Changes, Changes

As you've probably noticed, I've been messing around with the layout of the blog, trying to find a simpler, better looking template. I also want to try to make some decent headers, but I'm new to both bloggin and picture editing, so it will probably take a will. I think I'll be changing the look of the site quite a few times over the next week. If anyone has any good ideas or tips for making a header, I'd love to know.


The Emulation and Digital Distribution of Video Games

I've been catching up on podcasts from BrainyGamer.com, in which he was talking about how he doesn’t emulate older games on his computer much any more. This piqued my interest because I semi-regularly emulate NES, SNES, and Game Boy titles on my laptop because I feel like I have gaping holes in my gaming experience from when I was younger. For games that are 15 or 20 years old, it’s much easier to emulate them. It’s also much cheaper. Some classic, rare games are quite expensive today. For example, a game like Chrono Trigger currently goes for $50 or more on eBay, and that’s more than I’m willing to spend on most older games at this point in my life.

That being said, I know that emulation is both illegal and a form of stealing. If possible, I would choose to buy a classic game at a reasonable price and support the company that made it. But video game stores in the U.S. rarely have old used games. They limit themselves to the current and previous generation of games because of higher profitability. For two decade old games that aren’t in production anymore, 100% of the profit goes to the retailer, not the developer. The only recourse to find most used games is the Internet, which has its own issues of buying used merchandise sight unseen.

Emulation also sometimes leads to compatibility issues, and it’s often more fun to play a game with the physical controller and system it was designed for. The GBA game Riviera: The Promised Land provides a good example of how emulation isn’t preferable just because it’s free. Riviera is an RPG, but it tries to keep the player on their toes by having regular action scenes that require you to input a sequence of button presses within a time limit. Whether the outcome is beneficial or harmful is determined by your skill. I bought this game around Christmas, and the response time for inputting the commands is quick and seamless. But prior to this, I had emulated the game, and I found that neither the keyboard nor a PC gamepad were adequate for these sequences. I regularly made mistakes, and my characters would take damage or miss important items. Riviera is infinitely more smooth and enjoyable on an actual GBA.

Despite problems with emulation, I’m eagerly anticipating the future expansion of digital distribution, not just of games, but of all media. I’ve spent 5,000 yen (a little less than $50) on Virtual Console games on my Japanese Wii. If I had an American Wii, I probably would have spent more. Several classic games I want to play are already on the Wii, and more arrive every week.

What intrigues me, though, is what programs like the Virtual Console will look like in 10 years. Most of the best old Nintendo games will be on the Virtual Console at some point in the future. What then? Will the service be over? I suppose the upcoming WiiWare will provide additional original content. More importantly, what will happen to the Virtual Console when Nintendo releases its eventual successor to the Wii? Maybe we’ll be able to transfer our games to the new system. Or they could try to cash in some more, develop a new and improved download service, and release updated versions of their best games yet again. I fully want to support legal purchases of emulated games. But this is still a relatively new enterprise, so there are a lot of questions for the future without clear answers.

Here’s my ideal scenario: Someday, every single game from previous generations will be available for purchase and download. That kind of world sounds quite nice, and I won’t have to feel guilty about downloading and emulating games illegally. Until that day, I’ll continue my current emulation practices and buy what I can as it becomes available. I greatly prefer legitimate copies of games to illegally emulated ones. I’ve downloaded many games onto my PC, but as these games become available on the Virtual Console or I happen to find a good deal online, I’ll often go ahead and purchase them, deleting the version on my computer. I dabbled in Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones last year, but bought it in a store without hesitating. I played most of Super Metroid on my computer, but bought it on the Virtual Console the day it was released. Not only do these games play better than the emulated versions, but they make me feel a little better inside, too.

Turning the Tables in Tales of Symphonia

IGN has just put up a preview of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, a direct sequel to the Gamecube RPG. What caught my eye was this brief description of what's been revealed of the plot. "One day Emil hears a calling and follows it into the mountains, where he meets Marta Lualdi, a 15-year-old tomboy whose mother was also killed in the unification of the two worlds. In a surprise twist, the characters learn that it was Lloyd Irving who was indirectly responsible for the deaths of their loved ones."

