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

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Jan 25, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-01-26...

Who needs new franchises when the old ones keep kicking?


A couple of old NES-initiated franchises are releasing the latest iterations of their respective series this week, and both deserve to be recognized as quality for their respective genres, despite the niche audience that both cater to.


Rygar, on the NES, was a flawed but still brilliant little stroke of adventure-platforming, a game that favored exploration over the constant jump-hack-jump games of its day.  It flawlessly followed the Metroid formula of guarded exploration, making areas viewable but unexplorable until certain items and power-ups were found, and its graphic style was distinct on a system where “distinct” was a difficult adjective to master.  If not for an archaic RPG-style grind ‘n level-up system that artificially and unnecessarily lengthened gameplay in a game that could not be saved in any way (there wasn’t even a password system), it might have been remembered as one of the great, long-remembered NES games.  Plus, it introduced the Diskarmor, something like a combination of a circular saw blade and a yo-yo, a weapon whose (eventual) versatility makes it an awfully desirable bit of gear.  Here’s Rygar in 1987…


And here he is today, getting his God of War on against the


Colossi

“Hekatonkeil”:


Look, Rygar may have been why my first NES died.  I left that thing on for a week just trying to make it through the game (which I never actually accomplished).  I still have a soft spot for the guy, and I know that one day…one day soon…I shall beat a Rygar game.  Maybe this week’s Wii release of Rygar: The Battle of Argus will be the one.


On the less action-oriented side is Nobunaga’s Ambition, a strategy game that’s been churning out release after release for 22 years while managing the unenviable feat of being utterly ignored by the mainstream gaming press for most of that time.  I remember that the first one got something of a push in Nintendo Power, and despite my own interest in deeper gameplay experiences (triggered by Dragon Warrior), the lack of anyting resembling monsters or flashy graphics steered me away from it.  While I’m not the only one it put off, as it’s certainly sold enough copies to be a viable franchise for over 20 years, I haven’t met anyone who’s played a single game in the series.  Have you?  Let me know it the comments!  I want to know you people exist.


Nobunaga’s Ambition has gone through a bit of an overhaul as well, but incredibly, it’s still recognizable as Nobunaga’s Ambition here in 2009, in its most recent incarnation.  Here’s the 1987 version of Nobunaga’s Ambition:


And this is Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle, on the PS2:


I can’t imagine, if you’re into the whole historically-based strategy game thing, that you’ll be disappointed by this one.  Can we hand it a Lifetime Achievement Award yet?


What are you playing this week?  My copy of the Ultimate Shooting Collection shows up on Tuesday, so I know what I’m doing.  Check out the list of releases, and trailers for Rygar: The Battle of Argus and Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle after the jump.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 20, 2009
Does Need for Speed Undercover have a place in the racing game fan's library?

The narrative attempts of the Need For Speed titles have always felt a little unnecessary.  In general, the racing genre doesn’t require any plot to make racing fans want to drive.  But for the past several years, Need for Speed titles have been clearly influenced by The Fast and the Furious films, and as such, it is not surprising that similar story elements have made their way in.  This is not inherently bad.  However, the execution of these elements in Need For Speed Undercover is particularly lackluster.  Leaping over the uncanny valley direct to live action territory gives the the cutscenes a distinctly campy quality, making it difficult to feel invested in either the plot or your character.


It’s not as though that should necessarily matter, of course.  For games like this, it’s all about the driving.  Much can be forgiven in the face of solid and fun core driving mechanics.  Arcade-inspired racing physics can be intensely fun, and in fact they seem to be the bread and butter of the Need For Speed franchise.  But in Undercover, the AI implementation and relative speed of your car versus the opposition in some of the events serve to make parts of the game far too mindlessly easy.
There are certainly a number of things that Undercover does well.  The Cops ‘n Robbers online mode is certainly fun, if not entirely original.  The overall sense of speed delivered by the game can make it quite a visceral experience as well.  Further, the actual driving mechanics are well-realized.  Unfortunately, Underground makes a number of missteps.  While some, like the previously mentioned easy difficulty and poorly realized cutscenes, are a function of developer choice, others seem to have been due solely to a lack of testing and polish.  The reviewed PS3 version had frequent framerate and clipping issues that make it feel as though it was rushed to market.  The fact that the game is being released for an amazing ten distinct systems indicates how hard EA is pushing the title, and as such, it’s not entirely surprising development efforts were spread thin.


Still, none of Undercover‘s problems are enough to sink the title outright.  Really, the problem that Need For Speed Undercover faces is that Burnout: Paradise has significantly raised the bar for this kind of game, and accomplished the open-world mechanics and online experience with more polish and flair than is on display here.  It offers a superior experience in almost every way meaningful to the genre.


