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Text:AAA
Thursday, Feb 26, 2009
The recent release of NOBY NOBY BOY cements the PS3 as the most reliable destination for "play" with or without the "game".

What NOBY NOBY BOY does for you is entirely dependent on two things.


First, it depends on your tolerance for the utterly bizarre. Its entire color palette is made up of pastels—no primary colors, really, but never quite reaching the unnatural glow of pure neon. You start as a peanut-shaped thing but quickly turn yourself into a worm with a disproportionately large head and backside. You crawl around a floating, rectangular patch of land, the danger of falling off ever-looming, while you eat and poop everything you can in an effort to make your worm-like body more stretchy, and by extension longer. There’s something called a space squirrel involved. If you zoom out far enough, you get to see a space-eye view of the planet you’re on, complete with a little character of some sort sitting on the top. And, in an oddly phallic twist for an E-rated game, you (as BOY) report your length to something called GIRL whenever you feel it necessary, contributing along with the rest of the NOBY NOBY BOY community to her own eternal stretch through the solar system.


Right.


If you’re still interested, then, there’s one other thing that will determine the extent of your affinity (or lack thereof) for NOBY NOBY BOY: your willingness to self-motivate. Yes, there are trophies, but all except for one of them are hidden, and almost all of them are the sorts of things that will happen naturally through the course of exploring the game (though at least one of them is so obscure that it seems to work as a tipoff that GameFAQs was consulted for the sake of its capture). There is no death state, no love of BOY’s life to rescue, no world to save; there simply exists the directive to “explore! Have fun!”, with the cooperative objective of growing GIRL into new planets to explore.


For the most part, what this means is that there is no “game” to NOBY NOBY BOY; there is only “play”.


This sort of mechanic is becoming something of a habit for the PlayStation 3, particularly in the PlayStation Network’s library of downloadable titles. In the week before NOBY NOBY BOY was released, we saw Flower, the hype for which is actually stealing the thunder from this week’s release of Killzone 2; though we know who’s going to win in sales between those two, I don’t see Killzone getting a gushing writeup on Entertainment Weekly’s blog any time soon. Preceding Flower was flOw, another non-game with a dubious set of “goals”, and even the early PSN title Pain is little more than a sandbox in which to play. The trophies are here to satiate those who would try to wring a “game” out of these titles (and some of them present themselves as more linear and game-like than others), but the game is not the point. Simply being a part of these games’ respective worlds is the point. Even Home, the PS3’s answer to Second Life, falls into this category, giving PS3 users something else to do even as they’re not strictly gaming.


What Sony seems to have hit on here is a way to appeal to mature gamers, likely the ones who’ve been with the Sony brand since the original PlayStation, by providing a counter-argument to the idea that what mature gamers want is bigger, bloodier, and more photorealistic. By providing these open worlds, “games” with an innocence and a distinct lack of competitive appeal alongside things like Metal Gear Solid 4 and the aforementioned Killzone 2, they’re acknowledging that “mature” is a multifaceted concept; that sometimes, all we need is a little bit of peace, a little bit of joy, and maybe a little bit of community.


This last brings us back to what is perhaps the most innovative, and potentially most interesting, feature of NOBY NOBY BOY—space exploration. The length of GIRL, at any given time, is the cumulative length that’s been reported to GIRL by every single player playing NOBY NOBY BOY on the PlayStation Network. This past Monday, four days after the game’s release, GIRL reached the moon thanks to those efforts, and now we have a new playground to play in. Somehow, knowing that those of us who bought the game early were a part of such a monumental task is enough motivation for some of us to start working on the next goal—namely, Mars, which could potentially be a long way off (scroll down to q3c’s comment in the preceding link).


This is not a cooperative goal like those of recent first-person shooters or even the hero-sidekick mechanics of something like Super Mario Galaxy; the quality of the game for everyone who plays it is entirely dependent on the willingness of its entire population of players to play it enough to expand its solar system. If the game’s fanbase quickly diminishes, we may never know the extent to which its programmers planned for GIRL to stretch, and there’s something exciting about having to depend on the rest of a world of players to find out. We may not even ever know what Mars looks like, which would be a right shame given the mass improvement that even the moon presents over the earth in terms of gameplay—the bigger surface on which to stretch and the multitude of new creatures to look at contribute to the sense of just how absolutely vital this aspect of the game is to maintaining player interest.


