Thursday, August 21, 2008

Blurring the Boundaries

Note: The following contains spoilers; highlight the blacked-out text at your own peril.

Over the past few days, my wife and I have spent a good deal of time with Final Fantasy XII. The pacing of the game's story reminds me at times of my first experience with Final Fantasy VII, where I wondered when I would finally get to see this world map the manual had mentioned. For a series with this many iterations, I find myself amazed at some of the conventions which continue to arise. An evil twin? Seriously?? At least there are no eyepatches in sight. Also, why do these later titles in the franchise always have characters at least twelve times cooler than the freaking protagonist? I think we are at about the fifteen-hour mark (with several lengthy stops for side quests) as far as playtime is concerned, and things are finally kicking into gear in the plot department.

In a twist, I find the combat system more engaging than I expected. Unlike many fans of the series, I was happy to see random monster encounters go the way of Laserdiscs. The option to simply run past an enemy you do not wish to fight without a separate combat screen is a blessing, in my opinion. Moreover, the ability to automate your party's actions when you pick a fight is a step forward from holding down the execute button until everything on one side of the screen collapses. I wish the game had a Mug command I could use rather than manually stealing from monsters, but that can be forgiven. The only real problem I have with the Gambit system FFXII employs is the availability of targets for your actions. Whoever decided that the Charge command (which restores some MP if successful, but drains it all away otherwise) has to be triggered manually for hours of early gameplay, unless you are content to end up with no MP at random during your journeys, has earned my ire. The loot system also finds an interesting way around one of the little issues old-school roleplaying titles had: namely, why did all these monsters carry around money?

The choices made during the development of Final Fantasy XII were an interesting move on the part of Square Enix, as they took the series rather close to the experience of massively multiplayer games. Heck, the game calls the items dropped and stolen from monsters loot! I have felt an urge to play for just a while longer on a couple of occasions, merely to try to scrounge up the license points for a shiny new ability -- similar to the 'grinding' style which emerges in most online games.

I will be out of town over the weekend, so Vaan and Penelo will have to wait until next week for a reunion. I think Eternal Darkness will get the nod for my take-out gaming experience, but the decision is not yet final. Game well, and may your batteries stay charged.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Revisiting the (Mostly) Forgotten

With my primary gaming console out of commission (again), I have taken some time of late to play titles I had downloaded via the Wii's Virtual Console. After a couple of hours of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, I felt a quite a sense of déjà vu. Simon Belmont gains levels from collected hearts; he wanders an open countryside rather than plowing through strict levels; he buys and finds items which enable him to reach previously inaccessible areas. Sound familiar? It should -- this is the so-called 'Metroidvania' formula the series has been using since my beloved Symphony of the Night, apart from the countryside bit. I cannot help but find amusing the fact that the franchise abandoned this idea for a decade before completely and utterly embracing it a generation later.

What could cause such a shift? The most likely explanation is that Simon's Quest underperformed at retail, driving the series back to what succeeded in its original incarnation. I have always considered the sequel a graphical step backward from Castlevania; perhaps the American 'graphics snob' stereotype bit the game. This was also sort of an experimental period for games. We had Super Mario Bros. 2, which eschewed much of its predecessor's format; and The Adventure of Link, with its side-scrolling dungeons and health-barred bosses. Neither of those ideas took a permanent hold, so it might be fitting that Castlevania II follow the pattern -- except for the revisitation thing. Mario and Link never really went back to the style of the sequels, whereas Konami evidently saw something in Simon's Quest that merited a revival.

And now for something completely different -- Mega Man is now available for download. I never played the first game in the series on my NES, and I will finally get the chance once I can scrounge up five bucks. Between this and Ikaruga, I really seem to want my games to hand my head to me on a charger.

With school starting tomorrow, I need to head to bed. Game well, and may your load times be short.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Curse You, Red-Ring Baron!!

As I settled into my video rocker for a session of BioShock last night, my Xbox 360 froze during my attempt to log into Xbox Live. I turned off the system and, after a minute or two, I fearfully punched the power button again. Lo and behold, I have suffered the same fate as millions of other Xbox 360 owners. I had a Star Wars-esque bad feeling about the situation, since my console froze while I was playing the night before last. Moreover, the system has been making unusual noises of late whenever a disc stops spinning, the power is switched off, or a butterfly flaps its wings over the Beijing Olympic venues.