Lloyd was the protagonist of the previous game, and I most often chose as my primary character. What's interesting to me is that the two main characters want to hunt down Lloyd, the hero of the first game, possibly for revenge but definitely for answers. I have yet to personally play a game that switches character roles like this, and you are forced to view the hero you once identified with as the antagonist, at least temporarily. I have a strong feeling there won't be a deadly confrontation between Lloyd, Emil, and Marta, but one can always hope.

The only game I know of that does a similar perspective shift is Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, which Stephen Totilo wrote about at the MTV Multiplayer blog. He even compares the "moral quandaries" of Radiant Dawn to the critics' darling Bioshock. In the strategy game, you basically spend several hours leveling up a certain group of characters. Later, you are in control of the heroes from the previous Fire Emblem game, but your enemies have become the characters you just finished helping and getting to know. That's quite a surprise, and I wish I didn't know about it, because I would like to play both of those games someday. Luckily, if you just wait out a couple of missions, you can combine those two forces without losing any characters.

This perspective shift could work really well to surprise gamers, and deny their expectations about what might happen, particularly in a game typical of its own genre. I hope more developers follow these two examples, and take these changes even further.


The Future of Independent Games on Consoles

What are independent games? I would say indie games are characterized by small budgets, small development teams, and often feature experimentation with or development of unique and innovative gameplay methods. The developers of indie games could be anyone from a ten person team at a small development studio to a single person working on a game in their parents’ basement after school. Just as independent films rose to prominence in the early and mid-90s, so are indie games currently on a meteoric rise in both popularity and feasibility. Indie games have been around for years on PCs, but it’s only with the current generation of consoles that it’s been possible for a wide variety of independent games to be created on home consoles on a larger scale. The Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) this week has revealed more information about both Nintendo’s WiiWare and Microsoft’s XNA services. These details made me start thinking about the further evolution of indie console games.

The Wii, PS3, and 360 have all had downloadable content available for a while now. The Wii’s Virtual Console consists entirely of ports of old games, while the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade are also used for original projects. The ability of these consoles to connect to the Internet and allow downloadable content is the biggest reason indie games can begin to expand on consoles. It’s a lot cheaper to digitally distribute games than to make physical disks and packaging.

Nintendo should have around 100 games stockpiled for the launch of WiiWare on May 12, but they will slowly emerge on a weekly schedule according to Nintendo’s baffling logic, much like the Virtual Console. Although pricing is unknown, I’m sure some games will be bargains and others will be a sickening waste of money, also like the Virtual Console. At first, people thought only small teams from big, licensed developers can release games. But it turns out any developer can work on WiiWare games. Nonetheless, there are still significant costs associated with this approach.

XNA, however, sounds a lot more invigorating. My pedestrian understanding of XNA is that it’s a set of development tools designed for easy use that anyone can freely use. Microsoft hopes both independent developers and members of the Xbox community utilize it. With a peer review process of approval, this system is really in the hands of the community much more so than WiiWare. This sounds like a potentially good way for anyone with a good idea and a little talent to get their name out there and profit a little bit.

The PC has more room for small, individual game creators, and is much more open than consoles. Andy Baio on Waxy.org, as posted on GameSetWatch, summed up my thoughts nicely. He talks about the dominance of middle-men on consoles.

“In the web industry, there’s nobody controlling distribution and I don’t need anyone’s authorization to launch a new project. But the gaming industry is dominated by gatekeepers.

For consoles, you can pay through the nose for the privilege to be on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network or the upcoming WiiWare, and then wait months to be released into the pipeline. On PCs, there’s no clear monopoly, with distribution fragmented between a handful of game download portals and distribution frameworks like Steam.

Or you can go it alone and sell directly to your fans through your own web presence but, for the moment, this is very rare.”

