Monday, December 24, 2012

'Twas the Night Before Quest-mas


'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring... 'cept me and my mouse!
My wireless logitech USB mouse click-clicking without pause or fail,
And the reason I'm clicking so late in the eve?  Why else! A super Steam Sale!

While others are sleeping alone in their beds
I've visions of Indie games up in my heads!
Plus no time for X-mas eve sleeping or naps
When my Super Meat Boy demands so many fa - ...I mean.... Moving on!

When out from the Chimney arose such a clatter
A red jelly thing hit the ground with a splatter!
Comprehension was dawning - I trembled with fear -
For the text read as this: "Santa-Slime Draws Near!"

"Oh shit man I'm screwed! Man I'm just level one!
And I don't have a sword, shield OR armor - nope, none!"
Think quick! For a shield grabbed the seat from the sofa,
For a sword I just snatched up the iron fire poker!

We battled like that for five minutes at least
As I tried hard to slay this red Santa-Slime beast!
But my health slowly dwindled and I grew truly pissed -
Santa-Slime's high evasion meant I constantly missed!

And I thought to myself "Man this just isn't funny!
I might wake up in the church but I'll lose half my money!
Not cool! Specially when the Steam sale is on -
My chance at these sweet deals will surely be gone!"

But just when it looked like hope truly was lost
My front door exploded in fire and frost!
In stepped two mages and thief and - who's that?
A knight in red armor was leading the pack!

Yes his armor was scarlet and as the smoke cleared
I saw too his red hat and bushy white beard.
He seemed ready to party - Slime Slayin-O-Rama -
Plus he looked to've been drawn by one A. Toriyama!

And they worked as a team, Santa-Slime stood no chance.
The thief picked his pockets though the slime wore no pants!
The mages cast spells of great power and might
And the slime was struck dumb by a blow from the knight!

Santa-Slime took flight when the knight's sword landed
And bounced to a rest where, still startled, I stand-ed.
The fiend was quite dazed - it was my turn to strike -
A sharp blow from my poker thus ended the fight!

Santa-Slime went "Kapoof!" - I had vanquished that devil,
And with all this XP, boy I just gained a level!
And he left behind monies! Enough I proclaim
At the current exchange rate for just one more game!

"You saved me Red Knight, when my health was near zero -
who are you?" He smiled, "They call me Santa-HERO."
Then he turned to depart but I just heard him say,
"Merry Quest-mas to all; now game all night and all day!"

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Quick Update

I haven't updated this blog in a while.  Possibly no one has noticed because I'm not sure if anyone comes here except form links to certain pages that I post in various places.  But even so, I wanted to post a little update here just to say that I have not abandoned this blog.  I have simply become incredibly busy with school and work and also the next post I was writing (the second part of Understanding Nintendo) has proven more difficult than expected.  However, that article is almost done and soon I will post it.  Yay!  And after that, I want to post some of my thoughts on art (fine art I mean, especially painting), and that will wind up tying itself back into gaming.  Anyway, just a quick update in case anyone wanders by and wonders what is going on.

Until next time paisanos.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Understanding Nintendo Part 1: Toys Over Tech


Understanding Nintendo Part 1: Toys Over Tech

There are few names more closely associated with video games than Nintendo.  Hell, for years 'Nintendo' meant 'video games' - as in the phrase "Hey, do you want to play Nintendo?"  Over 27 years (more if you count the arcade games, and Game and Watch) Nintendo has consistently brought excellent and innovative content to gamers.  After the Atari crash, Nintendo took the risk of bringing out a new home console - a market many had deemed permanently deceased.  In the process they reshaped everything - what a console is, how it's made, marketed, sold, and how the software is licensed.  While it is likely that somebody would have tried a console sooner or later, Nintendo did so many unique things and set so many precedents that it is not an exaggeration to say that Nintendo is responsible for console gaming as we know it.  Nintendo drives the evolution of controller design - starting with the d-pad on the NES and going all the way up to motion controls and touch screen controls that we see now, and they have created countless classic games (sometimes inspiring entirely new genres in the process).  To a great degree Nintendo sets the agenda for gaming.  Yes, competitors sometimes copy Nintendo, sometimes one-up Nintendo and sometimes diverge from Nintendo in calculated ways - but at all times the fact remains they are reacting to Nintendo.  Nintendo is a force that cannot be ignored.

So it has been for my entire life, and so it will be for the rest of my life too... right?

I'm not so sure.  Perhaps the world has changed, and Nintendo as we know it just doesn't have a place in it anymore?  But most of all, I think a lot of typical gamers misunderstand Nintendo.  I've never spoken to anyone from Nintendo - I don't have any inside knowledge - but what I know about Nintendo I know from reading two books (Game Over and Nintendo Magic, to my knowledge the only books written about the company) and countless interviews in various publications.  Add to that a lifetime of close observation and I feel like I have a pretty clear picture of what Nintendo is all about.

I'm going to break this up into two parts - hardware and software.  Otherwise this might prove to be too long.

So hardware first.

These days it is common to see complaints about the tech in a Nintendo console - it is "old" technology, behind the times, not nearly as cutting edge as people would like.  The only thing false about this accusation is the implication that this is somehow new.  In fact, Nintendo hardware has always been based on "old" (Nintendo would say "proven") tech.  It is a key component of their business strategy.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself - let's back up a minute and assess exactly how Nintendo came to be in the game business anyway.

It is common knowledge at this point that Nintendo has been around a while.  Since 1889, in fact, when it was founded to make playing cards (not Western style playing cards, but Hanafuda cards: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanafuda).  It was founded by  Fusajiro Yamauchi, and the company stayed with the family right up to Hiroshi Yamauchi, Fusajiro's great grandson, who was president of Nintendo during their rise to video game stardom.

For some reason, Hiroshi tried to take the company in many different directions.  Taxi cabs and love hotels.  These ventures failed and Nintendo was nearly driven into bankruptcy.  Even the playing cards weren't selling as well as they once did.  Hiroshi needed to save the business and this meant expanding beyond playing cards - but in a way less haphazard than what he had tried before.  Since Nintendo already had a number of distribution partners in the entertainment world (owing to their cards) this expansion took the form of other entertainment products - toys and games for children.  Hiroshi hired a number of talented engineers and designers - notably Gunpei Yokoi - and Nintendo developed a number of extremely successful toys.  Nintendo next secured the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey (an early console) in Japan.  Nintendo sought to break into the arcade business but it's fortunes in that market were not too successful at this time (don't worry - astounding arcade success would come soon).

What might be considered Nintendo's first video game breakthrough came when Gunpei Yokoi was riding the train to work.  He saw a business man playing with a small calculator and Yokoi realized that the same technology that allowed a calculator to display different numbers could be used to make a simple game.  This technology had only just become cheap enough to be used in mass market products.  The result of this brainwave was the Game and Watch series of handheld games.  They were a huge success.