What makes this interesting is the fact that, though the two franchises were developed by different studios, they are both published by EA.  In a sense, then, EA is openly competing with itself, given that racing fans only have so many dollars, and while one of their racing franchises is critically acclaimed, the other is content to be competent but mediocre.  For die-hard fans of the Need for Speed franchise, or those that focus most of their gaming on racing titles, Undercover can be enjoyable.  But for gamers who spread their tastes across a variety of genres, there are simply better racing games to be played.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jan 19, 2009
A look at 8-bit aesthetics and their advantages over modern graphics.


About a year ago, I was playing Trilby: Art of Theft and I noticed that it led to me doodling characters from it. That experience didn’t repeat itself again until I played the indie game Iji and started doodling the various aliens from it. The games are fairly different from each other except for one shared trait: the art for both is simplified and resembles 8-bit aesthetics more than modern games. Why is the simpler and more abstract representation enticing my subconscious to reproduce and modify what I saw more than any modern game with complex art and graphics? At a glance, the basic idea behind abstract art can be seen by flipping through this flickr group. You have the basic idea or concept communicated in the lines and coloring but you leave out enough detail or coherence so that the viewer still has to interpret. The audience gets to have a limited amount of input in what they’re viewing because the artwork remains silent on certain details. Looking at the urge to doodle that was suddenly springing back up after playing these two abstract games, is this an area of player input that is being under utilized in today’s graphical advancements?


 


Part of how these graphics create a connection comes from looking at the various techniques games use to draw you in. Your health bar, weapons, and abilities are tools for creating a connection with the avatar on the screen. In an essay on the subject of ideological worlds in games the author (can’t find the name on it, sorry) comments, “games forge what James Paul Gee (2003) has called a projective identity, whereby the player adopts the perspectivity of the avatar, developing a sort of empathy for the character on screen. Clinton shows how icons and representational bars attune players’ perceptions in the world to those of the avatar by making precise the character’s perceptual state.” In other words, the HUD, health bar, etc. constitute the player’s method for projecting onto the character by giving us a way to see what they are feeling. The essay and the quote are both about the ways players connect and project themselves into video games and it raises an important point: what player input is really about is giving you ways to project yourself into the character through game design. One of the reactions to that formula is to presume that interacting with the narrative then becomes the primary or even only way a person can project themselves into the game’s characters. The ambiguity that abstract art relies on could then also be considered a fair way to allow a player to interact. The player is able to interpret what their protagonist looks like, how their attacks look, and can manipulate those images to whatever their preference is with their imagination. This is something different than a character editor because unlike the finite options of Fallout 3 or Oblivion, with abstract art the player is unlimited in defining the meaning of the simple images.


About two years ago there was a fairly nonsensical false critical movement that games which didn’t feature realistic graphics were inferior to their cartoony counterparts. Mostly a byproduct of ad men selling games and HD TVs, the counter argument was to point out that there are countless games which rely on cartoony and non-literal depictions with great success. A good example of someone arguing this point is a Kombo article defending Wind Waker and pointing out that there are many unrealistic elements that make videogames fun such as physics or unrealistic reload times. The author also brings up a variety of games with more realistic graphics like Resident Evil 4 and points out that they are a lot less visually exciting. Grey, brown, mud, dirt, and equally drab monsters populate these environments. Yet video games already featured boring and grey environments in their 8-bit form without these complaints being noticeable. Numerous older games have the same kind of factory level or repetitive swarm of enemies that are equally dull. The fundamental difference is that modern brown worlds graphically leave nothing to the imagination. There is no abstraction for us to play with in our minds. An entire area of player input has been cut off by our very own desire to have things look sharper and Hi-Res. I don’t doodle Leon from Resident Evil 4 because I don’t have anything to add or interpret, that’s what he looks like and my horrid drawing abilities are never going to do him any justice.


Artistically, the division between a literal depiction of something and an abstract division can be read like the difference between a symbol and a sign. Carl Jung, in his book


Symbols of Transformation

explains, “A symbol is an indefinite expression with many meanings, pointing to something not easily defined and therefore not fully known. But the sign always has a fixed meaning, because it is a conventional abbreviation for, or a commonly accepted indication of, something known. The symbol therefore has a large number of analogous variants, and the more of these variants it has at its disposal , the more complete and clear-cut will be the image it projects of its object.” The giant parasitic man-monster in Resident Evil 4 is a sign. It’s a depiciton leaves no question about what it is thinking, feeling, or what its actions look like. The 8-bit Mega Man or pixellated King Graham are symbols of themselves. We are able to dictate how they look and act in our minds, we are able to apply our own input to even that fundamental level of the game’s narrative thanks to their symbolic nature. Instead of a character, they are a symbol that can be adapted to whatever the player wants it to be. Obviously the artistic quality and impressive efforts that developers put into their modern games is here to stay and should be applauded. But for those games that take a more abstract approach with their work, the possibilities of such art should not be underestimated.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Jan 18, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-01-19...

