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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008
Capcom's 1942: Joint Strike gets the Checkpoints treatment, courtesy of Arun Subramanian.

The 194x series of games were some of the earliest successful vertical scrolling shooters.  They were also one of the few examples of the genre not steeped in a sci-fi mythos.  1942: Joint Strike plays like a long lost entry in the series, though it’s interesting to note that despite the success of titles like Pacman: Championship Edition and Space Invaders Extreme, Joint Strike plays it comparatively safe.  Certainly, what made those reimaginings successful was the way they modernized gameplay concepts while leaving the core mechanics untouched.  Joint Strike, on the other hand, is largely content to present itself as a graphical update.  This is not inherently bad, particularly considering that scrolling shooters are fairly timeless, and that by and large Joint Strike is presentationally top-notch.  Finally, the electronica-inspired aesthetics of Pac Man: CE and Space Invaders Extreme would certainly be out of place in the context of 1942.


While not quite difficult enough to earn the description of a “bullet-hell” shooter, there is more than enough challenge in avoiding enemies and fire.  There are three available planes that vary in key statistics, any of which can take more than one standard enemy shot without exploding, but it’s probably best to behave as though any shot can take your plane down.  The three weapon types are standard, and it’s easy to imagine players will have different favorites.  The reality is that much of what makes Joint Strike enjoyable is what has always made it so.  The widescreen support is welcome, since it gives the game the opportunity to present more enemies, at the same time as it gives the player more room to maneuver.  This is especially noticeable in cooperative play.


Although they have very recently undergone something of a renaissance, scrolling shooters have certainly waned in popularity with the demise of the arcade.  Along with traditional beat-‘em-ups, arcade shooters had the quality of essentially being beatable by anyone willing to continue paying money when they died.  Because adding another credit traditionally just topped off your health and lives precisely at the point where you perished, it was generally possible to simply buy your way to the ending.  That’s not to say skill wasn’t rewarded, but the reward had to do with the monetization of that talent as measured by money saved.  This is something of a different idea than that of a pinball master getting endless replays or a fighting game wizard taking on the competition for hours on a single quarter, in that those game situations don’t really have discrete endings. 


In their transition to home consoles, then, with no money leaving the pockets of the player once the game has been purchased, many shooters have instituted much more stringent life and continue policies.  Certainly, in the arcade, there is more money to be made by allowing less skilled players to continually buy their way back in, but in the absence of this pay-to-play environment, there is a tendency to impose restrictions on the player in the home console versions, essentially limiting the number of virtual quarters the player has.  This necessarily removes some of the accessibility of these titles in favor of an artificial difficulty, but is likely the best compromise available.  Joint Strike is no exception to this, and in order to unlock level selects and continues, you must beat the game straight through.


In many ways, Joint Strike is a prime example of what’s good about downloadable games from the perspective of an established company, revisiting a classic franchise.  While it certainly doesn’t contain enough content to warrant a purchase as a full priced game published on physical media, a quality common to many classic arcade games, it works perfectly as something downloadable on a whim, imbued with both modern graphics and classic gameplay.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Aug 11, 2008
L.B. talks about the convergence of game designs and the idea of creating one universal model in a single game.


I was sitting in my friend’s apartment, watching him play Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and ticking off the number of game design elements used. You duck and cover during the gun fights like in Gears of War. You climb around ruins like in Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider. You have rail shooting sequences. You have vehicle sections. What makes it interesting is that they are all competently sitting in one game. And it’s not just this title—many combat games are developing similar overlap in terms of their features. They are all marching towards being more realistic and giving the player all the options he could want in a fight. The question this raises is that if we are continually having our games mimic reality and allow the player to do whatever they would want to do in an actual fight, are we not basing this on a finite series of options? Isn’t there a point where you’re going to be able do whatever you want, where those features will be refined to the point of flawless? Could there eventually be one universal game design that competently lets you do anything in a game?


