Thursday, May 27, 2010

Perfection in Interactive Media Entertainment

Author's note: Originally slated to be content for a podcast, this is mainly a script for narration. While not conforming to textual nettiquette, it should serve as a compelling thought narrative nontheless.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is getting a lot of high scores. Specifically, scores that are 10/10. As a video game player, I don’t generally care what reviews say about games – I love my games and if the professional game reviewer who bases his/her views on societal norms doesn’t agree with me, then so be it. But high scores generally mean a higher potential in sales; so if a game that is actually AAA material gets markedly low review scores, I consider it a crime. Not only to the game developers who worked arduously on the game, but to the video game industry in general. If shareholders see their money being put into resources that are less than ideal, such as not so-well-received games, then it is more than likely we, the general gaming public, won’t see a sequel. It is a shame and I wish I could change it, but I can’t.

MGS4, GTA4, and now Super Mario Galaxy 2 have all received perfect 10 scores from both game review juggernauts, IGN and Gamespot. Once again, I really don’t care what scores are allotted to games except in an extrinsic manner. I played through MGS4, thought it was a mere shadow of MGS3. GTA lost my interest after Spiderman 2, a movie-tie-in game that shouldn’t have succeeded, but because of its marriage of web-swinging and sandbox gameplay, the game became a fortunate mistake, a pleasant accident that decimated any opportunities for regressions back to the gimmicky sandbox world promised by the GTA universe. Super Mario Galaxy was the spiritual successor to Super Mario 64 and as such delivered a wonderful experience if not a bit tired. SMG2 proposes to do the same as its predecessor, but simply better, in which I can’t find a single reason its designation of 10/10 by IGN or Gamespot seems worthy.

So I am not going to rant about any injustices in this process of reviewing highly-advertised hyped games. Instead, I will try to extrapolate what I think is a perfect 10 in a video game and go over some examples that I think deserve that score. Then, I will try to unravel the mysteries of professional game journalism, specifically in lieu of reviewing the medium and how its purpose has been bastardized for reasons that, even after serious contemplation, I cannot explain.

First, I’d like to try to explain the numeric value applied to the review process. It is a common aspect to see in any media review – a grade or number to mark value on something that arguably only has subjective value. Yet the professional reviewer claims to be an expert on the material he/she is assessing, in which consumers are left to trust the critic as a more informed opinion than even an educated peer. This trust lends us to believe that the professional reviewer is qualified for the seemingly arduous process of evaluating a video game. While I have never worked for a Video Game news source, I can only attempt to replicate the processes that occur in the reviewer’s mind as he/she does her job, in which perhaps we can gain a better understanding of how a number is assigned to a qualitative work.

When a reviewer plays a video game, they develop an impression of the game, either close to or at the end of the game experience. If the reviewer is close-minded, they may form that impression in the beginning and simply play the rest of the game waiting for justifications of that impression. That impression then is argued through a rational basis – you simply can’t write “I liked it” and call it a day. But rational basis is usually far from rational; instead, it is merely a framework in which the reviewer’s ideas make sense and create a logical argument for why the game is as good or bad as it is. From a single review you can dissect a lot from the reviewer – what his favorite games are, what he looks for in games, what he considers impressive or not, how much he values story in video games, etc. The rational basis is merely a defense of the argument, not the argument defending the rational basis. The reason for this is because we cannot argue with someone’s value systems. I can’t tell you are wrong for believing in God the same way you can’t tell me my belief that narrative in gaming is potentially stronger than film is wrong. In this way, the reviewer builds a perfect defense for his case because you can’t attack him for it. You can only look for logical holes and hope he elaborates or fixes it. Sometimes, there is a mistake of fact – like there actually is a smart camera in the game when the reviewer said there wasn’t – but most of the time the reviewer is infallible due to his scripted universe he has concocted to defend his opinion.

With this opinion, the reviewer has to make the call as to whether or not the game in question is good or bad. We think that generally this is easy to do, that our impressions lead us easily to our opinion of good and bad. We also, as the general gaming public, believe that we live in a bipolar world, one where dichotomies rule and ambiguity is for the lost and confused. Recognizing something as good or bad lends to being intelligent and be able to make decisions on things. Our society loves to categorize things into dual qualitative opinions. It is our way of summarizing what we are trying to say in merely one word.

Yet, it isn’t easy or natural to judge a game on whether it is good or bad. In fact, to do such a thing betrays the impression you have of the game. The reviewer’s impression consists of texture and qualitative assessments that require context and thought. Video Games, regardless of whether or not one believes they are viable candidates for “art,” are vessels for experiences. You cannot review the physical game disc, all its data, or the code as a well-designed piece of architecture. Instead, the reviewer looks at the game’s ability to bring forth human or reader response. The conflict or mingling of reader response with the actual product is what the experience is composed of. If there is confusion on the reviewers end – perhaps the experience he/she is having isn’t as described by the developer – then the reviewer must look for a supposed implied author of the game. The implied author, which is a term first coined by Wayne C. Booth of literary criticism, is the voice the reader/reviewer sees in the text/game, the vision we have of the actual creator of the game/text without actually meeting or discussing with the physical author/creator. In this sense, there are two authors – one who we never meet or know who physically created the game/text and one whom we can infer from the text/game that we believe is the uniform scribe of the experience – and it is only through one of them we can associate ourselves with.

If the reviewer can find a discrepancy between his experience and the implied author, then one can assume the experience being had is not accurate to what the implied author is trying to create. This is different from intentionality, as that never matters when looking at the work. Instead, the constructs built by the implied author in juxtaposition with the reviewer’s experience is what is in conflict. It is at this point that the reviewer should attempt, rather exhaustively, to reframe himself to meet the experiential framework of the implied author. If he/she does not do this, the reviewer is subjecting his constructs as dominant over the game developer’s. The reason why this is faulty is because a game developer has to spend 18-36 months developing an experience that it believes is worthwhile of a consumer’s money and time; obviously the developer should be given the benefit of the doubt towards experiential frameworks, as it has spent more time devoted to creating the experience than any reviewer will spend playing and writing about the game.

