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

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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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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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Monday, May 19, 2008
In part 7 of L.B. Jeffries' series, the previously-defined classification system is applied to a few well-known games


So with all these definitions, variables, and conflicting goals for what games should be, what is the role of the Zarathustran process? How does it work? Essentially, you’re analyzing the experience of the game itself. The important shift that critics must be aware of is that they are no longer judging the game by just one single element. How do the plot, player input, and game design work together to make the experience? Although a game may be extremely cutscene heavy, should this plot device work well to create a powerful experience then that isn’t a flaw. If a game has strange controls, do those ultimately improve the game or make the player feel like they have less input? The application is to see these things as means rather than ends in video games.

With that in mind, we’ll go through the process a few times. One of the more interesting examples of a player’s input facilitating an experience is Gunstar Heroes. The game’s a first person experience, despite the heavy elements of third person setting. It makes this shift by putting the emphasis on the game design of power-ups. You have two power-up slots and one of them is set for the duration of playtime. The second can be picked up during a level and will change the way your gun works. There’s a pretty impressive array of strategies as a result of this that lets the player truly individualize his own approach to the game. Whereas one may prefer the weak but auto-targeting attack, another might opt for the light saber combination. What it adds to the experience itself is that the player-input gives two kinds of positive feedback because you’re relying on strategy and reflexes. You don’t beat Gunstar Heroes, you figure it out. And as a result, the game design features a remarkable shift in connection that improves it.


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Monday, May 19, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-05-19...
Image courtesy of engadget.com

Image courtesy of engadget.com


I never thought I’d see the day.


When is the last time this happened?


Somehow, some way, the Nintendo DS is without a single release this week.  Keep in mind, there were over 50 things released for the DS last November.  50, in a single month, and even since then, the DS has always been a reliable source of new releases; in weeks where it seems as though nothing worthwhile is coming out for the consoles, we always had the DS to look to for a new IP, or at least some imaginative use of the stylus.  As recently as last week, the DS has saved us from the banal, so to look at it, so lonely, with nothing new to offer for the week, well…it’s a little bit sad is all.  (sniff.)


(give me a moment to compose myself.)


The Japanese box art for Wii Fit

The Japanese box art for Wii Fit


(deep breath.) Okay.  So who’s to blame for the orphaning of the little portable that could?  Likely, none other than the parents of that portable themselves, those unfeeling, heartless vessels at Nintendo.  Why would they do such a thing to their adorable little two-screen?  Well, Wii Fit is coming this week.  Wii Fit is, of course, poised to be the biggest thing out there since, well, since GTA IV, though I imagine that for most of the people who would actually be interested in Wii Fit, it will be the biggest thing since Wii Sports.  You can’t fake-bowl forever, I suppose.


In any case, Wii Fit looks to be the piece of software (one hesitates to even call it a “game”, really) that will allow the success that the DS has had in the self-help arena (see: Brain Age, Flash Focus, Let’s Yoga!) to be transferred to the console.  Its success will hinge entirely on how willing people will be to shell out $90 for a “balance board” and the software for that balance board, but despite some of the bad press that’s been thrown its way in pre-release, early indications lean toward the Wii-buying population being very willing.


UEFA EURO 2008

UEFA EURO 2008


Other than Wii Fit, UEFA EURO 2008 is dominating the release list, with versions coming out for pretty much every platform that’s not the DS.  Soccer/football fans will undoubtedly be delighted.  The oft-delayed Haze, Ubisoft’s yellow-tinted shooter with the awesome website and the silly Korn tie-in, is out tomorrow as well, just in case the FPS crowd is out of things to do.  And then, on wednesday, the increasingly reliable Xbox Live Arcade will see the release of the first episode in the Penny Arcade Adventures series, with the unwieldy and vaguely hilarious subtitle of On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.  Fans of Gabe and Tycho had best have their download fingers ready.


The rest of the releases (and really, there aren’t very many) and a trailer for Wii Fit are after the jump:


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Thursday, May 15, 2008
Clover Studio has returned as PlatinumGames, complete with a publishing deal with Sega. It's time to celebrate, people.

