Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Monday, May 26, 2008
L.B. Jeffries offers an analysis of the various constituencies of gamers, and how the attitudes of those groups can reflect the Zarathustran Analytics approach.


I once attended an art lecture that took on the very unpopular topic of criticizing a well-liked work of art. The pieces consisted of a series of photographs, all taken from a medical journal depicting slaves that had just arrived in America. Lines of poetry were inscribed in each photo as the artist decried the anonymity and inhuman appearance depicted by the journal’s photography. The criticism that the lecturer was offering was that historically the poetry was all utter fiction. The journal hadn’t made these people anonymous at all. Their names, tribes, and even the history of those tribes were listed and often seriously conflicted with the poems themselves. Needless to say, people tended to get pretty pissed at this lecture. Why criticize a work of art because of history? It’s beautiful and evocative, why criticize it for something like accuracy? What was the point of looking at art with a historical mindset?

That kind of discussion is relevant these days in video games because people are becoming very conscious of the demographics and factions within the medium. The casual audience, hardcore gamers, and ex-core players are all becoming distinct opinions that get thrown around video game forums. Yet not everyone is happy about these labels. Jim Sterling at Destructoid posted an interesting column that bemoaned the artificial labels of ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. He points out that people certainly play both kinds of games and it does a huge disservice to label a game as meant for one particular audience or another. And he’s right, it’s dumb to call these things audience labels because they aren’t. We all play a huge variety of games and those games often borrow liberally from countless others. What the terms casual or hardcore really signify isn’t an identity, they’re a philosophy. They are ways of thinking about the purpose of video games and what we expect from them.


How, then, do we define these philosophies if not by their consumers?


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Monday, May 26, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-05-26...

Ahh yes, quite a choice we have this week.


I must admit, there are a couple of releases this week that I’m tempted to highlight simply based on name value alone.  The Nintendo DS has a couple of them: LOL, perhaps not the first game to be named after instant message parlance (remember WTF for the PSP?), but it is the first to use that parlance in a way that would seem to be related to its origins; it’s an entirely social product with no one-player mode, which could be interesting at least.  Super Dodgeball Brawlers sounds like one of those things that’s pure awesome in theory, and utter bunk in practice.  Needless to say, I don’t know a damn thing about it.


There’s also something called Stronghold Crusader Extreme, which must be good of course, because it has the word Extreme in the title.  When you say it, actually, I’m sure you’re supposed to add a few exclamation points to the word Extreme.  You know, like Extreme!!!, or EXTREME!!!!!.  Yeah, that’s probably it, caps lock and five exclamation points.


Ditch the shovelware parade headed to the Wii, and what are we left with?


The sole release this week for the Xbox 360 and the PS3 is a little something called Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, which is finally making its way to the console scene after having eaten PC gamers’ lives since last October.  Assuming that Activision hasn’t toned down the brutal difficulty nor the map intricacy of the PC version, console gamers are in for a treat as they embark on one of the most immersive team-based FPS experiences out there.  It’s difficult to quantify, exactly, what makes Enemy Territory: Quake Wars a fantastic game, as it’s certainly not the most imaginative team-based experience out there, and the graphics fall in that all-too-familiar mix of brown, gray, and brownish-gray, but something about it is simply addicting, and you just can’t help but keep coming back until you are the team MVP (or, in my case, anything except “least accurate”).


Xbox and PS3 owners tired of Team Fortress 2 might just want to give it a look.  The full release list (and a trailer for Quake Wars) is after the jump.


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Thursday, May 22, 2008
Is it wrong to be a little bit uneasy about the use of Metacritic as part of the criteria with which to cleanse Xbox Live?

I love Metacritic.  Really, when you want to read about a game, where else can you go to find five, ten, 15 articles on that game, all offering an evaluation and some insight into what it has to offer?  I mean, Wikipedia, maybe, but not for obscure games that nobody knows about.  So please, don’t misunderstand.


The problem I have is this:  When you see rumblings, you see message board postings, you see off-handed comments on websites, but you can ignore those.  It’s no secret that there’s an uncomfortable relationship between those assigned to promote video games and those assigned to review them.  Sometimes, PR will go to great lengths to convince the critic that a game is worthwhile, offering swag, big packs of press releases espousing the virtues of the game, and even the occasional big exclusive to a big outlet (see: the hubbub over IGN’s exclusive GTA IV review).  Why do PR companies care so much what the critics think?


Because Metacritic numbers matter.  Apparently.


Gyruss, a personal favorite, is at risk for the axe.

Gyruss, a personal favorite, is at risk for the axe.


The rumblings (and if these rumblings have been confirmed somewhere and I don’t know about it, please tell me) are that PR people get bonuses if the Metacritic numbers stay at a certain level.  If this is the case, it’s not entirely fair that a PR person should be responsible for the review scores of a product that they had no part in creating, but it certainly explains why the packages we get when we get games tend to be bigger than the size of, well, games.


Microsoft made an announcement yesterday that confirms the sheer presence that Metacritic currently holds in the industry.  Microsoft is cleaning Xbox Live Arcade, removing the chaff from it, the things that nobody’s downloading, the things that were ridiculed when they came out and simply never took off.  The criteria for removing those games from the service?  A title must be six months old, it must have a 6% or less conversion rate (that is, less than 6% of those who downloaded it as a demo purchased the full version), and it must score below 65 on Metacritic.


