Archive for the ‘games’ Category

Know Your Onions

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

One of my English teachers in high school liked to say that at that level, we’re not actually learning history, we’re actually just learning History’s Greatest Hits. At the time I just laughed it off as a silly joke (he made lots of those), but, over time, I realized he was right. You go through school and get an overview of history (and just about every subject) by hitting the high points so you’re not completely ignorant of how the world and the US got where they are today. But the thing is, there’s so much history (and more of it all the time!) that it’s impossible to know it all. If you’re interested, though, you will go beyond the bare minimum required to pass your high school (and even college) classes. Most of us, though, probably don’t care about that kind of history enough to do more than watch the occasional documentary on PBS, or whatever Drunk History counts as. So, we know some history, but historians, people who love history, know lots more. That sounds obvious, but they do more than watch documentaries in order to feel smart. They do research: they read books (the horror!), they talk to other historians, they visit historic places, and so on. They know that there is more to history than everyone was required to learn in school, and they know that knowledge is out there, they just have to go get it. A lot of times they’ll specialize in one particular area and learn everything they can about it.

You probably think that being a hardcore historian is probably not for you, though. You may not care if Shakespeare actually wrote all his plays or not. You may think that Socrates is just some dead Greek dude who was the subject of a few jokes in the first Bill & Ted movie. Besides, you like video games (well, if you’re reading this site, there’s a pretty good chance that you like video games). Video games are way better than boring old history any day of the week.

But what about video game history?

Felipe Pepe wrote an intresting article on Gamasutra the other day lamenting that a lot of so-called ‘hardcore gamers’ don’t know much about the history of video games past five or ten years or so ago.

That is a disappointing realization.

Video games are becoming (or maybe have already become) a mainstream form of entertainment for everyone, but they’ve been around in one form another since at least the late 1940s. No, that’s not a typo.

Warning: From this point on, I’m going to probably sound like either a hipster or an old man yelling at a butt. You have been warned.

When I say “retro gaming” or “old video games” what do you think of? I’m going to guess that it’s Super Mario Bros or The Legend of Zelda. Maybe just the NES, Super NES, and maybe even the Genesis. Possibly Pong. You may even know that Pong was a big deal in the 80’s. It was, but it was an even bigger deal when it came out in 1972.

You may have heard about the Commodore 64, but do you know anything about it? Can you name five games for it without looking them up? Have you ever heard of the VIC-20? The PET? The Commodore 16? The Commodore 128? The Amiga? Do you know who Jack Tramiel was? Do you know why Bill Cosby is an important figure in Commodore’s history?

You might have heard about the Atari 2600, but what about the reissued Atari 2600 Jr.? The Atari 7800? The Atari 8-bit line? Do you know who Nolan Bushnell is?

Did you know that Texas Instruments had a line of computers that played games? Did you know that the TI-99/4A is actually a revised model of the TI-99/4? Did you know it supported a voice module to enable real actual speech? Do you know who its spokesperson was and why that’s important?

Do you know why games like Diablo are called ‘rogue-like’?

More importantly, have you ever actually played these games that are more than 5 years old? How about 10? 20? Further back? I don’t mean ‘load them up in an emulator and fart around with one for five minutes’, I mean actually play them for a decent amount of time. Try to finish one or set a high score (without abusing savestates, natch). Did you play something outside of the games you’ve heard of (the ‘video games greatest hits’)?

The Problem

While doing some independent research on Ironsword, the game infamous for having Fabio on the label, Wikipedia cites a GameSpy article that says:

You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but IronSword is actually a sequel to Wizards & Warriors. But thanks to the presence of Fabio on the cover, gamers got confused and thought they had accidentally picked up one of their mom’s romance novels.

It also posts a cropped picture of the label (with Fabio’s Fabulous Hair) with the caption that “Anything Fabio is involved in becomes automatically bad.”

I suppose the author was trying to be funny, I get that. But it’s pretty clear that the image was cropped to make that joke, since the full image clearly has, “Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II” at the top of the label. And, I guess I could mistake a video game for a book if I had never seen a book or a video game before. And the game itself is actually pretty good.

The problem is threefold:

  1. Old consoles are hard to find, take up room to store, and emulating games is questionably legal.
  2. A lot of writers for big sites are in their 20s. That’s not necessarily a problem, but a lot of these games came out before they were born, and since old consoles are tough to find, they probably won’t bother. They just rely on Wikipedia, cruddy Youtube videos, and other sources of second-hand (or even third-hand and fourth-hand) information.
  3. Since old consoles are hard to find, and a lot of people won’t bother trying to find or buy them anyway, the echo-chamber effect starts to take over. For instance, Phalanx for SNES usually gets lambasted as having a dumb box featuring a hillbilly playing a banjo. The game must be terrible, whatever it is, right? Wrong. It’s a passable shoot-em-up. Or, ET for the Atari 2600 is the worst game ever made, right? Nope. ET isn’t even the worst game on the Atari 2600 (Sneak ‘n’ Peek, for example). Custer’s Revenge gets a bad rap as one of the worst games ever made (and it is bad, don’t get me wrong), but it was one of those porno games, like Bubble Bath Babes on the NES (don’t Search for these games at work). It was never sitting on the shelf at your local Hills next to Kaboom and Chopper Command.

