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

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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008
L.B. grumbles about hype for a while and then...wait for it...picks out some games to hype.


When the New York Times takes the time to comment on E3 being dull, you know it’s going to be a slow year. A bunch of games we already knew were coming, a couple of games anyone could’ve predicted were coming, and Microsoft having a very bizarre ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ interface for Xbox. So…what upcoming games should we get hyped about? Hype is an integral part of the video game world, even if it has proven to be a bit problematic. Beyond the odd effect it can have on fans, hype can even be blinding to the actual critics involved. Mitch Krpata points out that critics can be so dead set on a game being good that they’ll list off dozens of flaws yet give a high score anyways. To give you an example of how ridiculous this can get, whether you loved or hated GTA IV, I can’t think of many players who would seriously consider comparing it to ’The Wire’. But it can’t be denied that hype can do a lot of good by getting the word out. So how do we pick we pick what games to hype?


 


William Gibson coined the term ‘cool-hunter’ in his book


Pattern Recognition

and it’s a very apt description of what a game critic needs to do when selecting which game to hype. You need a developed sixth sense that allows you to stare at a sea of clothes, movies, music, and advertising and detect the one that’s working. Gibson compares it to watching the snow on a television and being able to see an image in it. It’s a good term because it recognizes that there is a certain mystical element to spotting a cool game before it exists, something that is never going to be possible to put into words. Acknowledging then that some games are definitely going to be awesomely kickass and it can be predicted, it stands to reason that we should get out there and support it. The developer and producer need to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible, before shelf-space demands pushes the game into the bargain bin. We want to reward creativity and boldness in games, right? Even looking past the desire to economically help your favorite game, there is still something to be said for hype being fun. Over at Brainy Gamer, there’s an interesting post about enjoying hype as a kind of celebration. Soon enough video games will be the mega industry the analysts are predicting and everything will be a sea of jaded “It’s good but not great” reviews. We’ll all just be comparing them to old classics and not even caring about new releases anymore.


So what are some games that should be hyped? We’re entering the realm of subjectivity here but I’ll explain what makes these such stand-out games. I found The Nameless Game at Steve Gaynor’s blog and must admit the pitch is fascinating. They basically took the idea of ‘The Ring’ and applied it to a video game. What if there was a haunted cartridge game and whoever played it would find themselves horribly cursed? I’m basing this purely off the two trailers and Gaynor’s observations, but little touches like the 8-bit game within a game being buggy and glitchy are just the tip of the iceberg. One of the themes in both trailers is the cross-over of games into reality. In the first trailer, you pick-up a DS. The trailer comes to an abrupt end there, the fourth wall being shattered as the person playing a game is now confronting that very fact. In the second, there is a transition from incessant 8-bit music to the humming of a real person in the same tune. It’s this transition of the virtual into the real that both horrifies and fascinates us that the game is capitalizing on. What if our entertainment, our escape, became real? Sure, the graphics look fine, there may be some pacing issues and the puzzles may be dull. But this is a game that no matter what flaws there may be, it is still a very interesting concept.


 


Another game that has several interesting things going to for it is Red Fly Studio’s Mushroom Men. A studio comprised almost entirely of artists, one look at the game will convince you that it’s totally unlike anything else aesthetically. It also explores the mostly uncharted landscape of being a tiny person in a 3-D human landscape. Levels include a trailer, shed, and the underground world of the mushroom people as they face off against everyday creatures like rabbits, spiders, and moles. Sounds good, right? Here’s the kicker: Les Claypool of Primus is making the soundtrack. It’s extremely unusual for the selling point of a video game to be its soundtrack and yet the time seems ripe for it to happen. An interview with game composer Richard Jacques outlines the culture of game soundtracks today. The once level-based themes that composers knew would be heard countless times have been replaced by long epic scores that support narrative and tension. Games are just now entering a phase where they are moving past that orchestral phase and are looking for new ways to incorporate music into games. It’s safe to say Les Claypool is your man for that kind of job. Again, no matter what problems this game may have, it’s trying to do something new and it’s doing it with a whole lot of style.


