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Thursday, May 1, 2008
The parallels between those taking sides in the battle over the merit of Grand Theft Auto and the battle over the merit of blogs as journalistic devices are striking.

It’s no secret that Grand Theft Auto IV is, at this point, an utter phenomenon, not just a gaming entity but a media entity that is currently, in the few days following its release, destroying every other form of entertainment in terms of popularity, interest, and commentary.  On one hand, we have the side of 99% of the gamers who have bought it: basically, that it’s the best damn thing since San Andreas came out.  Then, there are those who are utterly and unequivocally against its release, suggesting that it should be locked behind counters or banned outright.  There is very little in-between to be found, which makes for a dearth of common ground from which intelligent discussion of the merits and flaws in the game can appear.


Buzz vs. Will, Round 1…FIGHT(Image courtesy of AOL Fanhouse)

Buzz vs. Will, Round 1…FIGHT
(Image courtesy of AOL Fanhouse)


Interestingly, this particular split is happening just as another such split is popping up and threatening to consume the media: blogs vs. the mainstream (read: print) media.  It’s a split that had been brewing for some time, but it all seems to have come to a head now that Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights himself, relentlessly browbeat Deadspin.com progenitor Will Leitch all over Bob Costas’ HBO show the other night.  The divide is framed as such: those who have spent their life cutting their teeth on print media can’t stand the brash, brazenly amateur tone favored by the majority of blogs (and have no trouble saying so via endlessly trotting out the tired “living in their moms’ basements” line), and blogs are dismissing those criticisms as baseless and completely without merit (often by indulging in exactly the sort of bottom-feeding that the “old guard” is criticizing).  Much like the split inspired by Grand Theft Auto, sanity can only be found somewhere in between those two arguments, but let’s face it: arguments that try to reconcile two sides of a very tall fence are a) difficult to present, and b) bound to be slammed to death by both sides of that fence.


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Wednesday, Apr 30, 2008
The Guitar Hero franchise is being diluted by the sheer number of uses of the Guitar Hero name.

A pile of the tracks that are going to be on the upcoming Guitar Hero: On Tour release for the Nintendo DS broke yesterday, and…well, look for yourself:


Do What You Want - OK Go
All The Small Things - Blink 182
Spiderwebs - No Doubt
Are You Gonna Be My Girl - Jet
We’re Not Gonna Take It - Twisted Sister
All Star - Smash Mouth
Breed - Nirvana
Jessie’s Girl - Rick Springfield
Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Pat Benatar
This Love - Maroon 5
Heaven - Los Lonely Boys
Helicopter - Bloc Party
China Grove - The Doobie Brothers
Rock and Roll All Nite - KISS (cover by Line 6)
What I Want - Daughtry


(Opinions and rants after the jump.)


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Tuesday, Apr 29, 2008
I sorta made a point of disparaging the idea of the Wii Wheel last week. Well, I was wrong.

One of the most misleading aspects of game journalism as a whole is the relentless air of positivity that goes into game and gear previews.  On one hand, it’s true that you don’t necessarily want to dismiss the potential of a game based on an early build or a demo; on the other, if something looks like it’s going to be lousy, even if it’s a hotly anticipated piece of software from a major publishing company, shouldn’t we go ahead and feel free to say so?


It is in this spirit that I ranted for a paragraph or so about just how awful an idea the Wii Wheel was, how its presence sullied the good name of Mario Kart and put it in the company of such peripheral bad ideas as the Wii Baseball Bat and the Wii Tennis Racket (I mean, really, just the Wiimote, all by itself, had been proven dangerous—did we have to find ways to make it bigger?).  I know that the Wii Wheel isn’t exactly an uncommon target for criticism, but between the Wii Zapper fiasco (so when’s the next “Wii Zapper Compatible” game coming out, anyway?) and this, Nintendo’s propensity to hop on the plastic-shell bandwagon seemed too troubling not to call out.


Given the quickness with which I jumped on the bandwagon of Wii Wheel rippers, then, it seems only fair that I should now admit that I was wrong.


There is no game out there right now, not a single one, that has brought my family together for game time more reliably and consistently than Mario Kart Wii.  Let me be clear: we are not a house of Mario Kart enthusiasts; I’ve had only a passing interest in the franchise for most of its life, apart from a brief time with the original when I was utterly obsessed.  The DS version is fun enough, but it didn’t exactly steal my life away, and I’m a little bit ashamed to admit that I’ve never even played Double Dash.  The kids have played a couple of previous iterations of the franchise as well, finding the most interest in the DS version, but even that struck them as not exactly worth giving up things like Dogz and Spider Man: Friend or Foe.


Mario Kart Wii, on the other hand, has a Wheel.


As suggested by my wife, a teacher, it seems to be a matter of context; in education, the use of appropriate contextual cues can not only make learning easier, but can also make the students want to learn.  It seems like such a simple concept, but I had never considered that a simple wheel, attached to nothing at all, could make playing a game so much more fun than holding the Wiimote and pretending that I was gripping the three-o’-clock and nine-o’-clock positions on a wheel.  In doing so, I obviously made a huge error in judgement, because not only does the wheel seem to drum up interest in the game, it gives the kids confidence.  The game then transcends the label of “daddy’s video games” and becomes, simply, a toy.  Turn the wheel left, car goes left.  Turn the wheel right, car goes right.  Hold down the ‘2’ button the whole time, and you’re driving.  Easy as pie.


