Sunday, January 27, 2008


Jive Pod

I remember Tiger Electronics primarily for their heyday in the late 80's and early 90's, when they were probably the leading producer of standalone LCD video games in America. They distinguished themselves from other makers of Game & Watch knockoffs by 1) making games that weren't clocks; 2) licensing some of the biggest names in console and arcade gaming; 3) making games that generally weren't a variation of "move between three different spots on the screen and catch/avoid the things coming at you". They really hit their stride when Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat became big name items -- it was super easy to translate a game with only two on-screen characters into an LCD handheld, and the games were often quite a bit of fun.

I threw what support I could behind them when they started branching out into real game systems -- first with the lovably peculiar R-Zone, and then with the dead-on-arrival But as video game systems increasingly trended toward machines that could render photorealistic landscapes in real time, their presence in the industry vanished, and their output was reduced to Furbies and Furby-like electronics.

But I still have a soft spot in my heart for good old Tiger Electronics. Even now, long after what was left of the company has been consumed and digested by Hasbro Toys, it's nice to see their name on a new product. In this case, it's a toy with such a great concept that it's hard to imagine why it took this long for someone to come up with it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Jive Pod.

The Beat is On

The Jive Pod joins a long, proud family of faddy toys that encourage you to hook them up to your iPo-- er, personal music player. The Jive Pod's hook is that it will turn any music you feed it into a Dance Dance Rev-- I'm sorry, rhythm action game.

I'm sure you have many questions. I will answer the ones I have anticipated in order of importance.

The unit is basically a glorified speaker, meaning that it will not actually store your music for you. The way it works is, you plug in any audio source into its fairly universal eighth inch input jack. The music will stream straight through the system's speaker (or, if you plug them in, headphones). The unit will happily act as a passive speaker if you want it to -- in fact, leave it idle, and it'll put on a little light show for you that moves in time to the music you play. (It should also be noted that the game has some simple built-in music for you to play with, should you find yourself without an external source. It's not bad, just kind of generic.)

When you push a button on the unit, the system will start analyzing the music that's playing through it, and a couple seconds later, it will start to generate a more or less random beat sequence that moves at whatever tempo it has calculated your song to be playing at. The unit will continue to monitor the tempo of the song as it plays, and you may find that the pace jumps and dips as a song progresses. The game continues until your music stops, but because of the way the system tries to anticipate what's going to happen next in the song, you'll find yourself with a couple leftover beats at the end.

The actual gameplay is fairly standard rhythm action stuff. Colored arrows move from the center of the unit to the buttons at the four corners, and when they light up the buttons, you have to hit them with the beat. The game comes with three difficulty settings: Boring, Boring, and Easy. Well, that's not strictly fair -- the difficulty has a lot to do with the songs that you decide to play and how the game decides to interpret the rhythm. Still, the system does seem to trend toward keeping a moderate, steady beat; on faster songs, you may find that the tempo of the game is about half the tempo of the song.

The toy has a few problems, of course. First, and hardest to deal with, is the fact that there's no audio feedback when you hit a beat. All it would need is a little "pop" whenever you hit the beat correctly. Most rhythm games are fun because they make you feel like you're contributing to the music somehow, but this one? You're just punching arrows while music plays.

Secondly, there's the lack of scoring. At the end of each performance, you're basically given a grade -- a number of lights on the unit light up to represent how well you did, and the unit plays a clip featuring an appropriate audience reaction. It's just not enough detail -- I tend to ace every song I play. A three-digit display to show hit percentage or max combos would have been neat.

But that's all right, because this is just such a cool toy. The instant gratification of turning any song you want into a rhythm game is neat. The effect isn't perfect; if a deluxe model was made, I'd want it to have the smarts to pre-process a song rather than streaming it directly, the better to smooth over transitions in tempo and detect where the important beats should go. Still, it works well enough to give you something that's eminently playable. And when you get just the right song playing -- Weird Al's "Hardware Store" is a perfect example -- it's bliss.

I have a mad desire to make gameplay videos. Heaven help me.


Saturday, January 26, 2008


Big Brain Academy

Maybe I've been too hard on Big Brain Academy in the past. But when you're riding on the coattails of the Brain Age phenomenon, you set yourself up for some high expectations.

Lately, however, Big Brain Academy has started to grow on me. While Dr. Kawashima takes his mental fitness seriously -- scolding you for slacking off and limiting your sessions to minutes a day -- Professor Lobe gives you a mental playground that you can fool around with at your leisure. It may or may not give your frontal lobe the stimulation that it so richly craves, but it'll give you the quick, low-impact fun that you need every now and then.