 


The first piece of hype I ever read was for the game Monkey Island. It was a sprawling six page spread, with screenshots that showed snippets from every part of the game. Fighting the swordmaster, digging for treasure, and Monkey Island itself were all featured and captioned. It completely fascinated me, this world they were describing and the experiences I would have there. My obsession with the game was rewarded heartily when I finally managed to play it some months later, but looking back I can still remember that hype article very clearly. I’d played a lot of interactive fiction games before and I’ve played a lot since, but I think what made it so special was that I’d never played anything that was about pirates in the Caribbean. With so much unexplored territory still left for video games, it seems like the best thing we can do now is support the people who are doing the real exploring.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jul 21, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-07-21...

It’s not particularly surprising, nor should it be surprising, that the week after E3 is just as sparse as the week of E3 (which we will briefly wrap up later this week) when it comes to the depth of the game release schedule.  It’s tough to concentrate on the releases of yet another entry in the Kidz Sports series when you’re concentrating on, say, new screens for MadWorld.


STILL—some of us are simply not inclined to want to enjoy the fresh air that comes with this time of summer, and so, to the release list we must LOOK:


Fans of idea recycling will no doubt be rather thrilled at a couple of the bigger releases for the week, including the one that I’m most likely to end up with at some point: namely, the Nintendo DS remake of Final Fantasy IV.  Back when Final Fantasy IV was known to us Americans as Final Fantasy II (you know, before Final Fantasy VII went and confused everybody for a while), it was winning hearts and minds as one of the most influential RPGs of its time.  The fully-developed story, an active turn-based combat system that probably seemed as close to perfect as you could imagine at that point, and some of the baddest baddies in role playing at the time made for a play experience that somehow managed to make 30 hours seem short.


For the sake of the DS, the entire world of Final Fantasy IV has been given a complete and utter overhaul, with character models that move far beyond the sprites of the SNES version (or even the Game Boy Advance remakes), complete with three-dimensional modeling and completely redone towns.  While it’s still the same game, it looks completely different, which may well be all we need to give this classic another playthrough.


Also on the recycled material front is 1942: Joint Strike for the Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network, which scores bonus points not just because it’s a shmup but because 1942 is a classic (total classic!).  Hopefully the updated version can live up to its name, and hopefully those big planes still take an obscene number of shots to down.


MLB Power Pros 2008 could be a nice alternative to the baseball sims that pervade the sports market, because really, all we want is R.B.I. Baseball for a new generation, right?  Dungeon crawler fans may well flock to Atlus’ latest as well, as Izuna, the unemployed ninja herself, gets an improbable second go on a new portable.  That’d probably be a nice second step in the genre for those attracted to the genre by those Pokémon dungeon crawlers a couple months ago.  Otherwise…well, there’s just not much to speak of.


Looking forward to anything this week?  Let us know!  The full release list and a trailer for the new Final Fantasy IV are after the JUMP:


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008

I didn’t own an original iPhone. In fact, I’ve never had a data plan before, never purchased a piece of software for a phone, never played any phone games more complicated than the demos that came with the free phone that came with my contract (read any given iteration of Snake). And after swearing up and down that I was not going to stand in line for an iPhone 3G on launch day, and would maybe, eventually get one when the hype died down, I found myself driving 90 miles each way to a distant mall, swapping places in line with my wife every half an hour or so for three hours. When all was said and done, we both had shiny new iPhone 3Gs, which we spent what little was left of the day playing with and exploring.  It’s an extraordinary piece of machinery, really, and if any other company than Apple had pioneered it, it likely would not suffer the backlash it does—nor, however, would it likely be as popular.


Having brought the thing home, I decided to poke around the iTunes App Store, really the thing that gives the iPhone longevity as a mobile platform. In time, I might not need to take my laptop when I go on a trip, though we’re still a touch away from that. I purchased both Super Monkey Ball, a property I’ve had affection for since the GameCube, and Bejeweled 2, a version of the game which arguably started the popularity of modern casual games.


