May 082011

[Edit 11/13/11: Some five months after opening my game image section, Art Gallery, this post still gets a very large number of hits from Google searches, so I am removing the images from it. If you found this page from a Google image search, please head to the link above to find the art in question..]

When I started making the posters I mentioned in my last post (is a link to the prior post on a blog site necessary? It is here), I’m glad I started with Zak McKracken. Had I begun with Final Fight, I might have been discouraged enough to think this wasn’t worthwhile. This was a tough poster to put together.

Before we get to the poster, let’s talk about Final Fight, which is only one of the greatest games ever made. If you don’t happen to know Final Fight, there are a few steps you should take to remedy that. First, slap yourself in the face repeatedly. While you’re doing that, I recommend crying out phrases such as “What is wrong with me?” When your spouse, family member or neighbor comes along and asks why you’re doing this, tell them you don’t know Final Fight. If they’re not too ashamed to disown you, they might help enlighten you, which can be done via an old-school arcade, MAME, or if you’re lazy and willing to spend some money, picking up the very excellent Final Fight/Magic Sword Double Impact on XBox Live or the PSN.

Double Dragon was the grandfather of all modern-style beat-em-ups and Final Fight would be the father of them, for lack of better genealogical charting. It took the fighting action of Double Dragon, made it more fluid and faster-paced, threw in more enemies and weapons, added smashable items and health-replenishing food and, certainly helping its long-term popularity, had great graphics. While Final Fight is no Metal Slug 3, its art style still holds up over 20 years later. So, if you don’t know Final Fight, you need to remedy that as a basic part of your gaming education.

While I put an awful lot of work into this, the overall layout isn’t entirely original, or really at all original. My entire intention here was to replicate something I knew I’d never be able to find or afford, which is the arcade flyer for the game distributed back when the game was released. Scans for this item can be found online, but they’re all in small resolution with washed-out color and details, unfit for printing. I wanted something that looks like it just stepped out of 1989, with a pocket full of tokens and an afternoon to spend beating people up. Now at this point, I’m going to talk about how I made this in detail. If you’re not interested in that, you may want to skip ahead by hitting Control-F and searching for “Final Fight image”.

To do this, I analyzed the flyer itself to determine what components were needed: the background art, the Capcom logo, the Final Fight logo and, yes, the copyright text–for authenticity, you see. The background art wasn’t too difficult: I was able to find a good-sized scan taken from the Capcom Design Works art book that could be increased to the needed print resolution without artifacts appearing. As a direct scan from an art book, the image was crisp and colorful. The original image, however, was designed for a longer print (perhaps 11×17) instead of 11×14, so I had to lose some space at the bottom.

The Capcom logo was a little trickier; it’s hard to find a high-res image of that logo on a black background (at least for me); I ended up taking the logo from one of the existing flyer scans, touching up the edges and then taking the center part of a better, crisper logo and dropping it in so that at least the inside of the logo looked perfect. I drew black borders around the edges of the poster according to the original flyer.

Copyright text was added by doing a font analysis online from a scan of the font Capcom used in their late 80s materials. The closest match I could find was Faxfont, which looks almost identical, especially since it’s so small in the print.

That left just the Final Fight logo, which took more time than the entire rest of the poster combined. Let’s just say that finding a high-res image of the correct Final Fight logo is no small feat. This is not the proper Final Fight logo, nor is this or even this (although it’s closer); the actual logo has a certain brick placement and other small details and by God, I was going to have them. Where to get that was a tough question. It was only when searching through Google that I spotted where one could get the logo: the cover of the Final Fight soundtrack, GSM Capcom 3, which I purchased more than a decade ago. I pulled out our scanner, scanned in the CD case and painstakingly, over the course of hours, edited out the logo bit by bit from the black-and-white marbled morass it was placed on when they released the soundtrack. At long last with that done, I was ready to put all the pieces together and so here we are.

This Final Fight image is a great and unusual piece of art. Not only does it combine an uncommon use of isometric perspective, as opposed to frontal or side view which was common for the time, but your protagonists don’t even show their faces: Guy and Cody have their backs to the viewer, and Haggar (mayor of Metro City and the father of the girl you’re trying to rescue in the game) isn’t even present. At a time when even Capcom’s art normally featured heroes who were prominently in your face (see Commando, Ghosts n’ Goblins, Legendary Wings, Forgotten Worlds, etc.), it’s almost strange to have characters not practically hamming it up.

Notice how Andore (an enemy in the game patterned after Andre the Giant) is down in a pool of blood, the same blood dripping off Cody’s hand, while Guy is gearing up for but not actually delivering a kick. This “you missed something cool and something else cool is about to happen so don’t miss that” vibe compels you to want to play and see more. The faces of the two game enemies that we can actually see are nothing special and the one on the left (J) actually looks more like a mutant than the person he is in the game but, hey, nothing’s perfect. Fan-obsession Poison was not included; Capcom had no idea during the game’s release that she would become so popular.

Oh yes, I promised some Doom as well, didn’t I?

I offer this purely for contrast. With Final Fight sitting at the “huge pile of work” end of the poster scale, Doom sits at the other. id released a poster for the game (most notably the print-signed version with Ultimate Doom) which features the game’s original box art, the game logo and id’s logo, all well-placed. The only thing I had to do here is trim some black border from the top and bottom of the poster, since the original looks to have made for 11×17. So I can’t even claim this as a poster I made, but it’s very nice regardless. What always struck me about Doom’s cover, apart from how ludicrous it was to include a second space marine, was how well it captured the feel of the game: stark, red, overwhelming. Don’t look at the individual demons, as a couple of them are laughable (especially the one grabbing the marine’s arm, no doubt anxious for some Beggin’ Strips)–instead look at the overall feel of the art and you’ve got the essence of the game. Plus seriously, that logo? It’s got to be one of the most iconic and thematically masterful items of all time.

Anyhow, that wraps up this post. Those of you bored with all this poster talk should find something more interesting in my next post, which will use cover art as a catalyst to discuss the video game war of the 80s between the East and West.


May 062011

[Edit 11/13/11: Some five months after opening my game image section, Art Gallery, this post still gets a very large number of hits from Google searches, so I am removing the images from it. If you found this page from a Google image search, please head to the link above to find the art in question..]

Lately I’ve been on a poster-making kick. It came about as the result of several stimuli, kind of like when the first person poured rum and coke in a glass to see what would happen (answer: only one of the best mixed drinks ever.) In this case, it was listening to good artist friend Amy Mebberson talk about poster prints she makes for conventions, combined with the realization that today’s world offers easy access to things like 11×14 poster prints from Snapfish.

Oh, there’s also the part where I have kicked myself for more than 20 years for not picking up the Konami Game Posters offered way back in the day. (That said, I actually feel pretty relieved now that I see this ad that Life Force and Metal Gear, the posters I would have wanted the most, aren’t in the set.)

Now, with the help of the internet, Photoshop and hours of work, I can have all the posters I want–and I intend to do just that. When I started this I only planned on making four posters — Wasteland, Zak McKracken, Final Fight and Salamander, representing four of the games I enjoyed the most as a kid, each with some nifty art. I’ve since made a few other posters and gathered the art for potentially dozens more. I’ve no illusions about ever having so many posters hung up or even possibly printed, but it’s a very relaxing pasttime. Since I’ve been unable to find sufficiently good quality scans of the proper Wasteland art, I moved ahead to Zak. And now, on to that poster.

