Monday, May 29, 2006
Top 10 Gamecube Underdogs
10) Pokemon Channel
A terrible idea for a game, designed to milk a cash cow that was already half dead by the time they got around to it. Watch randomly-generated television shows with Pikachu, or go outside and do nothing. But so help me, this game just set its little hooks into my heart. Everything you can do in the game is stupid and pointless, but there's this inexplicable charm to it that tempts me to go back time and again to ride on a bus or watch the Pichu Brothers anime for the eightieth time. Weird.
9) Monopoly Party
Monopoly's always been one of my top favorite board games. Despite its promises, Monopoly Party doesn't bring much that's new to the table, or at least not much that's worth having. No one wants to use their wacky themed gameboards or listen to the play-by-play commentary, and that's a fact. Still, it does bring one interesting twist to the formula: all players take their turns simultaneously. Add this to the fact that you'd be wrong to think that Monopoly isn't awesome, and you've got a pretty all right kind of game.
8) Intellivision Lives!
A retro pack with over sixty games. Two things hurt this collection: one is that many games just plain can't be played without the original Intellivision controller, and the other is that very few people even remember the system. But the Intellivision story is pretty remarkable for the video game world, and more than a couple of the games will satiate your hunger for retro gaming goodness. My personal favorites include Astro Smash, Night Stalker, and (once I managed to decipher the rather confusing control system) Tower of Doom.
7) Amazing Island
Of course, the big draw here is the monster creation system. You draw pieces of your creature's body -- head, torso, limbs -- add accessories, color it, give it a voice, and pop! The game brings it to three dimensional life. Then you can enter it in a sort of "Monster Olympics", where you try to score high in a number of sporting events that generally fall in the genre of "video game track & field". You can even snap a picture of your creature and make it into a "Monster Card" to use in the Game Boy Advance download game. It's probably the deepest GBA download you can get, with both an eight-level single-player "quest" and a multiplayer battle mode. The game is actually sort of short-lived, but it's a lot of fun designing your own video game characters while it lasts.
6) Wario World
A 3D platformer with a 2D soul. Wario World committed the unforgivable sin of being "too short", and so was brushed aside by the general public. It can get a little repetitive at times, but you have the option to skip most of the repetitive battles that you're faced with. My only real concern is that it's too easy to buy continues for yourself. The game's totally worth it for the platforming puzzle sections.
5) Ribbit King
Wow. Frolf. It's like Mario Golf on acid. The object is to fling a frog through an obstacle course into a tiny pond. You score higher if you can get a frog-in before your opponent, but there are bonus points and obstacles strewn throughout each course to tempt you to take your time. Best part of the game is the bonus disc, Ribbit King Plus, that features short, insane cartoons starring the characters from the game.
An interesting experiment of a video game, part action RPG and part life sim. You play a cubic animal hunting down and eating other cubic animals in a cubic world on a quest to save the wilderness from evil, life-sucking animals. It's very short, but very deep, with 150 different animals that you can mutate into.
3) The Simpsons Hit & Run
Affectionately subtitled "GTA: Springfield" by its fans, The Simpsons Hit & Run gives fans of the show what they've always wanted: an opportunity to explore the streets of Springfield as characters from the show, to drive around in any vehicle they want, and to smash things. Over the course of seven chapters, you play as Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge, and Apu in three different neighborhoods of Springfield, taking in dozens (if not hundreds) of little visual gags and references to the TV show. The mission system is very forgiving, allowing you to skip any mission that becomes too difficult.
2) Rampage: Total Destruction
I bought the game because I love giant monsters eating people. But I keep coming back because it's such a solid gaming experience. Unlike its arcade forefathers, Total Destruction isn't a game that's designed to be unwinnable so that you'll keep pumping your quarters in. It's about prioritizing threats, planning efficiently, and managing resources in the form of Health and Rampage energy. Also, it's about turning Las Vegas into a crater.