The DS game has fifteen activities that can be engaged in one of two ways. You can go after each activity individually and set your own difficulty level, or you can go for the Test, which chooses five activities for you (one from each of the game's five categories) and adds your scores together to arrive at your completely unscientific "brain weight".

Each activity is presented as a series of problems. You get sixty seconds to solve as many of them as you can, as accurately as you can. The better you do, the more difficult they become. The worse you do, the easier the game gets, allowing you to make a comeback. Several of the activities are a lot of fun outside of the context of the test. My favorites include a tanagrams puzzle, a puzzle where you have to decide the heaviest character on the screen based on a series of diagrams that show you their relative weights, and a puzzle where you have to figure out which square on a grid a dog will finish on if he follows the directions shown on the top screen.

My only real beef with the game is that the challenges are only available in sixty-second bursts. It seems like an activity ends just when it's starting to get interesting. There's no mode where you could, say, race to see how quickly you can finish sixty puzzles.

For twenty bucks, the game does what it needs to.

Wii Degree

I probably never would have bought Big Brain Academy at the full fifty dollars if it wasn't dictated by the Wii bundle I ended up buying through the online Walmart store. But since I have it, I'm not about to get rid of it. (Sadly, I couldn't say the same thing about Super Paper Mario.)

The neat thing about Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree is that it's an additional step removed from its Brain Age inspiration, which means it has more of a feeling of coming of its own as its own kind of game. There are fifteen brand new activities, with five more to unlock. The game has a slightly different structure. First of all, instead of trying to see how many activities you can complete in a time limit, the object is to see how quickly you can complete a set number of problems. Secondly, instead of basing your performance in a category on a single activity in the Test mode, the game shuffles up the available activities and bases your score on a more even assessment of how well you can do in all activities across the category.

The minigames are fun, and slightly more imaginative than in the first game. Where the first game would ask you to simply do an arithmetic expression and key in the answer, Wii Degree gives you a mallet and tasks you with knocking out all of the numbers on the screen that don't contribute toward a target sum. Where the first game would have you remember a sequence of noises and play them back, Wii Degree asks you to play them back in reverse.

The games aren't blockbusters, but they do their job well -- keeping you completely compelled for half an hour at a time. There are hooks to these games. You won't find much meat, but you'll be pulled back for more time and again.


Friday, January 25, 2008


Thoughts From the Embedded Game Demo


Sunday, January 20, 2008


Beating Harvest Moon GB

I was in a grocery store one evening in 1998, flipping through a copy of EGM that I had no intention of buying, as I was wont to do in my pre-internet years. As I drank in pages of precious video game information as rapidly as I could, an ad caught my eye. The publisher was Natsume, and they were promoting their two latest Game Boy games: Harvest Moon GB and Legend of the River King. I can't remember the wording, but I still remember the hook that caught me -- they were RPGs about normal life.

I remember the circumstances perfectly. I had just received a promotional video from Nintendo/Toys R Us about a game that was coming out soon called Pokemon. It seemed like a pretty neat idea for a game, but it was still well over a month away. These games seemed like a pretty cool way to to pass the time until it came out. (Ah, the days when I had the time and disposable income to buy stopgap games!)

Legend of the River King struck me as being a hopeless, inscrutable mess of a game. I gave it a second chance with Legend of the River King 2, but I just never got into it. But Harvest Moon! Now that was fun.

My love of Harvest Moon grew and faded over the years. I ended up getting all three Game Boy versions (not to mention doubling up on the first game for the Game Boy Color version), Harvest Moon 64, Friends of Mineral Town, A Wonderful Life, and Magical Melody. Much to my dismay, however, I found that the series was beginning to favor an ever more realistic and complicated simulation of farming. I didn't want to go mining for materials to improve my tools, I didn't want to monitor my cows' pregancy cycles, I didn't want to mill my own chicken feed -- I just wanted to pick vegetables, throw them at a box, and watch it bounce as it magically turned my produce into real cash money. After Magcial Melody, I made a vow to never again buy another Harvest Moon product, and so far, it's stuck.

Going Back to My Plow

Recently, I've had a craving to play Harvest Moon again, so I figured it would be a good starting point for my resolution to replay my old video games this year. I went back to the one that started it all, for me anyway: Harvest Moon GB. The black & white version.

I went through most of the spring just enjoying myself and getting back into the game's quirks. From the music to the underground mushrooms to the menu-based town to the secret stash of money in the drawer next to your bed, everything was instantly comfortable and familiar.