If after a significant amount of time trying to find the implied author’s framework and is unable to experience the game as such, the reviewer then has to note this discrepancy and move on with the review. Based on this discrepancy, most reviewers simply state that the game is bad, write about its merits, then give it a low score. Very few, and almost no reviewer of a large syndicated magazine or website, state “they don’t know” or “are unsure” of how to experience the game. Such a statement would indicate they can’t make a decision or are inadequate to review the experience. No reviewer wants that said of them, so they will make the claim that they are very qualified and lay the blame of the discrepancy of the experience on the video game. There are cases when this discrepancy is due completely to an inadequate implied author, but the investigation of this matter is most often ill executed for such a conclusion to be made. Most of the time, the reviewer will begin his clause by stating he/she understands the framework created by the developer, but go to explain why that framework fails or is wrong. One has to question how one can completely understand a construct yet say it is wrong on an arbitrary scale, but that is how reviewers do their job. They defend their beliefs as infallible, with the video game in the hot seat.

After the review is written, they have to give the game a score. This score is a number, sometimes out of five, but mostly out of ten. The reason the games are given scores is based on consumer’s inability to sift through the complex narrative of the reviewer. The consumer wants a yes or no answer, or at the very least an answer that has quantitative value, not qualitative. This gives the review its ultimate concession to polarity – giving the game an absolute number with its weight tied to arbitrary values. Game reviewers believe it is justifiable to make comparisons to all other similar pieces of work of the same medium on a universal level. The consumer then looks for scores in the 8s and 9s, and eager to pick up any game allotted the masterful 10. 10 is, self-explanatorily the zenith or perfection, something everyone should strive to experience. A 10 is, the best video gaming has to offer by definition, so surely 10 is only given to games that are perfect in its rendering of experience compliant to the majority of video game consumers. This was the case for Gamespot in 1998 when The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released, when it was given a 10 for its “Flawlessness.” A marked 10/10 changed sometime afterward to just meaning “Masterful” with IGN following soon after. Since then, as noted in the beginning of this write-up lots of games have gotten that perfect score in a short period of time. It seems these reviews represent a generational gap, as each generation has a different video game canon to base its opinions on. As video games become more cinematic and engaging, future generations will dismiss those games that are iconoclasts to that growing tradition. Sure, Pac-Man is still a classic, but you have to be a moron to not argue that. But any new games that try to be as simple as the first video gaming mascot will be ripped to shreds. Not enough ambition, they will say. Graphics are simple. Mechanics aren’t deep enough. No incentive to keep playing.

So what does perfection entail? I have no idea. The idea of anything being perfect is an idyllic dream that should have gotten snuffed out a long time ago. I can only give my thoughts on what I think perfection in a video game SHOULD mean and how game reviewers deviate from it. Ironically, unlike the criteria established by IGN or Gamespot, my “checklist” is simple and only has three proponents. Hopefully this is easier to understand than the grading rubric of either IGN or Gamespot.

Polish – A game with perfect presentation values, including stellar art style and music, along with a story that motivates the player to move forward. The polish has to enhance the game, be true to the game and not attempt to go beyond the game’s scope. If you are playing a Batman game and you hear happy whimsical music themes, no matter how well composed or orchestrated, it won’t fit the narrative of the game. The keyword is that everything has to fit in place in order for the gameplay to shine through. By itself, the music or art may be less than stellar, but in the continuity of the game it flawlessly depicts the experience so that the implied author and the gamer meet at a common junction. Lazy presentation is unacceptable, along with superfluous presentation that seems far removed from the game.

Gameplay – Possibly the most important aspect of the game, the interactive component. This is where the gamer is involved in the narrative and is demanded to accomplish certain tasks in order to move forward. The tasks can’t be busy work – making the gamer pull levers just for the sake of it – nor can there be no tasks – otherwise it is a movie. The game should define the rules of interaction explicitly, give examples for the types of interaction required, then encourage the gamer to creatively find ways to bend the rule of that interactivity. In the example of a platformer, the game would begin with simple levels that exemplify the basic platforming requirements the player would have to be acquainted with before moving on, in which later levels would require clever thinking from the player to advance. But even this isn’t enough – the player should have to think and break the “puzzle” of how to advance the next platforming segment, then he must be able to execute it. If he can’t execute it, not matter how well thought out the plan is, he/she must be punished.

Revolution – I lied. This is the most important aspect to game wishing to achieve a perfect 10. In order to compete among its peers, it must change the way games are played forever. Lots of great games don’t have revolutionary components in its gameplay, which is completely satisfactory, but they aren’t perfect games. While I wouldn’t agree that Ocarina of Time is or was the perfect video game of 1998, it did fit the above criteria with substantial backing. It was polished, its gameplay was stellar by 1998 standards, and it changed 3D gaming with its z-targeting system.

Ikaruga – A solid shooter with great mechanics, presentation, and execution. What keeps this hound ahead of the pack is its revolutionary polarity gameplay mechanic – having to dodge every bullet on screen has been around since Galaga, but having to weave between two different colors in order to progress not only revitalized the SHMUP genre but brought inspiration to gaming in general. This game deserves a 10/10.

Street Fighter II’ Champion Edition – While World Warrior revolutionized fighting games and Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo arguably perfected the balance and depth, it was Champion Edition that revolutionized fighting games on a second level and gave way to the great Super Turbo. Just a seemingly meager update to its predecessor, Champion Edition allowed former boss characters to join the cast of 8 characters in the game. It also allowed players to be the same character as one another in a versus battle, something WW didn’t allow. The game also updated the speed ever so slightly as well as made some balance changes. Champion Edition is revolutionary in that it new it could make an update to attempt to perfect a fighting game formula: in Korea, CE is still a wildly popular fighting, even after Super Street Fighter 4’s release. Some consider it the perfect fighting game, this deserves a 10/10.

