Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Closer Look at Going Home Again in the World of Video Games

A Closer Look at Going Home Again in the World of Video Games

Thomas Wolfe broke the bad news to us about thirty years before Pac-man gobbled his first dot, “You can’t go home again.” Wolfe wasn’t writing about video games at the time, but his themes of change both personal and environmental extend even into our modern technological age and yes even to video games.  I have experienced this phenomenon numerous times in my long love affair with the pixilated media, but it became even more salient recently upon purchasing Mario Kart Wii.

Allow me to start by saying that Mario Kart Wii is perhaps the greatest kart racing game I think I have ever played (and that puts it up there with Crash Team Racing for the PSX).  The game is ground-breaking in terms of innovation and game play.  One of the coolest features in the game is the ability to play older tracks from previous incarnations of the Mario Kart franchise.  It was this that sent me down the inevitable road to disappointment.  So enamored was I with the sleek controls and bright colors of Mario Kart Wii that I was prompted to revisit the previous best Mario Kart racer I had ever played: Mario Kart 64Mario Kart Wii features a couple of tracks from that blast from the recent past and playing those gave me a longing for those days of yore.  Thus, back to the N64 went I.  And therein lays my mistake.  Thanks Thomas Wolfe.

As the video game industry becomes more and more advanced and modern games get deeper and their complexity increases, the merits and faults of classic games are becoming glaringly obvious.  One of the consequences of our rush toward into the future of gaming is the difficulty of returning to classics we once loved.  This difficulty is multiplied when the classics we are revisiting have been updated in more modern versions of the game.  Hence my disappointment upon plugging Mario Kart 64 into my console.

It’s not just the fact that Mario Kart Wii implements a new, unique and innovative control scheme, although that does make going back to a D-pad or analog stick a bit mundane.  But Mario Kart Wii is such a leap forward in terms of graphics and game play that going back to Mario Kart 64 is very difficult.  Mario Kart 64’s graphics were awesome for their time, but when held up against the bright, detailed tracks of Mario Kart Wii, they seem cardboard cut-outs in a 3-D world.  What’s more, the kart dynamics are sluggish and awkward next to the seemingly flawless kart mechanics of Mario Kart Wii. In the Wii version the karts (and motorcycles) are a seamless part of the environment and they move and interact with the other karts and background elements naturally.  In my revisit of Mario Kart 64, the karts felt clunky and looked like they had been pasted onto the background, as if you took the background away and they would just keep on going through space without need of a playfield.  The game still played pretty well, though not as smooth as the Wii version and the fun was there, but somehow diminished.  It didn’t take very long for the 64 version to go back on the shelf and the Wii to get fired back up.  Thanks again, Thomas Wolfe.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened to me.  Now that I think about it, there have been several times in my gaming history that I have attempted to revisit older games that have had more modern updates and found the older games wanting. Rogue Squadron and Rogue Leader present another example of this phenomenon.  I loved Rogue Squadron for the N64 and played it to death, but after moving on up to Rogue Leader on the Gamecube, trying to play Rogue Squadron is like trying to wear great looking pants that are three sizes too small.  No matter how badly I wanted to run those missions again, the controls were just too clumsy and awkward.
Nice, shiny, and slick!
Still nice, but a bit clumsy

Even Spidey knows these two are worlds apart!
And the phenomenon isn’t just limited to games; genres can undergo this as well.  Fighting and sports games are perfect examples of how modern games can render older games completely obsolete.  Soulcalibur and Soulcalibur II changed the face of fighting games forever, particularly 3D fighters.  Even great older fighting games like Tekken do not hold a candle to the majesty of Soulcalibur, which when released was actually better than its arcade counterpart!  If Tekken cannot hold up, lesser fighters are reduced to an unplayable mess.  Don’t believe me? Try playing Star Wars: Masters of Tera Kasi.  Similarly, the constant evolution of the Madden football franchise is practically geared toward outdating its previous incarnations.  With each new year a newer and flashier version of Madden Football is released with more whistle and bells, online support, updated player rosters and the previous year’s game is forever lost in the discount bin of the local second hand video game store.  Hell, you can build a house out of unwanted, outdated sports games for the N64 alone!  I personally own Madden '93, 2000, 2001 and 2008 and have played them only during the year in which they were released with the exception of Madden '93 which still rocks!).  For kicks, I once put Madden ’00 in my PS2 just to see what would happen.  First and foremost, this happens to be one of the games that is not backwards compatible with the PS2, so that was interesting enough, but second, the game was practically unrecognizable when compared with more recent versions, even next generation versions for the PS2 (even when played on an original Playstation)!
The phenomenon isn’t limited to video game consoles either.  Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of games being outpaced by their modern counterparts can be found on the PC.  Computer technology is obsolete by the time it hits the market and I cannot tell you how many times I have purchased a new PC one year and a new game the next only to find that my computer isn’t powerful enough to run the damn thing.  That quibble aside, computer games possess a special vulnerability to this phenomenon due to the very nature of their medium. My wife loves, and I mean loves in that very unnatural way, the Sims games for the PC.  She owns practically all of the expansion packs and other accoutrement for the original game and a healthy compliment of add-ons for sequel offering Sims2.  While the original Sims still holds a special place in her heart, she simply cannot play it very long anymore, not after playing Sims2.  According to her, Sims2 provides a much fuller gaming experience, filling in gaps in the original game and building upon its foundation.  These new additions and enhancements create a rich experience that satisfies in a way that the original no longer can.  In my own experience I can attest that I found similar difficulties with Roller Coaster TycoonRoller Coaster Tycoon 2 is for all intents and purposes almost exactly like the original Roller Coaster Tycoon with some crucial upgrades and improvements.  Graphically, the games are nearly identical.  The game play is foundationally the same.  Yet there is enough of an improvement that it is very hard to play the first Roller Coaster Tycoon again.  The coaster building and landscaping interfaces are much improved.  The new kinds of attractions and amusement park themes are rich and diverse.  And these things are just enough to make it hard to return within the confines of the original game.  Damn you Thomas Wolfe!