As I neared the end of spring, I started to wonder if anyone had discovered any new or interesting secrets in the nearly ten years since it first came out. A quick browse of GameFAQs turned up at least one tidbit that I'd never encountered on my own -- praying to the Harvest Goddess has a chance of rewarding you with a Blessed Cow -- but the thing that caught my interest was a list of conditions for making Ranch Master.

See, I've never played the original SNES version of Harvest Moon. I wasn't aware that the game was originally designed with a finite narrative in mind. I've always approached Harvest Moon games the way I would approach traditional Sim games, just an open-ended sandbox where you could farm as you saw fit. Sure, I've read that little story in the instruction book, but I've played this game several times in the past, and I've never had the game end after the first year, so I never really took it seriously.

But it makes sense. After all, most of the challenge of a Harvest Moon game is concentrated into the first year -- clearing the land, earning enough money to buy livestock, that sort of thing. The game actually gets easier the further you get into it.

It was a challenge. Specifically, it was a challenge that I was completely capable of meeting. So when Summer rolled around, I rolled up my sleeves and dug into it. I was going to be Ranch Master.

The game was suddenly a lot more interesting. Normally, the Fall and Winter are dull because I've already earned 99,999 gold and gotten all of the upgrades I need, thanks to printing money all summer with my tomato crops, but now I had a purpose: I needed to get 4500 units of produce shipped! And after slacking for a good deal of the Spring, well, I had my work cut out for me.

It forced me to realize new things about the game. For example, you can stay up very, very late with little penalty. Time stands still when you're underground. When you're completely exhausted, you can hop in the hot springs ten times in a row to boost yourself back up to 100%. I developed a new plowing pattern that filled up the entire southern half of the farm, yet was very easy to water with the sprinkler. And, most importantly, I discovered that you could plow nearly 100% of your farm without making it look bad.

As the end of the winter rolled around, I went for broke. My last day was spent plowing the twenty or so squares that were left, then running into town to fill my pantry to the top.

The spirit from the beginning returned to tally things up. I got the same ending I always did -- I was short by about 50 happiness points, no doubt due to missing a special event and not raising a cow.

I enjoyed the experience, and I plan to make the attempt again sometime with slightly better planning. But for now, I'm starting to rekindle my love for Puzzle Quest.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law

The abuse stops now.

Harvey Birdman is not a long game or a difficult game. In fact, it's barely a game at all. It is, essentially, five episodes of the Harvey Birdman TV show that have been sliced up and strung together with the very minimum of a user interface. It has the look and feel of one of those "games" they tuck away in the special features menu on a kids' DVD, or a Flash-based Choose Your Own Adventure cartoon.

It is also three hours of solid entertainment, with at least as many laughs as the TV show on which it was based. It's an experience that you will enjoy, and it will fill your brain with memories that you will be glad to have. I cleared the entire game, beginning to end, in one long, giddy session on the same day that I bought it, and it left me craving another go at it.

The only real problem with the game is the price. Three hours of entertainment may or may not be worth $40 to you. So rent the game. Laugh. Love. Move on.

What, you need to know more?

The Inevitable Comparison

Like many people, I was expecting an experience akin to Phoenix Wright, only with Harvey Birdman characters. I was surprised -- and impressed -- that they kept the pacing and the style of the storytelling more in line with the cartoon than with the Ace Attorney games.

See, Phoenix Wright can be a little weird sometimes. But it's a game full of twists and turns and lovingly drawn-out storylines. Birdman stories -- created to fit into a fifteen minute block in Adult Swim -- are punchy, ruthless, and often confounding. Where a courtroom chapter in Phoenix Wright could see one or two witnesses revising and expanding their testimonies four or five times as Nick slowly peels away the layers of artifice, Birdman's courtroom scenes usually have only one witness, and there's usually only one major piece of evidence you need to present. The most intense cross-examination in Harvey Birdman is a pale shadow of, say, Phoenix's courtroom battle against Frank Sahwit.

If you've played any of the Phoenix Wright games, you'll be shocked by how easily your clients are acquitted, how little resistance your opposition puts up, and how readily the villains crumble. If you went in expecting a Phoenix Wright game, you'll be painfully disappointed.

On the other side of the coin, fans of the show may be put off by retreaded material. I don't know, though, because I sort of stopped watching Adult Swim shortly after the sixth episode of Harvey Birdman aired. But a brief glance through an episode guide suggests that there are a lot of themes at work here that are pretty similar to existing episodes. So watch out for that! I guess!?