1) Karaoke Revolution Party
It's been such a treat to watch the Karaoke Revolution franchise grow and blossom. It started off as little more than "DDR With Singing", and look at how far it's come. Now you can turn your video game system of choice into a high-end karaoke machine with fifty different songs, a slick interface with options galore that makes it quick and painless to switch between singers at a party, customizable characters, lots of cool venues to sing at, and even an option to get up and dance. It's not pushed as hard as some of the other music games out there right now, but it's the sort of game that everybody can do well at and enjoy.
Friday, May 26, 2006
New Super Mario Brothers
The fact of the matter is, a lot of the individual elements of the game recall individual elements from past games. The new level designs don't feel particularly original -- if you've seen one automatically-scrolling moving platform level, you've seen them all. Mastery of old Mario games will translate into instantly recognizing the obstacles you're up against in this game.
But it's still fun.
The most important thing is that New Super Mario Brothers is a really good platformer. Every level has something to distinguish it from all of the others. Heck, even the underwater levels have their own personality, thanks to layout or the set of enemies you confront. It's fun to pick your way through an obstacle course or to search through a maze for hidden goodies. A few of the levels even get difficult.
Mario's move set is a lot of fun to use. Wall kicking and wall sliding are excellent additions to the game. It's fun to pull off mid-air acrobatic feats to save yourself from a plummet, set yourself up to attack a boss, or sneak into secret nooks and crannies.
Power Up, Power Down
The powerups are a mixed bunch. The mushroom, fireflower, and starman are all back and as good as ever. Like in Super Mario Brothers 3, there are some "premium" powerups that are a bit less convenient to get your hands on: the mega mushroom, the mini mushroom, and the blue shell. No one seems to like the blue shell very much -- it's useful when you're underwater, and Mario can hide from most enemies by ducking into his shell, but the sliding power is too unpredictable to really be useful. The mega mushroom is more of a gimmick and a cheat than anything.
But I really fell in love with the mini mushroom. It makes Mario even smaller than his powered-down "normal" self. At this size, he becomes very underpowered and he can't pick up koopa shells. In fact, the only way to damage most enemies is to do a ground pound; a normal stomp will bounce him right off their heads. Also, one hit can kill him. But the benefits are fantastic. In his smaller, lighter form, he seems to float like a leaf on the breeze. He can jump much, much higher and farther than he can with any other form. A great many of the game's secret passages are easiest to find with mini Mario wall-kicking and sailing around the levels like a tiny balloon, which is to say nothing of the passages and pipes that only mini Mario can fit through or the secret worlds -- 4 and 7 -- that you can only get to if you beat a boss as mini Mario. There are some other benefits as well: the donut blocks that return from Super Mario Brothers 3 won't drop when mini Mario is standing on them, and mini Mario can dash across the surface of water.
Secrets and Treasures
I wasn't too impressed with New Super Mario Brothers on my first run-through because I generally play Mario games just to get to the end. But then I went back to look for all of the levels I skipped (and you can skip a lot of them!) and I was truly impressed by the size and intricacy of Mario's new world.
Like in the NES games and Super Mario World, New Super Mario Brothers is filled with secret passages and alternative exits. Finding a secret exit always opens up a new path on the overworld map. Sometimes these new routes will let you skip ahead in the world or offer you bonus levels to take an alternative route through the world. Some of these routes will lead to cannons on the overworld map. If you enter a cannon stage, you'll blast yourself ahead several worlds -- it's the new Warp Zone.
So, like the classic sidescrolling Mario games, New Super Mario Brothers can be played in a non-linear fashion. You can play it straight through from start to end several times and take a different path through the game each time and see something new each time as well. Or, if you're the obsessive type, you can try and find all 80 levels and search them to find the three Star Coins hidden in each level.
I'm not the type of person who will finish a game 100% unless it's a lot of fun to do it. Getting all 240 Star Coins in New Super Mario Brothers is a blast. The coins are strategically positioned, either cleverly hidden or put in a place that requires a little skill and planning to reach. It's not terribly difficult to race from beginning to end in any particular stage of the game, but it can be tricky and satisfying to ferret out all of the Star Coins. (Star Coins are also used to buy access to certain bonus stages on the world map, so it's a good idea to pick up a few whenever you can.)