 


Lets not get into a semantics argument here, because I don’t mean level designs, stories, or weapons. I mean the basic physics and ways that you interact with the game environment. Nor is this really referring to an absolute recreation of reality. Games have already developed their own unique lore, as outlined in an excellent article in Popular Mechanics. Uzis are actually extremely accurate guns, but for the purpose of gameplay balance, most games make them much wilder. Pistols aren’t as useful at long distances as many games would have you believe. Not to mention the lack of recoil bruises and regenerative abilities of the average protagonist. I’m going to steer away from swords and sorcery for most of this essay, but I highly doubt many gamers would be pleased at having their sword get stuck inside an orc while swinging it either. But even deviation from the reality could merely be another choice for the player. Do you want to play on ‘real life’ difficulty, or set yourself up as a physics-defying super-human death machine? In either case, a big blow-out action sequence is still going to have a finite number of activities for you to do. Again, I’m not talking about weapons, plot, or basic environmental physics. This is just basic run, drive car, duck, reload, shoot, and electric slide actions becoming part of one unified standard.


 


With so many games copying and incorporating game designs from each other, the main difference between game options now really boils down to refinement. You might have a great FPS system in your game, but as soon as you jump into a vehicle your physics stop making sense and the cars become a pain to drive. Or, your great flight simulator becomes awful as soon as the kung-fu sequences break out. It’s a factor that developers have started to account for, and one of the most innovative ways is Midway’s method. All of the developers under that publisher share technology and resources. In the Gamasutra article cited, the developer explains that they actually borrowed the car physics and programmers from a developer who makes racing games for their free-roaming Vegas game. In return, they showed the other developer better streaming technology for their environments. Imagine a world where instead of a game being good at one thing and having a couple of mediocre sections, the mediocre sections were developed by an equally skilled group. Vehicles, gunfights, physics…these features would become so refined as to actually stream them all together. We would no longer distinguish a game about driving cars and one about shooting aliens. They would all become one game design, one epic experience.


 


A universal game design wouldn’t just stop with action games or titles where you’re directly in control of the protagonist. It could extend out to strategy, space combat, anything really. What else is Starcraft but an action game where you hover high above the battlefield? The concept has been experimented with before in games, but with the kind of refinement we’re talking about it’d be possible to mix completely unrelated players in one game. Take Left 4 Dead. One player controls all of the zombies, the others are all playing characters trapped in the fray. One is engaged in a strategic battle, the other is having a frantic shoot-out. A player who isn’t a huge fan of playing Halo may nevertheless buy a game where they get to control the battlefield while skilled players opt for FPS mode and try to take them out while they control armies overhead. Beyond the always promising broad economic perks of such a game, there’s the co-mingling of different players and preferences in one Universal Design. It’s not a game within the game, it’s a game that has every means of interaction possible in it.


Stephen Hawking once wrote that in order to create a universal formula for the universe, you’d need to design it like a series of maps. You need one kind of map to get around a park. You need another kind to tell you where a country is. One kind of map isn’t always going to suit your needs even if it’s just as accurate as another. It seems plausible that the same could be said for a Universal Game Design. You need a finite series of interactive options that change depending on what you want to do in the game. If I want to quantum leap into a space fighter and skillfully blast my way through a whole armada, it brings up a new series of options. If I want to coordinate a group of capital ships to surround that one pesky fighter, there’s a series of options for that too. A Universal Game Design doesn’t mean that there will be only one kind of game, it means that there will be one we can all play.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Aug 11, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-11...

Much like the odd little release schedule of two weeks ago, there are two releases this week that are valiantly fighting for my own personal affection, one of which is a tremendous, big-ticket release, and the other of which happens to be an Xbox Live Arcade download.


Seriously, Xbox Live Arcade is on a roll this month, a roll that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.


In only a matter of time, I'll have Marshawn Lynch rushing for 300.