Zak McKracken is an awesome classic game from Lucasarts, released in the 80s. I don’t think it had the same level of sales as Maniac Mansion, but I believe it was a better game, personally. You can read more about it elsewhere and you should find a way to play it. For the poster, I knew that finding art wouldn’t be difficult because I had months earlier discovered a site where someone took the original art from Zak, blew it up and painstakingly touched it up piece-by-piece to make it look great with none of the speckling and other artifacts one often finds when they scan a game’s box to 4000×6000 pixels.

I decided to make the poster look like the game’s box, which isn’t unheard of for games (see the Konami posters referenced above.) I found other medium-res scans of various editions of the game with which to get the text that overlays the picture and the “Lucasarts” logo in the box at the bottom. I decided to keep the “LucasArts Presents” at the top as well as the description blurb at the bottom as they didn’t interfere with the image that much. I then used Photoshop’s pattern generator to create a unique marbled border in the same vein as what had appeared on the original box. Overlay all that, make sure everything is resized appropriate to a 300dpi 11×14 print and we’re in business.

Zak’s poster is an example of great cover art. Whether you like the actual style being used or not, it fits the “feel” of the game and ties in many elements of the game (Zak and Annie on the cover, items from the game such as the fishbowl, power crystals, french bread, crayons, nose glasses, etc., and of course the aliens underneath, with the Mayan temple portrayed in the background) presented with a colorful flair–as if they actually communicated to the cover artist about what the game would be like; what a concept! And there’s still has room for not only the logo, but descriptive text and a border.

Note that neither Zak nor Annie are presented as glamorous or even above-average (unlike the characters on the Maniac Mansion cover, for instance.) Like later game characters such as Nathan Drake (of the Uncharted series), our heroes here are ordinary people, albeit ones placed in extraordinary situations, and to boldly display that on the cover is pretty awesome.

And that’s about all there is to it. Keep an eye out for future poster exploits and if you need a copy of this for your own printing interests, let me know.

Mar 202011

A month or two ago, I had a feature telling you what games that you should play this year in case the world ends. It looks like there’s still time to do that, so you should hop to it. However, in retrospect, there are a couple of problems with the post. First of all, it was way too fun to do just once a year. Secondly, in a post describing eight different games, each game only got a couple of paragraphs, and I could write so much more. With that in mind, I’m starting a new, semi-regular (and of course, award-winning) series to talk about great games from the past. You’re welcome to disagree with these assessments if you like; that just means you’re completely wrong. But enough about your shortcomings; let’s move instead to our first game: the classic computer RPG Wasteland.

The world of Wasteland, aerial view. Note: Superman-crippling red sun not included.

One of the most awesome game covers in history. If they'd sold a poster of this, you had best believe it would be framed on my wall right now.

Maybe you’ve heard of Wasteland; maybe not. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a little game series known as Fallout (including the earlier PC games or modern incarnations like Fallout 3 or New Vegas), then you owe a thanks to its progenitor, this game. Released in 1988 for home computers by Interplay (who would go on to publish Fallout 1 and 2), Wasteland set the bar for radioactive apocalyptic RPGs, as well as establishing several conventions in the Fallout universe. Wasteland didn’t have the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats system, per se (though it came close.) However, let’s be clear: Wasteland doesn’t really play anything like Fallout and you’ll only see the barest of references to anything that would later appear in the Fallout series.

Wasteland puts you in the role of a unit of the group known as Desert Rangers, and your objective is to explore the areas of the southwest desert, particularly Nevada and Arizona. You’ll pass through a number of towns and cities, each containing different people to interact with and factions to aid or turn against. As expected in a post-nuclear world, there are plenty of hostiles to take on, from generally vicious people to mutated creatures and on to futuristic death machines. Achieve enough experience and you can radio in to Ranger Headquarters for a promotion up through a bevy of military ranks, each granting additional stats.

Yes, it's the future. With nuclear weapons, laser rifles and... Catapults.

Exploration in Wasteland takes place in a top-down perspective, although people are turned perpendicular as if they were lying on the ground. Veterans of earlier Ultima games will feel at home here, except that you don’t have to worry about pesky things like hunger and thirst. Your character is a badass ranger; you live off the land. That doesn’t mean you’re immune to the elements. You still need to carry around some basic equipment–every party member has to have a canteen or they’ll suffer heat damage when passing through harsh areas, and radioactive sections can be a death sentence if you cross them. There are two statuses for radiation poisoning in Wasteland: you’ve got it or you don’t, and you don’t want to have it, since your character stops healing wounds and won’t recover from being knocked unconscious. None of the increasing radiation you would see in Fallout.

The only way to get rid of radiation poisoning, or to recover from serious wounds that your team medic or doctor can’t handle, is to go to someplace where you can pay for, er, “professional” medical care.

Normally, you'd go to a doctor not covered in someone else's blood, but this is the Wasteland, son. You're a beggar, not a chooser.

Don’t want to have to enlist the help of  a back-alley doctor? Then stop getting your butt kicked in combat. For that, you’ll want to make sure your characters are leveled up in a variety of weapons–ranging from combat knives and 9mm pistols to high-end energy weapons like the mighty proton axe and meson cannon. You’ll wear armor to protect yourself, starting with leather jackets and working your way up to power armor (no need for special training like in Fallout, however.) Radiation suits provide decent combat protection, but take note that they actually provide no defense against radiation. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter a semi-glitched loot bag in the game which contains game-breakingly powerful loot like the Red Ryder and “Name AC” armor.

If you’re not careful, however, you’ll end up with a character in bad shape, in the middle of the desert. When that happens, the best you can hope for is to try and make it to a friendly town before the worst happens. Wasteland’s manner of handling injuries and death is both interesting and harsh. Unless you’re radioactive, hit points slowly recover over time and short of paying up a doctor, there’s nothing that can speed it up. Any time your character drops to 0 hit points (or a little bit below), they’re simply unconscious; enemies will stop attacking them (even if the entire party is knocked out) and they’ll eventually wake up with 1 hp. If the attack that put them under is strong enough, however, it will knock them to the next condition down: serious. At this point, unless one of your team members can use a skill to stabilize them, the affected character will begin losing hit points as time goes on. Their condition will worsen unless you make it to a real doctor… and the desert can be a large place to try and cross. If you fail to get there in time, the character is gone, toast. But along the way, you’ll endure the traumatic experience of watching their condition degenerate from serious to critical, then to mortal and eventually comatose, before their condition just becomes a skull, indicating death.

If this happens to any characters, you can recreate them (starting at first level), but your entire party will be wiped out any time they’re all reduced to serious condition or less, or even just knocked out while radioactive. At that point, you get reclaimed by the Wasteland, and you’ll see this:

Oh, you thought you might get resurrected at a temple or something? Nope, you're dead. Game over, man.