In the end, this is a game that takes elements of Phoenix Wright and Harvey Birdman and turns them into a product that works best if you're familiar with neither of them. Enjoy it with my compliments.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008


Why Do I Play?

Every once in a while, Penny Arcade has a really funny comic, but that's not really the reason why I keep up with the site. I vastly prefer the blog portion of the website, where two widely experienced gaming enthusiasts share their insights about the medium as a whole and, on occasion, steer me toward an enjoyable niche experience that I would have otherwise missed, like Puzzle Quest or Chore Wars.

Last month, they did a comic about Gabe's experience at his grandmother's house over the holidays, which led to a brief, yet tantalizing discussion about the fact that people play games for different reasons.


People play games (videogames included) for a number of reasons, and those motivations make different types of games more appealing than others. We're not measuring laser-cut slabs of aluminum here, with precise angles and volumes. We're talking about a context in which the weight of each element depends on the person viewing it. I will often read a review of a game I have played and cry aloud at its content, as though they were making false claims about demonstrable, physical phenomena. It's like I am gesturing with my whole body at what is obviously a pumpkin, and being told that the object on the table is, in fact, an opossum. They aren't liars, or villains. They are gamers. They simply have a different sort of metabolism, one that craves peculiar, to my mind heretical fare...

...That's a pretty serious distinction - people who play games in order to excel at them, and those who play games as a conduit to fantasy - and its only one axis of the diagram.


...I realised I don't play games for the challenge. I don't need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls "new art". I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them I play games to see them. Coming to that realisation was actually sort of important for me.

And the whole thing has gotten me to thinking... Why do I play video games? What motivates me?

So I thought I'd take a look through my video game collection, look at some of my favorite games, and try and see if it reveals anything about what makes me tick, as a gamer.

Games as a Conduit to Fantasy

Tycho hit the nail on the head with this comparison. I've wondered for some time now what attracts me and keeps me coming back to some of the more obviously mediocre games that I own. There's one in particular: the Game Boy version of "Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues". It was a cash-in, a piece of filler material released between the first two Jurassic Park movies to make a little more money off of the name. It's a horribly average run and gun platformer, and yet I loved the hell out of it.

Given Tycho's explanation, the reason is obvious -- to me, the fact that I'm in Jurassic Park, running around shooting dinosaurs, is appealing enough that I can overlook the rest of the game's shortcomings.

The fantasy element seems to be the strongest factor in my gaming decisions. Games that let me be or do something that I've never done before instantly catch my attention. Whether it's leading an adventuring party, raising a profitable farm, performing delicate surgery, flying a gyrocopter, building a city or a skyscraper, defending the innocent in court, rampaging through a metropolis as a sixty-foot wolf, playing golf in the Mushroom Kingdom, surviving on a deserted island, cooking up a world-class meal, or simply playing the part of a character from my favorite movie or TV show, the role I play is one of the first things that comes to mind when I decide to buy a new game or, indeed, try to figure out which game from my vast library I should engage in.

When I'm playing a game to live out a fantasy, I don't necessarily need it to be challenging; in fact, a game that's too challenging can be detrimental. I basically want an interactive toy box -- I want action figures that can play back with me. I want to step on stage at a karaoke place and have the crowd go nuts. When I play fantasy games, I want to be powerful, in control. I don't mind being pushed, but I want to have the power to push back.

The fantasies I enjoy tend to be cartoony in nature. As a general rule, I don't like games with gritty realism, a lot of blood, or a heightened sense of danger. I prefer light-hearted, swashbuckling adventure. I don't want to play a game that's going to scare me out of my wits. I don't like being stuck in a first-person perspective, and I don't like being shot at.

Games as a Challenge

This is not to say that I don't like a good challenge. But there's a difference between a game that you have to be good to win at it, and a game where there's no room whatsoever for error, where you're stuck doing the same level over and over again for an hour, trying to beat it. I like games that require skill and strategy, but I hate games that require perfection.

The best action games are the ones where you know how to win, and it's simply a matter of applying your skill. There are countless excellent examples of games that I'll play for the challenge -- Rayman 3 for Game Boy Advance, Yoshi's Island, any of the Super Mario games, Wii Sports, Super Smash Brothers, Elite Beat Agents, Dance Dance Revolution, Space Channel 5, Game & Watch games, Wario Ware games, Dragon's Lair, Atari 2600 Adventure, Pac-Man, and so on.