Prince of Persia Sands of Time – The critically acclaimed yet commercially poor game is one of the greatest crimes in video game history. What turned into an attempt to best Prince of Persia 3D became a labor of love that embraced rich conceited story-telling, advanced platforming, and a rewind feature that allowed a player the ability to undo his/her mistakes, a concept first adopted by Microsoft Office. Every aspect of the game was flawless, including the much criticized combat. The combat, which many seem to not understand, is merely a tool to progress the story forward and offer breaks between platforming segments. It is this that gave the game its sublime sense of pacing. The true last boss is the long climb up the tower in search of Farah; very few gamers realized that. This game is a perfect 10/10.

You’ll note that I have established my criteria and that every game I have listed above fits according to my composed system. The keypoint to realize here is that each game is revolutionary and that without that revolution, the game can’t succeed as being perfect. Perfect as an investment of time and money. Perfect as a branded symbol of the video game canon. You will also notice that none of the above games have any extended replay value – that is because the replay value in each of these games are intrinsic, rather than extrinsic. Extending a game’s length through unlockables is fine, but a perfect game doesn’t need that in order to create the desire to replay through the experience.

It is obvious that the approach game reviewers take towards their craft is absolute pessimism. They treat the game as a blank slate and require the game to prove them wrong by offering a great experience. That doesn’t sound like an inaccurate way of reviewing media, but the end result, especially in congruence with numeric scoring, is that some games, which are completely fine, wonderful games, will get low scores because of their inability to impress a specific game reviewer. Likewise, games that get 10s are a result of a resounding impression that may be stronger than the actually framework created by the game itself. What game reviewers seem to either ignore or forget is the general attitude of the general gamer. As gamers, we enjoy playing games – we are eager to try any new game or genre or media to get our satisfaction. We go to Gamestop or Best Buy playing what games are available because we want to play them all. It is only through limited funds and time do we find ourselves having to choose our pleasures in which game reviewers are supposed to help us, not coddle us and mitigate any contrary opinions we may have.

When we finally make our purchase, we are already optimistic over the game in question for two reasons: One, as previously mentioned, we enjoy playing video games by default and experiencing new ones; Two, we just invested a significant chunk of our allowance on a product and we are more inclined to want to enjoy something we have invested in than treat it like an interviewee. Game reviewers combat this by claiming they are given a review-copy of the game in question, eliminating that sense of buyer-optimism. Yet often times games will get lower or higher scores based on their value as a $50 package. Regardless of this contradictory defense, game reviewers are pessimists and believe consumers in general should be as well.

From here we get a huge logical problem that has no solution. If the paid corporate game reviewer is a pessimist and either demands or assumes its audience also be wary about every game they play, then the general gamer must demand excellence from every game he/she purchases. Fine. But if you review a game, giving a perfect 10, all the while admitting no true Revolution (there is that word again) or that a game just like it exists for a much cheaper price, why should that gamer believe that game is actually 10? More importantly, why should the gamer spend his/her hard earned money on that perfect 10 game? The same reviewers who treat every game like a 0 until proven wrong through impression is asking its audience to forgo any qualms of spending another $50 for the same experience available elsewhere simply because it is the same but better? This is no longer pessimistic game evaluation, but rather some weird hybrid of optimistic-remorseful shopping that the game reviewer expects its audience to participate in. But unlike most frameworks, there is no standard rule set or defined line for anyone to follow – the mantra being spread here is “you are a gamer, I am a gamer, agree with me.” If that is the argument – that gamers are all alike and have the same opinions, I wouldn’t be discussing this issue right now and every reviewer would have the same opinion about everything. We know this is not the case, however, as single single-player campaigns dominate the vast library games available today and as a result, gaming is mostly an intrapersonal affair. How can one expect a contemporary or consumer to have the same opinion as someone else? This is the most relished problem of reviewing media period, but it stands especially true of video game reviews. As a still new market and genre of entertainment, even game developers are unsure of any universalities in gaming, with some being quick to question if the term “video game” should be changed to the broader designation of “Interactive Media Entertainment.”

You may be asking what the solution is, but it should already be obvious – reviews can only be an assessment on individual enjoyment and be used as tools for others of like-minds to forecast how their own experiences with the game might become. IGN has come close to realizing this reality, as almost all of their reviews use “I” and acknowledge irrational preferences and biases. This would be an example of excellent reviewing and journalism, but IGN’s stubborn reluctance to drop its numeric grading prevents it from embracing this more accurate review style. Worse off is Metacritic, which averages all the syndicated review sites and magazines into an authoritative score that developers and consumers use to assess quantitative value. Because IGN is one of those sites regularly updated on Metacritic, IGN’s step forward in reviewing games qualitatively is lost completely. Kotaku is innocent of using the numeric number system, but still devises its reviews into Pros and Cons, which is dualistic and lends one to quantitatively measure the pros against the cons, instead of treating them as co-existing attributes. Judgment is made and passed, with no retroactive editing or adjustments in accordance with times, change of staff or norms. The number is branded onto a golden calve that, ironically, was put into action by a person that could have a doctorate in statistics or a BS degree in BS.

