Thursday, March 29, 2007


Thoughts From the Game Demo

I do things a little backwards sometimes. I'm not proud, but I like to think it's one of the things that just makes me so gosh darned lovable.

After committing thirty bucks toward ordering Puzzle Quest through Amazon, I decided to download the PC demo and find out, once and for all, the nature of the beast I was inviting into my life.

I'm pleased to discover that my money was most likely not spent in vain.

Puzzle Quest is very much an RPG. (At least, as much as Final Fantasy is an RPG. It's a picky thing to bring up, I know, but it bugs me when I see the term "role-playing game" taken to mean "any game where your character's strength increases by slaying things".) The game system -- with monsters, character classes, gold, experience points, mana, magic spells, equipment -- is instantly recognizable and comfortable to old-school dungeon crawling fans.

The game world is made up of various interconnected nodes, and you travel from location to location along predetermined routes. There are various "quests" that you can agree to undertake. All of the quests in the demo involved moving from location to location, meeting up with NPCs, and slaying monsters. And that's where the game starts to get good.

How does actual combat work? Well, if you're familiar with CCGs, then you've already got a head start on understanding this game. But instead of abstracting combat into a card game, it's abstracted into a game of Bejeweled. You're trying to hurt your opponent by manipulating the puzzle board.

Everything works just like in Bejeweled. You swap two adjacent "gems" to try and match three of the same kind. Matched gems are removed from the board and whatever is on top of them cascades downward, with new gems falling from above to replace what was removed. You can create chain reactions if the gems that fall into place create another three of a kind, and so on.

The gems you match up determine what you do to your opponent on your turn. Match up three skulls, for example, and you do a basic attack. Mana stones come in three colors -- for earth, fire, wind, and water -- and matching up three of the same color builds up your mana pool for that element. Matching purple stars earns you an experience point bonus. Matching gold pieces earns you a money bonus. Those are the basics.

Thing is, you share the same puzzle board with your opponent. This opens up a whole world of strategy. Most importantly, you never want to leave the board in a state where your opponent can match three skulls. Then you have to find a balance between any number of small goals -- building up your own mana pool with the color you need, taking mana off the board so your opponent can't get it, and snagging yourself some extra experience and gold (which won't help you win the battle, even though it'll help you pump up your character a bit).

Then there's "spells". Every spell has a mana cost, usually in more than one element. Most of the time, you'll have to choose between casting a spell or doing something to the puzzle board, but some spells won't end your turn. Spells are special moves that can cause damage to your opponent, heal you, cause status conditions, or do something special to the puzzle board (or, of course, any combination of those things). For example, there's the Throw Axe move, which inflicts four hit points of damage on your opponent, plus one point for every skull on the board. There's the Spin Attack move that lets you destroy one piece on the puzzle board plus every piece adjacent to it and use every effect that's destroyed.

It makes for an excellent game. Strategy plays a more important role than luck or experience level. I started playing last night after work and didn't stop until five hours had passed. In that time, I cleared the entire demo campaign, raised my character to the maximum level the demo allowed, and went straight on to play match after match of Instant Action mode.

The full version promises to have much, much more gameplay. There's promises of companions and mounts that give you bonuses. (The demo included an elf who would inflict 10 damage at the start of any match against an undead monster.) There's the suggestion that you'll be charged with conquering citadels and building a personal empire. And if you don't want to get involved in the campaign, that's okay too -- you can level-grind to your heart's content, facing random opponents in Instant Action mode. And everything you earn against those opponents helps to build up your character.

I have a feeling that this game will be replacing Pokemon Trading Card Game as my all-time favorite "abstract combat" RPG. Makes me think that maybe I should have put down a little extra cash for the next-day shipping. In the meantime, I'm playing and replaying the demo every chance I get. Hopefully, by the time I get the full version, my appetite for puzzle combat will be sated and I won't feel compelled to whip it out while I'm at work.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007


A Leap of Faith

And my video game diet is officially broken. (Animorphs doesn't count -- I got that to feed a whole different obsession entirely.) Armed with nothing more than a glowing recommendation from Penny Arcade and free shipping from Amazon, I've put in an order for Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords for my DS. As I type, the clockwork leviathan of the US Postal service is set in motion to send a new game card to my front doorstep sometime within the next two weeks.

