Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Touch Generations

I miss Touch Generations.

Video games have such a negative image in our culture.  Games are juvenile.  Games appeal to our worse nature.  Games trap us in feedback response loops, turning us into Skinner Box rats.

It was so refreshing to see someone step up and tell us things could be different.  Games can teach us.  Games can help us improve ourselves.  Games can be quiet and gentle, a friendly harbor in the storm of life.  Games can take us places.  It's okay for adults to play.

I know that it's kind of stupid to be fond of a corporate marketing scheme.  Nintendo came up with an idea for a lifestyle where their video games were a necessary component.  I bought into it because they had so many beautiful photographs of fit 60-year-olds in beautiful living spaces, grinning serenely as they poked around with their slick little DS Lites or did yoga poses on a Balance Board or swung their Wii Remotes at their 60-inch flatscreen televisions.  They showed me a fantasy I didn't know I wanted, and I paid in over and over again.

And the brand wasn't always great.  By the end, it was getting pretty saturated.  Some of the games in the set seemed a little shoe-horned (Elite Beat Agents?) and a few were just outright dumb (Personal Trainer: Math).

But you know what?  There was a little something there.  The best of them really followed through on the promise of adding value to my life, whether that was helping me practice real-life skills or just giving me something small, simple, and engaging to chill out with.

These are my favorites.  Not all of these games have the official Touch Generations branding, but I associate them all pretty closely for the feeling you get when you play them.

Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!

The granddaddy of them all, and I still love it.  I bought the sequel, and I have the DSiWare versions, but the original is still my favorite.  I'm not proud that it's mostly because this is the easiest version.

True Swing Golf

For whatever reason, video golf is my go-to for digital sports.  This version, with its touchscreen controls, almost feels like a desktop golf toy.


I have a real dog now, and so I don't play much Nintendogs anymore.  But it always sticks out in my head, whenever I'm at the park or out for a walk and something happens that makes me think, wow, that's just like Nintendogs!  It's quite a cute little pet simulator.

Clubhouse Games

A nice variety of classic board games, card games, and even a little billiards.  Fun in quick bursts, but I can easily find myself getting lost for hours in round after round of Sevens.

Rhythm Heaven

It took a while for Rhythm Heaven to really "click" with me.  I didn't really understand the point of a collection of music games that only featured one song and one rhythm arrangement apiece and no real scoring scheme, but one day it just all made sense all at once.  It's just fun music and cute things happening, and that's great.

Picross DS

Picross has been my logic game of choice ever since I discovered Mario's Picross back on the Game Boy.  It's like potato chips for your brain.  One is never enough.

Animal Crossing: Wild World

Wild World is, in many ways, the weakest entry in the Animal Crossing series to date.  Its world feels stripped down from the Game Cube version, and New Leaf is the superior portable version, but... yeah.  I still drop in on Elms from time to time, even if it's just to pull a few weeds and see who's moved out.

100 Classic Books

I bought this one at the height of my Kindle envy, and even if it's just a collection of public domain works, it's still a sharp piece of software.  Its best feature is a suite of search options that will match you up with a book based on the criteria you give it -- funny, easy to read, not too long, etc.  And the DS itself makes a very charming piece of ebook hardware, with the two screens as facing pages and any number of configurable page-turning options.


Scribblenauts isn't a very strong game simply because the player is so overpowered, but god damn, isn't cool to see what insane ways you can cook up to beat all of the different levels?  Whatever its faults, I prefer it over the later versions that started feeling more like a crossword puzzle than an adventure game.

Jam Sessions

Sweet little piece of music-making software.  I don't play with it enough.

Personal Trainer: Cooking

One of Nintendo's very coolest non-games.  It's a digital cookbook.  There's a variety of ways to sort through recipes to help you decide on something to try.  There's a shopping list feature to keep track of what you need to get to make a recipe.  There's step-by-step instructions that read aloud to you and a few clips of video demonstrations to help you understand certain steps in the process.  There's even a built-in oven timer and a Chef Game & Watch that you can play while you wait.