About now, unless you’ve pulled your floppy disc out or made a backup file along the way, your game is finished. Yes, Wasteland was one of those games that operates off the “Ironman” gaming prinicple. There are no game saves here. You get one game (tracked manually on the copies of game discs you make when you first start playing) and if you blow it, that’s it. This adds to what makes Wasteland such a great game after all these years: atmosphere and environment. You feel the desolation of moving through a ruined world as you pass irradiated mountains and explore crumbling buildings, scavenging for ammunition or anything you can sell for money used in turn to buy things to help keep you alive. You’ll have to practice inventory management: just as you wouldn’t actually trek through the desert carrying five thousand mimigun rounds (sorry, Fallout 3, I love you, but you know it’s true), you can only carry a limited number of items here. And you never really make friends, just people who will choose not to attack you. NPCs, far from being the puppets in other games, may actually refuse orders, especially if you’re trying to strip them of equipment.

Recognizing that the system limits of the time made it difficult at best to deliver graphical gameplay and a gripping narrative, Wasteland came with a booklet that contained numerous paragraphs of text (more than the discs it shipped with could handle) which the game would reference occasionally. While this also served as a form of copy protection (some passwords needed to continue could only be found in the book), it ultimately allowed for deeper storytelling.

In the end, Wasteland delivers a compelling experience. The look of the game won’t blow you away and, at least on the C64 where I played it, there’s no music, but you’ll nevertheless find yourself sucked in for hours, sitting in the cold of your parent’s basement, hands numb, as you attempt to make it past that one group of Slicerdicers and Octotrons that appeared as you left the building, and… Well, while you likely won’t relive any of my socially-inept fourteen-hour playing sessions, you’ll likely leave fulfilled. Wasteland isn’t available for download through any legitimate source (Good Old Games doesn’t have it yet), but you can’t find it in lots of other places and you’ll only need to install an old-PC emulator like DOSBox to make it work.

Mar 172011

As any modern video gamer with a connection to the internet (which, I guess, would be just about all of them) can tell you, digital distribution is here to stay. A great deal of them would even say that it is inevitably the way of the future. But should it be? Today we’ll explore that in another installment of our award-winning series 64 Bits Good, 8 Bits Better.

Note: This post refers solely to pure digital distribution of games and game-modifying material; physically distributed games can still suffer from things such as digital rights management, which I’m not overlooking, but’s a post for another day.

The benefits of digital distribution [DD] are pretty apparent: easy access to games, demos, add-ons, patches and the like. Your disc can’t break or scratch because there’s no disc to break (also good for the environment.) Forgot to bring the game with you? You might be able to re-download it elsewhere. Stuff your computer to the gills with whatever your relevant gaming interest is and you might not even need to get up to change out whatever’s in the drive. When you take all these into consideration, it’s no wonder DD has become such a widely-adopted medium. It makes one wonder how we ever got along with floppy disks, cartridges and CDs.

But we did get by, and quite handily as a matter of fact, for more than two decades before DD achieved mainstream popularity. I’m not talking about shareware in the mid-90s that you could download and then activate fully for $10 or $15. I’m talking about what we see now: downloadable full-priced games (at least up to $40, which is the most I’ve seen but wouldn’t be surprised to find higher costs out there) and downloadable add-ons that in their totality can meet or exceed the cost of a $50 store-bought game. The gaming industry and we as gamers got by without these we had to. The quality of games had to be more robust as a result. In the days before you could patch games, they had to actually work as intended; you couldn’t afford to ship something that had critical, game-breaking (and sometimes system-breaking) bugs just knowing that you would push out a patch on release day. Mind you, some games did still release that way, but they were far fewer than what we see today. One can claim that the complexity of today’s games demand bugs and that may be true, but it’s also apparent that the ability to patch games is a de facto standard and crutch of the modern developer.

DD can also rob you of value in many cases. There have been multiple cases of companies who shipped a game  with extra content already included on the disc and just waiting to be activated with the purchase or application of a special code. This obviously would not have flown in the days where you couldn’t download a 50KB file that magically unlocks megabytes of gameplay. I totally disagree with this practice, myself; thankfully, I have yet to be burned by it. Likewise, it is not at all unusual now for companies to create a portion of the game during development and simply omit it from the final game, with the intention of putting it out as downloadable content [DLC] afterwards. To my way of thinking, if you make it in the course of developing the game, it should go with the game; only items created after the game’s development cycle go in an add-on or the sequel. That’s not to say I haven’t bought DLC that might have been made during a game’s development. I own all the expansion DLCs for Fallout 3, for instance, and there’s every possibility that one of them was completed during the game’s original development cycle. DLC can add a lot of value to games, but it’s also easily abused to squeeze a little more out of the consumer. True, games are certainly underpriced considering the nature of inflation, but if you’re going to set a price for games, set a price and be done with it, don’t try to surreptitiously eke out more from people.

However, despite these statements, my biggest problem with DD comes not from add-ons or decreased game-testing quality; it’s the matter of control. If you purchase a DD game, then it’s an automatic given that you have internet access; and companies can not only require you to keep that access, but they can use it against your games. Take this, one of many examples where Steam users’ entire accounts have been disabled over a single failed payment on the purchase of a new game. Let that sink in for a moment: an account full of legitimately purchased games (in this case, $500 worth, but I’ve seen up to $1000 claimed) can be disabled, cutting off access to all of those games, if you try to purchase a single new game and, say, a problem with PayPal causes a payment to reject. And it’s a common occurrence. Try a Google search for disabled steam account to see how common. Clearly it’s not enough of a headache to stop people from using Steam, but that doesn’t make it right.

In this well-publicized case, a user who made the disparaging remark of “Have you sold your souls to the EA devil?” on a Bioware forum got reported by someone. Bioware, acting under Electronic Arts’ terms of service, banned his forum/social account. This not only cut him off from DLC purchased legitimately in the past (which can, in turn, prevent games like the original Dragon Age from even playing), but it prevented him from installing and playing a brand new purchased copy of Dragon Age II.

In the interests of disclosure and avoiding sensationalism, this matter did ultimately get resolved according to EA and the person’s account has been reinstated, but just the ability to disable access to existing games over a forum infraction is control at some of its worst, and EA’s terms, which indicate they can rescind your license to play their games at any time for any reason are not unheard of elsewhere. Could you imagine if iTunes required you to log in every day before you could listen to music and they could use that connection time to revoke your right to listen to songs? That would be considered crazy behavior, and those songs cost only 99 cents, not upwards of $50. If Amazon could suddenly take books off of your Kindle, without a refund, just because, what do you think the reaction would be? (Hint: not good, even when the book’s cost is refunded.)

In addition, DD games are typically not transferrable. DLC that I buy on my 360 is tied to that console and my gamer ID; anyone can play it on that console or I can redownload it and play it elsewhere (as long as I’m online), but nothing more–and that’s pretty lenient terms in the industry. I often loan games to our friends Steve and Steph when they would otherwise be gathering dust on a shelf and this works out well. That won’t happen with digital games.

Part of non-transferrability is that you can’t re-sell DD games, either. That part doesn’t affect me because I don’t get rid of any games, ever, even terrible ones like Stretch Panic or games I’ll never play again like Final Fantasy XI Online, but there’s an entire used game industry out there for those who would like to get something back monetarily from their game purchases, as well as people who try to do it on the side. Your ability (I won’t go so far as to call it a right) to trade or sell them is annihilated. Don’t expect this to change, because eliminating used game sales is something that game developers have wanted to do for decades. Disabling basic features (such as online play) that can only be activated with new copies, but can be purchased for additional costs if your copy of a game is used, is one such method that makes their desire to see this through clear.