In fact, some of Yokoi's earlier toys had used cheap technology too.   This is a lesson Nintendo has never forgotten - success depends not on how revolutionary the tech is, but on how inventively the tech is used.  One element of that is the user interface.  If the player is physically interacting in a new way, then it doesn't matter if the tech is familiar - the experience itself is fundamentally new.   Fun Fact: in order to keep the profile of the games low, Yokoi invented the now standard cross shaped D-Pad.

Game and Watch was a success, but the same could not be said of Nintendo's arcade games.  A particularly disastrous attempt to break into the American arcade market had left Nintendo with a large number of unsold cabinets.  Nintendo needed a new game that would use the cabinet's hardware - and they needed it fast.  The job was given to a promising young designer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto.  The game he created was Donkey Kong.

So that story tells itself.

With the arcades conquered, Nintendo set its sights on the living room.  The result was the Family Computer, or Famicom, known in America as the Nintendo Entertainment System.  Just like the Game and Watch products, the NES used proven tech, but at the same time the NES pushed the boundaries of what had been offered in that type of device before.  Compared to earlier consoles, such as the Atari, the NES was vastly more powerful.  But it was hardly cutting edge in the computer world.  For example, it had an 8-bit processor, but the chip manufacturer's were already making 16-bit processors -they just weren't affordable enough for a mass market consumer product.

Anyone reading this knows about the success of the NES.  Nintendo sold tens of millions of them.

The core premise of Nintendo's strategy in those days - buy proven, affordable tech and use it in new and novel ways - has been vindicated again and again and again.  The most successful consoles from Nintendo's competitors actually do the same thing.

For example, the Playstation, which Nintendo essentially commissioned from Sony (whoops!), used a more affordable storage format than the cartridge.  Sony realized before Nintendo that the CD format had become "old" - affordable and proven tech that people were comfortable using.  As such it was a more desirable format than the kind of large cartridges that the N64 used.  Additionally, Sony went with a nice and reliable 32-bit processor, while Nintendo, forgetting their own rules, went with a relatively expensive and complex 64-bit processor.  Developers loved the Playstation and spent the whole generation complaining about the difficulty of developing for the N64.

It is common now to talk about Nintendo's business decisions as if they make no sense.  Nintendo is "quirky" and "different" - Nintendo chooses their own path.  In fact, most of Nintendo's decisions are perfectly logical - as long as you remember one simple fact.  Nintendo, at its core, is still a toy company.  They are not, and have never been, a tech company.

Look at the difference between Nintendo and Sony.  Sony is a tech company.  They make computers, they make DVD players, they make all manner of consumer electronics.  This informs how they design their console - even the very first Playstation was also a CD player.  PS2 was a CD/DVD player.  With the PS3, we have an all purpose home entertainment center.  It costs Sony almost nothing to add this functionality (after all, they are manufacturing these components anyway).  The controller, on the other hand, is incredibly consistent in it's design, with only the most modest of adjustments made over time.  This too, to me, is suggestive of a company which has other tech (such as computers) as their frame of reference.  After all, when making a new lap top, you change out the CPU and the GPU - you don't redesign the keyboard.

Because of their background, Nintendo has a fundamentally different approach.  People often complain that Nintendo doesn't offer some of the perks of their competitors.  But since Nintendo is not a general tech company, they cannot offer those features at the same price as their competitors.  In order to offer DVD playback, for example, they would have to buy a DVD player from some one (not Sony, one presumes).  Nintendo does not own any factories or manufacturing plants of their own.  They partner with other companies for all of their needs.  I don't want to white wash any of Nintendo's poor decisions though - it is true that had they wanted to, they could have used standard DVDs as their storage format and standard DVD readers, and they could have offered DVD playback for basically no additional cost.  Nintendo instead went with non standard formats in order to combat piracy - having made that decision they could not also offer DVD playback without adding significantly to the system's cost.  The same goes for any number of features.  Why can't Nintendo offer an online service comparable to Microsoft?  Answer: Because Microsoft has been doing this for decades and Nintendo has absolutely no comparable experience.

What Nintendo can do is focus on providing a unique user experience unlike anything else on offer.  Fundamentally this is what they have always done, but it is much more noticeable now as Nintendo's innovations drive them off in some truly unexpected directions.  They are clearly concerned with the physical act of interacting with their machines.  Going all the way back to the beginning this is true - the d-pad was more convenient and easier to use than the old joysticks.  When 3D emerged, what did Sony's controller look like?  It looked exactly like a Super Nintendo controller with an extra set of shoulder buttons.  Nintendo, on the other hand, realized that D-pads were no longer adequate and they changed up the interface by adding an analog stick.  Nintendo also decided it might be fun if the controller shook like crazy when you blew up something so they added an accessory that did just that.  It's totally non functional, and yet it was a significant addition.  Sony copied both features shortly.  The Game Cube controller improved on Sony's Dual Shock in every conceivable way, except inexplicably they lost one of the shoulder buttons.  But that wasn't good enough - they were no longer in a leadership role, but were now reacting to Sony.  Wisely Nintendo refused to continue in that direction and so they shook things up big time.  With the Wii and Wii-U we continue to see Nintendo looking for new ways for people to interact with their machine.  In my opinion this is one of Nintendo's defining characteristics.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.  What was Nintendo thinking with the Wii?

The Game Cube era was a serious low point for Nintendo.  In Nintendo Magic Satoru Iwata (current president of Nintendo) stated that had Nintendo's follow up performed identically to the Game Cube they would have gone bankrupt.  Some soul searching led Nintendo back to their roots - affordable, "old" technology used in novel and inventive ways.

It is often claimed that Nintendo wanted to attract "casual" gamers/consumers and deliberately abandoned "core" gamers in the process.  I don't think this is true - rather I think Nintendo simply wanted to replicate what they'd done with the NES.  I think Nintendo was right to recognize that they stood little chance of competing directly with Sony.  Because of how their company is structured they simply cannot offer exactly what Sony offers at the same price point.  They will always be either under powered or over priced.  With Nintendo's missteps in the 32/64-bit era, they opened a door for Sony that can never be shut.  A generation of kids became Playstation gamers, not Nintendo gamers, and Nintendo is unlikely to win them over.  It was imperative that Nintendo secure their future by winning over a new generation of kids  - hopefully converting them to lifelong Nintendo fans.  The way to do this was by offering exactly what they offered with the NES, when they converted the entire world into fans.  That is, an affordable entertainment experience that is unlike anything else on offer.