What all this means is that we have a lot of people writing authoritatively on things that they know very little about. It’s like if you were writing for a music website, but the only thing you knew about music older than 10 years is the songs from your local radio station’s 80’s dance mix, and you just assume that everything pre-1970 is either The Twist or the Foxtrot.

So, what’s the solution?

Unfortunately, I can’t demand that everyone writing about video games broaden their horizons in any meaningful way (if only). But what I can do is demand excellence, both from myself, and from the publications that I read. At the risk of being labeled a pedant and a hipster and a fogey, I can point out why your top whatever list is dumb and wrong, like this list of the 100 best games of all time that only has one game made before 1990 on it (which is Mega Man II. That’s not even the best Mega Man game on the NES).

I don’t want the industry, the consumers, or the media to forget what got us here. I don’t want the past 50+ years of games distilled down to Pong, Pac-Man, some NES stuff, and then everything else. I want to be able to discuss Pix the Cat as being a cross between Pac-Man Championship Edition and Flicky without someone not knowing what I’m talking about. We need to have one eye on the past and another on the future. And a video camera on the present, I guess? I’m not good with metaphors. Video games have a vibrant history, and a lot of that history directly shapes what we have today. Several of those experiences have not been duplicated. They may have been refined or cast off as the medium evolves, but when we study them, it helps us to know why things are now the way they are.

Dungeon Runners Impressions

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Ever since I first heard about Dungeon Runners I was intrigued, it’s a free to download, and free to play MMORPG that doesn’t quite take itself seriously. I was a little apprehensive at first, though, because 9 Dragons was also free to download and free to play, but was a complete train wreck.

I also had kind of forgotten all about it for a long time until I went to Best Buy one day and saw that they had a retail box of the game for sale. A box that showed one of the characters running around wielding a giant pizza cutter for a weapon. But I still didn’t get it because I was real busy at the time… probably something Internet related, I kind of forget. But I passed on it, and didn’t really give it a thought for a while until I went to a different Best Buy and saw that the game was $10, and it included six months’ worth of the premium content (which I’ll get into in a minute). And that’s when I decided to take the plunge.

Also, my free month of LOTRO ends tomorrow.

The game is kind of like a silly cross between World of Warcraft and Diablo II. Except for towns, everything is instanced, and you take your character and run around the various dungeons killing swarms of monsters. Monsters that drop phat lewt (like the Sweet Acid-Wash Boots of the Hardy Unicorn that my character currently has equipped). Probably the strangest item I’ve gotten so far is a gun that shoots fowl as ammo.

Quests are pretty standard stuff, go somewhere and deliver something to someone, go in the dungeon and kill X amount of Y, collect Z trinkets, etc. So there’s nothing too crazy there, and there’s been a little bit of a story to link them together, but nothing terribly complicated.

There are three classes to choose from, Warrior, Mage, and Ranger. But it doesn’t really matter what class you pick because as soon as you leave the n00b area (and they call it the n00b area in the game, there’s a lot of fourth-wall-breaking stuff in there) you can visit the class trainers and learn skills from whatever class you want. The class just determines what class bonuses you get.

Now, as a member (which costs a cool $5/month once the trial is up) gets you certain benefits. You can stack potions in your inventory (very handy), you can equip stuff that’s higher quality than Green (the progression goes: grey, green, blue, yellow, purple, and rainbow), no ads, extra bank space, and (probably my personal favorite) access to a Members Only Server. Most of the Free Players will be playing on the Free Server (duh), so it has the highest population (even though the highest I’ve seen the population climb was about 225), but it also has the highest population of people spamming the server with , “I TRAIN 4 YOU. REEZNIBLE R8S.” (which I only saw two people doing) But on the Members Only Server there haven’t been any in the times I’ve been on, which is super-nice. Of course, you can’t trade gold anyway, so that is probably also part of it.

Also, if you buy a boxed copy, you get access to a ‘Bling Gnome’. These things will follow you around and pick up any gold that the enemies drop so you don’t have to worry about it, and they can also pick up and Blue or lower items on the ground, eat them, and then crap out some gold, saving you a trip to town to empty out your inventory, which was always a tedious part of these kinds of games.

So far I like it. But I’ve read on a couple of forums where folks complain that they also liked it a lot at first, but that they got burned out on really quickly, so we’ll see.