Finally, remember that any game which requires connection to a company for verification has a limited lifespan. It’s unlikely that Steam, a multi-billion-dollar company, is going away anytime soon. But if it did, so might your games. If you have to be authenticated on an Electronic Arts server to play a game, and that server gets disconnected, then your game isn’t playable; this is one way of ensuring you buy the next game they want sell instead of suffering a Starcraft-ism where one game gets played for a decade or more. It’s already done on a regular basis to discontinue the servers that support online play, rendering the most popular features of many games obsolete. I can pop in my cartridge of River City Ransom and do some team-up brawling any time, but you won’t be able to play Team Fortress 2 forever.

To be fair, DD isn’t evil–it’s a method of delivery and the restrictions and actions taken around it by companies are what can be unpalatable. For an example of how DD can be done well, check out GOG (Good Old Games), a site offering over 240 past games for download at a reasonable price without DRM or other arbitrary restrictions, and often with extras such as maps and soundtracks thrown in. Would that kind of treatment work for new games? Possibly not — certainly the lack of protection would make it easier to pirate games, but history has proven that anyone who really wants to pirate games is going to do so. Heck, I did it back in the day with Fast Hack’em on my Commodore, and that was before the internet told anyone how to get anything they wanted for free. But GOG shows that if you treat your customers with respect, you’ll get respect, and it shows that DD doesn’t have to stand for Draconian Downloading.

Make no bones, digital distribution isn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t have to remain as it is right now. It likely will remain as it is or even get worse until gamers say otherwise, however. Until that day, I’ll continue to weigh up each transaction to determine if I’m really getting what I want to pay for–and I recommend that as consumers you do the same.

Feb 092011

The past two weeks have been particularly rough on the reputation of gamers (particularly video gamers), what with the whole Dickwolves thing and all. If you don’t know about it by now, then you probably don’t care to; just Google “Dickwolves” and you’ll find out more than you ever wanted to know. But this isn’t a Dickwolves post; more like a general post to which the Dickwolves saga has acted like a catalyst. Nikki and I were discussing this a few days ago and she mentioned that it “almost makes you ashamed to be a gamer”. She noted that on Fridays, when it’s casual day at work, I often wear my gaming related shirts (including the one that just says, plainly “gamer” in Courier New font) and mused that in the wake of this Dickwolves thing it might give her pause.

It made me think about that, mostly because I never considered wearing my shirts with anything but pride. I’m a gamer; it’s what I love and it’s a huge part of my life. I understood her concern well enough: traditionally, those who play video games as a hobby have a stigma for being social outcasts, exaggerated reputations of males who have never known the touch of a woman, living in their parents’ basement. Over the years, online gaming has fostered the additional element of spoiled, childish and vocally abusive behavior. These past few weeks we can now potentially add the role of sexually abusive rape apologists.

Am I ashamed of being a gamer as a result of that? No, not even a little bit. Of course it’s shameful when people can’t control themselves in a public setting and certainly it’s unacceptable when anyone says that someone should be murdered, raped, or even better (or worse, actually), “raped to death.” But this doesn’t make me ashamed of being a gamer, because these things are not indicative of gamers in general, they are indicative of the human race, a thing which I am sometimes ashamed of being part of. These behaviors are carried on in all walks of life by a great many–too many–people. It is behavior that was even demonstrated by the very anti-rape culture that was so offended by the entire Dickwolves episode, going so far as to make joking threats to murder someone’s family. That these things seem more prevalent among gamers from time to time is, in my opinion, more a matter of the synergy between the medium of games and the nature of computers and the internet. Video gamers by their very nature tend to be attuned with technology, meaning they are more likely to participate (and oh, quite visibly) online than, say, classic literature readers or those who garden as a hobby.

Misogyny, violence, racism and other vices of their ilk — these things exist everywhere and did so before video games were ever invented, but the internet has provided an outlet for which those most likely to express these concepts can do so with anonymity, speed and at a lengthy distance. Moreover, the internet, for all its many good points, also makes it easy for these people, often the very vocal minority, to realize they are not alone, and to unite with people of a like mind. In the olden days, you usually had to put on a white robe with hood and gather at night near the old oak trees for some of the vicious things we hear. Occasionally, there were burning crosses. That’s not a requirement anymore; nowadays, within moments you can find someone who shares your viewpoints no matter how outspoken or heinous they may be.

It’s undeniable that gaming as a culture needs to “grow up.” But that’s because humanity needs to “grow up.” We don’t (hopefully) assume that all children are hoodlums because a few of them join street gangs, or that every police officer is a power-hungry racist maniac because of a limited number of  bad shootings or cases of brutality, or that all scientists are dangerous madmen because some engaged in unethical behavior. Why then assume that every game player shares the personality or problems that a select few evidence? As people, we like to generalize, especially when that includes belittling to make ourselves feel superior.

As video games become more and more mainstream, boasting almost 200 million consoles shipped this generation, a greater number of people will enter the hobby, including online. Within every population you have the unruly vocal minority, the black sheep who give others a bad name. But those people can’t change the fact that video gamers are the consumers and connoisseurs of (as far as I know) the world’s most interactive art form; we’ve saved the world and the universe innumerable times and countless stories have been played out through our actions. Games (board, pen/paper and video) as a medium have positively contributed to the skills and lives of people everywhere, and many of the world’s smartest people can be counted among  video game players. Okay, that last part is totally unsubstantiated on my part, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

So, of course I’m proud of my hobby. Why shouldn’t I be?

Feb 032011

Note: this blog entry references a significant (at least online) debate right now that deals with issues of rape culture and related elements. I want to make mention now, ahead of time, that I am a man, and that I have never been the victim of any form of sexual assault, and never committed nor been accused of committing the same. As such, I am neither qualified nor do I have any desire to tell anyone involved in the issue how to feel about what has happened. If at any point it seems like I’m doing so, I apologize in advance and welcome notification of that.

Astute readers of my blog may have noticed a trend: I like video games. For those of you to whom this is news, I’ll let it sink in for a moment. Ready to go on? Good. Now, as a gamer, I’ve also enjoyed going to PAX – the Penny Arcade Expo – for the past two years. You can find a blog post detailing some of our exploits here. In the past, PAX has been aptly named: by providing an environment where gamers of all sorts are welcome and every person you meet is a potential friend, the con embodied the Pax Arcadia, if you will.

All that appears set to change, thanks to the issue that goes by many names but which I’ll call the “Dickwolves Debacle.” Those who want more information on that will want to look up Nikki’s summary (with opinions) here. It provides a lot of insight (from someone who, like me, is not directly involved on either side) about how this started and how we’ve arrived to here. I’m going to focus only on the elements that relate directly to PAX as I see them.

The sanctity of PAX as an area where people can congregate under one banner of the love of gaming has been significantly impacted by these events. For the many who don’t follow the behind-the-scenes happenings of PA, things may very well stay the same; but for those who are aware of what’s going on, from the initial strip to Gabe’s [Mike’s] reactions, it’s difficult to view the paradise that was a con for all the same way. Let’s consider these events and facts.

After the posting of the initial strip which offended a nominal number of people, and the follow-up strip which offended quite a few more people (as would seem to be its intention), the Dickwolves shirt was added to PA merchandise. This is really the source of the current PAX issues: taken on their own, even together the strips would be unlikely to cause a convention problem. It’s certainly not the first time the PA strip has lightly used rape humor. The addition of a shirt, however, put a tangible, portable face on what some people found objectionable in the strip. It allowed people to bring a discouraging element to PAX, where it didn’t previously exist. I don’t believe that this was the intention of the shirt’s introduction at all. That was probably as simple as thinking “The dickwolves sound like a funny sports team. Oh, and this could make lots of money.”