I can't say it's the perfect way to break my diet. It's based on compulsion more than any sort of real need. I have yet to find a review that explains, clearly, how a marriage between Bejeweled and classic RPG mechanics would even work. I have a vague notion of character design, combat, and level-grinding possibilities, but then I try to fit puzzle-sorting into the mix, and I draw a complete blank.

I'm suspicious. It sounds like something that I already own. I have a portable Bejeweled in Zoo Keeper, and I'm starting to get back into the joy of level grinding in Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. I am, however, willing to concede that the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts. One of the things I liked about The New Tetris on Nintendo 64 (even though I never actually got around to owning it) was the idea that it tracked your puzzle-playing career, and every line you cleared would be remembered and add somehow to your overall worth.

A Bejeweled RPG could be cool. I guess I'll see how it goes.


Sunday, March 25, 2007


Nintendo DS: The Launch Titles That Time Forgot

It was hard to justify owning a Nintendo DS for just about the first year of its life. I mean hard. The killer app was a retooling of a first-generation Nintendo 64 game. Developers were still trying to figure out what they were going to do with this two-headed freak of nature. The first-party games included Yoshi Touch 'N' Go and Pokemon Dash.

I mean it was really, really, really hard to justify owning a Nintendo DS.

But even though it was a pretty shaky start, it was also a wonderful period of exploration and experimentation. With so little precedent, developers were free to take a few chances and make some messy, novel, and not-half-bad games.

Here's a list of a few of my favorite games from the system's "launch window". No one much thinks about them anymore, even though they were pretty all right. Maybe not great, maybe not worth the original retail price, but decent, and maybe worth tracking down if they're on clearance.

Feel the Magic: XY/XX

Once you got Super Mario 64 DS -- and chances are you did, whether you liked it or not -- the next must-have DS game at launch was Feel the Magic: XY/XX. It was a zany little adventure game where you try to win the heart of the girl of your dreams by showing off in a wide variety of death-defying mini-games. Really, it was impossible to dislike this game. It had a catchy a cappella soundtrack, an adorable stylized visual presentation, a crazy sense of humor, plenty of original uses for the touchscreen and microphone, and a wide variety of unlockable outfits that you could use to dress up (or undress, tee hee!) the girl of your dreams.

Unlike the Wario Ware games, however, there's really no scoring system to encourage you to improve your performance on replay. But this isn't a game that you play to conquer -- this is a sweet, silly love story that's fun to watch time and time again. If you don't feel a tug on your heartstrings when you get to the last level, see a psychiatrist -- you're probably suffering from emotional imbalance.

There was a sequel called The Rub Rabbits, but with its much steeper learning curve, I find myself with much less reason to replay it.


Whenever there's a discussion about the most underappreciated games on the DS, Sprung is the first game that comes to mind. Not that it's a masterpiece or anything, but it just plain never got a fair shake.

On the one hand, there were all of the people who scoffed at the very idea of a dating sim. "no thnx, i have a real girlfreind, lol" On the other hand, there were the people who were interested in a dating sim and found that... there's not any actual dating simulation going on here. It's a little hard to find an audience when you're jerking around people's expectations like that.

Instead, Sprung is more or less an interactive teen movie. There's two different stories that feature the same characters, but a completely different sequence of events. For the guys, there's Brett's story, an airhead comedy about a guy who keeps getting in and out of love triangles and hanging around with his pals. For the girls, there's Becky's story, a tale of love, heartbreak, revenge, redemption, and maybe the man of her dreams.

You spend a lot of the game navigating through conversation trees, but there are a couple special items you need to find and a few traditional adventure game styled puzzles to solve. It can't compare with Phoenix Wright, but it's far from being the piece of crap that so many people dismiss it as.

The Urbz: Sims in the City

The Sims: Bustin' Out on the Game Boy Advance was a pretty cool spinoff of the Sims series. Instead of indirectly guiding a household through day-to-day life, you took direct control of a single character in a life sim RPG with a bizarre, play-at-your-own-pace storyline to follow.

The Urbz builds on the success of the original and fixes a few annoyances. Now you're free to move into any of several available homes throughout the city whenever you like, and you have access to fire prevention and theft prevention from the utilities menu -- no more getting your toilet stolen while you're waiting for burglar alarms to go on sale! The "job" minigames are a lot more fun this time around, including spoofs on Excitebike and Space Channel 5. And just like in Bustin' Out, you can take on the game's missions in whatever order and at whatever pace you like.

Decent game; too bad it's basically a port of the GBA version.