Crawling Dungeons

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

I’ve somehow been bitten by the dungeon-crawling bug lately. Maybe it’s because Diablo II recently had its disc-checks removed. Though I only played the game long enough to verify that the CD-check is indeed gone, I’ve somehow managed to lose large tracts of time to two other games in the same vein at roughly the same time, Baroque and Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon.

Baroque is something of a train wreck of a game. You play as this silent protagonist whose actions somehow brought about the end of the world. You have to travel to the bottom of this massive tower in order to unravel the mystery. There are some other characters in the game, both inside and outside of the dungeon, and they give you clues, but they’re neither coherent or clueful. So you just kind of wander around trying to figure out what in the world you’re supposed to be doing, because the game doesn’t really tell you other than ‘go into the tower, get to the bottom’. So you go along and go into the tower, fighting enemies until you run out of health. Run out of health and you leave the tower, all the experience points/level ups you got are gone, as is any weaponry or armor or special items you may have found. Essentially, it’s like the game just gives you a giant middle-finger when you die. Oh, but you can send items back to the start, so that if you do die (and you will) you can grab them and start anew with stronger stuff and last a little longer before you die again. Problem is, though, that you can send a pathetically small number of items back to the start. ‘Pathetically small’ in this case meaning four. Four items when your inventory can hold over twenty. Four items when one of the subquests involves collecting souls of creatures in the dungeon, and you find far more than four. So, do you send back the souls to start to complete that quest, or do you send back items that increase your attributes, or do you send back weapons and armor? Either way you go, you’re going to be making a lot of runs through this dungeon to do anything worthwhile. I poured over twenty hours into this thing and managed to get far enough that I saw one of the fake endings, after which the game restarted and I began anew without all my stuff again, and still didn’t know what in the world was going on.

On the flip side, Chocobo’s Dungeon was far more coherent and had a storyline I could follow without having to resort to mailing the developer a Bundt cake to ask for an interpretation of the story. It involves a chocobo, those big birds from the Final Fantasy games, named Chocobo, who ends up in a town where everyone’s memory was erased due to some calamity before the game started. Chocobo has to go into the memories of the townsfolk and restore them to normal, and unravel the story along the way.

The dungeons here are a lot the same as Baroque. Each one is randomly generated, there are items laying around all over the place, you have to work your way to the bottom, that kind of thing. But! The game is far more lenient. You die in this game and you lose all your items except the ones you have equipped, so you won’t lose that super-awesome weapon or armor you found. You leave the dungeon and you retain your strength levels, and get to carry everything out of the dungeon you can carry, assuming you left of your own volition, that is. But other than that, Chocobo’s Dungeon shared a lot with Baroque, so I’ve put together this chart showing the similarities between these two games:

  Baroque FFF:CD
Silent Protagonist Yes Chocobo talks in bird-speak, I think that counts
Lose stuff when you die Everything you’re carrying, all your levels Everything you’re carrying except for what you’re actually using
Cursed stuff you can’t remove once you put it on Can’t tell until you put it on and can’t take it off The item is a different color, warning you
Randomly-generated levels Yes Yes
Gotta save the world? The protagonist did something real bad and has to make amends Everyone in the town forgot what they did, but it was probably because of something bad
Can understand the story after twenty hours Probably not Probably so

I guess it kind of goes without saying that I really liked Chocobo’s Dungeon a whole lot better than Baroque. I just have some sort of odd compulsion to know what’s going on with the story in a game, if it has one (yeah, the story in Tetris was riveting…), or if I can’t understand the overblown complexity of the story, I’d at least like to have enough information that I can at least pretend that I know what’s going on, or at the very least hit the highlights (see Final Fantasy VII). Which is something that FFF:CD was able to provide, while Baroque was just… broke.

Ninja Baseball Bat Man

Saturday, August 4th, 2007

I’m cross-posting this from my other site today. Mostly because the game is so weird that I feel compelled to tell people about it.

Ninja Baseball Bat Man

It’s hard to see a game with a title like Ninja Baseball Bat Man and not be intrigued. Just the title should send wild images running through your imagination. Can the game live up to what you’ve already concocted? Let’s see!

In the world of Ninja Baseball Bat Man, 5 ‘baseball items’ have been stolen from the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it’s up to an elite squad of what appears to be robots wearing ninja garb and wielding baseball bats to get them back. This game is a side-scrolling beat ’em up, so you and up to three of your buddies walk to the right (or in some cases, to the left) brutally beating everything in your way to an unrecognizable mess and searching for the missing baseball items (a bat, a ball, a glove, a pair of cleats, a hat, and a statue of ‘Babe’ Ruth). You have to fight all kinds of baseball-themed enemies: baseballs, gloves, sets of catcher’s gear, and etc. Lots of etc.

Ninja Baseball Bat Man screen shot

This is the kind of game that I could easily see some kind of Saturday morning cartoon show based on. A ridiculous team of heroes in a world with a ridiculous premise? Prominently featuring baseball? Mindless Violence? How could it lose?