In only a matter of time, I’ll have Marshawn Lynch rushing for 300.


Rather than cop out as I did those two weeks ago and choose co-winners, I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room and just acknowledge that the release that everyone has their eye on this week is Madden NFL 09.  The cultural phenomenon surrounding the tremendous franchise once known as simply John Madden Football is nothing short of fascinating, and despite the fact that every year I caution myself away from getting swept up in the unavoidable torrent of hype surrounding this yearly event, I can’t help but want to absorb every detail that might be hidden in every word written about the thing.  Sometimes I buy it, sometimes I don’t, but despite all of the advances that have come about in multiplayer gaming over the years, there’s still very little that is as exhilerating as getting the phone call: “I’ve got the new Madden.  You coming over?”


Of course, unfortunately for EA, much of the attention given to the new Madden game this year centers on its cover and not on any of the gameplay and graphics tweaks that it’s given the latest model of the flagship EA Sports franchise.  Specifically, there’s the presumed-to-be-retired Brett Favre, in glorious Packer green and gold, ready and willing to deliver a pass.  The cover was supposed to be a celebration of the player who exemplified the love of the game, a tribute to a man who in so many ways exemplified the best qualities of the game he played.  Now, of course, Brett’s a Jet, the airwaves have been saturated with the “saga” of his “battle” to return to the playing field, and nobody’s sure anymore whether his presence on that cover is helping or hurting the game that he is supposed to be symbolizing.


That aside, I almost want to get the Wii version of the game simply so that I can play the exclusive 5-on-5 mode.  As a playground touch football veteran myself, it may well trigger flashbacks of the “glory days”.


(drool)

(drool)


Of course, it’s impossible to hide my biases, and that’s why it actually crossed my mind to hand this week’s spotlight to Bionic Commando: Rearmed, the remake of perhaps my favorite game of all time.  Just having a good excuse to bust out the bionic arm again is going to be reason enough to not want to leave the house on Wednesday morning.  I can only pray that Capcom has retained the ability to take multiple approaches to beating a level, and I can’t wait to try out the Scorpion “get over here” mechanic of actually being able to use the bionic arm to pull enemies into close range.  My fingers are getting excited just thinking about this…if it lives up to the original, Bionic Commando: Rearmed might be the most fun I have with a video game all year.


Even past those two games, there are a couple more goodies on the way this week.  The DS gets Bangai-O Spirits, which should satisfy space shooter fans lamenting the dearth of such games on the Nintendo DS, and the Wii gets Line Rider 2: Unbound, which will at least be an interesting study in how to (or, perhaps, how not to) translate a flash game into a full-fledged retail title.  I mean, Line Rider is a killer little waste of time.


Check out the full release list, and let me know what you’ll be buying this week!  A Madden trailer is just past the jump.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008
A comparison between tarot cards and the field of non-linear, first person video games.


One of my favorite phrases to throw around in a video game debate is that no amount of naming the chess pieces in a game after something will change the fact that you’re still playing chess. The chief preoccupation is still scoring a checkmate, having nothing to do with whatever title or meaning you’ve assigned to the pieces. It’s simply a way to shake up someone who thinks that all video games need to do is have a more sophisticated plot, a way to make them question the game designs and activities we’re actually doing in games. It also reminds people that the player input is what makes game plots so difficult to manage, though it’s also what gives them so much potential. Yet there must be a way to create meaning in a game despite that huge variable without constantly forcing the player’s hand. A couple of games that are coming on the horizon are exploring just that, as highlighted by a fascinating interview over at Gamasutra with Patrick Redding about Far Cry 2. I made a comment there that was just meant to summarize what Redding was trying to explain when one designs a non-linear plot. The writer creates a series of reactions that relate to one another like vignettes that inter-operate in the game. People seemed to take a shining to it, so after giving it some thought, I figured I should explore what the hell that actually means.


