ‘90s) or worse (the ‘00s), will always have Sonic standing at the forefront of its stable of games (maybe the angry fella at the center of MadWorld can take over next year).  At one point, Sony had Crash Bandicoot out front, but his star has lost a bit of its luster over the last 10 years or so.  So who’s taken over in the Sony stable?


Some might say that the torch bearer of the Sony brand has now become Solid Snake of the Metal Gear Solid series, and that’s not a bad guess—Snake’s current incarnation of the old man showing the kids how things are done seems particularly à propos for the place that Sony is attempting to take in the modern gaming market.  Still, no series has offered the sort of consistency and quality (not to mention a whole pile of releases) as Ratchet & Clank.  The two of them combined may well be the current face(s) of Sony; immense firepower, copious cunning, and Ratchet’s ever-present smirk seem as though they would serve Sony well, if Sony were ever to push them to the front of a marketing campaign.  They’re even kid-friendly, at least in image, which would help the company cut into the Wii family market.  Are you listening, Sony?  Everyone who was going to buy the PS3 because it’s also a Blu-Ray player has already bought the thing.  It’s time to shift your target.


The Ratchet & Clank series is relevant right now, because the latest iteration of the series is on its way this Thursday as a PlayStation Network download.  I’ve spent a lot of time this month extolling the virtues of the Xbox Live Arcade, so it’s almost as if it only seems fair that I would highlight a PlayStation Network game this week; Ratchet & Clank surely gets the nod over an(other) updated version of Galaga no matter what the updates to the latter.


Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty isn’t so much a new game as it is an episode in the mythology of the duo. as it’s only a three-to-four-hour game.  Still, despite the short length, the consensus so far is that it continues the traditionally consistent and engrossing experience of its predecessors, and that anyone who still likes to play the old pseudo-platforming action/adventure style of game will be richly rewarded by the game, even if the high won’t last all that long.


Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing

Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing


Elsewhere, the ever-controversial Too Human is on its way this Tuesday, a game whose controversy stems not from any objectionable content, but from the tremendous length of its development cycle.  Advance word says that the roundabout way that it eventually came to be may have hurt the play experience, but it still seems like an interesting (and graphically impressive) enough experience to warrant a look, even if it might be destined for bargain bins sooner than later.  Deadliest Catch: Alaskan Storm makes its weekly appearance on the PC release schedule (perhaps it’s time to let it go…), and hey!  It’s Anibus, for the Wii, which surely must be a…sequel?  Prequel?  Who knows?  But chances are, it has something to do with last year’s shovelware stink fest Anubis II.  So there’s that.


Looking forward to anything else this week?  The full release list, and a trailer for Quest for Booty, are after the jump.


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Sunday, Aug 17, 2008
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Sunday, Aug 17, 2008
Glenn McDonald's coverage of GenCon continues...

More updates from GenCon:


I’m a total sucker for old-school, turn-based RPGs, like the first few videogame iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. In these games, you controlled a party of 4-6 characters, and would lead them in turn-based combat against the bad guys. That meant each character would act individually in turn—the elf fires his arrow at the orc, the wizard moves three squares and shoots a fireball at the troll.  Time crawled to a stop in these games. This was combat which in game time was resolved in seconds, actually taking an hour or more to play in “real” time, as you carefully executed each hero’s actions.


Promo art for The Continuum

Promo art for The Continuum


This is the kind of excruciatingly minute control that turns on a certain variety of videogame RPGers—like me. The new D&D games, like the otherwise excellent Neverwinter Nights series, move too fast for my old bones. I like the old-school approach. So I was psyched to check out a new game premiering at GenCon: The Continuum. A hybrid of sorts, The Continuum combines elements of turn-based RPG play with strategy wargames like Axis and Allies, along with a Collectible Card Game (CCG) aspect. I demoed the game in the main convention hall, and man-oh-man, am I sold. This game is going to get me in a lot of trouble, I can tell.


The cover of issue #1 of The Continuum's comic book

The cover of issue #1 of
The Continuum‘s comic book


The Continuum lets you control entire armies of 300-plus individual characters, each of which has its own stat block, equipment, etc. The CCG element comes in when you assemble your armies. You essentially purchase new and better combatants, much in the way you would purchase new cards in the digital version of a game like Magic: The Gathering. Your army becomes, in essence, your deck. What’s really cool here is that the game is entirely browser-based—it’s all managed via Flash animation, and the raw throughput of data they are managing here suggests they have a real design savant on staff somewhere. It’s nicely scalable, too. You can command various squads of up to 20 characters, or even your entire army as a whole, if you want to play quick and dirty. But—if you really want to—you can micromanage all the way down to the level of each individual fighter, commanding each in turn just like in the old days.