While Nintendo did want to attract new gamers (something their immediately preceding consoles had utterly failed to do) I don't believe Nintendo ever intended to abandon "core" gamers.  If you look at Nintendo's first party published games during the Wii's life, it is about 2/3rds "core" titles vs. 1/3rd "casual".  Nintendo was also aware of the fact that a lack of 3rd party support hurt them in the previous two generations.  It's funny to say now, but I think Nintendo intended to turn that around with the Wii.  The Wii should be easier and cheaper to develop for than either the PS3 or 360.  The new controller possibilities should have appealed to creative designers, and the games they made would have to be exclusives, since no other competitors had similar options.  This risk taking should have been more reasonable to 3rd parties thanks to the reduced budgets the Wii allows.  The Wii should have had a library of creative exclusives unlike anything else on offer.  That was what Nintendo wanted.

Why didn't that happen?  Nintendo obviously underestimated how totally the industry would shift to multi platform titles.  Even with a large number of units shipping, nobody wanted to develop exclusives for the Wii from the ground up.  Far better to develop for PS3/360 and port to the Wii.  Furthermore, those that did take the risk on a Wii exclusive were met with poor sales.  Had those games sold better, there definitely would have been more cool content released on the system.

In the end, I think the blame for the Wii's suboptimal library goes equally to risk averse 3rd parties who were simply not interested in making daring exclusives and narrow minded gamers who were skeptical of the Wii from the beginning.

And yet, the Wii itself was a major success.  Nintendo made a bundle, their own first party games sold like crazy, and they shipped more units into more households than any Nintendo system since the NES.  Now they are preparing their follow up.  Two weeks to the day from the time I'm writing this, the Wii-U will be released.  Nintendo is in a period of major transition.  They need to find their place in the modern gaming landscape.  The Wii was the first phase of that transition.  The Wii - U will be the second.  It is unclear at this time quite where Nintendo stands - but by the end of this generation we will know.  If the Wii-U manages to attract the "core" gamers back, Nintendo may have finally reclaimed a throne they haven't held since Sony appeared on the scene.  If not, Nintendo may be permanently sunk.  I suppose something in between could happen, but it's hard to see where they go from here if this fails.

So this is it - the big moment - the moment all those "casual" Wii gamers become just "gamers" and all those snobby "core" gamers also become just "gamers" and everyone owns Nintendo.  Or not.  If the general state of the console industry is anything to go by I think Nintendo may have some tough hills to climb.

I have sensed for a while now that the console space and the PC space are collapsing into each other.  The consoles are increasingly PC like and PCs have gotten so much easier to use than they used to be - loading up a game on Steam is almost as easy as using a console.  My hunch is that this trend will continue, and if that is the case, that is a path Nintendo is ill equipped to follow.  Additionally, although I can't relate personally, many gamers do seem to want their consoles to be entertainment centers and that is ALSO a path Nintendo is ill equipped to follow.  You can see them trying, with Wii TVii and even the Wii has Netflix functionality and so forth - but they are not the first to do this.  Their whole strategy is based around being first - offering that novel experience.  When it comes to making their console an entertainment center they are playing catch up.

If Nintendo is to survive there is a crucial question that must be answered - do people still want dedicated gaming consoles?  Because in many ways a console is a toy.  It's not like a iPhone/iPad, which has a clear utilitarian purpose as well as entertainment.  Nintendo's consoles in particular are definitely toy like - physical objects that people interact with in a physical way.  Fundamentally, despite the marketing hype, they serve no real purpose except game play.  Has the time for such a product passed?  If so, I fear Nintendo cannot survive.

Can Nintendo hope to move as many Wii-Us as they did Wiis?  Frankly I can't imagine it.  I had a job for a while that had me regularly visiting retirement homes - they all had Wiis in them.  I actually asked on of the ladies there if they thought they would want to upgrade their Wiis when the new system came out.  Let's put aside for now the fact that they had no idea there was a new system coming out (that's not really surprising, especially at the time I was asking) the point is her answer was no.  They only used the Wii for showing photos and bowling.  They didn't need to replace it unless it broke.  The core pitch is different - the idea of moving your body to control a game has a certain appeal.  It appeals to kids who like to move around.  It appeals to parents who worry games are too sedentary.  It appeals to nerds like me who think it gets us one step closer to the holodeck.  Besides all of that it is fundamentally new - nothing like that had ever existed before.  Touch screens and tablets are just not like that.  Hell, in some ways the Wii-U is just like a blown up DS.  They show some pretty cool, novel uses for the tablet in their promotions.  People playing Go, looking at the lay of a golf ball, etc.  I'm not sure that that's compelling enough to get people who aren't gamers to drop money on it.  And I'm not sure it's compelling enough for skeptical gamers who have never owned a Nintendo console to drop money either.  IGN has a talk show type thing called "Game Scoop!"  In one recent episode they polled several editors as to whether they were more interested in the Wii-U or the iPhone 5.  Unanimously they answered the iPhone.  Their reasoning was that the iPhone would clearly affect their life but the Wii-U they weren't sure about.  Every one agreed they would wait and see.  Well, that kind of waiting around is why more games didn't materialize on the Wii.  If that's a common attitude among serious gamers, it's a bad sign for Nintendo.

Relevant bit at 10:20

This is why the news that Nintendo is selling the Wii-U at a loss troubles me.  That leaves Nintendo solely dependent on software for their profits, and I question if the Wii-U can generate the kind of software sales they will need.  For that model to work two things have to be true: A.) There need to be a lot of users on the platform and B.) Said users need to buy a lot of software.  The Wii moved one hundred million units, but could not generate software sales to save its life.  The Wii-U is bound to move fewer units - is it realistic to expect the software support to be there?

But in fact, if there's one thing we can say with absolute certainty about Nintendo, it's that Nintendo's first party games will be good.  Really good, actually.  That is another area where Nintendo has a somewhat unique approach.

But that's another topic - coming soon, Part 2: Software!

*A note on the style of this essay: Since this is not an academic essay, I didn't take the time to formally source each fact referenced in this article.  What I can say is that nearly every fact I mention in this essay comes from one of two books: Game Over: Press Start to Continue by David Sheff (http://www.amazon.com/Game-Over-Press-Start-Continue/dp/0966961706/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352096734&sr=8-1&keywords=game+over%3A+press+start) and Nintendo Magic by Osamu Inoue (http://www.amazon.com/Nintendo-Magic-Winning-Videogame-Wars/dp/1934287229/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1352096762&sr=1-1&keywords=nintendo+magic).  Additionally many of the facts can be verified via Wikipedia.  Of course, my opinions are solely my own.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Epic Video Game Rap - "Real Hardcore OGs (Original Gamer's)"!!


Something's been bothering me for a couple of years now - gamers.  Especially the people who proudly go around calling themselves "Hardcore Gamers."  The thing is, I used to call myself a "hardcore gamer" - but the term is so confused now.  What was bothering me was that this term that I thought applied to myself had morphed into something that in many ways did not describe me.  A "hardcore" gamer, or at least a gamer likely to call themself "hardcore" is nowadays primarily a fan of gritty, bloody shooters.  Call of Duty, Gears of War, Halo.  It is the content of the games they play that make the games "hardcore" and make them "hardcore" gamers.  It used to be almost the opposite - a hardcore gamer was the guy who imported obscure Japanese platformers.  We were playing Samurai Showdown because of the great gameplay while the more "casual" (to borrow modern parlance) gamers were playing Mortal Kombat because "OMG you can punch the dudes head off!"

