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Sunday, Apr 20, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-04-21...

Oh, I liked “TWiG” so much.  The mixed capitalization, the emasculating implications…it was just simple enough to be catchy.  Of course, I can say that now that Kotaku, perhaps the most popular gaming blog out there (and the gaming representative of the Gawker empire), has gone and co-opted it.


Now, I’m sure you could go ahead and find fifty instances of other places that had used “TWiG” as an acronym meaning “The Week in Games” before I did.  That’s not the point.  The point is, that before last night, I didn’t know of any of those, and I was much happier then.  Got any ideas for new acronyms?  FTW (For the Week)?  GTFOA (Games to Find Out About)?  Drop ‘em in the comments.  Bonus points (to be redeemed later) go to something that could be a potential internet meme.


This is the Wii Wheel.  It's so…white.

This is the Wii Wheel.  It’s so…white.


As for this week’s games, well, it looks like a sparse week, but there are so many potential winners here that I hardly know where to go for something to highlight.  The elephant in the room is Mario Kart Wii; of all of the games coming out this week, that one’s bound to sell the most, and it’s surely yet another Nintendo-sponsored reason to own a Wii.  Still, it loses points for a) having been done before, and b) foisting the Wii Wheel upon the world.  I’m a Wii apologist, and I can admit that.  I’ll defend it to the death, insisting it’s “next-gen” (whatever that means) to my bloody death.  The habit that even Nintendo itself has latched onto of releasing plastic shells for their innovative control interface, thus removing the necessity of imagination to go with the waggle?  I taste bile in the back of my throat every time I read about one of these things.  Images in my mind of millions of Wii Wheels in landfills amongst 3rd party plastic bats, rackets, and fishing poles make me die a little bit inside.


As a rhythm game fiend, Battle of the Bands looks like fun (if a little confusing), and Square Enix is at it again, releasing The World Ends With You worldwide, to the rejoicing of millions (or, at least, thousands) who have salivated over the game for the nine months it’s been out in Japan.  Still, it’s impossible to overlook the PS2’s sole release this week: Persona 3: FES Edition.  Why, after two weeks of highlighting old games, would I choose to go that route one more time?  A number of reasons, actually:


1.  It might have the highest quality-to-sales ratio of any game released last year, aside from perhaps Zack & Wiki.  Seriously, almost nobody played this thing, and GameSpot, regardless of what you think of them, still saw fit to name it best RPG of ‘07.


2.  30 hours of brand new content.  Seriously—30 hours.  The “expanded” content of the FES edition is an entire new chapter for the game, along with a tweaked version of the original.  If you hadn’t played the original, there is officially no excuse to miss this unless you break out in hives at the mention of RPGs.


3.  You get this 70-hour beast for $29.99.  This is why the continued vitality of the PS2 is a great thing for gamers.


What are you looking forward to this week?  Are you saving your cash for GTA-day next week?


As always, the full release list can be found by clicking on that handy little “continue” link, right…there:


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Text:AAA
Friday, Apr 18, 2008
When Wii Sports was released 17 months ago, it set the standard for minigames, one that countless compilations since have never even approached. Can Hudson's latest attempt stand next to greatness?

Tomorrow’s the 17-month birthday of the Wii and, in turn, Wii Sports!  Should we bake a cake?


At this point, over 18 million people have plugged in their new little white box and taken their little brightly-colored no-armed sphere-handed people for a test drive in the five arenas offered by Wii Sports, and by most accounts, its popularity remains rampant.  To date, no collection of minigames has been received nearly as well by both the critical community and the general public, and though its presence is quieter now than it was a year ago (we haven’t seen it on any late-night talk shows recently), its impact looms large over the release of any collection of minigames, particularly sports-related ones, that dare to stake a claim to its legion of fans.


This is motocross, which is fun, but…

This is motocross, which is fun, but…


The latest group of developers to attempt to stake a claim to the Wii Sports constituency is over at Hudson, where they’re putting something together called Deca Sports.


Hudson was nice enough to send a preview of Deca Sports with four of the ten games playable.  Regrettably, they did not include the curling (because, hey, who doesn’t love curling?), but we did get to try out beach volleyball, figure skating, motocross, and badminton.