In studying this phenomenon there appears to be at least a semblance of reason to it.  It seems there are some games that are immune to the syndrome, some games that are particularly vulnerable to it, and some games that float in the middle.  The games that seem the most vulnerable are those mentioned above including but not limited to racing games, fighting games, and sports games.  These games tend to get outdated by improvements in their next iteration.  There may be some appeal to the earlier versions, but chances are good the improvements make dull the luster from the older game.  Sometimes this is due to a new level of depth or complexity that is made possible by later versions; Gran Turismo certainly takes a beating from this.  Sometimes it is due to game play improvements that a more powerful gaming platform allows; hence my aforementioned trouble playing Rogue Squadron.   And sometimes, as with sports games, it is just the nature of the game to have the newest version outpace the older ones, as with Madden and other sports titles.

Whatever the cause, there are certainly types of games that suffer from being outmoded by their latter counterparts.  The interesting thing to me is that graphics are rarely the determining factor.  Sure, nearly 99% of the time, the newer game is going to look better than its older cousins, but that is not generally enough to render an older game obsolete.  My wife makes a hard case for the original Tomb Raider succumbing to this phenomenon due to its incredibly blocky graphics, especially when compared to more recent releases such as the Anniversary version for the Wii or other modern systems.  Being a die-hard fan of the early series, I contest this, but I can see her point to some extent.  Still I maintain that the original game is fun enough on its game play merits that I can look past the polygons and still enjoy the ride.  That example notwithstanding, it seems that graphics are a minor player in this particular phenomenon.

I did notice one interesting exception to this phenomenon, however, directly related to my Mario Kart experience: sometimes if you go back far enough, you can in fact go home again.  While I was not able to recapture the magic of Mario Kart 64 after playing Mario Kart Wii, I did find that I was still able to enjoy Super Mario Kart for the SNES.  So perhaps some games are able to skirt the phenomenon if their history is rich enough and if the most recent game is sufficiently removed from the original offering.  I would like to try to make the same case for the Madden NFL series.  As mentioned above, I still have Madden ’93 for the SEGA Genesis and I still play it and it is still fun.   As long as you are not too wrapped up in using fifteen year old players and viciously limited playcalling, the game still has much of its original appeal.  Since nearly all of the players featured are retired and the divisional alignments are no longer valid, the game is almost like playing an even earlier football game like Tecmo Bowl, where teams and players really had no bearing on the game play at all.  So while I cannot plug Madden ’01 into my PSX and relive the magic, I can dig a little deeper and get back to a place where the earlier versions still retain some of what made them great.  This unique situation may also shed some light on why some games are immune to this phenomenon.

And thankfully, there are a whole slew of games out there that appear to be immune to this “can’t go home again” syndrome and interestingly enough these games are predominately adventure/RPG games.  No matter what year it is, I can always plug The Legend of Zelda into my NES and get the same charge out of it I did back in 1988.  The same goes for Castlevania, Metroid, Pitfall II, Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy VII, and a host of others.  These games do not seem to diminish at all from having newer chapters added to their lineage.  In some cases the mystique and charm is actually increased by the addition of the newer games. And the determining factor seems to be story.  Most of the games I have mentioned either are rooted in a specific story or are a chapter in a larger story that has unfolded as more games are added to the series.  This is definitely true for the Zelda and Metroid series.  The fact that the game develops as a story also develops makes each game unique and doesn’t ask it to stack up against later games in the series.  Of course Link to the Past isn’t going to be the same as Phantom Hourglass, they are two totally different games with totally different stories that ask you to do totally different things, all the while preserving the flavor and character of the overall series.  As long as the games are well made and the game play is good, chances are they are going to stand the test of time and the release of bigger and better games in the series.

The other games I mentioned, Super Mario Bros., Pitfall, Castlevania, survive for an entirely different reason.  While those games may part of a larger story or world, subsequent editions in the series function more like extensions or supplements to the original game.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is just as much fun as Super Mario Bros. despite SMB3’s obvious superiority because the games don’t really compete for the same spotlight the way their kart racer cousins do.  Furthermore, Super Mario Galaxy can be just as fun as either of those two older games, because it has taken the basic concept and applied it in a way that neither of the earlier games could even attempt.  It’s still platforming fun, but it is sufficiently different without outdating its predecessors. Take that Thomas Wolfe!

The defining factor seems to be related to application of the theme.  If the theme is kept true, but re-imagined in unique and different way, then there is a good chance you’ll be able to go home again.  However, if the theme is kept true and the execution of that theme is maintained without significant change, but the primary adjustments are to peripherals like game play, controls, options, or graphics, then chances are going home again is going to be difficult and perhaps disappointing.  Preservation of the theme is vital to the success of any game series (look what happened when they tried to re-invent Lara Croft…).  The theme can undergo evolutions and changes, but it rarely survives a complete overhaul.  Even when the Castlevania series shifted from strict platforming to a non-linear exploration game, they kept the theme by remaining true the existing story and adapting the original platforming design to accommodate the new direction they were taking the series.  The same can be said for Metroid when they changed to a first person shooter perspective, the exploration that made the initial games such a success were maintained while the gaming style was diversified.  However, preserving the theme and updating the set dressing without evolving the theme in some way can quickly render an earlier version obsolete.  And in cases like the Sims and Roller Coaster Tycoon, evolving the theme can even be dangerous if doing so doesn’t change enough about the theme to make both the newer and older versions uniquely appealing.