The Continuum just came out of beta a couple months ago, and already has a solid, global player base (you can play others online or go solo against the AI). The game has a very cool and compelling narrative chassis as well – check it out for yourself at www.thecontinuum.com.


I spent a good part of the rest of the day attending various writers workshops and symposia (besides writing about games, I also occasionally write for them—I recently realized a lifelong dream by co-authoring a Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook, an advanced geek achievement I am proud of beyond all rational proportion).


A little bit of exposition in EVE Online

A little bit of exposition in EVE Online


There’s an interesting trend happening in this area. As the videogame industry continues its phenomenal growth, companies are starting to recruit science fiction and fantasy writers—and tabletop RPG game designers—to provide the narrative content needed for their rapidly expanding worlds. This is especially the case with MMOs, massively multiplayer online RPGs like World of Warcraft, Everquest, EVE Online, etc. One panelist, speaking at a workshop on freelance fantasy writing, estimated that every new expansion of a videogame RPG or MMO requires about 500,000 words of scripted dialogue to populate the conversation “trees”.


This writing used to be done by the coders themselves, or a small team of copywriters pulled over from the marketing division. And it showed. So the idea that the big companies are now hiring fantasy and sci-fi authors is a win-win for everyone. The games get more literate, and the writers have a new market. 


As always, the most fun to be had at GenCon is wandering the exhibit hall and people-watching. Or troll-watching, or stormtrooper-watching, or what have you. More pics after the jump…


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Saturday, Aug 16, 2008

One of the most intriguing media marriages in quite a while has been the uncomfortable creative partnership between videogames and movies. A lot of the relationship comes from the film industry’s lack of artistic options. Whenever they are in need of something story oriented, they look for the nearest narrative shortcut they can find. Similarly, the gaming business has discovered that, the more cinematic you make your console experience, the more likely the demo is to plunk down their dollars. Looking back to where it all began, with one eye in the technology and the other in the toilet, G4’s animated series Code Monkeys exemplifies how the ‘80s started the plug and play revolution, and how film both guided, and gave into, the medium’s many delights.


For the employees of GameAvision, the sale of their company comes as a complete shock. It grows even more disconcerting when they learn that crazy rich man Bob “Big T” Larrity is the new owner. An insane Texan, the new head honcho places his brain dead son Dean in charge. Then, he begins picking through the remaining employees. Between programmers Dave and Jerry, Todd and Mary, it’s hard to find someone serious. Even the other workers in the office - Black Steve the accountant, self-centered Claire the receptionist, and flamboyantly gay game composer Clarence, make it obvious that the lunatics are indeed running the asylum. Eventually, Larrity asserts his command, bringing in underage Korean boy Benny to test all the games. As they try and better competitor Bellecovision with each new game they release, these Code Monkeys set themselves up for fulfilling victory - or agonizing defeat.


Created by one of Adult Swim/Comedy Central’s up and coming talents and utilizing one of the most unusual animation styles ever, Code Monkeys is a joke filled gem for the ADD crowd. It is set up to be a waltz down analog memory lane for anyone who spent time throwing their Nintendo controller against the wall, while reminding us that pop culture - and specifically film culture - drove much of the artform’s early years. Slightly less successful than other television cartoons - including South Park, The Simpsons, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force - Code Monkeys still succeeds on several levels. It’s not just about characters - it’s about friendship, failure, uncovering personal flaws and foibles, and referencing every movie made during the Reagan era.


Initially, we are taken in by the camaraderie, the continuous back and forth between friends Dave (lead programmer and major party animal, voiced by creator Adam de la Peña) and Jerry (far more concerned with conformity). Then the differing dynamics between uber nerd Todd and ultra-feminist Mary add additional spice. When you toss in the amiable villainy of loose canon Larrity, his buttheaded son, and the ancillary players in this narrative mishmash, we find ourselves oddly won over. As things progress, we start to see the actual nods to the beginning of the entire videogame revolution. Famous names in the community (Nolan Bushnell, Steve Wozniak, Gary Gygax) tweak their own regal reputation, and suddenly the show is more than just slackers acting silly.


It all begins, brazenly one might add, with “The Woz”, featuring the former Apple pioneer. It’s the perfect set up for the show, and leads brilliantly into the very inside (and very funny) “E.T.” The episode reams Atari for creating one of the worst movie tie-in games of all time, and it features a fabulous ending that lashes out at George Lucas as well. The film connections keep coming, as a recognizable Tony Montana type helps Dave and Jerry finance their own business, and between Breakfast Club riffs (in “Todd Loses His Mind”) to the various direct lifts from famous videogames (Super Mario Brothers, Castle Wolfenstein) this is one of the more clever and concrete spoofs out there.