So the immediate and final question presents itself – What do we, as consumers, do about this problem? My answer would be nothing, just like most buyers of consumer America. But if nothing isn’t enough for you, then let me suggest something for the curious or the enraged; the less attention paid to those corporate giants that seek dominance over you, the less authority they have. If you decide IGN, Gamespot, 1UP, Gamepro don’t affect your gaming purchases, then perhaps they will be forced to change so you give them credence. Often times gamers conform their opinions to the popular mold set by major review sites, which gives these conglomerates power where it isn’t deserved. It should be the consumer controlling the industry, not the reviewer. Moviegoers have already done this, as the major blockbusters have been critical flops. Either the critics live in an elysian realm of purity and the general population is wrong or critics have decided to form elitist opinions on works inapplicable to the genre, betraying the people’s wants and desires of the medium. In either case, the movie industry has conformed to its consumers who neglect critical “standards.” Maybe someday the same can be said of Video games or Interactive media entertainment.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Recent Misconceptions Debunked

I am making a new topic to defend some misconceptions made about the game and further add to my previous Two-Hour review.

First, to anyone who has unlocked the SNES version of POP, show me. Yes, I am fully aware that IGN states in their review and preview information that the 1992 version (SNES Konami) is available on the Wii version of Forgotten Sands, but I have not found it. Instead, I unlocked in the first five or so minutes the MAC version optimized for the Wiimote (NES style), which is near identical to the port available on Sands of Time. If you have found SNES version, please let us know, preferably with a guide or walkthrough so it can be confirmed. But DO NOT come here, use IGN or some other gaming review site as a source for your information, because we are all aware of what we have been TOLD, just not what has physically appeared on the disc. I have searched and looked and found nothing, with nothing in the game even indicating it is present. I’ll let you know if I find anything.

Despite this game still being new, people are very quick to accuse the Wii version of being a watered down shadow of its next gen peers. This has to stop now. I am not gonna tell you that the Wii version is better because I don’t know; I probably never will. What I do know is that they are completely different games with different stories and gameplay mechanics. I do know I picked the Wii version due to its enchanted atmosphere more akin to Sands of Time rather than the generic epic view depicted in the next gen versions. I wanted a POP game more like SOT, in which FS has delivered in spades. In fact, regardless if you like the Wii, hate the Wii, hate or love SOT, FS has a LOT of polish. From a load of extras that add more depth to the game, to the Jade Engine being pushed to its maximum output, this game is quality. Wii gamers argued that making ports of 360/PS3 titles doesn’t work well, so Ubisoft took FS very seriously and made a unique title with the franchise. Now you same critics are complaining you aren’t getting the same experience as 360/PS3 owners. I don’t care if you choose to be a hypocrite – just don’t disillusion or give false information to those who want accurate information. Do not be afraid that FS for the Wii suffers from any “multiple platform release” problems or “movie tie-ins.” Forgotten Sands for the Wii feels like it has been in development for a long time, perhaps to make up for not POP release on the Wii in 2008. I’d even argue it looks like it was being developed way before FS for 360/PS3 as it looks more finished and complete. But whatever – naysayers, you have been warned.

The camera problems from previous games, specifically WW and TT, are fixed in FS for the Wii. This is coming from someone who never had a problem with the camera in SOT but noticed bad angles in the sequels. FS uses a smart camera and for any positions that aren’t ideal can be re-triggered to default (behind Prince) or shifted around using the C Button along with Wii remote. It is intuitive and feels right. Because POP games, with only a few exceptions, are paced at the helm of the player, the player will never feel rushed or that the camera control s unresponsive. Complaints of the camera seem null and void to me as any issues can be eliminated easily by the player. Also, the Bird’s Eye View mode is back from SOT again and always offers a great view of everything.

Controls in this game are simple and fun and feel right. I have already gone over this in my previous review, but it deserves mentioning again. 1up complained of having to point at objects in a 3D plane using a 2D interface. Never once, with incorporation from the camera system have I had a problem. I firmly believe complaints of this nature come from the reviewers’ inability to recognize their disdain for the respectful franchise in question, with POP being the case here. If you loved SOT, you will orgasm over the control scheme found in FS for Wii. You have my word.

The combat is a return to SOT roots. What does this mean? It means what POP fans have always known, which is that the POP franchise is not a brawler and never excels when it attempts to be one. POP shines in its platforming, with its combat acting as a force to motivate the player forward as well as offer a break from a tricky wall running segment. That break is what gave SOT its sublime pacing - whenever the player felt a slight inkling of monotony, the game shifted to combat or platforming to give the player a pseudo variety show. FS for the Wii acts on the same principle - Ubisoft Quebec must have known what classical music composers and movie directors have known for years, which is that tension can only build up for so long until it exasperates itself or fizzles out. SOT was a constant joy ride due to its pacing, in which FS is no different. The combat is pretty and lends well to the Prince's skill sets; he is an agile dancer/warrior who is most interested in proving his prowess over unsurmountable forces. The blue-light-shaded enemies are bright and wonderful and all of Prince's attacks are exciting. It isn't deep or trying to be a DMC/GOW clone, instead finally understanding what makes a POP game.

All that said, the combat has some RPG leveling to it that prevents it from being as droll as SOT. SOT was simple once you learned how to suck out sand from enemies directly after jumping over them. FS for the Wii has an RPG element that allows the prince to fill up a gauge which unlocks certain attacks/defenses/strengths for the Prince, much like Onimusha practiced almost a decade ago. It works really well and prevents FS's combat from being a completely mindless button masher. The combat has some levels of depth and is entertaining at exactly the right points, but is still just a break between the platforming, as it should be.