Zoo Keeper

A decent Bejeweled clone. The screen fills with puzzle pieces, and you can swap two adjacent pieces to try and line up three or more of the same piece. Matched pieces disappear, more pieces rain down from above. It's got some fancy add-ons, but there's really not much to say about them. It's as fun and addictive as popping bubble wrap. The only real problem is that it was hard to justify buying it at the launch price of forty dollars.


And finally, Pac-Pix. Although it was almost universally dismissed as an overblown DS tech demo, there's something lovable about this little game where you draw things that come to life. You draw a Pac-Man, which comes to life on the screen and starts moving around on his own. You guide him by drawing walls in his path and try to get him to gobble up all of the ghosts on the screen. In later levels, you'll need to draw arrows and bombs as the levels become more and more complicated.

The early levels are a breeze, but by the time you reach the game's twelfth chapter, you'll be tearing your hair out over the puzzles. The final boss in particular is an absolute nightmare -- I don't think I'll ever have the patience to finish it. Still, replaying the earlier levels is a delight, and it's modestly fun to use the game's "sketchbook" to try and see what other drawings you can bring to life with this thing.


Monday, March 19, 2007


Did I Miss Something?

I've always sort of dismissed the collective voice of the general gaming community -- an imaginary personification of the driving forces behind market trends -- as a sort of dull, out of touch Other, a being whose interests in the world of video games began and ended with how realistically programmers could simulate war and professional sports. Once in a while our paths would cross and our interests would converge. The Other would grudgingly allow for the existance of Super Mario, and possibly acknowledge the merit of Dance Dance Revolution and its ilk. But for the most part, I don't think very highly about the things that hardcore gamers are supposed to like.

Which is why I was stunned and puzzled to find out that Sony has supposedly recaptured the hearts and minds of The Other by unveiling some sort of online Home system and a physics toy game. Even Penny Arcade, the most visible manifestation of The Other on the internet, is getting behind this.

I think they sound neat, which is exactly what puzzles me about it -- The Other never picks the same killer aps that I do. Never. The Other wanted a Dreamcast for Soul Caliber, I wanted one for Seaman. The Other wanted a Playstation 2 for Grand Theft Auto, I wanted one for Karaoke Revolution. The Other wanted a Wii for Twilight Princess, I'm not even sure I want one.

It's just too weird. I feel like it's got to be a trick or something, that sooner or later everyone's going to admit that what they're really excited about is a new Grand Theft Auto/Final Fantasy/Metal Gear/Resident Evil game. Just when I think I've got 'em all figured out, they have to throw something like this out at me.

What's even weirder is that these sorts of things should be right up my alley, yet they haven't convinced me that I need a PS3 yet. Maybe because I've already had enough MUCKing and world simulation to last me a lifetime.

No one's sold me a next-generation video game system yet. Stay tuned.


Saturday, March 17, 2007


There Has To Be a Twist

Ever since my first game of Excitebike, I've had a certain fascination with games that let you build your own levels. Combine that with a love of pinball, and you get Powershot Pinball Constructor for the Nintendo DS. Looks like good times all around to me -- I'll allow myself to break my video game abstinence for that one.



The Best Piggy Bank Ever

Hey. People who make electronic toys. I've got a great idea here that's going to make you rich, so listen up.

With my acquisition of a more perfect X-Arcade Gamecube adaptor has come a renewed interest in the fact that I share a living space with what is, for all intents and purposes, an authentic arcade cabinet. But I've come to realize that something's still missing.

I've got the look of an arcade machine. And I've got the control. But I'm finding out, bit by bit, that there's more to replicating the arcade experience than putting your home consoles in a cabinet that looks like it belongs at a Chuck E Cheese's.

An arcade, I've come to decide, is not simply a place where you can go to play video games. An arcade is essentially a video game garden. If you've ever been to a good arcade, you can probably understand what I mean, even if you weren't aware of it at the time. An arcade is about having video game machines that are arranged tastefully and attractively. It's pleasing to the eye before you even get to the business of interactive entertainment. There's a definate feng shui to a good arcade arrangement. As you walk its aisles, you can feel the positive energy flowing through it. It gives you a feeling of harmony and fun.

To be brief, one arcade cabinet does not an arcade make. Unfortunately, this isn't a problem that I feel I can correct. There are a lot of things that can tempt me into parting with money, but purchasing multiple arcade cabinets just to make my gaming area "look good" is too absurd even for me. Some creative furniture arrangement, however, may do something to improve the "aura of recreation" that should surround my single unit.