For the most part, Hudson is sticking to the formula that made Wii Sports so popular, in that playing the games is generally a piece of cake.  Of the four games included in the demo, three are played using only the Wiimote, with the only exception being figure skating.  Figure skating is probably the most difficult of the games for the non-gamer to master, simply because it requires agile manipulation of the thumbstick on the nunchuck, combined with flicks of the Wiimote to perform jumps, which isn’t hard in theory, but comes off a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.  Badminton and volleyball follow the Wii Tennis formula of not actually moving your players to the ball/birdie; you just hit it the way you want when you have a clear shot at it.  Finally, there’s motocross, which was actually really fun, mostly because it’s like playing Excitebike in rudimentary 3D.  Think Wii Play‘s cow racing with more hills and less cows and you’re most of the way to Deca Sports’ motocross.


...this is what I\'m waiting for.

...this is what I\‘m waiting for.


Playing these games with family and friends around is fun, but a couple of things are off when the inevitable comparisons start happening.  For one, the mechanics of the “hit the thing over the net” games seem a little off, because now you can wave the remote in the direction that you want things to go, which makes the games an awful lot less twitchy than they could be.  This is actually to their disadvantage, as the primary audience for these games is simply going to want to pick them up and play them the way they could when they first unpacked their Wii.  Depth of gameplay should not come from more advanced game mechanics, it should be found in difficulty scaling based on some very, very simple mechanics.  The lack of Mii integration is also unfortunate, as is the lack of online multiplayer, though limitations on these things have come to be expected of Nintendo, which seems to dole out its technology on a case-by-case basis.


What we also didn’t get a sense of was the way in which these games were going to be packaged and supplemented.  What are the single-player modes like?  Are they going to give out medals or implement some sort of achievement system for high scores?  Are there going to be fun little training games?  All of these things were an important part of Wii Sports’ success, and without some incentive to play beyond picking up a couple of controllers and competing with buddies, these kinds of games can get old, and fast.


What do you think?  Can any minigame compilation ever truly live up to Wii Sports?  I don’t think so, as it’s a perfect case of right-place-right-time combined with some of the most well-implemented waggle yet seen on the Wii, even a year and a half after its release.  Maybe you think differently—give us the what-for in the comments.  We like that sort of thing.


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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008
Jason Rohrer's at it again, with a fascinating little game that has a lot more to say than its primitive layout would imply.

What can we learn from Idealism?  For one, there’s more to Jason Rohrer than Passage, and there’s more to The Escapist than Zero Punctuation.


Of course, a lot of folks already know this; The Escapist has quickly become a hotspot for intelligent commentary on the gaming medium, and this is actually Rohrer’s second project for the magazine after the mindbuster that was Perfectionism.  Rohrer has taken up residence at The Escapist, it seems, and both Perfectionism and Idealism can be found there.


Idealism is a fascinating little game, especially when put next to Perfectionism.  For one, both were created in Game Maker, a framework and scripting language for game creation (to seriously oversimplify its capabilities), which may partially account for the similarities in presentation.  Both games are presented on a solid black background, using simple shapes and sprites evoking the graphics of the Atari 2600, and both games start out as incredibly simple exercises in button-pushing and turn into head-scratching mindbenders as they progress.  They are both decidedly brief experiences, but both can be returned to and approached in a variety of ways.


What Rohrer likes to do, however, is infuse his games with some sort of symbolic value, and this is where the contrast between Perfectionism and Idealism starts to take shape.  Where Perfectionism was largely motivated by introspection—namely, Rohrer’s need to go over and over and over his work until it’s exactly the way he wants it—Idealism seems motivated by an observation on the industry.  As Rohrer himself puts it in his own explanation of the game, “What happens when your ideals, be they socially-induced or true, stand in the way of one of your goals?”  It’s the classic design conundrum, and it happens in games, in music, in art, and in literature, popularly known as the sell out.  How far can an idealistic worldview take you in your outlet of choice, and what would it take for you to compromise those ideals?


The way that Rohrer goes about exploring these ideals is fascinating.  The primitive means used to force the player into making these decisions is perfect, as the presentation never distracts from the issues at hand.  Without wanting to give too much away, Rohrer has encapsulated his moral quandary in a shooter that can move as quickly or as slowly as the user wants.  The decision to “sell out” can be a quick, split-second decision, or it can be a calculated, strategic move. 


What I wonder, however, is what point Rohrer is trying to make when he ramps up the difficulty so far at one point as to make the game nearly unplayable.  Perhaps he’s making the point of how meaningless the choice ultimately is; perhaps he just likes the number 23.  If anyone out there in game land can get through the point I’m talking about here (and you will know it when you see it), I hope you leave a comment and tell me what happens.


