Monday, July 7, 2014

More on Shovel Knight

People are talking about making Shovel Knight "Game of the Year" now.  That would be like awarding the Oscar for Best Picture to a clever Taco Bell commercial.  In people's desire to praise a fun retro game, they're going way too far.  They want to stick it the the big publishers and their fancy AAA games, but let's not go crazy here.  I honestly don't care whether Shovel Knight is going to be released for the XBox Ine.  Even if it's $10, I'd rather spend the money on DLC cars in Forza 5 or about a dozen other games / DLC packs.  I really don't understand this enthusiasm for a game that looks and sounds 25 years old.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Retro Games As a Way of Avoiding Quality Standards

IGN's video review of the game, Shovel Knight calls it [the reviewer's] favorite game of 2014 so far.  How can that be, with games like Titanfall and Watch Dogs coming out this year?  And if someone really likes retro games, what about Strider HD or Trials Fusion?

Now, I haven't played Shovel Knight and don't want to.  It looks fun enough, but I played so many games like that in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, and I've moved on.  If I'm going to play a game with old school controls, it's going to be a game that at least attempts to meet modern presentation standards.

Shovel Knight does not look good to me.  It wouldn't have looked to me in the 16-bit era.  Okay, fine, it's supposed to represent an 8-bit game and not a 16-bit game.  But back then I always wanted games to look better than they did.  The developers were always trying to make their games look better.  That's what I don't understand about the more recent Megaman games.  They released better-looking Megaman games on the SNES than Megaman 10 looks on PS3 and Xbox.  Why go backwards?

Is Shovel Knight really better than Strider HD?  I wonder how many people who are exited about Shovel Knight gave Strider HD a chance.  Strider HD (like the amazing Bionic Commando: Rearmed), shows that you can take an old game, preserve everything that was good about it, improve on its weaknesses, and make it look great by today's standards.

Shovel Knight doesn't try to meet today's standards, of course.  I'm guessing that retro-looking games sell better than retro-style games that don't look retro.  So I can excuse the developers. But gamers should demand better.  I understand wanting the retro experience.  I understand wanted a change of pace with simpler controls.  But you can get those things without dated graphics and sound.

I'm open to the arguments of retro gamers who prefer games that look and sound old.  Why do you prefer that?  Have you played Bionic Command:  Rearmed, Strider HD, Contra Hard Corps, the remake of Castle of Illusion, etc.?  If you have, and you still prefer Shovel Knight, tell me why.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Nintendo’s Regression

Nintendo’s Wii U is designed around an ill-convinced, regressive, illogical idea of a large, expensive, complicated, touchscreen controller.  I’m sure it’ll be a good game system overall, but the large touchscreen controller is so unnecessary.

Nintendo came up with the concept, I think, because they didn’t know where else to go.  Now that the XBox and Playstation have their own gesture-based interfaces, gesture-based gaming is not a USP for Nintendo anymore.  If Microsoft had not come up with Kinect, Nintendo would have invented something like it, because it would have be a natural progression from Wiimotes.  And of course, creating a more precise Wiimote is what Sony just did with PS3 Move.

So what direction should Nintendo have gone?  I think they should have focused on portable gaming and game development, forgetting about releasing a new living room system.  They should have just became a third-party developers for Sony and Microsoft’s systems.

Keep in mind that the Wii was released 1.5 years after the XBox 360, and is being replaced before the 360 is being replaced.  That’s not how it’s supposed to happen, and to me it’s a hint that Nintendo cannot complete in the hardware business, with portable gaming (which I just don’t care about), being the exception.

But instead, they’re going ahead with a new console.  And because their USP was co-opted, they had to come up with another one, which, as I mentioned, is the large touchscreen controller.

Aside from the regressive nature of the idea, it a bad idea in terms of user experience.  For one thing, most people are going to only have one of the big controllers, due to their expense.  So, Nintendo imagines that there will be one person with the big controller and other people with regular Wiimotes.