Anyway, this is all preface to explain how I came to have a 9 minute rap song about being an old school gamer (an OG (Original Gamer) as I call it in the song).  One day some troll on IGN got to me - I know!  Weakness on  my part!  I can't remember who it was or what they even said now, but at the time I was really annoyed.  I had just been listening to the song "Hit 'Em Up," the legendary Tupac diss track that is so vicious that many people at the time believed Biggie had had him murdered over it.  I thought, "Somebody needs to make a song like that about these twerps that thing they're so "hardcore" but don't actually have a clue what they're talking about!"  And by "somebody" I of course meant "me"!

I wrote and recorded this song a while ago and my plan was to make a proper video for it, but life intervened and the project kept getting delayed and delayed and made only small progress.  Now I'm not sure if I'll ever finish it, but I don't want this song to languish in obscurity on my hard drive any longer, so last night I put together a really simple video (that is a slideshow of my actual game collection, in no particular order) and here it is!

Enjoy!

WARNING: STRONG PROFANITY


Edit:  I've now uploaded this video to YouTube as well.  It was pointed out to me that a YouTube video might be easier/more convenient for people to share.  I'm putting the link here and I'm also embedding the new video, because it's actually better quality than the one I originally posted (I accidentally over compressed it).  Thanks for your interest people!  Share with your friends!  Let's take it viral!



Tuesday, October 16, 2012

SDF Japan: Do You Remember Japanese Games?


Recently I had the opportunity to contribute to 1up.com's newest community feature about Japanese games.  My contribution was selected for inclusion in the article, which is totally awesome.  However, the version that appears in the article is edited slightly from what I submitted and the version I submitted is less than half the length of the first response I wrote, and that version seemed incredibly truncated for such a huge topic.  So I thought, hey, why not expand it?  And here it is.

Japanese games.

There is so much I could say about them, so rather than write a book length post, I think I'll break this up into several posts.  To start with, it should be known that the majority of my early gaming memories (as I'm sure is the case for most gamer's of a certain age) are tied to Japanese games.

One of my earliest memories is playing Super Mario Bros. with my brother.  That first Goomba killed me.  But when you landed on him he got flattened.  Wonderful!  This mushroom thing came out of that one block and then you could break the other blocks - and little pieces went flying off.  Those little details delighted me, then and now.  You could go down a pipe, and you could throw fireballs and you could pick up stars and I remember being shown where the hidden block was with the 1up, how I could use the little hill in the background to find the right spot.  Then you're underground, there's more secrets all around.  Then you're going over tree tops and the turtles are suddenly flying.  Incredible!  Kid me was enthralled by this stuff.  You go into a castle and there are spinning fireballs and lava and other fire balls are flying in from off screen - why?  Because a giant monster on a bridge is spitting them at you and you must jump over him or run under him to chop that bridge up and drop him into that lava!  All of this was such a big deal for me.  I know I'm not alone.



My parents were (are) divorced and I lived with my mom.  We had an NES, but it technically belonged to my brother and I wasn't really supposed to use it by myself because it was thought that I might break it.  I wanted a system of my own that I could use at any time without having to seek permission or supervision.  Anyway, my dad had bought an old run down house to fix up Bob Vila style.  I was too young to help or be in any way interested in that.  So, in order to keep me entertained for the long hours that he would spend working on that, he bought me a game system.  And that system was the Super Nintendo.  It came with Super Mario World.  I'd seen the ads, I knew you could ride a dinosaur and he could eat things, and you could get a cape and fly (like the tail from Mario 3, but better) and that just seemed amazing.  He took me to the video store as well and we rented a few more games.  One of them I was unable to identify for years and years - I remembered it vaguely but could never describe it well enough for anyone else to be able to identify it.  But I finally figured it out - it was Smart Ball.  I can't remember what the other game I rented was, so it must have been pretty bad.  But boy, Super Mario World.  That was a revelation.


And that year, for my birthday, my mom bought me a Genesis.  :)

It came with Sonic 2, and he could go around loops.  Of course I knew about that, the ads went out of their way to show off the speed and loops (why can't he be like that nice boy, Mario?), but to see it in my living room made me so happy.


It was a ritual for me to go to the video store every Friday and rent a game.  For the most part I only got new games on my birthday or at Christmas, so most of the games I played I played as rentals.  I remember renting Gunstar Heroes.  I was blown away by it.  I bought it years later and am proud to have it in my collection.  I rented Shining Force (didn't understand it at the time, but it stayed with me.  Now I love it).  I rented all the Mega Man games many times.  I liked that I could choose which level I wanted to play and if I kept my passwords I could pick up where I left off.

The first Castlevania game that I have clear memories of playing was actually Bloodlines, on the Sega Genesis.  I'm not sure how the NES ones escaped me (but then, I was a little kid at the time), but Bloodlines I loved.  Funny story - I rented the game many times and one time I forgot to return the manual.  I kept it of course - it would have been unthinkable to throw it away, even though it was wrinkled and had no cover.  Years later the video store closed and when they were liquidating all their games I went to check it out.  You know what's coming... Bloodlines was there!  I bought it and took it home, the very same game I'd rented a dozen times, and was actually able to slip that manual back into the box!  For some reason thinking about that makes me feel really good.


And you know what?  Even back then I wasn't so obsessed with the new technology as to be unable to appreciate the older games.  I still played plenty of NES games - it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do - and that attitude never changed for me.

Teacher's didn't understand games.  In second grade I was asked to write a paper about an activity I enjoyed doing with my parents.  I wrote about playing games with my mom.  At one point, quite innocuously, I wrote that it was funny to me when she died.  My teacher did not understand what I was talking about and took it to mean that I was disturbed.  I know this because she expressed these feelings to my grandparents (and they later told me about it when I was older).  Later, for a creative writing assignment, I wrote a story about Sonic destroying  Dr. Robotnik.  He blew up in his robot.  My teacher warned my parents that I should not be playing games, they were obviously affecting me.

I was lucky because my parents never took that seriously.  My mom has told me that she was never concerned about letting me play as many games as I wanted because of Ender's Game.  She read that book and decided that in a war of the future knowledge/skill with computers and games would help me avoid the front lines.  It sounds a bit odd now, but then again, she wasn't really wrong was she?  I could totally pilot a UAV - I'd be perfect for that!

All of my friends, when I was young, I became friends with over video games.  This was the conversation: I play games - oh, you play games?  Okay, we're best friends now.  If you're my age or older, you know how it was, but if you're very much younger you probably don't as games have only gotten more and more mainstream.  Back then we were a brotherhood by necessity.