While I disagree with releasing a piece of merchandise based around a strip which so clearly was an issue with readers, even at that point I don’t think the folks at PA had done anything which was permanently damaging. Insensitive, sure, but it could still be explained away as an instance where they were supporting a popular strip (as it was with many people — I admit I found the original funny) with merchandise.

Fast-forward three months to a blog post by a woman who was going to speak at PAX, but decided not to, based on the existence of this shirt. She cites reasons which, to an outsider of her experiences, seem reasonable. Based on, it seems, civil feedback received, the folks at PA pull the shirt from the store. All seems well at this point, but under the surface, terrible things are brewing, like the inexorable shift of tectonic plates which precedes an earthquake or volcanic eruption. When asked why the shirt was pulled, Gabe responds with a blog post and, while I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt that he simply uses poor choices of words and phrases (Tycho is lead writer on the strip, after all), it seems clear to me that he resents the situation, as do others. Although his post makes it sound like he was persuaded by reasoning, he indicated elsewhere  that they were “pressured” to remove the shirt.

This is where things start to go wrong. If one is so inclined, they can immediately start picking that blog post apart for dishonesty since the tone of the message conveyed there seems inconsistent with receiving “pressure” to do something, and certainly being coerced into doing something you don’t agree with is going to chafe a lot more than seeing someone’s point and accepting it. But even here, the shirt has been removed and an explanation has been tendered which at least mollifies some of those who have issues; it probably would have mollified more of them without questionable statements such as, “I’ll even put you on a list so that if, in a moment of weakness you try to by a ticket we can cancel the order.”

So, what’s done is done, the shirt was available for three months and in Gabe’s post he acknowledges that it has been removed as part of an effort to help people not feel “uncomfortable at PAX”  and would “make them feel better about attending the show.” This is a noble gesture and I’m not sure I would have even gone that far in his shoes. I probably would have tendered a lengthy explanation about the purpose of the shirt, that (I presume) it wasn’t promoting rape and (again I presume) they were just capitalizing on a funny, popular strip.

With clear admission that the shirt is a source of grief for some and a potential reason for people to feel uncomfortable about PAX, Gabe then goes on to make this Twitter exchange:

Cozmic Caztaway @cwgabriel If people already have the shirt and wear it to PAX, then what?
cwgabriel @Cozmicaztaway I’ll be wearing mine to PAX.

At this point, the well with a big sign reading “Benefit of the Doubt” has run dry. There’s no positive spin to put on this. When someone makes a declaration themselves that they have taken down merchandise because they believe it could cause an unhealthy environment for some attendees at PAX, and then responds by saying they themselves will be wearing that same item, there can be no good intent. The shirt is a symbol of possibly the most divisive issue PA has ever faced, and one of PAX’s originators and a chief organizer is going to wear it there? There can be no unity at a con where one half of Penny Arcade fosters an “us versus them” attitude. That’s fact, plain and simple. You’re welcome to argue it with me if you wish, but there’s a hard road ahead of you there.

There have been other incidents afterwards which could be mere coincidence, such as questionable choices of music which may very well have been completely random coming up during some broadcasted show, but those are anecdotal and, at worst, just adding fuel to the fire. Gabe’s mere statement here tells us what we need to know about his mindset. Some have said that we should “wait and see” and that he may not actually wear the shirt at all, but that’s really beside the point. Indicating he would is indicating that he thinks it’s okay to do so. Whether he’s convinced or pressured to do otherwise prior to the event, the fact remains that this, to him, seems like a good idea now and that, to me, takes the entire concept of PAX and taints it.

Yes, you can attend the con and you’ll probably have a great time and it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to get sexually assaulted, regardless of who wears what shirt. But there is no more “everyone” – now there’s an “us” and a “them,” which is not what PAX is about. If I want “us” and “them” I can go to any number of other gaming conventions where, despite playing video games for 30 years, I’m a second-class citizen for not being a member of the press or industry.

As someone who’s said plenty of things I regret in the past, I know how it is to do things when you’re angry that you don’t really mean, to make statements while in a fit. But I don’t have a twice-a-year con that pulls in tens of thousands of people and a multi-million dollar charity to think about. Further, although Gabe posted an apology tweet today to no one in general, there hasn’t been anything to indicate that he feels any different about dickwolves, the shirt, or wearing it to PAX. It’s been five days. We can be assured that we’ve seen how he feels about the issue. Tycho? I’m not sure, but he hasn’t said anything to contradict Gabe’s statements, so I don’t know what to make of it.

At this point, it seems unlikely we’ll be heading back to PAX this year. That’s a shame because we’ve always had a blast there, but part of the reason for that was the feeling PAX embodied and I think that feeling would be an illusion this year. As much a part of my life that video games are, I can find better things to spend a few hundred dollars on an atmosphere where I can expect to grind my teeth when I see people cheering each other on for wearing a t-shirt that spits in the face of what PAX is supposed to be about. I want to go and play games and grab free swag and attend cool panels, not hear about how some people triumphed in their pursuit of free speech over feminists who tried to rob them of the right to wear a shirt that many of them didn’t even want until it was taken down. Nor do I want to hear about how people are offended and uncomfortable because others are wearing a shirt–I understand that’s how they feel and they have good reason to, but that shouldn’t be what PAX is about.

Jan 162011

Welcome to 2011. It’s a new year. This could be the year the world ends. That’s a morbid thought and I apologize for springing it on you just like that. Maybe I should have prefaced it with a joke, like so:

Person A: Knock-knock.
Person B: Who’s there?
Person A: The End of the World…MAYBE.

Either way, with such maybe-kinda-imminent doom upon us, it’s more important now than ever that you play certain games. Sure, you could be stocking up food for Armageddon, or making amends with the religious entity of your choice, but when the time comes, is any of that really going to compare to knowing that you experienced all that gaming has to offer? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

With that in mind, here are some games you need to play this year. These are not new–they are games that, unlike my knock-knock joke above. stand the test of time. These are some of my favorite games as well, but there’s more to it than that. I have favorite games, such as Final Fantasy VI or Fallout 3, which, although great games, are simply fantastic representations of their genre. I chose these games because they have great design, greater execution and offer you experiences you’ll rarely find anywhere else. Playing these enriches you as a gamer. Unless you happen to own the systems in question and are fortunate enough to find reasonably-priced copies of these treasures, you’ll likely have to resort to emulation to pull this off. So be it, I say!

Valkyrie Profile – Enix (Tri-Ace), 1999 (Playstation)

In this game, you'll learn just how greedy Odin is with anything he thinks he owns, even if you need it to, you know, save the world.

Back at a time when Enix was pretty much known for Dragon Warrior and maybe Star Ocean, they came out with this gem, which casts you as a Valkyrie gathering the souls of the dead to fight as Einherjar in the end-of-the-world scenario of Ragnarok. While based on Norse legends, the game takes a lot of liberties with the overall roles and fates of the gods, so mythology buffs may have to grit their teeth a little.

