Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Unplugged Dilintia: Flash Duel

In my opinion, the comics are probably the least interesting thing about Penny Arcade; I'm much more interested in the articles. Even though we come from different worlds -- I'm Mac, they're PC, I'm Nintendo, they're real video games -- I appreciate the fact that the people at Penny Arcade, and Tycho in particular, really give a damn about games. To the extent that playing and evaluating games has become their day job, they've never really become sterile, clinical reviewers. They put themselves into the things they write.

And every now and then, they'll put forward a case for something that I would never otherwise have heard about. Today, that is Flash Duel.

I don't want to just sit here and break down the rules for you when you can watch it played yourself. But I do want to say a few things about why I love the game in particular.

First of all, it's amazing just how well this game simulates the one-on-one fighting genre. Not only are all of the rules intuitive, not only do they all make thematic sense, but the way they come together really makes the game feel like a duel. You drive forward, forcing your opponent to retreat repeatedly, until they come up with an unexpected block, counter, and nail you. The language of fighting games transfers over really well here.

Second is just how elegant the game is. The entire game is played with number cards. You don't have a deck filled with "attack", "block", or anything like that - all of your options are always available, and the cards in your hand dictate only the distance they cover. Characters in the game are represented by three cards apiece, one for each special move they can perform. You really don't need a lot of pieces to play the game, which is part of what makes it so fast.

Third is how versatile the game system is. It can handle one on one, two on two, solitaire, and even a cooperative boss fight with up to four players against a giant dragon. I love a game that gives me lots of options.

Finally... the package you get is just so amazingly clever. You get a proper game board, lovely wooden pawns, the sixty character cards, two decks of the numbered cards, and a travel game board -- five cards with the game board spaces printed on them so you can lay them together and play the game on them. There's enough stuff right in the box to play two games at once, or you can combine them together to play with three to five players. But the most amazing thing is the travel box, a pocket-sized case that fits all of the character cards, one deck of number cards, and the travel board. It's everything you need to play one on one (except movers -- they recommend using your own pennies) in a size that you can take anywhere.

I'm terribly fond of travel games, you see. It really tickles me that they've not only thought of people like me, who'd like a portable version of the game, but devised such a clever way to do it and put it right there in the box for you.

So yeah. It's fun and it's great, and it's been on my mind so much that I've been writing a utility for my graphing calculator so that I can play it on the go without even the need for a tabletop to set it on. Go ahead and check it out.


Saturday, February 25, 2012


Where Does This Leave Nintendo?

No doubt about it. I'm a Nintendo fan. Of course, everyone loved Nintendo when they were the only game in town, but as the years went on, their fans were stripped off by this or that competitor. Sega had the better graphics. Sony had the disc. The X-Box had the Live. Fact is, even I have been wooed now and then when someone came out with something that I knew Nintendo would never get. I got a Genesis for Sonic, a Playstation for Dance Dance Revolution, a Dreamcast for Seaman, a PS2 for Karaoke Revolution. But I never strayed far. I stuck around.

For all of the things Nintendo does that baffles and aggravates video game fans, there's always been something about the games they make that speaks to me. They feel somehow more complete, more refined, more interesting. It's nothing I could put my finger on, and I'd never argue with anyone who disagrees. They've just always been my favorite developer; that's just all there is to it. I even love the Wii, front to back -- I still play Wii Fit, and I stand by my defense of Wii Music.

So it's really weird to say that I feel like Nintendo is going to lose me.

The inescapable fact is that the way I relate to video games has changed, as it needed to. My late teens and early twenties were a perfect storm of too much money and free time. I could buy a $70 game without flinching, I could play a 70-hour RPG without neglecting other aspects of my life. But now I have bills to pay, a body to maintain, friends to connect with, aspirations to strive for, a real world to adventure in, and a dog who pines for my company. My time and money are valuable resources to be guarded at all costs.

But I still like video games. They are my very favorite. When I do get free time, my first instinct is to pull out a game device of some sort. I usually have one in my pocket wherever I go. When my mind wanders, I often think about my favorite games and why I like them so much. I just played Warioland II for the first time in forever, and it is so great, you should try it.