It seems to me that that is really going to draw attention to the backwards evolution of Nintendo’s controllers.  One guy will be using this behemoth controller with tons of buttons and it’s own display, with the guy next to him using a minimalistic, gesture-based controller with 3 buttons, playing the same game.  At least it’s a tacit admission that the the big controller is superfluous.

But more importantly, the idea of a secondary display that the user has to regularly reference is just absurd.  Has Nintendo ever heard of HUDs, or Heads-Up Displays?  In cars and planes, they’re an improvement over dashboard-embedded gauges, for obvious reasons.  If you’re doing something that requires close attention and quick reflexes like driving, flying a plane, or, I don’t know, playing video games, it’s better to not have to look away from the thing you should be focusing on.

Nintendo has tried to show instances where a secondary display would be cool and / or practical, and I’d like to address a few of them:

1. The secondary display can displays maps.  How practical is this?  In most games where you would want a map, there’s an in-game map.   Games that require frequent use of a map typically have a mini-map.  But the mini-map clutters up the screen!  Okay, then have the mini-map only come up when the user holds down a button.  Is that significantly slower or less convenient than looking away from the screen at the secondary display?  Nope.

2. Use the secondary display to catch a ball or aim a pitch in a baseball game.  This one is pretty funny.  Look at the screen above.  Why would you want to focus on the screen you’re holding rather than on the main display?  You obviously would not be able to focus on both at the same time.  Okay, if you aim a pitch via the smaller display, you can aim it so that the other player in the room can’t see where it’s going to go.  Okay, Nintendo, you win.  That totally justifies having an expensive monstrosity of a controller. 

3. Put the secondary display on the floor and use it as a virtual golf tee.  A regular Wiimote can be used as the golf club.   I guess this kind of makes sense, because in real golf you’re not supposed to take your eye off the ball when swinging.  So, this would be better for golf simulations.  But simulation games are a niche market, and the people who buy them aren’t Nintendo’s target audience.  In addition, this seems pretty awkward.  How good of an idea is it to put an expensive controller on the floor where it can easily be stepped on?  And using a second controller to swing?  Compare this to Kinect, which can track the user’s whole body and render the movements on screen, without any tactile controller.  Doesn’t that seem to be a more Nintendo-like approach?  Doesn’t that seem much more elegant, impressive, and kid-friendly?

Controllers should generally become invisible as the user familiarizes himself with the controls of a game.  What each button does should become second nature.  The user should eventually not have to look down at the controller at all when playing a game.  The Wii U goes against that completely.  It’s draws attention to itself, and will work against players becoming engrossed in a game.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Converted To Modern Games

Modern games are better and more fun to play than retro games.  That may not sound like a bold proclamation, but for me it represents a complete attitude change.

It’s been about a year since I bought an Xbox 360 and started this blog.  If you remember, I mainly got the Xbox is order to play old school style games.  A good example is Bionic Commando:Rearmed.  At the time, that was exactly the type of game I was looking for (and still the best remake of an 8-bit game ever, in my opinion).

But, if you look over my blog posts over time, I started to be more enthusiastic about modern games.  It started with Batman:Arkham Asylum.  Then it was Transformers: War For Cybertron.  But the final step of my conversion has been Red Dead Redemption.

Early on, I thought that playing the modern games was just a diversion, and that my main interest would still be old school games.  The games I was looking forward to most were Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, Bionic Commando: Rearmed 2, and Hard Corp: Uprising.  Those games are all out now.  They are good games (well, I have problems with Castlevania:HD).  But, I have no plans to buy the full versions.

The reason is, I just find them boring.  The control is too basic.  When I’m used to 3D games with deep, complex controls, I just can’t “switch gears” to enjoy the old school gameplay.  I mentioned this in my assessment of the Limbo demo last year.  At the time I didn’t realize that was I was feeling was not temporary, but a permanent change in my attitude.