But it goes beyond pure lampoon. What’s clear here is that de la Peña really ‘gets’ the ‘80s. His insights into the decade, either personal, political, and professional are dead on. As is the design. You sometimes forget you are watching an animated series. Instead, you think your Sega Dreamcast has risen from the dead and started programming your TV’s picture tube. The visuals here provide a definite “wow” factor. On the other hand, it’s hard to say if this is laugh out loud hilarious. The jokes come flying so fast and furiously, and the reactions cutting several beats out of the standard satiric type, that you can easily get lost and lose the humor. Still, there are moments that definitely tickle your tendencies - especially if you grew up loving your Intellevision.


As DVDs go, Shout! Factory really doesn’t deliver a definitive set. The fluffy bonus material may be appreciated by those really into the premise, but there’s very little backstage stuff. Even odder, the series never announces the voice cast during the opening and closing credits. It will take a trip to IMDb to discover such treats as Aqua Teen titan Dana Synder doing the voice of the Dungeon and Dragons addicted Todd. Also, without a working knowledge of the medium’s past, it may be hard to appreciate some of the creative cameos that eventually show up. Still, for such an off the beaten path production (G4 isn’t exactly a household name), the packaging here is perfectly fine.


Upon reflection, what is obvious about Code Monkeys is it’s nerdisms. It really does illustrate how geeks and the concerns of celluloid finally came together to wage war against boring entertainment and even more mundane cinema. The minds making the first videogames were lonely obsessives who disappeared inside arcane technology, rarified intelligence, and a shared love of all things fringe - including certain cult films. That two decades later that would become the Tinsel Town production norm is just another facet of Code Monkey‘s indirect appeal. On the outside, this is nothing more than profanity among programmers, Dig a little deeper, and you see our current culture finding its footing - for better and for worse. 


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Saturday, Aug 16, 2008
Glenn McDonald reports from day one of GenCon, Gary Gygax's annual tabletop and board game convention.

Hello from GenCon, the largest annual gathering of hardcore gamers in the world today. Founded by Gary Gygax, the inventor of a little something called Dungeons & Dragons, GenCon has long been the mecca of so-called “hobby game enthusiasts”—popularly known as D&D geeks.


I’ve been attending GenCon for several years now, to keep a finger on the pulse of contemporary game design, which I find endlessly fascinating. This convention—held every August in Indianapolis, Indiana—truly is the event horizon of gaming. Not videogames, mind you—although that is part of it—but games in a more fundamental sense. Card games, dice games, role-playing games, board games, pretty much any game you can think of that doesn’t involve sports or gambling.


So: A few quick hits and photos, and hopefully I’ll be able to blog in again tomorrow. One of the areas I’m tracking this year is general-interest, family-friendly board and party games. The games that, their developers hope, will supplant the moldy old stand-bys of Monopoly, Life, and Trivial Pursuit.


Talking with some of the exhibitors in the main hall, I’m getting a better sense of how the industry works. For instance, it usually takes about five years for a new game to even get a chance at cracking the retail shelves of big-box outlets like Wal-Mart or Target, or even the expanded game sections of bookstores like Barnes & Noble. Typically, a game has to move hundreds of thousands of units on its own merits, via online sales and specialty hobby game stores.


One such success story is Wits and Wagers, from the small Washington D.C. outfit Northstar Games. I played a demo on the convention floor with some other passing gamers, and it’s very fun indeed—an ingenious mash-up of trivia and Vegas-style oddsmaking. Wits and Wagers just recently earned enough success to get some coveted retail shelf-space at Target, and it won Games Magazine’s Best Party Game award last year.


Publicity art from Grey Ranks

Publicity art from Grey Ranks


On the other end of the spectrum, I spoke with Jason Morningstar, creator of the literary role-playing game Grey Ranks. A radically indie game project, Morningstar’s game is only sold online and via mail order, and is shipped, literally, from Morningstar’s living room. No wizards or lasers in this game. Instead, a player assumes the role of a Polish teenager during the 1944 uprising against the Nazis in Warsaw. Dark in tone and aesthetically sophisticated, the game deals with themes of adolescence, love, war and death. Grey Ranks won this year’s prestigious Diana Jones Award—GenCon’s equivalent to the Indie Spirit awards. My prediction: The industry will one day look back at this game—and its recognition at this year’s convention –- as a watershed moment, a turning point in which the RPG as an artistic form began to fulfill its potential.


Then, of course, we have the real fun of GenCon – people dressing funny. I leave you with a handful of pics from the Convention Center, after the jump.


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