Personal Trainer: Walking

There's not much software to this one.  Most of the magic comes from the pedometer that you carry in your pocket, which you can link up with your DS to track your daily activity cycles.  And when the Wi-Fi Connection was still up, you could post your steps online to compete in leaderboards and contribute to a global step count.  The world was trying to walk its way out of the solar system.  I didn't keep track to find out how far we got. :(

Cooking Mama

The "Mama" series kind of went off the rails at some point, but the first two Cooking Mama games were a small joy.  It was playing "house" on your DS screen.

Duck Amuck

Yeah, I still love this game.  It's kind of messy and kind of dumb, but it's still charming, like one of those Flash games you keep playing in spite of yourself.

London Life

When I was playing Fantasy Life, it struck me how much it reminded me of London Life, a bonus game included with Professor Layton and the Last Specter.  And small wonder, because they're both games developed by Level-5 and Brownie Brown.  I never paid much attention to it, but I feel like I'll have a new appreciation for it, now that Fantasy Life has sort of primed me for the style of game that it is.


A cool sort of musical toy that you can just sort of sit down and zone out with.  It's a shame the physical version is so rare, but at least now it's downloadable.

Art Academy: First Semester

Really cool piece of software.  Not just a computer paint program, but an actual painting simulation, where you create your palette by mixing colors and you leave realistic brushstrokes on the screen.  It comes with lessons to teach you the basics, and you can export your pictures to SD card to share.

Go Vacation

I'm still on about this one.  Kawawii Island is a place that I want to visit.  It's always fun to drop in, whether it's to swim, ride the train, skateboard down a halfpipe waterslide, ride a snowtube down a mountain, kayak...

Walk it Out!

It's not the best exercise game out there, but damn, Rhythm Island is still a completely wonderful place to visit.  Great music, interesting sights to see, a completely customizable walking route -- it's a great way to take a walk when you can't leave the house.

Wii Sports

Still the king of the motion control games.  Sports and Sports Resort turn your living room into a playground.  Playing tennis is still as much fun as it was eight years ago.

Wii Fit Plus

It's the center of my home gym.  It still feels really good to get on the balance board for half an hour.

Wii Music

For all of its problems, Wii Music is still a pretty cute piece of software.  It's fun to jam for a while, try out Nintendo music with various instruments, and rearrange classical pieces as chiptunes.  If you give it a chance, you can even learn a thing or two about musical style.

Of course, Nintendo has continued to produce many of these games as their own series.  In fact, it's better because many of these games have become downloadable and cheaper.  So maybe it's a little nitpicky and whiny to say that I miss the marketing initiative.  It's like I really need a company to come out and tell me "Here is a lifestyle you might like, and these are the products you need to live it."

But a lot of things come down to perception.  And for better or worse, I do like what these games did to mine.

Going forward?  I am rather curious about Nintendo's proposed Quality of Life platform.  It seems to be a return to the idea of products that make your life better, and I'm interested in seeing what shape that ends up taking.  We'll see how it goes.


Tuesday, December 02, 2014


Super Smash Brothers for Wii U

Back when Super Smash Brothers Brawl was released, Ben Croshaw did a review that got straight up everybody's ass because he hated it and he wasn't afraid to be hilariously cruel about it.  Among his reasons were the facts that battles were too chaotic and button-mashy, and the single-player campaign takes hours and hours to complete.  It did give me pause to wonder if Smash Brothers was actually a terrible game and I was too fanboy-blind to see it, but eventually I was able to dismiss it because ehhhh, that guy hates Nintendo to begin with, it's his job to be a funny fast-talking prick on the Internet, he was never going to like it anyway, etc.

Now Gay Gamer's Wootini has given the Wii U version of Smash Brothers a try, and although he's not as biting, he's got the same basic sort of complaints.  He doesn't know what's happening, it's difficult for him to keep track of what's going on, and since everybody says it's a party game that's better with your friends, he doesn't want to play it alone.  You can see in the video that he has two friends on the couch with him trying to explain to him how the game works, but it's painful to watch because he's clearly still put off by everything that's happening for his first two matches, even with two opponents who are going slow for his sake.

