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.