Perhaps it’s benign, perhaps it’s just numbers and I shouldn’t make a big deal about it, but what Metacritic doesn’t reflect is the “cult classic”, Metacritic doesn’t take into account personal preference, Metacritic doesn’t take into account those games dismissed by the masses that, against all odds, develop a small, devoted, loyal following.  Metacritic is a series of numbers that adds up to one number, a number that allows for no subtlety, for no understanding of how people really feel about it.  Sometimes the most interesting games are the most polarizing, and you can’t express polarizing in a number.  And Microsoft has legitimized that number, by allowing the criteria for their Xbox Live Arcade cleaning algorithm to include it.


And, hell, where else am I going to get Triggerheart Exelica?


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Arun Subramanian takes a look at the recent Wii release of the Dreamcast/arcade fishing sim Sega Bass Fishing.

Both fishing and golf games hold a strange fascination for me.  I don’t have an affinity for the real world counterparts of either, and yet, I really do get a kick out of the digital versions.  To my mind, the best golf video games come from the Golden Tee franchise, which, due to its loose trackball control scheme, has never really been represented well on home consoles.  Ten years ago Sega Bass Fishing made its debut in the arcades,  setting the bar for arcadey fishing games.  Unlike Golden Tee, however, Sega Bass Fishing was able to be recreated reasonably well on a home console, namely the Dreamcast, with the Sega Fishing Controller.  Now, it has been re-released on the Wii.


One of the nice things about the Wiimote is that it’s pretty multipurpose, which means that despite Nintendo’s efforts to dump various plastic shells on us, it can stand in for a number of different kinds of controllers just fine on its own.  Sega Bass Fishing is no exception.  The Wiimote substitutes well for either the original arcade controller or the Sega Fishing Controller.


But the problem with Sega Bass Fishing isn’t the control.  Rather, it simply has to do with how much time has passed since its original release.  This is essentially the same game from ten years ago, and it both looks and sounds like it.  Further, as a purely arcade title, there’s no depth to it.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course.  In fact, old games, arcade or not, seem to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance in this generation of consoles, with the increased popularity of downloadable titles.  From that perspective, it totally makes sense to bring back Sega Bass Fishing now.


However, this is one of those games that makes me wish the Wii had some legitimate storage capacity.  The kind of nostalgia it’s banking on seems like it would be most profitable if its purchase could be made impulsively and nearly immediately.  Sega has to understand the limited appeal of Sega Bass Fishing for the Wii, or else they wouldn’t be selling it at a $29.99 price point.  But even at that price, it’s a somewhat difficult purchase to justify.  Further, given that in the last ten years, fishing minigames have become more common in larger titles (Okami and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, for example) an extremely similar, if not uniquely Sega, experience can be had much more cost effectively.


It’s hard not to have some fun with Sega Bass Fishing, particularly if you have any fond memories of the arcade or Dreamcast versions.  But the gaming landscape has changed in the last ten years, and this version of Sega Bass Fishing doesn’t reflect that whatsoever.  It just seems to me that mining this sort of material sounds better on paper than it will probably turn out, even though admittedly there’s something appealing about it.  I’d certainly be excited if they decided to bring back Daytona USA, though I’m sure I’d be disappointed by the result.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
A new (and free) arena shooter grabs our attention...

Even in the short time that this blog has been active, it’s become obvious that I have…well, I’ll call it a weakness for the genre that has come to be known as the “arena shooter” (others might call it a crippling addiction.  Tomayto, tomahto).  Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the most recent variation on the object of my constant affection, a little slice of freeware heaven with the impenetrable name of Debrysis.


It’s a mouse-‘n-cursor-keys experience, not unlike Geometry Wars or Everyday Shooter, that makes its presence matter via pure style.  There’s something appealing, in a utilitarian sort of way, about the rotating gear/buzzsaw-like pattern that surrounds the play area, the glowing light patterns that are the enemies, and the rhythmic sort of way that certain weapons take out those enemies.  The game flows with a sort of grace and ever-increasing intensity the likes of which I haven’t seen since Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and the muted color scheme is incredibly easy on the eyes.  There are local high score sheets and online leaderboards to facilitate competition, and it’s simply an incredibly addicting experience.


There’s actually only one blemish on the beauty of Debrysis, that being the avatar and the health bar of that avatar.  The player plays as this little, blocky moon car with a turret on top of it, which simply doesn’t fit in amongst the almost surreal beauty of its surroundings.  Not only that, but the little moon car’s health is represented by little blocks that hover around on top of the moon car, moving with the player as the destruction is happening all around.


The effect, then, is that of the destruction of the beautiful by the ugly, which could potentially be an interesting societal metaphor, though I’m not convinced that such a metaphor was the intent of the designers. 


Despite the unease that said metaphor can introduce into the player’s mind while the game progresses, one can’t help but play the thing over and over again, simply because it’s a new way to achieve that little bit of hypnosis that the best arena shooters can inspire.  It’s a game whose sheen is on the level of games that people, y’know, pay for, and the control is as sharp and responsive as it should be for a game like this.  It’s nothing new, and its audience is probably limited to a certain niche that I happen to belong to.  Still, it’s free, so the least you can do is give it a try.


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