The gameplay of Valkyrie Profile is split up between recruiting fallen heroes through cutscenes and town exploration, and traversing dungeons in order to acquire equipment and build up those heroes before sending them to Valhalla. Unlike the standard overhead RPG mechanic, dungeons are handled like side-scrolling platformers, with running, climbing, jumping and puzzles to solve. Every town or dungeon you visit consumes time, which counts inexorably toward the final showdown between the Gods.

Graphics and sound for the game are excellent, setting moods perfectly, but it’s the unique storytelling method and gameplay elements that make this game shine. Unfortunately, the game was undermarketed and underproduced in the U.S., with less than a hundred thousand copies sold, so it can be pricey to get your hands on. If you have a PSP, you can play a reasonable port of it in Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, but the original is definitely best.

The Guardian Legend – Broderbund (Compile), 1989 (NES)

The first boss--not actually an advertisement for Visene, but an incredible simulation.

The Guardian Legend is one-half space shoot-em-up, one half exploration ala the original Legend of Zelda, and all awesome. You play a robotic female who can also transform into a spaceship. In the former role, you’ll move throughout the inside of a cybernetic-star-type-thing called “Naju” which is heading for Earth. In order to stop it, you’ll have to shut down 20 (maybe more, I can’t remember exactly) corridors within Naju.

The corridors comprise the outer space shoot-em-up aspect of the game, as you fly through them (sometimes at amazing speeds) en route to tackle a boss at the end of each. To get to the corridors, you have to traverse 10 different zones within Naju; these are similar to Zelda in that you explore them from an isometric overhead perspective and screens “scroll” when you move to their edges. The zones have lots of enemies, including bosses of their own, and items to find, including those that might be sold to you. Your character can amass something like 20 weapons, and each of those can be enhanced twice to make them more effective.

As the description might make you think, this is a pretty long game. Not long like the Legend of Zelda or other action-RPGs, but far, far longer than standard shooters, with more than 20 “shooting” stages interspersed with the overworld areas. The graphics and sound are obviously dated by today’s standards, but the game did an impressive job on the NES of delivering many enemies to fight and providing a good sense of speed–the opening stage has you zooming toward Naju at hundreds of miles an hour and you feel that sense of motion. Shooter-phobics will want to avoid, of course, but anyone else should check out this unusual game mesh.

Dragon Force – Sega, 1996 (Saturn)

Don't be fooled by this crappy screenshot; the real game is awesome, especially with 200 soldiers duking it out. Here, the classic battle of ninja vs. samurai ensues.

The premise behind Dragon Force is not terribly ground-breaking: raise an army, unify various nations, save the world. But the subtle, insidious complexity involved in doing so is something that hadn’t been seen on a console before (or since.) You play the ruler of one of eight kingdoms and must subdue the others under one banner in order to stop a demon god from taking over. Every leader has their own story and motivation and starts with their own unique retinue of followers.

You’ll accomplish your mission through managing your generals (of which there is a fixed, unique number in the game) and their armies. Each general’s force consists of a single type of unit (with ten different kinds possible); each unit has strengths and weaknesses, such as the mage, which is weak against melee types such as soldiers or cavalry, but excels versus zombies or harpies. You can promote generals or gift them in order to increase their loyalty, lest they desert under stress.

As the game progresses, you conquer more and more of the overworld map, come across storyline encounters and cut-scenes and edge closer to saving the world. And when you finish, you’ll select another kingdom and do it again to see how their game unfolds, because whether it’s the charming ambiance, the gameplay strategies, or something else, this game is horribly addictive. The PC may have real-time simulations to match it, but as console games go, Dragon Force is incomparable.

Terranigma – Enix (Quintet), 1995 (SNES)

Okay, so "Someone help me" isn't the most original line in gaming history. That doesn't make this less great.

Terranigma is an action role-playing game, similar in some respects to, say, the Secret of Mana. Your lone character moves and attacks enemies in real-time as he, piece by piece, seeks to restore the entire world from having been frozen in time. He brings back the five ancient continents and then proceeds to bring back life one order (birds, mammals, plants) at a time.

The game has excellent production values, with bright, detailed graphics and an atmospheric soundtrack, with a story that goes beyond the standard of the genre, dealing with some deeper subjects, such as reincarnation and human spirit. Unfortunately, although the Japanese version was translated for Europe, Nintendo of America never saw fit to release it in the states, so, short of a PAL system, you’ll have to emulate and use a translation ROM, but the effort is worth it.

Archon I – Electronic Arts (Free Fall Games), 1983 (Computer)

It doesn't matter that you have no idea what's happening here. Just trust me.

Okay, so this is an arguable must-play if you only play games alone. Archon sports a decent AI for solo games, but where it shines is in head-to-head multiplayer. It combines a layout similar to chess (featuring creatures from the fantasy realm) with quick-reflexes combat and extra strategy in the form of magic, “power points” on the board, and even a light/dark cycle that ebbs and flows, strengthening one side or the other. All of these come together to form a sublimely balanced game where it’s never too late to turn around victory (although get too far behind and it will take a miracle to pull it off.)

There’s no music apart from a couple of primitive jingles heard at the title screen and when the game is over and, being from 1983, the game’s graphics are primitive by today’s standards (yet still managing to depict the minuscule creatures with character, such as the lumbering gait of golems.) With each piece capture being settled by combat, games often last more than half an hour and come down to desperate one-on-one battles to win. Archon may not be your cup of tea, but you should definitely try it to find out.

Katamari Damacy – Namco, 2004 (Playstation 2)

What other game allows you to combine acorns, majhongg pieces and later on, a sumo wrestler? That's right: NONE.

Few games can say they are unlike anything else out there, but the original Katamari Damacy can. As with the best games, it takes only moments to learn but can never be perfected. The goal is simple: roll around a sort of cosmically-magnetized ball called a “katamari” and attach as many things as possible to it, so that it may be converted into one of the many stars needed to rebuild the galaxy after it was destroyed by your father, the King of the Cosmos. The rest of the game is just about as crazy. Although the game has had sequels (on the PS2, PS3 and 360) the original is still the best and can be found for a reasonable price–heck, it debuted at an astonishing $20 price tag.

You’ll go through level after level reconstructing stars, planets and constellations, striving ever-so-hard to meet your eccentric father’s approval. The game culminates in–well, I won’t spoil it, but rest assured it’s suitably epic, and not just in the overused-nowadays-sense-of-the-word. Throughout the game you’ll be treated to an astonishing soundtrack featuring a bevy of styles–jazz, rock, orchestral and even a ballad sung by kids (all vocals being in Japanese.) The game utilizes very simple, even jagged, polygons in order to squeeze as many items as possible on the screen with fast, fluid motion. Entertaining and sporting hopelessly addictive gameplay, Katamari Damacy is the sort of game that everyone in the family can appreciate–although they might not get its humor.

Devil’s Crush – NEC (Compile), 1990 (Turbografx-16)

You know when there's a giant demon-woman-head on the table surrounded by skeleton things, it's going to be good.

I’m a big fan of pinball, and a bigger fan of video games. For years I lamented that, unlike chocolate and peanut butter, these two great tastes just didn’t seem to taste great together. Sure there was David’s Midnight Magic on the C64 or Epic Pinball on the computer. But as good as they were, those were just digital simulations of real pinball tables. Devil’s Crush says, “screw that” and brings a pinball experience you could never have in real-life, at least not without unethically subjecting living creatures to a nightmare. You play pinball on a table filled with living, moving targets, all of an evil bent, and your objective is to score points (of course) and work your way up to taking out the lord of evil.