I'm still not sure if this game is going to go down as a classic or if it's just going to be remembered as a summertime diversion. Mario fans with high expectations may be a little disappointed. But if you're looking for some solid, unpretentious platforming action, New Super Mario Brothers might fit the bill.
Sunday, May 21, 2006
Also: New Super Mario Brothers is growing on me.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
New Super Mario Brothers Official Strategy Guide Official Review
I'm dismayed at how far downhill Nintendo Power's gone with their official strategy guides. I remember how much I loved the Super Mario 3 book -- in fact, I probably loved it more than the game itself. It was my reading material of choice for well over a year of my juvenile life, the next best thing to actually playing the game itself. The thing read like a comic book, with tons of screenshots, colorful commentary, original artwork, and sidebars filled with tips that didn't necessarily have anything to do with the levels they were included with. I wore that thing down until the cover came off and finally, alas, I lost it to the ravages of time.
The New Super Mario Brothers book, by comparison, feels flat and lifeless. Sure, the maps are there, and they point out where all of the goodies are, and even go so far as to suggest strategies for crossing the game's obstacles, but it's dull. No one had any fun writing this thing. For crying out loud, this is a video game guide, not operating instructions for a vacuum cleaner. The writing doesn't have to sound so... sterile all the time. And where's all the fun in-between stuff?
The game itself is all right. I'll do up a proper review if I feel like it, but my general impression right now -- they took all of the best parts from SMB, SMB3, SMW, SMW2, and SM64, and put them all together without really adding much that was original. And I'm not sure how to feel about that.
Monday, May 15, 2006
Highlights from E3
- Wii Sports wins my "game of the show". I love the idea of a supercondensed sports game compilation, and I hope it comes packed in with the system. I'm a bit wary of how the Golf will control -- will it line up the shots automatically and just ask you to give it a hit? -- but overall I'm pleased.
- Nintendo certainly took a classy route with The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess. A lesser company might have cut off their aging console and pushed their biggest project off to the next generation (and forced fans to follow them), but Nintendo's keeping their word and releasing the game for both systems. Sure, you'll need a Wii if you want the luxury model, but at least they didn't pull a Shenmue II on us.
- Planet Gamecube's got some decidedly undelicious news about how well the Wii controller actually handles. Seems my fears are coming true -- the thing isn't perfectly, fluidly natural 100% of the time. I'm tempted to say that if it's not perfect, it's not worth doing. A perfect joystick is better than flaky motion controls. This is important to me, dammit.
- I'm not sure yet if I'm really into the whole Super Mario Galaxy thing yet. This troubles me, as, in the past, "a new Mario game" was the universal answer to "Why buy a new Nintendo console?" Ask me if I was pleased about Super Mario Sunshine while I was playing it, and I would have told you, "Yes, terribly pleased." This did not, however, translate into the undying awe I have for both Super Mario Brothers 3 and Super Mario 64. I bought SMB3 for 3 different systems and SM64 for 2, a practice that I doubt I'd repeat for Sunshine. I even go so far as to suspect that Mario's best days are behind him. But I guess we'll see.
- I'm reasonably happy about Yoshi's Island 2 for DS, but unfortunately, the precedent has already been set by Yoshi's Story -- there's no reason to believe that the franchise lives and dies on the quality of its platforming challenges. Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2 seems like a good time, even if it's more of a Lemmings style game than a platformer. Any game with custom levels and download features gets me excited.
- A couple notes out of left field: Deep Labrynth was a nice surprise, and I wonder if it just might satisfy my various dungeon-crawling itches. Intellivision Lives for the DS is a pretty sweet idea, and I really hope it gets a publisher.
- And, of course, RIIIIIDGE RACERRRR!
Friday, May 12, 2006
So although there is something to be said for Ultimate Arcade Games (released for the Game Boy Advance) as a whole, today I'd rather just talk about one game in the package: Merchant Galactic.