And, of course, I've bought the new version myself.  Because hey, gotta get that Mewtwo download next year, right?  And what do I think of it?

Yeah.  It's Smash Brothers.  The game.  The one which is Smash Brothers.

... *cough*

A part of the problem -- which needs to be addressed -- is that the 3DS version stole a lot of the Wii U version's thunder.  Yeah, this is the bigger, louder, cooler version to own, but there's no getting around the fact that a lot of the fun of a new Smash Brothers game is getting to know the new characters, so I'm not exactly coming into this game fresh.  The new stages are fine and everything, but the new features are primarily for multiplayer.  And since I don't have any personal friends to play this game with, and I have no interest in joining the competitive scene, there's not a lot here to really get me excited.

There's a pattern here.  Masahiro Sakurai created Smash Brothers with the goal of making a fighting game that was accessible to anyone, but he's failing at that goal, and it's for a very important reason.

Smash's single-player is languishing.

Let's Look the First Smash Brothers Single Player in Excruciating Detail

When Super Smash Brothers came out on the Nintendo 64, it was something of an oddball, what with its simple controls, its four-player battles, and its mechanics that required ring-outs rather than simple energy depletion.  Still, it followed the blueprint laid out by fighting games before it.  There's a single-player mode where you fight opponents one at a time, interspersed with minigames and ending in a series of boss encounters.  And then there's a multiplayer sandbox where you set up your own battles with friends and CPUs.

The single-player mode in the first Smash Brothers is wonderful.  It starts with a one-on-one match against a slow CPU Link on a very wide level where the bottomless pits are far away from where you begin.  You have time to learn the controls, it's easy to grab the items before the CPU does, it's easy to stay on the stage, you don't need to learn all of the buttons right away -- it's a great way to begin.  There's also a tornado that introduces the idea of stage hazards.  It's not very dangerous, at least until you hit high damage percentages, but it teaches you that there's more to worry about than just your opponent.

Then you move on to the Yoshi stage.  Now you're fighting multiple opponents at a time.  This requires a different kind of thinking compared to the first level, and it could easily overwhelm a new player.  Fortunately, these enemies aren't very aggressive, and they're easy to knock out with just one or two hits.  The stage is a bit smaller, but there are no hazards.  So they introduce the idea of multiple characters in a way that's easy to cope with.

Then we move on to Fox.  He's more aggressive than opponents we've faced before, but we've gone back down to one opponent to help the player focus.  He also does more shielding and dodges, perhaps encouraging the player to experiment with these mechanics themselves.  The stage is nice and wide again, and now the hazards are a bit more aggressive.

The next fight is against the Mario Brothers.  This time, they aren't the two-hit KOs that the Yoshis were, but you get the advantage of having a CPU teammate fighting with you.  This could be confusing -- after all, we aren't used to playing fighting games where a CPU is on the same team as you -- but by this point, the player is familiar with their own character, and the Mario Brothers are pretty similar both in their appearance and in their move set; it's easier to recognize that your ally is the out-of-place character in the fight.  The stage is also becoming more complex, with a moving platform at the bottom and objects in the air that impede your launching attacks.

Then we get Pikachu.  Back to one-on-one, and the opponent is more aggressive than ever.  More importantly, the stage is much more complex.  There are multiple places where you can fall down and die, moving platforms, and random Pokemon show up that can cause a lot of damage.

Then comes Donkey Kong.  It's a four-player battle with lots of mismatched characters, but it's easy to read because Donkey Kong is visually distinct on account of his size.  The stage doesn't try to hurt you, so it's easier to focus on dealing with an enemy with such wide attacks and which needs so much more damage to knock out.

Then it's Samus.  An aggressive one-on-one CPU battle on a stage with the broadest-reaching stage hazard of all, the rising and falling sea of poison.

Then it's the Kirby team.  It's a series of eight opponents, two at a time, more resilient than the Yoshi team, and you have to take them on alone.