I missed a week!  Ack!  OK, here’s last week in a nutshell: Moon.  If anyone can do a first-person shooter on the DS, it’s Renegade Kid, who put together the actually-pretty-excellent Dementium: The Ward last year.  It’s been pretty well-reviewed so far, and DS gamers don’t have a ton of options for when they want to shoot things.  You can shoot things in Moon.  Have at it!


EA\'s Skate 2

EA\‘s Skate 2


As for this week, there are plenty of sneaky picks that look awfully interesting.  Skate 2 follows the very well-received inaugural edition of EA’s big new Tony Hawk-killer, which so far has lived up to such a title by actually making video game skating feel like something worth doing again.  SimAnimals is a new Wii “Sim” experience that ditches the humans, which might actually be the smartest thing that EA’s done on the franchise for the Wii…human simulation is a little too much for the little console that could, so why not coerce the veterinarian in all of us out for a while?  I have no idea what The Maw is, really, but the stills I’ve seen from the Xbox Live Arcade title look pretty interesting, and the PS2 continues its JRPG renaissance with Ar Tonelico: Melody of Metafalica, a title that’s probably pretty profound in context, but looks kind of meaningless right now.


Even so, it’s a different Japanese import that’s got my eye this week, one that may not sell many copies, and may not turn many heads at all.  It’s a little something being put out by budget publisher UFO Interactive, with a truly nondescript title: the Wii-exclusive Ultimate Shooting Collection.


Karous

Karous


Ultimate Shooting Collection is actually, as you may have guessed, a collection of three games, two of which have never been released in the United States.  The one that has been released in the states is Chaos Field, which sounds like the space-shooter equivalent of Shadow of the Colossus, basically a collection of space shooter boss fights one after the other.  Radio Allergy was almost released in the states—it was supposed to be one of the last GameCube games, if not the last, but it was cancelled before it could see the light of day.  Finally, there’s Karous, a game whose art style has fascinated me since I first caught wind of it back when it was a brand new Dreamcast game being released in the very un-Dreamcasty year of 2008.  Yes, I’m going to go ahead an pretend that un-Dreamcasty can be used as an adjective.  It’s actually the reason I bought a Dreamcast in the first place.  Of course, once I did, I could no longer track down a copy of the game.


Now’s my chance…and yours as well.


Is anyone else out there as excited for the Ultimate Shooting Collection as I am?  Going Skate-ing this week?  Perhaps the PSP Star Ocean remake is more your speed?  Check the full release list after the jump, followed by a trailer for, yes, Ultimate Shooting Collection.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jan 12, 2009
A rundown of the part of Braid that gets people the most worked up, as opposed to the whole thing.


I’m a bit late to the Braid party when it comes to blogs. When the prestigious Soulja Boy has weighed in with his opinion, there is clearly not much new to analyze about the game. Still, I’ve had this thing on the back burner for a while and now seems like as good a time as any to post it. People always have a funny reaction when you try to explain the problems with a piece of writing. When you say something is causing hiccups in the process, yet is still grammatically correct or communicated its point, one wonders what more can be expected. One way of explaining writing is that it can be seen as a system that needs constant tweaking based on the message you’re trying to communicate. Order of information, complexity, and presumptions about the reader all have to be factored. The words and phrasing must be adjusted to fit the message. For example, you don’t quote a Shakespeare line about doom to tell someone that a bus is coming at them because “Hey, car, watch out” will suffice, right? You do that because it’s a simple communication. It’s a simple message and doesn’t require more explanation that communicates greater depth. Contrast that to when someone asks you why you’re upset. “I’m upset because my girlfriend dumped me,” communicates a comprehension of their emotional state because we can presume the reader knows what this means. “But I thought you hated her,” your friend asks back. What we now have is a hiccup in the system. Past statements are conflicting with the explanation, listener’s past experiences don’t resonate, or they aren’t following the train of thought sequentially. What do you do?


 


I’m starting this critique of Braid with that explanation of writing because I think the game’s short vignettes warrant explaining. Jonathon Blow created a metaphorical video game design about time and he incorporated the writing into that design. He’s also taken a lot of flame from people for having the guts to make this game not be highly accessible and I can see why it would put him on the defensive. Popmatters did an excellent review of it and as Subramanian points out, the writing is the only thing one can possibly bitch about in the game. Blow himself explains in an interview with Joystiq, “The narrative in Braid is not being obscure just for obscurity’s sake. It’s that way because it was the only way I knew how to get at the central idea, which is something big and subtle and resists being looked at directly.” Of all the things that people seemed the most conflicted about with the game, I thought this one merited addressing. So what’s the problem? The writing is neither bad nor incorrect. It is out of order.