Lastly, I’d like to back a claim I made earlier on this board. I said, which I am paraphrasing, that FS for the Wii is the NEXT LEVEL in POP gaming. Some of you may not believe my lofty claims, which is understandable. Today, after a very brief two-hour gaming session (I had to spend time with the Wife kept me from playing more), I have come across a point in that game that truly redefines POP, 3D Platforming, and Wii gaming in general. I discussed previously that the Prince encounters powers which can be used in specific areas that allow him to reach places he couldn’t before – hook plates, whirlwinds, and bubbles. After about four hours, you become a master of these powers and are able to easily go through any obstacle; no matter how challenging the level design, it is always surmountable. After a period of time, I was questioning how long I could stay interested in the game, given that nothing that was thrown at me was much more of a challenge. I then also noticed there were several areas I still couldn’t reach, which made me upset because I am a completionist when I play games (remember I said the level design is so good you can always go backwards). After a certain key point in the game, you are then given the ability to use these powers WHERE EVER and WHEN EVER you want. The game no longer holds your hand by having blocks indicate where and which power should be used when. It becomes up to the player now to navigate through seemingly impossible sections of the level using his powers. This blows the linearity of the POP design out the window for more open-ended gameplay. This is revolutionary and fantastic – from a gameplay standpoint, this game already blows the might SOT out of the water.

The above described attribute is the single reason that any POP fan needs to pick up this game. I don’t know if the 360/PS3 version has this same feature (I have read it doesn’t, but we all know how “thorough” reviewers are these days), but regardless of whether or not it does, this game triumphs on every level. This game embraces its heritage – an unlockable 2D secret level is available for purists and offers a bit of challenge, along with a slew of other unlockable levels that test your brain and ingenuity; the costumes from the previous POP games (SOT and Dark Prince from TT) are unlockable: developer diaries displaying how the game was made; artwork galleries; the original POP (possibly the SNES version as well, we will see); and a completely tongue ‘n cheek achievements system that adds depth and encourages multiple playthroughs of the game. Add to that fantastic music, graphics, and a compelling story (though not arguably as good as SOT at this point) and you have a near perfect POP game. POP fans, we don’t deserve this game. Yet someone at Ubisoft Quebec is smiling on us.

Please, critics and Wii haters and non-believers: get your brain out of the tunnel and into the light just this once to realize greatness. At the very least, get out of the way of those want to

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands Wii - First Two Hours Review

Hey everyone,

So I thought I’d let everyone know my thoughts on this game. First, some hefty background:

I’d categorize myself as an avid POP fan. Ever since SOT wowed me, I have followed the series pretty closely. Although I think the POP games are fantastic and one of the most underrated game franchises in the industry, none the sequels have touched SOT’s greatness for me. WW was a testament to how much brutal abuse and bastardization the game could take while still being a quality title and TT was some mixture between the two, although to this day I don’t know why Ubisoft thought that was a good idea. I played a tiny bit of the 2008 reboot, enough to convince myself I didn’t care for a game that played by itself. When the Forgotten Sands was announced, I was both excited and worried – I loved the direction of the original trilogy, but with both the release date and theme tied closely to the movie, I was worried FS would be a result of a weird hybridization between the “movie-tie-in” syndrome and “game-catering-to-movie-crowd.” Because the game didnot have seemingly enough time to be polished, along with the restriction of trying to appeal to movie goers, I was afraid.

I’d like to note a few reasons why I chose to pick up the Wii version as opposed to the 360/PS3 alternatives. First, I would like to point out that we should not compare the two games, despite being given the same name – they are completely different from each other. Secondly, the Wii version runs on the Jade engine, which is native to the original SOT trilogy. Fans of the series know what to expect from that engine and it gave me hope that Ubisoft Quebec could squeeze out more from that aging engine in a shorter development cycle than make a brand new game on a next-gen engine. All of that, plus the fact that the 360/PS3 versions sported a more dramatic, Two-Thronsian art style as opposed to the Wii’s enchanted visuals reminiscent of the original SOT, led me to my purchase of what many gamers are calling the “inferior” version.

Okay, so here is my experience of the game, play by play. I put the disc into the Wii. Once it loads in the Wii menu, it plays some mystical guitar and didgeridoo. I am in pause at this moment, as the music is very pretty, I dare say more so than SOT. Just that little 30 second loop had me hooked. Thank you TomSalta, great composer from Red Steel 2. I can honestly say he has done Stuart Chatwood service here. Click the link below to hear that music I was listening to, before even starting the game.

I then start the game. The title screen boots. Beautiful rendering of the Prince's sword, along with that enchanted music again. I am in awe, once again. The POP series has a fantastic history of having high-level presentation values and FS is no exception. The game isn’t trying to open up with some epic theme or dramatic strings to bring heroics to the Prince’s character - rather, this change in tone of music lets its gamers know that the game is making a return to its original Arabian Nights origins. From here, I boot the game.

I recommend having subtitles on when you play the game yourself, as the voices are at equal or lesser volume than the music or sound effects. The “genie” as we call her, is leading prince down a treacherous path of destruction as all that surrounds you is falling to pieces. Yuri is back to voice the Prince and sounds identical to his SOT self. One small thing that bugged me is that Yuri didn’t seem in top form in TT, but rest assured he is back in this game.

For an opening stage, the beginning of the game is engaging. The usual tutorial jumps are there and for series veterans, this may bore you. But because the locale is gorgeous and the rush of getting from A to B is eminent, I doubt many vets will mind. After the short stage is over, the real game begins.

The prince proves to be just as selfish as he was in SOT, but not without grace like WW or TT. He has dignity and reasons for his desires – he, being the youngest of his father’s sons, is denied a true throne. While he may have learned to stray from Honor and Glory to win his father’s approval, he has decided to create his own path by finding his own kingdom. He found Zahara in a marketplace and being promised near-immortality, a princess, and a kingdom, is following her almost blindly. Our question in participation of this cat-and-mouse game is whether or not to trust the genie, as she seems deceptive at best. This adds for some great tension as we, just like in SOT, are shouting at Prince for being a bumbling buffoon, while at the same time questioning for ourselves what may lie beyond the next barrier – Treasure or Tragedy?