While WiiWare is just a way for companies to make small games with lower production costs, XNA seems to be more open and allow more freedom for those outside the game industry. I’d like to think this is the future, where people with few corporate constraints are able to not only experiment, but also be rewarded for trying to change things. Of course, with more people able to develop and publish games, there will also be a proportionately greater volume of rubbish. Independent games are not necessarily worth your time, just more likely to be a little different.


Killing Dragons: A Significant Accomplishment

I finally did it. Fire Emblem is complete (the first GBA one). Or at least as complete as it will probably be for a long time. To more fully complete it, I should play the second mode, which has most of the same missions, a different main character, some extra missions, and a slightly higher difficulty. But I don't have the time or energy for that right now. I'd rather play something new. Fire Emblem only took about three years, why should I dive right back into it? My save file clocked in at around 42 hours, but I could add on another 10 hours or so for mission restarts, and about 15 hours when I felt like restarting the entire game after a long break. It's probably more like 70 hours of play time. I think I'm starting to reach a point in my life where that kind of time investment for one game is unfeasible, as work and other responsibilities come to greater prominence.

Was Fire Emblem worth it? Absolutely. It's one of my favorite GBA games. But there are a couple reasons it took me so long to complete, both in gameplay time and real world time. The first reason has to do with my nature as a gamer. I'm very meticulous, and want to find every secret I can in a game. So I would try to recruit all the characters, find secret items, do all the side missions, and avoid any character deaths. I also tend to be a very careful planner, so strategy games take me somewhat longer than average to complete. For some of the 30+ missions, I may have spent almost as much time planning and optimally equipping my characters as I did playing the actual level.

The second reason my time investment was so high has to do with the nature of the game itself. As a strategy game, each chapter requires careful planning to maximize your resources and take the best units into battle. A small preparatory mistake can be very costly once the fighting starts. Except for the simply, early chapters, each mission is quite long, often taking an hour or more to complete, not including restarts. What I find a little strange, though, is how at odds this type of game is with the actual GBA itself. The GBA is designed for short, quick bursts of gameplay on the go, and it's possible to do that with Fire Emblem. It saves your game automatically after every single character action. But I rarely stopped in the middle of a mission, because I wanted to keep my attention of the flow of battle. So you can play Fire Emblem a few moves at a time on a train or on the toilet, but it doesn't really provide the same kind of tactical experience. Part of the reason it took me so long is I needed to devote a significant chunk of time to attempt a single mission. After several long missions played over a couple of weeks, I would just get burned out on it for a while and want to play a different kind of game.

This being said, Fire Emblem was incredibly enjoyable. I've already started the sequel, The Sacred Stones, although I don't plan on doing more than three or four missions because I need a break from this kind of game. I've got too many other games that need attention before I dive into another Fire Emblem game.


Impressions of Grim Fandango

A highly sought after but rarely achieved goal for game designers is crafting a unique visual, aural, and even interactive style. The most prominent game of recent months that comes to mind is Bioshock, with its under–the–sea, failed utopia, art–deco style permeating every drop of its being. I’ve recently been researching PC adventure games from the 1990s, specifically the ones made by LucasArts. As always happens to me, I’ve now added about six of their adventure games to my ever–growing mental list of games I need to play. Of these adventure games, the one I’m initially most interested in is Grim Fandango, which I’ve just started playing. After a couple hours, its sense of style, unique identity and polish are simply beautiful.

Grim Fandango was one of LucasArts’ last big adventure games, released in 1998. It was a little more graphically advanced than their previous adventures, primarily in that it abandoned the SCUMM engine they had been using for years and switched to 3D character models on a static background. They also abandoned mouse control in favor of pure keyboard, joystick, or gamepad support. But what is most noticeable, and refreshing, is Grim Fandango’s consistent graphical atmosphere.

The world of Grim Fandango is based on the Aztec belief that when someone dies, they must go on a four year journey to their final afterlife destination. So the dead were buried with food, money, and even pets, anything that might be useful on their journey. Once a year, on the Day of the Dead, the spirits are allowed back into the living world, and the living honor the dead through parties, festivals, and skeleton–like dolls called calaveras. In fact, in the game world you play as Manuel “Manny” Calavera. He’s a travel agent selling packages to the dead to shorten their four year journey.