And I love mind games just as much. In general, I prefer games that favor thought and deduction over games that require knowledge or experimentation. And by that I mean that I prefer a puzzle where I know all of the rules in advance, and the gameplay is simply an application of those rules. Games like Picross and Puzzle Quest and Tetris, games where you can't solve the puzzle just by "knowing the answer", like the obstacles in a Zelda game.

There are challenges that I don't like. I don't like games where I'm racing, whether it's a restrictive time limit or a physical competitor. I don't like games that require extensive exploration (this is in contrast to games that simply reward extensive exploration). And I don't like a game where my progress is blocked by walls made of obscure expectations.

The best challenges are the ones that are obviously possible, but require some effort to surmount them.

Games as Novelty

If a game is novel enough, I will desire it, and there's usually very little that can deter me. My disdain for games about the undead was overcome by the novelty of typing zombies to death in The Typing of the Dead. I bought a Dreamcast because I had to experience Seaman, and I got my PS2 primarily as a platform for Karaoke Revolution games. I tracked down a copy of Austin Powers: Oh Behave! for the Game Boy Color, even though I knew it was crap, because I was fascinated by the idea of turning a Game Boy into a palmtop. I revel in the absurd. The more crazy joysticks you need to use, the better.

About the only thing that can deter me from a strange game is the price tag. Much as I'd love to get a Rock Band set, I'd also need a new console to play it with. And much as it would be completely worth the expense, it's just not in the cards for me to throw around that kind of money right now.

Games as Narrative

A game doesn't need to have a good story, but it's appreciated if it does. There are games I will go back to time and again -- Dragon's Lair, Phoenix Wright, Space Channel 5 -- just because I love the way the story plays out. There are basically people of two minds about games that you can "solve". Some people don't like the fact that the challenge has been all sucked out of it. But me? As long as a game is fun to see in action, I'll go back over and over, no matter how easy it is.

But beyond the joy of a well-scripted game, there's also a certain delight to be had from a "story" that unfolds organically as you play. The earliest and most minimalistic RPGs are the best for games like this, although Sims titles are good for it too. Lacking any sort of pre-scripted behavior, characterization, or plotline, characters will sometimes start to take on a life of their own in your head, and stories will start to unfold that are uniquely theirs.

There was a moment that I'll probably never forget when I was playing Survival Kids on the Game Boy Color. I was up in the mountains, and my way home was blocked by a mountain lion. I was completely trapped. The only way to get to safety was through the mountain lion. Those things are dangerous -- they can rip you apart in two hits. I kept my distance and attacked with my bow and arrow. We pursued each other, day and night. I hunted by torchlight. I grew tired, but the mountain lion weakened with every strike. Finally, I brought it down, cooked it, and ate it. It was one of the most satisfying gaming moments I'd ever had.

Games have the capacity to tell us a story that's slightly different every time we see it. Many good games act as a conduit to storytelling.

Games as Games

And, of course, sometimes a game is simply a game. Nothing more than a leisure activity, a mental or physical sport.

I don't much like direct player versus player competition, simply because I'm not very good at video games and I get my feelings hurt pretty easily. But there are games that I don't mind losing to a computer. A computer won't gloat or brag or hold its victory over my head. I like having an opponent that's only as difficult as I want them to be.

When it comes to traditional sports games in video game form, I'm usually attracted to golf games, track and field games, and tennis games. I especially like the physical aspect that the Wii controllers bring to these sorts of games, and Wii Sports Baseball is probably the only video baseball game I'll play. I love Ham Ham Games for presenting its tournament of Summer Games as a week-long experience where you get to play each and every event, the only consequence being whether you win or lose at the end. I also like "sports" that are uniquely the domain of video games, like Super Smash Brothers or Super Dodgeball -- fantasy sports that resemble real games, but with distinctly fantastic gameplay.

And although video game adaptations of traditional board and card games tend to be a pretty good time, such as Monopoly or Ultimate Card Games, I also like the games like Mario Party, Pokemon Trading Card Game, and Puzzle Quest.

The neat thing about sports and board games is their potential for variability. They never unfold exactly the same way twice. No matter how bad you are, there's always the possibility that you'll squeak through with a victory, and no matter how good you are, the possibility for defeat always looms over you. This makes them a lot more interesting to replay than most adventure games or, indeed, a lot of arcade games, where the game world is set in stone from the beginning and will always react in the same way.

Why Do I Play?

A lot of reasons. I play to see new things, to do things I couldn't do otherwise. I play to see stories unfold and to find out what's going to happen next, how it's all going to end. I play to challenge myself, but also to comfort and reassure myself.

I think that's good enough for now.


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