Anyway, friends would come over to my house or I would go over to their house and we would play games all night long.

I have this one really clear memory of having a friend over to spend the night and we played Mario Kart 64 Battle Mode for hours.  We drove in circles around that sky scraper stage over and over, trying to outsmart one another and cut across the level at just the right spot.  We were so evenly matched - so careful not to put ourselves in danger of being hit by shells and such - that a single match could last for half and hour.

Another time this same friend and I played through Mega Man 7.  I remember it was stormy and we were so excited to play the game but his parents made us wait because they didn't want the TV to be fried by a lightning strike (does that ever actually happen?).  We finally got to play, and we took turns trading off lives  and in one of the stages I think Bass says "Damn" and we were both like "Oh my gosh, did he just cuss!?"  Definitely the first time I'd ever seen that in a game.  I don't know, we must have been about 7 or 8.



God, there are so many games that deserve mentioning, I could go on and on and on.

It wasn't long after that the Playstation came out and my dad got me one.  I remember that process, more or less.  Did I ask for a new system?  I don't remember, but it was somehow determined that I would be getting one and I went with my dad to a store that later became a Fry's but at the time was called, like, UltimateComputer or something?  We were in the market for one of the fancy new 3D systems and my choices were a Saturn a Playstation or a 3DO.  I think there was one other option, actually... maybe an Atari Jaguar?  Somehow I settled on the Playstation, which was totally lucky.  I remember the guy at the store giving us advice - I think he steered us away from the 3DO and Jaguar.  The Saturn was Sega, and that was awesome, but I had a strange feeling that Sega belonged at home with my mom - to get the new Sega system at my dad's house felt like a betrayal.  Beyond that, the games on the Saturn weren't that impressive at that time.  The Playstation had one game on it that really impressed me - Tomb Raider.  So I went with that.

So Tomb Raider's not Japanese, and neither is Gex, which is another early PSX game that I fell in love with.  But the PSX was incredibly important for me as far as my love of Japanese games.  It was with the PSX that I began to think of my favorite games as distinctly "Japanese" - I liked Tomb Raider, sure, but I LOVED Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu, and when I played Final Fantasy VII, I found myself drawn in to the deep world of JRPGs.  FFVII, FFVIII, FFIX, Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Grandia, Lunar 1, Lunar 2, Wild Arms, I even picked up the collections of FFIV, V, VI and Chrono Trigger.  I got Brave Fencer Musashi, Bushido Blade, Einhander.  Symphony of the Night, Silhouette Mirage, Klonoa, and of course I've already told you all about Alundra.   :)  Wow, do you realize how many of those games are Squaresoft games?  For a few years there they were just knocking it out of the park.

And I still loved my Genesis and SNES.  I bought the old used games from GameStop all the time, fleshing out my collection and picking up great classics that I'd missed.

I also got into anime around that time.  First my brother showed me Akira, then Toonami launched and there was Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon (don't laugh!) and - best of all - Robotech.  From there I was hooked.  Right after that, I got into Evangelion.  I bought all the VHS tapes - they released one tape a month, I think.  2 episodes.  $20.  That means the entire series cost $260.  On VHS.  Now you can get an entire series in a box set on DVD for $60, and people still complain.  Is a modern anime not worth even 25% of Evangelion?  Oh wait, that's actually pretty plausible - bad comparison - NEVER MIND, MOVING ON.

At that time there were magazines like GameFAN, where the pages were these super dense colorful layouts and they had import sections and crazy photos of Japan; these multi-floor arcades and these neon-drenched streets lined with game and anime shops.  It seemed so amazingly cool.  I've heard a lot of not too nice stories about GameFAN - allegations of unethical; even downright illegal behavior on the part of Dave Halverson.  Plus Halverson has a tendency to be, shall we say, hyperbolic, and that has earned him some harsh critics.  I don't know anything about all that - all I can say is, I loved GameFAN back in the day, I still look over those old issues from time to time, and I would happily pay money to buy more magazines like that today, if there were any (well, actually, there is a new version of GameFAN which I pick up from time to time, but it seems to be published irregularly).

It was all mixing together - the games I loved, anime and Japanese culture itself - it was all the same thing.  I felt like I needed to learn Japanese and I even bought some books and tried to teach myself (a non starter).  I remember PSM's mascot was Banzai Chibi Chan (I still love that character), which goes to show that for a while there that super Japanese-centric culture was the main culture of gaming.

A sample GameFAN spread - gorgeous!

PSM used to run these little comics with Banzai Chibi Chan.

Looked at steeped in Japanese culture they are!  You'd never see this now.


A Club Sega arcade in Tokyo.

When the N64 came out, naturally I got all the great Japanese games on it.  One game that has a special significance to me is Mystical Ninja Staring Goemon.  The game opens with a Japanese them song - just like the animes I loved.  So I was favorably disposed from the start.  Then later you get a giant robot which also has a theme song.  Greatest game ever, case closed.  Okay maybe not, but seriously Goemon on N64 is in my top ten for the system for sure.



Another game that's really similar to me  is Mega Man Legends.  It also has a charming village, and a delightful cast of characters.  At first I wasn't too into it, but over time it just grew on me more and more.  There's all kinds of wonderful details - things that are not explained, not telegraphed - things that you could only find by trying to interact with the entire world.  The first street is a shopping area.  There's a can on the ground.  You can kick it.  If you kick it behind the counter of the bakery you get a little reward.  In the next area, you can ride on the cars to travel faster.  When I got the Jet Skates I was officially on board.  Japanese games used to be like that - so packed with cool details.  Of course, Western games had lots of secrets too - like Doom had bunches of secret rooms.  But the can easter egg in MML is cooler because it's consistent with the world -it's not just a false wall that's "secret" because of it's arbitrary location.



Japanese games used to be full of interesting design choices.  Take Brave Fencer Musashi, which I mentioned above.  My relationship with that game is sort of like Mega Man Legends.   I played the intro area, and I liked it but I wasn't too terribly impressed.  Then I got to the charming village and that was cool, but still it seemed a bit bland, plus some of the design choices annoyed me, like Musashi getting sleepy and needing rest and shops closing on certain days.  But the game just got more and more crazy.  I grew to really like the episodic structure, where the game is divided into chapters and certain characters change their behavior as you progress from one chapter to the next.  There's a whole section in which the village gets invaded by vampires.  Eventually even the things that annoyed me at first became good points - of course he gets sleepy!  That's genius!  And every shop is closed one day a week - that's obvious!  What a great design choice.  Here's something that can actually happen to you in Brave Fencer Musashi:  You've found the entrance to the next dungeon.  But you're too tired to go in right now so you head back to the castle where you can sleep for the night.  Then next morning you're ready to go, but hold on, you're low on healing items better stock up.  Oh snap, the shop is closed today.  Well you'll have to tool around town and maybe level up on regular enemies for today (of course, you could also go straight back to bed and sleep until the next day).  In such a cartoonish game that's an interesting (and entertaining) layer of realism.  Even Skyrim doesn't do that, 13 years later.