It is a tricky thing going home again in video games.  Sure, you may have great memories of you and buddy staying up all night for one more game of Wrestlemania on the NES, but that may not mean that Wrestlemania is still as good as you remember, especially if you’ve played anything more recent.  Games that are modern versions of older classics that have updated the peripherals, controls, graphics, etc., but not changed the fundamental game play are going to make it hard to enjoy those original games.  Going home again is a function of gaming’s evolution as we move toward sometimes better, always more powerful games.  The true test of a game’s staying power is directly related to its development over time.  Games that develop naturally and grow beyond their beginnings manage to maintain their charm and appeal, no matter how much better the games in the series get. So, Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again, but you have to be careful which home you are going to.

Pitfall Harry says, "Thomas Wolfe is a punk."
 Join me next month, when I’ll take a Closer Look at the Spider-man game that ushered in a whole new era of web-slinging and see how time has treated it. 

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Closer Look Thanksgiving Special

A Closer Look Thanksgiving Special

What's Thanksgiving without a little Turkey?
Ah, Thanksgiving: a time for giving thanks, by definition.  Thanksgiving: a time for gathering with family and feasting on the bountiful harvest of the past year.  Thanksgiving: a time for tryptophan-induced comas and Aunt Edna’s mini-crumb cakes that nobody likes, but everybody pretends to eat by the dozens.  Maybe this Thanksgiving for you, but for me “turkey day” means only one thing: an entire day of uninterrupted football.  That’s right, no work, no worries, just football.  The reason Thanksgiving was invented: football.  Football is a Thanksgiving Day tradition since the first pig gave up its precious hide that it might be carried 100 yards for six glorious points.
As of late, however, the traditional teams that play on Thanksgiving Day have been a little less than spectacular (particularly you Detroit Lions).  Yet there is good news!  If the games fail to be as enthralling as maybe they should be, the realm of video games provides a bounty of great football games to fill the gap.  Obviously in the time in which we live the absurdly successful line of Madden NFL games is the go-to in the event of a complete Dallas Cowboy collapse.  But don’t be so hasty to grab that XBOX360 controller!  Classic systems have a lot to offer in the way of football fun.  Sure, they lack the depth of modern games. You can’t own a franchise and trade players, you can’t run a hot route if you see a Cover 2 defense (chances are good a Cover 2 defense is going to be out of the question anyway), heck the players may not even have names or be recognizable as humans, but old school football games still have a lot of charm and can be a lot of fun.

That is the focus of this Closer Look Thanksgiving Special: Classic football games from my favorite system, the Atari 2600.  Yes the ol’ VCS features a veritable host of tackle football* games, from the simple, and succinctly named Football, to more thrilling titles like Super Challenge Football, and even the recently released BLiP Football!  But can football games for the 2600 be any fun at all?  Heck, can they even really capture the essence of the sport with a system that has such limited capabilities?  Let’s find out.

*Please do not confuse tackle football with that sport that little girls and Europeans play called “soccer.”  While some call this sport “football” from time to time, it should not be confused with the American sport that men play.  (also note that I am pretty much kidding about this. Soccer, “futbol,” is just fine if you like sports where the games last like eight hours and the final score is 1-0 if you are lucky. Riveting.)

We start our Thanksgiving adventure at the beginning: Atari’s Football.  This is 4-on-4 football at its finest.  And I mean every word of that sentence.  Having said that, this game is actually pretty impressive for what it is and when it came out.  Sure there are only 4 players per team and those players possess all the mobility of a wet brick, but you do get 5 plays to call for each side of the ball, you can pass on any play that isn’t a punt (a nice nod to the “option” play for you college football fans), and the basic rules of tackle football remain intact.  The game must be at least a little good because we played it non-stop back in the day.  We would have actual tournaments and marathon session of Football.  And somehow, through sheer determination and lack of better options, we got good at it.  Passes were routinely intercepted, tackles behind the line of scrimmage would occasionally turn to real-life fisticuffs, and a win meant bragging rights, at least until the next game started five minutes later.  Sure, this was all we had in the way of video game football back then, but if it had been unplayable, we would have just gone outside or God forbid made a stab at setting up that incomprehensible Electric Football game…shudder…
I think the real charm of Football is its pure simplicity.  There is nothing complicated here and if you only play it for a couple of minutes and allow the sluggish controls and absolute flicker fest to jade you, chances are good this game is going into the pile.  But, if you get a friend and sit down with Football for four or five games, pretty soon its appeal will become obvious.  The fun of this game lies in seeing just how much you can do with what little you are given.  Touchdowns do not come easily.  Passes are tricky to execute and a smart defender will almost always come away with an interception.  Rushing yards are earned, not given, and the wrong defense can open up an entire side of the field for a goal line sprint.  And there is punting! Like I said, all the basic elements of real football are here.  Give the game some time and you’ll find out why it still gets pretty high marks from reviewers.  Besides, that small green field and pink and white players is a classic screenshot that is forever a part of Atari history!