So it's not that I've outgrown video games. It's not that I don't want them anymore. It's more that I need different things from them now. My feeling of distance from Nintendo isn't so much that I think they suck or they're doing things wrong; I just feel like I'm not the sort of person they have in mind right now.

Nintendo is riding a transition for two pieces of hardware right now: the DS to the 3DS, and the Wii to the Wii U. Lemme just put forward my misgivings about both of these changes.

Why Aren't I Playing With My 3DS?

There is a lot to like about portable gaming. It's cheaper, there's more funky ideas, it goes everywhere with you, and on and on. Handhelds have long been my favorite kind of video game system, and Nintendo has long been the big name in portable video games. The DS/DSi in particular has been a wonderful platform -- it had lots of weird hardware features, and developers actually discovered interesting ways to use them. And it had the benefit of having just enough processing power to make polygon-heavy games possible while still making simpler, 2D games feel at home. It was the best of all possible worlds.

The 3DS feels like a step in the wrong direction.

Nintendo pushed stereoscopic, glasses-free graphics as the main selling feature; 3D is right there in the name. But this adds some restrictions to what was a pretty flexible system. First, the 3D won't work if you hold it on its side, so no book-style control systems here. Second, the 3D only works if the game is three-dimensional, so fat chance of seeing cool SNES style games. Third, that touch screen isn't exactly 3D, is it? So much for touchscreen games -- developers are going to put all of the action on the top screen now.

Then add a short battery life, and you restrict the portability. And of course, all these 3D games are expensive to design, so we'll also be passing on a larger cost to the consumer. It's as if Nintendo took every single thing that I love about portable games and removed them from the 3DS, systematically, one by one.

Then... you look at the iPad.

Portable? Maybe not pocket-sized, but the battery is good enough for a day out of the house. Versatile? Touch controls can be a little iffy, but they're showing improvement. Wacky ideas? Too many to count. A wide variety of games? This is a platform where games go from Cut the Rope to Minecraft to Grand Theft Auto III. Cheap? Starting at free, I can download several games every week without breaking the bank. iOS is attracting more developers all the time, from the big names in the game industry all the way down to those "garage developers" Nintendo doesn't want to associate with.

In terms of strengths and what it has to offer the consumer, the DS has more in common with the iPad right now than it does with the 3DS.

Why Don't I Care About the Wii U?

When we first saw the Wii controller, video game fans everywhere were stunned. Motion controls! You move your body, and the guy does a thing! How does that even work? I can't wait to try it myself!

When we first saw the Wii U controller, people said, "Oh, a tablet."

I mean... I think I get where the Wii U came from. Motion controls were a worthy experiment, but they've flashed in the pan. Nobody has come up with a better reason for them than Wii Sports. On the other hand, the DS caught fire in a major way. Give the player a tablet controller, and you've essentially turned his console into a DS -- one TV display up top, one touch screen in your lap.

The problem is, tablets have been done. People already have tablets. I already have two! People know what to expect, or at least think they know what to expect. And so far, we haven't heard how Nintendo plans to differentiate themselves. There's a hanging question of how autonomous this thing is going to be -- can it do anything by itself when the mother system isn't around? -- but I'm not particularly interested. What will this thing do that my iPad doesn't already do? I haven't seen the answer, and I'm not giving Nintendo any benefit of a doubt; they have a rather unfortunate track record of releasing peripherals, floating some interesting ideas, and then forgetting it like a Christmas puppy.

Why Does This Bother Me?

I have no investment in Nintendo beyond my role as a customer. If I love my iPad so much, why can't I just go on using that and let Nintendo do their own thing?

I guess it's just because so many of my favorite games have been Nintendo games. And despite predictions from fans and pundits for the last decade, I just can't imagine Nintendo developing for someone else's hardware. I may tell myself that I don't need another Mario or Zelda or Animal Crossing or Smash Brothers, but the world as a whole would be a darker place without them. I want to know that they'll be there.

And there's something else. I can feel a shift in the wind. The idea of purchasing software is becoming muddled. The Freemium model is poised to turn our video games into vampires, charging us little by little as we go. I would like a classic game of The Sims on my iPad -- instead, I get The Sims Freeplay, which offers me the choice of waiting eight hours to complete an action like "go to sleep", or spend real money to play the game in the fast-forwarded time that I'm used to. We're moving backwards to the arcade era, where we rent games one session at a time, with no option to make a flat, one-time payment to enjoy the entire game forever. Game designers would much rather have subscribers than customers.