But there's another, much more subtle problem. In fact, to call it a problem seems absurd, a notion that goes contrary to the entire idea of owning a home video game setup to begin with. Ah, but that's exactly what makes it so important: the fact that it's only tolerated as a necessary evil to the arcade experience makes it essential to the feeling of being in a video game arcade.

I'm talking, of course, about the coin slot.

There's economic principles behind all of this. What's the difference between playing a video game at home as opposed to playing it at the arcade? Simple -- the arcade machine can only be used if you have the money for it. You value something more if you have to pay for it. The "pay to play" arcade machine taunts you with its unattainability. An arcade machine set to play without quarters (or a home version) is essentially a eunuch -- the thing that makes it an arcade game is gone. Is it really the same feeling, owning a video game and knowing that you can play it as much as you want whenever you want, as it is to walk into an arcade with a pocket stuffed with quarters and knowing that, although your time with these games is finite, you have enough quarters to make it last for a long, long time?

And, of course, there's the fact that it's simply fun to throw money away.

And so I've come to decide that, if I'm going to play arcade in my home, I'm going to need to involve quarters. My temporary solution is to have a jar with a quarter slot that stands in the cabinet. It's a rough solution, but it'll work for now. So now my home arcade cabinet doubles as an elaborate piggy bank.

And that got me to thinking.

I was unbelievably jealous of one of my cousins when I was little, because he owned a bank that doubled as a completely functional slot machine. Insert your pocket change, pull the lever, and if you're lucky, it'll pay out to you.

Why not bring this idea into the realm of video games? After all, back in the day, Coleco made "portable" video game units that resembled miniature arcade cabinets. How much harder would it be to add a bank functionality to that setup?

Or even better. Look at that full-color, high-resolution, back-lit standalone portable game system that Coleco was selling just last year. Might it not be possible to use this sort of technology to make a miniature arcade machine that played the real Pac-Man game (or at least a reasonable approximation)? And couldn't this unit accept quarters as input and act like a bank?

Couldn't this hypothetical unit have multiple arcade games built in?

Who could resist something like that? A tabletop MAME cabinet, ridiculously more affordable and marketable than a full-sized one, the ultimate nostalgia trip. And it helps you save your quarters.

If I was even half as good with hardware as I am with software, I'd probably have that thing half built by now. As it is, all I can really do is hope that some enterprising electronics company out there comes across the idea and tries to run with it.

I got a roll of quarters that's waiting to meet it.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Phoenix Wright: A Scientific Investigation

For the past month or so, I've been replaying Phoenix Wright 1 and 2 to keep myself entertained through my morning walk on the treadmill. And while I was at it, I decided to time how long it took me to play through each game to satisfy my curiosity about the length of each game.

What follows are the results of my investigation. These are the times it took me to play through each game once I already knew all of the solutions. The only text I skipped through was when I made a mistake and had to re-read something. Sometimes I would avoid unnecessary digressions, other times I would press every point. These playthroughs aren't perfect -- there were a few points where I got lost and forgot how to proceed through the investigations, and one point in Rise From the Ashes where I made a mistake and lost. (I estimated 10 minutes of playtime lost due to my mistake, which I deducted from the playtime listed below.)

Because Rise From the Ashes was a special case added to the first game for the DS release, I decided to account for it separately just to see what sort of difference it made.

So here we go:

Ace Attorney (Case 1-4): 7 hours
Rise From the Ashes: 5 hours, 20 minutes
Justice For All: 11 hours, 45 minutes

As I'd suspected, Rise From the Ashes is almost long enough to be its own game (at least by the standard set by the original) and Justice For All is about the same length as all five cases in the first game combined.

It just goes to show you... something or other.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Sales Trends

So just because I've become apathetic about the video game industry lately doesn't mean I've turned in my fanboy credentials yet. Far from it! Why, just today I was over at Videogame Charts taking a look at how the console wars are going.

And I noticed something funny.