But we can’t be expected to play 4-on-4 football all day, not when the VCS is capable of so much more, like, oh say, 5-on-5 football!  Yes, kids, that’s right, real 5-on-5 football is possible for the 2600 and it is coming your way from your good friends at M-Network in the form of Super Challenge Football!  Real pigskin action where you create and call the plays!  Unlike Football, Super Challenge Football allows you to design your own offensive and defensive plays.  At the start of each play you give each player on your team (they call them linemen, but in football logic nothing about that makes sense) an assignment.  You can send them out to receive, stay in to block, run a fake pass route, etc.  On defense you can assign pass coverage or send defenders in to rush the quarterback.  SCFootball also features a side-scrolling playfield, a fairly impressive feat for the time.  However, there is some trade-off.  There is no kicking or punts of any kind.  You have four downs, fail to get a first down and you turn the ball over on the spot.  The scrolling isn’t silky smooth and there is some stutter if you really get a run going. 
The upsides of Super Challenge Football greatly outweigh any of the above drawbacks.  Designing your own plays lends a customization to the game that the five static plays in Football sorely lack.  “Programming” your plays is simple and quick.  The action is fast-paced and smooth (except maybe when you are running and the field is scrolling to keep up).  Your players actually move with some agility and speed although the defenders do move faster than your receivers (I recommend a zigzag strategy).  Defensively, you have more strategy options and getting your players into position to make a play is easier.  The passing game is simple, but requires smart decision making. Perhaps the most impressive features of SCFootball are the graphics.  Of all the VCS football games, SCFootball may look the best.  The field is bright green with clean markings including yard numbers.  Down and distance markers are also present on screen and the score displays are large and sharp.  Despite having ten players active on the field, there is no flicker and while the players are of the typical hunchy, lumpy M-Network stock they are solidly rendered.

Super Challenge Football is a winner and definite fun for two-players, but what if you don’t have two players?  So far, both of our VCS football games have been excellent two-player affairs, but having a friend to play with sometimes isn’t an option.  Fortunately, our friends at Atari were also aware of this and created a second football game as a part of their RealSports game line.  RealSports Football is a complete departure from their original Football offering and like SCFootball, RSFootball is a side-scrolling tackle football game that also features 5-on-5 action.  But that is where the similarities end.

Continued after the jump!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Closer Look at Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus

A Closer Look at Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus for the Nintendo Wii
(go figure!)

“My name is Stan and I lost 35 lbs. on the Wii Fit plan, and you can too!”
Stan Before: A Giant Pant-Load
Stan After: Damn Handsome

Sounds too go too be true?  Well, bizarre as this is, it is true.  I did lose 35 lbs. thanks to Wii Fit (and some dietary amendments), and today I’m going to tell you how.

My wife ordered this thing so that it would arrive at our home or release day.  An exercise game?  I had about as much interest in this “game” as Benedict Arnold at a loyalty convention. How much fun can it be to have a video game tell you that you are fat and then “encourage” you to do something about it?  No thanks, I’ll pass.  But, it comes with this new peripheral, some kind of “balance board” that is going to open all kinds of new doors in the gaming world.  When I heard “balance board” I was thinking some kind of “Pogo Ball” contraption that was going to result in a lot of skinned knees and elbows and some broken furniture.  This “Wii Fit” thing was shaping up to be the biggest waste of money since Zima.  Great.

The day it came, I was at work (of course), but my wife was at home anxiously awaiting the arrival of this beast.  Before I could get there, she was calling me, trying to describe just how awesome it was and how she had already worn herself out doing all of the activities and playing all the games.  Despite her enthusiasm, I was still envisioning something more along the lines of Richard Simmons, a medicine ball and a sheet of plywood in my living room.  And yet, I went home that afternoon anyway…

Fortunately, the people at Nintendo are smarter than I am, and they had this whole thing figured out way ahead of time.  I should have trusted them, after all I was skeptical of the Wii Remote before it hit, back when they were calling it a “wand,” and that turned out to be one of the most innovative controllers since the D-Pad.   But I digress.  Allow me to start by saying the “Balance Board” was far slicker than my imagination ever gave it credit for.  The thing is sleek, and nothing like the see-saw that the words “balance board” evokes.  Basically it is like a super-smart step aerobics platform.  Just by standing on it, it can tell the Wii Fit game all kinds of personal information about you including where you put the majority of your weight when you stand, and even if you flap your arms or wiggle your bum.  Just seeing the quality of this peripheral filled me with a bit more confidence and emboldened me to give Wii Fit a bit of a chance.

Excitedly, my wife encouraged me to set up my profile and get started.  The game asks some personal information and compiles the data into a profile for you that includes, most importantly, your Body Mass Index (BMI).  It is this number that will be your barometer for success during your Wii Fit journey.  Next you’ll have to weigh in.  This step is not for the faint of heart and you are probably going to be shocked at the result, but hang in there, things will get better!  In the interest of full disclosure, I weighed in around 235lbs. my first time.  The game then proceeded to tell me I was “obese.”  While the game is encouraging, it is also brutally honest.  Be ready.
The good news is, after the game is done telling you that you are a giant pantload, it helps you create a plan to rectify that condition. Step one in this process is setting a fitness goal to work toward; this goal is based on your BMI.  Using your original BMI as a launch point, the game will tell you your “ideal” BMI and then ask you to set a goal working toward that number. (I say “ideal” because one of the game’s only flaws is to undervalue things like muscle mass and body type, thus your ideal may be unrealistic) After setting your goal (chose conservatively, as chances are good getting started is going to be tough), you are ready to move on to the real meat of the game: the workout.