Not Quite the Classics
Okay, maybe just a bit about the package as a whole to give you a little background. None of these games have actually appeared in an actual arcade. Instead, we get very generic games that reproduce the gameplay of some classic arcade (and home console) games, but with a twist here or there.
Merchant Galactic starts with the gameplay from Lunar Lander. The "arcade" aspect of the game involves trying to gently land a space vehicle on a predetermined "landing strip" on one of several planets and moons. Gravity differs from location to location -- sometimes you'll be struggling to keep your lander from crashing, other times you might have to give yourself a blast toward the planet's surface just to get yourself going.
But why are you travelling to these other planets and moons? Exploration? Nope -- profit. You're an interplanetary trader, and you've just inherited a trading ship -- the Lightspeed Nebula. Unfortunately, you've also inherited a debt along with it, and to pay it off, you'll have to travel between planets trading five commodities: food, clothes, metal, weapons, and stimulants. (That's right, black market drug sales. Edgy!)
Part of the reason I took to this game so readily is that I've been infatuated with interplanetary commodity-trading games ever since Seth Able's Planets: The Exploration of Space. And although Merchant Galactic doesn't match the depth of Seth's indy project (no, seriously), there's still some fun to be had here.
The Joys of Broken Gameplay
It's hard to say that Merchant Galactic is a classic because really, it's not. This is most apparent in the number of options available to the player. There are eight planets (all from our solar system) for you to visit, each with multiple colonies to visit, but you have to buy the proper license before you can land on a planet. Every colony has different prices set for the five commodities, and many will only have one or two available for purchase. Market prices fluctuate. There's an insane number of upgrades you can purchase both for your lander(s) and your mother ship. You can even get a license to act as an interplanetary taxi service.
But you don't need any of it to win the game. In fact, you can win the game faster and get a higher score if you ignore it all. In fact, when you get to the point where you've got enough money together that these business options start to become viable, you've already won the game. In fact, Novice mode can be won with just one landing if you pick the correct port and fill up on the correct commodity.
You see, the object of the game is simply to earn sufficient funds to pay off the bank. (The exact number depends on the difficulty level.) If you have enough on hand, the game automatically ends. Even worse, you don't even have to have liquid assets to win the game; your cargo is counted into your worth at some unexplained general market price. (See the "fill up on the correct commodity victory", above.)
I'm left with the general impression that this game wasn't tested very well. Technically, everything works correctly, sure. But the market system doesn't encourage the player to explore or take advantage of all of the options. There's no reason to leave Earth when you can make a killing moving weapons from Australia to the Moon.
So why do I love this game so much?
Again, a lot of it is the influence and romance of Seth Able's Planets that's rubbed off on me. There's a certain Monopoly-styled appeal to the game -- the way your trading empire slowly expands through investment. The lunar lander gameplay is rock solid and challenging. And the music is nicely atmospheric.
Perhaps I keep playing because of the freedom. Yes, I know the best way to quickly rack up the bucks, but as I gain more cash, I'm free to leave that behind and just mess about. It doesn't take very long to play the game from beginning to end (and there's a "vacation" option to save your place if you can't do it in one sitting), so every time you play the game, it's like a different experience. One time I made it my goal to visit every single planet and see if I could land on each and every colony, no matter how wonky the gravity or terrain might be. (I got as far as Saturn before I carelessly lost my last lander -- someday.)
I might just find the inclination to write about the rest of Ultimate Arcade Games someday -- Treasure Hunter is a likely candidate -- but for now, I'd just like to let Merchant Galactic stand on its own.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Justice For All
For those familiar with the continuity, I have it on good faith that the game will be a DS port of GS 2. Phoenix Wright will have to face off against Franziska von Karma, daughter of the demonic Manfred von Karma, as he tries to find... Justice for All.
I got goosebumps writing that. Wish I wasn't such a fanboy sometimes.
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
In one of Nintendo's Pre-E3 conference videos (the one on the right to be exact), the action cuts from gameplay footage to footage of the people playing the game.