Simple mechanics are one of the reasons that many people prefer retro games.  You can pick up and play them without having to learn much or train your hands.  Games with deep controls can have a steep learning curve that can be intimidating.  I can speak to that because that I how I felt a year ago.  But I can now say, the learning curve is worth it.  It seems daunting at first, but you will adapt in time.  And it doesn’t even take that much time.  At a certain point, the controls become second nature and don’t even seem complex.  And when you reach that point, playing the game becomes entertaining and rewarding beyond what’s possible in an old school game.  Here are a couple of examples.

In Batman:Arkham Asylum, you can use Batman’s line launcher to zip-line across a room and knock down a group of henchmen.  Before they get up, you can use a ground takedown move to knock one of them out.  By that time the others will have gotten up and and will most likely be ready to open fire on Batman with machine guns.  At that point you can either retreat by grappling up to gargoyle, stun them using Batman’s cape, use batarangs to knock them down again, or just run at them kicking and punching, hoping to take them out before Batman is critically wounded.  There are so many options – you can let your creativity run wild.  It takes a high level of comfort with the game’s controls to be able to do all that, but the gamer does get to that level, and it happens naturally (in this game, at least).

Another example is from Read Dead Redemption.  You can take something that happens in the game fairly often – a thief steals a horse and a townsperson asks you to get the horse back.  You have a lot of options in RDR, but I like to return the horse and the thief alive.  Here are the steps required for that:
  1. Whistle for horse
  2. Mount horse
  3. Equip lasso
  4. Look where thief is on mini-map and chase after him
  5. Once caught up to thief, ready lasso
  6. Enter dead-eye mode
  7. “Paint” thief in dead-eye mode
  8. Throw lasso
  9. Dismount house
  10. Run to to thief and hogtie him
  11. Pick up thief
  12. Put thief on horse
  13. Mount house
  14. Chase down stolen horse and lasso it
  15. Lead horse back to robbery victim
  16. Dismount horse
  17. Remove thief from horse
  18. Drop thief off ground
That is very complex process, but it’s something that becomes easy to do after a while.  When I started making that list, I included the necessary buttons that need to be pressed for each step, but I couldn’t finish that aspect.  I couldn’t remember some of them, and others I was just unsure about which button.  But when I play the game I can do it easily because of muscle memory.  So, what sounds daunting and complex (and is daunting and complex at first) becomes second nature.

So why is that more satisfying than say, defeating a monster in The Legend of Zelda.  I don’t know.  It’s something that I know experientially.  Maybe I’ll try to think of the specific reasons in a future post.  For now I can only say that I am a convert.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The NFL Needs to Fire Electronic Arts

For those who don’t know, the NFL has an agreement with Electronic Arts to make their Madden NFL games the only games that can use NFL team and player names.  This deal has been in place since 2004.

This deal is obviously bad for gamers.  Even those who love the Madden series should realize that competition improves the quality of games.  It forces developers to be innovative, to think of things that will make their product better than the alternatives.  Even if you love Madden NFL 11 as it is, realize that it would have been better with competition. 

I admire Backbreaker, but it wasn’t real competition for Madden, without an NFL license.  But even that game innovated in ways that will force EA to adapt.  Realtime physics is something that you can bet EA is looking into for future versions of their game.  Would they be looking into that if Backbreaker hadn’t come along?  Maybe, but they’d take their time in implementing it.  Maybe they’d have it ready for Madden ‘15.  Even now, they’re probably taking their time since Backbreaker isn’t serious competition.

In the fifth generation era, Madden had real competition, in theory, but still dominated.  I didn’t follow that generation of games, so I don’t know what the competition was or why Madden was better.  I’m sure that franchise mode has something to do with it.

What I do know is that when NFL 2k2 came out for the Dreamcast in 1999, it blew Madden 2000 out of the water in terms of graphics, sounds, and most other aspects.

NFL 2k2:


Madden 2000:


“But Madden was on inferior hardware!”  Not really, since Madden 2000 was not just on the admittedly-inferior N64 and PlayStation, but on the PC, where it could have taken advantage of more powerful hardware.  Besides, EA could have released it for the Dreamcast, but chose not to.

There are those who will argue that Madden was still better that year, but they generally can only point to franchise mode as the reason.