Wii Fit’s real strength is the variety of workouts and depth of customization available to you.  There are four categories to choose from: Yoga, Strength Training, Aerobics, and Balance Games.  Each category provides a number of activities to participate in and different, increasing levels of difficulty therein. The Yoga section provides a pretty standard compliment of yoga poses and stretches that provide an exceptional warm-up routine and a great way to let go of some stress.  The Strength Training selections will really give your entire body a workout.  It is here that you are going to find out just how out of shape you are.  There are a number of different exercises that work your entire body.  In the Aerobics section you will find a handful of sweat-inducing activities that will push you to burn those calories you picked up from that box of Klondike bars.  While some are repetitive, like running in place or step-aerobics, others are a bit more engaging like the Boxing and Hula Hoop programs.  Finally, the area that will likely get the most play, Balance Games provides a slew of different games that will test your ability to utilize your center of gravity.  This is probably the most “fun” section of the four, but the games do work to your advantage.  A well-balanced work-out includes a mix of activities from all of these categories, but you are free to do as much or as little as you like.  The more you do an activity and the better you get at it, you will unlock more advanced versions that push you even further.  This helps keep the game challenging and fresh for a while…
My personal favorite is the Yoga section.  Up to this point I had always viewed yoga as kind of goofy, but after doing some via Wii Fit, I have been converted.  The stretches are diverse and there is no pretension when you are bending your butt over your head in the comfort of your own living room.  I also like the Balance Games when I need a break or for a light, relaxing jaunt after a hard day at work.  The Aerobics are hit and miss, but the Boxing and Basic Run activities are what I go for when I need to work up a sweat.  My least favorite is definitely the Strength Training, but this may be mostly due to the fact that I have a physically demanding job that gives me a pretty good strength workout already.  This is not to say that the exercises are bad, they simply do not appeal to me as much as they may others.

Part of your workout experience is getting to select the trainer you work with.  This trainer is designed to introduce you to each activity, monitor your progress, and encourage you to do better.  You may select from either a male or female trainer.  This feature is extremely helpful in making sure you are doing the activities properly and getting the most benefit from each (you’ll not need them in the Aerobics or Balance Game sections).  Plus, I think I developed a crush on my female trainer, but no amount of pleading or coercion could get her out of her warm-up suit, so I think my love will go unrequited.

At the end of each workout, your little balance board buddy (another helpful in-game pal) will record your workout time both for the day and overall.  You may also track your stats more specifically through your profile where you can see how much time you spend on each kind of activity as well as how you are progressing toward your overall goal.  There is even a section where you can record activities you do outside of Wii Fit, although they will not count to your time in the game.  Ultimately, Wii Fit wants to be your workout guide directing you toward a fitter you.

And such a thing is possible, but only if you keep it up.  Wii Fit isn’t a game you play once in a while, or take off the shelf and play intensely for a week or two, then put away for a few months.  Wii Fit is a commitment.  Make no mistake.  If you are not in this to lose some weight and workout on a consistent basis, then maybe you should stick to HALO online and Cheetos.  But for those looking for a change for the better, it can be accomplished with help from this game.  The key is consistency.  The game will even tell you that you will get the best results by spending at least 30 minutes each day doing something, anything, in the game.  At the very least, you are encouraged to do what is called a daily “Body Test.”  This test is a simple 5 minute process that basically amounts to weighing in and playing a few simple balance games.  It will enable the game to monitor your progress and give you a Wii Fit age based on how well you perform the balance games.  The age is entirely arbitrary, but the real value is the weigh-in as it will tell you if the work you are doing is paying off.  Your Body Test results are recorded on your calendar and charted on a graph to help you keep track of your efforts. To make keeping up with your Body Test even easier, the good people at Nintendo offer a Wii Fit Channel free of charge that allows you access to the Body Test without even needing the game disc.  Nintendo is doing everything they can to get that large pizza off your hips, the rest is up to you!

Recently, the good people at Nintendo realized what I did about a year ago: after a while, Wii Fit can get a little stale.  Oh, sure, there are lots of activities and things to unlock, and you can probably always stand to lose a little more weight, but it would be nice to inject some fresh life into your routine, especially after doing the Expert Boxing activity 30 days in a row.  As if sensing that my resolve was faltering, and it was, Nintendo announced the upcoming release of Wii Fit Plus, an all-new expansion to my existing Wii Fit that would include a bevy of new exercises and an even greater level of customization!  Could it be?
It could, and more!  Wii Fit Plus arrived about a month ago and breathed new life into my flagging interest in the original base game.  Wii Fit Plus features a host of new activities scattered across the four categories (but accessible via the “Training Plus” menu) as well as a new feature that enables you to create your own specific workout routines.  I’ll get to the cool new activities in a second, but first let me extol the virtues of this new “My Wii Fit Plus” feature, following the jump.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Closer Look at Halloween

A Closer Look: Special Halloween Edition Trick or Treat!

Halloween.  No holiday begs for video games to be themed around it more that this one, and for good reason.  Halloween is all about monsters and skeletons and aliens and all kinds of other scary things that you can vanquish with blasters, swords, fire, or just run the hell away from in any number of video games throughout the ages.  When autumn rolls around and Halloween is getting big in the window, it’s always fun to make a run through some of the very best Halloween-type games in my collection.  Often played are classics like Haunted House and Frankenstein’s Monster for the Atari 2600, or Friday the 13th and the Addam’s Family for the NES, and you can never go wrong, any time of year, when pulling out any Castlevania game and giving ol’ Drac a run for his money.  But Closer Look isn’t about my favorite games or whimsical trips down memory lane (don’t hold me to this, chances are good somewhere down the line it will be about both…).  No, Closer Look is about shedding some light on the darker corners of the gaming universe and that means it is time to reach deeper into our hollow plastic pumpkin and pull out a couple of Tricks and Treats in the classic gaming world and double check them just to make sure that creepy guy who lives on Valentine Street didn’t stuff them full of razor blades.  So without further ado, I give you A Closer Look’s Halloween Special: Tricks and Treats for the NES!

First, the Trick.