At the time of this writing, the sales figures for the current generation of consoles and handhelds goes like this:

XBox 360
0.37m Japan
5.82m Americas
3.36m Others
9.55m Total

1.88m Japan
2.29m Americas
1.56m Others
5.73m Total

Playstation 3
0.78m Japan
1.35m Americas
0.00m Others
2.13m Total

15.73m Japan
11.08m Americas
11.65m Others
38.46m Total

5.32m Japan
7.94m Americas
7.44m Others
20.70m Total

Given that these numbers are possibly a total crapshoot and their origins may be rectal in nature, take a look at the picture they paint. For every system except one, America has the largest piece of the installed units pie. It's not especially hard to figure out why -- America's a big market for video games. We're nuts about any sort of entertainment that lets us sit on our collective ass and watch flashing colors.

There's one exception: The DS. We take third place for installed DSs. Even Europe has more of them than us.

I've been watching the charts for a bit now, and I don't think I've ever seen a variation in this pattern. America owns more of every game system except the DS, which it owns less of than either of the other two territories.

Now why would this be?

It can't be because America simply doesn't like its portable systems -- we come out on top for PSP ownership. It can't be that we prefer the PSP -- we still have more DSs than PSPs.

I dunno. It's an interesting phenomenon. I just wonder what it means. Maybe I should have paid more attention in my statistics classes.


Friday, March 09, 2007


Confessions of a Video Game Addict

In the past, I've referred to my interest in video games as an addiction or a compulsion. I'm only half joking when I say that. When I'm buying more games than ever yet enjoying them less, it's not hard to make the call that something irrational is going on here. This bothers me mostly because video gaming is a very expensive hobby. I want to buy something because I'll enjoy it, not just because I feel like I need it.

This weekend, for example, I decided to hit some of the local used book stores to see if I could find any more Animorphs stuff. (And I did indeed! Five whole books! Score!) Of course, since the local Gamestops are in the same area, I ended up swinging past them to see if they had anything cool in. And I came dangerously close to scooping up two portable game pills -- the Capsule and the Tablet, a pair of all-in-one portable video games much like that Coleco thing that I regretted buying during the Christmas rush. Fortunately, I won that battle of wills, if only for the moment. Even now, I can feel the strings of my heart being pulled by these devilish devices, and I dare not let my thoughts linger on them too long.

I want to stop buying things that I don't need. I want to be content. It shouldn't be hard -- I already have hundreds of games at my disposal. Why do I want more?

I'm making progress. My compulsive purchases have gone down in recent memory, and I'm starting to revisit games that I already own rather than chase after something new. Instead of buying Hotel Dusk, I replayed Phoenix Wright 1 and 2. Instead of following the progress on Wario: Master of Disguise, I started up new save files in the original 3 Warioland games. Instead of being seduced by the old-school, randomly generated dungeon crawling in Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, I reminded myself that I have a perfectly good dungeon crawler in Pokemon Mystery Dungeon.

They're running out of games that I don't already own. And I'm starting to catch on to them.

Besides replaying my old games, I've started taking up other hobbies to try and fill in the void. I'm tracking down and reading the Animorphs series, digging out some of my favorite old board games, doing some crafts, experimenting with my cooking prowess... basically striving toward becoming a little more well-rounded.

And a funny thing has happened. I suddenly find that I don't want a Wii. Not that I've ever rationally wanted one to begin with, but... even that heavy fanboy heartache feels like it's just about played out. Of course I asked if they were in when I went out over the weekend, but I felt pretty ambivalent about what I'd do if by some miracle they had some available. I actually felt... afraid that I'd find myself with the opportunity to purchase one.

The thing about addiction is that you never fully recover. I know that I'm one good shopping trip away from a total relapse. But for the moment, I'm staying strong. And my bank account is thanking me.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007


X-Arcade Gamecube Adapter Mark II

Several years ago, in a moment of weakness, I bought myself an X-Arcade Arcade cabinet. It's not the fancy super-unit they have available these days; it was basically an overgrown Ikea kit in the shape of an arcade cabinet. It came with the X-Arcade 2-player joystick set, but you had to supply your own television and game consoles. All things considered, it was probably pretty overpriced. Still, as far as entertainment units go, it's a real beauty, and I can't say I'd trade it for anything. It's completely functional as a gaming center, but it also serves as an acceptable television cabinet or computer desk.

I've only had one gripe. The joystick is meant to be a universal controller. Just buy an adapter for the system of your choice, and plug it right in. My Gamecube is my home console of choice, and unfortunately, the original version of the adapter was designed by people who never played Gamecube games, for people who never played Gamecube games. The default layout was completely wonky, with the Z button tucked away in a most useless position and the analog/digital click shoulder buttons arranged unintuitively. Even in arcade collections that allowed you to mess with the default controller layout, it was taxing to invent a scheme that allowed for the sort of control that you'd expect from a 3x2 button arrangement.