All the characters are modeled after these calavera dolls, which simply resemble skeletons. Imagine a typical skeleton, but wearing 1930’s style clothes and you have the general idea. What I find amazing is how LucasArts gave the characters so much emotion, even though they basically just have four black holes representing eyes, a nose, and a mouth. But that’s all they need. It’s almost a minimalist style of character presentation. It reminds me of the recent Lego Star Wars games, where the characters are simple Lego models that must convey their thoughts solely through facial expressions. Grim Fandango is similar, but elongate the heads and take away some of the facial detail. Extremely talented voice actors also help immerse you in the experience. If more games had such a talented, believable voice cast, we’d all be better off for it. Make sure you don’t switch from voice to text just to speed up the game. I’ve been selecting every dialogue option just to hear the character’s wonderful banter.

Besides the unique characters, the game takes place in a 1930s art–deco world a full decade before Bioshock. The beautiful colors, art direction, and furnishings really complement the noir–style detective story you’re presented with. From what I’ve read about it, the game takes place over four years, each time on the Day of the Dead. So I’m expecting plenty of lively environments beyond the initial city. Manny also occasionally has to go into the world of the living to do some reaping to get his clients. The living world is charmingly presented as a Picasso–style cubist painting, complete with blocky, disproportionate human features. I’ve never seen anything like it in a game before.

The only disappointment so far is technical: the dialogue during cutscenes isn’t playing correctly on my computer. It sounds like the dialogue plays twice, but slightly out of synch. On the other hand, my girlfriend has expressed what could be a brief interest in this game. She’s mostly intrigued because it’s an adventure game, and she remembers a brief foray into Monkey Island as a child. Hopefully, I’ll post more impressions when I finish the game, but so far it looks very promising.

EDIT: After a brief search online, I found and implemented a solution to the cutscene problem. I guess there are frequent problems with running older games on modern, faster computers.


Game Release Dates: Inconsistent

Recently, I've been bothered by the question of why video game release dates in the U.S. are so confusing. Usually, companies will officially announce a date that a new game will be released, but this is often the shipping date, not the date the game will actually be in stores available for purchase. Why? Other than the developers and publishers themselves, and retailers, the people potentially purchasing the game don't really care about the shipping date. They only want to know the first possible day they can purchase the game. I don't understand why game companies don't agree to always advertise the release date when the game will be in stores. DVDs and CDs are pretty much exclusively released on Tuesdays. People know that every Tuesday, there will be some new products to think about purchasing. And ads reflect this reality. What's so different about games that release information can be so confusing sometimes? You never know if the published date is the shipping date or the in-store date. Granted, most new games are available on a Tuesday, but not always, and stores tend to differ. Game companies should coordinate their releases more to make it less confusing for the consumer.

Japan makes a little more sense. Super Mario Galaxy was one of the first games here I was really excited about. I couldn't wait to get it, and walked about 40 minutes in the rain to the closest game store to pick up a copy. But I was a little worried, because of all the confusion in the U.S. about release dates. I didn't want to walk that far to the store only to find out they weren't selling it until tomorrow. So I asked a student. And he assured me that games are released on Thursdays, this one in particular on November 1st. Indeed, this was the exact date I was seeing everyday in TV commercials. No confusion, no hassles. Except slightly sore legs the next day.


When is a game complete?

My last post, where I once again realized my preference for single–player experiences over protracted multiplayer skill matches, led me to think about a different question: when has a video game been completed by the player? This leads directly into a larger issue currently being discussed about how games are different from other media and culturally important in their own right. The answer to the question, as is often the case, is probably that it depends. It depends on the game itself, the individual gamer, and even the larger gaming community.

The most unique thing about video games is the level of interaction required from the player. Television, movies, and books are, for the most part, relatively linear and straight-forward works. Once you read a book or watch a movie, you’re mostly finished with it; except, of course, for those classic works that you might revisit semi–regularly. Games, on the other hand, often contain many more options, secrets, or side–quests that extend beyond the main plotline or primary purpose of the game.