We’ll get this nasty surprise out of the way and that will make the Treat all the sweeter!  Reach in to that plastic pumpkin and pull out THIS:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!  A Robert Louis Stevenson classic all about the dual nature of man and the constant internal struggle between the ego and the id.  A fascinating tale that would most certainly make a fascinating video game, right?  Yeah, and eating that unwrapped popcorn ball is a good idea as well…

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the NES is set up with promise.  It follows the premise of the story to the letter.  You are Dr. Jekyll and all you want to do is get to the church on time so that you can marry your beloved Miss Millicent.  To do this he has to travel across London (which is remarkably big in 1886!) all the while avoiding becoming upset lest he should trigger his transformation into his darker alter ego: Mr. Hyde!  The trip should be simple.  What could go wrong?  Walk across London, no problem…well, unless you are the extremely sensitive Dr. Jekyll that is.  Apparently anything and everything will set this guy off.  Now I can see becoming upset whilst being pummeled by barrels, pooped on by birds, or exploded by bombs.  These things are annoying and potentially injurious.  But the good Doctor is also set off by barking dogs, walking into spider webs, and the occasional agitated passer-by. As a matter of fact, there is very little in this game that doesn’t royally frustrate Dr. Jekyll.  How is this guy getting married?  I’m thinking two months into married life and Jekyll is going to be Mr. Hyde all the time.

It is clear that aggravation is impossible to avoid, thus you are inevitably going to spend some time as Mr. Hyde.  When this change takes place, you will be transported to a dark, twisted version of London filled with all kinds of bizarre monsters.  Fortunately, Mr. Hyde doesn’t really care about being upset by such things and actually gets his kicks off blasting them into oblivion with his Psycho-Wave (a little detail RLS failed to clue us in on back in 1886).  Vaporizing these phantoms seems to have a calming effect on Mr. Hyde and will eventually result in a return to his more docile Dr. Jekyll state.

The object of the game is to reach the church as Jekyll before Hyde catches up to him.  As you travel toward the church as Jekyll, each transformation into Hyde will progress him along a course toward Jekyll.  Should Hyde reach Jekyll, Divine Intervention will cause lightning to strike Hyde and Miss Millicent will be stranded at the altar as her betrothed becomes a crispy critter.  It is your job to guide Jekyll through London avoiding the myriad of annoyances that plague you.  When you do become Hyde, you’ll have to blast away at the monsters as quickly as possible to trigger the transformation back to Jekyll as time marches you closer to that fateful bolt.

This really is set up as a would-be classic.  The gameplay is unique, the concept successfully implements the plot elements of the time-honored story, there is a variety of things to do in the game, and there is an arcade feel that makes replay seem likely.  Yep, and that popcorn ball is all covered in caramel and glistens in the porch light.  But let’s not forget about that guy on Valentine St.  Sure, the game is set up to be a winner, but that is where the winning ends.  The game is bad.  At its best it is an exercise in frustration.  After about ten minutes chances are good you’ll be the one turning into Mr. Hyde.

The problems are most evident in the Jekyll levels.  The good doctor moves like he’s made of wood.  I’m not expecting Flo Jo here, but for a man looking to make it to his pending nuptials and aware that he is prone to fearsome transformation as a result of mild agitation you would think he would be looking to make better time.  But, no, Jekyll subscribes to the travel doctrine of the tortoise.  That alone wouldn’t be overly frustrating were it not coupled with the doctor’s complete lack of tolerance for aggravation. The game boasts a large Jekyll/Hyde meter that indicates Jekyll’s calmness level, but major instances, like being caught in one of the mad bomber’s blasts, will drain that meter in one shot and it’ll be off to Hyde-land. Even that wouldn’t be a game killer, but the coup de grace is the sheer number of irritants in London and Jekyll’s complete impotence to deal with them.  A good 90% of the characters you encounter are out to piss you off and you have almost no way to avoid being the victim of their animosity.  Jekyll’s defensive options are limited to jumping (best for angry dogs and cats) and ducking (the sling shot kid).  You can also duck into some buildings, but your stay will be limited and timing is essential.  Jekyll’s offensive capabilities are none.  Apparently, the good doctor is a complete pacifist.  The manual states that you can use his cane to poke at people, but all that does is make them even more contentious with him, so there is no effective use for that feature.  All of this adds up to numerous trips to Hyde’s dark London and less and less progress toward the church.

The only upside, Hyde’s adventure is actually fun.  There are plenty of monsters to blast with your PSYCHO-WAVE, you can also punch them, but the wave is primo.  The level design is the reverse of what you travel as Jekyll, so you’ll know if you are getting close to a date with destiny. The impetus is on blasting as many baddies as you can as fast as you can so that you can return to the tranquility of regular London.  You’ll want to be hasty since dark London is auto-scrolling constantly pushing you toward eternity.  Just be careful not to take too many hits as Hyde.  Death as Hyde is the same as death as Jekyll, and while Hyde is tougher, he can be felled if overwhelmed.  Overall, though, your time as Hyde is way more fun than anything you’ll do as Jekyll.  However, since you’ll be coming here often, chances are good that lightning bolt is in your future, no matter how good you get as Hyde…

Irritating gameplay aside, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde features solid graphics, with interesting detail and colorful backgrounds (as well as the largest bird poop in video game history!).  The music gets redundant fast, but only because of the lack of variety and the amount of time you’ll spend replaying levels.  The game does feature endless continues so you can beat your head against the wall as long as you like.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a true Halloween trick.  It looks good, it is built on a solid premise, the gameplay successfully implements that premise in an innovative and interesting way, and it has enough variety and challenge to make replay seem likely.  However, it fails to execute on the most fundamental level and fails to be fun.  If you think Dr. Jekyll spends a lot of time in an irritated state during this game, that will be nothing compared to the out-right rage that will take control of your mind.  I kid you not, this is the one and only game in my collection that has actually been yanked out of the console and sent flying across the room into, and nearly breaking, a window.  The game succeeded in turning me into Mr. Hyde, but it failed to deliver in any other way.  In case you are wondering, no, I have never successfully completed the journey to the chapel and the good doctor remains a bachelor in my world. (ed. note, this has recently changed, I finally got the good doctor to the church and never have to ever, ever again) If you are lured in by this game, don’t blame me, you have been warned.  Stay off of Valentine Street.

