Friday, August 18, 2006


Pre-Order Mania

Remember when a video game pre-order was a convenience to the consumer? If you knew a big title was coming out and you just couldn't bear the thought of living a single moment without it, you could put down five bucks on it and be assured of having a copy of the title on release day. That still applies, of course, but there's a darker side to it -- if you get your video games from places like Gamestop -- that can only be bad for the video game industry in general.

I've always considered a pre-order to be a special occasion, something you only do for the over-hyped and desparately desired games for your collection. But it's slowly turning into a necessity. You walk into a Gamestop to pick something up, and they give you the hard sell for pre-orders. Anything coming up that you're interested in? You know, that new Zelda game's coming out, it's going to be hard to come by. Have you heard of the New Super Mario Brothers?

Fine. I work in fast food, I know the pressure put on employees to do the whole suggestive sale thing. Anyone who works in customer service these days also has to be a living, breathing advertisement for the company's products. I can accept that, I don't blame the employees.

The problem is when I read a review for an obscure little Game Boy Advance game. Since it's obscure, the big websites don't bother to review it until weeks or even months after its release. It triggers my interest, so I go looking for it. Sometimes I even make the mistake of going to the store without calling ahead.

No, of course they don't have the game. Nobody pre-ordered it, so they only got a few copies. No, they don't plan on stocking it again. Okay, thanks.

Does anybody else see anything wrong with this?

The big titles are nothing to worry about. Your Marios and Grand Theft Autos and Halos, they're going to keep getting new stock for months and months to come. If you miss the first shipment, no worries, just catch the next one.

But they won't stock a game that doesn't get pre-orders? Yes, I can understand a company not wanting to take a risk on a game that doesn't seem to have much pre-release hype to it, but think about the implications. They're asking people to make a commitment to a game they've never heard of weeks or months before there are any reviews for it. What ever happened to a game with "legs", that spreads by word of mouth, that I play at a friend's house a year after it's released and start to think I'd like a copy for myself? And if you're a portable gamer like me, forget about it. For as much as portable gaming has helped to ensure the survival of companies like Nintendo, it's been a ghetto at places like Gamestop (formerly Babbage's and Funcoland) ever since the Game Boy days.

It's a system that's designed to favor the game series that are already successful in an industry that's already too homogenized and already relies too heavily on rehashing the stuff that consumers already know they enjoy.

As a gamer who revels in obscure titles like Survival Kids, Cubivore, Samba de Amigo -- it's frustrating. It's frustrating to go into a store that claims to specialize in video games and discover that their selection isn't much better than the apathetic department stores. It's frustrating to then be told that it's my fault for not having the foresight to purchase that game when it was just a title and a screenshot buried somewhere in the bowels of IGN.

I have several misgivings about the digital content delivery systems that companies are going to be pushing in the next generation -- call me old-fashioned, but I think there's something romantic about unsealing a box, holding a cartridge in my hand, and thumbing through a printed instruction manual -- but it might just be the only real solution to this pre-ordering nonsense. Electronic gourmands will no longer have to deal with the uneducated heathens who can't recite the playlist for Ultimate Arcade Games on command or who think Survival Kids is a Dreamcast game. Gone will be the days of rustling through a bucket of unsorted used DS cards to try and find a copy of Phoenix Wright that may or may not be hiding somewhere inside. Gone, too, will be the delight of being rung up by a minimum wage slave who tries to dissuade me from my purchase with warnings that Super Smash Brothers is "too easy" or Earthbound looks "too kiddy", but we all have to make sacrifices.

I await the coming liberation of digital content with open arms. And I'll be ready for it as soon as they start taking pre-orders for the Wii.


Friday, August 11, 2006


What Dragon's Lair Did Right

It doesn't sound like a terribly interesting idea for a video game. You watch a fifteen-minute cartoon in which the main character is constantly finding himself in danger -- exploring a castle with room after room of deathtraps and monsters -- and the only input you get to offer is a direction on the joystick or a button to use the sword. If you enter the correct inputs in time, the cartoon proceeds to its happy ending. If you enter wrong or take too long, the cartoon is interrupted by a silly death animation.