My six-year-old has won a few 50cc races, which was a surprise to me given that she has never shown a propensity for games that require quick thinking and fast action.  These wins have been utter events in our household, things that can be attributed not only to her increasing-all-too-fast age, but also to the fact that turning a steering wheel probably seems like a pretty basic mechanic, even for her; combining the function of an analog stick and various buttons is still a bit abstract for her mind, while turning a wheel is entirely logical and mechanical, and the confidence of knowing exactly what that wheel is supposed to do was enough to convince her that she could win.  And so she did.


This all may seem like fairly minor stuff in the grand scheme, and it’s true that the Wheel is not going to win you any tournaments the way the more traditional Nunchuck/Wiimote combo will.  Still, for casual players, children, and anyone else that Nintendo is trying to “bridge” to more serious gaming via Mario Kart Wii, the wheel is absolutely useful, and borders on essential.


And no, I can’t believe I just said that.


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Tuesday, Apr 29, 2008
The Zarathustruan Analytics series continues with L.B. Jeffries' thoughts on player input.


Part of the reason this analytical method is named after Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is to do justice to the individualized nature of player input, to put aside judging a game purely by the game play or plot and go beyond that to analyzing the actual experience of a game itself. The problem is…although critics are quite capable of analyzing their own experience from playing a game, it is not quite so easy to apply that analysis to others. Indeed, this critical method is more an approach to assessing the experience creating methods in a game rather than the individual experience itself. The player input, then, is literally your connection to the game because it keeps you interested and playing. To that end, when critically judging player input, you are looking at how the game and story react to your input and the impact this has on the overall experience. Rather than go into the huge variety of ways games do this, we’ll do an analysis of one of the more controversial player input methods that’s prevalent in games today and use it to highlight the requirements of player input itself.

There has been a great deal of criticism over the silent protagonist in video games recently and for good reason: they’re suddenly everywhere. Out of the top ranking games of 2007, almost all of them involve playing characters who don’t speak. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life never utters a word. Master Chief hardly speaks, and Link does little more than grunt. It’s tempting to dismiss the feature as simply a cop-out on the part of the creators, and yet there are certainly games that have used the device effectively. Why does the connection of not letting a player’s character speak work in some games and in others supposedly break-down?


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008
Kotaku's gone back to the WiG, so we're keeping the TWiG...Here are the new releases for the week of 2008-04-28.

You know, you have to give Iron Man some credit.  Not only is Sega’s adaptation of the soon-to-be blockbuster film being released on every single major console and portable system this week, but it single-handedly ensured that every single system had at least one game to show off this week (thus avoiding the fate of withstanding a surely snarky synonym for “zero” in its release column).  The demo that Sega released on Xbox Live isn’t even all that bad, even if its all-too-short play time does cut out right when it seems as though the game might just get exciting.


No matter—if you’ve been at all privy to the world of gaming journalism in the past week, you know that anything on this list that isn’t Grand Theft Auto IV is being seriously, seriously overshadowed by Grand Theft Auto IV.  You’ve seen the exclusive review (and while I won’t begrudge them for it, I hope IGN thought long and hard about dishing out that 10 when they knew they’d be under scrutiny for being the only outlet allowed to break the dated review embargo that the rest of the media has had to follow), and heck, you’ve probably seen the rest of the reviews so far as well.  That Metacritic wall o’ 100s is awfully impressive, if not altogether unexpected.


The sheer magnitude of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s release is enough to make one wonder: why in the world would Nintendo choose to release Mario Kart Wii a mere two days before perhaps the most highly-anticipated release of 2008?  One could make the argument that the audience for the two games is different, but it intersects in enough places that the buying public for Mario Kart can’t help but be affected, at least a little bit.  One could also say that Mario Kart is a strong enough franchise that it’ll get its sales over the long-term, and it will be fine.  This is probably true—and I do expect that Mario Kart will sell gobs of product and little plastic wheels regardless of what other releases happen to coincide with its own—but still.  Mario Kart Wii got one, maybe two days of serious publicity when the journalists got their copies, only to be swallowed almost immediately by the Grand Theft Auto behemoth.  Pushing off the release (or moving it up, even) by a week or two might have been able to ensure a solid stream of publicity surrounding its release.  As it is, it’s going to have to rely on an admittedly sizable established fanbase.


Of course, one could also argue that that fanbase has been what has been sustaining Nintendo all along, but it wouldn’t hurt to try like hell to expand that fanbase, especially when there is such a sizable new install base just sitting there, waiting to be taken advantage of.  Nintendo apparently sees Mario Kart as a “bridge game”—that is, a game that could help casual players transition to more involved gaming experiences—and having had a day or two to play the game, this makes sense, given that it had the four game-playing members (that is, myself, my wife, and my kids) playing a game together for the first time since Wii Sports first invaded our home and free time.  Still, it’s not going to be a bridge for anyone who doesn’t notice its release.


Other releases this week include the happily budget-priced SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 (a much cheaper way to get your Neo Geo fix than the Virtual Console, as it turns out), and Konami’s contributions to the Nintendo DS’s continued dominance as a lifestyle machine (as opposed to a simple game machine), called Let’s Yoga! and Let’s Pilates!.  I would be sarcastic about these things, but I may buy them.  Somehow, these activities seem more palatable when you plug them into a DS and pretend they’re games.


Perhaps I’ve said too much.  Go take a look at this week’s release list, after the jump…


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