And with that horrible experience behind us, we can put our metal detectors away and unwrap that ever-shrinking Snickers Fun Size bar and have ourselves a little treat: Frankenstein: The Monster Returns! (also NES) Unlike the game described in the above section, Frankenstein goes above and beyond what it needs to be and ends up being quite a nice little game.

Intended as a sequel to the timeless Mary Shelley tale, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns tells a story years after the monster was put to death (although it departs from the original a bit to do this).  As the title indicates, the Monster has indeed returned from the dead and has taken his revenge upon a small village by abducting the Elder’s daughter, and consequently your love interest (what are the chances?), Emily.  To prevent a second (third?) trip to the grave, the Monster has also enlisted the aid of a bevy of classic horror creatures to ransack the town and stymie any would-be heroes.  This means bad news for you, since you are, in fact, a would-be hero!  And it is up to you to defeat the Monster’s hordes and rescue fair Emily.

Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is a side-scrolling adventure game featuring a number of levels, scores of monsters to defeat and lots of items and power-ups to find and collect.  The game follows the standard formula with each level consummating in a boss fight.  The story is integrated into the gameplay much in the way such is accomplished in Faxanadu.  People you meet and talk to will give you items and tips as well as develop the storyline, but these inclusions are fairly unobtrusive and skippable if you are playing through.
While not particularly long, the levels are diverse and feature lots of areas to explore and items to find.
The main appeal of this game is the simplicity of the design juxtaposed with the surprising amount of depth that can be discovered with dedicated playing.  The fact that it is littered with monsters to vanquish doesn’t hurt.  The power-ups are generously spaced and, of the levels I have played, there are few “stuck points” where you just beat your head against the wall unable to progress.  There are all kinds of secret passages and buildings to explore and the levels are long enough without being tedious and repetitive.  The game isn’t a cakewalk, by any means, but there is enough here to keep players challenged and still motivated to try again to put the demented Monster to rest, should they falter in their attempt.  Best of all, the game is fun.  There is something undeniably appealing about taking a sword and slashing your way through a collection of hideous monsters.  This may be what is likewise so compelling about games like Castlevania.  I would wager that, while not as iconic or classic as Castlevania, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns, is just about as good.
Graphically, the game is solid, if a bit muddy.  They aren’t going to win any awards, but they aren’t going to inhibit your ability to play the game, either.  The cut scenes are interesting for a game of this ilk and do a nice job of advancing the plot.  The main drawback is that the game is relatively rare and therefore in fewer collections.  If a copy can be found, it is well worth getting a hold of.    To be honest, I haven’t gotten nearly as far on this game as I would like.  There is a sea monster that keeps kicking my butt when I fall in the lake.  The good news, there is a password feature that allows you to start over at the beginning of any level, so one day I will get past that bastard and on to the Monster himself!

Thus, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is a true Halloween treat, one you might have missed while pouring through your more popular, holiday appropriate NES titles.  Sure, you’re going to play Castlevania and Friday the 13th this year; you’re supposed to.  But while you’re thumbing through Monster Party and Maniac Mansion, don’t forget to give Frankenstein: The Monster Returns some serious love.  Oh and be smart, don’t ruin a perfectly good holiday by thinking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can end in anything other than unmitigated rage on your part.  Avoid, trust me.  And if you have the time, you may also want to take a look at Uninvited, or Shadowgate by Kemco-Seika.  But those are stories for another Halloween….

Have a great Halloween and join me back here in two weeks when I’ll get topical and take a Closer Look at
Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus for the Nintendo Wii.  Does it work?  Is it fun?  Answers to these questions and more, in two weeks!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Closer Look at Dungeon: An In-Depth Guide!

A Closer Look at Dungeon for the Atari 2600

Dungeon for the Atari 2600 is a new homebrew released this year by David Weavil. the game is an impressively large adventure role playing game with a lot of depth and tons of replayability. Much like its ancestor, Adventure, the game pits you , the humble adventurer, against a sea of troubles in pursuit of a noble goal. In Adventure, the goal is to find the fabled Chalice, for Dungeon you must slay the evil Demon; you should probably also save the princess, although that is optional. Considering the limitations of the VCS, this game is remarkably complex and offers a gamer experience unique to the system.

Dungeon represents some of the greatest things about the modern Atari homebrewing scene. Making new games for old systems isn't a new concept, but significant advancements have been made in the past decade opening all kinds of new doors for ambitious programmers with a love for otherwise "obsolete" gaming platforms. Programming for an older system like the VCS is a true labor or love that requires dedication and determination. Dungeon was programmed using a relatively new programming tool called batari Basic. From the batari Basic web site: "batari Basic (bB) is a BASIC-like language for creating Atari 2600 games. It is a compiled language and the compiler runs on a computer, but it creates a binary file that can be run on an Atari 2600 emulator or used to make a cartridge that will operate on a real Atari 2600." (see http://bataribasic.com/) In layman's terms, batari Basic provides a simpler interface for designing 2600 games, which are traditionally programmed using the somewhat thicker 6502 assembly language. Originally designed as a learning tool to propel promising programmers (alliteration unintentional, I promise) on to the more comprehensive 6502, batari Basic is also being used as a platform for creating full-fledged games like Dungeon as well.