If this wasn't bad enough, the adapter was incompatible with the Game Boy Player. It just wouldn't work. This frustrated me primarily because the Game Boy happens to be the home of so many arcade ports or games worthy of inhabiting an arcade setup.

I was mad because I bought the original adapter at a time when I knew that X-Arcade was aware of the problems with the button layout and were creating a better version. I thought, when I made my order, that they had pulled out the old version in favor of the improved version already. I was wrong.

The guys at X-Arcade do make good products in general, don't get me wrong. But their website has historically been terrible. Confusing, difficult to navigate, and with none of the information that I want in the places where I'd expect to find it. And so I waited years -- years -- to replace my Gamecube adapter because I couldn't find the confirmation I needed that they were selling the joystick adapters I wanted.

This weekend, I just figured "what the heck" and ordered a new adapter.

Lo, after so long, I finally have the Gamecube adapter with the good button layout. But that's not the best part. That's not why I felt compelled to write this article.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the new X-Arcade Gamecube adapter is 100% compatible with the Game Boy Player.

After so many years of waiting, I can finally stick Game & Watch Gallery 2 into the cartridge slot on the bottom of my Gamecube and make my very own Ball arcade cabinet. My mind is still swimming over the possibilities. Wario Ware, Dragon's Lair, Activision Anthology, Donkey Kong '94, Frogger 2, Tetris DX, Ultimate Arcade Games, Hamtaro Ham Ham Games, Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness, Mario Party Advance, Dr. Mario, Game & Watch Galleries -- I'm in arcade heaven.

Also, I broke down and got the Animorphs GBC game. More as it develops.


Sunday, March 04, 2007


Unplugged Dilintia: The Animorphs Board Game

A new thrift store had opened up in my city a couple months ago, and I decided to check it out just in case they had some cool board games or vintage video game hardware.

Instead, I took a trip through the bookshelves and found... Animorphs.

I'd heard of the book series when it was first going into print. I was even vaguely aware of a television show and a line of toys associated with it. At the time, it seemed like stupid kids' stuff and I ignored it in favor of whatever stupid teenager stuff I was into at the time.

But being there at the thrift store, and seeing a healthy chunk of the series all in one place... Well, something fired off in my brain. I picked up the first book, then I thought I might want the second one to go with it, then the third, then the fourth... And soon I had the first twenty books in the series in my arms, as well as a few more random entries from later in the series -- basically everything I could find.

I'm not sure what possessed me to do it. Maybe because I've always thought shapeshifters were kind of cool. Maybe because I've been jonesing for a really good read for a long, long time. Maybe because they were only 50 cents apiece, and acquiring things is a pretty addictive activity.

In any case, I took home a big stack of Animorphs books and spent a little time reading them. In the first book, I found pretty much what I was expecting -- a fast-paced story that seemed like it belonged in an afternoon children's television program, complete with some predictable plot twists (You mean Jake's brother -- who has been acting strangely since the book began -- is really an alien?!) and some embarassing plot devices (the school principal is a high-ranking alien, the aliens have a front organization inconspicuously named "The Sharing", nobody questions for a moment the intentions of an alien who crash-lands and starts accusing our government of being run by mind-controlling slugs, etc).

But I kept reading. And if you can turn off the MST3K center of your brain long enough to get into it, the series is a fascinating read. I'm only ten books into my collection (and searching everywhere I can to track down what I'm missing!) and many of the stories have had me completely captivated. There has been laughter and horror and quite a few genuinely spine-tingling moments. Yeah, the books are written for kids, but Applegate doesn't write down to them. She's not afraid to put her heroes through some truly gruesome battles and some truly thought-provoking situations.

This is some good fiction.

And the more books I read, the more I think how perfect this would be as a setting for a roleplaying game. The pacing of the stories, the rules that the heroes must follow -- it has everything that a great game should have.

Which is why I was surprised and delighted when my latest expedition to the thrift stores won me a copy of the Animorphs board game. For only two dollars.

It's Morphing Time

It was a complete set. Not a single piece or card was missing. It even had the instruction sheet! What a find!