It was a sad, sad day when Clover Studio was unceremoniously disbanded.  Honestly, when you look at Clover’s body of work, there’s not much to it: a pile of Viewtiful Joe games, Okami, God Hand, and…well, that’s pretty much it.  Still, when Capcom decided that Clover’s time had come and gone (probably due to the fact that God Hand sold something like 53 copies, total), it was like a punch to the gut for gamers who had already come to look forward to the development studio’s unique, wonderfully independent approach to making games.


Clover's Okami

Clover’s Okami


Okami, of course, is the big name in Clover’s history.  Okami actually managed to take some of the wind out of the sails of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess upon that game’s release, offering a play dynamic that was quite similar to that of Zelda, but with a thumbstick painting dynamic combined with an art style which together created an experience that felt unique and utterly unprecedented.  The game sold pretty well, but was of course ultimately overshadowed by the impressive pedigree of its Triforce-adorned counterpart (of course, the ultimate slap in regard to Okami was the removal of the Clover team’s names from the newly-released Wii port).


God Hand, for its part, was a unique take on the God of War-meets-Double Dragon genre, focusing on combos and an ultra-violent (thought bloodless) style that was utterly unique in its style (again) and its execution (again).  Indeed, Clover to this point had been masters of taking established genres and twisting them in completely unexpected ways.


Clover's God Hand

Clover’s God Hand


It’s been just over a year since Clover went the way of Moonlight, but those of us who mourned Clover’s departure now have reason to celebrate.


Hot on the heels of the announcement of an exclusive publishing deal with Sega (Sega!), the ashes of Clover have made themselves known as PlatinumGames, which could logically be called the evolution of Clover (it’s basically Clover with a few extra developers added on for good measure).  We haven’t seen much of PlatinumGames to date, and it’s going to be a while before we actually get to play any of their games, but given what they have allowed us to see so far, they’re picking up right where Clover left off.


There’s Bayonetta, which is being described loosely as a Devil May Cry-like game, and at the very least, it features a character who uses a pistol as a stiletto heel.  It’s not exactly a chainsaw gun, I suppose, but it’s pretty freakin’ cool nonetheless, and the nigh-unintelligible action style hinted at in the short trailer (which I have helpfully appended to this post) looks like an utter trip.  That one’s for the Xbox and the PS3, but to these eyes, it’s the PlatinumGames Wii offering that looks like the true winner.  Think Sin City meets The Evil Dead, in video game form.  MADWORLD features a protagonist with a chainsaw for a right hand, and an art style that features only three colors: black, white, and red.  You see, red only appears when someone is bleeding, which happens, apparently, a lot.


PlatinumGames' MadWorld

PlatinumGames’ MADWORLD


Again, on the surface, it’s not really a unique idea for a game, in that you’re basically going to be walking around ripping baddies open with your chainsaw hand.  Still, style counts for a lot, and MADWORLD looks to have style bleeding out its ears.


There’s even a DS RPG called Infinite Line that’s going to be showing up along the way as well.  They certainly seem to have the platforms covered, anyway.


In any case, the rebirth of Clover as PlatinumGames is an excellent thing on so many levels.  For one, and perhaps most importantly, it’s excellent for the developers themselves, as it seems that they have not had to sacrifice their vision of what makes a great game.  It’s a great thing for Sega, as a publisher whose name has suffered under the weight of countless subpar Sonic franchise offerings and a lack of other universally-known IPs gets to bask in the credibility that comes with the admiration of hardcore gamers for whom the PlatinumGames/Sega deal means something.  Finally, of course, this is great news for us, the gamers, the ones who died a little when Clover disbanded, the ones who believe that games can be art and appreciate the developers who make a concerted effort to make sure it is seen as such.  We won’t get to see the fruits of PlatinumGames’ labor until next year, but for this, I’ll wait.


I’ll wait patiently, and try to not let the anticipation kill me.


UPDATE: The MADWORLD trailer is out.  Hide the kids:




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