Super Monkey Ball is… well, it’s Super Monkey Ball, with tilt controls, which is admittedly pretty cool. It takes a little getting used to, and it’s clearly supposed to be the graphical showcase for the system, but it’s fun.  Bejeweled is exactly what it’s always been, but somehow my fingers might be fatter than a mouse pointer or stylus, because I’m having problems playing it as well as I remember being able to.


What really stands in the way of the iPhone as a gaming platform is partially what makes it so attractive in many other ways—its sleekness. With no dedicated physical gaming buttons or joysticks, its appeal to gamers as a gaming platform seems limited. But the reality is that as casual gaming becomes more and more popular, that doesn’t really matter to the bottom line.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jul 14, 2008
A collection of observations and essays about the ongoing effort to sell video games to older players.

One of the biggest transitions occurring with gamers is the wide diversity of people playing video games today. A recent speech and blog post by David Hayward outlines the huge variety of gamers and personalities now playing. Architects, undergrads, casual gamers, women, and men are all active participants with a huge diversity of games to play. He cites a statistic claiming that 40% of the U.K. now plays video games, beating out soccer and cinema respectively. The people he references as gamers are all employed, sociable, and far from the negative stereotypes video games still sometimes hold. They’re also all in their 20s and 30s. From a cultural point of view, that’s awesome. From an economic point of view, that’s troubling. The issue is not what can we do to get more people playing games, it’s what can we do to get people with money playing games.


I don’t have the statistics of wealth distribution but it’s a safe assumption that the average young person starting their career (and maybe raising a family) does not have a lot of disposable income. It just takes time to get a steady job, pay for a family, pay off the mortgage, have free time, and start to have excess money. So although having a young consumer base creates a great image and culture, their capacity to spend lots of money on the hobby is somewhat limited. Enter the Baby Boomers. Unlike their children, this demographic generally has a decent amount of disposable income, lots of free time, and are up for spending those things on a hobby. This isn’t a very original observation either; if you’ve noticed the glut of film remakes and the general packaging of nostalgia in other consumer mediums, then you can see what I’m talking about. The movie industry long ago noticed that the ones with cash are the ones you make movies for, and have responded in kind. There are 78 million Baby Boomers out there and only 19% play video games. That’s a lot of untapped potential. The question now is…what kind of video games do Baby Boomers want to play?


Chris Miller at CNNMoney asked this same question in 2006 and outlined what games have made progress so far. Brain Age seems to strike a chord, Civilization IV works, and one grandma claimed that GTA was the only game out that really appealed to her. In other words, like Hayward’s examples of young gamers in the other article, it’s all over the map. There isn’t one game that will appeal to an entire demographic, but there may be one thing that’s drawing them to these various games. One of the more curious details in Miller’s piece is that one of the older gamers got into the hobby by participating in her son’s gaming website. It was a way for them to bond. Many other Baby Boomers made the same observation and have used video games to relate with their kids or grandkids. Lou Kesten with the AP wrote an article outlining the terse relationship parents have with this connection, noting that 43% of parents refuse to play games with their kids. The chief complaints are the lack of outdoor sports time or benefit to playing games as a hobby. There is a certain cultural barrier present here but it’s unlikely that this is actually based on the simple argument that games are a waste of time. We live in a society where a basketball player is paid more than an EMT, so people are certainly capable of assigning value to sport and play. The issue with these parents, many of whom are in their fifties and about to have the same financial status as Baby Boomers, is getting them to find value in time spent gaming. Having it be a way to bond with their kids could be the way to create that.


After putting together the basics for this gargoyle of a piece, I decided to take a novel approach to the question: I asked my Dad what kind of video game he wanted to play. He responded with the very helpful, “I don’t know.” So the next time I was in town I broke out the Wii and sampled as many games as I could with him. An avid guitar player, my first guess was Guitar Hero. He was excited about trying the game but after bombing a few levels he complained that it was too different from the real thing. Wii Sports went over well and we had a good game of golf together. Zelda never perked his interest, and I decided to avoid No More Heroes. The goal was to find a game that he would play on his own, not just with me, but nothing seemed to really click. The only time I can ever remember him taking an interest when I was a kid was when he saw me playing Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father. He helped me figure out some of the trickier puzzles and after I beat the game he had me show him the ending. After trying out the Wii he did ask if there was anything like that available and I had to tell him no.