This will be my second experience with Microsoft's repair service, and I can only hope this journey will be better than the first. Curiously, the first send-off was not due to the Red Ring of Death; rather, the system kept etching discs. I received a refurbished console quite rapidly after I shipped out my first machine. However, I spent five months without my downloaded Xbox Live Arcade titles due to the ridiculous DRM system Microsoft has put in place. Once the licensing issues were finally corrected, I was 'assured' by the person on the phone that a new, more transparent system had been installed. I will believe this when I see it, which will hopefully be in a couple of weeks.

The pause in my current-generation gaming has given me the chance to revisit the rest of my console library. In particular, motivated by my recent mention of Shadow of the Colossus, I popped that title back into my PlayStation 2. I now remember why I did not finish that game before: what I was doing made me feel queasy. Not that this is news to anyone, but Shadow of the Colossus has you killing creatures that do not seem to be harming anyone. Despite some control issues (namely a curious decision to anchor your equestrian controls regardless of camera position), I have to agree with the statements of artistry that the game received upon its release. I had to show my wife the first colossus just to watch her face when the thing first crosses the screen. Once I have seen the quest to its end, I may take Eternal Darkness for another spin.

Game well this weekend, and may you avoid my predicament with flying colors.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A New Game Enters the Fold

No, there was no illicit acquisition of Too Human, and I did not yet fork out the cash for Braid, either. Today was my wife's birthday, and while we were at the mall for some other things, we took a trip into GameStop. Looking through the Wii software, Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors caught her eye. She enjoyed her time with the game today, and I will probably give it a whirl myself soon. The gameplay experience looks like a stand-alone Lord of the Rings game I bought during the movie merchandise craze; you swing the Wiimote to generate sword slashes on-screen. I cannot say right now if the story will hold up compared to either the massive scope of Dragon Quest VIII or the unbelievable cuteness of Rocket Slime, but we shall see. My biggest problem with titles in that series is that I have trouble bringing myself to beat on most of the low-level monsters. Akira Toriyama simply did too good a job of making 'enemies' like Slimes and Drackies adorable.

I downloaded the demo for Bionic Commando: Rearmed last night, and I was disappointed at its pathetic length. They cut out half of the first level, for crying out loud! Did anyone else notice that they changed the year in the intro? I thought the original date of '198X' was pretty nifty. On the upside, the new graphics look nice, and the new hacking minigame tossed an entertaining diversion into the grappling and shooting action. However, do I need a prettier and slightly retooled version of the game when I have a fully-functional copy of the original on Capcom Classics Mini Mix?

Game well, and may your terminals stay dust-free.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Personal Achievement Alert!!

I forgot to mention this when it happened, and I deem it sufficiently awesome that I will bring it to light now. As an aside, this is a benefit of not being a super-important gaming news site. On the afternoon of July 30, I unlocked the 'Bulletproof' achievement in the Xbox Live Arcade version of the classic shooter Contra. This, as you may know, means that I was able to complete the game on a single set of lives, without the assistance of the Konami code. The finale was a close-run thing; I finally took out Red Falcon's heart on my last life, surrounded by those weird scorpion things he exudes. I would have done better, but I lost my spread gun (undoubtedly gaming's first über-weapon) during the second tunnel in exchange for the flipping flame-thrower.

Half the gamers in the world would most likely shrug at me and say "Sure, but can you score a perfect headshot on Blackout?" or something else of a generally ephemeral nature. Keep in mind that Contra holds a somewhat iconic place in my gaming psyche. I traded my copy of the NES cartridge to a classmate for Rampage in the sixth grade, and I regretted my decision within a week. In hindsight, though, I got the better end of the deal, as I had played that poor game until its terminals were ready to disintegrate. With all my efforts, at the peak of my twitch-reflexes and pattern-memorizing abilities, I was never able to finish Contra without either continues or the Konami code. Was I subconsciously trapped by the presupposition that I needed those extra chances to reach the conclusion? Maybe the most famous cheat code in the history of the universe was, after all, at the heart of my failures back then. Perhaps the dangling carrot of an achievement was enough to push me past the bonds of those immortal button presses (which, hilariously, were initially told to me incorrectly by the guy at the video game counter).

Wow, that is the deepest I have pondered an old-school gaming experience since I wrote that essay on Crystalis in the tenth grade. Back to gaming; enjoy your Wednesday, and may your ping times stay low.

Monday, August 11, 2008

So, Yeah, I Am Ignorant.