Welcome to the world of laserdisc games, a shortlived arcade fad from the early 80's that was started by a game called Dragon's Lair. Instead of having direct control over a bunch of pixels on the screen, you "guided" your cartoon hero using an interface that could best be described as a twitch-action Choose Your Own Adventure book. There was a boom of laserdisc titles when Dragon's Lair debutted, but popularity quickly dropped off when the medium's shortcomings became apparent -- because of the nature of pre-rendered animation, the games tended to be more an exercise in memorization than any sort of other skill.

Now, to be fair, when a laserdisc game was done right, it felt a lot like you had more control of the action than you actually did. Most action games that we play today require the same sort of memorization and timing skills that the laserdisc games did back in the day; the only real difference is that we have to press a lot more buttons to get a character to do something than we did in Dragon's Lair. And laserdisc games have the benefit of being a lot more cinematic. So much effort is put into trying to make our 3-D games look like movies that are written, directed, and produced on the fly, but watching someone else play Halo or Zelda or Final Fantasy isn't really much like watching a movie. Watching someone play Dragon's Lair really is like watching a movie.

When Dragon's Lair was first introduced, I was much too young to really appreciate video games beyond the obvious appeal of watching something on a TV screen react to the way I was pressing buttons. I got to watch someone play Dragon's Lair II in an arcade during the great arcade rennaissance of the early 90's. But my first real experience with Dragon's Lair was -- are you ready for this? -- on the Game Boy Color in 2000. I think it's important to mention this for two reasons. First is because this shows that my opinions of the game are not based on nostalgia, fuzzy memories, or the hype surrounding the game at the time. Second, this shows that my opinions of the game are unswayed by the technical marvels of full-motion video. Frankly, the animation had to be butchered to get it to fit on a Game Boy Color cartridge and to make it play on the older hardware. Otherwise, for most intents and purposes, the Game Boy Color version of Dragon's Lair is an accurate representation of the original arcade game.

And it was love at first sight.

Dragon's Lair is really a remarkable game. Not only was it the first game of its kind, but it was the best game of its kind. No one else who did laserdisc games seemed to really understand what made Dragon's Lair magical -- not even its own sequel did the concept as well as the original. It was a real lightning-in-a-jar moment for the video game industry, and even though the laserdisc concept has been put to a well-deserved rest, we would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge what Dragon's Lair did right.

It was brief.

I can hear heads exploding as I praise a video game for being short. Yes, there is a benefit to video games that you can complete in a single session.

Earthbound is one of my very favorite video games of all time, and yet I just played it for the first time in years. Why don't I play it more regularly if I enjoy it so much? I mean, sure, the story would get dull if I went through it several times in succession, but you'd think maybe once or twice a year at least? Problem is, it took me a week of my free time to play the game from start to finish. And that's when I already know the game inside and out -- even with the official strategy guide, it took me forever to master the game the first time out. I'm afraid of starting it because I know what a commitment it'll take to get to the end of it. And then I start to get that feeling like there are more productive ways to be spending my time than wasting a week playing a game that I've already finished a good three or four times in the past.

Dragon's Lair? I pop it in whenever I get the itch to play it. Half an hour later, I've had my fix and I'll put it down again. It's very accessible.

And when you're first mastering it, you'll be glad the game is so short, because...

Sometimes you lose.

Think about what it means to lose in a modern video game. Go back to your last save point and try it again? Restart at the beginning of the current dungeon with everything that you found before you died? Nothing at all?

In the arcade, you get three lives. (The Game Boy Color version gave you a more generous five lives.) There's no chance to get more lives. When you're out of Dirks, that's it. You can't even drop another quarter in to continue -- the story's over, and it has a grim ending indeed.