Yeah, NFL 2K2 did not have a franchise mode.  I personally don’t care about franchise mode, but if that it important to a person, then they would have been better off with Madden.  You can put development time into franchise mode when you’re using the same game engine you’ve been using for the last few years, with minimal improvements.  2K Sports (then Visual Concepts) did not have that luxury in 1999.

In any case, the point is that NFL 2k2 forced EA to take notice and try to bring their stagnating franchise up-to-par.  But by 2004, the NFL 2K franchise had also improved its game, with many (perhaps most) preferring ESPN NFL 2K5 to Madden 2005.  The was the last year Madden had real competition, of course.

Regardless of which game you liked better or how good you think the current Madden is, the point is the NFL’s agreement with EA is bad for gamers.  I’m sure the NFL thinks its better for them financially, but I wonder if they’ve considered that many gamers will lose interest in NFL games if/when they think the only game it town is stagnating.

What inspired me to write this is the recent decision of EA to not release an NBA game this year.  That’s right, they’re not bothering to try to compete with 2K Sports’ NBA 2K11 -- this year, at least.

So, NFL, the game company you have so much confidence in, that you’ve given an exclusive license to, isn’t even competitive when it comes to NBA games.  You’re sure you don’t want to give another developer a crack at the NFL license?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sonic Revisionism

The biggest mistake the Sega made in regards to Sonic 4 Episode I was in naming it.  They should have named it Sonic HD, Sonic Retro, or something like that.  The game is classic Sonic on today’s consoles, but the name doesn’t convey that.

Sonic4logo It’s a minor mistake, but given the amount of complaining about it not being original and rehashing the levels form the Genesis games, a different name could have pre-empted some of that criticism.

And how ridiculous that kind of criticism is.  It’s pretty clear that the point of the game is to give us a modern-day version of the Sega Genesis Sonic games.  Of course there’s going to be a Green Hill Zone and other levels from the original games.  That’s what people wanted.  Sonic 3 for the Sega Genesis came out 16 years ago.  The original Sonic came out 20 years ago.  With all of the re-releases of old games, what’s wrong with giving fans a modern version of a beloved 20-year old game?

Of course, people mainly wanted Sonic to go back to his roots because they’re dissatisfied with recent 3D Sonic games.  I have to plead ignorance here, because the last Sonic game I had played prior to Sonic 4 was Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast, which was great game.  Wikipedia says, “The reception at the time of original Dreamcast version was overwhelmingly positive.”  Sonic Adventure 2 was also well-received.  The idea that the 3D Sonic games were terrible is just mythology.  Now, I understand that some of the more recent Sonic games were not well-received.  But that doesn’t justify asserting that the last good Sonic game was Sonic CD.

So while I like Sonic 4, I’m sad that Sega is making 2D Sonic games their main focus because of the popular (but incorrect) perception that the 3D Sonic games were bad.  I’m still excited about future episodes of Sonic 4 (especially if they add more playable characters), but I would really like to see a new Sonic Adventure-type 3D game.

As to the quality of Sonic 4 itself, I think it does what it sets out to do admirably.  I think the graphics, sound, and controls are all excellent.  It’s definitely one of the best-looking 2D games that I’ve seen.  (By 2D, I’m only referring to the fact that the game takes place on a 2D plane.  The characters are rotoscoped 3D-models, of course).

Speaking of which, I was part of baffling discussion of this topic on the XBox 360 forums.  The original poster asked, “Anyone else wish Sega just went back to using good old fashioned sprites?”  I asked what that advantage of that would be.  In Sonic 4, the characters look great, their animation is smooth – so what’s the problem?  Many people wouldn’t even be able to tell that the underlying models are 3D.  The main reason I can tell is because of their fluidity.  If you read the discussion, you’ll notice that no one answered my question.  I can understand nostalgia, but if you don’t want improvements, what’s the point of remaking the game anyway?  Just play the original.  It’s even available on on XBox Live.