Why, then, do we see this image of Rayman superimposed over the live-action shot around the 3:10 mark? Is it just to demonstrate how the controls help to bridge the gap between the game and reality? If so, why is this the only clip that uses the gimmick? It couldn't possibly have anything to do with rumors of a hologramic display device, could it?
Hmmm. Hmmm hmmm hmmm.
It appears in the video, but it's never specifically addressed by the presenters at the show. I wonder if it's possible that Nintendo got a little shy about going full disclosure after Sony's little revelation last night. Perhaps we've been given another clue. Maybe this game isn't over after all.
Insert coin to continue? Or save it for a soda?
Thoughts From the Other Press Conference
- Huh, interesting way to start your conference, have Miyamoto conducting the pit orchestra OH MY GOD THAT'S A GAME!!!
- Excite... Truck? That's not bikes at all!
- Hey, new Mario game. Think I'm more interested in the DS game, honestly.
- Ah ha, so that's how they're going to do the Zelda thing. A different version for each system. I bet all the people who reserved the Gamecube version are kicking themselves now.
- Wario Ware! Ha ha, awesome! Oh my god, that's going to be the craziest game ever.
- They're... they're not going to reveal anything we didn't already know.
- Huh, pretty neat game trailers. Bet that'll impress someone who's not me.
- Wii Sports, eh? I think that one's going to be a sleeper hit.
- OMFG YOSHIS ISLAND 2!!!!!!
- Did... did they just say create your own levels for Mario vs. DK for DS? They did! They did! Yes!
- Blah blah blah, technical crap...
- Aww. They're not going to reveal a magic 3D projection device. ;_;
Monday, May 08, 2006
Thoughts From the Press Conference
- God it must be creepy being an athlete with a video game license these days. That Tiger Woods demo reminded me of one of those movies where an actor plays a cyborg -- bits of human emotion interspersed between long, painful stretches of the soulless robotic stare.
- People just flock to really depressing entertainment in general. How the hell many bleak war games do we really need?
- That card game demo was so cool. And pointless. If I already had the system, I'd totally get it, set it up, play it once, then stuff it in the closet.
- Watching a video game press conference is so weird. It's all executives talking about giant enemy boss characters.
- Sony's stolen Nintendo's ideas and gives not the slightest indication of the inspiration. Anyone surprised? (Also, that game demo looked damned cool.)
- $500. $500. What, seriously? $500? Before eBay inflates the price when there's a holiday shortage? $600 for the good version? Hmmm.
Overall, Sony's presentation has left me with the strangest feeling of existential dread. Good news is, my Atari paddles came today. Time to fire up the Flashback 2.
Friday, May 05, 2006
I saw the movie four times in theaters. Once for my younger sister, who was keen on seeing it, and three times for myself because I just couldn't get enough of it. It's really a collection of five movies that are linked together by a single storyline. The first time you watch it, every revelation is a giggle as events loop back on themselves and things that seemed peculiar the first time you saw them start to make sense. The second time, you look at everything a little differently and sure enough, everything that happens later is foreshadowed, sometimes very subtly.
The soundtrack is completely worth getting. Not only is there an extended version to just about every song in the film, but they're excellently composed and work independantly of the film. Whereas most animated films will go with incredibly plot-specific original songs or try to incorporate pop songs that weren't written for the film, the Edwards brothers wrangled in an impressive number of really cool songs that have nothing to do with the events of the movie. "Great Big World", "Critters Have Feelings", "Little Boat", "Runaway", "Tree Critter", "Eva Deanna", "Glow"... So many catchy songs. Once in a while the lyrics will betray them as being written for kids, but there's nothing on here that I'd be surprised to hear on the radio. And even if they're better when you see them in the film, "Be Prepared", "The Schnitzel Song", and "Top of the Woods" are positively infectious. The liner notes include all of the lyrics and even some production notes. Very classy.
My favorite revelation -- the punk rock song that plays during an avalanche scene is about the songwriter's toddler niece and a trip to the zoo.