Have Japanese games gone off a cliff?  I don't think it's that bad, but something does seem to have gone awry.  I'm hardly Phil Fish, but I can't deny that many contemporary Japanese games are missing something.  The warning signs were there in the PS2 era - Square fell off, Konami refused to follow up Symphony of the Night with a 2D sequel and wasted every one's time with a bunch a junk, Metal Gear 2 let everyone down (to be fair, Metal Gear 3 restored the faith), RPGs in general dropped sharply in quality (in my opinion at least), and many of the best Japanese games, like Okami, were commercial failures (well, that's nothing new I guess).

It's not just that many of the most prominent Japanese games were slightly off, it's that Western games were getting much better, making the Japanese games look even worse by comparison.  While there were excellent Western games on PS1, like the aforementioned Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, and Spyro, I wouldn't say they were the best games on the system.  That changed on PS2 - Western devs gave us Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, Sly Cooper, and GTA (not my favorite type of game, but it was incredible when it came out).  In the current generation, Western games have continued to improve, while the average Japanese devs have struggled to maintain their existing quality.

And yet, still, most of the best games are Japanese.  A lot of people would disagree (it's down to different tastes I suppose) but give me Bayonetta or God of War any day.  No More Heroes, Sin and Punish: Star Successor, Little King Story, Xenoblade, The Last Story, 3D Dot Game Heroes, Demon/Dark Souls, Metal Gear 4 (mixed reception on that one I guess), and that's without even getting into the DS or PSP.  Even shooters, which we think of as a Western specialty, the Japanese occasionally nail.  I prefer Vanquish to Gears of War.  Notice too that I didn't mention any of Nintendo's first party titles - let's just say they delivered the goods, yet again.

In my opinion, the best RPGs, the best action/adventure games, the best melee action games, the best shooters (in a sense) and the best... weird things still come from Japan.  But they have some serious competition now and Japanese developers do not dominate the way they used to.

Still, we'll always have our memories.  And with the Wii-U coming out in just over a month, let us hope that we will continue to enjoy great Japanese games for years and years to come!

Well, I'm off to play some SNES.  Until next time Paisanos!

Friday, October 5, 2012

How Many Gamers Want To Play Art?


How many gamers want to play art?

That is a question that's been rattling around in my brain for a while now.  It was rekindled today by an article on IGN.

David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker, made a negative comment about the state of film, using The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises as examples, and predictably the IGN comments are filled to capacity with condemnations.  The guy not only treated those movies as bad, he also said the following:

"I’m not sure they’re creating an adult audience with Batman and 'The Avengers' parts seven, eight, nine and 10.  After five sequels, I’m not sure there will be any interest in seeing a man and woman talking at a table, which may be the most exciting kind of drama, but you have to cultivate a taste for that kind of complexity.”

So it's not just that The Avengers and TDKR are bad to this guy, it's also that they fail to cultivate taste on the part of the audience.  Implicitly, the audience that likes these movies is tasteless.

So you can imagine why people are offended.  I'm not surprised and I don't really blame them.  But what troubles me is the tack most of these comments are taking.  They call the critic pretentious and a narcissist, they insist that these movies are Great, they ridicule other forms of cinema ("This guy just needs to stick to his subtitled French films and leave the big-boy stuff to the people who enjoy it," says the very first comment, which has generated over 500 likes in 6 hours) - in short, they are offended at the idea that there could be anything more to film than super hero movies.  It's just sad, because it proves Denby right.

I liked The Avengers, and I loved The Dark Knight Rises, and while I'm not a huge fan of Inception (another movie Denby criticized), I certainly don't consider it a bad film.  These films are entertaining to watch, but if these three films were representative of the entirety of what film had to offer it would not be considered a vital art form.  That viewpoint arose because of the high quality of films that explored subtle human dramas.  Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Vertigo, The 400 Blows, Mean Streets, Annie Hall, Aguirre, Diary of a Country Priest, Ivan's Childhood - ever seen the silent film L'Atalante?  With such limited means, it manages to be quite deep.

But look at Inception, which lots of people were defending in the comments.  Prior to seeing Inception I was a huge fan of Nolan.  Memento and The Prestige were great.  I tracked down his first film, Following, and it was quite good.  Batman Begins was an interesting reboot and The Dark Knight was the best Batman movie imaginable.  So my expectations were high.

At first glance Inception is great.  It's basically a hybrid between two established genres - the heist film and "puzzle" movies.  The acting is superb, the writing and directing are good, the soundtrack does an admirable job - in short the craftsmanship is top notch.  The heist portion is thrilling and the core premise (planting ideas in dreams and all that) is very original.  It succeeds on every surface level and when I left the theater I felt like I'd seen a great movie.  Of course, my friends and I debated the ending all night.  This is one of the pleasures of a good puzzle movie - figuring it out.  The problem is our debates never got anywhere.  We went around and around in circles and for every point in one direction there was another point in the other direction.  I kept thinking about the movie for several more days and at some point I realized that Nolan had conned me.  This movie has no solution - Nolan deliberately gave the audience conflicting information and withheld other crucial information in order to prevent anyone from being able to actually figure it out.  Why?  Because the movie has no point.  It is all style, no substance.  It's flashy and cool and completely meaningless.  If it had had a point, Nolan would not have hidden it so deeply.  It's as though Nolan designed this complex puzzle and then realized that no answer could be as interesting as the question, so rather than disappoint everyone he just made everything contradictory.  Now people can debate it forever and ever.  What makes it especially disappointing is that the movie signaled meaning all over the place - in the trailers, and throughout the whole movie.  Nolan traded on his reputation from Memento - we were willing to believe that he was actually making a smart movie.  If it hadn't pretended to be more than what it was - a convoluted action flick - I wouldn't have felt so let down.

This is the difference between serious art (fine art, if you prefer, since "serious art" is apparently a controversial term) and everything else.  Inception is a good movie, made by a good film maker, but it is not good art because it simply isn't trying to be.  It has nothing important to say about anything at all; it is a purely formal exercise.

And for all of that, Inception is still way better than average.  Most movies don't have even the slightest pretense of artistic quality.  Isn't it sad that the movies that are the most popular are not even trying to be art, while the movies that are trying to be art are not only not very popular but are actually dismissed by many people as boring and pretentious?

So this is how that gets back to games.

People within the gaming community are very obsessed with the idea that games are art.  This is actually two questions to me - Can games be art (or is there something about art that makes that impossible)? and Are games art already?  To the first question the answer seems to be definitely.  I once wasn't sure, but now I am.  Sooner or later games will be seen as art by the cultural majority.  To the second question my answer is maybe a few titles but mostly no.  However many people feel differently.  But now here's the catch - those other people and I aren't talking about the same thing.