You just can't do that in games anymore. Players don't want to fail and start over from the beginning because video games have become bloated, 50-hour epics. (Or, games have become bloated, 50-hour epics because players don't want to fail and start over from the beginning. A topic for another time, my friends!) It's downright refreshing to have a game where failure carries a heavy penalty -- it makes it that much sweeter when you succeed. The most satisfying moments in my video gaming career have all come when I felt like I really earned something, like making it to the end of the NES Super Mario games. My first glimpse of Singe's lair was one of those moments.

But even if the game is difficult, that's okay, because...

Your score shows you how good you're getting.

Score, when it's kept at all, has become meaningless in most modern games. Even back on the NES, you never played Super Mario Brothers for score -- you played it to get to the end. If the score in Super Mario Brothers meant anything, speed runs wouldn't be as popular as they are; instead, we'd have videos where someone does the 99 lives trick and uses it to replay the same stretch of the game and then dying over and over and over again just to rack up the points until the scoreboard became all 9s. And what would it mean? That they had the free time to keep slogging away until they rolled the score?

But the score in Dragon's Lair means something.

When you first play the game, you don't know what the hell you're doing. Sure, you can solve some of the simpler rooms, but when you start to get to some of the really puzzling sequences (the yellow brick road, the green slime room, the socker boppers) you'll get your ass handed to you and the game ends. The more you play, the more familiar you become with the rooms, and the more rooms you actually manage to solve. The game isn't entirely a win/lose proposition; every time, your score gets a little higher as a testament to your increasing proficiency as a Dirk-guider. And that feels pretty darned good.

The game is non-linear.

Say huh? Didn't I just explain that the game was played by watching a predetermined animation and pretending that you have a hand in how it plays out? How can that be non-linear?

Well, it's like this. There's 39 scenes (or "rooms") in the game. Since there's very little plot continuity from one room to the next (except, of course, the final scene in the dragon's lair), they've been put together in a semi-random order to help give the game a little more variety. It's difficult to describe exactly what that does for the overall experience, but it's a beautiful, beautiful thing when it all comes together.

First of all, there's enough order to the scenes that you can tell how much progress you've made if you know what to look for. For the novice, it's rewarding when you recognize that you've made a complete "lap" through the scene sequence on a single playthrough.

Second of all, the random scene selection keeps the game from getting too tedious when you're stuck on how to solve a particular room. The green slime room dogged me for days in the Game Boy Color version, but I became proficient at the later levels during those games when the green slime room didn't come up on my first or second run through the sequence.

The world would have to wait until Wario Ware Inc before we got another video game that pulled this much of a level ordering switchup on the player. Wouldn't it be interesting if you played the next Legend of Zelda game, and the order of events changed every time you played it?

The player never gets stuck.

Well, obviously the player can run into a seemingly unsolvable room. But the penalties for failing to find a room's solution the first time through are relatively small -- you lose a life and you move on to the next scene.

Compare this to modern adventure games, where you can spend hours of playtime stuck in a "guess the action" puzzle, and the plot grinds to an immovable halt until you figure it out or give up and get a walkthrough. When I played The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, I got stuck at the sequence where Link has to help the Deku Tree, which has been infested with slime creatures. Since I'd just picked up the Hook Shot, I thought the solution would be to use the hook shot to pull the slimes off. I spent half an hour trying to pursue this solution because, even though my attempts to pull the slimes off were fruitless, the game gave me no indication that this was because I used the wrong tactic rather than, as I believed, I didn't have the skill to hit the slimes correctly. Finally, out of boredom and frustration, I started roll-attacking randomly around the area, and completely on accident, I smacked into the spot that caused all of the slimes to come dislodged. Rather than being ecstatic over my victory, I was pissed off at the game designers for blocking my progress with a puzzle that had such an arbitrary and unfair solution. (Because, really, when have they ever used Link's roll as a puzzle-solving tactic before, I ask you?)