Finally, it's the bosses.  Metal Mario, a one-on-one fight against an opponent that barely flinches and needs insane amounts of damage before you can launch him.  The Fighting Polygon Team, a huge wave on enemies with some resilience that you take on three at a time.  And finally, Master Hand, a final boss that changes up the rules without making all of the things you already learned obsolete.

And along the way, there are minigames.  Break the Targets and Board the Platforms are little platforming puzzles, each tuned to the fighter attempting them, challenging you to think about how each character handles.

Thank God That's Over With, What Were We Talking About?

I think it's important to really dissect this bit of the game because we need to understand how well it works.  It's not just a random collection of battles -- it's a well-tuned, highly designed experience that slowly introduces the player to the game, not just through a rise in difficulty, but with carefully planned scenarios and levels.  It's the perfect way for new players to get to know the rules of the game and what an impact different team matchups make.  They take what they learned and apply it to fights against their friends.

Not only that, but it's a satisfying single-player campaign.  It tells a loose sort of story about rising through the ranks of all of these Nintendo characters and eventually reaching the peak of the mountain where this mysterious hand monster lives.  Bits like a fight against both Mario Brothers at once or eight Kirbys with different copied abilities don't just serve a purpose in the learning curve; they're also iconic sorts of events that Nintendo fans recognize and relate to.

Unfortunately, this kind of experience is getting sort of lost.  Smash Brothers has earned a reputation for being a great party game, but it's come at the expense of losing this single-player experience that draws in new players.

Melee and Brawl gave nods to this original setup with their Classic modes, but they weren't the same, were they?  The matchups were kind of randomized, and it didn't really feel like a story that had been thought out and planned in the same way the original did.  But hey, Melee had Adventure mode, which was the same sort of idea as the original, but with platforming levels in between.  That was pretty cool! And Brawl had The Subspace Emissary, wow!  That was amazing, a huge single-player game that could have been its own stand-alone thing!

But people complained about The Subspace Emissary.  And god dammit, I hate to admit it, but they were right.  Sure, I love it for being a single-player platforming adventure, but it's not a single-player fighting game.  And that's what Smash Brothers needs.  A single-player mode for new players who want to learn the game.  And asking them to sit down to a ten-hour adventure before they can enjoy this party game with their friends is just plain rude.

The problem is, Nintendo's takeaway from the Subspace Emissary blowback was that they shouldn't waste their time on the single-player stuff when everyone just wants the multiplayer party game.  And wow, you can see that in the Wii U version.

You press start, and you're taken to a menu which has a HUGE red button labeled "SMASH", and then a tiny little blue button that says "Games & More", which is where Classic mode has been stashed away.  That's right, the single-player campaign is no longer a headliner.  It's a side game, relegated to the "Other Stuff" pile.  You start it up and... it's a disaster.  Gone is the classic fighting game style tournament tiering, the thoughtfully designed matchups, the idea of progressing through a story.  There's a table with six little piles of fighters on it, and you pick which pile you want to fight against.  Any new player is going to be immediately overwhelmed by all of the options, wondering what any of this stuff means.  You move your character around the table, and if you get too close to one of the piles, you're forced to fight against it.  No room for wandering around and experimenting -- your actions immediately have consequences.  Did you accidentally bump up against the big bunch of six fighters?  Good news! Your introduction to this game is an incomprehensible six-against-one clusterfuck.

It's singularly unsatisfying as a single-player game.  Even with the randomization going on in Melee's and Brawl's Classic modes, at least there was an attempt at themed battles.  When you fought against a team of enemies, they were usually from the same franchise and took place on a level that related to those characters.  This game just feels like... you opened up the multiplayer and set the CPUs and stages to Random.  There's no thought or idea to it.

I mean, I get that people love the party game.  And I'm sure that there are people who got into Smash Brothers without ever once playing by themselves.  But there are people like me who like the Nintendo crossover aspect of it, but want to play alone.  There are people like Wootini who are playing it for their first time and need a way to ease into the chaos.  There are people like Ben Croshaw who... I dunno, I stand by the idea that he never would have liked it, but maybe he would have hated it less if there was a nice, short little single-player bit to help him and his friends make sense of it before they went off the deep end with it.