The music, graphics, voice acting are all top notch. Okay, the genie’s voice leaves something to be desired, but a small quibble. None of this would matter if the gameplay was weak. I can happily say that in terms of the game mechanics, this is where tears of joy almost brimmed my eye lashes. This is, from what I can tell and foresee, the next level of POP. It takes all the great platforming and level design of SOT, adds a bit more depth with level exploration, and allows prince to run, dance, side-step, and jump much faster than before. Please, do not watch gameplay videos of this game and judge how this game plays; you really must play the game yourself to feel the sheer wonder in how the Prince controls. SOT was a joy because the controls were simple and the levels catered to what the prince could do. I would argue its sequels suffered because the Prince handled identically to his SOT counterpart but the levels demanded too much from him, adding frustration to some of the platforming and combat segments. Ubisoft Quebec was not lazy in completely reworking how the Prince performs all of his actions. He has all the usual tricks, but vets will notice differences in nuance in how exactly each mechanic is handled. While you can run up a wall, as usual, you don’t have to commit to the wall jump anymore. Oftentimes, even if you didn’t hit the jump button at the end of wall run, Prince would backflip over the ledge and fall to his death. This is not the case any more as he now flips and slides down to where he was previously standing. His running and jumping are much faster and his sliding along ledges is quicker so as to keep the game moving quickly and with pace. Also, many of the vertical cracks that 2008’s POP introduced are here, along with what looks like a glove much like the one held by that prince. Overall, the prince handles like a Spider-man in terms of speed and dexterity, while not being too nimble as to make the puzzles overly easy.

Combat has returned to SOT form. You wave the nunchuck to use your fist/gauntlet and the wiimote to attack with your sword. The popular jump-over-the-enemy-and-slash-from-behind attack is back and stronger, dealing more damage and knocks down. The Prince can now jump over enemies and flip them over, hurling them into other enemies. There is a light RPG system in place, allowing Prince to unlock stronger attacks and abilities, keeping combat fresh and new. While the combat is simplistic, it is satisfying as a means of breaking up the platforming which SOT got right the first time. Also, complaints of Wii-waggle should be dismissed as the sword attacks are very responsive to your flicks and once you gain a sense of Prince’s recovery and sword combos, you will know the proper timing for each swing of the wiimote. What is different this time around is that each enemy has different characteristics – drones, Knights with giant shields that need to be cracked in order to deal damage, and archers within the first hour. Instead of just being generic bad guys, these are serious threats to the Prince, leaving the player to strategize who to tackle first when fighting in large groups. Luckily, at keypoints in the game, it is possible to attack the highlighted leader in blue, in which its destruction makes all the other enemies disappear. This allows the player to end battles quicker if he/she wants to move on to the next platforming section, although attempting to do so may end in death as the leader’s followers will try to defend him.

The prince is given magical powers by way of creating puzzle-thwarting structures that allow him to traverse otherwise impossible terrain. This leads to possible branches in linearity, as the player can choose which route to take and explore the levels batter. Also, there are few segments which are impossible to retread as the game encourages and allows the curious gamer to go beyond the beaten path. This is no Metroid, but for a POP game this is a huge step in a wonderful direction.

The last aspect of FS that I want to point out is how the game handles death. While the SOT trilogy gave gamers the ability to rewind time and fix platforming mistakes (which was revolutionary), 2008’s Prince, who lacked time powers, couldn’t truly die. While each side has their critics, I believe FS for the Wii has created a happy medium. Within the first hour, the only “sand” power you get is the ability to freeze enemies. Other than that, there is no time travel. While the game is very forgiving, you can store or save three “lives.” Any death, either by combat or platforming, results in a complete restoration to a point prior to the death, which uses up a life. If one dies without having any stored lives, the game restarts to the last fountain checkpoint, which is also consequently your save point. So yes, no Game Overs here, but FS does not suffer from the pitfalls of the lack of dying. While I admit this system is a bit forgiving for a hardcore gamer who grew up in the 80s, this is a great compromise that works well at still punishing the gamer for lofty mistakes, but not so much so you wish there was a rewind feature.

There is also a lot of extra content. POP vets will know that the series is notorious for having a lack of extras and replay value. While the original SOT didn’t need it – its replay value was intrinsic, after all – its sequels have been ill-equipped to compete with their peers in terms of value-for-your-money. This changes with FS for the Wii. Within the first ten minutes, thanks to my curious eye, I unlocked the original POP. I don’t know if this is the SNES version that was allegedly included in the game, as what I played seemed a perfect representation of the MAC version, but future play will explore that. There are several unlockable costumes for the prince, along with an achievement system akin to Metroid Prime Trilogy, which mimicked what was established for all titles on Xbox 360. All of this, along with extra levels that can be unlocked as challenges much like Bionic Commando Rearmed, and this game is the most feature-packed POP yet. I was pleasantly surprised – a POP game, if done right, doesn’t need any of this, but the fact that it is present is icing on an already wonderful cake. Then consider that this game had a very strict time constraint and is considered a mere “side-quest” to its next gen alternatives, it becomes bedazzling that all of this could be fit into the development cycle with so much polish.

Forgotten Sands for the Wii is wonderful so far. I expected nothing more than a decent platforming romp, in which Ubisoft Quebec delivered me a masterpiece that ranks among SOT. If SOT is the best game in the series, FS is very close behind, beating out all of its previous games. The gameplay, including combat, is vastly improved to SOT, with only the story not being as compelling as SOT. If the game keeps up the pace that I have witnessed, especially after experiencing the epic first boss battle (which incorporates the wonderful platforming we all love), this may dethrone SOT for me. I can’t compare this game to its next-gen brethren, but given from what I have seen, this seems to be the more proper jump for POP fans, pun intended.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Battle High Test Version Now Available!