I wasn't expecting much from it. Licensed board games are always kind of lame, heavy on the cute gimmicks and light on the gameplay. Indeed, the box was filled with all manner of unnecessary fold-together cardboard props, and the game box advertised the super-cool holographic "morphing cards" that were inside. It was a cool idea and everything but... when you can only tell what's on a card when it's viewed from a very specific angle, something's wrong. The game comes with morphing card "stands" that are supposed to help players see what form your character has taken, but they aren't especially dependable.

The good news is, the game delivers everything that it should. As a board game in its own right, it offers players a lot of chance for strategy and interpersonal interaction. And as an Animorphs game, it gives players a lot of opportunity (and reason!) to go through a lot of animal transformations.

The board depicts various important locations from the books, connected by a series of sometimes redundant paths that looks like one of those "optimized travel route" puzzles. The path that you're allowed to take depends on the animal that you're morphed into at the time. Humans (and other land mammals) take the standard routes. Dolphins are restricted to the game's few waterways, but no other animal form can travel them. Ants are pitifully slow movers -- their paths have more spaces than other species' -- and eagles can soar about almost at will with paths that can cross the entire gameboard on a single turn.

There are twelve mission cards, one for each major location, but only three are considered "active" at any one time. When you reach a location with an active mission, you can try to accomplish it with a throw of the dice. Depending on what species you arrived as, you may have a harder or easier time of it, which helps to balance the game out. (Dolphins have practically no mobility, but they have the highest rate of success at the missions that they're able to reach.) The missions are based on events from the books, which earned them a few familiarity points with me.

Of course, just as in the books, the players have to be careful about where they morph. Only a few of the spaces are safe havens for morphing. As I played, I found that I was thinking like the kids in the books. I would take on a mobile morph -- especially the eagle -- for travel, slip into a safe morphing square, and then take on the form that I would use for the battle. There's no one form that's favored by the majority of the missions, so there's plenty of reason for the players to switch between them.

Playing cards help to throw a little variety into the proceedings. You need to play a card every time you morph, and luckily, just over half the deck is morphing cards. And while there are nine "wild" cards, most of them will only allow you to take on a particular form. And this adds another level to the gameplay -- will you go to a mission that favors bears if you don't have a bear form available? Or will you travel to something further away? And, of course, there are a number of other cards that will deal out delightful effects -- steal a card from an opponent, double your movement, that sort of thing.

When a player accomplishes three missions, he races to the final space to take on the endgame mission and recreate the end of The Stranger. All in all, not a bad way to end the game.

I guess it's just put me in a good mood to see that a favorite book series has gotten a board game that's more than just a quick cardboard cash-in. I understand there were also video games made, but... until they make a proper roleplaying system out of it, I'll be content with my tabletop game.


Saturday, March 03, 2007


The Greatest Game Ever

I remember it well. It was a bright and cheerful November morning. Folks were lined up outside the Funcoland, ready for the day of the big launch, and I was near the front of the line.

When the doors opened, the clerks announced that they hadn't received as much stock as they'd wanted, and told the people who had pre-ordered that they would get a discount if they were willing to settle for a gray cartridge. I scoffed at the offer, smug in my assurance that my early arrival had earned me the special collector's edition gold cartridge. After all, what had I pre-ordered it for if not for the bragging rights?

I remember paying about seventy bucks for it. The clerk who rang me up offered me the box with a wistful look in his eye. "The store won't let me buy it from here until after Christmas," he confided. "Enjoy it for me, all right?"

I assured him with a smile that I would.

And that was how I came to own The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. I almost immediately joined in the chorus of Nintendo fans who sang its praises far and wide in the hopes of driving away the foul and demonic influence of Sony from this world. "ELEVEN OUT OF TEN!!!" the reviews declared. It was the greatest game ever made! It was a flawless work of art! It belonged in a museum! It cured cancer and AIDS!

I bought right into the hype. And I kept repeating it to myself, over and over. This is an adventure like no other. This is the most absorbing video game experience in the world. The storyline and the characters are deeply moving. This is the only game I'll ever need for as long as I live.

Over and over again, I lied to myself.

Even when it became clear that I wasn't absorbed by it, that I wasn't even happy playing it, that I would never bother to finish it, I continued to cling to the idea that it was a beautiful game, a perfect game, a flawless game.

But eventually, mercifully, the fanboy in me died. And, finally, I admitted to myself, if no one else, that I'd been a dupe, a dummy, a sheep. I'd let other people make my mind up for me.

Don't get me wrong. I can see why other people enjoy the game so much. It's well-crafted and epic in its scope.