Nintendo has, historically, been outspoken against this kind of bullshit. Even when they finally set up an online structure, they've been against allowing patches or "free" games. Maybe it was just for their own selfish reasons -- they want their cut of the cash for every unit of fun the customer buys, after all -- but it had the added benefit of shielding the customer from some unattractive business practices. Games had to be in proper working order on day one, not patched together as they went. Developers had to get their profit in one lump sum, not slowly sneaking it away from the customer in microtransactions.

I guess I just don't want to see Nintendo get rolled by all of this. It seems like they're painting themselves into a corner instead of adapting to and improving on the way iOS and Android are changing the face of the market. I don't know enough about business to say if it'll come to Nintendo going out of business or anything, but right now they're making systems that I don't want. To me, that's bad enough.


Monday, February 20, 2012


iCade Roundup

It's kind of startling how suddenly my iPad went from being a "there's some great potential to make this a game system, but I'm just not seeing it yet so I'll just play Tiny Tower in the meantime" machine to being my primary video game console. A number of factors have contributed to this. One is that I'm starting to notice games that were originally released on more traditional game consoles popping up for a couple bucks apiece in the iTunes store. Another is that I got $50 in iTunes credit for Christmas. But top of the list is the fact that I splurged for an iCade.

I've owned a lot of joysticks, from the NES Advantage all the way to the X-Arcade. You could reasonably ask why I've done this, because the kinds of games I typically play usually aren't improved with arcade controls. I've always found a thumb-based directional device to be more accurate and responsive in my home games. Even when I feel like digging out Namco Museum for a game of Pac-Man or something, it never really feels like I'm playing an arcade game, not even when I'm playing with my freaking X-Arcade cabinet that I paid an embarrassing amount of money for and set up in my game room.

The iCade, in contrast, is an absolute joy to use. This is the first thing I have ever owned that has successfully brought the feeling of the arcade home for me. When I sit behind it, I feel like I'm eight years old again, at a Chuck E. Cheese, except the tokens never run out.

Part of it is just how well the iPad and iCade work together. Obviously the iCade was made with the iPad in mind, but it almost seems as if the iPad was also designed with the intention of one day sitting it inside a small desktop arcade cabinet. The portrait orientation gives it an uncanny resemblance to a number of classic standup machines, especially Pac Man and Galaga.

Another fact is that iOS allows you to switch applications so effortlessly. My experience with arcade games on home consoles is... less than elegant. Say you pop in Namco Museum on your Game Cube. You have to wait for it to load up, then go through all of the opening credits and logos and everything before you finally get to select your game. It comes up on the screen, but the resolution's wrong and there are weird borders that are supposed to remind you of arcade cabinet art. By that point, the magic's lost; you're not tricking yourself into thinking you've got a Pac Man machine at home. Then say you want to play Rampage, so you switch discs to Midway Treasures, and go through the whole loadup all over again. With iOS, you buy all of your games individually, and then you can put them together into folders. Just tap your Arcade folder, then pick the game you want. Press the home button to exit, tap the next game. This is a lot closer to the real experience of playing at an arcade -- you just wander from one attraction to another. (And, of course, many games allow you to run your playlist as you play; queue up some 80s music to run in the background for a true arcade experience.)

And the unit itself is just... perfect. It's just completely beautiful to look at, a small work of art. When you sit down in front of it, the shape and depth of it give you that immersive feeling that arcade cabinets are supposed to give you, where your field of vision is blocked off and you're in your own little retreat, alone with the game. Even the way the sound echoes around inside it reminds me of the way old cabinets used to sound.

Of course, none of this would mean anything if there were no games to play with it. Indeed, the list of compatible apps is relatively small, but damn, there sure are some good ones. Here's a few of my favorites:

Pac-Man for iPad

Pac-Man is the headliner, the big granddaddy of arcade video games. If this device didn't get his support, there'd basically be no point to it.