I helped design a fighting game. Its first release since I was signed on to the project has become available here. Check it out and be sure to report bugs and game issues.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Battle of Archaic - A Review

After a fantastic surprise Birthday party and another one the day before (back to back, ingenious planning) I received a slew of gifts. Too many, even. You see, despite the fact that I am in the summer season, most of my day is generally revolved around other people, so free time is not something I generally have. That and summer classes...

One of the gifts I received was slightly gag-infested - a copy of Chrono Trigger for Nintendo DS. For whatever reason, it was recommended by someone that I should get this "great game." I played the game years ago, never felt impressed, and with my current disposition toward RPGs in general (hate) laughing ensued. I was quickly given a receipt to return the game for something of similar value. Long story short, that game was Rygar: The Battle of Argus for Nintendo Wii.

For RPG fans rolling in their own bodily fluids at my gesture towards a "classic," I have nothing to say. I can only justify my purchase toward a game no one cares about; I had been following the (development?) hype of Rygar on Wii for a while - a port of what seems like a good game in the vein of God of War. I hestitated toward getting it on launch due to the vast abundance of lackluster reviews, but at the expense of trading a gift in to Play-N-Trade (free) I was able to form my own opinion on the game, knowing how I tend to disagree with every commercial entertainment review site (MGS4 and GTA4 are NOT perfect video games).

The skinny: I cannot on any grounds recommend Rygar: TBOA to anyone. I can't tell you how great the story is because it sucks. I can't exclaim how much the voice acting is laughibly terrible or really well done - it falls dully inbetween the two extremes. I can't come to your house and show you the awesome display of graphical prowess this game has - it looks like a dated Dreamcast game. I can't even tell you that the gameplay is utterly fantastic because, honestly, the controls are sluggish and non-conforming to former video game traditions (Canceling moves into others) and the core of the game, which is beating the crap out of people with a chained-shield, is unsatisfying to say the least. There is no reason why you would spend your hard earned money on this aged media of entertainment.

Unless you are me.

Rygar harkens back to something few gamers will either remember or appreciate. Back in a time when 3D graphics were just starting to look impressive and 3rd-party developers were tapping into the magic of Super Mario 64's atmosphere, developers were ambitious with their titles. Every game worth its salt in advertising was at least interesting, if not unique or inspired. Today we are filled with shovelware (Wii), penis-enlarging graphics and online (X360) and the games best played in our dreams (PS3). While we had all those thins when Playstation 2 thrived, the headliner was always "Too many good games on one console: What do we do?" Prior to this era, I owned a Playstation and Nintendo 64, only feeling that the latter's flagship title utilized 3D space in an interesting way that merited the change in gameplay. It was fun to swim underwater and wall jump the castle grounds. No other game, until the 128-bit era, made me feel that way. Rygar, in no reasonable fashion, makes me feel this way, but the developers were trying to make a game that felt alive while being scripted and action oriented. Rygar is the love child of hungry developers, with the beckoning 200 Mhz CPU of the Sony Playstation 2, eager to make an engaging interactive journey only made possible with (then) state of the art technology. In more elegant words: to make what couldn't be made before.

To further illustrate my point, I'll tell you one of my prized stories of youth. When I first purchased my Playstation 2, I only had two games - Metal Gear Solid 2 and Final Fantasy X. I knew a few people who really loved the system and would let me borrow games. At the time, I was really interested in how some of my favorite franchises branched out - one of which was Resident Evil. A friend let me borrow his copy of Veronica X and I played it for a total of (drumroll) 40 minutes. Whatever love I had toward the frachise was missing - it felt the same as RE2 but with no enhancement to gameplay. I took the game out of my console in disgust, only to find an additional demo disc in the game case.

Those of you savy enough to remember or simply use google will know that demo was one of the best games on PS2. I didn't know that when I popped it in and I can honestly say I had never spent so much time playing a 3 level demo in my life. It was so much fun to be in this gothic world filled with demons and a little bit of mystery. Unfortunately I can't say the same for the rest of the franchise, but the premier title is still one of my most treasured games in my library. The fixed camera, high-action gameplay, clever platforming... all of it is represented here in Rygar for Wii.

Yes, the game is nothing more than a port with a few slapped on features and costume changes. If I was a fan of the original game, I'd probably be pissed at Tecmo for rehashing it to the Wii with crappy "waggle" gimmicks to create false longevity for the game. But as someone who missed it the first time around and is a huge fan of God of War and Devil May Cry, I love this game. For one, it has a fantastic soundtrack - fully orchestrated in a slight Baroque manner. I am a bit of a music snob and I have found a lot of games try too hard at being "epic" with their scores or do the Michael Bay approach - Rygar escapes these societal complaints with thorough interlaced harmonies and Romantic leitmotifs. The game also has a lot of exploration for a DMC clone - something think video games should delve into more. Tunnels, dungeons and overworlds all make Rygar more than a mission based combo-fest like DMC3. Add a very cool Roman theme, some interesting art design and multiple disk-armors to equip, the game is pretty engaging if you give it the time of day.

Yes, the game is horribly aged and for that reason I cannot recommend it. But if you happen to be a clone of myself, are hungry for no-frills action gaming and can overlook some design flaws, Devil May Cry 1 is for you. 2nd place goes to Rygar: The Battle of Argus.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Way of Visual Appeal and Longevity

"Good games are not marked by their visual appeal, but rather their depth and ability to please gamers as participants of interactive media." - Yours Truly.

Chances are, if you are a gamer, you know at least ONE person in your circle of friends that has said something along the lines of the above. In this case, it is myself. As much as I wish this was 100% true, I do have to make an appendage to the stated claim - despite how much we may try to deny or overemphasize graphic's importance, it is the graphics (sometimes mainly the visual style/appeal) that can hook and sometimes keep gamers' attention. I am going to chronicle the Street Fighter series in juxtaposition to popular and competitive audiences reacting to the visual appeal of the games.