 


Long ago, at the young age when awkward boys are thinking up unique ways to impress girls, I opted to learn how to tell fortunes with a tarot deck. It was just something that fit my personality. This might shock you, but the real key is to not actually believe you’re predicting the future when you do a reading. Instead, pretend you’re giving someone an elaborate ink blot test. It’s like holding up a giant symbolic mirror that will, thanks to our mind’s natural inclination to assign meaning to chaos, create an incredibly personal and profound story for the subject. This means I don’t need to be in control of the meaning the cards create for a person, because I know the meaning they create will be far more powerful anyways. It also means they’ll take care of any flaws in the story I project at them. When I say a lively and energetic man is affecting your life, I don’t have to worry that I’m talking to a person surrounded by boring people. They will, by default, manipulate the data in their head until someone conforming to that image plugs in. So to explain how one might create narrative in a seemingly random video game, I’m going to explain how I can create narrative with a deck of cards.


 


The deck consists of 78 cards representing broad philosophical and personal concepts. The Magus is skill, wisdom, cunning. Death is transformation, change, and destruction but not literally death. You then have the lower arcana of wands (energy), cups (emotion), swords (logic), and discs (material affairs). These are like the houses of a normal deck of cards: each are numbered and represent states or emotions, the major arcana represent types of people or situations, and the ace is a massive concentration of whatever arcana it represents. Each of these cards are visually and descriptively designed to kick off something in your subconscious, and they do so with a variety of tools. I use Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Deck and I chose it because each card has a stunning amount of imagery on it. There’s phallic, vaginal, occult, and anything else they could pack into one little card. It is extremely unlikely that a person looking at one of these things is not going to have it register and connect with something in their head. Whether that association is positive or negative, tarot cards work as narrative devices because they deal with loaded symbolism that people naturally turn into stories. When I slap down the Knight of Wands, shown wielding flaming staves and thundering horses, I know the subject is both puzzled and creating connections without me saying a word.


 


Furthermore, in any narrative there is a great deal to be said for prepping your subject. I’ve experimented with a variety of reading methods and they almost all require the subject to shuffle the cards. While they do so, you have them think about what’s affecting them or what question they want answered. You do this to make sure the subject is already trying to turn the random symbols into a larger narrative. Other mediums use music, labels, etc. in a similar method: you prep your subject for thinking about a particular theme. The sad music in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as much a signal for my brain to start referencing sad thoughts as the imagery itself. So I tell them to think about a problem in their life and that these cards are going to relate to that problem. Occasionally a person will be extremely helpful and tell me what’s on their mind, but most of the time I like the challenge of sniffing out the issue. This is probably what separates good fortune tellers from bad ones: the capacity to gauge a person’s responses to you. Fortunately, video games are going to be far better at this than me because they have all those graphs and feedback charts. There may still be a lot of cultural bias towards video games being anything except diversions or fun, but for a game that wants to impart a meaningful story one of the key aspects is letting the person know your intentions. As much as you might fear sounding pretentious, if you’re trying to say something complex and deep then don’t pretend otherwise.


 


So once you have a wide and universal array of symbols at your disposal and a subject who is thinking very hard about converting these symbols into something that means something, what is the final phase? The presentation. There are actually a lot of ways to do tarot cards, and most people choose based on their personal skills. I use the Celtic Cross method, which divides the draw into 5 groups of 3. One group represents the conflict, two are potential decisions for the user to make, and the other two are outside factors to consider. That’s a lot to work with, so that even if the subject does not really resonate with the central conflict group, they tend to perk up when I gloss over a successful future or interesting factors in their life. With so many topics to discuss, it means I don’t have to tell a perfect fortune, I just have to get my foot in the door. They’ll do the rest, the morphing and manipulating broad symbols into their life, all by themselves. There are other techniques for the tarot as well. The Egyptian method is to just draw cards until one hits pay dirt, then gloss the rest as significant in other ways. Others have their own unique set of symbols and claims for the subject. The result is always the same: if you mix broad symbols with proper presentation and carefully managed player input, you will have an impact on the subject.