I won't lay any claims to arcade accuracy -- I haven't tested any of the patterns in my copy of Mastering Pac-Man -- but everything else about it is... stunning. It looks exactly as if they've shrunk a Pac-Man machine and put it on your desk. Pac-Man is kind of a ho-hum game compared to your RPGs and your Super Mario, but when I was little, I was as crazy about Pac-Man as anyone. This version takes me right back to my childhood. It's addictive again.

Now, if we can just get Ms. Pac-Man to follow suit and update with compatibility, we'll be all set.

Temple Run

Man is this game addictive. It's just this randomly-generated platformer where your character runs forward automatically and you have to jump, duck, and weave left and right to collect coins and avoid hazards. No sooner do you smack into something than you're slapping the replay button to give it another shot. It really looks and feels like a classic arcade game, kind of like a more interactive Dragon's Lair.

Dragon's Lair needs a compatibility update too, come to think of it.


Atari's Greatest Hits is positioned as the killer app for the iCade -- it's plastered all over the box, and it comes with a diagram to explain how all of the buttons work in all of the games -- but I honestly don't see it. While it's awfully nice of them to support the device, most of the classic Atari games didn't use your standard 8-directional joystick; they used trackballs or dials or weird stuff like that. Many games just plain control better with touch controls.

Of course, Atari 2600 games used a joystick, so the authenticity with those titles is great -- it's just that, by and large, Atari's unlicensed Atari 2600 games are pretty shitty. The only game I want to play in the set? Adventure. It's fun on your TV, it's fun on your DS, and somehow it's even more fun when you're playing it on a screen that's propped up on a simulation of a 1980s arcade cabinet.

League of Evil

There are presently two League of Evil games for iOS, and both of them are really excellent and well worth your time. They're tough platformers filled with double jumping and wall jumping and lots of fun and ridiculous obstacles. I've never been fond of joystick controls for platformers (especially, say, Super Mario Brothers), but this game just feels so wonderfully natural. I'm jamming the joystick back and forth, mashing buttons, and my little guy on the screen just bounces around doing all these cool split-second moves, and I'm never thinking about how I'm doing it. I have slightly more affection for the original game over the sequel because of its more 8-bit look, but really they both really feel like great arcade games.


A single-button platformer. Your character moves forward automatically, and you have to time your jumps to get him to avoid obstacles, collect trinkets, and defeat enemies. It's more challenging than you'd expect a one-button game to be, like a Wario Ware game fleshed out into a whole game. Since it is just one button, the iCade doesn't really improve the controls terribly, but the look and feel of the game fits right in with the arcade theme.


This is a wacky mountain-climbing game about breeding goats. As the view scrolls slowly upwards, you have to jump from platform to platform, finding male goats to "kiss", and then eating all of the grass off of the platforms until you give birth. Get as many kids as you can and climb as high as possible. The game is fun enough, and it has a really pleasant neo-retro look and feel -- lots of low-res characters mixed with cool flashy special effects.

Of course, if you really want the authentic arcade experience on your iPad, you need more than just video games. Consider some of these classic attractions (none of which have any iCade support at all):

Glow Hockey

It's air hockey. You can even play with a friend by setting the iPad on a table, and each player grabs a paddle with his finger. The screen is big enough to make the game really playable. Isn't that neat?

Skee-Ball HD

It's amazing how zen-addictive Skee-Ball is when you don't have to keep pushing tokens into it. This app really brings Chuck E. Cheese home by paying out virtual tickets that you can exchange for virtual crappy toys. I admit it -- I've bought several DLC packs to stock my imaginary arcade with ever-weirder plastic junk.

Pinball HD

I haven't tried a lot of pinball apps, so I can't whole-heartedly recommend this over any other package in particular, but I will say that this game suits my particular needs. That is, it turns your iPad into a pinball machine. The table takes up the entire screen, so you can play the game without any disorienting scrolling, yet it's large enough that the layouts are interesting.

The really interesting thing about all this, of course, is that my prophecy is coming true, sort of: Think Geek is coming out with a handheld version of the iCade that you can slip into the bag next to your iCade. Very, very soon, the iPad will be a game console that you can stick in a bag, prop up, and play anywhere. The question this naturally raises is, where does that leave console companies?

I hope to talk a bit about that next time.


Saturday, February 18, 2012


Twisty Passages, All Alike

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?