Many developers have already started experimenting with family-based video game concepts. The Lego games do a good job of creating a fun children’s game that gives adults something to engage as well. Many of the puzzles incorporate co-op with the specific goal of having the family work together while playing. But is there a way to get them to play video games like the younger generation does? To see them as a fitting distraction to do alone like you do with T.V. or movies? Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer notes the extreme lack of fathers or parental relationships in games, suggesting a game narrative that deals with these issues head-on. Epic fantasy may be fun for some but perhaps other topics may need to be explored to appeal to this audience. Playing time duration is also different for older gamers, who tend to just play in brief bursts, as exemplified by Sudoku or the Brain Age games. What’s key to all these different examples is that they are based on a different value system than the games we, the younger generation, tend to play. Making a game for a Baby Boomer needs to provide different sensations and values than a game focused on graphics, challenge, or complex systems.


Gamasutra did an excellent piece sampling a series of older gamers and discovered a variety of interesting quirks to entice play: bigger text, shorter play sessions, and proper manuals to explain the games were all major complaints. You also have to explain a lot of alien gaming concepts that most people take for granted. Crossing the generation gap won’t be easy when there are so many new ideas for the audience to ingest, but perhaps just a little encouragement to try is all that’s necessary. As the article notes, just getting them used to video games is really the best approach. After the gaming marathon with my folks I’d given up on ever getting them into playing games the way I play them. But my Dad called me the other day to tell me that he had finally found a video game that he liked. It had to do with guitars and he told me to check it out. It’s essentially a 3-D guitar player that you can zoom in and around that has very detailed finger movements. It looks like something out of Unreal. He uses it to teach himself guitar licks and loves being able to observe the complex finger work. There’s no interaction outside of the camera and I don’t think many people would even call it a video game. But I’ve got to admit, it’s a start.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jul 14, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-07-14

Welcome to E3 Week, people!  Since nobody on our illustrious staff is actually going to E3, you’d probably be better off going to one of those other gaming sites if it’s comprehensive E3 news coverage that you’re looking for.  Otherwise, you can count on us to make occasional remarks on the big news stories and keep reviewing games.  You know, kind of like we always do.


McFadden is good and all, but he's no James Starks.

McFadden is good and all, but he’s
no James Starks.


I can’t imagine that most publishers think to themselves, “you know when a good time would be to release a game?  E3 week.  Nobody could possibly get too distracted by the overload of gaming news to forget about Big Release X, could they?”  Of course they could.  As such, there’s very little motivation to put out big releases this week, since the attention is bound to be diverted to other things.


Given the light and decidedly unimpressive list of releases this week, then, there’s only one thing that really sticks out as something I’d particularly like to play: NCAA Football 09.  Can EA put enough improvements into their yearly college football game to warrant yet another purchase?  ‘Tis the eternal question!  It is true, though, that I tend to welcome excuses to try and take my alma mater’s football program (University at Buffalo, and yes, they have a football team.  Kind of.) to a bowl game, since I’m relatively sure such an occurrence will never happen in the real world in my lifetime.  Um, Let’s go Buf-fa-lo!


OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!

OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!


Up and around the rest of the release list, Southpeak’s Mister Slime actually has nothing to do with the Dragon Quest series (unfortunately!) but it still looks like a fun little puzzle game, and Her Interactive moves their Nancy Drew series to the Nintendo DS, where it seems like it would be a perfect fit for its female adolescent target audience.  We Love Golf! is, for obvious reasons, a perfect fit for the Wii, and there’s a PlayStation 2 exclusive (I had no idea those still existed!) called B-Boy, which is You Got Served!-style breakdancing action.  Given that my 4-year-old fancies himself a breakdancer of late, I may just end up with that.


The full list of releases, along with a trailer for NCAA Football 09, is after the jump.  Happy E3 week, everyone!  Try


not

to hit information overload!


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