Walls crumble, enemies transform (including the female face in the center of the board who starts out asleep, then awakens and with each hit slowly changes into a serpent) and the board itself changes, teleporting your ball into a half dozen bonus stages when certain goals are accomplished–another feature not possible in the real-world. Don’t be put off by the 16-bit graphics and tinny (but well-composed) music; I’d wager you’ll find this more fun than just about any modern home pinball game option. Devil’s Crush was preceded by Alien Crush and followed by Jaki Crush, both with similar concepts, but it remains the best of the three.

Suspended – Infocom, 1983 (home computers)

"Is a screenshot of a text adventure really necessary?" you ask. On MY blog, yes.

This might seem like an odd choice given that Infocom’s last true text adventure was released more than 20 years ago and, apart from a few exceptions, their dissolution signaled the end of the genre, but the lack of those games being released doesn’t negate what was released in the past. If you’ve never tried a text adventure, Suspended probably isn’t where you should start: it’s difficulty rating among Infocom games was “Expert” and justifiably so, for the very thing that sets it apart from most text adventures is what makes it difficult: you don’t control yourself and your actions.

You play the role of a person placed in suspended animation with control over a number of robots needed to solve puzzles in order to save a planet from the brink of destruction and in the process save yourself from being deactivated/killed by its inhabitants. Each robot in your control possesses only one sense that it can use (sight, sound, sonar, magnetics, etc.) and you use to utilize these senses in order to save the planet. This is no small feat for even an accomplished text adventurer, so the novice may wish to consider alternatives such as Zork I (the first game in Infocom’s most famous series), Trinity or Wishbringer (a true entry-level text adventure game.)

Those brave enough to forge ahead will find a game that tests the very way you think about senses and how to use them, and forces you to juggle resources in ways you likely haven’t before. There are different difficulty settings that allow you more time before you’re killed, including a unique “impossible” difficulty where the entire universe is destroyed shortly after you begin playing.

So there you have it: eight games you need to play this year. If by next January the world isn’t obliterated by some megalomaniac who’s unearthed an ancient artifact, I’ll see about telling you what you need to play then, too.

Jan 022011

Could we see another video game crash like the Great One of 1983? With dozens of successful game franchises established and a hobby pulling in billions of dollars a year, it seems unlikely. Certainly, the factors which led to the original crash–conceptions of poor software quality, overcrowding of the market and the like–will not be a problem. And, like before, any such crash will likely only be a temporary issue and not something that permanently destroys the industry. But the threat, the posssibility exists of at least a mild economic meltdown within the video game business. And unlike a business akin to video rentals where the basic model is slowly being rendered obsolete, the threat comes from within video games themselves.

Games are becoming too big. I don’t mean too big in the sense of literally containing too much content; such a thing probably isn’t possible and titles as far back as Ultima I have offered dozens of hours of gameplay instead of the less-than-an-hour arcade style prominent in so many games of the day. I mean that the amount of resources required to make a game has gradually become immense, with credits that have, on occasion made those of the average summer blockbuster movie look quaint by comparison. If your game is set in a 3D realm and doesn’t support an advanced ragdoll physics engine and Goraud mip-mapping (or whatever the technical equivalent is) then you’re seen as quite primitive. You might need an orchestra to record your soundtrack. A research team might be responsible for evaluating the attributes of every item in your game as they relate to real-life, or cataloging real-life locations for the sake of your senior art director and his team.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to games with great aesthetics. Indeed, it wasn’t until the original Soul Calibur blew my mind in 1999 that I had much interest in 3D as a gaming medium (I still prefer sprites.) The seemingly-inevitable trend, however, is for commercial games to require more and more staff which, as a result, demands more and more revenue to make games worthwhile. Stories like that of what happened to developer Seven45 following the release of Power Gig help to accentuate that–a classic tale of creating a game that, on its own merits (not compared to others in its genre) or a few years earlier would have flourished, but now simply didn’t make the cut and, failing to recover considerable resource costs, the worst fate imaginable befalls the developing house.

All this is one reason that more highly successful games at this point are sequels as opposed to franchise-establishing games. Of the top 10 selling games of 2010 in Japan, only arguably one (Wii Party, which could be considered an extension of the Mario Party line) was a franchise first instead of a sequel. Overall video game sales aren’t much different: of the top 20 selling games of 2010 across multiplatforms, only 3 games (Wii Sports, Just Dance and Kinect Adventures) were not sequels. The development costs demand games that will guarantee more profits; sequels to established high-selling games fulfill that. I’m not the first person to realize that sequels are a growing problem.

Can we blame companies for making what they know will sell? As consumers, are we responsible for feeding the issue by primarily buying sequels? I’m not entirely innocent. I just finished spending five days playing through Dead Rising 2. Prior to that, I spent a month delving back into Fallout 3, and I spent plenty of time on Bioshock 2 and Red Dead Redemption as well. The games I probably put more time into than any others were Rock Band 2 and 3. I also have Mass Effect 2, Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood, Final Fantasy XIII and Halo Wars, among others, waiting to be played. I played original properties where they interested me–Blur and Borderlands, for example.

But the industry is changing. Slowly, very slowly, a schism is forming between larger, established development houses and their publishers, and the indie game movement. Created by smaller houses, sometimes just a single person, these games harken back to the days when some of my childhood favorites like Archon, Space Taxi and Krakout were created by 3 or less people, and even games acknowledged as seminal classics like Metroid, the Legend of Zelda and Metal Gear (WARNING: all three links go to the game endings so as to show the credits) were put together by a dozen people or less–an insane concept for a big-box game in today’s age. Indie games have the benefits of low cost and easy distribution which could, given time, turn tables on larger companies, offering games of increasing cost (I already estimated here that games for the next generation of systems will run at least $70); but if the balance shifts to a digital distribution system with no sort of quality check in place, what do we face except potentially a repeat of what we saw in 1982-1983, when rampant overpopulation of software without a proper quality oversight led to gems such as this (which I owned and played) and, yes, even this (which I thankfully neither owned nor played.) Already, we can see some instances where, left to their own devices, indie game developers demonstrate the need for some editorial retraint. Those are just examples of games where the subjects are questionable; there are likely plenty of cases where the programming quality of the games themselves are substandard. If we move to a framework of mass-released items of potentially poor quality, how different from 1983 is that?

Of course, this could also all just be useless conjecture, but it’s certain that if digital distribution eventually becomes the new mainstream method as has been proposed by many, a responsibility will remain to make sure that just because people can release something easy to a large audience, it doesn’t mean they should. Unlike 1983, video gaming now has a 30+ year history which has helped to establish itself as an art form as well as entertainment. Let’s not set ourselves back another three decades for the sake of base indulgences.

Dec 272010

It’s that time of year again–or at least it was two days ago: time to give gifts, receive gifts and eat lots of food. The food is (mostly) done and, since this is my blog, I’m not going to bother discussing the stuff I gave to other people. For some of that, you can read here.