There was a lot that I was willing to excuse for the portable version just because Smash Brothers has never been portable before.  But the console version is a different story.  Yes, it's beautiful, and there's clearly been a lot of work put into it, and the new characters are awesome, and it's still a lot of fun... but something's missing.

Nintendo's got to take this seriously.  Smash Brothers is their trump card.  It's the thing that everyone loves that nobody else has.  But if they only listen to the entrenched players and commit to the multiplayer mode without welcoming new players with a good single-player experience, their audience is going to shrink.  Considering all of the hoopla Nintendo's heaped on the last two versions, and all of the stuff with Amiibos and Gamecube adaptors and everything for this one?  I think they want to be careful with this cash cow.


Monday, December 01, 2014


Fantasy Life

A lot of video games try to offer you an immersive world where you can be whatever kind of person you want and do whatever you want in a fully realized world, but of course many of them fall short.  Every system has its limitations, and every game sort of gently nudges the player down a certain path.  Animal Crossing encourages the player to gather materials and be nice to their neighbors because that's what you're rewarded for.  Most RPGs encourage the player to pursue combat situations because that's how you gain power and advance the story.

Compared to a lot of other games I've played, Fantasy Life comes closest to the ideal of a world where you can be what you want and do what you want.

If I had to put a genre on it, I'd call Fantasy Life an RPG.  It takes place in a magical medieval fantasy kingdom, and you get to create a character and earn experience points and all that.  The character classes are called Lives in the game, and the first interesting thing is that not all of them are combat-oriented.  You can, if you so choose, become a Cook or a Tailor or a Miner, just as easily as you could become a Hunter or a Mercenary or a Paladin.  Moreover, you stand just as good a chance of finishing the game regardless of your chosen Life because combat isn't very important.  In fact, it's entirely optional.

Let me stress that -- you can finish the entire story of this game without ever once killing anything.  It's not even very difficult.  How do they manage that?  Well, for one thing, this is a real-time RPG as opposed to a turn-based RPG, so avoiding combat is as simple as staying out of the way when wild animals (I'm reluctant to call such obviously natural creatures "monsters") are about.  For another thing, the bosses don't need to be faced head-on.  All of the bosses are "shadow creatures", normal creatures under the influence of a "Doomstone".  If you crack the Doomstone, the creature is freed and it returns to normal.  Of course, you have to do this while dodging its attacks, so it's not a cakewalk.

You might wonder what you actually do in an RPG where there's no fighting.  Well, what do you do in most RPGs?  You solve problems by moving from one place to another, meeting key characters, finding and delivering key items, and fighting bosses.  The only difference here is that there isn't a half an hour of level grinding to do between each plot point.  You still solve problems by moving from Point A to Point B and giving Item C to Character D.

So what's the challenge if you can just run away from everything?  Well... there isn't one.  This isn't a very difficult game.  But that's fine for two reasons.  One is because it has a lovely story with funny and colorful characters.  The other is that every Life is basically its own little game in and of itself.

See, every Life comes with a list of objectives, and as you succeed at them, you level up in that Life and gain new abilities and get new lists of objectives.  So if you're a hunter, you'll be tasked with fighting ever more dangerous creatures.  If you're a cook, you'll have to hunt down the ingredients to ever more exotic dishes.  It might sound odd to level grind by playing the cooking minigame over and over again, but is it any odder than level grinding by fighting the same creatures over and over again?

You can also multi-class.  Say you're a combat character like a Paladin.  You get knocked around quite a lot while you're pursuing your Life goals.  If you want to save some money, you can take a few levels as an Alchemist and brew your own healing potions.  You can save some more money by becoming a Blacksmith and forging your own weapons and armor.  You can save even more money by becoming a Miner and gathering the ore that you need to forge your weapons and armor.  Luckily, none of this daisy-chaining is required if it doesn't interest you, but the best items go to the players who put in the most legwork.

But here's the big question.  They wanted to make a game where you could complete the story no matter which Life you chose, so they couldn't require you to pursue any particular skills.  If you don't need to gain all of these levels and acquire all of these skills to finish the story, then what's the point of doing it?