Street Fighter 4. The latest installment of Street Fighter is looking pretty good - not because of a high-end graphics engine, but because of a slick style and sharp presentation. Bright colors, vivid character expressions, flashy Ultra combo animations - all of these lend to a very satisfying visual experience. Because of this success in presenting the Street Fighter essence, the game is a hit with both competitive players and casual players. But it goes a little deeper than simply stating the game looks pretty. Gamers with HD televisions are lucky to have the full visual experience, as it is comparable to the arcade set up arcade players experience. Here, we see a congruency in the visual representation - both games look the same.

Let's take Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo, a 15 year old stalemate in the SF2 saga. It has stood the test of time because of its depth in competitive environments, not through casual popularity. In fact, most casual SF fans or fans of fighting games in general believe Street Fighter 2' Hyper Fighting is superior. While arguments of balance may come into play in this debate (this writer takes the viewpoint that SSF2T has the most varied gameplay which takes precedence over balance) what is important to note is the common casual complaints of the visual design of the game. The announcer's voice is always on top of the list, with more sophisticated complaints stemming at mixture of dated visuals with enhanced backgrounds, while others even going further to claim Hyper Fighting was a better looking game altogether. Jeff Gerstmann, slightly renown video game guru and reviewer, is a represenative of these complaints.

What is important to note here, and I apologize for not finding a better seque into this chunk of information, is the difference between an arcade setting, which is mostly dedicated to the competitive audience, and the console/home setting which is aimed at the casual audience. Arcade monitors display colors very differently from a regular tube TV - Colors tend to be brighter and any pixelation is "blinded" by the inherent scanlines on the arcade monitor. So we can possibly assess that SSF2T looks very different from arcade to console, no matter how perfect the port job or emulation is. Also note the atmosphere of the arcade - mostly dimly lit with loud music in the background and usually a substantial amount of games being played at once. Through this we see that it is more than likely arcade gamers won't even be able to hear the annoying announcer's voice and the brightly lit screen comes as even more vibrant against the dark shadows of the arcade cabinet. What we have are two clear illustrations of two different ways to experience the same game (save me the specifics, ST nerds), which brings about two different viewpoints on the game - casuals don't like ST while those who grew up in the arcade still play it today.

From SSF2T to SSF2T:HDR. To save on length of this article and time reading on development issues, HD Remix is a redrawn version of SSF2T with a new soundtrack, a pretty good netplay option, and a rebalanced mode catered to the hardcore fans. HDR fixes the problems casual gamers had with SSF2T's visuals and suddenly everyone is a fan of this dated classic. Even Jeff Gerstmann, although he is not saved by claiming his astonishment comes from smart balance changes (no one can say that the week a FG drops). HDR looks good for the casual audience and now it is a hit. Some might say it is the balanced mode that sealed the deal, but I'd wager that the casual players wouldn't care - a redrawn version of a Street Fighter game nobody played will seem like a new game regardless.

Lastly, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. A lot of people love this game. There is no denying the complexity, execution, and guessing-games in it that keep the game wildly popular among both casual and competitive fans. It does have complaints - many can be articulately stated by this man - which range from imbalance to nullification of SF-trademark fireballs, but it constantly builds in popularity. My proposed reasoning behind this phenomena - SF3 also looks really good on both arcade and console.

Fliud animation, big characters, vibrant colors and detailed stages (though not as much as 2nd Impact) all lend this game to being a showstopper. The first time I saw this game I was stunned; as a heavy player in ST, I still sometimes look at the game in awe in comparison to other fighters. Few 2d games look so good. Sure, GGXXAC has a more balanced, more vivid visual flare and a few new games (BlazBlue, KOFXII) might trump SF3 even more, but the balance between animation, ease of use (6 buttons as opposed to 4,5) is truly unmatched. Not only that, but despite a heavy anime influence in SF3, 3s is mature looking in theme and has a bad-ass announcer, which can't be said for SSF2T:HDR's dumbed down color scaling and autistic-sounding announcer. This isn't your brother's SF2 - this is SF3.

So, before closing, I want everyone to know that it was very hard for me to recognize these differences in graphical prowess and cultural semiotics - I am usually blind to that sort of thing. However, I don't think many people can argue againts my points, unless they have more confirmable data than I do. In that case, I fold.

Otherwise, happy gaming.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I Like Vanilla

Like sugar cookies, I find my taste buds flourish in simple sugary treats. The easy to digest glucose is nearly instantaneous and wonderful in every respect. Maybe that is why I really enjoy Vanilla ST over SSF2THDR.

Puns aside, it seems SSF2THDR has some balance issues. I had worries upon release of the game, but I didn't want to voice them lest any new developments came to the interweb news of Fighting Games. Unfortunately, I was correct in my worry - more developments have proved there are more hazardous matchups than I had anticipated.

I love ST. It isn't perfect, but goddamn it is fun and exciting. In no other game do I feel like Guile or Ryu, using offensive strategies to create defensive walls for my opponents to penetrate. Every single character has really interesting tools which set ST apart from a more balanced game, Hyper Fighting. It seems like David Sirlin and Seth Killian had this all in mind for HD Remix, more so than myself. While Sirlin wooed me by stating mesianic mission to balance ST more than it is already is, Seth had something different to say.

I can get behind Seth on this one, but I can't help but feel massively betrayed by Sirlin as well as sneakily beaten in logic by Capcom. You see, Akuma is still WAY too good in HDR. His hotboxes are just plain obnoxious. It would seem he is due for a patch or banning by the SRK community. But after Damdai's amazing pilgrimmage, the Evo heads are calling it all a bluff. Even after handily beating Valle and Choi online, still Mr. Wizard is against banning Akuma at Evo. We cry injustice - HDR is supposed to be "balanced." And here Seth tells us it doesn't have to be.

Fine. I'll buy all of it. I am cool with this injustice. Just don't fool me again, Capcom.