As such, I implore you: Buy NOBY NOBY BOY. Not because I think you’ll enjoy it—really, there’s no way of telling you whether this game will be your cup of tea or not, other than perhaps your sense of the two factors I presented at the top of this little writeup. No, I want you to buy NOBY NOBY BOY because the more of you who play, the quicker we get to Mars, which I’d like to see before my kids graduate college.


Also, it’s $5, which seems a small price to pay to help promote the sort of imagination present in an experience like NOBY NOBY BOY.


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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.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009

Dear Supreme Ruler 2020,


I don’t think we should see each other any more. 


You’ve probably seen this coming for a long time now.  Ever since you came into my life back in July, things have been somewhat strained between us.  I thought I could handle your eighty pages of documentation—after all, who actually reads that stuff anyway?  After a cursory glance at the table of contents, I was eager to get to know you, and after I navigated your tutorials, I thought I understood you pretty well.  But when we started getting serious, it didn’t take me long to realize that there is far more to you than meets the eye. 


It’s not you, SR2020, it’s me.  You’re a real catch, with your lovely graphics, excellent ambient musical score, and your substantially varied level design.  You deserve a gamer who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated—with the respect and devotion a game like you requires.  I’m just not looking for a serious gaming relationship right now. 


There’s so much to love about you, SR2020.  You’re a fantastically in-depth turn-based strategy with a well-constructed and believable, historically-based backstory.  I thought that you would be a perfect match for someone like me, with a Master’s degree in US History, or anyone with an interest in military history, international diplomacy, or combat strategy.  And I think that there are gamers out there for you.  I know there are.  But I’m not one of them, I’m sorry.  It’s a personal failing of mine that I can’t keep straight the difference between an A4D and an A3J, and I’m working through this. 


You’ve got to believe me, SR2020, I gave it my best shot.  I read the entire user manual.  I played the tutorials, which I have to admit left me a bit cold.  I was okay with that, because you seemed to have such promise.  And then I played a vehicle-transport level, and everything was great.  But when I tried to defend the borders of the US against simultaneous attacks from Canada and Mexico, things really started to break down.  Maybe things would be better if we tried again with the help of the Supreme Wiki.  It’s constantly expanding and has grown considerably since last time I saw you.  But I just feel like I need some time off right now, to cry and learn and grow. 


So, SR2020, I guess this is goodbye.  I’ll never regret our time together, and I’ll always remember you with affection.  I know you’ll make some lucky wargamer very happy someday. 


I hope we can still be friends. 


Always,


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Dec 18, 2008
Konami's late entry into the rhythm wars has the pedigree, but the execution just isn't there.

The current craze of plastic peripheral-based rhythm games clearly started with Guitar Hero, but realistically, Guitar Hero wasn’t the first of its kind.  Konami has been producing music video games for years, through their Bemani division.  Though there were clear arcade roots, many successful ports were made, scaling down full featured, custom arcade setups for home translations of titles. However, very few were ever released in the United States.


It may be that Konami didn’t choose to pursue these properties in the United States because of a perceived lack of interest.  Alternatively, they may have thought the pervasive J-Pop soundtracks integral to the experience, and not transferable to American musical tastes.  In any case, Guitar Hero was not only able to adopt the Bemani formula, but also, by focusing on the American affinity for rock music in particular, was able to successfully make the title interesting to American gamers.  This was particularly notable given its relatively high price point.


Now that Rock Band and Guitar Hero have achieved full-on icon status (with an incredible 8 titles between them in the 3 years since the first Guitar Hero was released), Konami has chosen to try its hand at the same market with Rock Revolution.  Clearly Konami has the pedigree to create enjoyable music games, and Guitar Hero and Rock Band have essentially created a successful template for them.  Yet Rock Revolution is largely a disappointing effort, mainly because it doesn’t follow this template very well, and the specific ways in which the game departs from it serve to be fairly frustrating.