Well, you do it for its own sake.

See, this is a role-playing game in the "role-playing" sense.  It's about getting an idea for a character and trying to realize that character.  It's about imagining a life for yourself and then leading it.  Some people call it a "life sim", and if you like that description better, it fits.

The game starts you off with this pep talk about all of the possibilities that life has to offer and gets you to think about what you want out of it.  Then the opening cinematic takes you on a fly-by tour of the central city of Castele, and you get a sort of sampler of all the different Lives in the game.  In one scene, there's a little hunter dude who shoots a bird out of the sky while concealed in the bushes, and for whatever reason, this little bit appealed to me.  I saw myself as a hunter, living on the outskirts of town, making a living selling game.  I'd be an independent sort.  Take up Woodcutting and Carpentry and Cooking and Tailoring to supplement my lifestyle.  And then I dared the game to let me build my vision.

And it did!

One of the things you can do pretty early on is move into a log cabin on the outskirts of town, with easy access to the hunting and foraging in the plains beyond.  To my surprise, I found out I could get a hunting dog to go on quests with me.  It's taken me some time, and I've only really gotten experience in Hunting and Cooking so far, but the game has never told me "No, you're doing it wrong."  Halfway through the game, I decided to become a Cook and a complete pacifist just to see what the game would do, and the game was perfectly fine with this.

The game does that wonderful trick of never really contradicting what you imagine your character to be, so your story really becomes your own.  I find myself doing little role-playing things that don't have anything to do with the story or the game mechanics, like "Whoa, it's getting late, better stay here for the night and head home in the morning."  When I'm away from the game, I find myself thinking about how my character feels about what's happening in the game and what's going to happen next.

As an aside, I quite like the Cook's Life.  Every new town you come to, you check the markets for new ingredients and do a little foraging in the surrounding regions.  Then you bundle up all of your new stuff and take it to the nearest kitchen (any restaurant in the game will freely lend you a workspace) and play a little mini-game to fix up some dishes.  You sell for a profit, buy some more ingredients, and so on.  I particularly like the fact that the game will just as happily draw ingredients from your inventory or from your storage without bothering you to switch them back and forth.  I can just drop off my ingredients whenever I come in from a forage, and when I'm ready to cook, I can get on with it.

In fact, as I've said, every Life seems to be its own little game.  Even the bits that sound like they'd be tedious drudge work like Mining or Woodcutting have their own little story arc that has you wandering the world in search of new minerals and woods, little minigames to master, and yes, even bosses to defeat.  I suspect that I'm going to end up trying all of the Lives sooner or later, not because of the strategic advantages of daisy-chaining the gather-craft-adventure mechanics together, but because it seems like they'll all have their own interesting things to do.

The world does have its limitations though.  First, there are gatekeepers to prevent you from wandering too freely before you've advanced the story sufficiently.  Second, you may not be able to reach Master status in some Lives unless you've got some experience in other Lives.  For example, there's a recipe in my list that calls for eels, and I haven't been able to find them in any of the markets.  I'm starting to suspect that I'll need to become an Angler if I'm ever going to get any.  These limitations are pretty visible, but I dunno, I was able to live with them.

So all together?  This game is a pretty neat kind of a thing.  The story is kind of ordinary in its "wander the land and gather the things" kind of way, but it's told well, the characters are cool, it's often very funny, and it's occasionally kind of touching.  The story is supported by a world with an economy of gathering and crafting that you can follow as deeply as you like.  Slice it one way and it's Phantasy Star Online, slice it another way and it's Animal Crossing, slice it a third way and it's Cooking Mama.  Take the bits you like, and leave the rest on the side of the plate.  The game won't mind.

It doesn't really excite me in a "best game in all of forever" kind of way, but it's a very gentle, cozy game in a Professor Layton kind of way.  If you want a game that will give you just hours and hours of stuff to collect and craft, then you should try it.  But if you want an RPG that doesn't require a lot of dull grinding when you just want to get on with the story, then you should also try it.


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