 


Back to the barrier of communicating why the girlfriend you hated still made you upset when she dumped you. What do you say? There are two basic choices: indicate that this is a complex form of sadness OR use an example. Essentially, “It’s complicated, man” or “Well, she could be a real pain but she really made me feel good about myself too.” Which has communicated more to you? The example, right? I’m filling in what your brain does when you try to understand something, I’m providing the frame of reference for the conduct that you don’t have. That’s why writers always say “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell me that you’re upset, show me why. Don’t tell me the character is lonely, show them acting lonely. It’s the traditional method for communicating complex feelings because it’s still functioning like a simple “Hey, car, watch out” by supplying the person who doesn’t understand the image of the car as well. Braid, with its themes of time manipulation, chucks a big monkey wrench into this whole process. The text, which we are expecting to be some kind of introduction or explanation, is actually a combination of responses to the level and metaphors for various things going on in-game. What’s off-putting is that we’re getting this before we have any frame of reference. Just as the game is about the implications of time travel and achieving goals, the text is about experiencing a variety of emotions and experiences out of order as one would expect once sequential time is out of the picture. We’ll take a few examples and watch this in action.


 


A green book from World 2:


Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly
with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt.


But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it,
shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for
the mistake?


The paragraph makes perfect sense after you’ve played the level. This is talking about the larger implications of forgiveness and time travel. It explores the time-reversal mechanic by explaining it as a form of forgiveness, of being able to undo punishment. Other books follow similar suit, World 3 talks about being non-manipulable and not always controlled by the princess, the levels involve the glowy green stuff that is immune to time rewind. World 4 talks about visiting childhood memories and reliving them, time travel moves forwards and backwards in conjunction with you. When we are thinking about our memories, we are in absolute control of their movement. In combination with quantum mechanics, it also proposes the idea of time not being linear and how all these alternate realities are spooling out. What throws the player is that you’re reading this text before you play the level. You’re being warned about the incoming car without having any frame of reference for the car itself. It’s saying “This is complicated, man” without me having any understanding of why. Thus the complaints of being intentionally obtuse: the text is designed to be experienced out of order from the actual comprehension. This confusion is corrected as soon as one plays the level, but it’s the reason for the reaction many people had.



Let’s look at a book from World 6:


But the ring makes its presence known. It shines out to others like a
beacon of warning. It makes people slow to approach. Suspicion,
distrust. Interactions are torpedoed before Tim can open his mouth.


This is the world where the wedding ring acts as a way to make a time bubble. Anything in the bubble slows down significantly, allowing you to slow down cannons or platforms so you can get through at just the right time. Stephen Hawking is about as far as I get with quantum physics but my understanding is that the game design is calling the wedding ring a blackhole, the idea that time slows to absolute zero at certain points but are also inherently empty. Ergo the part about “people being slow to approach and terminating social interactions. Or not, given the part about being a shining beacon, but it’s the way the symbol resonates with me the most. Like the other texts, you can’t quite get a grip on what he’s talking about until you play the level. It works once you play and think about the point Blow is making…but that’s not what the audience is expecting when they read these books. They want an explanation or introduction. This quirk in writing is particularly effective provided you play the game without using gamefaqs and don’t try to do it in one sitting. On my initial encounter with many of these books I didn’t follow their point and went through the door confused. After playing in that world I’d get tired of a puzzle and leave to try a different world. When I came back ready to try again, another glance at the books and suddenly they made sense. In this way the actual text is understood in the same fluctuating way that the game’s design deals with time.



The ending stays strong, including the atomic bomb reference, as a collection of examples of goals one pursues but how our relationship with these goals collapses under quantum physics (we already got the goal) and personally (there is always another goal to pursue). Short vignettes before a level starts that establish the setting and story have been done before and under conventional game structures they act like an introduction. Braid’s upsetting of that norm is ultimately welcome for many people looking for a new kind of game experience. The point of this critique, as I pointed out above, was to figure out why people complained about the writing. The argument that language is about being understood is a good one but one should never get too confining about what their art can and cannot do. There is a proud tradition of writers and artists who have taken this ideal of communication and told people to shove it. William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce all wrote some of literature’s greatest books in non-sequential and incredibly confusing manners to experiment with time and rationality. If it’s any consolation to those irritated by the game, keep in mind Faulkner got a lot of shit for


The Sound & The Fury

too. But it’s also a great book once you realize what he was going on about in the Benjy section.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.