It has come to my attention that the original Gears of War had a violence filter; the only new feature of the parental controls in the sequel is a retooling of the game's colorful metaphors. I can press a mute button to get around profane dialogue, but copious gore is a different matter. Now that I feel like a total schmuck for not doing complete research two years ago, I can at least take solace in the reduced price point if I choose to dive into the Gears of War franchise. Unlike the upcoming Too Human, Epic Games' shooter lost nothing by my delayed purchase back in the day.

Apparently I am not the only person who balked at Braid's price tag. After reading the comments off the Penny Arcade link above, I hate the company I seem to be keeping. The primary complaint seems to be the game's length, which I find more than a bit laughable. Suppose Braid clocks in at four hours of play; for fifteen dollars, this is roughly equivalent to the fifteen-hour FPS campaigns which festoon the current console landscape. I can see only two camps of true discontent here: hardcore roleplaying junkies, for whom less than forty hours of play is tantamount to high treason; and big-time multiplayer fans, who will struggle to swallow almost any straight single-player title by virtue of its lack of 'pwnage' potential.

This has been a personal struggle for me in the past. I bought Shadow of the Colossus at full retail price when it released; I feared it might suffer a fate similar to its predecessor ICO. The sad fate of Psychonauts made me rue my lack of an Xbox at the game's launch. Furthering the advancement of gaming as a medium can be tricky when you can only afford to purchase software once its make-or-break sales period has slipped away. Now I seem trapped between two games which I feel need my support, but I am unlikely to scrape together the funds for them both when they need the sales. Now is the time for that Mass Effect training to pay off, baby!!

In more upbeat news, I downloaded the demo version of Marathon: Durandal from the Xbox Live Marketplace last night. Playing a truly old-school shooter took me back to my days of freeware demos as an undergrad -- back when defeated foes rotated on the ground if you turned. During the firefights, my mind kept filling in cries of "Ach, mein lieben!" as the aliens fell. Good times, man . . .

Sunday, August 10, 2008

When Legends Fall

We completed Final Fantasy VII over the weekend, after pursuing some things I chose to ignore on my last jaunt through the game. The master magic and command Materia greatly simplify your party builds at the end, but neither my wife nor myself had the patience to accrue enough AP to obtain the master summon Materia. Most of the things I felt ten years ago still hold true now: Knights of the Round still breaks the game, even without W-Summon; the fact that you fight the final boss three times (granted, only someone with the intellect of a sea anemone could lose the last one) seems like overkill; and the closing scene still draws a little tear. We started Final Fantasy XII after the credits rolled and I had transferred the data file to my 'conquered' memory card. I know Square Enix likes to impress us with flashy opening cinemas; I recall the gunblade duel from FFVIII just as vividly as the rest of you. Seriously, though, my controller switched itself off between choosing 'New Game' and actually taking control. Could we not have controlled Basch during the battle at Nalbina Fortress? We stopped after a little more than an hour of play, and I have to ask one last question. During the first hunt quest, did anyone else find himself/herself singing the theme from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?

I did not get the chance to play anything today, since I awoke with a headache clearly on the horizon. We will see what the next week has in store. Game well this week, and may your framerate stay constant.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Shameless Plug Time!!

While unwinding before bed last night, I downloaded a trial version of a game called Braid from Xbox Live. I really knew nothing about the game, but I recalled hearing positive things about it from Penny Arcade, or G4, or someone else. I immediately grew incredulous upon seeing a fifteen-dollar price tag for the full version. Remember that tagline at the top of the screen? As you may recall from my opinion on Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One (that title is still eleven kinds of sweet), I hesitate to pay more than ten bucks for downloadable software. I must now say that were Braid to sell for typical retail price on a disc, I would most likely want to buy it.

When I started the game, it looked for all the world like I was entering a side-scrolling platformer like Cloning Clyde. This opinion was reinforced when I jumped on an enemy's head to bounce it from the screen, and it was further cemented after I was tasked with collecting three puzzle pieces in the first level. However, after that first stage, the game's true nature reared its head. Braid is, in fact, a devilishly clever set of puzzles built around a typical platform-jumping interface. I do not want to ruin the joy of figuring out the title's riddles for you, but you have the ability to rewind time (I discovered this after I mistimed a jump and ran into one of the demo's spherical enemies). What initially appears to be a Prince of Persia-like hinder-saver is actually an active part of Braid's puzzles. I got the image in my mind of the designers playing Sands of Time and thinking, "You know, there must be some proactive ways to use this trick!" By the time I had wrapped up the trial portion of the game, I was considering selling some blood plasma to cover the download costs.