But in Dragon's Lair, if you don't solve a room, you simply lose a life and move on to the next one. You don't get a chance to replay that room until you reach the dragon's lair. This means two things. One, you never have to deal with the hassle of being stuck. Two, you don't have the luxury of patiently replaying the same room over and over until you master it. The first thing keeps the game moving, and the second thing keeps the game challenging.

The game keeps things simple.

I actually played Dragon's Lair 3D when it first came out for the Gamecube. For the first few levels, I was rather pleased with the game -- it was just the sort of action platformer that I expected a fully-controlled Dragon's Lair might be.

But then... I started collecting more of the powerups.

When I got to the point where my challenge wasn't so much "navigate an obstacle course of death traps" as it was "pay attention to the blue meter that's protecting me from environmental fire while trying to fire a crossbow with iffy controls at tiny dragons that can kill me in one hit", I realized that this just wasn't Dragon's Lair.

The original has no inventories to keep track of, no special powers to collect -- nothing that distracts you from the simple task of navigating the wizard's castle. Sometimes, it's nice to strip away all of the extraneous crap and just focus on the core of the gameplay.

Consider also -- Dragon's Lair 3D needed every button on the Gamecube controller, and they still didn't quite manage to give Dirk every move that he has in the arcade original -- a game that you controlled with exactly one four-direction joystick and one attack button. We got a lot more with a lot less. Don't tell me developers can make their games look photorealistic but they can't make a "smart protagonist" that controls like Dirk.

The tone of the game was perfect.

When Don Bluth's animation is good, it's damned good. Like no one else, he can show us an ugly, rough-around-the-edges world and still make it look like an idyllic fantasy. Dragon's Lair is presented as a sort of "dark toony" world. Dirk's environment is malignent, merciless, and deadly in many, many ways. This castle is a living thing, and it wants you dead. This isn't a happy, bouncy Mushroom Kingdom, where Mario lies on his back and goes "Mama Mia!" when he dies -- Dirk gets roasted, strangled, electrocuted, drowned, chopped, sliced, diced, pureed, and eaten.

But it's not so dark that it's depressing. There's no gore and no feeling of hopelessness. Dirk's goodness and courage in the face of peril shines through the adversity, even if he's a total klutz most of the time. It's still soft enough that kids can like it, even if half the stuff will scare the hell out of the little ones. (When I was very young, I got a glimpse of Dirk's resurrection from his skeletal remains. It was scary.)

Now, of course, we seem to have games polarizing. Give or take a Rayman or a Sonic the Hedgehog, it seems like most games are going to extremes of cuddly-wuddly cuteness or gritty, hellish darkness. It'd be nice if there was a little more middle ground.

Laserdisc games may be dead, but they still have lessons to teach us. Whispers of Dragon's Lair still live on in games like Space Channel 5, Feel the Magic, and Wario Ware Inc. Sometimes I think I'd like to see another Dragon's Lair, but usually I'm content to look at it for what it is -- a modest, magical classic that will never truly be duplicated.


Thursday, August 10, 2006


The Gay Kid in Earthbound

It was my pleasure this week to play Earthbound on the Super NES, from start to finish, for the first time in years. Overall, I was pleased with how much I still enjoy the game. The fans keep it on a pretty high pedestal, and its "cult classic" status has made it at least moderately collectible over the years, not to mention the fact that a lot of the Smash Brothers players I know really like to dominate with Ness. Together, these factors give the game a pretty high reputation to live up to. But I wasn't disappointed. My fuzzy, happy memories of the game weren't lying -- I've been enthralled all over again all week.

But this isn't a review.

This week was the first time I've played Earthbound with the knowledge that Tony was gay.