This edition of Closer Look will delve deep into the heart of Dungeon and shed light on the darkest corners of the exceptional game. What follows is intended to be a Complete Strategy. This means that SPOILERS aplenty await readers who continue beyond the final, closing paragraph of this introduction. If you wish to explore Dungeon entirely unspoiled, READ NO FURTHER and go play the game. However, if you are looking for specific information, or just want to peek behind the curtain, by all means, proceed. The guide follows after the jump!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Closer Look at Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town

Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town for Gameboy Advance

One of the best things about writing these Closer Looks is that I often get to play the living crap out of games that I, and maybe you, would otherwise shun, usually with good reason. Doing this forces me outside my comfort zone and makes me see video games from entirely other perspectives. This go-round is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The game of choice this time is Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town, because the friends that were originally in Mineral Town grew insufficient, perhaps? Either way, the Harvest Moon series is one of my wife’s video game passions (Circus Atari, Eggomania, and Sims are few of the others if that means anything to you). I think she has played nearly all of the games in the series and by virtue of proximity the games’ many jaunty theme songs have been drilled into my memory for all time. During one marathon session of Harvest Moon, we’ll say N64 for kicks, I asked her what about the game appealed to her, because to me it looked like a whole lot of work with no pay off. I’m sure she gave an answer that was somewhat insightful, but to be honest I cannot remember it. However, that set off a chain of events the end result of which you are about to read.

I was looking for a new game to spotlight with Closer Look, when my wife suggested that this would be a perfect time to introduce me to the Harvest Moon series. Intrigued, but highly skeptical, I agreed and asked her to pick out the game she felt would be best for a complete novice who had minimal interest in the series. Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town was the answer, but being the curious lad that I am, I suggested the girl version instead (Harvest Moon: MORE Friends of Mineral Town). Hey, I’m not afraid to play as a girl, I kicked Belle’s Quest’s ass, remember! Thus, I embarked on my first venture into the land of farm simulation as a scrappy young blonde…

The game starts simply enough: you are a modern girl dissatisfied with big city livin’ and looking to shake thing up a bit in your life. One day, a television ad catches your eye glorifying the fantastic lifestyle that is to be had in Mineral Town, a small community that has recently found itself with a vacant farm property. Just the change you’ve been looking for! However, once you get there, you find out the quaint farm land is really a run-down derelict and the Mayor (Thomas) has pulled the old “bait and switch” on you. To make matters worse, the check cleared the bank and you are stuck here with only your newly acquired dog and a field full of weeds. If life is going to be worth living, you’re going to have to make the most of it here in Mineral Town.
From there, the game is pretty wide open. What you choose to do with your farm is entirely up to you and your future is literally in your hands. You can go all green-thumby and sow the entire field in turnips, pumpkins, and pineapples (what a climate this place has!). You can raise a herd of cattle and live off of milk and cheese. From sheep and chickens to mines full of gems, the possibilities are endless. Maybe a little too endless, but more on that later. Harvest Moon:MFoMT is a big farming/social simulation game that is made up of three basic phases: shipping things for money, interacting with the local townsfolk, and personal character growth. These three phases are completely intertwined and how you conduct yourself in one area usually has a direct impact on what goes on with the other two.

The most fundamental, day-to-day aspect of the game is shipping things for money. Predominately this means farming in some capacity, although there are other ways to get rich, and early on those ways are vital to getting your farm up and running. The crops you grow, the products your livestock creates (eggs, milk, wool), even things you just find laying around in the forest can all be shipped off and exchanged for money. Your basic task every day is to do something to generate sufficient revenue to maintain your land. You’ll need to buy seeds for growing crops; you’ll need to buy chickens, cows, and/or sheep to reap the benefits of livestock. And all of these things cost money. The simplest way to make money early on is to harvest ores and gems from the local mine. These gems and ore can be sold straight away and will bring consistent profits until your plants and animals start to produce. Once that gets going, trips to the mine will become less important and more supplemental in nature and you’ll be able to spend more time on your farm and in town.

While you’re busy mining, and hoeing (not the other kind…), and chopping, and brushing cattle, you also need to make an occasional appearance in town to let people know that you’re not just some creepy recluse who never leaves her farm and brushes cows all day. Interacting with the townsfolk is an important way to advance the minimal plot of the game and is also beneficial for increasing your ability to turn a profit. The most important interactions in the game, I am told, are the interactions you have with the majority of the single males in Mineral Town. Apparently, there is a narrow boy:girl ratio in Mineral Town and everyone has the fever to get married. If you are to join in the fun you’re going to have to do some serious wooing of the local male populace and maybe start a few catfights with the stunningly attractive ladies of the town. One of the main story elements in the game is getting married: when you finally do, the game credits roll (again, I am told), so those looking to “beat” the game are going to want to spend a lot of time paying attention to the boy of your choice (and the choices ain’t exactly George Clooney or Johnny Depp here in Mineral Town, good luck!). Other interactions in Mineral Town include making friends and enlisting the help of various people primarily through a long and elaborate gift-giving game. Participating in this can be as time-consuming as farming itself, so you’ll have to manage your time wisely.

The game does feature annual events to keep your daily life from getting too tedious. Every 25th day of the Winter season, the Mayor of Mineral Town will break into your house between 9pm and midnight, while you are sleeping and leave you a gift if you hang your sock on the wall. You think I’m kidding, but in Mineral Town this is a close as you are going to get to Christmas. There are more normal events, called Festivals that you can partake in. You can enter your best cow or sheep in the various livestock festivals, or you can watch fireworks from the beach with your sweetheart during the aptly named Fireworks Festival. These events provide various opportunities for advancing character subplots, winning rare items and awards, or just creating a general sense of community. Participation appears to be optional, unless you are pursuing a particular angle, but there are lots of things to be gained from taking in a festival. Just be sure you have done all of the things you need to do on the day of the festival, because most times activating the festival will consume the remaining time in the day. Don’t leave your chickens out in the rain just because you want to enter the Cooking Contest!