As for me, I got off exceptionally well this year. There can be no doubt that the limited budgets of friends and family were spent very wisely. In the realm of games, I got four awesome titles. Fallout: New Vegas was probably the game I was most looking forward to this year, considering a) my love of RPGs; b) my love of the post-apocalyptic milieu; and c) that I just spent 120 hours on my second playthrough of Fallout 3 (and still haven’t touched The Pitt or Broken Steel.) Dead Rising 2 was the other game this year that I really had my eye on, since I played through the first game at least three times. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a welcome addition. I never finished the first game and haven’t touched the second, but I’m looking forward to this. Finally, Alan Wake rounds out the game list, promising to provide a very different experience than the others. Dead Rising 2 and Alan Wake came in collector’s edition packages, which included goodies like an artbook, DVD, and soundtrack.

Speaking of soundtracks, I got one of those, too. Although the budget for this year hasn’t allowed me to add them to my collection willy-nilly, game soundtracks are still an important thing to me, and I got an awesome one. Nikki managed to pick up an unopened copy of the X-Men: Children of the Atom. This was a pretty awesome game we used to play back in the day on our Saturn. An unopened soundtrack from 1994 that goes to a popular game is a pretty big deal, so I’m pretty psyched about adding this to my collection. :)

While not a total standalone game per se, Nikki grabbed two copies of the City of Heroes Going Rogue expansion, which comes with everything needed to turn our City of Heroes gaming experience on its head, as well as a month of pre-paid gameplay. So, when we desire we can return to the game, take our would-be comic hero experiences to new levels and do so for a month without having to worry about that whole “paying” thing.

For those times when my hands get tired of playing (sacrilege!), I acquired things to watch: seven DVDs of Rifftrax (six of various shorts, and one of the live riffing of Plan 9 from Outer Space); the Blu-Ray of Fight Club, a movie that everyone should see at least once in their life; and, unbelievably, a DVD with selected episodes of Starcade, a game show that I used to watch all the time in the very early 80s when it was on the air. Will nostalgia win out over the show’s assured cheesiness? I’m not sure, but I’m excited to find out. The Starcade DVD also came with two shirts, which I will wear to work and astound my coworkers with.

Lastly, although one gets plenty of experience reading in video games, doing it the old-fashioned way is good for you too. From Amy and Scott, I got both a very nice insect guide (more modern than the other ones I have, which were printed between the years of ’52 and ’80) and a classy, embossed hardback book containing seven of the most famous novels from H.G. Wells (none of which I’ve actually read before.) As a fan of sci-fi, this will be quite a treat. Nikki also got me the Advanced Player’s Guide for Pathfinder, that game whose 576-page main rulebook I read cover-to-cover recently. I will read this as well and be even more prepared for our eventual game sessions.

Not a proper book, but a game in book format, my parents got me (in addition to the usual Swiss Colony joy) a Marvel comics quizbook-style game that Nikki and I can use to reaffirm our geekdom. Since together we have more years of reading comics than Jamie and Adam do of special effects experience, it should be fun.

And that about wraps up my loot. There are other things, such as stocking stuffers, the aforementioned Christmas dinner, a week off from work, but those are stories for another time…

Nov 232010

Anyone who’s followed Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (or just Dungeons and Dragons as it’s been known for a few years now) will be aware of how much the game has changed since it first came out and, especially, since TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast [WotC] more than a decade ago. If you’re not aware of such things, then you can read up on any number of gaming sites. I won’t belabor the post with a history of acqusitions and all that. Suffice to say, TSR made some awesome games but didn’t put enough skill points into business management.

WotC came along and, fresh on the heels of their success with Magic: The Gathering, which we were still playing at the time, also set to updating D&D. This was not the first time updates had been made. The original D&D game, released in the 70s had gone through numerous revisions, polymorphing from D&D to AD&D and to 2nd Edition, before WotC released 3rd Edition (3E). Along the way, classes, races, spells and all sorts of rules were added, removed and changed. My 1st-edition AD&D Player’s Manual, at a mere 120 pages, couldn’t possibly comprehend what was to come.

Although now a morass of rules, 3E still held true to many of the tenets of D&D, while actually adding things of value, such as skills and feats that let you achieve customized characters not possible in the olden days. Meanwhile, it was anywhere from marginally to completely compatible with old campaigns and books due to still being an offshoot of the 2nd Edition rules. Depending on your viewpoint, either all was well or probably at least tolerable. In 2003, they made some revisions to rules, but still kept the core gameplay intact.

2008 brought us 4th Edition (4E) which was, at the very least, a disappointment to many people and to some (including me) a total travesty. Now, I have to point out that I’ve never played 4E and that I don’t intend to; what I’ve read of the rules–which are as they are, and aren’t disputed by WotC–tells me that this is D&D in name only. It is in many ways a new intellectual property using the established D&D name. Oh, and it’s crap. I can sum up what is wrong with the game in two words: Magic Missile.

If you’re a D&D player, or indeed possibly not but someone who’s played a roleplaying game, then you’re familiar with this classic staple of the magic-user’s repetoire. Casting this spell creates darts of magical energy that hit their target(s) for a marginal amount of damage, regardless of armor or ability to dodge. It’s a given. You cast Magic Missile, it hits for damage. You shoot, you score.

But what if I told you that Magic Missile didn’t automatically hit enemies and that instead you would have to make a to-hit roll in order to successfully deal damage? “But Mike,” you would say, “that’s hardly a Magic Missile at all. That’s, like, a Normal Missile or something. That’s stupid.” And you’d be right. This fundamental, first-level magic spell illustrates just how different 4E is from any prior D&D game. From reading, it sounds like every spell requires a hit-roll to be effective; that’s a major change.

Characters appear to have been shoehorned into archetypes, a la Warcraft. The reported gameplay of many experienced players is that, without a balanced party of 4-5 characters, you will not be successful in the average 4E game. That may or may not be true, but I want none of it. D&D is about playing the way you want to play. If your party consists of a monk and a wizard and you want to go dungeon crawling, go to it. Granted, not every combination was recommended even under older editions, but the rules basically mandating a healer, tank, damage-dealer, mezzer or other RPG staple, to me, is ridiculous.

I could go on and on, but at this point, I’m almost as long as the average post and haven’t even gotten to the point. Enter Pathfinder. This game, put out by Paizo Publishing, is, to me, the proper continuation of the D&D bloodline. It is the bastard son of the late king, wandering the world and setting things right, while the recognized prince, lacking in virtue, sits upon the throne. Pathfinder is compatible with all existing 3E and 3.5E D&D books and adventures.

I recently finished reading all 576 pages of the game’s core gamebook, which covers everything needed for players and a DM to run game sessions except for monsters, which are coming in a separate tome (and 3E/3.5E books and adventures can provide their own, so existing players aren’t required to buy anything further.) Although I’m not sure when I’ll be able to actually get a game going with friends, I’m excited to do so. Both the feel of the rules and the actual writing endeavor to provide the complexity of 3rd Edition with the flavor and feel of old-school AD&D, even to the point of taking exact text from old item and spell descriptions.

If you’re someone who hasn’t been into D&D since this or even this, then make no mistake, you’ll have some adjusting to do. But what you should find here is a game that feels like what you’re used to, but provides more than you’ve had in the past. As a player, you’ll have a lot more options and character abilities available to you; as a DM, you’ll have a lot more rules to keep track of, which may be the only drawback, but I’ll take that over the apparent homogenized simplicity offered by the current “real” D&D any day.

Yeah, this is an awful lot of text just to say that I think something is pretty cool. So?