Tony is one of the more important NPCs in the game. He's introduced when the third PC (Jeff, according to Earthbound canon) is trying to escape from his boarding school in Winters. His attraction to Jeff eluded me the first few times I played through the game, but now that I knew about it, I started to pay more attention, and it seemed obvious. When Tony wakes up in the middle of the night, he says he was having a dream that he and Jeff were going for a walk together. Later in the game, you receive a phone call from Tony, and he's particularly anxious that you're taking good care of Jeff. Still later, he's one of a group of people who get kidnapped by aliens, putting him in the usual "damsel in distress" role. When you win the game, you get a letter from Tony that says Jeff's glasses have probably gotten dirty on his adventure and Tony would be glad to clean them for him. When I originally played the game some ten years ago, I just thought, hey... they must be pretty good friends.

I just think the whole thing is kind of interesting for a number of reasons. One is just from a general storytelling standpoint. You don't have to work very hard to suggest that there's a romantic bond between two people of opposite sex in a story -- it's so easy, in fact, that the audience will often pick up on one unintentionally. There doesn't have to be any physical contact or even any explicit interest from either side. The audience will pick up on it just from juxtaposition. In the book version of Jurassic Park, the relationship between Ellie Satler and Alan Grant was purely professional -- in the film version, they're musing over the prospect of having children. How did that happen? Whoever was adapting the story saw a man and a woman working together and figured the next logical step would be a romance between them.

How do you get the same sort of easy association with same-sex couples? How do you show, rather than tell, the audience that, not only are these characters gay but also attracted to each other, and do so without resorting to cliche or stereotypes?

Tony is a fantastic example of an understated gay character. Earthbound is, after all, a game suitable for children. It's no more sexually themed than your typical Super Mario Brothers game. (The shower scene from Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is not your typical Super Mario Brothers game.) Not only that, but the characters in the game are very young teenagers, not even kissing age. Nothing about Tony's attraction to Jeff suggests anything physical, nor is there anything flamboyantly gay about his personality. He simply comes across as being slightly doting and perhaps a bit preoccupied -- if he were a girl, I wouldn't have had any problem picking up on his dialogue as signs of a childhood crush.

Another reason I find it interesting is because there was a thread on GameFAQs a while back calling for more homosexual video game characters. I wasn't entirely sure how sincere the poster was in his request, but I thought it was an interesting idea. But again, how do you demonstrate, in a video game, that a character is homosexual? And a better question -- does it even matter?

For video games that rely heavily on the "game" aspect, the player character is really little more than a living pawn, like the thimble in a Monopoly set. It's less a character in its own right and more an extension of the players themselves, perhaps possessing some sort of traits that the players can identify with, but little else. Mario is an Everyman, Link is a noble adventurer, and so on. Just as the question of whether or not the thimble is gay doesn't make any difference in the scope of a Monopoly game, the sexuality of a video game character generally doesn't have a great impact on the way a game actually plays. When you're crossing World 1-3, are you more concerned with landing on those moving platforms, or what Mario's doing when the camera is off? Probably the moving platforms.

Then there's the simulation games that try and simulate social interactions -- games like The Sims, Harvest Moon, and Animal Crossing. Sometimes sexuality does play a role in these games, but more often than not, the only way it's really expressed is by a question of whether or not two same-sex characters are allowed by the game rules to have sex. Because, let's face it -- as good as developers have gotten with making photorealistic graphics, we're still a long, long way from developing video games with meaningful social interaction as an on-the-fly, simulated aspect of the game.

So that leaves us with the heavily-scripted games that try and wow us with their storytelling. It may be relevant to have homosexual characters in simulation games, but this is really the only category of games where you can honestly say that a homosexual character has been done well or poorly, and then it's a matter of how well the script-writers do from a general storytelling perspective. Most importantly, are the characters real? Is there more to them and more to the story than the fact that they're gay? Are they stereotypes, or are they three-dimensional?

And that's the great thing about Tony. Even in a game where a lot of the characters are broad characatures, Tony isn't just a mass-media portrait of a gay guy. He's not overstated, he doesn't steal attention from the main story. He just slips in and out of the story as naturally as a childhood love interest character should.

And if we are going to have more homosexuality in our video games in the future, I hope developers will have the good taste to follow the example set by Earthbound.


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