I would argue that the vast majority of games have a distinct plot and are trying to tell some sort of story. Many other writers have noted how a current game development trend is trying to give games a more cinematic feel. A large number of story–based games are mostly complete when you reach the end of the main adventure. For example, in Super Mario Galaxy, the main goal is to collect at least 60 stars so the planetarium has enough power to track down Bowser. Then you can defeat Bowser and officially finish the game and see the conclusion and credits. Some types of gamers are content with this level of completion. However, some games have no clearly–defined ending point due to their current focus on online multiplayer experiences. Beyond an often short main campaign, when is a multiplayer game like this truly over? Gamers play the most popular multiplayer games for many years after the original release.

For those entranced by the game and willing to invest the time, Super Mario Galaxy has quite a bit more to offer. Defeating Bowser once actually unlocks the player’s ability to collect the final 15 or so stars (out of a possible 120) in order to see the true ending. After this, you can also choose to collect the 120 stars again as Luigi to open up one final level. Super Mario Galaxy has a lot of game play beyond the main story. Thus, many games contain a number of optional activities or secrets available for the dedicated gamer. A great thesis was written by an MIT student, Kristina Lynn Drzaic, about the significance of video game secrets.

As another example, Final Fantasy games are well–known for their epic stories, and that’s arguably the main reason to play through much of that series. But epic side–quests are also one of Square-Enix’s trademarks, even though not many gamers are necessarily inclined to complete them. In Final Fantasy X, to get one character’s ultimate weapon, you have to dodge lightning strikes 100 times in a row. If you miss a single time, you have to start over again from zero. Thus for different types of gamers, which Mitch Krpata at Insult Swordfighting categorized into Perfectionists, Completists, and Tourists, games have widely varying personal requirements for completion, depending on one’s willingness or desire to accomplish sometimes ridiculous tasks.

Finally, the larger gaming community can sometimes extend the life of a game seemingly indefinitely. A great example of this is the PC strategy game Starcraft in South Korea, where it’s practically a national sport. Tournaments with highly skilled players are still regularly held there, for a game that’s nearly 10 years old. Similarly, a large competitive scene developed around Super Smash Brothers Melee, in which some players discovered advanced techniques that practically turn Melee into a completely different game. On top of this, especially in the realm of PC gaming, many games develop extensive modding communities, where the game is fundamentally and extensively altered to extend replayability.

What is the point of all this? I love how easy it is for different gamers to take away such wildly different experiences from the same game. Compare a competitive and a casual Melee player – they’re worlds apart, both in terms of skill level and in describing the game they both enjoy playing. Granted, the best movies also allow viewers to each take something different away from the theater, but you’re still almost entirely limited to what’s presented to you on the screen. Games allow gamers to choose their level of involvement much more so than other forms of entertainment. In the near future, it will be interesting to see if either Starcraft 2 or Super Smash Brothers Brawl develop and sustain the same kind of competitive, meta–game following that the current iterations have had for years.


How Long Can One Game Last?

I've been on a break from video games for what will soon be a full week, which was a Valentine's Day gift to my girlfriend. Nice. Extra quality time. But we also had a small party at our apartment last night, which included a little Wii Sports and Brawl initiations. It was quite a lot of fun, and since it was a party, I got to play too without invalidating my present.

On to the point. In playing Brawl last night, I realized that I am and probably will always be much more of a single-player gamer than a multi-player gamer. I am much more interested in a good interactive story, with solid, fun game play mechanics than in trying to become an expert at a certain game or spend dozens of hours playing online matches against people. This inclination is probably a large part of why I often choose RPGs (like Final Fantasy), strategy games (Fire Emblem), or action/platformers (too many to name). I love Brawl, and I plan on playing it a lot more. I would also love to get really good with 1 or 2 characters (especially little Mr. Olimar). But deep in my heart, I know the reality is that I will probably slowly grow tired of Brawl over the next 3 or 4 weeks, and slowly move onto other story-driven games I have waiting, such as Hotel Dusk, Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones, and even Final Fantasy III. I also want to play some of the old LucasArts adventure games, of which I just got Grim Fandango.