At some point I want to write a post about what sort of qualities an artistic game will emphasize (sneak peek: it's not a complex story!).  But this is not that post.  What this post is about is my sense that many gamers do not want games to tackle the serious themes that they will have to tackle if they want to be art.  They like cool weapons and vehicles and monsters - they like pretending to kill things without thinking too much about it.  Many people, paradoxically, like for games to tell stories but apparently don't like to have stories told to them, judging by how loudly they bitch when ever something isn't exactly to their liking.  Unfortunately this all starts to get wrapped up in the rather pointless debate about what art is - I want to avoid that, so let it suffice to say that many gamers don't exactly come across to me as museum goers, or frequenters of art house cinema.  Not only that, they ridicule those things.  But they still want society to respect them because they think Gears of War is "art".

There's this thing where, one movie is art, therefore all movies are art, because movies = art, right?  I don't believe it works that way, except in the most loose sense of the word "art".  If by "art" all people mean is the craft of doing something (as in the terms "martial arts" or "culinary arts" or expressions like "the art of motorcycle maintenance") then sure, all movies are "art" and all games too.  But obviously that's not what people mean - they  mean Art, as in Fine Art, as in culturally important artifacts that belong in museums, that should be preserved and studied and so on.  This is simply not something that all movies have - its not something that all books have, or all music or all images and it's not something that all games will have either.  And at this point almost no games have it, in my opinion.

I mean, let's face it, Gears of War makes Inception look like Hamlet.

I'm going to wrap this up because I've already gone on too long and this post is in danger of going completely off the rails.  Better to put it out of its misery now and post a follow up article if necessary.  In conclusion - there is a movie called My Dinner with Andre in which two guys have dinner.  It is widely regarded as a masterpiece.  If somebody made a game experience out of that, how many people would think it was better than the latest military-space-blood-death-shooter-thingy?  How many gamers really want to play art?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Post About That Game I Talk About All The Time

You know what's deceptively difficult?  Picking what to write about for your first real blog entry.  It seems so important.  This is it - this is the moment when people begin to get an impression about what this blog is going to be like.  I tend to over analyze things anyway, so it wasn't long before I was agonizing over it - "What is the perfect first post?"  Fact of that matter is, if you do that for too long nothing ever gets done.  So forget that, I'm going with something I know I want to talk about, even though I've talked about it before.  In fact, I never pass up an opportunity to talk about it.  Bringing more exposure to this game (and it does have a cult following, so it isn't completely unknown) has become a bit of a personal mission for me.  The people that know me best already know where I'm going with this.


I'm talking about Alundra.


Now I wrote about Alundra not too long ago for my IGN blog.  I was working on a series of articles that explored my personal top ten games list.  I always intended to transfer the content of my IGN blog to this blog (this real, proper blog) but of course, it would be lame to just copy and paste an article directly, especially for my first post.  So I'm going to start all over again, and it's no problem because Alundra is a game worth talking about.

What is Alundra?  In gamer parlance it is a "Zelda clone" meaning it mimics the game play mechanics of The Legend of Zelda.  In particular Alundra is clearly inspired by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  It features the same top down perspective and the same mixture of action, puzzle and RPG game play.  In important ways it mimics the structure of Zelda as well, with the player alternately exploring a detailed over world or diving into convoluted dungeons.  Alundra himself even looks visually similar to Link, the protagonist of the Zelda franchise.


Over the years many games have attempted to emulate Zelda, but few have succeeded in doing it well.  Alundra is a rare case of a Zelda clone that is arguably better than an actual Zelda game.  It is longer than any Zelda game, and harder than most of them (you'd have to go back to the NES Zelda's to find a similar challenge).  And when I say harder, I mean in every way.  From challenging enemies, to obscure puzzles to brutal boss fights, Alundra doesn't hold back.  The story is much darker than any of the Zelda stories too.  Depending on your point of view that could be good or bad, but either way it's an important difference.

In fact, let's talk about that story some more.  This really is an area where Alundra completely separates itself from Zelda.  The game opens with Alundra on a ship.  The player is free to explore the decks and talk with the sailors and passengers.  Eventually Alundra goes to sleep and has a dream in which a voice makes cryptic comments about "the Releaser".  Alundra awakes and finds that a terrible storm has risen up and is threatening to drive the boat against jutting rocks.  The ship is destroyed and Alundra washes up on a beach, the only survivor.  A kind stranger from Inoa village named Jess takes him in.  Alundra then learns that Inoa is suffering from a curse - the citizens are falling prey to vicious nightmares that are so real they actually endanger lives.  Some people cannot awake from these nightmares, others have their behaviour changed by their influence.  Everyone is living in fear, trying not to sleep.  A scholarly character named Septimus recognizes that Alundra has a special ability - he is a "Dream Walker," and can enter other's dreams.  Alundra agrees to enter the nightmares in order to save the afflicted villagers.  At the same time, Alundra sets out to find the source of the curse.  As premise its' all fairly interesting, if a bit conventional.  What really sets the game apart is its unflinching willingness to kill off characters.  Without giving too much away (since I hope people who haven't played this game yet will be inspired to track it down), a lot of characters die in this game, despite Alundra's best efforts.  And when that happens, the story goes in interesting places.  Some characters blame you for the deaths.  Can you be trusted?  Are you actually the source of the curse?  Another Dream Walker appears named Meia and she is a bit of a mystery.  Where did she come from and what is her motivation?  As a written narrative it is more detailed and interesting than those in the Zelda games (written narrative is not Zelda's strength, in my opinion), but it is not so dialogue heavy as to get in the way of the game play.

Now would be a good time to point out that Alundra was brought to the states by Working Designs, and in typical form their localization is pretty good.  It may no be the best localization ever, but it is better than the average game.  Perhaps the simplest thing I can say is that I have played through this game about 6 or 7 times and despite that the dialogue has never crossed the line to boring or irritating.  I find it is a pleasure to re-read it.

The graphics are outstanding for a sprite based game.  Wonderfully detailed environments and expressive sprites - I REALLY wish there were more games like this.  Look at these screen shots!

The boat where you start the game - so detailed!

Jess finds Alundra washed ashore.

Hmmm....

There are tiles in this shot that do not occur anywhere else in the game.

The special effects in this game, like fire, look excellent.



Inoa Village - a quintessential example of a quaint JRPG town.

You'll notice that the colors are fairly muted and, for lack of a better word, brown.  At first I didn't like that too much - I wished it was as colorful as A Link to the Past - but overtime I've come around and now I really like it.  In fact, I applaud it, because relatively few games have such visual consistency.  The color palette seems somewhat limited, actually, I'd be curious to know how many colors this game used in total.  Regardless, the effect is that everything in this game looks like it occupies the same world - with the dream scenes being the exception, which is only appropriate.