 


It might surprise you that despite my own blunt perspective on the art of tarot, I still tell my own fortune a fair amount. When something is troubling me or I’m unsure about a choice to make, I break out the deck and follow the cards. Not because I expect good advice or even a solution, but because they help generate perspective. Like the ink blot test and sitting on your therapist’s couch, reading those cards makes me think about myself and my issue in a new way. Which is technically what narrative in most mediums is doing with symbols anyways. You find something you can relate to in a story and through that connection find profound meaning. Going back to more linear mediums, a popular symbol would be the mansion. From Faulkner to ‘There Will Be Blood’, that symbol of a big house, the wealth it implies, and its motivation to bloody-minded men is near universal. I don’t need Daniel Plainview to say another word in the film when he says he wanted a mansion as a kid, I and the vast majority of people know what it is to long for wealth. In video games, where interactivity creates such an impossible headache for writers, I think the tarot offers a lot of insights on how meaning can still be created in an environment where the author has little control. A series of reactions like someone crying for help if you shoot them or a dog following you if you feed it could be created in response to the player. Rather than worry about how these relate to some grand linear story, simply leave them as short vignettes that connect and relate to one another through A.I. With enough potent symbols and a willing subject, you don’t really need much control over the narrative at all. The player will create the story for you.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Aug 4, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-04...

A moment of silence for the PSP’s release schedule.  This is the…third?  Fourth?  Actually, I’ve lost count of just how many weeks it’s been since I haven’t had to be a smartass about just how few games are getting released for the PSP this summer.  Thank goodness Madden ‘09 is coming out next week, so I know that I’m not going to have to exclude any of these precious machines of gaming.


You get access to Hannah's wardrobe! Yay!

You get access to Hannah’s wardrobe! Yay!


That said, I’ve heard nice things about Braid and all, but for one week, I’m turning this into a vanity project (SHHH!): The release that’s going to get the most play in this house is…Hannah Montana: Spotlight World Tour.  Yes, it’s another Hannah Montana game, and the fact that it came out on the Wii, oh, last year doesn’t exactly bode well for its sales prospects, but I do know that my daughter was looking over my shoulder as I put together this week’s release list, saw the name Hannah Montana, and proceeded to ask me why I was typing about Hannah Montana in about seven different ways.  So this one’s for her.  Hannah Montana wins, because you get to be a star just like Hannah (just ask the press release!), and play simple rhythm games mostly for the sake of hearing her songs.  Because no, I haven’t heard them enough.


Okay, Braid: It’s a platformer where you CONTROL TIME.  I have no idea whether that’s a recipe for WIN or if it’s just another gimmicky side scroller, but I’m leaning toward the former.  For all the complaining I’ve done about the dearth of releases this summer, Xbox Live Arcade has had one hell of a season, and it doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.  On the PS3 side, Monster Madness: Grave Danger looks like just the sort of thing that next-gen shooter fans would get a kick out of, something like, oh, the Dreamcast’s Expendable updated in all the important ways.


Braid's homage to Donkey Kong

Braid‘s homage to Donkey Kong


Here’s something I’m ashamed to admit: I had no idea they ever released a Sonic the Hedgehog game for the Sega Master System.  I had assumed that they stopped supporting that poor little system by the time Sonic was even a twinkle in Sonic Team’s collective eye, but apparently a version of the blue hedgehog’s adventures did come out for the Master System, and you’ll be able to download it for your Wii today.  New levels?  New challenges?  Another reason to take down Robotnik/Eggman?  Sign me up.


All right, I give up.  Where’s the hidden treasure on this list?  Somebody help me find a place for my disposable income—my wallet’s just too damn heavy.


The full list is after the jump, along with, yes, a trailer for Hannah Montana: Spotlight World Tour.  Enjoy!


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