The DVD is great. There's a music video for "Critters Have Feelings" that uses characters from the movie and original animation, which is probably the biggest treat for fans of the film. There's a short bit about how a pair of independant filmmakers set about making an animated movie. I was a bit dismayed to see how many good bits had been cut from the final movie. I can understand lacking the budget to finish the scene with the cave bats, but we really could have done with the extra verses for "Great Big World" and "The Schnitzel Song".
The biggest revelation is that the commentary track alludes to work on a sequel. Of course, that's got me worried. I loved the hell out of the movie, of course, but sequels are always a hit or miss proposition, doubly so with animated movies. Sure, I love how Hoodwinked suggests that there will be further adventures for Red Riding Hood, but I'm not sure that story needs to be told.
Hoodwinked worked on its premise and its storytelling techniques, and I really don't think that's something they'll be able to do twice. The fun was finding out who the characters really were as we saw them from multiple points of view and fitting together the events of the day. It can't just be "Hoodwinked 2". The title tells a story -- everyone's been "Hoodwinked!" Unless they put an original title on it, they're going to have to figure out a way to "hoodwink" everyone again.
It'll be a real trick to make a satisfying story while walking that narrow line between rehashing themselves and losing what made the first movie magical, but maybe I should have more faith in the creators to do it. After all, it was a real trick to make Hoodwinked work to begin with.
There have been animated sequels that surpass the originals -- Shrek 2 and Toy Story 2 leap to mind. Guess we'll have to wait and see.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Babysitting my Video Games
To get into everything that Pokemon did right would require a whole separate article, and maybe I'll write it someday. What I want to focus on right now is a stroke of elegant brilliance -- the real-time clock. The Gold and Silver (and later Crystal) versions of Pokemon had a built-in clock that ran even when the player wasn't playing. It could tell the time of day and the day of the week, and events would happen within the game depending on when you played it in real life. Certain monsters would only show up at night, or only on the weekends. There were hidden things that you would miss if you didn't come at the right time, which gave the game a ridiculous degree of depth -- it seemed like there was always something new to see because it was impossible to get the entire game on one playthrough.
In short, it gave Pokemon that sense of a living, breathing world that MMORPGs have, but without going online.
So how did Pokemon get it right and so many other games get it wrong?
When the Game World Rots
Pokemon was by no means the first video game to run in real time. The Tamagotchi keychain games and other virtual pet games enjoyed a boom of popularity back when Pokemon was just cutting its teeth. You fed and cared for a little digital creature in real time as it lived in your keychain. There wasn't much "game" to it, really; the challenge was to see how long you could manage to work your real life around the maintenance of the game. If you neglected your keychain, it died and you lost the game.
This introduced something that I like to call "world rot". It's the idea that the game world has to be constantly maintained by the player -- in real time -- to keep it "alive". It's considered "cheating" to lie to the game about what day and time it is in real time in the same way that it's considered cheating to use a Game Genie to give yourself unlimited lives in Super Mario Brothers.
The thing about world rot is that it can be a very powerful force to keep a player playing a particular game on a regular basis, but it can be an even more powerful force to dissuade a player from picking up a game if he or she hasn't been playing it regularly. When I leave Animal Crossing untouched for a month, I boot it up and discover weeds in my village and cockroaches in my house. This may encourage me to play the game more regularly, but it also means that, the next time I neglect the game for a month, I may not want to play again because I know I'll be penalized. This dissuasion leads to more neglect, and the effect compounds.
It's neat to have a game world that changes with time. It's not so neat to have a game that needs a babysitter.
Seaman vs. Nintendogs
Let's take a closer look at two games in particular: Sega's Seaman and Nintendo's Nintendogs. Both games are in the "virtual pet" genre, both games run in real time, and both games have some degree of world rot to them.
The difference is Seaman is story-driven. Nintendogs is a simulation.
Nintendogs challenges you to take care of up to three puppies in your home, earn and manage money, play with your pets, teach them tricks, take them on walks, and train them for competitions. It's a surprisingly complete simulation. The only real problem is, when you get tired of it, you get penalties for neglecting your dogs. You may return to find that a dog has run away or they're no longer a champion disc-retriever. The game is basically a baby that never grows up, an electronic life form that needs regular care for an indefinate period of time.