Rock Revolution has a fairly meager song list, and as yet, the available downloadable content does not contain anything on the level offered by Rock Band.  While a drum, bass, and guitar are supported, there is no support for voice, arguably one of the most enjoyable aspects of these games in a party setting.  The now ubiquitous presentation of notes arriving from the horizon has been eschewed in favor of a classic Bemani look, where the notes fall vertically from the top of the screen.  This approach allows for far fewer notes to be on screen at the same time, making difficult sections even more challenging.  One of the things Rock Revolution does right, however, is that it accepts various third party peripherals, making it unnecessary to purchase expensive instruments just for it.  In fact, the only branded Rock Revolution peripheral is a drum set, but critical response to this kit has been overwhelmingly negative.


As of this writing, Rock Revolution is available from a variety of retailers for $19.99, a full $30 off its original MSRP.  Already a budget title to begin with, perhaps this better positions Rock Revolution to essentially function as a song pack for people with existing Guitar Hero or Rock Band peripherals.  In fact, its open acceptance of various peripherals potentially positions it to be just that.  Still, whether players will be willing to sacrifice the overall polish and experience they’ve become accustomed to from the competition for Rock Revolution simply for a few extra cover songs remains to be seen.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008
For all intents and purposes, Art Style: Rotohex is Tetris with triangles.

The third and potentially final game in Nintendo’s Art Style series, Rotohex, follows form with its counterparts by focusing on very simple game design and reward structure. With a price tag of six dollars and no concerns about fighting for shelf space, the games are freed up to deliver a much more basic experience than other puzzle games. They disperse with the graphics and focus on core game mechanics while the audience consumes the less visually sophisticated product because of the bargain price. Rotohex is a prime example of what the downloadable game scene and the internet can deliver.


The game is a traditional falling block puzzle game with a very unique twist. Rather than just use blocks and a color matching design, it relies on triangles to apply that concept. The player must arrange six triangles of the same color in a hexagon while more triangles fall down into the game map, which is itself a hexagon. The player points a Wiimote cursor that is also this same shape and presses A to rotate the triangles inside of it.


It takes a couple of plays to orient yourself to this, but eventually you learn how to carry triangles inside a six-sided grid and piggyback them into completed shapes. You wouldn’t really expect someone proposing that Tetris with triangles would involve this radical of a shift in play style, but it really is a game concept in and of itself. The entire way you observe the environment, discover potential combinations, and make combos changes drastically from block-based puzzle games. In order to spot combinations, you’re better off observing the shapes that are away from where you want to make the combination and you also have to start thinking in terms of clusters and pie slices. Versus Mode works about like you’d expect with the added twist of having a controlled delay before the triangles you’ve combined fall on your opponent. There is also a neutral space with which you must make a combo before the the blocks will fall.


Equally interesting is the basic reward structure the game applies to this setup. There are still leaderboards and score counting in the game’s unlockable ‘Endless’ mode, but the basic ‘Solo’ section relies on an entirely different experience. Like with Orbient, layers of music are your reward for making a complete hexagon. The game starts off with a simple series of beeps in the background, and with each combo another layer of a song is added. Drums, electronic music, and numerous other bizarre effects are built onto that basis. Once you complete a certain number of Hexagons, a new color gets added and these must then be combined to add the next layer of song. The effect is a very good use of synesthesia to deliver a gaming experience. You’re not just playing to arbitrarily score well, as one does in Tetris or Dr. Mario, you’re engaging in discovering the next piece of music.


It’s a very good carrot to put on the stick of reward structure, as I discovered in Orbient, because the game is sucking you in through a variety of techniques rather than just your basic High Score reward. As you progress, the layers of music that are crowding the soundscape are abandoned for new ones, creating an ongoing and ever-changing musical experience for the player. The fact that most of my play sessions devolved into me wanting to hear the next evolution of the music instead of caring about beating the game speaks to how much broader of an audience this design can appeal to.


And…that’s the gist of it. The Art Style games are about core mechanics, musical reward structures, and making very small tweaks that have enormous effects on gameplay. It’s still basically just Tetris with triangles but as with Orbient, the changes result in an entirely new gaming experience. Rotohex is still fundamentally a redux on the puzzle game genre, but by making it into triangles and having a musical reward structure it becomes something that stands apart. Proving that it takes so little to teach an old game design new tricks is what makes Rotohex worth a download.


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