But it's not the greatest game ever.

It's made for a very specific audience: the people who enjoyed the rest of the Zelda series. And when it comes down to it, the Zelda series has always forged its identity from its reputation as a hardcore game. From the very first game in the series, which seems like it was designed to sell strategy guides with its obscure and often unmotivated "puzzles", Zelda was an exclusive club where the big boys of the video game world hung out.

And so it was with Zelda 64. Twice I resorted to a walkthrough to figure out how to advance the plot. The first time, it was because I hadn't seen the bottle at the bottom of the lake that I'd needed. The second time, it was because I hadn't the faintest idea that I was supposed to be pushing around tombstones at random until I found the one that the hookshot was hidden under. These weren't puzzles in the sense that a problem was presented to me and I had to work out a solution -- these were simply game-halting tasks that required persistence, patience, or psychic perception on the part of the player. And yet, both times that I resorted to a walkthrough, I felt like I had failed, like I wasn't good enough to figure these things out. It obviously wasn't the game's fault -- it's the greatest game ever, right? -- so it had to be some sort of failing on my part. Right?

This was a perception that I carried with me until I started playing through The Wind Waker. I actually thought it was modestly enjoyable until I came to the slime-infested Deku Tree and spent an hour trying to remove the slimes from it. And that's when I had an epiphany.

The greatest game ever shouldn't be an exclusive club. It should be a game that anyone can enjoy. Hell, that should be self-evident; it should be implied by the title "Greatest Game Ever", but a lot of reviewers live in that exclusive club bubble and don't always see when a game just doesn't appeal to the people on the outside. A game doesn't have to be easy, just accessible. It should never make the player feel cheated, like he never had a chance to figure out the solution.

Thing is, what constitutes the Greatest Game Ever is completely subjective and open to interpretation. One person's Greatest Game Ever may not be the same as another person's. I understand this.

However, it doesn't change the fact that I'm right and everyone who disagrees with me is wrong.

In that spirit, let me explain to whoever wants to read this that Super Mario 64 is, in fact, the Greatest Game Ever. Furthermore, let me give you some reasons why I believe this.

It Keeps Things Simple

Okay, so maybe having a character with 327 different ways to jump and dozens of multi-button moves is a little more complicated than the original Super Mario Brothers. Still, the basics are mostly intuitive and there's rarely need for the more advanced moves.

And while a lot of games like to pile on the complexity as the player gets further in and force him to backtrack with the new moves he's learned (I'm looking at you, Banjo-Kazookie), SM64 is pretty conservative about giving Mario new ways to solve puzzles. Apart from the power star requirements to reach each new stage in the game, the world is usually pretty open-ended. Very rarely will you find an interesting nook or cranny that the game will keep out of reach until you've aquired some sort of special item.

It's Non-Linear

When I got stuck on Zelda 64, there wasn't much I could do about it. Either I had to figure out the solution or give up and read a walkthrough.

You can't get stuck in Super Mario 64. Out of the 120 stars in the game, fully 50 of them are optional -- and you get to pick which 50 you're going to ignore. Hell, the first time my brother and I played through, we crossed the finish line without ever finding the red cap switch or Big Boo's Haunt. Zelda would've scolded us and told us we weren't going anywhere until we'd figured out where they were. Mario let us run off and do something else.

It's Fun to Play

Many, many times I have booted up Super Mario 64 just to take a slide down Cool, Cool Mountain, take a swim with Dorrie in Hazy Maze Cave, climb Tick Tock Clock or Tall, Tall Mountain, screw around in Tiny Huge Island, or just wander around aimlessly in the castle courtyard. The environments are fun to just play in, even if you don't have any particular reason to be there.

If a player feels compelled to play your game just for the sake of playing it -- win or lose -- you've done something right.

It's Epic

Not even the most hardcore of gamers can balk at the sheer mass of this game. There's a wide variety of environments -- Super Mario staples like water levels, ice levels, sky levels, plus a healthy dash of new locations like Tick Tock Clock and Tiny Huge Island -- and 120 different objectives to fulfill. Despite its low barrier to entry, it's a meaty, satisfying game. Quite an amazing feat for a launch title!

While Zelda 64 may be the darling of the hardcore Nintendo fans everywhere, Super Mario 64 is the game with the real widespread, lasting appeal. Both games will endure through the ages, to be sure, but the magic and fun of Super Mario transcends skill levels. It's truly a game for everyone.


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