Maybe this would all be different if I had a couple of friends always wanting to play Brawl, but I don't. It's a lot of fun, but I tend to move on to other games quite quickly after finishing one, mainly because there are so many classic games I haven't played yet. Brawl will still last me a while, but not the several years that some people can get out of it.

On a side note, I absolutely love reading Michael Abbott's posts over at the Brainy Gamer. He's a theater/film professor and writes about games from a thoughtful, academic perspective. And you also easily get the obvious feeling that he really loves games. I highly recommend his blog.


Million Man Brawl

As an add-on to my last post, I also wanted to say that I really like Toon Link. He's similar to Young Link from Melee. Even though he's similar to adult Link, I always liked the Link from Wind Waker, he's smaller and faster, and his cartoony bomb explosions are soooo cute

On to the modes. The biggest addition is the Subspace Emissary, which is basically a protracted adventure/story mode. It's amazing. There's practically no spoken text, and you go through tons of platforming levels, with the occasional boss battle or regular brawl match-up. You're not playing it for the story, really. You're playing it for the awesome combination of Nintendo characters, such as Metaknight battling and then joining Marth, before Ike saves them both. It's a lot of fun, although a bit repetitive, so I can't really see playing through the whole thing again. In fact, after beating it, it said I was only 80-something% finished. Then I noticed that some of the locations on the map had a flag, and some were just flashing. It took me a while to figure out which ones still had hidden secrets (the ones with flags). So now I've slowly worked up to 94%, but I still have 9 or 10 locations to revisit. Some of them I've been through several times, and still can't find that one missed item or door.

There's also the re-included Classic mode, which is pretty much the same as always. I remember in Melee, I could rarely beat Master Hand at the hand without dieing, but now I've gotten a little better at battling the Hand. There are also 41 events (+20 co-op), Homerun Contests, timed brawls, target breaking, an all star mode where you fight the entire cast, and a boss battle mode. Oh yeah, and regular old multiplayer Brawl, with a ton of options. One feature I really like that I played around with for the first time last night is the ability to set which songs play on each stage. In particular, the Twilight Princess, Pikmin, and new Pokemon Stadium stages all have awesome music. So does Animal Crossing, just because it's so peaceful.

Next time: online brawls. Awesome, or a hassle?


Yet Another Inevitable Post of Brawl Impressions

So, I've had Brawl for about 10 or 11 days now. And it's basically consumed my life. I love it. Which is surprising because it's unlike almost every other game I own. I usually go for RPGs, or strategy games, or slower paced platformers. But Brawl is amazing! And I'm saying that as someone who owned Melee, but was never very good at it and actually rarely played it. I didn't even get around to unlocking all the characters and stages in Melee, but I've already done that in Brawl in a around a week. And I'm not sure, but I think I'm actually improving a little. I've bumped my standard CPU difficulty up from futsu (regular) to muzukashii (difficult). And I'm pretty much holding my own. I'm slowly learning to shield more, block attacks, and throw my opponents. I doubt I'll ever really learn more advanced techniques, but I would like to improve still more.

My favorite characters right now are probably Snake and the Pikmin and Olimar, both of which are little different from the others and unique. Snake uses a lot of grenades, explosives, and weaponry (although he oddly doesn't have a gun). He was also surprisingly slow at first, but I've gotten used to that. And Olimar/Pikim is just super fun to play as. All the Pikmin have different strengths and weaknesses, Olimar's fast and maneuverable, and I love attaching the little Pikmin to an enemy and suck away their life. I'm terrible with the slower characters (like Donkey Kong), and sometime I'd like to play more with Pit, Lucas, Ike, and maybe Samus.

In my next post, I'll talk some about the modes and options in Brawl. Especially online mode, which has a lot of potential.