Seaman challenges the player to take care of a peculiar breed of talking fish. The evolution of Seaman from marine parasite to frog tells a linear story. Simulation is kept to a minimum; the player's main goal is to drive this story forward by solving simple puzzles and interacting regularly with Seaman. The game has a definate end -- after about two weeks, the player helps Seaman to escape from his cage and live on his own in the wild.
So Seaman has the decency to do something that Nintendogs doesn't: end.
What is a video game but a task with a goal? What's the attraction to a task that can never be completed? Clearly, I don't mind devoting my free time to a particular game on a regular basis, but sooner or later I'll want to play something else. It is completely unreasonable to design a game that expects a player to maintain a regular devotion to it indefinately. Part of the joy of playing a game is that it's something you want to do; imposing a feeling of obligation on it detracts from the fun.
The driving principle behind a lot of real-time games is that the player is expected to play regularly for a few minutes a day. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable expectation; after all, how inconvenient could it be to play a game for a few minutes ever day?
I was a fan of Animal Crossing on the Gamecube, and I eagerly awaited the version for the Nintendo DS. Finally, my town would be portable! I could visit new towns online!
When it was announced that there would be no NES games to find in this version, I barely paid attention. After all, the great majority of the NES games in Animal Crossing were just crap. I had to use an Action Replay to get at the real classics hidden on the disc -- Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, and Punchout! So what, I thought.
I played Animal Crossing: Wild World for a good month, and then I just... stopped. I found this peculiar. No, I wasn't jonesing for a game of Clu Clu Land, but there was something missing. It wasn't something wrong with the core gameplay -- that was better than the Gamecube version ever was. But that "it" factor just wasn't there. Then world rot started to compound, and the city of Elms fell into neglect.
The reason didn't hit me until I was visiting a forum for Brain Age, where a prospective buyer was voicing concern that Brain Age would go the way of Nintendogs, that it would get dull quickly and he wouldn't be able to keep with it. I mulled the idea over for a moment, and then it hit me. Eureka! I knew why Brain Age was more attractive than Nintendogs, and I knew why I played Animal Crossing more than Wild World.
Brain Age has a "hook".
In addition to its daily "brain exercises", Brain Age has a bonus Sudoku game that could work just fine as a stand-alone product. Although Sudoku is often praised for its mind-sharpening benefits, the game counts it separately from the rest of your training. You can only earn one score for each training exercise per day, which encourages the player to keep sessions brief. Sudoku has no such restrictions.
Sudoku, therefore, is the "hook". As a player, I think to myself, "Hey, think I'll play a Sudoku puzzle." I open up the DS, power it on, and realize I haven't done my brain exercises for the day. So all right, it only takes a few minutes, I go through my exercises and get my Brain Age for the day, then into the puzzles. I didn't necessarily come looking for the game's main attraction, but since it's there, eh, I might as well.
The problem with these "little bit a day" games is that you only get a little bit of play out of them, then you have to switch it out for something else. Once a game is out of the system and put away, it becomes that much easier to just ignore it the next time you want to play a video game -- the game you've already got in your system is always going to be the first option you think of, and if it's good enough, you'll just go with it.
So on the Gamecube, Animal Crossing had a hook. As bad as the NES games were (well, okay, I do have some love for Balloon Fight), it was a reason to put in the disc -- just take a quick peek at the old NES collection. And see how Lobo's doing. And maybe yank a few weeds. Hey, that's a big fish, think I'll catch it. Huh, forgot I had so much stuff, think I'll dump it on Nook quick. Hey, he's got a new piece of Cabin furniture in today! And so on.
What does Wild World have to draw in the player? The promise of plowing through the day's chores in twenty minutes. What does it have to keep the player from switching to Meteos or Sonic Rush when that's done? Not a heck of a lot.
So, a few things I'd like us all to take away from this ramble:
- Real-time video game worlds are, in fact, really cool. When you do it right, it can increase the player's immersion in the game world. The game world will seem more real if it changes with time independant of the player's input, and the player will feel a greater sense of attachment to it if it mirrors his real life.