Next, let me tackle the actual game play.  Earlier I alluded to the game being difficult, and that is true.  The dungeons are long, filled with enemies and traps and puzzles that can really leave you confused.  When was the last time you played a Zelda game and got stuck?  It's hard to get stuck in a Zelda game because the moment you encounter anything that might require you to think, your handy helper pops up and points out that there's a door there, Link, with bars, do you see? And a button, see? I wonder if it opens the door, hmmm...  Let me assure you that that absolutely NEVER happens in Alundra.  Instead, what happens in Alundra is you enter a room and there are 8 buttons that need to all be pressed at once by pushing sliding ice pillars onto them in a specific order, all while avoiding projectile shooting enemies and if you make even one mistake you must reset the puzzle and this revives the enemies too.  Yes that's a real example.  Some of these puzzles are made harder by Alundra's one major flaw - it's difficult, almost broken jumping mechanic.  In Alundra, unlike any top down Zelda game, you can freely jump.  The game actually requires you to do this with some considerable precision - basically there are platforming sections to this game, and that would be bad enough just because of how the controls work.  There's no analog support for this game, you use the D-pad, and jumping on slight diagonals with the D-pad is not that easy.  But what really pushes this into "Seriously?!" territory is the interaction between the jumping mechanic and the perspective.  It's kind of hard to put into words, but basically, you can't always tell if something is in front of you or "south" of you but high in the air.  It's just sort of weird - things that look like they should be possible aren't, things that look impossible are, and it's hard to distinguish between the two except with trial and error.  If you want to see what I mean, check out this video.  Be warned that this is form the final dungeon, but if you only watch the first 90 seconds or so, you won't get too much spoiled.



I know some people for whom this basically ruined the game, they got so frustrated by it.  For me though, it is overcomable and worth overcoming.  Eventually I got used to it, and now the jumping isn't nearly so hard for me as it was at first.  I would encourage anyone interested in playing this game to try and look past this flaw, because the good definitely outweighs the bad.  The last thing contributing to the difficulty of this game is the ferocious boss encounters.  You start out fighting this guy:


And even that first boss is actually more complex than he looks.  Before long you're fighting things like this:







And there are many more I assure you.  The first game I played after Alundra that had so many brutal bosses was Ninja Gaiden on the XBox.  A game with this many challenging bosses only comes out once every few years so all of us hardcore gamers should savor them.

I also want to point out that Alundra has some excellent music.  Inoa Village has a charming theme (with a guy yelling "Uh!" which I just love).  The second you step outside the village, a theme called "The Wind that Shook the Earth" starts.  This is the pure sound of adventure put into musical form.




I'm not sure what first caused me to pick up Alundra years ago.  I rented before I bought it, I remember that much.  Probably the cool box art (again, Working Designs) inspired me to give it a try.  Like many Japanese PSX games, Alundra opens with an anime intro that sets the mood and that alone got me excited when I saw it for the first time (I was really into anime back then).  I remember getting stuck in a certain dungeon and feeling super bummed about having to return the game.  Finally I got a copy of my own and instead of continuing on my adventure I started over, found some secrets that I had missed, and got significantly farther into the game.  But I got stuck again against one especially challenging boss, and I set the game aside for quite awhile.  When I came back to it I couldn't remember what was going on, so I started it all over AGAIN and that was the playthrough on which I finally beat it.  Now I've played through it many times and I feel like I could play through it many more before I would be bored.  Just give yourself some time to forget quite how to solve the puzzles or quite which dungeon comes next and you're good to go.


So, let's say you've beaten Alundra and you want to play a similar game.  What are your options?  Well, frankly, they are limited.  But Alundra is something of a spiritual successor to the Genesis game Landstalker.  Many of the same developers worked on the two titles.  Landstalker has similar action/rpg game play, including challenging jumping, and the similarities between the main characters are obvious:




















There is also a Saturn game called Legend of Oasis that I have not played.  It is the sequel to Beyond Oasis, a genesis game that is somewhat similar to Zelda/Alundra, but with much simpler dungeons (at least, the part that I played).  Legend of Oasis has greatly improved graphics and is supposedly fairly similar to Alundra.



When I was kid, I used to fantasize that Nintendo might ask me to make a Zelda game.  I would get a phone call, and a translator would be telling me that Shigeru Miyamoto had heard about how many great ideas I have and would like to make me honorary Zelda designer.  Now that I'm older, I still fantasize that Nintendo might ask me to make a Zelda game, but I also fantasize that I might get to make a sequel to Alundra (What, there's already a sequel Alundra?  It's a terrible 3D polygonal game that completely misses the point of what made the first game great?  No, I don't think so.  No.  I don't know what you're talking about.  Unless I blocked it out of my memory, there is no such game).   The end of this game sets up a possible sequel nicely and there is a serious lack of 2D Zelda style games in this world.

I even took it so far as to find out who owned the rights to the franchise.  That would be Sony (not Matrix Software, the developer).  I'm not sure when Sony acquired it, but they are definitely the current owners.  Maybe if I become rich, I can buy the rights and make that game.  Or maybe some one else will make a proper sequel.  For years I thought that the franchise was totally dead and forgotten, but in 2010 Sony re-released the game for PSN and is only charging $6 for it.  People!  Play this game!  Getting an actual PSX copy can be fairly expensive, but now you have no excuse!

Phew, well, I think I've said all I have to say about Alundra (for now).  Leave a comment if you want to reminisce about Alundra, or if you know of any other similar games I didn't mention (I would definitely be interested in that information)!  Until next time Paisanos!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hey Paisanos!


Greetings!

Welcome to Another Castle 64!  I have been contemplating creating a blog for a long time now, and I finally bit the bullet, so to speak.

So who am I and what is this blog about?  My name is Michael Pianta.  I'm what you might call a creative type.  I'm a painter, a musician, a hobbyist game developer, a would be film maker (emphasis on the "would be" - as in I would be if I had the time and money).  I've started a million projects all over the spectrum and through it all it has emerged that my two main passions are painting and games.  Painting is an ancient, noble, traditional art form.  When I paint, I feel connected to a larger continuity of human activity.  On the other hand, video games are the most contemporary thing I can imagine.  They are intrinsically post modern and defy easy classification.  Entertainment?  Definitely.  Disposable?  Sometimes.  Important?  Often.  Art?  Apparently so.

For this blog who knows where I'll take it?  I'll talk about games of course.  I'll probably talk about art, music, movies - and I'm sure I'll be sharing some of my own creations as well (in fact, I have something in particular I plan to finally share with the world soon).  Not blandly limited to one boring topic is this blog - NO SIR!  I'm excited!  Are you excited?  You should be!

I hope to present whoever finds their way here with interesting, cool, even humorous things, and there's no time like the present, so let's get started shall we?