So?  What are you waiting for?  It’s free!  And it’ll probably run on your old 486 (don’t quote me on that).  Go and give it a look.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008
The PopMatters review of Major League Baseball 2K8 is up today, a game that redefines (for better or for worse) the way that video game baseball can be played. But what if you want something a little bit less...revolutionary?

This is actually the third season for the current generation of video baseball games, given the Xbox 360’s head start with Major League Baseball 2K6 way back in ‘06.  It’s the second season for Sony’s PlayStation 3 versions of their own baseball game.  As such, it would be plenty understandable for Sony to choose to put all of their effort into the PlayStation 3 version of the game, leaving the PlayStation 2 version behind.  They could have gone the EA route, putting out almost exactly the same game as last year with updated rosters, put it out at a budget price, and been done with it.


Of course, given the number of late adopters who still haven’t hopped onto the PS3 bandwagon, it’s also plenty understandable that they didn’t quite go that route.


Major League Baseball 2K8, as you might have read via today’s review from Jason Cook, has chosen to take the path of innovation, completely overhauling pretty much every aspect of baseball gameplay that we have come to know.  The hitting, pitching, and even the fielding in 2K8 features a heavy reliance of the capabilities that modern controllers wield, capabilities that the classic baseball sims never truly even tried to take advantage of.  MLB 08: The Show for the PlayStation 3 features highly developed online modes, hard drive-utilizing features, and all kinds of the extra features one would expect from a PlayStation 3 baseball sim.  The PlayStation 2 version of the same game, however, might just be perfect for the players weaned on Bases Loaded and R.B.I. Baseball, a classic experience with updated graphics and just enough game modes to keep you happy if you’re in the mood for something new.


The reason MLB 08 works for the classic players is that its primary game mechanics will be extremely familiar to just about anyone.  Sure, it’s a little bit more advanced than “press ‘A’ to pitch”, but not all that much.  You’re still swinging the bat with one button.  Fielding feels as natural as it ever has, because you’re doing it in ways that you recognize.  There’s no new paradigm, no new control ideal that must be learned; even without a look at the instruction book or an ounce of experience, you’ll be able to step right in to MLB 08 for the PlayStation 2 and be able to play.  You’ll probably lose, yes, but you’ll be able to play.


Where Sony chose to improve the game is in ways that help the digitized men in the game to perform better.  A pitcher can study a hitter’s tendencies, and a hitter can study a pitcher’s.  A fielder can use the wall to his advantage to jump up and rob a home run.  These are things that improve the experience without necessarily taking away from the pick up ‘n play scheme.  It eases you in to the new features, as once you’re used to the basics, you can slowl y introduce the more advanced play styles to your arsenal of moves.  The fantastic “Road to the Show” play style has been updated as well, as the success/fail dynamic of the tasks your manager gives you aren’t quite so cut and dried as they were before, which makes the play experience less discouraging.


As such, it’s obvious that Sony didn’t put the full-on effort into the PlayStation 2 version of MLB 08: The Show, not like they did the PS3 version, anyway.  What they came up with is entirely the polar opposite of the Major League Baseball 2K8 approach to baseball, subtle tweaks that improve the game rather than overhauling.


In short: it’s the perfect baseball experience for the ex-core PlayStation 2 owner who just isn’t quite ready to move to “next-gen”.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Apr 14, 2008
Part 2 of the 10-Part Zarathustran Analytics series is here, in the form of an examination of the importance of "depth" in game design.


Operating on the principle that a game’s identity comes from the player input which itself is defined by both story and game design, the next stage of creating a critical method for video games is isolating those three variables. We’ll start with the most familiar to the medium of video games: the game design. Making an attempt at objectivity, we’ll examine the subject by looking at games with very shallow game design and ones with very complex design. What is the result of either? Steve Gaynor, in his blog, notes that a lot of people just don’t have the time to learn how to play a game and be competitive. Keep in mind that that’s not just referring to online play, it can be as simple as the player being unable to actually finish a game without a lot of work. At the same time, complex design can instill both a sense of achievement and allow for greater depth of player input. A game with deep design will allow a player to customize their own approach and make the game experience an individual one.


To begin, what are the benefits of having a complex, deep game design?


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