Another piece of backlash against the game that I don’t understand is’s “Did Sonic Fans Just Release A Better Sonic the Hedgehog HD?”, which talks about the fan-made demo, Sonic Fan Remix.  While that game does look good, with its developers deserving a lot of credit, I think people are succumbing to the power of suggestion when they say things like, “Yeah, that’s so much better than Sonic 4!  Sega should hire those guys.”  If Sonic Fan Remix was the product that Sega released and some fans made Sonic 4, I think you’d have people talking about how clean, simple, and smooth Sonic 4 is in comparison.

Sonic Fan Remix:

Sonic 4:

In any case, my main point is that the backlash against Sonic 4 has gotten out-of-hand.  It’s a good game, and future episodes should make it every better.

That being said, I do have a few minor complaints about the game.  The first is that the camera is too close for my tastes  Back in March I suggested that Sega move the camera back a little when Sonic is at high speeds.  Needless to say my advice was not heeded.  There is one boss fight in the Casio Night zone where the camera does zoom out.  So we know the game engine supports it.  I would just like it to happen more often.

Secondly, there is no local multiplayer.  I would really have liked a split screen mode, or even a mode where a second controller can control Tails, even if Tails isn’t on the screen or has trouble keeping up with Sonic.  It was a fun thing that you could do in most other Sonic games, beginning with Sonic 2.  I had to explain to my son that the new Sonic game was not 2-player, even though the old ones were.  It doesn’t make sense to a 4-year-old and it doesn’t make sense to me.  Sega, please -- put Tails in Episode 2 and let him be controllable by the second player.

There is a graphical level selector, which I was worried might not be in the game.  I’m sure Sega mainly included that feature for the purposes of the leaderboards, but I’ll still take credit for it.

Bring on episode 2, Sega.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Too Much Old-School Appeal

Pac-Man Championship Edition has been praised by some as the best version of Pac-Man ever.  I played the demo and it does seems like a very good version of the game.  But, there are a couple of major sub-optimal things about it that I noticed immediately.

Take a look at this screen from the game:


The graphics are like the original Pac-Man with lightning effects.  Namco obviously did this to appeal to the nostalgia of gamers who played the original.  I can appreciate that, but I think what gamers are nostalgic for is the mechanics of the original. 

The graphics in Pac-Man CE are intentionally blocky and retro-looking.  I like old school games more than most people, but blocky sprites are not what I like about them.

You can create a version of the game with the feel of the original, that looks modern visually, but still looks like Pac-Man.

Namco did exactly that with 1996’s Pac-Man Arrangement, part of Namco Arcade Classics Volume 2 machines in arcades.

Pac-Man Arrangement Screenshot

Pac-Man Arrangement had colorful graphics that were attractive.  They weren’t state-of-the-art for 1996, but they were acceptable for that time. That game plays very much like the original Pac-Man, but with some additional power-ups for both Pac-Man and the ghosts.  For the purists, there was a version without that stuff that could be selected when starting the game.

One of the best things about Pac-Man Arrangement was that it supported 2 players simultaneously, something that Pac-Man Championship Edition does not.

When Namco decided to make Pac-Man CE, did they look at the other versions of Pac-Man they’ve released in that past?  If so, why didn’t they incorporate the good ideas from those versions? 

Another example of this is the just-released Space Invaders Infinity.


Like Pac-Man CE, this Space Invaders has blocky sprites and no multiplayer support.  There have been versions of Space Invaders with nice-looking graphics and simultaneous 2 player support, such as Majestic Twelve - The Space Invaders Part IV.  A new version of Space Invaders or Pac-Man could easily have simultaneous 4-player support.  1 player only?  I don’t understand.

Developers – when bringing out new versions of old-school games, preserve the good things about them.  Preserve the atmosphere of the original.  Preserve the overall look at feel.  Don’t preserve the limitations.  Don’t neglect to incorporate improvements made by remakes that came out earlier.

When deciding to buy a game on XBox Live Arcade, gamers like me look at these qualities and features.  I’d love to buy a definitive version of Pac-Man or Space Invaders for $10.  Unfortunately the remakes of these games released in the 90’s are more definitive the ones just released.