To make a short story long, if you are a fan of old-school adventure gaming, then take the time to play Braid. If you enjoy platform games from the good old days, then play Braid. If your subconscious cries out for puzzle-solving, then play Braid. If you fall into none of these categories, then please go figure out where you left your soul. Once you have it back in place, play Braid.

Apparently Someone was Listening

Do you remember that little tirade I unleashed following the coverage of Fallout 3 during E3 last month? You know -- the one decrying the incessant slobbering we gamers seem to do over absurdly violent ways to kill people? Mere weeks later, word has surfaced that Gears of War 2 will ship with parental controls, which will eliminate blood and profanity while playing the shooter. With this little tidbit, another title might get added to my waiting list; I am sure my wife will love to hear that. I had considered picking up the original game, even though its plot and characters were widely considered as nuanced as a Pauly Shore film. However, the title's industry-typical approach to 'maturity' changed my mind. I can only hope this type of move becomes more standard for games going forward. Does that mean I can no longer claim to be 73h h4rdc0rZ? Oh, drat.

On the other hand, I can see why some gamers may be worried about something of this nature. Gears of War 2's online multiplayer modes, which I am sure are a large selling point to many Xbox 360 owners, might be even more infested with profanity-spewing, bigoted thirteen-year-olds than past titles, thanks to parents who are talked into a purchase by children touting these filters. This, of course, is a real pain to the profanity-spewing, bigoted seventeen- to thirty-year-olds who play these sorts of games on Xbox Live after a legitimate purchase. While I am clearly stereotyping older online gamers for quasi-comedic effect, I cannot help but find the irony of complaints like that hilarious.

In gorier news, Fallout 3 is collecting several best in show awards from the gaming media. Pardon me if joyous dancing and revelry does not commence.

If I Were a Game Designer . . .

I would most likely be Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine Productions and creator of adventure games such as Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. While I did not own a computer during the heyday of adventure games and thus missed these classic titles, I did get the chance to partake of Double Fine's first release, Psychonauts, which stands as one of my three favorite games from the last console generation. Sadly, the game also won the highly-uncoveted 'Best Game No One Played' Award from Gamespot in 2005. I urge you to find a copy (from someone who is not me -- that baby does not leave my house!) so that you can experience the most genuinely funny game script I have ever witnessed.

Considering I compared myself to Tim Schafer at the start of this post, you may think I have a pretty high opinion of myself. You would be, to coin a phrase,


Make no mistake; I do not claim to match Schafer's creativity or sense of humor. However, follow the link to Double Fine's website, and try not to imagine me saying most of what you find there (particularly the Frequently Asked Questions). Seriously, the company's current project, Brütal Legend, was feared canceled, and the company announces its status via mouseover text on a picture of a dead weevil. How awesome is that?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Of Grinding and Revisitation

Over the weekend, my wife and I have played a metric truckload of Final Fantasy VII, although we have done very little to move the game's plot along its sweeping path. We are now pretty much past the point of massive spoilers, and the road to the conclusion is more or less straightforward. However, like any game made by Square (with or without Enix), hours upon hours upon hours remain to be spent tying up the loose ends of side quests. Sandi has really gotten into Chocobo breeding, which can be a rather time-intensive process if you want high-caliber racing champions. I always wondered why the developers chose to place mandatory wait times on breeding with newborn Chocobos; for some reason, one bird we bred was not yet ready for breeding herself, whereas another born minutes earlier was. Perhaps the idea was for players to go do something else in the meantime -- like, say, grinding out the zettaton of AP required to unlock all the game's spells and abilities. Fortunately, my wife is even more gung-ho for this sort of thing than I am, so we have more mastered Materia than I ever did in my previous two runs at the title.

Once I am the only one left awake in the house, I have been diving back into the world of Rapture (or playing BioShock, for the uninitiated). I am still not a huge fan of first-person shooters, but the atmosphere of Ken Levine's last brainchild is tough to top. I put aside the game last autumn in favor of Mass Effect, unaware at the time that I would spend the better part of six months playing through that title using various character classes. Unfortunately, BioShock may suffer the same fate a second time if I fail to complete it in the next couple of weeks, since I hope to finagle myself a copy of Too Human on its release date such that I can finally activate this free month of Xbox Live I got with my replaced console and dive into some cooperative play. Well, that, and classes start back later this month.

Enjoy the coming week, and may your laser lenses stay clean.