- Do make a game world that changes with time. Don't penalize the player for playing something else. If you expect the player to be playing your game constantly for the rest of his life, you may have just the opposite effect.
- No player is going to live forever. You don't need to make your game last forever.
- For the love of Zork, give the player something constructive to do for more than twenty minutes a day. If your game relies more on width than depth, give the player a "hook" -- something extra to do when they're done with their "turn" for the day. As much as I can approve of games that you can finish in one sitting, the ideal goal is to allow the player to make that sitting as long as he needs, either with long playtime or multiple sessions per sitting.
We've had some good times. Got a really damn cool fan video out of it. And in spite of our craziest fantasies, Nintendo still managed to blow our minds with their magic wand controller and their crazy new name.
You'd think that would be enough. And yet we're told this is only the beginning. Something's still missing, we're told, and it's going to be big. It's hard to imagine what could top a motion sensing controller. People are guessing all sorts of things -- VR helmets, a built-in projector, the Nintendo On...
I'm excited, yet strangely serene. In one week, the game finally ends -- we think. It's the last E3 before the scheduled release of the system. Nintendo couldn't possibly hold back on us yet again. They've even gone so far as to hold a contest to pick the first civilian to play the system at E3. But are all bets really off? Is this really it? Are we finally going to see what they've been hiding for all these years?
One week. This'll take forever.
Monday, May 01, 2006
Rhythm and Ennui
I was smitten. The 80 dollar price tag for the controller alone was a little hard to swallow, but the novelty of it was overwhelming. This was the sort of stuff that Americans never, ever got to play with. And that little geeky collector voice in the back of my head told me that this thing would be the next Power Glove. Who cares if the games are any good or if the thing even works? The entire point of it is how cool it looks.
So I blew some serious money on the maracas controller -- the last one, it seemed, in my city. Buying the game to go along with it was an afterthought. I took the thing home and set it up and my mind was blown.
Music and Augmented Reality
I'll never forget my first game of Samba de Amigo. It was an amazing experience. As long as I was holding the maracas, the game knew what I was doing. My real life, physical actions were being translated and incorporated directly into the game world. Who cared if that game world was basically six little circles set up in a hexagon shape and that those actions amounted to smacking little blue balls as they floated through space? For the first game, the novelty was enough to get me through.
As I got better at the movements and the timing, I began to realize that I wasn't just batting away little blue balls -- I was making music. The controller was my instrument, the game was my score, and I was performing. The entire video game experience had been turned on its ear. Most games put the fun on the screen if you perform the dull task of manipulating the controller. This game was putting the fun squarely on the things I was doing rather than what I was seeing.
I fell madly, madly in love. It began a deep, abiding affinity for musical games that would last for years to come. Dance Dance Revolution was too tough for my tastes, but I fell in comfortably with Space Channel 5 and Donkey Konga. I would eventually buy a Playstation 2 for Karaoke Revolution and its sequels. I finally found a DDR more to my speed with DDR: Mario Mix.
The music game to get last Christmas was Guitar Hero. It got glowing reviews from everywhere, including a non-music-minded friend of mine who got to play a demo of it at Best Buy. I spent some time looking for it, but it was out of stock for months.
The other day I found it at a local Target -- the mighty Guitar Hero playset. I picked up the box and looked it over. Fret buttons, a spot to strum, and a whammy bar on the controller. A selection of rock music to play. And a familiar, reassuring screenshot of colored symbols being struck as they reach an indicated place on the screen.
I put the box back down and walked away.
I do dearly love my music games. But after so many years of drumming, dancing, singing, and shaking, I have to wonder just how many novelty controllers one person needs. I've been like a drug addict, searching for years to find something that'll help me relive that first, perfect high. Nothing has ever been quite as phenomenal as that first time. I'll never forget Amigo and Ulala, and it's becoming clear that I'm never going to be able to replace them.
I think I'm off music games for now. Although I'd love to see a new Samba game for the Revolution. The controllers seem like a perfect fit, and my maracas broke years ago.